Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Video-On-Demand: "Salvation Boulevard" and "Julia's Eyes"

Salvation Boulevard (2011)
95 min., rated R.
Grade: D

On paper, "Salvation Boulevard" has a tops ensemble and a potentially biting premise for a religious comedy-thriller. But the result is a muddled misfire. Director George Ratliff misuses his largely talented cast that hasn't been directed on how to approach their respective roles so they're left to their own devices: mug and mug some more. Written by Douglas Stone and Ratliff, who adapt from a novel by Larry Beinhart ("Wag the Dog"), the movie is too obvious to be an effective, toothsome satire and not dark enough nor that funny to be a dark comedy. Whatever message the filmmakers were attempting to make can be boiled down to one "shocking" statement: all Christians are hypocrites! 

A former pot-smoking Deadhead, Carl Vandermeer (Greg Kinnear), is born again from a charismatic evangelical preacher, Pastor Dan Day (Pierce Brosnan), who uses Carl as his "miracle" in small western America at the Church of the Third Millennium. One night, after a stage confrontation with best-selling atheist professor Dr. Paul Blaylock (Ed Harris), Dan accidentally shoots Paul, with Carl there too, and puts the blame on Carl. Obviously, Dan's mega-church members, particularly Carl's overzealous fundamentalist wife Gwen (Jennifer Connelly) and her stone-faced father Joe (Ciarán Hinds), stick by their pastor and think Carl is just hallucinating. Meanwhile, after Dan commits such a sin, he watches the movie "Legend" and immediately starts receiving calls from an unknown number whom he believes to be Satan. Meanwhile to said meanwhile, Paul's lapdog/cameraman, Jerry (Jim Gaffigan), is sent out to cover up his master's sinful act in a reference to God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. 

So many plot threads are introduced and go nowhere: Carl's anonymous 9-1-1 call following the accident is never brought up in the case, Gwen and Joe want to propose their blueprints of an all-Christian movie theater to Dan, and Joe finds blood on his theater blueprint and takes it to the police but his sleuthing is all for nothing. The "Satan call" subplot has juicy promise, but it's paid off in a detour, involving a gangster (Yul Vazquez) supposedly in Mexico City, that feels oddly out of step with the rest of the film. Then again, nothing seems to work here. 

Misguided, irritating, and patronizing, "Salvation Boulevard" is a bust from shrill, cartoony performances, confused tones eating at each other, jokes being unable to write themselves, and a narrative that goes around in circles. Satire or not, nearly every person on screen is either a one-note, openly mocked caricature of a hypocritcal evangelist or a Christian believer. As the born-again Carl, Kinnear plays him as a village idiot whose actions don't always make sense. God must be on his side because Brosnan at least feels like he could play this windbag slickster in his sleep. It's too bad Harris checks out far too early as the shaggy atheist because he's the most fun. Though thought to do no wrong, Jennifer Connelly gives her lone worst performance, obnoxiously shrill and one-dimensional as Carl's fanatically religious wife. Isabelle Fuhrman, so startling in "Orphan," is lost in all of this as Carl and Gwen's wise daughter, Angie. As stoned ex-hippie turned security guard Honey Foster, Marisa Tomei is amusing the way she ends every sentence with "man," but vanishes halfway through and never returns. Her scenes must have been left on the editing floor, as there's no sign of Honey except in an age-old "Where-Are-They-Now" epilogue. One thing is for sure: there is a Hell.

Julia's Eyes (2011)
112 min., not rated.
Grade: B

Of the two horror films "presented" by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro being released the same week, the Spanish-made "Julia's Eyes" (next to the American remake "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark") is the more effective creepout. This one reunites producer del Toro and lead actress Belén Rueda from 2008's "The Orphanage," so take that Katie Holmes. Sharing the same degenerative eye disorder as her twin sister Sara, Julia Levin (Rueda) has an inkling that something is wrong and rushes to Sara's house with psychologist husband Isaac (Lluis Homar) after a six-month estrangement from her own sister. They find her hanging in the basement, having been incapable of coping with her loss of sight. Julia is unconvinced it was suicide and suspects foul play. But as she investigates Sara's death further and discovers a strange stalker lurking in the shadows, Julia finds her own eyesight failing her. 

Turning in another commanding central performance, Rueda is captivating on screen as always, especially in a demanding role such as this. She plays Julia as a strong, savvy woman who shows her vulnerability when her world literally turns to darkness. Julia having the upper hand from the killer, when unwrapping her eyes four days early, is cleverly crafted and acted on Rueda's part. The blind-woman-in-jeopardy tropes have been done before (most memorably 1967's "Wait Until Dark," 1992's "Jennifer Eight," and 1994's "Blink"), but writer-director Guillem Morales' film is supremely well-made that it justifiably makes the list. Morales shrouds the entire film in a beautifully bleak atmosphere and to make us feel at one with Julia when she's "blindfolded," every character is virtually faceless (being shot from the back or below the chin). It doesn't hurt that the film is stunningly lensed by Óscar Faura (who also shot "The Orphanage") who precisely frames each shot like a haunting photograph. One sequence set in a blind women's locker room is superbly creepy, as is the use of Burt Bacharach's popular 1967 song "The Look of Love" as a harbinger of dread. One image involving an eyeball has the same wince and cringe factor as Spanish director Luis Buñuel's 1929 silent surrealist short, "Un Chien Andalou." 

If there's any shaky ground, Morales' script could've been trimmed to make a tighter, even more mysterious film. When Julia decides, against all good judgment, to stay in her dead sister's house…blind…and alone, except with a care worker named Ivan, it feels like an overcooked horror-thriller contrivance to dumb down Julia and move the plot along. But "Julia's Eyes" is quite engrossing and deliciously suspenseful as cat-and-mouse thrillers go, wrestling with our expectations and ratcheting up the tension when it should. Though there's a little bit less here than meets the eye (hah), "Julia's Eyes" ends on a rather poignant note when it's not making you tensely hold your breath.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Paul Rudd makes "Idiot Brother" a likable slacker

Our Idiot Brother (2011)
90 min., rated R. 
Grade: B

We Rudd you not, "Our Idiot Brother" is not the yukfest that you'd expect out of Hollywood at the end of the summer. But you have to buy Paul Rudd as the most good-natured, naïve hippie and trusting soul in the (movie) world. "Our Idiot Brother" is a lot like its slacker hero: it pleasantly ambles along and doesn't set high goals for itself, it's likable, occasionally funny, and ultimately sweet. 

Rudd winningly plays the "idiot brother," a shaggy dude named Ned who floats through life. He specializes in organic farming (or "biodynamics") but makes the honest mistake of selling weed to an uniformed police officer. When he gets out of jail, Ned's girlfriend Janet (Kathryn Hahn) kicks him off of the farm he's co-owned with her and also says she's keeping his beloved dog Willie Nelson. Ned tries living with his mom (Shirley Knight) in Long Island, but then heads to the city, taking turns staying on each of his sisters' sofas. The most inviting of the three, Liz (Emily Mortimer), welcomes Ned into her home. He's great with her son River (Matthew Mindler), but annoys Liz's British documentarian husband (Steve Coogan), who's having an affair with one of his film subjects. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a bossy Vanity Fair reporter who stops nothing to get the scoop and even makes Ned drive her for a celebrity interview. Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), a bisexual, bohemian beatnick who's in a committed relationship with a lawyer named Cindy (Rashida Jones), makes the mistake of sleeping with her painter (Hugh Dancy) and confiding in Ned with this news. Inevitably, Ned causes big problems with his three sisters, but even though they're exasperated by their brother's idiocy, he's less screwed up than them. 

Rather than being a forced, gags-a'plenty man-child/stoner romp that the (mis-)marketing suggests, "Our Idiot Brother" is more sensitive and warmly amusing than that. Director Jesse Peretz (2007's "The Ex"), working from a script by his sister Evgenia Peretz and her husband David Schisgall, has a stronger handle on addressing family dynamics than forming a story, which mostly meanders between Ned's freeloading, the sisters' subplots, and Ned's ongoing plan to free Willie Nelson. As a conventional narrative, it's a little too slack and aimless, but at least Peretz never shoehorns in a gross-out gag or lets things get too squishy. 

Rudd has such an inherent likability and brings humanity to Ned. Under that Jesus beard, he's a Capra-esque free spirit that tries seeing the best in everyone. As frustrating as his naïveté can be (handing a complete stranger a stack of cash on a train while he cleans up a mess, for one), this slacker is never obnoxious or just a moron. In fact, Rudd's genial, laid-back Ned is like Willie Nelson, his dog that is; as much as he pisses all over your carpet, you can't hate him. Rudd adds deft comic touches, like stopping to use hand sanitizer after walking in on Coogan naked with his mistress, and even touches us a bit when blowing up at his sisters during a game of charades. Mortimer, Banks, and Deschanel often cross into harpy two-dimensionality, but their exasperation is more in touch with reality than a sitcom. And can we just say, isn't Rashida Jones the most adorable butch lesbian sporting vintage grandpa glasses? 

Like a genial and go-with-the-flow underachiever, "Our Idiot Brother" works without trying too hard. Solid, man. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" hasn't enough spooks

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) 
100 min., rated R. 
Grade: C +

Remaking the 1973 made-for-TV movie by the same name, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" has been finished for two years now, while it sat in distribution limbo. It's being marketed as another "Guillermo del Toro presents" film, like 2008's elegantly creepy "The Orphanage," where he had a mere producing credit. But this time, del Toro has produced and written the remodeled gothic horror tale that scared the daylights out of him when he was just a kid. It being 2011, this rejiggering of the 1973 telefilm does renovate the creaks of its predecessor—the 10-inch-tall creatures are computer-generated rather than live actors lurking around corners on giant sets—but again it's 2011, so everything feels spookily familiar. 

There is only so much you can tell a nuclear family about their new scary estate without plainly saying, "For God's sake, get out of Dodge!" Bleeding walls and a bloody history weren't deal-breakers for the Lutz fam's colonial-style home in "The Amityville Horror." At least the family in this year's "Insidious" were smart enough to leave when they thought it was their Craftsman being spooked. As Eddie Murphy once joked in his stand-up, "Why don't white people just leave when there's a ghost in the house?" In "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," there is, in fact, something to be afraid of in the dark of an old, cold Victorian mansion that only Stephen King or Casper would happily occupy. 

The prologue at the foreboding Blackwood Manor, set back in the 1800s with gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages, gets off to a deliciously nasty shock; the wildlife artist owner attacks his unsuspecting maid and offers up her teeth to the insidious spirits whispering through the fireplace. (Perhaps they're "Darkness Fall's" The Tooth Fairy's little helpers?) Now in the present-day, morose and medicated Sally (Bailee Madison) gets shipped off by her neglectful L.A. mother to live with her architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce), in Rhode Island. Dad and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), an interior designer, are in the process of restoring the fixer-upper. After Sally does a little exploring in the once-sealed-up basement, she hears whispering and banshee-screaming coming from the bolted-shut ash pit ("Salllllly! Let's play!"). The longtime caretaker Harris (Jack Thompson) offers up warning and keeps reiterating that "this place isn't safe for a child!" Sooner or later, Sally realizes her new "friends" aren't so nice, especially when she shines a light on them, but misery loves company!

For a movie called "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" about fearing the dark, the fear factor never rises above a faint hum. Comic book artist-turned-director Troy Nixey puts forth a freshman effort, steeping his film in dread and gothic atmosphere with slow-burn pacing. Oliver Stapleton's cinematography isn't glossy but classically elegant and weighty. The production is a sophisticatedly old-fashioned one, but the scares are pretty derivative. Nixey understands, at least for the first quarter, that it's scarier to not see what's lurking in the darkness, in this case being the ghoulies. Though creepy when kept in the dark, jumping out for a "boo!" scare, and shown scurrying around in an army, too many clear glimpses of the gremlin-like fairies (that take a page from del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth") suck out their frightfulness. They're more threatening than a Furby but still more than a little goofy. A disturbing mural in the Blackwood basement and Sally's crayon drawings of the creatures are more frightening than anything. 

R-rated but more pervasively spooky than gory, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" refreshingly shows no compromise for one character's sinister fate. Del Toro and Matthew Robbins' screenplay (based on Nigel McKeand's source material) becomes a dark Brothers Grimm fairy tale from a little girl's point-of-view, à la "Pan's Labyrinth," but suffers from a few glaring inconsistencies. When Sally's bath time is interrupted to a light's-out and some razor play, she could have easily hit the switch when she tries the door knob. Or, during Alex's Architectural Digest party when Sally gets locked into the house's study, she fights back with the beasties, taking off one of the critter's arms. Why not use the arm as evidence to prove she's not a girl who cried wolf? It also takes about four fake endings before Alex actually believes his daughter and why must characters always journey to the library to learn about their haunted house? Mrs. Tom Cruise gets to do the research this time. 

Madison could be the next Dakota Fanning; here, she nails Sally's inner gloom and fear. Pearce gets the raw end of the deal as The Disbelieving Father, but Holmes registers more persuasively as Kim, trying with all her might to make nice with Sally as a potential stepmother and being the first to believe her. "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" won't quite make you afraid of the dark, but it might send a chill up your spine every fifteen minutes or so. 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

On DVD/Blu-ray: "The Beaver," "Prom," "Priest"

The Beaver (2011)
91 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

Mel Gibson talking to a beaver hand-puppet doesn't sound like such a tough sell, now that we know his train wreck of an unprofessional life. It also sounds like the spitball idea for a wacky comedy. Far from it. 

In "The Beaver," Gibson's life-imitating-art comeback, he plays Walter Black, the heir to a toy company and family man in the darkest hours of his life. He's crippled by clinical depression, left to sleep his days away. Once his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) and eldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin) have had enough, Walter moves out. He finds a beaver hand-puppet in a dumpster, and after a failed series of suicide attempts, the man wakes up with the bucktoothed furball on his hand. Speaking in a Cockney accent that of a gangster Michael Caine, while moving the beaver's mouth, Walter communicates with the outside world through the beaver as a means to cope. Pretending the puppet is part of a doctor-prescribed therapy program, the father tries to fix his company and personal life. Of course the younger son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) likes the talking beaver, but eventually, everything will come to a head. 

Walter and his beaver is only half the story. Ghost-writing his classmates' papers for money, Porter fears he will end up like his father. Then once a high school cheerleader named Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) reaches out to him to write her valedictorian speech, Porter and her form a bond. 

What an unusual, outlandish premise for a drama—director Jodie Foster had us at "beaver"! But she brings a gentle touch to this risky material. Written by first-timer Kyle Killen, "The Beaver" lacks the emotional groundwork on the page to make such a story ring true (What was Walter like before his depression?). Despite the outlandish hook, the film insists we believe the beaver acts as such a crutch that Walter would wear the puppet while having sex with Meredith in bed and in the shower (!), and that the wife would just go with it. The subplot involving Porter and Norah distracts our attention from the focus of Walter, but oddly, it's the more compelling of the two. 

Gibson proves his true worth as an actor, giving his most stirring performance to date in an almost unplayable part, but he pulls it off, daring to go to dark places. Walter is afraid to be in his own skin, but with the help of the beaver, he finds himself again. Foster is lovely as a long-suffering woman in her marriage. Yelchin and Lawrence both impress as honest young actors. They have an intelligence and vulnerability, and share nice chemistry together. 

While the film itself is flawed by heavy-handedness and unconvincing plotting, Gibson's performance hits home and is unmatched by the rest of "The Beaver."

Prom (2011)
103 min., rated PG. 
Grade: B

As you'd expect in Disney's "Prom," there's no "pregaming" the formal dance (or sneaking in a flask), no booking a hotel to lose his and her V-card afterwards, and no smoking under the bleachers. And absolutely no pig's blood is dumped on the class outcast. 

It's too sanitized and idealized into wholesomeness for that, but that's beside the point. "Prom" is all about that one unforgettable night that all high school cliques share together. 

The girls grow tense until they're asked, and the boys ask them to prom with the most elaborate invitations, whether "PROM?" are being spelled out on rose petals or across the girl's locker. And yet, "Prom" isn't that shallow, realizing the vaguely special spring fling is less important than it seems. Promising young lovely Aimee Teegarden ("Scream 4") plays Nova, a type-A supernova of class presidency who's even head of the prom committee for her senior class at Brookside High School. When the shed with the prom decorations gets burned down (all that hard work), Nova gets teamed with rebellious, motorcycle-riding bad boy Jesse (Thomas McDonell, looking like a young Johnny Depp in his Gilbert Grape days) as a kind of detention. With only three weeks 'til the big prom (no time!) and her date bailing on her, Nova and Jesse's after-school paper-mache-making stars and pretty fountains draw them closer to one another. Will Nova become Molly Ringwald to Jesse's Judd Nelson? 

There's also the star jock who takes for granted that he and his girlfriend are shoo-ins for being crowned King and Queen, even though he's been cheating on her in PG-rated ways; a girl can't tell her since-middle-school boyfriend that she's been accepted to design school; a gawky sophomore too shy to ask out the girl of his dreams but does, losing sight of his best buddy; an offbeat John Cusack type who has no luck asking any girl to prom; and a spacey kid named Rolo, like the candy, who might surprise his classmates in having a date. In the end, the overall niceness pays off. 

As chaste and innocuous as "Prom" is, it's also uncynical and sweetly likable. Newbie Katie Wech's script has all the familiar tropes and connects-the-dots story points of high school movies, but they feel more real than most. Only does the dull, washed-out cinematography ring false of this otherwise sunny trifle. Under the direction of Joe Nussbaum (2004's "Sleepover"), the earnest, fresh-faced cast plays out the squeaky-clean group of types with charisma and conviction that thankfully don't resemble Disney Channel divas or thirtysomethings playing teenagers. 

"Prom" may not be the teen movie to remember, but it has a good head on its shoulders, and for its intended 'tween audience, that's just peachy. 

Priest (2011) 
87 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: D +

Based on a Korean comic book, "Priest" is the kind of religious horror western that tries so hard to be dead-serious and horrifying at the fate of sounding ridiculous, and not the fun kind but the boringly PG-13 kind. 

Take the plot for instance, and try not to step aboard The Giggle Train: In a war-torn dystopian future between humans and vampires, priests were the secret weapon. When his brother's house is invaded by the vamps and his niece (Lily Collins) kidnapped, a renegade priest (Paul Bettany), with a cross tattoo on his forehead down the bridge of his nose, betrays his coven to rescue her, assisted by the niece's sheriff boyfriend (Cam Gigandet) and Priest's former associate (Maggie Q). But remember, to go against the church means going against God. 

Like the empty, forgettable genre hodgepodge that it is, "Priest" fades from memory as you watch it and will soon fade into obscurity after it gets chased out of theaters. Director Scott Stewart has only had one feature previous to this, and that was last year's "Legion." Completely silly and nonsensical as it was, "Legion" at least made time for some enjoyably stupid camp moments. Some of the violent action with the fangy albinos and salivating CGI bloodsuckers is kind of fun, but so are a lot of things, like sex and other, better movies. We've seen enough of this in "The Matrix" and "Resident Devil" movies. 

Forgive it father, for "Priest" has sinned. The story is too convoluted to care, and it all sounds way more interesting than it really is. First-time writer Cory Goodman's script can't help much, from the limp, cheeseball dialogue to the pointless, shrug-worthy plot revelations. The movie is stylish, even if it's all soot during the day and all darkness at night. 

Bettany instills some intensity into the titular role to keep us awake. Gigandet is tan and good-looking as Sheriff Hicks, but he delivers his lines with as much conviction as a high school theater student. And what in God's name did Maggie Q even see in this movie or her "character" of Priestess? 

At least "Priest" is the most expensive production from Screen Gems, right? Anyone? Hello?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"30 Minutes" too uneven and tasteless

30 Minutes or Less (2011)
83 min., rated R. 
Grade: C -

They can deny it all they want. Ruben Fleischer ("Zombieland") and first-time screenwriter Michael Diliberti claim to only be "vaguely aware" that their effort bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the real-life 2003 tragedy of Erie, Pennsylvania pizza man Brian Wells forced to rob a bank with a bomb strapped to his neck. Whether it actually be based on that grim event or not, "30 Minutes or Less" isn't funny enough anyway. It is funny how "Bad Teacher" and "Horrible Bosses" weren't mean enough but still gave off a gleeful foul-mouthiness. Sure, it's the most mean-spirited of the Raunchy R-rated Comedies this summer, but to call it offensive would make it sound effective. As a Beavis and Butthead bruise-black comedy, "30 Minutes or Less" is just strained and uneven. 

Jesse Eisenberg, the go-to actor for playing nebbish, whip-smart young men, plays Nick, a Grand Rapids, MI twentysomething slacker whose aimless life consists of smoking pot and delivering pizzas under 30 minutes (or you get your tomato pie for free!). One of his deliveries takes him to a construction site, where he's confronted by two ape-masked thugs who chloroform him and strap a bomb to his chest. The apes are Dwayne (Danny McBride), an idiotic slacker who needs $10,000 to pay a hit man to off his Marine old man (Fred Ward), and his best pal Travis (Nick Swardson), a moronic slacker who creates the bomb vest. They tell Nick he has nine hours to pull of a bank robbery before he's toast, so he turns to his roommate Chet (Aziz Ansari), a school teacher, for help. 

What begins with some sharp dialogue and frantic pacing, "30 Minutes or Less" takes a dip into tiresome mediocrity. Characters don't have to be actively likable people, but it helps to make them even the least bit sympathetic. Here, nearly everyone is a jerk in one way or another, unlikable and foolish, and none of them come out achieving their goal (i.e. Dwayne and Travis desire of opening a tanning salon as a front for a brothel). Not so interested in bathroom humor as it is in queasy violence and wildly outrageous verbal exchanges of the "did-he-really-say-that?" variety, "30 Minutes or Less" has a half hour's worth of scattered laughs but a bad aftertaste lingers afterwards. And there are two bromances going on here: a tolerable one between Eisenberg and Ansari, and the other (with McBride and Swardson) foul and distasteful. 

Eisenberg surpassed expectations of making the inherently unlikable Mark Zuckerberg a conscionable, compelling protagonist in 2010's "The Social Network" (there's even a Facebook nod), but here, that's not the case. The role of Nick was irredeemable even with Eisenberg. As the token "Slumdog" buddy, Ansari has great timing for manic, wide-eyed panic. What do you know, McBride gets to play another immature jackass, but it's just one more trip to the well of his gratingly one-note shtick. Neither he nor Swardson can prove their worth as fearlessly goofy comic performers with material this vile. The lovely Dilshad Vadsaria is violated by the script, playing Chet's twin sister who slept with Nick. The more inspired casting choice of the useless bunch (without actually being inspired) is the Latino assassin Chango, played by an irritatingly over-the-top Michael Pena. 

If you've always imagined a comedy with rape jokes, homophobic and racial slurs, the words "fuck" and "pussy" used over a hundred times (sometimes in the same sentence), and "that's what she said" jokes, get a load of "30 Minutes or Less" in only 83 minutes.

Friday, August 19, 2011

"Fright Night" remade with same cheeky-creepy mix

Fright Night (2011) 
106 min., rated R.

The dog days are over for Tepid-to-Bad Horror Remakes rendering Hollywood creatively bankrupt. By default, all of them are unnecessary ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Halloween," Friday the 13th"). Once in a while, though, a remake can pay homage to the original and update old material, and thus manage to carve out a personality of its own. 1985's Tom Holland-directed "Fright Night" was not a flawless classic but a campy, entertaining horror-comedy that still holds up today, so a remake was not totally unacceptable. Like a late-summer surprise, the "Fright Night" remake is more than welcome. 

Anton Yelchin plays Charley Brewster, our teenage hero who tries so hard to uphold a cool rep at school. He has a hot, ripe girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), but avoids his nerdy former best friend, Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who points out that kids in their class have gone missing. As a remake should, this one moves the story to the Nevada suburbs just outside of Las Vegas, which is a perfect home for a vampire (work at night, sleep during the day). That brings us to Jerry, the tall, dark, and handsome handyman that lives next door to Charly and his single real-estate-working mother (Toni Collette). 

Definitely not cut from the broody "Twilight" cloth, a cocky-creepy Colin Farrell deliciously plays Jerry as a nasty batman. He's less of a suave ladykiller than the original Jerry (Chris Sarandon, who gives a memorable cameo here), but still hunky and gives off a dangerous scent. It seems Jerry has a savoring for beer, Granny Smith apples, and human blood, but he's such a polite neighbor that he won't attack unless invited. In the '85 version, Roddy McDowall's unlikely 'Van Helsing,' Peter Vincent, was a Vincent Price-type horror-movie host trying to regain his faith. For this generation, David Tennant (of the BBC TV series "Doctor Who") impishly plays Peter Vincent as a Criss Angel-type illusion-showman by way of a preening, boozing Russell Brand who's trying to regain his own soul and bravado. 

Stylishly made and playfully delivered, "Fright Night" is a respectable remake and deals out a lot of fun on its own terms. As Tom Holland deftly handled the camps of horror, comedy, and camp, director Craig Gillespie (2007's "Lars and the Real Girl") carefully balances the spooky terror with cheeky humor in equal measure. Right off the bat, Gillespie and screenwriter Marti Nixon cleverly twist the opening sequence of its '80s predecessor with a vicious surprise. The story remains the same, aside from a few different beats, but it's more streamlined than before and downsizes Peter Vincent's time. Not only can a horror film have fun with itself and not pour on the gore without cracking wise, but the cast actually comes out strong. Anton Yelchin, though making Charley a little less likable on the outset, is pretty appealing and capable of holding of his own alongside Farrell, who easily steals the show with Tennant a close second. Imogen Poots has some spice to go with her sugar in the role of Amy, and Toni Collette manages to do more than what she's given on the written page, but proves she'd be a cool mom and a spunky real-estate agent. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is kind of touching as the ostracized Ed, who still lives in the past when he and Charly were pals. It's just too bad that once he turns into "Evil Ed," the character doesn't reappear until the movie is already half-over. Nobody, not even McLovin, can top the memorable cackling of "You're so cool Brewster!" like the original's Stephen Geoffreys. 

The CG vampire effects stick out without detracting, and the practical outsized fangs for Amy are freakily used again as homage to the original. And Ramin Djawadi's score delightfully borrows orchestral notes from "Dracula," while still nicely putting a hip soundtrack to our ears (including Foster The People's "Pumped Up Kicks," Kid Cudi's "Pursuit of Happiness," and Hugo's cover of Jay-Z's "99 Problems" over the end credits). Sure, there are nits to pick, but such issues could've been solved with tighter editing. The pacing is uneven but mostly brisk in its first and third acts. One tensely jittery scene is that of Charly breaking into Jerry's house to find a secret padded cell where he keeps his prey. There's also an exciting chase set on a long stretch of desert highway that makes fluid use of camera work and, what do you know, 3-D (!), from all the ashes, stakes, blood, and a motorcycle being thrown in our faces. While we're on the subject, yes, "Fright Night" is being released in 3-D (and 2-D if you are $3 poor). Needless? Yes. But proudly to report, the 3-D is not the post-converted afterthought, but the gimmicky, immersive kind. Not condescendingly self-aware nor terribly gory, "Fright Night" rarely bites off more than it can chew. It knows what it's doing, all while honoring its ancestor but still thinking for itself.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On DVD/Blu-ray: "Rango," "Soul Surfer," and "Jumping the Broom"

Rango (2011)
107 min., rated PG.
Grade: A -

The folks at Disney and Pixar might be shaking in their boots once they get a load of "Rango." The first animated film from George Lucas's visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic, "Rango" is brightly colored, strikingly animated, cleverly scripted, and offbeat fun. 

You might ask, how did it come to Johnny Depp playing a talking pet chameleon in a Hawaiian shirt? But it's not that far-out. 

A mariachi band of owls opens the movie as a kind of Greek chorus—"We are gathered here to immortalize in song the life and untimely death of a great legend . . . so sit, back, relax, and enjoy your low-calorie popcorn and assorted confections"—and pop up on occasion to comment on the tale. 

When we first meet the chameleon, he's putting on a theatrical tragedy with a headless plastic doll, a toy goldfish, and a palm tree. On the road, Rango's tank goes out the back of a car and shatters, leaving him stranded on the lonely stretch of highway in the mouth-watering Mojave Desert. Sage advice from a road-kill armadillo (voiced by Alfred Molina) directs him on a path to enlightenment. He wanders into the Old West-style desert town of Dirt, which suffers from a severe drought (no agua!), and tries blending in with all the rodents, birds, reptiles, and other critter folk. Upon entering a saloon whose "people" immediately knows he's not from around these parts, he declares himself to be a sheriff and picks the name Rango (from "Durango" on a cactus juice bottle). Struggling to keep his charade up, Dirt's new sheriff must not only fight bandits and the gunslinging, Hell-born Rattlesnake Jake (a reliably snaky Bill Nighy), whom Dirt lives in fear of, but himself as well to discover who he is. Ain't nobody gonna tango with the Rango. 

Directed by Gore Verbinski (of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies) from a script by John Logan ("Sweeney Todd"), "Rango" has a loopy surrealism and slapstick spirit in referencing the tropes of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns and other movies ("Chinatown" and "Star Wars" included), and Depp completists will even chuckle at a great, blink-and-you'll-miss-it in-joke to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." 

Visually, it's beautifully textured and detailed in such a photorealistic manner that you can make out every scale and hair on the animal characters, and the vastness of the desert and Dirt are gorgeously rendered. The witty, surprisingly adult script has hilarious, rapid-fire dialogue. The slapstick action is fast and fluid. Consider a moment where Rango runs afoul of a vicious silver-beaked hawk, tread-milling in an empty bottle across the desert. There's one instance of a bathroom joke, where Rango hides out in an outhouse that's a Pepto Bismol bottle, but it works shrewdly into a chase around town with the hawk. And jokes involving the spoken words "enlarged prostate" and rubber gloves, as well as "Thespians? That's illegal in seven states!", probably weren't intended for children. 

The way Verbinski directs this here "Rango" is key to the film's physical energy. Instead of motion-capture, it's "emotion-capture" where the actors perform on a stage and are used as a reference for the animators. Depp can add Rango to his repertoire of idiosyncratic characters. Even though the chameleon is animated, Depp is Rango and Rango is Depp, a lively, enthusiastic original. Isla Fisher is wonderfully spunky and charming as a twangy lizard named Beans, who tries saving her daddy's ranch and freezes in her tracks whenever she gets riled up, calling it a defense mechanism. Abigail Breslin, though underused, is a winning little scene-stealer as the cute cactus mouse Priscilla. In a brief role, Timothy Olyphant does his best Clint Eastwood as The Spirit of the West, the only real human in the film. 

Very young kids might not yet be ready for "Rango," but it should make a young adult's day. 

Soul Surfer (2011) 
106 min., rated PG.
Grade: C +

The true story of 13-year-old surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm to a tiger shark in the Kauai waters of her Hawaiian home, is certainly inspiring that it deserved to be told. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but during the end credits, we see the real Hamilton, and that footage holds more of an emotional impact than the film we've just watched. 

"Soul Surfer" waters down what could've been a nuanced and more interesting treatment about faith and determination into a pat, overly simplistic Hollywood feel-gooder. 

Bethany Hamilton (portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb) has grown up in Kauai, practically on a surfboard with salt water in her veins. No, she's not a mermaid, but she might as well be. Her faith-based life seems golden—ranked as one of the most accomplished surfers and loved unconditionally by her supportive, home-schooling family—until she goes surfing with her best pal Alana (Lorraine Nicholson, Jack's daughter) and has her arm bitten off by a shark. Most girls would give up on their dream after such an incident, but not Bethany. 

Based on the real Hamilton's 2004 autobiography "Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board," the film is too Hollywood to be a docudrama. In fact, a documentary would've been preferred, and it's never too late to capture this amazing story in that more-appropriate medium. 

The shark attack isn't very suspenseful or dramatically staged; blink and you'll miss it. However, the digital removal of Bethany's arm is pretty seamless. The real Bethany even performed most of the surfing stunts. John Leonetti's warm, beachy cinematography, like "Blue Crush," makes one want to ride the waves and risk a shark attack like Bethany. 

Director Sean McNamara's film might have been more dramatically potent had he believed in subtlety, but the spiritual and Christian platitudes are spoken in such an earnest, obvious way, and thus come off clunky and ineffective. Did you know that "if you have faith, anything is possible" or that "The Lord works in mysterious ways"? 

All of the characters are saintly, blandly nice people, except one mean, sneering competitor (Sonya Balmores), who wears all black, until that villainy is turned around into a "golden rule" after-school special. 

Robb, who is 6 inches shorter than the real Hamilton, makes for a convincing, optimistic Hamilton, whom herself is a great role model and almost-unbelievably resilient heroine. She's better than any Miley Cyrus, that's for sure. Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, who both have fallen off the face of the earth, are athletic and nice as the athletic, nice parents. Country singer Carrie Underwood, in her acting debut, should not quit her day job but merely suffices as youth group leader Sarah. 

"Soul Surfer" still remains a watchable, well-meaning piece of Disney Channel-caliber corn made with the best intentions, but life-altering events don't come in easy packages, unless it's in the movies. Cynics beware.

Jumping the Broom (2011)
108 min., rated PG-13. 
Grade: B -

What with the dreadfully sitcommy "Our Family Wedding" and the mood-swing-laden "Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too?", quite a few wedding movies have tripped down the aisle in the last year. Considering the competition, "Jumping the Broom" takes the cake. 

TV writer-director Salim Akil makes his feature debut, playing the family dynamics and clash of the matriarchs less broad, tonally wild, and melodramatic than a Tyler Perry movie. 

Tired of sharing her "cookies" with men that don't even remember her in the morning, up-and-coming corporate lawyer Sabrina Watson (Paula Patton) hits handsome Wall Street up-and-comer Jason Taylor (Laz Alonso) with her car. Five ("incredible") months later, Jason impulsively proposes to Sabrina. This means getting friends and family to convene for the weekend at Sabrina's uppercrust Martha's Vineyard manor, but just because the lovebirds love each other doesn't mean Sabrina and Jason's mothers have to love each other. Sabrina's cold, uptight mother, Claudine (Angela Bassett), meets Jason's sassy, working-class Brooklyn mother, Pam (Loretta Devine), who insists her son carry on the old slave tradition of the bride and groom jumping the broom—literally jumping over a broom. There will be catty disrepectin', grudge holdin', petty disagreements, and skeletons poppin' out of the closet. 

Amiable, breezy, and well-scrubbed, this class-clash romantic comedy has the glossy, elegant big-studio production values of a Nancy Meyers movie (but Nova Scotia standing in for New England). Screenwriters Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs make sure every relative and friend get their own subplot, but not all of them go anywhere. 

Patton is appealing and effervescent, and Alonso charmingly gallant. Loretta Devine and Angela Bassett, both with Tyler Perry movies on their filmographies, offer their fiercest out of rigid diva characterizations with nuances of hurt and hate as the fiery Pam and the icy Claudine. Julie Bowen, the wedding planner and token white woman, gets in her moments of acting frazzled and clueless about black culture, but her moments are forced and not that amusing. Tasha Smith is tart and funny as Pam's best gal pal that tags along to the wedding and ends up having to rebuff the advances of Sabrina's college-aged cousin (all-grown-up singer Romeo Miller). Mike Epps is less annoying than usual, playing Jason's Uncle Willie Earl.

"Preordained formula" as all get out, with too much soapy melodrama slipping through in the middle and a climactic wedding-on-hold complication, but "Jumping the Broom" has enough warmth and amusement, and these people actually behave like real Earthlings.