Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Looper" astounds the brain, heart, and eyeballs

Looper (2012)
118 min., rated R.

If the cool, perhaps too-cool, 2006 high-school noir "Brick" established anything, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship between writer-director Rian Johnson (2008's "The Brothers Bloom") and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Johnson's third feature "Looper" may just be the confident, independent-minded storyteller's own "Casablanca," starring one of the hardest working actors of his or any generation. Tricky but not condescending and cerebral but not emotionally cold, "Looper" works on multiple levels: as a brainy piece of science fiction; a brutal, thrillingly sensational action spectacle; an emotional character piece . . . and a superior mind-bender to even "Inception."

Okay, first things first. It's not giving anything away that the advertising hasn't already to say that Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are the same person. Without context, that sounds like something not even suspension of disbelief could solve. And the premise is a real corker, but it can't be boiled down to a Cliffs Notes summary. In a grimy, dystopian Kansas, the present year is 2044. Thirty years from then (2074), time travel will be invented but illegal. A shadowy business, led by a ganster ring and their cryptic boss known as The Rainmaker, goes down: the future's criminal garbage gets taken out by assassins, called "loopers," who await their target's out-of-thin-air arrival with a muzzleloading blunderbuss in hand. These "good" killers receive payment in silver, strapped to the goner's back, and then incinerate the bodies. There's a catch, though: if a looper's future self is sent back as a target, he is forced to do away with him (this is called "closing your loop"), so any trace between employer and employee can be erased.

One of the loopers is Joe (played by a strange-looking Gordon-Levitt), an average Joe with a not so average job. When he's not stationed on the skirts of a cornfield with his ticking pocket watch and shooting a baddie in the chest, he's getting high and spending time with a showgirl (Piper Perabo). But when he sees the horrible fate of fellow looper and friend, Seth (Paul Dano) who failed to close his loop and alerts him that The Rainmaker is closing all loops, will Joe be tough enough to kill his future self (Bruce Willis)? If not, his boss Abe (a sardonic, scene-stealing Jeff Daniels) might have to send his Gat Men after Joe.

After carefully setting up its dense mythology and complicated rules via Gordon-Levitt's efficient noirish narration, "Looper" hits the ground running and doesn't brake to hold your hand or let you dwell on the plot mechanics. (To quote Daniels' Abe: "This time-travel shit fries your brain like an egg." Or, Old Joe, on the topic of time-travel paradoxes: "We're gonna be here all day making diagrams with straws.") Then, there comes a point where Johnson purposefully slows down the pace, without killing narrative momentum, to explore his characters, what's ultimately at stake, and philosophical questions. The second half changes gears for the better when Joe stumbles upon a cane field owned by Sara (Emily Blunt), his past self…just kidding. She's a farm girl, who can handle a gun and chop wood like a lumberjack, and lives with her gifted son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon). And from there—heck, stuff happens.

Influences to "Blade Runner," "The Terminator," "The Matrix," "Firestarter," "Carrie," and then some are certainly there, but Johnson makes it his own, his script and every frame bursting with ingenuity and unpredictability. In a few pivotal moments, Johnson makes some startlingly bold choices that upend expectations and are too rare in most major Hollywood releases. One particular "wow" moment involving Cid, a looper lawman (Garret Dillahunt), and levitation might just cause the hair on one's arms to stand up on end. And if anyone's never seen a movie, the sucker-punch ending will surely seem like a rule-breaker, but what happens still isn't seen coming and remains true to the story.

With blue contacts, a thinned upper lip, and a new nose, the latex make-up on Gordon-Levitt, making him one face with Willis, should take a few minutes getting used to, but it will fascinate most and distract only the attention-challenged set. It worked for Charlize Theron in "Monster," and it works here, too. The combination of facial prosthetics and mimicry is a stunt, but an effectively impressive one. Really, it's a testament to Gordon-Levitt's subtle performance, as he captures Willis' smirk and overall cool without seeming to try. Normally, it would be difficult to side ourselves with a cold-blooded killer and an eye-drop junkie, but Gordon-Levitt makes it even harder not to be invested in this guy's plight. Hey, he's wracked with guilt for giving up Seth, plus he's ambitious enough to study French. Aiding the younger actor is Willis, who not only delivers fun badassery but provides a moving sense of self-loathing. There's one great scene in a diner, where both Joes sit across from each other with steak, eggs, and burnt coffee in front of them. It's so tense and darkly funny, until it erupts into gunshots. Blunt wouldn't sound convincingly cast as a wood-chopping farm girl, but she's very good here, supplying Sara with a pathos and an inner regret. As for Cid, the scarily adorable Gagnon might be the most mesmerizing 5-year-old to act on the big screen (aside from Quvenzhané Wallis).

Without feeling show-offy, Steve Yedlin's cinematography combines the Hollywood mainstream with arthouse cinema, ranging from slo-mo and dizzying tilts to still, intimate shots. Scene to scene and shot to shot, the editing by Bob Ducsay is methodical but quick and sharp, and Nathan Johnson's music score gives every moment an electric charge. There is but one ultra-small issue with the otherwise impeccable production: the silly visual f/x with the hoverbikes.

As with any time-travel movie, loopholes might grow more apparent in the film's knotty design on the drive home. In the moment, the film is pretty airtight in its manipulation; besides, it's more about the experience of the ride than how we got there. Intelligent in its intellect, chilling in its viscera, and lyrical in its culmination of ideas, themes, and plot threads, "Looper" is astounding cinematic nirvana on all planes, no matter past, present, or future.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

"10 Years" natural, likable, relatable reunion

10 Years (2012) 
100 min., rated PG-13.

The modestly likable ensemble dramedy "10 Years" is just like hanging out at a high school reunion, vicariously through appealing, identifiable people — it's awkward, amusing, bittersweet, nostalgic, and enjoyable. If the reunion staple seems a bit too "been there, done that," especially after "American Reunion" this April, the feature debut of screenwriter Jamie Linden (2010's "Dear John") invitingly drops us into this rite of passage, floating through the lives of 28 year olds with a relaxed, free-wheeling style. As a live-action yearbook and snapshot of growing up and revisiting the past, "10 Years" is thankfully more Robert Altman than Garry Marshall.

Set during the night of a 10-year reunion for Lake Howell High School's Class of 2002, the film begins and ends with prom-king-turned-mortgage-broker Jake (Channing Tatum) and his girlfriend of three and a half years, Jess (Jenna Dewan-Tatum). For eight months, he's been planning on proposing to her, but Jake just can't find the perfect moment to pop the question. While Jess is excited to get the dirt on her beau and gladly accompanies him to the reunion, Jake still holds out hope that his high school sweetie, Mary (Rosario Dawson), will show up, and she does but with her straight-arrow husband, Paul (Ron Livingston). Before hitting the reunion, Jake and Jess arrive at the home of Cully (Chris Pratt), a brash former jock who's gained weight, and Sam (Ari Graynor), his wife who's ready to get away from their two kids for the night. Cully was such a jerk in high school that he makes it his goal to apologize to all the geeks (particularly Aaron Yoo's Peter Jung) that he harassed back in the day by buying them drinks, but falls back into his old habits when going overboard on the drink. Also present are the successful Marty (Justin Long) and the married Aj (Max Minghella), old buddies talking up their lives and ending up vying to impress Anna (Lynn Collins), the former "It girl" who hopes to have retained her glory-day glow. Reeves (Oscar Isaac) has become an on-the-road rock star since most of his peers have last seem him, so every girl wants to praise him or take their picture with him, but he's more interested in Elise (Kate Mara), a twice-divorced loner in yellow shoes from his science class that hasn't even heard his music. Scott (Scott Porter) came back from Tokyo with his Japanese wife (Eiko Nijo). In another social circle, Garrity (Brian Geraghty) arrives with wife Olivia (Aubrey Plaza), who's stunned to discover from his unsettled friend, Andre (Anthony Mackie), that her hubby used to act "black" in high school. By the end of the night, some will come to terms with their own immaturity and the real lives they're ashamed of, some might get a do-over, and others just simply reunite.

Are there many surprises here? Not a ton, but here, there is an air of authenticity rather than contrivance. This being a roving ensemble film, it's tough to fully form more than a dozen characters in 100 minutes, but while some arcs are more interesting than others, everyone gets their turn to shine and is able to create a real, dimensional character. Every actor is natural and the camera eats each of them up. Linden gives his huge cast so much breathing room that from scene to scene it's up to their performances, improvisation, and his scripted dialogue to show us how these characters have progressed, which is more desirable than desperately stooping to cheesy flashbacks.

Speaking of performances, they are all worth mentioning. Tatum (serving as a producer on this project) leads the way as Jake. If his banner year of hitherto four performances hasn't already clued audiences into his detectable range, this should hopefully seal the deal. Not only is his Jake charismatic and appealingly uncertain, but Tatum's off-camera relationship with real-life wife Jenna (they fell in love while making "Step Up") translates into lovely chemistry on screen. Dewan-Tatum's Jess is sweet and supportive, never the cliché you expect her to be. The always-resplendent Dawson, who could have been stuck in "the other girl" role, fills Jess with grace and intelligence. There's a particularly telling moment of her history with Jake when she recalls their prom night spent together in the hospital. Pratt, always hilarious as a lout, has a tricky tightrope to walk as Cully, now a family man who's still obnoxious but sympathetic. Graynor could've very well played Sam as a shrill harpy; instead, she's a long-suffering woman who resents babysitting her adult husband but still loves him. Collins is just plain terrific, bringing layers and pathos to the ex-party girl who, after the festivities, has to go home to her real life. As usual, Long does his amiable thing, and he and Minghella play off each other quite well. Isaac is charming rather than smarmy, and he shares a sweet chemistry with Mara (Minghella's real-life girlfriend). Plaza also owns up to her deliciously dry comic timing and supplies her Olivia with a nice arc. This cast is such good company that one can hardly wait to see them all return for a '40 Years.' 

When the old friends leave the reunion to continue partying at the local karaoke bar called Pretzels, it's there that deeper emotions come to the forefront and truths are unveiled. We never find out just why Jake and Mary broke up—it's been eight years since they last spoke—but it doesn't really matter. They both have grown up, are now in separate committed relationships, and following an awkward hug, they just want to catch up and take care of unfinished business. As someone aptly puts it, "we all have our own messes." Reeves is called up to sing his own hit song "Never Had," and the song itself is not only magic to the ears, but the lyrics hold an even more affecting meaning for Elise. Passion Pit's cover of The Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight" also becomes the perfect anthem to end the night.

The marketing for "10 Years" is almost selling this as a wacky antic-filled comedy. There are laughs to be sure (take Pratt's karaoke butchering of "Lady in Red" for instance), but the film never strains to be funny; unforced humor springs organically from the characters. "10 Years" may not forge any new ground, but it's relatable and candid, while creating its own solid memories. Whereas "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" beautifully captured the essence of being in high school, this "Big Chill" peer captures the growth out of high school.

Grade: B +

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"The Pact" creepy but vague and illogical

The Pact (2012)
89 min., not rated.

A low-key, occasionally creepy low-budget horror item, "The Pact" will merely suffice as a movie to watch on a Friday night with the lights off, but it won't have you checking behind the shower curtain later on or giving anyone sleepless nights. Finalizing preparations for her mother's funeral, Nicole Barlow (Agnes Bruckner) is alone in her Los Angeles childhood home. Her sister, Annie (Caity Lotz), refuses to make it down for the funeral because she will never forgive the mistreatment and pain their mother put them through. While Nicole says good night via video chat to her young daughter Eva (Dakota Bright), who's in the care of the Barlow sisters' cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins), they lose connection and then Nicole spots an open door, only to go missing. Informed of her sister's disappearance, Annie, a motorcycle-riding toughie, rides into town with a major chip on her shoulder. Through some pictorial clues on the Net, a medium, and a makeshift Ouija board, Annie is led to some dark skeletons in the old house. Ghosts are just so helpful, aren't they?

All of Annie's problems would be solved if she just drove off and never looked back, but then writer-director Nicholas McCarthy, who expands upon his 11-minute short film of the same name, wouldn't have a movie. In the dialogue department, "The Pact" starts out with the really stiff, expository kind to set the scene and show a strained sisterly relationship, and doesn't get much better from there. Wearing her "I'm not here to make friends!"/"I don't need your help!" scowl throughout, Lotz may not be ready for features quite yet, but it's hard to judge from the dialogue that weighs her down. A few times we see a picture of Annie's mother and she has to whisper "Mom," just so we remember. At one laughable point, after having a scary dream, Annie bolts from her motel room and runs into the parking lot, wearing only a tank top and her undies, to hop on her motorcycle. Casper Van Dien (his last theatrical release being 1999's Tim Burton-helmed "Sleepy Hollow") also shows up as a skeptical cop, but he's only on screen long enough to flatly deliver some flatter dialogue. Bruckner, too, is done away with faster than Drew Barrymore in the opener of "Scream."

"The Pact" doesn't end without drumming up a few modest chills and shivery moments, but despite an unexpected case of misdirection, the film's mixture of a ghost and serial killer doesn't fully come off. Often helped by Ronen Landa's unusual acoustic score, there's one jump-out-of-your-seat jolt with the simple pan of the camera, a few freaky bits in a dark secret room, and a tense climax. McCarthy just hasn't yet figured out consistency in his storytelling with plot turns that remain illogical and underdeveloped. With McCarthy's aptitude for creating dread and deliberate pacing without losing interest, his shaky feature should still work as a solid calling card.


*Special Note: I no longer agree with my former assessment of "The Pact." Somehow, I no longer found the dialogue to be distractingly flat. Caity Lotz does carry a quiet strength to her that is just right for the part of Annie. The scares that registered for me before still work, and the plot turns even make more logical sense on a second viewing. I can't explain how I was underwhelmed the first time and legitimately spooked this time, but I do owe it a grade change. Still flawed, "The Pact" is a modest slow-burn that's well worth a look.

Grade: B - 

DVD/Blu-ray: "Katy Perry: Part of Me" reveals the human side with infectious music

Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012)
97 min., rated PG.

Like "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never" or even "Glee: The 3D Concert Movie," "Katy Perry: Part of Me" has the same basic beats of a prepackaged PR piece and propaganda, but at its core is an entertaining, revealing, sympathetic, even poignant portrait. The film might not be the full Katy Perry, but isn't that what autobiographies are for? Directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz fluidly cover all the bases, from Katy's peppy, infectiously catchy songs, to the backstage interviews and sneak peeks, inspirational testimonials by fans for an It's okay to be fun and weird! Express yourself! Follow your dreams! message, and the growth and highs and lows of both her career and personal life. All in all, it should win over anybody, including Grandma Perry.

A believer in fairy tales and a dreamer at heart since 9, the perky, saucer-eyed 27-year-old Katy Perry (Katheryn Elizabeth "Katy" Hudson) just wants to entertain. She grew up with born-again Penecostal Christians and traveling ministers for parents. Katy, her brother, and sister weren't allowed to eat Lucky Charms cereal because "luck" was considered Lucifer, and "The Wizard of Oz" and "Alice in Wonderland" were banned from viewing. Making her first gospel record at 15, Katy was then exposed to the emotional and thoughtful freedom of Alanis Morsette. Once she moved to Los Angeles, she found herself, but she wasn't an overnight success; her hard work ethic got her where she is today.

Three quarters documentary and a quarter concert, "Katy Perry: Part of Me" is the real deal. We see Katy on top of the world, headlining her biggest world tour ever and her career blowing up when five singles from her second album hit # 1 on the Billboard charts. If her life seems like an all-day-and-night party, it isn't. We see the struggle Katy faced to find her own image with record labels, and we hear of the times she felt lost and desperate before becoming "Katy Perry." On her days off, Katy spends them flying to see her husband, actor Russell Brand, and make their marriage work, before they divorce. When she's tired, not made-up, and teary, these are the rawest, most honest moments. Right before she has to go up on stage at a venue in São Paulo, Brazil, with the fans shouting "Katy!," she's deeply depressed and sobbing, but puts on her game face.

Rising up on an elevator to the stage in a cake dress with spinning peppermint wheels on her breasts, Katy puts on theatrical, candy-colored performances. The film features snippets of Katy belting out "Teenage Dream," "Hot and Cold," "I Kissed a Girl," "E.T.," "Firework," and "California Girls," just to name a few, but if you want a full-on song, find an MTV music video. Perry's sister, Angela, also dresses up as geeky creation Kathy Beth Terry for "Last Friday Night." We can the fans are important to Katy because no matter what, whether rain or shine in her life, she always shows up to her meet-and-greets. Even during a cover of "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," she rallies up fans on stage to dance.

Katy isn't another Britney Spears or Avril Lavigne. Unlike most other singers in the pop world, Katy Perry comes off like the girl next doordown-to-earth, charismatic, lovable, intelligent, and unafraid to just be her goofy, playful self. Like a bubblegummy Alanis Morsette with a brighter, more fun energy, she stays true to herself, which is a pretty good idol of self-empowerment for teenagers. Since "Katy Perry: Part of Me" captures such a real, fun-loving young woman, we want her to find her happy fairy tale ending. She's not just a pop star, but a real person like you and me.

Grade: A -

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Admirable craftsmanship in "The Master" but too much of a detached art piece

The Master (2012)
138 min., rated R.

1997's audacious "Boogie Nights." 1999's intoxicating "Magnolia." 2002's oddly lovely "Punch-Drunk Love." 2007's admirably operatic "There Will Be Blood." Paul Thomas Anderson makes films that aren't like anyone else's, both visually and from the performances he squeezes out of his actors. Remember, he did tap into Adam Sandler's once-undetectable acting talents. Flirting with greatness but too enigmatic to grasp, Anderson's latest, "The Master," is a piece of glass-encased art that can only be admired from afar. It's his most ambitious and challenging work, to be sure, but it also ends up his biggest disappointment. There's a certain allure and daring about ambiguity in a story, but here, it's so ambiguous and elusive that we're forced to feel distant and cold on an emotional level.

Somewhere on the South Pacific in 1950, just five years after World War II, Navy seaman Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has more than a bad case of post-traumatic stress. With his sexual urges and addiction to alcohol, the loose-cannon sailor masturbates in front of the ocean and plays with a naked woman made out of sand, and then, to tend his alcoholic vices, he mixes "potions" with paint thinner, torpedo fuel, or any chemical he can get his hands on. Along with his group of fellow vets, Freddie leaves the VA hospital to feel displaced from the post-WWII world. A drunkard and a drifter, he tries making it as a photographer in a department store, but after losing his cool, he ends up stumbling on a bender and stowing away on a yacht docked in San Francisco and bound for New York. This is where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who describes himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher." Like Freddie, Dodd calls himself a "hopelessly inquisitive man" and introduces this "scoundrel" to his self-styled religion (or cult?), known as "The Cause." Becoming Dodd's right-hand man, Freddie ends up drinking the Kool-Aid, but can the master tame the aggressive, uncouth animal? Or is he "beyond saving"?

With all the advance rumors on "The Master" being a thinly veiled expose on the Church of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, that is not the case with the finished product. The parallels are there, but this is more of a story that hones in on the symbiotic relationship between damaged goods and a brainwashing surrogate father. Or is it? Anderson is certainly saying something about religion, faith, healing, blind obedience, and finding one's purpose in life, but his script doesn't really explore those ideas in depth or lead to anything rewarding or as profound as it should be. If there's any reason to watch, it's for the performances and technical craftsmanship. 

Returning to the screen after his hoax retirement in the 2010 performance-art stunt "I'm Still Here," Phoenix is simply mesmerizing here, proving that another snub of an Oscar nom would be a crime. Somehow skirting around Method histrionics, he is Freddie Quell. Twitching, mumbling, hunching over, and sometimes exploding with anger, an emaciated Phoenix has the showiest turn, but it is unhinged and darkly funny, without feeling too big. As a severely damaged man running on crazed impulse, he finds the precise mix of internal and volcanic. To Phoenix's pit bull is his master, magnificently played by Hoffman, who's at the peak of his powers. Whether he's whispering or raising his voice to those that refute his ideas, he commands the screen like a leader. Hoffman projects the powerful amount of charming persuasion and bluster as this brainwashing master, though the fact that we never fully understand this man or why he feels so close to Freddie grows maddening. Dodd's son, Val (a well-chosen Jesse Plemons), even says his father is "making it up as he goes along," so is the master just a crackpot? Putting her lovability aside and testing her underrated versatility, Amy Adams is fiercely terrific as Peggy Dodd, who shows the push she has behind the cult more so than she initially lets on. Juxtaposed with her sweet, dismissive exterior, she can turn stern and combative. Still, Peggy, like most of the characters on screen, feels undernourished. Laura Dern also makes a brief impression as Dodd's Philadelphia hostess who, in one moment, questions his teachings.

There's no denying the mastery behind and in front of the camera. Brilliantly scored by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood (also the composer for "There Will Be Blood"), the thrumming, staccato strings, and knocking sounds set an appropriately menacing, on-edge tone. To no surprise, Anderson's visuals (photographed by Mihai Malaimare Jr.) are beautifully rich, sweeping, and detailed, and this being the first film since 1996's "Hamlet" to be shot on 65mm film (which seems forgotten since digital projection) doesn't hurt. The crisp images enhance the finer details, particularly in close-ups of the actors' faces, and some of them already feel like new moments in classic cinema. The most breathtaking scenes are the early ones with Phoenix and then those that feature Phoenix and Hoffman going toe-to-toe. In a cabin on the yacht, Dodd makes Freddie his guinea pig/protege and conducts his conditioning exercise called "informal processing" on him. The vein-popping Freddie goes under the spell, being asked the same rapid-fire questions over and over, answering truthfully about having intercourse within his family, and then recalling the 16-year-old Doris (Madisen Beaty), whom he promised to return to after the war on a bench. It's a quietly electric scene to behold.

If films, to you, are no more than just excuses to sit in a dark theater to escape and toss back popcorn, then "The Master" will surely infuriate and bore. Spoon-feeding answers and adhering to a traditional three-act structure have never been part of Anderson's rule book and both are defiant in this particular film's aim. Whereas "There Will Be Blood" was The Daniel Day-Lewis Show and then bizarrely left one wanting a milkshake by the end, "The Master" is a thrill to watch two acting heavyweights, while letting us think for ourselves and make up our own minds, but it does not satisfy. Long and ponderous, impenetrable and stuffy, "The Master" is ultimately (and alternately) contemplative and frustrating, a piece of work that will genuinely divide viewers and critics alike. Perhaps the film will feel more thematically rich and resolved with repeated viewings, but will it ever allow you to shake off the chilliness and deeply care? That's a question only the master can answer.

Grade: C +

Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Dredd" gratuitously over-the-top, hyper-violent and fun

Dredd (2012) 
95 min., rated R.

There must be an old saying in Hollywood, that if a movie bombs, just reboot it. The jokey, sub-par 1995 Sylvester Stallone-starrer "Judge Dredd" didn't exactly earn much fanfare, so that's why we now have "Dredd," the second adaptation of the British comic strip and its badass character. Grimier than the varnished "original" and apparently more faithful to the comic book, "Dredd" is just a great deal of fun. 

In the future, the old world is now a ruined wasteland with the post-apocalyptic dystopia of Mega-City One lying between Washington, D.C. and Boston. A 200-level skyscraper named Peach Trees sits among the crumbled structures, and it's owned by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a ruthless ex-prostitute with facial scars and rotten teeth to prove her damaged past. She has her residents do her bidding because she has them hooked on a drug called Slo-Mo. Fighting for order in chaos is the hardened Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), a judge, jury, and executioner, who's assigned to take out a psychic rookie named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) into the field and put her through the paces. When Ma-Ma spots the judges in her block, she locks it down and isn't about just let them walk out. Then again, remember, Dredd is the law! 

Directed by Pete Travis (2008's "Vantage Point") with no-fuss efficiency, "Dredd" is stylish, relentless, and gratuitously hyper-violent with over-the-top visual flourishes, as well as a nasty, blackly comic streak. Devoid of any pretensions whatsoever, the film offers refreshingly minimal exposition and stripped-down, meat-and-potatoes storytelling. By coincidence, the premise of a drug lord controlling a slummy apartment building stands in the shadow of "The Raid: Redemption," but the story and characters aren't rich and, therefore, pretty inconsequential. As a result, the confrontation between Dredd and Ma-Ma feels obligatory and somewhat underwhelming. That's no fault of Headey, who dots her part with blood-thirsty relish. 

Dredd is an enigmatic somebody. He doesn't get a backstory or even a pair of eyes (which are covered by a nifty helmet), but he does speak in an intimidating growl and apparently takes good care of his talking lips. Dredd is played by Karl Urban, who mostly acts with his unsmiling mouth. It's kind of a lifeless, one-note performance that's still wry and crowd-pleasingly badass anyway. What you see is what you get, and there are many of laughs just from Urban's deadpan voice. Thirlby is fine, displaying a morsel of human emotion and compassion. 

The effects of Slo-Mo (the drug, that is) are artistically depicted in the most literal fashion, making time crawl but also looking dazzlingly oversaturated and vibrantly trippy. And "Dredd" might contain one of the most artful shots of bullets bursting through skin and blood spurting. One can't imagine a single fanboy not watching it and not having a giddy time. It might be overkill to some, but it's a blast to everyone else. If this were to turn into an ongoing franchise, we wouldn't pass negative judgment. Maybe Urban could even remove his helmet once or twice. 


Friday, September 21, 2012

Look down a smarter, more thrilling "Street"

House at the End of the Street (2012)
101 min., rated PG-13.

"House at the End of the Street" and last year's "Dream House" have a few things in common: (1) They both come from scripts by David Loucka; (2) Both have 'house' in their titles; (3) Both throw chloroform late into the plot; and (4) Both are unthrilling, entry-level thrillers. Few horror-thriller clichés are left unturned in director Mark Tonderai's first theatrical release, but the valiant efforts of the apple-cheeked Jennifer Lawrence, who shot this in 2010 before her Oscar nomination in "Winter's Bone" and "The Hunger Games," and company help keep it somewhat watchable.

Leaving Chicago and hoping for a fresh start in small-town Pennsylvania, 17-year-old Elissa (Lawrence) and her single mother, Sarah (Elisabeth Shue), move into a spacious house set back in the woods. They got the house cheap because it's next door to where a double murder occurred four years earlier. Legend has it that a young girl named Carrie Anne (Carrie White and Carol Anne must have been taken) murdered her parents and ran off into the woods, never to be found again. It seems the homicidal girl's brother, Ryan (Max Thieriot), has been left with his parents' property (yes, the house at the end of the street) and still lives there. While the locals, with the exception of the friendly Sheriff Weaver (Gil Bellows), all treat Ryan like a pariah, Elissa accepts a ride home from the loner one dark and rainy night. "Your parents got killed," Elissa says, breaking the ice. That would set anyone off, but Ryan is sweet with Elissa and she thinks he's just misunderstood. Little does she know that Carrie Anne is still very much alive.
Not all of "House at the End of the Street" is a complete wash, especially for its first two acts. The strained mother-daughter relationship between Sarah and Elissa is sturdily developed and well-acted by Shue and Lawrence. Even Thieriot, as Ryan, manages to change his mood on a dime from soft and misunderstood to potentially psychotic quite well. Even if Elissa and Ryan predictably break their word, Sarah lays down some rules that she doesn't want them alone together in her or his house; it's about time Movie Parents take control. Elissa is also pretty smart and resourceful that she forwards her mom's house calls to her cell (hint hint: it'll be used for the Big Climax).

Director Tonderai has clearly seen enough horror movies to know when to telegraph every audible jump scare by cranking up the screechy musical stings. He also overcompensates with a lot of visual style whether it's by shaking the camera into a jittery frenzy or employing sped-up editing effects, especially in the prologue that features more bed feathers than blood. Loucka's screenplay (from a story by Jonathan Mostow) may tip its hand early and throw us off with one red herring, but that's because it has another relatively clever twist in store. The psychological aspect is less dime-store than anything on the Lifetime Channel, until characters have to start playing detective, only to get knocked out and tied up, and competent people become incompetent so the plot can move along. That's "House at the End of the Street's" final undoing, when it becomes so by-the-numbers and not even thrilling enough to forgive its shortcomings. Rest assured, Act III has the once-cautious Elissa making enough stupid lapses in judgment to put herself in harm's way and become a standard Final Girl when she should just be running for her life. There's even one unintentionally funny discovery of a tampon box in a trash can. Worst of all is the cheap, simplistic coda, which makes the least sense in hindsight.

Run-of-the-mill without being dreadful, "House at the End of the Street" exists for a teenybopper market where its audience mistakes "Swimfan" for "Fatal Attraction" and "The Roommate" for "Single White Female." This might just be their "Psycho," but it's too dumb and routine to call itself Hitchcockian. If you're 17 and have never fallen for a possible psycho, "#HATES" (as it's being called in its TV spots) might hold a surprise or two.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

"Perks of Being a Wallflower" timeless, moving, and well-acted coming-of-ager

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
103 min., rated PG-13.

"The Perks of Being a Wallflower" is based on Stephen Chbosky's best-selling 1999 young-adult novel, adapted for the screen by writer-director Chbosky, and it's as much of a lovingly executed and gracefully realized adaptation as one could hope and even more deeply felt coming-of-age teen cinema than John Hughes' wonderfully inspired, insightful works. The film may seem like just another teen movie that chronicles the joys and pains of high school and coming of age, but it covers such themes while striking plenty of hard truths, emotional warmth, and relatability to set itself apart from its cinematic elders that started such a nostalgic staple. Lest one assumes the book's author translating his own material to the screen is a bad idea, we have an instant classic in our midst, and that's no hyperbole.

Set in the Pittsburgh suburbs during the early 1990s, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" follows introverted Charlie (Logan Lerman), who aspires to be a writer and is writing a letter to an anonymous friend. After his best friend shot himself a few months ago, Charlie nervously makes the transition from middle school to his freshman year in high school. Once he attends the school football game solo, he meets a senior named Patrick (Ezra Miller), the carefree, openly gay class clown, and his stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), a strong-minded, Penn State University-bound young woman who's still figuring herself out, as well as their own circle of friends. "Welcome to the island of misfit toys," Sam says, taking Charlie under their wing and into their clique of cool outsiders. Through thick and thin, they become his support system, and vice versa.

Chbosky has true affection for these memorable characters and it's not difficult to understand why. Even if he remains faithful to his own book, he never makes his adaptation feel precious or like an Afterschool Special, just authentic and from the heart. It certainly helps that, down the line, the actors are all perfectly chosen, beautifully bringing their characters to life. Both sensitive and endearing, Lerman is the film's heart and soul. His voice-over narration is like the epistolary structure of the book and never gets in the way. Having one of her first lead roles after saying farewell to Hermione Granger, a pixie-haired Watson is radiant and instantly appealing as Sam, and doesn't show a trace of her British accent. Being one to watch ever since his unnerving turn in 2008's "Afterschool" and then another chilling performance in last year's "We Need to Talk About Kevin," Miller nearly steals the show, hilariously outspoken and dramatically affecting as Patrick. Though a complete free spirit, he also suffers heartbreak and anger when his closeted lover, a football quarterback (Johnny Simmons), fails to stand up for him. Sometimes it's hard not to care what people think, but Patrick is brave enough to let his freak flag fly.

The standouts don't stop there. Mae Whitman humorously registers as a domineering Buddhist/vegan punk rocker named Mary Elizabeth, and Nina Dobrev has an empathetic turn as Charlie's older sister, Candace, who has her own problems with her boyfriend, Ponytail Derek (Nicholas Braun). Even the adults leave impressions, including Paul Rudd, as Charlie's sympathetic English teacher, Mr. Anderson; Dylan McDermott, as his loving father; and Joan Cusack, as his compassionate doctor, who makes her final line stick like taffy ("We don't have the power to choose where we came from, but we can still choose where we go from there"). Horror make-up artist Tom Savini also amusingly shows up as the school wood-shop teacher. Above all, Melanie Lynskey's flashback appearance, as Charlie's Aunt Helen, hovers over the proceedings like a haunting spirit.

Excluding cell phones and Mac computers but not mix tapes, the '90s period details in the clothing and the music are just right without shoving them down our throats. There's a great sequence with the wallflowers putting on a fun performance of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (Patrick naturally playing Dr. Frank-N-Furter) at the local theater; Dexys Midnight Runners' "Come On Eileen" is joyfully used at a dance; and David Bowie's "Heroes" figures into the infiniteness these kids feel when Sam stands in the pick-up of Patrick's truck with her arms in the wind. Even the Pennsylvania milieu is well created, using King's Restaurant, where Charlie meets his friends to eat or study, and the Fort Pitt Tunnel.

At a tight-enough 103 minutes, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" rings true in its treatment of teen alienation, friendship, sexual identity, suicide, death, love, and personal demons. Given the PG-13 rating, none of these themes feel watered-down. An integral part of the story involves Charlie's troubled Aunt Helen (Lynskey) and comes full circle, moving the film into an unexpectedly dark direction but is eloquently handled without spelling everything out or feeling like a cheap, exploitative gimmick. It's the rare film that touches the viewer deeply, making you wish it could keep going forever, but Chbosky ends things on the perfect, emotionally resonant note. After all, he did write the book. As of late, not since 2011's little-seen "The Myth of the American Sleepover" has a film revolving around teens been so timeless, poetic, exquisitely written, and reverberatingly moving. A sublime labor of love, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" has enough, yes, perks to be something special.


"Liberal Arts" slight but wise and wistful

Liberal Arts (2012)
97 min., not rated.

"Liberal Arts" isn't a cinematic revelation in any way, but it's a wise, low-key, and wistful back-to-school comedy, and that's saying something. "Back-to-school comedy" might be selling it as something funnier than it really is, but "How I Met Your Mother" star Josh Radnor's second writing-directing feature to 2010's earnest "Happythankyoumoreplease" is neither biting nor sitcommy. Being his less contrived effort, this one provides enough wit and truth that naturally spring from Radnor's interesting characters and their conversations.

Radnor also stars as Jesse, a 35-year-old admissions counselor at a New York City university who's just coming off of a break-up. When he returns to his Ohio alma mater to attend a retirement dinner for his favorite English professor, Peter Hoburg (Richard Jenkins), Jesse finds himself stuck between being a college student and a mature adult. It's there that he's introduced to Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), the 19-year-old daughter of Peter's friends and a drama-studying sophomore. They strike up a connection and spend the day together. "I just can't figure out if it's because you're advanced or because I'm stunted," Jesse questions. Despite their 16-year age difference (she was 0 when he was 16), Zibby's admiration for classical opera influences him and they begin hand-writing letters to one another after Jesse gets back to the city. 

Like "Happythankyoumoreplease," Radnor's characters are likable and so damn nice, and they actually talk, mostly about literature. Jesse always has his nose in a book, and in one of the funnier moments, he's appalled to find Zibby has a copy of "Twilight," which he borrows to read and then discusses it with her. She unironically likes it and he snobbily calls it "the worst book ever written in English." When dealing with Radnor and Olsen just bantering and talking intelligently, the film has real spark. Like a solid Everyman from the Paul Rudd School, Radnor is a nice match with Olsen, who's as lovely and charismatic as ever. Their relationship isn't hard to digest, especially when Radnor takes it in more honest directions. There's also a relaxed mood and Seamus Tierney's cinematography beautifully captures the leafy atmosphere of a college campus.

Supporting characters abound. Though amusingly portrayed by Zac Efron, Nat—an advice-dropping bohemian in a winter stocking hat—adds nothing to the narrative. The character might just be a figment of Jesse's imagination, or not. Better are Jenkins, a professor who questions his retirement and Jesse's voice of reason ("You may feel nineteen, but you're not"), and John Magaro as Dean, a brilliant but "aggressively unhappy" student who had a manic episode last semester but connects with Jesse over their love of a Foster Wallace novel. But it's Allison Janney who has the most bite as Jesse's crabby, unromantic former professor of Romantics. He gushes about her class, even though she barely remembers him. They don't have quite the May-December romance, but she lends a dose of irony and some great sarcasm. Finally, the come-and-go appearance of a more age-appropriate bookworm, charmingly played by Elizabeth Reaser, finally makes sense but feels a tad contrived.

A little leap of faith has to be taken to understand why Jesse's dirty laundry would be stolen by a punk in the film's opening moments. The only reason is for Jesse to buy a new plaid shirt and have two women comment on it. Overall, it might be a slight little movie, but rather than being self-conscious and gooey, "Liberal Arts" has a literate brain and a romantic heart.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Aloof, pretentious "Cosmopolis" leaves viewer cold

Cosmopolis (2012)
109 min., rated R.

With a vision for the weird and icky and ideas to back it up, the ever-interesting auteur David Cronenberg (2011's underwhelming "A Dangerous Method") is always up for a challenge. "Cosmopolis" has been adapted by Cronenberg (his first screenwriting credit since 1999's "eXistenZ") from Don DeLillo's 2003 novel, but his latest feels like a glorified student film with technical polish. If his goal was to create a slavishly faithful adaptation to comment on capitalism until there's nothing left to comment on and turn it into a stultifyingly tedious endurance test, then he succeeded. As empty as the character it follows, "Cosmopolis" is the worst kind of cereberal, highbrow exercisealoof, off-putting, and far too pretentious for its own good. From the time we see Robert Pattinson's character get into a stretch limo, it's obvious we're not going anywhere.

One near-futuristic Manhattan day, 28-year-old Eric Parker (Robert Pattinson), a billionaire asset manager, gets into his limo to go across town for a haircut. The president is in town and there are anarchist protests on the streets, so traffic moves at a snail's pace. Along the way, he finds the time to give a few people a lift, hold business meetings, have sex with other women, receive a prostate exam from his doctor, and have breakfast, lunch, and dinner with his poet wife, Elisa (Sarah Gadon), who doesn't want to have sex with him. As the day goes on, Eric is separated from the real world by his tinted windows, but the rioters hold dead rats outside Eric's limo and begin to deface his vehicle. It all points to the greedy hotshot's inevitable collapse.

"Cosmopolis" is an esoteric film that demands the full attention of its audience and could give us something to discuss afterwards, considering it's prescient of the Occupy movement. Instead, it's a lot of hot air, more alienating than anything by pretending to say—more like sermonizesomething profound about financial inequality. Wait, is greed really bad? Like in an abstract Off-Off-Broadway play, characters never shut up, droning inscrutable, vacuous, and didactic verbiage in a mannered, monotone style as if they're reading from cue cards. Surely, the film is sleekly made with precision but without a heart or a pulse. Peter Suschitzsky's steely cinematography and Howard Shore's metallic score at least suit the sterile tone of the film, but not even top-notch technical credits can save this interminable crawl.

The jury's still out on Pattinson exhibiting any detectable acting skills or on-screen personality beyond reactionary faces. Here, he's appropriately cold, numb, tired, and enigmatic, uttering the highfalutin dialogue without stumbling, but Pattinson does the best any actor could with such one-note material. Eric might be a metaphor but he is such a smarmy, emotionless 1% prick that we don't care what happens to him or if he gets his ears lowered. And if we don't care about the outcome, not much else matters. Given the casting of the starry "Twilight" celeb in the lead, viewers might be curious to see what he can do with one of the most daring filmmakers, but should avoid it completely. A slew of good actors—Jay Baruchel, Juliette Binoche, Emily Hampshire, and Samantha Morton—come in for a scene apiece inside Eric's limo without registering as actual characters. Who are these people and why should we care?

Confounding and emotionally at arm's length from the viewer, "Cosmopolis" becomes less hermetically sealed in its apartment-set confrontation between the "foully and berserkly rich" Eric and the disgruntled man who wants to kill him (Paul Giamatti, the most spontaneous, unrobotic thing in the film). Even then, the indulgently gabby last 20 minutes is the final nail in the coffin. There's nothing to feel and little to think about. Perhaps diehard Cronenberg fans will still take to this one, but all of the surreal audacity and thought-provoking commentary Cronenberg once crafted in "Videograme," "The Fly," and "Dead Ringers" have faded away in a rear-view mirror.