Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sundance 2012: Rest of Fest

And the winners are...

Article first published as Sundance 2012: Rest of Fest on Blogcritics.

Ah, another year, another Sundance Film Festival all wrapped up. While I didn’t get to see anywhere near as many films as most members of the press, it’s still always a blast to head up Parley’s Canyon in Utah to catch as many as I can. While I don’t try to rub any elbows in Park City, sometimes it just can’t be helped. When you’re standing on the bus next to Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who seemed delighted to be asked if she really was MEW) you try not noticing. Other celeb spottings (excluding Q&A sessions that is) included Anthony Mackie, Paul Dano, and I was asked if I knew where the restrooms were by Jason Ritter. There may have been more but you just don’t seem to really notice most as they’re usually as bundled up from the cold as you are.

As far as lounges and parties go, I was only able to attend one of each. Along with my fellow press associate Luke Hickman (HighDefDigest.com), our first stop was to the CW3PR RE:treat at the Park City Sky Lounge. Reported celebrity guests included Emily Blunt, Kate Bosworth, Liv Tyler, James Marsden, Ty Burrell, Danny Glover, Justin Long, Jason Mraz, and Traci Lords. There was also lots of swag of which none was offered. Among them were Paul Mitchell, Remix watches, Lyon Fine Jewelry, Alex Stein, and Groupon. While we were hoping to at least manage to be treated to a Burt’s Bees lip balm, it was no such luck, as they seemed to be in a location war with Vita Coco Coconut Water. We grabbed a couple bottles for the road before stopping by the Patron bar where I was lucky enough to be helped to a rather large glass of one of my favorite wines: Moab, Utah’s own Castle Creek Winery’s Gewurztraminer. Unfortunately, I was not able to

Unfortunately, I was not able to make it to the Bertolli Meal Soup Chalet hosted by Gen Art. So we bid farewell to our single lounge stop before we headed back out to try to catch at least one more film before the impending storm began to wreak havoc. Luke was lucky enough to already have a ticket arranged to see Mark Webber’s “The End of Love,” however, I was stuck in what I coined as the waitwaitlist line. Typically the actual waitlist line is where people without tickets can stand in line and obtain a number where they return at least a half hour before the film begins in hopes that one can manage to buy a real ticket.

While Luke confirmed that there were still tons of open seats, I think they cut the line off in order to get the show on the road. No skin off my back. This was when I happened to hop on a bus back to the local Fresh Market grocery store and I managed to stand next to the always gorgeous (even in a shaky bus taken photo) Mary Elizabeth Winstead. It took some fast Googleing to make sure it was really her (i.e. height check and a photo of her husband, Riley Stearns, who was with her) as she was bundled up for the weather and wearing far more makeup than we’re used to seeing in her films (confirmed by her presence during the Q&A of “Smashed”). I have to admit, while I was unusually ballsy enough to ask to take her picture, I didn’t even think to mention I had a ticket in my credentials pouch for the upcoming screening during the week back in Salt Lake City at the Rose Wagner. Although she seemed flattered when I told her that Luke’s wife was Ramona Flowers this past Halloween.

Over opening weekend Luke and I also were invited to a late night party at “The Compound.” Presented by Skullcandy and Bandpage, the night we attended was supposed to be when the scheduled performers were LMFAO (the only reason I wanted to attend anyway). However, due to their cancelation, the new performer and DJ for the night was rescheduled to be Lil Jon and Cisco Adler with food catered by Coalatree Organics BBQ. Coalatree seemed to not want to have arrived early enough to have any food prepared for the early arrivals and while the chicken in their chicken tacos seemed pretty tasty, the tortillas were standard white corn and too far on the dry side. The other sad news for the party is that we also arrived way too early as not even Skullcandy was present. But it was fun to overhear someone spilling the beans that the skinny girls in the tight outfits were being paid to attend. Oh well, better luck next year for us.

This year also managed to feature the one film I have ever truly loathed with every ounce of my being while at the Festival. The less said about “The Comedy” the better. It makes me cringe to think that one percent of the festival’s submissions are shown every year and somehow, someone thought this was better than the other 99%. Jimmy Martin of SLUG Magazine/Big Movie Mouth Off owes me big time for talking me out of line for “The First Time” (which received great word-of-mouth) to suffer through the second film of the festival to feature Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (the other being their own disastrous “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie”). At first I thought maybe it was going to be a film with lots of uncomfortable comedy, maybe along the lines of “Borat,” but director/writer Rick Alverson and co-writers Robert Donne and Colm O’Leary, and the cast, are about as far from the brilliant masterminds of Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles. “The Comedy” is the ultimate in both false-advertising and anti-film.

On a final and lighter note, here are the winner’s for this year’s 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Congratulations to all, even if I only saw one (“Smashed”) winner…

The Grand Jury Prize: Documentary was presented by Charles Ferguson to: “The House I Live In” / U.S.A. (Director: Eugene Jarecki)

The Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic was presented by Justin Lin to: “Beasts of the Southern Wild” / U.S.A. (Director: Benh Zeitlin, Screenwriters: Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar)

The World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary was presented by Nick Fraser to: “The Law in These Parts” / Israel (Director: Ra'anan Alexandrowicz)

The World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic was presented by Julia Ormond to: “Violeta Went to Heaven (Violeta se Fue a Los Cielos)” / Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Spain (Director: Andrés Wood, Screenwriters: Eliseo Altunaga, Rodrigo Bazaes, Guillermo Calderón, Andrés Wood)

The Audience Award: U.S. Documentary, Presented by Acura, was presented by Mike Birbiglia to: “The Invisible War” / U.S.A. (Director: Kirby Dick)
The Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic, Presented by Acura, was presented by Mike Birbiglia to: “The Surrogate” / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Ben Lewin)

The World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary was presented by Edward James Olmos to: “SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN” / Sweden, United Kingdom (Director: Malik Bendjelloul)

The Best of NEXT <=> Audience Award, Presented by Adobe Systems Incorporated, was presented by Tim Heidecker to: “Sleepwalk With Me” / U.S.A. (Director: Mike Birbiglia, Screenwriters: Mike Birbiglia, Ira Glass, Joe Birbiglia, Seth Barrish)

The U.S. Directing Award: Documentary was presented by Fenton Bailey to: “The Queen of Versailles” / U.S.A. (Director: Lauren Greenfield)

The U.S. Directing Award: Dramatic was presented by Lynn Shelton to: “Middle Of Nowhere” / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Ava DuVernay)

The World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary was presented by Jean-Marie Teno to: “5 Broken Cameras” / Palestine, Israel, France (Directors: Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi)

The World Cinema Directing Award: Dramatic was presented by Alexei Popogrebsky to: “Teddy Bear” / Denmark (Director: Mads Matthiesen, Screenwriters: Mads Matthiesen, Martin Pieter Zandvliet)

The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award was presented by Anthony Mackie to: “Safety Not Guaranteed” / U.S.A. (Director: Colin Trevorrow, Screenwriter: Derek Connolly)

The World Cinema Screenwriting Award was presented by Richard Pena to: “Young & Wild” / Chile (Director: Marialy Rivas, Screenwriters: Marialy Rivas, Camila Gutiérrez, Pedro Peirano, Sebastián Sepúlveda)

The U.S. Documentary Editing Award was presented by Kim Roberts to: “DETROPIA” /U.S.A. (Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady)

The World Cinema Documentary Editing Award was presented by Clara Kim to: “Indie Game: The Movie” / Canada (Directors: Lisanne Pajot, James Swirsky)

The Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary was presented by Tia Lessin to: “Chasing Ice” / U.S.A. (Director: Jeff Orlowski)

The Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Dramatic was presented by Amy Vincent to: “Beasts of the Southern Wild” / U.S.A. (Director: Benh Zeitlin, Screenwriters: Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar)

The World Cinema Cinematography Award: Documentary was presented by Jean-Marie Teno to: “Putin's Kiss” / Denmark (Director: Lise Birk Pedersen)

The World Cinema Cinematography Award: Dramatic was presented by Alexei Popogrebsky to: “My Brother the Devil” / United Kingdom (Director and screenwriter: Sally El Hosaini)

A U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for an Agent of Change was presented by Heather Croall to: “Love Free or Die” / U.S.A. (Director: Macky Alston)

A U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize for Spirit of Defiance was presented by Heather Croall to: “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” / U.S.A., China (Director: Alison Klayman)

A U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Independent Film Producing was presented by Cliff Martinez to: Andrea Sperling and Jonathan Schwartz for “Smashed” / U.S.A. (Director: James Ponsoldt, Screenwriters: Susan Burke, James Ponsoldt) and “Nobody Walks” / U.S.A. (Director: Ry Russo-Young, Screenwriters: Lena Dunham, Ry Russo-Young)

A U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting was presented by Cliff Martinez to: “The Surrogate” / U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Ben Lewin)

A World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Artistic Vision was presented by Clara Kim to: “Can” / Turkey (Director and screenwriter: Rasit Celikezer)

A World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize for its Celebration of the Artistic Spirit was presented by Richard Pena to: “SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN” / Sweden, United Kingdom (Director: Malik Bendjelloul)

The inaugural Short Film Audience Award, Presented by Yahoo!, based on online voting for nine short films that premiered at the Festival and are currently featured on Yahoo! Screen, was presented to: “The Debutante Hunters” (Director: Maria White)

The following awards were presented at separate ceremonies at the Festival:
The Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking was awarded to: “FISHING WITHOUT NETS” / U.S.A. (Director: Cutter Hodierne, Screenwriters: Cutter Hodierne, John Hibey). The Jury Prize in Short Film, U.S. Fiction was presented to: “The Black Balloon” / U.S.A. (Directors: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie). The Jury Prize in Short Film, International Fiction was presented to: “The Return (Kthimi)” / Kosovo (Director: Blerta Zeqiri, Screenwriter: Shefqet Gjocaj). The Jury Prize in Short Film, Non-Fiction was presented to: “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” / U.S.A. (Director: Lucy Walker). The Jury Prize in Animated Short Film was presented to: “A Morning Stroll” / United Kingdom (Director: Grant Orchard). A Special Jury Award for Comedic Storytelling was presented to: “The Arm” / U.S.A. (Directors and screenwriters: Brie Larson, Sarah Ramos, Jessie Ennis). A Special Jury Award for Animation Direction was presented to: “Robots of Brixton” / United Kingdom (Director: Kibwe Tavares)

Sundance 2012 Movie Review: “For Ellen”

Performances save the day during the last half.

Article first published as Sundance 2012 Movie Review: For Ellen on Blogcritics.

Knowing next to nothing about a film when you walk into a theater can be both a joy and a burden. It’s usually nice to know at least a synopsis. When all you know is that it stars Paul Dano, it leaves you with even less info. While a great character actor for sure, you just never know what kind of film it’s going to be. Dano has played everything from endowed teen Klitz in “The Girl Next Door” to Paul/Eli Sunday in “There Will Be Blood.” He even got to play a drunken cowboy in this past summer’s “Cowboys & Aliens.” Now Dano gets to explore a more personal side, dealing with growing up and letting go in writer/director So Yong Kim’s “For Ellen” (competing in the U.S. Dramatic category at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival).

Joby (Dano) has just made a long-distance overnight drive to meet with Claire (Margarita Levieva). The two are also meeting with their lawyers to go over divorce papers. What Joby doesn’t realize is that in order to receive his settlement, Claire wants him to give up his rights to their daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo). After a hard night at the local bar, he meets again with his own lawyer, Butler (Jon Heder) to go over his options. That night, Butler invites Joby over to his mother’s house for dinner then the two head back to the bar where Joby starts to come to light on his situation. Joby makes a last ditch effort to see what he’s been missing and sets up a playdate with Ellen where he finally realizes that he truly wants whatever is best for everyone, even if it may wind up being the worst for himself.

I have to admit that during the first 45 minutes or so, I was not sold on the movie. I thought that Dano was trying too hard to channel young Nicolas Cage and the film sort of seemed like it was headed nowhere. Leave it to young Shaylena Mandigo to swoop in and save the day. With her big blue eyes, charming smile, and cute-as-a-button personality, she lights up the rest of the film. One scene toward the end may put a few viewers on edge as you start to question Joby’s intentions. Thankfully, director Kim keeps everything in perspective and lets the scene play out naturally instead of running things into the ground with melodramatics. So yes, “For Ellen” may be one of those tiny independent films you always hear people talking about during the Sundance Film Festival. But it is definitely worth a look if it ever pops up in a theater near you or at least on home video.

Movie Review: “Man on a Ledge”

He may be on a ledge, but you'll never be on edge.

** out of 5
102 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence and brief strong language
Summit Entertainment

Article first published as Movie Review: Man on a Ledge on Blogcritics.

Sam Worthington was sure prepped and ready to become the next big thing. Too bad he still has yet to prove any kind of reasonable acting ability. While his turns in “Terminator Salvation,” “Clash of the Titans”, and “Avatar” gave him the chance to work with James Cameron, at least one of the others gave him some lee way in that he was playing a robot. Something he apparently still hasn’t gotten over with his portrayal of a man out to prove his innocence in “Man on a Ledge.”

Worthington was just fine in “The Debt,” but was of course completely overshadowed cast amongst Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Jessica Chastain. When coupled with freshman director Asger Leth and a screenplay by TV movie screenwriter Pablo F. Fenjves, the writing’s on the wall as what to expect. Maybe if he Worthington wasn’t surrounded by mostly now B-list actors such as Edward Burns, Kyra Sedgwick, and William Sadler, everyone could have put on a better show. But as it stands, “Man on a Ledge” only seems to have Elizabeth Banks on its side in a role that seems like it was originally written for Bruce Willis to play in John McClane mode.

Nick Cassidy (Worthington) has just checked into New York’s Roosevelt Hotel. He tips the bellhop, orders champagne, eats a meal, writes a note, and climbs out the window. Of course he’s instantly noticed by passersby below and soon enough, Jack Dougherty (Burns) is called in and TV reporter Suzie Morales (Sedgwick) is on the scene. Nick has left behind no fingerprints and quickly becomes sensationalized gracing him his biggest fan in Hobo Joe. Nick demands to only deal with Lydia Mercer (Banks) who just happens to be the only cop on the scene smart enough to get a partial print of their mysterious jumper off of a cigarette butt. Flashing back one month earlier, Nick is in Sing Sing Correctional Facility for stealing a ginormous diamond from real estate mogul David Englander (Ed Harris, chomping scenery as feverishly as his character does cigars).

Nick is visited by his ex-partner Mike Ackerman (Anthony Mackie) who informs him that his father is on his deathbed. Soon enough, Nick’s father has passed and he manages an elaborate prison break after the funeral. Nick is now on the lam and winds up at a storage container full of evidence, a fake ID, rolls of cash, and a credit card. All this is used to check into the Roosevelt under an assumed identity but it’s all just a decoy for what’s really going down across the street. Nick’s brother Joey (Jamie Bell), along with his girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), are out to “Ocean’s Eleven” the jewel Englander claims Nick stole from him. Now the three are on an impossible mission to break into Englander’s state-of-the-art vault and prove Nick’s innocence.

We’ve all seen this type of movie too many times before and there’s nothing new to see here. Maybe if director Leth was putting forth as much effort into this film into a better screenplay he could get his foot in the door. However, all he’s managing to do with his debut feature is put the first nail in his own coffin. Not to mention that writer Fenjves seems to think that his screenplay is the smartest “heist” film made in years, going so far as to think that the film needs some heart in all the wrong places. What “Man on a Ledge” only manages to accomplish is 106 minutes, is to prove why it was released in January.

Sundance 2012 Movie Review: “Robot and Frank”

Lightweight but greatly entertaining.

Article first published as Sundance 2012 Movie Review: Robot and Frank on Blogcritics.

The word cute can be thrown around a lot when it comes to movies. The same could be said about lightweight. But are either of these things really a bad thing? When there are always complaints that too many movies are rated R or the opposite – lots of films undeservedly rated R – there’s plenty of room for films that fit into these categories. "Fluff" is just one more word to throw on the pile but when a film is as entertaining as “Robot and Frank” (in the Premieres category at the Sundance Film Festival), I’m going to complain about it even less.

In Cold Spring, New York, a "robbery" is in place. It’s late at night and it appears that a burglar is out on a snatch and grab. Turns out it’s really just old Frank (Frank Langella) reliving the dream. Back in the old days he used to go on grand heists where now he’s stuck at home where his only escape is to the local library. There he gets to visit with Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) and discuss how the library is prepping for a major makeover and about to be turned into a social meeting place.

Frank’s son Hunter (James Marsden) returns for his weekly visit which he has started to feel like is a waste of a ten hour round trip drive to see his old man. This is why Hunter has decided to invest in a caretaker for Frank – a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). It washes dishes, makes meals, and starts growing a garden in the backyard, and has no off switch. At first Frank is completely annoyed by Robot who won’t let him eat whatever he wants insisting that he must eat better to gain the proper nourishment. He also sets up a sleep schedule to keep him from getting disoriented.

It’s not too long before Frank figures out that Robot is capable of learning new skills and comes with its own confidentiality agreement. Now Frank is teaching Robot how to pick locks and casing the library before moving on to a bigger target: Jake (Jeremy Strong), the man responsible for the antiquing of his beloved library. Jake runs a tight schedule with his wife and seems to leave lots of valuable jewelry home alone on a daily basis. Now Frank wants to relive the past by first confiscating an old copy of “Don Quixote” he wants to gift to Jennifer. It’s when his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) shows up that everything may come to an end and Frank could risk either returning to prison or holed up in a retirement home.

It’s no surprise that Sony Worldwide and Samuel Goldwyn Films have partnered to distribute “Robot and Frank,” director Jake Schreier’s debut. With a screenplay set in the near future (2025 as writer Christopher D. Ford deadpanned during the film’s Q&A), they’ve infused the film with lots of humor and heart and keep the sci-fi to a minimum. The film is really about Frank himself and his adventure never gets overtaken by the “Minority Report”/“A.I.” angle. Frank Langella gives a hilarious performance made even funnier when he finally lets loose his two f-bombs which should keep the film at a PG-13 level, thankfully. Originally it is said that Frank was a much more foul mouthed character but as it stands, “Robot and Frank” is definitely one to keep an eye out for once a release date is arranged.

Photo courtesy Park Pictures Features

Sundance 2012 Movie Review: “The Pact”

A “Pact” not worth making.

Article first published as Sundance 2012 Movie Review: The Pact on Blogcritics.

When it comes to horror films, everyone may find something different to be scared of. While being attacked by a horde of balloons someone left as a gift on your doorstep in the middle of the night is one thing, manifesting fear in the context of film is another. What scares one, may make someone else laugh out loud and vice versa. But when the film is anything like Nicholas McCarthy’s “The Pact” (based on his short film from last year’s festival), it’s really just an excuse to rely on the old loud-noises concept to try to frighten your audience. But a good horror movie should be more than loud noises and supposedly ominous tones. I’ve heard awful things about the original short film, and I honestly can’t see how it could be any worse than the feature length version.

I’ll give credit to the opening sequence. It features a girl using a Skype-like app on her laptop who eventually starts hearing noises throughout the house, feeling creepy drafts on the back of her neck, and having to deal with a weak Internet connection. Picking up her laptop and wandering around the house may sound like a good idea while she’s trying to converse with her daughter. That is until she’s standing in the living room and her daughter says, “Mommy, who’s that behind you?” See, creepy and effective. Unfortunately, everything that happens after this opening scene spirals into the depths of mediocrity and eventually stupidity blowing all expectations to the wind.

The story progresses into a mystery hybrid mashup of “Insidious” and “Paranormal Activity” as if directed by Rob Zombie. It gets far too muddled even by horror cliché standards. When a character needs to find pertinent information, however, at least she has the power of Google to compel her. Caity Lotz is our heroine and she gives a good enough performance, but everything is completely undermined by director McCarthy’s big “reveal.” I won’t spoil the surprise, of course, but let’s just say that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. However, while I may have initially outright hated “The Pact,” I kind of respect it a little more after having had to sit through “Lay the Favorite” and the mother of false advertising: “The Comedy.”

Sundance 2012 Movie Review: “Black Rock”

Spending some time on this rock is well worth your time.

Article first published as Sundance 2012 Movie Review: Black Rock on Blogcritics.

The horror/comedy genre is something the Park City at Midnight category knows far too well at the Sundance Film Festival. While it is known to work spectacularly (“Tucker & Dale vs. Evil”), it definitely doesn’t work every time (“Troll Hunter”). And the same can be said about the genre in Hollywood itself; not every series can wind up with the success of “Scream.” Usually they suffer a box office death in spite of the level of brilliance on display (“Club Dread”). When I read that “Black Rock” was written by one of the Duplass Brothers (director Katie Aselton's husband Mark), I knew this had something going for it as the last time he ventured into this territory we were treated to “Baghead.” Together, for Aselton and Duplass, lightning definitely decided to strike as they pull off one of the best female-driven horror/comedies yet.

Sarah (Kate Bosworth) and Lou (Lake Bell) are headed off to an island getaway. Camping under the stars is the name of their game, but things get off to a rocky start when they meet at the dock to pick up estranged friend Abby (Aselton). Tension is immediate and Sarah guilts them into continuing with their adventure when she lies about having cancer. She may come clean about being cancer free eventually, but it worked to show Lou and Abby that the trio still cares more than enough about each other to head off into the wilderness where they used to spend their childhood and even have a time capsule buried out there somewhere, “Goonies” style.

As things reach a boiling point, Abby finally confronts Lou about an old indiscretion and, eventually, Lou apologizes, but not before she can be interrupted by the arrival of another trio consisting of men. One of the guys they actually all know from high school and now they’re stuck with no phone service on a deserted island with three dishonorably discharged self proclaimed “war heroes.” It’s only a matter of times before things take a turn for the worse as Abby accidentally kills one of the men in an act of self defense and his two buddies begin to go a little nuts. Soon enough, it’s a fight for survival as the three girls must let the past go and do everything they can to try to stay alive.

I mentioned “Club Dread” before as that film has a lot in common with this one. The old “Killer Who Will Not Die” scenario hasn’t been anywhere near this hilarious since the end of that Broken Lizard production. However, there are also splashes of the brilliant “Tucker & Dale,” and while this film may work mostly as a spoof take on the slasher-in-the-woods films, there’s far more than a dash of “Deliverance” and “The Descent” mingled throughout as well. Everyone seems to be having a blast both in front of and behind the camera and things never get too goofy to overpower the seriousness of the situation at hand. While I’m sure glad I wasn’t personally stranded on “Black Rock,” it was more than a nice getaway from the rest of fest.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Sundance 2012 Movie Review: “The End of Love”

Leave it to a two-year-old to steal the show.

Article first published as Sundance 2012 Movie Review: The End of Love on Blogcritics.

Sometimes when a director packs his film chock full of famous celebrity buddies it doesn’t always turn out for the best. While Adam Sandler is hands down the worst offender here, it works greatly in Judd Apatow’s favor. When you’re Mark Webber, and your film is making its debut on the U.S. Dramatic ballot at the Sundance Film Festival, having some friends to help you out isn’t such a bad thing. Especially when your friends consist of Michael Cera, Jason Ritter, Amanda Seyfried, Aubrey Plaza, and Alia Shawkat. It may be called “The End of Love,” but it’s doubtful this would ever mark the end of Webber’s career.

Writer/director Webber plays a fictionalized version of himself (along with the rest of the cast), who is an aspiring actor. He also doesn’t seem to have that great of luck in Hollywood. He lives in a spare room at his friend’s house on a mattress he shares with his two-year-old son, Isaac (Webber’s real life son). Being a single parent is hard enough, I’m sure it’s a whole other story when you have to tote your child along to auditions. They visit what at first Isaac calls a park with lots of flowers. He’s obviously too young to understand that they’re visiting a cemetery. Mark’s wife (in the film) has passed away and we’re not told why. Meanwhile, as Mark and Isaac are out running errands, they twice run into a beautiful mystery girl. When they eventually run into her at the playland she owns, he finally introduces himself to Lydia (Shannyn Sossamon).

After Mark finds out his car has been towed he asks Lydia if the two of them can have a ride home. After exchanging numbers, Mark and Isaac go to Lydia’s house for a playdate as she has a daughter of her own. While the kids may be getting along, things take a turn for the premature and Mark is out of there. When he receives a call from Cera that he’s having a celebrity filled game night at his house, Mark looks on Craigslist for a sitter for Isaac in hopes of finding some escape — if just for one night. When he tries to hook up at the party with an old friend, Jocelin (Jocelin Donahue), she learns he has a son and becomes uncomfortable. When he wakes up the next morning after passing out in Cera’s bed, he starts coming to terms with having to face the challenge of growing up and facing his wife’s death.

When your main co-star is your own two-year-old son, it could be either more difficult to make a feature film or easier. As Webber explained during the Q&A following the screening, it was a little of both. Using tactics such as shielded cameras, improvisation, and single takes, he manages to get amazing performances out of his son as well as himself. When you know you aren’t going to be getting another chance to get it right, it counts to make sure you do it right the first time. And if you think that the project could be seen as just a way to pass off home video footage as a feature film, this is far from “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” While Isaac’s naïveté helps make for some hilarious moments, he also manages to coerce a spectacular performance out of his dad, helping to make “The End of Love” so much more than just another throwaway passion project we see every year at the festival.

Photo courtesy Poor Rich Kids

Sundance 2012 Movie Review: “Smashed”

A smashing success.

Article first published as Sundance 2012 Movie Review: Smashed on Blogcritics.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead has been around for quite some time now. She’s played John McClane’s daughter Lucy (“Live Free or Die Hard”) and Ramona Flowers herself (“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”). She’s also popped up in her fair share of genre work as well (“Final Destination 3,” “Black Christmas,” “Death Proof,” and this past October’s “The Thing”). So it was only a matter of time before she finally snatched up a starring role allowing her to show what she’s more than capable of. And in co-writer/director James Ponsoldt’s “Smashed,” they both have a great shot at winning the U.S. Dramatic category at this year’s 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Kate (Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) love to party. We all know people who do. My friends and I save this kind of thing for the weekend but these two spend their married nights hanging out at bars, listening to bands for Charlie’s job and getting drunk. Kate even takes a few sips in her car before heading inside the elementary school where she teaches first grade. One morning Kate throws up in front of her students and they all ask her if she’s pregnant. To save face she goes along with it. Now Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally) is on her side as she was never able to have children and thinks this is going to be wonderful for Kate. Vice Principal Dave Davies (Nick Offerman) however, knows the truth to her situation as he saw her taking some swigs in the parking lot but promises not to say anything.

That night things go from bad to worse as Kate decides maybe she needs to cut back a little, leaving Charlie at the bar. In the parking lot she meets a stranger who seems desperate and just needs a ride home. Kate agrees to help her out but during the ride, said stranger talks her into taking a hit off the old crack pipe. Kate wakes up alone in a strange place and when she’s asked if everything’s okay by Dave, she finally fesses up that things are not okay. Not even close. He also comes clean with her that he’s been sober for nine years and knows what she’s going through. He talks her into joining him at Alcoholics Anonymous where Dave plays her “wingman” and she meets her sponsor Jenny (Octavia Spencer). Now Kate begins the road to recovery where she gets into even more than she bargained for as it puts everything from her job to marriage on the line.

Emotional, hilarious, frightening, and heartbreaking; this is the type of film you expect to see on a daily basis up at the festival – at least if you have the time. When you don’t get to see as many as the rest of the press it really makes a film like Smashed just stand out even more. Winstead gives her all in a true tour de force as Kate goes through the motions of the screenplay. Speaking of, after the screening there was a fantastic Q&A with Ponsoldt, Winstead, and co-writer Susan Burke. They explained they wanted to show things in a more natural way and that even though they based their screenplay on their own experiences, they’re still sure they’re going to have their own naysayers. But everything works, from the performances to the direction. This is one of the best films of the 2012 festival... And I’m not just saying that because I stood next to Winstead on a bus ride through Park City.

Sundance 2012 Movie Review: “Lay the Favorite”

“Lay the Favorite” on anything else.

Article first published as Sundance 2012 Movie Review: Lay the Favorite on Blogcritics.

Sometimes watching a particular film you can’t help but wonder where it all went wrong. The source material may be ripe with opportunity, and there may be plenty of great people involved both in front of and behind the camera. But somewhere along the line, things went from bad to worse in screenwriter D.V. DeVincentis’ adaptation of Beth Raymer’s memoir of “Lay the Favorite.” When I saw the film was being helmed by Stephen Frears, and was written by DeVincentis, the co-writer of his own “High Fidelity,” I held out hope that the scathing reviews weren’t true. But alas, I will freely admit they are. This is a film of “Gigli” proportions, even considering this one stars Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Vince Vaughn, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Beth (Hall) works as an exotic dancer in Tallahassee, Florida. She finally decides she’s had enough of her current job after a client points a gun at her. Her father (Corbin Bernsen) encourages her when she tells him that she wants to live a more exciting life and that she’s moving to Las Vegas to become a cocktail waitress. Talk about dreams of grandeur. She takes her father’s advice to leave her worries “in the rearview” and heads to Sin City. After she’s told to simmer down on the Flip It games, she moves into a hotel room with her dog and starts lying out on the roof with her new friend Holly (Laura Prepon). Soon enough, she is told to check into Dink, Inc. run by Dink Heimowitz (Willis).

Turns out Dink is a bookie who proclaims his job as “professional gambler” – meaning he’ll bet on anything from horse racing to backgammon tournaments to spelling bees. Dink is married to Tulip (Zeta-Jones) who doesn’t like the fact that a naïve girl in a short skirt seems to be trying to make the moves on her hubby. After a string of bad luck and some nagging from the old ball and chain, Dink fires Beth for the sake of his marriage. Now Beth meets cute Jeremy (Joshua Jackson) over the same Flip It and he talks her into moving to New York City where he works as a journalist.

Beth quickly tires of the Big Apple (“It’s like living inside someone’s mouth”) but takes a job with Dink’s rival Rosie (Vaughn). Rosie has just set up shop but quickly moves headquarters out of the states to avoid being picked off by the feds. Somewhere in all this, Beth meets Dave Greenberg (John Carroll Lynch) who has an itch for gambling and a lot of money winds up getting owed to Rosie. Dave goes missing (i.e. won’t answer his phone) and threats are made that Dave may turn Beth in to his parole office. Now Beth has to find a way to get the money back and save her own neck from prison, along with poor Jeremy’s.

If this sounds convoluted, that’s because it most certainly is. And while everything may be played to wacky extremes, and seems to be based on true events, that doesn’t mean that any of it works. While the Sundance Premieres category may be films with more hype in the distribution ring, this thing plays out more along the lines of another awful Elmore Leonard adaptation. It brings to mind the likes of “Be Cool” or “The Big Bounce.” Yikes indeed. The music also makes it sound like it’s supposed to be some kind of comedic western. After finding out the budget on this was $20 million it also makes you wonder what it’s doing in the festival, let alone that someone thought this was better than the other 11,000 plus entries.

Chock full of apparent reshoots already; random scenes seem to have been filmed on different film stock and are a completely different color scheme or just plain out of focus. This is not a good sign for a film that seems to already be missing plenty of exposition as there’s absolutely no way to keep track of what’s going on. At one point Dink tells Beth, “I can hear the logic rattling around in there somewhere,” and it almost seems like maybe Willis was thinking out loud more than a scripted line. And we all know that they say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, and the same goes for everything that happens in “Lay the Favorite,” one of the worst of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival by far.

Sundance 2012 Movie Review: “Celeste and Jesse Forever”

Heartfelt and hilarious, one of my favorites from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Article first published as Sundance 2012 Movie Review: Celeste and Jesse Forever on Blogcritics.

The Premieres category at the Sundance Film Festival seems to be home to films that either already have distribution or are the most likely to gain it. While some press members may think that these films audiences watch wearing their “Sundance goggles,” I disagree. A good film is always a good film and the same goes for the bad. The latest entry into this category also makes for the second time I’ve seen the premiere of a film featuring Rashida Jones at the Eccles Theater in Park City. Last year, “Our Idiot Brother” wound up one of my favorite Sundance entries, and so far the same can be said about her own co-written “Celeste and Jesse Forever.”

Packed to the gills with a hilarious cast, “Celeste and Jesse Forever” tells the story of a couple whom you can tell has been friends since at least high school. They drive each other around town, sincerely encourage each other in their endeavors, and masturbate tubes of lip balm at stop lights. You would hope they’re married. Well, come to find out, they are. But Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have also been separated for six months with a divorce on the way. Their best friends (Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olsen), who are engaged, finally tell them that they can’t hang out anymore. They find it just too weird to see them together, acting as if nothing’s wrong. Now Celeste and Jesse must finally figure out if they should just stay together or finally part their separate ways for good. Having been best friends forever, it takes a young pop star (Emma Roberts), the catastrophes of dating, and an eventual pregnancy for the two to finally face the truth of their situation.

Venturing near “Bridesmaids” hilarity, Rashida Jones has come up with a hilarious and heartfelt film with co-writer Will McCormack (who also happens to play their pot dealing friend in the film). But as for right now, the film could use a little tightening up. There’s a huge subplot featuring the Roberts character that could be cut out altogether and you’d never even know it was there. I’ll give the film some leeway there considering director Lee Toland Krieger made sure we knew that they were still working on the film as of a week before the premiere that Friday morning. Considering as it stands it’s still a lot of fun. Jones throws herself on a more emotional rollercoaster than Samberg, but she sure seems to be keeping the pace in the new race for the women to show they’re just as great at potty humor as the guys are. It’s just that the ladies are bringing along more heart with it which just makes for a greater pay off.

Sundance 2012 Movie Review: “The Raid”

Brutal and exhilarating, one of the best action films in years.

Article first published as Sundance 2012 Movie Review: The Raid on Blogcritics.

The Spotlight section at the Sundance Film Festival generally features films that have already made their premiere and have distribution. We can all give a huge thank you to Sony Pictures Classics now for nabbing up this martial arts film at last year’s Toronto Film Festival that’s now cocked and loaded to blow our minds. I love the genre, but lately, there seems to be an onslaught of these and the technical side of things has been greatly slipping over the years. While everyone seems far more interested in trying to become the next Jackie Chan or Jet Li (here’s looking at you Tony Jaa). But now, without further ado, we can also thank director Gareth Evans for stepping up to the plate.

The premise is extremely simple. A SWAT team is embarking upon a raid of an apartment complex run by the evil Tama (Ray Sahetapy). Rama (Iko Uwais) is just one of the members of the tactical team sent in to take Tama down. He leaves his pregnant wife at in bed and tells his father that he will do whatever he can to bring home his brother, who just happens to be under Tama’s rule, along with Tama’s right hand men, Andi (Doni Alamsyah) and Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian). Once the SWAT team’s cover is blown, it becomes a fight to the death, floor by floor, to take down Tama and his band of badass henchmen at any cost.

While the story itself is as simplistic as it sounds, what Evans has managed to bring us is the most gloriously brutal and entertaining action film to be seen in years. There is some amazing stunt and camera work on display here. With a mix of “Die Hard,” “Old Boy,” “Unleashed,” and “A Better Tomorrow,” this film is a huge leap forward from Evan’s last film “Merantau.” Not to knock that film down, but here we have a guns blazing, fist-flying, stunt-filled action spectacular. If there was any movie I’d tell you to go see first, if I know you love a good action film, it would definitely be “The Raid.”

Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Movie Review: “Joyful Noise”

Far from joyful, just plain noisy. Ryan Murphy, get your lawyers on the phone.

Zero stars
118 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some language including a sexual reference
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Joyful Noise on Blogcritics.

As if 2012 wasn’t off to a bad enough start, with theatergoers enduring early January's “The Devil Inside.” If you thought things couldn’t get any worse than that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present to you another piece of evidence as to the term “dump month” with “Joyful Noise.” As it turns out, Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah are not a match made in heaven when it comes to dueling choir members in this film set in the backwoods of Georgia. But if you think they are, this film is for you. I seriously fear any film this year that winds up being worse than this. I'll admit that I actually like both Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah. Unfortunately, this is far from the days of “9 to 5” and nowhere near “Chicago.”

To make a very long “story” short, in Pacashau, Georgia, G.G. Sparrow (Parton) has just buried her husband, Bernard (Kris Kristofferson). He was the show runner of their town’s beloved Divinity Church Choir. The members of the choir have aspirations to make it big and win the “Joyful Noise” competition. Now the church, lead by Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) has decided to hand over the reigns to Vi Rose Hill (Queen Latifah) against G.G.’s best interests.

Vi Rose’s daughter Olivia (duckbilled Keke Palmer) thinks that to win they should try to incorporate hipper music into their antics. Soon enough, G.G.’s grandson, Randy (Jeremy Jordan) shows up, falls in love with Olivia, and teaches Vi Rose’s son, Marcus (Jesse L. Martin), how to control his Asperger’s by playing T-Pain’s “I’m in Love with a Stripper” on the piano. But now Pastor Dale thinks it costs too much to send them to Los Angeles to win the big competition so G.G. and Vi Rose must come together to make everything work out in the end.

What writer/director Todd Graff has managed to craft here is a film that seems entirely made up of deleted/alternate/extended scenes. Not one transitional scene is on display. Everything literally just bounces around from one thing to the next and with many scenes dragging on for an eternity. There’s even a scene that’s obviously cut from an earlier scene used later as if it’s a whole new day taking place within the film (pay close attention to what characters are wearing). Graff also thinks that a wacky subplot involving choir members Earla (Angela Grovey) and Mr. Hsu (Francis Jue), where she kills him after a night of premarital sex due to his high blood pressure, is just the kind of padding an already far too long film needs.

Why spend nearly 10 minutes showing the choir’s competition at regional's then skip their own performance to show them all on the bus ride home complaining that they lost? Why did they lose? Did Dolly pop a boob? Did her face unstitch? Thankfully, we’ll never know. Unless those scenes show up on the Blu-ray release. If the fault lies with editor Kathryn Himoff, she needs to be run out of Hollywood for cobbling together an even worse film than she was originally handed. I can’t even imagine what the film was like before she got her hands on it. And we all know that Dolly’s getting old, but that’s no excuse for filming the entire movie in soft focus. Plus, she still looks like a Muppet version of herself.

I seriously have no idea who this film is made for. I know a lot of people like to turn their brains off to watch some flicks, but this one requires a lobotomy to comprehend. During an argument between Vi Rose and Olivia, the scene drags on so long you forget what they’re even fighting about. All you know is that the music is trying to cue you in that it’s supposed to be emotional and their tears are trying even harder to sell it. But, buy into you should not. Additionally, you should avoid buying a ticket to “Joyful Noise” at any cost. At one point, Pastor Dale talks about how he “didn’t make this economy,” but if this is the kind of entertainment folks are spending their money on, then maybe it’s deserved to some degree.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Movie Preview: January 2012

Welcome to Hollywood's wasteland.

Article first published as Movie Preview: January 2012 on Blogcritics.

It’s that time of the year again. Yes, the “dump” months of Hollywood are back. And they aren’t looking any better than before. While one particular film may have already earned back 35 times its budget, that doesn’t mean it’s worth your money. I guess the worse the reviews the more interest audiences have, unfortunately. Let’s take a look at what the studios are slinging our way this January.

January 6

Only one wide opening hit theaters and it made a ton of money. We can warn moviegoers all we want, but that still didn’t keep them away from “The Devil Inside.” I seriously hope to see this fall off the radar rather quickly as word-of-mouth spreads faster than the body jumping demon does through the last ten minutes of this mess.

January 13

Mark Wahlberg stars in “Contraband,” what should hopefully be the weekend’s #1 film. A remake of the Icelandic film “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” Baltasar Kormákur (star of the original) makes his Hollywood debut in the director’s chair. Wahlberg stars as a former drug smuggler setting out to protect his brother-in-law from a Panamanian drug lord. Brother Robert Wahlberg is along for the ride with a not-so-bad supporting cast consisting of Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, Diego Luna, and Kate Beckinsale (in the first of two films for her this month). While Marky Mark looks like he’s got an itch to scratch on the poster, here’s hoping for a nice surprise.

Meanwhile, director Todd Graff continues to mine the new niche he seems to have found for himself with this week's “Joyful Noise.” After his directorial debut of “Camp” at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, his career path is starting to look a little rocky. He may have bigger stars in the likes of Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, but this film just looks like the geriatric version of “Glee.” While I do tune in every week to catch up with the talented kids of McKinley High, everything makes this film look like the travesty it’s bound to be.

If you are wise, you will skip “Joyful Noise” and choose to see Meryl Steep’s latest Oscar bait portrayal as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher instead. Rejoining her “Mamma Mia!”director Phyllida Lloyd, I can assure you they’re bound to garner Steep yet another Best Actress nomination. “Beauty and the Beast” also opens in 3D as Disney continues their new trend of re-releasing their greatest hits collection, even if this one’s been available on Blu-ray 3D since October. Is it really worth paying to see in theaters when you probably already have it in your collection? Probably not, but I digress.

January 20

Speaking of milking cash cows, the vampires and lycans are at it again in the fourth “Underworld” film, this time subtitled: “Awakening.” Too bad Kate Beckinsale has returned for her third part of the dead in the water franchise her husband, Len Wiseman, has built. Admittedly, I was kind of excited for these before the first film was released. But what looked like a monster mashed “Matrix” turned out to be just another series leaning towards fans of the other god-awful Sony owned “Resident Evil” films. At least Beckinsale is far more fun to watch in her skin tight leather than Milla Jovovich could ever dream in her chop-suey edited, CGI breast-enhanced, fight scenes. Four screenwriters and two directors later, this still doesn’t look any better than the last three.

On the positive side of things, we do get a new Steven Soderbergh action thriller with “Haywire.” Heavily touted as the big screen acting debut for MMA fighter Gina Carano, let’s hope that Soderbergh brings along his independent film sensibilities to add some panache to the chaos that’s bound to ensue. Armed with a great supporting cast in Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, Mathieu Kassovitz, not to mention Michael Douglas and Ewan McGregor as villains, maybe he can wind up bringing us this year’s “Hanna.” Having a script from Lem Dobbs, a man who knows his way around a good story (“Dark City,” “The Limey,” “The Score”), only seems to improve those chances.

In the meantime, two more action-oriented films are also heading our way. First, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard (as Col. A.J. Bullard) take their fight to the sky in Lucasfilm’s “Red Tails.” TV director Anthony Hemingway makes his big screen debut aided with lots of computer effects to enhance his story of African American pilots in the Tuskegee training program during World War II. On the flip side of things, Ralph Fiennes’ John Logan (“Rango,” “Hugo”) scripted take on William Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” finally hits theaters. Even with a cast consisting of Jessica Chastain, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, and Fiennes himself as the titular character, it’s more than likely that standout Vanessa Redgrave is who shall be garnering our attention come time for the Best Supporting Actress announcement.

January 27

As 2012’s Sundance Film Festival begins to wrap up this weekend, festival alumnus Joe Carnahan seems to be going back to basics. While his last two Hollywood outings have been extremes in excess, he’s got a friend in Liam Neeson (“The A-Team”) who’s pitted against the elements in “The Grey.” While those elements may be a pack of wolves, I’m sure the snowy Alaskan wilderness will give him its due as well. Also in action news, Sam Worthington is a “Man on a Ledge” while a diamond heist takes place across the street and Elizabeth Banks tries to make sense of his motives. And finally, another dump month, another Katherine Heigl calamity makes its way to the big screen. This time it’s “One for the Money” as she plays bounty hunter Stephanie Plum in the debut of Janet Evanovich’s number-titled novels.

February, thankfully, seems to pick up a little bit as we inch closer and closer back to our beloved blockbusters. But in the mean time, choose wisely dear readers, it sure is a typical January out there.

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures, Screen Gems, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Friday, January 6, 2012

Movie Review: “The Devil Inside”

The only scary thing about this is getting the INXS song stuck in your head.

* out of 5
87 minutes
R for for disturbing violent content and grisly images, and for language including some sexual references
Insurge Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: The Devil Inside on Blogcritics.

Oh January, what hath thou wrought upon us now? As if we needed not only another exorcism film, you pair it up with the found footage genre? While it used to be considered a subgenre, there are way too many films out there now for it to be a “sub” anything. The last one I bore witness too was the abysmal “Evil Things,” and while I’ve never been a huge fan of these films, they certainly can work. Give me “The Blair Witch Project” or “Cloverfield” any day. But alas, the annual dump month has now given us its latest opus operandi with “The Devil Inside.”

You'll feel exactly the same way.

Poor William Brent Bell, when your only previous film happens to be about a killer video game (“Stay Alive”) you don’t give your audience too much hope. And no matter how many creepy stills you send out to plague film news sites you better have at least a passable movie to back them up. Filling it with TV actors and trying to convince viewers you filmed on location in the Vatican just makes things even harder to buy. Leave it to Paramount Pictures to launch their new micro-budget branch possibly thanks to the success of their “Paranormal Activity” franchise. But even still, I’d rather sit through any of those over this mess.

On October 30, 1989, police receive a phone call from Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) who informs the local dispatch she has just killed three people. Police investigate what appears to be either an exorcism gone awry or the world’s deadliest hazing. The murders are of course all over the news and her motive is left hanging in the wind. Cut to November 26, 2009 and we meet Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade), Maria’s daughter. She wants to know what happened to her mother that night, why she was whisked away to a Rome insane asylum, and can’t help but worry that it could happen to her as well.

Isabella travels to the Vatican with her trusty sidekick documentarian Michael (Ionut Grama) to unravel the secrets of her mother’s sordid past. After attending a single class at the local exorcism school Isabella quickly befriends Fathers David (Evan Helmuth) and Ben (Simon Quarterman). The two let Isabella onto their little secret that they’ve been investigating supposed possessions on their own and performing exorcism to gather evidence to convince the church that these people need some serious help of the religious kind. Ben tells Isabella that she can learn more in five minutes during a real exorcism than she can after months of class. So sure enough, the quartet embarks on a mission to try to help Maria after Isabella witnesses the release of a woman named Rosa (contortionist for hire Bonnie Morgan).

It’s one thing for a mass of critics to walk out groaning about a feature as flaccid as this, but it’s another thing altogether when the credits role and your audience boos the screen. Yes, even a sold out audience couldn’t even tolerate this dreck. The New Year is definitely upon us and with that it means sifting through the Hollywood disasters of January and February. Thankfully they shouldn’t all be as awful as this and there’s also the annual Sundance Film Festival to look forward to. In the mean time, you may want to steer clear of this one as the only scare it manages to dredge up is of the cheapest kind: a barking dog, that probably knew what kind of movie he was in and just wanted to make sure something tried to scare “The Devil Inside” all of us.

Photos courtesy Insurge Pictures

Movie Review: “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”

The law of diminishing returns need not apply to the “Holmes” series.

**** ½ out of 5
129 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes - A Game of Shadows on Blogcritics.

While I may not have liked anything director Guy Ritchie had directed between his smashing debut of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and his 2009 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes,” it wasn’t for lack of interest. I found “Snatch” to be full of contempt, aside from the squeak toy imbibing bulldog and Brad Pitt’s Pikey accent. But the less said about both “Swept Away” and “Revolver” the better. Yes, Ritchie’s Madonna years are finally far behind him. While I still need to give “RocknRolla” a second go, it still seemed to bring a sense of direction for Ritchie and return him to his roots. And if his “Holmes” sequel, “A Game of Shadows,” is of any indication, he’s here to stay.

With a bigger budget and a far tighter script (courtesy of Michele and Kieran Mulroney), Ritchie and stars Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law have proven Warner Bros. have a mighty viable property on their hands. While their beloved “Harry Potter” series has come to a close, it’s nice to see them putting some effort behind a series for the more adult filmgoer. While most sequels tend to try to continually one up the last, it’s a rarity in Hollywood to broaden, deepen, and build upon what’s come before. With a few new cast members along to up the ante as well, it would appear that the “Sherlock Holmes” films can only continue to improve. I’m sure the two years it took to release a follow up shows a little dedication to the craft more than simply aiming for a cash grab.

It’s 1891 and Dr. Watson (Law) is hard at work on his latest Sherlock Holmes (Downey) adventure novel. Tension has been rising between the French and Germans, and things don’t seem to be gaining any help due to a slew of bombings. Of course, Holmes has pieced together some evidence connecting the bombings to a few circumstantial deaths thanks to a new diet of alcohol, tobacco and cocoa beans. But it’s not until after his beloved Irene Adler’s (Rachel McAdams) “services are no longer required” of the dastardly Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) that it becomes clear that Holmes may have finally met his match.

After a spectacular fight sequence fending off an assassin attempt of gypsy fortune teller Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace), Holmes must band together with his dear Watson who just wants to enjoy his honeymoon. Meanwhile, keeping the newly Mrs. Watson, Mary (Kelly Reilly), safe is Holmes’ brother Mycroft (the always welcome Stephen Fry). After one of cinema’s most hilarious weddings and a grand train adventure through Brighton, Holmes and Watson set out to track down Simza who may hold the key to finding Moriarty through her brother, Renee. Now the game is set for Holmes & Co. to track down Moriarty before he manages to cause an all out war between France and German while getting some vengeance in the process.

Everything works even better here than in the first film which I was particularly fond of. The action is better if not necessarily bigger. The story is nowhere near as convoluted as you’d expect yet holds some grand surprises. The laughs are more genuine and Downey’s cockney riddled accent has even been smoothed out. Yes, things are far greater than they seem in the land of sequels this weekend. While at first I was worried about the quick cut Tony Scott-stylized fight scene that opens the film, it seems like that was only to get you immediately back into the world they created the first time around. Now we get bigger set pieces where you get to really see what’s going on thanks to some stunning cinematography and editing thanks to Philippe Rousselot and James Herbert. And Hans Zimmer’s 2009 Oscar-nominated score makes a welcome return as well.

Also at the top of their game of course are Downey and Law. Their rapport is quite clear and they seem to really enjoy playing their wits against each other. Stephen Fry tries to steal the show from everyone but it’s Rapace who really stands out here and proves her turn as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Lisbeth Salander, was no fluke. Rapace is surely making a name for herself stateside and hopefully her talents remain fully utilized with her next Hollywood outing in “Prometheus,” Ridley Scott’s upcoming return to his own “Alien” franchise. If the franchise continues to bustle about the way it does here than I say that “A Game of Shadows” proves that the real game of keeping the series fresh is what’s truly at foot.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Movie Review: “Young Adult”

Mean spirited and hilarious. See it before it's gone.

**** ½ out of 5
94 minutes
Rated R for language and some sexual content
Paramount Pictures

Article first published as Movie Review: Young Adult on Blogcritics.

As I stated in my review of “Horrible Bosses,” I love my dark comedies. This may not be the first type of film that springs to mind when you think of the second pairing of “Juno” cohorts, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, it’s a welcome change. While Reitman and Cody are both spending their careers growing and evolving, it’s the exact opposite we get from Charlize Theron’s character of Mavis Gary in “Young Adult.”

While Reitman seems to be on a projected path to do no wrong (see “Thank You for Smoking,” along with “Juno” and “Up in the Air” being nominated for Best Pictures), Cody still has yet to prove herself. But if “Young Adult” is any indication of what’s to come, we can still expect the best from her yet. Not everyone was a huge fan of “Juno,” and I am in a huge minority who didn’t hate “Jennifer’s Body,” but this film is a different beast entirely from either of those.

Mavis Gary lives in “The Minneapple,” (aka Minneapolis, Minnesota) where she ghost writes a YA, er… young adult...series called Waverly Prep. Her agent is trying to help her out by offering her one last hurrah to finish the now canceled series with book #178. Life proves to have taken its toll on the divorced author who begins obsessing on what could have been when she receives a baby announcement for her old high school beau Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). Buddy is happily married to Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), who plays in a band full of mothers and he’s very fulfilled with his life choices. But Mavis has hopes of other plans as she returns to her hometown of Mercury to try to win him back and beat his odds together.

Yes, Mavis is a little crazy. And so is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who works at a local dive as bookkeeper and still lives with his sister Sandra (Collette Wolfe). Matt has his own crutch in life (literally), after a high school hate crime left him with shattered legs and a crooked penis because the jocks assumed he was gay. Matt sees right through Mavis’s self loathing and insanity while everyone else around her thinks she’s back in town looking to invest in some real estate. Now, with the help of Matt’s homemade bourbon and a lot of Maker’s Mark (“up” anyone?), Matt and Mavis set out on a course of self discovery and maybe, just maybe, a tiny bit of retribution.

Films filled to the brim with despicable characters up to no good generally don’t do quite as well as those with central characters surrounded by a gawking supporting cast. Thankfully, Reitman and Cody try to give Mavis a little hope, and Theron is able to handle her character with the right kind of hilarity and pity that she deserves. Her Mavis comes off as a cross between her Oscar winning turn as Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” and her recurring Rita from “Arrested Development.” Just because she looks so good for her age doesn’t mean she’s all there.

While everything this time may not be aiming for a little gold statue, it’s nice to see a film tonally leaning towards “Death Becomes Her” or “Death to Smoochy.” Even the original score by Rolfe Kent has an underlying menace that many may not pick up on, but sounds like the most menacing rom-com score ever put on film. So far, it seems as though Reitman stands as the only one who can do justice to a Cody screenplay, although she gets to try her hand with her own material next. And maybe they should just continue working together indefinitely as “Young Adult” proves yet another winner in the companionship.

Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures

Movie Review: “War Horse”

A Spielberg double whammy for your year-end pleasure.

**** ½ out of 5
146 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence
DreamWorks SKG

Article first published as Movie Review: War Horse on Blogcritics.

Grand. Sweeping. Epic. These are all words used to probably describe something a little more old fashioned than what we’re used to these days. Even more so when it comes to Steven Spielberg lately, who actually hasn’t even released a film in four years. While his last feature may have been rather polarizing (“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”), he’s taken a lot of heat over the last few years and has laid claim to a new Hollywood catch phrase called “nuking the fridge.”

Back in the old days of the true Hollywood epics (“Gone with the Wind,” “Ben Hur,” “The Ten Commandments,” etc.) these adjectives were heard on a regular basis. Today they’re nearly unheard of. Sometimes something may seem epic when really it’s just getting confused with being way too long. Leave it to Spielberg to harken back to both the glory days of old fashioned cinema, along with his own unique vision. While he may seem more caught up in the sci-fi of technology as of late (“War of the Worlds,” “Minority Report,” “A. I.”) “The Beard” is back with his big screen adaptation of the Tony Award winning stage play of “War Horse.”

Originally a children’s novel written by Michael Morpurgo, it was adapted as a stage play by Nick Stafford. Performed with puppets, which only brings to mind “The Lion King,” I’m sure it’s a rather magnificently interesting presentation. I think the best way to see the material truly brought to life would be through the film where you can get up close and personal with Joey. Joey is of course the title horse who is born in 1914.

As a thoroughbred, Joey is drunkenly bought at auction by Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) against everyone else’s good graces for his farm. We are told thoroughbreds do not make for good use on a farm. Joey also, before, was being eyed by Ted’s son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), out in the wild. Now that Ted has spent all of his rent money on Joey, his landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) gives Ted until the autumn to come up with the rest. Albert assures Lyons that he can break Joey and they will plow their field to harvest turnips. After the whole town shows up to see if Albert can really break Joey, it takes a fluke rainstorm to show everyone what Joey can do.

After yet another rainstorm ruins their crops, Ted is forced to sell Joey to the Army as England is on the verge of war with Germany and he needs to make good on his rent. Albert tries to enlist but is too young. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston, “Thor”), however, assures Albert that Joey will be taken under his own wing as his personal horse. After Joey is taken off to join the ranks, where Joey strikes up a bromance with Topthorn, Albert is left to farming wondering if he’ll ever see Joey again.

Going into “War Horse,” I’ll admit that I had no idea that the story was actually about Joey. And let me tell you, the film really wouldn’t work any other way. Oh sure, they could have used it as a way to intertwine two connected stories between Albert and Joey, but the film is also about war to a large extent. And since Albert isn’t old enough to fight for country yet, it’s Joey who is taken off to fight the good fight. This is when you realize that we are following Joey’s war torn trials and tribulations. Even if it means that anyone connected to the horse through the war seems bound for death.

Screenwriters Lee Hall (“Billy Elliott”) and Richard Curtis (“The Boat That Rocked,” “Love Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) have provided Spielberg with a screenplay of old school proportions. Even if this is Spielberg’s first foray into digital editing, Michael Kahn is still in tow, who’s been along for the ride on every Spielberg venture since all the way back to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” While Spielberg may have used various cinematographers for his earlier work, Janusz Kaminski has been behind the lens ever since “Schindler’s List.” While some may hate the blooming whites or washed out look of most of their films, Kaminski finally makes things look like an older Spielberg film with a more natural, if not sometimes more digital, appearance.

Special consideration goes out to the cast who of course give their all. I mean, who wouldn’t when you’re in a Spielberg film, right? Especially Jeremy Irvine, making his film debut. But as great as Irvine is, it’s the horse, or horses, playing the part of Joey who really steal the show. Films about animals tend to get taken over by the human story (think “Seabiscuit,” “Secretariat”), but here we get to really see Joey’s story come to life and get a great animal performance. Sometimes I think animals give far better performances than humans anyway. When it comes to horses and dogs, they really take the cake as you can generally tell what they may be thinking. And in the case of “War Horse” it’s a damn good thing; otherwise, it’d just be “Saving Private Ryan’s Stallion.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that with Spielberg at the reigns.

Photos courtesy DreamWorks SKG