Mini Reviews (May 2012)
Hostel: Part III, Bully, The Dictator, What to Expect When You're Expecting, Lola Versus, Chernobyl Diaries, Normal
Hostel: Part III (May 9/12)
A disappointingly underwhelming sequel, Hostel: Part III follows four friends (Brian Hallisay's Scott, Kip Pardue's Carter, John Hensley's Justin, and Skyler Stone's Mike) as they arrive in Las Vegas for a weekend of fun and debauchery - with complications ensuing after the guys are captured by a sinister organization that provides warm bodies for their clients to torture. It's clear immediately that Hostel: Part III represents a demonstrable step down from its comparatively exemplary predecessors, as filmmaker Scott Spiegel, along with cinematographer Andrew Strahorn, has infused the proceedings with an almost distractingly low-rent visual sensibility that stands in sharp contrast to the palpably cinematic appearance of both Hostel and, especially, Hostel: Part II. The movie's less-than-impressive look is compounded by an ongoing emphasis on hopelessly one-dimensional characters, with the protagonists' uniform blandness ensuring that it does become more and more difficult to wholeheartedly care about their inevitable problems. And although the movie's narrative boasts a handful of promising torture sequences, there's little doubt that such moments are drained of their impact by Spiegel's curiously restrained approach (ie the director leaves far too much to the imagination). The inclusion of an admittedly unexpected twist at around the one-hour mark injects Hostel: Part III with a burst of much-needed energy, with the remainder of the film, as a result, faring marginally better than one might've anticipated - although, ultimately, this simply isn't enough to compensate for the pervasive mediocrity of the movie's first half.
Bully (May 14/12)
Directed by Lee Hirsch, Bully explores the impact that bullying has had and continues to have on American teenagers - with a specific emphasis on the exploits of several tormented high schoolers. Filmmaker Hirsch does a superb job of immediately capturing the viewer's interest, as Bully opens with a striking (and appropriately downbeat) prologue revolving around the suicide of an abused kid. From there, Bully morphs into a fairly typical documentary that has, admittedly, been peppered with a number of eye-opening and affecting moments (eg an incompetent school official forces a victim to shake hands with his bully) - with the compelling nature of the various stories perpetuating the movie's impressively compelling atmosphere. There's little doubt, however, that the film does demonstrably start to run out of steam as it passes the one hour mark, as Hirsch, in an effort at padding out the running time, begins peppering the proceedings with elements of a repetitive and decidedly underwhelming variety. (It's awfully difficult, for example, to justify the inclusion of a funeral for a kid that we've never met.) And while the movie picks up in its closing minutes, Bully ultimately comes off as a passable documentary that could've used a much sharper focus - although, by that same token, it's impossible to deny the film's importance and need to be seen among younger viewers.
The Dictator (May 15/12)
Though it's far from the laugh riot one might've expected, The Dictator nevertheless comes off as an affable piece of work that benefits from the inclusion of several gut-bustingly hilarious bits of over-the-top comedy. (It doesn't hurt, either, that the movie runs just short of 80 minutes without credits.) Sacha Baron Cohen stars as Admiral General Aladeen, a spoiled dictator who is forced to fend for himself after a rival leaves him for dead - with the film subsequently detailing Aladeen's ongoing fish-out-of-water exploits on the streets of New York City (eg he reluctantly accepts a job at a Brooklyn-based vegan food co-op). It's clear immediately that The Dictator, much like previous Baron Cohen endeavors as Borat and Bruno, suffers from an incredibly uneven feel that ultimately diminishes its overall impact, with the ongoing emphasis on undeniably hoary narrative elements - eg Aladeen's predictable romance with a friendly figure (Anna Faris' Zoey) at the aforementioned co-op - compounding the film's pervasively erratic atmosphere (ie there are more lulls than there are engrossing stretches). And although scripters Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer, and Baron Cohen too often stress comedic asides and jokes of an eye-rollingly obvious nature, The Dictator admittedly does feature a small handful of laugh-out-loud funny gags that effectively justify the movie's existence - with the best and most potent example of this a breathtakingly hilarious sequence involving a helicopter tour gone horribly wrong. The end result is a passable satire that could've, with a sharper focus, been much, much better, and yet there's little doubt that the film generally fares better than many of the overlong comedies that have been flooding multiplexes as of late.
What to Expect When You're Expecting (May 16/12)
Directed by Kirk Jones, What to Expect When You're Expecting follows several characters through the ups and downs of impending parenthood - with the film detailing the exploits of, among others, an exercise guru (Cameron Diaz's Jules), a baby-crazy author (Elizabeth Banks' Wendy), and a struggling food-truck chef (Anna Kendrick's Rosie). There's little doubt that What to Expect When You're Expecting comes off as a cinematic cousin to Garry Marshall's recent one-two punch of Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve, as the movie, written by Shauna Cross and Heather Hach, boasts a perpetually shifting perspective that does, virtually from the get-go, result in a decidedly uneven atmosphere (ie some of these stories are far more intriguing and interesting than others). Filmmaker Jones' decision to infuse the proceedings with an almost incongruously low-key feel is compounded by a curious lack of laughs (or even chuckles), as Cross and Hach continuously stress jokes and gags of an eye-rollingly obvious nature (eg a crew of stay-at-home dads arrive at a playground, in slow motion, accompanied to the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize"). It's fairly obvious, then, that What to Expect When You're Expecting's mild success is due almost entirely to the all-star cast's efforts, with the charismatic work from folks like Kendrick, Dennis Quaid, and Joe Manganiello going a long way towards smoothing over the movie's increasingly erratic narrative. The growing emphasis on sentimental elements (eg a character loses her baby) contributes heavily to the movie's meandering midsection, however, and it's worth noting that the palpably overlong running time becomes more and more problematic in the buildup to the emotional third act (which is, admittedly, sporadically quite affecting). What to Expect When You're Expecting is, finally, a rather lazy comedy that just barely ekes by on its star power, with the film's lack of ambition ultimately preventing it from becoming anything more than a barely-adequate time-waster.
Lola Versus (May 22/12)
Written by Zoe Lister Jones and Daryl Wein (and directed by the latter), Lola Versus follows Greta Gerwig's title character as she's dumped by her fiancé (Joel Kinnaman's Luke) just weeks before their wedding - with the movie detailing Lola's subsequent efforts at getting her life back on track. Lola Versus has been hard-wired with a pervasively quirky sensibility that proves off-putting right from the get-go, and there's little doubt that the film is, as a result, rarely able to come off as the believable, low-key relationship drama that Lister Jones and Wein seem to have intended. (It is, for example, impossible to take seriously a movie that features a character who exits a scene by announcing "I gotta go wash my vagina.") It's a shame, really, given that the film has admittedly been peppered with moments of irresistible authenticity (eg Lola notes that "men are always looking for someone better and women are just looking for whatever works"), and while Lister Jones delivers a disappointingly broad, sitcom-like performance, the cast otherwise boasts strong work from an eclectic group that includes, among others, Bill Pullman, Hamish Linklater, and Debra Winger. It's clear, though, that the movie's few positive attributes are consistently undermined by an ongoing emphasis on lowest-common-denominator type elements (ie some of this stuff would be more at home within a mindless Katherine Heigl romcom, to be frank), with the uneven atmosphere exacerbated by a meandering, wheel-spinning midsection that's primarily preoccupied with the characters' comedically-tinged exploits. And although Lister Jones and Wein attempt a last minute push for relevance, Lola Versus ultimately comes off as a weak romance that unsuccessfully walks the line between subdued authenticity and mainstream silliness from start to finish.
Chernobyl Diaries (May 30/12)
Despite the seemingly can't-miss nature of its premise - several tourists and their guide are attacked by mutated freaks near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor - Chernobyl Diaries comes off as a sluggish and incongruously tame horror effort that grows more and more interminable as time progresses. It's a shame, really, given that the film does begin with a certain amount of promise, as director Bradley Parker, working from a script by Oren Peli, Carey Van Dyke, and Shane Van Dyke, does a nice job of establishing the desolate (and decidedly ominous) atmosphere of the movie's principal locale, Pripyat (ie the small town where Chernobyl's workers and their families resided before the infamous meltdown). It is, as such, initially rather easy to accept the deliberateness with which the sparse narrative unfolds, while the one-dimensional nature of the various protagonists isn't quite as problematic as one might've feared (ie one almost expects underdeveloped characters in films of this ilk). And although Parker admittedly does a nice job with the movie's first big jolt, Chernobyl Diaries quickly settles into a fairly routine (and fairly tedious) groove - as the midsection primarily details with the dwindling survivors exploration of their locale and their ongoing efforts at hiding from their ravenous pursuers. It's palpably dull stuff that's exacerbated by an incongruous lack of gore, with Parker's decision to stage each and every one of the kill sequences off-screen (!) proving utterly disastrous (ie without gruesomely over-the-top deaths, what exactly is the point of all this?) There's consequently little doubt that the inclusion of a few better-than-anticipated elements towards the end - eg eye-catching sets, decent creature design (what little we see, anyway), etc - arrive far too late to make any real impact, and it's ultimately impossible to label Chernobyl Diaries as anything more than yet another disappointing found-footage thriller (which is strange, certainly, given that the movie hasn't technically been filmed in that style).
Normal (May 31/12)
Written and directed by Nicholas P. Richards, Normal follows slacker Phin (Geno Rathbone) as he agrees to deliver a mysterious package to Normal, Illinois - with the character's ongoing efforts at completing this seemingly innocuous assignment complicated by the presence of several oddball figures (including a genial fellow claiming to be from the future). Filmmaker Richards admittedly does a decent job of initially drawing the viewer into the low-budget proceedings, as the movie's initial emphasis on Phin's subdued exploits are heightened by Rathbone's far-from-polished yet affable performance. It's only as Richards slowly-but-surely suffuses the narrative with elements of a decidedly (and, eventually, oppressively) off-kilter nature that one's interest begins to flag, with, in particular, the stretch detailing Phin's reluctant ride with a pair of wacky criminals (Neil Kubath's Bruce and Emmi Chen's Taylor) almost intolerable in its quirkiness. There's little doubt, however, that the film subsequently recovers, albeit briefly, with the inclusion of an impressively out-of-left-field plot development, as the impossible-to-predict twist proves effective at infusing the movie with a much-need burst of energy. And while one can't help but admire the decidedly ambitious bent of Richards' screenplay - the storyline continues to head in strange and unexpected directions as it progresses - Normal suffers from a lack of cohesion and momentum that grows more and more problematic in the buildup to its anticlimactic final stretch. It's clear, as a result, that the movie fares best in its smaller, quieter moments (eg Phin's flirtatious conversations with Erin Breen's sweet Grace), which ultimately does cement Normal's place as an intriguing yet uneven and underwhelming indie comedy.