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Capsule Reviews

OPENING

Casque D'Or (France, 1952) - A tragedy about a gangster's mistress living in Paris at the turn of the century. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19, and 7:35 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21.

The Clockmaker (France, 1973) - A lonely watchmaker must rethink his life when he learns his son is wanted for murder. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21.

Fired Up - When high-school football stars Shawn (Nicholas D'Agosto) and Nick (Eric Christian Olsen) get wind of an upcoming cheerleading clinic where they can meet some 300 young co-eds, they quickly weasel their way out of football training camp and convince head cheerleader Carly (Sarah Roemer) that they really want to be part of the cheer team. Hijinks ensue, and the two guys find the gorgeous girls ready, willing and able. Along the way, Shawn falls for Carly and starts taking the whole cheerleading competition seriously, something that annoys his more frivolous pal. Needless to say, there's a finale during which Shawn and Nick overcome their aversion to cheering to bond with their teammates. While some of the fast-talking dialogue and repartee is clever and funny, the pedestrian directing, average acting and predictable storyline make this flick completely disposable. (Jeff Niesel)

Lawrence of Arabia (Britain, 1962) - A British adventurer tries to unite Arab tribes in this David Lean classic. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22.

Six in Paris (France, 1965) - Six New Wave filmmakers contributed to this film, shown in a new 35mm print. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19, and 9:20 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20.

ONGOING

Confessions of a Shopaholic - Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) has run into a bit of bad luck. The home and garden magazine she writes for has just shut down, and she can't afford to pay her rent. Instead of adopting a frugal lifestyle, however, she continues to frequent sample sales and a variety of designer-clothing boutiques. She simply can't stop shopping, and her addiction to buying new clothes is so bad that the mannequins have even started talking to her. Then she gets a job working at a business magazine and launches a column about how to stay out of debt. It's inevitable that her inability to control her own spending habits will be exposed and undo the celebrity status she attains through her column. Based on the Sophie Kinsella novel, P.J. Hogan's film has some good moments (mostly because Fisher is so adept at physical comedy, tripping and flinging herself around relentlessly). But the film quickly fizzles as it takes on a more serious tone and develops a rather routine love story between Rebecca and her editor Luke (Hugh Dancy). (Niesel)

Coraline - This animated adaptation of a Neil Gaiman book attempts to be something like The Nightmare Before Christmas, though the 3-D doesn't pop with nearly the same magnitude. The storyline involves a young girl named Coraline (Dakota Fanning) who discovers a secret passage to an alternate version of her life where her parents actually listen to her and treat her like the queen she thinks she is. Turns out it's all a ruse by a wicked witch who's trying to steal her soul, and Coraline has to come up with an elaborate scheme in order to return to the real world. With its array of colorful foliage and talking animals, the film's fantasy world is certainly stunning. The story, however, has a few too many lulls and follows a pretty predictable trajectory. 1/2 (Niesel)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Director David Fincher bookends The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with two pieces of American history: U.S. troops fighting in World War I and the looming threat of Hurricane Katrina. In between, a timeline of historical and not-so-historical events plays out as one man grows up, or more accurately, becomes a boy. "There are no rules," Benjamin (Brad Pitt) says of his unconventional life. And the movie does play around with convention (foremost, there's that whole aging-in-reverse thing). Still, it's Fincher's most traditional film. He's never been so sentimental or aimed this high (not even in the rule-breaking Se7en, Fight Club or last year's under-seen but terrific Zodiac). He stages nearly every scene with an awe that mirrors Benjamin's. By the time he reaches his 20s, Benjamin has 60 years behind him. As a result, he never really feels like he belongs. This charming fantasy, however, fits right in with other end-of-the-year Oscar hopefuls. (Michael Gallucci)

Friday the 13th - Like all Friday the 13th films, this remake works from the same plot: a bunch of dumb teenagers in the woods drinking, smoking pot and having sex, only to be killed in various ways by deformed slasher Jason Voorhees. This Friday the 13th is no different, though the elements just don't gel in a satisfying way. It's like "serious" filmmakers tried to copy the original movies, but without any real understanding of what made them work. So they spill plenty of blood on the screen, but none of the kill scenes are particularly inventive or memorable. Even the gratuitous nudity feels more gratuitous here. Of course, such distinctions won't matter to most. Those looking for a horror film with a few good scares will find it here, while those who hate the genre will see no difference between this Friday and its predecessors. (Robert Ignizio)

Frost/Nixon - Ron Howard's intelligent drama, derived from the Peter Morgan stage play, aspires to history written with lightning, but Oliver Stone's majestically flawed 1995 Nixon was there first, with more fire and operatic flair. This one feels like history written as a People nostalgia piece. The subject is a series of ballyhooed 1977 TV interviews done by English chat-show host and satirist David Frost (easily impersonated by Michael Sheen), who wrangled a costly Q&A with the infamously resigned Richard Nixon (Frank Langella, in a characterization not unlike Stone's, a gifted and wily statesman toting a massive psychological burden because he never felt as loved and accepted as JFK). Some of this feeds into lofty themes about the limits of power, culpability and owning up - and some of it just reduces this Watergate epilogue to an American Idol popularity competition: Frost vs. Nixon, who looks better on TV? 1/2 (Charles Cassady)

Gran Torino - In Gran Torino, the 78-year-old Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a retired Detroit autoworker mourning his recently deceased wife. Walt's hatreds are many: He grumbles at his teenage granddaughter's belly ring, the doting attention of his son and daughter-in-law (Brian Haley and Geraldine Hughes), the Asian family next door ("Damn barbarians!"), and at Father Janovich (Christopher Calrey), the round-faced young priest who urges Walt to come to confession. Walt is an unapologetic racist, trading ethnic jokes and scurrilous insults with his barber. He's also, for the sake of drama, hiding some unspecified, coughing-up-blood illness. There's considerable interest in the way the movie incorporates Eastwood's pet themes: the hero with the dark past he's trying to forget, and the gulf between mythologized heroics and ugly reality. With its unholy mix of cultural tolerance, racial stereotypes and gun violence, Gran Torino mirrors the contradictions of its director/star, a vegan, pro-gun pacifist who likes George Bush, hates the Iraq War and once threatened to kill Michael Moore. 1/2 (Pamela Zoslov)

He's Just Not That Into You - Director Ken Kwapis (License to Wed, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) assembled an all-star cast to film this unfilmable book of anecdotes about why men treat women badly even when they like them. While the acting is generally solid across the board, the movie, much like the book, has only moments of inspiration. The intertwining relationships - Janine (Jennifer Connelly) is married to Ben (Bradley Cooper) who's having an affair with Anna (Scarlett Johansson), who's been in and out of a relationship with Conor (Kevin Connolly), who's just blown off Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin), who now seeks comfort from Conor's friend Alex (Justin Long) - seem a bit too fabricated here, making the setting (a very spruced-up Baltimore) seem more like some kind of small town. Still, Goodwin is terrific as the frightfully insecure Gigi and the always solid Connelly (not the typically smug Connolly) is excellent as a woman who'll do anything to save her marriage. 1/2 (Niesel)

Hotel for Dogs - An abandoned building that's become home to a group of wayward canines, the "hotel" in director Thor Freudenthal's feature-length debut is virtually a character in itself. That's where Andi (Emma Roberts) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin), two young orphans, set up an assortment of contraptions that enable the dogs to entertain themselves in the absence of their surrogate owners. While it might seem like the perfect opportunity to use computer-generated graphics to show the dogs doing an amazing array of tricks, that's not the case here, as a group of professional dog trainers trained the creatures to strut their stuff without imposing too many human qualities. As a result, the movie's unabashed charm (as well as the fact that not a single dog dies) distinguishes it from the slew of dog films that have recently hit theaters. 1/2 (Niesel)

The International - Much like 2007's Michael Clayton, The International is about one man's quest to get to the bottom of a conspiracy. In this case, that man is renegade Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), who's been trying to convict a Luxembourg bank of dabbling in organized crime. Salinger brings in his New York-based higher-up, Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), to help him track the evidence, first to New York then to Milan and Istanbul, before he can get any final answers. There's never a dull moment, and even though Watts and Owen don't get quite enough screen time together, that's a minor quibble with this thinking man's thriller. (Niesel)

My Bloody Valentine - Praise the horror movie gods! My Bloody Valentine 3D makes murder and mayhem fun again, proving not all remakes have to suck. The script, while by no means Oscar caliber, is a reasonably engaging "whodunit" that actually spends a little time on character development. The film also boasts a solid cast, including genre veteran Tom Atkins in a nice supporting role. This is an unapologetically violent film, and it also has a completely gratuitous nude scene. But unlike Saw and the so-called torture-porn horror of recent years, you won't feel like you need to take a shower after you leave the theater. Obviously, if you can't understand why anyone would want to watch a movie where eyeballs come flying out of the screen on the end of a pickaxe, this isn't for you. Horror fans should eat this one up like a box of chocolates, though. (Ignizio)

New in Town - This spotty "fish out of water" romantic comedy, directed by Denmark's Jonas Elmer, is amiable and endearing, but ultimately lacks the imagination and cohesion to make it a success. The early scenes, in which Lucy Hill (Renée Zellweger), an ambitious food-company executive in Miami, agrees to relocate to frigid New Ulm, Minnesota to oversee a factory conversion, have a nice indie-film quirkiness as Lucy experiences some icy culture shock. But while the movie has a strong beginning and a triumphant ending, it's the stuff in the middle that's lacking, even though Zellweger, less pinch-faced than usual but awfully pale for a Floridian, is effective as the exec in the powder-blue power suits who gradually lets her hair down. 1/2 (Zoslov)

Paul Blart: Mall Cop - The climate of low expectations that made some commentators twist themselves into pretzels insisting Bush was a fine president also makes movie comedies like Paul Blart: Mall Cop seem pretty darn good. And in truth, Mall Cop isn't nearly as bad as it ought to be, given its shopworn plot (misfit who lives with his mom becomes an unlikely hero) and unexceptional lead, King of Queens' Kevin James. Directed by Steve Carr (Are We Done Yet?, Daddy Day Care) and written by James with Nick Bakay, it earns a passing grade for being agreeable, fitfully amusing and considerably less offensive than most movies of its type. 1/2 (Zoslov)

The Pink Panther 2 - This time around, a master thief called the Tornado is swiping famous ancient artifacts, like the Shroud of Turin. A "Dream Team" of detectives - Andy Garcia as an Italian lothario, Alfred Molina as a blustery Brit and Yuki Matsuzaki as a Japanese tech whiz - from around the globe is called in to investigate. They're accompanied by a Tornado expert, played by Bollywood beauty Aishwarya Rai. Meanwhile, Clouseau (Steve Martin) is handing out parking tickets, when his shocked superior (John Cleese, replacing the first film's Kevin Kline, who wisely bowed out of this mess) informs him that he'll represent France in the all-star detective team. There isn't much of a plot here, just a series of sight gags (involving wine bottles, a flamenco troupe and the pope) mixed with Clouseau's unintelligible French (yes, the earlier film's mangling of the word "hamburger" makes a return appearance). The whole thing rides that thin line between childish and stupid. 1/2 (Gallucci)

Push - Basically a superhero movie without the costumes. Nick (Chris Evans) can move objects with his mind, and Cassie (Dakota Fanning) can see the future. The two are on the run from "Division," a top secret U.S. government agency run by Carver (Djimon Hounsou), a man who can put thoughts into people's minds. There's also a super-powered Hong Kong crime family in the mix; its members have the power to bug out their eyes and scream really loud. All these parties are after Nick's girlfriend Kira (Camilla Belle) and the power-boosting syringe in her possession. On the downside, the plot's convoluted, and audience suspension of disbelief is stretched to the breaking point at times. On the plus side, the film strikes a good balance between characterization and action. Excellent performances from Evans and Fanning, as well as Paul McGuigan's capable direction, also help Push rise above mediocrity. (Ignizio)

The Reader - At its best - which fortunately is most of the time - The Reader feels like the glory days of Miramax, the mom-and-pop (literally) company that Harvey and Bob Weinstein started three decades ago in their parents' basement. Combining the literary pedigree of Bernhard Schlink's acclaimed 1995 best-seller, an acclaimed director (Stephen Daldry of The Hours and Billy Elliott fame) and a prestigious cast (the ineffable Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Lena Olin and Bruno Ganz among others), The Reader is the kind of accessible, sumptuously crafted highbrow movie that used to be the Weinsteins' bread and butter. Told in a series of flashbacks (Schlink related the story chronologically in his book), the bulk of the action takes place in three timeframes. In 1958 Berlin, 15-year-old schoolboy Michael Berg (impressive newcomer David Kross) makes the acquaintance of "older woman" Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). Despite the brilliant Winslet's typically fearless performance, Hanna remains a cruel, tantalizing enigma until the very end. It's precisely that sort of richly purposeful ambiguity that makes the film such a rewarding experience. 1/2 (Milan Paurich)

Slumdog Millionaire - Danny Boyle's latest is an irresistible, ingeniously structured hodgepodge of Bollywood (the souped-up romanticism and Day-Glo colors) and Charles Dickens (a classical narrative arc). The story of 18-year-old street kid Jamal (Dev Patel, amiable if emotionally opaque) raised in the Mumbai ghetto who makes a killing on that country's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, it's a rags-to-riches fairy-tale shot in glittery, in-your-face fashion, with lots of jump cuts and distorted fisheye lenses. Convulsively entertaining, Slumdog Millionaire certainly looks like no other film, and it's only afterwards that the whole thing begins to disassemble a bit in your head. Is Boyle merely serving up a kickier form of colonial imperialism, tsk-tsking the sad lot of disenfranchised third-worlders like Jamal and his ragamuffin friends? After just one viewing, it's not certain. But the bitter aftertaste that kicks in once the sugar rush fades makes you wonder if Slumdog Millionaire isn't really just a Richard Attenborough movie in flashier threads. (Paurich)

Taken - After years of work as a "preventer," as he puts it, Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is slowly putting his life back in order. He's moved to Los Angeles to be close to his 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), of whom he's very protective, even though she now lives with her mother (Famke Janssen). So when Kim tells her dad she's going to Paris to vacation with a girlfriend, he immediately worries about her safety. When she's abducted by a group of scumbag Albanians who turn unsuspecting young tourists into prostitutes, he does what any father with a background in espionage and intelligence affairs would do: He sets out to find the bastards and kill them. We soon learn hell hath no fury like a father scorned. Like James Bond or even Jason Bourne, Bryan Miller gets himself in and out of one improbable situation after the other, hotwiring cars, posing as a French policeman and eluding the bad guys in an intense off-road chase along the way. Neeson, though more than up for the role's physical requirements, isn't quite as charismatic as a Daniel Craig or Matt Damon. Still, the movie's suspenseful enough and packs plenty of action into its lean 90-minute running time. 1/2 (Niesel)

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans - Director Patrick Tatopolous makes this prequel to the previous two Underworld films seem like some kind of holocaust drama. Not that a movie about werewolves rising up against their cruel vampiric masters can't or shouldn't play it straight, but it requires a deft touch that Tatopolous lacks. So when the movie awkwardly becomes an allegory for real-life race relations, it's hard to know whether to laugh or be appalled as head vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy) calls werewolf Lucian (Michael Sheen) a credit to his race. Series star Kate Beckinsale wisely passed on this nonsense. Instead, we get Rhona Mitra as female vampire (and Viktor's daughter) Sonja, and she's every bit as wooden here as she was in last year's Doomsday. The first two films in the series weren't great, but at least they offered up some fun and excitement. This is just a dreary and pointless visualization of a backstory about which no one really cares. (Ignizio)

The Uninvited - Despite the PG-13 rating, The Uninvited isn't your typical teen-oriented fright flick. Directed with care and subtlety by the Guard Brothers, this remake of the Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters comes very close to being a top-notch psychological thriller. Anna (Emily Browning) has just returned home after spending some time in an asylum recovering from the trauma of her mother's death. Once home, she and her sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel) take an instant dislike to dad's (David Strathairn) new girlfriend Rachael (Elizabeth Banks). Those sentiments are only reinforced when it seems like mom's ghost is trying to tell Anna that her death wasn't an accident. The tale is gripping for the most part, but ultimately it becomes bogged down in twists and turns at the expense of satisfying storytelling. Rather than elicit the kind of surprise the filmmakers intended, the conclusion is only good for a groan. That's too bad, because otherwise there's a lot to like here. 1/2 (Ignizio)

Waltz With Bashir - Can a cartoon be a documentary, and vice versa? That's the question posed by Waltz With Bashir, the wildly acclaimed, Oscar-nominated genre-bender from director Ari Folman, which takes an impressionistic look at the experiences of Israeli soldiers during the 1982 Lebanon war. Bashir's visual style isn't too far removed from the roto-scoping technique employed by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. But unlike Linklater's trippy slacker chronicles, Folman uses animation to distance us from the horrors of war and bring us closer to the actual combat experience. While a Ph.D in modern Israeli history isn't a requirement to appreciating the artistry and moral courage of Waltz With Bashir, it probably helps to have at least a passing familiarity with the subject before going in. (Paurich)

The Wrestler - In the latest film from Sundance veteran Darren Aronofsky, it's tough deducing just where aging wrestler Randy leaves off and Mickey Rourke - the actor playing him - begins. Like Randy, Rourke had a remarkable run back in the Reagan era. Also like Randy, shit happened to Rourke (drugs, messy break-ups, a misguided attempt at becoming a professional boxer), and his career was pretty much kaput by the time Bill Clinton was sworn into office. Since The Wrestler involves Randy's quixotic attempt at redemption - courtesy of a 20th anniversary rematch of one of his most illustrious bouts and a possible reconciliation with his estranged daughter (a spiky Evan Rachel Wood) - it's impossible not to think of the film as Rourke's bid to reclaim his onetime Golden Boy status in Hollywood. The glory of Aronofsky's movie, and why it's faring so unexpectedly well during a particularly heated awards season, is that both character and actor triumph against some pretty formidable odds. (Paurich)

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