Film: Capsule Reviews


Burma VJ (Denmark, 2008) The amazing thing about Anders Østergaard's film is the way it's able to construct a cohesive narrative out of nothing more than underground footage and re-enactments of political strife in Burma. But the English voiceover (with subtitles, since the narrator has a heavy accent) does more than a capable job of walking you through the political unrest in Burma. The film starts with the 2007 uprising in Myanmar and shows how the government used force to put it down, even beating and imprisoning monks. Some of the footage is quite graphic. But the movie is out to show the power that a small group of video journalists have. Their footage makes its way out of the country and onto the international news circuit, helping bring attention to the plight of the Burmese people. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Friday, July 24. *** (Jeff Niesel)

The Country Teacher (Czech Republic/France/Germany, 2008) When a smart prep-school teacher (Pavel Liska) leaves Prague to go to a countryside school, the locals suspect there was something in his past that made him flee the big city. They're right, though it takes them some time to find out what. We get our first clue when a farm woman (Zuzana Bydzovská) makes advances toward him, and he shuns her for no particular reason. It's not long before we find out he's gay, something that comes to the fore when he becomes fixated on the farmer's teenage son (Ladislav Sedivy). The longer the teacher stays in the closet, the more uncomfortable things get. Written and directed by Bohdan Sláma, The Country Teacher juxtaposes big city and rural values, and ultimately shows that humanity can be possible for both. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, July 29. *** (Niesel)

(500) Days of Summer This boy-meets-girl story has a nice twist to it. It's told out-of-order (like Memento) so you see the break-up happen early on. Normally, that would ruin any sort of suspense, but this dramedy (or "bromance," if you will) doesn't suffer for its out-of-sequence narrative. Rather, the relationship between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is intriguing enough to make the movie worth watching. The plot is simple: Tom meets Summer and instantly falls in love. They start dating, but Summer makes it clear she isn't looking for a committed relationship. Tom accepts that at first. But it's not long before he becomes jealous and possessive. Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt have great chemistry, even if the tension between them sometimes makes it difficult to watch. It's got a terrific soundtrack too which prominently features the Smiths, the band whose music best exemplifies Tom's struggles. *** (Niesel)

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)

Il Divo (Italy/France, 2008) Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Paolo Sorrentino's flamboyantly stylized, robustly entertaining biography of controversial seven-time Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti isn't always easy to follow (it helps if you have a passing knowledge of Italian politics over the past 50 or so years), but it's such a wild, batten-down-the-hatches ride that it simply doesn't matter. Chockful of bravura, thrillingly kinetic setpieces that recall Scorsese, Coppola, Fellini and Visconti, Sorrentino's one-of-a-kind biopic also features an astonishing lead performance by Toni Servillo that mix-and-matches commedia dell'arte with method-acting madness to galvanizing, frequently brilliant effect. On the basis of this and Matteo Garrone's recent Gomorrah, it's heartening to report that the Italian cinema is currently in the middle of a spectacular new revival. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Friday, July 24, and 2:50 p.m. Sunday, July 26. **** (Milan Paurich)

Julia (France/U.S./Mexico/Belgium, 2008) When we first meet Julia (Tilda Swinton), she's on her way to becoming a drunken mess at a bar, spilling out of her dress and flirting with every man in sight. She wakes up the next morning next to some guy in the front seat of a parked car. This is how Julia greets most mornings. But this morning is a particularly brutal one: She's fired from her job and about to be kicked out of her apartment, all because she drinks way too much. Like most movie alcoholics, she treats AA meetings with disdain — fidgeting, rolling her eyes at other members' problems and eventually walking out mid-meeting. Elena (Kate del Castillo) — a shy, fragile and borderline psychotic Mexican neighbor — approaches Julia after a meeting and later tries to recruit Julia's help in kidnapping her son, whom Elena claims is being held captive by the 8-year-old's multi-millionaire grandfather. Julia eventually comes up with her own plan to double-cross Elena and hold the boy for ransom. The usually reserved Swinton (an art-house fave) gives an intense performance here, but parts of Julia don't ring true. For a woman who spends the first half-hour of the film either drunk or hungover, how is it that Julia goes for days without a drink after kidnapping the boy? Still, this story of a desperate woman in a desperate situation boasts another great performance by the London-born and versatile Swinton, playing a tough-talking American drunk looking for a way out of the hell she's dug herself into. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Thursday, July 23, and 9:10 p.m. Friday, July 24. *** (Michael Gallucci)

Orphan Jaume Collet-Serra's (House of Wax) psychological thriller starts with a good premise: John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Kate (Vera Farmiga) want to adopt a child to help them recover from Kate's recent miscarriage. So they head to the local orphanage and choose an artistically inclined Russian child Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). At first, Esther gets along fine with their two children and adjusts easily to her new home. But it's not long before a series of strange accidents make Kate think Esther has bad intentions. It's at this point that the movie's tension escalates to the point that it goes over the top, particularly as young Esther's feelings for John take on Lolita-like dimensions. While the fim's surprise ending isn't something you can see coming, it's not enough to make the movie anything more than a conventional horror flick. ** (Niesel)

Our Hospitality (US, 1923) A New Yorker goes back to his Southern home and gets caught up in a family feud in Buster Keaton's comedy. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, July 25, and 1:15 p.m. Sunday, July 26.

The Room (US, 2003) Among film hipsters on the West Coast, cult notoriety has been conferred upon writer-director-producer-star-mogul Tommy Wiseau's tragic psychodrama. Wiseau, who kinda seems (in more ways than one) like Fabio crossed with Ed Wood, plays the lead role (no surprise there) of Johnny, a nice-guy San Francisco banking exec whose idyllic life starts to fall apart a month before his planned nuptials. Fiancée Lisa secretly doesn't love him anymore (we are told this about four or five times) and is carrying on an affair with Mark, Johnny's "best friend" (we are told this about 400-500 times). With English-as-a-second-language dialogue, characters who awkwardly entrez and exeunt, laughable love interludes and from-hunger acting, the world may now be laughing at Mr. Wiseau, not with him. But grant The Room this much: It's not an amateur Tarantino/Lucas/Spielberg/Romero genre clone, like so many turkeys, but bravely blazes its own way, à la Wood's singular Glen or Glenda. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 9:10 p.m. Saturday, July 25. ** 1/2 (Charles Cassady Jr.)

Séraphine (France/Belgium, 2008) Slated to open later this summer at the Cedar Lee Theatre, Martin Provost's new film about the life of self-taught artist Séraphine Louis shows in this special sneak preview. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 22.

Shall We Kiss? (France, 2007) This foreign film might be stereotypically French, but don't hold that against it. The story revolves around Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) and Émilie (Julie Gayet), who meet by chance one afternoon. After Gabriel gives Émilie a lift, he senses the two have connected and offers her a "kiss without consequences." She turns him down, maintaining that innocent exchanges don't exist and proceeds to tell him a story about her friend Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), who thought she'd kiss her pal Nicolas (director Emmanuel Mouret) and nothing would come of it. Told in a series of flashbacks, Judith's story is both romantic and tragic, causing Gabriel to rethink his offer, even though he's even more attracted to Émilie after he spends several hours listening to her story. Like a Woody Allen movie, Shall We Kiss? is well-acted and -directed, even if its European sensibilities aren't likely to connect with mainstream American viewers. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7:05 p.m. Saturday, July 25. *** (Niesel)

In Theaters

Away We Go In the opening scene of Away We Go, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are in bed going at it. Burt has his head under the covers and is clearly, um, pleasuring Maya, while he tries to keep up a conversation at the same time. It's a funny if awkward scene that sets the tone for the whimsical film, a much lighter movie than director Sam Mendes' previous effort, Revolutionary Road. A road movie of sorts, Away We Go follows Burt and Verona as they traipse across the country, visiting friends and acquaintances to find a place where they can live and raise their child. They embark on their trip after Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) inform him they're moving and won't be around once Verona, several months pregnant, gives birth. No longer tied down, Burt and Verona go first to Phoenix, where they meet one of Verona's former colleagues (Allison Janney). Then they're off to Tucson to visit Verona's sister (Carmen Ejogo). After stops in Wisconsin, Montreal and Miami, they decide their friends don't have any answers about where to live and how to raise children. Written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, the movie avoids most of the usual romantic comedy clichés and offers a fresh approach to the genre. *** (Niesel)

Brüno The movie's tagline claims "Borat was so 2006." And in a way, Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up to his hit comedy about a horny Kazakhstanian on a U.S. road trip is a little different. But in so many other ways, Brüno is a lot like the wildly hilarious Borat. For one thing, Cohen and director Larry Charles take their camera into the real world, capturing real people's reactions to the very real things happening in front of them. Last time Cohen brought a bag of his feces to the dinner table; this time he has his anus bleached while fielding a phone call from his agent. Cohen plays super-gay Austrian TV fashion-show host Brüno, who heads to L.A. to become famous — "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler," he says. Like Borat, he manages to dupe and get under the skin of various homophobes, celebs and pretentious assholes. And like Borat, there's more set pieces than plot here. Thought Borat's wrestling scene was too much? Wait till you see Brüno's. And while Cohen takes it kinda easy on a minister who promises to make the flamboyant Brüno straight, his hunting trip with a bunch of Southern good ol' boys is uncomfortably brilliant. *** 1/2 (Gallucci)

The Hangover A pre-titles sequence sets the scene: Four men are stranded in the desert, all of them beaten, bruised and bloodied. One of them calls a bride-to-be on his cell, informing her that her wedding — just hours away — isn't going to happen. The groom is "lost." Flashback two days earlier, when four men — groom Doug (National Treasure's Justin Bartha), his best friend Stu (The Office's Ed Helms), buddy Phil (Bradley Cooper, who played Rachel McAdams' dick boyfriend in Wedding Crashers) and the bride's loser brother Alan (standup comedian Zach Galifianakis in a breakout performance) — are prepping for Doug's bachelor party in Las Vegas. They check into a $4,200-a-night suite, go to the roof for a celebratory drink and ... wake up the next morning, not remembering a thing. Including how a tiger got in their bathroom, why they now have a baby and where they left Doug. They spend the rest of the movie piecing together their forgotten night. It's one of the funniest movies of the past couple of years, with enough testosterone to power Caesars Palace. *** (Gallucci)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince As the penultimate story in the series, The Half-Blood Prince plays a lot like The Two Towers, the middle part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In a way, it's just a stepping stone between exposition and climax. But it's also a crucial part of the tale — perhaps the most important link, the chapter that tidies up some past questions and opens up a crapload of others. In The Half-Blood Prince, evil Voldemort's presence lurks in the corridors of Hogwarts, even though he's MIA in the movie. Something bad is definitely brewing, and grand old wizard Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) wants to make sure Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his trusty schoolmates, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), are prepared. Harry, Hermione and Ron's relationships — with each other and with various other young wizards and witches — take up a sizable chunk of the movie's narrative. Much is made of these budding romances; the horny teens' raging libidos fuel much of the onscreen tension. The movies and actors have gotten more assured over the years. It helps that The Half-Blood Prince is one of the best Potter books, but this is also one of the best films — assertive, thrilling and funny. *** (Gallucci)

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs Ray Romano, Denis Leary and John Leguizamo all return here as the voices behind Manny, Diego and Sid, a motley group of animals who've become a "herd." Manny the mammoth has settled into domestic bliss with Ellie (Queen Latifah), who's expecting a baby. Manny's so excited, in fact, he's built a playground for the yet-unborn child. But all isn't well with Diego and Sid. Diego feels he's losing his ferocity and thinks it might be time for him to move on, and Sid's feeling like he needs to find a mate and start a family of his own. So when Sid stumbles upon a set of dinosaur eggs, he goes against Manny's wishes, waits for them to hatch and adopts the babies. As can be predicted, mama dinosaur isn't too happy that some sloth has stolen her babies and eventually tracks them down and whisks them (and Sid) back to her underground home. Manny, Ellie and even Diego all realize they need to help Sid, even if it means endangering their own lives. So they head underground to the land of the dinosaurs where they encounter an adventure-loving weasel named Buck (Simon Pegg), who offers to help them save their friend. There aren't any surprises here, and the whole dinosaur thing is rather random. But Romano, Leary and Leguizamo have all given their respective characters real personality and Latifah, who joined the franchise with the second film, 2006's Meltdown, is terrific as well. *** (Niesel)

I Love You, Beth Cooper Class valedictorian Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) is obsessed with head cheerleader Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere). So when he gives his graduation speech, he confesses his love for the buxom blonde, pissing off her burly boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts) in the process. Afterward, Beth tells Denis his speech was "sweet" and even brings her equally bodacious gal pals to his graduation party. Trouble arrives, however, when Kevin and his buddies show up and trash the place, making Beth take poor Denis under her protective wing. As Beth and Denis try to elude Kevin and his cronies, the two predictably bond, even though Denis discovers Beth is a lot wilder than he thought (she drives her compact car around like some kind maniac). While Christopher Columbus' (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Stepmom) film starts with a good enough premise (Denis' speech makes for a particularly awkward opening), things quickly go downhill as the film follows a familiar opposites-attract trajectory. ** (Niesel)

My Sister's Keeper After six feature films in 13 years, it's safe to assume writer-director Nick Cassavetes will never be confused with his late father, indie pioneer/auteur John Cassavetes. If Cassavetes Senior's films were (deliberately) rough around the edges and seemingly improvised (even when they weren't), Cassavetes Junior occasionally errs on the side of slickness — Exxon Valdez oil-spill slickness. Take My Sister's Keeper, Cassavetes' alternately moving and insidious adaptation of Jodi Picoult's best-selling novel. Cassavetes displayed his tearjerker chops with 2004's The Notebook, and Keeper proves that he hasn't lost his touch at wringing emotions. But Notebook worked because the lead performances by star-crossed lovers Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams were so classy you could (almost) forgive the crass manipulations of the icky Nicholas Sparks source material. Cassavetes' latest borders on Hallmark porn ("Let's all feel good about feeling bad"). Or maybe it's just that the directorial hand is so heavy this time. The story of an 11-year-old girl (Little Miss Sunshine cutie Abigail Breslin) who sues her parents for "medical emancipation," My Sister's Keeper has such a loaded, Lifetime Movie premise that it can't help but get under your skin. The most troubling aspect of the film is the faint whiff of exploitation that lurks around the edges. ** (Paurich)

Public Enemies Johnny Depp doesn't really look much like John Dillinger, the notorious 1930s bank robber. Dillinger was weasely, with a permanent half-scowl/half-smirk that suggested he was way better than anyone else in the room. Plus, he didn't have Depp's heavenly high cheekbones. Still, in Public Enemies, Depp plays Dillinger as such a charming and chivalrous guy that it may forever alter future generations' perception of Chicago's gangland don. But Public Enemies isn't meant to be a historically faultless portrait of that blood-riddled period. Director and co-writer Michael Mann fudged some facts in The Insider and skirted reality altogether in Miami Vice. This is entertainment. And for 140 minutes, Depp, Mann and the best-dressed gangsters you've ever seen do a bang-up job entertaining us. *** (Gallucci)

The Taking of Pelham 123 Walter's (Denzel Washington) having a typical day at his job — bullshitting with coworkers, maneuvering subway trains throughout the city — when a group of machine-gun-toting bad guys (led by a mustachioed John Travolta) takes over one of the cars. They stop the train (the Pelham 1 2 3 of the title) on the tracks, in the middle of a tunnel, and demand $10 million in exchange for 19 hostages. Travolta's Ryder gives authorities one hour to deliver the ransom. If he doesn't receive it, he'll kill one passenger for every minute it's delayed. Unfortunately, family guy Walter takes the hijackers' call and becomes Ryder's go-to man in this remake of a 1974 film. Washington brings his usual stately cool to Walter, slowly transforming him from a downgraded desk jockey to a button-down-shirt-and-tie-wearing action hero. Meanwhile, Travolta gives his most intense and showy performance in years as the foulmouthed and tattooed Ryder. It all culminates in an underground-to-street showdown, making it a helluva thrilling ride. *** (Gallucci)

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Nobody went to the first Transformers for Shia LaBeouf. Nobody went for Megan Fox either (well, maybe some of us did). Everybody who saw that summer blockbuster two years ago went for the robots — the shape-shifting, ass-kicking, totally awesome robots. In this overblown sequel, director Michael Bay wisely keeps the camera on the Autobots and Decepticons for most of the movie, shoving aside what little plot there is to make room for big, explosive set pieces where tons of shit blows up. This time around, the "story" has something to do with a reborn and revenge-minded Megatron returning to Earth to kidnap LaBeouf's Sam and then take over the planet. But who really cares? It's all about bigger and badder battles that span Sam's front yard to the Egyptian desert. At two and a half hours, there's plenty of time to get to know Revenge of the Fallen's bots, but Bay is more focused on big bangs, cheap laughs and having his metal heroes call opponents "punk-ass Decepticons." LaBeouf and Fox are back (our first glimpse of her is a slow-mo shot of her cut-offs-clad ass); so are Bumblebee, Optimus Prime and a bunch of little Gremlin-like Transformers. Sam is in college now, giving Bay the opportunity to cause some major property damage on campus. He also introduces a horny coed who's a literal man-eater. It all spills over into one of the movie's best scenes. But too much of Revenge of the Fallen is loud, plodding and totally obnoxious. ** 1/2 (Gallucci)

The Ugly Truth At this late date in movie history, it seems almost unnecessary to provide detailed narratives, since the tropes are so familiar. Case in point: this romantic comedy starring Katherine Heigl as a lovelorn TV producer and Gerard Butler as the crass misogynist her station hires to boost ratings. The audience can recite the formula (hate at first sight turns to love), so the movie can largely ignore plot development and just revel in the charisma of its leads. Fortunately, it’s blessed with genuinely appealing players (unlike, say, The Proposal). Heigl is an Amazonian beauty with comedic flair, and Butler, a Scotsman known chiefly for historical drama, displays a twinkling Clooney/Crowe charm. He plays Mike, host of a ribald cable-access show debunking feminine notions of romance, who is recruited over the objections of Abby (Heigl) to salvage her sagging morning-news program. He also helps salvage her sagging love life in a sort of reverse Pygmalion: transforming her from strong woman into cleavage-baring Barbie doll. Director Robert Luketic’s track record is spotty (Legally Blonde, Monster-in-Law), but this one benefits from an amusing, if uneven, screenplay by Nicole Eastman and Karen McCullah Lutz that’s innocuously raunchy, a combination you might not have thought possible. *** (Pamela Zoslov)
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