Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Feb. 17 | Film Clips | Creative Loafing Charlotte
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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Feb. 17 

AVATAR The only film capable of surpassing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as the Fanboy Fave of 2009, James Cameron's massively hyped Avatar at least differs from Michael Bay's boondoggle in that it's, you know, entertaining. On the other hand, the notion that it represents the next revolution in cinema is nothing more than studio-driven hyperbole, because while the 3-D visuals might rate four stars, Cameron's steady but unexceptional screenplay guarantees that this falls well below more compatible marriages of substance and style found in such celluloid groundbreakers as the original King Kong, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Toy Story and Cameron's own Terminator films. Here, the story meshes Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas with, amusingly enough, this year's animated flop Battle for Terra -- it's the year 2154, and the Americans have decided to destroy the indigenous people on a distant planet in order to plunder the land and make off with its riches (plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose). Employing technology that allows humans to look like the blue-skinned locals, the Earthlings send in a Marine (Sam Worthington) to gain their trust, but as the jarhead gets to know these aliens better, he finds himself conflicted. For all its swagger, Avatar is rarely deeper than an average Garfield strip, but Cameron's creation of a new world demands to be seen at least once. ***

THE BLIND SIDE Precious is different in that it allows an African-American character to tell her own story, never ceding the camera to anyone else and remaining the focal point throughout. The Blind Side is more typical of the sort of racially aware films Hollywood foists upon middle America, purportedly focusing on a black protagonist but really serving as an example of the goodness of white folks. The only reason this young black boy exists, it seems to hint, is so that a Caucasian woman can feel good about herself. The fact that The Blind Side is based on a true story dispels much of this criticism, although it still would have been nice if writer-director John Lee Hancock had thought to include the character of Michael Oher (Quentin Aaron) into more of his game plan. Instead, he's a saintly, one-dimensional figure -- although he (like everyone else in the film) seems like the spawn of Satan when compared to Leigh Ann Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), the feisty Southern belle who decides to feed, shelter and eventually adopt this homeless lad after spotting him one dark and stormy night. Bullock's a lot of fun to watch in this role, and the movie itself contains enough humor and heartbreak (though next to no dramatic tension) to make it an engaging if undemanding experience. But its true intentions are revealed in its ample self-congratulatory dialogue. "Leigh Anne, you are changing that boy's life." "No. [insert dramatic, Oscar-friendly pause here] He's changing mine." You can almost see the filmmakers patting themselves on their backs before heading home to their maximum-security Beverly Hills mansions. **1/2

THE BOOK OF ELI Talk about apocalypse now. If there's one positive thing to be said about the sudden glut of end-of-the-world tales, it's that the batting average in terms of quality has been on the winning side. Certainly, 2012 was a stinker, but The Road, Zombieland, Terminator Salvation and now The Book of Eli have all been compelling watches, each for different reasons. In the case of The Book of Eli, the first film directed by The Hughes Brothers since 2001's criminally underrated Johnny-Depp-meets-Jack-the-Ripper movie From Hell, it's the potent religious slant that makes it intriguing. Thirty years after a war that wiped out most of the world's population, only one Bible remains in existence. The righteous Eli (Denzel Washington) owns it, planning to use it for good; the despicable Carnegie (Gary Oldman) wants it, planning to use it to forward his own insidious agenda (no mention in Gary Whitta's script as to whether Carnegie is related to Pat Robertson). Admittedly, the spiritual stuff often takes a back seat to sequences of Eli slicing and dicing his way through hordes of sinners. But Washington provides the proper amount of gravitas to his role, and the surprise ending almost matches the denouement of The Sixth Sense as an audience grabber. ***

CRAZY HEART Robert Duvall appears in a supporting role in Crazy Heart and also serves as one of the film's producers. His participation in this project makes complete sense: He wanted to personally hand the baton off to Jeff Bridges. After all, Duvall won his Best Actor Academy Award for 1983's Tender Mercies, and now here comes Bridges, the odds-on favorite to finally win his own Oscar for playing the same type of role essayed by Duvall -- that of a rumpled, boozing, country & western star who enters into a relationship with a sympathetic woman at least two decades his junior. Bridges' grizzled character goes by the name Bad Blake, and that first name describes less the man who bears it -- he's fundamentally decent although, like most drunks, irresponsible and exhausting -- than the circumstances of his present lot in life. Washed up, perpetually inebriated, and playing honky-tonk dives while his protégée, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), fills up massive arenas, Blake stays in the fight even though the odds are against him. But suddenly, unexpected developments on the personal and professional fronts hold real promise. Sweet turns up and, clearly fond of his former mentor, offers him an opening slot on his tour and the opportunity to write new songs for him. And Blake, a multiple divorce' and unrepentant womanizer, finds a chance at a lasting relationship when he meets and falls for reporter and single mom Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Will Blake finally encounter true happiness, or will he find some way to screw everything up? Adapting Thomas Cobbs' novel, writer-director Scott Cooper throws enough curve balls into the expected plotting to keep the narrative from completely dissolving into formula. This is Bridges' show from start to finish, and he seems to be taking particular glee in letting it all hang out (sometimes literally, as a generous gut is frequently glimpsed bursting through an open shirt). Jeff Bridges is a great actor and Bad Blake a great character, and that's more than enough to make this otherwise unexceptional picture sing. ***

EDGE OF DARKNESS Although based on a 1985 British TV miniseries, Edge of Darkness mostly feels like The Constant Gardener shorn of all emotional complexity and weighty plotting. That hardly matters, though: This could have played like an episode of Sesame Street and audiences would still turn out just to answer the pressing question: So, what's Mel been up to these days? It's been eight years since Mel Gibson has handled a leading role on the big screen (2002's Signs), and he's spent the time since then directing the biggest moneymaking snuff film of all time, getting in trouble with the bottle, with the law and with the wife, and being brilliantly parodied in a memorable episode of South Park. And now he's back in Edge of Darkness, and while his off-screen antics have noticeably aged him, he hasn't lost a step when it comes to exuding that undeniable movie-star magnetism. Gibson plays Thomas Craven, a widowed Boston cop whose grown daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) is murdered right before his eyes. The devastated dad starts snooping around and finds that all signs point toward Emma's former place of employment: Northmoor, a shady corporation with all sorts of underhanded ties to the government. Edge of Darkness is effective as a cathartic revenge yarn, at least until the absurdities begin to pile up during the final half-hour. As for Gibson, he's just fine in the sort of role that's been his bread-and-butter for the majority of his career: the maverick out to right a massive wrong by any gory means necessary. It's not exactly a fresh interpretation -- one reason the similar Taken works better than this picture is because we're not used to seeing Liam Neeson in such a part -- but it demonstrates that Gibson knows the best way to reconnect with his sizable fan base is by giving them what they expect and nothing more. And now that the edge has been removed from his public persona, can the career resurrection be far behind? **1/2

AN EDUCATION Coming-of-age movies are a dime-a-dozen, but one as exemplary as An Education deserves nothing less than the opportunity to command top dollar on the open market. Sensitively directed by Lone Scherfig and exquisitely penned by Nick Hornby (adapting Lynn Barber's memoir), this lovely drama set in London during the early 1960s stays true to its title by showing how its teen protagonist learns life lessons as they relate to issues of class, sex, schooling and her country's own growing pains. In a tremendous breakout performance, Carey Mulligan stars as Jenny, a 16-year-old whose intelligence and maturity level place her far above everyone else at her high school. Her strict father (Alfred Molina) and comparatively more lenient mother (Cara Seymour) plan for her to attend Oxford upon graduation, but those plans threaten to get derailed once she meets a debonair gentleman (Peter Sarsgaard) twice her age. She's instantly smitten by this older man who introduces her to a whirlwind life of nightclubs, champagne and fine art, and her decision to possibly toss aside higher education troubles her favorite teacher (Olivia Williams) as well as the school's principal (Emma Thompson). Morals may be gently suggested by the story but no easy answers are ever provided, marking An Education as that rare film which acknowledges that regrettable situations don't always destroy lives but can sometimes be used to positively shape long-term outlooks. Hornby and Scherfig set up a number of believable conflicts for Jenny to navigate, and the acting is uniformly splendid. An Education is clearly one year-end award contender that passes with high honors. ***1/2

EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES Had Harrison Ford spent as much time playing risk-taking actor as action hero, would he now have a mantel of awards to call his own? There was a time when the former box office behemoth would occasionally tackle a quirky character (e.g. The Mosquito Coast, Working Girl) amidst all those larger-than-life super-studs in guaranteed blockbusters, but that time is long gone, and the past decade-plus has mostly seen him wheezing away in ill-advised bombs like Firewall and K-19: The Widowmaker (the latter directed by current critical darling Kathryn Bigelow). Ford did have the opportunity to stretch when Steven Soderbergh offered him a key role in Traffic, but he inexplicably backed out and the part went to Michael Douglas instead. Now Ford turns up in a supporting role in Extraordinary Measures, and it's a good fit, probably the reason he also signed on as an executive producer. As a grumpy, antisocial scientist who agrees to help a grieving couple (Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell) by developing a drug that will save the lives of two of their children (both inflicted with the rare Pompe disease), the aged matinee idol demonstrates that there's plenty of thespian talent left in the tank. But did he have to choose such a lame project on which to expend his energies? Extraordinary Measures is merely ordinary in every way, an earnest but plodding and unimaginative melodrama so flatly realized that it's hard to imagine there will be anything in the theater except dry eyes. Even its potential worth as a tool for universal health care coverage is compromised by the fact that it's even more likely to bore politicians than a stodgy slide show presentation on the subject. *1/2

INVICTUS Clearly, there's no shortage of stories to relate about Nelson Mandela. Why, then, did Clint Eastwood choose one that forces the celebrated leader to go MIA in his own saga? Second only to the upcoming Nine as the biggest disappointment of the holiday season, Invictus represents a rare misstep for the iconic filmmaker, who's been on a tear lately with the stellar likes of Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and last year's Gran Torino. But Invictus, sad to say, finds the prolific 79-year-old merely coasting for more Oscar gold, tackling the sort of safe, sanitized fare that used to attract stodgy filmmakers like Richard Attenborough on a regular basis. Simplifying complicated South African issues to the level of a Berenstain Bears storybook, the movie focuses on the initial years of the presidency of Mandela (portrayed by Morgan Freeman in a competent if uninvolving performance), who emerged from decades in prison bent not on revenge against the whites who oppressed him but instead seeking unity in this post-apartheid South Africa. Finding resistance from both sides of the racial divide, the saintly leader decides to use the sport of rugby as Ground Zero for solidarity, working with the captain (a functional Matt Damon) of the country's mostly white team to build national pride by taking them all the way to the 1995 World Cup Championship game. The first half of Invictus is the superior portion, since Mandela is front and center for most of the running time: The politics may be spotty and the Obama comparisons may or may not be intentional ("One day on the job and they're already attacking him!" bellows one supporter), but at least some human dynamics are at play. Unfortunately, the second part devolves into a typical sports drama focusing on an underdog team battling its way through incredible odds, and this narrative direction forces Mandela to remain on the sidelines of the movie itself. Relegated to the role of cheerleader -- and afforded only an occasional camera shot showing him beaming with pleasure -- Nelson Mandela may have won an election but here suffers a defeat at the hands of formula filmmaking. **

IT'S COMPLICATED After the triumph of Julie & Julia, Meryl Streep heads back to the kitchen for It's Complicated, an erratic comedy in which she plays Jane, a successful baker and restaurateur who, a decade after divorcing Jake (Alec Baldwin), finds herself cast in the role of the "other woman" once she embarks on an affair with her remarried ex. Writer-director Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give) surprisingly goes too easy on the character of Jake, a decision that leaves a bad taste and drains some of the fun out of this otherwise agreeable (if rarely uproarious) bauble. But Streep's comic chops remain strong, and the film gets a significant boost from the presence of Steve Martin as a sensitive architect who finds himself drawn to Jane. **1/2

THE LOVELY BONES Many fans of Alice Sebold's best-selling novel aren't happy, but moviegoers who haven't read the book and accept director Peter Jackson's picture on its own terms (which, ultimately, is how any artistic interpretation should be judged) will be greeted with a powerful viewing experience, a rueful, meditative piece that makes some missteps (particularly toward the end) but on balance treats the heavy topic with the proper degrees of respect and responsibility. In a role far more demanding than her breakthrough part in Atonement, Saoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, a young girl living in '70s suburbia with her loving family. One day after school, quiet neighbor George Harvey (a chilling Stanley Tucci) tricks her into his underground lair, where he then rapes and murders her. (Some have complained about Jackson's decision to not show the sexual assault and slaying. I for one applaud his choice; are these critics -- voyeurs? -- saying that the inherent implications aren't horrific enough on their own?) Now stranded in some sort of celestial limbo, Susie looks down as her father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) searches for the killer while her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) tries to hold the family together. Writing with his Lord of the Rings collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson finds a fanciful way to realize the otherworldly visions in Sebold's story without ever losing sight of the tragedy grounded at the center of the tale. Except for the disastrous comic interludes with Susie's Grandma Lynn (I had no idea Susan Sarandon could ever be this bad), the earthbound sequences are somber and often emotionally overwhelming, whether concentrating on Susie's regrets over all the things she'll never get to experience or following Jack as his all-consuming anguish repeatedly gets him into trouble. Jackson loses his storytelling grip toward the end -- a plot device stolen from Ghost doesn't quite come off -- but he never loses his compassion. The Lovely Bones may not exactly follow its literary antecedent, but I have to believe they share the same beating heart. ***

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG Given the Disney studio's recent disdain toward traditional hand-drawn animation, it's sometimes hard to believe this was the company that over seven decades ago proved that toon flicks deserved to be on the big screen as much as their live-action counterparts. After all, the outfit with countless classics under its belt, some as recent as the 1990s (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), had all but abandoned the format in this new century, squarely throwing its support behind computer-animated fare and releasing a scattering of old-school mediocrities (like Treasure Planet) that were saddled with limp scripts and uninspired voice casting. So is The Princess and the Frog the start of a new era, or merely a hiccup that will quickly be stifled? It's hard to predict, but for now, it's a pleasure to have an old-fashioned animated effort that actually stirs memories of past glories. Adding a decidedly jazzy spin to the venerable fairy tale, The Princess and the Frog centers on Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a young woman living in early-20th-century New Orleans. Toiling as a waitress but longing to save enough money to open her own restaurant, Tiana finds her fate intertwined with that of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a visiting royal who's been duped by the nefarious Dr. Facilier (Keith David) and turned into a frog. Tiana reluctantly kisses the now-green Naveen in an attempt to help him turn human again (as per the fairy tale), but the plan backfires and she instead finds herself joining him in an amphibian state. Randy Newman's song score runs hot and cold, but the animation is lovely, the story offers the requisite Disney mix of mirth and message, and the supporting characters (including a jazz-lovin' crocodile and a laid-back firefly) prove to be an engaging bunch. Yet what's most noteworthy about the film isn't what's in it but what's missing -- specifically, the faddish pop culture references and scatological humor that dates most of today's animated efforts. The Princess and the Frog refuses to be pegged as a product of a specific period, and in that regard, it's a welcome throwback to the timeless toon tales of yesteryear. ***

THE ROAD Zombies seem to be de rigueur in today's strain of post-apocalyptic motion pictures, yet this adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) offers nothing quite so fanciful. The undead shambling through this bleak movie's ravished landscapes are, technically speaking, still human, though many have taken to eating human flesh, and all seem to be moving forward as though propelled by a natural instinct to survive at all costs. Among the ragtag survivors are a father-son team identified only as Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee); solely dedicated to protecting his child, Man does his best to steer clear of all other humans, lest they be what he tags "bad guys" (those with murderous, cannibalistic urges); his paranoia makes him even wary of seemingly harmless strangers, like the elderly man they encounter on the road (Robert Duvall, doing the most with this juicy morsel of a role). Director John Hillcoat, whose Aussie Western The Proposition should be Netflixed posthaste by all who haven't seen it, creates a credible futureworld in which even the "good guys" struggle to retain some semblance of decency, and Mortensen comes through with another haunting performance that mixes the cerebral with the physical. ***

SHERLOCK HOLMES The stench of Van Helsing hung heavy over the trailer for this interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's sleuth extraordinaire -- hyperkinetic editing, loopy deviations from the source, an unintelligible plot -- but the end result turns out to be far more successful than those early warning signs indicated. Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, director Guy Ritchie's full-speed-ahead effort still qualifies as decent holiday-season fare, with Robert Downey Jr. vigorously portraying Holmes as a brawny, brainy gentleman-lout and Jude Law providing measured counterpoint as sidekick Dr. Watson. The storyline isn't always interesting as much as it's overextended -- at least one plot strand could have been excised -- and Ritchie's pumped-up techniques often make this feel less like a movie and more like a video game promo. But there's still plenty to enjoy here, and the ending all but guarantees a sequel -- box office returns be damned. **1/2

A SINGLE MAN Famous fashion designer Tom Ford clearly tries too hard with his directorial debut, but I prefer his overreaching to the cookie-cutter approach displayed by cinematic neophytes merely aping their contemporaries. If nothing else, this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel has a visual style that's clearly its own, and while some of the mise-en-scenes smack of pretension, most are quite beautiful and serve the overall mood of the piece. Set in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, the film casts Colin Firth as British professor George Falconer, a closeted homosexual still reeling from the death of his longtime lover (Matthew Goode, seen frequently in flashback). Falconer stumbles through a seemingly typical day fully intent on killing himself that evening, but before that's set to happen, he spends some meaningful one-on-one time with various people, including his lonely friend Charley (Julianne Moore) and Kenny (About a Boy's Nicholas Hoult, all grown up), a sexually ambiguous student who wants to hear more of his teacher's philosophies. The ending, which would be considered a deus ex machina moment had it not been briefly (and clumsily) telegraphed toward the beginning of the film, is a major letdown, but everything leading up to it is pleasingly mature and understated. ***

THAT EVENING SUN Like the Jeff Bridges vehicle Crazy Heart, That Evening Sun is one of those films that generates nearly all of its goodwill from a smashing central performance by a long-established veteran. Here, it's Hal Holbrook who shows up to demonstrate to Hollywood's young pups how it's done. Holbrook plays Abner Meecham, an elderly Tennessee farmer who's been dumped into a nursing home by his well-meaning but insensitive son (Walt Goggins). Having none of it, Abner bolts from the facility and returns to the property that he's owned forever -- only to discover that his son has rented it to Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), a loutish redneck Abner has long abhorred. Of course, Lonzo and his family -- meek wife Ludie (Carrie Preston) and restless daughter Pamela (Mia Wasikowska, soon to be seen as Tim Burton's Alice) -- have no intention of leaving, setting up a prickly, potentially violent feud between Abner and Lonzo. Adapting William Gay's story "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down," writer-director Scott Teems gives his actors plenty of room to roam: McKinnon manages to provide his boorish character with flashes of civility, while Barry Corbin is memorable in his few scenes as Abner's longtime friend. Yet this is first and foremost a showcase for Holbrook, and it's a shame that he has to contend with some poor late-inning plotting -- specifically, an obvious climax and a cop-out coda. These flaws aren't enough to detract from his tough-minded performance, but I hate to see That Evening Sun go down in a burst of timidity. ***

UP IN THE AIR In the cinema of 2009, Ryan Bingham should by all accounts emerge as the Protagonist Least Likely To Be Embraced By The Nation's Moviegoers. That's because Ryan works as a downsizing expert, hired to come in and dismiss employees that their own bosses are too gutless to fire face to face. Ryan is excellent at his job, which would make him the antagonist in virtually any other film. But because he's played by charismatic George Clooney, Ryan becomes less a villain and more a representative of the modern American, a tech-age person trying to reconcile his buried humanity with what he or she believes is necessary to survive in this increasingly disconnected world. That's the starting point for this superb adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel, but the film covers a lot more territory -- both literally and figuratively -- before it reaches the finish line. As Ryan jets all over the country doing his job, he makes the acquaintance of a fellow frequent flyer (Vera Farmiga), and they strike up a romance that's among the sexiest and most adult placed on screen in some time. Yet Ryan's carefully constructed life threatens to crash and burn when his company's latest hire (Anna Kendrick), a whiz kid just out of college, implements a plan that will require the grounding of all employees, including Ryan. Penning the script with Sheldon Turner, director Jason Reitman (now 3-for-3 following Juno and Thank You for Smoking) has created a timely seriocomic work that manages to be breezy without once diminishing the sobering realities that constantly hover around the picture's edges (for starters, the fired employees interviewed in the film are not actors but real workers who were let go from their jobs). Farmiga and Kendrick are excellent as the two women who unexpectedly alter the direction of Ryan's life, yet it's Clooney, in his best screen work to date, who's most responsible for earning this magnificent movie its wings. ****

THE YOUNG VICTORIA Skewing closer to the likes of Marie Antoinette and Lady Jane than to stately biopics of more seasoned rulers, The Young Victoria turns out to be as interested in charting the sexual and societal awakening of a royal naif as in examining the historical events that shaped her destiny. Building upon her already diverse portfolio, Emily Blunt handles all of the heavy lifting in the picture's titular role, first seen as a teenager refusing to relinquish control of the empire to her mother (Miranda Richardson) and her conniving advisor (Mark Strong). Once her uncle, King William (Jim Broadbent), dies and she becomes queen, Victoria finds herself free from her mother but now being wooed politically by Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) and romantically by her cousin Albert (Rupert Friend). Less probing than many costume dramas yet also lighter on its feet, The Young Victoria won't break out of its niche market but stands to service its target audience in satisfactory fashion. ***

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