Flickerings: INDEX OF MOVIE REVIEWSmovie camera

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Pineapple Express

An enjoyably rude movie about an odd couple on pot becomes a violent gore-fest of an odd couple on pot with guns, losing its way and losing us.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A pot-smoking subpoena processor and his small-time drug dealer are on the run from big-time drug dealers in the initially funny but ultimately flat action-comedy Pineapple Express. Is it possible that the irreverent comedic stylings from red-hot hit-makers Judd Apatow (producer), Seth Rogen (actor/writer) and the like are starting to wear thin? Maybe it’s just over-exposure.

Dale Denton (Rogen) is an amiable loser who enjoys his job serving subpoenas to the unsuspecting. It’s low pressured enough that he can smoke weed all day and earn a decent enough living to have a pretty girlfriend (Amber Heard), even if she is in high school. Dale’s dope connection is Saul (James Franco), who enjoys his job selling pot, which allows him to sit at home all day smoking weed and watching TV. When Dale accidentally sees big-time drug dealer Ted Jones (Gary Cole) kill someone, he and Saul go on the lamb for their lives while smoking the very stuff that got them in trouble in the first place: a particular blend of pot called pineapple express.

The set-up is funny enough. Clearly Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg, along with co-star Franco, know how to hit the high notes on the 20-something slacker comedy scale. The scenes of Rogen and Franco together early on are funny for the non-dopers and more than that for the aficionados. This is a lot smarter than your typical Cheech and Chong flick, but the movie’s clever one-offs and hip dialogue only go so far. Enter the pratfalls and the violence.

What begins as an enjoyably rude movie about an odd couple on pot, becomes a violent gore-fest of an odd couple on pot with guns. It almost feels like two movies in one: as if Rogen and Goldberg had wanted to write a movie about getting high, but also wanted to write a shoot-’em-up, weren’t exactly sure how to do that and so decided to add the gun movie to their weed movie. The result is a cringe-inducing actioned-up second half that ends up with blood everywhere. A sort of Apatow meets Tarantino.

This violence might be okay if the second half was funny, but it is not. The movie loses its way and loses us in the process. After such insightful comedies as Superbad, The 40-Year Old Virgin and the overrated but still solid Knocked Up, I guess you can’t expect them all to be good. Let’s just hope they can reach those highs again.

Fair action-comedy • R • 112 mins.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

The challenge to enjoying this adventurous action is getting past wondering what the heck is going on.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Johnny Depp and all of his pirate friends and foes return in the biggest spectacle on the open seas and on the big screen, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Director Gore Verbinski’s (The Weather Man, The Ring) third journey gives us even more mind-blowing and seamless special effects. The result is a mostly overblown film enveloping a sputtering and confusing plot.

We first join those familiar pirates (familiar if you are one of the millions of moviegoers who have seen either of the previous two films), Barbossa (Jeffrey Rush), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightly) and all their batty buccaneer buddies in Singapore (so much for pirates of the Caribbean). The pirates are there to recover — make that steal — a special treasure map from Asian pirate kingpin Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat). Map in hand, they set sail to find Jack Sparrow (Depp) who is banished to Davy Jones’ Locker, which is seemingly at, well … at world’s end. Everyone has a different angle: Will wants to save his father, Sparrow wants to kill Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and Barbossa wants to summon the goddess Calypso. None of it makes much sense.

The challenge to enjoying the adventurous action is getting past wondering what the heck is going on. For action there is aplenty. Verbinski knows how to turn computerized wizardry into excellent sea-ship action and swordplay. Indeed, the great appeal of the Pirates trilogy lies at the point of where modern magic and traditional swashbucklery meet. This dynamic plays out in both movie action and story.

The Pirates movies have never been satisfied to stick to a Robert Louis Stevenson-style adventure. No, they bring us an element of almost sci-fi fantasy. Here, ships sail upside down; pirates are half man, half fish; ghosts are the norm; and hearts beat by themselves in boxes. Don’t try to make sense of it.

Perhaps most curious of all is a Captain Jack Sparrow who regularly slips into what seem peyote-induced hallucinations. (Did I mention not trying to make sense of it?) Verbinski deserves props for pushing the envelope of what mainstream audiences are ready to swallow in a summer blockbuster. Unfortunately, the hallucination scenes end up being not much more than fiddling around. Aaargh.

Fair adventure/comedy • PG-13 • 167 mins.

The Prestige

This complex and mysterious tale leaves us guessing until the very end.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Two rival magicians let their bitter competition dominate their lives in the fascinatingly entertaining The Prestige. Writer-director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, Insomnia) delivers a complex and mysterious tale that leaves us guessing until the very end.

Young and handsome Rupert (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred (Christian Bale) are apprentice magicians in rough and tumble, turn-of-the-century London. After an on-stage accident kills Rupert’s magician’s assistant wife (Piper Perabo), he blames Alfred and seeks his revenge. That revenge leads Alfred in turn to get back at Rupert. All the while, Rupert and Alfred are individually rising to the ranks of top magicians in the gloomy London theater district.Thus, their rivalry is both personal and professional, with hardly any line between the two.

Each man craves the applause that comes with “the prestige,” the concluding third act to every magic trick. The great magic trick at the center of their rivalry is the mystifying Transported Man, with each magician creating his own version of the trick. It proves to be their downfall.

Nolan refuses to tell this tale in a straight chronological fashion. Indeed, as the writer-director of 2000’s brilliant Memento, Nolan is a master of these narrative tricks. Here, Nolan’s flashbacks even have flashbacks, and his voiceover narration is often the reading of someone else’s narration. Thus clever and entertaining tricks are happening in the story and in the telling of the story. The result is delightful, if not occasionally confusing.

Perhaps the film’s only flaw is its lack of acting authenticity. Nolan may be a master at delivering a story, but he isn’t necessarily a master director of actors. Despite a semi-studded cast of characters — including Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and David Bowie — the acting seems stilted, and it’s not helped by the fake accents being used by nearly all involved. Even the reliable Caine, using his real accent, comes off as unnatural.

Nevertheless, the intelligent story carries the day. Ultimately, as in a magic show, we are asked to suspend our disbelief. Indeed, even though all the intricate parts fit together, some key plot elements rely not just on the contrived but the fantastical. That’s okay. With a show this good, a little nonsense only serves to make the magic more enticing. However, in this magic show of a movie, the plot’s tricks are eventually revealed. After all, it’s the only way to earn the moviegoers’ applause — which it does. 

Great suspense • PG-13 • 128 mins.

Pride and Glory

Watching a New York cop movie like is like watching a mob movie: same amount of clichés; less corruption in the mob movie.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A working-class Irish family of New York City cops gets tangled in a web of corruption and violence in the been-there, done-that crime drama Pride and Glory. Writer-director Gavin O’Connor (Miracle, Tumbleweeds) gives us a movie with the feel of a 1970s’ cop story and all of the anguish — but few of the thrills.

Edward Norton plays Ray Tierney, a former NYPD investigator who has given it up because of something in his past. When a group of cops is murdered in a botched drug raid, Ray is persuaded by his cop dad (Jon Voight) to head the taskforce to investigate. The problem is that Ray is investigating his brother’s precinct (Noah Emmerich) and his brother-in-law’s unit (Colin Farrell). As the story unfolds, we learn more about the histories of these cops, as well as what really happened in the cop murder.

Like every New York cop movie, police corruption is at the center of the film. Watching a New York cop movie is like watching a mob movie: same amount of clichés — with less corruption in the mob movie.

And the pain and misery, oh the pain and misery. No one has a sense of humor in these movies. Not that the murder of cops is something to laugh about, but if I was living out the cliché of a working-class New York Irish family of cops, I’d sure want to bring some levity. Instead, it’s all gritted teeth, furrowed brows, out-and-out foul-mouthed furor … and booze and fighting, of course. Just when we think it can’t get any more over-the-top serious, it turns out that one of the characters has a wife dying of cancer. Somebody make it stop.

The film only works when Edward Norton is on the screen, which fortunately is quite a bit. For some reason, Norton seems to have been demoted to mostly mediocre films, but the guy is still as believable and interesting as ever. At least his pain appears to come honestly, and he plays it with a tempered approach: the opposite of Colin Farrell.

In the end, family gets torn apart and corruption does not win out. Not that pride and glory does — more like pain and misery.

Fair drama • R • 126 mins.

The Princess and the Frog

© Walt Disney Pictures

Disney works a little Voodoo to revivify its princess formula in this kid-friendly, if slightly stiff, fantasy

reviewed by Mark Burns ~ December 17, 2009

Tiana (Anika Noni Rose: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) is a hard-working waitress striving for the dream of her own restaurant. Naveen (Bruno Campos: Royal Pains) is a traveling prince who’s been cut off from his parents’ wealth. The playboy royal is living it up in the heyday of Jazz Age New Orleans when a Voodoo shadowman trips him up with dark magic. The prince turns frog and watches a doppelganger steal his scheme to marry into southern aristocracy. When Tiana tries to lift his curse with a kiss, she instead becomes a frog herself. Soon the pair are stuck in the bayou, searching for a way to lift the curse even as they evade the evil witch doctor and fall in love.

This latest Imagineered fairy tale is Disney’s first to feature an African American princess. It also marks Disney’s return to classic 2-D, hand-drawn animation — the first since 2004’s Home on the Range. By and large it’s a fine return to form as jazz, zydeco, Mardi Gras, bayou, and Voodoo swirl together for a colorful, original take on the classic tale.

Well, original to a point.

Story follows the familiar recipe of Disney princess gumbo: A strong-willed, beautiful young woman with a lovely singing voice finds unlikely love during an adventure shaped by magic. There’s no revolutionary storytelling here, but it’s tidy and does well enough at expanding on the source fairy tale. Voodoo mischief adds eerie strangeness to the villainy and serves as a fine instigator. A couple of gentle bouts with inequality serve further challenge to the heroine and add considerate texture to the glaze.

Innocent romance and mild action drive the movie onward without threatening the kid-friendly tone. However, the quest for kid-friendly seems to have tempted oversimplification and thus abridged potential: The tale is well developed at the start but arrives at adventure late and lapses into summary highlights. The film’s colorful elements tend not to cohere, often reducing them to gimmickry. The witch doctor especially seems wanting for better context.

The film’s heart is its music. The telling includes the traditional song-and-dance numbers at cruxes and a peppering of jazz and zydeco fanfare. Interjections of New Orleans’ music deliver zest, but the sung plot points seem half committed. Tiana’s sung restaurant fantasy, for instance, is almost a brilliant number stylized with jazz art animation, but it falls short on punch.

Punch lines also lack a certain oomph. Humor is largely drawn from caricatures defined by thick, sugary drawls or Cajun jibber jabber. Otherwise, there’s a manic goofiness afoot that plays like a Saturday morning cartoon. Wit lacks the double edge of many animated flicks. It’s fine for the kids but perhaps disappointing for the parents.

Finally, the film has rich backgrounds and clean lines. It’s sharp, but not as well crafted as the films of Disney’s 1990s’ renaissance. This one seems more akin to the studio’s direct-to-DVD library than its typically sharper theater fare.

Complaints aside, it’s a nice story well adapted to an original setting. Grown ups spoiled by Pixar’s broad appeal may share a few gripes, but this one is ultimately aimed at the kids. And the kids at the theatre sat transfixed and quiet all the way through.

Good kids movie · G · 97 mins.

Public Enemies

© Universal Pictures

Public Enemies is about more than just John Dillinger. Meeting the assortment of 1930s’ crime names and those that track them is perhaps the film’s best aspect.

For 100 minutes, the gunplay and interaction of crooks and G-Men are the kind of raucous danger we want from our gangster movies.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Johnny Depp stars as 1930s’ bank robber and FBI public enemy No. 1 John Dillinger in the mostly engaging and entertaining action bio-pic Public Enemies. Director Michael Mann (Collateral; Ali) presents a highly stylized and often melodramatic telling of Dillinger’s life that grabs us early but loses focus as it and Dillinger slide to their fates.

Depp plays Dillinger as a handsome, charismatic folk hero. Never mind the blood splattering all over the screen; this guy is only taking the bank’s money, not the people’s. He is as lucky with the ladies as he is with his bank heists. Then, he meets coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), and he turns into a one-woman guy. Stability conflicts with his one true love: bank robbing. Dillinger tries to juggle the two, but his luck and the times are a changing. Everyone knows how this must end.

Given the title, it’s true that this movie is about more than just Dillinger. Meeting the assortment of 1930s’ crime names and those that track them is perhaps the film’s best aspect. There’s Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover and Christian Bale as hot-on-Dillinger’s-trail G-Man Melvin Purvis. There’s Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd. Often holing up in the Chicago area, Dillinger cavorted with the heavies from Al Capone’s mob.

Mann delivers it all in his slick and stylized Hollywood way. This works well for the action sequences: the bright sparks of the tommy guns lighting up nighttime shoot-outs, the swirling cameras capturing the rush of a bank heist, the shimmer of the uptown swells at the fancy Chicago nightclubs. But the uneven juxtaposition from action to romance is enough to make even the most hardened gangster nauseous. The romance scenes slow to a crawl with bombastic music that makes us shake our heads in wonder. Mann treats the Dillinger-Frechette relationship like the love of the century. 

Indeed, the film’s biggest problem as it marches to its conclusion is its heavy-handed self-importance. Dillinger’s end is not the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; it’s the bringing to justice (or perhaps Mann would say injustice?) of a murdering bank robber. Yet Mann spends the last 30 minutes grinding out every painful moment of the final days. Fortunately, until then, the gunplay and interaction of crooks and G-Men are the kind of raucous danger we want from our gangster movies.

Good action • R • 133 mins.

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