Saturday, April 28, 2012

Loose-limbed and long-winded, but "Five-Year Engagement" also smart and funny

The Five-Year Engagement (2012)
124 min., rated R.
"The Five-Year Engagement" is what 2011's wildly overpraised Sundance darling "Like Crazy" would have been had the latter film shoehorned in comedic bits and told its story with more appealing characters. With that said, many might compare "The Five-Year Engagement" to "Bridesmaids"—"From the producer of 'Bridesmaids'" is plastered all over the advertising campaign—but it's apples to oranges. Without being the raucous R-rated comedy of your expectations or just another bare-minimum romantic comedy, writer-director Nicholas Stoller and co-writer/star Jason Segel's fourth collaborative effort (starting with 2008's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and now following "The Muppets") instead chronicles the episodic ups and downs of an un-Hollywood relationship that's well past the early meet-cute. While following a basic relationship-drama playbook, the film circumvents clichés with more relatability, insight, and laughs than a lot of second-rate rom-coms.
When we first meet Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt), all that getting-to-know-you business is out of the way. They met at a New Year's costume party, where he was dressed as a bunny superhero and she as Princess Diana, and the rest is an "aww" memory. A year later and living together in San Francisco, Tom's a sous-chef on the rise and Violet's an academic psychologist applying to doctoral jobs. After Tom proposes and the two are engaged, an envelope throws a wrench in the couple's plan to wed: Violet is offered a two-year position at the University of Michigan. She has to take it, and Tom supports her dream, so they post-pone their Big Day a couple years (hopefully before both sets of Violet's grandparents pass on) and make the move to the snow-covered college town where his job opportunities are few and far between. With regrets of giving up his talents on the West Coast bay, Tom finally gets comfortable making flawlessly presented sandwiches at a New Age-y deli, later turning into a bearded hunter that takes up brewing his own mead. Can Tom and Violet save the date and stay in it for the long haul?
Loose-limbed and long-winded, "The Five-Year Engagement" comes from producer Judd Apatow's wheelhouse of epic-sized comedies that somehow teeter-totter sweetness and blue, salty humor. Like "Knocked Up," "Funny People," and "Bridesmaids" (the former and latter great comedies by the way) from Apatow's production house, this one could also stand to lose some flab (about 20 or 30 minutes of it). Clocking in at 124 minutes, the film almost feels like it plays out the five-year engagement in real time, but it is preferable over other movies' quick montages that try developing a pre-fab romance (oh, like say, last week's "The Lucky One"). At times, director Stoller doesn't know when to cut or leave out a wacky, awkwardly wedged-in bit for the DVD's deleted scenes. And yet at other times, he knows exactly when to let a scene or gag play out, similar to the pacing and rhythm of a droll British comedy. We probably didn't need the stakes to be pumped up as much for dramatic tension—Violet's boss (Rhys Ifans) kissing her and then Tom engaging in a playful potato-salad fight with a drunk, smitten co-worker, leaving him to wander into the woods without pants and waking up with a frost-bitten toe—but these characters don't keep secrets. They sometimes struggle with their communication in regards to their true feelings, only prolonging their walk to the altar, but none of their missteps feel like a screenwriter's construct. An extra advantage is that we actually care about Tom and Violet and want to see them find happiness, whether it's with or without each other.
Just having Jason Segel and Emily Blunt as your headlining leads keeps the film effortlessly amiable. Segel has an earnest, easygoing schlubbiness about him that never tires. His Tom isn't unambitious, but has just compromised his own career for the woman he loves so they can finally build their future together. Blunt is more relaxed than she's ever been, and her smile is infectious. Her Violet is never as selfish as Tom makes her feel at one point. When times are good, they're adorable together, and when times are pretty rocky, the two credibly register the appropriate emotions. As the film's secondary couple, Chris Pratt (on NBC's "Parks and Creation"), as Tom's moronic best buddy Alex, and Alison Brie (on NBC's "Community"), as Violet's sister Suzie, are great company. Deserving their own spin-off, Pratt nails every line and Brie (sporting a cute British accent) really pops without overplaying a joke. Though seen in the trailers, Alex's engagement-party slideshow of Tom's past lovers, cued to his own version of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire," still earns its laughs from Segel and Blunt's reactions and Pratt's own spontaneous delivery. Brie even gets to sell a moment where, during Suzie's toast, she can't seem to get the words out without bawling her eyes out or sounding constipated. In another priceless bit, Brie and Blunt get to conduct an adult conversation in the voices of Elmo and Cookie Monster (a nod to Stoller and Segel's "The Muppets"?) while in the presence of Suzie's children. 
In a genre that most always counts on The Wacky Best Friend and other oddball side characters, the extensive supporting cast is quite lively and on their game here. Jacki Weaver, as Violet's bluntly honest divorced mother Sylvia, is a hoot with all the advice she gives, as are Mimi Kennedy and David Paymer as Tom's folks who give a Dr. Seussian speech at the engagement party. Lauren Weedman hits a one-liner with scene-stealing verve every time as Tom's butch, anti-marriage head chef. In other supporting roles, Mindy Kaling, Randall Park, and Kevin Hart, as Violet's colleagues, all have their respective moments, especially in regard to a sociology experiment Violet concocts with donuts. Also, Brian Posehn and Chris Parnell work their oddball magic, respectively playing Tom's pickle-obsessed employer and a fellow faculty husband who's a stay-at-home dad and knits ugly sweaters. So many familiar-faced funny people turn up that it's possible NBC made a deal with Universal Pictures to give their Thursday Night comedy series performers some more work. 

Akin to 2010's underrated "Going the Distance" (where Drew Barrymore and Justin Long questioned staying together from a long distance), there is some real emotional truth in "The Five-Year Engagement" between all the comic set-pieces. Though uneven and flabby, it's uncommonly smart and rapidly sharp-witted, always engaging, and dramatically honest without sacrificing the laughs, and worth a smart, patient audience's commitment. Carrying it through, Blunt and Segel (and Stoller and Segel for that matter) make romantic comedies unforced and fresh again.

Grade:  B 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Quoth this: "The Raven" enjoyably macabre but uneven Grand Guignol

The Raven (2012)
111 min., rated R.
Roger Corman made "The Raven" in 1963 with Vincent Price and it was loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem of the same name. 2012's "The Raven" takes the same creative liberties, only its narrative has no resemblance of that film or the poem. Rather, director James McTeigue (2005's "V for Vendetta") and screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare (probably a descendant of Will) use some of the real-life mysteries from Poe's final days and spin a fictional murder-mystery yarn around it. An influential poet of mysteries and the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849, with the cause of his death remaining unknown but apparently attributed to cholera, alcoholism, heart disease, suicide, tuberculosis, and more. Opening with Poe near death on a park bench, "The Raven" doesn't try to rewrite history; it's just a lusciously made, delightfully macabre, if unevenly scripted, Grand Guignol.

John Cusack, fun to watch here in a goatee, plays Poe as a penniless drunk who likes to kill a bottle of brandy and buy drinks to pub "mouth-breathers" that can complete the line of poetry ("Quoth the raven…") from his latest work. He's initially oblivious when a serial murderer begins modeling his crimes after Poe's methods of torture and execution from his own grim short stories such as "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt." A mother and daughter are found butchered in a room locked from the inside. Detective Fields (Luke Evans) immediately finds the killer's magic-like escape familiar of one of Poe's stories, making the author a suspect. Soon, the killer strikes again when a portly man (Poe's number one critic, actually) meets his doom to a scythe-like pendulum. After Fields clears Poe from suspicion and start working together to crack the case, a red mask found at the last murder scene points to the killer's next move at the masquerade ball hosted by Poe's secret fiancee, Emily (Alice Eve), and her disapproving father Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson). Sure enough, Emily is kidnapped, but for Poe, finding the killer and the whereabouts of the woman he loves will be like finding two needles in a haystack.

From the grisly first murder to the title card of blood dripping down the 'v,' "The Raven" gets you in the mood for a darkly tasty Poe tale. With tops art direction, costume design, and make-up, the film looks great. Full of gothic atmosphere, the cobblestone streets of 1849, Baltimore, actually recall the Hughes brothers' 2001 horror drama "From Hell" about Jack the Ripper. Even the end credit sequence, almost reminiscent of 2011's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," is pretty nifty on the way out. Then, there are the murders. In this day and age, you'd expect any story of Edgar Allan Poe to be gored up to the nth degree. Except for the queasily tense, gruesome but not gratuitous "Pit and the Pendulum"-inspired set-piece that might be a la mode of a "Saw" movie, the murders are mostly off-screen. Bloodied-up bodies are either found or shown like Elizabeth Short-esque corpses on a slab during the procedural scenes. Poe's editor, Henry Maddox (Kevin McNally), even goes on about how the public likes his gory tales, so it's only appropriate that the film delivers some blood. CG blood, but blood nonetheless. 

Livingston and Shakespeare's hook is sickly clever, and "Poe-heads" will catch all the literary references, but save for the murders being patterned after Poe's literary works, the whodunit is rather uninspired and half-cooked once revealed. The best whodunits (even episodes of Scooby-Doo!) give audiences a roster of red herrings and suspects to choose from, but to quote Jamie Kennedy's Randy from "Scream," "Everybody's a suspect!" Come the 11th hour unmasking of the murderer, the real question on our minds is "Who's that?" as if the screenwriters placed a character in at random. With that said, the film still has enough suspense in its arsenal, leading up to the disappointing payoff. Emily being buried alive in the killer's lair à la Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" raises the stakes, and two chase sequences, one backstage of a theater during a mid-performance of "Macbeth" and another in the city sewers, are well-handled.

Casting an actor more prone to hamming, like Nicolas Cage, would've careened the film into camp. It also would've been a mistake since this story calls for Poe to be more sane than the maniac he's trying to catch. So as the dour, subdued Poe, Cusack is just fine. He has that Everyman quality, making the alcoholic writer a tortured soul with a sardonic mouth and an eccentric look. Heck, he even has a pet raccoon. Also, his flippant, snarky remarks ("I only drink occasionally, to be social" and "If I'd known my work would have such a morbid effect on people, I would've devoted more time to eroticism") are a hoot. The lovely Eve, in period dress, is a little stiff as Emily, but once confined in a buried box, her distress is palpable and her resourcefulness credible. Evans holds his own, doing most of the work as the police investigator, and proves he has more personality than just looking like a Sam Worthington type.

Though excelling in its aesthetically sumptuous design, "The Raven" might've made a better film were the screenplay more developed and less rushed. Poe was such an interesting figure that more focus on him as a person in his final days might've lifted the whodunit stuff out of the perfunctory. While Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" movies revised Arthur Conan Doyle's egghead sleuth's adventures into hollow but slickly diverting action pics, "The Raven" remains faithful to the tone of Poe's fictitious tales, while reenvisioning his life and spinning a gripping-enough tale out of the artist's control. Quoth this critic, "Watchable!"

Grade: B - 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

DVD Review: Suspenseful "Enter Nowhere" not bad

Enter Nowhere (2012)
90 min., rated R.
If "The Cabin in the Woods" didn't already exist and effectively prosper as more than just a hackneyed kids-in-the-woods horror flick, "Enter Nowhere" would be called "The Cabin in the Woods." Its ambitions aren't as high, but there's no point to compare. Based on the somewhat misleading trailer and being picked up by horror-themed Lionsgate Films, this indie mystery seems to have nothing new to offer (with glimpses of a knife and a hammer) like it's a spooky version of James Mangold's "Identity" in the woods. However, once it actually unfolds, "Enter Nowhere" is more of an existential "Twilight Zone."

In the film's opening, Jody (Sara Paxton), a spiky rebel, and her boyfriend Kevin (Christopher Denham) rob a convenience store. Thereafter, after her car has run out of gas and her husband has gone off to get help, Samantha (Katherine Waterston) is shaken, walking through the woods and stumbling upon a tiny ramshackle cabin with some food and a busted ham radio. She comes into contact with the good-looking Tom (Scott Eastwood), who's stranded from a car accident and has been squatting in the cabin for a few days. The next day, Jody shows up passed out in front of the cabin, and when she comes to, all three realize they're in a predicament: the woods are endless and take them in circles. What do these people have in common, and what could possibly be going on?

First-time director Jack Heller, working from a screenplay by Shawn Christensen and Jason Dolan, keeps us off-balance. Gradually, Jody and Sam are the first to realize something is amiss, but we're just as confused as them, and that's where the suspense comes in. The stakes heighten when one thinks they are in Wisconsin and another thinks they're just two hours from New Hampshire. Divulging more clues would spoil the fun. Throughout, fun movie references are dropped, almost as hints, to 1972's film "Deliverance," Michael Myers, and the video game Pac Man. Once the filmmakers start explaining their central mystery, we know things could go one of two ways. Without it feeling stretched thin, the story reaches a conclusion that's logical but obvious. 

The performances from the young actors are spotty, until everything begins to make sense and we understand who these characters are. Broadening her horizons and coming a long way since 2006's "Aquamarine," Paxton (just seen in "The Innkeepers") is the closest to a known thespian and the film's standout. But Eastwood (Clint's son) and Waterston (Sam's daughter) are capable enough. Technical credits are also strong, with Tom Harting's cinematography adding atmosphere and Darren Morze's creepy score accompanied by Stellastarr*'s upbeat "My Coco." The only real flaw comes in the finale, where some of the effects show off the film's budgetary constraints.

Amidst all the direct-to-video junk out there, "Enter Nowhere" will probably get lost in the shuffle, but it deserves more of a chance. It might be flawed, but overall, this is a nifty, not-bad little item.

Grade: B -

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray Review: "The Wicker Tree" not amusing, not shocking, not anything

The Wicker Tree (2012) 
96 min., rated R.
"The Wicker Tree," writer-director Robin Hardy's belated follow-up to his chillingly strange 1973 cult film "The Wicker Man," is reportedly a tongue-in-cheek black comedy. And yet, it's not amusing, nor is it disturbing or shocking even as a horror film. In fact, it's not much of anything. Sluggish and even less fun than the head-scratching, unintentionally funny 2006 remake with Nicolas Cage, "The Wicker Tree" only succeeds as amateurish and just plain curious hogwash. In retrospect, Cage prancing around in a bear costume and cold-cocking women had its campy pleasures.

Sweet-as-nectar pop star/born again Christian Beth Boothby (Brittania Nicol) and her cowboy fiancee Steve (Henry Garrett) are not-so-bright Dallas missionaries that leave for Tressock, Scotland, to spread the word of God to the "heathens." The two are welcomed by the rich Sir Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish) and his wife Delia (Jacqueline Leonardas), luring these nitwits into their Celtic cult. Asked to join the residents' upcoming May Day celebration, Beth and Steve will soon become "the Queen" and her "Laddie" as a pagan ritual to worship an ancient goddess.

Nicol and Garrett, both unknowns, are appropriately guileless and painfully earnest but wooden as the trees. We're way ahead of Beth and Steve, who are bland and not very likable. They're both sinners, but pride themselves on being redeemers; the Tressock folks can't sacrifice these ninnies fast enough. Honeysuckle Weeks (great name) has some kooky moments as the horse-riding Lolly, including a sex scene with subtitles. Credited as "Old Man," Christopher Lee (who memorably played Lord Summerisle in the first film) has a brief, worthless cameo in a flashback.

Based on Hardy's 2006 novel "Cowboys for Christ," the film begins as a wonky satire of hypocritical, evangelical Christianity in the form of these naïve Americans versus Paganism in the form of the Scottish villagers. Then once its story actually gets going and hopefully leads to the only logical conclusion, the only suspense comes in how Beth and Steve will be sacrificed. All the menacing stuff is confined to the last half-hour with nary a standout moment, and it's too bad a key cannibalistic orgy is muffed by feeling like an edited TV version. 

What Robin Hardy was going for isn't quite clear. If he wanted "The Wicker Tree" to be a droll take on the eroticism and paganism that he already took on thirty-nine years ago, the results are muddled and ineffective. While Hardy would probably burn anyone that brought comparisons to this pseudo-remake/sequel to his 1973 original, this modern-day version is merely a joke. "Kill List," a much more disturbing, well-acted, and well-written film that dove into "Wicker Man" territory, was released earlier this year and it's actually worth your while.

Grade:  D  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray Reviews: "Contraband" and "Pariah"

Contraband (2012)
109 min., rated R.
You've seen the proverbial "one last job" movie dozens of times before under different titles. For a big-studio release in Januaryya know, the disreputable dumping month where movies go to die"Contraband" is an overly familiar genre programmer, but more slick and entertaining than it has any business being if one's expectations are low. Nearly recommending mediocrity sounds like faint praise, but just don't expect the film to be about anything more than what it's about. 

Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg) is a retired smuggler who's now on the straight-and-arrow. He's abandoned the crime life to settle down with his wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale), and their two sons in Algiers, New Orleans, while running his own alarm-system business. But he's forced back into action when his screw-up brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), fumbles a drug deal and is then hospitalized. A shipment of drugs has been dumped rather than delivered to tattooed gangster Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi). Chris doesn't want to do another run, but it's family. So he and his team of confederate pros, including Chris's newlywedded right-hand man Danny (Lukas Haas), board a cargo ship to Panama City and plan to smuggle a palate of counterfeit bills back into the states to pay back Briggs. Kate and the boys are left in the hands of his pal Sebastian (Ben Foster), and that's where Briggs gets his revenge. Everything that could go wrong does.

Director Baltasar Kormákur efficiently assumes the helm for this U.S. remake of a 2008 Icelandic thriller, "Reykajavik-Rotterdam" (which starred Kormákur). He creates a gritty, rough-edged world that extracts the script's absurdity and diverts from some of the familiarity. Like so many action thrillers in this day and age, this one is mostly shot with a hand-held style by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who won an Oscar for 2008's "The Hurt Locker") but never incoherently. The first half-hour makes for a slow setup, but between the wrenches in Chris's elaborate caper and Chris's family being put into jeopardy, the stakes keep rising. In the film's midsection, the robbery on the ship generates some suspense, and the scenes where Chris and Danny try beating the clock in an armored car are excitingly staged and fun to watch. Their theft of a Jackson Pollock painting, which none of the thieves recognize except as "a cloth with oil smears," is an amusing touch. Some of the family-in-peril stuff with Kate constantly being terrorized and smacked around verges on dreary exploitation, but it still escalates with tension.

Working from a screenplay by tyro writer Aaron Guzikowski, an ensemble this solid and talented is better than the film deserves. Wahlberg has given some terrific performances in the past, starting with 1997's "Boogie Nights" and continuing with 2006's "The Departed." Then he did some interestingly offbeat work in 2004's "I Heart Huckabees," but gave a wooden, unintentionally funny performance in 2008's "The Happening." Here, he's sleepwalking, performing with his usual blue-collar swagger. Finding his niche in playing wound-up loose cannons, a greasy, scarily over-the-top Ribisi skeezes up his role of Briggs as much as possible. It's a mannered performance, but his weaselly characters are always a hoot to watch. Character actor Foster always livens up standard material, here playing the conflicted Sebastian. J.K. Simmons plays it amusingly straight as a crusty sea captain of the ship Chris's convict father (William Lucking) used to run contraband. Beckinsale tries her best with the most thankless role of Concerned Wife, which is simply a plot device as Kate becomes the pawn in the heavy's schemes.

Though the plotting gets a little convoluted and throws in a few twists you'll see coming, "Contraband" remains pretty absorbing. There's little character beyond the surface, although a few are a tiny bit more varied than mere shady types. Part of the script's problem is inherent with the action genre, in which there are few characters to root for: Everyone's so sleazy, unpleasant, and involved with shady dealings that even Chris walks a thin line between family man and smuggler.

With it being a month of the doldrums, "Contraband" is typical "does what it sets out to do" fare that should do for the start of the year, even if you forget about it by February. It's neither here nor there, but it's otherwise decent when delivering no-frills B-movie thrills.

Grade: C +

Pariah (2011)
86 min., rated R.
2011 must be the year of impressive directorial debuts, what with Joe Cornish's "Attack the Block," J.C. Chandor's "Margin Call," Evan Glodell's "Bellflower," and Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene," just to name a few. When the world of cinema sees the arrival of a fresh, singular voice, it's exciting to witness. While coming-of-age films are commonplace by now, "Pariah" is writer-director Dee Rees' coming-of-age/coming-out film about the coming-out of an African American lesbian. If more audiences actually caught sight of Rees's semi-biographical film, an expansion of her 2007 short, it might've found space on more Best of 2011 lists and received even more recognition. Her work ensures that there's a dearth of passion in Hollywood while independent filmmaking is still very much alive and doesn't always have to be labeled "quirky," "amateurish," and "boring."

Alike (Adepero Oduye), going by "Lee," is a tomboyish 17-year-old high school junior living in a Brooklyn neighborhood. She's a good student, but struggles with her closeted sexuality at school and at home. When we first find Alike, the virgin is shyly watching a woman sliding down a pole at a club. Her butch best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), is introducing Alike to new experiences. Once leaving the club, Alike takes off her androgynous AG-lesbian (aggressive) clothes, untucks her hair from underneath a baseball cap and du-rag, and puts her rings back in her ears. We can tell she's changing to put on her front at home. The way she dresses leaving for school and at school is different: Every morning in a bathroom stall, she'll change into the clothes that make her feel like herself. Her parents, uptight Audrey (Kim Wayans) and police officer Arthur (Charles Parnell), are conservative and both have an inkling about their daughter's sexual orientation but don't want to believe it, especially religious Audrey. Not thinking too highly of Laura and her influence, Audrey encourages Alike to befriend her co-worker's more respectable daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis), who attends the same school. Though they force their hang-out time to please their mothers at first, Alike and Bina realize they share the same taste in music and develop a friendship.

Raw, stirring, and independent-minded, "Pariah" radiates clear-eyed intelligence, sensitivity, and passion. It only looks like this year's "Precious" on the surface. While that terrific film was gut-wrenching and unshakable, this one is more subtle and pretty terrific on its own. Rees's script doesn't meander as much as it captures every facet of Alike's life, at home, at school, and in social situations. A subplot involving Dad arguing with Audrey and "working a lot" actually punctuates Alike's fear of coming out to her parents. The message of "Pariah" is plainly "be yourself." What the film says isn't revolutionary, but Alike's journey is an intimate, affecting, and ultimately uplifting one. The character's final passages from her poetic journal could feel too obvious and overt to illustrate the film's point, but she says just enough. None of it feels melodramatic, every note rings true, and the story thankfully doesn't overpack itself within a compact 86 minutes.

First and foremost, the emotional center of "Pariah" is Adepero Oduye. She's open, sympathetic, and authentic as Alike, a young woman that deserves to free her true spirit. (Interesting fact: You would never believe the actress playing a teenager is actually 33 years old.) Her character is never just a pawn in selling the filmmaker's message, but a fully fleshed-out person who has a talent with writing poetry and just wants to free herself from her shell and show her individuality. And the film is very matter-of-fact about this pariah's sexuality. The character never questions why she doesn't like boys; she likes girls, the end.

Pernell Walker is excellent as Laura, fully comfortable with her public image but struggling at home as she keeps a job to pay all the bills for her and her sister's apartment. She has a tough exterior but full of sensitivity. Aasha Davis is sweet and natural as Bina, whose character goes in unexpected directions. Among the sound performances across the board, Kim Wayans (the sister to the You-Know-Who Brothers) is also quite strong as Alike's closed-minded mother who suffers from some pain of her own. She tries buying more feminine dresses for her daughter and tells her that "God doesn't make mistakes." The character's reactions could've toppled into hyper-religious caricature, but Wayans's performance is controlled, nuanced, and even sympathetic. 

A talented filmmaker on the rise, Rees has clearly put thought into her aesthetics, using her camera and lighting as a visual language for the context of the narrative. We peer into Alike's day-to-day life like a fly on the wall. Before Alike comes into her own, she's shot in small spaces with low, stylized lighting, until the shots become wider and the lighting brighter. The grittiness of the film's look also feels germane to the story and the Brooklyn setting rather than just heightening its indie credentials.

There is something to be said for movies that encourage teenswhether black or white, male or female, gay or straight—to feel comfortable in their own skin. And the world could use more films like "Pariah." With this story, audiences will realize the challenges and fears kids face in coming out of the closet. Far from a glossy, trite after-school special or eat-your-vegetables cinema, here's a universal example that specifically never feels short of real and relatable.

Grade: A 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Tepid "Lucky One" soggier than a wet T-shirt

The Lucky One (2012)
101 min., rated PG-13.

"The Lucky One" is the seventh adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, and it's neither the best nor the worst in his canon of treacly sudsers and tragic weepies. These films lay their intentions on the table without shame: they want to romance us and have our hankies soaked before the end credits start rolling. In a way, Sparks' stories are comfort food because we know what we're going to get. Sun-dappled locale, check. A man and woman (either young or old will apply) gazing into each other's eyes, check. An 11th-hour tragedy, check. However, even a modicum of creativity is required when a formula is just repackaged. With "The Lucky One," luck has run out for Sparks this time as his recipe has grown soggy, long in the tooth, and hopelessly predictable. If the film were a maple tree, you could tap it for all the syrup and make waffles for everyone! 

Serving his first tour in Iraq, Marine soldier Logan (Zac Efron) finds a photo of a beautiful, blonde woman. Picking it up in the rubble actually saves him from a blast that few soldiers survive. Finding no owner of the picture, Logan calls her his "guardian angel." Eight months later after his third tour, he returns to his sister's home in Colorado, but can't shake his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (He jumps at the loud sounds of shoot 'em up video games and actually chokes his ignorant nephew who takes him off guard in waking him up.) Tracing the woman in the picture to Hamden, Louisiana, Logan packs up, with his well-trained German Shepherd in tow, and travels on foot to pay his debt. The woman's name is Beth Green (Taylor Schilling), a single mom and part-time teacher working at a dog kennel with her nana, Ellie (Blythe Danner). Logan tries telling her why he really walked all this way, but she thinks he's applying for the kennel's "Help Wanted" ad. After getting the job, he bonds with Beth's son, Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart), and bumps heads with her jealous, bullying ex-husband, Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), also the local police deputy. Then Beth starts falling for Logan with the burning passion of a thousand suns, but will his secret tear them apart? Cue The Fake Break-up.

Having crafted emotional pictures such as 1996's Oscar-nominated "Shine" and 2001's "Hearts in Atlantis," director Scott Hicks can only do so much. He's made sure the film is consistently bathed in warm, golden light from the heavens and that Alar Kivilo's gorgeous cinematography makes us want to book a vacation to Louisiana for some homemade jambalaya. But it's all in the storytelling, and screenwriter Will Fetters (2010's "Remember Me") stringently adheres to a Harlequin romance formula in adapting Sparks' novel. Earnest sentiment is fine, but here, the plot complications are clichés and the dramatic tension is eye-rollingly forced. When Logan and Beth aren't swooning over each other and making whoopee in Logan's shack, the film seems to only exist for its contrived plot mechanics and melodrama. On more than a few occasions, Logan tries coming clean to Beth about the photo, but it doesn't come out until right before The Tragic Climax. So we have a story supposedly about fate and destiny that's stretched thin because its lead character won't communicate and then solely relies on said climax to wrap everything up. When a literal storm hits, you can bet that something tragic will happen. The Keith caricature nearly sinks the whole film. No fault of Ferguson, who does his job of playing suspect and loathsome with a pantomime of glaring looks. But the actor might as well be wearing a sign, reading "Villain," and given a mustache to twirl. He's a stock obstacle for Logan and Beth. Though Keith is established as the angry son of a wealthy politician with high expectations, and there's an attempt in a church-set scene to give him some sense of humanity, the jealousy gets turned right back on and he remains a bully. There's no shading or grey area. White is good and black is bad, and that's just not that interesting. 

Like fellow heartthrob Channing Tatum proving he was more than a G.I. Joe, Efron is no longer that golden boy from "High School Musical." He's a hunky romance-novel leading man whose Logan reads philosophy, plays beautiful hymns on the piano, and makes a good chess competitor. While Logan seems like a pretty handy, well-rounded guy that you'd be lucky to have around the house (and could gawk at from the window as he's lifting heavy bags of dog food), there's no real character arc that makes the 101 minutes terribly worthwhile. Relative newcomer Schilling (from last year's bomb "Atlas Shrugged") is photogenic and lovely, and does some nice work as Beth. She's spunky and sympathetic enough as a single parent dealing with her own grief that revisits when Logan rolls in. Though restrained for its PG-13 rating, Logan and Beth's amorous romantic tryst in the shower is steamy and sexy, and the actors look good in wet clothes that don't stay on for long. They have some chemistry, but nothing more than the physical kind. Danner is always a welcome presence, here as Beth's spry grandma, and Stewart is cute without all the kid-actor mugging as Beth's self-conscious son.

There has been exactly one effective screen adaptation from Sparks' material, and that's 2004's unabashedly romantic and old-fashioned "The Notebook." Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams actually cooked up palpable fireworks and we cared about their story, which didn't always travel in expected directions. A few more adaptations were watchable (2002's "A Walk to Remember" and 2010's "The Last Song"), and the rest largely forgettable and mediocre schmaltz-fests (1999's "Message in a Bottle," 2008's "Nights in Rodanthe," and 2010's "Dear John"). Generic enough that it feels like an assembly-line product, "The Lucky One" can be lumped into the latter group. It's an easy sit that's even easier to forget, but not deserving of vehement hatred either.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray Reviews: "Shame," "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," and "The Divide"

Shame (2011)
101 min., rated NC-17.
Sex has always been a taboo in films, even more so than violence. The MPAA will give the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies R-ratings without batting an eye, but "Shame" bears the scarlet letter of an NC-17. The fuss is unwarranted because it courageously earns it. Though the film is about sex and features enough of it, artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen never exploits the content for cheap titillation but maturely and unflinchingly depicts it as a vice and addiction. Not since David Cronenberg's "Crash" has sex been portrayed in such a daringly unsexy manner.

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) has the life: he is handsome and well-dressed, works as a New York City financial exec, and lives in a chic West 31st Street apartment. And he's a sex addict. Brandon hires prostitutes, undresses women with his eyes on the subway, and dirties up his hard drive at work with porn, taking a break to compulsively masturbate in the public restroom. Carpal Tunnel is the least of his worries. Then his equally damaged sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), arrives unannounced and asks to stay with him. She works as a nightclub singer, but living within such close quarters, Brandon feels trapped like his own blood is weighing on his private life.

Co-written by Abi Morgan and director McQueen (2008's "Hunger," which also starred Fassbender in misery), the film never judges Brandon or Sissy. However, there's the feeling that the brother-sister relationship is more repressed on the page than it should be. Are they blocking out an abusive childhood in New Jersey? Is incest involved? We can ponder, but the film doesn't give it up. It's a story that can't possibly have an end or spell everything out with easy answers, but a little less ambiguity in certain areas might have enriched the emotional component and given us more of an understanding. Though the root of the problem is vague, Brandon's addiction is unsparingly depicted through his day-to-day life. 

McQueen might be a show-off, but he's an artful show-off. Assisted by Sean Bobbitt's clean, sharp cinematography and Harry Escott's mournfully haunting music score, McQueen's virtuosity extends to a long, unbroken tracking shot along the streets of New York as Brandon goes for a late-night jog. It's a filmmaker's indulgence but an impressive one that has narrative context. Another excellent scene, where the camera very slowly inches in and doesn't cut, has Brandon and his recently separated co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), on a dinner date. 

"Shame" showcases a lot of Fassbender. We don't just see the actor physically naked, but emotionally naked as well. This is a fearless, fascinating performance that deserves recognition. Fassbender shows us Brandon's self-loathing and uncontrollable urges that lead to self-destruction. He's trapped by his own weakness and can't connect with another person unless it involves sex. When he tries to consummate his relationship with Marianne, it goes nowhere because he might actually care about her. By the end, when you think Brandon might continue to be on the prowl, his facial expression is numb. As Sissy, Mulligan is far from the demure women the actress has played in "An Education" and "Never Let Me Go," and she's fully convincing and heartbreaking in the part. Her slow, sad rendition of "New York, New York" literally brings a tear to Brandon's eye, and on an even deeper level it feels like an anthem of broken dreams. 

Neither character is given a lot of backstory, but Brandon is deeply troubled living a seemingly ordinary life on the surface. Sissy is also very much flawed herself, but tries to clean up her new life and help her brother when she's not pushing his buttons. She's a burden to Brandon, but as she tellingly puts it, "We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place." Fassbender and Mulligan create a history between siblings, even if their "bad place" is never fully explained, and it feels painfully real.
As a character study, "Shame" is ambiguous when it should be more insightful. It shows us a lot and tells us only a little with very few words. If it weren't for Fassbender's brave depiction of a tortured soul festered by his addiction, the film might be shallow. With him, this blistering, draining film stays with you like an STD.


Grade: A -

The Divide (2012)
122 min., rated R.

The latest in a neverending cycle of nuclear-holocaust/post-apocalyptic flicks, "The Divide," is an unrelenting nasty and something of an interesting failure. Having brought us 2007's empty Hollywood junk "Hitman" and 2007's brutal French torture-porn "Frontier(s)," French director Xavier Gens sure knows how to turn on a blood shower as well as Eli Roth. The man is no hack, but beyond a gripping scenario that raises the stakes and sustains a palpable intensity, it's a bad sign when you just want to shout, "Can't we all just get along?" and then take a hammer to every character on screen.

After a nuclear bomb drops and destroys the outside world, a group of tenants race down to the basement bomb shelter of their apartment building. There's Eva (Lauren German) and her emasculated boyfriend Sam (Iván González); Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette) and her daughter Wendi (Abbey Thickson); brothers Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) and Adrien (Ashton Holmes), who are as different as oil and water; Josh's punk buddy Bobby (Michael Eklund); and security guard Delvin (Courtney B. Vance). The super, Mickey (Michael Biehn), seals the door to the bunker with duct tape, forbidding anyone from opening it and exposing them to a lethal radiation dust. He makes it clear that he's in charge, having prepared a stockpile of canned food and water, blankets, and weapons but also holding out on the group with a private room. Then once some armed soldiers in biohazard suits break in, attacking the group and kidnapping Wendi, everyone slowly turns on one another and slip into degrading, violent struggles for power. Needless to say, things get Lord of the Flies, and as these survivors grow more feral and even less civilized, the dead and dying are the lucky ones.

Grim, depraved, and with more human degradation than you can shake a stick at, "The Divide" still draws us in from Gens knowing how to make an audience squirm. Of the few effective scenes, there is one notably tense sequence, where Josh puts on one of the biohazard suits and strays out to the other side, which has been sealed off with a tunnel. The sound design so carefully focuses on the character's breathing. Otherwise, Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean's screenplay paints the characterizations in broad strokes and amounts to people attacking their end-of-the-world roommates in cruel, sadistic, and base ways, shaving their heads, and literally barking like dogs. The character dynamics start as human nature deteriorating, until you can just see the director egging his cast on to cut off fingers and chop bodies into pieces. 

Given that the actors ran their own asylum with some ad-libbing, the performances are credibly overwrought. German has Tough Final Girl in her veins, a role that was immediately established for her when she snipped off Roger Bart's manhood in 2007's "Hostel: Part II." Her Eva has the most compassion in these dire times and uses self-preservation to stay alive, but why are her and Sam so distant? As the cavemen-like alliance, Ventimiglia and Eklund put their lean bodies to frightening use, chewing the scenery to shreds and then spitting it out. On the distaff side, Arquette takes one for the team in a bleary, fearless act of skin-baring and naked emotion. She goes through the wringer as the benumbed Marilyn and becomes a 24-hour play thing for the scummy men.

Being a dingy film about a nuclear holocaust, it's as much of a bummer as "The Road" and "Melancholia." It disturbs, but to what end? It isn't fueled with much feeling or empathy for any of its characters. We're given musical cues to manipulate our emotions, but they aren't much use. As pleasant as eating can after can of baked beans in a cockroach-infested basement, the experience becomes awfully repetitive and unpleasant. In the end, a character escapes the basement through a septic tank. Sitting through the last hour of "The Divide" starts to feel like wading through that same waste excretion.

Grade: C -