Thursday, January 31, 2013

Crap outweighs good stuff in uneven but crazily demented "ABCs of Death"

The ABCs of Death (2013)
123 min., not rated (but equivalent to an NC-17).

Or, "O is for Overkill." On the heels of "V/H/S" (which already has a follow-up on the way), "The ABCs of Death" is another horror anthology, yet more experimental and even longer. Running through the alphabet from A to Z, this ambitiously conceived project has gathered an impressive roll call of 27 international genre filmmakers, each assigned a letter to make their own "short tale of death" with complete artistic freedom. Proof positive that compiling 26 shorts was a pretty dodgy, intimidating proposition: there are peaks and valleys in quality and the viewer will have to wade through the crapola to get to some of the good stuff. Though it will probably be some folks' idea of a recommendation, this grab-bag of wildly off-the-wall shocks and gross-outs will desensitize and soon wear you down, especially when only a handful of them are actually worth the effort. Regardless, it has cult potential.

The two-dozen plus directors accredited to this omnibus include but aren't limited to Nacho Vigalondo ("Timecrimes"), Xavier Gens ("The Divide"), Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett ("V/H/S"), Ti West ("The Innkeepers"), Ben Wheatley ("Kill List"), Simon Rumley ("Red White & Blue"), Jorge Michel Grau ("We Are What We Are"), Banjong Pisanthanakun ("Shutter"), Srdjan Spasojevic ("A Serbian Film"), and actress Angela Bettis. Their lopsided collaboration never met a death it didn't want to exploit, tossing everything into the pot but a human centipede in a kitchen sink—an abominable snowman, a man-eating toilet, flatulence-obsessed lesbians, a Nazi fox dancer, an unearthed monster, a gagged woman vomiting, a pesky spider, an unflushable Mr. Hankey, giggly samurais, a home-wrecking bird, a sadistic masturbation contest, baby-killing robots, a prostitute stomping on a kitten, speed junkies, kinky sex, zombie clowns, and much more! What more could you ask for?

"A" gets things off to an auspicious, mordantly humorous start, where a woman can't seem to kill off her already-dying husband, but the next eight or so are of the take-it-or-leave-it variety. Like "F is for Fart" and "G is for Gravity," some are either asinine oddities or so ineffective that they just seem to occupy space so the alphabetical concept could still go forward. An exception would be Marcel Sarmiento's "D is for Dogfight," expertly edited in balletic slow-motion and creating a wrenching story of man's best friend within such a short time span. The most twisted creation of all is Timo Tjahjanto's "L is for Libido," which is mostly a shock-for-shock's-sake exercise in sadism but does indeed shock. Fans of up-and-comer Ti West might not even realize he contributed the simple, three-minute-long "M is for Miscarriage" because he only gives the bare-minimum. Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett pair up and go meta with their amusingly ironic entry "Q," where they both appear as themselves making a short film for $5,000 ("This isn't a snuff film, it's art!"). Also making a memorable impression is the result of a YouTube competition, Lee Hardcastle's inventive claymation short "T is for Toilet" about a boy afraid of using the toilet. And no, it's not for children.

Thankfully, there's an ebb and flow between segments. It's not until letters W, X, Y, and Z that the top that! shock factor and sensory overload really get cranked up to eleven. Xavier Gens' "X is for XXL" actually has something to say, specifically about female body image, in which a freckled, heavy young woman finally gets tired of being called "fat" and other derogatives. The aforementioned Gens somehow one-ups his 2007 gore shower "Frontier(s)" in just six minutes with one of the saddest, most shockingly gory and aurally disconcerting tales of death, and one viewing of it will be more than enough. On to "Y is for Youngbuck," from Jason Eisener ("Hobo with a Shotgun"), this sicko exercise is stylized with a synth score and garish, over-saturated colors, but its subject—a pedophilic janitor preying on a young boy—is stomach-churning in its sleaziness. Finally, Yoshihiro Nishimura's "Z is for Zetsumetsu (Extinction)" is an insanely in-your-face wackadoo, offering the action of naked Japanese women fighting with dildos and shooting veggies out of themselves (would I make this up?). Blood, sushi and nudity definitely don't mix.

Whereas most films of this anthological ilk are rarely strong across the board, "The ABCs of Death" is distinctly uneven and erratic, to say the least. It's like sitting through a two-hour film festival of eclectic submissions, where the bad mostly outweighs the good. All 26 segments are bound by the goal of killing someone or something but range from juvenile and amateurish, to just plain bizarre and worthless, to sick and disturbing, going over the line of even NC-17. The tenderhearted should consider themselves warned, but the midnight-movie crowd might not want to pass it up.


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Surprisingly not-blah "Hotel Transylvania" full of funny, clever touches

Hotel Transylvania (2012)
91 min., rated PG.

Even if it's bound to have a quick sell-by date from "other" animated horror-themed competition, "Hotel Transylvania" is a fun, zippy monster-mash delight that still deserves an audience. Setting itself apart from the pack, this one isn't created with lovingly detailed stop-motion but with bright, imaginative computer animation courtesy of Sony Pictures. Director Genndy Tartakovsky (creator of Cartoon Network's "Dexter's Laboratory" and "Samurai Jack") knows just how to keep the energy running, and screenwriters Peter Baynham (of the festive 2011 gem "Arthur Christmas") and "SNL" vet Robert Smigel equally keep us on our toes with an almost non-stop barrage of cute, clever visual gags, verbal puns, and fast-paced slapstick.

Blah blah blah-ing by Adam Sandler and looking more like the cereal box's Count Chocula, Count Dracula is a widower overprotective of his only daughter Mavis (a charming Selena Gomez) from the cruel, pitchfork-wielding human world. With his wife gone, he's determined to keep their daughter safe by building a resort hotel and sanctuary for monsters in his castle. On the eve of her 118th birthday—that's legal-to-drive-a-hearse in vamp years—Mavis wants to go out and explore the world. To her surprise, Dad gives her permission to check out the local village (which he's faked with the hotel's zombie bellmen as torch-raising townspeople), just so she can prove his point and return back home. Once a mortal backpacker named Jonathan (Andy Samberg) braves the scary woods and graveyard to the hotel, he and Mavis "zing" when their eyes meet, much to Dracula's dismay. Jonathan is forbidden to fall in love with her, but Dracula allows the tourist to stay if he can keep a ruse going that he's one of them and in the Frankenstein family. After the human shows Mavis her first sunset (without perishing) and brings life to her birthday party, will Daddy eventually warm up to him?

Sandler is doing another goofy voice here, but he's actually more likable as the Count than Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Bobby Boucher, Little Nicky, or Davey from his 2002 animated feature "Eight Crazy Nights." A few of his comedy pals check in, too, and give amiably functional voice performances as fresh variations on the Universal monsters. Kevin James is Frankenstein's monster (even though he's incorrectly referred to as "Frankenstein"), with a self-aware Fran Drescher playing his screechy bride; David Spade, as the, uh, invisible Invisible Man, Griffin; Jon Lovitz, as the up-to-no-good Chef Quasimodo with his pet rat; and Steve Buscemi as Wayne the Wolf Man and Molly Shannon as his pregnant wife Wanda, with their hairy brood of troublemakers. Samberg is endearingly dopey as the slacker-bro and further proves his musical worth in the end credits' song "The Zing" (which is a jillion times cleaner than any of his comedic hip-hop videos with The Lonely Island). And if you have to see any Sandler-Samberg pairing this year, make it "Hotel Transylvania" and not "That's My Boy."

Passably enjoyable at most, this cartoon quickie is the kind of painless family fare that receptive kids will eat up with a spoon and won't bore parents to sleep. It pales in comparison to the more mature and ambitious big-boy treats of "ParaNorman" and "Frankenweenie," but where it matters, the film moves at a blindingly frantic clip and there are enough affectionate, witty little details sprinkled throughout. A lot of them are a hoot and others just produce smiles but smiles nevertheless: "Do Not Disturb" signs are shrunken heads; skeletons being considered naked; Mavis interests Jonathan in a bagel with "scream cheese"; the invisible Griffin (appearing as a pair of floating glasses) leads in a game of charades; and there's a goof on "Twilight," where Dracula comments, "This is how we're represented?" Of course, with Sandler's involvement (he also executive produced), there are a few fart and pee jokes, but they work better here than in any of his live-action comedies. For instance, when a monster flatulates in the hotel lobby, Dracula's housekeeping department, a troupe of broom-riding witches, immediately zoom in with a bellows and blow the "gas" into the fireplace. 

The cinematic equivalent of tasty Halloween candy, "Hotel Transylvania" might not be remembered months later, but it has enough momentary zest. It also leaves us with a nice, sweet message about parenting and prejudices—humans aren't so bad after all—without any obvious pandering or condescension. You can't take away those merited pleasures and a consistent sense of joy from this mildly pleasant surprise.

Grade: B -

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Atmospheric, classed-up "The Awakening" still won't keep you up at night

The Awakening (2012)
107 min., rated R.

Next to slasher flicks, ghost stories might be the most well-worn of their kind in the horror genre. But as long as filmmakers know how to accumulate creeps and handle their tale with a deft hand, the subgenre isn't about to grow obsolete. With "The Awakening," writer-director Nick Murphy and co-writer Stephen Volk go with a less-is-more approach in the classical vein of most Victorian haunted-house pictures, as if it were cut from the same cloth as "The Haunting" and "The Changeling," as well as "The Others" and "The Orphanage." (Notice the titles all start with the same definite article.) By no means does the film transcend ghost stories, however, the British cast, stately set decoration, and atmospherics appreciably give it a measure of class and watchability. Other than that, the horror elements actually get in the way of what is really a period drama about grief, loss, and buried memories.

1921, London. Plagued by the death of her lover, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is an author of the supernatural who's devoted her life to debunking ghostly sightings with concrete evidence. She can see right through a charlatan at a faux séance. After a young pupil's death three weeks earlier at a boys boarding school, Florence is invited by the headmaster, Robert Mallory (Dominic West), to come back with him and investigate the reported sightings of the boy's ghost. Initially, she is certain that there are no supernatural goings-on, just pranks by some of the boys, but as her stay at the school goes on, signs prove otherwise.

Interestingly set after WWI and the influenza pandemic, "The Awakening" unfolds as a quietly engaging slow-burn for its first two-thirds. It doesn't hurt that Hall, as Miss Cathcart, carries the story with an intelligence and conviction, as well as an aching vulnerability and desire, and gives it some emotional impact. Imelda Staunton, as no-nonsense school matron Maud, and young newcomer Isaac Hempstead-Wright, as a lonely student who develops a friendship with Florence, also add interest. A couple peek-a-boo jolts startle (especially one with a pillow and another in the forest); Daniel Pemberton's effectively dread-induced score blends overwhelming musical swells, child whisperings, and chantings; and there's the shiver-inducing use of a dollhouse that turns out to be a chilling replica of the school and everyone in it, including Florence. But when revelations start to unravel and Florence's repressed memories are brought to the surface, Murphy and Volk ditch their low-key sensibilities. The plotting grows clumsy, with a needless red herring and a rather traditional twist explained through an exposition dump. 

Overall, when you get right down to it, "The Awakening" smacks of so much familiarity, eventually plodding along to a conclusion that makes its earlier spooky moments appear only as empty tricks. It's at once nicely old-fashioned and handsomely well-made, but doesn't really make much of a haunting impression in the long run.

Grade: C +

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Hansel & Gretel" more fun than it could've been

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)
88 min., rated R.

It's slim pickings for movies being released into the January doldrums, so either stay home or play catch-up with some of 2012's best contenders. Then again, "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" is better than it has any right of being, especially if you just shut your brain off. In its 88 minutes, which fly by in the blink of an eye, this giddily bloody, fairly entertaining, but wholly disposable action horror-fantasy plays out exactly how it sounds, which isn't entirely a bad thing. A contempo twist on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Norwegian writer-director Tommy Wirkola's first studio feature (after his 2009 Nazi-zombie lark "Dead Snow") enthusiastically spews enough buckets of splatter and sparks enough cheeky humor to spike our sugar.

The film's prologue might be the most vivid, mouth-wateringly designed re-imagining of the classic fairy tale we all know. Of course, this is where Hansel and Gretel are left in the woods by their father, stumble upon a cottage made of yummy candy that houses an Orc-looking witch who wants to eat them up, but the kids outsmart the mean old hag, shoving her into the oven and baking her alive like an overdone gingerbread cookie. "Many years later," the titular orphaned siblings, played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, have grown into witch-hunting heroes. In the German town of Augsburg, children are being captured (twelve, to be precise) by a coven of broom-flying witches, and Hansel and Gretel find themselves in the cross hairs of grand witch Muriel (Famke Janssen), who's preparing for the ritualistic Feast of the Blood Moon. Can the witch-slaying pros put a stop to the ceremony? And, more importantly, what is the secret carrot dangling in front of us that will lay out a trail of bread crumbs to why Hansel and Gretel were left by their parents and are immune to witch magic?

Peppered with anachronistic uses of the F-word and unabashed with its R-rating, "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" has no pretensions that it's anything more than the likably junky eye-candy it is. On the surface, it shares similarities with 2004's bloated, CG-overloaded "Van Helsing" and 2005's great-looking but overcooked "Brothers Grimm," but unlike those duds, this one has a goofy, unflagging energy about it. Wirkola and co-writer Dante Harper's relentlessly uncomplicated screenplay holds a few mildly clever details, too, like how Hansel must routinely inject himself with insulin for the "sugar sickness" he's suffered since his very first witch tried fattening him up with candy, and one side character referencing "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" in a cute throwaway line. And on the tech side of things, the effects rarely look like hollow CGI and the action sequences are tightly edited without looking like they were put through a shredder. From the hunting of witches with crossbows and other such toys, to bodies being shredded by wire traps and blown up by a Gatling gun, to the climactic sabbath looking like a Comic-Con for hags (including agile conjoined twins) and Muriel's crowd-pleasing comeuppance, the film is just a fun ride while it lasts. 

Playing the fabled sibs, the handsome Renner and the fetching Arterton do what's asked of them, making a no-nonsense, albeit good-humored, pair between their ass-whooping skills and abilities to crack a salty one-liner ("Whatever you do, don't eat the fucking candy!"). As the grand witch Muriel, Janssen vamps wickedly and becomes pretty fearsome with the help of her ghastly, cracked-porcelain prosthetic makeup. Thomas Mann, as Hansel and Gretel's biggest fan, and Pihla Viitala, as a young townswoman accused of witchcraft and attracted to Hansel, merely serve as adequate sidekicks. There's also a witch-helping troll named Edward (Derek Mears and voiced by Robin Atkin Downes), looking like a lovable cross between Frankenstein and the Jim Henson-made dwarf Hoggle from 1986's "Labyrinth."

When it's all over, the final product does feel a bit stifled like a missed opportunity that hedges its bets (but perhaps it's a case of studio interference). Even if it doesn't waste any time, it never fully commits to an unbridled, tongue-in-cheek approach that Sam Raimi does so well and does feel like the script was sanded down from a wittier, more inventive draft to appeal to the action-starved masses. That would explain a few convenient character run-ins/rescues that just seem to manifest so we can get to the fight. But based on what can be seen, "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" never stalls long enough to get repetitive and appreciably takes itself as seriously as its campy, straight-up title. Will it evaporate from your memory as soon as you're done with it? Most likely. Is it knowingly silly and over-the-top? Very much so.

Grade: C +

Saturday, January 26, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: "The Paperboy" a sweaty, swampy, trashy hot mess

The Paperboy (2012)
107 min., rated R.

Overwrought and overheated, "The Paperboy" is a pulpy, trashy piece of Southern Gothic crime-noir that has no problem wallowing in the sweat, sleaze, and alligator guts of its backwoods Florida-set tale. Directed by Lee Daniels (2009's unshakably powerful "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire") from a script he and Pete Dexter adapted from the latter half's 1995 novel, the film is by turns melodramatic and meandering, albeit could never be accused of being boring. It's a complete mess, but recommended as a tastily oddball, see-it-to-believe-it mess. In fact, this would make an ideal triple feature with 2006's "Black Snake Moan" and, most recently, 2012's "Killer Joe."

To borrow lyrics from The Weather Girls, humidity is rising . . . and it never ceases during the summer of 1969 in Moat County, Florida. After the birth of the Civil Rights movement, times were still racially controversial. 20-year-old former swimming champion Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) lets life pass him by, delivering papers for his dad's newspaper. Then his Miami Times journalist brother, Ward (Matthew McConaughey), comes back to town, alongside his prideful black British partner Yardley (David Oyelowo), to look into the murder of a sheriff. An uncouth alligator hunter, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), has already been convicted, but the suspect's sultry, oversexed blonde girlfriend, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), swears by his innocence. When she comes to Ward with boxes of evidence to take her man off death row, Jack immediately lusts after the floozy, but he's just a young paperboy. 

Narrated by the Jansens' long-suffering maid Anita (Macy Gracy) as an omniscient observer, "The Paperboy" plays like a coming-of-age drama with sex and murder thrown in. Daniels imbues his film with a sweaty, superimposed, often dizzying style, and it's apropos for this tawdry sort of story. The cinematography by Roberto Schaefer communicates a palpably besotted mugginess and complete lack of air conditioning that you'll either need a fan or a cold shower before suffering heatstroke. Daniels finds the right tone for most of it but less so when careening into absurdity. Are we to take it seriously or chortle at how cuckoo-bananas some of it is? In a visually hallucinatory and non-kinky scene, Jack is surrounded by a gaggle of beach sunbathers after swimming to shore from being badly stung by a jellyfish; Charlotte shoves them aside, stands over him, and urinates on his stung body. And that's not even the most bizarrely entertaining scene. Earlier in the film, when Charlotte and Hillary reunite in a prison visiting room, they satisfy each other's carnal desires without having any physical contact. With mutual heavy breathing, total ecstasy, and Charlotte spreading her legs and ripping her pantyhoes, it's the most erotic, borderline John Waters-campy, NC-17-rated moment of the year. Again, this would fit right in with "Killer Joe's" now-notorious "chicken leg" bit.

The cast admirably lets its guard down and gets adventurous with the seamy material. Leading the way as Jack, Efron proves himself to be more than just the golden-haired pretty boy from "High School Musical," and not only from appearing in nothing but whitey tighties so often. Anything but understated, Kidman is fearless and uninhibited, radiating pheromones like a cat in heat but tarted up in tacky miniskirts and layers of eye-liner. She acts the hell out of this, completely throwing herself into the role of Charlotte. Cusack is convincingly scuzzy and quite scary as Charlotte's "wrongfully accused" jailbird lover. McConaughey is also good, no longer the smarmy leading man in rom-coms but a sharp character actor, as he plays Jack's brother who's obsessed with the case and harbors a secret of his own. But unexpectedly turning in the most touching and understated performance is Gray. Her workhorse Anita puts up with a lot in the current times, especially patriarch W.W. Jansen's (Scott Glenn) new girlfriend/editor (Nealla Gordon), and has become a dear friend to Jack.

In the end, the film works more as an attention-getting curiosity piece with guilty-pleasure moments than any great potboiler or character piece. There's not much of an emotional catharsis and, as the narrative focus grows muddy, solving the lurid murder case turns out to not matter as much as everyone sweating and being horny. Subtlety is never this movie's strong suit or intent, but then again, "The Paperboy" isn't most movies. Its raw derring-do is just so compulsively watchable.

Grade: B -

Friday, January 25, 2013

Huge cast in baffling, inane, gross, misguided, flat "Movie 43"

Movie 43 (2013) 
97 min., rated R.

Seeing Halle Berry, Kate Winslet, Richard Gere, Hugh Jackman, Emma Stone, and, like, twenty others get down and dirty looks like a raucous party. But when a rolodex of A-listers signs up for "Movie 43," a mystery movie promoted with the tagline, "Once you see it, you can't unsee it," it can either live up to its perverse curiosity or turn out to be an infamous disaster. In the tradition of envelope-pushing, eager-to-shock-and-offend ensemble comedies like 1977's "The Kentucky Fried Movie," this strange beast is an assemblage of unrelated skits concocted by Peter Farrelly and strung together by a dozen filmmakers (Farrelly, Brett Ratner, Griffin Dunne, and Steve Carr, among others). Everyone involved seems to be in on the joke, but the joke is really on the audience for being duped into expecting a riotous good time when it's more like a baffling experiment gone wrong.

The nuisance of a wraparound, used as a clothesline on which to hang eleven standalone shorts, involves a struggling screenwriter (Dennis Quaid) desperately pitching his movie ideas to a studio exec (Greg Kinnear). He prefaces his treatment as "a smart movie with heart," but once he actually starts reading off his notes, they're awfully obscene and will never be greenlit. First on the docket is "The Catch," an obvious bit that has Kate Winslet going on a blind date to a posh restaurant with a handsome man (Hugh Jackman), who seems perfect until he removes his scarf to reveal a scrotum dangling from his chin. Nobody else flinches at "the elephant in the room," except for the horrified, dry-heaving Winslet, and that's the entire joke. Winslet and Jackman are both game, but the scene keeps going and going, until it fizzles out and goes nowhere. In "Homeschooled," Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber, a real-life couple, play homeschooling parents who torment their teenage son (Jeremy Allen White), insisting he gets "a normal and complete high school experience" that includes hazing and going all the way . . . with his parents. This one is warped, oh-so-very-wrong, and twistedly humorous in the lengths it's willing to go, but ultimately leaves one feeling disturbed and icky.

Without any transition, it's time for "The Proposition." Chris Pratt is ready to propose to Anna Faris, but she just wants him to defecate on her. As sophomoric and ridiculous as the running gag is, the funny real-life wedded pair at least sells the filthy punchline. With love still in the air, "Veronica" has a dead-serious Kieran Culkin and Emma Stone trading barbs ("I want to give you a hickey on your vagina") as an ex-couple reconciling over an intercom speaker in a grocery store for the shoppers to hear. Stone's goodbye earns a laugh, but everything before plays out like a video from "Funny or Die" on an off, off day. With "Super Hero Speed Dating," the setup is theoretically amusing—grown men in store-bought superhero costumes attending a Gotham Speed Dating session—but the execution clangs. Robin (Justin Long) tries meeting girls, like Lois Lane (Uma Thurman) and Supergirl (Kristen Bell), but the lewd Batman (Jason Sudeikis) keeps ruining his chances when attempting to be Cyrano de Bergerac. All of the actors play it straight, and there's a "Scooby-Doo" mask reveal, but it's all so flat. Then there's "iBabe," with Richard Gere as a CEO who can't understand why his new product, an iPod in the form of a naked, life-size woman with a misguidedly placed microfan, keeps mangling its users' penises. Again, this could've worked.

Hah, you thought we were done? We're just getting started. In the Elizabeth Banks-directed "Middleschool Date," poor Chloe Grace Moretz realizes she's having her first period while hanging out with the 7th grade boy (Jimmy Bennett) she likes. With Moretz leaving bloody trails, Bennett remains oblivious to the real source and blames his older brother (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) for staining the couch with fruit punch. Oh, gee, how will they plug it up? It comes as a relief when Moretz finally calls all the guys idiots (including Matt Walsh and Patrick Warburton as the kids' respective fathers) and when this eye-rolling, irresponsible skit segues into a hilarious faux commercial for "Tampax." In fact, the squeezed-in parody commercials—another against abuse of children in ATMs and photo copiers called "Machine Kids"—exhibit more wicked humor and surprise than anything in the star-studded skits. As for the next short, which Quaid promises will win an Oscar, "Happy Birthday" happens to be the lamest of all. It features Johnny Knoxville and Sean William Scott as two loser roommates who demand a pot of gold from a pissed-off leprechaun (an itty-bitty Gerard Butler) strapped to a chair in their basement. Butler yelling testicle-laden threats, shooting/stabbing wounds, and dismemberment deflate the whole thing. The bit isn't so much darkly funny as it is malicious and obnoxious. 

"Truth or Dare" happens to be one of the more bearable sketches, featuring Halle Berry and Stephen Merchant on a blind date at a Mexican restaurant, where the titular game keeps things interesting. From the misuse of a hot sauce-filled turkey baster to submitting themselves to bad cosmetic surgeries, their innocent game gets ratcheted up to such brazenly over-the-top extremes that it's more fun than disgusting or appalling. In "Victory's Glory," a 1959-set inspirational-story spoof about an all-black basketball team, the coach (Terrence Howard) gives his boys a pep talk ("You're black, they're white!"), but does it want to be offensive or just strained and unfunny? Of course, the one sketch with the most inspiration is the one many will miss if they leave before the first section of credits are complete. It's "Beezel," a demented, TV-MA-rated twist on Garfield and Jon Arbuckle, where a naughty, destructive animated cat comes between its owner (Josh Duhamel) and his girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks). Bad kitty behavior and cartoonishly violent revenge ensue. Just for the sheer lunacy of James Gunn's "bonus" contribution, you may giggle in spite of yourself.

For a project four years in the making, the results of "Movie 43" are disheartening and embarrassing. The cast roster bursts with talent, but they're all trapped and wasted in half-baked sketches that mainly prove they're not prudish sticks in the mud when it comes to getting a part in a hard-R, anything-goes romp. The good news is that all of them can cash their paychecks and realize they'll never participate in anything worse. More than half of the one-joke vignettes terribly miss the mark, every idea barreling right through the guardrails of good taste and desperately pushing the raunch to be wildly outrageous, dangerous, and inappropriate. Despite intermittent pockets of dirty-birdy amusement, the shorts either go too far or are written without any point or punchline. Talk about slim pickings!

More inane than any holiday extravanganza Garry Marshall could ever make, "Movie 43" is extremely hit-and-usually-miss and tentatively shaped without being well-thought-out, often eliciting a "I-can't-believe-what-I'm-watching" response. Unless you find random tastelessness (i.e. testicles, incest, coprophilia, menstruation, and bestiality) inherently funny, you're barking up the wrong tree. We might not be able to unsee Oscar nominee Jackman's chin balls being dipped in butter and slapping the head of a baby, but just avoid this colossal mistake altogether and you won't have that problem. 

Grade: D +

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: "End of Watch" like a grittier, character-driven "Cops" episode

End of Watch (2012)
109 min., rated R.

Ever since 1999's "The Blair Witch Project" launched the you-are-there technique with a hand-held camera, it seems every filmmaker and his brother had to jump on the bandwagon of the found-footage fad. Horror films shot as faux-documentaries are a dime a dozen, but this once-fresh aesthetic doesn't have to strictly work for the horror genre, and so it goes with "End of Watch." For fear that you expect an episode of "Cops" on a bigger screen or "The South Central Police Project" (see what I did there?), this potent buddy-cop/docudrama hybrid is a visceral, in-your-face punch in the gut.

Apparently sticking to what he knows, writer-director David Ayer follows his screenwriting credits of "Training Day" and "Dark Blue," as well as directorial efforts "Harsh Times" and "Street Kings," but doesn't focus on the corruption and makes sure his cop characters behave with more tact this time around. Officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) are hotshot partners (and good friends) patrolling the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. They pride themselves in being "ghetto street cops" who make a difference, but responding to a routine call leads to the discovery of human trafficking, which might get them in too deep with some nasty Mexican drug cartels. It's foreboding enough when an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent tells them, "You just tugged on the tail of a snake; it's gonna turn around and bite you back."

What's the context of the documentary-style gimmick, you ask? Brian grips a camera around to document his work days as a school project for his filmmaking elective. From the opening, he narrates while his camera is mounted to the dashboard of a patrol car during a high-speed chase, and it's thrilling stuff. Luckily, "End of Watch" doesn't hold onto this conceit when it doesn't need it. Less nausea-inducing "Look, Ma! I'm shaking a camera!" shooting, the better. With that said, it doesn't even feel necessary to have Brian shoot for a project that never seems to progress, so why not drop it altogether? And why do gang members carry around hand-held cameras, too, especially during drive-bys and shootouts? But, be that as it may, the film interweaves its sources of coverage with a more omniscient view, so suspending one's disbelief is a small price to pay. Roman Vasyanov's jittery camerawork is imbued with such immediacy that it makes the already-realistic approach more gritty and intense. 

When these blue knights are in action, the "real" aesthetic works incredibly well. A blistering scene where Brian and Mike become heroes, running into a burning house and saving a woman's three children, rattles the nerves with close-ups of their faces shrouded in smoke. Akin to a horror film in the same visual format, apprehension builds when the partners enter a home that eventually leads them to a gruesome find. Prior to that, all of the day-to-day realities of being part of the LAPDthe altercations, the paper work, etc.could have grown tiresome and repetitive, but the film deceptively becomes more character-driven and often unbearably tense. It's like we're right there cruising around with Brian and Mike. These guys are hard-hitters when it comes to their job, but wearing a badge also means putting their own lives in harm's way. Where the film climaxes is inevitable, a gripping shootout between our heroes and the trigger-happy cartel, but where it actually ends is both bold and unsparing.

Both naturalistic, Gyllenhaal and Peña share an authentic, lived-in banter and camaraderie as the boys in blue. At one point, their impersonations of one another are very funny, and most of their dialogue seems so off-the-cuff and spontaneous. You like their brotherly bond and you believe it. The women here are good, too: America Ferrera and Cody Horn from "Magic Mike" both welcome a change of pace in the badass roles of tough lady officers. Cast against type in her toughest, most violent movie, Anna Kendrick is also engaging as Brian's new sweetie Janet; her dance with Brian to Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It" is the cutest moment in the film by far. Those playing the shady, cold-blooded gangbangers are stereotypical but scary and intimidating, particularly Maurice Compte as Big Evil and rapper Yahira 'Flakiss' Garcia as La La. "End of Watch" holds our attention in spades and, before the coda that double-backs and suffers from a failure of nerve, never feels dishonest about such a rough 'n tough line of work. This surely won't mark the end of the found-footage trend, and it should usher in many more uses of the gimmick that are as germane and compelling as this one.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Mama" an elegantly chilling fairy tale

Mama (2013) 
100 min., rated PG-13.

Judging by the opening card, "Once upon a time…," and the child-like writing and drawings in the opening credits, "Mama" works ever so beautifully as a horror-tinged fairy tale. As Guillermo del Toro tends to do, he finds first-time directors and produces their movies (J.A. Bayona's "The Orphanage" and Troy Nixey's "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark"), which are filled with calling cards from del Toro's own "Pan's Labyrinth," from the dark fairy-tale leanings with children in peril to the gothic, elegantly grotesque visuals. The directing bow of Andy Muschietti, "Mama" is a feature expansion of his 2008 Spanish-language short film, but it's more involving and vividly realized than the concept of padding a two-and-a-half-minute-long jolt would suggest. Even though it leans heavily on jump-making scares, accompanied by a sudden boom! on the soundtrack—and sure, they do their job—the film, with its stark yet fun tone, holds an uncompromising grip on a mother's instincts and undying love.

Once upon a time, an unhinged father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is driven off the deep end from 2008's financial panic. He murders his wife, snatches up his two little daughters, and drives off with them onto a snow-covered road. After he loses control of the car, he and his girls stumble upon a remote cabin in the woods. Right before the man prepares to put three bullets to use, something stops him and watches over the two girls. Five years later, 8-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and 6-year-old Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) are found in the cabin, having learned to crawl on all fours like feral animals and survive on cherries. Their artist uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau in a dual role) and his punk-rock guitarist girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) gain custody and are offered a suburban home to raise the girls with frequent visits from psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash). Victoria and Lilly have a real chance at normal lives, even though Annabel isn't quite the nurturing mother type. She gives it a go for Lucas' sake, but the girls' supernatural guardian from the cabin, known as Mama, isn't about to give them up. And then no one lives happily ever after.

Director Andy Muschietti and co-writers Neill Cross and Barbara Muschietti (the director's sister) tighten the screws right from the watchably grim bang of a prologue. The existence of Mama isn't kept a secret from the audience, but in a wise decision, it's a while until we get a good look at her. In a subtle touch, a then-3-year-old Victoria first spots Mama outside of the cabin, telling her father that the woman is "not touching the floor." It's an off-screen image that's much more frightening when left to our imagination. When we catch a glimpse of the gangly, rail-thin banshee with wavy hair in a doorway or in a deep-focus shot, or hear her howling and singing a lullaby, Mama is a truly creepy creation. (She's played by 7-foot-tall Spanish actor Javier Botet, who brought the skin-and-bones zombie Niña Medeiros to frightening life in the "[REC]" pictures.) And when sprinting at the camera to surprise a few characters, she's mined for a few frightful jolts, but more exposure than that deflates the terror and shows her off as a CG specter. In addition, the script wants to develop the titular Mama with a little backstory. There is some standard detective work through asylum records and expository dialogue, but most imaginative of all is a staggering, strikingly visualized dream-within-a-dream that explains the overprotective mother's origins through the eyes of Mama herself.

Muschietti not only knows when and where to plant jolts for the easily nervy but crafts a mounting dread and spooky atmosphere out of sunny daytime juxtaposed with night terrors and rustic autumn. Also, he effectively recognizes the power of suggestion on more than one occasion. One shot, especially, makes expert use of framing and attention to detail without showing much; the camera rests in the hallway, with the girls' bedroom to the right side of the frame and the door open far enough to see Lilly playing tug-of-war with someone that isn't Victoria. If you've been looking for some of the most evocative, shuddering nightmare images since "Insidious," look no further.

Rocked out in a short, dark cut, heavy eyeliner, and a tattoo sleeve, Chastain seems capable of anything, and that goes for believably sporting a Misfits T-shirt. Her Annabel is such a spiky, strong-willed character, but the versatile character keeps her likable and sympathetic, even when she excitably rejoices over a negative pregnancy test. Chastain shot this before becoming a household name and classes up every project she takes on. Whereas some pundits will accuse her of slumming here (simply because it's a horror film being released in January), she's terrific as ever. Though sidelined pretty early when placed in the hospital from an "accident," so Annabel can grudgingly play mom to the girls and make Mama jealous, Coster-Waldau still ably conveys madness and compassion in playing brothers Jeffrey and Lucas. As Victoria and Lilly, Charpentier and Nélisse are quite impressive. The former portrays the comparatively normal one, while the latter remains primitive and so attached to Mama that she finds comfort in sleeping under the bed and chewing on her sister's hair.

A few plot setups and happenings must be taken with a grain of salt, including how it takes five years until the girls are found in the cabin, let alone the crashed automobile. With the film on its way to a cliffside finale, it's a shame the script had to rely on contrivances to get there (i.e. Lucas having a dream that points him in the right direction, Lucas and Annabel reuniting on a stretch of road). But, while everything could've gone off the rails from there, the final set-piece aberrates from the typical horror-movie showdown and builds to a haunting, unexpectedly heartbreaking conclusion. Valuing old-school chills over new-school gore, "Mama" works not only as an old-fashioned don't-look-under-the-bed horror tale but a mournful ode to motherhood.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lame "Haunted House" deserves an exorcism

A Haunted House (2013) 
86 min., rated R.

Comedy is a fragile business, especially when it's shattered to pieces. "A Haunted House" trumps all of the toxic, brain-dead Jason Friedberg-Aaron Seltzer abortions ("Date Movie," "Epic Movie," "Meet the Spartans," "Disaster Movie," "Vampires Suck"), which are still to this day playing on a loop in the fiery pits of Hell, but not by much. Star and co-writer Marlon Wayans has had some practice in skewering popular genres, predominantly the horror genre with the aughts' first two "Scary Movie" spoofs and then "Dance Flick." Too bad his latest brainchild, a spoof that takes comedic aim at the found-footage supernatural horror sub-genre, doesn't have the smarts to know how stupid it is.

As in "Paranormal Activity," it all starts with a happy couple and a video camera that documents "unexplainable events." Filming everything here on out, Malcolm (Marlon Wayans) is excited to move his girlfriend Kisha (Essence Atkins) in to live with him. But before she even steps out of her car, Kisha runs over Malcolm's dog. During their first night together, he has an orgy with stuffed animals (just don't ask) before she comes to bed, and then in the middle of the night, Kisha lets out some noisy, stinky flatulence (love that first pop of the blanket but not the several that follow). By morning, her keys have fallen off the kitchen counter, so that must mean there's a ghost that needs to be busted! And the moral of this cautionary tale is that men should never ever live with their girlfriends because they don't cook or clean and might have made a deal with the Devil in the past for a pair of Louis Vuitton stilettos.

For a silly movie that should be filled to the gills with rapid-fire jokes and sight gags, "A Haunted House" is quite the dead zone, with enough mud being thrown at the wall and none of it funny enough to stick. Marlon Wayans, co-writer Rick Alvarez, and director Michael Tiddes seem to think that goofing on a once-creepy set-piece"The Last Exorcism" and "The Devil Inside" are among the easy targets—with desperate, lowest-common-denominator humor, whether it be racist, sexist, homophobic, scatological, or drug-related, is more than enough. But there's barely a movie here, just a formless series of bits that test one's patience and usually lack timing and a punchline. 

There's nothing wrong with the particular movies being aped, but it seems like Wayans needed a little help from his brothers on the script, as did Tiddes on the clunky execution. First, we'll get the few exceptions out of the way. In one incidentally amusing bit, in which Malcolm and Kisha face some real bedroom spooks and he screams fleeing out of the house and packing up a moving truck, it's like a reenactment of what Eddie Murphy would've done, based on his 1983 joke about white folk never leaving a haunted house in movies. One more chuckle-inducing moment involves Malcolm mounting the camera onto the base of an oscillating fan, à la "Paranormal Activity 3," only to reveal some shocking business with the housekeeper Rosa (Marlene Forte) when she's home alone. Of course, this bit lasts a minute in what's otherwise an 86-minute feature. There's also a beguilingly lame riff on "Paranormal Activity" when Kisha awakens at night. The rest is flat and ugly: Malcolm is raped (or, "altar boyed" as his girlfriend calls it) by the well-endowed ghost; 1988 footage flashes back to when a young Kisha was abused by her father's belt; and an eventually possessed Kisha is body-slammed and beaten up with chairs. Are you busting a gut yet? Frankly, the makers' "idea" of putting a funny, clever spin on something wouldn't pass muster on a MADtv sketch. 

Wayans and Atkins, both likable and talented comedians, pour a lot of what-the-hell enthusiasm into their roles, but obnoxious mugging takes over. Adding insult to injury, Nick Swardson plays a psychic named Chip, who's gay because he has swishy mannerisms and an earring in one ear. He's called upon to investigate the house's "dark energy," but touches Malcolm every chance he gets. Isn't "gay panic" hilarious? David Koechner's every appearance as a racist security expert equates to fingernails on a chalkboard, and Cedric the Entertainer, as an unconventional jailhouse priest, is made to look foolish. Only Alanna Ubach, who can be a scream with merely a facial expression, snags a handful of laughs as Kisha's swinger friend. Lazy, boring, witless, grating, and slipshod, "A Haunted House" is like watching a dead horse being beaten. It isn't quite the nadir of parody as we know it"Scary Movie 5" arrives in April and the Friedberg-Seltzer hack-team is working on "The Starving Games," a spoof of, that's right, "The Hunger Games"but if you're in the youth market that will pay $11.50 to sit in a theater and play on their cell phones, then disregard everything above and enjoy this steaming pile.

Grade: D - 

Friday, January 11, 2013

"Gangster Squad" slick and fun in the moment but hollow to its core

Gangster Squad (2013) 
113 min., rated R.

As hollow, Hollywood-slick entertainment, "Gangster Squad" is watchable on a surface level, but it should be a lot better. Originally slated for a September release, pushed back in the wake of the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting and now opening in the garbage-dump month of January, this forgettable cops-and-gangsters pulp has enough going for it, between the participation of a talented marquee cast and director Ruben Fleischer (2011's mean-spirited "30 Minutes or Less"). Unfortunately, it's no wonder there's so much style, because that's all it really has. Fleischer mostly gets away with "Gangster Squad" being stylish and fun in the moment, but it still comes as a disappointment, considering the filmmaker revived the zombie genre with 2009's gleefully inventive "Zombieland."

Los Angeles, 1949. Ruthless boxer-turned-mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is building the town into his underground empire of drugs and dames, finding beautiful star hopefuls to work in his brothels and controlling cops to be on his side of the law. Straight-arrow cop Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) spies on one of Cohen's goons charming a pretty ingenue right off the bus and ends up saving her. To "drive that bastard out of this city," Chief Bill Parker (a very gruff Nick Nolte) puts O'Mara in charge to assemble a ragtag squad. Even though O'Mara's pregnant wife Connie (Mireille Enos) wants him to be a father first and a heroic cop second, she handpicks the team of under-the-radar lawmen. There's a street-wise officer, Coleman (Anthony Mackie); a legendary marksman, Max (Robert Patrick) and his Hispanic tag-along, Navidad (Michael Peña); and a wire-tapping guru, Conway (Giovanni Ribisi). Initially reluctant, O'Mara's fellow war vet Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) later joins the covert squad and further complicates things when he and Grace (Emma Stone), Cohen's tomato-haired, wannabe-star moll, become an item. 

Though allegedly "inspired by a true story" (read: Mickey Cohen was, in fact, a real person), "Gangster Squad" seems to be at war with itself. If this is supposed to be a real account of journalist Paul Lieberman's book, first-time screenwriter Will Beall doesn't inject enough substance and too often draws from "The Untouchables" and "L.A. Confidential," almost to the level of spoof. But if this is a superficial homage to film noir with graphic-novel flourishes and little soul, it works. Everyone speaks in an artificial '40s-style patter, which often falls flat, but there's violent carnage aplenty. From a cartoonish prison break that deftly synchs gun flashes with freeze frames, to the stylized, over-the-top showdown in the Park Plaza Hotel lobby (complete with a glass Christmas ornament exploding in slo-mo), Fleischer never skimps on style. (A shoot-out in Chinatown was reshot to replace a Grauman's Chinese Theater-set massacre, which was pulled for eerily mirroring the real-life theater tragedy.)

Again, the ensemble is hard to beat, but so many of them are given bloodless types to play. Penn seems to have wandered onto the set from a "Dick Tracy" remake, playing Cohen as a broad, hard-boiled comic-strip villain like Big Boy Caprice in silly-putty makeup. He gives it his all, but his "all" consists of angrily chewing all the scenery like a rabid dog. Brolin is pretty solid as the slaw-jawed hero, and Enos is even better playing his wife. Gosling is smooth and charming, and looks dapper, but he speaks in a curiously nasally voice and has no real character to work with. The beloved Stone gets to smoke and play dress-up without looking too contemporary, but she's stuck playing a dolled-up prop. While Gosling and Stone sizzled together in "Crazy, Stupid, Love.," their romance here is such a non-starter. Jerry sleeps with Grace right under Cohen's nose, and we're led to believe they're actually in a relationship even though neither party knows much or anything about the other. The other actors in the gangster squad are pretty much wasted, Patrick standing out the most. 

One thing is for sure: This is a spiffy-looking picture. The post-WWII period details of the City of Angels are simultaneously synthetic and glossy, from a glimpse of the then-"Hollywoodland" sign, to the recreation of art-deco nightclub Slapsy Maxie's, to the costumes and architecture. Having a Carmen Miranda impersonator singing "Chica Chica Boom Chic" is just an extra fun touch. Then again, "Gangster Squad" is only ever easy on the eyes like window dressing that masks an empty shell and shaky moral ground. In the end, when the tommy-gun bullets stop whizzing and the waxy aesthetics are done gleaming, one's hand ultimately closes on thin air.

Grade: C +