As summer trickles out with the usual hopeless Labor Day menu of schlock that should have gone straight to video, Hollywood takes its usual breather for a few weeks, but starting in October some of the year’s most keenly anticipated movies will begin to roll out. Here are five that look like major potential crowd-pleasers.
1. The Wolf of Wall Street (Nov. 15)
Leonardo DiCaprio is an overrated actor, but the principal reason he’s overrated is that he’s usually very good in Martin Scorsese films like this one (though he stumbles with other directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Clint Eastwood).
The movie sounds like a gleefully cynical, Goodfellas-like take on the booming 1990s financial industry, minus Oliver Stone’s groaning liberal cliches about corruption. Instead, the adaptation of a memoir by former stockbroker Jordan Belfort (an outsider who made it into one of America’s most exclusive clubs, much like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, before an equally spectacular downfall) is being billed as a boys-will-be-boys black-comedy spree.
Through Scorsese’s mischief-loving eyes, Wall Street will be shown in a state of ecstatic excess characterized by dwarf-tossing, coke-snorting and wanton sexual misbehavior. The movie sounds buzzy, funny, dark, rude and politically incorrect.
The Oscar-for-Oprah campaign starts now, with the oversimplified Hollywood tearjerker Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film by the director of Precious that plays Hollywood’s white liberal guilt like a Stradivarius. Marching through the decades like a chocolate Gump, the title character (Forest Whitaker) is a stolid, nonpolitical White House servant (Winfrey plays his wife) in every administration from Eisenhower to Reagan. Through his eyes we witness many of the most telling chapters of the Civil Rights epic. But the movie doesn’t treat the topic with the seriousness it deserves. Here are five big conceptual errors in the movie.
5. It overstates its case.
Whitaker’s Butler is a tortured soul (largely the creation of screenwriter Danny Strong, who also wrote the Sarah Palin hatefest Game Change) who has known all kinds of heartbreak, but the Washington Post article about a real long-serving White House butler that was the original basis for the movie is free of the anguish or anger with which the movie is loaded. In the first two or three minutes there are references to two lynchings, a rape (of the butler’s mother) and a racist murder (of his father). None of these things happened to the actual butler, who also didn’t have an activist son or another son who died in the Vietnam War.
This week Matt Damon hits theaters with the thinly veiled, pro-amnesty sci-fi parable Elysium. It’s a movie in which struggling Latinos stranded on a wrecked planet Earth 150 years from now plot ways to steal citizenship on a utopian space station called Elysium where the richest and whitest people have fled. This is all nothing new for Damon, who has pushed a liberal political agenda many times before. Here are the five worst political ideas that have been central to his films.
5) The CIA is evil.
The 2006 film The Good Shepherd is loosely based on the early days of the OSS and the CIA, with Robert De Niro directing and playing a figure modeled on “Wild Bill” Donovan (the founder of the OSS, which became the CIA after World War II) and Damon starring as James Jesus Angleton, the CIA executive who befriended British turncoat Kim Philby.
The movie is a somber, depressing affair of a descent into darkness that amounts to a sort of Greatest Hits of anti-CIA liberals obsessed with such disappointments as the agency’s experiments with LSD and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Though few outside the liberal establishment can see the wisdom in letting the KGB go unanswered during the Cold War, the film portrays the CIA as fatally morally compromised — a kind of cancer on the whole idea of America.
From the trailers, this week’s new thriller 2 Guns looks like a tasty new dish in the long buffet of fun action movies. But it doesn’t have all of the five things that would earn it the coveted title of “kick-ass.” Here’s a brief rundown of what every action flick that hopes to endure must have.
5) A genuine take-him-to-the-bank movie star. Preferably two.
Despite his shaky start, Mark Wahlberg did turn out to be a likeable, physical, often funny star, and Denzel Washington exudes star qualities. Both of these guys have the don’t-mess-with-me look. But sorry, Shia LaBeouf, your look is, “Please give me a wedgie and then stuff me in a locker.” Leonardo DiCaprio, your look is aging pretty boy. Jake Gyllenhaal, you can get as pumped up as you want but you still look more like a poet of Pasadena than the Prince of Persia. None of you looks like the guy I want standing behind me with his arms crossed calmly over his chest when I get into an argument with half a dozen Hell’s Angels in a roadhouse. An action-movie star has to have presence, like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jason Statham.
Six movies into the X-Men series, it’s clear that this is the superhero franchise with the most overt and unapologetic leftist sympathies. As the series continues with The Wolverine, let’s review some of the most outrageously politicized elements of the saga. Here are the top four loony leftist lies that sneaked into the X-Men movies.
1. Animal rights trump human rights.
The Wolverine begins with the title figure (Hugh Jackman) living like a caveman in the lonely Yukon, where he can’t stop himself from fighting for justice and righting wrongs. He comes across a grizzly bear that’s been fatally wounded with what turns out to be a poison arrow. This kind of hunting may be poor sportsmanship and it may be illegal, but what Wolverine does is far worse: He finds the hunter in a bar, slaps him around and rams one of the man’s own poison arrows into the man’s hand, leaving him to die. Rough justice? No, that’s just murder. Sorry, X-Men, but hunters are not evil and a bear’s life and a man’s are not equivalents.
Even in Hollywood, you have to deliver results if you want to remain employed. Every year stars fall off the A-list — ask circa 2009 Nicolas Cage about that — and find themselves in a shame spiral of B-movies, supporting roles, and eventually television (sorry, Robin Williams, who will be appearing in the CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones, and as the dad, no less). Who is about to fall off the top of the perch?
1. Tom Cruise
The success of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol less than two years ago gave his stock a bump, but apparently it was the stunts that were the star of that movie. In the three consecutive flops he’s made since — Rock of Ages, Jack Reacher and the aptly-named Oblivion – audiences didn’t even show up on opening weekend out of curiosity. Before Protocol, don’t forget, no one showed up for Knight and Day, Valkyrie or Lions for Lambs, either. Cruise is 51 years old, his boyish charm is finally gone, and he isn’t an action hero anymore. Audiences see him as their weird dad. He should give up on trying to rule the multiplex and start nosing around for more interesting roles like the one he had in Magnolia. Not that he’s fond of Paul Thomas Anderson anymore after Anderson made fun of scientology in The Master.
Next up: Fighting aliens next summer in All You Need Is Kill. Sure.
A lot of forgettable movies have rained down on the multiplexes during Hollywood’s nonstop deluge of blockbusters this summer. But what are the ten most essential summer blockbusters of the last decade? Here’s one fan’s take.
10. The Avengers (2012)
Too comic-booky to be a truly great movie, and degenerating into a meaningless pow-biff-bam climax, Joss Whedon’s superhero omnibus nevertheless sparkled with clever dialogue and launched what looks like a new era in movie mashups by managing to fit a squad of mythic larger-than-life figures on a single canvas.
Whedon’s trick was to shrink them a bit, treating them as squabbling fraternity brothers mocking each other’s amazing backstories the way the lads at Delta House would taunt each other for being fat or having an ugly girlfriend. Whedon made these demigods relatable without making them absurd.
Brad Pitt is not the world’s greatest actor, but he does have talent and movie-star charisma. More important, though, he has good taste which proves he’s not a hack. Movies like Moneyball, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Tree of Life and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button prove he’s interested in quality material that isn’t necessarily commercial. He isn’t Sly Stallone or Steven Seagal.
So what is he doing producing and starring in World War Z when he could be doing something a lot more interesting than shooting zombies in the face? That’s easy. He’s in Paycheck Mode. He thinks he needs to carry a bona-fide blockbuster series in order to keep him in the style to which he’s become accustomed. Here are five ways you can tell he’s doing it strictly for the bucks.
1) The New Movie Is High-Concept, Meaning Low-Effort on the Part of the Audience.
You can’t explain the appeal of Moneyball or Jesse James in a sentence, but World War Z is simply a movie about your average ordinary expert UN diplomat/action hero/scientist/dad who singlehandedly saves the world from an unexplained zombie outbreak. Problem: the audience figures out early going in that this is pretty much going to be the whole story, so the only reason to stick around is to ogle the special effects and worship his Bradness. The movie is set up to launch a franchise that would replace the Ocean’s series with an easy way for Brad to replenish the bank account every couple of years, but with cost overruns driving the budget up to some $200 million — some say the true figure is closer to $300 million — the zombie thriller seems unlikely to spark a sequel.
Man of Steel may not measure up to the classic 1978 Superman, but it’s a refreshingly grownup film in a sea of the summer sillies. Here’s why it easily tops Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Oblivion, After Earth and the rest of the blockbuster slate so far.
1. It’s a classic story told seriously, with no goofy elements.
If comic-book movies run from Batman & Robin on one side to The Dark Knight on the other, Man of Steel, which essentially begins like Superman and morphs into Superman II, is much closer to the psychological and foreboding end of the spectrum than the campy and ridiculous one. The Christ-like story of a godlike man sent to Earth as our savior is dressed up with impressive special effects on Krypton (where Kal-El’s father Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe, sends him to Earth as the planet expires beneath him) and again on this planet, where Superman moves with bullet-like speed in visceral, believable scenes shot like those in the found-footage film Chronicle. There are hardly any jokes in the film, and that’s a good thing.
We’ve been through a lot with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson through the years. We laughed at them in Wedding Crashers, chuckled at Old School (though Owen was played by his brother Luke), and cried along with Marley and Me, in which Vaughn was disguised as a Labrador Retriever. We even forgave The Break-Up, because at least Vaughn was nailing his then-foxy costar Jennifer Aniston, and You, Me and Dupree, because though it caused no laughter whatsoever in theaters it at least led to a funny letter that Wilson wrote to Steely Dan after they accused him of ripping off a song title.
But…Fred Claus. Four Christmases. Couples Retreat. The Watch. Those Vaughn misadventures can’t be forgiven. As for Owen: Marmaduke. Hall Pass. How Do You Know. Now here’s another one for the anti-resume: The Internship. Here are five reasons it’s no Wedding Crashers.
1. Cool, resourceful guys are a lot more interesting than clueless dorks.
Again and again in The Internship, we see childhood pals Nick (Wilson) and Billy (Vaughn) falling upwards. This could be funny as a satire on how the undeserving can be amazingly successful, but that’s not what the movie is going for. It imagines that two idiots who fraudulently claim to be programming whizzes and physics majors could somehow convince the extremely smart people at Google to offer them internships.
When the two claim they’re online students at the University of Phoenix and call it the Harvard of the West, their interviewers go with it as though they didn’t have hundreds of Harvard of the East applicants begging them for gigs. Watching a gag that would never work in real life, though, simply alerts you to how dopey and Hollywoodized the conception of the movie is. In Wedding Crashers, the guys had a much more dead-on scheme: Being cute and charming at wedding receptions would allow them to meet cute, unsuspecting, slightly tipsy girls who might be in the mood for a romp.
Each spring, the showbiz hype machine talks up the excitement level of the summer blockbuster slate. In fact, despite a big May, Summer 2013 is looking like one of the dreariest and most useless summers ever, loaded with sequels to movies that weren’t worth seeing in the first place, lame vanity projects, overdone epics, and dull retreads.
Forget the summer’s biggest hits. What will the biggest flops of the season be? Here’s an educated guess based on advance buzz.
1. After Earth (May 31)
This is a movie that goes wrong early. Really early. In the credits. “Story by Will Smith”? Huh?
Starring the top-billed Smith son Jaden Smith, who is no longer the adorable little kid he was in Pursuit of Happyness and The Karate Kid but is now a sullen teen? Directed by notorious hack M. Night Shyamalan, he of The Happening and The Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender, the guy who hasn’t made a movie that wasn’t laughed out of theaters in a decade?
Despite all of these obvious problems, plus the additional worry that the similar Tom Cruise movie Oblivion came out in April and fulfilled its title’s destiny almost instantly, After Earth is somehow managing to underperform expectations, causing early viewers to wonder why the former biggest star in the world, the elder Smith, spends most of the second half of the movie injured and stuck in a chair giving his son long-distance pep talks after the two crash-land on Earth to fight monsters a thousand years in the future. And why do both of them talk like they’re from New Zealand? This one is headed for the Bad Idea Hall of Fame, and the Stale Prince’s stock is plummeting after Men in Black III and Seven Pounds.
As a general rule, it’s all fine and good for a comedian to be funny-looking. Zach Galifianakis is not only funny-looking, he’s hilarious-looking: He could be the lonely love child of Chewbacca and Rosie O’Donnell. But Zach G’s big problem is that, after four years in the spotlight as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after comedy stars, he still has nothing else going for him but the way he looks.
Here are five reasons it’s time to stick a fork in this meatball of an actor.
1) He Keeps Doing the Same Shtick.
Galifianakis is forever playing the same strange, foolhardy egomaniac whether in the three Hangover movies, Due Date,or The Campaign. In the completely unnecessary sequel The Hangover Part III he takes over starring duties as Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms step aside. But a little of Zach goes a long way.
Among his big moments are the one where the dudes are looking at a doll house modeled after the real house they’re about to break into to steal $20 million worth of gold and Galifianakis says, “We’re not gonna break into this house, right? This house is too small.” No one is that stupid, sorry.
Leave aside the fact that the second episode in the relaunch of the Starship Enterprise should have been called Star Trek: Into Derpness. Try to get past the fact that Bones McCoy kind of looks like Dan Rather and speaks in Rather’s bonehead country-fried metaphors, or that Uhura keeps whining at Spock for not being a caring enough lover (what’d she expect when she started dating a Vulcan), or that the filmmakers don’t even pretend to come up with a valid reason to show curvy blonde actress Alice Eve (who plays a new character) in her underwear, or that a fratboy actor as lightweight as Chris Pine would have had a hard time nabbing a role as a private first class in a 1940s war movie.
Let’s get to the issue none of the liberal writers will touch: What does this movie tell us about Hollywood and the War on Terror? First, that la-la land thinks the war is over. And second, the filmmakers now feel the coast is clear to resume their normal anti-American propaganda.
The far-left stance of the movie is fairly overt. Things gets rolling with a terrorist attack in London launched by a mysterious rogue officer (Benedict Cumberbatch, whose acting is so superior to everyone else’s that it’s like watching John Gielgud do a guest shot on Friends). Wedged amongst the reams of techno-gobbledygook in the script, here are four ways the movie is infecting young minds with left-liberal rubbish. (Mild spoilers follow, but I’ll keep it vague.)
1) The Voice of Reason and Morality Warns that It’s “By Definition” Immoral to Kill a Known Terrorist on a Foreign Battlefield Instead of Bringing Him to Trial.
On a mission to hunt down the murderous Harrison (Cumberbatch), Spock (Zachary Quinto) tells the hotheaded Kirk (Chris Pine) that assassinating the terrorist — whose lethal acts Kirk and others have eyewitnessed — would be obviously wrong. Director J.J. Abrams and his team of hack screenwriters (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof) are striking a stance on the demise of Osama Bin Laden so extreme that no one to the right of Michael Moore would dare utter it. But because the message is concealed in a noisy blockbuster, the filmmakers are hoping they can get away with it.
Baz Luhrmann’s splashy, extravagant, highly watchable 3-D remake of The Great Gatsby is certainly a vast improvement on the lackluster 1974 Robert Redford movie, but those hoping for a classic adaptation worthy of the Great American Novel are going to be disappointed. Here are five ways Luhrmann’s Gatsby could have been great.
5. A Better Lead Actor.
Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t an accomplished performer and his screen magnetism was largely linked to his boyish appeal. Now that’s gone, and nothing more interesting has come along to take its place. DiCaprio can’t convincingly play anguish, nor can he seem physically threatening (a scene in which he nearly comes to blows with Joel Edgerton, who plays his romantic rival Tom Buchanan, is almost laughable; Edgerton could flatten DiCaprio without even trying).
A better choice would have been Johnny Depp, who, like Gatsby, came from nowhere (Kentucky in the case of the actor, North Dakota in the case of the screen character) or Christian Bale, who has already showcased his ability to play the charming playboy in the Batman movies. It would have been a natural fit: Batman is basically Gatsby with a cape.
There’s nothing that makes Hollywood more nervous than portraying Islamist terror. As far back as 1994, James Cameron’s True Lies was denounced as racially insensitive for imagining a chillingly plausible Islamist terror threat involving nuclear weapons. Cameron, anticipating accusations of unfairly linking terrorism with Islam and Arabs, took care to try for “balance” by placing an Arab-American character on the good guys’ side (the actor who played him, Grant Heslov, this year won an Oscar as one of the producers of Argo). Yet the advocacy group the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) slammed the film anyway. The hysterical 1998 movie The Siege imagined that, in an overreaction to a terrorist attack, Brooklyn would be placed under martial law and all young Muslim men would be interned in Yankee Stadium. Ridiculous.
Since 2001, of course, Hollywood has almost completely avoided showing any Muslim involved in terror, changing the bad guys in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears from Palestinians to neo-Nazis. The 2005 Jodie Foster movie Flightplan, about an abduction on an airplane, used a hint that Arabs might be responsible as a red herring. The actual villain: an all-American air marshal played by Peter Sarsgaard. Several Middle East themed movies like Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies essentially saw a moral equivalence between the U.S. and the Islamists, saying both sides were up to comparably nasty stuff in the War on Terror.
Does the new Michael Bay movie Pain & Gain glorify evil? Its protagonist Daniel Lugo (played by Mark Wahlberg) is currently on Death Row in Florida, and the film is mostly seen through his eyes, with his thoughts frequently popping up in narration. Relatives of the victims of his crime spree — an outlandish 1994 kidnapping plot that led to attempted murder and finally murder — understandably don’t find the movie very funny. A Miami Herald story said the families thought the film would make the killers look “sympathetic” or “play down the brutality” of the murders.
Neither is the case. Daniel Lugo was a personal trainer who grew jealous of the business success of a client (played by Tony Shalhoub) who owned a deli by the Miami airport but hinted that true wealth came from shadier dealings. With hardly a second thought, Daniel decides that the American Dream means getting rich no matter who gets in his way, so he enlists a couple of gym-rat pals (Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie) to put on superhero costumes, kidnap the deli owner, and torture him until he signs over his house and property. Along the way the three bodybuilders suffer such misadventures as impotence, getting a toe shot off by police, and the malfunction of a Home Depot chainsaw they are using to try to cut the head and fingertips off a corpse.
The movie treats this nutty plan as an escapade, but with black comic irony. These killers are by no means lovable. And the viciousness of their actions isn’t sugar-coated at all. Despite the kinetic, ultra-modern style of the movie, its underlying stance on good and evil would not have angered the defunct film censor the Hays Office. Rule number one for crime movies was always: Crime must not pay. Rule number two: The criminal may be the most prominent character, but he can’t be the hero.
Both these rules were regularly broken in counterculture hits like Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But whereas the deaths of the bandits in those films fill us with sympathy, nothing of the kind is happening in Pain & Gain.
The stirring new movie 42 tells the story of how, in 1947 America, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) broke the unwritten rule about hiring black players and called up Negro League superstar Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) to join his team. Robinson would go on to win the Rookie of the Year award and later the Most Valuable Player honors on the way to a Hall of Fame career.
What are the conservative lessons about Jackie Robinson’s life to be learned from 42?
1) Merit is colorblind.
Rickey (a lifelong Republican) tells Robinson he is hiring him for one reason: Robinson (who then played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League) was a baseball phenom and Rickey wants to win the World Series. This is Moneyball before Moneyball: Finding untapped talent others are ignoring. Rickey had in mind not only Robinson but Roy Campanella, the black catcher who would soon follow Robinson into the big leagues, as players who could help him win the Series and make money in the process. Rickey says there’s no black or white in sports, just green. Manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) tells the team, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays.
In The Company You Keep, Robert Redford stars in as well as directs a story of an ex-Weather Underground radical who has been living quietly as a public-interest lawyer in upstate New York for more than 30 years. His true identity is discovered by an annoying reporter (Shia LaBeouf) after the apprehension of one of his co-conspirators (Susan Sarandon), who was one of four terrorists who robbed a bank and murdered several security guards in the process.
Redford, that noted “liberal activist,” shows where his sympathies truly are. This is a movie that argues:
1. The Weathermen were fighting for peace.
The Company You Keep begins with a montage of real news clips (and a fake one) edited together to tell the story that the Weather Underground grew out of the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society and that its activities were meant to end the Vietnam War by “bringing the war home.” Nonsense. The Weathermen loved war and wanted more of it. They were a murderous group of Black Power and Marxist revolutionaries bent on the violent overthrow of the United States. After the 1970 accidental explosion that killed several terrorists who blew themselves up with their own bombs in a downtown New York City townhouse, the true intent of the bombs was revealed: They were meant to be used to blow up a library on the campus of Columbia University. Not exactly a military target.
By Zeus, it’s been awhile since there’s been a decent shoot-em-up at the movies. But G.I. Joe: Retaliation will slake your need for gadgets, guns and explosions, and it’s even got some cool villains and funny jokes.
This one finds the super-secret team of elite military masters from all over the world up against the Zeus project by which the equally ferocious team of nasties known as Cobra hopes to rain down death and destruction on the earth. The Joes may have courage, comradeship and extremely large machine guns on their side but Cobra Commander and his crew have something that can top all that: They control the President (Jonathan Pryce) of the United States, who is actually a plant named Zartan. And what is Zartan up to? Only calling a world summit of the eight nuclear-armed powers and tricking them into doing his bidding.
When an action spectacular is willing to go all the way and have characters say things like, “The world will cower in the face of Zeus,” you know you’re in the frenzied land of pure junky comic-book energy, and on that level Retaliation works just fine. In the opening minutes alone, there are three big ker-blammo fight scenes involving the close-knit core members of the Joe team: There’s the wily old sergeant Roadblock (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson), the amiable but slightly dense captain Duke (Channing Tatum), the rookie Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and the slinky Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki).
Admission is a terrible movie from director Paul Weitz, who these days only makes terrible movies (Little Fockers, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and American Dreamz are three of the worst movies of the last decade). Its plot is contrived and sitcom-y, its characters stale, its banter weak. But if you can make it all the way through (that’s a big if), you’ll discover that in addition to its other woes it’s ethically disturbing.
Tina Fey plays a Princeton admissions officer who, along with a handful of colleagues and her boss (Wallace Shawn), is responsible for giving a thumbs up or a thin envelope to tens of thousands of hopefuls, 90 percent of who won’t make it. To the extent there’s anything interesting about the film, which is based on a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz and written by Karen Croner, it’s the convincing insider stuff about how admissions officers do their work. According to this film, the “first reader” goes through the pile of applications, flags some for special consideration, then meets with the other officers in a conference room at which everyone argues over the relative merits of each candidate. (The movie completely ignores, of course, the most salient feature of college admissions offices, which is that they dramatically lower standards for designated victim groups, even if the students stamped as underprivileged actually grew up in a penthouse on Park Avenue.)
Portia (Fey) gets a call from an old Dartmouth classmate (Paul Rudd) who is now running one of those hands-on crunchy-granola “indie” schools that seem primarily interested in nurturing the students to deliver left-wing anti-capitalist rants on cue. John (Rudd) makes a plea for Princeton to give special consideration to a student called Jeremiah who doesn’t score well on tests but has constructed an amazing intellect on his own terms. Oh, and Jeremiah’s back story comes with an intriguing detail: Remember that time in college when you gave a kid up for adoption, John asks Portia? Well, Jeremiah is that boy. John knows this because his roommate supplied the car that took Portia to the hospital to deliver her child.
It wouldn’t be fair to call The Incredible Burt Wonderstone a disastrous movie. It would be fair, however, to call it three or four disastrous movies crammed into one: It’s abysmally awful as a buddy flick, as a broad satire of Las Vegas, as a romance, and as a soulful character-based comedy. In a moviegoing year that is already piled deep with the remnants of terrible movies, this one skitters atop the garbage heap like a roach.
Steve Carell plays the title character, who in the opening scenes is a kid in the 1980s who turns to magic because he’s lonely. He’s the kind of boy bullies chase around the block, and after a rough day of being forced to eat tree bark, when he arrives home at an empty house we find out that it’s his birthday. But all he has to show for it is a note from his mom, a single present and instructions to enjoy making his birthday cake (if he wants to bake it himself). The present, though, is a box of magic tricks, together with a video by legendary magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) that give him an opportunity to master something and a lifelong friendship with a classmate, the equally dorky Anton.
Cut to the present day, when Burt and Anton, under their goofy stage names, play packed houses every night in a Vegas hotel-casino despite putting on a groaner of an act complete with red velvet tuxedos, corny patter, and the theme song “Abracadabra.” The act seems to be a spoof of David Copperfield, Barry Manilow and Siegfried and Roy, staged with the maximum cheesiness of Gob’s magic act on Arrested Development. Carell and Steve Buscemi (as Anton) sport silly wigs and prance around being bitchy with stereotypically gay mannerisms. (Yet minutes later, Burt is revealed to be a ladykiller, the homoerotic scene between the two men forgotten.)
The arrival of an amazingly annoying Jim Carrey on the scene as Steve Gray, an underground hipster street musician modeled after Criss Angel and David Blaine, sets the woefully tame plot in motion: Will Burt and Anton adapt to contemporary tastes or will they fade into irrelevance?
Three years ago Disney made a bazillion dollars off Alice in Wonderland, and this spring they’ve followed that up with a film that delivers a similar experience and is likely to be equally profitable. Like Alice, the Wizard of Oz prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful is a little too goofy, but it has its moments and your eyeballs certainly get their money’s worth. The special effects and the 3D are as brilliant as the jokes are dim.
James Franco, who is completely the wrong choice for the part, stars as Oscar (friends call him Oz, Z being one of his many middle initials), a cheap fairground magician in a black-and-white 1905 Kansas. He’s on the run from some circus freaks he has cheated when, wouldn’t you know it, here comes a twister that batters Oscar in his hot-air balloon. Next, the image widens, the black and white is replaced by color and we’re in the merry old land of Oz.
Launching this movie exactly the same way The Wizard of Oz got started seems like a failure of imagination, though merely rehashing much the same plot with 21st century special effects would give you a film better than most. Like Dorothy (who isn’t in this one), Oscar encounters some unusual friends (first up, a flying monkey who vows to become his lifetime servant after the lame and cowardly Oscar saves him from a lion with a two-bit magic trick). The monkey and others are versions of people Oscar knew back home. They hit the Yellow Brick Road for a quest to defeat an evil witch (by breaking her wand this time), and Oscar becomes the toast of the Emerald City.
All of this is sprinkled with dumb humor more appropriate for a spoof than a second entry in the series; Oscar wants to know why the wisecracking monkey is dressed “in a bellhop’s uniform” and he and the monkey muse that there must be some yellow-brick potholes in the road. When Oscar mentions bananas, the monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) grouses that it’s a stereotype to accuse monkeys of liking bananas (which he loves, but never mind). You know what’s really easy? Making fun of The Wizard of Oz. You know what isn’t? Creating a piece of dramatic fantasy that lingers in the popular imagination for four generations. So guess which movie is better?
The Die Hard franchise has reached its Batman & Robin moment: the fifth installment in the once-exciting series, A Good Day to Die Hard, is an unspeakably dull and shoddy product that, were it not for the presence of Bruce Willis, would be indistinguishable from a quickie genre film made for the European straight-to-video market.
Disastrous on every level, the film is ugly to look at, choppy in plot, woeful in special effects (you could have photoshopped a more convincing image of Willis’s John McClane dangling from the bumper of a truck that is itself dangling from a helicopter), and tiresome in its gimmicks. This time, as if to recreate the magic of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which looks like a fine piece of cinema by comparison, McClane butts heads/joins forces with his son Jack (actually John Jr.), who, to John Sr.’s surprise and ours, turns out to be a superspy working for the CIA in Russia. Jack is played by a surly side of beef named Jai Courtney, who vaguely resembles Willis but has all the charisma of your average rutabaga.
At the beginning of the movie, McClane is in New York discussing his son’s plight with a fellow cop. His boy is in a Russian prison, so naturally McClane (who barely knows the kid, having long been estranged from him) kisses his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) goodbye and boards the first plane to Moscow — even though his boy has not requested his help and doesn’t need it.
Russia is seething about the upcoming show trial of a politically persecuted figure, Komarov (Sebastian Koch), who refuses to hand over a mysterious “file” wanted both by gangster-ish Russian authorities and the CIA. Jack McClane, who is undercover as a Russian, arranges to get himself put in the same prison and brought to the same courtroom side by side with the dissident, having offered the prosecution an irresistible deal: McClane will claim that Komarov paid him to carry out an assassination.
This development doesn’t make a lot of sense (if Russian higher-ups can conduct circus trials, why would they need help from an unknown outsider to win a conviction?), but it at least leads to a massive prison-break scene in which the courthouse gets blown up in order to free Komarov and McClane Jr., who with CIA help promptly flee to a safe house.
At least that’s the plan, but McClane Senior, who inserts himself into the drama (despite his son, who calls him John, repeatedly telling him to get lost), messes everything up and finds himself at the wheel of a large truck as the two fugitives flee Russian thugs.
Steven Soderbergh is one of Hollywood’s more unpredictable and rangy directors. You never know if you’re going to get a crowd-pleasing entertainment (the Ocean’s series), a smart thriller (Contagion), a dreary leftist diatribe (the four-hour Che), a parody of a film noir (The Good German,) or a surprisingly well-rounded character study disguised as a girls’ night out movie (Magic Mike).
Soderbergh’s latest combines elements of the thriller and the noir but is hardly a crowd-pleaser. Told in a chilly, detached style, Side Effects willfully keeps the audience from getting too involved, and the film is unlikely to remain in theaters very long. That would be disturbing if this is Soderbergh’s cinematic swan song, but despite his claims that he’s taking a long break from filmmaking his record suggests he won’t be able to stay away from the big screen for long. (On the small screen, Soderbergh will shortly be delivering to HBO his Liberace movie, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as the pianist and his younger lover.)
Side Effects, if it is far from Soderbergh’s best work, still has its strengths, though describing exactly what they are would be giving away too much. Suffice it to say that Rooney Mara, who broke through with an Oscar nomination in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, proves that she is a star performer who can hold the screen without the bizarre hair and makeup and extreme behavior that made her Tattoo character an actress’s dream part. Moreover, she again does nude scenes, putting her in a small group of serious actresses who are willing to go wherever the role takes them.
Jude Law, his boyish charm gone, is every bit Mara’s equal as a perhaps shady psychiatrist who is randomly assigned to treat her character, Emily, in a hospital after she inexplicably rams her car straight into the wall of a parking garage. Having recently welcomed her financier husband (Channing Tatum) home from prison after he served several years for insider trading, she falls into a deep depression which Martin (Law) tries to treat with the name-brand antidepressants that we’ve all become slightly too familiar with in the last 20 years. Her previous psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), encourages him to start the patient on a different medication, called Ablixa. Meanwhile Martin, who has a wife (Vinessa Shaw) and a son in private school to worry about, casually accepts a pharmaceutical company’s offer to take part in a trial study meant to promote another drug, for which he will receive $50,000.