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In theaters this week

The Big Year (PG)

"Only Americans can turn birding into a competition," remarks a British birdwatcher in this uncommonly gentle comedy about the compulsive quest of three men to win the North American Big Year, a contest to spot the most bird species in one year. Brad (Jack Black), a software engineer who can recognize any bird by its song, teams up with Stu (Steve Martin), a wealthy CEO and fellow obsessive, to topple the reigning champ: the cocky, underhanded Kenny Bostwick (Owen Wilson) from his perch. The movie follows the contenders as they travel the continent, spending thousands of dollars and enduring storms, mosquitoes, rats, and risky helicopter flights to catch glimpses of the pink-footed goose, the crested myna, and other rare species in pursuit of their goal. The humor is a bit too larkish, but the story gracefully weaves the men's migrations with their personal lives: Brad's rapprochement with his initially disapproving father, Stu gathering the courage to finally retire, and Kenny's neglect of his pretty wife to trail the snowy owl and defend his title. — Pamela Zoslov

50/50 (R) — Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a 27-year-old news radio producer, finds out that his persistent back pain is actually a rare spinal tumor with a 50 percent survival rate. With the help of a sweet but inexperienced therapist-in-training, he begins the steps to dealing with his cancer. The people around him deal with it differently — especially his best friend (Seth Rogen), who uses his pal's illness to get laid. Gordon-Levitt gets to show off what a great actor he's become. One of the year's best movies. (Gallucci)

Footloose (PG-13) — Leaving aside the question of whether there was a burning need to remake the 27-year-old dance hit, this slavishly faithful reboot is pretty solid tweener and nostalgist bait. Newcomer Kenny Wormald acquits himself nicely in the old Kevin Bacon role of big-city rebel-without-a-clue Ren MacCormack. After being forcibly relocated to fictitious Bomont, Tennessee, good-bad-boy Ren shakes things up by crushing on the local pastor's hot-to-boogie daughter and crusading to overturn a WTF? law that bans loud music and teen dancing. Director Craig Brewer's (Hustle and Flow, Black Snake Moan) predilection for the flavorsome and mostly integrated culture of the New South ensures that the movie never gets too synthetic or sanitized, while still being a tad less edgy than the original. (Milan Paurich)

Real Steel (PG-13) — Its metaphors are shallow and its plot is predictable, but Real Steel is still fun in a fighting-robots-movie kinda way. In the near future, robot boxing has replaced human boxing. Fans wanted more carnage, as former fighter Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) points out. Still, Charlie's wallet takes a beating, until he and his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) find salvation in a junk robot named Atom. The movie's bots may be steel, but the humans are cardboard. At least the fights are solid: Atom is as underdog as they come, making it impossible not to root for him. And the father-son bonding eventually grows on you, landing a surprising blow to the heartstrings. (Ben Gifford)

Restless (PG-13) — Gus Van Sant's latest is just as relentlessly whimsical and calculated as it sounds: A morose loner named Enoch, who likes to attend funerals and converse with his imaginary WWII kamikaze pilot ghost friend, meets a quirky, terminally ill girl (The Kids Are All Right's Mia Wasikowska). But the big surprise is just how dreadfully acted, written, and directed this clunker truly is. When Enoch is nearly outed as a tourist at a stranger's funeral, he's saved by Wasikowska's Annabel, and a budding romance is born. But not one scene pops off the screen. (Justin Strout)

The Thing (R) — Set just before the events of the 1982 classic with the same title, this prequel tells the story of the Norwegian research base that initially stumbled on the frozen alien remains. It seems like the discovery of the century, until they realize the damn thing is still alive. Even worse: It's hostile and can take on the form of its prey. Despite the many similarities with John Carpenter's movie, this new Thing isn't nearly as suspenseful. The filmmakers try to retain the original's subtle paranoia while pleasing modern audiences hungry for gory spectacle, so the deliberately paced beginning eventually gives way to the vicious alien. This Thing goes from tense to tedious in no time, but fans will love the way it directly leads into the 1982 movie. (Ben Gifford)

Weekend (NR) — Weekend is a bit like a gay Before Sunrise set in London, but more emotionally and intellectually challenging if not as conventionally romantic. Reserved Russell (Tom Cullen) lives alone in a small highrise flat, where he brings chatty Glen (Chris New) after picking him up at a club. What both assumed is a one-night stand becomes something else the next morning, when Glen pulls out a recorder to interview Russell about life, love, and everything in between. What's modestly revelatory about writer and director Andrew Haigh's movie is how comfortable it is with being mundane, a candid snapshot of that moment when two people realize their feelings for each other run deeper than desire. (Bret McCabe)

Moneyball (PG-13) — This low-key, somewhat downbeat movie, based on Michael Lewis' book about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's pioneering effort to build a winning team using statistical analysis, is an engrossing if overlong view of the back-office deals and clashing ideals of America's pastime. The emphasis is not on exciting on-field action, but on the frustrations of dealing, trading, and cutting. (Pamela Zoslov)

I Don't Know How She Does It (PG-13) — Doug McGrath's retro-feeling romantic comedy could have been made back in the mid-'60s with Natalie Wood. It leans a bit too heavily on Sarah Jessica Parker's Sex and the City persona, but likable performances and a breezy 90-minute run time make this more painless than you'd think. (Milan Paurich)

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