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Mini Reviews (February 2011)

Modra, Post Grad, Bob Funk, The Roommate, Small Town Murder Songs, Candyman, Spiral, Dorian Gray, Soul Surfer

Modra (February 10/11)

Written and directed by Ingrid Veninger, Modra follows 17-year-old Lina (Hallie Switzer) as she and a friend (Alexander Gammal's Leco) head to Slovakia for a week to visit her relatives - with the film subsequently detailing the pair's exploits in and around the title locale. Veninger has, as expected, infused Modra with an unapologetically (and pervasively) low-key feel that persists for the duration of the movie's 78-minute running time, with the palpable chemistry between the two leads proving instrumental in initially capturing the viewer's interest. And although both Switzer and Gammal are making their professional debuts here, the actors step into the shoes of their respective characters with an ease that certainly belies their lack of experience. It's subsequently not surprising to note that the film is at its best when focused on Lina and Leco's subdued escapades; as such, the movie does demonstrably suffer during sequences in which they're kept apart - which, as a result, ensures that the fake-breakup-fueled midsection ultimately proves a test to the viewer's ongoing patience. Still, Modra has been hard-wired with an earnestness that is, for the most part, impossible to resist - with the picturesque visuals and authentic performances generally compensating for the movie's problematic elements.

out of

Post Grad (February 11/11)

Post Grad casts Alexis Bledel as Ryden Malby - a college graduate who slowly-but-surely discovers that the working world isn't quite the walk in the park that she had expected. Director Vicky Jenson has infused Post Grad with all the subtlety and substance of a garden-variety sitcom, as the film's been packed with a number of almost eye-rollingly silly asides and subplots - including the ongoing exploits of Ryden's unreasonably over-the-top grandmother (Carol Burnett's Maureen). It's subsequently not surprising to note that the affable cast's efforts are slowly but surely rendered moot, and, in a far more distressing development, the pervasively dumbed-down bent of Kelly Fremon's script drains the movie's few authentic moments of their impact. Admittedly, Jenson's poppy, briskly-paced directorial sensibilities ensure that Post Grad never entirely becomes the flat-out unwatchable piece of work that one might've expected - though there's just no denying that, for the most part, the film feels like the first couple of episodes of a slick new CW series. By the time the fairly absurd finale rolls around - without delving too far into spoiler territory, it's impossible to believe that Ryden would make the choice that she does - Post Grad has certainly established itself as a missed opportunity that barely scratches the surface in terms of its potential.

out of

Bob Funk (February 13/11)

An aggressively unwatchable comedy, Bob Funk follows the mean-spirited title character (Michael Leydon Campbell) as he attempts to turn his life around after meeting a cute fellow employee (Rachael Leigh Cook's Sylvia) - with the film subsequently detailing Bob's plotless escapades over the course of a few excruciatingly uneventful weeks. Filmmaker Craig Carlisle has clearly intended for Bob Funk to come off as a low-key character study of an utterly miserable man, with the movie, for the most part, concerned with Bob's day-to-day exploits and his ongoing efforts at conquering a variety of personal issues (including a drinking problem and a tendency to sleep around). But Carlisle is simply unable to transform the protagonist into a figure worthy of the viewer's interest or sympathy, as Bob primarily comes off as an absolutely insufferable human being that spends much of the movie's running time verbally abusing co-workers, customers, random strangers, etc. The character's misanthropic nature is often at odds with the lighthearted and comedic atmosphere proffered by Carlisle, which effectively ensures that the film suffers from a pervasive lack of authenticity that exacerbates its many, many problems. It is, as a result, impossible to care once Bob drops his prickly attitude and begins to soften, with the character's by-the-numbers transformation coming off as forced and utterly artificial - thus cementing the movie's place as a worthless, thoroughly misguided piece of work (which is a shame, really, given that the supporting cast boasts such inherently appealing figures as Eddie Jemison, Amy Ryan, and Stephen Root).

out of

The Roommate (February 15/11)

The Roommate follows affable college student Sara Matthews (Minka Kelly) as she's assigned a dorm room with a mousy girl named Rebecca (Leighton Meester), and although the two become fast friends, it's not long before Rebecca starts displaying personality traits of a decidedly sinister nature. It's a familiar premise that is, at the outset, employed to (relatively) engaging effect by director Christian E. Christiansen, as the filmmaker, working from Sonny Mallhi's screenplay, doggedly follows the formula established by such thematic forebears as Single White Female and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle - which ultimately does ensure that the movie hits most (if not all) of the notes that one might've expected based on the setup (ie a friend of Sara's tries to warn her about Rebecca, Rebecca meddles in Sara's love life, etc). It's only as The Roommate crosses into its increasingly meandering midsection that one's interest begins to wane, with the thinness of the movie's plot resulting in a repetitive atmosphere that boils down to a series of sequences in which Rebecca does something crazy and Sara tries to rationalize it. (The less-than-engrossing vibe is exacerbated by the film's PG-13 rating, which prevents Christiansen from taking the material as far as it logically needs to go.) And although things do temporarily pick up as Rebecca finally goes completely insane, The Roommate has, unfortunately, established itself as an uneven, disappointingly tame entry within the otherwise solid blank-from-hell genre.

out of

Small Town Murder Songs (February 15/11)

Written and directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly, Small Town Murder Songs follows a rural cop (Peter Stormare's Walter) as he's forced to confront his violent past after a dead body turns up in a nearby field - with the film subsequently detailing the impact that the murder has on Walter and the various people in his life. Gass-Donnelly has infused Small Town Murder Songs with an oppressively deliberate pace that effectively holds the viewer at arm's length from start to finish, with the less-than-engrossing atmosphere exacerbated by Gass-Donnelly's refusal to wholeheartedly develop any of the film's characters - including Stormare's intriguing yet frustratingly vague protagonist (ie what's up with his mysterious past?) As such, the movie demonstrably flounders when it dwells on the personal lives of its characters - ie Walter's ongoing encounters with an ex-girlfriend (Jilly Hennessy's Rita) - although it's hard to deny the inherently appealing nature of Walter's relationship with a dimwitted local (Martha Plimpton, in a performance that stands as a highlight within the proceedings). And although the film does improve slightly as it progresses - the mystery at its center is admittedly a compelling one - Small Town Murder Songs ultimately comes off as a tedious, consistently misguided piece of work that often feels much longer than its 75 minutes. (And this is to say nothing of Gass-Donnelly's ostentatious directorial choices, including his wrongheaded decision to pepper the movie with slow-motion sequences accompanied by headache-inducing chunks of score.)

out of

Candyman (February 20/11)

A well intentioned yet overlong documentary, Candyman charts the rise and fall of Jelly Belly inventor David Klein - with the film detailing Klein's early days as a fledgling businessman right through to his disastrous choice to sign away his rights to the Jelly Belly name. There's little doubt that Candyman fares best in its opening half hour, as filmmaker Costa Botes does a nice job of documenting both the history of Jelly Belly and Klein's association with the brand. The film's proliferation of intriguing facts - ie during his presidency, Ronald Reagan ordered 50 cases of Jelly Belly a month - proves instrumental in initially capturing the viewer's interest, with the unapologetic, irresistible quirkiness of the movie's subject certainly playing a key role in perpetuating the affable atmosphere. It's only as the film reaches its midway point that one's interest begins to wane, as Bota offers up a series of needless sequences that seem designed to pad out the running time (ie Klein takes several kids on a tour of a candy factory). There is, as a result, no denying that Candyman suffers from a tremendously anticlimactic final third that just about negates the strength of its opening, with Bota's inability (or unwillingness) to fully explore the nitty-gritty surrounding Klein's head-scratching decision to sell Jelly Belly compounding the movie's progressively underwhelming atmosphere. It's finally clear that Candyman would've been better served as a brief segment on 60 Minutes, which is a shame, really, given that Klein's story is, on paper, interesting enough to sustain a full-length feature.

out of

Spiral (February 21/11)

Directed by Adam Green and Joel David Moore, Spiral follows a mentally-unbalanced introvert (Moore's Mason) as he attempts to go about his day-to-day business with little fanfare - though it's not long before he reluctantly strikes up a friendship with an open-hearted coworker (Amber Tamblyn's Amber). Spiral has been infused with an almost unreasonably deliberate pace that holds the viewer at arm's length for much of the movie's overlong running time, with the most obvious problem here the underdeveloped nature of the central character. Though Moore offers up a strong (yet sporadically over-the-top) performance, Mason never entirely becomes a figure worthy of the viewer's sympathy and, in a far more problematic development, Moore and Green seem unable (or unwilling) to wholeheartedly explore just what makes this guy tick. It's subsequently not surprising to note that one's efforts at buying into Mason's friendship with Amber fall flat on a frustratingly consistent basis, as it's impossible to believe that Tamblyn's sunny, outgoing character would be drawn to someone as creepy and off-putting as Mason. And although the film's interminable atmosphere is compounded by a series of ill-conceived stylistic choices (ie an almost aggressive annoying jazz score), Spiral admittedly does pick up right at the end with a jaw-dropping twist that injects some much-needed life into the proceedings - yet it's not quite enough to compensate for what is otherwise a misguided and thoroughly pointless piece of work.

out of

Dorian Gray (February 22/11)

Based on the book by Oscar Wilde, Dorian Gray follows the title character (Ben Barnes) as he arrives in London after his grandfather dies and almost immediately befriends a number of upper-crust locals - including a talented painter (Ben Chaplin's Basil) and a sardonic society type (Colin Firth's Henry). Dorian subsequently loses his naiveté as he spends more and more time with the debauched Henry, and the film primarily details Dorian's fall from grace and his apparent inability to age - with the latter triggered by, of course, the painting that starts to take on all his flaws. The inherently flawed nature of Dorian Gray's premise is exacerbated by Toby Finlay's eye-rollingly simplistic screenplay, with the central character's absurd transformation from a wide-eyed innocent into an epically sleazy figure - which seems to occur overnight - standing as the tip of the iceberg in terms of the movie's problems. Barnes' adept yet absolutely charmless performance doesn't help matters, certainly, as the actor is simply unable to infuse his character with qualities designed to garner the viewer's interest - which, as a result, ensures that one's efforts at working up any sympathy for Dorian's progressively horrifying circumstances fall completely and utterly flat. The inclusion of an interminably meandering midsection cements Dorian Gray's place as a misfire of nigh epic proportions, although, to be fair, the film does stand as a slight improvement over Wilde's irrelevant and stunningly dull novel.

out of

Soul Surfer (February 28/11)

Based on a true story, Soul Surfer casts AnnaSophia Robb as Bethany Hamilton - a plucky teenage surfer who is forced to re-evaluate her passion for the sport after she loses an arm in a vicious shark attack. It's clear right from the get-go that Soul Surfer has been designed to come off as a fairly typical inspirational sports movie, as the film, for the most part, unfolds exactly as one might've anticipated and boasts many of the conventions and clichés associated with the genre (ie Bethany must contend with a snooty rival). The movie's pleasantly watchable (yet far-from-gripping) atmosphere persists right up until the inevitable shark attack, with the inherently riveting nature of both the encounter itself and its immediate aftermath compensating for the familiar storyline and injecting the proceedings with a much-needed jolt of energy. It does, as a result, become increasingly difficult to resist the charms of the film's exceedingly affable cast, as Robb's ingratiating, downright spellbinding turn as the central character is heightened by an eclectic group of periphery performers that includes, among others, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, and Craig T. Nelson. (Carrie Underwood, on the other hand, seems somewhat out of her element as one of Bethany's close friends.) And although the movie does stumble in its midsection with a needless, momentum-killing sequence involving Bethany's trip to tsunami-ravaged Thailand, Soul Surfer picks up for an incredibly satisfying (and surprisingly suspenseful) finale detailing the protagonist's exploits at a pivotal surfing competition - which effectively cements the film's place as one of the most entertaining efforts of its type to come around in quite some time.

out of

© David Nusair