Box Office: “Rio 2″ runs over “Captain America” — “Oculus” is respectable

rio2“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” seemed overly praised when it opened last week. To me, it’s more of a shrug than “the best Marvel movie” since this or that. The swooning by a few seemed unwarranted.

Audiences made it a record setter on its opening weekend. But this weekend, word of mouth tamped that down quite a bit. It did a perfectly ordinary 40% of what it did on opening weekend, not even enough to tally a second win in the weekend box office race. Well under $40 million. Nothing to sneeze at, but the bloom is off the rose, there.

“Rio 2,” which isn’t very good at all, with reviews reflecting that, is performing just over expectations — $43 million or more, based on Friday and still dependent on the all-important-for-kids-movies Saturday take. The original was good enough that families considered it a safe bet, critics be darned.

The biggest horror openings, generally sequels, open in the $20s, typically — mid-to-upper $20s if they have the hype, the reviews, etc., to give them a push. “Oculus” only managed to reach the mid-teens ($13-14). Those are right around “Insidious” numbers, which, if reviews are to be believed, mean it will perform better over the log haul than on opening weekend.

The best the weakly-reviewed NFL drama “Draft Day” was going to do was $10-12, and that’s just what it’s doing.

“God’s Not Dead”, but life signs are finally fading on this low budget indie phenomenon. It added theaters but slipped quite a bit as it nears the $40 million mark, overall.

“Divergent” will reach $125 million by Sunday night, “Grand Budapest” a healthy $40, “Noah” will come close to $85. It may well make $100 million in North America, before it’s all-in.

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Movie Review: “Cuban Fury”

ImageIn the ’80s, when he was a young lad, Bruce heard the siren’s call. More likely, it was Gloria Estefan’s call. The “rhythm is gonna getcha,” and it did.
As a teen, he danced salsa with his sister Sam all over England. They won
contests. He was a devil in Cuban heels and spangly pants — “Cuban Fury.”
But then the teenage bullying got the best of him, and “the fire in my heels,
it just went out.” His teacher, his hairy-chested dance guru (Ian McShane) was
Decades later, gravity and the British diet have caught up with him. Bruce
(Nick Frost of “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End”) doesn’t dance and barely
exercises. He works as an industrial machine designer at an engineering firm, is
still bullied and has only his fellow losers, drinking and golfing buddies, for
“Have you had any contact with a member of the opposite sex in which money
does not change hands?” is their weekly query.
But there’s a new single woman at work — his American boss (Rashida Jones).
She is approachable and ever-so-fine. If only Bruce could keep her out of the
arms of the office Irish Lothario (Chris O’Dowd). If only Bruce wasn’t “a two.
She’s a ten…It’s like a butterfly going out with a parsnip.”
If only they had something in common. Oh, but they do.
“Cuban Fury” is a quite funny if entirely predictable farce built around the
sight gag of portly Nick Frost kicking up his heels on the dance floor. He is
the latest in long line of graceful men of girth, a nimble comedic butterball.
And this film is a giggle of a showcase for him, a silly romance that surrounds
him with an over-the-top villain (O’Dowd of “Bridesmaids”), an over-the-top guru
(McShane, who was born to wear tan in a can) and a quirky-cute and accessible
Jones, now on TV’s “Parks and Recreation.”
O’Dowd makes a wonderful creep, given all the lines a ladies man would ever
need to scare off the competition.
“Women like that use guys like you to get advice about guys like me.”</P>
McShane’s dance teacher, Ron Parfitt, runs a dance studio and salsa club long
past salsa’s expiration date (“Dancing with the Stars” brought it back). He
wants to see Bruce back “in a pair of one and a half inch heels.” He wants him
quoting Cuban crook Tony Montana from “Scarface.”
“Say HELLO to my leetle friend!”
He wants him to remember that yoga nothing on salsa when it comes to
cutely-named positions.
“Arms of an eagle! Legs of a stallion!”
As juicy as his support is, it is Frost who totes this formula funny business
across the finish line with sweaty skill and aplomb. We believe he can dance. We
believe he MUST dance.
And thanks to him, we can even believe the parsnip has a shot with a
butterfly. If only for 90 minutes.

MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual references
Cast: Nick Frost, Rashida Jones, Chris O’Dowd, Ian McShane
Credits: Directed by James Griffiths, screenplay by Ron Brown. An eOne
Running time: 1:38

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Weekend Movies: Critics boost “Oculus,” indifferent reviews for “Draft Day,” “Rio 2″, but “Rio” should make a mint

oculusEver since “Insidious,” April has been a benchmark month for smarter-than-genre ghost stories. And this year’s installment, “Oculus,” is earning the same sort of solid (not rapturous) reviews and should give horror fans a tiny taste of what they like. Not a hard “R-rated” horror picture, just a reasonably complex one with decent actors doing the heavy lifting.

I have been waiting for the NFL to jump the shark as the sport of choice in these United States. Overexposed — it’s not quite on every day or night of the week. But close. It’s a year round obsession of sports talk radio. “Draft Day” feels like a manifestation of that, an NFL approved, ESPN connected dramedy about a general manager’s machinations pre-Draft Day, which the league turned into a post-Super Bowl/pre-training camp TV spectacle some years back. Weak reviews for “Draft Day.”

Kevin Costner’s box office drawing power is WAY down. As your audience ages, they stop going to the movies you’re in. “3 Days to Kill” proved that earlier this year. His future would appear to be where “Hatfields & McCoys” lie — TV, cable.

“Rio 2″ does what middling sequels do — the same things that the original film did, only more so. More songs, more voice actors (Bruno Mars plays an old flame for Anne Hathaway’s “Jewel”). The novelty of the first film is lost despite moving the setting from Rio de Janeiro to the Amazon, bringing in all sorts of new critters. There are too many characters to ably service them all with the script. Indifferent reviews for this one.

If Nic Cage’s “Joe” is opening in your market, it’s the movie to see this weekend. A genuine comeback picture, earning him back some of the goodwill he’s squandered over the years.

Box office? “Rio 2″ shows signs of doing a generous $40 million or more, lacking kiddie competition in the cartoon department. Box Office Guru is saying $32, which seems very low for a pre-branded cartoon franchise.

Neither prediction will let this one pass “Captain America”, which could do another $40 million+.

Funny thing about decently reviewed horror films. They don’t draw the faithful. They’d rather see dead teenager movies, with nudity and more graphic gore. “Oculus” will be lucky to earn in the teen$.

“Draft Day” will bomb. Couch potatoes and fantasy league gamblers who obsess over the draft won’t show up, and without them, this movie will be lucky to clear $10 million.

“Noah” will have faded to a point where the Evangelical-approved “God’s Not Dead” could challenge it at the box office — $7-8 million. “God’s Not Dead” has been adding screens, which allowed it to maintain $7-8 million per week for the past month. It should start to fade this weekend, but if it doesn’t, “Noah” will slip behind it for the weekend.



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Next interview: Questions for Jon Hamm? Anyone?

ImageHe’s a huge TV star, thanks to “Mad Men” and funny turns in “30 Rock” and “SNL.”

But the movies haven’t happened for Jon Hamm. Not yet.

His best shot, his first starring role in a major motion picture, is in “Million Dollar Arm.” It’s based on the true story of a struggling sports agent who tries to turn India on to baseball, converting cricket “bowlers” into major league pitchers.

Tricky, as bowlers do not bend their elbows and get a running start to create velocity.

Anyway, Mr. Hamm and I will be chatting about Disney’s newest leading man. I’m looking for lines of questioning? Comment below. Thanks for the help.

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Movie Review: “Draft Day” is final proof that the NFL is the league that Ate America

“Draft Day” is a “ticking clock” thriller built around the NFL draft, a movie
that counts down to the fateful decision that one embattled general manager
(Kevin Costner) makes with his team’s first round pick.
It’s a reasonably interesting — to NFL fans, anyway — peek behind the
curtains at the wheeling, dealing and over-thinking that goes on as teams and
managers and coaches try to avoid looking as if they don’t know what they’re
doing. They’re nagged into making hasty or ill-advised decisions by agents and
the players they represent, and showboating owners who like to “make a splash,”
get their faces on ESPN and impress the hometown folks with their football
The GMs have their own slang and their own swagger, which makes this a
natural for Costner, for decades, the movies’ go-to guy for jock roles. </P>
<P>But for the casual fan and the casual filmgoer, it can be a bit of a
melodramatic bore. This ticking clock thriller doesn’t really get going until
the teams are truly “on the clock.”</P>
Costner is Sonny Weaver Jr., GM for the hapless Cleveland Browns. They have
an antsy owner (Frank Langella) and a new, preening coach (Denis Leary) who
likes to flash his Superbowl ring under everybody’s nose. Will Sonny pick a
cocky, pushy defensive back (Chadwick Boseman of “42″) or trade up to land the
Heisman Trophy winner (Josh Pence)?
What’s fascinating in these wheeling and dealing early scenes is the way
gossip gets started, the way the veteran GMs play each other and read each
other. Rumors about the Heisman winner bubble to the surface.
“How important is winning, to you?”
Sports talk radio covers this sort of “How much does he want to play?” stuff
from a speculative point of view. “Draft Day” sets out to show how a Johnny
Manziel or Jadaveon Clowney’s stock rises and falls in the hours leading up to
their big payday.
“You only get drafted once,” Sonny tells his prospects. Better enjoy it.
 Sonny gathers intel from his staff and steels himself to make a decision he
knows the owner will not like. Then, more gossip comes in, and he’s on the
fence, which gets the coach all worked up. Everybody is playing the angles
against everybody else.
“You’re panicking, Sonny. I’m gonna take advantage of that!”</P>
What doesn’t work is the added melodrama in all this. Sonny’s dad used to be
the Browns’ coach. His dad just died. His mom (Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn) won’t
get off his back.
And his not-that-secret inter-office romance (Jennifer Garner) just gave him
some news.
“Draft Day” is an NFL and ESPN sanctioned dramedy designed to cash in on and
maybe goose interest in the draft, which TV and the league have turned into a
spring spectacle. It doesn’t have a lot of rough edges to it, nothing
unflattering to the league or the cable company in its back pocket, which only
serves to remind us how this sport swallowed American sporting culture
Costner and Garner are good and Langella properly menacing, but Leary has
lost his fastball and seems to be holding something back in his quarrel scenes
with Costner. Costner has to carry the film, which he does. But he hard a time
making this tale of accountants and agents and athletes with off-field issues
exciting. </P>
<P>Filling the screen with character players ranging from Chi McBride (a rival
owner) to assorted NFL Network and ESPN (past and present) stars, shifting from
city to city, stadium to stadium as the phone calls zip back and forth doesn’t
really ratchet up suspense or entertainment value.
But for the fans, it’s a competent eye-opener, a movie that makes you
understand Jets QB Geno Smith’s fury at falling out of the first round and the
sort of whispering campaigns that this closed culture of front office folks
mount to let them win in May, even if they don’t win in the fall.

MPAA Rating:PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language and sexual references
Cast: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Chi McBride, Frank
Credits: Directed by Ivan Reitman, written by Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph.
A Summit release.

Running tmie :1:49


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Nick Frost talks about “the Latin lovelies” he met making “Cuban Fury”

Image MIAMI BEACH — Nick Frost came up with the idea for “Cuban Fury,” his latest film, which has him playing a once-competitive salsa dancer gone to seed, yet moved to get his moves back when a pretty woman enters his life.
He found a screenwriter, helped cast it and produced the film. But the rotund English funnyman had his moment of truth in a London dance studio — long before shooting started.
“About an hour into the first day I caught myself in the mirror of the dance studio and thought, ‘Never ever mention your crazy ideas in front of people who might turn them into a movie you have to make, you idiot!’”
Seven months of sweaty, muscle-straining seven hour days, and the guy who specialized in daft, oafish sidekicks in films from “Shawn of the Dead” to last year’s “The World’s End,” a man who “always fancied myself a dancer,” had his “big, old-fashioned dance musical.” “Cuban Fury” let him kick up his heels, battle the office heel (Chris O’Dowd) for the hand of the lovely lady (Rashida Jones) and get the girl, as they say.
Frost, 42, best-known for his films with his best friend, Simon Pegg (“Hot Fuzz,” “Paul”), is part of a long comic tradition of graceful big men — a round mound of twinkle-toed clown in the Zero Mostel, John Belushi and Chris Farley mold. Dancing comes naturally to guys like that.
“The problem, as it is with most blokes and dancing, is GETTING you to do it,” he says. ” If I’m expected to dance, I can’t. But if you leave me alone with some Stella Artois and some tunes, I’m dancing. Dance happens.”
His prep work took him into London’s Latin community salsa underground, where he got his training and cast all the extras for the big dance competition scenes in “Cuban Fury.” He talked Ian McShane (as his character’s dance guru) and O’Dowd, Jones and British funny woman Olivia Colman (as his sister and dance partner) into joining him in his quest.
“They didn’t realize it was a full-on dancing movie when they signed on.”
He dealt with his own trepidations about strutting his stuff in front of experts.
“The finale…every extra in the scene was a great dancer, the whole London salsa community. Some of Europe’s best dancers were there…Three times during that week of shooting I had to find Morag (Webster), our unit nurse. You know, slip off and find her and kind of casually say, ‘Hey Morag, can I see you for a moment?’ Panic attacks. Terrible nerves about doing this complex choreography in front of people who will KNOW if I mess up.”
But he made it. The movie earned mixed reviews in the UK, and grudging respect for Frost’s moves, with Quickflix noting that “Nick Frost’s ideas may not be all that original, but he knows when he’s got a good one.” Frost figures it has to do with the dancing, and that famed reserve of the British male — Keep Calm, and Whatever you do, Don’t Dance.
“We just don’t dance with girls. We don’t. We dance AT them or near them. Maybe, at the end of the night, when you’ve had a few drinks and she’s had a few more, she might dance in front of you. And you think ‘YES! This is IT!’ .
“Miami or Manchester, it’s the same all over the English speaking world. We segregate ourselves, sexually, which is why when you’re a man who can dance, it’s such an attractive thing to a woman. It shows you don’t care who sees you. You’re confident as you’re literally shaking your tail feather.”

But in the end, it all comes down to this — not the dancing, not the machismo.

“It’s the fiery ladies, mate. The Latin lovelies! Need I say more?”

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Movie Review: “Rio 2″ is just more and more and more of the same

ImageWith “Rio 2,” the creators of “Rio” give us more of everything that their first film had in just the right doses. But if this sequel proves anything, it’s that more is not always better.
They are more stars to this birds of the Amazon musical, with Broadway’s Kristin Chenoweth, Oscar winner Rita Moreno, Andy Garcia and pop star Bruno Mars joining in. And all of them sing. Because there are more tunes.
There are more animals for those stars to play, with Chenoweth voicing an exquisitely-animated spotted tree frog, and anteaters and tapirs, scarlet macaws and pink Amazon River dolphins.
And there’s more story, as Jewel (Anne Hathaway) and Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) take their brood (they now have three kids) into the Amazon to help Linda (Leslie Mann) and her scientist husband Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) track down a rumored lost, last flock of bright blue macaws of their species.
But one thing the cluttered, overlong “Rio 2″ lacks in extra supply is jokes. A script designed to give cute moments to everybody from the first film as well as all those brought in for the second is a cumbersome, humor-starved affair.
The simple situation of the first film was a nervous flightless pet bird, Blu (Eisenberg) shipped south to ineptly mate with the last female of his breed, the the born-to be-wild Jewel (Hathaway). They’re birdnapped and forced to survive in the wild — or on wild the streets of Rio during Carnival. The subtexts of the evils of the tropical bird trade and the destruction of habitat were there, easy for the youngest child to embrace.
The new film is all about that subtext, as Linda and Tulio and Blu and Jewel and Jewel’s old flock (Garcia is her dad, Mars voices an old suitor) race against clear cutters to save the rain forest, full of the Brazil nuts that macaws love.
Their old friends Nico (Foxx), Pedro (Will i. am) and Rafael (George Lopez) tag along to audition new singing stars for this year’s Carnival, leading to a cross-species “South American Idol” bit (Capoeira Turtles try out their act) that works.
The evil cockatoo Nigel (Jemaine Clement) survived the first film, and with an anteater and lovesick sidekick frog, Gabi (Chenoweth) sets out for revenge. Chenoweth sings the daylights out of the best song in the new film, “Poison Love.” We’d expect no less. Clement does a killer version of “I Will Survive,” which morphs into a rap breakdown with Gabi.
“Watch what I can do without Autotune!”
Mostly, though, the humor aims much younger here, with kid-pandering gags (an avian soccer match) that only tiny tykes will find funny, along with the occasional fart-and-worse joke.
“I’ll be pooping on your party presently!”
Which is kind of what the movie does by trying to replace the quality of the first film with mere quantity. Blue Sky Animation is back to cranking out good-looking animated sausage to its old “Ice Age” formula, which is a singing, crying shame.

MPAA Rating: G
Cast: The voices of Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, Kristin Chenoweth, Andy Garcia, George Lopez, Jamie Foxx, Jemaine Clement, Leslie Mann, Bruno Mars
Credits: Directed by Carlos Saldanha, written by Don Rhymer and Carlos Saldanha. A 20th Century Fox release.
Running time:1:41

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Movie Review: “Oculus”

ImageThe women do the heavy lifting in “Oculus,” this April’s “Insidious,” a
complex and chilling big screen ghost story with serious date movie
“Doctor Who” alumna Karen Gillan sheds her Scots accent and most outward
signs of emotion as Kaylie, a young woman who went through something terrible
and, she is convinced, something supernatural eleven years before. Now, she’s
out to prove that and “kill it,” the thing that killed her parents and put her
brother into a mental institution for over a decade.
The “thing” that did this — an ornate, Baroque mirror, which seemed to
possess her parents and, when she and her brother were little, tricked them out
of destroying it.
Kaylie stares at the mirror with the look of a stone-cold killer. Or
glass-breaker. She’s taken a job at an auction house to get that mirror within
her reach. She’s set up cameras, computer sensors and timers to monitor its evil
and document what she does to it.
The problem — she’s dragged baby brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites), fresh from
the mental hospital, along as a witness and helper. They’re back in the house
where their parents died. And Tim, filled to the gills with psychobabble, sees
himself as the one who “faced it,” dealt with the trauma of that night with
mental health professionals. To him, there is no “super” in super natural. Just
a dad (Rory Cochrane) who killed their mom (Katee Sackhoff) after she went crazy
over an affair he was having.
Co-writer, director and editor Mike Flanagan structures this Night of
Reckoning in parallel story lines. We have Kaylie and Tim wrestling with their
past, teasing and tormenting the haunted mirror, goading it to kill again. And
we have them as kids — fearfully played by Annalise Brasso and Garrett Ryan —
terrified as their family explodes, forced to be “really brave” to face what
they cannot fathom.
Gillan handles the film’s exposition, a long, breathless narration-on-camera
that tells her brother and her video “evidence” audience the tortured history of
this mirror, whose victims mutilate themselves and then kill before they
themselves are killed. That’s the dull part of “Oculus.”
The exciting stuff comes from Gillan’s Kaylie, brave, then and now,
trash-talking the mirror, touching its crack and purring, “I hope it still
And Sackhoff, of “Riddick” and TV’s “24″, makes the most of her motherly
descent from suspicion to paranoia to madness, selling this far-fetched fantasy,
start to finish. She renders this plausible.
It’s not a contest, but the guys are good, the women, to a one, much better
in this chiller. The effects are modest and effecting, the pacing not quite as
brisk as you’d like and the finale entirely too predictable in the Age of
Franchises. But “Oculus” earns its frights the old fashioned way — with
convincingly traumatized characters, with smoke and with mirrors.

MPAA Rating: R for terror, violence, some disturbing images
Cast: Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff, Annalise Basso, Brenton Thwaites, Rory
Cochrane, Garrett Ryan
Credits: Directed by Mike Flanagan, written by Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan.
A Relativity/WWE Studios release.
Running time: 1:41

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Movie Review: Nicolas Cage has the role of a lifetime in “Joe”

cage“Joe” is the movie that will make you remember how good Nicolas Cage once was and can be again.

A Southern Gothic tale of alcohol, violence, sin and redemption, this David
Gordon Green film gives Cage his finest showcase in years. A harbinger of better things to come, now that he’s hit 50? Probably not. But it’s good to see he still has his curve ball.

Joe in the film is damaged, resigned to the violent streak he knows he must
“restrain,” even at 48. His love of cheap bourbon means he’s never without a
bottle — at home, at work or on the road. He drinks alone. But he’s willing to
make his living by extending a job and a friendly hand to impoverished men, some alcoholics, like himself, men clinging to the bottom rung of the ladder in the corner of rural Texas they all share.
Joe runs a day labor work crew that clears brush and poisons commercially
undesirable trees for a big timber company. He loads up his battered pickup with machetes, “juice hatchet” poison dispensers and eight or so African American down-and-outers every morning that the sun is shining, and they do what the rules-bending timber company wants them to do.
Joe is tough, a man who knows his way around a knife, a bottle, a brothel and
a pistol. He minds his own business and keeps a pit bull chained up in front of
his tumbledown house to make sure others let him. He has a history, which the
movie only hints at — a life he couldn’t hang onto that must have involved a
family, trouble with the law and local trouble-makers who still hate his
Maybe that’s why he takes pity on Gary. The kid (Tye Sheridan of “Mud”) is
only 15, but he’s got it rough. His old man (Gary Poulter) is a brutish, aged
drunk who keeps his drifting family around him even though he has no intentions of supporting them. They’re there, living in squalor, for him to steal from when they have money and to beat when they don’t fork it over.
Joe gives Gary work. And the kid comes to treat this violent, short-fused
alcoholic as a role model, a straight shooter who only insists he look him in
the eye and consider him a friend.
Green, an Arkansas native who made “Undertow” and “All the Real Girls” before Hollywood turned him loose on “Pineapple Express” and “The Sitter,” has an eye for worn Southern faces, and he fills this film with non-actors who have the pot bellies, tortured grammar and bad teeth of rural Southern poverty. There’s rage here, bottled up until, like their latest liquor purchase, it is uncorked. At this level of society, race takes a back seat to focusing on your own daily struggle — to make a little money, get a little liquor, stay out of jail and reach another sunrise.
In houses where old newspapers cover holes in the walls, where everything and
anything that wore out or breaks beyond your limited capacity to repair (cars,
trailers, appliances) is left in the yard, everybody has a gun and a willingness
to use it. Violence hangs over the bars and every conversation and encounter
carries a hint of menace. Who will snap? What will they do when they do?
His down and out work crew knows to “keep it real, with Joe.” So does most
everyone else in town, from Coleman the grocer to the high-mileage madam at the local brothel (Sue Rock). They know his heart. But they also know his moods.
“So, what you got the blues over, Joe?”
Cage, beefy and grey-bearded, moves with ease through this world where Joe
can share a drink with “Blind George,” help neighbors skin a deer (they do it in
their ruin of a kitchen) or take in the trashy but loving Connie (Adriene
Mishler), who needs a break from her mother and her mother’s scumbag boyfriend.
Cage suggests a man who knows he has demons and longs to control them, but is
too old to lose his contempt for those who won’t let him do what he wants. </P>
Green, working from a Gary Dawkins script based on Larry Brown’s novel, has
created Joe’s world from movie memory — a lot of “Undertow,” a little “Prince
Avalanche” — and the simple knowledge of what you find if you get far enough
away from the cities and the interstates in the Deep South. The setting,
characters and story reek of authenticity.
And most authentic of all are Wade, the stumbling but cunning old man, and
Joe, outwardly kind, but a powder keg who never named his dog because to him, a pit bull is merely another instrument of violence.
Poulter, a real-life homeless man who wears a hard life in every wrinkle on
his weathered face, has eyes that give away cutthroat cunning and guilty
resignation. He died after filming this.
And Cage, playing Joe close to the vest, gets across a character and a code
that he and we know will be tested by Gary and Gary’s family. Cage lets us see
the struggle and envision the reckoning to come as only a man with Joe’s
mysterious history can.

MPAA Rating:R for violence, disturbing material, language and some strong
sexual content
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Adriene Mishler
Credits: Directed by David Gordon Green, screenplay by Gary Dawkins based on
a Larry Brown novel. A Roadside Attractions release
Running time: 1:57

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Movie Review: “Under the Skin”

skin1Quiet, cryptic and never less than creepy, “Under the Skin” is sci-fi that doesn’t do the work for you. There are no explanations. No character rattles off a paragraph or three of exposition and back story.

There are no names. Nobody talks at all for the first 14 minutes, and there’s not much that would even pass for conversation. Just Scarlett Johansson, driving a utility van around Edinburgh and other points Scottish, stopping and asking directions from the indecipherably-accented locals.

“I’m looking for the M-8,” she asks in a soft, posh British accent, only to get an earful of a dialect that only Craig Ferguson, Gerard Butler or Kelly MacDonald could make out.

She only talks to men, and to a one, they’re a motley lot — ranging from odd to ugly, and occasionally reaching grotesque.

“No girlfriend, really?”

She’s not looking for a mate or even a date. She’s hunting for strays, stragglers and loners. And since she’s Scarlett Johansson and they’re not, sooner or later they get into the van, follow her “home”, strip in a dark black room with a shiny, reflective floor and as they reach for her loveliness, they sink into the pool of whatever that floor really is, another victim of aliens up to no good.

Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) tells us nothing right from the opening minutes, where vague shapes carry out what could be a “docking” or teleportation, and disembodied, distorted voices run through a cascade of sounds. Somebody is mastering the accent for some purpose we can only guess.

“Under the Skin” is an overcast film of glum, early winter days and a string of encounters, mostly at twilight. An unnamed assistant on a motorcycle helps Johansson’s “bait” in the day to day operation of this man-trap — a menacing presence in full road bike suit and helmet.

The alien, in tight jeans, jet black hair and a faux fur jacket, ventures from city to seaside and through the hills and mountains, on rainy roads and chilly days. In the streets, bars and other cars, they all notice her. They’re all solicitous, helpful to her. But even the crowds are peopled with the full array of human unattractiveness — scars and bad beards, the morbidly overweight and young women with ratty, ineptly colored hair. Whatever Glazer is saying about the Scots, it isn’t flattering.

Johansson spends much of the film putting on lipstick and driving with the same blank expression of someone unfamiliar with human interaction. Flirt with her or threaten her with assault, it doesn’t change.

But as with John Carpenter’s classic sci-fi “visitor” film, “Starman,” and others like it, she gets curious, perhaps based on remorse. We’ve witnessed a couple of the cruelest scenes sci-fi has ever produced, one involving the efforts of a family, and then a stranger, to save a dog who has ventured too far into the undertow.

“Under the Skin” isn’t conventional, thrilling or particularly satisfying in a sci-fi aliens-are-hunting-us sense. But it manages something far more sinister and fascinating. It gets under your skin and imprints on your memory. And not just the scenes where ScarJo strips. It would be hard to imagine a less sexual use of voluptuous actress nudity than the one served up here. It’s the tone, the silences and the cruelty that you can’t scrub off.


MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language

Cast: Scarlett Johansson

Credits: Directed by Jonathan Glazer, screenplay by Walter Campbell based on the Michel Faber novel. An A24 release.

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