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THE BIG BOUNCE It wasn't that long ago that Owen Wilson was the cinematic equivalent of a mosquito: noisy, bothersome, and deserving of a good smack. Yet his blond, bland, surfer-boy shtick has gradually grown on me, and indeed, he proves to be the MVP of this souffle-light adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel. A 1969 film version starring Ryan O'Neal has been completely forgotten over time, and there's no reason to think this new take won't share a similar fate. But for now, it's an amusing watch, with Wilson cast as a small-potatoes thief who, while killing time in Hawaii, runs afoul of a venal real estate developer (Gary Sinise) while simultaneously striking up a relationship with his mistress (Sara Foster). Wilson and former model Foster make a sexy couple, and director George Armitage brings to the project the same degree of playful insouciance that informed his previous picture, Grosse Pointe Blank. But with a running time just shy of 90 minutes, the feeling emerges that a third of the movie was left on the cutting-room floor, as evidenced by jarring transitions in plot and character development and the ill use of several major stars (Morgan Freeman and Charlie Sheen are saddled with half-baked characters, while Sinise barely appears at all). Gorgeous location shooting, though. 1/2

CITY OF GOD Technically, this isn't a new release, since it played Charlotte briefly (very briefly) back in March 2003. But thanks to its four surprise Oscar nominations (including one for director Fernando Meirelles), it's being re-released nationally, so there's no reason not to catch it the second time around. Based on actual events, this Brazilian import takes a hard look at a Rio De Janeiro slum and dissects the lifestyle of the youthful thugs who rule with a bloody fist. Make no mistake: As depicted here, the "City of God" (the name given to the area) is nothing less than a war zone, with blood flowing as swiftly and steadily as water over Niagara Falls. Our clean-cut protagonist in this urban epic is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), whose desire to become a professional photographer might be just the thing to lift him out of the surrounding squalor. On the opposite end, there's Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a rabid gang leader prone to killing anybody at any time -- perhaps not since Ralph Fiennes' Nazi in Schindler's List has there been such a frightening portrait of unadulterated evil onscreen. Certainly, it's tough to withstand 130 minutes of continuous nihilism, but Meirelles and his contributors are so completely in command of this material (the storytelling moves like mercury) that it's impossible not to get caught up in their descent into Hell on Earth. 1/2

MIRACLE This Disney release is being promoted as "From The Studio That Brought You The Rookie And Remember The Titans," and that's clearly the best way to market this piece. Like those sports-illustrated endeavors, this one's also an acceptably middlebrow drama that asks nothing more of its audience members than to cheer at the appropriate moments and, if theater management doesn't mind, get a "Wave" going during the climactic Big Game. Here, the focus is on coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) and the 20 kids who formed the US Ice Hockey team that somehow managed to beat the formidable Russian squad during the 1980 Olympics. Although reasonably involving, there's nothing about the movie's "underdog" angle that feels remotely fresh; instead, what's more interesting to ponder is the film's not-so-subtle suggestion that, coming at the end of a turbulent decade (Watergate, Vietnam, the hostage crisis, gasoline shortages), it was this single event and not, as widely credited, Ronald Reagan's ascendancy that inspired and rejuvenated a reeling nation. By that token, which sporting event will eventually lead us out of the escalating injustices in George W. Bush's United Police State of America? (The smart money's on Game 7 of the 2009 World Series.) 1/2


ALONG CAME POLLY OK, so the stars have no chemistry together (Jennifer Aniston's channeling Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Ben Stiller's channeling Ben Stiller in just about everything). And writer-director John Hamburg doesn't even begin to mine the comic possibilities of his premise, which examines the budding relationship between an overly cautious businessman who analyzes the risk factor in everything and an easy-going woman with a blind ferret and a spontaneous nature. Not to mention, the potty humor goes waaay overboard. Yet two factors save this from being a disaster: a terrific supporting cast, and Hamburg's ability to nail the little moments even as he's screwing up the big picture. These factors allow the film to provide more laughs than one would have initially thought possible. 1/2

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT In this redundant sci-fi tale, Ashton Kutcher plays a troubled college student haunted by a horrific childhood that managed to incorporate pedophilia, a psychotic dad, a dead baby, and a dog set on fire. But after discovering that, by accessing the journals he kept as a kid, he's able to travel back to that period in time, he sets about changing the events of his life -- and in effect creates alternate realities about as dismal as the one he left behind. Initially intriguing, this quickly turns silly and then eventually wears out its welcome altogether: By the time Kutcher makes his umpteenth time jump, I was praying that we would all end up landing in a better movie. 1/2

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