Friday, May 30, 2014

'Maleficent:' A new take on an old tale

Sleeping Beauty for the 21st century -- beautifully crafted, but not always captivating.
Angelina Jolie can be positively wicked as Maleficent, an aggrieved fairy seeking revenge against the king who stole her wings.

Maleficent, of course, is the title character of Disney's reworking of the Sleeping Beauty story, a tale the studio told in a classic helping of 1959 animation.

With her cheek bones built to harrowing heights by make-up whiz Rick Baker, Jolie flashes predatory white teeth and keeps a cool sense of menace about herself.

She's striking and also a bit freaky looking in headgear that gives her a devilish pair of horns.

Director Robert Stromberg, production designer on movies such as Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful, creates an encompassing visual environment while telling the Sleeping Beauty story in a way that gives it a bit of feminist spin -- and provides us with the inside scoop on a story we thought we knew.

Early scenes introduce us to Maleficent as a child (Isobelle Molloy), a happy fairy girl who establishes a relationship with a human, a boy named Stephan (Michael Higgins).

Stephan will grow up, discover ambition, and steal Maleficent's wings, thus enabling himself to become king of the humans and forcing his childhood flame to turn toward evil.

The Sleeping Beauty of this tale -- Elle Fanning's Aurora -- is a smiling, blonde-haired girl who seems carefree and guileless -- and not nearly as intriguing as Maleficent.

Aurora's father, of course, is the grown Stephan. As king, Stephan (Sharlto Copley) insists on keeping his daughter away from the palace until after her 16th birthday.

To that end, Aurora is raised in a secluded forest cottage by three comically addled fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville).

All of this has to do with the vengeful curse that Maleficent put on Aurora at her christening: In a fit of icy rage, Maleficent condemned Aurora to prick her finger on a spindle at age 16. She'd then fall into a death-like sleep from which she could be roused only by the kiss of true love.

It's just here that the story takes an unexpected turn, about which a little must be said.

During her time in the woods, Aurora develops a relationship with the watchful Maleficent, and the movie raises a question that generates interest without much suspense: Will Maleficent stick to her guns or will she soften as she gets to know Aurora? How bad a badass is Maleficent really?

The tale seems to have been calibrated to maximize CGI: There are many odd-looking creatures, some of whom may a bit scary for the youngest kids.

Stromberg does a nice job with a character named Diaval, a crow that Maleficent transforms into a variety of different creatures, all of them charged with doing her bidding.

Some movies are pure stinkbombs; others are total winners; still others are decent in their way, but may not scale the intended heights.

That seems to be the case with Maleficent, a movie that engages fitfully and flies high at times. Beautifully crafted as it is, Maleficent doesn't consistently provide the desired level of captivation.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A comic western gets thrown from its horse

A Million Ways to Die in the West floods the screen with gags. Most of them don't work.
Watching A Million Ways to Die in the West, a new comedy from Seth MacFarlane, I wondered about Hollywood. Why has an obviously clever comic with good looks and a gameshow smile been given the opportunity to over-indulge what seem like fantasies created by watching too many Westerns?

Maybe it's because MacFarlane tries (boy, does he try) to make us laugh with intentionally placed anachronisms, a surfeit of fart jokes and many other crude expressions that make it seem as if he's testing puerile limits by focusing on all manner of bodily excretions.

When I first saw the trailer for A Million Ways to Die in the West, it struck me that MacFarlane might have hitched his horse to a wagon that long ago left the stable. The Western has been parodied before, most prominently in Mel Brooks' classic Blazing Saddles (1974).

Alas, I was right -- or at least I think I was. From its opening credits -- presented in the style of big-scenery westerns popular in the 1950s -- it seemed that MacFarlane's trip west would be marked by a mixture of dubious taste and comic irrelevance.

The movie's major insight goes something like this: Life on the frontier was miserable in nearly every regard, offering many opportunities for those who braved the western wilds to meet with doom, degradation and wounded pride.

To make his point, MacFarlane plays Albert, a sheep farmer who lives with his parents.

During the course of the movie, Albert complains about the West and is rejected by the local schoolmarm (Amanda Seyfried).

Albert eventually finds true love with the wife (Charlize Theron) of a brutally cruel outlaw (Liam Neeson).

Suffice it to say that each of the aforementioned actors seems to be working in a different movie. Seyfried can't seem to find a handle on a character who abandons the hapless Albert for a man who runs the local mustache shop (Neil Patrick Harris), an emporium that seems to specialize in a Snidely Whiplash look.

As a woman who knows how to wield a six-shooter, Theron seems committed to acting as an audience for MacFarlane, reacting as if her paycheck depended on turning herself into his personal laugh track.

Neeson mostly plays things straight, adding to the tonal confusion that prevails throughout most of this lengthy comic ride. The movie lasts for 116 minutes, many of them marked by inertness at their core.

It might be of some help to catalog the various jokes. The most repetitive of them involves the local brothel where a hooker (Sarah Silverman) plies her trade.

Silverman's Ruth talks freely about her work to her fiancee (Giovanni Ribisi), an avowed Christian who agrees that he shouldn't sleep with Silverman's character until they're properly married.

Repetition is also evident in the movie's several gunfights, which breed little tension and lots of fretting about when MacFarlane plans to bring the proceedings to a close.

The movie even includes a lengthy fantasy sequence, which is supposed to depict a drug-induced trip that MacFarlane's character experiences when he meets Cochise (Wes Studi).

Some of the jokes undermine themselves. MacFarlane probably was trying to make a comment about western racial attitudes with a bit that takes place at a shooting gallery at a county fare. The shooting gallery theme: Shoot a runaway slave.

It's a misfire: The offensiveness of the conceit trumps any satirical point MacFarlane migth have had in mind.

Say this: MacFarlane isn't shy about turning his humor on himself, most notably when a sheep urinates on his face. Yes, it's disgusting.

Some of MacFarlane's one liners have a sharpness about them. At one point he says that tending sheep is like trying to walk 150 really stupid dogs at the same time.

But MacFarlane's comic vision seems mired in conflict. He tries to pay homage to the grand scenery of Westerns while at the same time trashing the romanticism that has enriched the genre.

A Million Ways to Die in the West probably will attract some interest, primarily because MacFarlane scored big with Ted, a comedy about a foul-mouthed teddy bear. MacFarlane directed Ted, and also provided the bear's voice, which meant he remained off screen. He proved that he could garner laughs from a one-joke movie.

In A Million Ways to Die in the West, MacFarlane founders with a comedy that bombards us with one-liners, sight gags, gross-outs, and a cornucopia of jokes, most of them unbuoyed by anything resembling comic exuberance.

Gun fire blasts hole in this thriller

For a while, I thought Cold in July was going to be a thriller with something more on its mind than pouring a heaping mound of pulp over an oft-visited thriller landscape. Michael C. Hall plays Richard Dane, a Texas father who shoots an intruder (Dane's trigger finger slips) during a middle-of-the-night burglary. Dane is torn by feelings of guilt and fear, particularly when a man claiming to be the father of the dead intruder (Sam Shepard) shows up seeking revenge. Director Jim Mickle, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nick Damici from a novel by Joe R. Landsdale, puts lots of intriguing elements in play, but increasingly tilts the movie toward outrageous plotting, Texas color (a la the Coen Brothers) and a disconcertingly violent conclusion. Still, the movie features fine acting -- not only from Hall and Shepard, but from Don Johnson who shows up as a quirky private detective who also runs a pig farm. Vinessa Shaw has a nice small turn as Dane's wife, Ann. There's plenty tjim m admire here, but an over-the-top shoot-em-up finale offers the easiest (and least rewarding) sort of satisfaction.

Friday, May 23, 2014

'X-Men' + time travel = a winner

It's difficult -- perhaps impossible -- to say anything critical about the glut of comic-book movies without sounding like a cultural elitist and, even worse, a scold.

Still, I can't proceed with what's going to be a positive and even enthusiastic review of X-Men: Days of Future Past without expessing a little dismay about the way Hollywood continues to cannibalize the backwaters of popular culture.

This move toward the mainstream turns the once-forbidden fruit of comics into tentpole entertainments that can't help but diminish the pleasure of those who shared in what once amounted to a semi-secret society based on avidity and accumulated knowledge, much of it useless.

There, that's off my chest.

Now about X-Men. The latest installment is a superior helping of a big-screen Marvel comic that boasts creative special effects, a mostly involving story and some very good acting.

The story, which brings together various generations of X-men, begins in a horrible dystopian, war-riddled future. Things are so bad that Patrick Stewart's Professor X and Ian McKellen's Magneto have united in a last-ditch attempt to stave off the destruction of humanity.

To accomplish their goal, Professor X and Magneto employ the consciousness-shifting powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973. Wolverine's time-travel mission: to prevent the assassination of industrialist Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and, thus, alter the course of a history that otherwise would lead to wholesale slaughter.

Director Bryan Singer, who hasn't directed an X-Men movie since 2003, judiciously uses the '70s -- reminding us of everything from lava lamps, to the Vietnam War to Richard Nixon. Wisely, though, Singer doesn't overwhelm the story with the events and curiosities of the '70s: He uses them as punctuation to create an effective mixture of humor and gravity.

Upon returning to the '70s, Wolverine must locate younger versions of Professor X and Magneto, played respectively by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.
It's a bit of a stretch to think that McAvoy's Charles Xavier could mature into someone who looks like Patrick Stewart. But there's no faulting McAvoy's performance as a dissolute and cynical young man who has yet to find his inner nobility.

Fassbender, who like McAvoy has played this role before, is entirely convincing as the young Magneto, summoning the out-sized polarities of a personality that seems at ease with both its humane and malevolent impulses.

The key to the plot's resolution can be found in the character of Raven, a.k.a. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the shape-shifting mutant who can avert total doom and who also looks sleek in her form-fitting blue outfit.

The themes of this installment mimic those of previous movies. Society's mutants -- those who represent upward steps on the evolutionary ladder -- are scorned by those who either are threatened by their presence or want to harness mutant powers as a means of advancing personal agendas.

As one who has the latter ambition, Dinklage's Trask comes as close as we get to an identifiable villain. Trask has invented destructive creatures called Sentinels, which seem to threaten both humanity and mutants.

What else needs saying?

Not much really. Singer -- in his first X-men movie since 2003's X-Men 2 -- cooks up some fine special effects, among the most impressive, the elevation of an entire stadium that hovers perilously above the White House.

In all, X-Men: Days of Future Past proves entertaining and well-constructed, a helping of comic-book adventure that knows how to wink at itself without undermining its loftier purposes. These mostly boil down to a question as simple as, "Can't we all get along?"
Not all of the X-men are given equal time in this edition, but if Days of Future Past -- a title that sounds a bit too much like a grammar lesson -- stands as an exemplary addition to the never ending cycle of comic-book movies. If we have to have them, they should at least be this much fun.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

'Chef' cooks up a good time

Jon Favreau's new comedy builds a father/son story around food.
In his new movie Chef, Jon Favreau plays a Los Angeles chef who's creatively stifled. Favreau's Carl Casper runs the kitchen at a successful restaurant, but no longer finds the menu challenging.

When Carl learns that a prominent food critic plans a visit, he decides it's time to show off the innovative skills that established his reputation when he worked in Miami.

Unfortunately the restaurant's owner (Dustin Hoffman) wants to stick to tried-and-true fare, giving customers what they seem to want.

It's not surprising that the city's most important reviewer (Oliver Platt) condemns Carl for having squandered his creative mojo.

Favreau also tosses Carl's personal information into the movie's frying pan. Carl's ex-wife (Sofia Vergara) might be the most supportive former wife ever: She's always trying to help him. Carl also has a young son (Emjay Anthony) with whom he spends insufficient time.

After losing his job and humiliating himself in a public confrontation with the antagonistic critic, Casper decides to return to Miami and ask a favor from his ex-wife's condescending first husband (Robert Downey Jr.)

Downey's character gives Carl a dilapidated food truck. Carl decides to spruce it up, and sell Cuban sandwiches. This back-to-basics move is designed to accomplish two things: It will revive Carl's foundering career and re-establish his relationship with his son.

The boy accompanies Carl and one of his former employees (John Leguizamo) on the cross-country trip back to Los Angeles. Food movie suddenly becomes road movie.

Chef is one of those movies that should be avoided if you're hungry. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau makes sure that the movie's food looks scrumptious and, when appropriate sumptuous.

Favreau, who directs and who also wrote the screenplay, tempers an obvious feel-good spirit by keeping Carl from becoming entirely likable. He's a malcontent who doesn't know how to be happy, despite the fact that he receives encouragement from co-workers (Scarlett Johansson and Bobby Cannavale in small roles). He's a mass of irritations.

To achieve happiness, Carl must learn to balance his career and personal life. He must discover how to turn his life into a kind of on-going party with great food, an objective that's bolstered by the movie's soundtrack which has been seasoned with sounds from Cuba and New Orleans -- with dashes of R&B added for good measure.

Once the movie hits the road, it tends to drag a little, substituting travelogue and color for story momentum. Before the movie hit the three-quarter mark of its 115-minute length, I was ready for a bit of short-order editing.

Favreau came to prominence with the indie movie Swingers (1999), which he wrote and in which he acted. Because he also has directed big commercial movies such as Cowboys & Aliens, Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Elf, he's received lots of praise for returning to his roots with a smaller, more intimate movie.

I'm not sure that big and small are the right measures of a director's success. I'd prefer to consider what we might call "the good-time" factor. By that measure, it's hard to fault Favreau's Chef. Bon appetit.

Adam Sandler's African journey

Blended mixes juvenile humor and cornball sentiment. Hard to digest.
In Blended, Adam Sandler manages to turn South Africa into a theme park full of animals, happy black South Africans and lots of adults who are trying to solidify relationships in newly formed families.

I've pretty much given up on Sandler's movies. For reasons that remain unknown to me, Sandler has a large enough following to keep him working. That makes it necessary to check in on him now and again.

Sandler comedies often attempt to leaven their calculated idiocy with mushy helpings of sentiment, sort of the equivalent of squirting an entire can of Reddi-wip directly down one's gullet in hopes of eliminating a bad taste.

That's pretty much the story here, lame gags followed by cornball fluff.

Despite the fact that Blended marks the third collaboration between Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler, this duo has yet to enter the pantheon of great screen couples. It's unlikely -- at least I hope it is -- that clips from either the Wedding Singer or 50 First Dates will show up the next time someone decides to assemble a reel's worth of great screen couples.

In Blended, Sandler plays Jim, a widower with three daughters. Barrymore plays Lauren, a divorced woman who has two sons.

The movie opens with Jim and Lauren on a mismatched blind date at a Hooters (advertising). As a result of a tortured plot contrivance, they and their kids eventually are thrown together at the same South African resort. They're even forced to share a single suite.

Jim, who works for Dick's Sporting Goods (more advertising), is at a bit of a loss when it comes to raising daughters. He encourages his 15-year-old (Bella Thorn) to bulk up for varsity basketball. Jim is so sports-oriented that he named one of his daughters Espn, as in ESPN, which struck me less as a joke than a form of child abuse.

Lauren, who earns her living organizing closets, has difficulties with her hormone-driven older son (Braxton Beckham) and a tantrum-prone younger son (Kyle Red Silverstein) who can't hit a baseball.

Hmm. Maybe, just maybe, Jim and Lauren can get over their animosities, fall in love and help each other improve as parents. You think?

Anyway, the movie involves looking at animals, Lion King-style music, ostrich wrangling, and other bits like the one in which Shaquille O'Neal, as one of Jim's co-workers, jiggles his stomach muscles.

The humor, described in a Variety article as an attempt to go for "big physical laughs," is all pretty much covered in the movie's trailer.
Speaking of jiggles, Jessica Lowe plays the bust-shaking younger wife of a libidinous older husband (Kevin Nealon).

Blended isn't quite as painful as some the worst Sandler movies (Grown Ups or Big Daddy), and, at times, it tries to be sensitive about real parenting issues. If only it had tried to be a little bit sensitive about where its story is located. Here are two parents with an opportunity to teach their kids something about the world they're likely to inherit, and all they bequeath them are cheap laughs.

The 'Dune' that never was

Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean-born director of movies such as El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), spent a large part of his life trying to make a movie out of Frank Herbert's Dune. David Lynch's 1984 version of Herbert's novel -- the movie that did get made -- landed with a major thud. Director Frank Pavich's Jodorowsky's Dune takes an exhaustive look at the Dune that never found its way to the screen. Pavich relies on interviews with the engaging Jodorowsky and with others who worked with him. Although Jodorowsky never got to make his movie, he did assemble a massive volume of storyboard illustrations -- a wild series of images that Pavich uses liberally throughout the film. The suggestion: Jodorowsky's Dune might have become one of the greatest achievements in cinema history. The 85-year-old Jodorwosky isn't the least bit shy about contending that his movie would have been a landmark event -- eccentric to the max. Jodorowsky proposed casting artist Salvador Dali and director Orson Welles in pivotal roles. One wonders whether, in the days prior to CGI, Jodorowsky really could have pulled off a visionary coup or whether, left to his own devices, he might have turned out the world's most expensive cult movie. Whatever the case, it's fascinating to hear Jodorowsky tell his story and to be handed the key to an alternative universe that never found its way into existence.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Young, indepednent and biracial

Belle gives Austen-like treatment to a historically important story.
If you've ever wondered how Jane Austen's novels might have looked like had the author paid more attention to race, you no longer need to use your imagination.

Loosely based on a true story, Belle spins an Austen-like yarn about Dido Elizabeth Belle, a woman who was raised by British aristocrats and who also happened to be the daughter of a British Naval officer and a black woman.

After her father leaves for sea -- where he eventually perishes -- Dido is taken in by her father's uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). She's raised on the Mansfield estate during the 1800s, prior to the abolition of slavery.

Belle follows Austen's lead when it comes to finding a man for Dido. Dido's ultimate soul mate must be a fellow whose values are more important than his position in society, presuming that he doesn't fall too low on the British totem. Virtue trumps status.

Full of inspiring speeches about justice and well-acted by an exceptionally talented cast, Belle stands as a respectable period piece that approaches its subject in straightforward fashion.

Though portrayed as mostly happy, Dido's upbringing wasn't without problems. She and her white cousin Elizabeth became fond playmates, but when guests were present, Dido had to dine apart from the family lest visitors be offended by her presence.

This is but one of the movie's many attempts to portray the mixture of gentility (which it does well) and savagery (which it does less well) that defined British society at a moment when the formal social order had begun to change -- at least a little.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw leads the way as Dido, giving us a woman whose independent spirit and intelligence is clear from the outset. As the movie progresses, Dido gains in both assurance and conviction.

Dido's realizations take two forms: Having lived among the upper classes, she knows she's their equal. Increasingly, though, she also understands that her color connects her to those who are being viciously exploited because of their race. Dido's political consciousness grows.

Wilkinson (joined by a fine Emily Watson as Lady Mansfield) delivers a wonderful performance as a conflicted man. As Britain's Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield is about to rule on an important case involving the slave trade.

Lord Mansfield believes in maintaining the social order through law, but understands that he has a moral obligation to do the right thing. He loves Dido, but fears for her future.

As directed by Amma Asante -- from a screenplay by Misan Sagay -- Belle eventually conflates legal matters and romance. With Justice Mansfield's decision looming, Dido's personal life becomes increasingly complex.

Dido is courted by the socially well-positioned Oliver Ashford (James Norton), a man who's willing to "overlook" her mixed-race background, perhaps because he's eager to gain access to the income Dido inherited from her seafaring father.

You don't need to be a master prognosticator to know that Dido ultimately will give her heart to an abolitionist firebrand (Sam Reid) who happens to be the son of a lowly vicar.

Miranda Richardson appears as the manipulative Lady Ashford -- mother of Oliver Ashford. Lady Ashford's older son James (Tom Felton) portrays the movie's staunchest racist.

Sarah Gadon nicely handles the role of Elizabeth, Dido's less-than-astute cousin who comes to envy Dido for the marriage proposal she receives.

Belle uses Dido's story as the basis for a portrait of British society in the days prior to abolition. It's not a subtle film, but the movie -- to no small effect -- is bolstered by a cast that knows precisely how to bring Asante's plan to life.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

'Godzilla' stomps into theaters

A monster movie that provides the right kick.
The new Godzilla -- though far superior to Roland Emmerich's 1998 edition -- offers plenty of room for criticism and carping.

Let's get that out of the way first.

-- As an engineer working in a Japanese nuclear plant, Bryan Cranston seems so agitated you half wonder whether his character has been doing some of Walter White's meth.

-- Juliette Binoche is in the movie, but doesn't make it much past the first reel.

-- The movie's human hero (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) seems so generic, he might have wandered in from the set of another action movie.

-- Wisdom? Only if you think the 1954 original can help you unlock the key to successful living. The biggest lesson you can take from Godzilla is an admonition: Don't get crushed.

Problems, yes, but damned if Godzilla isn't full of monumental fun, a major helping of B-movie entertainment that's presented with so much seriousness, it can't possibly be taken seriously.

Credit director Gareth Edwards with understanding B-movie tropes, as well as with a willingness to trash several American cities in a movie that builds (or rather stomps) toward a climactic battle in which Godzilla takes on two hideous-looking creatures known as Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms -- MUTOs for short.

Think of them as skyscraper-sized bugs.

Sure Godzilla could be more careful about where he puts his feet down, but we feel more empathy for the Big Guy than for most of the humans in the film. And let's face it, some of the people are simply there to be squashed, human sacrifices en route to what's bound to be a box office epiphany.

The movie opens in 1999 with Cranston's Joe Brody working in a Japanese nuclear facility that's threatened by increased seismic activity. Disaster hits, and Joe suffers a big loss.

Fifteen years later, Joe -- fueled by grief and obsession -- still lives in Japan. He believes a massive coverup is concealing the true cause of the nuclear meltdown.

Brody's grown son (Taylor-Johnson) -- now a Naval officer -- leaves his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son to travel to Japan. He hopes to help his "nut-case" father who has been arrested for entering the quarantine zone that was ravaged when the nuclear plant blew.

Young Brody soon learns that his father is right in his suspicions.

Edwards (Monsters) doesn't so much tell a story as he hammers together bits of narrative, but he hammers loudly and with resolve, creating a suspenseful atmosphere until he unleashes the wanton destruction that gives the movie its real kick.

Two schools of thought emerge about how to deal with the rampaging monsters. David Straithairn plays an admiral who thinks that the solution may involve luring the creatures out to sea and going nuclear on them.

Ken Watanabe plays a scientist who opposes the military solution. He seems to have a strange concern for Godzilla.

Noisy, senseless and fun, Godzilla saves most of its gargantuan thrills for its finale.

A special nod to Alexander Desplat, whose score ripples through the proceedings like an eerie warning of terrors to come, sometimes sugesting more than the movie's able to deliver.

Not surprisingly, Edwards leaves the door open for a sequel, but he seems to know what's essential about the 60-year-old franchise. He works with enough brio to satisfy genre fans while underplaying grand thematic pronouncements about humanity's fatal arrogance.

That's probably a good thing.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

When the neighbors are frat boys

A gross-out comedy that parties hard.
The new comedy Neighbors failed to persuade me that Seth Rogen's inner schlubiness deserves to occupy a movie's center ring, a spot he's now sharing with Zac Efron and Rose Byrne.

Neighbors -- which contrasts a dissolute-looking Rogen with a super-trim Zac Efron -- may create an early summer stir at the box office.

Why? The movie bristles with the kind of vulgar energies that mark most of today's successful comedies. Neighbors is full of opportunities for gross-out jokes -- and doesn't pass on many of them.

The high-concept gist: A party-hardy fraternity moves next door to a young couple that's adjusting to taking care of their first child, a baby daughter.

At first, the new parents (Rogen and Rose Byrne) try to cozy up to their raucous neighbors, who are being led by Efron's Teddy, the frat's chief party boy.

Husband and wife share in the drug-fueled debauchery, awkwardly trying to present themselves as peers -- albeit peers with responsibilities.

When that tactic fails to produce the desired quiet, Rogen and Byrne declare war on the rowdy neighbors, employing subterfuge and other means to close the frat house.

The purported battle between adults and hormonally active young men is a bit of sham. Neighbors seems like the kind of comedy that would become a DVD staple at Delta Psi Beta, the movie's fictional fraternity.

Director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five-Year Engagement) happily embraces the movie's premise, which allows for more gags than story.

To me, Rogen's performance seems barely distinguishable from everything else he's done. Byrne -- whose Australian accent seems to come and go -- displays no qualms about leaping into the profane fray. Efron -- often sans shirt -- tries to mix comedy and hunk appeal as the movie's Peter Pan figure, another guy who refuses to grow up.

A subplot pits Efron's character against one of his fraternity brothers (Dave Franco), a young man who begins to understand that the fraternity's concerns (who invented the game of beer pong, for example) aren't exactly on a par with working to limit the effects of climate change.

We get it: A few years ago, Rogen's character would have been Efron's character: A few years from now Efron's character might be Rogen's character. Profound, no?

You'll find jokes about breast pumps and dildos. A sight gag involving airbags made me laugh.

Personally, I wouldn't want to live next door to any character in a movie that parades its crude humor across the screen while making what feel like random attempts to play grown-up.

Oh well, I suppose something is accomplished here: Neighbors makes the strongest case for restrictive zoning ever put on film.

A road movie like no other

Locke takes us on a fascinating journey into one man's psyche.
It shouldn't work. Who really wants to watch a film about a man who's making a night drive to London in his BMW? Wouldn't such a film feel claustrophobic and limited or, even worse, become a cinematic experiment conducted by a director intent on proving he can sustain interest within such narrow parameters?

Fortunately, Locke is neither pot-bound nor experimental: It's a brilliant character study of a man in the midst of a terrible personal crisis.

Tom Hardy, the spectacularly good British actor who made Bronson so riveting, proves equally compelling in Locke -- albeit in a lower-key way.

Hardy plays Ian Locke, a construction supervisor who's abandoning the biggest project of his life to make this trip.

The movie takes place on the eve of a massive concrete pour, the biggest ever in Europe aside from those associated with nuclear or military facilities.

Locke is a detail-oriented man of patience, practicality and, above all, reliability. It's killing him to turn his back on his job, but he believes he has no other choice.

As he drives, Locke receives phone calls -- from a colleague on the job who must take over for him, from one of his sons, from his wife and from the person in London he's driving to see.

We never see any of them; these characters make themselves known to us only through their voices, and by Locke's reaction to what they say.

The situation in which Locke finds himself is emotionally explosive, but Locke isn't: He's accustomed to seeking practical solutions to problems. He's prone to think that his professional skill set can be applied to any situation.

The character's name is worthy of consideration. John Locke, of course, was the English philosopher devoted to empiricism and reason: It's Ivan Locke's fate to confront a problem that doesn't lend itself to calm consideration.

Between phone calls, Locke talks to his dead father, the ghost of whom he envisions riding in the backseat. This device works only fitfully, but director Steven Knight -- who wrote the screenplays for Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Close Circuit and Amazing Grace -- uses it to round out Locke's character.

Cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos (Thor) does an amazing job of bringing visual interest to a film that could have been fatally uncinematic.

All of this makes Locke a rarity: a small movie with a big impact. If Locke is a road movie, it's a road movie like no other: It cares more about what's happening inside the car than out.

The adventures of an unlikely gigolo

John Turturro wrote and directed Fading Gigolo, a comedy built around the notion that attractive women would pay an obscure florist, played by Turturro, to have sex with them.

The movie's sexual antics, which take place with women played by Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara, are supplemented by a more appealing strain of comedy.

Toward the end of the movie, Woody Allen -- who plays Turturro's pimp Murray -- is dragged before a court of Brooklyn-based Hasidic rabbis who charge him with corrupting the morals of a beautiful, gap-toothed widow (Vanessa Paradis).

Murray's troubles start when he convinces Paradis's Avigal, who's also a member of the Hasidic community, to visit Turturro's Fioravante.

In a series of tender massage scenes, Fioravante awakens the widow's dormant senses. Avigal begins to overcome her grief and isolation.

The odd relationship between Fioravante and Avigal displeases Dovi (Liev Schreiber). He's the leader of a Hasidic neighborhood crime patrol, and he wants to marry Avigal, who seems to have had a half dozen or so children.

Although Fading Gigolo qualifies as a bona fide mess, it contains moments that suggest how close Tuturro came to finding a tone that perfectly reflects the hodgepodge quality of contemporary life.

Perhaps to emphasize the notion of blurring ethnic boundaries, Allen's Murray lives with a black woman (Tonya Pinkins) who has four sons, a relationship that seems almost incidental to anything else in the film.

I say all of this as a way of expressing fondness for a movie that I can't defend as a success.

Turturro's Fioravante is a quiet, almost stoic man, perhaps the wrong main character in a film that (in my view) needed to surrender to its wackiness, to thoroughly embrace the comic humanity of a moment when so many lines are being erased and so many new lines have yet to be drawn.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

'Spider-Man' makes another return

This edition mostly passes comic-book muster.
Comic-book movies consist mostly of a cascading series of episodes held together by the presence of a familiar superhero.

In the case of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, our superhero is a conflicted young man torn by fears that his crime-fighting destiny will wind up hurting the young woman he loves.

If you want to play ranking games with all the Spider-Man movies -- including those in director Sam Raimi's first iteration -- go ahead. Me? I'll just say that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 delivers enough of the comic-book goods to satisfy fans.

Director Mark Webb, who directed the first Amazing Spider-Man, again capitalizes on Andrew Garfield's mixture of pluck and vulnerability and on Emma Stone's irrepressible smarts.

He also adds a couple of major villains to keep Spider-Man busy and to flood the screen with the requisite action.

Spider-Man -- a.k.a. Peter Parker -- must take on the new head of the pernicious Oscorp, a childhood pal named Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan). Harry inherits the company when his father -- a man suffering from a disease that seems to be consuming him with rot -- dies.

A nerd who works at Oscorp quickly poses another threat. As the story unfolds, Jamie Foxx's Max transforms into Electro, a fiend who wants to suck all the power out of New York City. Electro is born when Max falls into a tank of electric eels.

Electrified and angry, an embittered Max stumbles into a major set-piece in Manhattan's Times Square.

No faulting Foxx, but there's only so much mileage that can be gained from watching bolts of electricity shoot from Electro's fingertips, a retro form of villainy.

As DeHaan grows into his villainous role, he gradually (and appropriately) loses our sympathy; he's better in the film's quieter moments and not quite up to the roaring fits of menace the script eventually demands.

The action is best when Spider-Man is swinging through Manhattan's streets. Much of the rest of the dash-and crash sequences have a take-it-or-leave-it feel with Webb doing his best to add emotional heft to the proceedings.

Some of this emotion derives from the conflicted relationship between Peter and Stone's Gwen Stacy, as well as from Sally Field's heartfelt performance as Parker's Aunt May.

May, now a widow, has cared for Peter since his father and mother (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz) were forced to flee New York, a bit of action shown in the film's bracingly brisk prologue.

Webb tries to give the movie's early sections a comic tone, but can't seem to decide how far to carry it as he moves toward a typically prolonged finale. About three-quarters of the way through its two hour and 22 minutes, the film begins to show signs of wear, and the need to dispatch with two villains adds a bit of anti-climactic bloat.

But Webb makes a couple of bold choices (one of which surely will prompt debate), Garfield isn't afraid to show a little confusion and all of Stone's scenes tend to sparkle. If Spider-Man 2 isn't a total triumph, it's entertaining enough to hold its own.

Jarmusch joins the vampire jamboree

Jim Jarmusch -- a director who has marched to his own tune since his 1984 breakthrough with Stranger Than Paradise -- is a late attendee at the vampire party that's been sinking its teeth into popular culture for the past several years.

Perhaps that's why Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive feels burdened by fatigue, as well as by a pervasive sense of futility. Make that futility with a capital "F."

That may be part of the point. Jarmusch seems to be commenting on the generally woeful state of human affairs.

Within the movie's confined and airless world, only vampires truly appreciate the best of human achievement in the arts and sciences. Vampires dismiss the rest of humanity, which they seem to regard as a biological lost cause.

It's a risky approach because Jarmusch's movie sometimes becomes an example of the statement it's making, an entertainment that can feel more like it has been embalmed than edited.

And yet ....

There's something to be discovered amid the resignation and ruin, a feeling that the movie's vampires -- played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston -- are remnants of a dying breed, symbolic holdovers from the last days of a reeling counterculture.

Hiddleston's Adam lives in a deserted part of Detroit in a house full of electronic equipment that supports his musical habits. Adam spends most of his time recording all the parts of various tunes in his junk yard of a home.

Adam also nourishes himself with blood he buys from Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), a doctor who runs a blood bank in a nearby hospital. Adam always arrives unannounced, sporting a flimsy doctor's disguise.

When he drinks blood out of a wine glass, Adam -- like movie's other vampires -- swoons like a heroin addict experiencing the relief of a first rush.

Swinton's Eve lives in Tangier: She reads compulsively, and obtains her blood supply from Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), a vampire who's clearly devoted to Eve.

Adam. Eve. Marlowe.

Restrained as the tone can be, Jarmusch's movie virtually screams out for metaphoric or ironic interpretation: Adam and Eve, for example, seem more like the last couple than the first.

And immortality -- or as close as former humans can get to it -- has its burdens. Suffering from spiritual exhaustion, Adam contemplates suicide, a wooden bullet to the heart.

Concerned about him, Eve -- his long-time lover -- decides it's time for a visit. She flies to Detroit to elevate Adam's spirits. When Eve travels, she carries a couple of suitcases containing nothing but books.

Adam's also concerned about what humans -- he regards most of humanity as the walking dead and calls them "zombies'' -- have done to the planet, contaminating the blood supply and despoiling the very Earth upon which they walk.

That's the rub, though. No matter how contemptuous vampires are of humans, they can't live without them. The lumpen masses feed the vampiric elite.

Not a lot happens. An eager-to-please human named Ian (Adam Yelchin) drops in on Adam from time to time, bringing a sampling of guitars and other paraphernalia to satisfy Adam's musical cravings.

Late in the movie, Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives for a visit: Ava's boisterous, undisciplined and liable to sink her fangs into a human, an activity that Adam and Eve disdain as barbaric.

Is it disparaging to say that Swinton was born to play a vampire? Could there be an actress more suited to pallor?

Hiddleston -- known for his work in The Avengers and Thor movies -- shows a different side of himself, and it's always a pleasure to see Hurt, who seems to be decaying before our eyes.

Jarmusch is now 61, and it's tempting to view Only Lovers Left Alive as a kind of dirge for a lost cultural moment that he cherished. Is Jarmusch wondering whether even vampires have the energy for one more bite?

I don't know, but Only Lovers Left Alive feels less like an artistic summation than a last gasp.

Let's not fight: Let's dance

I don't know what could be more naive than the idea that teaching ballroom dancing to Israeli and Palestinian children might help create a climate in which a peace could grow.

Of course, it's a preposterous notion, but sometimes a preposterous notion is better than no notion at all: Pierre Dulaine , a former world champion ballroom dancer, has the admirable gall to try to teach kids to tango their way toward trust.

The documentary Dancing in Jaffa tells the story of Dulaine's efforts. He left Jaffa, Israel, as a child and returned many years later as a ballroom-dancing enthusiast who believes that teaching kids to dance could be the start of something bigger -- both in terms of establishing long-term peace prospects and building children's self-esteem.

Dulaine hopes that by dancing with one another, Palestinian and Israeli children will drop some of their mutual suspicions -- or at least explore them.

A difficult task is made even more problematic by the fact that some of the Palestinians (those who are Muslims) aren't supposed to touch members of the opposite sex and by the fact that most of Jaffa's schools don't have mixed populations of Arabs and Israelis.

Dulaine seems to believe that the best antidote for all political and ethnic recalcitrance is silliness, and he applies lots of it in trying to get kids to respond to his entreaties.

Director Hilla Medalia is smart enough to allow the tensions of life in Israel to invade her film: protests by right-wing Israelis are seen, and we also learn about the difference in the way Palestinians and Israelis treat Israel's independence day.

An Arab teacher explains to her charges that for Arabs, the day marking Israeli independence commemorates a "great catastrophe."

As with most documentaries about kids, the young people make the film, particularly a shy Arab girl named Noor who blossoms under Dulaine's tutelage and a Jewish girl named Lois, who isn't shy about crossing lines.

I don't suppose that Dulaine, who was born to an Irish father and a Palestinian mother, believes that he single-handedly can bring about lasting change, and peace certainly doesn't seem to be at hand. But these kids make you hope that someone will be able to give them the secure environment they deserve.