Sunday, March 31, 2013

Side Effects

Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
2013. Rated R, 106 minutes.
Cast:

Vinessa Shaw
Ann Dowd
Polly Draper
David Costabile
Mamie Gummer


Having most recently tackled the super secret agent flick (Haywire) and the stripper movie (Magic Mike), director Steven Soderbergh now wrestles with the psychological/medical thriller. That means someone ends up dead fairly early. We know who did it. We just have to figure out the how, the why and if the person who did it is ultimately responsible. That who is Emily (Mara). She has been holding down the fort while waiting for her husband Martin (Tatum) to come home from prison after being convicted of insider trading. For her, this is even tougher than it is most in a similar situation because she suffers from severe depression. As one person puts it, she’s been putting on a brave face. However, shortly after Martin gets out she starts having dangerous episodes. The first of which, purposely ramming her car into a brick wall, puts her under the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law). He prescribes her some medication and that’s when all the fun begins: more suicide attempts, some hardcore sleepwalking and, ultimately, murder.

The good doctor seems most affected by all the goings on. Since the case involves a brand spanking new and very high profile drug, he’s constantly hounded by the media. He loses his practice and is in the midst of losing his family as some very ugly things about his past begin to surface. Maintaining they’re not true, he sets out to expose the truth. Jude Law handles the role solidly, if unspectacularly. Of similar caliber in performance is Catherine Zeta-Jones as Dr. Victoria Siebert, Emily’s former shrink. She lets her ‘look at me, I’m smart’ glasses and vividly painted lips do most of the heavy lifting. Tatum, now a Soderbergh regular, doesn’t have much to do until it’s decided he can’t have anything to do at all. Hint.


The shining star is leading lady Rooney Mara. As with her outstanding turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she gives us a thoroughly damaged young woman. Like the people in the movie, it takes a long while to figure out if she’s a victim or creator of her circumstances. Is she possibly both? Mara wrings every ounce of emotion she can from the character keeping us on our toes.

Of course, Mara is greatly aided by Soderbergh. The man simply makes beautiful looking movies. Side Effects is no exception. It’s filled with both subtle and bold touches that congeal into exquisite frames. Unfortunately, the story eventually reveals itself to be too generic for him to elevate to greatness. We figure things out too soon because it feels like any number of Basic Instinct clones. The two things that might be considered twists are hardly unexpected. Still, the director’s craftsmanship and the star turn by Mara make for a good first hour or so. After that it devolves into too familiar territory.

Happy Easter!!!



I've been a little slack during March, but I've got some good stuff on tap for April. So eat your Easter eggs and come back to see me!


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Sessions

 
Directed by Ben Lewin.
2012. Rated R, 95 minutes.
Cast:
Annika Marks
Adam Arkin
Rhea Perlman
W. Earl Brown
Robin Weigert
Jennifer Kumiyama
Blake Lindsley
Rusty Schwimmer


Numerous movies are made every year about getting laid. Excluding porn, the mechanics of the actual act are often left out or only briefly touched upon with the focus on the romance that will culminate in love-making. In The Sessions, how sex is actually performed is a major plot point. The issue is that our protagonist, Mark (Hawkes), was stricken with polio at a very young age. He cannot move anything except his head and is a virgin. Now, at age 38 and after being contacted for a story about sex and the disabled (he's a writer), he finds himself really wanting to gain some experience in that area. Of course, finding a partner is no small feat. Eventually, he begins seeing Cheryl (Hunt), a sex surrogate who agrees to work with him. Together during their weekly sessions, they try to figure out the physicality of the doing the wild thing when one of the participants is immobile.

Needless to say, Mark, who has only experienced rejection by those he’s interested in, becomes emotionally involved. This is where the movie really grabs hold of you. We wind up badly wanting two things for him. First, he’s so sweet and innocent we wish we could shield him from the seemingly inevitable crushing blow that will come. Second, we want to see him fulfilled. After all, shouldn’t everyone feel the joy of sex at least once in their life? Our two motivations don’t always work with one another. Through an astoundingly charming performance by John Hawkes, Mark is worthy of both our sympathy and empathy. Even though he literally lies still throughout the movie, he still manages an impressive range of emotion. Incidentally, given the graphic nature of the film, I imagine lying still wasn’t such an easy task. He’s becoming one of my favorite actors, having quietly built an impressive resume filled with powerful portrayals.


The flip side of Hawkes’ restraint is the unshakeable bravery of the work done by Helen Hunt. Not least of the reasons it has to considered courageous is because most of her screen-time is spent naked. Lesser movies use nudity as a tool to keep our attention, or to objectify. Even here, her character’s job description is pretty much being a sex object. The genius of the directing, the writing, and finally, Hunt herself, is they all refuse to let that be all there is to her. She’s a fully formed being grown from the Hollywood archetype of the hooker with a heart of gold, but is so much more.

Before sitting down to watch this, I had a vague idea of the subject matter and that Hunt was often in her birthday suit. Only a few days prior, I watched 50/50 so I was somewhat ready for a heavy drama about sex and illness. What I was totally unprepared for was just how funny this movie is. Though I’d not heard that it was a comedy, I laughed as hard at this as any 2012 movie I’ve seen, so far (I know it’s now 2013, but I’m still working on it). The possible exceptions being The Man with the Iron Fists and The Expendables 2. However, I laughed at those for entirely different reasons. Much of the credit for the hilarity goes to two people: William H. Macy and Moon Bloodgood. Macy plays the priest who befriends Mark and listens to his confessions. This has to be done out in the open because the gurney Mark travels on obviously won’t fit in the confessional booth. As you might imagine, there is much talk of sex which leads to some uncomfortable moments for both the priest and parishioners who happen to overhear. Macy’s timing is impeccable and his reactions are priceless. Bloodgood plays one of Mark’s attendants. In contrast to Macy, she performs her role in a perfectly understated manner. Her matter-of-factness about everything is the stuff deadpan comics dream of. All of this fits easily into the narrative. Humor and drama combine to make The Sessions a poignantly human experience.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection

 
Directed by Tyler Perry.
2012. Rated PG-13, 114 minutes.
Cast:
Denise Richards
Doris Roberts
Romeo Miller
John Amos
Marla Gibbs
Tom Arnold
Danielle Campbell
Devan Leos
Frank Brennan
Nelson Bonilla


Tyler Perry is back in drag, yet again. This time around, Madea’s FBI agent nephew Brian (also Perry) talks her into hiding an entire family while its patriarch George (Levy) is waiting to testify against the mob. His brood is made up of his wife Kate (Richards), their two teen aged children Cindy (Campbell) and Howie (Leos) and George’s senile mother Barbara (Roberts). Already living with her is her brother Joe (Perry the third). Finally, Jake (Miller) is always around trying to figure out how we will get the money to pay off his church’s mortgage after losing it through bad investments. Trite jokes about race and class plus an admittedly rehashed plotline from a Whoopi Goldberg movie ensues.

By now, I’m 99% immune to the character Madea. I didn’t find her all that funny all those years ago when she first took over the black theater circuit in the plays that served as a springboard to fame and fortune for her performer and creator, Tyler Perry. Now, with each installment in the canon, I find her incrementally less humorous. That’s a problem in a movie where she does lots more talking than anyone else. Obviously, since these pictures keep raking in the loot, it’s a “me” problem, but whatever. More of an issue is that no one else is particularly funny, either. Perry does have some chuckle-worthy moments as Joe, mostly because of the reactions than anything he actually says. Eugene Levy also manages a couple. In a cameo right at the beginning, Tom Arnold is really good. Wily vet Doris Roberts has the most success. She steals all of her scenes though the material she’s working with is hardly groundbreaking. Her moments with Joe are the most entertaining. Unfortunately, the jokes are all paint-by-numbers. Madea or Joe does something “black” and the family has a “white” reaction or vice-versa.

The story is similarly conventional. The next point in the arc is always easy to sniff out, especially since there is nothing that even threatens to throw us off the scent. So the movie never generates any palpable sense of danger. The one element that may have helped, the people George is protesting against are pretty much absent from the movie. This makes it impossible to see what everyone’s so afraid of. No effort is put into making me give a flip about these people. Without any real heart, Madea’s Witness Protection is just a string of jokes, almost all of which we’ve heard before.

MY SCORE: 2/10

Friday, March 22, 2013

Wreck-it Ralph

Directed by Rich Moore.
2012. Rated PG, 108 minutes.
Cast:


Jack McBrayer
Ed O’Neill
Dennis Haysbert
Mindy Kaling
Adam Carolla


Wreck-it Ralph (Reilly) is the bad guy in the video game “Fix-it Felix Jr.” To paraphrase another character, this doesn’t necessarily make him a bad guy. Still, Fix-it Felix Jr. is the game’s hero. At the end of a long shift, when the arcade closes, Felix and the other good guys hang out in their plush apartments having parties and generally schmoozing. Meanwhile, Ralph lives all alone on a pile of bricks, using a tree stump for a pillow. This has been going on for thirty years and he would like it to change. That means finding a way to win a medal, which only good guys can do. Ralph ventures from game to game in the arcade to break that rule and claim his prize.

As any movie based on a video game universe should be, Wreck-it Ralph is driven by sights and sounds. Brilliant colors and crisp noise keep our eyes dancing and our ears perked. There are also plenty of familiar characters from actual old school games who make cameos, so older viewers may experience some serious nostalgia. Even the main characters owe a debt to the game “Donkey Kong” for their existence. These characters, and the ones we’re introduced to for the first time, feel like an honest fleshing out of their pixilated counterparts. I have but one minor complaint about the visuals. There isn’t quite as much difference as I hoped to see between current-gen characters and those from games of a bygone era. However, that’s completely understandable. It would be kind of hard to sell a kids movie where most of the principals are jagged and blurry. I guess that makes it a “me” problem.

Thankfully, there’s more to this movie than being pretty and loud. It eventually becomes a redemption tale. That much is expected. What’s not is the complexity of the redeeming and how many actually go through it. It’s not at all hard to follow so don’t worry about that. It’s not preachy, either, so no need to worry there. The story is told in a manner that works on the surface and still works after a little digging. Don’t dig too much, mind you, but a little is okay.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lawless

 
Directed by John Hillcoat.
2012. Rated R, 116 minutes.
Cast:
Jason Clarke
Dane DeHaan
Chris McGarry
Tim Tolan
Noah Taylor


In Prohibition Era Franklin, Virginia legend has it that local moonshiners, The Bondurant brothers are indestructible. This is said to be especially true of Forrest (Hardy), the eldest and leader of the trio. Calling him the strong, silent type is an understatement on both counts. He’s usually flanked by Howard (Clarke), the largest of the bunch, and worried about Jack (LaBeouf), the runt of the litter. Just about everyone else in town is also in the moonshine business and business is good. It’s good enough that they’ve attracted the attention of their counterparts from the big city who send some corrupt lawmakers down to muscle in on the backwoods action. The whole town gives up without a fight, except Forrest and his brethren. Forrest not running ensues.

The main strength of Lawless is its characters. As Forrest, Tom Hardy is ridiculously good, again proving he’s among the very best actors woking today. Without mugging for the camera, his face says everything it needs to. His Forrest is clearly a man that measures his words whenever he can and has supreme confidence in himself. He actually believes that bit about being indestructible. Still, he’s very smart and doesn’t let his ego make him entirely wreckless, usually. On the other hand, baby brother Jack is pretty much the opposite: a big talker who likes to show off with fancy suits and cars. It’s a surprisingly good performance from Shia LaBeouf. Jessica Chastain, as Maggie, is also solid, as usual. So is Gary Oldman who gets way too little time on screen. However, it’s Forrest’s rival, Special Agent Rakes that steals the show. A bizarrely made up Guy Pearce does the honors. You will love to hate him.

Lawless also maintains an excellent pace. The action is often brutal and the stretches between action scenes are filled with tension and, surprisingly, humor. These attributes, combined with the wonderful cast, make this a very entertaining movie. A time, or two, ti does stretch the idea of Forrest’s invincibility incredibly thin. Other times, Howard and Maggie blend in with the furniture, not give quite enough to do. That said, it is still an incredibly watchable film that absorbs us into its fabric.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Friday, March 15, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Directed by Benh Zeitlin.
2012. Rated PG-13, 93 minutes.
Cast:
Quvenzhané Wallis
Dwight Henry
Levy Easterly
Gina Montana
Lowell Landes
Jonshel Alexander
Marilyn Barbarin

Kaliana Brower
Nicholas Clark

On a little strip of land off the coast of Louisiana known as “The Bathtub,” Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives with her daddy Wink (Henry). They’re part of a small tight-knit community operating outside what most of us know as civilization. For the most part, they’re in a world of their own. Of course, there is a major drawback. Their tiny paradise is highly susceptible to massive flooding whenever a storm rolls through. Just the fact they live here lets us know these people are survivors. Like all the kids in The Bathtub, Hushpuppy is learning to be one, as well. What follows is nothing less than beautiful.

We watch Hushpuppy and her daddy live off the land. At first, that’s the easy part. Harder is him being a single man trying to raise a little girl. Things don’t always go too smoothly. Eventually, living off the land becomes difficult as some severe weather leaves The Bathtub mostly under water. In addition to his struggles to relate to his daughter, Wink now has to worry even more than normal about keeping her alive.





The scenes of our two heroes together are infinitely watchable, occasionally harsh and often touching. Both actors are outstanding, breathing ridiculous amounts of life into their characters. As Hushpuppy, Wallis gives one of the best performances by a child I’ve ever seen. Her Oscar nomination is well earned. Though overshadowed in the media by his co-star, Henry is no less excellent as her dad. Through him, we come to appreciate Wink as a passionate man doing what he thinks is right, whether we think it actually is or not.

Beasts of the Southern Wild also makes use of its location, providing us with some gorgeous shots of things both tranquil and tragic. The Bathtub is a three dimensional character adored by those who call her home. Another visual triumph is the rendering of the ancient Aurochs. Here, they resemble giant boars with horns and tusks. By the way, think of them as metaphors to understand how they fit into the movie. Taking them literally will only lead to unanswerable questions. Honestly, I don’t even think they’re the beasts the title refers to.

By the end, we’ve been through more than enough ups and downs with this family to become fully vested in them. When life throws yet another thing at them, we duck. We root for them and share in their triumphs and heartbreaks. From the very first frame we fall in love with Hushpuppy. As the final credits roll, we somehow love her even more. BotSW is just a wonderfully done film.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

50/50

 
Directed by Jonathan Levine.
2011. Rated R, 100 minutes.
Cast:
Serge Houde
Andrew Airlie
Matt Frewer
Philip Baker Hall


Adam (Gordon-Levitt) hasn't been feeling well for weeks. Finally, he goes to the doctor and gets some very bad news. He has a cancerous tumor and has to start chemotherapy right away. Luckily for him, he has a strong support system. He thinks. His girlfriend Rachael (Howard) pledges to stand by her man. His mom (Huston) is overbearing, but cares for him deeply. She's also dealing with a husband who is a shell of his former self. Adam also has his loyal, if immature, best friend Kyle (Rogen). Eventually, Katherine (Kendrick), his very young therapist, becomes part of his network as does a few of his fellow cancer patients.

From that foundation, 50/50 mixes and matches sub-genres to create a well-crafted movie about a young man going through a crisis. It is parts rom-com, bromance, and family drama. All three phases are handled very nicely and intertwine seamlessly. Each manages to tug at our heart strings. What helps is that even though 50/50 weaves between being those different things, the tone is pretty even keel. This means that when Seth Rogen is doing his normal schtick, everything around doesn't devolve into a zany comedy. When Anjelica Huston takes us down the anguished mom road, we're not supposed to suddenly burst into tears. True, things often feel heavy, but that's the case throughout. Still, there are times when things get a bit too sappy. I understand that a movie about a very young dying of cancer is bound to be, but it can be heavy-handed. Predictably, this is more prevalent toward the end of the movie. The problem with this is what we're told might happen never feels true. The way things set up we only believe in one of the title's 50s.


All that this movie accomplishes is rooted in an outstanding performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead. He gives us an appropriately tortured soul desperately trying to handle his predicament. He conveys much even though he's only allowed one big, showy moment. The others play off of him well. Huston, in particular, shines as his mother and a fellow tortured soul. Though she says so much, we can always tell it's not all that's on her mind.

By the end, we've laughed and some of us have cried. We've come to really know Adam and have developed great empathy, not only for him, but for those in his inner-circle. It is an emotional roller-coaster but somehow manages to hold itself together. True, 50/50 is somewhat manipulative, but it's still an excellent effort.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Monday, March 11, 2013

This Means War

Directed by McG.
2012. Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.
Cast:

Reese Witherspoon
Chelsea Handler
Til Schweiger
John Paul Ruttan
Rosemary Harris


Tuck (Hardy) and FDR (Pine) are super secret agents for the CIA hot on the trail of international bad guy Heinrich (Schweiger). Even though they're also bestest buds, they have very different love lives. FDR is a ultra smooth ladies' man snapping up any woman he speaks to. Tuck, on the other hand, is stuck in neutral as he repeatedly, and unsuccessfully tries to get back with his baby-mama Katie (Spencer). To break out of his funk, Tuck gives online dating a try. We also meet Lauren (Witherspoon). She's a thirty-something big-wig at a "Consumer's Reports" type company and thus, has no time for a social life. Her besty, Trish (Handler), takes it upon herself to create a profile for Lauren that so happens to be on the same online dating site Tuck uses. See where we're going? Through a minor twist spoiled by every one of this movie's trailers, Lauren ends up dating both men. From there, half the movie is spent on watching Lauren get bad love advice from Trish as she tries to pick between suitors. The other half is spent watching our two would-be heroes misappropriate government funds and violate everyone's code of ethics in order to win their pissing contest for Lauren's love.

No need to beat around the bush, This Means War is a mess of a movie. Cliched dialogue and flat jokes run rampant as the story goes nowhere until it's decided that sex has to be involved. Even then, it only lurches forward a bit until someone remembers there's actually a case these guys are supposed to be working. Seriously, I can't think of a movie where the villain is less important. His only function is to show up near the end and put our damsel in distress.


Even as the story creeps along there are some things brought up. Unfortunately, a number of them are dropped without explanation. For instance, the boys get grounded early on because their covert operation becomes very public and causes lots of property damage. That's a clever place for an action flick to start. However, it's never mentioned again despite the fact that everything they do has the same effect. Other things aren't brought up that clearly need to be, like why one of the guys insists on going by FDR. Those are some of the weightiest initials in American history and were obviously chosen on purpose, but why? I get that these are also this character's initials but going by them is ridiculous. Besides, nothing we know of the real FDR is even remotely related to this guy. Still, we get no explanation.

To their credit, the performers try valiantly to breathe life into this thing. As we all know, reanimating a corpse is impossible. Hardy and Pine play off each other well enough. Witherspoon is generally likable, but annoying during the scenes where she agonizes over which hunk to choose. Thankfully, those scenes are rescued by Chelsea Handler, one of the film's few bright spots. She seems to have been borrowed from a Judd Apatow flick. Her "answer for everything" patter feels improvised, but hampered by the movie's PG-13 rating. Regardless, most of the funny stuff in the film comes out of her mouth. Despite the best efforts of the cast, it never even threatens to become anything worthwhile. I blame the director, McG. Has this guy ever made a decent movie? Maybe, just maybe the first Charlie's Angels qualifies. That was his first and, still, best movie. Ever since, he's been putting out crap like this.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Brave

Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman.
2012. Rated PG, 93 minutes.
Cast:
Kelly Macdonald
Julie Walters

Craig Ferguson
Kevin McKidd
John Ratzenberger


Once upon a time, there lived a princess with an unruly mane of shocking red hair. Her name is Merida (Macdonald). One day, when she is still a very little girl, a ravenous bear known as Mor’du attacks their village. While Merida is whisked away to safety by her mother, Queen Elinor (Thompson), her dad, King Fergus (Connolly) stays behind to fight the animal off. He’s successful, but loses a leg in the process. Cut to Merida’s teenage years. Much to the Queen’s chagrin, Merida has no interest in being a dainty little princess. She really doesn’t care to be married, either. However, the queen informs her that’s precisely what’s about to happen. To whom is the only thing yet to be decided. Three young suitors will come to their home and compete to win her hand. None too pleased with this turn of events, Merida takes matters into her own hands.

After that set up, which takes great pains to show how diametrically opposed the princess is to the queen, we get a fun and occasionally harrowing tale of mother/daughter bonding through girl power. There are some fun action scenes involving archery and/or bears. The story between them holds together quite nicely and includes a few gut-wrenching moments. These happen when we realize the queen may be losing to her affliction and what’s in her future is not pretty.


Brave is also a beautiful looking film. Beginning with our heroine’s expertly rendered hair, it’s a wonderful mix of photo-realistic scenery and cartoonish people. Nearly every frame has a touch or two that are a treat to lay eyes on. This is especially true of any scene involving water. If I didn’t know it wasn’t real, I’d hesitate to say it’s not the genuine article.

Where Brave falls short is in the humor department. Many of the attempts to make us laugh simply fall flat. We get a couple nice chuckles but they are few and far between. The big issue seems to be that all the jokes are telegraphed. There is almost no element of surprise to them, save for some unexpectedly bare buttocks. It’s mostly stock humor rehashed from other kiddie flicks.

Despite some unfunny “funny” stuff, Brave is a very pleasant watch. There are some amazing visuals and a few solid action scenes to go with its fairy-tale. Admittedly, things can get a little predictable and occasionally sappy, but not to an unbearable degree. It’s not quite the masterpiece we’re used to getting from Pixar, but still a very nice effort.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

Directed by Alex Stapleton.

2011. Rated R, 95 minutes.

Cast:
Roger Corman
Julie Corman
Peter Bogdanovich
Jonathan Demme
Bruce Dern


With good reason, Roger Corman is known as the king of the B's, as in B movies. After all, he's had his hands on close to four hundred pictures as director and/or producer. It adds up to about fifty years of movies so bad they're awesome. Most of these were made on the cheap, filmed entirely in a handful of days or less. All but one, The Intruder turned a profit. The man knows what his audience wants and gives it to them. That's the easy assessment of Corman, the schlock-meister making money off a never ending succession of cinematic turds. However, as this documentary shows, that is an off-handed dismissal of a career that is immensely important to cinematic history.

True, Corman is a shrewd businessman who, to this day, is still churning out cheapos. Also true, his infamous guerilla-style filmmaking served as proving grounds for a number of Hollywood legends. Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron and Ron Howard all cut their teeth on his sets. Others he didn't technically "discover", but worked for him very early in their careers include Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Robert De Niro. There are many others, but you get the idea. In addition, he was instrumental in bringing the work of foreign masters such as Truffaut, Kurosawa and Fellini to the United States. Thereore, his legacy is much more about perseverance and the spirit of the auteur than it is about the types of movies he made. Corman's World is about a man who has taken a most unusual path to greatness.

MY SCORE: 8/10