Thursday, April 26, 2012

When bad movies happen to good people

Great cast -- and not much else in Darling Companion.
I hate when this happens.

About a month ago, writer/director Lawrence Kasdan visited Denver with his wife Meg. They were on the road promoting Kasdan’s independently produced Darling Companion, which they co-wrote, which Kasdan directed and which opened the Boulder International Film Festival. (See interview below.)

Kasdan, of course, has had an estimable career, co-writing the screenplays for great populist fare such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and distinguishing himself on smaller movies such as Body Heat and The Big Chill.

So what’s to hate about any of this?

Only this: I liked Kasdan and enjoyed meeting him, which makes it all the more difficult to report that his latest movie struck me as thoroughly mediocre.

See what I mean? I hate when I like the filmmaker, but not the movie. But in the case of Darling Companion, that's what I'm stuck with.

Put another way, if a director has a cast that includes Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, Richard Jenkins, and Dianne Wiest and still comes up short, it’s a good bet that the material is to blame.

Darling Companion isn’t funny when it wants to be, and it's not dramatic enough to be taken seriously as a sobering look at family frictions. It's strictly middle of the road.

Kline and Keaton play Joseph and Beth, a Denver-based husband and wife mired in a stale marriage. After their second daughter (Elizabeth Moss) marries at the couple's mountain retreat, the family hangs around for a little R&R.

Beth and Joseph are joined by Joseph's sister Penny (Wiest) and her obnoxiously friendly boyfriend (Jenkins). Penny's son Bryan (Mark Duplass) serves as a youthful add-on. Like Joseph, he's a doctor.

A lost dog puts the story in motion. Freeway -- so named because Beth found him on the side of a road -- races off, creating relationship tension between Joseph and Beth and setting off a variety of searches, one of them prompted by the family’s supposedly clairvoyant housekeeper, a preposterous character played by Ayelet Zurer.

Kasdan allows our perceptions about at least one of the characters to change as the movie progresses. Jenkins' character, whose life-transforming idea involves opening a British pub in Omaha, turns out to be less horrible than he initially seems.

Look, Darling Companion is small potatoes, a pallid misfire from Kasdan and his stellar cast.

Enough. I think you can tell where I'm coming from. I had more fun talking to the Kasdans than I did watching their movie. And I hope the fact that Darling Companion hasn't exactly been lighting critical fires -- as of this writing, the movie had earned an unfortunate 15 on Rotten Tomatoes -- doesn't dissuade them from trying another small, personal drama -- only one that works.

A few laughs in this long engagement

Jason Segel and Emily Blunt star in an uneven but sometimes winning romantic comedy.
What happens if she receives the career offer of a lifetime, but he must take a backward to keep the relationship going? That entirely possible post-feminist question gives The Five Year Engagement a nice boost in the romantic comedy department: The movie takes a fairly realistic look at how one man's eager accommodations gradually turn into seething resentment.

Five Year Engagement has something else going for it: Jason Segel and Emily Blunt. They're both playing life-sized characters, and for once, we get to hang out with two people who actually seem to enjoy each other's company.

Segel co-wrote this comedy with Nicholas Stoller, the same partner with whom he wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall. This time the duo -- Stoller also directed -- creates a movie that has an easy-going appreciation of oddball touches, but which also is burdened by its two-hour length, some dry spells and a fair amount of repetition.

The story begins in earnest when Segel's Tom gives up a premier sous chef's job in San Francisco to follow his fiancee to a research assistant's post at the University of Michigan.

In Michigan, Segel's Tom is forced to take a job for which he's obviously over-qualified, making sandwiches at Zingerman's Deli, evidently a fabled Ann Arbor institution.

Tom tries to make the best of things, even going native at point. He takes up hunting and grows an unruly set of Michigan-style mutton chops as if to prove to himself that he not only likes Michigan but fits into a stereotypical mid=American lifestyle.

The story's central problem -- Tom's increasing unhappiness -- can make it seem as if the screenplay is spinning its wheels in much the same way as Tom does, being pleasant and stuck at the same time. And at times, Five Year Engagement feels like a rough draft in which the authors couldn't bear to part with anything.

Tom's on a downward career spiral just as Blunt's Violet is beginning to find real career fulfillment under the tutelage of a psychology professor played by Rhys Ifans.

The love affair between Violet and Tom contrasts with another relationship. Violet's sister (Alison Brie) marries one of Tom's former kitchen colleagues (Chris Pratt). Pratt has the movie's grossest moments and also its funniest moment, which involves a Spanish love song.

Because the good parts of Five Year Engagement are very good, you long for what might have been had Stoller and Segel applied a bit more discipline to their task.

Violet's fellow grad students (Randall Park, Mindy Kaling and Kevin Hart) are supposed to provide on-going comic relief, but don't always rise to the occasion. (When it comes to satirizing the academic community, the movie's a bit of a dud.) Chris Parnell, as a fellow faculty spouse and one of Tom's few friends, earns some laughs, as does Brian Posehn, as a shaggy pickle aficionado and one of Tom's co-workers at Zingerman's.

Despite a plethora of quirky touches, Five Year Engagement doesn't always feel daringly original. When Violet almost strays from her loyalty to Tom, the script turns schematic. It tries to balance things by putting Tom in a compromising position. And Stoller's more exaggerated attempts at humor (a semi-serious joke involving a crossbow) represent bad notes sounded loudly.

After two movies together, Segel and Stoller have shown real potential, a promise that badly needs to be fully realized. Maybe the third time -- if there is one -- will be the absolute charm.

Yo! Ho! Ho! and a bucket of clay

There's comic treasure in this animated feature -- and it's not buried.
The folks at Britain's vaunted Aardman Animations specialize in whimsical animated movies with decidedly mischievous twists. If you don't know the Aardman name, you'll probably recognize some of the studio's work: the Wallace & Gromit films, Chicken Run and Arthur Christmas.

Now comes The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Aardman's most satisfying work to date, a high seas adventure that rides on waves of creativity and humor, most of it generated by characters with teeth the size of giant Chiclets, one of Aardman's more recognizable trademarks.

Aardman, of course, adheres to a laborious process in which carefully molded clay figures are shot a frame at a time to create the illusion of fluid motion -- or at least as fluid a motion as such an insanely demanding process allows.

Technical achievements aside, it's ultimately character and story that count, and Pirates doesn't skimp on either.

Competition and its perils drive the action in Band of Misfits. The Pirate Captain (voice by Hugh Grant) wants to win the highly coveted Pirate of the Year award, an honor that has eluded him for 20 years. As it follows the Pirate Captain's ambitious path, the story introduces us to a conniving Charles Darwin (David Tennant), a bellicose Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) and a bad-ass pirate named Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven).

Directors Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt build their story around an ethical issue: Will the Pirate Captain trade his beloved parrot Polly for a shot at the title? This unlikely opportunity for advancement arises when Darwin informs the Captain that Polly isn't a parrot at all, but the last of a vanishing species, a rare dodo.

Darwin's motives aren't pure, either. He hopes the bird help him win his own prize, a prestigious science award from the Royal Society.

Much of the enjoyment of an Aardman movie is found in detailing, as well as in bolder flashes of imagination. An example of the latter: Black Bellamy makes a splashy entrance at a pirate gathering using the tongue of a whale as his red carpet. Very showy.

The characters also serve as a constant source of amusement: Darwin's pet "manpanzee" BoBo -- who serves as the scientist's butler -- communicates by showing title cards, mostly to wry effect.

The 3-D version of Pirates may offer some viewers a bit of extra kick, but the real fun centers on the way the Aardman folks mix humor and craftsmanship to create a movie that should provide enjoyment for kids. In this case, the adults who accompany those kids to the theater may have an even better time.

Pity poor Poe. It's come to this

A thriller that drowns in a sea of silly melodrama.

Edgar Allen Poe may not have lived the happiest of lives, but at least he didn’t have to endure The Raven. We're not talking about Poe's famous 1845 poem but about a darkly hued thriller built around Poe's final days.

Drenched in overbearing melodrama, The Raven feels increasingly -- though never enjoyably -- ridiculous.

Too bad because the movie springs from a clever idea. An impoverished and somewhat desperate Poe (John Cusack) discovers that a mysterious fiend is replicating murders taken from various of Poe's exceptionally macabre short stories.

This life-imitates-art scenario turns Poe into a kind of harried detective: When his fiancee (a bland Alice Eve) is kidnapped by the killer, Poe must race around the cobbled streets of Baltimore trying to save his damsel in extreme distress.

Even before Poe becomes distraught over his fiancee’s disappearance, he’s depicted as cynical and depressed. Neither his work nor his love life seem to be going particularly well. Poe is having trouble selling stories to the Baltimore newspaper that printed many of them, and his fiancee’s socially conscious father (Brendan Gleeson) vigorously opposes his daughter’s relationship with the drunken, resourceless writer.

Poe eventually joins forces with the Baltimore policeman (Luke Evans) who's investigating the case of the kidnapped fiancee. After an initial period of mistrust, Poe and policeman work together to prevent Poe's fiancee from becoming another of the author's lovers to meet with a tragic end.

Director James McTeigue (Ninja Assassin and V For Vendetta) probably didn’t realize it, but The Raven -- with its mixture of heated dialog, gothic gloom and anachronistic language -- might have made a terrific comedy. McTeigue and his cohorts evidently thought they were taking a serious journey into the dark corners of Poe’s psyche at a time when society seemed increasingly hungry for cheap, violent thrills.

Miscast as Poe, Cusack’s performance is marred by occasional over-the-top tantrums and by Cusack's inability to add the proper bite to Poe’s caustic turns of phrase, a skill the author put to good use as a prolific literary critic. Sarcasm needs to savored, not spewed in asides, as if one is trying to say something memorable while racing to catch a train.

Even the usually fine Gleeson, who’s stuck playing an ogre of sorts, may not want to press this performance into his otherwise splendid book of professional memories.

In showing the movie's murders, the filmmakers avail themselves of gory effects that happily were unavailable to Poe. An example: At one point a giant swinging blade cuts a literary critic in two, thus echoing a scenario dreamed up by Poe for The Pit and the Pendulum.

Writers don’t necessarily lead the happiest of lives, but Poe deserved better than The Raven gives him, a thriller so botched that when its secrets are revealed, its tempting to greet them with a dismissive shrug.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

After 9 years, Lawrence Kasdan strikes back

Darling Companion is Lawrence Kasdan's first film in nine years. It's not that the guy who helped write blockbusters such as The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark and who also wrote and directed such iconic movies as Body Heat and The Big Chill has been idle. At 63, Kasdan been trying to survive in a business that he sees as increasingly uninterested in what most fascinates him; i.e., character-driven movies with carefully developed narratives.

Darling Companion -- which Kasdan co-wrote with his wife, Meg -- tells the story of a Denver-based husband and wife (Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline) who are going through a rough patch. During a stay at their mountain cabin -- with his sister (Diane Wiest) and her new boyfriend (Richard Jenkins) in tow -- the family dog is lost. This sets off a chain of events that brings the characters into sharper focus.

The Kasdans, who recently visited Denver, say the story was prompted by an event that took place in Telluride, Colo. years ago. Their dog Mac went missing for three weeks. Eventually, that dog-related trauma -- and another in which Meg's sister found a dog on the side of a road -- triggered the screenplay for Darling Companion, a movie in which a long marriage figures prominently.

Have the Kasdans, who've been married for 40 years, discovered a formula for sustaining a marriage? He replies by quoting Olivia Harrison, the widow of the late George Harrison, who once offered some deceptively simple advice about keeping a marriage afloat: Don't get divorced.

"It has a lot to do with sticking in there,'' he says.

Working together could be a source of marital stress, but it sounds as if the Kasdans, who also wrote Grand Canyon together, have that figured out, as well.

"I sit in a very comfortable chair. We talk. We go through all the ideas. We both write each scene together. We try out lines on each other. We edit together," says Meg.

"If one of us feels strongly that tends to carry the day,'' he adds.

"We try to make each other laugh. That's a big part of it because we wanted there to be humor in this movie," she continues.

Darling Companion qualifies as Kasdan's first independent movie, which means it wasn't financed within a studio context.

"The studios where I worked for a long time aren’t making the kind of movies I’m interested in that much," Kasdan says.

No stranger to major successes, Kasdan cautions against viewing the blockbusters of the 1980s as equivalents of today's mega-hits.

"They (movies such as Raiders and Empire) aren't really like the big movies we're getting now. Raiders and Empire were affected by the history of American adventure films and escapist entertainment that included narrative and characters. There’s been a drift. It’s not necessarily bad. The audience doesn’t expect those things from a gigantic movie. They’re looking for spectacle, for a thrill ride. If you run Raiders and Empire side by side with a big blockbuster today, they’re barely recognizable as the same thing. Raiders and Empire seem slow. At the time Raiders came out, people said, ‘Oh, it never stops. It flies by.’''

Raiders, slow? Empire, dawdling? I promise myself to take another look to see if Kasdan's right. Meanwhile, I use Kasdan's remarks as an opportunity to share one of my peeves, the way contemporary action scenes are edited. Half the time, you can't tell what's happening. Quick cuts tend to obliterate coherence.

"The reason I think (Akira) Kurosawa is the greatest director of all time -- and he made every kind of movie -- is he always had a sense of place,'' says Kasdan, who points out that Kurosawa made sure that viewers knew where characters were and what they were doing, even when the action became frenetic. He cites Kurosawa's Seven Samurai as a prime example.

"By the time the movie's over, you know that village as well as the samurai."

Kasdan talks about Kevin Kline's athleticism and humor (Kline evidently cracked up his fellow actors on Darling Companion by providing running commentary.) Kasdan asks if I've read Diane Keaton's autobiography, Then Again. I haven't. ("It's really good. She's a person of enormous depth and sensitivity.") He talks about the fun he had writing a draft of Paradise Lost, an action picture based on the John Milton poem. He says he thinks the picture has since been scrapped. ("You're writing for Lucifer. He's a great character.")

The Kasdans say it has taken time for them to adjust to the new realities of Hollywood. During the past nine years, they've tried to get several movies made. One of them was an adaptation of Richard Russo's novel, Risk Pool, which was to star Tom Hanks. ("It feel apart," he says.)

I stop him right there. Wait a minute. You're telling me that Lawrence Kasdan, who has an impressive track record, and Tom Hanks, who has won two Oscars, can't get a movie made? What the hell does that say about the movie industry?

"It means it’s become more difficult to do character work," says Kasdan.
If it's difficult to do character work, it must be even more difficult to make movies about older characters, folks in their '60s, say. It doesn't sound as if Kasdan wants to put the characters in Darling Companion, who mostly fall into that category, into an age-determined box.

"We’ve discovered that when you get older, you don’t feel any different," he says. "Your mind is the same -- at least for a while. People over 60 feel like they did when they were 35. They have the same drives and bad behavior and good qualities as they always did.”

As a person who resides within this graying demographic, I can't say I totally share Kasdan's view, but we'll leave that discussion for another day.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Two romances: one with real signs of life Reviews of The Lucky One, Think Like A Man

Zac Efron and in another adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel. Just what we've been waiting for.

Nicholas Sparks seems to write novels that automatically turn themselves into movies; it's almost as if the romantic vapors of Sparks's prose waft off the page and then seep their way into the nation's multiplexes.

The Lucky One, the latest Sparks novel to reach the screen, displays most of the hallmarks of Sparks's re-heated romanticism in a story that focuses on an apparently accidental event that brings two people together.

These Sparks-inspired movies -- and The Lucky One is no exception -- are the dramatic equivalent of elevator music, melding pretty pictures with the kind of soulless drama that allows audiences to guess each line of dialog before a character even recites it. Some people like these carefully packaged, easy-on-the-eyes love stories, which also seem to require the presence of an actor with cred in the hunk department. I'm not a fan.

In this case, Zac Efron plays Logan, a combat-weary Marine who returns from Iraq with a case of post-trauamatic jitters. After a little research, Logan and his faithful German shepherd walk (yes, I said walk) from Colorado to Louisiana to look for a woman (Taylor Schilling) in photograph he found on a bombed-out Iraqi battlefield. He finds her running a small business that boards and grooms dogs.

Logan's about to explain about the snapshot, but Schilling's Beth is focused on something else, and he can't bring himself to tell the story anyway. Instead, he takes a job at the kennel, where he quickly endears himself to the woman's young son (Reily Thomas Stewart) and to her grandmother (Blythe Danner).

Beth is slower to warm to Logan, but we know that she'll eventually fall for him. We also know that there will be obstacles, the principal one arriving in the person of Beth's bullying ex-husband (Jay R. Ferguson), who also happens to be the local sheriff.

And then there's Logan's looming secret about the photograph, which leads to a scene that's supposed to threaten to knock the characters off their pre-determined tracks. We know better: No one in movie such as this gets knocked off his or her tracks.

As the mysterious stranger, Efron gives a minimalist performance, which is a kind way of saying he makes an actor like Channing Tatum, who also has appeared in an adaptation of a novel by Sparks, look expressive. Schilling brings more life to her role, but this is the kind of movie in which acting comes awfully close to posing. Maybe that makes sense. The characters in The Lucky One don't really have relationships; they romp through montages.

Director Scott Hicks, who hasn't exactly been breaking new ground since he came to international notice in 1996 with the much-accalimed Shine, opts to follow the Sparks formula, which means that even Louisiana's fetid, swampy waters emit a lustrous, romantic glow.

Lively, attractive cast brings life to formulaic Think Like a Man

If you're looking for a livelier romantic fantasy than The Lucky One, you may want to try the big-screen adaptation of Steve Harvey's best-selling Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.

Harvey's book of strategic advice for women isn't exactly a natural source for big-screen entertainment, so don't expect miracles.

Worse yet, the movie seems designed to sell even more copies of Act Like a Lady by making constant references to it or having characters read it while prominently displaying the cover. There's even an appearance by Harvey himself.

One more caveat: Think Like a Man is little more than a glorified sitcom, but it's made tolerable by an attractive cast that manages to add humanity to what amounts to a fantasy set in the world of bright, mostly successful black professionals with a few white folks around the movie's fringes.

I don't know about Harvey's book, but the movie seems to take aim at a thirty-something audience that believes in a post-racial world that we'd all like to believe has arrived -- even if we're not entirely sure it has.

A lavishly appealing cast includes: Meagan Good as Maya, a woman who decides to invoke Harvey's 90-day rule: No sex with a new suitor until three months have passed; Taraji P. Henson as Lauren, a CEO who's skeptical about the Harvey approach, and Regina Hall as a single mom who tries to woo a mama's boy (Terrence J) away from his domineering mother.

The guys, who convene at a small gym for basketball and chat, include Romany Malco, as a budding composer and the movie's resident "play-ah," and Kevin Hart, as the movie's source of comic relief. Jerry Ferrra, familiar from HBO's Entourage where he played the often hapless Turtle, fares better here as an indecisive young man who has the good fortune to be living with Kristen (Gabrielle Union). Fans of this kind of movie will be treated to a self-referential cameo from a slightly older veteran of similar fare, Morris Chesetnut.

I laughed a few times and found the general vibe to be pleasant enough in a movie that at least isn't out to convince us that it's anything more than date-night fluff.

Terence Davies: More poetry of pain

A look at what happens when a woman chooses sex over security.

If Terence Davies had made no other films but Distant Voice, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), he would have established himself as both a master craftsman and a ranking poet of existential sorrow. Davies, who grew up in Liverpool during the 1950s, turned his two semi-autobiographical movies into beautifully realized portraits of a moment in his life and in British history.

Many years ago, Davies came to Denver during what then was called the Denver International Film Festival and which since has been renamed the Starz Denver Film Festival. I did a filmed interview with Davies that I (as well as everyone in the room) still remembers, not because of me but because of the director's vulnerability and candor. Davies talked about the pain of being a gay man, something that no doubt was far more severe during his formative years than it is today. Now 66, Davies by no means has finished exploring pain and the lives of those who must endure it.

Davies's The Deep Blue Sea -- a belated adaptation of a 1952 Terence Rattigan play -- isn't nearly as powerful as the director's more autobiographical work, but it's steeped in just as much pain -- this time embodied in a woman (Rachel Weisz) who gives up everything to pursue her passion with a man who's incapable of reciprocating.

The story of Weisz's Hester Collyer, who leaves a well-established upper-class husband (Simon Russell Beale) for an affair with a former pilot (Tim Hiddleston) with no apparent future, probably had more shock value during post-war years when Britain was trying to regain its balance after a devastating and costly war.

And even supporters of Davies' work may have to admit that The Deep Blue Sea is burdened by a deep and nearly crippling languor, as if Davies wants every frame to weep for a character that never entirely gets her due.

As played by Weisz, Hester is both brave and doomed, a woman made to suffer for choosing sex over security. Poor Hester. She's abused by Hiddleston's Freddie Page, a man who can't seem to get past the trumped-up bonhomie of his war years. Freddie has no appreciation for the sacrifice Hester has made.

As played by Beale, Hester's husband tempers his initial jealousy with understanding. He makes his case to her, begging her to return for her own good; i.e., for material comfort and social ease. But Hester, who opens the movie with a suicide attempt, is not about to capitulate.

Those familiar with Davies's movies will note the presence of one of his trademark touches: At one point, the lower middle-class characters break into song at a neighborhood pub, a central gathering place and source of escape for them.

Davies isn't interested in condemning either of the men in Hester's life. It's possible that he regards Hester as someone born in the wrong time. Twenty or so years later, her choice would have seemed neither shocking nor especially fateful.

As Davies did with his more personal movies, he treats Hester's painful existence as a source of cinematic poetry. The Deep Blue Sea isn't entirely successful, but Weisz yields herself courageously and unreservedly to the material, and Davies slowly runs a finger over the kind of emotional wounds that never really scar over.

Bob Marley's short but amazing life

Simply and obviously put, Marley -- director Kevin Macdonald's involving and comprehensive documentary -- focuses on the life of singer/musician Bob Marley. But Macdonald's film has an expansive quality that goes beyond the simplicity its title suggests. Marley and its many tangents tend to waft over you like the irresistible rhythms of reggae, exposing us to a life that was about music, race, ganja, Rastafarianism, poverty in Jamaica and Marley's kaleidoscopic series of personal relationships. That's a lot of territory even for a 144-minute documentary, but Macdonald's big-screen biography covers most of it well while sampling enough of Marley's music to keep fans happy. Marley, we learn, was born to an 18-year-old black woman and a 50-year-old white British Royal Marine, who had little contact with his mixed-race son. Marley spent his early years in impoverished Jamaican backwaters, moved to Kingston, and eventually found a way to use his alienation to spur his musical creativity. Early on, Marley and the Wailers, offered their rendition of A Teenager in Love, adding soul and flavor to the Dion and the Belmonts hit, but Marley remains best known for such songs as I Shot the Sheriff , No Woman, No Cry and dozens more. As with many great creative figures, Marley can seem elusive, a charismatic star seen by Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) through a variety of prisms: the observations of his wife Rita, the recollections of a daughter (one of 11 children), and of his fellow musicians and cohorts. We learn about the development of Marley's religious faith and about his womanizing, just about everything that Marley packed into a life the ended in 1981 when he succumbed to cancer at the age of 36. Neither an act of hagiography nor an expose, Marley takes an intriguing look at a life in which music, politics and spiritual fervor sought harmony and coexistence.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A tough guy with a heart of gold

Goon's main character is as endearing as he is brutal.

Given the recent and overdue attention that has been drawn to the dangers of fighting in hockey -- concussions, depression and even suicides -- I felt a bit guilty enjoying Goon, a comedy about Doug Glatt, a thug who fights his way through a career in hockey's minor-league backwaters.

Based on a true story, Goon is funny, poignant and bruising, a look at a shy brawler with a sense of decency and decorum. As played by Seann William Scott, best known for his portrayal of Stifler in the American Pie movies, Glatt comes off as a misfit who finds his calling when he learns that he can give and take a punch, a talent that seems to take him by surprise and pushes his life into a whole new sphere.

Goon inevitably will be compared to the 1977 comedy Slap Shot, but it stands on its own, and it takes Doug much more seriously than Slap Shot took its three iconic enforcers, the notorious Hansen brothers. For a movie that doesn't skimp on hockey violence, Goon also has heart, thanks mostly to a surprisingly effective performance by Scott, who plays his character straight. Glatt, a self-acknowledged dumb guy, embarrasses his staunchly middle class family, a doctor father (a convincingly serious Eugene Levy) and a doctor brother (David Paetkau), who also happens to be gay.

Watching Goon -- which is as rife with vulgar humor as with hockey fights -- I wondered if I'd underestimated Scott's abilities. He creates one of the most soulful thugs in recent screen history, a guy who you can't help but like -- for his awkwardness, his naivety and the apologetic way he goes about almost everything in his life. And to his credit: Scott never winks at the audience to let us know that he's really smarter than the character he's playing.

Doug, who plays hockey for the Halifax Highlanders, becomes a minor star in the world of minor-league hockey. Doug the Thug, as he's known, shares an apartment with Xavier Laflamme (Marc-Andre Grondin), a highly skilled hockey player who took a major hit that so unnerved him, it brought his NHL career to a end and shipped him back to the minors. Laflamme resents Glatt's rising popularity. He knows Glatt has only one skill: He can fight.

But what Lafalmme doesn't quite get is that Doug has more than a rock hard head and fists to match; he's loyal, eager to please, and genuinely wants to protect his teammates. In short, he's got character, something which Laflamme -- for all his skills -- can't match.

Perfectly cast by director Michael Drowse, Goon features some tasty small roles. Jay Baruchel plays Glatt's buddy, a fast-talking, foul-mouthed host of a ragtag hockey show called Hot Ice. And Alison Pill brings grounded credibility to the role of Eva, a hockey groupie who catches Doug's eye.

A scene between Glatt and rival thug Ross Rhea (Liev Schrieber) is as good as any I've seen this year. The two players meet by accident in a diner. The older Rhea, who's on his way out of the game, schools the up-and-coming Glatt in a scene that's smart, hard-hitting and smartly acted by Schreiber, who's close to unrecognizable as a long-haired enforcer who has spent his adult life knocking out opposing players.

Goon has enough commitment to its unglamorous milieu to keep it from becoming one more raunchy comedy. Drowse -- and his cinematographer Bobby Shore -- make the hockey scenes exciting, and they don't spare anyone's feelings when it comes to showing the brutality of the fights.

Stick around for the credits for a look at some of the fights of the real Doug Glatt, who was known as "The Hammer."

Look, I prefer hockey without fights, but as the story of a fighter with heart, Goon lands a solid punch.

A horror film about horror films

Cabin in the Woods has received lots of early buzz, but its meta musings left this reviewer cold.

The Cabin In the Woods made quite a splash at last month's South by Southwest Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. The movie, which reportedly had been languishing unseen for more than two years before Lionsgate rescued it, seems to have been designed for auditoriums full of giddy fanboys who enjoy watching a director subvert a genre and then put pedal to the metal with an all-out-assault on Hollywood's attraction to effects-laden finales. If Cabin in the Woods can be seen with the right kind of audience, it might provide a contagious sort of fun.

This time, though, I find myself in disagreement with my film-geek friends. I responded to Cabin in the Woods without either fear or laughter, even as director Drew Goddard -- who wrote the movie Cloverfield -- knowingly played with all manner of horror cliches, the most prominent of them involving a stereotypical group of college students who head off to an isolated forest cabin for a weekend of fun.

Of course, we know trouble will follow. Our hapless students will soon encounter the expected horrors, but -- and here's the movie's gimmick -- we also learn that the environment in which these kids find themselves is being manipulated by cynical corporate types who operate out of a high-tech control room and make bets on what's likely to transpire.

Goddard, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joss Whedon, introduces us to a prototypically standard group of movie kids: a handsome jock (Chris Hemsworth), a slutty girl (Anna Hutchison) and a pot-smoking druggie (Fran Kranz). You don't need to know the rest of the characters because, by the very nature of Goddard's semi-playful enterprise, they're not really worth knowing. They're types that more often than not are fed into big-screen slaughter machines. Oh, all right, the other two kids are played by Jesse Williams and Kristen Connolly.

Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford play the main techies in the control room. This cynical duo manipulates just about everything that happens in and around the cabin through some sort of unexplained machinations involving lots of electronics. Need a bit of libidinous stimulation? Release the pheromone mist.

It's impossible not to compare these two wise-cracking techies to movie directors who pull the levers that guide audiences through familiar funhouses of horror in which characters act stupidly (heading alone into darkened basements) or fight off relentless monsters (indefatigable redneck zombies).

Cabin in the Woods even boasts a far-fetched explanation for everything we've seen. I suppose we need this explanation because Cabin's major intrigue revolves around one question: Why are Jenkins and Whitford, as characters who appear to be working for a large company, carrying out this cruel scheme.

It's not possible to tell more without including a ton of spoilers. Know, though, that some viewers will regard the movie's finale as surprising and enjoyably preposterous.

I found it mostly preposterous without much amusement. Cabin in the Woods may have wanted to say something smart about horror movies that too often display a strained, synthetic quality and no real convictions. But what convictions does Cabin have? Here's the problem: If you spend a whole movie subverting a genre, you run the risk of being left with nothing to stand on but air.

This 'Cabin' is built from a certain kind of smart-alecky cleverness about movies and not much else.

A powerful documentary about bullying

First the rating: The Weinstein Company planned to release the documentary Bully without a rating because the MPAA, the industry’s august watchdog, refused to lower the movie’s R-rating to a PG-13. The unrated version of the movie -- which included uses of both the “f” and "mf” words -- was released in New York and Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago.

Last week the ratings' game changed. Weinstein and the MPAA reached an agreement under which Bully received its PG-13 rating. The Los Angeles Times reported that the "mf" word had been dropped along with a couple (though not all) of the “f” bombs.

The fight, of course, revolved around who could or could not see Bully, a deeply disturbing documentary about the horrible effects of bullying on kids who often find themselves defenseless in school environments. We’re talking about kids for whom riding the school bus can present a daily gauntlet of torture.

The profanity in Bully is so far from the most unsettling thing about this powerful documentary that one is tempted to question the MPAA’s sanity, as well as its reflexive attempts to protect audiences that sometimes seem more disturbed by foul language than by wanton violence. (I’m sure the MPAA would prefer the word “guidance” to “protection,” but I leave it to them to write their own review.)

With its newly awarded PG-13 rating, director Lee Hirsch’s movie now may be seen by teen-agers who may be moved enough to stand up against bullying when they view it -- or so the hope goes.

If Bully has it right, it’ s more likely that such kids will come to the aid of those who are victimized than will adults. Hirsch doesn’t find many examples of exemplary adult behavior in the Iowa, Georgia and Oklahoma school systems he visits.

One of the administrators we meet in the film is exasperated by bullying, but seems hopelessly naive about how kids operate when left to their own devices.

The heart of the film belongs to the kids who are bullied. Fourteen-year-old Alex suffers at the hands of bullies, and is reluctant to talk about it with his parents. Ja’Meya Jackson, 14, faces 45 felony counts after drawing a gun on a school bus to stop her tormenters. And that's just a sampling of the pain that makes Bully so unsettling.

Some of these kids have real spunk. Kelly Johnson, an Oklahoma high school student and unafraid lesbian, believes that her openness can change attitudes in her small town. She’s heartbreakingly wrong.

Bully provides a good staring point to look at a problem that’s not easily addressed, partly because of prevailing notions that kids must learn to stand up for themselves. Bully doesn’t really look at the many programs that have been developed to try to deal with bullying. And I would have liked to learn something about kids who do all this bullying.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with a reminder that when kids terrorize other kids, the last thing that adults should do is look the other way or chalk it up to the shopworn idea that ... well ... kids will be kids.

A hearty helping of Stooges' humor

The Farrelly brothers manage a fine imitation of The Three Stooges, but the movie never quite comes alive.

The Farrelly brothers (Bobby and Peter) evidently are big fans of The Three Stooges, the hapless trio of idiots who -- in various incarnations -- had a long and storied film career as ... well ... a hapless trio of idiots.

Following the episodic form of the Stooges' films, the Farrellys serve up The Three Stooges, three short films separated by title cards but connected by a plot that calls for the Stooges to raise $185,000 to save an orphanage. (The first of these shorts is titled More Orphan Than Not, which should give you some idea about the level of humor.)

Maybe so much effort went into giving the movie an authentic Stooge-like feeling that The Three Stooges feels locked in a world of its own. An impression -- no matter how good -- is not the real thing. Watching The Three Stooges can be a bit like looking at something that has been traced rather than drawn from scratch.

The Stooges are played by actors who are largely unknown, probably a smart decision. Chris Diamantopoulos portrays Moe; Will Sasso appears as Larry; and Sean Hayes does his rendition of Curly. Each of these actors seems especially well cast, and the three of them do a commendable job of reproducing the terrible puns and brutal slapstick that defined so much of the Stooges' humor.

Perhaps to make the movie somewhat relevant to younger audiences, the Farrellys set the action in the present, including a joke about an iPhone and a strained bit about reality TV, notably Jersey Shore. The film, of course, is in color as opposed to the customary Stooges' black-and-white.

A wisp of a story calls for the Stooges to be hired to do some dirty work for a sexy woman (Sofia Vergara) who wants to assassinate her wimpy husband (Kirby Heybourne) and run off with her lover (Craig Bierko).

For the Farrellys, who specialize in gross-outs and raunchy humor, The Three Stooges seems a pretty tame outing. You won't find much by way of the trademark Farrelly humor, aside from a scene in which the Stooges stumble into a hospital nursery where they duel with urinating newborns.

Most of the movie is dominated by the Stooges, who receive some assistance from Jane Lynch (as mother superior of the orphanage where the Stooges grow up); Larry David (as the mean Sister Mary-Mengele) and Jennifer Hudson (as Sister Rosemary). Why Larry David wanted to appear in this movie is beyond me, unless it was to prove that even a nun's habit couldn't disguise the foul disposition with which he's become associated.

You can watch a lot of original Stooges' routines on You Tube, but older audiences -- where most diehard Stooges' fans presumably can be found -- may get a kick out of what amounts to a very good imitation. I'm not at all sure that younger audiences will take to the Stooges' cartoonish humor, which (not surprisingly for the Farrellys) ultimately takes a sentimental turn, appropriate, I suppose, for a valentine to The Stooges that doesn't so much tell their story as replicate their shtick.

A confession: I watched the Stooges on TV as a kid during the '50s and '60s. A guy named Joe Bolton, who dressed as a cop, introduced Stooges'films on a New York-based show called The Three Stooges Funhouse. I never found The Stooges as funny as some of the other kids -- and still don't. Sorry, Officer Joe.

Lockout's no knockout

For roughly half its 95-minute length, Lockout seems like a low-stakes B-movie that breaks little new ground, but demands so little by way of heightened attention that it almost comes as a relief. There's something liberating about a decent B-movie, the sense that we can accept it for what it is: fast-paced junk. With Lockout, though, familiar plotting, bad dialog and a ton of cynical posturing eventually deplete the movie's fun quotient. This Luc Besson-produced effort casts Guy Pearce as a grizzled, cigarette-smoking former CIA agent who's sent to an outer-space prison to rescue the daughter (Maggie Grace) of the president of the United States. Grace's Emilie Warnock is on a fact-finding mission at the prison -- known as MS One -- when all hell breaks loose. The inmates break from the deep-sleep state of stasis in which they're being held, and take over the prison. Stasis is supposed to put an end to prison violence, but also may be involved in research that's exploiting the prisoners. Set in 2079, the story imagines a time when life has become so dangerous, the president's Oval Office has been moved underground. Pearce does his best to handle the screenplay's overly-flippant dialog, and Vincent Regan projects sinister intelligence as an inmate leader, but Lockout isn't exactly an actors' showcase. Directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger, Lockout finds Pearce and Grace running for their lives for most of the movie as they try to avoid ruthless convicts and seek an escape route from the prison. If you're squeamish, you'll want to close your eyes during a scene in which Pearce's Snow must put a needle into one of Emily's eyes. I'm always up for a hard-boiled hunk of futuristic dystopia, but Lockout ultimately disappoints. What starts as second-rate fun winds up being just second rate.

This 'Raid' is one big bruising blur

Wreaking havoc in a tenement in Indonesia.
Movies that traffic in exaggerated violence have been known to serve up smorgasbords of brutally intense fun.

The Raid: Redemption, a film set in an Indonesian tenement and directed by Welsh-born Gareth Huw Evans, has some of the desired intensity, but comes up way short in the fun department.

Blame the movie's non-stop action, which tends to feel as numbing and meaningless as a routine story in which an elite SWAT team invades a shabby apartment building run by an Indonesian drug lord. I have no martial arts knowledge, but I do know that The Raid: Redemption delivers a pounding that often feels more relentless than artful.

Rama (Iko Uwais) -- the movie's ostensible main character -- is a young cop who bids his pregnant wife farewell on an early morning, and heads off to join his fellow officers for the raid.

The object: to take down Tama (Ray Sahetapy), the calm but vicious drug lord who runs the hotel/apartment complex which serves as headquarters for the drug trade and which also houses a few innocents who have nothing to do with criminal activity.

Judging by the increasingly shattered look of the already dilapidated building, the residents of will be lucky to make it out alive, much less get their damage deposits back.

The screenplay tries for a little depth, adding bits of story involving betrayal and brotherly conflict, but all that really counts here is the floor-by-floor battle for turf.

As is the case with many martial arts movies, bodies are abused in ways that defy every thing we know about human flesh and bone. At one point, a man's head repeatedly is smashed into a concrete floor. Rather than being carted off to the morgue, the fellow rises to resume fighting.

No one expects total verisimilitude in movies as wild as this, but it's difficult to locate a rooting interest amid Raid's highly compressed blr of bullets and flying bodies. For all its amped-up violence, Raid Redemption offers far too little invigorating kick.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Will bad breaks break a boy?

The Kid With a Bike -- the latest from the Dardenne brothers -- finds ray soy hope in a dark tale.
Those familiar with the work of the Dardenne brothers, the great Belgian filmmakers, may be a little surprised that their latest movie, The Kid With a Bike, isn't quite as devastating as some of the brothers' previous work, movies such as The Child, The Son, and Rosetta. But that doesn't mean anyone will mistake The Kid With A Bike for a family-oriented Disney romp. This time, the Dardennes tell a story about a boy (Thomas Doret) who's abandoned by his father, focusing on a child who's from endearing. Initially determined to find his father, Doret's Cyril is a willful kid whose behavior can be obnoxious. We cut Cyril slack because we understand that the father who left him (Jeremie Renier) barely can cope with how own life much less a kid's. Renier's Guy doesn't want his son back. After running away from the orphanage where he's been sent, Cyril meets Samantha (Cecile De France), a hairdresser who finds the bike the boy's father sold. She buys it back for Cyril, and ultimately agrees to allow the boy to visit her on weekends. Away from the orphanage, Cyril soon falls under the sway of Wes (Egon Di Mateo), an older kid who deals drugs. Wes appreciates Cyril's toughness, and understands that he can turn Cyril into an accomplice. Think of Wes as a junior Fagan in the Dickensian world the Dardennes create. Will Cyril go bad? Can he be saved from becoming another Wes, a discarded kid with survival skills that have been twisted toward criminality? You may find yourself wondering why Samantha commits herself to this semi-wild child, but you sense that Cyril and Samantha have the potential to become an enduring odd couple. In fact, the entire picture can be viewed as a kind of experiment to determine whether Cyril and Samantha have a future that can nurture both of them in ways they'd never be able to achieve by themselves. The Dardenne brothers have focused on kids before, perhaps because they understand that the vulnerability of the young attracts some of society's cruelest assaults. I wouldn't put The Kid With a Bike in the same class as other Dardenne brothers' movies, but it's another worthy entry into a body of work that doesn't spare either its characters or the audience.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The 'American Pie' gang grows long in the tooth

American Reunion suggests it's time to abandon adolescence, but still wants to wallow in the humor that goes with it..
If there's a message in the lingering adolescence of American Reunion -- the post-graduate edition of the raunchy 1999 teen comedy American Pie -- it might be this: One never is too old to masturbate. Or maybe it's that jokes involving penises and bowel movements represent the high point of hilarity. What? You thought a reunion of the American Pie crowd would result in a display of Wildean wit?

This superfluous sequel brings the Piee- gang together for a 13th high school reunion. Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are married with a two-year-old son. But all is not bliss for Jason and the former devotee of band camp: Most notably, the couple's sex life has become so dull that each prefers masturbation to intercourse.

The rest of the group can be summarized quickly. A third-tier celebrity, Oz (Chris Klein) now works as a sportscaster at a lesser cable network, but is best known for having appeared on a celebrity dance show. He lost.

Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) claims to be a worldly adventurer; Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is happily married, and Stifler (Seann William Scott) works as a temp at a high-powered investment firm, where the boss specializes in humiliation.

These former high school buddies reunite in their Michigan hometown. The guys hope the reunion will recharge batteries that have depleted since the onset of adulthood, the notion being that a weekend of rampant immaturity is just the ticket for lives that need a boost.

Directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, best known for their work on the Harold & Kumar movies, try hard to deliver the expected goods, forgoing any element of surprise for a steady and predictable stream of the same kind of ribald humor that made the previous two movies popular. If you need me to tell you more about how the Pie movies approach comedy, you definitely are not part of the movie's target audience, and don't need to know any more.

The Pie formula requires that attempts to recapture high school enthusiasms go awry, that the friends learn that it's better to be adults than to regress and that ... oh, who really cares? If you've been dying to watch Stifler engage in a gross-out act of revenge, here's your chance. Otherwise, party on elsewhere.

Sexual temptation ripples throughout the proceedings. An 18-year-old hottie (Ali Cobrin) wants to surrender her virginity to Jim. He used to babysit for her. Kevin can't help but take a second look at his old high school flame (Tara Reid), and Chris wonders whether his love for Heather (Mena Suvari) still smolders.

Despite a receding hairline, Stifler serves as the movie's vulgar centerpiece while the rest of the crew struggles to put over jokes, a somewhat laborious effort because they're all looking a little long in the tooth for this sort of adolescent romp.

Eugene Levy, a master comic actor, has the only reliably funny bits in the movie. Levy, who at one point smokes pot with Stiffler's buxom mom (Jennifer Coolidge), can fit into this kind of raunchfest and emerge with his honor intact.

American Reunion opens without serious competition in the comedy department, so it might make small splash at the box office, but I can't say that this third and belated helping of the series (American Pie 2 was released in 2001) did anything more than convince me that I've had enough.