Tuesday, January 31, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray Reviews: "The Big Year," "Drive," "Dream House," and "The Thing"

The Big Year (2011)
100 min., rated PG.
Grade: C +

For a comedy about birdwatching (actually, bird enthusiasts prefer it be called "birding") that stars Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black, "The Big Year" already has two obstacles to overcome. It needs to be interesting, unless the avian world is already dear to your heart, and had better be funnier than "The Pink Panther," "Hall Pass," and "Year One." That's a tough sell, but it's a nice, mild bird of a movie without getting too excited or enthusiastic about. 

Brad Harris (Jack Black) is a divorced programmer who hates his job but is gearing up for The Big Yeara year-long competition for passionate birders, like Brad himself, to see the greatest number of North American birds. But he's not the only one. Cocky New Jersey roofing contractor Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson) has already set a record for spotting 732 birds, so he's the one to beat. There's also a retiring CEO, Stu Preissler (Steve Martin), who plans on moving to Vail, Colorado after he spends the full calendar year spotting as many birds as he can. From Houston to the Florida Everglades to Attu, the three compete, and in doing so, they choose their obsession over work and family. 

Pleasantly directed by David Frankel ("Marley & Me" and "The Devil Wears Prada"), "The Big Year" never quite commits to being much of a comedy that it comes off neither fish nor fowl. Even if the three (or maybe just two) are all reasonably likable and the material resists having them fall down or perform silly shtick, none of them really eke out many laughs either. Black and Martin's characters form a friendship, which actually rings true. As for Wilson, he isn't vilified, but his character is just totally unappealing. Howard Franklin adapted the script from Mark Obmascik's book, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, which was touted as "a feathered version of 'It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World'." But more than halfway through, when we think it'll turn into some actual competition between newly formed friends Brad and Stu against Bostick, there's no real investment in who will spot the most pipits, gulls, and boobies. Also, there's talk of bluffing and cheating, but how can spotting the birds be solely based on the honor system? Why can they only snap a picture if the species is rare? 

Surprisingly, some of the subplots get more mileage than the central Big Year. Thanks to Rosamund Pike as Kenny's neglected, long-disappointed wife Jessica, she manages to find genuine emotion in a role that could've written her as a naggy shrew. She wants to have a baby, but Kenny leaves the egg-fertilization process up to her. When Kenny races to the hospital for his wife's appointment and she tries giving him the benefit of the doubt, he receives a phone call regarding a rare bird right as he's at the hospital's front doors and turns around to leave. Jessica ends up gaining more empathy than her absentee jerk of a husband that one hopes the birds will turn into Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" and peck Kenny's eyes out. Brian Dennehy has some nice moments with Black playing Brad's disapproving father, who finally bonds with his son. Ditto for Rashida Jones, as an expert bird caller, who shares a sweet-enough PG-level romance with Brad. 

Otherwise, it should be a crime how many great and talented actors were brought on set for just a scene of their time. Anjelica Huston as a cranky fishing-boat skipper? John Cleese narrating the beginning? With little thanks to the script, JoBeth Williams, Dianne Wiest, Jim Parsons, Anthony Anderson, Joel McHale, Steven Webber, Kevin Pollak, and Tim Blake Nelson show up, ready to go, but never get anywhere worthy of their trade. 

Not quite for the birds, not able to take flight, just sort of there, "The Big Year" doesn't make birding look any more exciting so we can actually enjoy the characters' monomania. But it's an unassuming and benign "smile movie," sometimes to an apathetic degree but still sort of hard to dislike.

Drive (2011) 
Grade: A

Grade: C -

Grade: B 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Tone-deaf "One for the Money" falls flatter than a dollar bill

One for the Money (2012)
106 min., rated PG-13.

Because of its unconfident studio executives, "One for the Money" wasn't screened in advance for critics, but receiving a dead-of-winter January release is the first tip-off. Based on the results of this screen adaptation of Janet Evanovich's 1994 best-seller, the only justice the movie does is to question how the source material became anything more than a nondescript airport read. Unless it completely tanks, "One for the Money" probably isn't the last time we'll hear from Tastycake-loving bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, as the author has produced seventeen novels (plus holiday novellas) about Plum's adventures since then. Regardless, it's a mediocre and forgettable vehicle for star and co-producer Katherine Heigl, who can't lie and say this material picked her. 

Having been laid off from the Macy's lingerie department six months ago and now having her car repossessed, divorced, born-and-bred Jersey girl Stephanie Plum (Katherine Heigl) realizes she needs some cash…and fast. Her Ma (Debra Monk) just wants her to find a husband, but Steph decides to convince her sleazy cousin Vinnie (not the same one you're thinking of) to give her a job at his bail bonding company. Stephanie is so desperate that she takes up the position of recovery agent, with her first job being to bring in a rogue cop, Joe Morelli (Jason O'Mara), accused of murder and jumping bail. His capture would offer her $50,000, but he's the same Joe that deflowered Steph on the floor of a bakery back when they were in high school and then dumped her. Gee, might she rekindle sparks with Joe again or bring him in for the money? 

Considering her output of formulaic romantic comedies after her appealing lead role in 2007's "Knocked Up," Heigl keeps getting work and it can't all be coincidental or paycheck-related. The actress can be charming and funny (even in her hilariously gutsy faux-campaign in eliminating testicles, entitled "Katherine Heigl Hates Balls"), but often the helplessly spazzy, type-A chick-cartoons she overplays feel like insults to the already-condescending "chick flick" label. Heigl isn't unappealing here, bringing her eager-beaver energy, but despite sporting a curly brown wig, she's miscast as a Jersey bounty hunter. And that "Joizy" accent is so broad beyond belief that one almost expects Joe Pesci to play her father and Snooki her Guidette gal pal. Whether or not an actress could've believably assumed the toughness of Plum, it's all a matter of the character on the page. Any proof of Plum's financial woes is taken care of in the animated title sequence, the credits rolling over collection-agency bills and eviction threats. Also, her one friend, Mary Lou (Annie Parisse), is only seen through phone calls for expository reasons and seems to be taken from a whole other movie entirely. O'Mara (a buffer Aidan Quinn) is hunky enough, as is Daniel Sunjata playing Plum's bounty-hunting mentor, but the only heat that exists is from both males and their female star being attractive and in good shape. Debbie Reynolds gets to play the kooky-grandma shtick that would better suit Betty White, spouting knee-slapping zingers like "Who wouldn't enjoy a nice thong?" Only the scenes with Sherri Shepherd, as information-giving hooker Lula, actually pop to life. 

Directed by Julie Anne Robinson (2010's "The Last Song"), "One for the Money" has no real handle on cohesion, bouncing from farce to thriller. We go from Debbie Reynolds shooting a roasted turkey, to a hooker being beaten, to Stephanie being handcuffed naked to her shower rod, to a car blowing up with the driver inside. Having Stephanie blather on in voice-over narration only flattens the tone-deaf, unfunny clunker of a script (written by three women, Stacy Sherman, Karen Ray, and Liz Brixius). As if she's cracking a joke to us, the character quips "Sure, I had to see an old guy's twig and berries, but at least it bought me a meal that didn't come in a Lunchables box." Or, "All I know is how to swing a purse." Hopelessly un-snappy dialogue like this begs for a desperate laugh track, but doesn't deserve it. 

Though Evanovich's novels are categorized as mysteries, the mystery on screen only pretends to be interesting. So many leads and bad guys (one distinguishable by his flat nose!) are thrown at us, as if we're supposed to make sense of who is who. Then a non-suspect (a nude old man) is tossed in for bad comic measure. Finally, when it's time for the reveal of the bad guy, scene to scene turns from dusk to night on a dime and the "real" bad guy feels tacked on. Then again, we should know better; when a name actor feels to be short-shrift in a seemingly irrelevant role, he's probably going to be more relevant to the plot than we thought. Staying home to snack on cheese puffs and Tastykakes might be a better time than "One for the Money," but it's a hair less obnoxious than 2010's "The Bounty Hunter." In January, that's damning with faint praise for you.

Grade: C - 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Visceral, Meditative "The Grey" Packs Wallop

The Grey (2012)
117 min., rated R.
Jaded winter releases for movies seem to do more good than bad for Mr. Liam Neeson, fastly becoming a badass action star at sixty years of age. 2009 brought "Taken" in January and in February of 2011 came "Unknown," both announcing Neeson's credible and entertaining badassery. Now, another year and another January, Open Road Films is packaging "The Grey" as a standard-issue man-versus-wild B-movie thriller, but beneath the surface of the finished product, it offers more than meets the eye. Like a bait-and-switch act, "The Grey" is being advertised as the third "Don't Mess with Liam" actioner, cobbled together from 1993's "Alive," 1997's "The Edge," and a do-or-die Gary Paulsen novel. Against all expectations, it's a stark, high-minded survival tale with a boldness, unlike most January studio films, when it actually takes time to flesh out its characters and avert clear-cut conclusions.

Liam Neeson plays John Ottway, a marksman hired by an Alaskan oil refinery to rid the oil-drillers' camp of wolves and bears. In the day-to-day drudgery among roughneck workers, he pens a letter to a woman he's no longer with, reads his old man's poetry, and contemplates suicide, but plans to get back home. Ottway's death wish is reconsidered when the plane bound for Anchorage crashes in the snowy wilderness. One of only seven survivors, Ottway automatically takes charge in trudging through the snow in these severe, ten-below temperatures. That's the easy part when a den of vicious wolves come out, and not to play. Luckily, Ottway knows a thing or four about these doggies and kills them for a living. 

Director Joe Carnahan (2010's "The A-Team"), who co-wrote the script with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (based on Jeffers' story "Ghost Walker"), has made a grand leap as a filmmaker, allowing the viewer to see a film about something other than action and noise. There is well-made action for sure, however, it's the human element that drives it all. The basic structure is virtually the slasher-flick formula of "Ten Little Indians," but themes of faith and existentialism add meat to the bare-bones storytelling. The characters are archetypes with bravado but have more going on in their minds and hearts when they sit around the campfire and their vulnerable sides come out. One man dies before we even get a name or a backstory, but it's Ottway's straight-up honesty ("You're going to die. That's what's happening.") that makes us give an emotional damn. 

Neeson, with his Irish accent intact, is formidable and credible. His Ottway is a tragic man, coming close to taking his own life to now leading a struggle for survival. The brash, tough-talking blowhard Diaz (Frank Grillo), who undermines Ottway, could've been a one-dimensional villain, but he even feels human by his flaws. Then there's Talget (Dermot Mulroney, almost unrecognizable behind eyeglasses), a level-headed man with an adorable daughter to get back to. When one character can't go on, he hands the survivors his ID and wallet (which they've done with the other bodies to return them to family members) because he has nothing to look forward to back home. When the body count whittles down to three, those remaining finally introduce one another by name and it's a quietly poignant moment. Director Carnahan actually lets us feel something here without clobbering us or hitting the nail on the head with a heavy-handed music score. 

The camerawork is grainy and appropriately grey, and the bitter cold is palpable without ever feeling manufactured. Quiet dream sequences and flashbacks of Ottway with his wife, laying next to him and saying "Don't be afraid," are punctuated by sudden bursts of loud, jarring noise. One of those times is the plane crash that sets everything in motion, and it's so vivid and intensely staged with a staggering sound design of the turbulence taking our breath away. The flashbacks could've been hokey, but add subtle surprise in the way of Ottway's emotional bruising. The wolves themselves, aside from the obvious computerized kind in close-ups, are threatening in spades. There's an early shot where the wolves approach the survivors with only their glowing eyes seen in the darkness. For what it's worth, these wolves beat out the cheesy, talking ones in the "Twilight" movies. Even when the wolves aren't present, one tangibly feels the danger at stake, and the sound of a howl makes sure of that. There is also the danger and fear of heights in an armrest-grabbing set-piece, as the remaining men cross a thirty-foot drop by rope. Mainstream audiences might find the final shot abrupt and too ambiguous, but it's pitch-perfect in which it doesn't feel the need to spell everything out for us. A more pat, Hollywood ending would have had a helicopter coming to the rescue. Gristled, visceral, and meditative, "The Grey" packs a surprising wallop and a shade of grey (pun intended) that's hard to find these days. 

Grade:  A - 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Passable "Man on a Ledge" Doesn't Sustain Enough High-Stakes Suspense

Man on a Ledge (2012)
102 min., rated PG-13.

Studio execs like to use January as a cleaning month to sweep their bad movies out of the warehouse, immediately after the holiday months release so many Oscar contenders. "Man on a Ledge" may be a late-January thriller, but it doesn't stink up the place. It's just a dispensable, halfway-decent genre programmer that almost plays like last year's fun, light-footed "Tower Heist." As directed by narrative first-timer Asger Leth (breaking into Hollywood after his 2006 doc "Ghosts of Cité Soleil"), the film stalls little time in setting up its tense, high-stakes hook—a man on the ledge of a high-rise building—but doesn't sustain enough suspense nor cooks up many surprises for any replay value. 

Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) checks into a room to midtown Manhattan's Roosevelt Hotel, orders his last supper, and then climbs onto the ledge outside his window. He threatens to jump, as the bystanders and TV crew swarm and gawk from down below like vultures, and then the NYPD is quick to head to the scene. Refusing the assistance of any male cop, Nick specifically requests Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), a disgraced negotiator and police psychologist. But she won't need to sing Third Eye Blind's "Jumper" to coax him out of jumping because he's actually a wrongfully imprisoned ex-cop wanted for supposedly stealing a $40 million diamond and escaping from Sing Sing during his father's funeral. His suicide attempt is solely a diversion to buy him time as Nick's younger brother, Joey (Jamie Bell), and girlfriend, Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), break and enter across the street into the diamond vault of smarmy real-estate shark David Englander (Ed Harris). Nick just wants to prove that he's an innocent man, but how long will he stay perched on that ledge? And when will the cops and Lydia realize he's not really going to jump?    

"Man on a Ledge" marks the feature writing debut of Pablo F. Fenjves (whose previous credits include being the scribe for TV movies), and the B-movie script has no real delusions of grandeur. There's a small push of the timely "Haves vs. Have-Nots" zeitgeist, as when Nick tosses handfuls of cash to the streets like Robin Hood (or Al Pacino from "Dog Day Afternoon") and we hear that corrupt Englander "lost $30 million to Lehman Brothers," but that's where it ends. All of the characters mostly remain surface types and as necessities to the plot in one way or another, and some may not be as "good" or "bad" as they seem. Leth directs this "wronged man" heist thriller with minimal style but reasonable breeze and efficiency to truck things along. The height from that 21st-floor ledge down to the ground below is well-established from the outset by cinematographer Paul Cameron ("Collateral"). Intercutting between the burglary and the ledge spectacle, there's some tension and excitement, but it goes a bit slack as Nick keeps stalling for time and we're already steps ahead of the cops. The elaborate, gadget-oriented heist turns out to be the more entertaining section and makes admittedly cool use of heat-sensor alarms and security cameras. We're supposed to believe that burglary and theft are Nick's only options to prove his own innocence, and that Joey and Angie would actually risk serving hard time for stealing back a stinkin' diamond. But Joey and Angie have enough inexperienced close-calls to alleviate that implausibility with some amusing banter between the cat-burglar lovers. 

Sam Worthington has been a block of wood in previous action-hero roles ("Avatar" and "Clash of the Titans"), and the written part of Nick doesn't really allow him to evidence much charisma or swagger. The sunny Elizabeth Banks would seem unfit to play damaged and hard-bitten, however, she comes the closest to playing an actual character. When we first meet her, she's not too unlike Charlize Theron's Mavis Gary in "Young Adult," schlepping out of bed with a major hangover. It's played for laughs, until we learn during her increasingly comfortable negotiation with Nick of Lydia's drinking problem stemming from a job-related incident that's pressed her with guilt. 

The supporting cast is serviceable in underwritten parts, with Jamie Bell as Nick's ridiculously loyal brother Joey, Anthony Mackie as Nick's former partner Mike, Titus Welliver as the gum-chewing LAPD captain, and Jordana Brewster-lookalike Genesis Rodriguez as Joey's sassy, spicy-hot girlfriend Angie, who gets to strip down to her pushup bra and undies to shimmy down a ventilation system. A gaunt, suited-up Ed Harris is despicable enough, but just shows up to play a cardboard baddie, chomping on cigars and spewing heartless sarcasm; he just needed a mustache to twirl and call it a day. In complete throwaway roles, Edward Burns shows up as Officer Jack Dougherty, but quickly forgotten, and Kyra Sedgwick gets to roll her "R"s as cynical TV reporter Suzie Morales.

There's some fun, unpretentious frivolity in the going, but "Man on a Ledge" grows too far-fetched and mechanical, especially in its tiresome third act. All of the vertiginous peril gets pushed right off the ledge, just to shell out some 11th-hour double-crossing, an eye-rollingly risible action stunt involving the firemen's big, inflatable mattress, and a contrived "revelation" that, in retrospect, only adds another logic hole to the list. While the majority of this movie is set on a ledge, "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" more capably pulled off a palm-sweating, vertigo-inducing setting in a single set-piece, as well as a very similar hi-tech heist. With a tighter script and more edge-of-your-seat palpability, "Man on a Ledge" could've been a city pressure cooker like Joel Schumacher's "Phone Booth." As is, it should keep one alert but won't consistently grip or keep you on the (l)edge of your seat.

Grade: C +

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray Reviews: "Restless," "50/50," "Paranormal Activity 3," "The Woman," and "Dirty Girl"

Restless (2011)
91 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C 
Director Gus Van Sant has proven himself a unique filmmaker, experimenting with an arthouse run, expanding into the mainstream, and then returning to independent cinema. Finding an importance in exploring the detached lives of youth, he has crafted an elegantly chilling, unshakable piece of work with 2003's "Elephant" and captured teen-skater life in 2008's melancholy, all-too-authentic "Paranoid Park." Now, with "Restless," it feels like something of a pet project, but he's working from a script by Jason Lew. This teenage "Harold and Maude" is so preciously quirky and morose that it might be a young hipster's wet dream, but everyone else might gag on the forced, unengaging whimsy.
Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper, Dennis' son) crashes strangers' funerals and pals around with Hiroshi, the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze fighter pilot. His parents were killed in a car accident that almost took his life as well, but now he's cared for by his aunt (Jane Adams). Enoch is at someone's memorial when he bumps into a gamine named Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska), who doesn't let her terminal cancer get her down or erase her fascination of Charles Darwin and water birds. These two loners connect in a way they can't with anyone else, until Annabel loses her life anyway.

The actors themselves have ethereal appeal and they get to wear colorful, vintage clothing. Wasikowski, looking like a fey Mia Farrow with her cute pixie cut, is eternally lovely as Annabel. As for Hopper, this isn't the best start to judge him on. His Enoch is so odd and uncommunicative that he's hard to connect with, much less like, but the actor gives it his best shot. Both Enoch and Annabel are so self-consciously kooky that they come off like space cadets. "That tickles," Annabel goes as Enoch traces her body, like a crime-scene outline, on the black pavement with chalk. Then they go on an adorable date to the morgue because death is so rad. These teens in love just seem more curious than compelling. When Annabel's devoted older sister, Elizabeth (Schuyler Fisk), is introduced early on, she's like our safety net. Elizabeth is the most normal person in the story and has the closest resemblance to a human being.

Van Sant and his loyal cinematographer, Harris Savides, shoots this young love with a visual melancholy and uses the director's favorite liberal city, Portland, Oregon. For what it's worth, at least "Restless" looks pretty. Otherwise, Danny Elfman's score is so anonymously solemn, which is kind of like the rest of Van Sant's film.

50/50 (2011)
Grade: A

Dirty Girl (2011)
90 min., rated R.
Grade: B -
"Nobody likes a dirty girl," says the high school principal to Danielle (Juno Temple), the class tramp living in Norman, Oklahoma, circa 1987. Abe Sylvia's writing-directing debut is, in fact, called "Dirty Girl," a cheeky little comedy, road movie, and self-discovery tale all rolled into one. It's also a "nice try," meaning that the writing could've been even snarkier and sharper, but above all, still likable and often pretty charming. A soundtrack of irresistible, period-appropriate '80s songs, starting right off with Pat Benatar's awesome "Shadows of the Night," never hurts either.
For her proud dirtiness, Danielle is punished and ends up in remedial classes. There, she gets paired up with Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), a chubby closet-case, to take care of a "baby" (a five-pound bag of flour with a sharpie'd-on face that they call Joan). At home, she's indignant when her mother, Sue-Ann (Milla Jovovich), announces her engagement with her Mormon boyfriend, Ray (William H. Macy). But Danielle and Clarke slowly bond over their Daddy Issues—hers left long ago, and his (Dwight Yoakam) bullies him while his meek mommy (Mary Steenburgen) looks the other way. After unintentionally coming out to his parents, Clarke steals his dad's Cadillac and credit card, going on the road with Danielle to find her long-lost dad in Fresno. But before that, they pick up a studly hitchhiker named Joel (Nicholas D'Agosto), who turns out to be a stripper; Clarke really comes into his own; and Danielle and Clarke's friendship deepens.

Finding her niche in sassy roles ("Cracks" and "Kaboom"), Juno Temple masks her UK accent and puts on a Southern twang. She's a delightful hoot, can play sweet and saucy with equal confidence, and ultimately makes Danielle a sympathetic character. Finally, this is a star-making vehicle for her sparkling presence. Jeremy Dozier doesn't look like just another scrubbed member on Gossip Girl, and never plays Clarke as a caricature nor does he let his effeminate nature fall into exaggeration. Their road-trip sing-along with hand motions to Teena Marie's "Lovergirl" is ingratiating. The adults fare less as well, particularly in the boxed-in roles of Macy and Yoakam. But Milla Jovovich has actually never been better in a role that calls for warmth and uncertainty, and Steenburgen is always a ray of light and compassion.

Though it initially lives in broad, brazenly colorful John Waters Town, being played for snarky laughs, "Dirty Girl" isn't above having some sweetness to it. It takes a familiar path, but some of the detours avert our expectations. For instance, Danielle enters a striptease contest with a nice surprise that doesn't revel in tacky gay clichés. The father-daughter reunion is surprisingly deeply felt the way it's played by country star-turned-actor Tim McGraw and Temple. The only relationship that never satisfyingly rings true is the one between Sue-Ann and Ray (William H. Macy).

As filmmaking, Sylvia's first effort is uneven and not completely assured, but "Dirty Girl" will play earnestly on the LOGO Network. Watching Temple and Dozier together is the movie's greatest pleasure. Especially when Sylvia sets the scene to Melissa Manchester.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Gina Carano and cleanly staged action give routine "Haywire" a kick

Haywire (2012)
93 min., rated R.
Grade: B 
Steven Soderbergh has had quite the eclectic career, dabbling in commercial films ("Out of Sight," "Erin Brockovich," and "Traffic") and smaller, more experimental works ("Full Frontal" and "The Girlfriend Experience"). His latest, "Haywire," is a speedy, entertaining genre movie with an "A" cast but self-consciously "B" aesthetics. And the filmmaker might have found a potential star in mixed martial arts pro and former American Gladiator Gina Carano, who gets to beat the living crap out of her male players. Even if there's nothing more to the newcomer's stone-cold face, "Haywire" plays to her strengths.

Carano plays Mallory Kane, a Marine-turned-covert-operative for a private contract-killing company who's on the run from her duplicitous government bosses. A man named Aaron (Channing Tatum) is sent to retrieve her in a cafe, but she refuses not without a good fight and escapes with a customer, Scott (Michael Angarano), in his car. To clear her name, Mallory tells her "hostage" her story, which unfolds in flashback set pieces. A week before, her ex and the company's director, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), were hired by a government agent (Michael Douglas) and his contact (Antonio Banderas) to have Mallory and her team rescue a Chinese journalist held captive in Barcelona. Thereafter, her last job was to pose as the wife of a British agent, Paul (Michael Fassbender), in Dublin, but Kenneth sold her out when her fake husband tries to kill her. Betrayed but resourceful, Mallory is all geared-up for revenge, but it's not going to be a fair fight for the men.

Starting with the tagline ("They left her no choice."), the femme-revenge plot—think "La Femme Nikita" crossed with "Kill Bill"—is right out of a grindhouse B-movie. Written by Lem Dobbs (who also wrote Soderbergh's "The Limey" in 1999), the stripped-down script shuffles around the world, chops up chronology of a pretty basic story, and tosses in unexpected double-crossing. Only does it end on an amusing punchline rather than an elegant resolution, but it's all a pretext to sell Carano as a mass-market star.

Off the bat, "Haywire" opens to a snow-covered upstate New York in a cafe where a gender-flipping knock-down, drag-out fight goes down. The man-on-woman, hand-to-hand combat is cleanly staged without being jerky or edited to pieces. Every kick and punch is heard and felt that it's brutal fun with a realistic edge. Soderbergh, typically serving as his own cinematographer (under his "Peter Andrews" pseudonym), lets the camera sit back and capture Carano's kick-ass moves, especially when she and Fassbender practically demolish a Dublin hotel room. He also seems to be harkening back to '70s-style pulp thrillers, like Quentin Taratino tends to do, with a jazzy David Holmes score and crisp, yellow-filtered visual style that's shot on the Red One digital camera. There's also one very long, skillfully executed tracking shot that follows Mallory down a Dublin sidewalk, as she's being followed either by a bystander across the street or a driver in a car. 

Without a doubt, Carano has what it takes to join the cinematic ranks of stalwart Wonder Women, next to the fictional likes of Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Lisbeth Salander. Her line delivery might be a little stiff here and there, but only time will tell if she's well-rounded enough to do more than kick ass and take names. What she lacks in acting experience here, she makes up for in her tomboy/ROTC physicality and fierce presence. (There's much ado about her voice being digitally lowered in post-production, but ignore the advanced notice and it's never distracting.) Carano takes a beating and does the beating without a stunt double, and her Mallory never feels superhuman, limping after falling from a wire in one instance. Her co-stars are on hand mostly for name value, relegated to being stock evil suits and punching bags, and Bill Paxton appears as Mallory's father whose beach house becomes the setting for a showdown.

If it weren't for Soderbergh's visual panache, promising line-up of actors, and the introduction of Carano, "Haywire" would have nothing more to offer as a routine action-thriller. But as it is, this is a lean, mean kick in the head.

Despite Thomas Horn's impressive debut, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" can be extremely annoying and incredibly cheap

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) 
129 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C
More than a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center should be an appropriate length of time to make a powerfully thoughtful and tasteful narrative out of this touchy subject matter, especially from a child's point-of-view. But "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is too heavy-handed and manipulative that it doesn't come close enough. Having a penchant for directing novels-turned-screenplays ("Billy Elliot," "The Hours," "The Reader"), director Stephen Daldry continues his trend with Jonathan Safran's Foer's 2005 novel, a fictional account of a non-fictional point in history. Despite an admirable feature debut for newcomer Thomas Horn, major plot points feel misguided on screen and stunt the emotional power.

The child living through what he calls "The Worst Day" is Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), who's unusually bright and methodical for an 11-year-old boy. His mind is full of historical information and numbers, but anxiety takes over in social, public situations; he's been tested for Asperger's syndrome, even though the tests were inconclusive. Oskar lives with his parents in a tastefully chic apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City, sharing an inseparable relationship with his adoring father, Thomas (Tom Hanks), a fun-loving jeweler. They would routinely play a scavenger-hunt game called the Reconnaissance Expedition, collecting objects from every decade. But the boy and his mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock), lose Thomas on September 11th, 2011, being stuck in the World Trade Center for a meeting. A year later after Oskar and the city's loss, he discovers a small envelope in his father's coat pocket with the word "Black" written on it and a key inside. This leads to setting his anxieties aside and travelling all over New York's Five Boroughs to track down every person with the last name "Black" in the phone directory. Oskar sees it as a way of holding onto his father and finding closure once he's found the keyhole that fits. He also meets some very wonderful people along the way to add to his precious memory book, including the mysteriously mute renter (Max von Sydow) boarding in the apartment building of his German grandmother who later accompanies Oskar on his odyssey.

Front and center is Horn (who was discovered as the quiz-show champion on 2010's Jeopardy! Kids Week) and he is given quite the challenge to carry his feature debut. He's impressive, given that Horn too has Asperger's, but whether it be the source material, the screenplay, or the direction, Oskar is extremely precocious and incredibly annoying. The character, or the treatment of the character rather, is problematic that he comes close to torpedoing the entire story. Grief is most certainly a painfully difficult and complex process, but the way Oskar acts out on the screen (versus what probably read better on the page) lessens our empathy for him. Although ridden with guilt, Oskar hides the answering machine, with his father's increasingly fearful six messages on "The Worst Day," from his mother and later tells Linda that he wishes it was her in the World Trade Center instead of Thomas. And the ways he intrudes upon strangers practically comes off entitled and selfish, especially in the case of knocking on the door of Abby Black (Viola Davis), who's in the middle of an argument with her husband, William (Jeffrey Wright), and asks for iced coffee with half and half (!). Even the way he shakes a tambourine every time he leaves the apartment to ward off his anxieties, or puts on an Israeli gas mask before entering the metro station, becomes particularly irritating. If that's not enough, Oskar babbles on in verbally articulate but verbose voice-overs about his fear for public transportation. 

Not to mention, the MacGuffin (what does that key open?) ultimately doesn't add up to much, and you wonder where Oskar's mother is during all of this, but it's addressed in a contrived, unbelievable Big Reveal. What could have left an affecting catharsis between mother and son bonding over their shared loss is cheapened. As a result, the universal tragedy of 9/11 feels like more of a backdrop to play out the young autist's self-help scavenger hunt, not far removed from the one in Martin Scorsese's "Hugo." All of that said, Daldry has slickly crafted this self-importance, employing Chris Menges' beautiful, soft-toned cinematography. However, the blurry, faux-poetic image of Hanks' body falling from one of the Twin Towers is exploitative and just calling out for a reaction.

Hanks and Bullock might be the star attractions to this "post-9/11 holiday movie," but their involvement is sidelined compared to the 14-year-old Horn, who is obligated to carry the whole thing. Hanks, seen in flashbacks, owns up to his typically affable presence with his Hanks-y smile and goofy shoulder-shrugging (which foreshadows a plot point). As the grieving mother, Bullock makes all of her scenes count with a devastating gravitas. One scene, flashing back to the September 11th attacks when Linda takes a call at work from her husband, is truly heartbreaking as Thomas attempts to project hope in his voice and reassure his wife. Other touching moments come from some of the dialed-down work of the supporting characters with Horn. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright have great individual moments as the divorcing couple. Lastly but not least, Max von Sydow is wonderful as "The Renter," speaking volumes without saying a darn word, but he's mostly a plot device that gets swept under the rug. The character, who hasn't spoken in years, communicates with his palms, "Yes" and "No" being written on either hand, but his silence is a refreshing respite from Horn's constant chatter. 

There have been effective films that have either weaved in post-9/11 elements or dramatized the actual tragedy. (See Spike Lee's "25th Hour," Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," and Paul Greengrass's "United 93.") While this one doesn't do complete disservice to the tragic time, Daldry's "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" doesn't build to the emotionally gratifying experience that it should have been. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" a maddeningly dense slow-burn

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
127 min., rated R.
Grade: C +
With the popularity of Ian Fleming's 007 and his suave, shaken, not stirred, cool, moviegoers have become so dependent on Bond-y action and nifty gadgets that the espionage goings-on tend to take a backseat. But now, the spy world has never been so smart and challenging as it is in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," the second adaptation of the famously dense John le Carré novel. This material was first covered in a six-hour miniseries from 1979 that starred Alec Guinness, but hopefully it was less impenetrable in its expanded length than it is here.

During the Cold War in 1973, the head of the British Intelligence (or "the Circus") known as Control (John Hurt) sends agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Budapest to meet a general for information. But after Jim flees, he's shot and the mission is blown, forcing Control and trench-coated MI6 agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) into retirement. Soon thereafter, Smiley is rehired to sniff out a Soviet mole in their midst. He has a loyal right-hand man, Peter Guillam (the awesomely named Benedict Cumberbatch), to help him weed out the traitor from the Circus staff—Percy (Toby Jones), or "Tinker," Bill (Colin Firth), or "Tailor," Roy (Ciaran Hinds), or "Soldier," and Toby (David Dencik), or "Poor Man." Or, it amounts to a bunch of old chaps talking. 

With a film like "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," it's best to first give credit where credit is due. Gary Oldman acts from the inside as the ironically named Smiley, providing a terrifically reserved and laconic performance. Surrounding him is a who's who of the top British actors working today. Everyone is strictly like a chess piece with a poker face, but sometimes, a performer will tap into their dry British wit. Tom Hardy has the most emotive scenes and brings the film a few jolts of life as Ricki Tarr, a field operative who has fallen for a Russian. Aesthetically, this is a great-looking, meticulously detailed film. Director Tomas Alfredson (2008's snowbound "Let the Right One In") has quite a handle on creating a palpable chilliness and atmosphere, both in look and tone, and his go-to cinematographer (Hoyte Van Hoytema) impeccably shoots with rich texture from a gray and brown palette.

Now for the negatives. The dense plotting unfolds through such a sea of molasses that even if you're drowning without a flotation device, the film never throws us a bone. So much information is thrown at us to process, including characters' names and code names, information concerning "treasure," and the workings of "Operation Witchcraft," that having an Excel spreadsheet on hand wouldn't sound like an exaggeration. Slow pacing can captivate a viewer and should build to something, but Alfredson's film is too consistently languid and measured, lacking the sense of dramatic urgency that it needed. We should care about finding out the identity of the mole, but by the time "he" steps out from behind Door #5, the response is more of a shrug than a gasp. 

To dumb it down for all moviegoers, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is almost like a super-smart Honors Student making you work overtime at a dull tutoring session. (A venti-sized coffee from Starbucks with a shot of espresso wouldn't hurt.) It's maddeningly overcomplicated, affectless, so quiet that you could hear a pin drop, and yet so well-acted and classed-up with its retro-fade visual style. As most films churned out of Hollywood could use more subtlety, this would-be thriller could have used a few more gunshots and a big shot of adrenaline. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" will either draw you in or shut you out. As spoken by Smiley himself, "I'm very tired and all I want to do is go home and get into bed." Point taken.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray Reviews of "The Ides of March," "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star," and "Killer Elite"

The Ides of March (2011)
101 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

Politics can make for interesting drama, but no film on the subject is fooling us when aspiring to expose the backstabbing truths in the dog-eat-dog political world. Yes, politics is a dirty game of little integrity; believe it. No one will be as disillusioned as Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the idealistic aide in the Democratic presidential nomination. Even if "The Ides of March" might not tell us anything new or revelatory, it is riveting and solidly made. After all, this is George Clooney's fourth effort in the director's chair, and he's at his best when making coolly efficient, confident pictures. 

Stephen Meyers is the smooth-talking press secretary to Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (played by Clooney), a charismatic and articulate candidate who promises a change during his Ohio campaign. He's already drunk the kool-aid, worshipping Morris and knowing he will win the primary. Answering to sarcastic Senior Campaign Manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), 30-year-old Meyers is idealistic and unwary of the corruption that lurks everywhere. But he takes a chance in trusting the opposing senator's campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who asks to have a secret meeting with Meyers. Duffy tells the idealist that he will eventually turn as cynical and corrupt as everyone else. There are no mistakes in politics, only choices. 

Adapting Beau Willimon's stage play Farragut North, Clooney and loyal producing partner co-wrote the script. "The Ides of March" has thriller undertones, but there are no high-octane chases or fist fights. It's a cynical, serious-minded examination of behind-the-scenes machinations and Machiavellian schemes, where the shadow-heavy tapestry simmers with tension. Just like Julius Caesar's assassination marked the Ides of March on March 15th, scandal looms over the proceedings. From the indelible opening to the chilling final shot, both close on Gosling's face, there's a sense of foreboding. Once a key plot point is revealed, involving Stephen engaging in an affair with 20-year-old intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), it's initially hard to swallow and plays out in melodramatic fashion. 

Per usual, Clooney The Director gets great work out of his actors, giving each of them intense dialogue exchanges and showdowns. On the efforts of all the star power on screen, this is a true ensemble piece. Having a hell of a banner year, Gosling has already compiled a stellar résumé of performances that prove he's such a talented and versatile actor. Here, as Meyers, he feels too slick and cool to be such a starry-eyed idealist, but Gosling's turnaround to cynical and jaded is more believable. Hoffman tears into the juicy role of Paul Zara and Giamatti is so right as the slimy opponent, as is Marisa Tomei, playing pushy reporter Ida. Hardworking character actors Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Ehle fill their roles but still stand out, as ambitious Senator Thompson and Morris' wife. Clooney, himself, plays Mike Morris with the effortless charm you'd expect; he's reminiscent of an Obama-in-2008 candidate, from his polished rhetoric and promise of change to the "Believe" campaign posters of Obama's "Hope" posters. The story's rigid origins as a stage play are obvious, but seeing actors go nose to nose and giving David Mamet-y soliloquies make talky scenes pop with an extra fizz. "The Ides of March" is relevant, entertaining, and strongly acted, and will make political science undergraduates think twice. 

Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star (2011) 
96 min., rated R.
Grade: D 

What would Adam Sandler's posse of friends do without him? They'd probably all be busboys or cab drivers, or maybe be running for Congress! But it's worse: they're still getting star vehicles out of Sandler's production company Happy Madison. Stand-up comedian Nick Swardson needed, well, anything, so that's what he gets with "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star." A funny, entertaining vehicle, not so much yet. 

Bucky is an Iowa simpleton, with big, Bugs Bunny buck teeth and a hideous bowl haircut. He's so inept that he can't even keep his job as a grocery store bagger. To cheer him up, his friends prepare him for his first porno in a basement. And holy malarkey, guess who stars in "The Farmer in the Smell"? His ultra-square folks, Jeremiah (Edward Herrmann) and Debbie (Miriam Flynn), that's who! Right then and there, Bucky comes to the epiphany that his destiny is to be a movie star, and he's off to Hollywood! Even though he has no experience with sexuality, Bucky hopes to break into the adult-film industry. Along the way, no one takes him seriously, except Kathy (Christina Ricci), a nice, nonjudgmental waitress, who believes in him and knows he can fulfill his dreams. 

Swardson's Bucky is such an insufferable, one-note creation, the kind of aw-shucks dunce that didn't go to high school because his "town didn't have one" and brushes his teeth in a pool. Oh, and everyone asks if he's retarded. He's the butt of every joke, including a major plot point that Bucky more than makes up for his microscopic unit with the pre-mature, overly excited way he ejaculates, thus becoming a huge porn star. Who knows what possessed Christina Ricci to take this role, but she's earnest and sweet as pie, brightening up the smut and gloom. Don Johnson falls flat as washed-up porn director Miles Deep, but Stephen Dorff (right off of his nuanced turn in Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere") gets away with a few laughs as well-endowed star Dick Shadow. 

The first non-joke in "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star" is a farmer rubbing peanut butter on his crotch so the goats can lick it off, and it almost gets better from there. It's a mystery if Swardson, Sandler, and Allen Covert thought any of this was actually funny, but this is an ambitiously stupid movie from makers with arrested development. And if director Tom Brady learned anything since his feature debut, 2002's unexpectedly good-natured "The Hot Chick," it's that every would-be joke must get driven into the ground. At least it thinks up the most masturbation innuendos in one movie: "play with your business," "breakfast flap jack," "after-lunch pre-nap slap," "post-work traffic-jam slap," "dog-walk leash pull," and "midnight slap whack." And there's more where that came from. 

"Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star" isn't so much offensive as it's just childish, crude, obvious, and maybe eligible of a few more chuckles than "It's Pat: The Movie." However, that's like saying smoking is a few notches healthier than eating a Quarter Pounder with Cheese every day. For some movies, we set high expectations, and for others, we know have no hope. This one's crowning achievement? Pauly Shore, making a cameo, is the least to embarrass himself. 

Killer Elite (2011)
116 min., rated R.
Grade: C
The only relation to Sam Peckinpah's 1975 James Caan-Robert Duvall film, "The Killer Elite," is in name only, but "Killer Elite" is introduced as being based on a true story. It credits a non-fiction book, The Feather Men, by ex-Special Air Service officer Ranulph Fiennes (Ralph and Joseph's third cousin), but if "Killer Elite" purports to be fact-based, then there must be a fine line between a lot of wham-bang hogwash and reality. For one, it has no interest in character backstory. Two, there's not too much context from scene to scene. And three, it purports to be set in the 1980s, but the time period could be today without any telling details. But taken on the primal level of an action picture, and if you want to see Jason Statham in his comfort zone, Clive Owen with a mustache, and Robert De Niro not embarrassing himself, action buffs should be able to roll with this disposable but competent time-killer.

Just when an assassin named Danny (Jason Statham) thought he was out, they pulled him back in. During a job in Mexico in 1980 with his mentor, Hunter (Robert De Niro), he is shot and makes an immediate confession: "I'm done with this. I'm finished. I can't do this anymore." Famous last words, Danny. Of course, he is forced out of his Australian seclusion into one last job when Hunter is kidnapped by a vengeful Omani sheikh. To relieve Hunter, Danny and his team must kill three members of the British SAS who were responsible for the deaths of three of the sheikh's sons; they must make each murder look an accident, so the sheik won't turn up a suspect. Meanwhile, Spike (Clive Owen), the head enforcer of a British secret society called the Feathermen, is sent to track down Danny and his crew. 

Tension should seethe the screen, but Matt Sherring's script (his first, in fact) is needlessly complicated and newbie director Gary McKendry doesn't help much either. A romance between Danny and his farm girlfriend, Anne (gorgeous Yvonne Strahovski), feels like a tack-on, so the movie can be accessible to tough guys' girlfriends. Some of the brutally violent action scenes and free-wheeling stunts deliver the goods, including Statham jumping through a window while strapped to a chair. Other times, the punches and head-butts are shot in chaotic shaky-cam style and cut into hacky pieces. We can hear the bones crunching, but rarely can we tell who's crunching the bones and who's having their bones crunched. 

Statham has action-star bravado to burn that he has no problem repeating himself. In the role of Danny, the star evidences less charisma and humor than his Frank Martin character from the "Transporter" movies, but at least he gets more theatrically released work than Steven Seagal ever did. Trying to out-badass Statham with mano-e-mano combat, Owen is given even less material than Statham. Despite his prominence in the movie's marketing, De Niro is barely there. He sits out the middle of the movie because of his character's incarceration but pops back into frame for The Big (Sort-of) Showdown.

"Killer Elite" is a routine star-powered action flick that happens in front of you but never actually makes you care. It's hard to root for any of the "good" guys or understand every globe-trotting mission that pointlessly subtitles its new location. Finding a soul in an action picture can be like finding nutrition in a McDonald's Happy Meal: it's momentarily diverting but hardly memorable or even "elite."