Thursday, January 30, 2014

Campus Love: Farmiga and Garcia elevate mild, light-as-air "At Middleton"

At Middleton (2014)
99 min., rated R.

Pairing the lovely, versatile Vera Farmiga and the well-aged Andy Garcia as two married parents with college-bound children, "At Middleton" is an example of performers counting for a lot in transcending frothy middlebrow material. Being the directorial debut of Adam Rodgers, who collaborated on the screenplay with Glenn German, the film is clearly a rookie's feature, but it's at its strongest when concentrating on the two appealing actors and their playful give-and-take. Anyone expecting another "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset," or "Before Midnight" between two middle-aged adults who have just met and hit it off might be disappointed that it's not talkier or consistently natural. Limitations of the script aside, this little romantic comedy is unassumingly sweet and likable enough to not complain too much.

Set over the course of an afternoon, the film soon takes place during a campus tour of the fictional Middleton College. On their way, straight-laced cardiac surgeon George Hartman (Andy Garcia) is forcing the school onto his indifferent son Conrad (Spencer Lofranco). The outspoken, free-spirited Edith Martin (Vera Farmiga), who sells "high-end children's furniture," has a different opinion of Middleton, finding it too small, while daughter Audrey (Taissa Farmiga) is more gung-ho about attending. Edith takes George's parking spot, which initially sets a prickly tone for them both during the campus tour led by student guide Justin (a goofy Nicholas Braun), a self-described "dingleberry." Once they get away from the tour, the married parents start to get along and experience Middleton for themselves. From there, the two strangers hang out on a bell tower, frolic around on bikes, share a piano duet, and inadvertently participate in a drama class. Meanwhile, Audrey eagerly makes an appointment with heroic linguistics professor, Dr. Roland Emerson (Tom Skerritt), to be her mentor, while Conrad pursues his dream in radio in a meeting with the school deejay (a cool, amusing Peter Riegert). Edith and George both know their kids are ready to leave their nest, but for one day, this is their play time.

Settling somewhere between madcap and low-key without a deftly calibrated tone, "At Middleton" gets off to a shaky, too-cute start and then proceeds trying to find its footing. There's a convincing opposites-attract meet-cute, but it's less authentic when Edith and George "borrow" a couple of bikes and then hide behind a bush from the campus police. Or, take the instance where they take the edge off by smoking a few bong hits with coed Daphne (Daniella Garcia-Lorido, Andy's daughter) and her bearded boyfriend in a dorm room. It's not until midway, where Edith and George spy on a drama class from the rafters and then get called down to participate. They get a crack at an acting exercise and we see glimpses of longing and unhappiness in Edith and George, continuing to a park bench where they both call their significant others, but it's in that brief, poignant section where the film enters and then exits from deeper emotional waters. They're a pleasure to be around, but one still wishes these two characters felt more fully formed and were given even more room to breathe to understand where they're coming from.

Finally getting the chance to shed the darkness and really flex her comedic muscles, Vera Farmiga is funny, fiery, moving, and wonderfully spontaneous as the restless Edith. Sometimes, Edith comes off over-caffeinated, although to be fair, she has had three cups of coffee. Though glasses and a bow tie would suggest otherwise, Andy Garcia isn't overly buttoned-up as George. He's given the chance to loosen up even more as the day progresses, but his co-star gets to be the live-wire. Even when the comedic hijinks are broad, these two instill everything with a breeziness that's fun to watch. The casting of Farmiga and her 19-year-old sister as mother and daughter is a comfortable fit, although Taissa Farmiga, as the prone-to-correct Audrey, comes off too standoffish and unreasonably bratty to believe when she doesn't get her way. She's a little bit better when sharing her time with guarded but photogenic newcomer Spencer Lofranco (recently starring together in "Jamesy Boy").

Simply idyllic lensing on the grounds of Washington and Gonzaga University, as well as some literate writing, certainly shine. The word "feckless" from Audrey's word game on her phone becomes its own running joke, and 1964's Catherine Deneuve-starring French romance "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" gets referenced. What director Rodgers wants to say about the potential roads of life and parents having a moment of recklessness due to impending Empty Nest Syndrome isn't always sound, but how the story closes is smarter and more bittersweet than nearly every big-studio release. Edith and George enjoy each other's company for a short time, even if they both know nothing can come of their encounter once they get into their respective vehicles and return to their normal lives, and their kids learn a thing or two about themselves, too. "At Middleton" is pleasant and light as a feather, and Farmiga and Garcia rise above the early tonal problems and contrivances to make it a mild, charming trifle.

Grade: B -

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

If These Walls Could Talk: "Concussion" a smart, nonjudgmental drama about a lesbian housewife-cum-call girl

Concussion (2013) 
96 min., rated R.

In the annals of gay-themed independent cinema, the "coming-out" story and the "boy-meets-boy" or "girl-meets-girl" romance have been told so many times that films of that ilk have grown as well-worn as Hollywood romantic comedies between a straight couple. The savvy indie drama "Concussion," from writer-director Stacie Passon making her debut, finds a refreshing equal-opportunity approach with "the double life," even if that has been done with heterosexuals countless times, too, especially on the Lifetime network. The film uses an actual concussion as a catalyst, eschewing the wackiness and perversity that might recall John Waters' "A Dirty Shame" (where Tracey Ullman's bonk to the head turned her into a raging sex addict), but really, the film in context is about suburban discontent and a very human appetite for intimacy, and it's told with an intelligence and sensitivity.

To David Bowie's "Oh! You Pretty Things," we open to a health club spin class full of women striving to keep their bodies toned as if their lives depended on it and chattering about things bored housewives tend to gossip about over lunch. The film focuses on one bored 42-year-old stay-at-home mom, Abby Ableman (Robin Weigert), who's on the PTA and the board at her synagogue. She can't breathe, being settled but unfulfilled in her New York suburbs life. She and her wife, businesslike divorce attorney Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence), haven't had sex in a while, and she always picks up their two children from school on time. Life couldn't be more routine, as she does all the laundry, vacuuming and dinner preparation. One day, Abby gets hit in the head by her son's baseball, and without any magical outside force, she decides to make a change. To balance out her life, she buys a loft in the city and flip it, renovating and designing the property with contractor Justin (Johnathan Tchaikovsky), who's dating a college student who just so happens to be runing a call-girl service for extra money. Then, on a whim, Abby uses the loft as a her base of operation to talk to and pleasure clients of all ages, shapes and sizes with different levels of experience. However, everything is done on her terms; Abby will only see other women and she insists on meeting them all for coffee first.

Presenting an upper-middle-class midlife crisis could lean towards "Concussion" being a First-World Problem Movie or the situation that Abby puts herself into would seem absurd, but "Concussion" is more nuanced, humorously incisive, and nonjudgmental than either preconceived notion. What's so interesting about writer-director Passon's take is that she justifies Abby's behavior without fully condoning polyamory or prostitution. The character doesn't prostitute herself because she's financially strapped or fetishistic; she feels static and one-sided in her marriage and wants to reconnect with her own sexuality. Though she has a hard, internal presence as a housewife, Robin Weigert (who could almost pass as a sister of Ann Dowd or Siobhan Fallon Hogan) gives a sensual, grounded lead performance and never stops being sympathetic as the dissatisfied Abby, as we see her mundane responsibilities of the daily grind and understand her yearning. In the early going, an unbroken shot holds on Abby as she jogs on her home treadmill, cranking up the speed more and more before she gets sick, and it speaks volumes about her stifled existence. Her new career gives her a freedom and could either help or destroy her own marriage. All of the scenes between Abby and her clients are realistically intimate and tasteful without existing merely to titillate the male gaze. Moments with an overweight women's studies student who has never been kissed or touched are poignant. With Sam (Maggie Siff, in a beautifully balanced portrayal), a cute housewife and mother in Abby's spin class who has a kid at Abby's son's school and ends up becoming a client, the story also takes a seemingly gimmick direction that doesn't traverse into the most expected ways.

Fluidly shot with a mix of warmth and sterility by cinematographer David Kruta, the film looks lovely, too. Filmmaker Passon seems to trust the IQ of her audience, as "Concussion" never bangs us over the head with heavy, obvious metaphors or arty indie pretensions, even when Abby angrily carves out a less-than-desirable tile in the loft kitchen. Abby's journey leads to a tidier conclusion than expected, but there is no definitive "what now?" answer to how she will end up, either. Abby might be better for her choices and experiences, and it all might have helped her marriage and life in the long run. Life will go on.

Grade: A -

Monday, January 27, 2014

It's Dead! - Seriously one-note "I, Frankenstein" pretty bad, and not in a fun way

I, Frankenstein (2014)
100 min., rated PG-13.

Oh, what's in a name? "I, Frankenstein" may involve Mary Shelley's soulless, stitched-together monster created by Victor Frankenstein, but being based on the Darkstorm Studios graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux (who created the story for "Underworld"), it's just dully derivative of those four vampires-vs.-werewolves horror-fantasy actioners. The sort of joyless, unimaginative assembly-line product Hollywood studios hide from critics in the frigid wasteland of January, this dopey, monotonous CG-athon sorely lacks energy, interest, a sense of fun, and good ideas, and yet it all cost $65 million to make. "I, Frankenstein" is so silly, yet played on such one note of deadly seriousness that it's irksome no one involved decided to include at least a glimmer of humor or even a fright. It's pretty bad, and it doesn't even have the decency to be bad in a fun way.

Adapted by director Stuart Beattie (2010's "Tomorrow, When the War Began") from its source of the same name, the picture doesn't really seem to be interested in its own monster, getting everything we already know from horror lore out of the way in the opening. Frankenstein's angry monster (played by a strangely miscast Aaron Eckhart) was created and then rejected. After murdering Victor's wife and then burying its frozen-to-death creator, the living corpse is attacked by demons before being saved by gargoyles. Gargoyle queen Lenore (Miranda Otto) names the monster "Adam" and invites him to join the archangel-created gargoyles to battle all the demons on Earth in the shadows, but he goes off to battle them on his own. Centuries later, demon prince Naberius (Bill Nighy) disguises himself as a human suit, and having respected electrophysiologist, Terra (Yvonne Strahovski), experiment with reanimation, he intends to end all mankind with an infinite army of corpses. The supposedly mythical Dr. Frankenstein's journal may hold the key, as well as Adam, who is more human than he realizes.

"I, Frankenstein" is a man-made movie, yes, but it's such a chore to endure rather than well-made entertainment that it exists when it didn't have to. Poker-faced to the point of being dour and turgid, the film is virtually an uninspired regurgitation of 2003's identically gloomy and self-serious, albeit slightly more enjoyable, "Underworld." Frankenstein's monster is plunked into a war between demons and gargoyles, but the unnamed Eastern European city is seemingly populated by people who are agoraphobics and never leave their homes (or the one night club that is shown), so there's a goose egg at stake. The demons' heads look like the lizard-like Sleestaks from the '90s TV series "Land of the Lost," and the human guises of the gargoyles (including Jai Courtney) look dressed for an old episode of the defunct "Xena: Warrior Princess." Stitched together from nine different corpses, Adam really resembles a physically scarred man with a lean physique. Uncharacteristically for Eckhart, he is a bore, jabbering on in voice-over and lumbering through this humorless role as if he were having no fun. As nothing more is asked of him apart from the physical demands, he certainly worked out for the part, but to what end? Looking more and more like Jodie Foster, Otto should be credited for keeping a straight face and not rolling her eyes when trying to sell mouthfuls of risible exposition and existential thematics ("God is no longer the sole creator of Man"). As Lenore, she makes it seem as if there's deeper emotion or actual history between her gargoyle queen and Adam than there really is. As the only human female, Strahovski is asked to mostly live in a lab coat and be pretty without creating any other defining traits out of Terra. Finally, Nighy, not far off from his steely role in the "Underworld" movies, makes anything better just by showing up. He also lends the only intentional laugh in a line about Adam's glass-breaking entrance.

Made entirely of set dressing and crumbly CGI, the production should certainly look like a million bucks. Alas, it's a lifeless cacophony of cheesy, cheap-looking fireball effects and anemic action done in either fast swishes or overdone slow-motion. Save for some okay gothic architecture and a menacing, momentarily cool composition of the demons' silhouettes multiplying in the moonlight, everything is aesthetically dreary and bland rather than atmospheric. Plenty of demons get stabbed and explode into fiery ashes, descending into hell, while murdered angels ascend into the bright heavens. The extermination of the former seems all rather easy, but the sight of it is gnarly in a tacky way before fast becoming repetitive. Bound to please no one but Comic-Con junkies with the lowest expectations, "I, Frankenstein" is utterly devoid of dazzling spectacle, a story one wants to invest their time in, or the most minimal bright spot to recommend it, resulting in a colossal drag of rote, empty nothingness happening on the screen. Again, it takes itself so damn seriously that it makes "Man of Steel" look like a comedy by comparison. The film didn't have to be overtly self-aware, but despite Frankie's beast being dead, shouldn't he keep his tongue firmly in his cheek after kicking it with Abbott and Costello?

Grade: C -

Friday, January 24, 2014

Teen Mom: The Movie — Hudgens tries hard, but "Gimme Shelter" is all message, poor storytelling

Gimme Shelter (2014)
100 min., rated PG-13.

It seems every movie nowadays is marketed or purported to be "based on" or "inspired by" a "true story" or "true events." That's fine and all; truth is stranger than fiction after all, but it doesn't always make for a worthwhile movie. One can certainly feel the sweat and tears that have gone into a small passion project like "Gimme Shelter," written and directed by Ron Krauss and finally seeing a release by Roadside Attractions (it was shot in 2011). At one point, the filmmaker spent time living at a shelter and intended to make a documentary about Kathy DiFiore, the founder of Several Sources Shelters who helped the homeless get on their feet, but his narrative feature is discouragingly more of a well-intentioned "Afterschool Special" than a successful movie. Krauss should have gone with his first instinct. The chief commodity here is Vanessa Hudgens, the "High School Musical" ingénue who has already daringly broken free of the Disney teen machine with "Spring Breakers" and has now taken it upon herself to play a lead role without an ounce of vanity or cleanliness. In "Gimme Shelter," she loses herself as Agnes "Apple" Bailey, a greasy, pierced, tatted 16-year-old who's been passed off to different foster homes since age 8 before her abusive, meth-addicted, welfare-cashing mother, June (Rosario Dawson), gained custody. Finally, she chops off her hair and leaves, but before even finding shelter, Apple realizes she's pregnant. Homelessness, child abuse, and teen pregnancy are all sobering subjects and could have been melded into a wrenching story that needed to be told, but they deserve a less clumsy touch than what this pro-life teen-runaway melodrama has been handed.

Leading a hardscrabble life, Apple isn't exactly an unblemished martyr, either. She's guarded, uncooperative, belligerent, and petulant to even those who want to help her, primarily her biological father, Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser). When Apple hops on a Greyhound and finds the New Jersey address of a gated mansion from a letter, Tom and his prim wife, Joanna (Stephanie Szostak), feed her and give her a place to stay before she can get back on her feet. Then she realizes she's pregnant. When the Fitzpatricks try reasoning with her and knock some sense into her that she has no education or means, Apple goes to her appointment to have an abortion (a word that is never spoken), but then flees, deciding she wants to keep the child. Cold, lost, starving, and resisting help, Apple then finds herself at a shelter for troubled teenage mothers founded and run by Kathy (Ann Dowd). She doesn't fit in at first, with every mother taking care of her crying baby, but Apple is now in a warm, safe, and positive environment, as long as her mother stays away. Can she conquer her own misery and handle a baby of her own?

Laying on the grit and suffering with Alain Marcoen's deliberately roughed-up, closeup-reliant camerawork and Lana Del Rey's "Born To Die" on the soundtrack, "Gimme Shelter" truly begins as a hard-knock-life drama. Life could not be less rosy for Apple, as she walks the streets, finding overnight shelter in an unlocked car and then going dumpster diving for food. Finally, she steals an SUV, gets into an accident, and then ends up in the hospital before waking up to Father Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones), who shows her to the clinic. Writer-director Krauss either didn't trust his own story or didn't know how to tell it because he continuously reminds his audience that this is an Issues Movie with a capital I. Admiration can count for something, but it's all in the telling. Virtually going from A to Z, the storytelling grows rushed, disjointed, and unbelievable in showing Apple's self-improvement and her father's turnaround. Story beats and scenes seem to be missing, unless the shift happened off-screen. If the other teen mothers at the clinic have something to do with Apple's redemption, there are only half-hearted attempts in developing characters out of them or showing their interaction with Apple (like when they all break into Kathy's office at night to read their case files and decorate the shelter for Christmas). By the time Apple is ready to give birth, there has already been an abrupt change—she looks like a flower in sundresses with no bags under her eyes, no piercings, a more conservative haircut, no bad attitude and a sunnier outlook on life—which is nice, but the way it's conveyed in an "everything will be all right" happy ending feels unconvincingly simplified and not dramatically earned. What began as a tough story loses the resonance and raw ring of truth it tried working up to for a trite, earnestly hopeful and half-finished treatment.

While it's almost a cliché now that actresses don't stretch themselves until they have a really seedy, deglammed role (like the beautiful Charlize Theron taking on her role as real-life lesbian prostitute serial killer Aileen Wournos in "Monster"), Vanessa Hudgens has enough of an edge about her that a mostly persuasive performance comes through. It can be overwrought when she casts so many dirty looks and plays up the tough street-punk affect in baggy clothing, but her game commitment can't be denied. Another vanity-free team player: an unrecognizably monstrous, grimed- and uglied-up Rosario Dawson dials it up to eleven like a gross, bat-shit crazy character out of Harmony Korine's "Gummo" with a tinge of tragic vulnerability. Nearly rivaling Mo'Nique's irredeemably awful mother in "Precious" with yellow rotten teeth, Dawson expends all effort into a ferocious performance, to be sure, but something about it just smacks of actorly self-consciousness and hands-off direction. In one moment, June attacks Apple with a razor blade between her teeth, ready to slash her own daughter, and it's such an alarming moment but botched by incompetent framing. As Apple's father, Brendan Fraser is fine, conveying regret, apology and the hope of mutual trust. Though he works on Wall Street and can more than support his own family, Tom is thankfully not written on one note as a wealthy, judgmental jerk. Stephanie Szostak, as Tom's wife, is given little more to do than uncertain reactions and empty promises that it's hard to get a real grasp on her character. Playing a version of the real Kathy DiFiore, Ann Dowd is an invaluable presence. As Kathy was once homeless herself and has been running the shelter for twenty years, the actress balances authority with loving compassion. Also, James Earl Jones floats in and out, never failing to bring a certain amount of class and warmth but, go figure, given speeches and Biblical sermonizing more than a role with meat to it. Of the girls, Emily Meade and Dascha Polanco (Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black") stand out more than the others, but their roles as Cassie and Carmel are still too severely undernourished to make an actual impression. 

Rife with religious iconography (even in a pinwheel) and ending on a postscript with photos of the real people, "Gimme Shelter" clearly wants to move, inspire, and maybe even proselytize with its story of hopelessness and recovery, but instead leaves the viewer feeling manipulated and emotionally disconnected. With 2009's likeminded but harsher and unshakable "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" still demanding the attention of those who never stuck it out, there is no comparison with this child-gloved indie, which treats its own subject matter as something that could have aired on Lifetime or Oxygen. Above everything else, Hudgens (bless her heart) proves she deserves to be taken more seriously as an actress who can do the heavy lifting rather than play the sweet apple of Zac Efron's eye in the halls of East High School. 


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jack Ryan: Muppet Baby — Skillful, familiar "Shadow Recruit" gets the job done

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) 
105 min., rated PG-13.

With Alec Baldwin (1990's "The Hunt for Red October"), Harrison Ford (1992's "Patriot Games" and 1994's "Clear and Present Danger") and Ben Affleck (2002's "The Sum of All Fears") coming before him, Chris Pine is now appointed as the young Jack Ryan. Conceptualized as a revamp of the four-installment Jack Ryan series, based on Tom Clancy's novels, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is also a prequel or, in the superhero vernacular, an "origin story." Like TV's "Bates Motel," it's set in the present day but comes before its predecessor(s). While that creative choice is odd at first glance and has merely been made to start from scratch for a hopeful franchise, this spy thriller is, on its own terms, old-fashioned, light-footed and excitingly wrought. A summer-style genre movie that ends up being far better than the majority of lousy January dumps, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" isn't a whole lot more than sufficiently entertaining, but entertain it does.

We first find our guy trying to complete his doctorate at the London School of Economics, until September 11th, 2001 happened. Eighteen months later, Jack leaves school to enlist in the Marines and become a lieutenant. He nearly loses his ability to walk after a helicopter ambush in Afghanistan, but a rehab stint and physical therapy student Cathy (Keira Knightley) help him recover. Meanwhile, C.I.A. handler Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) has been watching Jack and recruits him as an analyst. Now, in 2013 (where the movie stays), Jack works undercover on Wall Street as a compliance officer, while keeping his real career from Cathy, who's now a doctor and his fiancée. When he finds firewalled accounts from lucrative Russian companies that could point to terrorist activity, Jack is aided by Harper to go into operational field mode and fly to Moscow. There, the unpredictable Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) is coordinating a conspiracy to crash the U.S. economy, thus beginning the Second Great Depression, and sees analytical-turned-operational Jack as "dangerous." It's a lot of pressure for one "shadow recruit," having to dodge all the assassination attempts, keep his relationship with Cathy off the rocks, and take down Viktor, but he's Jack Ryan.

Written by newcomer Adam Cozad and veteran David Koepp, the boilerplate script works on the levels you expect it to but retreads a lot of standard elements from other political espionage-thrillers. Once the specificity of 9/11 is over, we rush through Jack Ryan's formative years, transitioning from student to Marine, but it gets the job done as a shorthand in understanding Jack's devotion to serve his country. Fortunately, as spryly directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is ho-hum fluff made with efficiency and adequate brains, even if some of the plot details seem less plausible in retrospect. A fight to the death with Viktor's refrigerator-sized bodyguard in a Moscow hotel bathroom is solidly staged. A set-piece, in which Cathy accompanies Jack to dinner and flirt with the womanizing Viktor as a diversion for pickpocketing and file downloads in his office, is tense and slickly executed. It also helps that Branagh knows how to make computer hacking more exciting and cinematic than it should be. All of the close-calls, elaborate inner workings and deductive reasoning here are inherent in a spy movie, so you either leave get off the ride midway or leave all credibility at the ticket booth and just go with it. It's not until the back half that really errs with action movie stand-bys, such as the hero's female companion becoming a hostage in need of saving and a ticking time bomb, and some convenient plotting involving a sleeper agent in a freshly painted police van is there to move 105 minutes along and advance to a climactic motorcycle chase.

Playing another iconic role, though relatively less so in comparison to Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" reboots, Pine displays charisma without too much smug smirking. His Jack Ryan is an American boy scout who's always on his game and becomes heavy with guilt after killing his first man. Without given any more chances for complexity than that, Pine is still appealing and grounded. As Cathy, Knightley makes the most of her underwritten part and shares a nice chemistry with Pine. Her Cathy is surprisingly understanding and reacts reasonably to Jake's double life. Instead of being written off as an uptight, ball-busting nag or nuisance, she actually gets in on the action and pulls her weight when asked to distract Viktor with not only her beauty but her wit and medical expertise (a conversation about Cirrhosis is a smartly observant touch). Costner (who turned down the leading role during his "Dancing with Wolves" years) is his sturdy self and admirably underplays Thomas Harper, even if there's not much of a character to play. Doing double duty, Branagh is clearly just having fun, casting himself as the ham-loaded garnish of what's very much a Bond villain. As chief baddie Viktor Cherevin, he puts on an eloquent and consistent, if slightly Boris Badenov-ish, Russian accent and never raises his voice, even when he demonstrates evil acts of violence on his own thugs.

A prequel/reboot can be risky, especially if it's the starting game of a franchise, but "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" will more than suffice, which makes rooting for another one not sound so worrisome. It's a skillful, if overly familiar, winter helping of escapism to enjoy while it plays, but it might not be remembered once it's over. Working on the most basic guidelines of a diverting blockbuster, "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" shows you a fun time, doesn't make you think too hard, and then lets you go on with your day.

Grade: B - 

Friday, January 17, 2014

In the Old Scratch Way: Ordinary "Devil's Due" just doesn't deliver

Devil's Due (2014)
89 min., rated R.

"Rosemary's Baby" framed as a home movie with surveillance footage à la "Paranormal Activity," "Devil's Due" is surprisingly not terrible for a January dump-month release. It's just dull as hell. If Paramount Pictures could reach box-office success with hitherto five "Paranormal Activity" movies and 2012's "The Devil Inside," 20th Century Fox must have wanted a piece of the money-making pie. The studio certainly did their homework, seeking out fresh indie directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gilletttwo members of filmmaking quartet Radio Silence—who showed off their skills in the wildly creepy final segment of 2012's fun found-footage horror anthology "V/H/S." Unfortunately, this is the filmmakers' first rodeo (along with screenwriter Lindsay Devlin) at crafting a sustainable feature film and, aside from the conception of the antichrist being an interesting angle for the digital-camera approach, their efforts prove to be an ineffectual waste of time. Genuine scares just never arrive.

Having grown up as a foster child, Samantha (Allison Miller) is excited to become the wife to Zach McCall (Zach Gilford), who's shooting their life on a digital camera to "start their family history." They marry in a church, celebrate with their loving friends and family, and then they're off to Santa Domingo for their honeymoon. On their last night, Zach and Sam get lost in the streets on the way back to their hotel before a friendly cab driver picks them up and insists on taking the couple somewhere fun for "one drink." That hot spot turns out to be an underground rave. After a few too many shots, Sam and Zach black out and wake up in their hotel room the next morning, confused over how they got back. Back home in the states, Sam finds out she's seven weeks pregnant. The newlyweds' surprise pregnancy goes well for a bit, until Sam's abnormal strength, ravenous appetite for rare ground beef, and determination to carve an occult into the wood floor of the nursery go well past being chalked up to an expectant mother's symptoms. As soon as Sam's mood swings and catatonia worsen—and Zach spots mysterious men just staring at their house from across the street—the once-happy couple are already in a sinister hold that can't be undone. It all points to the birth of the antichrist.

If anything, "Devil's Due" does a fine job of setting up the seemingly rosy new life of Sam and Zach before being dealt an insidious curse. It helps that TV actors Miller and Gilford are so genial and earnestly likable, solidifying enough rooting interest, although one has to wonder how a college student and her husband, who has a job but is never seen working, can afford a "money pit" that is anything but. A new male obstetrician draws amniotic fluid from Sam's belly to squirmy effect and there's an eerie moment in an initially soothing lamaze class, where every woman (except for Sam) begins aching in pain, but it's on to the next scene before anything can come of that or anyone can question what's happening. Before the intensity gets ratcheted up for the bloody climax, more effective set-pieces involve a church communion being cut short and a teenage trio's footage catching Sam feasting on a deer carcass in the woods. 

Directors Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett mercifully don't rely on a stream of lazy jump scares or sneaky "did you see that?" found-footage tropes that one can set their watch to by now, but much of what they've come up with instead is largely uneventful, letting an hour pass without much tension but offering up plenty of impatient sighing. Redundantly redundant most of the time, even as everything is building to the antichrist's birth, the film occasionally keeps the viewer from nodding off with loud, sudden shrieks and overblown lo-fi effects. There's also the frustrating dramatic irony that the audience is already ahead of the couple as it would behoove them to check the footage of their lost time in the Dominican Republic; of course, Zach does do this, but by then, the gestation of their bundle of joy is already well on its way. Even a pointless wraparound device, with a bloodied Zach being interrogated by the police, could have been scrapped altogether as it gypps us of a more suspenseful resolution. Unless paying customers of the teenybopper crowd have yet to see a "real" horror film where characters record everything, there's really nothing to see here. To call "Devil's Due" impotent would accuse it of being badly made, however, within the guidelines of its genre, the assemblage of footage is more cleverly put-together and better framed than not, and the rationale to keep rolling is acceptable. Instead of the footage just being allegedly lost and then found to be shown to the world, the directors extend from one camera, pulling from grocery store and parking lot surveillance, an "adventure cam" pinned to Zach's shirt at chest-level and multiple hidden cameras planted inside the McCalls' home by occult members.

Save for the early new year already seeing the decent "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones," the snake that is the well-worn, ubiquitous found-footage format is slowly eating its own tail. These little items are modestly cheap to make, but they're not always easy to pull off, either. Succeeding treasure troves of other representatives that actually fry your nerves, "Devil's Due" isn't entirely worthless to be the death rattle of this increasingly clapped-out subgenre. (When it's all over and the title card comes up, the end credits do employ 1967's playful R&B hit "The Oogum Boogum Song" as a nervously amusing counterpoint to what has come before.) Never as frightening or as disturbing as a horror fan would hope, it just feels like an ordinary, shoulder-shrugging foregone conclusion. It does have a leg up on a former antichrist-related January release, the stupid "The Devil Inside," but is that the bar horror flicks should have to set? In one word, mediocre.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Time's a-tickin', baby: Despite one of Walker's stronger turns, "Hours" not worth time

Hours (2013)
97 min., rated PG-13.

It's August 29th, 2005, during Hurricane Katrina. Your wife dies in the hospital while giving early birth to your baby daughter, who must remain on a ventilator for 48 hours. Oh and, by the way, Hurricane Katrina is bringing on the power outages and rising floodwaters, which stand in your way of keeping your baby alive. That's the nifty B-movie setup that drives the low-budget pressure-cooker thriller "Hours," the directorial debut of screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who wrote the 2010 "A Nightmare on Elm Street" remake, the 2011 prequel to "The Thing," and "Final Destination 5"). With a heavy heart, it is also one of the now-late Paul Walker's last films, and he is the only thing that keeps "Hours" from falling into complete incompetence.

Walker plays Nolan Hayes, a man arriving to St. Mary's Hospital in New Orleans with his wife, Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez), who has gone into labor five weeks early. After the baby girl survives her mother, Nolan can't seem to accept Abigail's death (and understandably so). With his premature daughter having to be hooked up to a ventilator inside of an incubator for two full days, he stays alongside as Hurricane Katrina hits and breaks the windows of the lobby waiting room. Then the hospital evacuates, the electricity goes out, and a nurse and doctor promise to come back for Nolan and his baby. To make matters worse, the ventilator's backup battery only charges for a few minutes before Nolan has to hook it up to a generator and hand-crank every few minutes. What else could happen?

More in theory than in practice, the ticking-clock plot is tense and a mostly unexploitative Hurricane Katrina backdrop gives the hook the convincing that it needs, but rather than being sustained for its full 97 minutes, "Hours" just grows more frustrating, contrived and strained. Front and center in every scene, Walker single-handedly takes on the challenge and luckily sells it with credible emotion. Nolan is set up as a desperate father who will do anything to save his daughter, but the actor is still not helped by cringe-inducing dialogue to his breathing baby daughter and flashbacks that don't lend much emotional weight as they should. It's no fault of the luminous Rodriguez, but given the writing, a tacked-on vision of a ghostly Abigail also proves to be eye-rolling. Anyone would flail with what's written for them on the page. While the premise isn't a relatable scenario where no one could be prepared, the plausibility of the character's decisions is stretched like a Stretch Armstrong when Nolan is forced to leave his daughter for less than two minutes, taking his time when he climbs several flights of stairs to go to the roof and signal a helicopter. If the heart-tuggery involving keeping an infant alive and a specific natural disaster weren't enough, Heisserer throws in a rescue German Shepard, shots of Adrenalnie (something the writer used in his Freddy Krueger reboot), and clichéd, brutish looters, the latter being a case of circumstances that up the stakes too much.

Cemented by Walker's empathetic turn as a newly single father, "Hours" could have been a leaner, more intense thriller but ends up not being really worth the effort. The film was coincidentally scheduled for limited release well before Walker's fatal car accident, and with a heavy heart, he was just beginning to push himself in a more emotional direction and stretch his acting muscles a bit. The 40-year-old could have been taking the same path as Matthew McConaughey, who was a movie star and has now become such a tour-de-force character actor, but now, we'll never know.

Grade: C -

DVD/Blu-ray: Honestly observed, flawlessly acted "Short Term 12" a small gem not to be overlooked

Short Term 12 (2013) 
96 min., rated R.

Winner of both the Grand Jury Narrative Feature Award and Narrative Audience Award at 2013's SXSW Film Festival, "Short Term 12" is the uncommonly wonderful Little Movie That Could of 2013. Were "triumph of the human spirit" not already a hackneyed cliché that needed to be retired, the unassuming sophomore feature of writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton (expanding upon his 2008 short of the same name) is just that in every sense of the idiom and undoubtedly deserves everyone's attention. Insightfully observed and unwaveringly honest, heartrending and sensitive, but also groundedly funny and wise, "Short Term 12" sheds light on a fresh, underserved milieu: a foster-care community center. 

As it's been said, acting is just listening. Brie Larson is one of those best-kept secret talents who has something behind the eyes and anchors every scene she's in with an innate magnetism. Being in the business for 15 years, both in TV and film (2011's "Rampart" and 2012's "21 Jump Street"), and gaining notice for her supporting roles this year alone in "The Spectacular Now" and "Don Jon," Larson really gets her moment to shine here. The 24-year-old actress plays Grace, the head supervisor of Short Term 12, a group home for troubled youths. She's seen it all, from teens who've had experience with the law and those who are at risk to themselves or others. "Remember, you are not their parent; you're not their therapist. You're here to create a safe environment and that's it," Grace tells newly hired counselor Nate (Rami Malek). (Early on, Nate is positioned as the eyes and ears of the audience. He gets off on the wrong foot, referring to the kids as "underprivileged.") Grace is cool and approachable, wearing a strong face and putting her problems aside to not only devote her life to helping these kids but also mess around with them with squirt guns and games. In the role, Larson is simply remarkable, naturally relatable and able to listen and open up to her charges. 

When the film isn't just being a day-in-the-life at Short Term 12—the term "level drop" is revealed to be a kind of point system based on the kids' behavior and none of the employees can touch or restrain a kid if he or she leaves the grounds—the crux of the story comes down to the arrival of rebellious Jayden (a heartbreaking Kaitlyn Dever), as well as her interaction and burgeoning friendship with Grace that heals them both. Jayden is a cutter, who feels a great deal of pain under her hard, smartass attitude, and just wants her space before her dad picks her up to go live with him. Writer-director Cretton invests his audience in the two girls' friendship with naked emotion and subtlety before their great moment of shared catharsis that still doesn't feel rushed, forced or overly severe. Because of Jayden, Grace is forced to confront her personal "stuff" with her own father. There's also scruffy co-worker Mason (a lovable John Gallagher Jr. from HBO's "Newsroom"), who's also Grace's live-in boyfriend, but they try to keep their relationship under wraps at work. Grace learns she's pregnant early on and unsure of what she should do, even though Mason loves her dearly. One of the kids, Marcus (impressive newcomer Keith Stanfield), also has a motivated role in Grace's life. He's not a bad kid—none of them are—but Marcus, about to turn 18 and passionate about writing rap music, might not be ready to leave the center. Some of the most alternately joyful and devastating scenes involve a counselor with Marcus and Jayden, who, respectively, performs a rap song he wrote and reads a personal children's story about a shark and an octopus. 

Written and directed by Cretton, "Short Term 12" never feels like a glib, judgy Afterschool Special, nor is it depressing or mawkish, but an accessible, compassionate drama made with a sense of hope and tender empathy, never pity, for its troubled characters. The hand-held camera work also extends to the pervasive air of understated authenticity, being executed with a clear-eyed naturalism and skillful immersion without annoying. The filmmaker draws from what he knows and it's immediately telling that Cretton has worked as a social worker in a facility like Short Term 12, seeing all different walks of life. It's exciting (and often very rare) to find a film by a fresh, young filmmaker that doesn't only feel true to life but never forgets to entertain. "Short Term 12" never strikes a wrong, false note not in the astute direction, the lived-in production design, or the authentic tone of the writing and performances. So captivating and overpowering in nearly every low-key, impassioned scene, this small-scale indie gem flew under the radar, but it should not be overlooked. It hits home and sits with you long-term.


Monday, January 13, 2014

iRomance: Lovely, gentle, joyous "Her" tears at the heart

Her (2013)
120 min., rated R.

Putting out only his fourth feature film in 14 years, singular director Spike Jonze (2009's "Where the Wild Things Are") works from his own original screenplay this time and still plays to the rhythm of his own tune. Even without the post-modern, unconventionally brilliant mind of Charlie Kaufman (1999's "Being John Malkovich" and 2002's "Adaptation."), "Her" has such a daringly unusual and excitingly unmissable premise that is willing to explore loneliness and a romantic connection between humanity and artificial intelligence with Jonze's own off-kilter and thought-provoking sensibilities. Weirdly wonderful, open-hearted, and heartbreakingly beautiful, "Her" is a sublime cinematic joy with a gentle intimacy, melancholy and grounded universality about the human experience.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) writes others' romantic letters for a living, but he's nearly numb to human contact. He has yet to finalize his divorce with writer wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), still clinging to their once-happy relationship. Theodore lives alone in a spacious apartment, only speaking with an avatar in the video games he plays and neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), whom he used to date and is now married to an opinionated windbag (Matt Letscher). Then he purchases an OS1, an individual operating system that knows its user and can rifle through e-mails, and downloads Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson) on his computer. Soon, they strike up a friendship, staying up talking, and Theodore goes on a blind date that doesn't go anywhere. But he has Samantha, who's intuitive and curious with so many thoughts, and she can evolve like any human, with the desire to "learn everything about everything." They both find themselves falling in love, even if one of them isn't physically there. Is it a real relationship, or even monogamous?

Languid and deeply profound, "Her" works beautifully through and through on multiple levels. Writer-director Jonze plays on the notion that we are all in love with our phones and computers, which take over all human connection, and takes it to a literal, deeper level. Being in love is to feel alive, even if it's short-lived, and it's a masterstroke that Theodore is never judged for finding love with an OS that is a voice without a body and not tethered to time and space. The screenplay intelligently handles this cockeyed relationship with as much delicacy as one with another human, whether it be the same sex or a different race. Aside from Theodore's ex-wife, nobody flinches at this hopeless romantic dating his OS, not even the crowds of people when Theodore and Samantha share a "Sunday adventure" at the beach. Amy actually has a friendship with an OS, and Theodore even goes on a double date with reception co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt) and his girlfriend (Laura Kai Chen), both of them chatting with Theodore's phone as if Samantha were a real person. Jonze pulls off the seemingly unviable and never takes a wrong turn as things could easily slip into the creepy and ridiculous, especially when Theodore and Samantha consummate their relationship. It's offbeat, sure, but nothing short of truthful. Unpredictably, too, Samantha never becomes a malevolent meddler or stalker, even if she can feel human emotions of sadness, jealousy and confusion. 

Often an emotionally chilly performer who can be hard to penetrate ("The Master," anyone?) but always challenging himself, the chameleonic Phoenix is radiantly moving, sensitive and sympathetic here as a tender lost soul. As Theodore, he uncovers remarkably credible and heartbreaking emotions out of a relationship with his OS. It's utterly breathtaking to just watch him interact so joyfully and naturally with a voice. Samantha Morton originally did the vocals for Samantha, but Johansson is a perfect fit. As the disembodied Samantha, she creates a fully realized character—witty, sexy, generous, helpful, vulnerable—and a playful, comfortable, genuinely loving chemistry with her co-star just through her breathy, soothing voice. In a perfect world, Johansson would earn some sort of accolades. Starting to work with more artistically interesting filmmakers, like David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson, and proving her versatility again and again (especially after being va-va-voomy and complex in "American Hustle"), Adams is naturally funny and down-to-earth as frumpy video game designer and documentary filmmaker Amy. The rest of the cast excels, no matter the size of their role: Mara communicates a relationship history in just a smattering of scenes with regret and bitterness and generously keeps Catherine from being just a stone-cold bitch; Olivia Wilde is her charismatic self, playing a smart, beautiful woman who, on a blind date with Theodore, really likes him but doesn't want him to waste her time; and Portia Doubleday brings a sense of vulnerability and heartbreak without saying a word as a surrogate date. Also, two of the most hilarious uses of voice go to Jonze, himself, as a cute, garbage-mouthed alien in a virtual video game, and Kristen Wiig, as chat room gal SexyKitten.

Another deft touch is the story's time and place. The setting is Los Angeles, but the time is ever so slightly futuristic. A subtle and convincing vision of the smoggy city, it's cleaner and even more advanced with cutting-edge technology and a trend of high-waisted men's fashion. It's pretty prescient and not far out of the realm of possibility of where we're headed in years to come. Jonze also makes stirring use of mixing dialogue-free flashback memories with the present scene's audio. Spare without being sterile, the film glows from the gracefully fluid and alluringly warm cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (2011's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy") to Owen Pallett's music score matched with the poignant contribution of Arcade Fire and Karen O's aching "The Moon Song" to inform the film's themes. The sweetest, most innovative and most perceptive film about love in the digital age handled with the utmost maturity, "Her" feels and thinks outside the box with a heart and soul. It's as unique and perfect a film as you will see this year, and it's hard to imagine anyone not adoring this lovely, moving original.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

Jer-ry! Jer-ry!: Bleakly amusing "August: Osage County" boasts first-rate cast and scenery-chewing

August: Osage County (2013)
121 min., rated R.

Suicide. Addiction. Adultery. Cancer. Incest. Verbal and physical abuse. Being dishonestly marketed as a rosier, palatable family comedyand curiously released on Christmas day in select theaters by the Weinstein Company, possibly to assure audiences that their families are perfect by comparison"August: Osage County" has bitchy, barbed humor poking around the edges, but it's a watchably bleak melodrama first with such heavy thematics and a side of scenery-chewing. The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Broadway play by acclaimed playwright Tracy Letts, whose extremely intense Southern-fried works have already been brought to the screen by William Friedkin with both 2007's "Bug" and 2012's "Killer Joe." Unevenly condensed from three and a half hours to two, Letts' screenplay boils down to a family soap opera where skeletons tumble out of the closet and dirty laundry gets aired out in the open, but as a play on film, it has by no means lost its darkly comedic sting. Rather, it's a masterclass in acting, bolstered immeasurably by its main course — that first-rate ensemble cast.

"August: Osage County," obviously set during a very hot month in Oklahoma, begins with the disappearance and subsequent death of the Weston patriarch, Beverly (Sam Shepard), who was a poet and a drunk. His funeral draws the dysfunctional Weston clan to the farmhouse, now solely inhabited by Beverly's wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), an overmedicated, chain-smoking, vitrol-spewing piece of work who ironically has cancer of the mouth, and newly hired Native American housekeeper Johnna (Misty Upham). The Westons' estranged daughters include Barbara (Julia Roberts), who lives in Colorado with broody 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and just separated from husband Bill (Ewan McGregor); even-keeled middle sibling Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who stuck around to take care of her parents; and the chatty, air-headed Karen (Juliette Lewis), who moved to Miami and brings along her latest man, sleazy fiancée Steve (Dermot Mulroney), in his flashy Ferrari. There is also Violet's younger sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), long-suffering husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their unemployed, emotionally stunted son, "Little" Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Violet appreciates Ivy but favors Barb, probably because she truly is a "mother's daughter" in cruel temperament. With so much family togetherness, old wounds are opened and resentments rear their ugly head.

Director John Wells (2010's "The Company Men") organically opens up the staginess of the play just enough to fill the film medium as best as anyone probably could. Occasionally breaking away from the brutally honest putdowns and unrestrained smackdowns inside that one cooped-up but isolated setting are exteriors and beautiful snapshots of the Oklahoma plains and landscapes. The production details of the family's home feel lived-in, and Wells makes us feel the August heat, which takes on a figurative meaning once the Westons get together. Also, Eric Clapton's upbeat "Lay Down Sally" turns into a song of grief. Akin to live theatre, characters often talk in monologues around the dinner table and the material doesn't always call for subtlety, especially when the shriekfests begin and lunch plates get thrown threefold. It might seem a bit much, sounding more screechy and broadly pitched than it really is. When it actually is, by turns amusing, memorably mean, and tensely uncomfortable, there's a 20-minute post-funeral dinner devolving into a hideous spat, where you know Violet is ready to pounce as soon as she sits at the head of the table and lights up a cigarette. A bigger problem is what Letts had to cut. As a result, not all of the family members and subplots are fully drawn, and housekeeper Johnna's observer role becomes largely forgotten before the end, but the jaundiced relationship between Violet and Barb is the developed crux of the biscuit.

For mere entertainment value, it's a thrill and hoot to watch two of the industry's most vital leading ladies, one known for being an acting powerhouse and the other a radiant movie star, go toe to toe and be free of vanity. Streep can sink her teeth into just about any role and, without surprise, she's dynamite as Violet, who's an outspoken, pill-popping widow but not a shrinking violet nor the nurturing type. Violet is who she is, toxic and mad as hell, and we see why she drove her children away. If you thought the actress projected to the back row in "Mamma Mia!," this is her doing Joan Crawford. A regal thespian who never hams out of character, the de-glammed Streep goes all in, like a ferocious cyclone ripping through an entire town, and the acidic dialogue just rolls off her tongue. Bitter and seething as Barb, who's none too shy in rolling up her sleeves and sticking the verbal knife back into her mother while being left to the fate of her hard hereditary make-up, Roberts hasn't had a juicier part since 2004's "Closer." Without widening her mega-watt smile, America's likable sweetheart seems to be relishing the opportunity to play an understandably unpleasant shrew in believably volatile form, and it's refreshing to see more moving, layered work from her. And what an acerbic pleasure to hear Roberts harshly tell Ms. Streep, "Eat the fish, bitch!" and go on a cussing spree like a sailor.

Accommodating the two center-stage showboaters, the remaining actors, all ten of them, still have their hearts in this project, etching their characters with color, depth and a complex history; it's a relief how well director Wells dials back the supporting performances within such a tight space. Martindale is pitch-perfect and finds truth and forgiveness within all the melodrama as Mattie Fae, who shares the same blood as sister Violet without letting her snippy truth-telling all hang out until her disappointing son arrives. As Barb's younger sisters, Nicholson brings a wonderful calm and affectingly underplays her simmering emotions, and Lewis initially adds levity and then lets us see a bruised, delusional woman with the worst taste in men. Breslin holds her own as Barb's vegetarian daughter, and McGregor is two-note but manages a little empathy as the unfaithful husband. As the one outsider (save for Upham's Johnna), Mulroney gets to have the most fun, blaring Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca" from his sports car in the country and getting laughs during the dinner scene. Cooper is funny and quite poignant in his heartbreaking last scene of finally speaking his mind as Mattie Fae's husband, and Cumberbatch touchingly digs into an odder, more sensitive side than we've seen from him as the put-upon Charles, but he's given short shrift. Finally, before he's gone for good, Shepard gives it his all as Beverly, who shows the most human decency by being dead.

"Thank god we can't tell the future; we'd never get out of bed," Barbara tells Jean. As oppressively downbeat as that line and living inside a country home with the shades taped shut, the story has enough thematic darkness with its dozen players occupying one madhouse, but it doesn't have much emotional closure or leave the impact it should. Squeezing in weighty, taboo subjects is not the same or as dramatically satisfying as actually exploring them, and one family secret is such a stretch that it grows even ickier than how it first appeared. Still, for a black comedy, the dialogue is far from cuddly, quick as a whip, and often hilariously punchy. It should also be said that the film isn't wholly ineffectual as drama; the quiet respites are just richer than the strident, if nonetheless-entertaining, screaming matches out of The Jerry Springer Show. Sliding between cutting remarks, theatrics, and pain, "August: Osage County" could be an unendurable downer to the majority, but limited to its performances and Letts' literate, razor-sharp words, it can be an upper. The whole thing is worthwhile as long as one doesn't inflate the film's worth for being much more than a showy, electrically performed actors' showcase.