Thursday, March 28, 2013

There is very little life in time-snatching "The Host"

The Host (2013) 
125 min., rated PG-13.

With the success of her "Twilight Saga" series becoming a high-grossing movie franchise, author Stephenie Meyer gets lucky again with her 2008 body-snatching romance novel. "The Host" has a provocative, attention-grabbing premise that fits snugly into writer-director Andrew Niccol's body of work about futuristic dystopias—1997's "Gattaca," 2002's "S1m0ne," and 2011's "In Time." It's the filmmaker's first non-original work, adapting Meyer's YA novel into what should still be a sturdy sci-fi piece, but that initial interest doesn't translate all the way through on screen. Take away the interesting book-flap of a concept and "The Host" is none other than a dull, underdone permutation on the "Twilight" formula, grafting on another dewy-eyed love triangle (or would that be square?) and more cool-looking eye contacts.

After a global alien invasion, most of mankind is practically improved with the new parasitic race called the "Souls." There is no war, violence, or famine; everyone is honest and courteous. A Soul is placed into a human body whose memories are then retraced to locate more human survivors to serve as hosts. Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan) is on the run, leaving her kid brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury) to hide, when she's found by a group of Seekers. They touch her up with a special spray and inject Melanie's body with an icy-eyed Soul named Wanderer, but Melanie's voice and soul are still intact. Are we all on the same page with this gobbledygook?

When Melanie is restored inside of Wanderer, she convinces her body to escape the Seeker (Diane Kruger) and her equally cool-eyed squad and go to the desert underground colony run by Melanie's Uncle Jeb (William Hurt). The family of resistance-forming rebels includes Jamie and Jared (Max Irons), Melanie's boyfriend, as well as brothers Ian (Jake Abel) and Kyle (Boyd Holbrook); none of them welcomes "Melanie" with the warmest of arms right away, referring to her as "it." But, of course, Ian starts falling for "Wanda" (a nickname for this "Wanderer"), while Jared wants to rekindle his love with Melanie. Can love conquer all? Is water wet? Is the sky blue? Kissing abounds.

Right out of the gate, "The Host" follows the quick, kinetic action of Melanie on the run, defending herself from a group of Seekers and lunging herself out of a high-story window. That's mostly where the action begins and ends, unless you count a suicidal car crash and The Seeker firing a gun. Not that the film needed to be whiplash-fast and mindless, but things really slow to a crawl, being confined to the humans' cavernous hideout where the flat characters and soporific plotting stand in place for two hours. And how are we supposed to take stock in a shallow relationship that amounts to heavy petting and laughing in the rain?

The role of Melanie/Wanda fits the ethereal Saoirse Ronan like a glove. She's compelling for a heroine with two minds in one body, but it's hard to make an inner voice arguing with the body's voice interesting and cinematic, especially when the arguments are over kissing a boy. Didn't Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin tackle a similar concept to humorous effect twenty-nine years ago in "All of Me"? Here, the humor wrung from said scenario is clunky at worst and, well, intentional at best. It doesn't help that there are a few unintentionally funny moments as well, two of which have Melanie facing two smacks across the face from separate characters and then delivering her own slap to one of the men because Melanie doesn't want Jared kissing Wanda. "Kiss me like you want to get slapped" is a real line of dialogue.

Of the two heartthrobs Melanie gets to choose from, neither Max Irons nor Jake Abel can project any distinguishing traits into Jared and Ian. If these two twenty-something actors match the details of hair and eye colors as two devastatingly good-looking blanks in Meyer's text, then they serve those requirements quite well. As The Seeker, Diane Kruger is wasted but keeps a straight face, letting her blue contacts, white pant suit, and chic silver Lotus do most of the work before showing a different note in a third-act switch. William Hurt provides some intended laughs, while Frances Fisher is relegated to the background as his wife, Aunt Maggie.

On a plainly seeable and audible level, this is a technically well-made picture with slick production design (the wheat fields inside the rebels' cave system are pretty and a store called "Store" is an amusing but all-too-brief touch) and Antonio Pinto's elegiac music score. If "The Host" is ever interesting in the slightest, it's all Ronan's doing. Otherwise, this is all very silly, long-winded and shrug-worthy pap, lacking any sort of energy or excitement. It's so lifeless that one keeps wishing Donald Sutherland's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" character would just show up and let out a piercing pod scream.

Grade: C - 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Assuredly creepy "Come Out and Play" acts as a good contraceptive

Come Out and Play (2013)
95 min., not rated.

In the sweepstakes of innocence-gone-malevolent horror films (1960's and 1995's "Village of the Damned," 1980's and 2008's "The Children," 1981's "Bloody Birthday," and 1984's "Children of the Corn," just to name a few), "Come Out and Play" is an assured little creeper. A scene-for-scene remake of the obscure 1976 cult item "Who Can Kill a Child?" (both based on Juan José Plans' novel "El juego de los niños"), this low-budget film displays some early talent from elusive first-time filmmaker Makinov (who actually hides behind a mask even in front of his actors), taking it upon himself to write, direct, produce, edit, and score his feature debut.

Francis (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and his seven-months-pregnant wife Beth (Vinessa Shaw) are away from their two kids on a romantic getaway in Mexico. They rent a boat and leave the mainland to go to an island called Punta Hueca. The village seems a little too secluded. Aside from some kids on the dock and others turning up here and there, there isn't a person in sight. Francis says they must have just celebrated Carnival so they're all sleeping off their hangovers, but then dead bodies start showing up. It seems the islander children are more hell-bent on killing adults than playing. What is going on? Will Francis and Beth kill a child to survive?

After ten minutes pass and the couple is on their way to the island, the opening credits finally come up with "Makinov's 'Come Out and Play'" in big, red and bold letters that take up the whole screen. It seems a little self-congratulatory, not only by crediting himself with one name, but for a mostly solo effort, one can see much promise ahead. Makinov builds tension quite naturally at an unhurried pace, aided by his pulsing, ominous experimental score with echoes of "Halloween," and refreshingly refrains from easy jump scares. There is some disturbing use of gore (one girl drapes a necklace of ears and fingers around her neck and a laughing group of children play with a severed head) but it's restrained, even compared to mainstream standards. 

Playing as a vacation nightmare, "Come Out and Play" is stark, nasty, and quite tense in spots. Naturally acted by Moss-Bachrach and Shaw, Francis and Beth are root-worthy gringo protagonists whom we hope can put aside their parental instincts and do away with the evil tykes to escape. Without entering silly schlock territory, the film is minimal on exposition, although there does seem to be a powerful force taking hold of the children. In the early going, a scene where one of the island girls puts her head and hand to Beth's pregnant belly is quietly tense, regardless if the mute child harms Beth's unborn child right then and there. Much of this works up a head of dread-filled steam but loses it too soon. Downbeat and uncompromising, the finale tips its hat to the classic "Night of the Living Dead," and that's a good thing indeed. Overall, if it doesn't disturb or scare from being so familiar, this well-shot, stripped-down effort still acts as an effective form of birth control.

Grade: B - 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Crystal and Midler still got it but "Parental Guidance" dumbs everything down

Parental Guidance (2012) 
105 min., rated PG.

To slightly defend "Parental Guidance" with a backhanded compliment, there are worse babysitters out there. It's not "Old Dogs" or "Little Fockers," so it's got that going for it. The film's main attractions, Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, are game to go as the long-overdue pairing of a studio farce for the holiday season, but "Parental Guidance" isn't much of a comeback vehicle. It's cornball, it's pat, it's slapsticky, and were it not for the two headliners as grandparents, this would be little more than a hacky, factory-made network sitcom from the '90s.

Old-school approaches to child-rearing versus modern helicopter-parent syndrome is the through-line of the premise. Fired from his job as a minor-league baseball commentator, Artie Decker (Billy Crystal) and supportive wife Diane (Bette Midler), a former weather girl, don't get to see their three grandchildren often. But when their daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei), a Type-A web designer, and her husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) call them from Atlanta about going on a week-long work vacation, they jump at the chance to stay with the kids in hopes of proving they aren't just the "other grandparents." There's generation-gap collision as soon as Artie and Diane enter Alice and Phil's prototyped smart house with a fridge full of everything soy and tofu. All three kids have their own quirks: 12-year-old Harper (Bailee Madison) is a tightly wound perfectionist who's busy practicing violin for an audition; middle child Turner (Joshua Rush) has a stuttering issue and is bullied at school because of it; and the youngest, Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf), runs wild with his imaginary kangaroo friend and insists on calling Grandpa Artie "Fartie." So, based on her parents' reactions to her 21st-century methods of parenting, Alice doesn't quite trust Mom and Dad to look after the kids for a week and decides to hang back supposedly for a work emergency, then take a later flight out to meet Phil. Can Artie and Diane get their second chance at grandparenting with their comparatively loose rules?

Because of his delivery, Crystal has some play with tired old-meets-new jokes involving Twitter and "Angry Birds." "Gee-whiz, wasn't she the villain in the last James Bond movie?" Midler's Diane jokes to Harper about her strict Russian violin instructor. Both Crystal and Midler can still make a line zing with their big personalities and have moments of coming off like recognizable human beings when they aren't directed to just ham it up. Though they get out alive, these veteran stars are still hamstrung by a lame script aiming to put six-year-olds in stitches. Just imagine what these two could have done had they been working from a smart, more acerbic script. As for Tomei, she's stuck somewhere between overbearing caricature and a real person but doesn't embarrass herself, and the kids mug as much as possible, especially Breitkopf as Barker. 

Overeager director Andy Fickman, who hasn't exactly rolled out the most prize-winning filmography ("She's the Man," "The Game Plan," "You Again"), flattens almost all of his gags with a bold, italicized, and underlined broadness. It certainly doesn't help that the potty-humored script by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse has never met a hit-in-the-crotch, cake-in-the-face, vomit, constipation, and urination gag it didn't like. Early on, it's telegraphed that the kids can't eat sugar, so it's only natural that Artie will later feed them cake, leaving the room and returning to find the kids feasting on the dessert like feral crack addicts. In another lame-brained piece of sitcom, where a DayGlo-faced Artie chases Barker down the auditorium aisles at a Tchaikovsky concert, it's silly enough to make anyone over the age of twelve groan and cringe. Finally, when the tone-deaf music score isn't exaggerating every comic gag before driving them into the ground, it's punctuating the dramatic sentiment to make sure the viewer is uplifted.

Nine Christmases ago, the Steve Martin/Bonnie Hunt-starrer "Cheaper by the Dozen" filled the holiday family-comedy niche. As farcical as it was, it was also funny, warm, and completely likable. (Its sequel is a different story.) A product like "Parental Guidance" is just sugar-coated and out of touch, especially when the grandparents teach the kids how to play a game of Kick the Can, hold a burial for the youngest's imaginary friend, and every issue is synthetically fixed before the mawkish finish line. There is a nicely handled moment between Artie and Alice by the end, but it's too little, too late for honesty. And yet, while an overriding amount of annoying idiocy and pandering is slapped on, "Parental Guidance" is just tolerable enough and ever so slightly amusing. For fluff, it isn't as ghastly as many cynical, needlessly angry critics make it out to be. Hooray for mediocrity!


Monday, March 25, 2013

Exciting, dopey-fun "Olympus Has Fallen" delivers what it promises

Olympus Has Fallen (2013) 
119 min., rated R.

This year's first White House-under-siege action picture (Roland Emmerich's "White House Down" is due out this summer), "Olympus Has Fallen" is more of a "Die Hard 5" than "A Good Day to Die Hard" was. That's most certainly a good thing for director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day"), who knows his way around a violent action sequence, and star Gerard Butler, who gets to play to his strengths as a badass action hero instead of a romantic leading man. Since originality is rare these days (there are a slew of "Die Hard" similarities here), this dopey, derivative but entertaining action flick delivers where it counts as an ultra-violent popcorn movie.

High-ranking Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Butler) did all he could after icy winter roads spun the car that was transporting President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his First Lady (Ashley Judd) from a Camp David retreat. The president was saved, but not the First Lady. A year and a half later, Banning still blames himself for the tragedy but is now confined to desk duty at the Department of the Treasury. During a visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue by the South Korean prime minister, a plane flies into the Washington Monument and Mr. President, along with his advisors, are held hostage in the White House's underground bunker by North Korean terrorists, led by Kang (Rick Yune). Banning survives all the destruction, only to walk in the front door and become the eyes, ears, and fists for the head of the Secret Service (Angela Bassett), a Pentagon general (Robert Forster), and the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman). In order for Kang to force the U.S. military out of the Korean Peninsula and detonate nuclear weapons that will destroy the country, he requires the system's access codes and doesn't mind whittling down the hostage count, but Banning is not a man to be underestimated.

As a no-nonsense all-action, all-the-time diversion, "Olympus Has Fallen" moves briskly. Whether it be Fuqua's thrillingly over-the-top staging or just the mere images of terrorism that eerily echo 9/11, the film sets up real urgency and gut-level adrenaline (sans too much unconvincing CGI). The premise is ludicrous in a "one-man-army against terrorists" sort of way, but the stakes couldn't be higher and tyro screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt don't waste time with many subplots. Banning's wife (Radha Mitchell), a nurse who treats some of the attack victims, wants to spend more time together, and there's the reveal of a White House turncoat who's not hard to pick out from the crowd (although this traitor's reasons involving globalization and Wall Street are sketchy at best). The writers also have setups that turn out to be throwaways. The first scene has Banning boxing with the president, which might play into the action later on but never does, and the President's son Connor (Finley Jacobsen), who's on buddy terms with Banning, is sought out by Kang's men but is rescued rather quickly. Ultimately, though, it's more about Banning stabbing/shooting terrorists and saving the day before Kang kills off every hostage. Bodies explode like in a shooter video game and an Abraham Lincoln bust in the Oval Office is used to amusingly brutal effect. 

As Mike Banning (what a name!), Butler gives one of his better performances within his skill set of kicking ass, taking names, and often delivering the kind of wisecracking, John McClane-style threats ("I'm going to stab you through your brain with my knife"). Eckhart is fine as the POTUS, even if he's no Freeman or Harrison Ford and spends much of the film tied up, literally. Freeman and Melissa Leo class things up the most with their gravitas, respectively, playing the Speaker of the House-turned-Acting President and the Secretary of Defense who bravely takes Kang's torture without giving him her access code.

Despite some shameless "God Bless America!" jingoism, complete with a self-serious military drum score, and the cheesy use of a red time clock counting down until millions will die, the film blinds the viewer of its flaws. If you don't give it more thought than the filmmakers, "Olympus Has Fallen" promises undemanding R-rated entertainment without being offensive. Explosion-and-revenge-violence junkies will die hard for this one.

Grade: B -

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Fey and Rudd give smarter-than-expected but muddled "Admission" an uptick

Admission (2013)
107 min., rated PG-13.

Sold as another programmed romantic comedy but set up as an incisive, educational behind-the-scenes look at the college admission process, "Admission" is like a college applicant with more smarts and ambition than most but gets lost on campus from time to time. When the film focuses on its character interactions and the admission process, it's on-target, but the romantic angle feels forced and tacked-on for commercial appeal. However, it is almost unbelievable that, until now, lovable funnywoman Tina Fey and go-to everyman Paul Rudd have been wait-listed in sharing the screen together. Even with this whip-smart, enormously likable comedic pair, "Admission" is not hilarious, nor does it always try to be funny. The end result is a pleasantly lukewarm muddle.

Fey plays Portia Nathan, a focused, precise, hardworking admissions officer for Princeton University. She's done the job for 16 years, being just one of many in her department to sort through piles of applications and decide the futures of high school seniors. A call from John Pressman (Rudd, being Paul Rudd), the director of an alternative, granola-crunching high school in New Hampshire called New Quest, prompts Portia to take a recruiting road trip to the school. There, she meets a promising Princeton applicant, a brilliant idiosyncratic autodidact named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) with a few suspensions and a low GPA but an undeniable passion for knowledge and real potential. Then, just as nothing can affect her work, Portia's live-in professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen) drops her for a pregnant Virginia Woolf scholar and she comes undone. The plot kicks into gear when John, a Dartmouth alumnus like Portia, has reason to believe Jeremiah is her son that she gave up for adoption when she was in college. If Jeremiah is her son, how hard will Portia push for him to get into the elitist Ivy League school?

Adapted from Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel of the same name by screenwriter Karen Croner, "Admission" seems at odds with itself. As mentioned before, the admission-process scenes hold the most interest, even if they do feel marginalized. In a crucial scene, where the staff votes on applicants the officers have personally denied and accepted (including Jeremiah), the incoming students physically appear as if on the chopping block and drop through a trap door if denied. It's a moment of fresh, satirical bite in an otherwise toothless film. When Portia goes into mom mode without telling Jeremiah and puts herself into a moral dilemma that could cost her her job, the film, directed by Paul Weitz (returning to better form after 2010's abysmal "Little Fockers"), finds its groove with the signs of deftness Weitz brought to "About a Boy" and "In Good Company." Unfortunately, the rest of the time the film weakens when trying to get its headliners together. Portia and John deliver a baby calf together in New Quest's barn, only to shower in stalls facing one another immediately after. Portia doesn't seem like a person that would do this, but the script has its way. 

Fey and Rudd are capable of bringing out unforced humor from relatable, human places and make this material more appealing than it should be. They have a nice ease together but no real heat, and there's really no reason for Portia and John to get together as more than friends—she's independent and businesslike, and he's loose and adventurous with an adopted son from Uganda (Travaris Spears). As the quirky Jeremiah, Wolff is a likable find. Missed on the screen, Lily Tomlin is wonderfully free-spirited as Portia's emotionally distant feminist/survivalist mother Susannah. She earns some acerbic laughs, but the mother-daughter subplot is only cursorily developed. The other women in the picture are either treated as competitive witches who may have a change of heart but might not (Gloria Reuben as Corinne, Portia's co-worker vying for the position of Dean of Admissions) or walking punchlines (the scholarly woman having Portia's ex-beau's twin babies).

Oddly enough, the film's dramatic moments are more assured than its comedic ones. "Admission" may suffer from an identity crisis, and the pacing is a little flaccid as you wish they'd just get on with it already, but there is no denying the simple pleasure of watching Fey and Rudd together. You don't have to be a Princeton graduate to know where things are headed, although a third-act revelation should take the viewer by surprise. It's not the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it's smarter than one would expect and leaves Portia with more hope than just a Hollywoodized happy ending. Next time, maybe Fey and Rudd can apply themselves in writing their own movie that makes more use of their comedic edge.

Grade: C +

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Disturbingly creepy "Stoker" full of beautifully gothic style

Stoker (2013)
99 min., rated R.

Foreign directors often take time to find their footing in Hollywood by making junky genre pictures, but not Park Chan-wook. Never lacking nerve or dark subject matter, his English-language debut "Stoker" is so assured and strange and perversely disturbing. Internationally known for his "Vengeance Trilogy" of thematically linked films—2002's "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," 2003's "Oldboy," and 2005's "Lady Vengeance"—the South Korean filmmaker has fashioned a cool, deliciously sinister American Gothic psychosexual horror-thriller and some sort of twistedly macabre coming-of-age fairy tale. Though it's not what one would call an empty film, this is visual storytelling at its most breathtaking, substance ultimately taking a backseat to mood and style. Make that great style.

Mia Wasikowska is India Stoker, a pale, sullen high school loner who's just turned 18 and expects her annual boxed present of saddle shoes from her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney). That same day, Dad dies in a car accident. At the funeral, Dad's younger brother known as Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she never knew existed, shows up from doing business in Europe and prolongs his stay in the house with India and her icy, distant mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). He's handsome and charming, albeit mysterious, and begins spending time with Evelyn, but India doesn't like to be touched and has no intention of being Charlie's friend. Incidentally, just as Charlie starts getting cozy in the Stoker home, a housekeeper mysteriously leaves town and his Aunt Gwen (Jacki Weaver) disappears. Will India distance herself or grow up to be just like good 'ol Uncle Charlie? Maybe it's just in the Stoker bloodline that everyone gets a little mad sometimes.

TV's "Prison Break" actor Wentworth Miller makes his screenwriting debut with a script that owes great debt to Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt." Not only is there a bored teenage girl and a mysterious "Uncle Charlie" walking into said girl's life, there are traces of mordant wit and taboo-breaking in the Hitchcockian vein. (Although, as far as the latter is concerned, the Master of Suspense has never framed an erotically charged piano-playing duet or linked masturbation and murder.) Chan-wook even throws in some cute visual cues with stuffed birds, a motel, and an unharmed insect, all subtle homages to "Psycho." The story itself keeps teasing us about who Uncle Charlie really isWas he really in Europe? Why does he like digging up the soft soil in the front yard?—until revelations are finally laid out in unsettling, demented flashback. Its characters are hard to pin down, but boy, are the Stokers intriguing.

If it offered no deeper meaning beyond the plot, "Stoker" would still be an exquisitely photographed and fetishistically art-directed husk of a movie. Fortunately, the actors translate the dark, gray areas of human nature with blank stares and gestures that fill in the gaps for dialogue. Only ever smiling when cracking wise to spite Mom or putting on a face to a cop, Wasikowska is effective in the role of India, a young woman whose uncle's arrival signals her adulthood and metamorphosis into her true self. Goode, an often-forgotten actor, terrifically blends seductive charm and chilling menace without ever going the hammy, bug-eyed route. Working with what's mostly a one-note character on paper, Kidman is emotionally frosty but still vulnerable as Evelyn, delivering a quietly tense monologue where she lets India have it ("Personally speaking, I can't wait to watch life tear you apart," Evelyn says). Supporting roles are well-filled by Weaver, whose character might hold a few answers to Charlie's closet skeletons, and Alden Ehrenreich, having recently fallen in love with a pale outcast in "Beautiful Creatures," as a jock who might desire the odd India.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Chan-wook seduces (and impresses) with his stunningly beautiful, borderline show-offy artistic style, visual motifs, and poetic deftness in every shot. Every inch of the film seems to have been designed with care and a painterly eye that even the murders are directed like love scenes (a tip the director takes out of Hitchcock's book), sexual tension turning to cold-blooded murder on a few occasions. One would be remiss not to give kudos to cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung and editor Nicolas De Troth, who both put in stylistically complex work. Swinging overhead lights in the dark, ominous cellar (another nod to "Psycho" perhaps?) cut to an illuminated Evelyn and Charlie upstairs. A shot of an egg transitions into India's eye. Evelyn's brushed hair dissolves into blades of grass where India and her father used to take their beloved hunting excursions. Sound design, too, is aces, from the nails-on-a-chalkboard-like cracking of a hard-boiled egg being rolled on a table to the sounds of a pencil being sharpened.

Made with tension and elegant restraint, "Stoker" is more of a thinking man's horror film. It's shocking without being cheap and the shocks are more akin to someone breathing down your neck than jumping out to say "boo!" Definitely not for all tastes, this would make Alfred Hitchcock proud and will make Brian De Palma green with envy.

Grade: B +

Friday, March 22, 2013

Provocative, shocking, pointed "Spring Breakers" shakes you up and lingers in your mind

Spring Breakers (2013)
94 min., rated R.

"Spring Breakers" is hard to articulate into words. That's meant as the biggest compliment, not only to the film itself but to writer-director Harmony Korine (who wrote 1995's controversial "Kids" at just age 19). A divisive, rule-breaking provocateur that many will refer to as an enfant terrible next to Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard, Lars von Trier, and John Waters, Korine makes films that go one of two ways—they are either artlessly exploitative pieces of ego-stroking junk (1997's "Gummo" and 2009's "Trash Humpers") or unforgettable pieces of art that hypnotically marry image and sound (his latest). Simultaneously transgressive and transcendent as a film can get, "Spring Breakers" might be the closest Korine will ever get to making a mainstream film. Mind you, it's as R-rated as R-rated can get before it would slip into NC-17 territory. It's vividly shocking, alive, satirically pointed, poignant, and head and shoulders above anything else independent cinema's bad boy has ever done. 

Opening with a slo-mo montage of bikini-clad (or topless) female spring breakers drinking beer, gyrating with shirtless jocks, fellating red, white and blue popsicles, and ultimately having the time of their lives, the film appears to be a sleazy, voyeuristic "Girls Gone Wild" video mixed with an uncensored dubstep music video. It's at once crudely amusing and unsettling, treating the ritual of college revelry without repercussions as a sun-drenched nightmare, and that's just in the opening minutes. The decadence is calling when Faith (Selena Gomez) wants to escape the doldrums of college-dorm life for the chance to see something different. Girlfriends with Faith since kindergarten, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) want to get away even more, so they rob the local Chicken Shack with squirt guns and sledgehammers for some extra cash and take a bus to St. Petersburg, Florida, for spring break. Indulging in a rowdy orgy of booze, coke, and sex and feeling like this is where they belong, the four girls are then arrested. Enter their savior, a money-makin' wannabe gangsta rapper/hustler named Alien (James Franco), who bails them out and takes them under his wing. Faith grows uncomfortable and has a bad feeling about him, but the other three, especially the inseparable Candy and Brit, were meant for this morally loose, crime-infested lifestyle.

On the flashy, sexed-up surface, it will be a selling point to see a wild teensploitation with Disney darlings Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens stretching their acting chops to extremes and a debaucherous "woo!" party of T&A, booze, and drugs. That titillation or curiosity factor might be a gimmick, but Korine isn't operating on trashy exploitation alone. There is a subliminal point beyond the shock value by cogently commenting on the empty-headed hedonism, MTV-derived conformity, cultural desensitization, and the warped, sociopathic meaning of celebrity, "ghetto" and "cool" in this generation of entitled youth. Underneath all the fun in the sun and 24/7 bacchanalia is an ugly, rotten underbelly and what's so chilling is that these girls see spring break as the American Dream. "This is not what I signed up for!" Faith later cries out to her friends before hopping on a bus home. We feel the same way, as one may think they're just getting an artsy-fartsy "Project X," but Korine isn't glorifying such excessive behavior as much as he's critiquing it as a mood piece. There's an actual method to his madness. "Spring Breakers" might seem like an overdone, aggressively in-your-face exercise that's much ado about nothing, but as the darkest and most unapologetically profane of cautionary tales for the here and now, therein lies a point: If these girls represent America's future, our society is going to hell in a handbasket. Like a genius filmmaker only knows how, Korine uses his neon-colored, free-flowing imagery and propulsive sounds as his own filmic language to confidently craft a nightmarish, disorienting, and unpredictable fever dream. 

With the film being stylized through the indelibly throbbing electronic score by Cliff Martinez ("Drive") and Skrillex, and the hallucinatory, mesmerizing cinematography by Benoît Debie ("Enter the Void"), the viewer can palpably feel the hazy, ultimately numbing high that these girls experience. To an even more experimental, experiential, fully impactful degree, Korine manipulates film stocks and uses repetition with shots that foreshadow later scenes, voice-overs, the whispers of "spring break…," and gun-cocking sound effects. In an ironic juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, Faith calls her grandmother to tell her spring break is "the most spiritual place" where "everyone's sweet," while the real experience is anything but. Candy and Brit do the same, calling their mothers to tell them that they're trying to be the best they can be. There's also an evocatively executed montage of violent carnage set to Britney Spears' pop ballad "Everytime," played by Alien on his baby grand piano as the gun-toting girls don pink ski masks and join him in committing crimes. It's as poetic and balletic as it is powerfully disturbing, just like the rest of the film.

All appearing in bikinis most of the time, Selena Gomez (TV's "Wizards of Waverly Place") and Vanessa Hudgens (the "High School Musical" movies), as well as Ashley Benson (TV's "Pretty Little Liars") and Rachel Korine (the filmmaker's wife), undauntedly push themselves to the edge. If these young ladies want to erase their squeaky-clean image, this will do it. As portrayed by Gomez with a touching empathy, Faith is the good, churchgoing girl of the bunch and the only one with much moral fiber, while Hudgens and Benson are so fearless and capable of selling the freedom and badass invincibility their characters feel, it's frightening ("Just pretend like it's a video game," Candy says before their robbery). After appearing in "Oz the Great and Powerful," James Franco, going for broke with cornrows, tattoos, and a shiny grill in his mouth, isn't in Kansas anymore. As the self-proclaimed Alien, who claims to not be from this planet, has always dreamed of being bad, and watches "Scarface" on repeat, he's equally creepy, dangerous, seductive, and vulnerable in an off-the-wall, bravely uninhibited and truly inspired performance, one that just proves he's a chameleon of his craft. Nobody else could have made Alienor his life mantras, "Bikinis and big booties, y'all! That's what life is about!" and "Spring break forever!"completely believable as Franco does.

An intoxicating shock to the system, one hell of a trip, and an audacious filmic blend of art and commerce that's actually about something, "Spring Breakers" shakes you up, lingers in your mind, and might even outrage many who miss the point. It's one of those misunderstood films that is not so easy to label or categorize, nor should it be when so many are misguided in their marketing anyway. Love it or hate it, one will probably never forget it. Mission accomplished, Harmony.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Goofy "Burt Wonderstone" can't pull out consistent laughs

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)
100 min., rated PG-13.

Like the titular Burt's sleight of hand, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" tricks you into thinking it will pull out more laughs than it really does. TV veteran director Don Scardino and screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley (who put their heads together for the darkly funny "Horrible Bosses") have up-to-the-task performers in a surefire concept that should deliver the laughing goods, but the material only musters up a mild, goofy lark. When the actors get to perform their illusions and masochistic stunts (CG or not), it catches some fire, but when it goes all soft and bland (as most mainstream comedies tend to do), the results are amiable at best and inhibited at worst.

The 1982-set prologue, with Young Burt (Mason Cook) being picked on and then discovering his passion for magic with his first magic kit, seems like it might go the pseudo-earnest Adam Sandler route but it has a true sweetness. "Nobody likes you and nobody will ever like you," says a bully to Burt before meeting his soon-to-be best friend, Anton (Luke Vanek), who's fascinated with magic as well. Twenty years later, Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) are a sensational Vegas act, performing magic tricks that earn the "oohs" and "aahs" of packed houses at Bally's Hotel and Casino. Unfortunately over the next decade, these entertainers grow mechanical and irrelevant, their friendship growing stale as well. Instead of following the advice of the Bally's manager, Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), in doing something fresh, Burt and Anton fail to up the ante of their act and go their separate ways. Without Anton, Burt's one-man show is embarrassing and his lavish lifestyle catches up to him, so he's forced to take on pathetic gigs. To make matters worse, a new, cutting-edge sort of illusionist by the name of Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), dubbed the "Brain Rapist," is hogging all the limelight with viral videos. He's more of an endurance street stuntman than an old-fashioned magician, holding in his urine for twelve days, spending a whole night on a bed of hot coals, and acting as a human pinata, but it gets the Vegas crowd's attention. Can the washed-up Burt make a comeback, reunite with Anton, and pull off their best trick of all? Gee, what do you think?

Obviously, plot isn't the major draw for a comedy with big-time funnymen like Carell and Carrey when it satisfies on the level of their bread and butter. And every now and then, there are flashes of real comedic surprise and inspired zaniness. A simple sight gag with Lady Luck Hotel & Casino earns a guffaw. There's one wickedly funny gag in which Anton pays a visit to a poor African village and hands out magic kits instead of food and clean water. It's also fun to watch Burt and Steve one-up one another at a kid's birthday party. Otherwise, the script is slapped together and more often cartoonish than funny. The central problem is its very own headliner. Though it's a hoot to see Carell just show up as a dandified magician with that cheesy grin, an unironic head of hair, and a velvety, sequined costume, Burt is an unlikable, obnoxious putz. Yes, he's supposed to be presumptuous, sexist, and pompous after fame has gone to his head, but when his supposed vulnerability comes in and we're supposed to care, nobody is buying it. Characters can't just turn on a dime when Page 75 in the script calls for it and the music score hits a minor key; they have to earn it. Alas, Burt is just a two-dimensional jerk and it seems like nothing is at stake for him. Sure, Anton is a second banana who deserves the "incredible" title, too, but even the always-interesting Buscemi gets robbed of much screen time after the characters' falling-out.

No offense to the Steves, but Carrey, with a goth look and a mane of hair, runs away with the film. In a story about rise-and-fall-and-rise-agains, the comedy actor taps into his star-making rubbery shtick, sorely missing since his dramatic departure and likable, albeit milquetoast, turn in "Mr. Popper's Penguins." As Steve Gray, he injects an unhinged weirdness and unpredictability that the rest of the film could have benefited from. Carrey's Steve Gray, clearly in the gimmicky showmanship modes of David Blaine and Criss Angel/"Mindfreak," luckily serves up the most absurdist, even wince-inducing bits. Also, Alan Arkin, as old-school magician Rance Holloway who now lives in an assisted living home, underplays the role and that style works for many of his verbal punchlines. Olivia Wilde, always beautiful, makes the best of her role as Jane, a stage crew worker who suddenly becomes Burt's assistant. "I worshipped you for 10 years and you've just made me hate you in 60 seconds," Jane admits before naturally becoming Burt's love interest because the script can't find a smarter reason to have her around. Surprisingly, Wilde displays some comic timing right out of the gate when she's first pushed on stage as assistant "Nicole." She and Carell get to sell one amusing scene of foreplay with magic, too.

Perhaps the film should have rethought its focal point and called itself "The Sadistic Steve Gray." While it doesn't fall dead as a doornail (and there is a gag with Carrey hammering in a nail with his head), there are more smiles than bona fide laughs, which are too scattered. More disappointing than anything, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" feels more like a warm-up than a featured act. However, we are saved the best laugh for last, a trick in making the whole audience disappear and a hilarious look at how the team pulls it off. Too bad the rest of the comedy will disappear from your memory.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Take "The Call" before its rock-stupid third act

The Call (2013) 
95 min., rated R.

No film should be judged by its trailer because a bad trailer can be made from a good film and vice versa. In case you caught the laughingstock trailer of "The Call," you already know every story beat. Now onto the film itself: this formulaic but tense and efficient genre programmer isn't trying to reinvent the language of film but does exactly what it intends to do and does it quite well. Already bearing a solid track record ("Session 9," "The Machinist," "Transsiberian," and "Vanishing on 7th Street"), director Brad Anderson proves how astute he is in sustaining a taut, involving fever pitch over an emergency phone call. Richard D'Ovidio's script falls apart in the end, but as a good thriller should, "The Call" clenches you tight. 

Halle Berry stars as Jordan Turner, a 911 operator who's usually calm and focused when handling stressful calls at the Los Angeles call center, dubbed "the hive." Then Jordan receives a distress call from a hysterical teenage girl reporting a break-in, until making a grave mistake that leads to the girl being kidnapped and murdered by the prowler. Jordan instantly feels guilty and beats herself up about it. Six months later, she is off the floor to train new operators, until an eerily similar call comes in from a teenage girl named Casey (Abigail Breslin). She's been abducted from the mall parking garage and locked in the trunk of a moving car on a freeway. Jordan's co-worker panics, so the veteran hesitantly takes over and helps Casey fight for survival. Will their call get disconnected, or can Jordan help the police find Casey and her kidnapper before she becomes a corpse? 

Crafted with economy, "The Call" introduces Jordan, her co-workers, her boss (Roma Maffia), and her LAPD boyfriend (Morris Chestnut), the inner workings "the hive," as well as its central caller, before it digs right into the high-concept premise. After "the call," Jordan becomes emotionally attached to the kidnapper's latest victim Casey (which is a major "don't" for operators) and, in turn, we become invested, too. Casey follows Jordan's instructions as competently as a young woman in such harrowing circumstances could and wisely sticks her untraceable prepaid phone (with Jordan still on the line) into her back pocket any time her unhinged captor opens the trunk. Without giving away specifics of the thrills (or an arbitrary twist, which the trailer already spoils anyway), just know that the film is an airtight pressure cooker for the first two acts. Furthermore, Anderson expertly uses some disorienting camera angles with a fisheye lens and some freeze-frame editing tricks that amp up the terror. 

Halle Berry has made her fair share of stink bombs before ("B*A*P*S," "Catwoman," "Perfect Stranger" and, most recently, "Movie 43"), but not even a frizzy wig, which might've looked better on Tina Turner, can bring her down. Who knew watching a beautiful woman on a headset could be so gripping? As Jordan, she is resourceful and vulnerable, conveying how difficult it must be to not always have closure with a PR (Person Reporting) after the LAPD takes over. But eventually, she is asked to act below her normal intelligence just so she can find redemption (and so the movie can go on). Getting time to first establish a few defining traits for Casey, Breslin has the challenge of acting from the inside of a trunk, credibly selling fear and panic. She isn't just a damsel in distress but has some moxie and fight in her, although in the third act it's a bit off-putting to see the now-16-year-old "Little Miss Sunshine" star sexualized as she's tortured in her bra for trashy exploitation. Making the situation all the more frightening, Michael Eklund is convincingly creepy, pathetic, twitchy, and loathsome as the serial kidnapper with some icky plans for Casey. 

Alas, suspension of disbelief snaps to pieces in Act III. Because the script says so, Jordan is forced to leave "the hive" and become Nancy Drew in a slasher flick, venturing into the Buffalo Bill/Norman Bates wannabe's den unarmed and without backup. It's hard to believe Jordan would just abandon all common sense to take matters into her hands, but then again, she made a promise to Casey and won't rest until she's found with a pulse. "Oh, come on!" and "Finish him off!" moments ensue, and the more the film tries to up the stakes, the dumber and more frustrating it becomes, coming closer to diminishing all of the good will it has already built. If "The Call" was meant to be over-the-top revenge schlock, the cheap and debatable finale might be forgiven, but it isn't and the last few frames cannot be taken seriously. Until that misjudged, if not "crowd-pleasing," point, "The Call" is still a well-made, entertaining B-thriller with capably low-budget thrills. The hyperbolic cliché "edge-of-your-seat thriller" actually applies here.

Grade: B -