Friday, December 28, 2012

Glorious, stirring "Les Misérables" soars as feel-bad holiday movie

Les Misérables (2012) 
158 min., rated PG-13.

"Les Misérables" is not small or low-key. It's manipulative, it's operatic, it's overblown, it's exhausting, and yet it still earns every tear it wants you to shed as a lump-in-your-throat, chills-down-your-spine musical opus. Based on the 1862 novel by French playwright Victor Hugo, the beloved stage production first opened 32 years ago in Paris, soon became a West End sensation, then hit Broadway, and is now hailed as the fourth longest-running show in musical theatre history. "Les Misérables" has been reworked to film enough times as a non-musical adaptation that it was only a matter of time until the material received the "sung-through musical" treatment. In what is a risky undertaking, director Tom Hooper (he of 2010's Best Picture-winning "The King's Speech") embraces the theatricality of the steadfast stage phenomenon in this big-screen adaptation, a glorious, lavishly mounted epic tragedy.

The time is 1815 and the place is France. Sentenced to 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister's sick son, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), prisoner 24601, is granted parole. He becomes the prosperous town mayor, but will never be a totally free man, as he's kept under watch by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). At the factory owned by the former prisoner, there is Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a young woman who's ratted out for sending money to her illegitimate daughter and then fired. With nothing left to live for, except her daughter, she tries making ends meet as a prostitute and selling her teeth and hair, all the way until her tragic death. A selfless man, Valjean adopts Fantine's waifish daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), who has suffered working as a kind of Cinderella for an unscrupulous couple of innkeepers, the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter). Nine more years pass, and Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne) spots Cosette (taken over by Amanda Seyfried) from across the street, without knowing that the Thénardiers' daughter, Éponine (Samantha Barks), has loved him all along. Meanwhile, as Javert makes it his mission to pursue Valjean, everyone finds themselves in the midst of the 1832 revolution. Hilarity does not ensue.

In what might be the biggest selling point or turnoff, Hooper has taken an ambitious gamble in having the actors sing live on camera with piano accompaniment. As opposed to the traditional method of screen performers lip-synching to prerecorded vocal tracks, the decision does pay off, lending the story more immediacy, spontaneity, authenticity, and emotional weight. The "live" approach gives more leeway to the performers to be in the moment and accentuates the unpolished lack of gloss and perfection. Hooper's give-and-take direction ping-pongs between big, sweeping (and digitally augmented) spectacle and in-your-face intimacy, with a firm handle on mise en scène that alternately breathes and constricts without coming across too stagy or claustrophobic. Everyone is shot in such tight, up-close-and-personal proximity that you can feel the deeper meaning of the music. Danny Cohen's cinematography ("The King's Speech") is majestic and intimate, and stellar period tech detailsart direction, production design, set decoration, costumes, and make-up—all capture the grime and squalor. 

More of a heavy opera than an energetic musical, "Les Misérables" is based on performance and storytelling through song. Singing to the mezzanine, the actors all put forth great effort in holding a note, and they had better because the entire movie is spoken in song ("Yes, it's true, there's a child/And the child is my daughter/And her father abandoned us, leaving us flat"). Carrying the film on his back, Jackman is powerful and tender as the selfless Valjean, with an arc that might just fill your eyes with tears. In just the first half, a shorn Hathaway's devastating, show-stopping solo of "I Dreamed a Dream" is a powerhouse. The actress not only proves her musical worth but showcases her most impressive and demanding work in a short amount of screen time, giving it all she's got and trembling with raw emotion. Shot in one unbroken close-up on Hathaway's hopeless face, it's an unforgettably plaintive and poignant moment that will shatter your heart into a million pieces and force the Academy to seal their votes tomorrow.

First appearing in a Cap'n Crunch uniform as Javert, Crowe is not on equal footing as the rest of the actor-singers, but with experience as a frontman for rock bands, he has strong enough pipes for the bravado of Javert. As Cosette, Seyfried trills with a lovely vibrato, but she's saddled with one of the more underwritten characters. 10-year-old Allen is more memorable as her younger counterpart (also the literal poster child of the play and film). As Marius, Redmayne quivers with passion in his voice. Having played the same role of Éponine on the London stage and for the 25th Anniversary Concert, Barks is more effortless, coming off as the standout in this love triangle and showcasing her angelic vocals. Her lovesick solo, "On My Own," through the rainy cobblestone streets is beautiful. Cohen and Carter ham it up as the brassy, much-needed comic relief, and their "Master of the House" is a fun production number.

A few issues with the film most likely stem from the source material, even if screenwriter William Nicholson (2000's "Gladiator") remains slavishly faithful. On stage, the performance has an intermission, so narrative momentum is more forgivable; when the same material is told through a lens where storytelling needs structure and characters should be more than pawns, it's easier to nitpick. As "Les Misérables" switches to its second half, with less attention on Jean Valjean and more on barricading the streets and the rushed love-at-first-sight romance (which is a non-starter and comparatively less involving), the plotting feels choppy and the pacing grows distinctly uneven. But just before the story might begin to wilt, Valjean becomes the heart and soul, with Fantine haunting the proceedings like a guardian angel. Judged as a film, as it has to be, this $61-million adaptation is not without its flaws and probably won't change the predetermined minds of musical non-fans. In the scheme of things, when one acknowledges its cumulative impact, "Les Miz" (the vernacular term for theatre brats) is grand, stirring, and overwhelming in a good way, the feel-bad movie of the holiday season.

Grade: B +

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Prickly, funny "This Is 40" could be called 'Apatow Family Videos'

This Is 40 (2012)
134 min., rated R.

Billed as a "sort-of sequel to 'Knocked Up'," writer-director Judd Apatow's latest is more of a spin-off, a slice-of-life microcosm of one Brentwood, Calif., family's career, money, marriage, familial, and aging problems. Ben (Seth Rogen) and Alison (Katherine Heigl) already had their story in 2007's "Knocked Up." Paul Rudd's Pete and Leslie Mann's Debbie were the hilariously acid-tongued Greek chorus/supporting players, and now "This Is 40" belongs to them. 

In the five-year interim, Pete and Debbie haven't gotten any younger. "40 can suck my dick!" Debbie exclaims, as she's just hit the big 4-0 but lies about her age, telling people she's only 38. Pete's 40th birthday celebration is also coming up in a few weeks, but he's just going with the flow. They live in their unnecessarily extravagant suburban home; Pete runs an indie record label and has currently signed on aged British rocker Graham Parker with his backup band, The Rumour, but the business might not survive; and Debbie owns a little boutique store, where one of her salesgirls, Desi (Megan Fox) and Jodi (Charlyne Li), might've stolen $12,000 of their profits. "We're gonna blink and we'll be 90" Debbie tells Pete. She wants to work on their health, communication, and overall happiness; improve their sex life without "turbo-ing" it with Viagra; and kick their clandestine habits (he sneaks eating cupcakes, she sneaks smoking cigarettes). They also want to contend with their resentments toward their respective fathers: Pete needs to stop lending money to his mooch of a dad, Larry (Albert Brooks), who can barely support his three test-tube sons, and Debbie wants to make up for lost time with her distant, humorless biological dad, Oliver (John Lithgow). Their two daughters have grown up a bit, too: 8-year-old Charlotte (Iris Apatow) just wants to play with her big sister, while 13-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow) lives on her iPad watching the whole series of TV's "Lost." The parents suggest Sadie to play outside and make a fort, and cut back on the technology. Bickering and hugs ensue.

Even if there's something self-indulgent and self-congratulatory about a filmmaker's family affair being carried to the silver screen, one still won't mind watching these characters who (mostly) respond to everyday situations like in messy real life. Apatow has obviously drawn from his own homelife and marriage, pulling out prickly, perceptive nuggets of honesty and insight, as well as oodles of Apatow-y laughs that deftly balance the juvenile stuff and real-life, observational humor. When Pete and Debbie get away from the kids on a brief getaway in Laguna, they share a bitterly funny tête-à-tête about how they'd kill each other and then have some fun with a medical marijuana cookie (the one time Seth Rogen's character name is mentioned). There's a rib-tickling montage of physicals, colonoscopies, dental and gynecology appointments, but a lisping Indian doctor joke is too easy, even if Rudd gives it a soft landing. Pete and Sadie engage in some clever banter over "Mad Men" and "Lost." One can tell Apatow is maturing (there's only one fart gag and it's unscripted)and he's already such a household name from producing every other comedy that it's hard to believe this is only his fourth feature film since 2009's "Funny People," which felt personal but twice its lengthbut as is his wont, "This Is 40" is scattered and feels protracted by 40 minutes.

What helps immensely is re-casting the likable and humorously sharp Rudd and Mann as Pete and Debbie. They both get the chance to stretch their dramatic and comedic chops more than usual; as Pete, Rudd is goofy, but not stupid, and as Debbie, Mann can be a bit needy, but perhaps that goes with the territory of getting older, having an absentee parent, and taking on so much. Also returning from "Knocked Up" are Mann and Apatow's real-life daughters, Maude and Iris, who are also good: Maude is expressive but often goes too big when sassing Mom with the shrill brattiness, and Iris is adorably funny.

About the aforementioned overlength: Apatow does not know brevity, as if he couldn't bear to do some pruning, especially now that the material hits so close to home. He often gets sidetracked with giving fringe parts and long, improvisational bits to his troupe of funny talent. It makes sense to have Jason Segel on board as Deb's personal trainer, not only because he's playing a variation on his Jason, who was sweet on Deb in "Knocked Up," but also from working with Apatow since TV's "Freaks and Geeks." Charlyne Yi is here, too, but her Jodi doesn't seem to have any relation to the Jodi in "Knocked Up." The supporting cast was seemingly on Apatow's speed-dial: Chris O'Dowd, "Bridesmaids" co-writer Annie Mumolo, Robert Smigel, Lena Dunham, Megan Fox, and Melissa McCarthy. As she proved earlier this year in "Friends With Kids," Fox actually has some acting in her, after all: she's self-aware and wickedly funny. McCarthy has some truly funny moments (even in the outtakes) as an unpleasant, vitriolic mother with a son at the same school as Sadie. Brooks and Lithgow (which is amusing, considering Mann played Lithgow's trophy wife in "Orange County" and now plays his daughter) also make their moments count. 

Reactions are going to be split down the middle in how Pete and Debbie could potentially lose their house, even with them driving a BMW and a Lexus, working cushy jobs, and having enough money left over for their romantic resort getaway and Pete's catered birthday party in the backyard, but such things are treated with a bit more truth and complication than most out-of-touch First-World Problem Movies. One won't have to be in the middle of his or her life, be married, or have kids to completely relate to this painfully funny snapshot of marriage and parenthood, but it might help. 


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Small, emotionally true "Hello I Must Be Going" showcases winning Melanie Lynskey

Hello I Must Be Going (2012) 
95 min., rated R. 

Ever since Peter Jackson's true-crime drama "Heavenly Creatures" in 1994, Melanie Lynskey has been an actress to watch. On screen, both big and small, she's popped up in supporting roles and has always etched them with a specific indelibility, and now she's finally been given her due in another lead role. In the small, winningly gentle "Hello I Must Be Going," the lovely, criminally underrated actress is a joy in playing Amy Minsky, a thirtysomething photographer who's having a really hard time. Walking out on her self-absorbed husband (Dan Futterman) a few months ago for catching him having an affair with her best friend, she's depressed and back to living with her parents, Ruth (Blythe Danner) and Stan (John Rubinstein). Sleeping until noon, laying around in the same shabby T-shirt, and not leaving the house has become Amy's recent routine. Mom is losing her patience and Dad has an upcoming dinner with a client (Damian Young) before retiring, leaving his law firm to his son, and taking his wife on a round-the-world vacation. At dinner, Amy meets Larry's mature 19-year-old actor stepson, Jeremy (Christopher Abbott of HBO's "Girls"), who wants to be there even less than her and makes a pass at her. Once she's asked by Jeremy's mother, Gwen (Julie White), to take him around the quaint Connecticut town, their torrid "The Graduate"/May-December affair begins. Even if it takes both of their parents a while to realize what's going on, Amy and Jeremy seem to bring out the best in each other.

At first blush, "Hello I Must Be Going" could have been either a sad-sack bummer or yet another quirky life-crisis indie about someone in a funk figuring out their next step. The film has an easy-listening soundtrack right out of a coffeehouse, and already has enough in common with this year's "Liberal Arts" in that they're both about a thirtysomething getting involved with a 19-year-old, only with the genders reversed. Luckily, actor-turned-director Todd Louiso's third feature walks a delicate tightrope between bittersweet emotions and a little character-based slapstick with enough grace and wit. It's lightly plotted and not stylistically inventive filmmaking, but satisfyingly skilled.

In her acutely observed inaugural script, screenwriter Sarah Koskoff dodges condescension, as long as we're talking about Amy and Jeremy, who are treated with the utmost compassion. Through Lynskey, Amy ingratiates herself to the viewer as an empathetic, understandable protagonist that we don't mind spending time with for an hour and a half. Your heart aches for her; she's vulnerable but not as mopey as her mother perceives, and she makes frumpy the new sexy. Every now and then Lynskey adds self-deprecating humor and surprise to the character in terms of body language and facial expressions, making Amy that much sweeter. Finally, in a climactic meeting scene with Futterman, we get a real sense of Amy's complete arc.

Though certainly the anchor, Lynskey is not the only one who gets to shine. Abbott, charming but sensitive, gives a deft performance that makes us buy he's genuinely attracted and interested in the older Amy. Danner, who's always a dear in any mom role she takes but usually underutilized, brings a prickly humor, inner longing, and tough love to Ruth. The last few mother-daughter moments are written and acted with such piercing truth and tender sadness, in which Mom lets out all her rage about how Amy never finishes anything she starts and then comes clean about just wanting to spend time with her husband. Same goes for Rubinstein, who tries giving the best advice he can to Amy and reminisces about the Groucho Marx-starrer "Animal Crackers" (with a song that gives this film its title) they'd stay up late to watch. Also, White, as Jeremy's pushy therapist mom who's proud of her son but just too oblivious in assuming he's gay, is always a comedic treat and makes the character feel like a real person. For some reason, the relationship between Amy and her mother ends up reaching a more substantive and moving catharsis than the affair with Jeremy. Still, "Hello I Must Be Going" is smart, emotionally true and, above all else, a superb showcase for Lynskey if there ever was one. 

Grade: B +

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Cheek-pinchingly cute "Guilt Trip" carried by inspired pairing of Rogen and Streisand

The Guilt Trip (2012) 
95 min., rated PG-13.

Of all the mismatched-buddy couplings that come out of Hollywood, no one would have thought they'd see a movie headlined by Seth Rogen, millennial comedy's go-to slacker, and Barbra Streisand, the divalicious musical goddess of show business, as they play son and mother. The Road-Trip Movie is as old as the hills, but "The Guilt Trip," a high-concept road comedy, is propped up by the inspired pairing and their winningly lived-in chemistry. Upon first impressions, the trailer sells the film as a hacky sitcom with nagging, worrying, smothering, kvetching Jewish mother shtick, but then it quickly emerges a pleasant surprise that favorably forgoes mediocrity and overstatement, in exchange for consistently mild chuckles and unexpectedly touching warmth.

Rogen plays Andy Brewster, an UCLA organic chemistry graduate-turned-inventor who's having no luck selling his latest product, an organic cleaning product which he calls "Scieoclean," but presses on by going cross-country and pitching it to major retail businesses. First flying home to New Jersey, he stops to visit his doting mother Joyce (Streisand), who's remained single since Andy's father died when he was 8. Mom does let her son in on her former love life: she was in love with a boy, whose name was also Andrew, before marrying her son's father. Andy is curious to reunite his lonely mom with her old flame, so he has her accompany him on an eight-day trip in a compact car to San Francisco without her knowing his real intentions. With a mom like Joyce—she leaves her son a million voicemail messages, she always loves a bargain, she micro-manages Andy's life and nags him about his "deep-seated problems with women," and she has a 12-disc audio-book of "Middlesex" (a hermaphrodite's autobiography) for the ridewhat could go right?

Director Anne Fletcher (2009's "The Proposal" and 2008's "27 Dresses") hasn't quite yet made a movie that hasn't just been a case of likable, appealing actors rising above antiquated material. "The Guilt Trip" is no different, but screenwriter Dan Fogelman (2011's "Crazy, Stupid, Love.") has written an autobiographical script that hits some relationship beats which ring truer than not. (The credits even dedicate the film in loving memory of Joyce Fogelman.) Some of the comic pit stops are more amusing than others, dialogue exchanges and line deliveries bringing a lot more zing than the situation itself. For instance, Joyce says "this place smells like strawberry gum" when a highway scare leads them to a friendly strip club and later tells one of the mechanically-inclined dancers to bundle up. An all-you-can-eat contest at a Texas steakhouse, where Joyce opts to eat a 50 oz. steak dinner in an hour for free (if she can't finish, it costs $100) and gets tips from a hunky cowboy (Brett Cullen), sounds lame on paper, but the set-piece smartly avoids a gross-out gag and Streisand brings it home.

Carrying her first feature film since 1996's "The Mirror Has Two Faces," Steisand is such a warm, funny performer that her presence was sorely missed all these years. Yes, she played Roz Focker in "Meet the Fockers" (singlehandedly saved by Babs and Dustin Hoffman) and the grotesque "Little Fockers," and proved her ability to do loose, shticky comedy, but the material here is surprisingly much less broad and sitcommy. Because of Streisand, Joyce is endearing and never becomes a completely annoying nag or a caricature. The mere sight of Streisand quietly opening up a bag of M&M's in bed and crunching on them while Andy tries to sleep in their hotel room is adorable, and it's a cheer-worthy moment when she stands up to her own son who's feeling no pain after a rejection with a Costco buyer. Cleaning up his language and weed-smoking slackerdom but not completely shackled, Rogen retains his comic timing and that recognizable laugh of his. He makes Andy a nice guy who loves his mom but becomes so exasperated when her maternal instincts come out.

Despite other familiar faces showing up in blink-and-you'll-miss-them bit roles (Kathy Najimy, Miriam Margolyes, Colin Hanks, Nora Dunn, Casey Wilson, Adam Scott, and Ari Graynor), this is really a two-character piece. Streisand and Rogen (also executive producers), neither of them riding shotgun to the other, find a mother-son compatability that's as smooth as butter and fun to watch for the duration. No, "The Guilt Trip" doesn't reinvent the wheel, nor is it the sharpest of comedies, but it never has to be with these two around. Predictability prevails, but if such tried-and-true formula were the death knell of movies, everyone would have stopped escaping to the multiplex decades ago. It's a frothy, easygoing piece of entertainment that's hard to resist, the kind of movie that you could take your mommy to see.


DVD/Blu-ray: Finger-lickin' good "Killer Joe" deliciously, deliriously tawdry noir

Killer Joe (2012)
102 min., rated NC-17.

If you think you've seen gritty, pulpy, trashy noir, then you certainly haven't seen "Killer Joe." Unapologetically tawdry, twistedly perverse and proudly NC-17, and of course, nastily entertaining, this blackly comic, Southern Gothic exploitation pic revels in trailer trash and lurid, black-hearted behavior. It might call for a shower afterwards to scrub away all the sweat and grime, but it pulls no punches for what it is, and you wouldn't want it any other way. Fearless director William Friedkin (1971's "The French Connection" and 1973's "The Exorcist") proves he's always ready to shock within the context of storytelling and far from losing his nerve and spine at 76. 

"Killer Joe" marks Friedkin's second adaptation of a Tracy Letts play—the first was 2007's increasingly gonzo but none-too-cinematic "Bug"—and even though its theatrical roots are evident, it's full of wild ferocity that somehow feels controlled on the screen. The story begins with white-trash ne'er-do-well Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) finding himself in debt with some local thugs. He then hatches a "brilliant" plan with his dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), to hire a hitman to bump off his mother, collect her $50,000 insurance policy, and use his share of it to settle the debt. Chris' slow, repressed sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), is allegedly the beneficiary, so they'll have no problem getting the money, and their stepmom, Sharla (Gina Gershon), also wants a cut. The hitman in question is Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a cold, calculating Dallas police detective who moonlights as a killer. He makes it clear that if they are caught or implicated, and if they drop his name, they will be killed. $25,000 must be paid to Joe in advance, but he'll reconsider if they give him Dottie as a retainer. Suffice it to say, the plan goes horribly awry.

When Dottie agrees to make supper, it ends up only being her and Joe. First comes the tuna casserole and then comes their creepily icky sexual encounter, but a weird sweetness unfolds with their relationship. If that's not hard to watch, the climactic kitchen confrontation, which employs a fried chicken leg into one character's humiliation, is so unflinchingly cruel, uncomfortable, disturbing and, well, bat-shit crazy, that it will most likely leave viewers speechless and/or offended with their stomachs turned. This scene is one of the key reasons the film will produce such a hullabaloo, and you'll never look at KFC the same again. Restraint isn't really in the cards for Friedkin, but he manages to really go for it in horrifically brutal ways.

Across the board, the cast digs into the sleaze with relish and kills it without becoming a callous, Rob Zombie-ish freakshow. They're not broad caricatures, but complicated and interestingly despicable types. McConaughey has been on quite a roll—his banner year has consisted of "Bernie," "Magic Mike," and "The Paperboy"—and here as the eponymous Killer Joe, he is a revelation of shady, slimy, slick, seductive swagger with enough know-how when to dial it down and when to turn it up like he did in the disowned "Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation." Ignore most of the romantic comedies from his resume and McConaughey is an impressive character actor, one that seems to flourish particularly in stories set in his home state. Hirsch uses his innate charisma to his advantage, even while playing such a weasel as Chris. Church is just perfect as the drunken, dumb-as-dirt Ansel. Temple, as the virginal, kung fu-practicing Dottie who still sleeps with her stuffed animals and laughs at cartoons, creates a woman-child that's charming, easily influenced, but unpredictable as well. Finally, in yet another rawly go-for-broke performance, Gershon sinks her teeth into the role of slutty waitress Sharla. When the character first enters the screen, she's naked from the waist down, so you know Sharla isn't the classiest of ladies in Texas or any state.

Beneath the surface, Letts' script doesn't aim to teach lessons about morality, but it's darkly funny and sordidly twisty, with a tragicomic punchline that's the most warped of happy endings. At once, the down-and-dirty flavor of this noir tale is expertly communicated through Caleb Deschanel's cinematography, which captures the particular region (New Orleans standing in for Texas) and nature of the story without making the film itself look ugly. Friedkin even gets the seedy milieu right with a barking chained dog, burning trash cans, beer bottles, and nighties without underwear; the content isn't as gratuitous as it's just daringly honest. Made with artistic integrity and fully earning its NC-17 rating, "Killer Joe" never blinks at the extreme violence on display nor excuses the characters for being the dimmest, scuzziest, most duplicitous, and least redeemable in the Lone Star State. 

In the end, "Killer Joe" is like eating a rare, bloody steak: it's not good for you but it sure has a juicy, finger-lickin' good taste. It's definitely not for those that can't take the Southern-fried heat, but if you can, there's much to savor here. Lick it up.

Grade: B +

Monday, December 17, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray: Eastwood and Adams give overly tidy material a lift in "Trouble with the Curve"

Trouble with the Curve (2012) 
110 min., rated PG-13.

The bases certainly are loaded in "Trouble with the Curve": it's an insider baseball movie à la "Moneyball," a father-daughter drama, and a romantic comedy. Working as a longtime producer and first assistant director for Clint Eastwood, director Robert Lorenz makes his workmanlike feature debut, rolling these three movies into one. Traces of a first-time-out filmmaker are sometimes evident—extraneous coverage and on-the-nose moments—and the material goes more for cornball, connect-the-dots formula than surprises, but neither of those flaws totally get in the way of its credible, appealing actors. It's a safe bet that this won't be in the running come awards season, but as slick, old-fashioned entertainment, it's pleasantly safe and satisfying enough.

Clint Eastwood plays Gus Lobel, a crotchety baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves who's losing his eyesight but still holds a love for the game. Another scout, the despicable Phillip (Matthew Lillard), who never steps out of the office and onto the field but tracks players' stats via computers, thinks it's time to put Gus out to pasture. So with a little push from his best buddy and scouting director, Pete (John Goodman), Gus' equally stubborn 33-year-old daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) joins her dad in North Carolina to scout out a cocky minor-league prospect, Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill). Mickey is a diligent partner at a law firm, but she's grown up watching baseball and knows all the ins and outs, even though she resents her old man for a history of neglect. Mickey and Gus have shared impersonal dinners every now and then, but she can never get him to open up about why he left her with an uncle she didn't know at a young age. Maybe, just maybe, this will be their healing time. Your vision could be as blurry as Gus' and you'll still know where this is going.

As father and daughter, Eastwood and Adams are wholly likable screen company and, when centering on their relationship, they never let a moment ring false. Though taking a rest from calling the shots behind the camera, Eastwood pitches some octogenarian growling and grumbling (sounding a bit like Christian Bale's Batman) and brings out his inner Dirty Harry in a bar scene. Gus is a lighter variation on Eastwood's widowed Walt from "Gran Torino," minus the racial slurs, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and firearms, of course. The seasoned actor has enough sharp you-kids-and-your-computers humor and natural gravitas to make us care about the grump, who faces old age and old demons. In playing Mickey, Adams is strong as usual. The character could have been an insufferable pain in the rump, as she is uptight, emotionally unavailable, and always working, but the actress rises above such stock characteristics. Moments where Gus and Mickey see other fatherless families at a restaurant or a hotel (a Mexican family is key), reminding them of their own semi-estranged relationship, are the opposite of subtle (we get it already!), but that's the fault of the writing, not the actors.

Also in the game: Justin Timberlake, as Johnny "The Flame" Flanagan (Gus' former protege, now a scout for the Red Sox), reels back the "J.T." celebrity and keeps exhibiting acting chops with his relaxed, amiable presence. Of course, after Johnny and Mickey throw back shots, play baseball trivia, and go clogging at a bar, love is (apparently) in the air, but their romance is forced filler. Lillard and Goodman make do in their smallish roles, and Scott Eastwood (Clint's son) briefly turns up early as a player.

Written by first-timer Randy Brown, the tidy screenplay doesn't throw any curve balls (unless you count one dark corner involving a family secret that feels out of place when trying to rationalize Gus for his abandonment). Otherwise, every narrative thread goes in a direction as plain as the nose on your face and aims to tug at the heartstrings. The "villains" surely won't get their way, father and daughter will mend their relationship, and there has to be a love interest to make Mickey's leg pop. This is a mainstream, bow-wrapped package after all. But, even if it goes down as crusty Clint's softest film, "Trouble with the Curve" has enough pleasures and such an earnest heart that it's hard to call foul.

Grade: B -

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Though a visual feast, "The Hobbit" drags feet through one-third of story

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
169 min., rated PG-13.

In "Clerks II," Randal (Jeff Anderson) wasn't completely wrong in his cutting interpretation of the "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, where he walked for "The Fellowship of the Ring," walked and stumbled for "The Two Towers," and walked and pretended to drop the One Ring into the volcanic Mount Doom for "The Return of the King." All three movies amounted to a lot of walking, but with a dazzling sense of awe, wonder, and joy in terms of visuals and storytelling, visionary director Peter Jackson turned J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy-adventure trilogy into one grand, sprawling, spectacular film trilogy from 2001 to 2003. There's no denying Jackson's ambition in remaining faithful to Mr. Tolkien's stories by cramming in all appendices of Middle-earth lore, but his precluding chapter "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" lives in the shadow of the "The Lord of the Rings" saga. The most fatal misjudgment is stretching out one slim, 300-page story into three epic movies, all nearing the three-hour mark. Could this approach be simply to milk the cash cow? Probably, but that inexplicable decision has done a disservice to this single movie in working on levels deeper than impressively pretty spectacle. Lumpy, bloated, and pretty tedious, "The Hobbit" only covers the first third of Tolkien's book and yet the journey still seems to go on forever.

We return to the green, grassy Shire, sixty years before Frodo (Elijah Wood) agreed to head to Mordor to destroy the One Ring. His uncle, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), tells the story of his adventures when he was younger (Martin Freeman). Unbeknownst to the little, hairy-footed homebody, wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) invites a baker's dozen of homeless dwarves that come to Bilbo's door, expecting a dinner feast, and gorge on everything in his kitchen. Gandalf and all twelve dwarves, led by noble but skeptical dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), recruit Bilbo as their "burglar" (he's qualified because of his tiny size) before setting off on their journey to take back Thorin's gold from the dragon Smaug.

Written by Jackson, his "LOTR" writing partners (Fran Welsch & Philippa Boyens), and Guillermo del Toro, "The Hobbit" doesn't exactly whisk us into the story. The previous pictures were even longer, but they knew how to move; here, the storytelling slips into such a stop-start rhythm that the pacing becomes draggy and the momentum grinds to a halt. For the first 40 minutes, there's dwarf merriment that's meant to be goofy and amusing but there's hardly any effort to develop most of the dwarves. Aside from Thorin, there are the handsome Kili (Aidan Turner) and Fili (Dean O'Gorman), the roly-poly Bombur (Stephen Hunter), and the rest just have bushy beards, odd physical attributes, and ravenous appetites. Once the characters finally get on the road, it boils down to a lot of wandering, battling, more battling, recovering, and repeat. The tangents involving loopy forest wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) bring some whimsy and menace, but they do very little to further the story. Freeman is perfectly chosen as the younger Bilbo, knowing when to be fussy and uncertain, endearing, and often brave. As the wise Gandalf, McKellen always brings humor and gravitas. A stop in Rivendell (the Elven stronghold) marks the return of old "LOTR" playersElrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman (Christopher Lee)as a nice nostalgic touch for Tolkien devotees. But best of all is the "introduction" of Gollum (Andy Serkis reprising the role through motion capture in his ping-pong ball suit), who's at his most threatening, frightening, unpredictable, and heartbreaking in only fifteen minutes of screen time.

Naturally, the CG visuals still offer a sense of splendor and the action is fluidly staged. A set-piece involving three giant, half-witted trolls is fun, as is one with rock-made monsters, but the perilous Orc attacks grow repetitive and hence much less exciting, sometimes ending with a deus ex machina. What those sequences often lack in tangible danger, dread, and tension are completely made up for when Gollum turns up. After falling into a cave, Bilbo comes upon the vicious, emaciated creature, plays a game of riddles, and then comes into possession of something "precious." The least of the film's problems, though still troubling, is the ballyhooed gambit of the 48-frames-per-second 3D technology (double the standard 24 fps). Jackson opted to shoot the film in HFR 3D, enhancing the brightness, crispness and lifelikeness of the fantastical universe Middle-earth. It's distracting on the onset, appearing jerky, less substantive, and akin to a high-def soap opera, but then becomes much less noticeable as the film goes along. It just depends on one's own set of eyes, but the film is available in five (yes, five) different formats, including 24 fps.

Stories/movies usually have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is all beginning with climaxes galore. It serves its purpose as a bridge to "The Desolation of Smaug" and "There and Back Again," but as a stand-alone movie, Part 1 feels like the extended DVD version of an abridged story. Bilbo and company's journey is exciting in fits and starts, but it leaves plenty to be desired, so long-winded and incomplete that it's still going on when you exit the theater. By the time Bilbo assures the dwarves that "the worst is behind us," we hope (1) the cliff-hanging finale is the next shot and that (2) the six hours of the next two movies add up to a whole.

Grade: C +

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray: Renner and Gilroy's dynamic action give "Bourne Legacy" a fourth life

The Bourne Legacy (2012)
135 min., rated PG-13.

Loosely based on the Robert Ludlum novels, 2002's "The Bourne Identity," 2004's "The Bourne Supremacy," and 2007's "The Bourne Ultimatum" were all tight, crackerjack spy thrillers. Just when Hollywood left well enough alone to a muscular trilogy, a parallel sequel-cum-spin-off ("a sidequel?") without Matt Damon gets greenlit. Now, with Damon gone, the same goes for amnesiac ex-CIA assassin Jason Bourne. It'd be nothing new if another actor replaced Bourne (the same happened with Batman, James Bond, and Darrin on TV's "Bewitched"), but "The Bourne Legacy" is refreshingly different—a separate animal, which survives on its own. 

As the CIA hunts Jason Bourne in New York City to keep its secret, shady Operation Treadstone out of the limelight, another program called Operation Outcome is in the process of being shut down. You can just hear Mr. Moviephone now, announcing "There was never just one. Jason Bourne was the tip of the iceberg." One of the genetically enhanced Outcome super-soldiers, Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), is on a training assignment in rugged Alaskan terrain and remains on a strict "chem" diet (blue and green pills). Meanwhile, retired U.S. Air Force colonel Eric Byer (Edward Norton) wants to keep Outcome's scientific advances under wraps, so every agent and scientist is targeted for extermination. But Aaron is not going to be easy to kill; he's crafty with nothing but a nail and a fire extinguisher, and then he finds an ally in surviving geneticist Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) to get him his chem fix before he reverts back to his regular self. Too bad he can't just pick them up at the nearest CVS pharmacy.

More coolly brainy than plotty, "The Bourne Legacy" is not nearly as airtight as the first three installments, but it's still brisk and engaging. Co-written by "Michael Clayton"/"Duplicity" director Tony Gilroy (who co-wrote all three "Bourne" movies) and his brother Dan, the screenplay doesn't veer off the rogue-spy-on-the-run template but cleverly overlaps the events of "Ultimatum" with an emphasis on drug addiction instead of amnesia and finding one's identity. After about an hour of convoluted setup and a lot of dense, medical/pharmaceutical jargon, the film finally cuts to the globe-trotting chase, literally, and really picks up. In his first time out as a real action director, Gilroy keeps everything moving apace and makes use of tripods, with cinematographer Robert Elswit ("Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol" and "There Will Be Blood"). Whereas the hyperkinetic, realistically chaotic shooting style and whiplash cutting from Paul Greengrass, the director of "Supremacy" and "Ultimatum," grew a bit weary, Gilroy's film is more dynamically shot and cracklingly cut. Even if it is not wall-to-wall ass-kicking, there's plenty here for adrenaline junkies. In the Alaskan wilderness, there's a wolf attack a la "The Grey" and some explosions. There's a nail-biting stalk-and-shoot sequence in a lab with Marta and her gone-psychotic colleague (Zeljko Ivanek). A tautly choreographed set-piece has Aaron showing up exactly at the right moment in Marta's unfinished home to fight off some CIA baddies. Finally, a climactic motorcycle chase in Manila, Philippines is breathlessly thrilling.

The "Bourne" movies certainly have one thing down: it's more interesting to have a fully capable actor performing action stunts, rather than a cast member from "The Expendables" movies. Damon, who appears briefly here in mugshots and a newscast, carried enough weight and held our rooting interest through three movies. By comparison, the lean and mean Aaron Cross is more underwritten, but Renner lends such a quiet, magnetic intensity to the role, as well as some physical and mental vulnerability, which keeps him from being just a one-note, invincible cog in the machine. He's clearly been to the gym, too, in playing a killing machine who can hop across buildings and scamper up walls like Spider-Man. Rachel Weisz is mostly along for the ride, but she has enough backbone to not fall into the trap of being a damsel-in-distress or love interest. After being put through some major trauma at the laboratory, she actually asks questions before being thrust into the action with Aaron. While previous players Joan Allen, Albert Finney, Scott Glenn, and David Strathairn only put in cameos, we get Norton, Donna Murphy, and Stacy Keach instead. These superior actors don't stumble on any of their government-related dialogue, but aren't given the chance to really go above and beyond their call of duties (i.e. standing in front of computer screens and barking orders).

It doesn't take a super-spy to realize Universal Pictures is merely out to feed the machine. Just when "The Bourne Legacy" has found its pulse, the film abruptly ends on an anticlimactic note with the obligatory use of Moby's song "Extreme Ways" to signal the end credits, even though it's already gone on for 135 minutes (that's longer than any of the previous ones). Granted, this is just a placeholder for another bigger, faster, stronger reboot to the profitable franchise. Once you ignore the slight smell of commercial cynicism and judge the film on its merits alone, it exhilarates when it should. On balance, star Renner and director Gilroy give this fourth "Bourne" some charge, and if the series has to keep going, this is a pretty fun, efficient start.


Monday, December 10, 2012

"Save the Date" an honest, low-key little indie

Save the Date (2012) 
98 min., rated R.

A commitment-phobic young woman, check. A self-absorbed bride-to-be, check. Polar-opposite sisters, check again. "Save the Date" might already seem like it's been stitched together from insipid rom-com movie clichés, but it's more bittersweet and features characters that actually resemble human beings in the way they talk and feel. Naturally directed by Michael Mohan, working from his script with writers Jeffrey Brown and Egan Reich, this well-acted, pleasantly low-key relationship dramedy has enough empathy, truth, and bright performances to recommend it. 

Sarah (Lizzy Caplan) and Beth (Alison Brie) are neurotic sisters with different interests. They're both dating two guys in the same band. L.A. bookstore manager and aspiring artist Sarah is noncommital and doesn't believe in marriage, but reluctantly makes the big step to move in with her vocalist boyfriend, Kevin (Geoffrey Arend). Making the ill-timed decision to propose at his musical gig, Kevin finds Sarah in the crowd and gets down on one knee, but she runs out of the venue mortified, breaks it off, and soon moves out of his apartment. Meanwhile, the traditional, practical Beth is planning to marry her own man, Andrew (Martin Starr), so naturally it's all about her. While Beth doesn't want her sister to completely count out Kevin, Sarah finds a rebound in Jonathan (Mark Webber), one of her store customers that observed her public breakup. He seems perfect, but Sarah still hems and haws.

Caplan and Brie winningly click as sisters, but this is really Caplan's movie. Always armed with an acerbic sense of humor, she makes Sarah a likable but indecisive young woman. We've seen this character type before in romantic comedies, where she is portrayed as a selfish harpy, but Caplan finds a delicate balance. As sister Beth, Brie tones down the bridezilla dramatics, even if the character has her moments of pushiness, passive-aggression, and self-absorption. Arend and Starr also showcase what else they're made of. Webber is adorably charming as Jonathan, a marine biology grad student. Melonie Diaz is given limited screen time but catches one's eye as Sarah's art gallery-owning friend.

"Save the Date," despite a narrative that's slim and still not always focused, tells its story at the service of the characters and their interactions (always the best choice) to propel everything. Mohan, Brown, and Reich make sure they never judge the characters—no one is a villain or purely an angel—but treat them as real people whom we can understand and root for. The second half gets a little whiny but recovers so we can still care about these characters and their problems. It doesn't end too differently from "Your Sister's Sister" (a very character-based three-hander), in which there are no definite endings. But, like that mumblecore jewel, this one is a modest, honest minimalist.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Harmlessly vanilla "Playing for Keeps" phones it in

Playing for Keeps (2012) 
105 min., rated PG-13.

During the slow week for wide releases, "Playing for Keeps" gets dumped into theaters as counter-programming before the storm of Oscar hopefuls. Its marketing seems perfect for a crowd-pleasing pre-holiday release, but there's not much of a very good movie here. In fact, it's such a featherweight, thirdhand throwaway, not an unwatchable disaster, that the dreaded January would've been a better release date. Directed by Gabriele Muccino (who fared well with Will Smith in "The Pursuit of Happyness" and not so well in "Seven Pounds") and written by Robbie Fox (his last credit being 1993's "So I Married an Axe Murderer"), this vanilla, instantly forgettable romantic comedy will only satisfy first-time moviegoers and the most undemanding female. Everyone else will be checking their watch.

After being hailed as "King George" for years and then retiring, washed-up Scottish soccer star George Dryer (Gerard Butler) is now a dead-broke deadbeat trying to get work as a sportscaster. He can't really afford his rented guest house, but now resides in Virginia to be closer to his 9-year-old son, Lewis (Noah Lomax), and ex-wife, Stacie (Jessica Biel), who's about to get married to her beau of three years (James Tupper). Since the movie will be about George getting a second chance and earning back responsibility, he takes over coaching for Lewis' pee-wee soccer team, and good riddance because the present one uselessly spends practice on the phone, sometimes shouting "Kick with your toes!" Right then and there, George becomes bait for the soccer moms (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Judy Greer, Uma Thurman), but no prizes for guessing who George ends up with.

Fox's script sets up a fine situation, but needed to iron out the kinks before the execution stage. George's passion for sportscasting is barely believable. Without any experience, he tries shooting a demo reel from the waist up, without any pants on, in his living room. Then when George auditions and stops reading from the teleprompter, it rings completely false when ESPN falls in love with him for that amazing trick. Save for ex-wife Stacie, every soccer mom on screen comes across as a vapid, sex-starved cougar on the prowl, flinging themselves at their child's hunky coach as if they have nothing more productive to do. Notice how they attend nearly every practice and game. There's also a soccer dad, smarmy high-roller Carl (played by a creepily twitchy Dennis Quaid), who throws his money around and takes care of George by giving him a wad of cash "for the kids," as well as a shiny red Ferrari. All plot points with Carl are just baffling. One might also question the consequences of the ever-late George missing a game with Lewis when he's already been named the coach, but "Playing for Keeps" is riddled with sloppiness like that.

Showing some superficial charm in the middling "The Ugly Truth" and the noxious "The Bounty Hunter," Gerard Butler seems to have a charismatic, ruggedly handsome leading man in him somewhere but without a good script to support him. As George, he's mostly empathetic and appealing. When he played pro soccer, George "used to get more ass than a toilet seat"; he's still a smoothie but has cleaned up his act somewhat. As The One That Got Away, Jessica Biel resembles a real person and not a complete shrew, but her character is terminally bland. Why should we root for George and Stacie to get back together when she seems to have her life together? As Denise, a former radio personality who uses her connections to get George's attention, Catherine Zeta-Jones engages in some heavy petting with co-star Butler and looks chic and sultry doing it. The wonderful Judy Greer flounders in a nothing role as the brittle, divorced Barb, who's prone to meltdowns and turns into a giggling idiot, stalking George one night to sleep with him. Finally, there's Uma Thurman, squandered in a role so beneath her as Carl's wife, Patti, who (in an allegedly comedic attempt at "wacky hijinks") ends up in George's landlord's bed by accident to seduce him in lingerie.

For a rom-com, the romance is insipid and the comedy is flat-footed. The final scenes can be predictable as long as they provoke an emotional response, but instead they're synthetic, treacly, and apathetic, while treating George and Stacie as selfish and illogical. A formulaic, bare-minimum piffle with attractive movie stars for a distraction, "Playing for Keeps" is a harmless way to pass the time, but it'd be more fit for your living room on the ABC Family network. Or, read a book instead.

Grade: C - 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bloody but unimaginative "Silent Night" didn't have to come to town

Silent Night (2012)
94 min., rated R.

The influx of pointless horror remakes has died down a bit this year, until now. It always holds major trepidation to see a fondly remembered movie be remade, but those that were hardly good in the first place are fair game for a new lease on life. Retaining only half of the title, "Silent Night" is a very loose remake of 1984's unholy (and then-controversial) horror shocker, "Silent Night, Deadly Night," which dared to have a psycho dress as Jolly Old Saint Nick and punish! the naughty, and spawned a campy sequel and three direct-to-video follow-ups. Full disclosure: the notorious holiday-themed nasty was pretty ballsy and graphic for its time, causing an uproar when released, and developed a cult following since, but it was just depressingly cheap and mean-spirited exploitation. Honestly, 1980's more obscure "You Better Watch Out" (aka "Christmas Evil"/"Terror in Toyland") was one of the first and better Killer Santa movies.

In this day and age with trends of torture-porn and human centipedes, the premise of a killer suited up as the jolly, gift-giving mythical figure is now less shocking but will still tarnish a child's innocent belief. While its '80s antecedent concerned a mad slasher named Billy, whose killing spree stemmed from a disturbing childhoodhis insane grandfather told him what Santa Claus does to the naughty on Christmas Eve, he witnessed his parents murdered by a Santa-suited criminal, then ended up at an orphanage and was abused by Mother Superior, and then just snappedthis 2012 edition is just an unimaginative, adequately bloody body-count flick with a standard-issue nut job. The mostly nice people of the sleepy burg of Cryer County, Wisconsin, are gearing up for a merry, merry Christmas, especially their annual Santa Parade. Then a psycho dressed in the plush red suit starts painting the town red (in the literal sense), picking off all the naughty boys and girls at random. All the while, on her first Christmas without her husband, deputy Aubrey Bradimore (Jaime King) spends it on duty. When one of her fellow deputies is found murdered, the casualties only increase from there, and Aubrey and Sheriff Cooper (Malcolm McDowell) must put a stop to the carnage. 

Director Steven C. Miller (2012's "The Aggression Scale") doesn't pull any punches with the kills, which are plenty gruesome but more cruel than inspired. There's electrocution and strangulation with twinkle lights; a petulant teenage brat demanding her Church-going mother (Lisa Marie) to take her to the mall then gets put in time-out with a cattle prod; and in a well-staged set-piece that begins in a second-floor motel room, a soft-core porn model gets thrown into a buzzing woodchipper. That's all well and good, but Jayson Rothwell's script is very weak and routine. Sure, the dumb plot is just an excuse to string together some gnarly deaths, but logic is sloppy and suspense close to nil. According to one of the Santa-dressed suspects, urban legend has it that every Christmas, a wronged man goes from town to town to kill off the bad eggs. How does "Santa" know where to find the naughty ones? Unsurprising narrative misdirection with other skeezy Santas takes time away from the real culprit and his slayings. And before the flame-throwing, red-and-green-tinted climax set in the police station, Aubrey's crossword puzzle clue of a nine-letter world for a six-sided item and the killer leaving presents at each crime scene should come into play but serve little purpose. Then, a last-minute plot twist, though clever at first, is just riddled with inconsistencies. 

King has evidently become the go-to scream queen of remakes after the better "My Bloody Valentine" and "Mother's Day." As Aubrey, a young woman who still mourns for her husband and may not be up to following in her dad's footsteps as a cop, she just goes through the motions, mostly asked to show some heroine pluck while holding a gun and mouthing occasionally stilted dialogue. An over-the-top McDowell, no stranger to horror either (he played the iconic Dr. Loomis in both of Rob Zombie's desecrations of "Halloween" and "Halloween II"), adds some black humor playing the unprofessional, no-bull sheriff and having a ball. Ellen Wong, who was such a sweet charmer in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," plays the police department secretary with all the gossip but has nothing to do. The rest of the characters are sleazy fodder for skewering, including a leering priest (Curtis Moore) and a misanthropic traveling Santa (Donal Logue).

For those that care, the kinda-sorta remake goes out of its way to make a few nods to 1984: one character has a catatonic but crazy grandfather; a slutty caroler gets impaled on the antlers of a mounted antelope head; bad Santa gives a little girl a bloody candy cane (instead of a knife); and there's some old-fashioned ax-play. And from the awful sequel "Silent Night, Deadly Night Part II," the notorious line "Garbage Day!" is uttered as a throwaway. About as scary as a '90s episode of "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" with amped-up violence and gore, "Silent Night" is no great shakes, even with its vicious slayings. So, if you're a bloodthirsty horror fan and splatter is all you require, it will sate your appetite every ten minutes or so. It's also a slicker production than its forefather, but on the whole, it's never as much fun as "Santa's Slay," that tongue-in-cheek hoot with wrestler Bill Goldberg as an evil Santa, or even the darkly entertaining 2006 "Black Christmas" redux. No yuletide joy or phony sentiments here, just ordinary exploitation for the whole family!