Movie Reviews: Armored, Brothers, Everybody's Fine
ACROSS THE HALL Directed by Alex Merkin and adapted by Jesse Mittelstadt from Merkin’s original story, Across the Hall is the feature version of the duo’s 2005 short film of the same name. For the expanded form, they’ve crafted a twisting tale of betrayal in which the terms and limits of both friendship and marriage are tested. Julian (Mike Vogel) is sitting in a bathtub when he receives a phone call from his BFF, Terry (Danny Pino), who’s in a hotel room directly across from the one where Terry’s wife, June (Brittany Murphy), has checked in, presumably to meet another man. Emotionally unhinged and waving a gun, Terry agrees to hold tight until Julian can meet him. Things, of course, go horribly awry. The third act is wonderfully tense, although many of the flashback-heavy plot twists are predictable. The bigger problem is that the first act is full of such plodding line readings (everyone seems to have been directed to speak with maddeningly pregnant pauses) and mannered performances — remember when Brittany Murphy was a delightfully natural screen presence? — that the effect is to distance viewers from what’s happening onscreen. Merkin tries too hard for stylistic flourishes (as the hyper set-designed, claustrophobically seedy hotel underscores) and winds up almost sinking the noir-ish tale he’s telling. (Music Hall) (Ernest Hardy)
ARMORED A crew of working-stiff armored truck personnel decide to lift their own payload with a heist plan that no one would ever attempt outside a first-draft screenplay. Dramatis personae are introduced picking up their ID tag personalities, so that you can care when they’re eventually in harm’s way. (Milo Ventimiglia’s cop informs you that he has a dad; Amaury Nolasco’s gets a ribbing for his Bible.) The camaraderie in the Eagle Shield Transport locker room is strained stuff, despite a capable ensemble cast that includes Matt Dillon and Larry Fishburne — and Jean Reno’s sore-thumb presence as “Quinn,” an obvious bid for Euros. Director Nimród Antal shows the same weakness for augmenting action with swaggering beats that marked his debut, Kontroll (per Dillon’s character: “It looks like you’re overcompensating”), but he settles in once arrived at the film’s set-piece destination: In a gutted factory to divvy up the money — Armored gives a good tour of industrial L.A. — a stand-off results when the new guy on the crew (that’s former dancer-choreographer Columbus Short) gets an attack of conscience. Antal is never much beyond serviceable here, but he does make a chase-duel between two entirely identical armored cars almost decipherable, which is no mean feat. (Citywide) (Nick Pinkerton)
BREAKING POINT You’d figure by this point in cinematic history that there’d already be a low-rent crime thriller starring Tom Berenger and Armand Assante titled Breaking Point. But, no, that honor goes to this anonymously gritty New York drama about Steven Luisi (Berenger), a disgraced former assistant district attorney and recovering addict seeking redemption by defending an accused murderer. Luisi’s path to clearing his client’s name leads him to a dangerous thug (rapper Busta Rhymes) and the crime’s sole witness (Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones), who is also the thug’s onetime henchman and latest target. Corrupt public officials, ghetto kids dreaming of a better life, a flawed hero with a dead daughter on his conscience — there isn’t any cliché that writer Vincent Campanella and director Jeff Celentano don’t treat with stoic reverence. From one perspective, you could say that Breaking Point never steps wrong since its every movement is perfectly (almost comfortingly) predictable. But between Assante’s tough-guy ADA with something to hide and Berenger’s squinty-eyed inner torment, Breaking Point is so dry you may wish it had the good sense to be a campy hoot. The one bright spot is Rhymes’ convincingly scummy performance — all of 50 Cent’s future gangster roles should be reassigned to him. (Sunset 5; Fallbrook 7) (Tim Grierson)
BROTHERS Jim Sheridan’s remake of Danish director Susanne Bier’s 2005 film about the familial and psychic trauma caused by Operation Enduring Freedom feels like Operation Endurance. Marine captain and stalwart head-of-household Sam (Tobey Maguire), married to his high school sweetheart, Grace (Natalie Portman), and proud pop of two adorable daughters, returns to Afghanistan for a fourth tour of duty just a few days after Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), his no-good kid brother, leaves the pokey. Thought dead after his helicopter crashes, Sam survives and is held captive by the Taliban (torture by radical Sunni Muslims has become a specialty of screenwriter David Benioff, who wrote the adaptation of 2007’s The Kite Runner). Tommy mans up, ice-skates with his nieces, renovates his sister-in-law’s kitchen, and gives her a smooch. Sam returns home (New Mexico does double duty as Anonymous Small Town, USA, and Afghanistan), looking and acting more and more like Travis Bickle. Sheridan, repeatedly drawn to family sagas, including his own (2002’s In America, which also featured two cutie-pie little girls), aims for Greek tragedy but ends up with a PTSD melodrama, with Maguire able to produce slobber almost as effortlessly as Portman can summon up tears — essentially all her role calls for. (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson)
EVERYBODY’S FINE Don’t be misled by the cheesy, generic poster for Kirk Jones’ retelling of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Stanno tutti bene, in which a grinning Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore and Kate Beckinsale pose with Robert De Niro for their characters’ family photo in front of a Christmas tree. It’s a marketing department’s feeble feint: The four actors appear onscreen together for only a handful of minutes late in the movie, and it’s no more a Christmas movie than Yentl was. De Niro takes on the role originally played by Marcello Mastroianni: the father who surprise-visits his grown children who couldn’t make it home for a family reunion. But De Niro, whose deadpan is intended to signify emptiness and ache, looks mostly like a somebody doing nothing; Mastroianni’s mustache worked harder than De Niro does here. The visits with his kids are equally inconsequential. So what’s the point of all of this road-tripping to nowhere? That parents’ best intentions often get the better of their children? Sons and daughters keep secrets from their parents? Fathers with blinders on can only pretend to know best? It’s awfully hard to remake Tornatore and Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt at the same time? Robert De Niro’s only good at playing a dad in movies starring Ben Stiller? It’s all so much raging bull. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)
FIFTY DEAD MEN WALKING Canadian writer-director Kari Skogland’s slick, soapy procedural — an unreliable adaptation of former IRA informant Martin McGartland’s best-selling memoir — again proves how easy it is to shamelessly bilk audiences of their empathy with an “inspired by true events” credit. McGartland himself, still in hiding, publicly claimed that the film is “as near to the truth as Earth is to Pluto.” From off the violent streets of Northern Ireland during the late-’80s peak of the Troubles, cocky Belfast hoodlum Martin (Jim Sturgess) is recruited by British Special Branch officer Fergus (Sir Ben Kingsley) to infiltrate the IRA. Unable to tell even his trigger-happy mate (Kevin Zegers) or pregnant girlfriend (Natalie Press) of his thorny situation, Martin is pulled dangerously under the spell of both his new extremist family and his avuncular handler. The private jousting sessions between Sturgess and Kingsley are easily the most compelling moments, though it’s the younger actor’s convincing desperation that pretty much carries the film. The unfitting flashiness and clunky segues between thriller and melodrama kill any real sense of tension, making this a poor man’s Donnie Brasco — that is, if its self-congratulation and failure to contextualize the values on both sides of the ethno-political struggle didn’t already make it the poor man’s Hunger. (Music Hall) (Aaron Hillis)
THE LAST STATION Opening with balalaikas, scurrying agrarians in collarless shirts, and helpful intertitles announcing that Tolstoy was “the most celebrated writer in the world,” The Last Station threatens at first to be Tolstoy for Dummies as interpreted by Monty Python. Soon enough, though, this workmanlike adaptation of Jay Parini’s novel about Tolstoy’s last days, adapted and directed by Michael Hoffman, settles into a lushly scenic television drama, though with dialogue strangely located somewhere in the 1950s. The deal is that old Leo (a suitably grumpy Christopher Plummer) was not nearly as Tolstoyan as his adoring acolytes: Neither veggie nor monk, he was rich as Croesus and a randy old geezer. What’s more, he fought a love-hate war with his bipolar wife, Sonya, and thank God for that, since it allows Helen Mirren, basically playing a cross between Ibsen drama queen Hedda Gabler and the little squirrel from A Doll’s House, to waltz away with the movie. James McAvoy is hopelessly miscast as the naive private secretary who is caught in a war between Sonya, Leo and the savvy image-maker Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) over who will get the copyright to Tolstoy’s work — his family or Mother Russia. The movie is fine, but my heart only stopped for the actual footage at the end, with Tolstoy, encircled by Sonya and entourage, being shown to his deathbed after flying the coop to get a little peace. (The Landmark) (Ella Taylor)
SERIOUS MOONLIGHT Timothy Hutton is duct-taped to the potty, and Meg Ryan is just plain potty in this posthumously produced Adrienne Shelly script directed by first-timer Cheryl Hines (who starred in Shelly’s Waitress in between Curb Your Enthusiasm seasons). Born of the grief-fueled determination of Shelly’s husband, Andy Ostroy, to carry on the legacy of his late wife, who had completed several screenplays by the time of her murder in 2006, Serious Moonlight has a backstory much more intriguingly dramatic than what’s onscreen. When alpha attorney Louise (Ryan) discovers that Ian (Hutton), her husband of 13 years, is about to leave her for 24-year-old receptionist Sara (Kristen Bell), she trusses him up on the toilet of their country house, holding him hostage until he falls in love with her again. Ryan flails and Hutton screams through the powder-room tears and recriminations, performing as if they’re doing dinner theater underwritten by Dr. Phil. The tonally weird black comedy throws in some Funny Games — and creepily echoes the circumstances surrounding Shelly’s murder by a construction worker who broke into her office to rob her — when Justin Long’s local gardener shows up to burglarize the house, roughing up Ian and feeling up Louise. (Sunset 5) (Melissa Anderson)
THE STRIP Could Dave Foley prostitute his talent to amuse any further without actually becoming a prostitute? In a plunging step down from emceeing celebrity poker, Foley provides a recognizable face to Jameel Khan’s picked-over Goodwill bin of workplace comedy, The Strip. Foley’s Glenn is manager of a down-market Radio Shack–type store in a Chicago strip mall (the production design would’ve been truer had the rest of it been left untenanted). Many of the comic episodes are of the “Okay, um, awkward, who’s this guy?” avoiding-eye-contact reaction-shot variety, prevalent in awful NBC sitcoms and television commercials geared toward 18- to 35-year-old white-collar workers, as Glenn impresses weird teamwork exercises on his archetype employees, Horny Loudmouth (“She’s got a bangability Level 9”), Foreign Guy, Stubbly Slacker and Wasted Potential. Indifferently compiled Indie Hitz — The Blow, MGMT, Peter Bjorn & John, Band of Horses — periodically fill the laughless silence that will prevail in any theater where this screens. The latter band accompanied the one funny scene, where the stereotyped emotions reach bathetic boiling point as Wasted Potential and his hideously twee girlfriend run to the beach and throw their shoes in a lake, intended to signify either transcendent liberation or extreme impracticality. (Sunset 5) (Nick Pinkerton)
TRANSYLMANIA Humping the vampire trend, straight-to-DVD director bros David and Scott Hillenbrand get some multiplex action by shoehorning their usual teen-sex farce into a hoary Draxploitation spoof. Won’t audiences be confused if they haven’t followed the antics of these wasted college kids from National Lampoon’s Dorm Daze 1 and 2? Franchise, schmanchise — we’re all gonna get laid! Spending a semester abroad in a Romanian castle that doubles as a rave-ready campus, the usual gaggle of horny losers, potheads, sluts, and “brainy ones” get loaded with silicone-enhanced vamps, a pint-size dean hiding a diabolical scheme to fix his daughter’s humpback, and all the filthy, sleazy locals with ridiculous accents you can stomach. The jokes are mainly of the slamming-your-dick-in-a-laptop variety — think Porky’s with ‘00s references — and predictable innuendos about biting and sucking. There is, however, something surprisingly old-timey about the perfunctory screwball plot points: When a demonic music box is opened, a reawakened sorceress possesses a busty cheerleader; a fratty blowhard is forced to become a vampire hunter after pretending to be one; and the evil Count is an undead ringer for the lead virgin. With stronger actors and real writers, this might’ve been a vintage comedy you could sink your...nope, not going there. (Citywide) (Aaron Hillis)
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