Opening this week
Away We Go (R) See review here.
My Sister’s Keeper (PG-13) As if the recent economic mess wasn’t enough to make you cry, now there’s this flick from The Notebook‘s Nick Cassavetes about a little girl and her dying older sister. Stars Abigail Breslin, Cameron Diaz, and Jason Patric.
Outrage (NR) See capsule here.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (PG-13) The Autobots and Decepticons are still feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Expect lots of eye-candy courtesy of ILM, Megan Fox, and Tyrese Gibson.
Easy Virtue (PG-13) Stephan Elliott’s Easy Virtue answers the question “whatever became of the guy who made The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert?” Well, after a couple of huge disasters, the decision to walk away from movies altogether, and a nearly fatal skiing accident, Elliott is back with a vengeance. He’s also back with a movie that’s not only a worthy successor to Priscilla, it may just be even better. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s based on a 1924 Noel Coward drama. Elliott has refashioned the play into a comedy with a satirical bite. This isn’t your average upper class British comedy of manners — though it might be called a comedy of bad manners. It’s still the story of what happens when a young man (Ben Barnes) arrives at his slowly crumbling stately home of England with a shocking American bride (Jessica Biel) in tow — a situation made just that much more intolerable for his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), since she’d planned on marrying him off to the daughter of wealthy gentry to save the family home. His father (Colin Firth), on the other hand, is quietly amused by it all. By turns hysterically funny, witty and penetrating, this is one of the year’s best films to date. And it reveals a Jessica Biel we’ve never seen before — warm, funny, sophisticated, sexy and vulnerable. —Ken Hanke
The Hangover (R) The Hangover is a mystery tale about three guys following up on the few clues they have about a night of debauchery in Las Vegas. Phil (Bradley Cooper), the suave, handsome one, is wearing a hospital bracelet. Stu (Ed Helms), the dorky dentist, is missing a tooth. Alan (Zach Galifianakis), the borderline-retarded one, is missing his pants. There’s a tiger in the bathroom and a baby in the closet. How they retrace their doings of the night before is intriguing in a narrative sense. But this is a comedy — or it’s meant to be — and as much as I would have loved for the sense of the sinister inherent in this concept to turn into something deeply, blackly funny. Lucas and Moore and director Todd Phillips go for the easy, cheap laughs, things that will shock a juvenile mind-set — a mother breastfeeding, a fat old man — instead of the things that would have unsettled a more mature one. Some are just plain disturbing without being funny: there are multiple intimations, for some reason that’s never clear, that Alan is a pedophile. Why would a doctor examine a patient while three total strangers are in the room? Why is a taser to the testicles “funny”? As if it knows, somewhere deep down, that it’s cheating, the movie has Stu insist, “You can’t just tase people because you think it’s funny,” but the movie does it anyway. —MaryAnn Johanson
Imagine That (PG) It’s Eddie Murphy in family-friendly mode, which means you pretty much know exactly what to expect in the event that you unwisely decide to wander into a theater showing Imagine That — a film that has difficulty imaginging much of anything. Murphy plays Evan, a hotshot financial planner and the father of a painfully precocious little girl, Olivia (Yara Shahidi), who’s having issues dealing with her parents’ divorce. Because of this, the only people she’ll listen to are her four imaginary friends. Evan, being the workaholic father he is (see also: Murphy in The Haunted Mansion), mostly just pays attention to his job — until the kid’s fantasized pals start to give him stock tips. Then he begins to pay attention to his daughter and indulge her childhood fantasies. It’s easy to see where this is going, and it quickly turns into a mawkish treatise on the corrupt nature of money, the importance of family, and other obvious life lessons. The bromides are fine and would be a difficult idea to argue with, except that they’re being doled out by the man who made a reported $20 million for The Adventures of Pluto Nash. (Money can’t buy you happiness, but it might buy it for Murphy so give generously.) The real problem is less its implicit hypocrisy than its explicit lack of laughs and charm. That won’t buy you happiness either. —Justin Souther
Limits of Control (R) This movie, starring Isaach De Bankolé as a mysterious and nameless courier, is often meandering and vague. It is disappointingly far from the shaggy grooviness and genuine wit of classic Jarmusch like Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law but true-to-form to newer fare like Broken Flowers and Coffee and Cigarettes. The Limits of Control reads as a kind of meta-crime thriller whose hit man dwells in a permanent state of anticipation: what will he do next? The whole film, which also stars Gael Garcia Bernal, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Hiam Abbass, and Bill Murray, feels purposefully mischievous, intent on denying or stalling our desire for a payoff. The men at the center of such thrillers have often been men alone and adrift in a dangerous, deceptive universe with only their wits to help them. Jim Jarmusch’s fussy exercise suggests a director peeling back the skin of existentialist gangster thrillers to their bare essence and studying them under a microscope. Some will find his excavation intriguing. The rest of us may long for the enticements of meaningful dialogue, character, and story, and a compelling film hero to make it all feel worthwhile. And with the cinema hurting for interesting stories and original voices, it would have been nice if Jarmusch had offered more than a carefully-constructed formalist exercise this time around. —Felicia Feaster
Outrage (NR) I’m not sure I learned anything new from this rundown of the alleged duplicity of some of our leaders and much of the corporate mass media, but this is such a compelling assemblage and summary of information that we could well consider it the definitive word on the matter. The matter is this: Some of the most vehemently anti-gay politicians at work in Washington, D.C. and our state capitals are, Dick claims, themselves gay. But they evidently pretend not be. As for the film’s alleged “outings,” well, the apparent secrets of these men is no secret unless you get your news only from CNN and Fox News. According to Kirby Dick, the furtive sex lives of many of these men have been well documented by investigative reporters, and Outraged seems to provide ample proof of such. It’s not a matter of a single allegation of, say, an airport restroom assignation gone awry. It’s that these men apparently have long histories. And one of the many pointed points of Outrage is this: No one would care who these men may or may not be having sex with except for the matter that these men themselves have made sexuality an issue, especially by helping to foment and maintain an atmosphere in which Teh Gay is Teh Ick. —MaryAnn Johanson
The Proposal (PG-13) The first thing I noticed about The Proposal was that it wasn’t nearly as funny as Sandra Bullock’s last film, the thriller Premonition. The next thing I noticed was that the set-up for the movie — a movie which by definition is already predictable — was the quintessence of tedium. This occurred to me when I saw that less than an hour had passed when I reached the “Surely, this must be nearly over” mark and checked my phone for the time. Fortunately, about the same point that maximum tedium had been reached the combination of Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds actually started to work for me. I can’t say the movie actually got better in any significant way. It was still plodding and predictable, utterly by-the-numbers and lacking in anything even marginally resembling style. But as soon as Bullock’s and Reynolds’ characters started thawing toward each other, both they and the film transformed from being painful and false to being pleasantly human. The high-concept premise — nasty book editor Bullock blackmails assistant Reynolds into marrying her so she doesn’t get deported to her native Canada — is OK, but the development leaves something to be desired — like laughs. The saving grace comes down to Bullock and Reynolds. Do they make it worthwhile? No, not really. What they make it is tolerable. At least that means the film probably won’t do you a permanent injury should you come into contact with it. —Ken Hanke
The Taking of Pelham 123 (R) In Pelham 123, Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber, a New York Transit Authority employee who has the bad luck to be on the other end of radio dispatch when a subway train is hijacked. A guy calling himself Ryder (John Travolta), leading a quartet of gunmen, has given the city one hour to deliver 10 million dollars. While fears of a terrorist attack spread, Garber and Ryder play the kind of cat and mouse game that you get in movies of this kind. The original 1974 version of John Godey’s novel was no masterpiece, but it was a fascinating time capsule of decaying mid-’70s New York City, as well as being ahead of its time as a kind of straightforward, Law & Order-style procedural where nuances of character were utterly wiped away in favor of brute plot mechanics. In screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s version, Garber gets a back-story involving allegations of accepting bribes; Ryder similarly switches from a coldly analytical mercenary to a guy with an axe to grind. More complex characters, better story … right? Not necessarily. As gifted as Washington may be as an actor, he’s almost too charismatic to play the kind of beaten-down bureaucrat demanded by this twist in the character. Ryder becomes an even bigger disaster, because making him a high-strung guy means giving Travolta license to go into hammy-psycho mode. Sometimes, as in something deliriously over-the-top like Face/Off, that persona can work. And then there’s the Travolta of Battlefield Earth, who seems to believe that screen villainy involves as much shrieking as possible. Guess which one cavorts through Pelham 123? —Scott Renshaw
Up (PG) Early in Up — the tenth feature from the cinematic quality machine called Pixar — there is a sequence that distills all of the best that the animation powerhouse brings to filmmaking. After a brief prologue introducing us to a pair of simpatico kids named Carl and Ellie in the 1930s, we watch without a word of dialogue as the childhood friends become sweethearts, then follow them through 50 years of married life. This kind of jaw-dropping, tear-jerking brilliance is what we have come to expect as matter-of-fact, everyday stuff from Pixar. In the present day, Carl (Edward Asner) is now a curmudgeonly septuagenarian, living alone in his house while high-rise development goes on around him. Facing the prospect of life in a retirement home, Carl instead sends a massive cascade of balloons through his chimney, launching the house into the air with a plan to head to the remote South American jungle that was a dream adventure destination for Carl and Ellie. There’s also an unexpected hitchhiker: Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young Wilderness Explorer. But nothing matches the magic of that early sequence, and Carl (voiced by Edward Asner) doesn’t prove to be nearly as interesting or engaging a protagonist once he actually starts talking. Even the visuals are satisfying without really offering a wow factor. Director Pete Docter plays the best material he has at the outset, and as a result he faces the blessing — and curse — of being part of the Pixar legacy: He crafts an enjoyable and at times lovely piece of family-friendly filmmaking, and it still ends up feeling a bit disappointing. —Scott Renshaw
Year One (PG-13) Harold Ramis’ Year One probably sounded like a good idea when pitched to the studio. The only problem is that no one bothered questioning how flimsy a concept parading Jack Black and Michael Cera as cavemen through the Book of Genesis actually was. Not only this, but its Black at his most obnoxious and brash and Cera at his most awkwardly nebbish-ish and painfully twee (in other words, the same character he’s always played). Most of this would seem to be the fault of Ramis. As director, he allowed these two to simply sleepwalk through the movie, pawning off the worst aspects of their screen personas on the audience. As co-writer, he also thought the humor surrounding Black and Cera — an odds-and-ends collection of gross-out gags, sex jokes, gay jokes, and post modern cleverness that never find the right pitch — was funny enough to be fed to the general public. In some ways he was correct, since Black eating bear dung and Cera urinating on himself both got huge laughs at the screening I attended (who says comedy is dead?). But beyond being a compilation of overbearing juvenilia, Year One is pretty worthless. —Justin Souther