In Bruges nails four stars

Plus: Sleepwalking, Horton Hears A Who and Never Back Down

By Volcano Staff on March 13, 2008

In Bruges

You may know that Bruges, Belgium, is pronounced “broozh,” but I didn’t, and the heroes of “In Bruges” certainly don’t.  They’re Dublin hit men, sent there by their boss for two weeks after a hit goes very wrong.  One is a young hothead who sees no reason to be anywhere but Dublin; the other, older, gentler, more curious, buys a guide book and announces: “Bruges is the best-preserved medieval city in Belgium!” 

So it certainly seems.  If the movie accomplished nothing else, it inspired in me an urgent desire to visit Bruges.  But it accomplished a lot more than that.  This film debut by the theater writer and director Martin McDonagh is an endlessly surprising, very dark, human comedy, with a plot that cannot be foreseen but only relished.  Every once in a while you find a film like this, that seems to happen as it goes along, driven by the peculiarities of the characters. 

Brendan Gleeson, with that noble shambles of a face and the heft of a boxer gone to seed, has the key role as Ken, one of two killers for hire.  His traveling companion and unwilling roommate is Ray (Colin Farrell), who successfully whacked a priest in a Dublin confessional but tragically killed a little boy in the process.  Before shooting the priest, he confessed to the sin he was about to commit.  After accidentally killing the boy, he reads the notes the lad made for his own confession.  You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. 

Ken and Ray work for Harry, apparently a Dublin crime lord, who for the first two-thirds of the movie we hear only over the phone, until he materializes in Bruges and turns out to be a worried-looking Ralph Fiennes.  He had the men hiding out in London, but that wasn’t far enough away.  Who would look for them in Bruges?  Who would even look for Bruges?  Killing the priest was business, but “blowing a kid’s head off just isn’t done.” 

The movie does an interesting thing with Bruges.  It shows us a breathtakingly beautiful city, without ever seeming to be a travelogue.  It uses the city as a way to develop the characters.  When Ken wants to climb an old tower “for the view,” Ray argues, “Why do I have to climb up there to see down here?  I’m already down here.”  He is likewise unimpressed by glorious paintings, macabre sculptures and picturesque canals, but is thrilled as a kid when he comes upon a film being shot. 

There he meets two fascinating characters: First he sees the fetching young blonde, Chloe (Clemence Poesy, who was Fleur Delacour in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”).  Then he sees Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), a dwarf who figures in a dream sequence.  He gets off on a bad footing with both, but eventually they’re doing cocaine with a prostitute Jimmy picked up, and have become friends, even though Ray keeps calling the dwarf a “midget” and having to be corrected. 

Without dreaming of telling you what happens next, I will say it is not only ingenious but almost inevitable the way the screenplay brings all of these destinies together at one place and time.  Along the way, there are times of great sadness and poignancy, times of abandon, times of goofiness, and that kind of humor that is REALLY FUNNY because it grows out of character and close observation.  Colin Farrell in particular hasn’t been this good in a few films, perhaps because this time he’s allowed to relax and be Irish.  As for Brendan Gleeson, if you remember him in “The General,” you know that nobody can play a more sympathetic bad guy. 

Martin McDonagh is greatly respected in Ireland and England for his plays; his first film, a short named “Six Shooter” starring Gleeson, won a 2006 Oscar.  In his feature debut, he has made a remarkable first film, as impressive in its own way as “House of Games,” the first film by David Mamet, whom McDonagh is sometimes compared with.  Yes, it’s a “thriller,” but one where the ending seems determined by character and upbringing rather than plot requirements.  Two of the final deaths are, in fact, ethical choices.  And the irony inspiring the second one has an undeniable logic, showing that even professional murderers have their feelings. — Roger Ebert

In Bruges

Four Stars

Stars: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes

Director: Martin McDonagh

Rated: R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, and some drug use


How many times have we heard the line, “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family”?  That old platitude is true, of course, but equally true is how some people overcome whatever lot in life they’ve been handed.  There are innumerable stories about individuals dealt a terrible hand — ranging from abusive or alcoholic parents to crushing poverty — who are able to rise above their meager or unfortunate circumstances and carve out positive futures for themselves. 

This film is NOT one of those stories. 

It is a bleak, predictable and uninspired rehash of how a horrible father’s cruelty and psychological intimidation of his two children in their youth continues to resonate even years after they escaped his clutches. 

In “Sleepwalking,” Oscar winner Charlize Theron plays Joleen Reedy, a woman who bounces from job to job (when she can find one), boyfriend to boyfriend and one shabby home to another.  The term “trailer trash” is politically incorrect these days, but frankly there is no other way to easily describe the personality and lifestyle of Joleen, further burdened with an 11-year-old daughter she is totally incapable of raising. 

As the film begins, Joleen’s life again is in the crapper — unceremoniously thrown out of her current boyfriend’s house when he is arrested for growing marijuana and dealing drugs.  With no place to turn, Joleen arrives on her brother James’ doorstep — with her daughter, Tara (AnnaSophia Robb), and not much else. 

James, played by Nick Stahl, is hardly better off than his big sister.  On the verge of losing his entry-level construction job, he’s two months behind on the rent on his sad little one-bedroom apartment and has only a bicycle for transportation. 

Joleen’s habit of making poor decisions is illustrated when she drunkenly brings home a trucker — throwing her daughter out of the bedroom and onto the couch, so she can have sex with the guy she just picked up that night. 

Shortly thereafter, James and Tara awake one morning to find a note from Joleen, some cash, the keys to her rattle-trap old Buick and a vague promise to return someday, presumably to take up those parenting duties she so cavalierly tossed away. 

Things only go downhill from here, as the good-hearted, but somewhat dim-witted James attempts to put on the mantle of responsibility his sister threw off.  He truly loves his niece and knows he’s the only thing standing between her and foster care. 

Eventually, the film turns into a gritty and sad road picture, as James loses Tara to the authorities, then kidnaps her from a jail-like group foster home and takes off on a cross-country journey, seemingly to nowhere. 

In an attempt to cover their tracks, James pretends to be Tara’s father and renames her Nicole.  Finally, out of money and with nowhere to turn, James heads back to his father’s hardscrabble farm, a place Joleen swore she would never return. 

There we meet Joleen and James’ father.  Mr. Reedy is portrayed with vicious intensity by Dennis Hopper.  It soon becomes clear how this horrible, sadistic man — with absolutely no redeeming qualities — created a living hell-on-earth for his son and daughter when they were small.  Now this devilish environment is foisted on his granddaughter, the offspring of the child he despises the most: Joleen. 

Though the story lumbers along to a predictable and violent conclusion, I must stress that this is again an example of extremely talented actors being able to rise above the material and deliver performances both memorable and important. 

Theron (who also produced this film — clearly the reason it got made) plays down her natural beauty to portray a woman full of flaws.  However, despite the poverty, Joleen is clearly a sexy, earthy and needy woman, giving Theron much raw energy to play with on the screen.  Her scenes early and late in the film are spot-on, making us want Joleen to succeed — just as we know she likely never will be able to pull herself out of the muck that is her life. 

Yet, this film really belongs to Nick Stahl and AnnaSophia Robb, who continue to impress us with their evolving abilities to infuse poignancy and verve in the characters they choose to portray. 

Stahl, in particular, has the tougher role — expressing James’ desperation in so many ways, but with beautiful, nuanced subtlety.  Watching him as James is one of the few reasons to see this movie. 

The same can be said for Robb, who tackles the complicated range of Tara’s emotions — an inherently bright and pretty girl who is being pulled down by the unfortunate circumstances of a life she did not deserve.  But then, no children born into these kinds of situations “deserve” them.  It’s just the roll of the dice that sadly dumps so many kids into worlds that do not foster growth, creativity or a chance for success in life. 

Years from now, film students will look back at AnnaSophia Robb in “Sleepwalking” and point to it as an important watershed in this actress’s professional life. 

One of the few lighter moments in the film is provided by Woody Harrelson, as Randall, James’ goofball best buddy and co-worker on the construction crew.  While Harrelson seems to be basically playing himself here, he truly nails his performance and adds a touch of comic relief at moments when it’s needed. 

If you’re looking to witness several excellent performances, “Sleepwalking” is the ticket.  It’s just too bad these outstanding performers were not given better material with which to work. — Bill Zwecker


Two-and-a-half stars

Stars: Nick Stahl, AnnaSophia Robb and Charlize Theron

Director: William Maher

Rated: R for language and a scene of violence

Horton Hears A Who

On the 14th of March, from the faux jungle of Nool, comes a glitzy Hollywood hybrid.  What’s a true Seuss fan to do? 

If you admire and respect the artistry of the late Theodor Geisel, you’ll probably approach the new computer-animated “Horton Hears a Who!” with trepidation.  Not to worry.  Although Blue Sky Studios, the 20th Century Fox division that conjured up the “Ice Age” series and “Robots,” has created a state-of-the-animated art “Horton,” with an all-star cast and all the Hollywood trappings, the movie remains essentially Seussical. 

Comedy kings Jim Carrey and Steve Carell, along with their good-humor zeitgeisters Seth Rogen, Amy Poehler, Jonah Hill and Will Arnett, provide the voices of the fauna and flora of Nool.  Dr. Seuss’ fable, originally published in 1954, unfolds in a fantasy world where Horton the big-hearted elephant rescues the Whos of Who-ville, a universe of little people cast adrift on a speck of dust, because he reasons, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” 

Meanwhile, there’s nothing small about the run-up to the release of “Horton Hears a Who!”  From the television talk shows to the commercial tie-ins, it’s been all Horton all the time.  Which has the fans down in Fanville worried.  Witness this recent post on the message boards:

“Don’t these people have enough money yet?  One viewing of the (‘Horton’) TV commercial was enough to convince me that not a single shred of authentic Seuss-iness remains.  I don’t get why this A-list of creeps would line up to wipe their b---- with the work of a real artist.  My mind reels when I try to grasp what might have led the estate to allow this travesty to be made.  Congratulations to everyone involved for making the world a sadder, creepier, crappier place.” 

Now there’s somebody who probably saw “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000) and “The Cat in the Hat” (2003), those two sorry, live-action Seuss adaptations, and jumped to conclusions.  But if you’re willing to ignore the Hollywood gloss and enjoy the cinematic experience, you’ll find a “Horton” that’s faithful, if not 100 percent, to the spirit of the beloved children’s classic.  Besides, the radiant colors and vivid detail of the computer-generated images become almost mesmerizing. 

To fill out the tale to feature length, Dr. Seuss’ story has been adapted by debut co-directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, along with screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (the latter also is responsible for the horrid, just-released “College Road Trip”).  CBS News fixture Charles Osgood, who narrates the story, delivers the classic Seussian anapestic tetrameter verse in avuncular style. 

For the most part, the filmmakers’ embellishments don’t take “Horton” too far off-course.  We get lots of action and slapstick for the kids, with segments that wouldn’t be out of place in a Three Stooges short.  Fortunately, Osgood’s calm narration helps to rein in the often fast and furious proceedings. 

Plus, there are lots of snarky comments and pop-culture references for the kids’ adult keepers.  All the Who youth yak away on their Who phones, while the Who elders are commanded to “keep watching the skies” (in a nod to another ‘50s classic, “The Thing From Another World”).  And a Who-ette named Miss Yelp brags about her 15,000 friends on her MySpace-like page. 

All of the usual “Horton” suspects are present and accounted for, with the rabble-rousing Kangaroo getting a jolt of old-school adrenaline from comedy veteran Carol Burnett, who smoothly pulls off one-liners like “My kid is pouch-schooled.”  Other characters mainly help to pad out the plot.  As befitting his “40-Year-Old Virgin”/”The Office” box-office clout, Carell gets co-star status as the Mayor of Who-ville, a harried Don Knotts sort with 96 daughters and one son, Jo-Jo (an effective turn by pop-music star Jesse McCartney).  In the book, Jo-Jo is “a very small shirker,” but in a clever twist, he becomes an emo boy, complete with a sullen face, droopy bangs and an overall goth-by-way-of-“The Lorax” look. 

The movie also introduces a new Seussical-style denizen: Horton’s pal, Morton the mouse (Seth Rogen), who looks like Scrat from “Ice Age” and acts like he just wandered in from that series.  Some critters go the hammy route, such as the villainous vulture Vlad Vlad-i-koff (Arnett), who comes off like Bela Lugosi in his terminal “Plan 9” phase. 

Though he indulges in plenty of shtick, Carrey sounds less like a Gerald McBoing-Boing than might be expected.  His Horton’s so likable, you’ll even forgive Carrey for his forays into unlikely impersonations (Henry Kissinger and JFK — “we’ll have a man on the moon before the end of the decade!”).  On the way to the finale, as Horton’s saved from death by beezlenut oil, the filmmakers roll out their heavy sentimental arsenal.  If you can get past the climactic rendition of REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” — let’s hope they’re being ironic here — you’ll find your cynical heart growing three sizes larger.  Because a Seuss is a Seuss, no matter how loose.  — Laura Emerick

Horton Hears a Who

Three stars

Stars the voices of: Jim Carrey, Steve Carell and Carol Burnett

Directors: Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino

Rated: G

Never Back Down

“That old school boxing stuff doesn’t fly around here.  You gotta mix it up,” says Ryan McCarthy, the righteously tanned punk who’s out to make newcomer Jake Tyler’s life hell. 

In Jeff Wadlow’s brawl opus “Never Back Down,” Jake’s only chance of high school survival is if he embraces mixed martial arts (MMA).  With pay-per-view Ultimate Fighting Championship duels more popular than ever, this fun and shamelessly formulaic tale provides the sport with a dazzling highlight reel, and even manages to sneak in some real tenderness along the way. 

Jake (Sean Faris) is a good-hearted but distraught teenager pent up with latent rage in the wake of his father’s untimely death.  Moving from Iowa to Florida, he starts anew with his irritable mom and cutesy younger brother who hope to develop the latter’s promising tennis career.  When Jake spots classmates pulverizing each other ala “Fight Club” behind the bleachers, he’s eventually persuaded to take up the craft. 

Although admired for his toughness, Jake’s humble Midwestern style clashes in the glitzy world of Orlando, where most of his classmates drive costly European SUVs and live in perpetual pool parties.  When his new friend, Max (Evan Peters), invites him over to his McMansion, Jake asks, “Is everyone’s home this big down here?”  “Actually,” Max responds, “this is just our guest house.” 

Whether writer Chris Hauty wants to admit it or not, this is a remake of “The Karate Kid” (1984).  The parallels run everywhere from scene to scene: good kid reluctantly moves with single mom from a temperate climate to a subtropical one; good kid has trouble fitting in; good kid gets a crush on a girl who happens to be dating the chief nemesis; bad kid humiliates the good kid at a social gathering; good kid determinedly learns to fight from a lonely philosophical outsider; good kid seeks closure through one final duel tournament. 

It’s a strong formula for each new generation of kids, but becomes a little trite for adults.  The real rewards are the intense training sequences, mixed martial arts beatdowns and first-rate sound design.  A slo-mo kick to the face shows teeth cracking and cheeks stretching, and you feel wrapped up inside the action.  The rough “Se7en”-style cinematography adds to the crunch too. 

The cast is surprisingly strong.  Djimon Hounsou thrills as the statuesque Jean Roqua, the stoic African master fighter and espouser of ancient wisdom.  He owns an MMA gym that becomes Jake’s sanctuary and school of life’s lessons.  Jake, however, is not to fight outside the gym or Roqua will cut him off.  Roqua is similarly wrestling a haunting past, and his mentorship of Jake is genuine and tough-loving. 

A well-rounded supporting cast delivers too. Baja (Amber Heard), Jake’s flirtatious love interest, may resemble Barbie, but she’s also struggling to fit in.  Raised by New-Age stoners, it’s hinted that without dating Ryan, she wouldn’t be as popular.  Ryan, the lunatic possessed, played by Cam Gigandet, was raised by a tyrannical father, a fact that sheds a forgiving light on his own arrogant self. 

“Fight him so you won’t have to fight again,” becomes Jake’s inner directive after Ryan’s antics go too far.  Stave off a menacing foe or lose the newfound peace Roqua’s provided him.  Like most aspects of this movie, that’s a plausible, even entertaining scenario.  If only the writers had “mixed it up” a little more, what a fresher fight flick this might have been.  — Roger Ebert

Never Back Down

Two-and-a-half stars

Stars: Sean Faris, Amber Heard and Cam Gigandet

Director: Jeff Wadlow

Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving intense sequences of fighting/violence, some sexuality, partying and language — all involving teens