Flickerings: INDEX OF MOVIE REVIEWS
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Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright, Casino Royale) is a Mississippi sharecropper who transplants himself to Chicago in pursuit of a musical career. Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody, The Darjeeling Limited) is a former junkman who makes a go of the club business in the south side. It’s 1940-something when their paths cross, and Leonard’s Chess Records emerges soon after with Muddy’s infectious musical genius as its backbone. As years roll on, a family of legendary musicians forms around their core, pioneering the new sounds of American popular music even as each wrestles with race, sex and violence through some of the most transformative moments of postwar American society.
In terms of music this film is triumphant. Songs are covered by the actors, and each performance delivers remarkably well. Beyoncé Knowles burns it up in renditions of Etta James’ staples, for instance, and Eamonn Walker (Lord of War) kills in his lone singing scene as Howlin’ Wolf, growling “Smokestack Lightning” to Muddy’s girl during a studio session. Truly, the soundtrack alone might justify the price of a ticket.
There are certainly great moments through the course of the film to match the soundtrack’s strength. Blips of personality and highlights from famous lives are delivered well. But the only connective strands are Muddy and Leonard with the sparse, weakly scripted narrative of Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) as guidance. Those moments become islands along the timeline of Leonard as Muddy drifts out of focus. And writer/director Darnell Martin leads you to those islands as though baiting a hound with a bone on a string.
Such jerky progression cuts story short. There’s promise early on, as a newly citified Muddy meets with hostile Chicago streets and violent, territorial blues rivals. But then Martin jerks the bone away, and by the time you chomp down you’re on a southern radio tour. The director gives herself no time to develop context. Segue is absent. The very relevant topic of exploitation and racism underlying the struggle for airtime and recognition for Chess Records’ artists gets its due consideration but lacks for potency in the telling.
Characters are developed just enough to imbue them with stage personas, but little to nothing is done to delve into personalities, motives or issues. (Surprise! Etta’s on smack.) Where does their music come from? The studio. Duh.
If characters lack depth, the connections among them are still more superficial. Muddy and Walter were apparently best friends livened with the dynamic of ice and fire personalities. But little is done to explore this, and the characters often seem mismatched beside each other.
As Cliffs Notes summary of the history of Chess Records, this film succeeds at touching on the major events and highlights while breathing life into the personalities behind it. One just wishes she’d narrowed her focus and had a little more patience for storytelling.
Jennifer Garner stars in the lightweight and wrongheaded romantic comedy Catch and Release. Writer-director Susannah Grant (writer of Erin Brockovich, 28 Days) has a good premise that swims slowly away amidst an empty sea of decent writing.
Gray Wheeler (Garner) is a beautiful bride whose fiancée dies at his own bachelor party. We see Gray at the funeral, which was supposed to be her wedding day (really?!), trying to cope with what’s next. Fortunately for her, that won’t be so hard thanks to two of her fiancée’s goofy friends (Kevin Smith and Sam Jaeger) and another sly but handsome Hollywood type (Timothy Olyphant) he actually is from Hollywood who holds a secret about her dead fiancée. (Doesn’t she have any girlfriends?) Mild antics ensue, and Gray manages to land on her feet x in a manner of speaking.
I don’t think we ask for much from our romantic comedies: Something not too heavy, something that will make us chuckle and maybe shed a tear. More than anything, we’d like a romantic comedy that resembles the way things might happen in real life, even in the most ridiculous situations. We want to relate to the emotions on the screen. To do that, the filmmakers have to do more than have one good idea. A little smarts about story development could’ve gone a long way here.
And what is it with Garner’s upper lip? She can barely close her mouth with that thing. She’s beautiful and all, but she’s not a very good actress. Meanwhile, her upper lip looks like it’s been squirted full of whatever Meg Ryan is leaving on the plastic surgeon’s floor. In one kissing scene, it even gets in the way.
Yes, there is a kissing scene (and more) after Gray falls for her dead fiancée’s best friend. Done smartly, we could be quite interested; But smart it’s not, so it’s unforgivable. Sorry to give away part of the plot, but if you see this movie, you’ll have it figured out pretty quickly. Quickly enough that you’ll wish you hadn’t caught this film.
The Pevensie children have barely adjusted to wartime London after returning through the back of a magical wardrobe. It’s practically yesterday that they shuffled behind some old coats and discovered Narnia, defeated the White Witch and reigned into young adulthood as the mystical world’s kings and queens.
Change is faster in their idyllic kingdom. Narnia has exceeded their legacy by some 1,300 years. Vicious invaders have usurped paradise, nearly eradicating the Narnians. Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes: Stardust) is the rightful heir to the conquerors’ throne. But a power play turns him, leading him to discover his true path and take up the noble cause of restoration. In his struggle he accidentally summons the four Pevensie sibs, and together they raise revolution against the oppressive king Miraz (Sergio Castellitto: Paris, je t’aime).
This second visit to Narnia handily outclasses the first film of the series: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Director Andrew Adamson, who helmed both, has fallen into stride, achieving a significant all-around improvement.
To start, Prince Caspian benefits from stronger adaptation. Plot moves easily among adventure, drama, humor and neat-o mysticism. This one seems better suited for popular tastes, being a magical, sword-swinging underdog epic presented in familiar format. It might also be a superior story to the first. Religious allegory still features big. But Caspian’s self-determination/mysterious ways/crisis of faith is subtler than the prior’s apocalyptic resurrection tale, making for a gentler balance of escapism and message.
Escapism blooms from ample fisticuffs, swordplay and warfare. Action crops up with appropriate consistency to drive the plot and keep the film fun. Sword scenes are more finely choreographed, and even the awkward Pevensies of old are fluid heroes. It also becomes apparent that C.S. Lewis was buddy-buddy with the Lord of the Rings’ J.R.R. Tolkien; some elements run in direct parallel to the Rings trilogy, tweaked with original Narnia signature.
Most dramatic of any improvements from the first Narnia film is the quality of acting. Where the prior seemed plastic, this one is colorful with personality. The young actors are more comfortable in the skin of Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley). Smarter scripting helps, as depth and sharper wit infuse everyone from the fated four to skeptic dwarf Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage: Death at a Funeral) to the scene-stealing mouse chief Reepicheep (voice of Eddie Izzard, Mr. Kite in Across the Universe).
Adamson, who also directed the first two Shrek movies, once again proves adept at punching up CGI creatures with fun personality; Reepicheep in particular reminds of Shrek 2’s Puss in Boots. Mythical Narnians interact more convincingly with the fleshed players this time around, thanks to heightened CGI realism and tighter cues. The minotaurs are particularly cool.
Caspian is a big improvement over Wardrobe, but it does not gleam perfect. Book-loyal Lewis fans might object to seeing the material diverted mainstream. Juvenile attempts at romance are clumsy and random. Epic action often devolves into a formless clatter of violence; much of the run time could have been abridged here for the movie does run longer than need be. While the movie lacks bloodshed, there is much killing done by the Pevensie kids, to boot which might check parents considering a family outing.
Ultimately, this is a well-made fantasy in spite of its hiccups. Fans of the genre will likely enjoy.
Lambeau Fields (David Koechner; Todd Packer in The Office) is the worst coach in sports history, having never won a game. Consequently, he’s thrown in the headset. Then old assistant Freddie (Carl Weathers, Rocky) finds him at his new gig as stable hand and offers a way out as Heartland State University’s new football coach. After wrestling with his commitment to the family he doesn’t remember, Fields heads to Plainfolk, Texas, to turn around a team of misfits.
The flick directly targets inspirational (and less-than inspirational) sports movies with its slapstick. Among the many riffs on football films are spoofs of Rudy, Radio, Friday Night Lights and The Gridiron Gang. But its aim is broader, using flashbacks and asides to lampoon the likes of Miracle, Bend it Like Beckham, Stick It and even Dodgeball. Inspirational athletics may be ripe for lampoon, but this film can’t land the jokes. Most of its attempts at spoofing source material are contrived of dunderheaded contrarianism (“Your grades are too good to play on my team”). Jokes that would have succeeded better as a cursory surprise are brought to fore and delivered flatly. There is never the slightest hint of subtlety in any joke, and even gags easily gotten are hammered home with dim punchline follow-ups. Crass innuendo, out-of-context drag, random violence, toilet humor and the gratuitously scanty buxom round out this flick’s lowbrow laugh track.
The jokes are stupid, but ultimately, stupidity isn’t the problem. Slapstick aficionados Mel Brooks and David Zucker built careers by embracing idiocy to great comic effect. The problem here is laziness. First, there’s no storyline; instead the character Fields is the slightest connective thread in a string of simple references.
In The Comebacks, director Tom Brady (The Hot Chick) offers filler of little interest. Original material is dim sex jokes and poorly executed running gags. Some jokes approach the dizzying heights of amusing, such as the geriatric Rocky gag (an idea lifted from a background poster in Airplane 2). But you know the movie’s in trouble when a brief coin-toss cameo by Andy Dick makes for one of its brightest moments.
Delivery is a fundamental problem, as well. Earnestly cheesy cop dialogue helped Leslie Nielsen shine in the Naked Gun series. Here the dialogue is utterly bland. This is an especially glaring failure, given the sports world’s supply of florid commentary and flaky phrase.
This is a flick worth avoiding. If you’re curious, just wait. It’ll be on basic cable soon enough.
A 20-something who loves to shop sets her sights on a career in fashion journalism in the feeble-minded piece of fluff Confessions of a Shopaholic. Isla Fisher gets her first chance at Hollywood leading lady, and, while she shows potential, this time she pretty much falls flat on her face.
Rebecca Bloomwood (Fisher) is living the made-for-the-movies New York career girl dream: she works for a gardening magazine, shares an apartment with her best friend, fantasizes of better things … and, yes, shops like crazy. Her tastes lean mostly to designer clothes and accessories (as opposed to say stereo equipment or boats).
She hopes to move up at fashion titan Alette magazine, but she ends up with a job at a smaller financial magazine. It’s there that she captivates her handsome boss (Hugh Dancy), and not only does her career take off but so does her love life. One problem: She is writing about how to be thrifty and spend money wisely while her shopping habits have her under mounds of debt.
Plot-wise, this movie is about as cookie-cutter as any career-girl-in-New York-Cinderella story can be. I suppose a film in this genre doesn’t need to be original as much as it needs to entertain us … or make us laugh … or make us in some way, shape or form interested in the goings on. This film does none of the above. Instead, what we get is a series of one I Love Lucy-inspired episode after another: that type of cringe-inducing situational comedy that depends almost entirely on the talents of the actor responding to whatever unique pickle he or she is in. Fisher has the red hair, but she is no Lucy.
Fisher was the psycho little sister in 2005’s raucously fun Wedding Crashers. She isn’t a total disaster here, in her big spotlight debut. The kid’s got spunk enough to maybe even be a successful leading comedic actress down the road. But in this vehicle, she crashes.
Plus, she gets little help from her supporting cast, especially not from love interest Dancy, doing a third-rate Hugh Grant impersonation. This, despite the fact that the rest of the cast includes top-notch talent like Kristin Scott Thomas, John Lithgow and Julie Hagerty. Director P.J. Hogan (Peter Pan, Muriel’s Wedding) just can’t make this mess into anything worthwhile.
Couples rekindle on a tropical isle in this average comedy.
Dave (Vince Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman) are part of a differently challenged circle of coupled friends. They, the harried parents, mix with romantically ruined varsity sweethearts, the weary childless pair and a cuckold with his 20-year-old rebound. It comes out that the weary childless are headed for splitsville and want their friends’ help: Sign on for the group rate at a couples therapy island resort, and we can afford to save the marriage.
So the four couples find themselves on sunny vacation, only to all question their quality at the hands of love guru Marcel (Jean Reno: The Professional). Will eureka moments arrive in time to dispel dysfunction and make for happy endings?
This is a simple destination romantic comedy, an insubstantial wisp of recycled tropical escapism. The myriad couples encapsulate a wide gamut of relationship failings and work through them with comedic rivalry and ridiculous new age schmaltz.
The wisp of comedy stirs up a few whorls of laughs. There are some funny physical gags and recurring cute/funny kid mischief. But it’s an inconsistent trip. Generally there’s no energy to spark life in gags, and fresh invention is spare.
Fun suffers for the performances, as well. Chemistry is flat. Vaughn and Jon Favreau (the varsity guy), who conspired so successfully for Swingers way back when, don’t seem to click with their banter here. Justin Bateman (weary childless guy) plays the straight man so level he flatlines. All characters are remarkably two-dimensional, offering recitations of lukewarm comedy that seems like so much retread of romantic comedy convention. French badass Jean Reno as relationship counselor fails as a half-formed idea. Even buff interloper Salvadore (Carlos Ponce) is a cheap, ineffective rip-off of Claude from Along Came Polly.
Story is largely to blame. The movie jumps from abbreviated scene to abbreviated scene and never has much focus. Distractions such as the Guitar Hero duel come off lame and random.
All said, there are laughs. But even mouthy Vince Vaughn seems stunted here. Maybe a matinee would be a decent escape, though Forgetting Sarah Marshall was a better day at the beach.
A man-boy moonwalks through his personal timeline in this curious drama.
Age, as you might have gathered, is moving against the grain of time for Benjamin (Brad Pitt: Burn Before Reading). He emerges into the world ancient a puggish gnarl of cataracts and ossified joints and is abandoned as a
newborn on the steps of a New Orleans old folks’ home. There he is taken in by the adoring Queenie (Taraji P. Henson: Boston Legal) and raised among the elderly, slowly tottering to his feet and shedding the burdens of years as he matures. His lonely path of self discovery is brightened by Daisy (Cate Blanchett: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), the radiant granddaughter of one of the housemates. But their opportunity for love is fleeting as they grasp for each other while passing through life in opposite directions.
The movie springboards from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, published in 1921. In this loosely loyal imagining Button’s trip is subtle Gump, in that a gentle Southern soul trails the heels of fate across a 20th century backdrop. Rather than stumbling into the fore of history, however, Benjamin skirts the edges as a man detached from the flow. Introspective walkabouts, musings on mortality and romantic yearning color this intimate tale as Benjamin discovers life backwards from 1917 into the ’80s.
The tale unfolds tidily via flashback from the hospital bed of an aged Daisy, circa 2005, as Daisy’s daughter Caroline reads aloud from Benjamin’s journal. This format isn’t perfect: Flashback occasionally devolves toward exploitive Hallmark schlock, goading empathy by way of the on-screen reader’s teary reactions.
But it’s not all cornball. Current scenes remain unobtrusive, and the interspersing of past and present works to mix up perspective, fill in story gaps and deliver momentum.
Occasional digressions pepper the mix, with the colorful gothic tale of Monsieur Gateau serving prelude and one old-timer’s running gag flashbacks delivering blips of levity.
Said blips help bring welcome energy to the piece, which is otherwise a zen-like meander as Benjamin gazes out on his life as spectator. It’s interesting, mind you. But his subtlety and evenness is such that he teeters between enigma and tofu. Fortunately the film fleshes out the journey with colorful supporting characters.
Visuals are vivid enough that they might just outdo the characters. Director David Fincher composes the tale in rich hues and sepia tones that verge on dream and reflect the romance of the southern gothic tale, but without going overboard. And the effects crew turns in a sharp performance as well, guiding Pitt and Blanchett through filmic aging with a deft, seamless touch. In the slide toward adolescence Pitt looks younger than in his Thelma and Louise debut.
All told, it’s a good flick. Not perfect, but a nice escape. It may be a little melodramatic for some tastes, and it is chock-full of vittles for film geeks who like metaphor and symbol. It’s worth noting, for instance, which way a hurricane spends. While going its own way the film stays true to Fitzgerald’s southern gothic roots and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable moody fantasy.
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