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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Switch

A Bateman-Aniston farce based on a Jeffrey Eugenides short story — and it works, mostly

Posted By on Wed, Aug 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM

Stars Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston lack serious romantic chemistry, but they do create mild comedic sparks together and make for a believably warm pair of best pals. Aniston’s perpetually single gal Kassie is smart, gorgeous, loving, and — due to fractured-mirror rom-com logic — she’s totally unable to score the right man. Meanwhile, Bateman’s Wally is a bottomless pit of kvetching and neurosis. Devoid of ethnic identity or physical impediments, we’re left to infer that Wally isn’t mate material because he’s an uptight fussbudget. Tired of waiting for Prince Charming, Kassie wises up and hires a dim but handsome sperm donor and throws an “insemination” party where all her friends get shitfaced, while the donor makes a special deposit in the bathroom. This is all too much for sensitive Wally, and in a drunken stumble, he spills out the sample and replaces it with his own. I know — gross. Cringe-worthy humor ensues.

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Lottery Ticket

Droll but tepid urban-kid-hits-lotto comedy

Posted By on Wed, Aug 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM

Onetime novelty rapper-turned-actor Bow Wow (no need for the “Lil” anymore) stars as a nice, honest kid in an Atlanta housing project who buys a lotto ticket on a whim, only to win the mega-millions powerball jackpot. Suddenly blessed with huge Jed Clampett screw-you money, our hero must keep his head together and keep this golden ticket from falling into the hands of the many thugs, hustlers, needy relatives, busybodies and gold diggers lined up to snatch it away.

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Nanny McPhee Returns

Poopy fun for the tots, but Maggie Smith deserves better

Posted By on Wed, Aug 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM

If there’s one thing this sequel to the 2005 charmer brings, it’s lots of poop. And burps. And quarreling kids. Set in the bucolic British countryside, some 70 or so years after the first film, the anti-Poppins governess drops in just as young mum Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is about to come undone. See, her husband is off fighting in World War II while she’s left to raise three precocious tots, bring in the harvest, take care of her snooty niece and nephew, and fend off her conniving brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans), who needs the deed to the family farm to pay off a gambling debt to a pair of psychopathic woman out for his kidneys. Good thing the crockery in Mrs. Docherty’s shop begins chanting: “The person who you need is Nanny McPhee!”

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Farewell

Cold War espionage as a winning character study

Posted By on Wed, Aug 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM

French filmmaker Christian Carion (Joyeux Noel) filled his lead roles with a pair of celebrated directors and the result is far from gimmicky. Instead Frenchman Guillaume Canet (Tell No One) and Serbian Emir Kusturica (Underground) give heartfelt and engaging performances that underline the grudging then growing friendship of two very different men. With the sensibilities of a John Le Carré novel guiding, this real-life Cold War espionage film is more character study than political thriller, trading in both humanity and history. Based on the little-known actions of Vladimir Vetrov, Carion begins in 1981, telling the story of Sergei Grigoriev (Kusturica), a disillusioned KGB colonel and true believer in Communism. Despairing over the corruption and malaise of the Brezhnev-Andropov regime, he decides to pass critical state secrets to the French — most importantly, the name of every intelligence operative in the West — in hopes it’ll force his country into radical change. Wanting to keep a low profile, the ogre-like Gregoriev chooses mild-mannered Pierre Froment (Canet), a Moscow-based French engineer, as his go-between. Over time this odd couple develops a relationship, and what emerges is a rich portrait of two melancholy men struggling to hang onto their marriages as they engage in high stakes espionage.

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King Hong Kong

Johnny Hallyday and Johnnie To’s glorious throwback to bitter bullets and bloody revenge operas

Posted By on Wed, Aug 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM

A young family in Macau is ruthlessly gunned down at home by a squad of hit men, leaving three dead, including children. Though critically wounded, the mother survives and leaves her grieving dad just enough information to begin hunting the killers in Hong Kong. Star Johnny Hallyday has had a long and varied career, though he’s still mostly unknown in this country. With his feline grace and haggard, world-weary features, he’s like some odd fusion of Leonard Cohen and Charles Bronson. We get hints that his Parisian chef character Costello has a violent past, including one particularly nasty old head wound that’s slowly erasing his memories. He encounters a trio of quirky Triad assassins and offers them wads of cash and the deed to his restaurant, as he literally has nothing left to lose. Keeping with HK-action tradition, Vengeance quickly dispenses with logic in exchange for extravagant, stylishly filmed gun battles, heavy on smoke effects and slow motion. Director To is the kind of dude who finds poetry in blood squibs, and his elaborately staged action set pieces recall “bullet ballet” master John Woo, though, thankfully, there are no floating doves.

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Mao's Last Dancer

Chinese ballet star Li Cunxin meets girl and America and falls in love

Posted By on Wed, Aug 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM

Bruce Beresford indulges in the genre’s worst clichés. An unabashed humanist, the veteran Aussie director’s filmography is a hit-and-miss litany of well-meaning films that tackle cross-cultural connections. His career has simmered into under-the-radar efforts, few of which have brought him notice. This ham-handed tale of Chinese ballet star Li Cunxin will do little to critically change that dynamic. Yanked from his family at a young age, Li Cunxin (adult dancer Chi Cao) was forced into grueling instruction at the Beijing Dance Company, transforming him into a master dancer and devout adherent of Communism. Chosen to tour with the Houston Ballet in the early ’80s under artistic director Stevenson, Li is seduced by the material and technological wealth of America, while falling in love with a hot young dancer (Amanda Schull). Surprise, surprise, he defects, which not only endangers his family in China, but challenges a lifelong allegiance to his country.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Christian savages

Despite noble intentions and bloody nods to religious intolerance, this historic epic can feel like a drippy toga party

Posted By on Wed, Aug 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM

Set around the time of the destruction of Egypt’s great Library of Alexandria in 391, there is no arguing the film’s political take: Here, the Christians are the savages and the pagans are the enlightened ones. The most enlightened of them all is the brilliant mathematician Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), head mistress of the Alexandria Academy, a lonely outpost of science and Hellenistic intellectual ideals in a Roman Empire swiftly falling under Christian ideology. Despite the noblest of intentions, it’s nearly impossible to keep this stuff from seeming like a drippy toga party. While meant to be epic and inspiring, Agora ends with a huge, blood-soaked bummer.

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Eat, Pray, Love

A drive-through take on mid-life spirituality — with lots of food and travel porn

Posted By on Wed, Aug 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM

Eat, Pray, Love is fairly enjoyable due to actors and settings, but it’s a dummy’s guide to enlightenment, and as cinema it’s How Stella Got Her Groove back sponsored by Expedia. Spiritualism and commercialism rub each other raw as uptight New Yorker Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) ditches both her husband (Billy Crudup) and new boyfriend (James Franco) for a year-long spiritual quest through Italy, India and Bali, and to write a book. Of course, the movie barely mentions that this costly trip was funded by a huge publisher’s advance, one that no average girl would have access to. Details.

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Blowed up

Except for 'youngster' Jason Statham, Stallone’s band of geriatric heroes are pretty creaky killers

Posted By on Wed, Aug 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM

This third installment in his trilogy of Sylvester Stallone's self-congratulations (Rambo and Rocky Balboa were the first two) pays homage to Stallone’s stupider efforts. Does anyone really care what the plot (as delivered by Bruce Willis in a profanity-laden cameo) entails? Suffice to say that Stallone’s gang of rogues — Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Randy Couture and Terry Crews (Idiocracy’s President Camacho!) — are sent south to take out Hugo Chavez … er, General Garza … who’s been doing the bidding of ex-CIA baddie Eric Roberts and his bodyguard Stone Cold Steve Austin. Arnold sneaks in for a winky walk-on while Mickey Rourke’s appears to deliver a lip-quivering monologue about his lost humanity. For the action die-hards, there’s plenty of throat-slashing, knife-throwing, gun-dueling and neck-breaking. Unfortunately, there’s no chemistry; lines are spoken but the high-priced he-men might as well be performing in their own movies. Rourke’s the only real actor in the bunch, and he almost makes his boneheaded dialogue bearable.

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Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Precisely drawn hipster farce whose rich characters all have inner lives, motivations and tortuous backstories

Posted By on Wed, Aug 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM

Michael Cera might be an unlikely action hero, but he has become the millennial everyman, and here he plays a sweetly goofy Toronto rocker whose already complicated love life becomes chaotic when his new dream girl (Elizabeth Winstead) decrees that he must fight her seven evil exes, and her dating résumé’s filled with unbalanced, ninja-powered lunatics ready to crush Scott into a fine paste.

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