Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Bernie" an unusually amusing, touching true-crime story

Bernie (2012)
104 min., rated PG-13.
As "Bernie" opens, a title card informs that "what you're fixin' to see is…a true story," referring to a 1998 article in the Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth. Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede of Carthage, Texas was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent in the back four times and then storing her body in a freezer for nine months. Based on Jack Black's portrayal, Bernie might be the most endearing murderer that ever lived. And under the direction of Texas-born writer-director Richard Linklater (who co-wrote the script with journalist Hollandsworth), "Bernie" almost feels like a dark Coen brothers story inside of a bubbly Christopher Guest mockumentary. Is it a black comedy? A true-crime yarn? A satire? A character study? Or a tragic love story? It's all of the above and yet none of them at all. Without pigeonholing itself into some definite box, the film is a most unusual, darkly amusing, and low-key oddity.

Everyone is drawn to Bernie (Jack Black), a sweet penguin of a man, in the small East Texas town, especially the "DOLs" (dear old ladies). An assistant funeral director whose meticulous work on the bodies has the town regarding him as a "magician," he does other good work around Carthage, including singing in the church choir, reading local obituaries on the radio, directing local musicals, and giving attention to the grieving old ladies who have lost their husbands. A wealthy widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), is the town nag, estranged from her sister and even her own children, but she softens her personality as Bernie becomes her faithful companion, taking her to meals and going on expensive vacations. But once her jealousy and slave-driving demands become too much for Bernie, the sweetheart just snaps. For the next nine months, Bernie keeps up the excuses, telling her stock broker she's sick or unable to come to the phone, until her disinherited family and relentless District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) suspect foul play.

From the point-of-view of the Carthage townsfolk, "Bernie" tells its stranger-than-fiction story through documentary-style testimonials and a dramatization of Bernie and Marjorie's companionship. The interviews help us believe the cumulative fondness for Bernie. There's some speculation on whether or not the Bernie is a homosexual, as he was effeminate and never romantically involved with any woman including Marjorie. But despite being "a little light in his loafers," Bernie is such a much-loved nice guy that he couldn't possibly be demonized for an ugly crime, especially one concerning a much-hated woman that nobody would mind putting a pillow over her face ("There are people in town that woulda shot her for five dollars"). One woman even states that Bernie only shot Marjorie four times, not five, as if that makes him less guilty. These colorful, gossipy Texans ground the film in reality and give it a small-town flavor. Both real Texas residents and acting professionals (one being McConaughey's mother Kay in a leopard blouse), they all feel close to home, and through them, Linklater's affection for Texas shows.
Jack Black can be a hit-and-miss comedy performer, either making one laugh or grating on the nerves. Maybe it's from reteaming with Linklater after 2003's "School of Rock," but Black dials back all the idiotic shtick, stops just short of caricature, and really plays an actual character in his most complex dramatic performance. From the funny opening where he demonstrates the cosmetization of corpses (i.e. superglue is used to keep the eyes shut and form the mouth into a smile), we can tell Bernie finds joy in his work and overall life. And even after committing the murder, he hasn't an iota of greed in his body. With his trim mustache and trousers buttoned up above his navel, Black creates an irresistibly gentle and sympathetic Bernie that's never judged by the majority of characters or the filmmakers. Shirley MacLaine gets to have fun playing a mean, ornery old bat. Even if Marjorie is more underwritten than she could've been, the actress makes her enough of a human being, with small moments of warmth when she's with Bernie. In the end, you still side with Bernie. Linklater even gets excellent work out of Matthew McConaughey, prone to playing slick lawyers or just taking his shirt off to play smarmy leading men in lame romantic comedies. Here, he's quite funny as Danny Buck who sees Bernie as an actor fooling all of Carthage.

"Bernie" never pretends to be a murder mystery. We know who did it, but Linklater is more cagey about the "why." Like in real life, there are no black-and-white answers. There's a certain grey area to why Bernie killed his companion; he admits to his crime in earnest but even admits to not knowing why. Linklater takes the more shrewdly intriguing approach, blurring the line between documentary and dramatization. Even if everything is bigger in Texas, "Bernie" is a small, entertaining gem.

Grade: B +

Saturday, May 26, 2012

"Chernobyl Diaries" radiates an air of creepiness

Chernobyl Diaries (2012)
90 min., rated R.
If you want originality in a horror film, hop in a time machine and travel back to 1999 when "The Blair Witch Project" was all the rage and the seed of many stripped-down "found-footage" novelties. Instead, "Chernobyl Diaries" takes the horror genre's rote cabin-in-the-woods setup, throws out the cabin, and adds the abandoned town of a tragic radiation accident. As producer Oren Peli has proven with his own "Paranormal Activity," the unknown is always frightening, as long as it's executed right, and it's all about location, location, location. Here, visual effects supervisor Brad Parker makes his confident directorial debut, working from a script written by Peli, Shane van Dyke and Carey van Dyke. Even if it's not groundbreaking as pick-'em-off-one-by-one pics go, "Chernobyl Diaries" is effectively creepy, smartly employing the power of suggestion for its freak-out jolts rather than explaining everything with a gored-up bow.

Touring through Europe, Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and their friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) end up in Kiev, Ukraine to visit Chris' smart-assy older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). The plan is to go to Moscow, so Chris can propose to Natalie, but Paul has a "better idea." For some "extreme tourism," he finds tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) to take them to the Ukrainian town of Prypiat that was radioactively contaminated and thus abandoned for twenty-five years after the neighboring Chernobyl Plant's nuclear reactor exploded. Tagging along with the four is a backpacking couple of hippies, the Australian Michael (Nathan Phillips) and the Norwegian Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). Uri promises the radiation levels are low enough that they'll be safe for their two-hour tour without being exposed to the radioactive air, but as they pull in, the guards won't let them through. No problem, Yuri knows another way. "Nature has reclaimed its natural home," Uri tells them, but they aren't alone when the group gets ready to leave and find the van's wires have been chewed. The ruins of Pripyat turn out to be like a roach motel: the stranded young tourists won't be checking out.

The way the film starts is much more "Hostel" than "Paranormal Activity," but whereas that xenophobia-concerned gorefest got its jollies off on graphically spewing body parts, "Chernobyl Diaries" is much more restrained in what it shows. The introduction of the characters is filmed in shaky-cam P.O.V. and cued to Supergrass' "Alright," a poppy tune that won't be playing by the film's end. To the film's betterment, the found-footage aesthetics are soon dropped, with the exception of characters finding two missing characters' Smart phone video, but the hand-held camerawork still give us a "you-are-there" reality. After a nicely deliberate first act, and once one of the friends gets injured by an unknown beastie, some of them go looking for Uri and anything to help them get out of dodge. This is where director Brad Parker goes to town, relying on the complete silence of the eerie town and then finding ways to throw audiences into a funhouse of jolts, taut suspense, and on-edge immediacy. A sneaky bear attack takes us off guard. A set-piece in a kitchen is breathlessly tense, recalling the velociraptor attack in "Jurassic Park." A short girl-like figure appears behind the group in the darkness. And later, a pack of heavy-breathing figures chase them throughout the dark corridors of the power plant.

After the transcendent "Cabin in the Woods," we can't be so greedy in wanting characters that are too smart. Obviously if it weren't for the dumb kids in "Chernobyl Diaries," we'd have no movie. When Uri ignores the guards' stern warnings, the characters at least regret taking the tour. And once stranded, it's understandable that these characters have to take risks and make plausibly less-than-wise decisions to stay alive, calling for them to run through dank, spooky passageways. At least they don't insult our intelligence and go have sex or get high, as horror-movie dummies tend to do. It also helps that Chris, Natalie, Amanda, and Paul are a likable bunch from the start, all naturally acted (or improvised?) by a charismatic cast, especially chipmunk-cheeked pop-music star McCartney and Sadowski. Credit should also go to the slightly ominous Diatchenko, who's perfect as the Worst Tour Guide alive.

Somewhat reminding of the formerly radioactive desert locale from the 2006 remake of "The Hills Have Eyes," the spooky post-apocalyptic landscape of a ghost town is ripe for frights. The fact that director Parker shot most of it on-site in Prypiat even further adds to the film's goal of getting audiences to squirm. Though Peli and his co-writers give us a thankfully uncompromising nightmare, they can't really figure out a resolution, settling for an obvious anticlimax. And the introduction of a ferris wheel no longer in operation feels like a wasted opportunity. Bones to pick aside, "Chernobyl Diaries" may be a puppet-mastered exercise, but it works like a charm powered by fear. Cancel 'backpacking through Ukraine' off the list.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Not without fun moments, "Men in Black III" mostly feels like yesterday's news

Men in Black III (2012)
103 min., rated PG-13.
In case your mind feels neuralized from ten years ago, "Men in Black III" is a sequel to, yes, 2002's "Men in Black II," a sequel that you'll remember felt like a briskly enjoyable albeit slightly lazy retread to 1997's zippy, funny, and entertaining "Men in Black." After fifteen years, nobody was really clamoring for a third edition, which suffered an unfinished screenplay during shooting and other behind-the-scenes problems. However, returning director Barry Sonnenfeld still knows how to entertain at a fast pace and makes an attempt to delve deeper into the relationship of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones' memorable alien-busting odd couple. The existence of "Men in Black III" feels tired, like yesterday's news, but most of the time delivers on what audiences came for in the first place.

Forty years after Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) apprehended Boris The Animal (Jermaine Clement) at Cape Canaveral and severed his left arm, the intergalactic nasty has been locked up in the Lunar Max prison on the Moon. After busting out, Boris plans to go back in time to 1969, hoping to kill K and take back his appendage. Meanwhile on Earth, the top-secret corps' bickering partners Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K have spent fourteen years zapping extraterrestrial scum in New York City. The next day at work, after the partners have "a lovers' squabble," J reports to work and finds that K no longer exists. So J must time jump back to the "make love, not war" era of 1969 to stop Boris from killing K, and maybe safeguard the entire planet from another alien invasion before the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

Things do indeed kick off to a divertingly exuberant start, beginning with the mischievous score of the one and only Danny Elfman and the nifty fluidity of director Sonnenfeld's camera. The prison-break prologue opens with Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger, as Boris' vixen human girlfriend, delivering a jiggly cake to the imprisoned monster. Makeup wizard Rick Baker's eye-popping, fantastically icky monsters provide the most pleasure, especially a giddy alien attack in a Chinese restaurant, where even the food is from another planet. 

Whereas the 1997 original cleverly balanced exciting sci-fi thrills and snappy comedy, "Men in Black III" offers more bright action than fresh comedy. Fortunately getting mileage out of the time-travel angle, this sequel is scattered with some fun moments. A sequence atop the Chrysler Building, where J must take the plunge to "time jump" into 1969 and dives through the prehistoric times to the stock market crash, is a dizzying visual blast of Looney Tunes energy. Though hardly integral to the plot, J and the younger K take a trip to Andy Warhol's Factory and run into the pop-art icon himself, played by a very funny Bill Hader. The fellow MIB agent disguised as Warhol whines about having to paint bananas and soup cans. It's easily the film's most clever comedic highlight. The NASA moon launch also comes into play for climactic showdown with Boris, leading to an unexpectedly touching revelation that gives reason to why J and K were destined to be partners and why K is such a sourpuss. 

Smith and Jones are back in the shades and suits, but can't seem to recapture their inspired rapport of yore. The bickering shtick inevitably feels pretty obligatory here. Of course, Smith can still crack wise in his sleep with all that superstar charisma, making a line reading more amusing and energetic than it might read on paper, but Jones is just a drag and hasn't aged too well. (Words couldn't be more accurate when J bemoans to K, "I'm getting too old for this.") Luckily, Jones checks out early (good riddance!) and Josh Brolin takes over as Agent K. If anyone brings anything fresh to the party, it's Brolin, who's spot-on channeling Jones' Texas drawl, his gravelly cadence, and that taciturn demeanor. Their break from stopping Boris to eat pie is particularly amusing. Mimicry or not, Brolin's performance is uncanny. The other major bright spot is Michael Stuhlbarg (who carried his first lead film role in the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man") as an alien named Griffin. Dressed in a winter pom-pom hat and parka, he's a blue-eyed, fast-talking savant who's cursed with the gift of predicting every possible future, including a crucial game for the New York Mets and the fate of the men in black. Looking a bit like Robin Williams, the actor creates a charming character.

Vincent D'Onofrio's farmer-turned-cockroach alien still ranks as the creepiest and funniest Big Bad E.T. that the franchise has seen. Clement (of HBO's "The Flight of the Conchords") is an eccentric hoot as always, frequently reminding people to drop "The Animal" in his name, but he's barely menacing beyond his icky makeup transformation (sunken-in goggles for eyes and spidery pods splitting open from his palms). As for the chief take-over of Zed (Rip Torn) who gets a memorial, Emma Thompson plays Agent O in a bubble-flip wig and Alice Eve plays her younger counterpart. Nothing really comes of the O character, who can finish K's line about burnt coffee, and the O and K romantic subplot feels incomplete. 

This time, the script is credited to single screenwriter Etan Cohen ("Tropic Thunder"), but has the feeling of too many cooks in the kitchen. Where the film sets up a fish-out-of-water joke and squanders the payoff is how J, an African American man plunged into the Swinging Sixties, will be received in society. You might shudder to think that J asking "Is it 'cause I'm black?" to a couple of cops that pull him over really is the best anyone could come up with. Even some of the early dialogue involving Agent J hastily improvising lies to a 29-year-old version of K belongs in a lame episode of "Three's Company." The MIB headquarters' alien board is back but blink and you'll probably miss such familiar faces as Lady Gaga and Tim Burton. Also, a poster of Frank the Pug turns up, but the talking pooch is sorely missed this time around. 

On the level of mindless escapism, "Men in Black III" is passable, neither headache-inducing nor boring, but what a backhanded compliment in tepidly recommending a summer blockbuster. It's not quite a case of diminishing returns nor is it the quantum leap that'll spring these men in black back into relevance. But for the best of Agents J and K, go back to 1997.

Grade: C +

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Lightweight "Hysteria" has charming cast but doesn't arouse a Big O

Hysteria (2012) 
100 min., rated R.
Without being hysterical itself, "Hysteria" is a mirthfully randy take on the invention of the vibrator. As fun as that hook of a history lesson sounds, the film is alternately amusing and disappointingly slight, playing like a lightly farcical BBC version of "A Dangerous Method." The title refers to the turn of the 19th century's catch-all woman ailment, stemming from an overactive uterus. Director Tanya Wexler (with two low-budget pics under her belt) works from a screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer that takes the true history behind the invention of the "massager" and molds it into a perfunctory Victorian romantic-comedy.
London, 1880. Middle-class Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is an idealistic forward-thinker whose modern theories clash with the less-than-sterile medical practices (i.e. leeching) by doctors that believe germs to be "poppycock." Once he applies to be the assistant to Dr. Robert Dalrymple's (Jonathan Pryce) lucrative business in treating needy, "hysterical" women suffering from melancholia and anxiety by, uh, stimulating them, Mortimer gets the job. After witnessing Dalrymple's female patients receive pleasure, a light bulb goes off in Mortimer's head when fiddling with the latest invention of his friend, Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett): a vibrating, horse-feathered cleaning tool. Mortimer's a-ha moment spawns the creation of a portable massager for women, and cue all the eager female patients in the waiting room. Meanwhile, Dr. Dalrymple's angelic, demure daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones), finds it her duty to become Mortimer's arranged wife, while the other daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is a spunky, ahead-of-her-time firebrand and unlike any woman Mortimer has ever met. Which sister do you think the modern doc will end up romancing?

When it could have seemed rather skeevy, "Hysteria" is most fun when showing prudish society women experiencing "paroxysms" (the Big O) over the good doctor's newly patented sex toy. One woman sings opera out of joy and ecstasy. A lot of this stuff isn't much different from the safest of R-rated sex comedies out of Hollywood. At one point, instead of humping dogs, we get ducks. Then the script puts the vibrator aspect on the back burner (until the end credits) and wanders into courtroom-drama territory about feminist liberation. Overall, the dialogue is occasionally witty but nothing special, and the period production design of London is genteel.

None of this really escalates beyond the frothy and predictable, which is fine and dandy because the cast carries out the proceedings with enthusiasm and charm. Dancy and Gyllenhaal (sporting a strong British accent) are disarming leads, he a naif and she a pre-feminism rebel, but their unconvincing romance falls flat. Felicity Jones, a real find after her emotionally accessible turn in last year's "Like Crazy," is relegated to bland wallpaper here. Rupert Everett is fun and lively as the dandy trying to invent a feather duster, even if he's cast aside for much of the running time. Sheridan Smith is saucy as a minxy maid who becomes Mortimer's guinea pig. 

Standing just between coy and naughty, "Hysteria" has enough good vibrations (pun intended) to be a trifling, albeit jolly-good-fun, lark. But aside from the pleasures of watching its first-rate cast having fun, there's just not enough here to get hot and bothered about.

Grade: C +

Monday, May 21, 2012

Stripped-down "Entrance" burrows under your skin

Entrance (2012) 
83 min., not rated.
Writer-directors Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath refer to their film "Entrance" as mumblecore with stakes, and as such, it's a great piece of work. Micro-budgeted and stripped-down, these filmmakers' collaboration makes waiting worth it. For a couple of guys that made the move to Hollywood and worked all sorts of production jobs, "Entrance" stands as a calling card for filmmakers that know exactly what they're doing.
Suzy (Suziey Block) is going through the motions. She shares a cozy Los Angeles apartment—off the porch, there's a gorgeous view—with a roommate (Karen Gorham), but trouble with her car forces her to walk everywhere and her barista job is less than desirable. Every day is the same: Suzy wakes up, makes her coffee, feeds her dog Darryl, puts on her make-up, and goes out the door to the coffeehouse. Once Darryl goes missing, her whole life changes. And when she gets ready to make her move out of La La Land, something that she never saw was there creeps into her field of vision.
Neither one more found-footage item to cross off the list nor a straight-up horror pic, "Entrance" feels like its own entity. What might seem like uneventful cinéma vérité (or mumblecore) is only the crafty, mono-focused, and riveting build-up, grounded by the apparent normalcy of one unhappy young woman's banal day-to-day life, for something terrifying as it is plausible. Hallam and Horvath aren't pretentious that they have to include uncut versions of Suzy's daily routine every time, but show us just enough that life in the big city is like anyone else's workaday ritual. Along the way, the filmmakers slowly divide out nuggets of paranoia and little details, thanks to sound design and Hallam's framing. Once we realize danger in Suzy's periphery lies ahead, even a common walk down the street is fraught with unease and nervous anticipation. 
The real dread unspooled not until the third act never comes as an abrupt about-face; in a way, the dread was always there. While potentially unsatisfying to those that need complete closure on a literal level, the last shot holds the most impact as it makes perfect sense for the film's running theme. It's a universal emotion to feel loneliness living in a big city, especially with society's unpredictable cruelties. By the end, when she's ready to enter her new life somewhere else, Suzy can't help but remain stuck with even more bad luck on her shoulder. Suziey Block, an unknown but a fresh face, is so honest, relatable, and appealing as Suzy. And that's a relief because the camera never leaves her, tracking Suzy as she goes about her predictable day and later finds herself in a most distressing situation.
Watching the overly revealing trailer, reading up on it, or even listing off other films that it somewhat mirrors in its offhand final act would blunt this particular film's impact. Like the greatest kind of films, "Entrance" burrows under your skin. It should teach you to never stay in your apartment or house alone.

Grade: A -

Friday, May 18, 2012

"Battleship" big, loud, dumb, and just fun enough

Battleship (2012)
131 min., rated PG-13.
Summer movies are equated to air-conditioning and buckets of hot-buttered popcorn. Typically, the big blockbusters are cynically conceived, desperately crowd-pleasing products hot-wired for audiences to just pay $11 to $17 and shut their brain off. And in this day and age of CG filmmaking, brands (i.e. Hasbro toys and board games) are the jumping-off point for live-action action bonanzas. Who knows, perhaps "Chutes and Ladders: The Musical" will be in the works before we know it. Now, while Michael Bay has pounded the franchise of "Transformers" into bloated, metallic, eye-stabbing noise-makers, director Peter Berg (2008's sporadically entertaining mess "Hancock") captains "Battleship," which is also big, loud, and dumb. But even though it weighs a ton and has bricks for brains, Berg's $200-million tentpole is more fun than it could have been and never makes you miss those damn clanking Autobots and Decepticons. It might end up a derivative alien-invasion flick, crossed with "Top Gun," "Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor," and "Transformers," but at least it knows it's goofy and gets the job done.

NASA has discovered Planet-G, a distant planet identical to Earth, to which they've transmitted a communication signal. Around that time, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), an unambitious 26-year-old living on the couch of big brother/naval officer Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård), is such a waste of potential that Stone forces him to take a new course of action in joining the Navy. Though making it as lieutenant, Alex is despised by his commanding officer, Admiral Shane (a stern Liam Neeson, disappearing for long chunks of the action). Problem is, Alex and the admiral's daughter, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), are an item, and Alex needs to ask Dad for his permission to marry her. With all the setup out of the way, thus starts the Navy's RIMCAP naval exercises in Hawaii. Five alien vessels arrive in response to NASA's signal, one crashing through Hong Kong and the other four landing around their Navy base and setting up a force field in the Pacific Ocean. Of course, after the aliens fire peg-like missiles and take out a few of the ships, Alex (now a lieutenant) must command the John Paul Jones destroyer. At the same time, Sam, herself a physical therapist, goes hiking up a mountain on Oahu with a patient, Army lieutenant Mick (played by Iraq War vet Gregory D. Gadson) who lost his legs in combat. Of course, their hiking exercise gets cut short when it happens to be right near the satellite center where the aliens take over. Who will save the world from this extinction-level event?
A flimsy idea from the get-go, writing characters and an actual story into the strategies of the titular Hasbro game didn't take much brain power based on the script by Erich and Jon Hoeber (2010's "RED"). Combining disaster-movie chestnuts and rah-rah Navy propaganda, this is mostly cookie-cutter Hollywood stuff. Instead of witty, Aaron Sorkin-level dialogue, we get "I got a bad feeling about this!" and "Let's give the world one more day." Luckily, after a character says the latter line, another says, "Who talks like that?" to affirm the film is more knowing about its goofiness than being self-serious. In order to get us to actually like the characters, the film gets off to an amusing start. As the Hopper brothers celebrate Alex's birthday in a bar, a hungry Sam enters, hoping she could order a chicken burrito. But the kitchen's closed, so in order to pick her up, Alex goes to great lengths to get her that burrito. Given the "Pink Panther" theme during his mini-quest, the filmmakers intentionally aren't taking it seriously, so neither should we. 
As non-3D spectacle, "Battleship" is never boring and presented with actual visual coherence. As opposed to bombast and point-and-shoot-style camerawork, Berg and his cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler move the camera without losing us, and the action choreography is efficient. The early Hong Kong destruction is quite threatening. Then when the aliens' ships first rise up from the water, with Alex and his team going to investigate as if it's a mock war game, Berg manages to pull off palpable tension. Steve Jablonsky's industrial music score surprisingly throws us on edge, not sounding like just another generic action theme, even after he scored all three "Transformers." The director also kicks up the action in which the aliens unleash weapons that look like tires with electric razor heads, and boy, they do some damage. And the aliens themselves interestingly reveal to not be so different from humans; even their weakness isn't far from our own if we don't wear sunglasses and sunscreen. Berg does rely on a few apocalyptic devices that feel too much like Michael Bay: a baseball game interrupted, a boy with his mother stuck in traffic staring at the sky, etc. By the third act, you can feel the action start to burn itself out from so much destruction, with still another big action set-piece to go. If you've seen five explosions, you've seen 'em all. As more stuff goes boom!, the crew does get to use a computer monitor grid, not unlike the actual board game. Nobody actually utters "You sank my battleship!", but that might've sunk the whole enterprise into parody.
Naturally, this effects-laden extravaganza isn't an actor's piece, but none of them drown. While "John Carter" did the leading man no favors, Kitsch gets to show more charisma as Alex, who never comes off like a smarmy jerk. He's actually a guy to root for, making an arc from ne'er-do-well to Planet Earth's hero. Just seen in "What to Expect When You're Expecting" this weekend, Decker gets to play Hot Blonde in Peril, and she does it just fine without even breaking a nail. In her film debut, musical artist Rihanna doesn't embarrass herself, subbing for Michelle Rodriguez and playing the crew's tough-as-nails weapons expert Petty Officer Cora "Weps" Raikes. Mostly given one-liners to shout (i.e. "Mahalo, motherfu----!"), she's a hoot. Also, Hamish Linklater and Jesse Plemons add unobnoxious comic relief, respectively, playing jittery scientist Cal Zapata and half-witted Boatswain Mate Seaman Jimmy "Ordy" Ord. 

On the whole, "Battleship" is more Roland Emmerich than Michael Bay. No camera gets shoved up Brooklyn Decker's rump, for one, and there's at least a sense of tension and something at stake whereas most of Bay's movies just numb the senses. And as bulky as 131 minutes seems (which is shorter than most of Bay's filmography), Berg keeps things moving. Noisy? Dopey? Yes and yes, absolutely. But without having any delusions of grandeur, it's fun and exceeds lower-than-dirt expectations. That might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but for the first blockbuster of the summer season (not counting "The Avengers"), we could do a whole lot worse.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"Expect" appealingly cast but formulaic and merely adequate

What to Expect When You're Expecting (2012) 
110 min., rated PG-13. 

Chemistry can count for a lot in romantic comedies, especially these barren days. Chemistry isn't really the problem here, but rather the material at hand and how it's executed. "Inspired by" a popular 1984 pregnancy guidebook of the same name, "What to Expect When You're Expecting" is essentially "He's Just Not That Into You" if those characters were less fleshed out and wound up preggers. Directed by Kirk Jones (2009's "Everybody's Fine"), this is another star-topped comedy that intertwines various relationships, this time faced with the joys and fears of impending parenthood. It's not unpleasant or unentertaining to watch, but has nothing new to say—being pregnant sucks but it's all worth it!—and simply goes through the motions. 

Live on the fifteenth season of a "Dancing with the Stars"-type show, reality-TV fitness guru Jules (Cameron Diaz) realizes she's pregnant with dance partner Evan (Matthew Morrison). The rest of the characters, residing in Atlanta, are connected by watching Jules on "Celebrity Dance Factor." Wendy (Elizabeth Banks), an author and owner of The Breast Choice boutique, has been trying to have a baby for two years with her dentist husband Gary (Ben Falcone), until they finally get a plus sign. When Gary and Wendy share their happy news with Gary's alpha-male NASCAR-driving father Ramsey (Dennis Quaid), he one-ups his son once again: his perky trophy wife Skyler (Brooklyn Decker) also happens to be expecting…twins! Freelance photographer Holly (Jennifer Lopez) is ready to adopt an Ethiopian baby with music-business husband Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) who's getting cold feet over fatherhood. College-aged Rosie (Anna Kendrick), a food-truck chef, reunities with old high school flame Marco (Chace Crawford), who also runs a food truck, and their casual hookup leads to a bun in the oven. 

Using the non-fiction "Bible" by Heidi Murkoff as a springboard, screenwriters Shauna Cross (2009's "Whip It") and Heather Hach's (2003's "Freaky Friday") script only finds a few real truths in these thin-as-soup vignettes without digging too deep. Almost to a fault, director Jones fleetly hops from expectant couple to couple, managing tonal shifts with some honesty and sensitivity (when dealing with a miscarriage or one character losing their job) but only letting us care about a few of the stories rather than all five. And those nine months fly by pretty quickly, with only one scene of snow falling in between, but for three of the couples, everything comes to a head (or, out comes a head) at the same Atlanta hospital on the very same night. Do you think one of them will be screaming for an epidural? The rest is a frothy, commercially viable sitcom that wants to please the masses, but it only has a handful of moments on the comedy front. A father-son golf cart race, ending in Ramsey's pool, is the film's comic nadir, along with some hacky slapstick involving a toddler falling down a lot and picking up a dead cat from the woods. 

The impossibly good-looking cast does fine, unchallenging work with what they have. All of these charismatic actors are good company, but none of their characters are developed into more than blandly likable types with cool jobs. As the type-A Wendy, Banks nails all of the hormonal, vulnerable changes that a woman experiences when carrying a fetus. She becomes so overwhelmed that she can't control her shrieky tantrums and flatulence. Falcone (Melissa McCarthy's husband from "Bridesmaids") is also quite funny as her doting husband Gary Cooper (yes, named after the actor). Diaz and Morrison play off of each other well as the celebrity couple, and both get to dabble in some "Biggest Loser"/"Dancing with the Stars" parody. Lopez and Santoro make a nice couplethe former actually read this movie's paperback in her previous preggers rom-com, 2010's pedestrian "The Back-up Plan"and the adorable Kendrick and hunky Crawford share chemistry as the youngest couple. Quaid (not an actor prone to comedy) and Decker (showing what else she can do besides playing a swimsuit-with-legs in "Just Go with It") also seem to be getting loose and having fun. 

As Wendy's store employee Janice, Rebel Wilson (who, as Kristen Wiig's strange roommate in "Bridesmaids," memorably poured a bag of frozen peas on her bleeding Mexican Drinking Worm tattoo) steals the show every time she's on screen. Her presence is unfettered and her delivery acerbic. She's such an out-there go-getter that somebody better give Wilson a one-woman show. And when she's not in a scene, the "dude group" (Rob Huebel, Chris Rock, Amir Talai, and Thomas Lennon) bring the funny. When Holly senses her hubby's reluctance to be a father, she sends Alex to the "dudes," a gang of dads who parade through the park with their kids in tricked-out strollers and share their fatherhood truths. "Last week, my kid ate a cigarette," one says, but they tell daddy-to-be Alex there's a "no judging" policy in their dad circle. One almost wishes their chorus improv wasn't diluted to such a PG-13 safety net and that the film revolved more around these guys, especially Rock (a real daddy who knows a thing or two), since that's where most of the energy and relatability go. The buff Joe Manganiello (HBO's "True Blood") also appears with these dudes on occasion, playing their bachelor idol Davis that jogs around the Atlanta park, but mostly stands around with his shirt off or does pull-ups with one arm. Also turning up in small roles are Wendi McLendon-Covey (the third "Bridesmaids" co-star here) as Holly's friend, who only gets a few amusing quips when her character is drunk, and the invaluable Megan Mullally, playing herself as Evan's next TV dance partner in an extended cameo, gets in a circumcision joke. 

With the promising line-up of attractive, appealing, and talented stars, you'd expect "What to Expect When You're Expecting" to fire on all cylinders. Had the script been polished and punched-up, the film might have been more than formulaic and merely adequate. Cute at best and shallow at worst, it's just an Ashton Kutcher and Hector Elizondo short of being a cousin to either of Garry Marshall's empty-headed vanity shows (read: "Valentine's Day" and "New Year's Eve"). Expect the bare minimum of a glossy studio comedy because that's all you're going to get.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Cohen's "Dictator" most juvenile effort but still funny and pointed

The Dictator (2012)
83 min., rated R.
With 2006's "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" and 2009's "Brüno," writer-star Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles brazenly pushed political incorrectness with nude wrestling and talking penises, respectively, but the films were really razor-sharp, provocative, and hilariously inspired satires of American culture. While still daringly pointed, and gleefully and fearlessly offensive, "The Dictator" counts as their most juvenile and conventional effort so far. But that's okay: a joke that doesn't quite work is always quickly taken over by another and another.

Sacha Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, the ignorant, anti-western dictator of Wadiya (a fictitiously oil-rich North African country) who develops nuclear warheads but demands them to be pointy. After the United Nations isn't too happy about his plans and they demand he address the council, Aladeen is America bound, heading to New York City. During his stay at The Lancaster hotel, his traitorous adviser Tamir (Ben Kingsley) has plans to assassinate Aladeen, having him kidnapped and shaven of his bushy beard, and then replace the despot with an idiotic body double as a decoy to sign a constitution that will bring democracy to Wadiya. Left for dead in a warehouse fire, the real Aladeen escapes but no one else recognizes him without his trademark facial hair. A far-left health-food co-op owner named Zoey (Anna Faris) rescues him from a Brooklyn political rally against Aladeen and he accepts a job from her since she and her political-refugee workers have catering access to the UN. Can Aladeen take back his place as the dictator and deny his people democratic freedom?

Disappointment sets in while watching "The Dictator," as it's not in the unscripted Candid Camera/Punk'd mockumentary style with ambush interviews and put-ons. Instead, the film comes from a script (by Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer) that's a bit like a darker, raunchier "Coming to America" with sexist/racist/homophobic jokes. So while actual narrative storytelling sounds less fun, and is less prankish and dangerous than both "Borat" and "Brüno," Cohen still has not surrendered his chutzpah, again fully committing to another one of his outrageous personas. The film even begins with a title-card dedication, "In Loving Memory of Kim Jong-il." Then, by a news announcer, we're told Aladeen's history: He never met his mother, as she died during childbirth, cut to the woman being smothered with a pillow. That's when we know we're not in for a safe, PC reform that comes with a safety net. 

When "The Dictator" is offending anybody and everybody with Aladeen's sly insults, it's undeniably sharp and riotously funny. Cohen's character's political views on U.S. democracy and misogynistic remarks are unleashed with amusing sting. You may even feel guilty but laugh anyway when Aladeen and Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), a weapons specialist thought to be executed in Wadiya, take a tour of the Manhattan skyline with white-bread American tourists and put them into a squirmy panic. Speaking in Arabic, Aladeen discussing his 911 Porsche is confused with September 11th. And Aladeen even lets us in on the "truth" behind Osama Bin Laden's assassination. But when Cohen and Charles turn Aladeen into Tom Green or a naughty Adam Sandler, the baser gross-out gags are hit-and-miss. Sure, we've never seen someone lose a cell phone inside of a woman's vagina while delivering a baby (with a shot of the woman's inside included) — ho ho! And zip-lining from a building roof to a Lancaster hotel room, Cohen gets to expose his penis. Crude-for-crude's-sake just isn't nearly as clever, though. Even when the film's humor is uneven, it's well-paced and runs like-a-bat-out-of-hell 83 minutes.

Otherwise, a lot of stuff sticks. There's a recurring bit with a severed head from a dead black kingpin at his wake. There's a running joke where Aladeen makes up his name. To Zoey, he's "Allison Burgers," but when he finds himself in the "Death to Aladeen Restaurant," he uses signs around the room (i.e. "Ladies Wash Room") to think up a name on the fly. But the restaurant is employed by all of his people that he ordered to be executed but weren't, so they don't buy it. Also, Aladeen's finger-across-the-throat signal (as in, "Kill him!") becomes its own through-line as well. Finally, the dictator's speech, skewering the current state of American democracy, is as cutting as a razor. Anything that's considered a taboo is exploited for uncomfortable shock laughs. And yet, everyone's a good sport. The adorable Anna Faris (initially unrecognizable looking like "a hobbit wearing a Chemo wig") schools her co-star on how to masturbate; an uncredited John C. Reilly cracks some anti-Arab jokes; Garry Shandling has his family kidnapped; and Megan Fox amusingly pokes fun at her sexpot image. The soundtrack also leaves an impression, peppered with Middle Eastern covers of American pop tunes "9 to 5" and "Everybody Hurts."

It might not have the spontaneity of Cohen's former guerrilla style of comedy filmmaking, but nothing is sacred for the filmmakers' satirical targets. If you get your laughs from a movie that takes chances but doesn't have contempt for its audience, "The Dictator" might tickle your guilty-pleasure funny bone. Cohen is gifted enough as a screen comedian that he gets away with murder, but now, let's see what other weapons he has in his arsenal.

Grade: B -

Friday, May 11, 2012

Burton's "Dark Shadows" just deliciously kooky enough

Dark Shadows (2012)
113 min., rated PG-13.
"Dark Shadows" marks the eighth collaboration for eccentric director Tim Burton and his star muse Johnny Depp, so it'd be too easy to say the film recycles their shared love for the dark and weird. But back in Burton's gothic wheelhouse, their latest piece of work is a return to form, following the filmmaker's rare miss (2010's curiously hollow "Alice in Wonderland"). As a fan of the 1966-1971 daytime soap opera that aired on ABC, Burton remains reverent to the straight-faced, melodramatic tone of the cult TV series with shabby production values, and then adds a healthy budget and a dose of tongue-in-cheek humor. Less of a wacky spoof than it is a wonderfully macabre Gothic horror tale, "Dark Shadows" is ghoulish, campy fun, despite an inelegant screenplay.

In the prologue, set in 1761, after the Collins clan relocated from Liverpool to Maine and the parents were tragically killed, son Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) became the heir to Collinwood Manor in the fishing town of Collinsport. Deeply in love with Josette (Bella Heathcote), Barnabas spurned servant, one-time lover, and wicked witch Angelique (Eva Green), who used her black magic to do away with Josette and curse Barnabas to be an immortal vampire buried alive. Two hundred years later, Barnabas is unearthed from his long siesta in 1972. The plot proper begins with Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote, in a dual role), a dead ringer for Barnabas' late Josette, taking a train from New York City into Maine to be the Collins family's governess. The Collinses still inhabit the grand Collinwood estate, but their cannery business has been rivaled by another, which is run by the still-kicking Angelique Bouchard. The steely matriarch, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), is initially hestitant about welcoming Barnabas into their home, until realizing he's a vampire (and the paterfamilias) that won't hurt family and shows her the underground family fortune. The rest of the brood consists of Elizabeth's moody, distant 15-year-old daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz); her widowed brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and his ghost-seeing son David (Gulliver McGrath); and perpetually hung-over psychiatrist Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) who's not-so-successfully treating David. Once Barnabas meets Victoria, he immediately feels close to her since she so closely resembles Josette. But once Angelique hears of Barnabas' rising from the grave, she'll use black magic (and her sex appeal) to win him over, or else she'll destroy him and his family of descendants. 
Without being easily classifiable, "Dark Shadows" arguably never curdles in terms of tone. It sticks to its convictions that of a macabre tale of vampires and witches, and then gets mileage out of the "present" time period for a string of fish-out-of-water jokes. Immediately after ripping apart the necks of construction workers that stumble upon his coffin, Barnabas is hit with culture shock: is that golden (McDonald's) arch a sign of Mephistopheles? "Show yourself, Satan!" he shouts at an incoming car's headlights. Later he stares mesmerized at a red lava lamp, figuring it's an urn of blood, and thinks Karen Carpenter on the telly is a sorcerer ("Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!"). And heavy metal legend Alice Cooper (who, in a cameo on stage, is probably lip-syncing to his 24-year-old self's songs but physically looks like he does in 2012) is the "ugliest woman" he's ever seen. With all that said, the era-based humor would sound silly and dumbed-down, but makes sense in context and most (if not all) earn a chuckle from Depp's delivery and Burton's timing. A joke is made and then he moves on without dawdling on it. And though the film is rarely ever scary, there are some nicely ghastly treats, such as a run-in with dope-smoking hippies that turns deadly and an homage to either Burton's own "Beetlejuice" or 1978's "Halloween" in which someone turns up twice in a doorway with a ghost sheet over them. The deliriously grand climactic showdown with a literally cracked Angelique also brings on the goods.
While much of "Dark Shadows" never ceases to be entertaining, the screenplay by first-timer Seth Grahame-Smith (author of the best-seller "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter") is a mess. The narrative is all over the place that one wishes Burton put more care into the writing and demanded another draft from his tyro scribe. It's almost as if all 1,225 episodes of the original show were cobbled into one movie. Family members' dark secrets are introduced as half-baked, last-minute subplots and characters come and go (hey, the Collins do live in a big house), but had one or two been deleted altogether, the plotting might've felt tighter and more cohesive. And not to split hairs, but how can Barnabas be out in the light with merely sunglasses and an umbrella or wake up from his coffin with barely shaded windows but then burn in the sunlight later? 

Other than that, this is a glossy, expensive-looking production. Not only is it another Burton-Depp collaboration, but there's a reason why the film flourishes visually. All pulling their weight, Burton's regulars (costume designer Colleen Atwood, production designer Rick Heinrichs, editor Chris Lebenzon, and composer Danny Elfman) work their magic. In particular, Heinrichs' design is gorgeously textured and finely detailed, especially compared to the depersonalized backlot look of Burton's 2001 rethink of "Planet of the Apes." Exterior shots in the UK have a spooky, old-fashioned atmosphere, evoking the classic Hammer monster movies of decades past. The Collins Manor is a cross between the Haunted Mansion in Disney World and Edward Scissorhands's hilltop castle. (Victoria's walk through the gates and up the long path to the family's mansion actually reminds of when Dianne Weist's Avon lady Peg went calling at Edward's door.) And the rococo, kitschy decor of stores in the town of Collinsport (with "Superfly" and "Deliverance" seen on movie theater marquees) and knick-knacks inside the Collins' manor (Lava lamps! Plant macramés! Troll dolls!) lend a relevant wink to the flower-power-infused '70s era, as do The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin" and The Carpenters' "Top of the World" on the soundtrack.

From Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood to Willy Wonka and Sweeney Todd, Depp has created some of the most indelibly odd characters, especially when working with helmer Burton. It's a surprise he's never played a vampire heretofore as Barnabas Collins, once played by the recently deceased Jonathan Frid (who appears briefly). With his glowing, ghostly-white facial palette and Nosferatu fingernails, he's clearly having a ball and even beneath the surface of a fanged murderer, Depp makes him a family-first gentleman. With the impressive roster of acting talent, "Dark Shadows" would seem to be an ensemble piece, but it's really Depp's Pee-Wee playhouse. Still, a va-va-voomy Green deliciously sinks her teeth into the vampy role, playing Angelique as a kinky vixen (or "the whore of Beelzebub" as Barnabas puts it) with a demonic, hell-bent smile. When Angelique tries seducing Barnabas in her office, the two actors have a cheeky chemistry together and (with the help of wirework and special effects, of course) have fun scratching a few sofas and breaking glass in a rather gymnastic sex scene, with the aftermath looking like a cyclone came through. 

The rest of the actors are all dressed in Atwood's costumes and ready to go, and they all have "Addams Family" quirks, but the script often has trouble finding them enough business to do. The always-mesmeric Michelle Pfeiffer knowingly channels a "Days of Our Lives"-type earnestness; Chloë Grace Moretz amusingly sneers at her family when she can't just dance and listen to her records at dinner; and Helena Bonham Carter (the most inspired thing in "Alice in Wonderland") sports flaming-red hair and whips off some hung-over shtick. Jonny Lee Miller and Gully McGrath are given the short end of the deal, mostly showing up at the breakfast and dinner table, but in one of their cases has a semi-important place in the third act. In dual roles as both Josette and Victoria, Bella Heathcote is alluring with her moon eyes, but her latter character disappears for long stretches and curiously doesn't do much as a governess. Jackie Earle Haley adds amusement as the Collins' caretaker Willie, who becomes the old master's toady. Hammer Film horror veteran Christopher Lee even has a scene as a crusty sea salt. Without spoofing up their characters, the cast's overall styling of acting is appropriately stone-faced and melodramatic, and it works.

Even if the script is a bit unwieldy, Burton makes "Dark Shadows" all his own. Not by any measure is it "Edward Scissorhands" (or "Beetlejuice" and "Ed Wood" for that matter), but it's his best work to date since 2007's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Being characteristically kooky and imaginative, Burton's vision breathes enough life into a long-dead TV series and carves itself a new place for the filmmaker's pantheon of the gothic and deliciously weird. There's plenty to recommend here in Burton Land.