"Lesson: Don't buy the cheap, made-in-China multi-tool," Aron Ralston (James Franco) says to himself in Danny Boyle's 127 Hours. It's a solid observation—as he says it, Ralston's in the bottom of a remote Utah canyon, where a falling boulder has pinned his right arm against a rock wall. Trapped at the bottom of a crack in the desert—with few things nearby aside from his video camera, the occasional ant, a big goddamn rock, and a smear of blood, skin, and bone—Ralston slowly begins to realize how overwhelmingly fucked he is. He didn't tell anyone where he was going. He thought he'd only be gone for a few hours, so he has hardly any food or water. And since his only knife is the one inside his cheap, made-in-China multi-tool, he's having a hell of a time figuring out how he's going to hack off his arm. ERIK HENRIKSEN Various Theaters.
Ann Arbor Film Festival
Selections from "the longest-running experimental film festival in the country," made up of "new work by established and emerging talents." Northwest Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium.
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo
Entomologist Jessica Oreck's documentary "ponders the Japanese's philosophic reverence for insects and their unique place in the culture." Like Mothra, we guess? Northwest Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium.
Those expecting Black Swan to be one of the best pictures of 2010 might want to adjust their expectations. While Darren Aronofsky's eagerly anticipated film is a lot of things—beautiful, weird, sexy, daring—it's a bunch of other things, too: inconsistent, goofy, unintentionally funny. On the surface, it's a labyrinthine, complex, surreal story about tricky, slippery stuff: self-image, reality, sex, art, aging, death, failure. Deeper down, it's something simpler: a movie about a ballerina (Natalie Portman, in a performance as good as everyone's saying it is) going batshit crazy. If it goes too far—if Aronofsky ventures too deep into Nina's slowly shattering brain, or if he overestimates his audience's patience for plot twists and surrealism—it's not for lack of ambition or confidence. Maybe Black Swan will creep you out, or maybe it'll crack you up; if you're like me, maybe it'll do both. That certainly makes it one of 2010's most interesting films, if not one of its best. ERIK HENRIKSEN Various Theaters.
The Chronicles of Narnia:
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The third film in the flaccid franchise is filled with B-grade pirates, sea monsters, and Pirates of the Caribbean's CG. Between Aslan's annoying platitudes and a ridiculous ship that looks like a floating gumdrop, this one seals the deal: No more trips to Narnia for me. I'm too old for this shit. COURTNEY FERGUSON Various Theaters.
One can't help but wonder if Easy A director Will Gluck ever had the pleasure of an English class assignment that asked its students to reinterpret a piece of literature into amateur film, because Easy A has a similar joie de vivre, with the added bonus of a much better budget. Forcefully in reference to The Scarlet Letter, its delightfully likeable protagonist, Olive (Emma Stone), experiments with a societal ostracization that bears little technical resemblance to the trials of Hester Prynne, but which does feature her literally wearing a red letter "A" for most of its runtime. This movie approaches Mean Girls territory on the fun scale. MARjorie skinner Various Theaters.
While we may not need to be reminded that the most recent Bush administration was built on lies, it never hurts to recall a few particulars. In 2003, Washington Post reporter Robert Novak wrote a column outing and effectively ending the career of Valerie Plame—a CIA operative who had been gathering intelligence on Iraq's supposed "weapons of mass destruction" program. When Plame's husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, accused the Bush administration of manipulating this intelligence to "exaggerate the Iraqi threat," a plot of revenge was hatched, and Plame's identity was leaked to the press. In Fair Game—partially based on Plame's biography of the same name—Naomi Watts and Sean Penn recreate the couple's professional, marital, and internal struggles during this time... to varying degrees of illumination and annoyance. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY Various Theaters.
Boxing is as much a test of inner strength and determination as it is a punching contest. That makes the sport a near perfect metaphor for the get-knocked-down-and-pull-yourself-off-the-canvas mentality that Americans love to believe in—and that Hollywood loves to exploit. And sometimes they exploit it brilliantly: Raging Bull, Rocky, The Great White Hope, The Set-Up—all films whose climactic fight scenes reflect the battle raging within the soul of the fighter. Director David O. Russell's The Fighter falls somewhat short of that list—but not embarrassingly so. It's a prequel of sorts, documenting the early years of junior welterweight "Irish" Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) who eventually went on to wage some truly legendary and bloody battles against Arturo Gatti in the early 2000s. What hobbles the film is, surprisingly, its own characters. Mickey's brother—played by an almost unrecognizable Christian Bale—is the true magnet of this film, often making Wahlberg disappear into the scenery. Likewise, Melissa Leo's desperate portrayal of Mickey's mother, and Amy Adams' equally desperate (in a different way) girlfriend make Mickey himself a little... well, superfluous. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY Various Theaters.
Four Lions humanizes terrorism. Don't misunderstand: This is a very different statement than "Four Lions makes terrorism understandable and sympathetic." I mean to say that Four Lions does, in fact, humanize terrorism, by reminding the audience that human beings can be incomprehensibly dumb and clumsy animals. One has to be a special sort of idiot to think dressing in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume to suicide bomb a charity fun-run is going to win you any sort of heavenly reward, but this is the humanity Four Lions concerns itself with, and those are the sorts of terrorist plots incompetently employed, and these are the confused, chucklefucked faces of terrorism. BOBBY "FATBOY" ROBERTS Various Theaters.
An amiable and rather unapologetic victory lap for Robert Duvall, who plays a crazy old hermit who returns from the woods after 30 years in order to organize and attend his own funeral. Director Aaron Schneider gets strong performances from his cast, including Lucas Black, Sissy Spacek, and a deadpan-even-for-him Bill Murray, but the main reason to watch is Duvall, who imbues his stock Snuffy Smith character with undercurrents of humor, pathos, and wounded menace. ANDREW WRIGHT
The Girl Who Kicked the
It is inarguable that the best part of the Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy is the actress Noomi Rapace. Her Lisbeth Salander is a once-in-a-lifetime creation: a tough, damaged, goth computer hacker who can't manage to choke down her own sense of justice long enough to disengage with society. Unfortunately, the plot dictates that Salander spend the first half of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest in a hospital bed, recovering from a brutal beating administered in the end of the second film in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire. (Uh, spoiler alert?) But Rapace's Salander is riveting even in her convalescence, as she prepares for her defense in a murder trial that will mark the climax of the series. As with the other installments, Daniel Alfredson's direction is unflashy but skillful. The story, which could be dense and impenetrable in the wrong hands, whirs along at a steady clip—until it ends with a whimper. (Larsson reportedly had more adventures waiting to be written at the time of his death, and Hornet's conclusion makes that franchise-planning glaringly obvious.) PAUL CONSTANT Various Theaters.
In which Jack Black takes a big ol' tenacious dump on Jonathan Swift. Not screened for critics. Various Theaters.
How Do You Know
James L. Brooks' latest bit of suds, starring Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson, and Cousin Larry from Perfect Strangers! Various Theaters.
I Love You Phillip Morris
Jim Carrey has always struck me as a precocious but needy child, one that so desperately craves love and attention that he's been contorting himself through his entire career, overacting his way into as many hearts as can possibly stand him. This time around, Carrey's hamming his way through a fact-based homosexual love story with a streak of black humor. But whatever promise I Love You Phillip Morris holds is squandered by the end of its running time, as—like Carrey—the movie simply wears out its welcome. NED LANNAMANN Fox Tower 10.
It's Kind of a Funny Story
Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist) is depressed and wants to end his life. Sort of. Before hurling himself into the East River, the 16-year-old Brooklynite resigns himself to a hospital visit, which results in his temporary institutionalization in an adult psychiatric ward. Settled in for a five-day stay sans belt and shoelaces, Craig is quickly taken under the watchful guise of a bearded Randle P. McMurphy type named Bobby (Zach Galifianakis, great as always). It's Kind of a Funny Story is a significant departure for co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar); here they deal with a story far more earnest and light, despite its heavy subject matter. If you can look past the film's trivial dismissal of serious mental health issues (schizophrenics yell wacky things, let's laugh at them!), and a certain "Ferris Bueller in the loony bin" narration style, It's Kind of a Funny Story works extremely well. EZRA ACE CARAEFF Various Theaters.
The King's Speech
See review this issue. Various Theaters.
See review this issue. Various Theaters.
Love and Other Drugs
The little blue pill known as Viagra changed the sexual potential of baby boomers everywhere, and it also changed Jamie Reidy's life. With Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, Reidy exposed many of the pharmaceutical industry's insider secrets—secrets that director Edward Zwick has set out to further publicize with Love and Other Drugs, casting Jake Gyllenhaal as Jamie. Not content to tell the story of one man's maturation in a politically relevant industry, Hollywood added a love interest in Maggie (Anne Hathaway), and because this movie is about medicine, she had to be sick. If you're looking for any poignant criticisms of the pharmaceutical industry, you might want to adjust your expectations in favor of relationship montages and two or three cycles of break up/make up. MARJORIE SKINNER Various Theaters.
Rachel McAdams stars as Becky, a young and ridiculously dedicated morning show producer who gets hired to pull the lowest-rated morning show, Daybreak, out of the dumps. You couldn't be blamed for thinking this film was a romantic comedy based on the trailer, but Becky's relationship with love interest Adam (Patrick Wilson, practically making a cameo) could scarcely be more tangential. The real center of drama is Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), an ornery, formerly great hard-news anchor who Becky manipulates into co-hosting Daybreak. Pomeroy's disdain for the position and Becky's outsized, sunny determination to force him to do his job is the drama that counts here, though the impact it amounts to can be shrugged off by the time you find your car in the theater parking lot. MARJORIE SKINNER Various Theaters.
Smile 'Til It Hurts:
The Up with People Story
A documentary on the smiley youth phenomenon known as Up with People, which you might remember from that one Simpsons episode. The ongoing youth educational program sends casts of smiling young people to smilingly travel around the world and perform! And sing! And smile. Hollywood Theatre.
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields
Magnetic Fields frontman Stephin Merritt is widely known for being "difficult," a reputation confirmed and reinforced with every awkward interview the man gives. He's also wicked smart and very funny, qualities revealed here through fly-on-the wall documentation of Merritt's routines (he writes songs in gay bars, listening to bad disco) and interactions with friends, bandmates, and a ubiquitous Chihuahua. While a rough sketch of Merritt's idiosyncrasies certainly emerges, it's to the credit of filmmakers Kerthy Fix and Gail O'Hara that Strange Powers is largely a document of a musician, not of a musician's personality. Plenty of screen time is given to footage of the Magnetic Fields performing—they're an outstanding live band, and the charisma and energy captured here makes Strange Powers a must-see for its concert footage alone. ALISON HALLETT Living Room Theaters.
Based on a comic strip that's based on Thomas Hardy's novel Far from the Madding Crowd, Tamara Drewe is a funny, perceptive look at what happens when social norms collide. The movie is set in what appears to be a perfectly picturesque English town—cobblestone streets, cud-chewing cows, an inn affixed to the town's lone pub. But it's not long before modernity intrudes: Not only do people in this tiny town have tawdry affairs, but they have cell phones and email access, too. They're also pretty goddamned bored, and this restless pot gets a sudden stir with the return of hometown girl Tamara (Gemma Arterton), post nose-job and ready to rub her newfound sexiness all over the people who called her "Beaky" as a girl. ALISON HALLETT Hollywood Theatre.
On the 400th anniversary of the Bard's last play, Julie Taymor (who might be celebrating her own last play with Broadway's messy money pit, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark) sprinkles all sorts of empty calories over The Tempest. The cast desperately tries to scream Shakespeare over a howling CG storm at sea. A cheesy rock song blares as the androgynous sprite Ariel (Ben Wishaw) pyrotechnics the crap out of a ship, crushing it on the shores of a deserted island. Shipwrecked teenagers touch each other's faces with feather-soft adoration while singing cringing ballads. And poor Prospera (Helen Mirren) is saddled with the ugliest coat this side of Joseph's technicolor dreams. The Tempest, while more ludicrous than dull, is Taymor's most uninspired effort to date. COURTNEY FERGUSON Cinema 21.
Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie's latest, it was directed by The Lives of Others' awesomely named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Various Theaters.
The only thing of interest regarding the incredibly boring and asinine Tron: Legacy is that it features "Quorra," a saucy little minx played by the scrumptious and nubile Olivia Wilde. Seductively stealing every scene she's in, Ms. Wilde wears an exquisitely skintight latex bodystocking throughout; in this critic's humble opinion, Ms. Wilde should receive several Academy Awards for her explosively arousing performance. (She certainly caused this critic to "gush"!) If you enjoy this film for any of its attributes that are not, in fact, entirely those of the delightful Ms. Wilde, then you are a fucking imbecile. FRANK CASSANO Various Theaters.
See review this issue. Various Theaters.
See review this issue. Living Room Theaters.
A Moby-scored doc that follows "artist Vik Muniz as he journeys from his home base in Brooklyn to his native Brazil and the world's largest garbage dump." Living Room Theaters.
One of the best novels of 2010 was Marlene Van Niekerk's Agaat, about the uneasy relationship between an aging white homesteader in South Africa and the black South Africans upon whom her livelihood depends. The French film White Material begins with a similar premise, and a similarly single-minded protagonist: It's set in an unspecified, conflict-riddled African country, on a coffee plantation run by a white woman determined to see her crops to harvest even as the countryside erupts in violence and chaos. Under the direction of Claire Denis (1988's Chocolat), the film is tense with menace, but it's oddly sterile, too. The poverty depicted is thoroughly sanitized, its characters largely symbolic—but as a tableaux of dumb brutality and all-consuming violence, White Material is profoundly effective. ALISON HALLETT Living Room Theaters.
Smokey Bear makes a good argument against forest fires, but Yogi makes a better one for burning those fuckers down. DAVE BOW Various Theaters.