October 9, 2013

Movie Dope

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

BAGGAGE CLAIM (PG-13) This romantic comedy about a stewardess, Montana (Paula “Mrs. Robin Thicke” Patton), conducting a transcontinental search for a spouse wastes a talented cast (Patton, Derek Luke, Taye Diggs, Djimon Hounsou and Ned Beatty?) in a sub-Tyler Perry situation. Many (not all) of Perry’s movies leave something to vaguely recommend, but David E. Talbert’s adaptation of his own novel does not. Stereotypical crazy ladies (see Tia Mowry-Hardrict) and besties, both gay (Brody) and oversexed (Jill Scott). There’s little to nothing to see or like here. Don’t bother making this connection.

BATTLE OF THE YEAR (PG-13) The Battle of the Year attracts breakdancing teams from around the world. The American team hasn’t won the trophy in 15 years. Josh Holloway (Sawyer from “Lost”) stars as the basketball coach tasked with turning these individual superstars, including Chris Brown and Josh Peck (Red Dawn), into a team. The presence of Brown is an immediate turnoff. The underwhelming trailer doesn’t help. Director Benson Lee’s previous feature was the award winning breakdancing documentary, Planet B-Boy.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (PG-13) In this high seas action-adventure based on a true story, Tom Hanks stars as Captain Richard Phillips, whose ship, the Maersk Alabama, became the first American ship to be hijacked in 200 years, thanks to a band of Somali pirates. Teaming up with Hanks could lead The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass to double his Oscar nominations (one for directing United 93). Screenwriter Billy Ray’s output has been spotty (State of Play is probably his standout; Razzie nominee Color of Night is the worst). 

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2 (PG) The animated family comedy, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, wasn’t quite one for which a sequel seemed necessary. Inventor Flint Lockwood (v. Bill Hader) is working for The Live Corp Company when he must leave his job to investigate claims that his machine is creating food-animal hybrids. Joining Hader for voicework are Anna Faris, James Caan, Will Forte, Andy Samberg, Benjamin Bratt, Neil Patrick Harris and Terry Crews. This flick sounds like it barely escaped a direct to DVD launch.

DON JON (R) So actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt can do little wrong in my opinion, and his feature writing/directing debut absolutely succeeds despite its strange late film tonal shift. Jersey boy Jon (Gordon-Levitt) loves the ladies, his pad, his car, his family, his boys, his church and his porn. But when he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), Jon learns he might have to give up his favorite pastime. Jon makes further discoveries when he meets a sad, community college classmate, Esther (Julianne Moore). JG-L proves a technically superb filmmaker in his rookie outing. Don Jon is excellently, stylishly composed and edited without being over-directed. This awfully adult dramedy might make some viewers uncomfortable with its rather frank sexuality, especially regarding Jon’s porn watching habits. But mature audiences will enjoy an all too topical discussion of how the Internet has potentially changed young people’s sexual expectations with its easy access pornography. Plus, the movie’s funny. Just witness a few of Jon’s weekly shouting matches-cum-dinners with his parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) and always silently texting sister (Brie Larson, The Spectacular Now). Don Jon will be remembered as one of 2013’s more unsung cinematic heroes. 

ENOUGH SAID (PG-13) Julia Louis Dreyfus plays a single mother who meets a man with potential (James Gandolfini), only to find out he's her new friend's ex.

THE FAMILY (R) The untimely, much too soon death of James Gandolfini ensured that fine actor will never have to mock his greatest role in a lukewarm (or worse) mob comedy as Robert De Niro has. As Fred Blake nee Giovanni Manzoni, De Niro continues his slide into irrelevance. Fred and his family—wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Diana Agron of “Glee”) and son Warren (John D’Leo)—are in international witness protection under the gruff, watchful eye of Tommy Lee Jones’ FBI agent, but the real people who need protecting are the Blake/Manzoni’s neighbors. The Blake/Manzoni family are all sociopathic gangsters. Talk about ugly Americans. Gallic filmmaker Luc Besson has spent recent years focusing on writing and producing such hits as The Transporters and the Takens and less time directing the action movies upon which he built his name (standouts being La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element). Despite its game cast and R-rated violence, The Family will not be remembered as one of Besson’s stronger efforts. Great mob movies are a treasure; mob comedies, as a genre, need to be buried. 

THE FIFTH ESTATE (R) This biopic about Julian Assange stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the controversial Internet hero slash traitor. Director Bill Condon needs another great film (i.e. Gods and Monsters) to recover his reputation from The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2, which are arguably the series’ best entries. The supporting cast—Daniel Bruhl, Carice von Houten, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie and David Thewlis—is strong, especially with Bruhl coming off his strong work in Rush.

GRACE UNPLUGGED (PG) Grace Trey is a Christian singer/songwriter and daughter of one-hit-wonder Johnny Trey. Seeking stardom, Grace leaves her small, church-centered town for Los Angeles.

• GRAVITY (PG-13) Yes. Children of Men filmmaker Alfonse Cuaron’s latest film is as great as you have heard. An astronaut (George Clooney) and a doctor (Sandra Bullock) must work together to survive an accident in the cold, silent confines of space. Gravity is an acting tour de force by Bullock (this  movie is essentially her Cast Away) and the most incredible special effects driven film I have ever seen. See it in 3D/IMAX if you can, as the film reminded me of Six Flags’ Chevy Show. You feel like you are in space, which is simultaneously awe-inspiringly beautiful and coldly dangerous. Though a science fiction film, Gravity is the most harrowing cinematic experience I can remember. It’s often more terrifying than any recent horror film. Cuaron has cured me of any lingering desires to travel into space. He has also proven himself to be the single most intriguing major filmmaker working today. Taking two mega-stars and placing them in a straight up disaster movie that is heavily reliant on special effects takes so much vision and control to keep the spectacle from overwhelming the humanity. Gravity is heavyweight genre filmmaking that never lets up. It is intense, but you cannot miss it.

GROWN UPS 2 (PG-13) With nary a grown-up in it, this sequel to Adam Sandler’s second biggest box office hit of all time is worse than its sub-par predecessor. Former Hollywood bigshot Lenny Feder (Sandler) moves his family back to his tiny hometown, but rather than spend time with them, he mostly hangs out with his childhood besties—Eric (Kevin James), Kurt (Chris Rock) and Higgins (David Spade)—and some meathead hangers-on (including Nick Swardson and Shaquille O’Neal). Grown Ups 2’s biggest accomplishment is how worthless it is. “Jokes” fail to land. I lost track of the “guys like boobs” moments; they were simply too many. Likability and funny are not one and the same. Argue all you want about what a great guy Sandler is, because at this point in his career you’ll find it impossible to convince someone he’s still funny, or better yet, relevant; The Internship was more of both. On a gags to chuckles ratio, Sandler ranked behind James, Rock, Spade (yikes), Colin Quinn and maybe, just maybe, Jon Lovitz. That being said, it’s already a box office smash, the monster from the depths that’s destroying the much more entertaining Pacific Rim. Good job, America.

IN A WORLD… (R) Lake Bell is one talented lady. She’s funny, pretty and not a shabby writer-director. Her directorial debut, In a World…, won Sundance’s award for Best Screenplay. Bell stars as Carol, a voice coach who longs to crack the movie trailer voiceover glass ceiling. Her dad just so happens to be the vocal king of movie trailers. The trailer promises a fun indie comedy. With Rob Corddry, Eva Longoria, Ken Marino, Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman and Geena Davis. (Ciné) 

INSTRUCTIONS NOT INCLUDED (PG-13) No Se Aceptan Devoluciones tells the story of an infamous bachelor from Mexico who becomes an unlikely father when a baby is left on his doorstep. 

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 (PG-13) As a horror filmmaker, James Wan, who made his debut with the low budget smash Saw, has grown as a stylist. See The Conjuring or this sequel to his 2009 hit, Insidious. Insidious: Chapter 2 continues the Lambert family’s ghost story. When Josh (Patrick Wilson) returned from the spirit world at the conclusion of the first movie, he didn’t return alone, and his family—wife Renai (Rose Byrne) and sons Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and Foster (Andrew Astor)—is in danger. Fortunately, his mom, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), and a team of bumbling Scoobies (including screenwriter Leigh Whannel) are on the job, searching for the supernatural solution via some poor comic relief. Chapter 2 is like a reverse Insidious. Chapter 1 had its chilling, mysterious first two acts bogged down by Josh’s blah final stroll through the spirit world. The sequel painfully explicates a dumb story for two acts, relying on trite haunted house tropes like slamming doors and flying household objects, before a strong final act that finally brings the scary and some nifty callbacks to the first movie. Insidious: Chapter 2 is no The Conjuring, where Wan proved he’s got the goods. Now he needs to show some consistency.

LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER (PG-13) I wonder if Lee Daniels now wished he’d followed up Precious with this crowd-pleasing slice of historical nostalgia, chronicling the major events of the second half of the 20th century through the eyes of White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker). Were this film released later in the year, I’m sure Whitaker would be in the awards hunt; however, this August release date didn’t hurt The Help. With its exceptional cast—Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack and Alan Rickman appear as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan, plus there’s Oprah, Terrence Howard, Mariah Carey, Melissa Leo, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave—The Butler overcomes the natural tendency of such films to drift into sentimental nostalgia. Daniels never sugarcoats the Civil Rights Movement, especially impressive for its PG-13 rating. The Butler’s anecdotal narrative inevitably draws comparisons to Forrest Gump, but Daniels’ film is more complicated. Too bad the scenes of Gaines’ home life, dominated by Oprah as his unhappy wife, lack the strength of those set in the White House and the Deep South. (Note: The title was changed to Lee Daniels’ The Butler for reasons of copyright, not ego.)

MACHETE KILLS (R) Robert Rodriguez brings ex-Federale-turned-spy Machete (Danny Trejo) back in this Grindhouse throwback. The U.S. government, led by President Rathcock (Charlie Sheen), hires Machete to combat a crazed revolutionary (Demian Bechir) who has a missile aimed at Washington. Soon, Machete learns the real enemy is arms dealer Luther Voz (Mel Gibson) who has plans to destabilize the entire world. Trejo will again be joined by Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez and Tom Savini. Newcomers to the series include Sofía Vergara, Amber Heard, Lady Gaga, Antonio Banderas, Zoe Saldana, Vanessa Hudgens, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alexa Vega and William Sadler.

METALLICA THROUGH THE NEVER (R) A fictional, thriller concert film about a Metallica groupie's bizzare experience on the road.

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.)

PANDORA'S PROMISE Part of the EcoFocus Fall Film Series, a new film by Academy Award nominated director, Robert Stone. (Ciné) 

PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS (PG) Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief was not terrible, but it definitely suffered from Chris Columbus Syndrome. Well, its successor, Sea of Monsters, has full-blown, terminal sequelitis. The titular hero, Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), must save Camp Half-Blood, the safe haven for the gods’ half-mortal children, so he embarks on a quest for the legendary Golden Fleece. Backed by his pals—Athena’s daughter Annabeth (the gorgeous, unnecessarily blonde Alexandra Daddario) and his Cyclops half-brother, Tyson (Douglas Smith)—Percy must defeat bland villain Luke (Jake Abel), who’s still mad at his dad (Zeus), rescue satyr Grover (Brandon Jackson) from Polyphemus (fortunately voiced by Ron Perlman) and defeat a reborn Cronos. Even with the additions of Nathan Fillion, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Head (stepping into Pierce Brosnan’s digitized hooves as centaur teacher Chiron), Sea of Monsters is a giant misfire. This flick isn’t even worth the excuse to stare at Alexandra Daddario for almost two hours. Even the all right FX cannot overcome the awful writing and charmless acting, especially from Lerman. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters has almost surely sunk the chances of Percy Jackson: The Titan’s Curse ever seeing the light of day. Someone else cast Daddario stat!

PRINCE AVALANCHE (R) Between a team up of Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch (I’ve never noticed his uncanny resemblance to Jack Black before) and music by Explosions in the Sky, the latest feature from filmmaker David Gordon Green offers so much to love. Two guys (Rudd and Hirsch) spent the summer of 1988 working on a highway in the middle of the wilderness. Green won the Silver Berlin Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival. (Ciné) 

PRISONERS (R) Don’t head into Prisoners if you’re in the mood for some lighthearted escapism. On a rainy Thanksgiving, two young girls go missing. The parents, Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, look everywhere but eventually turn to the police, represented by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). An obvious prime suspect, the mentally challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano), appears, but no further clues can be found. A dark morality play from Contraband scripter Aaron Guzikowski, the two and a half hour Prisoners lasts a while. Jackman will probably land on the Academy’s shortlist for his turn as survivalist Dover, who won’t give up on his daughter; he also goes further to find her than the law allows. As Jackman’s co-lead, Gyllenhaal furthers separates himself from his pretty peers, though Guzikowski could have opened up Loki a bit more for the audience. He remains more a determined cipher than a complete character as his dogged drive is never examined. No one in the well-known cast underperforms in Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to his Academy Award nominated Incendies. Villeneuve’s Prisoners feels like home-grown Haneke; it’s a tough, mature box office hit.

PUSHIN' UP DAISIES (PG-13) A filmmaker's documentary about flowers becomes something entirely different once zombies take over the world. (Ciné) 

RED 2 (PG-13) Red 2 is a lot of fun. What more did you expect? Retired Extremely Dangerous CIA operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is trying to live a quiet life with his girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). But then his paranoid pal, Martin (John Malkovich), shows up, and another caper begins. This time, the boys (and girl) are being hunted by everyone, including an old pal, Victoria Winters (Helen Mirren), and an old enemy, Han Cho Bai (Byung-hun Lee). The quips fly as fast as the bullets, and the script by Jon and Erich Hoeber isn’t as lousy a shot as one might expect from the Whiteout writers. Director Dean Parisot corrals his lead cats, especially the typically bored Willis, efficiently. Red 2 won’t set the world on fire, but if your old 80s action VHS tapes have worn thin, this new movie will fit the bill quite nicely.

ROMEO AND JULIET (PG-13) The latest version of Shakespeare’s seminal work about star-crossed lovers stars True Grit Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet, opposite Douglas Booth’s Romeo. The cast (Damien Lewis as Lord Capulet, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Benvolio, Stellan Skarsgard as the Prince of Verona and Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence) is solid without crushing it. Director Carlo Carlei benefits from having a script by the inimitable Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey” is so good!), but how will it ever out-teenage Baz’s R+J?

• RUNNER RUNNER (R) Where the week’s other wide release, Gravity, is the most original piece of genre filmmaking I have seen in years, Runner Runner is a dose of same old same old. Young buck, Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake), loses his tuition money gambling online. As a Princeton man, he figures out he was cheated and confronts the sinister entrepreneur, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), who cheated him. Surprisingly, Ivan offers Richie a job rather than just have him murdered. Naturally, what is too good to be true is, especially when there is a beautiful Brit (Gemma Arterton) involved. If you skipped August’s Paranoia (and you should have), you could catch up with Runner Runner. But then again, why would you? Director Brad Furman may have surprised audiences with the sly Lincoln Lawyer (a lot due to Matthew McConaughey), but he cannot do it again, despite a ravenous, Cagney-esque performance by Affleck as an Internet gangster. Timberlake adds nothing to the bland protagonist, who probably should lose to Block on cool points alone. Unless you’re a JT or Affleck fanatic, run run away.

RUSH (R) You will never know you are watching a Ron Howard film during this recreation of the 1976 Formula One battle between James Hunt (Chris “Thor” Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). The rivalry merely heats up after Lauda suffers life-threatening burns during a midseason race. Howard recreates the sensational racing more realistically than any racing movie I have ever seen, and the script by Academy Award nominee Peter Morgan (his The Queen remains one of my favorite films of the last decade) fashions realistic people from these larger than life race car drivers. Hemsworth is terrific at being likably arrogant, but we all knew that from Thor and The Avengers. It is Bruhl, best known to American audiences from Inglourious Basterds, who captivates. His level-headed, unpleasantly disciplined Lauda overcomes the odds to stand out as the film’s champion, no matter who wins on the racetrack. Whether or not you like racing (stock car or formula) or Ron Howard films, Rush is that rare adult action drama that never loses speed on or off the track.

SALINGER (PG-13) Filmmaker Shane Salerno (he co-wrote the screenplay for Oliver Stone’s Savages) attempts to solve the mystery that is J.D. Salinger. Salerno interviewed 150 subjects, many of whom were close to the reclusive author. Famous folk like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, John Cusack, Danny DeVito, John Guare, Martin Sheen, David Milch, Robert Towne, Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow, Gore Vidal and Pulitzer Prize winners A. Scott Berg and Elizabeth Frank also contribute their thoughts on Salinger and his influential works, particularly The Catcher in the Rye. (Ciné) 

SNAKE & MONGOOSE (PG-13) Based on a true story, Snake & Mongoose tells the tale of two drag racers. 

TURBO (PG) Why, in a cinematic world so accepting of superheroes, is the idea of a racing snail so absurd? I don’t know, but it is. After a first act highlighted by endearing animation and stellar voice work from Ryan Reynolds and Paul Giamatti, Turbo gets stupid, as the main mollusk is imbued with the abilities of a car (not just speed but alarm, radio and headlights) after a freak accident involving a street racer and some nitrous. After buddying up with a taco-making fellow named Tito (Michael Pena), Turbo and his other racing snail pals—including Whiplash (v. Samuel L. Jackson) and Smoove Move (v. Snoop Dogg)—head to the Indy 500, where they will face off against defending champion and world’s greatest racecar driver, Guy Gagne (v. Bill Hader). While a much better cartoon than its trailer portrays, Turbo will mostly appeal to those kiddies for whom Cars has run out of gas. I never imagined animated snails could be so appealing. Turbo definitely benefits from one of the best voice casts (I have yet to mention Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez, Maya Rudolph and Luis Guzman) of the summer.

WE’RE THE MILLERS (R) We’re the Millers doesn’t break any laugh records, but after a few laughless weeks at the cinema, it more than accomplishes its goal. Its silliest problem is its star, the hilarious Jason Sudeikis, who comes off far too smug far too easily. (One wonders how this movie would have played with a more sympathetic David Clark, played by Jason Bateman or Jason Segel, etc.) After running afoul of his drug kingpin pal (Ed Helms), Dave (Sudeikis) must smuggle a smidge that turns out to be a lot more than a smidge of marijuana across the border. Dave hatches a brilliant plan to fake a family with stripper Rose (Jennifer Aniston, who is getting hotter with age), runaway teen Casey (Emma Roberts) and virginal Kenny (Will Poulter, Son of Rambow). Everything works out great until he runs into a swell DEA agent and his wife (Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn) and the big-time Mexican drug lord to whom the weed really belongs to catches up with them. We’re the Millers will probably gain popularity once it starts airing non-stop on FX. Still, it’s a funny afternoon diversion, thanks mostly to its clever cast, not its familiarly sitcom-ish script.

WE WAS HOMEBOYZ (R) Rapper Pastor Troy plays Ice, a local drug dealer trying to find a traitor and thief.

THE WOLVERINE (PG-13) A darker, more complicated hero than Marvel’s super-bankable Iron Man and Spider-Man, Wolvie poses a narrative difficulty, much like The Punisher, who Hollywood has yet to get right. The Wolverine comes closest to nailing this popular, mysterious icon. After the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Logan has shed his Wolverine persona to live a solitary life in the woods. However, the last request of a dying friend whisks the clawed one off to Japan. Director James Mangold and writers Mark Bomback and Scott Frank chose smartly in adapting Frank Miller and Chris Claremont’s seminal 1982 limited series.