Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Assembling Some More: "Avengers: Age of Ultron" fun but too much

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
141 min., rated PG-13. 

Everything was building up to 2012's "Marvel's The Avengers," where maverick writer-director Joss Whedon did the impossible by mashing up and assembling half a dozen superheroes into one movie and turned in a cohesive, breezily paced, entertaining 142-minute, $220-million-budgeted tentpole. So, as superhero movies have become placeholders and seed-planters for more to come, how can the sequel, "Avengers: Age of Ultron," meet all of the built-in hype and not underwhelm? It goes without saying that, sight unseen, fanboys are going to enter this behemoth already thinking it's the best movie ever made, but those are strong words. "Avengers: Age of Ultron" inevitably loses a fraction of the surprise of its predecessor and fatigues itself with too-muchness, but admittedly, it's still a fun, lively buffet of a man-made blockbuster with plenty to nibble on and more than enough fanfare. For an "Avengers" movie, that's still pretty good, even if one finds him or herself wanting to like it more than he or she actually does.

In Sokovia, the AvengersIron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)storm a Hydra outpost to retrieve Loki's scepter from Agent Baron Strucker (Thomas Krestchmann). They encounter a pair of Strucker's experiments in the form of the "enhanced" Maximoff twins, the lightning-fast Pietro/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the telekinetic Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who uses her mind-control powers to give Tony Stark a premonition of what's to come for the rest of his team. When Stark uses all of the scepter's energy to create an army of Iron Men to protect the earth, the plan backfires, giving birth to the indomitable artificial intelligence, Ultron (voiced by James Spader), who vows to destroy the planet and make the Avengers extinct. A lot of stuff ensues.

Dumping the viewer right into a context-free battle, which still comes away being the most immersive and thrilling of all the big action set-pieces, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" has gone the bigger-stronger route, but it's not necessarily faster or substantially better. Where Joss Whedon perfectly juggled the character interactions of the Avengers' team-building and familial-unit needling with the action set-pieces the first time out, he brings back the same amount of cheeky, quotable ribbing but doesn't attain the same sort of excitement for every physical battle, leaving room for more lulls. Given the ending credits' seemingly endless list of visual effects artists, digital compositors, and every other special-effects job title one has never heard of, it seems like taking for granted the care and time every person on the crew has put into creating every frame. And yet, save for Ultron's crashing of the after-party inside the Avengers' base and the final showdown, the majority of the action set-pieces are unmemorable and undermine the film's soul. Akin to 2014's "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Avengers: Age of Ultron" excels much more in the spirited humor of the smaller character moments. Granted, there are a lot of moving parts that don't get their complete fill in such an episodic, not to mention convoluted, plot, but it's in the camaraderie between the Avengers that pops more than any pyrotechnics.

The likable core cast returns as if no time has passed, each one of them getting their turn to shine. Robert Downey Jr. seems to always be in top form, his smarmy likability always feeling fresh and so right as Tony Stark. Chris Evans is more his old noble self than the one found in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," but he has some amusing banter with Tony Stark in regards to profanity and he looks great in tight-fitting tees. Chris Hemsworth might have less to work with emotionally than he did last time, considering he and his team were up against his brother, but he does lunkheaded charm with the best of them, particularly a running joke involving all of his male mates taking a crack at lifting his hammer, a 'la "The Sword in the Stone." Scarlett Johansson once again owns the part of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, who doesn't fly or have any special powers, and gets to further her backstory as an assassin, but she gets stuck with an out-of-the-blue romance with Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner, made more forced and uninvolving by the fact that she had better chemistry with Jeremy Renner in "The Avengers" and Chris Evans in the "Captain America" sequel. The MVP of the first film, Ruffalo still quietly downplays his torment and fallibility as Dr. Banner, and the CG'd hulk also might be the most photorealistic it's ever looked, down to the tiniest of knuckle hairs on his big green hands. Stark's lullaby alternative for the Hulk is also a crowd-pleasing hit that it rivals some the green man's smashing in "The Avengers." As Clint Barton/Hawkeye sees an uptick in material that humanizes the arrow-wielder who always stood as a sixth wheel to his flashier cohorts, Jeremy Renner becomes a magnetic equal, with Linda Cardellini a welcome face as his wife Laura. Still on the sidelines, Cobie Smulders, as Agent Maria Hill, gets a little more personality aside from sporting more tight work skirts and dumping exposition, too, and Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/"Iron Patriot" has a terrific payoff with a joke about telling a story at parties.

Important enough to earn his own name in the title, the central foe doesn't match the interest or personality of Tom Hiddleston's Loki, but James Spader purrs his way through his voice performance as A.I. nemesis Ultron with just enough hissable menace and sadistic humor. The other new additions, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, are disappointingly underutilized in the already-crowded ensemble. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson do exactly what is asked of them, and their cartoonish accents luckily don't take the film into spoof territory, but Olsen doesn't get to make much of an impression until her emotionally felt delivery late in the film and Taylor-Johnson doesn't have much on Evan Peters' version in "X-Men: Days of Future Past." There's just not enough time to explore their wounded pasts, either, but SHIELD's Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) sums them up best: "He's fast, and she's weird." Otherwise, Paul Bettany, taking a break from voicing Stark's J.A.R.V.I.S. to play Vision, gets a cool introduction, satisfying comic-book insiders and intriguing those who are less in the know about where this character will go in the next movies.

Marvel Universe box-checking for contractual obligations and fan service or not, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" is ultimately too much of a good thing, proving "more" is just less. With even more characters on display this time, there isn't nearly enough character growth to cover in the span of almost two and a half hours. And, perhaps the excision of a few kablooey sequences could have strengthened the picture without losing accessibility for its cult of fist-bumping fanboys. The spectacle is diverting on a functional, ephemeral level, but the sense of danger is more limited. In a key scene, when Scarlet Witch sends several of the Avengers into their pasts or versions of their fateful futures, their respective visions are effectively nightmarish but cut too short to register much impact or add more dark-toned substance. While several missed opportunities come to mind and some of the incidents in the stop-and-start narrativethe trapping and easy rescue of one of the Avengers seems like a waste of timejust bloat the pacing, the finished product is still an entertaining time once it takes off. "Avengers: Age of Ultron" aims to please, and in spite of everything, it does. It's a lot of movie, and while it decidedly feels less special and more overstuffed and unwieldy in its storytelling than the first time we saw all of these characters share the screen together, there is still plenty that Whedon does right to deliver what fans want to see in an "Avengers" movie. As the post-credits confirm, the Avengers will surely return"Avengers: Infinity War Part 1" and "Avengers: Infinity War Part 2" have already been announced for 2018 and 2019, respectivelyand, hopefully, by that time, it will be more than enough time for the Russo Brothers to mirror the marvelous balance of witty barbs and spectacular, high-stakes action of "The Avengers." For now, their Phase 2 is just good enough.

Grade: B - 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Unexpected Virtue of Youth: "Clouds of Sils Maria" complex, reflective and beautifully acted

Clouds of Sils Maria (2015)
124 min., rated R.

French writer-director Olivier Assayas' "Clouds of Sils Maria" is another film about art corroding into reality, but what it lacks in conventional dramatic push it makes up for it with its ambitious, often poetic looking glass of metaphorical meaning. Assayas may spell out his themes so much that subtext engulfs the characters and the story, however, he manages to do it in a fascinating and reflective way that isn't heavy-handed or pompous. It might not have the same bravura technical skill or emotional punch of Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," still fresh in the memory from last year, but its achievements are more subtle and on a smaller canvas. Not only for its three outstanding female performances, the densely layered "Clouds of Sils Maria" deserves praise for its character-based meditation on acting, the end of an era, and the commerce vs. art argument in cinema.

En route on a train through the Swiss Alps, aging film actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) are both priming for a ceremony to honor and accept an award for Maria's mentor, playwright and director Wilhelm Menchior. Double-fisting an ever-ringing cell phone and blackberry to answer personal calls for Maria's divorce and booking press appointments and photo shoots, Valentine soon breaks the news to her that Wilhelm had suddenly died of a heart attack. Maria owes the success of her career to Wilhelm and now wrestles with her emotions from his death. Setting foot in Switzerland, Maria is approached by a hip new director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), to rework Wilhelm's "The Maloja Snake" for the stage and take on the role of Helena, the 40-year-old character pushed to suicide by the 20-year-old Sigrid, the role that put a then-18-year-old on the map. This news comes with baggage, as the actress who played Helena opposite Maria actually did die and the actress playing Sigrid will be filled by notorious up-and-comer Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a wild child who's all over TMZ for her violently drunken exploits and sarcastic TV interviews. Once she reluctantly agrees, Maria and Valentine retire to Wilhelm's cottage in Sils Maria, left to them by his grieving widow Rosa (Angela Winkler), and relationships are tested.

At any point, "Clouds of Sils Maria" could dive head-first into a post-"All About Eve" melodrama with overheated backstabbing and manipulation, but like that 1950 Bette Davis-Anne Baxter classic, it's perceptive and even wickedly funny. Like the aging Maria, writer-director Olivier Assayas never veils his obvious preference for artful cinema over popcorn movies and disdain for celebrity gossip, which Valentine voraciously reads. There is plenty of shop talk between actors and directors, actors and assistants, but there are also conversations, er, debates about how different generations interpret a film and what subjectively constitutes art. After she and Maria take in Jo-Ann's latest sci-fi movie in 3-D, no less, Valentine makes the point, "There's no less truth there in a supposedly serious film." As we see a clip from the movie, the scene set on a spaceship is too ridiculously silly to be taken seriously that it's no wonder Maria laughs at Valentine's validation of the movie. Maybe Valentine sees an honesty in Jo-Ann's performance surrounded in cheesy production design and costumes that Maria doesn't, or is her view just simplistic? Maybe Maria's highbrow taste in art over entertainment has stemmed from her jadedness of being in the business herself. Maria has outgrown hanging from wires in front of green screens and maybe the film industry, too.  

In a profession that finds fewer and fewer meaty parts for actresses or casts them in worthless day-player roles as Concerned Wife or The Girl, it's quite encouraging to see a film with a 51-year-old actress being at the height of her powers, a 25-year-old actress being a revelation, and an 18-year-old actress just getting better and better. In nearly every scene, the irreplaceable Juliette Binoche is as expressive and luminous as ever, probably relating to Maria's vulnerable, insecure stance in her career in an industry that values youth more than talent. Holding her own every step of the way, even with all of her two-hander scenes with Binoche where they're just drinking, smoking and talking, is Kristen Stewartyes, that one. Earning the title of being the first American actress to win the César AwardFrance's equivalent of an Oscar—for her performance, Stewart keeps proving her naysayers wrong, with 2009's "Adventureland," 2010's "The Runaways," 2014's "Camp X-Ray" and "Still Alice" and now this, that she really is worth her salt as one of the more impressive actresses of her generation. Bella Swan, who? With her facial expressions that diverge from her trademark lip-biting, Stewart's sharp, emotionally open performance speaks volumes about her put-upon Valentine, particularly when she continues running lines with Maria and it becomes tough to tell where the Sigrid-Helena relationship ends and the Valentine-Maria relationship begins. Last but not least, Chloë Grace Moretz is amusingly spot-on, sneakily leaving a mark as a Lindsay Lohan type who subverts Maria's expectations again and again after she's expecting a train wreck. From fawning over Maria with flattery in their meeting in a hotel lounge to the biting comeback she gives to Maria over how to play Sigrid, Moretz draws so many shadings out of Jo-Ann.

Named after the thick, foggy cloud bank that winds through the Alps, with stunning on-location lensing by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, "Clouds of Sils Maria" might become a tad redundant but takes its good old time, impatient viewers be damned. Divided into three chapters, the film's elliptical structure begins from a distance to the viewer, scenes fading to black, and then slowly getting closer as characters start mirroring "characters" in the play and plot points blur between both the film and the play. Before filmmaker Olivier Assayas starts plainly stressing his themes with the use of his characters' mouths, he plays his cards close to the vest like an intimate drama that relies on character and dialogue rather than plot and finite resolutions. If being chilly and detached were a crime in cinema, "Clouds of Sils Maria" would fail on every level, but with that approach, the insights are greater and the payoff more unsuspectingly moving.

Grade: B + 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Almost Human: "Ex Machina" an accomplished, coolly provocative sci-fi rep

Ex Machina (2015) 
108 min., rated R.

Throughout cinema, dating back to Fritz Lang's expressionistic 1927 benchmark "Metropolis," there have been countless films about artificial intelligence and sentience — 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey," 1987's "RoboCop," 2001's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," 2013's "Her" and, most recently, "Chappie," just to name a few. What's one more? British novelist-turned-screenwriter Alex Garland, who wrote Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later…" and "Sunshine," as well as "Never Let Me Go," graduates to the director's chair with his auspicious debut, "Ex Machina," and what makes it even more stunning is that it's too confident to ever feel like one's first hand behind the camera. A coolly stimulating, thematically provocative and heady piece of science fiction, this is what Wally Pfister's "Transcendence" dreamt of being. It's a thinking man's sci-fi without being too technical, a slick visual feast without being empty, and a slow-burn thriller without being rote, plodding and dumbed-down. 

When talented New Haven coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is randomly selected in an office lottery at his Google-like search-engine company Blue Book, he has no idea what he's about to do. He's asked to spend a week at his reclusive boss' compound in the remote snowy mountains that can only be accessed by helicopter. Landing outside near the subterranean estate, Caleb enters and meets the bearded Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who has brought the programmer to complete a "Turing Test" in his underground research facility, each room requiring a security card. This means that he will examine a female A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander) to gauge whether or not Nathan's creation is capable of human thought. In his early sessions with Ava, separated by glass, Caleb asks her questions to determine how close to human she really is and becomes drawn to this beautiful robot, but during a power cut, he realizes he's not sure who to trust machine or the machine's creator. There's more than meets the eye here.

Writer-director Alex Garland isn't working with any ideas that we haven't seen before—undiscovered originality is hard to come by after all—but he actually has something to say and knows how to say it. Slowly but surely building a sinister, quietly hypnotic mood of unease and portent not unlike last year's mesmerizing "Under the Skin," which also raised questions of what it meant to be human in an alien woman's eyes, "Ex Machina" teasingly and methodically wraps one up in its wave of paranoia and manipulation, as well as its ideas of God-playing science, human sexuality and male domination. If man creates smarter, stronger machines to simulate human beings, what is stopping them from making mankind extinct? It's not incidental that Ava is a man-made woman and that Nathan also has an obedient Japanese servant named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who doesn't understand or speak a lick of English. By design, "Ex Machina" is chilly, austere and only seemingly predictable until it begins resetting one's expectations that of the characters and narrative trajectory. 

In substance, this is a spare, claustrophobic chamber drama with four principal characters. Such a charismatic everyman in 2013's "About Time," Domhnall Gleeson is terrific here in darker climate as Caleb, his boyish, good-natured visage relatably making him the audience surrogate. Proving once again to be a versatile character actor who can do anything, Oscar Isaac is fascinating and deliciously enigmatic as Nathan. Spending his nights getting wasted and then recovering in the morning by drinking a lot of antioxidants and working out vigorously, Isaac's Nathan is imbued with wicked humor and off-kilter behavior, like a random, indelibly loony disco dance with Kyoko that will be hard to forget. Finally, it would be a crime to not give credit to Alicia Vikander. As Ava, she is an alluring specimen, adopting the robotic body language perfectly, in the way she tilts her head, and gives an unexpectedly layered performance of vulnerability and strength. Is she a victim or a villain? Saying anything more would be a spoiler.

From the cinematography to the production design, visual effects and music score, "Ex Machina" looks and sounds exquisite. Like the architecture of Nathan's steely glass-and-concrete compound realized by production designer Mark Digby, every frame is sleek, sterile, precise and quixotic through Rob Hardy's lensing. Shot on a relatively low budget in Norway, it looks like a million bucks. The creation of Ava is simply staggering, evoking the seamlessly polished mastery that went into making Alicia Vikander look like an unfinished android made of steel and wires. Also, the score by Portishead's Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is piercing and rattlingly creepy. With Alex Garland coming to the scene as a screenwriter first, his screenplay is intelligently crafted with purposely earned plot turns existing for themes that are set up from the get-go and surprising without feeling like cheats. After the tension has been ratcheted up for the film's climax, there's something equally menacing and touchingly hopeful to the open-ended, albeit disturbingly prescient, conclusion that opens up a can of worms. Clearly, Garland thinks highly of his audience and trusts and respects their intelligence. Close to a triumph, "Ex Machina" is increasingly unsettling and accomplished, and for that, it will be hard to not absorb it for days after watching it and want to take in repeated viewings.

Grade: A - 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Curious Case of Anti-Wrinkles: Flawed "Age of Adaline" still weaves an enchanting fable

The Age of Adaline (2015)
110 min., rated PG-13.

Living forever can get lonely. How do you live without becoming a pariah? How do you fall in love with someone if you remain young and your partner grows old? An ageless, period-trotting love story made from a fantastical premise, "The Age of Adaline" had the potential to be something special and even more ruminative with its themes of mortality and loneliness. Even when the film's love story that matters is curiously given short shrift, director Lee Toland Krieger (he of two uncelebrated indie gems, 2009's "The Vicious Kind" and 2012's "Celeste and Jesse Forever") and screenwriters J. Mills Goodloe (2014's "The Best of Me") & Salvador Paskowitz do a well-enough job of spinning a frequently enchanting and ultimately bittersweet journey that resists the gooiest and most melodramatic turns in any Nicholas Sparks romance. Though the titular Adaline might not share an ending like anyone who is human, the film invites enough merit to be something of a companion piece to 2009's sweeping, achingly profound "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

Born the first baby of the New Year in San Francisco in 1908, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) is now 107 years old but looks 29—and might always look 29. From a helpful narrator (Hugh Ross), we are informed that Adaline, in 1937, was involved in a car accident that, due to hypothermia that stopped her heart and a lightning strike that defibrillated her back to life, gave her the gift of eternal youth. As the years passed, people started to notice she did not look her age, so Adaline was forced to go on the run and change her identity every decade to avoid attention or being turned into a freak study. The only person in on her secret is her now-elderly daughter, Flemming (Ellen Burstyn). Throughout the years, she only formed attachments to her first husband and a pre-med student named William (Anthony Ingruber). In 2015, living under her alias "Jennifer Larson" back in San Francisco, Adaline works as an archivist. On her birthday at a New Year's party before she's about to move to Oregon, she meets the attractive, disarming Ellis (Michiel Huisman), who's quite persistent. Wary of opening herself up to another relationship since she can't grow old with him, Adaline listens to her daughter and takes a chance.

"The Age of Adaline" is the kind of unabashedly romantic fantasy that only works by suspending your disbelief and just not asking questions. Magic works better that way. If one can get past the scientific hokum that sets Adaline's de-aging in motion, a chance meeting between former flames is even easier to buy. The film works most gracefully and convincingly when chronicling Adaline's strange life that evades the ravages of time. She reinvents herself every ten years and makes for a cultured, old-soul woman who doesn't look a day over 30. It also helps that her best friend is a blind piano player (Lynda Boyd) and she refuses to be photographed. At the center are two love stories, and the more complicated one is never given the amount of time it deserves. It's not that Adaline and Ellis don't work well together as a couple who might endure, but the star-crossed romance between Adaline and William (Harrison Ford), Ellis' father, should have been explored further if they were indeed soul mates. In retrospect, more specific memories of Adaline from William's point-of-view might have enriched the film's love story and given it the final emotional punch it needed. 

Blake Lively has been a lightweight actress in the past but has shown her strengths in TV's "Gossip Girl," both "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" films, and "The Town." Adaline Bowman counts as her meatiest role, not to mention her first headliner, and she's up to the challenge. For one, she's beautiful with a timeless movie-star quality, but Lively also brings levity and an emotional depth to the part. At a New Year's party, she tells a young fellow that he looks like "a young Bing Crosby…type." When her beloved King Charles spaniel Reese is on his way out, it's poignant and heartbreaking to see Adaline having to outlive everyone, including all of her pets. As the wise Flemming, the incomparable Ellen Burstyn makes the wonky sight of playing Adaline's senior-citizen daughter surprisingly plausible and touching. The scruffy Michiel Huisman (TV's "Game of Thrones") is a charming catch as the handsome and cultured but blandly too-good-to-be-true Ellis, and he shares a lovely chemistry with Lively, but Harrison Ford hasn't given this vulnerable and finely tuned of a performance in ages. When older William first sets eyes on Adaline, calling herself "Jenny" but pretending to Adaline's daughter, the viewer feels the punch in the gut that he feels on the weekend he's about to celebrate a 40th wedding anniversary milestone with his wife, Kathy (Kathy Baker), and their two children. William can't get over the coincidence that his own son is dating the supposed daughter of his One That Got Away, and all of his emotions are palpable. Anthony Ingruber deserves credit for seamlessly emulating the younger William in flashbacks with a non-hammy Harrison Ford voice, and Kathy Baker and Amanda Crew also round out Ellis and William's warmly likable family members.

Handsomely shot in a modernized retro glaze by David Lanzenberg, the film cannily makes Vancouver locations standing in for San Francisco. Angus Strathie's costume design classically coifs Blake Lively, paying attention to her Adaline's agelessness but still not making her look out of touch with today's trends. For the full 110 minutes, the film is always along with Adaline, giving the viewer a reason to care about her seemingly inescapable immortality. While not as memorable as its premise, "The Age of Adaline" still works its spell as an affecting fable for grown-ups that's been made with pearl-like beauty and wisdom. Sure, it gets a bit hokey in the final act, with a key character reaction coming off much too low-key and reasonable, but it never feels creepy or overly sudsy, and had the film ended before its extraneous, too-tidy epilogue, it might have been even more resonant. If nothing else, Blake Lively is the raison d'être.


Manny Child: Familiar "Adult Beginners" goes down easily with likable cast

Adult Beginners (2015)
90 min., rated R.

Jay and Mark Duplass-produced indie "Adult Beginners" doesn't put a different wrinkle on the arrested-development story, but originality can be overrated sometimes. Not unlike last year's "other" Duplass Brothers-produced brother-sister dramedy "The Skeleton Twins" with Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, this more middle-of-the-road entry also deals with maturation, the mending of sibling relationships, deceased parents, extramarital affairs, and swimming pools. Previously making his name as a producer on "In the Bedroom" and two Sofia Coppola pictures, Ross Katz makes his directorial debut out of a story by Nick Kroll (TV's "The League"), who also gets his first lead role and leaves room for improvement but shows potential. Déjà vu might be written all over the minor "Adult Beginners," but it's still sweet-natured comfort food with enough likability to put it over.

During the launch party of his million-dollar Google Glass-like "Minds i," narcissistic Manhattan product investor Jake (Nick Kroll) tarnishes his name and everyone's trust by losing all of his money and the money of those involved. With nowhere else to go, he shows up on the doorstep of his suburban family home in New Rochelle, now owned by estranged, pregnant-again sister Justine (Rose Byrne), contractor husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale), and their 3-year-old son, Teddy (Caleb and Matthew Paddock). For three months, Jake lives on the air mattress. He intends to get his life together, reeling from his professional and personal shambles, but instead of getting back to work, Jake gives "mannying" a try. Meanwhile, Justine and Danny have their own individual issues, but Jake might just be the middle man to fix everything.

"Adult Beginners" comes close to begging the viewer to roll his or her eyes, but everything exists more in reality than a sitcom. Director Ross Katz and husband-and-wife screenwriters Jeff Cox (2007's "Blades of Glory") and Liz Flahive (TV's "Nurse Jackie") check off every arrested-development and parenthood cliché. Self-involved man-child becomes a "manny" for his nephew. Brother and brother-in-law sneak pot. A character notices someone else having a possible affair with a co-worker. Siblings reminisce of their cancer-stricken mother with home movies. Finally, will our hero choose his family over a soulless corporate job? One can almost always guess where the expected trajectory is headed and be right. Some of the subplots telegraph conflicts that resolve in tidy ways, and one involving a Harvard-bound student (Sarah Steele) being prepped for college by Justine is forgotten about. Butand it's a slight "but," but a "but" just the samethe characters feel like real human beings who exist beyond the narrative and not just as screenwriting puppets. Also helping its case, the film has a breezy tone and offers some unforced humor and moments of relatability more than not. 

Jake is established as an insincere tool early on, so it's never in doubt that he will be wiser and stronger by the end. It's a natural fit for Nick Kroll, who handles a caustic one-liner with aplomb ("Jesus, enough. You look like a Tim Burton creature," Jake jests, as Justine applies eye shadow in the car for a night-out). Rose Byrne never strikes a false note, not anywhere and not here as Justine, justifying why she's one of the warmest and most self-deprecating actresses working today who can effortlessly slip between pathos and comedy. The always-welcome Bobby Cannavale also lends shadings where he can as Justine's husband, who's put in a negative light but still isn't pigeonholed, either. Mainly, though, Kroll and Byrne click as estranged siblings and have very nice moments together. The rest of the castJoel McHale, Jason Mantzoukas, Sarah Steele, Jeffrey DeMunn, Celia Weston, Julie White, Jane Krakowski and Bobby Moynihanis nice to see, but their time isn't really well-spent, appearing in bit parts that don't really pop and add very little. Resolutely predictable and low-stakes but affable, "Adult Beginners" isn't much. It's more of a comfortable sit than a life-changing experience, but the actors makes it seem like a genuine effort.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

DVD: "The Walking Deceased" too witless and crudely made to parody properly

The Walking Deceased (2015) 
88 min., rated R.

Being billed as "a delightfully bloody addition to the pantheon of zombie-apocalypse spoofs," "The Walking Deceased" is about as delightful as "Epic Movie," "Meet the Spartans," "Disaster Movie," "Vampire Sucks" and "A Haunted House" (all would-be parodies) were as brilliantly funny as "Airplane!" or "The Naked Gun." Just kidding. The truth is, this lame-o spoof is thoroughly worthless and witless. Can you possibly guess what "The Walking Deceased" is lampooning? Come on, you can do it. Yes, AMC's "The Walking Dead," but also "Warm Bodies" and "Zombieland" with references to "Shaun of the Dead" and "Zombie Strippers!" (It boggles the mind why "Zombieland" would even be eligible to be sent up since that 2009 horror-comedy inventively skewered zombie-apocalypse tropes.) Recognizable, low-fruit-hanging targets aside, director Scott Dow and screenwriter Tim Ogletree (who also co-stars) don't know the first thing about what makes a spoof a spoof. Instead of twisting their targets with an original spin, they just rip off each movie and scrape the bottom of the barrel for intended jokes. 

The bare-minimum plot (not that we watch spoofs for coherent narratives) begins with Sheriff Lincoln (Dave Sheridan) waking up from a month-long coma to discover a zombie apocalypse. The sheriff cries like a baby upon being told that there is no longer any social media, except for LinkedIn, and then finds his 12-year-old son, Chris (Mason Dakota Galyon), as the foul-mouthed bartender of a strip club of undead dancers. Lincoln and Chris later meet up with survivors Green Bay (Tim Ogletree) and Chicago (Joey Oglesby), along with snappish Brooklyn (Sophia Taylor Ali) and her deaf 13-year-old sister Harlem (Danielle Garcia), shacking up in a shopping mall for their safe haven. Meanwhile, nice, internal-monologuing vegan zombie boy Romeo (Troy Ogletree) saves Brooklyn from being eaten, and the group takes him in as they make their way to another safe haven on a ranch. 

The one high point about "The Walking Deceased" is that it at least doesn't waste any talent. Save for Dave Sheridan (primarily remembered for playing Doofy in 2000's "Scary Movie"), all of the actors are no-names with less-than-adroit comic timing. Making a film is not light work, especially when first getting one's foot in the door, but director Scott Dow and screenwriter Tim Ogletree never get a hold of a tone and never find any sense of pacing for a spoof. Humor is surely subjective, but spoofing is an art and "The Walking Deceased" is just too artless to know that. From the sheriff blowing a non-zombie girl's brains out, to the same character relieving himself on the toilet (and for those who watch movies with subtitles, the sound effect is a "plop"), to the characters sitting around and getting high, the humor ranges from ugly to lazily unfunny. A gag-a-minute, light-on-its-feet lark is one thing, but "The Walking Deceased" is actually a chore to watch. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: D - 

Monday, April 20, 2015

DVD/Blu-ray: Skippable "Taken 3" delivers on low expectations

Taken 3 (2015)
109 min., rated PG-13.

The door is always left open for a sequel, but that doesn't necessarily mean it needs to exist. There's that unwritten rule in Hollywood that if one movie pulls off the numbers at the box-office, the same formula can be repeated again and again for pay-dirt until it wears itself out with fatigue. The Luc Besson-produced "Taken" series should have retired before the first sequel even happened, but here we are with "Taken 3," the third and presumably last entry (we'll see about that) after the impossibly dopey, unintentionally funny "Taken 2." At this point, who or what is even left to be taken but the viewer of their time and hard-earned dollars? Old habits die hard in "Taken 3," which doesn't welcome a "Taken 4" but isn't unwatchable, either. Besides, when's the last time you saw a movie make hot bagels an important plot point that would have cleared up everything in the plot?

Director Olivier Megaton (2012's "Taken 2") and screenwriters Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen return, ripping Bryan Mills' family apart once and (maybe) for all. As Bryan (Liam Neeson) is about to leave Los Angeles for a month on a job, someone else has other plans. Remaining close to ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) but knowing his boundaries as she is having marital problems with her present husband (Dougray Scott), he is soon framed for her murder. Named a prime suspect and getting a little help from his friends (i.e. communication expert, explosives expert), Bryan goes on the run, evading Inspector Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker), and will do anything to not lose his college-aged daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). All this time, the real bad guys, led by Russian criminal Oleg Malankov (Sam Spruell) who's after some money (what else is new?), are getting away, but everyone knows Bryan Mills has a particular set of skills and will live to put them all in the ground.

Expectations were low, sight unseen, and while it's certainly a hair better than "Taken 2," "Taken 3" is an adequately made but entirely disposable cash-grab through and through. It is what it is. Held back by the PG-13 rating, almost to an offensively mild degree (particularly during an overly cut sequence of fisticuffs in a liquor store), director Olivier Megaton is not always "on" with the action set-pieces, which is a problem when the action is clearly the selling point. The first car chase of several is actually pretty entertaining and must have taken a lot of effort and planning to stage, while Bryan surviving a car crash off the cliff beside a winding road without a scratch is so absurd that it comes with a flashback of how the magician pulled it off. There might be a few thrills, but who's to feel a sense of adrenaline when most of the action is jumbled and seemingly edited with a strobe inside of a blender? Liam Neeson takes this character through the motions, doing what he does best as no spring chicken and still bringing warmth to his relationship with his daughter. Somehow, Maggie Grace seems more invested for the third go-round than she ever did as Kim, who has to deal with an unplanned pregnancy. Series first-timer Forest Whitaker fills the Tommy Lee Jones part in "The Fugitive" and seems to have filled the thankless role with more backstory than the writers. For no rhyme or reason, he inscrutably fiddles around with a knight chess piece he carries around, nibbles on bagels, and snaps a rubber band around his wrist. 

Bryan Mills' particular set of skills has grown so rote and stale that even the crowd-pleasing sight of Neeson kicking ass has lost its joy and surprise, and "Taken 3" is just a connect-the-dots forgone conclusion. In what can only be owed to script contrivances, pure luck, or Bryan's still-undetected psychic abilities, he escapes the police through an underground space under a car in a neighbor's garage that leads to a sewer. Later, Bryan manages to relieve himself of his handcuffs from a cop car, survive a car pile-up on the Interstate 10, as well as the explosion that results after reversing a car into an elevator shaft of a parking garage, and then go unnoticed in convenience stores and college buildings like a ghost or a superhero with an invisibility cloak. He's just that good, folks, or the filmmakers just have to cut corners to keep the sequels going. As the tagline reads, "it ends here," and if that's a promise, Bryan and Kim should go into a witness-protection program. They need a break and so do we.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Heads Will Roll: "The Dead Lands" numbs before it begins

The Dead Lands (2015)
109 min., rated R.

"The Dead Lands" may be the first New Zealand Maori-language action epic to shed a light on the country's indigenous people, but perhaps how one feels about it comes down to this: if you like this type of movie, you will like this type of movie. Director Toa Fraser and screenwriter Glenn Standring have gone to painstaking lengths to recreate a pre-colonial culture and that goes with the actors speaking the Maori language. The film is angry, brutally violent and barbaric, but it's such a long time coming for the simplistic plot to pick up much steam. After a rather dull first half-hour, where the viewer is ready to just put in the towel, "The Dead Lands" starts to deliver the goods and then goes out with a whimper. Nearly sixteen-seasons old boy Hongi (James Rolleston), the seemingly weak son of a tribe leader, spots rival Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) desecrating his ancestors' bones. Once Hongi tells his father, Wirepa launches a treacherous attack on Hongi's father's tribe, slaughtering his father and his people with the help from his brutish, bare-chested tribesman. Hongi narrowly escapes with his life and then seeks help from "the Warrior" (Lawrence Makoane), a cannibalistic ghost who haunts the so-called Dead Lands.

A bloodthirsty revenge B picture gussied up with an impressive scope, proficient production values and bloodshed galore, "The Dead Lands" is little more than what it is. On second thought, the film seems afraid to just be what it is by aiming to be a personal odyssey with profundity and deeper meaning that it never truly earns. There are so many interminably talky stretches about the code of honor, ancestry and revenge (or, "repayment," as it's referred to as here) that the blood-spewing decapitations just can't come quick enough. The film reminds of Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto," although that 2006 film about the Mayan civilization had a protagonist we could get behind and tension that felt tangible. Lunging to the point can help with pacing, but it's hard to latch onto anything or anyone from the very get-go. Within the opening ten minutes, Hongi's father and people are slaughtered before the viewer gets to know any of them or gets a sense of their familial unit. Beyond default that they are human beings, we have no emotional connection to any of these people, so the impact is slight. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Dying IRL: "Unfriended" clicks as a timely freak-out

Unfriended (2015)
82 min., rated R. 

Just when horror fans were ready to put a moratorium on any more found-footage movies comes the micro-budgeted "Unfriended," a cautionary cyber-horror film with a point of condemnation to make. Picked up by tireless producer Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions ("Paranormal Activity," "Insidious," "Sinister," et al.), the film is indeed a gripping ride, with jolts and vicarious thrills to satisfy the millennial horror crowd, but not for the reasons one might expect. Several movies (2013's "Disconnect," 2014's "Men, Women & Children" and "uwantme2killhim?") have dealt with the impact of cyberbullying through the 21st-century's ubiquitous social media, but in a horror setting, "Unfriended" (formerly known as "Cybernatural," which was judiciously scrapped) is a gimmick that really works. It's cynical and disturbing, yet fun.  

"Unfriended" unfolds entirely in real time (and boldly so) on the Mac computer screen of Fresno high schooler Blaire (Shelley Hennig) on the one-year anniversary of friend Laura Barns' (Heather Sossaman) suicide. In the middle of an intimate private Skype chat with her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), they accept a group chat from their five friends, Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), Ken (Jacob Wysocki) and Val (Courtney Halverson). When an unknown user, dubbed "billie227," logged into Laura's Skype account is also in on the chat, the six friends think it must be a glitch or a sick joke by a hacker. Then, Blaire starts receiving messages on Facebook from Laura's old account. By the end of the night, all of them are tormented and forced to unload their dirty little secrets to one another in order to stay alive. The anonymous posting of an embarrassing YouTube video of a sloppy, passed-out Laura at a party pushed the girl to take her own life, and if the person on the other side really is Laura or just an Internet troll with revenge on the brain, all of them are going to pay.

The brainchild of "Wanted"/"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" director Timur Bekmambetov (who produces), "Unfriended" has a humdinger of a premise, that of a vengeful ghost commandeering her frenemies' computers, with its supernatural underpinnings never (over)explained. It's essentially a haunted-Skype chamber piece, characters hooked to their webcams, or else, that will make ideal home viewing on a laptop. Director Leo Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves are not old fogies because they accurately capture the mundane nature of surfing the Internet, checking Facebook wall posts, choosing a song on a Spotify playlist, watching YouTube videos, self-editing one's own instant messages and, altogether, multi-tasking with multiple tabs. For those hoping to rip holes in the film's premise and call the on-screen characters "dumbasses" for not just signing off Skype, the film establishes that Blaire and her friends can't call the police or get rid of Laura with an antivirus software; that would be too easy. It's not the most logical film in the world, but director Gabriadze and screenwriter Greaves swing things into such a fever pitch that being captivated by one giant Skype screen outweighs any contrivance used to bend the rules of human behavior a bit.

Despite its often-annoying aesthetics (i.e. distorted feedback and frozen screens, back-and-forth of browsers, grammatically erroneous keystrokes), "Unfriended" has its finger on the pulse on where we are in the present. Even when it's in a close-knit but two-faced group of teenage friends, bullying is even more prevalent with one click of a button, whether it's posting a picture on a Facebook wall or uploading a video on YouTube. It's no joke, just cruelty. Across the board, there are no heroes or villains in any of the Skype chat boxes, not even ghost-in-the-machine Laura Barns (who comes off combative when she was alive), but they are all sitting ducks. The film is believably acted, considering all of the cast members are in their mid- and late-twenties and playing self-involved high school students whose interactions seem unscripted and extemporaneous, but no one is as impressive as Shelley Hennig (2014's "Ouija") as Blaire. If we're going by teen stereotypes, she is the "good girl," but even that label gets turned on its head. Hennig is most likable, despite Blaire's horrible mistakes, and is up to the task of selling an emotional spectrum of distress, hysteria, and guilt when her and her friends' lives are at stake. Jacob Wysocki (2011's "Terri") and Will Peltz (2014's "Men, Women & Children") are the only other recognizable faces, aside from Hennig, and they do what they can as bowl-smoking computer whiz Ken and rich, cocky jackass Adam, respectively.

Frighteningly timely, savvily conceived, if not wholly successful, "Unfriended" has modest goals and achieves them. It may not be the game-changer for the found-footage subgenre as casual moviegoers might give it credit for (2014's "The Den" and "Open Windows" blazed the trail in the indie world), but it's unnerving on its own. What director Leo Gabriadze lacks in his silly, jolt-ready final shot makes up for it beforehand with shrewd touches, not to mention the entire technical process of long 80-minute takes. For one, the drinking game, "Never Have I Ever," gets turned into a maliciously motivated airing out of unforgivable dirty laundry that makes enemies out of friends and shows everyone's true colors, and the use of Connie Conway's "How You Lie, Lie, Lie" on Blaire's Spotify playlist has wickedly ironic timing. "Unfriended" isn't going to put a stop to cyberbullying, however, at least this nastily effective freak-out isn't just an empty-headed slasher pic but in with the zeitgeist and has something on its mind. 


Fair and Balance: Hill and Franco sell absorbing "True Story" with conviction

True Story (2015)
100 min., rated R.

Jonah Hill and James Franco probably have a mistaken identity comedy in them, but rather, "True Story" is an investigative true-crime docudrama that exposes unethical journalism and the notion of finding the truth. Based on the mea culpa memoir of ex-New York Times journalist Michael Finkel, the film has a fascinating story to tell and, by design, blurs the line between fact and fiction, truth and lies. Like any stranger-than-fiction piece, this one weaves an unusual story that is worth telling but would be unbelievable were it not true. Beyond being "based on a true story"five words that don't automatically point to an interesting, worthwhile motion picture"True Story" provokes thought about primal human nature and the mysteries of why we try to give others the benefit of the doubt, based on face value. The smartest and less gullible viewer will be way ahead of where this is all going, but the suspense is in the "when" and "how" rather than the "what." 

In 2002, respected New York Times journalist Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) is fired from the staff for fabricating a composite character for the paper's Sunday magazine cover story on the African slave trade. Accepting his disgrace, he moves back to Montana with his wife, Jill (Felicity Jones), and hopes that another job will come along after making a few calls. Meanwhile, Oregon native Christian Longo (James Franco) is arrested in Cancun for suspicion of killing his wife (Maria Dizzia) and three young children and fleeing the States, but the name he gives is "Mike Finkel," the same Mike Finkel of the New York Times. When the real Finkel gets wind of this, he's less than worried about identity theft because Christian's story could mean a scoop that could save his reputation and career. Visiting Christian in prison, Finkel's interaction with the alleged murderer doesn't go as planned. The two men both need each other and come to a deal: if Longo tells him the truth at some point, Finkel will have to delay publication of his book until after the trial and then teach Longo how to write. Christian might just get Mike to believe him that he's been wrongfully accused, or is the alleged killer actually innocent?

"True Story" is compelling stuff, solidly told and taking the viewer along with Mike Finkel as he may or may not be manipulated by the man who used his name. Making his shift from stage theater and TV to film, debuting director Rupert Goold, who wrote the screenplay with David Kajganich, makes it clear that he trusts the facts and implications of the story he's telling. Goold shoots the film with a fine restraint, never coming off dull or dry in the two-hander and courtroom scenes and never going over the line into exploitative sensationalism for a story about a grisly crime. The opening shot is certainly an arresting one, as the camera rests on a teddy bear falling from the ceiling of a room, falling slowly but soon revealing a pajama-clad young girl in a suitcase where the stuffed animal eventually lands. Next, the suitcase is zipped and we hear the audio of that suitcase being thrown into the water, and finally, an autopsy reveals the aftermath of a horrific crime.

When one thinks of Jonah Hill, many don't jump right to his subtle, layered work in 2010's "Cyrus" or 2011's "Moneyball," but to the raucous stoner comedies that he made his name on. Understated but never self-consciously so, Jonah Hill gives his most dramatic work here as Mike Finkel, rising to the occasion and nailing the desperation and opportunistic nature of a journalist. Given the actor's innate likability, this must be a softened portrayal of the real Finkel, but it's still an impressive piece of acting from Hill. Always committed to his craft, James Franco already has a slipperiness about him that proves he's convincingly cast as Christian Logo. He's quite effective and not showy as expected, selling Logo's capability of manipulating anyone with his exhausted eyes and fleeting smirk, to the point that both the viewer and Finkel start to empathize with him. Logo remains a mystery and that's the point; an example of his enigmatic character comes early when he says to Finkel, "Sometimes the truth is believable. But that doesn't mean it's not true." Whether or not one can separate Franco from the real person of one Christian Logo will be up to the viewer entirely. This is the actor who donned cornrows and a grill, completely losing himself in his inspired, transformative performance in 2013's "Spring Breakers." Apart from Hill and Franco being such familiar screen company, it's not hard to believe Finkel and Logo as composites of the same person. Forced to have the two male leads have their day, Felicity Jones (minus her English accent) is underused for most of the film, looking worried and suffering inside, until she captivates in one juicy, clap-worthy, if contrived, scene where Jill visits Christian and puts him in his place.

Pulling through as an effective journalistic mystery told and acted with conviction, "True Story" isn't above running into a few snags. The editing is sometimes rushed; Finkel having a soon-to-be-published manuscript on his desk seems to come way too fast, and the timeline of Finkel's flights back and forth to Oregon and Montana get a little murky. More problematic than those quibbles, we can't even begin to understand the relationship between Mike Finkel and wife Jill, or why he lives in New York and she in Montana. Perhaps Rupert Goold was giving his audience too much credit, but even one line of dialogue could have made sense of this. Though one could say a long-distance marriage was the problem, there is little background to gauge why their marriage seems so rocky, too; it just is. Jill, herself, is also barely written and next to nothing is learned about her outside of her working in a library and jogging as her choice of exercise. However, the lynchpin of the entire film, of course, is Finkel's co-dependent dynamic with Longo, his spiritual soul mate, and that's where "True Story" plays like an unequivocally absorbing page-turner on the screen. As a film, it's an unexceptional example of what the cinematic form can really do, but as a story, it's a riveting case that holds enough water to sustain interest.