April 16, 2014

Movie Dope

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


DRAFT DAY (PG-13) Are you missing football? Kevin Costner has just the movie for you. KCost stars as Sonny Weaver Jr., the general manager of the NFL’s downtrodden Cleveland Browns. On the morning of draft day, he receives the chance to select first, an opportunity that brings with it a season’s worth of controversy and drama. Should he draft the surefire quarterback (Josh Pence) from Wisconsin, the swell linebacker (Chadwick Boseman) from Ohio State or the Florida State running back (Houston Texans player Arian Foster) who recently had a run-in with the law? Everyone from his head coach (Denis Leary) to his team owner (Frank Langella) to his mom (Ellen Burstyn) knows what Sonny should do. To top it all off, the pretty young coworker (Jennifer Garner) he’s dating is pregnant. In a movie where most of the interactions take place via phone, Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman is forced to get creative and winds up with his most enjoyable movie since, very arguably, 2001’s Evolution. The actors interact more like they’re on stage than on screen, and the football acumen of a few is questionable. Nevertheless, it’s hard to lose with Costner on your sports movie team. 

OCULUS (R) Filmmaker Mike Flanagan’s follow-up to his effective little horror film, Absentia, feels like the next step in his career maturation. Bigger genre names (Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan and Katee “Starbuck” Sackhoff), more ambition and more chills all handled with more skill. (If you like Oculus, check out Absentia on Netflix.) When her brother, Thomas (Brenton Thwaites), is released from a mental hospital, Kaylie Russell (Gillan) plans to prove that what destroyed her family was neither her father, Alan (Rory Cochrane, Argo), nor her brother but a supernatural force living in an antique mirror. Mix John Carpenter’s underrated Prince of Darkness and The Amityville Horror with a touch of Jack Ketchum splatterpunk and some mouth-horror that would impress body-horror impresario David Cronenberg. The result is this unsettlingly satisfying horror flick. Oculus stands apart from its recent paranormal peers thanks to a smarter than average script by Flanagan and Jeff Howard, working from Flanagan and Jeff Seidman’s shorter screenplay. Oculus builds its terror on tension, atmosphere and small, effective doses of gore rather than the buckets of blood and/or jump scares preferred to prop up underwritten scary stories. Flanagan could do big things in this genre.


A HAUNTED HOUSE 2 (R) Apparently, enough people wanted a low-budget, scattershot parody of the Paranormal Activities and anything else writers Marlon Wayans and Rick Alvarez can think of. It’s the kitchen sink approach to jokes. Soon after Wayans’ Malcolm moves into a new house with his new lady (Jaime Pressly) and her two kids, weird stuff starts happening…again. Essence Atkins, Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Sheridan, Affion Crockett and original director Michael Tiddes return and are joined by Ashley Rickards and Gabriel Iglesias.

AMERICAN HUSTLE (R) This fictional account of the real life ABSCAM investigation that sent several members of federal, state and local government to prison was nominated for ten Academy Awards. Conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his not exactly British girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), are forced by an unstable FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), into conning the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (Jeremy Renner). Russell has proven an uncanny ability to take a great cast and make them greater. American Hustle is a film made for ensemble cast awards; picking one standout is nearly impossible. Go see it. (Ciné)

BEARS (G) For Earth Day 2014, Disneynature releases another nature documentary from two-time Emmy winner Alastair Fothergill (Chimpanzee, African Cats and Earth), again working with his African Cats co-director Keith Scholey. This year, Fothergill and Scholey follow a family of Alaskan bears. John C. Reilly narrates the lessons being taught to the family’s two young cubs. Disneynature’s Earth Day track record is pretty strong, and the trailer for this family-friendly movie promises another appealing, heartwarming tale.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (PG-13) Cap (Chris Evans) returns in his second solo outing, and it’s a slight improvement over the first, a definitively middle-of-the-pack Marvel movie. As an agent of SHIELD, Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, must adjust to his new reality and save the world, regularly. When seeds of distrust are sewn amongst members of SHIELD, Cap has to figure out if he can trust anyone, including Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) or new pal Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Cap’s transition to the modern world gets even more complicated once a new enemy, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), turns out to be an old acquaintance. Captain America: The Winter Soldier redefines the Marvel Universe more than any of the previous features. Its effects will be felt from Avengers: Age of Ultron to ABC’s “Agents of Shield.” Credit new directors Anthony and Joe Russo (“Community”) with a lighter, more action-oriented Cap, but this series will always lack the vivacious spark Robert Downey Jr. brings to Iron Man. Kicking off the summer season earlier than ever, a big, more-fun-than-not comic book movie is what we’ve been waiting all winter for, right?

CHILDREN OF PARADISE 1945. Dr. Richard Neupert, a UGA Film Studies professor and Ciné board member, presents a French Cinema Series celebrating both modern and classic French films. Marcel Carne directed this romantic drama about the love of an actress (Arletty) and the men in love with her, which includes a mime (Jean-Louis Barrault). Jacques Prevert (Jean Renoir’s excellent The Crime of Monsieur Lange) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay. (Ciné)

DIVERGENT (PG-13) Hunger Games comparisons are inevitable. While Veronica Roth’s book loses the head-to-head against Suzanne Collins’ bestseller, Neil Burger’s filmed adaptation might best Gary Ross’ original Games. In a dystopian future Chicago, humanity is divided into five factions. Right before Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is to choose the faction in which she’ll spend the rest of her life, the teenager learns she is Divergent, whatever that means. Tris, as she chooses to be called, selects Dauntless, the faction most appealing to teens as they spend most of their time yelling and jumping from trains. Oh yeah, they’re civilization’s soldiers too. After a grueling initiation during which she makes a love connection with the studly instructor, Four (Theo James), Tris learns her perfect society and all Divergents are under attack. The movie distills 500 pages of plot into a pretty decent two-plus-hour flick as scripters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor smartly eschew Tris’ inner monologues, save for her opening and closing thoughts. Burger excels at sci-fi (see Limitless) and the casting is spot on. Woodley’s the most believably unsure YA heroine seen on the big screen, and James increases Four’s appeal from the page. Bring on Insurgent.

ERNEST & CELESTINE (PG) 2012. Dr. Richard Neupert, a UGA Film Studies professor and Ciné board member, presents a French Cinema Series celebrating both modern and classic French films. Naturally, Dr. Neupert has selected at least one animated feature. Based on the book by Gabrielle Vincent, Ernest & Celestine tells of an improbable friendship between a bear named Ernest and a mouse named Celestine. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. (Ciné)

FADING GIGOLO (R) John Turturro wrote, directed and stars in this comedy about a guy, Fiorovante, who decides to become a professional Don Juan (is that the same thing as a professional Casanova?). Fiorovante hopes to help out his buddy, Murray (Woody Allen), who is in need of some cash. The cast is good (Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara), but Allen’s pretty toxic right now. Winner of the Audience Award for Best Feature at the Miami Film Festival.

FROZEN (PG) Disney returns with a newfangled computer animated feature that feels very old school. A young princess, Anna (v. Kristen Bell), must venture into the frozen wilds to save her sister, recently crowned Queen Elsa (v. Idina Menzel), who has lost control over her icy powers. Anna is assisted in her search by ice salesman Kristoff (v. Jonathan Groff, “Glee”), his reindeer, Sven, and a goofy, talking snowman named Olaf (v. Josh Gad). The narrative, adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” by Wreck-It Ralph scripter Jennifer Lee (who co-directed), is as Disney formulaic as they come, and the animation shines without standing out. Nonetheless, the characters, especially Gad’s silly snowman, are winning. The songs are catchy, as is their diegetic musical inclusion. Little kids will love Frozen, and parents who grew up on Disney classics will not feel left out in the cold.

GOD’S NOT DEAD (PG) In this Christian feature, a college student, Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper, “Good Luck Charlie”), has his faith challenged by a philosophy professor (Kevin Sorbo, best known as TV’s Hercules) who does not believe in the existence of God. TV’s Superman, Dean Cain, costars, while Christian popsters Newsboys and two of “Duck Dynasty”’s Robertsons, Willie and Korie, provide cameos. Director Harold Cronk’s three previous features (Ever heard of The Adventures of Mickey Matson and the Copperhead Treasure? Me neither.) sound pretty small screen.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (R) Wes Anderson’s latest stars Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H., legendary concierge at the famous hotel, who memorably mentors lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori, The Perfect Game). The cast is huge—F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalic, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson and Owen Wilson—and the trailer entertaining in the most Anderson of manners. Hopes are up for this film after Moonrise Kingdom. (Ciné)

GRAVITY (PG-13) 2013. Academy Award nominee Alfonse Cuaron’s latest film is as great as you have heard. An astronaut (George Clooney) and a doctor (Academy Award nominee 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. You feel like you are in space, which is simultaneously awe-inspiringly beautiful and coldly dangerous. Though a science fiction film, this Best Picture nominee is the most harrowing cinematic experience I can remember. It’s often more terrifying than any recent horror film. Gravity is heavyweight genre filmmaking that never lets up. 

HEAVEN IS FOR REAL (PG) For his fourth feature behind the camera (The Man in the Iron Mask, We Were Soldiers and Secretariat), Randall Wallace, the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of Braveheart, has adapted Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church and the underrated Margo Martindale star in this faith-based family feature about a four-year-old’s recollections of heaven. Reverend T.D. Jakes is credited as a producer.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (PG-13) The Hunger Games returns, and its sequel, while more a formality setting up the series’ final, revolutionary entry, improves upon an original that was more of a visual book report than an exciting cinematic adaptation. (Original director Gary Ross’ absence was addition by subtraction.) After surviving the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are the Capitol’s newest celebrities. But all is not well in the Districts, and creepy President Snow (Donald Sutherland, who I’ve only just noticed resembles Sid Haig) lets Katniss know it by putting her back in the next year’s Games. New director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) paces the film better once we escape District 12 (every scene in it is so drab and boring), and the Quarter Quell is excitingly envisioned with deadly fog, killer monkeys and fun new faces like Finnick (a key new role well played by Sam Claflin) and Johanna (Jena Malone). Largely dismissed as repetitive upon the novel’s release, the underrated Catching Fire successfully adds more wrinkles to the Suzanne Collins’ formula than its more straightforward predecessor. However, it’s about time Katniss take more charge of her situation, a flaw hopefully remedied by the franchise finale, Mockingjay.

THE LEGO MOVIE (PG) The LEGO Movie is most certainly the young year’s best new, wide release. The intricate, interconnected universes built by writing-directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street) have an age-defying Muppets-like appeal. When generic construction mini-figure Emmet (v. Chris Pratt, who is so devilishly appealing) gets up in the morning, he follows the day’s instructions as handed down by president/overlord Business (v. Will Ferrell). Soon, Emmet gets involved with a Matrix-ian rebel group led by Vitruvius (v. Morgan Freeman), a pretty mini-fig who goes by Wildstyle (v. Elizabeth Banks) and her BF, Batman (v. Will Arnett). The LEGO Movie uses its licenses (D.C., Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings) smartly as it argues for the salvation of creativity. A movie made from the toy that frees the childhood (and adult) imagination has to stay on its toes in order not to diminish the property. This film, which should battle for the year’s best animated film come the next awards cycle, reconstructs the greatest childhood movie memories from the building blocks that best defined the young and not-yet-so-old generation.

LE WEEK-END (R) Dr. Richard Neupert, a UGA Film Studies professor and Ciné board member, presents a French Cinema Series celebrating both modern and classic French films. The first selection, Le Week-End, stars Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan as a long-married couple returning to Paris, the scene of their honeymoon, in order to rekindle the flames of love. Director Roger Michell is still best known for 1999’s Notting Hill. With Jeff Goldblum. (Ciné)

MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN (PG) Mr. Peabody and Sherman get much better feature film treatment than their cartoon pals Rocky and Bullwinkle. The super smart canine, Mr. Peabody (v. Ty Burrell, "Modern Family"), and his adopted son, Sherman (v. Max Charles, young Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man), travel back in time via Peabody's WABAC machine. The duo meet Marie Antoinette, King Tut, Leonardo da Vinci (v. Stanley Tucci), Mona Lisa (v. Lake Bell) and other historical luminaries as they try to right the wrongs  perpetrated against the space-time continuum. Burrell keeps Peabody as punny as ever, and kids will relate to Sherman's childish, lesson-teaching mistakes. The historical gags are a hit, though the dramatic narrative is structured too familiarly. And who is the target demo, kids who have never heard of these classic cartoons or the adults bound to be at least a little disappointed by the newfangled incarnations of their childhood faves? Trying to please both might not fully please either. Nonetheless, 2014 will see worse kids movies than Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

MUPPETS MOST WANTED (PG) Somewhere between the plots of The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan lies Muppets Most Wanted. After the success of their reunion, the Muppets embark on a world tour on the advice of their new manager, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais, as impish as ever). But when the World’s Most Dangerous Frog, Constantine, replaces Kermit, the world tour becomes a globe-hopping heist to steal the crown jewels. It being a Muppets movie, expect oddball movie callbacks and celebrities to pop up in the most random of cameos. The three human leads—Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell—are great foils for the Muppets; Burrell’s Inspector Clouseau impersonation is funnier than Steve Martin’s, were anyone planning on rebooting The Pink Panther again. Bret McKenzie, one half of Flight of the Conchords, supplies a couple of show-stopping numbers (particularly, Fey’s showcase, “The Big House”), but just a few years later, I cannot remember anything he wrote for 2011’s The Muppets. Come to think of it, as immediately engaging as the family friendly movie is, it mostly pointed out just how unmemorable its 2011 predecessor ultimately was. The Muppets always entertain, but this adventure isn’t timeless. 

NOAH (PG-13) Noah may be the strangest blockbuster since Ang Lee’s Hulk. Fortunately, the new biblical epic is more successful. It also isn’t your Chuck Heston biblical epic. Russell Crowe (no actor is more comfortable in the past than this guy) effectively grimaces and growls as the man chosen by the Creator to save the animal kingdom from a world-cleansing flood in Darren Aronofsky’s foreboding take on this beloved children’s bible story. Opening with a summary emphasizing the mythic, Noah establishes a harsh, sci-fi pre-apocalypse for Noah and his family—wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth. After a visit with his ancient grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins giving good Yoda), Noah begins a decade-long task of building his ark, while giant stone creatures (one recognizably voiced by Nick Nolte) protect his family from the evil men led by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone). When the flood epically arrives amidst a massive Lord of the Rings battle, an hour remains to reveal what happens when one family’s cruise goes way too long. As expected, Aronofsky visually stuns, but his film’s most insidious brilliance might be how fantastically fanciful it makes this ancient tale.

NON-STOP (PG-13) Maybe the Liam Neeson Action Star franchise isn’t dead yet. In his latest portrayal of the deadliest daddy ever, Neeson stars as Bill Marks, a U.S. Air Marshal receiving threatening texts “on a secure network” (oooh) demanding $150 million, or someone will die every 20 minutes. Neeson is joined by a big-name co-star, Julianne Moore, and several recognizable bit players like Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, Michelle “Lady Mary” Dockery and Scoot McNairy; however, the real co-star is the claustrophobic, transparent setting. Besides the lavatories and the cockpit, everything takes place in the various cabins of the transatlantic flight. (None of that cargo-hold crap resorted to by other plane-trapped protagonists.) A more than serviceable whodunit, Non-Stop should please the millions of mystery fans as well as those moviegoers feeling there are more asses Neeson needs to kick. As usual, the reveal is never as clever as the setup, but the tense first two acts are filling if not fulfilling. Marks could be a more pleasant protag with whom to spend two hours. Fortunately, the movie rarely slows down enough for Marks’ authoritarian abuses to outrage. I wonder if this flick will get shown on many future flights.

THE NUT JOB (PG) The latest animated feature (it seems as if there are so many nowadays) pits a curmudgeonly squirrel named (a bit on the nose) Surly (v. Will Arnett) against the city. When he finds Maury’s Nut Store, he may just have found the way to alleviate his and the rest of his park community’s winter worries. Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson and Katherine Heigl are the next three biggest names in the voice cast. Will this movie capture its family audience without a big name like Disney or DreamWorks behind it?

PHILOMENA (PG-13)  Two of my favorite British Stephens—Coogan and Frears—team up for what sounds pretty unintriguing from its based on a true story logline. A shamed journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), helps an old Irish woman, Philomena Lee (Academy Award nominee Judi Dench), find the child she lost to adoption 50 years earlier. Coogan, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated script with Jeff Pope, hones his sharp wit and creates some moments of genuine emotion as his cynical journo interacts with sweet old Philomena, who is unsurprisingly embodied perfectly by Dench. The writers also sharpen their knives to carve up the Catholic Church, here represented by a few evil nuns. The script, acting and two-time Oscar nominee Stephen Frears (The Grifters and The Queen) take this TV movie scenario and turn it into a unexpectedly strong Best Picture nominee. (It wouldn’t make a shortlist of five, but it’s not the last of the nine.) Shades of Coogan’s wonderful road trip comedy The Trip color Martin and Philomena’s trek to Ireland and finally America as they unravel the film’s central mystery. Let the awards mystique, not the pedestrian synopsis, draw you into Philomena. Her film is as extraordinary as her story.

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL (R) The Raid 2 begins only two hours from where 2011's The Raid: Redemption ended. Rookie officer Rama is still dealing with the Jakarta slums crime mob when he discovers misconduct within his own police force.

RIO 2 (G) Blu (v. Jesse Eisenberg), Jewel (v. Anne Hathaway) and the three kids leave the wilds of Rio de Janeiro for the real wilds of the Amazon, where Blu must battle his father-in-law (v. Andy Garcia). I don’t recall caring that much for the first trip to Rio, though it could have been worse. The voices of, Jamie Foxx, George Lopez, Tracy Morgan, Jemaine Clement, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro and Jake T. Austin return, while Garcia and Bruno Mars headline the newcomers.

ROBOCOP (PG-13) So the new Robocop kind of misses the maliciously satirical point of the original. No one will be clamoring for a remake of this technically shiny action flick in 27 years. Outside of the interstitial moments with Samuel L. Jackson’s Bill O’Reilly-ish Pat Novak, the new movie, from Elite Squad director Jose Padilha and first-time feature writer Joshua Zetumer, misses out on some prime opportunities to deride modern America. Robocop, formerly Detective Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman from AMC’s “The Killing”), does not do much Robocopping. He does solve his own murder, which is a little self-involved. The new filmmakers bog the first act down in comic book origin BS (the boardroom shenanigans of the original are much more interesting), before blazing through the second act where Robo (barely) hits the streets, to get to the procedural third act. The best Robocop remake came out in 2012 and was called Dredd; that flick had loads more of the ultraviolent, futuristic misanthropy that made Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop stand out. The newest version of Robocop is watchable with some excellent FX and design ideas (many borrowed from the original); what it definitely is not is re-watchable.

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (PG) 1982. Still the greatest Trek film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan resurrects Captain James T. Kirk’s greatest foe, the genetically-modified superman Khan (Ricardo Montalban). The Enterprise is peopled with the familiar faces of William Shatner (Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), DeForest Kelley (Bones), George Takei (Sulu), Walter Koenig (Chekov), James Doohan (Scotty) and Nichelle Nichols (Uhura). Kirstie Alley makes her feature film debut as Vulcan Saavik. Plus they put killer earworms in Chekov and Paul Winfield! And that climactic twist devastated young me. See it on the big screen while you can. (Ciné)

TRANSCENDENCE (PG-13) Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister (his work on Inception won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography), makes his directorial debut with this complex-looking sci-fi drama starring Johnny Depp as a scientist who is resurrected via computer and becomes an all-powerful, unstoppable force in search of power. With Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr. and Morgan Freeman.