Movie Reviews: Stolen, Severe Clear, The Bounty Hunter, The Killing Jar
THE BOUNTY HUNTER You've followed their packaged romance in the supermarket checkout Christine Baranski — now see the movie. Jennifer Aniston's hair plays a New York Daily News crime reporter who stumbles onto corruption at the precinct house. Gerard Butler's scowl plays her ex, a former policeman now working as a bounty hunter. For reasons that don't matter, she misses a court date, and he pursues her — for the $5,000 reward, he says, not love — to Atlantic City. Also in pursuit are a dirty cop, a couple of thugs dispatched by Butler's bookie and Aniston's colleague (Jason Sudeikis), who has a crush on her, plus an even deeper love for pastel V-neck sweater vests. Produced by the team behind Sweet Home Alabama, The Bounty Hunter embraces every stereotype about bickering, mismatched couples: He's the slovenly lout with a bruised heart; she's the Type-A career woman, wearing the skimpiest outfit and highest heels in the newsroom — yet something's missing from her life. That he has to arrest her for them to confront their feelings isn't a bad screwball premise, but the script has all the spunk of Ikea-bookcase assembly instructions. The Bounty Hunter is a no less flimsy a product (though if you removed the two stars — with zero chemistry between them — matters would be greatly improved. Besides Sudeikis, there are small, enjoyable bits from Jeff Garlin, Siobhan Fallon Hogan and Christine Baranski). On the soundtrack, Jerry Reed sings "She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)." Viewers will know exactly the same feeling. (Brian Miller) (Citywide)
CITY ISLAND Everyone in the Rizzo family has something to hide: Paterfamilias Vince (Andy Garcia) works as a corrections officer but sneaks off for acting lessons; legal-secretary matriarch Joyce (Julianna Margulies) makes out with Tony (Steven Strait), the ex-con Vince has invited to live with them in the Bronx fishing village of the film's title; daughter Vivian (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Andy's kid) lost her college scholarship and now strips; and teen Vince Jr. (Afterschool's Ezra Miller) chases chubbies. The secrets and lies overstuff the plot — a thread involving Vince and a fellow thesp hopeful played by Emily Mortimer is especially superfluous — and sets up too many misunderstandings played for laughs, culminating in the usual tidy conclusion of forgiveness and acceptance. But writer-director Raymond De Felitta (2000's Two Family House) keeps his comedy of dysfunction afloat with sharp specifics: "I went to Oneonta," Joyce protests at the dinner table after Vince warns his kids of the dead-end future of those who are B.A.-less, like Mom and Dad. An affectionate portrait of a lower-middle-class, outer-borough clan, City Island works best as an actor's showcase, with Margulies' aggrieved, simmering wife the standout. Though his accent is inconsistent, Garcia fully explores the corrosive consequences of having to conceal a dog-eared copy of An Actor Prepares in the bathroom. (Melissa Anderson) (Citywide)
DIARY OF A WIMPY KID With stick figures and crisply funny journal entries, Jeff Kinney's cartoon series breathed fresh life into pre-teen lit's most exhausted trope — the twisted tribal etiquette of middle school. Screenwriters Jackie and Jeff Filgo's respect for Kinney's sharply observant dialogue is the chief virtue of this fairly capable screen version. But the transition to live action is, stylistically, a trip to the ordinary in the hands of director Thor Freudenthal (though it's still a step up from his excruciating Hotel for Dogs). For Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), a flawed wiseguy cursed with small stature and an inflated view of his own gifts, middle school is an endless obstacle race against his shortcomings, as well as big bullies, more evolved girls, and stray boogers, not to mention a slice of cootie-ridden cheese festering in the schoolyard. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is sweet and funny at either end, but in between, it sags with endless repetition of gross bodily functions and Greg's torment at the hands of larger, angrier or more popular kids — in that order. Robert Capron is pure joy as the fat best friend who knows who he is, enjoys life and practices loyalty by instinct. (Ella Taylor) (Citywide)
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO Essentially a locked-room mystery with lashings of gore and sexual brutality, Stieg Larsson's novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo disguised the simplicity of its narrative by embedding it within an almost Balzacian depiction of Swedish society, warts and all (but mainly warts). Niels Arden Oplev's adaptation relies more on the mystery but has two complex, compelling leads driving its story. Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist), a disgraced investigative journalist, is asked by industrialist Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to investigate the disappearance of his niece from a family reunion 40 years ago. A finite number of suspects emerges, mostly members of Vanger's hugely dysfunctional dynasty: aged Swedish Nazis, venal, old aunts, creepy brothers and cousins. Blomqvist teams with Lisbeth Salander, who is the true star of Larsson's books, a state-raised, quasi-autistic computer hacker with a horrifying past and an alarmingly black-and-white sense of morality. Played by Noomi Rapace — the real discovery here — Salander is a walking time bomb of injuries and resentments. Together they disinter the Vanger family's grotesque secrets, while somebody — a still-active serial sex-murderer, perhaps? — uses increasingly violent methods to try to stop them. An elegant contraction of the novel, discarding Blomqvist's sexual bravado and thus saving Larsson from his own worst tendencies, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may be a shallower experience than the book, but it has a headlong velocity all its own. Catch it before the inevitable U.S. remake. (John Patterson) (Landmark, Playhouse, Town Center)
HUBBLE 3-D NASA's famous space telescope was carried by shuttle into Earth's orbit 20 years ago next month, and within weeks of that launch it was discovered that this huge and hugely expensive bastard had a flawed optical system — Hubble was a real lemon. If there's one thing that Space Station 3-D producer/director Toni Myers' new IMAX doc about the Hubble achieves, it's making audiences feel like insignificant specks in the universe, as when "zooming in" to the tiny, newly forming galaxies hiding in the gaseous clouds of each star in Orion's Belt. More futility may be found in the film's primary agenda, a first-person snapshot of 2009's final rescue mission, in which seven astronauts risked their necks to fix the telescope manually, making it the most dangerous job in tech-support history. Even at 43 minutes short, with earnest but marketable narration by Leonardo DiCaprio and one amusing zero-gravity taco-preparation scene, Hubble 3-D's perilous endeavors are about as thrilling to watch as plumbers snaking a drain ... in space suits! If you want an eye-popping cosmic epic, rent Star Trek. If you want interactivity, take the kids to the planetarium. (Aaron Hillis) (Citywide)
THE KILLING JAR When a filmmaker sets a group of innocents in a dead-end restaurant and has them terrorized by a crazed gunman, it's probably not his goal to have viewers think, "Just fucking shoot everyone." But the flesh bearers in writer-director Mark Young's The Killing Jar (it's too big a stretch to actually call them characters) are by and large either gratingly stupid or insufferably one-dimensional. There's no reason for them to live, and Young gives you no reason to care. It's just before closing in a small-town café in which a handful of yokel locals (the sheriff being the biggest dunce of all) are polishing off remnants of their meals. The radio ominously broadcasts the news that in a nearby town an entire family has been brutally murdered, and the assailant is on the loose. Two men enter the establishment shortly after, one of them played by Michael Madsen. Can you guess which is psycho? The film has no pulse and feels interminable, with its stilted dialogue, static staging and usually fine actors who are horrendous here — Amber Benson is all moist-eyed empathy as the waitress, while Madsen is laughably bad, dredging his dialogue up with much volume but transparent (and completely understandable) indifference to everything around him. (Ernest Hardy) (Beverly Center)
NEIL YOUNG: TRUNK SHOW In contrast to 2006's amber-lit, prayerful Neil Young: Heart of Gold, a stately acoustic set at Nashville's tradition-rich Ryman Auditorium, Trunk Show, the second in Jonathan Demme's planned trilogy of Young-in-concert movies, is a slapdash job — endearingly so. The stage dressing looks, well, like backstage. Young, in a paint-spackled button-up, resembles an aging action painter, and scrambles around like one. Demme rolls together two sets from 2007's Chrome Dreams II tour, shot outside Philadelphia, into an 83-minute package. About 20 of those go to Young and looongtime band mates beating the hell out of "No Hidden Path," until the tenacious comeback riff finally gives up the ghost. The set juggles between acoustic and electric, with Young taking breaks at piano ("A Man Needs a Maid") and banjo ("Mellow My Mind"). Action is mostly covered with handheld cameras, usually in close-up while Young's on the mike, making the most gruesome delivery-face outside of MLB pitchers and porn actors. Removing even stage banter, the focus is entirely on performance, save for a few "candid backstage" bits — Young having a cracked nail filed down, etc. Devotees will thrill to rarities like "Kansas" and "Mexico." The unconverted will go see The Bounty Hunter instead — and have significantly worse lives. (Nick Pinkerton) (Nuart)
PRODIGAL SONS Kimberly Reed was born Paul McKerrow in Helena, Montana, the middle of three sons; then, he was the high school quarterback and voted Most Likely to Succeed. Returning to Big Sky Country in 2005 for her 20th high school reunion, Reed finds most of her classmates unfazed by her new gender; the real conflict is between the blond, willowy filmmaker and her adopted older brother, Marc — fat, balding and prone to paroxysms of rage brought on by a head injury at age 21. As with most fam-cam documentaries, dysfunction pushes the story along, tipping over into exploitation. Despite a fascinating midpoint revelation — seeking information about his biological parents — Marc discovers he's the grandson of Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles (Marc most resembles Welles' Touch of Evil character, Hank Quinlan) — Reed spends too much time capturing her sibling's terrifying outbursts, devoting the film's final act almost exclusively to his increasingly abject circumstances. "I felt like Marc would have given anything to be the man I would have given anything not to be," Reed says at one point — an intriguing line of inquiry that remains underexplored in lieu of shattered glass, choke holds, 911 calls and prison visits. (Melissa Anderson) (Citywide)
THE RED BARON Academy Award season may finally be over, but if you're still craving Oscar bait, The Red Baron will appeal to those with a weakness for stuffy, lavish period biopics. Writer-director Nikolai Muellerschoen chronicles the last two years in the life of Baron Manfred von Richthofen (Matthias Schweighöfer), the World War I German fighter pilot, famous for his skill at downing enemy fliers, who flamboyantly dubbed himself the Red Baron. Perhaps it's because the boyishly-handsome Schweighöfer appeared with Tom Cruise in Valkyrie, but it's impossible not to think of The Red Baron as an amalgam of that star's two military-themed '80s films: This combat drama starts as a simplistic portrait of a cocky flyboy (à la Top Gun) before it becomes a strident war-is-hell sermon (Born on the Fourth of July). Just as von Richthofen's superiors crudely exploited his growing celebrity, making him a propaganda tool for the German military, so too does Muellerschoen reduce the character to a mouthpiece for the filmmaker's fairly standard observations about how governments prop up war heroes to further their own agenda. The film's press notes flaunt the fact that The Red Baron, with its handsome production design and extravagant effects, was made outside the Hollywood system, but unfortunately Muellerschoen's movie emphasizes empty grandeur over human drama. In that way, The Red Baron is more like an American film that its makers would probably care to admit. (Tim Grierson) (Mann Chinese 6)
SEE WHAT I'M SAYING See What I'm Saying, an involving new documentary by Hilari Scarl, uncovers an interesting entertainment subculture of deaf comedians, actors and musicians. The film follows actor CJ Jones, comedian Robert DeMayo, drummer Bob Hiltermann and punk-rock throwback TL, as they strive for acknowledgment from hearing, as well as hearing-impaired communities. Scarl shapes these four stories into a well-oiled showbiz narrative, complete with a clearly demarcated three-act structure that moves conventionally from setup to setback to a final payoff in the form of the big show. The proceedings become a little predictable under this structure, and Scarl relies too heavily on music for emotional cues — an ironic misstep for a documentary about and partially made for the hearing-impaired. But to her credit and the credit of the featured performers, See What I'm Saying creates genuine empathy for its heroes. Their struggle becomes not just about translating deaf culture to a hearing audience but about the problems any artist faces on the road to being seen and heard. Most valuably, at its heart See What I'm Saying strikes at the nature of communication itself. When DeMayo delivers a passionately signed, nearly silent speech about the distance his disability created between him and his mother, the film finds its emotional core. Much of the music and comedy translates as well, which is really just as important to reaching a wider audience. (John Wheeler) (Sunset 5)
GO SEVERE CLEAR Between the past few years' worth of Iraq War docs and on-the-ground TV reports, it's easy to believe that collectively we definitively understand the monotonous yet dangerous daily existence of U.S. soldiers in the Middle East. Kristian Fraga's unexpectedly captivating first-person perspective of Operation Iraqi Freedom circa 2003 proves we don't. Fraga's director credit is a slight misnomer, as Severe Clear was mostly culled from the raw mini-DV footage of Marine First Lieutenant Mike Scotti — with added voice-over and onscreen titles, both ripped from his journal entries — shot as he and his gung-ho company deployed to Baghdad in search of dutiful adventure, hooah! Though front-loaded with scenes of homoerotic horseplay and amusing overheard moments (someone wins a bet that Jack Black co-starred in Twister, a rumor circulates that Jennifer Lopez has died), this is no recruitment video, and emotions speak louder than politics in the grisly images of splattered heads and equally uncensored opinions about the confusing "liberation" of the Iraqi people. Even if we're burned out on this never-ending quandary, witnessing what Scotti bravely (stupidly?) films in the middle of harrowing firefights is a potent reminder of how thankless a soldier's job is. (Aaron Hillis) (Music Hall)
STOLEN First-time scripter Glenn Taranto was inspired to write Stolen after reading an article about the real-life, unsolved "Boy in the Box" murder case of 1957. It's uncertain whether or not Taranto and debuting helmer Anders Anderson looked at the Law & Order: SVU and Cold Case episodes that also used the crime as a plot thread; the sub-televisual incompetence of their film suggests not. Two parallel stories about aggrieved fathers unfold: In 1958, recent widower Matthew (Josh Lucas) struggles to provide for his three sons, including mentally challenged John (whose impairment is conveyed by tonsorial anachronism, sporting an unruly mid-'60s mop top); present-day detective Tom (Jon Hamm) is obsessed with tracking down the person responsible for his son's disappearance eight years earlier. In the lead-up to the inevitable connection, Anderson builds suspense around innumerable close-ups of telephone touch pads, liquids being spilled, Lucas straining to be a credible hayseed, the sight of a Dawson's Creek star (James Van Der Beek) in bad old-man makeup, and the question of whether Hamm was so unsure about the longevity of Mad Men, whose first season had already premiered by the time shooting for Stolen started, that he said yes to this. (Melissa Anderson)
TALES FROM THE SCRIPT Not surprisingly for a documentary on the trials, tribulations and occasional triumphs of being a Hollywood screenwriter, Tales From the Script is full of wry one-liners, well-spun anecdotes and pithy observations on the movie-making industry. Guinevere Turner pulls off all of the above in a hilarious tale of working with the infamous Uwe Boll. But director Peter Hanson doesn't really push his numerous talking heads (including William Goldman, Allison Anders, John Carpenter, Antwone Fisher) beyond soft confirmation of what is already well known: The writer is treated worse than a red-headed stepchild; the film industry is largely run by bean-counting Philistines; the disintegrating state of the industry makes the writer's life even more precarious. Filmed in the most basic point-and-shoot style, the amiable Tales breaks up its parade of interviews with film clips (Get Shorty, Barton Fink, The Muse) that illustrate Hollywood's ability to issue self-critiques that are paradoxically withering and self-aggrandizing. But one of Tales' strongest points is made accidentally: Its huge cast of interviewees consists of one Asian speaker, one Latino, three African-Americans, and five women — one of whom pulls double duty as a woman of color. (Ernest Hardy) (Music Hall)
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