Capsule Reviews


Duck Soup (US, 1933) The Marx Brothers' comic masterwork wasn't a success in its era. In fact, there was some doubt the team would do another movie after the film laid an egg at the box office (it was indeed the last time Zeppo Marx appeared onscreen with the troupe). Only in the 1960s, with the Marx Brothers re-appraised and appreciated by rebellious college students for their anti-authoritarian antics, was Duck Soup elevated to the realm of classic, warped and surreal humor. The film is set in mythical Freedonia, a place so poor that financial existence depends on the charity of rich widow Margaret Dumont. She's smitten with the disreputable Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho), and he's put in charge of the government. Never mind that Firefly still insults her and everybody else with rapid-fire verbiage. Neighboring country Sylvania wants to take over Fredonia, and inept spies Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo) follow Firefly, who arbitrarily leads Freedonia into war against Sylvania. Then Groucho puts Chico on trial for treason, simultaneously trying to convict and defend him. Whether a serious point is being made in all the foolishness is purely moot. Just laugh and enjoy. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 29, and 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 30. **** (Charles Cassady Jr.)

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Hana (Japan, 2006) Set in 18th-century Japan, Hirokazu Kore-Eda's parody is something like an Asian Year One. But without comedic talents like Jack Black and Michael Cera, the humor doesn't really resonate. Plus you should probably know a thing or two about samurai traditions to really get something out of the flick. The plot revolves around Soza (Junichi Okada), a young warrior who must avenge his father's death. Problem is, he's notoriously shy and is more interested in reading and writing than fighting. In fact, he'd rather help the city slaves do menial tasks than pick up his sword and kill the man who offed his dad. And yet, he still tries to keep some semblance of the samurai lifestyle, even if he can't pay his rent. While some of the double entendres and jokes are really clever, the movie works better as a period piece than a comedy. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 29, and 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 30. ** 1/2 (Jeff Niesel)

I Can See You (US, 2008) Graham Reznick's film has been described as a "psychedelic campfire tale," and that's a pretty apt description for this disjointed movie about a group of guys who work for a Brooklyn commercial design firm struggling to come up with an ad campaign for a toxic, all-purpose cleaning solution called Claractix. To find some inspiration, the crew take their laptops and digital cameras into the woods for a weekend "total fuckin' immersion." Everything appears to be going according to plan, and one of the guys even meets a cute hippie chick while hanging out at a bonfire. But the trip turns into a nightmare of Lynchian proportions when a boogeyman starts torturing the guys. Poorly acted but visually striking, the film is a real mixed bag. It's preceeded by a showing of Reznick's "The Viewer," a 3-D short about an interrogation procedure that has mind-altering repurcusions. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 2. ** 1/2 (Niesel)

It's a Gift (US, 1934) The W.C. Fields classic comedy from 1934 won't win any awards for fancy scriptwriting — it's literally a handful of Fields' well-remembered sketch routines from the vaudeville stage charm-braceleted together into the loosest imaginable plotline, about a downtrodden and henpecked shopkeeper (Fields), his awful family and his eventual California windfall. Still, screen comedy and culture wouldn't have been the same without any of these great bits. One simple yet beautifully timed routine concerns Fields' inability to catch an afternoon nap without being troubled by every disturbance conceivable. The sidesplitting sequence/sketch of blind-deaf Mr. Muckle obliviously wreaking havoc in Fields' grocery store found an admirer in none other than Alfred Hitchcock, who appreciated the exquisite suspense in the basic dilemma of what was about to get smashed next. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 29, and 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 30. *** 1/2 (Cassady)

Laila's Birthday (Palestine/Tunisia/Netherlands, 2008) Former judge turned persnickety cab driver Abu (Mohammed Bakri) has a very bad day in Palestinian writer-director Rashid Masharawi's slice-of-life fable set in present-day Ramallah. On the day of his young daughter's birthday party, the Job-like Abu is forced to endure one indignity after another: Kafkaesque delays in the Ministry of Justice office; obstinate passengers; random terrorist attacks more inconvenient than truly frightening. Even the simplest errands like buying his daughter's birthday gift and picking up her cake at a local bakery become Sisyphian tasks. Similar in bemused tone and neo-realist style to many works of the New Iranian Cinema, Masharawi's film might have worked better as a short, since there's barely enough drama to sustain a feature-length running time. It doesn't help that humorless prig Abu makes a fairly unsympathetic lead character who's impossible to warm up to. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 28, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 30. ** (Milan Paurich)

Oblivion (Netherlands, 2008) Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann's nonfiction feature essay is a sort of Peoples' History of 20th-Century Peru. Average Yankee-imperialist-pig audiences may wonder at first what the point is of these elusive interludes with faraway Lima's aged headwaiters, unemployed hoteliers, street performers and vendors, tinkers, tailors and sad shoeshine boys. But eventually the sense comes through of the too-oft-invisible permanent underclass in a dysfunctional capital city. These are the resilient bit players in a much larger drama — Peru's series of social convulsions, economic collapses, terror strikes and counter-strikes (to the point that it's impossible to tell who's committing the atrocities — troglodyte Maoists or police death squads). They are folks like the clothier behind the manufacture of the presidential sash, threatened due to a sartorial misunderstanding, or the ever-smiling bartender who finally gets his little shot at revenge on the highest in the land. These are great stories of the powerful — none interviewed here — and the ostensibly powerless hanging on with determination. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 8:25 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 27, and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 28. *** (Cassady)

Pontypool (Canada, 2008) Pontypool is an effectively eerie Canadian horror flick by cult director Bruce McDonald (The Tracey Fragments) about a radio talk-show host (the terrific Stephen McHattie) whose early-morning program is disrupted by reports of a zombie invasion. Things come to a boil when an army of the undead shows up at the station and begins banging on the windows. Despite a shoestring Canuck budget, McDonald's terse little chiller has more smarts — and visual panache — than most Hollywood movies costing 100 times as much. Anyone who's ever listened to Rush Limbaugh and his fascistic ilk will dig the film's sociopolitical subtext about the devaluation of language in today's townhall-meetings-gone-amuck cultural climate. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 27, and 9:25 p.m. Friday, Aug. 28. *** (Paurich)

Sügisball (Estonia, 2007) Veiko Ounpuu's film (the title translates as "Autumn Ball") about a group of apartment dwellers who struggle to find love and happiness portends to be something like an Estonian version of Crash. Beautifully shot, it chronicles the lives of a handful of people, each despondent in his or her own way. The intersecting stories involve a young writer who lives alone because his wife left him for a friend of his, an architect who gets pissed off when his friends criticize his extravagant lifestyle, and a doorman who has aspirations of leaving his lowly job and making money investing in trash-removal machines. It's all rather bleak, particularly since just about everyone appears to have a drinking problem. While the narratives don't ever come together into a coherent whole, the film is beautifully shot and has several poetic moments. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 30, and 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 31. *** (Niesel)

In Theaters

Adam In the opening scenes of writer-director Max Mayer's drama about a man with Asperger's syndrome, Adam (Hugh Dancy) is at his father's funeral. While we never see his dad, we get the sense that Adam's going to be lost without him. After all, this is a guy who eats the same thing every day (bran for breakfast, mac and cheese for dinner) and keeps his brownstone apartment in meticulous order. Asperger's is a mild form of autism that makes it difficult for Adam to communicate, even though he's physicist-smart. So when he meets his lovely brunette neighbor Beth (Rose Byrne), he has trouble telling her how much he likes her, though at one point he blurts out that he's sexually aroused. And yet, the two begin a relationship that goes along smoothly until, in predictable fashion, Adam has one of his fits, forcing Beth to break up with him. Of course, in the next scene, Adam overcomes his fear of outside world and pursues Beth. He tries to convince her to help him with his new job at an observatory, which requires that he move to California. The film's trajectory is more that of a made-for-TV special than a theatrical release, and its subplot concerning Beth's fraudulent father (Peter Gallagher) is completely extraneous. While Dancy and Byrne have decent chemistry, the whole thing is pretty schmaltzy. ** (Niesel)

Bandslam Will (Gaelan Connell) is the kind of music geek who writes daily letters to David Bowie about his life. He knows the complete Velvet Underground oeuvre inside and out and has "Wichita Lineman" on his iPod. Ridiculed at school because his dad was a notorious drunk, he gets a second chance when his mom (Lisa Kudrow) decides to move from Cincinnati to Lodi, New Jersey. And somehow, the change of locale finds this nerd caught in the crossfire of two hotties – Charlotte (Alyson Michalka) and Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens). Sa5m pairs up with him in "Human Studies" class. Charlotte enlists him to manage her band, which is preparing to compete in the annual "bandslam" competition. Complications ensue. Balancing the two relationships proves to be difficult, and it's not long before the whole thing implodes. While you'd be hard-pressed to find a better soundtrack (the film dips into the back catalogs of Nick Drake and David Bowie), the good use of music is all for naught since the melodrama is so forced, it makes tween flicks like High School Musical and Hannah Montana seem realistic by comparison. * (Niesel)

District 9 On the surface, District 9 is about aliens. But its subtext is pretty clear to anyone familiar with segregation. District 9 is about oppression. And standing up for rights. And wanting to go home. It's a rebel movie, but the rebels are aliens who have been crammed into a South African slum for more than 20 years. Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp (from a short film he made in 2005), District 9 came together after he and producer Peter Jackson couldn't get their Halo movie off the ground. And in a way, the kinda creepy and totally bloody District 9 plays a lot like Halo, with some very awesome guns capable of blasting the hell out of anything that gets in their way. But District 9 is more subtle than the hit videogame franchise, building conflict and a sense of confinement before turning into a limb-severing showdown between military pricks, displaced aliens and a good-guy researcher who's slowly transforming into one of the creatures. The movie's handheld-camera, documentary- style approach is played out by now, but it serves District 9's narrative, even if it sorta breaks the rules during the movie's final act. By the end, the big-ass weapons come out, and District 9 swerves a little into popcorn-movie territory. But not even a ginormous robot suit can divert from the film's undertones of what it means to be an alien in a place where you've lived for so long. *** (Michael Gallucci)

Funny People Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a mega-popular comedian — and kind of an ass — who makes mega-crappy movies that sound a lot like the ones Sandler makes (my favorite: My Best Friend Is a Robot). George gets some bad news from his doctor in the very first scene: He has leukemia and might not have long to live. So he returns to his roots as a stand-up comic and taps struggling comedian Ira Wright (a svelte Rogen) to write jokes for him and to help out around his mansion. At nearly two and a half hours, Funny People sags a bit during the second half, when the movie takes a turn into director Judd Apatow's usual messy-romance territory. It's not as consistently funny as The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up, but it is a stronger movie and Apatow's best film. The stellar supporting cast includes many Apatow regulars — including Jonah Hill as (what else?) Ira's smartass roommate and Leslie Mann (Apatow's wife) as George's ex-girlfriend — as well as tons of cameos by real-life comedians and musicians. And Sandler has never been better, pulling off funny and serious in the same breath. *** 1/2 (Gallucci)

G-Force You could do worse than this for a generally OK summer kiddie frolic, an alliance between Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney. There's barely any breathing room in the CGI-dependent, Ritalin-deficient, action-spazz narrative about a team of superspy guinea pigs, rodents and bugs trained by an eccentric scientist to talk and act as a secret-agent task force. Imagine Spy Kids' Pets as an alternate title, although — curiously and refreshingly — there are few child characters. The wonder critters, a.k.a. G-Force, try to expose a standard spy-flick bad-guy-with-a-suave-British-accent (Bill Nighy, out from under his Pirates of the Caribbean makeup), who has household appliances around the world timed to detonate with an evil mystery chip. Not to spoil things too much, but shape-shifting "Transformer" robots are getting pretty stale as plot devices. That said, you're in for visual treat if you go to the 3D version of G-Force, as the depth effects are quite nicely done. ** 1/2 (Cassady)

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra A group of terrorists, led by arms dealer McCullen a.k.a. Destro (Christopher Eccleston), plot to take over the world. The only thing that can stop them is G.I. Joe, an elite team of international soldiers. But it's the subplot about Joe member Duke (Channing Tatum) and his star-crossed romance with femme fatale the Baroness (Sienna Miller) that gives the movie its heart. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Arnold Vosloo turn in fine performances as bad guys Zartan and "The Doctor," respectively. Most of G.I. Joe still consists of people shooting at each other and blowing stuff up, but director Stephen Sommers and his writers at least tried to make an actual movie rather than just string together a bunch of action scenes. G.I. Joe is a little long and a whole lot of silly, but it's also a lot of fun and not nearly as obnoxious or bloated as this summer's other toy-based blockbuster. *** (Robert Ignizio)

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard Don Ready (Jeremy Pivens), leader of a team of hard-partying mercenary salesmen (Ving Rhames, David Koechner and Kathryn Hahn), is hired to keep a used-car dealership from going into bankruptcy. While working his sales magic, Don becomes attracted to a woman (Jordana Spiro) already engaged to the town's biggest douchebag (Ed Helms). Because as everyone knows, smart and attractive young women in the movies always face a shortage of decent guys who want to date them, so it's either marry a loser or become an old maid. But maybe, just maybe, Don will overcome the tragedy from his past and not only save the dealership, but also find a way to win the girl. That's pretty much the extent of the formulaic plot. Luckily, this is a comedy, so while plot does matter, jokes matter more. And in that respect, The Goods has the goods. Some of the humor falls flat, but there are still an awful lot of laughs here. The excellent supporting cast helps a lot too. ** 1/2 (Ignizio)

The Hurt Locker Set in 2004, The Hurt Locker concerns an elite military unit (Delta Company) stationed in Baghdad whose job consists of scoping out and defusing bombs. Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner in a breakthrough performance that deserves to be remembered at awards time), the group's new leader, is a gung-ho cowboy whose seeming recklessness and disregard for "official" protocol scares the crap out of his team members (Anthony Mackie's Sanborn and Brian Geraghty's Eldridge). James is an adrenaline junkie. He thrives on danger and the narcotic-like exhilaration of always being one step away from harm's way. Back in the U.S., James' life seems hopelessly mundane by comparison (a visit to a supermarket sends him into temporary paralysis). Bigelow and Renner make it eminently clear that James is the type of guy who would probably shrivel up and die if he didn't have the addictive rush/high of combat that propels him from Point A to Point B. "War is a drug," the quotation from former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges that opens the film, might seem like a reductive cheap shot if the evidence on screen weren't so damn persuasive. **** (Paurich)

Inglourious Basterds Opening with a "Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France" intro, Inglourious Basterds' first chapter (yes, Tarantino divides his film into episodes again) introduces a couple of characters — an SS colonel and a Jewish girl whose family he kills — who weave in and out of the movie. It's 1941, and Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, with cocked eyebrows, a Tennessee accent and Clark Gable's mustache) recruits eight Jewish-American soldiers to "kill Nazis." But because Aldo is descended from Native Americans, his gang doesn't just kill Nazis; they scalp them too. Aldo's warriors eventually hook up with a German spy (National Treasure's Diane Kruger), and they hatch a plan to take out most of the Third Reich's top tier, including Hitler and Goebbels. Even though Tarantino isn't on rapid-fire here, there are parts of Inglourious Basterds that are every bit as accomplished as Pulp Fiction. He still gets a kick making movies, and the evidence is onscreen. *** (Gallucci)

Julie and Julia This movie is based on a book by Julie Powell, a real-life cubicle drone who decides to change her life by cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child's famous cookbook. Julie and Julia never meet, yet their stories crisscross, intersect and feed each other throughout the film, which opens with juxtaposing scenes of the women moving into their respective new homes (Julie in 2002 NYC, Julia in 1949 France). Julie — played by Amy Adams, less spunky and more puffy than usual — has a reputation for never finishing what she starts. So she sets a deadline for herself: one year to cook the entire content of Child's cookbook, posting blog entries about every dish she makes. Meanwhile, Child (Meryl Streep, overstating) is an American living overseas with her State Department-employed husband. She begins taking cooking classes to keep busy. Director and co-screenwriter Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail), a chick-flick vet who's never shied away from pouring on the glop, dispenses plenty of it in Julie & Julia. Too bad Julie & Julia couldn't be more substantial, instead of serving us chick-flick leftovers with a side of cold ham. ** 1/2 (Gallucci)

Ponyo When it comes to anime, no one does it better than Japan's Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle). Miyazaki's latest is another exquisite film. The plot surrounds a young boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) who discovers what he thinks is a talking goldfish. He brings it home and christens it Ponyo (Noah Cyrus). But Ponyo isn't a goldfish. Rather, she's a sea creature whose father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) and mother Gran Mammare (Cate Blanchett) live underwater. While the film's love story follows the storyline of most mermaid films (Ponyo wants to become human so she can spend her life with Sosuke), in Miyazaki's hands, it becomes a mystical fairy tale, especially after Sosuke's world becomes engulfed by water and he must take a toy boat out in search of his mother (Tina Fey). And the film's not just a love story: It's as much about the ocean and the environment as it is about a fish who falls in love with a boy. *** (Niesel)

Post Grad Ryden Malby (Alexis Bledel) is that girl you hated in college. An attractive straight-A student who participated in all the right extracurricular activities, she's the one who seems destined for success and is set on working at the city's biggest and best publishing house. But a funny thing happens on the way to the publishing house. She doesn't get the gig. Rival Jessica Bard (Catherine Reitman) is hired instead, sending Ryden into a tailspin. Complicating matters is the fact that Ryden leans so heavily on her best friend Adam (Friday Night Lights' Zach Gilford). He's clearly in love with her, but she'd rather keep the relationship platonic and falls for the hunky guy-next-door (Rodrigo Santoro) instead. While the film's not as quirky as, say, Juno, it does go for a similar vibe, particularly when it comes to Ryden's family. Her goofy dad (an unhinged Michael Keaton), madcap grandmother (Carol Burnett) and manic mom (Jane Lynch) are such oddball characters, they provide it with the comic relief it needs. ** 1/2 (Niesel)

Shorts While Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, the Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl) makes kids' flicks that aren't necessarily smart enough to appeal to adults, they're a step above the kind of stuff that usually passes for family entertainment. Shorts centers on the trials and tribulations of one Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), a defenseless kid who gets picked on at school by the daughter and son of Mr. Black (James Spader), the town's power hungry millionaire who's devised a contraption that transforms from cell phone to toaster (but doesn't, thankfully, have Transformers-like powers). When Toe discovers a secret rock that enables its owner's wishes to come true, everyone from his mother and father (Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer) to his germophobic neighbor (William H. Macy) tries to get his or her hands on the thing, sending the small suburban community into an uproar. Toe tells his story out of sequence (hence the "shorts" title), and Rodriguez often lets the story spiral out of control. But it's good, campy fun that never has to rely too heavily on special effects to make its point that self-discovery is key. *** (Niesel)

The Time Traveler's Wife Told out of sequence, The Time Traveler's Wife begins with the death of young Henry's mother, who's killed in a horrible car accident. But Henry, in the back seat at the time of the accident, manages to live, thanks to his ability to travel through time. Flash forward a few years and Henry (Eric Bana) is all grown up, working in a library. When Clare (Rachel McAdams) approaches him, she realizes she knows him. Turns out an older Henry befriended a much younger Clare on his time travels, and they would meet regularly in a large field on the property where Clare grew up. Confusing, yes, but the filmmakers go to great lengths to simplify things. The two get married, and everything is going smoothly until they try to have a baby. It turns out the fetus is a time traveler too, and one miscarriage follows another until they get some help from a somewhat skeptical doctor (Stephen Tobolowsky). While the time-traveling sequences are artfully done (thanks to some nifty digital effects, Henry simply fades away on the screen), the love story is the film's focus. Much like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the film is about a couple who have to fight against the odds so they can be together. The movie definitely falls into the chick-flick realm, but don't hold that against it. *** (Niesel)

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