Friday, June 28, 2013

Bad Girls Do It Well: Bullock and McCarthy make dynamite pair in "The Heat"


The Heat (2013)
117 min., rated R.

It's hard to believe it took so long for women to break into the male-dominated subgenre of mismatched buddy-cop comedies (unless, of course, you count 1988's flat "Feds" with Rebecca DeMornay and Mary Gross). Nevertheless, it's about time. If anyone could make a tired, formulaic concept fresh and funny again, it's Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, and they do exactly that with "The Heat." Director Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids") and screenwriter Katie Dippold (who makes her feature debut here after writing episodes for NBC's "Parks and Recreation") aren't slouches, either, considering they allow their two female stars to cut loose, both verbally and physically, all while sharing gangbusters interplay.

This being an odd-couple comedy, there is the tight-assed drip and the foul-mouthed wild card. Bullock plays Sarah Ashburn, a straight-laced New York FBI agent who can crack cases but has no friends at work or out of work, except her neighbor's cat. Resented around the office, she has her hopes set on a promotion, so to prove herself, her boss (Demián Bichir) sends her to Boston to close a case involving an evasive drug kingpin known as Larkin. Expecting to work alone, Sarah is partnered with detective Shannon Mullins (McCarthy), a raucous, slobby, biker glove-clad tornado who terrifies her captain (Thomas F. Wilson, better known as Biff from "Back to the Future"), as well as the perps she finds, and knows the Boston streets. She is the black sheep of her family for arresting her formerly drug-addicted brother, Jason (Michael Rapaport), who was involved with the wrong people, but Shannon is dead-set on finding Larkin. Neither woman wants the other's help at first, but, of course, these two eventually find a common ground and take down some henchmen to find the main sucker.

More surprising than it has any right to be, "The Heat" is all about chemistry and hearty laughs, which come quite often. Sure, there's a plot, but it doesn't really matter and doesn't get in the way of its leading secret weapons, especially McCarthy. After joining the guys' club of raunchy comedy with her Oscar-nominated breakout role as the memorably brassy Megan in "Bridesmaids," McCarthy further proves her talents as a game-for-anything comic dynamo who can also find likability and humanity in a semi-clinically insane character with aplomb. Already this year, the star had her first vehicle with "Identity Thief," and though she stole laughs, it didn't quite deserve her presence. This time, as loose cannon Shannon who keeps running into crestfallen one-night stands (one of whom is played by her husband Ben Falcone), her efforts aren't in vain. McCarthy completely runs with the hilariously coarse, machine-gun line readings (along with, natch, plenty of ad-libbing) and sticks the landing every time, even if it's just a throwaway line about coffee filters or Ashburn's "bank teller" wardrobe. And her delivery for a verbal running joke involving an albino DEA agent? Hysterical stuff.

Feig and Dippold not only give her better material to play with but an equal foil in Bullock, who's no wet blanket. One can see Sarah Ashburn as an extension of her "Miss Congeniality" character at first, but instead of receiving any major makeover, there is major vulnerability underneath this character's competitive and conservative exterior (she's a foster kid whose teachers only signed her high school yearbook). Greatly recouping from her 2009 disaster "All About Steve" and never one to be overshadowed by a co-star, Bullock still has that girl-next-door appeal but also reminds us how adroit of a comedian she can be. It's a delight to see the buttoned-down Ashburnand Bullockunload vulgar vocabulary, which she inevitably picks up from McCarthy's Mullins. And just when you think an obligatory drinking montage, as shown repeatedly in the film's trailers, would seem like it's been done to death, the pair pulls off their own comic-gold surprises.

Deserving of its R-rating from McCarthy's character firing excessively blue profanities from her mouth alone, "The Heat" is never afraid to get rude or violent. Shannon threatens to stab an officer with his own badge, throws a watermelon at an African American perp, and points a gun at a suspect's crotch, but they're all used to laugh-out-loud effect. An unnecessary tracheotomy in a Denny's seems a bit wedged-in, but again, the stars have such spontaneity and comedic timing that they make the gag work anyhow. Filling out the supporting cast is a slew of well-placed performers, including Groundlings and "MADtv" alumnus Michael McDonald, as a nasty drug lord with a fetish for knives; "SNL" alumna Jane Curtain who gets the best drive-by bird flip as Shannon's mother; and Nathan Corddry and former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre as two of Shannon's thick-accented brothers with trashy girlfriends. This material is more worthy of a 90-minute time slot than nearly two hours, and there's nothing too special or interesting about it as a technical production, besides a '70s-style title sequence cued to The Isley Brothers' "Fight the Power." However, funny is funny, and "The Heat" is frequently funny and already a lock for the biggest summer surprise. Other than "This Is the End," this year's movie comedies haven't had any stiff competition, until now.

Grade:+

America, Eff Yeah! — "White House Down" a large popcorn tub of insanely ridiculous fun


White House Down (2013)
131 min., rated PG-13. 

In 1997, we had the battle of the volcano movies with "Dante's Peak" and "Volcano," and humanity ran afoul of space objects in both 1998's "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon." Now, the White House just keeps falling down and can't catch a break. "Olympus Has Fallen"—or, the first 'Die Hard in the White House'—was just released three months ago, so it's high time we saw 1600 Penn Avenue get terrorized again this year, right? With Hollywood thinking we're way past 9/11, it's kind of queasy and exploitative that terrorism is so often treated lightly as blockbuster fare. However, "White House Down" would have to be cynical to rub the viewer the wrong way. Instead, this ridiculous entertainment machine is helmed by Velveeta-churning director Roland Emmerich ("Godzilla," "The Day After Tomorrow," "2012"), who has never met a monument he didn't want to obliterate, and he actually has a good sense of humor to name-check his own "Independence Day," which saw aliens blow up the White House.

Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a heroic miracle man. But first, he's a divorced military vet working with the Capitol Police who's off to the White House for an interview with the Secret Service. On the same day President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) has proposed peace with the Middle East, Cale takes his 11-year-old daughter Emily (Joey King) with him because she's a political junkie with a YouTube channel. After failing his interview with unwearied Secret Service agent Carol Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal), father and daughter go on a tour, only to be separated as terrorists casually waltz into the building and set off an explosion in the Capitol Building. Leaving the White House under siege, the group of no-goodniks, including an ex-Black Ops soldier (Jason Clarke), a computer hacker (Jimmi Simpson), and other mercenaries, is led by someone who has an in with the POTUS and might have a more personal motive than just waging a Third World War. Meanwhile, Cale must escort the president to safety, but he's not about to leave his daughter as a hostage, either.

This PG-13-rated "Die Hard" knockoff—itself a better sequel than this year's "A Good Day to Die Hard"might have the cards stacked against it, with an unintentionally hokey bit of flag-waving jingoism, Tatum's silly exchange with a squirrel, an implausibly far-stretched conspiracy with triple crosses, and an overlong 131-minute running time. Making the R-rated, far more violent "Olympus Has Fallen" look subtle by comparison, "White House Down" is even more gloriously outlandish but better for it and a lot more fun. Never too self-serious nor too deliberately self-aware, it doesn't just go over the top but throws in the kitchen sink, as well as the whole kitchen. And there's nothing wrong with that. Emmerich and screenwriter James Vanderbilt ("The Amazing Spider-Man") clearly seem to have no delusions of grandeur other than to entertain and manage to inject playful humor into a dire situation where grenades go off and lives are at stake.

The pairing of Tatum and Foxx helps greatly, and they appear to be having fun. Tatum is physical, charismatic, and root-worthy as Cale, an everyman character obviously modeled after Bruce Willis' John McClane, not only from bearing the same first name but also stripping down to a wife-beater. As President Sawyer, an obvious emulation of Barack Obama (Nicorette Gum-chewing and all), Foxx puts on a straight face when he's leading the country but, once slipping on his comfortable Air Jordans, he trades funny, spontaneous quips with his muscular savior. The supporting cast is more than competent, including Gyllenhaal; James Woods, as the retiring security chief; Richard Jenkins, as the Speaker of the House; and Michael Murphy, as the Vice President. A very funny Nicolas Wright goes all out as a tour guide who warns the terrorists to respect the White House's precious valuables. Young actress King, as Cale's daughter, is expressive, but as directed, her actions are often embarrassingly clunky. It's set up early on that Dad has missed her flag twirling at a talent show, so you can bet her talent will come in handy at some point.

Aside from the occasionally all-too-fake matte paintings in exterior shots, "White House Down" is exciting and cleanly shot. Courtesy of cinematographer Anna Foerster, the film never loses track of the action with incoherent shaky-cam or choppy quick cuts that seem to dampen most noisy action fare. Emmerich makes good use of the Presidential Palace, with a limo chase scene on the front lawn with President Sawyer firing a rocket launcher (it's funnier than it sounds), to the catacombs where John F. Kennedy allegedly snuck in Marilyn Monroe, and a fight on the roof as air missiles are being fired. No one can really defend "White House Down" for being a good movie, but here is an escapist summer movie that embraces being an escapist summer movie. You want subtlety? Stay home. You want a message? Western Union can help you there. It's still an insanely stupid, check-your-brain-at-the-door action-fest, but it's always in charge of its own cheesiness without careening into self-parody. That's hard to do. More discerning viewers could call this a guilty pleasure, but who's to say you should be guilty for having so much fun? 

Grade:

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: "Upside Down" imaginative, visually dazzling, and dreamily sweet



Upside Down (2013)
100 min., rated PG-13.

Aren't we all sick and tired of romances between star-crossed lovers from twin planets? All kidding aside, "Upside Down" gives most "earthbound" romantic comedies and soulless, effects-driven contraptions a run for their money, first and foremost from being an ethereal, beautifully conceived and mounted romantic sci-fi fantasy decked with wonder and imagination. The audaciously loopy backdrop of the film posits that the universe is made up with "dual gravity," two twin planets revolving around the same sun but each having its own opposite gravity. It's possible to fall up, where the "Haves" reside, and rise down, where the "Have-Nots" reside.

Orphaned and left to live with his aunt as a teen, Adam (Jim Sturgess) would climb up a snowy mountain, where he began a relationship with Eden (Kirsten Dunst), who's from "Up Top." He would pull her from her gravity into his (she's upside down like a bat), but after many years, they were discovered and Eden's memory was wiped from an accident. Ten years later, as Adam tries cracking an anti-aging, anti-gravity beauty cream with pink bee pollen, he discovers that Eden is still alive, working at Transworld, the greedy mega-corporation that connects the two planets. He goes up above to have his invention patented and sees it as an opportunity to reunite with Eden, who works on one of the upper floors of Transworld, but her amnesia leaves her with no recollection of who he is or their former bond. If they once were two souls earnestly in love, maybe love is eternally stronger than gravity.

Argentinean photographer-turned-writer-director Juan Solanas has fashioned a visionary, gravity-defying visual feast. After about six straight minutes of Sturgess' heavy-handed voice-over narration, "Upside Down," written by Solanas, is a dizzying discovery of exposition and gravitational rules but then advances forward without insulting the viewer's intelligence. With the opposite worlds and social classes being their major roadblocks, this is really an unabashedly romantic love story, much in the vein of "Romeo and Juliet," only flipped on its head, literally, with an interplanetary twist. 

The topsy-turvy effect doesn't just appear to be a horizontal split screen of both planes, which is impressive considering Solanas made the film for $60 million, whereas the budget for Christopher Nolan's "Inception" was $160 million. Disorienting and dazzling as it is fully realized, the film is like watching a gorgeous dream unfold. Solanas' visual effects team and Alex McDowell's cool, lustrous production design of the floor-to-ceiling Transworld office and the poor, dingy "Down Below" enhance this vast, glossy but never artificial-looking landscape. There's a fleeting but awe-inspiring moment where Adam finishes up his lunch date with Eden, just as the matter of his shoes are burning up; he then races into Up's ocean, falling through the sky and landing into Down's ocean. Other amusing details include Adam using hairspray to help him pass as one of the "Up Top"; Eden teaching him to drink a martini upside down; and another instance in the men's restroom, where Adam doesn't realize his urine is hitting the ceiling and not the urinal.

Science-minded viewers can call rubbish on the entire conceit, like questioning how Adam can stand all the blood rushing to his head while being upside down, but this is a film where you either accept the fantasy or you don't. Sturgess and Dunst (who has expertise in kissing upside down) are lovely together, grounding the story and somehow dialing down the grandiosity of the concept onto a human level. Timothy Spall (better known as Peter Pettigrew from the "Harry Potter" films) also adds delightfully hammy comic relief as Bob Boruchowitz, a friendly Transworld co-worker who helps Adam get in touch with his long-lost love. Despite some narrative gaps and a deus ex machina rushing things to an overly starry-eyed final reveal that swings for the fences, "Upside Down" is still hard to resist for its earnest heart and visual splendor. It gives us a relationship to care about in a world that we've never visited before. 

Grade: B +

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Melons and blood-curdling screams: "Berberian Sound Studio" an aurally sound but go-nowhere mood piece



Berberian Sound Studio (2013)
92 min., not rated (but equivalent to R).

"Berberian Sound Studio" is one of those obscure little films that true connoisseurs of horror cinema, especially '70s Italian giallo, should not miss. Everyone else might admire it but end up scratching their heads. Written and directed with studied verve by Peter Strickland, this moody, fascinatingly and beautifully crafted psychological drama is less of a horror film than it is an insider's look at everything that goes into post-production filmmaking, including the Foley process and vocal recordings. Then, around the halfway point, it becomes so surreal and Kafkaesque instead of going anywhere.

1976, Italy: timid, reputable British sound mixer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) leaves his mum to work on "The Equestrian Vortex" in a sound studio, unaware that it would be a horror film and not about horseback riding. He's like a maestro at his soundboard but speaks very little Italian and is completely out of his element with this crew, particularly rude, condescending producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) and pompous director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino), who balks Gilderoy for categorizing his film as "horror." Gilderoy also has trouble getting reimbursed for his flight by Francesco and the studio's equally rude secretary (Tonia Sotiropoulou). Only vocal actress Silvia (Fatma Mohamed) shows him any kindness, as she, too, is mistreated by Santini. Painstakingly working on the film, he receives letters from his mum about raising chiffchaff chicks back home outside their window. That's when the content of his work really starts to take a toll on Gilderoy, tossing him into a strange vortex of his own.

Mostly set inside the hermetic Berberian Sound Studio, the film has a dark, quiet, controlled slow-burn mood that puts the viewer on edge without showing a drop of blood. Strickland has a skillful command of building dread and using silence, as well as sprinkling in the blood-curdling screams of the ADR actresses; the recurring, Lynchian image of a red, flashing "Silenzio" sign; and take after take of smashing and stabbing watermelons and ripping radishes to depict the recorded sounds of bodies being murdered. We never actually see a single gruesome demise or any footage from the giallo being worked on (except for the nifty, black-and-red title sequence), but suggestion is more effective, as we only hear "flesh" being mutilated and "heads" hitting the pavement. "The Equestrian Vortex" being about a witches' coven terrorizing a girls boarding school is also a nice salute to Dario Argento's "Suspiria." 

Having already played Truman Capote and Alfred Hitchcock, Jones turns in yet another committed performance as a passive but compelling figure. His Gilderoy is the guiding force here, and by proxy, we're just as befuddled as he is. It's an absorbing and suggestive trip for a long time and should be building to something, but it never really gets there since there is no real rising tension. When Gilderoy starts to lose it, the film starts to lose its way and unravel like a reel. As a result, "Berberian Sound Studio" looks and sounds great as an esoteric, lovingly made homage to Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci, but it's a half-baked film that wants to challenge the philosophy of life imitating art. Visually and sonically, it's mesmerizing; narratively, it leaves more to be desired. If anything, be sure to keep an ear out for filmmaker Strickland.

Grade: C +


Monday, June 24, 2013

The Taming of the Fanboy: Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing" frothy but slight lark



Much Ado About Nothing (2013) 
107 min., rated PG-13.

Following his success of "The Avengers" and during post-production of that mega-budgeted bonanza, fanboys' most respected idol Joss Whedon scaled down to DIY, on-the-cheap filmmaking and words, not heavy-duty action, with William Shakespeare. With "Much Ado About Nothing"a modern reinterpretation of the Bard's frothy battle-of-the-sexes playWhedon adapted, directed, produced, scored, co-edited, and even shot this small, black-and-white dream project in he and his wife's Santa Monica house for twelve days with his friends, but it doesn't reek of self-congratulatory back-patting, thankfully. Playing out like an English class exercise in Whedon's own backyard, "Much Ado About Nothing" is an amusing, occasionally charming trifle at best but still fun to watch for the time being.

As the story goes, ex-lovers Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) are engaging in a "merry war" over the course of a weekend at the estate of Leonato (Clark Gregg). When good friend Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) comes to the house, along with criminal brother Don John (Sean Maher) and his "men," Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) and Conrade (Riki Lindhome), a secondary romance blossoms between soldier Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), Leonato's daughter and Beatrice's cousin. The chaste couple quickly decides to go to the altar, but Don John sabotages the arrangement, tricking Claudio into thinking Hero is unfaithful. Meanwhile, the friends and maids conspire together to get Beatrice and Benedick to confess their love for each other since it's love at first hate. And, if you remember, no one tragically drinks a poison or takes their life with a dagger in the end.

Throwing Shakespeare's text into modern times isn't exactly a novel wrinkle, as the '90s and '00s were full of teen comedies—"The Taming of the Shrew" was retold in "10 Things I Hate About You," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" became "Get Over It," and "She's the Man" dumbed down "Twelfth Night"—and teen tragedies—the Bazz Luhrmann-ized "Romeo + Juliet" and "O" was abbreviated from "Othello." But, like Kenneth Branagh's traditional 1993 take (coincidentally, that director would go on to direct "Thor"), Whedon keeps the witty wordplay intact, despite the transplantation from Messina on the island of Sicily to Santa Monica. With that said, it does take time to get acclimated for those who aren't true-blue Speare-heads or haven't audited a high school class lately, but after the film hits its stride, the meaning of the verbiage is decoded through the action.

Every actor in the Whedonverse (those who have previously worked with him in his TV shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly," "Angel," and "Dollhouse," as well as films he's written or directed) gets to dig into the iambic pentameter, but some of them come off more forced than others in trying to match the language and rhythm. Acker absolutely shines as the headstrong Beatrice, feeling at ease with the sharp-tongued verbal sparring and slapstick (i.e. pratfalling down the basement stairs and then hiding underneath a counter to eavesdrop). Denisof is also up to the task as Benedick and proves to be a skilled physical comedian, so much, in fact, that co-star Gregg can be noticed falling out of character to hide his laugh. It's a problem, however, when Beatrice and Benedick would be better off single. Nathan Fillion is a hoot as Dogberry, a screwball cop who could've came off as a broad buffoon; with his comic timing, the beefy actor is rather deadpan, even when he keeps reminding everyone that he's been called an "ass."

A budgetary change of pace and a total lack of crash-and-burn destruction (and wormholes, for that matter) with an emphasis on performances is nice and all, but "Much Ado About Nothing" ultimately lives up to its title. An experiment with the bones but not the dramatic urgency of an actual film, it's as airy and mirthful as it is inconsequential. There are plenty of pleasures here, though, and Whedon keeps everything light and goes for a classical style. Whether or not shooting in b&w was merely for budget constraints, Jay Hunter's cinematography looks positively dreamy. Instead of being a commercial project, this is a labor of love for Whedon, even if it ends up being a merely one-off lark. A nice try, though.

Grade: B -

Friday, June 21, 2013

Dawn of Pitt: "World War Z" neutered but still a fun, tense ride



World War Z (2013) 
116 min., rated PG-13.

It's not uncommon to hear about mega-budgeted mainstream movies being plagued by a snakebit production. A mostly in-name-only adaptation of the 2006 best-seller by Max Brooks (son of Mel), "World War Z" is the latest $200-million, summer-released example, pushed back due to rewrites and seven weeks' worth of reshoots. But since what ended up on the screen is what really matters, how is the long-gestating final product? Despite what pre-release detractors might have thought, "World War Z" is surprisingly involving and a lot of meat-and-potatoes fun for an epic-scaled, suspense-fraught global-outbreak thriller.

Gerry Lane (Brad Pit) has retired as a United Nations operative to spend more time with wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and daughters Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (Sterling Jerins). Retirement is mentioned too soon, as one morning on the traffic-laden streets of Philadelphia turns into hellish pandemonium, with a fast-acting virus making the living convulse and turn into the undead in only a matter of twelve seconds (cleverly counted by Constance's talking stuffed bear). Gerry and family escape to shelter and are soon picked up by a helicopter sent by his former UN colleague (Fana Mokoena) and taken to a US Navy ship near New York. Though reluctant to leave his wife and kids, he is asked to return to his old job, trying to locate where the growing pandemic began. If there's no vaccine in his travels from South Korea to Jerusalem, Gerry might be headed for the big sleep or, worse, become one of the undead.

The film's major Kryptonite is its restricting PG-13 rating, which is usually the kiss of death in the horror genre, but even this year's zom-rom-com "Warm Bodies" proved it could be done well. Here, the horror element is tame by today's standards, but the zombies still pose a threat, particularly when they're not transformed into video-game avatars or a colony of ants when they pile on top of one another to climb over Jerusalem's defensive wall. Though the source material retained the traditional zombie shuffle, the teeth-chattering undead in this film version are part of the relentless, freakishly sped-up new school (like the trail-blazing "28 Days Later" and the "Dawn of the Dead" remake). Too bad all neck-, brain-, and intestine-biting (as well as an amputation) is downplayed to the point of watering down the blood and gore, but such is life for horror diehards. 

The trifecta of screenwriters, Matthew Michael Carnahan ("State of Play"), Drew Goddard ("The Cabin in the Woods"), and Damon Lindelof ("Star Trek Into Darkness"), don't waste much time with intimacy or character development. It's pancakes for breakfast, the Lanes are then thrust into panic, and it's go, go, go. One must take a few leaps of faith in believing that Gerry would be chosen to go on such a globe-trotting trek and how he could pick up on important facts about the infected just by looking back as everyone else is running, but these logic hiccups are quickly forgiven. As directed by Marc Forster, who makes up for the mishandling of most of the action in "Quantum of Solace," the set-piece in Philly is tense, intense, and kinetic, if cut a bit too quickly and shot so chaotically to really get a good, clean look at who's infected and who's just running for their life. Even for the gutlessness of the powers that be at Paramount Pictures and their hopes to satisfy the hoi polloi, Forster still creates suspense, keeps the pace taut, and executes enough notably edgy set-pieces. There's a sense of atmospheric dread, a nice jump scare, and excitement in a New Jersey apartment's dark stairwell to the roof; a "bumpy" flight in an airplane headed for Wales is a harrowing knockout; and finally in the reworked third act, once Gerry and his Israeli escort soldier Segen (Daniella Kertesz) make it to the World Health Organization research facility, a trip to a zombie-infested wing is effectively quiet and more claustrophobic in its tension. Another plus is Marco Beltrami's memorable synthesizer score, evoking the creepy mood of "The Exorcist" theme, "Tubular Bells."

Casting Pitt was a wise choice for the story's human touch. He's the ultimate movie star with acting chops, being able to perform action and credibly play a devoted family man so the viewer has at least a strand of emotional connectivity. As played by Pitt, Gerry has our rooting interest, as he's resourceful and gutsy but never an entirely immune superhero. He's so selfless that at one point, when he knows he's gotten some zombie blood in his mouth, he rushes to the edge of his family's rooftop escape, counting to twelve and ready to jump. Enos, as his wife Karen, fulfills the emotional and physical obligations during the panic, but she's gone too soon, left to worry and wait for Gerry's phone calls. There are also quick-hitting moments with magnetic character actors (James Badge Dale and David Morse) and Matthew Fox, who apparently received the Terrence Malick of axes, only shows up to utter one or two lines and is then gone, but this is obviously Pitt's vehicle.

No matter how brainy it could have been, "World War Z," by the same token, knows how to ratchet up your heartbeat as a thrilling, popcorn-purging ride with enough rest in between. The anticlimactic, somewhat pat coda makes it clear this is just the beginning—"This isn't the end...not even close," Pitt literally interjects in a tacked-on voice-over—so even if this tentpole doesn't recover its full budget, hopefully a possible sequel will go the gutsier "R" route. Script problems notwithstanding, the cumulative effect of "World War Z" is one of fast-and-furious entertainment while you're in the dark.

Grade:

Totally True Hollywood Story: Coppola's barbed, subtle "Bling Ring" doesn't judge the emptiness


The Bling Ring (2013)
90 min., rated R. 

Sofia Coppola has made her needlessly reviled performance in her father's "The Godfather Part III" nothing but a career footnote, now a distinctive filmmaker who continues her auteurism and builds upon her understated, ethereal mood and original voice behind the camera. Her fifth feature film, "The Bling Ring," is the connective tissue to her previous work ("The Virgin Suicides," "Lost in Translation," "Marie Antoinette," and "Somewhere") without cannibalizing herself. From the Vanity Fair article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins by Nancy Jo Sales, based on true events in 2008 to 2009, "The Bling Ring" (not to be confused with the same-titled Lifetime Movie) is a slyly penetrating, alarming and acerbic ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama of the unsettling obsession with fame, America's famous-for-being-famous celebrity-tabloid culture and emphasis on materialism and its influence on the Millennial Generation. It's bound to be quite divisive among pundits and audiences, and if "The Bling Ring" didn't already feel like a scary documentary, it would make for biting satire.

The insecure Marc (Israel Broussard) is the new kid at Indian Hills High School in Calabasas, California, and in need of a confidence boost. He's quickly noticed and taken under the wing of Rebecca (Katie Chang), who then introduces him to her favorite pastime of walking down the street at night and checking for unlocked cars to rob. Eventually, with Rebecca obsessed with trendy fashion labels and hanging out at the same clubs as the rich and famous, Marc falls into a tight-knit group, which includes reckless Chloe (Claire Julien), superficial Nicki (Emma Watson), and Nicki's adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga). Just by scouting out idolized A-listers' McMansions via Google and using social media to determine when the homes would be empty, the kids go robbing, orin their mindsshopping. They just want the chic clothes and lifestyle, no matter the consequences of committing these crimes, which are more scandalous than making a sex tape.

Whereas most filmmakers would condemn or merely satirize these kids (who are, yes, shallow, entitled, narcissistic, single-minded, and barely redeemable), writer-director Coppola wisely places her human subjects at a distance and holds a mirror up to our vacuous youth culture. Her approach neither celebrates nor judges the characters and their criminal indiscretions but hands the judgment call over to the audience. Though we're not really asked to sympathize with them too much, the members of the so-called "Bling Ring" (or "Burglar Bunch") are just impressionable products of a wrongheaded culture that forgets celebrities are people, too. As they pose and snap "selfies" for Facebook while receiving bottle service at the club and jump up and down over the celeb-worn clothing they try on, we see them for who they are or aspire to be. They think that if they preen in the latest fashion and act the part, they can join the cool and famous crowd. Is it really their fault when they're being brainwashed, living in a bubble removed from reality, and force-fed TMZ and OK! Magazine? The robbed celebrities themselves, including Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, Megan Fox, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, and Lindsay Lohan, are at fault for leaving keys under the welcome mat or side doors and windows unlocked, making the kids' break-ins feel more like walk-ins. In the wrong hands, gazing upon such vapid and empty character goals could have resulted in a vapid and empty film itself, but Coppola knows better with a subtle, commanding hand that speaks volumes and knowing this milieu like the back of her hand.

The casting clicks across the board and Coppola astutely guides the performances. Still young and stretching her muscles as a versatile, intuitive actress without vanity, Emma Watson obliterates her Hermione Granger persona here. As the vain, deluded Nicki, she is hilariously deadpan and spot-on, perfecting the dippy Valley Girl speak ("So cute!"), but she doesn't play her as a joke or mocking caricature, either. What's even more chilling than Nicki believing she's a spiritual human being with philanthropic ambition is that this young woman (Alexis Neiers) actually exists and even gave birth to her own reality show, "Pretty Wild." Though Watson is the most familiar face of the young characters (as well as Farmiga, Vera's sister), the story is really told from the perspective of Marc, played by up-and-comer Broussard. With the actor's humble and charismatic turn, Marc easily garners the most empathy out of the bunch, as he just wants to be accepted and have "A-list looks," and the film refreshingly never makes a big deal about the character's sexual orientation (he calls another male "hot" and tries on a pair of pumps). His long dance in front of a computer cam to Esther Dean's "Drop It Low" is both endearing and pitiful. Newcomer Chang also has her breakout role as the de facto ringleader and layers Rebecca as more than just a mean girl. Lastly, the casting of Leslie Mann is a real kick; she's sharp as Nicki's equally vacant but well-intentioned mom, who homeschools her girls, practices the philosophy of Rhonda Byrne's book "The Secret," and feeds them morning Adderall like multivitamins. 

As Coppola has tackled the unglamorous side of fame time and time again, "The Bling Ring" marks her snappiest and arguably most entertaining piece of work, especially when compared to the languid, melancholy slow-burn of "Somewhere." Studded with a killer soundtrack, including Sleigh Bells' poppy, bass-blaring "Crown on the Ground" in the opening scene as Rebecca says, "Let's go shopping," and an overall sense of beautiful craftsmanship, the film is worth its salt to be in the upper echelon of her outstanding oeuvre. Speaking of craftsmanship, the late, great cinematographer Harris Savides (who gets a credit dedication) and Christopher Blauvelt bring a low-key transcendence to the screen. One impressive set-piece, shot from the hills, very slowly pushes in toward a glass box house as Rebecca and Marc run through and steal valuables. Also, courtesy of Coppola's direction, there is a perp walk that cleverly plays like a cat walk with the paparazzi. Adding a degree of impact to this being based on true events, the heist in Paris Hilton's house was shot in her real house (with her permission, of course), the socialite's face being found on every throw pillow and in every picture frame.

In a way, "The Bling Ring" is the complementary flip side of Harmony Korine's hypnotic critique "Spring Breakers," released earlier this year by the same distributor, A24 Films. Half of the soulless chicks from "Spring Breakers" make the whole "Bling Ring" look like humanitarians, but together, these films would make an interesting double-bill on a skewed version of the American Dream. While it would've been nice to dig a little deeper into characterization over presenting each and every heist, "The Bling Ring" is no less barbed, provocative, or observant because of Coppola's choices. It not only shines like bling but has more insightful takeaway than any of these kids could comprehend.

Grade: A - 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Just Another Maniac Monday: Elijah Wood plays "Maniac" in exploitative scuzz-bucket remake


Maniac (2013)
89 min., not rated (but equivalent to NC-17).

It's a given that a horror film should be horrific, shocking, and uncomfortable, with the integrity to just go for broke, but then there are genre films that cross the line into exploitation. A remake of the notoriously grubby, ultraviolent 1980 slasher relic, which has since gained an underground cult following, "Maniac" is what it is—cruel, ugly, repellent, distasteful, and altogether unpleasant. (Aren't adjectives fun?) Clearly, that response is playing right into the hands of director Franck Khalfoun (2007's by-the-numbers yet efficient "P2"), but there's the non-appeal of paying moviegoers having to actually, you know, watch it. That "Maniac" has attracted attention for its first-person killing-spree approach proves that many have forgotten 1960's "Peeping Tom," 1974's "Black Christmas," the gliding, one-take POV opening in 1978's "Halloween," and the surplus of found-footage films. Hardly the psychologically fascinating character study it thinks it is, this Z-grade slasher pornography with experimental pretensions is boring, gratuitously nasty, and will be undeservedly controversial.

From the heavy-breathing POV of, yes, a maniac, we assume the eyes and skin of Frank (Elijah Wood), a Los Angeles mannequin restorer and store owner who lost his nymphomaniac mother last summer. We're spared nothing, as he preys on young women, attacks and kills them, scalps them with a hunting knife, and then staple-guns their bloodied hair to mannequins for his collection. There are even the times he vomits in a toilet bowl after a murder and cleans his knife in the kitchen sink. He goes on a date with a flirty, tattooed girl he meets on an Internet dating site, but while seated, he suffers a migraine, hallucinates, and then excuses himself to the bathroom. Even from there, she invites Frank back to her place and puts on Q Lazzarus' "Goodbye Horses" (its unnerving use in "The Silence of the Lambs" still unforgettable), which is even more of a sign that she's doomed. Then, as serendipity would have it, Frank meets a stunning French photographer named Anna (a fetching Nora Arnezeder), who shoots mannequins and strives to bring life to them for her new art opening. Can Anna be the one woman who can pacify his sociopathic urges?

Mercilessly grimmer and unflinchingly sicker than most audiences are willing to experience, "Maniac" isn't afraid to get its hands dirty, albeit to a fault. It isn't without a few effectively tense set-pieces, particularly when Frank stalks a dancer and chases her through an unpopulated subway station and parking lot, or when he sits next to a snobby art agent in a bathtub set to the operatic notes of "Ave Maria." But does that make it any less unwatchable or less exploitative for exploitation's sake? Guess. Outside of an unsettling, '80s-style synth-heavy score composed by Rob and a sensory, stream-of-consciousness quality about Maxime Alexandre's sleek, moody cinematography, there's no redeeming artistic value here besides repulsion for its own sake. Whether it's a selling point or a caveat, there's no skimping on gore here, the pre-title shock making that perfectly clear and going straight for the jugular because it's so quickly brutal. Fearlessly obliterating censorship and showcasing bang-up make-up effects, every slaying (stabbings and scalpings mostly) is hideously explicit and as realistic as one will ever find

Being co-penned by producers Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur (who are responsible for "High Tension" and the remake of "The Hills Have Eyes"), based on William Lustig's original film, there is very little to this one-note story, which mostly tracks Frank lurking the L.A. streets by van or on foot night after night to hunt the fairer sex. In this noir-ish world, the women are either poor, unsuspecting on-the-hoof victims or easy, naive, and just begging for it before they become victims themselves. Gradually, we're intended to empathize and understand what makes Frank tick, being raised none too well by a mother (America Olivo) who, in flashbacks, would have sex with men right in front of him when he was just a kid. So, yes, the creep has Mommy Issues and each woman he stalks and slices is, to him, his mother, but that's not insightful, it's just obvious. Haven't "Psycho," "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," and the Showtime series "Dexter" better examined the male gaze and the bleakest corners of a madman? This wouldn't be the first time the harmless-looking Wood has played a killer (he was creepy in "Sin City" as a cannibalistic serial killer who collected women's heads), but it's certainly the most disturbing and memorable. With Wood ruthlessly going against type and sinking to dark, deranged places as a twitchy, pathetic monster, his performance is nearly exclusively vocal (aside from his reflection in mirrors) and certainly an admirably brave feat.

Instead of being a horror film that gets under your skin and actually frightens with implied carnage, "Maniac" is really just a hardcore, voyeuristic, shamelessly misogynistic snuff exercise with artsy camera work. Allowing the viewer to live vicariously through a fetishistic serial killer for a day, it's a queasy, down-and-dirty sit that demands a bleach shower afterwards and is more akin to having a fly insistently buzz in your ear. Don't say you weren't warned.

Grade:

Monday, June 17, 2013

Chop. Splatter. Repeat. — "Hatchet III" hokey but hacks out a bloody, decent time



Hatchet III (2013)
81 min., not rated (but equivalent to NC-17).

Staunch horror junkies crave what they crave, and they obviously craved for more Victor Crowley doing what he does best. Indie writer-director Adam Green must not have known he'd have a series on his hands (or maybe he did) when his 2006 low-budget effort "Hatchet," a fun, cheeky, gleefully gory throwback to "Old-School American Horror," took the horror community by storm. What the witless, repetitious "Hatchet II" lacked in low-budget charm and brains made up for in over-the-top, crowd-cheering buckets of blood and gore, if that counts for something. Normally, another horror sequel (with a Roman numeral in the title) about an unstoppable, kill-happy "repeater" wouldn't sound like it could hack out the goods. Regardless, "Hatchet III" makes no bones about what it is an amusing, gloriously gory body-count movie. It might repeat itself but does its job better than expected.

Per usual, "Hatchet III" picks up from the final frame of "Hatchet II." Barely escaping with her life and finishing off the hideous, unkillable Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder), who has the face only a mother could love, heroine Marybeth (Danielle Harris) is suspected of committing Crowley's massacre and held in custody by skeptical Sheriff Fowler (Zach Galligan). Journalist/Fowler's ex-wife Amanda (Caroline Williams) is also an expert on the legend of Crowley, so she requests Marybeth's help because, natch, she's the only one who can make the murders stop in Louisiana swamp country. Here's a tip: don't try attaching yourself to any character because, most likely, no one will be around long enough before becoming steak tartare. Skulls get crushed like watermelons, viscera flows, and blood splatters like a geyser at Yellowstone National Park.

Screenwriter Green is back to the pen but has passed the directing torch to experienced camera operator BJ McDonnell, who makes his debut here. The pic is hokey and never scary, but the director is never any less unapologetic about delivering quick, nasty jolts and gruesome, blood-soaked kills, courtesy of practical effects and silicone, with the same severed-tongue-in-cheek tone. There is a sparing amount of winks and nudges without becoming an outright spoof, and there are fun little nuggets that call back to Green's original. The pacing is also snappier than ever; it isn't front-loaded with a feet-dragging wind-up before the slashing like the first and is never as uneven as the first sequel.

Scream queen Harris reprises her take-over role as Marybeth, looking weary but upping her pissed-off sass. Galligan, of "Gremlins" fame, broadly chews apart the scenery as much as Crowley does with his bare hands and weapons. Williams, who will always be plucky, spirited deejay Stretch from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2," is just as energetic and committed here as the exposition dumper. As a bonus, Rob Zombie favorite Haig turns up as an enjoyably ornery old man and creator Green continues his cameo appearance as that same drunken Mardi Gras partier. It's also kind of fun to see the longtime Jason Voorhees (Hodder) and the 2009 "Friday the 13th" remake's Jason (Derek Mears, playing a SWAT team leader) go head to head at one point.

Any horror fan knows that you have to go through a lot of horror pics to find a good one. Provided that you know bad acting and ticky-tacky effects (like the blood-spraying stumps) are often inherent to the fun of the genre, "Hatchet III" isn't what you'd call "good" or serious horror cinema, but, at the very least, it offers up a good time. As the alleged capper of this complete trilogy, it's purely a horror flick you can enjoy and then shrug off but still puts a pleasing stake (actually, a tree limb) into the series.

Grade: B -