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reel reviews
movie reviews
April '09

THE SOLOIST • FIGHTING •  STATE OF PLAY • 17 AGAIN •  OBSERVE AND REPORT
ADVENTURELAND • FAST & FURIOUS

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

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The Soloist
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The subject of passion seems to be director Joe Wright’s forte. He focused on romantic love in Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). Wright brilliantly orchestrated both movies to create a crescendo of emotion with the excellent pairing of beautiful music and moving visuals.

He’s done it again. But this time the protagonist’s passion is music.

The Soloist is an adaptation of journalist Steve Lopez’s book about his relationship with musician Nathaniel Ayers. Ayers was once a promising cellist, but mental illness drove him to the streets of Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

We first meet Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.) as he is bicycling through the streets of L.A., a gleeful journey, until he crashes and winds up in the hospital, the right side of his face bloody and bruised. In retrospect this scene seems a metaphor for Ayers’ life, which was filled with passion and potential until the unexpected crash of schizophrenia irreparably bruised his career and life.

Later Lopez meets Ayers (Jamie Foxx) at Pershing Square in front of a statue of Beethoven (Ayers’ favorite composer).

Ayers’ plays beautiful melodies on a violin with only two strings, and he babbles almost incessantly. Lopez becomes fascinated by him and intrigued by his claims that he attended Julliard. Lopez finds out that Ayers did attend Julliard, and thus begins an article series and a rocky but mutually beneficial friendship.

Much of this film is expected: the broken relationships and loneliness of the “hero,” the surprising brilliance and occasional insights of the mentally ill musician, the thin line the journalist walks between friendship and exploitation.

But Wright uses abstract color and orchestral music to put us in Ayers shoes. Also Ayers’ aural hallucinations become a part of the movie’s sensual landscape, so that we experience the beauty and the creepiness of his perceptions.

Skid Row becomes a third character here. It is depicted as a rat hole infested with broken and discarded people and the cruelest human predators. The movie’s depiction of squalor and bulk of homeless people roaming is reminiscent of The Pursuit of Happyness’s most touching scenes.

Both Downey and Foxx do an adequate job of portraying clichéd characters. But the power of The Soloist lies in its ability to put us in the protagonist’s shoes and the unsentimental questions beneath the film’s surface. Should we try to rescue mentally ill people or just accept them, talents, scars, myriad idiosyncrasies and all?

Fully appreciating The Soloist requires a similar patience and tolerance. But the emotional payoff comes for those willing to wait. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5


Fighting
Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead

There’s no question that making a film about a gritty underground “club-fight-type-thingy” is a nice safe bet for most filmmakers, except that the problem with said club-fight type thingy is that they’ve made a billion movies about that subject already, capping off with Fight Club, which beat all others onto an awesome, bloody kick-ass pulp.

In many ways sitting through Fighting is … ok, I just can’t skip this, I know it’s just another rant from bitter old me, but … “FIGHTING?” That’s all you could come up with for a title? It’s like somebody said, “Hey, we need a title that’s not only boring, but meaningless at they same time!”

Worst. Title. Ever.

As for the film, young Shawn MacArthur is struggling to make it hustling on the gritty streets of Brooklyn when a chance meeting with a wiser, older hustler leads him into the underground fight scene where he learns the value of both himself and the meaning of friendship. There — got it?

It’s like director/writer Dito Montiel sat and picked all his plot points from every mediocre TV action-movie he saw, and just mixed them together. It’s not that this is a bad film; it’s just a boring and completely uninspired one.

In the early scenes, Shawn, played by Channing Tatum, is on the streets of Brooklyn with all the chaos and cultural mish-mash swirling around him. He meets Terrance Howard as Harvey, who becomes Shawn’s manager/father-figure. Howard gives his all to pull this thing off but there’s just too little here to work with.

Plus, Channing seems to have come from the DeNiro “mumble-and-stare-at-the-ground” school of acting, and if you couldn’t guess, he’s no DeNiro.

The fight scenes (what few there are) in Fighting are short, awkward and goofy. The whole reason that Harvey is interested in Shawn is because during a scuffle on the street where Shawn actually punches someone in the mouth. Also, there’s some vague back-story about Shawn being a champion wrestler who is kicked out of competition because of a fight with his coach/dad, but since he clearly doesn’t know how to wrestle, that background doesn’t make much sense.

Everything in this movie begs the audience to like it by keeping things as simple as possible. The result is a predictable and flavorless mush that is about as compelling as watching a couple episodes of T.J. Hooker. (PG-13) Rating: 2


State of Play
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Scottish director Kevin Macdonald specializes in making historic or potentially dry material seem as urgent as an ambulance siren.

His documentaries One Day in September and Touching the Void cover the terrorist attack on the 1972 Munich Olympics and a potentially fatal mountain climbing accident. Both were made decades after the events they depicted but move quickly and jolt viewers as if the incidents were occurring for the first time.

With his second fictional effort (his first The Last King of Scotland), Macdonald makes the slow, frustrating and frequently tedious task of newsgathering seem absolutely nail biting. Traditional newspaper writing may be a dying art, but Macdonald succeeds in making old-school reporting look both exciting and essential.

It probably helps that he never wastes a moment of the viewer’s time. State of Play begins with a hair-raising opening and rarely lets up afterward. A reformist congressman from Pennsylvania named Stephen Collins (an appropriately slick Ben Affleck) discovers that his hearings on lucrative but corrupt military contractor have been potentially derailed by the death of his top researcher (Maria Thayer).

Unfortunately, the congressman has ethical issues of his own. His marriage to his college sweetheart Anne (Robin Wright-Penn) is all but dead, and an affair with his researcher makes him look like a suspect in her death.

The reporters investigating the matter are an unlikely pair matched by their ruthless editor (Helen Mirren), who seems more worried about the front-page redesign than with getting the facts straight. The first is a smartly dressed young gossip blogger named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) who has difficulty finding pens and works on an 8 to 5 schedule.

Her mentor Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is a disheveled veteran who drives a dilapidated 1990 Saab and lives off junk food while chasing down stories nearly every waking moment of his life. He may have been Stephen’s college roommate, but his hard living makes him look like the congressman’s dad.

Despite his somewhat pudgy frame, Cal moves and thinks quickly and has an army of social contacts who can help him land stories. He also has some serious conflicts of interest that could wreck the investigation.

He and Stephen are still close (Cal gives Stephen advice on the very scandal he’s covering). And Anne has been pining for Cal, with whom she had an affair, for years.

State of Play reworks a six-hour British miniseries into an American feature with surprising finesse. There are three credited screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray), but the movie still feels as focused as it is dense.

There are clear lines between good and evil in the story (Michael Berresse is terrifying as a monomaniacal hired gun), but State of Play is loaded with tension because Cal and Della’s personal issues can wreck the investigation as easily as an uncooperative source (like the one played by Jason Bateman in a darkly funny cameo).

Macdonald also manages to work in real world issues like declining newspaper circulation, corporate media ownership and war profiteering without slipping into didacticism. If Mirren’s editor might seem unsympathetic, a less fiscally minded supervisor would probably still have issues with some of Cal’s connections and issues with deadlines.

While there’s lots of moody lighting, Macdonald avoids of a lot of showy directorial techniques. You don’t see a lot of obvious camera angles or unusual editing.

That doesn’t mean he’s asleep at the wheel.

He makes good use of actual DC locations and has sets that look lived in. Cal’s cubicle looks enormous compared to the ones I’ve seen in daily newspapers, but it’s loaded with clutter that appears as if it’s been there for at least a decade. A quick glance at the books in his equally messy apartment gives you a sense of what Cal is aspiring to accomplish.

In addition to being solidly constructed thriller, State of Play demonstrates why daily newspapers can be valuable even if they are endangered. Macdonald and his collaborators make you admire what good journalists can do even if freely admitting they can be quite human (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 04-17-09)


17 Again
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

At this stage in his career, High School Musical veteran Zak Efron doesn’t have to worry about appealing to viewers who are either male or well past puberty. Thanks to his currently sizable fan base, he doesn’t have to waste his time with material that’s challenging or that might surprise a viewer who has seen more than a dozen other movies.

!7 Again is essentially Big reversed, but it owes a debt to everything from Peggy Sue Got Married to 18 Again! (a long-forgotten George Burns vehicle). Even if you’ve missed these films about youngsters stuck in older bodies or middle-aged people living as teens, it doesn’t take much effort to figure out where Jason Filardi’s (Bringing Down the House) script is going.

Efron plays a high school basketball star named Mike O’Donnell, who abruptly quits the team when he finds out his girlfriend is pregnant. Two decades later (now played by Matthew Perry), Mike has gone from being a proud but good-hearted lad to a bitter, frustrated adult. That may have something to do with the fact that his wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann) is dumping him, his career as a salesman is on the skids, and his kids Maggie and Alex (Michelle Trachtenberg and Sterling Knight) resent him.

At the school to pick up his resentful offspring, he runs into a mysterious janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray) who overhears him lament that he wishes he were still in high school. Before you can say, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Mike awakens in his teenage body.

With the help of his best friend Ned (Thomas Lennon, Reno 911!), who has made a fortune through various computer developments, Mike reenrolls in his alma mater. After a short adjustment period (his idea of cool clothes needs a slight upgrade), he discovers that he was actually sent back to his physical youth, not to correct his own mistakes but to help his troubled children get past their issues.

From here you can easily guess where it’s going to go. Maggie will get a crush on him (think Back to the Future), and Mike will fall madly in love with Scarlett all over again.

Curiously, 17 Again manages to be entertaining despite its familiarity. Lennon, who excels at playing uptight pseudo-experts, is a riot as a man whose proficiency with a keyboard is equaled by his social ineptitude. The film’s biggest laughs come from Ned’s less than helpful advice to Mike and his bizarre attempts to woo Mike’s new principal Ms. Masterson (Melora Hardin). During Ned’s stumbles at romance, Filardi and director Burr Stears (Igby Goes Down) demonstrate a creativity that’s missing from the rest of the film.

One other surprising virtue is Efron himself. The 21-year-old teen heartthrob actually has the dramatic chops to be convincing as a literally wiser-than-his-years character. As can be expected from his previous work, he can move well enough to be a convincing point guard. He thankfully isn’t asked to burst into song at any point during 17 Again, but when he dances (impressively, I should add), the filmmakers figure out how to make him boogie without getting in the way of the story.

Because capable performers can be at the mercy of agents who land them career-ending roles, it’s pointless to speculate what sort of future Efron has. Nonetheless, 17 Again demonstrates that he has rightfully earned some of the rampant adulation that has come his way. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 04/17/09)


Observe and Report
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

With his latest movie Observe and Report, writer-director Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way) attempts a difficult balancing act, so he can be forgiven for occasionally stumbling between laughter and squirms.

While the setup for the current film resembles a certain January release that made a lot of money by poking fun at pudgy shopping center security workers, its tone and approach are radically different. Paul Blart: Mall Cop starred Kevin James as a gung ho guard whose portly frame hides a Die Hard-style hero. The story was shallow and sloppy, but accessible.

Hill’s movie is often uncomfortable to watch, but it’s more satisfying, even if it may send easily upset viewers dashing for the exits. While played by laid-back comic Seth Rogen (Knocked Up), Ronnie Barnhardt is less of a security officer and more of a strolling time bomb.

Afflicted with bipolar disorder and a crippling sense of inferiority, Ronnie is potentially more dangerous than the criminals who’ve been plaguing his turf. At times, it’s easy to feel sorry for him because he lives with a mother (Celia Weston) who’s so inebriated that she finds speaking in coherent sentences exceedingly difficult. His father has been out of his life for decades.

There’s a flasher traumatizing female shoppers and employees, and a thief is raiding the stores at night. Considering the fact that he and his fellow guards aren’t allowed to carry pistols, it would seem commonsense to let a profession cop like Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) hunt the perps. Ronnie is wanting in this department.

He starts endorsing radical tactics to stopping the crooks and gleefully trains with weapons that are too deadly for the rent-a-cops to be wielding. The frightening thing is that his subordinates, like the fantastically sycophantic Kevin (Michael Peña), actually take him seriously. He also starts wooing a ditzy cosmetics vendor (the reliably goofy Anna Faris), who finds him annoying without chemical help.

Ronnie even applies to become a police officer so that he can embarrass Harrison. It’s hard to imagine Ronnie making the force because he frequently trips over his own tongue when trying to impress people. His gleeful description of a recurring dream to a psychiatrist is guaranteed to get him placed in the loony bin instead of a squad car. Rogen’s easygoing charm makes Ronnie as fascinating as he is repellent. His mushrooming rage comes out like a quip, but Rogen has enough range to convince viewers that today’s wisecrack could easily become tomorrow’s rampage.

When Hill decides to follow his morbid muse, Observe and Report is eerie fun. He consistently chooses great tunes that aren’t on heavily rotation on classic rock stations and has created dozens of entertaining characters. Patton Oswalt (who’s probably best known for voicing the lead rat in Ratatouille) is a scream as a cruelly obnoxious bakery manager who makes Ronnie seem sweet.

Hill’s approach to humor is often intriguing because despite an ability to write disturbingly funny banter, he bases more of the laughs on painful silences. Ronnie falsely accuses a South Asian-American cosmetic salesman (Aziz Ansari) of being the flasher even though the perp is clearly white. The two then proceed to shout and then whisper F-bombs at each other. The linguistic monotony is actually quite funny because the actors come up with dozens of goofily defiant facial expressions.

Around the third act, Hill apparently loses faith with his audience and maybe even his own story. The unnerving story gradually becomes pat and conventional. You begin to wonder how Ronnie has held his job for so long even though he’s becoming a liability to the mall. In this economy, it’s sadly easy to find a more qualified guard. The conclusion drags on and actually makes viewers crave the discomfort that came before.

If the filmmakers had been as heroic as Paul Blart, Observe and Report could have been the bravely abrasive movie it should have been. By chickening out, they’ve inadvertently cheated viewers by undermining the credibility of the story. In its own way, Observe and Report almost becomes as stale as the movies it’s reacting against. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 04/10/09)


Adventureland
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s hard to think of a movie that is more ill served by its trailer than Adventureland. Most of the scenes in the trailer are in the final cut. But little of the wit or affectionate characterizations that form the backbone of the full movie shine in the preview. The truncated presentation indicates the film offers broad gross out humor.

This approach may be due to the fact that writer-director Greg Mottola is probably best known for directing the Judd Apatow-produced Superbad. In that film, he rendered the quest for alcohol and first-time sex in vividly lurid detail. But the movie was enjoyable not because of its emphasis on bodily functions but because Mottola was able to make viewers care about its frustrated heroes.

It’s the latter factor that also makes Adventureland work as well. Sex and illicit chemicals figure into the story. But when Mottola is working from his own script, he’s more interested in having characters wrestling with their own foibles than he is getting his viewer to simultaneously yell, “Eeeewww.”

The film is set in 1987 Pittsburg, where recent college graduate James Brennan (the terrific Jesse Eisenberg from The Squid and the Whale) quickly discovers that his dreams are evaporating. His dad (Jack Gilpin) has just been demoted at work, so James’ long summer tour of Europe won’t be happening.

In fact, his parents’ financial situation looks so dire that if James doesn’t find a decent summer job, he can forget about graduate school at Columbia University. Having only known academia for the last four years, the only place that will take him is a low-rent amusement park called “Adventureland.”

The park is loaded with games that are rigged so that the players are unlikely to win the highly coveted “big-ass panda” doll, and the owners Bobby and Paulette (Saturday Night Live veterans Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) are the only people around who have any enthusiasm for the rickety facility. Bobby, in particular, has draconian ways of dealing with litterbugs.

Dealing with potentially violent adults and bratty kids may not be what James dreamed of for his summer, but he meets an equally academically minded lad named Joel (Martin Starr) and Em (Kristen Stewart, demonstrating acting chops that were completely absent in Twilight), who gives him useful advice and may be as interested in him as he is in her. James also make the mistake of befriending the 30-something maintenance worker Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who is a hero to the guys and a crush for the ladies despite the fact that he’s married and has a musical career that seems curiously stillborn.

Mottola, who based the film on his own experiences working at an amusement part of the same name, fleshes the characters out beautifully. For example, James develops from a whiny privileged kid into a likable, supportive man. Despite his education, he still has a lot to learn, but Mottola and Eisenberg give viewers the impression he’s more than smart enough to do it.

It’s a testament to the cast and Mottola’s writing that even minor characters in the film are interesting. Gilpin is in only a few scenes, but is amusingly pathetic as an alcoholic who can’t bring himself to admit his problem. Hader and Wiig are expectedly sidesplitting and over-the-top, but Mottola uses them judiciously so they don’t take viewers out of the story.

Mottola also has a remarkably sharp eye for the period. Having come of age at the same time as the characters in the film, I can attest to the fact that the music and the clothes are frighteningly on-target. Yes, people during that era really did look that awful (I recently discovered an ‘80s yearbook featuring outfits just like the ones in the film). Even the cover bands playing in the background during bar scenes are accurately inept. You’ll never want to hear another Foreigner song again, at least not by a bar band.

Mottola chooses his soundtrack wisely. The songs fit the scenes nicely, but they’re not necessarily the most familiar tunes from the era. It’s a treat to hear The Replacements instead of Duran Duran.

There are still puke jukes in Adventureland as there were in Superbad, but it’s nice to see that Mottola can help viewers get in touch with another body function, the beat of a heart (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 04/03/09)


Fast & Furious
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Three years after Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift Vin Diesel’s back as hard-driving tough guy Dominic Toretto.

The movie starts with one long, wild car action scene. Dom and the gang engage in some fancy driving maneuvers to steal petroleum tanks from a moving truck, and it’s spectacular. There’s lots of high-speed driving in reverse, dry-road donuts and the like.

But after the first scene there are not much of the road high jinks that characterize this franchise. Instead we get a lot of tough guy posturing, some shootouts, a bit of flirting and some partying.

Dom’s out to avenge the death of a friend, so he agrees to help his old friend Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) catch a drug trafficker, Braga.

Braga lives the high life, thus the decadent party scenes, which include two or three gratuitous girl-on-girl make-out scenes. Besides that director Justin Lin goes out of his way to avoid scenes that would jeopardize the film’s PG-13 rating. During brief love scenes the camera abruptly cuts away after, say, a kiss. In one scene, O’Conner lifts his girl to the kitchen countertop moves in and poof, an abrupt cut to another scene.

Fast & Furious isn’t really about violence or sex. It’s about a lonely, depressed 21th century John Wayne character following his code of honor. And boy is he focused. It’s a lot like the latest Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, but the lead character is more raw, less polished.

Diesel has few lines and does a good job of creating a character that is part John Wayne tough guy and part instinct-driven cave man. Although Fast & Furious has few memorable characters and a mediocre script, Dom and the charming loose cannon O’Conner will probably be enough to etch an impression in action fans’ minds. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 04/03/09)


 
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
Deborah Young can be contacted at dkayyoung@hotmail.com.
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com.

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