Thursday, July 2, 2015

Film review: "The Overnight"

"The Overnight" is more an exercise in filmmaking than a fully realized feature, essentially a promising sketch stretched out to 79 minutes. But it's well-done and quite engaging, alternating between goofiness and thoughtfulness with barely any seams showing between the transitions.

It stars Adam Scott, who you probably know from TV's "Parks and Recreations," and Taylor Schilling, who you probably know from "Orange is the New Black," a streaming television show from Netflix. They play Alex and Emily, respectively, a married couple who have just moved to Los Angeles from somewhere cold and boring, and get invited over by another family they've just met for a playdate between their boys.

Alex is a stay-at-home dad and Emily the breadwinner; she's outgoing and he struggles to engage with his new environment. “Am I supposed to just ask other grown-up persons if they want to be friends?” he implores.

The other marrieds, Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) and Charlotte (Judith Godréche), are blend of every cliché about over-involved southern California types. They have lots of money but don't appear to work much; he paints and she acts, both itinerantly; they've got a New Age-y vibe and burn incense to get their kid to sleep.

But they seem amiable enough -- too amiable, actually.

After the boys are slumbering, the grownups break out the liquor and the weed, things get pretty loose, then things get a little weird. Then a lot weird. Sexual hang-ups get exposed, buried desires are unearthed, and we're all in for a bumpy night.

Writer/director Patrick Brice, in his second feature film, shows keen insight for the suffocating life of married people with small kids -- the daily squabbles about unimportant stuff, the growing resentments that get stuffed under the furniture for the sake of familial bliss, or at least the appearance of it.

(In one naughty true-to-life bit, the opening scene has Emily/Alex trying to squeeze in a little amorous time in the morning before their son wakes up. "There's still time for me!" Alex insists, urgently, while trying to complete the task at hand, urgently.)

"The Overnight" is a bit sitcom-y and hammy at times, especially the figure of Kurt, whom Schwartzman plays with a sort of graceful ease in his sliminess. He's a petty, selfish man who's convinced the world -- and himself -- that he's actually a great guy, and spends his life playing that role.

Still, it's a funny, smart and randy flick. And I do mean randy. There's quite a bit of nudity, mostly male. If you're a big Adam Scott fan, let's just say that prosthetics played a role in portraying his character's, uh, deficiencies. Ditto for Schwartzman, but in reverse.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Review: "Terminator: Genisys"

Here's a surefire hint on gauging Terminator movies: Was it directed by James Cameron? If not, then it's not worth your time.

"Terminator: Genisys" takes us back to the roots of the iconic killer-robots-from-the-future franchise, and then proceeds to trample all over those roots. It removes all the paranoid dread of the first two movies along with every drop of emotional punch, and replaces them with a loopy retcon narrative that feels pulled straight out of a cheap comic book spinoff.

Suddenly, Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese are jumping through time portals willy-nilly, and are soon joined by their son John Connor, who becomes the future leader of the resistance against the tyranny of machines trying to crush out human existence. Different timelines with different alternate realities run up against each other, and yet somehow the characters have knowledge about the different iterations and use it to their advantage.

At one point they actually get into a testy argument about where they should go next. 1997? 2017? Who's on first?

You could lay out the plot of this movie on one of those big cork boards like you see cinematic detectives using to puzzle out a complex criminal case, with little notes and photographs linking up the different elements, and you still couldn't make sense of it all. Alan Taylor directs, from a screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier.

At times it nearly turns into a full-on spoof, with Sarah and Kyle (Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney, respectively) bickering like it's a schmaltzy romantic comedy, and classic lines from the first two flicks bantered around back and forth for cheap effect -- "Nice to see you," "I'll be back," etc.

The early going includes exact reenactments of shots from the 1984 sci-fi classic, with similar-looking actors playing the alley bum, the garbage truck driver, and the trio of punk rock hoodlums.

Except, of course, the Terminator himself, who you might have heard is again played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. He gets plenty of help from body doubles and CGI trickery to portray himself as a youngster again in 1984, but reverts to something close to his actual age when the action jumps into the future.

Why would a cyborg get old, you ask? Well, since it's real human tissue surrounding a mean metal skeleton, it ages exactly as a person would. This is all patiently explained for us by various characters, of course, who often seem like they're talking past each other to address expected confusion from the audience.

It's undeniably a hoot to see Arnie back in Terminator mode, speaking monotone and trying to puzzle out human emotions while laying down the badassery. You've probably guessed that he's playing the good guy again in this one, protecting the Connors rather than trying to eliminate them.

If you'll recall, one human and Terminator were sent back to 1984 to protect and kill Sarah, then we learned another pair of antagonists went to 1994 for John as a boy. Now we're told yet another good Terminator showed up in 1973, when Sarah's parents were killed.

Her cyborg savior, whom she dubbed Pops, became her protector/parent figure. Fast forward to the future, and they've got a crotchety Sanford & Son thing going on. In this altered timeline, she's no longer the wilting wallflower when Reese shows up, but a tuned-up leader.

We also get to see a new iteration of the T-1000, the super-advanced Terminator made of liquid metal who can take on various shapes and impersonate humans. And an even newer model, who has the amazing power to... well, wait and see.

There's plenty of good action scenes, and if there's a reason to buy a ticket for this movie, that's it. There are a couple of nifty chases, including one on helicopters and aboard a bus, but the best stuff is saved for when the Terminators go to town on each other. Pops shows he's still got the stuff, despite some parts that aren't functioning quite like they used to. "I'm old, not obsolete," he insists.

J.K. Simmons, fresh off an Oscar win, seems ill-used here as a broken-down cop with a personal connection to the Terminator saga. It's one of those roles that should've been built way up or dumped entirely. Courtney B. Vance plays inventor Miles Dyson, whom you'll recall everyone was trying to kill at one point in these movies, and Dayo Okeniyi plays his son, now grown up.

If you're wondering about the title, it refers to some amazing new software that's about to be launched to link up every computer and device on the planet, but is really nasty ol' Skynet in disguise.

After two great Terminator movies and a pair of lackluster ones, I was really hoping to see something fresh that married the energy of the original films with the high-tech trickery of modern moviemaking. Instead we got something old, a bit of something new, a whole bunch of borrowed quips, and that's left me feeling blue.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Video review: "Get Hard"

“Get Hard” is the sort of comedy you laugh at, then feel bad about it later.

This buddy flick from Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart is about as politically incorrect as you can get. It contains all sorts of stereotypes about black people, white people, gay people, incarcerated people … basically, people.

Yet it’s also undeniably funny.

Ferrell plays James King, a high finance type who’s been convicted of securities fraud, and has a few weeks to prepare before going off to maximum security prison. He’s innocent of his crimes, but guilty of being an over-privileged jerk. James hires Darnell (Hart) to help toughen him up because, well, he’s essentially the only black guy he knows.

Darnell is actually a hardworking young business owner with a family – if anything, he’s kind of a squeamish nebbish. But he’s happy to play the gangbanger for pay.

Soon Darnell is running James through his concocted prison boot camp, turning the latter’s mansion into a simulated prison, with his servants happily playing the oppressors. James learns how to front a “mad dog face” and hide contraband in, uh, dark places.

“Get Hard” won’t win any originality awards – it’s basically an unauthorized remake of “Trading Places.” But if it wallows for its laughs, it still earns them.

Video extras are pretty good, though you’ll need to buy the blu-ray combo pack to get most of them. The DVD comes only with a gag reel.

The combo comes with deleted scenes and a bunch of featurettes – some touching on production, others just opportunities for more comedy. Consider some of the titles: “Twerking 101,” “Bikers, Babes and Big Bangs” and “Put Your Lips Together and Blow.”



Thursday, June 25, 2015

Review: "Escobar: Paradise Lost"

"Escobar: Paradise Lost" tells a fictionalized, but compelling, tale about real-world Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar as seen through the eyes of a naive foreigner. It starts out a little too kiss-kiss and ends up with an overabundance of bang-bang, but it's a solid and engaging drama anchored by a top-notch performance from Benicio del Toro.

Josh Hutcherson, best known from the "Hunger Games" movies, executive-produced and stars as Nick, a young Canadian who comes down to Colombia with his brother, Dylan (Brady Corbet), to set up a little surf shop and waystation on the pristine beaches.

He runs into Maria (an effervescent Claudia Traisac), who's overseeing the construction of a new clinic in the nearby village, and they soon become a thing. Nick knows her uncle is somebody important, because he's paying for the clinic and has big Stalinist posters of himself all over town.

Maybe a politician, he figures.

Then he's invited to Escobar's massive hacienda, a beacon of Versailles extravagance amid the squalid villages, and asks Maria where the family money comes from. "Cocaine," she answers nonchalantly.

In her world, an economic system based on sending drugs to the U.S. seems perfectly respectable. The people all love Escobar for his good works, he's a dedicated family man, and even the police and local government officials go along with his seemingly benevolent will.

Slowly Nick gets swallowed up by the family business, until he realizes he's reached the proverbial point of "in too deep" and is asked to do some horrific things himself.

Del Toro is just mesmerizing in the title role. He plays Escobar as a quietly charismatic man, who treats family like royalty and employees like family -- until, that is, the danger they represent to him outweighs their usefulness. Then he and his minions could be capable of the most stomach-churning brutality.

For instance, when Nick and his brother first set up shop they're beset by the local toughs who want them to pay for protection. After Escobar becomes aware of their actions, something ... unfortunate befalls them.

With a padded midsection, sleepy eyes and a variety of disguises to hide out from the authorities when needed, Escobar is a chameleon in form and his emotions, too. All of his interactions are polite, he displays seemingly genuine concern for Nick and his niece -- but he never fails to make it clear who's in charge.

Carlos Bardem, brother of Javier, is terrific and terrifying as one of Escobar's chief henchmen, who eventually gets sicced on Nick. The last third or so of the movie is him on the run, and while the chase is pulse-pounding at times, it goes on for way too long.

Writer/director Andrea Di Stefano is a veteran Italian actor stepping behind the camera for the first time. While he shows some jitters in terms of pacing, he certainly seems to know how to elicit sincere performances from his cast.

This cinematic version of Pablo Escobar is so frightening precisely because del Toro makes him seem so disturbingly plausible.

Review: "Ted 2"

The line between television and the movies has gotten blurrier, but it's still there.

Even with grander ambitions, big budgets and a show spanning nine weeks being dubbed a "season," television is just a fundamentally different medium than movies.

One of the chief ways is pacing. TV starts and stops -- a lot. Aside from the episodic nature of, well, episodes, you've got all those commercials and credits. Plus no one thinks anything of hitting the pause button to get a snack, or starting a show one day and finishing it a week later.

With movies, you're required to invest in the experience. You're locked in, and there shouldn't be room for distraction. So when a film can't find a stable rhythm, it ends up throwing off the audience, too.

"Ted 2," like its predecessor, is a schizophrenic flick that goes a million miles a minute one moment, then slows down to an aching crawl the next. It's got some really funny bits, spaced pretty far apart, but also some strangely treacly parts and even some stuff that's intended to be inspiring.

This, in a movie where the main characters visits a sperm donation clinic, one of them stumbles into some samples and gets doused in... uh, manly fluids.

Watching it is a whiplash experience. You never quite know where the movie's going to go next, so when a moment arrives you kind of brace for impact, wondering whether you're supposed to laugh or go, "Awwww."

You know the story: Ted, a teddy bear who came alive through the power of a child's wish, grew up into a profane little fuzzy dude who likes to smoke bongs and say the f-word a lot. He hangs with his human best buddy Johnny (Mark Wahlbeg), and they get high a lot and talk crudely about women, gays, minorities, etc.

This go-round there's a question about Ted's standing as a person. When he and his Boston tramp wife, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), try to adopt a kid -- Ted lacks the pertinent parts to father one himself -- he loses his legal status, his job and his mojo. They get a lawyer and go to court, with Amanda Seyfried playing the young attorney who takes their case and gets doe-eyed with Johnny.

Seth MacFarlane, who co-wrote, directed and does the voice of Ted, is a pretty brilliant and brilliantly successful TV guy -- "Family Guy," "American Dad," etc. He instinctively gets the medium, its history and its foibles. But he seems determined to segue into movies, despite lacking a knack for it.

Oh, I know, I know... the first "Ted" made a half-billion dollars at the box office and earned him a gig hosting the Oscars. Popularity and accomplishment aren't the same thing.

At a tick under two hours the movie is way too long, and plenty of sections seem like filler. At several points "Ted 2" unabashedly steals scenes from other, better movies like "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" and "The Breakfast Club." Maybe they're supposed to be homages, but they come across as self-indulgent and unnecessary.

You will laugh at "Ted 2," but you will also be bored. I kept wanting to fast-forward, but it's the wrong kind of screen.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Review: "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"

It’s rare to see a film character as clearly drawn as Greg, the narrator and protagonist of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

Most of the people we encounter in movies we instinctively recognize as constructs, things created for the purposes of telling a story. But Greg, who’s adeptly played by Thomas Mann, seems to step through the screen and sit down next to us, cracking jokes and infecting us with his geeky charm.

This Sundance favorite is based on the book by Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the screenplay, and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. It’s the second feature as a director for Gomez-Rejon, who spent years as an apprentice and second unit director for the likes of Martin Scorsese and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

Together they’ve crafted a film that is both very cinematic and un-movie-like. It pokes fun at some of the conventions of filmmaking, such as title cards that say things like, “The part after all the other parts.” Their main triumph, though, is in giving us a young man who’s such a confounding and interesting mix of flaws and virtues.

He’s like a 21st-century Holden Caulfield, though Greg’s ire is mostly projected inward rather than out at the world around him.

Greg is a 17-year-old floater. He wanders between the various cliques of Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School with friendly detachment, an emissary to all but a member of none. Insecure and self-effacing, he is so afraid of causing or receiving pain that he tends not to feel anything. Even his best friend since kindergarten, Earl (RJ Cyler), is referred to as a “coworker” because of the short films they make parodying well-known ones.

(Greg likes to brag about how awful they are, but they’re little 1-minute slices of brilliance. “A Sockwork Orange” is played out entirely with tube socks, while “2:48 Cowboy” emulates the seediness of a male gigolo attempting to ply his trade in the middle of the afternoon.)

His world gets thrown for a loop when Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate in his class with whom he’s barely acquainted, is diagnosed with leukemia. Greg’s well-meaning parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman), who are friend’s with the girl’s mother (Molly Shannon), insist that he visit her and offer companionship.

Their first meeting is awkward -- that’s pretty much baked into all of Greg’s interpersonal relations -- but goes well enough to justify another, and then another. Soon they’re hanging out, watching movies, talking about teen stuff, and bonding. She gets sicker, they grow closer, and he and Earl embark on a mission to make movie just for Rachel.

Rachel and Earl aren’t as focused as characters as Greg is, but that's intentional. The movie is about him, and they are realized only through his eyes. Other side players stroll in and out of his personal frame, each with the sort of distinct traits you only see in quality films.

For instance, Greg’s dad is a tenured sociology professor, which he translates as meaning he doesn’t have to work a lot, so he mostly stays home and experiments with strange culinary dishes. (When Earl comes over, he offers the boys a snack of dried cuttlefish.)

His history teacher (Jon Bernthal) is a strutting, tatted-up rock star who admonishes them to “respect the research.” Shannon is exquisite as Rachel’s mom, who drinks and flirts to hide her pain. Katherine C. Hughes shines as Madison, a pretty girl who unwittingly stomps on Greg’s heart on a virtually daily basis.

In his narration, Greg warns us repeatedly that this is not a sappy love story in which he and Rachel fall in love and then she dies. This is true and also not entirely true, but I’ll leave it to you to discover where verity lies.

Somewhere in this review I should mention that “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is also very, very funny. Andrews gives us all sorts of wonderful comedic situations and dialogue. (Of Rachel’s absent father, Greg says, “You need to apply for a dad refund.”) In one scene, Greg drafts his college application personal essay in the voice and perspective of Werner Herzog.

If you don’t know who Werner Herzog is… well, maybe it’s best if you just move along.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Presumed Innocent" (1990)

One of my favorite things to do in this space is consider movies I saw contemporaneously and assess how they've aged. Some films are universally lauded or dismissed when they first come out. But a great many more need the remove of 20 years-plus to see how they stack up.

Which is not to say Father Time is always fair.

For my money, "Presumed Innocent" is one of the best crime dramas of its era. It features a Harrison Ford performance that ranks among his top two or three. It's got a magnificent supporting cast, led by Raul Julia in perhaps his most affecting screen role. And it was a capstone on the career of writer/director Alan J. Pakula, whose work included "All the President's Men" and "Sophie's Choice."

And yet "Presumed Innocent" has faded nearly to the vanishing point in the public consciousness. It hardly ever gets talked about these days, and it failed to receive a single Academy Award nomination -- in a year in which "The Godfather Part III" and "Dick Tracy" got seven nods apiece.

It's not available on any of the major streaming services, and the only DVD I could find was a shitty transfer that was not even enhanced for widescreen televisions -- meaning the image only occupied the center portion of the screen.

Still, I found it just as enthralling as I did 25 years ago.

It was based on a best-selling novel, the first by Scott Turow, a lawyer-turned-novelist whose books put John Grisham's to shame in terms of storytelling and prose. Producer Sydney Pollack bought the rights for a million bucks before it was even published. Add in Pakula's name and the cast they assembled, and the film had "prestige project" written all over it.

Narratively, it's pretty straightforward. Rusty Sabich (Ford) is a career prosecutor investigating the murder of a female colleague, who finds himself caught up in poisonous political intrigue and accused of the crime himself. The first half is taken up with the inquiry -- and the circle of buzzards slowly gathering over Rusty's head -- while the second half more or less all happens in the courtroom.

In the book, Turow undertakes the considerable challenge of a first-person narrative in which the guilt of the main character is left open to question until the final pages. Turow burrows very deep into his main characters' psyches, revealing complex thoughts and emotional patterns you don't usually see in popular fiction.

The film adaptation -- Pakula wrote the screenplay with Frank Pierson ("Dog Day Afternoon") -- doubles down on this storytelling device, leaving it until the final scene before heavily implicating Rusty as the murderer, before revealing it was his jealous wife who did the deed.

(Sorry, the sell-by date on spoilers expires somewhere well south of a quarter-century.)

In 1990 Harrison Ford was very much a heroic leading man, edging up to 50 -- an age at which many of Hollywood's more ambitious stars have felt the urge to explore morally ambiguous material. The best example is James Stewart, capped by his portrayal of a sexually obsessed policeman in "Vertigo."

I think Pakula was making a very conscious decision to leverage the fundamental decency of Ford's star persona -- using it to make the audience root for Rusty, even as all the evidence points to his guilt. The fact that Rusty previously had an affair with the victim, Caroline Polhemus (a terrific Greta Scacchi), and his wife, Barbara, is endearingly played by Bonnie Bedelia, further stack the deck in making it hard for audience to convict or acquit him in their own minds.

If they'd tried this with another actor with a retinue of villainous roles in his past -- say, Jeremy Irons, to pull a name out of a hat -- I don't think the picture would've worked nearly as well. The main dynamic Pakula has going in is making the audience wonder if Rusty is a victim or a victimizer.

Ford gives a masterful performance, playing weak and angry with the same aplomb he did dashing and valiant. Though his part is largely reactive in the second half -- graciously ceding the spotlight to Julia, who plays his attorney -- you can always see the animation going on behind Rusty's face. His Roman-style haircut, so popular at that time, lends him a touch of the martial.

"You always kept the cork in too tight," is how a (supposed) friend describes him.

Having reread the book again recently, I was struck by how closely the film follows its plot. Still, there are a number of notable divergences.

The movie shows some things not depicted in the book, such as Caroline's funeral, while eliminating tertiary characters and story threads, such as her son, a disaffected college student who barely knew her. Pakula & Co. pump up the sex considerably -- including a steamy romp in the office that never happens in the novel -- while also adding scenes with Rusty's son, Nat (Jesse Bradford), to humanize him as a devoted father.

The character of Barbara is probably the biggest alteration, transformed from a shrewish harpy into a deeply depressed housewife who still clings needily to the shredded fabric of her marriage. Asked by Rusty how she would testify if put on the witness stand, she practically pleads: "I'd say you're the only man I ever loved... and still do."

An important flashback involves the case of Wendell, a 5-year-old boy tortured by his mother by putting his head in a vise. It's discussed in the book but vividly depicted in the movie. It's vital because this is the event that brings Rusty and Caroline together, first as co-counsel and then as lovers. Joseph Mazzello -- best remembered as half of the terrified siblings in "Jurassic Park," aka the kid who gets zapped on the electrical fence -- is pitch perfect as the terrified little boy.

John Williams' restrained musical score, highlighted by a trill of single piano notes, adds greatly to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the proceedings. Ditto for the stark cinematography by the great Gordon Willis, notable for its noir-ish use of sharp, almost harsh layers of contrast.

Julia, as attorney Alejandro "Sandy" Stern, makes the most of a magnificently constructed character. Turow is very specific and detailed in his descriptions of him, touted as the best defense attorney in Kindle County, the fictional setting for all of his novels (roughly akin to Philadelphia, in my reckoning). Stern has courtly manners, but a razor-sharp mind and an instinct for intimidating his opponents.

Pakula and Pierson play up the Stern character even more, letting him reveal bits of information contained elsewhere in the book, that elevate him almost to Jedi-like status. Indeed, Turow focused his next novel, "The Burden of Proof," entirely on Stern. (It was turned into a television mini-series, alas, starring another actor.)

The rest of the supporting cast is, simply, superlative. Paul Winfield is magisterial and funny as the judge, Larren L. Lytle. Unlike other courtroom dramas where the lawyers are allowed to holler and fume, Lytle keeps a tight control on the proceedings. And he is revealed to have his own dark past that affects his current case.

John Spencer, who's best known for playing authority figures, is solid and authentic as the pimpish Lipranzer, Rusty's right-hand man on the police force. Joe Grifasi, who like Julia is not introduced until about halfway through the movie, summons the fervent zealotry of Tommy Molto, the prosecutor heading up the case and Rusty's chief interlocutor.

Tom Mardirosian nails the facile, shallow charm of Nico Della Guardia, the upstart rival for Prosecuting Attorney who ends up defeating Rusty's boss, Raymond Horgan, in the impending election due in no small part to his chief deputy being accused of murder. It is a testament to the cleverness of the book and movie that the election, which hangs like a shroud over the film's first half, is disposed with off-screen after Rusty is charged.

Brian Dennehy brings a brash confidence to Horgan, a true believer who's been swallowed by 12 years in politics. "In the end, all you can do is try to hang on to the fuckin' job," he laments, anticipating the wake of his public career. Horgan is a classic Irish-American back-slapping politico, who always knows on which his side is bread is buttered.

A young Bradley Whitford has a small, key part as Stern's chief assistant, Jamie Kemp. (In Turow's creation, he's a former rock star-turned-apprentice lawyer -- who's begging for his own novel treatment.) And Sab Shimono is terrific as "Painless" Kumagai, the buffoon of a coroner who is firmly in Della Guardia's pocket.

"Presumed Innocent" ends its morality tale with Rusty Sabich a free man, yet imprisoned by the fate imposed on him by his own choices. Though he did not commit the murder, he committed the sins that led up to it, as revealed in Ford's emotionally roiling final narration:

"I am a prosecutor. I have spent my life in the assignment of blame. With all deliberation and intent, I reached for Caroline. I cannot pretend it was an accident. I reached for Caroline, and set off that insane mix of rage and lunacy that led one human being to kill another. There was a crime. There was a victim. And there is punishment."

And so why has this wonderful film been judged with the ultimate punishment that can be inflicted on a work of cinema -- being forgotten?

Perhaps it is something akin to our criminal justice system, which purports to favor letting 100 guilty men be acquitted rathern than convicting one innocent -- yet we know it still happens. Some forgettable films endure, while worthy ones languish in the prison of our failing memories. They just need a crusader to help bring them back it into the light.