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Capsule reviews of recently released movies

New Releases

CATCH AND RELEASE Susannah Grant has written solid scripts for other filmmakers (Erin Brockovich, In Her Shoes), so it's lamentable that for her own directorial debut, she didn't keep a winner for herself but instead settled on a screenplay that must have been hiding for years in the back of her sock drawer. Catch and Release stars Jennifer Garner as Gray Wheeler, who, after the death of her fiancé, turns to his best friends for comfort and companionship. There's roly-poly Sam (Kevin Smith), who, unbelievable suicide attempt notwithstanding, will provide the comic relief; there's dorky but smitten Dennis (Sam Jaeger), who will provide the nervous tension; and there's bad boy Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), who will provide the romantic sparks once Gray realizes he's actually the right guy for her. Grant's best works reveal a real attention to detail when it comes to human foibles, which makes it all the more surprising that these characters are so broadly drawn: Take out a few PG-13 innuendoes and what's basically left is a sitcom pilot ready to be dropped into the prime-time schedule once American Idol wraps its latest blockbuster season. Garner, excellent over the course of five years on Alias, continues to search for the right big-screen role -- this isn't it -- while Juliette Lewis is depressingly cast yet again as a goober gal who possesses more eyeliner than brains. **

VENUS Peter O'Toole is the show, the whole show, and nothing but the show in Venus, a movie that seems to exist for no other purpose than to nab its leading man that ever-elusive Oscar. Phase One has been successful in that O'Toole snagged his eighth nomination for his performance; now, can he overtake The Last King of Scotland's Forest Whitaker and actually walk away with the award? Regardless, it's nice to see the acting legend shine once more on the big screen, even if the movie surrounding him largely functions at the level of an accomplished dinner theater production. The 74-year-old O'Toole stars as Maurice, an actor who spends most of his waning years hanging around with his longtime friend Ian (Leslie Phillips). Into his orbit comes Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), the daughter of Ian's niece, and Maurice finds himself developing an offbeat relationship with the young woman who appears to be barely out of her teens. Maurice is one-quarter mentor, three-quarters lecherous old man when it comes to Jessie; for her part, she won't put up with his groping but nevertheless finds herself enjoying his company. The May-December romance, which brings to mind the coupling between then-55-year-old (and O'Toole's Becket costar) Richard Burton and 17-year-old Tatum O'Neal in 1980's Circle of Two, is far less interesting than the scenes in which Maurice reflects on his long life and discusses the vagaries of old age with his peers. Look for Vanessa Redgrave in a nice cameo as Maurice's ex-wife. **1/2

Current Releases

BABEL Babel arrives courtesy of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, the same team that gave us 21 Grams and Amores Perros. Like their past efforts, this is a gloom-and-doom dissection of society, whipping between various characters and their interconnected storylines. Certainly, this is the duo's most ambitious undertaking, yet for all its scattered strengths, it's also the least satisfying, hampered by a structure that feels schematic rather than organic. Several of the Big Issues -- border disputes, Middle Eastern tensions and gun control -- are handled in ways that feel overly familiar, perhaps because we've seen them tackled more adroitly in other multistory flicks like Traffic and Syriana. The freshest storyline concerns a deaf teenage girl (excellent Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo who grows increasingly frustrated as she's unable to find any male who's willing to provide her with love and compassion -- this plot seems the least driven by obvious ideology and therefore best illustrates the picture's theme of the lack of communication that exists between people. There's a lot to chew over in Babel, but because it's overstuffed, it also means that there's a lot not worth swallowing. **1/2

CHILDREN OF MEN No matter how closely I scoured each scene in Children of Men, I couldn't find Charlton Heston lurking anywhere in the background. Yet a Heston cameo would have been apropos, given that this adaptation of P.D. James' book harkens back to the cinema of the early 1970s, when Hollywood was hell-bent on churning out nightmarish visions of the future in such works as The Omega Man and Soylent Green (both starring Heston). Aided by spectacular cinematography and set design, director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess) creates a future world (the film is set in 2027) that is utterly believable and quite frightening, not least because it looks so much like our present-day world. The premise here is that women haven't been able to get pregnant in nearly 20 years, meaning that humankind is on its way out. As a result, chaos is the order of the day, and only in London does there exist a pretense of a (barely) functional society. But when it's revealed that an immigrant (Clare-Hope Ashitey) somehow finds herself carrying a child, it's up to a working drone (Clive Owen in a forceful performance) to protect her from the various political factions that would exploit her for their own cynical means. The multi-tentacled storyline begs for a mini-series length, but armed with only a feature-film running time, Cuaron still manages to pack a lot of incident into this exciting tale of our world as one gargantuan war zone. ***1/2

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