movie reviews July 2012

The amazing spidermanSavagesIce Age: Continental DriftBeyond the Black RainbowBeasts of the Southern Wild • The dark knight risesheadhuntersThe WatchStep Up revolution

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

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Step Up Revolution

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

It’s pointless to complain about the script or the acting in a Step Up movie. The main point of these movies is the dancing. Let’s face it. Nobody ever watched a Ron Jeremy or a John Holmes movie to hear their line readings.

 

If you missed the previous installments, there’s no worrying about getting lost. These films change casts, directors and screenwriters each time. Should you be delighted to learn that the character of Moose (Adam Sevani) has a cameo, you’re probably not going to care if the banter has been copied and pasted from somewhere else.

 

 

Step Up Revolution is set in Miami (where it was actually filmed) instead of New York, so there are palm trees instead of elevated trains in the background. It’s also refreshing to hear a little Latin swing in the background to go with the hip-hop. Step Up Revolution also features an unusually creative flash mob that calls themselves the not-so-imaginative moniker “The Mob.”

 

In their quest to keep musical animals from dominating YouTube, Sean (Ryan Guzman) and Eddy (Misha Gabriel) plot out elaborate dance-offs in public places. The residents of Miami never know when City Hall, a busy intersection, a swank eatery or even the docks is going to be the stage for one of The Mob’s spectacles.

 

Screenwriter Jenny Mayer and director Scott Speer come up with plenty of intriguing backdrops for the dancers to disrupt. Adding 3D lets the dancers throw objects into the viewers’ faces and play games with the perspective. It’s nice to know that 3D can be used for something other than explosions.

 

All of the Mobsters have day jobs (YouTube doesn’t pay unless you get a LOT of hits). They’re also in a race against time. A single-minded developer named Bill Anderson (Peter Gallagher) is determined to tear down the waterfront landmarks where the Mob learned their moves and where many of them toil when they’re not hoofing.

 

Conveniently, Anderson’s daughter Emily (Kathryn McCormick), in addition to being hopelessly lovely and attracted to Sean, just happens to be a talented dancer and secretly joins the Mob on some of their culture jamming.

 

The Mob are a sort of dancing version of the Yes Men, a group of pranksters who use their high profile media stunts to point out injustices that conventional reporters miss. It might have been intriguing to see how they could use their viral campaigns to further other acts of subversion, but nobody involved with this film wants to rock the corporate boat.

 

There’s no point in writing out the rest of the plot because you can probably guess it from here. Mayer probably knows that her main task is to move the story from dancing sequence to dancing sequence. The characters aren’t particularly deep, and McCormick, a veteran of “So You Think You Can Dance,” was clearly cast for her agility and grace. Reciting lines was optional. Guzman, on the other hand, might actually be able to land an acting gig that doesn’t involve his footwork.

 

I actually look forward to Step Up movies even though they’re dramatically inert. It’s a treat to see these dancers bend their bodies in ways I couldn’t imagine possible. That makes up for hearing all the crummy dialogue. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 07/27/12)

 

Haiku

Step Up Revolution

 

Plot and character

are just optional when they

dance well in 3D

 


 

The Watch

Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

 

When I first heard about The Watch, it was during press covering of the Trayvon Martin shooting — the original movie title was "The Neighborhood Watch." While the whole unfortunate title thing sounded bad, the idea still intrigued me: can you combine comedy with an alien invasion, and make it work?

 

Well, yes, you can...if that movie is, say, “Attack the Block,” which is an excellent example of how to do something right. If you want to get a good example of how to do it wrong, then you'll love The Watch.

 

 

I'm not really going to talk about the plot much, because there isn't much of one to talk about anyway. You've got anal-retentive Costco manager Evan (Ben Stiller), potty-mouthed fast talker Bob (Vince Vaughn), paranoid cop-wannabe Franklin (Jonah Hill) and some kind of British ex-pat named Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) stumbling around looking for aliens. That's it. In a video game this plot would be a side-mission you don't even need to finish to complete the game. No, the real action here is Vince Vaughn. I mean, if you want to like this movie, you really better like the Vaughnator.

 

Why, you ask, does this movie clearly depend on Vaughn improv-riffing dick and fart jokes in scenes agonizingly far too long? Because this is just a lazy film. Using Stiller as a straightman feels wrong, Hill seems game to just sit back and egg on Vinny, and Ayoade's main talent is looking at the camera funny.

 

This is clearly a "made by committee" movie, no doubt. Oh, there are a few laughs (the biggest involving gunfire — strangely left in the movie when there was worry about the TITLE?), but the mindboggling boring battle at the end is as lame and fake as the aliens are themselves.

 

Only guys in love with The Hangover and the like will possibly enjoy this film, but even there I say just watch that again, and skip The Watch. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 07-27-12)

 


 

Headhunters

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

It’s easy to lump Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø with the late Swedish journalist-author Steig Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) because both have written thrillers and both are Scandinavian. Adding to the confusion is the fact that both have created fascinating characters and situations that have translated remarkably well to film.

 

In the case of Nesbø, however, his stories come from his previous work as a financial analyst and stockbroker whereas Larsson’s were inspired by his investigations into European hate groups. Before you start to imagine stories of people staring into ledgers and quoting dull stats, Nesbø nonetheless manages to create environments that are just as treacherous as Larsson’s.

 

 

The new film adaptation of his novel Headhunters is about a fellow who won’t normally be at the center of a thriller, but that may help explain why it works so well. Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) isn’t even all that likable at first, but behind the smile of every corporate recruiter is the mind of a shark.

 

Roger needs that sort of determination simply to make his clients happy. He needs it even more because his lifestyle is too expensive for even his potentially lucrative profession.

 

Because he’s physically and financially short, he’s constantly feeling pressure to please his tall, comely wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund). When he cheats on Diana with a mistress named Lotte (Julie Ølgaard), it’s because he’s so insecure that one woman’s affection may not be enough. He ignores Diana when she says she doesn’t need his gifts to be happy.

 

Roger has another way of keeping creditors from ruining him.

 

Because many of the potential CEOs he interviews collect art, Roger can use the information he extracts from them as part of his job to liberate their paintings from their walls. Diana works at a museum, so she unknowingly can tip off Roger about potential heists. His pal Ove Kjikerud (Eivind Sander) works for an alarm company, so many of the victims don’t even know they’ve been robbed until weeks after the fact.

 

Roger thinks he may have landed a heist so lucrative that he can end his illegitimate moonlighting gig. Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is the retired head of a surveillance firm who might be interested in running its rival, Pathfinder, which happens to be one of Roger’s clients.

 

Clas also happens to own a masterpiece that was stolen by the Nazis. Naturally, the score is too good to be true, and Roger winds up fighting for his life and learning who his real friends are.

 

Adding to the danger is the fact that Clas is a former Special Forces soldier whose ruthlessness is complemented by his tall, brawny frame. Coster-Waldau comes off as appropriately intimidating, so it’s easy for viewers to shift their feelings about Roger.

 

Thanks to Hennie’s nuanced performance, it becomes easier to care if Roger actually emerges from his ordeal alive. Earlier in the film, Roger demonstrates the same material longings and feelings of inadequacy we all have, but he seems to learn the error of his ways as the film progresses. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a clever fellow. He’ll need to be to survive what happens to him.

 

Director Morten Tyldum paces the film impeccably and has a great eye for action scenes. There are explosion and car wrecks that would rival anything in American films, but all of that would be for naught if screenwriters didn’t do a fine job of setting up convincing plot twists and credible characters.

 

Headhunters comes from Yellow Bird, the same production company that gave us the movies of Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Nesbø’s tale has a different feel than Larsson’s did, but thankfully he’s still with us, and both sets of stories are worthwhile. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 07/20/12)

 

Haiku

Headhunters

 

Business in Norway

can be scarier than some

superhero films

 



The Dark Knight Rises

Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

 

Metaphorically speaking, Christopher Nolan's final installment in his Batman trilogy is almost perfect in tone, physically and mentally tearing down the Dark Knight, only to have him rise triumphant in his most challenging hour. As for actual real-world logic and plot ... yeah, didn’t I mention that "metaphorical" thing?

 

Set eight years after the last film, we now have a reclusive and antisocial Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who has "retired" the Batman after taking the blame for the death of the popular Harvey Dent, a k a Two-Face. Meanwhile, in an action scene as awesome as it is goofy, we meet Bane (Tom Hardy), a huge thug in a metal mask, who elaborately captures mid-flight a scientist who was being transported by the C.I.A.

 

 

A chance encounter with cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) gets Bruce's detective skills buzzing, while his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) frets over his master's sad and lonely life. All this time, Bane and his seemingly endless army of suicidal faithful terrorist henchmen are working beneath Gotham on their fiendish and unfortunately ridiculously overcomplicated plan to take over the entire city.

 

In probably one of the most awesome scenes in the film, Batman makes a triumphant return, taking out a bunch of those endless terrorists. Still blamed for the death of Dent, Gotham's finest want to take Batman down, with the exception of Commissioner Gordan (Gary Oldman) who knows the truth, and a young brash cop named John Blake (Joseph Gorden-Levitt) who still believes in Batman.

 

While all of this does of course lead to a Bane/Batman confrontation, it's second and third acts really delve into the mind of Bruce Wayne after he loses everything he had and must finally "rise" to reclaim his and Batman's honor.

 

As for the film itself, as a metaphor for Bruce Wayne to conquer his inner demons and re-emerge the true batman of myth, it works damn well. But frankly without that geeked-out suspension of disbelief, this film's got some issues.

 

First of all, there's Bane himself: he's just not very scary. The comic-book Bane was a C-list villain who used his mask to suck up some kind of gas/fluid that made him Hulk-out until Batman just pulls his mask off, and boom, no more bad-guy. Here the mask covers up some botched operation, fine, whatever ... but then there's the talking. No, it's not that you can't understand him, as was rumored in early reports, you can understand him just fine. It's his endless, over-the-top villainous monologues that just sound silly. Really, I'd give this move half a star more if they had just take out all that lame dialogue and just have him glare when he wasn't fighting: that might have made him more threatening.

 

Also, there's little attempt to make this city Gotham and not New York. I'm mean, when you can clearly see it's New York, complete with the two-thirds finished Freedom Tower in the long shots, it's a little disorientating.

 

The plot … well, just don't think about it to hard, and you should be fine. Not that it matters: Nolan clearly wanted this all to build up to one epically epic ending, and he does come pretty damn close, and Hathaway pretty much nails a gritty and compelling Catwoman, so I'd call this more of a bat-win than a bat-fail. (PG 13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 07/20/12)

 


 

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film told from a child’s point of view, but it’s hardly a children’s movie. It plays more like a dream than a conventional story, but like a dream, you can see the real world reflected in the daze.

 

Beasts of the Southern Wild follows an exceptionally plucky and resourceful eight-year-old named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives on a island in the Gulf of Mexico, near New Orleans with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). The Island is dubbed “The Bathtub” because it’s technically below sea level.

 

 

People have been living there for generations; it’s all the life they’ve known. They have a mythology that is more deeply ingrained into their lives than stuff outsiders learn in school. To Hushpuppy, the mythic prehistoric creatures called aurochs are as real as the animals that live on Wink’s farm.

 

Her life with her father is anything but tranquil. He mysteriously returns from a hospital, then Hushpuppy inadvertently burns down the house she’s been living in by making her own meals. Her mother no longer lives with the family, but we have no idea how she left or even if she’s still living (it’s safe to assume she’s not). That doesn’t stop Hushpuppy from having conversations with her.

 

Because of the apocalyptic mindset that runs throughout The Bathtub, it’s easy to believe that a major hurricane is coming. The residents, however, aren’t leaving. The island is all they know, and they’ve survived previous catastrophes. Life in The Bathtub may make it difficult to determine what’s real or not, but Hushpuppy’s fecund imagination may be the one thing that helps her survive the deluge to come.

 

Freshman director Benh Zeitlin treats Hushpuppy’s fantasies matter-of-factly. It’s as if he and co-screenwriter have decided to enter her head and show us what’s going on there without comment. People think nothing of hooking boat motors to household appliances, and they float.

 

Because the people involved don’t see the storm any more than a day at the office, Beasts of the Southern Wild seems surreal without seeming silly, a rare feat. Zeitlin also manages to make the aurochs and the storm they accompany look real. That’s not bad for a little indie film.

 

The movie is full of memorable images, but it wouldn’t be all that interesting if the people in them weren’t fascinating, too. Young Wallis carries the film on her tiny little frame. She seems so natural that it makes the mythical images around her more convincing. Perhaps, we should keep an eye out for auroch stampedes.

 

As Wink, Henry demonstrates an astonishing range and makes a potentially unlikable character mesmerizing. While he seems initially harsh with his daughter, Wink knows she lives in a rough environment already and that he may not live long enough to teach her everything she needs to know to survive in it. Eventually, his love outweighs his coarse manner.

 

If Beasts of the Southern Wild shouldn’t or won’t be playing any kiddie matinees anytime soon, it does demonstrate that kids have a lot to teach us alleged grownups about how our imaginations and the world we actually live in aren’t that far apart. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 07/20/2012)

 

Haiku

Beasts of the Southern Wild

 

Remote islands and

giant warthogs make a film

that’s dreamlike but real

 


 

Beyond the Black Rainbow

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

 

Beyond the Black Rainbow would have made a great short. Despite its meager budget, it’s great to look at and has a creepy atmosphere and tone. Although the movie was completed in 2010, freshman feature director Panos Cosmatos has nailed the look of ‘70s and ‘80s science fiction films. Portions of the movie look as if they’ve come from The Demon Seed or other movies of the era.

 

Cosmatos has said in interviews that he was trying to make the sort of R-rated film he was forbidden to watch as a youngster growing up in Canada. That may explain why Beyond the Black Rainbow has a fragmented, episodic feel. Cosmatos’ storyline feels thin, but that may be intentional if he’s trying to capture the sense of recalling something that he could only see in pieces, if at all.

 

 

The film is ostensibly set in Arboria, a sort of wooded, therapeutic retreat. Or that’s what the ads at the beginning of the film say it is. The place’s founder Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands) is rarely seen, but after seeing the facility for a few seconds, it’s obvious that false advertising is at play.

 

There’s a dim electronic glow throughout a building that seems hermetically sealed, and a patient named Elena (Eva Allan) spends most of her days in an isolated cell. Her doctor, Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), seems more interested in hurting her feelings than in treating her undefined malady. If Barry’s intrusive questions don’t drive her mad, the film’s relentlessly droning synthesizers will.

 

Throughout the discussions, Cosmatos cuts to shots of a room where the most prominent object is a pyramid with a pulsating glow. Its exact purpose is uncertain, but it sure looks menacing.

 

Beyond the Black Rainbow does look like an ‘80s vision of the future. What seemed advanced back then now looks retrograde. Cosmatos also offers hints of Reagan-era paranoia with clips from the president himself delivering ominous pronouncements, and Barry likes wearing a jacket that reads “Noriega.” Apparently the world outside of Arboria was pretty scary, too.

 

It doesn’t take much effort to determine that Barry is as cracked in the head as any patient in the facility, but he’s running the joint. Because his madness is out there for the whole world to see, there isn’t any tension or drive to the story. While never quite dull, Beyond the Black Rainbow doesn’t achieve all the chills it’s capable of.

 

The monotonous score is initially effective, but gradually annoys for more than it frightens. There’s also a redundancy that stifles the film. At 30 to 45 minutes, Beyond the Black Rainbow would have been more consistently unsettling. With each drone of the synthesizer, it loses some potency.

 

Cosmatos is the son of the late George P. Cosmatos, the director of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone. Whereas George might have blown stuff up or wrecked things for effect, his son gets a lot of mileage out of simply adjusting the lighting.

 

It should be interesting to see what Panos accomplishes when he gets a stronger story. Rambo was big, dumb and noisy, but Tombstone was terrific. If his father could rise to the challenge of stronger scripts, it’s a safe bet that Cosmatos could do the same. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 07/14/12)

 

Haiku

Beyond the Black Rainbow

 

Glowing pyramids

don’t exist at properly

managed hospitals.

 


 

Ice Age: Continental Drift

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

 

I know it sounds completely impossible, but after watching Ice Age: Continental Drift (the 4th installment in this series), I think these filmmakers may be running a little bit thin in the "fresh ideas" department. Not that there's anything wrong with this harmless CGI-animated flick about a mammoth, giant sloth and saber-toothed tiger who become best friends despite that fact that one of them should clearly want to eat the other two.

 

 

While the first three movies were buddy road-flicks with a thick dose of generic moral syrup on the top, the only real humor came in the form of physical slapstick, a lot of which (can you guess?) involved slipping on, well, ice. Here the action involves Manny (Ray Romano) and his pals Diego (Denis Leary) and Sid (John Leguizamo) trying to get back to the rest of their "herd" after an earthquake separates them ... and yeah, that's pretty much the plot of the first three.

 

So, how do you improve on such a scintillating concept? Well, they spend a lot of time here floating in big chunks of ice, which do look a little bit like old sailing ships, so … let have pirates! Right! Because a bunch of animals would want to float around on chunks of ice stealing ... what? In the movie it's food, which is clearly seen growing all over the land and they could just go over and get some, but okay, fine. Pirates it is.

 

Led by Captain Gut (the ever-awesome Peter Dinklage), who's some kind of ape or something (seriously, even the IMDB page didn't know exactly what he is), they at first chase and then later are chased by Manny and his group. Some light antics ensue, and then they're neatly resolved for a sort-of "well, that's it, then" kind of feeling.

 

While this is a fairly flat and uninspired kid's flick, I will say this: Just give Scrat the saber-toothed squirrel his own film. The frantic nut-obsessed character was such an unexpected hit in the first film that he's gotten a little bit bigger in the next two, and there's no question he gets the biggest laughs here. As for the rest of this Ice Age...it just kinda slowly floats away. ( PG ) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 07/14/12)

 


 

Savages

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

 

In Savages, director Oliver Stone leans heavily on his signature frenetic energy and overly self-conscious storytelling without providing the film a marked point of view. Based on the novel by Don Winslow, this tale of a new generation of drug lords at war with a Mexican cartel is too earnest to be classified as dark comedy and too flippant to be considered pure steamy pulp.

 

 

Move over Cheech and Chong, two young California surfers — Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) — have made millions in both the legal and illegal drug trade with their particular brand of high-potency marijuana. Bohemian botanist Ben, the brains behind the grow houses, spends his share of the profits on NGO projects, such as building wells for potable water in Indonesia, while high-strung Chon, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, watches over their operations at home in Laguna Beach, CA, with a tight, white knuckled fist. They’re the yin and yang of Southern California drug trafficking, and because of this Elena (Salma Hayek), the fading grande dame of a Mexican cartel, wants to bully them into sharing their business with her.

 

After first asking for advice from Dennis (John Travolta), the dirty DEA agent on their payroll, Ben and Chon decide to quit the business altogether rather than play nice with their neighbor to the south. They make plans to skip the country with their shared California dream girl O (Blake Lively), who despite warnings of danger can’t resist one last trip to the mall, which precipitates her kidnapping by cartel henchman Lado (Benicio Del Toro), a cruder, less focused version of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. To get the love of their lives back, Ben and Chon, with only the help of the ineffectual Dennis, must now try to outmaneuver Elena and the seemingly psychopathic Lado.

 

Full of fancy tricks and beautiful but empty sun-kissed people, Savages has no soul. The film relies too much on voiced-over dispatches from O for the narrative, the unreliability of which wouldn’t be a problem if she weren’t given the burden of having to tell more than the film is allowed to show. And when it is allowed to show something, it does so in silly post-production graphics, which is really just another form of telling.

 

In other films, particularly in Natural Born Killers, Stone uses these effects to great success. The changes in speed, style and stock set tone and mood, ultimately serving the larger purpose of the film. Here, they distract from a story that’s already suffering and cause discord between mood and meaning.

 

In truth, if Stone were to take one step further into novelty — to Smell-O-Vision — the theaters in which it plays would be infused with patchouli, gunshot residue, and, of course, pot. But they would also stink of desperation. With Savages, Stone is showing the blunt edges of a filmmaker yearning for another slick, hip hit and willing to do almost anything but tell a good story to get it. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 07/06/12)

 


 

The Amazing Spiderman

Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

 

The latest in a seemingly never-ending flood of Hollywood remakes, director Marc Webb's 215 million dollar (!!!) remake of the 2002 version of Spiderman's iconic origin story is ... a slightly different version of that iconic origin story. I'm not kidding here: If you were hoping for a kinda “Spiderman 4,” don't bother. With a running time of two hours and 15 minutes, The Amazing Spiderman takes even LONGER before high school nerd Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains his superpowers. That also means you get the thrilling action of a lot of 3D scenes of people standing around talking in rooms, which is exactly as lame as it sounds. At least it does get better, a little bit, anyway.

 

 

We start with introverted photographer Parker (who for some reason uses an old school SLR camera with film despite the modern setting) getting pushed around while pining for the lovely Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). In an effort to find out more about the mysterious disappearance and later death of his parents, Parker goes to Ozcorp and finds his fathers old science partner, Dr Connors (Rhys Ifans), who's trying to use lizard cells to re-grow his missing arm. Parker of course immediately wanders into a high security lab filled with glowing spiders, gets bitten, and stumbles home without anyone noticing.

 

Peter's guardians, his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Martin Sheen and Sally Field, respectively) soon notice his weird behavior as he tries to both refine his new powers and hide them at the same time, which does result in some pretty funny scenes. Meanwhile, the good Dr. Connors uses his lizard formula, and successfully re-grows his arm only to later turn into a giant, evil lizard. Who could have ever seen that coming?

 

Once the action actually gets started, there are some cool web-sling scenes (this version has him make mechanical web-shooters, like the comics did), but the frenetic CGI fights sometimes look a little cartoony.

 

The casting is decent, particularly Garfield's take on Parker, and once it get going it is fun, but then so was the 2002 version, which had a far better villain. Also, I have to say this is obviously just a set-up for more sequels, and has SO much padding during the first hour that you'll be thinking about sneaking out and going over to the next theater to watch The Avengers, again. (PG 13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 07/03/12)

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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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