Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"Your Sister's Sister" a deeply satisfying indie treat

Your Sister's Sister (2012)
91 min., rated R.
In the summer, it's refreshing to see a movie made outside of the Hollywood studio system. No $250-million budget, no superheroes, and no bloated running time "Your Sister's Sister" is a small, character-driven, performance-based piece about three characters talking in a cabin. Coming off of 2009's "Humpday," writer-director Lynn Shelton and mumblecore darling Mark Duplass (who stars) developed a kernel of an idea and backstory for the trio of characters, and then 85% of the film was improvised. While "Humpday" was funny and insightful but ultimately came off as forced naturalism, "Your Sister's Sister" is Shelton's most cinematic indie so far. It's naturally funny, gently moving, and deeply satisfying.

On the one-year anniversary of his brother Tom's passing, Jack (Mark Duplass) is clearly in a funk when he makes a scene at a eulogy gathering. His best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), who dated Tom, suggests he get away for some "head space" by staying at her dad's cabin on an island. There's no phone or Internet, just idyllic woods and isolation (which sounds like the setup for a horror film). Once he arrives there on his red bicycle, he's surprised to find Iris' sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who's there to find peace after leaving a seven-year relationship with her girlfriend. After a late night of drinking tequila and talking, things get complicated. And then by morning, Iris drops in.

Like Shelton's previous effort, "Your Sister's Sister" has a relaxed, intimate vibe that centers on hyper-real conversations. Shelton gave her actors a lot of room, encouraging them to improvise and allowing them to just react off of one another. But instead of merely coming off as an actor's workshop, this three-hander develops a real rooting interest for this entangled trio of characters. The three, receiving special credit as "creative contributors," are all equal in their naturalism. 

Becoming the ubiquitous on-screen everyman as of late (when he's not directing with his brother Jay), Duplass (who's used to doing improv) keeps proving he's more than just a schlub of the week. This might be his most deeply felt performance to date. DeWitt and Blunt, who obviously both come from scripted-film backgrounds, are subtle and emotionally available on their own, and automatically click as sisters (the keeping of Blunt's British accent is smoothly addressed). They first greet one another as "Bean" and "Puppet," solidifying their effortless, lovely chemistry and then showing their sisterly bond even more so when Iris crawls into bed next to Hannah for a little chitchat. It's engaging to just watch and listen to these three complex, appealing people talk.

The production (which took 12 days to shoot) looks like it was summer camp for Shelton, her cast, and crew, and a terrific little film came out of it. Though it has a play-like feel and was shot mostly in a cabin, the film is never cramped or claustrophobic from Bejamin Kasulke's cinematography. Long takes are nicely balanced by the openness and tranquility of the wild and the water. 

Out of most "mumblecore" endeavors (or is the bloom off the rose in using that term?), "Your Sister's Sister" is a rare breed. Shelton's form of do-it-yourself filmmaking is confident and not self-indulgent this time around. What easily could have slipped into a farcical love-triangle sitcom never rings false. Even when a key development is introduced, the film is always low-key, surprising, and feels nothing short of authentic, never vilifying or judging any of its characters. The last shot, or ending rather, is ambiguous and just perfect. Even though Jack, Iris, and Hannah seem to be in a better place than how we found them, you'll hate to see these people go. No matter how minute the scale of the film, such praise like that rarely gets granted these days.


Danish "Klown" inappropriate, wrong, and sometimes very funny

Klown (2012)
89 min., rated R.
The late, great George Carlin once talked about "seven words you can never say on television." The clown's intention wasn't purely to shock but to bring our fear of language into question. Denmark's comic import "Klown," which is already being trumpeted as a Scandinavian version of "The Hangover," also has about seven or more funny-squirmy moments that don't feel gratuitously tacked-on for shock value but are more contextual and character-based. Its brand of boundary-pushing humor (full-frontal male nudity included) probably wouldn't fly in the states, even though there's already a Todd Phillips-produced remake in the works. Inappropriate, wrong, and sometimes very funny, "Klown" boldly goes where most R-rated Hollywood comedies wouldn't dare. 
Frank (Frank Hvam) isn't really a fan of kids. At a friend's wedding, someone spills the news of his girlfriend Mia (Mia Lyhne) being pregnant, unbeknownst to Frank. She failed to tell him because she has doubts of Frank's potential as a father. When Frank gets stuck looking after Mia's 12-year-old nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen), he more or less kidnaps him on a canoe trip with his buddy Casper (Casper Christensen), in order to prove to Mia that he can handle kids. But while Frank is thinking about Bo, Casper just wants to get some action on their scheduled stops at a brothel (hosted by their book-club leader) and a music festival, where their friend can score them some wicked reefer. Bottom line: Frank and Casper have the worst babysitting style.

Directed by Mikkel Nørgaard, "Klown" is his feature extension of the 2005 Danish TV show of the same name, also written by its leads, Hvam and Christensen, who again play fictionalized versions of themselves. To Americans, the "two and a half men" plot will somewhat play like a dirtier, road-trip episode of that Charlie Sheen-Jon Cryer-Angus T. Jones sitcom with touches of "Bad Santa" and, as already mentioned, "The Hangover." Leading off with an "Odd Couple"-ish theme, we meet the hapless Frank and the horny Casper. The former's intentions are right in wanting to be a father figure to Bo, but Frank doesn't always go through with his goal the right way. For instance, he goes to great (and illegal) lengths to get Bo his prized model car for collecting 288 bottle caps. As for Casper, he is an uninhibited lout that perfects "man flirting" to get what he wants and is always thinking with his "other" head. When together, Casper eggs on Frank most of the time and gets both of them into the most absurd situations. What's refreshing here is that Marcuz Jess Petersen's Bo is not a pest, but a young misfit just along for the ride. As for Frank and Casper's women, Mia and Iben (Iben Hjejle) aren't really nagging shrews when one sees the awful, amoral things their men do. They deserve every consequence coming to them.

With the film's improv-y, doc-style aesthetics, the grounded reality of each outlandish situation can be a delightfully uncomfortable experience. "Klown" doesn't stand up to scrutiny in terms of taste, but Frank and Casper's trip of debauchery earns all of its laughs through our gasping and forehead-slapping state of shock. Even when we're laughing, it's hard to always root for Frank and Casper. They're such man-child losers, especially Casper. When they make a stop at Papa Bear's Camp, he tries bedding high school girls. Or, after they capsize their canoe and find hospitality from a plump pancake maker, Casper instigates a ménage à trois. And, by the foolish judgment of Frank, the viewer will never look at a pearl necklace the same way again. No doubt, the prudish will find a lot of "Klown" off-putting and offensive, but everyone else should admire Denmark's raunchy fearlessness.

Grade: B - 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Merely OK "The Watch" only worth bargain-bin purchase at Costco

The Watch (2012) 
98 min., rated R.
Director Akiva Schaffer, one-third of Andy Samberg's Lonely Island comedy troupe that broke out on SNL, follows up his 2007 feature debut "Hot Rod" with the R-rated, mass-market comedy "The Watch." Though the title was re-tweaked (originally called "Neighborhood Watch" in the developmental stages) to avoid links to the Trayvon Martin shooting by a Florida neighborhood watch captain, the film is really just an alien-invasion romp that rips from "Ghostbusters," "The 'Burbs," "Men in Black," "Evolution," and "Attack the Block," all of which are much better movies, and then adds a fistful of penis-centric jokes. When funny people are involved, behind and in front of the camera, we can't wait to laugh so hard that our bellies hurt. In the case of "The Watch," it's not as funny as it ought to be, but amusing enough that it should assuage anyone dying to see such a bankable team of comedy performers save the world from extraterrestrials.
In Glenview, Ohio, USA, Earth, the proud manager of Costco, Evan (Ben Stiller), is involved in about every club available in his town and friendly to everyone around him. Thrilled to hear his nighttime security guard has received his U.S. citizenship, Evan is terrified to find his wholesale store roped off in the morning, with the employee found ripped apart and dead. With a killer out there, the already-busy local decides to form a neighborhood watch. The only three that show up to the meeting are Bob (Vince Vaughn), a rowdy family man looking for male-bonding; Franklin (Jonah Hill), a high school dropout and police academy reject (à la "21 Jump Street") that still lives at home; and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), the token black Brit hoping to get attention from women. Though the team's first stakeout doesn't go as planned, and the clueless Sgt. Bressman (Will Forte) thinks 'the watch' is a joke, evidence points to an alien invasion. 

Getting together a four-pack of comic reliables is half the battle, while giving them funny material to achieve lightning in a bottle is another matter. "The Watch" marks Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg's fourth writing collaboration, along with co-writer Jared Stern (2011's "Mr. Popper's Penguins"), but much of the script seems to rely on riffing and off-the-page improv. Some of it works, and some of it falls as flat as a UFO. Stiller and Vaughn do their "thing," the former acting uptight and growing irritable, while the latter does his loud, excitable fast-talking shtick. Coming off his physical transformation and the great success of "21 Jump Street" (one of the funniest comedies of this year so far), Hill is ready to rip with a more off-kilter side. Too bad his character of Franklin is written solely as a disturbed, borderline-psychotic young man, with Travis Bickle-ish echoes of Rogen's Ronnie in 2009's "Observe and Report," that the star's likability is lost. The film's newcomer, British comedian Ayoade (the director of 2011's quirky gem "Submarine," which Stiller produced), gets to showcase his offbeat, endearingly goofy presence on screen, but the script underserves him and his skills.

Amidst the occasionally creepy alien attacks and our heroes' beer-drinking stakeouts are a few other subplots. Evan and his wife Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt, who's better than this) want to have a baby, but such fertility drama feels wedged-in for would-be character conflict. Bob is also dealing with the rebellious nature of his teenage daughter Chelsea (Erin Moriarty), but there's actually a payoff to that thread. Cued to Echo & The Bunnymen's "People Are Strange," paranoia abounds when the watch team discovers the aliens take on human hosts, in the style of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "The Thing." An uncredited Billy Crudup turns up as Evan's creepy, vaguely gay neighbor that compliments him on his good skin. He's weirdly seductive, but only serves as a red herring. What he's doing in his basement becomes pretty obvious before it's actually revealed. R. Lee Ermey, who could outshout Vaughn any day, is even wasted as a crotchety, rifle-wielding suspect.

"The Watch" falls short of delivering belly laughs, but it has nuggets of comedy, which are too infrequent, that still exist in the form of spontaneous line-readings and little oddball touches. There's some funny business involving Vaughn playing around with Russian nesting dolls at the first watch meeting. The guys have wild shenanigans with the aliens' laser orb, and then take a naughty photo shoot with a dead alien in Bob's man cave. Look at the way Ayoade attempts to shoo one of the creatures out the door. Also, before the big, gunfire-ridden showdown in Costco, three members of the group have trouble opening packages of pink walkie-talkies in a moment of quiet fumbling. Slo-mo climactic shots of a severed alien head and Trojan Magnum Condoms exploding into the sky might even elicit an easy chuckle. If only so many jokes didn't aim below the belt, literally. Comparing the alien green slime to the texture, taste, and consistency of semen? It's that variety of humor that often feels lazy and half-hearted, especially when R-rated comedies throw out wit and creativity to see what can push the envelope. It's an unmemorable no-brainer, but not without a "ha-ha" here and an "LOL" there, and some gory alien fun. "The Watch" was made to be watched as a bargain-bin purchase at Costco.

Grade: C +

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Near-great "Dark Knight Rises" caps off trilogy with spectacular, satisfying end

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
164 min., rated PG-13.
DC Comics' toyetic Caped Crusader has come a long way since the campy TV series, Tim Burton's inventively gothic vision, and Joel Schumacher's splashy (and in the case of 1997's "Batman & Robin," overblown) departure into camp. With 2005's introspective, entertaining "Batman Begins," writer-director Christopher Nolan reinvented everything we knew about Batman, aside from retaining Bob Kane and Bill Finger's original lore. Redirected as a crime noir rather than a superhero comic-book, his new vision was restarted with a more starkly realistic Gotham City, a doomsday-dark tone, and a richer, more vivid characterization of the crime-fighter. Then with 2008's "The Dark Knight," Nolan created a darkly thoughtful, viscerally stimulating, and uncompromising motion picture, also one of the most accomplished and mature-minded graphic-novel pop entertainments in the superhero genre. So, of course, the visionary filmmaker's one-two punch calls for an epic conclusion to his self-contained trilogy, which comes with big-hype, big-ticket expectations. Luckily, Nolan doesn't disappoint with "The Dark Knight Rises," a cinematic event if there ever was one. Topping his masterful predecessor is a tough act to follow, but this final chapter comes close to greatness. 

Eight years have passed since Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), as his alter-ego of Batman, took the fall for District Attorney Harvey Dent's vengeful acts and death after standing as Gotham's white knight that took down organized crime and corruption. As Bruce saw it, "you can die a hero or live long enough to become a villain," so feelings of guilt have left him hanging up the Bat suit and living in the shadows of Wayne Manor as an old, hobbling recluse with little interest in life. He also grieves the loss of his love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), who died at the hands of The Joker. Just when the metropolis has found peace, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) still revering what Dent stood for, Master Wayne stumbles upon cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) who slinks off with his late mother's pearls. More trouble is in store for Wayne when a hulking mercenary known as Bane (Tom Hardy) gets ready to "occupy" Gotham with his underground army and wipe out Wayne's fortune. Meanwhile, Wayne gets involved with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a philanthropist on the executive board of Wayne Enterprises, and Gordon finds an ally in young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who shares a similar history with Bruce. Will Batman re-emerge and will Gotham welcome him?

For its behemoth 164 minutes (only 16 minutes short of 3 hours), "The Dark Knight Rises" sets up many plot threads, introduces several new characters, and catches up with returning characters, while still raising the stakes for a conclusion. That's a lot of ambitious cramming. While "The Dark Knight" was beautifully paced and edited so tightly that it never felt like 152 minutes, its successor tends to bloat and overreach but doesn't come apart at the seams. Coming from Nolan (along with being co-written by his brother Jonathan) of such brainy, well-structured work as "Memento" and "Inception," a sprawling narrative tapestry should be strong, and for the most part, it is. Only does it become his short-lived Achilles' heel in the film's climax, as everything should start paying off and a plot twist of misdirection and more expository dialogue bog down the momentum. Also, all movies have plot holes, this one included, but as long as the story is involving, why quibble? Nolan builds such a spectacular resolution for his characters that a small slip-up is quickly forgiven.

Having positioned himself as the most versatile Bruce Wayne/Batman, Christian Bale (still speaking in that deep, gravelly growl when he puts on the suit) further layers the character with his reserve of torment and wrestling with demons. Batman is just human after all, but the character's arc of facing his fears and pain feels complete. Gary Oldman is still the film's rock of Gibraltar as Commissioner Gordon, who's going through his own personal gloom. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are still around, respectively, as trusted butler/father figure Alfred and Wayne Enterprises manager/gadget provider Lucius Fox. Caine, especially, openheartedly and touchingly sells his emotional bond with Bruce. 

The Joker is never mentioned, paying respect to the late Heath Ledger and his fully committed, indelible performance that achieved fearless bravura. But as Batman's latest foe, a bulked-up Tom Hardy completely disappears into the role of Bane. Though there's much less personality to Bane than The Joker, Hardy makes him a fearsome presence, a brute that has ice water in his veins and just wants to do some damage. The actor's voice is distorted (sounding like Darth Vader with the eloquence of Christopher Plummer) and much of his face is obscured with a claw-like wrestling mask, but nobody could've made it as menacing. While no one can quite match the slinky predation of Michelle Pfeiffer's deliciously perfect turn in Tim Burton's "Batman Returns," Hathaway puts her own stamp on the slippery role of Selina Kyle (who's never given the actual moniker of Catwoman). Bringing sparks of sly humor, posing a physical threat, and changing her attitude on a dime, she's frisky, believably stealthy, and fun to watch without camping it up. Halle Berry who?

In the film's most effective addition, Joseph Gordon-Levitt never lets the film's huge scale smother his grounded, layered character work as upstanding cop Blake. His character is idealistic but intelligent, and DC devotees might be quicker on the uptake than some to realize this isn't the last time we'll see of Blake. As for the lovely Marion Cotillard, her Miranda Tate is problematic. Her romantic subplot with Bruce is a non-starter, until she becomes more functional in the final act. And not only do some familar faces drop by, including Matthew Modine and Juno Temple, but characters of Nolan's previous Batman pictures make cameos.

What separates Nolan's trilogy from any other cinematic comic-book property is the filmmaker's refusal to put a leash on grim, weighty, and cerebral themes such as terrorism, anarchy, chaos, guilt, and personal demons. Though his heady versions of Batman hinge on self-seriousness and can't quite be equated with "fun," they are decidedly urgent, exciting, and relevant reflections of our times. Nolan also brings impressive scope to the entire picture, with production values that are nothing short of exceptional. Cinematographer Wally Pfister makes every frame look gritty and substantial; the visual effects and stuntwork are markedly real and lack any use of CGI, at least from what the eye can see; and Hans Zimmer's percussive score, aided by kettle drums and chanting, lays on the doom and punctuates every beat. From the overwhelmingly tense, James Bond-esque opener, as Bane hijacks a plane, to the chill-inducing collapse of Pittsburgh's Heinz Field during a crowded football game, Nolan knows just how to stage action set-pieces and leaven the film's brains with thrills. This is a big, long, heavy juggernaut, though less gloomy and nihilistic than "The Dark Knight," but an often awe-inspiring and wholly satisfying capper. By the end, there's a light at the end of the dark tunnel for the Batman and it's consistent cinematic bliss for the audience.

Grade: A - 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

New to DVD/Blu-ray: Dumb, disposable "Lockout" also guiltily entertaining

Lockout (2012)
95 min., rated PG-13.
France's action movie purveyor Luc Besson gives himself a break from directing in Hollywood, but he gets to "present" and receive a credit for the "original idea" behind "Lockout," a derivative in-space actioner. What is essentially "Die Hard" married with elements of "Escape from New York" and "Con Air" doesn't really merit "original" to describe it. With the movie being released the same weekend as "The Cabin in the Woods," it wouldn't take a rocket scientist to pick the obvious choice with more imagination, style, and wit, but that's a moot point since there's no comparison. Disposable but entertaining in the moment, "Lockout" makes no bones about what silly, dumb junk it is, and for that, should be judged on its own merits. 
The year is 2079, and ex-CIA operative Snow (Guy Pearce) finds himself being grilled by the head of the Secret Service (a hammy Peter Stormare) for being accused of conspiracy and murder. He knows he's been framed, but the only evidence that could possibly save him is in a briefcase, which was left with his partner Mace (Tim Plester), who's now locked up in maximum security prison floating in space called M.S. One. There, all of the inmates, including Mace, are kept in a state of stasis. Meanwhile, on a "humanitarian errand," the president's daughter Emilie (Maggie Grace) is at M.S. One, interviewing one of the crazy-eyed inmates, until one of her Secret Service agents makes a dumb move and there's a prison takeover by the vicious inmates. The president and the government's only chance to rescue Emilie, as it turns out, is to have Snow go in.

Though it's played totally straight and visually looks cold and drab, not an ounce of "Lockout" is intended to be taken seriously. Co-written by rookie directors Stephen Saint Leger and James Mather with producer Luc Besson, the script is so ridiculous and riddled with leaps in logic (and physics) that the viewer might as well suspend all disbelief and enjoy the ride. But on the level of a schlocky no-brainer, it's briskly paced and competently made. The lower-than-most-tentpoles budget is confirmed early on in a freeway chase, Pearce's face obviously slapped onto a computer avatar riding a motorcycle. It's so videogame-phony that it's laughable, but that's part of the movie's cheesy charm. Otherwise, Leger and Mather admittedly get some mileage out of every corner of the space station, as Snow and Emilie outrun and outwit the mob of murderers. Once the action leaves the space station, the movie resorts back to the business involving the briefcase, which turns out to exist merely as a MacGuffin. And in order to wrap up supposed loose ends, there's even a double-crossing twist, but it's pointlessly tacked-on.

Part of the reason "Lockout" mostly works is for the magnetic presence of scruffy, chain-smoking Guy Pearce. He's the most fun he's been in a while, putting on a game face and tossing off smart-assy one-liners as if sarcasm is all Snow knows (i.e. "It was coupon night, and I was trampolining your wife" and "I'd rather castrate myself with blunt rocks"). A few of the wisecracks inevitably clang, and Snow is somewhat of a glib jerk, but Pearce makes him a roguish anti-hero that's fun to watch. Even if Emilie has little personality, Grace perseveres without being just another damsel-in-distress. When Pearce and Grace hook up, they share an oil-and-water rapport that's amusing. Joseph Gilgun, as the lead psycho Hydell, is perfectly despicable, but so over-the-top it seems like an impression of Robert Carlyle crossed with Chris Pine's neo-Nazi nut in "Smokin' Aces."

"Lockout" is strictly a B-movie programmer that's never as good or bad as it might've been. It's the kind of decent time-killer you could give a shot to on the SyFy Channel or the USA Network if there was nothing new on HBO. 

Grade: C +

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

New to DVD/Blu-ray: Stretched-thin "Casa de mi Padre" has bilingual Will Ferrell, few laughs

Casa de mi Padre (2012)
84 min., rated R.
The funny thing about telenovelas is that they're so absurdly melodramatic with cheap-o production values, painfully earnest acting, and clunky dialogue. That's the one joke in "Casa de mi Padre," a deadpan, affectionate send-up of those Spanish soap operas and grindhouse-style spaghetti westerns, and it's stretched like Silly Putty to 84 minutes. Director Matt Piedmont, making his feature debut, and screenwriter Andrew Steele have lovingly created an oddball novelty, but given their collaboration with star Will Ferrell on the sketch-comedy web series "Funny or Die Presents…," this feature-length effort might've worked better as a sketch. As "Casa de mi Padre" proves, the conception is cutely amusing but the execution is meager at best. 

With a big heart but a fat head, Armando Alvarez (Will Ferrell) is a Mexican ranchero who's known as the idiot in the family, and his father (Pedro Armendariz Jr.) isn't afraid to tell him so. Armando must defend his father's land when his brother Raul (Diego Luna), who returns home with his sexy new fiancée, Sonia Lopez (Genesis Rodriguez), turns out to be a drug dealer and owes a debt to The Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal). Meanwhile, Sonia wants out of her marriage with Raul when she sets her eyes on Armando.
From the opening "Mexico Scope" logo, "Casa de mi Padre" is a goof through and through. Director Piedmont and the crew get all the visual details right and are surely having fun making an intentionally amateurish movie. There are painted-on-cardboard backdrops and rear-projection driving shots, continuity errors, and missing reels (one coming with a long apology from the second camera assistant). And yet, didn't Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino do similiar tricks with more inventiveness, cheekiness, and consistency in their double-bill collaboration of 2007's "Grindhouse"? Even the camera crew is clearly reflected in a character's sunglasses, and a mannequin is obviously used in a sex scene of mostly butt shots, which will go down in The Most Absurd Movie Sex Scene Hall of Fame next to the ones in any of "The Naked Gun" spoofs and "Hot Shots!" 
Everyone plays it completely straight, and that's a good thing. Having headlined some of the most commercially successful comedies and spreading his wings in more dramatic fare ("Stranger Than Fiction" and "Everything Must Go"), Ferrell could never be criticized for not being committed. He couldn't play a better boob, even if he wore a pair of literal boobs on his chest, and here, Ferrell has the cajones to speak entirely in Spanish. Without being obnoxious, Armando is a variation on the gentle, clueless boobs he's played before. As the hot tamale Armando is after, Rodriguez is stunningly caliente and understands the joke, coming off funny without trying to be funny. Frequent co-stars Luna and Bernal are a hoot and seem to be comfortable with the material.
The film might have an unpretentiously goofy, daffy spirit, and the visual details are funny in their own right, but as a gags-a'plenty comedy, no mas! Between the smirks and chuckles, there are long smoke breaks when the jokes either fall flat or are nonexistent. While we're on the subject, three laughs involve smoking, one of which has a character being shot in the chest and then asking for a cigarette during his last breath. There's also a weirdly hallucinatory fever-dream sequence with a mystical snow leopard (blatantly a puppet) that's pretty inspired, but nothing gets more outlandishly weird than that. 
Unconventional for a contemporary comedy, avoiding easy gross-outs and forced crudeness, and too earnestly played to hate, "Casa de mi Padre" might still turn away Ferrell fans because they'll have to read subtitles. How can one hate a movie where its underlying messages are so obviously delivered in lines of dialogue, as in "not all Americans are bad" and "not all Mexicans are drug dealers?" As a cinematic experiment, it's easy to have affection for, but as a comedic spoof, it's only fitfully amusing and wears thin when a series of shorts would've been just fine. By the end of the year, nobody's going to remember the jokes in "Casa de mi Padre," just the overall concept.


Monday, July 16, 2012

New to DVD/Blu-ray: Atmosphere trumps logic in disappointing "Intruders"

Intruders (2012)
100 min., rated R.
Over the years, there has been a horde of horror films about monstrous boogeymen lurking in the darkness. Ranging from horrid to mediocre2002's "Darkness," 2002's "They," 2003's "Darkness Falls," 2005's "Boogeyman," 2007's "The Messengers"they all seem to blend. And so, with the arrival of "Intruders," it's safe to say it's more unique than derivative, but still doesn't form a fully effective whole. Though playing like a literal there's-a-monster-in-my-closet! horror tale for nearly all of its running time, "Intruders" ends up being a story about identity, family trauma, imagination, and childhood interpretation. So what a disappointment that the film is such a sloppily written gimmick, its psychological twist introducing a more interesting (if less marketable) angle when we've just spent the last 90 minutes with closet monsters.

In Spain, young Juan (Izan Corchero) has nightmares about Hollowface, a faceless figure looking for faces to steal, coming into his home and attacking his mother (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), who soon looks to Catholicism as a hopeful solution. Over in London, 12-year-old Mia Farrow (Ella Purnell), no relation to the "Rosemary's Baby" star, finds a journal entry about Hollowface in a tree that she uses to write a short story for school. One night, when Mia fears Hollowface is coming for her and has troubling sleeping, her construction worker father, John (Clive Owen), comes to the rescue and witnesses the hooded, faceless intruder, who attacks Dad and takes his daughter's mouth (or ability to speak). So is there really a monster in Mia's closet, picking out tomorrow's outfit for her, or is it all in her head? And what else do these Hollowface-related incidents, in Spain and London, have in common?

After first coming on the scene with 2001's Twilight Zone-ish "Intacto" and then adding a jolt of fresh blood to Danny Boyle's vampire tale with his tense, stylish sequel "28 Weeks Later," director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo knows how to visualize the stuff that nightmares are made of. Off to an effective start—on a dark, rainy night, Juan witnesses the hooded Hollowface entering his apartment window from the fire escape—with echoes of 1997's "Mimic" (minus the cockroaches), the film creates a dark, shadowy, palpable creepiness, aided by Enrique Chediak's ("28 Weeks Later") jittery camera work and Roque Baños' tingly, dread-filled score. So far, so good.

Then, just when we assume the film is merely a standard boogeyman movie with vague rules, screenwriters Nicolás Casariego and Jaime Marques drop a contrived, nonsensical third-act twist. It might surprise in how both timelines converge, but acts solely as an "aha" moment for the audience and negates everything else that preceded it. In retrospect, why would John be so shocked over the information medical professionals reveal to him and his wife (Carice van Houten), unless he suffered memory loss? Given what else is revealed thereafter, it can be assumed that the writers were purely out to pull the wool over our eyes instead of crafting a foolproof narrative free of logic hiccups. Though "Intruders" bungles its potential, its climactic moments don't feel the need to belabor more information, which is suggested rather than spelled out.

Of the cast, Owen gives a dignified portrayal of a father caught in a desperate, devoted struggle to help his daughter, while Purnell perseveres as Mia. Nicely atmospheric and incidentally thoughtful, "Intruders" sets a nightmarish mood and draws out some shivery, unsettling images on occasion. Hollowface is an intriguing physical specter, but Freddy Krueger could menace circles around him. It's not as routine as it initially lets on, but the viewer might wish the film were more consistently handled. When all is said and done, the finished product loses sight of greatness, ending up a confused boo-boo.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Potentially riveting "Collaborator" comes up empty

Collaborator (2012)
87 min., not rated.
A filmmaker can risk it all when setting his story in one location with few characters, however, it's not unheard-of to see riveting cinema as if it were grounded on the stage. In "Collaborator," actor-writer-director Martin Donovan (making his debut) hermetically seals two tortured men, one holding the other hostage, in a one-story house. What might be found in a boilerplate Hollywood thriller written by David Mamet, such an intimate setup for this indie chamber piece should hold tension and urgency. But virtually, it's just two men sitting on a couch, doing a lot of talking, occasionally getting up to void and stretch the legs.
Critically savaged for his last few stage performances, married New York playwright Robert Longfellow (Martin Donovan) takes a break from the city in the San Fernando Valley to stay with his mother (Katherine Helmond). Former neighbor Gus (David Morse), who's done time for manslaughter and currently unemployed, has been living with his mother for a while and wants to catch up and grab some beers with Robert sometime. Meanwhile, calling up his former lover Emma Stiles (Olivia Williams), an actress, that Robert hasn't spoken to in eight years, they rekindle their strong connection. The same night Robert is about to go out the door to act upon his feelings with Emma, Gus shows up, hoping they could hang out and throw back some brewskies. Robert gives in, and while they're smoking a joint in the back bedroom, a squat team pulls up to Robert's mother's house in order to position themselves inside the house and get a view of the armed suspect across the street (Gus). But Gus decides to hold Robert hostage.

Donovan is understatedly repressed, with his cool, calm cadence of a psychologist separating him from Morse, acting with an unstable but organic recklessness, in the showier, more histrionic role. For 77 minutes (sans credits), the interest of Donovan's two-hander hinges on the interplay between Robert and Gus. Both men are variations on each other, suffering from a state of going nowhere, and ultimately, the film suffers from the same state. Things really seem ready to ignite when both men improvise a role-playing game as if it were a job interview that leads to the recalling of Robert's older brother, who was killed in Vietnam. But before then, the film is stuck on a low, steady boil. There's simmering and more simmering, with the unpredictable Gus taking everyone down with him, until it has only to lead to its most logical conclusion.

More of a tortured acting/writing exercise than a fully fleshed-out character piece, "Collaborator" has two great acting foils working with a potentially substantive script that has no grand point. It's easy to respect Donovan's stage-bound approach, but hard to feel consistently engaged with the material. Some of his writing has a distinctive rhythm, but Donovan's staging lacks the same kind of energy. Interiors (photographed by Julie Kirkwood) are pretty dingy, and when Manels Favre's ringing music score tries to wake one up, it might just drive the viewer up the wall. While a film should fill you with emotion, ideas, or both, "Collaborator" does a lot of empty jibber-jabbering. At least Donovan challenged himself, but we have yet to see what he can do as a triple-threat talent.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

"Magic of Belle Isle" inoffensive but hokey schmaltz

The Magic of Belle Isle (2012)
109 min., rated PG.
What gives, Rob Reiner? The filmmaker has had a long, successful run behind the camera, with 1984's "This Is Spinal Tap," 1986's "Stand by Me," 1987's "The Princess Bride," 1989's "When Harry Met Sally…," 1990's "Misery," 1992's "A Few Good Men," and 1995's "The American President," until hitting a dry spell with 2003's "Alex & Emma." Now, following 2010's disarmingly old-fashioned "Flipped," which wore its heart on its sleeve, settling in to watch a new movie from Reiner is like snuggling in a warm, cozy blanket, while listening to familiar golden oldies you know it's corny and completely lacking in subtlety, but you might fall under its warm spell anyway. As earnest and saccharine as a Hallmark card, "The Magic of Belle Isle" is an inoffensive and well-meaning sapfest without being very good. The lead character, played by Morgan Freeman, has a disdain for sentimentality, but the film pours it on, like extra sugar on a bowl of Fruit Loops. 

Monte Wildhorn (Morgan Freeman) is a self-pitying, cantankerous, wheelchair-bound author, known for his western paperbacks, moves to an idyllic lakeside town in upstate New York. Since his wife's death, he is content to spend his days drinking, but by his nephew (Kenan Thompson) and literary agent (Kevin Pollak), he is forced to write again. Next door is Charlotte O'Neil (Virginia Madsen), a divorced mother, and her three daughters, the petulant Willow (Madeline Carroll), the precocious Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann), and the gullible Flora (Nicolette Pierini). Finnegan, the eager middle child, immediately takes a shine to the grumpy Mr. Wildhorn and asks him to get her imaginative juices flowing (with the bribe of $34.18), as he simultaneously returns to writing and finds more value in life. 

Eager to please and comfort, "The Magic of Belle Isle" isn't without some sweet moments, but a deep catharsis is smothered by schmaltzy, feel-goody formula. The writing takes the lazy, obvious shorthand very often (including dialogue like "She didn't leave you, she had cancer!"), and in the long run, Guy Thomas' screenplay truncates character arcs for pat resolutions. Naturally, the local crank is redeemed by becoming the leader of the small-town commune, complete with a cute yellow lab named Ringo that he renames Spot and a bunny-hopping, mentally challenged neighbor. Also, Monte can't resist Charlotte, who plays soothing Beethoven on the piano when he sleeps.

Having been half of the draw to see Reiner's "The Bucket List," Freeman's wise presence is almost enough. (Just close your eyes to take a nap and his voice is like a lullaby.) Though playing a curmudgeon, the veteran actor's Monte is really an erudite gentleman. As Charlotte, a de-glammed Madsen is still lovely and radiant at 50. Given Reiner's restraint with Monte and Charlotte's friendship, bonded by both parties' ador for books and music, it refrains from being strange or icky, but any mutual romantic feelings between them is hard to digest. Until the end when they ditch the formality, Charlotte calls Monte "Mr. Wildhorn" over and over that it could become a drinking game. The real standout is Fuhrmann, who's a natural, adorable find as Finnegan without mugging like a cutesy kid-actor. But Carroll, from Reiner's "Flipped," mostly has to play a cliché—a rebellious, cell-dependent teen who gives her mom griefuntil finding Mom's old "Happy Days" lunchbox with her diary inside (don't ask). 

Though not a bad film nor director Reiner's worst (remember 1994's "North?"), "The Magic of Belle Isle" hasn't enough conflict or much at stake to give a thought to any of it. We're supposed to believe that it merely takes a single mom and her three girls for Monte to give up his misanthropy and the bottle, and fix his writing block. That would be all fine and dandy if it felt more authentic and not so hokey and manipulative. Reiner stated that at his age, he wants to keep making life-affirming stories, but his latest only affirms that sentimentality dilutes true emotion.


New to DVD/Blu-ray: De Niro's commitment can't lighten up dreary, self-important "Being Flynn"

Being Flynn (2012)
102 min., rated R.
Based on the 2004 memoir "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City" by playwright and poet Nick Flynn, "Being Flynn" has been written for the screen and directed by Paul Weitz (2002's "About a Boy," 2004's "In Good Company," and 2006's "American Dreamz"), who has made some fine films until his recent rough patch, his latest included. Though Flynn's memoirs would seem to have a blunt, emotional power and edge just by the title, Weitz's adaptation for the screen is just a dreary, self-important father-son drama that happens to get some sincere performances out of its actors. Being a Flynn just seems like the pits, what with the alcoholism, mental disease, drug addiction, and homelessness.

Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro) is an angry, delusional, and self-aggrandizing crank who can barely mask his insanity. He's a writer at heart, thinking everything he writes is an unpublished masterpiece, but works as a taxi driver, pouring himself screwdrivers and drinking on the job. Once kicked out of his apartment for getting belligerent, Jonathan starts to live in his taxi and on the street. Estranged from his father for 18 years, Jonathan's grown-up son Nick (Paul Dano) is also a writer, aimless, self-loathing, and recently dumped by his girlfriend for sleeping with another woman. Moving into a former strip club-turned-apartment with a black drug dealer and a gay man, Nick then receives a call from his father to help him move out, which takes the younger Flynn completely off guard. Coincidentally, Nick takes a job at a homeless shelter (just to do something with his life), while Jonathan becomes homeless himself.

Intriguingly told with dueling unreliable narrators, the story at the core of "Being Flynn" should pull us in closer. However, the novelistic gimmick with Jonathan and Nick's voice-overs doesn't help us get into their heads. As for the father-son relationship, it should be more compelling than it really is, but it's hard to connect to either of them. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and both deserve a swift kick in the ass. 

De Niro certainly seems more engaged here than he has been after giving phoned-in, caricaturized perfs in 2008's "Righteous Kill," 2010's "Little Fockers," and 2011's "Killer Elite," again tapping into his genuine skills as an actor. And it's nice to see the actor taking on a much meatier role, especially one who works as a taxi driver (get it?!), but not even De Niro can make Jonathan Flynn appealing on screen. It's an occasionally showy and completely committed performance that Weitz tries his best to control after he did anything but in "Little Fockers," but the character is still a racist, homophobic bigot that's hard to embrace.

As Nick, the gangly Dano looks like a drowned rat and gets to experience a typical writer downfall when he starts abusing blow. He's an interesting actor that has a lot of passive reacting to do. A pixie-haired Olivia Thirlby puts in strong work as Nick's co-worker/hookup partner Denise. She's more than just "the girl," bringing a cool levelheadedness and backstory to Denise. Also, Julianne Moore has great moments, shown in flashback as Nick's hard-working mother Jody who commits suicide, but her underwritten character deserved more. The presence of Lili Taylor (who's married to the real Nick Flynn) is always a sign of reliability, but she's given three all-too-brief scenes as another co-worker at the shelter. 

"Being Flynn" luckily doesn't become a tidy redemption story. There's no quick resolution for characters this self-involved and problematic, so on that level, Weitz succeeds. Cinematographer Declan Quinn ("Rachel Getting Married") also brings a hazy visual mood to the film, along with indie-rock selections from Badly Drawn Boy, although New York City unconvincingly stands in for Boston. Getting us to care about the Flynns is an entirely different matter.