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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of May 16 

Movies include The Avengers, Damsels in Distress, more

AMERICAN REUNION Where all the sequels to 1999's American Pie — 2001's American Pie 2, 2003's American Wedding and now American Reunion — go wrong is that none manage the balancing act between sweetness and seediness as well as the original film, instead tipping the scale toward the bawdy end to an unnecessary degree. And yet there's still enough comic invention, to say nothing of that likable cast, to make them easier to take than the subsequent chapters in many other franchises. In American Reunion, everyone ­— and I mean everyone — returns from the first installment (yes, even "the Shermanator"). They're all older but not necessarily wiser, dealing with the rigors and rigidity of 30something life. The gang elects to have an unofficial 13th anniversary reunion, which brings everyone back to their hometown of East Great Falls, Michigan. While the other characters spend their time reminiscing and rebuilding relationships, Jim (Jason Biggs), as always, has it the hardest — and not just because he again gets his penis caught in a compromising position while masturbating. In addition to trying to rekindle the romance in his marriage to Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), he must fend off the advances of an 18-year-old beauty (Ali Cobrin) he baby-sat back in the day as well as lend support to his dad (Eugene Levy), who's been lonely since the passing of his wife. Levy's always a treat, and here he gets to leave the house long enough to party with Stifler (Seann William Scott) and mix it up with Stifler's mom (Jennifer Coolidge). He's the only cast member given any sort of expanded character arc by writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (imported from the Harold & Kumar series), as everyone else pretty much does what's expected of them — and some of them don't even get that much (Tara Reid appears so fleetingly that one wonders if they had to drag her off a Malibu beach and force her to take part). Still, the actors settle comfortably back into their old roles, and Scott seems to take particular relish in reprising his part of the vile, vapid Stifler. **1/2

THE AVENGERS The Avengers is, quite simply, a brainy and brawny blast. It's a culmination of numerous super-sagas that have been building toward this moment, and it manages to trump every last one of them. In this instance at least, too many cooks have not spoiled the broth, as writer-director Joss Whedon and co-writer Zak Penn take care to insure that every character has his or her moment to shine. The plot finds Thor's evil half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) conspiring to get his hands on the Tesseract, a cosmic cube that will grant him unlimited power. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head of the law-enforcement outfit S.H.I.E.L.D., realizes that it's going to take more than one hero to prevent the subjugation of our planet's people, so he sets about getting in touch with all pertinent parties: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Admittedly, it takes time for Whedon and Penn to lay out the exposition — in fact, too much time, considering the Tesseract almost functions as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a plot device that holds dwindling interest for audience members. But once Whedon gets the film up to speed, he never looks back. The midsection is the best part, as the heroes spend more time battling each other than assessing the situation regarding Loki. It's putting it mildly to state that this is a veritable clash of the titans, with oversized personalities rubbing each other raw. As expected, Downey provides the bulk of the humor while Evans and Hemsworth provide the bulk of the beef. Johansson, a bit shaky in Iron Man 2, nicely comes into her own here, providing some softer moments to go along with the expected athleticism. Yet the surprising scene-stealer is Ruffalo, who provides Bruce Banner with a stirring soulfulness that was missing in the portrayals by Eric Bana and, to a lesser extent, Edward Norton. What's more, by employing the motion-capture technique rather than straight-up CGI, this is the first film to absolutely nail the Hulk, who in 2002 laughably looked like a video blip version of Gumby and in 2008 seemed shellacked in green plastic. ***1/2

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS Stop me if you've heard this one before. Five college kids head to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, hoping for some r&r. Instead, something evil starts picking them off one by one ... Unless you've spent your own existence in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, there's no way not to be knowledgeable of this setup, which has powered many a horror flick for approximately four decades and counting. But it's guaranteed that you haven't seen anything quite like The Cabin in the Woods, which uses its ordinary, even boring, title to lull us into a false sense of familiarity. In short, this effort from writer-director Drew Goddard and co-scripter Joss Whedon is no cut-rate slasher flick like Friday the 13th or Cabin Fever. This is a particularly difficult film to cover since the less a potential viewer knows, the better — I daresay even the relatively spoiler-free trailer reveals a bit more than what's desirable. So let's just establish what we can ascertain from the movie's opening act. Five likable students — the sweet Dana (Kristen Connolly), the vivacious Jules (Anna Hutchison), the hunky Curt (Chris "Thor" Hemsworth), the quiet Holden (Jesse Williams) and the perpetually stoned Marty (Fran Kranz) — leave the city and head toward the remote cottage owned by Curt's cousin. Meanwhile, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), two men who work in what appears to be a science facility, prattle on about the accident of 1998 and take sizable bets from co-workers. Not enough intel? Sorry, that's all you get here. But rest assured that these two plot strands will eventually find each other. When they do, the film falls into what I believed to be a reversal of misfortune, settling into standard fare with the cynicism elevated to an uncomfortable degree. Silly, shortsighted me. The Cabin in the Woods soon bursts loose from this holding pattern, growing ever more outrageous and entertaining as it barrels toward its take-no-prisoners climax and conclusion. To reveal anything more about this film would be criminal. But did I mention that the happy frog made me laugh out loud? ***1/2

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS It doesn't quite match the 20-year stretch when Terrence Malick sat out cinema (between 1978's Days of Heaven and 1998's The Thin Red Line), but until Damsels in Distress, writer-director-producer Whit Stillman hadn't made a movie in 14 years — and that's something akin to a tragedy. (The Stillman canon had consisted of only three pictures — affectionately tagged the "Yuppie Trilogy," it began with 1990's Metropolitan, ran through 1994's Barcelona and ended with 1998's The Last Days of Disco.) The damsels of the title are the members of a clique dedicated to spreading what they perceive to be wisdom and kindness all over campus. There's Violet (Greta Gerwig), the team leader; Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), the cool Brit; Heather (Carrie MacLemore), the pretty, perky and petite brunette; and Lily (Analeigh Tipton), the campus newcomer who's absorbed into the group but ends up constantly challenging Violet's methods and musings. It would be wonderful to report that Damsels in Distress marks a completely triumphant return for Stillman, yet while it's certainly recommendable, it falls short of his '90s output. The dialogue, always Stillman's strongest suit (he earned his sole Oscar nomination to date for Metropolitan's original screenplay), remains a constant delight, with Violet's circular logic and turn of phrases particular high points ("doofi," which she states is an acceptable plural form of "doofus," might be my new favorite word). But while none of Stillman's movies could be described as heavy on plot, this one often meanders to the point of distraction, with some of these out-of-left-field sequences working (a tribute to Fred Astaire's "Things Are Looking Up" musical number from 1937's A Damsel in Distress) while others run aground (a curiously dismissive take on homosexuals coming out of the closet). The performances are acceptable, although Gerwig remains an acquired taste; unfortunately, what the movie is crucially missing is a role for Chris Eigeman, who was a constant source of cynical pleasure in Stillman's three previous works. Still, while Damsels in Distress falls short of its potential, there's no denying that a half Whit is preferable to no wit at all. **1/2

THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT It would be both obnoxious and inaccurate to quip that The Five-Year Engagement feels as if it runs as long as the titular length, but there's no denying that this is one movie that would have benefitted from some judicious trimming in the editing room. At 125 minutes, the latest comedy from the director (Nicholas Stoller), star (Jason Segel) and producer (who else but Judd Apatow) of the superior Forgetting Sarah Marshall doesn't sound especially long — it's the exact same running time as the Apatow-produced Bridesmaids, which was the perfect length. Yet by unleashing most of its best gags during the first act, and by sprinkling its dramatic moments around like a sous chef adding just a soupçon of parsley to an order of grilled trout, that leaves plenty of time for the film to develop a noticeable sag around the middle. Speaking of sous chefs, that's the role essayed by Segel: He plays Tom Solomon, a highly respected member of San Francisco's culinary scene. His girlfriend is Violet Barnes (Emily Blunt), and it's only after he pops the question that Violet is beckoned to the University of Michigan for a postdoctoral position. Deciding to put his own career on hold while she builds hers, Tom agrees with Violet that they should postpone the wedding for two years and move to Ann Arbor. Tom, who can only find work at a deli, hates living there, and when it looks like the two years might stretch into something longer, he loses it in rather imaginative fashion. The late film critic Pauline Kael famously said of the popular Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pairing, "He gave her class and she gave him sex." In this film, Blunt provides both the class and the sex, but Segel nevertheless brings enough easygoing charisma and sly wit to the table to make them a believable screen couple. While this is evident in the scenes in which they make doe eyes at each other, it's crucially also identifiable in the sequences in which their characters are at odds with each other. There's a terrific bit in which the two argue in bed, replete with the sort of acidic asides, frustrated exchanges and oddly understandable oxymorons ("I want to be alone ... with you here!" — a great line) that spring from real life. Scenes like this make the lowbrow moments even more unworthy of inclusion here, whether it's the sight of Violet getting walloped by an opening car door or the increasingly tedious banter between Violet's colleagues at the university. If they had kept all the drama and halved the humor, The Five-Year Engagement would have truly distinguished itself. As it stands, it's engaging but hardly revelatory. **1/2

THE HUNGER GAMES The eagerly awaited adaptation of Suzanne Collins' smash bestseller, The Hunger Games largely delivers on both its provocative premise and its exciting execution. Set in a future world where the ruling 1 percent long ago squashed a rebellion by the 99 percent, the law dictates that, as perpetual punishment, those once-radical districts — 12 total — must annually send both a boy and a girl, randomly chosen from a pool of 12-to-18-year-olds, to participate in the Hunger Games, a televised ritual in which all 24 contestants are set loose in the outdoors and must kill each other until only one remains. The representatives for District 12, the most impoverished of the outer regions, turn out to be the headstrong Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and the meek Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). The lengthy first act is compelling, anchored by the strong central performance of Lawrence and reveling in the introduction of such memorable characters as Caesar Flickman (Stanley Tucci), the unctuous TV host and broadcaster, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the calculating ruler who hates the working class with the passion of a Republican presidential nominee, and, providing some grizzled heart and off-the-cuff humor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), whose status as the only District 12 representative to ever win a tournament allows him to serve as the boozy mentor to Katniss and Peeta. Director Gary Ross, who co-wrote the script with Billy Ray and Collins herself, has a minimalist style that enhanced dialogue-dependent and character-driven efforts like Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, and it's precisely why the first half works so well — and why the second half needed a stronger presence behind the camera. As the kids scatter into the woods and the picture ratchets up the action, Ross can't quite keep up. That's not to say the outdoor scenes ever lack for drama, but a filmmaker with a better feel for kinetic energy — say, Steven Spielberg or even Gore Verbinski — could have turned the winner-takes-all competition into a breathless roller coaster ride. As it stands, the film peters out toward the end, due in large part to a rather anemic duel-to-the-death and in small part to some shoddy visual effects. ***

MIRROR MIRROR With the addition of a fearsome dragon and the sight of Nathan Lane turning into a cockroach, this clearly isn't your ancestor's Snow White. This is evident from the start, as the wicked Queen (Julia Roberts) explains in a snappish voice how she married a benevolent king and, after he disappeared, took control of his kingdom as well as his young daughter Snow White (Lily Collins). The Queen hopes to marry the wealthy Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer), but he's smitten with Snow, who has suddenly found herself hiding from the cruel despot in the nearby woods. There, she meets seven dwarfs, but don't expect miners with names like Sleepy, Bashful and Grumpy; these seven are bandits by trade, answering to monikers like Butcher, Wolf and Grub. Mirror Mirror follows the Shrek template of tweaking familiar children's chestnuts with contemporary cracks and characterizations, but while it's classier than that animated blockbuster (no potty humor here), it's also far more tepid, with precious few of the radical revisions displaying any real wit. The romance isn't any better: While Collins and Hammer look good together, they fail to strike any sparks. Roberts, meanwhile, is game but operating inside an undefined character. Is the Queen supposed to be a harmless nitwit? A frightening monarch? A caricature of regal insouciance? With director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar and his writers providing no direction, Roberts is cast adrift, only finding any grounding in her amusing scenes opposite Lane as her mincing manservant. As for the dwarfs, they prove to be an interesting lot, albeit not nearly as entertaining as their cartoon counterparts from Disney's 1938 classic. But it was probably best that they provided this septet with new names, considering that this dull trifle forced me to co-opt the names Sleepy and Grumpy for the duration of its running time. *1/2

THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS A different sort of booty call can be found in The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which sails the rough waters of a genre that's recently been overexposed due to at least one Pirates of the Caribbean sequel too many. The latest effort from Aardman Animations, the outfit responsible for Chicken Run, Arthur Christmas and the wonderful Wallace & Gromit canon, this rollicking yarn feels far more conventional than the studio's previous efforts, trafficking in the same sorts of themes that have been the bread and butter of Disney for decades and every other studio's toon department in more recent times. The story concerns the efforts of the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) to show that he deserves the title of Pirate of the Year, awarded to the seafaring scoundrel who accumulates the largest amount of loot. While such true terrors of the sea as Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) laugh at him, the hapless Pirate Captain tries his best to plunder and pillage, to no avail. It's only after he becomes involved with the duplicitous Charles Darwin (David Tennant), a scientist who realizes the value of the captain's pet Dodo bird, that matters begin to swing his way, at least temporarily. The eye-pleasing claymation style revitalized by the studio remains front and center, and the film boasts an unusual villain in Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who loathes pirates and can hold her own in hand-to-hand combat (who knew?). But the other characters are a rather blasé bunch, and the usage of the tattered themes of family, loyalty and being happy with oneself is shockingly rote — the result, perhaps, of using existing source material (novels by Gideon Defoe, who also wrote the script) rather than employing the usual Aardman practice of building a work from scratch (where the filmmakers have never been held back by any narrative constraints). TP!BOM fares OK against most modern toon flicks but pales next to other Aardman releases. How a person chooses to rate its success depends on whether one looks at a glass of water and views it as half-full or half-empty. **1/2

THIS MEANS WAR When it comes to the twin businesses of sexual politics and romantic revelations, the number of modern-day comedies that have managed to smartly upend all the tired stereotypes and withering clichés is a dismally small one, sporting a losing ratio comparable to that of the 2011 Indianapolis Colts. This Means War is yet another casualty, losing the battle almost from the start. Chris Pine and Tom Hardy respectively play FDR and Tuck, crack CIA agents who are BFFs until they both fall for the same woman. That would be Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a lonely workaholic who goes from having no boyfriends to having two guys fighting over her. With her best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler) offering her dubious advice, Lauren simultaneously dates both studs in order to determine her best match. For their part, FDR and Tuck are utilizing all the espionage tools at their disposal (satellites, wiretaps, etc.) to thwart the other fellow in his amorous advances. In popcorn-picture terms, it has promise, and indeed, there are a couple of sequences in the midsection that fulfill the film's potential. But for the most part, the movie is a clumsy mess, replete with a worthless subplot involving a cardboard Euro-baddie (Til Schweiger) seeking revenge. As far as the characterizations are concerned, they follow the same outdated playbook that's generally kept under lock and key by Katherine Heigl to use in her films. Lauren comes across as a ninny, FDR is insufferable, Trish is like all married women in movies (alcoholic, bitter, and living vicariously through her hot, young, single friend), and Tuck's ex (Abigail Leigh Spencer) has no interest in a sensitive, caring father until she learns he can beat the living hell out of people. It's safe to assume that only Hardy (and his pursed lips) will escape from this debacle unharmed. As for the resolution of the romantic dilemma ... well, let's just say that the filmmakers would have been hard-pressed to come up with a worst ending. But then they tack on a ghastly epilogue, and what seemed near-impossible becomes a harsh reality. *1/2

THE THREE STOOGES Can anyone who isn't a Stooge fan possibly enjoy The Three Stooges? More to the point, can anyone who is a Stooge fan possibly find merit in this Farrelly misfire? As a longtime groupie of the comic trio of Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard (the last-named eventually replaced in succession by Shemp Howard, Joe Besser and Joe DeRita), I'm the proud owner of all 190 shorts The Three Stooges made between 1934 and 1959. Tellingly, I don't own the feature films in which they starred, not only because most of these efforts (the majority produced during the 1960s) found the team past their prime but also because with these guys, the less plot the better — we want our nyuks fast and furious. The necessity for brevity is just one of the lessons lost on sibling filmmakers Bobby and Peter Farrelly, who felt the world needed a 92-minute Three Stooges movie starring Three Stooges impersonators. Despite their game efforts, Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes and Will Sasso are never able to make us forget that we're not watching Moe, Larry and Curly — they're the cinematic equivalent of cover bands, competently going through the motions in a superficial manner but unable to compete with the real thing. They're tossed into a standard-issue plot concerning the clods' mission to raise a sizable sum of money in order to prevent an orphanage from going under. Smart scripting would have played up the premise of these old-fashioned Stooges set loose in a modern world, but precious few gags even glance in that direction. Instead, the film's jabs at contemporary relevancy take it where we least want it — but most expect it — to go: in the realm of potty humor. There's an endless sequence in which the three use hospital-ward babies as guns, holding up their naked bodies and shooting each other with streams of pee. Still, it's hard to say which is more excruciating, this sequence or the ones that give ample screen time to the open-mouth breathers from Jersey Shore. The same evening after sitting through this screening, in order to wash away the bad taste left by this film, I popped a classic Stooge short into the DVD player — 1940's A Plumbing We Will Go, to be specific. Now that's eye-poking, ear-twisting, nose-tweaking, head-banging entertainment. *1/2

TITANIC James Cameron spared no expense for this re-launch of his 1997 smash, spending millions to convert the film into 3-D. Admittedly, most pictures that weren't originally filmed in that process but were only converted later as an excuse to boost ticket prices have failed to provide much extra oomph to the 2-D imagery (e.g. Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland), but if there's one thing to be said about Cameron, the man knows how to derive the most technological bang for his buck. Titanic in 3-D looks fantastic, employing the format in a way that makes viewers feel as if they're the ones rounding a corridor corner or fighting to stay afloat in that icy Atlantic water. Fifteen years later, the highs and the lows still remain; luckily, what's good about the movie continues to easily outweigh its flaws. The fictional storyline is hoary in the extreme, relying on a "wrong side of the tracks" romance: Shortly after boarding the ship as it prepares to embark on its maiden voyage, poverty-stricken artist Jack Dawson spots socialite Rose DeWitt Bukater and instantly falls for her. In these career-propelling roles, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are excellent, delivering warm, winsome performances that provide their romance with an epic grandeur it certainly wouldn't have attained in less capable hands. The trouble, for both the young lovers and the audience members, is the presence of Rose's fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), a supercilious millionaire who would just as soon push the lower classes off the face of the earth as give them the time of day. As I watched Cal constantly berate the poor, smack Rose around, and try to kill Jack by taking shots at him, I kept wondering why Cameron had elected to leave off a mustache that Zane could twirl at regular intervals — the character is even more cartoonish than actual cartoon character Snidely Whiplash. Yet despite the pesky presence of Cal, it's a credit to Cameron's hot-and-cold screenplay that even as the ship goes down, taking Zane's career with it, we're utterly committed to the plight of Jack and Rose. Their characterizations personalize the second half of the film, which is basically one sustained "money shot." Overlooking a couple of shaky CGI snatches, the effects are superb, and the final submergence of the "unsinkable" craft is absolutely dazzling. ***1/2

21 JUMP STREET Who, aside from maybe Jonah Hill's agent, saw this coming? In an era in which it frequently seems as if Hollywood can do little else but feed on the festering parts of this nation's kitschy past (The Smurfs, Transformers, etc.), there wasn't exactly a clamoring for a big-screen update of an 80s cop show primarily known for putting Johnny Depp on the map any more than there was a demand for a film based on a board game about battleships. And yet here we arrive at 21 Jump Street, and it actually turns out to be an inviting place to visit. Hill (who co-wrote the script with Michael Bacall) and Channing Tatum respectively play Schmidt and Jenko, two rookie cops assigned to a special unit in which all the officers go undercover as high school students in order to bust various crimes. The outfit's commanding officer (Ice Cube, always a welcome presence) orders the pair to find out who's pushing a deadly drug at a local high school. Jenko, a popular slacker during his own high school days, looks forward to heading back to class, while Schmidt, who was a miserable nerd during that period, dreads it. But they unexpectedly find their social standings reversed, with Schmidt becoming known for throwing killer parties and Jenko hanging out with the chemistry set. 21 Jump Street offers an acceptable number of hearty laughs (albeit most packed during the first half), yet what's most refreshing about the film is how it acknowledges its own narrative absurdities and retreaded tropes in a manner that's neither forced nor self-congratulatory (love the running gag about exploding vehicles). 21 Jump Street wears its cool comfortably, and its nerdiness just as effectively. ***

THE WOMAN IN BLACK Before they largely imploded in the mid-1970s, Britain's Hammer Film Productions spent two decades producing lush, atmospheric horror flicks, in the process re-igniting filmgoer passion for classic monster movies and making genre superstars out of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Two years ago, the outfit returned to screens with the critically acclaimed, audience-ignored Let Me In, followed that with two barely seen releases, and now offer the decidedly more high-profile The Woman in Black, positioned as a true test of Daniel Radcliffe's drawing power outside the Harry Potter franchise. For the record, Radcliffe is fine; the film, on the other hand, is tepid enough to leave Dracula — the one who looks like Christopher Lee, of course — spinning in his grave. Based on a novel (by Susan Hill) that had already been turned into a successful play and a 1989 made-for-British-TV film, this finds Radcliffe cast as Arthur Kipps, a widowed lawyer assigned to visit a remote village in order to settle the estate of a recently deceased elderly woman. In the film's best nod to vintage horror, the country rubes all view the newcomer with suspicion and do little to aid him in his task. The reason, it turns out, is that they believe the stomping grounds of the departed is haunted by the title apparition, an evil entity with a sweet tooth for tragedy and children. Both fascinated by the legend and fearful that it might has some basis in reality, Arthur opts to spend the night at the creepy mansion — and it's here where the film primarily jumps the tracks. The best ghost stories are the ones that rely on careful exposition and a pervasive sense of mounting dread to unsettle audiences (The Others and The Orphanage being modern examples), but director James Watkins and scripter Jane Goldman abandon that approach shockingly fast. Instead, this is the sort of spook show that tries to manufacture scares by having something rapidly leap into the frame, startling both the protagonist and many viewers. Usually, it's a cat; here, it's everything but. Yet this type of cheap thrill becomes predictable before long, and unlike the aforementioned simmering sort of supernatural cinema, it will have little shelf life (after all, to quote a great president and humanitarian, "Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."). It's certainly nice to have Hammer back in business, but let's hope they nail down more promising projects than this one. **

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