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BLINDNESS After the back-to-back helming of two excellent motion pictures – City of God and The Constant Gardener – Fernando Meirelles now goes for the gold (Oscar?) with his adaptation of Jose Saramago's Nobel Prize-winning novel Blindness. In this film's unnamed city (the country and characters similarly go unnamed), the disaster is a lack of vision that affects a significant number of citizens. Since it's not what we assume to be normal blindness – the victims state that all they see is white, not black – the afflicted are quarantined. One of those infected is a doctor (Mark Ruffalo), who's then ordered to a containment facility that will soon be harboring others who have been struck blind. The doctor's wife (Julianne Moore) still retains her eyesight, but not wanting to be apart from her husband, she feigns blindness in order to travel with him. In a variation on the theme that "in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," the wife turns out to be a powerful figure in the ward, as her vision allows her to better help those around her. Given the material's expansive canvas, the film ultimately feels too claustrophobic in its scope, and while I imagine the source material (which I haven't read) manages to draw up some interesting parallels between the disease and our society's inability to "see" what's around us, the film merely operates on one plateau, drawing more commonplace comparisons to other literary sources like Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm. Despite strong performances and a few compelling scenarios, it's plain to see that Blindness doesn't quite measure up to expectations. **1/2

BURN AFTER READING As is the case with most great filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen produce only two classifications of pictures. There's Major Coen, like No Country for Old Men and Fargo, and there's Minor Coen, such as Intolerable Cruelty and The Big Lebowski. (And then there's the strange case of Raising Arizona, which looks Minor but is Major every step of the way.) Burn After Reading is decidedly Minor Coen, which means that it's still more enjoyable than a lot of the product out there. With George Clooney and Brad Pitt in full-on clown mode, the film feels as much of an insignificant riff as those Ocean heist flicks, but with the Coens at the helm, it features a pitch-black comic sensibility that will either attract or repel moviegoers. The memoirs of a recently fired CIA wonk (John Malkovich) accidentally fall into the hands of a pair of idiotic gym employees (Pitt and Frances McDormand). Their awkward attempts at blackmail produce a vortex of misunderstandings that also ensnares the ex-CIA suit's aloof wife (Tilda Swinton) and her lover (Clooney), a bundle of energy who enjoys jogging, womanizing and building stuff in his basement (his creation yields one of the film's biggest laughs and will be at the top of most women's Christmas wish lists). The three guys are more fun to watch than the two gals, although the film is stolen by J.K. Simmons (Juno's dad) as a thoroughly confused CIA bigwig. Still, while the picture offers strikingly off-kilter characterizations and a number of huge guffaws, it won't remain in the memory like most of the siblings' output. See Burn After Reading, but then expect to Forget After Seeing. ***

THE DUCHESS A substantial number of British costume dramas focus on the efforts of a corseted beauty to land a husband to call her own. These tales generally end on a "Happily Ever After" note, but The Duchess, based on a true story, begins where the others end and takes matters down a darker route: What if the man you snag turns out to be a complete lout? Keira Knightley stars as Georgiana, who, as a teenage girl in 1774, is entered into a marriage with the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes). She soon discovers that the Duke's only interest in her is that she produce a male heir, so after she gives birth to a couple of girls, he loses complete interest and embarks on an affair with her best friend, Lady Elizabeth (Hayley Atwell). For her part, Georgiana keeps busy in her role as a society trendsetter, but she eventually finds herself contemplating an illicit romance with rising politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). The Duke commits some monstrous acts during the course of the film, but it's a credit to the performance by Fiennes that the character never emerges as a dull, one-note villain but rather an emotionally stifled man whose Neanderthal brain can't quite grasp certain aspects of civility and respect. Likewise, Lady Elizabeth is revealed as far more than merely a spouse-stealer, and Atwell does an exemplary job of insuring her character remains the tenuous connective tissue between the Duke and the Duchess. As for Knightley, she's establishing herself as England's go-to girl for this sort of period epic: A bright and sunny presence in Pride and Prejudice, she's given greater depths to explore in this picture. She doesn't disappoint. ***

EAGLE EYE The peril of encroaching technology has been a cinematic mainstay at least since Stanley Kubrick allowed HAL to temporarily get the upper hand in 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey (film purists can feel free to go even further back, to Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis), but rarely has this intriguing concept been presented as daftly as in Eagle Eye. Executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, this tiresome action yarn finds slacker Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf) and single mom Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan) drawn into what appears to be a terrorist strike against the United States. Initially strangers, they find themselves working together after each one receives threatening phone calls from a woman who orders them to carry out her instructions ... or else. The caller seemingly has control over every electronic device in sight, as she's able to manipulate traffic lights, power lines, subway cars and cell phones. Even allowing for the big twist that reveals the villain's identity, this requires a greater suspension of disbelief than might be humanly possible. If Jerry perishes during the course of his misadventures, then the assignment's a bust, yet the caller repeatedly places him in death-defying situations (I especially liked his leap-before-you-look jump from a speeding train). A faster running time might have helped us overlook the gaping idiocies, but the film is packed with repetitive – and poorly edited – vehicular chases that bloat this to a punishing two hours. But pay heed to the movie's warning: Technological advancements might indeed become a concern in the future, especially if they allow for greater mass production of duds like this one. *1/2

GHOST TOWN Given the dearth of quality romantic comedies produced by the major studios – these days, it's up to the independent outfits to provide them – it's a pleasant surprise to discover that Ghost Town manages to buck the odds. Certainly, the high-concept storyline makes it sound rather dreary: Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais), a dour dentist who avoids interacting with people at all costs, suddenly finds himself surrounded by dead people. That's because he himself died for seven minutes while undergoing a routine colonoscopy, and this established an open line of communication with restless ghosts still hovering around Manhattan. Chief among them is Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), who demands that Bertram prevent his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) from marrying a human rights lawyer (Billy Campbell). Ghost Town is given a significant boost by the presence of Gervais, whose caustic wit and no-nonsense demeanor provide the picture with more of an edge than it would have received with a more conventional leading man at the helm. But the picture surprises in other ways as well, thanks to unexpected tweaks in the script co-written by John Kamps and director David Koepp. Kinnear's ethereal hubby isn't exactly the dashing nice guy he initially seems, while the emotionally torn widow played by Leoni (who really needs to appear in more movies) isn't just a pawn to be moved around by the three men in her life but instead takes control of the situations presented before her. Charming and unassuming, Ghost Town offers enough in the way of laughs to raise anyone's spirits. ***

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA There's a scene in Miracle at St. Anna in which a light bulb mysteriously flickers back to life, and it feels as if director Spike Lee is paying tribute to whimsical Italian maestro Federico Fellini. Alas, that moment passes, and it no longer becomes clear exactly what Lee is honoring with this baffling motion picture. Certainly, Lee wants to pay tribute to the black soldiers who served this country during World War II, but a more linear narrative might have helped him accomplish that goal. This turns out to be a clusterfuck of good intentions crossed with clunky storytelling, opening and closing with a contemporary (read: 1983) framework that's supposed to infuse the story with a heady mystery but only adds unnecessary clutter to the 150-minute film. The flashback portion of the movie finds four African-American soldiers (Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso and Omar Benson Miller) stranded in a Tuscan village in Nazi-occupied territory. The quartet take it upon themselves to protect the locals, leading to underdeveloped storylines involving Italian partisans, supernatural intervention and, worst of all, an ongoing feud between two of the men as they vie for the attention of a shapely villager (Valentina Cervi, trapped in an impossible madonna/whore role). Despite his personal commitment to the material, Lee rarely blesses this picture with his trademark style, an expression of cinematic prowess that enlivens even his clunkiest films. On the contrary, there's no moviemaking miracle at work here, just a half-baked project that might be Lee's biggest disappointment to date. **

NIGHTS IN RODANTHE Diane Lane and the Tuscan countryside prove to be a more dynamic duo than Diane Lane and the Outer Banks, an assertion that immediately becomes clear when placing Under the Tuscan Sun and Nights in Rodanthe side by side. The former made the most of its setting and its star, resulting in a winning romantic comedy whose love-struck spirit rubbed off on audience members eager to lap up its sense of joie de vivre. The coastal-Carolina-shot Rodanthe, on the other hand, starts off well as Tuscan Sun's more serious-minded cousin, but it eventually sinks under the weight of the shameless plot devices thrust upon it by author Nicholas Sparks and adapters Ann Peacock and John Romano. Lane, teaming with Richard Gere for the third time (following 1984's The Cotton Club and 2002's Unfaithful), plays Adrienne Willis, who agrees to look after her best friend's (Viola Davis) beachfront inn at the same time that her philandering husband (Christopher Meloni) is begging her to let him come back. Gere co-stars as Paul Flanner, a doctor brooding over a minor surgery procedure that went tragically wrong. As the only two people stuck at the inn, Adrienne and Paul open up to each other and gradually fall in love. For a while, Nights in Rodanthe works as a mature and even touching drama, but then the melodramatic devices take over with the force of a hurricane. And speaking of hurricane, the second-act emergence of this force of nature is but one of the hoary aspects that sink the production, along with a sour twist that is as expected as it is defeatist. **

TOWELHEAD As Towelhead opens, a 13-year-old Arab-American girl named Jasira (played by Summer Bishil, 19 at the time of shooting) is living with a dim-bulb mom (Maria Bello) who ends up shipping her off to live with her humorless Lebanese dad (Peter Macdissi) in a tidy Texas suburb. As if dealing with his strict rules isn't bad enough, she also has to contend with the lecherous advances of one of the neighbors (Aaron Eckhart), a bigoted army reservist who finds himself drawn to this jailbait. A string of incidents – the reservist's hands-on actions, her first period, the erotic charge from looking through adult magazines, romance (and more) with a schoolmate (Eugene Jones) – leaves poor Jasira in a confused and vulnerable state, and the only neighbors who seem concerned for her welfare are a pregnant woman (Toni Collette) and her husband (Matt Letscher). Needless to say, any movie that explores the sexual awakening of a teenage girl in such depth is going to be subject to microscopic scrutiny and potential charges of exploitation, but Towelhead, based on the novel by Alicia Erian, deftly sidesteps the muckraking and instead serves up an affecting drama about a lovely child who can't seem to catch a break from most of the adults surrounding her. Yes, it's unremittingly downbeat for stretches at a time, but the movie is made palpable by the understated direction by Alan Ball (creator of TV's Six Feet Under) and the central performance by Bishil, a relative newcomer who seems to have shed the Nickelodeon/Disney Channel spots that until now have served as her bread and butter. ***

THE WOMEN The 1939 screen version of The Women, based on Clare Booth Luce's play and helmed by "woman's director" George Cukor, has been refashioned as a Sex and the City wanna-be, in the process losing the smoldering conflicts and zesty subplots of its classic predecessor. In that version, Norma Shearer's angelic society woman had to decide whether to stay married to a husband who dared to dally with Joan Crawford's skanky shopgirl. With nary a male in sight but an all-female-cast to die for (Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine were also part of the ensemble), the picture examined females as complicated beings forced to simultaneously respond to social duties, duplicitous acquaintances, and the demands of their own independent hearts. Predictably, this new version opens with a nod toward modern materialism and then proceeds to offer contemporary stereotypes rather than memorable individuals. Here, everything has been smoothed out to the point of tepidity: Eva Mendes (as the hubby-swiper) is merely naughty where Crawford was lethal, and Russell's role as a backstabbing "frenemy" has been transformed into Annette Bening's tough-yet-tender magazine editor. Meanwhile, Meg Ryan (as the jilted spouse) doesn't stray too far from her established screen persona, while Jada Pinkett Smith's casting in a worthless role (cut it, and the film doesn't change) demonstrates that writer-director Diane English was more interested in covering all demographics (black and lesbian, in the case of Smith and her character) than in making any salient points about 21st-century girl power. **

OPENS FRIDAY, OCTOBER 17:

MAX PAYNE: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis.

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES: Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah.

SEX DRIVE: Josh Zuckerman, Amanda Crew.

W.: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks.


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