Friday, August 30, 2013

In Theaters: BLUE JASMINE (2013)

(US - 2013)

Written and directed by Woody Allen.  Cast: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alden Ehrenreich, Max Casella, Tammy Blanchard, Annie McNamara, Daniel Jenks, Max Rutherford, Shannon Finn. (PG-13, 98 mins)

Woody Allen goes back to drama after last summer's TO ROME WITH LOVE, a botched misfire that failed to recreate the lightning-in-a-bottle sensation he had with 2011's surprise smash MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.  Whether it's NYC, Rome, Paris, Barcelona, or London, Allen has always had a knack for capturing the spirit of a city on the screen, and that's the case here as he heads to San Francisco for BLUE JASMINE.

Cate Blanchett delivers one of the best performances of her already-sterling career as Jasmine, a divorced woman of wealth and privilege whose world of lunches, yoga, shopping, and dinner parties collapsed with the arrest of her Madoff-like Wall Street investor husband Hal (Alec Baldwin).  Humiliated, ostracized, and with no one to turn to in her NYC social circle, Jasmine goes to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a plain woman who Jasmine has always dismissed (both of the sisters were adopted, and their adoptive mother always said Jasmine "had the good genes").  Divorced from her contractor husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), Ginger lives in a small apartment above a store with her two rambunctious young boys and is getting serious with mechanic Chili (Bobby Cannavale).  Jasmine can barely stomach being in such confines, claiming she's broke but mentioning she flew first class in the same sentence.  Jasmine talks of going back to school and lowers herself to get a job as a receptionist for a dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and sees her situation taking a turn for the better when she meets widower Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), who works for the State Department and has political aspirations.  Meanwhile, Jasmine's presence irritates Chili and causes a rift between him and Ginger, which sends her off with nice-guy sound engineer Al (Louis C.K.).

Even in his comedies, Allen is a master of exploring relationships--romantic, familial, etc--and even without revealing every detail about their lives, you pick up on where people have been and what makes them tick just through his dialogue and through the performances.  Watching Blanchett's Jasmine tell her whole "what brings me to San Francisco" story to the woman sitting next to her on the plane and it's clear that this is a story she's rehearsed and told countless times and it really doesn't matter to her if anyone's even listening.  She's one of the most narcissistic characters Allen's ever written, oblivious to the concerns of everyone around her and often not even cognizant of where she is.  Note how many times we hear her telling a story only to have Allen reveal she's just sitting in a public place talking to herself.  And as long as her social standing was upheld, she more than content to not concern herself with Hal's illegal business dealings ("His business isn't my concern...if he asks me to sign something, I sign it") and ignore his numerous affairs, which was known to everyone but her.  It's a complex character, and Blanchett not only nails it, but she makes you feel sympathy for someone who doesn't always deserve it.

Though it's Blanchett's film and she has the title role, everyone gets to shine here.  Fine performances from people like Baldwin, Hawkins, and Sarsgaard shouldn't come as a surprise, but the biggest coup Allen pulls off here is the stunt casting of one-time shock comic Clay as a blue-collar schlub.  He fits into the role of Augie beautifully, inhabiting the mannerisms and the demeanor so well that you almost instantly forget the whole "Dice" persona.  Augie still resents Jasmine because she talked him into investing his $200,000 lottery prize into one of Hal's shady ventures and lost everything, including Ginger (Jasmine tells someone that "Augie used to hit her," but many of her comments are unreliable at best).  Paunchy and graying, Clay only has a few scenes but makes every one of them count (and Allen helps with little details like Augie's best clothes including a Members Only jacket).  Don't be surprised if Dice ends up with an Oscar nomination.  He's really that good.  And as he's shown on FX's LOUIE, Louis C.K. can handle serious acting, but of this ensemble, he's left with little to do.

BLUE JASMINE is a fine turnaround from TO ROME WITH LOVE, which was easily one of Allen's worst films.  The relentlessly busy filmmaker, pushing 80 and still cranking out a movie every year, has frequently succumbed to an element of sameness as time's gone on.  Many of his more recent films are fine enough while you watch, but instantly forgettable after, but they're almost annual comfort food at this point (the opening credits with the Woody Allen font, an old jazz tune, and the inevitable "Production designer Santo Loquasto").  I've felt no urge to revisit films like SCOOP, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER, and WHATEVER WORKS, which were worth seeing but not really worth seeing again.  I enjoyed MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, but not as much as most people did.  Allen rarely challenges himself anymore and frankly, at this point, he doesn't have to.  It's just that having a new Allen movie each year (the last year without one was 1981) gives devoted cinephiles some peace of mind in an ever-changing filmmaking landscape.  If Woody's still getting something out every year--even something as uninspired as TO ROME WITH LOVE--then things are OK.   Given the sheer quantity of his output, is BLUE JASMINE a top ten Allen?  No, but it's his best dramatic work since MATCH POINT (though I also like the underrated CASSANDRA'S DREAM), and gets a major boost from the performances of Blanchett and Clay.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: STRANDED (2013) and EVIDENCE (2013)

(Canada/UK - 2013)

Nice to see we're still getting blatant ALIEN ripoffs 34 years after the Ridley Scott classic.  STRANDED is especially sad since it's directed by Oscar-winning art director and set decorator Roger Christian, who worked on ALIEN as well as STAR WARS a couple of years earlier (that's where he got his Oscar).  Christian made a very promising feature directing debut with the 1982 cult classic and back-in-the-day cable favorite THE SENDER, but things didn't exactly pan out for him as a filmmaker.  Of course, your contributions to films like STAR WARS and ALIEN don't mean shit once you helm John Travolta's legendarily awful vanity project BATTLEFIELD EARTH.  Now 69, Christian is reduced to STRANDED and it's such a sad sight that you're too busy feeling sorry for Christian to have any sympathy for Christian Slater, in yet another quick-buck gig on his way to becoming the new Michael Madsen.  You can tell Roger Christian is an old-schooler in the jarring opening scenes, where he's not even attempting to hide that the space vessels and the mining colony on the moon are obvious miniatures.  We're talking 1960s Antonio Margheriti miniatures, folks.  But they aren't done in a kitschy or ironic way.  No, STRANDED really is that cheap. 

Slater is Gerard, the commander of a skeleton-crewed ore-mining ship that discovers some strange meteor spores on the moon.  Scientist Ava (Amy Matysio) accidentally cuts herself while testing the spores and winds up with an accelerated pregnancy, giving birth to an alien/human hybrid a few hours later.  Since there's only two other people on the ship, there's a lot of running around, shouting, and Gerard asserting his authority every few minutes by demanding that Ava be kept in quarantine before anything really horrific happens.  Of course, the other crew members get infected and cause mayhem of their own, and by the time you get to admirably splattery airlock death that looks like it was achieved by a production assistant heaving a bucket of chunky Ragu at the door, you almost have to laugh.  Not content to rip off ALIEN, the film also borrows imagery from the 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS with shades of EVENT HORIZON.  Even by 2013 standards, it looks cheaper than things like GALAXY OF TERROR (1981) and FORBIDDEN WORLD (1982), and those had spray-painted McDonald's Styrofoam containers stapled to a wall to simulate the inside of a spacecraft.  Where those films had low budgets but were entertaining or ambitious enough that they still found audiences with ALIEN fans, STRANDED, with its cut-rate sets, disinterested performances, lazy script, and video-burned credits (this actually played in a few theaters) has a hard time mustering the cred to be mentioned alongside STAR CRYSTAL (1986) and NIGHTFLYERS (1987).

(US - 2013)

The police procedural horror film EVIDENCE opens with a crawl about "The Unblinking Eye," a law-enforcement term for the usage of forensic video evidence in solving crimes.  Of course, since EVIDENCE is also a found footage horror film, the detectives in question--unstable Reese (TRUE BLOOD's Stephen Moyer) and hard-nosed Burquez (Radha Mitchell) have a lot to work with since the events leading up to, and including, the brutal murders of several bus passengers at an abandoned factory outside of Las Vegas were all conveniently recorded by victims who naturally left the cameras rolling all through the mayhem.  The found footage genre doesn't get much more anti-entertaining than this, with a constantly-swirling camera surrounding Reese and Burquez, along with underling Jensen (Aml Ameen) and overweight techie Gabe (Barak Hardley), in a Bourne-like crisis suite watching glitchy, pixelated footage as they try to piece the story together, with someone barking "The file's corrupted!" every 8-10 minutes in case you just started watching and think something's wrong with the image quality.  Other inventive dialogue includes Reese gravely stating "He knew we'd be watching...he's challenging us," and lots of the LAW & ORDER: SVU/CSI franchise rapid fire declarations as the camera perpetually circles the actors.

Burquez: "He's a serial killer."
Jensen: "This wasn't his first."
Burquez: "And it won't be his last."

The footage comprising the bulk of the film has some people on a small charter bus to Vegas getting into an accident and being chased through the factory and offed one-by-one by a blowtorch-wielding psycho in a welding mask (maybe he's Robert Ginty's EXTERMINATOR 2 double?).  Several red herrings are set up:  a jilted boyfriend (THE CANYONS' Nolan Funk), a disgruntled Iraq War vet whose wife (Dale Dickey, the second-string Melissa Leo, cast radically against type as a rough-living woman who looks rode hard and put away wet) is on the bus, and even Reese, who gets his own tragic backstory clumsily shoehorned in and is played by a twitchy Moyer, but by the end, who cares?  Also with Torrey DeVitto, Caitlin Stacey, and an overqualified Harry Lennix as the bus driver.  Screenwriter John Swetnam expanded his 2011 short film, only here he's been replaced as director by Joe Carnahan protégé Olatunde Osunsanmi, who helmed 2009's Milla Jovovich faux-doc sci-fi scam THE FOURTH KIND.  Terrible.  (R, 94 mins)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In Theaters: CLOSED CIRCUIT (2013)

(UK - 2013)

Directed by John Crowley.  Written by Steve Knight.  Cast: Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciarin Hinds, Jim Broadbent, Julia Stiles, Anne-Marie Duff, Kenneth Cranham, Riz Ahmed, Denis Moschitto, Hasancan Cifci, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Jemma Powell. (R, 95 mins)

A last-ditch effort to grab adult moviegoers before summer's end, the British CLOSED CIRCUIT is an entertaining, if very routine conspiracy thriller/courtroom drama that never really exerts itself but it's a nice break from endless CGI, explosions, and superheroes and, at a lean 95 minutes, doesn't overstay its welcome.  Maybe the dilemma is that we've seen so many of these kinds of thrillers that it's tough to do anything new with them.  It's hard to be surprised when a film that opens with a terrorist attack in the middle of London ends up involving a government cover-up.  Of course it does.  They all do.

After a suicide bomber blows up a truck in a crowded London square (this scene has an eerie resemblance to the Boston Marathon bombings, even though it shot a year earlier), MI-5 arrests Turkish immigrant Farroukh (Denis Moschitto) and brands him the mastermind.  British courtoom law in cases like this mandate a regular defense attorney and a special counsel to function as the defense in closed-door, classified hearings so hush-hush that the other defense attorney and even the defendant himself cannot be privy to it.  When Farroukh's original appointed lawyer mysteriously commits suicide (uh huh, sure), the job falls to his colleague Martin Rose (Eric Bana), who, of course, once had a fling with special counsel Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall).  Rose starts to get a sneaking suspicion that Farroukh is a patsy and that the British government, represented in sinister fashion by the Prime Minister's Attorney General/attack dog (Jim Broadbent), might have been using Farroukh as a double agent.  Naturally, more revelations come and more characters drift in and out of the narrative--the always-welcome Ciarin Hinds as a defense investigator, Kenneth Cranham as the judge, and Julia Stiles as an American journalist at the NY Times' London branch--and while the film moves along nicely and never drags, there's very little here that you haven't seen before.

CLOSED CIRCUIT is written by Steve Knight, best known for scripting Stephen Frears' DIRTY PRETTY THINGS (2002) and David Cronenberg's EASTERN PROMISES (2007), and also the writer/director of this summer's earlier Jason Statham drama REDEMPTION.  Knight has usually focused on the downtrodden being used and abused by the seedy underbelly of London, but here he's just content with a standard-issue conspiracy outing.   Knight and director John Crowley act like this is the first film where the heroes are shocked that a shady wing of a trusted government is throwing people under the bus to cover its own ass.  I generally enjoyed CLOSED CIRCUIT--it does offer a more in-depth look at the British legal system than I was expecting and if you're a fan of any of the main members of the excellent cast and have a couple of hours to kill in the afternoon, it's worth a discount matinee--but it's the kind of movie that you won't even remember by the time you get home from the theater.  It's surprisingly lacking in substance compared to Knight's previous scripts.  CLOSED CIRCUIT just feels like an assignment for him.  Ultimately, it's a decent time-killer, though I'm really surprised Focus rolled it out nationwide.  Does anyone really think this is going to be a big hit at multiplexes?

Monday, August 26, 2013

In Theaters/On VOD: THE FROZEN GROUND (2013)

(US/Germany - 2013)

Written and directed by Scott Walker.  Cast: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Vanessa Hudgens, Radha Mitchell, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Dean Norris, Kevin Dunn, Olga Valentina, Michael McGrady, Jodi Lyn O'Keefe, Kurt Fuller, Brad William Henke, Katherine LaNasa, Ryan O'Nan, Matt Gerald, Gia Mantegna, Robert Forgit. (R, 105 mins)

Considering that the nearly $30 million-budgeted THE FROZEN GROUND has been banished to VOD Oblivion by Lionsgate, is only playing in a few theaters across the US, arrives in August 2013 sporting a 2011 copyright date, opens with the logos (among several others) for Emmett/Furla Films and Cheetah Vision, counts co-stars Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and Olga Valentina (one other acting credit:  Fiddy's FREELANCERS) as two of 29 credited producers, and is headlined by Nicolas Cage and John Cusack, both of whom are a long way from CON AIR and not exactly riding a wave of recent box office success (though Cusack appears as Richard Nixon in LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER), it comes as a pleasant surprise that the film is a quite engrossing serial killer thriller/police procedural.  While it's nowhere near the level of ZODIAC, it's unexpectedly well-done for a film that has so many things working against it.  I could be wrong, but this may mark the first time the words "pleasant surprise," "quite engrossing," and "50 Cent" have appeared in the same review.

Based on a true story, THE FROZEN GROUND is set in Anchorage, AK in 1983.  Young prostitute Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) is found raped, beaten, bloodied, and handcuffed after escaping from the mystery man who abducted and planned to kill her. While the local cops decide to blame the victim, Alaska state trooper Sgt. Jack Halcombe (Cage) is investigating the murder of a young woman found badly decomposed and partially eaten by animals in the frozen wilderness.  Sensing a link between the discovered body, several other missing women--mostly prostitutes--and Cindy, Halcombe starts looking into Anchorage records and becomes fixated on bakery owner and all-around likable guy Bob Hansen (Cusack) as a suspect.  Hansen fits the profile, has had several run-ins with the law in his younger days, and 12 years earlier, abducted and threatened a woman but only served a minimal jail sentence.  Halcombe's hunch is right:  Hansen is a serial killer of at least 17 victims over the years, and he's got another prostitute (Gia Mantegna) chained up in his basement while paying a brutal bouncer (Brad William Henke) to track down Cathy's pimp Clate (Fiddy, in a startling bit of against-type casting) and find out where she is. 

Making his feature debut, New Zealand writer/director Scott Walker does a commendable job getting restrained performances from Cage and Cusack, both of whom have displayed tendencies of taking things way over the top, though he does allow them to do some major jawing late in the film.  THE FROZEN GROUND suffers from some jumpy camera movements that are not exactly as irritating as "action scene shaky-cam" but Walker doesn't even keep the camera still during shots where people are just talking.  It's hardly the worst example of its type, but it does occasionally prove bothersome. Walker also can't avoid cop movie clichés:  Halcombe expressing reluctance to get involved in this complex case because he's "outta here in two weeks;" the spineless D.A. (Kurt Fuller) hemming and hawing about getting a search warrant for Hansen; Halcombe getting a pre-climax pep talk from his initially fed-up but suddenly supportive wife (Radha Mitchell); Halcombe's theories being dismissed by department brass.  There's a TV cop show quality to THE FROZEN GROUND (albeit with an abundance of F-bombs), which is probably why it will play better at home than in the theater, but as far as these things go, it's not bad.  Cusack is very good, and Cage, for the first time in a long time, shows up as "Serious Nicolas Cage" instead of the wide-eyed, in-on-the-joke self-parody he's become.  Ten years ago, this probably would've been the top movie at the box office.  Theatrical audiences seem to have turned their backs on former sure things Cage and Cusack.  It's only a matter of time before they're both doing police procedurals on CBS.

Friday, August 23, 2013

In Theaters: YOU'RE NEXT (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Directed by Adam Wingard.  Written by Simon Barrett.  Cast: Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Rob Moran, Barbara Crampton, Sarah Myers, Ti West, L.C. Holt, Simon Barrett, Larry Fessenden, Kate Lyn Sheil. (R, 94 mins)

More than any other film genre, horror makes its fans wade through some real shit to get to the worthy offerings.  It seems like every other week, Fangoria or Dread Central are hyping some must-see game-changer that's ultimately mediocre, forgettable, and populated with the same cast of interchangeable horror-con fixtures and other perpetual C-and-D-listers.  And even the next generation of so-called "great" horror filmmakers mostly seem to be people who are probably a lot of fun to watch horror movies with, but can't resist the urge to get snarky and meta with their own stuff.  And God help you if you think "found footage" is the answer to the horror genre's problems. YOU'RE NEXT is finally getting national distribution nearly two years after it played the film festival circuit.  It's directed by Adam Wingard, whose name is usually bandied about as one of these "future of horror" guys.  He got some acclaim with his 2011 film A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE and was involved in both V/H/S anthologies as well as THE ABCs OF DEATH.  YOU'RE NEXT is easily the defining statement of his career thus far, and if you've suffered through some bad horror movies in recent years, I'm here to tell you that it all pays off with YOU'RE NEXT.

Opening with a couple (the guy is Wendigo-obsessed cult horror director Larry Fessenden) being killed by a figure in a creepy animal mask, YOU'RE NEXT shifts its focus to an isolated mansion a bit further down the road, still in the middle of nowhere.  It's the 35th wedding anniversary of wealthy, retired defense contractor Paul Davison (Rob Moran) and his wife Aubrey (RE-ANIMATOR scream queen Barbara Crampton), and they've invited their children and their significant others to a weekend gathering:  oldest son Drake (Joe Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Sarah Myers); college prof son Crispian (AJ Bowen) and his Australian grad student girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson); daughter Aimee (Amy Seimetz), and her "underground documentary filmmaker" boyfriend Tariq (Ti West); and youngest son Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and his goth girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn).  There's hints of typical family dysfunction that explode during dinner when the abrasive, insufferable Drake (who tells Tariq he should consider "documentary commercials") keeps prodding the thin-skinned Crispian about a variety of issues (his relationship with Erin starting when he was her professor; how his round face makes him look fat, etc).  The arguing temporarily ceases when one of them notices something outside the window and ends up with a crossbow arrow in their skull.  Quickly realizing they're under siege by at least two or three killers wearing the same animal masks from the opening murder sequence (and one of them is already hiding in the house), the family is picked off one by one in a variety of gruesome ways, with "You're next" scrawled in blood on the wall.  Luckily for the Davisons, Erin happens to have had a crazy dad who raised her in a survivalist compound in the Outback, which immediately establishes her as the most resourceful of the bunch when it comes to outwitting the killers.  Using a variety of impromptu booby-traps that at times bring to mind a stalk-and-slash version of HOME ALONE, Erin proves to be more than the killers were anticipating, but that's only the beginning of the twists to come.

There's several reasons YOU'RE NEXT works as well as it does:  Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (who plays one of the killers) know the clichés of the horror genre and, specifically, the home-invasion subgenre, and don't avoid them, instead using them to maximum advantage.  Wingard knows how to stage suspense sequences and delay reveals in ways that provide the most tension possible.  The film is drawing comparisons to SCREAM, but not in the sense that it's a genre deconstruction, but more in the way that it knows how to use the various standards and expectations that come with the slasher film.  With its inferior sequels and the many self-referential, meta films it spawned, it's easy to forget how fresh and inventive SCREAM was in 1996.  It's been sequeled and copied and parodied so much that it's common to simply dismiss it outright today, but that's not really fair.  It's like blaming PULP FICTION for the flood of Tarantino knockoffs that stunk up the new release sections of video stores throughout the '90s and still occasionally trickle in to this day.  YOU'RE NEXT is this generation's SCREAM primarily in the way it reinvigorates a stagnant genre.  At the same time, Wingard isn't trying to reinvent the wheel: children of the '80s will love the practical splatter effects and the throbbing synth score that sounds like it wandered in from a never-released John Carpenter film. 

Another huge plus working in YOU'RE NEXT's favor:  Barrett's mostly unpredictable script (the one weakness:  when one character vanishes for a long period of screen time, it's obviously for a reason) is also funny without being snarky or condescending.  The characters here never stop to talk about how they're in the middle of a stalk & slash film in an old dark house and they don't have any ironic quips to make about it.  The humor in YOU'RE NEXT ranges from smart to dark to outright absurd: Drake still acting like a complete blowhard asshole even with an arrow sticking out of his shoulder for most of the film; needy Aimee fishing for Daddy's validation even as bodies pile up around them ("I can run fast, but nobody ever believes in me!"  Paul: "I believe in you, Princess!"); Erin getting the edge on one of the killers and smashing his head to a pulp with a hammer, then asking Felix "Do you recognize this guy?"  to which Felix deadpans "It's kinda hard to tell."  The performances generally range from functional to decent--several of the cast members (Swanberg, West, UPSTREAM COLOR star Seimetz) are also writers and directors--but a star is born in Vinson's ballsy turn as the tough-as-shit Erin, instantly staking her claim as one of horror cinema's all-time great Final Girls. 

For horror fans around my age (40), there's a nostalgia for the movies of our youth that shows no signs of abating.  Wingard is in that same demographic.  There's a reason he utilized practical gore and a reason he uses Carpenter-esque music cues (plus the creepy utilization of the Dwight Twilley Band's minor 1977 hit "Looking for the Magic"):  because he's a fan first, he knows what fans want to see and hear.  There's no shitty CGI here.  In fact, when one person is stabbed in the eye, there's some very visible latex.  Latex!  In a horror movie in 2013!  The only concession Wingard seems to make to modern horror from an aesthetic angle is using a lot of shaky hand-held in some sequences, but it's done in a way that's appropriate to the film and not simply shaking the camera around to make things look busy.  The point is this:  it's tough being a horror movie fan today.  We long for things as good as the influential classics of our past (of course, everyone thinks "their" stuff was the best, just like our parents thought most of the '80s stuff was too over-the-top) and most of today's horror movies just aren't fun.  There's something missing and YOU'RE NEXT is as close as I've seen in a long time to getting it back.  They just don't make 'em like this anymore.  For once, a buzzed-about horror flick lives up to the hype, and if this came out 25 or 30 years ago, it would be a film that we're still talking about today.  I'm sure there'll be no shortage of nitpicky, cynical contrarians who just can't allow themselves to enjoy the hell out of this thing that gives them exactly the kind of entertaining, old-school jolts that they want, but it's the most fun I've had with a horror movie in ages.

In Theaters: THE WORLD'S END (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Directed by Edgar Wright.  Written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright.  Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, Pierce Brosnan, David Bradley, Rafe Spall, Michael Sarne, voice of Bill Nighy. (R, 113 mins)

It's been nine years since Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg gave us the sleeper hit zombie homage SHAUN OF THE DEAD, followed in 2007 by the cop/buddy movie tribute HOT FUZZ.  For the final part of their so-called "Cornetto Trilogy" (named after the ice cream bar that appears in all three films), we find a more thoughtful and mature team of filmmakers.  They were always gifted with a knack for strong characterization that really made the films connect with fans, but THE WORLD'S END is something they couldn't have made a decade ago.  It's a film about entering middle age, a time when maybe your best years are behind you and you find your dreams didn't come true.  It's about letting go of youth or stubbornly refusing to grow up.  It's surprisingly heartfelt and often devastatingly poignant, all wrapped in a hilarious story that involves a sort-of alien invasion and gives Wright and Pegg the chance to once again pay tribute to a beloved genre that had a major impact on them.

In 1990, on the night of the last day of school, five friends attempted a pub crawl of the twelve watering holes in their hometown of Newton Haven.  They never finished it, and while they made attempts to keep in touch and remained friends in pairs for a few years, they largely went their separate ways as a quintet and on to their adult lives.  Everyone that is, except ringleader Gary King (Pegg), a legendary hellraiser in his youth who now, at 40, continues to behave like it's 1990 and he's 18 years old.  He's been in and out of rehab for alcohol and drug abuse, still wears the same Sisters of Mercy tee, drives the same car, listens to the same mix tapes, and hangs out at the same pubs in Newton Haven.  Gary wants to, as he states it, "put the band back together," and reunite the old gang and complete the pub crawl.  Three of the other four--divorced building contractor Steven (Paddy Considine), high-strung real estate agent Oliver (Martin Freeman), and car salesman Pete (Eddie Marsan)--reluctantly agree to return to their hometown, primarily out of morbid curiosity.  The other is Andy (Nick Frost), a corporate attorney who had a huge falling out with Gary in the mid '90s and hasn't spoken to any of the others since.  There's vague mentions of an "accident" that was the last straw for Andy, who hasn't had a drink since.  Andy wants nothing to do with Gary, but is compelled to go along when Gary repays him £600 he borrowed years earlier and mentions that he just lost his mother to cancer.  Feeling sorry for Gary and giving him the benefit of the doubt that maybe he's grown up, Andy surprises the others by showing up for the big night out, set to finish up at the 12th pub, The World's End.

It quickly dawns on the others that Gary hasn't changed a bit, especially when Andy finds out that Gary hit the others up for £200 each before visiting him (his mother isn't dead, either).  The pubs all look generically alike ("Starbucking," Steven calls it) and the four career guys are content catching up with one another but Gary's obsession with getting shitfaced--and mocking Andy for drinking water--soon causes tempers to flare.  It's around this time that Gary gets in a fight with a teenager in the men's room only to find that the kid is a robot-like creature filled with blue blood.  The guys finally notice how strangely the townspeople are behaving, almost as if there's been some otherworldly takeover of all of Newton Haven.  Agreeing that something's wrong and not wanting to draw attention to themselves, the guys decide to carry on with the crawl even as the situation worsens and they're pursued from pub to pub by an increasing horde of Newton Havenites seemingly possessed by an alien intelligence.

Wright and Pegg do a wonderful job establishing these characters and slyly use such things as "Starbucking" as a way of foreshadowing events to come (even the names of the pubs are used as indicators of plot developments that take place at each one).  SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ were both intelligently-constructed, character-driven stories cleverly disguised as genre spoofs, and to that degree, THE WORLD'S END, with its riffing on INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, and John Carpenter movies, sticks to their formula.  But there's a dark melancholy streak to THE WORLD'S END, the kind of which comes with maturity and middle age.  We all know characters like the five here--some of us maybe are these characters.  Every group has the one guy--in this case, Oliver--whose sister (Rosamund Pike as Sam) fooled around with at least one of his buddies.  Every group has the guy who got his balls busted a little more than others (Pete).  Go to your hometown and there's probably a guy like Gary hanging out at one of the local bars.  He may not be a goth guy or a headbanger--maybe he's a once-legendary jock still telling stories about the big game 25 years earlier and still wearing his varsity jacket if it fits.  Throughout the course of the Cornetto Trilogy, Wright and Pegg have approached genre spoofing as intelligently and as thoughtfully any filmmakers ever have, using them to create surprisingly real characters with thematic relevance to the genre being parodied.  Making an alien invasion spoof is easy.  Populating it with strong, believable characters who reinforce the genre staples while allowing the film to tell its own story takes a little more effort.

While THE WORLD'S END has a terrific ensemble (Pierce Brosnan also turns up as their old headmaster), it is, perhaps more than SHAUN and HOT FUZZ, very much Simon Pegg's film.  Largely considered simply a "comic actor" and onboard to add levity to the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and STAR TREK films, Pegg uses THE WORLD'S END to establish himself as a legitimate actor.  As Gary, he brilliantly and sometimes painfully conveys the desperation lurking just under the cocky bravado.  When his big night starts falling apart and he's pressed about why he's so obsessed with the pub crawl, his outburst of "It's all I have!" is just heartbreaking.  Pegg has turned in one of the great movie performances of this year, and it'll never happen, but it's one that deserves to be remembered come awards season (it's also interesting against-type casting to have Pegg, and not Frost, playing the perpetually juvenile fuck-up). THE WORLD'S END might not be quite as rapid-fire hilarious as SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and while that film and HOT FUZZ are still as enjoyable as they were when they were brand new, THE WORLD'S END is the most surprisingly substantive of the trilogy, offering a bit more to chew on that you'd expect from a movie getting dumped at the end of the summer.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


(UK/Ireland/France - 2012; 2013 US release)

Some good performances help prod this dawdling IRA drama along to a legitimately unexpected finish, but until the last five minutes, it's pretty by-the-numbers.  Scripted by Tom Bradby (based on his novel) and directed by James Marsh (MAN ON WIRE, RED RIDING: 1980), SHADOW DANCER takes place in 1993 as Collette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough), a member of a prominent IRA family in a working-class Belfast neighborhood, is nabbed by MI5 operatives after attempting to plant a bomb in a London subway station.  MI-5 official Mac (Clive Owen) offers her a chance to become an informant by reminding her that she'll otherwise go to prison and never see her young son again.  Upon returning to Belfast, she keeps her eyes and ears open for any plans her brothers (Aiden Gillan, Domhnall Gleeson) might be cooking up and finds herself hounded by a suspicious IRA goon (David Wilmot), while living in constant conflict over the well-being of her son and longstanding loyalty to her family and the cause.  Meanwhile, something isn't sitting right with Mac, the kind of rumpled, stubbled, chain-smoking agent with a perpetually-loosened tie and a wrinkled suit that he's likely worn several days in a row since he probably sleeps in his office.  Mac thinks his boss (Gillian Anderson) might be hanging Collette out to dry and starts to fear for his informant's safety.

Marsh and cinematographer Rob Hardy shoot SHADOW DANCER in a kind-of gray, dreary way that recalls the vintage kitchen sink dramas of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh (or, more recently, Andrea Arnold).  That and the performances, especially by the busy Riseborough (also seen this year in WELCOME TO THE PUNCH and OBLIVION), are fine but SHADOW DANCER unfortunately just seems content to coast on clichés.  Whether the focus is on the IRA as it is here or say, a terrorist in the Middle East, or even mobsters in NYC in other movies, this feels just like any number of other informant dramas that have come before it.  There's a template to these kinds of films and until the very end, SHADOW DANCER steadfastly refuses to deviate from it.  How many of these have we seen where the person under the gun is inherently good but drawn into bad things because of misguided family loyalty?  Or the good cop/agent who's looking out for the person whose ass is on the line, even if it means uncovering some dirty secrets that go up the chain of command?  Or when that good cop/agent shows up uninvited at his unscrupulous boss' home to confront them about what they've found out (on the weekend, no less, because of course he's working all through the weekend)?  Or when that unscrupulous boss insists they have nothing to worry about.  Or when the honest cop and the informant find they have more in common than they think, and when they're the opposite sex, you can even throw in some brief, awkward romantic overtures.  SHADOW DANCER isn't bad--you've just seen it at least a hundred times before, though to give credit where it's due, the finale, specifically the fate of one major character, is a gut-punch and almost convinces you that you saw a better movie than you did.  (R, 102 mins)

(Germany/US/Australia - 2013)

There's a strong Canadian influence to this bleak horror film directed and co-written by Eron Sheean, who also shared a screenplay credit on Xavier Gens' repugnant post-apocalyptic misfire THE DIVIDE (2012).  Given the extreme nature of that film and its sole focus being on shock value, ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY is surprisingly restrained and well-made, with solid performances (unlike THE DIVIDE, where most of the cast seemed to be in a heated contest to see who could turn in the most overwrought performance) and a strong sense of atmosphere, with good use of snowy Dresden locations and most scenes taking place in cold, empty medical labs and long hallways in office buildings.  THE DIVIDE co-star Michael Eklund takes a break from establishing himself as today's go-to horror/thriller genre psycho (he's best known as the kidnapper in Halle Berry's recent hit THE CALL) as Dr. Geoff Burton, an introverted American geneticist setting up a cancer research study at a high-tech facility in Dresden, Germany.  He's been brought there by Dr. Rebekka Fiedler (Karoline Herfurth), a former student with whom he once had a fling.  The divorced Burton is still haunted by the death of his infant son four years earlier from a rare genetic disorder that caused exterior tumors and the shutdown of all of his internal organs.  Burton immediately clashes with the creepily ambitious Jarek Novak (Tomas Lemarquis), who's conducting secret and unethical trials of a regenerative tissue drug on lab rats as the head of the research facility (DROP DEAD FRED's Rik Mayall, looking a lot like David Hemmings as he gets older) looks the other way.  Burton is bitten by one of Novak's rats and starts undergoing a transformation alarmingly similar to what happened to his son.

For most of the film, ERRORS is on somewhat similar ground as the recent ANTIVIRAL, insofar as its owing a tremendous debt to the "body horror" of vintage David Cronenberg.  ANTIVIRAL has loftier aspirations than ERRORS, which essentially just wants to be an effective slow burn chiller with a feel-bad finale straight out of the Atom Egoyan playbook that makes the ending of THE MIST look uplifting.  And it mostly succeeds.  Eklund almost channels Anthony Perkins in his edgy, nervous performance, mostly mired in melancholy grief that's constantly threatening to boil over into rage.  If you've seen Eklund turn up in as many bad movies as I have (in addition to THE DIVIDE, he's also a veteran of several Uwe Boll joints), it's nice to see him underplaying for once, though Sheean does give him some opportunities to get his Eklund on once he gets exposed to whatever virus Novak has injected into the lab rat.  The third act twist is genuinely surprising, though it does more or less write out a major character in a bit of clumsy fashion by just disappearing from the film, but overall, ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY is a much better work than Sheean's and most of Eklund's previous IMDb credits would lead you to believe, though be warned:  even for a Cronenberg-influenced "body horror" homage shot in a wintry Dresden in buildings with all the warmth and humanity of Fassbinder's WORLD ON A WIRE, this one's gonna bum you out.  (Unrated, 102 mins, also available on Netflix streaming)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In Theaters: KICK-ASS 2 (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow.  Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jim Carrey, Morris Chestnut, John Leguizamo, Clark Duke, Donald Faison, Iain Glen, Steven Mackintosh, Monica Dolan, Lindy Booth, Andy Nyman, Benedict Wong, Garrett M. Brown, Yancy Butler, Matt Steinberg, Claudia Lee, Augustus Prew, Lyndsy Fonseca, Daniel Kaluuya, Tom Wu, Olga Kurkulina, Ella Purnell, Tanya Fear. (R, 105 mins)

Matthew Vaughn's 2010 film version of the controversial Mark Millar-written/John Romita, Jr-illustrated comic book was, like its source, an acquired taste.  Moments of extreme violence combined with a little girl using some of the most over-the-top gutter language imaginable outraged some, while others--myself among them--found it funny and quite inspired.  Vaughn is still onboard as producer for the sequel, handing the franchise over to writer-director Jeff Wadlow, whose previous credits include the 2005 slasher film CRY WOLF and the 2008 teen martial arts actioner NEVER BACK DOWN.  Lightning doesn't strike twice with KICK-ASS 2, which reunites most of the main cast but is markedly lacking in energy and seems to be struggling to find a reason to exist.

Dave Lizewsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is no longer fighting crime as costumed superhero Kick-Ass, much to the disappointment of orphaned Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz)--aka Hit Girl--who now lives with guardian and cop Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut) after the death of her ex-cop father Damon (Nicolas Cage in the first film), aka superhero Big Daddy.  Dave gets back in the Kick-Ass game just as Mindy gets out, having realized it's time to put away the past and get on with being a teenager.  Meanwhile, vengeful Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), son of the mobster killed by Kick-Ass in the first film (played there by Mark Strong), abandons his Red Mist superhero persona and remakes himself as the ultimate supervillain, donning S&M leather gear and christening himself "The Motherfucker."  The Motherfucker recruits a team of arch-villains--among them Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), Black Death (Daniel Kaluuya), The Tumor (Andy Nyman), and Genghis Carnage (Tom Wu) to form an evil army called "The Toxic Megacunts," who set out to destroy Kick-Ass and bring the city to its knees.

The formula just isn't nearly as much fun the second time around.  I never thought I'd say this, but the vital ingredient missing from KICK-ASS 2 is the down-to-earth humanity that Nicolas Cage brought to the first film, particularly in his loving, well-meaning but misguided relationship with his daughter.  In recent years, Cage generally hasn't been one to keep a film grounded, but Wadlow's main goal here just seems to be as childishly offensive as possible, and it's still watered down from Millar's original comic book version.  Moretz has grown quite a bit in the last three years, and since she's not a little kid anymore, there isn't the same level of transgressive amusement in having her say things like "cunt," "cocksucker," and "snatch."  Mintz-Plasse has some funny moments as The Motherfucker, but he doesn't have much to do other than rage and yell.  Taylor-Johnson is so bland that he practically vanishes from the screen, which isn't a quality one looks for in a lead character.  He and Moretz (who really doesn't seem like she wants to be here) made a great team in the first film, but now that she's grown, sexual tension enters the fray and Wadlow spends too much time on their everyday lives, especially with Mindy trying to fit in at school with a clique of mean girls led by the bitchy Brooke (Claudia Lee), a subplot that culminates in projectile vomiting and diarrhea, and gets more screen time than big-name franchise addition Jim Carrey as Col. Stars & Stripes, a patriotic ex-mob enforcer and born-again Christian who leads a group of costumed heroes aiding Kick-Ass in his battle against The Motherfucker.

Carrey infamously denounced KICK-ASS 2 in the weeks before its release, saying that the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre changed his outlook on the film and cinematic depictions of violence in general.  It's possible he knew the movie stunk and didn't want his fans to see it for him only to find that he's barely in it.  The trailers sold Stars & Stripes as being a wild, crazy, Jim Carrey kind-of character, but other than a couple of ad-libs ("Yeah, there's a dog on your balls!"), his performance is very low-key and, in relation to Moretz and Mintz-Plasse, played fairly straight (he even tells people to stop swearing).  With only a few scenes, it's a minor supporting role at best--he appears 30 minutes in and is gone by the 60-minute mark--and it's surprising that Carrey even took the job considering how little he has to do.  And speaking of people who should have better things to do, why is John Leguizamo here in a nothing role as The Motherfucker's driver?  Leguizamo's not a great actor, but he has headlined major movies.  Leguizamo doesn't bring anything uniquely his to this role, and like Carrey's Stars & Stripes, it's a role that anybody could've played.

KICK-ASS 2 has a larger cast of characters but gives them less to do with weaker characterizations.  Some occasional laughs, yeah...but a lot of jokes land with a thud and the greenscreen and CGI work in a climactic car chase is just embarrassingly bad, creating absolutely zero tension or excitement.  Having thoroughly enjoyed the first film, I really tried to like this, but then realized I was putting more effort into trying to like this than the filmmakers put into making it.

Friday, August 16, 2013

In Theaters: ELYSIUM (2013)

(US - 2013)

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp.  Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, William Fichtner, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Emma Tremblay, Faran Tahir.  (R, 109 mins)

South African writer/director and Peter Jackson protégé Neill Blomkamp follows his acclaimed 2009 hit DISTRICT 9 (does anyone recall that actually getting a Best Picture Oscar nomination?) with another politically-charged sci-fi epic.  ELYSIUM is definitely indicative of a Hollywood blockbuster side of Blomkamp, and the points it makes are much less subtle.  But it's still an engrossing film that shows a slightly more disciplined director (the biggest flaw of DISTRICT 9 is that he never seemed to settle on shooting documentary-style or as a straight narrative) and other than one fight scene that briefly utilizes some ill-advised PS3 camera moves, it's the kind of relentlessly-paced, hard-hitting sci-fi actioner that someone like a James Cameron or a John McTiernan would've made in the 1980s.  Like his mentor, Blomkamp is a director who knows how to use CGI so it doesn't draw attention to its artificiality.  ELYSIUM looks great, the action is non-stop, and while its metaphors are a bit simplistic and not everything in it stands up to hard science logic, it's one of the most entertaining films of the summer.

ELYSIUM opens in a 2154 Los Angeles that makes the 2019 L.A. of  BLADE RUNNER look like the good old days.  Sometime in the early 22nd century, Earth became such an overpopulated, crime-and-disease-infested shithole that the world's wealthiest people (read: the one-percenters) headed to the space station paradise of Elysium, which hovers above the planet.  The privileged of Elysium live in a safe world where there's no crime and things like cancer are easily detected and eradicated upon signs of the first trace by in-home MedPods.  Elysium is off limits to the people of Earth, essentially populated by one massive underclass who live in shantytowns and bombed-out buildings.  Any attempts by refugees to enter Elysium's atmosphere--usually to get to a MedPod to cure a terminal illness--result in immediate apprehension and return to Earth.  That is, until one day when intolerant Elysium defense secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) decides to make an example of three ships trying to get to Elysium by having them blown up with drone missiles activated by her psychotic Los Angeles-based Elysium sleeper agent Kruger (DISTRICT 9's Sharlto Copley), which gets her on the shit list of Elysium's President Patel (Faran Tahir).  Meanwhile, in L.A., ex-con Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is trying to live a normal life, working on the assembly line at the Elysium-owned Armadyne factory, which manufactures robot security drones to keep order on Earth.  Due to a bullying manager and workplace negligence, Max is exposed to a massive dose of radiation while on the job, and a robot medical tech gives him some painkillers to stay somewhat functional and informs him "You will be dead in five days.  Thank you for your service."

Knowing he can be cured if he can get to Elysium, Max teams up with old crime cohort Julio (Diego Luna) to pull off a job for powerful, fast-talking smuggler/hacker Spider (Wagner Moura).  A gravely-ill Max is fitted with a surgically implanted neurological exoskeleton, wired into his spine and head, which gives him strength and allows him to receive data directly into his brain.  Spider wants Max to retrieve data from Armadyne boss Carlyle (William Fichtner), who possesses a "reboot" code for Elysium that Delacourt wants to use to stage a coup against the sympathetic Patel and run Elysium her own way.  Spider has his reasons for wanting the reboot code, and Max just wants to get to Elysium to cure the cancer rapidly growing inside of him, and both have to deal with an enraged Kruger, who just wants everyone dead.

As you can see, you've got your unsympathetic, selfish one-percenters, the war-mongering defense secretary, critiques of workplace abuse and lack of access to quality health care, and a revolt of the disenfranchised.  Blomkamp's politics are pretty obvious (if, for instance, you think Delacourt is the hero, you might not be Blomkamp's target audience), but he never lets things get too polemical once the action kicks in.  DISTRICT 9 immediately elevated Blomkamp to the big leagues, and he delivers with impressive set pieces, masterful handling of visual effects, and managing a much bigger cast of established actors compared to his previous effort, and it's nice that he brought his pal Copley along with him.  Damon is in fine BOURNE mode once things get serious, and Copley and ELITE SQUAD's Moura (a huge star in his native Brazil) really have some fun chewing the scenery.  Only Foster seems uneasy, due mostly to her performance being re-looped in post-production.  It's her voice, but apparently test audiences didn't like the accent she was using.  Despite her above-the-title billing, Foster doesn't have a lot of screen time, and it's glaringly obvious in some of her close-ups that she's revoicing herself because there's several bits where the words are out of sync with her lip movements.  Maybe there was a script change that necessitated changing some of her dialogue, but it's very uncommon for dubbing in a big-budget American movie to be that sloppy (this was also the case with Svetlana Khodchenkova's performance as Viper in THE WOLVERINE), especially when it involves someone of Foster's stature.  She certainly looks the part, but she just doesn't seem comfortable in the role.  Maybe it's that she probably didn't get to work with most of the major stars except for one brief scene with Copley and Alice Braga--Damon and Foster have no scenes together, and their characters never meet.  It's ultimately a minor quibble about an otherwise fine film--with its release date delayed multiple times by Sony after being shot two years ago--from someone who's all but guaranteed to become a major genre leader in years to come.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE COMPANY YOU KEEP (2013) and THE BIG WEDDING (2013)

(US/Canada/Luxembourg - 2013)

Despite one of the most star-studded casts of 2013, THE COMPANY YOU KEEP only made it to 807 screens in the US, just over the threshold required to consider it a "wide" release.  It's a rather sluggishly-paced thriller scripted by frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator Lem Dobbs (THE LIMEY, HAYWIRE) and scored by ubiquitous Soderbergh regular Cliff Martinez (TRAFFIC, CONTAGION), and you wonder if perhaps Soderbergh could've brought more energy to the film than director/star Robert Redford.  As has been the case in some of his more recent directing efforts like 2007's LIONS FOR LAMBS and 2011's THE CONSPIRATOR, there's a good story that gets bogged down in talking points and speechifying lectures.  While THE CONSPIRATOR is a fine film nonetheless and LIONS FOR LAMBS a bit better than its reputation, THE COMPANY YOU KEEP never really catches fire.  When former Weather Underground activist Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is nabbed by the FBI in Albany for a 1979 Michigan bank robbery that left a guard dead, her arrest prompts local reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) to dig into her past.  He finds Albany-based lawyer Jim Grant (Redford), a widower and father to 11-year-old daughter Isabel (singing sensation and elderly America's fantasy granddaughter Jackie Evancho), who seems to have no existence before 1979.  That's because Grant is really Nick Sloan, a prominent Weather Underground figure and one of eight suspects still wanted for the 30-year-old crime.  Jim/Nick leaves Isabel with his younger brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) and goes on the run, searching the country for Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), his ex-lover and the group's most volatile member and, through a convoluted set of circumstances, the only person who can clear his name and verify that he in fact had nothing to do with the robbery.  All the while, Shepard is on his trail, digging up secrets of his past, and the FBI, led by Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard) is in hot pursuit.

It's based on a novel by Neil Gordon, but I wonder if THE COMPANY YOU KEEP would've been a more challenging, politically-charged film if Redford had the courage to present his character as a killer who saw the error of his ways, as opposed to a noble, heroic guy trying to prove his innocence even though everyone he hung out with is guilty.  Having Jim/Nick be falsely accused is a standard motif of the commercial thriller, but it feels like a missed opportunity to explore the idea of radicalism gone wrong.  Redford doesn't seem interested in that, but at the same time, with his pokey pacing, he doesn't seem interested in making a riveting thriller, either.   Also, Redford seems at least a decade too old for this role (photos of Nick from his activist days look Redford headshots circa THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN).  LaBeouf, who looks cocky and smirking even when's not trying to be, is hard to buy as a rumpled, crusading reporter, and the banter with his scowling, barking editor (Stanley Tucci) would've come across as hackneyed as far back as THE FRONT PAGE (also laughably unconvincing:  Anna Kendrick, who looks 12, as a hard-nosed FBI agent).  It's nice to see a truly impressive roster of reliable old pros, even if many only have a couple of scenes: Nick Nolte is enjoyably grumbly as a former Weatherman, plus there's Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, and the promising Brit Marling (ANOTHER EARTH, SOUND OF MY VOICE) as the subject of a plot twist that's practically spelled out the moment she mentions she's adopted.  Content to coast on clichés and its cast, THE COMPANY YOU KEEP is a passable thriller that's a bit plodding at times, but with that subject matter and those actors, this should've been a lot more interesting and thought-provoking than it turned out.  (R, 122 mins)

(US - 2013)

Look at that poster.  Just look at it.  Is there any way this movie could possibly be good?  And really?  Someone thought it was a good idea to cast Robin Williams as a wacky priest after LICENSE TO WED?  THE BIG WEDDING, a remake of the 2007 French farce MON FRERE SA MARIE, assembles a huge cast of slumming actors and plants them in one unfunny, smutty situation after another before trying to go for the sappy, feel-good ending (writer-director Justin Zackham scripted THE BUCKET LIST).  The problem is, nobody in this film's target audience wants to see post-Farrelly Brothers vulgarity and other hijinks of that sort.  It doesn't quite approach the "jizz-as-hair-gel"-levels of outrageousness, but if you want to see Robert De Niro getting puked on by Katherine Heigl or going down on Susan Sarandon for a "poonjob," or Topher Grace getting jerked off at the table at a wedding rehearsal dinner, then you've found your movie.

Heading a cast that, for the most part, looks like they'd rather be anywhere else, Diane Keaton (who's already played this same role in SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE) is Ellie, who returns to artist ex-husband Don's (De Niro) Connecticut home for the wedding of their adopted Colombian son Alejandro (Ben Barnes, a British actor who doesn't look even remotely Colombian) to Missy (Amanda Seyfried), daughter of wealthy Barry and Muffin (David Rasche, Christine Ebersole), racists and anti-Semites who are appalled at the idea of "beige grandchildren."  Don lives with Bebe (Sarandon), Ellie's best friend until she and Don had an affair.  There's also Don and Ellie's daughter Lyla (Heigl), who can't have children and just left her husband, and their successful doctor son Jared (Grace), a 29-year-old virgin who's still waiting for the right girl.  The comically dysfunctional family gets along great, but things fall apart when Alejandro insists that Don and Ellie pretend to be married to please his devoutly Catholic biological mother Madonna (Patricia Rae), who sternly disapproves of divorce.  Of course, it leads to one comic mishap after another: Don and Ellie end up having sex, Jared wants to lose his virginity to Alejandro's impossibly hot biological sister (Ana Ayora), and then there's Williams, playing an alcoholic priest.  You know the performances are grating when Williams comes across as the least obnoxious.  Shot in 2011 and bounced around the release schedule for nearly two years, THE BIG WEDDING tries to be shocking with its rampant tastelessness, from the crude situations to the copious F-bombs, but it's merely boring.  This sort of gutter humor can be funny but doesn't really work with an accomplished cast of aging legends that's collectively got double-digit Oscar nods and several wins and seems visibly appalled at the lowbrow nature of the project. Gag after gag lands with a complete thud:  there's supposed to be something inherently funny about senior citizens talking dirty.  Burgess Meredith screeching about "takin' the skin boat to tuna town!" in GRUMPY OLD MEN gets a laugh, but De Niro jokingly calling Keaton a "cunt" comes off as more uncomfortable than funny, and you can even see on his face as he says it that he knows it doesn't work.  If nothing else, this is further proof that his brilliant work in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is the anomaly in De Niro's recent filmography and THE BIG WEDDING fits in perfectly with his current career plan of complete apathy and utter contempt for his craft.  De Niro doesn't need to prove himself to anyone, but at what point do we start considering whether he's crossed that dubious line where his bad movies outnumber his good ones?  And he still has four more coming out between now and the end of the year. (R, 89 mins)

Monday, August 12, 2013


(US - 2013)

Directed by Greg Mottola.  Written by Larry David, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer.  Cast: Larry David, Jon Hamm, Kate Hudson, Michael Keaton, Danny McBride, Eva Mendes, Amy Ryan, Bill Hader, Philip Baker Hall, Liev Schreiber, J.B. Smoove, Lenny Clarke, Amy Landecker, Patty Ross, Paul Scheer.  (Unrated, 97 mins)

Larry David hasn't had the same level of success when he's tried to expand his trademark SEINFELD and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM comedic stylings to feature-length.  He wrote and directed the 1998 dud SOUR GRAPES, an occasionally amusing comedy that felt too sitcom-y and was barely released by Warner Bros.  He produced the 2004 Ben Stiller-Jack Black bomb ENVY and had a hand in the script, though he ultimately refused a writing credit.  David has worked in a couple of films for others, most notably Woody Allen's WHATEVER WORKS (2009), but over the course of eleven years and eight seasons, he's perfected his craft on CURB, so now he's giving movies another shot with the HBO film CLEAR HISTORY.  The story mines similar territory explored in SOUR GRAPES and ENVY:  SOUR GRAPES had Craig Bierko borrowing a quarter from cousin Steven Weber to play a 50-cent slot machine, hitting the jackpot, refusing to split the earnings and instead simply giving Weber the 25 cents that he borrowed.  ENVY has Stiller passing on a chance to invest in his best friend Black's spray that makes dog feces disappear, only to seethe with jealousy when he sees it become a massive worldwide success.

CLEAR HISTORY almost sounds like a remake of ENVY, minus the dog shit.  Opening in 2003, the film has David as Nathan Flomm, a long-haired, madman-bearded marketing guru (he looks a lot like CURB director Larry Charles) and one of the honchos at Electron Motors.  When CEO and Ayn Rand enthusiast Will Haney (Jon Hamm) christens the company's game-changing electronic car the "Howard," after his young son, himself named after the protagonist from The Fountainhead, Flomm refuses to get behind the project and sells his 10% stake in Electron, and promptly sees the Howard become the most popular vehicle in America.  Immediately branded a business-industry pariah Flomm vanishes from sight after his wife (Amy Landecker) leaves him and he loses his home to foreclosure.  Cut to 2013: Flomm went bald from the Howard stress, now looks like "Larry David," and has a new persona--likable Martha's Vineyard townie Rolly DaVore.  "Rolly" lives a peaceful life, doing odd jobs, hanging out at the local diner, playing cards with his buddies (Danny McBride, Lenny Clarke), and he's still on friendly terms with an ex-girlfriend, waitress Wendy (Amy Ryan).  Rolly's life turns upside down when his past comes back to haunt him in the form of multi-billionaire Haney and his new wife Rhonda (Kate Hudson) building an obscenely large mansion in town on some property once owned by the family of crazed Joe Stumpo (Michael Keaton), who's got a personal beef with McKenzie (Philip Baker Hall), the local construction magnate overseeing the building of Haney's house, which includes a basketball court and a bowling alley.  After stumbling upon the 1949 film version of THE FOUNTAINHEAD on late-night TV, Rolly hatches a plan to exact his revenge on Haney: team with Stumpo to blow up Haney's mansion and run off with Rhonda.

CLEAR HISTORY is easily the most successful transition of David material from TV to feature-length, likely because David is acting in it as well.  Rolly isn't much different from the "Larry David" seen on CURB, right down to some recycled gags:  Rolly inadvertently talks formerly overweight/now stunning Jennifer (Eva Mendes) out of her engagement to fiancé Jaspar (J.B. Smoove), similar to how Larry unintentionally talked his sister-in-law's fiancé out of marrying her; Rolly's too finicky to use a port-o-john on the construction site and instead helps himself to the bathroom inside the house; Flomm arguing with Haney over the sincerity of an apology.  Flomm/Rolly is preoccupied with standard LD neuroses:  Flomm barely able to mask his disgust with the name "Howard" ("Call it a Dewey!  Dewey's a nice name!"); Rolly lecturing diner manager Gladys (Patty Ross) about putting silverware directly on the table; Rolly being distressed by the revelation that a teenaged Wendy once fellated multiple members of Chicago backstage when the band played Martha's Vineyard 20 years earlier; Rolly getting on the bad side of a humorless Chechen (Liev Schreiber) when a misinterpreted wave results in a fender-bender.  Even the name "Flomm" is borrowed from CURB (it was the name of the doctor Larry briefly dated, where he arrived at her home to find it identical to her office, right down a receptionist and a waiting area in her living room).  "Flomm" is one of those names that David just likes the sound of, like "Bob Cobb," which was the name of The Maestro on SEINFELD and was used again on CURB by a character who annoyed Larry by insisting his grandfather Bob Cobb invented the Cobb salad.

Also helping CLEAR HISTORY is that it was shot very much in the style of CURB: a basic outline provided by David and regular CURB collaborators Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer (also the team behind EUROTRIP), and fleshed out by some improv from the cast.  It's a style that requires some chops, which explains the presence of CURB vets like Smoove and Hall as well as pros like a barely-recognizable Keaton (who brings an almost BEETLEJUICE jolt of manic energy to his role), McBride (who sees a pic of Rolly as Flomm and says "You look like the guy who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart!"), Bill Hader, and Hamm, who's shown on SNL that he's just as adept at comedy as he is serious drama.  David isn't much of an actor, and he'd be the first person to admit it (even his performance as misanthropic Boris Yelnikoff in WHATEVER WORKS was more "Larry David" than anything), so it's fortunate that just being essentially himself is enough to get the job done.  There's a feeling of familiarity to a lot of CLEAR HISTORY, and as a result, there's nothing it that reaches the heights of SEINFELD or CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, but for a fan of those shows and the patented David persona, it's pretty damn funny all the same.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray/Netflix streaming: ANTIVIRAL (2013) and MY AMITYVILLE HORROR (2013)

(Canada/France - 2012; 2013 US release)

You'd be able to spot the David Cronenberg influence on ANTIVIRAL even without the knowledge that it's the writing/directing debut of his son Brandon.  It's a good thing to say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree here.  ANTIVIRAL juggles a lot of concepts--too many, in fact--but despite its minor flaws, it's one of the most original and disturbing films to come down the pike in a while, a scathing indictment of vapid celebrity culture fused with the "body horror" elements that figured so prominently in the elder Cronenberg's trail-blazing early work.  In a near-future, dystopian Toronto, celebrity worship has grown so huge that bored people with too much time and money on their hands now pay to be infected with viruses harvested directly from their favorite tabloid and entertainment magazine fixtures, as a way to be "closer" to them and be "part of them."  Lucas Clinic sales rep Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) spends his days selling celebrity sicknesses to pathetic customers and his nights selling those same viruses on the black market using equipment stolen from his employers at the clinic.  His most lucrative supply comes from beloved celebrity Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon)--and it's never really specified what Hannah does--she's just always in the news.  He pays her a visit to draw some blood during her latest illness (he's previously sold her various flus and even her cold sore virus to a guy who wanted to feel like he'd kissed her and contracted it).  When he injects himself with the virus in order to sneak it on to the black market, he becomes violently ill and quickly realizes that something is very wrong with Hannah. 

Growing increasingly horrific but not in the ways you expect, ANTIVIRAL is the kind of bleak film that really gets under your skin.  While Brandon's story ideas and scripting are an inventive outgrowth of today's culture, he utilizes the clinical methodology of his father's early work.  So many images recall the elder Cronenberg: the presence of THE BROOD and THE DEAD ZONE co-star Nicholas Campbell as the head of the Lucas Clinic; the cold, desolate look of Toronto, brilliantly captured by cinematographer Karim Hussain, is reminiscent of everything from SHIVERS to VIDEODROME to CRASH (there's also a lot of CRASH in the shots of endless lines of cars speeding along the freeway); Syd's black-market hustling and his business arrangement with disease dealer Arvid (Joe Pingue), who grows the viruses supplied by Syd into meat patties to sell to his customers, recalls the shady Civic TV wheeling-and-dealing of Max Renn (James Woods) and his tech-geek buddy Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) in VIDEODROME.  The increasingly sickly Syd comes across like a more introverted Max Renn, and Jones (THE LAST EXORCISM), with his pale skin and sullen demeanor, reminded me of younger, vaguely androgynous Brad Pitt.  Though it's a bit overlong and could've used some trimming in the second half, ANTIVIRAL is a bold and original work, despite the myriad of influences and references--in a way, it seems like it's doing the film a disservice to mention all the David Cronenberg callbacks, but it's impossible to not mention them.  It's almost as if Brandon Cronenberg is carving his own path while putting all the "Yes, David Cronenberg is my father" stuff on the table from the start.  For fans of the still very active Pops Cronenberg, it's reassuring to see that his legacy and the Cronenberg name will carry on at least one more generation and that his son obviously spent of lot of time observing and learning from Dad and is eager to honor that heritage.  And you can't help but smile knowing how proud the old man must've been when he first saw this.  Also with Wendy Crewson and Malcolm McDowell in small roles, ANTIVIRAL ranks right up there with Duncan Jones' MOON (2009) and Panos Cosmatos' BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2012) as the most promising genre debuts in recent years. It's a grim and depressing downer, but would you want anything else from a Cronenberg?  (Unrated, 108 mins)

(US - 2013)

The alleged haunted house at 112 Ocean View Ave. in the Amityville neighborhood on Long Island has remained a pop culture phenomenon for nearly 40 years since the DeFeo murders took place in 1974.  The house was purchased by the Lutz family in 1975, and they left after 28 harrowing days of unexplained and relentless paranormal phenomena.  That's been the story all these years, through several books and at least ten movies, though the whole thing is largely accepted to be a hoax (none of the five occupants of the house since 1976 have reported any strange happenings).  MY AMITYVILLE HORROR is a documentary that focuses on Daniel Lutz, the oldest of the three Lutz children, who was ten years old when they lived in the house.  Now in his late 40s, Lutz is still traumatized by his experiences, and he still claims all of the paranormal occurrences really happened.  Lutz is an angry man haunted by a painful childhood.  He talks at length about his resentment of George marrying his mother Kathy (which he would only do if Kathy allowed him to legally adopt the kids as his own) and severing ties with his biological father.   Lutz portrays George as a manipulative, bad-tempered, and often abusive man with an interest in the occult, with books on paranormal phenomena, hypnosis, and various religions.  Psychologists and paranormal experts alike question the validity of Lutz's claims, saying that he may be confusing the incidents from the books and the movies and that the negative memories and unaddressed trauma of his childhood have convinced him of things that may not have happened.

Regardless of where one stands on the Amityville story, MY AMITYVILLE HORROR is a film that probably would've worked better as a 20/20 segment.  The abrasive Lutz almost seems to be playing "Daniel Lutz" at times, a character that he's seemingly based on Ed Harris from the looks of it.  Director and Amityville historian Eric Walter frequently cuts to shots of Lutz jamming and shredding on his guitar, for no apparent reason other than to kill time.  Fans of the recent THE CONJURING will be interested to see Lorraine Warren (played by Vera Farmiga in the film) meeting with Lutz.  Lorraine and her late husband Ed went through the Amityville house in 1976, during which time an image was allegedly captured of the "demon boy" reputed to be the ghost of the youngest DeFeo child, when it was actually a member of their own investigating team.  There's some interesting observations about the power of a manipulative, controlling person on the collective psyche of a family (and it's worth noting that George Lutz died in 2006 and can't defend himself) and how that impacts entire lives (Lutz's two younger siblings declined to take part in this), but MY AMITYVILLE HORROR doesn't really have enough substance to warrant being feature-length. (Unrated, 89 mins)