All posts by piers

Piers Marchant is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. His work can be found at NBC, Guyspeed, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.
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Film Review: Magic in the Moonlight

Dir. Woody Allen
Score: 3.5

It’s no secret that a lot of critics feel Woody lost his fastball a long time ago. The director, whose work began in the late ’60s as ribald (and hilarious) comedy, before morphing into something far deeper and more satisfying by the late ’70s — certainly his most critically acclaimed work with the back-to-back release of the Oscar-winning Annie Hall in ’77 and Manhattan in ’79 — has, over the last two decades produced some 22 features, many of which utterly forgettable. For every minor hit he’s had — 2011′s Midnight in Paris, 2013′s Blue Jasmine — he’s had eight duds.

It has long been my contention that his single biggest issue has been the insane pace of his production. Allen has said he writes his next screenplay in six weeks and starts shooting shortly thereafter, allowing the near-octogenarian to average better than a film-a-year. Many of his films, even the total failures have at least a glimmer of something salvageable in them, something a seasoned writer with his ear for dialogue could take and reshape to a more accomplished sort of level, but it appears in his haste to finish the script and get a move on with the production, he eschews further drafts in favor of just loading the camera with film and calling out “action.” The only thing that has changed in recent years is Allen eschewing his beloved New York to shoot in some of the finest cities and regions in West Europe.

His latest film is set primarily in the South of France in 1928, but it begins in Berlin, in the middle of fantastic magic act. Colin Firth stars as Stanley Crawford, a world-famous magician whose act requires him to dress in Asian costume and fake long moustache as his illusionist alter-ego, Wei Ling Soo. One night after a rousing performance, the caustic and highly skeptical Stanley is approached by one of his few old and dear friends, Howard (Simon McBurney), who convinces him to come away with him to the French Rivera in order to help debunk a young, comely self-proclaimed mystic, Sophie (Emma Stone), who, along with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), has apparently completely fooled several members of a prominent, fabulously wealthy family into believing what Howard is certain is total bunk, only he hasn’t been able to solve the manner in which she is pulling her tricks.

With a burr in his saddle (the officious and highly pompous Stanley is greatly fond of seeking out these fakes and calling them out in public), Stanley agrees to accompany Howard and the two make their way to the fabulous estate, where they meet Brice (Hamish Linklater, always a joy), the young sire of the family, entirely smitten by Sophie and hoping she’ll agree to marry him, and Grace (Jacki Weaver), the elderly widowed matriarch of the clan, desperate to make “contact” with her long-dead husband. At first, Stanley can’t fathom Sophie’s tricks — she seems, by all accounts, entirely sincere and unflappable, leading séances and quick “impression” readings that are eerily prescient — though he remains utterly convinced of his skeptical world view. That is, until the unctuous lout takes young Sophie with him to visit a dear aunt of his living nearby (played by the winsome Eileen Atkins), and is forced to admit her knowledge of well-hidden family secrets is absolutely inexplicable.

The film goes on in this manner — rude, arrogant Stanley being forced to conceive a world in which his long and deeply held skepticism might well have been utterly misplaced — while the two completely mismatched characters are meant to be falling in love. But it is but one of Allen’s colossal misfires in this film that his two leads — being nearly 30 years apart in age, and further yet in terms of personality — share precious little chemistry. At first, Stanley is too critical and scathing to even consider such a thing, but then when he deigns to believe in her otherworldly powers, other glimmers of things start entering the picture.

But none of it makes terribly much sense — Stanley’s mood swings on the subject of Sophie are easily the most unbelievable aspect of the film and forces poor Colin Firth into twisting himself up in fully unsupported gyrations, character-wise — least of all why such an enchanting and beautiful young creature as Sophie would ever consider taking a pompous curmudgeon (whom, we are told, would much rather spend his day at home alone working on card tricks than engaging the outside world) over a dedicated and fabulously wealthy young man such as Brice, who seems hopelessly devoted to her.

Allen would have it that the magic in the title refers to the blinding authority of our hearts, which overrule our rational notions and desires despite our best efforts to curb its hedonistic impulses, but nothing save a hypnotic trance or powerful narcotic would be able to make sense of this gushing mess. What is most shocking about the film is how little fun Allen seems to be having with its conceit — a winsome vehicle by which he should have been able to mine Stanley’s crisis of faith and confidence for maximum laughs and impact. Instead, billed as a “romantic comedy” the film hardly bothers with the latter and fails horrendously with the former. Perhaps if he’d run it several more times through the aging comedic genius of his brain, he would have created something more satisfying: As it is, like its pompous protagonist, it’s a painful bore that overstays its welcome far beyond its relatively benign running time.

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Film Review: Lucy

Dir. Luc Besson
Score: 5.4

Something there is in us that wants the most beautiful and accomplished members of our race to be somehow more than human. As if a person’s physical beauty and charisma — like the royals of ages gone past — suggests an altogether superior being, one of light and dazzle and super-heightened senses (probably). In this vein, it makes perfect sense that we continually peg Scarlett Johansson as an uber-human demi goddess. In the last couple of years, we’ve watched her as a Russian super-spy, able to dispatch an army of thugs while tied to a chair; a malevolent alien, luring unwise Scotsmen from Edinburgh streets and taking them to a shimmering black oil strip of death; and, now, in Luc Besson’s absurd comic-book-like action fable, as a woman suddenly able to access all of her brain’s capacity, allowing her to control matter, read minds, and manipulate waves of energy to appear on a TV screen a continent away.

She doesn’t start out like this of course. At first, we briefly see her as a flighty young college student studying and hard-partying in Taipei. She has evidently reproachable taste in men, because she allows her shady new boyfriend (Pilou Asbæk) to convince her to deliver a mysterious metal attaché case to the super luxe hotel of Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi), a heavy-hitter in the Chinese underworld, whose posse of bodyguards promptly absconds with her. Before she knows it, she’s forced to be a courier for a new, powerful synthetic drug. True to Jang’s brutal style, his method of transport is particularly savage: He rounds her up with several other sad-sacks, has bags of the drug surgically implanted in their intestines and has them fly to international destinations all over the globe upon threat of great bodily harm coming to their families.

Things don’t go as planned however, after Lucy gets worked over by one of Jang’s low-level thugs, the bag ruptures in her stomach, sending a wicked amount of the drug coursing through her veins. Before she knows it, she’s able to learn languages, read light impulses and shoot a high-powered gun with flawless aim. On a path to both revenge and a sudden higher calling, she makes contact with Dr. Norman (Morgan Freeman), a scientist and professor in Paris, whose theories on the untapped potential of the human brain she finds “on the right track.”

Pursued by Jang and his men, she gets locked in a race against time trying to amass the rest of the drug taken by couriers in an attempt to go all the way and access 100 percent of her capacity before the drug ends up killing her, an event she figures to take no more than 24 hours.

Besson, whose films often sacrifice narrative logic and believable emotions for cartoon-like sparks and flashes, is absolutely in his element here, though, essentially, he has something of a philosophical treatise hidden not so cleverly in the intestines of an action thriller. Seemingly aware of the rather inert quality of his premise, he returns again and again to cut-away footage, with stock visual tropes (a mouse approaching a trap; a leopard stalking its prey; a primitive human building a fire) in order to bolster the visual punch, but none of it covers up the thinness of his plot, nor the film’s curious lack of fun or style.

Part of the issue is the lead-in gives us so little to work with as far as Lucy’s character, pre-genius. We know nothing about her or her life in Taiwan, and her transformation — which involves her suddenly rolling up and around the walls of a prison cell like something out of The Exorcist — doesn’t seem to particularly faze her. Part of this could be because her heightened intelligence allows her to see exactly what has happened and why, but part also is that, as she says, she feels “no pain, no fear, no sadness,” which, if you think about it, pretty much takes out the narrative drive and gives Johansson, ever the willing conduit, very little with which to work.

Curiously, for a film about someone exceeding normal human intelligence, it appears as if Besson was distracted from his own premise, stuck on the idea that achieving full consciousness would result, 2001-like, in a regression to the singular event that began our universe’s trajectory. If that sounds a bit heavy for an otherwise dopey shoot-em-up with a hot Hollywood actress, I can’t blame you. It’s possible, of course, that Besson is, like his fetching protagonist, somehow working so far above my primitive brain that I simply can’t follow his brilliance, but somehow I sort of doubt it.

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Film Review: Boyhood

Dir. Richard Linklater
Score: 8.0

We first meet young Mason Jr. (Eller Coltrane) lying on the grass, staring up at the clouds shifting in the sky, a six-year-old, given to staring out the window in his classroom with a strange early sense of self-possession. It is a significant snapshot — beyond the fact that is the very image used for the film’s promotional materials — because this fleeting moment of seeing him, young, unadorned, curious but as yet mostly unlived, is subject to massive — oft harrowing — change over the course of the next 12 years. And this remarkable film from Richard Linklater purports to actually show Mason’s life unfolding over those years in snippets of activity as the actors all grow old with their characters.

Linklater has always been fascinated by the passage of time, and those moments we hold onto later on as significant memories. Think back to his brilliant Before series: The first film ends with the camera lovingly retracing the various locations through Vienna the loquacious young couple (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) took on their endless stroll the night before. The settings are the same, yet, without the couple or any one else in the frame, we are given to understand what has passed has become the past, and the significance of those specific spots in the city have been wiped clean with the new day’s dawn.

Here, following the course of Mason’s life — from dreamy child to video game-loving 10-year-old, to beer-swilling pre-teen, to thoughtful, articulate young artist — Linklater’s methodology involves us deeply in the film’s process (the first couple of time jumps, which come without warning or placard, I audibly groaned, sorry to have left the previous time period on time’s relentless march forward), but it does so in a way that never feels short of organic.

Masons’ mother Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette, and father, Mason Sr. (Hawke, again, who will have Linklater to thank for documenting his life so thoroughly over the course of his long career) also go through significant change and re-appraisal. Olivia re-marries two more times, in both cases to hard-drinking, dictatorial men who make for lousy husbands and even worse father figures, while Mason Sr. stops cavorting around Alaska and trying to be a musician and instead becomes a steady husband and father with a new wife and a new baby boy with which to contend.

But, by definition, it’s not a film that relies heavily on plot to carry you through its narrative. The time-jumps are too jarring and inconclusive for that sort of cohesion: In one scene, Mason Jr. is eight or nine, starting yet another new school and enjoying a flirtatious encounter with a cute female classmate; the next, he’s several years older, in an entirely different city, experiencing something else entirely.

It’s the kind of seemingly structureless chronicle that Linklater so excels in producing: His films don’t build into swelling wave-like crescendos of narrative thrust, they meander around like a series of small, noteworthy tide pools. His best films — think the Before series, Slacker, even Dazed & Confused — don’t so much pull you through a story as set you down in an unadorned series of moments in the lives of the characters, letting you swim through their lives as they slip and undulate around you.

Meanwhile, Mason’s parents and sister also evolve: His father goes from being a slightly shiftless, irresponsible (though loving) rogue to a mustachioed middle-manager, his romantic dreams dampened by the yoke of his responsibilities to his current and old family. His mother moves from being an undereducated single parent who makes questionable choices in men to a PhD. professor of psychology — who still makes curiously horrible choices in men, especially in those of whom she chooses to marry.

Emotionally, she becomes the film’s fulcrum. Mason Jr. is forced to swallow various disappointments — everything from his parents’ divorce to a bad break-up with his high school sweetheart — but does so with a smooth calmness, somehow already adept at navigating these tricky waters. Olivia, by contrast, makes “poor life decisions” left and right, never sticking to one plan before moving on to something different. It is her plaintive sobbing as her son, now a preternaturally calm and sweet young adult, leaves home for college, that sticks the film’s most painful pushpin: His life is just beginning, the people he will meet, the adventures he will share, while hers already feels near over “My life is just going to go like that,” she says, in anguish, “a series of milestones. I just thought there would be more.”

And just like that, he’s on the road, heading to college on an art scholarship, everything essential he’s accumulated over the years we’ve known him reduced to a couple of boxes and a suitcase. His mom wants him to take a framed copy of his first photo with him, something to remind him of his beginnings as an artist, but Mason takes it out of the box where she placed it and puts it back into her apartment, no longer interested in documenting his past so much as sailing off into his own remarkably unbridled future.

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Film Review: Life Itself

Dir. Steve James
Score: 7.4

Over the last few years of his life, his body ravaged by cancer to the point where he couldn’t eat, drink or speak, Roger Ebert went from porcine, preening TV icon to the beloved patron saint of all film critics. Some of this was due to the courage and conviction with which he faced his most terrible health predicament — in the course of things, he lost his lower jaw, his tongue and all of the lower part of his face to the point where, near the end, there was only a loose lower mouth flap dangling like a swing under the roof of his mouth — but a lot of it was the way in which, with the launching of his blog, he finally opened up to the world at large. In this way, despite the fact that he still kept a pretty murderous schedule of screenings, reviews, and other movie-related writings, he also added much in the way of personal revelation and politics (he was an avowed liberal) to his output.

It was a particularly cruel way to go, the man whose smooth, sonorous voice had become absolutely synonymous with film commentary — apart from the various incarnations of his TV show with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel, Ebert was a popular figure on the lecture/conference circuit, displaying, scene-by-scene, some of his favorite films such as Citizen Kane — suddenly without a voice to contribute. But in the aftermath of his loss, he re-doubled his efforts to be heard, even if he had no way of speaking them (later on, he got a proprietary computer program to ‘speak’ for him, a la Stephen Hawking, only in some facsimile of his own voice). And so he went from being a slightly resented, if not rich and powerful, popular critic to a true populist.

Steve James’ remarkable film, documenting the last few months of Ebert’s life as well as celebrating all that had come before his sickness and demise, from his early roots as an arrogant kid in Urbana, Illinois, to his stint as a decidedly talented but conceited editor at the Daily Illini, his college paper where he was an iron-fisted Editor-in-Chief, to his early days with the Chicago Sun Times, where he was handed the film critic job shortly after joining the ranks of the ink-stained wretches, to his long nights drinking and raconteuring with his fellow daily scribes in dilapidated Chicago watering holes, to his eventual sobriety and world-wide fame along with Siskel, as the only film criticism TV show to have made it big.

Ebert lived a life of regal splendor in many ways, at least by the standards of this occupation, jet-setting to major festivals, interviewing whomever he wanted and for as long as he so desired, but it wasn’t until he quit drinking and finally met and married a woman named Chaz, whom he knew from his AA meetings, that he really settled into being a more three-dimensional human being (Siskel’s widow recounts a story, pre-Chaz, where eight months pregnant, Ebert cut in front of her to grab a cab in New York).

His relationship with his TV spouse was so famously contentious, they often wouldn’t speak to each other outside of the confines of the show. Siskel, who worked for the far more upscale Tribune across the street, was as smooth and garrulous as Ebert was heavy and prickly. When they were first contacted about doing a film review TV show, they would have preferred working with anyone else, but over the course of time, as the film demonstrates, the two became inexorably linked, both financially and professionally, and grudgingly came to appreciate each other. Siskel died of brain cancer back in 1999, and though he wasn’t destined to be as venerated or beloved as his partner, Ebert himself was never quite the same.

If Siskel were more the blue-blooded Ivy-league man (graduating from Yale), Ebert was the anti-elitist: the too-smart kid from a small town who had made it in the big city on the strength and guile of his conviction in himself. Ironically, it was a story fit for the movies, a Preston Sturges rags-to-riches sort of affair, complete with unlikely love story and ravaging disease that somehow makes the protagonist more popular and beloved than ever. It is an irony, one can imagine, far from lost on Ebert, who died just last year, as the film was being completed. Fortunately, the veritable mountain of writing he left in his wake will forever stand as a testament to his talent — and his courage.

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Film Review: Ida

Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski
Score: 6.6

Director Pawel Pawlikowski has a way of constructing his frame so that his characters appear at the bottom edge, with the widest expanse of screen over their heads, as if to suggest both the vulnerable placement of his protagonists, and also the vastness of the impenetrable world around them.

The film plays out as a bit of a mystery: A young novice named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), in early ’60s Poland, several weeks from taking her vows as a nun in the convent she was raised in, gets to visit her only living relative, an aunt in a nearby town, whom she has never met. Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza) turns out to be formidable, both a heavy-drinking and lusty firebrand, and a powerful judge at the local magistrate. Wanda explains to Anna that not only is her real name Ida, but that she is actually Jewish — her parents both being executed during the war.

Together, the unlikely pair seek out the former house of Ida’s parents, out in the rural countryside where a Catholic family now resides. In the course of their journey, Ida discovers much more about her parents’ tragic story, and perhaps the source of Wanda’s misery.

But this isn’t a simple sort of conceit, a “personal journey” wherein the closeted nun-to-be, learns about the joys of the hedonist life from her fun-loving aunt. Pawlikowski is after something much more meaningful and subtle. Ida does get to experience a significant taste of the outside world, but that hardly means it pulls her away from her faith.

It’s an old-school sort of value, enhanced appreciably by Pawlikowski’s use of the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, one favored by the silent films of the ’20s and ’30s, and the lustrous black and white cinematography from Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, which, as with the aforementioned careful framing, is often stunning.

But none of the film’s beauty masks the difficulty of its subject matter, nor the dark, ominous skies that seem ever prevalent as the characters make their way through the Polish countryside. Pawlkiowski also favors a simplified story-telling technique, whereby he cuts scenes abruptly, with very little non-essential material. As a result its 80-minute run-time feels cut to the absolute bone, a detail that works very well with the choice of brooding subject matter. With the exception of the deeply wounded Wanda, none of the characters speak much more than they absolutely have to, a way to suggest the lack of conversation on the subject of the war and the shattering guilt still felt between countrymen.

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Film Review: Under the Skin

Dir. Jonathan Glazer
Score: 8.0

Atmospheric darkness is a character unto itself Jonathan Glazer’s nervy, sci-fi thriller. Figures emerge from and spill into pitch blackness as a matter of course, and the film even opens from black with only a small pinprick of light in the center of the frame. Glazer’s film plays a bit like noir, with a comely, hard-edged dame making eyes at various weak-willed men with a fearsome ulterior purpose in mind, but where this avant-garde film ends up taking them is somewhere altogether unexpected.

The dame in this case is Scarlett Johansson, who plays Laura, a mysterious, dark haired alien form, arrived at Earth (or, perhaps constructed here, it remains unclear) to skulk the streets of Edinburgh in a white van, searching for men foolish enough to think she could be sexually interested in them. She takes them to a remote brick building somewhere on the outskirts of town and leads them into one of the film’s many pitch black rooms. There she casually begins to strip, still walking away from them, and they each follow suit, stripping down and hurrying towards her before the shimmering, mirror like surface beneath their feet turns viscous liquid, sending them deep into a oily tomb.

Just why this is all necessary is never explained. Nor is Laura’s true purpose — other than to ensnare men, lead them into her lair, and deposit their bodies into the vat of liquid. The film is based on the equally baffling novel by Michael Faber, but to dwell overly on the film’s many unanswered questions is to perhaps miss the billowing trees in the beautifully dour Scottish forest.

With very little dialogue, absolutely none of which could be termed “expository,” Glazer and his skilled production team, working off a script he co-wrote with Walter Campbell, give us just enough hints of the story to follow along with reasonable clarity. Relying on a sort of narrative archetype — the humanoid who first simply apes the beings it’s trying to emulate before finally succumbing to the emotion of human empathy, and going on the lam from its merciless handlers — Glazer needs never give us full explanations for the plot, such as it is, to hang together.

And to be sure, Glazer, who earned deserved high praise for Sexy Beast back in 2000, is working from the sacred texts of the avant-garde sci-fi films of yore, calling to mind such equally stunning and perplexing films as 2001, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Liquid Sky (the latter, a bizarre tale about aliens coming to Earth and discovering the power of human sexuality, could have been a source text). The beauty in the form is the creative, visionary power of the genre: If one is to witness things that have not been invented yet, in a time that has not yet taken place, you need to be able to take a monstrous leap of imagination, which offers daring filmmakers like Glazer the opportunity to really push the limits of cinematic storytelling.

Aiding greatly his cause is lead Scarlett Johansson, who uses the film as a vehicle to show her burgeoning versatility and highlight her welcome lack of Hollywood starlet vanity you might expect from a woman so praised for her beauty. Driving at night alone in a van, she attempts to pick up men in order to trick them into the pitch black room. Reportedly, many of these scenes were unscripted, shooting with non-actors using hidden cameras (a sort of twist on the infamous drive-and-pick-up bit with Burt Reynolds and Heather Graham towards the sad end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights). In these scenes, Johansson turns from stone-faced alien to full-bodied Hollywood charm bracelet in a flash. The non-actor men, naturally, have no inkling they’re talking to a world-renowned Hollywood sex symbol, until it’s far too late for them to do anything about it.

The seduction scenes in the reflective black room are also revelatory, and not just in the sense that Johansson repeatedly strips down for them. As attractive as she is, she appears very close to attainable, almost Rubinesque, flat-footed and pale, staring at the men impassively as they slowly sink down — erections still intact — into the shimmering liquid. As much as she’s on-screen, this isn’t a glamour shoot, but having a star of her caliber and fame, tooling around Scotland, speaking off-the-cuff with wholly unsuspecting rubes is most certainly an artistic coup. As distinctive as the film’s visual poetics are, Johansson carries the film on her slender shoulders.

Just what everything means can be happily debated by starry-eyed cinemaphiles for years to come, in yet another example of a film we should all be thankful got made in the first place, entirely due to Glazer’s enormous dedication to the project: He was reportedly working on it for more than a decade. The result of his tireless efforts is a hauntingly effective vision, laced with a slender undercurrent of emotional viability that gets its hooks solidly into you. After all, just because something melts into darkness doesn’t mean you can’t still feel its presence after its gone.

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Film Review: Rio 2

Dir. Carlos Saldanha
Score: 4.5

Do CEOs of huge conglomerated companies simply not have any children? If they do, what do you suppose they go to when they take their kids to the movies? They surely can’t take them to the standard Hollywood animated kids’ flick: Almost universally, huge, autonomous corporations are the catalyst for everything that goes wrong in the characters’ lives. Consider: In WALL-E, we had the diabolical Buy N Large Corp.; in The Lorax, it was the now-regretful Once-ler and his family’s corporation; and in Coudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 the culprit (as usual) was Live Corp. Not saying we should shed any tears for these people — I mean, with their annual take home and bonuses, they could probably just film their own animated specials if they so chose — but it’s got to be difficult to take the kids to a Saturday matinee and have them cheering for the giant, evil corporation to go down in flames before the first box of Sour Patch kids has even been opened.

This film, the inevitable follow-up to the mildly amusing original, involving a squadron of extremely rare blue Macaws facing off against an illegal logging operation in the Amazon rainforest, is hardly an exception (though at least the evil concern here appears to be run by a single wealthy man and not a huge company of suits). After all, if any child does even a modicum of research online about stripping the Amazon, they will quickly find out the names of the faceless multi-national conglomerates behind the real razing of the forest.

As far as the film is concerned, we start several years after domesticated Macaw Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) has found Jewel (Anne Hathaway), the love of his life, in Rio. They have started a family with three hatchlings, one young female who is wise and practical, one wild male who loves practical jokes, and one teen (?) female who finds everything lame. As the film begins, Blu’s former owners, the naturalists Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) and Linda (Leslie Mann), accidentally discover a flock of the ultra rare blue macaws deep in the jungle, the very same jungle that an evil oligarch (Miguel Ferrer), is presiding over his illegal logging operation.

You can pretty much see where this is headed: Jewel prompts Blu, their family, and ultimately several of their friends, including Pedro (Will i Am) and Nico (Jamie Foxx) to head to the jungle in order to meet with this strange new flock. It turns out, this flock is lead by Jewel’s father, (Andy Garcia), long separated from his daughter by some previous altercation with human beings. As a result, he’s distrustful of them, which flies directly in the fact of Blu’s willful domesticity (he insists on carrying around a fanny pack filled with human entrapments such as breath mints, tooth paste, a GPS and a swiss-army knife). Meanwhile, just to complicate things further, Blu’s arch enemy, the dulcet toned Nigel (Jermaine Clement), reduced to flightlessness in the previous film, tracks down his adversary in the jungle along with his friend, Gabi (Kristen Chenoweth), a poisonous frog who is madly in love with him, seeking hearty revenge.

The film never much rises above the bare minimum of what is expected out of it: There are lots of the same sorts of jokes floating around, mostly concerning Blu’s neurotic ineptness when it comes to living in the wild, and nearly every character that got play in the original is dutifully rolled out to get their quick laugh-lines, but the whole enterprise feels less than inspired. It could be the plotting, which is all too quick to get to the point without adding any truly unexpected element; it could also be that writer Yoni Brenner, working from a story by Don Rhymer and director Carlos Saldanha simply didn’t have all that much else to say about the characters than what was already covered in the original. It’s not without its minor charms (the colorful animation sequences are easy to take for granted in this day and age, but there are still some shots set in the Amazon that are visually pretty stunning), but it never bothers to expand on anything beyond it’s previous scope, other than to add the three fairly banal kids into the mix.

In place of real inspiration, then, the writers have resorted to a heavy-handed moral approach with the material. Don’t get me wrong, as a concerned environmentalist, I’m happy to have more propaganda decrying the destroying of the rain forest for kids to have to ponder, but it feels a good deal less impassioned than a necessary cog in order to turn the plot crankwheel a few more revolutions.

To test the theory, I asked my daughter and her friend, the two adorable 8-year-olds I brought with me to the press screening, to tell me what the lesson of the film might have been. My daughter was unsure what I meant by “lesson” (which maybe suggests something about me as a parent), but her friend thought for a few seconds and then suddenly brightened: “That everybody gets along?” she said. Back to the drawing board, enviro-friendly screenwriters.

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Film Review: Oculus

Dir. Mike Flanagan
Score: 5.9

All film genres have their tropes; it’s just that horror has them posted like large, bobbing buoys in a restless sea. From watching countless such flicks, we can extrapolate the following to be self-evident:

pets = dead
skeptics = proven wrong
moving into a new house = huge mistake
approaching ghostly visages in skimpy nightie = only acceptable method
man left alone to write = very bad idea
antique black cedar mirror = big trouble

This isn’t to suggest Mike Flanagan’s occult thriller is some lazy, rote dog of convenience. The film is carefully observed and actually pretty creepy — but it’s difficult to see it, and many other films of its ilk, and not get distracted by all the connections to the films like it that have come before.

In order to really unsettle an audience, you need to pull their collective chairs out from under them: The true seminal horror films of any age did just that (think Psycho, Alien, The Shining, The Silence of the Lambs, The Blair Witch Project) taking an idea an audience thinks its well prepared for, only to switch gears on them in as shocking a manner as possible (shower scene, chest burster, etc.) and leave them scrambling to make sense of the new paradigm suddenly thrust upon them. Of course, in order to do that, you need to be able to imagine horror outside of its already firmly established conventions (which change somewhat from culture to culture, hence the early effectiveness of J-horror and French horror flicks in the last decade).

Your other option, of course, is a good deal simpler: Take an existing set of tropes and, like a classic romance flick, tease out the details so it becomes something both familiar and vaguely new at the same time.

When the film opens, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites), is just being released from a psychiatric ward, where he’s spent the last eleven years trying to come to grips with a terrible trauma inflicted upon him and his older sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan). When they were children, their father (Rory Cochrane) started to slowly go insane shortly after the installing a peculiar, antique mirror in his office, in the posh house the family had just relocated. Before too long, he kills their suffering mother (Katee Sackhoff), after torturing her for days, and coming after the children until young Tim (played by Garrett Ryan) finally shoots him in order to protect his sister (played as a girl by Annalise Basso). Released and finally free, Tim quickly reunites with Kaylie, now 23 and engaged to a wealthy auction manager (James Lafferty) at the firm they both work, but she’s still obsessed with that evil mirror and clearing her father’s name.

Acquiring the evil mirror from her auction house, she sets up an elaborate means of gaining revenge: Putting the mirror back on the wall of her father’s office in front of a veritable installation of video cameras, computers and a fail-safe anvil drop in order to capture, on tape, the evil of which she’s convinced that bit of reflective glass is capable.

What Flanagan does, quite effectively, is put us in two more or less simultaneous timestreams: their first encounter with the mirror as kids with their parents, and the present, where the emotionally subdued Tim, thoroughly therapized, tries desperately to convince his sister her mirror conspiracy theory is entirely in her head. The director slips back and forth from the two, often overlapping a bit of dialogue or sound effect in his segue, so that it’s not always immediately apparent which era we are witnessing, and things get ever more compressed together.

The effect is suitably unnerving, at least for a time (though the question must be asked why she doesn’t just throw a brick through the thing before its sufficiently powered up enough to defend itself). We flow back and forth through the horror the siblings experienced as kids, with both of their parents suddenly going off the deep end at once, and their current situation, with the mirror throwing illusion after illusion at them in an attempt to manipulate them into doing its bidding.

Along the way, we get a fascinating history lesson from Kaylie on the subject of the mirror, which has been killing and torturing would-be owners for the better part of four centuries, amassing a significant list of grotesque kills (45, to be exact, she tells the camera helpfully) at every stop. Which is significant, because a good deal of the film’s macabre power lies in Flanagan’s having cultivated such a long and well-thought-out backstory for his demon mirror. It’s this attention to detail, a willingness to put in the intellectual effort in order to disturb us, rather than just rely on lame jump-camera shots and buckets of blood to do the work of scaring us silly, that allows the film to resonate.

Along the way, Flanagan also gets to strike a blow against cognitive therapy (Tim’s studied rationalization eventually turns completely against him), and work by its own rules so as not to guarantee a cuddly ending. Like 2012′s Sinister, the film earns itself a little extra credit by not retracting its claws and going soft at the end. Flanagan sticks to his guns and gives us something creepy to chew on. It’s by no means seminal (though, as these things go, I certainly wouldn’t doubt a sequel in the works), but it’s just careful enough to be effective, more than one can say for a great deal of the blood-spattering genre.

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Film Review: Cuban Fury

Dir. James Griffiths
Score: 4.5

Let me put my cards on the table early on this one and say that films centered around dance — tango, ballet, hip-hop, you name it — usually leave me pretty unmoved. This is especially true if the dancing is meant to represent a good deal of the film’s, er, thrust, and not just as a backdrop for a more involved character study, or artistic allegory (ie. Black Swan). Part of it is certainly my own dancing heathenism — surprising no one, dancing just ain’t really my thing — but there is another, more defensible reason: It all too often takes precedence over everything else the film has to offer, and therefore serves as a twirling crutch for all those invariably more complicated and vexing elements such as narrative drive and character coherence.

Sadly, James Griffith’s British dance-off comedy falls squarely into the latter category. It essentially has one joke — a big, heavy bloke who works in industrial machine parts, played by the ever-genial Nick Frost, is actually completely smitten by Latin dancing. It turns out, he used to be a champion salsa dancer in his less heavyset youth, and, in trying to impress his beautiful, new American boss, played by Rashida Jones, he slowly goes through the painful process of attempting to reconnect to his corazón in order to dance again. Like it’s large-sized star, the film means perfectly well, and is amiable enough, but a bland script by Jon Brown, and a paint-by-numbers plot that involves several significantly convenient coincidences and characters ruled by stereotype, pretty much leaves it flat-footed and standing in the corner.

To begin with, it’s exactly the kind of vehicle you would see Will Ferrell starring in, only he would amp up the ridiculousness of the character, and make the stakes seem far more melodramatic than necessary (see Casa de mi Padre for direct evidence). Frost isn’t that sort of larger-than-life fellow, his charm has always been as the good-on-ya best friend to whatever maniac his good friend Simon Pegg has dreamed up for himself. He has to play pretty close to the vest, which allows for solid side work, but becomes more difficult as a leading man.

He plays Bruce, a former schoolboy Salsa champion who, on the night of what should have been his coronation at a national dancing contest, gets singled out by a group of young thugs and has the sequins literally beaten off of him. Discouraged and bitter, he quits the scene to the disappointment of his teacher, the great Ron Parfitt (Ian McShane).

Years later, he’s gone into middle-age with very little to show for himself. He has his industrial mechanics job (and a coffee mug that says “I Love My Lathe”), a handful of friends who get together with him and discuss in detail how none of them are progressing in their sexual lives, and an obnoxious co-worker named Drew (Chris O’Dowd), who delights in calling him fat names and instantly comes on to their pretty new boss, Julia (Jones), when she suddenly takes over the department.

Thing is, it turns out Julia is actually also a Salsa nut, so Bruce gets up the gumption to try and slip on the inch-high suede shoes once again in order to impress her. You can pretty much take it from here — no, please, I insist — as the film does not leave a single fat gag or obvious plot obstacle wanting en route to solving all things for everybody through the sheer power of dance.

Which would be perfectly fine, I suppose, if it were a funnier movie. But despite working very hard to entice you, there really isn’t much here except a thin gruel of fat jokes, gay Arab dancer jokes, and a few brushes with physical comedy. Without terribly much to do, Frost does his best to fill the screen with his character’s pathos, and while he remains largely sympathetic, he’s rarely able to transcend the leaden frame with which he’s been given to work. There simply isn’t enough here to keep us going all the way to the climactic Salsa show-down. Frost is game, and damn if he isn’t lighter on his feet than you might imagine, but no amount of hip thrusts or twirling can entirely make us forget the largely flavorless build-up it took to get us here.