Flickerings: INDEX OF MOVIE REVIEWSmovie camera

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Lady in the Water

A riddle of a film that relies on our suspension of belief and our faith in good storytelling.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

An apartment complex superintendent and the tenants within help a mysterious mythical creature return home in the engrossing modernized fairytale Lady in the Water. In the vein of his other works, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (Signs, The Village) delivers another riddle of a film that relies on our suspension of disbelief and our faith in good storytelling.

Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) takes care of an isolated, multi-story, poolside, middle-class apartment building. His multicultural tenants run the gamut from loners to partiers to seniors to families. One night, Cleveland discovers a strange red-haired young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) swimming in the pool. After she rescues him from a nasty fall, Cleveland realizes that this waif, by the name of Story, is not at all from this world. Turns out she is a “narf” from the Blue World, and her life is threatened by the wolf-like “scrunt.” So our fairytale begins.

As with all Shyamalan films, to give up anything more would ruin everything. Perhaps more so than any of his other films, this one is about the actual storytelling. Shyamalan has self-reflexive fun with the telling of this story and how Cleveland puts the pieces of the puzzle together. Indeed, Cleveland is like a moviegoer trying to piece together a Shyamalan movie puzzle. Wonderfully, just like the audience, Cleveland doesn’t always get it right.

Expectations for Shyamalan films seem to have reached a sort of tipping point. Oddly, moviegoers and critics always expect to see something along the lines of his surprise blockbuster, 1998’s The Sixth Sense. However, he really hasn’t done a movie like that since. Instead of a whopper of a twist at the end, his films have gotten more layered in their storytelling: less big bite of the apple and more layered onion.

Like that onion, Shyamalan tries to pull tears from his audience. To some, these climactic emotional wringers can seem manipulative; but to this moviegoer, the emotions are earned by their accurate and critical placement in the story and by an always believably delivered performance by the main character, in this case the terrific Giamatti.

Perhaps Shyamalan is getting a little too big for his britches. Frankly, his acting turn in this film is too prominent and unwelcome, and his digs at the movie-critic character are just this side of defensive and nasty. Still, Shyamalan continues to deliver fascinating goods, and in the most literate of ways.

Good drama/fantasy • PG-13 • 108 mins.

The Last Kiss

Movies like this prove there is still plenty of treasure to mine in young singles coming into adulthood sagas

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A 29-year old yuppie weighs marriage and his oncoming life in the wonderfully intelligent romance The Last Kiss. Remaking a 2001 Italian film, director Tony Goldwyn (Someone Like You, A Walk on the Moon) and screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Bay, Crash) deliver a refreshing and first-rate telling of the well-mined subject of 20-somethings jumping unto the great breech of marriage, parenthood and the rest of their lives.

Michael (Zach Braff) is a prosperous architect with a loving and beautiful PhD student of a girlfriend, Jenna (Jacinda Barrett). They live together in Madison, Wisconsin, and, though not sold on the institution of marriage, are preparing for a baby. Meanwhile, all around them, their friends’ dysfunctional relationships are crumbling in any manner of ways. Even the 30-year marriage of Jenna’s parents (Blythe Danner and the brilliant Tom Wilkinson) is on the rocks. Into Michael’s life bounces college student knockout Kim (Rachel Bilson), who tempts him as a not-so-permanent contrast to his seemingly permanent world. Choices will be made.

The relationship situations and set-ups are familiar, but it’s the way this film intelligently handles them that sets it apart. At first glance, Michael and his pack of friends seem almost as clichéd as any group of friends on the latest 20-something sit-coms. Michael has a serious girlfriend; Chris (Casey Affleck) is frustrated with kids; Izzy (Michael Weston) is getting over a painful break-up; and Kenny (Eric Christian Olson) refuses to commit while successfully playing the field. But what these friends say and how they intersect feels real. It’s nowhere near the stuff of bad TV. I couldn’t help thinking that if HBO had a series featuring these guys, I’d watch every episode.

Perhaps most involving of all is that fact that as we get sucked into the interweaving storylines, we never really know where any might head. Even the movie’s small choices have us on the edge of our seats, ready to groan or cheer the outcomes. To top it off, the movie’s finale smartly refuses to be overwritten or neatly packaged (unlike Braff’s otherwise fantastic Garden State). No, The Last Kiss seems about as real as it gets and is likely destined to be a touchstone for the soon-to-be 30-something generation. Movies like this prove there is still plenty of treasure to mine in young singles coming into adulthood sagas. This one is gold.

Great romance • R • 104 mins.


Swell looks and deft football sequences can only take this one so far.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

George Clooney stars as an over-the-hill pro football player who thinks he has the answer to rescuing his team — and maybe the game — as they teeter on the edge of bankruptcy in the dull and doltish Leatherheads. Only this film’s stylish look and exciting football action keep it from being a total bomb.

Dodge Connelly (George Clooney) is the rough and resourceful captain of the Duluth Bulldogs, a hardscrabble 1920s’ professional football team playing in front of hundreds of people for only enough money to make it from game to game. When even that money runs out, Dodge decides he needs to recruit college football sensation Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) to play for the Bulldogs, saving the team and the game of pro football — this in an era when an amateur’s turning pro seemed preposterous. Meanwhile, Chicago Tribune reporter Lexie Littleton (Rene Zellweger) is assigned to write an expose on Carter: Perhaps his past as a war hero is not as on the up and up as the country thinks. Romance blooms between Dodge and Lexie, and a pro football era begins to bloom as well.

Clooney both stars and directs (as he did Good Night and Good Luck; Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). As director, he tries to capture the magic of fast-talking newspaper reporter films like Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940). But what should be homage comes off as satire, and unfunny satire at that. Zellweger gives it all the gumption and conviction of a bad Saturday Night Live skit, falling flat on her face. Indeed, none of the so-called comedy manages to tickle any funny bones. Clooney as director should stick to dramas.

Clooney does deserve credit for capturing the fun action on the field. Sports movies often have the most trouble scoring points with the scenes of play. Clooney captures a realistic in-the-middle-of-the-huddle feel while giving the play an added extra flare that seems appropriate for the loopy times. The handsome 1920s’ look from newsroom to football stadium to speakeasy is also a nice touch.

However, the film’s swell look and deft football sequences can only take it so far, especially because there aren’t that many football scenes. As a one-joke Howard Hawks rip-off, Leatherheads loses us early, and it never wins us back.

Fair comedy • PG-13 • 114 mins.


© Screen Gems

When God loses faith in mankind, he sends his legion of angels to bring on the Apocalypse.

An angel defies God to save humanity in this forgettable apocalypse action/horror.

reviewed by Mark Burns, January 28, 2010

Michael (Paul Bettany: The Young Victoria) isn’t getting along so well with the creator. Apparently, God is just fed up with humanity and has decreed extermination, dispatching an army of angels to wipe the slate clean. Vowing to give his boss “what he needs, not what he wants,” rebellious archangel thuds to earth in the days before Christmas, grabs all the munitions he can carry, and motors to a makeshift Mojave manger. There he’ll lead a small group of dwindling survivors in making a stand for peace and love with massive firepower, fighting to save a waitress’ prophesied child that is humanity’s last hope. Threatening his cause is the angel-army of possessed human hosts, wicked creatures bent on scything mortals en route to killing the unborn savior.

That’s a pretty audacious crèche.

Writer/director Scott Stewart’s (new to the chair) anti-Christmas story is your basic guns-and-goons ride. You don’t expect an Oscar-worthy script here, and you don’t get it. The setup is pretty decent: Michael’s arrival triggers a slow reveal of — as you may already know from previews — fated mortals fleshed with surprisingly good character. But at the onset of action, the movie is a steady, predictable march. Stewart fails to throw in any significant twists or turns, making for tepid suspense.

Action is a melee of guns, booms and brute thumps. The idea is that Michael loses his angelic power when he rebels and must resort to earthly means. This concept works into the plot well enough and keeps the production budget in check, but it proves a bore. Stewart takes an archangel and neuters him right off the bat, denying the possibilities of more interesting feats of bad-assery. He becomes just another dude with a gun. When winged-angel battle does arrive, it’s a disappointment. Supposedly close rivals Gabriel and Michael duke it out in an unemotional, style-free brawl.

There is promise in the menace. One evil old lady and a few other moments make for dark amusements. But the film takes itself too seriously to capitalize on camp. Additionally, those in search of a scare will find this movie wanting. That angel-possessed army of creepos — with their shark teeth, void black eyes and skittering wretchedness — are little more than zombies and used half as well. Even the climax is just a hiccup of lame bursts, lurching toward the finish line with clumsy resolution and overt hopes for a sequel.

This one’s a waste of admission. It falls flat, like an angel without wings.

Boring cataclysm • R • 100 mins.

Lions for Lambs

Robert Redford hasn’t lost his political purpose, but viewers may fear the old lion has lost his way.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford play varying members of the political elite commenting on America’s militaristic society in the preachy and tremendously boring Lions for Lambs. In his first directorial outing since 2000’s The Legend of Bagger Vance, Redford clearly has a political purpose, but viewers may fear the old lion has lost his way.

This film plays out in three interchanging parts. The first is set in the office of conservative and confident Sen. Jasper Irving (Cruise), who is selling a new military strategy in Afghanistan to earnest and confused reporter Janine Roth (Streep). The second is set in the office of California college professor Stephen Malley (Redford), who tries to convince an underachieving smart student (Andrew Garfield) why it’s worth trying hard in class and getting involved. The third is set in battle-strewn Afghanistan, where two soldier friends (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) fight for their lives side by side.

The movie feels like an ABC After-School Special on the American war on terror. The performances come across as incredibly canned and robotic. Only Cruise manages to rise above it a little, but only in a creepy Matt Lauer interview arrogance sort of way; but then that seems to be what his character is trying to convey. On the other hand, Streep is so small she is downright mousy and wasted. Redford is your classic cardboard cutout idealistic political science professor. The only difference is he looks more leathered than most, like he could use ChapStick all over his face and neck. Meanwhile, the young stars like Pena and Luke are more realistic, but we can hardly see them buried in snow, blood and the dark of night for most of the movie.

As the film opens, we think maybe we are in for Redford’s version of Black Hawk Down or a twist on Tom Clancy. That notion quickly disappears as we realize the players won’t be taking any action; they will just be talking and talking and talking through this whole movie. Mercifully, the movie ends at 88 minutes. I guess that is one advantage of real time.

Poor drama • R • 88 mins.

The Lovely Bones

© Paramount Pictures

Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones.

A murdered girl watches her family cope with her death in this clumsy adaptation.

reviewed by Mark Buns, January 21, 2010

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan: Atonement) is the apple of her dad’s eye, a bright soul bubbling through youth in a Philadelphia suburb circa 1973. Her light goes dark when heinous violence wrenches her into the afterlife. Now the 14-year-old watches from the azure in-between, sharing her family’s struggle to move past the pain and anger toward healing.

The movie is adapted from the novel by Alice Sebold, an acclaimed, deeply emotional work informed by harrowing experience and embraced by loyal readers. Don’t envy the screenwriters who had to adapt this. Specifically, don’t envy director/screenwriter Peter Jackson (last flick: King Kong) and long-time cohorts Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. This is the trio that collaborated so well on Lord of the Rings — though Sebold’s tale was apparently much more difficult to summit than the ranges of Middle Earth, because the story’s tethers snap and send these screenwriters tumbling.

That might be a bit harsh. Jackson does secure several anchors of smart filmmaking. Scenes of suspense are particularly adept; Ronan engages as empathetic Suzie, and Stanley Tucci (Julie & Julia) skillfully delivers the skeevies as her creepo killer. The auteur is thankfully sparing in depicting the demise of Susie, edgily implying the crime in transition from corporeal to ethereal rather than shellshocking with the book’s harsh detail of atrocity. And, when the film settles long enough, the director is aces at cultivating poignancy and empathy through patiently developed story.

Patience, however, is short-lived. Story is front-heavy in establishing Susie’s character and family, then lurches forward in fits and starts after her murder. The emotional struggle and search for justice don’t coalesce. Portrayed in outbursts, the hunt of the killer lacks pursuit. The film’s half-formed ideas are like disparate elements being thrown around and sometimes colliding.

The problem may rise from Jackson’s distraction with pretty lights. The guy is an A/V nerd at heart, and it often appears he’s more interested in imagining the visual possibilities of a spiritual plane (a la What Dreams May Come) than crafting story, relying on Susie’s narration to bridge the gaps he’s not bothered to fill.

That said, there is fine acting among several well-crafted scenes, enough to stoke interest and suspense. The film certainly isn’t boring. But it never achieves the heights to which it aspires.

Fair suspense drama • PG13 • 135 mins.

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