Capsule reviews of recently released movies | Film Clips | Creative Loafing Charlotte
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Capsule reviews of recently released movies 

Dreamgirls, The Good Shepherd, Rocky Balboa, others

Current Releases

APOCALYPTO Mel Gibson may or may not be a sorry excuse for a person, but as has been the case since the first brutish caveman painted a beautiful mural on the cavern wall, it's as important as ever to separate the individual from his artistry. And for the first half of Apocalypto, it looks as if he has succeeded in creating something special. Gibson takes us back in time to the waning period of the Mayan civilization: The story drops us off in a small village in which the peaceful inhabitants are soon attacked by warriors who rape the women, abandon the children, and drag the men back to their city to be served up as either slaves or human sacrifices. Up until now, Apocalypto has proven to be a compelling yarn marked by charismatic performers (most notably lead Rudy Youngblood, as a tribesman fighting to make it back to his family), splendid production values and Gibson's fluid direction. But anyone who's seen Gibson's previous directorial efforts, Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, knows that nothing titillates the filmmaker as much as pain and destruction, and Apocalypto soon turns into an orgy of unrelenting bloodlust wrapped around a straightforward chase picture. Sadistic to a fault, Gibson has become cinema's reigning gore-to guy. **

BLOOD DIAMOND The message of this public service announcement masquerading as a movie is that consumers should take care not to buy "conflict diamonds," baubles obtained by mercenaries using slave labor, then smuggled out of war torn countries. Since the film (set in Sierra Leone) establishes early on that these "conflict diamonds" are mixed in with legitimate diamonds at an early stage in the marketing process, it's never made clear how exactly consumers are supposed to avoid said jewels (buy roses instead?). At any rate, the movie's lofty intentions are hamstrung by having to coexist uneasily with stock characters. Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio in a strong performance) is a devil-may-care opportunist who discovers he has a heart of gold as large as the diamond he's seeking. Solomon Vandy (magnetic Djimon Hounsou, once again typecast) is a fisherman brutalized and forced into mining the diamond fields. And Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly, working overtime to add spark to a thin character) is an American journalist who sounds like an Information Please almanac every time she opens her mouth. Director Edward Zwick and his team are presumably sincere in wanting to shed some light on a tragic real-world situation, but the clumsy Blood Diamond simply can't cut it. **

CASINO ROYALE In most respects, Casino Royale ranks among the best Bond films produced over the past 44 years. Basically, it wipes away the previous 20 installments by going back to when James Bond was first promoted to the level of a double-oh agent with a license to kill. As intensely played by Daniel Craig, this James Bond isn't a suave playboy quick with the quip and bathed in an air of immortality but rather a sometimes rough-hewn bruiser who makes mistakes, usually keeps his sense of humor in check, and, because he's just starting out, possesses more flashes of empathy than we're used to seeing in our cold-as-ice hero. With memorable characters and exciting action scenes, Casino Royale is so successful in its determination to jump-start the series by any means necessary that it tampers with winning formulas left and right. When a bartender asks Bond if he prefers his martini shaken or stirred, the surly agent snaps back, "Do I look like I give a damn?" Blasphemy? Perhaps. But also bloody invigorating. ***1/2

CHARLOTTE'S WEB Charlotte's Web is the new live-action treatment of E.B. White's beloved children's book, but there's already been a dazzling screen version of this tale. No, I don't mean the 1973 Hanna-Barbera animated take; instead, I refer to the 1995 feature Babe. OK, so it wasn't based on White's book, but with its story centering around a cute little pig learning about farm life, it shares the same sense of magic and wonderment (not to mention setting). This version of Charlotte's Web is mostly faithful to its source material (though some expected -- and tiresome -- flatulence gags have been added), but because Gary Winick's direction rarely rises above the level of competent, and because Babe has already perfected the talking-animal feat via its Oscar-winning effects, the end result is pleasant but not much more than that. As the voice of Charlotte, the spider who befriends Wilbur the pig and plots to save him from the slaughterhouse, Julia Roberts is suitably soothing, while Steve Buscemi provides the proper measure of ego and arrogance as Templeton. The supporting voice actors, including Oprah Winfrey as a goose and horse whisperer Robert Redford as a horse, tend to get lost in the occasional frenzy of the tale, which on screen works better in the more mature passages (e.g. Charlotte explaining the cycle of life to Wilbur) than those focusing on slapdash antics. **1/2

DÉJÀ VU The latest from producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott is movie porn for the electronic media set, a techno-thriller deeply in love with its own hardware. It's also a disappointment, a high-gloss action film that grows increasingly silly as it introduces each new wrinkle in its spiraling plot. Although the decision to stage a massive disaster (the bombing of a ferry) in the heart of Katrina Country will strike many as an unfortunate lapse in judgment, it's the early scenes that prove to be the most compelling, as ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) uses his wits to stockpile various clues that will lead him in the right direction. The film is so accomplished as a straightforward thriller, in fact, that it feels obtrusive when it starts focusing on satellite spyware and even time travel. By the time Carlin climbs into a time machine, you realize that a Marty McFly cameo might be the only way to salvage this dreary plunge into preposterousness. No such luck. **

DREAMGIRLS Jennifer Hudson couldn't even make it to the top on American Idol, so what could she possibly bring to the big screen? If Dreamgirls is any indication, plenty. Delivering a knockout performance that all but dares the Academy to ignore her for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, Hudson is a revelation in the role of Effie, the lead singer for the R&B outfit the Dreams who's relegated to backup vocals once savvy yet sleazy manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) decides that the noticeably thinner Deena (Beyonce Knowles) would better help the Supremes-like group hit it big (the third member, well-played by Anika Noni Rose, is content to remain in backup mode). On the narrative level, this adaptation of the Broadway smash is only too happy to wallow in its show biz clichés, content to let other ingredients (the glitz, the acting) carry it along. Yet Hudson is so powerful that the film suffers whenever we're left with just Beyonce or Foxx. Luckily, Eddie Murphy is on hand providing some prickly tension as fading star James "Early" Thunder, while writer-director Bill Condon stages the musical numbers for maximum impact. But it's Hudson who owns Dreamgirls; her delivery of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is worth a standing ovation -- or at least a recount on American Idol -- all by itself. ***

ERAGON This draggy dragon yarn bored me silly, but I imagine it might appeal to folks who have never before seen a fantasy flick. Specifically, it might fill the bill for kids who have somehow managed to miss all the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings films (are there any?). The movie is based on the popular book written by Christopher Paolini when he was a mere lad of 15, and if it's faithful to its source material, then the lawsuit-happy George Lucas corporation has grounds to sue for plagiarism. Let's see, a naive farmboy decides to take on an evil empire with the help of a wisdom-spouting mentor and a devil-may-care maverick; he also has to rescue a beautiful princess from the clutches of an evil ruler and his supernaturally endowed enforcer. The key difference is that instead of a lightsaber, the lad comes equipped with his very own dragon -- and there's no Death Star in sight, just a deadly star in the form of lead Ed Speleers. As Eragon Skywalker, newcomer Speleers is about as charismatic as a comatose possum, and even capable actors like Jeremy Irons (as Brom Kenobi), Djimon Hounsou (as Ajihad Calrissian) and Robert Carlyle (as Darth Durza) are soundly defeated by the dreadful dialogue and indifferent pacing. *

THE GOOD SHEPHERD A fictionalized look at the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency, The Good Shepherd is methodical in its style and intelligent in its execution, which in some circles will translate as dull, slow-moving and impenetrable -- hardly words anyone wants to hear during the hustle and bustle of the cheery Yuletide season. Yet patient viewers will find much to appreciate in this chilly yet absorbing drama, which takes the cherished ideal of patriotism and turns it on its head. On the heels of The Departed, Matt Damon delivers another bold performance that seeks no audience empathy -- here, he's cast as Edward Wilson, whose role as one of the founders of the CIA finds him over the course of several decades having to contend with all manner of Cold War shenanigans, including the presence of a mole within his own agency. Directed with a fine attention to detail by Robert De Niro (who also appears in a key supporting role), The Good Shepherd repeatedly runs the risk of losing viewers with its flashback-laden structure drafted by scripter Eric Roth. But the strength of the film rests in its clear-eyed vision of Edward Wilson, whose fierce devotion to his country in turn strips him of his humanity and reduces him to a suspicious and paranoid cipher, an American too busy fighting unseen enemies to enjoy the freedoms and privileges that his nation provides for him. ***

HAPPY FEET For at least half of its running time, Happy Feet is the usual crapola animated feature, this one about a penguin (voiced by Elijah Wood) whose tap-dancing prowess freaks out his fellow flightless fowl. Like many mediocre toon flicks, it features saccharine characters, soulless CGI imagery, lazy stereotypes that border on racism, and way too much Robin Williams (playing not one, not two, but three characters). But a strange and wonderful thing happens deep into the film. It dispenses with the fun and games and becomes a sober reflection on the harm that humans are causing to the environment and to our ice-capped friends in particular. The movie morphs into one of the coolest Twilight Zone episodes never made, and for a brief, glorious second, I thought it was going to end at the most opportune moment, delivering its themes with all the force of a sledgehammer on an egg shell. But no. The film recovers from its momentary brilliance and soon is back on its preordained path to a happy ending -- albeit one that still keeps its relevant message intact. The end result is decent fare, but it passed on the opportunity to be so much more. **1/2

THE HISTORY BOYS The acclaimed play won a half-dozen Tony Awards earlier this year, but don't expect similar accolades for this hit-and-miss screen adaptation. Everyone involved in the theater production -- director Nicholas Hytner, writer Alan Bennett and all the principal performers -- is present and accounted for in this celluloid rendition, a development which actually becomes a vice when it's obvious the film will never completely transcend its stage roots. The literate story centers on the relationships between eight smart lads attending a posh school in England during the early 1980s and the three teachers who mold their minds in different ways: the inspirational Hector (Richard Griffiths), whose habit of casually laying his hands on the boys might soon get him into trouble; new professor Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), whose radical approach to education piques the interest of some of the students; and the no-nonsense Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour), a caring teacher who's least likely to mince words. Griffiths, Moore and de la Tour are all excellent, and their characters prove to be far more interesting than the young charges whose dilemmas fill up the majority of the screen time. The dialogue in Bennett's script is more riveting than the situational developments, but Hytner's obvious attempts to open up this visually immobile piece yields only mixed results. **1/2

THE HOLIDAY The best bet for spreading cheer across multiplexes this holiday season, The Holiday is a finely polished piece of romantic cinema, with a generosity of spirit so all-encompassing that it's easy to forgive its occasional excesses. Amanda (Cameron Diaz) and Iris (Kate Winslet) are both unlucky in love and seeking to get away from the heartbreak of their daily lives. Therefore, after hooking up through a "home exchange" Web site, Amanda heads to Iris' quaint English cottage while Iris ends up at Amanda's luxurious Hollywood mansion. Initially, men are the farthest commodities from both women's minds, but Amanda soon gets intimate with Iris' brother (Jude Law) while Iris becomes acquainted with a film composer (Jack Black). Writer-director Nancy Meyers clearly writes from a privileged perch: Her characters tend to be perversely rich, impeccably groomed and fabulously good-looking. Yet because she has the ability to imbue these high-and-mighty figures with flaws and doubts and in the process make them recognizably human, it's always easy to warm up to her players. The Holiday is overlong by at least 15 minutes, but the appealing cast makes it easy to lose track of time. ***

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM This family film plays with fire by employing the services of three overexposed actors -- Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Robin Williams (only Will Ferrell is missing) -- and potentially allowing them to run rampant through an overstuffed fantasy yarn. Mercifully, though, Stiller is muted, Williams is similarly restrained, and Wilson ... well, Wilson is still pretty annoying (two out of three ain't bad). Stiller plays Larry Daley, the new night watchman at a museum where the exhibits come to life after the venue closes for the day. The benevolent Teddy Roosevelt (Williams) is helpful to have around, but Larry has his hands full evading Attila the Hun, dealing with a mischievous monkey, and settling squabbles between a miniature cowboy (Wilson) and an equally diminutive Roman commander (Steve Coogan). A clever premise (adapted from a children's book) is hampered by lackluster scripting and directing, though Ricky Gervais provides some choice comic moments as the supercilious museum head. If nothing else, this should command the attention of kids who are already bored with their Christmas presents. **

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS Anyone who's seen the trailer for The Pursuit of Happyness knows that the movie has only two things on its mind: 1) Win Will Smith an Oscar and 2) drive up Kleenex profits by unleashing a flood of sob-worthy moments. Whether it succeeds in achieving either goal remains to be seen, but 1) Will Smith does indeed turn in a strong performance (though hardly the year's best) and 2) the picture is skilled enough to generate some genuine pathos to go along with the more calculated melodramatics. This is based on the true story of Chris Gardner, a failed salesman in the 1980s who tries to raise his son (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith) even as he descends further into poverty. Chris can't turn around without something bad happening to him -- it's not enough that he's struck by a car; he has to then lose one of his shoes in the accident and limp to work with one foot clothed only in a sock. How much of this is factual is unclear -- it's anybody's guess whether screenwriter Steven Conrad is laying it on this thick for audience members or whether God had indeed laid it on this thick for the real Chris Gardner -- but the moving and sincere work by Will and his real-life son Jaden (a confidant and relaxed actor) cuts through all pretensions (even the instant happy ending) and allows The Pursuit of Happyness to earn at least some of its tears. ***

ROCKY BALBOA Critics generally haven't been kind to Sylvester Stallone (and subjected to mega-bombs like Cobra and Over the Top, who could blame them?), but even the crustiest of reviewers might feel a protective twinge when faced with the spectacle that is Rocky Balboa. Stallone's career has been over for years, yet here's the big lug, now 60, returning to the role that made him a star three decades ago. That there's now a sixth Rocky movie, coming 16 years after Rocky V, is perhaps the ultimate in both money-grubbing and star groveling, yet because Stallone so obviously loves this great character he created, it's hard to get worked up in a fury of righteous indignation. My only regret is that Rocky Balboa isn't a better film. It has some nice touches, particularly in the way it draws upon memories of previous installments, and Stallone is never more human as an actor than when he's essaying this role. But the movie spends too much time in idle and not enough in overdrive, and what should be the central storyline -- Rocky comes out of retirement to fight an undefeated champion (Antonio Tarver) half his age -- only takes shape once the picture's nearly over. Through the first three entertaining films in the franchise, Stallone went the distance with the Italian Stallion, but since then, the character's been stuck on an endless treadmill. Get off, already. **

WE ARE MARSHALL Another movie season, another inspirational sports yarn torn from the headlines of history. So in most respects, this traffics in the same kind of predictable underdog uplift championed in The Rookie, Miracle and oh-so-many-others. But real life provided a tragic twist, and that's what makes this otherwise familiar tale a cut above the norm. Set in 1970, it centers on what transpires in a West Virginia town after nearly all the members of the Marshall University football team (as well as several coaches and fans) are killed in a place crash. After much hemming and hawing while trying to figure out the right thing to do, it's decided that the sports program will be resurrected from the ashes as a way of honoring the fallen players. Cue the entrance of Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughney), an outsider who arrives to serve as the new squad's head coach -- and to help community members move on with their own lives. Except for Anthony Mackie as the team captain, the actors portraying the players are a nondescript lot, meaning the emphasis is shifted to the adult characters. And it's these seasoned actors (among them David Strathairn and Ian McShane) who best punch across the heavy burden that threatens to crush the town's spirit. The movie is never as emotionally draining as this material requires, but it gives it the old college try and comes close to succeeding. **1/2

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