June 26, 2013

Movie Dope

Short descriptions of movies playing in and around Athens...

42 (PG-13) Sports biopics are largely interchangeable. The sports and the players may change, but the obstacles to overcome are nearly identical. Heck, the same could be said of any biopic, musical, sport, etc. Still, something about the challenges faced by Jackie Robinson (gracefully inhabited by unknown Chadwick Boseman) as he broke the color barrier in professional baseball feels so much more singular than your average true tale of successfully bucking the odds. When signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Robinson faced derision by his teammates, opposing players and coaches (embodied by Alan Tudyk as Phillies manager Ben Chapman) and the fans. The role of Robinson requires a special actor giving a special performance. Boseman’s is not a skilled mimicry like so many other portrayals of famous persons; he imbues Robinson with such strength of character and composure. Equally important to this tale is Dodgers exec Branch Rickey, so gruffly played by Harrison Ford, who may finally be making the transition into grand old actor. Writer-director Brian Helgeland does nothing unique as he recounts this cinematic biography, but his film reads quickly, entertainingly and informatively. What more could you ask of a biopic?

AT ANY PRICE (R) The trailer sports a lot of impressive critical quotes, including one from the sorely missed Roger Ebert, but its two minute reduction of this tale of fathers and sons, farmers and race car drivers feels a bit too familiar. Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron star as a farmer and his rebellious, racing son. When a crisis threatens to take everything from this family, their bond is tested more than ever. Director Ramin Bahrani could use a high profile film to go with his critical hits Goodbye Solo, Chop Shop and Man Push Cart. (Ciné)

• BEFORE MIDNIGHT (R) Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) have come a long ways from 1995’s Before Sunrise. The twentysomethings have become fortysomethings. Still not married but with a pair of towheaded twin girls, the couple have given up some dreams in favor of love and reality. Our third glimpse into Jesse and Celine’s lives paints a realistic landscape of adult relationships founded upon love. Jesse knows Celine better than anyone else in the world, and vice versa. They care deeply for each other, yet their closeness belies a growing distance. For an hour and forty-eight minutes, the duo laugh and spar, negotiating a couple’s treaty without the benefit of an arbiter. The film is funny and discomforting. Many viewing pairs will see themselves, arguing and rearguing their own alternatingly petty and weighty complaints. Hawke and Delpy, both credited as co-writers, have grown into and as Jesse and Celine. Several threads from their first conversation are picked back up, with the benefit (and detriment) of years and experience. Filmmaker Richard Linklater has grown with them. Who would have thought the Dazed and Confused auteur’s greatest achievement would be one couple’s hopefully far from ending conversational journey?

THE BIG WEDDING (R) The Big Wedding should be celebrated as a strong candidate for worst film of the year. The Bucket List scripter Justin Zackham has delivered an Americanization of France’s Mon frère se marie where Brit Ben Barnes is acceptably ethnic enough to play one of the film’s central Hispanic characters and the opening gag combines an ex-wife stumbling upon her former spouse and his girlfriend in the midst of sex. Oh the guffaws! They can only be matched by a grown daughter throwing up on her dad. Hilarious! Seriously, The Big Wedding, in which a long-divorced couple (Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro) must act married for their adopted son’s wedding because the grown man will not tell his devoutly Catholic birth mother (Patricia Rae) that they are divorced, is populated by offensive, meanly unfunny characters (a role in which Katherine Heigl does excel) differentiated by their virginity or lack thereof. The entire family acts like a hormonal, randy teen. The sinking ship of a movie has nary one likable, nuanced character to grab onto like a life raft. And I haven’t even mentioned that Robin Williams appears as a sober, mean-spirited priest. Avoid these nuptials at all costs.

BYZANTIUM (R) Leave it to Neil Jordan, whose films always fascinate (be they good or not so good), to offer up what looks like one of the bloodiest, most intriguing movies to be sired by the recent glut of vampire flicks. Saoirse Ronan is an eternal teenager (think a slightly older Claudia from Jordan’s adaptation of Interview with the Vampire), living at a coastal resort with her bloodsucker mom (Gemma Arterton). The trailer promises a lot—sex, blood, myth, feminism. I hope Jordan can pull it off. 

THE CROODS (PG) Despite its underwhelming trailers, The Croods stands out as one of the best non-Pixar animated family films released in the last few years. A family of cavemen—dad Grug (v. Nicolas Cage), mom Ugga (v. Catherine Keener), teen daughter Eep (v. Emma Stone), dumb son Thunk (v. Clarke Duke), feral baby Sandy and grandma (v. Cloris Leachman)—are forced on a cross-country road trip after their cave is destroyed by the impending “end of the world.” Fortunately, Eep meets Guy (v. Ryan Reynolds), whose developed brain filled with “ideas” might just help them all survive. Most cute family fun pics feel rehashed and overdone; The Croods does not. Its characters successfully, though unbelievably, combine the Flintstones with the Simpsons, and the voice acting, particularly by Cage, Stone and Reynolds sparkles. Cage was an inspired choice, for a role one would think is practically written for Kevin James. Most animated features, with their paint-by-numbers plot and rote, child-pleasing gags lose an adult’s attention within minutes. The Croods kept me rapt for its entire entertaining run time and left me considering potential plots for its inevitable, disappointing sequel.

EPIC (PG) Epic, from Ice Age and Robots director Chris Wedge, is like Star Wars in a forest; wait, that would just be Return of the Jedi. Still, another monomyth should be less exciting than this animated family film based on the William Joyce book, The Leafmen. Unbeknownst to humanity, the forests are protected by the Leafmen, who constantly do battle with the Boggans, led by Mandrake (v. Christoph Waltz). When M.K. (v. Amanda Seyfried) is magically transported to the world of the Leafmen, she must team up with wizened soldier Ronin (v. Colin Farrell) and young turk Nod (v. Josh Hutcherson) to ensure the survival of the forest. Stunningly animated, Epic could be an American attempt at Miyazaki—bigger, blunter, more action, less subtlety, more Pitbull (whose voicework is better than expected). Nevertheless, the movie does far too little to avoid Star Wars comparisons; it practically invites them. See bird racing (pod racing) and the two slugs (humorously voiced by Chris O’Dowd and Aziz Ansari) who give off a distinct R2D2/C3PO sidekick vibe. When Star Wars isn’t being referenced, it’s The Lord of the Rings. I’d still rather sit through Epic than most kids’ movies.

FAST & FURIOUS 6 (PG-13) The unlikeliest blockbuster franchise of all-time (especially considering it survived a first film directed by Rob Cohen) has enough gas left in the tank for several more entries. (The pre-credits stinger is a doozy of a game changer). Following the international hijinks of Fast 5, Furious 6 (according to the opening title) puts Dominic “Dom” Toretta (Vin Diesel), Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and the rest (Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Sung Kang and Gal Gadot) on the heels of big bad Shaw (Luke Evans), as they seek to recover Letty (Michele Rodriguez) and attain pardons all around from Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). These movies keep improving under the direction of Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan. It’s arguable that Furious 6 is the best of the high gloss bunch. If a muscle car mag filled with bikini-covered boobs and chrome was adapted into a movie, this flick would be it. This live action comic book sags a little in the talky, plot-driven sections, but gets back on crazy course whenever the gang gets behind the wheel for another ridiculous car chase. Dom even flies! Simply sit back and enjoy Mr. Dom’s Wild Ride.

FRANCES HA (R) Could this be Greta Gerwig’s big, Lena Dunham-ish break? She co-wrote this comedy with director Noah Baumbach (The Squid & the Whale), and judging from the trailer, it could be an indie smash. Think “Girls” on the big screen (but no Dunham). Frances (Gerwig) works for a dance troupe, though she’s not a dancer, and goes all in for her dreams. With Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver (“Girls”) and another daughter of Meryl Streep, Grace Gummer. (Ciné)

THE HEAT (R) This '80s-ish buddy cop comedy partners Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as an uptight FBI agent and a wild Boston cop on the trail of a drug lord. Director Paul Feig follows up Bridesmaids with this high concept comedy from “MADtv” and “Parks and Recreation” writer Kate Dippold. The cast supporting Bullock and McCarthy includes Marlon Wayans, Tony “Buster Bluth” Hale, Kaitlin “Sweet Dee” Olson, Michael Rapaport, Tom “Biff Tanner” Wilson, Demian Bichir and Nathan Corddry. The trailer looks promising; we’ll see.

I’M SO EXCITED (R) Almodovar is back! The trailer for I’m So Excited doesn’t explain much, but it certainly is Almodovarian. Three flight attendants lip sync and dance to The Pointer Sisters’ titular hit, and that’s about it. Apparently, a technical failure has doomed the flight, leaving the pilots and crew to attempt everything in their power to make their passengers last moments as pleasant as possible. Don’t be surprised when Almodovar muses Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz pop by.

THE INTERNSHIP (PG-13) As a follow-up to stars Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson’s Wedding Crashers, this movie would have killed in 2007. Of course, the economy hadn’t quite tanked at that point, so the tale of two down-on-their-luck salesmen forced to tackle a Google internship wouldn’t quite have had much relevance—not that a buddy comedy from Vaughn/Wilson has much relevance in 2013. The movie made me feel as if I’d stumbled upon a big budget training video for new Google employees. Sadly, most training videos are unintentionally funnier (just check out any edition of the Found Footage Festival for proof). Due to its still likable (if not bankable) stars and a laudably creative end credits sequence, The Internship leaves one feeling better about the movie than it deserves, being that it's a two hour chore through which to sit. Were the movie the least bit funny—rather than a mere vehicle for Vaughn and Wilson to mug at the camera—and thirty minutes shorter, it might garner a mild recommendation for a lazy cable viewing. In its current state, do with this movie what the movie folks at Google should have done: say no.

MAN OF STEEL (PG-13) Superman returns (again) with Christopher Nolan tasked to give Supes his Dark(ened) Knight treatment. Then Nolan, writer David S. Goyer and director Zack Snyder realized Superman is an alien and nearly impossible to ground in the real world. Their solution: Treat the material like serious science fiction. The extended time spent with Superman's birth parents (Russell Crowe rules as father Jor-El) on dying Krypton is the film's strongest, most original segment. The middle chunk, retelling Kal-El's transformation from a hunky Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) into Superman, intriguingly tweaks a well-known origin with the benefit of fatherly wisdom from Kevin Costner's Jonathan Kent. Despite some well-executed set pieces pitting Superman against fellow Kryptonian General Zod (cast standout Michael Shannon) and his alien army, the final act never fully takes flight. Instead, the blockbuster soars in fits and starts, seeming most confident in its final frames than the previous hour and a half of repetitive conflict. The entertaining if (mostly) humorless and heartless Man of Steel proves it’s harder to make a great Superman movie than a bad one. However, if one hero stands for hope, it's Superman. Here's hoping Man of Steel's sequel will be this generation's Superman II.

• MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (G) So let’s call it a slump. Cars 2 was a clunker; Brave was good verging on really good but not close to great; and Monsters University lacks the Pixar pop of their undeniably great features (Up, Wall-E, Toy Story 3). In this prequel to Monsters, Inc., we learn how Mike (v. Billy Crystal) and Sully (v. John Goodman) met. Apparently, the two scarers didn’t start as best buds. First, they were scaring rivals at Monsters University. This Revenge of the Monster Nerds doesn’t creatively bend college life for monsters as one would expect from Pixar. The life lesson is trite—don’t let others define your limits or some similar sentiment—and is taught as cleverly as an inferior animation studio’s Monsters, Inc. knockoff. Fortunately, the animation, especially the creature design, is as lush and lifelike as ever, and the voicework from Pixar newcomers like Nathan Fillion and Charlie Day saves the comic day. Kids will love the silly, low scare fun, and parents will be happy it’s not Cars 3. (Just wait, that’s coming in August in the form of Planes.)

MUD (PG-13) Boasting a star-studded cast including Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon, Jeff Nichols’ third feature offers this promising rising filmmaker with his best chance of widespread success. A coming of age tale set in the disappearing wilds of the small town south, Mud aims high, as Nichols attempts to channel Mark Twain, and hits the target square in the bull’s eye. Two teens—Ellis (Tye Sheridan, Tree of Life) and Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland)—discover a boat in a tree. They also discover McConaughey’s Mud, a fugitive living in the boat in the tree, while he waits to escape with the love of his life, Juniper (Witherspoon). Mud watches like a work of modern literature, capturing the last gasps of a dying culture as one boy becomes a man. (Ciné)

NOW YOU SEE ME (PG-13) A magical heist flick, you say? I’m skeptical, I say. Four street magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco) are enlisted in a mysterious, magical plan to do something, but nobody is really sure what until the last reel. Hot on their heels is a dogged FBI Agent, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), and a debunker of magicians (Morgan Freeman). Now You See Me is as entertaining as it is eye-rollingly contrived. However, this smug band of protagonists is hard to pull for despite game attempts by Harrelson and Fisher; Darth Eisenberg finally crossed over to the Smug Side. Fortunately, Ruffalo, the lovely Melanie Laurent and underused sidekick Michael Kelly (check out Netflix’s “House of Cards” for his best work) are present to pick up the slack. Clash of the Titans’ Louis Leterrier (to be fair, he should probably be remembered for the first two Transporters and Unleashed) keeps the illusions moving along too fast for anyone to see through the script’s tricks until the woeful reveal. Now You See Me has the slick, breezy air of a ‘70s TV show, an okay trait for forgettable summer fun.

OBLIVION (PG-13) The new Tom Cruise action, sci-fi spectacle is a doozy of a looker. Everything from the set design to the vehicle design to the music (scored by M83) is stylishly crafted and a visual/aural knockout. After fighting off an alien invasion via nuclear destruction, humanity has moved off-planet to Titan, a moon of Saturn. Two people, tech Jack Harper (Tom Cruise, who is arguably the best preserved man on the planet) and his communications liaison Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), have been left behind, tasked to protect the giant hydroreactors that power Titan using remnants of the alien invaders. But Jack's world is turned upside down by the arrival of a NASA scientist (Olga Kurylenko) of whom Jack has been dreaming, and by the discovery of human survivors, led by Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman). Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski co-scripted Oblivion from his own graphic novel, and despite its derivative pieces, the whole narrative coheres rather well. It's the rare video game-inspired movie that I enjoyed watching alone; I never once thought I'd rather be playing Oblivion.

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (R) Olympus Has Fallen feels like a relic from the bygone era of the 1980s, where audiences were satisfied by old-fashioned, bloody action movies wherein stone-faced heroes faced off against despicable bad guys without obfuscating their violent exploits with frenetic camerawork. Too bad director Antoine Fuqua’s latest flick isn’t the new Die Hard, as this Gerard Butler-saves-the-president actioner easily bests John McClane’s latest misfire. Disgraced Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler, who needs to stick to action movies) is the only person in America who can save the President (Aaron Eckhart) after North Korean terrorists take over the White House. The movie relies quite heavily on Butler’s manliness. Luckily, no one is more badass than the Scot best known as 300’s King Leonidas (when he’s not wooing Katherine Heigl or Jessica Biel). The supporting cast keeps up better than usual, which should not surprise considering the presence of Morgan Freeman (as the Speaker of the House), Melissa Leo, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Dylan McDermott, Radha Mitchell and Cole Hauser. With a franchise-worthy new hero and a well-choreographed, well-shot focus on physical conflict, Olympus Has Fallen kicks butt better than the muscular bulk of recent action movies.

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (PG) First and foremost, Sam Raimi’s The Wizard of Oz prequel is no Wizard; it’s not even Return to Oz, the very dark, very underrated 1985 sequel. Disney’s latest family blockbuster reveals the wizard’s own cyclonic entry to Oz. Carnival magician and con man Oscar Diggs (James Franco, whose performance is nothing if not inconsistent) meets three witches—Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams)—who believe him to be the great wizard whose appearance in Oz was prophesied. In the void left by the recently deceased king, Oscar must determine which witches are wicked and which are good. Raimi trots out his usual visual wizardry, and Oz is as successful as his first Spider-Man entry once it gets going. The middle act gets a bit logy as the good people of Oz prepare for battle via sewing montages. The climax is filled with whiz-band special effects, used effectively, and ties in well with the classic film being emulated. I just wish Raimi had chosen to make his Wicked Witch via makeup, like the original’s Margaret Hamilton, as opposed to CGI. Oz won’t make anyone forget the original, but it doesn’t shame its memory either.

THE PURGE (R) In the future, America is a paradise of low unemployment and low crime, all thanks to the Purge instituted by the New Founding Fathers. One night every year, all laws are suspended for twelve hours. During this Purge, any citizen may empty themselves of all the pent-up rage and frustration by doing whatever violence they want. Mostly, the Purge affects the poor. Wealthy families like the Sandins (Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Buckholder and Adelaide Kane) lock themselves behind fancy security systems. But this Purge is different, as the Sandins’ young son lets in a bloody stranger, who is being hunted by a creepy pack of rich kids that want their prey returned to them. What looks like another version of Bryan Bertino’s excellent The Strangers is really more like another movie written by The Purge’s writer-director James DeMonaco, the remake of Assault on Precinct 13. It also feels a little bit like the last act of Straw Dogs. Despite the slight bait-and-switch, this flick is a fine example of how to do an exploitation-thriller right—emphasis on tension, intimidation and bloody violence. Audiences expecting more thrills and fewer scares should enjoy this summer changeup.

REDEMPTION (R) Able to comfortably shift between gritty drama and B-list action movies, Jason Statham rarely lets a fan down. In this gritty British drama written and directed (his feature debut) by Steven Knight, the Academy Award nominated writer of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, Statham stars as a homeless vet, who borrows another man’s identity in order to protect the underclass from London’s criminal underworld. Who does this guy think he is? Charles Bronson? Are you going to tell him he isn’t? 

SCARY MOVIE V (PG-13) So, Scary Movie is back. What do you really need to know? A Paranormal Activity/Mama mashup provides the frame that is rattily covered by an hour and thirty minutes of puerile, scattershot jokes. A Black Swan B-plot? Real timely, David Zucker and Pat Proft, who’ve done this parody thing so much more successfully in their shared Naked Gun past. Airplane! worked as a spoof of disaster movies that developed its own witty gags. The Scary Movies simply tosses pop culture references and cameos by celebrities who have passed their sell-by date with no real interest in spoofing the genre they allegedly came to spoof; if Mike Tyson meets Fifty Shades of Grey jokes make you giggle, be my guest. How did they get that Evil Dead sequence (the movie’s strongest, at that) into theaters within a week of its release? At least A Haunted House had Marlon Wayans. Simon Rex is some weak comic sauce. The absolutely frightening aspect of this movie is the thought that enough people might venture to see it to warrant a sixth entry.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (PG-13) Star Trek Into Darkness, the second film in J.J. Abrams’ revamped Trek-verse, is the best Star Wars movie since 1983. Don’t think I typed that wrong. The second new Star Trek is the giant, sci-fi, matinee serial that the Star Wars prequels never were. My only concern with J.J. Abrams’ revitalization of George Lucas’ neck of the galaxy is the negative effects it will have on the burgeoning new Star Trek. The new Trek improves upon its already superb predecessor in every way. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads the crew of the Starship Enterprise—Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekhov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg)—after a rogue Federation operative (Benedict Cumberbatch) turns terrorist. Knock Abrams all you want for his love of lens flare, but the bridge of the Enterprise looks fantastic. The space battles trump anything outside of the Star Wars universe. Trek has never looked better, been more thrilling or more humanly humorous, and those praises come from a lifelong Trek fan (I eschew the Trekkie/Trekker nomenclature). Star Trek 2 seems like the luckiest of numbers; this sequel achieves Khan-like greatness. Knowledgeable fans will enjoy the abundant surprises.

THIS IS THE END (R) This pot-fueled “apoc-comedic” nightmare from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg is far funnier than most meta-comedies starring comic actors as themselves. The “real” personas concocted by Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel (you remember him from “Undeclared,” right?), Craig Robinson and Danny McBride fuel this raunchy end of the world get-together. On the night of James Franco’s housewarming party, the seeming Rapture occurs, leaving behind this band of famous faces to survive on a Milky Way and little more. Turning to and on one another, Judgment Day brings out the best, worst and funniest in writers Rogen/Goldberg and their cast. The party allows additional famous faces (including Mindy Kaling, Jason Segel, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, Emma Watson and Michael Cera) to tweak their images. The only questionable characterization is Hill’s super nice, effeminate guise; everyone else, especially Michael Cera’s douchebag, are hilarious “Curb Your Enthusiasm” versions of their screen selves. In their directorial debut, Rogen/Goldberg might have kept in a few gags that would have been better saved for the unrated DVD; the comedy does push two hours. Still, it rarely lets up, not even when it enters pseudo-religious territory. These guys make the day of reckoning a fun one.

WHITE HOUSE DOWN (PG-13) 2013’s second POTUS in jeopardy flick has its work cut out for it. Olympus Has Fallen was a lot better than expected. Rather than Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart, White House Down asks DC cop Channing Tatum to save President Jamie Foxx after a terrorist attack. Disaster master Roland Emmerich guarantees this Die Hard wannabe will have a lot more property damage than Olympus. The question is whether or not that’s an improvement? With Maggie Gyllenhaal, Richard Jenkins and James Woods.

• WORLD WAR Z (PG-13) The biggest zombie (and arguably horror) movie EVER MADE is better than expected, judging from its PG-13 rating and tortured production history. Former U.N. employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is sent around the globe to discover the source of the zombie pandemic threatening to wipe out humanity. Also, if he doesn’t go, the U.S. military is going to kick his wife (Mirielle Enos of “The Killing,” another TV show you should be watching) and two daughters off their aircraft carrier. One-time Bond director Marc Forster (he of the uber-versatile filmography) and his stable of writers (the screenplay’s credited to three writers including The Cabin in the Woods’ Drew Goddard and “Lost”’s Damon Lindelof) turn Max “Son of Mel” Brooks’ oral history of the zombie conflict into a more focused, traditional “one hero must race time to save the world,” and it works. Minor quibbles range from a lack of blood (blame the need for a PG-13 rating to recoup the massive budget) and way too fast, superstrong zombies; still, it’s way more exciting than the second season of “The Walking Dead.” With its focus on action over scares, WWZ is the Resident Evil 5 of zombie movies.