From the Editor

Movie Review Archive

Thank you for checking out my movie review archive. I'm in the process of transitioning to something else, so I will no longer post new reviews to this blog. In the meantime, I will keep these reviews archived; these are from the fall of 2008 to April 2011. Please watch this blog for more info and keep in touch (you can still find me on Facebook and Twitter). Here's to more great movies!

Wes Singleton

North Texas Film Critics Association

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Last Station - B+

Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity, 112 minutes

Well-drawn, affecting "The Last Station" details Tolstoy's last days

You may have heard of the classic novels "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy. "War and Peace" could very well describe Tolstoy's volatile relationship with his wife in his final days, which are expounded upon in the superbly acted, engaging "The Last Station." Christopher Plummer (one of the voices in "Up") and Helen Mirren ("The Queen") play Tolstoy and his wife Sofya, and their stirring performances highlight the film.

Tolstoy (Plummer) is entering his final days in frail health, surrounded by family and friends. He's regarded by one of the most influential writers of the era, so much that it's inspired a Tolstoyan religous-like movement, led by one of Tolstoy's closest adviser's, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). Tolstoy's radical, anarchist views have displeased wife Sofya (Mirren), and their relationship is marred by a turbulency, particularly when Chertkov, whom Sofya despises, encourages Tolstoy to turn over the copyright of his works to the public domain, leaving nothing for Sofya and the family. Meanwhile, Tolstoy has hired a new secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), who gets caught in the middle of Leo and Sofya's varying views that threaten to tear the family apart before he dies.

"The Last Station" is a fascinating, stimulating dramatic retelling of Tolstoy's final days that's both touching and moving that falters only when it adds an unnecessary subplot with McAvoy's character. "The Last Station" is also a baffling title given that 95% of the film doesn't take place in a train station, and is a reference to the place where Tolstoy died. A more fitting title would be "War and Peace: Leo and Sofya" since it's really about their relationship, and the dynamic performances from both Mirren and Plummer (who remarkably bears resemblance to the real Tolstoy) give the film considerable dramatic heft, particularly in some of the heated agitations that are the more memorable parts of the film.

"The Last Station" would be near perfect had it not focused too much on the Bulgakov character played by "Wanted's" McAvoy. It bears little purpose to the film only to show that Tolstoy had considerable influence over his personal life, something we already knew from the outset. McAvoy holds his own with acting giants Mirren and Plummer (his character's nervous sneezes are amusing) in a part that should be considerably smaller than it really is. Giamatti gives a strong turn as Chertkov, and he has a couple of good moments of displeasure with Mirren.

The production values are lush, with beautiful sets and costumes. Some may also carp that "The Last Station" doesn't attempt any Russian accents, but then that would've been a distraction from the story itself and isn't needed. Director and writer Michael Hoffman ("The Emperor's Club") serviceable direction and writing should be just as lauded as his two actors, who are slowly gaining acclaim for their performances.

"The Last Station" is one of the year's acting highlights and comes recommended.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Up in the Air - A-

Rated R for language and some sexual content, 109 minutes

Affecting, relevant "Up in the Air" one of the year's best

Two years ago this month, the film "Juno" directed by Jason Reitman was released. "Juno" was my favorite film of 2007, and Reitman's new dramedy "Up in the Air," is likely to be one of my favorites for 2009. Affecting, charming and superbly acted, "Up in the Air" tackles one of our society's most relevant issues: corporate downsizing, not to mention personal isolationism and impersonal relationships. It also provides George Clooney with one of his best performances, along with that of a young newcomer you're certain to see more of.

Ryan Bingham's (Clooney) job is to fire people from theirs. The anguish, hostility, and despair of his "clients" has left him falsely compassionate, living out of a suitcase, and loving every second of it. Just as he begins a relationship with fellow traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), his boss (Jason Bateman) hires arrogant young Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who develops a new streamlined method of firing people - through video - that threatens the existence Ryan so cherishes. Determined to show the naive girl a thing or two about how the business really works, Ryan takes her on one of his cross country firing expeditions, but as she starts to realize the disheartening realities of her profession, he begins to see the downfalls to his way of life.

Reitman delivers one of the year's best dramedy's in "Up in the Air," a touching, often amusing look at not only corporate downsizing but the escapes we take to avoid real, personal relationships. Reitman had actually intended "Up in the Air" to be his first feature, but had the opportunity to make "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno." By the time he got around to making it, American life had significantly changed and made it all the more pertinent.

It helps that many of the folks that Clooney's character "fires" in the film are non-actors who were actually laid-off. It adds a certain texture and realism to the film than had he used all professional actors, not to mention a whole new level of poignancy. With this in mind, Reitman and Clooney have made a vastly entertaining, touching film about how life can be so impersonal that we're used to it.

Clooney gives another engaging performance that's Oscar-worthy, one of his most layered, and one of the year's most subtly real performances by an actor this year. He finally realizes what a sad life he's leading when he goes to his sister's wedding (amusingly played by Melanie Lynskey - Rose from the TV show "Two and a Half Men") and he's not included in the wedding party (watch Clooney's face and you'll see how subtle the disappointment is) because they don't really know him. The folksy music that Reitman is obviously a fan of and uses considerably in the film only adds to the Clooney charm.

Clooney's fortunate to be paired with the outstanding Anna Kendrick, who you've seen as Bella's few human friends in "Twilight," who gives a revealing performance as the overconfident new employee who becomes a bit shaken by her new job (she has a couple of memorably honest scenes, particularly when she tells quickly tells Clooney off) that should garner some awards attention. Their chemistry and ongoing conversations about life and how the two learn eventually change is among the film's many highlights.

Interestingly, the weaker sections of "Up in the Air" focus on his romance with Farmiga, who delivers a nice turn in a largely underwritten role that takes the film's only truly predictable turn. Otherwise, Reitman delivers another home run with "Up in the Air," a tremendously engaging, entertaining but well-crafted film that's one of the year's must-see films.

Broken Embraces - B+

Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material, 127 minutes
In Spanish with English subtitles

Cruz and Almodovar a great team (again) in the enchanting "Broken Embraces"

Pedro Almodovar is one of the most prolific Spanish directors of this generation, and when retrospectives are shown of his career, his muse Penelope Cruz will be an important part of that. They team up again in the engaging, captivating new Spanish dramedy "Broken Embraces" and after this poignant effort, they should work together more often. Almodovar's appeal lies in the fact he can weave a mesmerizing storyline even when it's really a glossy soap opera along the lines of those fun Spanish/Mexican telenovelas.

A blind screenwriter named Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) spends his days flirting with women, doing a little writing and having long talks with Diego (Tamar Novas), the son of an old friend from his moviemaking days (Blanca Portillo). When a mysterious young man named Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano) shows up wanting him to make a movie, Harry, previously known as a movie director named Mateo, reaches back into his past to deal with the pain of an tragic romance with a young actress and secretary named Lena (Cruz), who was also involved with an abusive older rich businessman named Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). With all their stories intertwined, they must deal with the pain and tragedy of their past, which will help propel Harry back to his first love.

"Broken Embraces" is trashy Spanish soap opera done at its best and emotionally charged as only as Almodovar can do it. It's not quite on the level of greatness of his classic work such as "Talk to Her" and "All About My Mother," but it's still highly watchable, mainly due to the delectable Oscar-winning Cruz (her third film with the director) in a scorching turn, giving a holiday one-two punch with this film and a smokin' hot turn in the musical "Nine," which she's already gaining accolades for.

"Broken Embraces" starts of with a slower, slightly middling first act going back and forth between flashbacks, but gains steadier footing once it stays in the past and delves into the Lena and Harry's backstory. Essentially, this is Cruz's film and her sexy turn here is just as good, if not better, than "Nine" and with a larger, meatier role. The rest of the Spanish cast (but largely unknown) does well too, including a strong turn from Portillo (you may remember her from "Volver," also with Cruz), along with Gomez as the appalling older businessman who falls in love in Lena.

The last act is the most fun as it veers toward the melodramtic ("...just one more thing" says one character several times) when secrets are finally revealed and we get a chance to see the hiliarious but interesting film that Harry/Mateo never finished - "Girls and Suitcases" - something only Almodovar can do. The material isn't as compelling as Almodovar's past efforts, but it's still affecting, rarely dull and fascinating how Almodovar can coherently weave multiple storylines together into a single story.

"Broken Embraces" comes highly recommended for the lovely, sexy Cruz alone and is a shoo-in for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award.

The Young Victoria - C+

Rated PG for some mild sensuality, a scene of violence, and brief incidental language and smoking, 100 minutes

"The Young Victoria" - lush but boring production

"The Young Victoria," the new film about England's Queen Victoria, is one of the year most beautiful productions. It's handsome, extensively detailed and features some of the most ornate sets and costumes seen in recent memory, not to mention that it's sublimely acted by all involved. In spite of this and its pedigreed history, it's all rather a dull affair, particularly if you know the real story.

"The Young Victoria" tells the story of how Victoria (Emily Blunt) ascended the throne, the early years of her reign and her romance with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). She certainly had some challenges along the way, including an unstable Uncle and King (Jim Broadbent), a controlling mother (Miranda Richardson) and her mother's domineering adviser Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong, also seen as the villain in "Sherlock Holmes"), not to mention ambitious in-laws (Thomas Kretschmann as King Leopold). With the help of a trusted friend and assistant, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), among many others, she would have the longest reign of any female monarch in British history.

"The Young Victoria" is an elegant but tedious affair, another stuffy part of English history that's fascinating in the history books but less so to watch on screen. That's not to say that it isn't interesting or important, after all, Victoria's reign is indeed one of the most important and longest (the Victorian era is named for her after all) but some of it's confusing, boring and a few historical elements changed for cinematic purposes. The screenplay by Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park") expects us to know many details of the story, and unevenly alternates between costumed political thriller and romanticized story between Victoria and Albert.

As expected with something of this nature, the best thing about "The Young Victoria" is the ornate, detailed costumes (some of them so expensive they had to be insured) and the sublime acting from Blunt in the title role and a gallery of esteemed British character actors. Strong is particularly slimy as Conroy, Richardson is strong as the Duchess of Kent, while Oscar-winner and character actor Broadbent is strong as the unstable King William. The filmmakers also chose the actors well for their parts, as all of them, especially Strong, remarkably resemble their real-life counterparts (though Blunt is prettier than the real Victoria).

The political aspects of "The Young Victoria" are far more interesting than the stale Albert-Victoria romance, which takes precedence in the film's more banal second act (with the exception of an exciting assassination attempt made far more dramatic by screenwriter Fellowes than what actually happened). The film's unlikely producing team may be even more exciting: Sarah, Duchess of York (Fergie) and noted director Martin Scorsese.

For some, the handsome, well-acted but stuffy "The Young Victoria" may be required viewing due to its importance in history and legacy that Victoria left behind, but for many others, it's required viewing only if there's nothing else left to watch.

A Single Man - B+

Rated R for some disturbing images and nudity/sexual content, 99 minutes

Thoughtful, exquisite "A Single Man" an acting tour-de-force

"A Single Man" is one of this year's best, most thoughtful and insightful films. What's remarkable is that "A Single Man" is directed and written by fashion designer Tom Ford in his first film. Ford skillfully helms a film that features an acting triumph from British actor Colin Firth ("Mamma Mia!") in one of the year's best performances that'll likely find him competing for an Oscar alongside Jeff Bridges and George Clooney for Best Actor.

Ford directs an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel of the same name that was one of the first gay-themed novels of its generation. Firth is the central character, a closeted middle-aged college English professor in early 1960's Los Angeles, whose younger long-time companion, Jim (Matthew Goode), tragically dies in a car accident, leaving George alone, depressed and evaluating his own life. His next door neighbor is his old friend, fellow Brit Charley (Julianne Moore), who's newly divorced and struggling with her own life issues. The despondent George seems to know what he wants to do with his life until one of his handsome young students named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) enters his life.

"A Single Man" is a beautiful, sad portrait of a lonely man who's uncertain life may be filled with unexpected outcomes. It's exsuitely filmed, with a lush production that evokes the early, pre-hippie California era. Ford, a creative genius over the years behind the Gucci label, makes an astonishing, auspicious debut as a filmmaker, who skillfully uses colors to his advantage to convey George's feelings. The bright colors used in the flashbacks detail happier times in stark contrast to the washed out gray's, blacks-and-whites of his current mood. The film's upbeat orchestral score also contrasts George's feelings but also conveys an ominous feeling of what's to come.

Even more remarkable is the subtle turns he elicits from his cast, especially Firth in a triumph in a revealing, transparent performance that shows that not only can Firth, normally used in supporting roles and/or stuffy characters in costumed parts, can carry a contemporary film. It also shows that Firth can act using minimal dialogue and facial expressions; his shattered look (and wordless scene) after he learns of his partner's demise is one of the film's highlights.

Julianne Moore is good for a few scenes as his blowsy pal who reminds of Lynn Redgrave or even Elizabeth Taylor, and still manages to pull off a sexy turn in bouffanted hair and long, flowing gown. The handsome Goode is also affecting as George's boyish partner, seen only in flashback, and watch for "Big Love's" Ginnifer Goodwin in a very small role as George's nosy but caring next door neighbor.

All works with near perfection until the film's final act, and where "A Single Man" stumbles a bit when it tries to build upon the relationship between Kenny (Hoult, in a strong, memorable turn) and the lonely George, something that is out of place with the rest of the movie. The film begins and ends essentially the same but it may go down a slightly unexpected turn, leaving the audience to decipher the real outcome of George's life. Which life will he choose? A new hopeful one, or the one with the partner he's always loved?

"A Single Man" may represent a new turn for Ford as well, who's created a beautiful, touching film that should be seen for Firth's excellent performance.

Crazy Heart - B+

Rated R for language and brief sexuality, 111 minutes

"Crazy Heart" is a small, affecting movie with a huge performance

Jeff Bridges is one of this generation's most underappreciated actors, giving great performances for years, from "The Last Picture Show" to "Seabiscuit" to "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot," and he gives another superb performance that could likely find him with an Oscar in hand. Playing an alcoholic washed up country singer, Bridges shines in "Crazy Heart," a small, familiar but affecting movie with great timing.

Based on Thomas Cobb's 20-year old novel, "Crazy Heart" is a fictional story about down-and-out country singer named Bad Blake (Bridges), who's going through a major songwriting slump. Playing in small, dinky towns and trashy venues like bowling alley's, Blake is a once-well known recording artist who's broke and who continues to battle substance abuse problems. He falls for a younger journalist named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother with a toddler, all while trying to put his life and career back together.

Bridges' astonishing, revealing and very vivid performance carries what could've been a cliched film, and it's all due to his strong, Oscar-worthy turn that makes "Crazy Heart" so watchable. He's in nearly every scene, and from the moment he appears on screen, getting out of an old 1970's Suburban that's had as many knocks as he's had, buckling his pants and dumping out urine out of a jug, you know you're in for an interesting performance.

It's really not surprising that Bridges does some of his best work in "Crazy Heart," he's a fine actor who's been giving superb performances all these years (he was the best thing about the recent badly done "The Men Who Stare At Goats"), and his memorable work underscores a prolific career; any awards he gets, and he will likely get many, is deserving. What's really surprising about "Crazy Heart" is the polished, subtle turn from Colin Farrell as one of Blake's students who becomes a huge star. You would never know that this is the same showoff who played in such action films as "Miami Vice" and "S.W.A.T." just a few years ago and has battled his own substance abuse problems.

Director and writer Scott Cooper (largely known as an actor) makes good use of his cast, even if the overly familiar story, based on Cobb's 1989 novel, seems like a rewrite of 1983's "Tender Mercies," and it's none too ironic that the Oscar-winning star of that film, Robert Duvall, is co-producer of "Crazy Heart" and has a cheeky supporting turn as one of Blake's few true friends. Gyllenhaal is good though the romantic angle is the weaker part of the film and Cooper could've benefited by using a slightly older actress in the role.

The bluesy songs for the film, written by country music legend, T Bone Burnett, are also catchy, especially the original song "The Weary Kind," which will likely garner awards consideration on its own. "Crazy Heart" is touching, affecting and realistic, showing that life can be full of hard knocks and can make a decent song too. Bridges' brilliant turn is one of his best performances, one of the strongest turns by an actor in 2009, and for that reason alone comes highly recommended.

Sherlock Holmes - B

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material, 128 minutes

"Sherlock Holmes" entertaining, stylish but dumbed-down version of the classic story

It's no mystery that the new "Sherlock Holmes" was going to be a fun movie, after all it's directed by Guy Ritchie ("RocknRolla") and stars "IronMan's" Robert Downey Jr. and the suave Jude Law. On that level, the new adaptation of "Sherlock Holmes" delivers: it's entertaining, stylish fun with a cheeky turn by Downey as the celebrated British detective. Ritchie's energetic direction gives the film some heft, adding some largely unnecessary action set pieces that greatly simplify the story but still should draw in many younger fans to the classic tale.

After finally catching serial killer and occult "sorcerer" Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes (Downey) and his assistant Dr. Watson (Jude Law) can close yet another successful case. But when Blackwood mysteriously returns from the grave and resumes his killing spree, Holmes must take up the hunt once again. Contending with his partner's new fiancée (Kelly Reilly) and the dimwitted head of Scotland Yard, the dauntless detective must unravel the clues that will lead him into a twisted web of murder, deceit, and black magic - and the deadly embrace of temptress Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams).

Ritchie's interpretation of "Sherlock Holmes" is a lively but sometimes messy one, filled with some interesting addition to Doyle's original characters, including his fighting and martial arts abilities, something that's largely inferred in the novels. The flaws with Ritchie's other films, including "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels," particularly with an uneven, busy narrative flow and an overload on style, are considerably less noticeable here. The problematic, noisy first half-hour reminds of Ritchie's other efforts, but it finally settles down into an involving story though if you pay attention, it's not really a huge mystery.

Downey is, as usual, tremendous fun as the unorthodox crime solver, though he gives one of his most self-aware performances in ages while Law makes for a jolly sidekick and a slimmer Watson that most interpretations. Of the three main stars, the pretty McAdams is the weakeast and underused in what's really a small, non-essential role. Strong is a slimy, memorable villain and British character actor Eddie Marsan has a couple of good scenes as an Inspector.

This "Sherlock Holmes" is designed for the masses: lots of explosions, some fighting and a climactic chase scene. Ritchie's stylistic visuals and first-rate production are impressive, particularly the detailed sets and costumes, which carefully evoke the late 19th century. Ritchie's (more famously known as Madonna's ex) hollow storytelling, as with his other films, is the chief flaw, and his interpreation is far more simplistic than other versions. Sure, the explosions and action are fun and drip with style, but Holmes is a strong and enjoyable enough character without them, and Ritchie plays down the witty, clever crime-solving in favor of the action set pieces.

Downey is well-suited for the role and if this is a big hit, which it likely will be, there may be a series of films ahead with him in the title role. "Sherlock Holmes" is an enjoyable, likable and fast-paced, if not dumbed-down interpretation of a classic story, and literary purists may not like it, though even they'll leave entertained.

It's Complicated - B

Rated R for some drug content and sexuality, 118 minutes

Fun, messy "It's Complicated" made better by Streep

You can't get around what “It's Complicated” really is: a chick flick for older women. The new Nancy Meyers comedy, about middle-aged divorced folks hooking up behind their kids' back trying to rekindle some of the romance they had before, is your perfect movie if you enjoy seeing older people rolling around in the sack. It's not as near as bad as it sounds and actually “It's Complicated” is more lively and enjoyable than you might think, in spite of the fact it’s a predictable, slightly dumb comedy.

Jane Adler (Meryl Streep) is a successful bakery owner and divorcee, from lawyer Jake (Alec Baldwin). They have three grown kids, Lauren (Caitlin Fitzgerald), Gabby (Zoe Kazan), recent college grad Luke (Hunter Parrish), along with the fourth child, Lauren's fiancee Harley (John Krasinski). After a few drinks together, Jane and Jake, in drunken stupor, hook up the weekend of their son's college graduation, and begin a secretive fling, even though Jane becomes smitten with her divorced architect Adam (Steve Martin) and the fact that Jake is now married to Agnes (Lake Bell), the younger woman who broke up their marriage in the first place.

In spite of a contrived story, “It’s Complicated” works much like a relationship: messy but enjoyable. Director and writer Meyers completes her movie trifecta of making middle-age (some younger folks might even call that – gulp – old) seem appealing, first with Mel Gibson with “What Women Want,” then Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson with “Somebody's Gotta Give” and now with Streep and “It's Complicated,” which could be viewed as very mild middle-aged porn and is the weakest but most enjoyable of these; what it lacks in depth is made up for in fun and a game cast.

This in large part due to the energetic Streep, who carries the film on her back as she continues her career revitalization over the last couple of years as she herself grows older. She throws caution to the wind, lets her hair down (literally) and enjoys herself doing things women her age shouldn't. I wouldn’t dare tell her that she's probably a smidgen too old for this role, but then she can do anything (over the last year she’s sung ABBA songs, played a nun and Julia Childs) and she’s a relaxed, self-effacing comedienne that audiences can easily connect with.

As for Meyers, “It's Complicated” proves that she’s a better director than she is a writer, mainly due to her cordial style to let the actors just be themselves, not to mention the fact her unfocused, unrevealing script doesn't shed new light on relationships and has little place to go. Also, her script is a little sexist, as the men don’t come across as well as Streep does: Baldwin's aggressive charm, which serves him well on the TV show “30 Rock,” seems a little creepy here, while Martin's character is the opposite: out of place and too bland; when Streep and Baldwin are together on screen, he all but disappears.

Streep and Martin smoke pot. Baldwin gets naked. They sneak around, they get it on, and more than once. Some of it’s admittedly funny (the first unexpected drunken encounter is best, less so after that) but it grows - no pun intended - old after awhile. It runs its course after 90 minutes and Meyers has difficulty letting go of her quick fling of a movie, predictably extending it to nearly two hours, making it more complicated than necessary.

Meyers could’ve made “It’s Complicated” far simpler: just let them sleep together, work through their horniness and be done with it. Instead, her blatant contrivances pad the film, including the three friends (Rita Wilson, Mary Kay Place and Alexandra Wentworth) who hold no value to the movie except for Streep to explain the plot (which is evident since they completely disappear from the film's second half), not to mention a future son-in-law inexplicably named Harley, played with gumption by “The Office’s” Krasinski, whose smarter than the three dense kids, who don’t catch on what’s going on.

Much like a quick fling, it goes on too long and is often messy and unmemorable, but “It's Complicated” will give you a needed Meryl fix, who’s good as always and will likely make this a big hit with the older set.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel - C-

Rated PG for some mild rude humor, 90 minutes

Unmemorable, flat "Chipmunks" sequel nothing to squeak about

Two years ago a new, updated CG version of "Alvin and the Chipmunks" was released; mildly charming, it apparently resonated with audiences (mostly adults who were fans of the old-school Chipmunks) and it became a huge, huge hit earning well over $200 million in the U.S. alone and over $350 million worldwide, which fully explains the unnecessary new film. "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel" is nothing new: lots of singing and hijinks from the 'munks, and though the music is fun, this dumbed-down, excruciatingly overlong time waster of a sequel will make you pine for the best part of the movie: the ending.

Alvin (voice of Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) are now pop music superstars, touring the world over with their friend and new manager, Dave Seville (Jason Lee). When a stage accident puts Dave in the hospital in Paris, Dave's slacker man-boy cousin Toby ("Chuck's" Zachary Levi) looks after them, sending them off to school at Dave's request. They eventually meet up with three female chipmunk sisters known as the Chipettes: Brittany (Christina Applegate), Eleanor (Amy Poehler) and Jeanette (Anna Faris), who become the competition when they enter the school music contest, managed by evil music agent Ian (David Cross), who caused problems for the Chipmunks in the first movie.

The first "Alvin and the Chipmunks" was very thin plot-wise, but the stale, frivolous sequel wrings every unfunny, dumb idea out of the formula (pratfalls and farts will only get you so far), and stretched to an unbelievably long 90 minutes makes it feel worse than it really is. That's not to say that some of the songs are fun and energetically performed, and the addition of the Chipettes is also a good idea - their version of Beyonce's "Single Ladies" is the main highlight - it's just everything else is so painfully uninteresting that even the young ones may become restless. The flat, unpolished direction from "Hill Street Blues" actress-turned-director Betty Thomas doesn't really help, and the veteran director has had better luck with such films as the first "Dr. Doolittle" and the Howard Stern biopic "Private Parts" a dozen years ago.

"My Name is Earl's" Lee had a bigger role in the first, is seen just for a few minutes this time out, long enough to scream "Alvin!" a few times. Levi's flat, inexperienced comic skills are obvious given that he's essentially impersonating Lee, which makes you question how his TV show "Chuck" became such a hit. Even the normally droll Wendie Malick of TV's "Just Shoot Me" is wasted in a bit role as the school principal (it appears the casting shortlist for the humans only included those from current or defunct NBC comedies).

Long, McCartney and Gubler along with Faris, Poehler and Applegate, voice the chipmunks, but you don't know who's who since all the squeaky voices really sound the same and even worse, none of them, even pop singer McCartney, don't sing the songs (all covers of pop hits), which are the movie's best parts. Character actor Cross is back from the first film and the best of the human actors, trying in vain to give the "Squeakuel" some much-needed energy and fun, but the script gives him little to do except to stumble around the chipmunks.

In a nutshell, "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel" could've been smarter, funnier and shorter, but given its status as a cash-generating sequel, that's not a big surprise. The kids may enjoy it, but as a parent/adult, give yourself the real gift this Christmas and find something better to do or see.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Nine - B

Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking. 120 minutes

Music the best part of the uneven "Nine"

Fergie and Dame Judi Dench in the same movie. That could easily sum up the movie version of the renowned Broadway musical Nine, which is itself based on Fellini’s autobiographical film 8 ½, which could’ve used more surprises. Directed with panache from Chicago director Rob Marshall, this uneven film lacks that film’s spontaneity and smoothness, but the music carries the film and is well-performed by an all-star cast of usually non-singing actors, even if the numbers themselves are very mechanically staged.

Nine tells the story of Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), a world famous film director as he confronts an epic mid-life crisis with both creative and personal problems. He must balance the many women of his life, including his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his famous movie star muse (Nicole Kidman), his confidant and costume designer (Judi Dench), an American fashion journalist (Kate Hudson), a prostitute from his youth (Fergie) and his mother (Sophia Loren).

Nine is a colorfully-produced musical, ably handled by its award-winning cast. The thin, leisurely story weakens the film some, but those energetic, polished musical numbers are easily the highlight of the film. Marshall directs these dazzling set pieces with a heavy hand; they’re well-executed but also so rigid and mechanical it’s obvious the heavy amounts of rehearsal that went into them (and if you stay over for the credits, you’ll see the actors rehearsing them).

Most of Nine’s cast is up to Marshall’s perfectionist work ethic, and they all perform remarkably well in light of the fact that most have minimal singing experience. The one exception to this would be the aforementioned Fergie of the pop group Black Eyed Peas, who performs the song Be Italian with surprising force even for her early on the in the film. Dench is also quite a peach, giving the film importance by her mere presence, and her fun song Folies Bergere is one of the film’s highlights. Cotillard, Kidman and Cruz all have pleasant voices; Cruz in particular is wildly sexy, Cotillard the earthy ingénue while the beguiling Kidman’s part is surprisingly small (and no wonder that Catherine Zeta-Jones, who was to originally play the part, dropped out because Marshall wouldn’t expand the role).

Yet it’s a non-Oscar winner, non-singer who has Nine’s most memorable song. Kate Hudson, in a featured part as a fashion-magazine writer, performs the 60’s pop- flavored Cinema Italiano, one of the three songs written specifically for the film by original Nine Broadway composer Maury Yeston. Hudson performs with such a burst of vigor that it jumps off screen past than some of the other slower musical numbers, and a reprise is played over the credits.

That’s not to say Nine is perfectly cast. Daniel Day-Lewis is serviceable but miscast as the creatively- challenged Italian director; his singing voice is passably thin and the British actor seems to be working mighty hard at keeping his Italian accent. And while it’s wonderful to see the lovely Sophia Loren (still ravishing at age 75), her singing voice is a little craggy. Yeston wrote the lullaby Look at the Moon just for her, though it’s very short, a wise move considering she has trouble carrying the tune.

Nine’s story isn’t near as emotionally engaging as the movie and one of the story arc’s in particular, one involving Guido and his wife, falters in an attempt to establish a poignant connection. Nine wants to draw some powerful statements on Guido’s life and the importance of being loose and free, when in fact its script (co-authored by the late Anthony Minghella) could’ve used more of that – Fergie and Dame Judi don’t even have a musical number together – which would’ve been great fun. The handsome production elements more than make up for the story flaws, with the first-rate sets and costumes evoking 1960’s Italian cinema.

Most importantly, the lovely, exuberant cast performs the music well, really the best reason to see Nine, which often plays out with the depth of a musical Calvin Klein ad, where you most remember all the exciting visuals but little else.

Did You Hear About the Morgans? - D

Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and momentary violence, 103 minutes

Yes we saw "About the Morgans" and it's not good

It's always a tricky thing to have your movie title end with a question. If it's not very good, be prepared for critics like me to make fun of it because it's so bad. And that's the case with the awful new Hugh Grant-Sarah Jessica Parker romantic comedy "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" With the bad word-of-mouth it's generating, people are likely to stay away in droves to see the far more exciting "Avatar" this weekend. Grant and Parker should leave "Morgans" off their film resumes in the same way Sandra Bullock should forget about "All About Steve," that hideous comedy sandwiched between her big hits this year.

The set up for "Morgans" is an easy one and played in all the trailers for the film, which show the best parts of the film. Grant and Parker play self-absorbed, wealthy New York socialite couple Paul and Meryl Morgan, who are having marital issues and separated and on an evening out trying to patch things up when they're witness to a murder by a well-known killer (Michael Kelly), who's now out to get them. They're placed in witness protection in Wyoming with sheriff and deputy couple Clay and Emma Wheeler (Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen, definitely slumming it here). They're fish-out-of-water escapades will either bring them closer together or further drive apart the already bickering couple.

"Did You Hear About the Morgans" is a horribly flat, derivative comedy that plays to the most annoying aspects of the two stars: Parker's whining and Grant's mugging for the camera. Grant's facial expressions are easier to tune out than Parker's incessant, nasally complaining, and the mismatched pair have zero chemistry together, making it baffling how these two such selfish people were able to get together in the first place. It's meant to be a star vehicle for the two, but the plot is so familiar, unfunny and pointless that "Morgans" ends up a badly edited, disjointed mess, which is a mild surprise given that director and writer Marc Lawrence has worked with Grant twice before, in "Music and Lyrics" and "Two Weeks Notice," both far better films than this.

If you've seen the trailers for the "Morgans," then you've seen the best 2-3 minutes (or less) the film really has to offer. It wastes a talented supporting cast too, in veteran actors Elliott and Oscar-winner Steenburgen, who come across as far more stable, interesting and humorous (not to mention a smidgen creepy) than Parker or Grant. It doesn't help that the unflattering lighting Lawrence uses only highlights Parker's even more unflattering, mannish features. Also wasted is broadway actor Kelly as the bad guy, who somehow manages to track the two down in a series of contrived, rather stupid coincidences.

They go to the ranch. They attempt to ride horses, do manual labor and encounter a bear. They go to the county fair and run from the bad guy. This type of thing has been hundreds of times before in movies, and most of them better than the "Morgans." Grant usually can save a movie by merely looking befuddled, but he looks more confused and angry than befuddled, which will certainly explain audiences reaction to it after they pay money to see it.

"Did You Hear About the Morgans" comes at a bad time when critics tend to remember bad movies most, and "Morgans" may end up on some end-of-year lists, just not the good ones, and will likely end up as one of Parker and Grant's worst films. Stay away from this one and see "Avatar" instead this weekend.

Avatar - A-

Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking, 162 minutes

Cameron's "Avatar" nothing short of spectacular

I don't give an "A" to many films because I feel it has to earn it. The phenomenal new epic James Cameron film "Avatar" earns that and more. Sure, it's too long and some may not enjoy some of the tree-hugging atmosphere of it, but "Avatar" is a 2-hour and 40 minute fantastical journey to another place, and what a visually stunning experience it is. It's a labor of love that you'll see and feel in every minute of the spectacle, but you'll enjoy this ride immensely.

When his identical twin brother is killed in battle, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully ("Terminator: Salvation's" Sam Worthington) decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge's (Giovanni Ribisi) intentions of driving off the native humanoid people called Na'vi in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland and seemingly using a group of scientists led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who utilize "avatar" technology i.e. alien bodies, to mingle with the Na'vi and gather some important information.

In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang, perfectly cast), while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na'vi people with his avatar identity. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana), the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand - and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora.

"Avatar" is one of the year's best and most thoroughly enjoyable films, an astonishing visual feast full of life and imagination, with first-rate action and visuals that will keep you interested from beginning to end. A new version and combination of live-action and photo-capture CGI, it's a breathless experience and one that is best experienced in IMAX 3-D, if at all possible.

Cameron has spent the time, effort and loads of money (with a production budget of about $250 million, excluding marketing costs for the film) and it's evident in every shot. There's not a dull moment in "Avatar," even when it's story veers off into saving the planet/tree-huggers unite type of territory. Among the wonderful creatures: a pteranodon-like mountain banshee with adept flying skills that come in handy in during the climax, not to mention the colorful blue feline-like alien creatures that are at the core of the film.

But most of all, "Avatar" is terrific entertainment, and he keeps the action pumping, particularly in its heart-racing final act. It helps that he has a great cast too, with Australian actor Worthington, who already headlined one action-adventure, ironically "Terminator: Salvation," which Cameron himself has roots in with the first of those two films. But it is "Avatar" that he'll be best remembered for, and he grounds the film well, providing both the narration and the true heart of the film. Weaver, who'll always be Ripley in my book, is back as the strong female center for the film, while character actor Lang (seen recently in "The Men Who Stare At Goats") makes for a strong, genuinely fun bad guy.

While the breathless special effects are the real star of "Avatar" (and expect Cameron and his technical team to take home Oscars for the the film), the energetic, popping musical score is provided by Cameron stalwart James Horner, who won awards for Cameron's "Titanic" and should do the same here. First-rate editing and beautiful cinematography only serve to enhance "Avatar's" visuals.

The story lacks a powerful focus and central emotional core and loses a little steam late in the film, but a genuinely rousing climax and fight at the end reels you back into "Avatar" in no time. At 162 minutes, it's too long, but unlike "Titanic," you won't feel it, with enough action and visuals to keep you engaged throughout. It's also a little intense and overlong for the young ones too, though they'll get a kick out of some of the action scenes (however, those canine creatures are a tad scary).

James Cameron has done it again. Add the astonishing, captivating "Avatar" to his impressive resume that already includes "Titanic," the first two "Terminator" films and "Aliens," the best of that series of films. "Avatar" earns its stripes as one of 2009's best films and comes highly recommended.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Princess and the Frog - B

Rated G, 95 minutes

Old-school Disney "The Princess and the Frog" predictable fun

The fun new Walt Disney animated film "The Princess and the Frog" harkens back to the days of pre-"Toy Story," "Finding Nemo" and "WALL-E" when 2-D hand-drawn animation was the norm. Disney returns to its roots with a new twist on the classic fairy tale "The Frog Prince" with a young black woman as the title character and a largely African-American cast. On that level, it's groundbreaking, though otherwise it's pretty standard animated kids fluff: loads of colorful talking animals, a love story and a happy ending that'll everyone will find pleasure in. Enjoyable but predictable, "The Princess and Frog" is suitable fun for the whole family.

The Princess and the Frog is a fairy tale finds the lives of arrogant, carefree Prince Naveen (TV actor Bruno Campos) and hardworking New Orleans waitress Tiana (Broadway actress Anika Noni-Rose) crossing paths at the turn of the 20th Century. Prince Naveen is transformed into a frog by a conniving voodoo magician (familiar character actor Keith David) and Tiana, following suit, upon kissing the amphibian royalty. With the help of a trumpet-playing alligator (Michael-Leon Wooley), a Cajun firefly (Jim Cummings), and an old blind lady (Jenifer Lewis) who lives in a boat in a tree, Naveen and Tiana must race to break the spell and fulfill their dreams.

Nimble, sharp and funny, "The Princess and the Frog" is pleasant entertainment from the folks at Disney, though certainly not on the level of the Pixar computer-generated animated efforts over the last decade. The movie is well-voiced and technically well-crafted from co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the directing and writing team from esteemed Disney efforts "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and "Hercules" that rejumped Disney 20 years ago. But the story, very loosely based on the fairy tale "The Frog Prince," is an odd one to remake with a black cast in 2-dimensional form, and doesn't provide any new surprises.

"The Princess and the Frog" still manages to entertain with some vibrant voices and fast-paced plot. Stage actress Noni-Rose is a delight as the title characters, as is largely unknown TV actor Campos as the frog. Character actress Lewis is always good for a few laughs, as is Disney stalwart Cummings as the Firefly. Listen closely for New Orleans native John Goodman as a Tennessee Williams-style Big Daddy character, while Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey each have a couple of lines in what amounts to voice cameos (and in Oprah's case, a drawing card). Many of the talking animals (particularly Cummings' firefly) provide the film's more memorable, funny moments.

While it's nice seeing traditional animation, "The Princess and the Frog" reveals two of Disney animators biggest flaws, which is bland music and cliched characters. Veteran music composer Randy Newman's song are a pleasant afterthought, whie Disney again plays to stereotype in some of its characters (yes, the Louis Armstrong-style alligator is a nice homage to the beloved musician but still doesn't seem fresh), not to mention its overly predictable plot. Will the frogs regain human their human standing and find true love? If you've seen any Disney in the last 20 years, you'll know the answer to that without even seeing the film.

There's nothing wrong with "The Princess and the Frog"" it's a modest, decent animated effort with fair treatment of all its characters, a zippy feel and brightly drawn animation that will certainly appeal to the younger set (plus New Orleans always has tremendous appeal). However, Disney wants you to believe this is groundbreaking stuff, and on the surface that may be true, but a closer look you'll really see that's its nothing new; to be considered genuinely groundbreaking (and in some ways, fair), Pixar should've undertaken this with a stronger, more original story and CG 3-D animation.

I'll wait to see if that happens, and while "The Princess and the Frog" doesn't always work perfectly, kids and families should still enjoy it this holiday season.

Invictus - B+

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, 134 minutes

Stirring "Invictus" a true, old-fashioned story

"Invictus" is an uplifting but old-fashioned factual sports-movie that's more inspiring by the fact that it actually happened. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, it's a little too earnest for its own good in places, but the inspiring tale is well-acted and a nice change of pace for Eastwood, who normally directs heavy crime-related dramas.

"Invictus" tells how Nelson Mandela (Freeman) joined forces with the captain of South Africa's rugby team Francois Pienaar (Damon) to help unite their country. Newly elected President Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa's rugby team as they make their historic run to the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship match.

Eastwood's affecting, soul-searching drama "Invictus" attempts to rally the troops and in many succeeds, aided by strong performances from Freeman as Mandela and Damon as the rugby captain who become allies during a crucial time in South Africa's history. Fortunately, Eastwood's direction and the script by Anthony Peckham (who also penned the upcoming version of "Sherlock Holmes"), have a poignancy that keeps the film moving and clear of too much heavy-handedness. The film starts out too slow as it focuses on Mandela's rebuilding of South Africa, and picks up through an engaging last act during the big stadium game.

Freeman is inspired casting as Mandela, casting the perfect amount of stoicness for the role, while Damon actually has the more subtle, complex role of the captain who's propelled to change by the President. Eastwood could've tightened up certain areas of the film to make it flow easier, and some of the music, jazz-flavored and mixed with some African beats and harmonies (handled by one of Eastwood's own sons, Kyle, while his other son Scott has a featured role in the film as one of the soccer players), is a pleasant but odd choice for the film.

The title "Invictus" comes from British poet William Henley poem of the same name, and means "unconquered" or "invincible" in Latin and a portion of which is quoted in the film: "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul." Inspiring and appealing enough to make you want to actually learn more about the sport of rugby, a weird, very rough but often fascinating sport to watch (one that most American audiences won't know much about) but one that's highly popular overseas.

Still, even with all the earnestness, Eastwood's lighter touches here make "Invictus" a solid, warm choice with some old-fashioned holiday cheer, and it's one of his more accessible, least heavy films in years.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Brothers - C

Rated R for language and some disturbing violent content, 110 minutes

Thoughtful but uneven "Brothers" gets lost in cliches

The heavy drama "Brothers" is well-directed and sublimely acted by the guy who played Spider-Man. It's too bad that the story, based on a Danish film with roots in Homer's "Odyssey" is overly familiar and cliched. The actors are plausible, even when the story falters, especially near its downbeat ending.

Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) and his younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) are polar opposites. Sam is a dutiful marine about to go back to Afghanistan on his fourth tour of duty. He has a lovely young wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and two precious young daughters that love. Tommy is getting out of jail for bank robbery, and things are a little tense between him and his parents (Sam Shepherd and Mare Winningham). When Sam's helicopter crashes and he and a buddy are taken as a prisoner of war, he's assumed for dead by Grace and the rest of the family. Tommy comes around to console Grace and they end up falling for each other and sleeping together. However, things drastically and unexpectedly change when Sam is found and brought home to circumstances he'd hoped would never happen.

"Brothers" is a well-acted but unrevealing, uneven drama that plays out too melodramatically, which is unfortunate given that the director is Jim Sheridan ("In America," "In the Name of the Father") and the strong performances from its young cast, especially Maguire. It's told with parallel stories, showing Sam's capture and return, and Grace and Tommy falling in love. You have a tragic sense of what's going to unfold when Sam returns, and the film takes its time when it could've been accomplished much sooner.

Maguire is excellent as the young, stout Marine whose life is shattered upon learning his wife has been sleeping with his troubled young brother, in a subtle turn from Gyllenhaal in the film's trickiest role. Gyllenhaal is good but seems too well-scrubbed to playing a misfit; Portman gives a strong turn as the wife, though most of the melodramatics come from her end. The war scenes are far more captivating and engaging than the banal scenes at home.

"Brothers" is good but not great, and doesn't establish enough sympathy for any of the characters involved, and you may not care much what happens. There's not enough emotional payoff given the circmumstances, which would've helped the overly familiar, somewhat predictable script. The story of "Brothers" has been told and seen before many times, most of them better than this.

Armored - D

Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence, some disturbing images and brief strong language, 88 minutes

Don't let the silly, contrived "Armored" hold you up

"Armored" definitely makes the case for not screening films in advance for critics. It really doesn't make any case well, as this heist movie is the most ridiculously contrived, badly acted and written film that I've seen in some time. It starts out modestly well, then falls apart late in the first act with some of the dumbest plot twists and turns since "Transformers 2." After seeing this heist film, you'll feel like your money's been stolen from you.

A newbie guard (Columbus Short) for an armored truck company is coerced by his veteran coworkers (Matt Dillon, Laurence Fishburne, Jean Reno, Amaury Nolasco and Skeet Ulrich) to steal a truck containing $42 million. But a wrinkle in their supposedly foolproof plan divides the group, leading to a potentially deadly resolution involving a young police officer ("Heroes" Milo Ventimiglia).

"Armored" is a heist movie that lacks any coherency or smooth story telling and will leave the audience baffled by some laughable, preposterous plot twists that just won't stop. The story starts off well in some early exposition, but it comes undone when the main character is stuck in an armored truck with all the money and won't come out. The other characters work trying to force him out, though they don't even realize he can get out and move around but they can't get in (something I just didn't buy from the get-go).

What's even more surprising is that it wastes a decent, talented cast who's better than this. Dillon and Fishburne are particularly wasted as the leaders of this inept team (both of them are Oscar-nominated actors, but you wouldn't know it by their hokey performances here), who somehow manage to steal the trucks and then don't know how to get in them. Veteran character actor Fred Ward shows up in a couple of scenes (and by that, I mean just a couple of scenes) looking as confused as the audience.

Seemingly, much of "Armored's" plot exposition, character motivation and depth and any semblance of good acting must be on the cutting room floor, and it seems quite disjointed and uneven, particularly the baffling ending, all of which is mishandled by director Nimrod Antal ("Vacancy"). I wouldn't waste my time with the just plain awful "Armored," as it will likely have a short life and find itself on DVD within the month.

Everybody's Fine - B-

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language, 100 minutes

Kinder, gentler DeNiro in "Everybody's Fine"

"Everybody's Fine" is a serviceable family drama that shows the softer side of veteran actor Robert DeNiro, who typically plays hardened criminals, cops or broad comedy. Here he takes it down a notch and plays to his softer, gentler side as a lonely widower who tries to reconnect with his grown kids who are too busy for him now. Overly sentimental and occasionally mawkish, the story is a familiar one that's made better by a talented cast led by DeNiro.

DeNiro is Frank Goode, widower with four grown kids. Realizing his wife was the real emotional connection to the family, he attempts to reconnect with them with an impromptu road trip to visit with each of them. All have seemingly successful careers and happy lives and don't make much time for him. Amy (Kate Beckinsale) runs an advertising agency in Chicago, while his son Robert (Sam Rockwell) is a musician, while Rosie (Drew Barrymore) is a dancer in Las Vegas. They also hide their real problems from him, not to mention the fact that another brother, David, an artist in New York, is in some real trouble, all the while Frank just wants them all together for the holidays.

DeNiro's sensitive, restrained performance is the main reason to see the leisurely, overly familiar "Everybody's Fine," actually a remake of an early '90s Italian film starring Marcello Mastroianni. Directed and written by Kirk Jones ("Nanny McPhee"), the banal, often pensive story attempts to examine family relationships but ends up making it more of a roadtrip-style movie with little time to focus on the relationships as it should. DeNiro makes it all the more plausible, though it's somewhat hard to buy he'd be a patriarch of such a genteel, artistic family (and the script never really explains where all the artistic flair comes from - mother or father).

Of the kids, the most memorable and enjoyable is Barrymore, who shares a few warm scenes with DeNiro and seems more compatible with him than either Beckinsale or Rockwell, who come across as more guarded, that or maybe they're just intimidated by the Oscar-winning actor. Speaking of DeNiro, he's remarkably laid-back and smiles more than he has in some time, displaying a pleasant soft side that's rarely channeled. He makes the bland script and direction better than it really is, and the climax itself lacks a powerful resonance to it, content with resolving things in a pat manner.

DeNiro is by far the best thing about "Everybody's Fine" and he makes it worth seeing, and it's fun seeing him trying to impress his children or take some candid but unnecessary snapshots. It's also worth it to stay to the end for the real treat: a wistful new Paul McCartney tune "(I Want To) Come Home," a sure bet for an Oscar nomination for Best Song. To quote a famous DeNiro line, "You lookin' at me?" The answer is absolutely, and it's a nice change of pace.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Road - B+

Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language, 119 minutes

"The Road" is a bleak but superbly crafted post-apocalyptic tale

There's simply no way around it: the apocalypse is not uplifting material. Just know that going into "The Road," the dreary, very heavy but affecting tale of post-apocalyptic survival of a man and his young son. While the recent "2012" had fun blowing up the world, the far superior "The Road" is in no way amusing, which isn't to say it's not entertaining, just in a far different way. "The Road" isn't a message movie per se, but it's stark reminder of what life after the apocalypse could be like makes it one of the year's must see films.

A father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind and water. It is cold enough to crack stones, and, when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the warmer south, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing: just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless cannibalistic bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a rusting shopping cart of scavenged food--and each other.

"The Road" is a dark, heavy drama of life in post-apocalyptic America, based on Cormac McCarthy's 2006 best-selling (and equally downbeat) novel. It's essentially a two-person film, ably carried by "Lord of the Rings" Mortensen, excellent as the wise, protective father who looks out for his son, and from young Australian actor Smit-McPhee as his sickly young son. Their pain, their struggles, are effectively and poiganantly highlighted thoroughout the film; it's dark, depressing tone and vivid shades of gray remind of the 1983 film "Testament," starring a wonderful Jane Alexander in a bleak film with similar themes.

"The Road" is quite effective at portraying a harrowing life of survival (particularly scary: cannibals who hunt people down). The Oscar-worthy photography is stark, memorably evoking what a nuclear winter is like (it's never specifically mentioned what really happened, but that is the assumption here). Director John Hillcoat ("The Proposition") elicits realistic, very natural performances from both Mortensen and Smit-McPhee, known only as Man and Boy here.

There are a few other notables in the cast, but they're too brief to make a huge impact. Charlize Theron plays the wife and mother and is seen only in flashbacks; Theron is very poignant but seen briefly in a role that's actually quite expanded from the novel. Blink and you'll miss Robert Duvall (hardly recognizable under a load of makeup) as an old, dying drifter, and Guy Pearce as a fellow father and traveler.

As you might expect with something like this, it isn't that hopeful, but the script tries to uplift when the two leads find pockets of food, a bath or warm clothes, things they now take for granted. As much as "The Road" tries to be hope, it really isn't, so don't go expecting to leave happy. But you'll certainly remember some of the film's stark images, not to mention the superb performances from the leads.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans - B+

Rated R for drug use and language throughout, some violence and sexuality, 121 minutes

"Bad Lieutenant" is an arresting portrait of one bad cop

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" is a hypnotic, often explosive story of a corrupt, drug-addicted cop in Post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. It's dirty, seedy and a little over-the-top (OK, maybe way over-the-top) but then that is its appeal. A very loose remake of the 1992 Harvey Keitel film "Bad Lieutenant," it also provides Nicolas Cage with a commanding, Oscar-worthy performance and his best in years.

Cage is Terrence McDonagh, a New Orleans Police sergeant, who starts out as a good cop, receiving a medal and a promotion to lieutenant for heroism during Hurricane Katrina. During his heroic act, McDonagh injures his back and later becomes addicted to prescription pain medication and becomes involved with a drug-addicted prosititute named Frankie (Eva Mendes). McDonagh quickly finds himself on the dark side of life, struggling with addictions and tangling with drug dealer Big Fate (rapper Xzibit), who is suspected of murdering a family of African immigrants.

"Bad Lieutenant" is a splendidly dark tale of the underside of New Orleans and the exploits of one corrupt cop. Directed with flavor by Werner Herzog ("Rescue Dawn"), the film is a very, very loose remake of an earlier 1992 film "Bad Lieutenant," starring Harvey Keitel, though it bears little resemblance to that seedy film. In fact, Herzog improves upon that uneven film considerably, held together by a mesmerizing, centerpiece performance from Cage, with his best role in years and a reminder of why he won an Oscar for "Leaving Las Vegas" 14 years ago. Given his penchant for annoyingly overacting in the worst way, I forgot that Cage can be an affecting, even hypnotic actor, but he delivers a terrific turn here, making you forget anything with "National Treasure" in the title (and hopefully overcome his current financial troubles).

Eva Mendes, another actor noted for more commerical roles, also has a strong turn as his junkie hooker girlfriend. Herzog has assembled some of the finest character actors to deliver some memorable scenes. Jennifer Coolidge (of the Christopher Guest films) is excellent as a blowsy, alcoholic younger wife of Terrence's father, as is Brad Dourif as a bookie friend and Dallas-site Irma P. Hall as a grandmother of a witness who's quite bothered by Terrence's questions (one scene with Hall, Cage and an elderly woman is one of the film's highlights). One disappointment: Val Kilmer is hardly there as a fellow corrupt cop, wishing he had more screen time.

The script takes some nice downturns down some dark alley's, and New Orleans never looked so gray, though the plot chases too many rabbits and some part of its mid-section don't seem fleshed out. And as mesmerizing as "Bad Lieutenant" is at times, it doesn't have a huge wide appeal; those who have become accustomed to Cage's action-hero roles will be quite surprised when they find out all the terrible things he does here. The film's final scene is a stark reminder that a leopard (especially a drug-addicted one) never quite loses its spots.

Every few years, Cage reminds us that he can still act. "Moonstruck," "Leaving Las Vegas," "Adaptation," and now "Bad Lieutenant." Let's enjoy it while we can before we get more bad hairpieces and saving the world action set-pieces like we saw with dreck like this year's "Knowing."

The Fantastic Mr. Fox - B+

Rated PG for action, smoking and slang humor, 87 minutes

Inspired, original "Fox" near fantastic

Who would've thought that the guy who directed such offbeat fare as "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" would make a thoroughly enjoyable, inspired and slyly amusing children's film such as "The Fantastic Mr. Fox." But an unconventional director like Wes Anderson is seemingly a natural choice to direct Roald Dahl's unconventional children's book in colorful, stop-motion form. "Mr. Fox" is energetic, affectingly voiced and its themes suitable for everyone, though the dialogue-heavy plot may lose some of the younger set it's intended for.

The story concerns Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his wild-ways of hen heckling, turkey taking and cider sipping, nocturnal, instinctive adventures. Since he started a family with Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and now has a son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), his wild days are behind him and he must do what fathers do best: be responsible. However, given his rebellious foxy ways, he's going to try "just one more raid" on the three nastiest, meanest farmers that are Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon). It is this quest for one last great adventure that opens the door for some major problems when the farmers begin their hunt to destroy Mr. Fox, his friends and their way of life below the ground.

Magical, inventive and fun, "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is brought to life with fresh imagination from Anderson, who carefully adapts Dahl's (he also wrote "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "James and the Giant Peach") ingenious children's novel but adds a goofy, pleasant humor not usually found in those novels. Anderson bookends the film with his own original scenes while remaining faithful to the source through the rest of the film.

Anderson also adds some of his usual touches - family dysfunction, lots of dialogue and those yellow placards which come upon the screen to introduce us to another chapter. All works well with the story, except Anderson's dialogue isn't kid-friendly and may be lost on many of the younger ones in the audience, who with no doubt will enjoy the stop-motion animation and the amusement of it all (my favorite: some sleep-inducing blueberries that Mr. Fox throws to the beagles).

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is voiced with natural ease by all the actors; the suave Clooney is especially an inspired choice for the title role, while Streep is a wistful, gentle Mrs. Fox. Anderson regulars Schwartzman, as nerdy son Ash, and Bill Murray, as the Badger, are among the highlights of the film (the Murray-Clooney exchanges are particularly memorable). Gambon (of the recent "Harry Potter" films), Owen Wilson (also an Anderson regular) and Willem Dafoe all have a few fun moments as some colorful characters in Mr. Fox's world.

However, the real star of "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is the seamless, bright stop-motion animation, which seems remarkably smooth and crisp compared to other films. It's an inspired choice to make Dahl's film this way but also a risky one, given that the Tim Burton-produced "James and the Giant Peach" remains one of the most fantastic, vivid stop-motion films ever seen.

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is near-fantastic in its fresh approach to appeal to all ages: the kids will enjoy the superb animation, the adults will enjoy the dialogue, not to mention the underlying messages of community and family. "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a pleasant, enjoyable movie-going experience that the whole family can enjoy this holiday season.

Ninja Assassin - B-

Rated R for strong bloody stylized violence throughout, and language, 99 minutes

Buckets of blood and fun in "Ninja Assassin"

"Ninja Assassin" arrives in timely manner for the holidays, when turkeys are carved and served with sides of cranberry sauce and dressing, as there's plenty of slicing, dicing and flying appendages in the new martial arts film. With loads of fast-paced fight scenes and more blood than Jason or Freddy could ever dream up, it's far more entertaining than you might think. Don't get me wrong, the Wachowski Brothers (of "Matrix" fame) produced film is pure hokum and ridiculously over-the-top, so much that it’ll end up an end-of-year guilty pleasure over much more serious movie going fare.

Raizo (Rain) is one of the world's deadliest ninja assassins, having been kidnapped as a child and raised by the Ozunu Clan, believed by the world to be a myth. When Raizo's friend is executed by the clan, Raizo flees into hiding. He later reemerges, seeking revenge. Meanwhile, Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris) is a Europol agent who investigates money linked to political murders and finds that it is linked to the Ozunu Clan. She defies her superior, Ryan Maslow (Ben Miles), and retrieves secret agency files to find out more. The clan, finding out about the investigation, attempts to assassinate her, but she is rescued by Raizo. Hiding in Europe, Raizo and Mika must find a way to take down the Ozunu Clan.

"Ninja Assassin" swoops in at a time when the martial-arts tank has run dry and masters like Jet LiJackie Chan or aging or taking a different direction. If you think you've seen it all, then you should see "Ninja Assassin," a preposterous, messy but energetic film that comes with some eye-popping fight scenes and featuring excessive amounts of violence, gore and bright red stylized blood. Director James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") gets things going early on in a jolting, splattery prologue that sets the pace for the rest of the film.

There's not a single subtle thing about "Ninja Assassin" and in some respects that isn't a bad thing, after all there's nothing worse than a boring martial arts film. A weak back story told in flashback nearly drags it down, but a few action set pieces midway through, including one in a parking garage, rev up the film. As for the rest of the movie, it's a bit of a mess: the thin story is barely there, character development is marginal at best and the acting, well, there's not much to it, all of it held together by those exciting action sequences and a dark tone that befits the story.

South Korean pop singer and model Rain plays "Ninja Assassin's" lead role with essentially a series of poses, but he handles the big knives and weapons well, while Naomie Harris' (a U.K. actress who may be recognizable from the last two "Pirates of the Caribbean" films) role is largely nonessential, adding beauty and some comic relief to its remarkably downbeat feel (and how she miraculously escapes any injury is as big a contrivance as any sword used in the film).

If you don't have the stomach for this kind of thing (and you may not if you eat too much holiday food), then you're better off with the scrubbed PG-13 "Twilight" set, as the violence here, while clearly video-game inspired along with some added CG effects, pops with a lot of fervor, and in a couple of scenes (particularly one in a restroom) may cause some discomfort. Still, without it, "Ninja Assassin" wouldn't be near as fun, including the cool way that some characters can appear and reappear during key battle scenes. The overlong climactic battle in "Ninja Assassin" is enjoyable, predictable and overdone, adding guns to an already crowded mix of swords, knives and any other type of blade that can be used in battle.

Martial-arts enthusiasts - no pun intended - will get a big kick out of this and may clamor for sequels if the film becomes a big hit. "Ninja Assassin" is mindless, escapist entertainment and worthwhile for those wanting to enjoy the holidays with some blood and a few high kicks.

Old Dogs - C

Rated PG for some mild rude humor, 90 minutes

"Old Dogs" offers nothing new: same 'ol dumb, silly fun

The new Disney comedy "Old Dogs" starring Robin Williams and John Travolta is nothing new, especially if you've seen the trailers for the film, or any other Disney comedy in the last 10 years, for that matter. Williams and Travolta make for a pleasant comedic team in an otherwise forgettably silly, hit-or-miss film that should please the popcorn movie-going masses this holiday season.

Two best friends and business partners -- unlucky-in-love divorcee Dan (Williams) and the other a fun-loving bachelor Charlie (Travolta) -- have their lives turned upside down when a former flame of Dan's (Kelly Preston) shows up and they’re unexpectedly charged with the care of his children, 7-year old twins (Conner Rayburn and Ella Bleu Travolta) all while on the verge of the biggest business deal of their lives. The not-so-kid-savvy bachelors stumble in their efforts to take care of the twins, leading to one debacle after another, and perhaps to a new-found understanding of what’s really important in life.

Lacking any sort of fresh comedic sensibility, "Old Dogs" is mildly amusing and slightly entertaining at best but has an air of sadness stemming from its casting and the fact it features Bernie Mac's last screen role. Travolta's wife Preston plays Williams love interest, while one of the kids is Preston and Travolta's real-life daughter Ella Bleu, which makes for a nice family affair until you remember their son Jett's unexpected and tragic death since the film was completed. Even more unfortunate is that "Old Dogs" will be remembered as Mac's last screen role, sad given the fact that his very brief role in it isn't very good or all that funny.

It's not all Mac's fault, though, as the movie lacks many laugh-out loud moments, peppered with only a few mildly amusing gags. It really comes down to the star pairing of Travolta and Williams to carry all of this and while they work well together, their lazy, collect-a-check performances bring to light the worst parts of "Old Dogs": the lousy direction from "Wild Hogs" director David Becker and the maudlin, predictable script that Disney so likes to churn out these days. It's all safe, silly and suitable fun for the family, though you can't help wonder why these characters are so dumb - from mixing up medication to excessive tanning to breaking and entering - all of which seems like filler to pad an already weak story.

With that in mind, it's also easy to see why they also packed "Old Dogs" with so many cameos at every turn, a stunt casting trick that ends up a mixed bag here. They range from sharp (comedian Amy Sedaris is onscreen for less than a minute and still earns a laugh) to moderately amusing (Rita Wilson as a cross-eyed hand model) to plain unfunny (Matt Dillon and Justin Long as camp counselors) to completely wasted (Ann-Margaret, appearing drunk). All that's missing is a cameo from Tim Allen, who's made a decent living by appearing in numerous middling Disney films over the years, a route that Travolta himself seems to be taking as well, with a forthcoming "Wild Hogs" sequel.

Even with this, "Old Dogs" isn't a complete waste of time. Seth Green adds some goofy energy as their co-worker (and the scenes with a gorilla you've seen in the trailers is one of the more memorable bits), and you can impress your friends by answering a trivia question as to what's happened to Lori Loughlin, one of the co-stars of the '80s sitcom "Full House," appearing here briefly as Travolta's love interest.

Take a couple of big movie stars past their prime, add a few gags, insert a few tears and wrap it up, put a falsely nice happy-ending bow on it and you have another mediocre Disney package. "Old Dogs" is not completely awful but then it could've been much, much better given the talent.