Wednesday, February 29, 2012

All that's "Gone" is your time




Gone (2012)
94 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C -
Ashley Judd might've starred in the woman-in-peril thriller "Gone" had she not grown so long in the tooth in that subgenre (and now taking her strong, stop-at-nothing presence to the small screen). Instead, Amanda Seyfried plays The One That Got Away, but no, this isn't a romantic comedy. She plays Jill Conway, a Portland waitress who survived being abducted by an unseen man a year ago and thrown into a hole in the woods. The police never found him or any evidence (including signs of forced entry and the hole) so they threw the case away, thinking she made it up. The resulting trauma that Jill experiences is a big deal because she inadvertently beats up her self-defense trainer and sets her phone alarm to pop three pills each day.

The early morning of her sister Molly's (Emily Wickersham) final exam, Jill comes back home from the late shift to wake up Molly, but she's not in her bed or their house. Jill declares Molly missing, from no sight of her pajamas or purse and no answering of her cell phone, and suspects "He" is back. With no help from Sgt. Powers (Daniel Sunjata) or the others after presenting her theory, Jill says, "I'll sleep when he's dead," with a gun in her purse and Nancy Drew skills to find clues, create pathological lies to those she interrogates, and crack the mystery. Or, and it's a big "or," is Jill just overreacting and Molly could be sleeping off a hangover instead of attending her final?
"Gone" is the kind of thriller that could go one of two ways. 1) The girl-who-cried-wolf could be telling the truth: there's really an untraceable/uncatchable serial kidnapper out there. 2) All of this could be in Jill's head, or she could have multiple personality disorder. The direction the film takes at least doesn't feel like a cheat (pulling the rug out with a nonsensical psychobabble twist), but that silver lining doesn't erase the fact that "Gone" is still pedestrian and run-of-the-mill. 

Director Heitor Dhalia (making his English-language debut) infuses the film with a cold, desaurated color palette and refreshingly makes use of Oregon locations. But once the clock starts ticking, the film moves lethargically during Jill's race to find Molly. Every now and then, at arbitrary times, we get haphazard cuts to Jill's conscious/unconscious memories of her kidnapper. At one point, when Jill snoops around a certain suspect's seedy apartment, a cat jumps out of a closet. It's a hoary horror-movie trick that Dhalia should know better not to include, but it feels like a last-ditch effort to keep his audience awake.

Not knowing if Molly was really kidnapped or if it's all in Jill's head may add some mild intrigue, but Allison Burnett's (2008's "Untraceable") screenplay spends so much time setting up red herrings and suggesting Jill is just loco. Could it be mysterious Detective Hood (Wes Bentley) who likes his ladies "a little crazy?" Is it the Squirrelly Neighbor That Hasn't Slept Since His Wife Died? Or the Rapey-Eyed Guy? Will one of them take up Buffalo Bill's line, "Put the lotion in the basket?" Or is Jill just cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs? One scene points to that when she unnecessarily tailgates a locksmith van, nearly causing an accident, and later pulls out a gun that puts her on the Portland Police Department's radar as Most Armed and Dangerous. 

Seyfried has made plenty of more interesting film choices before, but as Jill, she's stuck in first gear as the film becomes a whole lot of "See Jill Run." Remaining bug-eyed with her baby blue saucers, she at least makes Jill a smart, prepared sleuth, until Jill is lead via cell phone into the dark woods of Forest Park (where Molly may or may not be), and constantly gets out of the car with the door open. On the contrary, it's not until these scenes that the film actually generates a feeling of unease. 

It's pretty clear why Summit Entertainment decided not to release the indifferent "Gone" in advance for review. This might've brought back bad memories of 2007's "I Know Who Killed Me," that inane Lindsay Lohan stinker, but it's not interesting or bad enough. Based on the total of three sort-of car chases, the distributors might classify their finished product as a thriller, but it's not. Posing as more, the film makes us think it's psychological, but it's really not. A whodunit? That would cost some spoilers, but let's just say, "Gone" should refer to the time you've invested to find out. Aside from the talented Seyfried as its heroine and a wasted supporting cast of familiars, this suspenser is no more than a TV movie that got lucky with a theatrical exhibition.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray Reviews: "The Myth of the American Sleepover," "Hugo," "Beneath the Darkness," "Puss in Boots," "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "Tower Heist," and "J. Edgar"



The Myth of the American Sleepover (2011)
93 min., not rated.
Grade: A -

There is nothing showy or too film-y about "The Myth of the American Sleepover," a beautifully low-key slice of teenagedom from independent writer-director David Robert Mitchell. If this were a pandering Hollywood teen movie, gross-out sexism, "Gossip Girl" melodrama, and keg-party debauchery would clutter the story. Or, if a quirky Sundance indie, characters would speak in an arch jargon and cutesy folksy tunes by The Moldy Peaches would be chirping on the soundtrack. But "The Myth of the American Sleepover" is too real for that, with the telling details that most derivative one-wild-night coming-of-agers would not dare. 

It's the last weekend of summer vacation in suburban Detroit, Michigan for high school teens. Hormones are raging and every kid wants to make their last moments of freedom count. Spiky, spirited freshmen Maggie (Claire Sloma) wishes she had taken more advantage of her summer to have fun, like making it with slightly older poolboy, Steven (Douglas Diedrich). That night, Maggie and her shy, bespectacled pal Beth (Annette DeNoyer) skip out on an all-girl slumber party to join an older crowd at a lakeside house party. New girl Claudia (Amanda Bauer), who's already dating a senior boy, accepts a sleepover invitation from Janelle (Shayla Curran), a popular girl on her track team that might've had history with her boyfriend. Drinking wine out of the bottle and contacting a ghost from a harmless game of Ouija ends in kissing someone else's boyfriend. Another freshman, Rob (Marlon Morton), is immediately infatuated with a pretty blonde he spots in the grocery store and although he takes his sleeping bag for a guys' night at his buddy, Marcus' (Wyatt McCallum) house, he won't give up that night to find his crush. Dumped by his girlfriend and home from school, college junior Scott (Brett Jacobsen) tracks down incoming freshmen twins, Ada and Anna Abbey (Jade and Nikita Ramsey), who are attending an orientation sleepover in the school gym. 

Naturalistic and quietly observant, "The Myth of the American Sleepover" has a comfy small-town feel and a lovely eloquence. Aside from one moment where a speechifying, adult-for-his-age character nearly utters the film's title, Mitchell never has the urge to spell everything out or give us an overly tidy package, having complete confidence in his intelligent audience. The first-time actors in the novice cast aren't tan, toned, or thirty-plus years old, but look like real, normal kids. Never feeling like mere plot constructs, these teens are given plenty of room to breathe. As Maggie, Sloma especially pops, looking like a sweet-faced, pixie-haired Molly Ringwald if Miss Molly sported a nose ring and a lip stud. 

Unlike 1993's 1976-set "Dazed and Confused" and 1999's '80s, Detroit-set TV series "Freaks and Geeks," the time period is unspecified and uncynical. Cell phones are nowhere to be found and designer clothes are not a fad. And though set and shot in Michigan, there's an Anywhere, U.S.A. feel, and it's photographed by James Laxton with a soft, summery quality. Every feeling during teenhood is even more specific, universal, and timeless—the awkward nerves felt around a crush, the fear and hope of fitting in, and the yearning to be liked and be kissed. Late-night kisses on a water slide and bottom-shelf vodka have never evoked more youthful wistfulness and truth. Not many teen movies can make that claim, but this one can. 


Hugo (2011)
Grade: A -



Beneath the Darkness (2012) 
98 min., rated R.
Grade: D +
Released out of Hollywood, there's good trash and then there's bad trash. When 1995's awfully kitschy camp "Showgirls" has its own V.I.P. Edition DVD Set complete with shot glasses and a "Pin the Pasties on the Showgirl" game, and you laugh every time you revisit it, that's good trash. Then there's "Beneath the Darkness," a lame, obvious thriller with a cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs performance by Dennis Quaid and lots of unintentionally funny moments. It's even less fun than those painfully earnest Lifetime movies that housewives still watch, and a perfectly good R-rating goes to waste.

Ely Vaughn (Dennis Quaid) is the charming mortician in a sleepy Texas town, maintaining a plantation-style home after his wife dies. Meanwhile, four teens, Travis (Tony Oller), Abby (Aimee Teegarden), Brian (Stephen Lunsford), and Danny (Devon Werkheiser), have never thought of getting drunk, so they check out the mortician's house, spotting the silouettes of a couple dancing and think it's haunted. They sneak through a window and get caught by Ely, who then throws Danny down the stairs and breaks his neck. Travis witnesses the "accident," but naturally, the cops think Ely is too good of a man to do that. Oh, whatever.

Considering there's no waste of time in having Ely pull a gun on someone and bury him alive thereafter, "Beneath the Darkness" buries its own mystery into the dirt. Between Bruce Wilkinson's threadbare screenplay and Martin Guigui's clunky direction, the film is a void of suspense. Wilkinson makes unsubtle parallels to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"about a crazy killer feeling guiltwhich the high school kids are reading. There's also a laughably inane dialogue exchange: "What's this about, man?" "I think you what this is about." "No, I don't what this is about." "I. Think. You. Know. What this is about." The dialogue between the teens is never more than vapid and expository. Was there a script doctor in the house? Apparently not.

One does wonder how bad Quaid's performance will get after Ely says he has two tickets to the gun show and he's not really talking about his muscles. Quaid is never creepy, unless he's sneaking up behind a character, but chews the scenery so deliriously that he automatically changes the genre into a campy comedy. It sounds fun, but it's goofy and embarrassing. Just laugh at how he sucks on an electronic cigarette when he's stressed.

The rest of "Beneath the Darkness" basically comes down to Travis and Abby proving Ely is crazier than a shithouse rat (duh). Quaid is given a standard motive to his actions that it just makes him one more deranged psycho with jealousy issues. An episode of "Scooby-Doo" has more mystery and suspense. 


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Puss in Boots (2011)
90 min., rated PG.
Grade: B
As a "Shrek" spin-off prequel that hangs up the adventures of Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey, "Puss in Boots" ain't bad one bit. After all, of all the franchise characters, the scene-stealing Puss (voiced by Antonio Banderas) deserved his own origin story, and it's many hairs better than any direct-to-video "The Lion King"/"The Little Mermaid" sequel or Tinker Bell spin-off. Cat lovers or not, "Puss in Boots" should be fast-paced, entertaining catnip and it's delightfully painless for the kids' parents.

Claiming infamous monikers such as but not limited to Diablo Gato and Frisky Two Times, Puss is not only a cute kitty but a suave and irresistible Latin-lover with an amour for whole leche (milk). He's also a petty Zorro-like bandit who takes on the score of stealing magic beans from mean outlaw couple Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris) and growing a beanstalk in order to obtain the goose's golden eggs from the late Giant's castle. Right under his nose, a pickpocket named Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) gets there and takes the beans. She's in cahoots with Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), Puss's childhood friend-turned-enemy. Humpty is willing to forgive and forget to retrieve the special egg, but Puss still holds a grudge after seven years. (Insert childhood flashbacks to when Puss and Humpty looked out for one another at an orphanage, became besties, and then having a falling out, both feeling betrayed by the other.) Still, Puss finds it in himself to work with Humpty and Kitty to get those golden eggs and repay his hometown of San Ricardo. Let the adventure begin!

Quite surprisingly, the cracked friendship between Puss and Humpty is deeply felt, and the storytelling is engaging and just straightforward enough. Director Chris Miller (2007's "Shrek the Third") and Tom Wheeler's script (with story credits to Brian Lynch and Will Davies) gut the pop-culture reference and don't overdo the cat/egg puns. The life was drained out of the "Shrek" franchise by the fourth. "Puss in Boots" has only a few albeit amusing in-jokes to movies, including "Fight Club," "Jurassic Park," and "Cliffhanger," seeping through the paws. 

The humor here is less snarky and more cleverly amusing and good-natured (Puss to Humpty: "I shall scramble you with onions!"). Since "Shrek" started out as a fractured fairy tale, this story also has its references to fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk) and nursery rhymes (Jack & Jill, Mother Goose). From DreamWorks Animation Studios, the computer animation is visually pleasing and beautifully textured as ever. The character design is especially impressive, with the egg-shaped Humpty the most inventive. Also, some of the action set-pieces are pretty exciting, including a canyon chase and Mother Goose's attack on a dusty town that are both rendered with great fluidity (the latter not unlike "Rango's" chase around town with a hawk).

The voice work of big stars can often distract from the characters at hand in animated films, but not here. No one else could be Puss other than Banderas, who perfectly conveys the feline's machismo and bravery with gusto. He may have the swagger of a swashbuckling hero, but he's still a cat who uses his sad, kitty-cat eyes to get what he wants and likes chasing balls of light. Hayek is appropriately sultry as Kitty Softpaws, sharing some frisky chemistry with her co-star, even in a separate sound recording studio. Galifianakis develops the needy Humpty into a fragile egg with a vulnerability and more multi-dimensionality than most movie villains. Jack and Jill are more garden-variety villains, but the nearly unrecognizable Thornton and Sedaris are colorfully amusing with a parenting subplot of their own.

Though it has less wit and lasting power than Industrial Light and Magic's immeasurely creative and witty "Rango," this film holds its own as a (hair) ball of entertainment and doesn't run out of steam. It's over before you know it in 90 minutes flat, and by the end, you actually hope Puss and Kitty Softpaws team up for a sequel. Usually, that's not desired, so count "Puss in Boots" as a cute, modest surprise.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Sketchy "Wanderlust" delivers bawdy/loopy/offbeat laughs




Wanderlust (2012) 
98 min., rated R.
Grade: B

wanderlust (n.) - a very strong or irresistible impulse to travel.

For a one-joke premise, "Wanderlust" is a frequently silly, offbeat, and funny comedy with a little soul-searching truth underneath all the jokes. It's like an over-the-top "Saturday Night Live" sketch stretched to feature length, so if you accept it as that, it'll work for you. If you take it more seriously than it's taking itself, then it won't work for you. Directed by David Wain, one of the creators of the sketch-comedy troupe TV series called The State, "Wanderlust" wouldn't be a Wain comedy without Paul Rudd, a very talented ensemble, and an absurdist brand of sketch comedy at its roots. What with his first time out in 2001's curiously flat "Wet Hot American Summer," then 2007's hit-and-miss "The Ten" and 2008's often hilarious and amiably irresponsible "Role Models," Wain's latest fits right into his wheelhouse.

Rudd and Jennifer Aniston are paired up as New York marrieds George and Linda. He's an office drone at a financial firm and she's a dabbler who's just finished a documentary film about penguins with testicular cancer. They reluctantly splurge on a "micro-loft" (or, a cramped, overpriced studio apartment) in the West Village. Immediately after they move in, George's company goes under and her hard-sell project falls through with HBO. This forces them to sell their apartment and hightail it to Atlanta to stay in the McMansion of George's idiot blowhard of a brother, Rick (Ken Marino), and his depressed, boozy wife, Marissa (Michaela Watkins), until they get back on their feet. Their stay doesn't last, and en route the couple stumbles upon a commune called Elysium, full of peace-preachin' hippies with a "free love" motto, have an optional dress code, and don't believe in the privacy of doors in bathrooms or bedrooms. Sick of the city rat race, George and Linda decide to stay in the carefree environment and adjust to the lifestyle.

Written by Wain and co-star Marino, "Wanderlust" is edgier and less conventional than most big-studio R-rated comedies. Does it pretend to be more than a wacky fish-out-of-water romp? Not really, but it does get the timely socio-economic portrayal right. George and Linda react to this new, unorthodox lifestyle in different ways, which soon puts a damper on their marriage. 

Rudd and Aniston have been charming before as gay and straight best friends in 1998's "The Object of My Affection" and as frequent co-stars on TV's "Friends." Here, it's not much of a hard pill to swallow that they're a married couple. Rudd mostly does his "thing" as the lumpish straight man, and Aniston is her likable, pretty self without playing Linda for too many laughs (see the actress go all out in "Horrible Bosses"). There's so much press fuss about Aniston giving a nude scene, which is blurred out anyway, but frankly, it's not a big deal. Even if George becomes a bit of a tightly wound doofus, Rudd proves his great flair for ad-libbing. Take one scene for instance, where he gives himself a self-esteem booster about his penis in the mirror before a sexual encounter with polygamous Eva (Malin Akerman). It's played out to awkward length (and even shows up in the outtakes). His hallucination of a giant fly, which he swatted and killed, is a rather inspired gag. Aniston gets her turn to "fly," when she takes a strong sip of Truth Circle tea that causes her to have trippy hallucinations.

The supporting cast of TV's The State, Reno 911!, and Children's Hospital as the hippy-dippy Elysium members are all game. Justin Theroux, seductive even under lots of Christ-like hair and beard, is hilarious as the group's shaman Seth, who's about two decades behind on the latest technology. Alan Alda is also a standout as burnt-out founder Carvin, who wheels around in a wheelchair. Invaluable female comediennes Kerri Kenney-Silver, Kathryn Hahn, and Lauren Ambrose get to shine, too, respectively, trying to make jokes as the den mother, spouting out whatever comes to her mind as an ex-porn star-turned-hippie, and being all calm smiles as a pregnant flower child. Joe Lo Truglio is totally on-board to show a lot of prosthetic penis as the commune's nudist who aspires to be a novelist. The hippies are almost more grounded in reality than Marino's Rick, who's such a cartoonish, obnoxious prick. As the self-medicated Marissa who could be a "Real Housewife of Atlanta," Watkins can handle a one-liner with an acerbic sharpness. Even Linda Lavin's dry delivery makes a bawdy line come off realtor-like as George and Linda's realtor. Finally, Ray Liotta, or at least the use of him for a late-film gag, is a hoot.

The story conflictdealing with a casino being developed on the Elysium landfizzles out by the end. But where it really counts and matters, "Wanderlust" delivers a consistent cheerfulness and loopiness, and occasionally some outright lunacy. Just don't expect anything too deep.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

84th Annual Academy Awards (2012) - I Don't Care Anymore, But Here's What I Think The Academy Will Pick and What I Would Pick If My Important Opinion Mattered



Best Picture
THE ARTIST (ACADEMY'S PICK)
THE DESCENDANTS (MY PICK)
EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE
HUGO
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
THE HELP
MONEYBALL
WAR HORSE 
THE TREE OF LIFE

Best Actor
DEMIAN BICHIR, A BETTER LIFE
GEORGE CLOONEY, THE DESCENDANTS (ACADEMY'S PICK)
JEAN DUJARDIN, THE ARTIST (MY PICK)
GARY OLDMAN, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
BRAD PITT, MONEYBALL

Best Supporting Actor
KENNETH BRANAGH, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN
JONAH HILL, MONEYBALL
NICK NOLTE, WARRIOR
CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER, BEGINNERS (ACADEMY'S PICK AND MY PICK)
MAX VON SYDOW, EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE

Best Actress
GLENN CLOSE, ALBERT NOBBS
VIOLA DAVIS, THE HELP (ACADEMY'S PICK)
ROONEY MARA, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
MERYL STREEP, THE IRON LADY
MICHELLE WILLIAMS, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (MY PICK)

Best Supporting Actress
BERENICE BEJO, THE ARTIST
JESSICA CHASTAIN, THE HELP (MY PICK)
MELISSA MCCARTHY, BRIDESMAIDS
JANET MCTEER, ALBERT NOBBS
OCTAVIA SPENCER, THE HELP (ACADEMY'S PICK)

Best Director
WOODY ALLEN, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS, THE ARTIST (ACADEMY'S PICK AND MY PICK)
TERRENCE MALICK, THE TREE OF LIFE
ALEXANDER PAYNE, THE DESCENDANTS
MARTIN SCORSESE, HUGO

Best Animated Feature
A CAT IN PARIS
CHICO & RITA
KUNG FU PANDA 2
PUSS IN BOOTS
RANGO (ACADEMY'S PICK AND MY PICK)

Best Foreign Language Film
BULLHEAD
FOOTNOTE
IN DARKNESS 
MONSIEUR LAZHAR
A SEPARATION (ACADEMY'S PICK AND MY PICK)

Best Achievement in Art Direction
THE ARTIST
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2
HUGO (ACADEMY'S PICK AND MY PICK)
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
WAR HORSE

Best Achievement in Cinematography
THE ARTIST
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
HUGO
THE TREE OF LIFE (ACADEMY'S PICK AND MY PICK)
WAR HORSE

Best Achievement in Costume Design
ANONYMOUS
THE ARTIST (ACADEMY'S PICK AND MY PICK)
HUGO
JANE EYRE 
W.E.

Best Achievement in Film Editing
THE ARTIST (ACADEMY'S PICK)
THE DESCENDANTS
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (MY PICK)
HUGO
MONEYBALL

Original Score
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, JOHN WILLIAMS
THE ARTIST, LUDOVIC BOURCE (ACADEMY'S PICK AND MY PICK)
HUGO, HOWARD SHORE
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, ALBERTO IGLESIAS
WAR HORSE, JOHN WILLIAMS

Best Documentary Feature
HELL AND BACK AGAIN
IF A TREE FALLS: A STORY OF THE EARTH LIBERATION FRONT
PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY (ACADEMY'S PICK)
PINA (MY PICK)
UNDEFEATED

Best Original Song
"MAN OR MUPPET," THE MUPPETS (ACADEMY'S PICK AND MY PICK)
"REAL IN RIO," RIO

Best Animated Short Film
DIMANCHE/SUNDAY
THE FANTASTIC FLYING BOOKS OF MR. MORRIS LESSMORE (ACADEMY'S PICK)
LA LUNA
A MORNING STROLL
WILD LIFE
*NO PICK FOR MYSELF

Best Live Action Short Film
PENTECOST
RAJU
THE SHORE (ACADEMY'S PICK)
TIME FREAK
TUBA ATLANTIC
*NO PICK FOR MYSELF

Best Achievement in Sound Editing
DRIVE (MY PICK)
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
HUGO (ACADEMY'S PICK)
TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON
WAR HORSE

Best Achievement in Visual Effects
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2
HUGO
REAL STEAL
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (ACADEMY'S PICK AND MY PICK)
TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO
HUGO (ACADEMY'S PICK AND MY PICK)
MONEYBALL
TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON
WAR HORSE

Best Adapted Screenplay
ALEXANDER PAYNE, NAT FAXTON, JIM RASH, THE DESCENDANTS (ACADEMY'S PICK AND MY PICK)
JOHN LOGAN, HUGO
GEORGE CLOONEY, GRANT HESLOV, BEAU WILLIMON, THE IDES OF MARCH
AARON SORKIN, STEVEN ZALLIAN, MONEYBALL
BRIDGET O'CONNOR, PETER STRAUGHN, TINKER TAILOR SOILDER SPY

Best Original Screenplay
WOODY ALLEN, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (ACADEMY'S PICK)
JC CHANDOR, MARGIN CALL
ASGHAR FARHADI, A SEPARATION
MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS, THE ARTIST
KRISTEN WIIG AND ANNIE MUMOLO, BRIDESMAIDS (MY PICK)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Woody Harrelson simmers "Rampart" to a hard-boiled boil



Rampart (2012)
107 min., rated R.
Grade: B
Aside from Nicolas Cage's homicide detective Terence McDonagh in 2009's "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans," Dave Brown is probably the dirtiest, most corrupt cop in the tough, steadfast character study "Rampart." And this might be actor Woody Harrelson's most staggering and audacious character work since Larry Flynt. We know he's capable of wound-up intensity and darkness (Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" is enough proof), but Harrelson's commitment to invest so much complexity into the role of a dirty cop makes this his magnum opus.

Los Angeles, 1999. To put in perspective just how disrespected Dave is, his moniker on the force is "Date Rape Dave" for being suspected of pre-meditatively killing an alleged date-rapist instead of arresting him. He's a Vietnam vet-turned-police officer who smokes and drinks as much as he picks up women in bars to sleep with in hotel rooms. Though not quite the catch, Dave does have two daughters, Helen (Brie Larson) and Margaret (Sammy Boyarsky), each from two of his ex-wives (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche), who happen to be sisters. His relationship with Margaret is at least sturdier than the one with Helen, and he oddly functions with his exes who let him reside in their houses but won't sleep with him even when he begs. In the meantime, Dave gets involved with a lawyer named Linda (Robin Wright), who makes him paranoid. On the job front, the Rampart district police department is troubled by an ongoing corruption scandal. Dave increasingly makes his life harder when he's caught on tape brutally beating up a motorist that smashes into him on the street. Investigators and district attorneys can't get him to retire, so Dave fights his case, until he gets involved with an armed robbery.

The one entry point into coming closer to empathizing with and understanding the abhorrent, hardly likable Dave is through the relationships with his two daughters. He tries to spend time with them and tries redeeming himself through those times, but creates his own hell with the brutality scandal. When Dave and his rebellious daughter Helen have their first one-to-one moment together, she calls him "a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer, a chauvinist, a misanthrope, and homophobic." Fiercely acted by Harrelson, Dave is all of those things, and also hyper-articulate. With an investigator (Ice Cube), he unapologetically tells him, "I am not a racist. Fact is, I hate all people equally."

Harrelson's nuanced performance cannot be overlooked, and isn't the only element that makes the film worthwhile. Director Oren Moverman (2009's "The Messenger"), who co-wrote the script with hard-boiled crime storyteller James Ellroy, captures the bleak sewer of the Los Angeles police world but not without raw viscera. The dialogue never takes the lazy, expository shorthand, but it's rather rich and fleshes out its characters, some more than others. Sigourney Weaver and Ned Beatty, respectively playing an IA investigator and Dave's mentor, pop up now and then, Steve Buscemi having the least to do but whose presence still resonates. In another strong performance, Wright makes something out of nothing in the part of Linda, who's good in the sack but not at limiting her alcohol intake. Finally, Larson proves she has more going on than most working actresses her age.

With Bobby Bukowski's jittery digital cinematography, Moverman really sets us under the scorched sun of the L.A. streets to offset the story's darker tone, which alternately comes across in full force in grungy shadows. One phantasmagoric sequence of jarring sound and visuals takes place in an underground sex club, where Dave takes out his ugly addictions. 

This being more of a character study than a dirty-cop thriller à la "Cop Land" and "Training Day," the film tends to get wrapped up in its scandals and crimes, but plot is the least of the filmmakers' concerns. Even the conclusion seems to have deeper implications than just spoon feeding us the rest. "Rampart" never once whitewashes its downbeat subject matter—Dave having little hope as his life goes straight down the tubes—and in that respect might be a turn-off to some. But if you can handle the film's unblinking look at corruption and lack of redemption, Harrelson offers up that reality to us straight and with a cigarette.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Staid, underwhelming "Dangerous Method" ends up Cronenbergian slip




A Dangerous Method (2011)
99 min., rated R.

Exploding heads and orifice stomachs are no more. Inimitable filmmaker David Cronenberg making a stately, dialogue-heavy period piece about the pioneering of psychoanalysis might seem anomalous at first glance. And yet the King of Venereal Horror is right at home with the Fathers of Psychology when you consider his proclivity for the human body. If you've forgotten, his 1996 film, "Crash," was about people getting off to car accidents. Cronenberg's films have always been clinical and detached, keeping us emotionally at arm's length and sealing us off from some of his stories but still having something to say. Four years ago, "Eastern Promises" was his most accessible, but "The Fly" and "Videodrome" still admirably remain his ickiest and most challenging works. The last descriptor for a Cronenberg film would be "dull," but "A Dangerous Method" is just that, even if it's restrained and has intentions to be intimate. It will go down as one of his most underwhelming, no, make that a Cronenbergian slip. 

In Zurich, Switzerland, circa 1904, a screaming, hysterical Russian Jewish woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) arrives at Dr. Carl Jung's Burgholzli Clinic. Jung (Michael Fassbender) studies Sabina, who has hopes of being a doctor, and she becomes his first patient for the "talking cure." He's having a child with his wife, Emma (Sarah Gadon), but gives into urges of polygamy when he experiments his "talking cure" on Sabina. Seems Sabina represses the excitement she felt when her father would punish her with spankings, and that triggers sexual desires shared with Jung. In the meantime, Jung meets with and becomes a mentor to Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and they bond over their opposing academic theories. But when Jung calls off the affair with Sabina and she requests to be Freud's patient, the men have a falling out.

Fassbender is more buttoned-up but still engaging and strangely seductive as the Swiss psychiatrist. Mortensen, star of Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises," is dryly humorous and egotistical, sucking on his Freudian cigars. But it's Knightley's alternately brave, frothing-mad, and hysterically over-the-top performance that gives the film a much-needed feral jolt. It's most startling and fascinating, seeing the actress go for it, jutting out her jaw, violently contorting her face, and convulsing with maniacal cackling. She's committed in the role and as convincing as a person in overbiting hysterics might be. A supporting turn by Vincent Cassell as Otto Gross, Jung's fellow cokehead psychiatrist who encourages him to follow his id, might've livened up the film a bit, but not by much.

The screenplay by Christopher Hampton (based on his play "The Talking Cure," itself based upon John Kerr's book "A Most Dangerous Method") is at least well-researched, but Cronenberg doesn't seem to find a way of dramatizing it with any life or tension. This historical speculation leans towards half-kinky soap opera, but the other half is a staid, stilted, and talky chamber drama. Listening to Jung and Freud's conflicting views on psychoanalysis are certainly provocative, but built into a film, their conversations and letter-writings become as stimulating as hearing two professors recite from textbooks. When Sabina talks about feeling a mollusk rubbing up against her naked back as she masturbates, you know you're still in the hands of Cronenberg. But Jung and Freud putting in their two-cents about the meaning of auto-erotica in Cronenberg's "Crash" might've made a more compelling film. For such a turgid treatment, "A Dangerous Method" will be forgotten after the award season is over. Perhaps the once-exciting auteur needed a cure for less jaw-flapping and more spankings.

Grade: C -

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Silly "This Means War" doesn't mean much




This Means War (2012)
98 min., rated PG-13.
Director McG knows how to direct fun, energetic froth. Just look at the "Charlie's Angels" movies, and there, he had three game females to work with. In the action romantic-comedy hybrid "This Means War," which should've been an enjoyable lark, only the appealing talent involved makes it watchable in the very least. Seeing Tom Hardy and Chris Pine wage war for Reese Witherspoon might get the guys and their Valentine date's butts into the theater, but in the main, it's a bare-minimum trifle of a movie for a trifle of a holiday. 

FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are CIA operative buddies. Their covert mission to capture Russian arms dealer Heinrich (Til Schweiger) in Hong Kong turns out to be anything but covert, so they're "grounded" to desk work by their hard-as-nails boss (Angela Bassett). Tuck gives dating a shot when he meets Lauren Scott (Reese Witherspoon), a desperate-to-date L.A. consumer-products tester whose sassy married BFF, Trish (Chelsea Handler), sets her up a profile on an online dating site. Lauren hits it off with Tuck on their first date, but immediately after, right around the corner actually, she stops into a video store (what are those?) and coincidentally bumps into the womanizing FDR. Keeping her options open, Lauren decides to date both hunks, who pose as a cruise ship captain and a travel agent, respectively. Once Tuck and FDR realize they're after the same girl, both alpha males won't back off the prize, competing for Lauren's affections by lying to her (FDR pretending to be a softie that frequents at a puppy shelter) and sabotaging the other's date. (Music cues of The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" are played each time, just in case you're too stupid to realize what's going on.) And to keep tabs on her, they both secretly slink around her apartment to plant surveillance cameras and sound bugs. Of course, they make a pact not to let Lauren come in between their friendship, but that's going to be a hard deal. Meanwhile, Heinrich plots revenge on FDR and Tuck, who killed his brother on their failed mission.

The three actors are all easy on the eyes, have acting chops, and are sometimes fun to watch, but they can only hold their end of the bargain for so long. The script, written by Simon Kinberg ("Mr. & Mrs. Smith") and Timothy Dowling ("Just Go with It"), surely doesn't help any of them. For the full running time, the high-concept premise runs its course with a flimsy crime plot sandwiched in between. Why these two confident best friends would fight over the same girl after only a few dates and employ teenage-level tactics is beyond comprehension. But it's supposed to be a hilarious gimmick, so we should suspend all disbelief and stop making too much out of nothing, right? Lauren is also set up as this professionally successful young woman who has no luck with love. The same labored comedic setup gets beaten into the ground, having her run into an ex-boyfriend with his new girlfriend, then again at a sushi bar, and later on her date with FDR (grabbing him to kiss her in the middle of a sidewalk so her ex spots them).

The romantic outcome isn't satisfying since it goes to show that Lauren has a foolish taste in men. She never seems to ask the right questions, either. For instance, when Lauren is at a trendy restaurant with Tuck, FDR shows up but he and Tuck pretend to just be meeting one another for the first time. Once Lauren goes to the restroom, the two friends break out in a knock-down fight, roundhouse kicking each other through glass walls and jumping off a second-floor bannister onto tables. The whole restaurant clears out, but when Lauren returns, the only thing that seems to upset her is the two guys being friends. "Was this some kind of bet?" she moans. Uh, what about the entire restaurant being completely demolished? And when it comes for the guys to leave, without any staff or authorities confronting them, the valet driver simply hands them the keys.

Hardy is charismatic and magnetic as ever, and exhibits a sensitivity with the subplot of taking his 7-year-old son to martial-arts practice. Pine is charming, but his FDR is so much of a cocky, smarmy schmoozer at his core that he deserves a free ride to charm school, not a girlfriend. As Lauren, Witherspoon coasts along, being cute and perky, but she's reduced to a tug-of-war object. Once again, after "How Do You Know," the actress must feel taking the roles of indecisive women are enough for her. Chelsea Handler is ready to rip for her first screen project, playing Lauren's gal pal Trish, but her rapid-fire barbs are the sitcom-written kind where all women like to sit around, chatting about orgasms while hilariously downing glasses of wine. She's supposed to be the comic relief and voice of randy, booze-soaked reason, but the guys calling her "an old man" is meaner than any of her own flat zingers. Given her bawdy talk-show presence and authorship, it's a surprise that the lone "F" word isn't assigned to Handler, whose sex jokes were reportedly trimmed for a PG-13 rating.

Director McG makes sure the spastic pace doesn't sprint below a speed limit of 100. A covert Hong Kong mission supplies the film's hyperkinetic opening action set-piece, complete with a shoot-out and people hanging off of a penthouse ledge. Too bad the choppy editing and phony green-screen down below suck out all the potential danger and excitement. The other overblown action scene isn't until the climax on the L.A. freeway, and fortunately, it's not protracted. And since the crime plot has been such an uninvolving afterthought, exploding SUVs and destruction of public property seem tacked-on before Lauren has to pick her man. However, during the shoot-out, it's a clever touch having Lauren's area of expertise come into play rather than just making her a damsel-in-distress. In an action rom-com, a little chemistry doesn't hurt if the central contrivance can't be bought and the banter hasn't been sharpened. The only on-camera chemistry that really sizzles is the bromantic kind between Hardy and Pine. Otherwise, "This Means War" is slick, star-powered product pure and simple, a his-and-her pleaser for the Valentine's Day weekend. But as a film, it doesn't excite, doesn't make you swoon, and only occasionally makes you chuckle. 

Grade: