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The Heartbreak Kid, The Jane Austen Book Club, Michael Clayton, others

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THE GAME PLAN After his film career began floundering, action star Vin Diesel turned to the family audience with The Pacifier and ended up with a $113 million hit. Along the same lines, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson now throws himself on the mercy of the small fry and their easy-to-please parental units with The Game Plan, an innocuous mediocrity whose biggest sin is its punishing running time. Rocky stars as Joe Kingman, a narcissistic quarterback who's blindsided when 8-year-old Peyton (Madison Pettis) shows up on his doorstep claiming to be his daughter. Livin' la vida loca with a lavishly designed bachelor pad, a European model for a girlfriend, and a flashy sports car to complement his lifestyle of the rich and famous, Joe (whose clunky gridiron nickname is "Never Say No Joe") learns that in order to become an effective parent (which he does so begrudgingly), he has to accept a pink tutu being placed on his bulldog, his football trophies getting BeDazzled, and his mode of transport getting downsized to a station wagon. Considering that The Game Plan holds next to no surprises for anyone who's ever seen a movie before, a 90-minute length would have been plenty; instead, this gets mercilessly stretched out to 110 minutes. Pettis mostly relies on calculated precociousness, but Johnson actually proves to be Rock-solid as Kingman, displaying modest but sufficient amounts of charm and comic timing. **

GOOD LUCK CHUCK Upchuck would have been a more accurate title for this nauseating effort – not only does its mere existence instantly elevate the already high standing of such accomplished "raunchy comedies" as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and There's Something About Mary, it also makes them seem as refined as an Ernst Lubitsch farce from the 1930s by comparison. Dane Cook, whose popularity continues to elude me, plays Chuck, who was long ago placed under a hex which states that whenever he sleeps with a woman, she will then marry the next man who woos her. This allows Chuck to have sex with all sorts of buxom babes (and, in a couple of cruel sequences straight out of Norbit, obese ones as well) without worrying about commitment issues. But he grows tired of such a shallow lifestyle, especially after meeting Cam (the eternally vapid Jessica Alba), a klutzy penguin specialist he's afraid he'll eventually lose to the curse. The central premise is no more farfetched than those exhibited in such frothy comedies as 13 Going on 30 and Big, yet Good Luck Chuck forgoes quirky charm and endearing characters in order to focus on bottom-of-the-barrel gross-out gags involving sex with grapefruits, stuffed penguins and a woman with three breasts. Cook and Alba generate about as much chemistry as a mongoose paired with a rattlesnake, while Dan Fogler, as Chuck's foul-mouthed best friend, will likely endure as the movie year's most obnoxious sidekick. *

GOYA'S GHOSTS Eight years was too long to wait for the next film from the great Milos Forman (Amadeus, Hair, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and the fact that Goya's Ghosts isn't better feels like an outright betrayal of our collective patience. Directing his first picture since 1999's underrated Man on the Moon, Forman (who also co-scripted with Jean-Claude Carriere) has crafted a visually stunning but dramatically sloppy drama that kicks off in Madrid at the end of the 18th century, when Brother Lorenzo (Javier Bardem) emerges as a major player in the Spanish Inquisition that led to the torture, imprisonment and (often) deaths of innocents falsely accused of sinning against the Catholic Church. One such victim turns out to be Ines (Natalie Portman), a lovely lass whose refusal of pork at a local tavern (she doesn't like the taste) brands her as a "Judaizer." Stellan Skarsgard is effective as artist Francisco de Goya, who bears witness to the film's events, and it's a pity he doesn't rack up more screen time. Bardem is quietly menacing while Portman earns our sympathy – at least until she's saddled with a second role during the picture's final hour. Indeed, what had been working as a somber study of absolute power corrupting absolutely gets derailed when the story leaps forward 15 years, presenting us with jarring tonal shifts and wallowing in implausible melodrama. The total immersion into the film's staggering production values helps a great deal, but even it can't obscure a storyline that turns so silly, you half-expect Mel Brooks to show up reprising his "Inquisition" musical number from History of the World Part I. **1/2

THE HEARTBREAK KID The Farrelly Brothers have a reputation for pushing the envelope when it comes to risky business, but in the case of The Heartbreak Kid, they seem only marginally more daring than Robert Wise helming The Sound of Music. That's because the 1972 original is one mean-spirited movie, a prickly comedy about an unlikable nebbish (Charles Grodin) who abandons his plain-Jane wife (Jeannie Berlin) on their Miami honeymoon once he spots a beautiful blonde WASP (Cybill Shepherd). The movie stings because the bride hardly deserves the cruel treatment she receives, while the protagonist is selfish, insensitive, and due for a comeuppance that he never really gets. The picture was well-received and earned Oscar nods for Berlin and Eddie Albert (terrific as Shepherd's dad), but in today's climate, only the least commercially minded filmmakers would attempt such a poison-laced satire. And the Farrellys, who've mellowed over the years, wouldn't be those filmmakers. So here, the groom (Ben Stiller) is a nice guy, his bride (Malin Akerman) is an outright nightmare, and the beach bunny is no longer a callow, self-centered brat but a sweet, down-to-earth gal (Michelle Monaghan). That's not to say the siblings have completely backed away from their raunchy roots: There's plenty of salty language, some acrobatic sex scenes (though why is it that in American movies, a healthy sexual appetite is always depicted as a vice or a disease to be shunned?), and one startling crotch shot. Much of it is funny, some of it merely infantile, but Akerman proves to be a real trouper as she degrades herself in the name of modern movie comedy. **1/2

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