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Jonah Hex (2010)

What went wrong here? A compelling comic book character, great actors, a goofy but potentially funny revisionist-western storyline, excellent production values. This could have been one of the great, bleak, Dark Knight-esque comic-with-a-conscience summer movies. Instead, it limps through a barely-feature-length runtime, telling an incoherent-to-the-point-of-avant-garde story that’s stupid when it should have been sublimely ridiculous.

The plot, when the movie remembers to have one, goes like this: during the Civil War, Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) fought for the Confederacy, but the corrupt and lascivious actions of his superiors disgusted him. He killed a man who turned out to be the son of Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who in turn killed Jonah’s family and branded his face, leaving it permanently and disgustingly disfigured. In 1876, Turnbull is a terrorist hell-bent on blowing up Washington, D.C., during the centennial celebration. He’s gained access to top-secret plans for a precursor to the atomic bomb designed by cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney (no, really). Jonah is tasked by President Grant (Aidan Quinn) to stop Turnbull from using the weapon. For some reason, Megan Fox plays a prostitute named Lilah. The movie unsuccessfully attempts to sell us on a love story between Jonah and Lilah, but she does make a nice damsel in distress in the third act (after disappearing for a relatively long stretch).

For yet another unknown reason, Jonah has the ability to talk to the dead. The writers go to great pains to establish the rules of this power in a hilarious scene where Jonah first explains that he can’t bring people back to life for very long, then proceeds to ramble about the rest of the rules while the deceased writhes in agony. See, as Jonah touches their body and speaks to them, they start to burn. They burn more quickly if they’ve been dead for a short period of time. This last rule handily allows Jonah to quickly torture the recently deceased for information and have a lengthy, heartfelt conversation with his brother (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who died in the war. Incidentally, this stupid power exists solely as a lazy way for Jonah to gain information. Why bother investigating when he can just find out the plan from Turnbull’s dead cronies?

I could spend this entire review theorizing on what happened behind the scenes to ruin this movie, but at the end of the day, I don’t care. What I care about is the end result, which—whether it actually is or not—feels like they shot half a script and tried to smooth over the bumpy scenes with lazy voiceover and one of the worst (and most arbitrary) animation sequences I’ve ever seen in a medium- to big-budget film. The disjointed story never comes together, the characters are wildly, almost laughably inconsistent, and the writers seem content to mine every western cliché in the book. The writers add a sci-fi/fantasy angle to try to make these clichés seem a little more inventive.

The sci-fi/fantasy angle doesn’t work at all. I have no familiarity whatsoever with the comic, so I just assumed that’s where it came from. The writers had to put it in to appease its fans, even though it never makes sense and is incredibly stupid. However, after the screening, I talked to a friend familiar with the comic. Jonah’s most prominent superhero power in the movie—his ability to talk to the dead—does not exist in the comic at all. In fact, the comic doesn’t even have sci-fi/fantasy elements. It’s just a standard western comic inspired by Peckinpah and Leone, following a badass antihero whose only “superpower” is flawless marksmanship.

Jonah Hex wastes a terrific cast. Brolin mumbles his way through the movie with a distracting Yosemite Sam impersonation. He and Malkovich show amazing commitment to ridiculous characters. These performances may have worked exceptionally well in a better movie, but in this movie, it’s just depressing. Even Megan Fox does a pretty good job in a barely-there role, which surprised me. I’ve actually never seen her in a movie, but the hype surrounding her led me to believe she’s a vacuum of talent. I wouldn’t describe her performance as a revelation, but she also wasn’t distractingly bad.

The world wasn’t exactly clamoring for a Jonah Hex movie. Although compelling, he’s not as well-known as, say, Batman or Superman. This film could have introduced him to a much wider audience, and created a great comic-book movie franchise. Hell, it may have even rekindled the mostly dead revisionist western genre. It fails on pretty much every level, however. The filmmakers blew a big opportunity.

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Knight and Day (2010)

Even though I still have no idea what the title means, I enjoyed Knight and Day a lot. It blends cheerful, good-natured comedic moments with some very impressive action sequences much more successfully than the similar Killers. More to the point, it’s exactly what a summer popcorn movie should be: fun.

Tom Cruise has made a career out of cultivating a super-cool, super-confident, super-charming persona. In Knight and Day, he mines some big laughs by taking that persona into the realm of sociopathy. His Roy Miller is little more than a variation on Cruise’s Mission: Impossible character, Ethan Hunt, but he lacks the self-awareness to realize an “average” person like June (Cameron Diaz) won’t respond well to his smiling proclamation that he’s murdered a planeload of people, including the pilot and copilot. Painting the Cruise persona as borderline insane is risky, but it pays off really well.

The setup is convoluted: June is on her way home to Boston for her sister’s wedding. At the airport, she meets Roy, who switches her boarding pass for a later flight. For reasons not immediately known, a cadre of CIA agents is monitoring Roy. They see the switch and conclude Roy and June are working together, so they allow June to board Roy’s flight, which is filled with assassins (including the flight crew). Roy and June bond quickly, but that’s before Roy kills everyone on the plane but her. Not surprisingly, she freaks out. She continues to freak out as Roy lands the plane in the middle of a cornfield, blows it up, and drugs June. She wakes in Boston, thinking it was a very odd dream.

From there, the story plays out with June as a comedic version of a Hitchcock hero: she’s in over her head, she doesn’t know what’s going on, but she has to keep trying to figure it out until people stop shooting at her. She teams up with Roy, who explains that a CIA conspiracy has made it look like he’s gone rogue and is trying to sell “the Zephyr” (a AA-sized battery that can power a small city perpetually) to terrorists. Later, she learns from a pair of CIA agents (Peter Sarsgaard and Viola Davis) that Roy is a professional liar who really has gone rogue. June has to figure out who’s telling the truth and how to get through this ordeal without dying or getting the Zephyr’s inventor (Paul Dano) killed.

The plot may seem complicated, but it breezes along at such a rapid clip, it doesn’t matter much if details get missed along the way. Screenwriter Peter O’Neill takes the script just seriously enough to keep it engaging, but not so seriously that it loses its sense of fun and becomes a leaden, brooding character piece. The bravura action sequences include an exhilarating expressway chase that left me with my jaw hanging on the floor, impressed by the combination of stunts and special effects. It’s not often that I’m truly awed by a piece of filmmaking—especially one driven by special effects—but this was outstanding. Nothing else in the movie quite matches the expressway chase, but the other action sequences have enough suspense and entertainment value to make it worth watching.

Tom Cruise does typically great work here, a consummate movie star playing a funny version of his usual performance. Diaz has never impressed me much before, but she also does a great job of anchoring the movie with a hilariously flummoxed, neurotic turn. Cruise and Diaz share such great chemistry, it surprises me they’ve never been paired up before. (Vanilla Sky doesn’t count—in addition to being a terrible movie, Diaz barely exists in it after she sets up the stupid, stupid plot.) The top-notch supporting players—notably Dano, pseudo-villain Jordi Mollà, and Marc Blucas as June’s firefighter ex-boyfriend—add a great deal to thankless roles, demonstrating what great actors can do to make underwritten characters feel alive.

Like most movies involving Tom Cruise, Knight and Day boasts a bevy of top-notch performers and technicians doing great work. Don’t mistake that for delusions that this is anything more than a silly but extremely well-made popcorn movie. You won’t find probing insight into the human condition, but it’ll entertain you more than Grown Ups.

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The Last Airbender (2010)

For most of its runtime, The Last Airbender suffers from the problem that has plagued the last few Harry Potter movies: familiarity with its source material is required to understand the movie itself. As a critic, the fact that I know nothing about the Nickelodeon cartoon that inspired this film (“Book One” in a proposed trilogy that will probably never see completion) is a boon—I don’t have to worry about high expectations souring my opinion or familiarity obscuring the fact that the story doesn’t make any sense. However, as a moviegoer, my ignorance is a constant source of annoyance.

The plot is overly convoluted from the moment its opening crawl explains the movie’s world to the audience. See, it takes place on a pseudo-Earth world divided into four kingdoms, each guided by one of the four natural elements (water, fire, earth, and air). For millennia, a Chosen One became “the Avatar,” someone with the ability to harness all four of these elements. This Avatar, apparently, kept the peace between the four kingdoms by virtue of being a total badass. However, 100 years before the start of the film, the last Avatar (a child) disappeared without a trace, leading to a long war perpetrated by the Fire Kingdom.

Purely by coincidence, the action opens with Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her older brother/protector, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), uncovering Aang (Noah Ringer) in a Water Kingdom iceberg. Aang was the Avatar, and now that he’s thawed out and back to normal, the Fire Kingdom wants him…well, not dead, exactly. It’s sort of unclear what they actually want from him. Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) repeatedly says that killing him will just cause a new Avatar to be born, but he never takes the time to say why he wants the Avatar. Maybe he just wants to keep Aang prisoner so he can continue his war effort.

The crux of the conflict revolves around Aang’s inability to master other elements. See, he’s an “airbender,” someone with power over air, but he fled from his Avatar calling before he could master the others. Katara offers to teach him to harness water. She starts out as “the last waterbender,” although she’s not terribly good at bending water, and later in the movie other members of the Water Kingdom have an unexplained good grasp of waterbending. See what I mean when I said the plot doesn’t make much sense?

At any rate, the survival of the remaining kingdoms hinges on Aang’s ability to master water, which (as anyone who’s played a Final Fantasy game knows) is the only element that can defeat fire. Aang has a hard time learning, in part because he keeps getting kidnapped by Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), a reluctant agent of Zhao whose father (played by Cliff Curtis) rules the Fire Kingdom. Later, Zuko has a change of heart and releases Aang, but then he’s backed into a corner and must bring Aang back to his father. Like I said, convoluted.

The third act consists of an orgy of violence and special effects on par with a kiddie version of 300 or Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I won’t spoil it for those of you brave enough to see this movie, but I’ll describe its most basic problem: writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan refuses to lay out the mythology in advance. This issue causes problems throughout the film (in addition to the confusion about who can and can’t bend the water, Aang has the ability to resurrect the dead and shouts that the oppressed citizens of an Earth Kingdom village should use their powers, even though earlier it’s established that only a select few have these powers), but never more than in the third act. Rather than packing the last half hour with revelations that deepen the audience’s understanding of how this world works, it feels like Shyamalan is making things up as he goes along. It builds to a laughable deus ex machina that’s followed by a smash cut to a scene that sets up the sequel by introducing a never-before-seen character who receives one passing mention earlier in the film.

Audiences who have seen the cartoon may cheer these nonsensical moments, but they exist to alienate the uninitiated portion of the audience simply looking for entertaining, thought-provoking fantasy. The Last Airbender feels incomplete, but not disjointed. It’s like the Reader’s Digest condensed book version of the cartoon series. The story has an assured flow from one scene to the next—it just lacks any concrete reason for these scenes to follow one another, for these characters to take the actions they do, and for the convoluted mythology to rear its ugly head and save the day.

The older actors—notably Patel, Mandvi, and Shaun Toub—do their best to bring a certain level of vitality and emotion to their characters. Patel has easily the most complex and interesting character, but he’s hindered by the screenplay’s insistence on forcing Zuko to do things that don’t really make any sense. Still, he does a fine job with an unenviable role. The same can’t be said for the younger actors. I feel mean for bashing kids, but Ringer makes Jake Lloyd look like Jackie Coogan (look it up). Peltz is a little better, but not much. Their characters anchor the story, but the actors themselves can’t convey the necessary emotions to make the audience feel any empathy or enthusiasm for their struggles. Coming from Shyamalan, this is a big surprise. In the past, pretty much the only reason to watch his movies was to marvel at his ability to coax great performances out of so-so actors.

The film also lacks Shyamalan’s trademark suspense. Even at his worst, Shyamalan had the rare ability to create an atmosphere of dread and a sense of suspense rivaled only by Hitchcock. Why didn’t he bring any of that to this story? This feels like a by-the-numbers big-budget kids’ movie. Instead of suspense or mystery, the film has an air of, “Hey, kids, you already know the story, so kick back and have fun.” This is par for the course for most recent kids’ movies, but it doesn’t make for gripping cinema.

Like Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, this movie spends more time trying to create a franchise than trying to develop a single satisfying film. Changing some elements—a stronger screenplay, better casting—could have made it a decent movie, but it’s too late for that now. There’s no kinder way to say it: The Last Airbender is both a failure and a mess.

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Eat, Pray, Love (2010)

Eat, Pray, Love desperately seeks to tell a unique story of female empowerment. Unfortunately, it manages to get things wrong at pretty much every turn. For starters, the “unique” story is just a rehash of 2003’s Under the Tuscan Sun (plus two extra countries for more culture-clash wackiness!): a newly divorced woman impulsively decides to travel abroad to find herself. True, Eat, Pray, Love contains more food porn and eye-rolling attempts at deep spirituality, but the core of the story remains virtually identical.

The most significant problem here revolves around the two relationships Liz (Julia Roberts) has in the first act. She divorces her husband (a glorified cameo by Billy Crudup) for reasons never made entirely clear, then enters into a relationship with an actor (another glorified cameo by James Franco) that collapses for reasons never made entirely clear. These reasons absolutely need to make sense to the audience, because they don’t just serve as twin inciting incidents propelling Liz to leave New York and travel the world. The shadow cast by these two relationships shrouds everything else that happens in the film, so why does co-writer/director Ryan Murphy choose to start the story at the end of Liz’s marriage, then show the beginning and the end of her relationship with the actor, but never show the important part: why the relationships fell apart.

By the time Liz decides she’ll spend a year abroad—spending a few months each in Italy, India, and Bali—I’d already checked out of the story. It’s hard to care whether or not the main character finds herself when the movie doesn’t take the time to make her empathetic. Indeed, Liz comes across as infuriatingly selfish, only because neither her husband nor the actor seem like particularly terrible guys, and the movie never takes a second to illuminate why she felt the need to leave them. Why did she find these relationships so unfulfilling? What we’re left with is the impression that she wants to do what she wants to do when she wants to do it. That’s not an easy character to get behind, regardless of gender.

Without the audience ever really getting a grasp on why, Liz hangs out in Italy to rediscover her love of food. She moves on to India to reconnect with her lost spirituality. She finishes out the year in Bali, so she can reconnect with Ketut (a charming performance by Hadi Subiyanto), a medicine man who promised to teach her the many secrets of life. In each country, she meets a variety of colorful characters of various nationalities and genders. They’re all nice, cheerful, and compassionate, and most of them want to know why Liz doesn’t have a husband.

The story always takes the posture (without ever explicitly stating it) that Liz doesn’t need a man to get along in the world. I can’t figure out if it’s intentionally ironic or merely hypocritical that in each vignette, Liz relies on men far more than herself or even other women. While in India to learn from a well-known female guru, Liz spends more time taking the advice of a loudmouthed Texan (Richard Jenkins). The guru herself is rarely glimpsed in anything other than photographs on shrines, and she offers nothing. In Bali, Liz relies more on the pearls of wisdom doled out by Ketut than those provided by a divorced female physician (Christine Hakim).

The film suffers from a dearth of dramatic tension. The first and second acts revolve around Liz’s internal conflict without doing much to externalize it. Unfortunately, Roberts is in “cute” mode in this film, so gauging Liz’s true feelings is an impossible task, even when she occasionally looks really pensive or sad. Murphy sometimes sprinkles faux-profound voiceover narration (ostensibly lifted from the source memoir) that doesn’t illuminate as much as it should. When external conflict finally enters the film—in the form of a studly divorcée well-played by Javier Bardem—it’s much too late to redeem the watch-checking tedium of the previous 90 minutes.

I know I’m not this movie’s target audience. Maybe fans of the book or fans of Roberts will really enjoy what this movie has to offer. It just doesn’t have anything new to say about its own themes, and Roberts does a poor job of selling Liz’s alleged transformation over the course of the film. I don’t want to be too tough on her here—she has a monumental task in making Liz seem like anything more than selfish to the point of obnoxiousness. The adaptation by Murphy and Jennifer Salt lets down the character. The world’s greatest actress—which Roberts is not, even at her best—would have to struggle to make this material work and make this character likable. I haven’t read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, so perhaps these flaws come from the source material. Whatever the case, Eat, Pray, Love‘s relentless mediocrity makes it a movie worth missing.

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Lottery Ticket (2010)

Lottery Ticket has done a wonderful thing. It has successfully merged a ridiculous, high-concept studio idea with a nuanced, character-driven slice-of-life comedy. The result is one of the best comedies of the year—granted, a lackluster year for comedies thus far, but that shouldn’t diminish this film’s accomplishments.

Bow Wow and Brandon T. Jackson star as, respectively, Kevin and Benny. Kevin’s a straight-arrow bordering on obsessive-compulsive, with a job he loves at Foot Locker and thoughts of going to design school to become a shoe designer—assuming he can find a way to pay for it and still support the grandmother who raised him (Loretta Devine). Benny postures as wacky and irreverent, but he secretly dreams of simultaneously escaping the Atlanta projects and benevolently helping those he has grown up around do the same. They live in a housing project filled with colorful characters played by ringers like Charlie Murphy, Mike Epps, and Bill Bellamy.

For hilariously convoluted reasons I won’t spoil, Kevin manages to get on the bad side of project bully Lorenzo (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and get fired from his beloved job in one fell swoop. Feeling desperate and pathetic, Kevin—who describes the state lottery as a way to keep poor people down—decides to play the lucky numbers he got from a fortune cookie. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know what happens next: Kevin wins the lottery and has to hold on to the ticket and survive a three-day Fourth of July weekend before he can claim his winnings.

Once the secret’s out that Kevin won the lottery, he has to worry about more than Lorenzo. Local gangster Sweet Tee (Keith David in a great extended cameo) extends a $100,000 courtesy loan to Kevin for the weekend, sexpot Nikki Swayze (Teairra Mari) tries to make Kevin her “baby daddy,” and before long, Kevin starts to wonder who his real friends are.

What really makes this film shine is its emphasis on characters over story. The lottery ticket is a great hook, but the movie breezes through the expected beats (trying and failing to keep it a secret, eluding the bully who wants to steal the ticket) to get to deeper, more interesting subject matter about greed, the desire to flee the ghetto, and the importance of giving back. While that may sound like liberal pinko talk to some segments of the population, Lottery Ticket doesn’t make preachy political statements. It contextualizes its themes through its characters, all of whom—even the more ridiculous ones, like Bellamy’s gangsta rapper Du-Rag—manage to overcome their stereotypical roots and feel like real people.

But enough about grim themes and dark undertones. Lottery Ticket is not The Wire. Its second-biggest strength is how funny it is. Writer Abdul Williams wisely doesn’t go for cheap, easy punchlines. In the same way the film explores its themes, the humor is grounded in the characters’ personalities and individual conflicts instead of inane physical schtick. Bow Wow and Jackson have great best-buddy chemistry and natural comedic timing. Naturi Naughton appears as Stacie, a friend of Kevin’s who has long had a crush on him, and does solid work as the flustered “second choice.”

They don’t need bolstering from the supporting cast, but they get it, anyway. The sheer number of hilarious, sharply drawn supporting characters make the world of Lottery Ticket feel very lived-in and believable, even when it goes a few notches over the top. Everyone does great work here, including Terry Crews as Sweet Tee’s annoyed driver/bodyguard and Ice Cube as a Boo Radley-like hermit.

Lottery Ticket serves as an antidote for people who love good comedies. It doesn’t get so hung up on its wacky concept that it forgets to tell a good story populated by funny, interesting characters. More than that, it’s about something—like the best comedies, it has more on its mind than desperately trying to get the audience to laugh. In other words, it’s the anti-Date Night. Go see it.

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Centurion (2010)

Centurion makes a fatal misstep in its very concept. It focuses on a ragtag group of one-dimensional Romans fighting for their lives against the Pictish tribes of Caledonia, when the Picts are the ones depicted as sympathetic and just in their fight. A movie about the tricky gray areas and moral ambivalence inherent in war could have pulled off a story focusing on the Romans, but this is not that movie. For the majority of its runtime, this is a movie about black-and-white heroes and villains, and because the story focuses on the Romans, they become the heroes whether we like it or not.

Take, for example, a scene in which two Roman soldiers flip a coin to determine who will kill a captured Pict. The winner of the toss apologizes to the loser, because that’s how much they revel in carnage. Later in the film, one character slices a hole in the leg of his comrade, partly to prevent him from keeping up, partly to distract the wolves on their tails. These are all terrible people, yet the movie expects us to sympathize with them by virtue of the fact that the camera spends more time aimed at them than at the Picts.

Compare the Romans to Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a Pictish scout who infiltrates the Romans, feigns loyalty for years, and ultimately leads the 3000-strong Ninth Legion into a brutal trap. Seems pretty hostile, right? That’s before the film reveals that she was forced to watch as Romans tortured and murdered her parents—before cutting out her tongue to ensure she wouldn’t say anything negative about the Roman Empire. Suddenly, her actions seem a little bit more just. Similarly, the king of the Picts, Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), sends Etain and numerous warriors to track and kill the goony survivors of the Ninth Legion. It seems sort of petty to send hundreds of troops after a half-dozen men—except for the part where one of those men murdered his 10-year-old son to keep him quiet while they attempted to rescue their general (played by a scenery-chewing Dominic West).

Centurion could have been a good film if writer/director Neil Marshall had any interest in exploring the complexity of wartime behavior. He doesn’t, aside from a few treacly, obvious statements about the futility of war in the last half hour. Even those statements are undermined by the borderline-pornographic depiction of war gore. I don’t know if Marshall wants us to relish in the carnage or the surprisingly impressive special effects, but this movie is unabashedly, ridiculously violent. Emphasis on “ridiculous”—the violence here makes Kill Bill look like The Deer Hunter.

Ostensibly, the film follows centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), who becomes the de facto leader of the survivors after their general gets captured by the Picts. They struggle to make their way to the Roman-occupied territory to the south, but Etain is hot on their trail. That’s pretty much all there is to the story. The characters are exquisitely thin, each given a trait that ultimately proves useful—one’s a cook, one’s a marathon runner, one’s an archer—but Quintus lacks even one of those traits. Well, okay—he knows the Pictish language, so he can communicate with them, but that’s just not enough. He’s supposed to anchor this film, so it would have been nice if Marshall had taken the time to give him a personality. A failed eleventh-hour romance with a peacenik Pict (Imogen Poots) does nothing to solve this problem.

I’ll sometimes give a pass to the story and characters in a war film if the filmmakers have something interesting to say about war. Centurion doesn’t. It’s not much more than a loud, dumb action movie. Despite what it is, Marshall tries to direct it like a sweeping historical epic. Unfortunately, a film needs more than period costumes, majestic music, and well-choreographed battle scenes to make it an epic. It needs fully realized characters, an absorbing story, and some sort of resonant theme.

Centurion lacks all three, but it takes itself too seriously to work as the loud, dumb action movie it should be. The result is simply a good-looking bad film.

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Lebanon (2009)

Like the best war movies, Lebanon makes a statement about the nature of war without seeming like it’s making any statement at all. It doesn’t get swept up in examining the political machinations that led to the First Lebanon War and picking sides. It simply depicts four inexperienced men inside the turret of an Israeli tank as it rolls through Lebanon at the start of the war in 1982. It’s at once a microcosmic view of the hell of war and a harrowing thriller. Not to sound too hyperbolic, but it’s a tremendous film that makes The Hurt Locker look like The Delta Force.

The men on the tank are Assi (Itay Tiran), the commander; Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the gunner; Herzl (Oshri Cohen), the loader; and Yigal (Michael Moshonov, the driver). The commander on the ground, Jamil (Zohar Strauss), talks to them over the radio and occasionally in person. Other than that and the view through the turret’s scope, the foursome (and the audience) has no other interaction with the outside world. Like Das Boot or Kanal, writer/director Samuel Maoz uses the claustrophobia to his advantage.

The story follows the tank on the first day of the war. They follow troops on the ground to a city that’s already been flattened by the Israeli Air Force, but things go awry when they learn Syrian forces have arrived to help the Lebanese. More goes awry inside the tank than outside, however. Shmulik suffers a panic attack when asked to fire on hostiles. As punishment, Jamil forces them to temporarily stow the corpse of a felled Israeli soldier until an evacuation helicopter can arrive. Later, the corpse is replaced with a wounded Syrian prisoner.

Tension mounts as the situation worsens. The tank gets hit by an RPG, making its maneuverability much more difficult. The soldiers in the tank start to believe Jamil isn’t telling them the full truth. Eventually, as night falls, they’re abandoned by the ground troops and left to fend for themselves. Even Assi loses his unwavering cockiness and gives in to fear, coping by pathetically attempting to force order onto the chaos surrounding the tank.

François Truffaut once allegedly said that it’s impossible to make an antiwar film, because the action of combat is inherently too exciting. A handful of films have proved this wrong (the aforementioned Das Boot and Kanal leap to mind, as do Three Kings and Paths of Glory), and Lebanon joins their ranks. The “action sequences,” shot entirely from the point of view of the turret scope, are like something from the world’s most depressing first-person shooter game. Maoz drains whatever excitement might have been found in the gunfights and explosions by focusing on the injured, dead, and grieving—not to mention panic-stricken Shmulik who has to listen to repeated orders to fire as he stares at a terrified married couple and their five-year-old daughter, taken hostage by a Lebanese soldier.

Maoz builds the suspense to a taut third act, one of the best I’ve ever seen in a war movie. I can’t exactly call it satisfying because the movie itself is such an uncomfortable experience, but it accomplishes exactly what the film’s objective seems to be: to show the dirtiness and disorganization of war, and the human toll on both innocents (also known as “collateral damage”) and soldiers. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s infinitely more rewarding than, say, The Expendables (which I enjoyed more than Mark, but not because of its ruminations on war and the human condition).

I also appreciated The Hurt Locker, but it amazes me that the film received so many accolades last year when Lebanon (which debuted almost a year ago at the Venice Film Festival) went largely ignored. Do American moviegoers really hate subtitles that much?

This is a great film that probably won’t be in theatres long, so see it while you can. For you readers in Chicago, it’s playing at the Music Box for at least the next week.

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Going the Distance (2010)

Most romantic comedies anger me, because I feel like they’ve betrayed me. I love romantic comedies more than any healthy male should. I can’t explain this love, but I blame Woody Allen and The Purple Rose of Cairo, the saddest and greatest romantic comedy ever made. It angers me that so many romantic comedies—especially over the past decade—put two 30-somethings together and force them to behave like vertiginous teenagers, acting out disturbing pratfall-cluttered psychodramas that would be fine for high schoolers, but for older folks, it speaks to deep-seated personality disorders. I prefer romantic comedies that take relationships and love seriously. They don’t necessarily have to portray the subject in a realistic manner—part of the joy, in many cases, is the optimistic fantasy element—but they should be about adults with adult problems approached in adult ways. Hollywood may want to lure in the teenage audience more than adults, but I hate teenagers, and that hatred extends to movies catering to them.

Going the Distance is refreshingly adults-only, and not just through its regular use of curse words and graphic discussions of sex acts. The film doesn’t even split the difference by utilizing the Judd Apatow Idiot-Manchild (an archetype both teenagers and slovenly males can understand), opting instead to give that role to the buddies played by Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis. It’s about two adults struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship, approached with surprising complexity thanks to Geoff LaTulippe’s screenplay and Nanette Burstein’s direction.

The film focuses on Garrett (a typically spazzy but frequently funny Justin Long) and Erin (Drew Barrymore), who meet in a bar, discover a variety of common interests, have a one-night stand, and then decide to carry it further. Erin is upfront with him: she’s in New York for a summer internship and has to go back to California to finish her graduate studies at Stanford. Garrett’s okay with that—both of them want to relish the few weeks they have together.

Once they’re apart, the typical long-distance problems slowly emerge: the frequency of their phone/online chatting decreases, they start meeting other potential suitors closer to home, they have trouble affording cross-country trips, and so on. Compounding that are buddies Dan and Box (respectively, Day and Sudeikis) encouraging Garrett to play the field while Erin’s obsessive-compulsive sister Corinne (Christina Applegate) and overly polite brother-in-law Phil (Jim Gaffigan) try to convince Erin that Garrett doesn’t respect her.

Although I liked the film overall, I’m sort of on the side of Corinne and Phil, a goofy but well-meaning couple who make some good points: the core of the conflict revolves around Garrett’s desire to bring Erin to New York, despite her lack of job prospects (she strives to be a newspaper journalist but unsurprisingly has a tough time breaking into the New York industry), because he’s unwilling to give up a dead-end job he hates. The script subtly acknowledges Garrett’s selfishness without every allowing Garrett to realize it. The film has the happy ending you’d expect, but it doesn’t come as a result of Garrett suddenly growing up and embracing adulthood. Like Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, he spends the entire movie as a selfish dolt and only does the right things accidentally.

The film isn’t great by any stretch of the imagination. Hollywood product is so starved of decent romantic comedies that Going the Distance feels like the It Happened One Night of the 2010s. It’s not an instant classic, it doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it approaches a believable romantic pairing with appropriate sincerity and respect.

It also proves that a romantic comedy can take the central relationship seriously without relying on sitcom contrivances or what Roger Ebert calls the Idiot Plot. The few times the film veers toward this territory, the screenplay quickly defuses it, as if LaTulippe is attempting to simultaneously write a good romantic comedy and humorously deconstruct a bad one.

If this seems a little heady and complicated, it’s because I’m getting kind of pretentious. I’m just so glad to see a good romantic comedy, I can’t help myself—but it’s not all deep thoughts and cinephile in-jokes. Going the Distance is a legitimately funny film, aided immensely by its likable leads and a supporting cast filled with ringers.

This film demonstrates the possibilities of the R-rated romantic comedy. So many filmmakers seem willing to rely on gross-out humor simply because they can, but this is not why romantic comedies should be rated R. Adults need to take back their romantic comedies. If a romantic comedy has an R rating, that means they don’t have to cater the story to teenagers to lure them in. Let the teenagers have Twilight and superhero movies (okay, a lot of adults enjoy those, too, but hopefully you see my point).

All in all, I had a good time at Going the Distance. It manages to take a straightforward, somewhat familiar story and make it into something with a lot of heart, humor, and aching believability. That’s disappointingly rare, even in the Age of Apatow. With any luck, more movies like this will start appearing in theatres than Date Night or The Proposal. I want to believe that.

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Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

“How do you make money on a loss?” asks longtime Wall Street broker (and part-time Larry King impersonator) Louis Zabel, played with impressive gravitas by Frank Langella. This question drives much of the stock-market intrigue in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, an entertaining but unexceptional sequel to the iconic 1987 original.

The movie opens with Gordon Gekko’s (Michael Douglas) release from prison, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks. (Never let it be said that director/producer Oliver Stone is a friend of subtlety. The film also features imagery of children’s bubbles floating into the sky in slow motion, dominos falling, and Goya’s painting of Saturn biting the head off his son.) It cuts, almost immediately, to 2008, using the market crash as a backdrop for a story that combines the main beats of the first film with a melodramatic romance featuring reluctant hero Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan), Gordon’s daughter.

The machinations of the crash are compelling if oversimplified—the screenplay by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff would have us believe everything occurred because of personal pissing matches between powerful, Gekko-esque banking titans—but this material takes a backseat to the romance and Gekko family drama. See, Gordon has reformed himself (publishing a book called Is Greed Good?, which purports to expose all the dirty tricks on Wall Street) and wants to reenter her live, but Winnie won’t have anything to do with him. More than any of the other bad things she’s learned about him, Winnie blames Gordon’s not being there to prevent the heroin-overdose death of her brother. Keep in mind, none of these people are referenced in the first film. In fact, I watched the original last year, and I don’t even recall Gordon mentioning that he has a family. Not that expanding Gordon’s character is a bad thing; I just felt like the frequent references to offscreen events involving characters we’ve never met or heard of does a disservice to the contemporary story—especially because much of it sounds more interesting than Jake and Winnie arguing about Gordon.

The good stuff in the movie comes from Jake’s attempts to ingratiate himself on Gordon. Jake is a trader for a firm whose collapse was engineered by Bretton James (Josh Brolin), who coincidentally had a lot to do with Gordon’s lengthy prison sentence (even though he, like Gordon’s family, never appears in the first film, and Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox character is downplayed and dismissed in a few sentences). Jake teams with Gordon to enter Bretton’s inner circle and take him down. Many of the tricks he uses mirror those used by Bud in the first film, which offers nice symmetry without providing anything new. On the other hand, Jake’s motives for taking down Bretton are much more interesting and complex than Bud’s, but I won’t spoil them.

It’s a combination of writing and acting that prevent the central relationship from really working. Every actor turns in a great performance—Frank Langella as a principled relic from another era, Josh Brolin as a cigar-chomping sociopath, Eli Wallach as an older-than-dirt banker who inspires more fear in those surrounding him than any man that frail should, Susan Lucyndon as Jake’s sleazy real-estate agent mother, and Douglas reprising his Oscar-winning role—except the two who form the core of the story, LaBeouf and Mulligan. They’re not bad, but nothing about their relationship is dramatically engaging, and they’re not up to the challenge of taking a badly written romance and making it into something palpable or sincere. They’re just…there, playing out the mind-numbing melodrama with competence, but without the spark or enthusiasm they need to overcome the screenplay’s problems.

Stone bears some of the responsibility, as well. In his heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, he made a string of bombastic, fearless, histrionic films that are eminently watchable despite being largely ridiculous. They came from a place of clear passion, and obviously that passion is gone. Since U Turn, his films have lost the same spark LaBeouf and Mulligan lack. I’d hoped returning to earlier subject matter would have brought back some of the energy and enthusiasm of his older films, but that’s not the case here, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is worse for it.

All that said, this film is no abomination. It runs about twenty minutes longer than it should (and man did I feel it in those final twenty minutes), but it’s pretty entertaining for most of its runtime. It’s worth a rental for the good performances but not especially memorable or insightful.

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Life as We Know It (2010)

When a romantic comedy’s biggest liability is its central romance, it’s time to rethink the genre. Life as We Know It spends its first hour in a shallow exploration of some pretty interesting ideas about the way priorities shift when a child enters the picture. Then, it abandons those ideas for routine rom-com pablum (pardon the pun) that’s almost saved by the two lead actors. Almost.

After an opening “blind date from hell” sequence establishes Holly (Katherine Heigl) as an uptight neurotic and the unsubtly named Messer (Josh Duhamel) as a brash manchild, we understand pretty firmly that these two characters do not get along. They try to make it work because their respective best friends (Hayes MacArthur, Christina Hendricks) are married, but they simply can’t stand one another. What wacky rom-com circumstances will bring this couple together? Death. Huh.

That’s where Life as We Know It starts to get interesting. The married couple die in a car accident, and their will states that guardianship of their 15-month-old, Sophie (played by triplets Alexis, Brynn, and Brooke Clagett), goes to Holly and Messer. We never get to know the deceased well enough to understand why they would make such a terrible decision, but the movie isn’t really interested in that. It focuses primarily on two conflicts: the struggle to maintain their blossoming careers despite having a baby to take care of, and Holly and Messer’s struggle against each other.

Messer is the technical director for Atlanta Hawks games. As he describes his job, the director announces the camera number, and Messer pushes the button for that camera. It’s unglamorous, but he works hard, has good instincts, and wants to sit in the director’s chair someday. He doesn’t want to give it up for a baby that’s not even his. On the other hand, Holly wants this life and is more than willing to sacrifice her bakery’s restaurant expansion because she can’t afford the time or money it would take to achieve it. Still, Holly seems disappointed about the whole thing—she has the life she thinks she wants, but not in the way she wanted to get it, and not at the expense of her thriving business.

When Life as We Know It loses interest in the characters’ lives and occupations, it loses momentum and becomes far too one-sided. Initially portrayed as ambitious and self-absorbed, the screenplay eventually decides to have Holly start sacrificing as much as possible to make Messer look like a villain. Unfortunately, it only serves to make Holly seem extremely self-righteous. She never really exhibits any of the warmth or compassion necessary to sell this idea that she wants to raise Sophie. Like Messer, she merely ends up not doing a lot of things she would have otherwise done (like the business expansion) and doesn’t seem particularly happy about it. She’s doing it out of obligation, not love—just like Messer. The film could have made this more balanced, bringing them together romantically out of this shared sense of frustrated obligation. It may not be the stuff of treacly rom-coms, but at least it’s sort of interesting.

The movie treads a lot of the same ground covered in 2007’s Knocked Up, and having Heigl in one of the central roles makes the comparison unavoidable. Knocked Up explored its characters in fairly nuanced, unexpected ways that made it rise above what could have been a sappy romantic comedy. Life as We Know It starts out on the same path but loses interest in the characters as people. It forces a relationship that never feels natural, turning them into plot devices that do a disservice to all the good material in the first hour. Also, it contains an unending number of vomit and poop jokes. Sorry, filmmakers—that’s just never going to be funny.

All in all, Life as We Know It has a decent first half that’s undermined to the point of self-destruction by its second half. It’s too bad nobody involved was brave enough to risk a more interesting exploration of the characters—this really could have been something special.

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