Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Review: Lawless

The square-dancing whiskey runners in the Prohibition-era Virginia-set movie Lawless may not think much of regulations from smarmy, moonshine-hating Yankees, but they sure do abide by melodramatic cliches.

If you're a timid would-be gangster who looks up to your invincible, cold-blooded criminal mastermind brother, you're sure to step in when your bro goes down to overcome your hang-ups and become a marauding booze baron.

If you're a pent-up preacher's daughter, you're sure to fall for the timid would-be gangster, gritting your teeth as he sinks deeper into a self-destructive web.

If you're a smarmy Yankee federal agent sent to Virginia to clean up the corrupt, booze-swilling backwoods, you'll hurl gratuitous insults at all comers until you're smacked with a climactic comeuppance.

If you're an innocent sidekick hobbled by a childhood case of rickets, your life is as fragile as a glass bottle in a bar fight. 

There's nothing in the movie that takes you by surprise, but it's still as much Southern-fried fun to watch as a Dukes of Hazzard marathon. There's something inherently awesome about watching a moonshine-hauling jalopy skid down a winding dirt road, just out of target range of Johnny Law. 

The dim-yet-fun thriller casts Shia LaBeouf in the lead role -- the timid would-be gangster, if you're keeping track. His performance is memorable because he's finally managed to find a script that doesn't order him to talk to himself throughout, as he did in all the awful Transformer movies, Disturbia, Eagle Eye and that Indiana Jones movie Harrison Ford likes to pretend he never made.

It's a welcome change of pace to see LaBeouf play a likable bad guy in front of a movie camera, rather than a Walgreens security cam. He sheds his peach-fuzzy innocence to slip on a grimy pair of boots, no doubt lined with lead to slam on the gas when it's time to make a getaway.

Tom Hardy, free of the ridiculous Bane mask from The Dark Knight Rises, is LaBeouf's grisly older brother who e v e r  s o  s l o o o o w l y comes a'courtin' to an exiled Chicago dancer (Jessica Chastain). Taffy-pull-speed flirtation must run in the family, because LaBeouf also takes his time romancing the preacher's daughter (Mia Wasikowska), who somewhere under several layers of petticoats and underwear is a naughty girl yearning to hide out in tent distilleries.

Guy Pearce has some fun with the thankless villain role, a Chicago agent determined to shake down the boozehounds, attacking not only with tommy gun fire and rude kicks in noses, but words. He says the word "hick" as often, and with the same tone, that GOP convention speakers utter "liberal." The ungentle gentleman has end boss battle written all over his Pomade-slicked head.

Watching the movie unfold is a lot like witnessing a heated game of checkers go down. Only with booze, blood and bullets. Which makes the movie pretty much a win, especially for LaBeouf, since there are no CGI sentient robots swiping all the best lines and no sacred franchises or Walgreens destroyed.

Starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska. Written by Nick Cave, based on the Matt Bondurant book. Directed by John Hillcoat. 115 minutes. Rated R.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review: Social Media is Bullshit

Due out Sept. 4, B.J. Mendelson's Social Media is Bullshit aims to tear down the curtain propped up by so-called social media gurus who peddle their consultant services to clueless companies looking to stay competitive in the changing media landscape.

Using wit, humor and formidable on-the-job experience, Mendelson demystifies the powers of Facebook, Twitter and the blog world to spread influence and maintain popularity. The book should be must-reading for any organization that hires a 20-something hotshot and hands over free reign over its internet branding, expecting magical results.

Far from the teeth-gnasihing teardown implied by the title, the book includes some solid advice about how to build a strong social media profile as a business or individual. He doesn't have any stunning revelations -- his point seems to be that genuine influence spawns from organic mastery of content rather than SEO-style tricks -- but that dovetails with his overarching point. Online, just as offline, there are no shortcuts to success.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Review: Cosmopolis

I try hard to convince myself that movies are fictional stories played out by actors pretending to be different people than they are, but can't convince myself that Cosmopolis is anything other than unscripted documentary about the life of Robert Pattinson, shot by security cameras. Especially now that his possibly PR-concocted relationship with KStew is on the rocks.

When I imagine Pattinson's daily life, I picture him being driven around in a gadgeted-up stretch limo, being all rich, pompous and entitled, screwing everything that moves either inside the limo or out — whichever he prefers at the time. I also picture him waking up in a coffin, because the dude needs no makeup whatsoever to look exactly like a vampire, but they must have cut that part out of the movie to avoid confusion with the Twilight movies. Which I also picture as an accurate depiction of Pattinson's life.

That said, I'll play along and assume director David Cronenberg is on the level and that he actually directed this thing, and got the story from some book. If that's indeed the case, I have to credit Cronenberg for economically telling a riveting, passionate and unpredictable story mostly through the spoken word. Eighty or 90 percent of the movie takes place inside the limo, but the cramped world never seems constricting — much like Phone Booth (2002) or Tape (2001).

Pattinson gets dinged for his soulless, dead-eyed performances, but I don't hold them against him. Not only because he's a vampire but because according to the movie, he has sex so often that he's probably exhausted but there's never any time for a nap. His flat, clinical performance in Cosmpolis is perfect for the character, who has piled up his billions by looking at the world as a matrix logic puzzle, exploiting his angles to obliterate his competition and suck funds out of investment sectors, consequences by damned. To him, life and love are little more than games that he's long since mastered and gotten bored with. Even as the fluctuation of the Chinese currency plunders his fortune, or rumors of deadly activities outside the car threaten the well-being of himself and others, he stays plugged in and absent — a passenger rather than a driver of the charade that passes for his existence.

Pattinson's blank performance is a magnifying glass that amplifies the work of the supporting actors. Samantha Morton, Sarah Gadon, Juliette Binoche and Jay Baruchel color Pattinson's character with various levels of introspection, fear a loathing for their master/lover/secret or not-so-secret enemy. No actor's flame flickers brighter, though, than Paul Giamatti, whose unhinged ferocity ricochets harder off of Pattinson's ice.

As fine as the performances are, Cronenberg's machine gun dialogue is the main attraction. The film bulges with verbose, highbrow debates and vicious monologues smacked back and forth like tennis balls. The sheer amount of words spoken in the movie is staggering. Its script could probably crush someone's foot if dropped.

Cosmopolis is a heavy movie indeed, and one that demands multiple viewings. But surely no viewing would slap you so hard in the face and make you like it as much as the first one would.

Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon, Jay Baruchel and Paul Giamatti. Written and directed by David Cronenberg, based on DonDeLillo's novel. 108 minutes. Rated R.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: My Sucky Teen Romance

The product of teen horror filmmaker prodigy Emily Hagins, the high school vampire romance mocks the bloodsucker-obsessed pop culture world while simultaneously sucking the lifeblood from its veins. Rounding up a gang of raw, fresh-faced actors, Hagins tells the story of a group of friends at a sci-fi convention who encounter real-life vampires and try to use knowledge gleaned from movies, comic books and panel discussions to stay alive.

Elaine Hurt plays Kate, the proudly geeky protagonist who wants more than anything to become Bella to the Edward of Paul (Patrick Delgado), who proves to be not just a brooding vampire wannabe, but the genuine article. When an unlucky break finds Kate and her pals battling to save her soul, she struggles to reconcile her feelings for Paul with the movie tropes ingrained in her mind, as well as the need to protect her friends.

The dialogue and story twists are entertaining — for once, here are people who look and talk like actual teenagers, rather than 30-year-olds pretending to be younger — but the amateurish acting drags the production down to student film levels. The movie didn't quite do it for me, but I'd like to see what Hagins could do with a better cast and budget.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review: Sparkle

There may or may not be an actual movie hidden among all the showstopping musical numbers in Sparkle. Not that there needs to be.

Sparkle is all about the music, and seems to have been created for Jordin Sparks, who so thoroughly owns the affair that you'd swear it was named after her. It's cosmically appropriate that Whitney Houston looms in the background as Sparks's mom, and it seems as though there's a passing of the torch from one generation's crossover star to the next.

A slimmed-down Sparks seizes the spotlight with the ferocity that fellow American Idol alum Jennifer Hudson did in Dreamgirls. There's no Hudson-like Oscar in store for Sparks this time out, but she finds something at least as valuable -- a new dimension to her growing superstardom. There's enough meat in Sparks' role for her to show she's a skilled actress who will show up in future movies because she belongs rather than a Katy Perry-style gimmick.

Sparkle, a 1960s Motown-set historical fiction-style retelling of The Supremes' rise to fame, is a remake of a long-forgotten 1976 movie that starred Irene Cara and Mary Alice. Sparks plays the title character, an unconfident dreamer who writes songs for her more confident sisters, the aspiring med student Dolores (Tika Sumpter) and the appropriately named diva Sister (Carmen Ejogo).

Stix (Derek Luke), a not-quite-trustworthy manager, romances Sparkle and convinces her to round up her sisters into a girl group. The girls shimmy, dance and croon their way up the ladder to fame, dodging slimy record label execs and cokehead comedian boyfriends along the way. And they do it under the nose of Houston's character, their disapproving, Bible-bopping mom.

Houston, a gifted actress who rarely got much of a chance to show what she could do, turns in some of her finest work in this movie. Many of her lines are haunting and almost transcendent with unintended double meanings, such as when she scolds her daughters for not learning from her mistakes.

Describing any more of the movie's plot would be like breaking down the narrative intent of Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe video. The movie is mostly an excuse for slick choreography, heart-melting soul grooves and stage-owning razzle-dazzle.

Ejogo shows sexy flash as the group's troubled lead singer, and Sumpter's sassiness fills out the trio nicely. But wouldn't you know it, Houston effortlessly draws all attention to her when given her one chance to perform, belting out a heartbreaking number at the climax that all but ensures everyone in the theater will be wiping their eyes.

Sparkle may be the name of the movie, but in moments such as these, the movie truly shines.

Starring Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Cee-Lo and Mike Epps. Written by Mara Brock Akil, based on a story by Howard Rosenman, Directed by Salim Akil. 116 minutes. Rated PG-13.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Review: Goats

No matter how intelligent or well-heeled a kid is coming up, he's just as likely to squander and be crushed by his potential as he is to make some use of it. Ellis (Graham Phillips), a silver spoon-fed high school student who breezes through his studies and is too smart and evolved to take any advice from grown-ups seriously, seems certain to head down a troubled path.

The protagonist of Goats, Ellis drifts through life finding little that engages him. He reacts to his oppressions and influences instead of seeking out his own interests and goals. His role models range from a brain-fried, sexaholic hippie (David Duchovny), a vacant, self-discovery-obsessed mom (Vera Farmiga) and an absentee, success-driven dad (Ty Burrell), whose idea of success is to sacrifice matters of the heart for prestige. Shoved off from his eccentric desert home to a prestigious New England prep school, Ellis is left alone in the rye with nary a catcher in sight.

The antidote to the typical coming-of-age movie, Goats shuffles into the muck of adolescent angst, aware that there are no easy solutions for finding a sense of self, letting go of lifelong resentments or establishing and sticking to a moral code. Mark Jude Poirier did an admirable job of adapting his novel to screen, although camerawork — no matter how well-designed, can't replace the author's uncanny ability to paint scenes or translate his sly, descriptive observations. With the film, Poirier is forced to boil his novel down to dialogue and plot points, and much is lost in the distillation.

Duchovny is maybe too good for this movie, commanding his scenes as a poolboy/drifter/rancher/drug trafficker with effortless glee. His stuff saves the movie while sort of ruining it, detracting from Ellis's journey. Duchovny's out-there antics serve as welcome comic relief apart from Ellis's oft-overserious drama — he tangles with a headstrong, clingy roomie, falls for a possible call girl and wrestles with his grudging admiration and disgust of his dad — that you miss Duchovny's Goat Man when he goes away, and wonder what he's up to. But like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings and Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, his actual antics are probably best left to the imagination. As a stark opposite to Duchovny, Phillips lacks a compelling command of what Ellis could have been. He's got the blank slate part right, but his character would have been more lovable if he were more precocious.

Keri Russell does well in the thankless role of Ellis's trophy mother-in-law, and Farmiga is a tasty flavor of nutso as his mom. Credit director Christopher Neil and his filmmaking team for wrapping a disjointed package in gorgeous trappings. Pretty, confused and thrilling to analyze and revisit, Goats is just like adolescence.

Starring Graham Phillips, David Duchovny, Keri Russell, Justin Kirk and Vera Farmiga. Written by Mark Jude Poirier, based on his novel. Directed by Christopher Neil. 94 minutes. Rated R.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Because I Told You So: Review: Hope Springs

Because I Told You So: Review: Hope Springs: I'm pretty sure Tommy Lee Jones was born crotchety and bitter. He must have emerged from the womb with a snide remark about the lighting and...

Review: Hope Springs

I'm pretty sure Tommy Lee Jones was born crotchety and bitter. He must have emerged from the womb with a snide remark about the lighting and a dry, sarcastic comeback after the doctor announced "It's a boy!"

Sixty-five years later, Jones is so crusty that ham sandwiches ask that his crust be cut off rather than the other way around. That's why he's an excellent fit for Arnold, the distant, emotionless robo-husband bound by contract to Kay (Meryl Streep), a little old lady who still has enough spunk in her to make the unpeeling of a banana look naughty.

Unhappy with their stale, withered marriage -- they sleep in separate rooms and keep their own bank accounts, which they use to buy each other anniversary gifts such as refrigerators and hot water heaters -- she cashes out a CD and kidnaps, uh, old-man-naps him away to a costly "intensive" couples therapy session in Maine. Things have gotten so dull for Arnold and Kay that when they're filling out applications that ask them to fill out a space under "sex," they write "Not since the Bush administration," unsure which exact Bush administration it was when they last got it on.

Tasked with leading the archaeological excavation designed to discover some trace of what the couple once found attractive in one another is Dr. Feld (Steve Carell), whose clinical approach to matters of the heart would be creepy if he didn't seem to get a little sad at the responses his clients give him.

Carell tones down his silliness to trace levels, allowing the master actors to take control, battering each other with barbs both verbal and unspoken. There are layers to both characters that both Jones and Streep take pleasure in peeling back. Streep is at once a sullen, downtrodden gramma and a pot of simmering rage and resentment. Jones, who spits out raspy, condescending one-liners like sunflower seeds, guards a well of regret, timidity and indecision beneath his hermit crab-like shell.

Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) tells his story with patience and a steady hand, unafraid to let his characters mope in silence for uncomfortably long periods or to keep the camera focused regretfully on seats abandoned in hissy fits. You kinda know, or at least hope, the couple will work out their problems and rekindle their spark, but until it happens you just feel sad. Especially when the lovers-turned-frenemies find flickers of their long lost affection before letting them slip away in the dark once again.

It's frighteningly easy to look at the characters and see your grandparents. Or your parents. Or yourself. After all, no one sets out to become the old, bickering married couple. Only the lucky ones make it that far.

Starring Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell and Jean Smart. Written by Vanessa Taylor. Directed by David Frankel. 100 minutes. Rated PG-13.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Chick-fil-A Bully Apologizes

Adam Smith, who became infamous and lost his day job an a University of Arizona teaching gig for bullying a Chick-fil-A employee, has posted an apology. Here it is:

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Review: Total Recall

It's not uncommon to have hot, sweaty dreams involving Jessica Biel, but the problem with Colin Farrell's Biel dreams is that they only involve him and her shooting bad guys together. So you can't really blame him when he signs up to have a company hack his brain and wire it to help him get busy with Biel or remake an early 1990s cyberpunk thriller. Whichever's cheaper.

Farrell's wife, Kate Beckinsale, isn't happy with the maneuver, given that the couple is so poor that bare-chested, wistfully-staring Farrell can't even afford a shirt, and the producers can't afford a new script. Her solution is that Farrell should dream of her, and when he blows her off she ends up chasing him down and trying to kill him. Marriage can be tough.

The only way you'll get think Total Recall is totally mind-bendingly new is if you're 25 and couldn't convince your parents to let you watch the original Total Recall when you were 3, then got frustrated that you forgot about it. Some settings are swapped out, but the general plot outline and a bunch of dialogue is largely the same, albeit a little unfamiliar because Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone have been replaced by people who can actually act.

Copying the 1990 cult favorite isn't such a bad thing. The new movie also nails the original's sense of heedless, ridiculous fun. As Farrell transforms into a super-spy who can mangle robo-cops with his bare chest, the movie rarely misses an opportunity to step back and subtly make fun of itself. There's something to be said for a movie that can make you chuckle one minute, then genuinely fear for the fate of its unkillable hero as he leaps through a Super Mario-like succession of platforms the next.

The movie is set in a world that's been entirely destroyed except for a Europe-spanning British empire and continent-sized ghetto of Australia. Don't fret, Americans, because no one has British or Aussie accents, so we clearly took over both places before the other continents were crushed. The rich British Americans, led by Bryan Craston of Breaking Bad, exploit the poor Australian Americans for cheap labor. There are revolutionaries out there who want to change things, but they mostly stick to ineffectual activities such as spraying graffiti all over their squalor.

The future may be bleak, but the technology sure rocks. Memory implantation machines are only the beginning. There are flying cars, wall-mounted iPads, phones installed in hands, elevators that go directly through the earth's core to get from one side of the planet to the other, and most importantly, three-boobed hookers.

Farrell's attempt at memory implantation -- an installation of Norton Biel Dream Enhancer -- either unlocks sleeper agent memories or frazzles his brain so he thinks he's a spy who finally gets to make out with Biel but adorably hold hands with her while running around, fleeing certain death. There are some Inception-like is-he-dreaming-or-not trickery, but subtlety and misdirection are not the strong suits for filmmaker Len Wiseman, whose credits include the first two Underworld movies and the fourth Die Hard. So you pretty much can tell what's happening. Meaning, stuff will explode. And then explode some more. And Farrell will once again wind up shirtless.

This may be Wiseman's best movie yet, yet it's only the second-best Total Recall. But it will have to suffice until Suri Cruise and a baby to be named later make another one in 22 years or so.

Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel and Bryan Cranston. Written by Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback, based on a screen story by Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon, Jon Povill and  Wimmer, which is in turn based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. Directed by Len Wiseman. 116 minutes. Rated PG-13.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.