Earth..the Boring Frontier


by George Wolf


At the recent screening of After Earth, I overheard one lady say to another, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Will Smith movie I didn’t like.”

No doubt, the man has been a pretty reliable crowd pleaser for many years. His latest, though, is little more than a weak attempt to make his son the next big movie star in the house.

Jaden Smith gets top billing here, and well he should. Will is merely the co-star in a completely pedestrian sci-fi yarn about facing your fears, reaching your destiny, becoming a man, and zzzzzzzzzzz…..

It’s one thousand years in the future, and mankind has fled to a new home planet, after ravaging Earth until it was no longer hospitable. The bravery of military commander Cypher Raige (Will) has earned him hero status, leaving his son Katai (Jaden)  as a young cadet with big shoes to fill.

A crash-landing on the now-quarantined Earth leaves the father with two broken legs, and the son as the only hope for survival. Katai must journey through the dangers Earthlings left behind, as he searches for a distress signal miles away from their crash site.

Director/co writer M. Night Shyamalan, working from Will Smith’s story idea, continues his streak of films that make you wonder what the heck happened to the young auteur who gave us The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. There’s no reason to care about anything in the film; it comes at you without a hint of subtlety, as if you’re just expected to buy in simply because they’re selling.

It’s all so trite and obvious, from the environmental scolding to the boy yelling in the wilderness for his father to believe in him.

Will, apparently due to his character’s legendary calm and fearless nature, gives a one note performance anchored in scowling and lowering his voice. Jaden, after a nice breakthrough performance in the fine remake of The Karate Kid, can’t quite make Katai’s quest for manhood a convincing journey.

Heck, it doesn’t even have the look of a summer blockbuster, especially after the sublime scorched-Earth visuals just seen in Oblivion.

No offense to ladies at the screening, but even Will Smith isn’t likable enough to save After Earth.






Nothing to See Here

Now You See Me

By Hope Madden

In the fall of 2006 we saw back to back films about magicians – The Illusionist and The Prestige. I remember thinking, really? Why?

Well, with just two months separating the release of The Incredible Bomb about Burt Wonderstone from this weekend’s Now You See Me, it’s hard not to scratch your head again at Hollywood’s insistence on our interest in magic.

At least Prestige and Illusionist were half decent films.

Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson lead a group of magicians who seem to pull off a bank heist during their show, and promise more of the same. Mark Ruffalo turns into the Hulk and smashes up their hall of mirrors.

If only!

No, instead he teams with Inglorious Basterds’s Melanie Laurent – an INTERPOL agent – to prove there’s no such thing as magic and that these guys are plain old crooks.

Unless it’s all an illusion…

Cons, comeuppance, love and daddy issues crisscross with lackluster acting to keep you from wondering whether Michael Caine (who was also in The Prestige. Of course he was!) or Morgan Freeman have milkier eyes. They’re both getting quite old. Maybe they should turn down one or two of the films released in any given year. Perhaps see an ophthalmologist.

They both certainly deserve better than this undercooked mess, directed by style-over-substance maestro Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, Clash of the Titans). With his characters talking incessantly about sleight of hand, you’d think Leterrier might employ that particular tactic on his own. Maybe razzle dazzle us while the con happens right under our noses.

Instead, perfectly ludicrous tricks and schemes are re-enacted without regard to plausibility. Rather than lifting the curtain to unveil anything tricky, the approach only uncovers some very lazy filmmaking.

Wasting a cast that has accumulated a combined 3 Oscars and another 4 nominations is a trick in itself, but aside from Harrelson’s natural charm, nothing about the performers impresses. Workhorses Freeman and Caine come closest to delivering something akin to acting. When push comes to shove, the usually impressive Ruffalo is badly miscast, Isla Fisher flails against hideous dialogue, and Eisenberg phones in just another turn as a hyper-intelligent dick.

And on top of it all, they play magicians.

Seriously, who gives a shit about magicians?



Settle Down, Frances

Frances Ha

By Hope Madden

As a filmmaker, Noah Baumbach tends to bombard an audience with characters he dares you to find sympathetic. From The Squid and the Whale to Margo at the Wedding to Greenberg, Baumbach has filled the screen with damaged, self-absorbed neurotics. But his casual misanthropy met its match when he cast the effortlessly likeable Greta Gerwig in Greenberg.

The two team up again for Frances Ha. They share writing duties and Baumbach directs while Gerwig stars as a far cheerier spin on the helmsman’s typical protagonist.

A loosely sketched character study, the film relies heavily on Gerwig’s talent and honesty as she portrays Frances, a free floater who’s trying to change that about herself. Frances is a 27-year-old modern dance intern whose shelf life is becoming too apparent. Her BFF Sophie (an agreeably natural Mickey Sumner – Sting’s daughter) has even moved on to career and commitment.

Suddenly Frances feels she’s outworn the welcome of her carefree youth, and as Frances tries to shake free from her own arrested adolescence, a delightful journey emerges.

The film is far less structured than anything Baumbach’s done to date, feeling a bit closer to Gerwig’s mumblecore roots. But in sometimes subtle ways, Baumbach’s craftsmanship shines. This film is a carefully articulated idea masquerading as improv.

The result is equal parts Woody Allen, French New Wave and Jim Jarmusch, and amazingly enough, it never feels too hip for its own good. That’s likely because, swimming in Brooklynite hipsters, Frances is an adorable dork.

Gerwig says she and Baumbach began with snippets of conversations and small encounters, pushing those little moments to grow into a full picture. The result is as loose and musical yet precisely choreographed as a dance.





Get to Know This Guy


by George Wolf


He has one Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actor for Revolutionary Road in 2009), co-starred on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, scored a recent viral hit reading that crazy sorority email on video, and is about to battle Superman as General Zod in the upcoming Man of Steel. Still, Michael Shannon may be the best actor nobody knows.

He has been flat out great in films no one saw (Bug, The Runaways) and was nothing short of astonishing in Take Shelter, another film that, tragically, few learned about.

And, he’s great again in The Iceman, though the chances of the film attracting a wide audience may also be slim.

It is the dark, violent, true-life story of Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer who murdered an estimated 100 people.

Shannon plays him with a simmering intensity, daring you to look away as Kuklinski is casually drawn into a deadly profession. Rising from a violent childhood, Kuklinski cares only for his wife and children, showing no remorse as his body count rises.

In one chilling scene, he grants a soon-to-be-victim time to pray for his life. Kuklinski stands idly by, full of contempt as he openly challenges God to stop him.

Director/co-writer Ariel Vroman gives Shannon a sharp, edgy script and surrounds him with an excellent supporting cast featuring Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans and a couple surprising cameos.

To fit the story, Vroman keeps the setting smokey and grim, creating a chilling dichotomy of the loving family man who kills without sympathy, and asks for none in return.

You’ll find no happy endings from The Iceman, just a hypnotic tale anchored by another stellar performance from “that guy” named Michael Shannon.



Countdown: Forgetful Movies for Memorial Day Weekend

This Memorial Day Weekend, we remember our dads, a soldier and a sailor who served their countries bravely before coming home, settling down, and raising children they would eventually drive insane. But before all that, they served their countries bravely, and we truly thank them (and all veterans) for that part. That’s what we’ll remember about George and Mark today. Tomorrow is another story…

In the meantime, let’s count down the best movies about people who really can’t remember a thing.

5. Angel Heart (1987)

Pre-freakshow Mickey Rourke is private dick Johnny Angel, looking for a guy who doesn’t want to be found, maybe because a bearded, egg-eating Robert De Niro is the client searching him out. But something’s not quite right with this investigation. A steamy period piece rich with twists and soaked in blood, Angel Heart is a startling bit of filmmaking and an underappreciated gem.

4. Shutter Island (2010)

Scorsese puts DiCaprio in an island asylum in Boston Harbor to suss out the details in a disappearance. But his investigation – like Johnny Angel’s – turns up more hazy mystery than facts. It doesn’t help that his wife’s ghost keeps popping up.

3. The Hangover (2009)

A clever concept fleshed out with stellar performances in well-articulated characters, The Hangover is more than just a lewd throwaway comedy. But as lewd comedies go, the original is a doozy. Injecting the bachelor party romp cliché with more energy, surprises and hilarity than most 90 minute flicks could handle, this is a comedy that remains funny upon repeated viewings.

2. Memento (2000)

Before Memento, we did not know Christopher Nolan was a genius. And then we did. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) has a short term memory problem. The wrong type of people use this to their advantage. Writer/director Nolan keeps the audience as riveted and confused as poor Leonard with his non-linear approach, and the culminating moments are of devastating genius.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Jim Carrey has never been better than in this Michel Gondry mind bender penned by genius screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. A fascinatingly twisty, beautiful and clever film filled to bursting with exceptional performances, it’s a film everyone should see. We are our memories, even the bad one.

Sadness Lies Beyond the Hills

Beyond the Hills

By Hope Madden

Cristian Mungiu once again drops us into the world of two desperate women coping with the brutal realities of Romanian culture. Beyond the Hills leaves behind the urgent pace of his stellar 2007 output 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but the outlook for vulnerable women is no less grim.

Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) grew up together in a Romanian orphanage. Now adults, both young women have sought security in different places. Alina moved to Germany to work, and returns for Voichita and a chance for the two to waitress on a vacation boat.

Voichita, however, has found a very different kind of solace as a novice nun.

At its core, Beyond the Hills is a potent story of two people who love, but ask too much of, each other. With clandestine love as his compelling core, Mungiu goes on to paint a picture of all that works against the weak as they seek happiness.

What goes unsaid holds more power than anything else in the film, and Mungiu vividly depicts the danger of their love in this community. More than an indictment of religion – although it certainly is that – Mungiu’s film begs you to look deeper. Without fanfare or editorialization, we witness the damage done by childhood abandonment, lifelong institutionalization, an inadequate healthcare system, and the culminating effect of a dangerous desperation to be loved, accepted and safe.

The leads balance each other beautifully. Flutur animates a suspicious, stubborn and alarmingly authentic mix of naïveté and world-wearied cynicism while Stratan’s soulful quiet betrays one more willing to submit for the sake of survival. Their love is never less than genuine, and Mungiu’s canvas of brutal primitivism versus soulless progress would have fallen part without that.

His eye remains impartial, misguided as the behavior onscreen may be. It allows the audience to delay judgment, but also makes it a struggle to find connections with characters. The resolutely unhurried pace also allows the story to open up in its own time, while it tests audience patience. But his tale is worth the effort.

Mungiu has a tragic love story to share, tragic because it finds itself inside a culture in which progress and superstition embrace, perhaps because neither serves the population particularly well on its own.


Fewer Tigers, More Zach

by George Wolf


Yes, Virginia, there is a hangover in The Hangover Part III, and it’s a funny one, but the madcap adventure-filled road that leads to it is a bit uneven.

Following a bona fide classic like The Hangover was always a tough assignment. The crazy freshness that film brought to the what-happened-last-night-formula just can’t be cloned, and the attempt to do just that in part 2 came off as a disappointing inside joke. The third installment gets some of the original mojo back by giving the Wolfpack a new reason get their Vegas on.

That reason is one Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), whose trail of enemies includes Mr. Marshall (John Goodman), a vengeful crime boss that eagle-eared moviegoers might remember from a quick mention in part one.

Seems Marshall wants the millions that Chow stole from him, so he kidnaps the Wolfpack, threatening to kill (who else?) Doug (Justin Bartha) unless Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) can bring their old pal in to face the music.

Director Todd Phillips returns, co- writing the script with his part 2 collaborator Craig Mazin. Together, they craft a tamer, quieter romp, replacing bathroom tigers and hooker weddings with healthy doses of Galifianakis and Jeong.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Those guys don’t need much help to be funny, and Phillips may have realized they were his best chance at newly found laughs. The reason  part 3’s “morning after” scene works so well is because it runs during the credits, sending the trilogy off with a quick reminder of the fun we had discovering the first film. Another entire episode of retracing the Wolfpack’s steps, though, would be pointless, so instead we get a little heist adventure with a side of zany.

There are slow spots, to be sure, but there are laughs as well, maybe just enough to erase that bad hangover from part 2.








Furiouser and Furiouser

Fast and Furious 6

By Hope Madden


There’s this code, see. And while Fast & Furious 6 doesn’t spell it out, I gather it has something to do with steroids and bald heads.

Six! Can you believe this is the sixth installment in this street-racers-turned-international-thieves-turned-good-guys series? Boy, that time sure slid by in a sheen of muscle oil and turtle wax, didn’t it?

Well, this go-round Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson participate in a big-and-bald-off for a little over two hours while some limey tries to steal a world-ending computer chip. Who cares about that, though, when Dominic has Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) to bring back?!

It is nice having Rodriguez back in the cast. Her level of skill is debatable, but her face is an impressive mask of undiluted contempt. Director Justin Lin wisely pairs her with MMA ass kicker Gina Carano, meaning she finally has the opportunity at a fair fight. Otherwise she’d have just had to make the rest of the cast her bitches and be done with it.

Flanking Rodriguez is the predictable assortment of hulks and hotties. Paul Walker took a break from his rockin’ career in pizza delivery to join Pumpasaurus Rex and the Pec-tets. Meanwhile, Tyrese Gibson gets the chance to be uncharacteristically but intentionally funny.

Diesel’s comic moments are more unintentional. He’s unflappable, sporting a weirdly peaceful expression and spouting lines like, “What you found out is for you. What we do now is for her.” He’s like a gravelly voiced Buddha.

Dwarfing Buddha is the enormous Johnson, whose performance feels eerily familiar – same head cock, same arched eyebrow, even the same undersized Under Armour tees. Yes, I believe he may have just wandered accidentally over from the GI Joe set. I think I heard him call Toretto Cobra Commander just now.

Eventually it seemed clear that my best course of action was to unplug the brainstem and let the loud noises and pretty colors wash over me. Ignore the “plot”, disregard the “acting”, and just appreciate the well choreographed car chases and fisticuffs. It was working, too – a little MMA, a little old school WWE and a whole lot of girlfight – until Act 3 reared its bulbous head.

No power to suspend disbelief is strong enough to contend with the epic ridiculousness of the final reel or two of this film.

I’ll have to try harder with FF7, I guess.



Two Sides of Soderbergh for Your Queue


This week, the latest from director Steven Soderbergh is out on DVD, and we’ll pair it with one of his earliest for a twofer from a guy whose style is hard to pin down.  Side Effects is a mystery thriller inside the world of pharmaceuticals, a new addition to his string of mid-budget genre pics. As is often the case with this particular genre, to say much more would be to give away too much. Coursing with Soderbergh’s cynicism and varnished with his laid back style, the film has more in store for you than the diatribe against Big Pharm it appears to deliver at first.

If you’re looking for something really, really different from the same filmmaker, let us recommend his 1996 effort Schizopolis. It is among the weirdest films you’ll ever see. Created as a way to clear Soderbergh’s creative cobwebs, this intensely self indulgent work (we mean that in the best way) follows Fletcher Munson (Soderbergh), speechwriter and emotionally distant husband, and dentist/doppelganger Jeffrey Korchek (Soderbergh again) through the obsessions that keep them from noticing the unsavory behavior of Elmo Oxygen. Or something.

She Bangs, Albeit Unintentionally

Big Bangs

Bangs are very in, I’m repeatedly told as I throw a mild fit in front of friends and strangers. Michelle Obama, Zooey Deschanel and others have brought them back into fashion. But since I’ll never be accused of fashion trendsetting, I don’t care. I didn’t want them.

I just wanted a trim. That’s what I told the lady, assuming that meant she would take basically the same length off every hair on my head, leaving me with more or less the same haircut I’d received the last time I visited.

Sure, I’m not very up on cosmetology jargon. And I can see where it might be hard to figure out what a style is supposed to look like once it’s lapsed as horribly as mine had. Still, who thought “I need a trim” could be interpreted as “Please give me a dramatically different hair cut. One that will be terribly difficult to grow out. And if you could, please make me look exactly like I did in 1987.”

Who would want that? No one – no one – looked good in 1987, least of all me. I should just put on a Warrant tee shirt and some acid washed jeans and pretend I’m the ghost of Tiffin, Ohio past.

So I have bangs. Again. Big, thick bangs.

Like when I was 1.

12 months


And in preschool (the glasses only enhance my beauty)…



High school (not everyone carries their sunglasses to commencement, but given my pallor, I obviously was unused to bright light)…



And on into my adult life. (A super cute baby distracts a young mother from her awful hair.)



Indeed, of my many years on this planet, I believe I have lived bang-free for maybe a total of a decade. It’ s not like it takes months and months of relentless hideousness to grow thick bangs out to match the rest of your stupidly long hair or anything. No one over 9 years old should be wearing barrettes, is what I’m saying.

And now, through no honest fault of my own, they are back.

Before long I’ll be ordering in tomato soup every time it rains!

Curse you, Zooey Deschanel!