Friday, January 31, 2014

Review: That Awkward Moment

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
It's a little unclear to which awkward moment the title of this new comedy, which clearly aims for a mixture of schmaltz and low brow humor in the vein of the "American Pie" films, refers.

But no matter. Here's a movie that is fueled solely on screenplay cliches of how males and females of a certain age act when it comes to matters of love. As portrayed here, men are afraid to feel emotion and settle down, opting instead to sleep around with as many women as possible before realizing they live a shallow existence and deciding to do the thing they originally dreaded after all. And women, according to this movie, just want to settle down, beginning their conversations of a serious matter with men by saying, "So..."

For those of you who have made it this far, I can only assume that the aforementioned movie cliches potentially haven't turned you off toward "That Awkward Moment." So, to be fair, the film is not as bad as many others of its type, which is not to say that it's good.

It's occasionally fun to watch the cast if for no other reason than to think back fondly on their previously more substantial work - that is, Miles Teller, who gave such a sincere performance in last year's "The Spectacular Now," and Michael B. Jordan, who was so great in "Fruitvale Station" and on "The Wire."

Here, they - as well as Zac Efron and Imogen Poots - are mostly wasted, forced to rattle off numerous jokes involving male genitalia, prostitution, sexual acts and - let's not forget that old comedic goldmine - poop.

Basically, you could do a whole lot worse than "That Awkward Moment." But, c'mon people, let's set the bar higher in 2014. I have yet to recommend a comedy this year to see instead of this one, but the year is still young. There's got to be something a little more fresh than this one coming down the pike.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

I, Frankenstein

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
I see a number of pretty rotten films every year, but I can usually count on there being at least one example of a grave miscalculation, a film of such bad judgment that it blows my mind. You could list 2000's hilariously awful "Battlefield Earth" as an example or 2013's "Movie 43," which aims to be hilariously awful and merely achieves the latter.

This year's specimen could very well be "I, Frankenstein," a movie so completely ill conceived, poorly executed and utterly nonsensical - both visually and thematically - that it sets the bar pretty high for bad films to come for the rest of the year.

In the movie, Aaron Eckhart plays Frankenstein's monster who is named - just wait for it - Adam by the queen of the gargoyles. Who's that? Well, thanks for asking! The gargoyles, you see, have been engaged in a centuries-long war with - who else? - the demons and the fate of mankind naturally hangs in the balance.

So, here comes Adam, who has been alive now for several centuries and wearing a broody scowl that puts the entire "Twilight" gang to shame, to save mankind because... wait, why is he involved in this epic battle, which is led on one side by the aforementioned gargoyle queen and, on the other, by a demon played by no less than Bill Nighy?

The picture is loaded with countless fight sequences between the two supernatural forces that make no sense visually. If you've seen one CGI-loaded sequence during which creatures run at each other and explode upon impact, you've seen them all. And when several of the villains put on their "demon face," they bear a resemblance to the titular creatures of "Troll 2."

And poor Aaron Eckhart. He's given little to do here, other than utter lines such as "Descend in pain, demon!" Another of my favorite lines in the film, which is spoken with absolutely no sense of irony, is "God did not put Adam on this earth..." Yes, such are the joys of "I, Frankenstein."

Review: Stranger By the Lake

Image courtesy of Strand Releasing.
Alain Guiraudie's "Stranger By the Lake" falls into the realm of Hitchcock territory and is frequently mysterious and involving - but, ultimately, also a bit repetitive and opaque.

In the film Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) cruises the lovely French lakeside locale where the entire film is set, searching for flings and, quite possibly, love.

He first strikes up a friendship with a lonely, but straight, man named named Henry (Patrick d'Assumcao), who spends his days at the lake not to hook up, but to spend some time alone in a serene environment. He has recently broken off a long-term relationship.

But Franck's true reason for returning every day to swim in the lake is that he has his eye on Michel (Christophe Paou), a slightly older guy and strong swimmer - I mention this only because the film takes great pains to point this out - who is first seen with another man roaming the beach.

After having stayed a little later than usual one evening, Franck takes a walk in the woods and spots Michel and his current lover swimming in the lake alone. He is a bit shocked to witness what appears to be a murder as Michel seemingly drowns the other man.

Nevertheless, Franck is drawn to Michel and, against all good judgment, gets involved - well, sort of. Soon afterward, a police investigator starts snooping around and, in typical Hitchockian wrong-man fashion, Franck finds himself in an increasingly tense situation.

"Stranger By the Lake" received mostly glowing reviews following its debut last year at the Cannes Film Festival. It's easy to see why many were drawn to it. It's a slow-moving, but methodical, thriller that emphasizes mood and location over plot twists and characterization. It's also often lovely to look at with its shots of trees swaying in the breeze and sun shining on the scenic lake where all of the action is set.

The film also, unfortunately, becomes a bit repetitive - Franck shows up at the beach, everyone turns to stare at him, he has a conversation with Henri, hooks up with Michel, runs into the detective and is questioned. Then, rinse and repeat. Also, I'm all for open-ended narratives, but the finale in "Stranger By the Lake" left me feeling a little cheated. All in all, it's a pretty bold movie and has its moments of interest, but it didn't quite bowl me over.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review: Maidentrip

Image courtesy of First Run Features.
"Maidentrip" is a movie Werner Herzog might have made had director Jillian Schlesinger not gotten there first. For those unfamiliar with the German filmmaker's oeuvre, many of his documentaries chronicle the tales of individuals with unique quirks or strange stories, such as a man who goes to live among bears ("Grizzly Man") or a ski-jumper obsessed with carpentry ("The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner").

Schlesinger's film fits into that mold, telling the pretty amazing story of a 14-year-old Dutch girl named Laura Dekker who sailed alone around the world during a period of two years. What's most amazing about her adventure, perhaps, is that her parents were OK with it in the first place.

In 2010, Dekker began looking for sponsors for her voyage and was met with criticism from the Dutch government, which attempted to prevent her from taking her trip. Eventually, she won the day and set sail in August 2010, crossing through the Galapagos Islands, three oceans, an especially treacherous area near Australia, the equator and the Cape of Good Hope.

Interspersed throughout her trip were meet-ups between Dekker and her father, mother and sister and an American couple on their own voyage. We also see the world through the young precocious girl's eyes as she becomes more of an adult during the two years she spent on the water.

During a question and answer session at Manhattan's IFC Center this weekend, the director said that Dekker experienced some bumps during her journey that were not recorded on camera. So if it seems as if Dekker's trip were all smooth sailing, that is, most likely and unfortunately, because much of the filming of "Maidentrip" was left in the hands of Dekker, who obviously had to prioritize safety over camera work.

Schlesinger's film is meant to inspire and it does. Dekker is spunky and headstrong, making her a compelling heroine. Her journey is one worth taking, even if you can't possibly ever imagine allowing your own kids to do the same.

Review: Ride Along

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
"Ride Along" isn't a bad movie so much as an unnecessary one. It's filled to the brim with cliches, attempting to be a lightweight version of "Training Day" with Ice Cube in the Denzel Washington role, although his character isn't a crooked cop, and Kevin Hart as Ethan Hawke, but significantly goofier.

This is the type of comedy that elicits more smiles than it does laughs. And although I remember laughing hard at least once, I can't remember exactly what it was that made me do so.

In the film, Hart plays a school security guard named Ben whose devotion to video games has begun to annoy his live-in girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter). Her brother, a grumpy cop named James (Ice Cube), does not approve of the relationship, so in a desperation move to win his approval, Ben tells James that he has been accepted to the police academy.

James has Ben join him for a ride along to prove his worth, but plans on using the time together to harass his sister's boyfriend, rather than bond.

Of course, since this is a crime comedy, there's got to be a legion of bad guys up to no good. In this case, it's a mysterious and rarely seen criminal named Omar (Laurence Fishburne) who is negotiating a weapons deal. Naturally, some crooked cops are involved and criminals from abroad (in this film, Serbians).

So, don't come to "Ride Along" expecting any surprises as you won't find any. What makes all of this by-numbers filmmaking tolerable is the casting. The ubiquitous Hart is funny enough, despite the filmmakers' insistence on attempting to make his character as annoying as possible. And Ice Cube, despite being given little to do here other than scowl, always has screen presence.

It seems required that Hollywood has to offer up at least one film with this formula each year, so here's to hoping that this one will be adequate enough to not require any more for a while.

Review: Devil's Due

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox
It's been a whopping three weeks into 2014 and we've already had two found footage fiascos - "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones" and, now, "Devil's Due." Basta! No mas! Genug!

This latest entry into the increasingly exasperating horror genre attempts to be "Rosemary's Baby," but without the adequate suspense, character development or storytelling.

The film is directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who are two members of Radio Silence, which was responsible for one of the more entertaining entries in the otherwise mediocre "VHS."

Despite a finale during which a whole lot of household items go flying around and an earlier sequence during which several humans do the same, "Devil's Due" is mostly play-by-numbers horror filmmaking. There's very little here you haven't seen time and time again in numerous "Paranormal Activity" films.

At the film's beginning, a couple (Allison Miller and Zach Gilford) on their honeymoon in the Dominican Republic black out after a night of partying with some shady characters, who, as it turns out, performed a satanic rite that will result in the wife's popping out Beelzebub's son nine months later.

As the months pass, weird stuff happens - the wife carves symbols onto the floor and bashes out the window of a guy pulling out of a parking spot, people appear to be watching the couple's home and various characters get nosebleeds. In one particularly absurd sequence, a priest suffers a stroke during a confirmation ceremony.

If watching semi-creepy, but formulaic, movies featuring the aforementioned scenarios on grainy footage sounds like an evening's entertainment, you might enjoy "Devil's Due." For those seeking a little substance or, hell, genuine scares in their horror movies, look elsewhere.

Review: Like Father, Like Son

Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
I typically avoid using the word gentle to describe a film or a director's style, but there is hardly a better one to describe the pictures of Hirokazu Koreeda, the Japanese filmmaker responsible for the lovely "After Life" and "Maborosi."

His latest, the leisurely paced and emotionally satisfying "Like Father, Like Son," is the director's best in some time, even if it doesn't quite measure up to his earliest work. Similar to his other films of recent years - "I Wish" and "Nobody Knows," the director's latest is a story involving children. But unlike those two aforementioned works, Koreeda's latest focuses more on the adults.

In the film, Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a man obsessed with his work, whose parenting style involves ensuring that his young son Keita (Keita Ninomiya) is busy with piano lessons and constantly striving to improve himself. Ryota's wife, Midori (Machiko Ono), is the one responsible for supplying the love and affection to Keita as well as putting in the time with him.

One day, the family gets a surprise call from the hospital in which Keita was born, telling them that there was a mix-up at birth and that their son is actually the child of another couple, Yudai (Riri Furanki) and Yukari (Yoko Maki).

The two couples meet and the question arises as to whether they should swap Keita for Ryusei (Shogen Hwang), their own son. The problem is that the boys are both 6 years old and have been raised by their respective families, viewing their parents as their own. As they contemplate this decision, the families spend time together, allowing each son to spend the night with the other couple on alternating weekends. Naturally, the two children are unaware of their circumstances and the scenario leads to confusion for them.

Although Koreeda's latest moves at the same measured pace as you'd expect from the director, "Like Father, Like Son" is the most affecting of his recent films. The picture is melancholic without being outright depressing and there are some lovely, haunting shots of figures silhouetted by shadows that express just how in the dark each of the characters are in terms of how they will straighten out the mess in which they've found themselves.

As always, Koreeda handles his child actors extremely well. He is among the few filmmakers to consistently work with children and he appears to allow them to act naturally.

My favorite Koreeda works are still "Maborosi," the director's powerful film about a woman dealing with the suicide of her husband, and the marvelous "After Life," which involved characters who have died and are allowed to choose one memory to keep for all eternity. "Like Father, Like Son" may not reach the heights of those previous films, but it is likely the director's best work in a decade. Koreeda's stories may be simplistic in terms of plotting, but there are often complicated emotions under the surface for all of his characters, including those in this genuine and moving film.

Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," Kenneth Branagh's reboot of the once-popular series of films based on Tom Clancy's novels, is both preposterous and pretty amusing.

The film is set in the present and recent past, rather than taking place many years before "The Hunt for Red October" or "Patriot Games," for example, took place. The reason I mention this is because Ryan is played by Chris Pine, who is obviously a bit younger than Harrison Ford and various other actors who have played the character in the past. The film reboots the series in the sense that Ryan is being recruited into the CIA in the present and those past films/books did not necessarily exist.

The one element that should feel familiar is the Cold War paranoia that could be found in the previous entries in the series. This new film's heavy is a Russian supervillain played by Branagh, whose nefarious plot is to bring down the U.S. economy through both a terrorist attack and an insider trading move.

Pine is obviously the straight man in that his character is stoic almost to the point of being wooden, which is not a criticism of the actor's performance, but rather a reflection on how his character was written. Branagh, on the other hand, gets to chew the scenery and deliver all the goods typically expected from an over-the-top villain. Keira Knightley is, unfortunately, mostly wasted as Ryan's girlfriend, while Kevin Costner is well-utilized as his mentor.

The film opens with Ryan watching the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 on a television screen, which prompts him to head to Afghanistan, where he is seriously wounded. Later, he will get his own opportunity to thwart a massive terrorist attack on - you guessed it - New York City. However, the means through which Ryan puts the pieces together about the attack are questionable, at best.

For a film of this type, "Shadow Recruit" is no groundbreaker. It's pretty by-the-book, in fact. This is not exactly a bad thing, though, as the film is pretty entertaining, swiftly paced and well-shot, despite also often being completely ludicrous. For a film of this genre, it's a pretty decent entry.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review: Lone Survivor

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Aside from numerous entries into the torture porn genre, Peter Berg's "Lone Survivor" is likely the most obsessive chronicle of damage to the human body I've seen since "The Passion of the Christ."

As an action movie, it's not half bad. As a war movie or an exploration of the United States' presence in the Middle East, well.

It's clear that Berg has high regard for his subjects, although they are mostly reduced to The Guy Planning to Get Married (Taylor Kitsch), the Voice of Morality and Reason (Mark Wahlberg), the Guy Willing Willing to Throw Morality Out the Window But Later Redeem Himself (Ben Foster) and The Guy Who Freezes In Combat (Emile Hirsch). There's also a sergeant played by Eric Bana.

The picture is very competently made and, not surprisingly, intense. For those unfamiliar with the story, "Lone Survivor" follows four U.S. Navy Seals who are dropped into the mountains of Afghanistan to take out a Taliban leader.

They are faced with a moral quandary when their mission is interrupted by a goat herder and two young boys. Two of the men want to kill the civilians, one of whom is suspiciously Taliban friendly, while the other two want to let them go free.

The latter choice is made and, suddenly, the four men find themselves in a wooded area surrounded by Taliban soldiers. The next hour-and-a-half is filled with carnage - men rolling down hills and slamming into rocks and trees, bullets piercing flesh, glass and mortar being removed from flesh, bones cracking, heads being lopped off and blood splattering from bodies. All of this is handled well, if that's the operative word here, in the sense that it is realistically done and upsetting to the degree for which it aims.

But "Lone Survivor" seems more interested in a time-honored theme in military movies - that is, how soldiers use the safety of the man next to them as a means of inspiration - rather than exploring the specifics of the war in Afghanistan. In other words, this could have been set during World War II, Vietnam or any other war were in not, in fact, based on a true incident and book by Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg), the titular figure.

"Lone Survivor" is a well-made and often riveting action drama, but it's just not on the level of something like, say, "The Hurt Locker." Not that it needs to be.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Review: Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Another year, another "Paranormal Activity" movie. To be fair, director Christopher Landon and company attempt to do a little something different with this latest entry into the franchise by setting it in a Latino community in Los Angeles and introducing us to completely different characters.

In this film, a young man named Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and his friend, Hector (Jorge Diaz), begin investigating some strange goings-on in the apartment of a creepy woman that lives below them and the pair quickly find themselves mixed up with the coven sort-of involved in the previous "Paranormal Activity" films.

If this new film provides any relief from the doldrums that slowly crept into the previous entries, it's the new characters, who are - at least - mildly amusing. I laughed at least once during a characters' reference to Sherlock Holmes. You have to see it to know what I mean. Then again, better not.

But while the picture is slightly funnier than recent entries and has a few genuinely creepy moments, it follows the same tired formula as the other "Paranormal" movies. That means, there's lots of seemingly never ending sequences during which characters walk, camera facing forward, into creepy rooms where no reasonable person would go. Noises are occasionally heard, objects move slightly due to the breeze or otherworldly elements and then, as is to be expected, something jumps into the camera's lens, but only once in a while.

The film's story follows the exact same patterns as those of the previous films and pretty much ends the exact same way as all the others. I'm not really giving anything away by saying this as the series appears to pride itself on its reliably formulaic plot lines.

The found footage genre started out well enough - "The Blair Witch Project" was pretty frightening and original - and there have been some imaginative entries along the way - "Cloverfield," for instance. But it does not take a whole lot of talent and effort to sneak around in dark rooms with a handheld camera and make noises in the background. Sure, it may cause you to cover your eyes from whatever horrific image you believe to be coming next, but it's a cheap thrill.

Review: The Great Beauty

Image courtesy of Janus Films.
Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty" doesn't exactly favor style over substance - there's some deeper meaning to be found in the film, but its often exquisite style mostly overshadows it.

Much like the director's previous "Il Divo," I found myself captivated by certain sequences in the picture without fully embracing the whole endeavor. I'd recommend the film, but with the caveat that you might end up enjoying individual scenes in a film that does not completely add up in the end.

Obviously taking his cue from Fellini - from the raucous party scenes that recall "8 1/2" to the treatment of Rome's Glitterati in the vein of "La Dolce Vita," Sorrentino's latest follows the adventures of Jep Gambardella, a journalist who wrote one novelette, but never attempted a second due to his inability to find life's "great beauty."

Much of the film is spent as he recalls memories, wandering through his friends present and past, reminiscing on a former flame and visiting her husband, befriending a young stripper and, in one of the picture's more surreal passages, taking part in a dinner with a visiting 104-year-old nun and her entourage.

As I said, there are a number of sequences that Fellini might have concocted himself were he still alive and making films in the 21st century. An opening party sequence and Jep's dwarf boss are very obvious homages. The film is often funny. There's a scene during which Jep dresses down a pretentious fellow writer that comes close to even ranking with Woody Allen's stepping out of line to bemoan the pompous guy standing behind him while waiting for a film in "Annie Hall." During an interview in another scene, he has no qualms about giving his opinion to a performance artist on her "work."

But this is a film that you go to see for the the sum of its parts, rather than the whole. It's often ravishing to look at and the performances are colorful and memorable. I'm not sure the deeper ideas about life, death and creativity for which Sorrentino is reaching are explored enough to say that they are what "The Great Beauty" is necessarily about. But should you decide to see it, you'll likely find enough to keep you interested.