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Mini Reviews (November 2008)

The Times of Harvey Milk, Across the Universe, I've Loved You So Long, Growing Op, Wanted, Righteous Kill, Love Wrecked, Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert

The Times of Harvey Milk (November 2/08)

Despite an opening half hour that's almost disastrously dry, The Times of Harvey Milk inevitably comes off as a tremendously entertaining and surprisingly moving look at the life and death of San Francisco's first openly gay councillor. Director Rob Epstein paints an incredibly vivid portrait of his subject through the judicious use of stock footage and new interviews, and it's subsequently impossible to walk away from the film without feeling a great deal of admiration for Harvey Milk and his various accomplishments. The relatively light-hearted midsection - which is primarily devoted to Milk's trials and tribulations as a struggling do-gooder and (eventually) a respected politician - ultimately gives way to an unexpectedly affecting stretch revolving around Milk's senseless assassination, with the activist's death sure to trigger an emotional response within even the most apathetic of viewers.

out of

Across the Universe (November 5/08)

Visually and thematically audacious, Across the Universe revolves around the romance that ensues between a pair of disparate characters (Jim Sturgess' British steelworker Jude and Evan Rachel Wood's privileged American student Luc) against the backdrop of some of the '60s most well-known events. Director Julie Taymor, armed with over two dozen Beatles songs, has fashioned a contemporary musical that's certainly unlike anything the genre has to offer, as the filmmaker's notoriously avant-garde sensibilities serve her well within the context of a sporadically authentic yet mostly surreal endeavor. And although it does seem entirely likely that the film will have a more pronounced impact on admirers of the Beatles' music, Across the Universe's engaging storyline and proliferation of intriguing characters all but assures the continuing interest of even those with a cursory knowledge of the band's discography. That being said, it's hard to deny that the film loses its way as it passes the one-hour mark - as Taymor, working from Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' screenplay, jettisons marked instances of plot in favor of a random, distinctly free-wheeling sensibility that admittedly does grow increasingly tough to take (with Eddie Izzard's off-the-wall cameo as a demented circus ringleader certainly the most obvious example of this). The engaging performances and catchy songs prove instrumental in ensuring that the movie remains watchable even through its more overtly self-indulgent stretches, while there's little doubt that the whole thing effectively regains its footing as it approaches its emotionally charged, thoroughly satisfying finale.

out of

I've Loved You So Long (November 6/08)

Anchored by Kristin Scott Thomas' searing, downright engrossing performance, I've Loved You So Long ultimately manages to overcome its admittedly flabby midsection to become a deliberately paced yet thoroughly rewarding drama. The film casts Scott Thomas as Juliette, a recently-paroled inmate who agrees to live with her sister (Elsa Zylberstein's Lea) until she's able to get on her feet - with the bulk of the proceedings revolving around Juliette's ill-tempered efforts at integrating herself back into society. Filmmaker Philippe Claudel has infused I've Loved You So Long with a low-key visual sensibility that certainly reflects the spare nature of his script, although there's little doubt that Claudel's most potent weapon inevitably proves to be Scott Thomas' uncompromising turn as the abrasive central character. The actress effectively steps into the shoes of a figure that is, initially, flat-out unlikable, as the substantial chip on Juliette's shoulder ensures that she approaches most situations with as hurtful and downright blunt a demeanor as one could envision (ie after sleeping with a stranger and being asked if the sex was satisfying, she responds, "no, not at all.") It's only as the movie progresses and the mystery behind Juliette's incarceration is slowly-but-surely revealed that one starts to sympathize with Scott Thomas' character, and it's also worth noting that Claudel generally does a nice job of avoiding overt instances of sentiment or melodrama (with the only pronounced exception to this a sequence in which Lea loses her temper in front of several students). And while the film's emotional impact is dulled by its undeniable overlength, I've Loved You So Long's place as an above-average debut for Claudel is cemented by Scott Thomas' Oscar-worthy work.

out of

Growing Op (November 21/08)

A typically quirky Canadian comedy, Growing Op stars Steven Yaffee as Quinn Dawson - a high-strung teenager whose mother (Rosanna Arquette's Diana) and father (Wallace Langham's Bryce) run a marijuana grow-op out of their suburban home. As such, Quinn and his sister (Katie Boland's Hope) have been receiving their schooling at home as a result of their parents' desire to protect them from the materialistic outside world - yet Quinn, spurred by the recent arrival of a beautiful next-door neighbor (Rachel Blanchard's Crystal), impulsively decides to break away from his oddball clan by enrolling as a new student at his local high school. There's little doubt that Growing Op is ultimately felled by filmmaker Michael Melski's emphasis on egregiously oddball elements, as the movie - though well acted and colorfully shot - suffers from a lack of authenticity that only grows more pronounced as it progresses. It's consequently not surprising to note that the film, following its eye-rollingly loopy opening half hour, eventually adopts the feel of a garden-variety high-school drama, with Melski's reliance on some of the hoariest cliches that the genre has to offer (ie Quinn must battle obnoxious bullies and win over the school's prettiest girl) inevitably transforming Growing Op into an unusually tedious experience. The melodramatic third act (which, perhaps not unexpectedly, includes a fake break-up) effectively cements the film's place as an utterly forgettable misfire, although - in fairness - even the most astute viewer will likely find themselves surprised by the admittedly silly twist ending.

out of

Wanted (November 22/08)

Though populated with top-tier actors like James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, and Terence Stamp, Wanted ultimately comes off as an entirely ineffectual actioner that suffers from many of the same problems that one now associates with the genre. The movie - which follows a meek office worker (McAvoy's Wesley Gibson) as he slowly-but-surely becomes a ruthless killing machine after learning that his father was a superhuman assassin - admittedly does offer some promise in its early scenes, as Wesley's transformation from put-upon schlub to ultra-confident alpha male proves an irresistible bit of wish-fulfillment fantasy (with the sequence in which he violently quits his job an obvious highlight). There's little doubt, however, that the palpable lack of plot lends the proceedings a distinctly uneven vibe virtually from the get-go, with Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, and Chris Morgan's screenplay suffering from an aimless quality that only grows more troublesome as the film progresses (ie the entire third act generally serves no purpose other than to pad out the already-overlong running time). Exacerbating the movie's various deficiencies is Timur Bekmambetov's relentlessly hyper-kinetic sense of style, which - though initially kind of intriguing - eventually cements Wanted's place as a violent yet thoroughly empty piece of work.

out of

Righteous Kill (November 25/08)

Saddled with the feel of a generic direct-to-video actioner, Righteous Kill undoubtedly comes off as nothing less than a colossal disappointment - as the film marks the first onscreen pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro since 1995's masterful Heat. And while there's little doubt that the movie fares slightly better than director Jon Avnet's previous effort - the nigh unwatchable 88 Minutes - the filmmaker's rampant ineptitude, coupled with Russell Gewirtz's increasingly tedious screenplay, ultimately ensures that Pacino and De Niro are left with little to do but strike a series of tough-guy poses while spouting eye-rollingly silly chunks of dialogue. The two Oscar winners star as veteran New York City detectives who find themselves caught up in an explosive case involving a vigilante serial killer, with problems ensuing as it becomes progressively apparent that a fellow police officer is the most likely suspect. It's a decent premise that's employed to hopelessly hackneyed effect by Gewirtz, as the screenwriter's inability to evoke even a hint of authenticity proves impossible to overlook. The various performers' subsequent efforts at injecting the proceedings with energy fall completely flat, which effectively cancels out the sporadically strong work from a supporting cast that includes Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino, and Donnie Wahlberg (meanwhile, the phrase phoning-it-in was practically invented for Pacino and De Niro's work here). Admittedly, Righteous Kill never quite morphs into the flat-out bore that it often threatens to become - the laughable third act certainly pushes it, though - yet it's difficult not to feel as though Avnet has squandered what should've been an electrifying piece of work.

out of

Love Wrecked (November 25/08)

While there's certainly no faulting the appreciatively wacky premise, Love Wrecked quickly establishes itself as a low-rent comedic misfire that seems to have been geared exclusively towards teenaged girls. The movie - which follows Amanda Bynes' Jenny as she tricks her pop-star crush (Chris Carmack's Jason Masters) into believing that they're marooned on a deserted island (when they are, in fact, mere feet away from a posh Caribbean resort) - has been infused with an almost egregiously bubbly sensibility by director Randal Kleiser, as the filmmaker's consistent emphasis on woefully lighthearted elements (ie musical montages, cutesy scene-transitioning wipes, etc) effectively highlights the various deficiencies within the production. Stephen Langford's simplistic screenplay has been jam-packed with pointless interludes that go absolutely nowhere, with the eye-rollingly hackneyed subplot revolving around Jenny's smitten best friend (and his tireless efforts at winning her over) certainly standing tall above the film's myriad of cookie-cutter attributes. The inclusion of several lowest-common-denominator instances of humor (ie Jenny's aforementioned pal loses his watch while massaging a portly guest) only compounds the movie's problems, and one certainly can't help but lament Langford's inability to properly capitalize on the inherently off-the-wall premise (an admittedly chuckle-worthy scene in which Jenny must distract Chris from a pair of windsurfers ultimately comes off as the exception rather than the rule). It's a shame, really, as Bynes is undeniably a charismatic performer who surely deserves far better material - although there's little doubt that she's going to find herself on increasingly thin ice if she keeps cranking out nonstarters like this (as well as such underwhelming past efforts as She's the Man and Sydney White).

out of

Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert (November 29/08)

There's little doubt that Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert has been geared towards as specific an audience as one could possibly imagine, and it's certainly not difficult to envision Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus' fans walking away from this concert movie utterly and totally satisfied. The film, which offers up a heaping helping of the teen ingenue's songs, has been infused with a lighthearted and distinctly G-rated sensibility that ensures it remains the cinematic equivalent of elevator music for the duration of its brief running time, as director Bruce Hendricks has essentially excised anything even resembling conflict from the various behind-the-scenes segments. The filmmaker instead offers up a series of genial interludes revolving around Cyrus' preparations for the expensive-looking production, with - for example - a brief look at the hubbub that ensues after several of Cyrus' backup dancers accidentally drop her during the show. It's also not surprising to note that there's really no discernable difference between Cyrus and Montana's songs; both come off as inoffensive pop ditties that are agreeable enough yet almost relentlessly repetitive and similar-sounding. The end result is an effort that possesses few elements designed to appeal to viewers over a certain age, although - in fairness - the movie isn't quite the interminable experience that one might've expected based on its artwork and promotional materials.

out of

© David Nusair