movie reviews August 2013

2 gunsthe smuffs 2 I'm so excitedpercy jackson: sea of monstersplanes we're the millerslovelaceElysiumThe huntBlackfishlee daniel's the butlerkick-ass 2the act of killingyou're nextthe mortal instruments: city of bonesjobsthe world's endThe spectacular nowblue jasmine

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

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Blue Jasmine
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Appearing at the breakneck pace of a film a year, Woody Allen’s output over the past decade has been inconsistent, the director sometimes seeming more interested in romanticizing locales than presenting fully developed stories or characters. With Blue Jasmine, Allen is back on (literally and figuratively) familiar turf, expertly exploring his favorite topic: the tragic-comic interior state of an upper-class urban American neurotic.

Despite humorous moments, the emphasis here is firmly on the tragic end of that spectrum. Drawing from ancient Greek tragedy, classic American theater, and recent national headlines, Allen has created in Jasmine French a central character that is at once timeless yet emblematic of 21st century American culture.

The film opens as former New York socialite Jasmine — the name adopted long ago to replace her mundane given name, Jeanette — adrift in the wake of a financial scandal involving her Bernie Madoff-styled husband Hal, arrives in San Francisco to stay at the apartment of her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Dressed in Dior and toting a complete set of Louis Vuitton luggage, Jasmine bemoans her homeless and penniless state while wondering aloud how people endure flying coach. When grocery cashier Ginger asks how a  broke woman can fly first class, Jasmine, irritated and oblivious to the contradiction, snaps, “I don’t know. I just . . . did.” This self-delusion and sense of entitlement fuel the events that unfold.

The movie follows two plotlines, Jasmine’s current struggles in San Francisco to reclaim her prior status and, in a series of flashbacks, her former rise and fall among the Park Avenue elite. Carefully intertwined, developments of one plot consistently deepen our understanding of the other, clarifying Jasmine’s motivations and making her trajectory feel inevitable.

At the core of the film is Cate Blanchett’s brilliant, controlled performance as Jasmine — actually two significantly different performances: one, the effortlessly fashionable veneer of the New York trophy wife; the other, the desperate fragile shell of the San Francisco boarder barely holding it together with Xanax and vodka.

To Allen’s credit, Jasmine emerges as neither entirely victim nor villain. As flashbacks reveal, she has clawed her way up from working-class roots by ditching her college education for the high life with Hal (a charismatic Alec Baldwin), and turning a blind-eye to increasingly alarming signs that everything was not Kosher with his financial dealings. Yet she clearly suffers from his arrest and demise as well as from his multiple infidelities. When she attempts a similar deus ex machina in San Francisco, deliberately deceiving and latching onto a rich single guy with political aspirations (Peter Sarsgaard), we may be appalled at her manipulations, but we still pity her eventual discovery and rejection.

Together representing a sort of Stanley Kowalski to Jasmine’s Blanche DuBois are Ginger’s mechanic boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) and contractor ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), whose working class dress, language, and willingness to blurt out the ugly truth represent a constant threat to her fragile delusions. Clay comes out of nowhere to deliver a surprisingly powerful performance, particularly when Augie, who lost a windfall fortune investing with Hal, resolutely refuses to let Jasmine off the hook for her husband's fraudulent dealings.

By the end of the film, it becomes clear that, unlike classical tragic figures, Jasmine will never confront the cold, hard truth of herself. Her self-delusion, by definition, won’t allow it, keeping her from ever changing. In a character study for the new millennium, Jasmine suffers from a tragic flaw that is indistinguishable from mental illness, making her disintegration all the more tragic. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 08/24/13)

The Spectacular Now
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

There must be something about alcoholism that haunts director James Ponsoldt (Off the Black, Smashed). His third feature film features an alcoholic teen and his codependent girlfriend in a sort of “Days of Wine and Roses of the Gen Y” era. But don’t mistake this for an “issues” movie or even narrow the expectations for audience. It’s the best kind of film — beautiful, understated, heartbreaking.

Shot in 25 days with a mere $2 million budget, the film carries the feel of independent film at its best but exhibits a welcome maturity. Clearly a labor of love, the film had Ponsoldt returning to his old stomping grounds of Athens, GA, for location, and it’s the perfect golden atmosphere. Although the leads are young, there’s a perfect sense of melancholy and nostalgia that pervades each scene. They can’t possibly understand the longing they project, but their audience will.

Adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber (500 Days of Summer) from the novel by Tim Tharp, the story focuses on Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a popular senior on the verge of graduating without a diploma. He’s glib, arrogant and seemingly shallow until he meets nerdy classmate Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), who in her non-ironic enthusiasm over the things she loves becomes a good influence on him. But Aimee’s not a manic pixie dream girl. She’s honest, serious and steadfast in her affection for Sutter. She offers him unconditional loyalty, and in return, he puts her in harm’s way.

Sutter and Aimee are carefully drawn. They’re complicated and dynamic, brought to life by great performances from both Teller and Woodley. Moreover, they’re backed by equally rich though smaller turns by supporting actors. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler make up Sutter’s family. Brie Larson has a meaty but small role as Sutter’s ex-girlfriend. Bob Odenkirk plays Sutter’s boss; a father figure — in the absence of his real father — at a mecca of manhood, a retro men’s clothing store, of all places.

The script shakes these characters up and forces them to interact in interesting and heartfelt. A particularly wonderful scene puts Aimee at a dinner party thrown by Sutter’s well-to-do sister and her husband. Just when it seems like it’s all going wrong, it switches to a different emotional intensity. It’s refreshing and uplifting in the midst of a relationship that we know is doomed, despite all our wishes to the contrary (and the unrealistic ending). (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 08/24/13)

The World's End
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Five friends reunite after 20 years to relive an epic night of drinking. But their nostalgic pub crawl is interrupted by Stepford-like androids on a mission from an alien overlord determined to raise the standards of the human race, whether it wants it or not. That’s the spoiler for The World’s End, the latest collaboration between Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz). But, honestly, there’s not much there to spoil.

In their previous films, Wright and Pegg offered a fresh take on genre action movies, but some of the charm came from their clever use of down time. This is when members of the ensemble cast, allowed to dig into their characters’ backgrounds, bring up funny grievances about the situation, or, even better, completely off-topic points, which reveal personality and relationship dynamics. These asides are what kept the films from being merely derivative. Still, the scripts were tightly written, with the action progressing at a clip.

The composition of The World’s End, however, upends this balance. Mostly made up of these talking moments, the film is unfocused and plodding, disrupted only sporadically with action sequences. This makes the film even more frustrating because in the tradition of the former two movies, the fight scenes are both thrilling and funny. Wright possess the unique talent of choreographing and shooting chaotic scenes in a way that makes the goings-on completely clear and understandable. But minus a commitment to a plan of action or goal, there isn’t enough in this film, as engaging as the dialog is, to move the plot forward.

In fact, it’s easy to pinpoint the exact time the movie loses its momentum, despite its carefully being built up in the opening sequences and carried out by the talented cast (Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan). Like air slowly escaping from a balloon, the energy fizzles after the quintet takes on a set of young androids in the men’s room. The big reveal over, the five leads, with ink-stained hands, exit the gents’ and sit back down.

From there, it’s a confusing jumble of baseless motive and repeated gags, ending in an eye-rolling confrontation with the head alien. In a disappointing move, Freeman and Marsan are benched, while Pegg, playing an alcoholic and addict in severe arrested development, runs the show. Any emotional engagement to the characters is severed at this point, and it becomes a tedious wait to finally get to the end. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 8/24/13)

Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Whether Steve Jobs was a visionary or perfectionist could be more argumentative than useful in understanding the creator of Apple computers. But with either description, it’s a good bet Jobs would not have liked the film Jobs. If Jobs’ ego would have allowed him — and it this film we see a lot of ego being allowed  — he could have objected that the film about him either told too little or told too much about the wrong things.

The screenplay by Matt Whiteley relies on episodic events to define the inventor, and depends on Ashton Kutcher, who plays Jobs, to somehow reveal the internal man and how his genius played out and expanded within both commonplace and unique situations. Kutcher does an admirable job in giving Jobs a certain visual style — capturing his early-man gait and Cheshire cat gin — but he does so without giving many hints of where or how Jobs got his genius-like inspirations.

Like Kutcher’s portrayal, Jobs has great visual appeal as a film but one has to wonder about “function,” as no doubt Jobs himself would always focus upon in pushing his company toward developing new products. Does this film function as a vehicle to reveal the innermost Steve Jobs? Not really.

Jobs opens in 2001 with Jobs announcing the iPod before a devoted group of Apple employees. It closes in 1996 with Jobs excitedly forming the beginnings of the multi-color, eggshell iMac with one of his designers after regaining control of the company.

What’s presented between those years reveal a personality both in and beyond the times he’s living in. In 1974, college dropout Jobs becomes interested in calligraphy, reads Baba Ram Dass, goes to India with best friend Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas) and drops LSD, which, in a kind of whirling-dervish camera shot, has Jobs caressing the tall grass in a field and seemingly pulling in ideas from the great unknown.

In the following years, Jobs gathers his team, becomes increasingly successful while also becoming distant from the people who helped create the success of Apple. Jobs finds his asshole personality, kicks his girlfriend out of his house while denying he’s the father of her child and cuts Daniel out of a coming IPO (Initial Public Offering) because he believes he does not have the technical knowhow deserving of a founding Apple shareholder.

As success defines the company, the film, seemingly to heighten the dramatic, shifts to the boardroom as the Apple board first supports him then concludes that Jobs is the liability to Apple stockholders. The lengthy time spent dwelling in the Machiavellian world of corporate America seems a curious approach to detailing the life of a unique and creative personality like Jobs. And while Kutcher partly succeeds in giving Jobs a sympathetic tone, we’re still left with the question: Just what made this genius tick? (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 08/24/13)

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

A young girl on the verge of womanhood discovers she possesses supernatural powers. For a previous generation, this signaled that something was wrong with the girl. Her mother locks her in a dark closet for punishment and her peers, pretending to be her friends, publicly ostracize her in a cruel and public way. Covered in pig’s blood, her unleashed wrath runs rampant, ending in the total destruction of the town and a terrifying showdown. A feminist viewing of Carrie pegs the movie as revealing the misogynist’s fear of women’s lib. A more general take is that it’s a criticism of the attempt (and failure) to normalize the outsider.

For a new generation, innate paranormal abilities are a surprising but welcome privilege. Perhaps the recent popularity of young adult science fiction and fantasy caters to trophy kids by validating their own feelings of exceptionalism. The false modesty with which these new protagonists accept the news of their uniqueness, after an initial awkward phase, reveals the not-so-hidden idea — forged through enduring years of cruel treatment or being singled-out for special treatment by a tight-knit group of family or friends — that they have somehow been special, or The One, all along.

Near her 16th birthday, Clary Fray (Lily Collins), the protagonist of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, begins seeing signs and beings that mere mortals can’t see. Through many frantic yet expository conflicts and quests, she eventually learns she’s the powerful daughter of two half-angel demon hunters (Lena Headey and Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and the only one left who knows the whereabouts of a very important goblet. Still, this film isn’t really about girl power. Clary remains ineffectual at stopping any death and destruction, and keeping her loved ones safe. Ultimately, she can’t even hang on to the magic cup.

Based on the first book, City of Bones, in the young adult series, The Mortal Instruments, by Cassandra Clare, the film spends most of its time and energy explaining a very complicated, convoluted mythology. There are some clever tongue-in-cheek references throughout the story, to the werewolves in particular. But mostly the elements are embarrassingly derivative (mundane vs. muggle, for instance).

In their effort to remain faithful to the source material while not leaving newcomers to the story in the dark, director Harald Zwart (2010’s The Karate Kid) and screenwriter Jessica Postigo cram too much into each scene. The dialog is required to do too much heavy lifting, and the various creatures and weapons and evil plots arrive fast and furious.

There’s a brief interlude for a romantic scene with another member of Clary’s species (Jamie Campbell Bower), but the scene itself becomes ridiculous when filled with CGI elements more at home in FernGully. And, of course, the love connection is complicated by the potential for a love triangle — Team Jace or Team Simon, anyone? — with the one character who doesn’t have a secret identity (Robert Sheehan). That is, not yet. And there are sequels in the works.

Five of the books from the series have already been published, and the sixth and final is due out spring 2014. The film’s sequel, City of Ashes, is already in production, with Sigourney Weaver expected to join the cast. According to Zwart, the next one is going to be even more complex than this first one.  It’s hard to know if that’s a promise or a threat. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 08/24/13)

You're Next
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Let me state up front that little about You're Next is original. Another in a string of home-invasion slasher flicks (Them, The Strangers, The Purge), it blatantly and liberally borrows from the last half century of horror and thriller films. It also happens to be one of the most effective horror movies in quite some time.

Very simply, screenwriter Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way To Die, a segment of V/H/S) know their audience, and they know their audience knows these kinds of films. Rather than subverting or lampooning genre conventions, Barrett and Wingard exploit them with care and control, creating a wild ride for viewers.

In a familiar set-up, retired millionaire Paul Davison (Rob Moran) and wife Aubrey (‘80s scream queen Barbara Crampton) are meeting their four adult children at an isolated mansion-in-the-woods to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. We know the event will go spectacularly badly — why else would we have entered the theater? But before the bloodletting begins, we get a glimpse at how the 1% live. As the pretentiously named children and their significant others arrive, the Davison spawn are revealed to be exactly the kind of entitled brats we expect.

The most normal seems to be college professor Crispian (AJ Bowen), who is accompanied by his genuinely kind Aussie girlfriend — and former TA — Erin (Sharni Vinson). Arriving soon after are eldest son, yuppie prick Drake (Joe Swanberg) and bitchy girlfriend Kelly (Margaret Laney); needy Aimee (Amy Seimetz) with documentary filmmaker boyfriend Tariq (horror director Ti West); and quiet youngest son Felix (Nicholas Tucci) with his sneering rocker girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn).

The celebratory dinner quickly devolves into petty sibling backbiting — that is, until a crossbow bolt abruptly drops one of the party, and the group finds itself under siege by black-clad strangers in animal masks, bearing medieval weapons. As the family freaks out, the one guest who doesn’t share their pampered background quickly regroups, secures the house, empties the kitchen drawers for anything that could be used as a weapon, and begins to fight back. And boy does she fight back.

Echoing John Carpenter’s Halloween, the filmmakers create in Erin the kind of resourceful heroine an audience can — and do — cheer for as she’s forced to take increasingly stronger measures, meeting and, ultimately, exceeding the gruesome acts of her attackers. In fact, the assailants eventually seem so outmatched that they begin to resemble the comic, sad sack robbers of Home Alone. And comedy is not out of place here. Even as they bleed, the siblings bicker about which of them can run fastest, and Swanberg’s Drake carps his way through much of the film with an arrow sticking out of his back.

The rest is simply focused, effective filmmaking. Avoiding the overt acknowledgments that typified the Scream franchise, Barrett and Wingard include plenty of nods to their predecessors: crashing through a second-story window, Erin evokes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; booby-trapping the house recalls A Nightmare on Elm Street; disabling an attacker with a camera flash echoes Hitchcock’s Rear Window; and the animal masks are borrowed, appropriately enough, from the ‘80s Australian school-invasion film Fortress, where Rachel Ward was also pushed to extreme measures to protect her students. And those are just the most obvious.

Are there weaknesses? Sure. What serious home invaders would choose crossbow, axe, and machete over a good ol’ reliable automatic weapon? And why scrawl the titular threat at a neighbor’s home since it’s gone by the time any Davisons arrive? Furthermore, Wingard overuses shaky-cam to goose the action, and Barrett’s script explains too much near the end while missing opportunities for social commentary.

But when it comes to jumps, scares, fake-outs, laughs, and over-the-top shocks, You’re Next delivers the goods. And that’s why we’re there in the first place. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 08/24/13)

The Act of Killing
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

There’s no real killing in The Act of Killing. The killing — estimated at one million — was done in 1965-66 when the Indonesian military reacted to a failed coup attempt, blaming the action on the PKI or Indonesian Communist Party. President and founder of Indonesian independence Sukarno began to lose his basis of support as the military recruited local vigilantes and “gangsters” to kill suspected communists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer focuses his documentary on two men, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, who went from selling movie tickets on the black market to mass murderers. Neither man, nor any of their fellow killers, have been brought to justice and are considered saviors of the country. As Herman notes in one part of the film, “War crimes are defined by the winners.”

Oppenheimer, seemingly encouraging them to create a film about their “heroic” killings — not difficult considering Anwar and Herman’s love of movies, particularly American films — then films their film making process for The Act of Killing.

It begins with Anwar and Herman trying to recruit neighborhood people to reenact scenes of intimidation and subsequent kidnappings. Despite Herman’s jovial approach that it’s only a film, fear grips some who only seem to be part of the action out of knowledge of what Anwar and Herman have done years earlier.

Next Anwar proudly shows off a place and technique he used “killing happily” an estimated 1,000 people. As he explains, he eliminated the result of too much blood in beatings and dismemberment by strangling people with wire.

When Oppenheimer returns to Indonesia – the film was mostly shot in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia between 2005-2011, Anwar’s film has progressed in sophistication, involving surreal elements, including Herman’s fondness for being in drag, and the involvement of the paramilitary organization Pancasila and its leadership, with the cooperation of various government officials.

Uncovering a moral vacuum in Indonesian society seems too mild an explanation for what Oppenheimer has filmed. What he has revealed is madness and an official detachment from it, where murder, rape, beheadings, extortion and government corruption are casually recounted and proudly celebrated among the killers and their followers. A place where the word gangster is defined as a “free man” and the belief that “God is against the communist” seems a guiding principle of governing.

Here and there Oppenheimer makes evident the uneasiness some Indonesians feel in their country’s acceptance and casual worship of genocide. Unsurprisingly it is among the ordinary people, be it the extras used in filming the raping of women and pillaging of a village, or the whispered comments from the control room during an absurd interview conducted of Anwar on Indonesian TV.

While the country as a whole has yet to succumb to a moral awakening, by film’s end Anwar admits to evil doing. Playing a victim in a scene of torture and coming death, Anwar, in watching the scene being played back to him, asks Oppenheimer, “Did the people I tortured feel the way I do there?”

Oppenheimer, leaving his objective perch, answers, “No. They knew they were being tortured and would be killed. You knew it was only a film.”

The Act of Killing ends with Anwar coughing, throwing up and dry-heaving in the place where he did his killing. But not before telling the camera, “I knew it was wrong but I had to do it.”

Oppenheimer’s film has been declared a masterpiece, receiving scores of cinematic awards. This reviewer found it lacking in historical context, particularly the CIA’s involvement in Indonesia at the time, absent any view of Indonesia’s genocidal hero worship from possible survivors —or their children — of the mass killings, overly long and at time redundant, and, dare say, indecisive. If Oppenheimer wanted to make a film that only had the viewer thinking of justice rather than being someone so appalled at the unpunished crimes to be inspired to seek justice, then he succeeded. (NR) Rating: 3 (Posted on 08/18/13)

Kick-Ass 2
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

The 2010 film Kick-Ass, written by Jane Goldman and directed by Matthew Vaughn, presented Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr's graphic novel as black comedy, addressing  — in sometimes graphic and outrageous manner — issues of vigilantism, identity, violent entertainment, and the effects of living surrounded by social media. What made it work was its no-holds-barred attitude toward the subject of real folks as superheroes, most strikingly embodied in Hit-Girl, a vicious, potty-mouthed, 11-year-old pixie-ninja who cut baddies to ribbons with a smile and a profanity on her pre-adolescent lips. Many viewers didn't know whether to applaud or be appalled, and that tension was the movie's super power. The sequel, written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, though similar in look and violent content, lacks the courage and conviction of the original.

Picking up just weeks after the events of the first film, Kick-Ass 2 finds scores of average citizens, inspired by the celebrated super-heroics of Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass, donning their own homemade spandex duds and taking to the streets. Teen geek Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) wants to resurrect his alter ego Kick-Ass and join them; Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz), however, has promised her guardian Marcus (Morris Chestnut) to give-up her Hit-Girl persona.

The plot splits at this point as Dave joins up with a band of superheroes calling themselves Justice Forever, and Mindy attempts to live as a normal adolescent female. Curiously, navigating the hazards of a Mean Girls-style high school clique proves both more insidious and more interesting than life in Dave’s superhero club. This is in no small part due to Moretz’s portrayal of a slightly older, slightly more conflicted Mindy. Moretz achingly evokes the teenage longing to fit in as well as Mindy’s burgeoning sexuality, triggered by an otherwise cheesy bit of product placement for new UK boy-band Union J.

Meanwhile, the super characters couldn’t get any broader or flatter. Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has abandoned his heroic Red Mist identity and become a super-villain, adopting an utterly unprintable moniker (rhymes with Brother Trucker) and an utterly ridiculous costume fashioned from his late mother’s bondage gear. While in the first film, D’Amico struggled with the decision to become a superhero, his super-villain persona has no such qualms, resulting in a fairly uninteresting caricature.

Jim Carrey is more fun but just as one-dimensional portraying the leader of Justice Forever, Colonel Stars and Stripes, a Sgt. Rock-inspired old-school crime buster with a dog trained to go for the groin. In fact, with only a couple of exceptions, the dozens of heroes and villains that ultimately clash in the film’s climactic battle are little more to viewers than costumes.

Most disappointing, however, is Wadlow’s tendency to reduce edgy or meaningful elements to cheap jokes and gross-outs. A truly troubling rape scene becomes a mere set-up for an erectile dysfunction joke, and a very deserved comeuppance for the high school mean girls is reduced to a cheap vomiting/diarrhea gag.

While Kick-Ass 2 could have provoked audiences to reflect on identity, violent entertainment, and cultural stereotypes, it settles for dishing up increasingly nasty ass-kickings (death by lawnmower-through-windshield, anyone?) as humor for viewers who've been desensitized by too many graphic novels and UFC broadcasts. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 08/18/13)

Lee Daniel's The Butler
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

For his latest movie, Lee Daniels (Precious) acts more as producer than director. First, there’s the matter of his name in possessive being attached to the title. And then there’s the story: exhaustive and sweeping, yet unnaturally literal in its attachment to major historical events. Good direction would have led Lee Daniels’ The Butler away from becoming a primer on the civil rights movement to focus on smaller, more personal reactions to major moments in history. Instead, producer Daniels embraces the ambitious scope, and in the process loses any sense of authenticity.

Screenwriter Danny Strong (known from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls, but has recently had success writing political dramas for the small screen) has compared his screenplay to Forrest Gump. The two films certainly share the concept of an everyman’s involvement in major world events. But whatever your opinion of Forrest Gump, it at least first created a sense of fable before it delved into fantastical coincidence. Lee Daniels’ The Butler is absurdly naïve in its earnest entreaty for sustained suspension of disbelief.

The shame in taking this approach for the film is that members of its all-star cast are more than capable of handling the emotional intensity the smaller, less contrived approach would have required. As Cecil Gaines, the White House butler based on the life of the man who served as White House butler for three decades, Forest Whitaker performs well, especially when not hampered with playing a man much younger or older than his age. But even then, he’s wonderfully, quietly expressive.

The best moments in the film are the most private ones, though they’re rare. Oprah Winfrey’s performance as Cecil’s wife is broad and hammy, but her character’s affair with a shady neighbor (Terrence Howard) provides some of the best tension. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz give great performances as co-workers at the White House. Surprisingly, the actors tasked with playing the succession of presidents (Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber and especially Alan Rickman) and their wives (Minka Kelly, Jane Fonda) don’t solely rely on impersonation or makeup and costume. Unfortunately, their lines too often serve only the purpose of the film’s message.

The film contains hints of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. The central focus lies in the friction between Cecil and his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo), who drops out of college to become a Freedom Rider and then a Black Panther. They’re both dynamic characters. Louis’ activism eventually spurs Cecil to action. But both of their awakenings are so dependent on their being present in defining moments of history that they don’t ring true.

There are important lessons outlined in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, but they would mean more if there were less of Lee Daniels in this movie and more time spent with the butler. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 08/18/13)

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s safe to say that Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s new documentary Blackfish will disgust and anger you. That means that she has done her job well.

In exploring how a killer whale or orca named Tilikum killed his trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, Cowperthwaite reveals that the beast and the company who had him performing for crowds of people have more than a little blood on their hands. Perhaps surprisingly Tilikum is the brother of Keiko, the orca featured in Free Willy. But unlike his more famous sibling, Tilikum’s real-world story is not happy.

Cowperthwaite reveals how he had been separated from his mother at an early age and forced to perform at Sealand in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. While orcas can do amazing tricks because their brains are in some ways more developed than humans, their happy-sounding calls can be deceptive. Orcas have family units that work like ours do, and breaking up their families can be just as traumatic for them as it is for us.

Held in tight conditions where other orcas would attack him, it’s a small wonder that Tilikum would have been unhappy at performing tricks for people. His trainer may have learned that the hard way when she died during a show at the hands of the orcas. While the identity of the attacker has never been confirmed, Tilikum was in the tank at that moment and seems a likely suspect.

Sealand shut down after that, but Seaworld in Orlando purchased him despite the fact that he may have killed a trailer and used him for both performances and breeding. Tilikum’s behavior since then indicates he may have been unafraid to kill other humans and that his numerous descendants could be just as dangerous.

While Seaworld has obviously condemned Blackfish, the film offers a lot of material that indicates that they have treated Tilikum and the people who worked directly with him badly.

Several former trainers reveal that the company never told them that orcas had attacked some of their peers on numerous occasions and that many said they stayed on at Seaworld longer than they would have liked because they worried the company would abuse the orcas in their absence. Many of these folks still love the animals they cared for and make convincing witnesses.

In addition, Cowperthwaite includes lots of footage showing bite marks the whales have made on each other, including one horrifying incident where a whale actually bleeds during a show. She even includes footage of the orcas attacking their trainers, indicating that Brancheau’s death was far from an isolated incident.

Seaworld claims that Tilikum was thrown off by Brancheau’s ponytail, which she actually wore it on a regular basis. The trainers, who were her friends, soundly refute this, and Cowperthwaite even has the footage to prove it. It’s ludicrous to think that her hair instead of the cramped, squalid tank he was kept in was responsible.

It’s rather troubling when one finds OSHA looking sympathetic when they sued Seaworld and demanded that the trainers not perform in the tank with the orcas. When regulators look sympathetic, you’ve done something wrong.

Cowperthwaite even uncovers evidence that Seaworld officials perjured themselves during the successful OSHA lawsuit. She also contrasts their sunny advertisements with damning images that indicate the creatures are not happy performing dog and pony shows.

Perhaps the most damning statistic in the film is the fact that while there are dozens of incidents of orcas attacking humans in captivity, the number of killer whale assaults on humans in the wild through all of recorded history is zero.

Seaworld is a multibillion-dollar company, and what has happened with both Brancheau and Tilikum indicates their business model comes at the expense of both orcas and the people who have unknowingly risked their lives training them.

Cowperthwaite says that she’s repeatedly tried to contact them to explain why Tilikum was in a performing tank even after he had shown a tendency to hurt people. Despite the casualties he might have inflicted, it’s safe to say he’s far from the worst villain in this story. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 08/18/13)


Tilikum does not
belong in a tank and is
not a trained monkey.

The Hunt
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Before the law, we are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. Thomas Vinterberg’s unsettling new Danish film The Hunt indicates that rumor and paranoia frequently carry more weight than fact.

The film slowly but engrossingly follows a melancholy fellow named Lucas (Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen). If Lucas seems glum, he’s got a lot of reasons for it.

He and his ex-wife have been haggling over the custody of their son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm). He’s also lost a more prestigious teaching position and is now trying to make a living as an elementary school instructor.

Actually, that job gives him some satisfaction. The children clearly love him and provide him with some gratification he can’t get elsewhere.

Unfortunately, Lucas’ best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and his wife Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing) need a refresher course in parenting. They sometimes leave their daughter Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) at school, so Lucas has to walk her back home on his way to his own house. They also don’t spend a lot of time watching how their teenage son talks around her. The older sibling shows her Internet porn, giving a premature and skewed view of sexuality.

When Lucas catches Klara acting inappropriately in class, he politely admonishes her. She then tells his boss Grethe (Susse Wold) that Lucas has done something from one of her brother’s dirty pictures. The well-meaning supervisor is horrified and instantly starts investigating Lucas. Klara instantly recants the story, but the idea of a pedophile running free at the school instantly results in people telling whoppers that make Klara’s initial story seem plausible.

Lucas still has a few friends who know he’s innocent, but people wanting to defend their kids quickly ostracize him and won’t even let him buy groceries at the local market. When the police, who are barely seen in the film, discover that there’s no truth to the wild rumors that have circled around Lucas, his situation actually gets worse because the other residents of the town think he simply got off with a technicality.

Vinterberg’s measured, deliberate pacing is remarkably effective because it builds up dread in while also lulling an audience before he hits them with a disturbing revelation. There isn’t much violence or action in The Hunt, but when the jolts come, they come at full force.

Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm’s script takes an intriguing angle by making the eventual mob that turns against Lucas not ghoulish thugs, but sincere, caring people who simply don’t understand that they’ve been acting an a simply child’s whim instead of an actual scandal. As a result, their hatred actually becomes more frightening because viewers get the sense that anyone could become a hateful fanatic when the wrong information is too readily and easily available.

The cast give consistently unaffected performances, making the madness that follows in the film seem all the more real. Wedderkopp demonstrates a range that would make most adult thespians envious. She goes from appealingly innocent to vindictive to tragically remorseful in the blink of an eye.

At the firm center of the film is the charismatic Mikkelsen, who can play a victim with the same effortlessness he can play a villain (his turn as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale was one of the best in Bond bad guy history).

Mikkelsen manages to make viewers continue to care about Lucas even when it looks like vindication is nowhere in sight, and his grim visage gives viewers just a small hint that maybe something is sinister with Lucas even though his innocence is obvious.

Perhaps the greatest achievement with The Hunt is that Vinterberg can look into the darkest recesses of human nature without becoming misanthropic. Prejudice can make people do reprehensible things, but we are capable of growing beyond our hatreds. Vinterberg balances hope and despair so effortlessly that it feels weirdly comforting knowing that good and evil can come from the same place. (R) Rating: 5 (Posted on 08-18-13)

The Hunt

If we want to find
monsters, we should look deeply
into our own skins.

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In Elysium, writer/director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) takes another dim view of human behavior. In his second feature film, the South African filmmaker presents a future in which the wealthy elite have abandoned a dystopian Earth for a suburban satellite. And the only hope for the mixed-race masses left in the dusty, graffiti-covered super ghetto that Los Angeles has become is Max (Matt Damon), a car thief turned anti-hero.

The film is ham-handed allegory. By now, the set-up needs no explanation, but still there's generous exposition. The earth has been mined of all its resources, reducing overpopulated urban areas to piles of rubbish. It looks a lot like the world the animators created for Wall-E, except the robots aren't lonely trash compactors. They're jackboot-type enforcers of fascist oppression for their Eurotrash overlords from above.

Despite the mistreatment of Elysium's representatives, the dream on earth is to make it up there one way or another. Some aspire to live in one of the marble mansions with a manicured lawn on the paradise space station, while others want just a quick spin in one of the medical pods located in every single living room or patio. With these scanners, no one stays sick and no one ever dies. They’re the target destination of an underground illegal immigration ring. And when Max accidentally gets a lethal dose of radiation, they become his primary focus.

The movie’s message is oversimplified but still manages to get lost in bloated action and effects. The sequence of events that drive the story is constantly interrupted by massive shootouts, so the romantic and political storylines never gain momentum. Jodie Foster as a stylized defense secretary defending her Draconian immigration policy is delightfully brutal. Her alliances with ruthless mercenaries both legitimate (William Fichtner) and unauthorized (Sharlto Copley) provide intrigue, but it’s clear from the little time spent on them that Blomkamp’s interest lies merely in the frame they provide for the on-screen violence.

The key to engaging with the film is going along with Max as the key to change. His selfishness makes him an exemplary anti-hero. But that is also the problem. He’s so ambivalent that he comes off as unfocused. Exposition tells us that this illiterate orphan will grow up to be the savior, but then Blomkamp can’t resist fortifying him with a robot exoskeleton to give him super powers he wouldn’t otherwise have. And that’s cheating. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 08/12/13)

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The life of Linda Lovelace, the star of the infamous porn sensation Deep Throat, could make for a terrific movie. For better or worse, that film has already been made. Inside Deep Throat examines how a movie made for roughly $50,000 dollars set important legal precedents and made pornography briefly part of the mainstream. Its star Linda Lovelace (born Linda Boreman) became a household name and a symbol for the adult film industry. Just a few years later, she became one of porn’s most vocal detractors


There are a lot of ironies in Lovelace’s story. For one thing, she later turned on the anti-pornography crusaders she sided with because she felt they had exploited her the way the smut merchants had years before. She even did a photo shoot Leg Show magazine, claiming these new racy pictures had been done in good taste.

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the makers of the documentary, raised fascinating questions about the role of pornography in our society. Without Lovelace’s cooperation (she died in a car wreck in 2002), they managed to create an engrossing picture of a complicated person who was more than a face in a dirty movie.

The film Lovelace simplifies her story to the point where most of the interesting aspects of it have been removed. While Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are the minds behind The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet and Howl, they and screenwriter Andy Belin don’t reveal anything about Lovelace that hasn’t been written or presented before or better.

As portrayed by Amanda Seyfried (Les Misérables), Lovelace was an innocent 20-something who got lured into the mob-run world of flesh films by her boyfriend and later husband Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard). Because Sarsgaard usually plays sleazy, manipulative characters, there isn’t much indication why Lovelace would have fallen for such an obvious creep.

Didn’t she know that those ‘70s muttonchops were a sign of imminent danger?

Epstein and Friedman split the film into two halves. The first that chronicles Lovelace’s rise to fame and the second presents the hellish experience she had with an abusive control freak of a husband. Despite being two sides of a true story, neither feels quite authentic.

Sure, the clothes and the music are eerily on target, but because we never get far into what was in Lovelace’s mind, the story becomes superficial and derivative. Just about any Lifetime movie has the same storyline, even if it doesn’t have real names or famous actors playing them.

It’s not Seyfried’s fault that her character never feels complete. James Franco plays Hugh Hefner; and Hank Azaria portrays Deep Throat director Gerald Damiano. Neither of these guys is on the screen long enough to make any sort of impression, and few have any distinguishing traits, other than horrible hairstyles.

Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick have better luck as Lovelace’s strict Catholic parents, who don’t realize until it’s too late that their daughter wasn’t necessarily looking to be infamous. They seem to be the only folks in the movie who one might find believable outside the theater.

Lovelace deserves more observant and nuanced treatment that she receives here; anything less than that is just a shallow peep show. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 08/11/13)


Porn movies are too
superficial, as is this
shallow biopic.

We're the Millers
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In his latest comedy director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) keeps the initial setup focused, but loses the back end of the movie to pointless gags and hokey sentiment. For their part, writers Sean Anders and John Morris (Hot Tub Time Machine) resurrected a 2004 script by Bob Fisher and Steve Faber (Wedding Crashers) and seem to have discharged any potential for dark or ironic humor. We’re the Millers frustratingly wallows in labored sketches while ignoring the inherent complexities in its concept.

One reluctant act of chivalry upsets a life lived for slack for small-time Denver drug dealer David Clark (Jason Sudeikis). While trying to deflect bullies from his naïve neighbor Kenny (Will Poulter), David is robbed of his stash of cash and drugs worth more than $40,000. To make up for the loss, his crime boss (Ed Helms), a former college buddy, tasks David with transporting a large amount of marijuana over the Mexican border. Inspired by lost tourists in his neighborhood, David decides to put together a fake family for the trip.

Comedy works best when it stems from the concept of the story. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis experience the perils of those around them believing they’re women in Some Like It Hot. Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann take an accidental holiday in the countryside and deal with the consequences of it in Withnail & I. Disguised as a suburban family, the Millers in We’re the Millers seem more comfortable as their phony personas than they do their original selves. There are nods given to their previous gritty existences — Jennifer Aniston strips in slow motion, Emma Roberts sports a few fake tattoos and piercings — but there’s no edginess to the comedy.

The predicaments in which this fake family finds itself and the solutions it uses to get out of those predicaments shouldn’t mostly come from external sources. Although the talents of Kathryn Hahn and Nick Offerman are great, there’s too great a burden on them (they play an actual corny RV family) for wrapping up the movie in a too-neat ending that’s totally unearned. Uncharacteristically, as soon as the two appear onscreen in this film, all forward momentum comes to a lagging, predictable halt.

To great comedic effect, the filmmakers could have harnessed the raw, degenerate energy of four independent individuals forced to act as a unit to save themselves. Instead of giving in to the standard idea that all people want to belong to a family, they could have taken the movie to a darker, more subversive place: One in which no family makes for the happiest family.  (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 08/11/13)

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Despite direct-to-video origins and an overly familiar plot, Planes, like its plucky hero, manages to rise above these obstacles through a combination of determination and charm.

Originally created by DisneyToon Studios as a low budget direct-to-video release — strictly tie-in product for the Cars audience — because of its Cars connection, Planes may suffer by comparison to Pixar productions.

Indeed, it has a lot to overcome just in its derivative plot. Based on a concept by John Lasseter (director of Cars and Cars 2), Planes tells the story of humble single-engine crop-duster Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook), who dreams of competing in a round-the-world air race, despite his sorely inadequate build and a crippling fear of heights.

A fairly slow and involved first act sees Dusty determined to qualify for the race. Failing to make the cut, he heads home. Not surprisingly, however, through a technicality (apparently, even planes can dope), Dusty is in.

Once Dusty is on his own, the film begins to find it’s own way. Dusty is thrown into, and largely ignored by, the big-league international flying crowd, who dismiss him as a "farm boy." The planes' various nationalities are identified by exaggerated accents, which may be amusing when John Cleese voices a self-involved British racer, but is borderline offensive when representing other nationalities.

The set-up is admittedly formulaic: Dusty is provided a nemesis — egotistical defending champion Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), who, along with two henchmen, Ned and Zed, will cheat and bribe in order win. He also discovers a budding love interest.

Within this formula, though, Dusty, like many young viewers, finds his values and optimism challenged. He also has to negotiate betrayal from those he trusts. How he responds to these challenges and changes those around him form the emotional core of the movie and also justify his eventual victory (that's not really a spoiler, is it?).

And the race, itself, provides some thrilling flying sequences, as the competitors cross impressive vistas such as the Himalayas. Particularly impressive is a sequence amid a Pacific Ocean storm as an aircraft carrier crew rescues a downed Dusty, then sling-shots him back into the race. For these flying scenes, the 3D effects are well worth the extra bucks.

And some of the details along the way will bring a smile to the face of adult viewers. The tower voice at Kennedy Airport has the former president's inimitable New England accent. And when Dusty schools a fellow competitor — Mexico's El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui) — in the language of love, an initially teeth-grinding rendition of the Miracles' "Love Machine" is transformed into a touching ballad.

Planes turns out to be a bit like that song. With a little heart, this commercial afterthought becomes a little-movie-that-could. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 8/11/13)

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Beware Greeks bearing gifts — especially tween life-lessons on the cheap. Directed by Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs, Diary of a Wimpy Kid) with a limited (certainly by summer blockbuster standards) budget and one-dimensional leads, this sequel to 2010’s Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief is likely to seem to fans like that birthday present you've already outgrown. While you may be grateful for the gesture, you're mostly embarrassed to be seen with it.

The film series, like the Rick Riordan YA books they're based on, attempts to bring Greek mythology into the modern world. Marc Guggenheim's screenplay for Sea of Monsters, however, feels like a mythological Mad-Lib — Golden Fleece! Prophecy! Cyclops! Chronos! the blind sisters! Civil War zombies? (certainly not in Edith Hamilton's Mythology!) — simply piling up indiscriminate challenges for its heroes to overcome.

The plot sends Percy (Logan Lerman), a teen half-blood (the offspring of a god and a mortal) on a quest for the legendary Golden Fleece, which has the power to revive a magic tree that protects Camp Half-Blood, a sort of Hogwarts for the world's demigods (true to myth, the gods have been busy down on earth). The fleece is also being pursued by Hermes' evil son Luke (Jake Abel), assumed dead at the end of the first film, who wants to use it to reanimate the Titan Kronos and destroy Olympus.

Percy is once again accompanied by half-blood Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) and satyr Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), and the trio are joined this time out by Percy's newly discovered half-brother Tyson (Douglas Smith), who also happens to be a Cyclops and, initially, a source of disgust and embarrassment to them. Each of the leads, however, seems designed solely to embody a specific trait necessary to the plot — Percy's self-doubt, Annabeth's genuinely disturbing Cyclopean bigotry, Tyson's groan-inducing one-liners, Tyson's relentless good nature.

For these main characters, themes are writ large: make your own destiny, don't judge a book (or a Cyclops) by its cover. Unfortunately, these lessons aren't learned, or earned, by the characters; they are merely mouthed by the actors. When Percy feels self-doubt, he states it aloud in a soliloquy to the sea.

The main problem with Percy's quest, however, isn't the randomness of the encounters or shallow characterizations; it's the film's inability to inspire genuine awe, presumably a result of budget constraints. A CG mechanical bull with a flamethrower in his mouth comes off like an ill-conceived Transformer, and a fight with Luke aboard a luxury yacht is more akin to an episode of Hanna-Barbera's Danger Island on the Banana Splits show than an epic conflict of demigods.

Cyclops Tyson spends most of the film wearing sunglasses or making use of a magical product called Mist, which creates a binocular illusion, presumably to save a few bucks. Most disappointing, the Golden Fleece the goal of the entire quest, is literally just a blanket with some gold embroidery, something that wouldn't look out of place tossed over the back of a couch.

By the conclusion, it's hard to see that these three have learned much of anything from their quest. They're right back where they started with little to show for their trouble.

Which makes you wonder what all this questing was about in the first place. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 08/11/13)

I'm So Excited
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

With his latest film, I’m So Excited! (Los amantes pasajero), Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar marks his return to comedy with his signature stylized candy-colored camp. But the film’s preoccupation with sex, death and scandal offer more meaning to the screwball antics than mere entertainment.

Members of a distracted ground crew (Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, in very brief appearances) forget to remove the wheel chocks from a commercial airliner headed from Spain to Mexico. With landing gear jammed by the chocks, the pilots (Antonio de la Torre, Hugo Silva) are forced to circle Toledo — in Spain; not Ohio — looking for an open runway for an emergency landing while the stewards in business class (Carlos Areces, Javier Cámara and Raúl Arévalo) try to distract the passengers in their care.

In the true manner of a farce, Almodóvar skillfully exploits the situation here. Set against the backdrop of Spain’s crashed economy, the action in the first-class cabin is pure cabaret — exaggerated, implausible and amusing. The stewards down shots of tequila, gossip and lip-synch to the Pointer Sisters. Meanwhile, all of economy class gets slipped a mickey by the flight attendants there.

The passengers, too newly minted to be archetypes and also too fresh to be stereotypes, confess life stories and recent sins (a phone stuck in the intercom mode is the only way to reach the outside world). They include a grande dame dominatrix (Cecilia Roth), a hit man in love with his mark (José María Yazpik) an actor in a tragic love triangle (Guillermo Toledo), a forensic psychic (Lola Dueñas), strung-out newlyweds (Miguel Ángel Silvestre and Laya Marti) and an embezzling financier on the lam (José Luis Torrijo). It’s quite a bit like Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, that is, until they all start having mescaline-induced sex.

Purposefully melodramatic yet full of irony, the film focuses on the denial of crisis. Some choose to sleep through it while others work themselves up in a misdirected lather. So when the plane finally comes to a landing (at one of the many empty Spanish airports that symbolize the era’s crooked excess) nobody really notices. They’re just happy to be alive. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 08/05/13)

Smurfs 2
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Smurf essence, according to director Raja Gosnell’s sequel to his 2011 box office hit The Smurfs, can be concocted not through a deep look into a tiny blue heart, but through a fairly pedestrian formula. It’s how Papa Smurf transformed Smurfette into a real Smurf and turned her black hair blond after she was created by Gargamel as a coquettish golem-like interloper arousing ill will among residents of the all-male Smurf village. And now, in Smurfs 2, Gargamel is after the spell to create an entire army of counterfeit Smurfs that he can drain of their essence, the power source of his wizardry.

This time, Gargamel’s evil plan centers on Smurfette, or, rather, Smurfette’s insecurities. Plagued by recurring nightmares about her nefarious origin, she’s still the lone female in the village where one’s identity wholly depends on your inclinations or skills. Her only talent is whipping her friends and neighbors into an inappropriately sexualized frenzy of solicitude. Smurfette is a black hole of attention-seeking need. When she fails to maintain faith in her friends not once, but twice, Gargamel has her right where he wants her. He isolates her, grooms her and then finally threatens the lives of her family.

But that cheap spell — more like an easily memorized recipe than the supernatural gateway to Smurfiness — doesn’t do Smurfette any favors either. It requires no inner strength, self-awareness or bids to be true to herself. Her transformation, every bit of it from a magical external source, is as shallow as her white kitten heels.

Granted, the screenplay, written by J. David Stem and David Weiss from a story they wrote with Jay Scherick and David Ronn, is hamstrung by the source material. Smurfette first appeared in the comic in 1966, but after her original story arc was finished — she was forced to leave the village to restore the equilibrium among the boys — made only occasional appearances until the animated cartoon in the 1980s made her a central character. Speculation has it that she was created as a regular on the television show to either boost the merchandising by making it more appealing to girls or to make the other Smurfs seem less gay. It’s probably both.

Still, the script makes no attempts at updating Smurfette’s personality (or, to quibble here, her wardrobe). The Smurfs are voiced by an incredible cast of comedic actors, including Jonathan Winters, Paul Reubens, John Oliver, Fred Armisen, J.B. Smoove and Alan Cumming, and live-action stars, such as Neil Patrick Harris, Hank Azaria and Brendan Gleeson, but Gosnell (Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Scooby Doo) seems less interested in crafting a story than he does in taking other easy route to box office earnings. If there is another one, and there probably will be, it should star Greedy Smurf. (PG) Rating: 1 (Posted on 08/05/13)

2 Guns
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

By the end of 2 Guns, the audience has been so pummeled by violence that director Baltasar Kormákur (Jar City, Contraband) starts playing gunshot wounds for laughs. Not that violence can't be funny. Talented directors such as Quentin Tarentino and David Lynch have placed audiences in a position to laugh at what, objectively, are extremely gruesome acts. However, they don't let us forget exactly what it is we're laughing at.

Kormakur, on the other hand, seems to view violence as just another way to get a response — any response — from his audience. One moment, we're supposed to be terrified by a character's violent actions; the next, it's just a goof. The result is a film with wildly jarring shifts in tone.

Part of the reason Komakur relies so heavily on violence is because the script by Blake Masters, adapted from a graphic novel series, offers little in the way of character development.

As the film opens, DEA agent Robert "Bobby" Trench (Denzel Washington) and naval intelligence officer Michael "Stig" Stigman (Mark Wahlberg) rob a small-town Texas bank, allegedly serving as a stash for Mexican drug kingpin Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos). Bobby and Stig both have infiltrated the Greco cartel, but neither is aware of the other's true identity. Betrayed by their respective agencies, however, they spend the rest of the movie chased by the DEA, Navy intelligence, the CIA and Papi's crew, all while trying to decide if they can trust each other.

Wahlberg and Washington are charismatic enough to make these characters likeable, even if we never learn much about them. Their comic banter and squabbling gives the film what little pulse it has. And most of that banter addresses the hyper-masculine world they inhabit.

2 Guns is populated almost solely by men ceaselessly asserting their masculinity with references to, and assaults on, each other's genitalia. Any remaining screen time is spent playing with their big-boy toys — an endless stream of muscle cars, tricked-out trucks, dune buggies, guns, bombs, Apache helicopters — hell, there's even a bull stampede.

The few women in this macho world exist to be winked at and manipulated. Paula Patton is cast as Bobby's DEA handler, but, sadly, her character is fleshed-out only enough to provide Denzel Washington with love scenes (including gratuitous nudity for Patton, but not, of course, for  Washington) and the plot with a critical twist.

By the end, all the shootings and explosions no longer seem scary or fun or funny; in fact, they don't seem to matter much at all. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 08/05/13)

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