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Quick Takes: Jan. 30

by on January 31, 2015
 

From left, Matthias Schoenaerts, James Marsden, Wentworth MIller, Karl Urban and Eric Stonestreet star in "The Loft," a 2015 release from Open Road Films and director Erik Van Looy.

THE LOFT

Karl Urban, James Marsden, Wentworth Miller, Eric Stonestreet and Matthias Schoenaerts are five married fat cats who share a secret, swanky sex palace for their flings. But their hush-hush hedonistic hideout is shattered when one of their conquests turns up dead in the one bed they all use. Did one of them do it? Is their sanctum sanctorum compromised? Is that place a blacklight nightmare or what?

“The Loft” is smug, cynical, sleazy … and reasonably entertaining. It’s the sort of disposable, high-end junk that can only belong to January — a sort of psychosexual-thriller spin on “The Hangover” in which members of a wolf pack turn on one another.

Erik Van Looy, a Belgian director remaking his own 2008 film, cross-cuts to so many suspicious / shocked close-ups that “The Loft” starts to resemble a seedy “Bachelor” rose ceremony. Meanwhile, composer John Frizzell tries to out-fortissimo Bernard Herrmann. And while employing flashbacks and flash-forwards, screenwriter Wesley Strick cleans out a supermarket of red herrings priced to move on their sell-by date — corrupt city councilmen, rival real estate magnates, mysterious prostitutes … and that’s before the fact that all five guys’ wives are suspects, too.

It’s too bad that the more-than-capable cast is so interchangeably bland (Urban, Miller, Marsden) or typecast (when hasn’t Schoenaerts played a coked-up, violent hothead?). Stonestreet is the exception, gleefully shedding network-sitcom niceties as a proudly profane douchebag; in one particularly piggish rant, he asserts that fake breasts be regarded as highly as dentures in the area of bodily improvement.

Even if it piles on perhaps one conspiracy too many (and takes the easier, less interesting way out on it), “The Loft” at least holds together cleanly in the long run. When it comes to winking trash, there are crummier pads in which to crash.

3 YAPS

 

Jillian Estell and Kevin Costner star in writer-director Mike Binder's "Black or White," a 2015 Relativity release.

BLACK OR WHITE

Who’d have thought Kevin Costner, of all people, would be enjoying such a good decade? He’s brought gravity to iffy blockbusters (“Man of Steel” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”), enlivened larkish action with self-deprecating wit (“3 Days to Kill”), supported sturdy dramas (“The Company Men”), and kept up his sports-movie streak even as age has forced him from fields to front offices (“Draft Day”).

“Black or White” reunites Costner with writer-director Mike Binder, who gave the actor one of his career-best roles in 2005’s “The Upside of Anger.” Had Binder not already used that title, it might have better suited this story, a dramedy about a pair of widowed grandparents (Costner and Octavia Spencer) duking it out for custody of their 7-year-old biracial granddaughter. (The girl’s white mother died birthing her while her black father has a history of violence, drug abuse and crime.)

For the first two acts, Binder casts an honest look at these characters’ pride and prejudices — unwilling to let any of them off the hook easily or suggest either grandparent doesn’t have the girl’s best interests in mind.

Costner loves her but wrestles with the same, albeit more functional, addiction mentality over which he lashes out at Spencer’s side of the family. Meanwhile, she seems blinded to her son’s screw-ups because of what they say about her otherwise successful life. These two performances are fierce, sympathetic and well-matched, even if Spencer feels too strictly confined to her sassy-stare mode while Costner has room to explore more nuance.

Costner also delivers a courtroom monologue that’s a distant, but worthy, second to “JFK” but gets bonus points for the word “mollycoddle.” This raw, direct address pulls no punches about knee-jerk accusations of racism on either side of the ethnic line. If only it were the film’s punctuation rather than another transition.

To a more destructive degree than he did in “Anger,” Binder hinges this film’s third act more on incident and surprise rather than illumination or self-reflection. It goes too far — like “Crash” too far — in going to great lengths to make a simple point and mars an otherwise admirable, tough-minded drama.

3.5 YAPS

 

From left, Sam Lerner, Jonny Weston, Allen Evangelista and Amy Landecker star in "Project Almanac," a 2015 Paramount Pictures release produced by Michael Bay.

PROJECT ALMANAC

In “Project Almanac,” Sprite, Coke Zero, Red Bull, Xbox One and a Windows phone create a time machine.

OK, so it’s actually five teenagers, but all of those products get prime placement — pirouetting in plain sight during repetitive visual effects in one of the more unimaginative, predictable time-travel movies ever made. In fact, the long delay behind this film (originally scheduled for 2014 and extensively trailered under its original title, “Welcome to Yesterday” before being bumped a year) seems timed to pimp more sales of three-day passes to Lollapalooza.

It’s there that the teens’ certain ill-advised choices factor into the genre’s usual chaotic complications. Creatively, “Project Almanac” otherwise a found-footage coat of paint on any number of shopworn ideas and calls it a day. Unlike “Chronicle,” which gave its first-person POV a reason to exist, “Almanac” frenetically futzes with the image to nauseating extremes. (Because it’s a Michael Bay production, it also casually pans over cleavage and long legs on the regular.)

There are a handful of amusing moments, like when the teens mistakenly miss an eight-figure lottery payout by one number. Or their ability to optimize their Lollapalooza schedule based on what they already know to be the “sickest” sets. Just don’t bother asking how they materialize in Chicago after jumping from Georgia. It’s one of many ways “Project Almanac” sets up an absurdly arbitrary set of time-travel rules; another is that bad things will only happen if one of them jumps back alone.

It’s easy to imagine the folks behind “About Time,” “Looper,” “Timecrimes” or “Predestination” (a great, mind-shredding time-travel flick also released this month) chuckling over “Project Almanac’s” paradoxical simplicities and deflated drama. But hey, their time travelers never said “Whatever we did at Lollapalooza had some crazy ripple effects!”

2 YAPS

 

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