Friday, June 28, 2013

The Heat

The Heat - Dir. Paul Feig (2013)

The Heat opens promisingly enough with a retro title sequence set to “Fight the Power (Part 1 & 2)” by The Isley Brothers. The groovy 70’s vibe instantly recalls classic buddy movies like Freebie & The Bean or Hickey & Boggs. Sadly, The Heat doesn’t even muster up to the level of Tango & Cash though it is a damn sight better than Cop and a Half.

Director Paul Feig follows up the immensely successful Bridesmaids by reuniting with Melissa McCarthy whose status has skyrocketed since then. McCarthy is Shannon Mullins, a tough detective in the Boston PD who has ruffled everyone’s feathers with her profane and tactless behavior. Even Mullins’ own family, who might be at home drinking with the Ward clan from The Fighter, doesn’t like her after she arrested her loser brother Jason (Michael Rappaport). Into her life saunters FBI Agent Sarah Ashburn whose own condescending, type-A personality has alienated her within the bureau in spite of her brilliant investigative mind. Mullins and Ashburn are reluctantly paired together to investigate a mysterious new drug lord who has emerged onto the scene.

The buddy cop film has largely been a male-dominated domain so a female version would have been an interesting twist. But, The Heat brings nothing new to the genre and lacks the wit and inventiveness of The Other Guys or 21 Jump Street. It seems as if screenwriter Katie Dippold (Mad TV, Parks & Recreation) did absolutely no research into how actual police work is done. The story is formulaic and disjointed with no real sense of suspense or stakes. The Heat hinges entirely on the chemistry of its two leads.

For the most part, Bullock and McCarthy rise above the second rate material they were handed. At first, their relationship is defined by sitcom contrivances. Mullins is uncouth and slovenly while Ashburn is uptight and conservative. One would rather use psychology when interrogating a suspect, the other throws a phone book at his face. That's about as subtle as The Heat gets. The film's funniest moments are clearly the scenes where McCarthy is allowed to run wild and go off script. She lobs hilarious tirades at an albino DEA agent (one of the movie's only absurdist gags) and a put-upon precinct captain played by former Back to the Future bully Thomas F. Wilson ("Has anyone seen the captain's balls?"). This is certainly a better vehicle for her than Identity Thief. Bullock has done the stiff authority figure (The Proposal) and the maverick cop (Miss Congeniality) before and equates herself well as the straight woman.

Feig doesn't have the firmest grip on action, but he knows how to fill out his supporting cast with a wealth of unique comedians. Only Feig would be inspired enough to cast Michael McDonald (Mad TV and Cougar Town) and stand-up comic Adam Ray as drug dealers. Mullins' brash Boston brood consists of Bill Burr, an underutilized Jane Curtin, and former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre. Tony Hale from Arrested Development has a funny turn as a husband trolling for prostitutes that gets taught a tough lesson by Mullins. Although, one has to wonder what the heck Oscar nominee Damián Bichir is doing in a nothing role as Ashburn's superior.

Imagine the movie that could have been had someone given the lead actresses a script more inventive and witty. As it stands, The Heat is mildly amusing and only recommended for the ardent fan of Bullock and McCarthy.

Rating: ** (*****)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

World War Z

World War Z - Dir. Marc Forster (2013)

Sometimes a movie's reputation precedes it. In the case of World War Z, people were ready to rip into it long before its release. The film was plagued with production woes as the studio clashed with the director. The release date was pushed back from December 2012 to June 2013 to allow extensive reshoots after a climactic battle in Moscow was thrown out. It seemed less and less likely that Paramount would receive any substantial profit for their Herculean labors as the budget ballooned to over $200 million. World War Z is hardly dead on arrival, but it won't set the world on fire.

World War Z is loosely based on the best-selling novel by Max Brooks, the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. The original book is one of those works of fiction described by many as unfilmable. World War Z was written as an oral history recounting the global pandemic of the undead and influenced as much by Studs Terkel as George Romero. Told from multiple perspectives, it was steeped in geo-politics and revealed how various governments and cultures dealt with the zombie outbreak. Although J. Michael Straczynski's first draft stayed faithful to the novel, nearly all of the source material was thrown out in favor of building a slam-bang action franchise for Brad Pitt.

Most of the source material is tossed out as Pitt assumes the role of Gerry Lane, a United Nations investigator whose job duties are only vaguely defined. He’s been in war zones before and has happily left that life behind for domesticated bliss with his wife (Mireille Enos) and daughters (Abigail Hargrove & Sterling Jerins). A seemingly normal morning of traffic in downtown Philadelphia erupts in chaos as ravenous hordes of infected people swarm the streets. They quickly bite and infect others as the Lane family barely escapes. They are airlifted to sanctuary aboard a U.S. Naval vessel at sea. In order for his brood to stay, Gerry must venture out into the world with a team of specialists to track down patient zero and find a means to save the hopelessly overwhelmed human race. Gerry’s journey takes him to a military base in South Korea and Jerusalem where the Israelites have built a wall around the city to protect themselves.

World War Z unfolds just like a video game with the protagonist embarking on a series of mini-missions, accomplishing a minor goal, before moving on to the next level. The climax certainly feels as if it were created after a marathon session of Resident Evil. It doesn’t help that we don’t care a lick about the majority of characters. The role of Gerry Lane is essentially a blank slate. Gerry’s desire to reunite with his family is his only perfunctory trait. Brad Pitt is unable to put his own stamp on the character and one could easily envision another Hollywood leading man (Tom Cruise or Will Smith) substituted with little discernible difference. The choppy nature of the story can be blamed on the screenplay being passed through the hands of Matthew Michael Carnahan, Damon Lindelof, and Drew Goddard with uncredited on-set rewrites by Christopher McQuarrie. With plot elements constantly in flux, many supporting players saw their legs cut off in the editing room. Gerry’s wife, Karin, is one of the more glaring examples. Instead of a fiercely determined mother, we get a whimpering woman waiting for her man to return home. Matthew Fox is apparently in the film, but I couldn’t tell you who he played or when he appeared. Great character actors like Mortiz Bleibtreu, Pierfrancesco Favino, and Peter Capaldi (the hot-tempered Malcolm Tucker from In the Loop) show up in the revamped third act, yet are simply credited as Doctors to show you how much thought was put into their parts.

One of the few folks to make an impression is the relatively unknown Daniella Kertesz as a tough Israeli soldier. Another is James Badge Dale, who was exceptionally impressive as a cancer patient in Flight and a menacing henchman in Iron Man 3, as a cocksure Army Ranger.

Director Marc Forster’s resume is buoyed by acclaimed indie flicks such as Monster’s Ball, The Kite Runner, and Finding Neverland. However, he hasn’t displayed an ability to handle big-budget action movies. Critics lambasted his direction on Quantum of Solace and there are moments in World War Z that harkens to that lesser entry in the Bond franchise. A sequence where the Lanes escape up a flight of stairs is incomprehensively constructed in the manner of the opening chase scene from Quantum. The larger scale set pieces come off better as Forster knows well enough to step aside and allow the digital effects teams to do their work. World War Z does get off to a rousing start thanks to the chaos in Philly and a pulse pounding score by Marco Beltrami. The way in which Gerry counts down how long it takes for a victim to become infected is cleverly done. The pace slows a bit until the zombies overrun Jerusalem in a thrilling middle section that is followed by the film’s best scene when a rabid stowaway infects a plane full of passengers.

While most zombie movies deal with a small group of survivors, World War Z is all about how the entire world handles a zombie outbreak. And that’s where it shines. It’s just a shame the film doesn’t have a tight grip on capturing smaller, intimate moments. The best zombie movies have always been allegorical in nature. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was a metaphor for rampant consumerism. Don’t expect any pointed jabs about modern culture with World War Z; it’s only concerned with being a slam-bang summer blockbuster.

Rating: ** ½ (*****)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Fast and Furious 6

Fast and Furious 6 - Dir. Justin Lin (2013)

Fast five…furious six.

Who would have thought that the Fast and Furious franchise would still be going strong over a decade later? Probably not anyone who has seen the early films. The Fast and the Furious was a rough looking B-movie directed by schlockmaster Rob Cohen with a story lifted right out of Point Break, just with cars instead of surfboards. 2 Fast 2 Furious was a mind-numbing take on the buddy action pic that was at least benefited from the gorgeous Miami setting and slick direction by John Singleton. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift was a threequel that should have gone straight to video as it featured none of the original actors though Vin Diesel made a brief cameo. What saves Tokyo Drift from the scrapheap were some cool racing sequences, the introduction of Sung Kang as the laid back Han, and Justin Lin stepping behind the wheel to steer the series forward.

Fast and Furious was a fresh start, doing away with the articles and subtitles as it transitioned the franchise from the subculture of street racing to thunderous action. Fast Five was essentially The Avengers on four wheels, culling together an all-star team of past characters and reveling in widescreen vehicular mayhem. Good to know that Furious 6 is more of the same.

When last we left them, Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his cohorts were living the high life after stealing millions of dollars from a Brazilian drug lord. Not exactly hiding his newfound wealth, Toretto is easily found by federal agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), who recruits his band of racers to bring down a new gang led by a former Special Forces operative named Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). One of Shaw's henchmen just happens to be Toretto's previously dead girlfriend Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), now suffering from amnesia. Shaw has cut a path of destruction across Europe in an attempt to steal the parts to build an electromagnetic weapon that can disable a country's entire defense network.

Furious 6 features a loaded ensemble and the movie doesn't give everybody a fair share of the spotlight. Jordana Brewster's Mia Toretto, for example, is pushed off to the side. Meanwhile, the charisma of Dwayne Johnson and the braggadocio of Tyrese Gibson more than offset the monotone growling of Vin Diesel and the bland Paul Walker. Screenwriter Chris Morgan, who has been at Lin's side since Tokyo Drift, doesn't write the snappiest banter, but the chemistry of the principal cast make it work. In regards to the new characters, Luke Evans doesn't make much of an impression as the villain, mostly because there isn't a lot on the page aside from his quest for a MacGuffin device. Gina Carano is a welcome addition though she's only there for a pair of knockdown, drag-out catfights with Michelle Rodriguez. Also thrown into the mix is Joe Taslim from The Raid: Redemption who gets into a wicked brawl with Gibson, Kang and a handful of hapless Bobbies in the London subway.

Despite some fun fisticuffs, the driving sequences don't match up to Fast Five, especially the climactic carnage through the streets of Rio. After a lengthy opening section in which the band gets back together, Lin finally gets loose with a London chase. There's some cool stuff such as the use of a modified formula-1 racer with a ramp that flips oncoming cars. However, most of the action is lost in the frenetic camerawork and the dark nighttime setting. The same problems occur at the conclusion during a wild set piece in which our heroes race alongside a massive cargo plane on what must have been the longest runway in the world. The pursuit is broken up into several smaller battles, which have been energetically edited together. The best sequence happens to be when Shaw hijacks a tank and callously crushes innocent bystanders on the highway.

Fast and Furious 6 is everything you want from an overblown summer blockbuster. The engines roar at ear-splitting decibels as the g-forces push against you until your brain cells turn to mush. There's some apprehension about Fast and Furious 7 since Universal fast-tracked (no pun intended) for next summer leading to the departure of Justin Lin and the arrival of James Wan (Saw, Insidious). However, the post-credit sequence effectively teases that we will be in for quite a ride.

P.S. – Kudos go to Morgan and Lin for their architecture of the series mythology. Either through meticulous planning or just last-minute retcons, they've managed to cast Tokyo Drift, arguably the worst of the franchise, into a new intriguing light.

Rating: *** (*****)

Sunday, June 2, 2013


Epic - Dir. Chris Wedge (2013)

Epic is the latest CG feature from Blue Sky Studios, the animation studio behind the Ice Age series and Rio. Epic is better than any of their previous efforts, save for the first Ice Age, but it doesn't hold a candle to even the most modest Pixar production.

Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried), who prefers to be called 'M.K.,' reluctantly moves back in with her father, Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis), following the death of her mother. Dad lives in the middle of nowhere and believes a civilization of miniature people dwell in the forest. His crackpot theories have cost him his credibility in the scientific community as well as his marriage. Any chance of repairing his familial bonds is dashed as the Professor ignores his daughter in favor of chasing down evidence. But, Bomba has been right along because deep within the forest is a peaceful population of plant-like beings protected by an army known as the Leaf Men. They are at war with the Boggans and their leader Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), who is vowed to bring about death and decay. Whatever they destroy is easily brought back to life by the magical powers of Queen Tara (Beyoncé Knowles).

The two worlds collide following a Boggan ambush that mortally wounds the Queen just as M.K. wanders into the forest. She is shrunk down and thrust with the responsibility to protect a bulb that will select a new queen under the moon of the summer solstice. Joining M.K. on her quest are Ronin (Colin Farrell), the commander of the Leaf Men; Nod (Josh Hutcherson), a brash youngster who quit the service; and Mub & Grub (Aziz Ansari & Chris O'Dowd), a slug and snail tending the Queen's gardens.

Epic was loosely based on the children's book, The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, by William Joyce, author of Rise of the Guardians. Joyce was one of five credited screenwriters on Epic, which is never a good sign. The film holds no real surprises and borrows a number of recognizable elements from movies like FernGully, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Avatar. The spine of the story follows the traditional hero's journey with Nod learning the importance of teamwork and responsibility. Other standard elements include the stoic mentor figure, the comic relief sidekicks, and the celebrity voiceover talent. Christoph Waltz as the villain isn't anything new, but even in animated form Waltz stands out as a fresh voice while other actors (Beyoncé and Steven Tyler) feel like stunt casting. Equally charming is a one-eyed, three-legged pug by the name of Ozzie.

The animation is beautifully rendered and the film shines during its many grand action sequences that include a climatic aerial battle with characters astride hummingbirds and bats as well as the ambush with Boggans camouflaged as tree bark.

When you title your film, Epic, you are setting high standards for yourself. The title is simultaneously grand and generic, which sufficiently describes the movie to a tee. It may be lacking in inventiveness, but kids will more than enjoy the wonderful animation and lighthearted humor.

Rating: ** ½ (*****)

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Identity Thief

Identity Thief - Dir. Seth Gordon (2013)

2011 was the breakout year for Melissa McCarthy, who earned rave reviews for her performance in that year's runaway hit Bridesmaids. Her CBS sitcom, Mike & Molly, also debuted the previous fall on earned her an Emmy award that year for Best Lead Actress. Now is the time to cash in as McCarthy appears in The Hangover Part III and receives her first starring roles in The Heat (opposite Sandra Bullock) and Identity Thief.

Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman) is a buttoned down accountant struggling to support his wife (Amanda Peet) and two daughters while working under the heel of an obnoxious boss (Jon Favreau). With a baby on the way, Sandy accepts a more lucrative position with his best friend (John Cho) at a brand new start-up firm. Unfortunately, Sandy has absent mindedly given his social security number to a telemarketer over the phone. Going by the name Diana (McCarthy), the identity thief runs up exorbitant credit card debt in Florida and gets a few arrest warrants in his name. Since the Denver police can't do anything unless she's standing right there, Sandy hits the road to bring Diana back himself. Easier said than done as Sandy is completely unprepared for the obnoxious maelstrom that is Diana. Even worse, she's run afoul of two drug dealers (Genesis Rodriguez and rapper T.I.) and a grizzled bounty hunter (Robert Patrick).

Identity Thief was directed by Seth Gordon, who made a splash with his debut feature The King of Kong, a delightful documentary about vintage arcade games. Since then, Gordon has gone on to helm subpar Hollywood comedies Four Christmases and Horrible Bosses, along with the occasional episode of Parks and Recreation and The Office. You never notice the direction in films like Identity Thief and Gordon is perfectly serviceable. Stylish shot compositions aren't nearly as important as a funny, well-written script, which is nowhere to be found. The screenplay by Craig Mazin (who also wrote the Hangover sequels) relies on lowbrow humor and gives its talented cast almost nothing to work with.

The bulk of the movie is a road trip comedy in the vein of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles or Midnight Run. Jason Bateman is once again typecast as the straight arrow surrounded by outlandish characters. Meanwhile, McCarthy plays it to the hilt with big hair and thick eyeliner that makes her look like Mimi from The Drew Carey Show. A little McCarthy goes a long way. She was terrific in Bridesmaids and her brief part in This Is 40 was one of the best things in an otherwise dreary picture. Here, McCarthy wears out her welcome by the first act. It's not entirely her fault; the character is nothing more than a cartoon. Diana is cut from the same cloth as the annoying buffoon portrayed by Zach Galifianakis in Due Date. By the time Diana finally becomes a real human being in the third act the damage is done. That's a shame since McCarthy shows off serious acting chops in turning the caricature into a vulnerable person with real pathos. In the end, you have one person with a grating personality, another who is an utter milquetoast, and you don't want to root for either of them.

Sandy isn't the only victim of theft as someone must have stolen anything remotely funny about the entire movie. The jokes are lame and revolve around genitals or Sandy's androgynous name with a few pratfalls thrown in for good measure. The bounty hunter and the drug dealers seemed to have only been added to pad out the runtime. Identity Thief simply wastes the talents of Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy.

Rating: * ½ (*****)