Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Solid Snikt: "Wolverine" makes Jackman's solo count

The Wolverine (2013)
126 min., rated PG-13.

Origin-story fatigue in superhero movies has certainly set in, but when the "why the tiger has its stripes" setup is all out of the way, Hollywood shovels out the reboots, sequels, and spin-offs. After the first three "X-Men" pictures and the 2011 prequel "X-Men: First Class"—all of which had more than one character to get to—"The Wolverine" would seem to be ho-hum or a mere cash-grab, especially following 2009's weak-sauce "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Fortunately, the titular Marvel Comics mutant finally gets his due, Hugh Jackman playing the clawed, mutton-chopped lone wolf for the sixth time, and it's not a case of diminishing returns.

Inspired by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's 1982 comic-book series, the script from screenwriters Mark Bomback (the "Total Recall" remake) and Scott Frank ("Marley & Me") chronologically picks up after 2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand." When we first meet up with Logan (Jackman), he's living a hermit's life in the Yukon wilderness, experiencing nightmares that have left him reeling from having to kill his true love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and surviving a nuclear blast at a POW camp in Nagasaki. He lives on whiskey and avenges a bear's death on hunters, but doesn't want to be a soldier anymore. That is before being located by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a cherry-haired, sword-fighting Japanese mutant who can forsee people's deaths, on behalf of the officer he saved in Nagasaki. With Yukio serving as his bodyguard (not that he needs one), Logan travels to Japan to find the former officer-turned-billionaire inventor, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), on his death bed, hoping to repay him. Yashida offers Logan mortality—that way he can stop mourning and join Jean in the afterlife—but after samurai ninjas, yakuza, and Viper enter the picture, the Wolverine ends up protecting Yashida's heiress granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto).

Directed with efficiency by James Mangold (the underrated "Knight and Day"), "The Wolverine" is a good change of pace, more scaled-back and elegiac in approach, and makes for sure-footed production design with its Japan setting. Except for one exhilarating, awesomely staged fight on top of a bullet train moving at 300 mph being a cool high point, it's not high-octane all the time, so one should approach with few expectations and preconceived notions. And, so many superhero movies reek of desperation in trying to be a "thinking man's" revamp along the lines of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, most recently this summer's self-serious "Man of Steel"; this one, however, is a far less ponderous and somber beast. The final third succumbs to the kind of standard comic-book showdown fanboys will be gearing up for, with a silly, arbitrary "unmasking" in store, but it's still lively and fun in a contained sort of way, not to mention bereft of the de rigueur mindless destruction of an entire city or the planet. Also, it's about time some blood is shed in a PG-13 movie.

Jackman has the role of Logan/Wolverine down to a science and commits 100%, not only physically but emotionally as well. He grunts and flexes his ripped muscles, while retracting his claws, and taps into the character's brooding and painful emotional baggage. We get to see what makes Logan so tormented and conflicted, especially when he is temporarily robbed of his self-healing powers and has the choice to trade out his immortality. Holding their own against the formidable Jackman is an international cast, including models Fukushima, a sweet, kick-ass addition as the anime-influenced Mariko, and Okamoto, who has an equal grace and toughness about her as Mariko. Though she ends up being a more auxiliary villain, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a nurse/toxicologist with a mutant's poison tongue, reminds too much of Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy in the 1997 fiasco "Batman & Robin" and not in a good way. Russian actress Khodchenkova is seductive, slinking around in campy get-ups, but she screams model rather than menacing villainess.

It's pleasing to find a superhero movie with stand-alone value. Sure, you should wait for the obligatory cherry on top of a mid-end credits stinger (which will elate fanboys and get them talking), but the film itself is not a false start or mere set-up for 2014's "X-Men: Days of Future Past." "The Wolverine" might not be nearly as emotionally engaging as any of the entries in the "X-Men" canon, but it's leaps and bounds better than Wolverine's previous solo adventure, plus it's perfectly entertaining.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" content to be dumb and not much fun

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)
110 min., rated PG-13.

If the silly, bombastic film adaptation of the 1980s Hasbro toy property, 2009's "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra," proved to be forgettably junky hardware, there's a good chance the next installment probably wasn't going to turn things around. Four years later, here we are with "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," a sequel of sorts, directed by Jon M. Chu ("Step Up 3D"), that doesn't pretend to be anything it's not and never lacks noise, ridiculous macho posturing, rah-rah heroism, and stuff getting blown up. Originally, the movie was scheduled to come out last summer before Paramount Pictures pulled it and delayed its release to add a 3-D post-conversion and add more scenes with Channing Tatum. As it turns out, a later release date didn't make a load of difference in not making "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" a pseudo-exciting bucket of nothing.

That little thing called "story" isn't really worth deciphering, but, since screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who are far from their clever strokes in "Zombieland") had a hand in scribbling out a script, here goes! The elite military unit of G.I. Joes, headed by Duke (Tatum) and Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), is called into action when the Pakistani president is killed and his country's warheads are hijacked. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the soldiers, the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) has been locked up in a bomb shelter and replaced in disguise by Zartan (also Pryce), who's part of enemy terrorist group Cobra. Once the Joes are ambushed, the only survivors are Roadblock, Flint (D.J. Cotrona), and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), who, of course, must ruin Zartan's nefarious plans for world domination with a dangerous weapon. Also, Snake Eyes (Ray Park), Jinx (Elodie Yung), and the ripped Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) are there for back-up.

There's really not a whole lot to say about such a big, dumb, overblown live-action cartoon as a "G.I. Joe" movie. As inherently goofy and cartoonish as it all is, people actually die and we should probably be caring. (This might be one of the most violent PG-13 movies without a drop of blood being seen.) For the initiated who are somehow invested in these characters for no reason other than nostalgia, it may deliver as a lobotomized Happy Meal of a movie. For everyone else who actually likes to care about what's happening on the screen in front of them, "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" is a lot of senseless filler sandwiched in and around one impressive action set-piece. Fast-forward to the midpoint of 110 minutes and you have a muscular, spectacularly choreographed sequence set in the Himalayas, where zip-lining ninjas Snake Eyes and Jinx try transporting Storm Shadow's enclosed body while fending off other ninjas on a mountain. It's over in about five minutes, ending with an avalanche, and nothing else ever tops it, "uncanny valley" be damned.

Let's just say nobody is here to challenge themselves artistically. Tatum checks out early (spoiler alert!), and he's better for it, considering he's been off making better projects worthy of his magnetism and now-tested skills as an actor. At least he gets to share likable buddy-comedy rapport in the early going with Johnson, who's been called in lately to reinvigorate franchises. He can do this sort of beefcake action-hero thing in his sleep by perspiring in tight T-shirts and sweating charisma. As newbie Joes, Cotrona shows as much personality as a daytime soap actor and Palicki is a gorgeous specimen. Pryce hams it up as the evil clone of POTUS, as does Walton Goggins as an underground prison warden. There's also time for RZA to show up as "Blind Master," once again proving he should really stick to hip hop. Finally, Bruce Willis was most likely driven by a big, fat paycheck but throws in some cheeky wisecracks as the Original Joe, General Colton, a retired soldier who gets re-enlisted.

Aside from the Himalayas-set sequence, the action is competent but distressingly lacking in excitement and ingenuity. The flashes of cute, knowing humor are few and far between. The only real interest—and unintentional amusement—is in how Lady Jaye deducts that the Commander in Chief is an impostor from the ways he used to clasp his hands to now and his vernacular use of "supper" over "dinner" and "pop" over "soda." On balance, this mindless folly is unequivocally critic-proof; you already know whether or not this is your cup of java. If you enjoyed banging together your dolls—er, action figures as a kid, "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" bangs your head around all right, but it's much less fun.

Grade: C - 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Final Destination: Poignant, beautifully well-acted "Fruitvale Station" leaves you shaken and stirred

Fruitvale Station (2013)
90 min., rated R.

"Fruitvale Station," the incendiary feature debut of writer-director Ryan Coogler, is made with such burning passion that it pays due respect to the real-life central character, Oscar Grant III, and illuminates how real and timely injustice is in this society. At 2:15 a.m. on January 1, 2009 in Oakland, Calif., an unarmed 22-year-old black man was handcuffed on the metro platform of Fruitvale BART Station after ringing in the new year and then shot by a police officer. Oscar later died, leaving behind a life he was just starting and beginning to turn around for the better.

Even as it's building to an upsetting, heartbreaking predestined conclusion and felt in the base of one's stomach—the film opens with actual cell phone footage of Oscar being shot—"Fruitvale Station" turns back time, unfolding as a day-in-the-life snapshot of Oscar's life on New Year's Eve, his last full day on earth. A year before, Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) did time for drug dealing, receiving tough love from his concerned mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), who was fed up visiting her son and having to tell his four-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), why Daddy was always on "vacation." On December 31, 2008, his "day off," Oscar takes Tatiana to preschool and drops off his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), at work. He goes to the grocery store, picking up some crabs for his mother's birthday dinner, giving fish-fry advice to a stranger (Ahna O'Reilly), but also trying to get his job back after showing up late so many times. Making it his resolution to quit "selling trees," he's tempted to sell a bag of weed but dumps it out. After Wanda's birthday dinner, Oscar, Sophina, and friends take the train—as suggested by Wanda—to San Francisco for the New Year countdown and to celebrate with fireworks. Alas, on their way back home, a scuffle breaks out on the train with a former inmate and the unarmed Oscar, along with three of his friends, is detained by the transit police before one of the cops mistakes his gun for a taser. 

Grittily and realistically photographed by Rachel Morrison with a fly-on-the-wall docudrama approach, "Fruitvale Station" is vivid and compelling alone as a slice-of-life leading up to the fateful moment. Oscar spends his day running mundane errands and making moral decisions to shape a more honest life for himself. Writer-director Coogler should be commended for not deifying Oscar as a martyr or whitewashing any of his human flaws. He's not a saint—Sophina has been lied to about Oscar fooling around behind her back and being fired from his job—but he's doing the best he can. With Coogler dramatizing a seemingly ordinary day, a few moments of narrative foreshadowing don't ring as true as others but act more as needless punctuation marks than major flaws that would blunt or detract from the film's cumulative aftereffect. While pumping gas, Oscar tends to an injured stray dog. Before getting on the train home after the fireworks, he chitchats with a man who once had nothing and earned a dishonest living to get where he is but is now successful with a baby on the way. Oscar's last moment with Tatiana would have been enough, as he promises to play Candy Land in the morning and take her to Chuck E. Cheese's. The climactic Fruitvale Station-set maelstrom is intensely emotional and the final shot, where Sophina doesn't even know how to answer little Tatiana's question, is simply poignant.

Deserving of accolades and star status, Jordan disappears so convincingly into the role of Oscar. With street swagger, a simmering temper, devotion to his friends and family, and love for his girlfriend and daughter, Oscar is fairly humanized as a real, complex, sympathetic, and three-dimensional person. Jordan creates a likable, compassionate, and gregarious young man, warts and all, and makes his relationship with Tatiana (due in no small part to a genuine Ariana Neal) sweet, moving, and completely lived-in. The film would work alone with Jordan's top-tier work, but the actresses playing the two adult women in his life are strong as well. Spencer is nothing short of dynamite, her final scene especially shattering, and Diaz does some of her rawest work as Sophina, who has fire in her but deeply puts her trust in Oscar. There isn't a false emotion in the performances.

"Fruitvale Station," which has already won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, not only serves as a blood-boiling conversation starter but a vital, unforgettable picture of our time and an authentic, empathetic, fair-minded account of the fragility of life. Without falling back on manipulative melodrama or turning the story into an angry political screed, Coogler delivers a riveting, hard-hitting gut-punch, its powerful impact staying with you like most tragedies do. The fact that Oscar was not a fictionalized character adds extra resonance, and now that the film's release has come around the month of George Zimmerman's trial verdict for killing the unarmed Trayvon Martin, "Fruitvale Station" stings even closer to home.


Friday, July 26, 2013

John Hughes with 'Finger-Blasting': "The To Do List" not a total score but enough dirty fun

The To Do List (2013)
103 min., rated R.

There's something less smarmy and more liberating about the idea of girls thinking about sex as much as the guys—and one-upping them on the humiliation scale when going on their sexual journey. The writing-directing feature debut of short and documentary filmmaker Maggie Carey, "The To Do List," a cheerfully risqué R-rated teen sex comedy, like the 1999 summer sleeper hit "American Pie," luckily hits that sweet spot between good-natured and raunchy. It has the spirit of a John Hughes film but with "finger-blasting, -bombing, and -banging," and, without a doubt, should embarrass curious teens who make the poor decision of dragging their parents along.

The sardonic Aubrey Plaza is such an original presence, having her deadpan, awkward comedic shtick down pat but also capable of carrying an indie charmer like 2012's "Safety Not Guaranteed" and owning her supporting role on NBC's "Parks and Recreation." Here, she trades her sarcasm for gullibility and inexperience as Brandy Klark, a bookish 18-year-old goody-goody who's just graduated high school as the class valedictorian in 1993, Boise, Idaho. Dragged to a kegger and then setting her eyes on chiseled, surfer-haired college stud Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), she pledges to take charge of her sexuality and lose her V-card before heading off to Georgetown University. So, with some tips from her two best friends, Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), and mocking, much-experienced older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson), Brandy makes a list in her trapper-keeper of all the sexual deeds she intends to check off before getting laid by her crush. Being around Rusty won't be hard since they both work as lifeguards at the community pool, along with her nicey-nice study buddy Cameron (Johnny Simmons), who has secretly been pining for her all this time. If Brandy can get straight A's in school, she can surely ace sex, right? In the end, she will learn that sex isn't that big of a deal, unless it's with someone you care about.

A piquant mix of saucy wit and a sexual frankness that's refreshing for a mainstream comedy as it is educational, "The To Do List" mostly avoids going for the easy gross-out gag every time (listen up, "Grown Ups 2"). For every joke that doesn't quite land (there's a strained "Caddyshack"-style moment in the pool), many more follow and elicit laughs. Hand jobs, blow jobs, cunnilingus, and dry humping are all integral to Brandy moving down her to-do list, and none of the acts are executed without a level of gone-wrong humiliation. The time period also practically becomes a character itself, with '90s references done to death—skorts, pagers, headbands, electronic mail, "Saved by the Bell," "Growing Pains," "Home Improvement," Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, 2 Live Crew's "Me So Horny" and Salt-N-Pepa's "Let Talk About Sex"—but a lot of fun to spot for nostalgia purposes.

In her first major vehicle, 29-year-old Plaza is engaging to follow as Brandy and pulls off playing a recent high school graduate. The character is naïve but not dumb or overly prudish, even when she thinks a "pearl necklace" sounds elegant. Early on, it seems Brandy is the butt of the joke, but later on, Plaza, in on the joke, is totally game to awaken the heroine's libido. A masturbation scene in her day-of-the-week undies and a Hillary Clinton T-shirt might be as uncomfortably shocking as seeing Jason Biggs hump a pie for the first time. Every other actor in the inspired cast gets his or her moment and line, too. The invaluable Shawkat and Steele are sprightly back-up as Brandy's gal pals, the former dying to watch "Beaches" on VHS and sob into tissues with her friends. Porter is a perfect choice as Brandy's dream adonis and Bilson surprises with some comedic chops as Brandy's Big Sis. Bill Hader (who happens to be writer-director Carey's husband) is his Bill Murray-ish goofball self as perpetually hung-over pool manager Willy who can't swim; he could have easily just been a caricature but the character is a sad, sensitive soul at heart. Connie Britton is an amusing counterpoint to Clark Gregg, playing Brandy's lube-giving mother to her uptight judge father who hand out night-and-day nuggets of advice on intercourse. Andy Samberg also gives his requisite cameo as a grunge band vocalist.

Writer-director Carey displays a buoyancy in setting up episodic comedic situations and less so when it comes to moralizing and wrapping everything up. About as sloppy as Brandy going about her own sexcapades, "The To Do List" is still fun and funny enough to be the smuttier sister to "Easy A." In the ranks of the time-honored teen comedy, it doesn't go to the bases of that terrifically sharp and genuinely lovable Emma Stone vehicle, but, for a first-time watch, bound to become an easy-breezy favorite at slumber parties with sex toys.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Life But Nothing Like It: Confused "Girl Most Likely" falls flat, despite Wiig and likable cast

Girl Most Likely (2013)
103 min., rated PG-13.

It's hard not to root for Kristen Wiig. She's the real deal and seems like she can do no wrong, even when outmatching such confused, undernourished material. In fact, she emerges unscathed all by her lonesome in the indie misfire "Girl Most Likely," a slack cocktail of soul-searching and comedic situations that doesn't shake too well. It's occasionally broad and amusingly low-key, but not funny enough, and full of would-be drama, but not emotionally honest enough to register as much of anything beyond a 90-plus-minute sitcom. Husband-and-wife directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who have been out of touch (2007's "The Nanny Diaries" and 2010's "The Extra Man") since 2003's wonderful "American Splendor," have no problem assembling a heaven-made cast for a comfy little indie, but the script by Michelle Morgan is unfocused beyond belief, packing in so much filler that we lose sight of what's even at stake.

Formerly titled "Imogene," the film follows Imogene Duncan (Wiig), a luckless, once-promising playwright whose Manhattan life is one big hang-up after she stopped producing plays and fills it with superficial socialite "friends" (including June Diane Raphael and Mickey Sumner). Her one-two punch includes being dumped by her self-absorbed Dutch boyfriend and then being promptly fired from her magazine job as a play blurb writer. Reeling from these setbacks, Imogene writes an exquisitely written suicide note and stages her last breath in hopes of getting her man back. Naturally, the last person she wants assuming responsibility for her safety after waking up in the hospital is her estranged mother, Zelda (Annette Bening), a compulsive gambler from Atlantic City. Going back to her Garden State roots, Imogene finds her mother has a suspect live-in boyfriend (Matt Dillon); realizes her painfully awkward, stunted brother, Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), won't go further than the boardwalk where he sells mollusks; and finds hunky boarder Lee (Darren Criss) living in her old room.  The crux of the plot takes place when Zelda reveals that her children's father isn't really dead, making Imogene want to get back to Manhattan even more. Will our little Imogene learn that one can go home again in order to find success?

Building her wheelhouse out of playing sadsacks on the verge of a mental breakdown after "Bridesmaids," Kristen Wiig is her usual irresistible, relatable presence. As Imogene, she is more than capable of selling a sympathetic heroine, even when she's desperate and has a meltdown after every high-pressure situation. The actress can turn lemons into lemonade, like material that has Imogene holding a petty grudge against her mother who would force her daughter to share a birthday party with Ralph as a kid. Luckily, Wiig gets to throw off funny, underplayed asides here and there, and then she's game to show her adorably dorky side when walking through a casino in a hospital gown and sporting a '90s denim vest, which she digs out from high school, to go out partying with Lee and his friends.

The rest of the cast does what it can but is mostly hung out to dry. Annette Bening is a sparky hoot, doing the wacky, tacky Jersey shtick well enough for what's there on the page, but she's surprisingly pushed to the sidelines for much of the film that mending the Imogene-Zelda relationship feels like an afterthought. Matt Dillon is slightly amusing but struggles with little to do, except be made the joke because of his obviously fake name, "George Bush" (pronounced "Bousche"), and claiming to be in the C.I.A. and favor samurai traditions. "Glee" star Darren Criss has a natural charisma in his first major feature role. Once being the leader of the Warblers on the small screen, the multi-talented actor also gets to utilize his pipes as a tribute impersonator of the Backstreet Boys. Christopher Fitzgerald also comes the closest to registering as a sweet, interesting character as Ralph, whose crab-like shell he invented will come in handy at some point. It's also nice to see Natasha Lyonne, as a "glitter expressionist" on the boardwalk, and Bob Balaban, as Imogene and Ralph's estranged father; if only they had more to add.

Blending comedy and drama can be done effectively, but it doesn't work in this case, and the moments that do work are just blips. The tone is just odd and constantly at odds with itself. If this is even a comedy, the pacing and timing are flat, as some jokes just sit there and others have a punchline without any setup (i.e. Imogene asks her mother if she was being spanked last night by her boyfriend). If this is a drama, none of the threads make more than a cursory mark. It's all so inauthentic that its climactic moment involves an international assassin (!) and then trails off into a contrived, formulaic coda, wherein Imogene picks up the pen again to write a Broadway play about her relationship with Zelda. Really? Giving us a glimpse of her play, which casts Julia Stiles and Andrea Martin as Imogene and Zelda, is more inspired than anything else. And there's no use in splitting hairs, but since when does one pump their own gas in New Jersey? While Imogene is forced to plod her way to self-discovery by the film's conclusion, "Girl Most Likely" never finds itself, while sending out mixed messages that her family of Jerseyites is kooky and dysfunctional but supposed to be lovable. The one silver lining is that Wiig, Criss, and company make the script more palatable than it should be and will surely produce better work when the material is more worthwhile. This, too, shall pass.

Grade:  C 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Summer Breeze: "The Way Way Back" trods through familiar material with great cast, charm, humor, and heart

The Way Way Back (2013)
103 min., rated PG-13.

Coming-of-age stories, set during "the summer that changed everything," are a dime a dozen, but that doesn't stop screenwriting partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won an Oscar for their script of 2011's "The Descendants") from making "The Way Way Back" an entirely likable and satisfying crowd-pleaser. Marked as the co-writers' first time at the directing bat, this indie slice-of-life dramedy set during summer vacation might just be the sleeper hit of the summer. It may not break an inch of new ground, but it doesn't have to when the results are so wise, sweet-natured, and timelessly true. 

14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) is a sullen, introverted, unassuming wallflower experiencing some normal teenage angst. His divorced mother, Pam (Toni Collette), drags him along with her insensitive boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), and Trent's catty 16-year-old daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) for a summer at the beach on the New England coast. In an early telling moment of honest, economic characterization, Trent, who's behind the wheel as Pam and Steph are asleep in the car, asks Duncan, who's in the way, way back of the car, where he sees himself on a 1-10 scale. Duncan isn't sure, but Trent, trying to mean well, thinks of his girlfriend's son as a 3. Arriving at Trent's beach house, Pam becomes acquainted with his party-animal friends, couple Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet), while Duncan sneaks out of the house on a pink girl's bike he finds in the garage and goes exploring. Soon, he finds an outlet in the town's rundown water park called Water Wizz and falls under the wing of ne'er-do-well manager Owen (Sam Rockwell), who brings the kid into the park's family and allows Duncan to come out of his shell a bit. He even finds the guts to hang out with the girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).

For Faxon and Rash's directorial debut, the film is safe and sunny. Pure formula, to the point that it shares an amusement park setting, a summery feel, and a male virgin's point-of-view with 2009's "Adventureland," it hits most of the familiar beats at an amiably loose pace. Every bit of this is a sure thing, but every unsurprising observation and plot point is fresh enough and wrapped up less tidily than most; we're left more with hope than total closure by its simple but affecting final shot. The mainstream sensibility of "The Way Way Back" comes out in a throughline involving a race in a covered water slide that begins as comic hijinks and ends as a fun farewell, something that any kid Duncan's age might try one summer. Much more effective is when a certain character's infidelity is aired out at a beach party. While it's staged as something that only ever happens in the movies (every extra stops to watch the big scene), there's a tender, painful truth to how the emotions play out and how authentic they feel.

Duncan—and Liam James—is the film's heart. Looking like one face with Patrick Fugit and reminding one of Logan Lerman from last year's beloved "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," James is so naturally engaging and relatable in portraying Duncan's timid, awkward phase that, though he might be closed-off from his family, he immediately warms to the viewer from the first scene. Carell proves he can stretch his acting muscles and not always win over his audiences. As Trent, he plays the character as much as an unlikable, unsympathetic jerk without feeling like any less of a human being. Collette, reteaming with Carell as lovers instead of siblings in "Little Miss Sunshine," never has a misstep and is just as wonderful here. As Pam, she essays a divorced woman who's loving and accepting but not without a backbone.

All of the performances are effortlessly well-tuned by an exceptional ensemble, but Rockwell steals the entire film. As Water Fizz's jokey manager and underground mayor Owen, the actor is hilariously glib, loose, and charming. Owen might have a case of arrested development but he's really just a big kid who has no problem protecting his younger friends. The other prize-winner is Allison Janney. She's sinfully funny as Betty, the kind of busybodied, perpetually boozy neighbor who talks everyone's ear off and never thinks it's too early to have a cocktail. The boisterous character very easily could have drifted into caricature but never does under Janney's care and her contagious laugh. The always-appealing Robb, as Betty's daughter Susanna, could be any young boy's crush who's brighter and cooler than any popular mean girl. Maya Rudolph is her usual terrific self here, playing Caitlyn, Water Wizz's more responsible operator and Owen's sort-of girlfriend who has prolonged her employment there to give him a chance. The directors also give themselves supporting roles as goofy Water Wizz employees with their own little quirks.

With a film this winning in its mixture of humor, marshmallow-roasting nostalgia, and pathos, it's hard to quibble, even when a "water-gun fight" gets thrown in to take the place of the obligatory food fight. Something of a small miracle, "The Way Way Back" is such a refreshing, smartly enjoyable reprieve from the summer movie season's barrage of superhero fare and big-budget blockbusters that you feel blue when it must come to an end. Just when you thought they couldn't make movies like they used to, this summery little pleasantry gives one hope. It's like a ray of sunshine with a shade of wistfulness.

Grade: B +

Monday, July 22, 2013

Vengeful Staring Contest: "Only God Forgives" a hyper-stylized exercise with punch

Only God Forgives (2013) 
89 min., rated R. 

"Only God Forgives" makes room for comparison to 2011's "Drive," being the follow-up to that earlier film's match made in heaven with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, actor Ryan Gosling, and, for that matter, composer Cliff Martinez. While many were let down that the first Refn-Gosling effort didn't move at hyper-speed and didn't offer more car racing, it was a one-of-a-kind work of pop art. Naysayers and even disciples of that comparatively mainstream picture aren't even going to know how to respond to "Only God Forgives," which is much more experimental in style and even more mercilessly violent but still a mesmerizing experience no matter how you slice it.

Gosling has always taken more chances than most charming, studly actors out of Hollywood but, now more than ever, he's making more artfully bold, Marlon Brando-esque choices. His character, Julian, could be kindred spirits with Driver from "Drive," speaking even fewer words. In Bangkok, he runs a Muay Thai boxing hall as a front for his drug ring with reprehensible older brother Billy (Tom Burke), who rapes and kills an underage prostitute. Corrupt Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) pursues justice by getting the prostitute's father to kill Billy and then kills the father himself with a samurai sword, which comes scraping out of his backside on more than one occasion. When Billy and Julian's wicked, trade-managing mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), flies in from Florida, she wants her son's killer dead and she wants Julian to do her bidding.

A revenge story stripped down to its barest essentials, "Only God Forgives" is really a piece of nearly silent storytelling told through Refn's own methodical but potent sensory style. In concert, director of photography Larry Smith's lurid cinematography, along with impeccable shot compositions, and Cliff Martinez's pounding synth-heavy score give the picture's seedy Thai underworld a vibrant, dreamy atmosphere in a neon nightmare. Artfully shot and phantasmagorically lighted to the nines, the film has a menacing mood and a sense of portent in every dark, crimson-filtered hallway and pink-tinted lounges. Refn is never lily-livered when it comes to depicting violence with shocking flair, not only lighting it as all get-out but making sure we feel every brutality like a punch to the gut. This is brutally nasty stuff, particularly during Chang's wince-inducing interrogation with hair pins to the sensory organs of one of Crystal's thugs. Get ready to recoil in your seats.

All of the characters are depraved, designed more as abstract ideas than flesh-and-blood people, and most of them have a God complex. An intentional choice or not, it's hard to feel much for anyone or know whom we should be rooting for in the long run. Gosling's work is so internal, bordering on one-note and comatose. Beyond the intensely serious posturing, poker-faced stares, and cracks of anger with a fraction of compassion, Julian is a brooding cipher, an enigmatic shell of a human being whose soul must have been tainted by Mother, but made more magnetic and cool by Gosling. His relationship, such as it is, with his favorite prostitute, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), consists mostly of inexpressive glances and hands between legs. On the other hand, there's more than an implication of oedipal incest between Julian and Crystal—and, based on dialogue, Billy and Crystal, too, for that matter.

Harshly made up around the eyes and donning a bleached blonde wig, Scott Thomas chews up the scenery and spits it out with venom as the unhinged, lewd-mouthed, and casually cruel mother Crystal, who believes favorite son Billy had "his reasons." In a deliciously vampy performance, she devilishly owns all of her scenes, especially when checking into her hotel and letting the front desk girl have it and then having no problem bringing up Julian's "shortcomings" over dinner with Mai. Credit must also be given to Pansringarm: he has total command of the screen, oozing bona fide intimidation even as he walks slowly in an upright position. There's also a welcome degree of absurdity when Chang frequents a karaoke club and sings love songs to a catatonic audience of fellow police officers.

The pairing of Refn and Gosling is intriguing enough to desire more from them. What they pulled off with "Drive" was electrifying and undeniably lyrical, even when punctuated by its bursts of pulpy noir savagery. Nowhere near as rich in power as its spiritual predecessor, "Only God Forgives" still shouldn't be denounced as meretricious rubbish. A work of hypnotic style over cut-and-dried content can't be denied of wearing Kubrickian and Lynchian influences on its sleeve, but is it ever a forceful, aesthetically stylish piece of filmmaking that plays like a haunting, hyper-violent opera.


Friday, July 19, 2013

The Harrisville Horror: Retro-fashioned "Conjuring" atmospheric and hair-raisingly scary

The Conjuring (2013)
112 min., rated R.

Understand this: a film purporting to be "based on a true story" is not a new marketing ploy nor does it automatically make the experience much more horrifying. It didn't help "The Amityville Horror," but "The Conjuring," the latest entry in the wear-and-tear supernatural subgenre, is so scary that it doesn't even need that gratuitous tag, just an R-rating. Cutting his teeth on "Saw" (the 2004 original, not the second or the seventh), proving ventriloquist's dummies to be creepy again in 2007's "Dead Silence," and then mastering a scary funhouse out of 2011's "Insidious," director James Wan is already on his way to become a contemporary virtuoso in the horror genre. This time, "The Conjuring," a classically crafted, ruthlessly spooky, and retro-fashioned fright film that looks and feels like a child of the 1970s, remembers it's scarier not to always see what's going bump in the night. 

Based on the most malevolent case of Connecticut married couple Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who work as demonologists/paranormal investigators, the film centers around the Perron family in 1971. Truck-driving husband Roger (Ron Livingston) and wife Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) move their five girls to an old, spacious farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island. Over the first few days, Carolyn notices every clock stopping at 3:07 and wakes up each morning with a new bruise that she suspects is an iron deficiency; the girls complain about a rancid odor; and a closet reveals to be a boarded-up cellar. Soon, Carolyn and the daughters are all equal opportunity for a haunting, so she contacts the Warrens. Upon entering the house, the clairvoyant Lorraine knows something awful happened there. A previous exorcism took a toll on her, but from a mother to a mother, she hopes to rid the Perron family of the dark, hateful entity that has latched onto them. The first two demonic stages—"infestation" and "oppression"—are down; now "possession" to go.

With refreshing attention to characters and a slow-simmering pace, "The Conjuring" breathes new life into what otherwise could have been an empty series of door-slamming genre beats, foley effects, and jump scares. From the prologue involving the Warrens' earlier case with a possessed doll named Annabelle haunting two young nurses, to the deliciously retro title scroll, and its overall preference for practical effects and trick photography over CG overload, James Wan conjures up an old-school, pleasingly freaky mid-summer treat that's not about splatter or a body count. It's for those looking to clinch their armrests and have one's heart jump into his or her throat instead of look away in disgust. Twin screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes combine the Warrens' relationship with the haunting at hand, also addressing why the Perrons don't just leave their house in a simple piece of dialogue. Including an inspired game of hide-and-clap, eye-covering business with the spiraling mirror of a twinkly music box and a spectral playmate named "Rory," and startlingly well-timed moments separately with a bedroom door, a bouncy ball and an old wardrobe, there is an equally intense and restrained smorgasbord of creeping dread and jump-out-of-your-skin jolts holding you in anticipation, as well as a rumbling soundtrack made for a theater sound system. John R. Leonetti's autumnal and atmospheric cinematography has plenty of slow zooms and stylish camera movements (love that under-the-bed shot); production and costume design (by Julie Berghoff and Kristin M. Burke, respectively) are top-shelf for any genre; and there's added period flavor with The Zombies' "Time of the Season" and Dead Man's Bones' "In the Room Where You Sleep."

Every character is more than just bait for a scare and it helps a reliable cast has been assembled and that performances are so strong. Indie actress Lili Taylor, who has experience with hauntings in the blah 1999 remake "The Haunting," is immediately sympathetic and moving as Carolyn, whose most wonderful memory is being on the beach with her family. She's also quite the trooper when Carolyn must go through the wringer. Ron Livingston gets off scot-free as far as the hauntings go, but he's convincing as a father and husband type. As all five daughters, Shanley Caswell (Andrea), Hayley McFarland (Nancy), Joey King (Christine), Mackenzie Foy (Cindy), and Kyla Deaver (April) make up a likable and believable brood. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, especially, go above and beyond the call of ghostbuster duty as Ed and Lorraine, who have a daughter of their own named Judy (Sterling Jerins) and truly want to help Carolyn and her family. 

Filmaker James Wan's latest bid for homelessness might not offer the same level of nightmarish set pieces that still linger in the mind as "Insidious," but it's quite dependable in giving shivers to even well-versed genre fans. Conversely, it's more of a complete film if you take the "it's not over" conclusion of "Insidious" and remember that there's a sequel due out in September. As the late, great Roger Ebert said, "It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it," and that's exactly right. "The Conjuring" should feel creaky and oh-so-familiar after so many haunted house movies have come down the pike, but this is the genuine article, the fun, hair-raising, and well-made kind that makes you appreciate daylight. Try sleeping tight after this one.

Grade: A - 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Stallone dodges bullet but "Bullet to the Head" average at most

Bullet to the Head (2013)
92 min., rated R.

For all intents and purposes, January and now February must be the months of "I Love the '80s" nostalgia for action dinosaurs Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. While the former's "The Last Stand" was a decently fun B-movie, the latter fares less successfully. Hanging onto the longing of Stallone as a macho, leather-skinned action star, "Bullet to the Head" is a no-nonsense retro action throwback, unapologetically violent as it's allowed to be but ever so drab and really quite average. Beyond the name value of Sly and director Walter Hill (responsible for "The Warriors" and "48 Hrs."), it leaves as much of an impression as any direct-to-DVD release starring Steven Seagal.

Stallone plays New Orleans contract killer Jimmy Bonomoor, just "Bobo" for shortwho lives in the swamp, has been arrested 26 times, and only drinks Bulleit bourbon. He's out for revenge once being double-crossed and partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda) is killed at a bayou bar by psychotic mercenary Keegan (Jason Momoa), who's actually a lackey for another bad guy (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Korean-American Detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang from the "Fast and the Furious" movies) comes to town from Washington, D.C., after Bobo's hit on a cop-turned-cokehead (Holt McCallany) and forms an unlikely alliance with the grumpy hitman.

"Bullet to the Head," based on the French graphic novel "Du plomb dans la tête" and adapted by Alessandro Camon, is standard-issue in its writing (enough with the real estate schemes and a desired flash drive!) and the action serviceable. It all comes down to Bobo hunting down colorful, one-dimensional bad guys and taking them out. The protagonist is a pretty scuzzy anti-hero, even if he's nice enough to spare the lives of hookers ("No women, no children" happens to be his motto). Just because Bobo is played by Stallone doesn't mean one can just set aside the character's void of redeeming qualities and root for him. As for the hand-to-hand fights, director Hill tries getting with the times, chopping shots into itty-bitty pieces so the action enervates rather than thrills. A lively, brutally unchained showdown in a warehouse with axes between Bobo and Keegan is a highlight, but not much in the previous 80 minutes justifies waiting around for 4 minutes in the last 12. Also, to the credit of Hill and cinematographer Lloyd Ahern, there is a seamy, rough-and-tumble look that feels stained on the screen.

Truth be told, "Bobo" is a silly name and 66-year-old Stallone is long past his heyday, but he's still a freakishly ripped badass, spouting off tongue-in-cheek one-liners and doing most of the licking. He and appealing co-star Kang trade some barbs, most of them clangy, and their mismatched-buddy chemistry lacks spark. Christian Slater (remember him?) rips up the scenery a bit as a sleazy lawyer, and Momoa has a hulking presence and makes enough threatening, stone-cold stares to come off better here than he did as the lead in the "Conan the Barbarian" remake. Sarah Shahi handles herself fine as Bobo's daughter Lisa, a tattoo parlor artist, but the character is written solely as a plot point and a pretty piece of collateral to be kidnapped.

Without ever being a complete turkey, "Bullet to the Head" is a no-frills time-waster but not much fun. If it does one thing right, it delivers what it says on the tin. Right out of the gate, a bullet comes thrashing through the Warner Bros. and Dark Castle logos, and then most characters meet their maker with something to their noggin. Diehard loyalists might cut this trashy action quickie some slack solely based on Sly.