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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of March 21 

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN Finally, here's one seven-year itch that can be scratched. When 2004's The Polar Express made film history as the first animated movie to be created wholly by employing the motion-capture process, we instantly recognized that we were in the presence of something ghastly. Awkward and unsightly, the ersatz innovation rendered all characters stiff, clammy and lifeless — anything but animated. Even as recent as two years ago, with the release of the Jim Carrey vehicle A Christmas Carol, it was clear that the format had not yet hit its stride. But thanks to director Steven Spielberg, producer Peter Jackson and their crack team of technicians and artists, The Adventures of Tintin emerges as the first motion-capture movie to fully fulfill the promise of this hyped advent in animation. Based on the internationally beloved comic series created by Belgian writer-illustrator Hergé (I myself enjoyed them as a lad, even though French writer René Goscinny's Asterix was my main Euro-fix), this finds squeaky-clean boy reporter Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell), accompanied by his clever canine companion Snowy, acquiring a model ship that in turn is being sought by the villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Tintin's curiosity eventually lands him on a real seafaring vessel that belongs to the drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), and together, they set out to distant lands to locate hidden treasure. While the stop-motion process still isn't as pleasing to the eye as either old-school Disney or new-school Pixar, its employment in The Adventures of Tintin still qualifies as leaps and bounds ahead of its use in the unwieldy antecedents in this field. What's more, with the overseer of the Indiana Jones franchise at the controls, this cartoon cliffhanger manages to consistently serve up the breathless thrills. Even the 3-D, hardly ever worth the effort (or higher admission price), works for the greater good of the picture, at one with Spielberg's kinetic and imaginatively designed set-pieces. ***

THE ARTIST Although its cribbing from Singin' in the Rain, A Star Is Born and more means that this black-and-white silent picture sometimes runs short on invention, it easily makes up for it in style, execution and a cheery disposition that's positively infectious. Jean Dujardin plays silent screen star George Valentin, whose chance encounter with a young fan named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) contributes to her eventual rise in the industry. The pair clearly harbor feelings for each other, but George finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage (Penelope Ann Miller sympathetically plays his estranged spouse) and relies on his dog Uggie and his faithful chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) for companionship. The matrimonial strife soon takes a back seat to a dark development, revealed when studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) informs him about the inevitable advent of sound in motion pictures — a revolution that George myopically dismisses as a short-lived fad. Instead, this cinematic breakthrough all but destroys his livelihood. In crafting his homage to the silent era, writer-director Michael Hazanavicius crucially fails to include one of its key ingredients, that go-for-broke dynamism that informed much of the cinema of the time — think, for example, of that house really falling on top of Buster Keaton in 1928's Steamboat Bill Jr., or Harold Lloyd's eye-popping stunts in 1923's Safety Last! and other gems, or just about anything served up by Chaplin. Nothing in The Artist can quite showcase that sort of edgy genius, although a sequence that has wicked fun with sound effects is worth singling out. Yet while it may not match up with the best of the silents, The Artist matches up nicely with the best of 2011. Dujardin and Bejo are both enchanting and irresistible, and Hazanavicius' screenplay has no trouble shifting between mirth and melodrama. As for its visual appeal, the black-and-white images are as crisp and dynamic as anything on view in the year's color explosions, whether it's the luminescent paint jobs in Cars 2 or that vibrant rainbow connection in The Muppets. ***1/2

CHRONICLE The exclusive property of the horror genre, the "found footage" style of filmmaking that's been employed in such movies as The Blair Witch Project and Apollo 18 (to name but three of many) has now been co-opted by Chronicle, a picture that's half science fiction, half teen melodrama. With this first push of the envelope's edge, should we now expect, say, a "found footage" musical or a "found footage" Western? Let's hope not, for one of the weaknesses of Chronicle is that its "ff" format plays exactly like the gimmick it most assuredly is. That proves to be an occasional distraction in this surprisingly adept yarn about three high school boys — Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) — who gain telekinetic powers after stumbling into a hole housing what seems to be the kingdom of the crystal skull. But this isn't a family-friendly superhero flick like The Incredibles or Sky High, nor is it a costume-clad wish-fulfillment fantasy like Kick-Ass or Super. Instead, it grounds its science fiction in high school fact while taking uncomfortable detours into Columbine territory. Because even as Matt and Steve, two all-around popular kids, are enjoying their newfound abilities to fly through the clouds or pull harmless pranks on unsuspecting folks, the socially inept Andrew, suffering from a brutal home life (Mom's dying, Dad's a bullying drunk), can't quite contain his extraordinary power and begins to view it as a way to get back at a cruel and insensitive world. Given the low budget, the special effects are astonishing, but that doesn't mean I wanted them to dominate the final portion of the picture. Unfortunately, writer-director Josh Trank and co-scripter Max Landis allow the film to get away from them, moving from sober-minded intrigue to surface bombast. Still, the two men, both making their feature-film debuts, do enough right to insure that Chronicle serves as a potent calling card. **1/2

GONE Let's give this much credit to Gone: It plays it straight. In an era in which filmmakers come up with increasingly convoluted ways to trick audiences with all manner of daft plot pirouettes, this new thriller respects viewers enough to present the whodunit aspect in a manner that isn't insulting. (Semi-Spoiler Alert!) While its mystery proves easy to peg (it only takes one lingering and oddly angled shot to establish the identity of the villain), at least it's a break from the sort of dorky fare that has ensnared the likes of Johnny Depp and Halle Berry in the past — unbelievable yarns in which the protagonist had a split personality or imagined the whole film or started channeling Genghis Khan or what-have-you. This isn't to say that Gone is a brainy flick; on the contrary, the narrative leaps taken by scripter Allison Burnett are head-smackingly stupid. Her story, primarily culled from Kiss the Girls and The Silence of the Lambs, centers on Jill (Amanda Seyfried), a Portland, Oregon, resident who became the only person to successfully escape from a psychopath who likes to kidnap, torture and murder women. Unfortunately for Jill, there was never any evidence that she had been snatched or tortured, so the cops locked her up in a looney bin for a short period. Now a year later, she's convinced that her sister Molly (Emily Wickersham) has been nabbed by the same madman; since the police still believe that she's merely a delusional nutjob, it's up to her to save her sibling. Seyfried does solid work as a damaged woman who's fearful of the world around her, but Burnett's script is laughable in the manner in which Jill's search develops: This is the sort of film that relies on its heroine behaving exactly as necessary for the story to progress, and if she doesn't pick up on every single clue (some really reaching), then the plot would grind to a halt. Gone wasn't screened in advance for critics anywhere and opened to a desultory $4.8 million gross. Anybody interested in seeing it better head to the theater posthaste, because after a couple more weeks, this mediocre effort is sure to be gone, baby, gone. **

THE GREY After presenting Mexico City as the ultimate hellhole on Earth, Tony Scott's 2004 Man on Fire ended with a credit stating that the city was actually "a very special place." Sydney Pollack's 1993 The Firm assures us that Cayman Island officials look down on the sort of money laundering occurring in the film. And best of all, Irwin Allen's 1978 The Swarm gave a shout-out to our buzzing buddies by adding a credit which noted that "the African killer bee portrayed in this film bears absolutely no relationship to the industrious, hard-working American honey bee to which we are indebted for pollinating vital crops that feed our nation." Unfortunately, no PSA announcement accompanies The Grey, which presents the often misunderstood wolf in such a vicious and uncompromising light that I expect Sarah Palin will see this film at least a dozen times. Of course, all two- and four-legged creatures are fair game when it comes to presenting them as movie villains — even bunny rabbits and a slobbery St. Bernard had to play the heavies in Night of the Lepus and Cujo, respectively — and the wolves on display here are indeed intimidating. Granted, they often look like animatronic animals on steroids, but they certainly put the fear of God in the human protagonists. The prey in The Grey is a group of oil-rig workers whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wilds. The no-nonsense Ottway (Liam Neeson), whom we first meet as he's sticking his gun in his own mouth (a wolf's howl distracts him from pulling the trigger), appoints himself leader and attempts to lead the other six survivors out of the wilderness — no small task given not only the punishing elements but also the savage wolf pack that's picking them off one by one. To its credit, The Grey tries to add a little substance to its terror-tale premise, but Ottway's soft-gaze flashbacks to his long-gone wife and the religious chats among the men (complete with a scene where Ottway yells at the heavens above) only skim the surface of any true existential analysis. And while there are a couple of good sequences focused on the brutal landscape, the man-on-wolf action is both fleeting and feeble — anemic enough that even Twilight haters might join Team Jacob rather than watch this shaggy undertaking. **

THE IRON LADY Taking Meryl Streep out of The Iron Lady and replacing her with just about any other actress would be akin to removing the meat out of a beef Stroganoff dinner and replacing it with a Hostess Twinkie. The result would be a thoroughly indigestible mess, worthy only of being flung into the garbage bin. Yes, Streep delivers yet another note-perfect performance (even if it atypically seems as much surface mimicry as heartfelt emoting), but move beyond her eye-catching work and what remains is a poor movie that does little to illuminate the life and times of Margaret Thatcher, the controversial British Prime Minister who held the position throughout the 1980s. Forget for a minute the movie's soft-pedaling of its central character. Since filmmakers usually desire to be as demographically friendly as possible in order to attract audiences of all stripes, it's no surprise that director Phyllida Lloyd and scripter Abi Morgan fail to devote much time to Thatcher's ample failings, including her abhorrent attitudes toward the poor, the unemployed and even her fellow women. Yet even her few strengths (rising from modest origins, sticking it to the boys' club of British politics, reinstilling a sense of national pride much like her BFF Ronald Reagan was doing stateside) are treated in CliffsNotes fashion, since an oversized amount of the picture focuses on her waning years as a lonely woman suffering from mild dementia, believing she's being frequently visited by her deceased husband Denis (a wasted Jim Broadbent). With so much history and personality to draw upon, it's infuriating that so much of the running time is wasted on mere speculation involving an elderly person's flights of fancy (a problem that also plagued Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar); these sequences, popping up every few minutes, effectively destroy any sense of pacing or continuity and ineptly attempt to soften a world figure who didn't exactly earn her titular nickname by publicly surrounding herself with Paddington Bear dolls. *1/2

JOHN CARTER Released in 2-D, 3-D, IMAX and possibly even a sepia tone version, John Carter arrives on the 100th anniversary of the title character's first literary appearance, when Edgar Rice Burroughs initially gave him life in the pages of a pulp periodical. James Cameron publicly declared that the John Carter canon was one of the primary inspirations for Avatar, and this new film arrives with all the multi-million-dollar CGI effects we've come to expect from our fantasy flick fodder. Yet perhaps because of the age of its source material as well as the often wide-eyed approach taken by Pixar vet Andrew Stanton (the WALL-E and Finding Nemo director, here making his live-action debut), John Carter feels more old-school than its budget would suggest. Standing somewhat apart from today's blockbusters-of-the-week, it hews more closely to such nostalgia-tinged projects as 1980's Flash Gordon and 1991's The Rocketeer, narratively simple adventure yarns that charmingly worked their straightforward delineations of good and evil into no-frills fun. A key difference, though, is that while those two movies were savvy enough to occasionally wink at themselves and even engage in a bit of camp, John Carter takes itself far too seriously, and what should be, as the barkers once said, a rip-roaring good time all too often finds itself crushed under its grim-faced grandeur. Taylor Kitsch plays Carter, a Civil War-era Virginian who, through means too lengthy to explain here, finds himself transported to Mars. There, his body mass gives him extra strength, speed and agility, all of which he'll need as he becomes mired in a conflict involving the various warring factions on the Red Planet. There are some fantastic sights in John Carter, but there's also a lot of overkill, with Stanton and his crew often cluttering up the visuals with the deranged frenzy of George Lucas retooling his Star Wars sagas. Speaking of Star Wars, the political subplots often grow so wearying that we half-expect The Phantom Menace's Qui-Gon Jinn to show up and start discussing Trade Federation taxation. Yes, John Carter is occasionally that dull, and yet overall, it grows more interesting as it progresses, with a second half that should energize moviegoers who slumbered during the laborious first hour. Now whether that energy boost will translate into a desire to see a sequel, I cannot say. **1/2

MAN ON A LEDGE For a flick that ended up getting shoved to January, Man on a Wire sure sports a cast that would look right at home on a year-end release date. Move past thudding lead Sam Worthington (still flailing about in his bid to become The Next Big Thing; dude, if Avatar and a Terminator sequel couldn't do it for ya...) and filmgoers will find the likes of Ed Harris, Anthony Mackie, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell and more. And it's a good thing for this film's makers that all concerned signed on the dotted line, since it gives considerable heft to a movie that otherwise might have gone straight to DVD. Worthington plays Nick Cassidy, a wrongly incarcerated ex-cop who manages to escape from prison, thereby enabling him to put into motion a complex scheme in which his role is to ... well, check out the title. Banks stirs sympathy as a guilt-ridden police negotiator, Bell and Genesis Rodriguez make a cute couple as Nick's brother and his feisty squeeze, and Harris brings a dash of classy menace to his too-few scenes as a ruthless titan of industry. It's all fast-paced nonsense, easy to take but not quite engaging enough to warrant a night out at the movies. Yeah, best to wait for that DVD. **1/2

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL There's a scene in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol in which Tom Cruise's agent extraordinaire Ethan Hunt must climb up the outside of a tall building with only the aid of a pair of electronic gloves that fasten themselves to any given surface. It isn't enough that it's a towering edifice — it has to be Dubai's Burj Khalifa, merely the tallest building in the world. And it isn't enough that a pair of gloves seem like scarce supplies for a climbing expedition — one of the blasted things must malfunction during the ascent, meaning a single hand is all that prevents Ethan from falling to his doom a hundred-plus stories below. And did I mention that, during the descent, he's a few stories shy of reaching safety, meaning he has to swing around wildly like a pinata that's been whacked a few times in the hopes of propelling himself into an open window? It's utterly ridiculous — and also utterly exciting. The fourth M:I film based on the classic TV series — and the third to be worth a damn (only the second one was a letdown) — this wisely continues the tradition of assigning a different director to each chapter, going from Brian De Palma to John Woo to J.J. Abrams and now to Brad Bird. In making his live-action debut, Bird demonstrates that he's not going to allow a real-world setting to hamper an imagination that had been instrumental in making toon tales like Ratatouille and The Incredibles. The plotline is so hoary that it might as well have come from a 1960s-era Bond flick: A Russian madman (Michael Nyqvist) plans to cleanse the earth via a nuclear war, and it's up to the only active members of the Impossible Missions Force (Cruise, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg), plus a government analyst harboring a secret (Jeremy Renner), to take him down. At 135 minutes, the film admittedly overstays its welcome — the coda is particularly draggy, even if it does offer a pair of pleasing cameos — and Cruise's Ethan Hunt is more inscrutable than ever. But for action buffs desperate for a hit to jump-start their hearts, here's a Mission impossible to refuse. ***

RAMPART Dave Brown, the corrupt cop at the center of Rampart, is described by one of his own daughters as "a dinosaur ... a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer, a chauvinist, a misanthrope, homophobic clearly." Why stop there? He's also a bully, a thief, a murderer — and one of the most compelling cops seen on screen in some time. Dave Brown is played by Woody Harrelson, who earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination a couple of years ago for his supporting stint in writer-director Oren Moverman's The Messenger. Whereas that film found Harrelson playing a decent man grimly doing a dirty job — an army captain tasked with informing families of the deaths of their loved ones who were off fighting for God and country — Moverman's new picture finds him cast as an indecent man happily tackling a dirty job: serving as a "soldier" (his word) in an effort to cleanse the Los Angeles "jungle" (ditto). With a real-life 1999 LA police scandal serving as the backdrop, Rampart follows Dave as his life begins a downward spiral. Caught on camera savagely beating a civilian and later involved in a highly questionable shooting that leaves a Hispanic man dead, Dave becomes the poster child for everything that's wrong with the police force. He becomes a target of both the d.a.'s office (repped by Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi) and an Internal Affairs investigator (Ice Cube), and he's not even sure he can trust his friends; specifically, a lawyer who comes to share his bed (Robin Wright) and an ex-cop with dirty dealings but a clean reputation (Ned Beatty). With a rare screenplay from L.A. Confidential novelist James Ellroy that he co-wrote with Moverman, Rampart is more of a character study than any sort of crime procedural, and it's all the better for it. ***

SAFE HOUSE Actors often like to brag about how they performed their own dangerous stunts on a particular picture, but how many A-listers can actually claim to have been waterboarded as part of the deal? Yet here's Denzel Washington and his co-workers on Safe House, all revealing on the interview circuit how the two-time Oscar winner refused a stunt double for the scene in which his character, former CIA agent Tobin Frost, gets tortured via a technique that's all the millennial rage among U.S. government leaders. It's an intense sequence, one of the few in a movie that otherwise hits all the familiar marks as it hurtles toward the end credits. Still, a little professionalism can go, if not a long way, at least enough distance to make the ride a painless one, and Safe House is nothing if not slick and steady. Washington's apparently traitorous agent tests the patience of noble novice agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) as both men flee through Cape Town, South Africa, evading the usual band of nondescript thugs. These ruffians are in the employment of — gasp! — a dirty double-crossing official in the Central Intelligence Agency. Could it be the no-nonsense head suit, Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard)? The brusque Catherine Linklater (Vega Farmiga)? Or the gracious and sweet-natured David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson)? Honestly, why do scripters even make an effort to hide the identity until the end, when it's apparent from the get-go who will be revealed as the villain? Given the perpetual obviousness in these films, they might as well include a character named Professor Plum, usually found brandishing a lead pipe in the conservatory, and be done with it. **

THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY An adaptation of Mary Norton's classic novel The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty hails from Japan's Studio Ghibli, the only toon factory comparable to Pixar. It's understandable that the original Japanese voices have been overlaid with English ones for many international markets, but considering this dubbing already took place for the picture's UK release — and with noteworthy actors like Atonement's Saoirse Ronan and Sherlock Holmes' Mark Strong, to boot — did stateside distributor Disney really need to replace those British voices with American ones? Were they afraid Yank audiences might be too dumb to decipher the King's English? Whatever the daft reason, it's a good bet this film would still work even in Pig Latin, given the usual warmth and attention to detail invested in all Ghibli efforts. The story revolves around the title character (Bridgit Mendler) and her parents (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett), inches-tall people who live in their own makeshift home underneath a real house. Warned to avoid human contact at all costs, Arrietty nevertheless strikes up a tentative friendship with a sickly boy (David Henrie), a bond that inadvertently draws the attention of a cruel housekeeper (Carol Burnett). Leisurely related and lovingly crafted (I love how the miniature family uses canceled stamps as wall paintings), The Secret World of Arrietty is an oasis of calm in the normally hyperactive world of toon entertainment. ***

A SEPARATION This Iranian import, an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, is a rarity: a clarion cry that cuts through the xenophobic clutter and the dense fog of war to show that not everyone "over there" is a boogeyman waiting to jump out of the closet. If that sounds terribly simplistic, just consider where we live — a nation that once used to enjoy daily Terror Alerts to go along with morning coffee and toast, and one where an alarming number of yahoos consider the present POTUS to be a covert Muslim operative. Granted, Tea Party evildoers won't be caught within a zip code of this movie, but even open-minded moviegoers curious to check it out might be surprised how many scenes and situations strike close to home. At the film's center are husband and wife Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), who live in Tehran with their school-age daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) and Nader's Alzheimer's-affected father. Simin wants to move to another country, while Nader wants to remain put — obviously an irreconcilable difference. When a judge turns down Simin's request for a divorce, the pair decide to live apart; even though Nader still has Termeh to help him with his dad, he hires a pregnant woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to serve as the elderly man's caretaker. It's the worst decision he could have made, as misunderstandings and outright lies soon lead to violence and a charge of murder. The success of writer-director Asghar Farhadi's film on the global stage makes perfect sense: An expertly written and directed piece about familial strife, it shares plenty of DNA with similarly domestic efforts like Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer. Yet the palpable tension between the spouses is only part of the equation, as the picture also looks at resentment between classes, the impact of religion on the various characters, the limitations of a rigid judicial system, and the sexual dynamics in a society that, for all its modest gains in the name of equality, still remains a fundamentally patriarchal one. Clearly, A Separation is a movie that's specific in its setting and universal in its issues, in many ways as all-American as it is all-Iranian. ***1/2

THIS MEANS WAR When it comes to the twin businesses of sexual politics and romantic revelations, the number of modern-day comedies that have managed to smartly upend all the tired stereotypes and withering clichés is a dismally small one, sporting a losing ratio comparable to that of the 2011 Indianapolis Colts. This Means War is yet another casualty, losing the battle almost from the start. Chris Pine and Tom Hardy respectively play FDR and Tuck, crack CIA agents who are BFFs until they both fall for the same woman. That would be Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a lonely workaholic who goes from having no boyfriends to having two guys fighting over her. With her best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler) offering her dubious advice, Lauren simultaneously dates both studs in order to determine her best match. For their part, FDR and Tuck are utilizing all the espionage tools at their disposal (satellites, wiretaps, etc.) to thwart the other fellow in his amorous advances. In popcorn-picture terms, it has promise, and indeed, there are a couple of sequences in the midsection that fulfill the film's potential. But for the most part, the movie is a clumsy mess, replete with a worthless subplot involving a cardboard Euro-baddie (Til Schweiger) seeking revenge. As far as the characterizations are concerned, they follow the same outdated playbook that's generally kept under lock and key by Katherine Heigl to use in her films. Lauren comes across as a ninny, FDR is insufferable, Trish is like all married women in movies (alcoholic, bitter, and living vicariously through her hot, young, single friend), and Tuck's ex (Abigail Leigh Spencer) has no interest in a sensitive, caring father until she learns he can beat the living hell out of people. It's safe to assume that only Hardy (and his pursed lips) will escape from this debacle unharmed. As for the resolution of the romantic dilemma ... well, let's just say that the filmmakers would have been hard-pressed to come up with a worst ending. But then they tack on a ghastly epilogue, and what seemed near-impossible becomes a harsh reality. *1/2

THE VOW Channing Tatum's best shot at being taken even semiseriously as an actor would be to only make movies with Rachel McAdams for the rest of his life. A fine performer with a vulnerable and disarming beauty, McAdams has previously been romantically linked on screen to Ryan Gosling, James Marsden and Owen Wilson (among others), but it's no major feat to generate chemistry with talented guys like these. But to strike cinematic sparks with a limited stud like Tatum not only requires skill on McAdams' part, it also demands that her co-star somewhat rise to her level. And when The Vow works, it's almost always because of the give-and-take dynamics between the pair. Based on a true story, this centers on Paige and Leo, a madly-in-love married couple whose lives change drastically after Paige loses much of her memory in a car accident. She can remember her life before Leo — her wealthy, right-wing parents (Jessica Lange and Sam Neill), her circle of sorority-sister friends, her slick fiancé (Scott Speedman), her interest in attending law school — but she can't remember anything afterward. That would encompass her career in sculpture, her liberal world view, her switch from carnivore to vegetarian, and, oh yeah, the fact that she has a husband. Thus, it's up to Leo to insure that they get reacquainted, but Claire's having a hard time falling in love with him this time around, as the comfort and security of her life at home are more reassuring to her than sharing an apartment with this perfect stranger. Although McAdams gives the more fully rounded performance, it's Tatum's character who earns the majority of our sympathies, and the actor does just enough right to guarantee our allegiance to his cause. The scenes in which he tries to connect with his equally frustrated wife are the best in the film, and once the story moves past this and settles on Paige's betrayals by those from her past, it gets bogged down in mopey melodrama and never recovers. Still, for those seeking out a love story that doesn't insult the head or the heart through shameless manipulation, the sweetly sincere The Vow mostly fulfills its promise. **1/2

WANDERLUST As scattershot and unfocused as its characters, Wanderlust casts Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston as George and Linda, a Manhattan couple who have just purchased their first home (a "micro-loft," no bigger than one of Donald Trump's closets). But when George loses his job thanks to his boss' illegal activities and Linda has her documentary about penguins with testicular cancer rejected by HBO, the pair find themselves broke and homeless. While traveling to Atlanta to stay with George's vulgar, wealthy brother and his spacy wife (Ken Marino, the film's co-scripter, and Michaela Watkins are quite funny in these roles), they chance upon Elysium, a blissful commune where the residents live off the land, share everything (including partners) and smoke lots of pot. As they become acquainted with (among others) the philosophical Seth (Justin Theroux), the cheerful Eva (Malin Ackerman), the nudist winemaker Wayne (Joe Lo Truglio) and commune founding father Carvin (Alan Alda), each spouse weighs the pros and cons of permanently staying at this so-called "intentional community." Writer-director David Wain's film sports an intriguing premise, but the end result never really commits to any particular viewpoint (is Wain laughing with the commune residents or at the commune residents?), a wishy-washy approach that doesn't allow for any insights into the existence of such a beatific place in our capitalist society. This wouldn't matter if the movie fulfilled its obligations as a comedy, but genuine laughs are spread rather thinly throughout, with some bizarre and inspired bits taking a back seat to the usual raunchy gags — this includes an agonizing scene in which a nervous George, about to have sex with Eva, ad-libs various vulgar come-ons in front of the mirror. This endless improv sequence is the type that's usually found as an extra feature on the DVD for a Judd Apatow film (oh, did I mention he's one of this movie's producers?), meaning the home-entertainment branch will have to find something else to fill its slot on the disc. Given the abundance of comparable material — from Rudd sitting on a toilet to Lo Truglio and his prosthetic penis (he's no Michael Fassbender) bouncing through the woods — I don't think they'll need to put in any overtime. **

WAR HORSE Steven Spielberg is no novice when it comes to presenting moviegoers with the horrors of war, whether it's the muted screams of Schindler's List, the frontline carnage of Saving Private Ryan or even the knotty retaliations of Munich. While all those films deservedly earned R ratings, don't be fooled into thinking the PG-13 War Horse takes a softer approach to the subject at hand — with one specific scene, Spielberg establishes that his World War I epic, like some of the platoons marching through it, won't take any prisoners. Before that sequence arrives, we're introduced to the majestic title animal, a horse (named Joey) who bonds with youthful farmhand Albert (Jeremy Irvine) before being sold to the British army. A sensitive captain (Tom Hiddleston) promises Albert that he'll take good care of Joey, but the horse doesn't remain in the officer's hands; instead, Joey finds himself passing between soldiers and civilians, between Brits and Germans, between kindly souls and abusive monsters. A young girl offers him a home; a German officer plans to work him until he drops dead; soldiers from each side team up to save him. And so it goes. Based on the smash stage hit, War Horse has been opened up in breathtaking fashion for the screen, vibrantly bringing each vignette to life and allowing them to collectively address how war diminishes not just humankind but irrevocably destroys surrounding environs. War Horse is a movie of rage, but it's also one of empathy and understanding — it's to Spielberg's credit that he knows the storyline is emotionally wrenching enough that he doesn't need to manipulate tears out of anyone (believe you me, many viewers won't need any coaxing to reach for those hankies at the appropriate moments). Only with the final shot selections does the director succumb to the sort of artistic grandstanding that's sometimes in his nature, but these screensaver images hardly negate the power and the fury of the hard-charging movie that precedes them. ***1/2

WE BOUGHT A ZOO While the concept of dotting the i's and crossing the t's is a wonderful one to pass along to small children just learning how to write, it earns Cameron Crowe a failing grade for rigidly applying it to We Bought a Zoo, a film whose fussiness about every single detail results in audience members not having the luxury to think or feel for themselves. Based on a true story, this stars Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee, a recent widower who decides, in cornpone Green Acres fashion, to quit city life and move into a country home. As the new owner, he's required to take care of the failing zoo on the expansive property, so he relies on a motley crew of staffers to show him the ropes and bring him up to speed. Eventually, he falls for the lead zookeeper (Kevin James — whoops, wrong movie; Scarlett Johansson). Watching this movie, it's hard to believe Crowe once helmed such finely crafted pictures as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and the underrated Vanilla Sky. As both director and co-writer (with Aline Brosh McKenna), he stumbles right at the start, when he fails to immediately establish essential information regarding the zoo (its parameters, the types of animals it houses, etc.). Instead, he's too busy working overtime to make sure we're visually and emotionally led by the hand so we don't miss anything. If Benjamin says something idiotic, there's a monkey ready to smack his own forehead in exasperation. If Benjamin fondly recalls his dearly departed wife, she's ready to appear in ethereal form. Clearly, Crowe doesn't trust viewers to make it from Point A to Point B without stumbling or getting lost. Damon and Johansson are reliable as always, and Thomas Haden Church contributes a few chuckles as Benjamin's skeptical brother. But the zoo crew, meant to be quirky, is merely tiresome, the so-called villains (a smarmy inspector, a backstabbing accountant) are laughably manufactured, and the animals are rarely shown in all their glory. But hey, at least they're not burdened with the gift of gab. *1/2

THE WOMAN IN BLACK Before they largely imploded in the mid-1970s, Britain's Hammer Film Productions spent two decades producing lush, atmospheric horror flicks, in the process re-igniting filmgoer passion for classic monster movies and making genre superstars out of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Two years ago, the outfit returned to screens with the critically acclaimed, audience-ignored Let Me In, followed that with two barely seen releases, and now offer the decidedly more high-profile The Woman in Black, positioned as a true test of Daniel Radcliffe's drawing power outside the Harry Potter franchise. For the record, Radcliffe is fine; the film, on the other hand, is tepid enough to leave Dracula — the one who looks like Christopher Lee, of course — spinning in his grave. Based on a novel (by Susan Hill) that had already been turned into a successful play and a 1989 made-for-British-TV film, this finds Radcliffe cast as Arthur Kipps, a widowed lawyer assigned to visit a remote village in order to settle the estate of a recently deceased elderly woman. In the film's best nod to vintage horror, the country rubes all view the newcomer with suspicion and do little to aid him in his task. The reason, it turns out, is that they believe the stomping grounds of the departed is haunted by the title apparition, an evil entity with a sweet tooth for tragedy and children. Both fascinated by the legend and fearful that it might has some basis in reality, Arthur opts to spend the night at the creepy mansion — and it's here where the film primarily jumps the tracks. The best ghost stories are the ones that rely on careful exposition and a pervasive sense of mounting dread to unsettle audiences (The Others and The Orphanage being modern examples), but director James Watkins and scripter Jane Goldman abandon that approach shockingly fast. Instead, this is the sort of spook show that tries to manufacture scares by having something rapidly leap into the frame, startling both the protagonist and many viewers. Usually, it's a cat; here, it's everything but. Yet this type of cheap thrill becomes predictable before long, and unlike the aforementioned simmering sort of supernatural cinema, it will have little shelf life (after all, to quote a great president and humanitarian, "Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."). It's certainly nice to have Hammer back in business, but let's hope they nail down more promising projects than this one. **

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