movie reviews July 2013

20 Feet from stardomwe steal secrets: the story of wikileaksthe lone rangerstuck in lovegrown up 2Pacific rimRed 2the conjuringthe way, way backTurboA HijackingThe to do list the wolverine

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

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The Wolverine
Reviewed b
y Mike Ireland

The Wolverine, for much of its length, may be the best superhero film so far this year, largely because it avoids being a superhero film. Unlike most recent blockbusters, the world is never in jeopardy; human survival is not at stake. Instead, The Wolverine offers a more intimate character study of its moody, adamantium-clawed subject.

In another contradiction of blockbuster convention, the film’s big conflagration occurs, not at its climax, but in its opening scene. In a prologue, the A-bomb falls on Nagasaki, and Logan (the Wolverine), imprisoned in a nearby POW camp, protects one of his Japanese captors from the oncoming radiation blast.

More or less a sequel to X-Men: The Last Stand, the film then joins Logan (Hugh Jackman) in the present-day living a “Grizzly Man” existence in the wilds of Alaska, having sworn-off his superpowers. And for much of the movie, Logan is the only X-man, mutant or superhero on screen. That is, except for the spirit of his recently deceased colleague and lover Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who haunts his dreams and keeps him questioning his reason for living — a particularly sticky question since in addition to strength, retractable claws, and self-healing, Logan is also immortal.

Still, even as a hermit, Logan is drawn to trouble, and when the death of one of his Grizzly brethren brings him to town to take vengeance on some unethical hunters, the Wolverine reemerges. He is intercepted, however, by ruby-haired ninja nymphet Yukio (a charismatic Rila Fukushima), who whisks him away for a blast from his past. The Japanese soldier he saved all those years ago is now wealthy industrialist Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who, on his deathbed, wants to thank Logan — or so he claims. In fact, Yashida wants exactly what Logan has grown weary of, his immortality.

The script by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, based on an early-‘80s comic book story-arc by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, rips Logan out of the Alaskan wilderness and drops him into equally unfamiliar territory — 21st century Tokyo, where he finds himself enmeshed in the plotting and subterfuge of yakuza (Japanese gangsters), ninjas, politicians, even family members, all vying for control of the corporate empire Yashida has left behind.

Here, the film often feels like the 007 flick You Only Live Twice — and I mean that as a compliment. Guided by self-appointed “bodyguard” Yukio, Logan negotiates the unfamiliar culture, including a strict patriarchy, funereal protocol, and, in a lighter moment, a ceremonial bath. Throughout, Jackman, despite having already portrayed the Wolverine more times than Connery was James Bond, still plays it straight, convincingly balancing his character's angst and anger in a dry delivery that often channels Clint Eastwood.

For his part, director James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) may not lend a lot of personal style to the proceedings, but when he goes for blockbuster thrills, he usually scores: Logan’s fight with a ninja atop a speeding bullet train is as awe-inspiring an action sequence as you’ll see this year.

Unfortunately, when the movie stumbles, it does so dramatically. Logan’s romance with Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) never really sparks. Mutant femme fatale Viper (Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova) comes off more campy than threatening — and in green spandex, more than a little reminiscent of Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy in 1997’s Batman & Robin. And Logan's climactic battle with Marvel's iconic Silver Samurai falls flat, reducing them to just another blockbuster superhero duking it out with yet another giant robot.

This Wolverine is at its best when it gets a chance to dig into real flesh and blood. PG-13 Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 07/30/13)


The To Do List
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

There isn’t much subtlety in writer/director Maggie Carey's debut feature The To Do List. Its gross-out comedy and blunt moral message are awkward and unfulfilling. But the film’s commitment to burlesque reveals something smart and possibly even subversive.

For those behind the times, Carey’s forthright and even forceful depiction of young women talking about and even acting on sexual impulses may come as a shock. But The To Do List is in good company, following that groundbreaking conversation between Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids (you know the one) and every script ever written in Lena Dunham’s short but influential career. Still, it’s frustrating that switching genders in a mere teen summer sex movie is so rare that it remains the topic of conversation. Perhaps the lingering discomfort with women talking about sex is that it reconfirms every man’s worst fear; so often they’re discussing unsatisfying, and even downright bad, sex.


Carey’s work on The To Do List might seem derivative. She’s a self-professed fan of John Hughes’ work with Molly Ringwald. And for this film, she’s taken the object of John Cusack’s affection from 1989’s Say Anything and put her in the lead. Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) possesses many of the same qualities as Diane Court — book smart, self-possessed, controlling. But unlike Diane, she doesn’t get to finish her valedictory speech. Created without any hint of an interior life or redeeming qualities, Brandy — and all the other characters in the film — are exaggerated placeholders for the ideas their characters embody.

A generous interpretation of the film assumes Carey is making artistic choices instead of mistakes. Casting Plaza, 29, as a recent high school grad and then panning to a poster of the grown-up cast of the original teen drama “90210” requires an audience capable of both paying attention and making a leap. Set in the early 1990s, the film doesn’t quite take place there. Instead it relies on scripted references, songs, fashions and branded signifiers, such as Snackwell’s cookies, Trapper Keeper notebooks and hyper-color T-shirts, to indicate time.

Forcing meaning onto characters and story instead of having it develop from the inside isn’t the easiest way to connect with an audience.  In the disguise of lowbrow comedy, Carey has crafted, perhaps even unwittingly, a postmodern feminist statement. But the entertainment portion, particularly the overwrought punch lines, make it seems as if in that part of the movie she was just checking off items from a list. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 07/30/13)


A Hijacking
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

The new Danish film A Hijacking is nerve-wracking, not because it offers jolting plot twists or jaw-dropping action. Instead, writer-director Tobias Lindholm cranks up the chills by making this hostage drama seem as real as possible. At the same time, there’s a nagging sense throughout A Hijacking that the worst can and will happen.

The early portions of the movie features a motley looking cook named Mikkel Hartmann (Pilou Asbæk) having a mundane conversation with his wife on the phone. Everything around him looks lived in and worn. Mikkel and the other six members of his crew all look as if they haven’t changed their clothes in a while. Much of their job appears to be sailing down the Indian Ocean without becoming paralyzed by boredom.

As Mikkel prepares meals for the rest of the crew, the CEO who owns the vessel, Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) is negotiating a deal with Japanese clients who want a lot more than he’s willing to pay. Peter seems like a cold, ruthless negotiator, and his activities seem just as routine as Mikkel’s.

That’s until a group of Somali pirates capture the ship. The captain (Keith Pearson) falls sick, leaving Mikkel to negotiate with the privateers. His task is complicated by the fact that only one of the Somalis, a fellow named Omar (Abdihakin Asgar) speaks any European language.

Furthermore, while Omar does all the talking for the pirates, it’s hard to tell if he’s running the operation or if he’s simply a mouthpiece. Not knowing who is actually running the show makes the situation all the more tense. Exacerbating the crisis is the fact that the only thing valuable on the ship is the well -being of the crew.

Back in Copenhagen, Peter discovers that pirates don’t do business the way he’s used to. Because of his position, he feels that he must personally handle the phone conversations with Omar, but he’s never had to haggle for the lives of others. He’s got a hard-nosed piracy expert (Gary Skjoldmose Porter) advising him, but Peter’s decisions are his own. As the crisis drags out, the once immaculately dressed Peter begins to look as haggard as his employees on the ship.

Much of what makes A Hijacking so intense is that Peter can be both heroic and foolhardy at the same moment. While it’s commendable that he’s attempting some type of accountability to the crew and their terrified families, the hostage situation is something that he probably didn’t study in business school. One wonders if he might have done better to delegate someone more qualified so that he could stick with the boardroom dramas he’s better suited to.

Lindholm captures the action as if he’s just stumbled on to the scene or if he’s trying to catch up with what has just happened. As a result, he builds suspense out a situation that takes place over months.

By retaining the language barriers, with Omar and the Danes communicating in their own versions of English, Lindholm creates another fascinating obstacle because one wrong word could result in tragedy.

The actors don’t seem to be performing. They look as if they’ve been holed up for days, so it’s easier to believe an obvious or amicable solution isn’t coming any time soon. A Hijacking ends on a memorable note because Lindholm knows how to manipulate viewers without ever giving them the feeling that he is doing it. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 07/21/13)

Haiku
A Hijacking

It only takes one
gunshot to make this movie
unforgettable.


Turbo
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Turbo, the newest DreamWorks Animation entry, might have been more fun if the title character ran his races through wasn't so worn. The new film seems to have been pitched as if it were “Cars meets snails.” It's too bad Cars itself could have used some more narrative horsepower. There isn’t much in Turbo that hasn’t been done elsewhere and better.

Turbo (Ryan Reynolds) is a garden snail who longs to be more than a simple drone harvesting and occasionally dodging hanging tomatoes.

To be fair to Turbo, routine doesn't make him any safer. All the snails except for Turbo live in denial about how random crows are thinning their numbers on a daily basis.

His real name is Theo, but he calls himself “Turbo” because he'd rather be racing, even though his mollusk physique won't give him any real speed. No matter how many times he watches old VHS tapes of races or puts racing decals on his shell, he’s unlikely to ever make a qualifying time.

He idolizes the Canadian Formula One driver Guy Gagné (Bill Hader, with an amusingly over-the-top Quebecois accent) and wanders through the yard trying to dodge obstacles like lawn mowers, which can outrun him. Naturally, his brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) is nervous about Turbo's obsession.

Turbo's dream comes true when he falls into the engine of a racecar, absorbing a massive amount of nitrous oxide. As a result, he now moves at speeds that rival Indy cars. He also gets a new owner named Tito (Michael Peña) who wants to use Turbo's speed to promote his brother Angelo's (Luis Guzmán) tacos. Too bad for Angleo, Tito swiped some of his brother’s savings to promote his speedy pet. Now the little snail has to win some big cash.

It doesn't take much imagination to guess that Turbo will eventually face off against Guy on Memorial Day in Indianapolis, and that's part of the problem. Despite the fact that former The Onion editor Robert Siegel, who also wrote the terrific films The Wrestler and Big Fan, is credited with co-writing the screenplay, the wit and surprises comes sporadically.

To the credit of the screenwriters, some of Tito’s hair-brained marketing techniques like the unfortunate idea of combining monkeys and tacos, sound like the kind of thing Siegel might come up with on a good day.

It doesn't help that the final race is monotonous. All of the noise and 3D visuals do nothing to give the story any kind of momentum.

There are some famous voices like Samuel L. Jackson's, but few except for Giamatti and the Snakes on a Plane star leave much of an impression. Michelle Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Maya Rudolph and others all have roles in Turbo, but you'd never guess who played what. Snoop Dogg gets to do a little rapping, but he’s barely in the film long enough to do it much good.

In the end Turbo would seem sluggish even if it involved thoroughbred horses. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 07/21/13)

Haiku
Turbo

Nitro-enhanced slugs
aren't much more fun than the ones
crawling in gardens


The Way, Way Back
Reviewed b
y Beck Ireland

There are few worlds as artificial and all consuming as the amusement park.  This is especially true of the local amusement park in the ‘70s and ‘80s where Gen X teens, over their heads in the backwash of sexual liberation and the drug culture of the previous generation, flocked to test boundaries and experiment with identity. There are very few of this generation who didn’t come of age or at least have a significant learning experience at one of these places.

Rebecca Curtis captured this well in her short story “The Alpine Slide,” published in The New Yorker in 2004.  In 2009’s Adventureland, writer/director Greg Mottola approached it but took the drama in a different direction.


In their directorial debut The Way, Way Back, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash heed the siren song of the amusement park. In their original screenplay, the Oscar-winning writers of the adapted screenplay for 2011's The Descendants infuse a modern setting with this distinct Gen X nostalgia. At times, this creates an uneven tone, particularly when references are made to songs or movies released before the lead character was born. But this disconnection between time and place is only a slight glitch in this sharp yet wistful character-driven comedy.

As 14-year-old Duncan, Liam James is the latest incarnation of hapless adolescent male played by the likes of Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland) and perfected by Michael Cera (Arrested Development, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). However, James’ Duncan boasts important differences. He’s actually an adolescent. And he’s refreshingly unembarrassed of his self-consciousness. In fact, James plays Duncan as too uncool to even be aware of his own uncoolness.

This earnest innocent with terrible posture finds a needed escape from his mother’s (Toni Collette) jerky boyfriend (Steve Carell) at a water park run by underachieving Owen (Sam Rockwell). Boy-man Owen, a constant disappointment to his girlfriend played straight by Maya Rudolph, isn’t quite a father figure. He’s more like a cool “uncle” in the tradition of Bill Murray’s camp counselor Tripper from Meatballs or Chevy Chase’s golf savant in Caddyshack. He too eventually gets to be dynamic.

Rockwell’s bits, lost on Duncan, are delivered manically. His first scenes seem forced, but as Rockwell interacts with the rest of the cast, including both Faxon and Rash in supporting roles, he exhibits an attractive energy that could pass for charisma. But the best lines of the movie come from Allison Janney as the leathery, drunken divorcee next door who exhibits a pathetic aplomb. She gets to deliver gems like, “They called me a See You Next Tuesday to my face!”

Thankfully, the film skips over any hint of Jerry Sandusky-type grooming. Although it wouldn’t be a surprise in the least if Duncan eventually fesses up to a crush when he comes out in college. The pseudo crush on the girl next door played by Anna Sophia Robb isn’t fooling anybody. Perhaps in the sequel. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 07/21/13)


The Conjuring
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

The characters in The Conjuring do all the stupid things we’ve seen people do in horror movies before. They open doors that shouldn’t be opened and sometimes move into locations where they do nothing but become prey for the supernatural menace du jour.

Curiously, The Conjuring still manages to earn its chills because director James Wan (the original Saw) has a remarkable sense of timing and atmosphere. In addition screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey Hays understand that no fright film can possibly work if characters being tormented aren’t sympathetic.

Supposedly, the film is based on a true story. Ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are real people (Ed died in 2006), and both have written extensively about their investigations. Jay Anson’s book The Amityville Horror documents the most famous case they pursued.

Because I was not around in the early ‘70s to witness the events depicted in The Conjuring, I will simply say that they make for a remarkably effective supernatural thriller. Even when the character do something dumb, we still hope that the Warrens can diagnose and remove the spirits that are plaguing a terrified New England family.

Roger Perron and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) instantly regret buying a somewhat stately looking fixer upper. Creepy things happen from the moment they set foot in the place with their five daughters. Carolyn wakes up with a series of mysterious bruises. One daughter sleepwalks, and another talks to an invisible friend. Crows fly suicidally into house, and there are secret passages that would befuddle most architects.

Whereas most of us might move out or give a realtor a piece of our minds, the Perrons have no choice but to endure the supernatural torment. Roger’s truck driving job barely pays to keep his large family fed; so long stays in a hotel are out.

Desperate to end the infestation, Carolyn catches one of Lorraine’s lectures on Roman Catholicism and the supernatural, and begs the clairvoyant for help. Despite a busy schedule, she and Ed agree.

The two make a solid housecleaning and investigating team. Carolyn is a psychic and Ed is a former cop with a lot of recording and filming equipment. They also have friends and the Vatican who can do exorcisms, if necessary. As played by Wilson and Farmiga, they come of as smart, caring professions who have seen pretty much everything the devil can dish out without losing their compassion. In the hands of lesser performers, these characters would have been stock roles, but Wilson and Farmiga find a depth to the Warrens that make them engrossing to watch.

Nonetheless, this assignment is challenging because Carolyn had a breakdown after their last big mission and insists on helping Ed. Thanks to Farmiga’s wide range, it’s hard to tell if she’s being courageous or foolish.

Taylor is also terrific as a mom who’s overwhelmed by keeping her family safe from demons. This role could have simply been that of a hapless victim, but Taylor infuses Carolyn with enough spine that it’s hard not to empathize with her misfortunes.

Despite the “R” rating, The Conjuring is remarkably free of gore. Wan and cinematographer John R. Leonetti can do more with shadows than most filmmakers can do with oceans of fake blood and prosthetics. The special effects are first-rate, but Wan and the screenwriters know that all the eye candy in the world isn’t as nourishing as believable human souls.

Even if, like me, you roll your eyes when people claim to have psychic gifts, The Conjuring proves that opening the wrong door is something even smart people do on occasion. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 07/21/13)

Haiku
The Conjuring

Wan will make you think
ghosts are real without showing
some vital organs.


Red 2
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

The original Red was a pleasant surprise, and much of its appeal was due to the fact that there was something novel about an action movie where the long-in-tooth heroes had only experience to protect them from younger, better equipped professionals. Furthermore, Bruce Willis’ reserve was an ideal counterpoint to John Malkovich’s angry hysteria. The two didn’t seem like a natural pairing, but both are back for Red 2 and prove that the joy of the first movie wasn’t a fluke.

If only they got a chance to prove it more often.

Red 2 features the “Retired: Extremely Dangerous” spies getting into even more frequent and intense bouts of danger. Director Dean Parisot, whose work up till now has consisted of movies like Galaxy Quest and the remake of Fun with Dick and Jane, actually stages the car chases, explosions and gunplay with a remarkable amount of finesse.

It’s too bad the storyline that pieces all of these larger-than-life action scenes is so convoluted. While Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) wants to settle down with his younger girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), his career in black ops didn’t end when he cashed his last paycheck. In addition, he gets frequent and annoying visits from fellow retired agent Marvin (John Malkovich). When Marvin isn’t spouting off paranoid ravings, he’s offering marital advice to Frank.

Apparently, Marvin, who has never settled down in his long life, knows more about dealing with women than Frank does. It also doesn’t help that Frank misses the adrenaline the old job used to generate and that Sarah, too, likes to live dangerously.

Naturally before the three can mope any longer, they discover that a dangerous hidden nuclear program (is there any other kind?) with which Frank and Marvin were only tangentially involved 30 years before, has people throughout the CIA and other intelligence agencies trying to kill them. One of their would-be assassins is Victoria (Helen Mirren), who spent the last film helping them out.

If Victoria’s elegantly lethal assaults weren’t enough to be afraid of, Frank, Sarah and Marvin have to worry about a Russian agent named Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who had a fling with Frank before he met Sarah and a Korean hit man named Han Cho-Bai (Byung-hun Lee). There’s even an active agent (Neal McDonough), who seems to like torturing people a little too much.

That’s a lot of bad guys to keep track of, and Red 2 still has even more. The designer of the nuke is still alive after all this time but is so deranged that he could be as dangerous as the weapon itself. Naturally, he’s played by Anthony Hopkins.

Screenwriters Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, who adapted both films from Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer’s comic book, come up with lots of excuses for property destruction and bloodletting. The gunplay in this installment seems disturbing because there’s no regard for collateral damage. Both our heroes and the villains don’t seem to mind if innocent bystanders become cannon fodder. As a result, it becomes a little difficult to root for those aging operatives.

If Parisot and company were aiming for a The Hurt Locker kind of realism, that take no  prisoners kind of approach might have been effective. It’s hard to juggle that sort of ruthlessness with a long string of incidents where the laws of physics are casually disregarded and where nukes can go off with only minor devastation.

Nonetheless, it is fun to watch Hopkins and Malkovich competing with all the exploding scenery. Hopkins doesn’t seem to mind parodying his Oscar-winning turn in The Silence of the Lambs, and so it’s occasionally easy to tolerate the fact that no one involved with the possible exception of Parisot is doing anything he or she hasn’t done before. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 07/21/13)

Haiku
Red 2

Plot exists in Red
2 so that many things can
explode in the film.


Pacific Rim
Reviewed b
y Mike Ireland

Like the epic battles it portrays between heroic military robots and monstrous sea creatures, much of Pacific Rim feels like a struggle between the expansive imagination of director Guillermo del Toro and the gargantuan demands of the modern blockbuster. Sadly, in this case, the blockbuster prevails.

His previous films (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy) succeeded through del Toro’s ability to bring to the screen an idiosyncratic vision of the fantastic and the supernatural, often with mythic and psychological overtones. Grafted onto what is essentially “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot,” however, these images feel less like a personal vision and more like production design.

In a script co-written by del Toro and Travis Beacham (the Clash of the Titans remake), 2020 Earth is under attack by bizarre creatures from a dimensional portal at the bottom of the ocean. Called “Kaiju,” they resemble the enormous critters that lumber over cityscapes in Godzilla, Mothra, and Megalon flicks--in fact, I‘d swear the attacker nicknamed “Knife-head“ is a literal recreation of one of those Toho Studios creations.

After the failure of conventional warfare and the destruction of major cities around the world, global powers pool resources and technology to create “Jaegers“ — skyscraper-sized robots so large they can only be operated by two pilots working in tandem, their brains linked by neural hardware known as “the drift.” Sound complicated? The movie requires a lengthy prologue with voice-over to deliver all this exposition.

We pick up the story as Earth is taking a last stand against the Kaiju by gathering the handful of remaining Jaegers (more of the prologue explains all this) at a base in Hong Kong.

With a budget of $180 million, Pacific Rim looks great, and it’s hard not get caught up in the early battles between robots and monsters. This is definitely not your grandfather’s Godzilla (or your mom’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers). No men in suits, these things move with weight and gravity although the action gets lost amid waves, rain and shadows.

Between battles, though, far too many elements feel overly familiar: the rebel pilot dragged back into service; his rivalry with a cocky champion pilot; a shy female who turns out to be a formidable fighter; the moth-balled prototype robot that shows-up the new, slicker models. Even the secrets the characters carry, if not predictable, are telegraphed long before they are revealed.

This leaves the flesh-and-blood actors with little to do except walk through their paces. Sons of Anarchy's charismatic Charlie Hunnam as robot jock Raleigh Becket is reduced to smirks and sneers, and the formidable Idris Elba (BBC's Luther and Stringer Bell in HBO's The Wire), while certainly commanding as project leader Gen. Stacker Pentecost, mostly barks orders and gives speeches.

The movie’s best moments occur when it escapes the confines of the Jaeger base and takes us somewhere we haven’t been before. When scientist and "Kaiju groupie" Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) decides to "drift" a Kaiju brain, he infiltrates Hong Kong's black-market Kaiju-parts ring, run by Hannibal Chau, portrayed by del Toro regular Ron Perlman as part gangster-part garish used car salesman.

Genuinely vibrant moments like these suggest that somewhere along the way, del Toro was swallowed by a leviathan of his own making. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 07/14/13)


Grown Ups 2
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Not that long ago (well, sometime in the 1990s), Adam Sandler made free audiovisual downloads for his fans to enjoy. It’s too bad he seems to be making his movies more for the benefit of his cronies than for the people who actually buy tickets. Throughout the cast and crew, one will find actors and non-actors who regularly appear in Sandler’s movies and a few who probably don’t get much work outside them.
 
It’s hard to think of a star whose work reflects more contempt for his audience than Sandler.
 
It his last few starring vehicles, particularly the unwatchable That’s My Boy, Sandler and his cohorts settle for the bare minimum of wit that can be stretched to 90 minutes.

When Grown Ups 2 opens with a series of sight gags involving a deer invading the home of Lenny Feder (Sandler), the actor-producer (who wrote the script with Fred Wolf and Tim Herlihy) figures having the buck urinating on Lenny and his possessions is so funny that the gag is repeated 30 seconds later.

Back when my younger nephew was six, he believed that any joke he told seemed to improve if poo-poo and pee-pee (his favorite words) were involved.
 
Perhaps Sandler could hire him, although I’m afraid as a teenager, my nephew’s wit is now too sophisticated for the comic.
 
On second thought, Sandler’s pallet has expanded beyond those bodily emissions and now includes snot, saliva, blood, semen and vomit. One wonders if Sandler’s longtime director Dennis Dugan was sitting with a bingo card waiting for each liquid to appear. Flatulence could be used to fill the center square. It’s almost a shame that pus and menstrual fluids are missing from Grown Ups 2.
 
Perhaps Sandler and Dugan are saving those for the third installment.
 
Considering all the gross things that a human body can do, there is potential for some guilt inducing delight, but viewers need to have some sort of emotional investment in the characters. As Luke Wilson said in Idiocracy, “People wrote books and movies, movies that had stories, so you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting, and I believe that time can come again!”
 
Without knowing whose butt is in front of the camera (one gets to see legions of them in Grown Ups 2), there isn’t much joy or humor to be had.
 
There’s nobody to care about here, unless you are an investor or employee in Sandler’s Happy Madison productions.
 
Sandler has teamed up with most of the rest of the cast Grown Ups (Rob Schneider was, for his sake and ours, thankfully absent this time), and none has a character that’s remotely memorable or plays the performer’s strengths. Eric Lamonsoff (Kevin James) owns an auto repair shop, Kurt McKenzie (Chris Rock) installs cable and Marcus Higgins (David Spade) has to contend with an illegitimate son (Alexander Ludwig).
 
Maya Rudolph, Salma Hayek, Maria Bello and Steve Buscemi all pick up pocket money but don’t really have anything interesting to do. Sandler and Dugan probably figure that viewers would prefer to watch Sandler protégé Nick Swardson take a dump in a sample toilet at a K-mart. Getting enough product placement seems more important that setting up a decent plot.
 
Lots of Sandler’s old pals from Saturday Night Live earn quick paychecks but none do anything more than embarrass themselves in a series of mean-spirited gags that would be upsetting if viewers had any concern for the roles they were playing.
 
Should Sandler get to make Grown Ups 3 perhaps he might discover a new fluid lurking in the characters’ bodies. It’s guaranteed to be funnier than anything on screen in the current chapter. (PG-13) Rating: 0 (Posted on 07/14/13
 
Haiku
Grown Ups 2

Justin Bieber pees
in a pail. It’s funnier
than Grown Ups 2 is.


Stuck in Love
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Screenwriter-director Josh Boone clearly loves all things literary, but his first movie, Stuck in Love, demonstrates that he has insights into adult emotions and that he can make a movie about writers that doesn’t look or sound like a freshman term paper.

That’s a formidable achievement when two of the characters are literature students. Like their father William Borgens (Greg Kinnear), Samantha Borgens (Lily Collins) and Rusty Borgens (Nat Wolff) are proof that a family of smart people can make dim-witted decisions.

In Bill’s case, he still pines for his ex-wife Erica (Jennifer Connelly), even though she’s now married to a fitness instructor. That doesn’t stop Bill from snooping outside the couple’s house and staring into their windows hoping for signs the new union is fleeting.

Bill and Erica’s children, however, can’t get their father to move on. That might be because they, too, have a few romantic hang ups. Samantha has her first novel coming out, but, unlike her characters, she has no desire to find a mate. Having seen her parents turn marital vows into idle words, she heartily resists the encroachment of a likable fellow named Lou (Logan Lerman), who genuinely seems smitten with her.

Meanwhile, Rusty is having a whirlwind relationship with Kate (Liana Liberato), a young woman who seemed out of his league. She even dumps a popular jock (Patrick Schwarzenegger), in part because she’s moved by one of Rusty’s poems. Despite his seeming good fortune, she has issues that Rusty’s affection can’t overcome.

Boone’s plotline is easy to figure out, but his dialogue is sharp, and he knows how to get the most out of his performers. In lesser hands, Kinnear’s Bill would be a pathetic character, but both the actor and the director manage to make Bill’s faith in regaining Erica’s love seem like that of a prophet instead of a fool.

In addition, Connelly looks like she really could be Collins’ mother, which makes it a lot easier to believe her in the role. The fact that she can play a conflicted character so effortlessly doesn’t hurt, either.

Liberato, who’s still in her teens, manages a demanding character without seeming to break a sweat. Kate has a lot of baggage, and Liberato makes all of it convincing.

While Kristen Bell is good as Bill’s married neighbor who drops by for casual trysts (she’s taken it upon herself to cure him of his obsession with Erica), the attraction seems vague, and it’s hard to tell what would draw a fitness enthusiast like her to a smoker like Bill. Bell’s perkiness almost hides that there isn’t much to her scenes with Kinnear.

Nonetheless, when Boone is focused, the results can be delightful.

Even though there are long passages of nicely written banter, Boone also stages some wordless sequences that demonstrate he can do more than churn out bon mots at will. Watching Kinnear wrestle with what he should do with a house key is certainly more engaging than hearing him debate about it might have been.

If Stuck in Love indicates that Boone still has a few things to learn, it’s also a sign that he may have far more to offer in the future. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 07/08/13)

Haiku
Stuck in Love

Just because writers
are good with words doesn’t mean
they are good with love.


The Lone Ranger
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Oh, Kemosabe. I would hate to be a Disney stockholder right now.

The Lone Ranger is an updating of the old TV and radio series that nobody has been particularly begging for except maybe for Johnny Depp. As the masked man’s partner Tonto, the actor who’s never met a quirk he didn’t like gets a chance to explore his own Native American roots (the Kentucky native has Crow and Creek ancestry) and to embrace the weirdness that has become Depp’s own trademark.

Sadly, there’s a difference between letting one’s freak flag fly and doing things for the sake of being silly. The Lone Ranger is loaded with a lot of the latter antics without having a story to support the goofy events that follow. The script credited to Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio is loaded with “Hey, why don’t we do this?” moments that seem disconnected from the tale as a whole.

There’s also the same sort of garbled mythology and supernatural happenings that ran through the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In a few rare moments, these quirks actually help. Now, we know why the Lone Ranger survives falls and deadly encounters that would kill anyone else. For the most part, these sequences seem to be around simply to justify a bloated special effects budget and to prove that even quirks can become clichés.

While director Gore Verbinski, who helmed the first three Pirates of the Caribbean  movies and the Oscar-winning Rango, manages some jaw-dropping stunt sequences, he and his Tonto could have benefitted from some restraint.

At times, the gritty but overblown landscape takes the fun out of the thrills because there really isn’t any sense of danger or urgency, even with the William Tell Overture playing in the background. At times, the Lone Ranger and Tonto wind up in predicaments that only the most outrageous of twists of fate can remedy. As the effects kick in, it gets too easy to see dollar signs instead of the story.

There’s also a remarkably high body count for a PG-13 movie. While we don’t see a lot of stabbing or shooting up close, the bloodletting seems a little high for a film aimed at the children’s market, and the offbeat humor can be off-putting for adults.

An unnecessary framing device doesn’t help. A young boy discovers an aging Comanche warrior (Depp) behind the glass at a museum. Buried under a mountain of wrinkles, the man relates the story of the Lone Ranger, which would have just worked just fine without making viewers wonder how much time and money had been spent making Depp look 100 years old.

The story movies, or should I say limps, to 1870’s Texas where an idealistic district attorney named John Reid (Armie Hammer) arrives by train to help his Texas Ranger brother Dan (James Badge Dale) bring the law to the Wild West.

Naturally, the West isn’t ready to be tamed. When the fearsome outlaw Butch Cavendish (the eternally creepy William Fichtner) escapes the hangman and starts terrorizing the locals, Dan and John hook up with a posse to try to apprehend Cavendish. The party is quickly ambushed by Cavendish’s henchmen, and only John survives. Tonto rescues him and helps him embrace his destiny.

Depp’s interpretation of Tonto has a couple of interesting touches. He’s more of a mentor than a sidekick to the brave but inexperienced Lone Ranger, and his odd behavior often masks a quick, keen mind. By the time the bad guys figure out why Tonto acts so, oh tonto (the word is Spanish for crazy or stupid), they discover he has cleverly placed them at a fatal disadvantage.

Perhaps Depp’s tendency to feed a dead bird on top of his head, nose picking and other distractions might not have seemed so annoying if the film only ran for a couple of hours or less. At 149 minutes, Verbinski, Depp and the screenwriters work as if they were obligated to run as long as possible without filling the movie with much in the way of genuine content. Finally providing an amusing definition for “Kemosabe” doesn’t count.

Hammer is suitably upright to the point of rigid. He at least has the same basso profundo voice that Clayton Moore had on the TV show. Unlike the unfortunate Klinton Spilsbury, who starred in the misbegotten The Legend of the Lone Ranger, he doesn’t need James Keach to overdub his poor line delivery.

Some talented actors like Tom Wilkinson, Helena Bonham Carter and Barry Pepper also pick up some paychecks here, but none are asked to really do much other than look at home in period clothes.

Verbinski seems more interested in maxing out the budget than in bringing out the best in his collaborators. I’m sure he’s happy with how much money has been spent of the film, and he has a right to feel that way. It’s also reassuring that ticket buyers don’t have to feel obligated to support this boondoggle. (PG-13) (Posted 07/08/13)

Haiku
The Lone Ranger

It’s too bad only
the Lone Ranger wears a mask
after this movie’s done.


We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

In the wake of the revelations that the NSA could monitor data on just about every phone call made here in the United States and that there are NSA bugs in European Union offices, Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s look at government secrets and the people who reveal them seems even more relevant than ever. That’s especially true because the film’s subject, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, is still holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London.

How Assange went from a teenage Australian hacker to a wanted man is the focus of We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. Assange refused to cooperate with Gibney on the film, but because he’s talked with just about every other media outlet on the planet, the new documentary is still able to present a complicated portrait of both Assange and his eventual legacy.

Far from being the hatchet job Assange’s supporters claim it to be, We Steal Secrets demonstrates that Assange and the site have brought some previously hidden government and corporate misdeeds to light. Bank fraud in Iceland and war atrocities saw the light of day because Assange and his cohorts posted them on the site and shared them with news outlets like The Guardian and The New York Times

Many of these problems have festered because of secrecy, so Assange and his cohorts deserve a lot of praise for providing a place for making these crimes known. At the same time, Gibney reveals that Assange may not necessarily have been the ideal person to bring these troubling facts to light. 

The Guardian's Nick Davies, the reporter who led that paper's investigation into phone hacking by News Corp papers in the UK, recalls that Assange refused to redact the names of people who had cooperated with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is practically signing their death warrants. 

Gibney also indicates there may be merit to the claims of two women who have charged Assange with sexual assault. One of the women, a former Wikileaks volunteer, speaks on the record and convincingly states that she didn't want her complaints about Assange to go public. Several of Assange's supporters have said these charges are simply an excuse for the British and American governments to get their hands on him, but her testimony indicates otherwise.

Gibney finds other interesting wrinkles in the case. He notes that the Obama Administration has easily managed to survive the leaks despite a lot of protestation by Hilary Clinton and others. He also says that they have been unusually shrewd in silencing Assange and the people who might provide them with damning information. While reporters like Davies can conduct their inquiries without interference, the government has repeatedly and severely punished leakers.

A prominent example is PFC Bradley Manning, who allegedly provided Wikileaks with hundreds of thousands of military and State Department cables. In the film, Manning emerges as a troubled but sympathetic figure, an outsider who was genuinely outraged by some of the data that had passed through his hands. As Gibney notes, Manning has paid a steep price for his actions whereas Assange seems to have all but abandoned the sort of person Wikileaks was designed to protect.

The film also includes Manning's former online friend Adrian Lamo, who helped turn Manning into authorities. Looking dazed throughout his interviews, Lamo does himself no favors and will certainly continue to face the wrath fellow hackers for some time to come.

At two hours and 10 minutes, We Steal Secrets is briskly paced and often feels more like a thriller than a current events lecture. Gibney's ultimate point seems to be that the need for leaks and outlets for them is probably greater than ever. As he persuasively indicates in the movie, Assange might not be the best man for the job. (R) Rating 4.5 (Posted on 07/08/13)

Haiku
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks

Julian Assange
is a morally complex
type of movie star.


20 Feet from Stardom
Reviewed b
y Dan Lybarger

Morgan Neville’s new documentary 20 Feet from Stardom demonstrates that some of the most fascinating people in the music business aren’t standing in the spotlight. You can hear them, but Neville points out that their contributions to great songs haven’t been properly recognized. After seeing 20 Feet from Stardom, it’s unlikely you’ll ever take backup singers for granted again.

In some ways, the subject of background singers is misleading. Many of the people featured in the film, most of them women, are not only capable of singing the lead vocal track but have done so and not been given the proper credit.

The next time you hear the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel,” you might be surprised to learn that none of the members of the vocal group were in the studio for that session and that the actual singer was Darlene Love, a member of the session vocal group The Blossoms. The Crystals were on tour when the song was being recorded, and the 1962 #1 hit is still credited to them, even though Love’s voice carried the tune.

Love’s difficulties with the mercurial producer Phil Spector and her career misfortunes (at one point after the hits, she was working as a maid) would make a fascinating documentary, but Neville thankfully includes other top-notch singers whose flirtation with fame is frankly more interesting than learning of some musicians’ attaining it.

Also featured in 20 Feet from Stardom is Merry Clayton, who’s probably best known for bellowing along with Mick Jagger on the terrifying Rolling Stones song “Gimme Shelter.” In what’s arguably the highlight of the movie, Neville isolates Clayton’s vocal track on the song and plays it for both her and Jagger.

On its own, Clayton’s voice is even creepier, and Jagger acknowledges the song would be wanting without her contribution. Jagger’s not the only star who admits to the importance of background vocalists. Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bette Midler and Stevie Wonder explain why their songs wouldn’t sound right with only their voices in front of the mike.

The film also reveals that while many of these performers had the talent and the charisma to dominate the stage, fate worked against them, and some are actually content to be singers instead of stars. Lisa Fischer, for example, has won a Grammy for her hit “How Can I Ease the Pain,” but she’s content to tour with the Stones and gives Jagger the support he needs to get the best of his songs. Fischer has such a pleasantly unassuming manner that the film’s running time devoted to her seems painfully short.

Clayton can take pride that she performed a ferocious cover of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and sang the choral parts of Lynard Skynard’s defiant “Sweet Home Alabama,” where Ronnie Van Zant rebuked the Canadian singer-guitarist.

But as Springsteen poignantly explains, having a great voice isn’t necessarily a goldmine. Without worthy material and proper career management, gifted singers can go to their graves without ever being recognized. Clayton had great material and an able producer in Lou Adler (who did Carole King’s Tapestry), but her solo recordings have been tricky to find until now.

Neville locates dozens of rare but engrossing clips showing Clayton, Fischer and others at work and even features a terrific recording that Love and the others singing Bill Withers’ standard “Lean on Me” that lets all the featured vocalists shine.

20 Feet from Stardom is loaded with heart-wrenching and uplifting tales. Love, for example, has gone from cleaning houses to starting everybody’s Christmas off right each year by wailing her heart on David Letterman. Nonetheless, the film, despite covering ample ground, leaves viewers hungry for more. That’s not a flaw. Neville, like his subjects, has simply been following the first rule of show business. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 07/08/13)

Haiku
20 Feet from Stardom

Merry Clayton and
Darlene Love are stars. The film
just helps to prove it.

 




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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