Archive for July, 2013


Let's Go Play At The Adams'
Let’s Go Play At The Adams’ by Mendal W. Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a CREEPY little book! It’s not for everyone, naturally, since it’s about a bunch (five, to be exact) of kids who tie up their babysitter and torture her. Yep, just because they can.

At times, it was tough to keep going – not because the tale itself is brutal or crazy or creepy (I often read that kind of stuff, after all) – but because of the punctilious and antiquated narrative accompanying the action. However, I think that actually helps create the haunting atmosphere.

Ultimately, this twisted little story keeps you on the edge of your seat, waiting to see if it will take *that step* and *do that deed* … it engages both senses and ideas in a way that’s uncommon and inward-looking while cultivating sincere empathy. That’s quite a feat.

In these times of daily horrible news stories, maybe everyone should read something like this, which depicts so vividly what goes on under the surface. It’s about a mundane place and average people, all of which could be in our own backyards. In that way, it really is more terrifying than Lord of the Flies and The Exorcist combined, as the jacket claims.

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Once again taking a brief break from theatergoing, I’ve watched some interesting DVD/on-demand choices recently. Here are three interesting flicks to check out when you have a chance.

 

lawless-banner-posterLawless

250px-WettestcountyfrontcoverBased on the historical novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, this 2012 film focuses on the early 1930s bootlegging business of Matt’s grandfather, Jack Bondurant, and his brothers, Forrest and Howard. It is a gritty, violent, and fascinating look at a time in American history from the perspective of one family subsisting outside the law of the times but with a code all its own.

Jack (Shia LeBoeuf) fancies himself a mobster in the making, while patriarch Forrest (Tom Hardy) is invested in the legend that he and his brothers are indestructible, and Howard (Jason Clarke) loyally serves as enforcer and protector. When we meet “The Bondurant Boys,” their role in their rural community is viewed with a kind of under-the-rug respect, and they are left alone and at times even supported by local law enforcement. shia-labeouf-dane-dehaan-lawless-600x421But when a vicious and peculiar federal agent (Guy Pearce) shows up, the boys get more flack than they had bargained for.

The movie is a mini-history lesson, depicting in vivid detail the dangerous and clandestine work of bootleggers in the ’30s. It’s also filled with exaggerations for movie-watching excitement, with chases, shootouts, and closed-door atrocities that no one possibly could know the truth behind. But that’s moviemaking. Most of the facts are presented, however, as pieced together by the author of the book from reports, articles, and the bullet-would scars of his grandfather and granduncles.

120830_MOV_Lawless.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeRegardless of how faithfully represented the “true story” is, this film is well written, beautifully shot, and skillfully acted by the principals and supporting actors including Jessica Chastain, Dane DeHaan, and Gary  Oldman. The film is directed by Australian John Hillcoat (The Proposition – 2007, The Road – 2009).

For an epic familial double feature, pair this movie with Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Legends of the Fall (1994), or the TV miniseries Hatfields & McCoys (2012).

A

920-HESHERHesher

In this 2010 film by writer/director Spencer Susser, Hesher (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, once of my favorite contemporary actors) is a grungy high school reprobate who muscles in on the dissolving family of freshman T.J. (fiercely played by Devin Brochu). Two months earlier, T.J. lost his mom in a car accident, and he is desolate as his inconsolable father loses himself in depression and self-medication (the father is played by Rainn Wilson in the best performance I have ever seen him turn in).

As Hesher threateningly worms his way into a place at Grandma’s house, where T.J. and his dad are staying, he seems nothing more than a dangerous blight on T.J.’s existence. Grandma (Piper Laurie) seems to be the only one to see anything more in Hesher. An unexpected ray of sunshine in T.J.’s life is meeting cashier Nicole (Natalie Portman), hesher-movie-review-TH48O3P-x-largethough Hesher ruins that for him too, along with nearly getting him arrested and otherwise making his life hell. But all is not what it seems, and when the taciturn Hesher does speak, his crude, elaborate analogies offer the true lessons in this narrative.

This movie begins coarsely, attesting to how first impressions can set our minds. It’s tough to watch as the scruffy, chain-smoking, bizarrely tattooed bully Hesher intimidates T.J. and his family.  But just as we get to know people in real life, we soon see there is something more to the freaky young man. To the film’s credit, we never find out much of Hesher’s backstory or why he lives in his van (when not invading the homes of freshmen). Heck, we don’t even learn his full name.Hesher_13047235035841

In the end, Hesher is a life-affirming and sanguine film. It is brilliantly written and works well in great part because everyone in the cast is absolutely superb. I’m hoping to see more from Susser, the only American member of the Australian filmmaking collective Blue-Tongue Films, who has thus far focused on short films.

A fine double-feature choice for this movie is the equally disquieting yet hopeful Sunshine Cleaning (2008).

A-

Seeking-a-FriendSeeking a Friend for the End of the World

Being a fan of Steve Carell and liking some of the past work of Keira Knightley, I had high hopes for this 2012 film. These were effectively shattered by this depressing, unfunny apocalyptic tale that wastes the talents of both actors, and everyone else in it.

Basically, the movie follows pathetic Dodge (Carell) as he awaits the end of the world. A meteor is hurtling toward Earth and the last hope for diverting it fails, so everyone knows it’s all over (don’t even get me started on the lack of science, but then the film is not meant to be realistic—I guess). Some people go on as if nothing has changed, while others try to fulfill their bucket lists, and still others simply go off the deep end. Dodge’s wife (who, we learn, was unhappy anyway) runs away—literally—and he is left to sullenly continue going to work (uh huh) and gathering with friends in the evenings. This role is yawningly dull for an actor of Carell’s comic chops.

Finally, Dodge meets downstairs neighbor Penny (Knightley), ameliorates her own existential meltdown, and then is party to cruelly abandoning her live-in boyfriend to rioting mobs so the two can advance their budding romance in the end-times. It’s just … not pretty.

SAF-Still2Dodge and Penny try to make each others’ fondest final wishes come true as the hours count down. Thrown in is a contrived meeting, after twenty years of estrangement, with Dodge’s father (Martin Sheen, more wasted talent), again run through in a hasty way to just get it overwith. In the end, the film tries to pull the heartstrings as Dodge and Penny make their final moments content, but it seems too little, too late.

Those who read my reviews know that I like quirky dark comedies, as well as films that don’t neatly fit into one genre, which is what this endeavor tried to be, I think. But like a number of other atypical projects, it misses the mark on many scores. When it tries to be funny, it’s often painfully awkward (like during the completely pointless appearance of otherwise hysterical Patton Oswalt; all he gets to do is say “Pussy” in a bunch of different ways), and when it tries to be serious, it comes off as cloying, stuffing preachy platitudes down our throats (as when Dodge and Penny find an improvised commune on the beach, happy to just spend their last hours with one another).seeking-a-friend-for-the-end-of-the-world-screenshot

Nevertheless, many people love this film, seeing something in that I do not. That rings true for me with films like About Schmidt (2002), Lost in Translation (2003), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); along with this movie, they are all films that you either get (they resonate for you) or not.  I guess I just don’t get it.

The movie is written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (who wrote the screenplay for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and has only directed once besides, an episode of New Girl).

C-

Having seen many of my most-anticipated movies of summer that have been released so far, I’m now catching “other” flicks that are out there. It’s a great way to beat the heat, which is hanging around those triple digits here in Arizona.

I recently re-watched Despicable Me (2010), which is SO adorable and beautifully made, with plenty of adult jokes thrown in. One my favorites is the sign, “Bank of Evil (Formerly Lehman Brothers).” My mom watched with me and instantly fell in love with the minions.  So, we had to go see Despicable Me 2. The theater was filled with kids (well-behaved ones!) on a day-camp field trip, and it was precious to hear them laugh and mimic the minions.

Then a friend wanted to see White House Down, which I hadn’t planned to watch at all. You know, it’s kind of like reading whatever the book club chooses as the book of the month—you get to explore tomes you might not have picked up otherwise.

So here are some thoughts about these mid-July movies.

176.image.despicable-me-2-posterDespicable Me 2

Where do you go with a story once the villain’s heart has been transformed, Scrooge-like or Grinch-esque? Our antihero, Gru, went from venomous villain to doting daddy in the first film, and I wondered what the sequel could possibly contain to justify his still being called “despicable.”

despicable-me-2_17Well, Gru isn’t exactly despicable anymore—that would be a step backwards—but he does continue in his habit of thinking he can outsmart others, often failing. In this way, the writers hit the nail on the head to help make the character able to transform once more, without actually taking him back to attempting any dastardly deeds. And the character grows in other ways: he actually has a love interest, and he helps to foil the plotting of another arch-villain. Nice, and nowhere near despicable.

Despicable-Me-2-081The real achievement of the sequel, though, is exploiting moviegoers’ obsession with the minions, those lovable yet rough-around-the-edges little yellow pill people from another planet. They are the stars of this movie. I’d say I predict a spinoff, but it’s already a done deal: the movie Minions is in preproduction for release in 2014.

To me, the first film was better if simply for the facts that the characters were new for audiences and the initial premise of Gru going from despicable to lovable was achieved. I also found the original more effective at including some adult-aimed funnies, something I’ve always appreciated in my animation (Bugs Bunny cartoons perhaps did it best).

25070440Still, this sequel has the same wonderful voice cast (including Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Russell Brand, Miranda Cosgrove, Kristen Wiig, and Julie Andrews) with a few additions (like Benjamin Bratt), plus the increased involvement of those weird and wacky little minions. It’s fast-paced, good for laughs, and includes something for all ages. What more could you want from a summer flick?

B+

 

white-house-downWhite House Down

This is a typical Hollywood action movie, and there is not much more to say about it. It’s basically Die Hard (kick-ass dad saves the day) meets Independence Day (White House blows up), but with none of the heart or remarkable characters of those iconic films. The plot is predictable and regurgitated, the premise is much less shocking than today’s real-life headlines, and the fact that there is a black president in the white house—well, that’s been done already too.

215561-White-House-Down-Poster1As a vehicle for Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, and propelling young Joey King into the limelight, it does its job. The effects are grand, the action is fast, and everyone in it does a decent job of portraying their superficially sketched characters. But the problem is that everything is just tossed lightly together, like a summer salad, with the obvious intent of just getting it overwith and getting on with the action scenes. 1183878 - WHITE HOUSE DOWNOnly then is much more attention paid to the crashes, the explosions, and Tatum’s abs flying across the screen.  It might as well just be one long trailer for all the character development and story depth we get.

White-house-down-james-woodsCaught in vortex of what’s lacking are veteran actors like James Woods and Richard Jenkins.  Personally, I cringe when this happens—the misuse of genuine talent is a real crime in my book.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is either miscast or else she realized her role was lean and phoned it in, and Rachelle Lefevre is completely wasted in her miniscule role.

As often happens in not-so-awesome movies, one seemingly less-important character really stood: Nicholas Wright plays Donnie the tour guide with emotional honesty and humorous abandon. I expect we’ll see more of this young man who has, up until now, mainly appeared in TV movies and series.  white-house-down-cale-emily-donnie

As you might expect, with this “Summer Sizzlers” series being all about entertaining summer movies, this film gets somewhat of a pass simply for being an engaging action movie at a time when  many of us desire such mindless distraction. This one is almost good enough to meet that need. Luckily, there are much more substantial action films out there or coming soon that can satisfy our hunger after this fluffy but innutritious morsel.

C

The summer blockbuster season is officially in full swing, and here are two more of the movies that are making moviegoing a blast this summer.

Yeah, I know, I jumped from early June to early July. What in the world happened to late June?  Well, let’s see … I was out of town for a few days, then dog-sitting for neighbors, and it just kind of whizzed by in a blur, with no theatergoing at all!  But I plan to make up for that now.

The Heat

melissa-mccarthy-photoshop-uk-poster-the-heat__oPtSophomoric comedies are usually the territory of the boys. But once in a while, a terrific female-cast funny movie shows that anything the boys can do, the girls can do too.  And I have to admit that I love many female comedies, like the classic 9 to 5 (1980), the goofy Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), the silly The House Bunny (2008), and the hysterical Bridesmaids (2011). Female comedies still are few and far between, unlike the constant barrage of male-centric absurd comedies. That’s probably as it should be—let boys be boys.  Only sometimes, when talented female comic actors team up, the result can be inspired fun.

The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock as an FBI agent disliked for her condescending efficiency and Melissa McCarthy as an abrasive but effective Boston cop, is hilarious. There’s the obvious clash of the two “types” the main stars portray, the odd-couple effect, which is so often the basis of such comedies.  Sure, it’s formulaic, and that’s OK for a movie that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Sometimes laughter is just good medicine. The plot is not bad in setting up why these contrasting characters must work together, and then Bullock and McCarthy are unleashed to make us giggle. There are some hysterical scenes in this film, but it also has a subtlety and pacing that I find lacking in many over-the-top male comedies.

The Heat - 5Perhaps what I appreciate most about female silly comedies is that women do bring a certain softness and empathy to even the stupidest situations and densest characters. And then there is the emotional payoff; there’s a big difference between “I love you, man” moments and the kind of “Now we are sisters” sentiments snuck in between the slapstick in this movie.  One of those actually made me tear up for a moment. That doesn’t typically happen when I watch, say, a Will Ferrell movie.

There are some issues, of course. The one that most sticks with me is the absolute waste of talent in putting Jane Curtain in an all-but-silent role with not much comic involvement.  Other than that, for what it is—a light, humorous summer flick—The Heat mostly hits the mark.

A-

The Lone Ranger

lone_ranger_ver12_xlgThis movie kind of relates the Lone Ranger story we all remember, but on acid. Think Hell on Wheels meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  The Lone Ranger is a comedy, an FX-ridden adventure, a supernatural tale, and a peek at the carnage that helped build this country, all rolled into one and filled with anachronisms and wildly implausible moments. Thanks to the talent involved, it all works together as pure entertainment.

I can’t believe how many nasty reviews I’ve read about this film, most seeming to dwell on the fact that The Lone Ranger seems to be modeled on Pirates of the Caribbean, spewing vitriol at Disney for banking on a winning formula, and criticizing the lack of faith to the original materiel (Really? Like that was high art?). Lighten up, people!  It’s summer entertainment.  I truly enjoyed this fun film, and so did the rest of the audience laughing itself silly all around me in the theater. My only points of dissatisfaction (and hence the minus after the A grade) were at the sometimes uneven pace and the lack of solid female characters.

The-Lone-Ranger-Movie-PosterYes, it’s true that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise team is back, including director Gore Verbinski (The Mexican, Rango) and writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Shrek franchise, Zorro films), with the addition of writer Justin Haythe (The Clearing, Revolutionary Road). And of course, the film stars Captain Jack Sparrow himself, the inimitable Johnny Depp. As I mentioned, some of the reviews jump on this reunion as a negative, but I judged the movie on its own merits. If you didn’t care for the Pirates movies or are weary of Depp’s characters in general, don’t go see The Lone Ranger. Some of us aren’t yet tired of this team’s creative contributions.

Johnny Depp is mesmerizing as a demented, tragicomic Tonto who spends most of the film feeding the stuffed crow that rides atop his head and deriding our hero, John Reid, who is portrayed by Armie Hammer as an uptight attorney slowly tuning in to the realities of the lawless West. Though the film focuses on telling the tale from Tonto’s point of view, Hammer does a great job of rendering the changes that take place in Reid because of all he witnesses, to the point of knowing he must give up his dreams to pursue justice.

1372956869000-LONE-RANGER-MOV-jy-0550-1307041258_4_3_rx404_c534x401The rest of the cast is equally memorable.  William Fichtner is frightening in an uncharacteristic villain role as Butch Cavendish.  Tom Wilkinson handily plays an unscrupulous railroad tycoon.  Other striking characters include Helena Bonham Carter as a deadly-legged madam, Barry Pepper as a avaricious cavalry commander, Leon Rippy as a pivotal posse member, and Mason Elston Cook as the boy listening to Tonto tell the whole story through a frame narrative.

Best of all, this movie is hysterically funny, in spite of (or thanks to) how dark its underlying story is—I won’t give away details, but it includes slaughter, kidnapping, and even a little cannibalism. Hmm, funny stuff. Maybe precisely because these topics make us feel uneasy, and some scenes are pretty harsh, we laugh all the harder at the juxtaposed clowning and marvel all the more at the fabulous stunts, explosions, and chases.  Some of the one-liners and jokes are priceless, and of course Depp’s facial expressions add a level of hilarity all by themselves.

The story is light years from what aficionados of the radio and TV series ever appreciated about the masked man who pursued justice in the Wild West. It’s a reinterpretation, a wild and crazy one at that, but it is faithful in a few ways: it preserves the innocence of the righteous approaching malevolent circumstances, the futile fumbling of disparate cultures trying to interact, and of course the satisfaction of a legendary story entertainingly related.

A-

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