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opening this week

The Black Dahlia (R) Reviewed at left.

Everyone's Hero (G) The late Christopher Reeve's last project, an animated tale about a boy who travels across the country on a mission to return Babe Ruth's bat before the deciding game of the 1932 World Series.

Gridiron Gang (PG) A counselor (The Rock) at Camp Kilpatrick, a juvenile detention center in L.A., launches a football program to help rehabilitate a group of young inmates. After weeks of rigorous training, the Kilpatrick Mustangs look to compete against area high schools, where coaches and players alike are wary of mixing it up with criminals.

The Last Kiss (R) Years of cohabitation and a wandering heart cause Michael (Zach Braff) to question his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, Jenna (Jacinda Barrett).

critical capsules

Accepted (PG-13) I suppose the worst thing that can be said about Accepted is that it's thoroughly inconsequential. That's also the best thing that can be said about it. Yes, Justin Long is an agreeable screen presence, but he's not enough to keep this lame, tame comedy afloat for 90 minutes. Maybe if they'd gone for the full-blown raunch of an R rating, it might have helped — but it'd still have a tissue-thin premise and clunky direction. Since Long can't get into college (the filmmakers apparently never heard of community college), he invents a school to bamboozle his parents, going to extremes like actually setting up a fake campus (in a anused psychiatric hospital) and installing a bogus dean. Never more than mildly funny and often tedious. —Ken Hanke

A Prairie Home Companion (PG-13) The first great film of 2006 is also one of the best films Robert Altman has ever made. There's more life, energy, and cinematic invention in this film from the 81-year-old legend than in all the exploding, effects-driven rubbish taking up screen space at the movies this season. An ensemble piece with a star-studded cast — Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan, Garrison Keillor — the film is basically a backstage look at the fictional last performance of Keillor's long-running radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion. It succeeds on this level, but, more, the film becomes a strangely charming meditation on death and the passing of an age — not as a bad thing, but as something that is merely an inevitable part of life. Keillor has handed Altman the script of a lifetime, and Altman has given him the perfect film of his brainchild — while summing up so much of himself and his films in the bargain. —Ken Hanke

Barnyard (PG) This anatomically incorrect tale of wild party animals in the barnyard may be the best animated CGI flick of the year. It stands out from the herd with clever action, witty dialogue, a fantastic string of musical numbers, and some good old-fashioned messages about heroism and taking care of others. Cover the eyes of sensitive kids during the scary coyote sequences. Otherwise, it's great fun and little ones will love it. —Marcianne Miller

Cars (G) Though the big-eyed, childish looking characters of Cars might lead you to think otherwise, what the film really is, is a love letter to the heyday of the American road and the faded mystique of Route 66. What could have been Pixar's most simplistic, pre-teen limited film turns out to be one of their biggest and most mature, as it tackles larger themes that'll probably fly right over the heads of kids. It's the characters that really sell Cars, but even so, there are moments in this film where you'll forget you're looking at a cartoon. It's a stunning piece of work, a visual masterpiece, the kind of movie that would be a must-see even if the story weren't any good. —Joshua Tyler

The Covenant (PG-13) This inane horror film, starring and directed by seemingly talentless people you never heard of, redefines bad. At least last week's The Wicker Man offered Nicolas Cage running around in a bear suit. Nothing so entertaining occurs in this crap-encrusted compendium of dullness and ineptitude. Four hot underwear models ... er, college boys are really witches descended from an old New England family of such. Witches, in this case, means they can fly, make girls' skirts rise up, and throw globs of ectoplasmic goo. A fifth witch boy — descended from the same lineage — arrives on the scene with inhospitable intentions. That's about it. Save your money: watch paint peel instead. —KH

Crank (R) Silly, preposterous, sloppy, sleazy, and irredeemably violent. It's high in cinematic cholesterol and low in moral fiber. It's also more guilty fun than a firkin full of inebriated simians — at least, if you let the movie drag you down to its level, something it does with all the winning charm of an accomplished sociopath. There's no plot to speak of — just hyper-cool Jason Statham as a hitman who's been injected with the "Beijing Cocktail," a poison that can only be counteracted — temporarily — by jolts of adrenalin (rather like an action movie junkie), which Statham acquires in various creative ways so he can live long enough to kill his murderer. With naked girls in plastic bubbles, buckets of blood, and even one unlucky sucker who's shot with his own gun — which is still in the grip of his own severed hand. How much more giddy trash can you want? —KH

Crossover (PG-13) The kind of movie where you check your watch every five minutes to see exactly how much of your life you have wasted. Crossover fails on every level, wallowing in cliché-riddled melodrama. The plot follows Tech (Anthony Mackie) and Noah (Wesley Jonathon), two kids from different sides of the tracks who share a love of basketball and retail shoe sales. Tech is the ne'er-do-well trying to get his GED (after a stint in prison for assault), and makes money by playing underground basketball. Noah, on the other hand, is the golden boy who's planning on using his basketball scholarship in order to become a doctor. Throw in every conceivable histrionic chestnut you can think of — alcoholism, unexpected pregnancy, a laughable bad bedside hospital scene, even domestic abuse. —Justin Souther

The Devil Wears Prada (PG-13) The deliciously mean yet not totally heartless Prada makes an excellent show of demonstrating how even a cute preppie like Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) might get seduced into the shallow, selfish world of the stuck-up, anorexic fashionistas who work at a New York glamour magazine. And the predictable spiral Andy descends over the course of the film, selling herself out and alienating her charming boyfriend is, for all its inevitability, beautifully played and more than a tad touching. But the most wickedly entertaining thing about this flick is Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly, the legendary queen bitch editor in chief of Runway and obvious stand-in for legendary queen bitch Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue magazine: pure seduction and pure evil all wrapped up in a fabulous wardrobe. —Maryann Johanson

Hollywoodland (R) This fictional take on the mysterious real-life death of television's Superman manages to be fairly effective on a moment-to-moment basis, and frequent Sopranos director Allen Coulter spend a fair amount of time covering familiar ground about the schism between perceptions of fame and behind-the-scenes reality. By the time the script turns the studios into little more than a glamorous organized crime racket — hiring thugs to squash any possible disruption to the façade — the tone starts to feel a little stale and obvious. There's a bit too much wallowing in the lurid business beneath glittering surfaces. Even so Hollywoodland has at least a little bit more on its mind than exposé, and enough flashes of humanity to make up for its strangely stylized storytelling. —Scott Renshaw

How To Eat Fried Worms (PG) New Line's adaptation of a 1972 children's book of the same name by Thomas Rockwell. The word "classic" has been attached to the literary original -— whether truly earned, or simply because the book was taken up by teachers as required reading for their young charges is another matter. The tale of standing up to a bully by eating 10 worms (prepared in various repellent ways) makes for thin stuff spread over 90 minutes. And it seems thinner still under the lackluster direction of Bob Dolman who loads the film with bogus energy and a seemingly endless array of bland and uninteresting imagery, which he smothers in an annoying musical score by Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh. Kids may feel differently, but it's one of the most amateurish essays in excruciating tedium I've encountered in a year that's hardly lacked for tedium. —KH

The Illusionist (PG-13) There is magic in The Illusionist, and I don't mean merely the magic of stage conjurers, like the character this wonderfully mysterious and dreamy film turns on. Director Neil Burger creates a vision of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century that is half phantasm and half history, that plays with concepts of class distinction starting to disappear as an old world gives way to a new, that teases us by playing in a borderland between science and the supernatural as new modes of rational thinking were coming to the fore. Its greatest thrill may be that it finds a, well, magic middle ground where it could actually please everyone, where it's just strange enough to electrify fans of the bizarre and just effortless enough to satisfy those who merely seek a diverting entertainment. —MJ

Invincible (PG-13) Based on the true story of walk-on Eagles receiver Vince Papale, Invincible approaches football from the perspective of individual achievement rather than team camaraderie. Some might complain that it takes too long to get to the football, but this film isn't as much a football movie as it is an examination of what it takes to have "heart." It's more a character study than a sports film; football is just a bonus. Sports movies are a dime a dozen, but this one raises itself beyond the genre to tell the simple, true story of a man beating the odds through sheer force of will. It's not perfect, but Invincible works well as an uplifting study in hard work, humility, and perseverance. —Joshua Tyler

Little Miss Sunshine (R) Hilarious and heartrending. A family of dysfuctional poster-people, in constant battle with one another over absolutely everything, climb into into a VW van for a drive of hundreds of miles in order to get young Olive (Abigail Breslin) to the Little Miss Sunshine competition, to which she has been invited at the last minute. What's more, they have to not kill one another in spite of the many disasters they encounter. This is my absolute favorite movie of the year so far, and not because, in the end, it holds up for well-deserved ridicule the obscenity of "beauty pageants" for little girls, though it does do that, in a surprising, brilliant, and laugh-out-loud way. Little Miss Sunshine is my favorite movie of the year for all the little touches along the literal and figurative road it takes to get there. Any absurdity — and there's plenty — is more than trumped by raw emotional power. —MJ

Material Girls (PG) Like the migration of geese, Material Girls seems to have become part of an annual occurrence (after 2005's The Perfect Man and '04's Raise Your Voice): the push to turn former teen sensation Hilary Duff into a honest to goodness adult actress. The movie isn't as atrocious as it could have been (or maybe should have been), but it is hampered by the lack of the one thing the aforementioned geese have: a sense of direction. Makeup company heiresses, Tanzie (Hilary Duff) and Eva (Hilary's sister Haylie) lose their fortune, owing to dad's botched testing of a face cream. The sisters then manage to burn down their mansion and have their Mercedes stolen within the span of an hour (hasn't anyone heard of Allstate?). How will they cope and regain their status? The movie is all over the map without any obvious sign that anyone knows what it ought to be, and so it ends up being a lot of nothing. —Justin Souther

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (PG-13) Pirates of the Caribbean returns to theaters for more summer swashbuckling, only they may have forgotten to buckle their swash. The sequel — the first of two — pits Johnny Depp's incomparable Captain Jack Sparrow against the owner of that chest, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). The film feels forced, as director Gore Verbinski struggles mightily to up the ante for his sequel, only to miss out on a lot of what made the original so fun in the first place. Where the last movie had piracy, fencing, gun battles, and drunken singing, Dead Man's Chest has CGI beasties and lots of screaming. Though the movie falls a little too in love with its big effects budget, at least the effects are rather good. Despite its flaws, a lot of people are probably going to quite enjoy Dead Man's Chest, and for those who don't, the good news is that Disney still has one more movie to get it right. —JT

The Protector (R) At least four stars' worth of guilty pleasure. The Protector is delirious in its absurdity, remarkable in its preposterousness, ravishingly bad in its acting, astonishing in its feats of derring-do, spotty in its filmmaking technique, and utterly incoherent in its plotting. In other words, it's quite nearly perfect for what it is. Chinese gangsters from Australia make the mistake of going to Thailand and purloining Kham's (Tony Jaa) pachyderms, prompting our star to go to Sydney and unleash the wrath of Kham on them. It's nonstop action with amazing feats from Jaa and an elaborate four-minute single take that's worth the price of the ticket by itself. —KH

Snakes on a Plane (R) Can a bad movie that deliberately sets out to be a bad movie rightly be called a good movie? If that movie is the much-anticipated Snakes on a Plane, then the answer is yes. Forget all those big-budget blockbusters this summer; this unassuming $33 million production is more fun than all those bloated bores put together. Deliberately preposterous, the film is upfront about its silliness with its story of an attempt to bump off the witness to a mob killing by infesting a plane with 400-plus venomous vipers as an alternative to trying to get a hit man with a gun on board. Of course, the plan hasn't taken into account the presence of the coolest man on the planet Samuel L. Jackson as the coolest FBI agent of all time. It's deliberately cheesy, loads of fun, the snake effects are no better than they have to be — and, yes, Jackson perfectly delivers the one line you've been waiting to hear. —KH

Step Up (PG-13) There's gotta be something right about a movie when half the audience dances up the theatre aisles when it's over. Who cares that it's a predictable, paint-by-number teen fairy tale. The dancing is fun, the soundtrack smokes, and the romantic co-stars are very, very hot. Even better, interracial friendships are solid, hard work pays off, and teenage girls, instead of killing one another over cute boys, are actually smart and sisterly. —MM

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (PG-13) It's impossible to watch Talladega Nights without thinking of 2004's Anchorman, because they're essentially the same film. Both were directed and written by Adam McKay, with scripting help from star Will Ferrell. Talladega Nights may have cars instead of news reporting, but it uses the same scattershot approach to comedy: a random collection of semi-improvised sketches tied together by a loose plot. The only real difference between the two movies is that in Talladega the plot is even thinner, and Ferrell's stock car racer Ricky Bobby doesn't have a comedic punchline like Steve Carell. Ferrell is back in rare form, doing the things that made him a box office mega-star in the first place, and John C. Reilly is money as his best friend Cal. The cast's comedic improvisation carries the film, but the script could have used a good detailing. —JT

The Wicker Man (PG-13) Even as a keen horror movie fan, I've never gotten the idea that Robin Hardy's 1973 version of The Wicker Man was anything more than an overrated snooze-fest. So I wasn't against the idea of Neil LaBute remaking its silly story about an uptight policeman investigating a disappearance on a remote island inhabited by a group of inhospitable pagans. But LaBute hasn't improved one whit on the original — except in the department of increased laughs, which I don't think was the idea. LaBute is an accomplished filmmaker, but even he can't keep the remake from being two trainwrecks' worth of silliness and nonsense. It moves like molasses until it turns into a laff-riot with Nicolas Cage's stoic detective running around in a bear suit (yes, a bear suit) to face off with Ellen Burstyn made up like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Need I say more? —KHMJ

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