Saturday, August 31, 2013

Closed Circuit (2013)

I was disappointed to find out that Closed Circuit is not the conclusion to the Short Circuit series.  I was really waiting on that.  Oh well...

A bomb goes off in a busy London market.  The police have their suspect and two lawyers, Martin Rose (Eric Bana) and Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall), are brought in to represent him.  Because this is a very high-profile case and there are many classified sources, two different hearings are being held to determine what evidence can be used.  Martin and Claudia are not to contact each other, and Claudia is overseen by an MI5 agent to make sure she handles all the information correctly.  Having no familiarity with British courtroom proceedings, this seemed overly elaborate and confusing.  If that's how it's done over there, then I guess I just have to go with it.

Martin and Claudia continue to investigate and realize they are being spied on.  Eventually, they learn the prime suspect may have actually been an MI5 agent, and the government is willing to do anything to cover this fact up.

As the story continues to escalate and it's clear their lives are in danger, Closed Circuit manages to have no urgency or tension.  Even as Martin and Claudia are being chased and people attempt to kill them, I never felt like they were in any real danger.  It's presented in a very dull and matter-of-fact way.  Director John Crowley might has well have been filming a documentary or something that got shown on the History Channel's off hours.

Another big issue with Closed Circuit is how dry it is.  When introduced to Martin and Claudia, we're explicitly told they had a romantic past.  This had to be told because there's absolutely no chemistry between them.  It's not just them though, everyone in the film felt like a robot: sexless, passionless, and humorless. Johnny 5 had more personality.  It's unfortunate because there were a ton of places where Steven Knight's screenplay could have been punched up to make this funny, or at least human.  I'm not saying it should have been a comedy, but you could have added humor and not lost any of the dramatic/thriller elements.  In fact, it would have made those elements have more impact because there'd be some personality to sink your teeth into, and make you care about what's going on.  Instead the focus is on all the details, and those details just aren't that interesting.

Closed Circuit is well acted though, and Rebecca Hall and Eric Bana give very workman-like performances.  Nobody stands out as weak, and everyone does their jobs, even if it felt like many were just going through the motions.  One standout was Jim Broadbent's performance.  That guy makes everything better, but he couldn't save this.

Finally, just as the film feels like it's picking up and we're getting some answers, it totally fizzles out.  I was left saying to myself, "What even happened?"  What was the film trying to say?  The government is watching you?  That they're willing to do anything to cover up something that will make them look bad?  Is that news to anyone, especially these days?

Closed Circuit is a well-acted thriller that unfortunately contains no real thrills, and is very dry and boring.  The lack of any kind of chemistry or personality makes it hard to care about anything that happens in the film.  I think I would have liked this film if it had actually been about robots.  This is a hard one to recommend, and can only advise you to save it for streaming or cable.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Drinking Buddies (2013)

A movie about friends that work in a brewery and spend a lot of time drinking beer?  My kind of people!

Drinking Buddies is actually little more than that.  Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) are co-workers and good friends at a micro-brewery.  They spend much of their time flirting and seem like  they'd be a great fit for each other, but both are in relationships.  Luke is in a long term relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick), while Kate just started seeing Chris (Ron Livingston).  Luke and Jill have a good relationship, but Jill is starting to press Jake about marriage.  Kate and Chris are still in the hooking up stage and he doesn't even seem that into her.  Part of me had to suspend my belief a little bit that a knockout like Kate would have a lack of dating options and that someone like Chris would only be lukewarm towards her.  A hot chick that loves to hang out, drink beer, and works for a brewery?  Where do I sign up?  Is there a wait list?

The couples take a trip together, and without spoiling too much, something happens that you think will chain a particular series of events, but it doesn't play out that way.  Part of me applauds Drinking Buddies for not taking the predictable, obvious rom-com route, while the other part is frustrated that nothing happens.  One of the reasons why it's so frustrating is that Luke and Kate have such great chemistry together.  The "will they or won't they" question hangs over the whole film.

Drinking Buddies features a lot of what bugs me about mumblecore films: nothing really happens, it just kind of meanders without any plot, and there's no third act.  However, the open-endedness and ambiguity of Drinking Buddies worked for me.  In life, we don't always know what's going to happen next.  The situations dealt with are very real and easy to identify with.  While characters argue and get emotional, it's not melodramatic.  In fact, there's a very understated scene where Luke and Kate make up after an argument that I found very sweet.   I felt like a fly on the wall at times.  You're likely to watch Drinking Buddies and see a lot of familiar things from your own experiences.  It also doesn't hurt that these are people I could see myself hanging out with.  They aren't too quirky or caricatures, but just normal folks.

The strength are the performances of Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde, and the chemistry between them.  Jake Johnson is a favorite of mine from New Girl, so he gave me pretty much what I expected from him, but I was really impressed with Wilde's performance.  I've been kind of hard on her in the past, as I think she's taken roles that haven't given her much to do, but this is the first time I've seen her do something that made me really take notice of her.  She's funny, sympathetic and vulnerable.  This is easily my favorite thing she's been in.  Anna Kendrick is cute as she always is, and Ron Livingston had that same demeanor he has in Office Space after he got hypnotized.

Like many mumblecore films, it's largely unscripted, allowing the actors to improvise their dialog and get into their characters.  Director Joe Swanberg apparently just gave them an outline of major points that needed to happen in each scene and then let them go for it.  It really worked, as the dialog felt very natural and intimate.  People actually communicate and say what they want to say, something that usually bugs the hell out of me in traditional dramedies or rom-coms.  It's a credit to the cast that they were able to make it work so well.  While there really aren't any jokes in the film, there's a lot dialog and observations you're likely to get a laugh out of.  Plus, anytime Jason Sudeikis made an appearance, he got me to laugh.  That guy has my number so far.

On a side note, it's kind of weird that I happened to see Drinking Buddies about an hour after seeing You're Next, which also features Joe Swanberg and Ti West.  Swanberg has a cameo here as well.  Another weird observation is that Jake Johnson is totally clean shaven in the poster above, but sports a pretty scruffy beard in the film.  Never underestimate the power of the beard!

Drinking Buddies is a peek into the relationships of a few friends as they navigate their way through life.  Its open-endedness may disappoint those looking for a traditional rom-com, but the natural dialog, as well as the realistic and funny feel make it worth the watch.  Lastly, it's highlighted by two really strong performances from Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde.  It's available On-Demand now and worth checking out.

3.5 out of 5 Death Stars

You're Next (2013)

If you think You're Next is just another run-of-the-mill, home invasion thriller, then you'll be selling the film short and missing out on a nice, late-summer surprise.  I was actually going to skip this one, but after hearing some of the buzz, I decided to give it a shot.  I'm glad I did.

After a prologue where a really mismatched couple gets murdered, a wealthy, retired couple (Rob Moran and Barbara Crampton) return to their large vacation home for a family reunion.  First to arrive is their son Crispian (AJ Bowen) and his girlfriend, Erin (Sharni Vinson).  The remainder of the siblings and their significant others arrive later and eventually they sit down for dinner.

During dinner, Tariq (Ti West) notices something outside and is shot in the the head with an arrow.  The family escapes to a safer room as an unknown number of attackers continue to terrorize them.  More are injured or killed while they try to figure out how to survive and get help.  The randomness and brutality of it is a little shocking, even for horror veterans.  It's tough to watch a normal family just trying to enjoy dinner and then all hell breaks loose.  Why is this happening?  Do they somehow deserve this?

Where You're Next takes a turn for the awesome is when Erin decides she isn't just going to sit there and do nothing as they wait for help.  As if the spawn of Liam Neeson, she reveals a particular set of survival skills, and turns the tables on the attackers.  If you've ever gotten frustrated wondering why people trapped inside their house don't behave differently or use their knowledge of the home as an asset, then I think you' really love how You're Next plays out.  Recently, I was very critical of The Purge for exactly this reason.

It's very satisfying to see how You're Next flips the script, and this makes it easy to forgive many of the film's flaws.  While just 94 minutes, it still somehow takes a little too long to get going, especially when it's obvious that the murders from the prologue happen in the home next door, so you know this is coming.  I don't want to spoil too much, but some of the twists are either pretty apparent from the beginning, or you'll figure out without much effort.  The acting is also a little rough to watch.  It's usually never the strength in horror, but it really stands out here as a weakness.  The exception to this is Sharni Vinson as Erin, who establishes herself as quite the badass.  I'd even go out there can call it Ripley-esque.  Also, I have to say that Barbara Crampton still sexy as hell.  I know that has nothing to do with the acting, but I just had to put it out there.

Another thing I liked about You're Next is while gory in parts, they don't go overboard with it.  There are plenty of times where they could have, but they struck a good balance of showing you just enough, and then letting the sound effects and your imagination do the rest.  I was also surprised at how funny it was, not just from the story elements, but there's some dialog that gave me a laugh.  The humor is a good contrast to the number of jump scares.

Director Adam Wingard, along with writer Simon Barrett, are part of the team that's been involved with the V/H/S series, along with Ti West and Joe Swanberg (who have roles in You're Next).  It's clear these guys really love the genre, and I appreciate how they are willing to experiment and take risks.  I haven't always loved everything they've done so far, but at least they're making the effort.

You're Next is a genre-bending horror/thriller that has a nice mix of violence and dark humor, and is much more fun that you'd expect.  It's also a bit of wish fulfillment if you've ever been irritated with character behavior in similar films.  That alone made it worth watching, and as a result has a much broader appeal.  I definitely recommend checking it out, and it's worth a matinee.

3.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The World's End (2013)

Ah, so this is why they say you can't go home again...

Gary (Simon Pegg) returns to reunite his friends and complete the Golden Mile, a marathon pub crawl in their hometown.  Their first attempt over 20 years ago was met with failure, but this time Gary is determined that they'll reach the final pub, The World's End.  However, the gang has all moved on and a pub crawl isn't high on their list of things to do.  One of them, Andie (Nick Frost), doesn't even drink anymore.  The rest aren't too wild about Gary and the fact that he hasn't grown up at all.  The impulsive and talkative Gary manages to convince them though.  They hit a series of pubs before they start to notice that things are a little off since the last time they were in town, and then it gets weird.

I'm not sure how many of you have seen the trailer for The World's End, or if you're a fan of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's previous collaborations (which I've just learned is called the "Cornetto trilogy").  The reason I bring this up is that the movie takes a significant turn around the halfway point that I don't want to spoil, but anyone that's seen the trailer or is familiar with their previous work will likely be aware already.  I'm going to err on the side of not spoiling though and be a little more vague and a lot less wordy than usual.

Spoilers or not, it isn't going to ruin your enjoyment of The World's End.  Once things get going, it's a ton of fun.  If you aren't laughing at the situations they find themselves in, then the dialog will get you.  The thing I love about the Cornetto trilogy is not just how well written they are, but how it's clear that Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright love the genres they're riffing on.  There's so much attention to detail and subtle references to other films.  Even Paul, which was written by Pegg and Nick Frost, is full of sci-fi references.  Fans are rewarded with multiple viewings of these films, and I think The World's End will be no exception.  I was recently shown a clip from Shaun of the Dead where the opening scene brilliantly spells out exactly how the movie is going to go.  It's the kind of thing I didn't notice the first time, or even second time I watched it.  I've already heard about a few things from The World's End that I didn't pick up the first time around.

Another thing that makes these films stand out is that there's more to them than clever dialog or genre references.  Like some of the better Judd Apatow comedies, there are underlying themes that give them meaning and more to connect with.  As you learn more about the characters and what's really going on in their lives, you see what's really driving them.  People that aren't necessarily sympathetic at the beginning are by the end.

Much of the cast from the previous Cornetto films return or have small roles in The World's End.  From working so much together, they have great chemistry and play off each other like old pros.  They really do seem like genuine friends.  Rosamund Pike joins the cast to give it a jolt of estrogen.  I've always enjoyed Pike, but I really her taking a stab at comedy from the usual drama/thrillers she's in, and no, Johnny English Reborn does not count.

If you're a fan of Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, then you'll also love The World's End.  I'd say it's probably somewhere in between those two films a far as overall quality, but your mileage may vary.  Even if you aren't familiar with the Cornetto trilogy, there's a lot of fun to be had, and it's one of the better comedies of the year.  I strongly recommend checking it out, and maybe even getting a pint or two to really put yourself in the mood.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Monday, August 26, 2013

Blue Jasmine (2013)

I've often said that a simple story can work when done well.  Plots don't get much simpler than Blue Jasmine, the latest from Woody Allen.  After her life falls apart, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) moves in with her adopted sister in San Francisco while she tries to pull it back together.  It's not really any more complex than that.  Blue Jasmine is character study at best.

Don't get me wrong, the story's not quite that thin.  Through various flashbacks, we learn that Jasmine was married to a wealthy businessman, Hal (Alec Baldwin), in New York.  Unfortunately, his shady business deals caught up with him and they lost everything.  He was also having a series of affairs, and you see there was a part of Jasmine that was willingly ignorant about these things.  Why rock the boat, right?  Isn't there a saying about bliss and ignorance?  They taste good cold or on toast or something like that?  With her world crashing down around her, Jasmine has a nervous breakdown.  Now she's prone to talking to herself, or anyone that will listen to her prattle on about how great her life was/is.  On various medications and never without a vodka martini, there are moments where she looks truly disheveled.

Also through these flashbacks you see that Jasmine doesn't have much of a relationship with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and her ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay) is quick to point out that Jasmine wanted nothing to do with her when she had everything.  If you're going to do flashbacks, this is how you do it.  You're never confused about what part of Jasmine's life you're watching or where they are.  The various establishing shots, changes in lighting, subtle dialog queues, and even Jasmine's appearance make this clear without every being explicitly told.  No "six months ago" needs to be displayed on the screen.

Jasmine tries getting a job and going back to school, but her adjustment has been anything but smooth.  She doesn't get along with Ginger's new fiance, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), either, and her moving in has caused a strain on her sister's relationship.  Things finally start to look up when Jasmine meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a wealthy diplomat who has his sights set on political office.  Even Ginger takes on a lover (Louis C.K.) as Jasmine pushes her to to do better than someone like Chili.

In a lot of ways Blue Jasmine reminded me of Young Adult.  Both feature an unlikeable sociopath as its main character.  They're full of crap, medicated and completely self absorbed in their own fantasy world.  Hell, "Jasmine" isn't even her original name, but changed it because she liked the way it sounded.  What are you, some kind of diva?  Despite that you don't have much of a reason to like Jasmine, and she doesn't show much in the way of growth, you still find a sliver of sympathy for them.  Bad things happen to her, some deserved and some undeserved.  Whether or not you think Jasmine was a willing accomplice, or could have done something about some of these events, it's still a lot for one person to deal with in a short period of time.  When things start to improve for Jasmine, I actually wanted it all to work out for her even though I couldn't condone her methods.

Also like Young Adult, it's carried by a great performance that keeps you interested in the journey.  Watching a film about a broken person isn't always a picnic, but when it features such a strong lead performance, you can't help but find it interesting.  Cate Blanchett was simply amazing!  She's so believable as a drunk that it wouldn't surprise me to learn that she drank or medicated herself while filming.  It's hard to fake that even if you have experience with it.  I still thought she managed to have a sexy quality about her, but that might just be cause I have a thing for Blanchett.  While this is one of Woody Allens strongest films in years, I don't know if it works as well without Blanchett.  I've heard a lot of Oscar buzz already around her performance, and I wouldn't be surprised at all see her win it this year.

It's not completely a one-woman show though.  The supporting performances are very good, too.  Perhaps the biggest surprise is Andrew Dice Clay, who's been showing lately that there's more to him than just his comedy act.  Alec Baldwin is as solid as he always is.  Another standout was Bobby Cannavale, who continues to be one of my favorite, lesser known actors.  I also felt sympathy for Ginger due to Sally Hawkins performance.  Peter Sarsgaard is good in his small role, along with Louis C.K., who plays slightly against type.

This is a much darker installment from Woody Allen's when compared to the lighter tones of something like Midnight in Paris or To Rome with Love.  That's not to say there aren't laughs to be had in Blue Jasmine, but don't go in expecting a laugh riot.  Much of the humor comes from uncomfortable situations or sometimes outright laughing at the characters, but I didn't think it was necessarily mean spirited.

Blue Jasmine is another great entry in Woody Allen's catalog.  While light on story, it's an interesting character study about a totally dysfunctional person, but still watchable because of a fantastic performance from Cate Blanchett.  I hope she has her dresses picked out, cause she's gonna be pretty busy at all the award shows.

4 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)

I knew in trouble when I walked into the theater and saw that not only was I just about the only guy there, I was the only person over the age of 30.  Applause and giddy laughter was heard as The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones began.  While I knew that this was based on a series of young adult novels, I was unaware of how apparently popular they are.  After sitting through City of Bones, I have to ask, "Who reads this crap?"  Seriously, please tell me the books are significantly better, because otherwise I don't get it.  Judging by the applause at the end, it's clear I'm not the intended audience for the film, but the fact that they couldn't judge the quality of what they just saw kind of made me die a little inside.

Clarissa "Clary" Fray (Lily Collins) goes out with her best friend, Simon (Robert Sheehan), to a club where she witnesses a murder, only to realize she's the only one that saw it happen.  She continues to draw a strange symbol and has visions of goth kids.  While not wholly original, I've always enjoyed the mythology of a world that exists within our own that only some have the ability to access or see.  There's a lot you can do with that.  After Clary's mother (Lena Headey) disappears, she learns that her mother was a "Shadowhunter" and that she must be, too.  Joined by another Shadowhunter, Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower), they attempt to find her mother and something called the Mortal Cup.

I was actually interested and invested at this point.  The problem with The Mortal Instruments is that it continues to borrow, or outright steal, from every sci-fi or fantasy franchise you can think of.  As if that wasn't enough, it layers countless love triangles that rival most soap operas.  Were left with something that's a hot mess of many different tropes and cliches, and has nothing original to offer.

Oh, and I did I mention the dialog is cringe worthy?  While there are a few funny lines, for every reasonably good one, there's ten horrible or awkward ones.  They throw in some modern pop culture references though, so at least it feels like they are still living in our world.  However, you'll see maddeningly inconsistent behavior from characters, even within the same scene.  Early on, Clary is mad at Simon for not answering the phone when her mother called, but the whole reason why she called Simon was because Clary didn't answer the phone when was called first.  Even the kids sitting next to me made a comment about that inconsistency.  Nobody involved in the production noticed this huge lapse in logic?  At one point Clary throws a knife at a werewolf just after it saved her, and it wasn't even the first time the werewolves intervened on their behalf.  Later, there's a simple misunderstanding where Jace goes from trying to act cool and dropping one liners to running away like a brat.  I have a hard time believing the guy is some kind of badass when he can't keep his emotions in check and gets upset at the slightest thing.  Was this written by a completely irrational person?

At least City of Bones looks nice.  There are some interesting character and set designs, with some decent special effects.  In particular, there's a really cool effect with this demonic dog that would have fit right in with something like The Thing or Hellrasier, so I applaud the creativity there.  However, making decent looking werewolves still seems to be an issue.  They must have known this, as most of the time the werewolves are always just on the verge of turning, so they just have claws and cool eye contacts.  Also, when not werewolves, they all look like they are part of a biker gang, like in True Blood.  I guess that's better than a bunch of shirtless guys wearing denim shorts though.  Speaking of attire, everyone is dressed like they work at Hot Topic.  When Clary has to change clothes, even she remarks at how uncomfortable it is, and then later makes a point to remove her knee-high boots during a crucial situation.

The action is City of Bones features more poorly filmed action scenes, with all the quick cuts and close shots that we all hate.  I'm not gonna come down on them too hard for this, as this has been plaguing most movies these days.  I still don't understand why it's used though.  Doesn't anyone care that you can't tell what's going on during climactic fight scenes?  Why even bother putting it in the film if you can't enjoy watching it?  In a weird turn of events there was a scene towards the end where Clary uses some rune to freeze a bunch of demons in place.  However, instead of using this opportunity to kill the demons, they awkwardly sneak past them for no reason at all.  What happens next?  The demons recover and kill a bunch of them.  What in the hell were they thinking?

Speaking of, there's a whole plot thread dedicated to saving Simon after he was kidnapped by vampires.  The issue I had with this was why was Simon even with them in the first place?  He had no powers or knowledge that made him an asset on their quest.  Why would a group of experienced Shadowhunters allow him to even come along, let alone into a den of creatures where Simon would be a liability?  He's just in the way.  After this, they hint he was bitten by a vampire, but then never bring it up again.  Clary sees the bite marks and doesn't even mention it to the other Shadowhunters as a concern.  Oh, but they're setting that up for a sequel, fans will say.  Awww...it's cute you think there's going to be a sequel.

Then there's all the bad melodrama with the love triangles.  It's probably best to read this next part in the voice of a 14-year-old girl.  Simon is Clary's best friend.  He's clearly in love with her, but she just considers him a friend.  Jace and Clary are into each other, which means Simon hates Jace.  Another Shadowhunter, Alec (Kevin Zegers), is gay for Jace, but for some reason isn't allowed to admit it.  Alec hates Clary because Jace likes her.  Jace isn't gay though, so Alec has to know the love isn't mutual and therefore his hate of Clary is totally irrational.  Clary totally calls Alec out on it later, too.  Then, there's this gay warlock named Magnus (Godrey Gao) who's into Alec, so it's not like he doesn't have options. (14-year-old voice: off) Here's the kicker - SPOILER ALERT - it's revealed that Clary and Jace are brother and sister!  This is well after they've shared a kiss and their attraction is mutual.  What the hell?  Oh, and the big bad guy they're worried about reveals himself to be Clary and Jace's father.  Now we're ripping off Star Wars?  Who thought this was a good idea?  The bad guy's name is Valentine (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).  Yes, Valentine, a name that strikes fear into the hearts of all.  Why not just call him Darth Valentine?

This is all pretty much the second act of the film, and when we finally get back to the main plot, you've almost forgotten what they're after or why.  It's never even really clear what this Mortal Cup is needed for.  Valentine wants Clary to drink from it to test it first, but never does.  There's a reference to a master race, so I guess there's supposed to be some ethnic cleansing theme or something.  The plot is really an afterthought to all the melodrama.

There also no real explanation of anyone's powers.  They draw runes on themselves to give different abilities, and these just look like bad tattoos.  No further details are given, so it ends up being a lazy way to allow characters to have whatever power is needed at a particular moment.  At the end of the movie, Clary uses one to clean her apartment.  I'll admit that's pretty convenient.  Why didn't they just make up a rune to find Clary's mom and the Mortal Cup all in one shot?  Drawing the runes appears to be a painful process, so was it supposed to be a weird reference to 'cutting'.  It didn't help that one of the times we see Jace applying one was immediately after he ran off in one of his petulant huffs.

I'll say this though, at least The Mortal Instruments is still better than Twilight.  Clary is a more realistic and relatable character than Bella.  She isn't completely defined by two boys liking her for no reason and has a purpose and goal.  I'm probably a little biased here in that I think Lily Collins is a much better actor and has much more charisma than Kristen Stewart.  I also liked they cast Lena Headey as her mom.  They actually look like they could be related.

Overall, I didn't even think City of Bones was poorly acted.  I felt that the cast was trying, but what are actors supposed to do when the dialog and story is this bad?  It bugs me when movies aimed at younger audiences are written like this.  They deserve and appreciate intelligent dialog, too.  Not everything written for teens has be filled with angst and melodrama.  They even shoehorn a really awful CW-like soundtrack into it.  Then, when you consider how obviously derivative and predictable it all is, I can't see why anyone finds it satisfying to watch.  It's so predictable that without even reading a single page of any of the books, let me guess some stuff that happen in later installments.  Feel free to confirm or correct me:

  • It's eventually revealed that Jace and Clary aren't actually brother and sister.
  • Even though Clary is the least experienced, we find that she's way more powerful than everyone else.
  • Simon eventually does turn into a vampire.  He probably saves the day at some point because of it.
  • Simon also ends up with Isabelle (Jemima West).  This is good for Simon though, cause Isabelle is hot and was kind of a badass.
  • Magnus ends up with the Alec.  That reminds of another thing. After Alec is injured in a fight, Magnus shows up out of nowhere to heal him.  I don't recall anyone calling him.  Why did he just show up? Was he so into Alec that he was keeping tabs on him?
  • After Alec ends up with Magnus, Alec and Clary become friends.
If you're a fan of the book, or a teen that loves Twilight, then nothing I say is going to stop you from watching or enjoying The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.  For the rest of the world, it's one of the cheesiest, poorly written, melodramatic and derivative pieces of trash I've seen in a long time.  The only thing I can say for it is that you might get some enjoyment out of it for all the unintentional comedy.  I can't wait for the Rifftrax guys to sink their teeth into this.

1.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lovelace (2013)

It's funny to think how a term that's so prevalent in the vernacular was such a novelty back in the 1970's.  Who hasn't heard of Deep Throat, a pornographic film that transcended its genre, and is considered one of the most popular and profitable porn films of all time.  It also made it's star, Linda Lovelace, a household name.  Lovelace, gives us a glimpse into her life and the making of Deep Throat.

Linda Boreman (Amanda Seyfried) was a shy, reserved girl living with her parents.  Despite being over 18, they still were very strict and her mother Dorothy (Sharon Stone) was as an overbearing presence.  That's usually not a good sign, right?  After meeting Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), the two of them quickly move in together and get married.  After a series of arrests and money troubles, Chuck convinces Linda to star in porn films.  It doesn't take a genius to see that Chuck has a similar, domineering influence over Linda, too.  Taking on the name Linda Lovelace, her first film is the aforementioned Deep Throat.  Due to it actually having a plot and it's high production values, as well as the girl-next-door appeal of Lovelace, it became a popular hit.  People lined up to see it.  For you younger folks out there, people used to have to go to an adult theater to see a porn.  You couldn't just open your web browser and conveniently find whatever you're looking for.

Linda's enjoying her fame and sexual liberation, and everyone seems to be thrilled with the success of Deep Throat.  For the first half, Lovelace is a fun, Boogie Nights-ish tale. The apex of this is when Linda attends a gala screening and meets people like Sammy Davis Jr. and Hugh Hefner (James Franco. Yes, that James Franco). It's also marks the point where a tone takes a drastic shift.  For a second, I thought something was wrong with my On-Demand, as I saw a few replays of earlier scenes.  Only this time, they are told from a much different perspective.  The second half of Lovelace tells a story of abuse, drug use, and forced prostitution, as Linda tells her side of the story for her autobiography.

Linda wanted to get this out there so people would be aware of what really happened and hope that other women don't make the same mistakes.  While this is compelling and you feel for her, I found it hard to connect with.  It's interesting that at the end, you see a clip from an appearance on the Donahue show where an audience member says to her that she also finds her hard to relate to.  I'm not saying that I don't believe her story, or that I don't understand the fear and inability to get away from Chuck, but for the first half of the film, Linda seems like a willing participant.  I keep coming back to the issue of tone, and there's where I think the disconnect was really felt for me.  The first half is light and sexy, where the second half is dark and depressing.  You've been enjoying Lovelace up to a point, and then they pull the rug out from under you.  I think it was a mistake to tell her story as two separate sides.  It would have been a stronger, and more sympathetic tale if the abuse had been clear from the beginning.

Also, with the way the film awkwardly looped on itself, it wasn't clear how much time had passed.  Only about six months span the time from when Linda and Chuck meet to when Deep Throat is made, and this goes by pretty quickly.  We later jump ahead six years to her already being remarried with a son who looked to be about 4 or 5-years-old, and according to Wikipedia was born in 1977.  Lovelace begins in 1970, six month pass, Deep Throat comes out in 1972, she divorced Traynor in 1974 and remarried also in 1974.  Unless we saw multiple six month and year jumps, the timing doesn't quite work out.

What kept me watching were the performances.  I thought Amanda Seyfried did a great job of being sweet and portrayed a wide-eyed innocence.  Later we see her vulnerability as she struggles with everything.  Also, I thought the makeup transformation Seyfried went through was pretty impressive.  It's not like she's wearing any prosthesis, but I could barely recognize the fair-skinned, blond, blue-eyed Seyfried, as the brown-eyed, freckled, curly haired Lovelace.  Looking at pictures of the real Linda Lovelace, there were likely a few actors that may have looked more like her, but I think it was an inspired choice.  I also didn't even recognize Sharon Stone as Linda's mother.  I actually thought it was Wendie Malick.  Peter Sarsgaard is also effectively creepy and scary as Chuck Traynor.  It's the kind of performance that would also have worked in a Sleeping with the Enemy-type thriller.  The strong supporting cast is rounded out with Adam Brody (as Harry Reems), Hank Azaria, Bobby Cannavale, Chris Noth and Robert Patrick.  There's not a weak performance in the bunch.  In fact, there's a scene with Robert Patrick towards the end that kind of got to me emotionally.

While featuring strong performances, the overall tone of Lovelace and subject matter make it hard to connect with.  If you're a fan of old porn, or like movies set in the 70's, I think you'll enjoy the first half, but overall this is a rental.  It's available on On-Demand now, but save yourself a few bucks and wait for Netflix.

2.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, August 16, 2013

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

As Big Daddy once said, maybe they should have called it "Ass-Kick".

Considering how much I enjoyed the first, I have to say I was really disappointed in Kick-Ass 2.  The quickest summary I can offer is to say that it's an example of a sequel made by someone that didn't quite understand what made the first one work.  It's not even a case of sequelitis where they tried to one up everything.  It follows a similar formula to the first, but the whole time you can't shake the feeling that it's missing something, like Nic Cage.  Say what you want about Nic Cage these days, but he was the highlight of Kick-Ass, and what does it say about your film when adding Nic Cage would have been an improvement?

Kick-Ass 2 picks up in a logical progression after the first.  Dave, a.k.a. Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has hung up his tights, but has inspired many others to also take to the streets as superheroes.  He decides to get back out there himself, but realizes he needs some actual training to be more effective.  He enlists Mindy, a.k.a. Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), to help him and wants them to become a crime-fighting duo.  Hit-Girl is still at the top of her game as she won't give up as a promise to her Dad.  However, after being caught by her guardian (Morris Chestnut), she promises him that she'll give up crime fighting and give normal life a chance.

Meanwhile, still upset over the death of his father, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) rebrands himself as "The Mother Fucker".  Nope, that's not a joke, but it's an example of some of the failed attempts at them throughout.  The Mother Fucker wants to be the world's first super villain, and assembles a group of villains to counter Kick-Ass' team of heroes.  However, his only real goal is to get revenge.  Theres a throwaway line about having a larger plan, because all super villains needs to have a master plan, but there's nothing to it and it all takes a backseat to the revenge plot.  Since he's only after Kick-Ass, but not the world at large, he never feels like that much of a threat and the stakes aren't all that high.

While all of this is going on, Mindy is attending slumber parties, trying out for the cheerleader squad, and then dealing with bitchy high school girls.  Tonally, this feels like a completely different movie that has little to do with the main plot happening around her.  If Kick-Ass 2 had been called Hit-Girl and was completely focused on her attempts to be normal and then getting back in the game, then I think it would have worked better.  She's the most interesting character in the film anyway.  Instead we have all of these different plot threads going on and are introduced to a bunch of new characters that aren't given much screen time.

Considering all the characters and plot threads, it felt like this would have been great a TV show stretched out over a season or two.  This way you can get to know all the minor characters and are given reason to care about them.  From what I'm reading online, Kick-Ass 2 is based of both the Kick-Ass 2 and Hit-Girl series (12 issues total), and writer/director Jeff Wadlow was pretty faithful to the comics.  However, the fact that it was 12 issues brings me back to the point that this being made into a series might have been a good idea.  I'm thinking Hit-Girl in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer type show.

Another reason why Hit-Girl is the most interesting is due to Chloe Grace Moretz.  She's got a lot of charisma and carries all of her scenes.  There are moments where you actually feel for her character and her struggle to balance her life.  I didn't mind Aaron Taylor-Johnson, but the issue is that Kick-Ass really isn't that compelling of a character, especially when compared to the first film.  I felt like they were both trying their hardest at times to give something to their roles, but it's difficult when their motivations are all over the place.  They give up or get back into crime fighting on a whim.  When Kick-Ass pleads with Hit-Girl to join him, she says stuff like, "You just don't get it" or "You wouldn't understand".  Well, explain it to us then, because I don't get it and I don't understand.  You didn't have a problem sneaking around behind your guardian's back before, so why is it such an issue now?

For all the stuff we heard about Jim Carrey's role and issues with the movie, he's really not in it all that much or much of a focus on the story.  It's a violent role for sure, but I find it odd he didn't have issues with it while making the movie, especially when it looked like he appeared to have fun with it.  I was also bummed out that Donald Faison was added to the cast and not given more to do.  As a huge fan of Scrubs, I know how funny he can be, so I was disappointed in his lack of screen time.  Christopher Mintz-Plasse had some good moments as The Mother Fucker, particularly when playing off John Leguizamo, but again, it felt like there were a lot of opportunities to do more with the character that were missed.  Some of the roles from the last film were recast, and Dave's girlfriend, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), is written out of the story within a few minutes.  They break up and Dave doesn't seem the least bit conflicted by this.  In fact, he moves on to another girl (Lindy Booth) at the first opportunity.

Where the first Kick-Ass had a certain wit about it, that was completely missing here.  I didn't find anything funny at all, and the dialog was so flat throughout.  There's no witty banter or sarcastic comments, and that was desperately needed.  Some of the humor came from the fact that you're watching an 11-year-old brutally and gleefully murder bad guys.  However, Hit-Girl is now 15 and a pro at this, so that novelty has worn off.  Plus, the violence felt creative the first go around, but here it just felt like standard action movie stuff.  It also didn't feel as realistic or that there was as much consequence to it.  Kick-Ass was over his head when he first started crime fighting and took a lot of punishment as a result; you don't see that here.  Both films relied too much on CG blood, but it stood out as more of a flaw in Kick-Ass 2.

At least Kick-Ass isn't using Myspace anymore.  He's got Facebook account now.  Even the Mother Fucker posts his exploits on Twitter.

Missing all the wit, charm, or genre deconstruction of the first, Kick-Ass 2 is a disappointing sequel.  It's not the worst thing I've seen this summer, but it could have been so much better.  The tone of the film is all over the place and there are too many undeveloped characters and plot threads.  The end result is just a generic action film.  Save it for rental.

2 (out of 5) Death Stars

Friday, August 9, 2013

Elysium (2013)

In the year 2154, the Earth has become such a polluted dump that the wealthiest citizens have located to an orbital space habitat called Elysium.  Elysium is beautiful, clean and every home has a medical bay that will cure anything that ails you.  Plus, you have one helluva view.  However, if you're one of the regular folks, you're stuck on Earth living in a shanty town and barely surviving.  There is where we find Max DeCosta (Matt Damon), an ex-con struggling to keep a job a local robot factory.

After an accident at work, Max is blasted with a lethal dose of radiation and is given just five days to live. Getting to Elysium is the only way he'll survive.  Desperate for a way to get there, he makes a deal with another criminal rob a wealthy businessman (William Fichtner).  They fit him with a powerful exoskeleton, as well as some brain doohickey, and off he goes.  Max ends up in the possession of something extremely valuable that's wanted by not only his boss, but Elysium's Secretary of Defense (Jodie Foster).  She dispatches a sleeper agent, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), to bring him in.

Elysium has a great pace and that's due in large part to the fact that it wastes no time in getting the main quest going.  Within the first few minutes you learn all the backstory you need to know about Elysium and Max through a simple series of images, lines of text and flashbacks.  No painful or clunky narration or exposition needed.  When Frey (Alice Braga), a childhood friend of Max's, appears you already understand their relationship and what Frey means to him.  The story itself it fairly straightforward and easy to follow.

Much like Neill Blomkamp's District 9, Elysium has parallels to modern issues like immigration, class warfare and healthcare.  I didn't find Elysium to be as heavy handed as District 9 or found it to be preachy.  You don't see anyone lamenting their situation, or blaming/cursing the upper class for it.  Elysium subtly weaves these thoughts into the story, and it's much smarter than what we usually get during the summer, especially for something that's so effects-laden.  An early attempt to break into Elysium feels like a high-tech attempt to cross the border.  However, when you later realize what city they're in and consider the ethnicity of many of the people, that's the one part that seemed a little too obvious.

Unlike another science fiction film this summer, the technology seemed feasible and consistent for the setting.  If this only took place 40-50 years in the future, it would have seemed a little too implausible.  The effects are fantastic, whether you're looking at scenic shots of Earth or Elysium, the various robots in the world, or ships flying around.  This is one of the best looking films of the year.  Blomkamp again showed he has a flair for inventive and graphic ways of killing people.  If he ever made a sci-fi version of a Saw film, then I'd think we'd be in for some true mayhem.

I did find a few issues with the plot though.  Before I start, I understand without some of these things there'd be no story, but it always strikes me odd when a movie that's otherwise smart misses things to me that would seem obvious.  Like when Max gets trapped and hit with all that radiation, the system detects there's a biological signature present, but there was no failsafe to turn it off, or not activate at all once knowing he's in there.  That seemed like an obvious safety feature that was missing, but they could have been making a point about workplace safety in sweatshop or low-income/third-world environments.

I understand the point the film was making about healthcare, but if all you need to do is lay in one of these machines and it fixes everything, what's the issue with not having them on Earth?  It's not like you ever see money exchange hands on Elysium.  Why can't they help?  You'll see something at the end that really made this point stick out to me.

While the surface shots of Earth show a littered, run down landscape, orbital shots didn't show much damage.  I might have believed how polluted the Earth was if I had seen less blue, or maybe craters showing that there'd been war or some kind of disaster.  With the kind of technology that was available, they didn't have anything that would have been able to clean up the planet?

Perhaps I'm projecting my own idealized, Star Trek vision of the future on Elysium.  I'd like to believe that when we arrive at this kind of technology in the future, that it will be used for the betterment of all mankind, not just the rich.

There were a few weird character decisions as well.  Jodie Foster spoke with a weird accent that didn't seem to belong to any particular nationality.  It wasn't as bad as the accent used in After Earth or Queen Amidala from Episode I, but it was a little distracting because there wasn't a real need for it.  Plus, I swore in the opening scene she spoke with her normal voice, and then it changed in a later scene.  On a side note, Foster can still rock the short haircut with the best of them, and still has one the best set of calves in Hollywood (I have a thing for calves).  Speaking of accents, while Sharlto Copley is from South Africa, his accent was also a little distracting, all things considered.  A few times I found him difficult to understand.  His performance was delightfully nutty though, and a good contrast to Matt Damon's more muted performance.  I found it funny despite lack of finances, Max still had plenty of tattoos.  He was an ex-con though, so maybe they were prison tattoos.  You also see a lot of facial branding or 'white tattoos' on the wealthier folks, but it's never really expounded upon.

Overall, Elysium is well acted and there are no weak performances, but it's really not the focus of the film.  There aren't a lot of character moments, and outside of a scene or two I never felt much emotionally.

Lastly, I was really irritated in the camera work in parts.  Once again, there's too much shaky camera.  Even in some of the earlier flashback scenes of Max this is used and simply unnecessary.  When we reach the climactic fight, it suffers from dizzying tight shots, quick cuts and camera movements that make it extremely difficult to tell what was going on.  This is really becoming a plague on movies, and I'm disappointed that Blomkamp went this direction, especially when I don't recall any this at all in District 9.

Oh, and as always MATT DAMON!

Despite it's flaws, Elysium is still a smart, thought-provoking and highly entertaining sci-fi film.  It's easily one of the best looking films of 2013.  While it's a bit of a step down from District 9, it still cements Neil Blomkamp as one of the top sci-fi filmmakers out there.  Don't hesitate to check it out.

3.5 (out of 5)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013)

I guess I spoke too soon about August surprising me so far.  Here comes a sequel nobody was asking for to a movie that barely anyone remembers.  I honestly almost forgot there was a first Percy Jackson film.  I can barely recall a single detail about it, other than I didn't care for it.  You might wonder why I even bothered seeing Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.  Well, what else am I going to do on a Wednesday night?  Plus I'm a nerd for any kind of fantasy film.  I still went into this with an open mind, 'cause you never know, it might be a pleasant surprise.  Sometimes a sequel can be an improvement, especially when the first wasn't that good.

Sea of Monsters figures the audience didn't remember the first Percy Jackson film either, as there's a brief narration that sets the story up.  However, if you're going to open with someone narrating, you might want to encourage the lead actor to not read it like he's bored, which is how Logan Lerman sounded.  Better yet, get Anthony Stewart Head to class it up by reading it, since he plays Chiron.  I don't remember "Giles" being in the first film, and it turns out he wasn't.  Chiron was played by Pierce Brosnan last time.  Outside of the primary trio, I don't think there's a single returning actor from the first film, which is a shame because if you go back and look at the cast list, it's star-studded.

This is going to be spoiler-ridden, by the way...

We come back to Camp Half-Blood to catch up with Percy and friends.  There's some weird "capture the flag meets king of the hill" game they're playing that only seems to establish that Clarisse (Leven Rambin), daughter of Ares, is extremely competitive with Percy.  She's practically a bully, but Percy tries to take the high ground with her.  I don't think it's any coincidence that Percy is very similar to "pussy".  Anyway, Percy is introduced to his half-brother, Tyson (Douglas Smith), who's a cyclops.  Tyson kind of looks like young-Brendan Fraser in Encino Man, which was all I could think about anytime I saw him.  I guess being a cyclops is bad because Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario) hates him with a passion simply because he is one.

After an attack on the camp by a robot-bull-transformer-thing, they learn that the tree that protects the camp with a magical force field has been poisoned, leaving the camp vulnerable.  However, since nobody seems to have been seriously hurt in the attack, this doesn't seem like that much of a threat.  The only thing that can heal the tree is the Golden Fleece, which is in the Sea of Monsters, otherwise known to us as the Bermuda Triangle.  There's a prophecy that Percy is destined to either save or destroy Olympus, so he, Annabeth, Tyson and Grover the Satyr (Brandon T. Jackson) embark on a quest to recover the Fleece.  Another demigod, Luke (Jake Abel, who might as well be called young-Kevin Bacon), who I guess was presumed dead, also wants the Fleece.  He needs it to resurrect Kronos, the father of Zeus, Hades and Poseidon.  You still with me?

One thing I couldn't get out of my head at the beginning of the film is that this camp is full of the half-blood children of Olympian gods.  Are they all deadbeat dads?  They just go around spraying their seed everywhere and then ditching the mothers.  Classy.  A running subplot in the film is that Percy has been trying to communicate with his father, Poseidon, only to never get any response.  Later in the film when they catch up with Hermes (Nathan Fillion), he reveals that he's Luke's father, but not that he's Darth Vader, which would have been awesome.  He tells Percy to tell Luke to apologize for not being around and not to be angry at the world for his mistakes.  Hermes is too busy to tell him?  Later on, even Luke asks why Hermes couldn't tell him directly.  So yeah, the Olympian gods are terrible fathers.  Fillion's appearance was the highlight of the film though, and I would have totally given the whole thing a pass if anyone would have called him "Darth" as a joke.  "Will you deliver this message to my son, Luke?"  "I'll be sure to let him know, Darth."

I said earlier that the protective shield going down didn't feel like that much of a threat, and that's probably one of the biggest problems with Sea of Monsters.  There's no urgency at all to this quest, and you don't feel that there are any real stakes.  Any mistake is immediately corrected, and nobody dies or sustains any permanent injury, so it never feels like there are any consequences.  Finally, we reach the climax and Kronos swallows a character whole.  For a second I thought things were about to get real, but then a good guy is swallowed and you already know that they're both going to come out okay.  Plus, the power of the Fleece was to heal anything.  Moments later, Annabeth is stabbed while they are still in possession of the Fleece, yet they still go through the exercise of pretending she dies?  We know the Fleece is going to bring her back.  It's all pointless.

While on this quest, they always seemed to be winging it without any distinct plan.  There are a few times Percy leaps into action only to quickly find that he's backed into a corner without any way out.  How do you plan on getting out of this, Percy?  He always does though, sometimes being saved by some random object or character that you had no idea was anywhere around.  Then you see that Percy has really powerful control over the ocean, and I had to wonder why he didn't just lead with that.  If you have that kind of power, why not use it right up front?

Based on the acting, it didn't seem like anyone cared about the film.  Everyone feels like they are going through the motions.  Then again, there's no real depth or growth to the characters, and they are generally uninteresting.  Percy spends much of the film wondering if he's good enough or strong enough, but this is just kind of glossed over with any defining moment.  Besides Nathan Fillion, the other bright spot was Stanley Tucci, but he's always great.  He has a running gag of forgetting everyone's name, which was the only thing I found humorous about the movie.  Then again, maybe he forgot everyone's name because he didn't want to be there either and didn't bother memorizing them.

I can't blame the cast for not being all that invested when having to recite such awful, lifeless dialog.  This is some of the worst dialog I've seen in a while.  All the attempts at humor fall flat, and it's irritating because there were times where you could hear a funnier version of something said in your head, or imagine that a slightly different character reaction would have made all the difference.  I wonder how long ago Marc Guggenheim wrote this screenplay and why they didn't bring someone in to try and punch it up.  There's nothing clever or witty about it at all.  This is the guy that wrote Green Lantern though, so that might tell you something.

The special effects varied from decent looking to really awful.  The budget was around $90 million, so I guess it's passable for what they had to work with.  Some of the visual effects were for things that had no real point.  The aforementioned bull seemed to only exist in the movie because they really wanted to have a Transformer for the kids.  Some of the centaur and satyr effects were painful to look at.  There's a giant cyclops at the end that looked like something that would have barely been passable in a TV movie, or something that came out ten years ago.  I'd say the best effect were how unnaturally blue they got Alexandra Daddario's eyes to look, but those are all hers.  How is she not a bigger star?  Would someone please put her in something decent?

Ultimately, this is a kid's film and I could see my nephews really enjoying it.  I'm just disappointed that this didn't strive for something more.  You can make a fantasy film that appeals to more than just kids.  Director Thor Freudenthal (yes, Thor) has only directed kid's films up to this point and you can tell.  There are parts of the film that I can't imagine any adult enjoying, like the cab scene, which I found extremely irritating.  It's mercifully only about and hour and forty minutes, so I wasn't completely bored with it or caught myself checking my watch.

It's not so bad that I was angry, but Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is a dated, lame movie that felt like something that should have gone direct to video or would have been better suited to TV.  The story and characters give you nothing to care about, and I can't recommend anything about it.  It's harmless, but little more than eye candy for kids.  I'd advise you to pass it, but it's safe enough to rent for your kids at some point.  Don't waste your hard earned money to see this in the theater, or you might encourage them to make another, and they teased another sequel at the end.  Don't do it!

1.5 (out of 5) Death Stars

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

We're the Millers (2013)

In the not too distant past, I've often often lamented seeing movies late in the Summer.  I know I've mentioned this before, but August and September are usually the dumping grounds for stuff the studios don't think can compete or hold up against the blockbusters.  However, there's been a recent trend of films I've looked forward to, or even enjoyed more than the bigger films of Summer.  I don't know if it's that they aren't marketed well, simply fly under the radar, or the Summer has become so saturated that otherwise decent movies are getting pushed back.  We're the Millers continues this trend.

The trailer for We're the Millers actually had me rolling my eyes at the premise a bit, but it worked in the context of the film.  David (Jason Sudeikis) is a small-time, successful drug dealer in Denver, but he gets into a little trouble with his supplier, Brad (Ed Helms), after a robbery.  Brad makes a him a deal: smuggle some drugs across the border and he'll wipe the slate clean.  When struggling for a way to pull this off, David is inspired by a family in a mobile home.  He figures that if he can pull off the appearance of a squeaky clean family, the border patrol won't give them another look.  David doesn't have a family though, so he recruits a dorky kid in his building, Kenny (Will Poulter); a runaway, Casey (Emma Roberts); and finally a stripper, Rose (Jennifer Aniston).  David and Rose have butt heads in the past, so she wants no part of the plan, but reluctantly comes along when she runs into money trouble of her own.

Once they make it to Mexico, they find that the 'smidge' of marijuana they thought they were picking up is actually a huge amount.  Brad also neglected to mention that the pot wasn't meant for them in the first place, so now a drug lord (Tomer Sisley) is after them to get it back.  Does drug smuggling in movies ever go off without a hitch?  If actual drug smuggling was this much of a pain in the ass, I'm at a loss as to why anyone would even try it anymore.

Along the way, the Millers meet up with the Fitzgeralds, a seemingly straight-laced couple played by Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn.  If you've seen the trailers, you already know that there's more to them.  I was a little worried about how their characters were going to play out, but I thought Offerman and Hahn were both funny.  I don't think Nick Offerman can do anything wrong at this point though.  Would someone please write a movie with Offerman as the lead?  I'd go for a Ron Swanson movie.

It's a high-concept film, but it's an example of when you assemble a great cast that has good chemistry, and they sell the material, it can work.  Jason Sudeikis is perfect for this type of film with his smart-ass delivery, and he carries Millers well.  I've always enjoyed when he goes into full-on 'dick mode'.  I even got a little bit of Clark Griswald from him, particularly towards the end.  Jennifer Aniston played off Sudeikis well, and showed that she still has her comedy chops after all these years.  Has it really been almost ten years since Friends ended?  Anyway, I like when she doesn't play it safe or plays against type, like she did in Horrible Bosses.  Plus, I'd like to drink from the same fountain of youth that she's been drinking from.  Although, if you pay attention closely, you'll see a body double was used in a few shots.  It's a dead giveaway whenever they cut away and it comes back to a shot of the backside or their head is no longer in the frame.  This isn't meant to be a slam on Aniston or the film, but just an observation.

I also enjoyed Emma Roberts and Will Poulter as the rest of the 'family'.  It was nice to see that they were actually given their own arcs, rather than be throwaway characters without any depth.  You're given reason to care about the Millers, and it's believable why they would bond in such a short time.  You'll also see from the outtakes during the credits that the cast clearly had a lot fun making We're the Millers and I think that comes across in the final product.

There are a few cameos from recognizable comedy actors.  I especially enjoyed Ken Marino as Rose's boss at the strip club, and he has few great lines.  Luis Guzman and Thomas Lennon also appear.  While in a smaller role, I got a kick out of Ed Helms, who seemed to be really enjoying himself playing more of a douchebag that we're used to seeing.

While I didn't find myself rolling on the floor, there were plenty of good laugh-out-loud moments throughout.  I generally like snarky, sarcastic dialog and this is full of it.  There's something about the character interaction I found natural, but maybe it's because I tend to a pretty sarcastic guy myself.  There are some siller and raunchier moments, but I felt it all balanced out nicely.  We're the Millers is also an example of why I appreciate an R-rated comedy simply for the fact that the trailer can't ruin a lot of the better lines and moments.

Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (try saying that name five times fast), he allowed the cast enough room to play around a little.  He also kept the pace moving at a good clip, as I didn't realize that this clocks in at 110 minutes.  That's usually around the point where I start feeling a movie's length, especially with a predictable comedy, but I didn't notice until after.  Thurber was the director of Dodgeball, as well as the old Terry Tate, Office Linebacker short, so I'm surprised to see that he's been inactive in recent years.  Here's to hoping he gets more shots at directing comedy.

I was also surprised to see there were four writers (Bob Fisher, Steve Faber, Sean Anders, and John Morris).  That many is usually a bad sign, but it didn't seem to hurt the film too much.  Fisher and Faber are credited with the story, so I wonder if Anders and Morris were brought in to punch it up.  Collectively these guys have written films like Wedding Crashers, Hot Tub Time Machine, Sex Drive, and She's Out of My League, so the comedy pedigree is there.

As I mentioned earlier, We're the Millers is predictable and gets a little cheesy towards the end.  It wraps up a little too cleanly, and there are a few spots in the story where the Millers are let off the hook by convenience.  They also had to show that even though David is a drug dealer, he has rules like he won't sell to kids.  Had they been able to stay away from some of the standard cliches or take some chances, it could have been a real stand out.

It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but We're the Millers has enough laughs to still be a good time at the movies.  Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston are a duo that works well together, and despite the predictable and cliched plot, it hits way more than it misses.  I recommend it as a matinee.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hell Baby (2013)

I'm a big fan of the guys from The State and most of their subsequent projects, like Reno 911 and Stella, so I was eagerly looking forward to Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant's Hell Baby.  It also didn't hurt to hear Riki Lindhome talk about her nude scene on various podcasts like Doug Loves Movies.

Maybe I had set my expectations too high, but I can't tell you how disappointed I was after watching Hell Baby.  I just don't get it when a movie involving so many talented and funny people at every level can make a movie that I found devoid of anything funny.  I'm not kidding either; in the entire 98 minutes I had a slight chuckle once.  It's an example of trying so hard to parody everything about a haunted house film that it ends up failing miserably.

Vanessa (Leslie Bibb) and Jack (Rob Corddry) move into a run down home in New Orleans while they await the birth of twins.  They quickly learn from their neighbor, F'Resnel (Keegan Michael Key), that the house has a host of nicknames involving death, as well as several murders that occurred there.  I guess the disclosure laws are pretty lax in Louisiana, but whatever.  Seemingly within moments after moving in, Vanessa already begins to exhibit unusual behavior, and the typical trope of boxes stacking themselves happens. Vanessa begins to smoke and drink heavily, 'cause fetal alcohol syndrome is funny.  The story doesn't have much of a setup, let alone any mythology or end goal like a normal horror film.  I can forgive that if I'm laughing so hard that I forget to care.

A pair of priests (Lennon and Garant) and dispatched to help, even though Vanessa and Jack haven't asked for it yet.  When told about the case, they are informed they are already 'playing catch up'.  This would only make sense if this scene happens later on in the film, but this is within the first ten minutes.  Was this a massive mistake in editing?  After arriving in New Orleans, the priests seems to be more interested in eating, checking out the French Quarter and looking at boobs than getting on the case.  They also smoke, work out a lot and dress like the Men in Black meet The Blues Brothers.  I hate to get nitpicky about plot details, but this is all I have at this point.

Much of the humor in Hell Baby consists of repeated gags and silly scenes that drag on and on.  There's one gag where Jack gets shocked by an old lamp he's working on, but I'm trying to figure out why he's continues to work on a lamp that's plugged in.  There are multiple scenes of people orgasmically eating po'boys, complete with burps and farts; I'm not sure what was supposed to be funny about that.  There's an old, naked lady (which was really just someone wearing an awful looking naked suit) that shows up throughout the film.  A pair of boneheaded cops (Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer) question Jack on multiple occasions and call him names like 'Einstein' or 'Mozart' for no reason.  F'Resnel lets himself in through a window on a whim and always accidentally scares Jack.  Then, there's a chain vomiting part that goes on forever.  This all culminates with a scene where a room full of adults freak out and play hot potato with a devil baby.  I kept waiting for any of these scenes to go somewhere or have some kind of payoff.

Even Lindhome's nude scene goes on for way too long, and has no point other than to have more nudity.  Apparently her character isn't ashamed of her body, but Jack is uncomfortable around her naked sister-in-law.  Go figure.  I never thought I'd see the day where I'd complain about a pretty girl getting nude, but I don't know why Lindhome agreed to do this.  She has a great body though.

I get it, comedy is hard.  Not everything is going to work, and I'll admit that maybe I'm not the right audience for this or wasn't in the right mood to watch it.  I don't mind silly or lowbrow humor, but this didn't work for me at all.  Hell Baby feels like something that was shot over the course of a few days without much of a script.  They weren't sure what direction they wanted to take it, so they just let all the actors wing it.  This is one of the reasons why I'm so hard on recent Adam Sandler films.  With this much comedic talent, you'd think they could knock it out of the park with ease.  At least everyone felt committed to the material.  I'm sure they were laughing their heads off while filming.

It occurred to me afterwards that Hell Baby is something I would've really loved when I was 15 or 16.  Back then, this would have killed me, and the nudity would have excited me more.  I like these guys, so I don't want to beat them up too bad.  It's not like they've lost a fan.  I'm hoping their next work will slay me.

Hell Baby is a disappointing, uninspired film from comedy pros that I was expecting a lot more from.  Meant to be a parody of haunted house/possession films, it's a silly farce with repeated gags that run on and on and on.  I'm not even sure if large amounts of alcohol or drugs could help it.  I really wish I could recommend it, but I can't.  This is one to take a pass on.

0.5 out of 5 Death Stars

Friday, August 2, 2013

2 Guns (2013)

It's weird how you can talk about something in a casual conversation and then that very thing happens to you just a few hours later.  I was talking movies with a friend and he was giving me crap for liking Bullet to the Head.  I justified it by saying I can forgive a lot of things in a movie, especially an action movie, if it delivers on what I expect.  Like, if a movie has a few good action scenes, a great villain or supporting performance, or funny dialog, then I can look past some shaky acting or plot elements.  Later that evening, I watched 2 Guns and got that freaky sense of deja vu.

Bobby Trench (Denzel Washington) and Marcus Stigman (Mark Wahlberg) are working with the Mexican underworld.  After a deal goes south with crime lord Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos), they rob a bank where they know Greco usually keeps about three million bucks in safe deposit box.  It's revealed early on that Trench is really an undercover DEA agent.  After the bank heist, Trench moves to bring Stigman in, only Stigman beats him to the punch.  Turns out Stigman is working undercover for the military and was going to bring Trench in.  That these two are really undercover is also spoiled by the trailer, so thanks for that, trailer makers.

Now here's where things get head-spinningly convoluted.  Rather than the three million expected, there's closer to over 40 million, so the pair suspect something's amiss.  After Stigman turns the money in back to his commander (James Marsden), they turn on him and try to kill him.  The DEA similarly turns their backs on Trench.  There's a third, mystery person (Bill Paxton) after them too, and don't forget that Papi Greco wants his money back as well.  Trench and Stigman are are forced to team back up to track down the money and find out why everyone wants them dead.

2 Guns suffers from something I've complained about lately where you have too many players, too many people whose motivations are unclear, and back stabbing and double crossing galore.  It's needlessly busy and complex.  We're more than halfway through the film before we finally figure out what's going or who some of these people actually are.  I feel like with some of these films they are so afraid of being called dumb, that they add all these extra twists and turns to keep you guessing.  Simple and cliched is fine when done well.

However, simple can work against you, too.  Multiple times in the film a character will have no real plan for what they are about to do, but it all works out anyway.  There's one long sequence where they break into Stigman's base where they plan is little more than, "I'm gonna cause a diversion, and you just wander around casually and nobody will notice you."  It's as if the characters all knew in advance where to be and when.  Then, the climax suffers from 'big, dumb action' syndrome where you see all the typical crap you hate in a movie; people casually walk away from explosions, there's a Michael Bay-style, slo-mo-spinning shootout (the poster at the top is no exaggeration), etc.  There are some well executed scenes though.  When director Baltasar Kormákur can stay away those types of action cliches he does a good job, and some of the scenes actually had a humorous tone to them, despite that they didn't pull many punches.  It's a violent film for sure.  Maybe it's because I saw this on RPX, but I thought the sound really pounded the feel of the action into you.

The strength of Blake Masters screenplay is that the dialog is very fun throughout.  It's not all silly one liners either.  The banter between Trench and Stigman is often hilarious, and the two felt like old friends or brothers.  Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg really sell it and the chemistry between the two of them is fantastic.  They're such a good pairing that it makes you hope for a sequel where they've set up their own private investigator business or as partners in another buddy cop film.  I was actually reminded of Lethal Weapon in parts.  They really made the film worth watching and it just goes to show you that if you get two actors that are committed and work well together, they can elevate the material.

The supporting cast is rounded out with James Marsden, who once again seems criminally underused.  Admiral Adama (Olmos) is good in his limited role, and I like that he's starting to take on more bad guys in recent roles.  Paula Patton's character is one where her motivation was all over the place.  It's not her best work, but at least she finally gets a chance to show her 'assets'.  My favorite of the supporting roles was Bill Paxton who has a fun, scenery-chewing performance.  It's the best I've seen him in a while, and continues to prove the rule that it's more fun to play a villain.  I'm still begging for him to do a movie as Chet from Weird Science.

2 Guns is a cliched and messy story, but it's elevated by the great chemistry and performances of Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg.  Fans of old-school action films should get a kick out of the (mostly) fun action, and banter between the characters.  I was a little nervous that I wasn't going to enjoy this, but I had a good time and felt it was a good movie to start August with.

3 (out of 5) Death Stars

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Way, Way Back (2013)

It's no secret that I loved The Descendents, and called it one of my favorites of 2011.  The adapted screenplay from Jim Rash and Nat Faxon won an Oscar, as well as gave us a good laugh at AngiesRightLeg's expense.  I was eagerly looking forward to their next collaboration, as this time they were taking on directing duties, too.  The duo seems to have a knack for sweet stories filled with humor and nice human moments without resorting to too much quirk.  Plus, I love Rash on Community and really liked Faxon on Ben and Kate until Fox shortsightedly cancelled another good show.  You can say I'm a little biased on this one.

Duncan (Liam James) is on the road to summer vacation with his mother and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell).  While Pam (Toni Collette) is asleep in the car, Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale from one to ten.  Duncan reluctantly answers with six.  Trent disagrees and calls him a three.  Trent's kind of a dick, but he has a point.  Duncan is a terminally shy, awkward 14-year-old that really needs to get out there and develop some social skills or any kind of social life.  He's uncomfortable around everyone, especially the cute girl next door Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).  Trent wants him to get that score up.  His heart is in the right place, but that's not the most constructive way to tell a kid you don't know that well that he needs to get out there.  Also, telling a kid he's socially awkward doesn't help him not be awkward or help him grow socially.  Give him some tools or notes to improve.  It's like saying I know you suck, you need to suck less.  How does that help?  He's a little too hard on the kid overall.  Plus, it's one thing to be hard on your own son, but when you're hard on the son of your girlfriend, I tend to think that's crossing a line.  It's interesting to note that Trent hides this behavior towards Duncan, as well as other things, by doing it when Pam is not around.

Trent has a older daughter (Zoe Levin) that doesn't want to be seen with Duncan either.  Pam and Trent spend a lot of time with the drunk next door neighbor (a fun Allison Janney), as well as a couple of Trent's friends, played by a somewhat muted Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet, who needs to be in more movies.  Betty (Janney) encourages Duncan to hang out with her younger son (River Alexander), but he's a bit of an oddball.

Duncan eventually gets tired of all the drunken, adult shenanigans and starts exploring the town on his own.  While hanging out at a local water park, the park's manager Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes Duncan under his wing and hires him to do odd jobs.  It's never really clear what Owen's role or job is, especially since he seems to answer to Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), who laments her station and that she works harder than just about everyone there.  Anyway, Duncan becomes more and more comfortable around everyone and makes many friends at the water park.  Owen is that mentor, older brother, or even father that Duncan lacks.

The Way, Way Back is yet another coming-of-age story.  Is 2013 the year of coming-of-age films?  I'm happy to say though that his continues the trend of good ones.  When I look back at earlier films like Mud or The Kings of Summer, they all have a distinct tone and style to them, so I've yet to feel like I'm in a cycle of watching the same movie and over and over.

Later in the film when Trent's true colors are on display, Duncan's finally able to stand up for himself and confront him and his mother.  It's that moment in the film where you see that he's becoming a man.  I think one of the reasons why I enjoyed the movie so much is that I saw a lot of myself in Duncan.  I was a goofy looking kid when I was that age.  Braces, bad hair, unsure of myself, and really, really shy.  What I would have killed for an Owen back then.  Liam James plays that socially awkward kid well.  I can forsee a few more roles like this for him in the near future.

Much of the supporting cast isn't in the film as much as I would have liked, but they're not the focus.  I appreciate seeing Steve Carell playing against type again.  I like it when he branches off his typical comedic track.  AnnaSophia Robb has been a favorite young actress of mine since Bridge to Terabithia and she finally seems to be getting larger exposure in recent films.  I still predict big things for her.

Where the film really takes off is when we're at the water park.  There's lots of playful interaction between Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph, as well as most of the other employees played by Jim Rash and Nat Faxon.  The relationship that develops between Duncan and Owen is sweet without being cheesy or forced.  When we finally reach the end of the film, you don't want to see these two say their goodbyes, but it's done in a way that's satisfying.

As much as I liked The Way, Way Back I have to wonder if I would have liked it as much if Sam Rockwell hadn't been in it.  Would I have been as invested not knowing he's showing up later?  Sam Rockwell is easily the best thing about the film.  Every scene he's in is great.  He's so good that if another actor had played Owen, I'm not sure that movie would have worked at all.  A water park might not need an anchor, but sometimes a movie needs an anchor like Rockwell.

One thing struck me as odd is that when you see the family driving in an old station wagon, I wasn't quite sure if this was a film set in the past.  This is confused further when it's mentioned that Trent is car salesman and brags that he's fixed the car up as a classic.  I'm pretty sure I saw some of the younger folks using cell phones (but not Duncan), and there's references to iPods.  Then in other scenes, you see people playing Pac-Man and Duncan is familiar with the game to the point where he points out that the game has a pattern.  There's also lots of 80's music.  It really doesn't matter all that much as this is another movie that's timeless.

Much like I said about The Kings of Summer, The Way, Way Back is a film that I didn't want to end.  While it's a simple, coming-of-age story in a year full of them, it still manages to stand apart with its own style and voice.  It's extremely funny, sweet and is worth seeing just for the great performance by Sam Rockwell.  I wouldn't be surprised to see a best supporting nod for Rockwell this year.  I look forward to seeing the film again.  Still playing at select theaters, I highly recommend checking it out soon.

4.5 (out of 5)