The first motion picture from Peter Jackson that didn’t involve monsters and a colossal special effects effort turns out to be…a film about monsters with a colossal special effects effort! Well, monsters in the serial killer sense, as Jackson unfurls a cinematic interpretation of author Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel, “The Lovely Bones.” It’s a glum tale of mourning and heavenly observance, perhaps playing too close to Jackson’s voracious directorial appetites. Giving the material a thick coating of gloss to maintain and portion out its innate horrors, Jackson encourages “Bones” to radiate more artifice than emotion, condensing a frightful story of loss into something balanced precariously between a Hitchcockian thriller and an Enya music video.
What exactly can be written about “The Book of Eli” without giving away critical parts of the story is a source of personal frustration. Releasing studio Warner Brothers has politely asked film critics to refrain from spoiling the ending of the movie, a request I will happily honor. However, there’s much to “Book of Eli” that requires potential killjoy description, so I beg your patience, dear reader. I apologize in advance if this review seems uncharacteristically vague and protective of the actual filmgoing experience. I’m under orders and frankly, the mysteries here are interesting enough to preserve.
There was a time around a decade ago when it seemed Jackie Chan would’ve done anything for a blockbuster career in America. The paychecks for the “Rush Hour” films were sweet, but “The Tuxedo” arrived in 2002 and knocked the wind out of Chan’s goofball sails. “The Spy Next Door” feels like the long aborted next step to his once excitable career plan, furthering him down a path of dreary, by-the-numbers action entertainment that merely requires Chan to stand in front of the camera, smile, flip, and mangle the English language.
The writers behind the volcanic crime film “Sexy Beast” have returned, dukes up, with “44 Inch Chest,” a blistering script sponsored primarily by the letters F, U, K, and C (but not necessarily in that order). Marvelously cast and beguilingly barking mad, the picture is a salt-stained, merrily profane plunge into the abyssal depths of jealousy and confusion. It’s a razor-sharp bear trap of a movie, but I suppose it’s to be expected from the slang-lovin’, tongue-chewin’ “Sexy Beast” duo.
A fantastic symphony of characters making poor decisions, “Fish Tank” is a depiction of innocence lost, set against a common backdrop of working-class England, with its claustrophobic habitats and perpetual ambiance of hostility. It’s a dynamite film, but I was caught watching with eyes-through-fingers a few times, fearful moments of exquisite tension would devolve into a Catherine Breillat-style shock-value spectacle. Thankfully, director Andrea Arnold has better taste, making her feature not a depressive cage, but a maze of behavioral patterns and damage with some form of light at the end of the tunnel.
The “Universal Soldier” franchise has endured its fair share of hard knocks since the release of the original 1992 film -- 1999’s “Universal Soldier: The Return” being a prime example of unimaginative producers and subpar filmmakers squashing the potential out of a rather bizarre premise. Nearly 20 years later, someone, somewhere convinced Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren to reteam (I assume using a sweet paycheck as bait) for “Universal Soldier: Regeneration,” a DTV sequel that’s disturbingly competent and utterly entertaining. The picture doesn’t retain the sweaty, cartoonish attitude of Roland Emmerich’s original picture, but as superfluous sequels aimed at the bottom-shelf market go, “Regeneration” is startlingly well-crafted.
I’m genuinely flummoxed by “Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassins’ Ball.” A no-budget DTV prequel, the picture is purely a rehash of Joe Carnahan’s 2007 action fiesta, only this gratuitous do-over has been stripped of star power, peppered with rotten special effects, and gifted a moldy Bush Jr.-era storyline that falls below whatever potential was there for a return to the “Smokin’ Aces” universe. Co-hatched and executive produced by Carnahan himself, the filmmaker should hang his head in shame over this cut-rate, slapdash cash-in. It’s a ghastly, embarrassing motion picture.
Let’s play “You Make the Call: Hollywood Version.” It’s 1992, and you’re the president of Columbia Pictures. You have the power. The juice. The stuff. In your hands is a red-hot, wink-happy screenplay that successfully pins down and tickles the stone-faced action genre that’s launched a horde of blockbusters to the top of the box office chart during the previous decade. The screenplay polish was co-executed by the writer behind “Lethal Weapon.” Your attached lead is Arnold Schwarzenegger, coming off “Total Recall,” “Kindergarten Cop,” and the world-shaking megasuccess of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” And your director is responsible for “Die Hard,” inarguably the finest action picture ever produced.
Before vampire fatigue sets in at the multiplex, leaving anything fanged and out for blood immediately dismissed due to an overextended trend, please permit “Daybreakers” a few moments of your time. While assembled with conventional visual elements and pushing a foreign oil allegory with a decided lack of subtlety, “Daybreakers” is a genre fun house worth the return trip to the fatigued war zone of vampiredom. Smartly constructed and lively all around, the gloom and doom submitted by filmmaking duo The Spierig Brothers is wildly entertaining and appropriately gushy with gore. Against all odds, “Daybreakers” is a blast.
Those expecting a seamy, Vaseline-uncorked ride through exploitation cinema heaven with “Bitch Slap” might be well advised to skip this picture entirely. More of an “Austin Powers” carnival of camp with YouTube production polish, “Bitch Slap” opens with a Joseph Conrad quote and ends in a hail of bullets, leaving the midsection fairly anticlimactic and insistently silly. It’s criminal to dismiss something so utterly consumed with ample feminine assets and cross-eyed ultraviolence, but the goofball pitch of this fluff grows tiresome early in the first round, rendering the picture a splendid 10-minute short film idea stretched intolerably to 100 minutes.
The trials and tribulations of a sexless marriage are comedically noogied in “Made for Each Other,” the latest riff on bro-centered neuroses. Enthusiastically arranged and flecked with moments of amusing comic inspiration, “Made for Each Other” nevertheless plays like a failed sitcom pilot, a foul stench director Daryl Goldberg can’t scrub away no matter how hard he tries (that is, if he did actually try). Low-budget and oddly fixated on DOA jokes, the picture certainly deserves a gold star for showing up, but the bellylaughs are few and far between.
Over the last few years, Amy Adams has climbed the ranks to become one of the more formidable actresses of her generation. Blessed with Cinerama-wide charisma and impeccable chops, Adams has been on quite a tear as of late, singlehandedly elevating “Enchanted,” staying alert in “Doubt,” and making the “Night at the Museum” sequel just a smidge more palatable than it had any right to be. Well, it seems Adams has let her agents get the best of her, urged to try on an ill-fitting, fantastically lucrative romantic comedy lead role with “Leap Year.” It’s not that Adams isn’t capable of playing warm and fuzzy, but even her considerable gifts are no match for a sour screenplay that lazily staples together a tale of Euro swoon from other tales of Euro swoon. Adams, and frankly the Irish, deserve better than this tripe.
“Youth in Revolt” is a very random movie that enjoys wallowing in a state of confusion. The film is smug and largely unfunny, but it’s consistently bewildering, and not in a manner that encourages further inspection. It’s a grab-bag experience built around iffy irreverence born from author C.D. Payne, yet the film seems to have tied its own shoelaces together in its eagerness to pay tribute to the writer’s intricate, darkly comic vision.
While something of a master when it comes to art-house shock value, filmmaker Michael Haneke softens his usual death blow with “The White Ribbon.” A substantial tale of deception, accusation, and oppression facing a pre-WWI North German village, the picture moves steadily along in a grand act of exposure, guided by Haneke’s finest instincts for confrontation and chilling acts of invasion. It isn’t quite the shiv of cold-blooded reality the director is known for, but more of a fractured memory piece, with forbidding shards of destructive behavior jutting out of the most unexpected of places.
Playwright Tennessee Williams could never be accused of subtlety, building a historic, adored career on the wings of southern-kissed hysteria, often pitched to the rafters. “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” has been described as a “long-lost” project, scripted by Williams while riding the waves of success that followed his “A Streetcar Named Desire” triumph. It should’ve stayed lost. A rambling, zombified pass at Williams-certified melodrama, the film is an absolute chore to finish, even while boasting a few fine performances and the luscious humidity of 1920’s southern comfort.
Cynicism is a major component of “Wonderful World,” detailing how it can hold a life back from the smaller pleasures of the universe, offering false comfort to those less openhearted. It’s a mood exhaled into “Wonderful World” with overwhelming vigor at times, capturing the curdled nature of the lead character with unnerving accuracy. For this alone, the picture deserves a look. Perhaps not the strongest, most refined offering of drama for the new year, “Wonderful World” digs up a few choice moments of behavioral authenticity to make a lasting impression.
The Swedish/Norwegian fantasy feature “Ronia, The Robber’s Daughter” is one of the strangest family films that I’ve come across in recent memory. Steadfastly refusing any type of narrative momentum, “Daughter” prefers to live in the moment, conjuring a storybook mood through extreme bouts of stasis, wallowing in the natural splendor of the locations and delighting in the expressive faces of the eclectic cast. At 140 minutes, “Daughter” is an acquired taste, leaving me to wonder why, 25 years after its original release, the picture has amassed a loyal following and loopy reputation as a wholesome moviegoing event for the entire family.