Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)


Abandon all hope.

Abandon all hope.

(2010) Horror (FilmDistrict) Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson, Garry McDonald, Alan Dale, Julia Blake, Bruce Gleeson, Edwina Richard, Carolyn Shakespeare-Allen, David Tocci, Lance Drisdale, Nicholas Bell, Libby Gott, James Mackay, Emilia Burns, Trudy Hellier, Terry Kenwick, Guillermo del Toro, Dylan Young (voice), Lisa N. Edwards, Kim Ross. Directed by Troy Nixey

Occasionally as children we see a movie that moves us in such a way that it inspires us to take our lives in a direction that might seem unexpected upon the surface. For Mexican horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, that movie was the 1973 TV scarefest Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark in which a troubled young woman moves in a creepy old house and begins to hear voices, see figures scurrying in the shadows and can’t get anyone to believe her that there are creatures living in the house. He was so taken by this movie that he resolved to make these sorts of movies when he grew up. Once he became an in-demand director, remaking the movie that started it all for him became a priority.

Strangely, when the opportunity came to make the movie, he didn’t direct it. Instead, he turned the reigns over to second-time director Nixey. Del Toro also changed the young woman into a little girl and set her and her family loose in a crazy creepy Australian mansion.

Little Sally Hurst (Madison) is shuttled by her somewhat distant mother to live with her father, Alex (Pearce) who is in the midst of renovating a sprawling Rhode Island mansion for a client which would then be sold at an immense profit. Sally is sullen and not at all happy about things, particularly since Alex is completely absorbed by the project which if he can’t pull off would mean financial ruin. It is then his girlfriend Kim (Holmes) who spends the most time with Sally. Sally, who doesn’t like Kim, makes her dissatisfaction known.

Unknown to all three of them, renowned wildlife painter Emerson Blackwood (McDonald) disappeared from the house years earlier. When Sally discovers a hidden ash pit in the basement, she releases a tribe of fairy creatures who turn out to be quite malevolent. They torment Sally and when she tries to explain that the awful things going on to her father, he doesn’t believe her. At first, neither does Kim; in fact, the only person who does is the caretaker, Harris (Thompson) who only wants the three of them to leave.

Eventually the creatures make their hideous plans known to Sally and despite the disbelief of her father, she manages to get Kim to come around. However, can they stand up against a race of creatures that is immeasurably old and have all of time on their side?

Del Toro has a history of putting children in the lead of his horror movies (The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth) and so it’s no surprise that he does so again here. It’s quite natural for adults to disbelieve the wild stories children sometimes tell. However, it then becomes harder to put children in jeopardy, particularly in an American major studio production. Studios are a bit squeamish about that, Jurassic Park notwithstanding. For the most part, we never get a sense that Sally is in any real danger; the creatures, which look like Gollum with anorexia, aren’t really all that scary.

The movie was slapped with an R rating, precisely because the child had the appearance of being endangered but don’t let that fool you; this is definitely more of a PG-13 experience. Pearce and Holmes do a decent job, but they’re not really the focus here; Sally is and while Bailee Madison is a competent child actor, she never really was one that I cared for too much. She’s always seemed a bit insufferable in her performances and Sally certainly is that.

Nixey and del Toro are experts at creating a mood and with the marvelous location and truly creep-worthy sets definitely accomplish the task but again, the lack of feeling of imminent jeopardy kind of wastes all that effort. This is one of those movies that’s all atmosphere and essentially no payoff. It’s surprising because normally del Toro is such a reliable writer. Maybe if he’d made this one independently in Mexico, this might have been a better film. Or maybe if he left the lead character as a troubled young woman instead of a grumpy little girl. This isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly praiseworthy either.

WHY RENT THIS: Definitely the right location for a haunted house movie. Solid performances by Pearce and Holmes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Converting Sally to a child was a tactical error. Lacks a sense of dread or jeopardy.
FAMILY VALUES: Horror violence and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the TV movie that this is based on, Sally was the name of Alex’s wife, not daughter. Here, Alex’s girlfriend is named Kim – and Sally was played by Kim Darby in the original.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gallery of concept art here.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.0M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Killer

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Olympus Has Fallen


BFFs.

BFFs.

(2013) Action (FilmDistrict) Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Rick Yune, Dylan McDermott, Finley Jacobsen, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Phil Austin, Robert Forster, Ashley Judd, James Ingersoll, Freddy Bosche, Lance Broadway, Malana Lee. Directed by Antoine Fuqua 

We’re pretty fat and happy here in the U.S., economic hardships notwithstanding. We’ve rarely felt the ravages of war and terrorism on our own soil. But as 9/11 proved, that can change in a heartbeat.

Mike Banning (Butler) is a Secret Service agent with a Special Forces. He’s also a favorite of President Asher (Eckhart) and his family – First Lady Margaret (Judd) and son Colin (Jacobsen).  But a trip on a snowy road leaving Camp David would change that forever

Now Mike toils in the Treasury Department at a desk job he hates. His wife Leah (Mitchell) can’t understand why he seems so distant; she goes to her job as a nurse as he goes to work somewhat like an automaton. Meanwhile the world keeps on spinning; the North Koreans are gathering troops on the edge of the Demilitarized Zone and the Prime Minister of South Korea is coming to the White House to elicit support from the President.

Then all Hell breaks loose. A transport plane outfitted with advanced machine guns and countermeasures to keep it from getting shot down shoots up the Washington Mall, eventually getting hit by a missile from the White House. At length it crashes but not before taking out the top of the Washington Monument. But that was more or less just a diversionary tactic as the President is hustled down into a bunker below the White House itself and the storied residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue comes under attack from crack troops superbly trained and brandishing state of the art weapons. The Secret Service and Marine detachment are decimated and to the horror and astonishment of the World, the White House is taken.

With the President, the Vice-President (Austin) and the Secretary of Defense (Leo) all in the bunker, the Speaker of the House Trumbull (Freeman) assumes de facto control of the Presidency. Not a moment too soon either because the President is betrayed from within, and now he is a hostage along with all those in the bunker with him.

Kang (Yune), leader of the terrorists, is demanding that the U.S. withdraw all its troops from the DMZ and its warships from the Sea of China. But like everything before it, this is a diversionary tactic from his real objective which is far more sinister and horrible than anyone could imagine. But now that the White House is taken by a hostile force, can the President and his family and fellow hostages be rescued before Kang can carry out his nefarious plan?

Well, duh. You see, nobody counted on Banning making his way into the White House during the chaos. And nobody counted on Banning being the badass he was. But is he enough to save the day?

Well, duh. You’d better believe it. But this is one of those action movies that even though you know deep down in your bones how it’s going to come out, you still sit on the edge of your seat throughout because it’s so skillfully set up and directed.

Butler has already earned his action hero spurs in 300. He cements his status here, showing capable fighting skills and doing some pretty impressive badassery in general. Unfortunately, the writers try to turn him into John McClane a little in the second half of the film which really doesn’t work. Butler is no Bruce Willis and frankly we don’t need another one – we’ve got the original after all. That minor complaint aside, Butler carries the movie nicely.

That the movie resembles Die Hard in DC has been commented upon pretty much by every critic who’s commented at all; I won’t go any further with it except to say that if they’re going to choose an action movie to resemble, they couldn’t have done better.

Fuqua is a capable director (see Training Day if you don’t believe me) but the writing doesn’t measure up to his skills. There are a lot of things that had Da Queen and I staring at each other in disbelief – I find it hard to believe that the government of this country would endanger millions of Korean and U.S. citizens to rescue the President, particularly if the Speaker was in charge (and I can only imagine how quickly Jim Boehner would throw President Obama under the bus if he were in the same situation – probably as quickly as Nancy Pelosi would have done so for President Bush). It is my impression that once the transfer of power has been completed, the President becomes an ordinary citizen. It’s the office of the President that is protected, not the person.

The movie is also hellaciously manipulative. I will admit I felt a pang when the White House is taken; it’s not unlike seeing your favorite pet kicked by someone from another neighborhood. You feel outrage not to mention plain old rage. I was surprised how much the scene effected me. Of course, at the end of the movie the Red Staters I live with were cheering loudly. When times are tough, it’s comforting to know that America still kicks ass in the movies, folks.

REASONS TO GO: Solid action film with a nice premise (although this is the first of two movies this year with the same basic plot). Butler is a terrific action hero.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable in places. Save the kid subplot bogs down the middle third. Extremely manipulative ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a good deal of violence and pretty foul language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cole Hauser and Radha Mitchell previously worked together in Pitch Black. They share no screen time together here however, although Hauser is once again playing a “federal agent” (he played a Marshall in the earlier film).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the critics can’t make up their mind about this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Air Force One

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ceremony

Parker


Do you think Jason Statham makes for an authentic Texan?

Do you think Jason Statham makes for an authentic Texan?

(2013) Thriller (FilmDistrict) Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis, Nick Nolte, Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr., Bobby Cannavale, Patti LuPone, Carlos Carrasco, Emma Booth, Micah Hauptman, Kirk Baltz, Kip Gilman, Sharon Landry, Charleigh Harmon. Directed by Taylor Hackford

Most of us have some sort of moral code that we live our lives by, even if we can’t always articulate. We call them “lines” and we try not to cross them (although we aren’t always successful). It’s always somewhat miraculous when someone actually accomplishes it.

A priest and two clowns walk into the Ohio State Fair main office. Sounds like a joke but it’s actually a robbery, one spearheaded by the priest – who is actually Parker (Statham), an expert thief who lives by a rather stringent moral code – never steal from those who can’t afford it, never hurt those who don’t deserve it. It’s served him well.

But when you work with clowns, well, you get what you deserve. One of them, Melander (Chiklis) has an idea for an even bigger score but needs the entire take from the State Fair job to make it happen. Parker, who is already not happy with the crew because one of them (Hauptman) had set a diversionary fire in the wrong place, decides to pass.

Unfortunately, Melander isn’t willing to take no for an answer and leaves Parker shot and nearly unconscious on the side of the road. Fortunately, a farmer and his family spies Parker on the side of the road and takes him to a local hospital. Parker regains consciousness and manages to escape before the cops arrive to ask questions he doesn’t want to answer. He recovers in a stolen ambulance in a secluded patch of woods and a helping of Demerol to help him sleep it off.

When he comes to he’s in a pretty foul mood. He approaches Hurley (Nolte), his mentor and also the father of Claire (Booth) – his girlfriend – and the man who set him up with Melander. It turns out that Hurley didn’t know that Melander was extremely connected, in this case to Danzinger (Gilman) a vicious crime boss. Hurley advises him to walk away but Parker can’t do that. He needs his score and he needs justice. He knows that Danzinger will send people not only after him but after Hurley and Claire and anyone Parker knows but it’s the principle of the thing.

After a visit to the brother of the misplaced arsonist (Baltz) in New Orleans, Parker gets wind that the job is taking place in Palm Beach, Florida. From snippets of  conversation just prior to his assault, he knows they were looking for a house down there. He contacts Leslie Rodgers (Lopez), an ambitious realtor trying to get her first commission. She’s in desperate financial straits – a divorce has left her with plenty of bills and precious little cash and she is forced to live with her difficult mother (LuPone) and field calls from bill collectors and repo agencies. She is at the end of her rope.

Parker, posing as an Ecuadorian-born oil baron from Texas (yeah, she doesn’t believe it either), soon discovers where Melander is hiding out and what he’s up to. Even with his atrocious Texas accent, he soon comes up with a plan but he has to dodge a hitman that Danzinger has sent after him and Leslie’s well-meaning interference. He’ll have to beat some pretty stiff odds to get away with this job.

This is based on Flashfire, the 19th novel in the Parker series by Richard Stark which is the nom de plume of the late Donald E. Westlake, one of the most respected and honored crime novelists of the 20th century. This was meant to be the ground zero of a Parker franchise, but given the anemic box office and quite frankly the lackluster quality of the movie, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

Hackford might not have been the best choice for the director’s chair. While he’s a veteran helmer, he’s better known for movies like An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray. Noir-ish action flicks, which is what this was supposed to be, are outside of his comfort zone and it shows – the action sequences have almost no life to them and are filmed kind of statically. In fact, the movie is kind of oddly lacking in kinetic energy.

It’s not Statham’s fault. He actually makes a pretty good Parker given the taciturn nature of the character in the books. Parker is meant to kick ass and take names….well, he doesn’t really care about the names so much but Statham inhabits the role well. This is right in his wheelhouse.

Lopez has never really been my cup of tea although I thought she showed amazing promise in Selena back in ’97 but she actually was pretty good here. There’s a scene in which she is reading an e-mail about her car being repossessed and her mom is giving her crap about some inconsequential thing and then she looks up at her mom and you can see in her expression all the pain, the stress and the worry that has brought her to her breaking point. The look is so poignant her mother puts a hand on her shoulder, unsure what to do (inside you’re screaming Hug her you idiot!) but at last her mom walks away and Leslie hides her face in her hands. It’s some really affective acting and tells me that if Lopez could just stay away from the pop star diva thing she’s done she can be a really great serious actress.

The Palm Springs locations are actually quite nice as we see gorgeous home after gorgeous home. Yes, the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. Makes me want to punch someone in a Giorgio Armani suit and Ralph Lauren sunglasses. Or at least give them the evil eye.

I would have liked to see a movie with a little more grit, a little less glitz and a lot more spice. For a movie looking to establish a franchise beachhead there isn’t a lot of bang for your buck. It’s basically a mediocre action film with poorly written logical lapses – if you were going to buy a home in which you were going to lay low with tens of millions of stolen jewels, wouldn’t you at least consider some sort of home security system? – that with a little more care and a director more suited to this sort of film might have been the right step towards a profitable action franchise. As it is it’s back to the drawing board.

REASONS TO GO: Statham actually makes a pretty nifty Parker. Gorgeous Palm Beach location. Lopez ain’t half bad here.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t add anything to the mix. Lacks spice.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots and lots of violence. A surprisingly small amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the fifth film to be based on a Parker novel, it is the first in which the character’s name is actually used.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100; the reviews are mixed but trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Italian Job

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Playing For Keeps (2012)


Dennis Quaid is hyeah! (Uma Thurman too)

Dennis Quaid is hyeah! (Uma Thurman too)

(2012) Romantic Comedy (FilmDistrict) Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Uma Thurman, Dennis Quaid, Judy Greer, Noah Lomax, James Tupper, Abella Wyss, Grant Goodman, Grant Collins, Aidan Potter, Marlena Lerner, Iqbal Theba, Emily Somers. Directed by Gabriele Muccino

Making a connection with your own child isn’t always easy, particularly when you haven’t been around much. Connecting involves presence, and if you aren’t present, there’s nothing for your kid to connect with.

That’s been the story with George (Butler), once a soccer star in Europe who eventually played in the MLS in its early days but after an ankle injury forced him to retire, George has been struggling to keep it together. He is staying in the Virginia suburbs of our nation’s capital – not just because his last team was DC United, but because that’s where his son Lewis (Lomax) lives with his mom Stacie (Biel). George and Stacie were together once but no longer; in fact, we learn early on she’s engaged to marry her new boyfriend Matt (Tupper) who seems to be a much nicer guy than George; certainly he’s more stable.

Thing aren’t going terribly for George in any other facet of his life. He’s broke, would love to be working a sportscasting job but can’t find one to save his life, He lives in the guest house of a wealthy Indian man (Theba) and drives an Alfa Romeo which sounds posh until you realize that it was probably brand new at about the same time Frankie Goes to Hollywood was.

Soccer is really the only connection George has with his son. His son’s coach spends more time on the phone than training his young players (“Kick it with your toes” is about his only advice) and soon George can’t stand it and starts showing the youngsters a few pointers. The kids take to his instruction and soon by parental proclamation George is named the team’s new coach which is just in the nick of time since they haven’t scored a goal all season.

Things start looking up. The soccer moms, cougars all, start throwing themselves at George, among them redheaded Barb (Greer), a recent divorcee who has got a case of the hornies big time, brunette Denise (Zeta-Jones), a single mom who is an ex-sportscaster herself who thinks the way to George’s heart might be through her career connections, and blonde Patti (Thurman), the wife of Carl (Quaid) who is an expansive Texas-style businessman who thinks nothing of loaning George his Ferrari nor using his fame to close a business deal with Brazilian soccer fanatics.

Best of all, Lewis and George are beginning to find some common ground and even Stacie is looking at George in an entirely different light. But this being a Hollywood rom com, that’s just the calm before the storm. George’s sexual escapades begin to catch up with him and just as he’s ready to settle down, ESPN comes a’knockin’. George may have to choose between career and kid.

Muccino made his reputation as the director of the Will Smith hit Pursuit of Happyness and truth be told that was a much better film than this one. This is more or less standard Hollywood romantic comedy fare with few (if any) surprises. What keeps this from pure direct-to-video cheesiness is Butler whose easygoing Scottish charm make the movie. While his character really lacks inertia – things pretty much just happen to him rather than him making them happen – he gets by on a smile and an accent (not to mention a body that made most of the ladies in the auditorium sigh).

His chemistry with Biel is a bit bland to be honest; while I could see his appeal to her, her appeal to him wasn’t as apparent. I would have liked to have seen more fire from Ms. Biel; she’s shown it in plenty of roles so I know she possesses it. It’s just not in evidence here. As a result the romance in the romantic comedy is sorely lacking.

The supporting cast are pretty big name and only Greer really shines among them, although Quaid makes a game try. Quaid has been one of my favorite actors for quite a few years now and this is the sort of role that he excels at. A bit stuffy and a bit unctuous and not necessarily a good guy (although Quaid does good guys pretty well), but a lot of fun to be around.

Unfortunately the movie has more faults than strengths. This is clearly a movie aimed at the female audience but the women in the film are mainly bedroom ornaments for George. If you’re going to appeal to women, you need an appealing woman in the cast. All of the movies in the movie seem to be defined by their relationships with men. That’s not going to make your target audience happy.

Still, Butler is going to make plenty of the target audience happy, particularly in those scenes where his shirt comes off (and there are a few). Ultimately this is pretty disposable but not real offensive, unless predictable plot points offend you. In a holiday movie season where there aren’t a lot of rom com options to choose from, it will fit the bill but it doesn’t really hold up against the better movies of the genre. In short, it ain’t no Sleepless in Seattle.

REASONS TO GO: Gerard Butler is at his charming best.

REASONS TO STAY: No chemistry and no heat. Most of the women in the movie exist to bed Butler. A romantic comedy without romance.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit o’ sexiness and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was formerly titled “Playing the Field.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 4% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100. The reviews are pretty pathetic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ugly Truth

SOCCER LOVERS: There’s quite a bit of the Youth game variety but Butler has a few nice moves that he shows off at various times of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Safety Not Guaranteed


 

Safety Not Guaranteed

Aubrey Plaza applies the old “come-on with Campbell’s” method of seduction to Mark Duplass.

(2012) Comedy (FilmDistrict) Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Kristen Bell, Jenica Bergere, Karan Soni, Lynn Shelton, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeff Garlin, William Hall Jr., Tony Doupe, Xola Malik, Grace Arends, Alice Hung. Directed by Colin Trevorrow

 

WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.

So read an actual 2004 classified ad in an alternative weekly in the Northwest (it actually showed up on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno’s” headlines segment. Someone thought it would make a good springboard for a small budget film. Someone was right.

At a story meeting for Seattle Magazine, the tyrannical editor Bridget (Rajskub) is looking for a story to go into the next issue. Most of her minions are silent but finally Jeff (Johnson) comes up with investigating the classified ad mentioned above. Bridget greenlights the story, allowing Jeff to take two interns – Darius (Plaza), a cute but anti-social sort, and Arnau (Soni), a nerdish Indian-American virgin. Jeff himself is quite the horndog, boasting that he’d already scored with the editor.

But he has an ulterior motive in heading to the small town outside of Seattle. He wants to hook up with Liz (Bergere), a lost high school lover he recently re-connected with on Facebook. He has the interns stake out the post office box and find out who the guy is who placed the ad. It turns out to be Kenneth (Duplass), a brilliant but socially awkward clerk at the grocery store. He lives out in the boonies in a house that he inherited from his deceased parents. Locally, he’s considered flaky but harmless.  When Jeff tries to contact him, Kenneth sends him packing, being a suspicious and paranoid sort. When Darius gives it a shot, her somewhat sharp and caustic attitude seems to attract Kenneth and he agrees to train her.

He is also paranoid and thinks that government agents are following him. Imagine Darius’ surprise when it turns out that government agents are following him. Some of the supplies that he’s purchased to build his time machine (which he swears is the real deal) have raised red flags somewhere and there are thoughts he could be building a weapon of mass destruction.

Still, the reporters think he’s a nutcase but Darius finds herself strangely attracted to him. And why not? He plays heartbreaking songs on the zither, has a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude about earth, the universe and time and isn’t hard on the eyes either. She finds herself opening up to him and letting him inside her very staunch defenses. But he can’t be serious about building a working time machine…can he?

One of the things that struck me about this movie from the get-go is the amount of heart it has. Some movies fake it really well, while others try to manufacture it or force it. This one has it. Yes, there are occasional elements of indie quirkiness but Trevorrow doesn’t stoop to clichés. There isn’t any of that hipster smarm that often makes me want to head over to the Village and open up with an Uzi on the trendy spots. No, there isn’t any indie band name-checking, no artists living in lofts they couldn’t possibly afford, no pop culture-peppered dialogue that will sound lame and dated in six months.

And certainly no romance between odd gamins who are way too smart and way too un-ambitious. The relationship between Darius and Kenneth is organic and realistic. These aren’t just a couple of characters who fall in love because the script calls for them to; this is a relationship that grows in an unexpected way as most love does in the real world. There is a scene during the training sequence when Kenneth is running and Darius is right behind him. The smile and measuring look she gives him tells without a single word of dialogue that she not only finds him interesting but that he is treating her like she’s never been treated before. You know that the love is there maybe before the characters do which is again, not unlike real life.

Plaza, who has a similar role in TV’s “Parks and Recreation” (and for whom the part was initially written) makes a splash in her feature film debut. She has the presence and charisma to be appealing on the big screen. I hadn’t really gotten that vibe from her television work but for my money she has a very bright future. She reminds me of Sarah Silverman in some ways, only less annoying and more charming.

Duplass, who is one of the Duplass Brothers responsible for directing some memorable indie hits like Jeff, Who Lives at Home proves himself an adept actor and quite frankly he’s much in demand – he’ll be appearing in no less than seven films that are slated for a 2012 release in some way, shape or form. This might be the best of the lot. He’s laconic, a little daft, a little edgy and a little romantic. This is a difficult role at best, to make someone so basically unlikable relatable. He’s guarded and standoffish and very much broken, but Duplass gives him warmth and grace. You end up liking Kenneth and root for him and Darius to make it.

Also of note if Johnson as Jeff. Jeff is basically a self-centered douche looking for a hook-up with a high school hottie who, like him, is wearing the years for all to see. As the film progresses we begin to see the layers stripped away as the horndog shows that he isn’t just all about Jeff. By the end of the movie he’s actually quite likable and the lazy, shoddy journalist we thought he was is put to lie as well.

The pacing is slow and laid back, so teens and other attention-challenged persons may find this boring. That’s a bit of a shame because this is as satisfying an experience as I’ve had at the movies this year. Sadly, the movie didn’t get a wide release – it’s not an easy sell and people might get distracted by the time travel aspect (which is a bit of a MacGuffin but kind of isn’t either – you’ll just have to see the film to find out what I mean). Still this is a movie I’ll certainly be remembering for my year-end best-of list. I hope you seek this out in its limited release – it’s a gem worth finding.

REASONS TO GO: A movie with as much heart as you’re likely to find. Cute and clever without being condescending.

REASONS TO STAY: Very quirky. A little too understated for the ADHD crowd.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty salty and there are a few sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Darius and Arnau are staking out the PO Boxes, the first man to walk into the post office is the one who wrote the original ad that the movie is based on.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are kinda mixed but more towards the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Primer

POST OFFICE LOVERS: Darius and Arnau stake out an old fashioned small town post office, one of the sort that is becoming increasingly rare in this day and age.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Other Woman

Lockout (2012)


Lockout

There can never be too much fog on a space station.

(2012) Science Fiction (FIlmDistrict) Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare, Lennie James, Vincent Regan, Joseph Gilgun, Jacky Ido, Tim Plester, Mark Tankersley, Anne-Solenne Hatte, Peter Hudson, Nick Hardin, Dan Savier. Directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger

 

When the President’s daughter is stranded on a space station full of psychotic criminals, that can just ruin your whole day, especially when you’re a top government agent falsely accused of espionage and murder. Or at least, so goes the popular thinking.

That’s the kind of day Snow (Pearce) is having. No first name by the way – just Snow. He’s got a briefcase that the CIA wants badly, particularly director Langral (Stormare). He’d watched Snow murder a friend and fellow agent with his own eyes and take a briefcase of secrets away for sale to the…well, whoever the Americans are battling with in 2079.

He manages to get it in the hands of Mace (Plester) before getting arrested. He gets a nice beating from a thug named Rupert before finding out he’s got a one-way ticket to MS-One, the maximum security low Earth orbit prison where prisoners are kept in cryogenic sleep for the duration of their sentences.

Now, the President’s daughter Emilie Warnock (Grace) happens to be on MS-One at that very moment on a fact-finding mission to determine the validity of rumors that prisoners are being abused which when you think about it is kind of bizarre – how do you abuse someone who’s frozen?

As it turns out, a somewhat overeager Secret Service agent (Ido) disobeys prison rules and brings a gun into an interview with a prisoner who’s been awakened just for the purpose and of course he manages to secure it from the agent and get free, setting loose all the other prisoners in the process.

Alex (Regan), a Jeffrey Dean Morgan look-alike, is the leader of the little revolt (his little brother Hydell (Gilgun) is the scumbag who set the others free) and he doesn’t realize that he has the president’s daughter at first being a little bit out of touch with the political landscape. Cryonic suspension will do that to you. That’s an advantage the powers-that-be know won’t last forever. They need to send someone up there to fetch her – but the prison is well-defended. An army couldn’t get in there without killing everyone in it – but one man…one man…

Guess who that one man is? Just call me Snake…I mean, Snow. Yeah, remember him from three paragraphs ago? That guy. His boss Shaw (James) doesn’t believe a word of the whole espionage and murder thing, thinks that the only guy for the job is Snake…I mean Snow. So why not send him in there? Of course, he’s got a prison full of psychotic rapists, murderers and psychopaths but that’s not unlike a session of Congress no? Anyway, he agrees to go when he discovers Mace has been caught and sent to MS-One…sounds like  Microsoft app doesn’t it? Anyway, Snake…I mean Snow has another reason to head up there other than to rescue the progeny of the man who is sending him to jail. Well, figuratively.

This is the latest from producer Luc Besson (whose The Lady which he directed is in limited release even as we speak) and more along the lines which he’s traditionally associated with – taut action films with genre leanings. This is on the sci-fi lines. Besson came up with the idea and turned it over to St. Leger and Mather who make the most of it.

One of the brightest ideas was to cast Pearce. He is clearly having fun with his role as the wise-cracking Snow, delivering quips as easily as a sci-fi James Bond. Snow is more of a Snake Plissken type – that just keeps coming up doesn’t it – he’s not nearly as suave as the British superspy, but he makes up for it with easygoing self-confidence. This could easily be a franchise character, although the box office numbers don’t really justify it to date. However, since the movie was so inexpensive to produce (only $40 million at the box office gets it to profitability and it hasn’t been released in many overseas territories yet) being shot as it mostly was in Serbia, well, could still turn out okay.

The movie borrows liberally from a number of sources, including the aforementioned (well afore-referred to) Escape from New York as well as dozens of other prison break movies and sci-fi actioners. There is even a clever underhanded reference to Escape director John Carpenter’s early cult film Dark Star (kudos if you get what it is) near the end of the film, making this a semi-homage to Carpenter; if Michael Myers had popped up in a mask among the prisoners it might have made for a perfect Carpenterama.

That’s all forgivable. IF you’re going to steal, steal from the best I always say. However the plot makes some pretty laughable leaps in logic, defying physics and common sense (who would have a gunfight in a space station? one stray bullet can really suck). The infuriating thing is that with a little imagination, the writer/directors could have easily stuck to their internal logic and made for a more exciting movie – or even a movie that made more sense.

Don’t get me wrong though – the reason to see this movie is because it’s fun and action packed and this one is those things. It has a terrific lead – who knew that Guy Pearce could be a great action hero? – and an attractive Maggie Grace in the heroine role. It won’t make any top ten lists and it might not even stick to your memory for more than an hour or two, but you’ll have fun while you’re watching it and that’s really all you can ask for from a movie like this.

REASONS TO GO: Pierce has great fun with what could easily have been a cliché role. Fun and entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: Some terribly long leaps in logic. Borrows a little too heavily from other films.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a lot of violence and a fair share of bad language. There are a few sexual references but nothing sexual per se.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The brothers are named Alex and Hydell. Lee Harvey Oswald used the alias Alek Hidell at one time.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100. The reviews are pretty poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fortress

INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION LOVERS: The Space Station gets its own cameo appearance in the film which may cause a bit of consternation.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Salt of Life

The Rum Diary


The Rum Diary

Johnny Depp in a pose sure to get many a woman's heart aflutter.

(2011) Drama (FilmDistrict) Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli, Richard Jenkins, Giovanni Ribisi, Marshall Bell, Amaury Nolasco, Bill Smitrovich, Karen Austin, Julian Holloway, Bruno Irizarry, Enzo Cilenti. Directed by Bruce Robinson

Hunter S. Thompson remains an iconic figure; not only in the counterculture but also within journalism and I guess among those who admire American eccentrics. One of his close friends was actor Johnny Depp, who famously portrayed the author in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and helped get this novel, based on Thompson’s experiences in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the early 60s, published.

Now Depp has gotten the movie made. He plays Thompson surrogate Paul Kemp, a boozehound journalist who has seen the bright lights and big city of New York but has been exiled to the San Juan Star, an English language newspaper that is on its last legs, edited by Lotterman (Jenkins), a harried frazzled man who is watching his empire crumble around him.

Kemp hooks up with Sala (Rispoli), a once-competent photographer who has fallen into a booze-induced haze of rum and cockfights while he waits to collect the severance pay that is sure to come when the Star folds. The two wind up sharing a room with the mercurial Moberg (Ribisi), whose brain has been filleted by drug use and alcohol abuse. He’s been fired from the Star but still hangs out around the newspaper, avoiding Lotterman and waiting for his paycheck.

Kemp is approached by Sanderson (Eckhart), a shady businessman who brokers quasi-legal land deals that enrich the pockets of his American friends but not so much the people of Puerto Rico. Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (Heard) takes a shine to Kemp but the combination of rum, debauchery and intrigue prove to be a more alluring combination in many ways.

Robinson made his reputation as a director with Withnail and I, an account of an alcoholic from the point of view of his friend. After the best-left-forgotten Jennifer 8 he has been absent from the director’s chair for 20 years. This isn’t, sadly, an auspicious return to the form of the former; thankfully it isn’t a project sunk to the depths of the latter either.

Much of the movie’s high points – and low ones – come from Depp. Nobody can play drunk like Depp can and although Rispoli and Ribisi do their best (and it’s pretty good) it’s Depp’s show without a doubt. Although he’s pushing 50 and is playing a man who has to be about half that age, he still makes Kemp a believable journalistic Quixote, tilting at the windmills of corruption and arrogance with Rispoli an effective Sancho Panza.

The chemistry between Depp and Heard is a little dicey. Heard is a very good actress but she’s playing a gold-digger who, it seems to me, would be more attracted to the size of a wallet rather than to the kindness of a heart. Why Chenault falls for Kemp is a complete mystery and doesn’t seem to fit with the girl’s character and Heard isn’t able to really offer an explanation either.

The movie is paced like a long languorous Caribbean afternoon, passing in a haze of rum, heat and thunderstorms. It doesn’t have the kind of edginess you’d expect with something that Thompson wrote and it might well be best seen after having quaffed a glass of 400 proof rum. No such thing? Oh, I beg to differ my friends…

REASONS TO GO: Nobody does drunk like Depp.

REASONS TO STAY: Kind of stodgy for a Hunter S. Thompson adaptation.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, enough drinking to drown the Antarctic in rum and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robinson, who also wrote the screenplay, had been sober for six years before taking on this project. He was hit by a severe case of writer’s block and began drinking, a bottle a day, until the script was completed. He continued to drink during production and quit drinking immediately afterwards.

HOME OR THEATER: While the look of a squalid Puerto Rico is sometimes offset by the gorgeous vistas of beach and jungle, the movie works as well at home as it does in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Dead Girl