It’s hard to reconcile, considering the degree to which adolescents now dominate popular culture, but the idea of the teenager is a uniquely 20th-century invention, born out of advances in psychological theory, changes in child-labor laws and a boom in leisure-time activities for the under-20 set. A feat of both editing and blurring-of-the-edges nonfiction technique, Matt Wolf’s mesmerizing, scrapbook-style Teenage conveys the transition in how the world perceived this emerging in-between stage via a series of first-person portraits of exceptional individuals set amid a whirlwind of vintage footage. Ironically, the demo in question seems least likely to appreciate the pic’s arty, innovative approach. more »
Let’s face it: The Big Wedding was more fun when it was fat and Greek — or loud and French, in the case of this adaptation of Gallic laffer Mon frere se marie. Writer-director Justin Zackham awkwardly blends feel-good pablum and raunchy sex jokes with the expected nuptial ingredients: something old (just look at that cast), something new (the groom is an adopted Colombian with three moms to manage), something borrowed (Nancy Meyers called, she wants her ideas back) and something blue (handjobs at the rehearsal dinner, etc.). It’s all catnip for the easily pleased, suggesting possible sleeper success amid louder early-summer studio fare.
Skewing older than other recent R-rated wedding comedies such as Bridesmaids and Bachelorette, The Big Wedding all but ignores the happy couple in favor of the “bigger” sixtysomething names in its starry ensemble: Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon. As in Jean-Stephane Bron’s 2007 original, the grownups’ childish antics threaten to upset the whole event.
Misleading title aside, young Missy and Alejandro’s union is a relatively small affair, held in the groom’s backyard and consisting of only about 100 guests. The vanilla bride (Amanda Seyfried, who’s been down this road before in Mamma Mia!) and her swarthy husband-to-be (British actor Ben Barnes, Prince Caspian in the Chronicles of Narnia series) have known each other since childhood. What makes their engagement interesting is the fact that Alejandro was born in Colombia and raised by an upscale Connecticut couple with two kids of their own.
Naturally, Alejandro wants his birth mother, Madonna (Patricia Rae), to attend, but he doesn’t have the nerve to tell the conservative Catholic woman that his adoptive parents, Don and Ellie Griffin (De Niro and Keaton, a million miles from The Godfather: Part II), have been divorced for the past decade. Instead, he begs Don to stash his new g.f., Bebe (Sarandon), and pretend that everything’s still rock-solid between him and Ellie — the sort of arrangement that must seem all too familiar to The Birdcage star Robin Williams (unusually restrained as the ceremony’s Irish priest).
Surely The Big Wedding’s paucity of genuinely inspired moments is due less to Williams’ involvement than its other officiant, Zackham, who has captured the bright, hyper-sunny look of Nora Ephron and David Frankel movies (simply by using d.p. Jonathan Brown) without grasping those helmers’ gift for comedy. The film isn’t so much funny as it is merely amusing — a laundry list of inappropriate and potentially embarrassing moments that strive mightily, but never quite manage to land the laugh.
The awkward situations begin with Ellie’s arrival at her former home. Letting herself in, she accidentally walks in on Don going down on Bebe (who was once Ellie’s best friend and, evidently, still manages to excite the man she stole 10 years earlier). After the three grownups agree to Alejandro’s charade, Ellie turns the tables, enjoying a 40-minute morning-sex session loud enough to convince not only Madonna but everyone else within a two-mile radius that she and Don are still compatible.
Meanwhile, the Griffins’ two biological children show up with plenty of their own issues. Lyla (a high-strung Katherine Heigl) has just broken up with her long-time b.f., has unexplained barfing spells and faints at the sight of a maternity ward. You don’t have to be an obstetrician to recognize the symptoms, though her slow-on-the-uptake brother Jared (Topher Grace) inexplicably diagnoses her as having a mild concussion. Unlike the rest of his hot-blooded family, Jared has sworn to wait for sex until marriage, but at 29, he’s having second thoughts — and the first available female to cross his path is sister-by-adoption Nuria (Ana Ayora), who stayed behind in Colombia when Alejandro moved to the States.
In the French version of such a scenario, one wouldn’t be surprised by the ensuing sexual antics, but all that rumpy-pumpy seems rather inappropriate in the remake’s upper-crust East Coast milieu. Presenting De Niro’s character as a recovering-alcoholic sculptor only goes so far to explain his licentious nature: He turns up drunk in one scene, reveals all the family secrets, and then sobers up immediately. Otherwise, he’s the pic’s go-to guy for delivering too-eloquent speeches, which occur with regularity whenever the script requires a heart-tugging moment. Such emotional ploys come more naturally to Zackham (who hit it big with The Bucket List script) than comedy does, offering a much-needed dose of charm to the otherwise formulaic festivities.
Mistaken for Strangers, a documentary about indie group the National, comes off like an exercise in self-deprecation. As much a diary film as a rockumentary, it almost compulsively veers away from its ostensible subject, the band’s world tour, probing the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his kid brother Tom (who helmed the film) as though worrying a sore tooth. It remains ambiguous to what extent the director’s screen persona, which raises schlubbiness to an art form, is legit. But with its wry humor and fantastic mix of music and images, this seemingly odd choice for Tribeca’s opening-nighter could carve out a solid theatrical niche. more »
Possibly setting a record for most images of needles piercing human skin in a motion picture, Brandon Cronenberg’s syringe-tastic Antiviral suggests the fledgling filmmaker has some corporeal-horror preoccupations in common with famous dad David. Set in an icy near-future where celebrities’ diseases are sold like crack vials, this creepy speculative satire tends to hit the same notes in its dissection of seriously unhealthy celebrity obsession, but exerts a queasy fascination regardless. Overlong Canadian production may prove too clinically distanced for gorehounds and too yucky for specialty auds, though the Cronenberg imprimatur is sure to stir theatrical interest. more »
Although Universal’s publicity department has asked that journalists refrain from spilling the secrets of Oblivion, the major revelations, once they arrive, will hardly surprise anyone familiar with Total Recall, The Matrix and the countless other sci-fi touchstones hovering over this striking, visually resplendent adventure. Pitting the latest action-hero incarnation of Tom Cruise against an army of alien marauders, director Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up to Tron: Legacy is a moderately clever dystopian mindbender with a gratifying human pulse, despite some questionable narrative developments along the way. The less-than-airtight construction and conventional resolution may rankle genre devotees, though hardly to the detriment of robust overall B.O. more »
The teenage years can, don’t we all know, be an alienating experience, even when you don’t have an actual alien trapped inside your body. But such is the fate of the spirited young heroine of The Host, who finds that talking to boys and stuff is a whole lot harder when your soul is being sucked by one of the space invaders slowly wiping humankind from the face of the planet. This extravagantly silly but undeniably entertaining sci-fi soap opera — the latest adapted from the work of Mormon YA-lit phenom Stephenie Meyer — should prove shrewd distaff counterprogramming to G.I. Joe: Retaliation, posting solid (if less-than-Twilight-sized) numbers at home and other points throughout the galaxy. more »
A North Korean terrorist may be responsible for taking the president hostage, but it’s Bulgarian-made CGI that does the most damage in Antoine Fuqua’s intense, ugly, White-House-under-siege actioner Olympus Has Fallen. Cut past the pic’s superficial patriotism, and the message is ironically clear: Never outsource your visual effects when a domestic shop will do. Courageously representing the human element in this mostly digital assault on American soil, Gerard Butler holds his own as a one-man-army. Millennium was wise to push this grim act-of-war movie out three months ahead of Columbia’s like-minded White House Down.
In June, auds will see how Roland Emmerich, whose Independence Day gleefully made things go boom at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., handles the task today. For the moment, the post-9/11 memory of real attacks on American targets still hits a bit too close to home. And though Hollywood’s jaunty disaster-movie days may have passed, this lower-budget entry comes with the satisfaction of evening the score before end credits roll.
Olympus Has Fallen helmer Fuqua, who’s known for bringing an unflinching toughness to inner cities (Training Day) and ancient history (King Arthur), sticks to the Die Hard model here, minus most of the tossed-off one-liners. In ex-Special Forces pro Mike Banning, Butler presents a gritty but humorless hero who cusses, bleeds and occasionally pauses to remove shards of glass from his wounds.
To raise the personal stakes, Creighton Rothenberger’s script opens with a prologue in which Banning saves the life of President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart, who looks the part of a Wall St.-friendly commander in chief), but fails to protect the First Lady (Ashley Judd) — a tragedy that leaves the redemption-seeking secret service agent reassigned to desk duty.
Banning’s chance to square the books with Asher arrives when heavily armed guerillas swarm the White House, led by the undercover Kang (Die Another Day’s Rick Yune). While a massive CG warplane flies low over D.C., gunning down pedestrians and blasting the top off the Washington Monument, turncoat Forbes (Dylan McDermott) helps Kang and his men take the president and his top staffers (including Melissa Leo’s unyielding Secretary of Defense) captive in the White House’s underground safe room.
Hokey glimpses of tourists attempting to outrun blocks of falling granite make the lo-fi effects of an earlier era look realistic by comparison. As pedestrians run for cover or die in the crossfire, Banning makes his way into the fray, searching for the president’s missing son (Finley Jacobson) before worrying about the kidnapped world leaders.
With Asher incapacitated and his veep brutally executed before the eyes of the military’s top brass, the shot-calling role falls to the Speaker of the House, played by Morgan Freeman, an actor with experience at holding the reins of power, having occupied the Oval Office in Deep Impact. Freeman demonstrates due gravitas, steeling his nerves with a strong cup of coffee while the small army of character actors around him hang their heads in desperation.
Fuqua’s widescreen approach — which offers ample room for all that vidgame-quality CG — relishes such cornball iconography, featuring shots of the American flag pierced with bullets, or tumbling slowly to the ground against a flame-red sunset, while Trevor Morris’ drum-corps score keeps things sounding duly martial. Banning earns well-deserved cheers for using a heavy bust of Lincoln’s head to bust in a baddie’s noggin.
Though not as exciting as the White House-storming seventh season of 24, the high-concept project alternates between brawny action movie and crudely considered “what if” scenario. Despite the pic’s one-on-many focus, Fuqua approaches it as a full-blown war movie, incorporating the military’s latest toys into large-scale shootouts between squads of anonymous opponents.
Sadly, those crude Bulgarian-rendered effects aren’t much more convincing than the recent White-House-in-the-crosshairs propaganda videos pouring out of North Korea. Butler brings things back to a more practical level, as his butt-kicking hero shoots, stabs and punches his way through to the commander-in-distress, only to face off against a foreign-rigged computer program in the final scene. Figures.
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“Everyone knows amnesia is bollocks,” snarls one of the thugs in Trance. Hypnotism, on the other hand, is fair game in this brash, beyond-belief psychothriller from director Danny Boyle, who seizes on a script co-written by Joe Ahearne and longtime Boyle collaborator John Hodge as a chance to play elaborate mind games with fans of his early work. A trippy variation on the dream-within-a-dream movie, Boyle’s return-to-form crimer constantly challenges what auds think they know, but neglects to establish why they should care. The pic’s flashy style, plus its stark violence and nudity, ought to transfix male genre auds. more »
Neatly balancing brightly sentimental comedy with slightly edgier funny business, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone pulls off the impressive trick of generating laughs on a consistent basis while spinning a clever scenario about rival magicians waging a Las Vegas turf war with a wide multi-demographic appeal. And while it may fall short of working B.O. magic when it hits theaters March 15, the pic — which played well with the opening-night crowd at the SXSW Film Festival — could wind up generating steady biz on a long-term basis rather than pulling a quick vanishing act. more »
The rare remake that likely will be enjoyed most by diehard fans of its predecessor, Evil Dead often comes off as the cinematic equivalent of a cover-band concert tribute to a supergroup’s greatest hits — albeit with a lot more gore. First-time feature helmer Fede Alvarez’s blood-soaked reprise of Sam Raimi’s franchise-spawning low-budget shocker, The Evil Dead, boasts far better production values than the penny-pinching 1981 original and conceivably could delight genre fans who have never seen the first version or its previous remakes/sequels. But it’s bound to play best with those who catch Alvarez’s many wink-wink allusions to Raimi’s pic. more »
What begins as a barbed satire of our pill-popping, self-medicating society morphs into something intriguingly different in Side Effects. Steven Soderbergh's elegantly coiled puzzler spins a tale of clinical depression and psychiatric malpractice into an absorbing, cunningly unpredictable entertainment that, like much of his recent work, closely observes how a particular subset of American society operates in a needy, greedy, paranoid and duplicitous age. Discriminating arthouse audiences not turned off by the antidepressant-heavy subject matter should be held shrink-rapt by what Soderbergh, after years of flirting with retirement, has said will be his last picture "for a long time." more »
When South Korean genre iconoclast Park Chan-wook decided to bring his peculiar gifts to a Stateside production, anything could have happened — and anything pretty much does in Stoker, a splendidly demented gumbo of Hitchcock thriller, American Gothic fairy tale and a contemporary kink all Park's own. Led by a brilliant Mia Wasikowska as an introverted teenager whose personal and sexual awakening arrives with the unraveling of a macabre family mystery, this exquisitely designed and scored pic will bewilder as many viewers as it bewitches, making ancillary immortality a safer bet than Black Swan-style crossover biz for Fox Searchlight's marvelously mad March hare. more »
SUNDANCE REVIEW: James Ponsoldt's 'The Spectacular Now' Is A Spectacularly Authentic American Teen Movie
The scars and blemishes on the faces of the high-school lovers in The Spectacular Now are beautifully emblematic of director James Ponsoldt's bid to bring the American teen movie back to some semblance of reality, a bid that pays off spectacularly indeed. Skillfully adapted from Tim Tharp's novel, evocatively lensed in the working-class neighborhoods of Athens, Ga., and tenderly acted by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, this bittersweet ode to the moment of childhood's end builds quietly to a pitch-perfect finale. Warts-and-all authenticity can be a tough sell, but Ponsoldt's bracing youth pic seems bound to graduate with honors. more »
Pulling raw talent from the footnotes of rock 'n' roll history and splashing their names up on the marquee where they belong, Twenty Feet From Stardom wages a compelling crusade to get background singers some long-overdue recognition. Featuring such stalwarts as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Tata Vega — many of whose voices are well known even if their names are not — this rousing group portrait should have commercial legs as long as its subjects', leaving satisfied audiences everywhere listening with new ears. Director Morgan Neville's loving spotlight, produced by late A&M Records exec Gil Friesen, ensures their contributions will go unsung no more. more »
The cops play things as dirty as the crooks in Gangster Squad, an impressively pulpy underworld-plunger that embellishes on a 1949 showdown between a dedicated team of LAPD officers and Mob-connected Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) for control of the city. Set squarely in classic-noir territory, the bombastic crimer applies a pre-Production Code amorality to this world of vice, though its gleeful depiction of violence backfired once already, forcing the removal of a scene featuring Tommy guns blazing in a crowded movie theater due to the shootings in Aurora, Colo. A six-month delay should heal all wounds for this Warners release. more »