Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Feb. 25 | Film Clips | Creative Loafing Charlotte

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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Feb. 25

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CORALINE Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas was actually Henry Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas, given that it was the latter who actually directed the film. Here, he displays his mastery again, helming an eye-popping animated extravaganza he adapted from Neil Gaiman's best-selling book. Dakota Fanning provides the voice of Coraline, a lonely little girl who discovers an alternate world hidden behind a small door in her family's new house. Initially, life does seem more pleasant on the other side – her alternate parents are hipper, the food is tastier, the entertainment is more dazzling – but it's not long before things take a dark turn, and, with the help of a sage black cat, Coraline soon finds herself fighting for her very soul. The visual scheme – as with Nightmare, stop-motion animation is the order of the day – is remarkable enough in any dimension, but do make an effort to catch the film in one of its 3-D presentations. ***1/2

GRAN TORINO It's not necessary to be familiar with Clint Eastwood's career arc to enjoy Gran Torino, but it does amplify the appreciation for the manner in which the topic of violence is approached. From the glorified gun battles in the Dirty Harry franchise to the ruminations about the impact of taking a man's life in Unforgiven, Eastwood has clearly given much thought to the subject. To describe how he has continued to modify his beliefs would spoil the film's ending, but suffice to say that his character, Walt Kowalski, is no stranger to killing. A Korean War vet, Walt lives in a Detroit neighborhood in which he's clearly in the minority. Surrounded by Asians, African-Americans and Latinos, he's an unrepentant racist, although he doesn't have much use for his own kind, either: Caring little for his two grown sons and their families, he prefers the company of his faithful dog and his prized 1972 Gran Torino. But his shell of indifference begins to crack once he comes into reluctant contact with the two Hmong teens (appealing newcomers Bee Vang and Ahney Her) who live next door. Dismissed in some camps as merely a simplistic rift on racism, this is far more complicated than that, not only in its aforementioned exploration of violence but also in its affecting look at a rigid individual who comes to realize that the world has moved on without him. The picture does have its weak spots (for starters, Walt's family members are cartoonish in the extreme), but there's no quibbling over Eastwood's performance, which ranks as one of the finest of his career. If this marks his final acting turn (as he's hinted), he's managed to go out, appropriately enough, with a bang. ***

HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU / NEW IN TOWN A romantic comedy (New in Town) and a romantic comedy-drama (He's Just Not That Into You) would seem like perfect fare to entice openhearted women and their agreeable mates, but to quote my girlfriend after she watched these duds alongside me, "These movies are where feminism goes to die." The long-on-the-shelf He's Just Not That Into You is the better of the two, simply by virtue of a couple of choice performances and a few minor twists in its multitentacled storyline. Otherwise, it's a muddled he-said-she-said yarn that, even in this supposedly enlightened age, manages to reduce most of its characters (male and female) to the most base stereotypes. Based on the bestseller by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, it centers on nine Baltimore residents all looking for love or sex or some combination thereof. Unfortunately, most of these characters are either self-centered dipshits (e.g. Justin Long's emotionless player, Bradley Cooper's philandering husband) or emotional retards (Ginnifer Goodwin's whiny nerd, Jennifer Aniston's marriage-manipulating girlfriend). Jennifer Connelly (as Cooper's patient wife) and Ben Affleck (as Aniston's devoted boyfriend) arguably fare best, though that probably has as much to do with their characters (more tolerable than the rest) as with their performances. New in Town, meanwhile, is absolute rubbish, the sort of inane rom-com drivel that Hollywood recycles on a regular basis. Basically a rip-off of every city-slicker-stuck-in-a-rural-town flick ever made (Baby Boom, Doc Hollywood, The Efficiency Expert, Sweet Home Alabama, and on and on and on), this stars Renee Zellweger as a high-powered Miami executive who's sent by her corporation to evaluate the situation at its Minnesota plant and get started on eliminating half of its work force. Naturally, this well-schooled, well-scrubbed, hot-weather gal has nothing but contempt for the friendly hayseeds dumb enough to live in such a barren land, but after spending a couple of nights with a shaggy union leader (Harry Connick Jr.) and spending half the movie being force-fed tapioca pudding by one of the local Jesus freaks (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), our girl has a change of heart and decides Red State principles are worth fighting for after all. In this age of rampant layoffs, it would seem the right time for a movie to present an inspirational, fairy-tale alternative to the real world, but New in Town is so imbecilic on so many levels that it deserves only derision. It's insulting toward small towns, large cities, Christians, nonbelievers, men, women, and – most of all – moviegoers of all stripes. He's Just Not That Into You: *1/2 / New in Town: *

THE INTERNATIONAL The International is an action flick with smarts, but that's not to say the brain and the brawn always coexist easily. Clive Owen stars as an Interpol agent who, with the help of a New York assistant D.A. (Naomi Watts), tries to bring down a banking institution that's long been involved in illegal activities on a global scale (backing coups, purchasing weapons, that sort of thing). Although loosely based on a real-life scandal, The International adheres more to cinematic conspiracy-theory conventions, thus emerging as a pale shadow of such great works in the same mold as The Parallax View and The Manchurian Candidate. Still, director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) keeps the film moving (Run Clive Run would have been an acceptance title, given how much mileage Tykwer gets out of his star), and there's one spectacular (if overlong) shootout at the Guggenheim Museum that's alone worth the admission price. **1/2

I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG Don't let the Harlequin Romance title fool you: The French import I've Loved You So Long is a potent drama that steers clear of undue sentimentality and forced bathos, relying almost exclusively on two strong central performances to stir up audience awareness and emotion. Kristin Scott Thomas plays a former doctor who's just been released from prison after serving a lengthy sentence for murder. She moves in with her younger sister (Elsa Zylberstein) and her family, and immediately sets about trying to find a job. But no one feels comfortable around her – more so after they learn the shocking nature of her crime – and she finds life on the outside a struggle. Still, its harshness is nothing compared to her inner turmoil, and it might be up to her sibling to save her from herself. Both actresses are remarkable in a thoughtful film that's ultimately about the necessity of coming to peace with oneself. ***

MILK The China Syndrome, Wall Street and even Casablanca are examples of movies that happened to be in the right place at the right time – that is to say, life imitated art (or vice versa) as each picture's release neatly dovetailed with real-life incidents that in one way or another mirrored what was happening on-screen. Milk follows suit: Although it's set in the 1970s, it couldn't possibly be more relevant; for that, we have to blame those hideous anti-gay measures that recently passed in California, Florida, Arkansas and Arizona. Back in the '70s, Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn) fought against similar hysteria: Tired of homosexuals such as himself being treated as second-class citizens, he found himself drawn to political office as a way in which to fight for equality. Eventually elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he continued to grow in stature and influence, a career ascendancy which did not sit well with Dan White (Josh Brolin), the board's most conservative member – and, as it turned out, its most trigger-happy. The Oscar-winning 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk offered a flawless look at the career of this passionate progressive, so it's a testament to the richness of Gus Van Sant's direction and Dustin Lance Black's screenplay that this fictionalized version feels authentic in its every movement. As Milk, Penn delivers the performance of his career, and he's backed by a superlative cast containing only one weak link: Diego Luna as Milk's insecure lover, Jack Lira (James Franco fares much better as Harvey's previous lover, Scott Smith). But this is a small misstep in an otherwise excellent production full of passion and purpose. ****

PUSH If Push comes to shove, then the only sound advice is to stay away from the theater and re-watch X-Men on DVD. Certainly, that's an infinitely superior mutant movie, yet don't think Push's plagiarism ends there: It's almost a given that the pitch meeting found the film's creators, uh, pushing the picture by declaring, "It's X-Men meets Jumper meets Heroes meets The Matrix!" Had they any sense of integrity, they would have ended the sentence by adding, "Only not very exciting or enjoyable!" In short, here's another sci-fi muddle that never breaks out of its geekspeak ghetto, with David Bourla contributing an overly busy screenplay that doesn't always come together and Paul McGuigan providing draggy direction that takes this far past the point of audience involvement. Set in Hong Kong, the film centers on the Division, a U.S. government branch whose members are tasked with seeking out folks with psychic abilities and either recruiting them or (if that fails) killing them. These psychics have different powers, which places them into one of several different categories: Pushers, Watchers, Movers (but, alas, no Shakers), Bleeders, etc. Nick (Chris Evans), a Mover, has tried to maintain a low profile, but once Cassie (Dakota Fanning), a teenage Watcher, shows up and insists he help her find Kira (stiff Camilla Belle), a Pusher who holds the answer to taking down the Division, all hell breaks loose, as Division agents (led by Djimon Hounsou as a suave Pusher) and evil Asian psychics try to take them down. Some interesting ideas soon get buried under a jumbled narrative, a choppy shooting style and an unflattering visual scheme – all of which combine to make viewers feel as if they're watching a movie from inside a spinning clothes dryer. **

THE READER The Reader, adapted from Bernhard Schlink's bestseller, arrives with all the obvious trappings of a year-end "prestige" picture. But since more time is spent exposing the milky white breasts of Kate Winslet than exposing the horrors of the Holocaust, viewers might be forgiven for thinking they stumbled into a big-budget remake of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. Winslet's Hannah Schmitz is a streetcar conductor in post-WWII Germany who enters into an affair with 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross); as a form of sexual foreplay, she likes him to read to her from the classics. She soon drops out of his life, and it isn't until a few years later, while he's attending college, that she reappears – as a former Nazi guard on trial for the atrocities she allegedly committed during the war. The Reader is a thorny story, and its failing isn't because it elects to answer key questions about its characters in shocking fashion – after all, many great movies are about less-than-admirable figures – but because it waves off these revelations with all the impatience of a restaurant patron shooing away a waiter attempting to remove the soup bowl before it's drained. At first glance, the movie's shifts through time periods (Ralph Fiennes is suitably moody as the older, troubled Michael) keeps us on our toes, but they eventually reveal themselves to be gimmicky to the point of distraction. The picture does head toward a major secret, but I wasn't sure if the answer to this mystery was supposed to provide insight or shift our sympathies or what exactly. All it does is reveal that, despite Winslet's strong performance, Hannah isn't really worthy of our attention – or perhaps even this movie. **1/2

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD This reunites Titanic stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and they're both exceptional in this adaptation of Richard Yates' novel. Whether the film itself will satisfy moviegoers expecting to see the pair again in the throes of starry-eyed passion is another matter, since romance is kept at a minimum in this edgy drama, a must-see for adults who don't mind getting their hands dirty on messy emotions. Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winning director of American Beauty, has made another American beauty, this one a powerful examination of a young couple trying to deal with the plasticity of 1950s suburbia. Set in Connecticut, the story (adapted by Justin Haythe) concerns itself with Frank and April Wheeler, who view themselves as being different from everyone else in their pristine neighborhood. But time spent toiling away within the boundaries of the so-called American dream quickly takes its toll, so in an effort to revitalize their dreams as well as salvage their marriage, April suggests that they move to Paris and start a new life. Flush with excitement, the couple start to make plans, only to find that old routines – no matter how detested – die hard. Those with a willingness for navel-gazing will be receptive to this material far more than those who prefer to keep blinders fully attached, but there's no denying that Mendes and company have created an unsettling piece that gets under the skin. "You jump, I jump," the lovers in Titanic told each other. Here, the two aren't as united, each standing on the brink of uncertainty, peering into the dark abyss of an unknown future, and trying not to tumble into the chilly depths of American ennui. ***1/2

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE I'm not sure how a film in which a small boy gets blinded by someone deliberately pouring hot liquid onto his eyeballs while he's unconscious ends up being hyped as the "feel-good" movie of the year, but that's the story with Slumdog Millionaire. The modern-day sequences find lanky, likable Jamal (Dev Patel) working his way through the questions on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Jamal has coped with poverty all of his life, and it's his unlikely ascension that has the entire nation rooting for him. But Jamal isn't doing this for money; he's doing it for the love of beautiful Latika (Freida Pinto), who, as we see in ample flashbacks, grew up on the streets alongside Jamal and his hotheaded brother Salim (Madhur Mittal). Initially, the movie's structure is ingenious in how it feeds on incidents from Jamal's past to allow him to get the right answers on the TV game show, in effect suggesting that what's most important in this life is what we learn firsthand. As for the sequences revolving around the characters' rough childhoods, they're refreshingly raw and uncompromising, a cross between Charles Dickens and City of God. It's a shame, then, that director Danny Boyle and scripter Simon Beaufoy toss aside all innovation in order to bind the final half-hour into a straightjacket of rigid formula plotting. The boy-finds-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-tries-to-save-girl angle is flaccid enough, although it's the arc involving bad bro Salim that's especially groan-worthy. Still, three-quarters of a stellar movie is nothing to sneer at, meaning that those who take a chance on Slumdog Millionaire will get their money's worth. ***

TAKEN Moral ambiguity seems to be the order of the day in most of modern cinema (recent examples include Body of Lies, Traitor, The Dark Knight, and even Gran Torino), but for purely cathartic purposes, there's still something to be said about films – competent ones, mind you – in which the line between Good and Evil is drawn oh-so-clearly in the sand. Take Taken, which operates on a very simple premise: Scumbags kidnap Liam Neeson's daughter; Liam Neeson fucks them up good. That's all the plot needed for this lightning-quick (91 minutes, and not a second over) action yarn in which Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative who took early retirement in order to live close to his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Bryan's frosty ex-wife (Famke Janssen) approves of their child traveling unsupervised with a friend (Katie Cassidy) to Paris for a vacation, but the overprotective Bryan doesn't like the idea and only reluctantly signs off on it for the sake of Kim's happiness. But it turns out that father knows best after all: Within hours of their arrival, the two American teens are kidnapped by an Albanian organization that turns young women into prostitutes and sex slaves. Bryan immediately springs into action, jetting off to Paris and employing his ample CIA training to locate his missing daughter. The film's PG-13 rating means that punches are pulled in more ways than one, and the script by Robert Mark Kamen and Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) disappointingly turns Bryan from an ordinary man with highly specialized skills in the early going into a James Bond knockoff by the third act. But Pierre Morel directs crisply and efficiently, and Neeson delivers a typically compelling performance in (for him) an atypically muscle-bound role. ***

THE WRESTLER Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was quite the big deal in the wrestling world back in the 1980s. But now he's long past his glory days: Looking more like a sack of potatoes than a human being, he still manages to secure an occasional bout, but things are so tight that he has to work a second job at the local supermarket. Two decades of hard partying have wiped him out, and if he has any emotional reservoirs to tap, he wants to save them for the two women in his life: a sympathetic stripper (an excellent Marisa Tomei) and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). On paper, The Wrestler sounds like nothing more than yet another inspirational sports saga – a Rocky reconfigured for the wrestling rather than boxing arena. But Robert Siegel's screenplay fleshes out the basic storylines in unique ways, and director Darren Aronofsky and Rourke add a rich palette to the proceedings, resulting in a movie that's frequently as colorful as it is meaningful. For despite the constant hype about Rourke's tremendous performance, it would be wrong to think that this is simply a one-man show. On the contrary, The Wrestler examines not just one individual's life but also the presence of the sort of hazy nostalgia that keeps our celebrities propped up long after their achievements have given out from under them. Beyond that, it also lines up nicely with my only other four-star pictures of 2008, collectively presenting a portrait of the uncertain, often unhappy America in which we presently reside. If Milk touches on America's prejudices and The Dark Knight examines America's fears, then The Wrestler explores America's regrets, offering a rueful look at society on the fringe. ****


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