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

Friday, January 23, 2009

New in Town - B

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, 96 minutes

Fun, crowd-pleasing "New in Town" all fluff

"New in Town" is nothing new. The fish-out-of-water premise is as old as movies themselves, and is often a reliable though predictable premise. "New in Town" provides some hearty crowd-pleasing laughs and is a fun, though thin movie that appeals to the masses. Stars Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr. share a warm chemistry though it's no surprise as to the outcome of their relationship (or the movie itself, for that matter).

Zellweger plays Miami, Florida manufacturing executive Lucy Hill, who's transferred to a small town in Minnesota to oversee a food processing plant. Though she experiences a rather frosty reception from the locals, she starts to warm up to a few, including Ted (Connick), who also happens to be the local union representative. She has to rouse support from the townspeople and her co-workers when her company threatens to completely shut down the plant and leave hundreds unemployed.

"New in Town" is a pleasing piece of fluffery that's easily accessible and suitable for the masses. The script and story are altogether predictable, even derivative at times, but still there are some fun moments, such as when Zellweger gets stuck in her car in a snowstorm, gets stuck in a hunting suit or suddenly realizes when a part of her anatomy gets too cold. The Minnesotians, while friendly, are played in the film as too stereotypical, laced with heavy "Fargo"-esque accents and peculiar habits.

"New in Town's" most memorable moments come from sturdy, familiar character actress Siobhan Fallon, who colorfully plays Lucy's assistant, friend, and who knows a little about scrapbooking and tapioca pudding. She gives the film heart, color and some funny dialogue exchanges. She asks Lucy "Have you found Jesus?" to which Lucy replies "I didn't know Jesus went missing."

The last act and the climax resolves everything too neatly and happily, and while the premise is hardly new, "New in Town" has enough charming, colorful moments to carry it along. It's a perfect date movie though you may not remember much after the credits roll.

The Uninvited - B-

You'll find the full review for The Uninvited at Pop at

Taken - C

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing thematic material, sexual content, some drug references and language, 94 minutes

"Taken" borrows too much from Jason Bourne and other spies

One of my favorite movie series is the Jason Bourne movies starring Matt Damon. He's a mighty squirrly fellow and can get out of just about any situation and do it in a tensely compelling, believable manner. "Taken" is a mildly entertaining but unoriginal action spy thriller that borrows too much from Bourne and rips off just about every spy movie you've seen in the last 30 years. The best thing that "Taken" has going for it is its star Liam Neeson, who makes a good action hero in need of a better script.

Former government operative Bryan Mills (Neeson) gives up his government career to be closer to his 17-year old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) who has since remarried. Ever the protective father, Bryan is constantly watching over Kim to the consternation of Lenore. With hesitancy, Bryan allows his daughter to take a trip to Paris with a friend but they are kidnapped by a highly secret and powerful organization that's responsible for slave trading young women across the globe. When Bryan finds out, he goes to Paris on the hunt for his daughter and to bring down the organization responsible for her disapperance.

"Taken" would be better if it offered something more than the unoriginal, lackluster and very deriviative script from "Transporter 3" scribes Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, and lack of flair given it from French director Pierre Morel. You've seen this many times before, and done much better. The best thing "Taken" has is star Neeson, who is a game action hero who can keep up with Jason Bourne and the other but needs a better movie.

"Taken" is filled with standard car chases, rescue scenes and even torture scenes done better in everything from the Bourne movies to Robert Redford's "Three Days of the Condor" to "Marathon Man." Neeson gets to beat a lot of people senseless looking for his character's daughter, but you'll lose interest after the first 30 minutes. Janssen and Grace are hardly in it and don't register anything here; the last section in particular feels rushed and badly edited.

The climax ends too quickly, is too predictable, and pretty much standard spy shoot-em-up stuff. You won't remember much about "Taken" except how much better those other spy movies are.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Inkheart - B-

Rated PG for fantasy adventure action, some scary moments and brief language, 106 minutes

"Inkheart" filled with energy, lively moments

I will say straight up that I'm not a Brendan Fraser fan, just don't see his appeal. I still must quote my friend Joyce who couldn't quite get into the "The Mummy 3" last summer because Fraser looked like, well, a dork, and I have to say I agreed with her (that was in addition to the many other reasons why I hated "Mummy 3").

Fraser's dorky qualities aside, his new fantasy action-adventure film "Inkheart" is an energetic, fun and even enjoyable escape that I found far more appealing and engaging that I originally thought I would. The storyline feels rushed and uneven at times, but the great cast makes it an entertaining time, enjoyable time, especially if you have older kids or younger teens.

"Inkheart" tells the adventure of Mo "Silvertongue" Folchart (Fraser) and his young daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett). He is named "Silvertongue" because he has a unique ability to bring characters to life from the books he reads. He's unleashed a host of characters, some good - including the fire-eating Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) and the very evil Capricorn (Andy Serkis).

Along for the ride is great-aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren), who'll help reunite them with Meggie's mother and Mo's wife Resa (Sienna Guillory), who has been captured by Capricorn. Mo, Meggie, Dustfinger and Elinor must all work together to relinquish evil from Capricorn once and for all, but not without facing the Shadow, another evil creature who could destroy them in an instant.

Loosely based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Cornelia Funke, it opens up the book considerably but changes quite a bit of the story in the process. Some it feels rushed and uneven as director Iain Softley ("The Skeleton Key") and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire ("Robots") strive to summarize many of the plot details. Some are cleverly handled (literally dropping in items from other famous novels) while others are a little fuzzy (how do some of the characters get out, exactly?).

Yet there's enough action and energetic, fun (though sometimes dark) moments to keep "Inkheart's" story rolling along through some uneven moments, and it helps that the film has a winning, talented cast. Young British actress Bennett is an altogether engaging Meggie, screen veteran Mirren gets some of the best lines and Serkis (otherwise known as Gollum from those "Lord of the Rings" films) chews on the scenery. Yet, it's Bettany, another Brit, who makes for a beguiling and sad Dustfinger, who longs to go back to the pages from whence he came. Surprisingly (and maybe good for me) that Fraser has little to do, given that the premise revolves around his character.

"Inkheart's" climax is especially busy, intense and a little confusing when you think about it, but still memorable. The climax has been updated considerably (at least according to a reliable source who read the book) for a happier ending, which may displease fans of the book. "Inkheart" is a solidly entertaining fantasy action-adventure suitable for the whole family.

Waltz with Bashir - A-

Rated R for some disturbing images of atrocities, strong violence, brief nudity and a scene of graphic sexual content, 87 minutes, in Hebrew, German and Lebanese Arabic with English subtitles

Animated "Bashir" is disturbing but mesmerizing

"Waltz with Bashir" is animated but don't go expecting anything lighthearted in the way of "WALL-E" or "Kung-Fu Panda." Bashir is from Israeli director Ari Folman and is Israel's entry
for the Foreign Language Film Academy Award, and is a remarkable, tour-de-force that deals with Israel's involvment in the Lebanon War in the 1980's. "Bashir" is part of a rare genre: animated documentary, that is disturbing, mesmerizing and provocative; its comments on the consequences of war may leave some shaken but will certainly stay with you long after you leave the theater.

One night at a bar, an old friend tells director Ari (who plays himself) in the about a recurring nightmare in which he is chased by 26 vicious dogs. Every night, the same number of beasts. The two men conclude that there's a connection to their Israeli Army mission in the first Lebanon War of the early eighties. Ari is surprised that he's now unable to remember a thing about that period of his life. Intrigued by this riddle, he decides to meet and interview old friends and comrades around the world. He needs to discover the truth about that time and about himself. As Ari delves deeper and deeper into the mystery, his memory begins to creep up in surreal images.

"Bashir" is a remarkable effort in that it captures the effects of war in animation combined with elements (interviews) of a documentary. Had such films as "Apocalypse Now" or "Platoon" been made as animated films, it would've captured some of the similar themes that Bashir plays to in surreal fashion. "Bashir" is a very adult animated film that looks at many aspects of war, in particular the psychological effects, and why some participants in war have obviously blocked those memories, while those memories seem to haunt others.

"Bashir's" stunning, realistic visuals capture many of these effects, and while it doesn't delve deeply into some of the effects, it certainly makes its anti-war comments known. Whether it's those frightening dogs that are seen prominently throughout or the battle scenes, "Bashir" leaves some indellible, thought-provoking images of the true costs of war. The unique color schemes, much of are golden or washed-out gray, make it appear as if a graphic comic book were coming to life. Folman's choice to use animation instead of actual images is indeed a risk but a nice one; it allows the director to do more creatively but also could embellish some factual aspects.

"Bashir" is based on Folman's own experiences in the war and is seemingly a unique labor of love that took 4 years, several million dollars and is an international co-production involving Israel, Germany and France. While a stunning achievement, the depressing, downbeat subject matter isn't for everyone but "Bashir" will certainly stay with you long after its brief running time. Already a winner of numerous awards (including a recent Golden Globe), "Waltz with Bashir" is a nominated for Best Foreign Language Academy Award and is a must-see for those that enjoy war films.

Outlander - D

Rated R for violence, 110 minutes

Cheesy, cheap "Outlander" is just bad

"Outlander" is the new sci-fi film not to be confused with the 1981 Sean Connery sci-fi film "Outland." While the Connery film wasn't all that great, comparatively speaking, it's "Citizen Kane" compared to "Outlander," a new sci-fi film that is a cross between "Aliens" and "Braveheart." It's cheesy, cheap and follows the "Cloverfield" method of revealing it's incredibly fake-looking, CG monster to it's audience, in that you hardly see it. Like "Cloverfield," "Outlander" simply stinks. To paraphrase Bart Simpson, "Outlander" both sucks and blows.

That's not to say that "Outlander" doesn't have a clever premise, or that the monster itself is pretty cool, it's just everything in between is so bad. During the reign of the Vikings, Kainan (Jim Caviezel), a man from a far-off world, crash lands on Earth, bringing with him an alien predator known as the Moorwen. Though both man and monster are seeking revenge for violence committed against them, Kainan leads the alliance to kill the Moorwen by fusing his advanced technology with the Viking's Iron Age weaponry. Kainan himself gets caught up in an age-old battle between foes Rothgar (John Hurt), who takes Kainan in, and Gunnar (Ron Perlman) and even finds an ancient love with the beautiful Freya (Sophia Myles, too pretty for this mess).

Howard McCain, who co-wrote the dreadful "Underworld: The Rise of the Lycans," also this week, co-wrote and directed the mess known as "Outlander." Now he's responsible for not just one, but two stinkeroos as the box-office this week. It's not that McCain didn't try hard, he assembled a decent cast, developed a decent premise, created a decent (but very peculiar and fake) CG monster, yet an awful movie to go with it. McCain seems to spent all his time on the creature and had little time to develop an interesting story, characters, though we hardly see the monster itself except in a handful of scenes.

He pads the rest of "Outlander" with excessively violent Viking battle scenes and seemingly lighter scenes of chugging ale down at the local Viking pub, none of which really adds to or advances the story. Though it's handsomely filmed in New Zealand, everything else about it seems so cheap: the wigs, the facial hair, the costumes all are shoddily done.

The most interesting part of "Outlander," of course, is the monster, but since we see so little of it (its name is Moorwen, though they pronounce it like Mormon) we have to sit through the rest of the movie when McCain attempts something at a story. Give us the monster, for cryin' out loud. Hurt, Cavieziel, Perlman and Myles are all capable, even compelling actors when they want to be, but McCain doesn't let them. Caviezel's a bore with his minimalist acting, Hurt looks confused, Myles too pale and Perlman is just a big bully.

The climax, when they work together to capture the monster, is altogether ridiculous, but at least it's more interesting than any other subplots that are halfway attempted. McCain should learn to fashion the special effects around the story, not the story around the special effects. A dismal, stinky effort that may gain a following from the comic-con crowd for simply being so bad.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans - D+

Rated R for bloody violence and some sexuality, 93 minutes

"Underworld" prequel messy, boring, lacks bite

I have to admit, I've seen the first two "Underworld" movies and don't remember much about them except Kate Beckinsale. Beckinsale, obviously the best thing about those films, isn't in the new "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" prequel (except for a very fleeting cameo in the final frame) and for good reason. "Rise of the Lycans" is a bloody mess of a movie and worst of all is a derivative bore. Some true fans of this series will be pleased until they actually sit through the film.

"Underworld" tells the age-old origins story behind the vampire vs. werewolves feud that was the premise of the first two films. The aristocratic vampires, led by the evil Viktor (a scowling blue-eyed Bill Nighy) keep the lycans in chains as slaves for hard labor during the Dark Ages. A young lycan named Lucian (Michael Sheen - yes, the same one from "Frost/Nixon") emerges as the leader of the lycans but also a close ally to Viktor himself, who could've killed Lucian at birth. Things get messy when Lucian falls for Viktor's vampire daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra) and threaten the whole natural evolution of the kingdom.

The first two "Underworld's," while far from perfect films, had a little nifty bite to them and an original premise of a vampire-werewolf underground war. In addition, it also had Beckinsale in a tight suit, not to mention her husband Len Wiseman, who directed those films. Without Wiseman and Beckinsale, this "Underworld" is a true mess and lacks bite. Patrick Tatopoulous, an art director on the previous "Underworld's," helms with a lack of skill for characterization or telling a coherent story.

In the process, "Rise of the Lycans" wastes two fine actors in Nighy and Sheen, it's hard to believe this is the same guy who played David Frost in "Frost/Nixon" or Tony Blair in "The Queen." The love scenes are laughably handled, and the special effects look remarkably cheap for a guy who's skilled at that. The final climax is also a mind-bender, given the role both characters played in the two previous movies.

I enjoy a good vampire or werewolf movie as much as the next person, but "Rise of the Lycans" just didn't work for me, and the premise is growing tiresome by now. Don't waste your time with this unless you're a true fan.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

My Bloody Valentine 3D - D

Rated R for graphic brutal horror violence and grisly images throughout, some strong sexuality, graphic nudity and language, 101 minutes

"My Bloody Valentine 3D" - 3 x the dumbness, gore = a mess of a movie

"My Bloody Valentine" is a movie that pleases its fans and makes critics cringe. It's a big, dumb horror flick filled with gratuitous, graphic violence and nudity, and a remake at that (the original 1981 film was far from a classic). Throw in the 3D as a novelty effect along with some handsome young folks running for their lives and you have a hit on your hands. "My Bloody Valentine" no doubt has a few scares in it, but it's otherwise a mess of a movie and a strictly by-the-numbers slasher thriller that's as predictable and unsurprising as the day is long.

In the town of Harmony, West Virginia a crazed miner named Harry Warden kills numerous people on Valentine's Day and is supposedly brought down himself by some locals. A few young teens barely survive the bloodbath, including Tom Hanniger ("Supernatural's" Jensen Ackles, also a Dallas native), whose father owns the mines. He returns on the 10th anniversary of
the killings to find his old girlfriend Sarah (Jaime King) married to his old pal Axel (Kerr Smith), now the sheriff of the town. However, someone in a miner's suit goes on another killing spree. Has our old friend Harry returned from the dead or is it a copycat killer?

"My Bloody Valentine" is an extremely graphic, bloody mess of a movie that should please the niche fans of this genre. The movie will do well the first week and should be quickly forgotten after that, until Valentine's Day this year, when Jason makes his return in the remake of the "Friday the 13th" series. The original 1981 film of the same name was a ripoff of both "Friday the 13th" and "Halloween," and this one continues to ripoff those films with a heavy breather in a mask walking around with a big weapon.

The young, handsome third-rate TV actors run for their lives, but if you watch closely enough, the ridiculous ending (or the killer) won't come as any surprise. There are a few good jumpy scares but that doesn't add up to a great movie, nor does it make it any better by adding the novelty of the 3D effect, though that big ax the killer wields comes at you pretty quickly, as does loads and loads of blood and gore.

Director Patrick Lussier and co-writers Zane Smith and Todd Farmer have worked on loads of other horror films before, and they all seem to be in their element here fashioning some nifty horror scenes, though as typical with slasher films things like acting, characterization and intelligence (let's go into the mine at night to see what we can find - not a good idea) all seem to be thrown out the window. One scene even features a female character running for her life completely naked, no doubt pleasing the mostly younger male audience members that horror films tend to skewer.

It won't come as any surprise for me to tell you "My Bloody Valentine 3D" is a horrible movie and is in no way recommended, but those that go to these things don't listen to critics anyway and it will still be the first big moneymaker of the season.

Notorious - B-

Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexuality including dialogue, nudity, and for drug content, 100 minutes

"Notorious" is an affecting look at a bigger-than-life rapper

Anyone who's had an interest in rap or R&B music over the years knows the story of influential rapper Notorious B.I.G., or Christopher Wallace, who was gunned down and murdered in 1997. "Notorious" tells the life and death story of Wallace, who quickly rose to fame in the early '90s and much like colleague Tupac Shakur, were talented musicians who died way too early. "Notorious" is an affecting, honest portrayal of Wallace, though the film sometimes veers off in too many directions and lacks a certain intensity that Wallace emanated in his music.

Newcomer Jamal Woolard, making his feature film debut, portrays the talented rapper, who grew up in Brooklyn and started dealing drugs at an early age to better his life. He realized he was an astute businessman and continued in that lifestyle until he started writing and singing songs. His skills were noticed by Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke), who gave him his first big break.

However, Notorious had many tumultuous relationships, including with his fiery, strong-willed mother Voletta (Angela Bassett), not to mention many, many women, including his wife Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) and 'Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton), with whom he had a stormy affair but later helped mold her career. Notorious quick rise to fame gave him many friends and enemies on both the east and west coast, and Wallace was tragically gunned down in L.A. in 1997.

"Soul Food's" George Tillman Jr. helms "Notorious" with standard, conventional flair, but he gives an honest, realistc portrayal of Wallace, with a strong performance from newcomer Woolward, who gained weight to portray Wallace. He's best at capturing the fun aspect of B.I.G's personality, though by all accounts Wallace was seemingly a far more intense person that portrayed in the film. The best parts of "Notorious," unsurprisingly, deal with Wallace's music, which give the film life and energy.

"Notorious" is also a relevant, affecting but sympathetic look at what happens with too much fame and money too soon, as Wallace's fame came at a clear cost to those around him. It's nice seeing such real musicians as Tupac Shakur (played with energy by Anthony Mackie), Combs, Evans and 'Lil Kim portrayed in the movie, and most are played in a positive light (though 'Lil Kim may disagree with that).

The mid-sections of "Notorious" tend to veer off in too many directions and loses focus and intensity from the story itself. One thing is for sure, and that is Wallace's influence even on rap stars of today. As tragic and sad a story as it is, Wallace and his music continue to live on (the soundtrack has several of his songs). "Notorious" is worth a look at a real-life tragic figure, but also the unfortunate effects of fame and fortune.

Hotel for Dogs - B

Rated PG for brief mild thematic elements, language and some crude humor, 100 minutes

Clever, engaging "Hotel for Dogs" is a fetching movie

I have to admit, after seeing the emotional dog tale "Marley & Me" I thought I would be done with canine films for awhile, but right on the heels of that hit movie comes the clever, engaging and more fun than you think "Hotel for Dogs." Sure, the story is wildly predictable and thin, but there's more than enough whimsy when you get this many dogs and other inventive gadgets together in the same film. Plus, it has Emma Roberts, Julia Roberts niece, as one of the stars. Combine the three and you have a winning combination that will certainly warm some hearts this cold winter.

Andi (Roberts) and her brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin, yes, he's Diego from the TV show "Go, Diego! Go") are orphans who are shuffled around from foster home to foster home. Currently, they're with a scummy, low-life couple Lois (Lisa Kudrow) and Carl (Kevin Dillon), wannabe rock singers who hate kids and even despise animals more, in spite of the fact that Andi and Bruce have been hiding their little white dog Friday for some time now.

Andi and Bruce seem to constantly get in trouble, making it a challenge for their case worker Bernie (Don Cheadle) to keep them in a good foster home. When Friday wanders off one day, they discover a few dogs living in a run-down, abandoned hotel. They quickly realize they can keep Friday there along with other strays in what becomes one big dog shelter, or hotel for dogs. It won't take long before those living in other buildings discover what they're doing and turn them and the dogs in.

"Hotel for Dogs" is a cheerful, fun movie about teens and the dogs they love, and it proves to be a winning combination that could turn out to be the sleeper hit of the season. This movie definitely hasn't gone to the dogs, but there are plenty of them to keep you company in the movie, with appearances from just about every breed you can think of. Even more fun are all the clever gadgets used in the hotel, such as dog toilets, simulated window rides and never-ending feeders.

"Hotel for Dogs" is suitable for everyone in the family, and there are enough laughs along the way to keep even the staunchest cat-lover amused. Roberts is growing up quickly and should continue to blossom into a beauty just like her aunt Julia - in the short time since "Nancy Drew" she's much taller and more mature. She and Austin make a good pair, and more amusing moments come from "Friends" Kudrow and "Entourage's" Dillon in small roles.

Though "Hotel for Dogs" overuses it's premise and the story runs thin quickly, there's still fun to be had, and it comes strongly recommended as the first solidly heartwarming family film of the new year - for dog and non-dog lovers alike.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop - C

Rated PG for some violence, mild crude and suggestive humor, and language, 87 minutes

"Mall Cop" is silly, mediocre nonsense

"Paul Blart: Mall Cop" is one of those films where if you've seen the trailers for the film, then you've pretty much seen the movie. Silly, mediocre fun at best, "Mall Cop" comes from Adam Sandler's Happy Madison productions and stars Sandler pal and "King of Queens" star Kevin James. The portly, engaging James is a naturally funny comedian and you'll see loads of his pratfalls and mildly funny shtick in "Mall Cop," which is sweeter, sillier and less lowbrow than you might think but still very thin and tiresome.

James is Blart, a single dad living with his Mom (Shirley Knight) and young daughter Maya (Raini Rodriguez). He's a nice, mild-mannered guy who works as a security officer at a local mall. He's longed to be a real cop but his weight problems keep him from passing the exam. Blart is a bit - unsurprisingly - a loser when it comes to relationships too - though he does have a crush on Amy (Jayma Mays) a new mall employee who manages a wig kiosk.

Blart takes his job way too seriously, carousing the mall on his little scooter thing and training a mysterious new security officer named Veck (Keir O'Donnell, the weird dude from "Wedding Crashers"). Some bad guys take over the mall and threaten to steal millions of dollars and take hostages, including Amy and Maya. It's up to Blart to come in and save the day and show his skills as a real officer, in spite of a smart-aleck SWAT officer (Bobby Cannavale), who has his own ideas about how the situation should be handled.

"Mall Cop" is co-written by James and directed by "Are We Done Yet?" director Steve Carr and they try to give some semblance of a story line to the film, but it's really a string of episodes to show off the comic presence of James, who gets to carry his very first film by himself. James falls over the place in some mildly amusing antics but can't help the fact that "Mall Cop" isn't really a great film and has little to offer outside the mall.

For what it's worth, for a film from Sandler's production company and considering that Sandler and James starred in the vile, offensive "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" together, "Mall Cop" is relatively inoffensive and has some sweet moments, which is a nice but altogether bland touch. It's unfortunate that "Mall Cop" couldn't be better given that James is a decent comedian (it is funny seeing himself slide across the floor in the mall), but the story simply runs out of gags quickly to an even more highly improbable climax, with a few twists and turns that can be seen coming well before they happen.

"Paul Blart: Mall Cop" is suitable for most of the family, but you won't remember much of it after it's over.

Che (Part 1) - C+

Rated R for some violence and language, tense situations, 126 minutes
In English and Spanish with English subtitles

"Che's" story as told by Soderbergh is ambitious but tiresome

Ernesto "Che" Guevara has always been an intriguing but stylized historical figure. A Marxist revolutionary and comrade of Fidel Castro who helped Castro overtake Cuba with his pioneering use of guerrila warfare. He's far more intriguing and interesting than this unrevealing overlong movie version of his guerrilla efforts, directed by noted Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh ("Traffic," "Erin Brockovich").

Soderbergh's epic film is divided in two parts that compose an ambitious four-hour film, the first half focusing on his guerrilla efforts and the second part his efforts in Bolivia, where he was eventually captured. Soderbergh's first half is detailed, thorough and largely a bore, as it explains Che's guerrilla efforts to help Castro overtake Cuba. It's superbly acted by Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro, though he would in fact make a better Castro than Che.

On November 26, 1956, Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) sails to Cuba with eighty rebels. One of those rebels is Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Benicio Del Toro), an Argentine doctor who shares a common goal with Fidel Castro - to overthrow the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Che proves indispensable as a fighter, and quickly grasps the art of guerrilla warfare. As he throws himself into the struggle, Che is embraced by his comrades and the Cuban people.

Soderbergh brings Che's story to the big screen in faithful detail, after all it is largely based on some of Che's own diaries, much of which was written after his rise to fame. Soderbergh takes great pains to discuss nearly every movement of Che's throughout this time, though it focuses largely on his military, guerrilla efforts and little on Che the person. Some of it's interesting from a historical view, even fascinating at times, but it becomes repetitive and boring, and much of the details could've easily been trimmed and kept to one movie.

It's unfortunate, since Del Toro gives a studied, fine performance as Che, though he resembles more of a Castro than Che himself. Del Toro anchors the film well, though it really it isn't revealing in terms of personal aspects of Che. It only adds to the mystery of the man who has been largely stylized since his death and become the face of revolution. He remains a controversial but important figure today.

Part 2 looks at his efforts in Bolivia after he left Cuba and isn't reviewed here. If you're willing to sit through four hours of this type of thing, go for it but it may be a challenge especially after seeing this first half.

Defiance - B

Rated R for violence and language, 137 minutes

Tense, compelling but uplifting "Defiance" gives a different look at the Jewish struggle in Nazi Germany

Just when you thought you knew everything about the Jewish struggle in Nazi Germany comes the powerful, uplifting Defiance. It’s the true story of the Bielski brothers, who led a Jewish resistance group that survived in the forests in Eastern Europe for several years at the height of Nazi occupation during World War II. Defiance is a compelling portrayal that takes liberties with its casting and some inaccuracies with its story, but otherwise is an effective reminder of the Jewish struggle during this time.

Four Jewish brothers – Tuva (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber), Asael (Jamie Bell) and the youngest, Aron (George Mackay) escape Nazi-occupied Poland after seeing most of their family murdered by the Nazi regime. Always hunted, they move deep into hiding in the forest, where they set up camp with a few other Jewish refugees. They hear of “Otriads,” or resistance fighters that consist of various Jewish encampments.

They soon establish their own Otriad and before long have dozens of other Jewish refugees in their encampment, and are forced to periodically move around to avoid detection. The Jews are also sympathetic with the Soviets, who are also fighting the Nazi regime, and some fight along with the Soviet army stationed in the area. The Bielski Otriad struggles for survival not just from the Nazi’s, but from the unpredictable elements that include brutal, harsh winters, lack of food and instability within the encampment itself.

Defiance is capably made from director and writer Edward Zwick, who directed such films as Blood Diamond, Glory and The Last Samurai. Zwick competently helms the action, arouses some tense moments and elicits strong performances from most of the cast, including Craig, Schreiber and Bell as the three older brothers, who lead the Jewish encampment and help fight for its survival. Defiance is just one of many countless, uplifting stories of the Jewish struggle during this time that have been overlooked over the years. It’s a shame that the Bielski story has gone this long without being told, since they saved as many as Oskar Schindler (around 1200) and their story just as inspirational as Anne Frank.

Defiance isn’t without its flaws, and some of them are controversial. First, is the casting of blond, blue-eyed Craig (in a role far different than James Bond) as Tuva. Though he ably carries the film and it’s true that his real character was often able to pass as a non-Jew, some may have difficulty grasping his portrayal with such WASP-ish, Redford-like looks. In addition, those familiar with the Bielski’s may also note that Zwick takes some cinematic liberties to add dramatic accessibility to the movie. Accounts of the real story aren’t entirely detailed about brotherly tension between Tuva and Zus, not to mention a final, climactic battle with overly Hollywood action-film notions of “saving the day.”

Liberties aside, Defiance is still an entertaining, engaging movie as it rightfully honors the Bielski’s and their efforts. Zwick steers clear of heavy political messages with the film (though a couple of scenes are fittingly disturbing – one involving a captured Nazi and the killing of a German family), with a clear focus on these tough Jews’ survival in the forest. Production qualities are high, and it’s handsomely shot on location in Lithuania, not far from where the real Bielski forest camps were located.

Defiance also has a nice coda, as the two older brothers emigrated to the U.S., where they worked hard and lived out their days in humble existence. It’s unfortunate that the Bielski’s story has been overlooked all these years, and for that reason this solid, effective film is worth a look.

Last Chance Harvey - B

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, 92 minutes

Hoffman, Thompson make a charming pair in the sweetly familiar rom com "Harvey"

You'll want to take a chance on the engaging and sweet "Last Chance Harvey." Yes, you've seen this romantic comedy before, but not with Oscar-winners Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, who share some charming, relaxed moments, making "Harvey" far more entertaining and plausible than it really should be. If you want something far more wistful than "Benjamin Button" or "The Reader," then Harvey is your movie, even if it is a romantic comedy for the older set (at a recent advance screening, my friends noticed how many - and I say this lightly - older people - there were in attendance).

Hoffman plays Harvey Shine, a bit of a rumpled older fellow in London for his daughter's wedding. He's a musician who writes commercial jingles, but he's on the verge of losing his job. On top of that, his relationship with daughter Susan (the radiant but unknown Liane Balaban) and ex-wife (Kathy Baker) is friendly but estranged, and she asks her stepfather (a stauesque James Brolin) to give her away.

While in the airport in London, he comes across airport worker Kate Walker (Thompson), a lonely middle-aged single woman who must take of her aging mother (Eileen Atkins), who seems to constantly call her about something. They strike up meaningful conversation in the London airport, and in a short time unexpectedly realize they may be falling for each other.

One difference with the charming "Last Chance Harvey" is the fact that it takes itself less seriously than the average romantic comedy in this genre, with two people who don't as much declare their love for each other as much as they just seem to go together. Newcomer Joel Hopkins (this is his second full-length film) takes directing and writing credit for "Harvey," but there really isn't much of that needed for the talented leads, who supposedly improvised much of their dialogue and carry the film with their intelligent but often witty interchanges.

The story itself is thin and familiar, with echoes of Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" in its extended conversational tone and time frame, but even more resembles (and yes, I'm digging way back here) the 1984 Streep-DeNiro romance "Falling in Love," yet Hoffman and Thompson make for a more accessible couple. While Hoffman is admittedly a little old for romantic comedy (no worries - no sex scenes here), he still has a sense of vulnerability and sharp timing that makes him likable after all these years.

Each have their own touchingly memorable scenes: Hoffman's in his toast to his newly married daughter and Thompson speaking of the past she's lost. Both give emotional resonance to lonely, awkward people that romance often overlooks. Both are strong enough actors to rise above the predictability and thinness of the script, seemingly determined to keep "Harvey" away from the icky sappiness that often creeps into these types of movies. Thompson and Hoffman both are at ease with each other; their performances are relaxed and largely unrevealing, but each still very engaging.

"Last Chance Harvey" is a sweet, enjoyable movie that ends on a lighter note, and without giving too much away - ends as you might expect it to - with two people sharing meaningful moments. "Harvey" a perfectly nice date movie and you'll be glad you shared your time with them too.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Unborn - D

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and terror, disturbing images, thematic material and language including some sexual references, 87 minutes

"Unborn" is dead on arrival

January, much like September, is a time when movie studios often roll out their turkeys following the big summer or holiday releases. After such great recent movies as "Benjamin Button," "The Reader" and "Gran Torino" we now get to see dreck like "The Unborn" unleashed on the movie-going public. Marketed as a slick horror-thriller from the writer of "The Dark Knight," it does have a few nice, jumpy visuals and an interesting premise, but "Unborn" quickly falls apart quickly into a complete, predictable bore (I stopped counting how many times I yawned during this film).

A young college student named Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman, in need of a new stage name) begins having strange dreams about weird dogs with masks, little boys that wear one blue mitten, creepy bugs and her suicidal mother. When her eyes mysteriously change colors - both of them different colors - she realizes she may have been a twin. Except her twin, nicknamed Jumby (I'm not making this up) is haunting her from "the other side" because she was born and not him.

After learning the truth, she finds an old Jewish woman (Jane Alexander) who may be her grandmother and who may have some secrets about her past. Her boyfriend ("Twilight's" Cam Gigandet), her best friend (Meagan Good) and a rabbi (Gary Oldman, slumming it) help exorcise her demonic twin brother so he doesn't ever bother her again and he can go on playing with dead people.

"The Unborn" has a great cast, interesting plot, a talented director and writer - but it still is a mess of a movie. The premise of "The Unborn," that of a Jewish "Exorcist," is intriguing and appealing, and David S. Goyer, writer of last summer mega-blockbuster "The Dark Knight," writes and directs here too. He peppers it with a handful of creepy, jumpy visuals (bugs and people walking around on their back) but the story doesn't add up and is otherwise a complete, unscary bore.

Yustman, of the TV show "October Road," wanders around aimlessly while good actors Alexander and Oldman are all but wasted in brief, one-note roles, as is one of my favorite actresses, Carla Gugino ("American Gangster"), as Casey's beleagured, mentally unstable mother.

"Unborn" also has a few of the most uninintentionally bad laughs seen in some time, as a little creepy boy wanders around and utters "Jumby wants to be born" and "if you help her, you will die" while riding around on his big wheel. "The Omen" this is not. After the initial, intriguing opening chapters, the rest of the story falls apart until its altogether ridiculous climax.

Movies may be a good escape, but I much rather enjoy escaping to good movies. Don't bother with "The Unborn" unless you have seen all other good movies out there (that would be just about everything) and don't have anything else to do. The badness of all this makes me yearn for the return of my favorite show "Lost" in a few weeks, at least then I'll have something interesting to watch.

Not Easily Broken - C

Rated PG-13 for sexual references and thematic elements, 95 minutes

Uplifting messages can't fix this "Broken" movie - stale, third-rate drama

Super entertainer and filmmaker Tyler Perry may finally have met his cinematic match in Pastor T.D. Jakes. Jakes, who leads the Dallas mega-church The Potter's House, has branched off into filmmaking, producing the new drama "Not Easily Broken" based on his novel. You have to give Jakes credit, he's assembled a talented cast and crew to make a movie about relationships.

In spite of a few positive messages and some entertaining moments, the ethnically-themed "Broken" needs fixing in a lot of ways. The drama lacks a fresh approach and comes equipped with just about every predictable movie cliche and stereotype you've seen done by Perry everytime he makes a movie. For all the time and effort put into it, it's a third-rate, derivative effort. Where's Madea when you need her, or maybe the Browns?

After years of disagreeing on what true happiness, success, and love really are, Dave (Morris Chestnut) and Clarice ("Benjamin Button's" Taraji P. Henson) Johnson have finally reached a breaking point in their marriage. When Clarice is hurt in a car accident, the obvious truth that more than just her injuries need immediate attention is exposed. Their odds of making it worsen as Clarice begins to see a physical therapist, and Dave develops a friendship with Julie (Maeve Quinlan) and her teenage son Bryson (Cannon Jay). The acceptance and comfort he finds in them stirs his longing for a family and a passionate partner.

It also doesn't help that his mother-in-law (the hardly subtle but always fun Jenifer Lewis) has moved in or the fact he spends time coaching a team of at-risk boys with his pals (Kevin Hart and Eddie Cibrian), hardly a good influence on him. As temptation tugs at Dave and Clarice pulls farther away, they must confront whether their vows are or are not easily broken.

"Broken's" handsome cast does well with the slack script from TV writer Brian Bird and the unoriginal direction from actor-director Bill Duke. Henson is a great talent and Lewis is always good for a smile or two, but the drama is played out in such broad strokes that it's hardly believable. Watch for "Reno:911's" Niecey Nash in a brief, but thoroughly stereotypical friend role. Stale, predictable drama, stereotypes and throw in a few positive messages and you still have recipe for a messy movie.

"Broken" is not Jakes' first foray into moviemaking, the movie "Woman Thou Aren't Loosed" (which ironically, was written by Perry) was also based on one of his books. That film was a minor hit a few years ago and this film will attract similar, urban audiences and should have a solid following. For those interested, Jakes himself makes cameo in the middle of the film. It all plays out in such formulaic tradition that by the end there will be no big surprises.

Perry does this thing better, and "Broken" unfortunately channels (i.e. rips off) most of the same plot line: financial problems, relationship issues, you name it. Maybe Jakes will wise up and just have Perry make his next movie - after all, it can't hurt and may make for a great business partnership. As for "Broken," it's not at all memorable and should be quickly forgotten.

The Wrestler - B+

Rated R for violence, sexuality/nudity, language and some drug use, 109 minutes

Rourke's a winner in the affecting "Wrestler"

If you enjoy comeback stories both on and off the screen, then "The Wrestler" is for you. Darren Aronofsky's low-key tale of a washed up athlete is affecting, poignant and superbly acted by Mickey Rourke. Yes, you read that right. Rourke, a talented actor back in the day (that is the 1980's), has become something of a joke over the years and who pops up every now and then in smaller parts, seemingly as washed up as the part he plays here. But Rourke, in a comeback role, brings it here and is superbly affecting, altogether restrained in a terrific role for the actor.

Rourke is Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an aged 50ish, over the hill retired professional wrestler who stays in the ring for the money. Out of the ring his life is something of a mess. He works minimum wage jobs, has ongoing health problems and enjoys lap dances from a stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), about the only regular girl in his life. His estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) rightfully wants nothing to do with him though he repeatedly tries to make amends.

His life is all about wrestling, though, and he makes his way on the independent wrestling circuit one last time so he can have one more showdown with a former rival before his health issues get the best of him.

"The Wrestler" is an affecting drama in the vein of "Rocky" and a comeback story in every vein. Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream") and writer Robert D. Siegel perfectly capture the story of a has-been and turn it into a winner. Shot on a low-budget, the film looks and feels cheap yet that works in the favor of the downbeat tone of the movie.

"The Wrestler's" story does present itself with those sports-movie cliches along the way you've seen many times before (just one more chance in the ring), but Rourke's fine, sensitive portrayal of an athlete who doesn't know anything different is the clear highlight of the film. With long, stringy blond hair and a worked out body, Rourke is something of a revelation: subdued and emotionally affecting, in a performance that's rightfully garnering him awards consideration and hopefully stronger parts in the future.

Tomei and Wood, as the only women in his life (and in the movie), also deliver strong supporting performances, especially from Tomei, as the stripper with a heart (but who still makes Randy pay for dances). The story also gives some behind-the-scenes insight into the fake world of wrestling; some of the scenes inside the ring are more entertaining than they have a right to be. Also fun: watching Rourke work the deli counter of a grocery store, and preparing for a fight.

The final act, along with the finale itself, plays itself out a bit too predictably, but it all works due to "The Wrestler" himself, Rourke, who is the main reason to see the film. A nice, low-key Springsteen song over the credits also fits into the film nicely. "The Wrestler" is a memorable, understated portrayal of someone who's doing what he truly enjoys.

Bride Wars - C

Rated PG for suggestive content, language and some rude behavior, 90 minutes

Guys, run while you can-the year’s first chick flick has arrived: the pleasant but shallow Bride Wars

I must admit I have a bit of a skewered attitude when reviewing the new movie Bride Wars. I’m a single never married male - not exactly the target audience for a movie about two rival brides and best friends who have their weddings scheduled on the same day. In spite of that, I enjoyed Bride Wars more than I should’ve, a movie that’s as pleasant and fluffy as a piece of wedding cake, in spite of some stale writing. As the brides, Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson share a few fun moments, just don’t think about it too much, or you’ll find it totally unrealistic, completely shallow and dreadfully predictable, all of which is true.

Hathaway is Emma, Hudson is Liv, two childhood best friends, both of whom have the ultimate dream of getting married in the Plaza Hotel in New York in June. Emma is a sensible and intelligent middle-school teacher who works hard with her accountant boyfriend Fletcher (Everwood’s Chris Pratt). Liv is a driven and composed attorney with big dreams with financier boyfriend Daniel (Steve Howey - Van from Reba).

Emma and Liv get engaged around the same time, so they go to well-known wedding planner Marion St. Claire (Candice Bergen), who books both of their weddings in June. But due to a mix-up she accidentally schedules them on the same day, same time, same place - though neither women want to give up their date and the best friends become rivals to see who’ll have the biggest and best wedding.

Bride Wars is an enjoyable, sometimes fun movie in need of fresher, more inspired writing. For one, it’s hard to buy into that overnight two best friends would hate each other over something they’ve dreamed of their whole lives. Sure, without it we wouldn’t have the whole set up, but then the set up is the whole problem, lacking any sense of plausibility. Co-produced by Hudson herself, the best thing about Bride Wars is a relatively brief running time (under 90 minutes) - in guy time, that’s only about 2 trips to the concession stand.

Second, real women, though competitive about many things, probably would not go to the lengths these two go to for their wedding. Dying someone’s hair blue or seeing someone with a burnt orange tan is mildly entertaining for a Hollywood movie - but real life? Hardly. Hathaway and especially Hudson are a game, charming pair both of whom possess comic talents, but with this derivative, tiresome premise that treats women (especially brides) as stereotypes, they’re coasting on their likeability factor.

Third, elements of the Bride Wars script, written by Greg DePaul and Casey Wilson, and directed by Gary Winick, all of whom have a TV pedigree, could’ve been explored far more - such as why Liv’s parents are dead (never explained) or some of the problems inherent in Fletcher and Emma’s relationship, or the problems with Emma and Liv’s relationship, all of which could’ve added more attachment and realism to both story and characters. (If you want more realism - and a far better movie - check out Hathaway’s other wedding movie, Rachel Getting Married, which should net her a deserved Oscar nomination.)

Veteran actress Bergen, typically used to decent comic effect, is underused here yet inexplicably narrates the film, another implausibility given her seeming dislike of the two major characters. As the befuddled grooms, Pratt and Howey are so bland they might as well be invisible. One of Bride Wars’ bright spots is the memorably funny Kristen Johnston (Third Rock from the Sun), who is hilarious as one of Emma’s co-workers. Cracking a funny line or being physically zany (funny moment: watch her cower in Bergen’s presence), she steals scenes and adds zest to the proceedings.

Bride Wars efficiently resolves its premise, as the characters become best buds again and you realize that it wears its chick flick badge proudly. By the end, women may leave emotionally satisfied, and the men - what men there are - will be glad to leave because it’s the end. Though made with a clear lack of inspiration or originality, Hathaway and Hudson are lovely, fun brides, which is likely enough to make Bride Wars a hit.

NOTE: This review is also published at