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
Your Number? has a similar plotline to Bridesmaids.
Sadly, it lacks the brain, the heart and the bodily functions of the earlier
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
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
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)
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
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 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
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.
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
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
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)
by Brandon Whitehead
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.
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
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.
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 …
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.
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
yeah — did I mention De Niro kicks some ass? Nuff said. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 09/23/11)
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
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
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
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)
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)
Know How She Does It
by Brandon Whitehead
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.”
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
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?
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?
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
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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
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
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
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
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