American Casino (US, 2009) A documentary about the recent sub-prime mortgage meltdown. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18, and 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19.
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Easy Rider (U.S., 1969) In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, author Peter Biskind examined the making of this iconographic surprise 1969 phenom and could not conclude who, if anybody directed it. Dennis Hopper got onscreen credit, the volatile actor Peter Fonda certainly shaped it, and co-screenwriter Terry Southern was involved, but the whole shoot (on a project that Roger Corman rejected, so it bounced to Columbia) was a haphazard, drug-disoriented affair, happening concurrent with the RFK assassination. Ultimately, Biskind writes, it's impossible to say who made Easy Rider. It just kind of happened. The story centers on two rebel bikers motoring cross-country to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and finding no comfort — either at bravely faltering hippie communes or in viciously hostile small towns. Minor-league actor Jack Nicholson shot to stardom with his supporting role as a boozy ACLU lawyer who claims to know what Americans fear the most is freedom. Rumor has it that in the aftermath of Easy Rider's box-office smash, Hollywood showered cameras and cash upon just about every dazed counterculture-youth who wandered in the door, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle again. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 8:50 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18, and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20. ****(Charles Cassady Jr.)
The Wonder of It All (U.S., 2007) In 1961, with the Cold War creating international tensions, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to send someone to the moon. At the time, the Russians had already been to outer space and were well ahead of the United States. But NASA accelerated its program and recruited several of the Air Force's top pilots for its Apollo missions. This documentary includes interviews with seven astronauts who walked on the moon. They recount their training routines and go into great detail describing the moon's dusty surface as well as the intense sunlight. "We were not a particularly exuberant, extroverted group" says Buzz Aldrin, emphasizing that the astronauts were so focused, they didn't think about much else. As an oral history, The Wonder of It All is a highly successful chronicle of the lunar experience. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20. **** (Jeff Niesel)
Armored Ty (Columbus Short) is a decorated Iraq war veteran trying to take care of his younger brother (Andre Jamal Kinney). He works as a guard for an armored-car company, but his salary isn't enough to pay the mortgage. Ty's best friend Mike (Matt Dillon), also a guard, has a solution. On their next run, with the help of a few fellow guards (Jean Reno, Laurence Fishburne, Amaury Nolasco and Skeet Ulrich), they will stage a robbery and take the cash for themselves. Ty is reluctant to go along, but as his personal situation worsens, the plan starts to look more appealing. Besides, Mike assures him, no one will get hurt. Right. The film's tone, measured pacing and straight-forward visual style hearken back to the mid-budget action films of the '80s, as does John Murphy's ominous synthesizer score. The script is nothing special and could easily have resulted in a mediocre film. Thanks to the strong cast and director Nimrod Antal's skill at generating suspense and tension, though, Armored manages to be a pretty enjoyable thriller. ****(Robert Ignizio)
The Blind Side The Blind Side belongs to "white-man's burden" movies like Dangerous Minds or The Soloist, in which benevolent whites heroically rescue underprivileged black people. Accordingly, there are moments in this movie, based on the life of Baltimore Ravens rookie tackle Michael Oher, that are cringingly uncomfortable, like when Sandra Bullock — as Leigh Anne Tuohy, an affluent Southern woman who has opened her home to Oher — sashays into the kid's rough Memphis neighborhood in tight skirt and heels to give a drug dealer a talking-to, warning him that she's packing heat. If this were fiction, it'd be as phony as Astroturf. But like those other movies, it's a true story, told with enough sensitivity to almost overcome the troubling sense of noblesse oblige. Bullock acts her heart out as the feisty Leigh Anne. Her performance makes a character that might have been repellent — privileged, pushy evangelical — rather endearing. ***(Pamela Zoslov)
Brothers Just before he's to be shipped to Afghanistan, Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) picks up his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) from prison. Tommy seems to be on a path of self-destruction that would take an earth-shattering event to right, and that event comes when Sam's helicopter goes down and he's presumed dead. Back home, Tommy is shaken straight and takes up handiwork around his brother's house and, eventually, playtime with Sam's kids. Meanwhile, Sam and a fellow soldier are being tortured in a prisoner camp in the caves of Afghanistan. Sam is put to the test with months of malnutrition and mental torment, and when his rescue comes, his menacing, gaunt expression and steely eyes tell us (and his grateful family back home) that something is amiss. Sam can't readjust to his old life, especially his daughters, and things spiral downward in raw, primal fashion. *** Justin Strout)
A Christmas Carol Using the same performance-capture animation technique employed in 2004's Polar Express and 2007's Beowulf, Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol is another family friendly holiday feature by the veteran director of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump. Zemeckis doesn't mess with Charles Dickens' book much, quoting directly from it in the opening sequence, which finds Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) busting out a "bah humbug" when his nephew Fred (Colin Firth) arrives to wish him a "merry Christmas." Of course, Scrooge is in for a shock when he goes home and an apparition of his old boss Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman) arrives to warn him that he's going to be visited by three ghosts before the night is over. Though his recent attempts to show off his dramatic acting abilities have fallen short, Carrey is in good form here. He occasionally indulges in exaggerated facial gestures and slapsticky antics, but that's going to keep young viewers interested. That and the fabulous digital 3-D effects that make it look like snowflakes are falling in front of your face. ***(Niesel)
Invictus Another late-career triumph for director Clint Eastwood, this stirring, convulsively moving account of the early days of Nelson Mandela's presidency and how South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup victory helped unite the country is the antithesis of a standard-issue Hollywood message movie. Superbly adapted by Anthony Peckham from John Carlin's book, Eastwood's majestic film is delicately nuanced and full of vivid, telling details that help convey not only the measure of two men (Morgan Freeman's Mandela and Matt Damon's Afrikaner rugby captain Francois Pienaar), but also of a nation on the precipice of seismic changes — both culturally and politically. Clocking in a briskly paced 136 minutes, this is that rare movie epic that carries its size, weight and ambition with incomparable ease, remarkable grace and unstinting dignity. **** (Paurich)
The Princess and the Frog A return to classic Disney animation, The Princess and the Frog follows the story of Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a young woman trying to fulfill her father's fantasy of opening a restaurant in New Orleans. Tiana's plans get derailed when she meets a frog who claims to be a prince in search of a bride. To get the frog to become a prince again, they must travel deep into the swamp and consult the Queen of the Bayou (Jenifer Lewis), who instructs them on how to defeat the villainous voodoo king Dr. Facilier (Keith David). The hand-drawn animation suits the story perfectly, and if it sounds like this throwback approach will be lost on young viewers more accustomed to CGI graphics and digital 3D technology, that isn't the case. Young kids will appreciate the Randy Newman soundtrack and the slapstick. ***(Niesel)
The Twilight Saga: New Moon Ten minutes into this sequel to 2008's Twilight, Bella (Kristen Stewart) celebrates her 18th birthday at the home of boyfriend Edward (Robert Pattison) and his vampire family, where she gets a paper cut that causes one of the bloodsuckers to lose control. Worried that Bella won't be so lucky next time, Edward and company leave town. This sends Bella into a depression that lifts somewhat thanks a combination of dangerous behavior and spending more time with her Native American friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who just happens to be a werewolf. A better film than its predecessor, New Moon is an entertaining romantic fantasy with a stronger visual look and better action scenes, while still keeping the focus on the central love triangle. Stewart's acting has gotten better, and while Pattison has a smaller role this time, Lautner more than ably picks up the slack. The problem with focusing so much on Bella's dalliance with Jacob is that when the story brings Edward and the vampires back, the conclusion feels rushed. Also, with all its loose ends and assumptions that the audience knows what came before, New Moon doesn't stand on its own very well. ***(Ignizio)