HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET
Watching a talented A-list star like Jennifer Lawrence stumble her way through a grade-Z production like House at the End of the Street can only lead to embarrassment for the performer and misery for the viewer. It'd be like seeing somebody on the order of, say, Rachel Weisz or Daniel Craig appear in something equally shoddy. Oh, wait ...
OK, so not only did Weisz and Craig co-star in another dilapidated House - the 2011 flop Dream House - but it turns out that both that movie and this one were written by the same person. Apparently, scripter David Loucka harbors a real phobia of houses (presumably, he's an apartment kind of guy), but everyone else will find themselves more terrified by their monthly mortgage than anything on display in either of these pictures.
This new House casts Lawrence as Elissa, who with her divorced mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) moves from Chicago to a rinky-dink Pennsylvania town. They get a great deal on a spacious house, but that's because it's located across the way from a home where, four year earlier, spooky Carrie Ann (Eva Link) murdered her parents. She presumably drowned, but local (sub)urban legend insists that she's actually living in the nearby woods. As for the house itself, its sole occupant is Carrie Ann's reclusive brother Ryan (Max Thieriot), who's bullied by the other kids but makes a real connection with Elissa. The local sheriff (Gil Bellows), who must be the only law officer within a 50-mile radius since he's seemingly on duty 24/7, assures a worried Sarah that Ryan is a good kid and that Elissa is safe with him. Yet for all his soulful stares and sensitive bleating, Ryan is keeping something hidden in the basement.
Just as Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey both had to deal with the long-shelved The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation later materializing on the landscape to capitalize on both actors' newfound fame, now it's Lawrence's turn to grin and bear it as this turkey, made before her success with The Hunger Games and X-Men: First Class and her Oscar nomination for Winter's Bone, arrives on the scene with all the class of a long-lost cousin hoping for a handout from a relative who just won the lottery.
The strategy clearly worked, as the film earned back its small budget on its opening weekend alone. That financial update deserves an eye roll, though, as the movie isn't even worth a Redbox rental down the road. Loucka, co-writer Jonathan Mostow and director Mark Tonderai elect to emphasize every plot point and telegraph every plot twist with the delicacy of a train blaring its horn as it approaches a crossing - and yet that isn't even their greatest sin. It's difficult to go into particulars without having to erect a wall of spoiler alerts, but suffice it to say that the film's ultimate rebuttal of samaritans, rebels and outsiders - and by extension, its embrace of bullies, sycophants and shrill suburbanites only interested in property values - makes House at the End of the Street seem even more low-rent.
Fans of the long-running British comic strip showcasing the character of Judge Dredd were horrified when Sylvester Stallone managed to turn the declarative statement "I am the law!" into a hammy punchline in the 1995 camp version. Those same folks will now be delighted to learn that Karl Urban has reclaimed the snatch of dialogue for them: When the character utters it in the new adaptation, it's grim enough to give viewers - and villains - pause.
A straight-up action film with little on its mind besides murder and mayhem, Dredd - or Dredd 3D, depending on the auditorium - is stylish enough to entertain more than just the hardcore-gore crowd. Director Pete Travis, who seemed unable to keep up with the dizzying plot twists sprung by scripter Barry Levy for his 2008 thriller Vantage Point, functions better with the relatively straightforward script provided here by Alex Garland; this freedom allows him to construct a movie defined by its beautifully framed mise en scenes and driven by two protagonists who manage to play off each other's differences.
Dredd, the futuristic lawman who's sanctioned to serve as judge, jury and executioner whenever the need arises, is tough and taciturn, a direct counterpoint to the tentative and empathic rookie (Olivia Thirlby) he's assigned to supervise. But when they find themselves trapped in a high-rise overseen by a vicious drug lord (Game of Thrones' Lena Headey), he discovers that she can more than hold her own.
It's poor timing that this is being released after The Raid: Redemption (though both were filmed at roughly the same time), since that offers the exact same premise with a higher rate of return - specifically, the hand-to-hand combats fueling that film are more exciting than the gunplay in Dredd. Then again, this picture (unlike Raid) can be viewed in 3-D, and for those opting to go that overpriced route, it should be noted that the movie looks terrific in that format. When a bullet lovingly rips through a thug's face in slow motion, audience members in the side seats might feel an inclination to duck.
With the musical comedy Pitch Perfect, a fat star is born.
I'm paraphrasing, of course, but this line of defense is employed by the character Fat Amy in this winsome film that generates an awful lot of off-kilter laughs. On paper, Pitch Perfect sounds like it's one step removed from Glee or two steps removed from High School Musical. In actuality, it marks the feature-film debuts of both Broadway director Jason Moore and TV writer Kay Cannon, and their creds - Avenue Q for him, 30 Rock for her - hammer home the fact that this won't be the usual teenybopper romp. Admittedly, the film's resolutions are never in doubt, and, as with all modern comedies, there has to be at least one gross-out scene (the fluid of choice here is vomit). Yet the movie is exquisitely cast down to the smallest role, and when the laughs flow, they do so with relentless fury.
Anna Kendrick, whose Oscar-nominated turn in Up in the Air guaranteed that she now won't have to spend the rest of her life talking up her tiny Twilight role at conventions (I jest; she's also a Tony-nominated actress), stars as Beca, a college freshman who's corralled into joining the all-girl a capella outfit, the Bellas. Captained by a shrill martinet named Aubrey (Anna Camp), the group hopes to snatch the national trophy away from its hated cross-campus rivals, the all-male Treblemakers. But given Aubrey's conservative nature - she has the outfit perform Ace of Base's "The Sign" in every single competition - there's not much chance of that. Luckily, new blood Beca and Fat Amy might be able to shake the group out of its stodgy stupor, but only if Aubrey loosens the reins.
As with Bridesmaids (which this movie clearly tries to emulate, right down to that copycat poster), there's a richness to the leading characters that's punched across by the energized actresses. Kendrick projects edgy intelligence (and can she sing!), Brittany Snow offers good cheer as the bubbly Chloe, and Camp is so brittle, you fear she might crack in two.
Yet the movie clearly belongs to Rebel Wilson. While a delight in Bridesmaids (as one of Kristen Wiig's daft British roommates), she was competing against a wide range of scene-stealers. Here, she clearly takes the trophy for her raucous performance as Fat Amy. What's most refreshing about the character (and kudos to Cannon for writing her this way) is that she's all about being confident and taking control - a rare break from American movies that do nothing but marginalize, mock or pity its plus-sized women. There's only one scene in which Fat Amy endures a standard movie humiliation (it involves a thrown burrito), but even here, it's not so much about her embarrassment as much as painting the perpetrator as a complete jerk. (Curiously, this character, the most odious in the film, never gets his comeuppance. An oversight, or a desire to deviate from the expected norm?)
How cool is Pitch Perfect's attitude toward its MVP? When we see Fat Amy on spring break, she's in a swimming pool surrounded by attentive hunks. Rarely has girl power seemed so rockin' on screen.
(Pitch Perfect opens Oct. 5 in Savannah.)