Andy Bockelman: Summer cinema offered small victories, blockbuster disappointments
September 3, 2010
Each summer offers an array of movies that bring excitement, emotion and more into the lives of viewers for two-hour increments.
As with any year, getting to the theater during the sunnier months can be an arduous task, especially when you don't want to waste your hard-earned cash on something that isn't worth the price of popcorn, let alone admission.
But, for any spring and summer entries I haven't already critiqued that you've been wondering about, here's a handy-dandy guide for movies you're on the fence about watching on DVD or otherwise.
• "Brooklyn's Finest" — Three very different Brooklyn police officers of the 65th precinct experience a career-changing week. Det. Sal Procida (Ethan Hawke) is skimming money from the department's evidence in order to buy a new house for his growing family, while unpopular Officer Eddie Dugan (Richard Gere) tries to run out the clock until his retirement and Det. Clarence Butler (Don Cheadle) questions his line of work as a narc, which involves cozying up to a notorious ex-convict (Wesley Snipes).
The three leads are absorbing in separate storylines that go in their individual directions before finally merging together for a powerful climax.
"Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua creates yet another thrilling cop drama that taps into the lives and loyalties of those who serve on the force.
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• "City Island" — A Bronx correctional officer (Andy Garcia) learns that the new prisoner (Steven Strait) on his cell-block is in fact his long-lost son, prompting him to take the troubled young man into his custody, which means introducing him to his already dysfunctional family.
Garcia anchors a strong ensemble as the patriarch of a clan with many secrets, his being a lifelong desire to become the next Marlon Brando, while his wife (Julianna Margulies) believes he's having an affair and intends to even the score by sleeping with his new charge, unaware that he's her own stepson. Meanwhile, their daughter (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) is secretly working her way through college as a stripper and their son (Ezra Miller) is obsessed with erotica involving obese women.
The premise — which seems almost like "The Sopranos" meets "Little Miss Sunshine" — starts out strong and keeps its momentum through the end, though it lacks the truly screwed-up family members of similar features like the character-driven "Lymelife," the eccentric "Running with Scissors," and the unrelentingly dark "Happiness."
• "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" — A Swedish journalist (Michael Nyqvist) whose career has taken an unfortunate turn agrees to investigate the disappearance of a reclusive businessman's (Sven-Bertil Taube) niece, which happened decades ago. He is helped along by young, slightly disturbed computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who opens the door to something even more troubling than either of them expected.
One of the biggest movies ever to come out of Sweden is just as spellbinding to American audiences, though with an original title that translates to "Men Who Hate Women," it's certainly not material for everyone.
Late writer Stieg Larsson's "Millenium Trilogy" served as the backbone for the film and its immediate sequels "The Girl Who Played with Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," which are already on their way to American movie theaters.
Naturally, director Niels Arden Oplev's feature is bound to have imitators, but hopefully David Fincher's planned remake starring Daniel Craig won't lose the bite of its inspiration.
• "Greenberg" — Recovering from a nervous breakdown, cynical Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) gets involved with a younger woman (Greta Gerwig) while house-sitting for his brother (Chris Messina). In the meantime, he revisits old friendships and tries to figure out where his life went wrong.
Stiller has a plum role as an over-the-hill misanthrope who literally has nothing better to do than write angry letters to Starbucks while looking after his brother's dog.
Like writer/director Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale" and "Margot at the Wedding," this is a leisurely paced story of personalities who are hard to like but fascinating to watch, particularly Rhys Ifans and Jennifer Jason Leigh — Baumbach's wife and co-writer — as Greenberg's former friends, who implore him in vain to get his act together.
• "Babies" — Documentarian Thomas Balmès follows the first year in the lives of four very different infants: Bayar, of Bayanchandmani, Mongolia; Mari, of Tokyo; Ponijao, of Opuwo, Namibia; and Hattie, of San Francisco.
Hours upon hours of footage that initially has the appearance of regular home movies gels together as Balmès contrasts these babies in countless elements of their life, including the comfort of the home, parental attentiveness, discipline, pets, and the ongoing process of learning about the world around them, ultimately growing up quite comparably despite their cultural differences from across the globe.
Joyfully cute and brilliantly simple, it does exactly what a documentary is supposed to do by presenting material without the burden of opinion and nary a word of narration.
• "Harry Brown" — London widower Harry Brown (Michael Caine), a former member of the Royal Marines, is saddened to watch his neighborhood terrorized by gangs of heroin pushers, but he's willing to turn a blind eye to the violence around him as long as he's left alone. But, when his best friend (David Bradley) is killed by the young rowdies, he decides he's had enough of living in fear, and launches a vendetta against the street crime that's running rampant.
As if there was any doubt, Caine is masterful as the conflicted but resolute retiree, whose military experience in Northern Ireland makes him a force to be reckoned with.
Emily Mortimer also gives a good showing as the detective who sees him as the powerhouse that he is but doesn't necessarily disagree with his methods. As the British equivalent of "Gran Torino," this gritty look at vigilantism gets an extra boost from its depiction of the truly dissolute street scum that our hero strikes out against, escalating into full-blown anarchy and a war against the police.
• "Killers" — Lovelorn Jen (Katherine Heigl) can't believe her luck when, while vacationing with her parents (Catherine O'Hara, Tom Selleck), she meets Spencer (Ashton Kutcher), who has all the appearances of the perfect man. But, after three years of marriage, she still has new things to learn about him — like the fact that he's a former hit man who somebody wants dead at any cost.
Neither an action comedy, a romantic comedy, nor a comedy, for that matter, this attempt to create an edgy love story shoots itself in the foot over and over again. The leads fizzle, but supporting cast members Casey Wilson, Rob Riggle, Alex Borstein and Lisa Ann Walter sizzle in roles that are given too little prominence.
• "Cyrus" — An average guy (John C. Reilly) who's been down in the dumps for too long has his spirits lifted when a new woman (Marisa Tomei) enters his life. But, he's not the only man in her life, as her possessive 21-year-old son Cyrus (Jonah Hill) has never left the nest and doesn't intend to do so any time soon.
Reilly is great as the schmo in question, as is Hill as a character who's only a few years away from turning into Reilly's similar role in "Step Brothers." Quietly humorous with Cyrus doing everything from hiding his mom's suitor's favorite shoes to feigning night terrors and panic attacks, this comedy-drama is realistic without becoming too dismal like so much low-budget indie fare today.
• "Predators" — A random assortment of the world's most ruthless killers find themselves mysteriously transported to another planet. As they explore their surroundings, they quickly learn that they are being hunted by the natives, forcing them to band together for survival.
Rather than the alien invaders of the original "Predator" movies, the latest entry lets us see just what kind of environment spawned the warmongering, thermal vision monsters that first terrorized with their invisible presence nearly 25 years ago. The violence may be more creative and the Predators' camouflage is more impressive, but there's a certain Schwarzeneggerian element lacking in a cast that includes Adrien Brody as a soldier turned mercenary, Alice Braga as a sniper in the Israeli Defense Forces and Danny Trejo as a Mexican drug lord, but they're clearly doing their best.
There may be no great one-liners like "Get to the chopper!" but there are a surprising amount of comic moments, thanks to Walton Goggins as a depraved death row inmate from San Quentin; Laurence Fishburne as a schizophrenic pilot who has been trapped on the planet for far too long; and Topher Grace as a cowardly doctor whose appearance on the planet flummoxes the rest of the company.
Still, the fact that we barely learn the names of these people shows how little we're meant to care.
• "The Kids Are All Right" — A lesbian couple (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore) find their lives turned upside down when their children (Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson) seek out the anonymous sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) who helped give them life.
Sure to go down as the sleeper hit of 2010, this slice of life about a non-traditional family offers constant chuckles, a touching undertone about love in the best and worst of circumstances and best of all, characterizations that are wholly convincing.
Bening and Moore are a good match as wine-guzzling, workaholic physician Nic and even-tempered but directionless Jules, respectively, while Ruffalo is just as good as scruffy restaurant owner Paul, who only has good intentions but poses a threat to the family dynamic nonetheless.
Wasikowska and Hutcherson are indeed all right — cue the music of The Who — as two perfectly normal teens, she feeling too much parental pressure as she heads to college and he in need of a male influence to guide him through his turbulent years.
• "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" — NYU physics student Dave (Jay Baruchel) believes in science, not magic. But, when he encounters the immortal Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage), a sorcerer of the 777th degree, he has no choice but to accept his destiny as the greatest magician since Merlin (James A. Stephens).
The fact that the main character is known as "the Prime Merlinian" should give you an idea just how laughable this premise is, but what's odder is that "National Treasure" director Jon Turteltaub doesn't take his favorite actor full tilt.
On the Cage Weird-o-Meter, 1 being "Honeymoon in Vegas" and 10 being "Adaptation," Balthazar only rates about a 5. You'd think a proud wearer of uncomfortable, pointy, old man shoes would at least be a 7, but Cage mistakenly plays it pretty straight. At least Baruchel is a good stand-in for Mickey Mouse in this recreation of the most famous segment of "Fantasia." There's something about a guy who can play Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" using nothing more than a series of Tesla coils and a metal cubicle…
The classic sequence of enchanted mops raging out of control is the highlight of this family fantasy adventure, but while the rest of the movie isn't too bad, it's certainly not all that magical.