Friday, November 30, 2012

Grisly "Collection" easily betters its predecessor

The Collection (2012)
82 min., rated R.

With their first claim to fame being the scribes for the last four "Saw" movies ("Saw IV," "Saw V," "Saw VI," and "Saw 3D: The Final Chapter"), writer-director Marcus Dunstan and co-writer Patrick Melton melded a home-invasion setup with torture-porn in the 2009 slice-and-dice horror thriller "The Collector." It was an efficient, brutally nasty piece of work but ultimately just another pointless exercise in unpleasantness. The sequel, logically titled "The Collection," is the filmmakers' second chance and it more or less makes the cut. For one, these movies have a leg up on "Saw" by not only rivaling the torture devices and gore but by being the total opposite in storytelling, which is so lean, economical, and taut, while that once-inventive franchise became burdened by over-plotting in its mythology.

When "The Collection" begins, the twice-convicted jewel thief, Arkin (Josh Stewart), is still missing and the masked, serial-killing mastermind is still at large, having the unnamed city living in fear. When and where he will strike next might be sooner than anyone thinks. Meet Elena (Emma Fitzpatrick), the teenage daughter of a wealthy man (Christopher McDonald), who goes out for the night to a rave party in a shady side of town with her two friends. Once they get into the crowded top-secret club, the collector turns the dance floor into a killing floor in one messy sweep, mowing down every partier, except for Elena. Before being captured and stuffed into a red trunk herself, she stumbles upon Arkin and sets him free. Taken to the hospital, the injured Arkin is then approached by Lucello (Lee Tergesen), Elena's long-time bodyguard, who wants the recent captive to lead him and his team of mercenaries to the collector's lair, the Hotel Argento (get it?). Can they get past all the booby traps to take down the so-called collector? Is Elena a goner? 

Wince-inducingly grisly, without lingering on the sadism as much, and preposterous, without insulting our intelligence, "The Collection" ups the ante with a distressingly to-the-point setup, slicker production values, and a more rapid pace. The most memorable set-piece happens to be the first, the nightclub-set Grand Guignol giving the first "Blade" movie's rave blood-shower sequence a run for its money, and never have so many grinding extras turned up dead since "Piranha 3-D." Director Dunstan and his lighting technicians certainly didn't spare atmosphere in the house of "The Collector," but the hotel in "The Collection" is even better. With this atmospheric, labyrinthine house of horrors designed for an amusement park, the production designers spared no expense, filling it with a hallway of mannequins, a corpse pit at the bottom of a laundry shoot, a gang of zombified prisoners, a plethora of bear traps and other nasty goodies. Many of the eviscerations are of the abrupt variety involving hooks and other pointy objects, but there's a bit that will get arachnophobes squealing, a tense moment that employs a strobe-light effect, and a jaw-dropping moment where Elena has to re-break Arkin's forearm for resourceful reasons. 

Again, the collector himselfamounting to an anonymous, personality-free psycho that sometimes growls behind that corset mask—almost makes one yearn for "Saw's" Jigsaw and all his chatty, "moral" game-playing. This movie monster just seems like he has nothing better to do. The method to his madness is explained more so here, and he thankfully loses some of his superhuman powers, but the collector's identity (and his face) is wisely still kept a mystery. Also, there's a stand-by in horror thrillers where a character hides from their captor just in the nick of time. Here, Elena does this a few times, and it absurdly ignores all logistical impossibilities. As Elena, a young woman who's lost her mother at a young age, caught her boyfriend cheating on her, witnessed her friend's splattery demise, and stands as the most important thing in her father's life, the pixie-haired Fitzpatrick makes an appealingly spunky and determined but still vulnerable heroine. Reprising his role as Arkin, a convict-turned-victim-turned-survivor, the gruff Stewart is solid. One of the few supporting standouts is Erin Way as the creepy, doll-faced Abby, one of the collector's unstable collectibles. 

This one's not really for the general populace but for its niche audience of thrill seekers and Fangoria readers—don't be embarrassed, you know who you are. It's still too soon to assess if these movies will become long in the tooth like the "Saw" franchise, but given the satisfying, kick-ass conclusion, a third movie hopefully won't be diminishing returns. "The Collection" won't make your heart stop, but it's a blood-spurting, involving-enough quickie until something more horrifying comes along.

Grade: B -

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"Hitchcock" a witty, briskly enjoyable treat for movie lovers

Hitchcock (2012)
98 min., rated PG-13.

Seen for what it is, rather than what it's not, "Hitchcock" is a briskly paced, delightfully witty, and irresistibly entertaining portrait of "The Master of Suspense," his creative process, and the real Hitchcock blonde in his life. A companion piece to the illuminating but not-so-flattering HBO telefilm "The Girl," which shed light on Alfred Hitchcock's obsession with blonde muse Tippi Hedren on the set of "The Birds" and portrayed him as a dirty old man, "Hitchcock" more joyously depicts the man's marriage to one equally influential woman and the behind-the-scenes making of his most culturally known horror picture, "Psycho." 

"Mr. Hitchcock, you're the most famous director in the medium, but you're 60 years old. Shouldn't you just quit while you're ahead?" a reporter snidely commented at the premiere of the director's 1959 hit "North by Northwest." Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) took that to heart, going on the lookout for "a nice, clean, nasty piece of work" that would go outside of his comfort zone and shock the world. Stumbling upon Robert Bloch's book about voyeurism, tranvestism, murder, and human taxidermy, "Psycho," he took every copy of the book out of Hollywood bookstore so every viewer could later savor the ending in the movie adaptation. Paramount Pictures financed all of Hitchcock's previous pictures and agreed to distribution but refused to fund the seemingly tasteless "Psycho," so Hitch did it himself on an $80,000 budget by mortgaging his house. He also wrangled with the Production Code Administration, promising them that his murder scene in the shower would only suggest nudity and skin being punctured by a knife with the illusion of editing ("I assure you, my murders are always models of taste and discretion"). In a time when toilets were neither seen nor heard in movies and seeing an actress in her bra on the screen was considered racy, 1960's "Psycho" finally got off the ground and would go on to change cinema. 

On the personal front, Hitchcock's initially skeptical wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), supported her husband's choices in going through with the movie, even if that meant sacrificing their beloved pool and taking her time away from the garden. It was even her whom suggested not to wait to kill off his leading lady at the halfway point but after the first thirty minutes, as well as to cast Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. Then she began to feel underappreciated and unnoticed, compared to Hitch's fantasy blondes that he'd so often cast, so under her husband's nose, Alma started working with her charming screenwriter friend Whitfield Cook (a fittingly weaselly Danny Huston) on a new adapted treatment, described as "stillborn" by her hubby, in his secluded beach house. In the end, guess which man she stood by.

In the wake of Steven Spielberg's overrated "Lincoln," a biopic made of sleep-inducing L-tryptophan, a film definitively titled "Hitchcock" sounded like a daunting proposition, especially from a first-time narrative filmmaker. But director Sacha Gervasi (the 2008 documentary "Anvil! The Story of Anvil") takes the biopic template and wisely centers on the tooth-and-nail process of the iconic director making his masterpiece, as well as his marital relationship, in a tight 98 minutes that goes by in a flash. 

John J. McLaughlin's well-researched script, based on Stephen Rebello's book "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho," has obviously taken liberties from the truth (who really knows?), not the least being Hitchcock's dialoguing with and hallucinations of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the notorious 1944, Wisconsin killer whose true crimes and maternal attachment were the basis for Bloch's novel and Hitchcock's picture. These dream/fantasy moments provide a sense of true-crime horror and a clever conduit into the filmmaker's darkly twisted and obsessive psyche. McLaughlin also has an ear for Hitchcock's deadpan wit (on introduction, Hitch goes "You may call me Hitch—hold the cock!") and indulges in some playfully quick-witted jabs at the Hollywood studio system (Paramount fears the release of "Psycho" and Hitch retorts, "Unlike the last five Martin and Lewis films you're all so proud of?"). 

Like an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" with Danny Elfman's jovial score, the film is bookended by Hitchcock talking directly to the camera, beginning with gallows humor (Gein knocking his brother out with a shovel and then panning to Hitch introducing "our little movie") and ending with a sly nod to what came next in his career. (The Hitchcocks' only child, Patricia, is oddly omitted from the story, even though she appeared in "Psycho," but that's small potatoes.)

Sir Anthony Hopkins, with silicone wrap creating Hitch's jowls and padding for his corpulent body, doesn't uncannily look like the iconic master as much as he gets the voice, mannerisms, and dry, mischievous humor down pat. One might not lose him or herself in that he or she is watching Hitchcock, rather than a really kosher impersonation, but Hopkins' cheeky, on-target, altogether terrific turn does more than enough to suggest and flesh out the man and his essence, without reducing him to a caricature. Watch as he stands outside the theater doors of "Psycho's" opening night in giddy anticipation and then conducts the screams of his audience when Bernard Herrmann's orchestral score for the shower scene sounds. Helen Mirren, absolutely lovely, forceful, and heartbreaking, is Hopkins' match in every way as Alma. She loves her husband dearly, from making sure he drinks in moderation and eats more celery to the time she fulfills a crucial role on the set while he's ill at home, but isn't afraid to put her foot down either. Since Alfred and Alma's relationship is at the film's core, it's not judgmental on either side but well-rounded and unexpectedly poignant.

Of the "Psycho" cast members, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel, and James D'Arcy all impeccably slip into their respective roles. As Janet Leigh/Marion Crane, Johansson nails the real-life actress' natural charm, spunk, and professionalism; Biel, as Vera Miles/Lila Crane who was shunned by the director for getting pregnant and ruining her chances of being cast as "Vertigo's" leading lady, more than capably adds some dimension; and D'Arcy, most underused of the three, perfects the lanky, sensitive Anthony Perkins/Norman Bates to a 'T' through looks and performance. Toni Collette lends strong support as Hitch's faithful but no-nonsense personal assistant, Peggy Robertson. Other recognizable character actors, including Richard Portnow (as Paramount president Barney Balaban), Kurtwood Smith (as PCA head Geoffrey Shurlock), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as agent Lew Wasserman), make impressions, as does '80s child star Ralph Macchio playing screenwriter Joseph Stefano. Costumes, production design and art direction are also classy and authentic for the Classic Hollywood period; Leigh's landmark shower scene, where the director takes his own stab at it, and Miles' pivotal discovery of Mother/Mrs. Bates, swinging light bulb included, are very gloriously recreated. 

Similar to Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," this is a fascinating and revealing, albeit not extremely meaty, glimpse—or, peepholeinto a historical figure's life, but also such an adroitly made piece of entertainment that's careful never to fall into the realm of camp, artifice, or parody. For those with a love and appreciation for movies, moviemaking, and everything Hitchcock, "Hitchcock" is a mandatory, rapturously enjoyable paean to one legendary filmmaker that will make for a very good evening indeed. That's ambitious enough; let's just hope Gus Van Sant doesn't take a stab at remaking it.

Grade: A -

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray: Melodramatic "Sparkle" makes for painless corn

Sparkle (2012) 
116 min., rated PG-13.

Above being a star vehicle for Jordin Sparks and a remix of a little-known 1976 film of the same name that predated even the Broadway premiere of "Dreamgirls," "Sparkle" will be remembered mostly as Whitney Houston's farewell. Otherwise, it's a sudsy, creaky, patently predictable showbiz melodrama, and yet it acceptably works on the level of entertaining corn. 

In 1968, Detroit, meek 19-year-old Sparkle Anderson (Jordin Sparks) has a passion for songwriting. One night at the Discovery Club, her sexy, confident older sister named Sister/Tammy (Carmen Ejogo) stands up on stage to sing one of Sparkle's songs, but up-and-coming record-label manager Stix (Derek Luke) catches Sparkle's eye and sees real talent in her. Sparkle and Sister, along with middle sister Delores (Tika Sumpter), live under the roof of their God-fearing disciplinarian mother Emma (Whitney Houston), who cracks the whip on her three daughters because she used to sing professionally and battled rough times. Egged on by Stix to enter a musical competition, the sisters then go on to break into the Motown music business amidst a dime a dozen of musical acts that rival The Supremes.

"Sparkle" transports from 1958, Harlem to a decade later in Detroit, making for a brighter, more superficial and well-scrubbed version of virtually the same story. Director Salim Akil (2011's amiable "Jumping the Broom") gets the period right with the costumes and production design, and makes sure the musical performances are lively and sultry with songs from Curtis Mayfield, as well as R. Kelly. But when it comes to the drama, he overblows it with soap-opera theatrics and slow-motion sequences. The screenplay by TV writer Mara Brock Akil (the director's wife) hits all the familiar beats. It's a tough pill to swallow that it takes Emma so long to realize her daughters have been sneaking out right under her nose; that all changes when they open for Aretha Franklin one night and Emma awakens from her nap to see them perform on TV. 

While Sparkle's follow your dreams! yarn goes where you expect it to, Sister's rise-and-fall takes up a lot of time. She gets seduced by the spotlight and leaves her boyfriend Levi (Omari Hardwick) for smarmy, not-funny comedian Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), who showers her with gifts and then proposes to her. Sister could be the next Diana Ross, but Satin manhandles his wife with a couple black eyes, gets her hooked on cocaine, and becomes the catalyst for her inevitable downward spiral. This portion of the film just overdoses on Ike-and-Tina-Turner clich├ęs that lack subtlety or anything deeper than a melodramatic Lifetime Original Movie. With that said, Akil has much more success with the lighter moments, in keeping things moving, and in getting solid performances out of his cast.

Making her feature debut, Sparks has a nice, warm presence and gets to showcase the pipes that made her a winner on "American Idol." But beyond that, her acting range only goes so far, so this vehicle probably won't make her a star yet as intended. Luckily, as her sisters, Ejogo heats up the screen and turns in a strong portrayal as the troubled black sheep who looks for success in the wrong places, and Sumpter is a sassy, sparky scene-stealer. Epps is pretty much typecast as another slick hustler but livens things up. Also, Cee Lo Green is curiously included on the one-sheet for more name value, but only appears in the opening scene as a singer (or is that "sanger"?). 

The late Houston is fine as Emma, whose tragic past comes to the foreground at an awkward dinner with Sister and her new beau and hits pretty close to the truth. "Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?" she says. Emma tries sheltering her girls and doesn't want Sparkle to follow her dream so none of them end up like her. The real-life tragedy of Ms. Houston hangs over the film, and for one last time on screen, it's quite poignant to hear the vocally powerful performer belt out "His Eye Is On The Sparrow" at a funeral. 

Too earnest and well-intentioned to deserve hate mail, "Sparkle" won't make it big, but it's an appealingly modest surprise. This is the kind of inoffensive movie you can wait to enjoy when you're in bed with the flu.

Grade: B -

Friday, November 23, 2012

"Life of Pi" stirring, visually beautiful movie magic

Life of Pi (2012)
127 min., rated PG.

So many books have been deemed unfilmable for the screen—they were right with Peter Jackson's disappointing "The Lovely Bones"and yet "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy has been made into a pretty great trilogy of films and most recently "Cloud Atlas." Now, there's "Life of Pi," the adaptation of Yann Martel's 2001 best-selling novel. Bringing the fable to life, director Ang Lee (2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and 2005's "Brokeback Mountain") and screenwriter David Magee (2008's "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day") have created an enthralling odyssey, an exquisite visual marvel, and altogether an astonishing experience filled with awe, wonder, and resonance.

To a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall), Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) shares a remarkable story that will make him believe in God. He was named after a French swimming pool and then changed his name to the mathematical constant from being harassed at school with the nickname "Pissing Patel." Raised a Hindu by his family that own a zoo in Pondicherry, India, the boy finds his own path by also studying Christianity and Islam. By his teens, Pi (Suraj Sharma) and his family have to make the move to Canada, so they embark on a cargo freighter, with their exotic animals in tow. Eventually, the ship runs into a heavy storm and Pi goes on deck to watch but ends up being the only survivor on a lifeboat. The crew and Pi's family go down with the sinking ship, and by morning, Pi wakes up in the lifeboat with an injured zebra, a vicious hyena, an orangutan, and a growling, hungry Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Once the tiger and Pi are left, the boy must tame the beast before they both try to survive staying afloat in the Pacific. His faith in the divine is tested for 227 days.

Newcomer Suraj Sharma is note-perfect as the teenage Pi and acts quite well in total isolation with his co-star, a photorealistic CG tiger (with some real tigers standing in on occasion). The striped kitty-cat never comes off like an invariable visual effect but a living, breathing animal with as much soul as a human character, which is quite a feat in these days of computer animation. It doesn't take long to remind viewers of Tom Hanks and Wilson the Volleyball being marooned on that island in "Cast Away."

James Cameron's "Avatar" seems to be the gold standard of 3-D moviemaking that transports and immerses the viewer into a vivid otherworld. About those visuals…Combining resplendent cinematography by Claudio Miranda ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") and visual effects, the clear waters that Pi and his companion drift upon are visions of wondrous beauty. In one scene, Pi writes an S.O.S. letter in a bottle as the fluffy clouds and the golden sun reflect upon the ocean, and the sight is simply spellbinding. Other divine moments include a dark night on the deep blue sea being lit up by what appear to be thousands of luminous jellyfish, as well a mysterious island populated by meerkats and carnivorous algae. If the imagery isn't majestic enough, the use of 3-D is not a gimmick but an artful tool that enhances color and depth of field. And since "Avatar," it's the most transcendent use of the third dimension so far.

However, "Life of Pi" isn't just pretty pictures like a Trapper Keeper designed by Lisa Frank. There's no doubt about it: Lee has mastered a beaut, but this is also an emotional and spiritual motion picture. Given the framing device with the adult Pi telling his story to the writer, we know that the storyteller survives after being lost at sea, but suspense is never lost. We actually care what happens to Pi and Richard Parker. In fact, the scenes bookending the magical realism should get in the way but do not, forming a bridge that actually makes the spiritual undertones more digestible. A deeper meaning is obviously at work in this elegantly simple story, connecting allegorical themes of surviving insurmountable odds and religious faith. Not dissimilar to "The Chronicles of Narnia" novels and movies, where the lion Aslan symbolized Christ, there are symbols here. Fortunately, Lee and Magee are careful to give us the option of how literally or as metaphorically we interpret the tale without beating us over the head with Sunday School preachiness and pat platitudes.

Although a film set on the ocean with no one else around but the creatures of the deep could flirt with tedium, Lee makes the feeling of isolation palpable through his wide-open frame and intoxicating pacing. Harrowing, profoundly stirring, and utterly magical, "Life of Pi" stands as Lee's next magnum opus. It won't make atheists believe in God, but the film holds more than enough credibility to believe such a fantastical parable. Just see it for yourself.


DVD/Blu-ray: Turn off sound and "Expendables 2" offers junky, all-brawn-and-no-brains fun

The Expendables 2 (2012) 
103 min., rated R.

It simply comes down to this: if you think you're going to like "The Expendables 2," you'll probably like "The Expendables 2." Now, of course, your expectations will be decided on having seen 2010's "The Expendables," or "The AARP-Team," where the concept of seeing some over-the-hill action stars occupy the same space sounded like every macho man's wet dream. But, as we all know, what seemed like gold on paper didn't translate as well in the execution. So, if memory serves, the first bullet-riddled sausage-fest was too self-serious and mostly boring, and truly expendable junk. It didn't matter, natch, because two years later, we're here with "The Expendables 2." The good news? The sequel is what the first one should have been: it's still disposable junk, but gleefully mindless, fleet-footed, and unpretentious junk with, again, all brawn and no brains. 

After the Expendables rescue a hostage, including mercenary Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), in Nepal, the "plot proper" gets underway when leader Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) is approached (and intimidated) by villainous CIA agent Church (Bruce Willis) in New Orleans. Church has another a deal for Barney for doing damage in Atlanta and stealing $5 million dollars from him. Sent with Barney and his muscular team of badasses—knife specialist Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), weapons specialist Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), demolitions expert Toll Road (Randy Couture), chemical engineer Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), and their newest recruit, ex-military sniper Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth)—is combat-proficient Maggie Chan (Yu Nan) to retrieve an important case in a downed airplane in Albania. The mission is supposed to be a walk in the park, until they're ambushed by Jean Vilian (Jean-Claude Van Damme), a criminal arms dealer with a Satan tattoo on his neck. Vilian kills one of the Expendables, so Barney and his men follow through on his motto, "Track 'em, find 'em, kill 'em."

Stallone is no longer at the helm, probably because he showed little to no competence in directing an action scene, which consisted of shaking the camera like a cocktail shaker and telling his editors to Cut! Cut! Cut! until all spatial geography was invisible to the eye. Rather, director Simon West (he of the guilty pleasure "Con Air") mans this follow-up with a slightly bigger budget, more cleanly cut action, and less long-faced seriousness. "The Expendables 2" wastes no time delivering the shoot-'em-up goods, which is most always a problem in that we have no investment in anything that's going on. Oh well, because West pitches the action at an insanely ridiculous cartooniness, from its shoot-everything-in-sight opener that ends with the guys blowing away baddies while zip-lining through the South Asian forest.

Whatever Richard Wenk and Stallone wrote on Final Draft doesn't matter, so turn the volume down and just enjoy this action palooza. The laughably obvious dialogue needed to be tossed like these Golden Boys need to lay off the steroids, and the self-aware but groan-inducing wisecracks could've punched up the cheek. Put these aging action stars in wheel chairs and then it might be funny, but most of what they get to say is a lot of lame misfiring. Here are a few samplings of what's uttered: Schwarzenegger calls Lundgren "Frankenstein." Crews jokes with Arnie, "If I don't get this back, your ass is terminated." To his enemies, Statham quips, "I now pronounce you man and knife!" Stallone shoots down some thugs and goes, "Rest in pieces." And then glory-day lines "I'll be back" and "Yippee ki-yay!" are both exchanged but reversed from who you'd expect.

Finding character development and any stinkin' story that we care about is like finding an Oscar-winner in Jean-Claude Van Damme's filmography. These characters aren't memorable, but the actors—a loose term here—do what they do. The leathery Stallone looks like he's ready to pop a blood vessel in his biceps. Van Damme snarls in broad villain fashion as Vilian. Schwarzenegger and Willis, both given a little more screen time but still not much, have fun bouncing has-been witticisms off of one another. Statham has his moments, but Crews, Couture, and Lundgren are barely there. Jet Li appears in the first scene, says "See you later, alligator," and then never returns. Hemsworth outshines all of them in the acting department as Billy, who left the love of his life to take the job with Barney's team. Chuck Norris (yes, he's still alive after his "Walker, Texas Ranger" days) also shows up for four minutes as lone wolf Booker (which are both pokes at "Lone Wolf McQuade" and "Good Guys Wear Black"), entering with the howling melody from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

Those that don't require more than wisecracking, blood spurting, guts exploding, and stuff getting blown up real good will be pleased. The mano-a-mano fight between Stallone and Van Damme with their fists and chains is satisfying, as is an earlier homage to the propeller death in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." "The Expendables 2" still has nothing on "The Raid: Redemption," but it's enough, and a bit more fun than its predecessor, even if that doesn't sound like much of an endorsement. It sets out to entertain undemanding action buffs with cheesy one-liners and cheerfully extreme killing, so it achieves that rudimentary goal. They'll cheer over all the testosterone bleeding off the screen.

Grade: B -

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Affecting, offbeat "Silver Linings Playbook" gets the balance right

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
122 min., rated R.

On paper, the disparate ingredients for a screwball romantic-comedybipolar disorder, depression, football mania, and a dance competition—would seem to have mood swings and shouldn't work. But with writer-director David O. Russell (he of 2010's tough, nuanced "The Fighter") finding a delicate balance in tone, character, and everything else, "Silver Linings Playbook" pulls it off. The film might not reinvent the genre playbook entirely, but it does so much right and with intelligence and modesty.

Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper), a substitute history teacher with bipolar disorder, finds himself living back with his parents, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver), in his working-class Philly neighborhood. He's spent an eight-month stint in a Baltimore mental ward after suffering a violent breakdown when he caught his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee), in the shower with another man. Now that he's lost his marriage and his job, Pat just wants to start over, even though he refuses to take his meds and has the delusion that he and Nikki are still very much in love. It doesn't matter that she has a restraining order against him.

Staying in shape, Pat jogs around town and runs into his old pal Ronnie (John Ortiz), whose shrewish wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) invites him over for dinner one night. It turns out to be a set-up for Pat to meet Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), Veronica's sister; she's recently widowed after the death of her husband and has just lost her job for sleeping with everyone. She's a damaged mess, just like Pat. All he wants is a shot at a silver lining, so maybe Tiffany can help him. Meanwhile, Dad is a Philadelphia Eagles fanatic with a case of OCD. His bet on the game and his son's dance contest meld together in a clever, triumphant way.

Armed with Russell's whip-smart script (adapted from Matthew Quick's novel) and all-around terrific performances, "Silver Linings Playbook" is a rarity in that it doesn't fit tidily into one genre or category. Every character has his and her flaws, and Russell luckily doesn't shy away from those but has affection for them and invests us with rooting interest. Though there are over-the-top moments, none of the characters are written in broad strokes either. Russell shoots the film in a zoomy hand-held style, much like Pat's own anxieties, and handles his frantic, character-stuffed story with cohesion. The core of the story hinges on Pat and his time spent with Tiffany, who agrees to pass a letter onto Nikki if he partners up with her for a city dance competition, but their relationship is interesting. Aside from their own jagged personalities, they hit it off because they're both a little nutty. 

Slick and charming in previous roles, Cooper undeniably gives his deepest, most dynamic, career-best performance here. As Pat, he's given the chance to dial back his physical attractiveness a bit and show what he can actually do with a more relatable and complex character. The 22-year-old Lawrence, again, does terrific work in her most adult role to date. In every way, she's Cooper's equal without dominating, but she comes close, and they're lovely together, sharing a rat-a-tat-tat banter full of humor and genuine feeling. De Niro, who's phoned in his performances and come off as a caricature in the last few years, gets to shine as Pat's pops who also has some anger issues, a past incident banishing him from the stadium. Weaver was such a force in the 2010 Australian crime-drama "Animal Kingdom," and here, she finds a motherly warmth and humor in her peripheral role. Chris Tucker is also here as Pat's fellow inmate who keeps getting out of the loony bin and then get back in; back on the screen five years later, the "Rush Hour" actor is usually irritating but not here. 

Rawly authentic, unexpectedly affecting, and offbeat in the best way, "Silver Linings Playbook" doesn't feel the need to trade in its messiness and nerve for formula and cuddliness. That's not to say it's not funny and romantic, or that it doesn't end happily, but the most humorous and sweetest kinds of people are the ones that don't know it—just like this film.

Grade: A -

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bawdy, breezy "For a Good Time, Call..." a sure thing

For a Good Time, Call… (2012) 
85 min., rated R.

Slim and sitcommy, but amusingly bawdy, dirty-mouthed, and breezy, "For a Good Time, Call…" might be the sweetest and most good-natured comedy about phone sex. This frisky indie fits right into the popular subgenre of chicks-being-as-naughty-as-the-dudes comedies, a fad that really took off with "Bridesmaids" and then its bitter cousin, "Bachelorette." Feature-debuting director Jamie Travis, working from a script by co-star Lauren Anne Miller and her former college roommate, co-writer Katie Anne Naylon, doesn't let his low budget and 16-day shooting schedule get him down because, though not memorable or a think-piece, this sitcom-ready diversion sure is a good time.

After her boyfriend says he needs to "re-evaluate" their boring relationship, strait-laced Lauren (Lauren Anne Miller) is left with an apartment she can't afford. Katie (Ari Graynor), a brassy, leopard-print-wearing free spirit, is living in her deceased bubbie's spacious apartment in Washington Square Park that's no longer rent-controlled, so she has to find a roommate. Their common gay best friend, Jesse (Justin Long), sets them up. You see, ten years ago in college, Lauren drove home the drunk Katie, who peed in her car, making them enemies. Once they're both convinced by Jesse, Lauren moves in and then gets let go from her publishing job, so what to do? One night, Lauren overhears Katie, who works multiple jobs, moaning in her bedroom…she's a phone-sex hotline operator! Before you know it, the girls start a phone-sex business, where Lauren takes charge of the billing for "1-900-MMM-HMMM." Down the road, of course, Lauren will end up hanging up her good-girl image and getting her chance to "ooh" and "aah" on the phone.

High-concept all the way, the premise is no doubt a hoot. It also helps that Miller and Naylon's script is sharper and made more from scratch than the many phoned-in, design-by-committee studio movies. Then again, at 85 minutes—a brisk 85 minutes, though—the film does show its flimsiness and hurriedness when adding in forced narrative conflicts and formulaic beats typically found in a romantic-comedy. Beyond all the montage laughs and daring smut (complete with dildos and simulated sex), "For a Good Time, Call…" is really, at its heart, a "sismance"/"bramance"/"homance," the many answers to "bromance," exploring the deep affection in a female friendship. Lauren and Katie might be cut from the odd-couple cloth of movies, but there are more shadings to them than one might expect. Their double-entendre phone conversation after their "fake break-up" cleverly teeters on parody that you almost expect these platonic gals to switch teams; thankfully, it's kept sincere and made winning by Miller and Graynor.

Standing out in various supporting roles since "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," Graynor finally nabs one of the lead roles and sells it. The media labels Graynor as her generation's Bette Midler, which is true of her robust, uninhibited spark plug of comic energy, but she actually resembles Debbie Gibson. Either way, she's one of American comedy's best-kept secrets and gets to showcase what she's truly capable of as a headliner. With a sweetly demure appeal of her own, Miller is the squeaky-clean, squeaky-voiced "straight man" in the equation but doesn't overplay it, even when she lets her hair down in the dirty talk. In supporting roles, Long enjoyably gets free reign in playing the girls' sassy best friend and mediator; Mark Webber is harmlessly charming as Katie's regular caller who wants to meet her in person; and Nia Vardalos has a fun bit part as Lauren's potential boss. Kevin Smith, Seth Rogen (Miller's real-life spouse), and Ken Marino also turn in raunchy cameos as a few of the lewd but lonely callers.

Ultimately due to its likable, engaging leads and smartly snappy writing, the film never becomes a too-too farce. It's outrageous in the sense that these two gal pals take up such a dirty gig to pay the bills (they're not actually sluts), and R-rated without going for visual gross-outs (no woman defecates in a sink). Like something that would have been made in the '80s or '90s (back when sex hotlines were still a "thing"), this fun little girl-power comedy is very hard to dislike.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Parker Posey on top in uneven "Price Check"

Price Check (2012)
92 min., not rated.

Parker Posey is like a trend that never dies. First hitting her stride in 1995's "Party Girl," which earned her the official title of "the Queen of the Indies," Posey has blossomed into an insanely sharp, larger-than-life comedic firecracker who walks a tight rope without solely being shrill and untamed. Her Susan Felders character in "Price Check" isn't much different from the type Posey is used to playing: she's prickly, sardonic, exclamatory, and erratic. She's ferociously funny, too. But while Posey is a gas, the rest of the movie feels like a disjointed rough sketch (with, not to mention, some rough jump cuts and scene-to-scene transitions). This indie workplace dramedy, the second film from writer-director Michael Walker (the 2000 chiller "Chasing Sleep"), follows a familiar Boss-From-Hell/Work-Sucks formula with some keen observations. It's like a meaner and more honest version of TV's "The Office," but it's no "Office Space," "Horrible Bosses," or even "Clockwatchers" (which earned most of its juice from Posey's attitude-filled turn).

36-year-old Pete Cozy (Eric Mabius), a Dartmouth graduate, works 9 to 5 at a regional Long Island office for a supermarket chain. Giving up his passion in the indie music industry, he works this stopgap job because he has a supportive wife, Sara (Annie Parisse), and a 3-year-old son to feed, and the family has enough debt over their heads as it is. When his boss is replaced, in comes Susan Felders (Posey), a high-energy, mercurial piece of work that gets what she wants. With experience in pricing and marketing for 11 years, she's good at her job but not at living her life. She rattles the employees' cages and puts down Long Island by saying, "It's like the Valley, but the people are pale and yucky." Luckily for Pete, Susan gives him a raise, but also comes over to his house for dinner to meet Sara and then practically invites herself to their son's preschool Halloween party. When Susan promotes Pete and invites him on a business meeting in L.A., they end up getting drunk and she propositions him with, "Why don't you come upstairs and impregnate me?" Her life goals reveal to be more than being a homewrecking hornball. Working in a man's world, Susan likes to be on top, but Pete learns that making his boss happy won't make him happier.

Susan is such a ready-to-crack, in-your-face presence with a psychotic grin that Posey seems born for the role. The actress brings a lot of brash sting and live-wire gusto, but it's not quite enough to carry the story. Set in Our Economic Times, "Price Check" captures the mundane nuts and bolts of supermarket pricing with enough shop talk and the double-edged sword of climbing the soul-sucking corporate ladder. But again, the film never feels like it wants to commit to a specific direction. Is this about Susan or are we supposed to care about Pete and his family? Mabius is sympathetic enough but pretty bland, and it's too bad the amusingly wacky co-workers weren't more vividly drawn. Stand-up comedian Amy Schumer at least gets some laughs as Lila who comes to work for the doughnuts. Things consequently come to a head but not to a place that's as offbeat or trenchant as the lead performance. The movie misses the satirical bull's-eye, butexcuse the awful punPosey shoplifts the whole thing.

Grade: B -

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Day-Lewis reigns, poky "Lincoln" feels as long as the Civil War

Lincoln (2012) 
149 min., rated PG-13.

Steven Spielberg, once a notably can't-miss filmmaker, continues to show that he might be losing his magic. Last year, Spielberg's sentimental, old-fashioned "War Horse" wore its heart on its sleeve and beat us over the head with italicized emotions. This year, right in time for awards season, "Lincoln" falls victim to telling over showing, a crutch that makes the film far less cinematic than it should have been. This passion project had been on the drawing board for at least a decade, with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (who first collaborated with Spielberg on 2005's "Munich") whittling down his 500-page screenplay. It was a smart move to get away from the exhaustingly old-hat approach of a comprehensive biopic—you'll get all the rail-splitting and vampire hunting you want in this year's "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"and narrow the script to just the last four months of the 16th president's life. Unfortunately, in the process of lofty idea to the page and screen, "Lincoln" still exceeds its word count as a flat, preordained slog with little new insight into its subject.

The film opens with the starkly beautiful images of a battle, reminiscent of "Saving Private Ryan," with men being bayoneted and stepped on in the mud. Following the truncated carnage, Abe Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) talks to his troops, particularly one black soldier (David Oyelowo) who ends up quoting the entire Gettysburg Address back to him (an early moment that's executed with unabashedly corny contrivance). By the fourth year of the Civil War, Lincoln has already been re-elected, and in January of 1865, he fights to abolish slavery, which means convincing the rowdy curmudgeons in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment in the Constitution. Check your history book for proof.

Partly inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," Kushner's script is as dry and verbose as a history lesson can get. Despite the reserves of humor and the fact that Abe is refreshingly not sanctified, the script's self-important reverence for language and Big Speeches sucks out the life and blood of a historical account that should be intimate and riveting. Breaking up the monotony of the backroom politics, not too often, are domestic interludes involving Lincoln's wife Mary (Sally Field), who fills him with guilt for the loss of their son Willie, and the homecoming of their older son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who makes it his priority to leave Harvard Law School and join the Union Army. In the end, the incessant chatter smothers any sense of pacing or drama that some scenes just lay there.

Considering not many of us watching "Lincoln" were around in the 1800s to vouch for the actor doing his homework, the dependable Day-Lewis is still spot-on and nuanced in the titular role. He not only uncannily inhabits Honest Abe's iconic look and gait but the brilliantly modulated balance of authoritativeness, compassion, and vulnerability. When he tells a folksy anecdote or a joke in that reedy voice, you listen up. It's such an astonishing feat that you almost forget you're watching an actor put on a show. Behind him is a who's who ensemble of actors, who obviously couldn't pass up working with Spielberg, but it's too bad so few of them were written with more to do than just show up. Among the big names and character actors are David Strathairn, Lee Pace, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lukas Haas, Hal Holbrook, Jared Harris (as Ulysses S. Grant) and the list doesn't even stop there. Instead of Mary Todd being played as an unsympathetic harpy, Field's turn is emotionally fragile and heartbreaking. As the Lincolns' son Robert, Gordon-Levitt has one strongly acted confrontation with Dad, but he's wasted in a subplot that goes nowhere. Luckily, some much-needed comic relief prevails with a live-wire James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson as a trio of conniving lobbyists brought in to secure Democratic votes. But, next to Day-Lewis and Field, the other standout is Tommy Lee Jones, who's terrific in crabby yet good-humored mode (complete with a funny wig), as outspoken abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.

A sturdy, stately production no doubtRick Carter's production design and Joanna Johnston's costume design are both meticulous in their authenticitythe film still feels airless somehow. Heroic cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's sepia-toned shots, which you can usually count on to take our breath away with visual richness and macro scope, should appear as chiaroscuro paintings and be just right for the historical period. But, aside from a few striking exterior shots, his work is rendered pedestrian and suffocating. With Spielberg's uncharacteristically stagy direction, this chamber piece amounts to a series of gabfests with men bickering in dreary interiors, which might as well be taken for caves even if this is the time of gas, oil, and candlelight. (The sweeping landscapes and that burning, orange sunset in "War Horse" are surprisingly missed.)

"Lincoln" could've been and should've been something special from the sincere moviemaker, but it's too much of a stodgy, dramatically underwhelming drag. Prior to the Amendment reaching enough "yay" votes, there is the pleasure and suspense in seeing the passage unfold, even though we already know the outcome. However, few moments will be preserved for the ages after leaving the theater. Speaking of the theater: although Spielberg might've thought depicting Abe's assassination in the box of Ford's Theater would be exploitative, it might've powered the coda with a more emotional impact. Sad to say, but true, the film is no more than a long but uninformative Cliffs Notes chapter on the president's final months and will only be remembered as a disappointing footnote in Spielberg's career. Day-Lewis is a monumental Lincoln; as for "Lincoln" the movie, not so much.