Film » Short Takes

Short Takes: 3/25/09

Capsule Reviews of Current Releases

Antonio Gaudi (Japan, 1984) — Antonio Gaudi was a Spanish architect who designed some really funky modern-looking pieces during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His buildings, churches and parks incorporate spider-like columns and rows of arches that twist and turn into labyrinthine shapes. He also built things that look like caves. The dreamlike imagery of his work makes for a fascinating character study. Unfortunately, this plodding doc chooses instead to point the camera at a bunch of Gaudi's pieces in Barcelona and attach annoying music (some playful and out of place, some haunting and grating) to the views. Director Hiroshi Teshigahara doesn't do anything your dad can't do with a camcorder; he just had a bigger travel budget. The structures are awesome. The movie is boring. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Friday, March 27, and 7 p.m. Saturday, March 28. 1/2 (Michael Gallucci)

Brothers at War — Producer-director Jake Rademacher admits he made this documentary to get closer to his brothers Isaac and Joe, both of whom are in the military, serving in Iraq. As a result, the film is more a tribute to American soldiers and their families than a critique of a highly controversial war. In fact, no one in the film ever says anything negative about either Bush or the war. Not a single naysayer. Seems kinda strange. Not that Rademacher didn't put his heart and soul into the thing. The guy fearlessly threw himself into the line of fire and came back with some graphic footage of the chaos soldiers face on a daily basis. But he should have saved the clips of him embracing his brothers and bonding with family members for the family reunion. Cedar Lee Theatre. (Jeff Niesel)

The Great Buck Howard — As a down-on-his-luck, Kreskin-style mentalist reduced to performing his "effects" for easily impressed old biddies in nondescript hick towns, John Malkovich delivers a bravura comic performance that's richer and funnier than the material deserves. Written and directed by Sean McGinly, the film putters along amiably without ever quite delivering on its solid-gold premise. Yet Malkovich is such an irrepressible force of nature — he commands the screen like nobody's business and makes Buck's prima-donna act strangely endearing — that it's easy to cut it some slack. Providing charming back-up support to Malkovich's tour de force are Colin Hanks and The Devil Wears Prada scene-stealer Emily Blunt as, respectively, Buck's wet-behind-the-ears assistant and his no-nonsense publicist. As Hanks' dad, co-producer Tom Hanks turns up briefly for two killer scenes that hint at the more fully realized movie this might have been if McGinly had given his script an additional polish. Cedar Lee Theatre. (Milan Paurich)

Sunshine Cleaning — This bittersweet comedy about two sisters who launch a crime-scene cleanup business was produced by the team responsible for Little Miss Sunshine, which it resembles in its mordant affection for hard-luck characters and the casting of Alan Arkin as an eccentric grandpa. Amy Adams is Rose, an Albuquerque ex-cheerleader who cleans houses and is having an affair with a married cop (Steve Zahn), who tells her there's money to be made cleaning up after murders and suicides. Rose, who needs to pay for private school for her imaginative young son (Jason Spevack), recruits her hapless sister Norah (Emily Blunt) and plunges into the messy business. The sisters — who meet a gentle, one-armed janitorial-supply salesman (Clifton Collins Jr.) — are affected by the tragedies they encounter, particularly Norah, who's so moved by a dead woman's family photos that she tries to befriend the woman's daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub). Eventually, the sisters begin to heal the wounds left by their mother's premature death. Some situations strain credulity, and Megan Holley's script wanders a bit, yet the movie achieves moments of sublime poignancy. The acting is superb, and the mood artfully balanced between sadness and hope. Shaker Cinemas. (Pamela Zoslov)

The Class — As much about French social attitudes as it is about the country's education system, Laurent Cantet's film looks at the multicultural dimensions of one public high-school teacher's class. French instructor François Marin (François Bégaudeau, who also wrote the screenplay and the book upon which the film is based) teaches class of mostly poor students from the inner city, many of whom have recently emigrated from Africa. As a result, simple exercises like writing personal biographies often become contentious. It's hard to get a handle on François; at one point he's a sympathetic student ally, at another he hurls mean-spirited insults at two female students. And yet that's part of what makes this documentary-like movie so compelling. Cedar Lee Theatre. (Niesel)

Duplicity — Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play a pair of über-competitive corporate spies who fall in love (sort of) while attempting to pull a multi-million dollar scam. Or maybe they're just scamming each other. It's hard to tell who's on the level in writer-director Tony Gilroy's screwy follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Michael Clayton. Gilroy plays so many tricks with point of view and jumbles the chronology in such a seemingly random, pell-mell fashion that you could get a migraine just keeping track of all the glamorous locales (New York, London, Miami, the Bahamas, Rome, Dubai) fleetingly glimpsed along the way. Two actors who can class up any joint (Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, reuniting following their roles as John Adams and Ben Franklin in HBO's John Adams miniseries) contribute a few stray moments of welcome mirth as Roberts and Owen's conniving bosses. But Gilroy's stubborn refusal to tell his story straight makes this more of an exercise in frustration than the larkish screwball romp he seems to think it is. (Paurich)

I Love You, ManI Love You, Man isn't a Judd Apatow production; it was directed by John Hamburg (Along Came Polly), who wrote the script with Larry Levin. But it pays homage to Apatow's formula, and stars Apatow alumni Paul Rudd and Jason Segel. Rudd plays Peter Klaven, an L.A. realtor who has just proposed to Zooey (Rashida Jones), whose parents apparently named her in a fit of Salinger worship. Peter is a dream boyfriend: handsome, ambitious but not aggressive, talented in the kitchen and bedroom, and a man who enjoys an evening watching Chocolat with his fiancée. But he has, in Apatovian terms, a problem: he's a "girlfriend guy." He has no close male friend who can be his best man. Quelle horreur! The movie advances the notion that men can enjoy greater intimacy with men than with women, though of course, they're not gay. Wobbly premise aside, the movie, while not raucously hilarious, has a breezy likability, mainly owing to the charismatic Rudd, whose character spends much of the movie trying to master the art of casual banter. (Zoslov)

Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience — A gimmicky, for-fans-only concert flick starring Disney Channel tweener sensations Kevin, Nick and Joe Jonas. Footage of Anaheim and Madison Square Garden arena shows are interwoven with the boys' (strictly G-rated) offstage antics for the chaste delectation of 12-year-old girls everywhere. The brothers themselves — albeit reasonably talented and likable enough — come across as so squeaky clean (each wears a "promise ring") that they make fellow Mouse House cash-cow Miley Cyrus, the previous subject of a three-dimensional doc by director Bruce Hendricks, seem like Jenna Jameson by comparison. And Hendricks' labored attempt to recast the Jonases as some sort of nouveau Fab Four via a recurring homage to A Hard Day's Night feels like wishful thinking. But at a swiftly paced, blessedly brief 76 minutes, the movie is rarely dull, and it should have little trouble satisfying the Jonas faithful, even at an inflated 3D ticket price. (Paurich)

Knowing — In this sci-fi thriller, a time capsule is unearthed containing a sheet of paper predicting every major disaster of the past 50 years. Three dates and locations remain, including one that portends the very end of the world. Can John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) find a way to avert destruction? Cage is in full over-the-top mode here, at times literally tearing apart the scenery in his efforts to sell the simplest of scenes. But then, he's only following the lead of director Alex Proyas, who seems more interested in CGI destruction than exploring human nature in the face of armageddon. Knowing is a film that has nothing of substance to say, despite its weighty subject. Even its vision of the apocalypse seems calculated to be as inoffensive as possible, as it awkwardly blends elements of the Christian rapture, new-age "space brothers" mythology and dubious science. And lest anyone say they just want to be entertained, there's precious little in the way of fun here, either. (Ignizio)

Miss March — Best friends Eugene (Zach Cregger) and Tucker (Trevor Moore) couldn't be much different from each other. Ever since they were young, Tucker has been more interested in girls than Eugene. So when Eugene and his high-school sweetheart Cindi (Raquel Alessi) finally agree to sleep together, Tucker tries to help Eugene out by getting him drunk. The result: Eugene falls down a set of stairs and ends up in a coma for four years, unable to consummate his relationship. When he wakes up, he learns his girlfriend has become a Playboy model, so he and Tucker set off to the Playboy Mansion to find out if she still has any feelings left for Eugene. Of course, all sorts of crazy shit happens on the way to the mansion. The film's lame-brained idea of humor (lots of gross-out stuff involving urine and defecation) isn't just repulsive; it's not funny, either. The film's so ill-conceived, it makes you wonder why it didn't go straight to video. (Niesel)

Race to Witch Mountain — Extraterrestrial siblings Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) crash-land on earth, only to be pursued by a predictably unfriendly secret branch of the U.S. government. Fortunately for them, they wind up in a cab driven by Jack Bruno (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), a cynic with a checkered past who, along with some help from UFO researcher Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino), tries to protect the kids. This live-action Disney film sticks pretty close to the formula the studio used in their original Witch Mountain films from the '70s, even as it deviates from the plot considerably. There's plenty of PG-level action, the heroes and villains are presented as black and white, and the special effects and general tone have a decidedly low-budget feel. There are logical issues and plot holes galore, but director Andy Fickman manages to keep the film engaging enough. 1/2 (Ignizio)

Super Capers — Evidently hoping to counter Watchmen with a PG comic-book-hero pastiche kid-safe enough to play at church camp, some cinemas are showing this lumpy, low-budget spoof about a wannabe caped crimefighter named Ed in a crude homemade costume, sentenced to rehab or something in a group home for underdeveloped superheroes, where he's framed for a gold robbery. Ingredients include clichéd cartoon sound effects (chirping birdies when someone's hit on the head, etc.), cameos by Adam West and June Lockhart, Christian references, labored gags relating to 1980s fantasy flicks like Return of the Jedi and Back to the Future, and maybe one or two chuckle-worthy shenanigans. There is a very narrow audience demographic — male pre-adolescent loners, about age eight to nine-and-three-quarters, with extensive action-figure play sets — who might just think this is the cleverest thing ever. You're better off checking out the equally obscure but slightly better spandex satires The Return of Captain Invincible and Doctor Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam on video. (Cassady)

Two Lovers — Director James Gray (Little Odessa, We Own the Night) takes a break from his usual genre fare with this unexpectedly touching, beautifully played urban romance set in present-day Brooklyn. Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a bipolar young man who moves back in with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Monoshov) after getting dumped by his fiancée. While he's only too happy to play along with his folks' attempt to fix him up with the comely daughter of a business associate (Vinessa Shaw), Leonard really has eyes for the blonde shiksa goddess (Gwyneth Paltrow) who just moved into their apartment building. The emotional tenor of the movie feels exactly right, and the performances are extraordinarily empathetic. This is Gray's most satisfying and mature work to date. Maybe he should give crime dramas a rest and concentrate on telling heartfelt people stories like this from now on. Cedar Lee Theatre. 1/2 (Paurich)

Watchmen — Set in 1985 in an alternate United States, where costume-clad heroes used to be as common as the threat of nuclear war that hangs over the world, Watchmen tells the story of a group of banned and retired crime fighters who reluctantly reunite after one of their colleagues — the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose blood-stained smiley-face button serves as the story's iconic linchpin — is killed. Now that the film is finally here, after more than two decades of delays, false starts and lawsuits, fans are in for a dizzying thrill. Director Zack Snyder — whose other movies, 2004's Dawn of the Dead and 2006's 300, are stylized visual feasts — treats the work with all the reverence of a stammering geek. Last year, The Dark Knight forever changed the comic-book movie. Watchmen isn't that good, but Snyder's faithful adaptation captures the essence of Moore's existential masterpiece. (Gallucci)

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