Category Archives: New In Theaters

Reviews of what’s out now

They’re On a Road to Nowhere

Prince Avalanche

by Hope Madden

David Gordon Green is a curious filmmaker. Beginning his career with poignant, Southern independent films, he is perhaps best known for the breakout hit Pineapple Express and subsequent bombs Your Highness and The Sitter. He returns to the world of offbeat indies with Prince Avalanche – a film about as offbeat and indie as any you will ever find.

Alvin and Lance (Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch) spend the summer of ‘88 doing roadwork in an isolated, wooded area recovering from the years-old and miles-wide devastation of a wildfire. They’re just two goofy dorks in blue overalls arguing over their “equal time boombox agreement” and painting yellow stripes, mile after mile, week after week.

Avalanche is as sweetly odd as it is casually gorgeous, the wild beauty of the duo’s surroundings an absurd backdrop to their own screwball behavior. It’s a buddy comedy of the most eccentric sort.

Green’s unconventional approach allows Hirsch and Rudd ample room to breathe, and to develop unique and fascinating characters. Rudd’s peculiar Alvin nicely counters Hirsch’s silly Lance, and their placement in this vast wilderness feels so entirely counter intuitive that their adventure takes on an almost surreal humor. Both actors are a joy in a film that commits to taking you places you’ve simply never been.

Green based the screenplay on Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurossen’s much lauded but little seen Icelandic picture Either Way. The meandering pace he gives the work serves its overall themes, but will aggravate a lot of viewers – particularly those seeking a plot. What we get is a generously documented, lovingly observed character study of two outsiders with little in common beyond their own troubles with human contact.

When Green remains focused on the absurdity of the situation, Prince Avalanche charms the impatient viewer into submission. It’s only when he falls back on his own roots in indie cinema – poetically capturing the languid beauty and rustic living – that the slight production feels tedious.

Still, I cannot imagine a more potent antidote to Summer Blockbuster Fever and its symptoms of FX bloat star dazzle than this spare, offbeat film.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

Sometimes Actually Spectcular

The Spectacular Now

by Hope Madden

The Spectacular Now suffers slightly from high expectations. National critics quickly heralded the film the summer’s best, and its quirky indie pedigree is tough to argue. The film marks Shailene Woodley’s first feature since her breathtaking turn in The Descendents. Penned by the duo that delivered 500 Days of Summer, directed by Smashed helmsman James Ponsoldt, and starring the charmingly charismatic, damaged doofus Miles Teller, the film’s buzz certainly felt potentially deserved.

A popular, life-of-the-party high school senior rebounds from a break up by dating a quiet, hard-working, nice girl. Brace yourself, there’s no make-over, no peer pressure, no angst.

No angst – what?!

It’s true. In fact, it is the film’s fresh approach that makes the safe decisions and clichés stand out. For a high school romance with an edge, The Spectacular Now is an engaging dramedy boasting stronger scripting and far superior performances than what you find in other likeminded works. Indeed, it sparkles in comparison to similar genre titles – the sickeningly overrated Perks of Being a Wallflower, for example.

Polsoldt never drapes his high school romance in nostalgia – a common mistake in films such as these – but looks at the situation with the clear view his protagonist lacks. With a handful of exceptions, the writing holds up, and when it doesn’t, credit Teller and especially Woodley for the sheer talent to buoy the occasional weak scripting.

Woodley, who wowed audiences with her turn as the thoroughly modern, cynical teen in Descendents, shows true range that proves her wealth of talent.

Viewers who remember Teller from his recent work in Project X and 21 and Over may see the young actor as a one-trick pony, again playing the likeable screw up with an alcohol dependency. In his performance here, though, we glimpse a bit of the nuance and power fans of his turn in 2010’s Rabbit Hole will remember.

Unfortunately, The Spectacular Now falls too conveniently into a formula framed by the dreaded college essay. Ponsoldt lets his crisis off the hook far too simply, and where the resolution should have felt appropriately ambiguous, it instead seems superficially settled.

But cast that all aside and drink in two of the most fully crafted teens ever to hit the screen. The team of Ponsoldt, Woodley and Teller plumb for that bittersweet combination of longing, confidence, vulnerability and potential that marks adolescence. While his film may be merely better than average, his leads are truly spectacular.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

You’re Next Did Nothing First

 

by Hope Madden

 

It looked like 2013 might be the year of the horror film. First came the visceral thrill of the Evil Dead reboot, then the spectral fun of The Conjuring. With the buzz surrounding the indie fright film You’re Next, it looked like we might be in store for the season’s third solid genre pic.

Nope.

Adam Wingard’s film has been lauded as Scream meets The Cabin in the Woods, which isn’t entirely wrong. You’re Next is a derivative work that copies Scream’s wink-and-nod use of genre tropes and applies them to a home invasion storyline, this time set in an isolated, wooded area.

Pudgy, weak, whitebread Crispian (AJ Bowen) brings his girlfriend to his parents’ secluded anniversary celebration. Uninvited guests in animal masks pick off attendants, but they’ve underestimated one guest.

Wingard is part of a new generation of horror filmmakers, a fraternity style community with members who work together frequently. Indeed, Wingard worked with Ti West on the compilation VHS; Bowan co-starred in West’s House of the Devil; West handles a small role in You’re Next as a boyfriend/filmmaker/victim.

Unfortunately, none of them makes particularly good films.

Not that You’re Next is especially bad. It’s just that, aside from some relatively entertaining sibling bitchiness, most of the ideas are cribbed from better films. Masked home invaders is far scarier in The Strangers; the animal masks saw their debut in 1973’s The Wicker Man ; many of the home invasion defense moves come directly from Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. It’s a long list.

Yes there’s a twist and some humor, but folks calling this film “a cut above” have clearly not seen some of the competition. Hell, You’re Next is not even the best “cabin in the woods” film released this year. What it is, is safe.

You’re Next subverts tensions before they can generate real terror. Wingard either lets the audience in on the secret or injects a bit of humor every time the film gets honestly tense. He undercuts each scene’s opportunity to scare, falling back on humor or action movie one-upsmanship instead.

One of the many genius moves Wes Craven made with his genre-upending 1996 film Scream was to balance humor and scares, to mine that tension that either bursts with a scream or a laugh. That’s the work of a horror filmmaker who knows what he’s doing.

You’re Next is the work of Adam Wingard. It turns out, that’s not quite the same thing.

 

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

Too Good to Hate

 

by George Wolf

 

Here’s a news flash:  Cate Blanchett can act a little bit. In fact, her performance in Blue Jasmine is so effortlessly great, it’s as if we’re discovering her wealth of talent all over again.

It doesn’t hurt that writer/ director Woody Allen has given her a fantastic character to dig into, and Blanchett gives Jasmine multiple dimensions from the very first scene. Jasmine is bending the ear of a fellow air traveler, her neurotic front of superiority on full display. It is a complex role to be sure, but Blanchett has us hooked from the start.

Jasmine’s marriage to Hal (Alec Baldwin) has crumbled, taking with it a luxurious life in New York. Broke and desperate, she’s forced to swallow some of her ample pride and move in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco.

Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay– surprisingly effective) have a suspicious history with Jasmine, while Ginger’s new boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) tries to stay friendly through the constant, sometimes not so subtle put downs. As we witness Jasmine’s effect on everyone around her, frequent flashbacks slowly provide answers to questions from the past.

Though Blanchett and the excellent ensemble cast do find some humor in Allen’s sharp dialogue, this isn’t funny business. After scoring with wonderful, whimsical, globe-trotting comedies the last few years (Midnight in Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Allen comes home to craft a finely tuned drama on common anxieties of modern American class warfare.

The film offers plenty to like, but Blanchett’s Oscar-worthy performance sits at the very top of the list. She makes a shallow, obnoxious character so completely human you can’t bring yourself to hate her.

A sublime intersection of character and actor, Blue Jasmine should not be missed.

 

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

Dismantling the White House

The Butler

by Hope Madden

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Audre Lorde said this in 1984 to propose that those seeking equality stop using the tools of the white, patriarchal society to effect change. Lee Daniels challenges Ms. Lorde’s assertion on a number of levels with his new film, The Butler.

A perusal of Daniels’s work suggests an intriguing if heavy-handed director. He’s drawn to provocative stories, but tales that might otherwise feel subversive tend to spring from Daniels’s camera a little pulpy, a tad melodramatic, sometimes even lurid. His greatest strength to date has been in casting. His second has been in eliciting revelatory performances from those casts. But understated, he will never be.

His latest effort suggests Daniels has leveraged the creditability he earned with Precious (and nearly lost with The Paperboy) to make the leap to Important Hollywood Movies.

How Important and Hollywood? Oprah stars.

This well-stocked cast populates a yarn about a White House butler (Forest Whitaker) who watched his father shot to death in a cotton field and witnessed 8 different presidents and the social upheaval of eight administrations before finally casting a ballot for his country’s first black president.

Cue the strings.

And yes, Daniels employs all the tricks of the trade for his generational eye-witness tale of historical change: era-appropriate clothing and hairstyles, a personal involvement in every major historical event, old people make up.

How he uses these items, however, suggests a slyer filmmaker than some might predict. Yes, his story is of a man who embraced a society-approved role as butler, and in being a good man in the right place, was able to impact cultural decisions. That is, he used the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

Meanwhile Daniels uses the imposing score, slick production values and predictable structure of J. Edgar and other historically sweeping dramas to look at how the slow movement of systemic racism affected one black family. What he didn’t examine was how their noble suffering moved one white man to action. (For that you can see Blood Diamond, Glory, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Ghost and the Darkness, The Blind Side, The Help, and basically every other big budget film on the topic.)

Add to that his cagey casting. Some intriguing and generally successful choices: John Cusack as Nixon, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, and Alan Rickman, sublime as Ronald Reagan. And how ingenious is it to hire Jane Fonda to play Nancy Reagan? Speaks volumes without saying a word, doesn’t it?

The whole affair offers a crafty playfulness hidden by the gloss of the packaging. Is The Butler a self-important, melodramatic tear jerker? Oh, hell yes. But it’s a real surprise as well.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Where’s Crazy Nic Cage When You Need Him?

 

by George Wolf

 

Well, consider the party that was Kick-Ass officially pooped upon.

It’s too bad, because three years ago that film emerged as a violent blast of tongue in cheek fun.  This time around, Kick-Ass 2 provides plenty of violence, but the tongue is far from the cheek, leaving fun in very short supply.

The heroic duo of “Kick-Ass” Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and “Hit-Girl” Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz) is back,  joined in crime fighting by a group of other homemade heroes, including Colonel Stars and Stripes (an uber-macho Jim Carrey).

In response, Kick-Ass’s friend-turned-foe Chris/”Red Mist,” (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) rebrands himself as super villain “The Motherfucker.” Hungry to take revenge on Kick-Ass for killing his father,  The MFer recruits a team of super evil friends to take on the do- gooders.

Director/co-writer Jeff Wadlow (Never Back Down) just doesn’t seem to understand what made the original Kick-Ass so appealing. As violent as it was, it was never mean-spirited, but K-A2 is permeated by a nasty streak that meanders between uncomfortable and downright distasteful. Regardless of what they did or didn’t do in the source comic book, a film is a different animal, and this one is not at all playful.

Jim Carrey made headlines by refusing to promote K-A2, apparently moved by the Sandy Hook shootings to reconsider the film’s tone. You can see now he has a point, though it’s a bit curious why it wasn’t apparent from the start.

Taylor-Johnson and Moretz are effective, both still able to showcase some sweet vulnerability in their respective characters. The script saddles Moretz with the tougher assignment, as Hit-Girl struggles with the transition from sidekick to major player.

The framed picture she keeps of “Big Daddy” (Nicolas Cage) provides a sobering reminder of how much he’s missed in part two. Cage’s hilarious Adam West parody kept the original Kick-Ass grounded in smart mischief, while the new installment plays it much too straight.

The kicking of asses was never the point of Kick-Ass, a point that’s obviously lost on Kick-Ass 2.

Dammit.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 

 

An Exquisite Performance Haunts The Hunt

The Hunt

by Hope  Madden

There is one accusation too insidious to ever truly shake, even when it’s unfounded. The Hunt follows the unraveling of one life tainted by that implication.

Danish filmmaker Thomas Viterberg’s restraint behind the camera and the pen allows this quietly devastating tale to unspool at its own pace. It’s November, and the men of Lucas’s small community are daring each other into the freezing lake. Lucas’s best friend strips to nothing and enters, then of course Lucas has to wade in and pull the cramped and drunken buddy back to safety.

Then it’s on to dry clothes and drinking. Later, it’ll be hunting and drinking. It’s all very rustic, charming and masculine, which may be why something feels off when the mild-mannered and deeply decent Lucas makes his way to work at the preschool.

Very slyly, Viterberg creates an atmosphere that separates the masculine from the feminine in a way that hints at a town uncertain of a man who works with children – even if that man is the same truly nice guy you’ve known your whole life.

Viterberg’s observant style picks up casual behaviors, glances, assumptions and choices and turns them into the unerringly realistic image of a small town undone by a rumor of the ugliest sort. He’s aided immeasurably by the powerful turn from his lead, Mads Mikkelson.

For an actor usually saddled with a villain’s role (indeed, he’s currently playing Hannibal Lecter in the TV series), Mikkelson’s reserved and wounded Lucas is a complicated triumph. He won the top prize Cannes awards in acting for a role that proves a breathtaking range.

His work is buoyed by an impressive supporting cast, the gem of which is the chillingly natural little Annika Wedderkopp.

If Viterberg plumbs small town concepts of masculinity to discomfiting effect, what he does with the self-righteous naïveté of upright citizens protecting their young is positively chilling in its authenticity. We watch helplessly as this tiny pebble of an accusation races downhill collecting snow. The quick acceleration of misguided action is breathtaking.

Viterberg seems almost to implicate the audience, because what is the answer? Disbelieve the child?

And if you do believe – would you behave differently?

Small mindedness combines with protectiveness, disgust with suspicion, until a man is no longer considered a man at all but something else entirely. Viterberg’s concern is not simply what happens during the crisis, but whether that crisis can ever finally be resolved. His deliberate and understated storytelling, along with one stunning performance, makes it an unsettling conundrum to consider.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

Half Damon, Half Ironman

 

by George Wolf

 

Already this summer, a futuristic Earth in decline has had to deal with Tom Cruise and the team of Will Smith and son. Now it’s Matt Damon’s turn, but after a strong setup, Elysium finishes with mixed results.

Writer/director Neil Blomkamp , the visionary behind 2009’s excellent  District 9 , again crafts a futureworld that seems perfectly logical. It is 2154, and wealth inequality has finally led to complete segregation. The rich have fled Earth for Elysium, a man-made environment offering a pristine lifestyle free of overpopulation, disease, and the inconvenience of dealing with “non-citizens.” The poor masses stay behind, kept in check by Homeland security and its team of droids.

One of those left behind is Max (Damon, solid as always), an ex- con working in the droid factory. A tragic turn of events leaves him the perfect candidate to undertake a dangerous mission cooked up by the leaders of Earth’s rebellion, and in short order he becomes half Damon, half Ironman, battling assassins under orders from Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster, laying it on a bit thick).

The parallels to current events are frequent and unmistakeable. From Occupy Wall Street to Obamacare, from Blackwater to immigration reform, Elysium will no doubt provide easy targets for “Hollywood Elite” finger pointing. Truth is, these are some of the same basic tenants Blomkamp explored in District 9, but this time he can’t find a subtle way out.

The visuals are impressive and the premise is well set, as Blomkamp again displays solid storytelling skills and a good grasp on pacing. Things break down when contrivance sets in (to guard against spoilers, that’s all I’ll say) and the film forgoes larger questions for easy, feel good answers.

It’s disappointing, because Blomkamp was on to something. Still, there are tense, exciting moments (with a bit of grisly violence), and, though it remains conflicted, enough smarts in Elysium to keep faith in Blomkamp as a leader in the future of science fiction.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

Skip the Guitar Parts

 

by George Wolf

 

Maybe the thing I appreciate most about We’re the Millers is the acoustic guitar.

The music provides an unmistakeable cue that it’s time to quit joking about family ties and get real about real feelings that are real. Just know these moments won’t last too long, and then it’s back to some pretty damn funny business.

Jason Sudeikis (SNL/Horrible Bosses/engaged to Olvia Wilde/life is good) plays David, a small time pot dealer in debt to a big time pot dealer (Ed Helms, possibly confusing those who still think he and Sudeikis are the same person). To stay alive, David just has to cross the border and bring back ” a smidge, maybe smidge and a half” of weed from Mexico.

He figures a vacationing family would attract less attention down Mexico way, so he recruits a local stripper (Jennifer Aniston) to pose as his wife. After rounding out the faux family with a nerdy neighbor (Will Poulter) as their son, and a young runaway (Emma Roberts) as their daughter, its time to pack up the RV and hit the road!

The four-man writing team at work here sports a decent résumé, featuring screenplays for Hot Tub Time Machine, She’s Outta My League and Wedding Crashers. If those don’t exactly go straight to your funny bone, or more pointedly, if you frown upon the raunchy, stay far away from We’re the Millers.

Otherwise, the film gets better as it moves along. The contrivance needed for some of the gags is usually wiggled out of pretty deftly, as director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball) shows a nice feel for the pacing needed to sell this premise.

Aniston, as she did in Horrible Bosses, proves extremely likable digging into a character’s dark comedic edges. True, playing a stripper offers yet another chance to serve up the cheesecake, but as well as she’s aging, it’s hard to blame her.

She and Sudeikis display a nice chemistry, especially when they’re bein’ bad, and they get solid support from Kathyrn Hahn (“AN-y-th-in” from Anchorman) and Nick Offerman (TVs Parks and Recreation) as fellow RV travelers with surprises for everyone.

There are also a couple “breaking the fourth wall” moments, and some great outtakes as the credits roll. Pandering? Sure, but funny.

The main problem is simple inconsistency. The successful skewering of family cliches is interrupted by awkward reminders that families really are good! Nice is nice and all, but when you hang with We’re the Millers, naughty is where the fun is.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

Disney Misfires without Pixar

Disney’s Planes

by Hope Madden

The tortoise and hare fable meets Top Gun in Disney’s blandly watchable gear-head adventure Planes.

Dusty the crop duster (Dane Cook) wants to fly a prestigious, international air race. His opponents mock and underestimate him, he’s afraid of heights, and he faces a coaching crisis at the worst moment. The odds he must overcome – how can he do it?!

The uninspired waste of time comes courtesy of director Klay Hall (Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure) and screenwriter Jeffrey Howard, who boasts a slew of Tinkerbell-related work. Boast may not be the right word. Together they spawn an uninspired derivative of a familiar concept.

Back in 2006, Pixar released its weakest product to that date, Cars. It was a middling effort – not a bad premise, decent cast, pleasant enough to look at. The reason it felt so disappointing was that it came from the animation genius factory that had already brought us two Toy Stories and found Nemo.

By the time the vehicular mediocrity of Cars 2 arrived, Pixar had exploded with classics WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, and the auto sequel could not help but suffer by comparison.

Disney’s making the connection to the Pixar flick as obvious as possible without actually cribbing characters. Too bad, though, because while Cars is hardly a stellar work, a familiar face to spy in a crowd might have given this flick a glimmer of excitement. (Credit the filmmakers for including the voices of Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards just as Dusty finds himself in the danger zone.)

No real laughs, no memorable characters, no novelty, not enough conflict, no interesting villains – basically, Planes offers nothing we’ve come to expect from an industry revolutionized by Pixar. Disney should try seeing Pixar’s work as an inspiration for unique work rather than an opportunity to cash in.

Verdict-2-0-Stars