Thursday, January 29, 2015

Stay Monogamous: Visiting "The Loft" won't be necessary

The Loft (2015)
108 min., rated R.

"The Loft" is an English-language remake of 2008's Belgian film "Loft," re-directed by Erik Van Looy and scripted by Wesley Strick  (2010's "A Nightmare on Elm Street"). Shot in 2011 and now being released four years later, there must be another reason it sat on the shelf besides a change of distributors. Oh, probably because it's just never as good as its juicy premise would suggest. This erotic thriller is full of piecesalternately flimsy, under-thought, overplotted pieces, yes, but pieces all the samebut it's as if all of the script pages blew away out of order and were just then scrambled together. Like any thriller that at least sets up the intrigue right out of the gate, it is admittedly involving to sort through and see how all of those pieces click. In the end, however, "The Loft" turns out to be an empty, heartless waste of time built on a house of cards that eventually comes crashing down.

A year ago, womanizing architect Vincent (Karl Urban) rented an upscale penthouse loft in the heart of downtown Los Angeles and gave keys to each of his longtime friends, psychiatrist Chris (James Marsden) and unstable half-brother Philip (Matthias Schoenaerts), reserved Luke (Wentworth Miller) and crude Marty (Eric Stonestreet). All five men are now married, some with children who are mentioned but never seen, but Vincent makes an arrangement with them all to use the loft as their "private oasis" for extramarital affairs. Following twelve months of the loft getting some use, Luke opens the door one morning to find a naked blonde woman, dead in a pool of her own blood and handcuffed to the bed. In a panic, he rallies up his buddies and they decide who to point fingers at before being interrogated by two detectives (Kristin Lehman, Robert Wisdom). The alarm system was already disarmed, and all five men are the only ones with a key to the place. Will the real murderer please stand up?

Swiftly paced and shot with some sleek visual panache here and there, "The Loft" rarely loses the viewer's interest for an undetermined mark of time. That's a relief, too, since the script begins at the end, segues into a police investigation to recount the events involving the dead body, takes us back to the beginning, and then circles back around to "the present." It's a wobbly, needlessly convoluted construction, but it suffices for a while. Then there are the insipid characterizations all around. Anyone could be the culprit here because Vincent, Chris, Philip, Luke, and Marty, all in some capacity, are rich, sleazy dirtbags who all deserve a time-out or castration. Some are more unpleasant and morally bankrupt than others, but the funny thing about a thriller is that we still need some sort of redeeming humanity or interest in a character to care about the people involved and see which ones come out unscathed. Also, in this film's nasty, cynically sexist worldview, the allegedly weaker sex are presented to be either resentful cold fish, prostitutes, disapproving shrews, or helpless, objectified victims, although the point should be made that none of them just foolishly stand by their adulterous men without a fight. "The Loft" doesn't really seem to care about the fundamentals; everyone is an unsympathetic pawn in a grand scheme.

The cast is a sturdy one, and everyone seems to be all in. Karl Urban (2013's "Star Trek Into Darkness") smarms it up big time as the for-himself Vincent. Thanks to the always-solid James Marsden, his Chris comes the closest to being called a relatable protagonist. Wentworth Miller (TV's "Prison Break"), sometimes looking like Hayden Christensen or Channing Tatum, is interesting to watch as the very enigmatic Luke who always seems to be harboring something. Reprising his role from the original film as Chris' volatile half-brother Philip, Matthias Schoenaerts (2014's "The Drop") is even more magnetic to watch, always looking as if he's ready to explode. And, finally, Eric Stonestreet stands out in a new light, being cast well against-type from the lovably flamboyant Cam on TV's "Modern Family" to obnoxious horndog Marty. The women in the cast are even less well-drawn on the page (including Rhona Mitra, Valerie Cruz, Elaine Cassidy and Margarita Levieva). As Anne Morris, a secretive blonde who starts seeing Chris, Rachael Taylor (2011's "The Darkest Hour") catches one's eye the most, looking stunning and having the most to do on the distaff side, while Kali Rocha is a scene-stealing hoot as Marty's long-suffering wife Mimi. Finally, as Vincent's blonde fling Sarah, Isabel Lucas exhibits a lost-soul fragility beyond her pretty face that lands her in bed as the bloody victim.

Once its final hand is revealed, "The Loft" has transformed from a watchable, twisty-turny whodunit to a who-cares? The screenplay does so much skating through character relationships, hoping the viewer will just accept certain emotional leaps. Scenes are tirelessly explained and recapped that it must have been a chore for the editor to cut them accordingly; in a casino-set scene, there are quick shots of suspicious glances from every female that one can't help but giggle; and the final twist (there are a couple) is just not as ingenious as the film must think it is if the viewer pays attention to who wears gloves. Holding one's attention and then failing to pay it all off, this trashy, meretricious soap will likely go quietly with little fanfare just as it arrived. The first and only rule worth noting about "The Loft" you don't have to think or talk about "The Loft" after it's over. 


Mortified: Depp mugs up a storm in discouragingly flat "Mortdecai"

Mortdecai (2015)
107 min., rated R.

"Mustaches are hee-larious," seems to be the long running gag in "Mortdecai," a would-be comedy of wit and sophistication starring Johnny Depp as the art-dealing, London-residing twit Lord Charlie Mortdecai. That tiresome joke of the lead character's new curly mustachio is repeated over and over, which is more than enough to last one for the year. Working from a trifling script by Eric Aronson (whose other sole credit is 2001's Lance Bass rom-com "On the Line"), adapting Kyril Bonfiglioli's novel "Don't Point That Thing at Me," director David Koepp (2012's "Premium Rush") seems to be at a complete loss when it comes to bringing energy to a comedy, what with the leaden pacing and tone-deaf comic timing. It turns out that both Koepp and star Johnny Depp have made their "The Pink Panther"—the 2006 Steve Martin remake, that is, not the 1963 Peter Sellers gem—and, in hindsight, that strenuous slapstick farce seems slyer and less painful than "Mortdecai." It's quite terrible. Quite.

Caddish, foolish artistocrat Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is up to his mustache in debt with lovely but domineering wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), who gags at the very sight of her husband's new facial hair. When a female art restorer is murdered and a valuable Goya painting stolen, Mortdecai is enlisted by MI3 Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor), an old school rival who still grows weak at the eyes for Johanna. Setting out to change his financial status and track down the thief (or thieves), Mortdecai must travel from London to Moscow to Los Angeles with his womanizing manservant Jock (Paul Bettany), who remains faithful to his boss even if he's always inadvertently injured. Of course, along the way, our cluelessly out-of-touch hero is kidnapped and saved, seduced and saved, rinse and repeat.

Neither edgy nor bawdy enough to warrant its R-rating, "Mortdecai" might have worked as a breezy, purposefully daft romp. Instead, the end result is so discouragingly flat that it can only be anointed a deadening dud, proof that talent and money do not a good movie make. (For British wit done right: run, do not walk, to "Paddington.") For most of its laugh-free 107 minutes, the film just lies there, growing more interminable, that to call the summation of the jokes scattershot would be too generous. The tone is light and silly at best, but the problem with replicating the style of a '60s farce in 2015 is how forced and straining it all comes off. It can be done, but this time, you can practically smell the sausage being made. What's more, the film goes wrong on just about every level. The caper loosely guiding the plot by a thread is so apathetic that one just wishes the filmmakers would have focused on building good jokes instead. The supposedly crackling dialogue is as limp as a wet noodle. Bits of buffoonery fall flat the first time (i.e. Mortdecai accidentally puts a car into reverse) or go on past their prime, including Russian thugs asking Mortdecai to "open [his] balls" for electrocution. There is exactly all but one mildly amusing moment in an elevator inside Los Angeles' The Standard Hotel, and yet, it is still at the expense of Mortdecai's mustache. This one works because of how it's based more on silent observation rather than blatant mentioning of the damn 'stache. Every other time, someone just has to comment on the elephant in the room: Johanna disapproves, saying it looks like "a vagina" on his face or a piece of "excrement," and an art aficionado points out that "something died on [his] upper lip." And, finally, who was "Mortdecai" even made for? Let's just split the difference and say it won't please anyone.

Everyone has an opinion on when Johnny Depp stopped trying during his illustrious career, but, for this reviewer, "Mortdecai" is arguably the last nail in the coffin. Here, as the bumbling title character, Depp is all tic-laden shtick and overbearing affectation, mugging, grinning and tee-heeing around until his face hurts. This comedic performance should have the viewer in stitches, but frankly, it becomes such a precious, annoyingly lame put-on after the first couple of scenes, as if director David Koepp never heard of reining in a thespian before. Mortdecai is the center of the picture, and the character himself is just so off-putting and charmless that one wishes he'd go away for good. Gwyneth Paltrow is game and as fetching as the script allows her to be playing Mortdecai's wife Johanna, but she doesn't really have a thing to do, except to look great in riding breeches and act disgusted around her husband's thigh tickler. Ewan McGregor looks baffled but smiles on as Martland, but Paul Bettany is a rare bright spot as Mortdecai's grumbling Jeeves-ish bodyguard Jock. Others, like Jeff Goldblum in one scene as Mortdecai's art-dealing billionaire client Krampf and Olivia Munn as his equestrian/nymphomaniac daughter Georgina, are left adrift in perfunctory, one-joke parts. 

Equipped with a wasteful $60 million budget, "Mortdecai" surely looks like a slick, professional Hollywood production. Even the only potential grace notes are attractive location shooting in the UK, however, a flight there would be more satisfying. Not to throw all of the blame on Depp, who also exists as a producer on the film, but he seems to think he's giving the public what it wants. "Mortdecai" ends up only confirming that Depp has officially hit a brick wall and in desperate need of a career overhaul that doesn't involve quirky wigs and teeth, accents and…mustaches. If distributor Lionsgate goes through with creating a franchise out of Mortdecai's hijinks, well, they should just put the kibosh on the whole horrid idea. If anything, "Mortdecai" gives audiences no reason to remember its name, unless it's for being the face of cinematic travesties and coming close to getting no laughs at all. 


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Pain and Gain: Aniston's dolled-down turn makes "Cake" worthwhile

Cake (2015)
98 min., rated R.

Like Julianne Moore in "Still Alice," Jennifer Aniston received much praise for her performance in her film being released for an Oscar qualifying run. Unlike Moore, she lost out on a nomination. Her dolled-down, vanity-free turn in small-scale drama "Cake" is not a revelation, a word that would hold true had the actress never shown interesting, complicated shadings beyond the forgettable romantic-comedy vehicle she so often headlined in the past. Aniston has already showcased her capabilities of conveying unvarnished honesty in meaty, astutely written roles, like in 2002's "The Good Girl" and 2006's "Friends with Money," and she returns to more dramatic terrain with aplomb. Occasionally more drab than insightful, "Cake" takes its sweet time getting to the humanity of the damaged lead character, but Aniston's against-type performance is the most satisfying piece of the film to be worth talking about.

Los Angeles native Claire Bennett (Jennifer Aniston) experiences chronic back pain and numbs her emotional pain with wine and extra painkillers under the nose of her kindly caregiver, Silvana (Adriana Barraza). She's depressed and scarred, both physically and emotionally. Whenever she's driven, she has to lay down in the backseat or recline the passenger's seat. Once forced out of her support group for her unpleasant remarks and attitude by group leader Annette (Felicity Huffman), Claire starts dreaming about the ghost of group member Nina (Anna Kendrick), who ended her life too soon by jumping off the overpass over Interstate 105. Under false pretenses, Claire goes to Nina's home, only to meet her English husband, Roy (Sam Worthington), with whom she eventually befriends. Eventually, though, Claire will have to face her pain head-on if she wants to move on with her life.

Such heavy issues as loss, pain and suicide are not what one could call "uplifting," and though the treatment of this subject matter is far from sentimental, it's not completely oppressive, either. With Patrick Tobin's patient script being unobtrusively directed by Daniel Barnz (2012's "Won't Back Down"), "Cake" is tonally somber but never without specks of natural, acerbic humor, courtesy of Claire. She is foul-mouthed, abrasive and cynical, against anything religious and making light of Nina's suicide at her support group. Claire is not innately likable and not all that rootable at first, and the film is unapologetic about her behavior for a long time. Little by little, however, we gather character information about Claire since she, herself, does not want to remember the tragic event that took place. What put her into her current state of physical and emotional pain? What else did she lose? What was her job that she can still afford a nice home and the help from Silvana? None of these questions are spelled out in big, story-stopping ways, a few of them even mentioned in pieces of throwaway dialogue. This sort of storytelling approach is a double-edged sword, both frustrating but also keeping the viewer engaged.

With bodily scars, tired eyes, and a generally unglamorous attitude, Jennifer Aniston feels like she is lived-in as the screwed-up Claire, who bottles up her heartbreak but remains hostile to those around her, rather than acting. One eventually forgets he or she is watching the instantly likable former "Friends" star. Adriana Barraza is not to be outdone, however, as she is a beacon of warmth and strength in playing Claire's caregiver-cum-housekeeper Silvana. This is her film just as much as it is Aniston's. It is almost a testament to the character of Silvana that we soon come to care about Claire; the scene where Claire saves Silvana when running into formers friends in a Tijuana, Mexico restaurant is a small little victory. Usually asked to be a stoic action/fantasy hero, Sam Worthington offers one of his better performances as an actual human being, even if he's given less to do than the film sets up. His Roy is understandably angry about Nina leaving both him and his son Casey (Evan O'Toole). The handling of Claire and Roy's relationship seems unfinished, but the direction the script takes it in is still a refreshing change. On the part of Anna Kendrick, she haunts the proceedings as suicide victim Nina, seen as a smiling hallucination to Claire, and actually gives the film an eccentric levity. The talent occupying the supporting roles is also plentiful, including Chris Messina, as Claire's estranged husband Jason; Felicity Huffman, as uptight support group Annette; Mamie Gummer, as Claire's frustrated swim therapy instructor; Lucy Punch, as Claire's chipper doctor; and William H. Macy, as the catalyst of Claire's pain.

Rebuilding one's life is not as easy as baking a homemade cake with fudge frosting, nor does this film see it that easily, but it's a start. Most of all, Claire's struggle feels so true, and her arc feels organic and hopeful. Ending in a spot that's simultaneously perfect and open-ended, then joined by a beautifully preferable cover of Beyonce Knowles' "Halo" by Snow Patrol lead vocalist Gary Lightbody to play over the end credits, "Cake" ultimately resonates with Jennifer Aniston as the sour, emotionally raw center. Even as many cynics will see the film as the actress' bid to get noticed for awards and to be taken seriously, her performance really is worth noticing and warrants her to be taken seriously. She takes a chance with this material, and it would be nice to see Aniston take on projects more this speed instead of always playing it safe as the appealing leading lady. 


Going Down Jenny's Block: "The Boy Next Door" standard but steamy, trashy fun

The Boy Next Door (2015) 
91 min., rated R.

You know the psycho-thriller genre staple in which "The Boy Next Door" belongs. An attractive, seemingly too-good-to-be-true individual becomes obsessed with another and refuses to be ignored, ending in a violent, usually fatal confrontation. Surely, there is no lack of films dealing with the same conflict: Clint Eastwood couldn't get rid of Jessica Walter in 1971's "Play Misty for Me," and Michael Douglas had to fend off crazy-pants Glenn Close in 1987's "Fatal Attraction" and then Demi Moore in 1995's "Disclosure." The same happened in 1992's "Single White Female," 1993's "The Crush," 1996's "Fear," 2002's "Swimfan," 2009's "Obsessed," and so many more. As helmed by director Rob Cohen (who doesn't exactly have the most spotless track record with schlock like "The Skulls," "Stealth," "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" and "Alex Cross") and written by lawyer-turned-screenwriter Barbara Curry, "The Boy Next Door" is actually pretty fun in a trashy, derivative Lifetime Movie potboiler sort of way.

High school classic literature teacher Claire Peterson (Jennifer Lopez) is feeling vulnerable and lonely, being recently separated from her unfaithful husband (John Corbett) and giving up teenage son Kevin (Ian Nelson) on the weekends. One day over the summer vacation, a helpful, handsome stranger pops up in Claire's side view, repairing her garage door. He happens to be her elderly neighbor's toned, polite 19-year-old nephew, Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman), who came from San Bernardino to finish up school after his parents died in an "accident." Noah immediately buddies up with Kevin, earns Claire's trust and shares her interest with Homer's The Illiad, and starts coming to dinner a lot. Then, over a rainy Labor Day weekend while Kevin goes on a camping trip with Dad, Noah comes onto a buzzed Claire, who has just had a bad date followed up with a few glasses of wine, and she can't resist. The morning after, Claire regrets their sexual encounter, but Noah isn't just going to back off, soon revealing his delusional, manipulative true colors.

Given the spate of "So-and-So From Hell" erotic thrillers about dangerous, obsessive characters hiding behind charming facades, "The Boy Next Door" mostly plays out the way we expect, following a cheesy, clunkily edited introduction of Claire's broken marital life. Noah is a handy mechanic, so, of course, when Claire's husband lets his son get behind the wheel of his Dodge Charger, it can't be good. Claire will find a basement shrine full of blown-up photos of her and convenient clues, immediate proof that Noah needs more than a school expulsion. He's also a sharp-shooter with boxing skills and a heavy dose of impulsivity, so it's a relief Claire and her family don't have a pet dog that can be shot, or even a pet rabbit to be boiled. And, once getting past Garrett unbelievably cheating on Claire, who just so happens to look like Jennifer Lopez, the rest is easier to buy by comparison within the low-IQ plotting of the genre. Sure, a rigged jump-out cat jolt is deployed, as are the obligatory stalker clich├ęs of Claire sneaking a naughty peek across the way at a naked Noah from his perfectly placed bedroom window, flowers being sent to work, and photos of the torrid affair being printed out at the stalkee's workplace. However, those are acceptable trade-offs for a clap-worthy climactic showdown in a barn and a nasty, loony horror-style surprise involving an EpiPen. Even for the Big Finish, Noah amusingly looks dressed like one of the private-school Warblers from "Glee." 

In her first headlining vehicle since 2010's dreadfully sitcommy "The Back-Up Plan," Jennifer Lopez's appealing presence helps the vulnerable but fiery Claire remain a sympathetic and root-worthy lead, even as she shuts her brain off to engage in coitus with a younger man showing her attention. That and Claire must become the kind of movie heroine who should be shaken like a baby for entering her friend's dark farmhouse instead of calling the authorities and then later hitting her stalker once with an object, only to turn her back. The constant glistening of her lip gloss, even during home-cooked family dinners, distracts, but, hey, who said on-the-verge-of-divorced women can't always look her best? Who knows what the future holds for his acting career, but his boyish good looks and rippled abs notwithstanding, Ryan Guzman (2014's "Step Up: All In") has a real spark, being Lopez's sexy match every step of the way. As stock, unsympathetic psychopath Noah with a maniacal glint in his eye and invisible horns on his head, he has little to go on besides smoldering sex appeal, which comes naturally, and shifty menace, which he does pretty well with a devilish smirk. One can certainly see why a gallant and personable guy with a hot bod like Noah would be hard to resist for Claire, and the camera practically licks him up while he fixes Claire's (literal) alternator in a muscle shirt. Also worth mentioning: Kristin Chenoweth, as Claire's wisecracking best gal pal and the school's vice principal Vicky, has plenty of tartly quick-witted moments.

Many of the howlers, most likely inadvertent and not by design, just add to its fun-bad, guilty-pleasure watchability. Director Rob Cohen at least does a fine job of finding a sexual tension between Lopez and her eighteen-years-younger co-star, and he shows his "Fast and the Furious" roots in an admittedly tense vehicular sequence along the winding roads of the San Fernando Valley. Sometimes, there are moments of obvious ADR detracting from the film's overall polished production values. To its credit, "The Boy Next Door" takes a couple of gleefully batshit-crazy gambits for the best. It ups the steaminess factor, surpassing one's expectations for an R-rated mainstream release, coming close to breaking Lopez's no-nudity clause, and perhaps giving the upcoming "Fifty Shades of Grey" a little competition. Ryan Guzman sells the script's knowing double-entendre lines, "I love your mother's cookies," and "It got pretty wet here," in front of Claire's husband and son. Also, Noah's heated verbal confrontation in the office of vice principal Vicky (Kristin Chenoweth) is bound to get audiences screaming, "Oh, no, he didn't!" With nothing psychological about it, "The Boy Next Door" is still a dumb, rudimentary popcorn thriller that pours on just enough entertaining cheese and sleaze, so at least it's never a dull one.

Grade: B - 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

That'll More Than Do, Bear: "Paddington" a huggable charmer for everyone

Paddington (2015)
95 min., rated PG.

There are different kinds of live-action/CGI-animated films: for kids only (i.e. 2007's "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked," 2011's "The Smurfs" and 2013's "The Smurfs 2"), for the entire family (i.e. 2014's "The LEGO Movie"), and for adults only (i.e. 2012's "Ted"). Adults will know Paddington, the red hat-wearing, marmalade-loving bear everyone can't resist, the best, but this adaptation of Michael Bond's beloved book series is wonderful entertainment for anyone with a heart. Written and directed by Paul King and co-written by Hamish McColl, "Paddington" is so sweetly charming that criticizing it would make one just feel like a grump. While it looked painfully slapsticky at worst and inoffensive at best in its advertising campaign, the film is so much better than one could imagine. This is one of those gems one will actually remember during the doldrums of January moviegoing.

Years ago, British explorer Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie) journeyed to the rainforests of darkest Peru and discovered advanced bears whom he befriended and taught the English language. After their human friend left, the bear couple would never forget him, perhaps maybe one day taking him up on his offer to visit London. Uncle Pastuzo (voice of Michael Gambon) and Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) would later be the guardians of a young talking cub (Ben Whishaw), but after an earthquake that destroys their treehouse, the bear sets off on a boat ride as a stowaway to London to begin his life. Many of the hustling-and-bustling crowds at the Paddington train station ignore the sight of a bear lugging around a suitcase with a note around his neck reading, "Please look after this bear. Thank you." There's hope, however, when he is welcomed home by kind adventure-story illustrator Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) and her family, stuffy husband Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), their perpetually embarrassed daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris), and astronaut-aspiring son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin). Once he's appropriately named and settles into the Brown household with more than a few houseguest disasters, Paddington hopes to track down the explorer pal of his aunt and uncle. Only does ruthlessly evil, tranquilizer-wielding National History museum taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman) stand in Paddington's way, as she hopes to kidnap him and stuff him as her next exhibit.

With a striking aesthetic resembling Wes Anderson's earmarks, particularly the staging and whimsical art direction of the Brown family's dollhouse-like home, "Paddington" is delightful on the eyes, but it wouldn't be what it is without a gentle heart and a cheeky British sense of humor, too. The story functions as an origin story for a talking animal, not unlike 1999's "Stuart Little," and though it is set in modern times, there's a timelessness about it. And, like "Ted," nobody bats an eye that there's a walking, talking bear walking among them; it's just a way of life in London. To go with Paddington's antics, the Brown family, and the villain dead-set on stuffing our adorable hero is an allegory about immigration; it's there if you want it look for it, a bear coming to live in the foreign London.

Seamlessly integrated into every live-action frame, Paddington is a photorealistic visual effect that still feels like a real living, breathing character. It helps to have Ben Whishaw, who endearingly lends his voice to the titular bear. As Mrs. Brown, a wonderfully loving mother and wife, Sally Hawkins never fails to be an irresistible joy. Hugh Bonneville (TV's "Downton Abbey"), as Mr. Brown, believably navigates the arc of a disapproving skeptic who later joins in with his family to adore Paddington and gamely dresses in drag at one point; there's also an amusing backstory to how Mr. Brown used to be before starting a family with his wife. As the antagonist of the piece, blonde-bobbed taxidermist Millicent, Nicole Kidman bites into the scenery with a Cruella de Vil-ish relish. Slinking around in dominatrix pumps and a chic wardrobe, even if her career and intentions are less than savory, the actress is clearly having a ball. Finally, nobody does hilariously daffy like Julie Walters, a hoot as the Brown family's live-in relative and nanny, Mrs. Bird, who gets put to great use during the climactic rescue, and Peter Capaldi (TV's "Doctor Who") has a couple of fun moments as the Browns' grumbling neighbor.

Clever in its details, "Paddington" offers a reappearing Calypso band on the sidelines, well-timed cutaways, and witty wordplay, as in a pickpocket's GPS telling him to bear left as Paddington goes soaring through the sky…on the left. There is also a tinge of bathroom, er, "loo" humor that never goes too low to not register a laugh. Frantic slapstick sequences with toothbrushes being used as Q-tips, bathtub antics, and a ruckus in the Geographers' Guild involving the pneumatic tubes are adeptly choreographed and fun to watch to not stick out as pandering bits for the kids. As a superlative family film, "Paddington" never talks down to its audience, and being paced at a quick 95-minute-long clip, it never runs into a lull or out of steam. Like the Peruvian bear himself, it just wins you over as a lovable, consistently entertaining delight.

Grade: A - 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Kill Shot: Cooper impresses in solid but problematic "American Sniper"

American Sniper (2014)
134 min., rated R.

A solidly well-made war biopic about the most lethal sharpshooter in U.S. history, "American Sniper" is also dramatically problematic and cursory, keeping it from achieving the greatness that was so closely within its grasp. Directed by Clint Eastwood (the second film of this year, following "Jersey Boys") and written by Jason Hall (2013's "Paranoia"), working from the book "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History" by Chris Kyle and ghostwriters Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice, the film keeps the politicking out of it, even as it seems to be both a war movie and an anti-war movie. Despite an undercurrent of dishonesty that belies its intentions, "American Sniper" has a blunt power that cannot be ignored from Eastwood's fine craftsmanship and Bradley Cooper's tops work.

Doggedly patriotic Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) grew up being told by his hunter father that he should be a "sheepdog" and protect others. In Texas, he worked as a rodeo cowboy, until seeing the terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies and immediately enlisting and enduring the brutal training as a U.S. Navy SEAL. After meeting a tough young woman named Taya (Sienna Miller) at a bar and marrying her shortly thereafter, he is deployed to Iraq as a sniper to defend the country. On his first tour of duty, Chris is faced with the tough decisions and tasked to a group hunt to find terrorist, but he makes so many successful kills that he earns his stripes under the moniker, "The Legend." When he returns home after his second tour, Taya gives birth to their daughter. Between the rest of his tours and returning home, Chris becomes so on edge in adjusting to civilian life. Being credited with over 160 kills during four tours in Iraq, it's no wonder the war has taken a toll on him.

When we first meet our hero, Chris Kyle is on his stomach on top of a roof, focusing through the scope of his sniper rifle. He spots an Iraqi mother and her son; she seems to be carrying what looks like a grenade underneath her chador and hands it to the boy, who begins running toward a Marine humvee. Will Chris pull the trigger on a child? In his ear is his spotter (Kyle Gallner), reminding Chris that it could cost him his job if he shoots and he's wrong; then, of course, if he doesn't shoot and he's wrong, other soldiers down below will die on his watch. Director Eastwood's staging is gripping and his use of sound effective, rattling the viewer with edgy antipation and unbearable tension. Now, can a war film ever have too much action? With "American Sniper" being packaged as a flag-waving action movie, it's a tricky question to answer. Being about a war hero who is good at work, the film is going to show the unpretty picture that is war, but here, the repetitive sameness of it all begins to bury the lede of its own subject. Yes, the combat scenes are steadily shot and tensely staged, particularly the opening with Chris on the rooftop. A torturous moment with The Butcher of Fallujah (Mido Hamada) capturing a father and son is terrifying, and a scene set during a sandstorm is also well-executed. However, the at-home sections involving Chris' PTSD and the effects it has on his wife and family are the most fascinating, and there should have been more. Once Chris is home and visits a psychiatrist, telling him he's "haunted by all the guys he couldn't save," and then encouraged to help wounded veterans, the film abruptly rushes from that transition to the end. Next thing we know, our hero's fate is revealed with a closing postscript and then real-life footage of his funeral procession and memorial service at the Cowboys Stadium.

Coming a long way since his smarmy character in all three "The Hangover" movies, Bradley Cooper has hit a sweet spot in his career, challenging himself and showing what he's fully capable of in 2012's "Silver Linings Playbook," 2013's "The Place Beyond the Pines" and "American Hustle." Here, in his portrayal of the now-late Chris Kyle, he impresses, both through his bulked-up physical transformation and damaged emotional psyche when he is back home stateside. Cooper is never less than riveting, traversing from Texas cowboy to emotionally removed marksman. He never overplays the moments where Chris flinches over the sounds of power tools at an auto shop back home. Sienna Miller has less time to develop Chris Kyle's wife Taya, sure, but she makes her minimal scenes count. Unlike her work as the wife of a murdered wrestling hero in 2014's "Foxcatcher," she's allowed to go beyond the stock role of Concerned Army Wife and show the toll her husband's pain has on her.

Like this year's Angelina Jolie-directed "Unbroken," the heroic true story of Louis Zamperini, "American Sniper" is a valiant effort of a story that deserved to be told, but aside from the inherent intensity of warfare, it lacks a certain complexity and narrative balance. Eastwood's film has a little more nuance and more warts than Jolie's, but it still feels like an underdone character study that could have fleshed out its subject's flaws even more. The script excises Chris' jingoistic racism, an oversight that's more bothersome in hindsightevery Hollywood film takes creative liberties and "American Sniper" is no differentbut even within the context of just the film itself, it offers few insights, with one exception. Whether or not it was intentional by Eastwood, the film seems to pose the question: Is there a difference between killing for our country over risking your life for our country? There is certainly more depth to Chris Kyle than we will ever know. While "American Sniper" celebrates the American hero's dedication, it only sometimes centers on the psychological impact of war in proficiently compelling fashion.

Grade: B -

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Fools Rush In: "Wedding Ringer" wastes funny actors in unfunny premise

The Wedding Ringer (2015)
101 min., rated R.

It only took fourteen days into the first month of the new year to confirm a so-called comedy as one of the most deadening experiences of 2015 thus far. The criminal offender is "The Wedding Ringer," so woefully lazy and unfunny that it's richly embarrassing to think anyone in front of the camera actually thought this idiocy was worth committing to celluloid. An allegedly riotous R-rated comedy pairing Josh Gad and Kevin Hart must have sounded like comic gold in theory, but the result is more of a grating ordeal than an entertaining or tolerable time-filler. With that said, it's quite worthy of January-release drubbing, as if debuting writer-director Jeremy Garelick & co-writer Jay Lavender (2006's "The Break-Up") were out to insult the viewer's intelligence in serving up what they think would be the height of hilarity for the hoi polloi.

Socially awkward groom-to-be Doug Harris (Josh Gad) has run out of options in finding a best man for his wedding. Behind the back of wife-to-be Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting), he turns to Best Man Inc., an underground service where entrepreneur Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart) makes a living out of standing in as a best man for loners. For $50,000, Jimmy will have to pull off the "Golden Tux" package, seven groomsmen included, and pose as Doug's best man, military priest "Bic Mitchum" (from, yes, Bic razors and Mitchum deodorant). Luckily, the "best man" pro can easily rally up a ragtag gang of groomsmen, including a former prison rapist (Colin Kane), an Asian man with three testicles (Aaron Takahashi), a stuttering hunk (Alan Ritchson), and an inappropriate airport security guard (Affion Crockett). Since it's just a business transaction, Jimmy cannot be real friends with Doug, of course, after the nuptials, but can they carry out the charade until the big day?

The asinine contrivance of a premise is a stretch, even for a comedy, and it cribs plot elements from 2005's "Hitch"a dating consultant coaching a decent schlub to help him get a dateand 2009's "I Love You, Man"a friendless man trying to find a best man for his weddingwithout much of a heart to make it forgivable. It also doesn't quite help that nearly everyone on screen is so sad and dishonest in their own lives. Most of this would be small potatoes if any of it were actually funny, of course, but let's give credit where credit is due. A male-bonding montage of Doug reenacting mountain climbing, jumping out of a plane, and running in a marathon with Jimmy and his fake groomsmen is worth a few smiles. There is one amusing, purposely cringe-worthy wedding toast by another best man (Josh Peck) that Jimmy shows Doug, and there's a potentially clever payoff with a stereotypical Hispanic wedding planner who happens to be a mincing queen. However, it's not saying much when the cleverest joke, delivered a second before the credits roll, is a wink-wink reference to TV's "Lost" with actor Jorge Garcia. 

The usually likable Josh Gad (who adorably voiced Olaf, the snowman, in 2013's "Frozen") narrowly escapes with his dignity intact, playing an amiable sad-sack, who's still at fault for going through with a marriage that doesn't ring the least bit true. The reason Doug has zero friends is addressed, but this is the kind of guy who plans on spending the rest of his life with a woman like Gretchen just because she gave him the time of day. If "The Wedding Ringer" managed to pack on the laughs, one wouldn't be able to find such an irritating lapse in common sense. As for the diminutive Kevin Hart, he can be a funny nutball of manic energy when given the right material. Here, as Jimmy Callahan, he has a few rapid-fire riffs, but given the comedian's motormouth talents, it was most likely just ad-libbed, so a couple of chuckles are all his own doing. Gad and Hart do bounce off one another pretty well, the two dancing a series of dance styles at another couple's wedding reception being one of the very few lucky nuggets of fun. A misused Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting (TV's "The Big Bang Theory") is hurt by a vapid, terribly underwritten characterization as Doug's seemingly sweet future wife Gretchen, who spends the entire film planning the wedding of her life. When she later turns into an awful, rotten, calculating human being, the treatment of Gretchen is thoroughly misogynistic. Olivia Thirlby is lovely but deserves much better, too, than such a throwaway part as Alison, Gretchen's sister and maid of honor who sees right through Jimmy but might have eyes for him.

Every chance it gets, "The Wedding Ringer" tries so hard to be outrageously wacky and side-splitting, but it's almost always tone-deaf, particularly in its bigger comic set-pieces that rely on cruel, desperate slapstick. A grandmother (poor Cloris Leachman) gets set on fire during a brunch. A man has his genitalia massaged with peanut butter, only to have a dog lick it off and stretch his penis like chewing gum until having lockjaw. That's just the short list of hopeless laughs that won't earn a peep from anyone who likes a little bit of wit or inspiration with their comedy. Finally, there is the film's climax, Doug's self-realization that would have defeated the film's premise in seconds. It's one final Hail Mary to try and be warm-hearted and sincere, as if excusing all of the lame crudeness beforehand, but it fails with a thud. As they say, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." That may be true, but rather, comedy is just subjective, and "The Wedding Ringer" is decidedly a charmless tragedy, every gag falling dead as a doornail.

Grade: D +

Alice Doesn't Remember Anymore: "Still Alice" a devastatingly great showcase for Julianne Moore

Still Alice (2014)
101 min., rated PG-13.

An adaptation of Lisa Genova's 2007 novel, "Still Alice" is most notable for Julianne Moore's astonishing portrayal of a middle-aged woman dealing stricken with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (2013's "The Last of Robin Hood") carry a sensitivity and an earnest but aching tone. It is easy to see how "Still Alice" could have crossed over into a maudlin or melodramatic disease-movie du jour on Lifetime, but it never does from a couple of differences. Those differences come from Moore and that the film takes the married writing-directing partners' personal journey to the screen. In 2011, Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS before he and husband Westmoreland adapted Genova's novel. During principal photography, Glatzer's condition worsened, lending an added poignancy to a film handling a similar degenerative illness.

Julianne Moore plays esteemed, accomplished 50-year-old Colombia University linguistics professor Dr. Alice Howland. She seems to have it all: a bourgeois family, including husband Dr. John Howland (Alec Baldwin) and three children, lawyer daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), doctor son Tom (Hunter Parrish), and youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), a willful aspiring actress living in L.A., and a Manhattan brownstone. Days after celebrating her 50th birthday, Alice goes for her daily jog around campus and suddenly feels disoriented, lost even. Soon, a visit to a neurologist reveals Alice is experiencing symptoms that point to early-onset Alzheimer's disease, a rare familial type that could affect her children. She tries to keep her short-term memory sharp, but eventually, there's no way to mask it. When Alice and her husband get away and stay in their beach house, Alice can't find the bathroom. It can only get worse from there, but she is still Alice.

The idea of a tenured communications-department professor losing memory of words would seem way too on the nose. However, "Still Alice" educates and resonates as a compassionate, delicately handled and powerful character drama. Filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland face Alice's cognitive deterioration head-on, but Alice is still always treated as a human being rather than a self-pitying martyr. She still doesn't agree with daughter Lydia's dreams of being an actress. At one point, Alice even says to her husband, "I wish I had cancer. I wouldn't feel so ashamed," and she isn't above plotting her own suicide. First and foremost, this is a showcase for the lovely, chameleonic Julianne Moore, who is simply exquisite, emotionally naked and heartbreaking, shattering and subtle. In all of her candor, this is a dramatically small performance, where the choices always seem right, from the memory loss, the embarrassment, the discouragement and the confusion. Alec Baldwin is also strong as husband; the way he's written never paints him into a corner. He's supportive yet frustrated. Empathetic as wayward daughter Lydia, Kristen Stewart hasn't been this unaffected in a while now that she's through playing Bella Swan, and how she responds to her mother's condition rings both true and surprising. 

Never fully manipulating, finding no use for sentimentality, nor extending itself to get an emotional response, the film is just moving. With beautifully understated direction, true writing and, of course, Moore's fearless, deeply empathetic performance, "Still Alice" strikes a tough but sensitive chord that reverberates longer than any manipulative TV movie on the same subject ever could. Denis Lenoir's cinematography and Ilan Esherki's score are also worth noting, denoting Alice's blurry look at the world. It's also a reminder that Moore really is one of cinema's finest, most intuitive actresses who's clearly incapable of hitting a dishonest note. Coming as no surprise that she's already earning raves for her work just in time for Oscar consideration, Moore doesn't just play Alice; she lives inside of her.

Grade: A -

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Self: "Predestination" trippy, thoughtful, strange time-travel fare

Predestination (2015)
97 min., rated R.

Michael and Peter Spierig deserve some sort of "Most Improved" award as genre showmen with talent. While they cobbled together zombies, aliens, and spaghetti western tropes for their first feature, 2005's "Undead," which was just a campy cheapie right out of Troma, these Australian filmmakers then helmed 2010's criminally underrated "Daybreakers," a futuristic vampire actioner with enough style and vision to go with their bags of blood. For their third time out, "Predestination" takes a page out of 2012's "Looper" with its own trippy time-traveling sci-fi yarn, based on the short story "All You Zombies" by Robert A. Heinlein. As comes with any movie dealing with time travel, the film challenges, zigging and zagging through different time frames; some might need a second viewing to fact-check the final trick, while others will just want to experience the ride all over again.

An elusive madman known as the "Fizzle Bomber" has taken hundreds of lives in New York City. In an attempt to stop him, The Temporal Bureau's secret agent (Ethan Hawke), with a time machine disguised as a violin case, manages to stop the bomb, but he becomes severely burned, while the bomber gets away. After the agent's face is restored via plastic surgery, he is sent on a final mission before retirement, working undercover as a bartender in the 1970s. Late one night, an androgynous customer (Sarah Snook), who writes under the pseudonym "Unmarried Mother" for a magazine's tell-all testimonials, comes in for a drink. He/she bets that his/her remarkable story will impress the bartender. In return, the agent/bartender will offer the columnist a chance for revenge on the child kidnapper in the story.

Flashing backwards from 1975 to 1945 and then forwards to 1992, the film's nonlinear storytelling never fails to fascinate. When the drinking columnist opens up about his/her life, half of the film is already absorbing and emotionally resonant. Born as a female in 1945, the "Unmarried Mother" was abandoned, placed in an orphanage, and raised as "Jane." In her early years, Jane was a tough brawler, standing up to anyone who bullied her, but also an intelligent young girl who excelled in math and science. Later, she would be recruited by Mr. Robertson (Noah Taylor) to join the covert government program Space Corps, starting with a series of tests that Jane saw as preparation to enter space, but there's a reason why she is so different from the others. What would later be a heartbreaking change for Jane becomes the connective tissue to the temporal agent and the "Fizzle Bomber." Without Jane's story setting the groundwork, "Predestination" might have just been a clever trick, but this is certainly a thinking person's fare. Astutely adapting Robert A. Heinlein's story, the Spierig Brothers themselves bring to the screen a story about identity and fate, themes that are always in the context of their grand time-travel design. If one plot turn is more about the viewer waiting for the other shoe to drop, what comes later packs enough surprise for the final destination.

Ethan Hawke (the filmmakers' muse?) is our lead on the surface. His motivations as the temporal agent are kept close to the vest at first, but that murkiness all pays off in the end. While his strong performance is still an anchor, the film's most valuable player happens to be a lesser known performer. Meet Australian newcomer Sarah Snook (2014's "Jessabelle"), a mesmerizing find, who brings so many sensitive, complex layers to such a gender-bending role. Her human, unforgettably moving work as Jane/John is one of the reasons that makes "Predestination" more of a special piece of work than a derivative patchwork. Arrestingly photographed by Ben Nott ("Daybreakers") and vividly designed by Matthew Putland, from the dark, noir-ish interiors of the bar to the retro-futuristic sets of the Space Corps tests, the film always has something to drink in visually, too.

The Spierig Brothers are clearly artists out to tell a thoughtful story with one "what-the-hell" revelation before the final shot that seals the deal. Nothing is dumbed down, as existential questions are merely left as questions. Can predetermined events ever be changed? And, if they can, do we really want them to be changed? A highbrow entertainment with something on its mind but never forgetting to entertain, "Predestination" is the kind of smart, strange, uncommonly ambitious genre piece that used to not come around until recently. If there's any nitpick, the film leaves enough room to have gone on long past its lean, efficiently paced 97 minutes, and what's the last film to warrant such a nitpick? For those who appreciate mind-benders that aren't merely out to trick for the sake of tricking, this is another rarity that commands attention, intellectually and emotionally.

Grade: A -