Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Overboard

2.5/4

Starring: Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Michael Hagerty, Edward Hermann, Katherine Helmond

Rated PG (for Language and Brief Sexuality, I guess)

With "Overboard," giving my opinion is easy: I'm not going to tell you to put it in your Netflix queue, but I'm not going to tell you to take it off either.  It's a slight, sunny, inoffensive romantic comedy that's hard to dislike.  It's also awkwardly paced, occasionally stupid for the sake of the plot, and suffers from a ridiculously melodramatic ending.

Dean Profitt (Russell) is a blue collar carpenter who has been assigned to come aboard to do an emergency job on a yacht.  What he comes to find is that he needs to build a shelf for a bitchy rich girl named Joanna (Hawn).  Doing the job is a decision he's going to come to regret because Joanna is an employer from hell, making little effort to prevent him from hearing her talk about him behind his back.  When he finishes the job, she flips out because it wasn't made from the right kind of wood.  Dean helpfully offers to redo it with the right kind of wood, as long as he gets paid for the extra trouble.  But Joanna refuses ("Everyone knows that cabinets are made of cedar!" she snaps) and promptly throws him overboard.  Later that night, Joanna takes a tumble overboard herself, and ends up on shore with no memory.  Sensing a way to make his money back through labor, and a little revenge, Dean poses as Joanna's husband, calling her "Annie."  He and his four kids put her through the paces (read: a living hell) until she gets the swing of things, and Dean starts to fall for her.  Of course, there's the secret of her identity that is preventing a real "happy ever after..."

The film's biggest problem is how Joanna/Annie acts when she's first got amnesia.  If her memory is wiped clean by her accident (I don't think amnesia works out so simply, but I'll let it slide since this movie never makes any attempt to be serious), would she still be such a bitch?  Or would she be more flat and vulnerable?  And then her change from harridan to heavenly comes too suddenly.  Would it happen because of one action without motivation, or would it be more gradual.  I get that with a movie this light and airy, these aren't questions that I'm supposed to ask, but the movie feels like it's taking the easy road by playing dumb.

Still, it's hard to deny the appeal of the two leads, who play well off one another (this was their fourth, and thus far final, time doing so).  Real life partners Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn have translated their off-set chemistry onto the screen, and while it doesn't necessarily burn, they click well enough for the film's purposes.  Comic support by Michael Hagerty (who is so similar to John Candy in this role that it's impossible not to think of the big man) and the late Edward Hermann is also effective.

Garry Marshall is known for his lovey-dovey romantic comedies that are tied up happily, even if such an occurrence is highly improbable or illogical ("Pretty Woman" is an example).  That's okay, since romantic-comedies are fantasies (well, most of them).  But here, the ending is handled in such an over-the-top way that it's eye-rolling rather than crowd-pleasing.  It would have worked had he scaled it back just a little bit.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Poltergeist (2015)

1.5/4

Starring: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kyle Catlett, Saxon Sharbino, Kennedi Clements, Jane Adams, Jared Harris, Nicholas Braun, Susan Heyward

Rated PG-13 for Intense Frightening Sequences, Brief Suggestive Material and Some Language

Tobe Hooper's 1982 shocker "Poltergeist" was not a great movie, but it was at least an entertaining one.  Nevertheless, it managed to strike a chord with its audience and its reputation has died down little over the past thirty-odd years.  This remake was slapped together for the same reasons that horror sequels are made: to cash in on a "brand name" with next to no effort.  And that lack of effort could barely be more painfully obvious than in this lame remake.

Eric (Rockwell) and Amy (DeWitt) Bowen are moving to a new house with their three kids: Kendra (Sharbino), Griffin (Catlett), and Madison (Clements).  It doesn't take long for the kids to recognize that there's something strange going on in this new place, but Eric and Amy are oblivious or in denial.  Then Madison gets sucked in the closet, and a pair of paranormal investigators (Harris and Adams) come to help.

There's very little in this movie that isn't present simply because it's obligatory.  Everything that happens in this movie happens not because of character interaction or good storytelling, but because its what happened in the original.  And this time around, it feels like a shallow retread.  Everything feels rushed, the acting is lousy and director Gil Kenan appears to be influenced by the modern-day Michael Bay by hurtling everything he can at us as fast as he can.  It even tells us the big twist before the movie even gets going!  What were they thinking?  To be fair, they replace it with another, but it's obligatory, lacks any sort of emotional component, and isn't even remotely credible.  At least Tobe Hooper (although how much of the film ended up being directed by Steven Spielberg himself is subject for debate) understood the importance of build-up, which has totally escaped Kenan.  This is all climax.  Bad climax.

I like Sam Rockwell.  He's been working his way up the ladder for decades, and he continues to mature.  It wasn't until "Galaxy Quest" that he started making a name for himself in character parts, but it was two years ago that he gave his best performance in "The Way Way Back," a movie I strongly advise seeing instead of this one.  Likewise, Rosemarie DeWitt has been building a career, although her career received a big boost later when she appeared opposite Anne Hathaway as the title (but not central) character in "Rachel Getting Married."  She has an appealing presence and ability, even in lame movies like "The Watch."  The two make a cute couple, and the scenes detailing their marriage ring true.  Unfortunately, their kids aren't up to the challenge of being likable and sympathetic.  Kyle Catlett is irritating, Saxon Sharbino, with one exception, the clichéd self-absorbed tween girl, and Kennedi Clements is far too cute to be credible.  Clements has the most important role in the film, and she is no match for Heather O'Rourke (instead of O'Rourke's infamous utterance of "They're here," Clements says it simply.  It would have been better to just imitate it.).  Jared Harris and a decidedly non-strange Jane Adams are, like their co-stars, slumming it for a paycheck.  But they are no match for Beatrice Straight and especially Zelda Rubenstein.

"Poltergeist" is designed for one thing in mind: to suck in money from people who are attracted to "names" they know.  It's cynical marketing at its worst.  The only thing worth noting about this movie is that the AMC warning to turn your phone off has changed.  It takes up about 1% of the running time but believe me, it's a lot more entertaining than the movie.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Tomorrowland

3/4

Starring: Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Tim McGraw, Pierce Gagnon

Rated PG for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Peril, Thematic Elements, and Language

There's something distinctly Spielberg in Brad Bird's new film "Tomorrowland."  Its themes of hope and imagination (not to mention having a precocious pre-teen as the lead) seem to come directly from him.  That's refreshing in this day and age, when every big budget movie is filled with tween angst and superhero in-jokes and references.  Or reboots and sequels, like another movie that I saw yesterday.

While the film gets its name from the Disney park ride, that's the only thing about it that's based on something with a "brand" name.  Everything else comes from the imaginations of Damon Lindelof, Jeff Jensen and especially Brad Bird.  It feels so refreshing to not know half of what to expect when I sat down to watch this movie; to not have the sense that the film has been branded, marketed and positioned to the point where I felt like I had already seen the movie before it even started.  With something like "The Avengers: Age of Ultron," I already knew every character in the film before the film even started, and what they were going to do in the film.  What's the point of going to the movies if you already know what to expect?

But I am getting off on a rant here, which is surprising, since "Tomorrowland" is solid entertainment.  It's a little sluggish at times, but Bird is a terrific storyteller, and that's his focus in the film.  There are some impressive special effects here, but he uses them wisely.  His focus is, rightly, on the story.

Casey Newton (Robertson) has a habit of breaking into a NASA Launchpad.  She has her reasons, though.  It's being decommissioned because no one knows what to do with it, and that's going to leave her father out of a job.  She's trying to delay it, but it's a lost cause.  After getting arrested for her deeds, she finds a mysterious pin with her belongings.  When she touches it, she's transported to a fantastic new world.  Her inquisitive nature piqued, she begins to research it and what it is.  But there are those who are after it for nefarious reasons.

"Tomorrowland" is one of those movies that takes until the very end until you know exactly what's going on.  Bird keeps his cards close to the chest, and he reveals them slowly and deliberately.  Too slowly, in fact, since there are times when the film seems to drag.  Nevertheless, it's not predictable and it's definitely entertaining.  The ending is also a cliché, but it's dressed up well enough that it doesn't matter.  Plus the fun is getting there.

The acting is surprisingly good.  I wasn't impressed with Britt Robertson in the trailer, but she does good work.  She's smart, tough and spunky.  There's no Bella Swan here.  She's also assertive, to the point where it aggravates those around her (that's a positive thing).  Easily equaling her is Raffey Cassidy, who plays Casey's guide, Athena.  She's excellent, and bears a striking similarity to Saoirse Roman to the point where I thought it was her.  The weak link is George Clooney, surprisingly.  Either he's miscast or simply not trying, Clooney never becomes the character.  Both actresses pick up the slack, but Clooney's performance deals the film a real blow.

"Tomorrowland" is a good movie.  It's not anything special, but it's message about the importance of taking the chance of dreaming big, is so important.  Especially to nervous studio executives obsessed with "branding" films that need no such support.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Legally Blonde

3/4

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Matthew Davis, Selma Blair, Victor Garber, Jennifer Coolidge, Ali Larter

Rated PG-13 for Language and Sexual References

"Legally Blonde" is like a pop song; not particularly memorable or personally enriching, but it's catchy and it goes down easy.  It's surprisingly fun, and a lot of that has to do with the sparkling performance by its lead actress.

Bubble-brained Elle Woods (Witherspoon) is the ultimate valley girl: she's obsessed with fashion, looking good and is dating the school hunk, Warner (Davis).  But on the night that she thinks he's going to propose, he surprisingly dumps her.  He wants to be a senator by the time he's 30, and he needs "someone serious," or as Elle realizes, a law student.  To win him back, she follows him to Harvard Law, where she is met with disdain and ridicule by her classmates, particularly Vivian Kensington (Blair), Warner's new fiancée.  Elle, however, is a lot smarter than everyone gives her credit for (herself included), and she may just be able to make her own way in the world.

Although she doesn't have the same "aura" of Meryl Streep or "star-power" of Angelina Jolie, there's no denying the acting ability of Reese Witherspoon.  From playing a vulnerable teenage girl who is preyed upon by a psychopathic lover ("Fear") to a woman coming to terms with her grief ("Wild"), the actress has repeatedly demonstrated talent and versatility.  As Elle, she brings a knowing, subversive wit to the character, and that makes her more than an ordinary bimbo who finds her voice.  Elle knows who she is, even though it takes her a while to figure it out what that means.  Witherspoon plays her as someone who gets the joke, and isn't afraid to do what needs to be done, but on her own terms.  That quality gives the film its edge.

Her co-stars are adequate, but they can't hold a candle to Witherspoon, who manages to keep the ever perky Elle likable and interesting for 90 minutes without becoming overbearing (considering her energy, that's an impressive achievement).  Luke Wilson, an actor I've never particularly liked, is surprisingly affable as the first person to take her seriously and give her support.  Matthew Davis shows comic timing and has some good reaction shots, but is about as charismatic as a wet noodle.  Selma Blair goes a little over-the-top as the bitchy Vivian, but she gets better when the script affords her the latitude (interesting note: although they play rivals in the film, the actresses are best friends in real life).

The film was directed by Robert Luketic, whose resume isn't very impressive (he was behind that stupid romantic-comedy "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!," a film I can defend only on the grounds that it brought Josh Duhamel to the mainstream).  On a technical level, the film is rather bland, but Luketic understands his lead character, and pulls out all the stops to define who she is.  Her Chihuahua, named Bruiser (Moonie), and fluffy pencils are only the start.  Subtlety isn't among the film's strengths, and under the circumstances, that's a good thing.

My freshman roommate during my second semester of college claimed that every guy must have a "chick flick" for the sake of his girlfriend.  For those who believe the same, "Legally Blonde" is a solid choice.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

These Final Hours

2.5/4

Starring: Nathan Phillips, Angourie Rice, Jessica De Gouw, Daniel Henshall, Kathryn Beck, Sarah Snook

Not Rated (Probable R for Language, Strong Sexuality/Graphic Nudity, Drug Use and Some Strong Violence)

Movies about the end of the world fascinate, I think, because they make us ask ourselves what we would do if we knew that we would only have a limited time left on Earth.  Truthfully, we know this, but it's a far different thing to know that the world will end in a week as opposed to just realizing the fact that we are all mortal.

In 24 hours, the world will end.  People are dealing with it in various ways.  James (Phillips) can't stand the pain of this reality, and is determined to spend it partying with his friends.  So after having sex with his friend Zoe (De Gouw), he heads out to a party being thrown by his friend Freddy (Henshall).  On the way, he sees two men carrying a girl screaming for her dad into a house.  Reluctantly, James rescues her and agrees to take her to her dad.

The good thing about this movie is that James is played by Nathan Phillips, the hunky guy in "Wolf Creek."  Despite the fact that he is abandoning the newly pregnant Zoe for his girlfriend Vicky (Beck), Phillips manages to make him into a guy we can get behind.  The bad thing is that for 90% of the movie, he's paired with Angourie Rice.  I always feel bad about trashing the performance of a child actor, but Rose, the character she plays, is annoying.  She's an albatross around his neck and nothing more.  Part of this is due to how the character is written and how Rice is directed, but there's no denying that Rice has little appeal.  I kept waiting for James to ditch her.

I appreciated how writer/director Zak Hilditch doesn't allow his story to get bogged down by bad melodrama.  There's nothing worse than watching a movie with an interesting premise to descend into safe clichés ("The Hunter" is a prime example of this).  Hilditch keeps things focused on how the characters react to their situation, and often times it's not pretty.

While watching this, I kept thinking of "Carriers," the little seen film starring Chris Pine.  They take place at different ends of the apocalypse ("These Final Hours" takes place right beforehand, while "Carriers" takes place after the calamity has happened), but they have a similar appeal.  But while the film by the Pastor brothers was haunting and beautiful, this is more angry and desperate.

The ending of the film is also worth mentioning.  It's effective up until the big moment, when it chooses angst over something more suitable from a storytelling perspective.  There's no reason why one of the characters acts the way they do, and it hurts the film.

Of the two, "Carriers" is the way to go, but "These Final Hours" won't have you wishing for the end credits.

In the Name of the Father

3/4

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Pete Postlethwaite, Emma Thompson, Don Baker, Corin Redgrave

Rated R for Language and Politically-Generated Violence

The story of the Guilford Four is one of the most grievous miscarriages of justice.  Four people were sentenced to life in prison for a crime they did not commit, and a half dozen others (including two teenagers) were sentenced to lesser sentences.  But when the truth finally came out, the British government chose to save face and cover it up rather than letting these innocent men and women go free.  Comparisons to the West Memphis Three are entirely appropriate.

On October 5th, 1974, a bomb blew up in a pub in Guildford, England, killing five people and injuring 65 more).  Shortly thereafter, the police arrested and brutalized three men (Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill and Patrick Armstrong) and one woman (Carole Richardson) until they confessed to carrying out the attack.  Soon after, additional seven, including some of Conlon's relatives, were arrested for conspiring with them.  One of those was Giuseppe Conlon (Postlethwaite), who travelled to London to help his son Gerry's (Day-Lewis) appeal.  But they were innocent, and it's up to a dogged lawyer named Gareth Peirce (Thompson) to set them free.

Of course, the film is about more than that.  Actually, quite a bit more.  In addition to telling what happened to Gerry and Giuseppe, co-writer/director Jim Sheridan wants to show the increasing understanding between father and son.  At the beginning of the film, they're distant, as fathers and sons can be when they both become adults (especially when the son is into drugs and petty crime).  However, it feels shortchanged.  A little more time for it to breathe would have given it a stronger impact, because the two actors play off each other well.  Similarly, their contrasting experiences in prison feel shallow and confused.  Gerry has an ax to grind, which makes him susceptible to the lure of contraband drugs and the tutelage of Joe McAndrew (Baker), the real bomber.  Giuseppe, on the other hand, places his faith in the justice system, and starts a letter writing campaign to raise awareness of their struggle, which in turn gets him involved with Gareth (how this happens is never explained...it's one of the film's visible holes).

What gives the film much of its punch are the performances.  From top to bottom, the performances are excellent.  Daniel Day-Lewis is like Meryl Streep; he's a living legend.  And for good reason too, because when he's on-screen, he'll disappear into the role, although like Streep, he can't save a bad movie ("There Will Be Blood," "Lincoln").  Fortunately, this is a good movie, and his acting elevates this movie.  Day-Lewis frequently plays angry and intense characters, and while there is a little of that here, Gerry is more subdued.  He's a naiive kid who got screwed in the worst way possible and wants revenge, but he learns that that may only make things worse.  This is one of his best performances.

To me, Pete Postlethwaite will always be the Old Man from "James and the Giant Peach."  His character was what I remember most from that film, but he is nothing like he's ever been as the idealistic Giuseppe.  In Gerry's words, he sees the good in people, and that makes him easy to get behind.  Not to mention it provides a great contrast to the angry, sullen Gerry.  While Day-Lewis is riveting, ultimately it's Postlethwaite who is the most memorable.

Emma Thompson, one of the most gifted British actresses, is left playing third fiddle, but that's okay.  This isn't her story.  That said, she does her job as only she can, except for the climax.  She is riveting until the script forces her to do and say things that aren't credible, and it hurts the film.  Blame the script and the director, not Thompson.

The two villains, Don Baker and Corin Redgrave, are totally detestable in different ways.  Baker, the famous Irish musician, radiates coldness and malice, but it takes Gerry a while to realize how truly vicious he is.  And as the detective who chose a quick fix over true justice, Corin Redgrave is perfectly easy to hate.  However, I will argue that his character should have had a more prominent role in the early scenes to give his character more power.

"In the Name of the Father" is not a perfect movie, but it represents two-plus hours of compelling filmmaking featuring acting of the highest order.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

3/4

Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne

Rated R for Intense Violence and Action, and for Disturbing Images

"Mad Max: Fury Road's" appeal is purely visceral.  It's a way to get the adrenaline going and gaze in awe at the eye-candy (except if you see it in 3D, which I strongly advise against since it's awful).  Narrative and character development are almost non-existent.  It's essentially one long chase scene, which is fine since George Miller is no Len Wiseman; he knows what he's doing.

The film takes place after the world as we know it has ended.  Society has been reduced to gangs battling each other over the remaining supplies.  Gasoline and especially water are scarce.  One man who has access to water is Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne), and unfortunately, he's using it to consolidate absolute power.  But one of his commanders, a woman named Furiosa (Theron), steals his five wives (whom he's using to sire a son) and flees the commune.  Immortan Joe pulls out all the stops in getting them back.  And then there's the man being used as a hood ornament/blood donor (Hardy).

I remember seeing the original "Mad Max" movie in high school and being unimpressed.  It hadn't aged well, so a reboot makes sense.  The fact that it's good is all the more impressive.  The action sequences are exciting and visceral, and there are some truly spectacular stunts and visuals (the dust storm is just one of them).

On the acting front, the film doesn't really impress.  Then again, this isn't a movie where much more than looking good and kicking ass is required.  Still, good acting always elevates a film.  Tom Hardy is surprisingly weak.  His acting is stiff, and in an attempt to pump up the grit, he speaks in a low, croaky voice.  Unfortunately, this makes him sound a lot like Forrest Bondurant in "Lawless."  Fortunately, he doesn't have a lot of lines.  Charlize Theron is a total badass and can fight like no other.  And Keays-Byrne is imposing enough for the film to work, but won't go down in history as one of cinema's great villains.  Nicholas Hoult is very good as Nux, a warrior who wants to be martyred but then finds his way back to the light.

There's really not a lot more that I can say about this movie.  It's essentially critic-proof, since it's appeal is purely physical.  It works, but I just wish that there was more from a story-perspective.  And shaving off a few minutes wouldn't have hurt either.

Four Lions

1.5/4

Starring: Riz Ahmed, Nigel Lindsay, Arsher Ali, Kayvan Novak, Adeel Akhtar

Rated R for Language Throughout, including Some Sexual References

When renowned comics author Frank Miller created a comic about defeating Osama bin Laden (this was prior to bin Laden's death), it courted controversy.  In reply, Miller said, "Superman punched out Hitler.  So did Captain America.  That's one of the things they're there for...These are our folk heroes.  It just seems silly to chase around the Riddler when you've got al Qaeda out there."

I think Chris Morris, the co-writer/director of "Four Lions," would agree with that.  He's using comedy to deal with terrorism.  The problem is that it's just not very funny, and more often than not, deadly boring.

The terrorists are Omar (Ahmed), the ringleader, Barry (Lindsay), the convert, Waj (Novak), the moron, and Faisal (Akhtar), the weirdo.  They're later joined by Hassan (Ali), who may be an undercover cop.  They want to become martyrs, but they can't decide what to blow up.  But there is a far greater concern for them: they don't have a single brain-cell between them.

The concept of "Four Lions," following a group of would-be terrorists who are the poster children of ineptitude, is edgy enough to work.  It all comes down to the execution, and Morris botches it.  For the most part it is just a series of comic sketches that go on for far too long.  "Borat" worked because it moved on after delivering the punchline.  That's not the case here, with some comic scenes going on for minutes.  It's not as bad as Seth Rogen repeating himself for thirty seconds straight, but there are times when it comes close.

I think that the fault has to lie with Morris and his script, because the actors do well with what they have.  Riz Ahmed, a young British actor who is working his way up the ladder (he was Jake Gyllenhaal's assistant in last year's underrated "Nightcrawler"), does the best that he can playing the smartest member of the group (considering the utter lack of intelligence by his comrades, that's not saying much).  Nigel Lindsay is solid as the convert with anger issues and an inability to see the obvious flaw with his idea to blow up a mosque.  Kayvan Novak plays the funniest character, but that's because he's playing someone who is so stupid that at one point, he doesn't know if he's confused.  Arsher Ali and Addel Akhtar round out the cast.

The film is glacially paced.  It moves sooooooo slowly.  That is death for a comedy, where pacing and timing are absolutely essential.  There are definitely some amusing moments, such as bickering between the group, or an attempt to take out a drone with a rocket launcher goes fatally wrong.  But those are a few moments amid a lot of material that simply doesn't work.  And the fact that the movie is filmed on really cheap video does not help matters.

Then there's the curious decision of how to present the characters.  Usually, the characters (even those who aren't a part of the main crew) are so moronic that we laugh at them.  And yet, there are times, like in the scenes where Omar is shown to be a loving husband and father, where he portrays them sympathetically.  It's a little disturbing.

This is one of those movies that is as much of a disappointment as it is a bad movie because it could have been so great.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2

2.5/4

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Stanfield, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins

Rated PG-13 for Innuendo and Language

The problem with sequels, especially in the comedy genre, is that movies play all their cards by the time the end credits roll.  These days, movies exist with pre-planned franchises which is meant to eliminate the problem, but "Pitch Perfect" was a sleeper hit.  It made a huge profit, so a sequel was inevitable.  Unfortunately, the sequel feels more obligatory than anything, and lacks the irreverence and energy that made the first one so much fun.

After winning Nationals, the Barden Bellas are touring the country.  During their performance at Lincoln Center (in front of President Barack Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama), Fat Amy (Wilson) suffers from a wardrobe malfunction of the worst kind.  Now banned from competing or recruiting new members, their only hope is to win the World Championship, where they face stiff competition from Das Sound Machine, the German team.

In addition to lacking teeth, the film is poorly focused.  The first film had one character, Beca (Kendrick) at its center.  While other characters were definitely present, she was the film's anchor.  This time around, there are three central characters: Beca, Fat Amy, and the "legacy," Emily (Stanfield).  Having three central characters while developing them all enough to where they are still interesting requires a defter touch than Elizabeth Banks, making her feature-length directorial debut, possesses.  Their stories feel like filler, and the fact that Fat Amy's and Emily's storylines are romantic in nature doesn't help the situation.

The cast looks tired.  Anna Kendrick is as appealing as ever, but the script doesn't give her much to work with.  In the first film, Beca blocked everything out because she was dead-set on not liking college so her dad could pay for her to become a DJ in LA.  Here, she's keeping her internship with a music producer (Keegan-Michael Key) secret from the Bellas, especially the always neurotic Chloe (Snow).  Rebel Wilson, who walked away with the entire movie, seems strangely muzzled.  She doesn't really do anything that funny.  And Hailee Stanfield is cute, but doesn't stand out very much.  Of the cast, the only one who bears a mention is Birgitte Hjort Sorenson, who plays the leader of DSM.  The German team isn't very intimidating as a whole, but she is.

The film as a whole feels uninspired.  There's no edge or spontaneity.  Whatever happened to someone upchucking half their body weight onto the stage?  Or what about Fat Amy suddenly belting out a solo and acting totally against the choreography?

It's not that "Pitch Perfect 2" isn't amusing.  It's consistently funny, but the jokes are far too spaced out, and even when they work, they're retreads of the stuff in the first film.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Hot Pursuit

1.5/4

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Matthew Del Negro, Michael Mosley, Robert Kazinsky, John Carroll Lynch, Benny Nieves, Michael Ray Escamilla, Joaqquin Cosio

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content, Violence, Language and Some Drug Material

"Hot Pursuit" has got to be the dimmest "comedy" to come along in quite some time.  With its tired plot and jokes straight out of a sitcom, all it needs is a laugh track.  The two leads try so hard to make us laugh that I'm surprised no one was injured.  "Please laugh!" I could hear it say.  "Please!"

And yet, it doesn't want to have any sort of edge.  Director Anne Fletcher, whose resume defines the term "playing it safe" (she directed "The Proposal" and "The Guilt Trip."  Plus one of Katherine Heigl's way too numerous romantic comedies) refuses to allow the film to do anything unusual or surprising.  It's as if she is so afraid of offending the impossibly tightly wound or disappointing those who are expecting something they've seen a zillion times before.  Needless to say, this is not how to do a comedy.

The finance whiz of a drug kingpin has finally agreed to spill his guts to the court of law.  Felipe Riva (Vincent Laresca) and his wife Daniella (Vergara) being escorted by Detective Jackson (Richard T. Jones) to Dallas to testify.  Protocol demands that a female cop escort Daneilla, so Captain Emmett (Lynch) selects Cooper (Witherspoon), a no-nonsense cop who has been in the doghouse after an incident involving a taser (a cutaway gag that sounds a lot funnier on paper than it does on screen).  However, two pairs of assassins off Felipe and Jackson, leaving Cooper and Daniella to go on the run.  As is painfully obvious to anyone familiar with the genre, the high-maintenance trophy wife and by-the-book cop do not get along.  Failed comic hijinks ensue.

In a movie like this, the plot is just a clothesline from which to hang the jokes and comic setpieces from.  That's okay, since a road comedy isn't known for complex narrative and character depth.  The problem is, the jokes aren't funny.  There's about 10 minutes worth of amusing material, and it's not even that strong.  The rest of the film is either a, boring, or b, annoying.

Neither Reese Witherspoon nor Sofia Vergara are at their best here.  Reese Witherspoon, whose charisma matches her considerable talents, is sleepwalking through her role, and it shows.  Given the right material, such as in the little seen "Freeway" or "This Means War," she can be very funny.  But she's just coasting by on her charisma here, and her lack of effort shows.  Sofia Vergara fares even worse.  Although there are times when she shows talent and gets a laugh, more often than not Daniella is just irritating.  She's a whiny, prissy little bitch.   No one else bears a mention except for British soap star Robert Kazinsky, playing a hunky redneck who helps them (and inevitably falls for the romance deprived Cooper).  He's quite good, and he and Witherspoon have a nice chemistry.  Unfortunately, he's only onscreen for 3 scenes.  Side note: why is it that most of the best actors, Robert Pattinson excepting, come from the UK?  Surely there is plenty of great talent here, so why do Julliard graduates keep getting left by the wayside while photogenic but talent deprived models become movie stars?  Not to be xenophobic, but still.

Anne Fletcher's approach is to be as vanilla as possible.  She broadens the jokes to the point where they're DOA, doesn't attempt to raise the adrenaline with the action scenes, and most egregiously, doesn't understand the concept of comic timing.  Some of the jokes would have been funnier with firmer handling.  And as is par for the course these days, there are scenes where the characters never shut up in an attempt to be funny.

While it's not as painful to watch as "Identity Thief," it's bad enough to warrant a comparison.  I think that says enough.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Pyramid

2/4

Starring: Ashley Hinshaw, Denis O'Hare, James Buckley, Christa Nicola, Amir K

Rated R for Some Horror Violence and Bloody Images

I meant to see this movie when it came out last year.  I really did.  But it came and went so fast that I never got a chance (not a good sign of quality...).  It's about Ancient Egypt, if only tangentially, and it's a horror movie that's not a remake or a sequel (and it has an R-rating to boot).  Sadly, while the it's certainly watchable, it's by no means as terrifying as it could be.

A pyramid has just been discovered buried beneath the sands of Egypt.  Sent to dig it up and study it are the father-daughter team of Miles (O'Hare) and Nora (Hinshaw) Holden.  Also with them is a news crew led by a reporter named Sunni (Nicola) and her cameraman Fitzie (Buckley).  Because of the increasingly violent protests in Cairo, the government has shut down the excavation.  But this is the chance of a lifetime, and Nora isn't about to let it slip through her fingers.  Soon, however, they become trapped, and just when things couldn't get any worse, they do.

"The Pyramid" is a hybrid of the "found footage" genre and a traditional horror movie.  While most of the film is shot with cameras held by the actors, there are some establishing shots and traditional camerawork.  Whether this was intentional or Gregory Levasseur, longtime collaborator of Alexandre Aja, was so excited that he got the chance to make a movie that he forgot what kind of movie he was making, I'm not sure.  Surprisingly, it works.

If only the same could be said about the writing and especially the acting.  The film blatantly steals from other horror movies, mainly "The Descent" (although last year's "As Above So Below" is referenced too).  In fact, the film resembles Neil Marshall's masterpiece in so many ways that the term "rip-off" starts to apply.  And while Levasseur can generate some moments of tension here and there, he's got nothing on Marshall.

The less said about the acting, the better.  The characters aren't very interesting, especially since they're shadows of other characters in better horror movies.  Former Abercrombie & Fitch model Ashley Hinshaw has the lead, and that's a bad thing.  She's cute, but she can't act, and her character, a wimpy, whiny bimbo, is irritating.  Denis O'Hare, a respected character actor (he played Senator John Briggs in "Milk"), does what he can, but he lacks the charisma to pull this kind of role off.  James Buckley and Christa Nicola are also on hand, and like the others, they're boring and occasionally annoying.

And yet, I kind of enjoyed myself.  I had some cheap laughs at its expense, some raising of the tension, and one terrific shock.  The story, which sticks closer to Ancient Egyptian mythology than "The Mummy" or its sequel, doesn't always make a lot of sense, however.  Even taking history out of the equation.

Is it worth seeing?  Probably not.  If you can't get enough mummies, you're not going to hate yourself if you watch it.  Otherwise, just watch "The Descent."

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Normal

3/4

Starring: Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Lange, Randall Arney, Clancy Brown, Hayden Panettiere

Not Rated (contains Language including Sexual Dialogue and Brief Violence)

I can't imagine how difficult it would be to be trapped in the body of the wrong sex.  I mean, coming out as gay was hard enough, but telling your spouse of 25 years that you were born as the wrong gender must be horrifying.  "Normal" wisely doesn't pretend that it is, and shows us all of the challenges and pitfalls that this conflict can put on even the sturdiest of marriages.  It would be bad enough in a liberal, big city environment, but "Normal" takes place in a small, blue-collar, God-fearing conservative town.

Roy (Wilkinson) and Irma Applewood (Lange) are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary when Roy suddenly passes out.  While discussing what happened with their pastor, an energetic man named Reverend Dale (Arney), Roy spills his biggest secret: he's a woman trapped in a man's body.  Neither Irma nor Reverend Dale know how to react (although they're at least not insensitive).  Much to her devastation, this is not a phase, and Roy really is a woman at heart.  The ramifications of this on both of their lives form the film's central drama.

"Normal" sets itself apart by not shying away from difficult or complex questions.  Director Jane Anderson, working from a script she wrote based on her play, doesn't reduce such an explosive situation to quick soundbites or soap opera-ish clichés.  The film explores how Roy navigates his environment once word gets out about his secret.  But what Anderson really concentrates on is how this revelation impacts Roy's relationship with Irma.  Gender roles, religion, not to mention sex, are all addressed in Anderson's script.  Sadly, Anderson doesn't have a good ear for dialogue.  The film may be full of ideas about its subject and asks questions even we as the audience didn't think to ask, but the dialogue is bland, and that limits our emotional connection to the characters.

Fortunately, Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Lange were chosen to star in the film.  Both are excellent actors and neither is sleepwalking through their performance.  I could see that, with the bland script and uneven direction, the film wouldn't work with lesser actors in the roles.  Randall Arney is terrific as the enthusiastic folksy preacher, although there is one scene where he's a little overbearing.  Clancy Brown, another one of those "that guy" actors, is rather flat as Roy's boss and friend, Frank, who is there for both Roy and Irma.  And Hayden Panettiere is on hand as Roy and Irma's daughter, but she has little to do.

This isn't a good movie, but it does what it sets out to do.  "Boys Don't Cry" is a better transgender-themed movie, although the two films have vastly different goals.  Still, I think this one is worth seeing if you're interested.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Unfriended

3/4

Starring: Shelly Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney Halverson, Will Peltz

Rated R for Violent Content, Pervasive Language, Some Sexuality and Drug and Alcohol Use

"Unfriended" may be the most innovative movie since "Memento."  Make that the most innovative movie since "Memento" that actually works, since there are dozens of failed experiments like "November" from the past 15 years.  The film takes place almost entirely on the computer screen of its lead character; we see what she sees, and that adds another level of tension to the film.  The plot, about a group of friends whose sins of the past come back to visit them (literally) isn't the pinnacle of originality, but that's okay.  Horror movies generally aren't known for deep and complex plots.  The genius is in the construction.

Blair (Hennig) is chatting with her boyfriend Mitch (Storm) via Skype (a cynical person might say that this is essentially one long product placement for the video calling company, but I don't think so, and even if it is, it's worth it because it's not highlighted and is necessary to the plot).  Just as things are starting to heat up, they're suddenly joined by their friends Jess (Olstead), Adam (Peltz) and Ken (Wysocki). Their friend Val (Halverson) joins them later.  It's a typical night for them, but they notice that there is a mysterious visitor in their chat that won't go away. They think its a glitch and eventually ignore it.  But when they start getting messages from Laura Barns, a classmate who committed suicide exactly one year ago, they start getting creeped out.

For "Unfriended," presentation is everything.  The entire film takes place in chat windows and video calls.  I was intrigued, but thought it was probably going to be a gimmick.  I was wrong.  Not only does it follow through on its promise of never (save for one minor exception) leaving the computer screen, director Leo Gabriadze finds ways to make this serve the story, rather than the other way around.  For example, the group chat is muted and placed in the background when Blair enters a private chat.  And computer lag hasn't been this tense outside of waiting to see if a tax return went through or not.

Like many faux-documentaries, "Unfriended" uses anonymous actors rather than big stars to enhance the verisimilitude (there are even Facebook ads, although one image of another Facebook friend is used under two different names).  All are effective and give realistic portrayals; it's easy to believe that they are high school students (this isn't a case of "The Blair Witch Project; all have pretty extensive resumes on TV and indie films).  However, they're not very charismatic, which makes it difficult to really form a bond with them.  Whether it's that the over-exposure of the style (which has been going on since "The Blair Witch Project" came out in 1999) has caused the effect to wear off, the writing, or the acting, the result is a horror film that keeps the audience at an arm's distance.  The only actor who has the charisma is Will Peltz, who plays Adam the future frat boy.  He's pretty good.

"Unfriended" is certainly not devoid of tension, but its pleasures mainly come from seeing how the film is going to use social media as a filmmaking tool.  Storywise, it's not airtight, and there's a scene that is amusing when I'm pretty sure it was never intended to be viewed as such.  But it's still definitely worth checking out.

Me, Myself and Irene

2/4

Starring: Jim Carrey, Renee Zellwegger, Anthony Anderson, Mongo Brownlee, Jerod Mixon, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins

Rated R for Sexual Content, Crude Humor, Strong Language and Some Violence

Like the recent "Little Boy," the Farrelly Brothers follow-up to their sleeper hit "There's Something About Mary" is essentially two movies in one.  The first is a rather sweet, if offbeat, romantic comedy.  The second is a seriously confused road movie/crime story.  There are some things to like about this movie, including some truly hilarious sequences.  The problem is the stuff between them.

Charlie Baileygates (Carrey) is the world's nicest guy.  Despite the fact that his wife ran off with the limo driver (and leaving him with three illegitimate children, whom he dotes upon), Charlie the Rhode Island State Trooper is never without a smile.  He's also the world's biggest doormat; not even a little girl jumping rope on the street takes him seriously.  But there's something buried deep within him that is threatening to take over.  His name is Hank, and he's Charlie's total opposite; whereas Charlie is gentle and ineffectual, Hank is rude, boorish and a total menace to society.  As if things weren't complicated enough for our hero, he has to accompany a pretty criminal named Irene (Zellwegger) to upstate New York to face charges.  The problem is that there are a lot of people who, as Charlie puts it, "would like to see her in an unmarked grave."

Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorcese.  Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock.  Jim Carrey and the Farrelly Brothers.  Few actor/director pairings are so obvious and so effective.  While Carrey can do light drama and subtle comedy, he's at his best when he's doing the wacky, physical stuff he's famous for.  That makes him well-matched for the Farrellys, who do not understand the meaning of the term "subtlety."  Or good taste.  Carrey is on his game here, lending his rubber face and body to some gags that are outrageous enough that they could have only come from the Farrellys.  These include a one-man fight (echoes of another great Carrey film, "Liar Liar") and him acting like two people at once.  While it's in the service of some immature humor, it's clear that Carrey is working very hard.

His co-star, Renee Zellwegger, is as adorable as ever.  She is surprisingly at home amid the tomfoolery, and she has great chemistry with Carrey (the two were at one point engaged to be married).  As problematic as the film's crime story is (it makes zero sense), I wanted Charlie and Irene to end up together.

Alas, the film isn't a particularly good movie (even Peter Farrelly expressed his disappointment with it).  The crime subplot is so scattershot that I'm sure a lot of it was left on the cutting room floor (the end credits seem to support this).  And some sequences just aren't as funny as they could be.  Some seem rehearsed to the point where they have lost their spontaneity, while others are too improvised.  There are some great moments here and there, such as a cow that refuses to die (despite Charlie's best attempts) and a cop who has a painful encounter with a chicken.  Much more disappointing is the lack of exploration in the Charlie/Irene/Hank triangle.  I'm not talking about psychological depth (something that will never be found in a Farrelly brothers movie), but it's not taken advantage of.  It feels like a missed opportunity.

"Me, Myself and Irene" is not a terrible movie.  But it could have been great.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

3/4

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johannson, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, and the voices of James Spader and Paul Bettany

Rated PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence, Action and Destruction, and for Some Suggestive Comments

I recently watched "The Avengers" again.  I hated it the first time, but after re-watching it again (thank you, discounts at Best Buy), my views have softened.  And surprisingly, I liked this one even better.  Why is that?  I'm not sure.  Maybe it's because the plot isn't a play-by-play replay of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," and let's face it, no one does action and destruction like Michael Bay.  Maybe it's because this movie isn't all about fan service, and actually recognizes that there are people out there who aren't comic book geeks.  Or maybe it's because the movie doesn't spend the better part of two hours watching the lead characters take pot shots at each other.  Whatever Joss Whedon did differently (he's certainly improved his storytelling abilities), it worked.  "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" isn't a great movie, but I had fun.

Loki's scepter has been stolen, and after retrieving it, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) realize that there is something very powerful inside it.  It's essentially a biological computer with the capacity to grow in intelligence.  In other words, it's an A.I.  Without telling the others because of a fear of their newly defeated enemy coming back, they upload it into Ultron, a machine that Tony has created in the hopes that it will do their job for them.  Of course, as we all know, this sort of thing never turns out well.  Ultron (Spader) quickly begins to think that humanity only has the capacity for violence and destruction, and decides to wipe out humanity and start over.  Now the Avengers have to stop him.

The same old crew is back, and that's good.  The actors are more comfortable with each other (periodically doing movies together while playing the same characters will allow you to get to know them pretty well on and off set, I imagine), and that camaraderie translates on screen in a way that it didn't in the original.  New to the franchise are James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen.  Spader is interesting, but his character is awkwardly written.  One minute he's making menacing speeches but the next he's tossing off colorful one-liners.  Huh?  Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen don't really get much of a chance to act (which they can), but that comes with the territory in a movie like this.

I'm not the world's biggest fan of Joss Whedon.  He receives a lot of love from fanboys and fangirls, but that's probably because he is one himself.  His movies are all in-jokes and easter eggs and references to comic books.  That's fine, and even preferable (Quentin Tarantino, anyone?).  But that stuff is just details.  You gotta have a solid foundation first, and that's where he usually fails.  He's not a very good writer or a good storyteller.  But he's made some improvements.  Hopefully, he'll keep up this momentum for "The Avengers 3" and beyond (will this superhero obsession ever end?).

I just wish I could have understood more of the dialogue.

Little Boy

2.5/4

Starring: Jakob Salvati, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Tom Wilkinson, David Henrie, Emily Watson, Kevin James. Michael Rapaport

Rated PG for Some Thematic Material and Violence

"Little Boy" is really two movies in one.  The first, which deals with a young boy's attempts to bring his father home from World War II, is uneven to the extreme.  The second, about said boy's growing relationship with a Japanese ex-pat, is much more affecting.  The limitations of the first, which is the main storyline, are problematic enough to the point where I hesitate watching it (at least in theaters), but there is definitely compelling stuff to be found here.

Pepper (Salvati), or "Little Boy," as he is crudely called due to his short stature (boy could I relate...) is a young kid living in a coastal California town.  His best friend is his father (Rapaport), so when he has to go off to war in the place of Pepper's older brother London (Henrie) on behalf of the latter's flat feet, he's naturally devastated.  After his hero, the magician/Indiana Jones-ish Ben Eagle (Ben Chaplin) performs a trick that convinces the little kid he can do magic himself, he decides to bring his father home.  Naturally, that doesn't work, but after a sermon about the power of faith, he realizes that he doesn't have enough faith to do it.  So a helpful priest named Father Oliver (Wilkinson) gives him tasks he needs to do in order to bring his father home.  This includes making friends with an old man named Hashimoto (Tagawa), whose house he attempted to vandalize with London and was the victim of his racist insults.

Alejandro Monteverde is trying to make a light fable that deals with weighty material.  This is difficult, but not impossible, to accomplish (I kept thinking of the movie "Saint Ralph," although this is meant for a younger audience and the movies are more different than they are alike).  There are scenes when the film hits the right note, but overall it requires a defter touch than Monteverde possesses.

One thing that doesn't work is Pepper's belief that he can do magic.  The decision to externalize it deals a huge flow to the film's credibility.  Not only is it laughable to watch, it's awkwardly employed.  If Monteverde had simply made the conflict mental, as in if he accomplishes the tasks, his father will come home, the film would have probably gotten a solid recommendation from me.

Much more successful is the film's handling of racism against the Japanese.  The writing and the direction are much sharper; when someone, Pepper included, dishes out an insult to Hashimoto, it's brutal.  Physically, the film isn't very violent (save for a few war scenes that are arguably too intense for a movie like this), but it doesn't have to be.  The acting and direction are more than enough to get the point across.

The acting is also uneven.  When he's low-key, young Jakob Salvati is credible.  But when he has to display range, he stops being convincing.  While the ever-reliable Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa's delivery of dialogue may be a little too on the understated side, his body language speaks volumes, earning a surprising amount of sympathy all on its own.  It's always nice to see Tom Wilkinson on screen, and unlike in "Selma," he's well-cast here.  Former Disney kid David Henrie, on the other hand, is awful.  London is a racist, drunken jerk; it would have worked had Henrie been able to bring depth to the portrayal, but he's not.  Kevin James shows up for a dramatic portrayal, but it's unsuccessful; I kept expecting him to do something funny.  Emily Watson and Michael Rapaport appear in small roles (Watson's case is pretty sad, considering her considerable talent).

"Little Boy" is not a bad film.  Kids may enjoy it, although the action scenes may be too intense for the very young.  Better wait for DVD where you can preview it first.  Anyway, this is a movie that will play better in a home setting.