Wednesday, February 27, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: French-y, arthouse-y "Holy Motors" a wildly weird ride for cinephiles


Holy Motors (2012)
115 min., not rated.

Critics have fallen over themselves praising French auteur Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" as an avant-garde masterpiece, but that's in the eye of the beholder. Whatever it is, it sure is bonkers and a completely singular piece of work that resists easy categorization. While almost too confounding for its own good, it's very much its own animal, being challenging, maddening, seductive, irrepressibly weird, and beautifully transfixing all at once. Strictly made for cinephiles who are open to finding his and her own interpretations, "Holy Motors" is an entrancing, wildly adventurous ride of an arthouse film without a destination. It's more rewarding if you allow it to just wash over you and dazzle in the ways it celebrates the growth of cinema and deconstructs how we perceive movies.

Self-consciously framing itself as a film with a passive theater audience looking in, "Holy Motors" begins with a man waking up to the sounds of an ocean liner's horn and unlocking a hidden door through the wall of his bedroom that leads him to the theater. Then we're off: distinctly odd-looking acting chameleon Denis Lavant performs an astonishing shape-shifting act as Monsieur Oscar, a shadowy character who, one morning, leaves his art-deco home and gets into a stretch limousine for a 24-hour day of nine "appointments." He is driven around Paris by Céline (Edith Scob) and each assignment is explained to him with a dossier from "The Agency" that he reads beforehand. As it turns out, the limo is actually a dressing room, complete with a lighted makeup mirror and trunks of costumes/wigs/prosthetics. 

And so, in those nine stops, Oscar is someone else every time. He's a hunchbacked old woman; he tries on a motion-capture suit and performs an erotic dance with a suited-up woman; and he becomes a grotesque, flower-eating gnome named Merde (a character from Carax's "Tokyo!" from four years earlier who's introduced with the "Godzilla" theme), interrupting a fashion shoot in Pere Lachaise Cemetery and kidnapping the beautiful model (Eva Mendes) to take her to his sewer catacombs. Oscar even plays a family man, picking up his daughter from a party and "punishing" her for not socializing. Between these first four acts, we have an intermission, or an "entr'acte," where Oscar leads a band of accordion players through a church. Picking right back up, he's a switchblade-wielding hit man named Alex who has to assassinate his doppelganger, and then he becomes a dying old man with his "niece" by his bedside. At one point, Oscar is asked what makes him carry on and he replies with, "What made me start, the beauty of the act." Carax ends it all with two delightful surprises, one involving chimpanzees and the other set at the limo garage called Holy Motors when the vehicles are left alone.

Oscar is such a hard nut to crack, but Lavant's fearlessly splendid turn—a tour de force if there has ever been one—is amid the many reasons to go with the loose, enigmatic rhythms of "Holy Motors." For fans of moody horror cinema, French screen veteran Edith Scob from 1960's "Eyes Without a Face" plays Oscar's loyal driver Céline and gets to don her iconic face-like mask for old times' sake. Even Australian recording artist Kylie Minogue (whose hit single "Get Outta My Head" is separately heard a few times) turns up in a blonde pixie cut as Oscar's former love who's also in the same profession and only has 20 minutes to catch up on their 20 years spent together. In her one scene where she and Oscar walk up to the roof of a dilapidated department store, she sings the original song "Who Were We," and it's an evocative, joyfully tender moment.

Coexisting with the most bizarre works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, "Holy Motors" is even somewhat like Cronenberg's tedious, pretentious-with-a-capital-P "Cosmopolis" in that both protagonists ride around in a limo all day. But that would merely scratch the surface. Beyond the linear structure, all nine different scenarios and everything surrounding them are more symbolic than capable of making literal sense. It's so thrilling to never know where it's going and to never feel safe. In this surreal world, having logical answers spoon-fed to us is a fool's errand, so by general audience standards, it will all seem baffling, tiresome, and pointless. A whirlwind of outré, genre-twisting transcendence and a gushing ode to film, "Holy Motors" is an ineffable, thematically rich piece of visionary art that's defiantly ambiguous and surely unlike anything else. To see it is to experience it, but heed the warning that it won't be everyone's narcotic.

Grade: B +

Monday, February 25, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: "Girls Against Boys" is anti-shocking, anti-provocative, anti-male...no one wins, not even the girls



Girls Against Boys (2013)
92 min., rated R.

Men are pigs and they deserve what they get. That's the one and rather reductive point behind "Girls Against Boys," a confused and mostly dull "rape-revenge picture" from writer-director Austin Chick (who toyed with gender roles more convincingly in 2002's "XX/XY"). Palming itself off as a post-feminist critique, the film thinks it has something to prove but mistakes fetishization of babes with guns for female empowerment, its distaff story existing in a world filled with men who happen to all be misogynistic pigs (except for one).

New York college student Shae (Danielle Panabaker) gets dumped by her mid-thirty-something boyfriend (Andrew Howard) who's separated from his wife and has a daughter. When Shae is found crying at work by a fellow bartender, Lu (Nicole LaLiberte), she's asked if it's a guy. Lu jokes, "You want me to kill him for you?" But she's not joking. Shae and Lu end up going to a club, go back to the apartment of three guys, and then when one of them walks Shae home, she is assaulted in the hallway of her apartment building. When the cops can't do anything, Lu encourages them to get their own justice. Cue these leggy, gun-wielding gals in short skirts and clickety-clacking heels dispatching any man that has wronged them and turning it into a blood sport. Lorena Bobbitt must be their role model.

Panabaker, with her demure disposition, and LaLiberte, with an edgy spark, balance each other out, but their quasi-amatory relationship would have been served in a more interesting film. Shae is sympathetic, but the Lu character is an enigma that should be committed. Even when she shares a painful memory to Shae, it's quickly revealed to be a lie. She rationalizes that "the only thing that keeps them from acting like pigs is that they're cowards and they're afraid of getting caught." However, they do have an amusing discussion about the nutrition in Cap'n Crunch cereal. Liam Aiken (yes, the little boy from "Stepmom") shares a few sweet scenes with Panabaker, only to fall to the obvious clutches of the script.

As far as compliments go, this is not repulsive and vile like 1978's "I Spit on Your Grave" and its 2010 remake. The violence is surprisingly not gratuitous (gore fans can turn away now), as the rape scene that snowballs everything into a kill spree goes out of focus and the money shots mostly occur off-screen. Never has a leg amputation been so restrained. If there are any mildly tense set-pieces to remember, one has Lu tying up a cop, pretending to seduce him and then pulling his own gun on him, as well as the sexy psycho showing up to a Halloween party dressed as a geisha with a samurai sword. Despite good use of moody lighting and a few slow-motion flourishes (both involving the camera on Miss Panabaker's face), Chick doesn't really inject much style either.

One could probably read the film as a psychological character study, as if Lu is just a figment of Shae's imagination à la "Fight Club," or that it's another story inspired by Ambrose Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Unfortunately, it turns out to be far too simplistic without much going on beneath the surface. The anti-"Thelma and Louise," "Girls Against Boys" isn't that shocking or as provocative as it thinks it is, nor can it fall back on being just a nasty-fun exploitation B-movie. We're just supposed to watch the "boys" get taken out one by one and to no end. It's just a deflating experience that adds up to plenty o' nuttin'.

Grade: C -

Friday, February 22, 2013

Modestly chilling "Dark Skies" upends cloudy expectations


Dark Skies (2013)
95 min., rated PG-13.

No wonder "Dark Skies" is being carelessly dumped into multiplexes in February (the weekend of the Academy Awards no less) by distributor Dimension Films not because it's bad or critic-proof but because it's not really marketable when being touted as a blasé product "from the producer [Jason Blum] of 'Paranormal Activity,' 'Insidious,' and 'Sinister'." Skeptical as one may be, including the studio that obviously has no faith in its own product, "Dark Skies" is a modestly effective chiller with a science-fiction bent that's smarter than expected. Writer-director Scott Stewart (who was responsible for 2010's often enjoyably stupid "Legion" and 2011's empty, forgettable "Priest") hasn't had much luck with his horror-fantasy features, showing no more than mere competence at throwing name actors (Paul Bettany twice) in front of the camera. Leave it to Stewart to finally hit his stride with "Dark Skies," his chance to rile up actual tension. Instead of existing in a desert town or a dystopian future, Stewart's third feature is the first to view a mundane reality being removed of its domestic peace and day-to-day pressures by something otherworldly and more threatening.

During the week before the Fourth of July, Lacy (Keri Russell) and Daniel Barrett (Josh Hamilton) are just living their routine lives as a realtor and an architect in between jobs, respectively, while trying to stay on top of their finances. Their hormone-raging 13-year-old son, Jesse (Dakota Goyo), has been hanging out with an older punk who's a bad influence in Dad's opinion, and young Sam (Kadan Rockett) likes hearing spooky stories about "The Sandman" read by his brother via walkie-talkies before they go to bed. Then in the middle of the night, Lacy wakes up to find the refrigerator ransacked and the back door open, as if a wild (but vegetarian) animal broke in. Dun-dun-dun! The next few nights start out prankish and get increasingly bizarre, from the ornate stacking of cereal boxes and kitchenware on the table, to family photos going missing from their frames, to (strangest of all) the home security system being breached at all eight entry points and Lacy walking into Jesse's room to find a slender figure standing over her son's bed. As the Barrett family's lives unravel furtherall four begin sleepwalking, discovering markings on their bodies, and experiencing out-of-body episodes where they lose time in a daythey finally realize that they might be up against something unexplainable and bigger than their micro neighborhood. Mulder and Scully, where are you?

Unfolding with a quiet, measured sense of foreboding, "Dark Skies" admirably takes its time, a quality that's far more of an asset than a criticism for today's horror films. Stewart shows enough skill and know-how by not relying on an onslaught of jump scares but driving the nightly occurrences with deliberately escalating chills and, in one instance, nicely subverts our expectations with the stand-by of a dream sequence. Joseph Bishara's ominous score also lends a generous amount of stingers and piercing ringing that's positively disorienting. The late-night sounding of the security alarm might seem derivative of "Insidious," the stacking of kitchen objects will remind of "Poltergeist," and, of course, Daniel's eventual investment of home surveillance takes a page out of any of the thirty "Paranormal Activity" movies. But that's no problem because the helmer dishes out a handful of nifty shocks—the Barrett home being showered with suicidal birds and Lacy having a "breakdown" while she's showing a home to a couple—while refraining from loony schlock or full-on glimpses of the CG'd invaders.

Outside of Stewart and his production team's doing, the actors are given time to create developed characters that we can actually invest ourselves in. Russell and Hamilton convincingly and empathetically convey the stresses of paying off bills and a mortgage, as well as the panic and fear when such menacing forces take over their family. They have more to do than just look terrorized. As the sons, Goyo and Rockett are impressive, both resonating as characters at radically different stages in their early lives. Taking a break from his Farmers Insurance Group commercials, J.K. Simmons briefly turns in a credible performance without an ounce of ham in his bones as a reclusive, cat-owning extraterrestrial expert. He enlightens Lacy and Daniel on the alien species known as "The Grays" without playing up the conspiracy-theorist hysterics.

An opening quote from sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke"Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying"assures us that this thriller is more thought-provoking than not. As a whole, the film raises more questions than answers, like why the invaders would target this particular family. Even if "Dark Skies" isn't the most groundbreaking or frightening film on the planet, next to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Signs," and the under-appreciated "The Fourth Kind," it's more hauntingly bleak and capable of inducing more hair-raising than the abandonment by its own distributor would suggest. If one can trust the fear of the unknown like this film's creator, then you might just believe.

Grade: B - 

The 85th Academy Awards: What WILL win? What do I think SHOULD win?


BEST PICTURE
Will Win: Argo
Should Win: Zero Dark Thirty

BEST ACTOR
Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis, "Lincoln"
Should Win: Joaquin Phoenix, "The Master"

BEST ACTRESS
Will Win: Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty"
Should Win: Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty"/Emmanuelle Riva, "Amour"

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Will Win: Tommy Lee Jones, "Lincoln"
Should Win: Christoph Waltz, "Django Unchained"

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Will Win: Anne Hathaway, "Les Miserables"
Should Win: Anne Hathaway, "Les Miserables"

BEST DIRECTOR
Will Win: Steven Spielberg, "Lincoln"
Should Win: Ang Lee, "Life of Pi"

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Will Win: "Amour" (Austria)
Should Win: "Amour" (Austria)

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Will Win: Chris Terrio, "Argo"
Should Win: David O. Russell, "Silver Linings Playbook"

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Will Win: Quentin Tarantino, "Django Unchained"
Should Win: Quentin Tarantino, "Django Unchained"

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Will Win: "Brave"
Should Win: "ParaNorman"

BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN PRODUCTION DESIGN
Will Win: "Les Miserables"
Should Win: "Anna Karenina"

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Will Win: "Life of Pi"
Should Win: "Life of Pi"/"Skyfall"

BEST SOUND MIXING
Will Win: "Les Miserables"
Should Win: "Les Miserables"

BEST SOUND EDITING
Will Win: "Zero Dark Thirty"
Should Win: "Zero Dark Thirty"

ORIGINAL SCORE
Will Win: "Lincoln," John Williams
Should Win: "Skyfall," Thomas Newman

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Will Win: "Skyfall" from "Skyfall," Adele and Paul Epworth
Should Win: "Skyfall" from "Skyfall," Adele and Paul Epworth

COSTUME DESIGN
Will Win: "Anna Karenina"
Should Win: "Anna Karenina"

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Will Win: "The Invisible War"
Should Win: "How to Survive a Plague"

DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
Will Win: "Mondays at Racine"
Should Win: N/A

FILM EDITING
Will Win: "Argo"
Should Win: "Argo"

MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
Will Win: "Les Miserables"
Should Win: "Hitchcock"

SHORT FILM
Will Win: "Paperman"
Should Win: "Paperman"

LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILM
Will Win: "Curfew"
Should Win: "Curfew"

VISUAL EFFECTS
Will Win: "Life of Pi"
Should Win: "Life of Pi"/"Prometheus"

Thursday, February 21, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: "Anna Karenina" ravishing and alive if a wee bit chilly



Anna Karenina (2012)
129 min., rated R.

Full disclosure: this writer has not had the pleasure of reading Leo Tolstoy's "great" 1877 literary tome "Anna Karenina," but with Cliffs Notes and so many filmic incarnations of the oft-told story available, why not just jump into the umpteenth and latest adaptation with a clean slate? Directed by Joe Wright (2011's thematically rich, exhilarating "Hanna"), working from a script by Tom Stoppard (one half of the Oscar-winning pair behind "Shakespeare in Love"), this "Anna Karenina" is carried out with a highly stylized, theatrical, and radically audacious approach that ends up paying off. There is initial trepidation with films that frame stories in self-conscious artifice, making it nigh impossible to get wrapped up in the story, but for the most part, this isn't one of those cases.

With the visual opulence of Wright's "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement" in concert with the impressively orchestrated (often one-take) choreography of "Russian Ark," the film is staged as if it were a play, literally beginning on a playhouse stage. The proscenium curtains open to a title card, setting the scene in Imperial Russia, 1874, followed by scenery changes, stagehands bringing in set-pieces, actors walking in the wings and up in the rafters, and everything falling into place with fluid movement. Even then, the story isn't always confined to the stage (i.e. ballrooms and opera houses), opening up the scope to a snow-covered countryside and a field of golden wheat. Whether or not this conceit—you could call it a gimmick—serves any underlying subtext or motivation to the story never crystallizes, but it sure looks ravishing and makes for an intriguing technical feat. 

If your high school or college professors were cruel, you may know the story. Upon first meeting high-society woman Anna (Keira Knightley), she is pampered, living in St. Petersburg with statesman Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) and their son Serozha (Oskar McNamara) whom Anna adores. Getting off the train in Moscow to tend to the marital problems of her happily philandering brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), she catches the eye of a young, dashing cavalry officer, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Stoppard's screenplay deftly counterbalances the scandalous affair with a parallel love story: Oblonsky's sister-in-law, Kitty (Alicia Vikander), rejects the marriage proposal of landowner Levin (Domhall Gleeson) because she fancies Vronsky. But if you didn't already know, Anna and Vronsky impulsively fall into a torrid, forbidden love affair that threatens her social standing, possession of her son, and leaves her largely excommunicated from society, especially fan-fluttering ladies who stab her with disapproving looks. It's so tragic she could just kill herself.

With the trappings of a fussy, stodgy period drama, "Anna Karenina" is neither of these things from Wright's unconventional staging, the camera constantly roving and the pace pretty breakneck, especially in the first half. We're left to just admire the stylistic choices and the filmmaking process, while the characters are placed at a distance. Vast emotional involvement is the central conundrum here, preventing one from fully feeling the tragedy that befalls Anna by the end of this gloriously melodramatic Russian epic. But it's tricky: are we actually supposed to sympathize with Anna's indiscretion or just take it as her own ruin? After all, she's not conflicted, she's just in love, so Anna has made her own bed and now has to sleep in it, er, jump in front of a train. Perhaps it's just one of the risks of page-to-screen translations, missing the nuances and complex emotions of the source, or it's merely the intent of Tolstoy's novel.

Knightley (Wright's simpatico muse) is in her depth here as the fallen heroine. As written on the page, Anna is so selfish and needy, a character too complicated to fully understand and connect with on an emotional level, and Knightley does that quite well with any forced likability. Less boyish than the casting would seem (the twirly mustache certainly helps), the strapping, handsome Taylor-Johnson is both arrogant and vulnerable as "the murderer of her happiness," also creating an erotic passion with his co-star. Garnering most audience empathy is a balding Law, as the selfless, cuckolded husband, in a devastating, understated performance. His portrayal of Karenin is so selfless that, once figuring out her infidelity, he never strikes her and, when asked to hold hands with Anna's lover over her death bed, he doesn't strike him either. Supporting these three is a reliable who's who cast of British character actors, including Macfadyen as Oblonsky, gliding and twirling into his jackets as if he were in a musical with a Falstaffian humor; Macdonald, as Oblonsky's long-suffering wife Dolly; Olivia Williams, as Vronsky's countess mother; Emily Watson, as a disapproving countess; and Shirley Henderson in one climactic scene.

If Wright's single, five-minute tracking shot on the beach of Dunkirk in "Atonement" inspired awe, the pivotal ball scene, where Anna and Vronsky's dance together creates quite the stir, is dizzying, sweeping cinematic magic. There's also a breathless, masterfully cut horse race in which Karenin's suspicions of his unfaithful wife are confirmed. Even the actors freeze in time a couple of times, making us more aware of the play-like gimmick. Reservations aside, "Anna Karenina" is an entertainingly alive take on the dusty classic, with experimental ambition and filmmaking ingenuity swirling throughout and making the film something to appreciate a great deal. 

Grade:

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

DVD/Blu-ray: Acceptable "Fun Size" has its fun moments



Fun Size (2012)
86 min., rated PG-13.

In the annals of aspirational one-crazy-night teen comedies, "Fun Size" is a minor, fitfully fun entry, kind of like those bite-sized candy bars. On the flip side of the coin, it's a curiously uncomfortable mishmash that teens should not take responsible babysitting tips from. With it bearing the Nickelodeon brand, it's hard to tell if "Fun Size" started as a raunchy R-rated teen comedy that was then neutered to earn a tamer PG-13 or if the filmmakers were aiming for a one-size-fits-all in the first place. The result is the directorial feature debut of TV producer Josh Schwartz ("The O.C.," "Chuck," and "Gossip Girl"), working from a script by Max Werner ("The Colbert Report"), and they have obviously watched enough movies by John Hughes.

Making her major feature debut, Disney Channel darling Victoria Justice (whom you'll know if you're a 13-year-old girl and get giddy over "Zoey 101" and "Victorious") is fetching and breaks the stereotype in playing the smart, geeky and very pretty Wren. It's Halloween night in Cleveland, and this NYU-bound high school senior just wants to go to the party of Jake Ryan-level class stud Aaron Riley (Thomas McDonell) with her popularity-obsessed best friend April (Jane Levy of TV's "Suburgatory"). Wren wants to dress up as Ruth Bader Ginsburg but listens to Pink Floyd, so she goes as Dorothy Gale. After she's all ready for her big night out on the town, her widowed, single mother Joy (Chelsea Handler) drops a bomb on her: she's going to a Halloween party with her hunky, employed 26-year-old boyfriend (Josh Pence), so Wren will have to take her pudgy 8-year-old brother Albert (Jackson Nicoll) trick-or-treating. Two things about Albert: he's weirdly prankish, spending his time cutting up his sister's sweaters, and hasn't talked for a year since their father died. Natch, her change of plans just deteriorates from there when Albert wanders off and, with the help of her nerdy friend Roosevelt (Thomas Mann) and his equally nerdy pal (Osric Chau), Wren and April go on a wild night to find him. You know comic hijinks will ensue. Rest assured, nobody gets a hangover, but there is a distraction for the cops involving streaking and over-the-shirt groping played for laughs.

Schwartz keeps a snappy pace going, flitting between Wren, Albert, and Joy, and this episodic night of errors has its diverting moments. Even if a giant fast-food pirate chicken statue falling on top of Roosevelt's car and proceeding to hump it is only worth a vague smirk, funnier gags involve the car stereo coming off and Josh Groban's "Raise Me Up" blaring, as well as April's use of Nair. A slightly annoying, wrongheaded, questionably creepy plot thread involves the antics with Albert, though well-played by Nicoll who can deliver a laugh without speaking and doesn't just come off like a menacing terror. Finding his way to the mini-mart for a slushee, the Spider-Man-dressed Albert makes friends with the lovelorn, socially awkward clerk Fuzzy (a goofily off-kilter Thomas Middleditch) and goes off on a mission with the college-aged guy. From there, Albert keeps getting picked up by strangers, all the way until he's held hostage by a borderline-psychotic bodybuilder dressed as Dog the Bounty Hunter (Johnny Knoxville). 

Roosevelt secretly pines after Wren, yes, but Kerri Kenney and Ana Gasteyer as Roosevelt's bohemian moms with an asthmatic cat are an amusingly oddball touch. At the sight of two mothers, Wren quick-wittedly goes, "I thought he was just talking like Lil Wayne!" Also, Handler doesn't really get to bust loose like on her funny TV show but actually gives an honest-to-God performance as a woman who misses her late husband and tries living out her youth. In the last 10 minutes, there's a jarring tonal shift, wherein Wren and Albert visit their father's headstone. It could have been a potentially schmaltzy about-face from all of the farcical shenanigans, but it's nicely handled and arguably touching.

With Justice an appealing screen presence and the tart-tongued Levy stealing plenty of laughs, "Fun Size" certainly has its pleasures. But if we're making teen-movie comparisons that aren't Hughes-ian, it's more like 2000's "Snow Day" and 2004's "Sleepover," which were silly and harmless kid romps. Written with quite a bit more wit and charm than "Project X," this should fill its niche—even though it's not always clear whom it was made for—and make an acceptable "Halloween Adventures in Babysitting" for pre-high schoolers. 

Grade: C +

Not-bad "Beautiful Creatures" at its most fun when British actors ham it up



Beautiful Creatures (2013) 
124 min., rated PG-13.

Prepackaged as an attempt to jumpstart another YA franchise, à la "Twilight," that hopefully won't lapse into franchise fatigue, "Beautiful Creatures" ain't half-bad. Based on Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's first book in their Caster Chronicle series, this is pure hokum but interestingly nutty hokum that's strange, more intentionally funny, and yet so darn goofy that it's more fun than expected. As a first chapter, it's a decent start; as a whole film, it doesn't feel fully realized but will do.

In the sleepy, microscopic town of Gatlin, South Carolina, where the movie theater gets the titles wrong on the marquee and the residents live for church and Civil War reenactments, 17-year-0ld Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) feels like he doesn't belong and is dying to get out. In the meantime, he enjoys reading banned books like Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" and he's not that interested in the popular Southern belle type of girls that starts every sentence with, "My mama says…" When new girl Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) comes to town to move into the creepy, gated Ravenwood Manor with her Uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons), all of Ethan's peers steer clear, as word has it she's a "witch," but Lena's outsider status only makes Ethan become more interested. Once Ethan lifts her off her feet, proving he's not the standard jock type, Lena reveals to her new boyfriend that she comes from a family of witches, or "casters" as they prefer to be called. With the days passing before her 16th birthay (she has a shifting number tattoo on her hand), Lena will face her family curse and her powers will be claimed by either the Light or the Dark side, led by Lena's powerful mother Sarafine (Emma Thompson). The teenage witch's fate can only be determined by her true nature, but no caster can love a mortal. 

Not to make tired comparisons to "Twilight," but the most obvious common-denominator between that and "Beautiful Creatures" is that both are tortured teen romances mixed with the supernatural. Younger audiences just can't watch two interesting human characters fall in love anymore. Luckily, writer-director Richard LaGravenese (2007's "P.S. I Love You") doesn't take the material as seriously as the first couple of po-faced Bella-and-Edward sagas. On the less lucky side, there is four hours' worth of movie packed into 124 minutes, which doesn't become a problem until so much lumbering exposition has to be explained and the plot machinations kick in. It's a particular bore when Lena has to sit in a catacomb of the local library for a week, reading up on ways to break the spell. We haven't even mentioned Viola Davis's role, Amma, who's a "seer," a voodoo practitioner, a librarian, and some sort of guardian for Ethan after his mother's death, even though he lives with his father (who is never to be seen).

The most fun is watching all the different acting styles going on here. The leads are both untried newcomers but Ehrenreich and Englert (Jane Champion's daughter) prove to be charismatic, earnest, and instantly appealing. They create cool, free-thinking outsiders who don't just pout over their forbidden love but actually hold intelligent conversations concerning Charles Bukowski's poetry. Together, their romance is sweet and grounded in some sort of awkward-teen reality, but it doesn't pack enough fervor to say it's worth crying over if Lena is claimed by the Dark. Siren-like cousin Ridley can't come to town soon enough, being played by a sexy, slinky Emmy Rossum, who vamps it up, sucking on strawberries and spitting out the stems, and livens things up immensely. Thompson, far from "Sense and Sensibility," busts her buns munching up the scenery with kooky relish in not one but two roles: the Bible-thumping zealot Mrs. Lincoln and the playfully villainous Sarafine. Her overripe line of "Well, slap my ass and call me Sally!" adds a burst of hilarious camp. Irons, appearing in smoking robes, does his fair share of hamming but mostly retains his classical theater training. Eileen Atkins, with a lavender rinse, and Margo Martindale, first appearing with a live peacock no less, are both eccentric delights as Lena's grandmother and aunt, but have about as much to work with as some of the family members in Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows." 

Without completely falling off its axis into an effects-driven cacophony, the film is burdened by some lame, obtrusively cheesy fantasy effects, like a spinning dinner table out of an episode of "Charmed." Otherwise, Southern atmosphere and art direction are tops, particularly the Ravenwood Manor, with a moss-covered plantation exterior and a modern, black-and-white interior, much like the revamped Maitland home in "Beetlejuice." On balance, this entertaining-enough Southern Gothic supernatural melodrama is such a zonky, overcooked stew with broad Southern accents and colorful characters that the coda leaving the doors open for the next film doesn't induce much dread. Move over Bella and Edward: Lena and Ethan are interesting enough to be the linchpin of all this occult hooey.

Grade: B -

Thursday, February 14, 2013

"Die Hard" series dies with junky "Good Day"


A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)
97 min., rated R.

Dated by 25 years, "Die Hard" is still a first-rate action yarn that found a perfect fit for Bruce Willis' physicality and quippy sense of humor. It also coined the catchphrase "Yippee ki-yay!" The next two '90s-released sequels ("Die Hard 2" and "Die Hard: With a Vengeance") were entertaining and grew less exceptional, but even 2007's "Live Free or Die Hard" was a lot of fun to watch. Regardless of anyone actually holding their breath for a fifth "Die Hard" movie, desperately titled "A Good Day to Die Hard," it's here anyway, and now would be a good day to let this franchise die. An early teaser might have promised an unadulterated, go-for-broke blast of John McClane's Greatest Hits with Beethoven's symphonic "Ode to Joy" blaring and the return of an R-rating, but even for mindless escapism, the final product is much less fun and without any of the former joy. It's like the "Jaws: The Revenge" of the "Die Hard" series.

Ignoring the law of diminishing returns, Willis mails in his star-making role of grizzled New York cop John McClane, who finds himself in more trouble. Or, more trouble finds him. What sets the plot in motion is John's estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney), a CIA operative, being based in Moscow and arrested for murder, so John must "vacation" to Russia's capital. At the start, his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who was kidnapped one movie ago, tells him to behave, but little does she know that Daddy already has four movies under his belt. Before John even reaches the courthouse for Jack's trial, chaos ensues and the son has broken out, with political prisoner Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) in tow. Livid over his father's sudden appearance during his "undercover" mission, McClane Jr. seeks a "file" (isn't it always a "file"?) and must take Yuri to safety. Naturally, this can't happen before father and son join forces to take down some Uranium-seeking bad guys and destroy the streets.

A cartoonishly overscaled and wearying free-for-all, "A Good Day to Die Hard" sadly doesn't feel like it belongs in the "Die Hard" collection. Even as a generic, cut-and-paste actioner, it doesn't fit the bill, more closely resembling the hilariously stupid "Taken 2" with as much destruction and noise as a Michael Bay movie. Director John Moore (who found work after his 2008 anti-diamond "Max Payne") strips down this fifth film to relentless explosions and shoot-outs, until nary a building is left standing or a vehicle in condition to drive. That'd be fine if the knowingly over-the-top action were staged with some finesse and not shot with so much shaky-cam and seemingly cut with a chainsaw. Remember when McClane ejected his seat out of an airplane before it exploded in "Die Hard 2," or when he drove a car up a ramp to crash into a chopper in "Live Free or Die Hard?" Those were breathlessly inspired set-pieces. Here, before McClane even starts chasing his son on a busy highway, driving off an overpass and onto a car carrier (while his daughter is on speaker phone!), all credibility and consequence get thrown to the winds for preposterous action and stunts of messy, wanton destruction. A few explosions get the job done, okay, but when that's all the film has, and without much tension or heart-pounding excitement, what's the point when our heroes can withstand all injuries like invulnerable video-game avatars? As soon as John and Jack enter an elegant dining hall with beautiful glass and chandeliers, we know it's about to be trashed after they're done with it. And when our heroes go crashing through a glass window of a high-rise and plummet from floor to floor of the scaffolding, they both come away with merely a few bloody gashes on their foreheads. All that's left are the viewer's two responses: "Oh, come on!" and "Who's going to clean all of this up?" The other offender is Skip Woods' empty script, an afterthought of nonsensical plotting, majorly lackluster villains, and pointless 11th-hour plot twists of Russian betrayal.

At 57, Willis still has what it takes to perform some practical stunts and spit out one-liners, but McClane needs to retire from going anywhere. He's just back-up here, helping his son leave destruction of property wherever they go. As for wisecracks, they range from cute to perfunctory, much like the film's tagline, "Yippee Ki-Yay Mother Russia!" John's "I'm on vacation!" line is repeated four times and, natch, it grows less amusing and makes less sense with repetition. Australian up-and-comer Courtney is tough and buff, but hopefully he has more to work with on TV's "Spartacus" because he lends little charisma to the one-note role of Jack. For the briefly quiet stretches where things pause from going kablooey, the father-son bonding moments fall dramatically flat. When they first come face to face, Jack calls his dad by his first name, pulls a gun on his Pops, and they bicker like 5-year-olds, each telling the other to shut up. Why Jack hates his father so much, aside from estrangement, isn't clearly fleshed out, so it turns Courtney's Jack into a whiny hothead. It's almost self-parody when the McClanes try mending their relationship as they shoot up bad guys. Aww, good father-son time. On top of it all, the coda is prime for more unwanted giggles, as the McClane boys reunite with Lucy, without any audio track.

More man-made havoc climaxes in the radioactive Chernobyl (for reasons not worth explaining), and don't even ask how John and Jack get there in what seems to be only a couple of hours. In what is perhaps a homage to the slow-motion demise of Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber, there is the satisfying use of a helicopter blade for the evil brains behind the evil operation. Otherwise, any "Die Hard" fan is better off re-watching the original or any of the superior sequels. While the long-running Bond series got better with age, the exciting adventures of John McClane have officially tapered off with this junky, dumbed-down dud. Its grave marker is all ready for burial.

Grade: C - 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ultimately hokey "Safe Haven" kept afloat by Hough and Duhamel's chemistry


Safe Haven (2013) 
115 min., rated PG-13.

A young woman runs away from her past and starts anew in a sleepy town, only to let her guard down when she falls in love. That sounds like it could be the plot summary of 1991's Julia Roberts-starring "Sleeping with the Enemy," but it's a gushing Harlequin romance first and a battered-woman thriller second. It is from a Nicholas Sparks paperback after all. As yet another post-"The Notebook" adaptation, "Safe Haven" is a decidedly marked improvement over last year's drippy, humdrum sapfest "The Lucky One." It's predictable, hardly subtle, sometimes nutty, and tacks on a cornball coda that doesn't work, but palpable chemistry, sustained rooting interest, and sufficient dramatic tension seize the bigger picture.

"Katie" (played by the adorable Julianne Hough) runs away from a dangerous situation in Boston, cuts and dyes her hair blonde, and hops on a bus. At a pit stop, she stays on and tries making a new life in the sleepy, sun-dappled coastal town of Southport, North Carolina. Within a few days, she lands a waitressing job and finds an old shack in the woods that could use some color, but remains jumpy and avoids getting close to anyone. But once she meets a little girl named Lexie (Mimi Kirkland) at the local market, Katie starts to warm up to the kind gestures of the father and store owner, Alex (Josh Duhamel), a stud muffin who lost his wife a few years ago to cancer. (Is there any other kind of perfect man?) Now, it's just him and his two kids, Lexie and Josh (Noah Lomax). Meanwhile, a police detective named Tierney (David Lyons) will stop at nothing until he finds Katie, but what did she do, if anything, and why does he care so much? Will love conquer all or will Alex throw out Katie like a bag of trash once the truth comes out?

Screenwriters Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens don't really try to buck any cliché or reinvent the wheel in any way, which leaves director Lasse Hallstrom (who already worked with a Sparks novel in 2010's "Dear John") to make sure the material doesn't turn into bland mush. The thriller elements aren't terribly surprising, but they work surprisingly well with the love story. The progression of the romantic relationship also feels much more natural here than just existing to adhere to the conventional demands of the script. It would've been nice had their "date"an afternoon of canoeing which gets rained out and forces them to take shelter in a diner—just played itself out and didn't feel awkwardly truncated, dissolving about three times during Katie and Alex's conversation. Otherwise, these two complement one another.

The lead stars are both appealing and attractive together, creating a little heat even. Hough modestly conveys the emotions of a woman on the run who's ready to strip herself of past demons and ends up finding a man who actually treats her right. Duhamel is charming and even funny as the single, saintly widower who's doing the best he can raising his two kids after his wife is gone. (Notice, Alex never says his late wife's name.) The kids themselves come off like genuine kids, not the overly precocious moppets that only exist in movies; Kirkland is cute as a button and Lomax (from "Playing for Keeps") believably pushes Alex's buttons because he misses his mom. As the obsessive cop, Lyons is intentionally loathsome and scarily unpredictable, but the character is just another cardboard bad guy out of Screenwriting 101 whom you expect to find Katie and tie her to the train tracks. He's so subtle that he's constantly dripping with sweat and carrying around a water bottle full of vodka. Cobie Smulders, though friendly as a nosy neighbor named Jo who becomes a friend of Katie's, is oddly used here. She has nothing to work with, besides living to take walks, working as a sounding board for Katie ("Life is full of second chances," she says), and showing up as a harbinger in a dream sequence, and that's all that will be said about that.

Sparks' weepies must read better on the page as frivolous beach reads (this writer wouldn't know), but the screen adaptations don't exist in a vacuum. The template appears to be the same (star-crossed lovers in a postcard-pretty locale), some stories tragically killing off characters with diseases and laying on maudlin sentiment with a shovel, but while it's still unremarkable, "Safe Haven" doesn't make you want to gag. There is a death here, which is almost a prerequisite if you've ever seen at least three of the author's film treatments, but for once, it doesn't come out of nowhere when a certain character finally gets it. There's also a plot point, proving to be more important by the end, wherein Alex's late wife had left her kids cards for their future birthdays, graduations, and weddings. And then, just when the film has been going well enough, it comes undone from a needlessly hokey and nearly laughable discovery. Faithful to the source material or not, this key moment just feels clumsily handled like a last-minute plot twist worthy of a groan and a ruse on the audience, as if it was M. Night Shyamalan's way of revealing himself as the script's ghostwriter. If that's not enough, we're asked to question one character's own sanity and how the townspeople would view this person.

And yet…and yet…, until then, "Safe Haven" is a pleasant, emotionally involving romantic drama with darker undertones that, without sounding like faint praise, deserves a place in the upper queue of Sparks schmaltz (a few notches below "The Notebook" and somewhat neck and neck with "A Walk to Remember"). As Valentine's Day bait, it will earn plenty of swooning and fanfare for those knowing exactly what they're in for.

Grade: B - 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

"Would You Rather" hurts your eyeballs in the most effectively nasty ways



Would You Rather (2013) 
95 min., not rated.

Life is full of decisions. Say you recovered from alcoholism and have been sober for 16 years now. Would you rather drink a glass of wine and a decanter of scotch or lose out on $50,000? Or: You're a vegetarian for most of your life and can take home a wad of cash if you finish eating a steak. What would you rather do? And those are just the tips of the iceberg for decisions eight strangers will have to make in "Would You Rather," an extremely nasty, effectively squirmy, and admirably thoughtful morality horror-thriller. Just think if the dinner parties in William Castle's "House on Haunted Hill," Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians," and Milton Bradley's "Clue" were married with the how-far-will-you-go torture games of "Saw."

Iris (Brittany Snow) selflessly puts her leukemia-suffering brother (Logan Miller) first but is unable to find a job that will pay the bills. Then she meets Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs), a mysterious, aristocratic philanthropist with a charitable foundation who offers to pay for her brother's bone-marrow transplant if she attends a dinner party he's holding. The party will culminate in "a game of sorts," and the winner will be taken care of financially. Enticed by the offer, Iris attends, instantly getting along with two gregarious out-of-towners, Lucas (Enver Gjokaj) and Cal (Eddie Steeples), while the rest of the hapless lot includes a recovered alcoholic (John Heard), a gambling addict (Robb Wells), an edgy war veteran (Charlie Hofheimer), a bad girl (Sasha Grey), and an older woman in a wheelchair (June Squibb). Before dinner is even finished, all eight guests realize their sadistic host will be forcing them to compete in the once-innocuous party game of "Would You Rather" with a diabolical life-or-death twist. Each of them must test their limits with harsh decision-making actswould they rather give pain or receive it? If they refuse or don't decide between two equally horrible tasks in 15 seconds, they will be "eliminated" from the game. By the end of the night, will Iris' mental and physical suffering be enough to save her brother's life? And will she be the last one standing?

Working from a tight, clever script by Steffen Schlachtenhaufen, director David Guy Levy shows moderate discipline behind the camera as much as never shying away from the characters' sick actions. Building with cringe-inducing, hold-your-breath suspense, he pulls away at just the right moment without turning the film into a mere exploitation exercise in debasement. Just the same, the film never takes the easy way out and surely doesn't spare anyone, regardless of gender and age. With the story being set mostly in one dining room, the viewer will feel as tense and confined to his and her seats as the characters, at least when the characters aren't getting up to stab and whip the competition. As "Would You Rather" goes to prove, human nature is scarier and more disturbing than most masked, knife-wielding boogeymen. When these characters must make choices to get what they want, they will either save themselves or take one for the team to relieve others the pain. 

Combs, who will always be known for his memorably nutty turn as Herbert West in 1985's "Re-Animator," is deliciously evil and darkly amusing here, sinking his teeth into the rotten Lambrick with a God complex. Iris is the central one to root for, Snow going through some genuine emotional highs to stick out the painful night before she gets what she needs. Ex-adult film star Grey also stands out as the selfish, acidic Amy, whose final fate links to her sad past. The rest of the "contestants" are pretty one-note in terms of who they are and what is at stake for each of them. 

As long as one doesn't overthink the internal logic of the premise, it's a real corker. Two other quibbles: One character, who survived Lambrick's game before, proves to be completely useless when making some of the dumbest decisions, and Lambrick's remorseless son Julian (Robin Taylor) has an abrupt exit. The boldly unforgiving conclusion might be seen coming a mile away before it's actually revealed, but it's one of the bleakest, cruelest "O. Henry" twists that nonetheless delivers a devastating gut-punch and food for thought. If you're one of those cynics who can't be thrilled or shocked anymore, try taking a razor blade to your eyeball after "Would You Rather."

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