movie reviews December 2013

oldboynebraskathe book thiefphilomenaHomefrontblack nativityout of the furnacethe armstrong lieThe hobbit: the desolation of smaugwalking with dinosaurs 3Dinside llewyn davisAmerican Hustlesaving mr. banks

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

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Saving Mr. Banks
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

The latest based-on-a-true story film from John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) is a tale of two Travers. One is P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson), forced by money troubles to sell the rights to her Mary Poppins novels to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) after 20 years of saying no to his pleas.

To ensure her intrepid nanny gets the proper dry treatment — no “silly cartoons” — Travers spends two weeks in 1961 in Los Angeles on the Disney lot duking it out with Disney, screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and song and lyrics men the Sherman brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman). All too brief, this section never realizes its potential for great insight into the creative process or even the truer, sadder story — how Travers lost the battle for the soul of Mary Poppins

.

The other Travers is the tale of Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), the alcoholic but beloved banker father of the young P.T. Travers, then known as Helen Goff. This latter story provides the literal, point-by-point connections of the laziest biopics. The back-story alternates whimsical and dismal to show the drunk as erratic and is full of clichés. Minus one teasing scene in which Mr. Goff gets to participate in the movie’s production, it’s a constant, frustrating interruption. The only reason for its being in the film is to provide a simplistic Freudian analysis to soften the broad, abstemious strokes screenwriter Kelly Marcel uses to portray the adult Travers.

If you can stop from being distracted by doing the math of the movie — Thompson is 54 playing Travers at 62 — you can at least enjoy the more contemporary story. Thompson does a fine turn as the peevish Travers. She’s focused and funny and in no need of any of the forced explanations, which pop up during the character’s more contemplative moments so much that you begin to wish for constant action so as not to get her whisked away again.

As Walt Disney, Hanks is almost her equal. His finest moment comes from an invented scene in which he travels to London to tell Travers about his own childhood fraught with ambivalent feelings for his father. Rachel Griffiths appears briefly as Aunt Ellie, the supposed real-life inspiration for Mary Poppins. She indulges in a single “spit-spot” but then is quickly forgotten. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 12/24/13)


American Hustle
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

Director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter) has made a career out of championing the underdog. His latest film, rewritten from a script inspired by the 1978 Abscam sting operation by Eric Singer, makes heroes of small-time grifters conscripted into an FBI sting operation. But like the theme obsessively repeated throughout the movie, there’s something rotten underneath this slick production.

How you respond to Russell’s romanticized version of events depends largely on how much you buy into his philosophies of deception on display here. The burden of the film is to make sympathetic a cast of characters who strive not for authenticity or integrity but reinvention and self-deception. And the way this is conveyed is through ubiquitous voiceover without any hint that there’s irony, or even complexity, at play in any of it.

The film opens with Christian Bale, already unrecognizable as Irving Rosenfeld, carefully incorporating a hairpiece into an elaborate comb over. Rosenfeld, a deft hustler disguised as a legitimate small businessman who, despite being married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), has fallen hard for Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a small-town girl with a shady past who has reinvented herself so many times even she forgets her true identity at times. The two have been forced by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to overreach their petty marks to help make cases against members of Congress taking bribes.

The story contains layers that can be sifted through to back up the film’s thesis. First, there are signifiers of identity. In addition to Rosenfeld’s toupee, there are the velvet jackets Prosser dresses him up in along with her own revealing Halston-inspired ensembles. The pink curlers DiMaso uses for his tightly curled coiffure even make an appearance in a scene that also reveals the emasculating banality of his home life. And nail shellac worn by Rosalyn is the source of a major theme about how something a little rotten can make something beautiful more irresistible.

But Russell can’t let scenes unfold naturally. His manipulations touch everything and repeat to an insulting degree. The soundtrack is distracting in its cleverness. The editing chops up the timeline to make the movie stall out during at least three pivotal moments. By the time the story returns to Rosenfeld repeating the scene at the dry cleaners on his own, the film has run out of plausibility. It’s as if Russell is terrified his audience is made up of lazy fruit flies circling to find the rotten spot. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 12/23/13)


Inside Llewyn Davis
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

To describe the most recent release by the Coen brothers as a “shaggy dog” story is to deny its main, and possibly only, message. The watching of the film requires patience. For much of it, the lead — not ever hero enough to be anti-hero — is caught in an ever-deepening downward spiral, exacerbated by the churlishness he mistakes for pride. But just when all seems drawn-out and pointless, there’s a powerful existential shift that brings meaning to all that has come before.

Joel and Ethan Coen, who co-wrote and co-directed, have carved out an exact moment in time to follow Davis’ life. The sequence of events, condensed in just one week, doesn’t unfold so much as it unravels. When the movie opens, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), once half of a moderately successful folk duo, still has modest connections, if not any royalties to buy a winter coat. But as Davis calls in favors on his floundering solo career that go unanswered, he grows bitter and alienated, and he quickly wears out his welcome with even his most ardent fans and closest friends.

Hoping for an audience with a legendary club owner (F. Murray Abraham) in Chicago, Davis, carrying just his guitar and an orange tabby, hitches a ride with foreboding jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman), who prods Davis to heightened levels of discomfort. If Davis were more likeable he could be pitiable. But he gives as good as he gets, and as his married former lover (Carey Mulligan), who may be pregnant with his baby, warns in between spewing invectives he’s fated to live low until he cleans up his act.

The Coens have once again created an immersive experience. Davis’ Greenwich Village of 1961 has a visual tangibility without self-consciousness. But comparisons to their previous films are unfair. There are repeated themes, such as snow and cold as an emotional driver as well as an unwanted burden, in this case the marmalade cat, but each of their movies, the comedies and the dramas, is a new invention. T. Bone Burnett’s musical direction may raise hopes for another smash soundtrack similar to O Brother, Where Art Thou? But the music in this movie serves a completely different purpose than as a saving grace. This time, it’s a curse.

The story of Llewyn Davis is an odyssey in a teacup. It could be argued that it’s an exercise in nihilism, exhibiting a miserable existence doomed to a Sysphean task. Blink, and you might miss the clues, leaving not much more than this dreary husk. But if you watch wide-eyed and pay attention, you may see the faintest flicker of hope in the notion that it starts all over again, fresh and possibly different. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/23/13)


Walking with Dinosaurs 3D
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Walking with Dinosaurs 3D might have been better titled “Staring Bewildered at Dinosaurs 3D” because it’s a more accurate description of what it’s like to watch the movie. It’s not as if viewers can stroll through the film even though it’s in 3D, and there are so many moments when the filmmakers prove that dinosaurs aren’t the only ones out there with disproportionately small brains.

This adaptation of the BBC educational series reportedly cost around $80 million dollars to make, far more than the TV series itself apparently cost.
With the added cash, there seems to have been a mountain of compromises, none of which helps the movie. Simply teaching youngsters about magnificent creatures who stomped the earth millions of years before we humans took over wasn’t enough. Now the film tries to educate and entertain at the same time. As a result, it does neither.

The movie is framed around a pair of youngsters (Charlie Rowe, Angourie Rice) discovering some fossils with their uncle (Karl Urban). The people aren’t in the film long and don’t leave much of an impression. Directors Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale correctly figure that viewers would rather see the dinosaurs. It’s too bad they don’t know what to do with the animals once they make it to the screen.

The dinos actually look remarkably lifelike and as if they are in our midst. The wonder sadly disappears when they start talking. Yes, the animals start jabbering. Not only that, but their mouths don’t move with the words they’re uttering.

It’s easy to understand why the filmmakers went with this approach. After all, it’s a safe bet that dinosaurs didn’t speak English and that they might have communicated non-verbally or even telepathically. In the end, it simply makes the movie look lazy and kind of eerie. Without the mouths flapping at the right times, it’s like watching an Italian gladiator movie instead of a dinosaur film.

It’s too bad that’s not the only thing wrong with Walking with Dinosaurs 3D. The script is credited to John Collee, who wrote Peter Weir’s magnificent Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but a quick glance through the credits reveals about a half dozen writers who are credited with “additional material,” which explains why the movie has a made-by-committee feel.

Justin Long provides the voice of a misfit herbivore named Patchi, whose best friend is a bird named Alex (John Leguizamo). Patchi and his herd are in the process of migrating and reciting some wisecracks that would get booed out of a Saturday morning cartoon. Not only do the dinosaurs speak, but they even make pop culture references that are millions of years ahead of time, but are also annoyingly out of date for the human audience. Even some tots will find them stale.

Every now and then, the tale will pause as a title card announces a new species and informs viewers of its eating habits. That’s supposed to be educational, but because the animals are so fleetingly presented, this technique results in more annoyance instead of enlightenment.

It’s almost as if Jurassic Park has served as a warning to the folks who made this movie. These people have toyed with Mother Nature, but viewers end up paying the ultimate price for their meddling. (PG) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 12/23/13)

Haiku
Walking with Dinosaurs 3D

Dinosaurs are gone
because no one recalled how
to make good movies.


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

There are two stories in the second installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. The first, more closely resembling the source material by J.R.R. Tolkien, catches up with proto-hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he helps guide a motley baker’s dozen of dwarves — perhaps the collective term should be a “gallimaufry” — led by their deposed king Thorin (Richard Armitage). Heretofore, Bilbo was a reluctant pilgrim, but here he continues with the newfound confidence, bolstered by the morally questionable power from the infamous ring, gained at the conclusion of the first film.

Slipping in and out of invisibility, Bilbo facilitates the dwarves’ return to their mountain homeland, now occupied by a soporific dragon, through a giant spider-infested woods and imprisonment by hostile elves, all the while being chased by the muscle-bound but surprisingly nimble goblins that never, ever stop pursuit. Although this activity provides more action than in the previous chapter, it doesn’t move the story along any faster. The perilous sequences run together, especially without a clear differentiation of the assorted dwarves, but thankfully come to an end when the gang finally reaches its destination.

Freeman portrays Bilbo as the ideal hobbit. He’s nervous and self-deprecating, but also wonderfully mocking. When the dwarves give up too quickly he perseveres, yet can’t resist pointing out the irony in this. His tête-à-tête with fire-breathing Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) is clearly the best scene of the movie — as was the riddle competition with Smiegel in the previous movie — made potent by Bilbo’s use of the dark magic of the ring and hinting at the possible course of action for the next installment by his keen powers of observation.

The second story begins when Gandalf (Ian McKellan) leaves Bilbo and the dwarves at the beginning of the path into the woods. At this point, he enters another film entirely; going both forward and backward. Gandalf winds up in familiar territory, at the resurrection of the super villain and its minions that occurred at a later time but in the earlier films. Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens are guilty of not only padding the story to gain enough material for three movies, but also for making connections from one franchise to the next. They’re unfairly forcing The Hobbit to act as a point-to-point prequel to The Lord of the Rings. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 12/17/2013)


The Armstrong Lie
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

"Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser," is something World War II General George S. Patton told his troops, and it's easy to get the impression that Texas-born cyclist Lance Armstrong believes the same thing. Throughout Alex Gibney's latest documentary The Armstrong Lie, the disgraced Tour de France champion comes off as someone so determined to spend time in the winner's circle that he's ironically lost his titles because of his single-minded obsession with winning.

As he says in the film's narration, Gibney had originally attempted to make a film about Armstrong's 2009 comeback. But as Armstrong's drug use and blood doping gradually became too obvious to ignore, Gibney has wound up raising some uncomfortable questions about how Armstrong evolved from a hero to a heel even though he's still very much the same man.

Gibney interviewed Armstrong and followed him around as he tried to make a comeback in 2009. The filmmaker demanded a second interview in 2013 after Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he had used a variety of forbidden techniques to win. Four years later, the cyclist's tone and responses haven't changed even though he now admits to blood doping and other violations. There's no sign of contrition anywhere in his voice, and his biggest regret seems to be getting caught.

As Gibney and other the cyclists he has interviewed in the film recount, cheating have almost been standard operating procedure in the Tour de France. In the early years, cyclists drank booze to get over the pain of scaling steep mountains along the path. Armstrong also won his first Tour after the entire field had been disqualified the year before in a similar scandal.

The Armstrong Lie indicates that Armstrong's greatest sin might not be doping but going to intimidating lengths to conceal it. Armstrong's former teammates recount how he'd bully them into silence.

Armstrong's story is also black eye on reporters who covered it because many of them ignored obvious signs that that he wasn't competing on the level because his transformation from cancer victim to champion was much more compelling to write about. Journalists who tried to tell the truth about Armstrong were marginalized even though they knew more than the commentators who supported him.

Athletes who win land accolades and serious cash off the field. It doesn't take much imagination to figure out why cheating becomes so tempting. People don't cheer for cyclists who try and fail.

Without saying it overtly, The Armstrong Lie asks viewers to determine how the same man can be both a champion and a cheater. With a winner-take-all attitude, cutting corners becomes inevitable. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/17/13)

Haiku Review
The Armstrong Lie
Lance Armstrong lost his
titles by holding on to
them far too tightly.


Out of the Furnace
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) has attempted to craft a modern version — or at least somewhat recent; it’s set in 2008 — of The Deer Hunter. He succeeds in the first half, which is as much an exquisite examination of masculinity as its inspiration. But Cooper, who co-wrote the screenplay with Brad Ingelsby, doesn’t allow the film to remain a character study; he insists that something must happen.

Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, a Pennsylvania steelworker who miraculously still has a job. When not working double shifts while trussed up like a tinfoil-wrapped baked potato, he splits his time between his beautiful girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) and his dying father (Bingo O’Malley). His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), home from his third tour of Iraq, claims to be shellshock but it seems that he might always have been unhinged, and Affleck portrays him with his usual electric shock energy.


When there are two siblings, inevitably only one is responsible. Here, it’s Russell, whose filial and fraternal love is literally emblazoned across his chest as tattooed diamonds filled with the initials of his family — RBx3. When Rodney loses money loaned to him by their small-time local godfather, played by hedgehog-coiffed Willem Dafoe, who also happens to be Rodney’s biggest source of tips for the OTB, Russell pays it back. It’s a sort of game the three of them play. The fatherly loan shark exploiting the wayward son who thinks he’s finally being looked after, and Russell, uncomplaining, in the middle.

Except Russell doesn’t stay untarnished. A DUI — which Cooper takes pains to show is actually the ill-fated result of a second’s inattention and not the whiskey Dafoe’s pseudo-fatherly loan shark poured for him — puts Russell behind bars for a few years. His world, first shot in the standard diffused light and muted colors of the filmic Rust Belt, gets a little more definition and color, but overall Russell seems unchanged. He even handles losing his girl to the police chief, played by a raspy (Forest Whitaker) with equanimity.

That’s why it’s so hard to buy the second act of this film. When Rodney goes missing after a bare-knuckle fight in the backwoods of New Jersey, the film turns from an affecting portrait study to a revenge thriller. Clearly not the type to start trouble throughout the entire film, even after his violent incarceration, that’s exactly what Russell does. This might be plausible if anyone thought there was a chance he could actually find his brother alive, but it’s pretty clear they’re traveling there to find a body. The opening scene in which Woody Harrelson grandstands as a violent hillbilly should have been a tipoff, though his post toe-injection soft shoe is a moment of delight in a grim second half. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 12/11/13)


Black Nativity
Reviewed b
y Bruce Rodgers

American poet, playwright and novelist Langston Hughes, in explaining the motivation behind his work, is reportedly to have said, "My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all human kind,"

Though the “condition” can now be termed as the African American experience, Black Nativity, by director and screenwriter Kasi Lemmons, reflects aspects of the economic struggle being dealt with by many Americans regardless of race or ethnic background. The St. Louis-born Lemmons previously directed Talk To Me (2007), a well-received film based on Ralph “Petey” Greene, a Washington DC radio personality and activist in the 1960s. Like Hughes (born in Joplin, MO), Lemmons’ artistic talent extents beyond the particulars of black life and touches upon the universality of human experience in both finding a personal identity and family connections.

Langston, played by Jacob Latimore, is a fatherless young man. His mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) has worked hard to provide for her son. Now they are losing their home in Baltimore, Naima unable to keep up with the mortgage payments. She sends Langston to New York’s Harlem to live with her parents, Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and Aretha Cobbs (Angela Bassett), whom she has been estranged from for years.

Latimore perfectly presents Langston as an angry and confused teen. His first experience in New York is to have his backpack stolen then being accused of stealing a wallet in a hotel where he was denied the courtesy of using a phone. He’s released to a wary and accusatory Rev. Cobbs.

The Reverend, later realizing his mistake in judgment, attempts to reach out to the boy. It doesn’t work. Aretha tries also, countering her husband’s hardness with a soft, motherly touch. This brings out more questioning from Langston, mainly as to why his grandparents won’t help, much less talk with his mother.

As the grandparents seem perplexed as to how to relate to Langston, he schemes to reunite with his mother and find a way to give her the money so they can keep their home in Baltimore. Throughout the story there’s no doubt that Langston will find his answers, and a happy ending will result for all.

Yet the strength and realness of the story — one that could stand even without the music and song — and the strong acting performances by all, including support from Tyrese Gibson as Langston’s father and Vondie Curtis-Hall as the pawnbroker, make Black Nativity a near-timeless holiday film. While “Fix Me Jesus” sung by Hudson and “Motherless Child” by Latimore are standouts, some of the songs seem to overplay the emotion in the moment.

Still, it’s a grand story, full of heart, soul, music, song and even a little religion. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/5/13)


Homefront
Reviewed b
y Mike Ireland

Action heroes just aren't what they used to be.

Despite frequently weak scripts and a dearth of acting chops, classic ‘80s stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone stood larger than life on the screen — embodiments of righteous revenge and survival, their bursts of violence both irreproachable and unavoidable. By comparison, the MMA-styled brutality of current stars like Jason Statham and Vin Diesel often feels vicious and petty.

A case in point is Statham's current redneck revenge thriller Homefront. Equal parts Walking Tall and Rambo, it borrows from a dozen better movies but lacks a vulnerable hero to cheer — and fear — for.

Statham is undercover Louisiana DEA agent Phil Broker, who has infiltrated a meth-running biker gang despite an inexplicably shifting southern-to-English accent and a bad wig that makes him look like Mr. Rosso on TV's Freaks and Geeks. Mercifully, this preposterous guise (SAMCRO would have made this guy in a second) is abandoned after a bust goes bad, blowing Broker's cover and resulting in the needless death of the gang leader's son.

Two years later, the retired and widowed Broker has relocated with 10-year-old daughter Maddy (Isabela Vidovic) to a seemingly sleepy Louisiana backwater. Of course, in a script by Sylvester Stallone originally intended as a Rambo sequel, this hamlet turns out to be anything but sleepy. When daughter Maddy employs some of her dad's combat tactics against a school bully, the bully's crackhead mom Cassie (Kate Bosworth) sics everyone she knows on the Brokers, setting in motion a series of events that push Phil back into action.

The trouble, however, is that for us to worry about poor Maddy and her daddy, we have to feel they're truly in danger, something neither Statham, the script, nor director Gary Fleder (Don't Sat a Word, The Express) are able to convey. Confronted at the school by Cassie's unimposing husband, Broker drops the hopeless rube with one quick martial arts move. Although the size and number of opponents steadily grow, as does the scale of the fights, Statham continues to dispatch all comers effortlessly, at one point with both hands literally tied behind his back.

So when Cassie enlists her drug-dealing badass brother Gator (James Franco) to teach the Brokers a lesson, it's hard to be all that worried. In fact, besides a wildly over-the-top introduction — Franco roaring "My name is Gator Bo-dine!" at the top of his lungs while taking a baseball bat to a bunch of clueless teen squatters — Gator seems just as ineffectual as the rest of the meth-heads that populate this Podunk. His idea of menace is kidnapping the family cat and hanging the head of Maddy's stuffed rabbit from a tree limb.

What little plot remains relies on eye roll-inducing coincidences (all of Broker's case files are conveniently stored in his garage; Gator snoops in one box and — surprise! — finds the case involving the biker gang) and unearned sentimentality (Broker rides horses with little Maddy amid golden sunlight and floating Cottonwood fluff when not gunning down bad guys right in front of her). Even the fight sequences — ostensibly, the film's raison d'être — are rendered nearly incoherent by murky lighting and choppy editing.

By the film's end, you may find yourself actually rooting for — or at least pitying — these poor redneck baddies who have no idea what they're up against. And you just might find yourself nostalgic for an action hero you can actually cheer. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 12/04/13)


Philomena
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

In Philomena, unemployed journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is desperate after an unfair firing following a scandal when he’s handed a poignant human-interest story. After 50 years, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) wants to search for a son she’d been forced to surrender to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart at the Sean Ross Abbey in Ireland, one of the Magdalene Laundries. Together, Sixsmith and Lee travel to Ireland and then Washington, DC, tracking down leads to reveal the identity of her son who’d been adopted by rich American Catholics, and along the way forge an unlikely bond.

Coogan and Jeff Pope’s adaptation is largely based on Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. But its inclusion of Sixsmith is a major risk.  Although less post-modern than Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, the script is still self-aware, particularly when making comments about journalism and the hook for Lee’s story. Perhaps the pair felt that the 2002 drama The Magdalene Sisters already did justice to the story of the Magdalene Laundries, or maybe that the drama needed some levity.
Either way, the odd couple pairing doesn’t quite work. Their individual traits are contrived to cause false conflict, particularly the fictional Sixsmith’s pomposity and Lee’s ditzy manner and blathering. Coogan has even admitted to tinkering with Sixsmith’s personality so that the character could exhibit growth in the course of the film. And Dench’s character is uneven, at times alternating between unbelievably gullible and savvy.

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things) should have recognized these labored gimmicks, which also affect plot. Sixsmith and Lee fly all the way over to the States to then make their most significant discovery in a simple Internet search in the hotel’s dining room over breakfast. The travel is more necessary to throwing the two together to interact than integral to their investigation. Frears has abandoned any sort of realism or detail here.

The search for Lee’s son is often secondary to the interactions between Sixsmith and Lee. At times they’re clever and a bit endearing, but overall the budding relationship of the two opposites is clichéd. Dench is made to deliver lines meant to be shocking because of her age or that are supposed to sound old-fashioned or naïve, whereas Coogan rolls his eyes and offers up an expression of exasperated patience. All this makes the ending, despite the heart-breaking irony of its true facts, so much less sympathetic. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 12/04/13)


The Book Thief
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

The first major feature film from director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey, North & South) is narrated by Death (Roger Allam), who confesses to stalking young Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), the offspring of Communists now dead or imprisoned under Hitler’s growing fascism. After a short train disembarkation to bury her dead brother, Liesel is delivered to a snow globe-like small German village (wholly created at Babelsberg Studio in Berlin) and her adoptive parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson), who speak English stilted by German accents and an occasional German phrase thrown in for good measure.

Death reassures us that the wide-eyed protagonist will remain breathing throughout the course of the film, but he makes no promises about traumatic events. And friends and family are fair game. This is Nazi Germany, after all. But this doesn’t stop Percival from forcing feel-good scenes.

Percival is an expert at showcasing romantic drama against a backdrop of historical strife. But here the historical events, including Kristallnacht, don’t have much effect on the overall story. Michael Petroni’s screenplay, based on Markus Zusak’s bestselling YA novel, sanitizes events to obstinately keep looking on the bright side of life. Liesel is coaxed out of both her depressive mood and illiteracy by an overly cheery Hans. Even Rosa, the grouchy hausfrau, eventually softens. And the boy next door (Nico Liersch) is struck by an enthusiastic and unwavering love at first sight.

Scenes are short and stilted, and often include a separate moral or lesson that requires one of the characters to make a proper ethical choice, which they unfailingly do. To repay a debt incurred while serving in WWI, Hans must hide Max (Ben Schnetzer), a young Jewish man who ends up in the basement, Liesel’s home classroom where she has learned to read, and encourages her to make up stories and eventually to write. But soon he leaves, and again characters regroup and things go back to normal without much residual change.

That in itself could be an interesting statement about Germans at the start of WWII. They’re a little like the frog in the pot of water on the stove, with Hitler just gradually turning up the heat. But to ascribe this as the point of the film would be reading too much into it. Petroni is interested in only the personal stories of the film, and those pesky politics are what’s getting in the way. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 12/04/13)


Nebraska
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Alexander Payne's movies can strike some viewers as condescending or even elitist. As the title Nebraska implies, the director hails from Cornhusker territory and often shoots his films such as Election and About Schmidt there. To the untrained eye, Payne seems to be mocking the folks who live in flyover country, but as a fellow Midwestern native, I can happily say that Payne's work is more reportage than satire. The pointed and bitter humor that comes from his films like The Descendants comes more from a sharp eye than a mean heart.

In fact, in most of Payne's films, the protagonists could hardly be considered elite or above the masses. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a retired auto mechanic who lives in and out of a daze. A lifelong alcoholic who seems out of touch with reality when he is sober, Woody has moments of lucidity. His life has been so bleak that one doesn't wonder why he has spent most of his long life hiding in a bottle.

At the beginning of the film, Woody thinks that fate has finally taken a break from tormenting him. He mistakes a sweepstakes form letter for an actual announcement of his winnings. Because he believes that $1 million is on the line, Woody, who's no longer capable of driving, decides to walk from his home in Billings to Lincoln, Nebraska to personally claim his perceived award.

His long-suffering wife Kate (Jane Squibb) can't keep Woody from wandering on foot for a prize that's unlikely to ever come, so his shy son David (Will Forte) decides to drive Woody to Lincoln in the hope that completing the journey will end his foolish wanderlust once and for all.

One stop on the journey is Woody's small hometown where the locals don't know that Woody's newfound riches are nothing but junk mail. His old business partner (a wonderfully slimy Stacy Keach) wants a cut, and the rest of Woody's family are starting to see green as well.

What keeps Nebraska from becoming simply a Midwestern Don Quixote is that Dern subtly reveals a tormented and vulnerable soul under all the mental haze that Woody is trapped in. When Payne and freshman screenwriter Bob Nelson reveal what makes Woody tick, it gradually becomes easier to understand why he's become the fellow he is today.

While Forte's character doesn't have the eccentricities that Dern's has, the actor reveals that he can do far more than simple sketch comedy on Saturday Night Live. His David grows from a nebbish into a loving and assertive son who gives Woody the only love and support he's received in ages. If Woody ends the film in the same shaky mental state, it's a treat to watch David emerge from an emotional cocoon.   

Payne does a great job of making the landscape and the people part of the story. By shooting the film in black-and-white, there's a bleakness at the heart of Nebraska that probably wouldn't be there if the film was shot in color. There's a sense of decay that runs through Woody's hometown that wouldn't be there if it were presented in natural hues.

Payne also casts local non-professionals and manages to make veteran thespians like Dern look at home with them. Yes, the Grant family is backward and greedy, but they're hardly the only folks in the film. Many of the locals are kind and upright, making the Nebraska Grants look even more shallow. David sells audio equipment for a living, so it's not like he's in a position to look down on his relatives economically. Morally, he has every right to.

Payne presents the Midwest warts-and-all and still manages to find beauty in it. Sometimes it takes an eye as sharp as his to do it. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 12/04/13)

Haiku
Nebraska

Payne's bleak landscapes and
odd people are simply an
honest perspective.


Oldboy
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

Director Spike Lee’s remake of Chan-wook Park’s 2003 cult Korean revenge flick doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny. Gaping holes and inconsistencies litter the screenplay, adapted for American audiences by writer Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend, The Cell). But the film, stuck in some nowhere land between camp and noir, isn’t any more fun to watch in the moment.

That’s not to say that Lee doesn’t have his dark side. Most of his films, even the comedies, include serious complications and conflict. But with Girl 6 and Son of Sam, he exhibited a deeper psychological point of view. Yet, the plot of this movie, supposedly driven by vengeance, plods along from one circumstance to another without stopping to gain better insight or inspire the passion required for such drastic action.

The story spans over two decades, and mostly takes place in a prison cell made up to look like a hotel room.  Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), sleazy, alcoholic ad account manager and deadbeat dad, is nearing his bottom when he’s taken prisoner by unknown captors who feed him a steady diet of Chinese dumplings and cheap vodka through a slot in the door and occasionally gas him to change his clothes, comb his hair and frame him for the murder and rape of his ex-wife.

Doucett stays in an alcoholic stupor for around the first 10 years until the broadcast of an Unsolved Mysteries-type show features his daughter. He dries out, shapes up and learns how to fight by watching martial arts movies on TV. He begins to plot his escape to clear his name with his daughter. The problem is that, considering the total control his unknown captors have had over his entire life in the last decade, Doucett doesn’t work from the premise that he’s being watched and set up. It could be argued that without sharing in the cultural touchstones of The Truman Show, reality television and the Saw franchise, this might be plausible, but it seems the immensity of his vanishing and reappearing act is lost on him, despite continuing to be caught in his captor’s web.

There’s plenty of over-the-top gore on display here, but it’s rarely the deep, gut-churning kind, and it seems very out of character for Doucett. It’s hard to believe that a man who cries over his dead pet mice would then single-handedly take out an entire gang with nothing but a hammer.

Based on a graphic novel, the original film is said to have a more gothic, dream-like quality in which suspension of disbelief comes easier, making the violence viscerally traumatic. Here, in one pivotal scene, it looks as if Doucett is pulling latex ribbon works from around his paid captor’s (Samuel L. Jackson) throat. There’s some anger, sure, but the act is entirely without pleasure.

There must be a release that accompanies revenge in order to forgive the trafficking in violence. Lee’s nemesis Quentin Tarantino understands this well, and offered it up in a glorious burst in the finale of last year’s Django Unchained. When Lee finally reveals Doucett’s warden (Sharlto Copley) and the convoluted reasoning behind his imprisonment, it’s far from horrifying or thrilling. Their competing dishes of revenge are only lukewarm. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 12/04/13)

 

 




Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.e.ireleand@gmail.com


 

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