COWBOYS & ALIENS (2011)
Cowboys & Aliens was a big disappointment back in the summer of 2011. It had everything going for it. A really good cast, an amusing concept with lots of potential and Jon Favreau at the helm. So what happened? The story, based on Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s graphic novel, is just plain weak. From the aliens’ reason to being here, to all the conveniences that are used to move things along, the script is lazy and ho-hum…and it took six people to come up with that script and story. It takes this clever premise and utilizes it in the least interesting way possible. The top notch cast, including Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde, is wasted as all the characters are cardboard, two dimensional clichés and the performances have no energy or life to them. Another question need be asked…is where was the Jon Favreau that brought such energy and life to the Iron Man films? Even the dialog scenes crackled with energy in those movies and Favreau drew lively performances from his casts. Cowboys & Aliens is directed by-the-numbers and without any passion or excitement and there is no chemistry developed between any of the actors or their characters. When we finally get some action during the final confrontation, it’s too little and too late. Even the showdown between Wild West and Outer Space is pretty routine, as far as action sequences go, and there is little suspense or intense drama to what goes down. The FX at least are good, but the designs of the antagonists and their craft are nothing we haven’t seen before and are fairly forgettable. In fact, the whole film is fairly forgettable.
Best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have their sights set beyond high school and have stuck to their studies, ignoring any social life beyond their own friendship. On the eve of graduation, Yale-headed Molly finds out her school partier rivals have also gotten into good schools without making the sacrifices she has. Now Molly and Amy are determined to prove they can have fun and decide to attended the best graduation party in town…if they can find it.
Booksmart is a very impressive and stylish directorial debut from actress Olivia Wilde. The script is credited to four writers and while that would normally be a possible sign of trouble, here it is a clever and sometimes heartfelt collaboration. Booksmart doesn’t reinvent the high school coming of age comedy, but it does delightfully revitalize it. Wilde and her writers tackle all the usual high school themes like the social hierarchy and teen romance, but approaches them in a fresh and fun way. There is some wonderfully witty dialogue and the script and director don’t shy away from more contemporary themes with some openly gay characters such as Amy herself. Part of the whole reason the girls are headed to Nick’s (Mason Gooding) party is so Amy can spend time with tattooed skater-girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) and Molly can finally admit she has a crush on Nick. The outcome of their last night of school quest is both realistic, poignant and fun…and that’s what makes this flick work so well. A perfect blend. The characters are treated with respect and even stereotype characters avoid feeling like clichés. They are very human, such as Molly Gordon’s girl with a reputation “Triple A”. She surprises us by not only being a likable and feisty young lady, but her acceptance into Yale, too, is one of the reasons that drives Molly to want this one night of decadence. The film handles multiple characters well and aside from not shying away from serious themes, the film can be a lot of raunchy fun and there are layers of wit and cleverness to go with it, so it avoids being just vulgar. It’s a very offbeat and heartfelt coming of age story that never forgets to be decadent fun and is smart about doing it. No better example of this is a delightful stop motion animation sequence when Amy and Molly are given some drugged strawberries. Inventive, demented and hilariously funny.
The film presents a great cast of eccentric yet familiar characters and the actors all do great work under Wilde’s guidance. Beanie Feldstein is simply wonderful as nerdy, ambitious Molly. A girl who hit the books running and on the eve of her moving on to college, finds out, hilariously, that she could have had a little fun along the way. The actress has great comic timing and plays the dramatic moments strongly. A star in the making. Same can be said of Kaitlyn Dever whose openly gay Amy is a sweet, sensitive and spirited young woman who joins her friend on this one last hurrah before leaving high school to do volunteer work in Africa. There are a host of delightfully portrayed off-beat characters to support them. Billie Catherine Lourd is a lot of fun as the weird rich girl Gigi. Skyler Gisondo as the shameless self promoter Jared, who may not be as shallow as he appears. Mason Gooding is solid as the school hunk Nick. Victoria Ruesga is also good as Amy’s crush Ryan and Molly Gordon makes her “school slut” character, Triple A, very likable and human. There are also some veterans in the cast such as Jason Sudeikis as Principal Jordan, Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s oddball mom Charmaine and Will Forte as her equally quirky dad Doug. Simply a great cast.
Overall, this was a dynamite debut for director Olivia Wilde. It refreshes both the high school coming of age flick and the characters set within such stories. It has a great cast including wonderful performances by it’s leads and is not afraid or shies away from more serious and contemporary themes. It also approaches it’s characters all with sensitivity and respect and portrays it’s gay characters as simply part of the story without turning them into showcase set pieces. Bravo to Olivia Wilde and writers Katie Silberman, Sarah Haskins, Emily Halpern and Susanna Fogel. A great indie movie!
Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) graduation caps.
Otis is another of the contemporary trend of trying to be hip by mixing a disturbing subject with off-color and sometimes inappropriate humor. The effect here is just dull, off-putting and silly. Flick tells of serial killer Otis Broth (Bostin Christopher) who is a disturbed man-child loosely watched over by his older brother Elmo (Kevin Pollack) and living in his dead parents’ house. He delights in kidnapping girls who he all re-names Kim, keeps them prisoner as part of a girlfriend/prom scenario then eventually kills and dismembers them. When he kidnaps pretty Riley (Ashley Johnson) he messes with the wrong family. Directed by Tony Krantz and written by Erik Jendresen and Thomas Schnauz, the film is never disturbing enough to be chilling and not funny enough to be…well, funny. The humor is sophomoric and sometimes just silly and it’s attempts to be shocking fall flat too. Only partial saving grace is a very charming and spunky performance by Johnson (the waitress from The Avengers) as his fifth abductee whose vengeful parents (Daniel Stern and Illeana Douglas) ineptly try to take matters into their own hands when police prove incompetent. I know this flick has it’s fans but, aside from liking Johnson’s resilient Riley, I was just bored.
SUMMER’S MOON (SUMMER’S BLOOD) (2009)
Despite a good turn by Ashley Greene and a disturbing portrayal by the reliable Stephen McHattie, this is just an epic fail. Greene plays Summer, a young woman who runs away from her drunken mother to find the father she’s never met and winds up the prisoner of a disturbed young man (Peter Mooney) and his mom (Barbara Niven). Three guesses who the patriarch of the house (McHattie) turns out to be. Film is just kind of a mess with none of it seeming to have much purpose and far too many preposterous conveniences occurring to carry the plot forward or be shocking. Director Lee Demarbre helms this very by-the-numbers and with little atmosphere and the script by Christine Conradt and Sean Hogan seems to like being shocking for shocking sake without legitimately trying to tell a story. We get incest, kidnaping and murder without any real reason why and by the end we really don’t see a point to it all. Greene does better than she is usually given credit for but, the film wastes it on just being bad…and at only 90 minutes, kinda boring too.
THIRD PERSON (2013)
Written and directed by Paul Haggis, this is an interesting and engaging drama with three stories told that we know will connect somehow by the time the credits roll. We have a writer (Liam Neeson) separated from his wife (Kim Basinger) and with his lover Anna (Olivia Wilde) in Paris, while trying to complete a new book. We have Scott (Adrien Brody) on business in Rome who finds himself in the middle of a situation involving a mysterious and beautiful woman (Moran Atias), money and some shady characters. In New York there is troubled ex-actress Julia (Mila Kunis) who is trying to regain visitation with her young son after being accused of trying to harm him. Her artist ex-husband (James Franco) adamantly refuses to let her see him, while her lawyer (Maria Bello) tries desperately to change the judge’s mind despite Julia’s inability to handle the situation responsibly. The three stories are all well directed and acted and while I did figure things out before the reveal, it is still effectively done. Brody’s story is the weak link but, otherwise an entertaining drama with a fine cast.
THE LAZARUS EFFECT (2014)
I credit Blumhouse Pictures a lot for the recent horror renaissance, so it’s disappointing when they crank out a lazy, generic piece of PG-13 horror like this. The Lazarus Effect is a routine, derivative (Flatliners anyone?) and predictable story about some scientists and students who are working on a way to prolong the period of time in which a recently dead person can be successfully resuscitated. Predictably, one of the group is accidentally killed and the far from perfect formula is used to revive them. Also predictably, they don’t come back quite normal. Film is competently directed by David Gelb, but the script by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater reeks of been-there-done-that. We’ve seen all of it before and much better done. The film also wastes a good cast on top of that. Wasn’t completely bored, but wasn’t completely interested either. Stars Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters, Community’s Donald Glover and Ray Wise.
SOMETHING WICKED (2009)
The most heartbreaking thing about this flick is that it is the last film starring the underrated and sadly gone too soon Brittany Murphy. it’s no surprise this convoluted mess was left on a shelf for five years before finally getting a minimal release. The barely coherent story follows pretty Christine Webb (Shantel VanSanten), who graduates high school and on the night of celebration and her announcement that she and her boyfriend James (John Robinson) want to get married, gets into a horrible car accident that costs the life of her parents. A year later Christine is married and in college and being stalked by a mysterious figure. She is also lusted after by her cop brother (James Patrick Stuart), her husband’s co-worker Ryan (Julian Morris) and apparently the director of this film as all the close-up shots of the pretty Miss VanSanten border on softcore porn. Murphy plays cop brother Bill’s psychiatrist wife whose barren womb sends the police officer into another woman’s bed…and to lust after his sister like we mentioned. There is a conspiracy of murder and shocking reveals and by the end of this badly edited soap opera level mess, I lost track of all the plots, sub-plots and double crosses and joined the cinematographer in staring at Shantel VanSanten’s shapely rear. Was there even a point to this movie?
I’m not a big fan of the Troma movies and this Canadian horror/comedy is definitely in the Troma-wannabe category. The story takes place in the rural town of Woodhaven and finds lazy, alcoholic cop Lou (Leo Fafard) being transformed into a werewolf by a group of cultists, who need werewolf blood for a ceremony to make themselves more powerful. Lou though, won’t let a slight case of lycanthropy keep him from catching the bad guys. The use of practical gore and make-up effects is about all this dull and unfunny flick has going for it. Most of the attempts at humor fall flat and the action sequences are very routine and strictly low budget…which would be fine if they had some energy or style. There are generous amounts of blood spattered, but the film is lethargically paced even for a movie that isn’t even 80 minutes long. That and it is just trying way too hard to be a midnight movie and the best of those types of flicks usually happen unintentionally. Not sure where all the internet hype comes from, as it lacks the style, originality, cleverness or outright manic over-the-top ferocity that makes a good cult classic.
ENDER’S GAME (2013)
Based on a book by Orson Scott Card and written and directed by Gavin Hood, Ender’s Game actually surprised me a bit and was a lot better then expected. The future set story has a young boy nicknamed “Ender” (Asa Butterfield) being recruited and trained by the hard-nosed Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) to lead an attack against an alien world whose occupants tried to colonize Earth decades earlier. The film is fairly solid on all levels, has some very well orchestrated SPFX and would have been a lot more entertaining if it wasn’t basically about turning young children into soulless, genocidal killers and includes some disturbing scenes of young children engaged in acts of violence. Obviously the film is a statement against such, but, is no less easy to watch.
You’d think that a film based on the true life rivalry between formula one racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) during the 70s would be an exciting and highly dramatic film considering the 2 men’s contrasting personalities and the fact that the rivalry led to an accident that scarred Lauda for life. But, usually reliable, though play it safe, director Ron Howard brings very little of the passion and energy this story really needed to bring it to life. The performances are good with Hemsworth proving his star power as the playboy-like Hunt and Brühl giving us the straight-edge, by-the-book Lauda but, Howard let’s us down with a choppy narrative that jumps from place to place and by shifting the story perspective back and forth between Hunt and Lauda instead of taking the two men’s tale head on. It makes a film that is hard to endear one’s self to as we keep shifting the point of view. The film can’t decide whether it’s about Hunt or Lauda and can’t decide from which man’s point of view he is telling this, as we get narration from both. And it’s jarring. Also stars Olivia Wilde as model Suzy Miller who Hunt married then divorced.
AN AMERICAN GHOST STORY (2012)
I’ll give credit where credit is due, director Derek Cole does give this low budget haunting flick some legitimate atmosphere and mood with some very effectively spooky scenes but, only to have it sunk by a cliche’ filled script that blatantly lifts scenes from other haunting flicks and by having it fall apart with a very silly last act. This derivative tale has a writer Paul (Stephen Twardokus, who also wrote the screenplay and co-wrote the story idea with Cole) staying in a supposedly haunted house to write a book about the murder of a family that lived there and their supposed haunting of that home. But, it’s hard to enjoy the movie when the script is so familiar and even outright copies scenes from other flicks such as piling up chairs on a kitchen table a la Poltergeist and having all the kitchen cabinets blast open at once a la Paranormal Activity 2. That and it’s climax ruins all the atmosphere Cole has set up by having Paul chased through the house by a malevolent spirit which is literally wearing a sheet (didn’t we see that in Paranormal Activity 3?) and has powers of levitation that would make Carrie White envious. A sad case of a director who shows potential but, can’t come up with an original idea to use it on or at least some original set pieces within his been-there-done-that story.