Friday, August 30, 2013

Young Adult: The Young Cast of “The Spectacular Now” is Truly Spectacular

You probably won’t see finer acting from a young cast all year than you will in “The Spectacular Now.” The screenwriters of (500) Day of Summer have given the actors in this film something truly wonderful to work with (and it’s based on the book of the same name). Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley give truly impressive performances in a small intimate character study about two young people who couldn’t be any more different and yet they’re somehow drawn to each other. Their performances are genuine and emotionally raw, and it shames other films about teenagers that aren’t nearly as realistic.

There’s nothing truly spectacular about the story in “The Spectacular Now” but it’s all about the characters and their dialogue. Miles Teller plays high school senior Sutter Keely. He’s the goofy popular guy. He’s always the center of attention at parties and everyone just likes him. He likes to live in the now. He has no plans for the future. He’s also an alcoholic though he’s too young and naive to admit it. One day he meets Aimme Finecky (Woodley) one morning after waking up passed out on a random person’s front lawn. The two sort of instantly form a connection even though they’re wildly different. Aimme is the shy, reserved girl who doesn’t wear makeup and doesn’t think of herself as pretty. She’s never had a boyfriend and prefers to read. She’s introverted. He’s not. She has plans, he doesn’t. But Sutter has way more problems than he or anybody else would suspect, including a broken home life. His single mom is always working and he hasn’t seen his dad in years. And he can’t seem to enter a room – or a car – without taking a swig of alcohol. He’s a purposefully obnoxious type of character who we truly begin to care for as the film progresses.

“The Spectacular Now” isn’t a fancy production and director James Ponsoldt keeps things relatively low key, but what it lacks in fancy camerawork it makes up for in truly developed and realistic characters. This isn’t an average movie about teenage life. Sutter and Aimme’s meeting, friendship, and budding romance plays out with disturbing realism complete with a love scene that must be one of the most pragmatic and sensitive ever filmed. The connection you feel towards these people sort of took a strange hold of me. It was hard to connect with these characters at first, but as they talk and talk and talk you realize how accurately the relationship is portrayed. It’s almost documentary-like.

The film isn’t just a study of two young people who connect despite their differences. It’s a sometimes disturbing look at the adolescent life of a troubling alcoholic teenager. Sutter drinks at parties. Many teenagers do. But he also drinks at work. He finally tries to make a connection with his unsurprisingly deadbeat father Tommy (Kyle Chandler), and all the guy can provide for his son is alcohol at a local bar and he doesn’t even pick up the tab. It’s a scary revelation one that hints that this young kid who only lives in the now might just have a horrible future in front of him.

 “The Spectacular Now” is a terrific coming-of-age drama without those genre trappings. It feels wholly fresh and original. It features terrific performances, a great cast, a beautiful story with an amazing sense of realism, and a sharp script. I'm a big fan of the writers' (500) Days of Summer, though this is a completely different piece of work. It’s funny when it needs to be, but this is a full-fledged drama with a capital D. Everyone is on the top of their game here, especially the film’s two young leads who continue to turn heads with each film they make.  GRADE: B+

Monday, August 26, 2013

You Got Served: Historical Drama “The Butler” Has the Star Power But Lacks Creative Flair

Hollywood movies are notorious for leaving out the actual facts when it comes to history and Lee Daniels’ The Butler is no exception. It’s not meant to be an exact history lesson, but rather a touching story of the relationship between a father and son during the historical civil rights movement. The father happens to be a butler who works in the White House and the son happens to become a spirited protester speaking out about the rights of African Americans during one of (and there are plenty) America’s most shameful historical times.

First things first, what made “The Butler” sort of disappointed to me was the lack of real artistic creativity from director Lee Daniels. Daniels is a tremendously gifted artist who made “Precious” into a beautifully realized film about abuse in 1980s Harlem. That film followed a fascinatingly structured narrative with fun artistic flourishes including flashy editing and cinematography. Here the narrative feels so conventional and safe (with nary an overwhelmingly striking shot to be found). It’s a structure that has probably added to its mainstream appeal and therefore I’m not surprised at the box office attention the film has received. In a way it feels like this year’s “The Help” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“The Butler” is inspired by the real life of an African American White House butler who had worked for eight different presidents. Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines who grew up on a Georgia cotton plantation in the 1920s. His mother is raped by the owner and his father is murdered by him too. Later on he becomes a house servant and gains skills from a servant who works with him at a pastry shop. He then eventually gets a job at the White House starting under President Eisenhower (Robin Williams). Meanwhile he marries Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and they have two sons. Cecil becomes so engrossed in his job that he neglects his wife who has an affair and becomes an alcoholic. Thought this subplot basically does nothing except give Oprah something to do. Cecil eventually works under many different presidents including Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack), and Reagan (Alan Rickman).

The film admittedly has a rather impressive star-studded cast.  However, any shot many of these famous actors had at giving a truly great performance was cut off by their unfortunately brief screen time. Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan. I remember all the hoopla when the notoriously liberal actress was cast in the role, but if you blink when she shows up you’d miss her scenes anyways.

I have the strangest feeling that screenwriter Danny Strong, who wrote the deliciously digestible political HBO films “Recount” and “Game Change” had most of the political parts of his script chopped to bits (and with nearly 40 credited producers and executive producers that wouldn’t surprise me). Instead, Daniels makes the focus of his film the relationship between Gaines and his eldest son. A son that the real-life presidential butler didn’t even have! But I digress. It’s a touching relationship between a man who has seen and felt the racism and discrimination and his son who has made it his duty to do something about it. In a strange way the film sort of works like Forrest Gump with both of Gaines’ sons taking part in various historical counterculture moments from taking part in the Freedom Riders to serving in the Vietnam War to the creation of the Black Panther Party.

While the film is powerful and sometimes unflinchingly honest in its depictions of the terrible events that occurred in the racially tense south, I don’t believe the film is as moving as the film thinks it is. The performances are good, yes. And Whitaker especially fully embodies his role and his expertly applied old age makeup transforms him into an old man who has weathered everything that has been thrown at him. However, I don’t know if the supporting characters get much to work with. Oprah is great but the role lacks the juiciness of Mo’Nique’s in “Precious.” The real star here is the expertly designed prosthetic makeup.

Granted the older folks out there who are taken aback by the film’s star power and who have already flocked to the film will mostly enjoy it and tell their friends about it. Some may call it Oscar-bait, and yes in a way, it is. I refuse to use the term to criticize a film.  I believe the film has good intentions behind it and it’s fun seeing so many great people come together to make an important movie. I, however, was disappointed; it lacks the creativity to prevent it from becoming anything but merely a shadow of Lee Daniels’ superior “Precious.”  GRADE: C+

Sunday, August 25, 2013

British Invasion: The Cornetto Trilogy Ends with The Sci-Fi Oriented “The World’s End”

British comedy “Shaun of the Dead” became a bit of a cult hit here in the United States way back in 2004. It introduced American audiences to the comedy trio of director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The film was a send up of zombie flicks with a fun romantic comedy bend. It was heartfelt and gory as hell. Just a few years later the same team spoofed buddy action comedies in “Hot Fuzz.” It was a bigger hit, though I found it to be somewhat disjointed. And here we are in 2013 with the conclusion of the group’s “Cornetto Trilogy” (a brand of ice cream that can be seen in each film) “The World’s End.” This send up of the science-fiction genre is basically a parody of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It’s a fine ending to a good set of films, but “Shaun of the Dead” is still the best of the bunch.

A sort of British version of the Seth Rogen comedy “This is the End,” the apocalyptic comedy “The World’s End” marks a real maturation at the hands of director/co-writer Wright.  He constructs a touching story of a man who refuses to grow up. Pegg plays Gary King, a disheveled middle-aged alcoholic who has become estranged from his group of four more successful friends. He impulsively insists on getting his group back together to complete the Golden Mile - a pub crawl the clan had attempted, but didn’t complete during their youth. The final stop is the World’s End pub. He manipulates each one of them into reluctantly joining him which include his closest friend Andy (Nick Frost), Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Steven (Paddy Considine).  Lots of things from their pasts are brought up as the quintet begins their binge but soon something ruins their evening.

As their evening wears on the guys notice that some of the townsfolk have been acting strangely, and a young man attacks one of them in the bathroom. The young lad’s head is accidentally ripped off making blue goo spray all over the place. An extremely well-choreographed fight ensues as the young guy’s friends begin to attack the older guys. It seems as though the townsfolk have been somehow transformed or replaced by robots. The group decides it’s best to continue on with the crawl as to not cause suspicion. It’s all just as ridiculous as it sounds.

Wright uses all of his flashy trademark visual tricks that he’s employed in all of his films. There’s lots of quick editing and fast whip pans and quick zooms. It’s a style he’s obviously very comfortable with now. But for all of the familiarity he brings to the movie, there’s also a surprising amount of depth here as well. At its core, this is a story about a very lonely and sad alcoholic. He’s very much alone in the world and he’s faced with the possibility of the world literally coming to an end. It’s this mix that sets the movie apart from other spoofs and parodies out there. It has a perfectly balanced mix of sci-fi fun with the dramatic weight of something more significant. Pegg who co-wrote the film is obviously a big movie fan and they have consistently found ways to add in nods to their favorite movies such “Casablanca” and “Aliens.”  And  I couldn’t have been the only one to be reminded of Jaws when the group is forced to show their scars as a way of proving they haven’t been replaced by a robot.

I don’t think that “The World’s End” is the group’s funniest or most quotable film. I firmly believe that belongs to their first effort “Shaun of the Dead.” However, “The World’s End” is an appropriate end to a group of films that have certainly made their marks as some of the most fun and inventive comedies to be imported from across the pond.  It has great characters, intelligent writing, a fun sense of style, well choreographed action, decent special effects, and even an emotional charge. Fans of the group’s previous entries will certainly be more than pleased.  GRADE: B+

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Family Matter: “You’re Next” is a Deliciously Riveting Home Invasion Slasher Film

What a treat the summer of 2013 has been for horror fans. First we got the wonder thriller “The Purge.” Then came the perfect supernatural delight and box-office hit “The Conjuring” which instantly became an iconic horror film worthy of placement amongst the likes of “Poltergeist” and “The Exorcist.” Now we have another home invasion thriller appropriately titled “You’re Next.” This gleefully gruesome indie flick premiere nearly two years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was a hit, and has finally received the wide release it deserves. It’s exactly what a horror fan could want: it is a competently done thriller with a perfect dose of scares and humor, with no other pretentions than to be completely pleasing to its target fan base.  Even those who don’t always enjoy a good slice and dice movie will most likely find the film worth the time, what with all its fun little twists and turns and amusing characterizations.

A wealthy couple is celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary and has invited their four grown up children and their significant others to join them at their in-the-middle-of-nowhere mansion. It’s the perfect setting for a slasher film. The whole family is also blissfully unaware that their neighbors have been murdered in the film’s not-very-scary but otherwise mood-setting opening sequence. The family consists of matriarch Aubrey (Barbra Compton from “Re-Animator”) and patriarch Paul (Rob Moran) and their son Crispian (AJ Bowen from “The House of the Devil”) and his Aussie girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson from “Step Up 3D”), obnoxious oldest son Drake (Joe Swanberg from “V/H/S”) and his wife Kelly (Margaret Laney), daughter Aimee (Amy Seimetz) and her filmmaker boyfriend Tariq (“House of the Devil” director Ti West), and glum youngest son Felix (Nicholas Tucci) and his apparently bored girlfriend Zee (Wendy Glenn). Before their children arrive, Aubrey swears she hears someone walking around upstairs. It startles her. It startles us. But then the kids arrive. Soon there’s a whole lot of unsaid family baggage that begins to rear its ugly head as everyone sits down for the celebratory dinner the following evening. Then an arrow gets shot through the window into someone’s head and the mayhem begins. Three assailants, dressed in creepy plastic animal masks descend on the family taking them out one by one.

The film’s first half is pretty much like any other home invasion thriller. It’s very much in the same vein of the scary and disturbing film “The Strangers.” In that film we never learn who the killers are nor learn much of a motive besides the victims just happened to be home. “You’re Next” eventually becomes a little bit different.  Unknown to the killers, one particular guest has a very strong survivalist background which begins a deliciously entertaining game of cat and mouse.  And since the cast is made up of unknown actors you never quite know who’s gonna bite it next. There are even some surprises along the way involving the identity of the killers that I wouldn’t give away if my life depended on it. You’ll just have to watch it and find out.

Director Adam Wingard makes “You’re Next” play just like any great 80s slasher movie right down to its particularly simple but effect camerawork to its perfectly synthesized score. Writer Simon Barrett has also written a pretty humorous script. While the film is pretty bloody it never wallows in the muckiness of films like “Hostel” or “Saw.” This is a film that is very subtly self-aware. The filmmakers employ more than just 80s slasher nods, there’s everything in here from the booby trappings of “The Last House on the Left” to the use of a camera flash as a weapon ala “Rear Window” and even a strong Final Girl with Lt. Ripley aspirations.

“You’re Next” is simply a horror fan’s dream come true. It takes the finest aspects of the best of the genre, including a simple story, likeable characters, a real-time setting, surprising revelations, and a perfect mix of comedy and well-earned scares and uses them to sheer perfection. It’s never flat-out unpleasant. And like the best of the genre it actually has something to say about the poor economic state of the world we currently live in. GRADE: A

Friday, August 16, 2013

Cape Gear: In the Mood for Some Quirky Ultra-Violence? See “Kick-Ass 2”

It’s funny how opinions can change. Back in 2010, when I saw the first “Kick-Ass” movie, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I wasn’t sure what to make of the combination of extreme violence and comedy. It’s weird to picture a bright and colorful movie about "real life superheroes" so disturbingly dark and violent. Its odd tone just didn’t seem to work for me. I even watched it a few more times. After finally reading Mark Millar and John Romita Jr’s Kick-Ass comic (and Kick-Ass 2 and Hit-Girl), I finally got it. I still think it’s a story that belongs firmly in the world of the graphic novel. The book's violence is so extreme it would never seem to work as a film. I still sort of feel that way and this is coming from a person who has certainly enjoyed his fair share of cinema violence. But now that I can finally appreciate Kick-Ass as a film I’m glad to say I enjoyed Kick-Ass 2 as well, as will many of the original film’s fans. It doesn’t really add anything new and it doesn’t really need to exist but it certainly has a fun time existing. And for God's sake, don't bring children to see it.

Kick-Ass 2 picks up not too long after the events of the first film. High school student Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) I still a loser goofball and spends his evenings as Kick-Ass. He meets up with other regular people who dress up as masked vigilantes who were inspired by Kick-Ass. The team is led by Colonel Stars and Stripes (an almost unrecognizable Jim Carrey). His former friend Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has vowed vengeance for the death of his father at the hands of Kick-Ass and has been “reborn” as the world’s first supervillain named The Motherf*cker. The third storyline is the one that most people are excited to see: the return of the first film’s scene stealer Chloe Grace-Moretz as Hit-Girl. Her regular name is Mindy and she’s forced by her foster dad to give up Hit Girl and try to get accustomed to regular teenage life including life in high school. Her Mean Girls-like plotline about fitting in amongst a horrible group of snobby queen bees is definitely a highlight of the film. That and the use of one of the scariest looking female bodybuilders ever (played by Olga Kurkulina in her film debut) as one of The Motherf*cker’s evil henchmen named Mother Russia.

Your enjoyment of Kick-Ass 2 will be directly proportional to how much you enjoyed the first film. If you loved the first film odds are you’re going to like what you see here, so in a way the filmmakers (including new writer/director Jeff Wadlow) have played things sort of safe. They rely on plenty of beats of Millar’s comic while adding or changing things that certainly wouldn’t work in an R-rated wide release movie. if you want to see similar story in unrated form with literally some of the darkest humor out there check out Rainn Wilson in “Super.”

There’s nothing too special when it comes to the technical aspect of this entry. It features some standard effects work that sometimes looks cheesy. Wadlow uses standard action movie tropes like very fast camerawork and editing. Sometimes it’s hard to make out exactly what’s happening. The overall look and feel is rather uninteresting. Though on the aural side, I did like Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson’s music.

Kick-Ass 2 is a fun movie if you like extreme violence mixed with silly comedy. It, like the first film, isn’t so much a movie about people who dress and act like superheroes. It’s about people who are seriously deranged and act out their violent aggressions on each other. It took me awhile to really “get” these movies, and questioned those who found it to be “awesome” and “badass,” but I do enjoy them now for what they are. Taylor-Johnson’s goofy demeanor helps him make us believe he’s actually a high school dweeb and Grace-Moretz’s charm steals the show yet again. Kick-Ass 2 is really just for a specific target audience and that’s fine because they will most likely dig it.  GRADE: B