Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lots of laughs for a one-joke movie

If it weren't for the irresistible pull of adolescence, America's multiplexes would be hard-pressed to find a comedy to play. Ted, the latest in the endless round of supposedly envelope-pushing comedies, finds a preposterously creative way to literalize the insistently popular boy/man split. Director Seth MacFarlane, of TV's animated comedy Family Guy, has directed a movie about a man (Mark Wahlberg) whose best friend is a teddy bear (voice by MacFarlane). The story begins in 1985. As a boy, Whalberg's John Bennett wishes that the teddy bear he receives as a Christmas gift could talk. John's wish is granted, and the movie forges ahead. Now in his mid-30s, John lives in Boston with Ted, his unimaginatively named bear, and his girlfriend (Mila Kunis). At this point, MacFarlane unveils the movie's single joke: Far from being a cuddly stuffed animal, Ted has matured into a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking adult who spews non-stop pop-cultural references. Disgusted with this perpetual juvenilia, Kunis's Lori insists that John move on, leaving Ted behind. MacFarlane gets more than the expected mileage from what essentially is a one-joke movie built around Ted's politically incorrect proclivities. The movie's supporting cast is used to mixed effect. Joel McHale plays Lori's obnoxious boss; Giovanni Ribisi portrays a nutcase who wants to kidnap Ted for his overweight son; and Sam J. Jones, who played Flash Gordon in the critically-derided 1980 movie, shows up as himself. The movie predictably (and unfortunately) sweetens toward the end, some of MacFarlane's jokes miss, and some of the jokes really are more offensive than funny. Overall, though, Ted works better than it has any right to, and when it hits, it tends to hit big, even finding a way to work Fenway Park into an action-oriented finale in which MacFarlane tires his hand at a car chase. Bad idea.

The chaotic world of male strippers

Soderbergh strips away plot and indulges in atmospherics -- and male stripping.

When I read that director Steven Soderbergh was making a movie about male strippers, I scratched my head, but figured that Soderbergh -- who has had both commercial (Ocean's Eleven) and artistic successes (Bubble) -- deserved the full benefit any doubts I and others might have about Magic Mike, a movie starring Channing Tatum.

I carried that accepting attitude into the movie's preview screening, but, sad to say, Magic Mike too often comes across as a lively hunk of junk cinema that does little more than titillate the demographic at which it seems to be aimed, the kind of women who consider watching male strippers a fun night out with the girls.

Not surprisingly, the talented Soderbergh sets the scene well, establishing the environment around a Tampa club called Xquisite, which is run by an oily impresario of beefcake who calls himself Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). McConaughey, who knows how to play sleazy, gives himself fully to the role of an ex-stripper who aspires to move his club from Tampa to Miami and who offers his strippers equity share in the business.

A variety of intentionally hockey strip numbers serve as showy highlights, although they tend become repetitive as the strippers play with male stereotypers -- from firemen to cowboys to cops to sailors.

A whisper of a story emerges when Mike takes a newcomer (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing. We see how Pettyfer's Adam -- a.k.a. The Kid -- learns to be an effective stripper and how he begins to enjoy a life that gives him money, women, notoriety and fun -- at least within the small, strip-club world.

It's probably a mistake to think of Magic Mike as episodic; it's really an immersive movie in which Soderbergh takes us into a world where the men are sex objects and, for the most part, seem to embrace the role.

Tatum, who at age 18 worked as a stripper, is credible as the kind of guy who has irons in many fires. Mike sees himself as a budding entrepreneur, and he hopes one day to start a custom furniture business. To date, he's gotten by on hustle, good looks and charm. He's one of those guys who seem to be dancing on air.

Adam's sister (Cody Horn) would like to see her 19-year-old brother on a more normal path and occasionally serves as the movie's scold, a role not even she takes all that seriously. Horn's Brooke is more concerned about her chaotic younger brother than about the propriety of stripping.

At about an hour into the movie's 110 minutes, I noticed two things. First, the air-conditioning in the theater where the preview screening was being held seemed to be flagging, not a good thing on a day when temperatures had reached 105 degrees. Even worse, the movie began to show its need for a stronger story.

The best Soderbergh can do is to introduce a secton in which Adam gets himself into trouble feeding ecstasy to a sorority girl. The incident further prompts Mike to wonder whether his life isn't a tad empty. Mike'a attempts to make a genuine connection with a woman he seems to see regularly (Olivia Munn) go nowhere. She sees him only as a sexual diversion.

Soderbergh opts for a naturalistic acting style that allows for plenty of hemming and hawing. The cast seems comfortable enough, although some of the strippers (Adam Rodriguez and Joe Manganiello) receive little attention, aside from Manganiello who is seen using a pump to ... er ... enhance his on-stage appeal.

Soderbergh doesn't judge anything that happens, suggesting only that young men outgrow this sort of thing (Mike) or turn it into a marginal form of show business (Dallas) or go along for the ride as long as it lasts (Adam).

There's no point moralizing when a substantial part of the audience will be attending for the beefcake alone, but Soderbergh could have said something a little more trenchant than what we find here.

The world of the male stripping ultimately isn't all that interesting, and this is a case in which what could have made for a lively and unusual backdrop basically becomes the entire movie.

'People Like Us' -- or are they?

People Like Us tries hard to mask formulaic thinking, but doesn't entirely succeed.

Sam (Chris Pine), fast-talking businessman, misses his father's funeral after making sure that he doesn't have the necessary identification to board a commercial flight from New York to Los Angeles. It's a quick stroke that immediately establishes People Like Us as a movie about an irresponsible wheeler/dealer who refuses to face the pain in his past.

People Like Us begins in earnest when Sam belatedly lands in Los Angeles with his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) in tow. The rest of the movie involves the discoveries Sam makes as he lingers in Los Angeles, initially because he wants to avoid an FTC investigation resulting from an ethically dubious barter deal and later because of a relationship he develops with a single mom (Elizabeth Banks) and her 12-year-old son (Michael Hall D'Addario).

As it turns out, Sam's recently departed dad -- a record producer by trade -- left his son nothing but shelves full of vinyl albums and a shaving kit containing $150,000 that Sam's supposed to deliver to a stranger. It's here that the movie finds its hook: The money, we learn, is intended for Banks's Frankie, a half-sister Sam didn't know he had.

The rest of the movie charts Sam's humanization after he meets Frankie, a woman who works at a Los Angeles bar. Sam begins to learn that decency has its rewards.

Now without getting into more detail, let me point out that People Like Us is one of those movies in which the absence of a simple conversation -- presumably one most of us would want to have as soon as we discovered that we had an unknown sibling -- keeps undermining the movie's credibility. Sam won't tell Frankie who he is, which sets up the inevitable march toward to the uber-dramatic moment when he must reveal all.

Granted, the financially pressed Sam has his reasons for not saying anything (he's thinking about keeping the $150,000), but this kind of withheld information constitutes the same sort of hackneyed conceit that has fueled far too many low-grade romcoms. Here, it provides the obstacle for brother/sister reconciliation.

Sam and his mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) seem to have had it easier than Frankie. As a single mom and hard-working waitress, Frankie's always stressed, and to make matters worse, she's dealing with a wise-ass kid who has a knack for getting into trouble.

Unfortunately, the movie's most interesting character -- Sam's departed dad -- is never seen. Sam's father evidently was a major philanderer who was more interested in music than in his family. The relationship between this unseen impresario and Pfeiffer's character might have provided material for a far more original movie than the one director Alex Kurtzman has made. (Kurtzman, by the way, co-wrote the screenplay for the most recent Star Trek movie in which Pine plays Capt. Kirk.)

Despite a strong performance from Banks, who eclipses Pine, People Like Us ultimately comes across as an adequate formula job that tries to mute its predictability: Nothing wrong with a fresh twist on old contrivances, but People Like Us follows its predictable arc to a place where we've been hundreds of times before.

Two sisters, one guy = complications

Three characters search for ... well ... something in Your Sister's Sister, an engaging indie.

Going in I was leery. Your Sister's Sister has all the trappings of the kind of small-stakes indie movies that have been glutting the art market of late. My attitude was formed in part by the movie's bona fides: Your Sister's Sister was directed by Lynn Shelton, who previously directed the painfully contrived indie comedy Humpday, and it includes a performance by indie regular Mark Duplass. Credited as the movie's executive producer, Duplass -- who comes out of the so-called mumblecore movement -- was last seen in the indie romance Safety Not Guaranteed, which arrived fully stocked with the usual array of unhinged characters.

Your Sister's Sister does share a kinship with some of its indie counterparts: Duplass's character, for example, seems stuck in an all-too-typical directionless limbo. But Your Sister's Sister goes against the grain of expectation to become an involving character study built around complex emotional entanglements.

And instead of being annoyed by these characters, we're often engaged by them -- at least, I was.

After a less-than-gracious speech at a memorial service for his late brother, Duplass's Jack is invited to spend a weekend at a cabin owned by the family of the late brother's former girlfriend. Said girlfriend (Emily Blunt) -- Iris by name -- thinks Jack needs a little time alone

When Jack arrives at this cabin on the Washington coast, he quickly learns that he's not going to be alone. Hannah (Rachel DeWitt), a lesbian, a vegan and Iris's half-sister, already has sought the solitude of the cabin to recover from the dissolution of a long-term relationship.

After an awkward start, Jack and Hannah spend the night sitting around the kitchen table, talking and downing tequila shots. They wind up in bed together, less driven by passion than by a bit of alcohol-induced experimental daring.

To further thicken the story's stew, Iris shows up the next day. She, too, was unaware that Hannah had been conducting her own emotional retreat at the cabin, but she's happy to see her sister and ready to pursue her as-yet-unexpressed feelings for Jack.

Being cooped up with three characters in a cabin can be disastrous, but the actors know how to win us over, as Jack and Hannah struggle to decide whether to tell Iris about their fling.

If I had to pick one actor of the trio as the movie's stand-out, I'd opt for DeWitt, who's smart, vulnerable and attractive as Hannah, a woman with a trick or two up her vegan sleeve. Blunt is winning as an equally vulnerable young woman, and Duplass is amusing in the self-consciously smart way we expect from a bright young man who has yet to figure out much of anything.

Together this threesome creates an amusing couple of days in the woods, where they learn something about one another and about themselves, bringing us along for an entertaining ride.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A 'Brave' new world for Pixar

Brave finds a female lead, but loses some of the expected magic.

When it comes to wildly successful animation, Pixar's track record is difficult to beat. Pixar films such as Finding Nemo, Up, and Toy Story have transformed the animated landscape, appealing broadly to both adult and kiddie audiences.

Brave, a story centered on a young princess, is a slightly different Pixar animal. It's good enough to attract a crowd, but can't be ranked among the studio's best.

Although all technical aspects are first-rate, Pixar's Scottish-based story feels less committed to off-kilter creativity than previous efforts. Brave seems to have been conceived to celebrate a girl's courage while, at the same time, teaching her a lesson about the perils of selfishness.

The film's early scenes introduce Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) and sets up one of the story's basic problems. Free-spirited Merida, who receives a bow and arrow as a birthday gift from her father (Billy Connolly), is being encouraged by her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) to assume her royal responsibilities; i.e., Merida's supposed to act like a bona fide princess and prepare to marry one of three suitors who'll be competing for her affections at a pre-engagement tournament.

Brave earns comic points with this preposterous trio of suitors, all of them obviously unsuitable for the movie's red-headed main character.

For her part, an adamant Merida insists on maintaining her freedom, which -- as we see -- riding horses through beautifully drawn forests, chasing glowing will o' the wisps and establishing herself as an ace archer and all-around free spirit.

A pivotal plot twist arrives when Merida encounters a witch (Julie Walters) who promises to change her mother's mind, but brings about other changes that burden Merida with a new responsibilities.

Brave plays like a fractured fairy tale with a mild agenda, increasingly becoming a story about the relationship between a determined, conventional mother and her equally determined, but unconventional daughter.

Pixar peppers the movie with enough comic relief to keep kids happy and propel the little ones past a few scary moments, but for all its animated marvels, Brave comes up short in the magic department.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Lincoln, vampires and big-time blood

This Abe doesn't have it in for Congress; he's off to fight vampires.

If you're a fan of wacked-out movie ideas, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter has just about everything else beat by a mile. The title alone tells you just how crazy this film will be. Consider: Lincoln evidently didn't have enough trouble ending slavery, fighting the Civil War and desperately try to hold the union together, he also had to fight hordes of vampires, who allied themselves with the Confederacy and slavery.

Some things don't need to be parodied, they need only to be quoted, and that's how it is with much of this vividly realized, intermittently entertaining and often ludicrous adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith's 2010 novel. Grahame-Smith wrote the screenplay, and Timur Bekmambetov -- known for the Night Watch and Day Watch movies -- directedmostly to mixed effect.

Not surprisingly, the Lincoln we meet in this action-oriented adventure isn't a mirror image of the Lincoln of history books, unless you happened to be exposed to texts depicting honest Abe wielding a silver-tipped ax and acting very much like a summer-movie action hero. It's Abe vs. one vicious vampire after another as the movie plies its way through quasi-historical waters.

Motivated by vengeance (a vampire killed his mother) and a desire to battle the dark side, Lincoln makes the ax his weapon of choice because of early days spent splitting rails. The story follows Lincoln from his boyhood to the presidency with vampires linking different periods in the leader's life.

Benjamin Walker makes a stalwart if not entirely prepossessing adult Lincoln, a character surrounded by a large supporting cast that includes Dominic Cooper (as a good vampire); Rufus Sewell (as the movie's very bad vampire); Anthony Mackie (as a black childhood pal of Lincoln grown into an ally in the fight against slavery); Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as Mary Todd Lincoln); Marton Csokas (as Lincoln's sworn enemy) and many more.

As you probably can tell, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is not an A-list production -- at least as far as casting is concerned.

It probably doesn't matter because action tramples character in a story that applies a simplistic moral overlay to its abundant collection of weirdness. Lincoln eventually moves beyond a desire for vengeance to pit himself against an evil that threatens his beloved country, and this Lincoln never wavers in his opposition to slavery.

You get the idea: The movie plays like another big-screen comic book, sketching its story in the kind of broad strokes that make nuance about as welcome as silver bullets at a vampire convention.

Bekmambetov employs CGI to useful effect in creating the movie's 19th century backdrops, and he piles on the action, most notably in a bleary scene involving a horse stampede and a finale that includes a burning bridge and a runaway locomotive.

History buffs will find fleeting historical references -- the Gettysburg address and Emancipation Proclamation -- that presumably are meant to ground a fantastical story in the soil of recognizable history.

If a movie such as this is going to have any credibility, it must be centered on a president who has mythic stature. Lincoln works. Nixon wouldn't.

Although Bekmambetov specializes in severed heads, assorted gore and high octane fighting in which bodies seem to freeze in mid-air, I found the action a bit repetitive. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter didn't live up to my expectations for something preposterously grand, but it provided a fair measure of unintended chuckles and a bit incidental fun as it tried to swell to mythic proportions.

Romance at the end of the world

Steve Carell and Keira Knightley eventually create some chemistry on the road to oblivion.

Do filmmakers know something we don't? I ask this because of late we've seen several end-of-the-world films. Lars von Trier's Melancholia and Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth top the most recent list. Before that, we saw a big-screen adaptation of Cormack McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, and long before that On the Beach, director Stanley Kramer's earnest 1959 cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear warfare.

Genre fans can make their own lists, but one thing's clear: Hollywood has an on-again, off-again love affair with the demise of absolutely everything.

Now comes Seeking a Friend For the End of the World, a tonally addled movie that can't seem to decide whether it's a biting black comedy, an offbeat romantic comedy or a drama about the virtues of reconciliation and love. Seeking a Friend, which stars Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, winds up being all of those things and none of them, a curious hybrid of a movie that never quite finds a believable niche.

In the early going, Seeking a Friend threatens to ignite a spark of genius. Carell plays Dodge, an insurance agent. For Dodge, the approaching Doomsday feels like a form of cosmic piling-on. Dodge's wife has decided to leave him rather than spend her last days in his company. He has no luck finding solace among his friends, either. They all seem to have taken to shooting heroin and indulging their libidos.

At a party, one of those friends (Patton Oswalt) finds the proverbial silver lining in this gargantuan cloud. With the end fast approaching, women have become far less discriminating, he says. His final days have turned into an impromptu orgy, fulfillment of a macabre but still welcome (at last to him) dream. To Dodge, everything seems futile.

Alone and depressed, Dodge eventually is thrown into contact with a flighty young neighbor with an affinity for vinyl records (Knightley's Penny) and the boyfriend (Adam Brody) that the script quickly sheds. At that point, first-time director Lorene Scafaria holsters most of her satirical guns and tries on a variety of road movie ploys.

Dodge and Penny flee a riot-plagued New York City, he in hopes of contacting an old high-school girlfriend, she because Dodge promises to help locate a pilot who'll be willing to fly her to Britain to spend her last days with her family.

Along the way, our mismatched couple runs into William Petersen (as a man who has hired someone to assassinate him so that he at least won't know when the end is coming) and Derek Luke (as a former boyfriend of Penny, a survivalist who thinks he can out-macho the apocalypse).

If there's a comic high point in Dodge and Penny's road-warrior adventures, it arrives when they stop at Friendsy's, a restaurant where a giddy staff has become helpful in a nearly berserk sort of way that parodies a variety of well-known eateries.

But Seeking a Friend lacks the fortitude to laugh all the way to oblivion.

Late in the proceedings, Dodge takes Penny to meet his father (Martin Sheen), a man he hasn't seen in years. As fortune and script contrivance would have it, Sheen's Frank is a pilot with his own plane. But before any trans-Atlantic travel can be discussed, Dodge must vent a bit about the father who left home when he was still a kid, and Sheen must slip into apologetic mode.

As the depressive Dodge, Carell can be a little bland, and Knightley works her character's eccentricity as hard as she can, but Carell and Knightley deserve credit for increasing their chemistry quotient as the movie progresses.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World has its comic moments and also a few that prove touching, but here's another movie that asks us to chew on scraps of satisfaction rather than savor an entire meal. Moreover, the movie's lachrymose undertow doesn't always make it easy to take.

And what's up with all these end-of-the-world fantasies anyway? There's an almost sickening indulgence to these movies as if an aging baby-boom generation can't imagine that life will go on without it. As I dipped in and out of the various moods of Seeking a Friend, I began to miss the uncompromising satire of bravura end-of-the world movies such as Dr. Strangelove.

In that classic, we were stupid enough to destroy ourselves. These days we seem content to fantasize about the end of a bland run caused by some sort of cosmic collision which feels more like the cancellation of a forgettable TV series than the apocalyptic conclusion of ... well ... everything.

Oh well, there's one truly great thing about end-of-the-world movies. No matter how much we might crave second helpings, they don't allow for sequels.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Teaching the young after a tragedy

Movies about teachers run the risk of pumping us full of faux inspiration or asking us to wallow in teary sentiment as we bid goodbye to the latest Mr. Chips. Because it does neither of these things and because it features a beautifully calibrated performance by Algerian actor Mohammad Fellag, the French-Canadian film Monsieur Lahzar qualifies as a small wonder. The movie begins when a student in a Montreal school discovers that his teacher has committed suicide by hanging herself in her classroom. Writer/director Philippe Falardeau doesn't rush headlong into a thick stew of grief and shock. He's interested in the events that follow and are influenced by the suicide. As it turns out, the suicide creates a job opening for an ambitious Algeria immigrant who needs work and who tells the school's principal that he spent 17 years teaching in Algeria. As played by the highly sympathetic Fellag, this new teacher begins to develop relationships with his 11-year-old students while dealing with his own issues: He must prove to Canadian immigration authorities that he shouldn't be deported. Fellag's Monsieur Lahzar seems to have definite ideas about education, but part of the movie's intrigue involves trying to understand a man who took a job no one else really wanted. Before the movie ends, we learn why Lahzar seems so elusive, and the movie deepens once again. There's flinty integrity and real humanity in Falardeau's Oscar-nominated movie, which last February lost in the best foreign-language film category to Iran's A Separation. The two films are too dissimilar to compare, but know that in a different year, Monsieur Lazhar easily could have emerged as the winner.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

'Rock of Ages' is faux to the max

Energy and flashes of humor keep this rock musical from going entirely off the tracks..

The musical Rock of Ages purports to explore the '80s rock scene in Los Angeles. At various points, the movie works as a bit of nostalgia-laden, cinematic fluff, but the longer it goes on, the more Rock of Ages tests one's tolerance for material that's been pushed to its campy limits.

Perhaps to give the movie cache, a variety of "names' have been cast in roles of varying size and importance. These include Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti and Mary J. Blige. These veterans surround and bolster the movie's main characters, a couple of wannabe rockers portrayed by newcomers Julianne Hough and Deigo Boneta.

Director Adam Shankman, who directed the movie version of Hairspray, pushes his cast through a variety of numbers in which recognizable rock songs punctuate a purposefully cliched story that sees Hough's Sheriee arrive in Los Angeles from Oklahoma in pursuit of a rock stardom.

Sheriee quickly meets Boneta's Drew, a waiter at the fictional Bourbon Room, a fabled launching pad for major rock acts. Drew also wants to be a rocker, and he shares his dream with Sheriee as they stand behind the famous Hollywood sign overlooking the city they hope conquer.

I spent most of the movie marking time until the next appearance by an adult. Looking as if he's trying to channel Mickey Rourke, a long-haired Baldwin presides over the financially troubled Bourbon Room, a task he shares with his loyal sidekick (Russell Brand, in a variation on the performance he already gave in Get Him to the Greek).

A semblance of tension arises when the holier-than-thou wife (Zeta-Jones) of Los Angeles' mayor launches a campaign against the Bourbon Room, vowing to close this den of rock iniquity, a worn-out plot development if ever there were one.

And then there's Cruise. Introduced in the movie wearing a cod piece and showing his butt cheeks, Cruise plays fading Rocker Stacee Jaxx, a dissolute, Scotch-swilling lead singer. Cruise gives Jaxx the eerie daze of a man who has just been hit in the head with a two-by-four, evidently the actor's attempt to simulate the effects of prolonged bouts of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Alone in a cocoon of rock stardom, Jaxx has one friend, a pet baboon he has named "Hey Man."

Giamatti signs on as Jaxx's conniving agent, and Malin Akerman plays a Rolling Stone reporter who trashes Jaxx in print but not-so-secretely has the hots for him.

Little of the music used in Rock of Ages (Starship's We Built This City or Twisted Sister's We're Not Gonna Take It or Pat Benatar's Hit Me With Your Best Shot is likely to find its way onto my playlist, but I'm hardly the target audience for this one.

By way of a bit of by-the-way info, consider this: A gay kiss (to the tune of REO Speedwagon's Can't Fight This Feeling) is presented as a comic high point, mostly because of the actors it involves. A preview audience giggled mightily.

The movie's commitment to rock seems as phony as just about everything else about it. But Rock of Ages has enough pep to keep several cheerleading squads jumping for months and its large cast can't be accused of not being committed to the full silliness of the material.

Rock of Ages is a jiggling, wiggling junk heap of a movie with several amusing moments. And if nothing else, it provides Cruise with an opportunity to slink, slither and otherwise set his charisma phaser on full stun -- while singing, as well.

Why he'd want to do any of this is beyond me, but, then, Cruise never asks my advice anyway.

Love, time travel and a shabby motel

If American independent movies get any smaller, they may disappear entirely. I thought about this cinematic vanishing act, a mini-epidemic among the indie crowd, while watching Safety Not Guaranteed, a deadpan charmer that serves up an offbeat romance in a style so unadorned it appears to be no style at all.

The movie's central conceit involves time travel. Mark Duplass, a mumble core veteran who also served as one of the movie's producers, plays a Washington state recluse who claims to have invented a time machine.

Sci-fi mavens need not apply: Safety Not Guaranteed isn't really about traveling through time; it's about lives that seem to be marking time.

Duplass's Kenneth comes to the fore when a writer for a Seattle city magazine (Jake Johnson) notices a classified ad in which Kenneth seeks a partner for his time-travel adventures. Johnson's Jeff rounds up two interns (Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni) and sets out to find the would-be time traveler.

Safety Not Guaranteed is another film about characters who appear to be damaged goods, and -- as befits the movie's taste for dreary locales -- our traveling trio checks into a shabby motel in rural Washington, cramming into one room in order to save per diem money for other pursuits.

Adrift in grief over her mother's death, Plaza's Darius also seems to be grappling with a non-existent love life and an ingrown tendency toward cynicism. Darius gradually begins to take over the story. She makes contact with Kenneth, pursues the time-travel story and begins to fall for her subject.

For his part, Soni's Arnau buries his head in his computer, and Johnson's Jeff pursues an old flame (Jenica Bergere).

The story creates a bit of uncertainty about whether Kenneth is crazy or whether he may actually have stumbled onto something momentous. He tells Darius he wants to return to 2001 to prevent the death of a former girlfriend. And, no, Sept. 11th isn't on the movie's agenda.

Director Colin Trevorrow tends toward comedy with a dour flavor, but Safety Not Guaranteed isn't always as funny as it probably wants to be. Within its narrow parameters, tough, the movie hits more than a few winning notes.

It's not physical safety that's at risk here, but emotional safety -- and although the world offers little protection in that area, Safety Not Guaranteed reminds us that people still sometimes take big leaps toward one another, and that such leaps always are a bit of a gamble.

'Hysteria': The vibe isn't good

Hysteria tries to take a breezy approach to a 19th Century story about the dawn of a new consciousness in female sexuality. Put more succinctly, Hysteria is a comedy about the invention of the vibrator. Director Tanya Wexler pokes fun at the Victorian propensity to put a mask of acceptability on physical pleasure. To make the point, the movie includes a variety of brief scenes in which a strait-laced physician brings various women to climax by providing manual stimulation. As it turns out, such physicians, who perform their work with detached precision, experience an unfortunate occupational hazard. Call it hand fatigue. For them, the vibrator is a godsend. Hugh Dancy plays Mortimer Granville, a doctor who lands a job working for Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a physician who specializes in the aforementioned hand therapy. Dalrymple introduces electricity into the proceedings after he discerns another use for an electric feather duster his roommate (Rupert Everett) has invented. No story can run on vibrators alone, so Pryce's character has been given two daughters (Felciity Jones and Maggie Gyllenhaal). As it turns out, Gyllenhaal's cheerfully independent character operates a settlement house for impoverished women. The screenplay introduces a bit of romantic rivalry involving Dancy and the two daughters, but it doesn't amount to much. I read somewhere -- can't remember where or I'd happily credit the source -- that Hysteria is supposed to play like Masterpiece Theater with vibrators. It's a nice description -- and I wish it actually were true. Such a movie might have been funner, cheekier and more satirically relevant.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The worst police job in the world

This French cop drama may suffer from too much of a bad thing.

The French drama Polisse can be difficult to watch, which is how it should be. The movie chronicles the work of the Child Protection Unit, a Parisian police detail assigned to preventing child abuse, most of it involving pedophilia. The men and women at the movie's core are deeply committed to their work, but pay a major price for being thrown into an emotional pressure cooker that never stops boiling. Not surprisingly, these cops have difficulty dealing with the rest of their lives, as work tensions spill into time spent away from the job. It may be impossible to witness non-stop perversity without retaining dangerous levels of anger or maybe some of the cops use work pressures to cover their inability to sustain close relationships. Director Maiween, working from a script co-written with Emmanuelle Bercot, adds a bit of plot twist when a female photographer is assigned to chronicle the work of these haggard cops, but Polisse never entirely sheds an episodic approach. The goal must have been to show the unending onslaught of woe under which these cops labor, but the approach can feel repetitive. Polisse effectively shows how the cops interrogate suspects, how they party to blow off steam, and how they cling to a sense of unwavering righteousness about their role in society. But some of the movie has the numbing effect that derives from exposure to too much histrionics. By the end, we've gotten to know a sampling of the cops fairly well, but Polisse suffers from the fact that it makes its points early and doesn't really have anywhere to go with them. Like the cops it portrays, the movie never gets out of spin cycle.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

'B' movies just keep getting bigger

A stunning opening, some intelligence and plenty of action make Prometheus decent, but Ridley Scott's latest doesn't deliver the knockout punch.

At the age of 74, director Ridley Scott has gone back to the turf he so ably mined with 1979's Alien. Alien, of course, spawned a franchise that included entrees by such important directors as James Cameron (Aliens) and David Fincher (Aliens 3).

Scott's initial movie, which has stood the test of time, caught moviegoers by surprise with its high-voltage suspense, terrifying creatures and cynicism about what might happen if humans encountered alien life forms. Alien arrived in theaters as a welcome antidote to the awed optimism epitomized by movies such as Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

In the world Scott created, space no longer represented a final frontier where mankind might find salvation, but a lonely expanse filled with unrelenting terror.

Although Prometheus marks Scott's return to outer space, it can't steal the fire of cultural relevance that marked the director's initial attempt to shed Earth's gravitational pull. Prometheus makes use of lots of spiffy new technology -- notably the improved 3-D that seems to have become a mandatory part of every summer movie -- but the movie feels as much like an embellishment of recognizable themes as a bold journey of discovery.

Scott has applied a taste for the monumental to a lurid B-movie, sci-fi scenario about a voyage to a distant planet, and for a time, it works. But when the crew faces its predictable eve of destruction, vague aromas of familiarity begin to waft over the proceedings.

It's telling that Prometheus's collection of characters includes only one real standout and that this most memorable of characters is a robot played by Michael Fassbender, an actor whose lightly expressed sardonic wit can be as subtle as one of his character's raised eyebrows. Fassbender's David is a humanoid variation of 2001's HAL, a machine that develops its human style by watching Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Nice touch.

Those who see Prometheus will not enter an idea-free zone. I have mixed feelings about whether that's a good thing. The screenplay tries to pit creationism against Darwinism and then stand both of them on their heads, but the movie's "serious" talk doesn't always synch with the expected and often well-delivered shocks.

The greatest of these jolts occurs during an automated operation undergone by Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace, still best known for her work in the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. I'll say no more about this bit of surgery, but it's probably destined to become the movie's most talked about scene.

Dr. Shaw, who wears a neckless from which a cross dangles, subscribes to the notion of a created universe. Her faith-based position contrasts with her lover Dr. Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshalll-Green), a staunch Darwinian.

Both Shaw and Halloway are participants in a mission prompted by their early-picture discovery of cave drawings that suggest that an alien life form may have had something to do with the origin of life on Earth. When the movie heads into space, we learn that the mission has been taken over by a corporation whose on-board rep (Charlize Theron) is an ice princess and the movie's resident bitch. The vessel's captain (Idris Elba) is a hard-boiled guy who who tends not to focus on big questions.

As the story progresses, Rapace's performance becomes increasingly focused, a display of ferocious determination. And, of course, a variety of lesser characters become fodder for many hideous-looking monsters that seem to have been designed to ensure that the movie fulfills its obligations as a summer slimefest.

With a couple of amazing exceptions, Scott's use of 3-D proves less than spectacular and some of the movie's visual creations -- an alien spaceship that looks like a giant bagel from which someone has taken a healthy bite -- are more impressive for their size than for their imaginative design.

During the movie's stunning prologue, I scribbled a note to myself; I wondered whether Scott had begun so amazingly that nothing in the rest of his movie could live up to what transpires during the opening credits. I was sort of right about that, although Scott can't be faulted for not adding enough bells and whistles. If you sit through the closing credits, you'll discover that Prometheus's technical crew takes up nearly as much space as half the London phone book.

Should you see Prometheus? I certainly wouldn't try to talk you out of it. Prometheus is a decent helping of sci-fi that's probably a shade more intelligent than most of what we'll see this summer, but ... and this is a major "but" -- it is not the knock-out for which I had been hoping, and as a colleague eloquently expressed after the movie, Prometheus , which eventually does become a kind of prequel to Alien, diminishes in the mind the more the furor around it subsides.

Welcome to Wes Anderson's dollhouse

Moonrise Kingdom is intermittently amusing, distinctive and not always easy to digest.

I loved director Wes Anderson's last movie, an animated adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox, a children's story by Roald Dahl. For me, over-the-top admiration for an Anderson movie isn't the norm. Watching Anderson's latest -- Moonrise Kingdom -- reminded me that my responses to Anderson's work usually are more complicated and far more mixed than with most directors.

Typically, I find myself admiring Anderson's skills and impressed by what seems to be his unwavering commitment to the peculiarity of his own sensibilities. Inevitably, there will be places in an Anderson film where I chuckle, perhaps ruefully. These amusing moments often involve Bill Murray, who has appeared in such Anderson films as Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums and, of course, Rushmore.

But if Anderson's audience divides into fans and non-fans, I lean away from fandom.

You probably can see where I'm headed in writing about Moonrise Kingdom, perhaps the most Andersonian of Anderson's films, a tiny story built around artful set decoration, distinctive imagery and a story that seems to be taking place in a universe composed of elements that have been tweaked just enough to throw them out of whack. The look of a Scout camp in Moonrise Kingdom, for example, suggests a Norman Rockwell painting -- only drained of nostalgic exultation.

For me, watching an Anderson movie is like marching at attention rather than walking. There's not much room for meandering. Anderson's works seem made to be appreciated in a certain way, and even when I think I see what Anderson is getting at, I have trouble totally connecting to his movies.

This time, Anderson tells the story of Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). What's different about Sam and Suzy's love-at-first-sight tale? Sam and Suzy are 12-year-olds making their way through the summer of 1965. They fall in love before either their bodies or their minds are prepared for romance.

Sam, we learn, is an orphaned member of the Khaki Scouts, a stand-in for the Boy Scouts. He's attending scout camp on the fictional island of New Penzance, off the Massachusetts coast. Suzy Bishop lives on the island with her family -- mom, dad and three brothers. Suzy and her siblings listen to Benjamin Britten recordings on her portable phonograph. She often has her nose buried in a book. On the surface, things look normal enough, but the rooms of the Bishop house can seem like isolation chambers.

It's hardly surprising that Suzy's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) object when their daughter runs off with Sam. Suzy's parents enlist the help of the local sheriff (Bruce Willis), who also happens to be having an affair with McDormand's character. Sam's scoutmaster (Edward Norton) frets about the situation, and a social worker (Tilda Swinton) threatens to return Sam to foster care or maybe place him in an orphanage.

The adults in the movie are not quite ogres nor are they exemplary. Both Murray and McDormand are playing attorneys, characters who have acquired material success, and who want to expose their children to culture, but who also seem miserable -- at least in the non-emotive way of most Anderson-created characters. The trick for Anderson's actors seems to involve presenting outlines that can be colored in by the audience's crayons -- assisted, of course, by the occasional sharp line of dialog in Anderson and Roman Coppola's screenplay.

Toward the end of the movie, one adult -- a scoutmaster played by Anderson vet Jason Schwartzman -- offers to marry Sam and Suzy, cautioning them to think seriously about what they're doing. This bit of silliness provides an instance in which Anderson's approach works well. Schwartzman's offer makes no sense. but it connects Sam and Suzy with a co-conspirator who's willing to accept their view of things.

At one point, I wondered whether Suzy -- with her affectless delivery -- and Sam -- with his goggle-eyed glasses -- might not be more at home in an artfully drawn comic strip than in a movie. During their lovers' flight, Suzy invites Sam to French kiss and touch her breast. Sam complies, but in the typically inexpressive fashion that Anderson favors. Suzy and Sam don't seem like kids discovering their sexuality; they're puppets in Anderson's playhouse.

All of this builds toward a major flood of the island, which makes sense because Sam and Suzy met while Suzy was preparing for an appearance in an amateur production of Britten's opera Noye's Fludde (Noah's Flood). I guess if Sam and Suzy had their way, the Earth would be flooded, the rest of humanity would be wiped out and they would walk hand-in-hand onto a waiting ark, sole survivors of a necessary conflagration.

Sam, in particular, is a kind of outcast. Until a heroic turnaround by one of his fellow Scouts, he's scorned by boys his own age. Even the foster parents who had been caring for Sam don't want him back.

Those who enjoy visiting these Anderson-created worlds seem to like them very much. I appreciated Moonrise Kingdom in a whacky sort of way that did not always equate with either enjoyment or illumination. My feelings about Anderson's work remain unresolved.

If you're looking for a different take on the '60s -- or more precisely -- if you're interested in the continuing ramifications of life in the '60s, you may want to check out Peace, Love and Misunderstanding, director Bruce Beresford's seriocomic look at the present-day conflict between a mother (Jane Fonda) and the adult daughter (Catherine Keener) she raised during the free-and-easy, pot-smoking '60s. Faced with divorce, Keener's Diane -- a successful New York attorney -- leaves Manhattan with her two children (Elisabeth Olsen and Nate Wolf) to visit her mother in Woodstock, N.Y., an iconic locale for peace, love, protest and marijuana. The resentment of children with "hippie" parents is a legitimate and under-explored subject, but Peace, Love and Misunderstanding mostly blows it. Fonda's character comes off as a shrill parody of '60s values, a woman stuck in a time warp -- but confident that it's the right place to be. Meanwhile, Diane's son Jake (Wolf) runs around Woodstock with a video camera, exercising his wannabe filmmaker muscles and introducing the dreaded film-within-a-film conceit. Peace, Love and Misunderstanding stands as an example of what happens when a lot of talented people are shackled to second-rate material. Much pot is smoked, but this one doesn't inhale deeply when it comes to working through its characters' very real issues.