Friday, November 29, 2013

Spike Unchained: Grim, uncompromising "Oldboy" paints ultimate revenge tragedy

Oldboy (2013)
120 min., rated R.

It's surprising how long it took for Tinseltown to secure the rights to remake Park Chan-wook's one crazily twisted, shockingly perverse and squeamishly violent 2003 South Korean revenge-pulp cult opus, not only memorable for its real live-octopus-eating scene and brutal manga-style violence but an extremely lurid conclusion. One of the few American remakes to mostly reclaim the daring, danger, and darkness of its foreign-language precursor, Spike Lee's "Oldboy" (credited as a film this time and not a "joint") somehow avoided enough cuts to appease the MPAA ratings board and not lose its nerve in translation as a studio release. It's a ballsy, grisly piece of work about really bad karma and the most elaborate revenge scheme since, well, the original "Oldboy."

In 1993, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a boozy, loutish advertising executive, is hated by his ex-wife who scolds him for missing his three-year-old daughter's birthday. At a work pitch in a restaurant, he propositions the client's wife and loses the deal. After going towards a woman under a yellow umbrella one dark, rainy night, Joe later wakes up in a dingy room he initially takes for a motel room that which he cannot escape. A scenic country painting standing as a fake window changes. He's delivered vodka and Chinese dumplings through a doggie door each day. Then he catches a newscast, reporting that his ex-wife has been raped and killed and Joe, himself, is the prime suspect. Twenty years tick by based on news events, from 1997's second inauguration of President Clinton, to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, to, finally, President Obama's second inauguration in 2013. Via a TV crime show, he learns that his daughter, who's been adopted, grown up. Between kung-fu movies and aerobics exercise programming, Joe builds muscle, ready to take out the men that have put him in that cell, framed him for murder, and find his daughter. Finally set free into the present-day world and waking up in a box in a field, Joe won't stop until he gets revenge on those who imprisoned him for two decades in solitary confinement, and hopefully he can get an answer to why.

A grimly sordid, unusual, and very R-rated retooling, "Oldboy" doesn't relent and compromises very little, allowing the film to make its own mark without being a slavish imitation. Director Spike Lee and writer Mark Protosevich (2007's "I Am Legend") expand more on the backstory of Joe and his captivity, showing him in a drunken stupor before his kidnapping and then, through close-ups, sustaining enough uncomfortable claustrophobia in one room that would make anyone go stir-crazy. For those who have already seen this story play out, it's hard not to compare, most of all the climax and finale, but let's focus on what Lee's "Oldboy" does right. A grinning black bellhop (Cinqué Lee, Spike's brother) in a "Welcome! What Can We Do To Improve Your Stay?" poster on the wall of Joe's room is a small but sinister touch for a hallucination. Joe also befriends a mouse, à la "The Green Mile," that births babies, with sad results. An early brawl on a football field is too abrupt and campy, but later, filmed in a similar tracking shot to the original, the 1970s kung fu or Steven Seagal movie-inspired set-piece that has Joe fighting off a bunch of foes with a hammer and then a knife on two levels of a warehouse is impressively choreographed like an operatic, almost-farcical comic book with a macabre sense of humor. A visceral, teeth-gritting comeuppance on the prison warden (Samuel L. Jackson with a blonde mohawk on his bald head) with a box cutter actually rivals the Korean film's teeth-extraction scene. In relation to the original, there is a passing nod to octopus that no one eats, and it's just as well because Joe's taste testing of dumplings in different "Dragon" Chinese restaurants is disgusting enough for the gag reflex.

Presenting Joe as a thoroughly unlikable jerk is an interesting, more detached choice. Josh Brolin is riveting here, traversing into unthinkably dark places and capturing his inner-outer torment before and after he's been imprisoned like a caged animal. From what he goes through, one is able to eventually sympathize with him as what he has to live with has been chosen for him. The involvement of medical worker Marie takes a small leap of faith and should have been decelerated to grow and heighten the film's impact. Fortunately, ever-talented rising star Elizabeth Olsen has such a warmth and modest sensuality about her that one might not scrutinize such plotting in the moment. Sharlto Copley is deliciously evil and occasionally cartoony, but a truly one-of-a-kind villain as the effeminate billionaire with a gloriously punishing m.o. and apparent belief that revenge is a dish best served cold. Michael Imperioli also lends strong support as Chucky, Joe's former classmate and a bartender who was the last person to see him before he disappeared.

There is a fine line between a film that takes bleakly disturbing turns and one whose sole purpose is to turn stomachs. Making its way around the genre spectrum as a nightmarish chamber piece, a brutal exploitation revenge-thriller, a serpentine investigative mystery, and a taboo-crushing tragedy of lost souls being ruined, "Oldboy" organically hinges on one staggeringly queasy revelationthe reason why the stranger set Joe free from captivity—and it might put a bad taste in the mouths of the less ready and willing audiences, but it should provoke and disturb anyone who watches. It might not match the ambiguity and emotional power of Park Chan-wook's version, especially with a new, softer denouement, but it still has an indelibly sick bite. A word of warning, though: "Oldboy" is not for the faint of heart and not really palatable for casual moviegoers.


Statham vs. Swamp People: "Homefront" decent of its kind

Homefront (2013)
100 min., rated R.

Don't confuse it with "Homeland." Had Sylvester Stallone not waited so long, "Homefront" might have been another badass action vehicle for him in his '80s heyday. Serving as a producer, Stallone wrote the screenplay, based on Chuck Logan's 2005 novel of the same name, and handed Jason Statham the leading role. Director Gary Fleder (2003's "Runaway Jury" and 1997's "Kiss the Girls") doesn't bring anything more than a workmanlike, made-for-home-viewing style, but aside from the occasional reliance on a jittery shooting style, the punch- and kick-centric action is crisply cut and satisfyingly tough. It's grittier than expected, too, and better for its R-rating. Not bad of its kind, "Homefront" is a streamlined B-movie with Statham doing his thing against A-list and resurging A-list talent. Any movie that casts James Franco as a white-trash, meth-cooking swamp rat named Gator Bodine is clearly trying. 

Two years after being a narc in a meth bust and one year after losing his wife, ex-DEA agent Phil Broker (Jason Statham) tries laying low in the bayou town of Rayville, Louisiana, doing some carpentry and riding horses around with his 9-year-old daughter Maddy (Izabela Vidovic). But he's also taught Maddy how to defend herself, and after she gives a recess bully a bloody nose, Dad comes to school and has to face the wrath of the bully's belligerent, strung-out mother, Cassie (Kate Bosworth), and father, Jimmy (Marcus Hester), who tries to fight him but obviously fails. Cassie doesn't like being disrespected, so she sends her brother Gator (Franco), a boat-repair shop owner who runs a meth business on the side, to Broker's land to scare him and Maddy. Through a little "country payback"snooping through his basement and finding DEA case files, as well as stealing Maddy's pet black cat Luther and her stuffed bunny—Gator knows Broker's background and summons his trashy drug moll, Sheryl (Winona Ryder), to involve some dangerous bikers. Broker just wanted to mind his own business, but if he has to take out the trashy scum to protect his daughter, he will.

In taking more time than predicted to get the ball rolling, "Homefront" does work up some tension, as Cassie's drug-fueled pettiness opens up a can of worms and yet never gets crazy enough. A bone-crunching fuel-station altercation with some caricatured local rednecks really shows us what Broker is working with, and then once there's a siege on Broker and Maddy's home, the thugs aren't such dangerous threats as they are targets. Jason Statham is sturdy as usual, being stoic with deadpan humor occasionally flowing through the cracks and showing off his choreographed bread and butter. Pay no mind that his British accent is left intact and no one in the little hick town questions it. For those who feel he gets so much work (this is his third movie this year), only to play a distillation of the same blunt, taciturn killing machine, well, after showing some vulnerability in "Redemption" where he took up a relationship with a nun, he plays a father this time. Sharing scenes with the warm but tough and intelligent Izabela Vidovic, as daughter Maddie, Statham does add a gentler side to his repertoire, giving him even more motivation for putting the beatdown on some sleazeballs and then holding back at times.

So skinny that her jeans fall off her hips and looking like hell with bags under her eyes, a vanity-free Kate Bosworth is impressively enraging and then eventually somewhat empathetic as Gator's rough-living tweaker sister Cassie. She seems to walk in from an even chewier film. James Franco is eerily sleazy, giving Gator enough quirks to not make him just another stereotypical snake, but one wonders where this character could have gone had he been written with even more layers on the page like his crazier creation of Alien in "Spring Breakers." As Gator's skittish "meth whore" Sheryl, a bizarrely cast Winona Ryder is also compulsively watchable, but she isn't really able to get a grip on her character.

The "Walking Tall"-ish plot is boilerplate and simple without overcomplicating things too much. Neither memorably good nor bad, the dialogue could have used some punching up by Stallone. But, without any thematic substance or high ambitions, "Homefront" works just fine as a muscular, serviceable genre programmer that entertains for its run time and then you go home. It adds little to the ass-kicking Statham canon but does pretty much what you want it to do, which is more than what Statham's last outing, the messy "Parker," can say.

Grade: B -

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: "RED 2" Recycled and Extremely Disposable

RED 2 (2013)
116 min., rated PG-13.

Of all the perfunctory, unwarranted sequels out there, was anyone actually crying out for, let alone expecting, one to 2010's "RED"? Acronymous for "Retired Extremely Dangerous," that trifle of an action caper-comedy was cheeky, light-footed, and entertaining enough, and, better for distributor Summit Entertainment, it was a surprise hit. There was giddy novelty in watching Dame Helen Mirren and old pros mix it up and have the rare opportunity to be in charge of the firepower in a shoot-'em-up spy romp, and for one movie, it was a gimmicky hoot. Three years later in "RED 2," what is really left? Where's the fun? Where's the freshness? In what feels more like a calculated, obligatory business deal than a continuation of a story that needed to be told, this contrived, for-the-paycheck movie is just more of the same and pretty much stays on auto-pilot for a long 116 minutes.

Having come right out of the gate calling this a negligible, phoned-in sequel, "RED 2" does get off to a fleet, reasonably quick-witted start with some of the energy of its three-year-old predecessor from new director Dean Parisot (2005's "Fun with Dick and Jane") and returning scribes and brothers Jon & Erich Hoeber. The film picks up with retired black-ops CIA operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and his Midwestern sweetie Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) living the domestic life and bulk shopping at Costco. He's content, and she's bored and begging for some danger in their relationship. After Frank's old friend and colleague Marvin (John Malkovich) is allegedly killed by an automobile bomb, a missing Cold War weapon from an old operation, called Project Nightshade, comes back to haunt Frank when baddie Jack Horton (Neal McDonough) brands him a nuclear terrorist and sends out deadly contract killer Han Cho Bai (Byung-hun Lee) to make him permanently retired. Luckily, as they hop, skip and jump from Kansas to Paris to London and then Moscow, Frank, Sarah, and the undead Marvin seek help from refined assassin Victoria (Helen Mirren) and kooky physicist Dr. Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins) who's been locked up as criminally insane.

The greatest compliment that can be handed to "RED 2" is that it knows how to move, something that the first film sometimes struggled with. However, the brain-deficient, "yadda-yadda-yadda" plot keeps spanning the globe just to get to the Kremlin and then back to London, and keeps having certain characters flipflop alliances just to thrust things along. With the film being based on Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner's three-part DC Comics graphic novel, the action is intentionally stylized and merrily over-the-top that a barrage of flying bullets can never hit the human targets and nobody bleeds. Amidst the frenetic but mostly uninspired gun-centric action and pyrotechnics, an early set-piece in the Yankee White Facility is well-staged and amusing, where Frank takes some names and makes a booby trap out of Pringles. If there's the hope that the wisecracking comedy will pick up the slack, it ends up being goofy at best and stale at worst.

The first time around, it was contagious watching the veteran cast have a blast at work; now, they're just showing up because they have to. Still not yet old enough to receive social security, a smirky, butt-kicking Bruce Willis is just running through the old-hat motions again, and John Malkovich gets to mug up a storm. Only the fun had by the likably wide-eyed Mary-Louise Parker ever translates to the audience, as she makes most of her line-readings land. Her final pre-credits scene in a Caracas bar is a hoot, too. Same goes for Helen Mirren, who's missed when she drops out of the frame. It's amusing to watch her Victoria dispose of a body with acid in a bathtub and gain access into a mental hospital as a loon claiming to be the Queen of England. The 68-year-old actress also owns the only memorable action sequence: a 360-degree car spin with a gun for each hand firing out of both front windows. New to the cast, Byung-hun Lee ("G.I. Joe: Retalitation") is an intense, hard-bodied force to be reckoned with, solely for his physical prowess, as killing machine Han; Catherine Zeta-Jones makes no impression beyond looking great and shooting some rounds in a black suit as Frank's former flame, Russian agent Katja Petrokovich; and with the loss of Morgan Freeman's class comes Anthony Hopkins who's called on to play an out-to-lunch genius/psychopath.

A very, very okay way to pass the time on HBO, "RED 2" isn't exactly bothersome or an out-and-out embarrassment, but it just has no raison d'être. It can be enjoyable to see the whole gang get back together, but here, the gang merely showed up, and now they can deposit their checks and move on. In about a month's time or less, one will likely ask, "There was a "RED 2"?"


Monday, November 25, 2013

No Sperm Left Behind: Vaughn tones down shtick, "Delivery Man" has a low laugh count

Delivery Man (2013)
103 min., rated PG-13.

At long last, yet another high-concept sperm comedy the whole family can enjoy! Writer-director Ken Scott's 2011 French-Canadian indie "Starbuck" gets the line-for-line, scene-for-scene Hollywood redo with Scott's "Delivery Man," kind of like Michael Haneke's German and U.S. versions of "Funny Games" (minus the whole slaying of a nice family at the end, of course). The premise is pure sitcom stuff, wherein hapless, flaky David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn), a delivery man for his family-owned meat market in Brooklyn, receives some shocking news. Evidently, when he donated his fertile swimmers in the '90s for three years under the name "Starbuck," an error at the fertility clinic made him the father of 533 children, 142 of whom have filed a lawsuit on the clinic to reveal the identity of their biological father. Thanks to his lawyer-with-a-lost-license buddy Brett (Chris Pratt), who can barely manage his own four kids, the nonplussed Dave gets ahold of his twentysomething-aged kids' personality profiles and begins visiting them as their anonymous "guardian angel." 

A few problems with that basic premise. Are we supposed to believe that all 142 children still live in the most expensive U.S. city? Where are their mothers? Is it really killing them inside that they don't know whose sperm helped bring them into this world? When David starts hanging out with them all (who have already come together as a brother-and-sister commune), it's unbelievable that only one of them would make the connection to this over-6-foot fortysomething's sudden appearance. In case we didn't already know David is too irresponsible at his job and in life to care for a child of his own, his brother (Bobby Moynihan), a new father himself, tells him not to procreate or reproduce. We also learn he grows pot in his apartment and owes a $80,000 debt to loan sharks who like to stick people's heads in toilets. Then, after not calling her, Dave shows up at the stoop of police-officer girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders), who tells him she's pregnant and scolds her boyfriend for not having "the skills to bring up a child." Thanks for spoon-feeding us, movie. 

Re-written for the screen by director Ken Scott and Martin Petit (who also co-wrote "Starbuck"), the film makes few changes aside from the language and setting, and those who haven't seen the French-Canadian version won't be bothered. Rather, "Delivery Man" is just confusing because it's unsure of what it wants to be. If it's a comedy, the laughs never land, and if it's a drama about family and commitment, very little reflects reality, so the emotions don't really register as anything more than blatant button-pushing. When the film isn't working on either level, it just becomes a patience-testing slog to get to the inevitable "kumbaya" climax that is mockingly saccharine in how it literalizes an undeserved group hug. 

Director Scott does employ some energetic music choices (The Strokes' "Someday" and AC/DC's "Thunderstruck"), but he shows a lack of pacing and timing for almost everything else. Admittedly, there are some scattered smiles in a montage of David checking up on his kids and doing them good deeds, like taking over at a coffee shop while a young aspiring actor goes to The Big Audition, or dropping tips for a trying-to-make-it guitar player in Central Park, or visiting an indoor pool to see his lifeguard son, or getting a manicure by his half-black daughter (which is a nice touch). A select few of the young actors have fresh, memorable faces, but even fewer of them stand out, as if the 142 kids were made up of an entire casting call without bothering to have any of Dave's (or Vaughn's) genes. Britt Robertson expresses a few honest notes as heroin addict Kristen, who tidily, magically, and simplistically quits using by keeping her job at Bloomingdale's, but her moments would be better served in an entirely different movie. Stage actor Adam Chanler-Berat also brings more layers to Tolstoy-quoting vegetarian Viggo than the script does. But, next to a few nice moments with them and one late scene with David's father (Andrzej Blumenfeld), there is an embarrassingly manipulative, borderline-offensive scene where David visits his special-needs son (Sébastien René), so our ne'er-do-well lead can automatically have an epiphany and become a hero for wheeling him around outside.

While previous Vince Vaughn comedies basically came down to one's personal threshold for his fast-talking ignoramus shtick, the actor gets in touch with his softer, more earnest side here. Before, Vaughn had an edge to him, and then after "Wedding Crashers" and "The Break-Up," he's just been content to mail it in like a smirky one-trick pony, but if this is the decided direction Vaughn is going, being affable rather than glib and obnoxious, we'll take it. A welcomely subdued Vaughn is fine in the role, but Chris Pratt is the comedic life raft here, and even his line readings don't always hit. The funny and lovely Cobie Smulders deserves more than the afterthought role of Naggy Girlfriend she's saddled with, and it's a betrayal to her Emma that she's left in the dark about David's secret for so long even after she delivers their baby. Its soft heart surprisingly trumps masturbation jokes and is ultimately in the right place, but "Delivery Man" is just flat and rarely rings true, ending up in a tepid, middle-of-the-road category. If anything, the film might force every man to have second thoughts about procreating.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Misery Loves Life: Authentically moving "Broken Circle Breakdown" swirls through waves of passion and pain

The Broken Circle Breakdown (2013)
110 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

"The Broken Circle Breakdown," Belgium's entry for the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language Film, has been a hit on the festival circuit, already winning accolades for Best Screenplay and Best Actress in a Narative Feature Film at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. Audiences should know this film is a bit of a downer, not unlike "Blue Valentine" albeit with a sublime bluegrass soundtrack, but more to the point, this is a beautifully crafted, authentically moving, and raw-to-the-bone piece of work. It crushes your heart in a memorable, intensely wrenching way.

Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh give vivid, impassioned performances as tattoo artist Elise and bluegrass band member Didier. When they first meet at Elise's ink parlor and then he invites her to a concert where she sees him leading the band, they immediately become intoxicated with one another and Elise joins the band. Making love leads them to the birth of their daughter, Maybelle (an adorable, poignant Nell Cattrysse), who, at six years of age, starts showing signs of fatigue and blood in her mouth before becoming diagnosed with cancer. Will the circle of life be unbroken?

Full of passion, heartache, and misery, "The Broken Circle Breakdown" is a heavy, bittersweet, and demanding drama. Director Felix Van Groeningen, working from a screenplay he adapted from actor Heldenbergh's play with Carl Joos, gracefully use their art of free-flowing, non-linear storytelling to leaven the tone and emotional heft of being in love, having a child, losing a child, and then watching that love die. Sharply cut by editor Nico Leunen, scenes are shuffled, going back in time (7 years earlier) and then forward in time (present-day 2006). It almost plays out like a dream, but nothing is a dream; it's just the highs and lows of life. What's more, the bluegrass music ("Country at its most pure," Didier says) reverberates the emotions. Elise and Didier are are so specific, as are the rural, wintry Belgian locations, but what the couple goes through is universal. Covering the bases of love, sex, family, faith, music, pain, sorrow, and even country-of-dreamers America, this is homespun, lived-in storytelling, carving out its own identity and packing an emotionally rich wallop.

Grade: B +

This Girl is on Fire: "Catching Fire" scores a powerfully entertaining bull's-eye

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
146 min., rated PG-13.

The politically charged, warm-blooded, and tough-enough big-screen adaptations of Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" trilogy are looking to be more than just another flash-in-the-pan YA-targeted franchise. 2012's "The Hunger Games" laid the groundwork, economically setting up a dystopian future that holds an annual televised blood-sport as punishment for the common people's rebellion and thought-provokingly commenting on a world dominated by a totalitarian government, and gave us a compellingly strong but vulnerable heroine in Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). With "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," it's a rare instance when a sequel goes the bigger-and-better route without losing its emotional weight and doesn't feel like a cash-in by a greedy studio. Where its predecessor's kid-on-kid violence was also restricted by the PG-13 rating without softening it too much and often shot too frenetically, this second installment mostly rights those small wrongs, magnifies its scope, and packs the desired punch.

Having won the 74th Hunger Games as the first pair of co-victors in history, 17-year-olds Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are now living with more money than they've ever had in District 12. As Katniss defied the Capitol by making both of them survivors, they must continue to smile for the cameras as faux-lovers on their victory tour to the other districts. Already suffering from moments of post-traumatic stress, Katniss deals with the unconvinced President Snow (Donald Sutherland). He's conniving a new wrinkle with elusive game designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and sees Katniss as a threat of defiance able to lead a revolution. As the 75th Annual Hunger Games, or the Quarter Quell as it's called, closes in, Katniss and Peeta are both chosen at The Reaping and are horrified to learn they'll be competing against experienced victors. Their coach, booze-addled Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), gives them advice: align with the more approachable and slightly less cunning misfits.

Charged with upping the ante a bit and expressing the political subtext even more, director Francis Lawrence (2011's "Water for Elephants")no relation to Jenniferhas been passed the torch by the original's director (Gary Ross), along with him a new team of screenwriters, Simon Beaufoy ("Slumdog Millionaire") and Michael DeBruyn ("Little Miss Sunshine"). Made with nearly twice the budget of its precursor, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" takes 80-odd minutes to get to the titular Hunger Games but is never less than involving before the tributes' survival-of-the-fittest fight. The stakes are given a lift, not only for the fates of best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and his family, Peeta's family, and Katniss' mother and sister, but for all of Panem. The emotional resonance is even thickerKatniss paying respects to the late Rue's family during the victory tour is heartbreaking and, after one brave, mockingjay-whistling man gives her the three-finger salute, tragic. And once the film gets to the tropical-island arena, it is well worth the wait. Like before, once Katniss is launched in that glass tube up to the arena next to all of her fellow tributes, the building of dread is undeniable. All revved up with exciting menace and imagination, the life-or-death situations include an electric force field, a creeping poisonous fog, vicious mandrills, and a floating merry-go-round on a saltwater lake. 

Locked into the physically and emotionally fearless role of Katniss, Lawrence is, once again, the story's MVP, fierce as ever and even more layered, being caught between survival and rebellion. Every emotion the actress feels is palpably read on her face. As Peeta, Hutcherson is capably sweet and even more appealing here, and Hemsworth is a bit less of an afterthought than he was in the first film as Gale. The love triangle exists, but it never overshadows Katniss' bigger problems. Of the other returnees most worth mentioning, Elizabeth Banks has a few moments to shed the shallow facade, being able to convey more humanity as the perky, fabulously coiffed District 12 chaperone Effie Trinket, and a hilariously over-the-top Stanley Tucci gets to flash off his blindingly white choppers and purple hair as TV host Caesar Flickerman. Joining the cast to succeed Wes Bentley's Seneca Cane, Hoffman (with no flamboyant get-up to overshadow his performance) is chilling and ambiguous as the new game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee whose motivations will surely become quite clear in the next film. New tributes are introducedthe preening, charismatic Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin); elderly mute Mags (Lynn Cohen); and kooky brains-over-brawn couple Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer)and, of course, not all of them are safe. Jena Malone, especially, has a lot of feisty fun and makes an impression as the short-tempered, axe-wielding Johanna Mason.

As this trilogy is designed to have its third film, "Mockingjay," separated into halves, like Parts 1 and 2 of "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the film doesn't exactly stand as its own entity, which is kind of unfair to say but still true. There is, thankfully, no overt recap of the first film being spoonfed to us, but, such is the case with middle installments, there isn't really an endgame. What's given here is a classic cliff-hanger, ending abruptly midstream just before we see the fire in Katniss' eyes, but, boy, it is a fantastically internal final shot. Want more? Waiting is a virtue. That minor misgiving aside, Trish Summerville's costumes, Philip Messina's production design, and Larry Dias' set decoration are all aces, and the special effects even more confident than before (Katniss' flaming dress is less cheesy on the second try). Cinematographer Jo Willems (2011's "Limitless") also corrects the chaotic camera work, intensifying the action with more fluidity. As a whole, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is an enthralling, fleetly paced, well-oiled machine that delivers plenty and then promises even bigger things to come. It gives much more to think about than some teen mortal-immortal romance. This trilogy is going places.

Grade: A -

Thursday, November 21, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: "All Is Bright" admirably cheerless but too blah to satisfy

All Is Bright (2013)
107 min., rated R.

Dark, caustic Yuletide comedies are not a dime a dozen, 1994's "The Ref" and 2003's "Bad Santa" remaining the earmarked polar opposites of most trumped-up, ultra-sentimental Christmas movies. Grey and cheerless, "All Is Bright" admirably doesn't seem to have much joy or any Christmas miracles on its wish list at first, but alternately affecting and acerbic moments, as well as reliable performances all around, only keep it from being an outright misfire. Eight years after director Phil Morrison's wonderfully special indie "Junebug" (which made Amy Adams a star), it's still a regrettably dull follow-up.

Paul Giamatti adds another notch to his belt playing a crooked sad-sack, this time as morose robber Dennis. After serving four years in prison, he is now out on parole and wants to go straight. He returns home to Quebec, horrified to find that his wife, Therese (Amy Landecker, doing an authentic French-Canadian accent), has told their daughter he's been dead for a year from fighting cancer. She's also taken up a relationship with René (Paul Rudd), Dennis' fellow ex-con pal who has gone straight but is barely getting by financially. So, without a shower, a home, a job, a wife, and a daughter, Dennis is definitely down on his luck. Bitterly reuniting with René at their old drinking haunt, he learns no steady jobs are available and decides to join him in selling Christmas trees in New York City. As their operation seems to be a bust, Dennis can't seem to kick his knack for thieving and wrestles with the hard facts of life, as he can't see his child and his wife wants nothing to do with him and plans to marry René after his wife signs the divorce papers. It's going to be a crummy Christmas and a crummy life.

Regardless of the jazzily arranged Christmastime standards that would play in an elevator and Dennis' daughter opening her Advent calendar for each day, there's a distinct pessimism and palpable winter chill in the air throughout the ironically titled "All Is Bright" (it screened under the title "Almost Christmas" at the Tribeca Film Festival). Everyone has a hardscrabble life, everyone smokes, and everyone might as well suffer from seasonal affective disorder. The screenplay by Melissa James Gibson (TV's "The Americans") takes an unconventional, miserablist approach by refusing to rehabilitate any of her characters, especially Dennis, but the story is thin and rudderless, and the existing humor is cynically amusing on occasion without being particularly funny. A loose, lackadaisical tempo and a mopish, minor-key tone (which could be interpreted as slow and depressing) take time getting used to before one final sweet gesture by Dennis. It's a motivated moment of redemption that resonates and doesn't hurt being cued to English pop singer Tracey Thorn's beautifully mournful "Joy," but, at the same time, just barely makes the oppressive bleakness that preceded it worthwhile. 

Giamatti can make any unlucky, melancholy, high-tempered character engaging and sympathetic, and that includes Dennis. Compounded by his pain and struggle, he has relapses of his pre-prison life as a dirty crook, but he's also doing the best he can, making amends for life's mistakes. Rudd is back to playing another one of his dimly optimistic losers, now with more scruff, an earring, and stained teeth. René is even less likable, not only taking his best buddy's wife but caught by Dennis chatting up another woman, but it's amusing to hear the actor put on a phony Québécois accent when selling trees to New Yorkers. Despite a cartoonishly thick but kind of charming accent, Sally Hawkins casts a more memorable impression as Olga, a colorfully ornery Russian maid who's housesitting for a dentist's elegant brownstone. She walks by Dennis and René's tree lot when only Dennis is on duty and gives him $200 for a tree, plus tip, if he delivers it and sets it up. Olga then gives Dennis food, clean clothes, and a shower to clean himself up. On the face of it, the character of a Russian maid named Olga seems like a cliché, but Hawkins puts on an originally quirky, kind-hearted spin that makes it all the more unfortunate when she's left stranded by the script as if the filmmakers didn't know what to do with her. Why didn't screenwriter Gibson make the whole movie about her and Dennis' relationship instead?

"All Is Bright" counts as a film you want to like instead of one you actually end up liking. It's possible for a film to work when it's going against the grainmore of them shouldbut for too long, this one just twiddles its thumbs, waiting for Christmas morning to come. Decidedly too astringent and unsatisfying to become a perennial holiday offering or a perennial anything, but amidst the working-class despair, it actually gets right the spirit of the holidays, which is where most big-studio pictures ring false. 

Grade: C +

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Washington and Wahlberg barely lift standard, tonally uneasy "2 Guns" with their mouths

2 Guns (2013)
109 min., rated R.

"2 Guns" might be a misnomer, as more than a pair of loaded firearms go bang! bang!, but this post-"Bad Boys" buddy-cop action comedy actually fits the bill when concentrating on the brio and dynamic between its two guns, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. Otherwise, the film convolutes its plot of double-crosses that is mostly just standard stuff to begin with, its clashing blend of jokey banter and hard violence prove to be uneasy in tone, and both sins put a damper on the fun. The two stars' chemistry and swagger count for a lot when the material is ordinary, but such elements go only so far to help this so-close-but-no-cigar misfire's case.

Undercover DEA agent Bobby Trench (Washington) and AWOL Navy Intelligence Officer Michael "Stig" Stigman (Wahlberg) pose as drug runners, both of them working on taking down Mexican drug kingpin Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos). That they're both narcs and neither one knows it is nearly incidental, but they decide to rob $3 million from Greco's safety deposit box, so they can prosecute him for laundering money. But they find a loftier sum of $43 million, which belongs to kill-happy black ops operative Earl (Bill Paxton). After Bobby and Stig are both ordered to betray the other, they later team up, realizing everyone is a crook out to set them up, so these guns will have figure out a Plan B.

Given the empty screenplay by Blake Masters, the two lead actors don't really get to play defined characters whom we can root for, but it's often good fun to just watch them and hear their zippy back-and-forth repartee. The best scene is the first, where Bobby and Stig sit down at a diner across from the bank they're going to rob and give their waitress an indecisive order à la 1970's "Five Easy Pieces." Then before blowing up the diner, they leave her a good tip (which might not make sense in retrospect). As Bobby, Washington glides through this tailor-made role with two removable gold teeth, and it's a hoot when he corrects his partner for mispronouncing "misanthrope" and "Les Misérables." Likewise, Wahlberg, as Stig, perfectly melds his wiseguy image, winking at the ladies and forever chewing gum like a cow chews its cud, and always-surprising comedic chops when playing a guy about as sharp as a marble. Paula Patton plays the attractive card well as DEA agent Deb and Bobby's sometime-girlfriend, but she exists for a topless scene as gratutious as Halle Berry's in "Swordfish," and eventually, her character unexpectedly shows her true colors with some regret. In a film that has three or more pivotal baddies (including James Marsden as a crooked naval official), Bill Paxton is most memorable as Earl. It's amusing at first to see the actor as a shadowy cowboy, but when his sadistic game of Russian roulette comes out to play, Paxton's turn is unsettlingly evil. A scene where he points his favorite handheld object at Washington's precious jewels crackles with tension.

Director Baltasar Kormákur (2012's grittier, minimally superior Wahlberg-starrer "Contraband") knows how to shoot the shoot-out set-pieces, allowing them to be coherent and involving, and moves the film efficiently at a no-nonsense pace even through the narrative muddiness. Based on the Boom! Studios graphic novels by Steven Grant, "2 Guns" is brutal and irresponsibly violent, with an unnecessary cruel streak that turns violence into a joke. It's fine for an action flick to be unapologetically R-rated, but not when it sours the jocular dialogue and is sometimes at the expense of finding appeal in our so-called "heroes." Innocent chickens are buried in the ground up to their necks for target practice, only to have their heads blown off for chuckles. Stig smiles about wanting to waterboard a drug lord. And, though it's by Earl, a veterinarian gets shot in the knee cap.

Once it's finally figured out who is on what side of the law, what everyone is after, and the whys are all chalked up to ludicrously garden-variety greed, it's a little late to start caring, so one is better off just throwing scripting concerns to the winds and watching the gunfire and explosions. Even then, when all the greedy double- and triple-crossings come to a head in a Mexican standoff, it's disappointingly anticlimactic. As action pictures go this year, the one in question doesn't stack up as one might have hoped. Washington and Wahlberg's interplay goes a long way in making "2 Guns" more diverting than it really is, but, with that charismatic pairing, the end result is still more unexceptional than it ought to be. 


Monday, November 18, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: "Paranoia" a slick but forgettably stupid programmer

Paranoia (2013)
106 min., rated PG-13.

Reeking of the "wheeling out the trash" month of August, "Paranoia" is a watchably slick but forgettable and mockingly rote time-waster, a so-called "high-stakes thriller" set in the zeitgeist that fails at corporate-backstabbing intrigue and thrills. It's one thing if a popcorn thriller isn't original, which "Paranoia" definitely is not, but it's another thing when a thriller is unthrilling, which it's not, either. Even the title is wrong, as a sense of paranoia peters out pretty quickly. The only sense one gets is that time won't be well-spent with a vapid programmer that ends up being a blip on the cast and filmmakers' filmographies.

Living in Brooklyn as a bridge-and-tunnel guy, 27-year-old Adam Cassidy (Liam Hemsworth) is an entry-level inventor for a smart phone corporation. After standing up to the self-aggrandizing billionaire boss, Nicolas Wyatt (Gary Oldman), during a pitch that gets he and his team fired, he takes them out for a night at the club, charging $16,000 to the company's credit card. In the morning, Wyatt's thug (Julian McMahon) finds him and gets him to spy and steal trade secrets from another empire, Eikon, run by former mentor and present rival Jock Goddard (Harrison Ford). If Adam gets Wyatt what he wants, his friends will be compensated with jobs, but first, he needs to look the part in tailored suits and his own modern-chic apartment. When the young stud eventually wants out, Wyatt isn't going to let him off that easy as a pawn. Adam learns the hard way that he should've been careful what he wished for and that the lights aren't always brighter from across the river.

After the irresistible and unexpectedly smart "Legally Blonde" (his 2001 feature debut), director Robert Luketic has kicked out some middling ("Monster-in-Law," "The Ugly Truth") but, in some cases, underrated fare (primarily "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!"). Though a technically polished studio movie, his latest might be his worst (even compared to the not-as-putrid-as-everyone-says "Killers"). When staticky visual flourishes are added to a few okay chase scenes, he's clearly overcompensating for the utter lack of excitement. Dutch composer Junkie XL's buzzy score does all the work for naught, and there are pleasing uses of Empire of the Sun's "Alive." Based on Joseph Finder's novel and perfunctorily written by Jason Hall and Barry L. Levy, "Paranoia" is competent for a beginning moviegoer's first corporate espionage thriller—think of it as "A Thriller for Dummies," or a cable movie, if you will. But, if you've seen "Wall Street," "The Firm," "Boiler Room," "Antitrust," "Limitless," or any of the umpteenth young-buck-enters-the-dangerous-corporate-world movies, this one is so naïve, by-the-numbers, and half-baked that even its final plot twists can't make up for the feeling of déjà vu. Adam is at least given a life outside of the plot, having friends (Lucas Till, Angela Sarafyan) and supporting his dying-of-Emphysema blue-collar father (inexplicably played by Richard Dreyfuss, who's come to mostly sit around a lot). He might be a smart young man when it comes to computers, but after Wyatt reveals that his father's house has been bugged, Adam is angry when he discovers that he's being watched in the apartment he's been handed, pulling out silverware drawers and taking a baseball bat to his flat screen TV. Even after the FBI visits Adam's house with pictures of his now-dead co-workers, that detail is sloppily forgotten about in the end. As you can probably gather, there's very little that holds onto any internal logic or common sense.

Hemsworth more than capably fills a snazzy suit, though he feels a touch out of his range as a techie and is quite uninvolving as the protagonist. Despite being early in his career, the actor could have it rough distinguishing himself between brother Chris and getting out of the hunky flavor-of-the-month category. The vivacious Amber Heard is the genuine package, knowing just how to play smart and sexy. Here, as a brunette prize to be won, she's better than the empty-vessel part of Emma, a strong-willed Yale graduate who works for Goddard and snuggles up to Adam. Without a mustache to twirl, a disinterested-looking Oldman gets one note to play and chews scenery as the big, bad Wyatt. Ford tries a little harder as Goddard, who's lost his son as Adam has lost his mother, and when the two big-screen stalwarts finally get to go nose to nose and bark at each other after Ford kicked Oldman off his plane sixteen years ago in "Air Force One," there's a juicier movie there. Embeth Davidtz also lends some interest as the icy Dr. Judith Bolton, Wyatt's assistant, even when her character seems to come and go.

"Paranoia" is the kind of dim non-thriller that strains for tension where there is none. Can Adam download important computer files onto a flash drive in time while that computer's owner is taking a shower? Can he trust anyone in this shady business world? Are audiences supposed to play dumb? Even while you're in it, the film is rarely tense and not even entertaining in a "it's-just-a-movie" way. Once you're through with it, it has pretty much faded from your mind and ceases to exist. The "other" Hemsworth does get in some obligatory adonis shirtlessness, so count your blessings.

Grade: C -

DVD/Blu-ray: "Violet & Daisy" a strange mix that's hard to dislike

Violet & Daisy (2013)
88 min., rated R.

The directorial debut of screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher (who won an Oscar for "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire"), "Violet & Daisy" is cheeky but slight, a satirical girls-with-guns comedy that makes for quite the peculiar mix and is hard to dislike all the same. It's like a blackly comedic cartoon that's interestingly never as over-the-top or whacked-out as its premise would suggest, nor is it the inspired gem it could have been. Of course, the joke of juxtaposition is that Violet and Daisy are teenage, 100-pound female assassins, sweetly played by the piercingly blue-eyed Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan, the former getting to play a bit more against-type than the "Hanna" star. Where the film falters somewhat is in its bubblegum-chewing title contract killers, who are more like vessels for preciously colorful dialogue than fully drawn people.

On her 18th birthday, Daisy (Ronan) and her more-experienced partner/friend/roommate Violet (Bledel) find an easy gig for more money to buy desirable dresses from the couture line of pop-music idol Barbie Sunday. Their latest job doesn't exactly go as planned: when they arrive early to his apartment and both fall asleep on the couch, a businessman (James Gandolfini) doesn't leave or take their guns but covers them with a blanket and bakes them oatmeal cookies. Once they wake up from their nap, the girls keep having hesitations about doing him in, especially Daisy when she has second thoughts and gets to know Michael while Violet runs to the hardware store for more bullets. And yet, they'll have to finish the job or face the consequences.

Cleanly shot with a small scope as if it were a play (most of the action is set in that single apartment), "Violet & Daisy" starts out more as playfully entertaining style than substance. There are undeniable echoes of Quentin Tarantino's stylized dialogue and camera work. As it starts, the film wants to be ironic, both cute and violently riddled with bullets and blood. Its characters play pat-a-cake, hopscotch, and sling a yo-yo. While some of the jailbait-killer cleverness is inscrutable, there are amusing touches, like how in the opening chapter ("1. Cold pizza and a warm puppy"), we meet Violet and Daisy in nun habits, sharing jokes and carrying boxes from "Righteous Pizza," before they deliver an array of bullets. Then at one point, one of the girls slips on an unseen banana peel. Bledel and Ronan solidly shift between wide-eyed girly girls and professional killers with enough of a grey area to be considered misguided in life and not purely bad as people. Trouble is, Gandolfini, as their assigned hit whom the girls just call Mister, is the real heart and soul, infusing the most human feeling, sincerity, and warmth. We actually learn more about this flawed but tender-hearted man, who's prepared to go from the regrets in his life, and we don't really want to see him eat a bullet. Aside from the trio, Danny Trejo and Marianne Jean-Baptise also make fleeting but strong impressions, as Violet and Daisy's boss and the #1 sniper, respectively.

Never fully taking a fork in the road, writer-director Fletcher chooses not to go too dark or too bouncy, and the oddball tone sort of works in spite of his two badass characters hardly getting the chance to pop. In the film's only shocking bit, the two hit-girls giggle as they bounce on a group of dead hits, like how they'd jump on a bed at a slumber party, pumping the blood out of the men's mouths as The Three Degrees' 1970s soul hit "When Will I See You Again" briefly chirps on the soundtrack. Like that grimly giggly moment, it's not entirely easy what to make of "Violet & Daisy," except that it's a curiosity that isn't too off-putting or even that subversive. One thing is for sure, though: it ends more with an underlying sadness for its target and less closure with its killers. 

Grade: B - 

Friday, November 15, 2013

O Holy Reunion: Appealing cast makes "Best Man Holiday" a pleasant reunion

The Best Man Holiday (2013)
120 min., rated R.

Was anyone losing sleep over wondering what the characters from 1999's "The Best Man" were up to all this time? Even if one struggles to picture that agreeably glossy and spirited dramedy—which refreshingly put a sparkling African-American ensemble together, found some truth in committed relationships and male friendship amidst the delayed misunderstandings and histrionics, and pleased its often underserved audience—ever existing, they're not bad revisiting and hanging out with in the belated sequel, "The Best Man Holiday." Fourteen years is a long time in between a sleeper hit and its follow-up, but Spike Lee's cousin, returning writer-director Malcolm D. Lee (who redeems himself after "Scary Movie 5," an early contender for the worst movie of 2013), gets his original cast back, each one of them sliding back into their roles comfortably. Like a smarter, funnier, and more emotionally genuine Tyler Perry movie, the film itself is a pleasant reunion.

Lost time is made up for in a briskly paced montage of footage from 1999, so a flow chart shouldn't be necessary. In the first "Best Man," writer Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs) made it big with his thinly veiled, semi-autobiographical book but not with his college pal, NFL superstar Lance (Morris Chestnut), who, before jumping the broom, realized his best man had a one-night stand with not a ficticious character but his bride-to-be. Fifteen years later, Harper is suffering from a dry patch, not able to publish another best-seller, and his optimistic chef wife, Robin (Sanaa Lathan), is pregnant with their first child. Harper no longer holds unfinished business with platonic friend Jordan (Nia Long), who's still career-minded and now a top MSNBC producer with a white boyfriend (Eddie Cibrian). Rounding out the rest of the gang is Julian (Harold Perrineau) and his wife, ex-stripper Candace (Regina Hall), who now run a charter school together and have two daughters; Julian's naggy ex Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) thinks she's a hot tamale, now being part of "Real Housewives of Westchester"; and there's Quentin (Terrence Howard), a devil-may-care job-hopper who ended up shacking up with Shelby and is still chasing skirts. The whole gang accepts their invitations for a Christmas weekend spent with Lance, retiring from the N.Y. Giants as a running back, and his lamb of a wife, Mia (Monica Calhoun), in their McMansion, complete with an itinerary. However, Lance and Harper have never been as close as they once were since the latter's dirty laundry came tumbling out the day of the former's bachelor party. This time, the holidays will bring everyone closer.

Formulaic in the extreme, "The Best Man Holiday" doesn't have so much of a plot as it does a string of subplots, or mini-dramas, about marriage, friendship, careers, babies, and the Big C. Some of them are identifiable conflicts and others are just screenplay misunderstandings. The financially strapped Harper is faced with a conundrum, losing out on a big advance in his writing career or exploiting Lance to write his memoir. Julian struggles with keeping he and his's wife school open once a high-up donor finds a promiscuous viral video of Candace from her "Candy" days, unbeknownst to her. There's also tension and open wounds between friends, wives, and exes, and Quentin smokes a lot of pot. Lance also wears his Christian faith on his sleeve (his mantra is "God, Family, Football" and in that order), and while it was touched upon in the first film, it has a bigger role here without being too jarringly preachy. The trajectory of the narrative comes with The Big Game, The Funeral, and Child Birth (in an SUV), the latter overextending its welcome in the forced fashion it plays out. Fortunately, writer-director Lee is capable of selling teary-eyed sentiment because it comes from a more honest place, along with understated work by his actors. Coming from the man responsible for 2008's rotten "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins" (which utterly failed at spiking ooey-gooey sentimentality with broad, crude slapstick), the pathos might have come off sappy and, while transparently manipulative, it's also unsuspectingly touching.

Looking beyond the occasionally graceless tonal shifts, swerving from comedic shtick to soapy, weepy melodrama and back, "The Best Man Holiday" levels out the breezy, naughty fun and wish-fulfillment factor with some gravity. It finally hits a sweet spot as a frothy piece of entertainment with an appealing, ridiculously attractive cast bringing charisma and dramatic chops. As often is the case with ensemble pieces, it's hard to believe the actors are supposed to be lifelong friends, but this one thrives in that department. As Harper and Lance, Taye Diggs and Morris Chestnut believably convey their camaraderie that will be mended by film's end, and as well as with Harold Perrineau and Terrence Howard, they all have a relaxed chemistry. Instead of a wedding-reception Electric Slide, there's a charming dance-and-lip-sync interlude to New Edition's "Can You Stand the Rain" by the four men. As the hormonal Robin, Sanaa Lathan shines once again as the voice of reason in most situations; the fragile-looking Monica Calhoun has a lovely grace and spiritual strength about her that makes Mia enormously sympathetic; and the radiant Long has a wonderful handle on her driven Jordan who learns to be more open to love and has a heartbreakingly authentic scene in a bathtub. Also, the humor is punched up here but still character-based. So, on that front, Howard gets to have the most fun as the token live-wire, constantly goofing on his co-stars and, in one instance in a high state, taking a picture of his penis with his smart phone, while the delightful Regina Hall (who was a newcomer at the time of the first film) comes away with the sharpest repartee on the female side. Finally, one might wonder what the shrewish Shelby character is even doing here, though it's no fault of Melissa De Sousa, who luckily gets to breathe some newfound emotion into her.

It doesn't affect the overall feel, but, for a Christmas movie with contemporary and classic Yuletide carols on the soundtrack, the film loses brownie points in there being barely an inch of snow on the ground. Whenever an establishing shot outside of Lance and Mia's mansion shows maybe four small spots of snow on the ground and green grass, it's a minor distraction. Everybody bundles up outside, too, but not a breath of hot air leaves any of their mouths. "The Best Man Holiday" (yes, an apostrophe 'S' seems to be missing there) might not even have the rewatchability of, say, 2007's pleasingly festive crowd-pleaser "This Christmas," but what you get is an enjoyable, warmly inviting surprise. It wouldn't even be disagreeable to catch back up with these folks for "The Best Man Marigold Hotel."

Grade: B -