Friday, July 31, 2015

Family Fun: "Vacation" cheerfully crosses lines and delivers filthy, R-rated laughs

Vacation (2015)
99 min., rated R.

Last time we saw the Griswold clan, Chevy Chase's Clark and Beverly D'Angelo's Ellen took the kids, Rusty and Audrey (both recast for the fourth time, from Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron, to Jason Lively and Dana Hill, to Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis, to Ethan Embry and Marisol Nichols), on yet another family vacation to Las Vegas of all places in 1997's, you betcha, "Vegas Vacation." Now, eighteen years later, Rusty (Ed Helms) is now a husband and father, and the apple doesn't fall far from the tree; like dear old Sparky, Rusty just wants to have a fun Griswold family vacation in "Vacation," more of a sequel to 1983's "National Lampoon's Vacation" than a remake. Before one gets all up in arms about recharging the series, debuting co-writers and directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (the scribes of 2011's "Horrible Bosses" and 2013's "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone") have taken it upon themselves to evoke sentimental value and still make their comedy its own entity. 

All grown up but still bumbling, Rusty Griswold keeps on smiling, even as his job as a Chicago pilot at the lower-rung Econo-Air leaves more to be desired. It's coming up to his annual family vacation in the same cabin in Cheboygan, Michigan, but wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) is ready to shake things up, maybe even see Paris. Rusty feels the same way, although his idea of that is taking Debbie and their two sons—the timid, awkward James (Skyler Gisondo) and the expletive-dropping, nastily mischievous Kevin (Steele Stebbins), who relentlessly bullies his big brother—to Walley World like his own dad did three decades ago. Rusty rents a Tartan Prancer hybrid minivan—"the Honda of Albania"—and packs up the family, and off they go. Along their way, though, the family makes plenty of stops and nothing will ever go as planned, like an enactment of Murphy's Law, or else this would be a pretty boring family adventure.

Nostalgically set to Lindsey Buckingham's single "Holiday Road," the film's opening credits reveal a montage of regular folks' family vacation photos, each of which have something off-kilter about them, and take audiences back to the first time they heard it in the Harold Ramis-directed, John Hughes-written original. From there, 2015's "Vacation" stays true to that comedy cornerstone's wacky spirit, while recognizing that haters are going to hate. Writer-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein acknowledge the elephant in the room with a knowing wink"We're not re-doing anything," Rusty assures his family. When the eldest son says he hasn't even heard of "the original vacation," Dad puts the kibosh on the conversation with, "Doesn't matter. The new vacation will stand on its own"and then move on. Like the original film in its dark treatment of Imogene Coca's pain-in-the-rump Aunt Edna and her dog Dinky, this sequel-cum-reboot has a vicious streak but still keeps everything farcical. Constantly, the film seems to just narrowly avoid mean-spiritedness and desperation. For examples of the former, a callback to Christie Brinkley in a flashy convertible catching the eye of Clark gets nastily subverted, and youngest son Kevin ruins James' on-the-road eye-lock with Adena (Catherine Missal) in a passing car with a sneak attack involving a plastic bag. As far as desperation goes, the family's misadventure in an off-the-map "hot springs" site indulges the most in gross-out humor, but somehow, the cast makes it amusingly gross rather than just gross. For more of the cringe-worthy, "did they really just go there?" variety, Rusty fails at being his eldest son's wingman and then explaining a "rim job" to him, just like Clark's many "teachable" moments in the previous films.

On the relatively cleaner side, there's a sly slapstick moment with a rock and a fire hydrant inside of a tumbleweed in the Arizona desert, and Seal's "Kiss from the Rose" also has its place in the story, as Rusty tries getting the carload to sing along on the long road. The Griswolds' Albanian minivan rental is a big source of comedy, getting the family into even more of a mess than the original's Wagon Queen Family Truckster station wagon with its various remote-control buttons; even the running use of their GPS's angry Korean voice gets a laugh every time. A bit at the Four Corners Monument is original and clever in concept, but after four comedians cameo, the joke mostly falls flat. More inspired is a white water rapids sequence with the Griswolds' chipper rafting guide (Charlie Day), who grows suicidal after a break-up phone call. Finally, a nasty brawl in the front of the line for Walley World's "Velociraptor" roller coaster, set to Sleigh Bells' "Crown on the Ground," earns the belliest of belly laughs.

Ed Helms is earnest and cluelessly good-natured as Rusty Griswold, striking just the right balance of naiveté and oafish likability like Chevy Chase did thirty-two years ago as the hapless patriarch who isn't always in the right but just wants to spend quality time with his family. The vastly underrated Christina Applegate is pleasingly cast as Debbie Griswold, getting to let loose and be a terrific foil for Helms. Instead of the actress being stuck making Debbie the long-suffering wife, a stick in the mud, or just the voice of reason, Debbie genuinely loves her husband and wants to save their marriage. In her big moment when the family makes a stop at Debbie's alma mater and sorority, where she was known as "Debbie Do Anything," Applegate fearlessly throws herself into the physical comedy—and gets to blow some chunks when trying to live up to her legendary nickname. She is able to make the smallest of looks funny when just riding shotgun and shooting off a throwaway line, like "I feel like your Cousin Eddie's family," after being covered in human feces after taking a dip in raw sewage (don't ask). Filling out the parts of the Griswolds' sons James and Kevin, Skyler Gisondo (2014's "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) is endearing and expressive, while Steele Stebbins (2014's "A Haunted House 2"), whose Kevin could be a future psychopath until James realizes their size difference and turns the tables on his bullying little brother, is clearly up to the task to play an uninhibited terror. Pit stops include the brief returns of Audrey Griswold, now played by an underused Leslie Mann, in Texas, as well as Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo. As Clark and Ellen, now the owners of a San Francisco bed-and-breakfast, Chase (who still bumbles well when reaching for an old guitar out of a glass case) and particularly D'Angelo don't get a lot to do, either, but it's nice to see them. Besides, this is really Rusty's family vacation. A valiant Chris Hemsworth mixes it up and hijacks every scene he's in with complete gusto as Audrey's hunky husband Stone Crandall, a smarmy, cattle-raising (and well-endowed) TV weatherman who references faucets any chance he gets. Also, standout Regina Hall has one very funny scene as a neighbor having dinner with the Griswolds and annoyed that Debbie never clicks "like" on her vacation photos on Instagram.

Under the mandate that all R-rated comedies of the 21st century must be filthy and lewd, "Vacation" earns its MPAA rating through and through. It's frequently outrageous in ways that are not only broad and situational but also blue, raunchy, and just rollickingly funny. With that said, comedy is and will always be relative, so if watching Rusty and Debbie attempt to rub a graffitied penis off their van without knowing how suggestive it looks sounds too crass for you, then staying home might be the better option. Crude humor can definitely work with game performers and directors who have a knack for proper comic timing and payoffs to their setups, and luckily, this laffer has both. An anarchic, over-the-top, anything-goes romp that cheerfully crosses the line and should be judged on the high number of hearty laughs it delivers, "Vacation" accomplishes what it sets out to do as a hijinks-heavy road comedy and stands upright as the even-less-PC sibling to the early-'80s mainstay. Uptight snobs who hate to laugh will be miserable, but it's their loss.

Grade:

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Oh, No, He Didn't: "Tangerine" more than a bold iPhone-shot experiment

Tangerine (2015)
88 min., rated R.

Here's a new one. Writer-director Sean Baker's bold, brashly funny, also tender "Tangerine" just might be the first micro-budgeted indie to be shot on an iPhone 5s smartphone, let alone three, and follow around two transgender prostitutes in Hollywood, California. It's Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, where the broke Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) shares a donut with best friend and fellow working girl Alexandra (Mya Taylor) at round-the-clock spot Donut Time. Just out of prison twenty-four hours ago for twenty-eight days, the volatile Sin-Dee is ready to hustle the block when Alexandra lets it slip that Sin-Dee's trick-cum-boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been screwing around with a white cisgenderor, a "white fish"whose name starts with a 'D.' Getting wind of this, Sin-Dee gets fired up and goes on a rampage, hitting every corner and food line to pester people for Chester's whereabouts. Not wanting to be any part of drama, the more rational Alexandra tries going on with her day, while handing out flyers for her one-woman performance at Hamburger Mary's in West Hollywood. What could possibly go down?

Mounted with driving energy and brassy attitude, "Tangerine" is a thrilling reminder of what one can do with little means by creating a locational specificity and characters who feel alive. 1999's "GO," another unconventional Christmas-in-L.A. comedy, is never far from mind, but it's in the creation of the two leads that gives the film its individual vibrancy, texture and identity. Writer-director Sean Baker (2012's "Starlet") and co-writer Chris Bergoch are anything but judgmental toward these characters, as we get to walk more than a mile in Sin-Dee and Alexandra's heels. If anything, they are affectionate to them but still allow them to be them. They can be rude, catty and even shrill. Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, whom Baker and Bergoch met at a Los Angeles LGBT Center in 2013 and had no major acting experience, are magnetic, uninhibited forces to be reckoned with. They are fierce and energetic and not without biting gusto; without desperately trying to win us over all the time, they win us over even more. The trans community are people too, but this film never coddles them, either. To leaven the pugnacious energy of Sin-Dee, "Tangerine" supplements its free-form narrative with the intertwining of another key character. Razmik (Karren Karagulian) is an Armenian cab driver. He works during the day, but also finds time to pay for a favor from Alexandra, one of his favorites aside from Sin-Dee. When he goes home for Christmas Eve dinner with his wife (Luiza Nersisyan) and young daughter, and becomes irritated with his meddling mother-in-law (Alla Tumanian), Razmik lies about having to go back to work, only to get between Sin-Dee and Chester's trouble-in-paradise scene back at Donut Time.

"Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie," curses Razmik's mother-in-law when she suspects he is off duty and doing something else. Shot on by Baker and Radium Cheung with steadicams and anamorphic lenses, the film looks far better than one could imagine that any thought of the process never becomes distracting. Through the sun-splashed cinematography, it has a vivid, immediate look that one almost can't disagree with the mother-in-law. The film is also given an exhilarating pulse by an electronic music score when it's not being tempered by the sounds of Beethoven or Alexandra's soft, quiet rendition of "Toyland." Underneath the sexual favors in car washes and abusive, "Jerry Springer Show"-ish hair-pulling, there is actually a warm, aching empathy. Every character brings a sort of sadness and vulnerability, including Chester's new concubine Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan) whom Sin-Dee drags all over the city from a motel bordello. After a loud, brash whirlwind of trash-talking in a seamier side of L.A., the film finally takes a breath and ends on a lovely, subtle note that could make "Tangerine" more of a heartwarming Christmas staple than any made-for-the-Hallmark-Channel fare with synthetic snow. Merry Christmas, bitch!

Grade: B +

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Gone Girl: "Paper Towns" wise, sensitive and bittersweet

Paper Towns (2015)
109 min., rated PG-13.

The second screen adaptation of a young adult novel by John Green, "Paper Towns" probably won't earn as much fanfare as 2014's "The Fault in Our Stars," considering this story's teens are less doomed by their mortality than they are by what lies ahead in their future after high school prom and graduation. Director Jake Schreier (2012's "Robot & Frank") and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who co-wrote the scripts for "The Spectacular Now" and "The Fault in Our Stars") have obviously been through high school and understand that very specific time in a young person's life when he or she is about to transition into adulthood. The film encourages risk-taking and breaks down the notion of a girl with whom the male protagonist is infatuated with disillusionment, while showcasing a bright ensemble of young actors. Wearing a true heart on its sleeve and in tune with how it feels to come of age, "Paper Towns" is sensitive, engaging and emotionally satisfying, notwithstanding a destination that can't help but be a letdown. Even so, isn't how we get there more important?

18-year-old Quentin "Q" Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) knew he was madly in love when Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) moved in across the street in suburban Orlando, Florida. They were friends, but that was then and this is now during their senior year at Jefferson Park High School. He has become such a straight arrow, hitting the books and staying out of trouble even when palling around with best friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), while she has become a popular girl with a rebellious, adventurous side. One night after nine years of not talking, Margo sneaks into Quentin's bedroom window, like she used to when they were kids. She explains to him that her boyfriend has been cheating on her with one of her best friends. Her revenge plan requires a getaway driver, so she convinces Quentin to take out his mom's minivan and be her partner-in-crime for an adventure of settling the score with those who have done her wrong. Quentin never feels more alive, but after their one night together, Margo disappears. Quentin knows Margo always liked a good mystery, to the point that he feels she has left him clues to find her. Being spontaneous for once and setting out on a road trip to Upstate New York, he continues his scavenger hunt, while fortifying the bond between his pals. No matter the outcome, the trip won't be for nothing.

No matter how many familiar earmarks it hits, "Paper Towns" dares to be a little unusual in its journey, setting itself enough apart from the pack of teen movies. It's nothing short of refreshing to find a teen-focused film, with teen characters who actually look and act like real teens, that actually listens to them with a well-observed eye. They are smart, thoughtful and hyper-verbal, while still being authentically drawn beyond script constructs, but the ways in which parental involvement is completely nil almost makes them seem like characters out of a Peanuts cartoon. With that said, the lack of parental consequences becomes a bit of an oversight. Mrs. Jacobsen (Cara Buono), Quentin's mother, exists to drop him off at school in the mornings and then nonchalantly allows him to take her minivan on a 1,200-mile road trip. One running quirk that works involves Radar being embarrassed to bring girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) over to his house due to his parents building the world's biggest collection of black Santa Clauses to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Promoted to lead after supporting roles in 2013's "Stuck in Love," 2013's "Palo Alto," and 2014's "The Fault in Our Stars," Nat Wolff is terrific as Quentin. Totally free of artifice or self-satisfaction, the charismatic 20-year-old actor is tasked with a challenge to be a nice guy but never a bland one. Without him, Quentin would not be so instantly sympathetic or appealing. Cool, mysterious, and multifaceted, Margo Roth Spiegelman could be seen as a selfish creation, although is she really asking to be found or even understood? The character is more of an interesting, self-aware enigma and intentionally more of the other characters' idea of a character. No one can imagine anyone else playing Margo than the alluring but relatable-looking Cara Delevingne, a Victoria's Secret model-turned-actress who brings a tough disposition and a free-spirited playfulness. Her early scenes with Wolff on their final night out have a dreamy sort of magic to them, and even in Margo's absence, Delevingne still makes a lasting impression. Austin Abrams, as the all-talk Ben, and newcomer Justice Smith, as the cautious Radar, are both endearing naturals who go well beyond comic-relief and sounding-board status and form a sweet and authentic camaraderie with Wolff's Quentin (the trio's rendition of the "Pokémon" theme song and a shout-out to Disney family picture "Snow Dogs" are both amusing supplements to their friendship). Also, Halston Sage (2014's "Neighbors") is warm and radiant as Lacey, Margo's best friend who's tired of being misjudged, and Jaz Sinclair is just as lovely and down-to-earth as Angela, Radar's girlfriend who's much, much less high-maintenance than Radar makes her out to be.

Throughout, the tone of "Paper Towns" pretty deftly blends road-trip comedy and affecting teen drama without overstepping into farce or killing anyone off with a fatal disease. Well-placed indie musical choices, like Twin Shadow's "To the Top" and Haim's "Falling," also couldn't be more perfect. Before anyone goes missing, the film efficiently develops the collapse of Quentin and Margo's friendship and hits on a key point in their childhood adventuresthey find a man dead in a parkthat adds an early pall of melancholy. The titular term, "paper towns," is also hinted at by Margo when she ends her late night with Quentin at the office window of downtown Orlando's Sun Trust building, overlooking the town. (It's later made clear that paper towns are fictitious places listed on maps to prevent plagiarism and copyright infringement.) The reasons and details pertaining to Margo's disappearance and reappearance are frustrating when they aren't fully revealed, but once one realizes this is really Quentin's story, the use of Margo becomes a way of touching upon the idea that no one can ever truly know someone's reasons for his or her actions. Without coming off artificial or cloying, "Paper Towns" ends on a wise and bittersweet note with the realization that we all go in different directions after high school. Even if the viewer is well out of high school, the low-key poignancy isn't bound to go unfelt. It just might speak to you.

Grade:

Friday, July 24, 2015

Wreck-It Sandler: "Pixels" painless and even fun at times

Pixels (2015)
106 min., rated PG-13.

If any movie this summer were bound to receive an advance critical drubbing, even sight unseen, it would be "Pixels." A patently silly, affectionately conceived concoction, the film banks on adults' nostalgia for arcade video games, as if 2012's inventive animated gem "Wreck-It Ralph" didn't already exist, and uses it as a springboard for an extraterrestrial-invasion disaster pic smashed together with a blue-humored, family-friendlier Happy Madison Productions comedy. Based on a two-odd-minute short film by Patrick Jean and expanded to feature form by screenwriters Tim Herlihy ("Grown Ups 2") and Timothy Dowling ("This Means War"), "Pixels" is impossible not to enjoy in clumps as one of those sci-fi/comedy hybrids from the 1980s and '90s. It's indefensible and never as special as a "Ghostbusters" or even as entertaining as an "Independence Day," but neither is it a complete write-off. In the final assessment, it's just impossible to come down too hard on it.

Back in 1982, arcader Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) competed in the Worldwide Video Arcade Championships but finally lost to cocky wunderkind Eddie "The Fireblaster" Plant (Peter Dinklage), when it came to a game of Donkey Kong. He is now an electronics installer for a "Geek Squad"-like company, while his best pal, Will Cooper (Kevin James), is now the publicly mocked President of the United States. At the same time Sam meets a soon-to-be-divorced mother named Violet  Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan)who also happens to be a Lieutenant Colonelan Air Force station in Guam is bombed by aliens from the video game "Galaga." In order to take out the 8-bit video game characters who are bent on dominating the world, Sam, President Cooper, and Lt. Col. Van Patten assemble a team: conspiracy-obsessed childhood gamer Ludlow Lamonsoff (Jod Gad) and mulleted old nemesis Eddie, whom they must get out of prison. Of course, Sam was always meant for something more, like to save the planet from Centipede, Frogger and Pac-Man.

Directed with a retro-'80s enthusiasm by Chris Columbus (who deserves to remain on the map for timeless hits like 1987's "Adventures in Babysitting," 1990's "Home Alone" and 1993's "Mrs. Doubtfire"), "Pixels" can't help but have nostalgia on its side. For one, the soundtrack is a throwback of '80s pop-rock hits that will bounce around in your head, including the likes of Cheap Trick's "Surrender," Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend," and Tears For Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" (which Broadway baby Josh Gad actually performs). The threatening messages the extraterrestrials send to Earth via dubbed-over vintage videos of Madonna and Hall & Oates base their humor more on recognition but still add an off-center creepiness to the thoroughly goofy conflict. Nintendo's "Duck Hunt" dog character pops up for a giggle, and Q*bert also figures into the proceedings as the human characters' sole video-game ally and becomes a cute scene-stealer. Set in a world where Kevin James is actually the Presidentno, not the President of the Video Gamer Club, but POTUS—and aliens in the form of 8-bit video game characters turn the planet into a war zone, "Pixels" must certainly be viewed with the right expectations, and you will have to fall into the right audience demographic. Sporadically fun, the film doesn't aspire to much, nor do the video-game baddies bring much threat, but offers more than enough bursts of pleasure and inspiration within such an amusingly nerdy high-concept premise.

In playing our unlikely world-saving heroes, Adam Sandler and Kevin James are more affable and restrained for a change as the straight men, and that's mainly a good thing. As if it's been her job in every mediocre movie, Michelle Monaghan is almost without fail a pleasant bright spot as military officer Violet who helps carry flirtatious barbs with Sandler and, to make her even more of a badass, gets to kill a Smurf. The sometimes snuggable Josh Gad is gratingly antsy and unamusing as Ludlow, whom we first meet as a paranoid adult in the back of Sam's work van, ready to chloroform him. He barely gets a laugh, whereas the consistently annoying Nick Swardson is blessedly demoted to a cameo with one line; exacerbating Gad's cause is the creepy idea of him ending up with video game warrior Lady Lisa (a mute Ashley Benson) as a trophy. Similarly, the inestimably funny Jane Krakowski is grievously wasted in her "role" of the First Lady, meaning she gets to cling to Kevin James' arm and smear cake on his face in one scene. The MVP of the film, though, has to be Peter Dinklage. He gets to turn it way up, running with the sheer silliness of the premise, in what might be the most infectiously strangest performance of his career as the trash-talking Eddie who's been sitting on a secret since 1982. His running joke involving a Martha Stewart-Serena Williams sandwich in the White House, one of his many demands to order to help Sam and President Cooper, is a total hoot.

For the most part, "Pixels" goes down easily, especially when it gives new and old gamers the opportunity to see all of their favorite video game characters in a live-action film. Though the love and affection for these games is clearly there, the film still never seems to fully tap the premise for all of its potential imagination. A NYC car chase between Sam, Ludlow, Eddie, and Professor Toru Iwatanithe actual designer and creator of "Pac-Man" cameoing as himselfin "ghost" cars (MINI Coopers) and Pac-Man, gobbling everything up in sight, is entertaining to watch and the climax in Donkey Kong's lair is excitingly staged, but the rest of the action set-pieces are less memorable. "Centipede" emulating a jig behind an old woman jazzercising in her living room hits the spot for cheap, dumb amusement, but the laughs could be funnier. There is at least something more enjoyable about Adam Sandler playing an adult nerd who memorizes video-game patterns to beat a real-life Donkey Kong level than a shrill twin or a complete dope. Instead of comparing "Pixels" to any of Sandler's previous vehicles with a backhanded compliment, like "that was more of a kick in the shin than a ball in the groin," it's actually pretty painless.

Grade: C +

Monday, July 20, 2015

No Slut-Shaming: Amy Schumer keeps overlong "Trainwreck" funny and sweet

Trainwreck (2015)
125 min., rated R.

Whoever said women aren't funny is probably kicking himself right now, and he is probably a misogynist. Amy Schumer is a brilliantly funny, unapologetic but endearingly profane stand-up comedienne who's going strong with the creation of Comedy Central's "Inside Amy Schumer" and might become more of a household name with her first big-screen vehicle. With Schumer writing the screenplay herself and Judd Apatow (2012's "This Is 40") directing, "Trainwreck" provides comedy's current "It" girl the opportunity to be brash and R-rated dirty but also sweet and relatable. As a leading lady, she is an inappropriate breath of fresh air. As a romantic comedy, the film still follows the formula, being a little more careful not to offend than Schumer's TV show, and is never as subversive as her boundary-pushing brand of humor, but it's still no shrinking violet and works as a potent showcase for Schumer. 

Schumer plays a version of herself, a Long Island single gal named Amy Townsend who's in control of her life. When she and her sister were younger, their ready-to-divorce father (Colin Quinn) gave them three important words of advice: "Monogamy isn't realistic." Twenty-three years later, Amy lets her anti-monogamy freak flag fly, sleeping with whomever she wants and whenever she wants and kicking them out before they have the chance to sleep over. She also likes to drink a lot and smoke weed here and there. At work, Amy gets an assignment at men's magazine "S'Nuff" to write a story about Manhattan sports doctor Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader). Though she does not follow sports, she gets to liking Aaron, and vice versa, and wastes no time sleeping with him on their first date. Unlike her younger sister, Kim (Brie Larson), who has a husband (Mike Birbiglia), a stepson and a baby on the way, Amy still isn't ready to be in a committed relationship. Is she willing to change to her ways for Aaron?

As directed by Judd Apatow, "Trainwreck" walks that tightrope of being raunchy, sharp-witted and sweet, and allows a killer supporting cast plenty of room to shine and not live in the shadows of its lead. Also, as directed by Apatow, it has a tendency to go on unnecessarily longer in scenes and in sum. He seemingly just lets his actors go, giving them free rein to improvise, but sometimes, it's too much free rein. And, even though he is working from Amy Schumer's script, Apatow also allows his movies to go on longer than a more manageable 100 minutes. When all is said and done, though, none of Apatow's less-polished filmmaking instincts can kill the buzz of Schumer's screen presence and her pert, smart and personal writing. Even if it might not be as radical now, the film makes a refreshing switcheroo, debunking the double standard that a woman can never be the one playing musical sex partners or drink any man under the table. Played by the uninhibited Schumer, the character of Amy Townsend is a fully formed being with warmth and flaws without ever being an obnoxious bull in a china shop; she's able to get away with all of her reckless behavior and often-judgmental comments and yet still remain likable, and even kind of adorable. Whether she's not up to cuddling with Aaron, or making a raunchy homage to Woody Allen's "Manhattan," along with a dig at the Woodman and Soon-Yi, or snarkily yelling, "You're going to cost us the right to vote," at the booty-shaking Knicks City Dancers at a basketball game, or oversharing at her sister's baby shower during a game of Skeletons in the Closet, we still like her. Schumer just might be the total package, like another Kristen Wiig or Melissa McCarthy. She doesn't care what anything thinks of her in terms of selling a joke, but more unexpected is how much of an understated dramatic performer she is, reaching some emotional depth in a handful of tender, delicate soul-searching moments. Lest you think Bill Hader would not be leading man material in a romantic comedy, he is perfectly charming as Aaron and proves he's equally as funny being a straight man as he is being the clown. And, luckily, he and Schumer have a natural chemistry as a couple.

Generosity extends to the supporting cast, a group of scene-stealers. Brie Larson helps create a warm, often quarrelsome, entirely believable sisterly dynamic with Schumer as Amy's younger sister Kim, who has a family and thinks she has it all figured out. Colin Quinn is surprisingly good as Amy and Kim's MS-plagued father Gordon, who now lives in an assisted-living facility and has no problem speaking his mind. Already this year, Jason Statham was a gamely loose comedic revelation in "Spy," but he gets a rival here in WWE star John Cena, who hilariously sells his sex scene as sensitive musclehead Steven, one of Amy's many partners, where his attempts at talking dirty on top of her range from nutritional phrases to would-be Nike slogans and homoerotic compliments. Basketball pro LeBron James has hidden comedic instincts, playing himself in the second-banana role as Aaron's stingy good friend. He might not be a true comic find, but he is certainly game. In other peripheral roles, the one-and-only Tilda Swinton is deliciously biting as Amy's tan, soulless boss Dianna; Vanessa Bayer, as Amy's nervously smiling co-worker Nikki, holds on to her SNL roots a bit but never not gets laughs; and Ezra Miller nails a deeply weird sex scene as magazine intern Donald. 

There is the sneaking suspicion that the marriage of Amy Schumer's brazen, acerbic humor and Judd Apatow's aversion for editing could have compromised for a tighter, snappier final product. This is not to slight Schumer's script, which resounds with honesty and quote-worthy wit, but some of the fat could have been trimmed and included on the deleted scenes feature of the DVD. Though almost all of Apatow's features have a certain let-the-scene-play-out shagginess, "Trainwreck" is the first one to feel more sluggish and overlong the longer it goes on. A few cameos that will mainly amuse sports fansone intervention scene actually has three, including Matthew Broderick, Chris Evert and sportscaster Marv Albertslow down the pacing. Said scene falls flat, and the excision of time spent with Miami Heat player Amar'e Stoudemire's knee injury might have been a wise move. As in so many like-minded romantic comedies, the characters have their falling-out and prolong their eternal embrace. Amy and Aaron have theirs, too, but neither has an ex-flame waiting in the wings to come in between the couple. The film certainly embraces the conventions inherent in the romantic-comedy genre without feeling contrived or labored. Rather, the upbeat, wonderfully crowd-pleasing finale, a declaration of love in which Amy puts herself completely out there at Madison Square Garden and makes irresistible use of Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl," will slap a huge smile on one's face and render any grumblings null and void. Vulgar but not too vulgar and sneakily heartfelt without getting gooey, "Trainwreck" announces itself as a coming-out party for Schumer. With her kind of talent, she has finally cracked the code to an adult, often very funny R-rated romantic comedy for both men and women.

Grade:

Friday, July 17, 2015

Shrinkage is Better: "Ant-Man" smaller, more self-contained and a lot of fun

Ant-Man (2015)
117 min., rated PG-13.

As the last of Phase Two in the so-called "MCU" (Marvel Cinematic Universe), "Ant-Man" is, like 2014's "Guardians of the Galaxy," another off-brand comic-book property and more in the jokey, jaunty spirit of the Phase One offerings before everything became an interconnected machine. Working from a screenplay by Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish (2011's "Attack the Block") and "Anchorman" creator Adam McKay & Paul Rudd, director Peyton Reed (he of "Yes Man," "Down with Love" and "Bring It On") is perhaps not the first choice one would expect to call the shots on a superhero tentpole with all the Joss Whedons and Jon Favreaus existing in the world. In fact, co-writer Edgar Wright (he of the Cornetto trilogy: "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and "The World's End") was attached in the beginning before leaving the project due to creative differences, but the finished product never feels like a noticeably muddled vision. Reasonably smaller, comparably self-contained and far less plot-heavy than Marvel's earlier superhero offering this summer season ("Avengers: Age of Ultron"), it is a pipsqueak but such a lively, likably unpretentious pipsqueak.

Released from his three-year stint in San Quentin State Prison for pulling off a grand heist, non-violent cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) searches for gainful employment in order to afford child support for daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), who's living with Scott's ex-wife (Judy Greer) and cop beau (Bobby Cannavale). After working the counter at Baskin-Robbins doesn't even pay off due to his criminal record, Scott initially resists a job offered to him by former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña), insisting that he needs to stay straight. Meanwhile, physicist and technology company founder Dr. Hank Pym's (Michael Douglas) research and shrinking technology is being taken too far by protégé-turned-CEO Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who has cracked Hank's formula to replicate a rare group of subatomic particles. Hank's headstrong (and seemingly estranged) daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), is employed by Cross but clandestinely in cahoots with her father to stop the egomaniac. Coincidentally, after Scott takes on the score, the mansion that he breaks into happens to belong to Hank, whose safe doesn't contain a fortune but a suit that allows its wearer the ability to shrink to the size of an insect and grow to regular size on a dime. Even more coincidentally, Hank already has Scott in mind to be the perfect soldier and the new "Ant-Man."

In spite of Edgar Wright dropping out at the helm and being replaced by Peyton Reed, "Ant-Man" very much works on its own terms and has plenty of that filmmaker's quirky sensibilities. Besides, judging the film for what it isn't rather than for what it is is making a mountain out of an ant hill. It might have all of the ingredients of a superhero's origin story, albeit tweaked by Scott shrinking to size, but with those checked boxes come snappy amusement and fleet, light-on-its-feet pacing. The film has more stand-alone value, once again akin to "Guardians of the Galaxy," rather than trying too hard to be of an obligatory piece with the MCU. Considering Ant-Man was one of the original Avengers, there have to be name-dropping references to "The Avengers," plus a cameo, but they are cute without feeling forced or distracting. Though the unstable Darren Cross creates a suit called the "Yellowjacket" that he intends to sell to world-domination organization HYDRA, the emotional stakes are, for once, less global and more personal. There is even a cohesive through-line about fathers and daughters, mentors and protégés.

Having physically buffed up for the part of burglar Scott Lang and alter-ego superhero Ant-Man, Paul Rudd is perfectly miscast, so to speak. The never-not-affable actor has honed the ability to make a somewhat smarmy or unappealing character the complete opposite with his innate charisma and verbally nimble comedic chops, and Rudd makes it work here. As original Ant-Man, Dr. Hank Pym, Michael Douglas is enjoyably grumpy and hasn't been this energized in a while, and the 1989-set opening might feature one of the most impressive "de-aging" effects on Douglas' face. As Hank's independent-minded daughter Hope, a black-bobbed Evangeline Lilly has a slinky, appealingly no-nonsense presence, but her quasi-romance with Scott comes too late to really register. Corey Stoll is appropriately sinister, having some snarling bite as resident villain Darren Cross, and he has his beautiful Lex Luthor bald head going for him, but the script gives him few chances for shadings beyond his feelings toward Hank as a father figure. In the comedic sidekick role, Michael Peña threatens to run away with the whole thing as Scott's trustworthy former cellmate Luis. He could have been another Hispanic stereotype, but every time he recounts a story from a friend of a friend in which his voice dubs over theirs, Peña makes Luis more infectious. Poor Judy Greer has paid her dues, always being cast as Best Gal Pal in romantic comedies, but gets her third thankless mom role here this summer (her expansive screen time was obviously left on the cutting-room floor in "Tomorrowland" and she made the most of a limited part in "Jurassic World."As Scott's ex-wife Maggie, now remarried to cop Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), she at least never allows her on-the-sidelines character to descend into a naggy shrew but remain an understanding mother who just wants what's best for her daughter. That brings us to 7-year-old Abby Ryder Fortson, who's naturally darling without doing any mawkish child-actor mugging.

Instead of devolving into a cacophony of bombastic pixels and pyrotechnics, "Ant-Man" actually opts for joy and inspiration, treating the usually large hero-vs.-villain smackdowns on a much smaller scale, and has a ton of fun with its inherently silly premise. Evoking the formerly cutting-edge effects of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," Scott's dizzying "test drive" with the suit sends him to the bottom of a bathtub to the dance floor of a disco club to an encounter with a mouse and a vacuum cleaner is surprisingly thrilling. Scott must also work together with four different types of ants, all with their own special skills (one of which is moving a sugar cube across the dining room table for tea). A bit with an iPhone playing from The Cure's "Disintegration" album in a falling briefcase is laugh-out-loud funny and almost trippy in its execution. The third-act showdown is great fun, cleverly bringing in a bug zapper and then evoking "Toy Story" when Scott's Ant-Man squares off with Darren's Yellowjacket in Scott's daughter's bedroom on her Thomas the Tank Engine train set. There's also an amusing payoff when certain items are enlarged by accident. Without comparing it to the rest of other Marvel superhero products, "Ant-Man" actually feels fresh and hand-made with a cheeky personality of its own. It has enough weight and danger to not just be fluffed off as a lark, but it's also a breezy, enormously entertaining pleasure that doesn't believe in serious faces and proves size does not matter.

Grade:  B +

Friday, July 10, 2015

Double Identity: "Self/less" fun enough but falls short of ambitious setup

Self/less (2015) 
117 min., rated PG-13.

The concept of transporting someone's consciousness to another body is not untouched but never unwelcome in sci-fi cinema. "Self/less" starts with a fascinating idea and then does little with it, but it's never without surface-level entertainment value to forgive the film for its trouble spots. What knocks the film up a few notches from "generic" is having director Tarsem Singh at the helm. Singh has proven his worth as an artistic, in-demand visionary filmmaker with quite an eye—ever since 2000's dazzling, surrealistic "The Cell"—and while his last film, 2012's "Mirror Mirror," was opulent to look at, it showed his lack of comedic instincts that such a cheeky "Snow White" take-off needed. Fortunately, "Self/less" isn't a comedy, though it's not without humor and could draw plenty of comparison to all of the world's body-switching comedies, but with a smaller scope, he's never able to get lost in his own snazzy aesthetics, as was the case with 2011's overblown, hollow "Immortals." It might have little of Singh's visual mark, but there is still a slick style here. This body-swapping thriller might kick its ambitions to the curb too early, however, there is a certain loopy pleasure to be had. 

Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) is a wealthy New York real estate tycoon, but his 68-year-old body is failing him from cancer and his estranged relationship with daughter Claire (Michelle Dockery) is beyond repair. Upon receiving a card from Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode), Damian agrees to go through with the mysterious underground company Phoenix and their "shedding" process in which a person's mind and memories can be transferred to another body. First, he must stage a public death, and from there, Damian's body is placed into an MRI machine that is shared with a younger, healthier body, which Albright claims to be genetically engineered out of the lab. When Damian wakes up, he has a new identity as 35-year-old "Eddie" (Ryan Reynolds). Kept on a leash in New Orleans where he spends his time hooking up with hot chicks, driving fast cars, playing basketball, eating peanut butter (the old him use to be allergic), rinse and repeat, "Eddie" begins having seizures and sweat-inducing hallucinations, or "false memories," of a woman named Madeline (Natalie Martinez) and her 6-year-old daughter, Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen), when he forgets to take his daily medication. Did Damian steal the life of someone else named "Mark"? Luckily, "Mark" knows how to fight and shoot when absolutely necessary.

Having not seen 1966's "Seconds" by which this film apparently seems influenced, it can't be said that "Self/less" is a grave-robber of that Rock Hudson-starring sci-fier, though it is familiar of "Total Recall" and any of the Jason Bourne films. In its early run, the film even reminds of the 2011 Bradley Cooper vehicle "Limitless" with a fast-paced, expertly cut montage in New Orleans, synched up to some street drummers' Stomp-like rhythm. The central germ of an idea is an intriguing one, but the screenplay by brothers David and Àlex Pastor (2009's "Carriers") washes away most of the potential and offers less to think about. Instead of exploring the ramifications of immortality and identity even in the mode of a thriller, the film turns its premise into window dressing for a "Bourne"-style conspiratorial actioner with fisticuffs, gunplay, car crashes, and even the amusing use of a flame-thrower being turned on a bunch of goons. Once the new Damian catches on with what is going onand the viewer is already way ahead of him—"Self/less" goes on auto-pilot and gets a bit dumb in its telegraphing of obvious plot twists. Dr. Albright, who might as well be wearing a sign that reads "Mad Scientist," lets a key element slip out about one of the new, able-bodied Damian's "hallucinations" that he wouldn't know. Damian-as-Eddie is also able to dig for details on Wikipedia, which seems like too easy of a script convenience.

Ryan Reynolds' inherent likability helps the actor actualize Damian's predicament, and once he acquires the deadly skills learned by the new body, he is more than capable. There is little continuity between his solid performance and Ben Kingsley, whose presence is pretty much wasted but gives the opening ten minutes some class and amusement on behalf of his New York accent. It is difficult to buy into Kingsley essentially being inside Reynolds' body, and any opportunity to flesh out either version is mostly inadequate. Old Damian was an unethical son of a bitch who would try buying his daughter's love, and now as New Damian, he tries redeeming his old ways through the body of a man who left his wife and daughter. Natalie Martinez (TV's "Secrets and Lies") is emotionally available as widow Madeline, and Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, as Madeline's daughter, is so adorable it should be illegal. (Is it a coincidence that two mothers in the film are named Madeline and Judy, Kim Novak's dual characters in Hitchcock's "Vertigo"?) As Dr. Albright, Matthew Goode exudes arrogance and untrustworthiness, and while there's a less-predictable reveal with his character, he is asked to remain dry and two-dimensional for much of it. Other key roles are ably filled by Victor Garber, as Damian's closest friend Martin; Derek Luke, as Anton, a New Orleansian whom "Eddie" befriends on the basketball court; and Michelle Dockery, as Claire, Damian's estranged adult daughter who runs a non-profit organization.

Every problem with the script cannot be disputed but doesn't dampen all of the rudimentary fun, either. The action is tightly handled and coolly stylish, including a scuffle in a farmhouse kitchen and an escape under the house, as well as a vehicular chase on a long stretch of road. The dual father-daughter stuff for the old and new Damian is ham-fisted and underdeveloped, but at least there's some attempt at emotional investment. In spite of the potential to be more, "Self/less" remains an entertaining enough thriller as its unambitious self. It probably won't be remembered long enough to have a second life, but for a film that eventually opts for polish over substance, at least there was a corker of a setup here. Small victories are better than none.

Grade: C +

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Hangman: Disposable "Gallows" has few legs to break

The Gallows (2015)
87 min., rated R.

Anyone can shoot a mock-verité horror film in the found-footage style and throw things in front of the camera for a jolt, but not everyone can make a skillfully wrought, anxiety-inducing experience with effectively mounted dread. That takes talent, and even sometimes natural performances and competent writing and cinematography. Writer-directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing show glimmers of peanuts-budgeted effectiveness for their first big-time effort, "The Gallows," but must have a lot of luck on their side, having their film picked up by Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions before being sold to Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema and being given a wide theatrical release. Riding on the coattails of everything after 1999's "The Blair Witch Project," "The Gallows" tries all it knows to make the viewer flinch once the eerie goings-on actually take off. It didn't have to aim to win any prizes for originality, but the execution of a long-in-the-tooth scare mold is only very average.

On October 29th, 1993, a tragedy rocked the Nebraskan town of Beatrice on the night of a high school production of a play called "The Gallows," which led to the accidental hanging of teenage actor Charlie Grimm. Twenty years later, Beatrice High School's (unsuperstitious) drama department morbidly decides to put on a revival of the same play, using the same costumes, props, and even the same programs. Being berated by his camera-holding pal Ryan (Ryan Shoos) for joining the theater geeks, football player Reese (Reese Mishler) takes on the role once portrayed by Charlie to get closer to his crush, stage partner Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). On the eve of the play's opening night, Ryan convinces Reese to sneak into the school overnight through a broken stage door and sabotage the set and props, so the show can be canceled and Reese's reputation can be saved. With Ryan's cheerleader girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) tagging along and Pfeifer showing up to their surprise, the four teens find themselves locked in the dark school. All they can really do is wait each of their turns to die at the hands of the ghostly, hangman-masked, noose-wielding Charlie.

On the upside for slasher fans, "The Gallows" does set up a scarily fun situationkids stupidly locking themselves in a school at night before getting taken outthat one could have seen this being more in the tradition of an '80s-style slasher film were it conventionally shot. Now, shaky POV camerawork can work when there's a feasible setup for a camera to be used and to keep rolling, but beyond using the aesthetic as a cost-saver and all of the footage purportedly being actual police evidence, this film fails that test. Necessary for the premise to work within the rules of the found-footage conceit, the characters must make rookie mistakes, and they sure do, but in fairness, these are inexperienced teenagers we're talking about. The bigger problem is that it's hard to become attached to any of the archetypal characters, who are all fair game for Charlie. Worst of all, the viewer gets stuck with an obnoxious dude-bro of a videographer in the form of Ryan, who can't die off fast enough. And, before one picks at why none of these kids just call for help, the use of cell phones (or lack thereof) is not made a frustrating oversight, as Charlie can apparently control cell service and lock one's phone in a locker. 

Making its way from being tedious to irksome to just disposable, "The Gallows" still has its occasional merits. When the teens go snooping around, finding a dark corridor that leads to a '90s newscast mysteriously playing on a TV in a janitor room, the film starts to work up some fear and atmosphere. There is one quiet, apprehensive sequence where Ryan crawls through a maintenance space, followed by a chillingly subtle shot in the dark rafters where he's unable to make out what is dangling from a rope. A climactic chase through a catwalk is even creepy in a cover-your-eyes sort of way. Also, even though it's been criminally featured in the film's TV spots, a would-be respite for Cassidy, crying and cowering in an emergency red-hewed hallway and unaware of the hangman emerging from the darkness before she uses a camera phone to look closely at the severe bruise of an attempted strangulation on her neck, is indisputably the film's most menacing, gasp-worthy doozy. In between these moments of the lingering threat that Charlie could pop out at any given moment, the only suspense left is waiting for the next ear-splitting noise. After all, the business-as-usual pattern of the characters walking down hallways, running for their lives and then finding momentary relief before it starts all over again eventually becomes tiresome. 

The prologue's freak accident, captured in 1993 on Charlie's parents' camcorder, is startling but the inclusion of a music score lessens the impact and the you-are-there immediacy. Despite the untested, unknown actors using their real names (one of them, Cassidy Gifford, is actually Kathie Lee Gifford's daughter), "The Gallows" won't trick anyone into thinking it's real, like "The Blair Witch Project" did. The performances are merely functional. The pesky camera-shaking is authentically incompetent enough, but it's the equivalent of watching your grandmother figure out how to use an iPhone, complete with plenty of shots of the floor and the characters' feet. Filmmakers Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing do cap everything off with a fairly disturbing twist, but if you stop to scrutinize, the less sense it makes. Collectively, though, there just isn't enough ingenuity in its shocks for "The Gallows" to be The Next Big Thing in this already-played-out horror sub-genre. Cluff and Lofing, better luck next time.

Grade:

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Run, Run, Run: "Creep" owned by Mark Duplass' scary, eye-twinkling turn

Creep (2015)
82 min., rated R.

The bloom is not yet off the rose with producer Jason Blum ("Paranormal Activity," "Insidious," "The Purge" and "Sinister"), as he's usually spot-on in trusting the right directors' micro-budgeted projects for his Blumhouse Productions. Yet another found-footage horror item, "Creep" finds a secret weapon in mumblecore auteur Mark Duplass (also known to give little indie movies a push from behind the camera as a producer when he's not directing or acting in them himself). For Patrick Brice's first film (his second, the slight but very amusing and surprising "The Overnight," just saw a release prior to this), the filmmaker takes a foray into the tired template, but with limited resources and an effective creep factor from the casting of Duplass, the result is a solid character study of a scarily ingratiating psychopath.

In March 2012, freelance videographer Aaron (Patrick Brice) answers a Craigslist ad for a filming-services gig that promises $1,000 for the day and appreciates discretion. His road trip leads him to a lakeside cabin in Crestline, California, and a huggy man named Josef (Mark Duplass) who has hired Aaron to make a video diary for he and his pregnant wife's unborn son. He's a cancer survivor, but two months ago, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Josef openly admits that he now has two to three months to live. Inspired by the 1993 Michael Keaton film "My Life," Josef wants Aaron to keep the camera rolling at his family vacation home to document him for the man he was. Eventually, Aaron begins to question why he is really there. After he realizes Josef isn't telling him everything, he tries to bail but Josef invites him in for one celebratory drink before sending him on his way. Might Josef just be an oddball loner or is he, indeed, a creep? To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B -