Tag Archives: movie reviews

ScarJo X 2 for the Queue

Releasing today on DVD is the most imaginative love story in a decade or more, Her. Writer/director Spike Jonze’s unique vision of the near future offers a compelling, tender peek at what may lie in store for a generation weaned off of intimacy by technology. Scarlett Johansson and Joaquin Phoenix are perfection as the lovebirds, but Jonze and his imagination are the real stars.

 

Another unusual take on romance worth checking out is Joseph Gordon Levitt’s writing/directing debut Don Jon. Coincidentally, the film also boasts a magnificent performance from Scarlett Johansson – just one of several great turns in delightful and loaded cast. Check out Tony Danza! JGL skewers a culture that encourages alienation and suppresses intimacy – two obstacles also facing the lovers in Her. It’s a confident, clever, surprising effort from a filmmaker to watch.

A Few Missing Pages

 

God’s Pocket

by George Wolf

Seedy neighborhoods, sad sacks and shady characters populate God’s Pocket, an uneven drama that gets a big boost from its strong ensemble cast.

An adaptation of Peter Dexter’s first novel, the film is the big screen directorial debut for veteran actor John Slattery (Mad Men). He does show a confident, generous hand with his performers, but Slattery’s instincts for tone and storytelling aren’t quite as polished.

Dexter (The Paperboy, Deadwood) based the story partly on his own experience as a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, when he suffered a severe beating at the hands of a local gang angry over one of his pieces.

Set in a hard knock Philly neighborhood dubbed “God’s Pocket,” the film follows events set in motion by the death of Leon Hubbard (Caleb Landry Jones), a young slacker who is killed while working as a day laborer on a construction site.

Leon’s distraught mother Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) isn’t satisfied with the official version of the accident, and she pressures her husband Mickey Scarpato (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to call upon his semi-connected associates and dig for more details. 

Right off, Jeanie’s suspicions seem desperate. Is there a reason she instantly thinks the death wasn’t accidental, or is it a convenient way to push her unsatisfying husband deeper into dangerous waters?

We never know, and ambiguous motivation is a problem throughout the film. These are interesting characters that beg for insightful backstory, but all we’re given is the neighborhood. Yes, we get that these are tough people who close ranks against outsiders, but this story needs more than vague cliches to truly resonate.

Slattery, who helped adapt the screenplay, also has trouble finding the appropriate tone to incorporate the black humor. It’s no easy feat, even for masters such as the Coens or Jim Jarmusch, and here we’re left unsure about feeling for these people, or laughing at them.

There’s nothing unsure about the cast. Hoffman, who reportedly wanted to move away from these “loser” roles before his tragic death, wears Mickey’s burdens like an old shirt you can’t bear to part with, only reinforcing how badly his talent will be missed.

Hendricks gives Jeanie a smoldering vulnerability, and enough mystery to justify the obsessive attention of Shellburn (Richard Jenkins), the boozing newspaper columnist whose life is awakened by her charms.  Jenkins, customarily excellent, cements Shellburn as the differing reference point the film needs.

God’s Pocket ends up resembling a book with too many missing pages. There are some fine moments here, all searching for a foundation strong enough to keep them from drifting away.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

Neighbors

by Hope Madden

How do you feel about dick jokes?

Chances are, you’ll enjoy Neighbors regardless, but a particular appreciation for penis humor is definitely a plus. It’s a frat movie. What else were we expecting?

Here’s what you should expect: fully developed characters, solid performances, onscreen chemistry from the weirdest of pairings, clever direction, sharp writing, and pacing quick enough to make it tough to catch your breath between jokes. And, of course, dick jokes.

Nice, right?

Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne play new parents still adjusting to the boring responsibility of adulthood when a fraternity buys the house next door.

What Rogen lacks in range he makes up for in schlubby comic ability, particularly with a script so self-aware and custom-made to his strengths. At one point, when the couple is arguing over who’s to blame for their situation, Rogen’s Mac tells his wife that she has to be the responsible grown up. “Haven’t you ever seen a Kevin James movie?” he asks her. “We can’t both be Kevin James.”

While Rogen is reliably Rogen, Byrne explores new territory and conquers. She more than carries her comic load, and her chemistry with Rogen, in particular, is wonderful.

Truth be told, there’s not a one-note character in the lot. Neighbors never traps itself with old frat boy stereotypes. Sure, they’re all good-looking, vacuous partiers who abuse pledges – that is the basic conflict in the film, after all – but the characters themselves get a fuller treatment than what you might expect.

Zac Efron looks good without a shirt, but he also hits all the right notes, bringing a little depth and empathy to the role of frat president Ted. Dave Franco makes an excellent second banana, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays nicely against type as slacker stoner Scoonie.

The laughs are continuous, and while the film certainly has a heart, it’s not the kind of sappy last-minute-lesson-learned crap that derails most raunchy comedies. There’s an awkward tenderness and humanity that informs the film from start to finish that makes any lessons feel more honest and earned.

Director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) reigns in his tendency to toward excess, bringing the film in at a brisk 96 minutes. He crams those visually arresting minutes with as much deeply flawed human comedy as possible. And at least half that time is spent without mention or sight of a penis.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

 

Definitely Likeship

Hateship Loveship

by  Hope Madden

Ohio native Liza Johnson continues her impressive evolution as a filmmaker with her latest independent drama, Hateship Loveship. In it, Johnson balances plot threads and character arcs, giving each just the depth necessary to keep the action moving. Her tale itself just can’t quite keep up.

What’s most interesting about the film is that it announces Kristin Wiig as a dramatic performer. She plays Johanna, an observant but almost invisible creature raised on responsibility, hard work and solitude. She’s hired by the McCauleys to keep house and, ostensibly, keep an eye on the teenaged Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). But when Sabitha and her best friend Edith (Sami Gayle – perfectly pitched mean girl) play a cruel prank, things get complicated.

Wiig mostly impresses in her first entirely dramatic role. She carries a lot of screen time and carves out an unusual but believable character. Johanna is a bit of an enigma, but Wiig finds a true center that makes her feel real. It’s a reserved, understated turn, but at times her performance can be blunt when nuance is called for.

Wiig’s blessed and cursed with a talented supporting cast. Blessed in that each actor brings vulnerable authenticity to the role; cursed because her performance feels sometimes less than natural in comparison.

The often underrated Guy Pearce does well with a role that could easily have become clichéd. Because his Ken is so likeable, even when his actions are not, emotions and tensions run uncomfortably high during the film’s most dramatic segments.

Steinfeld, saddled with a smattering of forgettable characters since her standout performance in 2010’s True Grit, finally gets the chance to shine again. She and Gayle articulate the emotional and moral roller coaster that is adolescence without ever feeling trite or predictable.

Nick Nolte also graces the screen as the benevolent curmudgeon, and the film is certainly the better for it.

Mark Poirnier’s screenplay adapts a short from Alice Munro. Their work understands the unpredictable resilience humans sometimes find, and when the focus is on the unraveling of the cruel joke, Johanna’s story is almost unbearably fascinating. But in drawing out the tale to a feature length running time, it begins to feel like a pile up of contrivances.

There’s a lot to like about Hateship Loveship, though, including performances that will help you overlook the flaws.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdI8RCyhhYg

TV Comes Full Circle For Your Queue

The big screen upgrade to fan favorite teen TV detective Veronica Mars is available today on DVD and Blu-Ray. Kristin Bell ably shoulders this self-aware, witty and fun retread. Fans of the show will be thrilled while the uninitiated are just as likely to enjoy the seedy antics of Neptune, California.

Another great fan favorite to make the leap to the silver screen is Strangers with Candy. Stephen Colbert’s stepping stone program follows the wildly hilarious high school mishaps of “reformed” drug addict/stripper/overbite victim Jerry Blank (the genius Amy Sedaris). It’s such a joy to see the cinematic version take that same twisted after school special approach, but Colbert, Sedaris and company are insanely funny no matter the size of the screen.

Raunchy Comedy Countdown

We are cautiously optimistic about Neighbors, the new comedy starring Seth Rogan and Zac Effron. With a 97% right now on Rotten Tomatoes, it may just be the next great R-rated comedy. Heady company, if you think about it. And we did. Here, in no particular order, are our 15 favorite R-rated comedies.

Team America: World Police

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPBX47zSktc

Superbad

This Is Spinal Tap

The Hangover

Blazing Saddles

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLNQv19YpG4

Bridesmaids

Animal House

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoS3-yHoaSY

Caddyshack

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrTqenN1SqQ

Tropic Thunder

40-Year Old Virgin

Pineapple Express

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYg2EJLJids

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Borat

Office Space

Old School

Moving Films, Impeccable Performances For Your Queue

The wonderful, must-see Chilean import Gloria drops on home audiences today, boasting a beautiful performance by Paulina Garcia in the lead role. A sort of coming-of-middle-age tale, it’s a film of surprising honesty and candor, with every emotional moment heightened by Garcia’s generous performance.

 

Treading somewhat similar territory and yet telling a tale entirely its own is Starting Out in the Evening. Here’s another film boasting an absolutely magnificent central performance, this time from the ever-reliable Frank Langella, who plays a long-retired writer coaxed back into the profession and into life. It’s bittersweet and deeply touching, with Langella hitting every emotional note perfectly.

This Week’s Countdown is Off Like a Prom Dress

It’s  almost May…what’s that I smell? Lilacs? Goose poop? Fresh spring roadkill? Nope, it’s that similar fragrance mashup of boutonnieres, hair spray, and desperation that equals prom.

Let’s all relive our own prom anxieties while the kids struggle through their real-life horror, shall we?

 

Carrie (1976)

Yes! Best prom movie ever! Sure, it opens like a ‘70s soft core porno with images created by a director who has clearly never been in a girls’ locker room. But as soon as that bloody stream punctures the dreamlike shower sequence, we witness the definitive moment in mean girl cinema.

No, Senior Prom, or “Love Among the Stars,” doesn’t go as well as it might have for poor Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) and her classmates. Contrite Sue Snell (Amy Irving), who’d given up her own prom so boyfriend Tommy (William Katt, sporting an awe inspiring ‘fro) could accompany Carrie, sneaks in to witness her own good deed. Unfortunately for Sue, the strict rules of horror cinema demand that outcasts remain outcasts. Sure, Sue shouldn’t have been mean to Carrie in the first place, but being nice was the big mistake. Only bad things would follow.

Quote: They’re all going to laugh at you.

 

Prom Night (1980)

This bland Jamie Lee Curtis slasher crystalized a formula that would be mimicked (often more successfully) for decades. Open with a flashback, turn it into a secret kept among a handful of friends, flash forward to one big event these friends are planning, nightmare resurfaces and red herrings await.

But that’s not the reason to see Prom Night. See it for the super-colossal dance floor boogie. Go Jamie Lee and Jamie Lee’s thumbs, go! Is that Leslie Nielsen? Who brought that glitter? It’s always fun to see someone die on prom night.

Quote: It’s not who you go with, honey. It’s who takes you home.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cVcnApjsvk

 

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

No one rocks a brown corduroy suit at a formal dance like my husband, but Napoleon Dynamite comes in second. And what about Deb’s awesome sleeves? That’s a styling couple.

Kip may have found his soul mate, but poor Napoleon’s still swimming the tepid pool of young love, llama food, best friends, delusional uncles, ailing grandmas, and sweet moves. Thank God for it.

Quote: I like your sleeves.

 

Grease (1978)

Poodle skirt to hot pants, that’s the transformation at the heart of this generation-pleaser. Did Sandy (Olivia Newton John) have a yeast infection by the time she got those pants off? Well, of course she did, but it was worth it to call John Travolta a stud and do a frisky dance in the Shake Shack.

Let’s not forget the prom, though. Cha Cha DiGregorio (the best dancer at St. Bernadette’s…with the worst reputation!) might have planned to dump Kenickie and steal Danny (Travolta) away from the fair and timid Sandy, but she did not know the hygienically questionable lengths Sandy was willing to go to keep her man.

Quote: It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s what you do with your dancin’ shoes.

 

Footloose (1984)

See this one now, not the ridiculous remake. (How do I know it’s ridiculous? Because it’s a remake of Footloose, for Lord’s sake.)

Kevin Bacon moves to a hyper-conservative town and has to dance his way out. John Lithgow scowls. Sarah Jessica Parker looks unfashionable. Chris Penn learns to disco. Tears are shed, families are mended.

Quote: If our Lord wasn’t testing us, how would you account for the proliferation, these days, of this obscene rock and roll music, with its gospel of easy sexuality and relaxed morality?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nSXtZPKms4

 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

Years before Sarah Michelle Gellar began her 145-episode vampire battle royale, and one year before writer Joss Whedon would pen the animated masterpiece Toy Story, Kristy Swanson joined that guy from 90210 (Luke Perry) to stake the undead at the big high school formal as the silver screen Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Bonus points for casting choices in Paul Reubens and Rutger Hauer as marauding, stinky vampires. Additional points for an early, non-Oscar nominated role for Hilary Swank.

Quote: All I want to do is graduate from high school, go to Europe, marry Christian Slater, and die.

 

Pretty in Pink (1986)

Part 3 of the Molly Trilogy, Pretty in Pink mopes with a cool redhead (Ringwald) from the wrong side of the tracks as she stokes her anxiety about prom and its place in her existential dread.

Some claim you can learn all you need to know about a person by asking which is their favorite Beatle. I disagree. The real question: who did you root for, Blane or Duckie?

Quote:  His name is Blane?! That’s not a name, that’s a major appliance.

 

The Name Says It All

Alien Abduction

by Hope Madden

 

You have to give director Matty Beckerman and his Alien Abduction cast and crew credit. They do the most they can with what they have.

This efficient if uninspired thriller succeeds by taking standard elements and executing them with skill. Whether it’s the premise (aliens come for a family out camping in the hills) or the format (found footage), the concept for this film could hardly be more tired. But by simply handling all aspects of the production with competence, Beckerman reminds us that there is a reason these elements have been overused. They strike a chord.

Riley Morris (Riley Polanski) is an adolescent with autism. He, his parents, and his older siblings head out on a camping trip into the Brown Mountains. What we see of their ill-fated adventure comes to us via Riley’s handheld camera, evidence found in a pasture in the hills.

Beckerman never cheats with the found footage approach, which in itself is a victory. Riley uses the device as a way to separate himself from reality while still participating in it, and his family – comfortable by now with this self-soothing habit – go with it.  This effectively sidesteps any “just put the camera down and run” moment in the film.

Beckerman also actually relies on the footage from a single point of view, rather than inexplicably stringing together webcam feeds and surveillance footage with the boy’s home movies. It may mean little to many, but I for one was pleased by the integrity of the found footage concept.

This first person point of view also requires a limited vision of the creatures (because, when one shows up, Riley naturally turns tail and runs). It gives the creatures a shadowy menace, keeps us from noticing any flaws in costuming, and gives the whole affair an air of constant dread.

Performances are better than average for the genre as well, with the exception of a handful of trite or overly sentimental moments. (The short period where Riley turns his camera on himself is not only the film’s weakest scene, but is a direct rip off of Blair Witch’s weakest scene – an odd call-back to the originator of the genre.)

You couldn’t call Alien Abduction groundbreaking or unpredictable. The title tells you all you need to know, in fact. But screenwriter Robert Lewis knows how to warp Americana folklore into a compellingly familiar campfire yarn, and Beckerman knows how to product an efficient, effective thriller.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

Two for Your Queue, If You Can Handle Them

 

Israel’s hypnotic fairy tale nightmare Big Bad Wolves releases today. We follow one driven cop, one driven-to-madness father, and one milquetoast teacher accused of the most heinous imagined acts. Not for the squeamish, the film boasts brilliant performances, nimble writing and disturbing bursts of humor. It treads in dark, dark territory, but repeatedly dares you to look away. It’s a bold and brilliantly realized effort.

It’s hard to imagine anyone really aching for a double bill like this, but it’s impossible to watch Big Bad Wolves without thinking of the under-seen and under-appreciated Prisoners.  Hugh Jackman is a revelation as the father bent on finding his missing daughter in a film that bludgeons your senses and leaves you shaken. Impeccable casting, relentless intensity and crafty writing make this a challenging, fascinating film.