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Film Capsules 

Opening

British Television Advertising Awards (Britain, 2008) A showcase of almost 100 award-winning videos from the annual contest. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 3, and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4.

Crude (U.S., 2009) This documentary explores the lawsuit filed against Chevron by the Ecuadorian Amazon's Cofán Indians. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, and 8:15 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6.

Fellini Satyricon (Italy/France, 1969) Pity the fools raised on Gladiator or 300 who go to Federico Fellini's "free adaptation" of the ancient writings of Petronius expecting something remotely similar — though there are bits that seem to anticipate the later Caligula.The setting of the pageant-like narrative is the Roman Empire at its most corrupt and pagan. In a rambling narrative (for the Fellini novice, it can feel eons long), a stud named Encolpio — a young, blond, handsome, bisexual would-be poet and "educated" man — careens from one disaster to another: He loses his androgynous boy-lover to a treacherous frenemy; he's sold into slavery; he has to fight the Minotaur; and he suffers a bout of impotence. This last is evidently the worst possible fate, given the overriding grotesque decadence. Encolpio is a little like Candide except with no particular character, leaving the viewer with nightmare-memorable backdrops (many of the sets, even outdoor ones, are plainly theatrical artifice), creepy Barbarella B.C. costumes, leering faces and occasional deformities. The obvious temptation for modern eyes is to link Fellini's pansexual, painted, prancing freaks with the off-screen flower-children, psychedelic fashion and drugged-up free-love hippies prevalent in the late 1960s (which is just about as ancient history), and that's probably as fair an explanation as any. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 9:20 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, and 3:45 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5. ** 1/2 (Charles Cassady Jr.)

Gogol Bordello Non-Stop (U.S., 2008) Margarita Jimeno's unfocused documentary about gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello has one thing going for it: It truly captures the manic energy that frontman Eugene Hutz and his band of merry pranksters bring to the stage. We see Hutz in several different contexts: DJing a basement party, performing on the street, opening for Manu Chao at large outdoor festivals. And each time, the guy doesn't disappoint, stage-diving and running around like he's possessed. Jimeno unearths rare footage from the early days, when the band was still formulating its theatrical stage show in small New York bars in the late '90s. And she interviews several musicians who have played in the band. But the film never develops a narrative, only occasionally touching on Hutz's background as a Ukrainian refugee. He's become such a notable movie star, you'd think at least a portion of the film would touch on that career too. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 2. ** 1/2 (Jeff Niesel)

Little Ashes A stereotypical art-house film that flopped when it came out in limited release earlier this year, Paul Morrison's movie imagines what it must have been like when painter Salvador Dali (Robert Pattinson, who looks ridiculous in a thin handlebar mustache), poet Federico Garcia Lorca (Javier Beltran) and filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Matthew McNulty) met in Madrid in 1922. The three instantly bond when they meet at a university, but the friendships become strained as Dali and Lorca begin a torrid love affair made even more complicated by Dali's reluctance to fully commit to a homosexual relationship. He eventually backs away, and a disgusted Buñuel leaves the two, moving to Paris to pursue his filmmaking ambitions. While Morrison obviously took some liberties with the story (Dali has denied he ever slept with Lorca), that's not the issue with Little Ashes. The real problem is that it's poorly acted and pretentious and makes these three literary figures caricatures rather than characters. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7. *(Niesel)

Transylmania Reviewed at clevescene.com.

In Theaters

Amelia The only good thing about the otherwise dreadful Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian that came out earlier this year was Amy Adams' zippy performance as a fast-talking, 1920s-era-slang-hurling Amelia Earhart. I doubt that either the screenwriters or Adams spent much time researching Earhart's speech patterns or nailing down the details of her life. The same can't be said for director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) and Hilary Swank, who plays the ill-fated aviation pioneer in the straightforward biopic Amelia. In their fussy period film, Earhart's adult life plays out as a series of career and gender accomplishments. Swank is good as the fly girl (a media sensation in her day) — intense, stoic and determined in everything she does. But the movie sinks under its seriousness, emphasizing Earhart's proto-feminist status every step of the way: first woman to do this, a woman who can do that, etc. Much of this seems shoehorned into a blah story that needs a little emblematic boost. Plus, Nair drowns nearly every semi-pivotal scene in inflated significance. Though some tension is built during Earhart's final flight, there isn't much drama here (you know how the story ends, right?). Amelia comes off like an old-school Hollywood biopic: a little bit corny, sorta self-serious and emotionally stagnant. You'd think the most exciting thing Earhart ever did was to disappear. ** 1/2 (Michael Gallucci)

The Box When a mysterious disfigured man (Frank Langella) gives a married couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) a box with a large red button, you just know something is up. The man tells the couple that if they press the button, they'll get a million dollars. At the same time, someone whom "they don't know" will die. Set in 1976, The Box takes great pains to accurately reflect the era, right down to its excellent retro orchestral score. The film is based on Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button," a simple and elegant dark fantasy tale whose twist ending packed a wicked punch of social commentary. It's a great story, but there's not really enough there for a feature film. So writer/director Richard Kelly has expanded on and changed the source material considerably. Kelly's adaptation is too long and piles on so much weirdness that it threatens to overwhelm the story at times. His ending also lacks the bite of Matheson's original. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating and uncompromising film that will no doubt attract the same sort of cult following as Kelly's Donnie Darko. ***(Robert Ignizio)

The Blind Side The Blind Side belongs to "white-man's burden" movies like Dangerous Minds or The Soloist, in which benevolent whites heroically rescue underprivileged black people. Accordingly, there are moments in this movie, based on the life of Baltimore Ravens rookie tackle Michael Oher, that are cringingly uncomfortable, like when Sandra Bullock — as Leigh Anne Tuohy, an affluent Southern woman who has opened her home to Oher — sashays into the kid's rough Memphis neighborhood in tight skirt and heels to give a drug dealer a talking-to, warning him that she's packing heat. If this were fiction, it'd be as phony as Astroturf. But like those other movies, it's a true story, told with enough sensitivity to almost overcome the troubling sense of noblesse oblige. Bullock acts her heart out as the feisty Leigh Anne. Her performance makes a character that might have been repellent — privileged, pushy evangelical — rather endearing. ***(Pamela Zoslov)

A Christmas Carol Using the same performance-capture animation technique employed in 2004's Polar Express and 2007's Beowulf, Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol is another family friendly holiday feature by the veteran director of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump. Zemeckis doesn't mess with Charles Dickens' book much, quoting directly from it in the opening sequence, which finds Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) busting out a "bah humbug" when his nephew Fred (Colin Firth) arrives to wish him a "merry Christmas." Of course, Scrooge is in for a shock when he goes home and an apparition of his old boss Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman) arrives to warn him that he's going to be visited by three ghosts before the night is over. Though his recent attempts to show off his dramatic acting abilities have fallen short, Carrey is in good form here. He occasionally indulges in exaggerated facial gestures and slapsticky antics, but that's going to keep young viewers interested. That and the fabulous digital 3-D effects that make it look like snowflakes are falling in front of your face. ***(Niesel)

Couples Retreat It's axiomatic that a beautiful tropical setting will do nothing to save a bad movie. In this offering written by the Swingers team of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau, the best moments come before its four couples arrive at their island paradise. Hyper-organized Jason and Cynthia (Jason Bateman and Kristin Bell), troubled by infertility, persuade their friends, via an amusing PowerPoint presentation, to join them at Eden West, a partnership-renewal retreat. The other couples — Joey and Lucy (Favreau and Kristin Davis), Dave and Ronnie (Vaughn and Malin Akerman) and divorced Shane (Faizon Love) and 20-year-old girlfriend Trudy (Kali Hawk) — are compelled to participate in therapy and absurd activities like swimming in shark-infested waters and yoga that involves a hunky instructor dry-humping the ladies. What might have been an amusing domestic comedy and satire of marriage-therapy schemes devolves into a scattershot collection of unfunny, unsexy sex jokes and curiously stale references (Fabio, Chewbacca, Mr. Belvedere). Vaughn and Favreau reverse their Swingers roles, with Vaughn playing the nice, devoted husband who, in one of the funny male-banter scenes that are the movie's saving grace, warns Favreau's horny Joey that if he keeps chasing tail, he'll end up eating alone at Applebee's. **(Zoslov)

An Education Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a "pretty and clever" teen living in 1960s London when smooth-talking David (Peter Sarsgaard), who's twice her age, sweeps her off her feet and introduces her to his fast-living lifestyle. "You have no idea how boring everything was before I met you," she tells him. And you believe her. Her casually racist dad (a terrific Alfred Molina) has misgivings at first, but warms to David after he promises to show Jenny around Oxford, where she hopes to enroll. Sarsggaard — one of our best and underappreciated actors — flawlessly straddles the line between charismatic and slimeball. Olivia Williams is also great as a sympathetic teacher. But the real find here is 24-year-old Mulligan, conveying (and stirring) tons of emotions with just one look. She's totally believable as a 16-year-old girl blossoming into womanhood. It's the best performance of the year. *** 1/2 (Gallucci)

Fantastic Mr. Fox Based on a Roald Dahl story, this dark farmland fable about a group of foxes that wages war against weapon-packing farmers centers on Mr. Fox (George Clooney), who makes a promise to his wife (Meryl Streep) to stop stealing birds for a living and becomes a newspaper columnist. After two years (which is actually 12 in fox years), he's bored with the lifestyle and the fact that nobody reads his column. So he buys a new tree for his family and gets back in the chicken-killing game for one or two (or three) last scores. When things don't work out like Fox plans and he puts a bunch of friends (including a rabbit, badger and an opossum) in danger, he must use his natural leadership skills to save them. There's no mistaking director Wes Anderson's touch in Fantastic Mr. Fox: The dialogue, the way the actors read the dialogue and the movie's pacing bear his trademarks. And the old-school stop-motion animation is an exhilarating break from today's CGI crop. But a great-looking movie means nothing if there isn't a story attached to it. Anderson's film not only expands on Dahl's book, it's really funny. *** 1/2 (Gallucci)

The Men Who Stare at Goats As Lyn Cassady, a possibly insane, self-proclaimed Jedi Warrior in the U.S. military's stealth "remote-viewing" program, George Clooney brings his usual steely intelligence and old-school charisma to a role that might have been virtually unplayable by a different actor. A certifiable wackjob, Cassady's unbridled craziness is the very thing that makes him so seductive to a gullible, eager-beaver journalist (Ewan McGregor) hot on the trail of a rogue operative (Jeff Bridges' kookier-than-the-Dude Bill Django) in 2003 Kuwait. Cassady (and Clooney) makes going postal seem like the sanest response to a truly demented situation. But The Men Who Stare at Goats isn't a knee-jerk liberal polemic condemning the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Politics, in fact, is the least of its concerns. All director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan (adapting Jon Ronson's 2004 non-fiction book) want to do is make us laugh. And on that count they succeed — sometimes brilliantly. *** 1/2 (Paurich)

Michael Jackson's This is It Michael Jackson's This Is It begins with a sense of optimism. We see Jackson at a press conference, pumping his fist because he's clearly excited to tell fans about the shows, which he says will be his last ever in England. His tragic, sudden death in June meant not one of the concerts ever took place. This is It is an uneven attempt to replicate what the production might have looked like. As we see Jackson and a group of militant dancers work in front of a green screen and as director Kenny Ortega shoots new video footage to be used during renditions of "Thriller" and "Smooth Criminal," it's apparent this would have been one helluva production, easily comparable to a Broadway musical. But because it's such an odd pastiche of performances and interviews, This is It doesn't really do the concert's magnitude justice. ** 1/2 (Niesel)

Ninja Assassin Ninja Assassin is about guys in black pajamas who hide in the shadows with swords and razor-sharp metal stars waiting to kill people. Such films were at the peak of their popularity in the '80s, and while they were seldom good, at least they were usually good, violent fun. Sho Kosugi starred in just about all the ninja movies made back then. He's rightly given a sizable role in this update of the genre as Ozuno, the harsh master who trains the film's hero Raizo (Rain). Eventually, Raizo chooses to walk a different path than the evil one his master intended for him. This brings us to the present, where forensic investigator Mika (Naomie Harris) finds herself in trouble after learning too much about the secrets of the ninja. Ninja Assassin is nothing special in the plot department, but no one watches these movies for their original and insightful stories. Far more damaging is that Rain makes a bland hero, the action scenes are shot in a choppy, confusingly edited style and the gratuitous CGI bloodshed looks ridiculous. ** (Ignizio)

Old Dogs Veteran actors Robin Williams and John Travolta show no shame in hamming it up incessantly in this insipid Walt Becker (Wild Hogs) comedy about two pals whose friendship is tested when Dan (Williams) is recruited to babysit two kids he didn't realize were his. The slapstick humor gets some easy laughs but usually doesn't involve anything more than a swift kick in the crotch. The flimsy plot: Dan's ex (Kelly Preston) has to serve a two-week prison term for protesting an environmentally irresponsible company and enlists Dan to take care of her 7-year-old twins, revealing that they're actually his and she never bothered to tell him. But Dan and Charlie (Travolta) are trying to take their sports agency to the next level and are in the middle of signing the "biggest deal ever" with a Japanese company. Oh yeah, and Charlie has an old dog that hangs around the office, peeing on everything because it's so old. It's no surprise that by the end of the movie, we realize Dan and Charlie are like two old dogs, loyal to the core, even though they sometimes bark at each other. **(Niesel)

Pirate Radio Set in the late '60s — "the greatest era for British rock 'n' roll," a pre-titles card tells us — this thin story about the renegade DJs who broadcasted music from a boat at sea is really just an excuse to champion rock music from the era. Back then, British radio played barely an hour's worth of rock 'n' roll. The heroes of Radio Rock – led by hotshot American the Count (a bearded Philip Seymour Hoffman) and flashy Brit Gavin (Rhys Ifans) – right this wrong, pitting themselves against a bunch of uptight, suit-wearing boardroom fogies, fronted by a frowning Kenneth Branagh, whose pit-bull is a guy named Twatt. Pirate Radio is seen mostly through the eyes of teen Carl (Tom Sturridge), who's kicked out of school and sent by his mom to spend some time on the floating pirate radio station with his godfather (Bill Nighy), Radio Rock's mastermind. Even if there isn't much to the movie (despite its two-hour-plus length), it's hard not to cheer for these characters (loosely based on real people and played by guys who were in The Flight of the Conchords and Shaun of the Dead). It's also loaded with classics by the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and many others. So you can't beat the music. ** 1/2 (Gallucci)

Planet 51 This animated film tantalizes with an interesting idea: a planet whose green, Matt Groening-esque inhabitants live in a candy-colored 1950s Americana time warp with drive-in movies, horror comic books and "Be Bop-a-Lula." Jung would have a field day with this culture, which is obsessed with alien invasion. They delight in space movies and sincerely believe aliens will someday eat their brains. When square-jawed American astronaut Chuck Baker (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) lands on Planet 51, the natives think their worst fears have been realized. While Army General Grawl (Gary Oldman) and monocled "alien expert" Professor Kripple (John Cleese) scheme to kill the invader, green teenager Lem (Justin Long) helps the comically arrogant Baker return to his ship, complicating the teen's budding romance with Neera (Jessica Biel). Ample satiric opportunities (Red Scare analogies, the American invader's view of a native population as "alien") are bypassed in favor of a yawningly predictable plot and superfluous poop jokes. The animation design has charm — the round hovercraft vehicles based on American tail-fin cars are especially adorable — but the movie lacks energy and originality and, most unforgivably, wastes the talents of the extraordinary Cleese. ** (Zoslov)

Precious Don't let the Oprah and Tyler Perry imprimatur scare you off. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire confounds expectations (prejudices?) at every turn. A remarkably accomplished sophomore outing by director Lee Daniels, Precious tells the story of morbidly obese 16-year-old Harlem teenager Claireece "Precious" Jones (knockout newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) forced to deal with a second unwanted pregnancy after her first baby was born with Down's Syndrome. Compounding Claireece's dire predicament is an abusive mother (sitcom diva Mo'Nique in a fearless, take-no-prisoners performance that seems destined to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar) battling formidable demons of her own. Despite the unrelenting bleakness and gut-wrenching despair of its no-exit milieu and dead-end characters, Precious is leavened with flights of magic realism as captivating as they are emotionally cathartic. ****(Paurich)

A Serious Man Set in a blandly pastoral midwestern suburb in 1967, Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man is reportedly the Coens' most personal work. Larry Gopnick (New York stage veteran Michael Stuhlbarg in a remarkable performance), the film's Job-like physics-professor protagonist, was modeled after their college-professor dad, and the movie's near-fetishistic details of coming-of-age in the mid-'60s were taken directly from their own Minnesota adolescence. When Larry's wife Judith (Sari Lennick) announces out of the blue that she wants a divorce so she can marry unctuous family "friend" Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his life quickly spirals out of control. Reduced to living in a no-tell motel with his deadbeat brother (Richard Kind), Larry is forced to take shit from every direction. His department head wants to deny him tenure, a South Korean student (David Kang) tries blackmailing him to get his grade changed, a Columbia Record Club phone rep harasses him at work, his rabbi repeatedly blows him off and his soon-to-be-bar-mitzvah son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is a burgeoning pothead who complains that "F Troop is fuzzy" on the family TV. So full of classic moments (including the funniest bar mitzvah on record) that it's impossible to catalog them after just one viewing, the movie has more big laughs than any film released so far this year. ***(Paurich)

The Twilight Saga: New Moon Ten minutes into this sequel to 2008's Twilight, Bella (Kristen Stewart) celebrates her 18th birthday at the home of boyfriend Edward (Robert Pattison) and his vampire family, where she gets a paper cut that causes one of the bloodsuckers to lose control. Worried that Bella won't be so lucky next time, Edward and company leave town. This sends Bella into a depression that lifts somewhat thanks a combination of dangerous behavior and spending more time with her Native American friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who just happens to be a werewolf. A better film than its predecessor, New Moon is an entertaining romantic fantasy with a stronger visual look and better action scenes, while still keeping the focus on the central love triangle. Stewart's acting has gotten better, and while Pattison has a smaller role this time, Lautner more than ably picks up the slack. The problem with focusing so much on Bella's dalliance with Jacob is that when the story brings Edward and the vampires back, the conclusion feels rushed. Also, with all its loose ends and assumptions that the audience knows what came before, New Moon doesn't stand on its own very well. ***(Ignizio)

2012 When Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) goes to India to see a colleague's research at a copper mine, he discovers that, thanks to giant solar eruptions, Earth's core is heating up, something that will inevitably trigger tectonic plate movement and devastating earthquakes. Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a struggling sci-fi writer who can't quite cut it as a single dad, stumbles upon similar evidence while on a crappy campy trip with his kids in Yellowstone. There, he meets wackjob conspiracy theorist Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who warns him that a huge volcano is about to erupt. Jackson races back to California to get his ex-wife and her boyfriend, and they barely make it out of there before the whole state slips into the ocean. The film has plenty going for it. The special effects are amazing. Landmarks like the Santa Monica Pier slip into the ocean, and luxury hotels in Vegas disintegrate. And Cusack is great as the lovable loser who has to dig deep to redeem himself during a time of crisis. But at 158 minutes, the movie is too long (the protracted ending is particularly torturous), and there are too many subplots (most involving strained relationships between parents and siblings) that don't really amount to anything. ** 1/2 (Niesel)

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Calendar

Staff Pick Events

  • Bad Reputation @ Capitol Theatre

    • Wed., Sept. 26
  • Kusama — Infinity @ Cleveland Museum of Art

    • Fri., Sept. 21 and Wed., Sept. 26
  • Halfway to CIFF 43 @ Capitol Theatre

    • Thu., Sept. 27

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