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Mini Reviews (January 2011)

Handsome Harry, The Echo, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, Love Happens, Death Race 2, Attenberg, Primal, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

Handsome Harry (January 2/11)

Handsome Harry follows follow Vietnam veteran Harry Sweeney (Jamey Sheridan) as his daily routine of working and drinking is interrupted by a call from a former Navy buddy (Steve Buscemi's Thomas), as Harry is essentially summoned to the man's death bed and made to promise that he'll seek forgiveness from a comrade that was somehow wronged back in the day. Before he meets this mysterious figure, however, Harry decides to visit with each of the men involved in the crime - including John Savage's Peter, Aidan Quinn's Porter, and Titus Welliver's Gebhardt. Filmmaker Bette Gordon has infused Handsome Harry with an unabashedly low-key and deliberately-paced sensibility that proves an effective complement to Nicholas T. Proferes' decidedly subdued script, with Sheridan's consistently engrossing performance going a long way towards initially creating (and inevitably sustaining) an atmosphere of compelling authenticity. The film's episodic narrative ensures that certain portions of the midsection fare better than others, as Harry's encounters with the men from his past tend to vary in terms of their entertainment value (ie Harry's electrifying tete-a-tete with Welliver's character stands as an obvious highlight). It is, as a result, impossible to deny that Handsome Harry generally works best as an actor's showcase, with the familiarity of the central character's arc cementing this feeling and ultimately ensuring that the movie doesn't quite pack the punch that Gordon was clearly going for.

out of

The Echo (January 7/11)

Though it opens with a fair amount of promise, The Echo inevitably establishes itself as just another unpleasant, interminably paced horror effort that's been modeled after (superior) predecessors like The Ring and Dark Water. The movie stars Jesse Bradford as Bobby, a paroled convict who arrives at his dead mother's old apartment hoping to carve out a new life for himself - with trouble ensuing as Bobby begins hearing and seeing strange things within the building's dilapidated walls. Director Yam Laranas has infused The Echo with an almost ridiculously deliberate sensibility that's compounded by the plotless nature of Eric Bernt and Shintaro Shimosawa's screenplay, as the scripters stress Bobby's apartment-centric exploits to a degree that inevitably becomes oppressive (ie Bobby has a scary nightmare, Bobby discovers blood on his piano, etc, etc). It's due primarily to Bradford's strong, affable performance that the movie remains watchable for as long as it does, while the sporadic emphasis on Bobby's dealings in the world, including his efforts at winning back a former girlfriend (Amelia Warner's Alyssa), initially alleviates the tediousness of the apartment sequences. There reaches a point, however, at which the uneventful atmosphere becomes too much to comfortably take, with the most prominent casualty of Laranas' excessively laid-back modus operandi undoubtedly the horror elements that start to crop up towards the end (ie it's impossible to work up any interest or enthusiasm in such moments once they arrive). The end result is an underwhelming chiller that's unlikely to win over either horror fans or casual viewers, which is especially disappointing given the effectiveness of the performances and of the visuals.

out of

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (January 8/11)

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel follows three offbeat friends (Chris O'Dowd's Ray, Marc Wootton's Toby, and Dean Lennox Kelly's Pete) as they find themselves unwittingly caught up in an adventure through time during a routine night out at the local pub - with their only guide on this perilous journey a helpful yet slightly incompetent woman from the future (Anna Faris' Cassie). Director Gareth Carrivick has infused Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel with a consistently irreverent (yet surprisingly cinematic) sensibility that proves an ideal complement to Jamie Mathieson's off-kilter screenplay, with the lighthearted and affable atmosphere effortlessly perpetuated by the three leads and their irresistibly geek-centric banter (ie Pete refers to Star Wars as the "one with the big gold robot and the little fat mate.") And while Mathieson's script is chock full of references and discussions about various time-travel-related tropes - ie the grandfather paradox - it inevitably becomes clear that the film's overall effectiveness is diminished by the screenwriter's relentlessly lighthearted sensibilities (ie the characters' ongoing nonchalance towards their situation eventually becomes a little excessive). It's nevertheless impossible not to derive some amusement from Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, as the movie generally comes off as an amiable, well-meaning bit of escapist sci-fi - sorry, science fiction - that's sure to work best among aficionados of time travel stories.

out of

Love Happens (January 13/11)

Love Happens casts Aaron Eckhart as Burke Ryan, a successful self-help guru who undergoes a crisis of conscience after arriving in Seattle for a seminar - with his problems alleviated by an attractive (yet eye-rollingly off-kilter) florist named Eloise (Jennifer Aniston). It's an intriguing setup that is, at the outset, employed to unexpectedly promising effect by director Brandon Camp, as the filmmaker, working from a script cowritten with Mike Thompson, does a superb job of establishing Burke and his inherently compelling professional exploits - with Eckhart's typically electrifying performance certainly perpetuating the movie's engrossing atmosphere. The engaging nature of Burke's storyline, which also includes an interesting mystery involving his wife's death, is counterbalanced by Aniston's slick, sitcom-friendly work as Eloise, as the actress transforms her admittedly one-dimensional character into a stereotypical romcom heroine with more quirks than are reasonable (ie she writes obscure words behind hotel paintings, she has an off-the-wall best friend, etc, etc). There's little doubt, however, that the movie benefits substantially from its periodic emphasis on Burke's self-help sessions, with John Carroll Lynch's brief yet potent turn as a grieving father almost singlehandedly rescuing the proceedings on an all-too-infrequent basis. The progressively uneven atmosphere ensures that Love Happens suffers from a demonstrably hit-and-miss midsection, yet it's worth noting that certain revelations near the conclusion ensure that the movie finally packs a surprisingly resonant emotional punch - which ultimately cements the feeling that the whole thing would've been better off had Aniston's character been excised completely.

out of

Death Race 2 (January 17/11)

Death Race 2, a consistently underwhelming prequel to 2008's Death Race, follows Luke Goss' Carl Lucas as he arrives at Terminal Island Penitentiary and is subsequently forced to battle a variety of opponents, with the hand-to-hand skirmishes eventually giving way to a series of races in which prisoners can win their freedom. Director Roel Reine has infused Death Race 2 with a hopelessly (and downright distractingly) low-rent visual sensibility that's reflected most keenly in its fight and race sequences, with the filmmaker's misbegotten attempts at aping the original's twitchy sense of style transforming action-oriented moments into a overedited mess of nausea-inducing images. Compounding the film's less-than-entertaining atmosphere is its complete lack of engaging characters, which is, admittedly, both disappointing and surprising given that the cast has been populated with a number of well-regarded performers (including Sean Bean, Ving Rhames, and Danny Trejo). There's subsequently little doubt that one is forced to search long and hard for something (anything) of redeeming value here, and it's finally impossible not to label Death Race 2 as a worthless, especially egregious cash-grab designed to capitalize on the (mild) notoriety of its predecessor.

out of

Attenberg (January 19/11)

Though it improves steadily as it progresses, Attenberg has been infused with an unapologetically off-the-wall sensibility that effectively (and ultimately) diminishes the strength of its positive attributes (ie it's just too weird for its own good). Filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari's refusal to draw in the viewer certainly plays an instrumental role in the film's hand's-off atmosphere, as the writer/director kicks Attenberg off with a series of nonsensical, aggressively quirky vignettes (ie two people take turns spitting out of a window, a character recalls a dream involving a tree covered in penises, etc). It's not until around the half-hour mark that the movie's all-too-slight storyline becomes evident, with the narrative primarily following a socially inept young woman (Ariane Labed's Marina) as she attempts to deal with her father's imminent death and also her first sexual experiences. There's also little doubt that Tsangari admittedly does pepper the proceedings with a handful of compellingly authentic moments, including a touching sequence in which Marina engages in a frank discussion with her father (Giorgos Lanthimos) about the birds and the bees. The effectiveness of such moments is invariably canceled out by Tsangari's hopelessly bizzare modus operandi, however, with the aforementioned conversation immediately followed by Marina's efforts at making weird shapes with her shoulder blades. It's a shame, really, as Attenberg boasts a solid premise that could've (and should've) been used to poignant effect, though Tsangari seems content for the movie to exist as a mildly watchable yet thoroughly pointless art-house experiment.

out of

Primal (January 25/11)

Primal follows six friends as they arrive at a desolate forest to study some ancient cave paintings, with trouble ensuing as one of the group becomes infected by some sort of ancient (and thoroughly malevolent) entity. Filmmaker Josh Reed has infused Primal with a slow-going sensibility that is, at the outset, not quite as problematic as one might've feared, with the promising nature of the film's setup initially compensating for the presence of several less-than-enthralling elements (including an assortment of uniformly underdeveloped and one dimensional characters). It's only as the movie progresses that one's interest begins to wane, as writer/director Reed places an increasingly prominent emphasis on the protagonists' thoroughly tedious squabbles and arguments - which prevents the viewer from working up any sympathy for the group's admittedly gruesome plight. The uninvolving vibe is compounded by Reed's reliance on needlessly ostentatious visual tricks during the film's action-oriented sequences, with the inherent excitement of such moments drained by shaky camerawork and an overuse of slow motion. (And this is to say nothing of the pervasive darkness within which much of the movie unfolds.) By the time the over-the-top yet utterly dull finale rolls around, Primal has established itself as a disappointingly uneven horror effort that wears out its welcome to an almost astonishing degree.

out of

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (January 26/11)

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is a sporadically intriguing yet disastrously overlong documentary revolving around Phil Spector, as the famed producer is interviewed on a variety of topics - though the emphasis generally remains on his recent trial for murder. Filmmaker Vikram Jayanti's decision to pepper the proceedings with whole songs from Spector's body of work ultimately proves disastrous, with the barrage of music effectively holding the viewer at arm's length and ensuring that the film generally only works in fits and starts. It is, as a result, not surprising to note that The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is at its best when focused on Spector's ramblings, as Jayanti does an effective job of eliciting a number of compelling diatribes and rants from the notoriously off-kilter figure. (The stretch in which Spector discusses his now-legendary afro surely stands as a high point within the proceedings.) There's ultimately little doubt, however, that Jayanti's pervasively abstract directorial sensibilities wind up canceling out the movie's positive attributes, with the subsequent lack of both context and momentum preventing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector from becoming the probing piece of work that one might have expected (and hoped for).

out of

© David Nusair