Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Dinner" Serves Up Few Laughs

Dinner for Schmucks (2010)
114 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C -

Hollywood remakes of French farces have the reputation for being lame (read: "Pure Luck" and "Fathers' Day"), save for "The Birdcage," which was fourteen years ago. A forced, strained Americanization of France's "The Dinner Game (Le Diner de Cons)" from 1998, "Dinner for Schmucks" follows the trend and the same cleverly schmucked-up premise: big-shot suits invite a bunch of idiots (or schmucks) to a secret monthly dinner to laugh at them. 

Paul Rudd—the likably conflicted straight-man in the surefire pairing—is Tim, a financial analyst on his way up at a competitive private equity firm. But first he must impress his boss by bringing the biggest idiot to said dinner. When a nerdy IRS co-worker named Barry (Steve Carell) literally lands on Tim's windshield, he's the pluperfect schmuck who taxidermizes mice into dioramas. Shenanigans escalate. 

This broadly silly farce only has a spotty laugh ratio, Jay Roach directing an overlong script with too much heavy-handed, overworked slapstick and safe results. Carell is able to make Barry more schmucky and clueless than Michael Scott from TV's The Office with his goofy mugging and shit-eating-grin facial expressions by way of capped choppers; he's a “real” character. While strenuous and obnoxious beyond belief, Carell still gives the poor, unsuspecting schmuck humanity, which despite the mean corporate mentality brings to the film a bland home-stretch message of tolerance: Suits are jerks and schmucks are nice! Embrace, don't laugh at, idiots! Even before that, David Guion & Michael Handelman's ("The Ex") script makes Barry a plot construct of annoyingly contrived misunderstandings and disasters to disrupt the life of Tim and his gorgeous art-curator soon-to-be-fiancée Julie (a lovely Stephanie Szostack). 

And a lot of scenes are beaten to death by supporting schmucks and most of them equate to nails on a chalkboard (Lucy Punch's go-for-broke role as Tim's obsessed, crazily animalistic one-night-stand, Zach Galifianakis as Barry's creepy mind-controlling boss, and Jemaine Clement doing his typically bizarro shtick as a self-involved, pretentious performance artist). 

"Dinner for Schmucks" certainly brings on the schmucks at the film's centerpiece of the outrageous dinner, which wasn't even on-screen in the original, but by then the movie has worked awfully hard for laughs. The most original and cutely quirky parts of the film are the opening and postscript scenes of Barry's mice dioramas; they're a real “mouserpiece.” Not to be a snobby schmuck, but the shorter, subtler, and funnier French original is comparatively more worth seeing than this stupidization. 

Friday, July 30, 2010

"Charlie St. Cloud" a hokey weepy

Charlie St. Cloud (2010)
99 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C

"Charlie St. Cloud" has all the hallmarks of, say, a three-hanky Hallmark TV special based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, even though it was not written by Sparks. Goldenboy Zac Efron plays Charlie St. Cloud, a Pacific Northwest small-town competitive sailor whose little brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan), dies in a car accident. Since Charlie was driving, his grief and guilt are through the roof, so instead of going to Stanford to become a sailing champion, he stays home and works as the groundskeeper at the local cemetery. Even five years after Sam's death, Charlie keeps his little brother alive in spirit by meeting him every day at sunset in the exact same woodsy clearing to play catch (they made a deal). He then finds interest in a high school classmate, Tess (Amanda Crew), also a sailor who has lost a loved one, but the more time he spends with her, the less he can spend with Sam. 

If it sounds like "Field of Dreams," "Message in a Bottle," "The Sixth Sense," "The Lovely Bones," with Zac Efron seeing dead people, that's because it is. "Charlie St. Cloud" is a watchable, handsomely photographed adaptation of Ben Sherwood's novel, with some poignant moments about loss and grief, but it never quite recovers after a groan-inducing second-act twist. The shooting star across the horizon for a character “passing into the light” is quite hokey. 

Efron can act and has pretty blue eyes (and he only doffs his shirt once), but Tahan is more affecting and natural as Sam. Their brotherly dynamic is nicely set up and the tragedy immediately following the accident feels real. Also, Crew is always a fresh, appealing presence and her mild sex scene in a graveyard is handled more tastefully than it sounds. But Ray Liotta's paramedic who resusciated Charlie in the accident is more of a plot device with a talisman that is “the answer” for Charlie. And Kim Basinger is barely there, then never heard from again (besides on a message machine), as the boys' working-class mother. 

Still, the acting fares better than the clumsy writing in Craig Pearce and Lewis Colick's script. Rolfe Kent's derivative violin-heavy music score doesn't help things either by telling us how to feel. Efron fans will be on cloud nine during "Charlie St. Cloud," but for anyone else, just picture a Nicholas Sparks weeper with a high school musical lead and an M. Night Shyamalan twist.

'Kids' Breathe Fresh Air

The Kids Are All Right (2010) 
106 min., rated R.
Grade: A 

More wonderful than just “all right,” "The Kids Are All Right" is a small film in scope but feels big in achievement and reward. A very adult and joyfully satisfying slice of life, it's not about lesbian marriage but the dynamics of a modern family with parents who just so happen to be the same sex. After all, this is America, the freest country! It's also about parenting, sperm-donor dads, teen angst, sex, red wine, and college move-in day, which are all welcome in a creativity-dry movie summer. 

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play Nic and Jules, a married couple of life partners—a tightly wound, micromanaging doctor and an aimless stay-at-home mom trying to start up a landscaping business—living in the So Cal suburbs. Their teenage kids, college-bound Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and rough-housing Laser (Josh Hutcherson), are curious on the origin of the father (a sperm donor), so Joni requests a meeting with Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a groovy, laid-back restaurateur. The kids hit it off with Paul, who starts bonding with them, but 'Moms' are less than thrilled when they find out. 

It sounds like a sitcom premise, but writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (2002's "Laurel Canyon") and co-writer Stuart Blumberg's terrific script is more than that. It's conversational without being stagey, humanly touching without pushy sentiment, and intelligently wise and calmly funny. The laughs are never forced with comic exaggeration but spring organically from the characters and situations, even in a bedroom scene where the moms' gay male porn watching accidentally stirs up a racket. There's no better substitute for experience, as Cholodenko conceived a child with her partner from a donor and Blumberg donated sperm in college. And Cholodenko's simple, gentle direction punctuates hazy, sunny Southern California in this all-around naturalistic piece of filmmaking. 

Bening, Moore, and Ruffalo are at their convincing, witty, sexy best as they nail every nuance and character flaw of their lived-in, well-formed characters. And Wasikowska and Hutcherson, as the kids, keep getting better and better as the mature young actors they are. Bening, especially, has the tricky task of making Nic the disciplinarian without being bitchy or unlikable; she really shines in a nice moment where she sings Joni Mitchell over dinner at Paul's. And Jules, though a little flighty, is never played dumb by Moore. Refreshingly leaving politics out of it, "The Kids Are All Right" remains an honestly warm and funny indie gem for mainstream audiences of any sexual orientation. 

Friday, July 23, 2010

"Ramona and Beezus" delightful family fare

Ramona and Beezus (2010) 
103 min., rated G.
Grade: B

Golly gee this is a gentle movie, but after all it is an adaptation of Beverly Cleary's beloved children's books. Then again, the G-rated "Ramona and Beezus" deals with some real subject matter that a Disney movie usually doesn't touch—like financial troubles and a pet dying—but it always ends with a hug or smile. The closest thing to cuss words are “stinkin” and “guts,” and every character is nice and likable including Sandra Oh's stern, shushing teacher. 

Thespian moppet Joey King gives an appealingly offbeat performance as 9-year-old Ramona Quimby who's always getting herself into mischief. A little mugging calls for her troublemaking Ramona but she's never the pest people think she is. Her teenage sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) finds Little Sis to be a nuisance, and sometimes Mom (Bridget Moynahan) and Dad (John Corbett) are exhausted by Ramona's high energy. Crisis strikes when Dad gets downsized at his job and the Quimby house might have to be sold. 

"Ramona and Beezus" is a sweet and sunny family film that tween girls will eat up and adults won't hate, and Elizabeth Allen's breezy, bright direction, wise writing, and a surprising adult cast help. From the point-of-a-view of a 9-year-old, the film makes use of Ramona's overactive imagination, shown in colorful flight-of-fancy daydreams (like playground monkey bars turning into a high-adventure ravine). Not to be feared, Allen stages plenty of goofy pratfall shenanigans that are often rigged (like a simple carwash turning into an accidental paint-job) but never heavy-handed. And what's a family movie without a family water-hose fight? 

As Ramona and Beezus, King and Gomez not only look like sisters but share a genuine sisterhood. Corbett and Moynahan are well-cast as the parents, and Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Duhamel are charming together as Aunt Bea and her former flame. "Ramona and Beezus" is better family entertainment than you could ask for. 

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Haunting in Connecticut" same old scares but not bad

The Haunting in Connecticut (2009) 
92 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

Though it's supposedly based on the supposedly true story of a supposedly haunted house in Connecticut, "The Haunting in Connecticut" feels as true as "The Amityville Horror." As far as anyone knows, these terrorized families fabricate ghost stories so they won't have to pay their mortgage. The reality of it all is that there was a house and people involved. 

The film opens and ends with Sara Campbell (Virginia Madsen) doing an on-camera interview about the horrible happenings with her family. Taking place in 1987, religious mom Sara devotedly drives at all hours to take her cancer-stricken teenage son Matt (Kyle Gallner) for treatments in Connecticut. For more chemo, she decides to temporarily move Matt, her younger son, two nieces, and sometimes husband into the most spacious and affordable house—which used to serve as a funeral home. Unfortunately for the Campbells, this house is haunted up the wazoo with more angry spooks than the Ghostbusters could handle. 

Immediately, Matt starts having hallucinations, which is said to be caused by his prescribed medication (but come on, we know the truth). He's plagued by nightmarish phantoms at night in his basement bedroom, which used to serve as the embalming room. Great choice of bedroom, kid. As the illness grows worse, as does the haunting, Matt contacts a preacher (Elias Koteas) who's convinced the house is possessed. Well, no shit Sherlock! 

Director Peter Cornwell, making his feature debut, throws every possible haunted house cliché at us, from creaky floorboards to ghosts appearing behind characters in the mirror accompanied by shrieking blasts of the music score, just in case we should miss it. Often bombarded by quick editing, the scary, sometimes bloody hallucinations and embalming activity still provide some chills, and there is effective melodrama involving Sara coping with her son's disease. As for the backstory on the house itself, it's more interesting than most, but Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe spoon-feed us by spelling everything out rather than leaving anything to our imagination, with the help of Matt's live-in cousin, Wendy (the appealing Amanda Crew), doing a little library detective work. The only real hokey effects are when ectoplasms emerge from someone's mouth or when a knocked-out wall reveals a nest of “fake” mummies. For a PG-13 rating, some of the scary stuff is pretty intense and suggestively gory, snipped-off eyelids and carving into skin for instance. 

The cast gets the job done without a wink. Madsen is convincing as matriarch Sara, while Martin Donovan drops in and out at random as recovering alcoholic husband Peter. Gallner comes off the best as troubled Matt, and Elias Koteas understates his role as ailing Reverend Popescu. Logic nuts will nitpick on why the family just doesn't get out of the house sooner, and spend most of the movie finding steals from "Poltergeist" or "The Exorcist," but so what, it's just that kind of movie—a rote B movie without so much as subtlety or originality but loaded with efficiently standard, jack-in-the-box jump scares if that sort of thing gets you. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

"Inception" wows our mind and eyeballs but lacks a heart

Inception (2010)
148 min., rated PG-13.

Writer-director Christopher Nolan's latest brainteaser, "Inception," is a real machine, cerebral and visual. If it only had a heart! As if Leonard DiCaprio didn't already suffer enough from dead-wife baggage earlier this year in "Shutter Island," here in "Inception" his character is in the same realm. Leo plays Dom Cobb, working as an ace “extraction” expert specializing in “subconscious security.” With his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), they enter a person's subconscious and steal information. Cobb's missing his children back in the U.S. and haunted by the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), that which he's the prime suspect. Expecting to go back home, Cobb is called in for an offer he can't refuse by a corporate magnate (Ken Watanabe) after failing in an espionage attempt to steal one of his secrets: infiltrate a corporate empire heir Robert Fischer Jr.'s (Cillian Murphy) dreams to plant the seed of an idea. This is a far more tricky operation called “inception,” so Cobb assembles a crackerjack team, including a supersmart architect (Ellen Page), a shape-shifting thief and forger (Tom Hardy), and a chemist (Dileep Rao). Only Page knows that his unresolved grief with Mal endanger their mission. 

Technically and intellectually speaking, "Inception" is an intelligent, engrossing, and intricately designed thinking man's movie even if it's a heist movie at its core. With a lot of logic origami and game rules to follow (there are leaps between dream levels, and 5 minutes in reality equals 10 hours in a dream). Nolan makes us work, confusing but never losing us, and that's an audacious rarity for mindless summer-movie releases, without wearing those damn 3-D glasses! 

All that said, "Inception" is also an emotionally distant picture, even though we spend a lot of time in these people's heads, literally. Cobb and Mal have the most development, helped by DiCaprio and Cotillard's profoundly anguished performances, but that's the only emotional connection the film has. It can be pretty cold to the touch. Though probably Nolan's intention, moving his characters around like chess pieces, the rest of the actors are just cogs in the machine, names and functions with faces. However, they add color and do break the deadly seriousness with some droll humor. As the newest of the group, Page explains to us, and is saddled with, some clunky expository dialogue that shares our confusion (“Wait, whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?”). 

It's geeky enough for film-school students and fans of puzzles, mazes, and Nolan's previous work to analyze after multiple viewings, but it's still more of a cool smoke-and-mirrors game than a real movie. The ideas and visuals are undoubtedly cutting-edge and impressive. Uh, for instance, take the “how did they do that?” spectacle of a Paris city folding over in half directly over Page and DiCaprio's heads. And a zero-gravity hallway fight scene, evoking "The Matrix," is a “wow” moment. But the James Bondian skiing sequence in the Canadian Rockies drags a little towards the climax, already set on four different dream planes. The omnipresent, doom-laden Hans Zimmer music score is memorably ominous with fog horns that sound like the Tripods in Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" remake. "Inception" might provoke more admiration for its revolutionary ideas than enjoyment, but you'll have sweet dreams after watching it. And the nicely open-ended conclusion will get audiences talking.

Grade: B + 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Sorcerer's Apprentice" more manic than magical

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010) 
111 min., rated PG.
Grade: C +

From producer Jerry Bruckheimer's big bucks and director Jon Turteltaub (the team that thought you'd care about the Declaration of Independence being stolen in the "National Treasure" movies), "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is more of a product than an actual movie. As a matter of fact, it's mostly a premise from Disney's classic segment in "Fantasia" (70 years ago!) when Mickey Mouse was the sorcerer's apprentice, stole his hat and put a spell on brooms and buckets. Now it's reproduced in this booming, effects-laden fast food, but it's faster-paced and more entertaining than you'd expect. Rather than Leopold Stokowski's orchestra, we get One Republic's latest hit “Secrets” on a loop. 

After a whirlwind, 740 A.D.-set prologue, it's been a centuries-old struggle between Merlin's apprentices and they're all trapped in nesting dolls known as grimholds. In the next prologue, set in 2000, 10-year-old Dave (in the Mickey role, kinda) on a field trip encounters Balthazar and becomes his apprentice, but after a battle with arch-enemy Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina), both wizards get stored in a porcelain tomb. The rest of the action flashes forward to the present time, with Dave (Jay Baruchel), now a NYU physics geek, chosen by fate to be “the prime Merlinian,” or the chosen one, when Balthazar returns to be his sensei and puts Dave's magic powers to the test. With Horvath escaping and on the loose through the city, only time will tell before all-powerful witch Morgana (Alice Krith) is unleashed so she and Horvath can raise the dead and cause an apocalypse. 

Now, storytelling isn't the point here, as the design-by-committee script (Matt Lopez and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard) throws a lot of exposition at us. But "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" also throws CGI fireballs and a lot of black magic our way, only the fun kind. With New York City locations put to good use, there's a fun set piece in Chinatown where a Chinese paper dragon transforms into a real, fire-breathing one. And there's a neat hocus-pocus trick called the “Hungarian mirror” trick where people and cars can fly in and out of mirrors. The Mickey short gets reduced to a quick gag in the movie's middle where the brooms have a mind of their own and clean up, cued to Paul Dukas's music. But it's obligatory and not that inspired. 

Baruchel is surely a nerd's nerd and usually likable, with the perfect Mickey Mouse ears, but here his Dave is more annoying and forced. Cage slyly gets away with a few loony, Cage-y line readings and has cooler hair than usual. Molina is also having a good ol' hammy time. Teresa Palmer as Dave's childhood crush, Becky, gets thrown into the action too, even if Balthazar says “love is a distraction.” The beautiful Aussie has Kristen Stewart's face but none of the storm-cloud pout. 

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice," more manic than magical, is still a passable time-filler that at least fulfills its function. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Funny "Hangover" has crude laughs and inspired spills

The Hangover (2009) 
100 min., rated R. 
Grade: B 

"Old School"/"Road Trip" director Todd Phillips' what-happens-in-Vegas romp celebrates bromance and what-the-hell-happened-last-night regrets. Think "Dude, Where's My Car?" mixed with "Very Bad Things," shaken and stirred, but instead it's “Dude, Where's My Groom?” and it's a pretty good thing. Here, you have "The Hangover," a rude, crude, outlandish, very R-rated comedy that's not obnoxious or persistently hilarious but very funny when it wants to be. 

Three groomsmen—smarmy school teacher Phil (Bradley Cooper), insecure, henpecked dentist Stu (Ed Helms), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis), the weird brother of the bride—road trip it from Los Angeles to the Sin City for some good times, but the morning after they end up losing their soon-to-be-wed bud, Doug (Justin Bartha). Ed wakes up with his front incisor missing; and there's a tiger in the bathroom, and a baby in a closet. They nurse their pounding heads from their, uh, hangovers and try retracing their steps, but have little to no memory of the night before. It must've been a wild party. 

"The Hangover" is cleverly scripted, well-cast, and scattered with a lot of occasionally inspired laughs, although the reveal of where Doug is the entire time is sadly a shrug of indifference. Screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore offer up some wild and wacky misadventures for the guys, and it's fun figuring out the night before with them, but a few of the violent/raunchy gags don't work. For instance, when the three men are tasered to the head and the 'nads by the cops in front of a classroom of school kids, the scene is painful and unfunny slapstick. And the subplot with an effeminate, vengeful Asian gangster named Mr. Chow, played by Ken Jeong (veteran of Judd Apatow pictures), has a sour setup but a more pleasing payoff. But Mike Tyson's cameo is worth a chuckle, as is Helms' improv piano tune, and a whole blackjack-table scene reference to "Rain Main," and the “revealing” photos during the ending credits are shockingly funny and a blessed payoff. 

Galifianakis is an MVP as the “Fat Jesus” of the group, keeping his performance just a notch above creepy (even if no one can pronounce his last name); TV's “Daily Show” and “The Office” co-star Helms is the most relatable of the dumb-as-a-stump characters; and Heather Graham shows her breast as a stripper with a heart of gold (and with child). Viewed drunk or not, "The Hangover" is fun and worth remembering in the morning. 

Monday, July 12, 2010

"Doubt" seethes with explosive performances

Doubt (2008) 
104 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: A -

John Patrick Shanley takes his Tony and Pulitzer-winning play to the big screen with the collectively explosive performances of his top-drawer cast mostly breaking "Doubt" of its rigid and theatrical mold. 

It's 1964, post-John F. Kennedy assassination, at the Bronx's private Catholic school St. Nicholas. Meryl Streep traipses through the halls like a fearsome, puritanical Darth Vader as mother superior and principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier: she is obviously the villain of this piece. Compassionate resident priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is perceived as the good guy and soon innocent victim when he's accused of having inappropriate, possibly sexual relations with 12-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), a black altar boy. Young, soft-spoken history teacher Sister James (Amy Adams) is the one that unintentionally stirs the pot, suspicious that Flynn has made advances on Donald after having her student return to class from having a meeting with Flynn in the rectory, only to be “acting funny” and smelling of alcohol. Taking this piece of news to headmistress Beauvier, the superior makes her own suspicions without any concrete evidence and maintains that her own certainty is stronger than any proof. Her enmity toward Flynn extends even to him using a ball-point pen and taking too many lumps of sugar in his tea! Salem witch trials, anyone? 

Written and directed for the screen by Shanley, "Doubt" raises debate-worthy social questions—moral ambiguity, old vs. new, tough love vs. companionship—and never answers the question at hand but wisely leaves us in doubt. Shanley (making his second feature as director after "Joe Versus the Volcano") is heavy-handed in a few of his choices, some of them awfully symbolic: canted, low-angle camera framing, a torrential storm furiously stirring leaves and breaking tree branches, and windows being left open to allow rain to pour in. Still, through implication and contextual detail, the drama is convincing in the hands of its performers. In one amusing segment, there is a distinct contrast between the priests and sisters at supper time—respectively, telling crude jokes while devouring steaks, and sitting in complete silence. 

Without a doubt, Streep and Hoffman command the screen. Streep is definitely acting here but never tips into caricature. Seriously having fun, from rolling her eyes to smacking students on the back of the head and wearing the penguin-colored habit, Meryl the Great sinks her teeth with zeal into the character of Aloysius, who could've been a plot device for the play's moral agenda but is in fact an evil, complex character. Also, listen to the sly way she reacts to her office bulb burning out (symbolism again!). Hoffman, one of the best actors working today, essays Father Flynn's compassion and charisma, and yet gives us a questionable side. Even Amy Adams gives Sister James a shade of depth, being naïve and sweet-natured but not entirely a pushover either, as she's torn between her wanting to believe the good in Flynn and her allegiance to her mother superior. Viola Davis makes the most of her one “wow” scene—a pin-drop confrontation with Streep—as Donald's weary, straight-talking mother with a small powerhouse of a performance. 

Technical credits are way up there as well, with Howard Shore's Phillip Glass-style music score suiting the material and the visual tones monochromatically stern and yet beautiful. If you seek marvelous acting chops and food for thought, "Doubt" will fill your Oscar-bait gullet, no doubt.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Without Ah-nuld, "Predators" ain't half-bad

Predators (2010) 
106 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

A plural “sequel” or “reboot” to the 1987 commando/sci-fi original, "Predators"—don't forget that S—also has bits of “Ten Little Indians,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” and "Jurassic Park" but is wise in ignoring its sequel and spinoffs. Writer-producer Robert Rodriguez's dusted-off story gets reworked by first-timers Alex Litvak and Michael Finch into this lean, not-bad B-movie, stripped bare of logic or exposition. 

Let's cut to the chase: a strange bunch of killers and mercenaries land by parachute onto a distant planet only to become the prey in a hunting game by that dreadlocked, pincer-faced alien species with infra-red vision and bleed green. Lanky Adrien Brody proves he can sell the tough-guy part with his every-man-for-himself swagger and a six pack of abs, while Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Danny Trejo, Walton Goggins, and three others carve out enough personality for themselves. Laurence Fishburne gives little more than a glorified cameo, a still-amusing familiar face as a mentally unstable survivor. 

Director Nimrod Antal adds style and atmosphere, especially in the first half, and does well enough with the action. "Predators" won't promise the election of any future politicians (good for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura in the past tense), and runs over a little long (for a predator battle and a surprising but gratuitous story twist). But if you're easy for some blood and fun, exciting thrills, and you know it, clap your hands. An oddly funny touch is Little Richard exploding into song over the final credits. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

McDormand and Adams carry frothy "Pettigrew"

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day (2008) 
92 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

Hollywood has always fancied reproducing daffy, self-consciously cute homages to the square movies of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Sometimes it works, sometimes it falls flat. But "Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day," a homage to the classy, jazzy '30s, certainly works as enjoyable froth. 

Frances McDormand is dowdily made up but sparkles as Guinevere Pettigrew, an unemployable governess in pre-WWII 1939, London who loses job after job. Left hopelessly penniless on the streets and desperate for work, she bluffs her way into a job as social secretary for a flighty, men-juggling would-be actress named Delysia Lafosse (peachy, saucer-eyed Amy Adams, a true Miss Congeniality). Miss P turns out to be as useful as Mary Poppins to Delysis, who has two caddish beaus on her leash and one piano-playing loser (Lee Pace) who really loves her. The drab Pettigrew undergoes a beauty makeover and may be no expert on love, but might there be a man for the new matron of society waiting in the wings? Jiminy Crickets, you bet your bottom dollar, in the form of a clothing designer named Joe (Ciarán Hinds). 

Bharat Nalluri, after directing a slew of B-movies and TV shows, cracks the code of emulating 1930s screwball (based on Winifred Watson's novel) with a breezy pace and mostly weightless tone (there is an air raid after all). After the first 20 minutes' frantic slamming-doors farce of mugging and fluttering about (jeepers!), the film finally potters down and eases the artificiality into a delightful Cinderella comedy of manners. The snappy patter amuses as do mistaken-identity gags like Pettigrew chomping on a cigar and pretending to have a gambling problem. Hinds is a naturally sweet romantic lead as Joe, and Shirley Henderson is perfect with that helium voice of hers as a conniving twit having an on-and-off engagement with Joe. 

Even if "Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day" has little staying power as most larks do, it's thoroughly likable from Adams' flittertigibbet charm and McDormand's Pettigrew wisdom carrying the day. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Mamma Mia!" not perfect but likably goofy

Mamma Mia! (2008) 
108 min., rated PG.

If you love ABBA (and who wouldn't love those gay-happy Swedes?), then you'll enjoy this high-spirited, purely entertaining but technically amateurish film adaptation of the Broadway musical, "Mamma Mia!" Of course, it would be charitable to call the plot just a touch thin, but it more or less works as a padded framework for the '70s Swedish pop group's songs shoehorned into the premise. Get ready for a lot of jubilance. The talented and radiant Amanda Seyfried plays 20-year-old Sophie, living on a remote Greek island with her ex-rock star single mom Donna (Meryl Streep), who manages a cozy, rickety villa. Preparing for her white wedding with Sky (Dominic Cooper), the little lady stumbles upon Mamma's diary and comes to the conclusion that any three men could be her father. Could it be American architect Sam (Pierce Brosnan), British banker Harry (Colin Firth), or Swedish travel writer Bill (an oddly cast Stellan Skarsgård)? Sophie secretly sends out invitations to them, and to her and her mom's surprise, they all show up! Bottom line, Mom's gotten around and has to confront her blasts from the past. 

Transferring Catherine Johnson's musical book (she also wrote the screenplay) to the screen, director Phyllida Lloyd (who made several runs of the stage production) is pretty pushy behind the camera, directing her actors and extras to mug and screech hysterically as if they're on the stage and we're in the theater mezzanine. Her directorial choices can be suspect, often cutting scenes and failing to know where to point the camera rather than just letting the choreography play out. The island villa looks like a flat, artificial stage set, with some distracting use of a greenscreen and overbright lighting, but when Lloyd decides to finally open up the film and let it breathe, the on-location scenery in Greece is certainly a beaut. Alternately, the choreography is exuberantly over-the-top and embarrassingly dorky, where during one number, young men in snorkel masks and flippers dance around on a dock. And the songs are irresistibly winning and performed with gusto by its vibrant cast. The show-stopping numbers of "Mamma Mia" and "Dancing Queen" are a lot of fun, and Seyfried and Streep's duet of "Slipping Through My Fingers" is touching. 

Meryl Streep is a joy to watch, as she enthusiastically jumps around in overalls and belts her little heart out, and Julie Walters and Christine Baranski are a riot as her feisty band BFFs. Of the unprofessional singers in the cast, Pierce Brosnan should be zeroed in on, as he shows such a rough lack of vocal training outside of the shower that you might just cringe. He can't hold a note and looks noticeably winded after his short duet of "S.O.S." with Streep; nice try Pierce, but Simon Cowell would call your karaoke-level attempt “bloody dreadful.” At any rate, all stage-to-film flaws aside, "Mamma Mia!" is still a likably goofy and sunny escapism. 

Grade: B -

Saturday, July 3, 2010

"Crank" fun, "Crank 2" anti-fun

Crank 2: High Voltage (2009)
96 min., rated R.
Grade: D +

Numbing. Chaotic. Trashy. Masochistic. That's "Crank 2: High Voltage" in a nutshell for ya. As most sequels are and do, "Crank 2: High Voltage" to the enjoyably insane "Crank" from three years ago isn't really justified and picks up immediately where its predecessor left off. 

Last time we checked, cranky hit man Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) fell from a helicopter, did some skydiving without a parachute, crashed onto a car, and bounced off onto the cement ground. Literally scraped off the street, he's abducted by goons to have a heart-transplant operation, with his beating heart replaced with an artificial battery ticker that requires constant electric charge. Statham coolly reprises his role as the superman adrenaline machine, looking no worse for the wear. He's back to kicking ass and taking names—while using dog collars, high-voltage boxes, anything to jolt his heart—to get his organ back from an ailing Chinese crime boss (an embarrassing David Carradine). But Chev's “race” is less engaging this time around. 

Now is any of this fun you ask? Well, a guy has a shotgun barrel shoved up his rectum. Statham attaches jumper cables to his nipple and tongue. An Asian whore makes a fat man's crotch bleed with a bike. A gangster slices off another's elbow skin. A shot bullet causes a stripper's breast implants to rupture silicone gel. That's in just the first 20 minutes of this rancid mess. 

While "Crank 2" has the same frenetic energy and bent humor as the first movie, this one's a lot seamier, uglier, and a bit of a headache, a bit being generous. To grating effect, all the freakshow caricatures, stereotypes, and tasteless violence belong more in a Rob Zombie grindhouse movie, not a violent live-action cartoon. Sure, anything goes, and it's so over-the-top and amped-up that we know it's not taking itself seriously one bit. So what? The newscast segments with John de Lancie as a smart-mouthed anchor are satirically hilarious. And there's no reason for it, but we get a strangely amusing spoof to the old "Godzilla" movies. A "Saw"-like scene of a man slicing off both of his nipples is less fun and pointless. The sweet Amy Smart returns again as his gal Eve, who's now a stripper. There's less of her around, but she's a good sport in a comparable in-public sex scene from the first movie. This time, the deed is done in a longer series of positions on the horse-race field of Hollywood Park with cheering onlookers in the bleachers. 

The Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor machine (the movie's writer-directors) throws us another high-sprung, speedball video-game exercise, sneering at logic and taking no prisoners. But "Crank 2" has so much contempt for its audience that it takes us prisoner and robs us of much entertainment value. 

Crank (2006)
88 min., rated R. 
Grade: B -

Fast-and-furious filmmakers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (calling themselves an abridged Neveldine/Taylor) show off their hyperkinetic, in-your-face school of filmmaking in "Crank," a stylishly lunatic guilty pleasure. 

Jason Statham, with his buzz cut, stubbly good looks, and no-nonsense attitude, practices more cool terminator-badassery. He is cranky and for good reason, playing it to the hilt. Pop quiz, what happens when hit-man hooligan Chev Chelios (Statham) gets poisoned by a thug with “Beijing Cocktail” that gives him one hour to live? One hell of a workout and a bad day, that's what. Especially when his unorthodox doc (Dwight Yoakam) orders him to keep the flow of adrenaline constant on a rampage through L.A. until he finds an antidote (and gets revenge) or he'll die. Amy smart is a ball of ditzy sunniness as Chev's sleepy girlfriend Eve, who helps him keep his heart beating in a scene of great sex...right in public on a Chinatown sidewalk.

This being Neveldine/Taylor's feature debut, they crank up the editing tricks and introduce us to the “roller dolly” jittery-cam (operating their camera on skateboards!), and Crank never stops moving at top speed. The premise is at once stupidly implausible and reckless, but these guys go for it, and if you don't think about it you will too. It's like "Speed" with a fast heart subbing for the fast bus. But if any of it's taken seriously, some casual viewers will be offended by the movie's gleefully anarchic, Guy Ritchie-ish sense of humor. As when Statham throws an Arab cabbie out of his own car, points to him and yells “Al Qaeda!” which results in the driver being beaten by some old ladies. Or when he causes a scene in a hospital, stealing boxes of nasal spray (with epinephrine) and juiced up by defibrillators. Or stealing a cop motorocycle to go for a joyride, bare-assed in his hospital gown. 

Your own heart might stop from tweeking over the unbridled rush of "Crank" that's like a can of blood-pumping Red Bull a.k.a. brainlessly fun overkill.