movie reviews June 2013

now you see meafter earthThe purgelove is all you needthe internshipbefore midnightHava Nagila: The moviethis is the endman of steelthe eastmuch ado about nothingthe kings of summerworld war zdirty warsthe heatwhite house down

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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White House Down
Reviewed b
y Mike Ireland

Yet another exercise in global catastrophe from Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, 2012), White House Down is either a great madcap comedy or a new cynical low for the modern summer blockbuster.

Emmerich essentially gives us “Die Hard in the White House,” replacing Bruce Willis' renegade cop John McClane with Channing Tatum's D.C. cop (and Secret Service reject) John Cale. Tatum even resurrects McClane's iconic white undershirt.

See if this set-up sounds familiar: divorced Cale happens to be in the White House for a Secret Service interview (implausibly, with estranged daughter in tow) and impromptu tour when a heavily armed, highly organized group of terrorists takes control of the building and holds its occupants hostage. Separated from his daughter, Cale becomes the fly-in-the-ointment to these terrorists that McClane was for Die Hard's Hans Gruber.

White House Down, however, aims to one-up its blockbuster predecessors. Cale isn't just saving his daughter and the other hostages; he's saving the President of the US of A. And these terrorists don't just employ automatic weapons and C-4 explosives, they make use of surface-to-air rockets and eventually threaten to launch ICBMs and Trident submarine missiles. Emmerich even nods to his own Independence Day by blowing up the White House again.

As the weapons get bigger, the action gets wilder and the tone turns positively wacky: Cale and the president gunning the presidential limo in circles around the White House lawn as the baddies give chase in black SUVs feels like Keystone Cops material.

Actually, these terrorists have more than a little silent movie villain in them. Despite all their badass posturing, time and again they are reduced to impotently cursing their luck and each other as they are foiled again by that pesky Cale. And while Jamie Foxx's President Sawyer is not an Obama caricature, he remains more the unlikely partner in a buddy-flick than an actual character.

Like a superhero's cape or mask, Cale's undershirt sets him apart from all the suits and uniforms that surround him, and Tatum plays the unlikely blue-collar hero with a convincing athleticism and unassuming directness. Stopping a beat before diving into more suicidal heroics, he groans to himself exactly what viewers are thinking: "This is stupid." This breath of reality is infectious. We don't just know he's going to prevail; we want him to.

Screenwriter James Vanderbilt  attempts update the familiar plot and characters with a veneer of current politics: a liberal president who is brokering Middle East peace by pulling out American troops, conservative politicians who oppose the plan, and a military-industrial complex that sees it and the president as a threat. All of which might be thought provoking if it weren't merely a rationale to get guns in everyone's hands and lead us to a (literally) flag-waving climax.

Although White House Down is virtually bloodless — most deaths remain anonymous and are long forgotten by the next assault — production designer Kirk M. Petruccelli’s detailed, convincing sets and the realistic demolition by effects men Volker Engel and Marc Weiger make it too grim for slapstick and too preposterous to be taken seriously. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 06/30/13)


The Heat
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

The opening title sequence of director Paul Feig’s latest comedy works a bait-and-switch. It promises a slick, feminized parody of the buddy cop movie. But Katie Dippold’s (MADtv, Parks and Recreation) formulaic script doggedly, non-ironically follows its tired plot to the end. Starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, The Heat trades in on the gender of its leads while failing to fulfill its promise.


In the last two decades, the movie industry has fully Meta metastasized. Scream opened the door to genre parody franchise Scary Movie, which led to the likes of epic and disaster movies and Not Another Teen Movie. As awful as those movies are, they proved that the movie-going audience possesses a basic knowledge of genre and expectation. By 2010 The Other Guys was taking on the buddy cop movie by killing off its action stars in the first five minutes and replacing them for comedic effect with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg playing desk jockeys who finally get their big case.

The Heat doesn’t include even a hint of this type of sleight of hand. Other than a fleeting reference to Foul Play, which results in a long-running gag with one of the characters but still seems to go nowhere, the story could have been pitched to the producers of either Lethal Weapon or 48 Hrs. This time, it just happens that women play the detectives.

To great success, Feig helped feminize the ensemble comedy — including an elaborately choreographed gross-out moment — with Bridesmaids. But it was Kristen Wiig’s screenplay that stole the show. It managed to combine comedy, even of a physical nature, with heart. This made the characters both relatable and real. That’s the element most missing from Dippold’s script.

The “Odd Couple” pairing of Bullock’s upright FBI agent with McCarthy’s slobby Boston cop sets them up as opposites, a supposed yin/yang when they’re working together. But their individual foibles are so exaggerated as to push both of them, but McCarthy’s Mullins in particular, out of the possibility of existence. Mullins’ family, harsh Southie stereotypes played by an underused cast led by Jane Curtin and Michael Rappaport, are a further embarrassment.

But the greatest shame of The Heat is that neither Bullock nor McCarthy needs this added baggage to be funny. When allowed a more natural interaction, the two exhibit a great chemistry. But in the context of the film, these moments are random. The funniest lines are delivered, usually by McCarthy, as off-the-cuff asides. Improvised non-sequiturs that managed to make their way in unnoticed but then couldn’t be removed for fear of taking out the best parts. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 06/30/13)


Dirty Wars
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Rick Rowley’s Dirty Wars is as engrossing as it is disturbing. This documentary about how our wars are being fought forces viewers to leave partisan allegiances behind and to examine what has been accomplished in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The “elsewhere” in this case is pretty much the rest of the world.
 
Rowley spends most of the film following Jeremy Scahill, the National Security Correspondent for The Nation. Throughout the film Scahill covers stories that reveal uncomfortable facts and interpretations on how the fight against al Qaeda has been going.

He also seems to be a lonely, misunderstood guy. During his narration (which he wrote with editor David Riker), Scahill sounds like a hardened detective in a film noir handling a case that could overwhelm him.
 
When he appears on Sunday talk shows, the pundits on them dismiss his observations even though his concerns come from firsthand observation. He’s actually visited the sites where commandos have raided or where Hellfire missiles have detonated.
 
Many of his detractors probably got their information from a DC briefing room. Because he’s become an expert on U.S. warfare in the last decade, he’s been asked to testify in Congress on his findings. Unfortunately, many of our elected representatives can’t be bothered to hear what he has to say about enterprises that have cost so many lives.
 
Dirty Wars follows Scahill as he tries to determine why a policeman and two pregnant women in Gardez, Afghanistan died in a raid or why the virulently anti-American cleric Anwar al Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in Yemen even though he was a U.S. citizen. Two weeks later another strike in Yemen killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, who unlike his dad wasn’t calling for acts of terror.
 
Scahill’s accounts of these incidents get more nuance and detail in his book Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield, but the film has a power of its own that simply reading the pages of Scahill’s stories, no matter how well written, can’t provide. Being able to see Awlaki’s father Nasser discussing his complicated relationship with his son is more moving than simply eyeing it on the page.
 
Surprisingly, the elder Awlaki is still a believer in the American dream. He’s suing to find why his son and grandson were targeted, but he wouldn’t be doing that if he didn’t believe the law was preferable to reflexive vengeance.
 
It’s also fascinating to watch Scahill as he simply goes through his routine. Rather than filling The Nation with a series of scoops, Scahill’s journalism consists of double checking accounts he’s encountered elsewhere. In one incident, he discovers that a hotly contested story in The Times of London was actually correct.
 
Simply getting all the facts together to prove or disprove a previous story is work in itself, especially in war zones. As Rowley reveals, Scahill’s job is not for the timid or the foolhardy. Bravery may get him some worthwhile stories, but caution has kept him alive.
 
Like the companion book, Dirty Wars the film asks viewers to examine why these attacks have happened and if they have really helped stop terrorism in its tracks. When Rowley and Scahill were finishing this movie, they wound up with a new ending as his reports suddenly became relevant to the confirmation process of CIA Director John O. Brennan, a targeted assassination proponent.
 
Concerns that Scahill rose months and even years before to empty hearing rooms now become urgent. Recent discussions of domestic drones have only made Scahill seem even more prescient. He’s even presenting his observations on The Tonight Show (http://www.nbc.com/the-tonight-show/video/jeremy-scahill-part-1/n37969/>. The lonely voice crying in the wilderness now has a pretty loud megaphone. (N/R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 06/30/13)
 
Haiku
Dirty Wars

Scahill’s reporting
hits like a drone strike to an
ammunition dump


World War Z
Reviewed b
y Mike Ireland

Having been revived and reinvented on the big and small screen for years now, can the zombie movie possibly offer anything new? Well, yes and no.

From the beginning, World War Z shows us what most zombie pics have settled for in merely implying that our entire earth has become overrun by the living dead. Early on, the streets of Philly are clogged in minutes by mobs of sprinting corpses, hurtling between cars, head butting through windshields, and turning their victims into fellow zombies in a matter of seconds. Later, scores of bodies blindly scramble over each other to scale a huge protective wall around Jerusalem. The effect is at once terrifying and mesmerizing, like watching a swarm of ants — relentless, overwhelming, inevitable.

Given a budget, George A. Romero probably would have relished giving viewers a peek at such a bleak world as set-up to his Day to the Dead or Land of the Dead. Against these hordes, what hope does humanity have?

Apparently, the only hope we need is … Brad Pitt. As Gerry Lane, former United Nations operative and current doting househusband coerced back into active duty to identify the source of the zombie virus, Pitt is affecting, even when (and this is most of the time) he has no idea what he's doing. Yearning for his wife (Mireille Enos, The Killing) and daughters who are being cared for on an aircraft carrier (the UN's end of the deal) and mourning the destruction he witnesses in each successive country he visits, Pitt's weary determination carries more weight than most recent superheroes.

And ultimately, for better and worse, that is what director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Quantum of Solace) has made from Max Brooks' expansive, “oral history” novel — a focused, linear action picture. The political and cultural commentary of the novel — and of many other zombie films — is jettisoned in favor of moving Gerry from city to city and from clue to clue. Individual human beings get little screen time and largely appear to offer exposition or initiate yet another trip. The lone character to stay with Lane for more than a scene or two is female Israeli soldier Segen (Daniella Kertesz), whose haunted stoicism goes a long way to grounding the global destruction in real human loss.

Which isn't to say that Forster doesn't manage a few surprises. For a zombie flick depicting hundreds, maybe thousands, of brutal deaths, World War Z is impressively free of blood and gore (a blockbuster’s gotta get that PG-13 to put kids in the seats) yet loses none of its undead threat.

And unlike most summer blockbusters, Forster doesn't end things with a bang. He lets loose with the big action showpieces right from the beginning, winding down to a tense, claustrophobic game of cat and mouse between Gerry and several dozen zombie researchers in a quiet, largely empty World Health Organization lab in Cardiff, Wales.

Whether or not that sounds like ending with a whimper depends on one's expectations. By film's end, Gerry hasn't saved the world, maybe just forestalled its end a bit. Then does that signal a calculated bid for a sequel? Probably. PG-13 Rating: 4 (Posted on 06/23/13)


The Kings of Summer
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

Funny or Die regulars director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writer Chris Galletta’s first feature film offers a slightly overdone but passionate overture to the coming-of-age story. Yet, a surprisingly expressive and dynamic performance by Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) shifts the focus of The Kings of Summer from the sons to the fathers and could, as a result, find favor with a more mature audience.


For a debut film, The Kings of Summer is ambitious, but it’s also artificially filmic. Vogt-Roberts owns up to wanting to combine the earnestness of early Amblin films (The Goonies, Back to the Future) with the lyrical pretension of Terrence Malick. And then for good measure, he also delves into his experience as the director of small screen sitcoms and comedic shorts. In early scenes, this combination is pleasantly unsettling, adding up to beautiful sequences that raise expectations that can’t possibly be fulfilled by the rest of the movie.

Sympathies are supposed to lie with troublemaker Joe (Nick Robinson), a mild teenage delinquent with a mother who recently died. To get out from under his exasperated dad (Offerman), Joe enlists lifelong best friend and reluctant accomplice Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and easygoing diminutive misfit Biaggio (Moises Arias) to help him build a patchwork house, put together piecemeal from materials found at construction sites and on the sidewalk on bulky item pickup day. The three 15-year olds, forging new strong bonds of friendship and interdependence, make their new home in an isolated wood close to both a clean running river and Boston Market.

It’s here that the film best explores the constructs of manhood and domestication. As silently suffering Patrick, Basso blazes on screen. Arias’ Biaggio, in the role of the fool, is both comedy relief and truth teller. But it’s also at this point that the boys’ story yields its force. In conflict over a girl, Joe and Patrick fall out, and because of this, Patrick gets less screen time, leaving Joe, empty, angry and acting as a too-obvious imitation of his father and his bitterness, to fill the space. Biaggio’s non-sequiturs, treated before as wisdom from an unusual source, become punch lines that make even less sense. There’s also an over-reliance on post-production tricks that gets repetitive to the point of absurdity.

Saving the film from a complete nosedive, Frank, played in Offerman’s usual gruff style but with some tenderness and doubt added to good measure, earns his moments. At the eventual reunion with Joe, one small gesture means everything. But particularly, side by side in a boat on a fishing trip, he and Patrick’s dad, played by Marc Evan Jackson, search for blame and question their own blame in the boys’ disappearance and instead of straight exposition offer a small, heartbreaking glimpse into fatherhood. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 06/23/13)


Much Ado About Nothing
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

On the 12-day break between shooting and postproduction for last summer’s superhero spectacle The Avengers, writer/director Joss Whedon invited some of the actors from his unofficial stock company to his Santa Monica, CA, house to film a black-and-white version of Much Ado About Nothing. Sparked by informal readings at the director’s house for brunch, the project passes for organic rather than pretentious. But many of Whedon’s artistic choices, including photography and production design, seem slapdash and even ill conceived.


By abridging William Shakespeare’s play by about a third, Whedon focuses on the “merry war” between Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alex Denisof), for whom he also creates a one-night stand as back-story. As the source of their enmity, this opener is too literal. It would have been better to have left their relationship ambiguous, so that a contemporary reading could wonder about Benedick’s strong protestations against women combined with Denisof’s portrayal of the character as somewhat of a sissy. Although the chemistry between Denisof’s Benedick and Acker’s Beatrice is present, he’s clearly overmatched when the verbal battles cease and she requires hyper masculinity of him.

In contrast, the budding romance between Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), seriously complicated by the villain Don John (Sean Maher), doesn’t set until Claudio’s vehement refusal of his bride-to-be. As Hero’s supposed cuckolded fiancé, Kranz plays Claudio as agitated to a rabid froth, and only just short of violent. But it’s here that the choice of black-and-white photography and the angles of some become confusing. Is this screwball comedy or noir? Plus, there’s one really good visual gag that misses the mark completely without being able to show the all-over pink of Whedon’s daughter’s bedroom.

Whedon has successfully cross-pollinated genre in other projects. And this play includes both a playful tone as well as a dark underside. The predecessor to Iago — Don John — coexists with bumbling Constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion), the original Keystone Cop.

But, despite all its lovely filtered light, the house for this house party is too small to contain all the revelers. Between the small rooms and the acrobatic photography, it’s claustrophobic. And the accommodations, especially for Don John, who arrives in zip-tie handcuffs, and his posse are baffling. If Hero’s father, Leonato (Clark Gregg), and friend Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) were big shots enough to employ Secret Service-type protection, wouldn’t the deceptions of Don John be more difficult to maneuver? (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 06/23/13)


The East
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

In The East, a small group of young people decides to punish corporate criminals because law enforcement officials haven’t taken the trouble to bring these crooks to justice. If the neglect the authorities have shown to these folks is contemptible, the film’s pursuit of fairness can be just as troubling.

Essentially, The East, a group like Anonymous, specializes in giving polluters a taste of their own medicine. When one tycoon's company pollutes the Gulf Coast, he finds that his stately mansion has been vandalized. They also send creepy YouTube videos warning that they can strike anywhere and anytime they please.

To find out what makes The East engage in eco-vigilantism of eco-terrorism, a young woman named Sarah (Brit Marling, who co-wrote the script with director Zal Batmanglij) starts hanging around with radicals hoping to find someone connected to a cell. Her work is so secret that even her husband has no idea what she's actually doing for a living. 

Sarah's boss (Patricia Clarkson) wants her to infiltrate the group in order obtain enough information to help the authorities make some arrests. She discovers that while The East, like The Weather Underground, are the disgruntled children of privilege, they want to more than get back at their parents. In many cases people are dying because pharmaceutical firms are selling faulty meds or polluters are benefitting from lax regulations.

Thankfully, Marling and Batmanglij have more on their minds than simply making a recruiting video for a violent, humorless version of the activist pranksters The Yes Men. It doesn't take long before their actions become as reprehensible as those of the people they target.

 

Because the ringleaders are played by Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page, the two are fascinating even if one never hopes to incur their wrath. Both have absent parents. One lost his in an accident; the other is estranged from hers. Sarah shares their sense of disconnectedness, and Skarsgård comes off as just charismatic enough to make viewers understand how subordinates can be recruited into his questionable schemes.

Batmanglij and Marling identify with these violent misfits without losing a sense of horror over what they've done or over what has provoked them. In some ways, the lean, modest production for The East keeps the film feeling tense. The shaky cam actually works here, and there's a sense of immediacy a more polished production would lack.

Marling is suitably enigmatic as a would-be snitch, and she's made a name for herself starring in and co-writing Another Earth, The East and Sound of My Voice (with Batmanglij), where she tells intriguing stories in which being isolated seems to be the norm. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 06/17/13)

Haiku
The East

Eco-terrorists
aren't the only bad guys found 
in this new movie.


Man of Steel
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Man of Steel will make you believe a man can fly, and tear up buildings and lift burning oil rigs and other feats of impossible strength. It can’t, however, make viewers care.

Despite featuring legions of talented people in front of and behind the camera, Man of Steel isn’t nearly as fun as it should be. While viewers get to see Superman demonstrate his powers repeatedly, it’s hard to get all that worked up about the mayhem he both causes and prevents.

As with Watchmen and 300, director Zack Snyder delivers two hours and 23 minutes of relentless spectacle and destruction. Curiously, he delivers few thrills despite having planets explode. It’s sort of like having the Death Star but no Darth Vader to occupy it. Nobody seems to be in charge here.

Christopher Nolan, who revived Batman, shares producer credit with his wife Emma Thomas and is listed as co-writing the storyline with his Batman Begins co-writer David S. Goyer. Some of Nolan’s motifs show up throughout Man of Steel but little of his ingenuity.

In the movies he’s directed himself, Nolan has managed to explore some fascinating ethical issues and occasionally come up with images that are genuinely breathtaking. Snyder can occasionally deliver the latter, but he desperately needs someone like Frank Miller or Alan Moore guiding the story (even if Moore refused to participate in the making of Watchmen or even take credit for writing the source material). Nolan’s movies can occasionally leave an audience cold, but his clever storytelling approaches prevent boredom.

Tedium sets in pretty quickly this time around.

The destruction of Krypton is a wearying slog despite the stern pronouncements of Superman’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe). Jor-El and his nemesis the fascistic General Zod (Michael Shannon) give long speeches about liberty and genocide without actually exploring what those ideas entail. As the verbosity progresses, one can’t help but get the feeling that the residents of Krypton deserved their destruction. The universe is much more pleasantly quiet now.

Whereas the death of Krypton and all its souls except for Superman (British actor Henry Cavill) and Zod’s crew is presented with lots of explosions and jabbering, Goyer and Snyder depict Supes’ upbringing in Smallville, Kansas as a series of flashbacks. Given the identity of Clark Kent by his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), the earth scenes actually begin with the adult Clark working a variety of odd jobs and keeping his extraterrestrial origins a secret.

Here, the film actually does something special. Being a kid with superpowers isn’t so super. Young Clark finds that having enhanced vision and hearing results in sensory overload if you can’t focus. Furthermore, using his gifts draws unwanted attention even if it does save lives.

Costner and Lane are suitably loving and parental, and they give these segments a poignancy that’s lacking in the rest of the film. Presenting Clark as a “Supergeek” makes him much more easy to identify with. Here the film seems most like one of Nolan’s movies, but without having sat in on the scripting, it’s not wise to give him credit for it.

Sadly, once Zod and his minions return to take over earth and generate a new Krypton, the movie isn’t nearly as entertaining. After he and Superman destroy the 15th consecutive building while fighting each other, the awe of seeing all the property being destroyed turns to monotony.

It also doesn’t help that Man of Steel recalls Superman II by featuring Zod, who has powers equal to Superman’s, conquering the world. Shannon is mean and scary looking, but he lacks the smug glee that Terence Stamp brought to the role. Stamp’s Zod was the ultimate bully, so there was a sense of anticipation for when Christopher Reeve would finally kick his butt.

In Man of Steel, you merely want Zod to shut up.

While Amy Adams is suitably feisty as intrepid reporter and Superman groupie Lois Lane, the rest of the talented cast has simply been told to look pained. That maybe because Goyer’s script has little humor and the little wit evident in the film is drained by Snyder’s faulty sense of timing.

I’ve now seen Iron Man III twice and would be happy to watch it again. Dramatically, a typical Iron Man movie features Robert Downey, Jr. exploring real world ethical issues in a thoughtful way. More importantly, his wisecracking, droll but committed Tony Stark is so much more engaging than the dull Clark Kent. The late Reeve gave him a klutzy, endearing quality that’s missing here.

Much has been made of the movie tie-in question, “How does Superman shave?” After all, his Kryptonian whiskers would repel mere metal blades. Nonetheless, a more pressing concern is, “How does Man of Steel keep viewers awake?” (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 06/17/13).

Haiku
Man of Steel

You’ll believe a man
can fly, but will you really
care when it happens?


This Is the End
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's meta apocalypse movie This Is the End counts on both an audience's affinity for and annoyance with the roster of Hollywood's young slackers. Any indifference toward the cast, which includes Rogen, James Franco, and Jonah Hill among others playing hyped-up versions of their already ridiculously exaggerated public personas, precludes a connection with the material, turning an A-lister-filled film into a lousy B-movie.

Judd Apatow protégé Seth Rogen and his frequent screenplay collaborator Even Goldberg (Pineapple Express, Superbad) make their directorial debut by expanding their 2007 nine-minute short, Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse, into a feature film. This is thin source material at best, diluted even further with inside jokes, unnecessary elaborate CGI, and smug self-references.


Two childhood friends played by two real-life childhood friends (Jay Baruchel and Rogen) try to reconnect when Jay visits Seth in Los Angeles. Reluctantly, Jay goes with Seth to the house warming of the uber-modern, meaning pretentious, new compound of double MFA candidate and actor James Franco, played, of course, by Franco. The guest list could double as the final credits of an Apatow movie. Paul Rudd, Martin Starr, Jason Segel, and Michael Cera make appearances as either their usual typecast characters or as the antithesis, especially in Cera's case. But while mentor Apatow now obsesses over middle age, still not allowing Rudd any self-awareness in last year's This Is 40, these self-obsessed, drug-addled revelers remain perpetually adolescent.

So when the Apocalypse begins, there is some satisfaction (and a trace of comedy) in watching many of these horrible characters come to bad ends. But not much.

Baruchel, Rogen, Franco, Hill, and Craig Robinson (The Office), also later joined by Danny McBride, are left to hole up in Franco's house where they spend the bulk of the time they think they have remaining taking more drugs and bickering. For an end-of-the-world buddy movie, friendship comes up very little, except during the over-climactic ending. Real friends sacrifice themselves to demons to gain a spotlight in the Rapture, but they don't share their last candy bar. The hint of a sly subtext is planted between saccharine sweet Hill and Baruchel, but it also comes to a cartoonish conclusion. They're selfish and static and not much fun to watch. Not even if these were the last men on earth. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 06/17/13)


Hava Nagila: The Movie
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Escaping from the song “Hava Nagila” is just about impossible. You may not know what the words mean or even how to pronounce them, but the tune has permanently etched its way into Western culture.

If you’ve even seen a Jewish wedding depicted on TV or in movies, the song is almost as much a prerequisite as “Here Comes the Bride” in Gentile weddings. The song is so omnipresent that it’s a safe bet it will be featured in the marriage receptions or frankly, any kind of party, for goys.

In fact, as the new documentary Hava Nagila: The Movie reveals, the best-selling recordings of the tune have been by such non-Jews as Harry Belafonte and Connie Francis. Both talk about performing the song in the film.

Despite the seeming simplicity of the melody, “Hava Nagila” has a complicated and fascinating history that has resulted in it being both loved and despised in often-equal measure.

Serious Klezmer musicians, who play Jewish folk music that originated in Eastern Europe, often hate the inescapable song the same way country bar bands resented “Achy Breaky Heart” back in the ‘90s. Everybody in the crowd requested it because it was the only song of its kind outsiders to the genre had ever heard. Music connoisseurs bristle as the opening notes of what they consider to be kitschy tunes. Bob Dylan obliterated the tune in one sarcastic blast.

There wouldn’t be much of a film if “Hava Nagila” were simply cheery and vapid. When it slowly emerged from Ukrainian synagogues in the 19th century, the song’s call to hope and joy was somewhat atypical. Many of the tunes that emerged from that time and place reflected the suffering Jews have endured over thousands of years. “Hava Nagila” boldly declares there’s something to celebrate.

The film also reveals that there’s a dispute over which composer can claim to be the first to set down the words and music. Two different men, who knew each other, have each declared that they wrote down the song for the first time in the early 20th century. Their families are still proudly standing by their ancestors’ claims decades later.

The film also reveals that the song has been surprisingly flexible, speaking to different generations in new ways. When Israel emerged as a nation in 1948, the song became emblematic. When American Jews started moving from cities to the suburbs in the 1950s, the song went with them. Satirist Allan Sherman’s “Harvey and Sheila,” a hilarious celebration and trashing of upward mobility, demonstrates this phenomenon.

The song has also been deathly serious. Jewish lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green teamed up with African-American singer Lena Horne with “Now!,” which turned “Hava Nagila” into a powerful civil rights anthem. In the documentary, Soviet-born American singer-writer Regina Spektor poignantly recalls how the song helped her and other Jews who suffered from Communist oppression had the song to help maintain their identities.

Throughout Hava Nagila: The Movie narrator Rusty Schwimmer, writer Sophie Spartain and director Rebecca Grossman maintain the giddy tone, even when some of the commenters they feature groan about the song. It’s just about the right approach for a ditty that makes goyim want to dance the hora. (N/R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 06/17/13)

Haiku

“Hava Nagila”
will make you dance and teach a
little history.


Before Midnight
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

The latest installment of director Richard Linklater’s “Before” series, which includes 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset, strives toward a middle-aged realism. But Before Midnight, co-written by Linklater and co-stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, reveals an arrested development by wallowing in broad and pretentious arguments rather than the details of a couple's life together.

Nine years after Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) met again in Paris, and 18 years after they debarked a train in Vienna, the two have finally spent more than one day together as a couple. In the paradise of a Greek island vacation (with barely a nod to their host country's financial and political dangers), Celine is licking the wounds of a failed environmental fight and Jesse is obsessing over the guilt he carries from leaving his son and wife to follow his heart nine years earlier.

Over three scenes consisting of the series' signature long, unbroken takes, Jesse and Celine come out swinging. Each with their own agendas, which don't seem to include the welfare of their gratuitous twin daughters, they argue. Celine continues to frame her complaints in the same dated spirit as the Venus and Mars book. Through a move to Europe, two more published novels and the birth of the twin daughters, Jesse hasn't gained any self-awareness. He's still building his philosophy of life around his feelings and nitpicking polyglot Celine's English.

What worked for a couple on their first meeting in their 20s doesn't work for one that's in their 40s and been together for a few years. Where the constant examination of every feeling seemed part of the important process of growing up in the first movie, here it's petty. They've had a soft landing, but refuse to acknowledge it, particularly Jesse, who is an irritating character beyond being merely flawed. That he can find an audience for an aggressive and relentless telling of a would-be novel is a self-indulgent feat that would make him an instant pariah in real life.

For this film, Linklater does make one departure. A lengthy dinner scene adds a refreshing perspective to the claustrophobic bickering between the two leads. Cinematographer and director Walter Lassally leads the way as Patrick, the generous host of the eclectic group of intellectuals staying at his Greek compound resort. The interplay of different points of view as the group discusses love and long-term commitment is a shining moment. But it also serves to illustrate just how outsmarted and indulged Hawke's Jesse has been in these movies all along. Makes you wonder what sort of self-esteem issues Celine is still working out. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 06/17/13)


The Internship
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

I don’t care that The Internship is a two-hour commercial for Google. Frankly, many of Google’s ads are better than the movies I’ve covered. Sorry, Bing, but the folks at Google have a much better sense of how to promote themselves and their services, and frankly, many of their products put Microsoft’s to shame. Their unannounced Google Doodles have celebrated the work of everyone from painter Mary Cassat to virtuoso singer Freddie Mercury. They also have great April Fool’s “services” like Gmail Motion and Google Nose.

As you can probably tell about my raving about Google’s ability to entertain, The Internship doesn’t quite measure up to what appears on a Google splash page.

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who starred in the much funnier Wedding Crashers, can still be pretty amusing, but director Shawn Levy (Date Night) loses focus early on and has trouble determining when to keep sequences of Vaughn and Wilson riffing on each other (like the first time they try to motivate 20-somethings by recalling Flashdance, which they’re too young to have seen) and when to cut them (try the second time they recall Flashdance).

The script by Vaughn and Jared Stern has some funny bits and some decent observations about how technology works best when it actually meets our human needs. It also has a great deal of dead weight.

At least it starts out funny.

Billy McMahon (Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Wilson) deliver a perfectly calibrated sales pitch only to discover the firm they’ve been peddling merchandise for during the last couple of decades has folded. Their boss (a sadly underutilized John Goodman) hasn’t even had the decency to tell them. They discover the bad news from their client.

As they quickly discover, sales jobs are hard to find. With so many transactions being done online, the interactions between Billy and Nick and their clients aren’t necessary when one can simply click an app on their phones.

When Billy tries his luck at a Google search, he discovers the Bay Area company also offers internships that could lead to decent gigs. The problem is that neither is terribly cyber savvy, and both are old enough to be the fathers of the other interns. Still, being an intern at Google is better than being unemployed.

Well, sometimes it is. Levy does have a knack for getting good work out of his cast. There are some great cameos from Will Farrell and from Overland Park’s Rob Riggle, and The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi is suitably intimidating as the tough to impress supervisor of the internship program.

Sadly, Vaughn and Stern’s script is predictable. If you’ve seen how Vaughn or Wilson has managed to get out of a mess in one of his previous movies, you can guess how either will solve the problem here.

If only the movie were as surprising and delightful as the last Google Doodle. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 06/09/13)

Haiku
The Internship

Google owns YouTube,
so they have more good scenes than
this long movie does.


Love Is All You Need
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

Oscar-winning filmmaker Susanne Bier collaborates once again with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (In a Better World, After the Wedding) for their first attempt at romantic comedy, but, unfortunately, the Danish duo sticks with their heavy-handed formula of contrived situations and characters that overreact or exist merely to drop emotional bombs.

A galumphing film about Danish people misbehaving at a wedding on the Amalfi Coast, Love Is All You Need is filled with overburdened scenes and stock characters with shallow single motives that are easy to predict and so all the more excruciating to watch play out.

The screenplay for Love Is All You Need is abnormally efficient. Each scene either contains a momentous discovery/revelation or leads up to one. But the stratum of issues in each storyline make explaining even the basic plot difficult, especially for a film that despite potential serious leanings keeps a white-knuckle grip firmly on the light side of comedy. The filmmakers are intent on forcing the wackiness, and the result is neither romantic nor comedic. It’s almost as if the film’s screenwriters were aliens sent to earth to learn about human behavior and instead spent their time watching a combination of movies and daytime soaps.

Ida (Trine Dyrholm), the bewigged Danish hair stylist who is the inspiration for the more appropriate Danish title Den skaldede frisør or The Bald Haidresser, has just finished her last round of chemo for breast cancer and is waiting to hear if she’s in remission when she catches boorish husband Leif (Kim Bodnia) in flagrante with his bookkeeper. But Ida, always the moon-faced optimist (played glowingly by Dyrholm, whose performance is the highlight of the film), won’t let the impending news of her health or her broken marriage, of which she is in deep denial, cast dark clouds over her daughter Astrid’s (Molly Blixt Egelind) upcoming wedding to boyfriend of a few months Patrick (Sebastian Jessen). A wedding, of course, to take place at a rundown but charming villa on a lemon orchard conveniently owned by Patrick’s widowed father Philip (Pierce Brosnan).

Despite the concentration of emotions expressed at the villa by the various ancillary characters — Patrick’s obvious confession to Astrid and an unfair turn as unrequited shrew for Paprika Steen as Benedikte, Philip’s sister-in-law — the budding boilerplate romance between Ida and Philip is at the center of the film. They have the audacity to literally run into each other at the airport, and from there the love/hate relationship is history. The bitter workaholic Philip finally appreciates Ida’s way of turning lemon into lemonade. And when “That's Amore” plays for the umpteenth time, it’s meant for them. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 06/09/13)


The Purge
Reviewed b
y Mike Ireland

Where is Jonathan Swift — or even Paul Verhoeven — when you need him?

Writer-director James DeMonaco presents a premise for The Purge that is perfect for cultural / political satire: a decade into the future, the American government allows its citizens one night (7 p.m. to 7 a.m.) a year to legally commit crimes, including murder. No cops on duty; no emergency services until the morning.

This annual catharsis theoretically "purges" citizens of the negative urges pent-up through the rest of the year. And the Purge is apparently working. According to the talking heads on TV screens in the film's opening scenes, unemployment and crime are at historic lows.

I know, it doesn't make sense. But neither does alleviating poverty by urging the poor to sell their children as food for the wealthy. Satire doesn't need to make sense. It just needs to push its premise so far that it can ruthlessly skewer its targets.

And DeMonaco clearly has social commentary in mind. As security-system salesman and representative 1%-er James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) goes about securing his family in their McMansion for Purge Night, TV commentators debate it's effect — conservatives citing the statistics, liberals noting that that it's the poor, the jobless, and the homeless who largely pay the ultimate price for this newfound American peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, guess who's making a killing selling all those high-priced security systems to his friends and neighbors in the gated community?

Who doesn't want to get a look at this perverse alternate America?

Unfortunately, the movie never gets out of the house. Once James locks in his wife (Lena Headey), pubescent daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane in a Catholic schoolgirl skirt that the camera never misses an opportunity to ogle), and introvert-genius son Charlie (Max Burkholder), the movie loses any edge it had and takes on more of a simple siege mentality.

Charlie disables the security system long enough to rescue a black man in an Army jacket who has been staggering wounded from circle drive to circle drive, begging for help. The gunshots in the background make it sound like he's for real, but James is suspicious.

He needn't be. Hot on the heels of the stranger come his pursuers — a gang of prep-school kids in creepy smiling masks, led by an unmasked Rhys Wakefield (and really, if murder is legal, who needs a mask?) who looks and acts like he stepped out of Michael Haneke's Funny Games. They want their quarry or they're going to take the whole house and everybody in it. 

They get in.

And the rest is really just a lot of stalking about a dark house. Any consideration of the politics or morality of violence, class, or race are quickly obscured by waving flashlights and shadowy figures wielding handguns, machine guns and machetes.

By 7 am, DeMonaco has deserted Swift for Serling, trotting out a Twilight Zone-style moralizing resolution that, even if predictable, is satisfying in the ferocity of its convictions. Something the rest of the film largely lacks. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 06/09/13)


After Earth
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

Under a seeming studio-marketing embargo, a subdued M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Last Airbender) directs After Earth. The Draconian post-apocalyptic sci-fi brainchild of triple-threat — story, actor, producer — Will Smith provides an elaborate and labored backdrop for Smith to show off a forced sobriety and to showcase his son Jaden's (2010's The Karate Kid) acting skills, now greatly thinned by adolescence's awkwardness.

After Earth doesn't play like a start-of-summer blockbuster. The screenplay, credited to Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli), includes dismal environmental and ecological messages, overt Biblical allusions and, at its center, a severely dysfunctional father-son relationship. But this interesting moodiness proves impotent against a drawn-out backstory, humorless performances, repetitive and literal flashbacks and flimsy resolutions, based on vapid platitudes and cornball set-ups.


A thousand years in the future, Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith), ironically having just failed a promotion to Ranger — think more militarized Eagle Scout — must traverse the wilds of an abandoned Earth, which has returned to a primordial state after humans made it uninhabitable. Kitai must find the signaling beacon from the tail of the spaceship that crashed on the uninhabited planet before his father, Cypher Raige (Will Smith), the leader of an elite military squad known for being fearless, bleeds to death from injuries sustained in the crash.

Hampering the mission are Kitai's flaws, incompetence and fear coupled with a juvenile's hubris. And in case those weren't challenge enough, Kitai must contend with engineered obstacles written into the script that impose dwindling limits on time and his physical ability. On just the first day, Kitai carelessly breaks discs that contain a liquid used to coat his lungs so that he can breathe in Earth's corrosive atmosphere. In addition, on board the crashed aircraft, there's an alien beast genetically modified to track humans by smelling their fear. The coiffed producers of The Hunger Games couldn't do any better at decreasing the odds.

All the while, Cypher is barking orders and clichés at the poor kid through a wireless connection on the sleeve of his “smart” bodysuit, which can detect when his body is in distress but does little to protect him or even keep him warm. There are multiple high-tech gadgets that present this paradox. This adds to the feeling that the entire adventure has been constructed for mere convenience.

As Cypher, Will Smith is so stubbornly sober that it verges on ridiculous. This could be a misguided attempt to be taken for a serious actor, but that speculation might be overkill. It could be something as simple as Shyamalan's literal direction for a character who controls his feelings. But it's unfortunate for a film that is in desperate need of the actor's natural charisma. Combined with Jaden Smith's uneven performance as Kitai, the father/son relationship exhibits a surprising total lack of onscreen chemistry. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 6/03/13)


Now You See Me
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

The makers of Now You See Me have been so intent on trying to surprise viewers with gotcha moments that they’ve forgotten the story they’re trying to tell in the first place. It’s like listening to someone telling a joke and getting lost in the details without ever reaching the punch line. That said, there are several delightful moments that almost make up for the fact that the story as a whole is a bust.

The film begins by introducing viewers to a quartet of talented but unknown illusionists who eventually become known as “The Four Horsemen.” One, J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), tweaks traditional card tricks into exciting, if unprofitable directions. Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is a hypnotist/mentalist who has no psychic powers but who can cold read a sucker with lightning speed and who uses extortion to make up for the considerable income he lost when his manager ran away with the money Merritt earned as a legitimate magician. Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, James’s little brother) uses spoon bending to relieve bystanders of their wallets, and Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) can pull off escapes that would make Houdini proud. It’s too bad there isn’t more of a market for female illusionists.

An unseen mentor has turned these four into the hottest attraction in Vegas. Their act is robbing financial institutions that have defrauded customers while remaining untouched by the law. People actually gather to watch them pull acts of sleight of hand that really do result in putting the cash back in the victims’ hands. Because the Four Horsemen (hey, isn’t one of them a girl?) are physically continents away from the site of the robbery, they have wonderful alibis. This is frustrating for skeptical FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol investigator Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent).

It’s also a bit frustrating for those who’ve paid tickets to the film. Much of the “magic” involves implausible looking CGIs and outright silliness. Had the trio of screenwriters involved with this project (Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt) and the director Louis Leterrier chosen to depict heists that could be executed through optical illusions that can be executed in camera instead of “in post,” the robberies would have seemed both more convincing and more fantastical. Yes, that’s a contradiction, but in camera effects would have been harder to detect if they were executed properly. Viewers wouldn’t be groaning if they couldn’t spot where an object was obviously placed during postproduction. Tricks aren’t that amazing if you can clearly make out how they’ve been done.

And for a group supposed to be a team — the Four Horsemen have little interaction or chemistry. Seeing how they prepare for a heist without revealing the mechanics would have been more entertaining than having Morgan Freeman, as a James Randi-like debunker describe their feats in minute detail. While Freeman’s voice is sort of magical, it seems like a waste to have it utilized on something that’s so mundane and undercooked.

Curiously, Now You See Me isn’t a complete loss. Watching Harrelson shaking down a sucker is delightful. As a Horseman, he’s the one who approaches the work with the most enthusiasm. Maybe the film might have been more enjoyable with two or three horsemen instead of a full quartet. Having seen Harrelson play off Eisenberg nicely in Zombieland, it’s a shame that Leterrier and the screenwriters never give them much of a chance to do so.

Speaking of missed opportunities, Michael Caine has an enjoyable, if all too brief, turn as a ruthless tycoon. When Freeman gets a chance to face off against someone like Caine instead of droning on about the components of magic tricks, the energy level of the film quickly picks up. Perhaps that’s a trick the folks behind Now You See Me can do more of next time. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 06/03/13)

Haiku
Now You See Me

There’s too much slight of
head and not enough sleight of
hand in this movie.

 




Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at kinginyellow@juno.com


 

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