Movie Reviews - 2013 postsSaturday March 23, 2013
Movie Review: Admission (2013)
If Sarah Palin ever wants her revenge on Tina Fey, her bete noire, her impersonator extraordinaire, she should just watch “Admission,” the startling unfunny comedy from writer Karen Croner (“One True Thing”) and director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”). Fey, le femme forte of left-wing comedy, flounders as badly here as Palin did during that Katie Couric interview. It’s a train wreck of a movie. I laughed about five times during its nearly two-hour runtime.
Change has come to the Princeton admissions office
Fey plays Portia Nathan, an officious admissions officer at Princeton University, the No. 1 college in the country, where, the previous year, 26,241 applied. Fewer than 1500 were accepted. Rough.
It’s Portia’s 16th year on the job, same old same old, but this year change begins to come to Princeton. Witness:
- The Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) is stepping down, and both Portia and her rival, Corinne (Gloria Reuben), are considered favorites for the job. These two, behind tight smiles, make hissing sounds at each other throughout the movie, until they kiss and make up. Kind of. And without the kissing.
- Portia’s longtime significant other, Chaucer scholar Mark (Michael Sheen), with whom she shares a sexless, childless, tea-drinking and poetry-reading existence, leaves her for a bitchy, domineering Virginia Woolf scholar, Helen (Sonia Walger).
- On a run through the various prep schools of New England (Do ivy-league admissions officers do this? Like they’re Willy Loman or something?), Portia stops off at Quest, an alternative school in backwoods New Hampshire, to look at a potential genius student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), at the request of the school’s founder, John Pressman (Paul Rudd). And, hey, guess what? Turns out Jeremiah is the child she gave up at Dartmouth 18 years ago.
So a lot of changes in her life all of a sudden. Plus Pressman’s cute, is raising a child from Uganda on his own, and goes around the world building dikes and shit for poor people. Much better than a sexless dude who reads Chaucer in bed.
Does she … or doesn’t she?
The drama, such as it is, is this: What does Portia do with this information about Jeremiah? Does she help her biological son, an autodidact with great SATs but lousy grades, get into her impossible-to-get-into ivy-league school? What are the ethical boundaries here?
Actually, the ethical boundaries never come up. John keeps pushing, she is pushed, willingly, and eventually she’ll do anything to get Jeremiah, a kid she would normally reject, into Princeton. I guess she has feelings now. I guess that makes it OK.
She plays political games with the other admissions officers, agreeing, with quid pro quo looks and glances, to accept their favorites in exchange, she hopes, for hers. Doesn’t happen. Corinne can’t accept a D student. So Portia breaks into the Dean’s office, changes his Excel spreadsheet on approvals/rejections, then switches the sticker on Jeremiah’s folder with that of an approved student whom she knows has already accepted Yale. Easy peasy. Remember kids: It’s who you know. Or who gave you up for adoption.
Does the movie ever condemn her for this action? Not really. She’s fired, sure, but there’s no mea culpa. She’s proud of what she did, even when she discovers that Jeremiah is not her biological son. The 1 PM February 14th birthdate? It was totally 11 PM.
Still, she comes to terms with herself. She stands up to her domineering, Erica-Jong quoting mother (Lily Tomlin). She tries to connect with her true biological son, who doesn’t want to see her. But she has John now, and his son, and John—in a subplot whose outcome is excruciatingly transparent—decides not to go to Ecuador to build some yadda yadda, but stays in New Hampshire, where his son wants to stay, and continue to educate a bunch of kids in the snooty, farm-friendly way he’s been educating them.
Listen, if “Admission” were poignant, great. It’s not. It makes a weak argument for education-for-education’s sake, which is sweet and all, but hardly practical. I should know. That was basically my education. You need to be educated in the way the world works, too. You need to know what you’re up against when you leave college. Plus, shouldn’t education-for-education’s sake include one lesson on ethics?
Listen, if it were smart, great. It’s not. Early on, a neighbor, Rachael (Sarita Choudhury), deposits her three kids with Portia without warning, or even asking, then leaves. When she returns they’re crying and she blames Portia. What’s the point of this scene? I think it’s supposed to be: Portia’s no good with kids. What I got out of it? Rachael is a major asshole.
Listen, if it were funny, great. It’s not. You get these kinds of lines during a fight between John and Portia:
Portia: I am so glad you’re going to Ecuador except for one thing.
Portia: I feel sorry for the Ecuadorans!
Paul Rudd isn’t bad. Nat Wolff is quite good as Jeremiah. But Tina Fey gives off nothing. What compelled her to do this?
Movie Review: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)
A horrible man, Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell), performs an awful, cheesy magic act and audiences love it for decades. An even more horrible man, Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), performs an awful, masochistic act, in which he actually inflicts pain on himself, and he steals away Burt’s fickle audience. Humbled and broke, Burt spirals toward bottom, learns humility, meets his mentor (Alan Arkin), reteams with the partner he dismissed (Steve Buscemi), gets the beautiful girl he dissed (Olivia Wilde), and together all four win back the audience by literally drugging them. Audience members were dupes before and now they’re doped.
Some kind of lesson there about what Hollywood thinks of us.
There are a few laughs in “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.” Maybe 10. Maybe.
I like the early, good-natured reaction shots from the overly good-natured Anton Marvelton (Buscemi). I like the last absurdly masochistic trick of Steve Gray. Alan Arkin can turn dull lines into something wonderful while Olive Wilde is something nice to look at.
Otherwise I was bored. Otherwise it was gags like this:
- Burt takes a beautiful fan into his bedroom.
- From outside we hear her say, “Oh my god, it’s huge.”
- We cut inside where she’s looking at his bed, which is big.
Director Joseph Scardino is mostly a director of TV sitcoms. It shows. One of the main screenwriters, Jonathan M. Goldstein, is mostly a writer of TV sitcoms, while the other, John Francis Daley, played the lead in the acclaimed TV sitcom “Freaks and Geeks.”
Do we care that the chronology is off? In the beginning we see Burt as a kid being picked on—ironically by Zachary Gordon, star of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”—in 1982. Which means Burt and Anton were born in … 1972? For Carell and Buscemi? Who were born in ’62 and ’57 respectively? As adults, their act takes off and they wind up on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, who retired in 1992. So when they were 20? I guess? Even though they look like they look now? Does anyone care what fucking year it is anymore?
By the time they’re fixtures on the Vegas stage, with tans, hairdos and sequined outfits out of Siegfried & Roy, Burt, the sweet kid, has already morphed into a major pompous asshole. He stays that way for more than half the movie. It’s not funny. He also hates their magic act because it’s the same, the same, the same, yet he refuses to change it until it’s too late; until his “show business” is usurped by Steve Gray’s “reality.”
Do we read the movie as a Hollywood metaphor? Burt Wonderstone is the old cheesy TV show, Steve Gray is the masochism of reality TV, and the old hands are trying to figure out ways to win back their dopey audience.
“I don’t enjoy any of this shit,” says Vegas hotel owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), channeling me.
Movie Review: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)
“Are you always looking for trouble or does it find you?” John McClane, Jr. (Jai Courtney) asks his father at the end of “A Good Day to Die Hard.”
“After all these years?” John McClane (Bruce Willis), bloodied and battered, responds with his customary smirk. “I still ask myself the same question.”
Oo! Oo! Me! Pick me! I know the answer!
In “Die Hard” trouble found him. In “Die Harder” he went looking for it. In “Die Hard with a Vengeance” trouble definitely went looking for him, but only as a diversion, and then he went after trouble because it played him for a sap. In “Live Free or Die Hard,” I think it went looking for him. I forget most of that forgettable movie. And in this one? “A Good Day to Die Hard”? Man, does he go looking for it. To an embarrassing degree.
Bummer. What made John McClane feel truly, heroically American in the original “Die Hard” 25 years ago was how much he didn’t want to be the hero; how, if Hans had opened the door for him, he would’ve walked out of Nakatomi Towers. That’s Rick Blaine in “Casablanca.” I stick my neck out for nobody. That’s the isolationist streak in the U.S. before World War II. Now John McClane rushes in, guns blazing, where angels fear to tread. The U.S., too.
Did this even have to be a “Die Hard” movie? What’s specific to the character of John McClane here? I kind of miss Holly, the wife who kept leaving him no matter how many times he saved her ass from terrorists. Her presence, with one foot out the door, helped make him John McClane. Unwanted. Ordinary. Like us.
So what’s he up to these days? He’s at a pistol range, working on his expert marksmanship, when a friend comes to him with information. His estranged, ne’er-do-well son, Jack, has turned up in a Moscow prison. John has to go there. He has to right things. He has to rush in.
Hey, he happens to show up outside the Moscow courthouse at the exact same moment his son and Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch), the dissident Russian nuclear scientist and persecuted political prisoner, are being paraded inside for a show trial. Jack is supposedly going to rat on Yuri, claim Yuri paid him to kill a political enemy, but we already know, because we’ve seen the trailer, that Jack is CIA. He’s there to protect Yuri and spirit him out of the country.
Dad, outside, doesn’t know this. What’s the story like from his perspective? He has a fuck-up for a son who’s on trial in Moscow. Then half the courthouse blows up. Then, in the wreckage, he sees his son making a getaway with another guy.
You’re a Dad. What would you do at this point?
You stop the son from making his getaway, of course. You admonish him thus: “Jack! Jack!” You go over generic family squabbles as Russian forces gather. Then when your son pulls a gun on you and drives away (“You shouldn’t be here,” he says), and you see he’s being pursued by, presumably, the cops, you grab a truck and drive like a crazy man through the streets of Moscow to help him. When that truck gets flipped over countless parked cars, and you emerge with a few cuts, you stand in the middle of traffic demanding another vehicle. When a car hits you, and its driver admonishes you for standing in the middle of the street, you get up, coldcock him and take his car. “You think I understand a word you’re saying?” you say to him. Ha ha. To the pursuers, the bad guys, who could be police for all you know, you say, “Knock knock” as you ram them from behind. You say, “Guess who?” as you ram them from the side. When you drive over a woman in her car, crushing her car, and she screams, you say, “Sorry, ma’am.” Ha ha.
Bruce Willis used to have comic timing. What happened? Maybe he knows he’s in scenes that won’t work. Maybe he knows that his character, John McClane, will look like a horse’s ass. Maybe he knows that it’s a bad idea for the hero to spend the first third of the movie coming up to speed. Maybe he knows that all of this is the antithesis of who John McClane is. Or was.
Remember the way he picked shards of glass from his feet in the original “Die Hard”? Remember how you cringed? Nothing like that here. He bulldozes through everything, then emerges a bit winded, a bit cut, maybe limping, but otherwise undamaged. He’s the terminator as an old, bald man. Bummer.
So there are three big reveals in “A Good Day to Die Hard.” OK, two small reveals before one big reveal.
The first small reveal is that McClane’s ne’er-do-well son is CIA. But we know that if we’ve seen the trailer. Which we have.
The second small reveal is that Irina (Yuliya Snigir), the daughter of Yuri, betrays her father to his enemies, Alik (Radivoje Bukvic) and Defense Minister Chagarin (Sergey Kolesnikov), for money. But that’s so like hot girls, right, man? Total fucking betrayers, man.
The big reveal, after Irina and Alik take Yuri to Chernobyl—which Yuri and Chagarin totally caused, by the way—is that Yuri and his daughter are in cahoots. They wanted to go back to Chernobyl. Not to retrieve a file that has information damaging to Chagarin on it. No, they want the weapons-grade plutonium there. To sell on the black market? To blow up New York? Do we ever find out? Do we need to? It’s enough that they’re bad guys and it’s Chernobyl and it’s John McClane and his son to the rescue wahoo.
But what does this mean in terms of story?
It means that Chagarin was sleeping with his enemy’s daughter and didn’t think she’d betray him.
It means that Yuri whored out his daughter to his political enemy to further his interests.
It means the CIA and John Jr. were played for saps, that the political protesters outside are backing the wrong pony, and that Yuri risked everything, many times over, to pull the strings at the last moment, to reveal himself as puppetmaster rather than puppet, chessmaster rather than pawn. On the way to this triumph, there were 12 ways he could’ve died. Then he dies anyway: thrown from a rooftop by John Jr., and grasping at the air in slow-mo, in homage to Hans, before the blades of his daughter’s helicopter chop him to bits. Splat! Then she gets hers in a kamikaze bloodbath as John and John, Jr., leap by, in slow mo, flipping the bird. Classy.
You’re in the movies now and I’m in your cartoon
“A Good Day to Die Hard” was written by Skip Woods, who wrote “Swordfish” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” It was directed by John Moore, who directed the 2006 remake of “The Omen” and the Mark Wahlberg vehicle “Max Payne.” Talent.
What a shame. The original “Die Hard” was set in a high-rise but it was grounded. This is a cartoon. Yippee-ki-whatever.
Movie Review: Warm Bodies (2013)
The problem with zombie movies has always been zombies. They’re boring. They shuffle and groan and travel in packs and eat flesh or brains and get killed by shotguns. Yay. They’re most interesting as metaphors, as in “Shaun of the Dead,” for shuffling, brain-dead commuters working deadening, soul-destroying jobs. Us. We’re zombies before the flesh-eating even begins.
We get a few moments like that in “Warm Bodies,” the new zombie flick written and directed by Jonathan Levine (“50/50”). Our main character, “R” (Nicholas Hoult), is a zombie who shuffles around an abandoned airport with dozens of other zombies. He’s friends with no one except “M” (Rob Cordrey), with whom he shares the usual zombie grunts and grrs at the airport bar before one of them is able to annunciate a word. Generally it’s: “hungry.” And off they go, in search of brains.
But “R” misses days of communication and flashes back to what it was like before. What was it like before? When people could express themselves, and communicate their feelings, and enjoy each other’s company? Flash to footage of busy people walking around the airport, looking at their cellphones, and texting. Zombie nation had already begun.
Holden Caulfield is dead, but in a good way
“R” is so named because that’s all of his name he can remember. He’s also “R” because that’s the sound they make, isn’t it? Arrrr. He’s “R” for another reason as well. We’ll get to that.
If “R” can’t communicate with others he certainly can with us, and the opening voiceover gives us the first of many laugh-out loud moments:
What am I doing with my life? So pale, I should get out more, I should eat better. My posture is terrible. I should stand up straighter. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter.
What’s wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can’t I connect with people?
Oh right. Because I’m dead.
He’s the angsty, smart, teen zombie. He’s also retro. He hangs out on an old jumbo jet on the runway where he listens to LPs on a turntable because he likes the sound better than CDs or MP3s. It’s mostly ‘80s music: “Missing You” by John Waits, “Patience” by Guns N’ Roses, “Hungry Heart” by Springsteen. He yearns. Then he falls in love.
Out in search of food, they come across a group of well-armed teens stockpiling medicines for the nearby walled city, protected by Grigio (John Malkovich). That’s where R spots Grigio’s daughter, Julie (Teresa Palmer), a bit of a Kristen Stewart lookalike, wearing tight jeans and an army jacket, and falls in love. It helps, too, that he eats the brains of Perry, her boyfriend (Dave Franco of “21 Jump Street”). Zombies don’t sleep, they don’t remember much, but if you eat the brains of another you absorb their memories. That’s what he does with Perry. After that, he protects Julie. He rubs zombie goo on her face to hide her scent from the others; then he takes her back to his place. He plays her records. They begin to bond. And he begins to come back to life. Literally. We get a heartbeat.
Later, when the other zombies see them holding hands, they begin to get heartbeats, too. Zombification, it turns out, isn’t an endgame, which has always been another problem with zombie movies. Here, it’s a kind of purgatory where you have three options: you can become truly dead (shotgun to the head); you can become a “bonie,” a zombie which has ripped off its own flesh, leaving only the superfast skeleton beneath; or you can return to life. You just need to care. You just need to feel a little love. 1980s music? Screw that. The message is all 1960s: What the world needs now…
R and Julie are obviously a humorous update of Edward and Bella from “Twilight”: a love story between a human girl and a classic horror monster. (I’m waiting on the Frankenstein version.) But they’re also, more meaningfully, a modern-day, or futuristic, Romeo and Juliet. They’re star-crossed lovers. Her dad doesn’t like him; his friends want to eat her brains. You know how it is. At one point we even get a balcony scene. That’s why the “R” as well. For Romeo. Or Ralph. Because what’s in a name?
I expected nothing from “Warm Bodies” but it’s witty and charming throughout. And if it moves slowly at times, well, these are zombies.
Movie Review: The Last Stand (2013)
If “The Last Stand” had been set for a December rather than January release, it would’ve been delayed by Newtown.
A dangerous Mexican drug cartel leader, Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), escapes from the FBI, takes a pretty agent hostage (Genesis Rodriguez), and heads for the border in a car that can zip close to 200 miles an hour. The feds are arrogant and keep fucking up, the pretty fed agent is actually a traitor, and the only thing in the way of this damned Mexican and his army of thugs is a small-town sheriff, Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and his misfit deputies, including a former U.S. Marine, now town drunk, Frank (Rodrigo Santoro), and a local boob with a gun fixation, Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville). He’s got a virtual armory on his property. They need it, of course, to take on the paramilitary bad guys. And while they are all wounded except for the pretty deputy, Sarah (Jaimie Alexander), they kill the baddies thanks to these arms and their Second Amendment right to bear them. Even a Granny with a shotgun gets a kill.
Just another liberal message from liberal Hollywood.
The good, the bad, the conventional
Question: How many facelifts can a person have before they can’t see out of their eyes? I get the feeling Schwarzenegger is close. His face used to be impassive in his action movies but now it looks pained. Everything’s so pulled back. What’s left of this man? What becomes an aged action hero most? He can barely walk, he’s no longer Mr. Universe, he’s just … a name. A brand. And judging from opening-weekend box-office numbers, not much of one.
“The Last Stand” got some early good Rotten Tomatoes numbers, I suspect, because its director is Jee-woon Kim (“The Good, The Bad, The Weird”), making his Hollywood debut, and a lot of critics are auteur whores. They’ll back the movie of any director they like.
But the movie is past conventional. There’s economy here, certainly. It all takes, what, two days at most? Most of Somerset, Arizona, is gone for a football game, Sheriff Ray is supposed to have a day off, but trouble’s a brewing. Ray suspects it immediately at the local diner, Irv’s, with its pretty waitress, Christie (Christiana Leucas), when he gives a casual glance around and his eyes, as squinty as Clint’s now, land on two strangers. He asks them some friendly-but-pointed questions and they vamoose. But something’s up. He feels they’re “off.” Since one of them, Burrell, is played by Peter Stormare, who put poor Steve Buscemi in a wood-chipper in “Fargo,” and who’s never played a good guy in his life, it’s not a bad call.
There’s an OK dynamic between Ray and his deputies. He’s a former L.A. narcotics cop, decorated, who lost too many friends and wants the quiet life in Somerset. They live the quiet life in Somerset and want action. They get it. Of course they’re not ready for it, and the most innocent of them all, Jerry (Zach Gilford), dies in a furious gun battle. The bad guys are installing a portable bridge across the Rio Grande for Cortez to zip across. Now they’re just waiting for Cortez to show up in his 200-mph zipmobile.
Kim keeps cutting back-and-forth between the escape in Vegas and the sleepy town, and we get some OK bits. The convoy transporting Cortez is stuck at a stoplight (I guess?) when a giant magnet comes down from a nearby rooftop and picks up the police van. That’s not the OK bit. That’s pretty stupid, actually. Then while all the federal agents rush to the rooftop, like all the cops in Gotham rushing into the tunnels, Cortez and his men take a zipline to another building. Then Cortez changes out of his orange prison jumpsuit and into a designer suit, while his team floods the area with a bunch of guys wearing orange jumpsuits. That’s the bit I liked. Of course they overdo it. They employ a dozen. Why not just one? Why not just the 4 a.m. jogger wearing the colors of the Dutch futbol team? A dozen and you know it’s a set-up; just one and it just may be a jogger.
Off Cortez goes, pursued by a helicopter, with a pretty agent aboard (Kristen Rakes), but he and his men keep blasting through whatever obstacles are between him and Somerset. I guess we know that going in. I guess we watch to see how he breaks through. We wait for the showdown between the sheriff and the druggie. We get it.
It’s in high cornfields, cat and mouse, each in a roadster. It’s pretty cool. Then you think: “Wait. Cornfields? In Arizona?” The final final showdown is on the bridge. Of course. It’s the last stand.
Any bon mots to add to the Arnold lexicon? Not really. Imagine his strong Austrian accent:
- “I’m the sheriff.”
- “You make us immigrants look bad.”
- “My honor is not for sale.”
- “Game on.”
The misfits, along with grandma, do a fine job against the beefy paramilitary dudes, and two of them, the ex-Marine and the pretty one, fall back in love, while Johnny Knoxville, whooping it up like Johnny Knoxville, gets the pretty waitress. The pretty traitor-agent winds up in custody. The pretty agent in the helicopter? Still available, fellas.
Meanwhile, the feds, being the feds, show up late. It’s small-town ingenuity and a veritable private-citizen armory that handle this crisis. When Agent John Bannister (Forrest Whitaker) finally does set foot in Somerset, as the smoke of the finished battle dissipates, Frank says sarcastically, “Here comes the cavalry.” Fuckin’ feds.
In all of this, Arnold is superfluous. He’s even a drag on the proceedings. His main attraction, his body, is withered at 65, while all his deficits (accent, acting, movement) are more pronounced. At one point, in the middle of a gunfight, he stumbles through the glass at Irv’s, where we get this conversation:
Irv: How you feeling, Sheriff?
Irv: No. You got a few years left in you yet.
An FBI agent, a deputy sheriff, and a waitress, respectively.