Friday, May 29, 2015

The Rock vs. Earthquake: "San Andreas" indefensibly dumb but fun popcorn fare

San Andreas (2015)
114 min., rated PG-13.

Seeing an earthquake devastate the Golden State probably won't be much of a fun escape for Californians. However, "San Andreas" exploits those real-world fears to such loopy extremes that this amalgamation of "Earthquake," "The Towering Inferno" and "The Poseidon Adventure" comes so close to being the disaster movie to end all disaster movies and beat out Roland Emmerich's supremely preposterous but armrest-clenching "2012." Directed by Brad Peyton (2012's "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island") and penned by Carlton Cuse (TV's "Bates Motel"), this summer picture is very much out of the Irwin Allen/Roland Emmerich handbook, positioning reliable and/or competent actors on a big-screen version of a Universal Studios amusement ride. Yes, it's monumentally dumber than rubble. Sure, the disaster itself looks like the visual artists went to town on their computers and destroy the Golden Gate Bridge for the gazillionth time. All things considered, "San Andreas" is a fun entertainment in a check-your-brain-at-the-door, you-get-what-you-pay-for kind of way.

All in a day, LAFD search-and-rescue helicopter pilot Chief Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is hit with a few sucker punches. His soon-to-be-ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), is ready for a divorce, judging by the papers he's received in the mail, and she and their college-aged daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), plan to move in with Emma's new boyfriend, high-powered architect Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). With a family tragedy still hovering over him, he's about to make things right when a catastrophic event hits the west coast. Meanwhile, Caltech seismologist Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) and his partner, Dr. Kim Park (Will Yun Lee), who have discovered a computer program to predict earthquakes, are caught in a quake themselves at the Hoover Dam, resulting in Park's death after a heroic act. Hayes returns to Pasadena with TV journalist Serena (Archie Panjabi) awaiting an interview before his assistants make out a reading that the San Andreas fault is about to collapse. As Blake is thrown into danger but accompanied by London brothers Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) in San Francisco, Ray and Emma come together and hope to save their daughter this time as redemption for losing their other.

Nit-picky audiences who require more realism and poetic dialogue in their disaster flicks need not apply in going to see "San Andreas." There will always be a place for mindless popcorn fare, and this $100-million disaster-porn extravaganza doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is and will only work if your disbelief is fully suspended. As sheer spectacle that inspires thrills, "San Andreas" delivers when centering on the destruction, showcasing its giant budget in wow-worthy form. The opening is a portentous jolt, wasting no time placing an irresponsible teenage girl in peril. Taking your eyes off the road and texting will nearly get you killed, let alone on a a twisty mountain road in the San Fernando Valley, but so will a falling boulder that knocks the girl off the road. One sequence where Emma's lunch with Daniel's uppity sister (Kylie Minogue) at a sky restaurant ends in the building crumbling is actually pretty harrowing. The film must also have its tongue planted firmly in cheek when Ray and Emma tandem parachute, landing to safety on the second base of AT&T Park, and you bet there's a "getting to second base" joke ready. As the film's destruction escalates to an absurdly over-the-top level, a cargo ship and shipping containers in a tsunami even get thrown in because they can. When it takes time to saddle us with stock character development, the family drama is more creaky and soapy than compelling. Even when backstories are revealedRay and Emma lost their younger daughter on a water-rapids trip and aren't about to leave their oldest—they're mostly two-dimensional fodder for the natural disaster. In the early going, expectations are raised a bit for how characters will be sketched, only to turn back and tell its audiences to get real. Emma's land-developing boyfriend, Daniel, might actually be a nice guy, until he's just another cowardly, selfish jerk whom you hope gets crushed. TV journalist Serena isn't greedy in getting the scoop, understanding Hayes' loss, but then she just becomes an afterthought hiding underneath desks. Otherwise, it's part of the fun seeing characters have so many close calls as they're thrust into danger but not too much, while a sea of extras are instantly killed.

Dwayne Johnson, a movie star with brawn and charisma, makes the best of a role that is more archetype than fully formed person. His Chief Ray Gaines is like the Last Man on Earth, a hero who can save anyone, as long as they are part of his immediate family once the real destruction happens. Carla Gugino sincerely acts accordingly with terror and awe as everything goes to hell around her, even if most of the wreckage was probably added in post, and gets to utter the one F-bomb in a feisty manner. 29-year-old Alexandra Daddario is back to playing a nubile teenager again when she's clearly older, but as Ray and Emma's daughter Blake, she's able to bring a resourcefulness to a part that still requires her to be saved. Daddario also shares a nice chemistry with Hugo Johnstone-Burt's English engineer Ben, and Art Parkinson is a cutie patootie with useless information that will come in handy later on as his little brother Ollie. Paul Giamatti is probably too good for the entire movie, but he's completely believable as Dr. Lawrence Hayes, bringing more plausibility to the scientific goings-on than the script deserves. 

"San Andreas" is patently ridiculous and indefensibly dumb. That much is true, and as long as the eye-popping effects do their job, it's not hard to have one's attention diverted from the stockpile of clichés and through-the-roof amount of coincidences from the dopey screenplay. If the nearsighted scope of characters lessens the dramatic tension, the chaotic action set-pieces are shot on an epic-sized scale without ever resorting to incoherent shaky-cam and spaced out enough to not feel numbing. Compared to any one of Michael Bay's noisy orgies of machinery socking other machinery, there are actually individually grand moments that are impressively staged and will be remembered in hindsight. Slapping on a cornball drowning-resuscitation scene that shouldn't have been, as well as some laughable flag-waving, still somehow don't sink "San Andreas" into a disaster area. Its intentions are so pure that the filmmakers must have known what they were doing all along. Suckers for disaster movies will instantly know where they stand.

Grade: B - 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Capital Punishment: "Human Centipede III" 100% hateful

The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence) (2015)
102 min., not rated (equivalent of an NC-17).

Dutch bad boy Tom Six was on to something with 2010's "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)." Built around one seriously twisted and disgusting conceptone that saw three people surgically connected from ass to mouth to form a single digestive systemthe "100% medically accurate" film dared you to watch and be shocked. It was unbearably tense and deeply frightening because it showed you just enough without feeling gratuitous. His meta, "100% medically inaccurate" 2011 follow-up, "The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)," simply went too far, being repulsive for the sake of being repulsive. That miserable experience was the apotheosis of bad taste and visual cruelty masquerading as extreme filmmaking. In a way, it was singularly horrific that describing it as "vile" or "repellent" would come across as additional compliments, but that would be giving the filmmaker more power and way too much credit. In this third and mercifully final entry, writer-director Six has gotten awfully cynical and self-congratulatory, making "The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)" the death rattle of the most perverse trilogy ever committed to celluloid. It may be "100% politically incorrect," and proud of it, but it's even aggressively, depressingly worse than you'd expect. Who knew it was possible?

Presiding over George H.W. Bush Prison in Texas, lecherous warden Bill Boss (Dieter Laser) has lost his mind, or maybe he never had it, considering he uses boiling waterboarding as a torture method on a convict. With squat accountant Dwight Butler (Laurence R. Harvey), he comes to a solution to main control of his dangerous inmates: use Tom Six's "The Human Centipede" movies to form the largest chain yet. When Boss and Dwight are paid a visit by Governor Hughes (Eric Roberts) who threatens to shut down the penitentiary if the convicts aren't handled properly, they go through with the sick experiment. For consultation, director Tom Six himself pays Boss and Dwight a visit, stating that he can't wait to prove his naysayers wrong, and then Dr. Jones (Clayton Rohner) finds Six's films medically accurate enough to sew together 500 inmates into the ultimate human centipede. 

If this one-trick-pony series wasn't your cup of tea to begin with, "The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)" definitely isn't going to change your mind. Writer-director Tom Six has, if anything, upped the ante each time, as in he's made his centipede even longer and violated one's peepers. If one just wants to get in, catch a glimpse of the final money shot, and get out, the most morbidly curious viewer or "Human Centipede" completist will have to wait 85 interminable minutes. (In close-up, we even get to see the actual sewing together of one inmate's face to another's buttocks.) Everything about "The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)," though, is a smarmy, bilious geek show. Apparently, the film gets a kick out of the reprehensible warden calling his sexpot secretary Daisy (porn star Bree Olson) by the name "Tits," sniffing her chest, inserting his finger up her short skirt and then wiping his finger over his face. It finds "black humor" in his favorite snack being fried clitorises, one of which is mistaken for a candy by Daisy. You also probably have to share Six's insanely off-putting sense of humor for the following sequences. Bill Boss castrates an inmate (Robert LaSardo), who's held down against the wall, then rubs the blood all over his bald head, and later eats the inmate's cooked testicles on a platter for lunch. Afterwards, Boss has a nightmare that the castrated inmate stabs his kidney and proceeds to rape the wound.

In a case of would-be clever casting, the actors who each played a villain in the first two films are both here but placed in different roles. Dieter Laser created a chilling villain out of Dr. Heiter in the first installment. Here, his racist, sexist, Cuban cigar-chomping Bill Boss is an abrasive cartoon, constantly making whiny outbursts at the top of his lungs. He's clearly barking-mad, but there's nothing to him and no pleasure can be taken in hating him, either. Laurence R. Harvey, with a pencil-thin mustache, was at least creepily committed as the obsessed fan in the second film, but his Dwight is just a toady with only a few less screws loose. As for Eric Roberts, he looks well aware that he has probably seen better days career-wise. Once Six appears as himself, everyone (save for Laser's Boss) fawns over him upon his arrival. At the same time, the orange-suited inmates boo during a screening of both of Six's films, so the filmmaker can come off at once smug and self-deprecating with a slap on the wrist and a pat on the back.

Calculatedly unpleasant and distasteful, juvenile and hateful to the zenith, "The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)" is also obnoxious and worthlessly acted. For an exercise in sadistic exhibitionism, it's even quite boring. It's not fun. It's not scary, although the implication that Six could possibly find his next idea with a "human caterpillar" is plenty frightening for different reasons. It doesn't even make for a biting satire on the dehumanization within the prison system. There's no vessel of so-called humanity to even latch onto or invest in. There's no craft or artistry this time, either. Whereas the first took on an art-house restraint and the second a black-and-white palette that still left nothing to the imagination, this third one is like a grindhouse-style black comedy with low-rent, porn-level production values. At the end of the year, it won't be hard to think of a more morally and socially bankrupt endurance test whose sole reason for existence is to gross you out and repel you. All you have to know is that it's the pits, a piece of crap that plays like a coprophiliac rapist's wet dream and inspires so much vitriol for everyone else. 

Grade:

Friday, May 22, 2015

It's a Dreamer's World: "Tomorrowland" a fun, inventive ride of childlike wonder

Tomorrowland (2015)
107 min., rated PG.

With so much secrecy surrounding Disney's "Tomorrowland"a concept brought into fruition from Disney World's futuristic, utopian attraction in the Magic Kingdomthe finished product is a pleasant surprise that only disappoints in its resolution. For his sophomore foray into live-action filmmaking following 2011's tremendously thrilling "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," Pixar director Brad Bird (1999's "The Iron Giant," 2004's "The Incredible" and 2007's "Ratatouille"), working from a script he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof (2013's "World War Z"), distinguishes his film from most summer tentpoles with the gee-whiz imagination of a dreamer. A family entertainment that matches the tone and spirit of many live-action Disney offerings from decades' past, such as 1975's "Escape to Witch Mountain" and 1991's "The Rocketeer," "Tomorrowland" is a good-humored, inventively whimsical sci-fi adventure that's a lot of fun, particularly for the first two-thirds. Basically, it's "Atlas Shrugged" for kids.

Tired of being lectured about the doom and gloom of the future and believing in a better tomorrow, resolute teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), daughter to a soon-to-be-laid-off NASA rocket scientist (Tim McGraw), spends her nights sneaking in to sabotage the Cape Canaveral launchpad. Then she comes into possession of a mysterious pin with a "T' on it. When she touches it, she lands in a wheat field with a futuristic city in the distance. The pin's magic only works for her, and once she gains entry to the futuristic city of Tomorrowland, the pin runs out of juice. In her search for another pin, Casey finds herself at the clutches of a robot force, but she's saved by the one who gave her the pin: the pint-sized Athena (Raffey Cassidy). From there, Athena sends Casey to see Frank Walker (George Clooney), a former dreamer-turned-cynic now living a reclusive life on a farm. At first, Frank wants nothing to do with the kid and Tomorrowland until he realizes that they both might be able to save the fate of the world.

When Tomorrowland's Governor David Nix (Hugh Laurie) at the Hall of Invention attraction tells a young Frank his jet pack that doesn't really fly looks fun but won't change the world, "Tomorrowland" could be summed up the same way. The film introduces Frank and Casey in an annoyingly cute framing device, where one keeps talking over the other. Fortunately, once Frank starts to tell his story as a young boy, the film flashes back to the 1954 New York World's Fair, where a young Frank (played by Thomas Robinson) lugs around his backpack with his jerry-built jet pack. These '50s sequences that begin on the opening day of the "It's a Small World" boat ride are an example of the film's sense of joy and wide-eyed, childlike wonder. Then, when Casey first comes across the mysterious pin with her other belongings as she leaves jail, the switch to a golden wheat field is a staggeringly cool effect. It gets even cooler from there once she tests out the pin's magic in a field near her house that eventually leads her into a lagoon. Transporting her body to Tomorrowland, we discover the futuristic land right along with Casey and drink in the spectacular sights on a monorail, like synchronized diving pools and space cadets flying every which way on their jet packs. Tomorrowland itself is a sight to behold, and we've rarely seen anything like it, but once Casey and Frank actually get there, it feels like too little is at stake and the script shifts into telling over showing with a lot philosophizing about what Tomorrowland stands for. 

Director Brad Bird and screenwriter Damon Lindelof (he of "Lost" and "Prometheus" fame) pose more questions than answers, which is fine, but here, there is so much exposition and yet not enough world-building through images, save for the one introductory scene with Casey. If the totality of "Tomorrowland" is less than the sum of its parts as a so-called "mystery box," that doesn't take away from the imagination and excitement felt on a scene-to-scene basis. Before one realizes there are no surprising mysteries to really unlock, the film engages, keeping the details of its plot close to the vest for a while. Aided by some impressive CG work and Michael Giacchino's rousing Spielbergian music score, director Bird also executes several genuinely exciting, crazily choreographed set-pieces. The central show-stopper has Frank's booby-trapped tech house being invaded by strange men in suits, à la "The Matrix's" Agent Smith, before he and Casey take off to Tomorrowland in his bathtub (!). Also, in one of the film's giddily loopy highlights, Keegan-Michael Key and a crazy-haired Kathryn Hahn crop up as an eccentric pair of shopkeepers in a Houston sci-fi memorabilia store called "Blast from the Past," with visual cameos by a one-sheet of Brad Bird's very own "The Iron Giant" and merchandise from "Star Wars" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still." 

George Clooney might be the biggest marquee name, and his charm still shines through as the disgruntled Frank Walter, but Britt Robertson is the star and she will go far after this. As Casey, she's a likable, plucky protagonist to follow, and her back-and-forth banter with Clooney's Walter is breezy and amusing, representing young optimism and old cynicism. Likewise, Raffey Cassidy is a complete natural and delight, playing wise beyond her years, that she could have a career if she wants one. Though it doesn't make or break the film, Judy Greer briefly appears in a video with Casey as a young child, but her disappearance is oddly never mentioned. Is Tim McGraw's Eddie Newton divorced or a widower? Fortunately, there is a give-and-take between the emotional undercurrents of the characters and the spectacle. One also awaits for the relationship between the now-old Frank and still-young Athena to become creepy, but it luckily doesn't really go there. "Tomorrowland" actually has a soul, and for the first two chunks of the film, it has the makings of becoming a Disney classic, until that third act comes in. The film begins laying on its well-meaning soapbox idealsthe present world lives in fear of doomsday disasters and a state of hopelessnessa bit thick but not enough to deter from all of the good will the film has already set up.  Even if the destination isn't entirely satisfying, "Tomorrowland" is all about the journey. It's enough to bring out the little kid in you.

Grade:

They're Here But Less Scary: "Poltergeist" remake doesn't do much wrong but barely stands out

Poltergeist (2015) 
93 min., rated PG-13.

In the summer of 1982, the Steven Spielberg-created, Tobe Hooper-directed "Poltergeist" was a box-office success and a splendidly ooky fright film, the gold standard of haunted-house spookers. Today, its PG rating is questionable, and anyone seeking to go to the kitchen for a midnight snack will have their pants spooked right off of them. How can one forget that disturbing "face peeling" hallucination moment? Or, little Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) signaling the presence of "The TV People" with "They're here!" while sitting thisclose to a screen of white noise? Or, that mangled tree snatching up a screaming child? Or JoBeth Williams falling into her inground pool full of mud, skeletons and headstones? They're hard to beat, and frankly, the 2015 re-imagining of "Poltergeist" has nothing on the original. Yes, horror remakes are rarely a good idea and tend to be lazy, milquetoast carbon copies. But, as unnecessary as it is to reheat a classic like "Poltergeist," this umpteenth remake is more functional and shruggable than outright bad. When a cover of an already-pristine hit comes with baggage for being a cover, the fact that it surpasses fearfully low expectations more than expected isn't so bad.

This time, it's the Bowen family moving into a development in Illinois where their home was built above a cemetery, and it's no spoiler to say that the headstones were moved but not the bodies. A victim of recent cutbacks at John Deere, unemployed, in-debt-up-to-his-eyeballs Eric (Sam Rockwell) and wife Amy (Rosemarie DeWitt), a stay-at-home mom who's put her writing career on hold, try to make the best of their new suburban home with their three kids. The eldest, cell-obsessed Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), couldn't be less enthused; Griffin (Kyle Catlett) is scared of the dark, making matters hairier when his bedroom happens to be the attic with a creepy tree in plain view from his skylight; and 6-year-old Madison (Kennedi Clements) wastes no time making imaginary friends in her closet and talking to them through the staticky TV in the middle of the night. When the parents go to a dinner hosted by Eric's new boss, Kendra gets stuck babysitting her siblings, only to encounter electrical wiring issues and have her little sister taken into the purgatory of her closet by some pissed-off spirits. Eric and Amy turn to the local college's Department of Paranormal Research, headed by Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams) and her two assistants, Boyd (Nicholas Braun) and Sophie (Susan Heyward), and later on, reality TV's "Haunted House Cleaners" ghostbuster Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris). Maddy is still in the house, but she's trapped by the poltergeists who need her to lead them out of purgatory and into the light and they're not about to just let her leave.

In heading up this new incarnation, director Gil Kenan (he of the 2006 animated kiddie-horror gem "Monster House") and Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (2013's "Oz the Great and Powerful") adhere quite closely to the beats of the original picture, probably taking the "if it ain't broke…" expression to heart, despite the additional updates of iPhones and drones and a climactic tweak that beefs up the middle child's redemptive arc. Judged on its own merits, this "Poltergeist" does have its compensations. Before the Bowen family moves in, the title of the film is niftily imprinted in the grass, and Kenan enlists cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe to give the film a respectable polish and some stylish fluidity in his camera movements around the house. Only does the film does seem a little rushed, nicely developing the family but then anxious to get to the key moments rather than building more tension. There's something off about the house much too soon. Not to worry, the film still has its share of solid payoffs in the frights department, particularly a bag of ugly clowns attacking Griffin (one of the clowns' red string nose is an admittedly creepy small touch, to boot) and Kendra's encounter with a black ooze in the garage. Griffin being yanked out of the house by the hulking old tree above his window is also shot on a grander scale, despite some ropy CGI. Another sequence mines the foolish "don't stick your arm in there" trope but ratchets up the tension with a power drill. Finally, a view into "the other side" in the depths of Maddy's closet is neatly and ghoulishly rendered. With those out of the way, there are several predictably timed scares of the "boo" variety that mostly feel like money shots for the film's trailer. The unforgettable "face peeling" moment is even treated as a throwaway here and not the show-stopper it was. 

If it weren't for appealing actors like Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt, who can make a potentially hokey story seem authentic, there would be even less validation for retelling a tale that wasn't broken to begin with. Rockwell, playing one of the cooler movie dads, excels with loose, sharp-witted delivery (his reaction to Brooke getting shocked by his stair banister is priceless) and DeWitt actualizes confusion and sadness as a mother losing her child. In the "Carol Anne" role, Kennedi Clements is cute as a button and precocious, repeating every bad word her big sister blurts out, as the endangered Madison, even if no one can replace the late Heather O'Rourke. While Saxon Sharbino gets to be more involved as teenager Kendra than the original's Dominique Dunne and sells some amusingly bratty moments, Kyle Catlett's Griffin leaves the most lasting impression out of the three Bowen children. He has a genuine arc, beginning as a fraidy cat who regrets not looking after Maddy and in the end bravely finds it in himself to be his mommy's "super boy." Since no one else could be a match for the uniquely eccentric Zelda Rubinstein's Tangina, Jared Harris lends some personality as Carrigan, whose rehashed "This house is clean" line gets its own joke and has a story for each of his scars, and Jane Adams brings quirkiness and compassion to the role of Dr. Brooke Powell.

One can't shake the question that if this new "Poltergeist" didn't go by that iconic name, would it be more effective? As a stand-alone film, it moves briskly and there is a sense of fun, but when certain sequences are recreated, it's hard not to compare. Indirectly, the 1982 original has already been remade before"Paranormal Activity," "Insidious" and "The Conjuring"—without reclaiming the title, but those other, better films carved out their own identities. 2015's "Poltergeist" doesn't do much wrong; it just doesn't do much that stands out or distinguishes itself beyond the competent, nor is it particularly scary. There's no need to crucify it, but there's also no reason not to re-visit the superior version from thirty-three years ago instead.

Grade: C +

Friday, May 15, 2015

Let's Hear It for the Girls: "Pitch Perfect 2" a welcome, fan-pleasing sequel

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) 
115 min., rated PG-13.

2012's collegiate-a cappella comedy "Pitch Perfect" was a pleasant surprise, winning over even the most unsuspecting grouchos. A buoyant crowd-pleaser with replay value, it was rendered inspired and often hilarious with a game, likable cast in harmony with irresistible music throwbacks and an acerbic, quotable script that an encore was bound to happen. Three years later, director Elizabeth Banks, producer and co-star of the first film, rounds up the troops and returning screenwriter Kay Cannon for her first feature, and for a return engagement that can't be the mic-drop the original was, "Pitch Perfect 2" is more than copacetic for those who still find themselves quoting the first one. Though the film noticeably runs out of steam, cramming in as much as it possibly can, the cast and writing match in comic verve, making sure the entire package still hits that funny-sweet spot without seeming foolish or desperate. If you liked it the first time, you'll probably like it again. 

"Pitch Perfect 2" finds our Barden Bellas, Barden University's all-female a cappella group, three-year champions, until they botch their winning streak at the Kennedy Center, thanks to Fat Amy's (Rebel Wilson) humiliating "wardrobe malfunction" on stage in front of President Obama and First Lady Michelle. Slapped with the warning of a suspension, they can only be reinstated by competing in and winning Copenhagen's 2015 World A Cappella Championship, where no American team has ever won, but they're daunted by their intimidatingly talented German rivals, Das Sound Machine. Meanwhile, Beca (Anna Kendrick) is facing the pressures of her senior year and feels all of her time dedicated to the Bellas is taking time away from her true aspirations to be a music producer, so she slips away to an internship at a record producing studio, unbeknownst to her team, particularly laser-focused second-in-command Chloe (Brittany Snow). At the same time, the girls welcome freshman Emily Junk (Hailee Steinfeld) for not only being talented in her own right but for being a "legacy" whose mother (Katey Sagal) was a Bella alumna. The Bellas already have their work cut out for them, but will Beca further ruin their chances by being preoccupied with her secret internship? 

As with any sequel, you want the same magic but not just more of the same. "Pitch Perfect 2" doesn't do much about changing the narrative beats that we already saw the first time, but it is so hugely likable and eager to please that it's easy not to mind. Kay Cannon's script still has plenty of fizz and wickedly sharp one-liners, but it could be tighter were it not for all of the scattershot subplots. If you didn't think you needed more time with Fat Amy and the proudly obnoxious Bumper (Adam DeVine) and their no-longer-suggested romance, its payoff is a hilarious declaration of love from across a lake, obviously cued to a song (Pat Benatar's "We Belong"). The film not only checks in again with Beca and Treblemaker member Jesse (Skylar Astin), who have remained a couple since we last saw her win him back, but new-to-the-fold Emily also gets wooed by Jesse's adorably dorky, magic-obsessed roommate, Benji (Ben Platt). Meandering a little too much to keep the brisk pace going, the film still cohesively hits home its messages about bonding as a team and finding one's own voice again. The Copenhagen championship number, nicely shoehorning in Jessie J's "Flashlight" as Emily's original song, is also a strong finish with surprising emotional oomph. 

Juggling broad laughs and snappy verbal exchanges, the film pops the most during the interactions between the Bellas. While the first "Pitch Perfect" was largely an ensemble piece, the endlessly charismatic Anna Kendrick was the glue and the narrative followed her Beca's journey. She still keeps everything together here, as Beca learns to get away from mash-ups and find her original voice, but Hailee Steinfeld nicely steps in as the newcomer with a cute, loose enthusiasm for comedy. The mousy, saucer-eyed Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) still doesn't speak her outrageous one-liners above a whisper that it's just as adorably weird as before. The use of Flo, the token Hispanic, is a little indelicate and stereotypical, but "Pitch Perfect" newcomer Chrissi Fit makes sure every line delivery gets a reaction. There's even a welcome self-awareness in acknowledging the insignificance of Ashley (Shelley Regner) and Jessica (Kelley Jakle), two of the Bellas who were practically extras in the first film. Director Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are, once again, dynamite reprising their color-commentator shtick as Gail and John, while never breaking their announcer voices when dropping stingingly caustic remarks that almost go too far but still land a laugh. Above all, the unstoppably out-there Rebel Wilson is at it again as Fat Amy, hijacking scenes and bringing down the house with every physical gesture and one-liner she gets her hands on. It's also sweet and empowering to see such a plus-sized young woman being confident and in charge of her own romance. 

If "Pitch Perfect" was biting but always sweet-natured, "Pitch Perfect 2" is even more of an equal-opportunity offender this time—shots at Indians, Hispanics, women, you name it, it's here—but never crosses the line into callous and overly mean. Behind the camera, Banks does bring a flashier style to the a capella scene with even more stage performances without cutting them up too much to not make out the choreography. While one could see where some of her montages and set-pieces go on too long—a college party, the leading up to the World Championship in Copenhagen, etc.—there are more memorable trade-offs, like an underground "Riff-Off" in a super-fan's (David Cross) mansion basement, where the real Green Bay Packers get to be good sports and steal laughs; Beca's constant failed attempts at insulting the Das Sound Machine leaders (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Flula Borg) come out more like compliments ("Your sweat smells like cinnamon!"); and a bit at Beca's internship where she shows her worth on producing a Christmas jingle for Snoop Dogg, who's very endearing as himself. Keegan-Michael Key's part as Beca's producer boss also amuses, and it's surprising that a running joke involving him insulting an intern full of bad ideas gets better as it's repeated. Finally, a team-building camping retreat, headed by type-A former Bellas leader Aubrey (Anna Camp), culminates with an unexpectedly sweet moment and reprisal of Kendrick's hit song "Cups" around a campfire. There are those rare comedy sequels that surpass their predecessors, like "22 Jump Street," "A Very Brady Sequel" and "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," but "Pitch Perfect 2" is more like "American Pie 2" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," which is to say that it's just as good as it needs to be. You can't hiss at the same pleasingly kooky energy and spirited vibes if they work and are just as undeniably entertaining the second time.

Grade:

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Death Race 2015: "Mad Max" one hell of an operatic, bonkers ride

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
120 min., rated R.

It's been almost thirty years since Aussie director George Miller last helmed a "Mad Max" movie with 1985's "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," the third Mel Gibson-starrer after 1979's "Mad Max" and 1981's "Mad Max: The Road Warrior." Let it sink in for a minute that Miller is the same man who last gave us "Babe: Pig in the City" and the animated "Happy Feet" films about dancing penguins. His fourth opus set in the post-apocalyptic desert wasteland, "Mad Max: Fury Road," isn't something we see every day, especially in a big, muscular summer picture from a big studio. It's breathtakingly bleak and grim yet anarchic, visceral, strange, eye-popping and exhilarating, a dystopian action-western knockout fueled by breathless adrenaline and spectacularly badass spectacle that leaves very few bones to pick. It's official: "Mad Max: Fury Road" is the real deal of the summer season. "Avengers: Age of Ultron," who?

Haunted by visions and voices of his murdered wife and child, cop-turned-lone-wolf Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) just wants to survive the desert wasteland. It's survival of the fittest and the most precious resources are water and gasoline. The Citadel is ruled by tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who keeps the water mostly to himself. When Max is captured, he is nearly branded and then becomes the "blood bag" for the brainwashed Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of many of Immortan Joe's minions called "war boys." Luckily, his hopes for survival are shared by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Immortan Joe's rig-driving lieutenants who has gone rogue and is being targeted for treason. On the run and still out for retribution, Furiosa has rescued and stowed away The Five Brides, among them Toast (Zoë Kravitz), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee), Cheedo (Courtney Eaton) and Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Immortan Joe's most prized property for being pregnant with his child. En route to the only ideal location known as "The Green Place," not all hope is lost for Max, Furiosa and the young women.

A revamped, amped-up-for-2015 but stand-alone reboot of the 1979 ozploitation original, "Mad Max: Fury Road" returns to the desert with a vengeance and breathes vitality into the franchise and the way we look at action-genre filmmaking. Favoring practical effects and stunt work over anything fake or added in post, George Miller never allows his discovery of new-fangled technology, like CGI used to bring a sandstorm to life, to suck the excitement, danger or the lack of a safety net out of his extravaganza. Buzzing fast and furiously, the pacing rarely drags its feet, but pulls over just enough times to not exhaust from the relentless onslaught of nihilistic chaos. Simple and lean without much exposition to be shoved down our throats, the story is virtually one long chase. Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris cut to the chase, literally, dropping viewers right in without instructions, albeit one that exists as more than a mere clothesline on which to hang action set-pieces. There are characters and narrative stakes here, guiding us from point A to point B and then, without giving away any story beats, back to point A. 

Shaping up to be one of our most intensely committed character actors working today, Tom Hardy has such a formidable presence even as his Max is a man of more grunts than words (he doesn't even give his name until the very end). Though the loss of Max's family is the sort of backstory that just has to be accepted, it is disappointing that flashbacks and hallucinations are the only attempts for context. That's no problem, though, as it could be argued that this is Charlize Theron's movie as much as it is Hardy's. With a shaved head, the grease she applies as a smoky eye up to her forehead and a mechanical arm, Theron's rebellious Imperator Furiosa might even be tougher and more resilient than any of her male counterparts, forming herself a spot next to Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley and Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor. Her robust physicality makes her game for an intense match of fisticuffs against Max before they become allies and then she gives the enemy his gnarly just desserts. In the part, which might only give the actress a little more to say than Hardy, Theron is riveting, lending a much-needed soul and moving sadness once the underlying motivation of Furiosa comes to the forefront.

Supporting parts are much more than window dressing. Virtually unrecognizable as zombie-looking war boy Nux, Nicholas Hoult makes a lasting impression, bringing layers to a desperately devoted young man who has been molded into a kamikaze warrior by the Citadel's ruler and heads toward self-realization once his promise for being reborn after self-sacrifice will never happen. Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played "Toecutter" in the first "Mad Max," is chillingly scary, based solely on his darkened eyes and long white hair and Bane-like intonations, while the rest of his face is hidden behind a skull-faced respirator and his body encased in a plastic shell to cover his boils. Of the sexy but pure concubines Furiosa hides in her rig, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoë Kravitz, and Abbey Lee stand out the most, outwitting their male captors when needed. While little development is allotted to any of them, these women refuse to be victims anymore, taking bolt cutters to their chastity belts, and when any one of them is put in danger, we actually care. And, for those who base the quality of every movie on passing the Bechdel Test, "Mad Max: Fury Road" is equal-opportunity for testosterone and estrogen.

Blending the psychedelic, heavy-metal and steampunk sensibilities with the dusty and action-packed, "Mad Max: Fury Road" is like a bonkers, operatic rush delivered by a madman. Each set-piece is awesomely staged with a giddily gonzo, demented abandon, as if Miller has been sitting on every money shot for a whole 30 yearswell, here they are being unleashed. Imaginatively designed with touches out of a campy, anything-goes freakshow, from the "milking room" full of overweight women pumping out milk, to the drumming war boys and a marionette-like guitarist with a flame-throwing electric bass as the mast of one of Immortan Joe's convoys, to war boys atop arcing poles on top of their vehicles, the film never stops being a glorious (and highly amusing) feast for the eyes and keeps topping and reinventing itself. From top to bottom, the technical artistry is superlative. Cinematographer John Seale brings a vivid, sun-burnt palette to every tactile and arresting frame, then casts the night scenes in blues that could be mistaken for black and white, while coherently handling all of the vehicular mayhem with kinetic, in-your-face bravura. Adding a dose of urgency, the pounding score conceived by Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg) has all of the orchestrations of an electric rock opera. Here on out, every action movie on its way this summer better watch its back or step it up a notch because "Mad Max: Fury Road" is the one veritably wild hell of a thrill ride to beat. There won't be a dry mouth in the theater.

Grade: A - 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Queen of Comedy: Wiig impresses but "Welcome to Me" feels uneasy

Welcome to Me (2015) 
105 min., rated R.

After "Bridesmaids," no one can say Kristen Wiig has picked the same like-minded project again and again (2012's "Friends with Kids," 2013's "Girl Most Likely," 2014's "Hateship Loveship" and "The Skeleton Twins"). In admirably flexing her dramatic muscles, she keeps being drawn to characters who seem to be unlike her likable personaflawed, complicated, often unsympathetic sad-sacks. "Welcome to Me" undoubtedly marks Wiig's most offbeat, daring and trickiest role to date as a woman with borderline personality disorder, but the film wants to be a tragic comedy and it doesn't quite stick the landing. While BPD isn't depicted in a dishonest, mawkish way and Wiig's performance deserves props—and, really, in a fair world, she should be receiving accolades for her work—it's difficult to say what response the film is trying to pull from the viewer. Uncomfortable though it may be, what is supposed to be alternately biting and funny just rubs one the wrong way.

Wiig plays Alice Kleig, a Palm Desert, California, woman with borderline personality order who's just gone off her meds. She lives alone in her apartment, flooded with labeled videotapes of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to feed her obsession. She hasn't turned off her TV in eleven years. Oh, and she uses masturbation as a sedative. When she plays the lottery and wins $86 million from the California Stacks Sweepstakes, Alice spends her winnings in all the most reckless ways. First, in her unstable state of health, she breaks off sessions with her therapist, Dr. Moffet (Tim Robbins), who believes his patient is a danger to herself and others. Then, she buys an indefinite stay in a reservation casino hotel and whips out her checkbook in front of the struggling TV informercial production studio co-owners, Rich (James Marsden) and his sensitive brother Gabe (Wes Bentley). Against the objections from Rich and Gabe's producer Deb (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and director Dawn (Joan Cusack), Alice buys 100 episodes to be the host of her own talk show, "Welcome to Me," a one-woman vanity show that chronicles her dreams, her personal grudges, and key moments in her life through reenactments.

Director Shira Piven (wife of Adam McKay and sister of Jeremy), making her feature debut, and screenwriter Eliot Laurence (Logo's sketch series "The Big Gay Sketch Show") come up with a series of sketchy vignettes courtesy of Alice's show and pack in plenty of rudderless subplots with only the most cursory exploration. She begins an affair with Gabe, who's a recovering sex addict; has a rift with her long-suffering best friend, fitness entrepreneur Gina (Linda Cardellini), whose own problems are of no concern to Alice; gets financial advice from her gay ex-husband, Ted (Alan Tudyk); and then strikes up another relationship with a journalism grad student, Rainer (Thomas Mann). Piven was also able to populate her first feature break with a great cast (Joan Cusack, Wes Bentley, James Marsden, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins), who do their due diligence without outshining Wiig.

Unevenly scripted and wishy-washy in tone between the grounded and the absurd, "Welcome to Me" has several amusing moments of the awkward variety during the show that shares the same title as the film. It's hard not to squirm and cringe when Alice comes out on her requested swan boat for her first episode and freezes with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, as well as her mispronunciation of "carbohydrate" during her cooking segment on baking a meatloaf cake and then an on-air neutering of dogs. However, what opens the film to more criticism is the unusual treatment of a woman with a very fragile mental state who's crying for help. It's hard to believe everyone around Alice would be so irresponsible, letting her go through with sharing her personal life on TV. Then again, when Alice is alone and breaking down, there's enough of a sensitivity toward the character that the film doesn't totally come off offensive and condescending. So, meshed together as a whole, is the picture supposed to be a mocking joke with a smattering of heavy stuff? Or, is it a satire about emotional exhibitionism and reality TV exploitation? Whatever Piven and Laurence were going for, the film's tone does a disservice to the psychologically disabled Alice, never striking a delicate balance.

For all of its trouble spots, Kristen Wiig is the unstoppable savior. As Alice Kleig, Wiig is rather good, impressively portraying the brittle, narcissistic mind of someone with a mental disorder, and she's as fearless in her commitment as she was with her one-joke creations Gilly and Dooneese on "SNL." Even in a scene where Alice hits rock bottom, Wiig bares herself emotionally and physically in the casino she's living in. Constantly earning more uneasy raised eyebrows than chuckles or genuine pathos, "Welcome to Me" keeps flirting with being a better, more sincere film. Alice's story is often hard to watch, sometimes painfully sad and sometimes playing for laughs, but the film just isn't up for making her more of a tragic figure in need of help than an oddball one who gets to host her own show.

Grade:

Man Crush: "The D Train" boldly takes 'bromance' to uncomfortable levels

The D Train (2015)
97 min., rated R.

For those who don't like to see something different, expectations are going to kill "The D Train," and that's unfortunate. What looks like a cheerfully ribald, high-concept R-rated comedy at first glance has more in common with 2000's "Chuck & Buck"an equally creepy and empathetic Sundance hit in which a 27-year-old man with incompetent social graces creepily goes too far to rekindle his friendship with his best pal from childhoodmeaning it's darker than expected, harder to categorize, and doesn't have the failure of nerve most mainstream dark comedies do. Screenwriting team Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul (2008's "Yes Man") make their entrance as first-time directors with this nervy, unusually aching gem that sneaks up on you and keeps surprising with its narrative risks.

Dan Landsman (Jack Black) is the self-proclaimed "chairman" of the alumni committee for Grant Barklidge High's 20-year reunion. A member of the Class of 1994, Dan was not popular back in the day and nothing has really changed, as his committee members (including Mike White, Kyle Bornheimer, Henry Zebrowski and Donna Duplantier) go out afterwards for drinks without extending the invitation. He never left his Pittsburgh hometown, but he has Stacey (Kathryn Hahn), his high school sweetheart and wife of 14 years, their teenage son Zach (Russell Posner), and a new baby. Late one night while channel-surfing, Dan becomes starstruck with a TV spot for Banana Boat suntan lotion, as it stars the class rock star, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), whom he presumes is now a big-time actor living in L.A. and puts him on a pedestal. The two weren't really friends, but Dan hopes to gain respect from his displeased committee and up the R.S.V.P.s by planning to go to the west coast and convince the so-called celebrity to come to the reunion. Making up an excuse to close a deal for his consulting firm on a business trip and lying to both his family and boss (Jeffrey Tambor), Dan ends up reuniting with Oliver in L.A. After a debaucherous night of heavy partying, where alcohol is consumed and cocaine is inhaled, and constant cab rides to bars, something happens back at Oliver's apartment. Once it comes time for Dan to go back to the east coast, he is left confused by the friendship he never had with Oliver.

Lying is the foundation of the squirmy brand of comedy for "The D Train," but there's a delicate sense of understanding and feeling to the characters. Dan Landsman can be a frustrating, even abrasive, character to follow, not unlike Matthew Broderick's Jim McAllister in "Election" or Ben Stiller's Greg Focker in "Meet the Parents." Overcompensating by calling himself a series of allegedly hip nicknames, shaving his face down to a "soul patch," concocting so many lies, and then coming across as petty and jealous, he is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. In a way, Dan is like all of us, wishing we had peaked in high school, and if we did, we're just like Oliver Lawless, giving everyone the impression that we still hold that crown in our adult lives when that's not exactly the case. Without spoiling the key plot turn that happens about thirty minutes into the film, what triggers an unrequited love of sorts between Dan and Oliver is refreshingly not handled as a gay-panic joke. Writer-directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul take it to a human level, finding the pain, confusion and longing in such a situation.

Since 2007's "Margot at the Wedding" and 2012's "Bernie," Jack Black has taken an admirable road in his career, being drawn to edgier, darker and more emotionally rich projects rather than the slapstick fare he made his name on and has hopefully washed his hands of by now. In one of his trickiest and most moving performances, Black is able to navigate through the inner struggle of a protagonist who's pathetic in his desperation but not a bad guy. Once he comes clean about his mistakes, one can't help but feel for him. There is such a magnetic way about James Marsden that everyone would want to be like his Oliver Lawless, or at least graduate the same year as him. A heartthrob with that jawline and million-dollar grin who, beyond the five o'clock shadow, hasn't aged much since 1998's "Disturbing Behavior," Marsden is terrific, fleshing out the reckless Oliver more than one expects to find. In a scene at a club where Oliver pretends to know actor Dermot Mulroney just to impress Dan, it's clear Oliver mirrors Dan, both of them masking their insecurities with a sense of cool. On the comedy front, Marsden sells a hilarious teachable moment about "hosing down lawn chairs" with Dan's son, who can't get any attention from his father for advice once Oliver comes to town. Also worth mentioning: Kathryn Hahn gets more to play than just the nagging stay-at-home wife, and she's wonderful at it; and Jeffrey Tambor is a subdued hoot as Dan's behind-on-the-times boss Bill Shurmur, who takes an Internet class on how to become more acquainted with using Google.

Challenging the so-called term "bromance" even beyond the 2009 indie "Humpday," "The D Train" is frequently uncomfortable, boldly progressive, and more than a little sad, albeit in ways that make the film smarter and more worthwhile. It's also a testament to the filmmakers for finding a note-perfect '80s-tinged score—along with song choices, like The Vapors' "Turning Japanese" and Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is"that lends to the nostalgia of high school reunions. The final scene almost gets too gooey and tidy, but it's handled rather nicely with compassion for both of its characters without feeling unearned or preachy. Unlike the character of Dan, who tries so hard to be liked, the film doesn't try hard to be liked. In fact, the web of lies Dan weaves on his own might force some viewers to check out early, not to mention from the fact that the film has more on its mind than being a broad, straightforward comedy. Take a chance on attending "The D Train."

Grade: B +

Monday, May 11, 2015

My Daughter, the Zombie: "Maggie" offers a grimly somber turn for Ah-nuld

Maggie (2015) 
95 min., rated PG-13.

With Arnold Schwarzenegger headlining a movie with zombies, one expects a gleefully bloody, over-the-top actioner where he's cracking one-liners and terminating the walking dead with an axe or his bare hands. Genre junkies should know upfront that "Maggie" is not that movie. In fact, it more closely resembles the spare pacing and elegiac tone of the first season of "The Walking Dead" where it's more about the human characters than the threat of the shambling undead. It doesn't so much apply a fresh coat of paint to the zombie genre as much as it mashes up a mournful terminal-illness family drama against a zombie apocalypse as window dressing. So much of it is so drearily grim, but as along as the viewer adjusts his or her expectations accordingly, "Maggie" still works surprisingly well for what it wants to do within its small scope.

In the midst of the "necroambulist virus," turning the infected into zombies within a few weeks' time, Wade Vogel (Arnold Schwarzenegger) goes looking for Maggie (Abigail Breslin), his 16-year-old daughter from his first marriage. After two weeks of his search, the father finds his baby girl in the hospital and discovers she has "turned." Hiding behind big sunglasses to cover her dead white eyes, Maggie is taken back to Wade and his wife Caroline's (Joely Richardson) farm and welcomed by her young stepbrother (Aiden Flowers) and stepsister (Carsen Flowers). Once Maggie begins to slowly turn and deteriorate, Wade must make his final decision, whether that's sending her to quarantine to be euthanized or the hardest, which in the long run might be the best.

Movie title sequence designer Henry Hobson makes his directorial debut here, along with working from first-timer John Scott 3's script, and for being so green, they have concocted something different and more human. Somber as hell but dramatically involving, "Maggie" drops us right into a fatalistic scenario and takes a micro approach. Little is learned about the epidemic, barring scientists suggesting that an elevated sense of smell can be a tell-tale sign of "the turn," but this isn't really about the global or local Midwestern situation. The PG-13 rating luckily doesn't always hold back on certain sequences that need to be horrific for the proper impact, such as Maggie chopping off her broken, decaying finger with the same kitchen knife her stepmother uses to chop tomatoes for dinner or the time where she wakes up at night with a surprise wriggling from her infected arm.

No one has much time to be a Little Miss (or Mister) Sunshine, not even the grown-up Abigail Breslin herself, under such downbeat circumstances. Despite the limitations of characterization, the performances are the film's biggest assets. When's the last time an Arnold Schwarzenegger performance was considered "subtle" and "moving"? So subdued and quietly pained one almost cannot believe it's the same '80s action star who's been chomping on cigars and trying to reclaim his glory in those damn "Expendables" movies, he actually gives a performance of depth as Wade. It might sound like a backhanded compliment, but Schwarzenegger (also a producer) is actually more effective when he says little and conveys pain with just his weary, albeit still-chiseled, face. In the ill-fated title role, Abigail Breslin is emotionally sound and makes her gradual arc more relatable than over-the-top, and there is a poignancy to her fleeting scenes with infected, veiny-necked boyfriend Trent (Bryce Romero). An excellent Joely Richardson also does a lot with a little as Wade's second wife Caroline, showing that she cares for her stepdaughter, even if Maggie is not herself anymore, but solid in her decisions.

The look of the film is hauntingly moody and cold with every frame nearly desaturated, but director Henry Hobson takes a humanistic approach to the story in a visual sense with intimate handheld camerawork and an overall sense of melancholy. At its core, "Maggie" is about a father struggling with denial and the final choice he will have to make for his own daughter. There's only one resolution to the film, and the way the film goes out is not a cop-out. It's satisfying in the only way a film of this type could be. Almost too truncated at 95 minutes, "Maggie" doesn't dig as deeply as it probably could have, but with what it does right, the film is true in its emotions of inevitable morality and loss of a dear loved one. If it's not an unqualified success, it's still a compelling first try from a debuting filmmaker who somehow pulls Arnold Schwarzenegger's best dramatic work out of him.

Grade: B -