In Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) proposes to his screw-up younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), that they rob their parents' suburban jewelry store. A lot of nervous laughter, flop sweat, and hand-wringing follows -- but very little planning. Andy is convinced he's masterminded a victimless crime: Hank will use a fake gun, and Mom (Rosemary Harris) and Dad (Albert Finney) will receive insurance money. Unfortunately, Hank outsources the task to an acquaintance who doesn't get the memo about the gun; after that, events go from catastrophic to worse in the out-of-order scenes. The brothers' motivations are shaky. Andy is a well-to-do albeit drug-addicted broker who wants to move to Rio with his troubled wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), because they were happy there once on vacation. As for Hank, he owes child support, and his daughter needs cash to see a Broadway show with the rest of her private school. It's not like anyone's funding a sex change operation (as in Dog Day Afternoon, director Sidney Lumet's previous heist movie); nor are they hurting to put food on the table. Albert Finney's grief and his determined quest for justice are moving, but it's difficult to empathize with Hawke or Seymour's characters, because neither of them makes a single logical choice. (Also, Hank's phrase, "You'd be doing me a favor," spoken to the barrel of a loaded gun, should be copyright of Rick inCasablanca.) There is a certain dreadful excitement in watching the Devil brothers scramble to escape their fates, however.
On the eve of signing his divorce papers, Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) tells his heartbroken, precocious 10-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) the story of Mom and Dad, but he changes the names of the characters (including Rachel Weisz as a provocative journalist and Elizabeth Banks as Will's college sweetheart) so that Maya won't know which one is her mother. Definitely, Maybe suffers from the same script idiosyncrasies as the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother: absurdly inappropriate subject matter for a kid (Dad's sex life and pre-Mom relationships in detail), tangential plots, and a scene or two in which the narrator isn't present and couldn't know what occurred. When April (Isla Fisher), "the best friend who wants to be the girlfriend" (Maya's words), interacts with Will, the story is engaging and genuinely tearjerking; their behavior and dialogue reflect the awkward, brilliant, and occasionally cruel cadences that two people in love realistically draw out of one another. Subplots involving Will's youthful idealism turned political disillusionment and April's search for a particular copy of Jane Eyre are solid as well. Still, no matter how articulate, mature, selfless, and well-adjusted Maya is, no kid would enjoy rooting against Mom, realizing Dad may have been pining for a non-Mom all these years, or discovering Mom might be a cheater. While the framing device is innovative, the fact that Will is actually telling these things to Maya and she's delighted to act on the information makes for a strange, dubious bedtime story.
Say your wife is pregnant with your first child, and you're worried about the baby's safety. Do you: A) stay in New York and tend to your wife or B) travel to the world's most volatile countries and search for the world's most wanted man? In Morgan Spurlock's new documentary, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, our intrepid hero decides on the latter. His saintly wife spends her pregnancy alone wondering if Spurlock has been blown up. Nobody watching will entertain for even a second the possibility that he might succeed in his quest, and the over-simplified conclusions he draws ("In the end, it doesn't really matter where Osama is..." / "Most Muslims are just like us. They also want safe kids!") are painful and obvious. Spurlock's wry, game jocularity worked perfectly in Super Size Me (for which he received an Academy Award nomination) because he kept the stakes small, personal, relatable and entertaining.Where in the World...? tries too hard to appeal to a popcorn crowd. The constant din of music, video game graphics and combinations thereof (Bin Laden dancing to "Can't Touch This" and battling a video version of Spurlock), obliterates any sense of gravitas for the subject. Perhaps Spurlock wanted an excuse to play soldier. The ecstatic look on his face when he gets to shoot a rocket launcher says it all. Early on, a shantytown dweller reveals more common sense than Spurlock. When asked for advice on how to raise kids, the man says, "Be good to your wife."
Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), an über-creative 16-year-old, discovers she's pregnant from a one-night stand with her good friend, Paulie Bleeker (a delightfully bewildered Michael Cera). With help from vibrant best pal Leah (Olivia Thirlby), Juno decides she'll give her baby to Vanessa and Mark Loring, a well-to-do, blissfully photogenic couple (played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) who are not as perfect as they first appear. Juno's father (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney) warn Juno not to get involved in the couple's personal life, but though she has no qualms about severing ties with her baby once he or she is born, she can't resist hanging out with Mark in the meantime; he's more like a teenager than Juno is, and complications ensue. Diablo Cody's script is wickedly clever and emotionally honest. It may be unfair to criticize dialogue for being too good, but when Juno, all deadpan wryness, speaks to the adults, her self-aware language occasionally interrupts the scene (asked by her father what she's been up to, Juno replies, "Dealing with situations way above my maturity level"). However, that's not to say it isn't hilarious, and in scenes with her peers, particularly Leah, Juno's behavior and dialogue are completely natural, while still being enjoyably fresh. As in Knocked Up, the possibility of abortion is mentioned but quickly dropped, because otherwise there would be no movie…and that would be a shame, because both the film and its eponymous heroine are smart and lovable.
Toni Ann Johnson and Karen Barna Based on characters created by Duane Adler
In the hip-hop dance world of Step Up 2: The Streets, the young adults look wangsta-menacing but none of them would dream of packing heat; all scores are settled on the dance floor, and the cruelest taunt heard is, "You guys are garbage." Early on, the results of a dance-off determine that troublemaking, goodhearted tomboy Andie (Briana Evigan), a midriff-baring but otherwise squeaky clean street-style dancer, must promise to study hard and apply herself so she can get into the distinguished Maryland School of the Arts. The members of 410, Andie's dance crew (known for masked, public disturbance-style guerilla dance fare on subway trains), grow disgruntled and dump Andie because she no longer has time to practice. In response, Andie forms a new crew with Chase Collins (Robert Hoffman), a hooded, well-to-do hottie at the art school who's being pressured to live up to his family's legacy but secretly longs to show off his krumping. The dialogue comes in three flavors: on-the-nose exposition, paper-thin characterization, or pseudo-inspirational stock phrases including "Be yourself"; "Don't give up"; "It ain't what you got, it's what you do with what you got"; and "This crew is supposed to be family." Despite the clunky speeches, the writers deserve credit for packing in as many dance scenes as possible in surprisingly organic fashion, and the choreography rates an A. The DVD extras include pointless music videos from the soundtrack's artists and deleted scenes that belong where they are; however, the "making of" documentary with first-time director Jon Chu and the behind-the-scenes dance segment are endearing and informative.
What happens when several characters in a film have the same voice, regardless of age, gender, or personality? Vicky Cristina Barcelona is charming and entertaining at times, but Academy Award-winning comic legend Woody Allen could still learn to diversify when it comes to character.
While dining together after an art show in Barcelona, good friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (current Woody-muse Scarlett Johansson), two 20-something American tourists, are invited by a charming painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), to fly away for a naughty weekend trip. Vicky, who is getting married in the fall, is deeply offended and angered by the offer, but Cristina is intrigued, and they ultimately agree to go. To her shock, Vicky falls for Juan, and when the threesome returns to Barcelona, she confides in her unhappily married hostess, Judy (Patricia Clarkson), who advises her to ditch her boring-but-stable fiancé, Doug (Chris Messina), and make the choice Judy couldn't: romance over practicality.
Unaware of Vicky's misery and confusion, Cristina and Juan forge ahead with their own blissful relationship until Juan's crazy ex-wife, Maria Elena (a fabulous, volatile Penélope Cruz, stealing scenes like a professional thief), shows up, demanding a place to stay. That's when the comedy takes off, but the passion and hilarity Cruz's role injects into the story may come too late to save the script.
Throughout the first half of Woody Allen's latest film, there is bizarre, detailed narration that adds nothing to the characterization or plot, nor does it belie the action onscreen to humorous effect (as do the brilliant subtitles in his classic romantic comedyAnnie Hall). Rather, the narration tells us precisely what we're seeing. "They ate outside on the terrace and laughed" is juxtaposed with a scene of…the characters eating outside on the terrace and laughing. It's as though Allen had adapted the film from a beloved short story and couldn't risk removing a single, whimsical word of explanation. This is, of course, not the case, and while the voiceover does give us backstory on why Vicky and Cristina are in Barcelona for the summer, the information could easily have been left out, or, better still, revealed through dialogue or behavior. It's pretty obvious within a few scenes who the young women are: Vicky the student is prickly and judgmental, content if resigned to her path of marriage; Cristina the actress is adventurous and flighty, always seeking love but unsure what she wants from it.
Both female leads, particularly Vicky, talk like Woody Allen, and it's an odd sensation to see vibrant young women performing with his tics and speech patterns. That's not to say it isn't amusing; it's just not realistic. Johansson has been down this path before; her dialogue and behavior in Scoop and Match Point also required her to perform Allen-isms. In last year's Cassandra's Dream, however, Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell's characters were allowed to become more than Allen surrogates, so why not the ladies of Vicky Cristina?
Vicky is harshly disapproving, neurotic, and unlikable for a good portion of the story, and it's difficult to understand why Cristina or Juan would put up with her for any amount of time. Also, how and why did these women become close friends back in college? Their dialogue contains virtually no slang, in-jokes, or references to past events; at times they are formal and overly polite, as though they barely know each other at all.
Tellingly, Maria Elena does not get the narrative treatment, nor must she endure the Woody-voice. Perhaps it's because she speaks in Spanish, and is allowed a freer range of expression and movement. Her delightfully dysfunctional arguments with Juan Antonio are charged with sexual energy. Despite its flaws, the script does deliver some genuine laughs and romance, and the meditation on love, art, and choice is amusing and even thought provoking.
Whether Vicky or Cristina, Judy or Doug, they're mostly versions of Woody Allen. The characters who don't fall prey to Allen's famous mannerisms are Juan and Maria, and it is their story that entertains most.
Screenplay by James Ellroy and Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss Story by James Ellroy
LAPD Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is a vodka-guzzling, crime scene-falsifying cynic whose ex-partner, an Internal Affairs snitch, gets gunned down. Ludlow launches his own investigation and is forced to acknowledge that his colleagues' corruption, even that of his friend Captain Wander (Forest Whitaker), may be different than his own; Ludlow's tactics are brutal but rarely self-serving. He keeps the rest of us safe by doing what no one else has the stomach to do. Ellroy (novelist of L.A. Confidential), Wimmer, and Moss's testosterone-soaked, gritty screenplay contains clever twists and a few moments of much-needed humor, such as when Ludlow is demoted to the complaints desk. However, Homicide Detective Diskant's (Chris Evans) motivation for risking his life and career to help Ludlow is never satisfactorily explained, and the dialogue is occasionally failed by the actors. Reeves is unable to convey sarcasm, which robs his speeches of their bite, and several scenes devolve into incomprehensible screaming matches (David Ayer's director commentary acknowledges that Whitaker "blew his voice out"). Other extras include a featurette on the screenwriting process (unfortunately minus Ellroy) and a driving tour of the Rampart Division of Los Angeles, guided by Ayer (who wrote Training Day) and Jaime Fitzsimons, a former LAPD Detective Sergeant turned technical advisor.
Well-to-do, polished, 37-year-old Kate (Tina Fey) sacrificed her personal life to become Vice President of an organic grocery store chain. Now she wants a baby, but she can't conceive, so she hires white-trash Angie (Amy Poehler) as a surrogate mother. Dynamic duo Fey and Poehler, who've known each other since their improv days in the early '90s, are comedy gold. McCullers' script merges highbrow and lowbrow sight gags, terrific dialogue, and memorable characters (every cameo serves a purpose and earns a laugh). Poehler in particular is shameless as a repulsive houseguest, but though the jokes are occasionally crass, the story also has heart and even a surprising plot twist. However, Kate's romance with Rob (Greg Kinnear) feels a bit forced, and it's hard to believe Kate's doorman (Romany Malco) would be so invested in her and Angie's personal lives. The commentary track with Fey, Poehler, McCullers, and producer Lorne Michaels is hilarious but largely uninformative; they ham it up about the items they stole from set and Fey pretends that all the extras in a certain scene are her former lovers. Deleted scenes, especially a funny segment with a breast pump, are worth watching. The "making of" features include brief interviews with all the major players but don't provide real insight into the writing process. We do learn that Fey and McCullers shared an office during their first year writing for Saturday Night Live, and that he wrote Baby Mama specifically for her and Poehler.