Saturday, May 31, 2014

How the West Killed: "Million Ways to Die" isn't unfunny, but far too spotty

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)
116 min., rated R.

Writing, directing and starring in comedy features must elude "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane's grasp. After his writing-directing debut with 2012's likably raunchy "Ted," which mined plenty of laughs and heart out of the eternal friendship between a talking teddy bear and Marky Mark Wahlberg, Wild Wild West spoof "A Million Ways to Die in the West" marks MacFarlane's sophomore slump, and he stars in it, to boot, without voicing a cactus or a talking lizard. Chockablock of all-variety humorpick your poison between verbal puns, pratfalls, random cameos, meta in-jokes, sex jokes and scatological gagsthe film has enough spread, if not enough seasoning; while inspired pop-culture jokes are MacFarlane's stock-in-trade, there arguably aren't enough of them here. Underwhelming is different than straight-up bad, and that's where the writer-director-producer-star's follow-up plainly rests. You pull for this sweetly silly, irreverent romp, even though it misses the mark of having much enduring stamina and its chances of beating Mel Brooks' unmatched 1977 spoof "Blazing Saddles" are slimmer than slim.

MacFarlane, casting himself as the live-action lead, plays Albert Stark, a cowardly sheep farmer who has somehow gotten this far living in the American frontier's harsh, death-stained terrain, specifically the Arizon town of Old Stump during 1882. There, he would rather talk himself out of a gun fight than resort to violence, but that doesn't work in the Old West or for his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who excuses that she needs time to figure herself out and breaks up with him. Not much later, Albert sees Louise being courted by the well-off, mustachioed Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), so he plans to leave for San Francisco. Plans change, though, when the feisty, gunslinging Anna (Charlize Theron) comes to town and takes an interest in the sweet, kind Albert. She neglects to tell her new friend that she's trying to run away from her old life with husband Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson), a notoriously vicious bandit who's on his way to Old Stump, but in the meantime, Anna can teach Albert how to shoot, while making Louise jealous, and Albert will prove to be just the kind of man Anna always wanted.

Beginning as an affectionate valentine to the western genre with one of those long, old-timey credit sequences against Monument Valley and over a jaunty score, "A Million Ways to Die in the West" does not get off to a fast-and-furious foot. It's initially rather limp, leaving one to wonder when the jokes will pick up a clockwork rhythm, and then things step into somewhat of a groove. Loopy and absurd, the primary joke about the Old West being one big death trap is certainly a workable one, as Albert repeatedly harps, "The American West is a terrible place in time. Everything out here that isn't you is trying to kill you," and Louise mentions that the life expectancy in this "disgusting, dirty, awful cesspool of despair" has now passed 35. Since the film is sending up westerns, it's modeled after the genuine article and set in the 1800s, but holds a modern, anachronistic attitude, insofar that characters casually use expletives and bake pot cookies. The screenplay, co-written by MacFarlane and longtime "Family Guy" writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, tends to go against the creator's brand of smart, subversive satire with lazy, base fecal humor that could have been curtailed or excised from the final edit altogether. Also, when it comes time for the film to start winding down, intentional laughs are placed on the back burner so a serious horse chase can play out.

Being in front of the camera instead of contributing just his voice, Seth MacFarlane is sincerely likable as the cowardly Albert, but it's mostly MacFarlane doing his thing. The adage, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," may be true, but Charlize Theron can do both and she's such a terrifically appealing comic foil for her director/co-star. Here, as Anna, Theron is a joy, getting the refreshingly rare opportunity to play loose comedy and elevating MacFarlane onto her level. Her scenes with MacFarlane, including sitting and rolling a joint, taking in the deathly sights at the county fair, attending a formal dance and practice shooting, are winning and even believable within the confines of a movie that a woman like Anna would think a man like Albert was a catch. That leaves the majority of the game-for-anything cast to have a field day with what they have. The ever-reliable Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman, though disappearing all too frequently, are a spry team as Edward, a virginal shoe repairman and Albert's best friend, and Edward's Christian prostitute girlfriend Ruth who wants to hold out until marriage with Edward but cluelessly has no problem having sex with paying customers each day for work. They play their subplot with straight faces, which is always the funniest approach. Amanda Seyfried looks like she couldn't be bothered as the self-involved Louise, but at least she is down for a joke thrown at the expense of her saucer eyes. And it's about time someone cast Neil Patrick Harris as a smarmy, literally mustache-twirling villain, and while he gets saddled with one prolonged poop joke, he almost makes it funny before a gratuitous cutaway.

Like a lot of contemporary comedies that try to satisfy all tastes, the end result of "A Million Ways to Die in the West" is hit-and-miss. For every joke that lands with a thud or just totally lacks a payoff, MacFarlane sticks the landing every once in a while. We could probably do without the sight of a sheep peeing in someone's face. A song and dance to "If You've Only Got a Moustache" is spirited, but not as clever as it could have been. A reference to the western-themed "Back to the Future Part III" is fun in recognition, but it sadly doesn't go anywhere. However, the film does have an amusing running joke involving Old West photographs, where no one smiles, as well as a bit with the never-before-seen dollar bill; a funny fake barroom bout; a hilarious flashback with Abraham Lincoln; an admittedly lowbrow chuckle with a daisy and Liam Neeson's posterior; and a psychedelic Native American Indian drug-induced trance through Albert's life cycle that earns a guffaw. It's the combined charm of MacFarlane and Theron that performs a fireman's carry on "A Million Ways to Die in the West," smoothing over the occasional sophomoric gag and a rambling, self-indulgent 116-minute running time. Even when individual bits and a general affability make somewhat more of an impression than the movie as a whole, this fun-while-it-lasts lark is hard to hate through the dead spots a tumbleweed could blow through. It shouldn't kill you.

Grade: C +

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Scorned Sprite: Jolie owns "Maleficent" with her deliciously fun turn

Maleficent (2014)
97 min., rated PG.

Hell hath no fury like a fairy scorned. A revisionist reincarnation of Charles Perrault's "La Belle au bois dormat," the Brothers Grimm's fairy tale "Little Briar Rose" and Walt Disney's 1959 animated classic "Sleeping Beauty," "Maleficent" devotes more time to the eponymous character whom we always knew as the so-called epitome of pure evil. The "untold story," a take-off from a storybook fairy tale we all know beat by beat from childhood, is a rote formula these days, but out of all of them, this one actually feels worthwhile in how it gives us a new angle, "Wicked"-style, on the side of the horned, glowing-eyed villainess. Director Robert Stromberg, making an impressive feature debut after being a production designer on 2009's "Avatar," 2010's "Alice in Wonderland," and 2013's "Oz the Great and Powerful," and screenwriter Linda Woolverton ("Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King") repurpose the classic story to contextualize Maleficent's wicked ways with a sympathetic backstory that goes beyond the black and white. Where it falls a smidgen short in the breadth of its storytelling, the film still has a classic look and feel, while bringing a more intriguingly layered perspective from our protagonist/antagonist for a modern audience. Horns and all, "Maleficent" is built and soars around one item: Angelina Jolie's deliciously fun, indelibly spicy portrayal.

If you didn't know Maleficent was once just a young fairy with wings, we won't point judgment. A long time ago, there were two dueling kingdoms between the king's castle and a forest of fairies and creatures. Young Maleficent (Isobelle Moloy), born with strong wings and gnarly horns, befriends a shy farm boy named Stefan (Michael Higgins) and eventually falls in love with him. As years go by, Maleficent (now Angelina Jolie) becomes the fearless protector of her forest of thorns, while Stefan (now Sharlto Copley) becomes a gofer for the cruel, dying King Henry (Kenneth Cranham). Farm boy Stefan reunites with Maleficent, but only to avenge his master. He can't go through with killing her, so instead, he drugs her with a potion and clips her of her wings. Sadly robbed of her freedom as a fairy, the embittered and vengeful sorceress won't let it go and takes her retribution out on the newly crowned King Stefan by cursing his newborn daughter, Aurora. The angelic princess (Elle Fanning) grows up to be as carefree and happy as ever, being cared by her dim fairy aunties Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton) and Thistletwit (Juno Temple), but unbeknownst to her, her 16th birthday comes with pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and a death-like slumber that can only be lifted by true love's kiss. You only think you know the rest.

Not to slight any flora, thorny tree monster, or cute water sprite etched in by a computer artist, but Angelina Jolie is the most triumphant special effect, knocking it out the park and destined to be remembered as Maleficent. Instead of pushing the character into camp territory, she hones in on how to take a one-note villainess and make her a more complicated beingthat of a sorceress with a thawed heart and a watchful guardian who realizes her mistakesrather than purely good or bad with unexpected shading and subtlety. With her ruby lips, pale skin, fierce eyes, and stunningly exaggerated cheekbones, the facially angular Jolie not only owns the presence and physical attributes but plays the part of Maleficent with a touching regret, wounded heart, a deeply felt anger and cunning sense of humor. The actress gets enough to munch on and knows just how to marvelously play vicious iciness without losing her mischievous relish. In one knowing moment that earns a laugh, Maleficent (Jolie, a mother of six) tells adorable 5-year-old "beastie" Aurora (played by her real-life daughter, Vivienne Jolie-Pitt): "I don't like children." Compared to Maleficent, every other character is thin but functional. As the 15-year-old Aurora, Elle Fanning is full of lovely grace and innocence with a radiant smile that would even make The Wicked Witch of the West a happy camper. In one of the more inventive additions, Maleficent has a shape-shifting raven sidekick and loyal servant in Diaval, humorously and sensitively played by Sam Riley. Sharlto Copley ends up making King Stefan suitably contemptible and selfish, a less interesting choice but one that helps Maleficent's case. Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple are sometimes bickering annoyances and, at other times, joyous delights as the oddly named trio of pixies, if only when Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit transform to human size; it's tough getting used to their creepily motion-captured faces on miniature bodies. Lastly, as Prince Phillip, Brenton Thwaites is handsome but a bit humdrum, perhaps because the character is something of an immaterial afterthought.

Luckily, the film does not solely live or die on Jolie, even though everything else is a slave to her centerpiece. While director Stromberg makes sure the story hits all the key pieces we're hoping to see in a live-action/CGI interpretation—baby Aurora's christening, the meeting of Prince Phillip, Aurora pricking her finger on the spindle and falling into a thought-to-be-permanent sleep before Phillip plants one on her—screenwriter Woolverton has woven a simple assault-and-revenge tale, where the wronged victim will never forgive or forget, and makes enough smart, bold tweaks here and there to justify the existence of a "Sleeping Beauty" update. One of the little twists may even pay some debt to "Frozen" because this is not a tale about a princess finding her prince, thank you very much. On a visual level, the eye candy in "Maleficent" first appears garishly psychedelic and fluffy, but then vastly improves upon the overblown and suffocating spectacle of "Alice in Wonderland" and "Oz the Great and Powerful." As is so often the case with effects-loaded fantasies such as this, the viewer just sees actors in front of a green screen before everything is added later in post. Here, it rarely ever feels like an aesthetically chintzy or hollow CG-athon that dwarfs all heart and soul but a lushly detailed, often magical wonderland with actual depth of field that characters can run through. The cornerstone of a sequence in which an uninvited Maleficent crashes the king and queen's christening for baby Aurora and bestows her "gift" upon the princess is tops; it's here that Jolie's cackle and raised voice could bring the castle walls down. There is also some high-flying action, the winged Maleficent swooping and soaring over a pond and dodging rocky structures, that is momentarily thrilling in 3-D. When it comes time for the obligatory third-act battle to take flight, complete with a fire-breathing dragon, it is more cleanly shot and cleverly staged than most, making use of Maleficent's "Kryptonite."

At an agreeably paced 97 minutes, the storytelling falls somewhere between efficient, rushed and underplotted, fleshing out Maleficent's motivations without overexplaining them and giving enough resonance to the relationships that matter. It's possible that adult viewers will see Maleficent's herstory as petty and heavy-handed, but like an eye for an eye, threatening to take what's closest to King Stefan after his betrayal makes complete sense to her. When one takes in the bigger picture, though, "Maleficent" overthrows preconceived notions as a surprising variant on an oft-told tale and a visually resplendent, darkly enchanting entertainment with a magnificent lead performance at its center. Villainess, heroine, anti-heroine, or just a compassionate yet understandably angry fairy, Maleficent is all of the above. See, there really are always two sides to every story. 


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Book of Sandler: Barrymore and Africa make "Blended" bearable

Blended (2014)
117 min., rated PG-13.

With any new Adam Sandler movie that isn't directed by Paul Thomas Anderson or James L. Brooks, there is a specific level of expectations. Is it going to be a noxious, unfunny experience like watching Sandler on the screen twice in "Jack and Jill"? Or, is it harmless junk food like "Just Go with It"? Do you want to get shot in the eye or hit on the wrist? Compared to the recent wave of Sandler starrerswhich are much like the infantile, pandering mass-produced hits his stand-up comedian character, a loose version of Sandler himself, made in "Funny People""Blended" turns out to land splat in the middle of those two poles, but his latest does have one thing going for it, and that's the sweet coupling of Sandler and Drew Barrymore. 1998's "The Wedding Singer" still arguably stands as Sandler's best, and with his sunny co-star, it was even better. The two reunited in 2004's "50 First Dates," a nice surprise, and it was a toss-up if it could work again a third time or fall flat. With "Blended" following the law of diminishing returns, its two stars at least make it more palatable than it should be. It's not brain surgery, but it didn't have to feel so lobotomized, either.

It's not quite love at first sight when Jim (Sandler) and Lauren (Barrymore) have a terrible blind date at Hooters (product placement). He's a laid-back Dick's Sporting Goods employee (product placement again) and widower who lost his wife to cancer and raises three daughters all by himself, while dressing them all in track suits and getting their hair cut at his childhood barber. There's his eldest, tomboyish 15-year-old basketball star Hilary (Bella Thorne), whom Dad fist-bumps and calls "Larry" when she just wants to be seen as a girl; the middle daughter, Espn (Emma Furhman), who was named after Dad's favorite network, talks to the spirit of her mother; and the youngest, Lou (Alyvia Alyn Lind), runs around and speaks in cutely demonic voices. Lauren (Barrymore) is a type-A closet organizer (who wouldn't want that job?) and divorced mother of two hyperactive boys. She has to contend with her older son, Brendan (Braxton Beckham), and his centerfold fantasies, and attend the Little League baseball games of the youngest, Tyler (Kyle Red Silverstein), since her ex-husband (Joel McHale) never shows. How else can these two single parents and their families blend into one nuclear family? Well, through a series of coincidences, when Lauren's friend and work partner, Jen (Wendi McLendon-Covey), gives up a paid spring break vacation to Africa with her rich doctor squeeze, who also happens to be Jim's boss (don't ask), Lauren and Jim separately get the idea to take advantage and go to the same resort, which also happens to be holding a "blended family" event. Wackiness, love, and hugs ensue.

Directed by Frank Coraci (who bottled up magic sixteen years with "The Wedding Singer" and hasn't come close to it since), working from a hacky script by Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera, "Blended" is frothy and friendly enough, even when the laughs aren't always there. It seems like a paid vacation through Travelocity to Africa came first before the contrived set-up, which is even more asinine than "Just Go with It," and then sets the stage for many more puerile misunderstandings involving a honeymoon bedroom and a couples massage class. Whereas many of Sandler's comedies want to have their cake and eat it too with crass gross-outs and shoehorned schmaltz, this one is sentimental throughout. None of it is really subtle, but moments of it are sweet nonetheless, as a scene where Lauren tucks in Jim's youngest daughter and sings her "Over the Rainbow" can attest. The plot thread with Jim's deceased wife is actually respectfully handled with some semblance of pathos and never turned into a joke. However, a blending of movies for both families and the Happy Madison demographic seeking Sandler's tomfoolery, plus cameos from certain "The Wedding Singer" and "50 First Dates" side characters, results in something tonally uncertain. The movie is unexpectedly low on bodily fluids, but predictable physical gags have Lauren parachuting during a safari and Jim and Lauren's son bonding over ostrich rides. A punchline to a setup involving fake crocodiles is slack. Nonsensically, an African resort employee looks directly to the camera and says, "You won't find that in New Jersey," at the sight of rhinos humping. Huh? Lauren carrying her son to bed and accidentally hitting his head against the wall is amusing once, but it's used four more times. There are too many lame jokes that perpetuate Sandler's affinity for mocking potshots, in which (1) one of Lauren's sons is called "Frodo" for having a dark, curly head of hair; (2) both of Jim's conspicuously feminine daughters are repeatedly confused for being boys because of their boyish hair cuts; and (3) Lauren and her "Closet Queens" business partner are mistaken for a lesbian couple. There's also the recurring joke about Jim being called "a chubby loser" and "a buffoon," so Sandler does get equal opportunity.

It's made abundantly clear to the viewer that Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore are comfortable working together, as they end up making the proceedings generally pleasant with their natural chemistry. But would it have killed them to reunite with a funnier, smarter, less flabby, and less lazy script? In playing Jim, Sandler takes a rest from being a fly in the ointment of his own movies by not putting on a dopey, abrasive accent or overplaying his stale man-child shtick again. As Lauren, Barrymore is unfailingly charming in her own right and seems to be able to always bring the best out of her co-star, but it would have been nice to see her working with material that wasn't beneath her normal intelligence. Wendi McLendon-Covey steals her scenes with hilarious delivery as the sassy Jen and must have brought her improv capabilities to the material, as in her list of direct putdowns to a heckling jerk in the stands at Lauren's son's baseball game. Every time infectiously likable newcomer Jessica Lowe pops up on screen and shimmies as the lusty, squeaky-voiced Ginger, the younger new wife to a hotel guest (played by Kevin Nealon), she sends one into a giggle fit. Also, Terry Crews can be a funny, energetic comedian, but here, a little bit of his shtick as the hotel's over-the-top, pectacular frontman for an omnipresent entertainment troupe goes a looong way. The kid actors have pep but mug too much for the camera, particularly Braxton Beckham as Brendan, although Emma Fuhrmann as Espn seems to come from a different, more poignant movie.

If one takes notice of the cinematic offenses Sandler actually had a hand in writing, most of those movies are his worst, but since he always gets a producing credit, he's not off the hook. All in all, "Blended" has a heart and ekes out some rib-tickling moments buried under a lot of juvenile, judgmental stuff. More insulting is that the story, which is already lacking in conflict, had to be inexcusably stretched to three minutes shy of the two-hour mark—seriously, what is wrong with a light comedy getting out at 90 minutes?—as if the filmmakers wanted to keep us guessing how it would end. Eager to be liked, "Blended" is bearable and never as inept, mean-spirited, slapped-together, or abusive as one might expect ("Grown Ups 2" easily earns that badge of honor, no contest). As with most Sandler comedies, it seems like the cast and crew had fun making a movie and getting a paid vacation to South Africa, but if there's a next time, it should be better than "not terrible."


Saturday, May 24, 2014

Pro-Outsider: Fun, challenging "X-Men: Days of Future Past" marks the spot

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
131 min., rated PG-13.

Fourteen years ago, director Bryan Singer (2013's "Jack the Giant Slayer") kicked off the film adaptations of Marvel's "X-Men" comic books and now, amidst his alleged charges in the media, it's a joy to have him back at the reigns after sitting out the third entry in the original trilogy, the prequel and Wolverine's two solo installments. At the heart of its lore, "X-Men" has always been about something more than just good versus evil—discrimination and diversity—as a thinly veiled metaphor that could apply to the Holocaust, civil rights and gay rights. Now, more than ever, the thematic through-line is most profound, as we can identify with society's special outcasts. Since 2011's "X-Men: First Class" breathed new life into the franchise, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" feels like it's revitalizing itself and nullifying everything that we already know from the series, combining the casts of all the movies in the "X-Men" canon (save for Rebecca Romijn) and ingeniously throwing time travel into the mix.

It is 2023, the future, and a war against the mutant population has brought about an apocalypse. As Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) can use her phasing powers to send mutants days back in time, she and her band of survivors rendezvous with metal-bending Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen) and the telepathic Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Both men must set aside their differences to stand up against their bigger threat: giant robots, called "Sentinels," that have been programmed to exterminate all mutants. This calls for Kitty to transport Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 to stop the shape-shifting Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from following through with her own agenda and murdering Sentinel-prototyping scientist Dr. Bolivar Trask (a slyly cast Peter Dinklage). But first, Logan will need help from a younger Charles (James McAvoy) and Hank "Beast" McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), as well as Erik (Michael Fassbender), who has been imprisoned in the Pentagon for assassinating President John F. Kennedy.

If "X-Men: First Class" began in 1944 Nazi Germany, followed by a nearly two-decade jump, and then used the Cuban Missile Crisis as its backdrop, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" straddles two time frames, fifty years apart, and then sets itself around the Vietnam War. As with any time-travel movie, there is the tendency to find continuity issues with the pretzel-twisted logic. However, director Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg (2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand") are careful enough to avoid falling into the pit of too much dumbed-down exposition with their ambitiously diffuse and complex, but rarely convoluted, narrative structure. Wolverine's traveling back to the '70s is reliable for lava-lamp nostalgia and cheeky laughs (just look at the movie's version of Richard Nixon), and there are plenty of canon callbacks and Easter Eggs for fans without completely alienating general moviegoers. The handling of old and new mutants is also quite assured, as we're able to latch onto all of them as a team, and the "frenemy" relationship between Charles and Erik builds an emotional core, as well as their triangular relationship with Mystique. What makes the film part of such a special breed is the way it prioritizes, allowing the action to serve storytelling, characters, and social ideas rather than the other way around. Thankfully, it isn't all homogeneous action all the time because Singer is very skilled in keeping an expeditious pace and evenly interspersing his set-pieces within the human, er, mutant conflict. In what might be the film's biggest show-stopper, a playfully witty, gush-worthy sequence, set to Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle," has mutant newbie Quicksilver (Evan Peters) beautifully demonstrating his whiplash-fast powers in a Pentagon prison break. The film also offers some of the more photorealistic effects seen in the series, especially the levitation and placement of the RFK Stadium before everything comes to a head on the White House lawn.

Plain and simple, the ensemble is an embarrassment of riches. Aside from Hugh Jackman, whose character apparently never ages, the actors playing old mutant friends and newcomers comparatively have much less to do and say, but acquit themselves just fine with what they have. By now, Jackman can retract his claws in his sleep, but as if he's playing his star-making role for the first time, his Logan/Wolverine crackles with wit and is more than up to the physical challenges. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are magnets as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen's younger counterparts, brushing back up on the complex dynamic they created in the prequel. In one scene on an airplane, Fassbender is particularly chilling when Erik raises his voice to Charles about abandoning the mutants. Jennifer Lawrence is a badass in performing the physical agility required of her in the blue body paint and does an angry, albeit vulnerable, reading of the slinky, hell-bent Raven/Mystique we would come to know as played by Rebecca Romijn in the earlier pictures. Interestingly, she is more freedom fighter than villainess here. An energetic Evan Peters (TV's "American Horror Story") is a hoot as the speedy Quicksilver, an awesome addition who feels a bit shortchanged and makes the heart grow fonder once he's gone. It's a quibble, but for a film that celebrates diversity and yet gives its females the short end of the stick (apart from Lawrence), Halle Berry's Storm is a casualty of there being an exorbitant amount of characters, or just lost in the editing room, and mostly stands around when she's not being defined by powering the weather. Ellen Page is also less of a presence here, which is more of a fault in the writing than her performance that relegates Kitty Pryde to cup her hands next to characters' temples, and Anna Paquin gets one profile shot in a glorified cameo as Marie/Rogue.

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" is entertaining and challenging, a full meal of eye-candy and substance, as well as a summer tentpole that invigorates its comic-book property with gravitas and vigor. Where the film retreats from the comics to the screen matters very little. Both of the unanswered questions and unquestioned answers in regards to where this one fits within the timelines of the previous films don't really surface until the credits roll. And if one bothers with too much scrutiny, there is the missed opportunity of making the present-day mutants practically wait around, but it's a creative decision like any other, and while you're in it, such nitpicking hardly matters. If "X-Men: Days of Future Past" isn't completely airtight in its time-travel plotting, its game-changing finale will send one out on a high note and leave those well-versed in the comics and movies feeling sentimental. Your move, "Guardians of the Galaxy."

Grade: B +

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Life Trap: "The Double" an eccentric, absurdly funny dream

The Double (2014)
93 min., rated R.

Who knew Fyodor Dostoyevsky could be such a laugh riot? An adaptation of the Russian author's 1846 novella, "The Double" triples itself as an existential allegory, an absurdist black comedy, and something sinister and Kafka-esque. As with his directorial debutthe Wes Anderson-influenced "Submarine"—British director Richard Ayoade seems to be paying homage to the style of other filmmakers (one can probably spot nods to Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch here), but what style it is. Written by Ayoade and Avi Korine (Harmony's brother), the film, set in a dystopian, mechanical and retro-futuristic world where the sun does not shine, reminds of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," with allusions to "Pinocchio" thrown in for good measure. Stylistically arch and idiosyncratic as it is, "The Double" has an unexpected emotional punch, too. 

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), a meek, gawky, practically invisible pushover, is having the daynay, lifefrom Hell. On his way to work, he has to give up his seat on an empty subway car and then loses his briefcase to the automatic doors. Simon has worked for "The Colonel" (James Fox) at the same government office for seven years and yet the security guard always gives him a hard time and his boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn), can't ever remember his name. His mother (Phyllis Somerville) thinks he's a disappointment, but drains her son of his finances to stay in an assisted-living home. The joy this non-entity has in his life is watching office copy girl Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) paint and tear up her artwork from afar in her studio apartment with his telescope. Then a new employee is introduced to the office. His name is James Simon (Eisenberg), a confident, devil-may-care guy who looks exactly like Simon, even though no one but Sam sees the resemblance. Simon and James become friends, while at the same time James starts running the office and then rubs Simon out of his own life.

Absurdly funny, appealingly off-kilter, and melancholy, "The Double" reminds us why we go to the movies, throwing us into a new world that might look like 1998's brilliant "Dark City" but still feels imaginatively and vividly realized. Rich in dingy, steampunk color, wonderful production design and industrial sound design that might borrow the howling wind from "Eraserhead," the film makes it easy to get lost in, even before the plot proper kicks in. The viewer can't help but feel sorry for the perpetually sorry Simon, even when his invisibility becomes maddening. Though the bleak environment and air of madness would not sound like real estate for hilarity, comic timing is definitely director Ayoade's strong suit. When the doubles go for food at Simon's diner haunt, James stands up to the same rude waitress (Cathy Moriarty) that always waits on Simon by asking for exactly what he wants, earning a "Five Easy Pieces"-like laugh. However, there is a cruel remove to how the film treats Simon, like when James tells Simon, "You're pretty unnoticeable. Bit of a nonperson."

Effectively pulling off the tricky task of playing dual roles, the lanky Jesse Eisenberg not only gets to play twins who are polar opposites in personality, but he's playing two characters who are vastly different from the actor's constricting role of Mark Zuckerberg. He's touching and passively sad as ghostly sad-sack Simon and infuriatingly cool and cocky as ladies' man James. As Hannah, who feels like she doesn't belong and fluffs off Simon stalking her, Mia Wasikowska brings a sad, understated yearning to the role and keeps reaffirming that she can play spiky and sweet without any problems. The director also finds little places for his "Submarine" cast (Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine, and Noah Taylor). Roberts and Jon Korkes are both oddball hoots with a rat-a-tat delivery down pat as the detectives investigating the suicide of a man who waved to witness Simon just before jumping off the ledge of Hannah's apartment. 

Audiences who are in the know might feel they're seeing double, as this is the second film about doppelgängers being released this year (the Jake Gyllenhaal-starrer "Enemy" was the first). Surely, one will be hard-pressed to find much literal, conventional sense in either, but Ayoade's film is draped in such visual flair that he somehow makes feel fresh and it's loaded with quirk that is offset by a pall of doom and gloom (and vice versa). For a dreamlike nightmare out of "The Twilight Zone," "The Double" is delightfully weird fun. 

Grade: B +

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Scumville: Hoffman is great, but "God's Pocket" wallows in blue-collar muck

God's Pocket (2014) 
88 min., rated R.

There is certainly nothing negative to say about the acting in "God's Pocket," the feature directorial debut of "Mad Men" actor John Slattery and one of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman's last films. If anything, the performers elevate nomadic material and dull direction. A working-class town-set film cannot not be grim and unforgiving, although this one is just ceaselessly bleak, wallowing in the characters' hopeless, booze-soaked misery, while failing to compel all the way. Many films, most recently "Winter's Bone," "Mud," "The Place Beyond the Pines," "Out of the Furnace" and "Joe," have been masterclasses in capturing a sense of time and place, while "God's Pocket" depicts its milieu in the broadest of strokes. Everyone gives it their all, but the film itself never knows what chord to strike, despite a few darkly comic moments and outbursts of brutal violence (an eye-gouging scene can't be unseen). 

In the seedy, blue-collar Philadelphia neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else's business, non-local Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman) drives a truck of stolen meat to support his bosomy wife, Jeanie (Christina Hendricks). When the off-putting, razor-wielding Leon Hubbard (Caleb Landry Jones), Mickey's stepson and Jeanie's 23-year-old boy from a previous marriage, is inadvertently killed at a construction site by an old black man for his racist threats, Jeanie has a gut feeling that there was foul play, even though the construction boss and other witnesses tell the police it was an accident. After Leon's death leaves his wife in mourning, Mickey loses out on a horse bet with partner-in-crime Arthur (John Turturro), so he can't pay mortuary owner Smilin' Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan) for the funeral arrangements. Meanwhile, news journalist and womanizing drunk Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), who has spent his career writing about God's Pocket, sees a good human interest piece in Leon's death and tries seducing Jeanie.

Adapted from Peter Dexter's novelthe Richard Shellburn character is the author's fictional surrogate—by Slattery and co-writer Alex Metcalf, "God's Pocket" seems to have all the right ingredients without coming together or reaching a narrative zenith. After helming five episodes of "Mad Men," director Slattery takes a shot behind the camera, with the authenticity of the scummy God's Pocket occasionally bleeding through from Lance Acord's appropriately drab lensing and lived-in production design, but he lets all sense of tone get away from him. More so, the film seems to forget what story it's telling and whom we should be following. The characters aren't rendered as flawed human beings as much as they're "dirty-faced" caricatures who all drink like fishes. There's no mystery to Leon's death that the audience doesn't already know (and he's the kind of reprehensible scum that won't be missed), so the film dips into the lives of the other characters. If the story belongs to Shellburn, the ending holds no impact at all.

The film is blessed with a star-studded cast, although not everyone is given equal chance in doing much with their respective roles. In one of his final performances, Philip Seymour Hoffman is very good at playing another pained, desperate type, only his Mickey Scarpato is fleshed out as more than just a type. As his wife, Christina Hendricks is fine but miscast and mostly left to her own devices. Richard Jenkins is an on-the-nose conduit as the hypocritical Richard Shellburn, who lets us know, "It's a cold world." John Turturro and Eddie Marsan can always be counted on to add color, and Joyce Van Patten is warm and a hoot as Arthur's Aunt Sophie, who runs a flower shop and packs some heat. Writer-director Slattery seems to patronize the town's denizens, finding them all to be pathetic bar flies, and his attempts at morbid laughs are tone-deaf, especially when Mickey drags around a stiff corpse through an alleyway. Author Peter Dexter's involvement with 2012's "The Paperboy" (he wrote the book) worked, as much as a mess as it was, but that film was compulsively watchable, whereas "God's Pocket" is a bit of a bore.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Let 'Em Fight: "Godzilla" restores awe and wonder in summer blockbuster

Godzilla (2014) 
123 min., rated PG-13.

When Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures were in talks of rebooting Japan's iconic city-smashing kaiju stylistically closer to the original 1954 film, they entrusted in a filmmaker with only one feature under his belt. Director Gareth Edwards must have rightfully shot up to the top of the studios' list after impressing with 2010's lo-fi "Monsters," and as it goes, "Godzilla" is the filmmaker's chance to work on a much grander scope and scale with a very healthy $160 million budget. These days, it's rare to be impressed, as one often longs for the days when a Great White Shark and T-Rex were inexpensive and animatronic, but Edwards was just the man to bring back the King of All Monsters in all his roaring glory. Doing a passable job of giving us human characters to grab onto, "Godzilla" does more right with its reptilian namesake and overall spectacle in ways that allow the film to nearly stack up against Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking monsters-run-amok movies. It's enough to leave any movie fan electrified. 

Over the opening credits, the film begins with 1950s footage of atomic bombs and a titanic animal with a back of jagged spikes rising from the water as the bomb detonates. Switch to 1999 in the Philippines: scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) find a skeleton and two eggs, one that has hatched and another apparently escaping to sea. Meanwhile, at a nuclear power plant in Janjira, Japan, American husband-and-wife scientists Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche) try investigating seismic activity and unexplainable tremors, until there's a breach and a radiation disaster. Fifteen years later, Joe has his own crackpot theories, convinced the government has covered something up, and wants answers. Back from training in the Navy, Joe's son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), leaves nurse wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their 4-year-old son in San Francisco to assist his father. By trespassing back to their quarantined Janjira home, Joe and Ford ruin the cover-up of secret agency Monarch. What comes next will probably send the world back to the Stone Age, as the parasitic MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) hatch, become airborne, and could be communicating with something big and spiky.

Truly a considerable upgrade in quality from Roland Emmerich's half-fun, fully dumb 1998 disaster of the same name, which wasn't going to be hard to do, "Godzilla" stands as a robust pop entertainment, renewing that magical sense of awe and wonder and stirring danger one wishes could be felt consistently in our big summer tentpoles. As with "Jaws," "Alien," "Jurassic Park," and then more recently the pretty great "Cloverfield" and "Super 8," the monster is kept under wraps for a full hour. That calls for director Edwards to tease us in clever ways and it helps that he knows exactly where to put the camera. When the time does come to show him off, the reveal of The Big Bad Lizard will elicit giddy excitement and impressive fear. Humanely treated as a savior and a destructive force, Godzilla, himself, is an awesome creation. Effects have come a long way and movie budgets have inflated since men in rubber suits were made to stand in as Godzilla and wreak havoc on miniature city models. Here, the effects work is staggering, actually making the creature creations (including the MUTOs) seem tactile as if they are occupying the same space as the actors. Other technical specs are of the highest order, from Seamus McGarvey's overwhelmingly rich cinematography to Alexandre Desplat's rousing, propulsive score, that without them the film might not be as jaw-dropping on occasion. 

Most, if not all, of the characters are stock Irwin Allen-ized types being played by actors who are more than qualified to create meatier characters if the material is there. The formidable Bryan Cranston commits to the role of Joe who instantly gets us emotionally invested. He's a commanding anchor in a way no one else in the human cast has a chance to be. As Ford Brody (is that last name a "Jaws" nod?), Aaron Taylor-Johnson is placed before everyone else and he's merely functional as our stolid, strapping hero. Elizabeth Olsen, naturally emotive per usual, can only do so much with a paper-thin role that calls for her to act concerned and stare on at the skyscraper-high creature with her mouth agape, and that's about it for wife/mother/nurse Elle. Also, someone with the Oscar-nominated stature of Sally Hawkins deserves more to do than blather exposition as scientist Dr. Graham, while Ken Watanabe feels more organically used and lends some weight as Dr. Serizawa but strangely disappears without a trace for a while. Lastly, as Joe's scientist wife Sandra, Juliette Binoche makes the most of her very limited screen time, conveying how fragile the cost of life can be in her touching last scene. Inevitably, the film doesn't know what to do with every cast member, relegating a good chunk of them to day player status, but this isn't a nuanced character piece anyway. 

For director Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein (whose script comes from a story credited to Dave Callaham), it must have been a priority to stay true to the Toho Studio movies' spirit. This "Godzilla" takes itself seriously, but it isn't campy nor is it humorless (i.e. oblivious Vegas gamblers get a little surprise). In a good way, there are plenty of Spielbergian moments (i.e. a young girl noticing an oncoming tsunami before an entire crowd, a domesticated animal in peril, etc.) that feel more affectionate than plagiaristic, but Edwards finds even more opportunities to let his film stand on its own. Percolating with chill-inducing dread and hauntingly scored to György Ligeti's "Requiem" (the same piece from "2001: A Space Odyssey"), a military skydive through the stormy clouds with red flares down to the destroyed Bay Area, not before passing the reptilian behemoth, is just one memorable, hold-your-breath moment. Even before then, a nuclear breach in the underground Japanese bunker is harrowing, and set-pieces involving a San Francisco bridge, a Honolulu tidal wave, and a Nevada railroad trestle are suspenseful and spectacularly staged. Rooting interest is mostly by default and the undynamically drawn homosapien drama gets the job done at best, but when your movie is titled "Godzilla," the humans better not upstage the monster. In the final half-hour, it's Godzilla whom we came for anyway, and boy, does the film ever deliver the crowd-pleasing monster-vs.-monster fun. It's still only May, but "Godzilla" is in the running for most thrilling monster movie of 2014.

Grade: B +

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Comfort Food: "Chef" charms, satisfies, and will make your mouth water

Chef (2014)
115 min., rated R.

Leave it to Jon Favreau, who made a name for himself by writing and co-starring in the 1996 indie hit "Swingers" and progressed into directing big-budgeted, action-packed tentpoles like the first two "Iron Man" movies, to go back to his roots with a more personal project. Infused with more passion than any event a behemoth studio could offer, the food- and character-driven "Chef" feels like a rejuvenating move on Favreau's part, as well as a semiautobiographical response to his own career. As writer, director, and star, he easily could have gotten carried away with self-indulgence, but instead serves up a funny, entertaining crowd-pleaser and antidote to summer special effects. No one will be questioning if anyone's heart is in it.

For ten years, Carl Casper (Favreau) has been a master chef at a trendy Los Angeles restaurant who begins to realize he's at a crossroads in his life, personally and professionally. He's no longer with wife Inez (Sofía Vergara), although they remain civil, and tries to spend time with his 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony). Carl has a good thing going, working with his old friends, grill chef Martin (John Leguizamo) and sous chef Tony (Bobby Cannavale), and sometimes hooking up with floor manager/sommelier Molly (Scarlett Johansson), but he's tired of listening to owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman), who insists he stick to the same menu. Once Carl receives a scathing review from acclaimed food blog critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), he asks Percy to get him an account on Twitter in which an insulting invitation asking Ramsey to return and try his new menu goes viral. As he and and his kitchen staff prepare for the night, Carl goes into defense mode in a verbal skirmish with Riva and leaves the restaurant for good. Knowing what he's good at and learning to be his own boss, Carl ends up taking his ex's advice, opening up a food truck that specializes in cuban sandwiches, and hitting the road with Percy.

If "Chef" sounds like middlebrow formula, that's because it is. Even if that's the case, it doesn't mean the film doesn't go down delightfully like a delicious meal. Careful not to slather on the hoary absentee-father-late-to-pick-son-up-from-school clichés with a trowel, writer-director Jon Favreau's script is both amiable and sharp. More interesting than the family stuff, not that Carl and Percy's father-and-son relationship doesn't endear, is how Carl's professional life is affected. Like any artist, he is plagued by financial troubles, sour criticism, and a job that doesn't let his creative juices flow anymore. Carl needs to love what he's doing, or else, why not pick a different career path? The film also smartly handles social media, particularly Twitter, when Carl jumps the gun in sending comeback Tweets that he thinks are private messages (the tweeting sound effects of a Twitter tweet fluttering away are an amusing touch).

Leading the way himself as Carl, Favreau is an unheralded comedic and dramatic actor, finessing some paternal warmth, comedic improv chops, and character dimension into the part. Though this is Carl's story, the writer-director-star has filled every supporting character with an irresistible revolving door of actors. Seldom given the chance to slow down her line deliveries, tone down the accent ten notches, and play a role straight that isn't a caricature, Sofía Vergara is vivacious and grounded as the encouraging Inez. The fact that divorced parents can still remain friends might be rare, but it's refreshing to see in the Carl-Inez relationship; that their marriage might magically repair itself by film's end is a bit too ideal and sunny, though. As son Percy, Emjay Anthony actually seems like he could be the product of Favreau and Vergara, and the charming young actor shares a terrifically natural rapport with his make-believe father and never pours on the cloying cuteness. A lively John Leguizamo is a lot of fun in the sidekick role of Martin, while Bobby Cannavale makes his limited screen time count every time. Having directed them before, Favreau gets nice work out of Scarlett Johansson, who convinces as an edgy hostess and shares a relaxed chemistry with her director, and a hilariously loose Robert Downey Jr. in about five minutes' worth of time as Inez's surprisingly helpful ex-ex-husband. It's also a treat to see Oliver Platt and Dustin Hoffman, both of whom bring a few shadings to bare roles, and Amy Sedaris is amusingly dead-on as a yappy, over-tanned publicist.

Paired with savory food, Latin-flavored music, heart and spiky bite, the film has such a light touch and comfortable, easy-going vibe that it's easy to overlook its overlength. Not to mention, how everything comes together might be a bit on the tidy, Hollywoodized side, but that's a minor misstep for what is guaranteed to be a sleeper hit of the early-summer movie season. Sumptuously shot during the food preparation scenes, or food porn, the film will make one's mouth water and tummy rumble, as the camera pours over every beautifully presented dish and even a buttered-up grilled cheese sandwich that looks deluxe. At the risk of sounding like a pun machine, "Chef" is a tasty, enormously likable concoction that'll leave you satisfied, overjoyed, and craving some hot-and-ready take-out upon exiting the theater.

Grade: B +

Baseball Millionaire: Formulaic "Million Dollar Arm" should win you over

Million Dollar Arm (2014)
124 min., rated PG.

As with "Remember the Titans," "The Rookie," "Miracle," "Glory Road" and "Invincible," slickly scrubbed, inspirational feel-good Disney sports movie "Million Dollar Arm" is "based on a true story." In spite of those five dreaded words, this is a largely formulaic but non-cynical and perfectly fine crowd-pleaser that nonetheless wins one over like a box of cuddly newborn kittens. Even when the film seems to have been prefabricated from a movie playbook, covering all of the bases and uplifting emotional cues of the underdog and fish-out-of-water formulas, director Craig Gillespie (2007's offbeat, lighthearted Ryan-Gosling-in-love-with-a-lifesize-doll romance "Lars and the Real Girl" and the reasonably good 2011 "Fright Night" remake) knows how to bring out the heart and humor in the 2009 story of the first Indian athletes to be signed to a major-league baseball team. The cinematic equivalent of a warm electric blanket, "Million Dollar Arm" pleasantly does the trick as nice and safe family fare.

Jon Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein, a smooth, womanizing L.A. sports agent who's just lost his next big client for his small business. One night while flipping through TV channels, he comes across an Indian cricket match and an episode of "Britain's Got Talent," where frumpy underdog contestant Susan Boyle blows away the judges with her powerful pipes. Like a lightbulb going on in his head, J.B. plans to fly to India, which has an untapped athletic market, and stage a contest dubbed the "Million Dollar Arm." He will have to find two cricket bowlers who have the right stuff to be signed to the MLB and then bring the finalists to the U.S. to show them off to the ball clubs. First, he finds eager baseball fanatic Amit Rohan (Pitobash), who's willing to be J.B.'s helper and translator for free. Then J.B. discovers his two potential pitchers: teenage javelin thrower Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and laborer Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal), both of whom have a strong pitcher's arm but no experience playing baseball or cricket. Somehow, in six months, J.B. will have to convert Rinku and Dinesh into hot commodities, as there's a lot riding on their success, and of course, he does.

Director Gillespie and screenwriter Thomas McCarthy (2011's "Win Win") make the odd choice of focusing on the older, white sports agent first and the younger, dark contestants second when it really have should been the other way around. Heck, J.B. is even rewarded a love interest in Brenda (Lake Bell), his quirky, messy tenant who's studying to be a doctor. A workaholic, a narcissist and an unreasonable jerk at times, J.B. simply isn't a very likable figure at first before his grinchy heart moves up in size, but the appealingly handsome Jon Hamm (TV's "Mad Men") is an ideal match for the role. He sweats charisma and can so effectively play a suit-wearing, opportunistic business type (although he's not smoking herbal cigarettes in any offices). As soon as Brenda asks to use J.B.'s washing machine because she broke hers, it's a done deal that the two of them will be smooching lovebirds by the end. If anyone has to make something out of the obligatory love-interest role, though, it might as well be Lake Bell, who brings intelligence and down-to-earth personality to Brenda. 

The film doesn't fully keep Rinku and Dinesh in the dugout or treat them strictly as cute props or business investments. Naturally, on their first night, these new-to-the-states kids aren't able to stay in a hotel by themselves without setting off the fire alarm or being in awe of the elevators, so J.B. takes them into his sterile bachelor pad. They will soon discover the American addictions to reality TV, pizza, and partying, while not forgetting their daily religious practices, even after they've left their respective families and villages. Diminutive Bollywood comedy star Pitobash deserves to be a smash in America, too, as he is adorably engaging with great delivery as the enthusiastic Amit. With few words, the earnest, sweetly wide-eyed Suraj Sharma ("Life of Pi") and Madhur Mittal ("Slumdog Millionaire") manage to charm, leaving the viewer to wish the script had been even more generous toward them.

As predictable as the underdogs rising above, "Million Dollar Arm" is but a light, satisfying entertainment that makes up for its unabashed patness and lack of surprises in its complete likability. It doesn't hurt to have such a dependable supporting cast, either. At this point, Alan Arkin can play the same kind of weary role with his eyes shut. Literally, his character that of ornery veteran scout Ray Poitevint sleeps through most of the scouting. Aasif Mandvi adds a complementary balance as J.B.'s hands-full-with-kids business partner Aash, and Bill Paxton also offers support as compassionate USC pitching coach Tom House. If the viewer has no idea how everything will shake out, this is probably his or her first movie, but if one isn't at least touched or amused by it, you have no soul.

Grade: B -