Tuesday, June 30, 2009


SUGAR (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2008)

The baseball drama SUGAR draws its title from the nickname of Dominican Republic pitching prospect Miguel Santos (first-time actor Algenis Perez Soto). Sugar is so known because of his fondness for sweet foods, but the moniker could just as well derive from his skill hurling a ball.

Sugar views baseball as his ticket to the United States and the fortune and fame that come with being a Major Leaguer. As is usually true of enormous aspirations, the journey is more complicated than Sugar expects. He earns a spot with a minor league team in Iowa, but rather than rocketing to the big leagues, he struggles with the language barrier, cultural differences, and an injury.

As of this year's Opening Day, Latin Americans accounted for twenty-nine percent of Major League Baseball players, with the majority of them coming from the Dominican Republic. Camps there were recently in the news because of scandals involving player signings and age falsifications. Although SUGAR is not based on any individual's true story, it provides an absorbing look at a baseball pipeline that impacts the game significantly yet is largely unfamiliar to fans.

That reason alone should be sufficient for baseball enthusiasts to make SUGAR a must-see. At a time when sabermetrics break players down into pages of predictive statistics, SUGAR delivers a potent reminder of off-the-field challenges that affect performance on the field. Athletes aren't robots, and this humanizing examination of one immigrant's quest grants greater appreciation for what must be overcome to even have a chance to succeed.

Co-writers and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck present this fascinating inside baseball tour with empathy and pull out a strong lead performance from Soto, a non-actor who once aspired to follow his character's dreams. Because Sugar comes to the U.S. with very limited knowledge of English and lacks a confidante, Soto must convey much of what he thinks and feels without speaking.

To baseball fans most farm system players, especially non-natives, are voiceless and faceless. Their names may be bandied about as they work through the system, but tales of these roster fillers' ups and downs mostly go untold. For a moment SUGAR borrows the spotlight for one of these commonplace but ignored stories.

Grade: A-

Monday, June 29, 2009

Terminator Salvation


TERMINATOR SALVATION picks up the series with John Connor (Christian Bale) at the forefront in the war against the machines. Set in 2018, fourteen years after the Judgement Day brought on by Skynet, the scrappy survivors battle the robots trying to purge all humans from the planet. Of particular interest to them is Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the teen destined to be Connor's father.

While the computers hunt for Reese, the resistance believes they have found a signal that will destroy the machines. Connor's broadcasts and mythic status give him claims to a leadership role, and he demands to be the one to carry out the mission.

Meanwhile, death row inmate Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) wakes up in this future. The last thing he remembers is being prepped for execution fifteen years earlier. Wright's motives and purpose are of great concern to Connor, but eventually he has no choice but to trust him as they team up to rescue Reese and hopefully deliver the crushing blow to the Skynet headquarters.

TERMINATOR SALVATION boasts impressive setpieces that provide eye-popping visual scale, but the story so badly lacks scope that the film feels small and, ultimately, inconsequential.

The killer machines are fast and frightening. The film is jammed with action, something that McG and the kinetic camera capture with dazzling technique. TERMINATOR SALVATION delivers the goods as an action and effects extravaganza, but after awhile the man versus machine mayhem tends to blur into an endless loop. The human characters are severely underwritten, a quality that comes to bear during the beats when the film pauses for exposition.

Practically since birth John Connor has carried the weight of knowing his role in this war, so Bale's stern performance suits the character, even if it's as one-note as the rest of TERMINATOR SALVATION. The screenplay hampers him with little to do but bark at everyone in the vicinity.

Bryce Dallas Howard must have been cast as his wife Kate solely because her red hair keeps the continuity with Claire Danes, who held the role in 2003's TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES. For a franchise that has offered strong female leads, Kate Connor's near-invisibility in TERMINATOR SALVATION is a disappointment at best. It also means a good actress is underutilized, but so it goes in a film enthralled with computer-generated effects to the point where the humanity is cut out, ironically enough.

Ignoring the fact that the advertising reveals Marcus Wright's secret, the film's bungled introduction of the character leaves little doubt about his intended role in this war. Without any questions as to why Marcus turns up when he does, where's the drama and tension? Then there's the time travel element that makes one wonder if all of the events in the film's universe are predetermined, although that path is better left untraveled lest the fourth TERMINATOR be rendered irrelevant.

TERMINATOR SALVATION is fitfully entertaining in its unceasing futuristic warfare, but if the characters are fighting for humanity's survival, they've already lost on one front. The computers have taken over the filmmaking.

Grade: C

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian


In NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) has traded in his night security guard uniform for a suit and tie as an inventor and TV pitchman. He still swings by the Museum of Natural History to see his old friends that make up the exhibits, but his visits have become fewer during the couple years since their initial adventure.

Larry learns that new interactive holographic terminals are replacing the old displays, which are being packed and shipped to the Smithsonian's archives. Ahkmenrah's tablet is staying in New York, though, which means that miniature cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson), Roman soldier Octavius (Steve Coogan), and pals will not come to life at night in Washington D.C.

To their benefit and Larry's aggravation, the sticky-fingered Capuchin monkey steals the tablet and takes it along to the Smithsonian. There the pharoah Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) tries to get it so he can summon an underworld army to help him rule the planet. Larry poses as a security guard so he can infiltrate the nineteen Smithsonian museums and thwart the pharoah's plans.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN collects and unveils a who's who of television and film comedians like an institution amasses and showcases artifacts. Jonah Hill gets a funny scene as a Smithsonian guard who confronts Stiller as he is about to touch an exhibit. Bill Hader contributes some amusing moments as a tactically-challenged General Custer who is obsessed with his golden locks.

Azaria's Kahmunrah draws laughs from overestimating what he deems to be his fearsome resurrection, and in a charming turn Amy Adams plays aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart as a screwball spitfire. Ricky Gervais and Mindy Kaling are also worth noting in minor roles while Christopher Guest as Ivan the Terrible and THE OFFICE'S Craig Robinson are among those whose talents are squandered.

Descended from the big budget family films of the 1980s, the first NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM was an enjoyable amusement park ride through the halls of history. The sequel has its moments too, mostly due to the fine cast, but this repeat spin gets a little wearying.

The fatigue stems from the characters running among buildings on the National Mall rather than kicking back with old favorites and new acquaintances alike. Just like on a family's summer vacation, when the pressure is on to cram in as many activities and to appeal to every member every second, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN can be too cluttered and hyperactive to appreciate its broad pleasures.

Grade: C+

(Photos TM and © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Anvil! The Story of Anvil

ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (Sacha Gervasi, 2008)

Canadian heavy metal band Anvil has been hammering out albums for nearly thirty years. They were a key influence on Metallica and Anthrax, among others, yet the band never achieved the same levels of popularity or financial success.

In the documentary ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL director and former Anvil roadie Sacha Gervasi follows the group as they take a break from their day jobs to embark on a European club tour and record their thirteenth album.

As childhood friends lead singer and guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner formed Anvil in 1978. Despite years of professional disappointments and setbacks, they continue to hold onto the belief that their break may just be around the corner. While they look like (and are) middle-aged men, on the inside they're still teenagers in the garage creating rock masterpieces that the whole world will hear and love someday.

Such Pollyanna-ish confidence sets up the band for the contemptuous laughter of audiences, yet Gervasi's pure love of and respect for Anvil dampens the hoots. An affectionate portrait rather than a sad, derisive takedown, ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL finds inspiration in the passion and tenacity these aging metalheads display.

Regardless of what one thinks about Anvil's brand of rock, Kudlow and Reiner are to be admired for remaining hopeful after banging their heads against the industry's walls for so long. They understand that a breakthrough may never happen, but setbacks and failures can't keep them from doing what they love.

This pie in the sky optimism gives the film a heartwarming side, but it also is employed for comedic effect, naturally. Gervasi models his rockumentary on the mockumentary THIS IS SPINAL TAP and emphasizes Anvil's similarities to their fictional counterparts.

Anvil plays songs with ridiculous sexual lyrics, gets lost on the way to a club in the Czech Republic, and has an amplifier with a setting that goes to eleven. They even visit Stonehenge. Short of opening for a puppet show, Anvil's experiences couldn't overlap more with those of David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel.

Yet one reason why SPINAL TAP remains extraordinarily popular among musicians is that they can relate to the misadventures. Drawing comparisons between Anvil and their unlucky fictional counterpart isn't a slap in the face but an acknowledgement of how dead on SPINAL TAP is regarding the rock and roll lifestyle.

In a good-humored way ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL laughs at the indignities the band is dealt while pounding a path they hope leads to career validation but more often than not guides them into more dead ends. The funny thing is that the documentary proves that their efforts have been worthwhile even if Anvil's rewards haven't been manifested in riches and fame.

Grade: B

Friday, June 26, 2009

Easy Virtue

EASY VIRTUE (Stephan Elliott, 2008)

Meeting one's in-laws for the first time is a nerve-racking ordeal even for those with the most resolute personalities. For the newly wedded Larita Whittaker (Jessica Biel) in EASY VIRTUE, being introduced to her husband John's family presents a firm test of her self-worth and young marriage.

The Whittakers occupy an enormous estate in the countryside of post-World War I England. The lady of the house, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, sees no reason why her son John (Ben Barnes) should want to leave it. Larita and John's whirlwind romance and marriage do not endear her to her new mother-in-law. Neither do her American citizenship, race car driving occupation, and trail of scandal sheet rumors.

Likewise, John's sisters, the ditzy Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) and sour Marion (Katherine Parkinson), snip at Larita's heels just as much as the family dog. The only sympathy she finds in the house comes from the hired help and Colin Firth as Larita's father-in-law. Mr. Whittaker isn't on the best of terms with the missus after dallying to return home from his battlefield service, so he appreciates the presence of someone he views as a kindred spirit.

Like her character in EASY VIRTUE, Biel strives to prove her respectability and talent in this film adaptation of Noel Coward's play. Known more for her figure and tabloid-documented love affairs, Biel makes a game attempt at proving acting chops that weren't on view in the action film STEALTH or awards bait war drama HOME OF THE BRAVE. While she plays the proper notes, Biel's performance lacks the zing needed to jolt this comedy of manners.

It's a criticism that also applies to the whole of EASY VIRTUE. Thomas and Firth are old hands in this sort of picture, and they spark a few flickers of flinty humor from slinging witticisms. Overall, though, director Stephan Elliott never lets loose the playful bloodsport of conversation regarding disapproved marriage kinship and societal differences. The waggish freedom Elliott does impart to the material comes primarily through anachronistic Jazz Age-styled covers of songs from the likes of Tom Jones and Billy Ocean on the soundtrack.

The easy virtue of the title refers to the presupposed freeness with which Larita has shared her bed, but it could just as well apply to the snap judgments and dismissive attitudes directed toward her and the elder Mr. Whittaker. After all, casting aspersions is easier than receiving them.

The serious turn that EASY VIRTUE takes at a latter stage doesn't feel of a piece with the preceding sections. If Elliott had made the stings of earlier rebukes felt more keenly, then the threat of shattered relationships and futures would seem of greater consequence. As it stands, EASY VIRTUE too lightly considers the costs of frosty familial dealings and is thus neither wickedly funny enough nor substantial.

Grade: C

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson 1958-2009

The first time I remember becoming aware of Michael Jackson was reading in TV Guide about his "Thriller" music video, then unprecedented in cost and length, while I was on the way to summer camp. (Why I was reading TV Guide while in a car is a mystery lost to the ages.) It's likely that I'd heard some of his songs, but I can't recall anything having made an impression on me up to that point as a kid.

You have to remember that in the early 1980s our daily lives weren't immersed in or obsessed with popular culture like they can be today. Still, by the time Thriller was selling copies hand over fist, even an elementary school kid like myself, more interested in sports than pop music, would be hard pressed not to know who Jackson was.

The enormous mainstream adoration he enjoyed nationally and worldwide may have only been surpassed by Elvis Presely and The Beatles. In our niche-oriented culture such massive celebrity is something unlikely to be equalled or even approached again.

That's a large part of the reason why today's news of the singer's death at 50 is such a big deal. Depending on your age, it may be hard to understand or remember how hugely popular he was, especially in light of the freak show the last fifteen or so years of his personal and public life became, but at one time he was a fitting holder of the global title King of Pop.

What do I remember about him? The great, ubiquitous pop songs and the Weird Al Yankovic parodies are first and foremost. I imagine I taped more than a few off the radio. "Billie Jean" is the first music video I recall seeing. I was in my dorm room when I caught the post-Simpsons premiere of the "Black or White" video, which had me amazed with the morphing special effect and weirded out by the controversial coda with him touching himself, breaking things, and turning into a black panther.

There was Captain EO (parts 1 & 2 on YouTube), the Jacksons Victory tour Pepsi cans, and the Oprah Winfrey interview during which he claimed his skin was lighter because of vitiligo. I remember that my high school friends and I were strangely fascinated with Moonwalker. I'm not sure if I ever saw it all the way through, but seeing that trailer again brings back memories of how crazy the film is. I can't leave out the Moonwalker arcade game at Marion's Pizza in Englewood either. (What can't you find on the internet? This longer video apparently features a game played all the way through.)

Believe it or not, I don't own a single Michael Jackson song. It could be because when I became a frequent music buyer I slighted pop confections for more "important" or "authentic" rock. It could be because Jackson was odd and, let's face it, increasingly creepy. He leaves an impressive history of pop music, though, and I ought to have some of it to listen to.

It is, of course, impossible to forget his troubled and eccentric life outside of his singing and performing, and rightfully so. Nevertheless, newcasts and Twitter wouldn't be abuzz about Michael Jackson tonight if it weren't for the musical legacy that put him and his actions so prominently in the public eye. Michael Jackson the entertainer was long ago eclipsed by Michael Jackson the tabloid curiosity, but perhaps in time his music can be salvaged from the wreck that he became.

Year One

YEAR ONE (Harold Ramis, 2009)

Following in the tradition of Mel Brooks' HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART I, the comedy YEAR ONE features Jack Black and Michael Cera as primitive, incompetent hunter-gatherers bumbling their way through the beginnings of recorded history. In keeping with their established cinematic personalities, Black's Zed is a cheerful idiot while Cera's Oh is a neurotic weakling.

These best pals are already outcasts in their village before a literal banishment from the tribe verifies their feelings of inadequacy. After being expelled they stumble out of the forest and into a series of encounters with David Cross as the treacherous Cain, Hank Azaria's circumcision-fixated Abraham, and the libidinous and virgin-sacrificing population of Sodom.

Black and Cera's shticks are starting to feel as old as the ancient times their characters inhabit in YEAR ONE. Black's dialed-to-eleven foolishness and Cera's low energy performance produce diminishing results because this plays like a lazily ad libbed film reliant on their familiar comedic postures.

The screenplay is credited to director Harold Ramis and THE OFFICE writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, but none of the wit found in their best work is displayed here. More often than not they settle for moments like Black eating crap on purpose and Cera oiling up a hirsute Oliver Platt in the fruitless search for laughs.

Other than rooting the humor in scenarios from religious texts rather than riffing on pop culture references, there's little separating YEAR ONE from Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer comedic wastelands like MEET THE SPARTANS and DISASTER MOVIE.

Seeds of a better film are planted in potentially more fertile ground when YEAR ONE connects jokes regarding how traditions may originate from accidents and the power-mongering of rulers, basically anything but divine decrees, but it's not clever or funny enough to unleash the sorts of potentially blasphemous challenges put forth in Monty Python's LIFE OF BRIAN. This uninspired Torah-lampooning sketch comedy is as arid and empty as the landscapes which the protagonists wander across.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen


Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and the altruistic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), may have defeated the Decepticons at the end of TRANSFORMERS, but you can't keep evil alien robots down for long.

In TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN college-bound Sam discovers that he still has a shard of the Allspark, the powerful cube battled over and thought to be destroyed in the first film. Even a small piece of the Allspark can turn ordinary machines into malevolent transformers. Naturally, the Decepticons want this sliver so they can revive their ocean-entombed leader Megatron (Hugo Weaving).

Sam gives the fragment to his girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) for safe keeping but not before he accidentally touches it and has his brain imprinted with visions of alien symbols. This robot language holds clues to the location of an ancient machine that Megatron and his master The Fallen (Tony Todd) want to find so they can harvest the sun's energy.

TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN'S state-of-the-art special effects and humongous scale often make it a sight to behold, but the technical achievements are serving to prop up an ungainly and incomprehensible assault on the senses.

REVENGE OF THE FALLEN isn't significantly different than its predecessor. In fact, the two films are virtually the same. Both of director Michael Bay's franchise behemoths are orgies of robot violence interrupted by exposition payloads delivered through clunky dialogue and goofy, sometimes ill-advised humor. Bay has been criticized before for employing offensive minority stereotypes for laughs, and he's likely to come under fire again, not the least of which is for the shucking and jiving twin Autobots.

The sequel improves the Transformers' character designs, most notably through more distinct facial features, but these changes are often for naught because the robots look like indistinguishable trash-compacted heaps, especially when engaged in combat. Ascertaining which robot is which, let alone what parts of them we're seeing, is a mostly hopeless task.

Whether it's piling up extended action scenes or attempting to spell out the befuddling story's intricacies, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN is the cinema of overkill. In addition to the main plot points the distended first half crosscuts among the origins of Transformers on earth, an Autobot-military alliance and bureaucratic conflict, Sam's initiation to college life, and his parents' empty nest escapades. The second half is devoted to a thankfully less scattered but ultimately monotonous battle in the Egyptian desert.

With plenty of gigantic, shape-shifting robots ripping it up, the film isn't always a drag, but in this instance, as is usually the case with Bay, more is not for the best. TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN'S 150 minutes is something to endure rather than enjoy.

Grade: D+

Thursday, June 04, 2009

A Tribute to Frank Gabrenya

(Still from Melvin and Howard, which is showing on June 4 at the Wexner Center for the Arts as part of "A Tribute to Frank Gabrenya")

It seems like every couple days Movie City News links to yet another article about a film critic being laid off. Newspapers are struggling, and local arts coverage is often one of the services deemed non-essential by decision makers. Syndicated film reviews, often coming from New York or Los Angeles, replace of the hometown voice and perspective. It may make business sense, although I wonder if losing writers with whom readers form relationships is productive in the long run.

Frank Gabrenya wrote about film for the Columbus Citizen-Journal before moving onto the Columbus Dispatch in 1987. Frank was the fulltime film critic there until this April when he was among 45 Dispatch employees let go.

While the Columbus area has more film critics than the average reader might expect, Frank was the most prominent and, I’m guessing, the longest serving in this community. He continues to write the occasional freelance review for the Dispatch, but it’s not the same as seeing his name attached to bylines for the pieces covering most of the new releases every Friday. (Of course, no disrespect is intended to Nick Chordas and the other freelancers. Nick is doing an admirable job striving to keep a couple locally written reviews in the Dispatch each week.)

Tonight, as a way of saying thanks for his years of service, the Wexner Center for the Arts presents "A Tribute to Frank Gabrenya". He will introduce the Jonathan Demme comedy Melvin and Howard. The program begins at 7 p.m.

Back in 1997, when my Now Playing co-host Paul Markoff and I were new film critics, we asked Frank if he would include us in his annual column surveying local critics on their favorite films of the year. We were (and still are) largely unknown to most in the Dispatch’s readership, but he gladly welcomed us into the fold. It's the least I can do to say thanks here for his help, cooperation, and friendship through the years and to be among those honoring him by attending this evening's tribute.