The Scarlett Johansson Project — #8

Well what do we have here? I admit this is an unlikely way to return, but hey it’s Halloween and this I think is as close as it gets to horror when it comes to Scarlett Johansson’s filmography. Sure, there’s the word ‘ghost’ in Ghost in the Shell. She played the luminous Janet Leigh in Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock (2012). And I already covered her role in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (check it out here if you like). 

But my mind was made up after watching Chris Stuckmann’s entertaining YouTube review of this cult classic from the early 2000s, a title I’ve definitely heard bandied about and (I think) typically in the context of “stupidest movie ever.”

Yep. My job today is not to defend against such sleights. This is a mercilessly silly movie. Some poor sap gets punched to death by a giant tarantula. An enlarged jumping spider zip lines down a wire and you hear it going “weeeee!” while an earlier scene finds a cat battling one of the first mutated buggers within the walls of a house, leaving cartoonish imprints within the dry wall à la Tom and Jerry. Elsewhere, Scarlett Johansson tases her boyfriend in the crotch while David Marquette must negotiate enraged arachnids and an acrophobic conspiracy theorist (played by 90s holdover Doug E. Doug) atop a cell phone tower. This thing is death by a thousand giggles, I tell ya. 

But I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t have a blast with it. Maybe that’s because I had Chris’ review in my head; campiness is one of those qualities you’re either going to love or hate, and it’s a hard mixture to get right. I think Eight Legged Freaks gets it right, even though I’m not exactly what you would call a creature feature expert or connoisseur of all things camp. So much winking at the audience, so much tongue firmly planted in cheek. And so, so much spider web and guts. 

Unfortunately, not a whole lot of Scarlett Johansson but she does have a couple of really fun scenes and it’s enough for me to justify this eighth installment, with only two more to go. We’ll wrap up the SJP in December, which will be exactly a year after when I was originally going to finish it up. Better late than never, right? 

Scarlett Johansson as Ashley Parker in Ellory Elkayem’s Eight Legged Freaks 

Role Type: Supporting

Premise: Venomous spiders get exposed to a noxious chemical that causes them to grow to monumental proportions. (IMDb)

Character Background: As the teenage daughter of a small-town sheriff (Kari Wuhrer), Ashley can’t catch a break. Her friends circle in particular is a bone of contention with her mom, and her bad boy boyfriend Bret (Matt Czuchry) doesn’t exactly feel the love from his father, incidentally the town Mayor (Leon Rippy), which enables him to run wild. When push comes to shove during a date one afternoon, Ashley takes advantage of the fact her mom has various self-defense weapons lying about the house. She may not like what her mom does for a living, or care much about anything but today she cares about the convenience.

Her ennui-fueled, punk-ish attitude is soon mellowed when the town gets overrun by oversized spiders who have been exposed to toxic chemicals. The creepy crawlers, once the prized jewels of a local collector named Joshua (Tom Noonan), eventually make their way to the Parkers’ house, where Ashley has a first-hand encounter with one of the hairy bastards. The ensuing frantic action largely loses sight of her, the cluttered plot spinning off to address the various confrontations town-wide, including the self-exiled Chris (David Marquette)’s attempt to free a cocooned Aunt Gladys (Eileen Ryan), and Bret’s wayward trip into the mines where the mighty female Orb Weaver is casually liquefying its victims for easier digestion.

What she brings to the movie: A burgeoning affinity for spiders? At just 17 years old, with already 11 films under her belt and a good 10 years before taking up the mantle of Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson would come face-to-face with a bunch of mutant spiders. She also has played a character named Charlotte (in Lost in Translation), which is also the name of the barn spider in the children’s book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. Freakish, barely-even-coincidences aside, Johansson’s limited performance here ranks among the film’s best. Not a high bar when this isn’t a movie about the characters. Still, she has confidence and swagger, and easily adapts to the goofy, cheesy atmosphere that Eight Legged Freaks emphasizes. Plus her bad-girl persona gives us a glimpse of the kind of edgier roles she would later take on. 

In her own words: [on being “cocooned”] “Oh, it was awful. I have Dean [Devlin] in the background talking, like, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be fun!’ And everyone else is running around, and meanwhile no one is paying attention to me. I’m like stuck on this wall for hours.”

Key Scene: Apologies for this being a fan edit but it’s the only clip I could find of Ashley’s big moment. I actually kind of love the goofy tribute to Alien in the face-to-face. Also, ew. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

***/*****


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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Now You See Me 2

'Now You See Me 2' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 10, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ed Solomon; Pete Chiarelli

Directed by: Jon M. Chu

The implausible Now You See Me sequel — yes, this is a thing — is a magic trick you can see right through from the very beginning. For all the entertainment it seeks to provide, the film delivers an equal dose of numbing visual effects that do nothing but obscure any theoretical cinematic magic wand-shaking under the blinding lights of confused, contrived, utterly lazy storytelling.

Three of the Four Horsemen are back. And no, not from vacation. Well, it was kind of like a vacation. Since the events of the first, the pompous pranksters — J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) — have gone into hiding after exposing the unethical business practices of one Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and fleecing him out of millions of his own easy-earned cash. (Much like director Jon M. Chu has done to us, minus the whole money coming easy part). Isla Fisher’s Henley Reeves, seemingly jaded by the realities of becoming part of the global underground society of illusionists called The Eye, is nowhere to be found. She’s better off.

Uninspired tale finds the group once more answering the call of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who, now firmly in control of his puppets (remember that twist?), has this big spectacle planned out during which they’ll expose a tech wizard’s . . . unethical tech-ing practices, some bloke named Owen Case (Ben Lamb), who in no short order becomes nothing more than target practice when it’s learned that the film’s actual villain is Daniel Radcliffe’s even bigger tech geek Walter Mabry.

What does Mabry have to do with anything? I’m glad you asked, because it gives me the opportunity to rave over the next rabbit Now You See Me 2 tries to pull out of its hat. Turns out, Merritt has an evil twin named Chase who works for Mabry, and in one of many underwhelming action sequences he manages to capture the Horsemen and take them to Mabry’s lair (muahaha!), where they’re informed of a high-risk but high-reward job, likely the trickiest task they will have ever pulled off. Do they have a choice? In an exchange that confesses the depths of this film’s Oscar-baiting screenplay, the Horsemen are told they either “do this or die.” Well, I don’t know about you but I’m inspired.

In the meantime, Mabry’s been busy trying to bring about the downfall of the Horsemen from afar, hijacking the aforementioned show by letting the public know that, hey, yeah, remember how Jack Wilder died? Well, he didn’t really. Also, Rhodes is a two-faced cop and is working with the Horsemen. Be outraged, people. Be very outraged. As a result, Agent Rhodes suddenly becomes Agent Rogues when he and the rest of the magicians find themselves scrapping to clear their name all while trying to eliminate the threat of Mabry.

It’s not exactly the most original conceit, but this new globetrotting adventure could have spawned a genuinely exciting mystery thriller if put in the right hands. Co-writers Ed Solomon and Pete Chiarelli were not those hands. Their story, one that at least adheres to the spirit of reckless abandon established in the original, leans entirely on the magic of post-production tinkering, and with Chu’s terribly flat direction further promoting contrivance and convenience, Now You See Me 2 quickly wears out its welcome.

Not helping matters is a runtime that eclipses two hours and a couple of surprisingly annoying performances from Lizzy Caplan, who plays Fisher’s “replacement” Lulu May — because there has to be a Horsewoman, obviously — and one half of Harrelson’s performance as the evil twin Chase. ‘Harrelson’ and ‘annoying’ don’t seem like they belong in the same sentence but then again the guy is a consummate actor. He really can do and be anything. As to Caplan, someone should have taken away the fourteenth Red Bull she was guzzling before stepping on set. This is way too much team spirit for a movie not named Bring It On.

More irksome than Harrelson’s sinister side and Caplan’s insufferably peppy presence is the film’s knack for reducing living legends like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman to cardboard cutouts. Neither Caine convinces he’s this bad of a dude nor Freeman of his ever-complicated backstory. You could defend this as an exercise in allowing actors to have some genuine fun while collecting another paycheck. There’s no shame in putting together a supergroup of talent like this for a bit of escapist entertainment but Caine and Freeman couldn’t look more bored.

Now You See Me 2 pulls gimmicks and cheap tricks left and right in its quest to prove editing can on its own sustain a story. The approach suggests the filmmakers think audiences won’t know the difference between ‘real’ magic and clever camerawork. It’s actually pretty insulting.

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Recommendation: Eyeballs, get ready to roll. Now You See Me 2 takes the worst tendencies of its predecessor and magnifies them. I can handle cheesy films, and NYSM2 is certainly cheesy but it’s more problematic in terms of convincing us that what’s happening in front of us is real. The irony of that is pretty hard to reconcile. This is the epitome of surface gloss hiding no real depth. With that in mind I can’t recommend watching this one to anyone who felt the first one was kind of silly. What follows is much sillier. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “Hell will look like a day at the spa once I’m through with the Four Horseman.” / “You had me at ‘Hell.'”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Keanu

'Keanu' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jordan Peele; Alex Rubens

Directed by: Peter Atencio

The Cat in the Hat. Garfield. Sylvester. Mewtwo. Mr. Bigglesworth. Shere Khan. These are but a few of the world’s most famous felines. You can go ahead and add Keanu to this prestigious list, because he’s the best thing about a full-length movie that’s kinda-sorta-but-not-really-at-all about him.

The mischievous duo behind Comedy Central’s Key and Peele find themselves comfortably making the transition to the big screen, but unfortunately they’ve missed an opportunity to make a memorable entrance in this painfully hit-and-miss comedy that sees two schlubs turning thug under some seriously contrived circumstances. I suppose, yeah, you could say they were under duress, but . . .

The (mis)adventure begins when a kitten shows up on Rell (Peele)’s doorstep. He has traveled from afar, barely escaping with the fur on his back from a violent confrontation at a drug processing facility deep in the city. Rell, reeling after a bad break-up, takes an immediate liking to the cat and believes it will help him feel better. He names his new friend Keanu. Meanwhile, his uptight cousin Clarence (Key) is seeing his wife off for a weekend getaway with a mutual friend played by the always untrustworthy Rob Huebel.

Unbeknownst to them, the cat actually belongs to a powerful thug named Cheddar (Method Man) to whom the notorious Allentown boys — the ones involved in the aforementioned firefight and who are also played by Key and Peele — are indebted as they track down the precious fur-ball. The Allentown boys are bloodthirsty goons straight out of a Rob Zombie nightmare and will stop at nothing until they get what they’re after. These freaks are the shameless beneficiaries of Abby O’Sullivan’s fantastic costuming and make-up.

Rell takes Clarence to see the new Liam Neeson movie to try and get Clarence out of his house and to spend some “bro time,” as was suggested by his wife. They get back only to find Rell’s place has been ransacked and Keanu’s missing. Rell’s next-door neighbor/weed guy Hulka (Will Forte, sporting some awesome dreads) of course didn’t see nothin’. The hunt for Keanu eventually leads the cousins into Cheddar’s lair, a blown-out night club poignantly christened HPV, where they also find the cat, now repping a gold chain and black doo-rag. Rell, barely able to hide his outrage over the kitten-napping, snaps and declares he and Clarence are the Allentown boys and that they’d be willing to do one favor for Cheddar in exchange for ownership of the cat.

And so the rest of the film is just allowed to happen . . . somehow. It’s a parody of the Gangster Experience that flits between cringe-worthy and chuckle-inducing, its many farcical developments amounting to a parlay of good fortune that simply endures too long. And it’s so not about the cat, either. Keanu’s closer to a meowing macguffin than a functional character in a plot designed to bait animal rights activists into protesting the comedic duo’s next event. (Fear not: no animals were harmed during the making of this film.)

It’s not as if Key and Peele was the most reliable source of saucy satire but when it was good, it could really strike a nerve. In the feature film setting, however, their inconsistency is magnified tenfold and there are some very bare patches as the writers milk the faux-gangster premise for all its worth. The scene at Anna Faris‘ house drags on for what feels like an eternity as we’re forced to watch Rell (now operating under his thug alias ‘Tectonic’) and Clarence (a.k.a. ‘Shark Tank’) bluff their way through the drug deal they agreed to.

There are moments where their deadpan charm pierces like the sun through the thick clouds of uninspired writing — Key and Peele themselves aren’t the problem with their movie. In fact it’s their camaraderie that is able to pull us through Keanu‘s least compelling moments, and why I enjoyed it more than I probably should have.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 8.04.58 PM

Recommendation: Keanu mirrors the hit-and-miss nature of Key and Peele. Although there is a caveat to that: devoted fans are likely to not take as much issue as those who are less familiar with their schtick. That said, the premise as a whole still feels like a wasted opportunity to do something memorable with an animal that’s not only this photogenic but well-trained. This cat has a bright acting future ahead of him. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “We’re in the market for a gangster pet.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: Love Actually (2003)

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 2.23.07 AM

Once more I’m faced with writing about a movie I have never seen before. (Shouldn’t these TBTs be movies from my past, from my childhood? Isn’t that what a ‘throwback’ really is, a memory?) Yes, somewhere along the way I kind of lost my focus, or maybe I just don’t watch enough movies to make this a legitimate feature. I suppose what this has turned into is okay in the end, because I have only seen a finite number of films in my past; there’s (almost) no limit to what I can see in the future. Even still, I can’t help but think that maybe this part of the blog has run its course. With that in mind, we go to yet another new (to me) entry for the final segment this year!

Today’s food for thought: Love Actually.

Love Actually movie poster fart-fanugens

Loving, actually since: November 14, 2003

[Netflix]

Despite heartwarming performances from a stellar ensemble cast, this is actually a pretty terrible movie. Love Actually may not be quite as stuffed a turkey as more recent holiday disasters like New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day — here’s a hint: if you want a quality bit of entertainment, you’d do well to stay away from films named after a holiday — nor is it quite as blatant in its commercialization of those holidays. Love Actually is, all the same, entirely too ingratiating.

The impressive ensemble helps make proceedings go down a little easier, but it’s still like trying to chew a wad of taffy that’s way too large for one person to handle. And taffy is kind of gross anyway.  But it’s not as gross as watching actors as talented as these try to make something out of a script that contrives human interaction in such a way that Love Actually becomes quasi-fantastical in its attempts to sell the events as something born out of love — you know, the kind of stuff that gets people by in the real world, not the sweet syrupy stuff in movies. Oh, how the irony stings.

After enduring these spectacularly unspectacular interweaving love stories for more than two hours, I can now only question my thoughts and feelings — all of which were positive — towards Curtis’ similarly precious About Time, in which Domhnall Gleeson discovers he could manipulate his ability to travel through time to build the perfect relationship with Rachel McAdams (or make her his concubine, I’m not sure which). Maybe I ought to just chalk that overly enthusiastic review up to being blinded by Gleeson’s likability. The guy can almost do no wrong. Add in Bill Nighy and you have a cast that’s hard not to be won over by.

Love Actually at least somewhat benefits from a similar reality, except this is a much larger pool of talent and not all participants fare well in this sugary, sappy mess. Like kids in grade school, the ensemble pairs off into smaller groups to tackle ten interrelated, England-set stories that end up coming together through circumstances that I feel more comfortable calling serendipity. I certainly can’t call it the product of good writing.

We have Nighy’s rock’n roll legend Billy Mack who is recording a Christmas song even he despises but goes on to promote it anyway because it has a chance of becoming a #1 hit. Throughout the film he lays on his anti-charm pretty thick, abusing his fat manager Joe (Gregor Fisher) and seemingly bent on self-destruction in a very Russell Brand-like way. His is one of the few stories that actually remain engaging throughout and ends up being far less manipulative. Maybe it’s just coincidence that his is the only story to remain completely independent from the others.

Liam Neeson, playing stepfather to Thomas Brodie-Sangster‘s Sam, sets himself apart from the chorus of others who can only sing in one key: and that is feeling lovelorn and lonely. His Daniel represents an entirely different, more tender side of Neeson that is entirely welcomed. It’s too bad his backstory revolves around the painful loss of his wife (the same wife, we assume, that many of his characters in later action thrillers will too be mourning). Daniel is a warm presence and his relationship with his stepson (also played very well by Sangster) affords Love Actually at least one or two brownie points.

Outside of these threads we start venturing into stories that become less interesting by powers of ten. The best of the rest manifests in Colin Firth’s genuine, affable Jamie, a writer whose girlfriend has been having an affair with his brother. Devastated by the discovery, he retreats into a cottage he owns in France where he meets Portuguese housekeeper Aurélia and soon falls for her, despite the language barrier. So he learns to speak Portuguese and tracks her down after making a brief return trip to England, because, well the movie’s all lovey-dovey like that.

The rest of the picture can be filled in as follows: Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who play newlywed couple Juliet and Peter, contend with the latent feelings of Peter’s old friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln); Martin Freeman and Joanna Page, body doubles in movies who find attraction to one another while staging sex scenes; Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, a longtime married couple now face a crisis in the wake of Karen (Thompson)’s discovery of an affair her husband is potentially having with a coworker; Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister, the most self-deprecating individual ever to find himself in a position of such power, can’t help but feel attracted to one of his secretaries even after her indiscretion with the sleazy U.S. President (an absolute waste of Billy Bob Thornton’s time). Rowan Atkinson has a slightly amusing cameo. And the less said about Laura Linney and Rodrigo Santoro’s parts, the better.

Love Actually too forcefully reminds the viewer that the world is indeed a small place and, playing out like one of those old McDonald’s commercials from the ’90s (“hey, it could happen!”), it champions taking a risk on romantic gestures over the holiday season. Because, hey — that thing you really want to have happen, it can happen. Because, as the movie justifies itself, it’s Christmas and it’s a time to be bluntly honest with each other.

So let me be bluntly honest with you. I took a chance on this film actually making an attempt to be believable after a few head-scratching developments up front, but too much of a good thing — the spreading of joy in this case — is worse than not enough of that good thing. Mr. Curtis apparently isn’t familiar with the concept of ‘less is more.’ Choked with coincidence and serendipity, Love Actually may spread holiday cheer like a wild fire but the feeling I get from it is more like . . . well, hate actually.

Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in 'Love Actually'

Recommendation: Star-studded romantic comedy bogged down by unabashed sentimentality. Stars are good, story is horrendous — played out, predictable, way too cheesy and not subtle in the slightest. A few supporting turns make some of the effort worthwhile but in the end, Love Actually isn’t one you turn to for performances. You turn to it to feel much better about getting to escape the banality of real-world Christmas events. A feel good movie that made this little grinch feel quite bad.

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

TBTrivia: Kris Marshall, who played Colin, a caterer at Juliet and Peter’s wedding, apparently returned his pay check for the scene where the three American girls undress him. He said he had such a great time having three girls undress him for twenty-one takes, that he was willing to do it for free, and thus returned his check for that day.

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Photo credits: http://www.playbuzz.com; http://www.fanpop.com  

Zombeavers


Release: Friday, March 20, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jordan Rubin, Jon Kaplan, Al Kaplan

Directed by: Jordan Rubin

Zombeavers is another one of those head-scratching concepts that happens to operate as both film title and plot synopsis. To be fair, a more in-depth plot synopsis would read something like: a bunch of horny teens — a group that starts off as a trio of girls who want nothing to do with boys right now but then three guys join them later because, you know, sexual tension has to continue — rent a cabin for a weekend getaway and try to survive vicious beaver attacks.

Only, these ain’t your garden variety, floppy-tailed rodents. These are zombified psychopaths, demons of the dam-building underworld with teeth so ferocious and agendas so sinister (chewing a log cabin into destruction) that you’ll be left begging for mercy. Either that or the remote.

College students Mary (Rachel Melvin), Zoe (Cortney Palm) and Jenn (Lexi Atkins) are getting away from it all after Jenn finds out her beau is more like a ‘booooo’ after he admits to cheating on her. Naturally, this is a no-boys-allowed trip. No cell phones, no texting, no Twitter bullshit — just sunbathing by the lake and drinking all night in their cabin. Unbeknownst to them, however, a container filled with some kind of green toxic sludge has recently tumbled into that very lake after falling off of the back of a truck somewhere nearby.

Clad in skimpy bikinis, the girls go and investigate the sizable beaver dam that stops up one side of the small pond that Zoe intends to go skinny dipping in. Lurking inside that very structure are the rodents that will soon become the source of all their suffering. While checking it out they come across a redneck with a shotgun (do I smell a sequel to Jason Eisener’s 2011 action-comedy thriller?) who seems more interested in checking out the girls head-to-toe than properly placing the bear traps he is seen carrying around. Immediately we recognize this guy as their future last-chance savior. I mean, he’s got a gun and a beard and everything. Plus he’s creepy so there’s the inherent character flaw he’s destined to overcome by movie’s end.

Sadly quite literally everyone else in the film face no such character arc or potential redemption. Every person in this film proves to be challenging to spend more than 10 minutes with. For some reason though, it’s okay. We know these people aren’t meant to last. We know we’re not supposed to be able to get past their insufferable personalities — Palm clearly has a field day playing up Zoe’s awfulness (sorry Zoe . . .) — and we know that the inadequacy of these individuals’ survival skills is secondary to watching CGI animals attack, maim and even kill.

We know all of this because writer-director Jordan Rubin knows exactly what kind of film he’s making. Zombeavers embraces its madness (and clichés) unapologetically. Nowhere is that more apparent than during the random scenes shot from the point of view of these soon-to-be-terrifying creatures, or while listening to the absurd sounds they make, or while staring them directly in their damn beady little eyes as they wait for the moment to strike, concealed by the dark cloak of night.

While it would be nice to one day live in a world where these direct-to-DVD horror comedies could work using characters that we can actually sympathize with, what’s far more important is how confidently these productions carry themselves. And Zombeavers is pretty committed, taking a ridiculous premise and cranking up the Ridiculometer to 11 until it arrives scratched, bloodied but not broken at its semi-logical conclusion.

If you have to ask why or how this movie was made, perhaps you’ve already made your mind up about whether or not you’re going to be watching it. Zombeavers. Enough said.

Recommendation: A bad movie that knows it’s bad and in fact embraces its . . . badness, Zombeavers is one to watch if you want to sink your teeth into something that’s completely and utterly brainless (and suitably gory). Films like these have reputations for being wastes of time but this time, I actually think this was time well wasted.

Rated: R (for really randy)

Running Time: 77 mins.

Quoted: “We cannot turn against each other right now. That’s exactly what the beavers would want.”

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Photo credits: www.pinterest.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Comet

Release: Friday, December 5, 2014

[Netflix]

Written by: Sam Esmail

Directed by: Sam Esmail

Comet can pretend it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event but the stars shone so much brighter in the universes it has been melded by, spectacular constructs like the intricate and heartrending Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 500 Days of Summer.

Bearing the heartbreak of the former while resembling more of the latter’s narrative nonlinearity and sophistication, Comet isn’t exactly a bad film when comparisons to romantic dramas of that ilk occur so naturally. It’s just unfortunate there isn’t much beyond a different cast that distinguishes Sam Esmail’s work. Of course, the case could be made that his film pays homage but where exactly does one draw the line between dedication and duplication? A few colorful, creative scene transitions beautified by special effects don’t quite cut it for this cynic reviewer. Oh, and the film is supposed to be set within a parallel universe. Although a bit hokey, that angle is one I can work with.

Prior to what is purported to be a spectacular meteorological event, Dell (Justin Long) bumps into the beautiful Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) as they wait in a line to access a park that will provide the ideal vantage point. Caught up in one of his verbalized streams of consciousness stating his lack of faith in humanity, as only a character played by Long can, Dell is saved from being hit by a passing car by the new girl. He spends the remainder of this evening pining after her, lamenting the fact she’s already spoken for by some guy who happens to look good but quite clearly has no personality. He decides the meteor shower can wait until he’s finished his stalking.

Comet then jettisons us out of this present tense and into another, one somewhere in the near future (this film covers a six-year period), where the two are now an intimate couple. Times haven’t changed so much as the dynamic of Long and Rossum’s interactions. We’re privy to heated arguments, weird phone calls, insults stemming from two people slipping out of love and into something more akin to hostility. Resentment. Chain smoking cigarettes becomes a motif. And Long’s character doesn’t become much more likable, though he is certainly interesting. This is probably one of his better performances, though it’s veiled behind pretentiousness and petulance. Conversely Rossum magnetizes with her quick wit and hipster glasses.

Then the narrative shifts yet again, sending us back into a place where things were more romantic. The story constantly moves and changes, with almost every scene introducing a different phase in the relationship. And the process is far from chronological. That the film manages to maintain our interest at all stems from an incisive, brutally honest script that lays bare all the faults — some of which are all too apparent and others that are created through the simple but terrifying passage of time — of a relationship that seems to have been contrived from the very beginning. Who shakes hands to formally kick off a relationship? Who does that?

Apparently this couple. Comet would be a memorable picture but — at the risk of repeating myself — it’s far too reminiscent of Tom and Summer’s experiences together and the slide into their own private oblivion. Whereas 500 Days of Summer justified its experimentation with practical structure (“500 days” prepared us for the inevitable) Comet seems to just drag on and on, never seeming to settle on a pattern or even pretending like one would make any difference. It’s a shame because the performances are strong, the cinematography gorgeous and emotions do run high. Truly, it’s difficult at times to believe Rossum is in fact not in a real relationship with Long but the director himself. (I’m sorry, was that a spoiler?)

Comet has its moments of brilliance but it’s a true challenge shaking the feeling of déjà vu. Of course, there are worse fates for a film steeped in a generally predictable and melodramatic genre.

Recommendation: Visually dazzling and capably performed, it’s frustratingly difficult to ignore Comet‘s contrived nature. For great performances from its two stars, I do recommend a viewing. But be advised, you probably should have a high tolerance for Justin Long. He tested my patience at times and there’s a good chance he will yours. Emmy Rossum is a newcomer to me and she’s a delight. I’d recommend it more for what she puts forth actually.

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “Why does it feel so impossible to let you go? It’s an addiction, you know. That’s all it is. It’s a biochemical addiction. It’s so stupid. If you think about it relationships are totally narcissistic. Basically, you’re just looking for someone who’ll love you as much as you love yourself. That’s all it is.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

McFarland USA

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Release: Friday, February 20, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Christopher Cleveland; Bettina Gilois; Grant Thompson

Directed by: Niki Caro

Is this the part where I openly admit to becoming teary-eyed watching a Disney film? Or is that just way too honest?

. . . . . hello . . . ? Guys . . . . . . ?

Ah well, whatever. Good chance I’m just talking to myself now, but nonetheless it’s nice being reminded of how many ways movies can offer surprises. Family-friendly McFarland USA is the most recent example, transcending mediocrity while still relying on shopworn techniques to construct its story, one that is as wholesome as it is sensational given its drawing upon real life events.

Kevin Costner is a disgraced high school football coach named Jim White who finds himself having to relocate his family to Nowheresville — er, excuse me, that’s McFarland, a tiny Californian town few maps have ever bothered mentioning — as he seeks another coaching job at a high school that’s predominantly Hispanic. Although hired because of his football résumé Jim suggests to the school’s principal, much to the chagrin of Assistant Coach Jenks (Chris Ellis), that McFarland High start up a cross country running team. He sees in several members of the squad some serious talent, but talent that’s more useful off the gridiron. Having no experience coaching track or cross country before Jim’s chances of finding success are pretty apparent from the get-go, but it’s not until he manages to corral seven young boys, including the unstoppable Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) that a real opportunity begins to present itself.

McFarland USA begs comparisons to the inferiorly budgeted and marketed Spare Parts, a production featuring George Lopez that shines a light upon four young Latino high school students possessing brilliant minds but lacking the financial and societal support needed for their potential to be fully realized. Trade intellect for athleticism, Arizona for California and a talk-show host for a seasoned action star and you get the latest effort from director Niki Caro. The drama at times mirrors that of the kids of Carl Hayden High, in particular a scene in which Jim White drives his rapidly rising young star athletes to the beach so they can have their first glimpse of the ocean. It should be said that this sequence is handled with much more grace and passion but it’s difficult shaking that feeling of déjà vu if you’ve sat through both films.

But where Spare Parts had the difficult task of selling audiences on the magnitude of the motivation required for these immigrant youths to compete in something as obscure as an underwater robotics competition, McFarland USA embraces its broader audience appeal by crafting a sense of warm community and fictionalizing a rallying cry behind an upstart sports team. Cross country running makes for an interesting twist on an all-too-eager-to-inspire genre. At the risk of scribbling out yet another cliché, we’ve been beaten over the head more than enough times with the pressures, heartbreaks and pitfalls of football stardom. As an avid sports fan, I say this not because my goal is to mislead anyone but because it’s simply true: football dramas are far too easy to find.

It’s also no secret Disney prefers creating cinema that values community-building rather than the destruction thereof, and McFarland USA continues in that tradition. As the Whites transition from minority status in a town where no one’s a stranger to another, to becoming the reason McFarland begins receiving recognition amongst the more affluent surrounding suburbs there is a surprising amount of satisfaction gained in experiencing the growth, both personal and communal. Jim goes from being jokingly nick-named ‘Blanco’ to being revered as Coach as a series of growing pains galvanizes the group over the fall of 1987.

Added to this, Caro’s ability to homogenize these two cultures cohabiting within the Californian border. We see Jim’s eldest daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor) entering into young womanhood upon her 15th birthday during an extended vignette that serves as a highlight of the film when her father throws her a “quinceañera,” and her burgeoning romance with Thomas (arguably the best runner) furthers the notion that this family is not likely to abandon McFarland, even if Jim may have better job prospects on the horizon given his remarkable achievements. The respect between both groups is something that helps to balance out the film’s fixation on competition during the race day events.

There’s nothing truly original about McFarland USA, and yet the film excels in delivering entertainment and packaging an inspirational true story unlike many mainstream sports dramas have in recent memory. Anchored by wonderful performances from Costner and Bello in tandem and visually enhanced by a vibrant Disney color palette — this is a beautifully shot film, with particular emphasis on the landscapes during the races as well as the costume design — you might find yourself every now and then counting cliches but at the end you shouldn’t be too surprised to find yourself secretly cheering.

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3-0Recommendation: McFarland USA relies on some old-hat filmmaking techniques but that doesn’t distract from the pure enjoyment of watching this town come together. There is so much to like about this one that anything less than a solid recommendation just wouldn’t be fair. Any fan of Kevin Costner shouldn’t pass this one up, either.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “That’s not Danny Diaz. . !”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Jupiter Ascending

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Release: Friday, February 6, 2015

[Theater]

Written by:  The Wachowskis

Directed by: The Wachowskis

As Jupiter ascended, my patience and enthusiasm did precisely the opposite, and at warp speed, too.

After production delays stalled the Wachowski siblings’ follow-up to their impressive Cloud Atlas, I still held out hope that even with extensive CGI surgery the general experience would remain unaffected. I guess I was right. The story we’re presented — a girl, born under a starry night sky, doesn’t believe she’s worth much but as it turns out she is actually on a collision course with an unearthly huge responsibility: saving her/our planet from being harvested by a campy celestial tyrant — remains as a decent second-draft that needed more updates than the visual component of the film did. All of this is to suggest I overlooked the fact that maybe, just maybe, the Wachowskis had been sitting on their weakest story to date.

Sure, you can go ahead and snicker at a polished Channing Tatum whose Caine Wise humbles his Magic Mike on the virtue of insane hair-do’s alone. His goofy appearance makes the film ripe for parody, as do the talking reptilian villains, Eddie Redmayne’s awful performance and Mila Kunis’ lack of credibility as a planetary savior. Part of what makes a Wachowski creation entertaining as well as endearing is this tendency for their situations and characters to stay on just the right side of bizarre. Odd customs and cultures, strange dialects, occasionally clunky dialogue and over-the-top action sequences trickle their way into each one of their productions. It’s as much fun to go along with the ride as it is to nitpick over their ongoing infatuation with Asians and creative nomenclature. Jupiter Ascending, however, oversteps a line.

Jupiter Jones loses her parents much too soon, and so she’s raised in a strange and somewhat oppressive Russian household that has her waking up at quarter to five each morning to scrub toilets and bemoaning how much she “hates her life.” I think I would too with a name that may or may not imply I am a gigantic blob of gas. It’s a good thing she’ll soon be targeted by a powerful intergalactic family that has just lost its matriarch and needs a new heir. The surviving Abrasax siblings — Balem (Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth) — are squabbling over who should seize control of their estate, a sector of the universe that includes Earth. Tatum’s genetically-modified human/wolf appears in Chicago to rescue Jupiter from a random attack by some of Balem’s minions (the Keepers) once the freckled maniac learns of her existence and her true identity. The girl of course has no idea what is going on.

Funny enough, neither do we.

Her naivety swells to the point where it becomes the driving force behind the narrative. This is a little misleading because at the heart of this space opera is the need for Jupiter to find her true calling in life, and to her that means finding the one person she really loves. That’s something that overrides her desire to own the Earth. If you’re not distracted by the incredibly cool renderings of space and its myriad civilizations — toss in an intergalactic police force referred to as the Aegis for further confusion — then you might have the unfortunate luck of coming to the realization that this is all the Wachowskis have to offer here. Jupiter Ascending is a standard love story mired in overly complex mythos, poor acting and silly storytelling.

Damn it if the ideology of these Abrasax weirdos doesn’t tease something greater though. There’s this almost poetic fascination with the largest celestial body in our solar system and how a superior form of intelligence may someday be the downfall of our civilization. Jupiter, the planet, is really a thing of beauty and the film can’t emphasize this enough. The visuals are jaw-dropping, even if they’re mostly dedicated to action sequences that go on a few minutes too long. But even on Earth, as Jupiter is shrouded in a cloud of bees that refuse to sting Her Majesty, the cinematography is beautifully refined.

I’d be okay with the story taking a backseat to impressive scenery had the Wachowskis not already established themselves as filmmakers who pride themselves on being able to present the complete package: stunning visuals accompanying intelligent, if not revolutionary storytelling. Everyone in awe of Jupiter and her ascent can only feel completely betrayed by this declension.

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1-5Recommendation: I’m not really sure that I do. I think I feel more comfortable recommending you save a few bucks and going to check out something else.

Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “I will harvest that planet tomorrow before I let her take it from me. . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Flubber (1997)

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As we close out the first month of TBT’s for the year 2015 here, I’d just like to remind everyone not to panic. Although it seems like the calendar is already rushing by, uh. . . well, actually. Yeah it is just rushing by. I had a thought there for a second and lost it. This is getting a bit silly, that I’ve already done one month’s worth of these things (and it’s been a long month too — there were five Thursdays this month). At the same time, we are getting that much further away from the terrible day wherein our beloved Robin Williams left us. I’ve never been able to stop thinking about that day really. So I thought it was high time we revisit one of his lesser known, perhaps lesser-quality roles in 

Today’s food for thought: Flubber.

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Bouncing off the walls since: November 26, 1997

[VHS]

It may not be a good movie, much less a remake of The Absent-Minded Professor, but who doesn’t remember flubber — either the title or the namesake green, gooey stretchy stuff? This is one of those movies that just reeks of ’90s cheese, but personally that’s a scent I enjoy. Robin Williams may be one of the only good things about this flick about a college professor attempting to save the local college by raising money through his science experiments, but that was really enough for me as a kid.

Flubber helped pass the time on so many car trips my family used to take out West. All five of us Littles schlocked into the family SUV, a travel-sized TV shoved in between the driver’s seat and passenger’s seat aimed back at three youngsters struggling to not get on each other’s last nerve over the course of a 20-plus hour journey. Ah yes, these were the days. For 28-year-old me, Flubber represents innocence if nothing else. This ain’t a film built to withstand even the most generous of criticism. It’s poorly written, hastily executed and mired in virtually every cliche you can attach flying rubber to.

But it’s a film that guards some oh-so-precious memories I have swimming around in the old noggin. Memories of how when we finally broke out into the open plains of the sprawling mid-west just beyond St. Louis, how the sun would take forever to set over the horizon; memories of how tight-knit a family unit can be for some time before the inevitable adolescent stages set in and slowly but surely pull the dynamic into an entirely new direction. I’m still very much close with my brother, my sister and my mom and dad. But we don’t take these car trips anymore. We’ve sort of grown out of them. Just like when (or if) I choose to go back and watch Flubber now, I’ll notice how much my critical mind will not allow me to just enjoy the film for what it presents: good-natured, high-spirited mischief.

Robin Williams is Professor Philip Brainard, a well-meaning man but whose dedication to science overshadows pretty much everything else in his life. He has attempted to marry his sweetheart Sara (Marcia Gay Harden) on a couple of occasions but each time something has come up. On the eve of the third go-around, Philip discovers an unusual compound that contains a ridiculous amount of energy that only increases as it interacts with other objects; he sets his ‘It’s Time to Get Married Finally’ alarm but sets it for the wrong time. Sara understandably has had enough. Enter a typically smarmy Christopher McDonald as Philip’s former partner, Wilson Croft, who has his heart set on making up for Philip’s indiscretions with his (former) lover as well as financially benefitting from Philip’s hard work.

The fictitious Medfield College, where Sara is college president, is in trouble if this new energy source fails to demonstrate its practical applications. A majority of the film is spent watching professor attempt to simply keep flubber in control. He thwarts home invaders in the process of discovering that his creation actually has personality and energy in overwhelming abundance. I’m sure if I go back and watch now, I’d be struck by the uncanny resemblance between the energetic green goo and Williams’ off-screen persona. As he slowly starts mastering how to control flubber, he starts to really have some fun. He sticks it to the shoes of college basketball players to make them jump higher and run faster (and the team of course ends up winning the game), and he liberally applies it to a number of everyday objects including a golf ball, a basketball and his car.

It has been years since I’ve last experienced the whiz-bang-pop of Les Mayfield’s creation, but I still fondly remember Professor Brainard’s curious floating robot, Weebo (voiced by Jodi Benson). If it wasn’t Williams’ appropriately whacked-out hairdo or his fumbling professor that’s memorable, then surely it’s the little yellow, round droid that leaves an impression. Dear Weebo, the voice of reason and optimism in times of hardship and heartbreak, you were a strange but wonderful invention of this film. It was very sad indeed watching you get struck down by a bad guy with a baseball bat. This is the kind of movie that inspires the child in me to question what kind of trouble I would get into if I had some flubber of my very own. What kind of good would I be able to do with it, if any? Would I use it for personal gain, or would I share my creation with others? Would I save that local college so I could rekindle my love with someone whom I’ve had great difficulty in expressing my true feelings for? Would I use it for a specific purpose, i.e. kicking Christopher McDonald’s ass?

Flubber is not a memorable film if you’re just considering the story. But the title of the movie alone is fun to play around with. Is it a noun, a verb, an adjective? Is it alive or just a chemical/CGI creation of Disney? Most importantly: what happens when you accidentally ingest the stuff . . . . would it taste good?

Not quite like Silly Putty. This has got more . . . um, spunk.

Not quite like Silly Putty. This has got more . . . um, spunk.

2-5Recommendation: This modern spin on the 1961 Robert Stevenson film about a professor who discovers an anti-gravity substance is perhaps not the best use of Robin Williams’ talents but it features him in a lovable enough capacity. A few elements on the periphery help make this one a fun outing for youngsters — i.e. the titular green goo and Professor Brainard’s robotic helpers. It is highly slapstick, though and could have benefitted from stronger writing. If you haven’t ever seen this, I’d be willing to recommend checking it out if you have kids.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 93 mins.

TBTrivia: According to Wil Wheaton, in the scenes that he was in with Robin Williams, they would film a take the way it was supposed to be filmed. After that take, Williams would often want to improvise scenes differently than the script, just for fun. Those scenes were not added to the actual film, but there were enough scenes to make an entirely different movie.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com