movie reviews September 2011

50/50What's Your Number? MoneyballDolphin TaleKiller Elite DriveThe Lion King 3DI Don't Know How She DOes it ContagionWarrior The GuardThe DebtSeven Days in utopiaAttack the Block

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

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50/50
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Probably the most satisfying aspect of 50/50 is the sense that it’s a movie that shouldn’t work. Seeing how director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) and screenwriter Will Reiser attempt to coax laughs from a story about getting cancer is a marvel in itself. These folks deserve credit for simply trying, much less frequently succeeding.

Reiser based the script on his own experiences fighting the disease.

Thankfully, he’s still with us.

As a result, his depiction of the physical and emotional toll of trying to recover always feels authentic. In addition, Levine manages to find just the right tone and approach. He keeps the yuks coming, but he never loses track of the dire cost of the illness. The tile comes from our protagonist’s chance of survival.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a public radio journalist named Adam, whose somewhat humdrum existence is jolted when he learns that the back pains he’s been experiencing are a result of a rare malignancy. As his doctor drones on in indecipherable jargon, Adam begins to wonder why he has to face his own mortality before he’s even hit 30.

Chemotherapy is expectedly going to be a pain, but other things in Adam’s life are driving him crazy as well. His girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) gives him vocal but little moral support, and his overprotective mother (Anjelica Huston) is so fearful that she’s probably going to take the news badly. In addition, he’s been assigned a fresh from college therapist (Anna Kendrick) who has little to offer him other than good intentions.

His co-worker and pal Kyle (Seth Rogen), however, sees Adam’s condition as a potential goldmine. The two head to bars, and Kyle suavely tries to land sympathy glances from the female patrons. What keeps the act from getting stale is that Kyle, for all of his cussing and wisecracking, genuinely cares about Adam’s welfare and does what he can to support him. Rogen manages to play both a cynical slob and a concerned friend with equal ease. We should all be so lucky to have a friend like this in our corner during trying times.

Adam also bonds with a couple of older men (Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) who get treated the same time he does. While the two constantly utter zingers during the painful treatments, there’s always a sense that the chemo may not work.

While it’s a given that Gordon-Levitt will probably do what it takes to look as if his body is taking a beating from the chemotherapy, he’s also willing to embrace Adam’s less than savory traits and his understandable feelings of self-pity. Staring death in the face doesn’t make you a saint nor does it solve the problems you had before you got sick. Gordon-Levitt manages to remain engaging even when Adam lets his predicament make a jerk of himself.

A previous Oscar-nominee, Kendrick manages the delicate trick of playing someone in over her head without coming off like a dunce. It’s easy to want her to reach Adam even though he wavers between self loathing and contempt for people he thinks have let him down.

Levine acknowledges the damage that cancer can do without dwelling on it. He correctly figures viewers are aware of the sadness left in cancer’s wake and that laughter isn’t out of place even in the bleakest circumstances. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 09/30/11)

What's Your Number?
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

What’s Your Number? has a similar plotline to Bridesmaids. Sadly, it lacks the brain, the heart and the bodily functions of the earlier movie.

It also lacks believable or engaging characters. Worse, this film is delivered with the enthusiasm and skill one associates with food from a McDonald’s on its way to a health code violation. Not only is it the same old thing but also it’s the same old thing done in an inept and possibly toxic manner.

The first of many poisonous aspects to What’s Your Number? is that its gimmick is so flimsy. My friend and colleague Loey Lockerby has dubbed movies like this one “goofy chick flicks” where the moral of the story is that if a woman wants to land a suitable man she should fall down a lot. As Ally Darling, Anna Faris certainly gets knocked off her feet on several occasions. Perhaps, she should consider wearing lower heels, especially if she’s simply going on a walk.

That said, Lockerby notes that there’s an important feature that greenhorn director Mark Mylod and others involved with his debacle have missed. In most movies of this subgenre, the protagonists tend to at least be capable professionals who just happen to be lousy at romance. In the case of Ally, she seems to be dim and even self-destructive all the way around.

With her younger sister Daisy (Ari Graynor) about to tie the knot, Ally seems to believe her chances of finding a suitable beau are diminishing by the second. When an article in Marie Claire informs her that women who’ve had 20 sexual partners or more aren’t likely to ever get married, she panics.

From this less than promising start, What’s Your Number? never recovers. The idea of an arbitrary figure like 20 determining a person’s worth or ability to be a good spouse is ludicrous. If What’s Your Number? was a fairy tale the idea might work because there would be mystical but genuine consequences for violating the number. If she, say, turned into a toad after coupling, then there would be something to be afraid of.

Here, there’s only groan-inducing boredom.

Her solution to her dilemma is to down alcohol the way a fish goes through water. As a result, she ends up in bed next to the boss who just downsized her from her marketing job. He’s number 20.

In order to see if there’s still hope, she starts searching for her previous lovers to determine if any might be the one who got away. These include a gynecologist (Thomas Lennon) and a puppeteer (Andy Samberg). Unfortunately, Ally is so dim and so often inebriated that she can’t master a simple Google search.

For that, she goes to her hunky neighbor Colin (Chris Evans, who has retained his Captain America build despite playing an impoverished musician). When he’s not flexing a hot, toned bod or finding excuses to jilt his latest conquest, he helps Ally locate former beaus to see if any might still be in want of a wife.

It’s not a spoiler to say that she and Colin, the hard-drinking dolt and the irresponsible lecher, find each other in the end. What’s troubling is that the gene pool is practically begging these folks not to pollute it.

If Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids had poor judgment, at least a viewer could empathize with her money and social status woes. In What’s Your Number?, Ally may be out of a job, but she still finds money to fly to Miami or D.C., and to subsidize Colin, who can miraculously afford rent despite not having a real occupation.

Frankly, Ally needs to be taking 12 steps instead of fretting over 20 guys. In the early portions of the film, she’s either downing shots or holding a wine glass. This might explain her lousy taste in suitors.

It’s also disturbing to see how low Ally will sink to snag a partner. When she tries her best phony English accent to woo an expat Brit (Martin Freeman, given nothing to do), it’s immediately striking that this is not the way to land a long-term relationship. Eventually, the guy’s going to figure out he’s been duped and dump her.

It becomes even more obvious because Faris’ gift for accents is limited. A more capable performer could have amused viewers by effortlessly falling between Scouser and Cockney accents, and generated more laughs in the process.

There’s no such thing as an English accent. There are English accents, because somebody from Yorkshire sounds nothing like someone from Brighton. With a more capable performer and a better script, this throwaway sequence could have been a funny 10-minute sketch. Instead, it’s dull scene in an irritating movie.

Essentially, What’s Your Number? is an alleged romantic comedy that has certainly been made without wit and probably without love. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 9/30/11)

Moneyball
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has developed a specialty, it’s making an arcane subject matter like the founding of Facebook seem downright engrossing (The Social Network). Working with Steven Zallian, he produces similar magic with baseball statistics in Moneyball.

Based on the book by Martin Lewis (The Blind Side), the new film deals with real life Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). In 2001, Beane assembled a squad that made it to a playoff game against the New York Yankees. Considering the fact that his payroll was only around a third of what was paid for the Bronx Bombers, it’s impressive that the A’s even made it to game, even if the Yanks clobbered them.

With the 2002 season approaching, however, Beane has an even more daunting situation. His three star players (former American League MVP Jason Giambi, former Royal Johnny Damon and pitcher Jason Isringhausen) are all leaving for bigger money. The Oakland media market, like Kansas City, is too small to generate the cash necessary to keep players of Damon’s caliber.

As Beane listens to his recruiters and coaches, he’s struck by how much of what they say is meaningless to how an athlete performs on the diamond. These guys (and they’re all guys) argue or concur about how the unattractiveness of a player’s girlfriend is a sign of weakness.

Beane quickly concludes that decades of perceived wisdom over who can make a great baseball player is merely nonsense.

He should know.

Before he moved to the front office, he skipped college to play for the New York Mets. While the recruiters thought he’d be up there with Reggie Jackson or other stars, Beane’s career wound up being as memorable as Bob Uecker’s before the beer commercials.

After meeting with a Yale economist named Peter Brandt (Jonah Hill) working for the Cleveland Indians, Beane learns there may be a way to obtain terrific players who don’t cost as much Giambi, Damon and Isringhausen.

Brandt thinks that many oft-quoted statistics are meaningless because they don’t measure how much of an offensive or defensive threat a player really is. For example, a player’s on base percentage could be a more relevant statistic than batting average or stolen bases because it means he’s more likely to get on base and eventually make it to home. Consequently, a batter who gets walked more than his peers could be as useful as a contact or power hitter, and a good deal cheaper.

Beane’s approach seems radical, and the A’s don’t improve immediately. The team’s manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) doesn’t like the idea of mere numbers dictating how and when he should assign his players. But with a few key adjustments, Brandt’s number crunching translates into wins.

The film does note that much of the analysis Beane and other baseball experts now use were created by an economist and writer from Lawrence, KS named Bill James. Although he isn’t depicted in the film, the former Jayhawk (resident and student, not athlete) looms large in the story.

The screenwriters and director Bennett Miller (Capote) correctly figure that two guys staring at a monitor would get dull very quickly. Instead, they concentrate on the relationship between Beane and Brandt and on Beane’s attempt to remove the financial edge that big market teams like the Yankees enjoy. Beane seems to have a broader goal democratizing the game, proving that ball players who don’t necessarily conform to the classic definition of an athlete can still win games. As a result, Moneyball doesn’t seem like the whining of rich people

Pitt’s brooding manner is just about right for Beane. He may be a good looking guy with lots of cash, but it doesn’t take the sting out of being told you’re going to be the next Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb and then having reality slap you in the face.

If you’ve only seen Hill in movies like Superbad or Knocked Up, you’ve only seen a fraction of the talent he’s got. In Cyrus and Moneyball, he demonstrates a range his previous roles have only hinted at. His Brandt is shy and softhearted, but he has a clear understanding of how to read numbers in a way that more experienced recruiters can’t.

Moneyball doesn’t feature that much game footage, but the baseball scenes are convincing and suitably gripping. When a team has a chance of negating the advantages its formidable opponents have had, it’s easier to cheer. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 09/23/11)

 

Dolphin Tale
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Unless you have a rabid hatred of Miami’s NFL franchise, it’s hard not to cheer for dolphins. Their shiny skin and adorable voices make them natural movie stars. While the animals may not take well to captivity and probably shouldn’t be used as full-time performers (see The Cove), the makers of Dolphin Tale argue successfully that helping the sea mammals to live their lives in peace is a wonderful idea.

In the case of Winter (who plays herself), that wasn’t an option. She has washed up on a beach after getting her tail caught in a crab trap. Thanks to an alert youngster named Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), Winter is out of the ropes before the head of Clearwater, FL marine biology lab, Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.) can treat her.

Both Winter and Sawyer are in a bit of a funk. Winter’s tail is infected and will have to come off, and Sawyer is gloomy because his beloved cousin is leaving to fight in a war. His mother (Ashley Judd) is also pressuring the lad to improve his failing grades.

By spending time with the dolphin and with Clay’s daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) and his father Reed (Kris Kristofferson), Sawyer slowly comes out of his shell. He and Clay also team up with a doctor named Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) who designs prosthetic limbs to give Winter a chance to live her life the way she once did.

Much of the appeal of Dolphin Tale is that it has a frankness that most kids and animals films lack. Dr. McCarthy treats wounded veterans, and director Charles Martin Smith treats the situation with sensitivity and dignity. Smith faces this potentially tricky discussion of war and its consequences directly.

Similarly, the film also includes scenes that explain how expensive it is to keep labs like Clay’s operating. Thanks to Winter’s formidable charms, we don’t need to be reminded of what could be lost if this vital expense is ignored.

While there are plenty of Hollywoodisms throughout Dolphin Tale (like swelling strings during emotional scenes and unnecessary 3D), the film is consistently watchable because there seems to be a genuine concern for both the dolphin and the people who interact with her. Even if the performers have to share the screen with a critter that can easily upstage them, the two-legged performers don’t show any remorse and even seem more committed by the challenge.

Freeman, as always, effortlessly plays a wise, compassionate professional, and Connick manages to get through the jargon without tripping over his tongue. It also doesn’t hurt that he and Kristofferson are both Southerners (as well as moonlighting musicians), so it’s easy to buy them as father and son.

The underwater scenes are convincingly rendered and would look better in 2D. Because the writing is solid, the photography beautiful and the performances good, there is no aesthetic reason for the 3D. Warner Bros., however, is a for-profit company, so it’s understandable, if annoying, that they want to maximize their investment. It’s too bad we have to pay for it in eyestrain and lighter wallets.

One hopes that some of the windfall, if any arises, will be used to help other animals and people who’ve had amputations. As the film points out, the lessons that were learned from Winter’s experiences have helped lead to prosthetics for humans that are more functional and comfortable.

Perhaps this is naïve of me, but the best thing that could potentially happen from viewing this film is that children and adults will gain a greater appreciate for Winter and her ilk. The way to tell if Dolphin Tale works is if trips to aquariums and beaches increase and not if a sequel arises. Here’s hoping the former happens. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted on 09/23/11)

Killer Elite
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

The plot of director Gary McKendry's Killer Elite is as straightforward as it is unlikely, but man is the trip fun. Banished to the desert, a rich but dishonored Arab wants revenge for the deaths of his three sons at the hands of the British SAS during the war in Oman. He kidnaps Hunter (Robert De Niro), the assassin/partner/father-figure of Danny (Jason Statham), who has just given up the mercenary world after almost killing a kid in a botched mission.

Forced to do the Arab's bidding, he puts together a small crew and sets out to kill three different SAS officers, while also taping their confessions and then making the death look like an accident. Oh, and guess what? Some of those SAS officers now work for an illegal bad-guy group called the Feathermen, who send out their own super-assassin Spike (Clive Owen) to hunt down Danny and his group.

Got that? Well, thankfully it doesn't matter, because in between the gunfights, massive fistfights, car chases and explosions you won't care. There are plenty of twists and turns as each group gets the drop on the other. Danny's crew dies or gets killed off while still (apparently) killing off all three. Spike grows every closer, just as Danny fights to save Hunter and get back to his life.

But it's really the third act of this movie that it takes off. Sure, seeing Statham and Owen beat the living crap out off each other in a hospital OR is awesome, and the gunfights are beautifully choreographed …

Remember that guy Hunter? I know it sound like a bad idea to have a guy like De Niro sit out half your movie, but here, man, it works beautifully. After all the testosterone and martial arts earlier, this short, pudgy older man shows back up and just rules. Delegated to protecting Danny's girlfriend Anna (Yvonne Strahovski, who ironically plays a government assassin on Chuck), Hunter quickly shows that he is a man not to be played with, and in one scene De Niro had the entire audience laughing and applauding at the same time.

Filled with plot holes (How do you wire a semi up to a remote control? Why are there no policemen anywhere?), this film just knocks them all over, and it's damn fun to watch.

Oh yeah — did I mention De Niro kicks some ass? Nuff said.  (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 09/23/11)

Drive
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If you’ve bought a ticket for Drive expecting to see relentless peel outs and crashes, you will be deeply disappointed.

Curiously, much of the appeal of the film is that Iranian-born screenwriter Hossein Amini and Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson) continually sneer at audience expectations. Working from James Sallis’ novel, they leave key questions unanswered and tease viewers into thinking the tale is about something else. Thanks to a nicely shaded performance by leading man Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine), Drive’s detours are infinitely more entertaining than most films’ planned trajectories.

Gosling’s performance is even more astonishing when you consider that his character doesn’t have a name. The young man has little back-story, and that’s probably the way he likes it. He works in a garage run by his mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranson, Breaking Bad). The lad’s boss sends him to drive stunt crashes for films, but both make more of their incomes from handling assignments that are less than legal.

Because the driver has a handsome but undistinguished face and keeps contact with clients to a bare minimum, he and his passengers can get away with the loot before the cops even know when something has been stolen.

When the thieves have been discovered, he can think as quickly as he can drive. This helps when his careful plans fall apart because others have bungled or have tried to betray him.

What’s astonishing about Gosling’s turn is that he can be enigmatic without being empty. It’s easy to see that the normally hermetic driver has a soft spot for his pretty neighbor Irene (Carrey Mulligan, An Education) and her likable son Benicio (Kaden Leos). The driver’s baby faced features can also become menacing if anyone is foolish enough to cross him. While he’s normally quiet but polite, he can be ruthless if he or anybody he cares about is threatened.

Revealing too much about the storyline would be a mistake. Amini continually toys with viewers and doesn’t feel the need to spoon-feed information. Apparently, he believes the ridiculous notion that viewers might get into the story and enjoy putting his clues together for themselves. Amini and Winding Refn expect viewers to notice when some detail is off and to determine that the situation has become more complicated. If only more filmmakers would engage in that blessed folly.

Similarly, Amini’s dialogue is sparse, but often clever. When Gosling speaks, which is rare, it’s worth listening, and the exchanges between gangsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) are a scream. Because of his enormous height and deep voice, Perlman is a natural as a wise guy, but the subtler Brooks is surprisingly creepy. His Bernie is pleasantly candid and rarely gets mad, but murder is a simple business transaction for him. He’ll do horrific things with no sign of emotion.

Similarly, keep an eye out for Cranston and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men). Both manage to do quite a bit even if they’re unrecognizable from their cable TV roles.

Winding Refn may not pound viewers’ heads with story points, but he doesn’t have any qualms with onscreen violence. We’re dealing with criminals, after all. That said, the squeamish might want to think twice before test-driving this one.

Winding Refn and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (Three Kings, X-Men) follow their protagonist’s example and reveal only what is necessary to get the point across. Sigel works remarkably in low-light situations, selectively revealing the dangers the driver encounters.

The car chases that do make it into the film aren’t bad, but Winding Refn correctly understands that movies need interesting characters the way cars need gas. If the people aren’t engaging all the octane in the world can’t save the film. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 09/16/11)

 

The Lion King 3D
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

If you found a bronze Rodin sculpture in your backyard, would you go and get it gold plated?

That’s what the folks at Disney have done with their 1994 blockbuster The Lion King. Visually, the film looked just fine in its original 2D format, but apparently the higher prices that viewers have to pay for the privilege of wearing uncomfortable glasses were irresistible to Disney’s hungry coffers. While it’s a pleasure to see the film’s craftsmanship and beauty, the attempts to shoehorn images intended for 2D viewing into another dimension are needless at best and irritating at worst.

While a few of the atmospheric shots take on a different resonance in 3D, the movie now has a funhouse mirror quality it didn’t have before. Seeing a lion’s snout or an object sticking out of the screen really doesn’t help the story and almost detracts from the rest of the movie.

On the plus side, the heart and skill that went into the original movie is still thankfully evident. If you really do want to pay higher admission for a movie, it won’t be wasted on a ticket to The Lion King. In addition to being more entertaining than most of the offerings at the multiplex, the breathtaking animation won’t look quite so dramatic on a 13-inch TV or an iPhone.

Because it’s been 16 years, a little plot summary might be necessary. If you’ve seen Hamlet, however, you have a rough idea where the story is going. The Lion King concerns a lion cub named Simba (voiced as a child by Jonathan Taylor Thomas and as an adult by Matthew Broderick) who looks forward to following in the big footsteps of his imposing father Mufasa (a typecast but commanding James Earl Jones). At the same time, the lad understandably intimidated by the responsibility of keeping the food chain for falling into disarray.

Mufasa’s brother Scar (played with catty delight by Jeremy Irons) also wants the throne, but he lacks his sibling’s noblesse oblige. He tricks the cub into scrapes that endanger both Simba and his dad.

When I first saw the film back in the ‘90s, I actually found it to be a bit of a disappointment. Now, I wish all my disappointments were so captivating. The songs by Sir Elton John and Tim Rice have obviously stood the test of time (although many of them sound better when sung by Sir Elton on the soundtrack album than they do in the film), and Hans Zimmer’s African-tinged score is both stylish and effective.

The voice casting is just about perfect. Robert Guillaume is terrific as a Yoda-like baboon, and Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella are a riot as a fey meerkat and a flatulent warthog.

The new 3D process may have desecrated Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s visuals, but it’s still astonishing to see how well the folks at Disney used animation not simply for its beauty but for its storytelling capabilities. After Simba has made a serious mistake, he sticks his tiny paw into the enormous footprint of his father. At that moment, the lad feels overwhelmed by his calling, and it’s hard not to be moved.

With a good sound system and a big 2D screen, The Lion King is still a marvel that really needs to be seen in a theater. Disney would have done one of their grandest creations a great favor by letting viewers see it the way it was originally presented. You don’t hear people in galleries complaining that Rodin shortchanged us by working in mere bronze. (G) Rating for the gimmick: 1 Rating for the movie: 4.5 (Posted on 09/16/11)

 

I Don’t Know How She Does It
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead  

Based on a novel by Allison Pearson, I Don’t Know How She Does It is being promoted as a modern tale about the new realities of stay-at-home dads and their bread-winning wives, like 1983’s Mr. Mom. Much like that film, it could have been a funny social commentary on American life … until Hollywood got hold of the thing and turned it into “Sex in the City 3.”  

Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker) is an on-the-rise … banker? Investment Broker? Who knows, but her days are filled with equal attempts to juggle her career with her family, while trying to look good in front of the other rich, blathering helicopter-moms who have absolutely no redeeming characteristics. A sudden chance to land a big account with Jack Ablehammer (Pierce Brosnan) means she must handle an ever-increasing number of problems to keep both her family and her boss happy. Oh, Mr. Ablehammer (yes, there will be a cheap penis joke about that name later) has also become smitten with Kate, making her question her own relationship with her husband. Can she land the big account, and still make her family happy while wearing expensive clothes and making witty Carrie-esque voice-overs?  

Of course she can. In Hollywood movies everybody wins, the bad guys always loose, and even the homeless provide good comic relief. This movie is just insulting. I mean really, Hollywood: Does anybody out there understand that most of us don’t live in million dollar mansions?  

Having to deal with a tardy nanny isn’t very common problem for most moms, because, you know, they can’t AFFORD one? This woman’s problem is that she has TOO MUCH WORK making a CRAP-LOAD of money. Way to stay in touch with the world, guys! Oh, and making most of the characters bankers or whatever financial equivalent they are — brilliant! Who doesn’t just love bankers and financial jerk-offs nowadays? They’re just absolutely massively popular, right?  

Aside from Brosnan, who at least tries to add a little flesh to his cardboard-cutout character, the rest of a fairly talented cast is wasted. Kate's computer-savvy assistant Momo (Olivia Munn) has a pointless side-story about an unwanted pregnancy, and Kelsey Grammer and Seth Meyers as her boss, and jerky co-worker respectively, are in so few scenes you forget who they are until they pop back up.  

While the novel might have had more British wit and humor in it, this script has wrung out even the slightest cleverness from it in favor of a by the numbers “rich white people problems” plot. Now, of course I understand that this is a chick-flick not aimed at a middle-aged geek with a treasured T-shirt collection, but I saw it in a theater filled with women and they weren’t exactly going crazy over it either.  

If I were you, I’d just skip this movie and stay at home in my classy Townhouse, drinking expensive wine while I lounge in my Italian suit, waiting for my next first-class flight to New York or L.A. You know, like everybody does. Hope the nanny’s not late. (PG 13) Rating: 0 (Posted 09/16/11)

Contagion
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Space aliens and zombies have nothing on germs.

For one thing, they’re real or at least easier to prove. Though they can’t be seen by human eyes, bacteria and viruses have killed billions. Worse, in fighting them, human beings often become their own worst enemies whether stopping the spread of diseases or finding cures. Jealousy and greed can be as deadly as the germs themselves.

That seems to be the point of Steven Soderbergh’s latest movie Contagion, where a mutated virus all too quickly brings the world to its knees. As a director, Soderbergh has loved toying with different color schemes or deliberately shooting his movies using antiquated technology. With Contagion, however, he figures that the script by Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!, The Bourne Ultimatum) is so frightening that it needs little embellishment.

Burns’ scenario is complicated, but its chills come from its plausibility. An executive (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns to Minneapolis from Hong Kong with more than a guilty conscience about an affair she’s having. Soderbergh and Burns waste no time letting viewers know she’s about to become a new Typhoid Mary. It’s too bad her husband Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) and his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) don’t know what’s coming. Soderbergh did his own cinematography, and just about every surface she touches looks like a potential biohazard. There’s an eerie inevitability about the coming pandemic.

While it doesn’t take long for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta or the World Health Organization in Geneva to react to the crisis, but the emerging virus winds up being as mysterious as it is lethal and contagious. The CDC’s director Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) sends a subordinate, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), to Minneapolis, and the WHO’s Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) leaves Geneva for Hong Kong in order to determine how the germ became so deadly so quickly.

In San Francisco, a crank journalist and medical quack named Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) uses his blog to sell a suspicious homeopathic remedy, but mainstream science hasn’t found a cure or even a vaccine yet. Consequently, his previously ignored blog is read by millions.

While Alan could easily be considered nothing more than a scam artist, the rest of the characters are dynamic and human enough to make the quest for a cure seem maddening and tense. Because of the enormity of the crisis, key decisions makers almost wreck the process putting their own needs above the greater good, and some scientists take risks that in less dangerous situations would get them fired.

Because the pandemic has gotten so out of hand, it becomes difficult to tell of safeguards are essential or wind up hindering the quest of an end to the plague.
As the outbreak worsens, basic services in other areas break down. The normally levelheaded Mitch becomes consumed by fear, but this virus is so omnipresent that constant fear no longer seems irrational.

Soderbergh handles the collapse of civilization with remarkable restraint. You don’t need explosions or loud, lengthy monologues when the situation is scary in itself. Burns also manages the tricky feat of making the expository dialogue sound natural. Histrionics aren’t necessary when a situation is scary on its own.

As Contagion demonstrates, viruses can be insidiously lethal, but our own foibles frequently exacerbate these crises. That may be why vampires, zombies and other ghouls don’t bother showing themselves. We can destroy ourselves without outside help. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 09/09/11)

Warrior
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Admittedly, I’m not much of an MMA fan mostly do to the fact that the fighting has become pretty homogenized and all the guys look ‘roided out. Yet, it is a sport that lends itself to the visual medium. Still, just because you have two pumped-up guys battling “anything goes” style, that doesn’t mean you don’t need a good story to back up all those flying elbows and crazy take-downs.

Writer/Director Gavin O’Connor seems to get that, so he’s constructed an intricate dramatic back-story to his two main characters — perhaps a little too intricate but at least he got the idea right. Two brothers, long estranged from their abusive, alcoholic father Paddy (Nic Nolte in some rather obvious casting) and each other are struggling through some big problems in their life. The older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton), who ran off early on, is moonlighting from his teacher gig by fighting in cheap parking lots bouts in a desperate attempt to save his family’s house. Tommy (Tom Hardy) is a marine battling PTSD and an AWOL status. While his father Paddy was apparently a violent drunk, he also was a top-notch trainer, and Tommy seeks him out to train for a huge MMA competition called Sparta.

Brendan, suspended from teaching when his MMA past is discovered, also enters, unaware that his estranged brother has done the same.

The first half of the film is all drama, with Tommy angrily confronting the now-sober Paddy, who agrees to train him if only to attempt some level of redemption. While Nolte’s part here is relatively small, he’s such a natural actor that you soon stop thinking about that infamous mug-shot as Paddy stumbles through his past to reconnect to his sons. Both Edgerton and Hardy manage to be full humans and not just slabs of man-beef. While most filmmakers would go with the “evil brother vs. good brother” angle, these two seem quite real and very sympathetic.

Soon, Tommy is defeating opponent after opponent (some being real MMA fighters on their own), cheered on for his military service, while Brendan also rises through the ranks towards the top. In fact, one of the biggest smiles here is watching the same school administrator who suspended him later cheering him on through each fight. The two brothers soon confront each other only too realize that both will be fighting for the same title and all that moola.

You would think that having a situation where you have two heroes, but only one can win would be hard to resolve happily, but the result here is a good payoff that fits well with the dramatic nature of the first half of the film.

While I know this is an attempt to bring the ever-popular MMA into mainstream movies, it’s more than that, and everybody involved here should be happy with the result. A good drama, a believable (if a bit overwrought) back-story, good acting and some great fight scenes indeed make a fine warrior. (PG 13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 09/09/11)

The Guard
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

With The Guard, writer/director John Michael McDonagh delivers a droll and artful film that easily approaches his younger brother's critically acclaimed film In Bruges. Perhaps a sibling rivalry is the necessary motivation for the creation of brilliant, unconventional buddy flicks that sparkle with atmosphere, wit and heart.

In rural County Galway, Garda sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) links the unusual death of a stranger and the disappearance of his new partner Aidan McBride (Rory Keenan), recently transferred from Dublin, to a trio of cocaine traffickers, Francis Sheehy (Liam Cunningham), Liam O'Leary (David Wilmot), and Clive Cornell (Mark Strong), being staked out by American FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). Candid to a fault, even on the subject of his own foibles, cheeky but incorruptible Sgt. Boyle proves to be Everett's last hope in stopping the smugglers.

Happily, the actual plot of The Guard is mere window dressing to character and atmosphere. Pat detective story aside, the film takes its time establishing complex individual traits and also relationships. In particular, as Boyle, Gleeson pulls off a tricky ambivalence toward morality and duty. He takes care with his terminally ill mother (Fionnula Flanagan) but also enjoys dropping acid and the company of prostitutes. In fact, to a degree, Boyle takes all the inhabitants in his town seriously, including the ubiquitous young misfit Eugene Moloney (Micheal Og Lane), whom he treats more as an informant than pest, and knows exactly which IRA agent to call about a bundle of hidden weapons. Yet, the film avoids the contrived whimsy of the "tourist" Irish films the success of Waking Ned Devine inspired.

Often, Boyle's antics are played for laughs, but they're also meaningful to the film's progression. His antagonism of straight-laced Everett gives accomplished actor Cheadle an opening into the film. However, in a few scenes, the editor is too quick on the draw, leaving the scene prematurely for comedic effect instead of lingering to let the mood play out. But Boyle takes his places as rightful descendant to the likes of Frank Bullitt or Harry Callahan. As such, one glaring omission from the screenplay is the actual sex scene between Boyle and his missing partner's worried Romanian wife Gabriela McBride (Katarina Cas). Boyle earns it, and the wife would have been better off too.

Even the drug dealers are given distinct personalities and roles to play. They argue over their favorite philosophers and debate the difference between mental disorder diagnoses. In one particularly arresting series of scenes, the bad guys discuss their plans in an aquarium, and here director of photography Larry Smith showcases the mood and elevates the film to the status of art. Such care isn't accidental and it effortlessly transforms the experience of watching the film. Paired with a score by Tucson, AZ-based alt country band Calexico, these dark yet beautiful settings become transcendent, making The Guard into more than just another cop buddy movie. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 09/02/11)

The Debt
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

Based on a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Debt is a taunt and satisfying espionage thriller wrapped around a somewhat lifeless romantic triangle. It's also part Greek tragedy, a commentary on the ethics of war and a cold war action piece.

The main plot centers around three Mossad agents who captured and then killed a Nazi war criminal back in the sixties. Thirty years later the agent that actually pulled the trigger, Rachel (Helen Mirren), is celebrating her daughter's new book about that fateful mission, which left her both fame and a scared face. A sudden series of events begins to unravel the mystery of what really happened in Communist East Germany through several flashbacks.

Much of the middle of the film is about young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) helping the other two agents in their elaborate and meticulous plan to capture Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a Nazi doctor who committed numerous war crimes. Rachel also starts an affair with the "bad boy" agent after the nice one refused just as their plan to smuggle their prisoner back to Israel falls apart. Soon the three are taking turns spoon-feeding Vogel, who delights in tormenting his captors with tales of his "misdeeds,” which included blinding Jewish children to change their eye color.

If all this sounds like a lot to follow, it isn't, really, although the romantic triangle takes up too much time and has no real payoff. 

I can forgive the FIVE listed writers on this script for not finding a single movie trope they didn't try to cram in here, because the result is watching one of the greatest actors of all time happily chewing her way through scene after scene. Helen Mirren simply owns this film — every look, glance or movement tells you all you need to know about her characters' motivations. She makes Rachel real, three-dimensional, a character the audience can relate to easily despite her constantly changing morals. While the younger actress's Rachel seems to be a little too weepy and weak, you forget all that the second Dame Mirren comes back on screen.

The rest of the acting is fine, the production values are lush, if uninspired, and the "twist" at the end is a decent payoff. Although it does suffer at times from a somewhat ADD script and some shaky Israeli accents, The Debt is more than worth it. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 09/02/11)

Seven Days in Utopia
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Seven Days in Utopia is a Christian spiritual allegory framed around the game of golf. The film might have worked if it hadn’t been delivered with all the subtlety of a two-iron to the head.

Everything in Seven Days in Utopia is so neatly structured that the story feels less like an act of providence or predestination, and more like lazy screenwriting. When struggling novice golfer Luke Chisholm (Lucas Black) crashes his car in a cattle pasture outside of Utopia, Texas (population 375), it seems just a little too convenient that the damage to his vehicle will take the same length of time as the film’s title.

Also convenient for a screenwriter not eager to mess with too many characters, it just so happens that the owner of the crash site is also retired links player Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall). Both Johnny and Luke have managed to squander promising careers. The aged Johnny had problems with the bottle (that he’s, of course, managed to conquer), and Luke is stuck with a martinet of a father (Joseph Lyle Taylor), who pushes the lad so hard to win that he has a spectacular temper tantrum on the course during a very public tournament.

Johnny then decides to mentor Luke so that he can both refine his technique and learn to live. Johnny shows the young man how the patience of fly-fishing can be rewarded on the green and that painting a landscape can help a golfer find the way to a hole. As the lessons progress, Johnny motivates viewers to find their way the exits.

As someone who has actually worked in oils and acrylic (briefly, I should add), the film makes painting look ridiculously easy. It took four credited screenwriters, including original novelist David Cook, to come up with a lame wisecrack about Picasso. It would have been more credible, if Johnny had asked Luke to build a computer motherboard MacGyver-style, using twigs and spare parts from an auto graveyard.

If you find comfort in knowing exactly where a film will go from the first minute, you’ll probably enjoy the fact that there’s little tension or surprise. Sadly, Seven Days in Utopia fails as a sleep aid because the score starts swelling to make the golf matches seem more exciting.

While golf takes considerable skill to master and has more health benefits than bowling or Angry Birds, it’s not a terribly photogenic sport. Boxing and football seem more cinematic mainly because it’s more suspenseful to watch participants in those games escape injury than it is to watch a tiny ball roll down the fairway.

Duvall is typically magnificent, but his casting is a problem. It’s hard to shed the memory of him as a disgraced pastor in The Apostle, which is a far more vibrant and edifying look at Christianity than the one presented here. The Apostle immersed viewers in the faith that motivated the title character, but Duvall, who also directed the film, treated religion in such a naturalistic manner that the tale felt more like a movie than a sermon. Sure, I wanted to get down in the aisles and confess my sins, but that’s because The Apostle was moving on its own merit.

Seven Days in Utopia, however, reeks of proselytizing. It’s impossible to get worked up over the plot because it’s headed in such an obvious direction. If you fall asleep or giggle derisively during a putting scene, you don’t have to worry about missing a line of dialogue or losing track of the story. There’s really nothing to miss.

Despite featuring Oscar-winner Melissa Leo and a solid production, Seven Days in Utopia is about like watching someone else play golf or Angry Birds. The only thing more painful than watching this film might be re-watching The Legend of Bagger Vance. (G) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 09/02/11)

Attack the Block
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

The setting in Attack the Block is a good deal more fun than the malevolent critters that occupy the film. That’s actually a good thing. South London is such a tough place to merely get by, that it’s totally believable that its residents can hold off an extraterrestrial horde.

What’s remarkable in this predictable but undeniably entertaining action-comedy is that writer-director Joe Cornish asks viewers to identify with a group of seemingly incorrigible thugs. When viewers first encounter Moses (John Boyega) and his menacing partners in crime, the group of primarily black hoodlums is mugging a white nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker).

Before the lads can enjoy their loot, a meteor lands near them, and a creature inside it attacks Moses. The lad fights the dog-sized monster to the death. He and his chums think they can make a mint selling the remains to a tabloid, although one of them laments their find will be hidden buried inside the paper, below “a page three girl.”

You might have to brush up on your British slang to enjoy the dialogue, but if you are familiar, be ready to bust a gut.

Their celebration ends abruptly when they discover that the monster was only the first soldier in a massive invasion. The creatures are blind but have glowing mouths that can smell a meal kilometers away. Moses quickly has to live up to his namesake and turn his gang into a group of guerilla warriors, and Sam has to patch up the survivors to fight the onslaught.

Cornish’s vivid sense of South London and the people who inhabit it keeps Attack the Block from being a routine monster flick. Because the characters are dynamic and vivid, it’s easy to cheer as they fight for their lives against the invasion. Cornish got the idea for the film after getting mugged and taking an interest in the people of South London and the factors that led some of the young people to crime. As a result, the lads and lasses of Moses’ apartment complex seem sufficiently real. It’s also worth mentioning that Cornish actually hail from South London, so that’s also a factor.

The supporting cast is full of fascinatingly skuzzy characters including a tubby dope peddler (Nick Frost, Shaun of the Dead) who knows better than to risk his neck against the faster, stronger aliens. It’s tricky to keep track of their names (damn those colorful accents!), but the personalities of the alien fighters still come through. Moses also has to face off against hardcore adult gangsters who worry more about holding their own turf and power instead of taking on hungry space aliens.

The outcome is preordained, but Cornish throw in some interesting nuances to make reaching the final outcome fun. The logic behind the invasion actually has some thought behind it. The aliens have a reason for going after Moses and Sam’s building.

Thanks to a quick pace and good balance of humor and mayhem, Attack the Block works even if the dialects might throw you off. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 09/02/11)

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


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