Closed Circuit

Ever had a friend (or a comedian) tell you a joke with a great setup? One that gets you ready for a big payoff? And then… the punch line is not that funny?

Closed Circuit, though not a comedy, is a bit like that. The setup is tremendous but the payoff falls way short.

The film’s clever opening sequence presents an increasing number of security camera views of a busy London market. When the number of images onscreen hits fifteen, a terrorist bomb explodes. Coming just four months after the Boston Marathon bombing (in which suspects were identified from security footage) this film initially appears to be particularly timely.

When a suspect is brought in, Martin (Eric Bana) and Claudia (Rebecca Hall) are chosen to work as defense counsels. Actually, Claudia is a special advocate and Martin is a replacement defense attorney. At this point, the setup gets muddied with rules regarding the case. Supposedly, Claudia and Martin cannot share information with one another. Here comes another potentially interesting wrinkle: they are ex-lovers whose breakup was acrimonious.

Because of the complex rules regarding the case, which is being tried behind closed doors, and the fact that the government is sharing details with these two on a severely limited basis, they are forced to seek information on their own. But the British government is keeping an eye on them as they try to figure things out.

Despite all these contrivances, the potential for a strong finish still remains until the story seems to lose its mojo. Its resolution may be an accurate depiction of real life, but this is a fictional narrative that might’ve benefited from a different wrap up.

James Broadbent, who sometimes seems to be in every movie set in Britain, appears as the UK Attorney General. He usually plays a nice guy, but here his AG is a bit devious. Bana’s voice sounds amazingly, distractingly like Liam Neeson’s in many instances. Hall, a statuesque beauty, displays great mobility in high heels. (Or was it her double?)

Closed circuit video is used admirably in other parts of Closed Circuit after the great opening. Director John Crowley makes the point that our lives are being observed by others. That’s not news to most of us.

Closed Circuit coulda been a contender. Instead it gets a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

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In A World

Make way for a new showbiz triple threat! Lake Bell wrote and directed In A World and stars as the film’s central character Carol Solomon. The film is a romantic comedy, a family comedy and a workplace comedy.

Lake Bell’s is not a household name, but she has worked as an actor for years. I interviewed her for radio a decade ago when she was on a short-lived TV show called Miss Match. Now she adds feature film director and writer to her resume and I look forward to seeing what she delivers in the future. (She has also received great exposure this month with a nude cover shot for New York magazine.)

Carol Solomon is a voice coach who wants to make it big as an L.A. voice over talent, just like her father Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed) has done. His voce is anything but sotto—he has killer pipes and gets lots of work narrating movie trailers. Sam designates fellow voice talent Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) as the heir apparent to the real life announcer Don LaFontaine (noted for trailer scripts that begin with the words “In a world…”)

Sam tosses Carol out of his place because his girlfriend is moving in. Carol crashes with her sister Dani (Michela Watkins) and eventually causes her sister and her boyfriend Moe (Rob Corddry) to bust up. Meanwhile, Carol is in competition with Gustav for the plum gig of narrating the trailers for a new movie “quadrilogy.” When Gustav and Carol hook up, he doesn’t know (a) that she’s a voice talent and (b) her friend Sam’s daughter.

In A World is not gut busting funny, but it has its moments. I overheard a fellow critic call it “sitcomy.” In a way, the movie does recall elements of media-related workplace sitcoms (The Mary Tyler Moore Show and WKRP in Cincinnati come to mind) with its lineup of likeable second bananas and oddball tertiary characters. Plus plot points that circle back to earlier setups.

The cast also includes Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman and Tig Notaro as recording studio personnel. Eva Longoria cameos as herself, doing ADR dubbing. Geena Davis appears as a movie studio head. (The formerly glamorous Davis also serves as a sad example of bad plastic surgery.)

In A World is rated R, mainly for language. This is a movie for grownups that is nicely paced and thoroughly entertaining. It clocks in at 93 minutes.

Oddly, the trailer for In A World, is one of those that gives away many of the movie’s best lines. Skip the trailer, but see this movie about trailers. As has been written in bad commercial copy read by voice talents for decades, “You’ll be glad you did!”

The Spectacular Now

Here’s the problem with movies like The Spectacular Now. These low-budget indie darlings get critic love at festivals. The NY/LA early release stirs up some big city and national buzz. Then, when they come to the hinterlands, we expect to see something that is transcendent.

This is good marketing strategy, but when an anticipated mind-blower is merely okay, there’s disappointment. We should recognize that festival people and NY/LA people are sometimes more easily charmed by such films than those of us here in flyover country.

When the film’s screenwriters appear (trolling for tweets) in a prologue before the preview screening, mentioning that they also wrote 500 Days of Summer, one may figure that The Spectacular Now might match or exceed that ’09 hit.

It’s not that the central characters Sutter (Miles Teller) and Aimee (Shalene Woodley) aren’t real and likeable. They are. And these are two talented young actors.

Sutter is a good-time high school guy with little ambition who gets by on charm. He’s also a chronic boozer who lives for the moment, the now. Aimee is a modest background player at school who, upon meeting Sutter, discovers the perks of being a wallflower. Their relationship, with Sutter’s ex Cassidy (Brie Larson) hovering nearby, percolates slowly but eventually gains traction.

Sutter urges Aimee to stand up to her divorced mom and Aimee replies that Sutter should stand up to his divorced mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to find out the truth about his absent dad (Kyle Chandler).

The big question looms: Will Sutter turn out to be just like his dad and hurt Aimee (like his mom was damaged by his dad’s actions)?

This is a good movie. But it’s not half the movie that 500 Days of Summer was. Enjoy it for what it is. Although Sutter chooses to live in the “now,” you can probably just wait for the DVD.

PS: The Spectacular Now, like most movies about high school kids, uses actors who are in their 20’s. Are there no 17-year-olds who are capable of playing 17-year-olds?

PPS: Also, since this movie is obviously set in the south (it was filmed in Georgia), shouldn’t at least one of its characters have a southern accent?

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Lee Daniels’ The Butler will win awards. Its stars, its director and its storylines assure that this movie will notch several trophies next awards season.

But who gets which award? Oprah Winfrey was nominated for an Oscar in her first film role nearly 30 years ago in The Color Purple. Forrest Whittaker was a Best Actor Oscar winner for his work as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Director Lee Daniels, whose name is now part of the film’s official title, earned a best director nom for Precious (whose star Mo’Nique took Oscar home).

Cecil Gaines (Whittaker) is a butler at the White House. His career spans the years of the civil rights movement in America, from the Eisenhower administration through the Reagan years. While the nation is undergoing major changes, so are Cecil and his family members.

His story begins in the 1920’s. After his cotton picker parents are victims of hateful violence by a member of their white employer’s family in Georgia, a young Cecil becomes a “house n——.” He parlays his talent into hotel gigs and is later recruited to be a butler at the White House. Life is good, better than he could’ve imagined.

Cecil has a wife he loves (Gloria, played by Oprah Winfrey), a family, a car, a home and a good job, serving presidents at the White House. When his son Louis (Daniel Oyelowo) goes to college in Nashville, he becomes an activist in the civil rights battle, making Cecil uncomfortable. The son’s radicalization takes him all the way to the Black Panthers, at which point Cecil decides he has gone too far. Their other son goes to the opposite extreme and enlists in the army during the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, Gloria’s booze issues threaten family harmony.

The men who are cast as U.S. presidents make up a notable list: Robin Williams as Ike, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, Jon Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman as Reagan. Jane Fonda appears as Nancy Reagan and Minka Kelly plays Jackie Kennedy. Presidents Ford, Carter and Obama appear via video footage.

Nancy’s invitation to Cecil to attend a White House dinner not as a server, but as a guest, is an appropriate coda to his career. A few more life events follow during Cecil’s retirement.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler’s talented cast also includes Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Maria Carey and Vanessa Redgrave.

Screenwriter Danny Strong and Daniels should be praised for keeping this movie at a reasonable length. This is a big movie that covers a lot of ground in just over two hours. With as many characters and plot points as this film has, it could’ve run much longer.

Whittaker’s performance should nab him another Oscar nomination and LDTB should land a best picture nom. Is Oprah’s performance Oscar-nomination-worthy? She’s good, but I don’t think she’s a lock to win, as some have forecast. Best adapted screenplay is another possibility. (Click HERE to read the Washington Post story that inspired the fictional movie script.)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a good film but not quite a classic. Because of its specific subject matter and because it covers a large swath of recent American history, LDTB is likely to become a favorite of many moviegoers.

Jobs

Was Ashton Kutcher cast as Steve Jobs because he resembled SJ? Possibly, because director Joshua Michael Stern ends the movie by showing us how much the actors looked like the real life folk they were portraying. (Honestly, who cares?) Nonetheless, Kutcher delivers a respectable performance as the megalomaniac visionary.

Jobs may disappoint the Apple fan who cherishes his/her iPhone, iPad, iPod, Macbook Air etc. because the story ends in 2001. Millennials familiar with the delight he communicated at Macworld presentations in the new century may not appreciate the portrayal of Jobs as, well, an asshole (as he is so identified in the film by his boss at Atari).

The upside of focusing on the 20th century portion of SJ’s life is that we are spared his illness, a sappy deathbed scene and final goodbyes. We are not spared a too long sequence depicting a 70’s acid trip which may have colored Jobs’ vision of life and computers.

Jobs’ relationship with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (played by Josh Gad) is examined. They needed each other. Woz was the geeky tech genius. Jobs was the articulate guy who could deal and lead. An early scene shows Wozniak working to develop an Atari game, for which Jobs paid Woz just $350 (after SJ was promised $5K from Atari when the job was done).

When Apple is getting up and running with help from investor Mike Markkula (Durmot Mulroney), more of Jobs’ selfishness is revealed. He is stingy when doling out shares in the new endeavor, parks in handicap spaces with impunity, fires people spontaneously and has little tact in his dealings.

Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons—with hair!) also invests and uses his power on the board to have some of Jobs’ power stripped away. Jobs suggests Pepsi’s John Scully (Matthew Modine) take over leadership of Apple. Jobs is put in charge of a new project called the MacIntosh. The Mac is a critical hit but a sales dud (oh, yes, it was), leading to Jobs’ departure from the company.

When he returns to a crippled Apple in the 90’s, he’s still a maverick (although he no longer drives a Maverick as he did in earlier scenes). The new Jobs, however, treats employees better, promoting creativity. A young man who visualizes the iMac with the colorful translucent shell is encouraged and motivated by Jobs’ guidance.

I had anticipated Jobs’ relationship with Bill Gates might’ve received a bit more play in the film. After Jobs looks at the new Microsoft Windows OS that’s a rip-off of the MacIntosh OS, Jobs is shown on the phone angrily berating Gates.

Kutcher brings the distinctive Jobs lope to the role. And his acting chops are okay. But his baby face belies his being the uncaring (about people, not product) jerk he depicts. He simply lacks the proper gravitas.

Jobs is the sort of movie you expect to see on a cable channel, not in a movie house. But hardcore fans of Jobs and Apple will appreciate Jobs and, while they aren’t likely to line up as if a new Apple product were about to be released, they should be curious enough to check out this decent biopic.

Elysium

Elysium looks great. Director Neill Blomkamp who delivered the excellent sci-fi District 9 in ’09 impresses us again with settings and characters that illustrate an extreme political/economic division.

But, while District 9 had a distinctive, creative visual style and delivered numerous surprises, as soon as Elysium sets up its story, it is easy to guess how it will likely end. Getting from start to finish should’ve been a better ride.

Matt Damon plays Max who is lucky to have his tedious factory gig in Los Angeles in 2154. The city resembles present day third world slums in places like Rio or Mumbai. When his industrial machine malfunctions, he steps inside to undo a glitch. He is trapped and exposed to radiation. When his robotic doc tells him he has cancer and will die in five days, he takes action.

While the poor schlubs labor on earth, the planet’s wealthy have taken refuge on Elysium, a giant space station. The pristine mansions and verdant landscapes look like those you might see in Palm Beach or certain wealthy Arab enclaves, such as Dubai. The real attraction of Elysium to the earthbound is access to healing machines that vanquish all diseases.

Max’s childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) has a daughter with leukemia who could benefit from a ride up to Elysium. Flashbacks reveal Max and Frey’s early bonding.

Meanwhile on Elysium, government operative Delacourt (Jodie Foster) monitors situations on earth (and keeps out the earthly lowlifes) while participating in political maneuverings at the space place. Foster has succeeded in the past playing fierce femmes, but her performance in Elysium is distractingly flat.

Sharlto Copley who was amazing in District 9 is passable here as violent government agent Kruger, who does everything he can to keep Max from making it to Elysium.

Director Blomkamp has stated in interviews that Elysium depicts not just the future, but also the present. The movie’s message is about as subtle as a 2X4 to the head. Yes, we do currently have those economic extremes presented in the movie, but most of the world’s citizens are somewhere in between.

After a spring and summer of good but not outstanding sci-fi films, I was hopeful that Elysium might be the one that would be outstanding. Sadly, it is not. But it looks great!

 

 

Planes

Planes is like Cars, but with airplanes. It’s not as good as Cars, but better than the forgettable Cars 2. I will admit that I missed the voice work of Larry the Cable Guy.

In Planes, Dusty Crophopper (voiced by comedian Dane Cook) manages to qualify for a round the world airplane race. Being a lowly crop duster, he is the big underdog. Do you think he might have even a tiny chance of winning?

As Brent Mustangberger (voiced by a famous sportscaster) describes the action (only once uttering the catchphrase “you are looking live…”), each leg of the race is a challenge for our feisty hero Dusty. But he always manages to hang on to fly another day. Along the way he becomes friendly with several other plane-toons and emerges as the favorite of fans around the world.

Just as Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) admired the crusty veteran Doc Hudson (voiced by Paul Newman) in Cars, so does Dusty look admiringly to WWII veteran fighter plane Skipper (voiced by Stacy Keach). Lightning had a romantic attraction to Sally (voiced by Bonnie Hunt) and Dusty has a smoldering affection for pink plane Rochelle (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus).

Dane Cook is not on my list of favorite comedians, but he was a perfect choice for Dusty. Other voices in the cast include John Cleese, Brad Garrett, Terri Hatcher, Cedric the Entertainer, Gabriel Iglesias, Val Kilmer, Sinbad and as bad guy Ripslinger, Roger Craig Smith.

Planes is not particularly funny, but is a pleasant PG-rated amusement. While Planes will charm kids as much or more than Cars, I think Cars had greater adult appeal with its Route 66 nostalgia and remembrance of things past.

Is this the beginning of a new franchise? Well, yes. Planes: Fire and Rescue is being prepared for Summer 2014. And while Planes is not released under the Pixar nameplate, it is executive-produced by the man with a thousand Hawaiian shirts, John Lassiter. And that’s close enough for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Guns

2 Guns is good, but could’ve been better. It’s an action/comedy. That combination requires a delicate hand to keep both elements in balance. Sadly, as its title suggests, 2 Guns leans more heavily to the action side.

Moviegoers will buy tickets to 2 Guns for its stars, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. Their interaction onscreen is fun and highly entertaining, but the film does not have enough of them together.

The hook is that Bobby (Washington) and Stig (Wahlberg) are a DEA agent and a US Navy operative, respectively, but neither knows that the other is working for the government. After an unconsummated drug deal in Mexico and a lucrative bank robbery in Texas, they figure a few things out. But there are big twists and surprises to come.

The story gets complicated, but don’t be too concerned about the plot and things that don’t get explained. All scores get settled in the end.

Bobby and Stig pursue, and are pursued. Main players are drug lord Papi (Edward James Olmos), interested third party Earl (Bill Paxton) and Navy agent Quince (James Marsden). Fellow DEA agent Deb (Paula Patton) is Bobby’s sometime squeeze, but their relationship has had its ups and downs.

2 Guns is directed by Iceland native Baltasar Kormakur, who also directed Wahlberg in last year’s Contraband.

While Wahlberg and Washington don’t have Newman/Redford type chemistry, they are fun to watch together. When two of our most talented and likeable stars are in an action/comedy movie together, they should be in the movie—together. The sum of the parts is greater when Bobby and Stig are in the same frame.

2 Guns is far from a “must-see,” but if you like Washington and Wahlberg, you’ll have fun with this one. Rated R. Violence, language, slight boobage.