Friday, February 28, 2014

Rob Roy on a Plane: Until a third-act dip, "Non-Stop" makes for a fun, tense ride

Non-Stop (2014)
106 min., rated PG-13.

"Executive Decision." "Turbulence." "Flightplan." "Red Eye." "Snakes on a Plane." All of these thrillers are set on an airplane, three out of five of them being released post-9/11, but none of them had "Global Action Star" Liam Neeson. Back on schedule after "Taken," "The Grey," "Unknown," and the laughably stoopid "Taken 2," the 61-year-old Irish actor is back in badass action-star mode with his "Unknown" director, Jaume Collet-Serra. (This might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as the pair already has another actioner, "Run All Right," slated for their third February release next year). For a long while, "Non-Stop" is ridiculously entertaining, legitimately suspenseful, and hyper-focused as a crackerjack whodunit suspense-thriller set in the friendly skies. It holds true to its word, giving exactly what you want in another February-released vehicle for Neeson to kick the poo out of bad guys, but then it has to start trying to make sense of itself.

Neeson is Bill Marks, a federal air marshal who's clearly down on hard times, as he stirs some whiskey into his coffee with a toothbrush and touches a photo of his young daughter. His latest flight is a transatlantic excursion from New York to London. Before boarding at the gate, Bill takes notice of the passengers and helps a little girl who's flying by herself and reminds him of his own daughter. Once in the air, he starts receiving text messages over a secure network from someone on board, threatening to kill someone every 20 minutes if $150 million is not wired and deposited into an account. Yes, the texts are coming from inside the plane! Bill brings this to the attention of the pilot, head flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery), and fellow marshal Jack Hammond (Anson Mount), but as the stakes rise and panic sets in for the passengers and crew, he must take charge of a possible hijacking situation. He/she/they is/are not just out for money; they want to frame the marshal.

The minimalistic premise of "Non-Stop" not only plays on one's fears of flying, but on the universal anxieties of terrorism. For the film's concise and tensely enthralling first half, the locked-room setting on a crowded 767 is milked with fluid, no-fuss panache (aside from some chaotically edited choreography) by director Collet-Serra, who's working with a goofier script than usual. He builds a claustrophobic atmosphere in such a confined space, conveys the threatening text messages through speech bubbles, and shoots the hell out of a fight sequence, staged within the plane lavatory's tight quarters (remember, even joining the mile-high club is a tight squeeze). The bevy of screenwritersJohn W. Richardson & Chris Roach and Ryan Engle—knows how a whodunit works, too. They make sure a good dozen souls, whether it be passengers, flight attendants, or one of the pilots, all stand as shifty suspects in a guessing game out of an Agatha Christie mystery, without just throwing a name into a hat. So far, so good: this "refrigerator movie" is just the right amount of ludicrous without being insulting.

Having positioned himself as an ass-kicking action star who barks and growls, acting as if he hasn't had his first cup of (spiked) coffee yet, Neeson brings along his set of skills, which still includes shading to a performance. As Bill Marks, he doesn't consider himself a good father or even a good man, but when caught in a perilous situation, we're never in doubt that he'll be saving the day. No one else is exempt from being a red herring, not even Julianne Moore, who lends reliable support as Jen, a talkative woman who flies a lot, insists on having a window seat, and seems trustworthy enough to help Bill. Michelle Dockery (TV's "Downton Abbey"), as helpful flight attendant Nancy; Scoot McNairy, as a chatty guy who asks Bill for a light before boarding; Corey Stoll (Netflix's "House of Cards"), as a hot-tempered NYPD officer; Omar Metwally, as a Muslim doctor; and Nate Parker, as a rude business suit who gets in Bill's way, all round out the above-average cast. Though Lupita Nyong'o shot this after "12 Years a Slave" (and took on a Grace Jones haircut), perhaps no one knew she'd be an Oscar nominee because she has nothing to do and has about three lines as a barely present flight attendant named Gwen.

Once the clock really starts ticking and the terrorist's plan is revealed in an obligatory monologue, "Non-Stop" doesn't quite stick the landing. Instead of the bad guy's garden-variety "get rich" motive, the filmmakers must have had loftier, topical intentions akin to Paul Greengrass' "United 93." Not only are the "whys" underdeveloped and the "hows" pretty preposterous, but the inclusion of such a m.o. comes off as cheap and exploitative. This is where the film stops being just a far-fetched, assuredly unpretentious popcorn picture and borders on real-world emotional manipulation. To iron out the letdown of a climax, the cabin loses air pressure, so there can be a gloriously over-the-top shot of Neeson grabbing a floating gun and making a couple rounds count. Up until it has to explain itself in a routine stand-off, "Non-Stop" should still be noted for how well it takes off as meat-and-potatoes airplane-set genre exercises are concerned (even if this one doesn't have the threat of hundreds of poisonous, hyperactive hissers). Check your bag of logic at the check-in service counter and just go along for the turbulent ride.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Quadruple Dog Dare You: Brutal, daringly cynical "Cheap Thrills" goes there

Cheap Thrills (2014) 
85 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

When the film played at the Alamo Drafthouse during its Fantastic Fest premiere last year, the low-budgeted "Cheap Thrills" actually inspired willing audience members to follow through on a couple of dares. One man tattooed the film's title on his buttock. Another dipped his genitalia in a bowl of Sriracha hot sauce to collect $100 cash. That's the power of cinema for you, folks! Both dangerously demented and darkly provocative, this chokehold of an asphalt-black comedy, exhibitionist horror-thriller, morality play, and satirical socioeconomical schism is a nasty piece of business. It's not for mass audiences who often ask the question, "What sicko thinks up this stuff?" but it does hold the top spot for the bat-shit craziest, most brutal and most boundlessly twisted film of the year. "Cheap Thrills" brings it, and how!

Craig Daniels (Pat Healy) is down on his luck. Giving up on his writing career and working at an auto shop, he has to support his wife (Amanda Fuller) and infant son, only to receive an eviction notice the same day his boss announces their downsizing and lets him go. Drowning his sorrows at a dive bar, Craig then runs into his estranged broham, Vince (Ethan Embry), a scruffy ex-con who now works as a tax collector. They haven't seen each other in five years and catch up on their missing years before the rich, loud, and coke-snorting Colin (David Koechner) buys them a $300 bottle of Tequila. He just wants to party and show his bored younger wife, Violet (Sara Paxton), a fun birthday, no matter how many hundred-dollar bills he frivolously throws down. Colin starts placing innocuously stupid bets, challenging Craig and Vince on who can finish a Tequila shot first for $50 or $200 to the one who can get slapped by a rough-looking barfly. Seguing to a strip club, a slap to a stripper's behind and a punch to a bouncer's face make the two hapless losers richer. Once they retire to the strange couple's lavish Los Angeles home, Colin really ups the anteand the payoffs, thanks to his safe of $250,000 in cash, that could take away both guys' financial worries. If Craig doesn't want his family to live on the streets, he will do anything, even if that means abasing his being. Psyching each other out to destructive ends, Craig and Vince are game, but holding their breath will have to be far from their threshold of appallingly vile dares.

The ballsy, incendiary feature debut of director E.L. Katz, scripted by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga, "Cheap Thrills" is made with sheer daring and unruly abandon. It could be read as socially irresponsible, but it is a startlingly cynical and culturally relevant cautionary tale that takes a lean and really mean premise—like the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV episode of "Man from the South" or Quentin Tarantino's segment in 1995's "Four Rooms"—and runs with it to perverse, unforgiving extremes in the how far would you go? mold of the thoughtfully nasty "Would You Rather." As the dares intensify and tempers rise inside Colin and Violet's humble abode, this four-hander becomes an obscenely grim and gonzo ride of sneaky, darkly uncomfortable giggles and amoral, ironic shocks. Were it not for our rooting interest in Craig, the film might have strictly been a, yes, cheap-thrills exercise in icky human degradation. Instead, it provokes some disturbing questions about human nature when one is faced with a moral quandary. How far would you go to become financially stable? Can a price be placed on everything? Would you choose every worst-case scenario over being poor? The "oh, come on!" factor does get increasingly ratcheted up to a radical "Fear Factor" vomitorium, almost crossing the line into gross-out schlock, and yet, you believe Craig and Vince have been clouded of all judgment and stripped of any moral compass to act like base Pavlovian dogs.  

Seeing a chance to make things right after reassuring his worried wife on the phone, Craig is no longer clear-eyed and will never be the same after this long, crazy night. Character actor Healy gives Craig a pathetic, desperate sadness and slipperiness, venturing into the heart of darkness and making terrible decisions to turn his financial situation around. Though he's worked since, Embry is far removed from Preston Meyers in "Can't Hardly Wait," imbuing the live-wire Vince with a scary intensity, especially when wired on Colin's "party favors." No real background is given to sleazy ringmaster Colin, who can make two friends do anything when dangling more money than he knows what to do with in their faces, but Koechner plays up his boisterous comic persona with homicidal glee. Even with maybe less than a full page of dialogue, the sweet-faced Paxton (who shared a fun and loose chemistry with Healy in "The Innkeepers") gets to break free as the enigmatic, fascinatingly disturbed Violet. She only seems indifferent at first, texting on her phone in front of company, but gets a sick thrill out of quietly pulling the strings. Also, the cinematography by Andrew Wheeler and Sebastian Winterø is slickly dynamic and intimate, bringing a neon-infused, nightmarish quality to the early scenes' seedy bar and strip club.

Experiencing the film is like refusing to look away from a gasp-inducing accident. The viewer will be led blindly and be left wondering just what crazy, nail-biting direction the film will escalate to next. No doubt about it, "Cheap Thrills" is an understandably acquired taste and will be split down the middle by audiences, but it has no reason for compromise and doesn't have the time to wear out its welcome, burning slowly but surely at a compact 85 minutes. So effectively revolting and outrageously savage, this little morsel of misanthropic insanity punches you in the gut and makes sure you feel it in its lingering final moments. You might need a leather belt to bite down on, while others will choose a barf bag.

Grade: B +

Monday, February 24, 2014

Father Kills Best: Wacky "3 Days to Kill" tries to be 3 movies too many

3 Days to Kill (2014) 
113 min., rated PG-13.

Unless they are intended that way, some movies can be like schadenfreude  you laugh at them, not with them. "3 Days to Kill" isn't the worst way to kill time, but it's such a "what the hell?" curiosity that it's hard to know how to take it. Misguided and zonky in equal measure, this could only be the brainchild of music-video director McG (who helmed both high-energy "Charlie's Angels" movies) and one Luc Besson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Adi Hasak (2010's "From Paris with Love"). That combination makes for a gleefully nonsensical, cuckoo-bananas hodgepodge that doesn't know what it wants to be, so it ends up being a Eurotrashy pummel-'em-with-bullets actioner, a black comedy, and a domestic drama with an incidental plot device concerning cancer, all rolled into one strange package. More can be less, but here, more is just plain wacky.

Jason Statham and Liam Neeson were apparently unavailable, so since Kevin Costner is having a moment again, he has been cast as the token badass. Costner plays Ethan Renner, a weary Pittsburgh-blooded CIA assassin who's killed his share of baddies and hasn't had a sick day in all of his thirty-two years in the field. His latest targets are two international terrorists known as The Albino (a bug-eyed, scarily gaunt Tómas Lemarquis) and The Wolf, but the former escapes and the latter has not yet been identified. Being diagnosed with a brain tumor that spreads to his lungs, Ethan is the one who's terminal now. While in Paris, he decides to reconcile with his estranged wife, Christine (Connie Nielsen), who gives him a second chance after hearing of his three-to-five month expiration date, and 16-year-old daughter, Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld), who's reluctant to even call Ethan "Dad." Naturally, the antiquated movie rule is that, just as a hitman thinks he's out, he's pulled back in for one last job. There's a catch this time, though, when disguised operative Vivi Delay (Amber Heard) offers him an experimental drug to extend his life. Somehow, Ethan will have to make up for lost time as an absentee father to Zoey and torture bad guys for information (and parenting advice). He can either die or kill.

From a standpoint of serious film criticism, "3 Days to Kill" is a wishy-washy mess with incongruous shifts in tone and almost-surreal daffiness. It either takes itself too seriously, as a woman has her head decapitated in an elevator, or too lightly, to the point that Ethan gives his daughter fisticuff tips after she gets sent to the principal's office for punching another girl and later tells her, "It's easier to lie than to tell the truth." The film has such a problematic identity crisis with so many half-measures that it all feels so tonally off or just atonal. For no reason at all, a Malian family of squatters have sought shelter in Ethan's flat, redecorating and getting ready for the patriarch's daughter to have her baby. It's a boy, so guess whom they name the baby after? Icona Pop's dance-pop song "I Love It" even gets its own deadening running joke, wherein Ethan will be ready to torture one of The Wolf and The Albino's toadies before Zoey calls. Can you guess her chosen ringtone? In one of the many times Zoey calls in (another in which she's actually sitting on a roller coaster track), she wants a spaghetti sauce recipe to make for dinner, and what do you know, Dad has a Sicilian accountant named Guido with him and duct-taped to a toilet. In other mind-boggling father-daughter time, Ethan rescues Zoey from date rapists in a rave restroom after swigging a bottle of vodka to relieve him of his drug's hallucinatory side effects, and then he lugs around a purple bicycle, so eventually he can teach Zoey how to ride it, complete with "Dad, I'm doing it!" happiness and bystander applause. Then there is a scuffle in a charming little supermarket that is so abrupt and over-the-top, throwing in a meat slicer for good measure, that it's predicted to be a dream sequence, until it's revealed differently. 

Even at 59, Costner fits the role of Ethan to a T, proving his mettle that his star quality from the '90s has not been lost and that he can make a scarf look manly. Gruff and droll, he might be the only actor to get the most grip on this erratic, chowder-headed material. As Zoey, Steinfeld manages the teenage-girl rebellion and whininess without irking the viewer too much. Five bucks to anyone who can decipher what the hell Amber Heard is being directed to do here. Dressed in an assortment of black fetish leather and a different colored wig for every occasion as a vampy femme fatale, the talented actress seems to waltz in from an entirely different, more cartoonish movie that could be from some uncredited comic-book property. She cheekily plays Vivi Delay (that's her name, don't wear it out), who might as well be a kinky figment of Ethan's imagination, and her intermittent scenes might be the loopiest of all.

Taking chances in wanting to be more than a routine action movie, "3 Days to Kill" is something of a schizoid hoot that won't be accused of being boring. Director McG has visual style to burn, throws on an appealingly edgy techno score, and actually sets things off on a solid foot with a tense, involving, tautly cut pre-credit sequence in and around a hotel. Once everything is well underway, there's also a pretty thrilling car chase. It's too bad then that this has to be one of the most noticeably sloppy studio releases seen in a while, too. Apparently, editor Audrey Simonaud had no other takes to work with in the editing bay; if the actors' dialogue doesn't always match the movement of their mouths, other lines were clumsily re-dubbed with ADR. This is a distracting gaffe, and it happens on more than five occasions to be inexcusable. Also, the film was clearly meant to be R-rated but safely landed a PG-13. Who actually thought that any viewer with the power of sight wouldn't notice the censorship, via a laughably fake cloud of CG smoke, in a strip club? As if crippled by reshoots or principal photography taking place before anyone got the memo of what kind of movie they were actually making, "3 Days to Kill" is only watchable as a One Last Job thriller. It's too tone-deaf to be a comedy, and no matter how many flashbacks of little Zoey get thrown in our face doesn't make it any less forced or perfunctory as a family drama. It can be fun, but usually it's for the wrong reasons.

Grade: C +

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Invasion of the Throwback: "Almost Human" gooey, well-made fun where it counts

Almost Human (2014)
76 min., not rated (equivalent to an R).

A low-budget effort doesn't have to mean low-rent when spirit overshadows cost limitations. Case in point: "Almost Human," a nifty, scrappy grab-bag of alien abduction, backwoods-slasher splatter, and genre-loving homage. It will also work as a calling card for first-time indie filmmaker Joe Begos. Only on this planet for 25 years and the writer-producer-director-cinematographer-maybe-even-craft-service-department really knows his 1980s horror, as if he's been watching every bloody, gutsy flick on VHS since he came out of the womb. The influences are certainly there, but "Almost Human" trades in meta shout-outs for an irresistible weirdness all its own.

The film opens on the night of October 13th, 1987, in the small town of Patten, Maine. That night, Seth (Graham Skipper) frantically knocks on the door of friend Mark (Josh Ethier) after witnessing their other buddy getting sucked up into the sky by a blue, piercingly loud beam and then vanishing. Soon after, Mark's body is snatched up, too. Two years after the county encountered a power outage and the disappearances of his pals, Seth is having bad dreams about Mark returning. Sure enough, two hunters stumble upon the missing Mark naked and covered in a slimy substance in the woods. He not only goes on a killing spree, but might have a bigger agenda. Not to mention, Mark's former girlfriend, Jen (Vanessa Leigh), has moved on, now engaged with Clyde (Anthony Amaral III), but we all know he's toast. Before Seth and Jen even know of Mark's return, they already have a feeling something bad is about to happen.

Gooey, gory, blood-drenched, and proud of it, "Almost Human" is old-school fun and blessedly free of any cheap CGI, catering to those who prefer the latex-made practical effects of years gone by. That's just part of the film's modest, shoestring-budget charm. An opening sound mix of crickets chirping and piano keys remind of "Friday the 13th," and the credits' font is very John Carpenter-esque, as are touches of Andy Garfield's cool, ominous synthesizer score. Aside from one glaring editing faux pas that makes an abrupt change from night to morning, the film's overall production values are reasonably polished and more assured than not. Director Begos does not pussyfoot around with the gnarly on-screen kills, either; a daytime set-piece of the shotgun- and chainsaw-wielding Mark invading upon the new owners of his old house is particularly tense and brutal. That brings us to the acting. Some of the stiff dialogue doesn't help, but Begos was smart in finding three competent leads in the wide-eyed Skipper (who oddly resembles Daniel Radcliffe in certain shots), the imposing Ethier, and the sincere Leigh to carry the film and limiting the screen time for the untrained, plainly amateurish actors.

As a down-'n'-dirty genre throwback, the film shouldn't have to do anything new, but even in its breed of do-it-yourself horror filmmaking, the pic isn't quite up to the levels of Ti West or Adam Wingard. More icky than scary, but occasionally creepy and inventive in its own right, "Almost Human" takes a boldly bananas direction that recalls the gross bodily horrors of "Species" and "Slither" without a wink. Then, once the "Night of the Living Dead" finale hits, the outcome turns out to be little more than an anticlimax. Still, on the whole, there's nothing wrong with an enthusiastically made B-movie quickie when the man putting it together slathers his film in affection and solid craftsmanship.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dream Weaver: "Wind Rises" takes a while to soar, but still soulful, gorgeous Miyazaki

The Wind Rises (2014)
126 min., rated PG-13.

Special Note: Released for one week in New York and Los Angeles in December of 2013, "The Wind Rises" is being re-released in the U.S. as an English-dubbed version, featuring voice talents of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Werner Herzog, William H. Macy, Darren Criss, Mae Whitman, Mandy Patinskin, Jennifer Grey, Stanley Tucci, Elijah Wood, and Ronan Farrow. Looks like a great voice cast, but it goes to show how we American audiences need things spelled out for us. Then again, if recognizable stars and no subtitles will turn wider audiences into ticket buyers for an artistic film, then so be it. The following review is in relation to the Japanese-voiced, English-subtitled version, the way it was intended to be seen.

Studio Ghibli and its founder, 72-year-old Japanese animation visionary Hayao Miyazaki (2013's "From Up on Poppy Hill"), have always veered toward an uniquely poetic experimental style with surreal, manga-derived fantasy and mysticism in his narrative films. Having announced his retirement several times in the past, the master seems serious this time. If that's the case and Miyazaki's eleventh feature marks his final film, "The Wind Rises" goes out on a high note as a bittersweet farewell. His usual output of films can't be reduced to being called "cartoons" or thrown-together throwaways to fill a niche market they are all too visually beautiful, resonant, thematic, and altogether special for that. While not a patch on 2002's vastly imaginative and enchantingly phantasmagoric masterpiece "Spirited Away," the filmmaker's latest is still a finely crafted work of art that counts twice as his most grounded and most personal. Leaving one with plenty to admire but fewer chances to connect emotionally, this is arguably lesser Miyazaki, but Miyazaki nonetheless.

Set during the lead-up to World War II within Japan's aviation industry, "The Wind Rises" is Miyazaki's fictionalized biography of famed fighter-plane engineer Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Hideaki Anno). As a child, Jiro dreams of flying, but his nearsightedness keep him from making pilot. When he sits down to read an English magazine, he meets Italian aeronautical engineer Gianni Caproni (Mansai Nomura) in a dream, inspiring him to design airplanes. His dream mentor offers sage advice, "Artists are only creative for ten years," and wishes Jiro will live his ten to the fullest. Flash-forward to Jiro as a college student, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 strikes Tokyo. He ends up saving a young girl named Naoko (Miori Takimoto) and her injured nanny whom he meets on the train. After the natural disaster, Tokyo's economy is in the tank and Jiro is an engineer, brought in to manufacturing company Mitsubishi by his perpetually cranky, diminuitive boss, Kurokawa (Masahiko Nishimura). More years pass and Jiro is promoted to design a Navy-sponsored fighter plane before he meets the older Naoko. They fall in love, but Naoko suffers from tuberculosis. Will she live to see the day that Jiro perfects his prototype of his first successful invention of flight?

Miyazaki's affinity for strange and fantastical world-building is mostly in short supply here, so there will be no reprisal of "stink spirits," old hags, or anything of that otherworldly nature. Instead, "The Wind Rises" is more of a sprawling story of aviation, dreams, history, and the Japanese culture. Like any sprawling historical or biographical live-action film, the storytelling is deliberately winding, not immediately focused and takes a good thirty minutes to get to the point. By the same logic, Miyazaki always allows his narrative to breathe and develop organically, unlike so many of America's fast-paced animated films. If one isn't swept up in Jiro at the drawing board and shop-talk of plane design involving the shaping of a wing like a mackerel bone's curvature, the Jiro-Naoko relationship finally comes in and pulls off a surprising poignancy. Though the film has received some ardent controversy over following an engineer of a death machine (the Zero planes used in Pearl Harbor) as the protagonist, Miyazaki does not glorify war, but merely reflects the time.

Accompanying the film's gentle, soulful spirit is gorgeous visual poetry, which further confirms the creativity and care Miyazaki puts into each of his visual poems. The 2-D hand-drawn animation retains the purity of a good old-fashioned drawing and weaves a dreamlike mood, especially during the magical-realism interludes of Jiro and Caproni walking on the wings of planes. Arresting imagery abounds in each shot, including the startling visualization of the earthquake and a fire looming over Tokyo to Jiro's soaring designs becoming fiery failures. Its title deriving from a poem by Paul Valéry, "The Wind Rises" keeps coming back to the line, "The wind is rising, we must strive to live." It is a profound lyric that celebrates inspiration and imagination like an ode to not only plane engineers but the dreamer in all of us. Even if this really is the masterful dreamweaver's swang song, one last warm-hearted feast for the eyes is enough cause for celebration.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Classical Stage Fright: "Grand Piano" a tautly crafted De Palma-esque opus

Grand Piano (2014)
90 min., rated R.

Armed with a nervy, simple, and rather inspired gimmick fit for a tight 90-minute running time, "Grand Piano" is a crafty little thriller Brian De Palma probably wished he got around to making. Tautly devised with a skillful flair and class by director Eugenio Mira, working from a nicely sustained script by writer Damien Chazelle (2013's "The Last Exorcism Part II" and this year's Sundance favorite "Whiplash"), the film is executed with a hypnotic alchemy in bringing his audience to a fever pitch. While confining its protagonist at a stationary piano in a wide-open auditorium, it never feels anything short of cinematic with a stylized sweep.

Five years ago, gifted and famed classical pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) took a hiatus from tickling the ivories due to nerves and pressure. On a special night at a swanky Chicago concert hall, he plans to make a comeback performance dedicated to deceased mentor Patrick. Tom is nervous about choking and flubbing notes again. He's welcomed back with encouraging words, but discouraged by not-so-nice words from others. The hall is a packed house and his adored actress wife Emma (Kerry Bishé) sits in a box seat. When the time comes to play his score, he takes a seat, backed by a philharmonic. As he begins turning the sheet music, an alarming red message has been written inside the margins "Play one wrong note and you die." Initially assuming it's just a mean prank, Tom finds more messages on the next few pages and notices a red laser targeting him from the balcony, confirming that if he stops playing or asks for help he will be shot between the eyes. In between rests, Tom gets a call from the sniper (John Cusack) and makes him wear an earpiece, listening to all of his threatening plans in front of the piano. The jittery pianist must then flawlessly play an "unplayable" piece, or else Emma will die, too. (Emma and Tom's friends, a complaining couple, are also used as comic relief and body-count fodder; in other words, no one is safe.) This perilous situation can only add to Tom's anxiety, putting what's worse than his career at stake: his life.

"Grand Piano" opens with a deliciously elegant title sequence over Victor Reyes' beautifully unsettling doom-laden score and imagery of a concert grand. Constructed in real time, Tom's heightened predicament is rendered plausible and the film is nearly airtight in its concise narrative and pacing. Camera movements are scrupulously orchestrated with the kind of fluid, operatic swoops and technical bravura worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as any showboating by De Palma. After scalping women as a pathetic killer in 2013's "Maniac," Wood is back to playing a relatively normal type. As Tom, the actor embodies not only the character's anxieties, desperation, and refusal to be a victim by multitasking at the piano but, most technical of all, musical talent without breaking total concentration. Wood pulls a fast one on the audience, having practiced with a piano teacher for only three weeks, and his finger work that wasn't faked with editing certainly paid off. Capable support abounds: Cusack mines menace with his voice as the mysterious sniper; Bishé exudes warmth and modesty as Emma; Don McManus lends humor as Tom's friend and conductor; and Alex Winter (Bill of "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure") also turns up as the sniper's backstage security assistant. 

Holding back on cheap thrills when expertly mounting tension and dread will do just fine, "Grand Piano" is also sleekly restrained and masterfully timed in its off-stage violence that is suggestive in the Hitchcockian vein. Even as the finale comes down to a more standard confrontationand the sniper's explained motivation for his elaborately staged plot remains a mere MacGuffin—"Grand Piano" is riveting, unpredictable, and endlessly stylish. It's one of those one-location pressure cookers, not unlike "Speed" and "Phone Booth," and a "refrigerator movie," where you'll have fun as long as you don't go poking for holes upon more careful scrutiny after the show.

Grade: B +

Monday, February 17, 2014

I Love You, Dude: "Date and Switch" a likable, sweet surprise that rejects stereotypes

Date and Switch (2014)
91 min., rated R.

"Gay Dude" would have gotten more attention as a title, or scared away less open-minded straight audiences, but the shooting title was changed to "Date and Switch," which, of course, is a cute double entendre for "bait and switch." Being released only into select theaters and video-on-demand platforms, this likably modest little high-school comedy is smarter, funnier, and sweeter than anything the teen genre has seen in a while. Director Chris Nelson (who luckily recovers after 2013's "Ass Backwards") and writer Alan Yang (TV's "Parks and Recreation") break down the wall of teen-movie clichés with a peppy film that doesn't pander or fall into obvious exaggeration or stereotypes. Their tone is shrewder than that verbally raunchy but politically correct, and goofy without being stupid.

Here's a classic setup. Matty (Hunter Cope), the schlubby one, and Michael (Nicholas Braun), the "smooth-talking" one, are 18 years old, have been best friends since grade school in Glen Ellen, California, and play in an instrumental TV theme-song cover band. After both dump their girlfriends, they make a pact to do the deed by prom. Then there's a fresh, progressive wrinkle on that setup. That same night, Matty comes out to Michael ("I'm a gay dude." "Like gay gay? Like dicks in butts gay, or like retarded gay? Like dude, Nicolas Cage movies are gay!") Michael needs time to wrap his brain around this unexpected news, but nothing really changes at first, as he becomes Matty's wingman. Then Matty's ex, Em (Dakota Johnson), enters the picture. Even after he's come out of the closet to both Em and Michael, a drug-induced Matty loses his virginity with an intoxicated Em. Afterwards, Matty starts seeing Greg (Zach Cregger), while Michael starts falling for Em. Common complications ensue.

A bromance at its core, "Date and Switch" isn't so much a story of self-discovery about a teenage boy's insecurities in coming out of the closet. We've seen that before. Instead, it's about another teenage boy coming to terms with his best friend's homosexuality; a momentary change that will ultimately change nothing between them. As Michael, Nicholas Braun is likable and knows how to deliver a line, reminding somewhat of another Miles Teller but carving out his own individual spot. Relative newcomer Hunter Cope is Braun's equal as Matty, establishing a very relatable portrayal of an 18-year-old who's always known about his true sexual identity and finally reveals it to his best friend. Together, they are one of the more appealing and endearing pairs of dudes in the "Superbad" mold. Of course, Michael doesn't know how to act right away and doesn't always do the right thing, but he does lug around a pot brownie cake he and Matty made together as a symbol of their friendship. The treatment of Matty immediately rejects the mincing, light-in-his-loafers caricature. Even he admits to being overweight, not liking curtains, and never having watched the Tony Awards. When the friends go to their first gay bar—or first bar—Michael is actually more excited to find someone for Matty, who retorts, "I'm not just gonna have sex with anyone because I'm gay. I'm gay. I'm not a whore."

Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) is radiant and down-to-earth as Em, a mature, free-thinking young woman who's even guilty of making a mistake when under the influence of alcohol but never blames herself or acts insensitive for Matty being gay. Greg feels more like an idea than a fully formed person, but Zach Cregger (2009's "Miss March") still gives the character a personality and a point-of-view. The rest of the supporting cast is also fun. Gary Cole plays Matty's manly father, and Megan Mullally (who just played a gay teen's mother in this year's "G.B.F."), as Matty's mother, combines her comedic shtick and talents for making a scene ring truer and more touching than it could be. Rob Huebel, Aziz Ansari, and Wendi McLendon-Covey also turn up in broadly funny cameos.

The Matty-Greg relationship could have been explored more deeply, but as it stands, "Date and Switch" is more of a bromance. There's the embarrassing "dad walking in on son looking at porn" gag, à la "American Pie," between curious Michael and his father (Nick Offerman), but it's handled in an amusing way that doesn't force the father character to be an idiot. Most of the film is like that, treating its characters with a refreshing intelligence and allowing each one to actually communicate in way actual humans do. "Date and Switch" isn't strictly a "gay movie" and should be accessible to everyone. Of course, the movie that gets the "bro friendship" right gets less of a chance than "That Awkward Moment," which solely slid by on the chemistry of its three more-recognizable male stars. In contrast, this has more to say in an uncommonly positive light and comes as a nice surprise.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Summer Lovin': Blandness gets the best of dreamy-looking "Endless Love"

Endless Love (2014)
105 min., rated PG-13.

"Endless Love" might be the prettiest, most sun-washed Abercrombie & Fitch commercial blown up for the big screen with two comely English model-turned-actors who could be in a contract with The CW network. It's a remake of the 1981 Brooke Shields vehicle, cited to be the worst film of its decade, so maybe Scott Spencer's novel was dying to be re-adapted. Written and directed by Shana Feste (2010's clunky, clichéd "Country Strong") and co-written by Joshua Safran (TV's "Gossip Girl"), this girl-and-boy-fall-in-love, girl's-dad-tries-keeping-them-apart romantic melodrama is indefensibly bland, doing little to differentiate itself from the spate of Nicholas Sparks romances, but even if it's sometimes to a fault, it unabashedly embraces its gauzy first-love sensitivity. There will be mature audiences who will find it tepid and cheesy, others of a younger demographic whose world will be rocked by any star-crossed swoonfest, and a middle-ground few who will be surprised to find a keen rooting interest between the two lead characters. All in all, "Endless Love" keeps straddling the line of plainly predictable and engagingly sincere, but at least it's not nauseatingly sappy.

Jade Butterfield (Gabriella Wilde) is a meek, bookish, and privileged 17-year-old Atlanta high school graduate who's been too sheltered to live out her teenage years. Her post-graduation plans include an internship in two weeks and then attending Brown University in the fall as a pre-med major, much to the approval of her affluent cardiologist father, Hugh (Bruce Greenwood), who hasn't been quite the same since the death of his eldest son. Before she leaves for the summer, Jade meets David Elliot (Alex Pettyfer), the son of a working-class mechanic (Robert Patrick), who's noticed her in school before but finally has a conversation with her while working valet at her family's country club. They are thrust into a passionate relationship, one that becomes forbidden by Jade's father when it seems she doesn't want the future that's been planned for her, and then David's past comes into question. College might not be in the cards for David—even though his SAT scores are impressive—but finding love is most important to him. Will Jade and David be torn apart or is their love actually endless?

As far as teenage romances are concerned, "Endless Love" is harmless and sanitized, but it does what it should. Director Feste generates a lush, sultry atmosphere that's both pleasantly shot and irresistible, especially with a blissful montage cued to NONONO's "Pumpin' Blood" of the young lovers over the course of the summer. There's an undeniable swoon factor and a sense of liberation, not to mention an all-consuming love that defies an arrest and a restraining order. Isn't that the measure of any great love? Going against what could have been an irreparable problem, Wilde (2013's "Carrie") and Pettyfer (2012's "Magic Mike") have more going on than attractive, freshly scrubbed model faces. Easy on the eyes, yes, but they also create a warm, naturalistic connection and cook up a surprising amount of heat, which goes a long way toward making their impetuous romance feel like something worth fighting for. The long-limbed, blonde-haired Wilde is a ray of light, credibly conveying a mix of innocence, growth, and intelligence, and Pettyfer continues to make more of an impression than he did vacantly starting out in a dud duo (2011's back-to-back "I Am Number Four" and "Beastly"), as if he was hand-picked more for his strong jawline and torso than thespian abilities and emotional range. Communicating their desire for one another and the varying emotions that come with their forbidden love, the pair of twentysomething performers must be more than blank slates to keep us invested and want to wish them well. It might feel like low-stakes puppy love, but not to Jade and David.

Working from potentially cardboard-cutout types, the supporting cast provides additional interest. As Jade's oil-and-water parents Hugh and Anne, Bruce Greenwood and Joely Richardson bring more layers to their roles than what was probably written for them. He's not just one-dimensionally controlling, dealing with a painful mourning and overreacting because he only wants what's best for his daughter, and she's not just a doormat, even if she longs for the love her daughter is just experiencing for the first time. Robert Patrick is a grounded presence as David's hard-working father Harry, and he shares an intense scene with Greenwood. The equally vibrant and charismatic Rhys Wakefield and Dayo Okeniyi also interject some life whenever they're on screen as Jade's live-wire brother Keith, who feels like a disappointment to his dad, and David's wisecracking buddy.

"Endless Love" isn't that bad of a movie, nor is it without its groan-worthy and yell-at-the-screen moments, especially when the plot keeps kicking on to amp up the conflict, needlessly so. Because the original had them, we get a reconfigured car accident and a house fire, which is so effortlessly telegraphed. At times, it seems like it might even venture into the territory of 1996's "Fear"where Mark Wahlberg obsesses over Reese Witherspoon, so much that he sheds the Eddie Haskell facade and goes all Jack Torrance on her family's assesbut, alas, there's a facile happy ending in store. All things considered, for what it is, it's watchable slush. Something that can't be said for its '80s source: the 2014 edition of "Endless Love" won't be the worst of the year or decade.

Grade: C +

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Shiny and New but Unimproved: "RoboCop" reboot just OK with few inventive parts

RoboCop (2014)
108 min., rated PG-13.

Being bizarrely released all in the same weekend, "RoboCop" is one of three remakes of R-rated movies from the 1980s, the other two ("Endless Love" and "About Last Night") hardly hailing as classics just because they were released three decades ago. Think about that for a moment. Maybe every generation needs its own incarnation of a story that's already been told, but the "RoboCop" reboot merely answers the question, "What would happen if 'RoboCop' was remade in 2014 with more CGI, less tongue-in-cheek humor, dumbed-down media and corporate-capitalism satire, a neutered PG-13 rating, and no vicious Paul Verhoeven edge?" Whereas Verhoeven's lean, mean, and outrageously ultra-violent 1987 satirical sci-fi actioner was ahead of its time, even with its charmingly crude and aged special effects, Brazilian director José Padilha's mechanical, po-faced retooling seems like it jumped right off the focus-grouped assembly line. Taken on its own, it's disposably entertaining as a generic, business-as-usual product, but what's the point?

The year is 2028 and Detroit-based corporation OmniCorp has manufactured peace-keeping drones to keep the Iranian people of Tehran safe from suicide bombers. According to the mayor, there's just one snag: these efficient bots show no humanity. Before long, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) tries to rid America of its "robo-phobia" and see a Senate bill passed, looking to turn a human cop amputee into a law-enforcement robot to keep the Detroit streets safe. When Detroit Police Officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is terribly burned and critically injured in a car explosion rigged by a gang of arms-and-drug dealers, the only chance for wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and son David (John Paul Ruttan) to see their husband and father alive again is for Clara to give OmniCorp her consent to prototype Murphy as the corporation's first hybrid. Under the experimentation and care of Sellars' appointed doctor, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), Murphy awakens, horrified at what he's become, and tries re-connecting with his wife and son four months later. Sellars wants him to be a conscience-free killing machine who can pick a criminal offender out of a crowd in a minute, but can Murphy override the system?

Not unlike the fun-sponge 2013 redo of Verhoeven's "Total Recall," "RoboCop" is an OK, competently made distraction as mindless fare goes, but distinctly inferior to its progenitor. If nothing else, the film does look grittier and modern for the times, and being made twenty-seven years later, the effects are sleeker and more advanced. Director Padilha, working from an updated screenplay by first-timer Joshua Zetumer, should be credited, too, for making a little room for his own interpretation and not following the original's credited screenwriters' work beat for beat, to the letter. However, it must be à la mode that most of today's action pictures must trade in a sense of humor for serious faces. Read: this Murphy does not ingest baby food or shoot a rapist in the crotch. There are a few amusing details, like weapons expert and machine trainer Mattox (Jackie Earle Haley) calling Murphy "Tin Man" and then playing a little music ("If I Only Had a Heart") during RoboCop's training session against an actual robot. While the carnage is too softened to really pop, a couple of the action set-pieces are dynamically staged, including one, rapidly shot like a video game, in a China warehouse where Murphy takes on multiple armed robots and another shoot-out that begins in night-vision. Too bad neither of them are fun enough to be memorable, as Padilha too often compromises the spectacle with a tiresome shaky-cam shooting style. "RoboCop" tries holding onto the interesting idea of free will and that a man melded into a machine can still have a soul and show human feelings of remorse. Well, considering Murphy's interactions at home with his family, prior to his resurrection, actually exist this time around but are limited to only a single scene, the throughline is flattened out and carries little pathos. Murphy seeking vigilante justice on his murderers is kept intact, although the colorless, interchangeable baddies here are no match for Kurtwood Smith's despicable, gum-chewing Clarence Boddicker in the first "RoboCop." 

A crucial problem with "RoboCop" lies in the casting of wiry Swedish actor Kinnaman (TV's "The Killing"). Frankly, he's a deadly dull cipher as Alex Murphy. Even more steely than the original's Peter Weller, he is so robotic, inexpressive, and free of charisma that his delivery actually improves once he gets "suited up" as RoboCop, shedding a few tears at the sight of what's left of his former body (a cool bodily horror moment). By the by, Kinnaman's cyborg movements are at least spot-on. The rest of the cast is a good one, but it's the stock material they're working with that leaves them high and dry. Cornish does her level best in bringing some heart to the thin part of Loving, Concerned Wife, and Oldman classes up the role of compassionate, ethically torn Dr. Norton as much as he can. Meanwhile, Keaton is all caffeined up as the cardboard-bad Sellars, Jay Baruchel smarms it up as the marketing head, and the too-good-for-this Jennifer Ehle is given zilch to do but type away on her phone as OmniCorp's icy, all-business legal counsel. Also, Samuel L. Jackson pops in and out, hammering subtext into text by stridently spouting off cultural critique as a sort-of black Bill O'Reilly who hosts a slanted network news show called "The Novak Element."

There may be a new remake in town and its name may be "RoboCop," but while it doesn't do anything disastrously wrong and isn't the worst of the "Unnecessary Remake" lot, this spiritless version just doesn't invent much for itself to justify its own existence. Without feeling aggressively shoehorned in, lip service is paid with a few one-liners, which don't always land, and samplings of Basil Poledouris' iconic theme will bring ardent fans a moment of giddiness. If all you want is a slick, muscular machine with a safety net, this should do, but heed this advice: just watch the real McCoy if you haven't already.

Grade: C +