Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Lightweight "Big Wedding" like champagne with very few bubbles

The Big Wedding (2013)
90 min., rated R.

"The Big Wedding" is big all right it's a big, bland mess with a big guest list of likable, attractive stars, but it's not painfully unpleasant, either. If the poster of photographed smiles and laughs is any indication, the cast just seems to be having fun working together, although with the absence of end-credit outtakes it could all be a sham. It's hard to say how so many talented people can make such a feeble movie just by showing up, but "The Big Wedding" is the glossy, gossamer-thin result. Adapting from the 2006 French comedy "Mon frère se marie," writer-director Justin Zackham (who wrote 2007's "The Bucket List") took on a sprawling roll call and turned their on-set party into a French-y, Shakespearean, albeit mostly Hollywoodized bedroom farce that's not as much fun or as charming to watch. Wacky, hilarious hijinks are only intended to ensue.

For a weekend in Greenwich, Connecticut, the dysfunctional Griffin family comes together to celebrate the nuptials of Alejandro (Ben Barnes) and Missy (Amanda Seyfried) at the upscale family home. Don (Robert De Niro) and Ellie (Diane Keaton), the groom's adopted parents, have been divorced for 10 years but Don has been happily shagging and living with caterer Bebe (Susan Sarandon), who was once Ellie's best friend. Are you ready for the sitcom-ready setup? Alejandro's biological mother, Madonna (Patricia Rae), is coming to the wedding from Colombia and she's a devout Catholic, so Don and Ellie have to pretend to still be married and Bebe has to get lost. The ruse goes so well that the divorced couple ignites something in the bedroom again.

The all-star ensemble just barely validates "The Big Wedding," most of the talent being wasted in a rudderless, clichéd script with skimpily sketched characters, some out-of-nowhere conflict, and dumbed-down subplots. Don and Ellie's now-grown kids have their respective issues: Lyla (Katherine Heigl), a lawyer, is recently separated from her husband, harbors unresolved hate for her father, and faints at the sight of babies; and Jared (Topher Grace) is a successful doctor but a 29-year-old virgin who may get his chance to finally knock boots with Alejandro's Colombian sister (Ana Ayora). Adding to the chaos are Missy's WASPy, ignorant parents, Barry (David Rasche) and Muffin (Christine Ebersole).

In its favor, the film takes a dip in the R-rated pool, with high-caliber actors holding risqué conversations about nine-hour orgasms and uttering the term "muff diving," as well as demonstrating it. However, the strain in the humor extends to lame, broad slapstickmoaning naughtiness, more naughtiness under the table at the rehearsal dinner, and characters falling into a lakeand the laughs don't land, unless it's with a thud. A pivotal scene with the outpouring of Secret Revelations minutes before the wedding not only falls flat as a dated bottle of champagne that's been left out in the sun but ends up making Don and Ellie unlikable cheaters and turning the plastic Muffin into a walking punchline. In the end, after conflicts are phonily and predictably fixed, family members hug it out and cut a rug at the reception. For a nuptial comedy, though, no one gets a cake in the face, so "The Big Wedding" has that going for it.

In their defense, when the screwball plot doesn't interfere, the actors do manage to occasionally inject sprinkles of bawdy spontaneity and relatability into their character DNA. Fresh off his Oscar-nominated turn in "Silver Linings Playbook," De Niro takes punches to the face by the women and lives up to the "scumbag"/"serpent"/"douchebag" slurs the women call him, but the best thing that can be said for him is that he's not in another movie with "Focker" in the title. Keaton goes through the motions, doing a less shrill but less daffy and less interesting variation on her previous roles, but Sarandon fares better, given a chance to do some loose comedy at her ripe age. 

It still remains to be seen when another smartly written post-"Knocked Up" role will come her way, but Heigl is actually more appealing playing a snarky bitch, spouting some amusingly glib zingers, rather than an uptight, neurotic hopeless romantic all the time. Of all people, her Lyla might come the closest to resembling an actual human being in her family. The handsome Barnes (who's British but playing Colombian) and the radiant Seyfried are afforded the tasks of playing the bland but cute couple ready to just elope. Robin Williams reprises the role of a priest, getting lost in the shuffle and feeling straightjacketed from doing much comedy. At least he doesn't come off as creepy or obnoxious as he did in that "other" wedding comedy (read: the moronic, unfunny "License to Wed"). If you want a funnier and less forced French-farce remake with Williams, you're better off revisiting "The Birdcage." Damning with faint praise: More tedious mediocrity than insufferable disaster, "The Big Wedding" is the sort of movie that won't ruin your day and could be watched on a long flight to kill time. But don't even bother getting the earbuds out of your carry-on because you won't be missing much anyway. 


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Piercing, compelling, powerfully acted "Disconnect" puts its hooks into you

Disconnect (2013)
115 min., rated R.

What connects all of the characters in "Disconnect" is their overreliance on technology. What makes the film such a piercing, sobering, and compelling cautionary tale of paranoia and impersonal communication is that this is the world we're living in now. Very few people write a letter anymore when there's e-mail. Why call a person when you can text them? And reunions; what are those? Just keep in touch on Facebook, where you can even meet friends you have never met face to face. Direct communication is nearly dead. In the vein of 2005's multi-character, intersecting-stories mosaic "Crash" by way of "Trust" and "Catfish," which undertook the timely horrors of social media and a user's gullibility, "Disconnect" so effectively hits close to the bone that it could be viewed as a cyber horror film for the digital age.

AWOLNATION's electronic "Sail" pounding over the opening credits gets our attention from the word go. 15-year-old Ben Boyd (Jonah Bobo) is a loner, hiding behind his music and long hair, and thus, becomes the target of a cruel prank. A couple of punks, classmates Jason (Colin Ford) and Frye (Aviad Bernstein), make up a fake Facebook profile under the name "Jessica Rhony," pretending to have a crush on Ben. The repercussions are not good. Bobo is sensitive and unshakably devastating as Ben who finally seems to think he's found someone interested in him before he's humiliated at school. Also, without treating Jason merely as a trouble-stirring little twerp who could have easily been demonized on the page, Ford pulls off a moving sadness and unexpected conscience stemming from the loss of his mother and the tough love from his single ex-cop father. 

Meanwhile, the Hulls are mourning the loss of their toddler son. Cindy (Paula Patton) spends her days at home online, looking for support on a grief chat room with a widower, while her ex-marine husband, Derek (Alexander Skarsgård), bottles up his grief and barely looks at or touches her anymore. Their shaky marriage is tested when their identities are stolen and bank accounts wiped clean. The authorities are of no help, so Derek hires computer crime investigator Mike Dixon (a terrific Frank Grillo), who empathizes with their situation but shoots it to them straight. In the third vignette, Andrea Riseborough is excellent as Nina Dunham, a dogged TV reporter for a local station, who finds "18-year-old" sex-cam model Kyle (Max Thieriot) on the web. Once they have a camera-to-camera conversation and decide to meet, she confesses to wanting to interview him for a juicy, eye-opening non-puff piece on his seedy profession and his pimp-like employer (fashion designer Marc Jacobs) who recruits runaway minors as interactive porn performers. Who's doing the exploiting here? Nina promises to keep the self-assured Kyle anonymous and safe, but then the F.B.I. gets involved. In all, there are consequences to every erroneous choice and action.

Breaking from documentaries (most notably 2005's Oscar-nominated "Murderball") to make his scorching narrative feature debut, director Henry Alex Rubin and screenwriter Andrew Stern deftly handle all three story threads without making the whole piece feel disjointed. Hats off to editor Lee Percy, too, for tautly interweaving between each story. The cyber-bullying vignette is indisputably the strongest and most emotionally rich, but each of them are absorbing and leave their own thoughtful impact. Fortunately, Rubin and Stern don't feel the need to overlap every thread for a cumulative cause-and-effect concept or wrap up all of them with a tidy resolution. Instant message dialogue, seen in graphics on the screen, often takes the place of verbal dialogue, which goes to show how so many people are obsessively tethered to their cell phones and computers instead of the people physically surrounding them. 

This may be an ensemble piece, which can typically be spotty by design, but there isn't a weak link in the bunch. All of the performances are powerful, empathetic, and fully grounded. Challenging himself, Jason Bateman does some of his best (dramatic) work as Rich, Ben's lawyer father who's too glued to his BlackBerry to notice his son living life as a hermit. Hope Davis also acquits herself quite well as Lydia, his wife and Ben's concerned mother, as does an emotionally available Haley Ramm as Ben's older sister who delivers a shocking "spit take" out of anger and finally the most moving image with her brother that the film ends on. Patton and Skarsgård, though looking cast against type as a very regular salesman, are both very convincing as the grieving couple who does their own legwork to regain their identities and repatch their marriage. Michael Nyqvist also adds interesting shadings as the suspected thief they go after.

By the time it comes for the film's explosive, intensely gripping climactic crescendo, which might teeter on the melodramatic as presented in super-slow motion, characters have violent, potentially tragic synchronized showdowns and no one is let off the hook. In contrast to how "Crash" made its characters confront their racial prejudices with a string of riveting happenstances, "Disconnect" resists the need to drive everything home with contrived storyline collisions, preachy moralizing, or a didactic, heavy-handed message. One of the most searingly insightful films of the year so far, "Disconnect" is going to be hard to forget. Next time you send a text message or make a payment over the Net, keep this film in mind. 

Grade: A - 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

"Mud" stirs and satisfies like Great American Novel

Mud (2013)
130 min., rated PG-13.

Since Matthew McConaughey has stopped straining to be likable (but came off smug and smarmy) with a renaissance of dark, slippery roles in "Bernie," "Magic Mike," "Killer Joe," and "The Paperboy," he has really formed into a star with genuine acting chops. Writer-director Jeff Nichols follows up his second feature, 2011's unsettling "Take Shelter," with "Mud," a film that further displays the filmmaker's excitingly unique voice. Influences by Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" mesh so well into this stirring and lyrical Southern backwoods coming-of-age yarn, which comes off as a Great American Novel itself and Nichols' most accessible and heartfelt piece of work.

In Arkansas, 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) lives on the riverbanks in a houseboat with his drifting parents, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and Senior (Ray McKinnon), who are on the verge of separation and losing the river life. One early morning, he sneaks out with his pal, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), and they take a boat out to a small, tucked-away island on the Mississippi River. They scout the land to find a motorboat stuck in a tree, washed away there from a flood, and are about to claim it, until it seems to be occupied by a swamp rat named Mud (McConaughey). This enigma has been living on the island until he can meet up with his beautiful childhood love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who's staying at a motel in town. On the run from those who want him dead, Mud plans to fix up the abandoned boat and escape with the love of his life. Meanwhile, as the boys keep returning to the island with food and help this lone wolf deliver letters to Juniper, Ellis has his eyes set on a high school girl named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). Will both men, young and old, experience their own heartbreak?

In what will either intoxicate or frustrate audiences, "Mud" takes its sweet time telling its story at its own deliberate, laconic pace, flowing like the river. Without turning his setting into a place of dim, over-the-top yokels, Nichols captures such a sense of place with authenticity and subtle details, from the humidity to the Piggly Wiggly grocery store, courtesy of Adam Stone's luminously textured cinematography and Richard A. Wright's naturalistic production design. The nuanced, moving screenplay bottles themes of pain, loss, redemption, and disappointment when one is in love. (There's even the thematically relevant use of The Beach Boys' "Help Me Rhonda.") In a moment that drives home the film's points and makes sense of the young protagonist who sees his parents stop loving each other, Juniper asks Ellis why he's helping them out and he replies, "Because you love each other." By the time Ellis becomes chivalrous and fights for his girl, he's maturing into adulthood but still learning the hardships of love.

Every performance feels unaffected and lived-in. With grime working in his favor lately but still coming off charismatic, McConaughey turns in another compelling, understated gem of a performance as the title character Mud. He may be dangerous, in trouble for a crime he committed and exchanging his .45 pistol to Neckbone for the motorboat, but Mud is also vulnerable, living on an island by himself and relying on two teenage boys, still holding onto superstitions, and being hunted by a clan of bounty hunters. Co-starring as the youngest of Brad Pitt's sons in "The Tree of Life," Sheridan is now front and center as Ellis. Endearing, relatable, and vulnerable, the 16-year-old actor is a true find. Newcomer Lofland, an Arkansan himself, is also a natural as the mouthy Neckbone, almost reminding of one of the boys in "Stand by Me." Cast against type and somewhat unglamorous (but still glamorous), Witherspoon is raw as the bruised, troubled Juniper who's kept intentionally underdeveloped to not live up to Mud's perfect perception of her. Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, and Joe Don Baker also populate the proceedings as Ellis' cranky, mysterious neighbor, Neckbone's easygoing oyster-diving uncle, and the patriarch of Mud's hunters, respectively.

Even when "Mud" shifts from coming-of-ager to boyish adventure and finally a thriller, it feels confidently woven. There is the climactic shoot-out, following the old "Chekhov's Gun" metaphor, that if a gun is shown in the first act then it will surely be fired in the third act, but it never ceases feeling like a literary journey. What remains balanced and true is a sad but compassionate and hopeful heart underneath all that grit and mud. 

Grade: B +

Friday, April 26, 2013

Scathing, darkly funny "Pain & Gain" mostly works in Michael Bay's favor

Pain & Gain (2013)
129 min., rated R.

Michael Bay isn't exactly the poster boy for highbrow thinking fare, what with the mean-spirited, joylessly dumb-as-a-rock "Bad Boys II" and the increasingly brain-numbing "Transformers" franchise. With up to $200 million at his disposal, only to waste that large sum on pyrotechnics and car crashes, he knows all about overkill and the glorification of destruction. A new Bay movie that markets and prides itself on being inspired by a true story is open to ridicule, but "Pain & Gain" is a redemptive hit in his mostly-miss canon, and it only cost $25 million (which must be a little indie in Bay's eyes). Like a piece of true-life sensationalism that you read about in the tabloids but can't believe is real, the director's latest is a scathing, blackly comic, outrageously entertaining satire with mocking gallows humor blanketing a real mean streak.

Having based their script on the magazine articles by Pete Collins, screenwriting team Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely took the facts, changed a few names, and turned a too-crazy-to-be-fiction true story into a darkly farcical caper that satirizes the bodybuilding culture and American greed. It's the summer of 1994 in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Gym rat Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) believes in fitness and the American Dream. He sees himself as a "doer," not a "don'ter," and since working as a top trainer at Sun Gym, tripling memberships, and turning it into a muscle mecca, Daniel wants more. With his fellow trainer, the steroid-using, erectile dysfunction-suffering Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), and ex-con turned born-again Christian Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), Daniel hatches a get-rich scheme: kidnap a recent client, a rich, self-made A-hole named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), torture and kill him, and clean his assets dry. Too bad these dumbbells haven't a clue on how to execute it or actually execute Victor, who still manages to live and hires a private detective, Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris), to catch the meathead criminals after the Miami Police Department doesn't believe his story. 

"Pain & Gain" might be Bay's most ambitious picture to date, even if that requires dismemberment, barbecuing of severed hands, and so very few real, wise, likable characters outside of Ed, Ed's wife Cissy (Emily Rutherfurd), and Adrian's unsuspecting nurse girlfriend-turned-wife Robin (Rebel Wilson). Even in the blackest of comedies about stupid people doing stupid things, there is someone to root for (take Marge Gunderson from the Coen brothers' "Fargo" for example) and that space is occupied, albeit pretty late in the game, by Ed. So much grisly death displaces some of the humor and the movie takes a break from being fun, especially in the second act involving some ugly business with weights and horse tranquilizers, recalling the 1998 stripper-killing black comedy "Very Bad Things." Then again, "Pain" isn't in the title for nothing. Otherwise, less sensitive audiences will laugh in spite of themselves at how incompetent Daniel, Paul, and Adrian are at killing a man who still won't die after being driven into a wall, lit on fire, and run over. More importantly, the story never falls into any tumbleweed stretches because we want to see these brawny scumbags get what's coming to them.

Machismo is the name of the game, so it's ideal to have actors who are built like brick shithouses and so game to use their virile images for laughs. Wahlberg and Johnson are used to playing heroic types that are worth rooting for or show some strand of vulnerability. Not here. Full of cocky bravado, the fitness-obsessed Daniel lives by empty, self-important mantras and has such delusions of grandeur without ever giving a thought to the consequences. Wahlberg is so clued-in on how to play clueless and make it fun to watch. Equally dumb as a post, Paul is now sober and at least claims to have found Jesus, but he has a temper on him and develops a major coke addiction. In the quirkiest performance, Johnson, who will always be "The Rock" in our hearts, gets so many laughs here just by shining a dumb grin. Mackie achieves a little more charm by comparison with his impotent issues and relationship with Robin, but he's still an imbecile. Shalhoub is best at playing despicable weasels, and as the half-Colombian, half-Jewish Kershaw, you love to hate him, even if he is the victim. Though most of the women on screen are strippers or might as well be, Wilson, Rutherfurd, and Bar Paly (as Daniel and Paul's stripper/aspiring actress girlfriend Sorina) sneak in some laughs.

From the "bigger and louder is better" school of moviemaking, Bay gets away with his most accomplished work. Not only does he pull off a high-wire act in terms of tone, but this outlandishly over-the-top story actually calls for the man's kinetic, energetic, in-your-face aesthetics and cinematic fondness for drugs, violence, and scantily clad women. But in a change of pace, the editing isn't mistaken for being thrown into a blender. Whereas the director has formerly shown a flippant disregard for human life and palmed off property damage as popcorn entertainment, this movie never glorifies the dim musclehead trio's cruelty toward others. Bay still has to work on his storytelling—voice-overs from multiple characters are sloppily inserted and the narrative structure could have been even more streamlined to shave down its 129-minute run time—before he makes his first "film," but his signature cynicism has a place within this pumped-up true-crime story. More smart than dumb and more fun than not, "Pain & Gain" still works. For once, testosterone-driven idiocy has a point, so Bay, himself, has gained points.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Pleasingly low-key "Promised Land" informs and entertains

Promised Land (2012)
106 min., rated R.

Fracking—the process of drilling for natural gas—does not sound like it would be a subject dying for a cinematic treatment or an easy sell to most mainstream audiences. The controversial topic of hydraulic fracturing has led a trend, starting with the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary "Gasland," and now we have a narrative film about it. While some films aren't about anything, "Promised Land" is really about something and yet it doesn't throw its advocacy message on like a paperweight as you might fear. It should be credited to co-stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski penning the script from a story by Dave Eggers (2009's "Away We Go" and "Where the Wild Things Are") and getting director Gus Van Sant (who, of course, worked from Damon's scripts on "Good Will Hunting" and "Gerry") on board. 

Damon plays Steve Butler, a corporate-climbing salesman for the natural gas company Global Crosspower Corporations. He and his partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), come to the podunk farming town of McKinley, Pennsylvania, to persuade the financially struggling folk by filling their heads with fake promises that their land could be a goldmine. Some of them can't wait to cash in and some are very skeptical, especially local science teacher Frank (a wonderful Hal Holbrook). While in town, Steve learns he has been promoted to VP, trusting himself to get the community to vote in favor of drilling for the supposedly "clean and efficient resource" over coal and oil. Frank sticks to his guns at a town meeting in the school gym, casting his vote against fracking and calling the process a "dirty business." Then, to exacerbate the situation for Steve and Sue, an environment presence arrives into McKinley in the form of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski). He's a personable, confident fellow from a small environmental group, Superior Athena, and essentially rallies the town against Global. Steve might be way in over his head but isn't about to leave.

For a film that might be introducing many to "fracking" for the first time, the film very easily could have announced its significance at every turn with preachy sledgehammer tactics. But not only does it mean well, it both informs and entertains, which isn't always an easy feat. Sincere without being corny, "Promised Land" is a low-key, nicely acted Capra-esque advocacy drama. With well-rounded characters, sufficient dramatic tension, and character-based humor adding life to the arid subject, this is more pleasing than one might expect. It hums along at an unforced pace to match the speed of sleepy small-town America, and the rural vistas are invitingly photographed by Linus Sandgren.

Damon, playing a heart-on-his-sleeve idealist who eventually sees the light, and Krasinski, in his charismatic, aw-shucks mode, both manage to be likable in spite of their opposite sides of their individual vocations. Steve is neither a shady huckster nor a city-slicker cliché but a guy who's actually grown up in a small Iowa town, knowing about agriculture (but can't drive a stick-shift?) and saw his own farming community go down the tubes when the factory shut down. He's humble enough to say he doesn't have all the answers, but Dustin immediately wins over the town, singing on Open-Mic night at the local bar and going door to door with flyers, and then becomes an obstacle for Steve and his new love interest, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a single schoolteacher. And if there has to be a love interest, it might as well be DeWitt, who's naturally radiant and instantly appealing in everything. 

Best in show is a likably tough and smartassy McDormand. So sly and sharp in her delivery as Sue, the actress adds some shadings to an underdeveloped character who simply thinks "it's just a job" so she can provide for her son's education. Without being handled with condescension, many of the locals feel like real people with a good balance of quirks and authenticity. This is just nitpicking, but several character actors (Lucas Black, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver) don't get the time they deserve while still giving yeoman's work.

In the third act, the screenplay pulls a fast one on us about a character pretending to be someone they're not. But until ultimately revealing its obvious stance on the issue of fracking, "Promised Land" never beats us over the head PSA-style with an agenda or becomes too pat to digest. It presents one man's sympathetic journey where there are no easy fixes and nothing is just black and white.


Saturday, April 20, 2013

"Lords of Salem" a Rob Zombie movie that doesn't throttle you

The Lords of Salem (2013)
101 min., rated R.

Most pieces of art are inherently self-indulgent anyway, but three out of four of writer-director Rob Zombie's films have been freakishly aggressive, excessively ugly assaults on the senses. The jury is still out on whether or not the shock rocker-turned-shock filmmaker is actually going places as a horror-genre auteur. He's normally more of an assailant than a director, wallowing in grubby, obnoxious white-trash freak shows. But, as relentlessly violent and twisted as Sir Zombie's work is, his films do boast some sort of fascinating allure that's hard to articulate. If "House of 1000 Corpses" was his "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and "Halloween" was his, um, "Halloween," the Massachusetts-born Zombie's latest, "The Lords of Salem," is his "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Sentinel" with echoes of Dario Argento. Though "The Lords of Salem" isn't what one could call a good film, it's certainly an interesting, often hypnotically weird, and more disciplined piece of work without throttling us.

Appearing in all her prince of darkness' movies, a tattooed, dreadlocked Sheri Moon Zombie plays Heidi Hawthorne, a recovering crack-addict who co-hosts a late-night radio show in Salem with two Hermans (Jeff Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree), forming the "Big H Radio Team." She has a cool, spacious apartment in a rather empty building with a friendly landlady, Lacy (Judy Geeson), but there might be a new tenant down the hall in Apartment 5, even if Lacy hasn't rented it out. Then, at the station, Heidi squarely receives a vinyl record in a wooden box from a mysterious band called The Lords. They play it on the air, unleashing something that of a satanic incantation that gives Heidi headaches. As Heidi begins hallucinating in and out of her apartment, might Lacy and her two visiting sisters, "self-help guru" Sonny (Dee Wallace) and palm reader Megan (Patricia Quinn), have something to do with the former addict's unraveling? Can Salem history writer Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) help stop the rebirth of the once-crucified witches?

A departure from Zombie's frenzied, phantasmagoric style and gritty grindhouse aesthetics, "The Lords of Salem" evokes an atmospheric, dreamlike vibe that of European horror cinema from the '60s and '70s. Portentous and nightmarish, his fifth feature has just the right amount of grunge and incendiary imagery to be the kind of aural-visual experience Zombie insists on always making. The lensing by cinematographer Brandon Trost is placid and assured, and the soundscapes, composed by Zombie's guitarist John 5 and mixer/composer Griffin Boice, enhance the dauntingly creepy, oft-hallucinatory ambience. (The Lords' theme is the ultimate harbinger of doom.) Zombie also adds funky little touches, calling out his film-history knowledge with a blow-up photo of the iconic man in the moon from Georges Méliès' "A Trip to the Moon" hanging above Heidi's bed, and per usual, a black-and-white classic movie playing on every TV set. 

Plot is secondary here, and it could be a metaphor for a drug relapse, but it's just a trip into hell, literally. Not counting an uncomfortable orgiastic topper with a coven of cackling crones worshipping Satan and baring their bodies, the film doesn't always feel like a full-bore Zombie joint until the hellish finale toward Heidi's fate. With that said, there are still a handful of nerve-shredding moments, a few jump scares involving naked specters, and a gonzo, aurally operatic bit involving an entranced Heidi, her face painted a skeletal white, a demonic dwarf, and umbilical cords that only a maestro of the nihilistic, such as Mr. Zombie himself, could execute. Or, take the scene where Heidi finds herself in a church with a priest, who bleeds at the mouth as she pleasures him.

Heidi isn't the most compelling protagonist, yielding to enter a fugue state. However, given her work ranging from grating to amateurish to cheerfully insane in her husband's previous films, this might be Sheri Moon Zombie's most appealing performance. Since Zombie tends to cast obscure cult stars in his films, he actually gives four women some of their juiciest roles in years. Making a delightfully kooky trio, '70s-'80s horror veteran Geeson, genre favorite Wallace, and Quinn (who once helped kick off the Time Warp as Magenta in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show") can flip between smiley tea-time and sinister doings. Also worth mentioning, the steely-eyed, 64-year-old Meg Foster owns the role (and cackle) of evil incarnate Margaret Morgan without an iota of inhibition. Only Maria Conchita Alonso gets the short end, mostly there to paint, cook, bathe, and smoke, as Francis' supportive wife. 

This marks an appreciable distinction from Zombie's previous work. While he has settled down a bit with his overdone stylistic flourishes and direction this time out (his characters aren't just caricatures frothing at the mouth and spewing F-bombs), one still wishes "The Lords of Salem" had made more use of the Salem milieu, which seems like unrealized potential since it was actually shot on-location. Fans of Zombie's singular vision: this will be right up your alley. All others need not apply.

Grade: C +

"Oblivion" an elegantly designed imitator

Oblivion (2013)
126 min., rated PG-13.

In a world where original and substantive science fiction is hard to come by sometimes, "Oblivion" isn't very original or substantive either. But it tries, and that's better than not trying at all. Elegantly designed and ambitiously cerebral, this Kubrickian space opera is predicted to be more thought-provoking than any of your big, soulless tentpoles and star vehicles of the summer season. On the terms of aesthetics and ambition, this summer's upcoming blockbusters have their work cut out for them. Director Joseph Kosinski (2010's emotionally empty but coolly enjoyable "TRON: Legacy"), adapting his and Arvid Nelson's unpublished graphic novel with screenwriters Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt, improves on emotional involvement from his last feature. And yet, the screenplay still feels simultaneously underwritten and overwritten when some narrative twists are sprung on us.

The year is 2077, sixty years after an alien invasion by the Scavengers (simply known as "Scavs") left the moon and much of Earth destroyed. The surviving population has been shipped to one of Saturn's moons, Titan. Still living on Earth but having had their memories wiped to secure their mission, drone technician Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are an effective mop-up crew living in a sterile, glass-paneled enclosure. They repair and maintain the drones which protect the planet's remaining resources from the Scavs. Under the watchful eye of the chirpy Tet commander Sally (Melissa Leo, with a twangy accent) on a monitor, Jack and Vica are only two weeks away from joining the rest of the survivors on Titan. While he has gotten romantically close to Vica, Jack can't seem to erase the memories he shared with someone on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Then, over the course of his day-to-day sweeps in his bubble jet, a pod crash-lands on the Earth's surface with all of the crew members in cryo-sleep. One of them, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), just might be the same woman he's been dreaming about.

On the technical front—art direction, production design, visual effects—"Oblivion" is top-of-the-line. The post-apocalyptic landscape is sleek, beautifully detailed and fully realized from Jack and Victoria's sky tower, a shiny, modern penthouse complete with a swimming pool and a spiral staircase, to the wasteland of a football stadium. Before the plot gets underway, we're eased into this world by the film's deliberate, expertly crafted and methodically paced first half, tracking Jack's daily routine, similar to "I Am Legend," and his escape to a peaceful cabin in the woods full of collectibles and mementos à la "WALL-E." Capturing a grandiose canvas, Claudio Miranda's ("Life of Pi") cinematography is just breathtaking and the few action scenes that are there are cleanly shot without being reduced to point-and-shoot Epilepsy. The pulsing music score by French electronic band M83 is suitably futuristic, even if it is familiar of Daft Punk's contribution to "TRON: Legacy" mixed with Hans Zimmer's fog horns.

Now, if "Oblivion" liberally borrows themes of man vs. machines, identity, and loss and visual cues from other movies, at least it borrows from the best ("2001: A Space Odyssey," "Total Recall," "Moon," "The Matrix," and even the Cruise-starring "Vanilla Sky"). The film isn't flawed for being derivative, because after all anything can work as long as it's executed well, but for making its characters play second fiddle to its ideas and plot machinery. Curiously, after a key revelation is revealed (which is seen coming a mile away), the film starts to spin its wheels and grows less interesting as its narrative unspools. Points are due, though, to Kosinski and his writers for coming up with one head-scratching surprise in the middle that makes for a hopeful payoff in the end.

Following in step with sci-fi box-office juggernauts "Minority Report" and "War of the Worlds," Cruise, again, proves why he's such a bankable movie star (and has a face that never ages, despite being 50 years old). Though the character of Jack intentionally begins as a blank slate (though he likes baseball and talks to an Elvis bobblehead doll), he still manages to carry the whole film with charisma, empathy, and pathos. While Jack is someone to root for, his relationship with Julia is supposed to be the film's heart but feels dramatically inert. Kurylenko, who's not only physically beautiful but has a grace about her on screen, looks robotic and feels misused here. Destined for greatness with her captivating presence, Riseborough is the more interesting of the two leading ladies. As Victoria, she equally conveys a cool professionalism and vulnerability through a simple glance. Morgan Freeman also appears, having some fun chomping on a cigar, but he's underused and his character doesn't put much of a dent in the proceedings anyway besides dishing out exposition dumps.

Staggering visual work in a film can too often be taken for granted—and to think that last year's "Prometheus" didn't even win its single nomination for Visual Effects—but this is one of the few films actually made to be seen on a rumbly IMAX screen. It's a breath of fresh, celestial air to see a sci-fi film about the human condition instead of explosions, but "Oblivion" still can't quite stir the heart even when it makes a sincere attempt. Nothing ever quite matches the colossal scope, splendid visuals, Tom Cruise, and Andrea Riseborough.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"42" corny and conventional but satisfying crowd-pleaser

42 (2013) 
128 min., rated PG-13.

"42" tells the inherently important true story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player for the Brooklyn Dodgers to break the Major League color barrier in 1947. (The title refers to Robinson's jersey number, which has been retired by all MLB teams in his honor, except for Mariano Rivera.) Writer-director Brian Helgeland (2001's "A Knight's Tale") wisely shies away from the paint-by-numbers life-to-death scope of most biopics and sticks to the pivotal two years of Robinson's struggle against narrow-minded racism and how he influenced baseball and society in general. In telling this incredible story (there's no denying that), the treatment is still pretty conventional and borderline hagiographical. But, as a soft, corny, old-fashioned sports movie, it's slickly done entertainment.

For an "American Legend," such as Jackie Robinson himself, it would be hard to see the ballplayer as anything less than a saintly hero. However, it's nice to see when he does show an (understandable) rage brewing inside of him, which comes as a much-needed rough edge and sign of vulnerability. With that said, film newcomer Chadwick Boseman colors outside the lines and makes for an wonderfully engaging Jackie Robinson, conveying perseverance, charisma and a certain playfulness, to boot. Nicole Beharie, playing his supportive wife Rae, brings much more personality to a peripheral part that could have just had her stand by her man. Together, Boseman and Beharie forge a loving, even sexy, bond. As the Dodgers' blustery but compassionate general manager Branch Rickey, Harrison Ford hams it up, gruffly speaking out of the corner of his mouth and chomping on cigars. It's a cartoony performance, where all we see is Harrison Ford, but still an enjoyable one. Also, an array of character actors do good work, including Christopher Meloni, as the Dodgers' manager Leo Durocher; Lucas Black, as Pee Wee Reese who shares that iconic embrace with Robinson on the field; Hamish Linklater; Brett Cullen; and John C. McGinley, as the dry announcer Red Barber. Finally, without whitewashing the ugly embarrassment of history's racial relations, an effectively gross Alan Tudyk decidedly plays against-type as the Phillies' cruel manager Ben Chapman. He could have been close chums with the racist slave owners in"Django Unchained."

A framework with sports journalist/Jackie's chauffeur Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) is discarded halfway through. There are also some wedged-in cutaways to a black mother and son in the stands that are too Disney-fied and ham-fisted. Those flaws aside, Helgeland gets his points across more successfully on the field. From behind the camera, he makes the games feel rough, not gauzy, and quite exciting, with one shot photographed from beneath the base, and even funny, as when Robinson steals the bases. Adding up to parts that are greater than the whole, "42" could have been great, had it been explored with more nuance and complexity into the American Legend and less of the "whites are evil" heavy-handedness. Instead, it settles for good—and feel-goody. With its button-pushing uplift and vintage, Cracker-Jack nostalgia for baseball fanatics, an earnest crowd-pleaser might be satisfying enough for mainstream audiences, even if it's not always dramatically interesting.


Without Anna Faris and actual jokes, lamely unfunny "Scary Movie 5" bottoms out

Scary Movie 5 (2013)
85 min., rated PG-13.

Can you believe "Airplane!" came out a little over three decades ago and still remains one of the funniest, most clever and quotable spoofs of all time? What actually began as a pretty shrewd, raunchy, and often hilarious MAD Magazine-type parody of a horror subgenre with 2000's "Scary Movie," the of-the-moment pop culture-riffing series slowly wore thin through three silly, scattershot sequels in six years, but at least they had their giggles. "Scary Movie 5," the "long-awaited" fifth (and unrelated) entry in the "Scary Movie" series, is just instantaneously forgettable and even less useful than a piece of lint. Worse, it's impossible to excuse how lamely unfunny it is. Without any of the surprise or background gags that this comedy subgenre used to live on, this is the terminally inane, desperate sort that almost makes you forget what made spoofs so infectiously funny in the first place. 

In-and-out-of-rehab kindred spirits Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan get the Carmen Electra/Pamela Anderson, Jenny McCarthy/Shaquille O'Neal, Dr. Phil pre-credit sequence. About to make a sex tape with the "Benny Hill" theme playing over the soundtrack, the two of them poke fun at their infamous tabloid images, but the whole joke feels fumbled without any payoff. Ashley Tisdale and "Scary Movie 3" cast member Simon Rex take over playing numb-skulled married couple Dan and Jody Sanders, like it matters, who comes to adopt Dan's brother's two little girls and infant son. They were abandoned in a cabin in the woods but ferally cared for by a supernatural force named Mama. What follows is a spoofy patchwork plot of this year's "Mama," all of it narrated by a Morgan Freeman impersonator, and a further reminder that the makers have seen the "Paranormal Activity" movies, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," "Black Swan," "Inception," "The Cabin in the Woods," and "Sinister." Oh, and the "Evil Dead" remake (released just a week ago). Unless one of the filmmakers caught an early screening of it at the SXSW Festival, it's awfully similar, as if "Scary Movie 5" was made in a week. How timeless! 

None of the gags are choicy or worthy of telling at parties, however, some of the "Black Swan" stuff admittedly earns a few passing chuckles. There's a mock-up of Darren Aronofsky's camera intensely following the bunned head of Natalie Portman's character and using repetitive jump cuts; an amusing gag involves ballerina Jody, a single Cheerio, and a stick figure; and the hilariously broad Molly Shannon is a stitch as the smoking, martini-drinking prima ballerina that Winona Ryder played in the real deal. Otherwise, the material always goes for the lowest-common-denominator: A baby's head catches on fire, a little girl sticks a popsicle stick up her butt, a dog has a toothbrush shoved up his own butt, and a man dressed as Santa Claus for an escort service shows his butt. Also, recognition constantly tries passing for parody, as if having a Leonardo DiCaprio clone was enough to send up "Inception" or having Jerry O'Connell turn up as Christian Grey would instantly call attention to the erotic best-seller "Fifty Shades of Grey" even if no one other than sex-starved housewives have read it. Good God, there's even a clone of Tyler Perry's Madea character to heighten the humor. Rim shots will be playing in your head after every would-be joke and visual gag. And try counting all of the dubbing issues, unless the movie is intentionally shoddy. 

No offense to Tisdaleshe does put on a game face and allbut when the fifth film in a flailing spoof franchise casts her as a stand-in for Anna Faris, it's already D.O.A. Against her more committed efforts to simulate a lesbian sex scene with her literally black swan Kendra (Erica Ash, obviously subbing for Regina Hall), a pair of scissors, tacos, and train tunnels do most of the work. A lot of the film (if one feels generous to call it that) devotes time to sped-up stretches of Rex being physically abused by frying pans, lawnmowers, and his own Mexican housekeeper who bakes him a poop-disguised-as-chocolate pie and banana because, well, Octavia Spencer did so in "The Help." Is your funny bone tickling you yet? It's pretty pathetic when a gang of stop-motion vacuum cleaners and pool cleaners come the closest to sucking up all the laughter. 

The litmus test for a parody is simple: Be funny! That's it. But, as they say, credit should be given where credit is due: If director Malcolm D. Lee (who, it seems, has learned nothing since 2002's cleverly funny blaxploitation spoof "Undercover Brother") and credited screenwriters Pat Proft and David Zucker (two of the minds behind the "The Naked Gun" movies) set out to make the most shamelessly juvenile, witless, and uninspired spoof, then it's safe to say they've succeeded with flying colors. But, honestly, the woebegone "Scary Movie 5" can be lumped into the same fiery pit that newly houses January's horrendous flop "A Haunted House" and every one of Jason Friedberg-Aaron Seltzer's cinematic turds. Even if new-generation horror movies deserve a good skewering, no one seems to know how to do it lately or make it funny. Moviegoers, consider this your final warning, or kiss your brain cells goodbye.

Grade: D -