May 21, 2014

Movie Dope

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


GODZILLA (PG-13) The King of Monsters has recovered from his 1998 trip stateside with this extremely satisfying entry in Toho’s long-running kaiju franchise. The filmmakers—Monsters director Gareth Edwards, screenwriter Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham —make several smart decisions with their Hollywood reboot of Godzilla. They go ahead and start with good-Zilla. The giant radioactive lizard is a much more intriguing character when it’s a force for neutral good. Big G must do battle with two MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms), one of which bears more than a passing resemblance to series fave Mothra. The monster design and FX is superb, even if the two-hour film takes its sweet time putting it to full use. Edwards clings too long to his "less is more" Monsters aesthetic. The marginal cost of the teasing outweighs its marginal benefit in the third act. Even with a cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen and David Strathairn, the humans do not matter. It’s Godzilla that audiences are paying to see. Fortunately, the film ends at its strongest, a knockdown dragout between the monsters that does not disappoint.

MILLION DOLLAR ARM (PG) Kudos to director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and excellent screenwriter Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win) for taking what could have been another sappy, inspirational Disney sports movie and turning out a mostly satisfying retelling of the true recruitment of Major League Baseball’s first Indian players. Struggling sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) needs a big hit to stay in the game. His unconventional idea leads him to India looking for a baseball pitcher amongst cricket bowlers. But bringing young Rinku (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, Slumdog Millionaire) back to the States is only the first half of the game. Now confirmed bachelor J.B. must father his alternative family to victory. Luckily, a pretty young doctor, Brenda (Lake Bell), lives out back to provide advice and romance. Despite its major flaw, predictability, Million Dollar Arm succeeds. Hamm could not be more roguishly charming, and Bell is an underrated comedienne and actress. Sharma, Mittal and Pitobash, who plays the most comic of the Indian characters, never resort to mere stereotype. It does drag in its Murphy’s Law-sponsored middle innings, but credit the cast and crew with a win.


THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (PG-13) Despite abundant reasons for applause, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 sabotages itself with the most dreadfully deadening second act unleashed in a major superhero movie. Andrew Garfield returns as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and has much more control of the role in his second appearance. He channels the comic’s wisecracking webslinger, especially in the smart, campy opening fight with a very Russian criminal inexplicably played by Paul Giamatti. In his second attempt, director Marc Webb supplies the franchise’s best action setpieces; both of Spidey’s fights with Jamie Foxx’s blue-headed Electro are kinetically exciting, if a bit too computer animated. But the fightless sequence after Spider-Man first defeats Electro, during which Peter reunites with old pal Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) and searches for the answer to his OsCorp scientist father’s (Campbell Scott) disappearance, absolutely kills the movie’s silly momentum, despite Martin Csokas’ German mad Dr. Kafka. Bookending the boring are two great acts. The first could be the most charmingly innocent cinematic superhero action since Superman ’78, even if it is more Lester than Donner; the action-packed finale jams three supervillains into what can’t be more than 20 minutes. Make sure you wake up for it.

BELLE (PG) In this historical drama, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy officer, is raised by her great-uncle, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), the first Earl of Masfield and Lord Chief Justice. Director Amma Asante, who previously helmed A Way of Life, won the SIGNIS Award from the Miami Film Festival and the Directors to Watch Award from the Palm Springs International Film Festival. With Miranda Richardson, Matthew Goode and Emily Watson. (Ciné)

BLENDED (PG-13) Ten years after 50 First Dates, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore reunite as single parents who, after meeting on a bad blind date, fall for each other on an African safari with their kids. Sandler invited his Wedding Singer, Waterboy, and Click pal and director Frank Coraci for the sure-to-be critically reviled, financially successful family flick. The supporting cast is fairly expected (Kevin Nealon, Allen Covert, Shaq, Dan Patrick, etc.), but Terry Crews, Wendi McClendon-Covey and Joel McHale are reliably funny. 

BLUE RUIN (R) One of the hottest flicks currently available on VOD (you should check out Ti West’s The Sacrament as well) comes to Athens for one week only! A man (Macon Blair) returns home on a quest of vengeance. Blair has been receiving beaucoups of acclaim for his performance and his beard. With his second feature, writer-director Jeremy Saulnier has vaulted up the Filmmakers to Watch List. Winner of the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. (Ciné)

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?

COLD IN JULY If you have yet to hear of Jim Mickle, mark down this moment. After genre success with Stake Land and the excellent remake of We Are What We Are, Mickle is on the verge of mainstream recognition. His latest stars Michael C. Hall (recently released from “Dexter”) as one of two feuding fathers who must team up to solve a darker, complex crime. The film is based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale (Bubba Ho-Tep). With Sam Shepard, Don Johnson and cowriter Nick Damici (Stake Land’s Mister).

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. 

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. 

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.

HEAVEN IS FOR REAL (PG) Good for you, Hollywood. You’re as capable of pandering to faith-based audiences as to any other. Money’s money, am I right? Based on the bestselling account written by Reverend Todd Burpo about his four-year-old son’s trip to heaven, the movie feels as real as any paranormal movie purported to be based on a true story. Todd (Greg Kinnear) works several jobs to keep his family afloat but almost loses everything, including his faith, after news of his son’s experience gets out. Sweet little Colton (cute Connor Corum) tells his dad about singing angels, Jesus and his technicolor horse, and the sister that was never born. The movie gets by as far and as long as it can on its talented cast, including Kinnear, Kelly Reilly (Flight), Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale; the acting is far above any of Sherwood Pictures’ releases. Writer-director Randall Wallace (an Oscar nominee for Braveheart) can’t help the treacly material, almost entirely dependent upon a very young child actor, with which he’s saddled. It’s hard to imagine Heaven will resonate with crossover audiences, even with its actual Hollywood stars (if that’s what Kinnear can be called).

LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY’S RETURN (PG) An unimpressively animated sequel to The Wizard of Oz, based on a children’s book written by L. Frank Baum’s grandson, Legends of Oz is so outdated it features Dan Aykroyd, Kelsey Grammer and Jim Belushi as the voices of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, with Martin Short pulling double duty as the villain in Oz and back in Kansas. “Glee”’s Lea Michele provides Dorothy with her Frozen pipes. With that voice cast, one knows they’re not in Pixar or DreamWorks anymore. The imagery is oddly inconsistent. Candy County’s denizens are cutely childish, while the population of Dainty China Country borders on Return to Oz freakishness. If in need of an Oz-quel, stick with Walter Murch’s darkly fascinating 1985 update. Or better yet, just go with the classic. 

THE LEGO MOVIE (PG) The LEGO Movie remains the year’s best 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) has 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 that includes 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. This film reconstructs the best childhood movie memories from the building blocks that defined young and not-yet-so-old generations.

MOMS’ NIGHT OUT (PG) Allyson (Sarah Drew, “Grey’s Anatomy”) and her girlfriends (including Patricia Heaton from “Everybody Loves Raymond”) want a night out without the kids. Can their husbands (including Sean Astin) handle the kids for one measly evening? According to the trailer for this family friendly, kind of faith-based movie, the men cannot. Country star Trace Adkins shows up as a bike-riding tattoo artist. Birmingham, AL, natives Jon and Andrew Erwin direct their highest profile picture yet. 

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.

NEED FOR SPEED (PG-13) Whether the moviegoing world wanted one or not, Fast & Furious now has a competitor in outlandish car chase franchises. Need for Speed, based on the Electronic Arts series of racing videogames, stars Aaron Paul in his first major headlining gig post-“Breaking Bad,” and it’s fast enough to win the box office race, if nothing else. The way too generously plotted movie takes a while to reach its top speed as small town race car driver Tobey Marshall (Paul) establishes his bonafides. Once released from prison for a crime for which he was only tangentially responsible, Tobey drives his way into an exclusive underground race called the Deleon, mostly to seek revenge against real bad guy, professional race car driver Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). But who am I kidding, wasting so much space on a plot synopsis? What potential viewers of Need for Speed need to know is the cars are fast, exotic and well-shot by director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor). Paul also proves capable as a leading man, and Michael Keaton continues his fun 2014 renaissance. Sure, the movie’s too long, but it’s a solid racing adventure that happens to be adapted from a videogame.

NEIGHBORS (R) The smartest move made by the year’s funniest comedy (to date) was to spread the guilt and the sympathy between the family (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) and the frat bros (led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco). When a fraternity moves in next door to new parents, Mac and Kelly Radner, a war breaks out after Mac calls the cops on one of the frat’s first parties. Though both sides trade early victories, no one really wins when these neighbors attempt a game of real estate chicken. Who will move first? My fear going into the movie was that Efron’s frat president, Teddy, would be so brah-ish he’d lack any sympathy, but the High School Musical alumnus imbues the pretty boy with unexpected likability. He’s simply a nice guy, as is his VP, Pete (Franco, proving he’s more than James’ little bro). The movie spends equal time with both families, dividing the laughs and the commiseration. Director Nicholas Stoller finally figures out the whole comedy runtime, delivering a swift hour and a half of good, hard R gags. Plus the babies playing Stella Radner might be the cutest screen kid in forever; her bit in the credits is gold.

THE OTHER WOMAN (PG-13) It takes way too long for Kate Upton to pop up in this intermittently funny and shrill female buddy comedy. Powerful professional woman, Carly Whitten (Cameron Diaz), finds out her wonderful new boyfriend, Mark (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”), is married. Carly and the wronged wife, Kate (Leslie Mann), team up for revenge with Mark’s other other woman, Amber (Upton). Diaz and Mann are showcased, and the results are mixed. As many laughs as Mann generates, she spends equally as much time crying and whining. Diaz continues to age gracefully, though one of the movie’s best gags might be the comedienne’s reaction to being upstaged by Upton, whose initial bikini-clad appearance doesn’t occur until an hour into the movie. The Other Woman is neither a total disaster nor a riotous female comedy. We’re not achieving Bridesmaids heights here. The comedy does begin to answer the question, how much is too much Leslie Mann? I’m sad and a little disappointed by The Other Woman’s response.

THE RAILWAY MAN (R) Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Stellan Skarsgard star in a true story of World War II from The Weinstein Company, and it didn’t receive an awards-eligible release. That’s worrying. During WWII, Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) was a tortured Japanese POW on the “Death Railway.” Years later, Lomax (now played by Firth) attempts to exorcise his demons by confronting a Japanese officer (Hiroyuki Sanada). Director Jonathan Teplitzky’s film is based on the autobiography written by Lomax.

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.

300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE (R) More of a companion film than a sequel or prequel, 300: Rise of an Empire is better than the rest of the post-300 wannabes (The Immortals, Clash/Wrath of the Titans). Happening concurrently with the beautiful death of the abs of Sparta's King Leonidas, 300:RoaE finds a new, Athenian hero in Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). He must battle with god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his gorgeous naval commander, Artemesia (Eva Green, Casino Royale), if Greek society is to survive. Though Zack Snyder isn't around to direct, the script he cowrote allows new helmer Noam Murro (Smart People) to craft a stylistically similar movie. In other words, the entire movie looks like an extended video game cutscene. Outside of its gorgeous, violent visuals, 300 Again makes less of an impression, and its predecessor hasn't exactly mirrored Greece for cultural legacy. Stapleton is no Gerard Butler, and none of the supporters are going to be the next Michael Fassbender. No one will remember the events of More 300 hundreds of minutes later, but it's digital bloody fun for two hours.

TRANSCENDENCE (PG-13) A mature science fiction film about the dangers of technology from Dark Knight filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s personal cinematographer with a cast that includes Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman isn’t a surefire blockbuster. Depp stars as Dr. Will Caster, an expert in artificial intelligence, whose mind is uploaded into cyberspace after his death at the hands of anti-technology terrorists. Unfettered by the shackles of humanity, Caster is able to solve pretty much all of mankind’s problems in a couple of days/weeks/months/years; Transcendence has the same problems with time that plagued The Dark Knight Rises. In his directorial debut, Wally Pfister has shot a film every bit as beautiful as those he shot for Nolan. However, his film is hampered by a terminally slow first act that builds into a tremendously intriguing second act before climaxing in rather generic explosiveness. To be fair, were Transcendence a heady sci-fi novel, it would have read exactly the same: slow, sort of intellectually satisfying and useful for separating the cool geeks from the chaff. Mainstream audiences will find the film distant and coldly uncommunicative, exactly what will make it a future fave of neo-cyberpunks.

WORDS AND PICTURES (PG-13) Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche starring as teachers (one teaches art, the other writing) who are in love and in competition over whether words or images matter more? That idea sounds sublime. Director Fred Schepesi is best known for The Devil’s Playground, Roxanne and The Russia House; writer Gerald Di Pego is best known for Phenomenon (and its television sequel), Message in a Bottle and Instinct. Owen and Binoche are joined by Bruce Davison and Amy Brenneman.

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (PG-13) X-Men 5 borrows the title of one of several memorable events from the Chris Claremont/John Byrne run on Uncanny X-Men. In the filmed version (credited to a story at least cowritten by X-Men: First Class’ Matthew Vaughn), Wolverine (again played by Hugh Jackman) must travel to the past and convince a feuding Professor X (young: James McAvoy; old: Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (young: Michael Fassbender; old: Ian McKellan) to work together lest the mutant population be destroyed by Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and his Sentinels. The return of director Bryan Singer has definitely been dampened by recent legal allegations.