April Movie Reviews
Olympus Has Fallen
Reviewed by Matthew Yenkala
Reviewer Rating: 3 and a half stubs
Rated R/120 mins/Action/Political Thriller
Director: Antoine Fuqua Writers: Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt
Gerard Butler plays ex-special-forces trained Secret Service agent Mike Banning, forced into a desk job after failing to save the life of the First Lady (Ashley Judd). 18 months later he's in the right place at the right time when a group of North Korean terrorists launch an all-out attack against Washington D.C., targeting the White House (codename: Olympus), the President (Aaron Eckhart) and his senior staff.
With all the President's men out of action, Banning swiftly becomes the man inside, fighting terrorists, trying to rescue the President's son (Finley Jacobsen), and contending with the conflicting directions from Acting President (Morgan Freeman) and Robert Forster's pompous, hard-nosed military bureaucrat.
Director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") manages to balance the action and the tension, and mostly keeps things believable despite the implausible premise. The cast (which also includes the long-suffering Dylan McDermott in a pivotal role and the truly impressive Rick Yune as terrorist leader Kang) acquits itself solidly, except for Eckhart's President, who comes across as unconvincingly weak, and Butler himself, who seems just *slightly* miscast (though given he also produced, another actor in the role would have been unlikely). He's relatively devoid of passion or wit, and his one-liners just don't play.
The visual effects are excellent and the cinematography is competent if unimaginative, though in my screening a number of scenes seemed a bit darker than they needed to be. The music score is unmemorable. And the movie earns its R-rating with some pretty brutal violence and plenty of F-bombs.
The most striking thing about OLYMPUS, however, which will hit anyone familiar with the classics of the genre almost instantly, is that it is basically a thinly redressed DIE HARD--and with a few tweaks it could *easily* have been "Die Hard In The White House". Indeed, given the lackluster performance of the last couple DIE HARD flicks (especially the most recent), one almost wishes it had been. On the other hand, if it performs well, Butler may well have his own new franchise on his hands. In that case, prepare for the increasingly diminishing returns of the inevitable sequels.
Reviewed by Matthew Yenkala
Reviewer Rating: 4 stubs
Rated R/94 mins/Teen Comedy/Crime Drama
Director & Writer: Harmony Korine
The title, the poster art, and the release date (right in the middle of March), all serve to foster the impression that this film is a throwback to the heyday of boozy, naughty "Spring Break" comedies of the 80s, with titles "Fraternity Vacation", "Malibu Bikini Shop", and "Hot Dog...The Movie" and little redeeming value of any kind except perhaps to horny teenage boys and Mr. Skin. These movies follow a fairly well-trodden path: a group of misfit guys (or girls), tired of the rigid strictures of boring school and home life, adventure off, seeking Ultimate Hedonistic Fulfillment on their spring break, usually at some idealized, mythical beach, almost invariably in Florida. Throw in plenty of gratuitous female nudity, wild party shots of drunken kids carrying on, and a thinly-drawn "villain" of one kind or another whose sole purpose is to End Everyone's Fun, and voila...you've just created something that will live forever in late-night cable reruns.
Right out of the gate, the first few minutes of director/writer Harmony Korine's SPRING BREAKERS not only don't dispel this notion, they proclaim it bolder than it's ever been proclaimed before. The booze flows plentifully and the boobs are bouncier than anything you EVER saw in the 80s. And yet... the images are displayed in a surreal, slow-motion blur, and set against a score that gives your first hint that this may not turn out to be the movie you think it is (similar to what CABIN IN THE WOODS achieved last year).
We're quickly introduced to Faith (Selena Gomez), Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine), four college friends desperate to make it to the Spring Break Mecca of the Sunshine State that they'll do just about anything (once they're done doing each other) to get there.
Actually, back up. Bieber-bait Gomez is the exception--she's the Good Girl Who Thinks She Might Be A Bad Girl, because she secretly smokes and isn't all that thrilled by her rock-n-roll-Jesus church. She's set up as the movie's conscience, and is left out of the happenings when her girlfriends steal a car and violently rob a restaurant in order to fund their trip. By this time, you KNOW the movie is not what it appears.
But the deed done, the foursome hits the road, hits the beach, and hits the party scene, hardcore, immersing themselves in the kind of hedonism that most can only dream about, and which makes those 80s teen movies seem more like the Disney fare that bred Gomez and Hudgens. This s**t's for real, yo. Booze, boobs, coke--and not the carbonated kind--infuse the wild times, fueled by a soundtrack of hip-hop, dubstep and techno.
Then the inevitable Dark Turn hits, with the girls getting into a sticky mess that only a superhero could extract them from. And that superhero turns out to be none other than a cornrolled, silver-teethed James Franco, Spidey's buddy no longer. He's a badass white boy rapper raised on the wrong side of the hood, a hip hop Scarface flush with guns, money and street cred galore, and claiming to be from another planet--hence his nom de plume, Alien.
Gomez's Faith is sufficiently freaked out by these events, and by Alien's extremely creepy and manipulative attempt to seduce her, that she tearfully bids goodbye to her girlfriends and hops the next bus home, convinced that something bad is going to happen. And there goes the movie's conscience. The other girls are prepared to go with Alien all the way down, and they do--in every possible way.
The rest of the film is an orgy of brutal violence and eroticism, a paean to the questionable values of the street culture and its concomitant rampant materialism (and the allure of same), and an absolutely fascinating character study of how much (or little) it takes for human nature to turn on itself--Lord of the Flies for the Skrillex generation. By the time it reaches its inevitable-in-retrospect conclusion, you're definitely in a different place than you were at the beginning the film.
The film owes a huge stylistic and cinematic debt to the early 90s--you definitely catch a whiff of True Romance and The Doom Generation, and there's one exceptionally Lynchian moment early in the film of a succession of abandoned college rooms.
The performances of the girls are extremely naturalistic and believable, but it's Franco who deserves all praise here. Honestly, if you didn't know who it was, you'd be forgiven for thinking he was someone they just found. He disappears into the role so completely that I will never underestimate him again.
I'm still pondering what the takeaway from this film was meant to be, if anything. But I can say that it IS a triumph of style AND substance--yes, they can and do coexist. And if you can handle the journey, it's one worth taking.
Reviewed by Matthew Yenkala
Reviewer Rating: 3 stubs
Rated R/94 mins/Thriller
Director: Brad Anderson Writers: Richard D'Ovidio, Nicole D'Ovidio & Jon Bokenkamp
THE CALL gets off to a brisk start. Halle Berry is Jordan Turner, a 911 operator in L.A., working out of "The Hive", where she and hundreds of other headsetted helpers dispatch first responders to all variety of dire situations. But when she allows herself to get a little too involved in one particular call--a strict no-no--it goes disastrously wrong, resulting in the death of a young girl. She blames herself and so do her superiors, who demote her to a training position.
But when circumstances conspire to demonstrate that the prior call may have been part of a serial killer's larger pattern, she's back on the headset, propping up Abigail Breslin's Casey, a naïve, privileged Valley Girl who was selected as the killer's next target. Casey is riding in the killer's trunk, with a cell phone her abductor failed to notice. For the better part of an hour, the suspense and tension, as Jordan tries to calm Casey down and get her to think her way out of the trunk and away from the killer, is genuinely edge-of-your-seat-gripping.
Unfortunately, the film takes a sharp turn at the beginning of act three. Despite all her efforts to pinpoint the killer, the authorities reach a dead end in tracking the car, so Jordan leaves the desk and goes out in the field. Of course, she finds the hidden trapdoor that they missed, and, having deduced the killer's motive and modus operandi , sets out to confront him. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that while the film's final scene is genuinely shocking on first view, its lingers like a bad taste--because it makes absolutely no sense.
Even so, when THE CALL WORKS, it works well indeed, despite its problematic denouement. Brad Anderson's direction manages to keep it from being an extended Law & Order episode. Berry is at her best when she underplays a role, as she does during most of this film, and Breslin is convincing right up until the very end. In a crop of generic procedural thrillers, THE CALL stands tall.
Oz the Great & Powerful
Reviewed by Matthew Yenkala
Reviewer Rating: 3 1/2 stubs
Rated PG/130 mins/Fantasy
Director: Sam Raimi Writers: Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire & Mitchell Kapner
(based on the works of L. Frank Baum)
L. Frank Baum's classic OZ stories have been transformed memorably and magically to the screen exactly once, in the famous 1939 MGM musical that is, for most, their first and only excursion into this remarkable fantasy world. But that hasn't stopped any number of others from trying crack the Oz code again, from Gregory Maguire's "Wicked Years" novels (and their glitzier spinoff, the "Wicked" musical), Steve Ahlquist's twisted "OZ Squad" comics, and any number of other extrapolations over virtually every media platform, extending back the better part of the last century. Disney themselves, who bought the rights to most of Baum's original OZ books during Walt's heyday, attempted this once before, with 1985's RETURN TO OZ--a visually striking and thematically faithful adaptation of the first two books after THE WIZARD, which also gave Fairuza Balk her first starring role, filling Judy Garland's famous ruby slippers as Dorothy. But it melted at the box office faster than a wicked witch in a bathtub.
Flash forward to 2013. Following the success of the Burton/Depp ALICE IN WONDERLAND, the Mouse apparently sees value in another attempted reboot. And why not? With the OZ stories now in the public domain, and director Sam Raimi's proven commercial track record in tow, what do they have to lose by trying, other than the approximately 200-million-dollar budget?
But rather than adapt one of the existing books, they opted to tell an untold tale--how the Wizard came to OZ. Oh, sure, there are bits and bobs of background in the book and the MGM film (the style of which the Disney people had to find a way to emulate without duplicating, since it is NOT in the public domain).
So--Kansas carnival magician/ladies' man/con artist Oscar Zoroaster Diggs (OZ--get it?) is whisked off from his colorless existence to a magical, vibrant land when his hot air balloon collides with a great big twister. He's greeted by a lovely witch (Mila Kunis) as the prophesied savior of Oz. But her sister-witch, played by Rachel Weisz, quickly spirits our Wizard off to kill the "Wicked" Witch (Michelle Johnson) who's plaguing the land.
Of course, all is not as it seems. Very soon OZ is embroiled in political machinations and a veritable peoples' uprising--even if the people happen to be very small, very old, and very unfit to do much except sing songs and sew scarecrow heads.
The film plays out predictably, and more-or-less puts everyone where they need to be at the beginning of the original "WIZARD OF OZ" story, while leaving the door wide open for plenty of further exploits in Oz before Dorothy Gale's house drops down on the Wicked Witch of the East.
While it IS an "original" story, there are plenty of affectionate homages to Baum and MGM. But by and large, they were creating from whole cloth, using Baum's books and the MGM film as a template and jumping off point. Theoretically, not being bound to "an original story" should have been remarkably freeing, creatively speaking, but of course, that's not how the real world works. There is more than a hint of lazy storytelling, since the last half-to-third of the film is basically an OZian retelling of Raimi's own Army of Darkness, and ultimately the film never comes close to catching that MGM magic.
Which isn't to say the movie is devoid of charms. While Franco sleepwalks through the role of OZ and the usually appealing Kunis feels completely miscast, the supporting cast is extremely effective. This includes Zach Braff as flying monkey/manservant Finley, the always reliable Tony Cox is solid as a munchkin rebel leader, and Joey King as a little China Doll girl, who will absolutely break your heart. Raimi-stable mainstay Bruce Campbell gets a very fun cameo. And Weisz is truly wicked indeed, chewing up the scenery with great aplomb. One hopes she will get center stage in any followup.
The film is visually stunning, and is particularly effective in 3D (and I say that as someone who's not generally thrilled with 3D), and I think I even caught a previously unfamiliar chord or two in Danny Elfman's score. (Way to go, Danny!)
Despite its flaws, on the surface at least, the film is a lot of fun, and definitely worth seeing on the big screen with good sound, ideally in 3D.
Even so, speaking as a fan of the original books, I can only hope that someday, HBO or Showtime will do a "Game of Thrones"-style, serialized adaptation of Maguire's "Wicked Years" series (with not a trace of influence from the musical they inspired). That's the one OZ derivative I am fairly certain Baum himself would have loved.
THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE
Reviewed by Matthew Yenkala
Rated PG-13/100 mins/Comedy
Director: Don Scardino Writers: Jonathan M. Goldstein & John Francis Daley
From the outset, THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE seems to be a riff on BLADES OF GLORY: the oddball pairing of two disparate competitors in the same slightly-off-center arena (in this case, the world of glitzy, glossy Las Vegas magic shows). The film's advertising sets it up that way, leading audiences to expect Steve Carrell's pampered, preening prima donna Burt Wonderstone and Jim Carrey's "gritty street magician" Steve Gray to overcome their differences, hug it out and save the day in a rousing climax. Refreshingly, the movie goes in a slightly different direction. Oh, it hits most of those beats. But they don't play out quite as predictably as might have been expected.
Wonderstone is at a career impasse: he's headlined a sold-out show in Vegas for a decade, ably assisted by his long-suffering best friend/foil/fop, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) and a succession of female assistants whom he invariably calls by the same (wrong) name, "Brenda". But when audiences decline and his credibility is threatened by the "gritty" Steve Gray's gimmicky Jackass-brand of "street magic", Anton gets fed up and walks, as does the current "Brenda" (Olivia Wilde), leaving Wonderstone at a loss. His show canceled, his formerly platinum name now worth almost nothing, he's forced to take any gig he can get, leading him to an old folks' home where--conveniently--his original inspiration to get into magic, Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) happens to be a resident. There Wonderstone must recover and rediscover his mojo before Carrey's Gray permanently takes his place on the Vegas strip.
From there, it all plays out as might be expected. (It's all formula, but consider the next paragraph spoilery.) Wonderstone regains his humility, Anton comes back into the fold, and thanks to a convenient plot twist, "Brenda" (the character's actual name is Jane) shows up just in time to be romanced by Wonderstone, while the arrogant, vapid Steve Gray's ultimate trick backfires comically on himself.
In the end, there's really not much here you haven't seen, but some of the twists are nice, the cast is excellent, and the magic--supervised by the legendary David Copperfrield--is fun to watch. (Apparently director Scardino insisted on as many of the sleight-of-hand tricks being traditionally staged as possible rather than relying on CGI.)
The real fun in this movie is seeing the top-notch cast play off of each other. A particular standout is a scene at a child's birthday party where Carrell and Carrey go head to head, trying to top each other to win the favor of the boy's father, who happens to be opening a new casino and showroom and is using the party as a soft audition. The scene's final punchline is...well, it involves a puppy. That's all I'll say.
Throughout the film, Carrell successfully transitions Wonderstone from unlikable to sympathetic; Buscemi and Arkin are their usual brilliant selves; and Wilde just gets better in every movie she's in, regardless of the quality or nature of the material. But the real magic here is Carrey, who is utterly convincing as the fairly reprehensible Steve Gray--a supporting role that all but steals the show.
(It's truly sad that, like Rodney Dangerfield, it seems Carrey don't get no respect; his performance as Truman was heartbreaking, and the snubbing of his portrayal of Andy Kaufman remains a black mark on the Academy, matched only recently by the exclusion of Ben Affleck's direction on ARGO. It's as if, after realizing his own industry seemed to want to punish him for being TOO talented and not limiting himself to the broad farces with which he established himself, he just gave up. Hopefully his turn in WONDERSTONE and the upcoming KICK ASS 2 will bring him back into the spotlight and afford him some acting opportunities that will bring him the critical credibility he's long deserved and been unfairly denied.)
In any case, Wonderstone's magic show is a fun ride and well worth taking. Oh, and don't leave when the credits start rolling. There's a very funny sequence showing how the film's climactic trick was achieved. But be warned, you may never want to attend a REAL magic show again....