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The Darjeeling Limited

Director Wes Anderson tinkers brilliantly with the agitation of the bohemian mind.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Three brothers reconnect on a trip through India in this comedy of quirk.

It’s been a year since brothers Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) last spoke. Since that day, their father’s funeral, each has withdrawn into private malaise. Now eldest Francis is determined to bring the brothers around. He has summoned the sibs to India and bought passage aboard the Darjeeling Limited train, setting them off on a meticulously planned spiritual quest to patch their bruised souls and restore their brotherhood. But their prepackaged soul search derails with the help of powerful over-the-counter Indian medicine; they end up stranded and redirected onto a new path.

As in all director Wes Anderson’s films since Rushmore, he enjoys tinkering with the agitation of the bohemian mind. Characters are imbued with brooding contemplation while lampooned by their own behavior and quirky humor delivered in deadpan. The dynamic between the brothers makes for richly comedic conflict, and touristy attempts at forced enlightenment bloom with eccentricity. Fleshing out the comedy is a dialogue steeped in carefully chosen academic language, flavoring characters with subtle touches of pomposity, curiousness and silliness.

Character powers this film, and all its personalities are displayed in a gilded cabinet of curiosities. Anderson’s eye for ambience is as sharp as ever, spending meticulous attention on such details as luggage, a perfume bottle, the train suite and a cobra box. Scenes of India are vibrant and rich enough to smell the sweet lime, particularly in the early market scene.

Anderson’s story is fairly solid. The brothers’ exotic walkabout is well established and gets rolling easily. Their efforts to reconnect play off the age dynamic and drive the story onward. The telling is clear and concise. High moments of kerfuffle keep the film energetic, and Anderson is adept at easily transitioning from goofiness to tragic drama without swamping the film in malaise or Hallmark saccharine. There’s smooth consistency to his signature style, with dialogue studded with silent, contemplative stares evocative of cringe-worthy encounters with a socially awkward geek-recluse. All blends together beautifully. The film’s weakest element, though, is its destination. The ultimate point of the movie is clear but distracted from by late misdirection, and the wispy finish is a little insubstantial.

Adrien Brody is a neat fit as the latest actor to join an Anderson production, while vets Schwartzman and Wilson continue to thrive with the material. Old hats Bill Murray and Kumar Pallana (Pagoda) score a couple cameos, while Anjelica Huston returns for a small role.

The Darjeeling Limited is a fine film that proves true to Anderson’s sharp wit and skillful craft. Fans of Anderson will be delighted, and the uninitiated will be treated to a sparkling introduction to the auteur’s work.

Good comedy • R • 91 mins.

Dear John

© Screen Gems

Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried in one of the too-rare moments on screen together in Dear John.

Star-crossed lovers weave a tale to make eyes cross from boredom in this flat melodrama.

reviewed by Mark Burns, February 11, 2010

John (Channing Tatum: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), a Special Forces soldier, is just chilling on a pier being cool when Savannah (Amanda Seyfried: Big Love), a college student, drops her purse. He jumps into the waves to salvage it and promptly starts courting. In two weeks, while she’s off school and he’s on leave, the two develop a deep love that they vow to keep up in letters until his service is done. But when the attacks of September 11 prompt John to re-up, the strain of love and duty will wrench their hearts.

Dear John is yet another adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel. Love him or hate him, his tales are usually good for teary-eyed movies; schlock to many, but often expertly manipulative schlock (i.e. The Notebook).

Here, however, the deftness of manipulation turns thumbs. Even the dud Nights in Rodanthe brought more game than this piece. A non-fan might suspect the film did the source novel a disservice.

Story is a clumsy timeline. After taking time to paint the emotional connection between the girl and guy, the movie becomes a flat montage of passing time marked by weakly written letters recited to the audience. Director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat) films the addressee reading the letters, overlaying the writer’s narration. There is no energy, no twists, no climax.

Sparks’ world, for all its tragedies, is pillow soft, so it should be no surprise that he’d be befuddled by war. The climactic action sequence is a muffled punch, and the viewer is further doped up by a sleepy soundtrack more fit for nap-time at the nursery. Lovemaking is kisses and hugs and gentle insinuations, for maybe six minutes combined.

Tatum and Seyfried deliver surprisingly good performances, doing well with what little dramatic opportunity they’re given. Richard Jenkins (Burn After Reading) excels as John’s dad. Sadly, they can’t rescue this film.

This one is a total snoozer. For a better cry, pinch yourself.

Bad melodrama • PG-13 • 105 mins.

The Departed

Scorsese is up to speed with what we expect from our modern day mobsters; i.e. what The Sopranos have taught us to expect.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon play cops on opposite sides of the law, with Jack Nicholson as a mob kingpin to whom they are both connected, in the riveting drama The Departed. Master director Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York) takes us into that violent world of street hoods and wise guys he knows so well, but this time the wise guys are cops.

Growing up in a tough South Boston Irish neighborhood, Colin Sullivan was practically raised by local gangster Frank Costello (Nicholson). As a young man, Colin (Damon) stayed loyal to his mobster mentor while he excelled in the police academy and became a state cop on the special organized crime unit. On the other side of the tracks, Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth but stayed connected to his tough-guy roots in the same Boston neighborhood. After graduating from the police academy, Billy signed up to be an undercover agent within Frank’s gang. When it becomes apparent that there is a spy in the gang and a spy in the special police unit, accusations, investigations and violence unravel in Shakespearean fashion.

Scorsese refuses to become a dated filmmaker. Even though this film’s soundtrack is mostly pre-1975 rock and roll, including some familiar gems from previous Scorsese films (namely the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”), what is on the screen is all up to speed with what we expect from our modern day mobsters, i.e. what The Sopranos have taught us to expect. Indeed, cell phones and text messaging play central plot-development roles, the film’s female lead (Vera Farmiga) is a psychological counselor for cops, and there are more rats in these ranks than in a filthy Boston alleyway. However, Scorsese is no copycat, as all this material comes off as inviting and fresh.

Stylistically, this film is probably one of Scorsese’s most straightforward. He doesn’t use his patented slow motion takes or dramatic voiceover narration to underline evolving characters. Instead, this film moves full steam ahead with jab after jab of short and snappy scenes of well-stated and critical dialogue. The story rapidly moves in front of our eyes, and we hang on every scene. Well, that is until about two-thirds through, when the film starts to lose steam and slow down a bit. Fortunately, a bang-up finale saves the day, and we depart the theater wanting to see it all again.

Great drama • R • 149 mins.

District 9

© Sony Pictures

A view over the alien containment center, District 9.

You may not be welcome here.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

One man’s struggle to move space aliens from one government camp to another turns into much more than that in the thought-provoking and disturbing sci-fi action picture District 9. First-time feature writer-director Neill Blomkamp gives us way more than your average alien invasion film. District 9 brings up human issues from slum conditions to weapons corporations’ power to Kafka-esque metamorphosis. However, except for some exciting (and violent) action, this film may end up leaving you cold.

It’s modern day Earth, and an enormous alien spaceship has parked itself over Johannesburg, South Africa. More than one million refugee alien creatures have been emptied from the ship into a gigantic government camp below. District 9 is essentially a walled-off slum without order. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is a quirky go-getter at a large corporation with a keen interest in military weapons development. His job is to evacuate the slum and move the aliens to another distant camp. With an enormous military escort, Wikus and company begin the process only to face resistance, chaos and violence. Affected both mentally and physically, Wikus begins a sort of transformation best left undescribed. The pending questions are what will happen to Wikus and what will happen to this colony of aliens.

The action in this film is thrilling and feels very inspired by shoot-em-up video games. As in such sci-fi video games (e.g., Doom), soldiers go into a compound of aliens, danger of different kinds lurks around every corner and searching though different shanties reveals assorted technological treasures along with an incredible array of high-tech weapons. Indeed, these are the types of weapons that produce the types of results you only find in video games.

However, what sets this movie apart, for better or for worse, is its unique premise — aliens among us — and its realist cinema vérité visual style. While the premise and style certainly score points for originality, it also drains the living daylights out of a viewer looking for any sort of joy or hope amidst this apocalyptic vision. Maybe viewers more hardened by today’s violent horror films and video games can enjoy this. But while I was interested to see where everything was going, I also was tempted to leave the theater because I couldn’t take much more of the desolation.

You may not be welcome here.

Fair action drama • R • 111 mins.

Drillbit Taylor

Much humor is intended, but little comes through in this noodle-armed comedy.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Geeks outsource questionable muscle to take down a bully in this noodle-armed comedy.

Outcast friends Wade (feature film newcomer Nate Hartley) and Ryan (Troy Gentile: The Pick of Destiny) have had a rough time of middle school. As freshmen, they’re determined to redefine themselves. Hope proves fleeting, though, as they immediately find themselves targeted by hell’s own bully. Desperate, they turn to the Internet in search of protection. Instead they find Drillbit (Owen Wilson: The Darjeeling Limited), a bum who sees the well-off kids as just the con he needs to escape the gutter.

This movie strives for freak chic in the vein of Superbad. Awkward, spindly Wade and mouthy, rotund Ryan meet up with strange third-wheeler Emmit in direct echo of that film’s trio. This is in no doubt owing to Superbad writer Seth Rogen’s similar contribution to Drillbit. The twist here is that, while the geeks still seek coolness and female attention, their primary concern is survival.

Humor ostensibly stems from Drillbit’s survival lessons, as the bum improvises lessons in martial arts and techniques in conflict resolution for the naïve kids.

Much humor is intended, but little comes through. Instead, the story suffers from cursory treatment and lazy synopsis. Life among the bums flits in and out at random. Wade’s awkward pursuit of a crush is a whiff of missed comedy: introduced, forgotten then picked up again at the end. Drillbit himself is underdeveloped, and his romantic tangent is pointless.

There was promise here in exploring the strange battleground of adolescence, but too many opportunities were missed. Blame it on bad screenwriting and direction. Comic scenes that might have succeeded are snuffed by bland direction on the part of Steven Brill (Without a Paddle). Scenes of violent bullying are his only consistent snap, and they end up too bold.

The brightest spot is Troy Gentile as Ryan, easily the most colorful character in the flick and source for the more successful humor. Adam Frost as Filkins makes a fine menace, though in this case he throws off the balance of the ride.

It’s a ride worth skipping.

Poor comedy • PG-13 • 102 mins.


No one — as illustrated to us in the opening set-up — should or can be trusted.

© Universal Pictures

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play opposing spies whose paths cross outside of work.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen star as former government secret agents trying to game the corporate big boys in the smart and enjoyable suspense comedy Duplicity. Writer-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) keeps us guessing and intrigued as the twists and turns come around every corner — even if the romantic comedy mainly fizzles.

We meet our star agents at their first encounter five years ago. American CIA agent Claire (Roberts) and British MI-6 agent Ray (Owen) hook up at a high-falutin embassy party in the Middle East. He scores the girl, and she scores the secret plans he was carrying.So begins a complicated relationship with the two expert spies meeting up, sometimes on purpose and sometimes not, at notable locales around the globe. Meanwhile, in the modern day, they’ve gone private. They’re on the payroll for competing pharmaceutical corporate kingpins (Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti), who are trying to get each other’s secrets. Claire and Ray concoct their own scheme in the process.

This spy movie relies on plot twists and intrigue instead of action and danger. Indeed, nary a shot from a gun is fired, and there’s no big explosion or car chase. Instead, writer-director Gilroy uses the film vehicles of flashbacks and, well, duplicity. The movie jumps back and forth between present and past, leading up to today’s corporate goings on.

Gilroy reveals the Claire-Ray relationship to us only in pieces, so as not to ruin too much of the surprise of how they reached their current states. At the same time, we’re never quite sure who is working for whom. No one, as illustrated in the opening set-up, should or can be trusted.

Unfortunately, Roberts and Owen don’t exude lots of on-screen chemistry. Yes, they look great and have clever lines to spew at each other and others. In their own individual ways, each exudes that charm we expect in our leading ladies and men. It’s just that together they seem forced.

Then again, that is the problem with their characters’ relationship too: It is indeed forced. After all, how do two top-rate international spies get together? Better than trying to kill each other and shooting up their suburban house in the process, i.e. Brangelina in 2005’s lackluster Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Heck, maybe it can’t work at all. Lucky for us, the not working is fun to watch.

Good suspense comedy • PG-13 • 125 mins.

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