Thursday, October 31, 2013

AARP Hangover: "Last Vegas" more eye-rolling than crowd-pleasing

Last Vegas (2013)
105 min., rated PG-13.

Judging by the nonstop howling at an advanced screening, "Last Vegas" will most likely be a hit in the mainstream, for whatever that's worth. After all, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline are four of the greatest acting legends in the biz and they surely deserve a lightweight, work-for-hire project, where they can cut loose and just have fun together in their late-sixties and mid-seventies. It sounds like a can't-miss proposition, right? The casting is pretty inspired, all four actors are amiable company, and the premise has potential for amusement, but, for a comedic star vehicle, it's not legendary by a long shot. Perma-tans, Viagra, hip replacements, fanny packs, generational gaps, and the complications of an automobile's power door locks are all fodder for comedy in this blah, middle-of-the-road piffle. It's eager to please as a broadly hilarious party, but when much of the humor is desperately hacky and infallible in producing groans and eye rolls as opposed to actual laughing, the fun isn't really rubbing off on the viewer. 

Billy, Paddy, Archie, and Sam grew up together as the closest of pals in Brooklyn, but that was 58 years ago. Now, Sam (Kline) is living the retired life in Naples, Florida, taking water aerobic classes with his wife (Joanna Gleason). Having suffered a stroke, Archie (Freeman) is now living in New Jersey with his overprotective son (Michael Ealy), daughter-in-law and his little granddaughter. Still residing in Brooklyn, Paddy (De Niro) is a recluse who doesn't leave his bathrobe or his apartment after losing his beloved wife years ago. Then there's the orange-skinned, hazelnut-haired Billy (Douglas): he's still living the rich playboy life in his modern Malibu home but finally ready to tie the knot with his girlfriend, who's half his age, after proposing at the unlikeliest of places (during his eulogy at a late buddy's funeral). This means getting the gang back together for a bachelor party in Las Vegas, but long-standing resentments will have to be resolved between Paddy and Billy since they both liked the same girl as young boys, before Paddy married her and Billy later never showed up at her funeral. Meanwhile, Sam is bent on putting a condom and Viagra pill (courtesy of his understanding wife) to use for a "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" weekend, and Archie just wants to party like it's 1959 again without being treated as if he's infirm.

Directed by Jon Turteltaub (he of the "National Treasure" movies and, long ago, "While You Were Sleeping" and "Cool Runnings") with a fondness for montages, "Last Vegas" is the safe, forced, and schmaltzy treatment of a story about reconnecting and fulfilling one's life at any age that could have worked. That's not to say that this had to be a sober drama and couldn't have been a good time, nothing more, but, despite a breezy pace and a few energetic song choices, director Turteltaub and writer Dan Fogelman (2012's "The Guilt Trip") don't really stick the landing on the jokes. The cleverest moment that was already revealed in the trailer and still earns a chuckle is the most simple: Archie plays sick in front of his son and then sneaks out of the house, going to jump out of the window, which, when the camera pulls out, is only on the first story. The plot can be telegraphed way in advance and predictability is officially locked in once Diana (Mary Steenburgen), a self-deprecating lounge singer and double love interest for both the head-butting Paddy and the soon-to-be-married Billy, enters the picture. As for a skirt-chasing subplot where Sam wants to get lucky with a younger babe and nearly scores, it's creepy and cringe-worthy. And haven't we just about had it with that clichéd contrivance where a character just happens to be listening in on a conversation he or she shouldn't be hearing? It's as if the film was simultaneously trying too hard while not trying at all.

The four headliners must have desired to work with each other (and host a poolside bikini contest in the context of the story, of course), while collecting a paycheck in the process, so they're already having a better time than the audience. They do have a comfortable chemistry together, but the material they're given to work with goes limp and discouragingly does them few favors. Freeman and Kline are given the most comic chances, and most of those chances consist of mugging, but that's more than what Douglas gets to do. De Niro is pretty much playing De Niro with that iconic scowl and sometimes looks like he'd rather be anyplace else, especially when half of the electronic-dance duo LMFAO thrusts his speedo-clad crotch in front of De Niro's face. However, the actor eventually finds a poignancy as a widower who can't let go. Outshining all of them is someone with different anatomical parts and her name is Mary Steenburgen, who glows even as a sexagenarian and steals the sharpest one-liners. Her lovely, ingratiating Diana is a retired Atlanta tax attorney who moved to Vegas to pursue her dream as a lounge singer. The watchably charismatic Romany Malco is fun as the MGM Aria's concierge who makes sure the foursome has a good time; "Entourage" co-star Jerry Ferrara comes in as a womanizing douche who later becomes the old gang's slave; and Roger Bart is always a caution, turning up here as a Madonna-impersonating transvestite with a non-stereotypical surprise.

Frequently tone-deaf, tacky, and constantly amused with itself, with so much bikini eye-candy being ogled by codgers who could be their grandfathers that it radiates an air of icky sexism, "Last Vegas" isn't that endearing and never quite as funny as it wants to be. It coasts along on the good will of its game cast and relies on playing Earth, Wind & Fire's infectious go-to wedding-reception anthem "September" to be crowd-pleasing. Also, there is the occasional smile and giggle, and it is admittedly fun to watch Morgan Freeman sincerely trying to tip a nightclub bouncer a ten-dollar bill and then getting a buzz from one Vodka Red Bull. Despite having the potential to receive a lot of fanfare with audiences of a certain age, none of it is enough to push "Last Vegas" above pandering mediocrity for mass consumption. It might be better than it looks from the trailers and TV spots, which is to say that it's generally harmless without being any good or worth your time.

Grade:  C - 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

For Old Sharts and Giggles: Crude, immature laughs are still laughs in "Bad Grandpa"

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013)
92 min., rated R.

A movie called "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa" doesn't really need a review and probably won't convert anyone into the pack of less discerning "Jackass" fans. It's either your thing or it's not. If watching in horror and/or amusement as Johnny Knoxville and his bravely lunatic buddies performed disgusting and dangerous stunts, including but never limited to dressing one's penis as a mouse to tease a snake, bonging a beer through the anus, and being dropped from a bungee while inside of a fully loaded PortaPotty, wasn't your cup of sunny delight, then chances are you won't be buying a ticket to "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa." Though the staged exploits are much less risky as far as the human body goes and never as inanely repulsive, writer-director Jeff Tremaine (he of all three "Jackass" features) and co-writers Knoxville and Spike Jonze cook up an R-rated quickie that's every bit as juvenile, un-PC, and low on the taste-o-meter as you'd expect.

There is something resembling a plot, but it's really just Knoxville, in old-age make-up, pulling pranks on the ordinary, unsuspecting public with a hidden-camera hook similar to "Candid Camera" or "Punk'd." 86-year-old Irving Zisman is excited to find out that his wife has passed away, seeing as how he hasn't received "any nookie since the '90s." At the funeral, his parole-violating daughter drops off 8-year-old grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll), expecting Irving to drive him cross-country in Nebraska and give the boy up to his deadbeat father in North Carolina. So, with Grandma's body in the trunk, Irving and Billy are on the road, paving it with inappropriate hijinks and searching for tail ("I might be too old to stir the gravy, but I can still lick the spoon," he tells one of his would-be prospects). When they're not crashing a wedding reception, disrupting a bingo parlor, running down a giant penguin mascot with the car, and invading a black male strip club, Irving and Billy will inevitably grow closer.

Pretty early on in "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa," when Irving gets his prosthetic penis stuck in a soda machine and asks for help from several passersby, the viewer will be able to make up his or her mind if the rest will be a hoot or an endurance test. It's crudely made, episodic in typical road-movie fashion, and, for better or for worse, there is a bit more story and structure here than what we're used to from any of the "Jackass" features. With a wire-thin story outline existing to hang a string of insolent pranks, it's going to be hit-and-miss for a feature-length movie (which isn't much different from an anthology film or a huge ensemble piece with intertwining stories). Some gags are decidedly better than others and a few bits end too quickly before scurrying to the next, but there are more hits than misses. The gullibility of two female postal workers is side-splitting. A scene at a bar with an anti-child abuse biker organization is the most uncomfortable. And wait until you see what Grandpa explodes onto a diner wall; it'll make even those usually repulsed by toilet humor spit out their Coca Cola. When the movie comes the closest to satire, it's in the grand finale at the Carolina Cutie Pie Pageantarguably the funniest bit, despite being somewhat given away in the trailer—where the gussied-up little girls and stage mothers with mouths agape are easily targeted. Before this, at the bingo parlor, the toothless, heavy-set women that Irving hits on to no avail are refreshingly not condescended in a mean-spirited way; the joke is still on them for being duped but they're just seen as real people playing bingo. Then, when the movie wants to be a little heartwarming, we're not really buying it. This is where the admirable decision to frame the jokes within a plot just seems odd and pointless. 

As Irving Zisman, Knoxville never loses character and always follows through in getting a reaction (he mortifies a fast-food drive-in worker by offering her a "serving of Irving"), but that doesn't mean we ever forget who it is under those fake wrinkles. The standout award, however, goes to 9-year-old Jackson Nicoll, who expands on the short amount of screen time he shared with Knoxville in last year's teen romp "Fun Size"; with fearless improvisational chops, he's spot-on in his timing and delivery. We see what he's made of from the opening scene where, in a law office waiting room reading a fishing magazine, he looks for a response from any adult next to him as he goes on about his crack-addicted mother going to jail. He gets to prank some strangers by himself, too, like when he goes looking for his "new daddy."

For 92 minutes, this barely-a-movie delivers what it promises, being outrageously devised with enough spontaneity and anything-goes ambition to not go stale. When Sacha Baron Cohen pulled the same confrontational style of mischief with 2006's "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" and 2009's "Brüno," he was ripping through Western America's xenophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, and homophobia with hilariously biting, inspired and shockingly crude results. "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa" isn't that sharp nor is it about anything, as Knoxville and his gang are mostly just skewering good taste and mining immature laughs from the reactions of out-on-the-joke bystanders, but they sure are good at it. It may be the definition of empty calories, but, on a very basic level, bears fruit when it comes to making you laugh your ass off.

Grade: B -

Friday, October 25, 2013

It's a Cold, Cold World: Deliciously vivid perfs and pulpy style can't always keep meandering "Counselor" on course

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

"The Counselor" could be a contender for the coldest movie of 2013. That's more of an observed fact than an actual criticism compared to the film's other problems that make it more of a frustrating experience than a rewarding one. With the impressive pedigree involvedPulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy makes his screenwriting debut under the hands of director Ridley Scott (2012's "Prometheus") and a white-hot array of on-screen talent—where could this go wrong? As merciless as a wire tightening around the neck, "The Counselor" appears to be an enticingly deceptive pulp thriller with all the noir ingredients in place, ready to percolate, until few of the pieces hold together and we're left waiting for the film to still find momentum and stay on course.

Michael Fassbender plays a charming, self-assured, suit-wearing defense attorney who's only known and addressed by everyone as "the Counselor." Working between the Texas/Mexico border and seemingly having it all, he's just bought a diamond engagement ring in Amsterdam for his girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz). He then decides to fund a drug deal and gets mixed up in the seedy, take-no-prisoners world of drug trafficking, which, naturally, comes with a handful of characters: perpetually smiling, loudly attired nightclub owner and drug dealer Reiner (Javier Bardem); Reiner's lustful, unashamedly heartless Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who loves nothing more than watching their two pet cheetahs chase down jackrabbits in the Texas savannas; and Canadian middleman Westray (Brad Pitt) who warns the Counselor of what kind of business he's getting himself into. "If you pursue this road that you've embarked on, you'll eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise — ones you didn't see coming at all," Reiner even tells him. As the drug deal begins to go sour and someone else has already set his or her own agenda in motion, the Counselor has his back to the wall and isn't just going down, but he's taking everyone down with him.

Before its first burst of ugly violence, "The Counselor" is more like a meandering, scattershot assemblage of literary dialogue exchanges and monologues inside of a convoluted noir plot. And as tastily stylized and intelligently written as the dialogue can be, one can just see McCarthy indulgently typing away on his first screenplay. It's really not until the leading up to a key moment with the Counselor on the phone with cartel member Jefe (Rubén Blades), who delivers a flowery, pretentiously philosophical warning about greed and grief being worthless when you've already made a deal with the devil, that it all just feels extremely stilted and too overwritten to bear. Par the course of McCarthy's previous screen adaptations (2009's starkly realized "The Road" and 2007's brilliant "No Country for Old Men"), the climate of the story is savage, fatalistic and bleaker than bleak, and there are some despicably greedy people here who all learn the hard way that "actions create consequences," as one character helpfully spells out. No one is safe, but who we're supposed to actually be rooting for is a fair question.

With his character only known as "Counselor," the steely, magnetic Fassbender is playing more of a conduit than a character worthy of rooting interest. Fortunately, he continues to command the screen with an intensely smoldering presence that, by default, you want to see how the Counselor's deal pans out. He's not really a bad person, but he digs himself a hole with one really bad decision; his motivation for going through with any of it will give pause and Fassbender slightly overcompensates in his melodramatic final moment, mucus included. He and the warm, stunningly photogenic Cruz, as the completely innocent Laura, certainly share a sizzling, very intimate opening scene of arousal under the sheets (literally, they're under the white, nearly transparent sheets), but it's too bad there isn't more for Cruz to do than to eventually become a pawn in this game of greed. 

Bardem relishes in the flamboyant part of tan, wild-haired Reiner, a real character whom can be added to the actor's gallery of colorful creations with a hairstyle more distinct than the last. Reclaiming his white cowboy hat from Scott's own "Thelma & Louise," Pitt is cryptic, laid-back and charismatic, and adopts the rhythm of McCarthy's language most organically. With her silver press-on nails, single gold tooth, and a cheetah-spotted tattoo sprawled down the side of her back, Diaz gives herself completely to the fascinating role of Malkina, a sexual being who's not afraid to show it (or speak about it to a priest for her first Catholic confession). Not having a role this juicy since her Julie Gianni in 2001's "Vanilla Sky," the actress is deliciously fierce as this slinky, string-pulling sociopath, leaping off the screen like one of her pet cheetahs. McCarthy probably envisioned Diaz when he wrote Malkina, and in retrospect, you wish the movie revolved around her. P.S. What she performs on the windshield of a yellow Ferrari convertible as her boyfriend watches might be the most memorable (and titillating) bit in the film, and, thanks to Bardem's recount of that night, very funny. Other noteworthy actors are given a scene apiece, too. John Leguizamo, who used to be an interesting character actor, is now being given cameos, showing up here in one scene. Rosie Perez also gets one snappily written scene while smoking a cigarette as a Texas inmate represented by the Counselor and only wants her son to be taken care of, and then turns clairvoyant (or something) in a dialogue-free bit.

After spinning its wheels for an hour with less-than-airtight plotting and purple prose too writerly for its own good on the screen, the film is still adorned with vivid performances and director of photography Dariusz Wolski's sleek, garishly lush cinematography that pops in every frame. In the end, "The Counselor" is too much of a disappointment, albeit not without moments of watchability and near-greatness to stand as an interesting mess. It's bravely vicious and uncompromising in entering the darkest corners of human nature with its final touches of grisly irony and inevitability, but it underlines its themes in self-important spoken word instead of exploring them in action.

Grade: C +

Thursday, October 24, 2013

It's What's for Dinner: "We Are What We Are" an elegant, macabre feast, if you can stomach it

We Are What We Are (2013)
100 min., rated R.

In 2011, gifted writer-director-editor Jim Mickle put out the stark, gritty, but mostly dull post-apocalyptic horror indie "Stake Land." Nevertheless, the film stood as a future calling card of promising talent, more so than some A-listers, and he was bound to make a more cohesively successful film his next time out. Well, "We Are What We Are" is Mickle's follow-up (co-written with his "Stake Land" writing partner Nick Damici) and it's quite rewarding, but it's probably best to remain hush-hush about the particulars in review. Beautifully macabre, elegantly moody, and methodically suggestive, this American Gothic horror-drama for the whole family is never an explicit, viscous splatterfest right out of the gate and it's more thematically disturbing in its restraint and what little it shows.

During an afternoon rainstorm in rural Delaware County, New York, Emma Parker (Kassie DePaiva) goes into town for a few things at the food store, only to drown in a flooded ditch and never return. Back at her secluded farmhouse, her daughters, eldest Iris (Ambyr Childers) and 14-year-old Rose (Julia Garner), watch over little brother Rory (Jack Gore) and fast ("No flesh, no fruit, no grain" and that goes for a bowl of Sugar Pops) because it's what they do. The stern patriarch, Frank (Bill Sage), takes his time grieving over his wife but must keep up with his family traditions, as the close-knit Parker clan prepares for a feast that dates back to the 18th century. Being the eldest sibling, Iris takes on the responsibility of the matriarch (and even gets to be the one to identify her mother). Rose wishes they were like everyone else, but, as Daddy says, God has chosen them to be this way and "we've kept our tradition, in its purity." Meanwhile, a teenage girl goes missing and the local doctor, Doc Barrow (Michael Parks), whose daughter has also been missing, finds a human bone that washes up in a creek behind his house. Will the family's untraditional supper be their last?

It may not be an original property (it's based on a 2010 Mexican film), but Mickle makes it all his own, so it might as well be. With its quietly patient, unhurried gait and the director trusting his audience, "We Are What We Are" tells its story day by day, keeping us in the dark for quite a while and hinting at what it is the Parkers' religious family traditions involve. It also takes itself quite seriously with a morose, mournful tone for a story set in the gorgeously damp Catskills and yet never teeters into the realm of camp. As it carefully and gradually takes its time simmering and building dread, it gradually gets more grotesque. What culminates at the Parker dinner table isn't just a queasily gory shock for shock's sake; it feels earned and there's a catharsis behind it but it still isn't for the squeamish. All along, too, the film is an excellent mood piece through the crisp, strikingly evocative lens of cinematographer Ryan Samuel.

Mickle also casts all the right faces for his characters inside and outside of the Parker circle. As Iris and Rose, the eye-catching Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner both create empathetic oddballs whose humanity shines through when they question why they have to fast and go through what they have to do. These girls don't have much control over how they were brought up and that their father won't let them waver from his beliefs either is terrifyingly tragic. Bill Sage infuses Frank Parker with a low-key paternal warmth and a growing rage that comes out when outsiders try to interrupt his customs. Kelly McGillis also has a strong turn as the Parkers' compassionate neighbor Marge who lives in a trailer with her dog.

The smartest type of horror film is always about something else besides slayings and pure evil. Going in step with "The Woman" and the most recent "Jug Face," the film is about how religion can brainwash the young and innocent in a family unit. Without a jump scare in sight (okay, there's one, but it's organic within the young Parker boy's fear of a "monster"), "We Are What We Are" is adult-minded, art-house horror, the kind that creeps under the viewer's skin and doesn't forget to deliver the genre goods. This demands the attention of not only connoisseurs of well-done horror but of well-done filmmaking.

Grade: B +

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Things to Do in a Spooky House When You're Dead: Novel premise only makes for adequate mystery-chiller in "Haunter"

Haunter (2013) 
97 min., rated PG-13.

"The Sixth Sense" obviously goosed the "I'm already dead" twist in the supernatural horror subgenre, but director Vincenzo Natali and writer Brian King show their hand early on in "Haunter," a classy, atmospheric, densely constructed mystery-chiller that, in reverse, ends up being more interesting in its journey than in its destination. Natali has proven to be a promising genre talent whose directorial filmography never treads one note, from 1997's imaginatively cool "Cube" being about the imprisonment of strangers inside an endless maze of interlocking cubical chambers and 2009's alternately intelligent, squirmy, and bat-shit crazy "Splice" taking on a scientists-tampering-with-nature premise to provocative heights. To get a handle on what his latest film wants to be, if "Groundhog Day" merged with "The Shining" and "The Others," it'd look something like "Haunter."

The year is 1985, during the Reagan Era, and it's the day before angsty Lisa Johnson (Abigail Breslin) turns sweet 16. She wakes up to the voice of kid brother Robbie (Peter DaCunha) on a walkie talkie, telling her he's found treasure. Lisa's mother Carol (Michelle Nolden) makes pancakes for breakfast and then tells her daughter to do the laundry, which Lisa begrudgingly follows through on because no matter how many times she tells her parents, clothes keep going missing. The fog is so thick outside that the sour-faced teen has to stay in with her All-American family, while the phones are out and father Bruce (Peter Outerbridge) hopelessly tries fixing their station wagon in the garage. After that, it's macaroni and cheese for lunch and meatloaf for dinner, and time for Lisa to practice the same piece from "Peter and the Wolf" on her clarinet, while her family watches "Murder, She Wrote" downstairs. Day after day, Lisa is stuck with a dire case of déjà vu because, well, she and her family are dead, but her parents are the last to realize it. A repetitive loop becomes the least of her worries when she starts noticing major changes in the routine and then starts following the breadcrumbs. Thanks to an unscrupulous alleged worker (Stephen McHattie) from the phone company, Lisa learns that she shouldn't open doors that were meant to be closed, but it's too late for that.

With its distinguished conceit inverting the supernatural trope of the invisible living haunting the visible dead "Beetlejuice"-style, "Haunter" could be deemed to be one of the more compelling permutations in the sometimes rote supernatural horror sub-genre. From its graceful calligraphy title sequence that follows a butterfly through a basement of jars on shelves and overall disinterest in relying solely on musical stings synchronized with jump scares, this ghost story has the exceptional atmosphere down and is most absorbing as a morality-cum-mortality tale from the point-of-view of a teenage girl who's frustrated to keep repeating the same day without escape. As the understandably disaffected Lisa, Breslin is quite good, being up to the task of carrying an entire film and opening herself up emotionally. Nolden and Outerbridge are fine with what they have to do as her parents, but the latter is less convincing when he has to go over the top. No matter, the scraggly McHattie (he of 2009's little-seen but very worthwhile not-really-zombie pic "Pontypool") picks up the pieces, coming off downright creepy in defining the role of "The Pale Man."

Stuck in the house, so to speak, the film is a delightfully spooky chamber piece that draws you in with its methodical pacing and occasionally amusing details. It's more effective when it's being this in the first half and, in the last quarter, there's a set-piece shot as an old movie, but, once all the pieces of the puzzle start getting sorted out, it shifts into an adequate, needlessly complicated, and unfortunately hokey Nancy Drew story resembling the authorship of R.L. Stine. In dramatizing the metaphysical world, director Natali achieves less eeriness when overdoing the strobe-lighting effect, and a few poorly digital exterior shots around the Johnsons' fog-enveloped house tend to betray the film's old-fashioned look and approach. Also, the last scene is more treacly than it needed to be. An exception to the rule that most tame, gore-free PG-13 horror films have to be kid-gloved and lame, "Haunter" isn't that bad, but it won't prevent one from getting a good night's sleep, either.

Grade: C +

Saturday, October 19, 2013

They're Not Gonna Laugh At You: Maturely remade "Carrie" still shocks and resonates

Carrie (2013)
100 min., rated R.

It would be very easy to dismiss "Carrie" as just another cheap, needless (horror) remake for a new generation. For starters, the ill-advised ad campaign is "You will know her name." Unless you've been living in a prayer closet all this time, virtuoso filmmaker Brian De Palma already made the title character's name known with his 1976 classic, which is definitely of its time but holds up as a resonant, shocking, and time-tested horror tragedy about bullying, high school alienation, religious fanaticism, teen development, and the worst prom ever. Being the first adaptation of Stephen King's first-published novel, that film has been so steeped in our cinematic culture, from there being an unjustifiable quasi-sequel with 1999's "The Rage: Carrie 2," a 2002 TV miniseries, and, of all things, an Off-Broadway musical and its revivals. On one hand, come thirty-seven years later, if it ain't broke, why fix it? On the other hand, there's no music video director calling the shots this time but independent-minded director Kimberly Peirce, who's most notable for 1999's searing "Boys Don't Cry" and hasn't made a film since her 2008 war drama "Stop-Loss." Pierce isn't trying to fix anything or gild the lily; simply, she's telling King's story with a grounded, sensitive humanity and disturbing darkness while still respecting De Palma's work. You can tell she has so much compassion for her heroine that milking the horror-remake cash cow never corrupted her mind. So, blood-thirsty fans of the original, put your pitchforks away: a new "Carrie" exists and it's more than able to stand on its own two feet.

A mature and respectable retelling of the teen drama-cum-horror tragedy, "Carrie" isn't the watered-down copy-and-paste job that many feared it might be. Updated with the relevance of social media, which can make bullying all the more cruel, the film rings heartbreakingly true in its milieu of high school, even as it's hitting all the same story beats we already know. This making three for her banner of horror remakes, Chloë Grace Moretz plays Carrie White, the meek, put-upon outcast at Ewen High School who's been raised, more like sheltered, by her evangelical seamstress mother, Margaret (Julianne Moore). Her high school torment worsens the day she gets her first period in the girls' locker room, pleading for help as she thinks she's dying. The other girls throw tampons at her and petty, malicious classmate Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) captures the whole incident on her phone. As caring gym teacher Miss Disjarden (Judy Greer) breaks it up and explains the poor girl that what she's experiencing with her body is normal, Carrie also learns she has the ability to move objects with her mind. As prom approaches, Chris' best friend, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), feels guilty and has a change of heart, deciding to give up her unforgettable night and convince boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie as his date. This act of kindness gives Chris ammo, with the help of delinquent boyfriend Billy Nolan (Alex Russell), to concoct an even bigger and crueler prank. Of course, just as Carrie is feeling that she fits in for the first time and believes it's not another trick, she really finds her backbone and the ultimate revenge in her telekinetic powers that make her special and dangerous.

Credited to Roberto Aguierre-Sacasa (TV's "Glee") and Lawrence D. Cohen (the sole scribe behind the 1976 forebearer), the screenplay fine-tunes and nourishes the Whites' relationship, as well as fleshes out Carrie's tormentors and allies to build more context for their motives. An unsettling opening birth scene, where Margaret thinks she's dying from cancer before a baby emerges, is fresh and makes for a pitch-perfect parallel to Carrie's menstruation and telekinesis that comes full circle in the end. Though many of the lines from De Palma's version are left intact and feel anachronistic (i.e. "I can see your dirty pillows"), Pierce doesn't seem to be going for overt lip service as much as a faithful translation of Stephen King's novel. While the vengeful trajectory of the tale is no longer a surprising one, the filmmakers still judiciously inject a classical building of unease instead of just rushing to get to the inevitable climax at the prom. Everything leading up to Tommy and Carrie taking the stage as prom king and queen is touchinga nice touch is having Tommy's friend's date who doesn't go to that school genuinely compliment Carrie's home-made dress—and then tense and wildly menacing once the bucket of pig's blood drops and certain people get what's coming to them. There's even a nastily satisfying tweak in how Chris gets her just desserts.

Without shortchanging Peirce's direction, the two valiant lead performances are what keeps the spine of the story and its universal themes potent as ever. When Sissy Spacek played the frail, almost-alien Carrie White, she was 27. Chloë Grace Moretz is actually 16 years old, one reason why she's so in-tune to the fears and sensations of becoming a young woman who just wants to be accepted. When we first meet Carrie, who sheepishly stands to the side of the pool's shallow end in a game of water volleyball during gym class, she immediately has our emotional investment. At first blush, Moretz would seem to be too pretty, too confident and too precocious to become Carrie White, but she crushes anyone's preconceived notions. Earning our sympathy, pulling off just enough vulnerability without falling to pieces, and then biting back with a palpable inner (and outer) fire, the teenage actress is captivating and proves she's the most versatile of her generation. Then there's Julianne Moore, who completely seizes the monstrous role of Margaret White that was frighteningly introduced by Piper Laurie. She could have played the character as a broad, scenery-chewing Bible-thumping zealot and instead finds her own nuances (and a touch of self-flagellation), fiercely playing an unfit mother so scarily warped and out of touch in her beliefs of sin, laden with guilt and regret, but loving her daughter so much that she'll protect her from experiencing or knowing anything about the real world. Forgetting about the baggage that comes with retelling a well-known story, both actresses interpret their characters with a refreshing contrast from Spacek and Laurie's Oscar-nominated turns. Strong support is there, too, from those playing Carrie's vicious/kind-hearted peers and faculty members. Portia Doubleday bites into the role of Chris, adding more shadings and walking the line of a mean girl, a daddy's girl, and an evil psycho. Initially, Gabriella Wilde and Ansel Elgort, as the more empathetic Sue and Tommy, come off merely as faceless Hollister models but, as these two show their selfless true colors, they're ultimately solid. Last but not least, Judy Greer adds personality to all of her scenes as Miss Disjarden, a sly casting choice that probably wasn't lost on Peirce if she saw the actress early on in 1999's "Jawbreaker," which shares revenge at the high school prom.

Once the nutty carnage kicks in and continues at the White household, a few of the bigger visual effects might be too overblown, threatening to take the viewer out of the moment. Also, the weak coda isn't much of a rival to De Palma's startling final scare. However, one can forget minor debits when director Kimberly Peirce deftly captures the essence and emotional undercurrent of the story with her own stirring vision. She also knows how to make a stylish-looking film without color filters or split screens, utilizing the classy lensing of Steve Yedlin ("Looper") and Marco Beltrami's foreboding score. Sure, nothing can hold a candle to the source—after all, it was there first—but, when so many lazy, slick, corporate-made reduxes suffer from a dearth of creative inspiration, 2013's "Carrie" offers enough reasons to belong in this world, too.

Grade: B +

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Honest to Blah: Diablo Cody's "Paradise" a bland pit stop

Paradise (2013)
86 min., rated PG-13.

The directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, "Paradise" saw a quiet debut on DirecTV's video-on-demand platform at the end of the summer. It's not the most unusual distribution scheme, now that movies are given early releases on iTunes and other VOD services, and given the quality of the zingy scribe's first movie, one's living room might be a better alternative than schlepping to the multiplex and shelling out the big bucks. Cody first impressed with the 2007 winner "Juno" and continued to keep her fresh, distinct voice heard in other scipts with 2009's totally undercelebrated "Jennifer's Body" and 2011's brutally scissor-sharp "Young Adult," so with that spotless track record, it's just too bad that expectations should be tempered to something as cloyingly earnest and disappointingly benign as her inaugural time behind the camera.

In small-town Montana, 21-year-old Lamb Mannerheim (Julianne Hough) was once a good Christian girl, until surviving a plane crash that left her scarred physically and spiritually. After denouncing God in front of her conservative parents and the entire congregation, she packs up her suitcase (and her "L.L. Bean tote bag full of cash") and heads off to the city of all sin Las Vegas. Arriving at a saloon where she takes the first drink of her life, Lamb befriends womanizing but non-threatening bartender William (Russell Brand) and down-and-out but wise lounge singer Loray (Octavia Spencer). They take the wide-eyed little lamb under their wing and go out for a safe night around Paradise, the real Vegas. On Lamb's quest to "experience worldly pleasures for the first time" like "your basic abominations," she gets a tattoo, which is merely a dot; she cuts her hair about an inch shorter; Loray and William show her a nudie magazine from an adult bookstore; and they go zip-lining! Lamb isn't an atheist now; she's just trying to live a world she never knew and gather her own beliefs.

Made with nothing but the purest heart, "Paradise" does get off to a biting start. Lamb stands at the pulpit of her church. Instead of delivering an inspirational speech, she shares her newfound faith that there is no God, that she plans to vote Democrat, and will leave for Sin City to gamble, dance, drink alcohol, and "frolic with homosexuals." But then . . . the film seems to be taken over by the Disney Channel merged with an evangelical Christian-aimed label. It's like a "Wizard of Oz" fable, with a paid but nonsexual session between Lamb and a prostitute (Kathleen Rose Perkins) in a club bathroom stall (don't ask), and there are certainly hints of Cody's trademark snark, clever/overwritten mon mots, and some Vegas satire, but it's all so blandly formulaic and as innocuous as an already-declawed kitten when it needed more of an edge. Everyone feels like either a namby-pamby archetype, a screenplay construct, or a really nice person.

If singing and dancing were part of her skill set in "Footloose" and "Rock of Ages," Hough continued to show her bright charisma and more of what she could do in "Safe Haven." Here, as Lamb, she comes across very sweet and affecting. It's still baby steps in her acting career, and even when Lamb sometimes feels too unbelievably credulous, the cutie-patootie star (even with burn scars) has an undeniable warmth and ease on camera and makes Cody's often snappy dialogue feel like her own. As Loray, Spencer is an invaluable presence and brings levity, as she always does, even poking fun at her actual function in the film as the "Magical Negro" (a plot device the character explains to Lamb from being a part-time film student). Also, Brand acts on the fringe between unctuous and warm, but he's actually much more restrained here in a good way. Alas, Holly Hunter and a shaved Nick Offerman are let down by the screenplay, being given short shrift and only appearing in the bookend scenes as Lamb's God-fearing parents.

Anyone is bound to argue, but Cody at least approaches the character of Lamb Mannerheim (sure, the name is a little on-the-nose and too cute) with a different, slightly less quippy and cynical voice than either Juno MacGuff, Jennifer Check, or Mavis Gary. She's more naive and more outwardly charming, like an unthreatening alien exposed to a whole new planet. Unfortunately, rather than leaving one feel as if they've been on a journey with Lamb, "Paradise" feels like vanilla-flavored cotton candy that's nothing to write home about. Hough is like a shining light, and Spencer and every other Cody line count as bright spots, but the best that can be said about it is that it's pleasantly sunny and not an awful way to spend 86 minutes; it's just not that worthwhile.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Open Water: When tense "Captain Phillips" ebbs and flows, Hanks anchors it

Captain Phillips (2013)
134 min., rated PG-13.

En route to Mombasa, Kenya, in April of 2009, Captain Richard Phillips and his crew aboard a cargo freighter, the Maersk Alabama, were approached by four armed Somali pirates in skiffs. The former fishermen eventually made their way on board, hijacking the ship and looking for money. While a few others were held at gun point and the rest of the crew hid in the engine room, Phillips tried distracting the pirates. The merchant mariner later made it out alive with a little help from the Navy, but it wasn't all calm waters. The captain's fate is hardly a spoiler or equal to reading the last few pages of a novel because (1) the film is based on a true story, where the outcome should be public knowledge, and (2) the real Captain Phillips wrote the book, "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea," co-written with Stephan Talty, that provided the basis for the film. Proof that the suspense isn't in how the story ends but how it gets there, the non-fiction thriller "Captain Phillips" knows how to hold you hostage.

Director Paul Greengrass, most notable for 2006's devastatingly cathartic "United 93" and the second and third "Bourne" movies, succeeds in telling a fact-based story, not unlike "Apollo 13," the aforesaid 9/11 docudrama, and last year's Best Picture "Argo," whose preordained conclusions barely mattered as long as there was tension. The filmmaker is also known (or, some might say, infamous) for his kinetic, hand-held style of shooting and penchant for ultra-tight close-ups, but, courtesy of Barry Ackroyd's crisply visceral photography, it comes in handy here, serving the sea-set docudrama and generating jittery, you-are-there urgency. For once, the unsteady camera never distracts or overpowers the inherent drama. And when those skiffs are first sighted, Greengrass tightens the screws so skillfully that you almost believe the pirates won't make it to the ship, until they do. For a long time, the tension grows steadily, coming to a boil, and then, once the action moves to a lifeboat, it ebbs and flows before building up again to its rousing climax.

When the film opens with Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) driving to the airport with his nurse wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), it's not only an economical setup for what he's temporarily leaving in Vermont but setup for Foreshadowing and Geopolitical Commentary in husband and wife's "big wheel's a-turnin'" conversation. The actors are such pros that they underplay it, but the way the scene is written feels a bit transparent and less than authentic. Through no fault of her own, significant actress Keener is slighted with maybe five minutes of screen time, as she hugs her husband goodbye and the film never returns to her again. Also, the Alabama crew members, though well played by a few recognizable faces (including Chris Mulkey and Corey Johnson), are mostly interchangeable. Better is Barkhad Abdi, a real-life Somalian native who was driving limos before being cast as emaciated lead pirate Muse/Skinny. He's not a professional actor and not for a second does he feel like he's acting, which is very much a good thing. Rounding out the other three are Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman, and Mahat M. Ali, but Abdi is so chillingly intimidating and yet vulnerable in his debut and gets the most shadings of humanity. Screenwriter Billy Ray (2012's "The Hunger Games") is generally unbiased in his point-of-view of the Somali pirates, not dehumanizing them all as evil, bug-eyed monsters but as troubled human beings who get brutal when they're desperate.

Naturally, Hanks anchors the film. A movie star with intelligence instead of muscle, he is the ultimate everyman. As depicted in the film, Phillips is kind of a ordinary, all-business blank and he's not really his crew's idea of a hero, but one still believes he'd go down with his ship. Hanks finds so much relatability, resourcefulness, and overall subtlety in the role, especially when trying to earn the fearsome pirates' trust while also hoping to outsmart them. Before the pirates attack, he does a safety-precaution inspection and drill, and lets the rest of the crew know when their coffee break is over. Right after the first skiff sighting, he also takes the time to send a brief e-mail to his wife, a quietly touching moment that packs on an extra sense of portent. It seems to be a steadfast, if all-business, piece of acting from Hanks, and then the powerful final scene hits. After a shell-shocked, emotionally spent Phillips remained a hostage for four days in a cramped lifeboat with his life on the line and little to no water to drink, every emotion floods out of him and we feel it all in that shattering, cathartic moment. As Hanks' portrayal of the real-life man comes full circle, it might be the actor's most vivid and affectingly raw work since 2000's "Cast Away." 

Resolutely credible, intensely rattling and often exhaustingly tense, "Captain Phillips" mostly resists Hollywood embellishment and "America, Fuck Yeah!" jingoism for the sake of straightforward storytelling and suspense. It is simplicity with a little human meat on its bones and a finely drawn subtext of globalization, contrasting the seamen's Western world with the desperation of the Third World. If the film doesn't always feel as taut as it could have been, Hanks always brings the ship back on course and makes it a more cathartic experience.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Weirdest Place on Earth: "Escape from Tomorrow's" daring, sinister ideas and backstory make up for small budget

Escape from Tomorrow (2013) 
90 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

One almost wonders what kind of film "Escape from Tomorrow" would be if it weren't shot with a restrictive budget of only $650,000 and not so secretly, but that could probably never happen, given first-time writer-director Randall Moore's aims and attitude toward Disney World. The mystique of it all is that Moore covertly shot his feature debut at both Disney World and Disneyland via iPhones and handheld cameras without location permits, impressing audiences at this year's Sundance Film Festival from how he got away with making it. First and foremost, the film is a cynical, provocative indictment of the corporate juggernaut and its promotion of widespread child-like joy. It's also a tale of adult paranoia and familial crisis through a hallucinatory nightmare, slapping demonic faces onto the chirpy animatronic children of the "It's a Small World" boat ride and seeing the pure and wholesome Disney Princesses as Asian businessmen-serving trollops. A daringly unsafe, disturbingly sinister, and curiously surreal low-budget coup, "Escape from Tomorrow" might have been more successful as a short film or a behind-the-scenes documentary, but it's here and can't really go unnoticed.

There's always been something a wee bit weird, creepy, and cult-ish about the cloyingly sanitized Magical Kingdom. It's a magical place, especially for the young and young at heart, but, beyond all of the smiles, fun rides, and fantasy, there is a dark, maleficent, even erotic underbelly, especially in writer-director Moore's mind. The "Twilight Zone" narrative begins when the paunchy Jim (Roy Abrahmsohn) gets a call from his boss who tells him he's fired. It being the last day of his family vacation at Orlando, Florida's Disney World, he decides to keep the news to himself and head out to the park with shrewish wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and their two kids, Elliot (Jack Dalton) and Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez). On the monorail with his family, Jim spots two giggly, forever-hand-holding French underagers, who keep popping up in his wandering eye view, and follows them. Then, going from "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" to "It's a Small World," he starts seeing surreal visions of the ride characters and his family. Throughout the day, as Jim and Emily trade off kids and go their separate ways, the father and husband can't stop tailing the two pretty teens. Even after a lollipop-giving nurse warns Jim and his daughter of the cat flu and Jim's tryst with a flirtatious single mom who might be up to something wicked, things get weirder and weirder from there. 

Strangely fascinating not only from imagining how it was made but how it unfolds into delirium, "Escape from Tomorrow" is so ballsy, warped, and effectively ominous in its satirical obliteration of "The Happiest Place on Earth" that one will be chomping at the bit to hear the currently mummed Disney lawyers' reactions. Before everything goes to hell, the film depicts early on how trekking through the park is already a bit of a nightmare for parents, trying to beat the crowds and please their children. In a less conventional sense, both Jim and Emily are unlikable and deserve smacks to the face for different reasons. He's selfish and lecherous, and she's just an audience-annoying nag (she resists every attempt Jim makes at public displays of affection and later scolds him when he gets her the wrong necklace: "You got me, Dumbo? I said Minnie Mouse, Jim!"). Abrahmsohn and Schuber, as Jim and Emily, aren't the most seasoned thespians, but they're competent enough in painting a couple who hasn't been happy as long as they can remember. However, since the film is playing on a universal rite of passage such as a trip to Disney and subverting its sanitized image, their lack of appeal serves the film's purpose in saying that not everyone at the park is perfectly cheery all the time.

Given the guerrilla, on-the-fly filmmaking tactics, the film is decidedly rough around the edges, showing its budgetary limitations with the use of green screen for second-unit footage and some disjointed editing. But, despite not being a polished technical showcase, the notion that it was made at all is pretty incredible. With a gorgeous monochrome palette and ghoulishly bizarre imagery, Moore and cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham manage to strip the magical landscape of its cheer and color, conveying a nightmarish phantasmagoria. Composer Abel Korzeniowski also deserves major props for combining the soaring strings of Old Hollywood into a sensory work of menace. Moore's ideas about imagination, perception, paranoia, disillusionment and a manufactured, uber-happy facade for commercialism and something nefarious are nothing short of admirable, either. The audacious execution of those ideas can even be darkly amusing. For instance, "Wow, it's a giant testicle," Jim comments when he and his family approach the Spaceship Earth ball at Epcot, which could be hiding a mad scientist inside. Those turkey legs sold at the park vendors? They could really be emu meat. 

However, even if David Lynch might be envious he didn't think of the inspired and controversial concept first, "Escape from Tomorrow" is ultimately curtailed by adding up to less than it should and getting almost too outlandish for its own good. Does Moore want us to take this family as pawns for satire or genuinely care about their fates? Satirically, it works; dramatically, there is little impact. In the final analysis, though, where Moore faults in some of the drama and less-than-assured pacing, he does achieve an unsettling, unwholesome dream and quite the ambitious stunt for the rule-breaking experimental crowd. It's an oddity destined to polarize audiences that actually seek it out, and if you don't know what to make of it, you will definitely have some second thoughts about taking your kids to the so-called "Happiest Place on Earth." At least the hedonistic Spring Break is what it is.

Grade: B - 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Back to the Grind: Joke loses steam quickly in "Machete Kills"

Machete Kills (2013) 
107 min., rated R.

Who knew that what started as a hilariously crowd-cheering faux trailer for 2007's "Grindhouse," Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's double feature of a drive-in opus, would inspire a feature-length movie, let alone a sequel? Director Rodriguez somehow filled out the joke with 2010's "Machete," which was a blast of brazenly schlocky, giddily violent and excessive trash with a wink. By the end of that film, Rodriguez promised "Machete Kills" and "Machete Kills Again," and, well, for the former, he didn't break his promise. This time, the exploitation driver is pushing it to the brink and spreading a tight trailer too thin. If anyone is wondering at what point does a movie that's supposed to be a deliberately bad and self-consciously goofy B-movie homage actually become a chore to watch, "Machete Kills" makes a strong case.

Last time we rode with federal-agent-turned-badass Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo), he rode off into the sunset with Migration Customs Enforcer and girlfriend Sartana (Jessica Alba). Now, after she is slain during an ambush with the military selling weapons to a drug cartel, Machete meets with President Ratchcock (Charlie Sheen, or, as he's introduced under his birth name, Carlos Estevez). He's promised American citizenship and his criminal record wiped clean if he takes out split-personality madman Marcos Mendez (Demian Bichir), who has a bomb trigger attached to his ticker and a missile aimed at Washington, D.C. With beauty pageant bombshell Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard) appointed as his undercover handler, Machete is off to the U.S./Mexico border to grab Mendez. Of course, along the way, he falls into the crosshairs of bordello madame Desdemona (Sofía Vergara), who exacts revenge on every man for being a man, and a chameleonic bounty hunter with an ever-changing face. All along, though, the real bad guy is arms-dealing mastermind Luther Voz (Mel Gibson) who's launched another terror conspiracy.

Something is off when the aesthetically scratchy fake coming attraction of "Machete Kills Again…In Space" comes off being more consistently gonzo, campy, and outrageously fun in a lickety-split 3 minutes than the real 107-minute main attraction itself. Ridiculously violent and just plain ridiculous, "Machete Kills" is too much of a good thing that you can just see Rodriguez throwing everything at the wall with sheer abandon and little care. Don't be led astray, there are moments of unbridled lunacy and amusing overkill (a bit with a man's intestines and a helicopter propeller, the use of an "inside out" ray gun, and a little play time with a Swiss Army machete spring to mind), but it all runs out of steam as a grindingly padded feature. Robert Rodriguez and screenwriter Kyle Ward surely shoot their wad with more story threads, which means shoehorning in more gimmicky celebrity cameos than they know what to do with.

The 69-year-old Danny Trejo is being Danny Trejo, stoically deadpan and craggy-faced as always; here as Machete, he never cracks a smile or sheds a tear, not even after he's just lost his girlfriend. Michelle Rodriguez makes a return as one-eyed taco-stand vendor/revolutionary leader Luz, but she doesn't show up until late in the game, only bringing anything in her stand-off with the sexy, cheeky Heard, who more than holds her own. Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas make up one bizarre character, taking the unmaskings from "Scooby-Doo" to a literal level in one of the film's few creative ideas. The rest of the cast is just okay, showing up in no-account roles and nothing more. Mel Gibson is obviously relishing the opportunity to ham it up, but the part of Voz could have been played by anyone. Charlie Sheen, or Carlos Estevez, playing an unlikely POTUS is funny in concept, but there's really no humor in him poking fun at his image anymore. A vamped-up Sofía Vergara starts out intriguingly unhinged, as she shares a story about why she became a man-eater, but soon after turns into an embarrassingly shrill harpy with firearms attached to her breasts and crotch. Bringing up the rear is Alexa Vega, who played one of the kids in Rodriguez's "Spy Kids" movies in what seems very long ago because here, she's old enough to play a prostitute sporting cleavage and chaps.

What should have just been zippy, bananas, over-the-top grindhouse fun grows repetitive and convoluted, and that's a bummer. If its predecessor laid on the ham with a loud and proud social message about immigration, this one is an unabashed free-for-all of severed bodies, exploding heads, and arterial geysers rendered by cheap CGI, over and over, until that's all the film has to offer. Once again, the stone-faced title badass muses about modern technology, this time with, "Machete don't tweet." He don't fill out a feature film, either, so perhaps trailers should just be trailers. No mas.