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Capsule reviews
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Sunshine ***

Set 50 years in the future, Sunshine deals with our planet as it’s on the verge of becoming a lifeless orb. As a last ditch effort, eight men and women board the spaceship Icarus II and head upward, carrying a bomb that, once dropped into the heart of the sun, should theoretically revive it. But as they travel to complete their mission, they receive a distress signal from Icarus I, which had disappeared seven years earlier while trying to accomplish a similar mission. The octet must decide: Should they proceed directly with their assignment, or should they first alter their course to check on the other vessel? As with last year’s The Fountain, the likewise leisurely paced Sunshine employs dazzling visual effects in the service of an ambitious and heady undertaking whose philosophical reach attempts to exceed its narrative grasp. That director Danny Boyle and scripter Alex Garland don’t completely follow through on presenting a spaced out odyssey is evidenced by the introduction of an additional character during the third act (no fair revealing who, what or why). This decision to take the story out of the realm of the ethereal and into the physical doesn’t damage this captivating film, but it does prevent it from achieving a cinematic state of grace.

The Simpsons Movie


The problem with a good comedy -- and make no mistake, The Simpsons Movie is a very good comedy -- is that it’s hard for even the tightlipped among us not to want to rush out and share many of the best gags with our friends. But boy, are there some real winners in this animated feature, ones that will be appreciated by folks who can’t even distinguish a Marge from a Maggie, or a Flanders from a Smithers, or an Itchy from a Scratchy. Take, for instance, a brilliant bit -- choreographed with all the precision of a Gene Kelly musical -- that finds Bart skateboarding naked through the streets of Springfield. Or a Titanic parody involving a hot band. Or a marvelous jab at the inefficiency of this nation’s so-called Homeland Security measures. Or... You get the picture. Crafting a motion picture from a current television series that’s been around for nearly two decades is a dicey proposition, but The Simpsons Movie fills the larger dimensions of the theater screen quite nicely. Running the length of four combined episodes, this flick takes Homer’s weekly display of idiocy to a new level, as his bumbling disrespect for the environment leads to Springfield being blocked off from the rest of the world by a giant dome, with the town’s destruction the ultimate goal of the overzealous head of the Environmental Protection Agency (voiced by Albert Brooks, billed in the credits as “A. Brooks”). Knowing that Homer is the culprit, the town’s residents soon come a-calling with torches in hand and nooses hanging from nearby trees (baby Maggie’s rope has a little pacifier attached). But if there’s one area in which Hollywood remains blissfully, even blessedly, optimistic, it’s in the strength of the family unit, and as long as Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie stick together, they can lick any and all odds.

No Reservations***

Movie-star wattage counts for a lot in No Reservations, and both Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart burn brightly, both individually and in their shared scenes. She’s Kate, a workaholic chef whose life gets upturned when her sister’s fatal car crash leaves her in charge of her precocious niece Zoe (Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin). He’s Nick, a sous chef who takes a position under Kate at a posh restaurant and quickly finds himself drawn to this tempestuous woman who considers herself the finest chef in all of New York and physically confronts customers who dare complain about her dishes. A frothy confection on the surface, No Reservations, based on the 2001 German film Mostly Martha, spends a great deal of time on the painful loss experienced by Zoe as she comes to grips with the death of her mother. Mostly, though, the movie functions as a charming romantic comedy, one bolstered by the crisp camerawork by Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) and especially the richly textured music by Philip Glass, whose score is so grandiose and award-worthy that it occasionally threatens to overwhelm the small picture it’s serving.

Rescue Dawn**1/2

With apologies to William Shakespeare, when acclaimed director Werner Herzog makes a movie, there generally isn’t a method to his madness; instead, there’s madness in his method, a go-for-broke intensity that has informed most of this German maverick’s pictures, from his classics Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo to his recent (and excellent) documentary Grizzly Man. That aggressive (insane?) edge is nowhere to be found in Rescue Dawn, a fairly conventional if technically accomplished drama inspired by a true story. Dieter Dengler (played by Christian Bale) is a gung-ho U.S. navy pilot who, early in this country’s involvement in the Vietnam War, is shot down over Laos and held in a makeshift POW camp along with two other Americans (Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, the latter basically revisiting his Solaris performance). Dieter couldn’t care less that no one has ever escaped from this prison, or that the jungle beyond the compound walls represents the real prison. There are no political allegories or points of view, no fancy special effects, and, except during a curiously flat conclusion, no displays of sentimental excess. This is simply a movie about a man at odds with his surroundings, and in that respect, it fits nicely into the Herzog oeuvre.

I Now Pronounce you Chuck and Larry**

Adam Sandler comedies frequently offer sequences that qualify as case studies in homophobia, so here comes I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry to serve as the popular comedian’s mea culpa, his belated realization that, hey, gays are people, too. That’s a worthy sentiment, and there’s much in the screenplay by Barry Fanaro (TV’s The Golden Girls) and the Oscar-winning team of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (Sideways) that examines that notion rather than just paying lip service to a PC attitude.In other words, there’s a good movie to be found in the premise of two firemen (Sandler and Kevin James) pretending to be life partners for financial purposes, but it’s repeatedly sabotaged by the desire to placate typical Sandler fans who, God forbid, wouldn’t want their boy to get too, you know, fruity on them. Thus, the movie opens with the promise of an open-mouth kiss between buxom twin sisters, peaks with the sight of Jessica Biel in a Catwoman outfit, and ends with the protagonists happily paired off in hetero unions. In addition to this confirmation of the movie’s straight-man cred, there are also the usual frat-boy gags involving flatulence, obesity and racial stereotypes (including an unrecognizable Rob Schneider as a Japanese minister), as well as the added treat of Dan Aykroyd (as the fire chief) discussing his prostate, his sole remaining testicle and his diapered grandmother.

Hairspray ***1/2

For over a decade, John Waters had been unleashing some of the most outrageous movies ever made before deciding to tentatively test the waters of mainstream cinema -- or at least as mainstream as this flagrantly maverick filmmaker could attempt. His tepid 1981 offering Polyester was met with a stone wall of shrugs, even with the gimmick of being presented in Odorama (patrons were given scratch ‘n’ sniff cards that, if memory serves, stank like sour milk no matter what number was scratched off). But his 1988 offering, Hairspray, was another story: An instant critical and cult success, it eventually was turned into a smash Broadway musical and has now been brought back to the screen, with the added songs intact. It’s one of this summer’s few out-and-out delights, smoothing out but never compromising the issues that made Waters’ original film such a quirky delight. An ode to being different, Hairspray stars delightful newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager who won’t let her pleasantly plump figure get in the way of following her dream in 1960s Baltimore. And her dream is to become famous, preferably by showing off her dance moves on The Corny Collins Show, a local American Bandstand-style program that’s a hit with the kids. Her obese mom Edna (John Travolta in drag) is afraid her daughter will get hurt, but her dad Wilbur (a warm Christopher Walken) encourages her to go for it. Impressing Corny Collins himself (X-Men’s James Marsden), not to mention the show’s reigning pinup star Link Larkin (Zac Efron), Tracy does indeed land a coveted spot on the show, much to the disgust of Link’s girlfriend Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and her wicked mom Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer). The movie’s first and foremost a musical, and director Adam Shankman does a commendable job of filming the song-and-dance routines in a manner that accentuates the total skills involved (the noticeable lack of rapid MTV-style cuts is greatly appreciated). The weakest cast link is, perhaps surprisingly, Travolta, who may have enjoyed returning to his movie musical roots (Saturday Night Fever, Grease) but nevertheless fails to adequately fill the large shoes of the late Divine, who was simply,well, divine in Waters’ ‘88 screen version.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ***

Those who like their Potter black will find much to appreciate in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth and moodiest of the J.K. Rowling adaptations to date. Chris Columbus’ first two entries -- both underrated -- focused mainly on fun and games, with the subsequent installments helmed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell taking on decidedly darker dimensions. The level of malevolence is raised even further here, thanks to the taut direction by unknown David Yates and a forceful performance by series lead Daniel Radcliffe. Between the last film (Goblet of Fire) and this new one, it’s startling to note how the actor and the character seem to have aged multiple years, a testament to the maturity and intensity that Radcliffe brings to the role. Villainy abounds in The Order of the Phoenix, with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) haunting Harry’s every move, a fluttering fascist named Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) taking over the Hogwarts school, and an escaped prisoner known as Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) arriving late to kill off a popular character. Add to those threats Harry’s issues of abandonment and estrangement, and it’s no wonder the lad can’t keep those roiling emotions in check. In this respect, Phoenix operates not only as a story-specific fantasy flick but also as a universal teen angst tale, a far-flung Rebel Without a Cause in which the protagonist tries to comprehend the adult world he’s on the verge of entering while simultaneously struggling to cut the umbilical cord of childhood. Because of this slant, this emerges as the most dramatic of the five films to date, with betrayals coming from both memories (a flashback involving Harry’s dad and professor Severus Snape, again played by Alan Rickman, is startling in its implications) and mortals (Judas, must you betray me with a kiss?) only serving to drive the nail into Harry’s splintered psyche even deeper. Fortunately, Harry’s friends won’t leave him alone -- even when he’s surly toward them -- and he receives a much-needed support system from best buds Ron Weasley (Grint) and Hermione Granger (Watson) as well as a seemingly spacy blonde named Luna Lovegood (newcomer Evanna Lynch, wonderfully embodying the most interesting of the new characters).

License to Wed *

Mandy Moore has managed to costar in the two worst films of 2007 (thus far), yet let’s not be in a hurry to pick up those stones and torches. Truth be told, Moore is turning out to be a welcome screen presence -- far better than most recent singers-turned-actors -- and she’s hardly to blame for either the rancid Because I Said So or the toxic-waste comedy License to Wed. The heir presumptive to last summer’s You, Me and Dupree, this new film, offensive in its idiocy, similarly places loathsome characters in absurd situations that are meant to give off a funky black-comedy vibe yet instead reek only of desperation as well as the limitations of comically challenged minds. Under the disinterested supervision of director Ken Kwapis, four writers jerry-rig a premise that finds newly engaged couple Ben Murphy (John Krasinski) and Sadie Jones (Moore) forced to pass a marriage preparation course supervised by the Jones family’s longtime minister, Reverend Frank (Robin Williams). Along the way, Reverend Frank, aided by his young apprentice (Josh Flitter, as annoying here as he was in Nancy Drew), bugs the couple’s bedroom, embarrasses Ben in front of his future in-laws, and drives Sadie away from her fiance. Robin Williams is in his manic, whoring mode here, an approach well past its expiration date in terms of actually resembling anything funny or topical.

Live Free or Die Hard **1/2

For whatever reason -- fat paycheck, wavering career, poor choice of available roles -- Bruce Willis has elected to return to his signature role as John McClane, and the end result is better than most years-after-the-fact sequels (Rocky Balboa, The Evening Star, Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles). The twist here is that aging detective McClane, an old-fashioned guy used to 20th century modes of expression and ideas, finds himself battling cyber-terrorists who threaten to shut down the entire United States with a few strokes of a keyboard. The movie’s billing itself as the story of an “analog” cop living in a “digital” age, and we all know what that means. No mouse pads or monitors for our hero; instead, it’s all flying fists, rapid-fire weaponry and explosions. Lots of explosions. Yet even director Len Wiseman and scripter Mark Bomback don’t have complete faith in the cop’s old-fashioned heroics since they saddle him with a sidekick who’s a genius when it comes to computers. Matt Farrell ( Justin Long, the “Mac” guy in those ubiquitous Apple commercials) is a Neo-inspired hacker who inadvertently helps the villain (an effective Timothy Olyphant) and his posse carry out their master plans. Marked for termination, Matt is only able to escape his would-be assassins with McClane’s help. An overlong running time allows matters to occasionally become stale (the blueprint calls for our protagonists to evade, fight, escape, repeat), although Willis does his part by tossing out those patented McClane quips with aplomb. And while there’s no denying that the picture is packed with memorable action sequences, the film often collapses into a heap of silliness, with McClane surviving some encounters that would tax all sorts of leaps of logic.

Ratatouille ***1/2

Cinema has given us so many marvelous movies set around the kitchen that it’s easy to lose count among the tantalizing dishes laid out on display. But onto a long list that includes Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Like Water for Chocolate, I never expected to add an animated yarn about a culinary rat. Ratatouille is the latest winner from Pixar, the animation outfit whose win-loss ratio has still managed to equal that of the ‘72 Miami Dolphins. Here, a dreamy rat who tries to get along with his more conventional family while also attempting the impossible (and the taboo) by forging a friendship with a human. The rat is Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), whose skills in the kitchen are exemplary, and the human is Linguini (Lou Romano), a skinny lad who possesses none of his late father’s superb culinary abilities. Since restaurant kitchens aren’t exactly rodent-friendly, and since circumstances force the singularly untalented Linguini to pass himself off as a master chef, the pair pool their resources to return a once-great Paris eatery, now struggling following the publication of a disastrous review by food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole), back to its lofty position as one of France’s finest.

Transformers ***

A movie about robots that turn into cars (and trucks and tanks and airplanes) would seem to have a more limited fan base than many other blockbuster wanna-bes, and the presence of Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) as director certainly puts critics on alert. Yet perhaps the secret ingredient here is in the producing credits. Instead of Bay’s usual partner in crime, Jerry Bruckheimer, it’s Steven Spielberg who snags an executive producer citation, so it can’t be a coincidence that in its finest moments -- most contained within the first half of this 145-minute yarn -- this picture harkens back to the sort of filmic roller coaster rides that Spielberg often built during the 80s. What makes the initial hour-and-change so enjoyable is the expository material that former Alias scripters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman bring to the table. After quickly explaining that two sets of intergalactic robots -- the heroic Autobots and the nefarious Decepticons -- have brought their battle to our planet, we’re introduced to characters who will eventually gather to help the good ‘bots defeat the evil ones. Chief among the human protagonists is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a teenager who’s so busy wooing a lovely classmate (Megan Fox) that he’s slow to realize that there’s more than meets the eye about his new Camaro. Meanwhile, in Qatar, two members (Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel) of an army outfit find themselves trying to stay alive from the metallic menace that has wiped out their base. And the U.S. Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight) tries to figure out what’s going on with the help of a computer analyst (Rachael Taylor) and her “advisor,” a computer hacker (Anthony Anderson). Bolstered by ample amounts of humor and more character-driven than expected, Transformers for the most part does a fine job of balancing action with emotion, which makes the final half-hour -- wall to wall battles -- a bit of a slog.

Evan Almighty **

There’s not much to this film aside from shaky CGI effects, timid moralizing, and the sight of Steve Carell spinning his wheels in a role that fails to draw upon the immense comic talents displayed in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine and even his brief stint in the Paul Lynde role in the disastrous screen version of Bewitched.

Playing the same part he essayed in Bruce Almighty, that of self-centered TV news anchor Evan Baxter, Carell immediately finds himself neutered by director Tom Shadyac and his passel of writers, as his character has morphed into a typical movie dad who places his own career above the needs of his wife (Lauren Graham) and children. Having been elected to Congress on the platform that he’ll “change the world,” Evan now finds his hands full delivering on that promise when God (returning Morgan Freeman) appears and instructs him to build an ark.

1408 **1/2

A fairly effective creepshow in which our protagonist only has to worry about a haunted room. But what a room! Hack writer Mike Enslin (an excellent John Cusack) has built a career penning guide books on supposedly haunted locales across America, and after years of doing so, he realizes, with the same level of smugness as Hilary Swank’s mythbuster in The Reaping, that there are no such things as ghosts and goblins and gremlins and golems. So when he receives a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York telling him not to enter the establishment’s room 1408, he scoffs at the warning but elects to check it out anyway. His arrival is met with resistance by Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), the hotel manager. At first, the spooky proceedings are kept on a low-key simmer. But scripters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski don’t just adapt Stephen King’s short story; they stick a helium needle into it and expand it to grotesque proportions.

Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer **

It remains a mystery how the 2005 superhero yarn Fantastic Four grossed $154 million stateside, considering that most of its special effects were on the level of a 6-year-old floating his plastic boat in the bathtub. This time effects are a vast improvement. Would that the rest of this picture inspired similar admiration. Instead, FF2 suffers from the same ailments that made the original such a drag: ham-fisted direction, embarrassing acting, stilted dialogue and the fumbling of a classic villain. There are some mildly interesting conflicts, not only between the heroes and their adversaries but also among the team members. Personal issues get thrust onto the backburner, though, once the Silver Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne) flies onto the scene.

Knocked Up ***

Like There’s Something About Mary, director Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin was unique in that it successfully mixed raunch with romance. Knocked Up, which reunites Apatow with Virgin co-star Seth Rogen, attempts a similar balancing act, only it falls a tad short. There’s a sweet love story on view here as well, only because it’s more rushed it ultimately plays second string to the picture’s comedy quota.