Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ending with a Buzz: "World's End" a boisterously funny, genre-smashing, bittersweet blast

The World's End (2013) 
109 min., rated R.

As a general rule, a comedy doesn't have to be a "Young Frankenstein" or an "Airplane!" as long as it makes one laugh. Give it time and "The World's End" could join those ranks, as it delivers a das boot of howls and belly laughs. In writer-director Edgar Wright (2010's endlessly clever and exuberant "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"), actor/co-writer Simon Pegg, and co-star Nick Frost's "Three Flavours Cornetto" trilogyeach connected by an ice cream flavour—this is the final entry, succeeded by 2004's "Shaun of the Dead" and 2007's "Hot Fuzz," where slackers are bombarded by some horrific force. The previous Wright-Pegg-Frost collaborations, first a satire of zombie movies with romantic-comedy elements and then one of action flicks mixed with a horror whodunit, were both irresistibly witty, knowing, and cleverly genre-busting. Of the three, their latest is Wright's most fully realized film with a surprising melancholy underneath all the Monty Pythonian funny stuff, but comparing it to its loose predecessors is impossible because the trio never seems to have a shortage of full-bodied laughs.

An equally profane and madcap cousin to "This Is the End" from across the pond, this British-humored film takes on the apocalyptic sci-fi genre with a wise assessment of the human condition. Wanting nothing more than to have a good time, Gary King (Simon Pegg) reminisces about old times, chiefly twenty years ago when he and his four pals—car dealer Peter (Eddie Marsan), tail-chasing Steven (Paddy Considine), bluetooth-wearing Oliver (Martin Freeman), and lawyer Andy (Nick Frost), who's Gary's resentful, erstwhile closest friend—lived in the village of Newton Haven but were never able to finish "The Golden Mile," a 12-pint pub crawl to 12 pubs that ends with The World's End. Now 40 years old and still dressed as a goth punk and driving his car nicknamed "The Beast," the unreliable, irresponsible Gary gets the band back together to paint the town red. The other four have moved on with their lives, but their leader hasn't changed one bit, as he hangs onto the time he peaked and has nothing else to live for. But, as they make their way from The First Post to The Famous Cock and so on, Gary and his mates realize Newton Haven, now full of blue-blooded beings, hasn't only changed but it's as strange and conformist as Stepford. The end may be nigh, but Gary isn't about to spill his pint — all twelve of them.

Cracklingly written and furiously paced, "The World's End" gets off to such a zippy start you'll want a remote control to rewind and catch each rapid-fire joke and one-liner. It may take a while getting to the crux of the plot, but it's more than just a great drinking lark with your closest pals (though it is that, too). Once again, director Wright shows a nimble hand at smashing through genres, while using laughs as a front for a sadness and youthful longing underneath, as well as a rowdy, nostalgic party that turns into mayhem (yes, decapitations ensue). As Peter, Steven, Oliver, and Andy mostly humor their damaged mate to finally conquer "The Golden Mile, Gary can't not live in the past, even when something menacing in their home town throws a wrench in his plans, and we're right there along with them. Even the action, which begins with a crazily violent bathroom brawl, is even more crisply edited, expertly choreographed, and giddily thrilling than most multi-million-dollar tentpoles. An exceptional soundtrack is also on hand with thematically appropriate tracks that include The Doors' "Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)," The Soup Dragons' "I'm Free," and Teenage Fanclub's "What You Do To Me."

If you expect Pegg and Frost to return to the same well playing the straight man and the bumbling clown, your expectations will be overturned here. As abrasive screw-up Gary, Pegg gets the chance to reach a little and show some emotional turmoil. He has a way of making this pathetic man-child likable somehow. Frost is Pegg's wing-man again as Andy but more grounded than normal and sober at first (he orders a pint of water at the first few pubs). It's great seeing a man of his jolly size running at full speed and knocking out "otherworldly" beings like a linebacker. These two resist hewing to the typecasting trap and are surrounded by wholehearted support, with plenty of enjoyable character work to go around. As Oliver's "crumbs!"-spouting sister and Gary/Steven's former love interest Sam, Rosamund Pike doesn't get much of a multidimensional character to work with. However, it is to the film's credit that Sam never becomes a weakling in need of saving but can keep up with the guys, and Pike's bright presence is missed whenever she's gone. 

It's hard to discuss a film that is this much of a wonderfully cheeky, energetic good time without overselling it as the Second Coming. But by being a blast throughout that rewards repeat viewings and is destined to earn a cult following, "The World's End" is this year's comedy to beat. 

Grade:  A -

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Aprile impresses in affecting, hard-hitting "What Maisie Knew"

What Maisie Knew (2013)
98 min., rated R.

Adorable 7-year-old Onata Aprile naturally expresses so much emotion with her innocent, ethereal eyes as Maisie, the neglected young daughter who's always in earshot of her parents' shouting matches. Her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore, sporting dark eye shadow, black nail polish, and forearm tattoos), is a rock star always waiting for the next tour bus. Her father, Beale (Steve Coogan), is a pompous art dealer, having an affair with the twentysomething nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), right under Susanna and Maisie's noses. When Susanna and Beale finally split, Maisie goes to stay with Daddy for a weekend, confused to why Margo is living there, too, but still glad to have Margo around. Thereafter, Susanna gets hitched to a young, good-looking bartender, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård). The other man develops a bond with little Maisie, which only makes Susanna resent him. In the end, Margo and Lincoln look after the little girl more often than her real parents.

There's a good chance the maternal character in Henry James' 1897 novel wasn't a glammed-up rock diva, but by being contemporized 116 years later and transplanted to present-day Manhattan, "What Maisie Knew" feels even more relevant and stingingly perceptive. A child's eye view of divorce could make for standard-issue melodrama ready for the Lifetime network and a depressing proposition, however, directing partners Scott McGehee and David Siegel (2001's "The Deep End" and 2009's "Uncertainty"), working from a screenplay by Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright, get well-pitched performances across the board and are unflinching enough in their story treatment.

Evocatively shot by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, "What Maisie Knew" is told almost entirely from the sensitive vantage point of Maisie, and that's what makes it so unforgettably worthwhile. Despite the title, Maisie clearly doesn't understand every facet of her parents' situation and where she belongs, making it all the more troubling and impactful. Not since Quvenzhané Wallis in 2012's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" has a child newcomer been so remarkably impressive and captivating on screen. Aprile is startlingly talented, standing out among her heavy-hitting elders. Susanna and Beale aren't monsters without a point-of-view; they show their daughter affection and yet, they are negligent, self-involved, and unfit to be parents, to say the least. The mother finally comes to the self-realization that she has put her career first and only visits Maisie when it's convenient for her, while the father isn't much more irresponsible. Moore and Coogan hit all the right, unsparing notes, and Skarsgård makes every scene with his little co-star one to cherish. Scottish TV actress Vanderham, as Margo who finds herself in a tough position time and time again, has a fresh face that one wouldn't mind seeing more of in features.

When it could have been manipulative and mawkish, "What Maisie Knew" comes out emotionally affecting and hard-hitting. While optimistic and a bit pat in the end, it's thankfully never a sunny kids' version of divorce full of Hollywood-movie artifice and schmaltz but powerful in its delicacy. That's not to say it's not a difficult film to watchit's too bad Maisie, or any child, would have to experience neglectbut there is something about the final shot that packs a stirring, hopeful punch. Little Maisie deserves a happy life, no matter who remains as her guardian.

Grade: B +

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Love Drunk: "Spectacular Now" a rare, lovely, honest treasure that actually understands teens

The Spectacular Now (2013) 
95 min., rated R.

In the prevalent coming-of-age subgenre, especially this year with "Mud," "The Kings of Summer," and "The Way Way Back," "The Spectacular Now" is another one, but it has the most vivid resonance of them all. 2013's answer to 1989's "Say Anything…" and even last year's soulful "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," the film will speak to teenagers and adults alike and never panders to either group. This might look like a traipse through heavily familiar territorypolar opposites falling in love, broken homes, and reluctance in one's impending adulthoodbut few films about teenagers that come through the pipeline actually understand them and are as inordinately honest, tender, and acutely observed as this one. Now, that's spectacular.

In small-town America, 18-year-old high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is popular and gregarious, the class clown and the life of the party, complete with a girlfriend named Cassidy (Brie Larson), who soon dumps him for being such a "lost cause." Working part-time at a men's clothing store, he pours whiskey into a fountain soda cup on every shift and drinks from a flask every chance he gets. It may be true that he'd rather live in the "now" than commit and grow up, but he still has a giant heart. Then one morning upon waking up from a boozy night on her front lawn, he meets Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), a bookish, level-headed 17-year-old who enjoys reading manga comics and sci-fi novels and helps her mom do a morning paper route. She's pretty, but not in a fake, made-up sort of way, and smart, but not nerdy, and everything Sutter is not. Aimee agrees to meet him for lunch and then starts tutoring him in geometry. While he initially uses Aimee to make Cassidy jealous, it evolves into a real romance. There might be some heartbreak along the way.

Alcoholism must run personal with director James Ponsoldt because his last film, 2012's "Smashed," followed Mary Elizabeth Winstead's perpetually intoxicated character through her highs and lows of addiction. Here, his protagonist is a functioning alcoholic (though the term is never uttered), but it's not the main focus, just a part of Sutter's personal conflict. Based on Tim Tharp's novel, the screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who both penned 2009's wonderfully wistful "(500) Days of Summer") is wise and compassionate, sidestepping teen-movie clichés and actually taking time to listen to its characters. Also, not unlike 2011's unsung "The Myth of the American Sleepover," the film may showcase two intuitive young talents, who are having a moment and will hopefully take more roles equally as mature and nuanced as Sutter and Aimee, but they always look and feel like real teenagers and not movie stereotypes, with facial blemishes and all. There's no "She's All That" transformation here.

Much like how John Cusack and Ione Skye were Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court, the already-appealing Teller and Woodley are lovely together and alone as Sutter and Aimee. The former has a depth and charisma that's never smarmy or obnoxious, and the latter, a humble, unassuming, and approachable presence, proves again after her revelatory performance in "The Descendants" that she should have first dibs on every project from here on out. Because of these two central performances, we like Sutter and Aimee and are pulling for them to succeed. As Sutter's estranged father and single, night-shift-working mother, Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh make their dramatic moments count. Also, pulling supporting duties are Larson, never vilified as Sutter's on-again, off-again girlfriend Cassidy who knows she can do better, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who very well could've been a grossly wealthy type as Sutter's pearl-wearing, stay-at-home older sister Holly but sheds some pathos.

Favoring intimacy and organically earned emotional beats, "The Spectacular Now" has weight and melancholy without feeling heavy and a delicate sweetness without becoming saccharine. Every emotion is relatable and cut to the bone that we, too, can feel the sweaty hands and intense butterflies of every interaction and "first" moment. Who needs forced plotting and all the Classic Hollywood trappings when a film is slathered in down-to-earth accuracy and authenticity? It's refreshing to see two young people given room to breathe by both the camera and the script, allowing us to see what makes them tick and why they actually enjoy each other's company. 

Close to the third act when things deepen and darken after Sutter and Aimee visit his father, there's a gasp-worthy near-tragedy that might feel cheap and melodramatic to some. This particular moment may not alter how Aimee feels about Sutter, but it is a solidifying moment for Sutter that breaks him down without punishing him. One thing is for sure that it's far from safe to always live in the moment, and, as Sutter comes to realize, he might not be good for Aimee. The untidy, hopeful final shot could go either way; because it's so abrupt, it's not a pat ending but a perfect one. Some kind of special rarity at the end of August, "The Spectacular Now" is a satisfyingly poignant treasure without any "Afterschool Special" affectation that will safely make your heart flutter and break it a little.

Grade: A - 

Slaughter-Home Alone: "You're Next" a wickedly entertaining devil that refreshes horror genre

You're Next (2013)
96 min., rated R.

In the cases of "The Cabin in the Woods" and the much-anticipated "You're Next," both films sat on the shelf for two years before being picked up by Lionsgate. That normally doesn't bode well for a film, but the former was an inspired revitalization of the horror genre and, now that it's finally seeing the light of day, the latter is here and it deserves all the fanfare in theaters as it received at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. "You're Next," fiercely directed by Adam Wingard and wittily scripted by Simon Barrett (who have been on the horror scene, both collaborating on segments in this year's "The ABCs of Death" and "V/H/S/2," as well as its 2012 predecessor "V/H/S"), may look like any old home-invasion horror thriller, having commonalities with 2007's "Severance," 2008's "The Strangers" and the underseen "Baghead," among others. It has more than enough cues to the original "Halloween," too, but that doesn't stop this lean, viciously funny, and thrillingly creepy animal from turning dusty genre tropes inside out with sharp shards of black-as-soot humor.

After the grisly scene is set with a post-coital couple being taken out by masked killers with sharp, pointy objects in the country, Aubrey (Barbara Crampton) and Paul Davison (Rob Moran) are ready to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary in their secluded mansion down the road. Son Crispian (AJ Bowen) and his Australian girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson), a grad student who's meeting her literature professor boyfriend's loaded parents for the first time, are the first to arrive. Not soon after the rest of the Davisons' adult children and their significant others show up, there's friction between Crispian and his older brother Drake (mumblecore director Joe Swanberg, whose indie effort "Drinking Buddies" sees a limited release the same day), a chatty wiseass with conservative wife Kelly (Sarah Myers) in tow. Then there is the only daughter in the family, daddy's girl Aimee ("Upstream Color's" Amy Seimetz), who's brought along her arthouse filmmaker boyfriend Tariq (horror filmmaker Ti West), and the youngest son, Felix (Nicholas Tucci), and his goth-dressed girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn). Once they've all settled in to have a civil dinner, this family reunion of sorts turns into Crispian and Drake needling one another. It takes everyone a while, except for Tariq, to notice an arrow striking through the dining room window. Hysteria breaks out, putting the family under siege with crossbows, machetes, and other sharp weapons. With all the slaughterhouse carnage by three unknown assailants, who will be left standing?

Operating more on the level of a dysfunctional family drama and a really dark comedy with a body count and face-smashing, foot-stabbing booby traps, "You're Next" simmers with sibling resentments, prickly familial dynamics, and an overall underlying tension that grows into actual in-fighting, even when the family members and their significant others start dropping like flies. For instance, they bicker over who is the fastest runner, even when one character has already been slain and another is wounded. Though the routine framework is trotted out with upstairs noises and a few jump scares making their rightful appearance, what awaits in "You're Next" wins points for deceptively and delightfully surpassing the expectations of moviegoers who are well-versed in horror conventions and will think they have it all figured out. There's no dramatic irony here: you never know where it's going. Here, the characters aren't boneheaded teens; they're boneheaded adults with the blackest of hearts, each and every houseguest never knowing when his and her number will be up. No one is safe from the chopping block and the film becomes a "who's next" and "who's the Final Person" game. Without spoiling too much, Erin is a resourceful, take-charge survivor but not immune to injuries, either. 

Wingard and Barrett craftily show their hand earlier than expected that this is not some random attack and avoid culminating in laborious talking-killer clichés. That the filmmakers are in full command of their straight but playful tone is astonishingly evident, and that give-and-take never lets up as the film unleashes bloody, uncompromising kills and a crowd-pleasing doozy of a plot shift once the jig is up. Speaking of kills, there is gnarly, creative use of a blender and an applause-worthy beatdown with a meat tenderizer. The intruders' tiger, lamb, and fox guises also get enough playtime, instantly earning themselves a place in the hall of fame of unnerving horror-movie masks. Aside from an early and brief instance of shaky-cam syndrome, Andrew Droz Palermo's cinematography has a down-and-dirty efficiency, along with ruthlessly taut editing going a long way in conveying panic and building dread. A pleasing '80s synth-heavy score with horns pulsates the balls-to-the-wall action and, in addition, the Dwight Twilley Band's 1977 pop-rock track "Looking for the Magic" on repeat works so effectively as an unsettling, devilishly amusing counterpoint.

Receiving her breakout role here ("Step Up 3D" didn't quite do that), Aussie actress Sharni Vinson establishes Erin as a smart, appealing young woman everyone can root for and then convincingly shapes her into a formidable, badass heroine every horror fan will be proud of. "Home Alone's" Kevin McCallister and feminists should take note. The line-up of actors have so much indie cred that they won't be instantly recognized by mainstream audiences, but as long as you have your finger on the pulse, it's a treat to see these people bicker, scream, and get butchered. Genre icon Barbara Crampton has been missed since her "Re-Animator" years where she was strapped naked to a morgue table; now, as the medicated matriarch, she gets to lay down traumatized in her bedroom when it's clear one of the murderers must be in the house. Joe Swanberg is also terrific as the brother who's always at the other's throat; his "handling" of an arrow is priceless, as is his condescension toward Ti West's Tariq when asking about underground filmmaking ("What is an underground film festival? Do they show movies underground?").

Now, is "You're Next" the final word in horror? Who knows, but it's a superior, damned fun bit of work with a long shelf life for the genre. As the chaperones of an unpredictable, adeptly scary/funny entertainment, director Wingard and screenwriter Barrettby the way, that's him in the tiger mask—have the wherewithal and an arsenal of inventive ideas to give their genre a new lease on life. They make sure the tension could be cut with a knife and manage to straddle slashes and humor without either of them ever displacing the other, so a job well done. If you consider yourself a true-blue horror aficionado, get out of the house and get your body to "You're Next."

Grade: A - 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Micro-Budget Microbrew: "Drinking Buddies" a naturally funny, strongly acted little gem with beer galore

Drinking Buddies (2013)
90 min., rated R.

Joe Swanberg has made a name for himself in the circuit of independent cinema and, more specifically, the mumblecore movement for a while now. For his fourteenth feature, he has assembled a cast of mainstream performers and, as is his wont, provided them with a loose story outline and structure to improvise. Writer-director-producer Swanberg accomplishes a lot with a little, the result being "Drinking Buddies," a naturally funny and brightly acted indie pervaded with such a relaxed, naturalistic slice-of-life vibe that one could mistake it for eavesdropping with hidden cameras. Like real life, it feels alternately comfortable and uncomfortable.

Working at a Chicago craft microbrewery, gregarious event/tasting organizer Kate (Olivia Wilde) is just one of the guys, as she can throw back many a brewski. Bearded co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson) could be her boyfriend, or soul mate, but he has a girlfriend, special education teacher Jill (Anna Kendrick), and Kate has a boyfriend, record producer Chris (Ron Livingston). After a brewery party, the two couples decide to retreat to Chris' cabin in Michigan for the weekend. The next day, Chris and Jill go for a hike and have a glass of wine each, while Kate and Luke stay back to play blackjack and drink beer. Tension percolates, no, brews, but will anyone actually go through with switching partners? Every time you think you know exactly where it's going, "Drinking Buddies" subverts expectations a bit in that it has no driving narrative and is not about alcoholism or infidelities. Even after Jill comes clean to Luke about something that happened over the weekend and could complicate their relationship, convention is avoided. Instead of swallowing up its characters in story contrivances, this smart, unaffected film shrewdly observes human interaction and platonic, albeit boundary-pushing, relationships. It also doesn't hurt one bit that the film, while shaggy, is nicely shot by Ben Richardson ("Beasts of the Southern Wild") and aesthetically skilled with zero preciousness or film-student amateurishness.

Proving to be more than just another pretty face after co-starring in more commercial fare ("Tron: Legacy" and "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone"), Wilde is the most noteworthy here. Stretching herself, she shows charisma, nuance, and subtlety, managing Kate as a complete mess but not off-putting and still coming off sexy. A testament to Swanberg's outwardly unrehearsed way of directing and giving his actors breathing room, her playful, flirty, and downright real rapport with the endearingly scruffy Johnson is pitch-perfect and reason enough to watch. These buddies are, perhaps, just meant to be together. The lovely Kendrick doesn't miss the mark, either, painting Jill as a sensitive young woman faced with guilt and potential unfaithfulness, not a nagging shrew. Livingston also acquits himself quite well as Chris, who seems like a mild match for Kate, but while given the least screen time of the four, he commendably never turns Chris into a broad-brushed jerk. Wilde's real-life beau Jason Sudeikis and horror filmmaker Ti West also have bit roles as the brewery's owner and another co-worker.

The relationships are believable and, wholesale, the film hits surprising, emotionally true notes by its terrific cast. What's so special about the final moments is that they leave it up to the viewer, relying on unspoken interactions rather than on-the-nose apologies and declarations of love. As a mere passing snapshot of these people's lives—light but hoppy, if you will—"Drinking Buddies" feels a smidgen too short to add up to a substantial whole. Still, it's about as casual and disarming as hanging out with good friends and sipping on a few brews. Okay, make that a lot of brews.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Punch in the Face: Tiresome "Kick-Ass 2" all bite but less fun

Kick-Ass 2 (2013) 
115 min., rated R.

2010's cleverly cheeky and unapologetically ultra-violent "Kick-Ass" was such a blast. Based on Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s comic series, it deconstructed the superhero ethos with bite and found super-R-rated shock value in then-thirteen-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz spouting off four-letter words and slicing off bad guys' limbs. But, as is the case with most sequels, "Kick-Ass 2" really wasn't necessary and, looking back at how fresh and wildly hilarious its predecessor was, a disappointing step down. Original helmer Matthew Vaughn doesn't return, except for a producing credit, but director Jeff Wadlow (2008's cheesily great/terrible "Never Back Down") was handpicked and it seems to make a world of difference, albeit not for the better.

Two years after Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) took on baddies as his yellow-and-green-costumed alter ego Kick-Ass, he's gone back to being a normal high school student but watches a slew of new "real" superheroes, inspired by Kick-Ass, enter the limelight. Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a freshman at the same school, cutting class to train so she can take out N.Y.C.'s criminal trash, and Dave wants in, so he can be her "Robin." After her new guardian, Detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut, taking over for Omari Hardwick) catches her trying to pick up where she left off, now without father Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, only seen in a photo), Mindy tries putting down the ninja knives and leading a regular 15-year-old girl's life. Meanwhile, having lost his kingpin father to Kick-Ass and a bazooka, rich kid Chris D'Amico/Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) bristles with rage in his parents' McMansion and inheritance money. Before you know it, he's a supervillain, donning a dominatrix outfit, calling himself "The Motherfucker," and recruiting a band of psychos with plans of revenge on Kick-Ass (and getting more hits on Twitter). This spurs on Dave to remain true to his destiny, joining a league of vigilantes called Justice Forever and keeping the city clean.

The opening scene of "Kick-Ass 2" is a prime example of why there was no more story to tell. Out of their costumes, Mindy uses Dave as a shooting target, promising she won't pull the trigger but doing it anyway, twice. It was more shockingly wrong and uncomfortably humorous when we saw a nebbish Nicolas Cage doing the same to his pint-sized daughter. Throughout, it becomes clear that writer-director Wadlow can't quite nail the darkly funny tone that Vaughn did. Not that violence and humor aren't mutually exclusive, but here, the first film's blisteringly profane satire is displaced with a queasy, nasty tone. Should we be laughing when Chris accidentally kills his "Real Housewives"-type mother in a tanning bed? For kicks, there's an icky, distasteful rape joke; rape jokes only work when the rapist doesn't have the upper hand (see "This Is the End"). 

Taking into account that a sequel should up the ante in some way, this one is decidedly less streamlined and feels even longer than it already is. Many of the missteps lie in Wadlow's script, which thinks it's better to throw in everything but Big Daddy's resurrection. Dave has a falling-out with his father (Garrett M. Brown) and finds a new love interest in Night Bitch (Lindy Booth), who became a sexy vigilante after her sister was found dead in a dumpster. Mindy falling in with a snide three-girl clique and blowing them away in her dance-team audition reminds of "Mean Girls," with a few inspired touches (involving Stan Lee name-dropping and English boy band Union J, and a line about bath salts), but the surprisingly lowbrow payoff with a "sick stick" will elicit groans threefold. A "this isn't a sequel!" line and a "I Hate Reboots" T-shirt are also thrown in for good measure but just feel like lazy attempts to be meta and cute.

With Cage being gone, the gonzo replacement is Jim Carrey. The actor may have refused to promote the movie, publicly stating a mea culpa on Twitter in the wake of violence in the real world, but no one can accuse Carrey of phoning it in here. Gone before he gets enough to do and we know enough about him, Colonel Stars and Stripes, an anti-profanity, born-again ex-mob enforcer, is welcome and Carrey is a lunatic force in the role. It's just too bad this interesting character doesn't take the story down any interesting avenues upon showing up. Taylor-Johnson has less of interest to do as Dave/Kick-Ass, but even three years older, Mortez is still a badass, uttering wicked profanity that earns her a "swear jar," and has the most distinct arc out of anybody else on screen. If anything, another empathetic turn gears one up for her upcoming version of the telekinetic Carrie White.

Before the film reaches its warehouse-set endgame, the story has already run out of steam. That's not to say "Kick-Ass 2" doesn't impart a handful of guilty-pleasure moments. Outrageous gags come fast and furious here and there, especially a neighborhood massacre brought on by The Motherfucker's henchwoman, Mother Russia (Ukrainian bodybuilder Olga Kurkulina), who would feel right at home in the animated "Heavy Metal." Whereas "Kick-Ass" had a newfound freshness in the idea that anyone can be a superhero with the right kind of training and a Comic Con-made suit, "Kick-Ass 2" is a mean-spirited, morally muddled hypocrite. It's mostly about the brutally cartoonish beatings and slayings, and while that can be fun, it pounds us senseless until it just grows numbing and glorifies sadism. Squealing fanboys will enjoy it anyway and probably bash those who don't.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Historical Freedom: "Butler" heavy-handed but moving and terrifically well-acted

Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013) 
126 min., rated PG-13.

Normally, a director's name taking ownership of a film title might come off self-serving, but that's not the case with "The Butler"—excuse me—"Lee Daniels' The Butler" from Warner Bros. already owning the rights to a 1916 silent short of the same name. Tackling the Civil Rights Movement and race relations is a noble effort in itself, especially when movies within the studio system tend to sanitize and gloss over the painful truths with white-guilt clichés and Hollywood schmaltz. Director Lee Daniels (who officially broke out with 2009's unsparing powerhouse "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" and went bat-crap crazy with 2011's overwrought Southern Gothic trash "The Paperboy") heightens the scope of his story and fills the film with so much passion and earnestness that it might be his most ambitious and well-meaning, and if it screams of Important, Eat-Your-Vegetables Oscar Bait, there's really nothing wrong with that.

Based on Wil Haygood's article "A Butler Well Served by This Election" and inspired by the true life of Eugene Allen, the film fictionalizes the real black butler and White House maître d' as Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). Working alongside his father on a cotton farm in Macon, Georgia, in 1926, the 13-year-old Cecil witnessed his mother being raped by the plantation owner's white son (Alex Pettyfer) and his father being shot dead. The matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) then brought Cecil into the house to be trained as a server, which, in later years, led him to work in a Washington D.C. hotel and eventually the White House under Eisenhower's administration in 1957. "You hear nothing, you see nothing, you only serve," he is told, before serving under eight U.S. presidents (though the film skips over Carter and Ford).

It's not a big flaw that liberties have been taken to dramatize Eugene Allen's story and impact on the White House and the Civil Rights Movement. While this story certainly could have spoken for itself, Danny Strong's fictionalized screenplay often rushes through history, checking off significant points and taking leaps, but the sections with Cecil and his family are more dramatically interesting than anything at 1600. In reality, Allen had one son, Charles, who served in Vietnam and survived. On screen, Cecil has two sons, Charlie (Elijah Kelley), dying in Vietnam, and the oldest, Louis (David Oyelowo), rebelling against his father and becoming an advocate as a Freedom Rider, a Black Panther, and later a congressional candidate and activist. It surely helps for Louis to be everywhere at the right time. Some of the edges might be softened, but more than often, director Daniels and screenwriter Strong deserve points for courageously facing the ugliness head-on. The opening scene set on a plantation is gut-wrenching, and one boldly powerful sequence should be singled out, as it intercuts between Cecil and his butlers setting up for a White House steak dinner as Louis and his Freedom Riders refuse to leave the whites-only section of a diner counter and face the brutal consequences with poker faces. 

Director Daniels seems more than capable to round up a high-profile cast, pushing them and getting the most fearless performances out of them. As the butler, Whitaker does an understated and dignified interpretation of Eugene Allen, serving more as a passive conduit into the story of Louis. Really, it's Oyelowo who walks away with the film as the rabble-rousing Louis. If one can separate the talk-show juggernaut from the actress (who hasn't been on screen in sixteen years), Oprah Winfrey's raw, fiery but unflashy turn as Cecil's boozy, chain-smoking wife Gloria offers the most punch, even when she has to don some pretty unconvincing old-age makeup. Sitting at home and having an affair with a neighbor (Terrence Howard) while her husband serves, Gloria finally gets her wish to enter the White House in the 1980s.

Fortunately, Daniels' propensity for tawdry histrionics (remember Nicole Kidman's entire performance in "The Paperboy?") is kept in low gear this time around, though a "who's who" ensemble is full of the kind of stunt casting that might be distracting, spotting actors more or less impersonate a historical figure in wigs and waxy make-up. No one hams it up like a worker in a sausage factory, but none of them can really erase the thought that we're just watching actors, either, so it's actually a plus that they're only given a few moments apiece. The star-powered parade of window dressing includes Robin Williams, as Dwight D. Eisenhower; James Marsden, as John F. Kennedy; Liev Schreiber, as Lyndon B. Johnson; John Cusack, as Richard Nixon; Alan Rickman, as Ronald Reagan; and Jane Fonda, as Nancy Reagan. A recognizable face is around every corner, with Mariah Carey and Vanessa Redgrave each showing up for a brief while, as well as Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding Jr., especially, dotting the film with humor as Cecil's fellow butlers.

It should go without saying, although some moviegoers think otherwise, that just because a film is inspired by a true story does not automatically equate it to high quality. On the other hand, while "Lee Daniels' The Butler" occasionally creaks with a heavy hand and recalls a little "Forrest Gump," it's still worthwhile and surprisingly entertaining.


Solitude for Two: Visual poetry and slacker comedy match in oddly likable "Prince Avalanche"

Prince Avalanche (2013)
94 min., rated R.

Stripped-down and offbeat, "Prince Avalanche" finds filmmaker David Gordon Green reaching a fork in the road and taking it. If one tracks his entire filmography, from melancholy indies like 2000's "George Washington," 2003's "All the Real Girls," and 2008's "Snow Angels, to more commercial fare such as 2008's "Pineapple Express," 2011's "Your Highness," and 2011's "The Sitter," the eclectic talent melds the lyrical and elegiac with some of his goofier sensibilities. It's a slight achievement that never really comes to a boil, but Green takes two interesting characters, who would never be friends if never thrown into the same environment, and puts them up against a backdrop of seclusion. 

In 1987, a Texas forest fire destroyed 43,000 acres and left four people dead. A year later, in the middle of nowhere in Bastrop, Alvin (Paul Rudd) and his girlfriend's brother Lance (Emile Hirsch) are about to spend the summer together. Sharing the same tent, they're there to repaint yellow lines on the highway and install reflector poles. At first, they have different plans, Alvin finding rewards in solitude and writing his girlfriend letters (remember, it's the '80s), while Lance goes stir-crazy and wants to act upon his horniness in the woods, so he goes into town for the weekend. Slowly but surely, a bromance develops as the two learn to have more in common than they thought.

A small indie about a two-person road-crew team might be pegged as less than cinematic, but, in remaking the 2011 Icelandic film "Either Way," writer-director Green finds his own voice, with stretches of quiet, meditative paint-drying and droll, absurdist touches. Slim on forced plot mechanics but not Thoreauvian symbolism, "Prince Avalanche" is so subtle and naturalistic that it gives all two characters room to breathe and create an organic relationship. Not a lot happens, and the title has no significance beyond coming to Green in a dream, but if the viewer is willing to take a closer look, there's certainly a theme of existentialism tucked inside and a haunting layer to the milieu of a skeletal forest. 

Essentially, the film is like watching two talented actors camp out with a skeleton crew. Guiding the way as mismatched men at different points in their lives, Rudd and Hirsch somehow make this flawed pair more than tolerable to be around. The mustached former gets away from his arrested-development niche roles to dig into this lonely, fussy oddball and make something as simple as a dance with a fishing rod pretty priceless. Looking like Jack Black's younger brother, Hirsch is a terrific foil, playing Lance as a dim, undisciplined slacker who's not immune to vulnerability. Together, Alvin and Lance's testy relationship builds to a very funny chase scene before they find a happy medium with one another. Though this is mostly a focused two-hander, the now-late Lance LeGault is hilariously spry as an old-coot trucker who brings Alvin and Lance stiff booze and sage advice, and non-professional Joyce Payne has a touching, ghostly presence as a woman Alvin meets while she sifts through the ashen remains of her burned-down house.

Beautifully and poetically photographed like a Ken Burns nature documentary by Tim Orr (who has shot all of Green's films) and complemented by David Wingo and Explosions in the Sky's transcendent score, the film is languid and deliberately paced, often finding artistic poetry in the calm, mundane, and even boring details of road work and camping. Don't misunderstand, "Prince Avalanche" is an odd duck, but it's oddly likable and gentle, refusing to be compartmentalized and offering the best of both worlds in what David Gordon Green does best.

Grade: B -

Monday, August 12, 2013

Fall from Wealth: Blanchett's rich performance cements "Blue Jasmine" as Woody Allen's most powerful

Blue Jasmine (2013)
98 min., rated PG-13.

If you're keeping score, we're right on schedule Woody Allen's forty-third film is here. When one considers that 77-year-old writer-director Allen churns out a film every year with regularity, he may not consistently be like a good wine, rehashing neurotic characters, marriage foibles, and extramarital affairs throughout his oeuvre. Whereas 2011's "Midnight in Paris" was romantic and whimsical, and 2012's "To Rome with Love" pleasant enough but trifling, "Blue Jasmine" is his most tragic and emotionally powerful film in a long while. Whether it can attributed to taking himself out from in front of the camera, getting away from New York for a little bit, or just getting a knockout performance out of Cate Blanchett and great work from the ensemble, the auteur's latest has the impact that's been missing from some of his lighter previous ones.

"Blue Jasmine," though dryly and uncomfortably witty throughout, is not the film you would expect from the Woodman but a fascinating, penetrating character study that dares you to care about the snobby, pampered, ultimately damaged Jasmine (Cate Blanchett). When we first meet her, the self-involved Jasmine is talking the ear off of a woman sitting next to her on an airplane flight all the way to the baggage claim. Arriving in front of a San Francisco apartment that looks like a comedown from what she's used to, she's frazzled and desperate and there to see her adopted grocery-working sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and drops the news on her that she needs to stay there for a while. Occasionally zoning out and talking to herself, Jasmine wastes no time treating herself to some Stoli, popping Xanex, and complaining about her broke financial status, despite her Louis Vuitton luggage.

Having changed her name from Jeanette to Jasmine, she had her cushy socialite life upended when discovering her smooth financier husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) had been engaging in affairs with multiple women (an au pair included) and was then arrested for a Ponzi scheme, which also left Ginger and then-husband Auggie (Andrew Dice Clay) up the creek. She doesn't approve of her sister's present mechanic boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). Without knowing how not to be rich and high-maintenance, she has never worked a day in her life, giving a dentist's office receptionist position a try before Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg) forces himself on her, and then decides to embark on her career as an interior designer. Problem is, she has no money and no computer skills, so she signs up for a computer class in order to take an online design course. It's not long before Jasmine finds herself a substantial, eligible man in the well-to-do Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) who's unaware of her tribulations.

Deftly flipping back and forth between Jasmine's life before her nervous breakdown to now, "Blue Jasmine" paints a portrayal of a three-dimensional character who's falling apart right before our very eyes. Jasmine may be condescending and snappish, but her problems are no longer of the first-world variety, her fragility and formerly financially secure life sinking her as a person. We also see the bicoastal contrasts between Jasmine, who used to hold fancy dinner parties with Hal in their Manhattan abode and spend weekends in the Hamptons, and Ginger, who lives comfortably in a charming little nest with her two boys.

It's no small feat for an actor to turn an unpleasant and irritating but fully fleshed-out and absorbing character into one to worry about. Blanchett does just that with exacting complexity in her richest, most shattering work to date, giving herself to Jasmine and understanding who this woman is and what makes her tick. Surrounding her is excellent character work all around. Sally Hawkins is just wonderful, a truly relatable delight as the working-class Ginger; Baldwin plays this kind of slick operator in his sleep, only without sleeping on the job, as Hal, whose Bernie Madoff-like machinations led to digging his own grave; and Andrew Dice Clay (yes, Andrew Dice Clay) shows a surprising depth in his resentment as Augie, Ginger's ex-husband who was taken advantage of by Hal. There's even a low-key role for Louis C.K. as Al, a sound engineer who interests Ginger.

"Blue Jasmine" is pitch-perfect every time. Both Allen and Blanchett bring a lightness to this devastatingly tragic character without ever sugar-coating her flaws and eccentricities, complemented by Javier Aguierresarobe's luminous cinematography and a sublime ragtime-blues soundtrack ("Blue Moon," the golden standard Jasmine remembers playing when she first met her husband, figures in). Connecting with Tennesse Williams' Blanche DuBois, Jasmine is the kind of woman you believe could exist and, heck, probably does exist, talking to herself on some bench somewhere.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Poor, Poor Linda: Seyfried shines but "Lovelace" could've gone deeper

Lovelace (2013)
92 min., rated R.

Biopics can be difficult to crack. The essence and so many facets of one titular figure's story are supposed to be captured in a film's ninety-minute to two-hour time slot instead of that of a small-screen miniseries. Same goes for "Lovelace," an adequate but mostly two-dimensional snapshot of the life of a nubile, fresh-faced woman who brought pornography into the mainstream culture. Co-directed by documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the film surely boasts an eclectic collection of actors and perfectly recreates the look of the time with Eric Alan Edwards' scratchy 1970s-style lensing and Karyn Wagner's costuming. But for such hardcore subject matter, "Lovelace" divulges some sordid implications without really getting under the skin of Linda Lovelace and never quite lands the impact it's going for.

Amanda Seyfried couldn't have gone in a more opposite direction from her soft trilling as Cosette in "Les Misérables," but here, she is in her most literally adult role (even after the sexually charged "Chloe") as Linda Lovelace. The actress is daring enough for the material, shining with a bright-eyed, girl-next-door sweetness before it's all deflowered and turning in a sympathetic portrayal. When we first meet her as Linda Boreman in 1970, the freckled 21-year-old is living in small-town Davie, Florida, with her parents (Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick). At a roller rink, smarmy, opportunistic hustler/bar owner Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard, demonstrating his wide range) comes along, sweeping her off her feet. After they elope, Chuck shows a group of porn filmmakers her amazing talent from a home video they made in bed and Linda is instantly hired for a job, while Chuck works as the production manager. Obviously, Linda's man turns out to be an abusive slimeball.

Andy Bellin's screenplay keeps shooting years forward without fully shaping the woman we're following. Going on to be better known as Linda Lovelace, she was reborn a star of 1972's high-grossing skin flick "Deep Throat" and ultimately the poster girl for the sexual revolution. Once leaving Chuck who would prostitute his wife, beat her, and control all of her finances, Linda found it in herself to leave the adult film biz behind her and start anew as a new wife and mother, shedding insight into her former life in her tell-all book "Ordeal."

Sharon Stone, almost unrecognizable in deglamorized make-up, is a devastatingly effective standout as Linda's churchgoing mother Dorothy, who shows her daughter tough love, and Robert Patrick gets one touching moment as her more caring father. Supporting parts, mostly those of Linda's makeshift family unit, are solidly filled by Hank Azaria, as "Deep Throat" director Gerry Damiano; Chris Noth and Bobby Cannavale, as the film's financiers Anthony Romano and Butchie Peraino; Adam Brody, as Linda's "short-lasting" co-star Harry Reems; and Debi Mazar as Linda's co-star and make-up artist Dolly. While the actors show up and do their thing, many are left adrift by the material. James Franco, who frighteningly and believably transformed into a cornrowed hustler in "Spring Breakers," is fun to spot but miscast in a cameo as Hugh Hefner, who sees potential in Linda as a real movie star, and Chloë Sevigny, popping up for a second as a journalist, must have gotten trimmed in editing.

"Who's the real Linda Lovelace?" asks a reporter. If "Lovelace" solely set out to paint its focal character as a pitiful victim and later a survivor against domestic violence and porn, then it has achieved its goal as a cautionary tale. However, if it's intended to be a definitive rise-and-fall account, it doesn't deepen as much as knock off bullet points. While the real Linda deserved a better life than earning notoriety for giving fellatio on camera and shouldn't be defined for her seventeen days in porn, the film is a rough portrait in conveying who she was as a person. Maybe read Linda Marchiano's "Ordeal" to find out.

Grade: C +