Archive for August, 2013

Nine years ago, collaborators Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and writer-director Edgar Wright made a bloody splash with Shaun of the Dead, a genre-bender that turned the tired Zombie flick on its decapitated head. A few rounds later the team reunited for Hot Fuzz, a gleeful sendup of the aciton-comedy buddy-cop flick infused with dry British wit.

Since then, Pegg has put in some memorable supporting turns in the Star Trek and Mission Impossible franchises, with Wright making the tragically under-appreciated comic book extravaganza Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.

But fans of the madcap Cornetto Trilogy – so named for a particular Drumstick-esque ice cream treat that appears in each film – have rightfully clamored for the promised third installment, which arrives Friday in all of its wacky, booze-fueled glory to fanfare and applause.

This time around, Pegg plays Gary King, a semi-reformed drug addict clinging to the memory of his carefree past as a teenage ringleader and rabble-rouser. His idea of a perfect life is one in which he is free to do what he wants, get loaded and have a good time, preferably surrounded by his four high-school chums including Oliver (The Hobbit’s Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), Peter (Sherlock Holmes’ Eddie Marsan) and Carnetto co-conspirator Frost as rugby player-turned corporate lawyer Andy.

After some goading by Gary, the five pals reunite on their old stomping grounds to recreate one of the greatest nights of their youth, in which they attempted to bar crawl “The Golden Mile” by drinking a pint at each of 12 Newton Haven Pubs, beginning at the First Post and culminating at the titular World’s End. But upon their return, they begin to sense something is slightly off in the sleepy English town and as the night progresses the friends realize that a lot has changed since they all left town.

Its big reveal should be readily apparent to anyone who has seen the trailer, suffice to say that things quickly escalate from a rather run-of-the-mill premise about five high school friends visiting their home town to an all-out display of unhinged madness. It’s a style patented by the Cornetto Trilogy, in which plots triumphantly fly off of the rails with a frothy brew in hand in the name of ecstatic absurdity.

The World’s End is, to put a fine point on it, hilarious. Pegg’s Gary is an obnoxious, belligerent fool who rightly puts his friends on edge, particularly Frost’s Andy, who goes from buttoned-up water drinker to shirt-tearing, stool-weilding bada** in the film’s 100 minute running time.

But the film also displays a mature use of action cinematography and special effects as our heroes battle a growing army of…spoiler. The World’s End contains several scenes of drawn out hand-to-hand combat – compared to the blunt head smashing of Shaun of the Dead or the explosive overkill of Hot Fuzz – which use superb choreography to incorporate Buster Keaton-level physical comedy into the melee.

Wright’s precision editing, which makes rampant use of quick cuts and visual gags to set the comedic stage, gives the movie an almost melodic beat as the boys progress on their quest to the World’s End and whatever lies beyond.

The film’s finale is, unfortunately, a little disappointing, especially considering the near-perfect climaxes of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. When our heroes reach the end of the yellow brick road and see the man behind the curtain, it satisfies the needs of the story but left this audience member wanting a little more before he clicked his heels and went home. That sentence should be viewed more as praise than criticism, as the most disappointing thing about the film’s ending was that it had to end at all.

Grade: B+

*Hot Fuzz opens wide in theaters on Friday, Aug. 23

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*This review was originally posted in January during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. It is being reposted in connection with Austenland’s theatrical release this week.

Austenland tells the story of Jane, an early-30s Austen aficionado played by Keri Russell whose seemingly sole escape from hum-drum existence is her passionate obsession for Pride and Prejudice and, particularly, Colin Firth’s portrayal of Mr. Darcy. A cardboard cutout of the proud man (or was he prejudiced? I can never tell) guards her doorway and a collection of antique tea pots, dolls, embroideries and other paraphernalia line her walls.

After a rude and depressing advance from a homely co-worker, Jane decides to blow a small fortune to go to Austenland, a fully-immersive, Austen-inspired Regency Era experience in England, lorded over by former Bond girl Jane Seymour. There, all modern contraptions are done away with for a summer of gowns, pheasant hunting, balls and hired actors paid to romance and woo the young women who had always dreamed of living out one of Austen’s novels.

It is there we meet the remainder of our cast, a one-percenter who’s never picked up a book, much less P&P (Jennifer Coolidge), Georgia King as the third participant in the experience and the three actors trained to woo them, Ricky Whittle, James Callis and, most importanly, JJ Feild as the resident Darcy.

Amidst the role playing and Tom Foolery, Jane runs into and strikes up an unscripted friendship with Martin (Flight of the Concord’s Bret McKenzie), a grounds worker at the resort who makes up the third prong in the fim’s central love triangle.

The movie is, unrepentantly, a romantic comedy, but Jerusha’s attention to both P&P detail as well as her penchant for the absurd (she co-wrote Sundance darling Napoleon Dynamite) elevate Austenland above the genre fold. Coolidge, channeling her loud-mode character from Legally Blond can be a little tiring at first, but as Jane takes center stage in the plot and Coolidge is pushed more to the sidelines the crazy man/straight man balance finds its mark.

Also, Russell is as charming as ever (which is saying something) as Jane, and she trades effortlessly from Elizabeth Bennett-esque quips with Feild to schoolgirl-with-a-crush with McKenzie.

Between the Austenphiles and Twilight crowd (Austeland was produced by Stephanie Meyer), I expect Austenland (which was acquired by Sony) will make buckets of money in theaters. In this case, however, it’s a chick flick that earns its success.

Grade: B+

*For SLC audiences, co-screenwriter Shannon Hale will hold special post-screening Q&As with audience members at the Broadway Center Theater on Friday Aug. 23 and Saturday Aug. 24 (7 p.m. screenings). Tickets can be purchased here.

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Meet Sutter, a high school senior who is master of his domain. He’s popular, charismatic and has a car, a job at a clothing store and a beautiful girlfriend. What more could a 17-year-old possibly need, right?

But after a breakup sends Sutter on an all-night bender, he awakes in the morning to find himself laying supine on a stranger’s lawn and staring up into the face of classmate Aimee Finnicky, a quiet bookworm Sutter has never noticed at school before.

The two strike up a friendship which quickly turns romantic, with Sutter explaining to confused friends that he’s simply trying to throw Aimee a bone to help her out. He invites her to a party, he steals a kiss during a walk through the woods and, in a move that may or may not have been a hasty attempt to instill jealously in his ex, asks her to accompany him to the high school prom.

It’s familiar stakes, and told in the most familiar of ways, but The Spectacular Now is not interested in finding it’s protagonist holding a boom box over his head or winning a bet on prom night. As Aimee and Sutter spend more and more time together it’s clear to the audience that his feelings for her are genuine and that it is she that is helping him, not vice versa. It is Sutter’s slow, reluctant realization of that fact that drives the film as he begins, ever so slightly, to confront the demons he’s buried beneath nonchalance and the silver flask he keeps inside his jacket pocket.

The movie is more than a simple story of young love. Under the veneer of his boyish grin, Sutter is a damaged man who reels from the abandonment of his father – a brilliantly understated and atypical performance by Friday Night Light’s Kyle Chandler – and a crippling fear of adulthood. He glorifies the carefree nonchalance of the titular present because he can not, or simply refuses to, envision a future for himself and, when backed into a corner by the march of time, self-sabotages in a way that is both disappointing and oddly commendable.

In The Spectacular Now, writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber abandon the bells and whistles of their indie-smash (500) Days of Summer for a bare bones, deeply emotional plot. With their script, and under the direction of James Ponsoldt, high school as an age of transition and self-discovery has rarely been more successfully captured on screen. The story manages to avoid cliches while still portraying the universal experiences that shape the audience’s recollection of teenage years.

If there is a fault, it is the under-utilization of its supporting cast, particularly Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk as Sutter’s employer and The Wire’s Andre Royo as his teacher. These acting talents add heft to their scenes but are largely sidelined for another glimpse of Aimee and Sutter cuddling sweetly over matching solo cups.

As Sutter and Aimee, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley deliver effortless characters whose actions and motivations are as organic as they are relateable. Teller, who’s characters typically exude the fast-talking prater of a young Vince Vaughn, dials back his energy and casts a soulful tone as the conflicted and magnetic big man on campus. Woodley, for her part, inhabits Aimee’s skin with the same ease that she did in 2011’s The Descendants and adds another feather to her cap as one of Hollywood’s most promising young talents. In other hands, Aimee could have become just another manic pixie dream girl, but instead Woodley gives us a wholly-realized, flawed character who acts precisely her age.

The Spectacular Now is a rare example of a film that stays perfectly within the tone and stakes of the world it has created. There are no sweeping declarations or grand swells of force-fed emotion. It is simply a story of two teenagers coming of age that engages the audience with its effortless sincerity.

Grade: A-

*The Spectacular Now opens in Utah on Friday, Aug. 23

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A few months back I got a message from a girl whose name I don’t remember. We’ll call her Tiffany; no, we’ll call her Sarah.

Sarah has muscular dystrophy and on her profile she talked about how most guys are typically unwilling to look past her physical traits and get to know her on a personal level, which is why she had decided to try online dating in the hopes nurturing a relationship beyond superficial qualifications.

I’d like to believe I’m slightly more evolved than the knuckle-dragging philistines of my gender, but I admit that my first reaction upon seeing Sarah’s smiling face in my inbox was not the most chivalrous. But I stayed my hand, telling myself that there but for the grace of God go I and that I owed it to My Life Online to reply. Who’s to say that she and I would not have similar interests and, physical challenges aside, would not be charmingly compatible on an emotional level?

Sarah’s experiences were certainly, unquestionably, more tragic than mine, but at the end of the day she was looking for the same thing all of us online dating drones are: a genuine connection with another human being in a world where the traditional social models have failed us.

I drafted some form of a response, introducing myself and asking some benign questions about the music she likes or something of that ilk (I tried to locate the actual conversation but it seems to have disappeared).

She never replied.

Now, I would never suggest that any girl with muscular dystrophy should be thrilled to receive a message from me; that would be childish, arrogant, and insulting. Assuming no ill will, there’s any number of possible scenarios that would have prevented her from replying to me, for example, she may have stumbled upon a fulfilling relationship in the interim between her initial message and my response.

Still, I couldn’t help but see some irony in a woman making a request that men exercise patience and get to know her as an individual as opposed to a collection of physical flaws, who then decided that I wasn’t worth talking to. Not that I blame her either, I’m a hot mess sometimes.

Exceptions abound, but in broad, simple terms women just don’t reply to men online anywhere near the rate to which men attempt to contact women. And who can blame them? Men are pigs, particularly those who lurk in the dark recesses of internet anonymity.

Since starting this project I have been privy to countless firsthand accounts of less-than-flattering online dating experiences from friends and acquaintances, with the man typically at fault. For example, there was the recent story of a guy who made my friend drive two hours to meet him, then another hour through the mountains for a burger, at which point he disclosed that he had forgotten his wallet and she would be picking up the tab. On the way home, he asked her to stop and buy him a Slurpee, which she did.

It’s not the worst example of human behavior, and you could argue (I did) that her first mistake was agreeing to drive to him for a first date (always make the guy come to you, ladies, but meet them at neutral location), but it illustrates why I may be experiencing such colossal failure online, besides the obvious explanation that women simply find my uninteresting.

They’ve been through this before. They’ve been stood up, propositioned, mistreated and generally burned by men taller, richer and with better bone structure than myself. So they pass, over and over again.

But Goonies never say die, and neither do I. And so, faced with Act III of My Life Online, I decided it was time to stop goofing around and get serious.

First thing was to get rid of my niche online dating service (hint: it’s not KinkyDatingSite.com) which had proven to be an abysmal failure despite picking my pocket every month. To it I say: Good riddance, you useless, hideously-programmed piece of internet excrement.

But I couldn’t just skate by on the merits of my remaining free online dating sites, and so I turned to the grand-daddy of them all, the apex predator of the online dating world, the pioneer of digital romance: Match.com.

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Signing up for Match was an interesting experience. It runs you through the typical process of uploading photographs (remember to choose images that emphasize your interests and convey that you are not a sexual predator) and describing yourself in vague platitudes (“active,” “social,” “virile,” etc.). But it goes a step further attempting to anticipate your interests by presenting you with pictures of celebrities to select the one most attractive to you (Jessica Alba, of the options given), the wardrobe style you prefer (sundresses, natch) and the body part you notice first on a woman (legs).

It also asks you to select the most appealing among a series of audio samples of women’s voices saying the phrase “Dinner sounds great, I’ll meet you at 7.” This seemed slightly ridiculous to me, although it should be noted that of the 3 options, one was rather husky and another was spoken with a strong southern drawl. I also may have taken it more seriously if the control phrase had been something I was actually used to hearing women say, like “Sounds fun, but I already have plans” or “I’m sorry, do I know you?”

Questionnaire completed, I was ready to yet again embark on a new online dating experience. Match.com, it should be noted, is known for skewing to a younger clientele than it’s chief competitor eHarmony and boasts the largest collection of subscribers of any dating service on the internet. It’s search function has the potential to be hyper-specific, allowing someone to scour the far reaches of the web for a 4’2’’ vegan Sagittarius from Bismark, North Dakota (evidently, there are a few of them), if they are so inclined.

It also boasts a guarantee in which subscribers who pay for at least 6 months in advance are treated to an additional 6 months free if they are unsuccessful at meeting someone through the service. Since I plan on going off the grid for my own personal Walden after this project is completed, I opted for the simple 3-month plan (it also seemed counter-intuitive to pay for 6 months with the pitch of “If we fail to help you, we’ll give you even more time to fail over and over again!”)

Match costs more than your lesser-known niche services, like the one I was previously affiliated with (hint, it’s not SisterWives.us) which in theory filters out the riff-raff of less-than-noble intentions. I say “in theory,” because that argument relies on the notion that unsavory men don’t have disposable income, which isn’t really the world we live in, is it?

Since joining I’ve exchanged a few backs-and-forths with a girl named Carrie, who road bikes, works on the front desk of an accounting firm and whose middle name is the Hawaiian word for “morning star.”

But she prefers Superman to Batman. No one is perfect, I suppose.

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When the original Kick-Ass hit theaters in 2010, it was enigmatic to say the least. Its star was a then-unknown Aaron Taylor-Johnson and it was a hard-R comic book action comedy that featured an 11-year-old girl as a blade-wielding assassin who spews profanity between bouts of slicing off men’s limbs.

It was a winking send-up of the traditional superhero film, triumphantly offering its bruised and bloody middle finger to the Hollywood bubblegum machine that produces innocuous popcorn fare like Sam Raimi’s Spider-man franchise. Was it good? “Who cares?” the film almost seemed to say, “We’re having a ball!”

Now three years older and in the hands of a new director, Kick-Ass 2 is a movie that doesn’t know what to do with itself. The same irreverent humor and blood-splattered madness is still present, but a sprawling cast of secondary characters and an unpleasantly dissonant tone makes the fun stretch perilously thin, though it never quite breaks.

The balancing act is articulated at one point by Jim Carrey (a new entry in the franchise), who pauses before busting in on an room full of underworld slime and turns to smirk at the camera. “Try to have fun,” he says. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”  Too true, Jim.

Kick-Ass 2 picks up relatively soon after the events of the first film, in which [Spoiler alert] our heroes defeated mob boss Frank D’Amico by blowing him out of a high rise with a bazooka (the franchise, it should be noted, is not one for subtlety). [/Spoiler alert] Since then, Kick-Ass has hung up his green wet suit and batons for the comparatively mundane life of an average high school senior.

But the ripples from his decision to suit up as the world’s first superhero continue to spread, with an ever-growing number of citizen vigilantes donning homemade disguises to patrol the streets in the name of justice. And then there’s the issue of Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who has sworn vengeance on Kick-Ass and christens himself the world’s first supervillain, shedding his Red Mist persona in favor of a new moniker that can’t be spoken in polite company (hint: it begins with the letter M and rhymes with Ice Road Trucker).

D’Amico begins gathering a team of costumed sociopaths and hired guns to take down Kick-Ass and wreak generic havoc on the city. Elsewhere, our titular hero recommits to his alter-ego, training with 15-year old assassin Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and joining forces with a team of costumed heroes known as Justice Forever, which includes a new love interest named Night Bitch, Scrubs’ Donald Faison as Dr. Gravity and Jim Carrey as the team’s de facto leader Colonel Stars and Stripes.

It’s disappointing that a cloud hangs over Carrey’s otherwise gleeful performance now that the actor has publicly withdrawn his support of the film due to it’s graphic violence. As the spangled Colonel, Carrey delivers his most enjoyable screen presence since 2004’s Lemony Snicketts.

But Carrey’s arc illustrates the fundamental flaw of Kick-Ass 2. The mob enforcer turned born-again Christian and his canine sidekick Eisenhower are the best additions to the franchise but because of all the spinning plates in the air they are relegated to a few scant minutes of screen time. There’s simply too much to do and too little time as Kick-Ass and his nemesis assemble their respective teams while also competing with a third plotline that sees Hit Girl navigating the social bureaucracy of high school in a bizarro riff on Mean Girls.

Kick-Ass 2 is filled with enough action and jokes to maintain your attention through the 110-minute running time, but most of the film’s strengths are squandered in hasty service to an overburdened story. You’ll also be forgiven for having to remind yourself from time to time who the movie’s star actually is, as the appearance of Taylor-Johnson is his green and yellow has a “Oh yeah, that guy” effect.

Then there’s the issue of tone, as the movie never quite decides whether it wants to portray the gritty realism and consequences of a world filled with un-super superheroes or the casual tomfoolery of an action satire. That’s a high-brow critique for a movie aimed at the blood and boobs crowd, but the sudden seriousness of one scene in particular left a bad taste in my mouth when squeezed between over-the-top gags about evil shark tanks and the threat of feeding a man his own genitalia. Or for a more specific example, there’s a scene in which a female character is almost raped and naturally, that’s hilarious, except for the fact that it’s not.

And yet, Kick-Ass 2 is nothing if not entertaining. It’s no-holds-barred irreverence and violence is shocking in the best ways among a contemporary landscape of bloodless action and family- and dollars-friendly slow-pitch thrills. There is something deeply satisfying about seeing the universal fantasy of suiting up as a DIY superhero in hand-sewn cape and cowl writ large on the movie screen, a fact that Kick-Ass 2 embraces wholeheartedly and allows to play out with all the bombastic indulgence of a fanboy’s dream.

Grade: B

*Kick-Ass 2 opens nationwide on Friday, August 16

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After three months of this tedious shooting gallery of a summer, in which (nearly) every anticipated blockbuster has arrived with a lackluster thump and limped stoically out of our memories, it’s been hard not to look at Elysium – the followup to director Neill Blomkamp’s gangbuster District 9 – as a sort of white knight.

It boasts an original sci-fi premise – something practically unheard of in today’s climate of comic-book adaptations, reboots and remakes – a compelling cast and the pedigree of an auteur filmmaker with a pension for blending popcorn thrills with a subtext of social commentary and an uncanny knack for integrating gritty realism with CG trickery.

Faced with those lofty expectations, Elysium delivers. While it falls short of its predecessor’s ingenuity and balls-to-the-wall bravura, Elysium is nonetheless a wholly satisfying roller coaster ride and the summer movie we’ve been waiting for.

Sharing a lot of the political DNA of District 9 – in which a bureaucratic office drone finds himself transforming into the alien underclass he has worked to oppress – Elysium finds us in a dystopian future where the Earth has fallen into polluted decay and the privileged have relocated off planet to the titular space station where the air is clean, the trees are green and all physical ills can be cured with the push of a button.

We meet our hero Max, played by a bald and tattooed Matt Damon, an ex-convict trying to make an honest living at a robot manufacturing plant and who, after a workplace accident, is faced with finding away onto Elysium to cure himself or dying in five days.

To get his ticket to the sky, Max agrees to pull a heist job for an underground criminal/revolutionary named Spider – played with manic excitement by the largely unknown Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, who starred in the Elite Squad franchise that you should all stop what you’re doing and watch right now. That job goes south, embroiling Max in an attempted coup to seize control of Elysium and finding our hero pursued by the mercenary Kruger – played by Blomkamp muse Sharlto Copley – and racing against the clock of his own decaying body.

Blomkamp has clearly been handed the keys to the studio kingdom after the runaway success of District 9, which came out of nowhere in 2009 and rode a wave a critical acclaim and box office success to a Best Picture nomination. With Elysium, the director trades Apartheid-inspired inter-special class warfare for a tale of Occupy Wall Street in space and has the flashy toys of a 9-figure budget to do it.

Some of the charm gets lost in that trade, as District 9 relied on scrappy low-budget tricks to create a fanboy actioner with the soul of an art film. But Elysium, while showing it’s mainstream Hollywood scars, doesn’t fall victim to the disease that has plagued contemporaries The Lone Ranger, After Earth and R.I.P.D.

It has its faults. The fact that Max should get his fatal dose of radiation at the same time Jodie Foster’s steely Secretary Delacourt is attempting to seize control of the floating paradise is a little convenient, as is the sudden appearance after years of absence of Max’s childhood friend Frey and her cancerous daughter – who tells a cute metaphorical story about a hippopotamus to Max with all the subtlety of a prostate exam.

You could also argue that both Damon and Copley’s characters would require Wolverine’s healing power to withstand the exoskeleton-enhanced kicks, stabs, and punches to the face that they endure. And Foster’s accent – French? Dutch? South African? – whatever it is, is distracting.

But those gripes are minor in scale to a production that boasts a critique of immigration policy and income disparity cloaked with eye-popping action (literally?) and a genuine sense of tense storytelling.

Taken independently, Elysium is a better-than-good movie. Taken in context of this ho-hum 2013 summer, Elysium is just short of outstanding.

Grade: A-

* Elysium opens nationwide on Friday, August 9

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