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.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Video: "Run All Night"

"Run All Night" is about just that: a single dark night over the course of which which lives will be lost, old debts repaid, stained honor redeemed and many bullets will fly. It's the rare movie where the quiet, talkie parts are more interesting than the action mayhem.

Liam Neeson plays Jimmy "Gravedigger" Conlon, a once-legendary mob hitman who has devolved into a pitiable drunk. His old partners in crime have gone legit, he's become a joke in the working-class dives he frequents, and his own son Michael (Joel Kinnaman) wants nothing to do with him.

But through a series of unfortunate events, Jimmy saves Michael's life by killing the son of his gangster friend, Shawn, who's played by Ed Harris. Jimmy offers to make good by giving his own life in exchange, but Shawn is an old-school type who wants an eye to match the one he's lost.

The rest of the movie is essentially one long chase, with various mob toughs and cops out to get Jimmy and Michael. Actor/rapper Common turning up as a younger, meticulous assassin who acts as counterpoint to Jimmy's guts-and-instincts M.O. Vincent D'Onofrio plays the police detective who's wanted to see Jimmy in cuffs for years, but decides he can't be abandoned to Shawn's (lack of) mercies.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra gets a little too caught up in fancy filmmaking techniques -- slo-mo "bullet time" and jumpy editing. Some of the action sequences just plain go on too long, turning into an indistinguishable mashup of guns blazing and fists flying.

The slower character scenes have weight and punch, however. Harris and Neeson are terrific in their scenes together, two men who chose the way of the gun long ago, fully knowing it might lead to a night like this one.

It's a well-made movie that probably could've been a better one.

Extra features are just so-so. The DVD comes only with a handful of deleted scenes. Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack and you add two making-of featurettes. One focuses on the production, while the other is about Neeson's resurgence as a long-tooth action star.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

Review: "Inside Out"

Up until 2009, Pixar was where you went in Hollywood for original filmmaking. The fact that their movies were animated was merely a byproduct. The studio with the freshest ideas and the most novel concepts churned out great, inventive films one after another: “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Ratatouille,” “Wall·E,” “Up.”

These films were superlative not just because they told terrific stories and featured characters who mattered to us, but because they were unlike anything we’d ever seen before.

Then a curious thing happened. Almost overnight, Pixar stories became derivative – stale, even.

We got three sequels which, even when exquisitely well-made like “Toy Story 3,” lacked the vitality of the originals. “Brave” seemed like a self-conscious rebuttal to the Disney princess tradition, and as such felt more about the things it was not than the things it was. (Not to mention, it essentially stole the plot of another Disney animated flick, 2003’s “Brother Bear.”)

Suddenly, Pixar movies seemed less like ingenuity and more a commodity.

I’m happy to report the latest, “Inside Out,” is a return to form. It’s hardly among the top tier of Pixar movies, but it’s dizzy with wondrous ideas, interesting things to see and places we’d like to visit.

It all takes place inside the head of one kid, Riley (voice by Kaitlyn Dias). The idea is that a person’s personality is ruled by five emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust. Each is represented by little cartoon entities, who collaborate and clash with each other and this in turn governs how the person behaves.

They sit in an isolated central headquarters in the mind, watching a TV screen and seeing the world as their person does. Experiences are recorded as memories, which are glass-like orbs, which the emotions help collate, store and recall. The most vital memories form the core of the person’s being.

It’s a rather cerebral concept, but one that small children can take to easily. (My 4- and almost-2-year-olds sat rapt the entire time.) It helps that the emotions each have distinct identities themselves.

Joy (the irrepressible Amy Poehler), a pixie-like waif, is the dominant emotion for Riley, acting as major domo and subtly ordering the others around. Anger (Lewis Black) is a little red rager who literally blows his top with fire. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is both protective and disdainful, and Fear (Bill Hader) is the kvetching voice of caution.

Then there’s Sadness, terrifically voiced by (Phyllis Smith), who played a somewhat similar character on TV’s “The Office.” A purple nerdy type, Sadness can’t seem to summon much enthusiasm for anything, mostly likes to just lie around and complain, and has the nasty habit of touching the memory orbs and infecting them with her mope.

“Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems,” Sadness drones.

But Riley’s parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco, and their daughter struggles to fit in. Joy heroically tries to enforce happiness, but this only makes things worse. Then through a series of events, she and Sadness get exiled to the hinterlands of Riley’s subconscious, leaving the three remaining emotions to deal.

I enjoyed the filmmakers’ elegant depiction of Riley’s mind – and those of others, for we get to go inside the heads of other humans, too, where the same five emotions exist in different iterations. Director Pete Docter (“Up”) co-wrote the script with Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley. Ronaldo Del Carmel is credited as co-director.

Along their journey to try to get back to HQ, Joy and Sadness have various sorts of adventures, wandering through Riley’s dreams and finding out what happens to faded memories – even an old imaginary friend from Riley’s toddlerhood, Bing Bong, vividly voiced by Richard Kind. We learn that each emotion exists for an important reason, even if it isn’t instantly obvious.

“Inside Out” is a fun, colorful movie that also offers a little insight into each of us might tick. Pixar has got their mojo back.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Review: "Dope"

"Dope" is a crazy, funny, smart film. It's got a terrific batch of young actors, a brash original story and style from writer/director Rick Famuyiwa, and an urgent vitality that demands our attention.

It's about Malcolm, a smart kid from South-Central Los Angeles who adores 1990s hip-hop culture and dreams of getting into Harvard. You probably know that South-Central is a tough area rife with guns and drugs, and may have heard that Inglewood is at its core. The Bottoms, Malcolm's neighborhood, lives up (or down) to its nickname.

Malcolm is played by Shameik Moore, who should be on the list of every casting director in Hollywood after this. He announces himself as a performer in much the same way the cast members of "Boyz n the Hood" did nearly a quarter-century ago.

This is a bit ironic, since Malcolm is self-professed geek who regularly gets trounced upon by the school bullies and can barely speak to girls.

Life is challenging but good for Malcolm and his two best buds, Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). The trio wears vintage clothes ranging somewhere between Fresh Prince and Ice T, and Malcolm's got an impressive flat top/fade that makes his whole head stand up, and out. They're typical horny boys who yearn after girls but never get them, even Diggy, who is one herself.

They share a passion for academics and '90s music, jamming upbeat tunes in the music room after school about getting good grades, dubbing themselves Awreeoh. That's as in "Oreo," a nod to their multiracial makeup and embrace of cultural values deemed too white by their fellows.

The setup is that Malcolm is invited/cajoled by a local drug dealer, Dom (A$AP Rocky), into attending an underground party. He would probably stay away except for Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), a local stunner who is kinda/sorta linked to Dom. Malcolm, Diggy and Jib make the scene and are having a good time until a deal goes bad and bullets start flying.

Long story short, Malcolm finds himself with his backpack stuffed with Dom's heroin. The dealer wants it back, while his competitors demand the dope for themselves. Malcolm and his pals begin a confusing, scary but also uproarious journey through L.A.'s seedier parts, trying to figure out how to dispose of the stash while keeping their skins intact.

Meanwhile, Malcolm still needs to ace his S.A.T.'s and make a good impression at his interview with a Harvard alumni.

If all this sounds a little like "Risky Business" mixed with "Boyz," that's because it is. But Famuyiwa's script, while liberally borrowing elements from other movies, synthesizes them into an original and engaging pastiche.

In general I'd call it a comedy, poking fun at aspects of black and white culture, and the in-between spaces where Malcolm and his friends are trying to carve out a spot for themselves. But it's got some serious and poignant moments, too, often arriving with surprising juxtaposition to each other.

It's a hard tonal balance to strike, but Famuyiwa and his cast pull it off. It's odd to see common themes from the gangsta genre, like a strutting stand-off between two men with guns, played for chuckles. But "Dope" helps us look at familiar things in new ways, and laugh while doing it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Video review: "Chappie"

It’s fairly common for a young filmmaker to have an incredible debut film and then stumble in subsequent outings. Perhaps there’s a lot of pressure on them to replicate their early success. Often they recover with better movies.

But then there are others who keep cranking out underwhelming films, one after another. How long does it go before you ask, “Did they only have one good movie in them?”

I’m starting to ask that about Neill Blomkamp, the writer/director of the terrific “District 9,” in which alien refugees settle on Earth and become second-class citizens. He followed that up with the confusing “Elysium,” and now the tonally all-over-the-place “Chappie.” It’s the story of a robot that develops sentience, and gets ill-used by the humans around him.

Sharlto Copley provides the voice and motion capture for Chappie, a police robot in a future South Africa where society is divided between the haves and the have-less. It’s a wonderful creation, lacking traditional eyes but with insect-like antennae. Chappie is child-like and hesitant, but quickly begins to emulate the personalities he encounters -- for ill or good.

Dev Patel plays the benevolent scientist who creates Chappie and mentors him. Hugh Jackman is a hot-tempered rival who wants to see him turned into junk and replaced with his own lumbering war machine.

Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser -- a real-life rap music duo whose names and identities overlap with those of their characters -- are a pair of low-life criminals who sort of adopt Chappie in to their little outlaw family. Soon the robot is wearing gold chains, carrying a gun and strutting around like a gangsta.

Weird, occasionally touching, “Chappie” may represent Blomkamp’s last chance.

He seems to have intriguing ideas about how technology tends to alienate humans from one another. But he needs a coherent story to build around those themes, and the last two times out of the gate he’s lacked that.

The bonus features are pretty good, though you’ll have to splurge for the Blu-ray edition to get them. The DVD comes only with a single featurette, an interview with the three main actors.

The blu-ray contains eight more featurettes covering various aspects of the production, including casting, visual effects, real-life robotics and so on. There’s also an alternate ending, one extended scene and a photo gallery.



Thursday, June 11, 2015

Nick Rogers reviews "Jurassic World"

By Nick Rogers

In an era of omniscient distraction and digression, what does it take to truly wow someone? Do marvels still exist that stop us cold and make time slow to let us behold their majesty a moment longer? The more our days revolve around refreshed pages, the more infinitesimal our incubation period for big ideas becomes; our haste to establish expectations and levy judgment makes even New York minutes quaint.

By inserting those ideas into a damn fine dinosaurs-eating-people scenario, “Jurassic World” straddles a line between an unexpectedly quizzical commentary and an undeniably slick, quick-moving crowd-pleaser. And in considering a need for reverent wonder in a world where it’s scarce, the pants-wetting fear of indifference that gets you killed plays better than “Tomorrowland’s” navel-gazing nostalgia.

In the series’ sole sequel of worth, late InGen founder John Hammond’s dream of welcoming the public to Jurassic Park has been a reality for years. (It’s been rebranded, though, as Jurassic World to avoid the whole unpleasant association with dying on vacation). Jimmy Fallon is its prerecorded tour guide. Crowds cheer an underwater Mosasaurus feeding on sharks as Rome’s hordes once did gladiators, albeit with a premium for splash-zone seats. Tykes ride tiny Triceratops as if they were carnival ponies. Teen staffers’ disaffected entreaties to “Enjoy the ride” have become as automated as the rides themselves.

That’s right: Even with dinosaurs walking beside you, Jurassic World has become just like any other moldy amusement park, to the point where it’s an outdoor mall with predators on its perimeter. Vacationers still come. But it’s not the destination anymore, prompting an (unwise) creation of multimillion-dollar, genetically modified, hybrid creatures such as the Indominus Rex — that, as the InGen company memos demand, turn out “bigger, scarier, cooler … with more teeth.”

Such memos could easily come from any studio in reference to plans for their summer seasons, where expectations for escalated thrills double not every year but every week. Twenty-two summers have passed since “Jurassic Park,” and at least twice as many movies have offered us increasingly realistic beasts battling each other onscreen since then. 1993’s anomaly is now 2015’s very affordable ante.

Case in point: The preview audience members who cackled loudly at the setup to “Jurassic World’s” first kill after the Indominus Rex, bred in such extreme solitary confinement as to become a smart, sociopathic killing machine, escapes. We’re a long way from nervous hushes and rippling water. Director Colin Trevorrow — who co-wrote the script with Derek Connolly, as well as rebooted-“Apes” franchise architects Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver — knows that and quickly silences those hecklers with unexpectedly fluid, but fun, aggression. This isn’t an annoyingly self-reflexive shredding of its forefather. It’s very much its own smart, sleek endeavor with momentum, confidence … and minor drawbacks.

As much a response to “Jurassic Park” as it is a sequel, what “Jurassic World” says about the modern us, as the “dominant” species, doesn’t, and shouldn’t, put us in the best light. It replaces the original’s inspiring “Life finds a way” mantra with a more resigned, weary and, sadly, relatable one: “Progress always wins.” Trevorrow wants us to groan as John Williams’ regal theme crescendos at the sight of charmless, churning commerce that’s crowding out corporate-sponsored dinosaurs. However genially, it’s nice to see a blockbuster flick the ears of its promotional bedfellows rather than just whisper sweet nothings into them. As critical of the machine as it can be while being a well-funded cog to make it run, this is one of several ways “Jurassic World” twists and tweaks the original’s majesty into mordant satire.

It’s just angry enough without losing its sense of adventure … or such brain-checking delights as muscular dinosaur expert Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) trying to train the perpetually deadly Velociraptors. Blue, Charlie, Delta and Echo, as they’re known, may prove useful in tracking, and taking down, the Indominus Rex. Himself a hybrid of Ian Malcolm’s swagger and Alan Grant’s sensible side, Owen assumes he’s the Alpha, and Pratt keys into a magnetic, straightforward groove that sells this silly subplot. But “Jurassic World” wisely never extends sentimental exceptions to these dinos’ basic instinct. They may not eat Owen, but they will eat. (“Are they safe?” one character asks. “No, they’re not,” Owen barks back.)

There’s more in play, perhaps a tad too much for one film. Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio, hitting slimy notes you expect) wants to militarize raptors as the next evolution of super-soldier. Jurassic World’s career-minded operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) contends with the fallout of the Indominus Rex’s escape. Hollywood’s perpetual third choice for everything (and maybe fourth now that Jessica Chastain is on the scene), Howard commendably sweats her way through a horribly written role — hardened harridan going soft — that she, and we, have seen 1,000 times. Save a hilariously dumb scene in which, it’s emphasized, women can run in heels, the part gives us nothing new.

Also, Claire’s two visiting nephews, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), are trapped somewhere inside. The idea of distraction is essential to their story; they’ve been shipped off for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation as their divorcing parents plan to rip that life asunder while they’re gone. And when the fit really hits the shan, a passel of control-room lackeys (including comedians Jake Johnson and Lauren Lapkus) try to balance I-told-you-so scolding with doing whatever they can to save more lives.

You might wonder what, if anything, remains here of the Trevorrow and Connolly that intimately pondered the beauty, and danger, of love, trust, friendship and chance in 2012’s terrific “Safety Not Guaranteed.” To a sanded-down degree, you find it in Zach and Gray, especially as Zach rediscovers how to be a reassuring teenaged big brother and realizes Gray won’t soon find the freedom from family strife that he will. It’s enough to look past the unlikely amount of trouble in which these siblings find themselves, especially a scene in which the ’saurs swat their wayward tourists’ gyrosphere like a cricket ball. Emergency shutdown before an off-limits area seems like something on which insurers would insist.

That bit is one of several big thrills doled out at a regular clip by Trevorrow, who brings a crisp confidence to his inaugural action film. He’s hardly Steven Spielberg, but he has at least inherited the right ideas from the maestro: restraint, patience and a certain nervous giddiness. John Schwartzman’s swooping, thrilling camera movements help, stutter-stopping at shoulder level with characters to establish the dinosaurs’ scope, scale and speed. So do the sterling visual effects, a combo of motion-capture CGI and practical animatronics that affords these beasts more expressive traits than ever.

A nasty pterodactyl attack on the main campus unfolds in enough of a blur to protect the PG-13 rating while still ending on such horror that you’re happily tricked into thinking you’ve seen more carnage than you have. And its homage-riddled final act starts off embracing the combat of “Aliens,” edges right up to the relentless nastiness of “Deep Blue Sea,” then shifts into “The Raid” with dinosaurs. (And yes, the last bit is as awesomely realized as you’d hope due to the tactile weight and whomp of the visual effects.)

Infused with the right sense of danger, intimacy, intelligence and humor, “Jurassic World” is, like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” before it, pulpy summer fun with more on its mind than you’d think. To borrow a line from that film, this is a man-wasn’t-meant-to-meddle medley you won’t mind hearing.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Review: "Slow West"

“In a short time, this will be a long time ago.”

“Slow West” is a paean to the Old West: its limitless opportunities and blood-soaked reality. It’s a story of hope and true love… except many people go to early graves along with their hopes. And love takes many forms, but not always the one desired.

Written and directed by John Maclean in his feature film debut, the film was shot in New Zealand and features Brits, Germans, South Africans and Aussies in the main roles. It’s a vision of the American West as seen through the dream of foreigners, and ambles between sharp verisimilitude and a trance-like wonder.

This is the sort of movie in which a Scottish boy riding through 1870s Colorado comes across three Congolese men sitting by the side of the trail singing in their native tongue, and none of them seem out of place.

At a taut 84 minutes, it’s minimalist storytelling where the actors sketch out their characters from just a few lines of dialogue and how they act – usually under deadly duress. Maclean sets up main characters and antagonists chasing each other on the plains, but wanders freely between their camps. He seems as interested in the greybeard bandit as the winsome young hero.

Kodi Smit-McPhee is pensive and naïve as the boy, Jay Cavendish, a minor nobleman who left Scotland to chase his lady love, a commoner named Rose. She’s played by Caren Pistorius, who commands our attention in her few scenes. Rose and her father (Rory McCann) fled their home a year ago because of some unnamed trouble; now Jay is following, riding a horse all alone across the land with death at every turn.

What Jay doesn’t know is that there’s a $2,000 reward for the pair, and that attracts the attention of some fearful types – men like Silas, a bounty hunter when he needs to be and an outlaw otherwise. He’s played by Michael Fassbender, who wears the cowboy rig like he was born to it.

Silas is an amoral “brute,” in Jay’s words, but he agrees to chaperone the greenhorn for money. It soon becomes clear that Silas is hoping Jay will lead him right to his quarry, but he takes a shine to the earnest lad.

He’s a man of few words, rarely responding to Jay’s jabbering with more than “Sure, kid” or “Let’s drift.” He’s been around and seen things in his rambling life; there are dark deeds in his past -- and probably in his future, too.

“Survival ain't just how to skin a jackrabbit. It's knowing when to bluster and when to hush. When to take a beating, and when to strike,” Silas says.

Others are on parallel journeys, such as an enigmatic man in black who wears a white collar and carries a curiously long suitcase. Then there’s Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), an outlaw legend who leads a large gang of throw-offs. They track Silas and the boy, patiently, waiting.

It’s a feast for the senses. The cinematography by Robbie Ryan has a bleak beauty to it, and Jed Kurzel’s musical score trips easily between jaunty and mournful.

“Slow West” may be puzzling to some people, with its mix of worship and irony for the Western genre. I found it a haunting vision, darkness and light sliding across the far horizon in equal measure.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Capturing the Friedmans" (2003)

I don’t review a lot of documentaries here in this space — and by “not many,” I mean I believe this is the very first one. Like silent films, they're so different from the modern conception of narrative fiction movies as to almost represent a distinct art form.

Done right, documentary films are closer to journalism than "storytelling." And obviously given my background, I take journalism very seriously.

I've grown to appreciate documentary films more and more as I've gotten older. I make no bones about preferring the old-school method of objectively exploring a subject rather than just making personal screeds a la Michael Moore. "Capturing the Friedmans" definitely falls into the former category. It was nominated for an Oscar and won the grand jury prize at Sundance.

A word on objectivity: No, it's not entirely possible, at least in the purest sense. All of us bring our biases and conceptions into every endeavor. But being objective is more an ethos than a state of mind. It's almost like the scientific method, where we're allowed to go in with a thesis, but we must rigorously test it against the actual information produced.

Being objective doesn't mean we're blank slates who explore a topic with robot-like catatonia of the conscious. It does mean we are capable of allowing for the possibility to be proved wrong or change our minds.

Director Andrew Jarecki performs the ultimate exercise in objectivity with "Friedmans," because the real subject turns out to be his own ambivalence.

The movie explores a famous child molestation case from the late 1980s, in which a father and son were both convicted of sodomizing and abusing young boys while taking computer classes at the Friedman family home in Great Neck, an upper-middle-class Long Island suburb.

Jarecki pretty clearly went into this project because he felt an injustice had been done. But he painstakingly presents all sides of the story, highlighting gaping holes in both the cases of the prosecution and defense, and leaves it up to the audience to form their own take.

At the end, we're still uncertain if Arthur and Jesse Friedman were monstrous sexual abusers or merely eccentric men who got caught up in a wave of hysteria and shoddy investigative tactics. Not only does Jarecki not try to force the issue by imposing his viewpoint, he lets the ambiguity become the aesthetic.

The real soul of "Capturing the Friedmans" is an exploration of the concept of reality versus perception, the knowable and the confounding.

The way Jarecki launched the project is the stuff of legends. He was making a short film about David Friedman, who was the top birthday clown in all of New York City. Donning big floppy shoes, suspender pants and oversize glasses, he entertains the offspring of the city's well-to-do.

But David was also the son of Arthur, a high school science teacher and former band leader, and older brother to Seth and Jesse. A theatrical personality, David shared his family story with the filmmaker, and the focus quickly shifted to darker strains.

I think what catapulted "Capturing the Friedmans" out of the ranks of standard documentary movies is that the Friedman men were videophiles who seemingly recorded every aspect of their lives. Even as the family was breaking down into pieces at the prospect of their patriarch and youngest child spending the rest of their lives in prison, David kept his cameras rolling. We get to see them in their most desperate hours -- including David's "video journal" in which he warns at the outset no one is permitted to view it except himself.

Arthur was caught receiving child pornography, which prompted police to start interviewing the dozens of boys who had enrolled in computer classes in the Friedman home over the years. A few testified to the most outlandish acts -- such as Jesse and his father "leapfrogging" a line of squatting boys to sodomize them one at a time -- and it soon snowballed into a major investigation.

The film talks to the actual detectives, prosecutors and judge in the case, and without overtly condemning them elicits how they essentially fed testimony to their young, pliable witnesses. Some only confirmed the abuse after being pressured by their parents or the cops, or even revealed it during highly dubious hypnosis sessions.

There are even interviews with a couple of alleged victims, now adults, who seem generally credible -- whether or not anything happened, they certainly believe it did. And Jarecki talks to other students of Arthur's classes who vehemently avow to never experiencing or witnessing anything out of the ordinary aside from tinkering on computers.

Eventually, the two Friedmans were confronted with such a mountain of evidence and charges -- more than 100 acts of abuse apiece -- that they felt bullied by their attorneys and the family matriarch, Elaine, into entering guilty pleas. Arthur ended up killing himself with an overdose while in prison. (Mostly, it's suggested, to secure an insurance settlement for his youngest son.) Jesse finished his sentence about a dozen years ago and continues to try to prove his innocence to this day.

All of the Friedmans -- except Seth, who declined to participate -- come across as seemingly normal people with interiors that are opaque, possibly even to themselves.

Interviews with people Arthur confided in, including his gay brother Howard, confirm that he suffered in a cloistered, closeted existence and harbored a vile attraction to young boys. He even admitted to molesting one boy -- but years earlier, long before the alleged crimes that sent him to prison.

Elaine is the most sphinx-like, a woman who seems to mostly resent all the trouble and frustration the criminal case brought into her quiet family life. She harbored her suspicions about Arthur's inclinations, but was apparently willing to ignore them if it kept stability in the household.

Her relationship with her sons, especially David, are seen to be permanently damaged during the course of filmmaking. For her part, Elaine feels ganged up on by the close relationship between the Friedman men, with some justification. For instance, she's mortified by having these intimate family arguments videotaped, which under the circumstances would seem to be the most normal reaction a person could have.

Was Arthur Friedman a pedophile? Jarecki's film patiently lays out the evidence that seems to conclude that he did feel attracted to boys, and acted upon that feeling at some point in his life. But it seems unlikely that his computer glasses were the den of parading sodomy and abuse that the criminal against him alleges.

As for Jesse? We're left feeling uncertain. His tendency to joke and banter in the videotapes -- even on the courthouse steps while awaiting sentencing -- make him undeniably less sympathetic. But no more guilty.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Video review: "Kingsman: The Secret Service"

A bit of charm and a lot of smash-mouth, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” was one of 2015’s earliest, and best, surprises.

This super-spy thriller/comedy operates as both a send-up and celebration of the 007 genre. Colin Firth plays Harry Hart, aka Galahad, a member of the sophisticated and ultra-secret spy agency knows as the Kingsmen. They prefer to do their bidding beneath the veil of anonymity, using all sorts of cool gadget hidden inside their signature dapper suits and eyeglasses.

Harry recruits rough-and-tumble street scamp Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) to be his protégé, and the story is framed around the familiar training and initial missions of the new guy. It seems some nefarious force is taking out the Kingsmen one by one, so graduation will have to come early.

The bad guy is a Steve Jobs techie type, deliciously played by Samuel L. Jackson – a combination of computer nerd, gangster and maniacal villain. His henchwoman has two prosthetic legs outfitted with swords to dice up her victims.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, “Kingsman” has got terrific action scenes and also terribly funny ones. It’s a smart and energetic flick that evinces a tone somewhere between a smirk and a gasp. This is a movie that makes fun of spy movies, but loves them, too.

Video extras are pretty decent. There’s a gallery of photos of sets, props and behind-the-scenes peeks. There are also six making-of documentary featurettes: “Panel to Screen: The Education Of A 21st Century Super-Spy,” “Heroes And Rogues,” “Style All His Own,” “Tools Of The Trade,” “Breathtakingly Brutal” and “Culture Clash: The Comic Book Origins Of The Secret Service.”



Thursday, June 4, 2015

Review: "Spy"

"Spy" is a one-joke movie, but it's a pretty decent joke. Schlubby, timid Susan is a CIA drone who finally gets a chance to go out in the field, and to the surprise of everyone she's a total badass -- if a frequently clumsy one.

Because this is a comedy, so thar be pratfalls galore.

Given that description, you know Melissa McCarthy is the star. She's come on like a tornado in just a few short years to become one of Hollywood's most consistently popular stars. Even last year's limp "Tammy" made bank.

McCarthy just has that natural ability to make audiences like her, even when her character is behaving over the top. We sense a vulnerability beneath the bombast. She's an everygal who projects intelligence and the endearing awkwardness of someone who didn't get any of the big breaks in life.

The woman is a pip.

Here she's reunited with writer/director Paul Feig, who made her a star in "Bridesmaids" and followed it up by pairing McCarthy up with Sandra Bullock in "The Heat." This time she's got a couple of suave, macho male co-stars, though they're supporting parts and she's clearly the main show.

Jude Law plays Bradley Fine, a classic debonair 007 type who can mow through a whole building of bad guys on his own. Of course, he's got Susan in his head to help -- literally. She monitors him from base, sees and hears what he does, and uses a bunch of impressive spy gizmos to give Fine a leg up.

But when Fine goes missing in the field, presumed dead, Susan steps forward to keep up the pursuit of their quarry: Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), an icy Bulgarian who has stolen a small nuclear device and is looking to sell it to terrorists. Susan's job is to track Rayna and report back, but of course she soon jumps into the muck.

There's pushback, of course, from the agency. The boss (Allison Janney) isn't sure Susan has the right stuff. And Jason Statham turns up, essentially playing Jason Statham. He's a brash agent who keeps warning Susan that she's in danger of screwing up the mission -- usually right before he screws up the mission.

The movie is fitfully entertaining. There are several terrific laugh-out-loud moments. One bit, where Susan makes her first kill and then... overreacts to it is a great rolling joke that just keeps building.

And there are a number of good throwaway gags. Statham's character wants to know why he can't just jump into "the 'Face/Off' machine" to change his identity, and has to be reminded it's not a real thing. And Susan keeps getting stuck with lame secret identities, divorced cat ladies and such, which is mostly an excuse for McCarthy to dress up in fright wigs and goofy outfits.

I was also glad to see that, unlike "Tammy," there isn't a raft of fat jokes. Though the movie certainly uses McCarthy's size to comic effect, it's more about a dowdy woman discovering she can move like a ninja when her dander is up.

It's a fun movie, but there are too many dull stretches, especially in the second half. There are even some fairly pulse-pounding action sequences, and for awhile it seems like "Spy" forgets that it's a spoof.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Review: "Barely Lethal"

There are a lot of young and charismatic performers in “Barely Lethal,” and I wanted to hug each of them, tell them how talented they are, and comfort them with the knowledge that appearing in this movie won’t ruin their careers.

This teen action/comedy is the sort of forgettable film that you make when you’re breaking into Hollywood and just want to get some credits under your belt. You get a paycheck, learn from the experience, and try to choose better projects from then on.

The strange thing is that many of the people involved are already bona fide names in showbiz.

Hailee Steinfeld, an Oscar nominee for her terrific turn in “True Grit” and part of the “Pitch Perfect” crew, is the lead. Sophie Turner, best known as Sansa Stark on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” is the bitchy adversary. Toby Sebastian also was in “Game of Thrones” in a smaller role. Gabriel Basso was in “Super 8” and “The Kings of Sumer.” Plus Samuel L. Jackson, Jaime King and Jessica Alba turn up.

So what are they doing in this silly flick about a teen super-spy who decides she’d rather experience high school instead? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.

It’s essentially “21 Jump Street” except instead of being a cop, Steinfeld is Agent 83 of the Prescott School for Girls, a place where orphans are raised to be deadly assassins. Jackson is the stern taskmaster. But 83 yearns for something more, and after dousing herself in a raft of teen movies like “The Breakfast Club,” she decides to fake her death and do the John Hughes thing.

Dubbing herself Megan, she poses as a foreign exchange student – from Canada! – and embeds herself with a family in wholesome Newtown. Soon she’s navigating the familiar obstacles of mean girls, clueless teachers and romantic angst.

Dove Cameron plays Liz, the acerbic daughter of her foster family, who wants nothing to do with her. Sebastian plays Cash, the dreamy wannabe rock star of the school whom all the girls swoon over, including, soon enough, Megan. Thomas Mann is Roger, the geeky-but-nice guy who develops a crush on her. Basso is the Gooch, local athlete-meathead.

Director Kyle Newman and screenwriter John D’Arco put all these actors through the familiar paces without much flair or originality. You know it’s just a matter of time before Megan’s spy life invades her high school one, with Alba playing the evil renegade agent who wants revenge on the Prescotts. The comedy is broad and the storylines worthy of cable TV.

I think “Barely Lethal” is trying to be a parody of dumb teen movies, but ends up turning into one itself. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then becoming that which you mocked must be the cruelest insult.

Monday, June 1, 2015

"Game of Thrones" has been freed from the books -- and it's better than ever

When I watched the first season of HBO's "Game of Thrones" I found it absolutely thrilling, in large part because I was wholly innocent of the books by George R.R. Martin. Everything was new and vibrant. 

A dense, personality-driven mythological world in which the traditional heroic-and-true "main" character gets killed off at the end of the first book/season? That's brash, innovative storytelling, and I loved to see someone(s) bring a new approach to my beloved sword-n-sorcery genre.

By the time season two debuted, though, I'd torn through all five published books of Martin's series, which as fans know is actually called "A Song of Fire and Ice." GoT, as it's come to be universally known and hashtagged, is simply the title of the first novel in a planned seven-book series. 

But it's a killer title, and it aptly describes Martin's world -- various noble families vying for power and crushing those beneath them -- better than anything else.

(If you're tempted to be impressed by my speed reading, don't. When a "season" of television only lasts nine weeks, that means you have nearly 10 months of downtime in between. Even given the formidable lengths of Martin's books -- the man laughs at the 1,000-page threshold -- and my own itinerant reading schedule due to work/other work/family, it's quite doable.)

The difference between experiencing a cinematic work with or without having read the source material is wider than the Narrow Sea. I can only imagine what it must have been like to encounter the Red Wedding without knowing what will happen beforehand. Even just the ink-and-dead-trees version was an emotionally wrenching event.

So I'd be lying if I said the succeeding seasons of GoT haven't held somewhat less of a thrill for me. 

Oh, they were marvelously made and acted. But while a work of art or craftsmanship can please you an infinite number of times, it can only surprise you once. And a great deal of the appeal of Martin's world-building is his willingness to introduce sudden, head-snapping twists in the plot -- most notably, the death of characters you might otherwise have surmised were indispensable.

As things went on through seasons two through four, the show began to diverge more and more from the books. Some of this was out of simple necessity -- Martin has literally hundreds of named characters and innumerable side plots. Even with 20 shows per season, things would still have to be culled.

At the first the differences were mild -- shortening a journey or condensing eight secondary characters into three.

(Editors' note: Many, many spoilers ahead.)

But as time has gone on the show has made increasingly substantial changes from the books. And I'll admit many of these have bothered me. Even as I acknowledged the narrative reasoning behind them, I hated seeing some of my favorite parts of Martin's novels excised. 

That taint of disappointment has attached itself to my feelings about the show, knowing I'll never get to see the dark enigma of Coldhands brought to the screen, or the steely resolve of Lady Stoneheart and her increasingly less-than-merry band of outlaws.

As season five began we had a TV show and a series of books with the same bones of narrative structure, but much of the fleshly exterior has been altered completely, Qyburn-like. 

Minor, fleeting characters in the books have evolved into major enduring figures -- Bronn the mercenary and the fiend Ramsey Snow come to mind. Meanwhile, other people populating the pages have been diminished or eliminated in favor of others. 

It seems Jon Connington's storyline (greyscale infection and a quest for redemption) has been folded into Jorah Mormont's. A prince of Dorne's hapless diplomatic mission has been rendered into utter nothingness (which is probably where it belonged anyway).

Some important characters are on completely different journeys, both figuratively and geographically. 

When last we left the book versions of Jamie Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, they had evolved from adversaries into allies who had just embarked on some mysterious purpose. In the show, Jamie leads an ill-advised rescue mission to Dorne for his niece/daughter Myrcella, replacing another member of the Kingsguard. Brienne's TV counterpart has successfully tracked Sansa Stark to Winterfell and is biding her time.

Sansa was still in the Vale under the protection/tutelage of Petyr Baelish in book form, pretending to be his bastard daughter. Now she's married Ramsey Snow (now Bolton) in a long-game plan of Baelish's, replacing a commoner girl who instead suffered at the vile young lord's hands.

In the books, Jon Snow was leading a hot-headed mission southward to avenge his family against the Boltons, and suffering the pointed objections of his fellow men of the Night's Watch. Now, he's gone with wildling leader Tormund to Hardhone to convince his fellows to join the them behind the Wall, and encountered an army of zombies and white walkers for his troubles.

Sam Tarly traveled with Gilly and a baby (though not Gilly's) across the sea and then to Oldtown; his TV counterpart is still holding down the fort at Castle Black.

Also, an increasingly large number of people who are still alive in the books are already dead on the show -- Mance Rader, Catelyn Stark, Barristan Selmy, Jojen Reed, Grenn, Pyp. And some dead yet live -- Kevan Lannister, Pycelle.

Heck, Robb Stark married an entirely different woman in the books. I could keep going, but you get the idea.

The future is now

As season five is winding up, we've now moved completely past where Martin is with his books. Tyrion Lannister, on an interminable series of voyages to reach Daenerys Targaryen, has now met her as of last night's show. And it was all the crackling good encounter we'd hoped for. The existential threat of the dead army, which had more or less been shunted aside in the novels, was hauntingly crystallized in the big combat sequence.

We are now facing a situation that's unprecedented in the popular arts: a screen adaptation of an ongoing creative work that will conclude before the "source" material does.

Martin has committed to seven books, but the sixth won't be published this year. Given his notoriously slow writing process, it could well be the year 2022 before he winds things up. Meanwhile, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have hinted strongly at concluding after two more seasons.

This situation presents a tremendous set of opportunities and challenges for "Game of Thrones." But, I would argue, most of the benefits accrue to the show -- and at the expense of the novels.

Benioff and Weiss aren't just making things up. Martin has debriefed them on what will happen in the last two books, and they're using that as the basis for what we'll see. No doubt things will continue to be changed around from Martin's vision to fit that of the TV show. And Martin has already talked about how the show has altered his plans for the books going forward. 

Thus, for awhile watching GoT on TV after having read the books became an exercise in seeing how the show differed from the novels. Now, it'll be about how the books changed things up from the show.

I've read comments from people who are disappointed by the fifth season of "Game of Thrones," complaining that "nothing happens." (Though I don't doubt those voices are fewer and quieter after last night's pulse-racing episode.) For me, this year's run has started out very well and just gotten stronger. 

I'd argue it's the best season yet. I can't wait to see what the last two episodes hold.

If at times HBO's "Game of Thrones" has struggled in its quandary of whether to conform or rebel against the expectations of Martin's books, now the show has finally, definitively been freed of them. The TV version of GoT is now the primary one that will exist in the forefront of the popular consciousness.

The future is now. Winter has finally come to Westeros.