Critical Mass: Reviewers endorse “Birdman,” “Fury” and “Book of Life” — “Best of Me” is the worst

book1Monday, reviews were trending toward the ecstatic for “Fury”, the latest Brad Pitt WWII picture, and negative on “The Book of Life.”

But that balanced out, as it needed to. “Fury” is a B-movie, with a lulu of an odds against survival battle finale is hard to swallow. A good B-movie, but just a B-movie for the video game age. It’s sitting in the 75% range on Rottentomatoes.

Book of Life” is dazzling, and I am puzzled at the early poor reviews it was earning. Now it’s back into positive territory on Metacritic and Rottentomatoes, et al.

“Birdman” is a best picture Oscar contender. Everybody says so. Everybody. Who didn’t like it? Nobody to be taken seriously.

“The Best of Me” is more swill from Nicholas Sparks. I hate it when good actors sign onto his romance novel movies. They rarely save them. “The Notebook,” the exception that proves the rule. Terrible reviews for that one.

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Movie Review: “The Best of Me”

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For an hour or so, Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden gamely swim against the current, fighting the torpid tide of tripe that romance novelist Nicholas Sparks sends their way in his latest.
It’s sad to watch them strain and struggle and then give up as the lachrymose “The Best of Me” drowns them in a sea of saccharine.
It’s yet another doomed last chance love story set in the coastal South, star-crossed lovers “destined” to be together, but kept apart by tragedy. There’s barely a tear left in this limp weeper.
Dawson (Marsden) once loved Amanda (Monaghan). They were high school sweethearts — the pushy, spunky rich girl, the book-smart “white trash” bayou rat from a family of dentally deficient lowlifes.
But circumstances broke them apart, and when we meet him he’s on oil rig in the Gulf, a rig that has a blowout that hurls him into the sea. When he wakes up, he’s summoned to the reading of a will. She’s been summoned, too.
Can love’s flame rekindle after 20 years?
“Twenty-one, actually.”
Can she ignore the hurt he caused and leave the family she started? Can he come off as noble as he hopes against hope to bust up that family? What do you think?
Gerald McRaney plays a mildly-amusing old cuss who took Dawson in when he was a teen. It’s his will they read. Through flashbacks, the old man’s narration and heartfelt hand-written letters, we learn their past, as performed by Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato, who don’t look much at all like the adults they’re supposed to be and don’t heat this story up.

Best of Me (2014) Trailer (Screengrab)
Back then, she was all “You don’t know how to flirt, do ya?” And he was all “Destiny is a name the fortunate give to their fortunes.”
And his redneck daddy (Sean Bridgers) is all, “You think you’re too GOOD for this family?”
The boy studies physics, sitting on the catwalk of the rusty town water tower in their little Louisiana town. So yeah, he is.
Director Michael Hoffman (“One Fine Day”) was probably never up to the task of polishing this floater.
But the adults are interesting to watch, and Monaghan comes close to breaking our heart, once or twice — a little catch in her voice, a tear. At some point, the spark goes out of her performance and she joins Marsden as a sort of bystander in a movie their efforts alone won’t save.
There’s an artless obviousness to Sparks — the choice of tune they pick as “their song,” the tasteful PG-13 sex scenes, the righteous rural way of settling scores. None of which isn’t helped by the fact that “The Best of Me” is y just Sparks’ greatest hits, starting with “The Notebook,” a touch of “Dear John,” and running through every “not good enough for my daughter,” every tragic death, broken memory or noble sacrifice.
Which is why “The Best of Me” plays like the worst of Nicholas Sparks.
1half-star
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexuality, violence, some drug content and brief strong language.
Cast: Michelle Monaghan, James Marsden, Gerald McRaney, Luke Bracey, Liana Liberato, Sean Bridgers
Credits: Directed by Michael Hoffman, screenplay by J. Mills Goodloe, Will Fetters, based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks. A Relativity release.
Running time: 1:53

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Movie Review: “Fury”

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This bit of heroics isn’t “what I wanted to do,” Brad Pitt’s battle-scarred sergeant, and a hundred movie sergeants before him, growl. “But it’s what we’re doing.”
“Fury” is the sort of World War II movie Hollywood used to churn out four or five times a year — a gritty, grunt’s eye-view of combat. The grit is bloodier and R-rated now, as is the combat jargon. Firefights have a visceral, video-game immediacy. It’s still a B-movie.
But even a B-movie stuffed with cliches can be gripping. “Fury,” written and directed by David “Training Day” Ayer, takes us into the claustrophobic confines of a tank and makes a fine star vehicle for Pitt, if not the most original march down World War II lane.
The sergeant’s “war name” is Wardaddy, and we meet him as his battle weary crew delivers a dead comrade to base. In the last days of the war, Germany is lashing out with a suicidal fatalism — fanatical S.S.troops, old men, boys and girls are being sacrificed in one last Nazi blood purge.
“Fury,” the name of their tank, is sole survivor of their last mission. Now they’ve been given a replacement (Logan Lerman) and a new task. The opening credits remind us that U.S. armor was inferior to German tanks, so every mission could be their last.
But the cynical crew still mutters “Best job I ever had” when the going gets tough. Boyd (Shia Labeouf) is a drawling, Bible-quoting gunner. Grady (Jon Bernthal) is loader and mechanic, an ugly brute and bully. Gordo (Michael Pena) — nicknamed for the Spanish word for “fat” — is the driver. They proceed to haze and abuse the new guy (Logan Lerman), whose eight weeks of training were meant to make him an Army clerk. He is, as such characters always are in such films, idealistic.
“Ideals are peaceful,” the philosopher sergeant intones, with Pitt hitting the line as if it’s for posterity. “History is violent.”
In “Training Day/Saving Private Ryan” fashion, the new guy has to see the carnage — tanks churning corpses to goo, heads exploding and the occasional summary execution of the enemy. Wardaddy is a bit of a fanatic about killing S.S. fanatics.
“Fury” gives Pitt a story arc that makes him harder and more cruel than anybody in this crew, which he has kept alive since the North African campaign. But we get hints there are layers he’s hiding.
The cast around him plays mostly stock characters, but vivid ones. Bernthal stands out, and Jason Patric is good as the officer whose scars give him credibility as he sends Fury into harm’s way.
Ayer’s command of history is more solid than clumsier efforts like “Inglourious Basterds” or “U-571.” The tank appears to be a relatively rare Pershing. The utterly-spent combat reserve pool is straight out of WWII history. Guys went into combat and stayed to the finish. Green kids were all that was left for replacements.
A Tarantino touch? The crew forces itself on German women who feed them as Gordo recollects the horrors of the post-D-Day “Falaise Pocket,” when Germans and their pack animals were slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands.
Ayer hasn’t topped “Saving Private Ryan,” even though he recycles chunks of it. “Fury” is more like Sam Fuller’s personal war memoir, “The Big Red One” — straightforward, less poetic, an action film with a hint of humanity and history that is fast receding from view. It’s good, not great, and it’s not Ayer’s fault that the rarer these B-movies become, the more we expect from them.

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MPAA Rating: R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout
Cast: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal
Credits: Written and directed by David Ayer. A Columbia release.
Running time: 2:14

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Movie Review: “The Book of Life”

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book1“The Book of Life” is a Mexican-accented kids’ cartoon so colorful and unconventionally dazzling it almost reinvents the art form. As pretty as a just-punctured pinata, endlessly inventive, warm and traditional, it serves up Mexican culture in a riot of Mexican colors and mariachi-flavored music.
The tale is told by a museum tour guide in an effort to impress a raucous bunch of American school kids. Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) recounts a love story built around El dia de los Muertos, Mexico’s Day of the Dead. And the moment that story begins, the computer animated style switches from quirky, big-headed, plastic-looking adults and kids to a bizarre, wooden-puppet world of the past, the Mexican village of San Angel.
That’s where Maria (Zoe Saldana), a feisty girl, was pursued by Manolo (Diego Luna), the bullfighter’s son who only wants to sing and play the guitar, and Joaquin (Channing Tatum), the war hero’s son who only wants to live up to his late father’s fame.
Their courtship duel becomes a wager in the afterlife, where La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) vie for primacy over the “Land of the Remembered.”
Manolo becomes a bullfighter who refuses to “finish” the bull, Joaquin becomes a hero who doesn’t fear death, thanks to a magic medal Xibalba slips him, and Maria grows up to become a proto-feminist who won’t be an easy catch for either of them.
Joaquin collects medals to win Maria, Manolo sings. Luna’s cover versions of songs from Elvis to Radiohead and Mumford & Sons add romance to the proceedings.
The production design, by Paul Sullivan and Simon Vladimir Varela, is stunning — textured puppet figures that have the feel of sanded, painted and embossed wood, mosaics, fanciful adobe-clad bullring and church, bulls and boars that are all horns, hooves and snorting nostrils and characters with oversized heads that Picasso would have recognized.
Director and co-writer Jorge R. Gutierez keeps this simple story on the move, and producer Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” touch is felt throughout. The film is adorned with all manner of clever jokes, gorgeous sight gags and the little flourishes.
The gringo school-kids who are hearing the tale comment on it with plenty of snark.
“What is it with Mexicans and death?”
A mini-chorus of nuns chirps up, from time to time. The town priest is masked as a luchador, a Mexican wrestler. The unmistakable voices of the great tenor Placido Domingo, the great comic Cheech Marin, Ice Cube (hilarious) and movie tough guy Danny Trejo turn up.
At this point in the animation game, we know what to expect of Pixar, Disney and Dreamworks. “Book of Life” is something new and a gigantic step up from Reel FX Animation’s previous work (“Free Birds”). This sometimes riotous, always charming film suggests they’ve taken their own movie’s message to heart. You can “write your own story,” and have it pay off.

MPAA Rating: PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images
Cast: The voices of Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Diego Luna, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Ice Cube, Placido Domingo
Credits: Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez, written by Jorge R. Gutierrez and Doug Langdale. A 20th Century Fox release.
Running time: 1:35

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Movie Review: “Birdman”

keaton“Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” is the last caped superhero movie you will ever need to see. Serious and silly, self-aware and ironic, it’s the movie that questions stardom, fame and celebrity, built around a role Michael Keaton had to become a has-been to play.
Keaton is Riggin Thomson, who was the big screen’s “Birdman” twenty years ago. Balding and wrinkled, his goatee flecked with grey, he’s thrown everything he has into one last shot at fame.
His vehicle? A self-adapted, produced and directed Broadway production of a Raymond Carver story fragment, which he will also star in.
He really needs “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love?” to hit. And not just because of what his junkie daughter turned personal assistant (Emma Stone) says.
“You don’t matter. You’re not important. Get used to it.”
Daughter Sam’s isn’t the only voice Riggin is listening to. There’s his lawyer-producer (Zach Galifianakis), the one who warns him about how much this vanity project is costing. And there’s the voice in his head, a cracked corner of his conscience that sounds like Keaton in his Dark Knight growl.
“Gravity doesn’t even APPLY to you” the voice says. Because Riggin is sure he has telekinetic powers. He can levitate — which is how we’re introduced to him, in his tidy whities in his dressing room, floating in a lotus position. In a comic book universe, Riggin would be just another credible “Incredible,” the supernatural accepted as natural. In the real world, he’s just a guy who surrendered his fame to that “Tin Suit wearing” fraud, Robert Downey Jr., and others.
“Birdman” co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“21 Grams,” “Babel”) has created an essay in the madness of celebrity. Riggin is caught up in it, as indeed it seemed Keaton himself once was. Delusions of omnipotence linger in that crazy voice in his head. But he’s lost the arrogance, the self-important sense of “artist” and “cool” that he wore at the height of his fame.
Yeah, I’m talking about both Riggin and the guy playing him. Iñárritu and his co-writers have endless fun riffing on Keaton’s real-life diva rep.
And that’s just for starters. Riggin’s on-stage supporting cast, played by Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough, isn’t complete until Broadway vet Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) is brought in at the last minute. Keaton has NOTHING on Norton when it comes to “difficult” reputation.
In one moment, Mike is shocking Riggin by already having the script memorized the minute he arrives. The second moment, he’s editing it. Ask anybody who’s worked with Norton if that happens. Like us, Riggin also realizes this editing is instantly improving the show.
But Mike is a raving egomaniac and an unstable jerk. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but if you’re not tickled by Norton’s bipolar “Method Acting” explosions, then you’re missing the joke. Maybe he never said “theater” as if he owns it, or “This is MY town” about New York and Broadway. But like a withering confrontation Riggin has with a New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan of “About Time”), it sounds so right.
Iñárritu shoots the film like Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” a swooping, seamless series of long, highly choreographed takes which move us from dressing room to rooftop to backstage and then onstage. The play they’re doing doesn’t seem like much, but being Carver (Altman directed “Short Cuts” from Carver stories) it promises emotional explosions.
Norton has great fun with his reputation, Stone is fearsome as a spoiled rich girl happiest playing the angry victim. Watts is properly needy, and Riseborough (“Oblivion”) almost steals the movie with her promiscuous, mercurial Broadway baby turn. Galifianakis has never played a more human character, which considering he’s playing a lawyer turned Broadway producer, is saying something.
But the camera stays on Keaton, hand-held close-ups taking us into the madness, the world famous icon he was, the broken but not quite humbled Norma Desmond he has become.
In this riveting, hilarious, intimate yet larger than life performance, he never needs to say “I used to be BIG.” It’s in his “Birdman” eyes, first scene to last.

4star4

(Read Roger Moore’s conversation with Michael Keaton about “Birdman” HERE)
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis
Credits: Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo . A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 1:59

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Movie Review: “Dear White People”

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white“Satire is the weapon of reason” is the punch line to writer-director Justin Simien’s flip and hip satire, “Dear White People.” Here’s a race-based/race-baiting comedy that tackles issues of identity and sensitivity head on, a debut film that brashly borrows from a few early Spike Lee movies and updates them in a story of a college campus where somebody figures “Unleash Your Inner Negro” is a good idea for a white frat house Halloween party.
Sam (Tessa Thompson) hosts a comically incendiary campus radio show at Ivy League Winchester University. “Dear White People” is a black provacateur’s slap at the culture she sees around her.
“Dear white people,” she begins, “the minimum requirement of black friends you need to not be seen as racist has just been raised to two.” “Dear white people, stop dancing!”
This rattles the thoroughly integrated campus, but not nearly as much as her efforts to do away with “randomizing” housing arrangements. She wants to return Armstrong-Parker Hall to a dorm for African American students only. When she wins the job of hall president, she re-segregates the place, encouraging the black kids to pelt white interlopers with wads of paper.
But Miss Thing, we notice, is fair skinned. She has a white boyfriend she keeps secret from her Black Student Union activist friends.
Then there’s the gay Ukel-in-an-Afro, Lionel, played by Tyler James Williams of “Everybody Hates Chris.” He fits in nowhere.
Coco (Teyonah Parris) is a preening diva who changed her name from the one her parents saddled her with (Colandrea). She does a snarky video blog and only dates white boys.
Simien unleashes racist fraternity members, white trust fund girls who “date black guys” just to irk their parents, academic leaders who say “Racism is over in America,” and a reality TV show producer (Malcolm Barrett) casting for a hyped-up reality series — “Black Face/White Place.”
But that climate, he suggests, is begging for satire, not that a blackface Halloween party is incapable of being that subtle.
The banter is witty and testy, all about who can give or take away your “honorary black card,” a school newspaper staff being “whiter than Michael Jackson’s kids.”
Thompson (“For Colored Girls) gets most of the best lines. Parris makes the strongest impression, suggesting layers of self-loathing hidden behind a confident, striving pose.
That’s what everybody does in college — pose, none more than uptight/upright Troy (Brandon P Bell), son of a college dean (Dennis Haysbert) who changes the channel from “Star Trek” to sports when he thinks others are watching him.
Simien focuses too much on the character played by his star, Williams, which seems a mistake. Scenes are underscored with classical music chestnuts, a trite way of suggesting “academia.” And the ending is an eye-roller.
But Simien is on the mark is the target for his satire, that a generation we see as color blind is probably not. White people, and black people can stay through the credits for proof of that.

MPAA Rating:R for language, sexual content and drug use
Cast:Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, Dennis Haysbert, Brandon P Bell
Credits: Written and directed by Justin Simien. A Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:48

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Keaton faces down his own reputation in “Birdman”

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Acting, Michael Keaton has long maintained, “is an act of pulling your pants down.” And for the film that one-and-all have labeled his “comeback,” “that’s literally true.”

For “Birdman,” the one-time Batman plays a has-been actor, bitter and a little crazy after all the years that have passed since his days of fame and fat paychecks. So Riggan Thomson adapts, directs and stars in a stage drama on Broadway. It isn’t going well. He’s hearing voices, the growl of his former superhero character. His co-star (Edward Norton) is a nut. The critics are sharpening their knives for opening night. And then he gets locked outside the backstage door, his robe is ripped off and he has to make his way through Times Square in nothing but his tidy whities.

“This is CERTAINLY not a vanity project,” Keaton says, laughing. “Riggan has gone to seed. You’ve got to commit to saying, ‘Oh, this guy is going to look rough around the edges. Should I?'”

The Keaton trotting gingerly through “The Crossroads of the World” wasn’t the lean Dark Knight of the ’80s, with something like a full head of hair. His Riggan is paunchy, balding and wears 60-plus years on his face (Keaton just turned 63). But co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel”) says he was the only man for the job.

“It was very brave for Michael to get this naked emotionally and physically for a movie,” Iñárritu says.

That’s a word critics are hurling at Keaton like never before — “brave.” Because “Birdman” blurs the line between where the one-time Batman actor ends and the Birdman begins, part of a “metadialogue” Iñárritu says he wanted to inject in his movie about celebrity and the crazy reputation that can come with it. Edward Norton, an actor famous for being “difficult,” plays a co-star famous for being difficult. And an actor for whom, as The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane put it, “the Bat-Mantle…rested uneasily on (his) shoulders” plays an actor driven a little crazy by a role he played decades before.

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“You just do it, have the (testicles) to say ‘This is who I am right now, in this moment,” Keaton says. “Warts and all, you know?”

His post “Batman” years — Keaton played him twice — weren’t necessarily bad. But Keaton was infamously touchy about discussing the role. Pair him up in a romantic comedy (“Speechless”) with Christopher “Superman” Reeve” and all tact flew out the window. He’d had enough, and he earned the reputation as somebody you didn’t want to interview. Even now, he doesn’t start stammering until that past is brought up.

“You’re-you’re-you’re talking about the bigger picture, me playing ‘Batman,’ having that history,” he says. Iñárritu created “Birdman” with Keaton in mind, but Keaton claims he had no idea that was the case. “Early on, to me it was just a part that maybe ten or eight or five guys would have been right for — guys who’ve played characters like ‘Batman.’ But I think he settled on me earlier than I realized. I read Alejandro saying it was always for me after making the movie.We never discussed how much of me he saw in this guy.

“Yeah, I played ‘Batman,’ but what else did he see in me that says ‘Riggan?’ It’s totally OK with me, but I think he gave me more credit for thinking I’d get the connection. That didn’t hurt me or help me. It was a non-issue for me. I’m an actor — so you know, you know — to some degree you have to identify with a part, no matter how crazy he comes off. Not much, in this case. I’m not that personality type, but I’ve played other extreme characters. In ‘Desperate Measures,’ I was a vicious killer and I’m not that personality type either.”

Keaton always seemed too cool to sell out, which explained his gripes about decades of Batman questions. But the testiness has faded, perspective has kicked in. An actor who most fondly remembers his most comically extreme characters — Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing,” Joe Stumpo in HBO’s “Clear History” — got a great part, one he was born to play, in a critically-acclaimed Oscar contending film. It’s all good. Now.

“I’m human. So your experience makes up who you play. And I’ve experienced despair. I’m not at that desperation part of my career, so I don’t think like that…You’re human, so you’ve had disappointment, emotions like everyone else. I related to that.”

But that one big hurdle, the Times Square Tidy Whities Scene, would be the test. Check your vanity at the door.

“Alejandro kept insisting at lunch or dinner that I clean my plate. He was ATCHING me. Looking at the plate, then looking up at me, and pushing the plate at me. ‘You need to keep eating.’ I did the best I could. The guy’s not looking as fit as he used to.”

But the director, after giving his star a paunch and taking away any hint of his vanity, had a heart. With the modest budget of “Birdman,” they’d have to shoot in Times Square at night, on the fly. He figured out a way to protect his 60something star from ridicule.

“I came up with the idea of hiring a drums band, getting them to set up in the middle of the square,” Iñárritu remembers. “I needed a distraction. We didn’t have money for a lot of extras. Those are real people, and I did not want ALL of them staring at Michael. It’s embarrassing enough. But we did it, got away with it. And look how brave he was!”

(Read Roger Moore’s review of “Birdman” here)

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Movie Review: “Rudderless” is a musical tragedy that will leave you adrift

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“Rudderless” is a tragic quasi-musical that never quite finds its way. It drifts through a lot of tunes, some big name cameos, a big twist that you won’t swallow and a central relationship that is cute but trite and not for one moment believable.
But William H. Macy’s directing debut shows us just how beloved this actor’s actor is, with all the folks he was able to talk into dropping in for a scene, a day or a couple of days. The fact that most of these “star turns” suck the wind out of the movie’s sails suggests maybe he shouldn’t have called all these favors in for one film.
Billy Crudup plays Sam, the divorced advertising wizard whose son misses an impromptu dinner invitation because he was caught up in a mass shooting at his college. Hounded by TV reporters from the funeral onward, Sam drops out.
And how do guys drop out in the movies? He ditches the Architectural Digest home and the Audi and moves onto a sailboat, a 35 foot center-cockpit cutter. Yeah, this sort of thing really happens. But in the movies, it’s a cliche. See the Josh Lucas weeper “A Year in Mooring” (2011) for the prototype, or Redford’s “All is Lost.”
Sam rides a bike to his job, painting houses. He hits the liquor stores or bars on the way home. He’s taken a shine to boilermakers.
Then his ex-wife (Felicity Huffman), who has remarried and had another child, drops off his late son’s stuff. That’s where Sam discovers the kid’s music and starts to learn about the boy by learning and playing his songs. He plays them at a local bar which has a perpetual open mike night.
And that’s where the eager mop-top guitarist Quentin (Anton Yelchin) hears them and introduces himself.
“I…wanted to say something earlier…but you look…scary.”
Quentin courts Sam so they can play together, and two guitarists is just the start of a band. But even after they start to get popular, the secretive Sam declines to say where the songs came from or who he really is.
For a movie ostensibly about mourning and grief, there is little in the script or Crudup’s performance that suggests that. That allows us to guess the direction this is headed long before this boat comes about and takes us there.
The bar, with Macy playing the owner, has impossibly talented “random” singers playing open mike, profane novelty-tune pixie Kate Micucci among them.
Yelchin’s Quentin is painfully shy, a kid with issues. But not when it comes to A) approaching the stranger with the Mumford-by-Way-of-Wilco songs or B) performing.
No, they don’t call the band “The Old Man and the Three.” But they think about it.
And Laurence Fishburne plays the crusty music store owner who’s in their corner.
Macy has spent much of his recent career in indie films, so it’s no surprise that he chose to try commanding his own ship. But in nautical terms, “Rudderless” has too much canvas up, too much story to settle on a convincing tone, too many players to give everybody a role worth their trouble.
MPAA Rating: R for language
Cast: Billy Crudup, Anton Yelchin, Felicity Huffman, Selena Gomez, Laurence Fishburne, William H. Macy
Credits: Directed by William H. Macy, written by Casey Twenter, Jeff Robison and William H. Macy . A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:45

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Movie Review: “Housebound” serves up creepy Kiwi laughs

house1“Housebound” is a nasty and laugh-out-loud horror comedy from New Zealand. Writer-director Gerard Johnstone has concocted a deadpan Kiwi haunted house farce where the blood spatters and the jokes zing, all the way through its long, drawn-out finale.

Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) is a furious 20something punk who doesn’t let her boyfriend’s clumsy act of knocking himself out deter her from finishing off ATM they’re trying to rob. But alas, there is no getaway.

A repeat offender, the meth-and-booze-loving Kylie is sentenced to eight months house arrest with her mum. But from the moment we meet mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) we know New Zealand still practices cruel and unusual punishment.

Miriam is a dithering goof, prone to calling in to paranormal radio shows and telling her tales. Kylie, hostile, swilling beer and generally trashing the house and raging at Miriam and her even-slower-witted second husband (Ross Harper), starts to wonder what Mum is on about.

There are creaking noises and electrical gremlins in their big, multi-storey house. Radios pop on and play Kylie’s favorite song from her teens (“Hello Moto,” by Eskimo). A bear doll starts chatting with her in the dead of the night. Tossing it in the fireplace doesn’t end that.

And something — or someone — grabbed at her ankle in the basement.

Kylie goes a little nuts at all this, trapped by an monitor bracelet, unable to fight or flee this waking nightmare.

But what’s funny is the way everybody else reacts to her plight. Mum isn’t surprised. Limited as she is, she knows something is up. Then there’s Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), the security company guy who monitors Kylie’s house arrest. He answers a call, Kylie shrieks about what’s happening and he whips out a tape recorder, holding it in the air as he asks “the restless spirit that lives in this house — What is your business?”

Amos believes. Cops roll their eyes, Kylie’s therapist wonders if she’s still on drugs or having delusions, but Kylie never doubts her sanity or her response to what is happening to her and Amos is all in, too.

“The closed mind is the worst defense against the paranormal,” he admonishes her. What’ll she do when she finally confronts this ghost? Punch it out, she spits.

“You CAN’T punch ectoplasm!”

The players keep straight faces (Te Wiata is a hoot, Waru the perfect straight man). And O’Reilly works up a fine panic as the mystery unravels. That’s mainly what counts here, the “Whoa, I did not see THAT coming” twists. Some of them are cheats, info we aren’t given until the surprise is sprung.

And writer-director Johnstone doesn’t know when to quit. The climax goes on and on, finishing with an anti-climax, as if the director couldn’t bear to trim his own script.

But he’s still whipped up a clever and claustrophobic thriller that will trip you up and leave you with a wicked, blood-stained grin.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated, with graphic violence.

Cast: Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Te Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru

Credits: Written and directed by Gerard Johnstone. An XLRator Media release.

Running time: 1:51

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