movie reviews July 2010

The Kids Are All Right  •  Dinner for Schmucks  •  The Girl Who Played with Fire
Salt  •  Ramona and Beezus  •  The Good, the Bad, the Weird  •  Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Cyrus  •  Inception  •  Best Worst Movie  •  Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice  •  Dispicable Me  •  Micmacs
I Am Love  •  Predators  •  The Last Airbender  •  House (1977)  •  The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

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

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The Kids Are All Right
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The Kids Are All Right is a warm film about flawed people. Director Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) and an ideally selected cast create sympathetic portraits of characters that occasionally act contemptibly.

Still from The Kids are Alright

Cholodenko’s naturalistic approach helps make what could have been a sitcom premise credible and involving. A lesbian couple named Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have lived happily in Los Angeles for two decades. Their domestic calm is gradually fraying because their daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland) is bound for college, and their son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is hanging around another teen named Clay (Eddie Hassell), who’s clearly a bad influence.

Joni and Laser (hey, it’s California) are smart enough to know that their birth mothers couldn’t have conceived them without help. The former discovers that her biological father is laid-back restaurateur and organic farmer named Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Having donated his sperm back when he was barely out of his teens, Paul is delighted to discover that he’s a father.

Despite his amiable declaration that he “loves lesbians,” Paul is an awkward fit with his newly discovered relations. Nic is a doctor, so naturally she wants Joni to go to college. Paul is a dropout and gets around on his motorcycle, which makes the safety-conscious Nic immediately suspicious. Having devoted most of her life to her offspring and her lover, she’s understandably resentful of how Jules and their children take a liking to Paul and his seemingly carefree lifestyle.

Even if Paul hadn’t entered their lives, the strain of Joni leaving the nest and dealing with Laser’s dangerous friendship (Clay has a mean streak and does drugs) have taken steep tolls on Nic and Jules’ relationship. The latter of is trying to start a landscaping business after years of staying home with the kids and is beginning to chafe under Nic’s tendency to micromanage.

Cholodenko and her co-screenwriter Stuart Bloomberg (Keeping the Faith) turn out dozens of wonderful zingers. When Laser begs his mothers to stay together, the best reason he can think of is “you’re too old.” Thankfully, all of these bons mots actually sound like something a teenager might say, and Cholodenko steers away from histrionics or cheap laughs.

It also doesn’t hurt that her onscreen family is consistently believable. When Moore and Bening interact, they speak in the sort of shorthand that real couples acquire over time. Even when they’re arguing, they complete each other’s sentences and often communicate in quick glances the way characters in lesser dramas do in florid soliloquies. Because of their seemingly effortless rapport, Bening and Moore are not only convincing, but it’s easy to hope that Nic and Jules can make it through their current crisis.

Ruffalo has just enough charm to make viewers forgive and almost forget that Paul, in his own way, is as potentially toxic to the family as Clay. Despite being in his late 30s or early 40s, he’s never married and frequently jumps into bed with any woman who can’t resist his manner. While he can run a business, he’s got an irresponsible streak. His newfound fatherhood often seems more like a pleasant novelty than a duty, so Nic’s suspicions are more than justified.

In addition to the stellar leads, the supporting cast is remarkably deep. Wasikowska and Hutcherson come off as naïve, impressionable but not stupid. Wasikowska, who hails from Australia, also effortlessly blends in with her stateside co-stars.

Despite Nic’s anal retentiveness and Paul’s caviler attitude, Cholodenko has an almost maternal affection for her characters that’s contagious. It probably helps that Igor Jadue-Lillo manages to make the familiar sites of Los Angeles look new and even a bit exotic. As a result, the situations in the film seem more inviting that they might have otherwise. The score, which doesn’t include the Who tune that gives the film its title, is eclectic and includes some terrific songs that oldies stations sadly ignore.

Perhaps Cholodenko’s grandest achievement with The Kids Are All Right is that she resoundingly demonstrates that a family that’s real as one you might encounter on the street can be as captivating to watch as the most outlandish image of fantasy. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 07/30/10)


Dinner for Schmucks
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) set out to make an American version of Francis Veber's celebrated dark comedy The Dinner Game, and in doing so, removed all wit, edge and risk. The film relies on predictable slapstick and overly contrived set-ups that alleviate blame and smooth over any discord or meanness with a predictable, insincere feel-good ending.

still from Dinner with Schmucks

Tim Conrad (Paul Rudd) wants to take the leap from financial analyst to account executive at his financial firm. To earn a promotion, he must take over the management of the fortune of an heir to a European munitions manufacturer (David Walliams). He must also win the prize at a secret monthly dinner thrown by his boss (Bruce Greenwood). The object of the dinner is to bring an idiot as a guest. The person who brings the biggest idiot wins.

Tim is ambivalent toward the dinner, but when fate delivers nerdy IRS employee and mouse taxidermy hobbyist Barry Speck (Steve Carell) to him, he relents. Tim's art gallery manager girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak); however, is repulsed and adamant he not participate in the cruel exercise. Tim agrees until, clouded by jealousy over the displayed virility of Julie's latest artistic find, Kieran (Jemaine Clement), he becomes convinced Julie will never accept one of his many marriage proposals until he has the promotion.

There are many flaws in this movie: the unbelievable coincidence that puts Barry in Tim's path, Barry's incredible naiveté and stupidity, the multiple wild-goose chases that lead anywhere but to the actual dinner party and make the viewer wonder if there will ever be a final, merciful end to this ridiculous mess. But Tim's nice-guy act is possibly it's biggest downfall. Unlike the original on which it's based, Dinner for Schmucks removes the taint of arrogance and cruelty from the instigator. Tim is not exactly a willing participant. As a result, the damaging, although well-intentioned, chaos Barry inflicts on Tim's life is unsatisfying and quickly turns into a tedious series of increasingly hyperbolic misunderstandings when instead it should feel of delicious, justified comeuppance.

Barry's dead mice dioramas, largely used to play out his emotions over his failed marriage, are wonderfully creepy and charming. Yet, as an agent of change in Tim's life, he's a one-note character. His traits are exaggerated to an impossible absurd pitch. And then he's matched with other unbelievable characters, such as over-sexed artist Kieran, Tim's stalker-in-heat Darla (Lucy Punch) and Barry's mind-controlling nemesis Therman (Zach Galifianakis). All this before we even get to the dinner, which is, of course, anti-climactic.

The other “idiots” can't hold their own among the other hysteric characters that people the movie. Their feeble attempt at any sort of revenge comes off as lame and slightly malicious, leaving any lesson learned or growth to be artificially tacked onto the end. Perhaps it's only right to ridicule them, along with everyone else in the movie. They're all schmucks. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted 07/30/10)


The Girl Who Played with Fire
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The Swedish-made The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was such an engrossing thriller that any attempt to replicate its blend of chills and kinky delights would seem futile. While the new adaptation of the second installment in the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy is still a chilly delight, there’s a strong sense of “sequelitis,” especially toward the beginning.

Still from the Girl Who Played with Fire

After returning from the Caribbean, master hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) discovers that she probably should have stayed abroad. A journalist and a sociologist who have been covering human traffic in Stockholm have been murdered just days before a damning story was about to be published in “Millennium Magazine.” The gun belonged to the corrupt attorney who used to supervise her probation. He can’t vouch for her innocence because he’s been murdered as well, and Lisbeth’s fingerprints are all over the pistol.

Ironically, the staff at Millennium are the only ones who believe she’s innocent. Their star journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a free man because Lisbeth’s snooping proved he was innocent of libel. He’s also beholden to her because the two have also had an affair.

Despite the major conflict of interest, Mikael quickly discovers that not only are his hunches correct but the prostitution ring has strong reasons for wanting Lisbeth out of the way.

The added element of personal danger and unjust imprisonment should have made The Girl Who Played with Fire just as if not more nail biting than its predecessor. Curiously, the prostitution angle is underdeveloped, and the newer film’s first act is oddly limp. It also doesn’t help that director Daniel Alfredson lacks his predecessor Niels Arden Oplev’s impeccable sense of pacing. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo runs a little over two and a half hours but feels much shorter than the two hour and nine minute film that follows it. The former movie also had a denser plot that both demanded and rewarded careful attention.

At least Alfredson knows not mess with the vivid characters who made the first film such a triumph. How many recent films have featured heroines who were bisexual goth computer security experts who batted both autism and professional killers? The pint-sized Rapace is so good at being feisty and cunning, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off the role. It’s as if she can defeat larger opponents simply by force of will.

While it’s easy to get upstaged by Rapace, Nyqvist is also terrific. With his disheveled hair and firm manner (you get the feeling he’s glued to his laptop when he’s not researching his stories), his Mikael is as obsessive and unrelenting as Lisbeth, so it’s easy to see why the two might get along, even if they weren’t constantly saving each other’s necks.

The minor characters are occasionally fascinating as well. One of the villains is a tall, pale monster of a man named Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz) who doesn’t fall no matter how hard he’s punched. He’s not invincible, but he has a real condition called analgesia, which makes him feel no pain. Consequently, he’s not much of a pushover.

Speaking of real, the actor playing a Swedish pugilist named Paolo Roberto is actually the lethal boxer himself. Larsson featured him in the second novel, and it’s nice to see a performer who actually knows how to throw punches.

Alfredson retains the dim, creepy look of the first film and delivers an appropriately violent conclusion. The Girl Who Played with Fire doesn’t live up to the jolts of its processor, but at least it has enough spark to be worthwhile. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 07/30/10)


Salt
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Much of the fun of watching Salt is not knowing if the movie’s heroine Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a heroic CIA operative who has been wrongly accused of sedition or an astonishingly resourceful sleeper agent sent by the Soviets decades ago to win the Cold War. Much of the aggravation of watching the film is that it probably takes an Agency specialist to figure out her motives even after the film is over.

Still from Salt

When it comes to the film’s primary reason for being, seeing Jolie leaping like a hyperactive frog as vehicles and buildings crash or explode, director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games) consistently delivers. He can somehow make the petite actress credible as a killing machine.

Taking a break from political dramas like The Quiet American and Catch a Fire, Noyce correctly figures that viewers probably are more eager to see Jolie shoot, kick, dodge, bludgeon or blow up her antagonists instead of trying to seriously examine the espionage business. By pacing the film like machine gun blasts, Noyce doesn’t give viewers much time to acknowledge that much of Salt makes little sense.

After enduring torture from the North Koreans during a mission (the filmmakers must have figured any excuse to present Jolie in her undies is a good one), Salt attempts to return to DC and live a quiet, normal life with Michael (August Diehl), the German spider scientist she has for a husband.

Unfortunately for Salt but to the benefit of pyromaniacs everywhere, she makes the mistake of trying to interrogate a shady Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), who accuses her of being a mole in front her boss (Liev Schreiber) and a zealous counterterrorism agent (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Because the Russians involved in the plot kill agents’ families to ensure silence, Salt has to both protect her name and keep the innocent Michael out of their clutches.

In figuring out how to get Salt from one cliffhanger to the next, Noyce and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, UltraViolet) come up with an erratic series of setups. For every moment that amazes (like a sequence where Salt turns a metal table leg into an impromptu rocket launcher), there are an equal or greater number that induce groans. At first, it’s jaw dropping to watch her survive a leap from a bridge to the top of a semi. After the third time, one wishes that Noyce and company had been as ingenious as Salt herself is.

It might have been easier to forgive the logic gaps if Salt’s motivation made more sense. She’s supposed to be enigmatic, but once her secrets are revealed to the audience, her actions make little sense. For one thing, her relationship with Michael is so fragmentary and sketchy it’s hard to believe the affection that Jolie and her pouty lips valiantly try to demonstrate. While legions would envy Michael’s marital situation, it seems more like a geek’s fantasy than a credible union. It also doesn’t help that Noyce and Wimmer abandon an intriguing mystery for a pat conclusion.

While it is encouraging that Noyce was willing to think big with Salt, the film might have been more effective if the scale of the story had been much smaller. A few stray bullets can be more nerve wracking than a nuclear explosion. As body counts the size of Gettysburg happen in skirmish after skirmish, the shock value ends.

Jolie at least projects the intelligence and the resolve needed to make viewers believe she is a lethal espionage specialist no matter which side she represents. It’s too bad the actress spends more time jumping from pose to pose instead of getting to explore a potentially engrossing character. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 07/23/10)


Ramona and Beezus
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

With nostalgia-inducing set and costume design, Ramona and Beezus captures some of the charm and imagination of the Beverly Cleary novels on which it's based. For the first time on the big screen, Klickitat Street comes to life in heartwarming Americana relief, complete with inhabitants that wear colorful cardigans, knee socks and a rainbow of Hunter rain boots. Yet, the movie ignores character development by disregarding the depth and thoughtfulness of the source material.

Still from Ramona and Beezus

Ramona Quimby is both blessed and cursed with an over-active imagination and a pathological inability to understand the grown-up world. In the Ramona the Pest series of novels, this often alienates her from her family, teachers and schoolmates until the honest mistake or misunderstanding can be cleared up. In the end, the amount of Ramona's fear and frustration at the unfair, mysterious workings of the world is usually in direct proportion to her relief at being unburdened of it.

In Ramona and Beezus, Ramona (Joey King) comes off as smug and precocious. It's not that she doesn't understand the way the world works; it's merely that it's not bending to her will. When her dad (John Corbett) is downsized, the day construction to add a room to their house begins Ramona starts on a series of absurd money-making schemes, each of which usually ends in the embarrassment of her older sister, Beezus (Selena Gomez), and the destruction of personal property. Still, Ramona is praised and not punished. When offered karmic comeuppance for being a show-off with literal egg on her face (and in her hair), the film skips over Ramona's true feelings about the ruined school pictures and is quickly onto the next scheme.

In fact, Ramona rarely exhibits a feeling that isn't eternally optimistic‚even in her CGI nightmares. Led by the false cheeriness of Corbett's performance as her father, the cast of characters, including Ramona, pays only the briefest lip service to Ramona's foibles. Even annoyed and irritated sister Beezus shakes her head and laughs at the inevitable disastrous results of Ramona's high jinks when really she'd be out for blood. In the end, the grown-ups abdicate all responsibility and Ramona's ridiculous schemes are praised for saving the family. As a message to kids, this may seem pleasing but really should be terrifying.

Into this one movie‚an amalgamation of multiple major plotlines from several of the novels‚writers Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay have crammed too many storylines and characters: Picky-picky's death, Hobart's return, the romance between Beezus and Henry. All nuance has been removed. This dilutes Ramona's special relationship with her cool Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin), and her feelings of ambivalence toward her neighbors and teacher, Mrs. Meacham (Sandra Oh), are simplified to the point of boring.

The biggest casualties; however, are Ramona's father and sister. Not allowed to express all their feelings, which should include anger and resentment, as well as love and amusement, they're left to act nice to the point of impotence. Ramona might as well stay in those CGI flights of fancy. If all the audience gets is an external visualization, it might as well look good. (G) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 7/23/10)


The Good, the Bad, the Weird
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The Good, the Bad, the Weird offers a bizarre but intoxicating synthesis of silliness and awe. Simply the idea of a Korean spaghetti western elicits a smirk and a tip of the hat for simply trying such a potentially foolhardy venture.

As the title implies, director Kim Ji-woon reveres and imitates Sergio Leone’s classic oater, borrowing the eerie musical score, the quick gunplay and even some of the camera work. Who knew you could accomplish the same thing in Manchuria that Leone and Clint Eastwood did in Spain?

still from the good, the bad, the weird

That said, Kim also follows Leone’s example by including the American and European idioms that Leone used into a dynamic approach that is uniquely his own.

The story, which moves faster than a horse at full gallop, follows a trio of Korean exiles in Japanese-occupied Manchuria during the 1930s. A slick, fearsome outlaw named Park Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun) has been recruited to swipe a treasure map from a Japanese banker.

Clearly the “Bad” in the title, Chang-yi is dressed from head to toe in black and has deep scars along his cheeks. He even refuses a ticket on the train the banker is taking because he considers it beneath him. Chang-yi considers it more honorable to stop the train with his gang instead of passively boarding it.

Before Park can obtain the map, a pudgy, buffoonish petty thief named Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho) has managed to make off with the it even though he has no idea what he’s stolen. Hidden behind his motorcycle helmet and goggles and a fur collar, he looks more like a kid playing Davy Crockett than an outlaw. It’s safe to say he’s neither the “Good” nor the “Bad.”

Following these two is a taciturn bounty hunter named Park Do-won (Jung Woo-sung). He probably doesn’t need the treasure because he’s a prodigy at taking down wanted men. His marksmanship is superhuman, and he finds an infinite was of turning ordinary objects into weapons or finding ingenious escapes from seemingly certain death.

Nearly everyone in the area is eager for a cut because of the treasure associated with the map. Do-won, Chang-yi and Tae-goo not only have to compete with each other for the spoils, but a massive gang of Manchurian thugs want the Qing dynasty fortune. Oh, I guess I should add that thousands of Japanese troops are also on their way to reclaim the map.

In a mere 90 minutes, Kim manages to fit in slapstick humor, titanic battles, dramatic camerawork and stunt work that Cirque de Soleil would envy. Like Do-won, you never know what Kim and his co-writer Kim Min-suk have up their sleeves. In the title sequence, the camera follows an eagle as it’s rounding a moving train before helping itself to some carrion lying on the tracks.

The camera darts all over the place in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, but Kim makes sure that the acrobatic lensing never gets in the way of the storytelling. While it’s fun to watch the camera dart all over the lavish period sets and landscapes, there’s always a purpose to the hyperactivity.

The performances are broad but effective. Kim makes almost no provision for the real world in the film. Yes, Manchuria is a real place, but the deliberately artificial setting and performances ironically make the over-the-top action more credible. If there was any attempt at realism, the scenes of Do-won single-handedly confronting a horde of Japanese troops probably wouldn’t work.

Because of its breathless pace, The Good, the Bad, the Weird can lose viewers who aren’t alert or paying careful attention. On first viewing, I found the movie confusing, but the second time I watched it, I was finally able to discover how much content Kim was able put into his lean running time. Keeping up with the film is about like riding on the back of the eagle during the opening credits. It may not make a lot of sense, but it’s a memorable ride. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 07/23/10)


Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Joan Rivers the comedian can be an acquired taste. It gets old hearing her asking celebrities on the red carpet “Who are you wearing?” Joan Rivers the human being, however, is a fascinating person to follow.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work follows her through an unusually eventful period in her life and reveals an intelligent, tough and adaptable woman. She commands respect but wrestles with some formidable insecurities. She’s also got a lot of guts. In many ways, A Piece of Work leads viewers to admire Rivers for consistently being willing to be chronicled during less that gratifying moments.

still of Joan Rivers

The new documentary actually begins with a series of extreme close-ups of the now 77-year-old comic about to get her makeup applied. Getting her ready for an audience is expectedly time consuming, but Rivers’ unadorned features are oddly camera ready.

Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback) also present Rivers going through a constant series of emotional and mental makeovers to get ready for an audience as well. While a standup comic’s performance might seem effortless, the quips that Rivers tosses out don’t emerge from a vacuum.

From watching the film, which was primarily shot two years ago, most of her waking life is apparently devoted to honing her act. Rivers keeps an enormous, thoroughly indexed card catalogue full of jokes and writes and rewrites her wisecracks constantly. After examining one less than potent zinger, she shakes her head and laments, “Now you know why I’m still working at 75.”

From watching the film, it’s obvious that Rivers works for more than the money to afford her palatial apartment in the Big Apple. When A Piece of Work begins, she feels dejected because her datebook is as white as a clean bed sheet. Rivers obviously loves performing and wonders if there’s still demand for her caustic humor.

While her manager can’t seem to land her gigs (Rivers fires him in the film, and he’s suing her now), the comic approaches her situation with a determination that would exhaust younger performers. She develops an autobiographical play to test on British audiences and later competes in Celebrity Apprentice.

The remarkably tech savvy septuagenarian has obviously been through worse, but she’s also lucky to have an astonishingly loyal staff. When she admits to admiring Michelle Obama and finding her reminiscent of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, her staffers are supportive enough to warn her that calling the First Lady “Blackie O” won’t play well.

Stern and Sundberg usually cover war zones and politics, but they have an unerring instinct for when Rivers is at her most interesting. It’s occasionally hard to tell if Rivers is playing for the camera the way she would on a talk show, but seeing her let down her well-developed guard is engrossing. She seems genuinely distraught when one of her many ventures disappoints and has trouble not looking hurt when other comics rib her about her multiple plastic surgeries.

When she’s stuck playing a casino, she triumphantly dresses down a heckler with the force of a bazooka. Hours later, instead of gloating about putting him in his place, she expresses regret. She also feels terrified about taking part in a tribute to the late George Carlin. Unlike some of the performers speaking that evening, she knew him well and is intimidated to be performing against formidable comics who have large writing staffs (she writes her own stuff). When she finally goes on stage, she winds up delivering a one liner that would easily make Carlin smile in comedy heaven.

Stern and Sundberg include some archival footage that demonstrates how innovative a comic Rivers has been. She’s made jokes about abortion and other taboo subjects and scared male comics in the process. It’s also refreshing to hear snarky comic Kathy Griffin express sincere, endearingly gushy admiration for Rivers’ legacy. Rivers probably appreciates the praise but is understandably annoyed that so many people refer to her work in past tense.

Probably the most haunting moment of A Piece of Work comes when Rivers laments that men have never told her, even when she was young, that she’s beautiful. Because of her candor and her fortitude, I’d like to be the first to say, “Ms. Rivers, you are.” (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 07/23/10)


Cyrus
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Cyrus is a dark and unflinching look at modern family and the non-traditional third wheel. Writer/director brother team Jay and Mark Duplass have distilled the most awkward social moments and infused them with intelligent comedy and heart.

Still from Cyrus

Although he's been divorced for seven years, sad sack John (John C. Reilly) is sent into a tailspin by the engagement of his ex-wife, Jamie (Catherine Keener), who is also his co-worker and seems to be his only friend. Reluctantly dragged to a party by Jamie and her intended, John makes a spectacle of himself but grabs the attention of Molly (Marisa Tomei), who is won over by John's unusual nothing-to-lose honesty.

After a few successful dates, John, miffed at Molly's secrecy, follows her home to discover her grown child, Cyrus (Jonah Hill) still living at home. A product of home schooling and with a proclivity for panic attacks, Cyrus depends on his mother for his sole companionship. Initially, he masks his resentment of the intruder but soon resorts to more passive-aggressive and aggressive tactics. Once John discovers Cyrus' true intentions, it's up to him to delicately, yet forcefully get Molly to see the truth. Or not.

Cyrus is a clever treatise on the interloper. Primary relationships are frequently questioned and personal space trespassed upon, even from the very first scene in which Jamie surprises John in his own home. There are no healthy boundaries drawn here. As a result, the characters interact with one another in delightfully unexpected and cringe-inducing ways, which are sometimes funny and sometimes serious but usually always disturbing.

Surprisingly, the antagonism between the title character and John is the least interesting aspect of the film. While ongoing, it's somewhat predictable, constrained by Hill's limited acting abilities. Despite a few nods to home-schooler geekery (New Age music, nature photos) Hill's Cyrus isn't particularly clever or charming, and exhibits none of the quirky pedantic condescension. It's difficult to believe the performance, especially when the other characters come off as so real — notwithstanding Marisa Tomei's perpetual eye makeup (perhaps it's in her contract).

However, a sweet vulnerability is found once the movie widens its focus from the fight between Cyrus and John and finally allows them to connect. They're more alike than they'd like to believe, after all. The movie ends on a well-earned ambivalence. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 7/16/10)


Inception
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Madison Avenue hot shots have tried for decades to get inside of people’s heads and fool them into thinking ideas that are not their own. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), however, can do this sort of thing in his sleep, literally.

still from Inception

In Inception, Cobb is a hired gun who can work his way into other people’s dreams while he himself is unconscious. He and his cohorts manipulate the surroundings so that he can extract information a person would never consciously reveal or so that he can manipulate the target’s brain to come up with ideas that wouldn’t occur naturally. When Cobb and his crew are finished his targets often have no idea that their dreams have been violated. This might explain why he’s now in exile from the United States.

A Japanese tycoon named Saito (Ken Watanabe), who has previously been targeted by Cobb, offers the con artist a deal to deliver him back home in exchange for getting into the head of an energy company heir named Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy). The younger man is poised to become Saito’s only major competitor, so Cobb is tasked with subconsciously convincing Fischer to split up the family business.

Conceptually, the task should be simple for someone of Cobb’s abilities. The mark for the scam doesn’t know he’s being conned because he’s unconscious. Fischer, however, has been implanted with a series of deterrents or mental defenses against what Cobb is trying to do. If the imaginary thugs kill Cobb and his team, they could wake up as vegetables (not the plants) or worse.

Cobb is also working with an untested “dream architect” named Ariadne (Ellen Page), whose job it is to create the environment for the operation. His research specialist Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has also missed some key details needed to pull of this mental burglary.

Actually, the biggest danger to the operation may be Cobb himself. Both his subconscious and conscious minds are dominated by memories of his late wife Mal (a remarkably touching Marion Cotillard). Whenever she shows up during operations, the mission often goes south.

Even though writer-director Christopher Nolan has been making blockbusters like The Dark Knight, it’s heartening to see that the quirky sensibility he brought to Memento has never left him. Nolan now has the budget to blow up entire cities when he deems it necessary, but he’s still willing to make movies that have inverted chronologies or explore psychological concepts that don’t initially seem cinematic.

Nolan’s dream environment looks like the sort of place a person might encounter in the conscious world, except that logic and physics behave more the way they would in a Bugs Bunny cartoon than in real life. With the aid of people like Ariadne, stairs can form endless loops, and glass doors can pop up whenever they might come in handy. Cobb even has an accomplice called a “forger” (Tom Hardy) who can assume the identity of the mark’s confidants.

Nolan’s eye for action scenes has improved markedly from Batman Begins. His new sequences are easier to follow and deliver enough eye candy to put viewers into a sugar coma. Thankfully, he hasn’t forgotten how to tell intricate, carefully constructed stories. Nolan’s world may be imaginary, but it does have detailed rules. Nolan takes license with medicine and psychology, but it’s impressive what he gets right and how he uses it to make Inception work.

He’s also made the rare summer blockbuster that actually dares a viewer to work with him in developing the story in his or her own minds. At times, Nolan takes viewers on dreams within dreams and leaves some details deliberately vague. Thankfully, editor Lee Smith has somehow managed to make the nested storylines coherent. Nonetheless, it’s a treat to see a movie that not only presents a talented filmmaker’s imagination but also lets viewers in on the creative process as well. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 07/16/10)


Best Worst Movie
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

About twenty years ago an Italian film studio, in an effort to cash in on the American horror film genre, sent to the states a film crew, complete with a director who didn’t speak English. There, they hired local “actors,” gave them a script that nobody understood, and went on to create a movie widely regarded by many as one of the worst films ever made: Troll 2. In fact, the film has become so infamous that special midnight screenings started showing up as the hipster and film-geek communities reveled in its cinematic irony.

poster for best worst movie

So what do you do if you happen to have been in that very film, a film you’d rather just forget about, one that indeed you feel ruined your burgeoning child-acting career? Well, in the case of Michael Stephenson, who played the young protagonist “Joshua,” you pick up your own camera and make a film about what it’s like to be in the worst film of all time.

Most of Best Worst Movie follows George Hardy, a happy-go-lucky dentist who played the dad to Michael’s Joshua. Soon, George is showing up to screenings of Troll 2, and receiving standing ovations from adoring fans, which drives him to find the other cast members, who receive the news of their new “fame” with somewhat mixed emotions.

It’s in these interviews that this film really shines. From George’s joyous time in the spotlight (and subsequently graceful exit from it) to the actor who casually admits he was on release from a mental hospital and had absolutely no idea what he was doing, and even the later appearance of director Claudio Fragasso, who has about as much grasp of what’s going on now as he once did the English language, Stephenson creates a wonderful, humorous and poignant picture of a truly eclectic group of people.

There is some attempt to “analyze” what makes Troll 2 such a wonderfully bad film. In my favorite scene, an audience member asks Claudio, “Why is the film called Troll 2 when there aren’t any Trolls in it?” The original screenwriter only confuses things when she tries to explain that the plot “replaces the evil of vampires with vegetarians.” Huh?

Still, it’s George’s openhearted enthusiasm and infectious smile that makes what would seem on surface to be a stupid idea becomes a truly great movie. As the cast slowly reassembles (Yes, even including the crazy guy, who admits on camera that at the time he wanted to kill Joshua.), George almost becomes the “father” again, giggling like a madman every time he tries to repeat his most famous line in the movie: “You can’t piss on hospitality! I won’t allow it!”

Like it or not, the worst movie of all time just may have led to one of the best of the year. (Not Rated) Rating: 4 (Posted 07/16/10)


Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

With current Chanel chief designer Karl Lagerfeld's blessing, director Jan Kounen has crafted a stylish ode to modernism's forebears. Still, beyond set and costume design, the film lacks passion and consistency.

In 1913's Paris, a tightly wound Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) debuts his signature dissonance and radical harmonies in The Rite of Spring to an outraged audience and a slightly bemused Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis), still flushed from an earlier rendezvous with her young lover, Boy. Flash forward seven years to a party in which an impeccable Chanel, in mourning for Boy, icily meets the exiled Stravinsky. An invitation to Stravinsky to stay at Chanel's country house soon follows and is reluctantly accepted, if only for the benefit of his sick wife, Katarina (Elena Morozova) and their four children.

While Chanel and Stravinsky dance around their tenuous intimacy, beleaguered and religious Katarina, Stravinsky's transcriptionist, grows suspicious and increasingly ill despite Chanel's generosity and attention to her. Eventually, Katarina takes the children to live with relatives, leaving Stravinsky and Chanel to carp at each other and, finally, part ways.

Instead of a love story, the relationship between Chanel and Stravinsky is a battle of wills. Stravinsky puts down wealthy, wildly successful Chanel by calling her a “shopkeeper.” Strict, disciplined Chanel notes that Katarina “corrects” Stravinsky's work. Neither allows their expressions to reveal emotion or ever allows for vulnerability.

For that reason, it is extremely difficult to like, or even feel much of anything, for either character. Very little of the assumed passion is spoken about or expressed. Even during the love scenes, the two players' expressions are only grim and determined. The audience must take for granted the grand passion that must exist between the two. From one scene to the next, it's impossible to tell if they will argue, make love or merely discuss art or music.

Katarina is the sole source of entry into Stravinsky's inner life, but his shabby treatment of her alienates him further. The relationship between the two women is much more complicated and interesting. For instance, Katarina's passive-aggressive critiques of Chanel's black-and-white décor is an interesting aside, telling more about each woman than any of the dialogue or narrative. Katarina solicits and fails to get Chanel's sympathy or cooperation. Her forgiving spirit allows her to leave them to play out the feelings that she knows will inevitably self-destruct.

The highlight of the movie is the opening 30 minutes. The reproduction of Stravinsky's infamous ballet debut is thrilling. Kounen creatively adds the noise from the audience turned mob to those of the stage production, building to a dramatic and enjoyable tension broken only once Stravinsky has left the theater. As good a beginning as this, it is only wasted the more on the tacked-on flash-forward ending. Aging makeup is put on the principals, who are shown in their last days, presumably thinking of the other. It's a laughable ending that only cheapens the lackluster affair. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 07/16/10)


The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Depending on whom you ask, the tale of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” goes back nearly 200 or even 2,000 years. The story appeared in 1797 German poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and in an even earlier Roman story written about AD 150 by Lucian. Most of us are probably more familiar with the Mickey Mouse version that appeared in Walt Disney’s 1940 epic Fantasia. Because the story has been around for so long, it’s easy to forgive director Jon Turtletaub (National Treasure) for having difficulty finding a fresh take on it.

Still from the Sorcerers Apprentice

The new live action version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is pleasant and mildly entertaining, but it can’t magically remove the déjà vu. At least the folks at Disney seem sincere about expanding a simple story into a feature running time.

In this version, the novice who makes buckets and the brooms come to life is part of a wider narrative. In fact the new film owes as much to the Transformers movies as it does to Goethe or Disney. Essentially a young geek discovers that he has the ability to access alien or supernatural forces while wooing a lovely coed. Dave (Jay Baruchel) is a promising New York physics student who can fix transmitters but is frustrated with his ability to win over a pretty college DJ named Becky (Teresa Palmer).

Dave is still traumatized by a bizarre catastrophe that occurred back when he was 10 years old in 2000. He met a strange shop owner named Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage), who claimed that a magic ring had determined that Dave is destined to be the newest wizard to carry the mantle of Merlin or “The New Merlinian.”

Before Dave can fully grasp what the strange Balthazar is saying, the lad soon finds himself caught in a magic duel between Balthazar and his evil archrival Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina). Both were once Merlin’s disciples, but the latter betrayed his master and has been helping Morgana le Fay (Alice Kirge, Star Trek: First Contact) in her quest to destroy humankind.

In the hope of stopping Horvath, Balthazar trains Dave on how to reach his potential. Expectedly, the lad doesn’t take to sorcery the way a duck takes to water. Despite the dire stakes if Dave fails to live up to his calling, he struggles with Balthazar’s demanding lessons and seems more interested in appealing to Becky. His master is surprisingly sympathetic to the latter point. Balthazar is still longing for fellow Merlin disciple Veronica (Monica Bellucci), who’s trapped in a spell with Morgana.

All of this leads to a showdown that’s in roughly the same Big Apple neighborhood where the Fantastic Four faced off against Dr. Doom. As a result, the titanic confrontation loses some of its excitement after watching some predictable montages of the bumbling Dave’s training. The duels and the after credit codas are more obligatory than exciting.

The story might have been less mundane if Dave were more appealing. Baruchel has good comic timing, but he lacks the inherent lovability of Mickey Mouse. When Mickey temps fate with catastrophic results, it’s easy to forgive him. The same may not be possible with a flesh-and-blood thespian.

At least Turtletaub has assembled a decent supporting cast who are committed enough to prevent the film from becoming a hollow marketing gimmick. Molina is appropriately suave and venal, and Toby Kebbell is a riot as a David Blaine-inspired illusionist Horvath recruits as a sidekick.

Cage, who also serves as a producer, is appropriately brooding and agitated. At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder how Balthazar got an American accent when Merlin’s other disciples speak with Old World drawls.

It’s ironic that the most vibrant scene in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice occurs when the army of screenwriters chooses to return to Goethe’s source material. Perhaps if Turtletaub and company had kept gazing backward, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice would have felt more magical than mechanical. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 07/14/10)


Dispicable Me
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

For an animated movie about super villains, Despicable Me is remarkably sweet and warm. The title character Gru (Steve Carell) has a menacingly long nose and a creepy, vaguely European accent. Also when Gru says he’s aiming for the moon, it’s not a metaphor. He really has plans for Earth’s biggest natural satellite. He also has a soft heart to go with his fiendish mind, even if he doesn’t know it yet.

Still from Dispicable Me

One of the charms of Despicable Me is that it answers some of the nagging questions that most movies ignore. For example, have you ever watched a James Bond movie and wondered where 007’s nemesis Blofeld got the money to afford his spacious lairs and high tech weapons?

In Despicable Me, Gru funds his lofty schemes with loans from the Evil Bank (its former name is guaranteed to amuse). Expectedly, Gru’s banker (Will Arnett) is as unreceptive as Gru’s mother (an unrecognizable but terrific Julie Andrews). In the past Gru’s plots have been as unprofitable as they were ambitious, so even evil banks want a return on their investments.

Gru won’t give up, but an up-and-coming super knave named Vector (Jason Segel) has acquired a shrink ray that Gru needs for his mission. Without the gizmo, it would be difficult to hide the moon for ransom.

Vector’s compound has tight security so Gru adopts three little orphans (singer Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher) to break into Vector’s home by appealing to the younger villain’s addictive sweet tooth (he loves the cookies they sell to support their orphanage).

Gru’s companions consist of a ferocious dog, a legion of mutant minions and an aging, hard-of-hearing mad scientist (Russell Brand). Gru appears to be an unlikely and even potentially unfit parent. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take much time for the tots to win him over. Even superheroes couldn’t subdue him that easily.

If the emotional direction of Despicable Me is predictable, screenwriters Ken Daurio, Sergio Pablos and Cinco Paul come up with dozens of creative gags. Most involve the cute but bumbling minions. Glitches always occurring during Gru’s pursuits, but at least these folks can think of original ways to achieve failure.

An added delight is the way directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud make unusually good use of 3D. Several of the gags were designed to be seen in that format, and the filmmakers seem intent on maxing out the technology. Whereas 3D is often a weak excuse to jack up ticket prices, Despicable Me has clearly been made to exploit what the format can do.

If the extra bucks scare you away, however, Despicable Me has a solid story and likable characters. These may not be the most dazzlingly features a movie can have, but it’s amazing how many films on the market treat these two necessities as if they were needless options. Perhaps it’s a plot by Gru or Vector to torment viewers by preventing them from locating better movies. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted on 07/09/10)


Micmacs
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Relying almost exclusively on his signature style and conceits, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, Amelie) offers a thin, scatterbrained homage to the great comics of the silent screen while simultaneously taking a laughably misguided swipe at contemporary politics and mercenaries. Disguised as cartoonish humanitarianism, Micmacs reveals a confused, mean-spirited meddling in affairs far out of its reach.

Still from Micmacs

Laconic video clerk Bazil (Dany Boon) has a talent for lip-syncing along with movies and a really gross way of eating soft cheese with his mouth open. After a drive-by shooting and a surgeon's flip of a coin leave him with a bullet in his brain that could kill him at any instant, he finds himself unemployed and homeless. That is, until he not coincidentally meets up with a makeshift family of misfit simpletons — each with a nickname that coincides with a singular affectation — living in a steam-punk paradise at the junkyard.

When Bazil identifies rival weapons manufacturers responsible for the landmine that killed his father and the bullet in his brain, he decides to exact revenge, flipping a coin to decide which company to bring down first. After a botched initial solo attempt, Bazil reluctantly agrees to enlist the singular talents of his new companions and their endless supply of mechanical creations cobbled from salvaged goods.

Micmacs suffers from an overkill of whimsy. In Jeunet's world there's no rotting, stinking garbage; only the most interesting and potentially useful mechanical and electrical oddities make it to the dump. Everyone's a quirky savant. Life-or-death decisions are made by the toss of a coin. Yet, it's bleak and practically devoid of emotional engagement or pathos, as if the world has been drained of color and each character is also moderately autistic.

Without the sartorial and decorative eye candy that propped up Amélie, the film fosters no appeal in its random scenes of freak-show do-gooders in way over their heads yet somehow still triumphing over the bungling security guards, oblivious emissaries of corrupt politicians and greedy bad guys. The slapstick violence is out of step with the potential consequences of a failed mission, so there's never a sense of danger and suspense, or even urgency. Also, the inclusion of a second weapons manufacturer only confuses matters more. Creepy collector Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet (André Dussolier) would have been more than sufficient as the solo heavy. Ironically, he's responsible for the small iota of pathos-inducing material in the entire movie. It's only as a sort of last resort that Bazil turns the two rivals against each other. And what's their ultimate punishment? Looking foolish on YouTube.

“Salvaged goods” is exactly how to describe this film. Jeunet borrows extensively from his previous endeavors: the toss of a coin, a box full of personal effects, the one parent left being taken away, malicious vengeance hidden behind an easily cracked veneer of altruism. He pays mere lip service to the history of movies and stealthily, arrogantly gives himself the real props. The billboards don't lie. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 07-09-10)


I Am Love
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

With I Am Love, Italian director Luca Guadagnino waits almost an entire hour before letting the plot get into gear. Depending on your patience, this is either the shrewdest or most foolish thing he could have done. Thanks to a typically mesmerizing performance by Scottish actress Tilda Swinton, it’s easy to lean toward shrewd.

Still from I Am Love

As snow falls outside during yet another Recchi family gathering, Guadagnino subtly reveals that there is more going on than an opulent celebration in Milan. The family’s aging patriarch Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti) has declared that he’s leaving his venerable textile company to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and his grandson Edo (Flavio Parenti).

The entire even is centered around the new heirs, so it might be easy to miss Tancredi's quiet but elegant wife Emma (Swinton). Despite living in a grand home and having three accomplished children, it’s easy to tell that she’s an outsider in her own house even after decades of living there.

Unlike the rest of the clan, Emma is actually a Russian immigrant (Tancredi has given her both her first and last name) and often feels more at ease talking with the servants than with the Recchis themselves. With the exception of Edo, her other children Gianluca (Mattia Zaccaro) and Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) are grown and living outside of the home. She has little to do but wear flattering gowns and smile when prompted.

Edo doesn’t feel comfortable stepping into his grandfather’s shoes and would love to start a new restaurant with his pal Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), who’s a prodigious chef. Antonio lives in a rural area, surrounded by crops that make his tasty ingredients. His fondness for the land and culture makes him seem all the more attractive to Emma, who feels at home with Antonio in a way that she never can in Milan.

It’s obvious that all of this is going to end badly, Guadagnino handles the material in such a low-key but thoughtful manner that it doesn’t feel hackneyed. There are also intriguing peripheral strands that are worth paying attention to.

Edo admires how his grandfather kept the factory working to keep the laborers employed even in lean times, so he’s appalled that his father and other company officials are more interested in making quick Euros by globalizing the firm and downsizing them. He wants to follow Grandpa’s example even though the elder Recchi made part of his fortune with Fascist support.

Visually, I Am Love is breathtaking with cinematographer Yorick Le Saux contrasting the cold but stately Recchi mansion with Antionio’s more vibrant home. The moody score by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer John Adams also helps carry the mood in place of the sparse dialogue.

Nonetheless, I Am Love might have remained a hollow exercise in style if it weren’t for Swinton. To take on the role, she had to learn both Italian and Russian. While I can’t speak to her mastery of either language, she goes through an astonishing physical transformation as Emma’s affair progresses. She looks more alive each moment she spends in Antonio’s arms.

Without the sociopolitical themes and Swinton’s finesse, I Am Love might have played like a soap opera here in the States. Perhaps daytime dramas wouldn’t be so painful if Swinton or Guadagnino were available to help out. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 07/09/10)


Predators
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

I’ll give the makers of Predators some credit. Producer Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) and director Nimród Antal (Armored) have thankfully taken the extraterrestrial villain from the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller and tried to save him from the cartoonish way he’s been depicted in the lackluster Alien vs. Predator movies. They’ve recruited a first-rate cast to fend off the murderous bullies from space. It’s too bad the film about fighting to the death against high tech thugs from space isn’t more, oh, scary.

Still from Predators

The new quarry for the invisible and potentially invincible ETs are a motley bunch, but the predators want prey who could actually be a challenge to place in their trophy rooms. Each of the latest targets awakens while falling from the sky while at the mercy of self-opening parachutes. Because each is dangerous in his or her own way, it’s a miracle they don’t kill each other before the predators go to work.

The loudest and most opinionated is a cynical mercenary named Royce (Adrien Brody). He’s been joined by a member of the Israeli Defense Force (Alice Braga, City of God), a guerilla from Sierra Leone (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) and a Russian soldier (Oleg Taktarov), who’s been plucked out of the war in Chechnya. There’s also a quiet Yakuza (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a Mexican mob enforcer (Rodriguez protégé Danny Trejo), a convicted murderer (Walton Goggins) and a doctor (Topher Grace), who seems to be the only unarmed person in the jungle. He also doesn’t seem like much of a fighter. Perhaps the predators wanted a quick and easy snack before chasing the more challenging prey.

If being stuck in the jungle with a group of hired guns, soldiers and extra mean aliens weren’t a dilemma in itself, the earthlings soon learn they’re not even fighting for their lives on their own home turf. It seems the planet they’ve landed on is a game reserve for human flesh.

In the first few minutes Predators sets up an unsettling scenario, but the terror never really kicks in. While having tainted protagonists adds a potential level of suspense (will these folks screw each other over just to live another day?), it also makes it harder to get worked up over their fate. Grace’s character is so annoyingly ineffectual during most of the movie that it’s hard not to wish we could take a few shots at him.

Unless you’re reading the script for Predators or know who the actors are by sight, you won’t learn their names. They do have them, but you’d never guess them from watching the film. As a result, they become as impersonal as the monsters trying to hunt them.

Rodriguez has specialized making films whose technical finesse belies their modest budgets, and Predators follows in that tradition. Unfortunately, Antal’s direction lacks the Rodriguez’s frenzied pacing, so the new film never achieve the rush of the latter’s better directing assignments. Predators has a body count and gore, but it offers little in the way of fear or adrenaline. Perhaps the extraterrestrial hunters should have pursued the studio executives who thought this series was worth more than single movie. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 07/09/10)


The Last Airbender
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Like a lot of American sci-fi/ fantasy fans, I have something of a love/hate relationship with Japan's anime industry. One of the first examples of this animated genre that I saw was Akira, which was mind-blowing awesome and, unfortunately, probably the best anime movie out there. The result of the sheer popularity of the genre over here has resulted in a massive number of ever-crappier movies and series purpose-built for overseas-consumption (and we're not even going to mention the whole Hentai sub-genre).

still from the Last Airbender

Having watched a few episodes of the animated version of Avatar: The Last
Airbender, I found it to be a high quality series, with good animation and
cool if sporadic action scenes. I remember thinking, "Not bad, if I had the
time to sit through four seasons of episodes" then going back to my daily
habit of waiting for Hollywood to write a sci-fi or horror film that wasn't
based on a video game (actually, I do a disservice to games — many today have
a far more interesting script than most movies).

It was a bit of a surprise to hear that a big-budget live action version was
in the works, but what the hey. until it was confirmed that the director
would be M. Night "He of the twist ending that seems kind-of stupid
generally" Shyamalan. As Spock would say, "fascinating."

After hacking off the "Avatar" from the title to avoid pissing of James
Cameron, and casting Noah Ringer, a martial arts kid from Texas as the main
character Aang (who is clearly Asian in the animated version), it’s obvious most of Japan is probably not gonna like this version.

As for the intended American audience, well, the action scenes are well done,
the CGI effects actually look good occasionally, and it’s got a 3D version,
which all the major studios seem to think equals box office bucks.

Despite complaints that the plot is over-complicated, it's really pretty
simple: in a world that is divided into four tribes (each representing one
of the four elements), brother and sister Sokka and Katara find a young boy
frozen in the ice. After reviving him and his giant flying Sky Bison, the
two discover that the boy, Aang, is the last of the Avatars, individuals who
wielded the power of all four elements and act to keep the different groups
from fighting each other. Unfortunately, Aang balked at the last second
before being named the Avatar, ran off and spent 100 years frozen and lost
to the world. With no Avatar to stop them, the Fire Nation attacked and
dominated the other tribes, forbidding them to use their "bending" powers,
and destroyed the Air tribe, since the next Avatar was to have come from
them. Since Aang ran away before he officially became Avatar, he can only
bend air, and with the help of Sokka and his water-bending sister, he must
first learn the other three bending styles before — okay, maybe it IS a
little convoluted, but you don't really have to know all this to enjoy the
film.

As for the 3D aspect, like all 3D films, it's sometimes kinda cool, and
other times annoying. Also, if you happen to already wear glasses like me,
don't even bother: You spend half the film trying to keep both pairs in the
right spot to see anything.

Over all, the action is fun but not bloody, Ringer does a good job as Aang
(if you have young boys, they WILL be jumping around and karate chopping
things on your way out of the theater), and Shyamalan even gets to
throw in a little bit of a twist at the ending, which also would seem to
guarantee a sequel. ( PG ) Rating: 3 (Posted 07/02/10)


House (1977)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

According to press materials, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 debut movie House was made in Japan. After viewing the actual film, it’s easy to wonder if it’s not the product of another galaxy, much less another nation.

Still from House

House, which has nothing in common with the ‘80s horror films or the Hugh Laurie TV medical drama, has only now made it to this end of the Pacific. The film is so delightfully warped and bizarre that it probably would have alarmed stateside viewers back in the ‘70s, even if they weren’t sober.

Obayashi and his collaborators appear to have either taken every known psychedelic drug available during the era or have permanently eliminated the need for anyone to experiment with illicit substances. Anyone who watches this film will get a contact high simply from being in a building where the movie is playing.

Obayashi and screenwriter Chiho Katsura got their Lewis Carroll-like inspiration from a setup envisioned by the director’s then-eight year old daughter Chigumi. As a result, House has the bright, gaudy colors and genial tone of a children’s film with the nightmarish content of a horror movie. Imagine hearing the grim lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” sung to a happy tune. Obayashi also throws in silent movie physical humor and bizarre optical effects that really have to be seen to be believed. There are landscapes that are obviously painted backdrops and even sudden switches to black-and-white.

As for the story, it actually makes some sense at first. A teenager called “Gorgeous” (Kimiko Ikegami) is furious with her widowed father for wanting to get remarried. Instead of joining her dad and her step mom at a resort when school gets out for the summer, Gorgeous talks her pals “Fantasy” (Kumiko Ohba), “Prof” (Ai Matsubara), “Kung Fu” (Miki Jinbo), “Melody” (Eriko Tanaka), “Sweet” (Masayo Miyako) and Mac (Mieko Satoh) into joining her at her aunt’s house in the country. The old aunt (Yôko Minamida) seems like a sweet person, but Gorgeous’ cat starts acting oddly and her eyes glow with an eerie green.

With the jaunty score and the rainbow-like scenery, the trip should be a bucolic delight. Instead, the girls experience a series of predicaments that would be more likely in a Salvador Dalí painting instead of the Land of the Rising Sun. Through double exposures and other now primitive effects, the girls spontaneously combust or get chopped into little bits. Some even go through these horrible fates … and live.

All of this sounds horrific on paper, but these misfortunes are rendered in such a surreal, stylized manner that House is anything but scary. Because almost nothing in this world looks real (even the sky and ground are suspect), there’s no sense of danger.

There is however, a warped imagination that never lets up. Obayashi cut his teeth making commercials (some of which starred Kirk Douglas and Charles Bronson), so he’s got an unerring instinct for jolting viewers with memorably odd visuals. Throughout House, you’re guaranteed to see something that you haven’t witnessed before and that you later won’t be able to get out of your head. It’s amazing how many twisted ideas he gets just from a piano.

At 72, Obayashi is still active and has had a long and varied career. Asking where he gets his ideas is a pointless task (there’s apparently no earthly answer), but seeing them come to life is a mesmerizing experience. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 07/02/10)


The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Hold on tight, spider monkey. With its third installment, the Twilight series has reached dangerously close to competence. Many of the traits that have annoyed non-Twihards are still here, but The Twilight Saga: Eclipse has fewer of the technical and narrative problems of the first two films. It won’t make detractors of the series any more tolerant of the sparkly vampires or sensitive, shirtless werewolves, but fans can appreciate the greater care that went into this and possibly the next two chapters.

The perennially mopey Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is growing closer to her shiny undead boyfriend Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). As the two talk about their futures against a mountain range that seems to be borrowed from a beer commercial, they fail to notice some difficulties arising in addition to the fact that he’s an undead guy who seems to spend every waking moment stalking her.

Bella has also not patched things up with her werewolf pal Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who still pines for her like a Milkbone dog biscuit. Her police chief father (Billy Burke) would probably like Edward even less if he knew that his potential son in law fed off of the blood of wild animals to resist the call of human fluids.

Being stuck in a romantic triangle involving ghouls might complicate a more stable person’s life, but the brooding Bella discovers that she may be needed to help Edward’s family stop a mysterious spate of serial killings in Seattle. A legion of new bloodsuckers has been recruited by Edward’s old flame Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) to get revenge on Bella’s pallid, whiny boyfriend and to kill as many humans as possible in the process.

Having an invasion of young, hungry vampires outside of lowly Forks, OR gives the new installment a much needed dramatic boost. It’s also refreshing to see the undead and the wolves duke it out instead having ninety minutes of blank stares and mangled dialogue. Melissa Rosenberg’s script (she wrote the other two) still has some groaners. It’s hard to hold back an unintentional chuckle when Bella’s mom observes, “You move. He moves…like magnets.”

Thankfully, this time around Rosenberg finally seems to be having fun with Stephenie Meyer’s source material. Instead of treating the original novel like scripture, she pokes fun at things even die-hard Twihards groan at. Seeing the eternally bare-chested Jacob approaching, Edward asks where the werewolf’s shirt is.

Moments like this give Eclipse a sense of tension that neither of the previous Twilight films had. Now that Pattinson and Lautner can share the screen for more than a few seconds, the romantic triangle becomes more tangible. It also doesn’t hurt that Stewart’s Bella finally develops traces of a spine and that Rosenberg gives her more to do than bite her lip.

Director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) has a better eye for creepy atmosphere that his forbearers did, and his special effects budget appears to be larger. This time the wolves look more convincing and expressive. It’s too bad the sloppy editing continues. The battle scenes often look less like a fight to the death and more like a twisted rugby match.

Some of the changes aren’t for the best. Howard can play conniving beautifully, but she isn’t as potentially intimidating as Rachelle Lefevre was in the role. Oddly, the pint-sized Dakota Fanning is actually quite creepy as an unforgiving leader in the Volturi, or vampire council. She gets a lot of mileage from her steely gaze.

Thanks to these improvements, it’s somewhat easier to tolerate the core deficiencies that haven’t been rectified. Eclipse and the previous films are supposed to be love stories, but neither of Bella’s suitors seems all that appealing. While some parents of teen girls might be relieved by Edward’s Victorian sexual standards, he’s still a stalker. He frequently breaks into her room as if he were a spy, and his condescending almost domineering concern for her safety gets irritating. If he were human, he’d get slapped or arrested.

Jacob’s monomaniacal attraction to Bella is also disturbing. Lautner’s master body sculpting hasn’t done much for his acting chops.

Eclipse is still a Twilight movie. If you chuckle every time Edward twinkles in the sun, the improvements in this installment won’t impress you. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 06/30/10)



haiku review


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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