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posted: 2/6/2014 6:00 AM

Reel life: 'Fantastic Fear' a bit of a bummer

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  • Simon Pegg struggles to keep his comic edge in the dreary "A Fantastic Fear of Everything."

      Simon Pegg struggles to keep his comic edge in the dreary "A Fantastic Fear of Everything."

  • British action star Craig Fairbrass demonstrates his fighting style in the thriller "The Outsider."

      British action star Craig Fairbrass demonstrates his fighting style in the thriller "The Outsider."

  • Video: "If You Build It" trailer

 
 

Mini-review: 'A Fantastic Fear of Everything'
Simon Pegg is a very talented comic actor, but you would never guess that in this claustrophobic, strained stream-of-consciousness, sinking cinematic showboat.

Pegg plays a former children's novelist-turned-crime novelist. Now obsessed with researching Victorian serial killers, Pegg's paranoid nut job prances in his undershorts while hiding out in his junked-up London apartment, holding a knife and waiting with Norman Bated breath for Jack the Ripper to arrive at his door.

Too late. The Ripper has already killed writer/director Crispin Mills' movie by surgically removing its wit and funny bone, leaving behind a thin and excruciating lengthy comic corpse that doesn't know Jack.

"A Fantastic Fear of Everything" opens at the Logan, Chicago. Rated R for language. 141 minutes. star

Mini-review: 'Welcome to the Jungle'
Rob Meltzer's stridently silly corporate comedy "Welcome to the Jungle" seems to be a parody of "The Lord of the Flies" from filmmakers assigned to create a tax deduction for desperate investors.

A corporate big wig (Dennis Haysbert, currently the voice of Allstate Insurance commercials) sends his entire workforce to a tropical island for a cooperation exercise.

Then the helicopter pilot croaks, communication gets cut off and the group's psycho mercenary facilitator (former action superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme, resembling Frankenstein's monster without the aid of makeup) becomes a tiger snack in really bad shorts.

Chris (Adam Brody) tries to keep his co-workers calm, but Phil (a nuance-challenged Rob Huebel) sets himself up as exalted ruler of the universe so he can lead debauched dances around the campfire and have sex with all the female cast members who forgot to put "no nudity" clauses in their contracts.

On one hand, it might be charitable to call "Welcome to the Jungle" a student movie. On the other, that might be insulting to student moviemakers.

"Welcome to the Jungle" opens at the South Barrington 30. Not rated; mature language and situations. 95 minutes. ★

Mini-review: 'The Outsider'
The action thriller "The Outsider," written and directed by Brian A. Miller, suffers from several handicaps, the first being "Property of RLJ Entertainment No. 211" blazing across the screen in bright white letters on the press DVD sent to me for review from the distributor.

This is, or course, to thwart piracy. Of course, this also thwarts anyone actually being able to become immersed in the story.

Second, "The Outsider" boasts an abysmal, unrelenting non-orchestral score that seems totally mismatched for this tale of a British mercenary named Lex Walker (English actor Craig Fairbrass, a block of mobile granite in the Jason Statham mold) on a family mission.

He arrives in L.A. expecting to bury his recently deceased, estranged daughter Samantha (Melissa Ordway), only to discover the body belongs to someone else.

Searching for Samantha, Lex beats up thugs, shoots a few more and dodges the long arms of L.A. lawman Klein (a somnambulant Jason Patric, or is that redundant?).

The key suspect is Sam's former employer, a sleazy corporate guy named Schuuster (James Caan, recycling a middle-aged Sonny Corleone), an action-over-thought kind of guy not above shooting employees dead in his office.

The imposing Fairbrass makes for a formidable action hero, but he's no match for the inert direction, boilerplate dialogue and razor-thin characters he trounces with ease.

"The Outsider" opens at the Streets of Woodfield in Schaumburg. Not rated; contains violence, adult language and sexual situations. 94 minutes. ★

Mini-review: '24 Exposures'
Billy (Adam Wingard) dabbles in fetish art by photographing erotic scenes of violence, using cosmetics and carefully posed nude models in bathtubs of blood, or lying on rail tracks with bashed heads.

He calls it "dress-up with fine art." The boyfriend of one his models calls it "sick."

This might be a fascinating world of the forbidden to explore (something that Paul Schrader might have gotten around to after making "Hardcore"), but these aren't the ideal characters to do it with.

Billy, whose interest in shooting disrobed women goes well beyond professional, befriends a plainclothes detective named Mike (Simon Barrett), who hails from the Martin Riggs school of suicidal detectives with crumbling families.

Mike is investigating gruesome murders of women in crime scenes that look suspiciously like something Billy might concoct. That's one of the weirder, working elements in Chicago writer/director Joe Swanberg's drama that blurs the line between death and its replication.

Neither Wingard nor Barrett possesses the charm or charisma necessary to make these creepy characters palatable. Meanwhile, Swanberg, who gave us the delightful "Drinking Buddies," burns up lots of screen time with grating minutia that neither propels the plot nor gives us much insight into these guys.

"24 Exposures" opens at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Not rated; contains violence, sexual situations, adult language, nudity. 80 minutes. ★

Mini-review: 'If You Build It'
Patrick Creadon's documentary "If You Build It" tells a noble, hope-filled story about two education activists who set up shop in a poor North Carolina county to revitalize the spirit of learning among students by implementing their "Design, Build, Transform" motto.

Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller take on the elements, a conservative school board, inadequate funding and willful ignorance. ("My dad hated school," a student says, "My granddad hated school. I'm continuing a family tradition!")

Pilloton and Miller fight the good fight and not only inspire rural kids to design chicken coops, but a farmers market building that becomes a prideful community hub.

This is a wonderful story with rich, defined characters. So why is it so boring and dramatically inert?

Reardon, who gave us the sharply observed docs "Wordplay" and "I.O.U.S.A,," fails to capitalize on the dramatic arcs his subjects provide, treating "If You Build It" like a freight train of box cars filled with non-contextualized information.

Some day, a feature film version of this doc will be made with its inherent dramatic conflicts flushed to the surface. And it will be glorious.

"If You Build It" opens at the Music Box, Chicago. Not rated. Suitable for general audiences. 85 minutes. ★ ★

Critic's notebook
• Harold Ramis' masterwork comedy "Groundhog Day" -- written by former Chicagoan Danny Rubin and shot on location in Woodstock -- will be shown at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, at the Tivoli Theatre, 5021 Highland Ave., Downers Grove, as a benefit for Noah's Hope, a charity founded to find a cure for LINCL-Batten disease. Admission $5. Go to classicinema.com or noahshope.com.

• The After Hours Film Society presents Michel Gondry's documentary on Noam Chomsky "Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?" at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 10, at the Tivoli Theatre, 5021 Highland Ave., Downers Grove. Admission costs $9. afterhoursfilmsociety.com.

• The Chicago Film Critics Association begins its new public movie series to Classic Cinemas' Elk Grove Cinema starting Tuesday, Feb. 11, with showings of Alfred HItchcock's classic "Rear Window" at 1 and 7 p.m. Elk Grove Village resident and CFCA Executive Secretary Erik Childress will host both showings. Admission costs $5. chicagofilmcritics.org or classicinema.com.

I will host the March 11 showing of "Love, Actually." Cary resident and CFCA board member Peter Sobczynski will host the April 8 showing of "River of No Return."

• "The Envelope, Please!" Dann & Raymond's Movie Club presents its annual Academy Awards program with analysis and predictions at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13, at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, 500 N. Dunton Ave., Arlington Heights. Free admission! ahml.info.

• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!

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