Saturday, June 30, 2012

"Ted" funniest potty-mouthed talking teddy bear movie you'll ever see

Ted (2012) 
106 min., rated R.

Probably the best potty-mouthed, pot-smoking talking teddy bear movie you'll ever see, "Ted" is as crass, filthy, and wrong as a live-action, uncensored "Family Guy" episode. It makes sense because Seth MacFarlane, the popular animated sitcom's creator, makes his feature writing and directing debut here, and he sure gets away with a lot. Co-writer MacFarlane and a few of his "Family Guy" writers (Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild) take a one-joke premise that could be stretched as far as a stuffed teddy's fur and wring it for all it's worth, with pop-culture references and slap-downs, anti-PC one-liners, and lots of bad bear behavior, until nothing is sacred. Even if "Ted" might've worked better as one of those 9-minute fake movie trailers on Jimmy Kimmel Live than a 106-minute movie, it scores laughs 75% of the time, and that's not a bad success rate. 

In the 1985 prologue, a deadpan Patrick Stewart's heartwarming narration begins "Ted" as one of those treacly Christmas family movies, until a Jewish joke and four-letter words whip it into shape. Young John Bennett is the loner of a Boston neighborhood, but after he receives a teddy bear for Christmas and makes a wish on a falling star that Ted would spring to life and talk, his new BFF does just that. Twenty-seven years later, after the miracle of a talking stuffed bear has earned him fame on Johnny Carson and acceptance in the world, the hedonistic Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) and 35-year-old rental-car company worker John (grown into Mark Wahlberg) are still best buds, bumming around on the couch, taking bong hits and watching "Flash Gordon." But Ted resides with John and his 4-year-long girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis), a living situation that becomes a problem when Lori feels they can't move on with their life. Done playing "three's company," Ted moves out and gets a job, but John can't just let go of his Thunder Buddy, even if he's a bad influence. 

With their Boston accents, Wahlberg and MacFarlane bounce off each other perfectly. The Beantown native with a tough exterior gets to play a lovable lunk, and he's such an undervalued comedic straight man. His tone-teaf vocal performance of the "Octopussy" theme song makes him a really good sport, and his rapid-fire rattling-off of white-trash female names to Ted is a must-see. MacFarlane makes sure his plush-toy counterpart is hysterical and registers as a genuine character, too; it helps that Ted is seamlessly integrated into the action, interacting with the human actors. After a falling-out, John and Ted engage in one of the most impressively elaborate fights between a human and a cuddly toy in a motion picture, and that includes all of the "Child's Play" movies. Kunis, who could've been stuck in a second-banana role as "the girl," is actually pretty cool, Philly-tough, and understanding as Lori. She might nag John a bit in wanting a proposal and getting him to give up childish things, but clearly she's put up with enough already. 

Unlike most talking toy/animal movies rooted in magical realism, "Ted" is inspired for embracing its own silliness. Ted has his fifteen minutes of fame, until becoming a has-been and now everybody is pretty nonchalant about a talking teddy bear existing among them. He drives, he drinks and smokes weed called "mind rape," he parties with prostitutes, he screws, he finds employment at a grocery store, and he screws at that grocery store…on a bag of produce. Much of the plot deals with John struggling to choose between his bromance and his romance. In a way, it isn't that different from Jason Segel facing the same predicament between Muppet brother Walter and human girlfriend Amy Adams in 2011's "The Muppets." Lori's smug, leering boss (Joel McHale) poses an obstacle, and there's also a strange, creepy subplot percolating through all of this, involving an always-daringly weird Giovanni Ribisi as a sociopath bribing John to take Ted for his chubby son. Both tangents add more conflict, but mostly padding, that the film didn't really need. 

"Ted" is most fun (and funny) when Ted gets down with his bad self. This calls for MacFarlane to throw around a slew of scattershot jokes of the scatological and derogatory variety to see what sticks. The fart jokes fall flat, but Kunis cleaning up hooker droppings surprisingly doesn't. A Chinese stereotype is more embarrassing than funny. Sour targets at diseases and 9/11 are iffy. To more success, the name-dropping roasts from Ted's mouth run the gamut from Katy Perry to Susan Boyle to Adam Sandler (take that "Jack and Jill!"). Even MacFarlane's own Peter Griffin winkingly gets dropped. MacFarlane and his co-scribes show off their fandom of film, too. There's an Indiana Jones in-joke, and a flashback to the night John and Lori met is an exact replica of the "Saturday Night Fever" parody in 1980's great spoof "Airplane!" The writers must also have a jones for Tom Skerritt and '80s star Sam J. Jones because both are the subjects of running jokes. Other good-sport cameos abound: another Jones, the '90s singer-songwriter kind, headlines a concert and there's the giggling surprise of two male actors having the rare pleasure to carry on a same-sex relationship. Luckily, most of this stuff hits. 

When the bearnapping horror-movie subplot takes over, the material starts to fray a bit. Still, and mind you, we're still talking about the raunchy R-rated comedy about a man and his talking teddy bear, the film welcomes sweet sentiment, and it's never mocking or calculated but unexpectedly and genuinely earned. For that, "Ted" is easy to warm up to, despite it not fully taking off as a great movie comedy. Then again, it can be very funny and cuddly like a bear hug. And remember, despite "Ted" being about a Fuzzy Wuzzy Bear, this is no Winnie the Pooh.


Friday, June 29, 2012

Clear-eyed "Magic Mike" deftly mixes beefcake eye-candy and substance

Magic Mike (2012)
110 min., rated R.
Every "woo!" girl and gay man is going to rush out in droves to see "Magic Mike," not being that it's filmmaker Steven Soderbergh's latest film but because it's the summer's male-stripper movie with Channing Tatum. Before moving into modeling and acting, the then-18-year-old Tatum worked as a stripper for eight months, a part of his life that inspired director Soderbergh to make "Magic Mike" when the two worked together on January's "Haywire." The trailers and marketing promise it to be a big-screen bachelorette party, but while entertaining on the surface, it's also unexpectedly darker and more substantial than just a wild, glitzy striptease. With that said, if any non-3D film this year could burn from so much eye-candy and heat on screen, it'd still be this one.

A self-described entrepreneur in Tampa, Florida, 30-year-old Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) details cars, constructs roofs, and strips, just so he can save enough money to start his own custom furniture business. A lost, unmotivated 19-year-old named Adam (Alex Pettyfer) is hired to tile a roof at a construction site but has no former experience, so Mike reluctantly has to show him the ropes. Later that night, Adam learns what Mike does night by night, under the headlining name "Magic Mike," at the Xquisite Dance Revue, and even gets pushed out on stage to perform his first striptease. The club's owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), who's planning to make Mike his partner at his next club in Miami, decides Adam has the right stuff to be part of the revue, but "The Kid" (as he goes by) begins to enjoy the attention a bit too much before causing his own downfall. Mike promises Adam's responsible, disapproving sister Brooke (Cody Horn), whose apartment is Adam's temporary home, to look after him, but Mike has his own issues, figuring out his finances when he can't get a loan and realizing he won't be thirty and stripping forever.

Soderbergh has such a diverse, unpredictable filmography, darting from a wide-scope, Robert Altman-esque mosaic of the War on Drugs (2000's "Traffic"), to glossy heist escapism (2001's "Ocean Eleven" and its sequential 2004 and 2007 sequels), to an experimental look into an escort's life (2009's "The Girlfriend Experience"), to a badass hitwoman-on-the-run thriller (this year's "Haywire"). Now with "Magic Mike," it has the marketing of a mainstream product but the relaxed, low-key pacing of a smaller film. For those tired of seeing objectified women treated as pieces of meat, "Magic Mike" reverses the sex, putting the bodies in money-stuffed G-strings. Aside from 1997's sweet, funny British crowd-pleaser "The Full Monty," there has never been another nationwide-distributed, non-X-rated film to introduce audiences to the world of male stripping. But stripping away the oiled-up pecs and abs (which the film delivers plenty of), the film never judges its characters and treats them with enough intelligence.

Mike strips because it pays the bills, and he just so happens to be good at it, but doesn't want the disreputable job to define him either. Generally taking after 1977's "Saturday Night Fever," 1997's adult-film industry expose "Boogie Nights," and a busboy (Ryan Phillippe) snorting coke and humping his way to the top of Studio 54 in 1998's "54," the story's trajectory for Adam is never really in question: The Kid will rise and fall with the help of drugs, thugs, booze, and a bad girl (Riley Keough) with a pet pig. But what's in store for Mike is less certain. We know he's a good egg, not just a himbo, who plays big brother to Adam and wants to hang up his thong, the initially uncomfortable Brooke being a main catalyst for his eventual decision. Producer-screenwriter Reid Carolin's screenplay isn't completely revealing, but the drama is involving and colored inside the lines by the actors, and Soderbergh makes it fresh and non-judgmental.

For skeptics and cynics who have written off Tatum as a mere pound of beefcake before "21 Jump Street," the red-hot star proves that the proof is in the pudding here. He might be a beefcake, but with a skilled director and worthwhile material that plays to his strengths, he has swagger, presence, and actual acting chops (take note of his stammering final-act speech). Tatum flourishes in the part, using his hunky good looks and charisma to his advantage in making Mike a sympathetic guy. As Magic Mike on stage, he's confident and really knows how to work the stage with his cool, sexy street-gangsta' moves and backflips. Pettyfer, who has mostly been a handsome blank slate in "Beastly" and "I Am Number Four" up until now, is more apt to play the green, impressionable rookie who doesn't know what to do with himself as a sex symbol. Born to play the club's oily, past-his-prime-but-still-swingin' owner Dallas, McConaughey is perpetually shirtless and unctuous as usual, but calling back the "hey, hey, hey" mojo of David Wooderson in "Dazed and Confused," he's better than he's ever been in recent years. Dressed in a neon-yellow tank top/belly shirt and high-cut exercise shorts, McConaughey's training session on seductive dry-humping with The Kid is hilariously risqué.

As for the rest of the Xquisite troupe, we don't really get beefed-up characters, aside from their names and their themed stage acts. Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, and pro-wrestler Kevin Nash (a Mickey Rourke dead-ringer who can't dance) are mostly window dressing as Big Dick Richie, Ken, Tito, and Tarzan. They're all buff, but have so few notes to register besides on stage. Manganiello at least gets to be part of funny pre-show visual gags involving a sewing machine and an out-of-focus shot of him using a penis pump. Relative newcomer Horn, daughter of Warner Bros. President and COO Alan F. Horn, has a strong, interesting, and appealing presence as The Kid's sister Brooke, the no-nonsense voice of reason, that a promising future isn't out of her grasp. Her scenes with Tatum feel 100% naturalistic that their dialogue nearly seems unscripted; when he makes Horn laugh, it feels genuine and sweet. On the flip side of Brooke is Joanna, a soon-to-be-psychologist and Mike's go-to friends-with-benefits, sharply played by Olivia Munn. 

Acting as his own director of photography per usual, Soderbergh shoots in a yellow-tinted, '70s style (notice the old Warner Bros. logo) that vividly captures the steamy milieu of a strip club and steamy Tampa itself. Behind the scenes, the director creates an authentic, fly-on-the-wall atmosphere, the men sewing their thongs, primping, lifting, and shaving their legs while joking around. Then when the men actually perform, the style is more dynamic in the strip numbers, which are appropriately Village People-tacky, energetic, and fun without being seedy. With campy gyrating-in-your-face choreography and tearaway clothes, it's all about putting on a show after all. Soderbergh also gets right the pleasure and exhilaration of stripping in front of screaming women, which all of these men thrive on.

In spite of becoming a rather formulaic showbiz morality tale, "Magic Mike" is a smart, clear-eyed drama that takes an insider's look at a titillating profession that steadily grows less titillating. It's also a bait and switch, offering up the sexy Chippendales-style fantasy and the unsexy reality of business during a poor economy. So, both the dollar-bill-holding women and moviegoers interested in characters and actual storytelling go home happy. It's no deliciously overwrought, so-bad-it's-good melodrama like "Showgirls," but if Soderbergh's intention was to make the dream of stripping look temporarily fun and liberating, then sad and identity-consuming, "Magic Mike" is a terrific accomplishment. A dollar bill to anyone that can intelligently refute Channing Tatum's range now.

Grade: B +

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Well-acted but trite "People Like Us" should've been messier

People Like Us (2012)
115 min., rated PG-13.

You can practically set your watch to "People Like Us." It's a pleasantly appealing sit and made with the best of intentions, but after everything is set up, you'll just be marking time as the film checks off a checklist. After co-writing such spectacle-focused tentpoles as "Mission: Impossible III," "Transformers," "Star Trek," and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," writer-director Alex Kurtzman brings more of a human touch to his feature debut and that's refreshing to find in an action-filled summer. Kurtzman draws from his own family history, but a much more honest and moving film could have come out of this personal story. While the parts are greater than the whole of "People Like Us," it should still hit home for those with siblings, especially estranged ones.

Sam Harper (Chris Pine), a fast-talking New York corporate facilitator, is down on his luck. The same day he is threatened with an ultimatum concerning a bartering deal, Sam learns of his music-producing father passing away from cancer. Conveniently forgetting his wallet to miss the flight to the Los Angeles funeral with his law-student girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde), they arrive afterwards, much to the disappointment of his estranged mother Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer). Then once the family's lawyer (Philip Baker Hall) hands Sam his late father's shaving kit full of $150,000 in cash, he's expected to deliver the dough to "Josh Davis." Sam ends up tracking down (read: stalking) this one Josh, realizing Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario) is a precocious, 11-year-old on the verge of being expelled from school. His mother, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), is a single bartender in AA and happens to be Sam's half-sister that he never knew. Frankie resents the fact that she doesn't even exist in her absent father's obituary, so Sam holds back his relation with her but starts to bond with Frankie and Josh.

Co-writing the screenplay with Roberto Orci (2011's "Cowboys & Aliens") and their college friend Jody Lambert, Kurtzman's story might be a true one—an "inspired by true events" reel assures us of that from the start—but that doesn't necessarily make it worthwhile. Its Lifetime Movie trappings are undeniable, as there are no great complications or revelations here beyond the superficial. Having Sam lie and delay handing over the inheritance to Frankie and Josh makes most of "People Like Us" a foregone conclusion, trading complexity for contrivance and feel-good formula. To a fault, the film is too streamlined in its narrative and character beats, even if the semi-biographical story comes from a true place. Sam and Frankie may as well be partners in a Hollywood romantic-comedy, one of them keeping a secret from the other before they have a falling-out and then reconvene by the end. Like Frankie and Josh, the viewer will feel strung along, until the "Hey, I'm your brother" bomb is dropped.

"People Like Us" is a case of the actors being better than the film they're in. Though the character is potentially incorrigible and at times dislikable, the charismatic Chris Pine makes the flawed Sam mostly sympathetic. As Frankie, Elizabeth Banks' portrayal is excellent, immediately working her way into the viewer's positive graces with smart humor and scarring vulnerability. Frankie is hard-edged, a trait shared with Sam that was most likely passed down from their father, but a single, working mom trying her best to get through the tough stuff in life. A touching scene in a laundromat, where Frankie digs up her last memory of her father, is a testament to Banks' understatement as an actress. Newcomer Michael Hall D'Addario could have very well been an unctuous-precocious moppet who utters the cutest lines not even a grown man could think up on the fly. That last part is right—his rebellious Josh does get the best lines—but he's actually hugely appealing, stealing every scene he's in. An intentionally unglamorous but still-lovely Michelle Pfeiffer dependably stirs in her role as Lillian, a grieving woman who recalls the good in her late husband. She makes the most of her small scenes, lending meat and gravitas. Pfeiffer and Pine share a nice moment in the Hollywood Hills, where they sit on a bench and smoke a joint. In an even more underwritten part, Olivia Wilde is a level-headed catch as Hannah, a young woman so smart, driven, and compassionate that one wonders how her and Sam met. Actor-director Mark Duplass also has a throwaway role as Frankie's neighbor and sometimes-sleeping partner Ted.

The location of L.A. is usually either so glossified and glitzy or grimy in movies that another tale set in the City of Angels sounds like a wasted backdrop. Here, Kurtzman (a born-and-raised native) makes L.A. a more homegrown place, making use of Henry's Tacos and Rhino Records. Though pleasingly never as soapy, cloying, and heavy-handed as it could have been, "People Like Us" is still too trite and tidy. Like a tug-of-war between authenticity and artificiality, it settles somewhere in the middle. Given the intriguing dramatic premise and a gifted cast so ready to sell genuine emotion, the film could have been something special as a therapeutic study of unacknowledged siblings, but it ultimately sells out for rigged, simplistic writing. It at least ends strong, in its most affecting moment, with a home video that Sam shows to Frankie. However, the effective, grounded performances do elevate the material that we feel we're actually watching people like us.

Grade: C +

Poetic, bittersweet, if flawed "Take This Waltz" offers truth and pitch-perfect performances

Take This Waltz (2012)
116 min., rated R.
Canadian actress and writer-director Sarah Polley makes a passionate return to relationships for her sophomore film but follows characters in her own thirty-something age bracket compared to her feature debut, 2006's "Away from Her." Ultimately honest, sensitive, and insightful, the indie relationship-in-free-fall drama "Take This Waltz" is sometimes a struggle when it comes to the characters and their personalities, but that most likely is the point. The film should resonate with audiences who can identify with the exciting highs and painful lows of a relationship, but should frustrate and divide them, too. One's emotional investment will depend on whether or not you judge (or, for that matter, like) the characters. One thing is for sure: Polley never judges her characters.

By chance, while on assignment in Nova Scotia, drifting writer Margot (Michelle Williams) meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), a charming artist who drives a rickshaw. Flirting harmlessly, they share a section on their flight back to Toronto and then share a cab to their respective homes, realizing they're neighbors. She points out that she's married, which he responds with "That's too bad." In her sexless, increasingly distant marriage of five years, Margot loves Lou (Seth Rogen), who writes chicken cookbooks for a living, but feels like she always has to work up courage to seduce her husband. With Daniel right across the street, she's tempted to see him again, as her ambivalent feelings begin to threaten her present relationship.

From the onset, Margot is quirky and overly anxious. Daniel spots her at the airport in a wheelchair, and as it turns out, she's just restless and afraid of connecting flights ("I'm afraid of being afraid," she calls it). By the time Margot starts putting herself out there in front of Daniel, will she become even more afraid being in between two men? She's also quite needy and emotionally premature. With Lou, Margot talks and behaves like a baby, one-upping each other in a game where they spout off phrases of endearment like "I love you so much I'm gonna put your spleen through a meat grinder." They even lay in bed, goofily talking directly into each other's eyeballs. Then with Daniel, she cusses and jokingly tells him that she hates him, as if they're former flames rather than recent acquaintances. Such playfully childish behavior from these characters isn't as real as Polley intended. Instead, it's annoyingly cutesy and some of the dialogue feels "written." If that's not enough, none of the characters' boho, exposed-brick living quarters make sense when the viewer stops and considers their means of income, or lack thereof, from the colorful jobs they work. It's a small point, but not unreasonable.

Over afternoon martinis, Margot blushingly says she wants to know what Daniel would do to her. He tells her in a whispery, verbally explicit monologue, and it's an intimate moment, wrought with sexual tension, without either of them touching. There's also a sweet moment where Margot and Daniel take in a dizzying ride on a carnival scrambler, playing The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," which is later countered in the poetic, bittersweet final shot. There's an amusing scene, where Margot and her sister-in-law take a water aerobics class with an over-the-top male instructor and Margot pees herself laughing (with a popcorn-eating Daniel surprising her in the stands) and the chemicals in the pool turn her urine blue, but tonally, it feels divorced from the rest of the film. This is followed by a frank community-shower scene, Williams, Silverman, and older women of all shapes and sizes "letting it all hang out." Their full-frontal nudity is not sexualized or even made as a joke, but a conversation the women have, while washing, doesn't so much underline where the story is headed but thematically drops the hint that "new things get old." Adding to the film's overall modesty and naturalism is Luc Montpellier's dreamy cinematography, capturing the heat and romantic longing of summer.

Across the board, performances are pitch-perfect. Long since she played Jen on TV's "Dawson's Creek" and paved her way as an excellent actress, Michelle Williams could read straight from the phone book for two hours and she'd somehow make it interesting. Her performance as Margot is just as emotionally raw and layered as her work in the marital tragedy "Blue Valentine." Apparently unable to do any wrong, Williams makes the role feel specific and lived-in, embodying every emotional beat of discontent and curiosity with her heart and soul. Although she flirts with temptation, planning a kiss with Daniel in thirty years, Margot is human after all. In the role of Lou, a less-doughy Seth Rogen is his solid, affable self, reigning in his comic instincts and getting the chance to really flex his dramatic acting muscles. Lou is a sweetheart, playfully tricking Margot by dumping a bucket of water on her head as she showers each morning, while she thinks their bathroom has an overhead leak the entire time. But he also tends to push Margot away, more interested in cooking chicken than having sex and sitting in silence during their anniversary dinner. As Daniel, Luke Kirby is in the trickiest spot, having to bring some sort sympathy to "the other man," but he pulls it off. Daniel knows what he wants, but respects Margot enough to not push. It doesn't hurt that he's sexy and charismatic, so it's understandable why Margot could be tempted. The most impressive performance comes from Sarah Silverman, considering she's only ever been known for her sharp tongue. Unexpectedly, she's very credible and heartbreaking as Lou's sister Geraldine, a recovering alcoholic. At a sobriety party Lou and Margot throw, Silverman delivers a speech not far off from the comedian's own profane stand-up. 

Throughout, Polley focuses more on the progression of her characters (and metaphorical lines of dialogue) to drive the story rather than plot, which is always the preferable choice. As the film bracingly doesn't spell everything out or fall into melodrama, it's telling of what Polley wants to maturely say about relationships and their honeymoon phases. Where will each character be left standing as individual people by the end? Polley generally answers that question but pulls the wool over our eyes and paints everything with complexity. Though flawed and often too indulgent for its own good, "Take This Waltz" is a lovely, truthful piece of melancholy that strikes a lingering chord and assures that Sarah Polley is a genuine talent to watch. Her subtle, eloquent voice is evident all the way through. 

Grade: B +

Sweet, engaging "Safety Not Guaranteed" guaranteed to charm

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) 
86 min., rated R.
What if you read a classified ad about someone seeking to travel back in time? Would you instantly call b.s.? Filmmaking newcomer Colin Trevorrow was inspired by a real classified ad placed in a 1997 Backwoods Home Magazine, someone asking to be accompanied in a time-travel mission, that turned into an Internet meme. Making their feature debuts, screenwriter Derek Connolly and director Trevorrow use the ad as a jumping-off point for "Safety Not Guaranteed," a slight but offbeat, likable, engaging comedy that seams a road movie, science fiction, and a misfit romance into an oddball mix. It's a very small, modestly budgeted mix of a movie, being independently distributed by FilmDistrict, that's more satisfying than most bigger, louder blockbusters. And it helps to have producers Jay and Mark Duplass in its corner, Mark also taking the on-screen role of the potentially insane adman.
Interning at a Seattle magazine, disaffected, antisocial Darius (Aubrey Plaza) jumps at the chance to do a human-interest piece regarding a newspaper classified ad. The strange ad reads "Wanted: Somebody to go back in time. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed." Darius, along with smarmy, cynical journalist Jeff (Jake Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Karan Soni), a virginal Indian, travel to Ocean View, WA, in search of the ad's author. As it turns out, Jeff's real motivation on their work trip is to hook up with a former fling, which leaves Darius to go rogue and do most of the work. Pretending to answer his ad, she tracks down the kook named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) at his grocery-store work, and as he believes her to be equally serious in a time-traveling excursion back to 2001, Darius finds a real kindred spirit in the paranoid guy. But are government agents really after Kenneth?

At first glance, "Safety Not Guaranteed" looks like it could be just another self-consciously quirky indie, but the directions it takes are sneaky. Connolly's script is witty and fresh, and Trevorrow's direction so low-key and unpushy that the film is guaranteed to charm. Darius and Kenneth develop such a mutual trust that their misfit romance grows on the viewer. This is one of those movies where one character is basically playing the other to write a story, but Darius and Kenneth are well-defined as characters and share a connection that grows deeper the more the story progresses. Even if Kenneth might not be right in the head (or maybe he is), Connolly and Trevorrow keep one guessing.

With her adorably glaring eyes and deadpan comic timing, Aubrey Plaza might not yet be a household name, but deserves to be after her first lead role. Known for her dryly sarcastic shtick in TV's "Parks and Recreation," Plaza delivers much of that Daria persona, but also gets to show a softer, more vulnerable side in the part of Darius. She has a cynical view of herself, but beneath that surface is a sadness and a guilt. When we first meet Darius, she's a morose wallflower who has never been able to blend in with the crowd. Then when she meets Kenneth, who leads her through gun practice and forest runs, a smile emerges on her face, and it feels like a breakthrough. Darius can't believe she's actually falling in love with this man. She not only becomes an accomplice in Kenneth's stealing of lasers from a tech research lab to build his time machine, but opens up and tells him that she'd travel back to stop her mother from dying when she was 14. 

Right behind Plaza is the lately-ubiquitous Mark Duplass, who continues to impress as an actor (you can also see him in "Your Sister's Sister"). He has a shaggy, lumpy look that's lovable and appealing, and adds a sincere sweetness to the "is-he-crazy-or-isn't-he?" character of Kenneth. In the part of Jeff, Jake Johnson is perfectly smarmy, getting in his jerky wisecracks. When Kenneth comes face to face with Jeff, he tells the glib narcissist that he doesn't know about pain and regret, but that moment is countered by Jeff's own rekindling romance with former flame Liz (a very naturally beautiful Jenica Bergere) that doesn't completely go as planned. Karan Soni gets the least to do, but he's quietly endearing and still supplies his Arnau with a tidy arc (hint: he's a virgin from the start). And in a surprising cameo, Kristen Bell shows up.

The film takes few wrong steps, but although its shaggy-dog-story conclusion is just ambiguous enough, it pokes a glaring hole in Kenneth's murky M.O. for traveling back to 2001. Until then, "Safety Not Guaranteed" is grounded in reality and balances its life-affirming take on the human condition with some time-travel loopiness. It's droll and sweetly gentle without a cheap laugh and without getting sentimental. Once you're done being won over, you'll immediately want to go back in time and experience it again. Wanted: more audiences to check out this scrappy little sleeper of a movie.


Monday, June 25, 2012

New to DVD/Blu-ray: Foolish "A Thousand Words" should've advised to 'make like a tree and leave'

A Thousand Words (2012)
91 min., rated PG-13.
Oh, how Eddie Murphy has fallen. Earning himself an Oscar nomination for his dramatic work in 2006's "Dreamgirls" seems like a distant memory or possibly a dream, especially since Murphy followed it up with 2007's head-splittingly unfunny disaster that was "Norbit." However, the once-dangerously funny comedian seemed to be making a comeback in last year's breezily enjoyable "Tower Heist." Now, he's gone and done "A Thousand Words," which has re-teamed the star with "Norbit" director Brian Robbins. While there was no other direction to go but up for 2008's genial but dopey "Meet Dave," Robbins and Murphy are back to the bottom. How's this for a concept? In what doesn't even sound feasible on paper, a very verbal comedian like Murphy, whose mouth is his best asset, is forced to keep his trap shut and mime for most of this broad comedy. That's as wise of a move had someone forced Ludwig van Beethoven to play masterful music with stumps for hands.

Greedy, motormouthed literary agent Jack McCall (Eddie Murphy) constantly his way through life, using his dishonest words to get what he wants. He's the kind of guy that cuts to the front of the line at Starbucks by faking a phone call that his wife is in labor…with twins. Jack is (apparently) such a jerk that even though he's given his wife Caroline (Kerry Washington) and their toddler son a modern-chic Los Angeles pad, she nags him about moving into a safer, fenced-in family home. At work, Jack never actually reads a manuscript, leaving that up to his assistant (Clark Duke), but Jack is convinced he can seal the deal with a revered holistic healer named Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis), who has written a book that Jack doesn't realize is only five pages long. When Jack makes a joke of Sinja's spiritual meditation, a fully grown Bodhi tree sprouts up in his backyard. According to Sinja, Jack is connected with the tree, so for every word he speaks (or writes down), a leaf falls. But when the tree loses all thousand of its leaves, it will die, as will Jack. (If only.) Can Jack charade his way to redemption?

As written by Steve Koren (responsible for the dreadful Adam Sandler vehicle "Jack and Jill"), "A Thousand Words" shoots itself in the foot, being rarely funny or as touching as it hopes to be. The fact that this "high-concept" comedy was shot in 2008 and has been collecting dust bunnies on the shelf is dubious enough, but seeing Nicolas Cage given a producing credit and not-so-timely shout-outs to Hannah Montana, Britney Spears, and the Chili's Baby Back Ribs ad are additional grounds for said claim. This mystical premise had potential to work, and played more successfully when it was called "Liar Liar" and starred Jim Carrey, but it becomes such a labored, strenuously wacky joke. If Jack only had a Keurig coffee maker at home, he wouldn't have to make a trip to Starbucks every day, but since the script and product placement demanded so, he has a hell of a time ordering a triple latte as a mute. (In the first shot of a scene, the camera actually pulls back from shamelessly zeroing in on the coffee franchise's label and a pre-mute Murphy shouting "This coffee is incredible!") Then when a blind man (John Witherspoon) asks Jack to tell him when to cross the street, would-be hilarity ensues with busy traffic. This scene sadly evokes memories of 1999's far superior "Bowfinger," where Murphy walked through traffic. And when Jack's gardener sprays the tree with water and then insecticide, Jack sweats and then gets high on the fumes (backed with the musical cues of Afroman's "Because I Got High"). If none of this sounds outrageously funny already, rest assured none of the other gags will have you erupting into laughter.

Back to phoning in his performances as a workaholic in need of smelling the roses, Eddie Murphy gets to ham, grimace, and mug as if his career depended on it. He tries his darndest, but the character of Jack experiences such a dark plight that the film might have worked had it played to Murphy's dramatic strengths. Swigging from a vodka bottle and yelling at the tree don't count. Then there's the squandered supporting cast whose characters are portrayed wholesale as foolish idiots. Hoping to spice up their marriage, Caroline gets a hotel room and surprises Jack in a dominatrix bikini, but it's just one more waste of the lovely Kerry Washington when she's not nagging him. And how exactly does she not notice a fully grown tree in plain-view? Clark Duke, as Jack's assistant Aaron, gets to act like a lewd jackass when he does all the talking for Jack at an important deal-closing luncheon; Jack McBrayer has only to play a dim-witted barista at Starbucks; and the usually hilarious Allison Janney gets to be uptight, playing Jack's boss, and have a breadstick shoved up her nose. Only the wonderful Ruby Dee, as Jack's senile mother, keeps most of her dignity intact, all "cajones" and "virgin" jokes aside. She seems to be acting in a better, more sincere film.

The final nail in the coffin is the third-act turn of sappy, cornball sentimentality that "A Thousand Words" takes. Not only does such heart-tugging emotion not feel genuinely earned, it seems to come from an entirely different movie. Director Robbins employs softly-lit, groan-inducing flashback scenes and pushy grace notes on the soundtrack, but it's all a forced, disingenuous attempt to make us feel something and get choked up. Naturally, Jack learns something from all of his lying and pent-up Daddy Issues. We know he's a changed man because he's even written a book called "A Thousand Words" (like the title of the movie!). But Murphy deserves funnier and so do we. Instead, give this simplistic, hopelessly flat inanity the silent treatment and re-watch "48 Hrs.," "Trading Places," "Beverly Hills Cop," "Coming to America," and "Bowfinger." Then buy a Starbucks afterwards!

Grade: D +

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Downbeat "Seeking a Friend" alternately sweet and tender

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)
100 min., rated R.
In seeking soul mates for an apocalyptic "melancomedy," Steve Carell and Keira Knightley sound like an unlikely, mismatched pair at first blush. They don't make a lot of sense as romantic companions, with there being a 22-year age difference, but hey, if it's the end of the world as we know it, why not give it a go to feel fine? But the boldest move behind "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is that writer-director Lorene Scafaria (the "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" screenwriter's debut behind the camera) has actually concocted a romantic-comedy with Armageddon as its backdrop. It's too downbeat and hopeless of a premise that mainstream audiences wouldn't ordinarily go for (and apparently hits a lot of the same beats as the 1998 Canadian end-of-times film "Last Night"), but "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is the offbeat and strangely charming flip side of Lars von Trier's powerful, artfully bleak "Melancholia." Nevertheless, audiences hoping for a happily-ever-after ending are going to be disappointed.

A 70-mile-wide asteroid named Matilda will collide with Earth in three weeks. All attempts to stop it have failed, so mankind only has 21 days to live. Insurance-company drone Dodge (Carell) and his wife Linda (played by Steve's real-life wife Nancy Carell) sit in their car, listening to the radio broadcast announcement, until Linda gets out of the car and leaves him. Dodge carries on his last weeks with a midlife-crisis, going to work and taking calls like nothing has changed. Then at an "End of the World"-type party hosted by his married friends (Connie Britton, Rob Corrdry), Dodge is set up with a tacky woman (Melanie Lynskey), but he sees no point. Instead, since his wife left him, he decides to find "the one that got away," his high school sweetheart, Olivia. That's when he finally meets his bohemian British neighbor, Penny (Knightley), who's going through her own crisis of missing her family across the pond and not being able to get a flight out. Dodge promises her a plane he knows of if Penny helps him find Olivia. When New York gets worse, riots breaking out downtown, Dodge and Penny hit the road with their goals in mind and make a deep connection along the way.

What would you do if you had three weeks to live? Does life hold any meaning if The End is near? "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" surely isn't a profound sociological study of humanity, but the film takes its premise seriously enough to ruminate such questions. Otherwise, we have a road-movie with a romance at its core and an episodic structure of comedic detours. A few sections are tonally detached from the rest of film, as it's these moments that mistakenly marketed the film as a comedy. Still, there are spiky, inspired (albeit brief) supporting turns, colored like a black comedy, from Connie Britton, Rob Corddry, Amy Schumer, Melanie Lynskey, Patton Oswalt, Adam Brody, and William Petersen. Also, T.J. Miller and Gillian Jacobs hilariously show up as the touchy and cheerfully over-the-top staff of a chain restaurant called Friendsy's ("where everybody's your friend, and everybody is welcomeeven wolves!"). Later, Martin Sheen has a poignant role as a man with regrets.

Scafaria's screenplay finds plenty of droll humor in the workaday details of human civilization before reaching its untimely conclusion. At Dodge's workplace, his boss announces that it will be Casual Friday any day of the week and a higher-management position will be given to any of the few people that still come into work. Some commit suicide, just to get it over with. Others keep their lives for now but don't care about anything anymore that Dodge's friends go about shooting up heroin and giving liquor to children at a party they're hosting, and one of the wives even takes a pass at Dodge. Others have an orgy. And then there are those that keep mowing their lawn; even Dodge's cleaning lady still goes about her chores, telling him she'll see him the same time next week. In an act of dedication, a TV anchorman makes his last broadcast, bidding adieu to his viewers. One can almost see the world actually ending this way.

Carell is mainly in his comfort zone as the mild-mannered sad-sack everyman here, but he's such an appealing and understated dramatic actor that it's no wonder he plays the type so well. His Dodge has a sadness, and for good reason, but he's never a whiny mope. After a failed suicide attempt with windex in the park, Dodge wakes up to a "Sorry" note taped to his stomach and an abandoned dog now in his possession that he can't help but adopt. (Penny amusingly names the scruffy doggie "Sorry.") Penny is pretty much a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, carrying her favorite vinyl records and showing up at Dodge's window like Holly Golightly, but Knightley makes her a spunky-flighty-optimistic extrovert. The actress has a particularly tender moment, where she uses a satellite phone in her survivalist ex-boyfriend's (Derek Luke) underground bunker to call and talk to each of her family members. Dodge and Penny aren't the last man and woman on Earth, but it's not hard to root for these two and hope they succeed. Sure, their connection seems more forced than organic and the actors exhibit little heat, but there's an opposites-attract appeal between them.

"Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" has its jarring tonal shifts, but finds a way to make them all make sense since worldwide doom inevitably hovers. With doses of abrupt darkness, melancholy, sweetness, and zany farce, the film strikes enough affecting, emotionally truthful notes. Writer-director Scafaria's infinite playlists continue with sublime musical choices, from "The Air That I Breathe" by The Hollies to The Walker Brothers' "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)." Despite a final plot contrivance, Scafaria's daring to go through with the story's logical conclusion makes for a beautifully tender, intimate, and ultimately bittersweet moment between Dodge and Penny. It could be depressing and unsatisfying, but it's not. At that fulfilling moment, you'll start to see the glass half full when there's nothing left in the world.

Grade: B +

Inherently goofy "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" never as fun as it ought to be

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)
105 min., rated R.
Believe it or not, 2006's "Snakes on a Plane" was about…snakes on a plane. And 2011's "Hobo with a Shotgun" was about, in fact, a hobo with a shotgun! The list of movies with absurd say-it-all titles could go on from there, and often it feels like movie makers come up with a gimmicky concept and think the rest of the movie can write itself. "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" conceives the hook that the United States' 16th president wasn't just emancipating slaves, but slaying vampires besides. Yes, creative licenses were taken here, but the film is based on the "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies"-succeeding book by Seth Grahame-Smith, who specializes in historical horror mash-ups and wrote the screenplay (after 2012's "Dark Shadows"), so actual storytelling would be expected. Also, such a one-note idea is given an uptick by Russian Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov (that's Beck-mom-bet-off), who's already played with vampire lore in 2004's "Night Watch" and 2006's "Day Watch," and then served up stylized, comic-book action and nasty dark humor in 2008's "Wanted."

So, in theory, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" might have been gloriously ridiculous fun for its seemingly can't-miss curiosity of a premise. At times, it delivers on that level, but on the whole, it doesn't quite come off. Though there is certainly amusing entertainment to be had, freeing the South from bloodsuckers is never wild, all-out fun as it could and should have been. A "what if?" revision of Lincoln's presidency is audacious enough and so inherently goofy that one would expect the film to be more aware of its own joke. Instead, Grahame-Smith and Bekmambetov take a straight-faced approach without being deadeningly self-serious, so it's neither ready-made SyFy Channel cheese that would lose steam in 15 minutes nor a ponderous history lesson akin to "JFK" or "Nixon" that would drone on. (If one wants a bio-pic, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" is on its way in December.)

As history would have it, in 1818, Abraham Lincoln (played as a child by Lux Haney-Jardine) lived in Indiana with his parents, who owned a plantation owned by racist, vampiric Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). One night, a still-awake Abe witnesses Barts breaking into his house and "poisoning" his mother, who dies thereafter. From that moment on, Abe (now played by Benjamin Walker) commits his life to seeking vengeance on Barts, who reveals himself to be a shades-wearing bloodsucker. During his initial attack on his mother's killer, he is rescued by a mysterious, carousing vampire tracker named Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who opens Abe's eyes to the existence and prevalence of vampires and begins to train him. After a decade of training with his silver-tipped ax, the rail-splitting, president-to-be Abe moves to Springfield, Illinois, where he studies law, works as a shopkeeper, and slays vampires under the guise of merchants and pastors, as well as New Orleans slave-owner Adam (Rufus Sewell).

The first half and bits of the second are where "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" succeeds as a succulent, over-the-top lark. Right off the top, a slave gets whipped across the cheek, and in 3-D, audiences should feel the sting. The scenes with Abe taking out nasty vampires are fiercely menacing and blood-spurting fun to watch, especially when a silver bullet gets shot into an eye. Abe knocking down a tree with a swing of his ax and then twirling his weapon of choice like nun-chucks during a training montage are both a hoot. There's a gleefully over-the-top set-piece—in a dusty stampede of horses, Abe chases Barts, who proceeds to hop from steed to steed and even flings one at his pursuerthat takes the cake. Even some of the slo-mo, "Matrix"-styled action is flashy and exciting in its acrobatic choreography, long-coat swooshing, and splattery ax-severings. Save for the climax set inside and atop a moving train (the one Bekmambetov staged in "Wanted" was more fun), the third act devolves into a repetitive onslaught of shrieking vamps and ax-swinging decapitations, thus running out of juice.

Cleverly developing a parallel between slaves and vampires, screenwriter Grahame-Smith and director Bekmambetov obviously play fast and loose with Abraham Lincoln's bibliography. Honest Abe's honesty is questioned, the Lincoln-Douglas debates come up, Harriet Tubman (Jaqueline Fleming) shows her face, the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, the Battle of Gettysburg happens (with the toothsome fiends on the Confederate side), and Mary yells for Lincoln that they'll be late to the theater (get it?). But a lot of this section feels like "Abe's Greatest Hits" without much of the beginning's kick. Once Lincoln gets into politics, much of the final cut feels edited down, with a jarringly choppy narrative (Abe goes from a shopkeeping Van Helsing to president in a snap), character motivations that are either nonexistent or forced, and toothlessly developed villains. Renowned Caleb Deschanel's cinematography is fine, but having used an Arri Alexa digital camera, the film has such a glossy, varnished, sepia-toned look that it's distractingly cheap and often washed-out. And not to be persnickety, but CGI has never looked more green-screen fake.

Relative unknown Benjamin Walker makes for a very boyish, "common-looking" Abe, resembling a young Liam Neeson (he actually played a 19-year-old version of Neeson's Alfred Kinsey in 2004's "Kinsey"), and by the time he grows a beard and sports the stovepipe hat, he's a dead ringer. All looks aside, Walker feels too slight and bereft of conviction and gravitas, even if he wisely plays the role straight. Dominic Cooper lends some flamboyant gusto as Abe's mentor Henry, but the respectable Anthony Mackie is squandered in the role of Will Johnson, Abe's formerly enslaved childhood friend. On the standout distaff side, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is fetching and credible in 19th-century dress, as Mary Todd, and shares a nice rapport with Walker. On a picnic, Abe is honestly upfront with her about working nights, killing six vampires, and she just humors him. Marton Csokas sinks his teeth into the part of Barts, but Rufus Sewell, always the token bad guy, and model Erin Wasson are merely serviceable.
"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" doesn't deserve a stake through the heart, but it's a disappointment, empty glossiness with as much cheeky humor as a put-upon slave. There should have been more horse flinging or a fanged John Wilkes Booth could have shown up at the theater. We could play the "Coulda Shoulda Woulda" game, but what's done is done. While we're at it, what could be next? George Washington: Exorcist? Bill Clinton: Lady Killer? Come on, where's your sense of humor?

Grade: C +