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SAVING THE DAY: DEADPOOL, GLASSLAND, AND WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT

Deadpool:

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Just how many superheroes exist in the Marvel Comics universe? Wait. Don’t answer that. I’m probably not going to keep tabs or remember the answer, because other than a cursory interest in the Superman movies that made Christopher Reeve a household heartthrob, it’s just not my cup of tea. I’m most decidedly not the target audience for this type of story. So what am I doing at the AMC watching Deadpool on a Friday night in early March?

No clue. Curiosity, perhaps?

Let’s leave it at that. Also, from what little I know, this was/is a totally different creation in the Marvel Comics Universe, one so blatantly outre and dripping in sheer bravado that I kind of had to give up a little snobbery and concede. You see, when you see a little of yourself in a character you get the character and Deadpool has attitude in spades. Heck–his attitude has attitude. He’s like the honey badger video that’s made the rounds on YouTube forever, voiced by the lisping gay guy: he doesn’t give a shit. And he wants you to know he doesn’t give a shit. Everyone’s game; everyone’s a target, and even when you need him to do a favor for you, don’t expect him to accept your thanks because he just needed to vent a little and make a stalker pee in his pants and never, ever, consider terrorizing the girl on campus (as is what happens in one of the film’s many flashbacks). Ryan Reynolds is perfect as the reluctant hero. If you’ve seen his movies you knew this one was coming: he has the right amount of comedic presence, the right amount of vocal delivery, and even the right amount of visual badassery to convince me that he, Wade Wilson, would don a red suit and strike out on his own.

His Wade Wilson gets introduced in medias res as he’s about to engage in some massive ass-kicking. But first: cue the credits, who roll with outrageous mentions as “a British Supervillain” “a hot chick” “the gratuitous cameo” “the comic sidekick”. I loved it. This is a hard-rock movie that doesn’t take anything that happens in its story too seriously and wants you to know it and have fun.

And the fun explodes from the intro and then gets amped up to eleven real quick. What helps it is a composition of its plot which can be summed up as “Deadpool goes after the man who ruined his life; mayhem ensues”–backed up with some hilarious set pieces that work perfectly as flashbacks. These flashbacks come in the form of thought bubbles stemming from Deadpool’s stream of consciousness as he, the former Wade Wilson, flies through the air after getting a hit from someone. They manage to give us a connect the dots from point a) when he saved a girl from a stalker (see paragraph above), to b) when he met the woman who was essentially his match in every shape and form, fell in lust/love, and just as they were about to find bliss? Point c) Cancer. Incurable. Tick-tock.

Wade’s problem stems from the fact that he buys into the seemingly impossible sell that he may regain his life back through an obscure procedure. Here is where he meets Ajax/Frank, a man who uses him as a guinea pig with the sole intent to make him suffer. One experiment goes too far, and Wade’s defense mechanism goes into absolute overdrive, creating a  new creature who’s basically invulnerable to injuries, but hideous. Or as he himself states, “I look like balls with teeth.” Sounds like an episode from Botched on Bravo.

And there you have it — that’s the meat of the story; how it’s a matter of time until Deadpool and Ajax meet for One Final Encounter. Tim Muller has created a massively frantic movie that throws everything that it can to the viewer — in one rapid-fire scene I counted no less than 3 jokes and several visual sight gags along with several pop-culture references. Some of the funniest set pieces involve him and a man he uses as a limo/taxi driver whom he also lectures in how to act in his private life (which yields some rather hilarious circumstances). Not as funny are the fight scenes themselves, but I guess they were necessary, although a small exchange between Colossus and Angel Dust who are battling it to the death made me laugh out loud. After all, when a man is fighting a woman and she reveals a naked breast (which Muller blocks by placing Colossus’ hand in a strategic position), it’s no reason why he should forget to be a gentleman. Those two should pair up. That’s the sequel I want to see.

This is a fun as balls movie. It’s outrageous, it’s raunchy, it’s almost disgusting, and completely politically incorrect, and that to me is solid popcorn entertainment I enjoy. And coming from someone who’s numb to fantasy superhero movies, that is saying a lot.

Glassland:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

Not as fast moving as Deadpool is Glassland, an Irish movie that demands you to sit back and see the slow-burn train wreck unfolding in the lives of a young Irish man and his alcoholic mother. The situation as it is, starts out pretty bad: a mostly wordless montage introduces you to John (Jack Raynor), a taxi driver working late nights to support his alcoholic mother Jean (Toni Collette). Upon returning from his shift he comes back to find her unconscious and drowning in her own puke on the bed after what seems like one too many drinks. An emergency hospital visit doesn’t give John too much hope: if she continues the way she’s carrying on she’ll need a liver transplant. When John and Jean return to their apartment she goes into a frenzy and rips the place apart looking for her drinks. Jean would rather drink herself to death than sober up and face life and is dragging Jack along for the miserable ride. It’s a gamble if Jean will survive her own addiction or one day, not wake up.

While there are other subplots, Glassland is a haunting two-person character study of people in pain who don’t see a way out. This brutal movie will linger long after the credits have rolled, it’s that good. All of the most powerful scenes involve Jean and John as they both confront and argue with each other — he’s heartbroken that she’s unwilling to let go of the drink; she’s just too dependent on the bottle for reasons she eventually discloses in an emotional scene. Toni Collette continues to essay strong performances that flesh out real people; her Jean is drowning in more ways than one. It’s painful to see her face filled with lines, wallowing in her own self-pity, screaming at the top of her lungs, a woman gone mad. Also good is Jack Raynor who creates a solid character of John without turning him into a caricature of selfless suffering. He provides the film with enormous gravity.

Glassland is available on VOD and premieres in limited release Friday March 18.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot:

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

And now, a different type of film with a different type of heroine. Based on her memoirs, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is another slice of cinematic chick-lit peppered with a faux-grittier slant that feels a little too color-by-numbers. And I’m not saying this is a bad thing: I like movies where the main character goes into unknown territory to explore and possibly, oh, learn something, and I assume the real Kim Barker did, but somehow, it just didn’t quite register here. Perhaps if it had taken a cue of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (its distant cousin) I would have felt like this was less a somewhat feel-good movie about war in Afghanistan and something closer to the stuff Christiane Amanpour goes through when she’s out in the field and bombs are exploding in the distance. To a degree, this is no one’s fault: there has to be a story and as based on reality as it portends to be, elements of the fictitious creep in and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot somehow does justice to its acronym and morphs into a sometimes credible, sometimes “eh” Tina Fey vehicle where she gets to do something serious for about two hours and emerges less dirty and hopefully a little bit wiser.

EMELIE

3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

 

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It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty-five years since Curtis Hanson released his (can we call it a classic?) excellent movie The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, a film that pretty much chilled America to the bone with the prospect of psycho-nannies wanting a little more than the meager pay they get for watching over unruly kids while Mom and Dad are out having A Night Out. Michael Thelin’s debut picture Emelie owes quite a bit to that film, and I say that in a good way. This is a slow-burn pressure cooker of a movie that doesn’t spell its cards immediately; instead, it opts for scenes of domestic playfulness that slowly peel back a rather disturbing character study of a young woman who isn’t just insane, but dangerous.

Much of the movie’s intro is rather tame, involving playful family banter as Mom and Dad prepare themselves for an evening dinner while Anna, the substitute babysitter gets the lowdown on the kids. Once the parents are gone, the tone does a subtle shift, and in almost imperceptible ways, Anna starts to disclose that she has other things in mind than taking care of three children. Things start to get a little uncomfortable when Anna, after a game of hide and seek, calls oldest son Jacob into the bathroom and reveals herself to be sitting on the toilet, having her period, and asking for tampons. [A quick shot of blood on the toilet nails the uneasiness of these scene.] Thelin ratchets up the creep factor even more when Anna forces the daughter to watch her pet hamster get eaten by Jacob’s pet snake, and if you thought this was bad enough, wait until she gathers the kids for a special video. It’s horrifying, more so because of the whole domesticity of the scene where it takes place — and that the parents are completely oblivious.

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Michael Thelin delivers a smart thriller that always manages to keep the focus on a family about to experience terror at the hands of a random person who isn’t right in the head. Sarah Bolger, an Irish actress with a striking resemblance to Saoirse Ronan, is quite the stand out here, with her cold blue eyes and cool, detached yet friendly demeanor until the gloves are off. Even then, she doesn’t overplay her character’s psychopathy as other movies with a psycho-nanny tend to do — which I appreciated. Then there is the house: it becomes a character all its own, a trap full of shadows. Some genre tropes make their way into the movie, but that’s to be expected. Falling inches away from pure horror (perhaps due to its running time, a quick 80 minutes including credits), Emelie is an uneasy penny dreadful with atmosphere and suspense to spare.

On Amazon Instant Video and iTunes

CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

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Had I been paying more attention to my gut instinct I would’ve caught Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s new movie Cemetery of Splendour, a euphoric whisper of a film that played to great acclaim at the 53rd New York Film Festival. [It probably conflicted, also, with the US premieres of a couple more accessible movies, so that hurt its chances for me seeing it then.]

But not to digress. Witnessing Cemetery of Splendor is seeing a slice of life that completely lived in, softly, with gentle, earthy humor, and rich sensibility of one’s surroundings at a cosmic level. The story revolves around a middle aged Thai woman, Jenjira Pongpas Widner married to an American ex-pat, who’s volunteering to take care of the ill at a school that’s been retrofitted to house wounded soldiers who have inexplicably fallen to what’s referred to as a sleeping sickness. She makes friends with Keng, a young woman with psychic abilities, and one of the soldiers, Itt, who periodically wakens up and accompanies Jenjira to walks around the grounds.

While Jenjira suggests she’s going through a period of loneliness despite her little-seen husband Richard, she doesn’t engage in a romantic liaison with Itt. Rather, both start communicating in a platonic manner, sharing the type of conversations pregnant with a deeper, spiritual bonding parallel to the otherworldly air that hover over the hospital.

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In the interim, the hospital employs group meditation and color therapy for the sleeping soldiers in the hopes of perhaps finding a cure. It seems that the reason the soldiers are sick is because they are under the psychic spell of the spirits of dead soldiers who are still fighting their battles and using their prana as fuel. At the same time, Goddesses make their presence known to Jenjira with offers, and while she reacts in a way most of us would — completely nonplussed — she starts experiencing a subtle awakening to a greater reality around her in a climax filled with tears of joy.

Don’t look for special effects here because there are none: rather, the only effects if you will come from the tubes of colored light that perpetually hover over the sleeping soldiers, switching from green, to yellow, to red, to blue, to violet. This is more an equivalent of a soft rain for the senses interrupted by moments of genuine humor, as when a patient’s penis comes erect and Jenjira and the nurses casually talk about it as if nothing had happened. There might be a slight amount of ambient filler, but again, this is a personal art film about the invisible amongst the pedestrian than a regular narrative.

 

DISORDER (MARYLAND)

Hooked on Film:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Having been seen in period dramas (and art-house heavies, female crowd-pleasers) like Far from the Madding Crowd and A Little Chaos last year it’s a return for Matthias Schoenaerts to the more brooding characters such as the ones he essayed in Rust and Bone. In Alice Winocour’s newest movie, a drama turned thriller about a man suffereing from PTSD, Schoenaerts plays his Vincent, an ex-soldier, as a man who’s all reaction and little communication, hyper alert and ready for even the slightest attack, but also in pain from his own inner torment. This is a man who, because of having fought to protect his country, has been rendered so damaged he might as well be  untrustworthy. So the fact that he moonlights as a security guy is an odd choice, but not uncommon for men accustomed to protect. The problem then becomes, can they be trusted with the well-being of those in charge when he himself suffers from moments of crippling panic attacks and loss of judgement?

Disorder opens to a series of scenes that showcase the brutality of discipline, followed by finding himself not just abandoned by that life, but now, thanklessly serving as a security guy for a party hosted by a Lebanese magnate in a luxurious mansion where he is all but invisible. After walking into a meeting not meant for his ears, he’s asked by the Lebanese to go in search of the host’s wife Jessica (Diane Kruger). At first meeting, there is a palpable animosity between Jessica and Vincent, but as fate would have it, Denis has to bow out of a weekend assignment to guard her and the household while her husband is out on business. Vincent steps in . . . and starts to see danger at every turn.

Winocour plays her cards somewhat close to her chest during a large portion of the movie. We’re not totally sure that Vincent may be unraveling — he’s too quick to spot danger even in the most innocuous details — but a drive to the beach terminates all that. It’s here that Disorder changes gears and becomes a high-intensity thriller where no one is safe at any moment and threats are lying in wait in the shadows as the mansion becomes a battleground of heart-thumping, escalating violence. Even moments of stillness where Jessica and Vincent start to get to know each other doesn’t offer much respite. It just shows that true to its title, while VIncent may have PTSD, it’s actually Jessica who living a life of bliss and, aware of it or not, reaping the benefits of illegal dealings, at the center of a much different chaos: the chaos of the ugliness tucked under the carpet in order to preserve status.

Disorder will most likely get a release proper in the US later this year. I suggest to go see it: this is a powerful thriller with a thumping, masculine score set to techno music that starts out strong and becomes nearly unbearable towards its explosive finale. Winocour is a director to take notice of. I wouldn’t be surprised the day she crosses over and lets her talent loose this side of the pond.

 

VALLEY OF LOVE

Hooked on Film rating:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Huppert / Depardieu. Two giants coming together for the first time in over 30 years to tell a sad, sad story.
Huppert / Depardieu. Two giants coming together for the first time in over 30 years to tell a sad, sad story.
The first time you see Huppert, it’s from behind, walking down a sidewalk towards some destination. She’s wearing a light summer dress and pulling on a carry-on in what reveals itself to be a desert resort. Her entire body language shrieks disapproval, malcontent. Later on, we see her fumble to get a connection on her phone, barely even trying to establish any conversation with the American guests who approach her, and even disapproving of the food [“They call this a soup?” she snarls at a can of dried ramen.] She’s clearly not happy to come here. Soon, we’ll know why.

When we first see Depardieu, your heart breaks in two, and I’ll tell you why. This is the man of great physical stature, boyish face with unusual looks who brought enormous presence to his films with just an entrance. Not that he doesn’t do so here, but when you see just how much he’s aged and gained weight, you’ll see how shocking it is, that he’s almost shuffling his entire upper body, completely disproportionate to his lower body,  to  meet Huppert (not that she’s too happy to see him). Age is an unforgiving curse, and while Huppert only demonstrates a slight aging of her neck, her skin is a map of freckles, and her limbs are now those of a frail woman.

Even so, there is love between these two, who play versions of themselves. Following a simple plot heavy on dialogue that could have been written by Marguerite Duras at her most cathartic, Guillaume Nicloux directs these two French giants to perfection, having them reveal only what we need to know, in bits and pieces, scene after scene, a timed release of what lies beneath. This isn’t an ordinary meeting of a former man and wife. This is something completely different, and once elements of surrealism reminiscent of an Antonioni film film sets in, one is no longer sure what is true, what is false, and where is this going.

Gullaume Nicloux, who also experimented between reality and fiction with his 2013 movie The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, sits back and grants both actors ample ground to inhabit their roles and brings only a truly eye dropping cinematography to enhance scenes fraught with tension, stillness, and the vastness of the desert into play. It’s a gamble that pays off: both Depardieu and Huppert completely complement each other without risking parodying themselves. She emotes in high and low notes, going into nervous tangents that can barely contain her rage and disappointment and sheer hatred for the place she’s in. 

Depardieu, on the other hand, is quieter. He let’s her have her cake and eat it, and reveals but very gradually, a softer, more caring man underneath his gruff appearance.  Nicloux directs him ever so subtly for comic perfection when an American asks him for his autograph, having recognized him, Gerard Depardieu, from other movies, and Depardieu signs “Bob de Niro” before shuffling off back to Huppert. Later on, one sees his stoic pathos while reading the letter that has reconnected him with Isabelle, and then the beginnings of fear while encountering a strange girl who seems to know more than she reveals. 

What does come clear is that both of them have deep regrets and unresolved wounds involving the writer of the letter and I don’t wish to disclose too much because with these movies it’s best to come in with a naked mind. Both characters will have some unexpected emotional peaks that will leave them shaken. The crux of the action is, can they survive it.

Valley of Love works as a variation of the stations of the cross, with its two leads revisiting the past while they veer closer to a significant revelation that will redeem or destroy them. It’s a devastating story of loss and the acknowledgement that this loss runs deeper than they can tolerate. Some missteps involving Americans most likely serve as a reminder of how intrusive we can be as a whole but other than that, this is a tragedy that unfolds in stages, and extends itself to the edges of the desert.

ON DVD: A BRIEF VACATION (1973)

Hooked on Film rating:

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

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People in Italian Neo-realism films don’t usually take vacations; they barely have any money to even get on by, and Vittorio De Sica’s next to last movie deviates only very slightly from his usual topic. While not as brutally draining of hope as his 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves (I Ladri di Bicicleta), and not quite as emotionally powerful as his 1970  The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini), A Brief Vacation is both a return to his his core topic, and a welcome departure as well.

The movie focuses on Clara Mataro (Florinda Bolkan), a woman working in a factory, providing for her disabled husband Renato. At the opening of this film, Clara is at her last rope. Nothing works properly in her house and on top of that she is expected to go to work under long commutes and still put food on her family’s plate. Things take a turn for the worse when she starts fainting at work; a visit to the doctor discloses that she has become tubercular and must cease work at once and get some much needed recovery.

This doesn’t bode well for her family, who view Clara as a money-making machine, and an exchange with a young man who is also at the doctors leads to accusations of infidelity bordering on spousal abuse from her husband. Still, against her husband’s wishes, she takes the decision and boards a train that takes her to the mountains of Italy far north to start a new chapter of mental and physical recovery.

Once there she befriends an interesting group of women: one, a famous singer (played by Adriana Asti) with an advanced stage of cancer who maintains a strong front while collapsing on the inside, a trophy wife (Teresa Gimpera), and a young woman who won’t eat. Clara, herself a victim of a hard life, slowly finds her footing in ways she could not have while living with her family. Somehow, these wounded women see a subtle strength that Clara herself probably didn’t know she possessed and come to depend on her for support when they themselves have to confront their inner pain.

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The one thing that lingers a tad plastic in the movie is that the young man she met at the doctor’s office also comes to visit for an indefinite stay. This seems a tad fabricated for the purpose of romantic drama, (and for some reason it made me think of how romance also happened to Cecilia, another lonely woman who escapes reality by via of a movie heartthrob in Woody Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo) However, this new man also works to Clara’s favor: she discovers passion, and with that, her own beauty. De Sica, however, doesn’t go the route of giving her a makeover, and Bolkan is marvelous in depicting the subtle nuances that she herself is perhaps more confident than she initially let on. Perhaps an actress with less presence may have required this treatment — typical of Hollywood — but Bolkan, it’s always there, flickering, like an inner light.

It’s because of this that Clara’s slow evolution from battered, sick housewife to a woman who is becoming more herself even when she may have to return home when her family comes to fetch for her, that one realizes just how strong and independent she really is. A Brief Vacation may not have all the answers into resolving her quandary as of what comes after recovery, but as a character study of a woman coming back from the edge of darkness, A Brief Vacation is a movie that while has its feet firmly entrenched in its Neo-realist roots also offers a core element: a glimmer of hope. You couldn’t ask for more evolution than that in a director.

DVD REVIEW: KAHAANI (2012)

Hooked on Film rating:

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Vidya Balan is a wife searching for her missing husband in Kahaani.
Vidya Balan is a wife searching for her missing husband in Kahaani.

The cold, empty void that follows prestige and Oscar picture overload — a season that typically ends at the end of January, when I’m usually caught up with whatever I haven’t seen already — brings a sort of lethargy. If it weren’t for the sheer level of art-house and independent theaters in NYC who open the year with a handful of new releases and smaller festivals — New York Jewish Film Festival, Dance on Camera, and Film Comments Selects, to name three — there would be precious little for me to watch.

Fortunately, having friends who also watch foreign and indies on VOD or iTunes helps, and as of late I’ve been introduced to a plethora of Bollywood movies that I’d like to share with you.

The first of the trio is Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012), a film that is as near as perfect as a thriller as I’ve come across. To put it mildly, Hitchcock himself would be proud of this accomplished, fascinating, richly plotted movie. Kahaani opens with a masterful sequence pregnant with pure suspense that starts in a lab where a scientist employs a lethal gas to kill mice and cuts to a scene in a subway train in Kolkata where people meet the same fate in a terrorist attack that recalls the Tokyo sarin gas attack of 1995.

Kahaani fast-forwards to two years later. Vidya Bagchi, an IT consultant and wife of an IT Specialist, Arnab Bagchi, who was contracted by the National Data Center and of whom she has not heard of, has arrived from London with the intent to find him. Despite her inquiries, the Kolkata police seems rather inept or passive to help, but a rookie cop, Satyoshi Sinya (Parambrata Chatterjee), sympathizes with her situation and agrees to assist her. Soon enough, Vidya and Rana learn that no one has heard of Vidya’s husband at the NDC, nor the hotel where he claimed to stay via photos sent to her phone. In the meantime, the head of the HR department makes a discovery and informs Vidya that Arnab resembled Milan Damji, an NDC employee who now has a restricted file. Parallel to this, a shlubby man who works at a claims department gets a text to eliminate someone. That someone is the very head of the NDC HR department.

Hitchcock once (loosely, in a sequence of quotes) expressed that he didn’t care if his story didn’t exactly tie in perfectly but managed to keep the audience glued to the screen. Kahaani offers a riveting conspiracy story in which a pregnant woman is at the center, inside a circle of danger that draws closer and closer and in a key scene, leads to an intermission literally on a breathtaking cliffhanger that had me screaming. I can’t imagine any thriller as of late that has managed to cause this effect on me in since the shocking revelation of Gone Girl and then its blood drenched sex scene.

One of the many surprises I discovered in watching Kahaani was that it offered me the opportunity to witness the city as a living participant other than as a postcard. Ghosh clearly mapped his locations out well and used them and the city’s religious festivities to the story’s advantage:  early in the movie Vidya admires some women in startling red and white saris. These saris are used for the Durga Puja celebration; later on, she will herself wear one in a nail-biting sequence filled with vivid red symbolism.

Vidya Balan acquits herself in the role of Hitchcock blonde/woman in peril, but who is also as astute as the men around her, able to hack computers and outsmart bandits. She’s given solid support by Parambrata Chatterjee as the young cop who has a crush on her, and especially by the compelling, super-creepy performance of Saswatta Chatterjee as a man no one should ever want to cross paths with. Again, I know I said it before, but this is a superb thriller with many twists and turns, and with a monster of a denouement that will make you think for days.

Below is a trailer for Kahaani:

ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME

Hooked on Film rating:

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

There comes a moment in many actors’ careers where they essentially stop reaching for that higher performance and basically go on autopilot, repeating down to the minimum gestures the One Character / Affectations that made them famous. Come to think of it, we can’t but not expect it from them. Dame Maggie Smith  arches her eyebrow and give you a well delivered line; Tom Cruise bares his chest and attempts to recreate his invulnerability in every single film he’s in. With Sarah Jessica Parker, an actress not known for her depth of performances but for an HBO series where she played a shoe-loving sex columnist who also, let’s face it, was kind of a social climber, this has become her Everest. It seems that from then on, every movie Parker does she runs the gamut of Carrie Bradshaw and Carrie Bradshaw, and in a way, that’s okay. It works for her. We actually like it that way.

In All Roads Lead to Rome, a title that telegraphs the entire plot and hopes you’re in for the madcap ride like it’s the very first time, Parker, playing a single mother variation of Bradshaw, takes to Italy with her problematic, pink-haired daughter Summer (because, why not?) to show her the countryside. Also, to steer her clear out of doing time for her boyfriend who’s been caught with several kilos of pot and will face jail time, but wants Summer to take the fall for him. What-a-keeper.

Mother and daughter haven’t arrived when complications ensue, and the movie tries to milk language barriers for comedic effect in ways that not only don’t work, but backfire when things really take a turn. Somehow, Maggie finds herself walking back into the life of a former beau Luca (are all Italian men named Luca??), who lives in Tuscany with his perpetually grumpy mother (played by Claudia Cardinale — yes, that Claudia Cardinale). Now, you would think that the movie would stop to admire the sheer scenery and at least have one slow scene of Getting to Know You and establish character motivations, but the movie is on overdrive as it is, and in less than an eye-blink, while Luca and Maggie are off somewhere, Summer, who only wants to go back to the USA, takes off with Luca’s mother in tow. Slow down, people! You’re in the Italian countryside!

But why Luca’s mother? It seems she has a story-line too. She just wants to meet the love of her life who’s still in Rome, waiting for her. So off they go, and after them, Maggie and Luca, in an extended chase sequence that manages to up the ante in terms of miscommunications and screwball overtones. You can literally second-guess this one if you’ve seen any comedy of the likes of It Happened One Night and beyond. I’m not even going to describe it. All Roads Lead to Rome is a movie on autopilot wasting the talents of pretty much everyone in it (including Paz Vega who shows up as a news reporter aimed at also being something of a rival for Parker) that somehow, by the virtue of how light and inconsequential it is, manages not to flop. This is romance, ready-made, with prefabricated emotions, just for you.

On Amazon Instant Video and iTunes

ANESTHESIA

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Hooked on Film rating:

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Here is an ambitious movie that wishes to present unto you, the viewer, an overreaching, multi-leveled series of story-lines designed to present a cohesive, thematic whole not too dissimilar to the likes of greater ensembles of the likes Robert Altman and Woody Allen directed (i. e. Nashville, Gosford Park, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters), and almost succeeds. I say almost because when we’ve seen these pictures one too many times, the freshness of the material becomes a bit stale and staged. If anyone recalls a little movie called Crash that inexplicably won the Oscars in 2006, then that is the one that this movie seems to pay homage to. It didn’t work well (for the most part, except in some isolated circumstances), and it doesn’t quite deliver this time.

Anesthesia opens rather dramatically: on an Upper West Side corner, Walter (Sam Waterston) crosses the street to buy some flowers at a deli. Moments later a couple, Sam and Nicole (Corey Stoll and Mickey Sumner) get jolted out of their sleep and rush downstairs to find out that the man we just met has been brutally stabbed in what seems a random attack. Suddenly, Anesthesia goes back in time to about a week prior to its opening scene, and we’re introduced to Walter as a philosophy professor at Columbia, delivering his final classes before starting a life of retirement alongside his wife Marcia (Glenn Close). Everyone that he has met or will encounter within this space and time has some form of isolation in the form of escapism.

For instance, there is Sophie (Kristen Stewart, essaying another complex role). When we first meet her she’s sitting in the college cafeteria when she has a rather unpleasant encounter with a guy who wants her chair, to which she refuses. It turns ugly, and then we see that Sophie seems to be at odds with the world around her, a thing she copes with by injuring herself. Sam and Nicole, who encounter Walter at the opening of Anesthesia, are in the middle of an affair. Sam, allegedly, is in China, his wife (Gretchen Mol) in Northern New Jersey, drinking her pain away, suspicious that he is lying to her. Walter’s son Adam (Tim Blake Nelson) and his wife (Jessica Hecht) are coping with a lump on her breast while their kids get high to cope with their parents’ tension. And adding to this mix are two unrelated characters: Jeffrey (Michael Williams), a high-powered African-American lawyer who is trying to force his childhood friend Joe  (K. Todd Freeman) out of his drug-addiction and back to sobriety.

So, as this stands, there are a lot of characters to cover in the barely 90 minutes of running time. For the most part, Tim Blake Nelson succeeds without making the entire premise look too affected. What bothered me a little was the fact that Anesthesia seemed to, yet again, be mostly a front to present White People’s Problems under the guise of racial tensions that happen rather unexpectedly late in the film. Everyone has a certain degree of self-absorption, so it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for the characters that surround Walter, although the one character that does come through is the one who couldn’t be further from this circle of over-privileged White people living in the clouds of Upper West Side domesticity: Joe.

Beyond Joe’s addiction there are gears and cogs turning. There is a character — a real person — trying to come out. Sadly, Anesthesia relegates Joe to a hospital bed, yelling into thin air, completely dependent on the phone call from Jeffrey that fails to arrive (Jeffrey’s met a female lawyer of probably White, but ill-defined ethnicity, for a tryst). Joe’s biggest scene comes late, and is as mysterious as it is pregnant with possibilities. It’s again, inexplicable to me why it’s also left unexplored and instead goes for something that seems to be a necessary cop out that brings the story back to its opening scene.

Anesthesia is a story enamored of its own concept that has moments of humor, moments of pathos, but ultimately doesn’t know where to go once the moment that it — and we — go “Aha!” arrives. That n itself is a crying shame.

 

JANE AUSTEN, REMIXED: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE + ZOMBIES

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Hooked on Film rating:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

During the cold, dead slumber of January and February when the dreck that can only fit during this time (post Holidays) gets released, I sauntered into the AMC theatre with little expectations to catch what I thought would be a painless incursion into zombie horror mixed with genteel, 18th century sensibilities. Mind you, I was only drawn to this knowing I was probably not its target audience. The mere fact that this was in some way related to the original source, which has since been one of my favorite go-to novels to read even when desperation calls and not a book in sight, called to me.

So there I was, sitting in the rear as per custom — I can’t sit near people who chew, talk, check their cell phones, or even as much as breathe loudly and this is the place in the theater that is the least occupied even on opening night — prepared to see either a massive misfire or a grave mistake. Suddenly, I heard Lily James, fresh out of Downton Abbey, recite the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, with modifications to fit this new incarnation . . . and I was sold. Jane, you can requiescat in pace. Your book has been done in a much more modern style, and your characters and their story-lines remain pretty much uncorrupt and even when battling the rotting dead, reciting some of your lines makes this a much more livelier affair.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is as light as popcorn and as silly as the combination of the two elements looks like, but it falls under that nebulous area of date movie meets gore and delivers it in spades. As mentioned, Lily James brings a lot of her previous roles (Lady Rose from Downton and even Cinderella from Cinderella) to her Elizabeth Bennet, and is the standout sister (much like in the novel, despite their being five and one of them running off late in the novel). [Although one early scene where all five sisters defend a house from zombies had me cheering. These girls can kick ass!] Sam Riley is one of the more accurate Darcys I’ve seen, his face expressing precious little and his voice tending to sound cold and unfeeling, but progressively more human as his emotions slowly surface. Jack Huston walks away with the picture as Wickham, and while his role is expanded here, it fits the purpose.

And the zombies. There are lots of them, but frankly, other than an initial scare or two, they’re more fodder for being reduced to mincemeat once the action starts. All of this is handled quite well without any exaggerations — they don’t suddenly become superhuman, for once — but somewhat closer to the ones featured in 2013’s Warm Bodies. So, in essence, the movie gets it fairly right, it satisfies, and that’s all there is to it.