PITCH PERFECT

A movie whose title is its own review. Feel-good has seldom felt better — especially during the many songs that always seem to stop too soon. The story is set in college, but the dynamics are more high school: cliques, acceptance, young love, raging hormones (and bowels). The girl meets-loses-gets-back-boy plot is as well worn as an old sneaker, and you know from the start that the martinet leader of the Bellas a cappella group will get her comeuppance and have to turn to heroine Anna Kendrick for guidance. All that takes a back seat to the music. Even thrown away riffs such as the rival boy ensemble’s on-campus work-up of Dazz Band’s “Let It Whip” will tap your toes. And when the two arch-competitors gather on the street at night for a Sharks/Jets-style in-your-face “top this” contest, PP hits its highest notes. Kendrick’s romance with the adorkable Skylar Astin is witty, even touching, and the side players are so well-cast it’s a shame we don’t get to spend more time with all of them. (Indeed, to accommodate a plot point bringing nerdy charmer Ben Platt [his first credit!] into the story, the screenplay writes out the even more capable Jon Gosselin look-alike Adam DeVine, who kills as the arrogant leader of the reigning champions.) A restless camera brings the excitement of performance itself to the on-stage numbers. I just wish it hadn’t ended so abruptly; I wanted everyone to go on singing. — Jeff Schultz

LOOPER

Long, complicated and confusing in the manner of INCEPTION and MEMENTO.  It begins as a noir-style hit man drama enhanced by time travel, then throws a curve ball about halfway in with a telekinetic twist involving an OMEN-esque kid, and ties them both together at the end after a spate of noisy firepower. As the audience was filing out, I heard one guy tell his friend, “It makes sense when you think about it, then you think about it a little more and it doesn’t.” That sums it up nicely. One major problem: the lead character is dead inside, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt struggles to keep the performance from being deadly. His ruddied-up lips and makeup-y eyebrows convey a soul-sickness that takes a butt-squirming two hours to redeem with an auto-da-fe that even someone like myself who has a hard time following these kind of plots saw coming. Director Rian Johnson did the brilliant BRICK with JG-L, which blew me away. He’s undeniably talented (and so is his DP, also of BRICK). But here I found myself only intermittently involved — and ultimately not enough to do the work required. Bruce Willis brings a welcome wry humor to certain scenes, there’s not nearly enough of Paul Dano or Jeff Daniels, and it’s good to see Garret Dillahunt (from Fox’s “Raising Hope”) in a serious role. But before it’s over, you might find yourself wondering about what to have for dinner. — Jeff Schultz

DREDD 3D

For anyone who saw the completely horrible “Judge Dredd” (doesn’t deserve our usual capital letters), it is understandable that you would wonder why they would remake it. But maybe that’s exactly why they should have. To get it right. And that’s precisely what the filmmakers have done, get it totally right! This is taking a pretty good comic book and bringing the best parts of it to the screen. DREDD is dark and gritty and unapologetically bloody. Slo-mo shots of bullets piercing skin and bodies splattering on the ground simply add to the bleakness. Karl Urban is Dredd and is absolutely fantastic. He’s got Eastwood’s whispered growl down perfectly. That makes the one liners he delivers all the more effective. An interesting dramatic choice is that you never see Urban’s face for the entire movie. He wears his Judge helmet the entire 95 minutes and while you may be thinking, “well, that’s ridiculous”, it makes total sense in context. Lena Heady (Cersie Lannister from Game of Thrones) is a former whore who through sheer brutality has become a drug kingpin. Dredd and his rookie partner (Olivia Thirlby) go to her “block” ot investigate a triple murder and dispense justice. The rest of this movie is about how they pair of Judges try to survive bullets and mayhem while trying to “convict” Heady’s character. It moves quickly, doesn’t get to involved in character development and relies on the audience identifying with the good guys over the bad guys. The 3D is fantastic. It’s used sparingly and effectively and doesn’t feel gimmicky (I believe it was shot in 3D, rather than converted… great choice!). Nothing to DREDD here, go see this today! — Alan Yudman

LOOPER

The whole time-travel thing has been done to death. TIME AFTER TIME one of the best. STAR TREK at times seemed obsessed with it to the point of distraction, causing fans to hold their heads in pain trying to figure out timelines, temporal causality loops, etc. But time travel as a hit man’s tool? Now that’s an original idea, and it is the plot device that drives the totally entertaining LOOPER. Joseph Gordon Levitt is Joe, a “Looper”. Time travel is invented 30 years in the future, but is owned by organized crime. They use it to send “hits” back in time to be eliminated because it is easier to dispose of the bodies. Eventually, every Looper has to eliminate their future selves, known as “closing the loop”. Bruce Willis plays “Old Joe”, Gordon Levitt’s older self. But, Willis isn’t willing to succumb to death so easily. That conflict between his younger and older selves is what makes this work. Other movies might have had Young Joe buy into Old Joe’s plans, but the idea of committing a kind of “future suicide” is as twisted as it is original. Willis is trying to kill a criminal mastermind known as “The Rainmaker”, after he has ruined his life in the future. His plan is to kill him as a child. That’s where the wonderful child actor Pierce Gagnon comes in. He’s young, but is dangerous in a “Firestarter” kind of way. As I look back on these descriptions, it’s hard to imagine anyone comprehending what’s going on, much less enjoying it. But in Rian Johnson’s capable writing/directing hands, it is easy to follow and all the twists and turns don’t distract from your enjoyment. The ending is shocking if only for its willingness to not end “nice” and tie things up in a pretty bow. One “spoiler”, you’ll spend the movie staring at Gordon Levitt’s nose. it’s prosthetic to make him look more like Willis. LOOPER is great science fiction and is so well done that it may be one of the best in this genre in years. — Alan Yudman

HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET

An entertaining damsel in distress thriller graced by two fine actors as the damsel and her (maybe) nemesis. Jennifer Lawrence is on a roll these days, and here, her inherent toughness makes her more than just a girl in danger. With many of these kind of thrillers, the don’t-go-in-the-basement factor brings giggles when pretty protagonists poke their noses into places anyone with an ounce of sense would avoid. But Lawrence always seems fearless — it’s what makes her turn as Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES so interesting. So when she ignores warnings to stay away from the kid with the bad reputation, or finds the trap door leading to the basement and ventures downstairs, her willfulness is believable. That toughness is nicely clarified by Lawrence’s rocky relationship with her mother, well played by hard-bitten Elizabeth Shue, unhesitant to show a blowzy, desperate side as a mom with a past. It is Max Thierot, however, who is given the showiest role and who plays it so quietly and craftily, you don’t know whether to give him a reassuring hug or be creeped out — which is exactly Lawrence’s reaction and the motor that drives the plot to its worthwhile double twist. — Jeff Schultz

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER

Once again, as he did in PERCY JACKSON and the 3:10 TO YUMA remake, Logan Lerman takes sub-par material and makes it watchable. A Hughesian retread of garden variety teen angst, dime store homophobia and glossed-over mental illness, this movie cuts more corners than a kirigami artist, with crisis resolutions that come about so easily, you wonder why they bothered inserting them in the first place. Its concerns — fitting in, dealing with heartbreak, overcoming family trauma — have been the stuff of better films like THE BREAKFAST CLUB and CHARLIE BARTLETT. And while Lerman (who’s 20) at least looks the part of a high school freshman, his love interest, Emma Watson, is two years older and comes off like a senior who must have been repeatedly left back. Ezra Miller, whose performance has been critically lauded, is trapped in a poor-bullied-gay-boy role that requires little more than wearing eye liner and facing the world with a brave mask of flamboyance. Snore. It’s left to Logan’s intense likability to carry things along — which he does admirably, but this is a young actor whose breakout film has yet to be made. — Jeff Schultz

THE MASTER

The What-the-fuck-? factor is lower here than PUNCH DRUNK LOVE but higher than THERE WILL BE BLOOD — with the stipulation that WTF is not necessarily a bad thing. Take the opening sequence, where sailors out of a Paul Cadmus painting or an Athletic Model Guild fantasy idle on what’s presumably a South Pacific beach awaiting their return home at the end of WWII. The sequence has a serious homo factor, even if only by allusion. It’s fascinating (and effectively shot in “nostalgic” color and light and edited almost like home movies with faraway sound that adds an eerie distance). But how that affects or speaks to what follows I’m not sure. What passes between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix has an explosive charge, not a sexual one. (And yet did I catch something more specific in a mumbled line by Amy Adams while she was jerking Hoffman off into the sink?) About those two big performances: one is showy (Phoenix), full of tics and outbursts, the other internal, inhabited; it’s a nice contrast and a valid one. Maybe it’s the insularity of Hoffman’s performance, however, that leaves you as puzzled about him at the end as at the beginning. (Or more so.) More than a few times The Master himself struck me as an insufferable boor — not charismatic, just annoying. Then came the scenes where Hoffman shouts “PIG FUCK!” at a skeptic, and where he poses for Phoenix’s camera, striking one laughably self-important pose after another, and I thought, it’s a satire, this guy is being lampooned. But then along comes the final scene between Hoffman and Phoenix that seems to take their….. what? relationship? rivalry? duel to the death?… to a higher plane, the plane of Art, and we’re back in WTF land. But pretentious and puzzling though it be, this is original and involving film, with fully A-list production values (although the costumes and sets had me confused for much of the picture about when it was supposed to take place. The correct answer is 1950 — but there was one party scene I thought sure was in the 20’s.) Whatever, THE MASTER Is worth seeing and arguing over. Two days later, it has stayed with me. And I wonder, whenever I see it again, If my reactions will be different. — Jeff Schultz

The opening scene of waters churning behind a ship at sea reveals what is roiling beneath the surface of Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER. You see the water and know a ship has been cutting through the waves, but you’re not sure what ship it was, how big it was or whether you missed something. Those are approximately my feelings for this confounding, breathtaking wonderfully acted film. It’s now been three days since I saw THE MASTER and I’m still not entirely sure what I just experienced. It is largely based on the Church of Scientology with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the role of L. Ron Hubbard. He leads The Cause, something of a traveling circus of believers. Their “belief” is our bodies are merely vessels for the soul which can travel back millennia or to other planets. But that is not where this film begins. It begins with Freddie Qwell (Joaquin Phoenix) just out of the Navy, and certainly out of his mind. Through several scenes we see that Freddie cannot hold a job. He’s also a drinker. Not a boozer, a drinker. He drinks everything he can get his hands on. Developing fluid, kerosene, paint thinner. How he’s not dead isn’t fully explained other than “he’s careful”. On the run, he comes upon a party on a yacht and stows away. That’s how he hooks up with Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). The rest of the film explores this obsessive relationship between the two men. It’s obsessive, but not sexual in any way. They are attached at someplace deeper than the hip. The scenes between the two men are mano a mano courses in acting. Every confrontation fairly explodes on screen. No matter how others try to tell Dodd that Freddie is no good for them and their Cause, Dodd cannot give him up, or give up on him. Again, the acting here is simply outstanding. Amy Adams plays Hoffman’s wife, trying to keep him focused on their mission, while also trying to break the spell of Freddie. She’s the anchor trying to keep Dodd grounded. Hoffman and Phoenix will probably cancel each other out for Oscars, but if they could split the award they should, because one wouldn’t be as good without the other. The cinematic choices are equally breathtaking. Actors faces fill the screen in full 70mm, giving us a look not just at them, but inside them. One critic (forgive me for not remembering who) said maybe she would understand THE MASTER better on second viewing. That may also be the case with me. But on first viewing there was a lot to love about this film. And more proof that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the best filmmakers alive today.– Alan Yudman

BACHELORETTE

This plays like the sequel to BRIDESMAIDS. It’s not quite a rip-off, but not quite as good, either. New cast, similar types, right down to the rising star chubby girl (in this case, Rebel Wilson). Kirsten Dunst seems to be going the Gwyneth Paltrow route: old beyond her years. Dunst is almost matronly here, oddly de-sexed. Whenever she adds to the movie’s ample supply of expletives, it doesn’t seem to go with her character. That’s one way the movie keeps pivoting tonally: extra-raunchy humor one moment, wounded lover sentimentalism the next. But it’s entertaining in a sloppy way. Happily it has a major role for underused actor Kyle Bornheimer, and it gives Lizzy Caplan the movie role of her career up to now. As leads, the trio of Dunst, Caplan, and Isla Fisher play jerks with hearts of gold; they’re a funny clique. But the plot, involving a torn wedding dress, is contrived and becomes ridiculous. In fact the movie itself is a little threadbare. — Jeff Schultz

[REC]3 GENESIS

Question: does a successful franchise have the “right” to change its signature style and still market itself under its original name? Obviously, whoever owns the copyright can do as they damn well please. But it can be a jolt to the expectations. A quarter of the way into [REC]3, the hand-held verite filmmaking that characterized the first two [REC]s comes to a crashing end (literally) — at which point the title credit finally appears, and after which the thriller is shot in conventional style. Up until then, we’ve been treated to multiple amateur videographers (and one professional) at a large wedding fated to turn very, very bloody. But with the return of smooth camerawork and calculated editing, we’re suddenly in a very different film. I was skeptical at first, but it works, thanks mostly to an ocean of blood spurting from mouths, heads, necks and bellies, with a few vivid dismemberments including a skull cleaved vertically in half with a chainsaw, the victim snapping vainly at the saw-wielding woman’s throat until the very end. This is a fairly traditional zombie flick, with some religious overtones that mostly serve to give the hero bride and groom a temporary way out of danger. In the end, however, Spanish fatalism wins out. — Jeff Schultz

SILENCE! THE MUSICAL

When the centerpiece song of your parody revue is titled, “If I Could Smell Your Cunt”… when the show has a Greek chorus — of lambs… when Dr. Hannibal Lecter is played and sung by one of Broadway’s best-known belters (Davis Gaines)… when the role of Clarice Starling is done by an actress (Christine Lakin) who nails Jodie Foster like a butterfly pinned to a cork board… when ALL of the side players in this cast of ten deliver laughs at roughly the rate of one every five seconds… when the direction is so tirelessly creative that not even the smallest bit of business is left to chance… then you have a well-deserved hit on your hands. The show — twice successful Off-Broadway — comes to the Hayworth Theater in L.A. with some of its east coast originals and even more guffaws from new material added for this production. The gut-busting hilarity of the beyond-dirty lyrics and stage business puts shock value in the service of art. Seriously, anyone objecting to a single word or gag here deserves to become one of Lecter’s victims, because truly, this is about the funniest stage show I’ve ever seen. — Jeff Schultz