Aug 3 2015

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

jackryanHaving already taken over the iconic role of Capt. Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek, Chris Pine guns for another A-list franchise in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. It’s a prequel that serves as an origin story for the badass CIA analyst embodied originally by Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, most famously by Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and forgettably by Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears. Fear not this belated fifth chapter.

Following the events of 9/11 — and thus messing with the series’ timeline, but get over it — Ryan trades studying economics for a stint in the Marines. Serving in Afghanistan, he endures a spinal injury in the process — an RPG-downed helicopter, to be precise — and while undergoing physical therapy is recruited by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner, talking out one side of his mouth as if simultaneously storing nuts in his cheeks and packing sunflower seeds and Skoal in his bottom lip) to be a spy under the CIA’s employ. Ten years later, working undercover on Wall Street, Ryan notices something fishy in a Russian corporation’s books and is sent to Moscow to clean it up.

jackryan1Using U.S./Russia pipeline talks as a MacGuffin, director Kenneth Branagh (Thor) casts himself as Viktor Cherevin, the cirrhotic head of the Russkie firm plotting America’s economic collapse … and only Jack Ryan can stop him! Well, with generous assistance from Ryan’s fiancée therapist (Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game) and Harper, in an elongated heist sequence that recalls the set pieces of Paramount’s tone-similar Mission: Impossible films. (Pine even adopts Tom Cruise’s famous palms-flat/fingers-out running stance.) Knightley’s convenient appearance in Moscow just in time for the operation is a contrivance, yes, but one that works.

Although the Cold War long has thawed, Shadow Recruit presses the “reheat” button to recall the ’80s-Reagan flavor of the previous installments, all based on Tom Clancy novels. Working from a script co-written by first-timer Adam Cozad and old pro David Koepp (Jurassic Park), Branagh all but dispenses with the Clancy touchstones of geopolitical rigamarole and overtly right-wing rah-rah hoohah that oftentimes crippled the pace of the predecessors, and focuses on action. In doing so — and in bathing the screen in gorgeous saturated colors during moments of inaction — he delivers a surprisingly engaging spy tale, fleet of foot. You can feel it dividing itself into traditional thirds, each clicking neatly into place. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jul 31 2015

Pulse (2006)

pulsePulse barely has a beat of its own. An inferior American remake of the 2001 Japanese hit, this Wes Craven adaptation fails as a cautionary tale for the Internet age. Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) is Mattie, a college student whose semester, like, really sucks when her hacker boyfriend (Jonathan Tucker, The Ruins) fatally hangs himself with a phone cord. Not long after, she and her circle of friends receive the same string of instant messages from his computer, all reading, “helpme.”

With the help of the grease monkey (Ian Somerhalder, TV’s The Vampire Diaries) who bought the departed dude’s computer, Mattie learns that her BF accidentally had loosed a virus that unleashes pixelated specters that suck souls and/or leave its victims with an inky skin fungus. The damage is not consistent, nor the use of the Ring-esque clips that terrorize those who log on to the web, causing mass suicides across campus and beyond.

pulse1The best sequence has one unfortunate supporting player melting into an apartment wall; a runner-up gives us a human spider emerging from the laundry. However, these scenes and others are purposely too dark or too quick-cut, as to hide the budgetary seams. Directed with pallid blue-greens by debuting Jim Sonzero, Pulse overall presents its effects as lousy as it does exposition. The finale in particular, which lifts a plane crash directly from its source material, looks more green-screened than a leprechaun-managed Rent-A-Center.

One of Dimension Pictures’ last gasps at prolonging its post-Scream gravy train of teen-oriented horror pics, Pulse flopped, but somehow expelled two direct-to-DVD sequels in 2008, Pulse 2: Afterlife and Pulse 3. It’s tough to imagine anyone wanting to revisit the scene of this cybercrime. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jul 30 2015

Vacation (2015)

vacationWithout having the National Lampoon name affixed to it, the 2015 Vacation has its cake and eats it, too, serving as both remake and reboot. Whether it’s as successful as the ’83 original is almost beside the point. That Chevy Chase vehicle is a true comedy classic; to try to top it would be futile, so Horrible Bosses screenwriters-turned-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein don’t. They simply aim to be funny.

Chase’s bumbling, well-meaning patriarch, Clark W. Griswold, drove all four previous Vacations. This time, son Rusty graduates to man the wheel. All grown up, Rusty (The Hangover trilogy’s Ed Helms, again doing the Ed Helms character, which he does well) is a pilot with a budget airlines who, like his father, just wants to spend more time with his wife, Debbie (Anchorman’s Christina Applegate, filling the Beverly D’Angelo spousal role with aplomb), and their two ever-warring sons (The Amazing Spider-Man’s Skyler Gisondo and A Haunted House 2’s Steele Stebbins). Overhearing Debbie complain of dreading yet another annual trek to a cabin, Rusty decides to revisit his most memorable trip as a child: going from Chicago to California’s Walley World theme park.

vacation1So with an Albanian Tartan Prancer subbing for the ol’ Wagon Queen Family Truckster, Rusty and fam head west, stopping in Texas to see Rusty’s sister, Audrey (Leslie Mann, The Change-Up), and her too-perfect husband (Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth). Also on the agenda, intended or not: vehicular pursuits, near-fatal white-water rafting, definitely fatal cow herding, Seal sing-alongs, sexual high jinks, suspect motels, much puke. Like father, like son.

The result is funnier and more satisfying than any of the sequels, America’s perennial Christmas favorite included. That said, one wishes Daley and Goldstein had tightened the screws on this ball, since many scenes could exist as stand-alone sketches vs. being part of a through line. They tackle the beats of the original without gluing them into a unified whole. When Clark Griswold flipped the eff out in the original, it rang true as an eventual point on the story arc; when Rusty does the same here, the effect is lost because it feels as if a box is being checked rather than a scene receiving proper setup. So fractured is the film, I suspect the editor’s desktop trash can houses several gigabytes of excised scenes.

Still, I laughed, and a lot. From the opening strains of Lindsey Buckingham’s still-catchy “Holiday Road” theme, I immediately felt nostalgic, which Daley and Goldstein not only intended, but manufactured, given their movie’s surplus of callbacks to Harold Ramis’ playfully ribald original. (The depression caused by a late subplot may not have been on purpose.) The jokes of the ’15 Vacation may spring from a meaner place — witness the new version of the iconic Christie Brinkley gag, for instance — but they tend to make their marks, often enough that Chase’s own (sad) cameo in the third act is entirely unnecessary. —Rod Lott

Jul 29 2015

Sex Kittens Go to College (1960)

sexkittensOnce a producer of fine repute who reached his taste apex with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil in 1958, Albert Zugsmith evidently ditched prestige when he decided what he really wanted to do was direct. In 1960 alone, he helmed no fewer than three movies, all of which featured his secret weapon for easy box office: the sweater-shapely Mamie Van Doren.

Two of those films utilized the word “college” in their titles, but only Sex Kittens Go to College gifted Van Doren — the poor man’s Jayne Mansfield, who is the poor man’s Marilyn Monroe — with the lead role. The 3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt babe stars as Dr. Mathilda West, the new science-department professor at Collins College. She has photographic memory and a photograph-worthy frame; she boasts an IQ of 298 and a bod of 40-20-32. As one fellow faculty member perfectly puts it upon meeting this buxom-blonde genius, “Thirteen university degrees never looked like this!” But Dr. West does, and proving that brains exist behind the boobs is even tougher when she arrives on campus with considerable baggage: a former stint stripping under the nom de plume of The Tallahassee Tassel Tosser. 

sexkittens1Although shot in black and white, Zugsmith’s Sex Kittens has all the Palmolive-clean ingredients of one of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello’s sandbox romps: rock ’n’ roll singing and dancing, a chimp who types with his feet, a giant robot named Thinko, characters with silly names (Woo Woo Grabowski), cameos from has-beens (Vampira, John Carradine) and plenty of innocent-enough innuendo (“How do you feel about oral examinations, professor?”). But whereas no Beach Party would dare to contain nudity, the unrated version of Sex Kittens offers plenty, with an extended sequence of back-to-back-to-back-to-back stripteases excised for prudish American moviegoers. Its inclusion on Warner Archive’s “extended international version” DVD is a win for film history, but a loss for the movie, which actually posits a feminist message — one that gets bumped and ground out when Zugsmith exploits the very thing his movie otherwise claims to condemn.  

Living in its own curvaceous, carefree world, the flick is more than watchable, even if nearly every joke falls in the way that Van Doren is not: woefully flat.  —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Jul 28 2015

Spring (2014)

springBoy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl sprouts tentacles. Oh, well.

Relax — that’s not a true spoiler. Only if you went into Spring thinking it to be a romantic drama would you be surprised by its turn toward the fantastical, yet with the word “MONSTER” appearing on the poster and box art, the movie marks its route with GPS-confident clarity. Besides, Drafthouse Films doesn’t actively recruit viewers of three-hanky weepies; Nicholas Sparks can take care of that bunch.

Spring isn’t really about alien appendages as much as it is about atmosphere — particularly the kind in which Italy is soaked, like crusty bread drizzled with olive oil and vinegar at your neighborhood Johnny Carino’s. The boot-shaped European republic is where Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci, 2013’s Evil Dead remake) flees after his mother dies and he loses his job, all in short order. Certainly aimless and close to hopeless, he is in sad-sack shape when he meets local woman Louise (German actress Nadia Hilker), stunning to the point of seemingly unattainable.

spring1Yet she is up for grabs — for deliberate chunks of time, anyway; she’s just adamant about not getting serious. Evan can’t help but be smitten, of course, so it’s too late when he learns her reasons for staying unattached. The revelation gives Spring its biggest scene — one with practical effects so realistic-looking, one is reminded of the groundbreaking (and Oscar-winning) transformation of David Naughton into An American Werewolf in London.

Fresh from contributing the liveliest segment to the V/H/S: Viral anthology, co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead give Spring the same sober treatment as their 2012 feature debut, Resolution, which is to say imagination trumps energy. These guys thrive on digging into the details — not just those inherent in the Italian countryside, but the mundane unrestricted by geographic boundaries, from a lizard poised motionless on a wall to a spider rolling a fly into its next meal. This they do very well, lifting their plainspoken stories into a realm that doesn’t ask for your attention, but rewards you for ceding it. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.