Friday, May 31, 2013

Disappearing Act: "Now You See Me" a fun diversion until you realize you've been had

Now You See Me (2013) 
116 min., rated PG-13.

If you need to see one movie about magic this year, it's a horse apiece between the disappointingly limp comedy "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" and "Now You See Me," a lightly clever but only passable early-summer diversion. Directed with some relative get-up-and-go by Louis Leterrier (he of the first two "Transporter" movies, 2008's "The Incredible Hulk," and 2010's "Clash of the Titans"), this magic-centric caper sports a first-class ensemble to play with a neat premise that's let down by a half-baked screenplay spread too thin with characters being duped and then other characters explaining how they pulled it off. Even for a dumb throwaway, it just pulls out too many rabbits for its own good.

Smug card sharp Danny (Jesse Eisenberg), delusive mentalist Merritt (Woody Harrelson), escape artist Henley (Isla Fisher), and lock-picking pickpocket Jack (Dave Franco) have all been invited to the same decrepit NYC apartment by a mysterious, hooded puppet master. A year later, the group becomes "The Four Horsemen" and put on Las Vegas shows, backed by wealthy mogul Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) at the MGM Grand. For their closing act, they aim to rob a bank; in fact, a French audience member is teleported all the way to his bank vault in Paris, only to shower the entire arena with $3.2 million Euros. With no hard evidence linking them to the heist (because magic is not real — sorry to tarnish your childlike beliefs), magic skeptic/FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), partnered up with Interpol desk officer Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent), can't keep them in custody so they follow them on their tour to New Orleans and Manhattan. Meanwhile, magician debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) stays steps ahead of the agents and shows the cops how the Horsemen's trick is done. With a little sleight of hand and some outside help to finangle a heist that means ripping off the $140 million-worth Tressler and giving his money to those who could use it, the Horsemen are capable of something much larger. 

Directly off the top, "Now You See Me" gets off to a fun, breezy start, introducing its quartet and fleetly bopping between each of their acts. Unfortunately, after that sequence, director Louis Leterrier and screenwriters Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and first-timer Edward Ricourt make the ill-advised decision to keep the focus largely on Rhodes and Dray's uninteresting partnership and structure the film like a house of cards so elaborately contrived and gimmicky that, had everything not fallen into place at the exact moment, would collapse before our eyes. And collapse, it does. The writers make a guessing game out of who might be the "fifth horseman," but cockamamie stuff with a secret organization called "The Eye" and magician Lionel Shrike overcomplicates things. As the characters constantly remind us, "the closer you look, the less you see," there's a lot less substance here than meets the eye and nothing can be held up to close scrutiny. When sticking to the showmanship, tricks, and misdirection, the film is entertaining enough, but behind all the smoke and mirrors, "the prestige," if you will, is a silly letdown and makes the whole enterprise (as well as suspension of disbelief) go up in smoke by the end.

The Four Horsemen are diverting hucksters, colored by talented actors, but more's the pity that the characters are barely-there and never grow out of supporting status. Jesse Eisenberg, playing a cocksure, quick-witted womanizer and (again) the smartest guy in the room, and Woody Harrelson are both fun to watch. Isla Fisher shows some flair in an early bit, where she's handcuffed in a water tank with piranhas timed to fall in after her, but thereafter, she's just Danny's ex-assistant/girlfriend relegated to wallpapering. Dave Franco has a smirky, devilish spark that feels unfulfilled here, until given the chance to deliver the moves in a cool brawl involving a garbage disposal, flash paper and sharp card-throwing. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are allowed to just have fun, even if they're there to merely class things up, but as the wrong protagonists of the story, Mark Ruffalo and Mélanie Laurent are barely given anything to play.

Considering movies themselves have been illusions since The Lumière Brothers came along, stage magic seems to lose its "ooh" and "aah" factor on screen, especially now with editing and special effects. Here, there's a discrepancy between what we see (a character floating around in a bubble, holograms jumping off a building and exploding into cash, bank account balances magically increasing, etc.) and what's explained to us that making the Horsemen genetically enhanced superheroes or Hogwarts alumni would've made it easier to swallow. Director Leterrier often strains for energy with an ever-roving, often dizzying camera. A chase sequence through the New Orleans streets, shot with a herky-jerky shooting style, is more chaotic than exciting, even losing sight of the spatiality of the action so we can't figure out where the magicians are in relation to the authorities. "Now You See Me" offers up some on-stage "how did they do that?" razzamatazz here and there, but once the final trick is revealed to be on the audience, presto! Now you see it, now you don't.


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Three Cheers for Greta: "Franca Ha" disarming and lovely

Frances Ha (2013)
86 min., rated R.

"Frances Ha" is what would logically happen to Lena Dunham's Hannah Horvath of the HBO series "Girls" in her looming years as a drifting twenty-something gal in New York City. Restless youth is such a familiar theme that it almost seems like a clichéd log line, but writer-director Noah Baumbach worked on the script with his muse, writer-actress Greta Gerwig, who co-starred in his last film, 2010's "Greenberg," so you know it's something special. Divergent from the bitter, lacerating tones of the filmmaker's repertoire (2005's "The Squid and the Whale," 2007's "Margot at the Wedding," and even "Greenberg") but never losing the acute observations and delicate pirouette of quirk and humanity, "Frances Ha" is still bittersweet but a more cheerfully inviting and compassionate film.

College-educated 27-year-old Frances Halliday (Gerwig) doesn't realize it yet, but her life is in a state of flux. Inseparable with best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and sharing a Brooklyn apartment "like an old lesbian couple that doesn't have sex," she turns down her boyfriend's invitation to move in with him, and thus, gets dumped, just so Frances can resign their sublet with Sophie. But then Frances gets thrown for a loop: Sophie is moving to TriBeCa with her preppy boyfriend, Patch (Patrick Heusinger). Working as an apprentice at a dance company, Frances hopes she can move up in her status and afford her life since she's "not a real person yet." That's when she starts couch-hopping from apartment to apartment with her trustafarian artist pals (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen) and goes on missing Sophie. When will Frances get her shot at life?

A true labor of love from Baumbach and Gerwig, "Frances Ha" is a disarming pleasure, due in no small part to the writing of the character and the performance of the actress playing her. Filled with so much naturalistic but hilariously stylized dialogue, the tight script finds ways of not letting the protagonist off the hook but making her instantly likable as well. While Baumbach has given us many off-putting, solipsistic protagonists in the past, he (and, this time, with Gerwig) gives us a character so offbeat, clumsy, and endearingly goofy but never whiny, clingy or twee. Frances is the kind of girl who will do a head stand mid-conversation in her apartment. She is such a buoyant, open-hearted spirit, even if she's a mess who makes mistakes and needs to get her act together. Adulthood catches up with her sooner than she wants it to, referring to herself as "poor," when one of her friends says that's "an insult to actual poor people." How the viewer feels about Frances will make or break the film, but it's hard not to fall for the adorably incandescent Gerwig every time, and it's refreshing to see a heroine finding herself rather than a man. With Sumner (the daughter of musician Sting) playing Sophie, we're able to take stock in this very close (but platonic) female friendship. Their moments together"play fighting" in the park and sharing a bed without socksare lovely to watch.

Digitally shot in luscious black-and-white by cinematographer Sam Levy, "Frances Ha" recalls the French New Wave and Woody Allen, particularly 1979's "Manhattan." Infecting the viewer with a big smile is the joyous use of "Modern Love" (a nod to Leos Carax's "Mauvais Sang," where Denis Lavant ran down the street to the same David Bowie song), and there's a lonely poignancy during Frances' impromptu solo trip to Paris, cued to Hot Chocolate's "Every 1's a Winner." With the rhythms of a light breeze, the film feels lived rather than written. It only belies its brief running time because Frances/Greta is so relatable and delightful and you just don't want to stop spending time with her. In the end, "Frances Ha" has an empathy and generosity, ending with a simply wonderful beginning for Frances that makes sense of the film's title and gives her hope.


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bloody Mary: Katharine Isabelle grounds oft-disjointed "American Mary"

American Mary (2013) 
103 min., rated R.

A glass ceiling deserves a good shattering by independent-minded, cool-chick Canadian twin filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska (aka "Twisted Twins"). A technically proficient follow-up to "Dead Hooker in a Trunk," their ultra-low-budget 2009 grindhouse effort, "American Mary" follows in line with femme psychological-horror films of the last decade (from 2003's "May" to last year's "Excision") with shards of "Audition" and "Hostel" (Eli Roth gets a thanks at the bottom of the credits). As written and directed by the Soska sisters, their bizarro, provocative but uneven Grand Guignol isn't your ordinary female-empowerment horror film, especially with a committed-as-hell performance by Katharine Isabelle. Here, the victim, Mary, is also the slasher, "Bloody Mary."

A focused and dedicated Seattle med student with a take-no-crap attitude but a naiveté, Mary Mason (Isabelle) doesn't have the wherewithal to afford her phone bill and student loans. She does, however, have enough spare time to practice suturing a turkey in her loft apartment. Then she finds an ad online for a strip club, going in dressed the part with a résumé and no pole. The slimy manager, Billy (Antonio Cupo), entices her with $5,000 in cash if she performs black-market surgery on someone in the basement. Mary isn't about to turn money down so she agrees but still has her conscience intact, feeling disgusted afterwards. Before long, she becomes the go-to doctor for the club's employees, Beatrice (Tristan Risk), an unfinished Betty Boop incarnate who has had fourteen different surgeries already, and a plastic-faced fashion designer (Paula Lindberg) who wants to be asexualized like Barbie. Things are just getting started for Mary, who later finds her calling in the world of body modification after a key event triggers her disillusionment of med school.

Before an inevitable 180, "American Mary" is a compelling character study in its first half, keeping up a weird, kinky tone and Isabelle nailing the caustic wit of Mary. The Soskas wrote the script with actress Isabelle in mind and it's hard to imagine any other actress in the role. The fetching Canadian actress has always had that "it" spark since 2000's teen-werewolf gem "Ginger Snaps" and stood out in horror films that didn't always deserve her. But here as Mary, she's droll, smart, and sexy; from female victim to anti-heroine, the character is never played on just one level. Also worth noting: a bubbly, scene-stealing Risk as Beatrice, and Brian Pearson's moody cinematography captures the dingy, seedy, blood-spattered surgical underworld and strip club with a few hallucinatory touches.

Of course, to empower Mary and send her down a road of revenge, success, and plain old money, there is a rape. It's uncomfortable and shot in the least titillating angle possible, as it should be, focusing on Mary's eyes. The film could be called misandric (for a change, not misogynistic), as Mary's teaching instructors turn out to be vile, lecherous creeps, but the point being, it's the cause for Mary's dark transformation. Interestingly, the Soskas don't judge or demonize the "freakish" body-mod subculture, be damned that her clientele requests tongue-splitting and nipple removal. Mary actually considers simple piercings to be "vanilla." The writer-directors themselves even turn up as twins from Berlin who want to have their arms exchanged and horns implanted.

Having cockeyed ideas about pursuing the American Dream and paying your phone bill, "American Mary" takes chances, which is more than what can be said for the majority of horror films out there (found footage, remakes, et al.). Mary is such a complicated character that the rest of the narrative just kind of follows her and becomes aimless, disjointed, and murky in finishing up. Fortunately, the film doesn't make the misguided decision to tag on a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too ending. The viewer's overall reaction might depend on the viewer's threshold for dark, tough material and squirm-inducing (but thankfully not gratuitous) surgery. Still, as a cult item in the making to the horror community and a morbid curiosity piece to everyone else, you can't deny the Soska sisters' talents for carving out a smart, unique handling of the genre.

Grade: B -

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Six Lives and Counting: Big, dumb, over-the-top "Furious 6" takes forever to rev its engine but delivers goods

Fast & Furious 6 (2013) 
130 min., rated PG-13.

Universal Pictures is probably laughing all the way to the bank because it's unfathomable how "The Fast and the Furious"remember, 2001's unpretentious, is-what-it-is drive-in summer movie with hip-swaggering babes, muscle heads, and fast muscle carshas spawned such a lucrative franchise. They've hit six and, by the reports of a seventh one already slated for next summer, this series isn't running out of gas anytime soon. No improvement has been made on the naming of these movies, going from plainly stupid to awkward and grammatically illogical with the adding of numbers and dropping of articles ("2 Fast 2 Furious" and "Fast & Furious," anybody?), but they've definitely improved, starting as routine underground drag-racing/truck-hijacking pictures and inflating themselves into globe-trotting heist-with-superheroes action extravaganzas. The fifth time was the charm (2011's "Fast Five"), and now with "Fast & Furious 6" (or, going by the title card, just "Furious 6"), it suffers from skid-mark pacing before firing up and delivering all the high-octane bombast and fun stuff this cheerfully lunkheaded series thrives on.

After making $100-million from their Rio de Janeiro heist in "Fast Five," Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel, with his baritone voice and biceps as large as his neck) and his team have retired all around the world. His bro-for-life, Brian (Paul Walker), is living a life of solitude in the Canary Islands with Dom's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster), and their newborn son. Once Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) tracks down Dom, who's settled down with Hobbs' former partner Elena (Elsa Pataky), he gives the bald, jacked criminal a new job that is personal and won't be refused. If you remember in the post-credits stinger (as if leading to "The Avengers"), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Dom's presumed-dead lover, is still alive and kicking, albeit with amnesia and working for ex-military madman Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). It doesn't matter in the slightest, but Shaw and his crew possess a dangerous chip, which is such a McGuffin that it might as well be a file or microfilm. Despite Dom growling about his old life being done, he prioritizes: "You never turn your back on family, even when they do." Hobbs agrees to pardon Dom if he gets the gang back together and they do what they do best, while also bringing Letty back into the fold.

Considering tight, engaging plotting and three-dimensional characterization have never been this franchise's bread and butter, there's little reason to start now. When it's cutting to the literal chase and embracing its big, dumb, ear-ringingly loud self, "Furious 6" ends up being more fun than it deserves to be. Behind the wheel for his fourth consecutive "Fast & Furious" movie, director Justin Lin doesn't try to reflect reality in any of the action sequences, and he's better off that way. However, spread over a keep-on-chugging 130 minutes, the script by hard-at-work screenwriter Chris Morgan still hopes we have a connection with these cardboard cutouts and their unity as a hot-rod-obsessed family. Dom and Letty's reunion, where he lets her in on the history of her body scars, just doesn't hold much dramatic weight or rooting interest. 

Is the acting even worth mentioning? Vin Diesel and Paul Walker do what they do with their minimal skill sets, and there is some amusement in the interplay between members of the gang, including comic relief Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges), and couple Giselle (Gal Gadot) and Han (Sung Kang). If the charismatic Dwayne Johnson was brought in for "Fast Five" to add an extra shot of macho, he gets to do more baby-oiled, where's the gym? posturing and even destroys an Interpol interrogation room this time. Gina Carano, as Hobbs' right-hand partner Riley, doesn't get to do much initially and comes off even more stiff when Steven Soderbergh isn't guiding her performance (2012's "Haywire"). But then she shows her jaw-dropping mixed martial arts prowess in a London subway station, where she and Rodriguez have an intensely brutal throwdown. It might be the most kick-ass girlfight, sans make-out session, that you'll ever witness on screen. Finally, Luke Evans fulfills the sniveling requirements of baddie Shaw, but the real bad guys have always been instantly forgettable in this series anyway.

Other than Brian and Dom's opening race to get to Mia's baby delivery in Spain, a high-speed pursuit through the London streets, and a drag race, one must sit through a lot of downtime, plus a pointless 11th-hour twist of members swapping sides, to get to its 45-minute action climax of logic- and death-defying stuntwork and adrenalized thrills. When the goods finally arrive, the two enjoyably ludicrous and ludicrously hectic set-pieces not only go over the top but blow off the top, almost to the point of self-parody. First, Dom's team tries defeating Shaw's army convoys and a tank on a bridge, and then Letty flies through the air, only to be rescued by Superman, er, Dom. Then, shortly after, a number of vehicles surround a cargo plane barreling down a loooong runway as if it exists in the "G.I. Joe" universe. All logic is dwarfed, and that's preferable over hearing "good" criminals clunkily harp on the importance of family and saying grace before eating barbecue. Like a salty food full of trans fats, "Furious 6" isn't good for you (it's pretty enervating) but, as a popcorn-munching no-brainer for the series' undiscriminating fans, it may do the trick. Your best bet is to just set aside everything you learned in physics, like the laws of gravity and stuff, and pretend you're watching a live-action cartoon.

Grade: B -

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Buzzkill: "Hangover Part III" darker, less raunchy, no longer funny

The Hangover Part III (2013)
100 min., rated R.

Because we were all begging to see what the "Wolfpack" and Mr. Chow were doing in the interim, "The Hangover Part III" is meant to send the gang out in style. Box-office success was enough incentive, apparently, to turn 2009's "The Hangover"—a brashly funny, often inspired surprise that has become something of a frat-boy classic—into a trilogy. Writer-director Todd Phillips must have realized his lazy but more-funny-than-not 2011 sequel "The Hangover Part II" was just a Xerox copy, so he and fellow screenwriter Craig Mazin (2013's "Identity Thief") racked their brains to diverge slightly from the formula and twist expectations a little. It's a small blessing that this third and presumably last installment tries out a darker, more dangerous tone, but it's no longer a raunchy comedy or a comedy, period.

No one actually gets hung over this time, unless you count the mid-credits "morning after" epilogue, which substitutes for these movies' obligatory slideshow and happens to approximate the only belly laughs. Off his medication before his well-off father (Jeffrey Tambor) suffers a fatal heart attack, Alan (Zach Galifianakis) becomes the center of an intervention staged by his family and friends, including Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and brother-in-law Doug (Justin Bartha). The road trip to a rehab clinic begins and then ends when the four guys are run off the road by Marshall (John Goodman) and his pig-masked goons. Holding Doug as collateral (can Bartha ever catch a break?), the gangster orders the three to find Mr. Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), who has escaped from a Thai prison, and steal back his $21 million in gold. Tracking the insane, slippery Chow takes them to Tijuana and Las Vegas, where more hilarity and mayhem ensue.

The previous "Hangover" movies have more or less been comedic exercises in schadenfreude. Ditching the hook of these characters piecing together their debaucherous night and putting them on a capture mission and caper, this spotty, decidedly joyless conclusion also forgets to be funny most of the time with a truly cruel streak. Sure, no severed fingers are found in an ice bowl, but Phillips must have it in for animals. Heck, the second scene uses the decapitation of Alan's newly purchased pet giraffe being the cause for a highway pile-up as a punchline. That's not exactly a surefire way to get us laughing. Or, what about when Chow shoots at his cockfighting roosters and smothers one with a pillow? The meanness even extends to Alan wishing his mother dead when giving his father's eulogy, which would be forgivable had his mental illness been treated as more than a sad running joke. In the long run, the most misguided decision is dumping Alan's mental rehabilitation so the buddies can get mixed up with Leslie Chow. Whereas Chow by way of Jeong added bursts of lunatic energy as a supporting character in the first two films, more of him wears thin quickly — he's even more of an insufferable whack job with a grating maniacal laugh, an insult to bisexuals and cokeheads.

On the positive, a few throwaway tidbits amuse, including Alan's obliviousness to every situation or when he asks Phil where he bought his shirt during a break-in, and there's a surprisingly vertiginous set-piece on the roof of Caesar's Palace. If any humor is tapped, it's the doing of Galifiankis, who can still wring chuckles out of his weird, off-kilter man-child shtick (like a simple, effeminate shake of his hair). When the guys make a stop to see ex-hooker Jade (Heather Graham), Alan shares a sweet moment that's over too quickly with her son, Tyler/Carlos (cute towhead Grant Holmquist), the same baby he strapped to his chest four years ago. There's also Alan's weirdly priceless interaction with a pawn shop owner (the always-committed Melissa McCarthy), who just might be his soul mate. Otherwise, Helms and Cooper (who has already shown he's capable of challenging himself) resume their roles, as the neurotic Stu and the arrogant Phil, out of contractual obligations.

It must have been fun for Cooper, Helms, and Galifianakis to work together and shoot in Vegas again, but "The Hangover Part III" consistently struggles to search for a reason to exist beyond contrivances and monetary reasons. Even if you do end up defending this dreary, half-assed capper to an unnecessary trilogy, you'll probably hate yourself in the morning. Cheers to this being "the end."

Grade: C - 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Arnie is sort of back in undemanding "Last Stand"

The Last Stand (2013)
107 min., rated R.

By the standards of dumb, junky, over-the-top action movies, "The Last Stand" is better than it needs to be. This will be the first time the former governor of California has headlined a movie in a decade (2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines"). His uncredited cameo in "The Expendables" and beefed-up part in "The Expendables 2" don't count. Arnold Schwarzenegger once said he'd be back and he meant it, looking a bit weary since his heyday but still game enough at 65 years old to bear arms, engage in hand-to-hand smackdowns, and spout his corny Arnold-isms as a hard-ass sheriff.

In the small Arizona border town of Sommerton Junction, Sheriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) obviously knows everyone, except for a couple of new faces (one being Peter Stormare's). It seems these suspicious truckers are in cahoots with Mexican drug kingpin Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), who's just escaped federal custody in Las Vegas with a little help from his goons. In a souped-up Corvette ZR1 (it's faster than any chopper, we're told), Cortez is headed straight for Mexico with a federal agent (Genesis Rodriguez) as his hostage. If FBI Agent John Barrister (Forest Whitaker) can't keep this nasty character detained or even tailed, the sheriff and his motley crew of deputies (Zach Gilford, Jaime Alexander, and Luis Guzman), a jailed-turned-deputized drunk (Rodrigo Santoro), and a nut named Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) with a cache of weapons will have to be ready.

Korean director Kim Jee-woon (2011's "I Saw the Devil") makes his English-language directorial debut and seems well-suited for this relatively pleasurable shoot-'em-up western. Speaking of western, "The Last Stand" has the kind of classic stand-off on a main street, barricaded by cars on either side and all of the townsfolk seemingly out of town except for a few in a diner and an armed granny who takes out trespassers. It's not until the last 45 minutes that the pic actually feels like an '80s-style action throwback with Arnold tackling baddies and falling through a store canopy and throwing off his trusty one-liners (his response to "You fucked up my car!": "You fucked up my day off!"). Plenty of brutally satisfying carnage ensues with bodies flying and exploding. Aside from the federal-agent stuff and a Sommerton cop losing his life, none of this is taken too seriously but it never goes the full tongue-in-cheek route, either. The real highlight: a stylish, exciting, and even amusing cat-and-mouse car chase between the sheriff and Cortez through a cornfield that climaxes on a bridge.

To call screenwriter Andrew Knauer's characters paper-thin types is beside the point (and that goes for Schwarzenegger's Ray Owens, whom we learn next to nothing about), but at least they are distributed to a cast of character actors (along with a random cameo by Harry Dean Stanton). Whitaker looks tenacious and speaks with a straight face, including lines like, "We've got a psychopath in a Batmobile." Stormare gets an accent and runs with it, but he's playing a perfunctory caricature at best. And be grateful Knoxville's goofy mugging and "Jackass"-style shtick are kept to a minimum — his bathrobe-clad Dinkum actually climbs a telephone pole before Cortez rolls into town. "The Last Stand" isn't particularly special by any stretch, although it gives Arnie a decent-enough return to form. Delivering some fun on its own B-movie terms, it could have been worse.

Grade: C +

Monday, May 20, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: "Parker" an inert mess that can't deliver much of anything

Parker (2013) 
118 min., rated R.

Donald E. Westlake's books have been taken to the screen numerous times before with a star in the lead (including 1967's "Point Black" with Lee Marvin, 1973's "The Outfit" with Robert Duvall, and 1999's "Payback" with Mel Gibson). Now, officially being titled after the fictional protagonist of Westlake's series, "Parker" is adapted from the 2000 novel "Flashfire," with Jason Statham as Parker, but never capitalizes on the supposed appeal. It's more like an Elmore Leonard yarn without any of the punch and a Statham vehicle with little of the adrenaline-fueled energy. Directed with competency but anonymity and little energy by Taylor Hackford (2004's "Ray"), "Parker" still gets off to a crisp, brutal bang and gets all the setup done in the first 20 minutes. When it's being a no-frills, business-as-usual action-revenge picture, it delivers pretty much what its niche audience would expect. When it's not, which is most of the time, it's a plodding drag.

In the most conspicuous disguise, that of a silver-haired padre, master thief Parker (Statham) completes a caper for his mentor, Hurley (Nick Nolte), at the Ohio State Fair with a new crew (Michael Chiklis, Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr., and Micah A. Hauptman). Thereafter, they turn on him and leave him for dead on the side of the road in Kentucky. Parker miraculously recovers and tails his double-crossers to West Palm Beach, Florida. And then… Down-on-her-luck Florida realtor Leslie Rodgers (Jennifer Lopez), divorced, in debt, and stuck living with her soap-obsessed mother (Patti LuPone) in her mother's condo, is waiting for her next commission. Once Parker finds out his ex-crew's hideout for planning a new heist, he poses as an interested buyer (complete with a Texas drawl and cowboy hat) to get a lay of the land and gets mixed up with Leslie, who also could use a cut.

Written by John J. McLaughlin (2012's "Hitchcock"), "Parker" is a protracted mess that takes a while to get where it's going, and the payoff isn't really worth the wait. The useless introduction of the pitiful Leslie actually gets in the way, feeling shoehorned in and rendering the story inert. She doesn't even stand a chance being a love interest for the anti-hero since it's already been established that Parker has a girlfriend, Claire (Emma Booth), also Hurley's daughter. In the script, where it was probably noted as "Insert Action Set-Piece Here," there is all but one standout sequence: a hard-hitting knock-down, drag-out altercation in a fancy hotel room, followed by a gnarly bit with a blade going into a hand. Then, in its revenge-fueled climax where most of the guns are conveniently unloaded, heads are stabbed and blasted with bullets. We should be satisfied, right?

Here, British action star Statham is mostly playing a variation on the badass, reticent, get-the-job-done dynamos he's been playing since forever (take all three "Transporter" movies and both "Crank" movies). Without stretching beyond his comfort zone, he's good at what he does and fulfills the physical demands of each role. There are early shades of a moral code—as when he says during a robbery, "I don't steal from people who can't afford it; I don't hurt people who don't deserve it"—but otherwise, there is little else to Parker than a scowl and a resilience after being shot and stabbed. The supporting cast is nothing to sneeze at either, but all are wasted. Nick Nolte wanders in, grumbling and surprisingly not turning into a turncoat; Michael Chiklis, Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr., and Micah A. Hauptman all get to play stock bad guys who are constantly incognito (as clowns and firemen) and want more money; and Bobby Cannavale is utterly squandered as a cop who has the hots for Leslie.

Not every film has to have grand ambitions, but there should be a reason to care. Jennifer Lopez, who can be a warm, charismatic, even good performer when the role is right, seems to walk in from a whole different movie as Leslie. Though she's a girlish, radiant breath of fresh air against the glumly violent proceedings, not much is asked of her besides throwing off a couple one-liners, feeling bad for herself, and stripping down to her polka-dotted bikini (so Parker can strip search her for a wire). Once Leslie functions as a piece of the action, Lopez turns into a squealing, helpless accessory. As the girlfriend Claire, Booth is just treated as window dressing; she's at least smart enough to escape a dangerous home invader but then forgotten about. In the oddest bit of casting, the one and only Patti LuPone comes out of hiding to play Leslie's loud, sassy Latina mama with a yappy dog. She's a welcome sight, but the character makes little sense. Despite its distinct moniker, "Parker" is as resolutely rote and mediocre as Statham actioners come. It's bound to please no one.

Grade: C - 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Sisterhood of Deliverance: "Black Rock" a lean, mean femme survival machine

Black Rock (2013)
83 min., rated R.

If you ever wondered how 1972's "Deliverance" would play out with women—minus the inbred banjo players—on a smaller, cost-effective budget, "Black Rock" would be the result. But that comparison undersells what this film has going for it. With the story conceived by actor-director Katie Aselton (2010's "The Freebie") and the script written by her husband, mumblecore auteur Mark Duplass (2011's "Jeff, Who Lives at Home"), this Kickstarter project is a collaboration of two disparate sensibilities that work well together. This begins as a laid-back, slightly spiky character-driven slice-of-life with a driving music score and then grows into a lean, mean indie survival-thriller with a female-empowerment slant. What it isn't is a vile, gratuitous revenge-of-the-woman exploitation picture like, blech, "I Spit on Your Grave" (either version will do).

Thirty-something Sarah (Kate Bosworth) tricks her two squabbling/estranged girlfriends, Lou (Lake Bell) and Abby (Aselton), into camping on a remote island off the coast of Maine for the weekend. With Sarah being nostalgic about "The Goonies," her plan is to follow their map (from when they were all 10 years old) to a treasure. The other two try putting a sore spot aside (Lou drunkenly slept with Abby's then-boyfriend), but the three of them sharing one tent becomes mighty trivial when running into three guys on the island. One of them is Henry (Will Bouvier), an Iraq-Afghanistan soldier whose older brother went to high school with them and had a crush on Lou, and the other two (Jay Paulson, Anslem Richardson) are vets who deem Henry to be a hero for saving them. They've only been back eighteen days after being dishonorably discharged from overseas. Before long, both sets of trios sit around a campfire, leaving Abby to work up some liquid courage, hook up with Henry in the woods, and accidentally kill him in self-defense when he gets too rough. Things consequently turn ugly and when push comes to shove, it's kill or be killed.

"We are all dying," Sarah says to Lou and Abby before taking a boat to the island. Though she is generally speaking about life's unpredictability ("We could get hit by a bus tomorrow; we have no idea what's going to happen!"), none of them can predict the frightening truth in that blunt statement. As it unfolds from the scenic region and birds chirping to something as harsh and gritty as the rocks, "Black Rock" is realistically, ruthlessly tough and savaged as it needs to be without turning gratuitous or exploitative. Ultimately, the film benefits from its own conceptual simplicity. It's not some deep-dish rumination on gender roles or a comment on post-traumatic stress disorder. It's just three women hiding and fighting for their lives from two armed war vets in the unknown of the forest.

Screenwriter Duplass knows enough about economy and minimalism, having made his name on etching characters through short treatments and filling in the rest with improv. Wholesale, these women have a very natural dynamic and a long history. If anything, "Black Rock" misses an opportunity to be even talkier in its opening moments, fleshing out the individual backgrounds of Sarah, Lou, and Abby. The men aren't developed much at all, but at least at first they seem harmlessly introverted rather than obviously bad. But, once the hunt begins, Team XX fearlessly takes charge and we still don't want to see these women get hurt. Refreshingly, they aren't screaming, cowering slasher-flick numbskulls. When they take to their survivalist instincts and seek bloodlust, they aren't trained female MacGyvers or superwomen either; they just feel like real women who have it in them to be strong and resourceful. As an additional respite from convention, there's even a credible power shift, as the de facto leader later becomes scared and weak.

Transcending the film are the three lead performances. In one of her more physically demanding roles next to "Blue Crush" (in which she led two other strong women, too), Bosworth is the glue, making peace between Lou and Abby and just hoping to have her three-woman gang together again. Interestingly, Bell and Aselton (both stretching well beyond comedy here) pull off being flawed but sympathetic and then vividly trim down to their barest, most primal and animalistic states. They both reconcile in an affecting scene that easily could have seemed ridiculously out-of-tune given the circumstancesthey're naked, having huddled together to prevent hypothermiabut it's finally time for them to strengthen their estranged friendship and still hold a jokey sense of humor amidst everything that's happened. 

Flowing and quickening at a compact 83 minutes, it's a technically well-made, beautifully shot film that handles its characters and violence on an even scale. Some thrillers these days would even kill to be as authentic, urgent and harrowing as "Black Rock." It might be too straightforward and simplistic to hold a major impact, but Aselton and Duplass have still made a bleak, tense, and efficient thriller with a memorably punchy final shot. We need more like this.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Into a Lens Flare: "Star Trek Into Darkness" is what summer tentpoles should be

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
132 min., rated PG-13.

Courtesy of Spielbergian wunderkind J.J. Abrams and crew, 2009's "Star Trek" rejuvenated original creator Gene Roddenberry's franchise out of the cheesy, for-Trekkies-only black hole and into a prequel-cum-reboot that was more accessible to even the uninitiated. Moving at a warp speed with spectacular action set-pieces and first-rate special effects, without forsaking humor and character interactions, it could be taken seriously but not too seriously that it wasn't fun. The franchise couldn't stop its long and prosperous life there after Abrams surpassed expectations, so naturally, four years later, here's the sequel "Star Trek Into Darkness," and it is quite a doozy. You don't have to attend the annual "Star Trek" Convention to be in agreement that this sequel is just as exciting and engaging and even better.

Picking right back up with the alternate timeline of Abrams' reinvention, "Star Trek Into Darkness" immediately plucks us into a visually striking opening set on the civilization of Nibiru with its indigenous people chasing Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and medical-minded Dr. Leonard 'Bones' McCoy (Karl Urban). After violating Starfleet Command's principle by exposing the USS Enterprise to Nibiru in order to rescue the rule-abiding Spock (Zachary Quinto) from a volcano, Kirk is demoted to first officer, Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) reassuming as captain. Then, beginning in London, an ex-Starfleet officer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) commits an act of terrorism and targets his former headquarters next. Tracking the cold and calculating Harrison on Kronos, who intends to attack the Klingon population, Kirk, Spock, and Uhura (Zoë Saldana) are told by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller of "RoboCop" fame) to hunt and capture him. Could the Enterprise crew (as well as all of mankind) be doomed? Vendettas are sought and sacrifices are made.

Abrams and returning screenwriters Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, along with producer and Abrams' "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelof, boldly go further with the revived series, pushing forward with true vitality, more characterization, and high stakes. The action set-pieces are spectacularly executed with wonder and fluidity, Kirk's helmet-cracking, debris-passing trip through outer space to another spacecraft being a tightly edited thrill. Also, from the overhead shots of futuristic cityscapes to the canted angles aboard the ship, Daniel Mindel's cinematography is both impressively beautiful and weighty, as if no computer enhancement was used in post. Not only that, but not a single character is neglected and the existence of baddie John Harrison brings a darkly relatable 9/11 parallelism to this universe.

The speckless cast reassumes every role position. Pine has fully grown into Kirk; again, he makes the role his own without channeling William Shatner and a deeply felt arc from hotheaded cowboy to responsible, selfless captain. Simply put, Quinto was put on this Earth to don pointy ears and play Spock, bringing forth a transitional resonance to the half-human, half-Vulcan. Their likable supporting crew returns, with Saldana sliding back in with grace and spunk as Uhura, straining to get emotion out of her romantic other half; Urban continues to ham up his funnily short-tempered "Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a…" quips and eyebrow-raising as Bones; and Simon Pegg has a more integral part besides lively comic relief as Scotty with his little alien buddy Keenser (Deep Roy) in tow. John Cho and Anton Yelchin as Sulu and Chekov, respectively, may get the least to do but that doesn't mean they don't make their individual moments count, especially when one of them gets his chance to shine as a sub in the captain's chair. Additionally, the comely Alice Eve is a welcome female newcomer as scientist Carol Marcus. As John Harrison, the icy-eyed Cumberbatch doesn't need the Mike Tyson face paint to be deliciously evil, like the preceding film's Nero (Eric Bana), making a villain who's a cunning and menacing force to be reckoned with. At one point, Harrison is imprisoned on the ship behind bulletproof glass, not unlike Hannibal Lecter being interviewed from his cell. Sinister while also tearing up as he relates his motivation, Cumberbatch never plays Harrison for camp nor pigeonholes him as a standard-issue Big Bad.

Canon purists will find plenty to scrutinize in terms of kept-secret plot points that play with the archival mythology of yesteryear, but Abrams and his triad of writers avoid Hollywood convolution (but perhaps not deus ex machinas) with an expertly crafted narrative and a surprising amount of character intimacy. This being the twelfth installment under the moniker and second in its restarted trilogy, it fills one with amazement to find an enterprise that doesn't bottom out. Without being dumb, loud, overstuffed, or all the above, "Star Trek Into Darkness" is already the cream of the crop for this year's summer tentpoles. Bring on another five-year mission!

Grade: A -