Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 9:45 pm on October 28, 2008

As what I hope will be the final attempt required to get myself totally caught up on reviewing every movie I see, here is one more batch of capsule reviews. As most of these are now coming out on video, I’m hoping that this can still manage to be somewhat timely. A few of these I might write up in full at some point in the future, as I’ve got more to say about them but wasn’t able to find the time to do so while they were in theaters (mostly due to moving, but also from being overwhelmed by work at various points in recent months). I’m still using the same 4-star scale as always.

  • Leatherheads (***)
    This movie not only gives George Clooney a chance to demonstrate just why so many people refer to him as the Cary Grant of our time, but also to show that he’s a very capable director, as well. There is an expert pacing to the way this film is cut, maximizing the comedic effect of little subtle moments of humor, of which there are many. Seeing Leatherheads in Champaign was an interesting experience; it was an audience that knew precisely the details of who the movie was “supposed to be” about (Red Grange, of course), rather than the fictional Carter Rutherford character who is depicted with a gee-shucks charm by John Krasinski. The movie isn’t necessarily meant to be historically accurate, however (although Clooney’s Dodge Connolly is based fairly closely on the real-life story of Johnny “Blood” McNally), although it makes some very interesting and insightful historical observations about the development of professional football in this country. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel does a superb job of capturing the open expanses that defined America in the 1920s, and contrasting them with the burgeoning cities that would supplant them. I think that Renee Zellweger is miscast here as the would-be Hildy to Clooney’s Walter, as her idea of snappy repartee is more smug understatement than witty banter, but Clooney is more than enough to fill the frame on his own.
  • Smart People (**)
    Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker take somewhat of a backseat to their costars in this movie that can’t decide if it’s a romantic comedy or a coming-of-middle-age story. Thomas Haden Church overshadows them both with a charmingly funny performance as Quaid’s character’s unwelcome brother, and Ellen Page is the anti-Juno as his Republican-to-be daughter (the wardrobe department went above and beyond with her character—her sweaters provide some of the best laughs in the movie). Both of the main characters have too much trouble developing, though, to the point of causing undue audience frustration. They then take a sudden sharp turn at the end which feels too out of place as a transparent effort to neatly tie up everything at the film’s conclusion, which just makes it feel unsatisfying for its forced nature.
  • Forgetting Sarah Marshall (***.5)
    The best of the Apatow-produced movies since The 40 Year Old Virgin, this one is a showcase for the many talents of Jason Segel, who not only wrote and stars in it, but also composed (and performs) the musical that forms one of its subplots. We also get to see the striking development of Mila Kunis, who here shows emphatically that she has progressed from the cute girl with a kind of annoying voice on “That 70’s Show” to a drop-dead gorgeous scene-stealer who we can only hope has more leading roles in her future. If not for a somewhat throwaway performance by Kristen Bell—who I think works better on TV than on the big screen—and a humorous yet at times overacted costarring role from Russell Brand, this would be damn close to the perfect romantic comedy: it’s funny, emotional, unique, and insightful. Segel mentioned in an interview on O&A that he initially wrote the musical that ended up in this movie “without any sense of irony,” and not only does that make its inclusion (and development) in the film even funnier, but it shows just how much of the real Jason we’re seeing up on the screen, too; that connection to reality comes through in this film in the best possible way, fleshing it out in a way that feels genuinely from the heart, because it is.
  • Baby Mama (*.5)
    Falling to the all-to-common fate of so many ill-conceived comedies, Baby Mama puts forth a funny enough premise and then fills in the blanks as generically as possible. Tina Fey is able to hold her own in a leading role, as a successful single woman who decides she wants to have a baby and turns to a surrogate to carry it for her. Sigourney Weaver is funny again (as we saw in Be Kind Rewind), as the surrogate matchmaker who sets Fey’s character up with the white trash couple who will assist her in her endeavor to become a mother. Romany Malco is tragically underused for comedic support, though, and Greg Kinnear‘s appearance as the vaguely hippie-ish love interest could not be less interesting. Steve Martin, however, is humorous as Fey’s character’s very hippie boss. The attempt at a meaningful romantic plot just gets in the way of the comedy, though, and the movie is all let-down after the initial comedic setup.
  • Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (*.5)
    A very disappointing sequel to the surprisingly funny Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, here we have repeated attempts to one-up the original in the “shock” department, all of which fail. There are a few chuckles here and there, but for the most part the blatant attempts to go “over the top” with the comedy fall flat. The one exception is Neil Patrick Harris‘s repeat appearance as a fictional version of himself, which goes over the top in the most hilarious of ways. After his appearance, though, the laughs are few and far between, and the ridiculous plot doesn’t do anything to make up for the jokes’ absence and ineffectiveness.
  • Iron Man (***.5)
    This very well may be the perfect superhero movie: it’s fantastical and exciting, but it bases itself enough in reality to not only be believable but to be somewhat relevant and timely as well. This is the role Robert Downey Jr. was born to play: the snarky playboy millionaire turned savior who can’t help but take credit for his good deeds. Jeff Bridges, surprisingly, is great as the villain. What this film really gets right, though, is in how it never loses sight of the human element behind the battling robots; in stark contrast to The Incredible Hulk, which asked us to feel for cheesy animated characters, here we are constantly shown the faces behind the iron masks, allowing the actors to continue to portray their characters even as they’re hidden in armor. Director Jon Favreau and the cabal of screenwriters that brought this film to life have also managed to remember that it’s still a superhero movie, and it’s still supposed to be fun and—most importantly—not too full of itself, something that The Dark Knight missed on. Throw in Gwyneth Paltrow as the sexy assistant, and a set-up for future sequels (including a post-credits coda featuring Sam Jackson), and there’s not much to dislike… as long as you don’t get too hung up on trying to make sense of the shaky plot device that resides in Iron Man’s chest.
  • What Happens In Vegas… (*.5)
    I suppose if you’ve never seen a romantic comedy you might enjoy this movie more than I did. Otherwise you’ll just realize that it’s the same recycled script we get over and over again with not much new or all that funny to make it worth your while. Despite the title, the movie barely has anything to do with Vegas beyond the first 20 minutes or so—and beyond that it’s no different from any other film in this genre. I imagine that the direction for Rod Corddry, who plays Ashton Kutcher‘s sort-of-funny, sort-of-a-douchebag friend “Hater”, was more or less, “Act like that funny self-deprecating husband character from Semi-Pro!” There are, in fact, several actors who pop up in this movie who are funny but for the brevity of their screen time, notably Zach Galifianakis, who always has a knack for awkward humor, and Dennis Miller as an unconventional judge who sets up the ridiculous circumstances of the story to begin with. The leads, however—Kutcher and Cameron Diaz—don’t have enough chemistry between them to carry the movie, especially when given such cheesy motions to go through. I think that even if this were the first movie you’d ever seen, you’d still see the ending coming from miles away.
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (***)
    Despite what the endless amount of nerds on the Internet (and South Park episodes) might say, this is a worthy addition to the Indiana Jones franchise, and should be thoroughly enjoyable to anybody who is a fan of the previous installments in the series. The screenplay, by David Koepp from a story by George Lucas and Jeff Nathanson, handles the amount of time that has passed since the last film perfectly: Indy is aged and acts appropriately so, and his reunion with Marion Ravenwood gives his character an extra dimension of maturity that we haven’t see before. The introduction of the Mutt Williams character is surprisingly well done, and he fits into the mix much better than I think most people expected he would. Cate Blanchett‘s Russian agent is cheesy and over-the-top, but in a way that’s fun and campy. The story is classic Indiana Jones adventure, combining ancient cultures and their mythology with the supernatural, and in true Spielberg tradition we see more than other directors would show, and it is effective at inciting a sense of wonder and amazement. If you’re the kind of person who can’t understand that this is supposed to be a fun adventure requiring a bit of suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, then I’d have to question your fandom of any of the movies in this series and wonder why you were seeing this newest installment in the first place. If, on the other hand, you find enjoyment in the fantastic and the wondrous—or maybe just a classic adventure tale—then you should find this to be a fun movie and a worthy addition to the franchise.
  • Sex and the City (***.5)
    This is, to me, the best and most true adaptation of a TV series into a film since South Park. It does more than translate the feel of the series, it expands its scope appropriately and broadens its themes in a manner that’s more conducive to a longer, larger story. True to the HBO series, the plot revolves around love being lost and regained, and features complicated relationships that present validly two-sided conundrums. My primary disappointment in this movie came from the fact that several of the primary plot points were given away by the theatrical trailer, to the point where the first half of the film—involving a complicated setup that gives each of the four main characters a significant challenge to overcome—isn’t as surprising or interesting as it should be. You can’t fault a film for the way its distributors chose to cut its trailer, though, and as time distances memories of the trailer’s many giveaways from viewers’ minds, the script from writer-director Michael Patrick King will be able to stand on its own. Like the best episodes of the show, this story grounds itself in real-life scenarios, and the writing has a penchant for exposing dichotomies on many levels, which the pun-filled dialogue is frequently willing to play with. The conflicts are resolved in feel-good ways that nonetheless feel true to life, and this is an all-around satisfying and enjoyable film—whether you’re a fan of the series or not.
  • The Strangers (**)
    If, in making a movie that revolves around the question of whether or not your protagonists are going to survive, you open with a card that states, “The brutal events that took place there are still not entirely known,” you’re essentially throwing down a gauntlet, claiming that you are going to present to the audience a story that is so gripping and so thrilling that they will still empathize with characters whose fate they are already aware of up front. In doing so, you better be able to overcome this self-imposed (and unnecessary) handicap with some damn solid filmmaking. Unfortunately, first-time writer-director Bryan Bertino isn’t quite there yet, and his debut film suffers as a result. He elicits a fine performance from Liv Tyler, and the home-invasion premise is realistically scary enough to produce some real jump-out-of-your-seat moments. The small, completely linear storyline becomes a bit repetitive, though, and the stereotypical, frustratingly dumb behavior by the main characters is as grating (and contrived) as in any horror film in recent memory. This movie to me is the definition of a borderline film targeted completely at a niche audience: if you’re into horror movies, you’ll probably appreciate the believable and more or less scary storyline (which is well worth comparing to Funny Games, a similar type of film that suffers from a far worse—and much more pretentious—shortcoming). If not, there’s probably not enough novelty to hold your interest past the first act. At least, not until the very end.
  • You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (**)
    Yet another example of the all too frequently-used formula “funny for the first 15 minutes, not enough story for the next 75,” this Adam Sandler vehicle at least has enough sense to save some jokes for the third act. In going so far over the top with its premise (Israeli special agent fakes his own death to realize his lifelong dream of becoming a hairdresser in New York City), it finds both surprisingly unique and disappointingly stereotypical sources for its humor, which occasionally manage to intersect. Almost all of the jokes here come from a cultural and/or racial basis, and it’s a fine line to walk: immigrants who sell stereos that they promise contain “Sony guts” from stores called “Going Out of Business” are funny, but Palestinians who are too attached to their goats are not (especially when the Palestinian in question is played by Rob Schneider, in yet another racial stereotype of a role). The jokes that remain are just repetitive: a guy effeminately cutting hair isn’t even that funny the first time, let alone the seventeenth—but at least in between we get to gaze upon Emmanuelle Chriqui, whose smile almost saves some of the redundantly unfunny barber shop scenes. And somehow, the writers find a modicum of cultural sensitivity in their story’s resolution… and then proceed to immediately negate it with a cheap stereotype of a joke. Sandler is surprisingly funny with the cheesy accent, though, and John Turturro is awkward enough as a ridiculous villain to be somewhat interesting. There’s a few funny cameos thrown in, as well. It just doesn’t add up to enough of a movie to consider it “good,” but like Sarah Palin at a debate it does manage to exceed its resoundingly low expectations ever so slightly, which some might see as a positive.
  • Get Smart (**.5)
    As Steve Carell continues to show us his surprisingly vast range as an actor (here, 1960’s TV-inspired slapstick), I keep waiting for a return to the understated hilarity of his performance in The 40 Year Old Virgin. He brings a bit of that to his portrayal of Maxwell Smart, who in this characterization isn’t quite as bumbling as I’d expected—here he’s more of an idiot savant, if anything. Anne Hathaway is pretty good as his sidekick, Agent 99, providing the right mix of comedic support and sex appeal. The whole cast, in fact, is good and funny overall. The story is quite run-of-the-mill, but serviceable, and the humor is good and chuckle-inducing. There’s nothing groundbreaking or surprising here, but it’s a nice fun comedy that would have additional appeal to fans of the original TV series, or fans of Carell.
  • Swing Vote (***)
    Sometimes movies are said to have a knack for individualizing broader issues in a way that makes them more palatable for general audiences, and Swing Vote takes that concept quite literally in a timely effort to wave the “every vote matters” banner during an election year. The premise is far-fetched, but presented well enough that we’re willing to go along with the idea that an election could be so contested and circumstances could align just right for a single man’s vote to end up deciding our next President. That man, of course, is Kevin Costner (as “Bud”), doing a variation on the same “aw, shoot” character he’s been playing for years. He very well may have it perfected here, and his costar (the young Madeline Carroll) does a fantastic job as the daughter who just wants to see her dad do something worthwhile and redeem all of his transgressions, which involve getting drunk, getting fired, being a negligent parent, and getting drunk some more. It’s all a bit trite, but well done and handled with a lightness that makes it clear nobody’s taking themselves too seriously. The film takes several jabs at the way campaigns are run in this country and our political system in general, with Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper doing fairly respectable renditions of the kind of full-of-shit candidates we’re all too used to by now. I don’t think this movie can claim much credit for rallying the masses in any way, but it is a good bet to put a smile on people’s faces.
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona (****)
    A return to form of sorts for Woody Allen in terms of subject matter, this is a thoroughly beautiful movie, beautifully shot by Javier Aguirresarobe, filmed and taking place in beautiful parts of Spain, and featuring four of the most beautiful people on the planet in roles that let them express beautiful feelings of love and jealousy and happiness and resentment. Oh, and it’s bitingly funny and remarkably touching, as well. The story is that of two friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who are vacationing in Barcelona for the summer when they encounter an artist named Jaun Antonio (Javier Bardem) who offers to take them to Oviedo for a weekend of tourism, good food, good wine, good music, and making love. Juan Antonio—as far removed from Anton Chigurh as a character could possibly be—is charming and cultured and remarkably handsome, and the women can’t help but take him up on his offer (Cristina excited about the adventure, Vicky cautious and skeptical and protective). What develops is a love triangle that feels like it could only have been written by Woody Allen, especially when it becomes more complicated with the introduction of Juan Antonio’s mentally unstable ex-wife (Penelope Cruz, in an Oscar-worthy role). The relationships intermingle (and I haven’t even mentioned yet that Vicky is engaged), and Allen is right at home exploring nontraditional forms of love and the many ways for people to find happiness with—and be hurt by—each other. These characters are elaborately realized, and although they are presented with playful narration that manages to keep the tone light, they repeatedly defy expectations and surprise us in always-enjoyable ways—sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, sometimes hilarious, but always feeling as complex and real as our own relationships. And yet, the sheer beauty of what is being depicted on screen maintains a classic Hollywood feel, producing the kind of real-yet-better-than-reality sensation that makes us love the movies in the first place.
  • Traitor (***)
    It’s nice to see Don Cheadle finally getting more starring roles (this his second in as many years as a headliner, after 2007’s Talk to Me), after serving as such an excellent character actor for so many years (speaking of that, I believe that my decade-old proclamation—which I have no way of proving I made, obviously—that pretty much the entire cast of Boogie Nights would go on to become top-billed stars in their own right has come true). Here, Cheadle is remarkably believable as a Sudanese-American arms dealer who gets recruited by a terrorist organization, leading to an exciting cat-and-mouse game with Guy Pearce‘s FBI agent. Cheadle’s character’s multiple dualities help him feel fully realized: is he betraying his former country or secretly working for them? Do his strong Muslim beliefs lead him to fight the war against the infidels, or to help prevent it from the inside? I really appreciated the mature and unstereotypical view of religion this film took, showing several characters who all pray to the same Allah interpreting his desires in completely different ways, and then contrasting this with the American FBI man’s own sense of faith and how it affects his decision-making. These issues lead to a personalization of a larger-scale conflict that is as timely as it is timeless, and the twists the story takes are interesting and believable, albeit a bit predictable.
  • Burn After Reading (***.5)
    Like a lighter Fargo, this is the Coen brothers at their convoluted best, featuring a dense multi-faceted script and several superb performances, not to mention a healthy dose of black comedy. We’re treated to another instance of George Clooney at his goofiest, not unlike his character in O Brother, Where Art Thou? in terms of erratic behavior and slick speech patterns, but with some new compulsions that find him in darkly hilarious circumstances. John Malkovich plays a pathetically funny character who is more echo than contrast to Clooney’s doofus, with the two doing a call-and-response routine of sorts throughout, building on each other’s bad behavior while going about their equally wrong endeavors in contrasting yet equally funny ways. The story delves into a remarkable number of surprisingly salient areas, from government secrets and espionage to the fragility of relationships and the difficulty of dealing with aging, but mostly the focus here is on absurdity, of which there is an abundance. Everybody in the all-star cast gets to give their personal take on one form of idiocy or another (Brad Pitt, for instance, is almost disturbingly believable as an imbecile), and the Coens know just how to manipulate them for simultaneous plot development and comedic effect. There’s a shot towards the end that is so reminiscent of Fargo that it feels like a directorial and cinematographic signature of sorts (although the two films were shot by different cinematographers), which could signal either laziness or maturation on the part of the filmmakers (I see it as the latter, as I assume was already clear). There’s also probably the funniest reveal of the year stashed away in Clooney’s character’s basement. If I described these two scenes in detail it’d probably sound like I was talking about two separate movies, but in the context of this film the disturbing and the hilarious are not often far removed from each other.
  • Righteous Kill (*.5)
    If anybody’s ever claimed (as I know I have) that anything starring both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino is bound to be good, writer Russell Gewirtz and director Jon Avnet are here to prove them wrong. The two veteran actors are phoning it in so thoroughly here that it gets embarrassing at times, most notably in the climactic scene that appears to have been contrived to feature De Niro in sweatpants just to make sure they weren’t putting the actor out too much by asking him to show up to the set those days. The script sacrifices believability in order to unnecessarily convolute its ending, and the fact that it’s all too generic up until that point ensures that the audience is in a pretty unforgiving mood when the twist comes. The premise of a cop who murders criminals who have been freed on legal loopholes is seemingly good enough, and there are a few moments each of decent humor and genuine suspense, but there’s only so much repetition—not to mention bad poetry (which is left behind at the murder sites)—an audience can take.
  • The Women (.5)
    A film that is so obviously an attempt to capitalize on the success of one that came shortly before it (in this case, Sex and the City) rarely succeeds, but this one had such a nice ensemble cast of talented actresses that I really attempted to give it a shot. Unfortunately I was met with little more than a gimmick that wears out its welcome all too quickly: writer-director Diane English goes out of her way to not put any males in this film (with one—admittedly cute—exception) to the point of annoyance, while also going out of her way to make her female leads as uninteresting as women in these characters’ positions, portrayed by actresses of this caliber, could possibly be. When Bette Midler shows up out of the blue in the middle of the movie, for a role that has no reason to exist in a situation that makes no sense, we not only feel like we’re being taken as gullible, but mindless as well. Avoiding men on-screen results in several discordant jumps in plot and character development, and the fact that these supposedly intelligent women characters all just want to carry designer bags and get their nails done anyway sort of makes them hard to sympathize with in their struggles against the patriarchy in the first place.

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