Thursday, August 30, 2012

Caustic "Bachelorette" a darkly comic gas

Bachelorette (2012)
91 min., rated R.

When you rub out your hangover, "Bachelorette" won't be remembered for its romantic heart or its likably charming characters because it's shamelessly devoid of either. Then again, this is a caustic, toilet-mouthed, and stingingly funny black comedy about nasty—nay, toxic—and self-involved women. Even though it shares cosmetic commonalities with 2011's equally hilarious and heartfelt "Bridesmaids" (and casts Kristen Wiig's oddball British roommate as the bride, to boot), "Bachelorette" is neither riding on the coattails of that female-fronted gem nor is it just another distaff version of "The Hangover." In fact, it has a darker, more biting personality akin to "Young Adult" and "Heathers," only taking place over one long, sloshed pre-nuptials night with Bulimia, coke-snorting, and strip club shenanigans. There is a whole lot of backstabbing mean in its bones, but nobody drinks drain cleaner or dies.

Recently learning of her high school friend, the sweetly beefy Becky (Rebel Wilson), getting married, sniffy New Yorker Regan (Kirsten Dunst) chokes on her jealousy and immediately takes reign as the dictatorial maid of honor. She and the two remaining "B-Faces" (as they were known in their Class of '99) used to call Becky "Pigface" behind her back, but the party-hardy Gena (Lizzy Caplan) and ditzy Katie (Isla Fisher) are ecstatic for the crazy bachelorette party. They brought coke and ordered a male stripper, but Becky was hoping for a more low-key night of champagne and ice cream. Meanwhile, as Regan calls all the shots, Gena wants to hook up with a groomsman (her ex, Clyde, played by "Party Down" co-star Adam Scott), and Katie just wants to find a guy with a job, these three bridesmaids make a mess of themselves (and Becky's dress) the night before the big day.

Written and directed for the screen by first-timer Leslye Headland, "Bachelorette" (based on her 2010 Off Broadway play) takes the typical hijinks of the wedding movie genre and the cattiness of female-centric comedies, and turns it into something bracingly spiky that could cut skin. Every maliciously point-blank line in Headland's script exposes these characters' naked misanthropy of the world around them, but also deepens them as flawed people who take time to change their ways. From the moment we meet the high-strung Regan, who orders a Cobb salad without the chicken, bacon, cheese, and avocado, and Becky orders a burger and fries with a cheesecake for dessert, the film is rowdy fun, even when the characters aren't high. 

Cast to a fare-thee-well, these girls really do just have fun. They trade acerbic, go-for-the-throat barbs with verve, but also draw out their characters' own insecurities and personal issues with some empathy instead of remaining one-dimensional mean girls. Dunst, gamely and hilariously bitchy, is the ice-blond ringleader and fixer of everything, often hiding her scorn behind cool composure or letting others have it (someone even compares her to Hannibal Lecter). As Regan thinks she's achieved everything ("I went to college, I exercise, I eat like a normal person…") and hates that there's no wedding in her near future, there's a jealousy percolating inside of her that's sad and sadly human. Caplan, a saucy firecracker, gets the saltiest lines and biggest laughs (her fellatio-concerned conversation with Horatio Sanz on a plane will induce a spit take). Fisher is a ball of fun to watch as the token airhead with her share of issues. Wilson plays "the straight man" for the most part, and she's one of the most humane characters on screen. In a role that never treats Becky as a punchline or as a bridezilla (until reasonably so, when she finds blood and semen on her wedding gown), she's sweetly naive and touchingly empathetic. 

On the "bachelor side," the actors are just along for the ride but bring up the rear with personality. Each girl is pursued by a man on the groom's side: Scott drolly plays Damone to Gena's Stacy from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," James Marsden has fun playing an unabashed asshole as Trevor, and Kyle Bornheimer is all Bob Newhart-like deadpan as Joe, a former classmate who can only get Katie to remember him as her pot dealer. It's also nice to see the groom (Hayes MacArthur), a handsome, athletic-type guy, genuinely in love with the plus-size Becky; there are no bets being made or any shady motives here.

Produced by Gary Sanchez Productions (operated by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay), "Bachelorette" is really just a smartly funny, razor-sharp gas. Having such a terrific ensemble run with the vicious dialogue and behave horribly is a comedic thrill, but the disbelief that Becky would ever remain friends with the "B-Faces" in the first place is best left suspended. It's hard to say if writer-director Headland has any real affection for these characters, but we do love to hate them. Headland is also on point with her soundtrack, calling back a specific time for these high school pals (especially Gena) with The Proclaimers' "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)"; the pacing is brisk; and she shoots her project less like an overlit sitcom and more like a realistic up-all-night party through Manhattan. Getting too nice at the tail-end being its only nagging issue, "Bachelorette" is still a blast. Too darkly tangy to be accepted into the mainstream, Headland's first effort is crowd-pleasing and yet rarely compromises itself, and that's the way it should be.


Crafty "Tall Man" a dark bait-and-switch act

The Tall Man (2012)
100 min., rated R.

Horror fans' expectations will instantly be dashed if they are hoping French writer-director Pascal Laugier's "The Tall Man" to be another hardcore shocker like his last (2008's gut-wrenching, uncompromising "Martyrs") or even an extension of the Tall Man antagonist from the "Phantasm" series. However, criticizing the film for not fulfilling its marketing campaign or one's preconceptions is just silly and reductive. Laugier belies the disturbing, explicitly grisly nature of his previous horror film by eliminating much of the on-screen violence but doesn't back down on thematically dark, bait-and-switch storytelling. Viscerally reserved but bathing in atmosphere, "The Tall Man" is a different animal: this is an engaging, craftily plotted, and skillfully made mystery-drama that subverts expectations.

The small, rundown town of Cold Rock, Washington, is considered dead not only from the closing of its mine and the lack of jobs and finances, but also from a series of children going missing. (We're given title cards revealing that "800,000 children are reported missing each year in the USA…1,000 disappear without leaving a trace.") The community, made up mostly of trailer-trash types, believes the child abducter to be a mythical boogeyman-like figure known as the Tall Man. A dressed-down, almost-haggard Jessica Biel stars as Julia Denning, a nurse who runs the only clinic in Cold Rock after her doctor husband died several years ago. She doesn't believe in urban legends regarding the Tall Man, but Julia is a mother herself, so guess who's the next child to be kidnapped?

In its favor, "The Tall Man" isn't really about what you think it's about. From the film's dramatic opening credits with a bombastic score and bold-red letters appearing in aerial shots of the town, "The Tall Man" appears to be a thriller at the onset. Taking off as a promisingly harrowing mother-doing-anything-to-reclaim-her-son pic that offers up tense moments and a few jolts in the standard, jumpy sense, the film then reveals its sleight of hand at the 40-minute mark. Laugier takes us in one direction and then in another direction, making us deflect our sympathies again and again. Besides the narrative turn coming as a shock, it's more organic than any of M. Night Shyamalan's last few works. Whereas plot turns on screen can come off contrived and clever for the sake of being clever, this one doesn't feel like a trick on the audience because what we didn't see was there all along.

Given more of a chance to test her skills, Biel turns in her strongest performance as Julia. Initially, she isn't far from the realm of the work she did in the 2003 "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake, having to do some running and run through some emotionally high places, until you finally see something new and deeper in her. During a final monologue from her character, she really exhibits something in her eyes that makes you buy the whole thing. Canadian natives Stephen McHattie and particularly Samantha Ferris, as the local Lieutenant Dodd and troubled mother Tracy, also make solid impressions. Lastly, Jodelle Ferland continues to impress, this time not playing an evil tyke but Tracy's mute, equally troubled daughter.

Also quite the mood piece, "The Tall Man" is richly atmospheric and captures a real sense of place with Kamal Derkaoui's starkly picturesque cinematography and Jean-Andre Carriere's production design of the gorgeously misty Cold Rock. Props should also go to the sound department for combining natural and augmented sounds, especially during a chase sequence set on a stretch of road that segues into the woods. The film isn't without its problems, mainly a voice-over narration that feels the need to spell things out and push emotional buttons; it's too much of a heavy-handed device (especially in the very last shot before cutting to black). Less would have been more, but by the end, Laugier still raises ethical questions about parental responsibility without handing out easy answers. With that, he goes to show that there are deeper, more interesting sides to the horror genre than just hacking up body parts.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Chill-free "Apparition" as useful as a moldy sandwich

The Apparition (2012)
82 min., rated PG-13.

No one should be surprised if "The Apparition" turns out to have been released by chimps. Warner Bros. and Joel Silver's Dark Castle Entertainment are selling it as a teenybopper version of "Poltergeist." From the trailer and tagline ("Once you believe, you die"), there seems to be a potentially interesting conceit afoot, in which ghosts only exist if we believe in them. However, none of that found its way onto the screen in first-time writer-director Todd Lincoln's inauspicious debut. Instead, we have a useless, chill-free, oh-so-dull "spooker" that is not only a waste of time, but reeks of a late-summer, last-ditch effort to scrape every last buck from moviegoers' wallets.

Before things go bump in the night, happy young couple Kelly (Ashley Greene) and Ben (Sebastian Stan)—she's a vet assistant, he's a Geek Squad guy—settle into an investment home that her parents own in a desert California residential area. Then the Spooky Stuff happens: Their store-bought cactus dies, the doors open, mold spores spread, a bedroom dresser moves, the neighbors' fluffy dog gets it, etc. What to do? Ben has been holding out on Kelly that he, college friend Patrick (Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy of the "Harry Potter" franchise), and Ben's former girlfriend (Julianna Guill) once recreated a seance from 1973's Charles Experiment with modern technology that went wrong. Opening a gateway between the afterlife and our earthly dimension, they unleashed a supernatural entity. So when Patrick shows up, he alerts the couple that it's not the house that's haunted. Oh, man.

Even if the finished project didn't seem like a victim of post-production studio interference out of writer-director Lincoln's hands, "The Apparition" is still an ineffective bust of false starts, missed opportunities, and unoriginal ideas. Its narrative is so incoherent that when its most promising hook is given the boot, Lincoln treats us to silly, tediously staged attempts at suspense and scares. Every time a supposedly startling moment is cut short, it fails to work up any consistent level of terror or unease. Lincoln comes close to building dread when Kelly goes around her darkened house with an ERP scanner and then gets trapped in a mummifying bed sheet, but still, no cigar. The whole film is like that, setting up scenes that should arrive at a payoff but never do. 

It also doesn't help that, despite scratchy found-footage and all of Patrick's expository nonsense and tacked-on voice-over ("It's like a virus…it knows you're afraid"), we're never clear on what the poor protags are up against. Are the apparitions creepy Asian ghost girls from "The Grudge" (like the one Kelly faces when she gets locked inside the laundry room)? What's with the mold growing under the house's linoleum and on a corner wall in the kitchen like a hornet's nest? Some horror films are best when they leave out easy answers and clear-cut solutions, but Lincoln's screenplay (if that's what you'd call it) doesn't care to explain much, so why should we care about any of it? As Kelly and Ben, the ridiculously gorgeous Ashley Greene (best known as vampire Alice in "Twilight"), who gets to react with her mouth agape, shower, and walk around in skimpy underwear, and Sebastian Stan, who's even more of a blank slate, are earnest and easy enough to like. Too bad they are such vapid cardboard cutouts with few personal character traits that it's nigh impossible to care about their fates. They get to "develop" their relationship through playfully throwing tortilla chips at each other, shopping at Costco for a cactus, and ultimately playing house, all to no avail. Then, when Kelly finds her clothes all tangled in the closet (!), the two lovebirds become dummies, as they decide to sleep in their camping tent in the backyard. Apparently, these geniuses have never seen "Paranormal Activity."

The techno score by tomandandy is an edgy respite from the generic, go-to music in horror movies, and the art direction is impressive when the couple finds their house bending into off-kilter shapes out of an M.C. Escher painting, but that's about it as far as compliments go. Even Daniel C. Pearl's cinematography, though certainly slick, favors too many wide shots that suck out the tension. As the movie begins to wind down with two inane false endings, the sepia-toned third sequence is a non-ending as well. Though we're left with a creepy image for the final shot (which has already been given away in the trailer), it's an infuriating cop-out. It may run a mercifully quick 82 minutes (including end credits), but this is a wimpy, dumbed-down, paint-by-numbers (not to mention, PG-13) filmmaking exercise in how not to get the skin crawling. Slowly going nowhere, "The Apparition" just takes up space. 


DVD/Blu-ray: "Lovely Molly" creepy but unsatisfying

Lovely Molly (2012)
99 min., rated R.

Eduardo Sanchez, co-writer and co-director of 1999's found-footage watermark "The Blair Witch Project," has returned to his old stomping grounds of the horror genre. Thirteen years after that lightning in a bottle comes another brainchild (which Sanchez co-wrote with Jamie Nash) called "Lovely Molly," which comes across as yet another piggybacker of the now-antiquated found-footage genre but is anything but. And that's both good and bad. 

Three months after they tie the knot and move into her long-abandoned family home, struggling newlyweds Molly (Gretchen Lodge) and Tim (Johnny Lewis) experience an apparent break-in. Tim insists he locked the doors, but the cop finds no forced entry. As Tim goes off to work, driving trucks, Molly hangs back at the old, creaky house during her birthday. She starts hearing mysterious crying, banging noises at the door, and footsteps coming up the stairs. Then once her husband returns home, he sees a change in change in Miss Molly. 

Less of a creepy exercise with the mere goal of startling than a psychological character study, "Lovely Molly" becomes increasingly disturbing to watch and leads into the deepest, darkest depths of the human psyche. It's chillingly quiet, deliberately paced, and doesn't underline everything for those that are paying attention. Sanchez and Nash don't really throw us off with an "is it real or not?" gimmick but focus on the damaged Molly and her trauma. She's a former heroin addict and starts recalling memories following her father's death. Is she possessed or having a relapse? Is the ghost of her father haunting her or is she nuts?

With "Lovely Molly," Sanchez still works within a vérité form and sometimes employs his home-video footage speciality to play a role in the story itself. One of the film's most unnerving sequences has Molly sitting stark naked in a spare room staring at the wall, and another is surveillance footage of her being violated by an unseen assailant in the basement of her workplace. But the creepiest constant is newcomer Lodge, looking like a lovely young Gwyneth Paltrow. In a fearless, committed-as-hell performance, she is clearly up to the challenge of the title role. More-experienced actress Alexandra Holden lends strong support as Molly's protective sister, Hannah. 

About halfway through, the film is like watching a festering wound, becoming more and more of a queasy, unpleasant wallow. The filmmakers try shifting sympathies in a late twist, but the film just ends up being a sicker and not necessarily better version of "Silent House." What's even more disappointing is the muddled last shot when the second-to-last scene might've left things on a hauntingly ambiguous note. There are some effective chills and provocative ideas found in "Lovely Molly," but the motor holding those chills and ideas together is wobbly and unsatisfying. As a whole film, it sticks in your craw rather than fully creeping under your skin.

Grade: C +

Monday, August 27, 2012

Compact "Premium Rush" delivers breakneck fun

Premium Rush (2012)
91 min., rated PG-13.

Now this is more like it — a little under-the-radar diversion that almost sped away before the dawn of fall. "Premium Rush," a kinetic, breakneck end-of-the-summer ride, gets down to the brass tacks and shows us a fun time. Screenwriter and director David Koepp (2008's "Ghost Town"), who's long been the high-profile scribe for summer fare, expertly delivers a 91-minute-long chase on a bike without wearing out its welcome. Obviously, it's not challenging, but exhilarating, and how!

Being a bike messenger looks like a hell of a job, especially in treacherous New York City, but Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a daredevil that just wants to ride. Giving up his potential as a law graduate, he can't be in a suit or sit behind an office desk; that's just not him. Delivering packages on time from a courier security office, Wilee is the only one to ride without brakes or gears, while his on-again, off-again girlfriend, fellow messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), and his spandex-clad foe, Manny (Wole Parks), take the safer two-wheeled model. Things get hairier than usual when the bike champion picks up a premium rush package from Vanessa's roommate, Nima (Jamie Chung), at NYU that must be delivered to Chinatown by 7 p.m. Before getting the chance to inhale his burrito log, Wilee is accosted by Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon). Monday, a crooked NYPD cop with impulse-control issues, desperately wants that envelope back, so he can clear his gambling debts, but Wilee isn't about to slow down.

From the word go, Koepp gooses his sleek visual style with zippy but nimble speed, all while keeping our attention to the geography of Manhattan, with satellite photos and a Google Earth-type map that trace the biker's route. Just watching Wilee dodge and weave on two wheels through rush hour traffic and tight spaces is a thrill in itself. Koepp treats us to being part of the high-speed chase, varying his shots with coherence and never resorting to shaky-cam syndrome. There's also a nifty visual trick (recalling "Run Lola Run" and the "Sherlock Holmes" movies), where Wilee gets a split-second vision of every possible what-if? scenario at a busy intersection (he can either go this way and collide with a woman and a baby stroller, or go that way and fly over the hood of a car). 

With a literal ticking clock accentuating the rush, "Premium Rush" can't be faulted for not moving forward with fast-pedaling momentum. However, as Koepp and John Kamps' screenplay employs a time-flipping shorthand with hour-earlier rewinds to explain why that ticket is such a hot commodity and how other characters are connected to Wilee's pickup, the movie too often slams on the brakes for exposition. The envelope could have just remained a MacGuffin, not a desperate device for emotional stakes, because it hardly matters. Still, the storytelling is bare-bones and economical enough to avoid many kinks in the always-turning wheel (last pun, I swear). The movie also touches on the close-knit community of bike messengers and the dynamic between them and cops, drivers, and pedestrians, but this is hardly a documentary.

Gordon-Levitt always commits and seems to be doing most of his own perilous stunts (seen in the credits, he even crashed into the back windshield of a taxicab and received 31 stitches) when his stunt double isn't seamlessly standing in. Though the character of Wilee is less layered than what usually calls for the reliable actor's talents, he does a lot with a little. When Wilee could have come off as a cocky jerk, Gordon-Levitt makes him likable, charismatic, and sympathetic. On the showier side, character actor Shannon deliciously chews the scenery like it's bubblegum. Adding some off-kilter humor, he gets to bulge his eyes like a lunatic and make Monday as despicable as a cartoon villain, who's chasing Wilee (as in Wile E. Coyote), should be. Also, Ramirez is plucky and shares a nice chemistry with her male co-star; Aasif Mandvi adds smartass humor as the couriers' boss; and Chung, who sports a suspect Chinese accent, still puts in a sensitive, empathetic performance.

There might not be much substance to take away from the whole experience, but "Premium Rush" doesn't really need it. It's a dizzying, no-frills popcorn movie, and a good, satisfying one, that fulfills exactly what it promises. No need for a 5-hour Energy drink during this one.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Diverting "Hit & Run" surprisingly doesn't crash and burn

Hit & Run (2012)
100 min., rated R.

Chemistry is not always easy to obtain when on-screen leads have to fake it. That sometimes goes for real-life couples as well, but Dax Shepard and his on- and off-screen significant other Kristen Bell aren't faking it. As it turns out, they ignite a buttload of chemistry in "Hit & Run," writer-director-actor Shepard's pet project (and second feature with co-director David Palmer, following 2010's "Brother's Justice"). And for a movie released during the dog days of August, this little romantic chase comedy really is more fun than it looks and not all that bad, despite low expectations from the terribly junky trailers that might have left audiences jaded.

Charlie Bronson (Shepard) has been living a quiet, simple life in a rural California town with his girlfriend Annie (Bell). He's in the Witness Protection Program for being a getaway driver in armed robberies, unbeknownst to his main squeeze, and stays put in their country home, while she's a college professor with a doctorate in nonviolent conflict resolution. When Annie receives an ultimatum from her boss (Kristin Chenoweth) one morning—she can go to an interview in L.A. for the opportunity to head her own academic department or be fired from the underwhelming job she has now—Charlie takes the risk to leave and get her to that interview in his customized 1967 Lincoln Continental. Of course, Charlie's past comes back on the trip, as a few different groups are on their tail: Charlie's inept witness protection guardian Randy (Tom Arnold); Annie's smarmy, obsessive ex-boyfriend Gil (Michael Rosenbaum); Gil's gay cop brother Terry (Jess Rowland) who just wants to find a hookup via his cell's detection app; and Charlie's ex-crime cohorts (Bradley Cooper, Shepard's "Parenthood" fiancée Joy Bryant, and Bell's former "Veronica Mars" co-star Ryan Hansen).

When Shepard and Bell are together, one can just feel the love. In only the opening scene, Charlie and Annie engage in some playful teasing, verbal relaxation, and innocent face-slapping while snuggling in bed under the covers. It's such an adorably intimate moment, and from there, we believe them as a couple and as individual people. Even when Charlie keeps the truth of his past from Annie (including his birth moniker, Yul Perkins), he's honest with her and she doesn't turn into an unreasonably whiny ninny. Before all chaos breaks out on their car ride, these two actually have some interesting, smartly written conversations regarding nasty, political incorrect words like "fag" and "the N-word," which don't feel tacked-on since Annie specializes in nonviolence. Their relationship feels so natural and sweet that it's easy to turn a blind eye to the film's problems.

If Charlie and Annie are readily appealing and endearing, the same can't quite be said for the rest of the lot. When Arnold's Randy first shows up, he is such a putz. While driving his mini-van, he spills a cup of coffee all over himself, jumps out and forgets to put it in park, ends up running after his runaway vehicle, and takes out his gun, only to accidentally shoot through the windows of a family home. Very few of Randy's bumbling scenes are funny because Arnold (did he owe Shepard a favor?) is so cartoonishly broad and tiresome, and it's head-scratching how this hapless guy could be trusted with a firearm, let alone be a marshal, and act so irresponsibly stupid. But, as payback-seeking Alex Dimitri, a dreadlocked Cooper is good at playing despicable and actually underplays it. Also, in all of her two scenes, Chenoweth enjoyably plays Annie's pill-popping college administrator. Lastly, there is a rib-tickling surprise cameo during the first half of the closing credits.

Even if the romantic element clicks, the rest is hit-and-usually-miss (Alex's rant of his own prison rape goes on ridiculously long). Co-directors Shepard and Parker add a few amusingly goofy, off-kilter touches, most memorably a gas of a slo-mo sequence where Charlie one-ups Gil in a tire burnout and doughnut contest that's cued to "Pure Imagination." The sight gag(s) of characters walking into the wrong motel room of naked, saggy octogenarians is easy but funny and surprising. However, one of the low points comes early when the animal-loving Alex wraps a dog leash around an African American man, drags him down an alleyway and force-feeds him dog food with a gun to his head, and then steals the man's canine best friend. In spite of the gag's daring, it's just mean and unfunny, so what were the filmmakers thinking? And yet, the movie bounces back every time it gets back to Shepard and Bell.

To steer gearhead viewers away from potential lawsuits, "Hit & Run" is not a summertime actioner jumping on the bandwagon of "The Fast and the Furious." No, the pacing is shaggy, and the low-budget chases are well-shot but merely competent. The filmmakers' choice to shoot in a jittery handheld style also points to a "Smokey and the Bandit"-type indie, rather than a slick, high-velocity blockbuster, calling back the '70s drive-in heyday. It's all pretty slapdash, too, when it comes to settling on a tone and throwing in some madcap asides, but a good-times vibe of Shepard making a movie with his buds and his lady luckily rubs off on those watching. Loose and lightweight, "Hit & Run" is just a late-summer throwaway trifle, but it's more diverting than not, so that's something.

Grade: C +

"Celeste and Jesse" smarter and more relatable than rom-com norm

Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)
91 min., rated R.

Ever since "When Harry Met Sally…," romantic comedies like to explore the age-old question: can men and women just be friends? The arthouse-y romantic comedy "Celeste and Jesse Forever" may not stray completely off the grid from conventional, studio-produced romantic-comedies, but the smart, fresh screenplay by real-life best friends Rashida Jones and Will McCormack refuses to compromise its intelligence and has been infused with more relatable truths than the wheel-spinning genre is known for having. What a concept!

When we first find Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg), they're already friends . . . best friends since 10th grade actually, and now married. They're so affectionate and simpatico that they'll hand-sign hearts to one another, do German accents together, and indulge in an inside joke where they pretend to give handjobs to a squeezable tube of lip balm or a baby carrot. Celeste and Jesse spend so much time together, and yet, they have been separated for six months and are on their way to divorce. Their friends, soon-to-be-married couple Beth (Ari Graynor) and Tucker (Eric Christian Olsen), think the relationship is just weird, but Celeste and Jesse just aren't ready to cut the cord yet. She's a Los Angeles "trend forecaster" who's just had her first book published, and he's an unemployed artist living in her backyard guesthouse. When one of them decides to start dating again, the other isn't ready to let go.

Celeste has a superiority complex, always thinking she's right, that the character could've came off as a type-A pain in the rump. And Jesse is a bit of a man-child but never a jerk; he just procrastinates on starting his career. The reason these characters are more likable, sympathetic, and immensely appealing than they would sound on paper is a testament to the leads playing them. Jones and Samberg share such a comfortable, playful rapport and effortless chemistry that flashbacks are never necessary. One can just feel their long, intimate history together. Always winning on screen, Jones is finally given the opportunity to both rip into her acerbic side and show some understated depth as a comedic-dramatic actress. Though his screen cohort is clearly the standout, Samberg is still more relaxed and subtle than he's ever been, showing an impressive range outside of slacker comedies.

Because the movie remains concentrated on Celeste and Jesse, the supporting players still make the most of their archetypal characters. Elijah Wood puts an amusing, unstereotypical stamp on the wisecracking-gay-best-friend role. Emma Roberts has fun playing a petulant Ke$ha-type pop tart but doesn't go that far over-the-top to be unbelievable and sheds a few surprising layers. Chris Messina, who's finding more work this year, is charming as Paul, a guy Celeste meets in yoga that meet be able to fill the void of Jesse. Jones' fellow writer McCormack is also pretty funny as Celeste and Jesse's friend and pot dealer.

Nearly everything about "Celeste and Jesse Forever" makes it a genuine renovation of the progressively plastic, cookie-cutter genre. Director Lee Toland Krieger (he of the underappreciated 2009 indie "The Vicious Kind") shoots the movie in an edgy, rough-around-the-edges sort of way that captures a naturalistic L.A. Even some obscure, interestingly melancholy songs are chosen in place of a poppy soundtrack made up of today's hottest hits. Jones and McCormack's script has the outline of a clichéd romantic comedy, but astutely explores the reality of a relationship that's only stalling both characters' personal growth.

In the film's middle section, the film checks into a more wacky place that it didn't really need. Celeste goes on a few dates that don't go so hot. At Beth and Tucker's wedding party, she gets loaded, while filling her face with food and smoking a cigarette, and then passes out on a pool raft. These scenes aren't unfunny, but often feel forced compared to the film's establishment of a realistic tone. In a way, the desperation that Celeste feels makes sense, but her pity party becomes repetitious when it could've been tightened. However, there is a speech at a wedding reception that would've felt very contrived in another movie, but here, it rings true with a sad honesty. Refreshingly unpredictable and admirably bittersweet, "Celeste and Jesse Forever" is also romantic and funny, but it feels more like real life than not. That's right, the central relationship is not always rainbows and unicorns. If no studio film about human relationships can bring out the comfort, longing, and pain better than this indie gem, they might as well go home now.

Grade: B + 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Halloween-ready "ParaNorman" a delightfully macabre summer treat

ParaNorman (2012)
93 min., rated PG.

Say you have a long-standing affection for the horror genre and savor anything Halloween related. If that's the case, then "ParaNorman" is going to make your mouth water. Seamlessly interweaving the macabre with an outsider's coming-of-age tale, writer-director Chris Butler's feature debut (along with co-director Sam Fell of "The Tale of Despereaux" and "Flushed Away") is crafted with such passion for everything weird, spooky, and ooky that audiences should find this effort infectious. Oh, and it's a stop-motion animated feature from Laika (the same studio that brought us 2009's dazzlingly inventive "Coraline") with a similar stop-motion style and gleefully morbid tone to "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Corpse Bride" (which was storyboarded by Butler). As animation films are often wrongfully dismissed as adult-proof, kids-only cartoons, "ParaNorman" is anything but, avoiding all pandering of most animated features. However, it does count as a delightfully macabre film and one of this summer's treats that calls on fall and Halloween.

11-year-old Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is misunderstood. He isn't treated as a freak for his big elephant ears or his appetite for zombie movies, but for his known gift that he's able to see and talk to dead people in his hometown of Blithe Hollow. His boy-crazy teenybopper sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), ridicules him and his parents (Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin) don't believe that he still talks to his departed Grandma (Elaine Stritch) in the living room. Day in and day out at school, Norman faces the bullying of Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), but he luckily finds a friend in Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the school "fatty," who's actually ecstatic that Norman can see ghosts, including Neil's dead dog. Then after he's visited by his hobo uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), Norman learns that a witch's 300-year-old curse will soon be unleashed on Blithe Hollow, beginning with the rising of the zombified Puritans who were responsible for lynching alleged witch Aggie (Jodelle Ferland). With the help of Neil, Neil's buff but rocks-for-brains brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), Courtney, and his abnormal gift of course, Norman will have to defeat the monsters, or the town is toast.

With the filmmakers' fandom of horror bursting in every scene, "ParaNorman" has fun decor and real visual wit. Off the top, there's a keenly spoofed scene from a grindhouse movie that would play at a drive-in. Norman wakes up to a gravestone alarm clock, uses a monster toothbrush, and sleeps in a bedroom full of brain-eating monster posters covering the walls. There are even cute nods to "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" in the same scene, Norman's ringtone of John Carpenter's classic score going off and a hockey-masked Neil standing in the backyard. All the zombie slapstick is reminiscent of George A. Romero and Sam Raimi's works, and even the climax's enraged mob evokes "Frankenstein," but there's an inspired bit involving a townie and a bag of chips in a slow-as-a-zombie vending machine.

Butler's script is compact and quick-witted, even if the Big Finish could have used a trim, but the imagery never overwhelms the story, and that's already a plus. Of course, nothing in "ParaNorman" would be without the painstaking craftsmanship of the stop-motion animation. From the astonishing process of molding models and sets that goes into fulfilling each frame, the entire film is a marvel of rich, unique, and complex art direction. (One sequence reportedly took more than two years to create.) The autumnal town of Blithe Hollow, undoubtedly inspired by Salem, Massachusetts, is eye-poppingly realized, and the characters' physical features are exaggerated but detailed (Jessica has huge hips, Mom and Dad have bellies).

The voice performances couldn't be better, as every character has a personality that endears in one way or another. Stritch, as the glowing orb of Grandma, gets a few funny lines, one stating that she didn't go to Heaven because it had "no cable or Canasta." Kendrick sells her snootiness with relish (and plenty of pink lip gloss), and Affleck is a particular hoot as musclehead Mitch, who's given a character reveal that's surprisingly bold for the medium and the PG rating.

There are surprisingly touching messages about bullying and tolerance that aren't too preachy, but gags involving rotting corpses and the constant theme of death might scare away the kiddies. Then again, if they're old enough to laugh off the Sanderson sisters sucking the lives out of children in the Halloween staple "Hocus Pocus," they can more than handle this. Spooky, spirited, and lovingly handcrafted, this is a labor of love made with wit, heart, goosebumps, and brainnnns.

Grade: A - 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Timothy Green" sprouts sweet, not cloying, fable

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012)
100 min., rated PG.

Old-fashioned, modern-day fables targeted for families are hard to find. Today's market regularly churns out moneyed animated sequels and kid-friendly fare, littered with bathroom humor and pop-culture references, that fresh ideas seemed hopeless. "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" has neither. Luckily, an original idea sprouted into the head of producer Ahmet Zappa and the film itself turns out to be one of Disney's best live-action offerings in years. Adapting the screenplay from Zappa, writer-director Peter Hedges (2007's "Dan in Real Life") grounds the mystical premise in the real world, while gracefully embracing its underlying message that there's nothing wrong with being different. This is a sentimental but endearing and sincerely told tale that's not encumbered by heavy-handedness or eye-rolling corniness.

The setup might be odd—young children will load their parents up with questions on the way home—but it's magical realism in essence. In the industry town of Stanleyville, where pencils are made, loving married couple Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton) try to conceive a child the natural way but are having no luck. At the end of their ropes, they have a little wine and start writing down qualities of the child they would've liked to call their own. Being honest to a fault, having a good sense of humor, being musical and artistic, and being able to make a winning goal in his first soccer game are just a few of the attributes that are put into a wooden box and buried into the ground of the Greens' vegetable garden. Then, a miracle happens. Following a magical rainstorm, a 10-year-old boy named Timothy (CJ Adams), caked in mud, comes out of the ground and into the couple's life. He's their own little miracle, but comes with one tiny, obvious oddity: he has green, unclippable leaves growing around his ankles. Knee socks can't take care of that for long.

"The Odd Life of Timothy Green" could be compared to "Pinocchio," "Forrest Gump," and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," but it's special enough to stand on its own two, leafy feet. For a Disneyed production, adult issues of conception and adoption are handled with honesty and sensitivity. Then, once Timothy grows out of the soil, he inevitably changes people's lives. You know that when Jim's pencil factory is experiencing layoffs by his shifty boss (Ron Livingston), his magical boy will make things right. Everyone quickly accepts that the Greens have a 10-year-old child all of a sudden, and at times, Timothy is turned into the town's saint, but the film is really about the boy being the son Cindy and Jim always wanted. He's near-perfect in their eyes and odd to others. After Timothy is picked on at school, a girl named Joni (Odeya Rush) sees something in him. Like how he covers his leaves with socks, she's self-conscious about her own birthmark. The times they share together in the woods are sweet and innocent. There's a crowd-pleasing scene, where Cindy's undermining soccer-mom of a sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) puts the "musical" Timothy on the spot at a family music recital and he surprises everyone with an impromptu performance with Mom and Dad. Where the story ultimately ends up isn't hard to predict, given the wraparound scenes with an adoption agency official (Shohreh Aghdashloo), but the final outcome is emotionally gratifying.

Garner and Edgerton are charming and touching as Cindy and Jim, making us root for this couple. As the titular Timothy Green, Adams is simply wonderful, like the first time Haley Joel Osment graced us with his presence. Played by an appealingly eclectic cast—DeWitt, Livingston, David Morse, and Common—the supporting characters are just cardboard clichés. However, M. Emmet Walsh and Lois Smith are delightful as Cindy's Uncle Bub and Aunt Mel, the former taking a particular liking to Timothy and his humor. Also, Dianne Wiest is fun to watch as Cindy's crabby, whisker-chinned boss at the local pencil museum. The film is what audiences might call "feel-good," but the emotions are gentle and genuine without being cloying or condescending. Now, if Hollywood could only put a box of good ideas in the ground and spring up another quality family film like "The Odd Life of Timothy Green."