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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Sept. 29 

THE AMERICAN The title would suggest that here's a film reminiscent of Mom and apple pie; in truth, it has more in common with Padre and panna cotta. Deliberately paced and artfully rendered, this frequently feels like an Antonioni knockoff whose prints ended up at the multiplexes instead of the art-houses. George Clooney stars as Jack, an assassin who hides out in a small Italian town to avoid other hitmen gunning for him. Having recently killed an innocent lover in order to cover his own tracks, Jack knows better than to get involved with others, but he nevertheless befriends an elderly priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and becomes romantically entangled with a prostitute (Violante Placido). The one exception to the film's low-volume level is a vehicular chase that punctuates the proceedings like a pin to a balloon; the rest is moody and mannered, an approach certain to divide moviegoers. For me, the thoughtful pace was appreciated; what wasn't appreciated was that it's wrapped around a tale that could have used a little more inspiration in branching out its characters. A weary hitman, a hooker with a heart of gold and a jovial priest might be the basis for a great joke were they all to enter a bar, but as the central ingredients of a story meant to compel, this assemblage predates even the U.S. Constitution. **1/2

DESPICABLE ME When James Stewart offers to lasso the moon for Donna Reed in Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life, it's purely a romantic gesture. When Gru (Steve Carell), the star of the 3-D opus Despicable Me, plots to shrink the moon to a size small enough so that he can make off with it, it's clearly to show that he's the baddest dude around. After all, if a supervillain isn't feared and respected, then what good is he? Despicable Me is a witty, congenial lark that obviously won't have the staying power of Toy Story 3 but serves quite nicely as a pleasing placeholder in the cinematic summer of 2010. Sweet-natured yet also avoiding the cloying sentiment that tarnishes any great number of toon tales, this finds Gru enlisting the aid of three oblivious orphan girls to help him one-up his biggest competitor in the supervillain sweepstakes, a self-satisfied nebbish (Jason Segel) who calls himself Vector. Naturally, Gru knows nothing about children, and just as naturally, the girls will teach him about family and responsibility. But that comes later. First, the movie has to let loose with a volley of inspired sight gags, a smattering of adult-oriented humor (note the homage to The Godfather), and some screen-pushing innovations to justify the 3-D expense. ***

EASY A Heathers in the 1980s. Clueless in the '90s. Mean Girls in the noughts. It seems like every decade insists on producing a razor-sharp high school satire centered around the travails of a likable female protagonist. Easy A appears to be this new decade's first entry in the sweepstakes, and while it can't quite compare to its enduring predecessors, it will do just fine until something more permanent comes along. Emma Stone gives a bright performance as Olive, a virginal wallflower who erroneously ends up being tagged as the biggest slut at her high school. Soon, Olive is likening her situation to Hester Prynne's in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and rather than fight the rumors, she starts wearing tight-fitting clothes accentuated by a red letter "A." The Hawthorne comparisons are often clumsy, and Olive's friends and tormentors are a rather nondescript lot. But there's still much to enjoy: Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as the Coolest Parents Ever; Thomas Haden Church wearing sensitivity well as a congenial teacher; Lisa Kudrow in a welcome appearance as a shallow guidance counselor; and no shortage of clever retorts penned by debuting scripter Bert V. Royal. Easy A may be about the kids, but aside from Stone's contribution, it mostly benefits from all the adult supervision. **1/2

EAT PRAY LOVE Not haven't read Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir, it's entirely possible that, in comparison, this film version seems about as complicated as an episode of Dora the Explorer. But on its own, it's a richly rewarding experience, following one woman's journey both across the globe and within herself. Julia Roberts delivers her strongest performance since Erin Brockovich a full decade ago — as Liz Gilbert, she brings to the forefront the doubts, frustrations and longings inherent in a woman who realizes she's not content with her marriage or her surroundings and elects to set out on new adventures. Liz finds both spiritual and physical nourishment during her travels to Italy, India and Bali, but her lessons aren't conveyed to us in the usual cookie-cutter platitudes; instead, the dialogue is frequently lyrical and lovely, never cheapening the thoughts or feelings being revealed. In a summer dominated (as always) by male-skewering titles, Eat Pray Love is certain to get dismissed in some quarters as Sex and the City 2's sister in failed counter programming. But with its themes of self-discovery and its impressive roster of award-caliber actors (Javier Bardem, Richard Jenkins, Viola Davis), it's actually an intelligent movie for discerning grownups who wouldn't be caught dead seeing Grown Ups. ***1/2

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