Thursday, July 28, 2016

Bourne Again: "Jason Bourne" a capably made slog of redundancy

Jason Bourne (2016)
123 min., rated PG-13. 

Universal Pictures probably should have left well enough alone after Paul Greengrass turned down his first chance to direct a follow-up to the “Bourne” trilogy. Many might have thought “The Bourne Legacy”—the superfluous but surprisingly engaging 2012 spin-off with Jeremy Renner as a different super soldier—was the way to kill a franchise, it actually poses the question, “Where is Aaron Cross when you want him?” Reuniting director Greengrass (2013's "Captain Phillips") and star Matt Damon after 2004's "The Bourne Supremacy" and 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the definitively titled “Jason Bourne” cannibalizes its own franchise for a duller rehash set in the post-Edward Snowden zeitgeist. The spare parts are certainly there, but this rebirth is only periodically thrilling and more often stale. Can Jason Bourne just call it a day and turn himself in already?

Jason Bourne/David Webb (Matt Damon) has been living off the grid and fighting in an underground ring in Greece, or something. Of course, he is still wanted, this time by CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), whose team is creating yet another black-ops program. When he reconnects with old CIA contact-turned-hacker Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), he discovers new information about his late father (Gregg Henry) and how he died. Concurrently, Dewey is in cahoots with young social media CEO Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) and his launch of a new phone app to invade every citizen’s privacy, while determined CIA analyst Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) wants the chance to bring in Bourne. Being pursued by assassin Asset (Vincent Cassel), the revenge-minded Bourne isn’t about to go in quietly.

Strictly for those who want to see essentially the same movie audiences were treated to three times already, the cynically conceived “Jason Bourne” feels like it was created by way of “Mad Libs.” There are new globe-trotting locations. There are new authoritative antagonists yelling at computer screens. And, instead of Operation Treadstone, there is Operation Iron Hand. Really, what is the difference? Whereas Paul Greengrass knew how to create momentum and found a way to push things at a propulsive clip then, this fifth entry is more like a cold slog to nowhere special, albeit with a few spurts of interest. It certainly isn’t anything in Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse’s screenplay, which tries tapping into the relevance of cyberterrorism but barely does anything interesting with that idea. As an action film, it is proficiently made, at least when the skill of the choreography can actually be made out. Greengrass’ old shooting-style habits die hard, going beyond kinetic and right into erratic, incoherent pummeling. There’s an edgily executed motorcycle chase in the streets of Athens during a riot. Then, when Greengrass gets done trashing the Vegas strip with a Dodge Charger and a SWAT vehicle in an interminable chase that would be more at home in “Furious 7,” there is also a brawl of blows and choking between Bourne and his assassin that is intense and full of nose-cracking realism but handled so frenetically. Throughout most of the action set-pieces, the choreography still gets lost in all the chaos of Barry Ackroyd’s jerky, sometimes too-tight cinematography and co-writer Rouse’s choppy editing.

Matt Damon is back in the saddle, nine years later as Jason Bourne. The actor is still persuasive in the stoic role, but almost all emotional connection to Bourne is gone here. He has been off the grid, sure, and he has most of his memory back, okay, but what exactly has he been doing in the interim? Don’t ask such silly questions because that one is never answered. No one else has a life beyond the standard-issue plot of Bourne being tracked and then the CIA losing him; whether they are undynamic ciphers, pawns and/or cogs in the machine, this is Bourne’s world and they’re all just living in it. Even those who apparently share a past with Bourne hold little weight. As new CIA director Heather Lee, Alicia Vikander (2015's "The Danish Girl") brings a fierce intelligence to this nothing role whose motivations are constantly called into question. Julia Stiles makes a stone-faced return as Nicky Parsons and, once again, she is out of the picture before you know it as if the writers didn’t know what to do with her anymore. Finally, Tommy Lee Jones is, well, Tommy Lee Jones.

Talk about a return engagement, minus the engagement. “The Bourne Ultimatum” made a muscular, satisfying capper to the supposed trilogy and “The Bourne Legacy” showed potential for a reboot with an entirely different character. “Jason Bourne,” however, doesn’t revitalize or bring anything freshly intriguing to the series, nor does it accomplish that much on its own terms. It might even make fans of the trilogy forget what made the previous films so engrossing in the first place. Before the series calling card of Moby’s “Extreme Ways” gets cued up, there is the suggestion that there will be a next time, but perhaps Greengrass should just stop while he’s ahead.


Moms Gone Wild: "Bad Moms" hilariously naughty but also insightful

Bad Moms (2016)
101 min., rated R.

“Bad Moms” has the courage of its convictions by being exactly the wild crowd-pleaser it thinks it is. It’s uninhibited and naughty, but it's also ticklishly hilarious with the mouth of a sweet sailor and more insightful than its promo would suggest. Nobody needed a newsflash that there could be a gender turning of the tables in raunchy comedies—yes, women can be just as free and crazy as men—although it is still liberating when the women get to be defiant and call the shots. Known forever as “the writers of ‘The Hangover,’” Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (2013’s “21 & Over”) wrote and directed this frisky and fun party romp in which the number of laughs can successfully be counted on more than both hands. This female-driven mix of bawdy humor and maternal empowerment may be predictable from a narrative standpoint, but it’s been made with a heartfelt foundation and such comedic relish that the rollicking misbehaving feels well-earned.

32-year-old Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) is an overworked, over-scheduled, perpetually late working mom of two (Oona Laurence, Emjay Anthony). While her husband, Mike (David Walton), is a layabout, she is underpaid working for a millennial-run coffee company in Chicago, picking their kids up from school and taking them to their respective after-school activities, having dinner ready and served, attending PTA meetings, and doing it all over again the next day and the next. After an especially long day, Amy is encouraged by tight-assed alpha-mom president Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) to attend the PTA meeting at her kids’ school, but she ends up firmly quitting the organization. Amy soon finds kindred spirits in two moms, the brash, inappropriate Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and needy, put-upon Kiki (Kristen Bell). All three of them are sick and tired of trying to be the perfect parent, and once Gwendolyn wages a war against her, Amy plans to bite back by running for PTA president and free every other mom from all the worthless meetings and bake sales. She has no fucks to give.

Even for a raucous R-rated comedy played for laughs, “Bad Moms” is smart and fundamentally truthful when it shows an understanding of how moms give their all each day, sometimes with little appreciation from anyone who isn't a mom. Striving for perfection and being on a busy schedule every hour of the day can be exhausting, so maybe caring a smidge less and cutting loose for a bit isn’t so “bad.” Writer-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore clearly understand this notion from a male perspective, both being husbands and fathers, and thread the needle well by making sure the three women come off likable from the onset so their behavior doesn’t strike as too infantile and irresponsible. Upon Amy quitting the PTA, she does undergo a swift change. She is too hungover from her obscene acts in the grocery store with her new friends to make breakfast for her kids. She plays hooky from work, talking back to her younger boss (Clark Duke), and instead enjoys a quiet breakfast to herself, goes shopping, takes in a matinee movie with the girls and goes to a fancy brunch afterwards. Basically, Amy is on a vacation from her life, and she deserves it. 

Amy, Kiki and Carla—and Gwendolyn, for that matter—are all recognizable motherly types, but each one of the comedic performers brings a surprise that makes their characters more than two-dimensional. Mila Kunis is the glue, ensuring that Amy feels relatable, sympathetic and flawed, yet never acts below her intelligence. She is too much of a tough cookie to just be a doormat for her cheating dolt of a husband and Gwendolyn. Kristen Bell is always an inviting presence but also gets to be a sneakily daffy delight; it’s especially fun to see her Kiki let her hair down and stand up to her controlling husband. Playing a rebellious mom with the most sexual agency, Kathryn Hahn is the gut-bustingly inspired standout, a wild-card dynamo slaying every tastily dirty one-liner without anything resembling a filter. Like Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids," this role could have been cartoonish, but Hahn finds a decency, loyalty and warmth in the otherwise entertainingly uncouth Carla. As Amy’s counterpoint, Christina Applegate is an acerbic ace, even in an initially one-note role as the catty and calculating but insecure Gwendolyn. Her overly prepared PTA meeting, full of over-the-top PowerPoint presentations, is priceless, as is the final scene between her and Amy that cuts Gwendolyn down to size. In the two roles of Gwendolyn’s mean-girl minions, Jada Pinkett Smith mainly has to follow Applegate but gives good side eye as Stacy, while Annie Mumolo gets to sneak in some sharp asides as the perpetually snubbed Vicky. As the sole male eye-candy who isn’t a cheater or a complete idiot but gets to be objectified, Jay Hernandez is innately charismatic with the little bit he’s given to do as hunky, idealistic widower and father Jessie.

“Bad Moms” is far from being the most attractive-looking film, seemingly shot through gauze and overlit like a sitcom set on the sun, and its story conflict may become strained. However, in the grand scheme of things, those are but small blips when generated laughter is a comedy’s top priority. The game cast’s ready-to-party vibe is so infectious that a montage of the trio’s drunken rampage through the supermarket, cued to Icona Pop danceable “I Love It,” after they first meet proves to be an uproariously funny and expertly edited centerpiece in spite of—or perhaps because of—its broadness. An uncircumcised penis bit goes on long, but the ladies don't beat it into the ground without producing a giggle. The end credits pack a nice touch, too. Instead of the dreaded blooper reel, there is a rather poignant and very amusing sit-down with six of the actresses and their mothers, remembering old times; Applegate’s memory of being taken to 1980’s “Cruising” is a major highlight. “Bad Moms” cannot attest to being wholly subversive, but it has enough of an appealing edge and the genuine belly laughs consistently arrive on schedule. This is what happens when you put a whole lot of funny women in a room and let the cameras roll, and it's saying something when those in charge of the dailies are two men.


Friday, July 22, 2016

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: "Lights Out" a crafty, creepy screamer

Lights Out (2016)
81 min., rated PG-13.

The fear walking into “Lights Out” was that it might feel like a short film with 78 more minutes of padding. Life for this horror film did, in fact, begin as a nightmare-fueled short of the same name in 2013. Director David F. Sandberg, who marks his feature debut here, had a simple but effectively creepy idea with a socko freakout: before a woman goes to sleep, she shuts off her hallway lightswitch but notices a female figure standing at the end of her hall; when she turns the light back on, the figure is gone. This pattern happens for a few more flips of the switch, and on the last time in the dark, the figure appears too close for comfort. With a modest budget and more than enough visual sense, Sandberg runs with his original gimmick with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer (he of the 2010 “A Nightmare on Elm Street" remake and the 2011 prequel of “The Thing”) that establishes rules and sticks to them fairly well. As studio horror offerings go, “Lights Out” is as concerned with telling a story about mental illness tearing a family apart as much as it is with getting scares involving a supernatural threat.

Headstrong twentysomething Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) gets a call from her 10-year-old half-brother Martin’s (Gabriel Bateman) school. He has been falling asleep in class due to his home life with their severely depressed mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), who keeps talking to someone named “Diana” in the darkness. Having left the family nest long ago after her father mysteriously left, Rebecca has been down this road before with her estranged mother, so she decides to let Martin stay with her so he can get some sleep. When Rebecca hears the name “Diana” and encounters the entity in the dark, it brings her back to the time she herself first encountered Mom’s “friend” as a child. As long as Rebecca and Martin stay in the light long enough, they are safe, but the darkness will catch up to them.

“Lights Out” might share commonalities with “Darkness Falls,” “Mama” and “The Babadook,” but it has its own story to tell. Director David F. Sandberg gets great mileage out of his lights-off, lights-on trick, starting with the freaky cold open that replicates the 3-minute short. It’s closing time at a textile factory managed by Sophie’s husband and Martin’s father, Paul (Billy Burke), who gets a taste of Diana’s wrath. But first, one of his staff members (Lotta Losten, the director’s wife from the short) gets spooked when flipping a light switch on and off. Luckily, Sandberg concocts more than a one-note round of jump scares, which are certainly there but executed with enough variance. He and screenwriter Eric Heisserer also treat their characters with respect, which is sometimes an anomaly in horror films. A possible pitfall of expanding a short idea is over-mythologizing, and director Sandberg and screenwriter Heisserer mostly dodge it by getting their exposition dump out of the way real quick. The logic that psychiatric records and cassette recordings would be left out in the open as evidence for Rebecca to find and peruse through is a bit of a stretch, so a slightly more forgiving suspension of disbelief is certainly necessary. A natural conclusion stares the filmmakers directly in the face and they end up choosing the right one. The resolution will certainly divide audiences, but no matter if it’s deemed too off-putting, it is courageous. 

Rebecca is written and acted by Teresa Palmer with an inner strength. It wouldn’t have hurt to learn more about Rebecca, like what she does for a living. Is she a tattoo artist, or does she just live above a tattoo shop where the neon “Tattoo” sign outside her window blinks all night? Palmer still finds plenty of truthful notes, and the character takes risks staying in the light but never behaves like a typical horror-movie numbskull. Likewise, Gabriel Bateman (Cinemax’s “Outcast”) is a solid child actor, looking terrified on cue and acting as a real kid would. Maria Bello is quietly unstable and heartbreaking as Sophie, drawing more humanity than melodrama out of a maternal character who struggles to be maternal with her own children and has no idea how to free herself from the grip of her so-called friend. The role of Rebecca’s refreshingly patient and supportive boyfriend Bret also never feels like a stock sitting duck from the way it’s fulfilled by the engaging Alexander DiPersia. He’s introduced early on in trying to stay the night with the emotionally unavailable Rebecca and even leaves at least one sock in her dresser drawer, and then once Bret still remains in one piece, he even has a crowd-cheering moment where he brings the light on Diana. As for Diana herself, the spindly figure is well performed by stuntwoman Alicia Vela-Bailey, who’s as memorable as Samara in “The Ring,” the woman in black in “The Woman in Black,” and Mama in “Mama.” Diana is creepiest when kept as a silhouette; when we get a shot or two of her up close and personal at the very end, it’s plenty.

With a svelte 81-minute running time that never makes the story feel padded or rushed, “Lights Out” gets in, has one in the palm of its hand and then gets out. The kind of horror film where the viewer can scream and then laugh in relief, it's also one with enough nerve to be about something more thematically bold than most studio-bred horror fare. Director Sandberg makes sure the film has a stylish, clean look with expert cinematography and lighting, utilizing the latter especially when black lights, wind-up flashlights and cell phone lights smartly figure into the nerve-rattling climax all set in Sophie’s home. When there are downright fun, veritably scary PG-13 horror surprises like “Lights Out,” the R-rating and resorting to brutal violence actually are not missed. This is a crafty summer screamer.


Friday, July 15, 2016

Ain’t Afraid of No Sexists: “Ghostbusters” reboot could be sharper but still a good time

Ghostbusters (2016)
116 min., rated PG-13.

Already-angry fans of the beloved 1984 supernatural comedy “Ghostbusters” can calm down and swallow their preconceived notions; no one’s childhood has been ruined. Sure, reworking an actual classic is a nervy, precarious proposition, but watching the execution is paramount. Responsible for three consistently strong comedies in the last five years, writer-director Paul Feig (2015’s “Spy”) teams back up with screenwriter Katie Dippold (2013’s “The Heat”) to throw a fresh coat of slime on a revered property. Instead of inviting fans of the original to compare, the new, gender-flipped “Ghostbusters” stands on its own and deserves a fair shake, even as one roots for it to get funnier than it really does. It may be more energetic and likable than hilarious, but the makers and cast of this reboot never forget to show their audience a good time.

On the verge of academic tenure at Columbia University, buttoned-up physics professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is mortified when a book about the paranormal she co-authored surfaces for sale online. In hopes of getting it taken down, she reunites with former partner and estranged friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), who published the book and continues to study her paranormal research at a college with oddball engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Once Erin gets a call about an apparition sighting in a New York tourist mansion, the three witness it for themselves and Erin becomes a believer again. They’re soon joined by MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), who encounters a ghost in the subway tunnel and believes her knowledge of the city would be valuable. Unable to afford an old firehouse, these smart, brave ladies decide to open up their services above a Chinese restaurant. When a fed-up nerd named Rowan North (Neil Casey) wants to get back at the world for wronging him, he devises an apocalyptic plan that will force the newly named Ghostbusters into action and bust their city's invasion of ghosts.

“Ghostbusters” finds a way of holding respect and affection for the Ivan Reitman original but forging its own path as a brand-new entry. As a tour guide (Zach Woods) spins his yarn about what makes the Adridge Mansion an old haunt, literally, before becoming subjected to the specter in the basement, the right tone of spooky fun is set. As writer-director Paul Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold make their way to acquainting the viewer with our new Ghostbusters, there is an actual history drawn between Erin and Abby and a reason why these friends have come to believe in the supernatural. It might not have hurt if these women had been written with lives that existed outside of their profession, but then again, their profession is their life and they don’t have time to waste when proving to the world that ghosts do exist. Credit is due, though, for not thanklessly saddling any of the Ghostbusters with an actual love interest, even if Erin can barely function when around the girls' hot new receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth).

Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones aren’t merely female counterparts to Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson. No, they have their own parts to play, and watching this group of brilliantly funny women work together in matching jumpsuits and proton packs is an infectious treat. Wiig and McCarthy aren’t cutting loose here in the "straight (wo)man" roles—some will probably be pleased to learn that the latter’s Abby is the least ribald of any character the actress has ever played in a lead role—but even though their characters are grounded the most in reality, they still provide quick-witted moments with their can’t-miss comic timing. Playing gizmo technician Jillian Holtzmann on a wackier, more absurd plane with a lovably weird grin, McKinnon is exuberantly funny and a colorful live-wire if there ever was one. Even when McKinnon doesn’t get a joke in a four shot, it’s telling who the MVP is when one still can’t take his or her eyes off of her. Her delivery is so distinct and enthusiastic that her third-act line about the year being 2040 is spit-out-your-soda funny. Jones lets it rip, too, with her fierce, brassy personality as Patty never coming off strictly as the token black Ghostbuster. The film also has a secret (or maybe not-so-secret) weapon in Chris Hemsworth. As an extension of his surprising comedy chops in 2015’s “Vacation” reboot, the actor finds hilarious and endearing inspiration in playing dumb and hunky as the Ghostbusters’ receptionist Kevin, who’s decidedly hired more for his looks than his nonexistent smarts or skills.

Brightened by the effortless chemistry and dynamic between all four of its central performers, “Ghostbusters” is as cheerfully entertaining as it is disappointingly safe. Given the pedigree, one can’t help but feel that the script could have stood a joke sharpener. The pacing is at least zippy and the finished cut tightly scripted, concentrating more on Erin, Abby, Jillian and Patty and not droning on with the human villain’s master plan or the disbelieving mayor (Andy Garcia), but when a joke falls flat, it has the whiff of the “is-that-the-best-you-got?” variety. On the side of what actually lands, the repartee is generally solid; a self-aware nudge at Internet trolls is pointed without being cruel; there are cleverly integrated nods to "Jaws" and "The Wizard of Oz"; and a running joke with Abby’s delivery food driver (Karan Soni) skimping on her wonton soup gets better each time. As far as director Feig’s handling of the horror elements and action goes, the use of a ghostly mannequin is ingenious and the Times Square climax is a big, lively crowd-pleaser with fun use of the Macy’s Day Parade balloons. With the VFX of the spirits slick and nifty as one could hope, this is decidedly Feig’s brightest and most visually eye-popping film.

Even if the 2016 “Ghostbusters” may not be a frequently laugh-out-loud gas, it is impossible not to smile throughout and have one’s spirits raised. Callbacks are welcome, such as the ambulance Ecto-1, Slimer (who gets a girlfriend) and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, but only a few of the obligatory cameos by the original “Ghostbusters” cast actually work without coming across as distracting fan service (for instance, a subtle salute to Harold Ramis is lovely). Musical orchestrations of Ray Parker Jr.’s original theme are appeased and updated with a funky spin by Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliott. There isn’t an ounce of cynicism here, just joy. Calling these ladies back wouldn’t be such a bad thing.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

No Signal: Startling opener and no pulse thereafter makes "Cell" a dull yarn

Cell (2016)
98 min., rated R.

The trend in adapting works by Stephen King has hitherto declined in recent years, and perhaps that’s because some of his stories read better on the page than they do on film. An adaptation of King’s 2006 novel, “Cell” is the latest misguided treatment and, were it any good, it might have seen a wide theatrical release back in the day with former marquee names like John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson. Unfortunately, as written by Adam Alloca (2009’s “The Last House on the Left”) and King, himself, and directed by Tod Williams (2010’s “Paranormal Activity 2”), this dull and unimaginatively realized technophobic horror-cautionary tale belongs down in the pits with "Maximum Overdrive," where Emilio Estevez was up against homicidal semi-trucks. It is a quarter “Dawn of the Dead,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Happening” and “The Crazies,” albeit without much of a comment to make—be a Luddite or become a zombie?—and the startling moments few and far between. Even a nightmarish concept derived from other movies can be effective if done well. In this case, though, it is impossible to believe that what has shown up on the screen was actually anyone's vision.

Maine graphic novelist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) has just landed in Boston’s Logan Airport after landing a book deal. When an electromagnetic signal taps into everyone’s cell phone, users are turned into wildly murderous, mouth-foaming zombies. With his cell battery dead, Clay manages to escape with subway train driver Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), and once they find temporary refuge in Clay’s apartment building, they are joined by teenage upstairs neighbor Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman), who’s still in shock from having to kill her infected mother. And then there were three, but as this trio of disparate survivors make their way through New England—Clay wants to find his estranged wife and son—the zombies (“phoners”) are everywhere and the signal (“The Pulse”) is far from over. 

After the laughable stream of—not kidding—five production company logos and the most amateurishly designed credit sequence in some time, “Cell” at least ropes one in with its opening scene in the Logan Airport. Director Tod Williams doesn’t let more than five minutes go by to ratchet up the anarchic intensity and deliver the gruesome goods: a police officer starts biting into his K-9 best friend; a teenage girl smashes her teeth into the wall until they fall out; a restaurant cook goes on a stabbing spree. It’s as scary and unsettling as things get, and then after that, the film listlessly goes downhill and never gets back up. In a reunion of sorts after both appearing together in 2007’s superior Stephen King adaptation “1408,” John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson are obviously more than capable but make a minimal impression. Cusack does his best to hold this familiar material together, but aside from his Clay Riddell, no other character is explored satisfactorily well. Isabelle Fuhrman, so astonishingly frightening at only 12 years old in 2009’s “Orphan,” conveys the most empathy as Alice, but she's as underserved by the script as anyone. Also, as an enigmatic school headmaster full of exposition, Stacy Keach has a handful of scenes but taken out of the picture too early.

If “Cell” begins with a jolt of urgency, the proceedings are as ineffectual as a cell phone dropping into a toilet bowl. At best, it’s occasionally daft and erratically shot, and at worst, it’s terribly unexciting. The two other times the film almost comes close to the buzz and pulse of its first scene is an attack in a tavern and the sight of a soccer field of zombies sleeping snug as a bug in a rug before being set ablaze. Then, there’s the so-called “phoners,” who emit the sound of a blenderized rock from their open mouths, but beyond the doozy opener, they are more annoying than threatening. By the time the viewer hopes the film will at least reach one of King’s chillingly grim conclusions instead of his unsatisfying ones, this one self-destructs into idiotic incoherence. The inherent problem is that, despite an interesting take on the dangers of cell phones, “Cell” has already been beaten to the punch by many other zombie movies (and TV's "The Walking Dead"). With its aspirations and the outcome so vastly apart, there was a smarter, more frightening and thematic treatment within the filmmakers’ reach. As is, this is just a B-movie in C-movie clothing, feeding debate on whether this is actually worse than the confused but ambitious and one-third-good mess that was 2003's "Dreamcatcher." One is better off just holding out for “It” and “The Dark Tower.” 

Grade: D +

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Equals Attract: Plaza and Kendrick run off with sporadically funny “Mike and Dave”

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)
98 min., rated R.

Raunchy R-rated comedy “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” is both better than most will be expecting and not nearly the outrageous laugh riot it probably should be. Purely by the willingness of the cast, some of the comedic bits hit, and there are rough patches as well. Based on a true story—sort of—the film likely plays fast and loose with the facts but swings for the fences to be a new generation’s “Wedding Crashers" (which gets name-checked) mixed with a little “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” from the Hawaiian-set shenanigans. First-time feature director Jake Szymanski (HBO tennis mockumentary “7 Days in Hell”) and screenwriters Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien (2016’s “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”) don’t really test the mainstream limits of an R-rating and, like Mike and Dave, the film hasn’t too many brain cells in its pretty little head, but it is made sporadically funny by the appealing cast’s comedy chops. Tempered expectations are surpassed, but still don’t expect to convulse with laughter.

Tequila-selling business partners and brothers Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave Stangle (Zac Efron) have always been the life of the party, but they have always ended up chasing girls and ruining family gatherings. Their parents (Stephen Root, Stephanie Faracy) sit them down for an intervention and propose an ultimatum: Mike and Dave need to find respectable wedding dates to keep them in check for their baby sister Jeanie’s (Sugar Lyn Beard) wedding in Hawaii. When recently unemployed train wrecks Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick) see the brothers making an appearance on The Wendy Williams Show to publicize their viral ad on Craigslist, the girls make it their mission to get a free vacation to Hawaii. The only catch is that they will have to clean up and play the parts of “nice girls,” a charade that cannot continue that long before Tatiana and Alice will show their trashy true colors. Or maybe Mike and Dave found their matches?

The irony-dipped premise behind “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” probably should have been built with more tension and momentum than it actually has, but the viewer will decide to either go with it or not. Full of spontaneity, the cast has a wild time, and one can sense that a lot of ad-libbing was probably funnier on set than in the writing. Comic highlights include Tatiana pretending to be a goody-two-shoes schoolteacher, pulling out her glasses and No. 2 pencil, and Alice explaining the alleged hedge fund she manages. Jeanie’s orgasmic session with her overly accommodating masseur (a physically limber Kumail Nanjiani), though, strains so much that it falls flat, but a “Jurassic Park” ATV tour is amusing. Then, aside from the odd one-liner to a musical performance of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” before the credits roll, the last third annoyingly tames itself down with apologies and loses energy too soon, shining a bright light on the areas in the script that could have used more punching up. At the expense of Mike and Dave’s IQs, one of those unknowingly audible backstage arguments is contrived to force the characters to finally reveal their big hearts, slightly slamming on the brakes to what clearly just wants to be a diverting, snappy romp. For Alice and Dave, who might be the sweetest of the four, this softer side seems to come more naturally to them both since she’s still wounded from being left at the altar and he wants to break away from his codependent brother to draw professionally. It is a plus that none of the morally dubious doofuses here become changed people overnight, but no one not resembling a human being has any business exposing sincere, tender feelings in a broad comedy that should be more interested in getting laughs.

Adam Devine and Zac Efron are actually convincing as brothers and hedonistic boobs, so in-sync with one another’s charisma and zany exuberance. Resembling Jack Black a lot here, Devine still has his own manic, rubbery-faced presence, and Efron tries keeping up but isn’t afforded as many laughs here as the buff straight man of the two. By the skin of its teeth, the film avoids becoming chauvinistic itself by having Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick swoop in and go wild as equal-opportunity offenders who can be just as horny, drunk and crazy as their male screen partners (“Women can do shit now!” one of them exclaims). Tatiana and Alice refuse to be taken advantage of, even though they themselves are playing Mike and Dave. While Efron and Devine are both game to win the title for “Most Obnoxious” and really seem to be trying to be funny, the hilariously off-kilter Plaza and the ever-lovely Kendrick are more likably naughty messes. There aren’t many things the confidently potty-mouthed Plaza won’t do—she did star alongside Efron in January’s lazy, rotten-to-the-core “Dirty Grandpa,” and we will forgive her for that lapse in judgment—and it’s refreshing to see Kendrick playing more against-type. These two are the film's secret sauce and their gleefully uninhibited turns are the most fun to watch. 

Rude, crude and puerile comedy can be done when it’s cleverly scripted and performed with comically brazen gusto. “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” is not as savage or tight or consistent enough to give much more thought to after the summer, but in its defense, it has gusto in spades. Also stealing scenes in supporting roles, the tiny-voiced Sugar Lyn Beard (2012’s “For a Good Time, Call…”) remains a lovably perky sweetheart throughout as Mike and Dave’s sister Jeanie; Sam Richardson is likable with a sneaky backbone as Jeanie’s fiancée Eric; and Alice Wetterlund (HBO’s “Silicon Valley”) goes for it as bisexual cousin Terry who keeps making a pass at Tatiana. There are several laugh-out-loud funny moments, many of them courtesy of the free-wheeling Plaza and Kendrick, that the unworkable gags and disingenuous attempts to bring heart can’t completely bring it all down. Mike and Dave just needed to get out of the way and let their hell-raising wedding dates do their thing.

Grade: C +

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Pet Story: "Secret Life of Pets" minor yet charming, lively and clever enough

The Secret Life of Pets (2016) 
90 min., rated PG.

Pixar’s “Finding Dory” and Disney Animation’s “Zootopia” have already won bragging rights as this year’s two best animated efforts, but Illumination Entertainment’s “The Secret Life of Pets” isn’t too far behind. It isn’t working on those films’ level, and that’s okay. Like 1995’s “Toy Story,” “The Secret Life of Pets” is very clever in its conception, asking the question: What do toys pets do when their owners are not home? Do they watch TV? Do they open the fridge and stare with their mouth watering at tonight’s dinner? Most likely, they’re just sleeping for those 8 hours we are gone, but just go with it. Though the story proper is slighter than one would like it to be, the anthropomorphic-animal hijinks are lively and entertaining, the sight gags and verbal jokes are highly amusing, and the whole thing moves at a clip rate and just charms the viewer into submission.

Ever since he was found on the streets of Manhattan and adopted, small terrier Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) loves his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). The two build such a bond over the years that Max can’t imagine anything ever changing that. When Katie goes to work, he socializes with his friends on all different in Katie’s apartment building, including soap opera-watching Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) who has feelings for Max. The happy life changes for Max when Katie brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a big, shaggy rescue mutt who starts to take over. As Max feels threatened and has had enough, he tries to sabotage Duke but after some other circumstances, the two dogs get separated from the local dog-walker and must make the incredible journey back home. They’re not only tailed by Animal Control but eventually become pursued by a gang of now-undomesticated animals abandoned by their owners and living in the sewers to take orders from revolution leader Snowball (Kevin Hart), a buck-toothed, cotton-tailed bunny. Meanwhile, Gidget leads all of the pets from the building to find Max and Duke.

Directors Chris Renaud (2013’s “Despicable Me 2”) and Yarrow Cheney, along with screenwriters Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch and Cinco Paul, concocted such a simple yet inventive concept for “The Secret Life of Pets” that it’s a surprise no one thought of it sooner. Of course, a premise cannot carry an entire feature film, so when that idea does have to spring into a story, the adventure plot is maybe less special once Max and Duke hit the streets but still full of quick-witted, rather inspired details that deserve credit. The opening montage that checks in on every animal in the apartment building is most certainly a high point. There are jokes with retractable leashes and a dog’s penchant for chasing after bouncy balls and barking outside at squirrels. The filmmakers don’t forget about cats, either, and their obsession with boxes, mouse toys and laser pointers. Though heavily featured in the advertisements, there’s a fleeting, yet very funny, bit with a hoity-toity owner leaving his well-behaved poodle Leonard who quickly morphs into a head-banging metal fan. Everything with Pops (Dana Carvey), an old-timer Basset Hound on wheels, is also worth a chuckle every time.

In a large roll call of comedic voice talent, Louis C.K.’s vocal work as lap dog Max is likable and warm, and Eric Stonestreet has that innate puppy-dog charm in his voice as Duke. There are numerous standouts, including the vocally distinct Jenny Slate adorably exuberant as Gidget; Lake Bell, very funny as irritable, care-free cat Chloe; and Albert Brooks, not playing another clownfish but a predatory eagle named Tiberius who agrees not to eat Gidget and help her find her true love. On the villainous side, Kevin Hart is hilarious as scheming bunny Snowball, particularly when he loudly bursts into tears at the shrine of another “flushed pet,” a duck named Ricky. Despite the premise being about what the pets do when their owners aren't around, Ellie Kemper's comic talents are underused as human owner Katie (whose body is animated as almost freakishly slender), but her perpetually cheerful voice is always nice to hear.

“The Secret Life of Pets” might become a bit overly convoluted in its plotting, with a few too many antics, captures and escapes, and the predictable revelation of Duke’s former owner does not have the resonance it could have had. Whatever flaws the picture has are eclipsed by the bigger picture and its many delights. The opening moments, cued to Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York,” are energetic and swiftly animated, making for a nice introduction to Max and Katie. At its worst, the film is just really pleasant, and even then, there are little strange undercurrents around the edges. When Max and Duke make their way into a sausage factory, they engage in a memorably offbeat musical number of a certain “Grease” hit with the frolicsome meat casings; it's a digression so giddily infectious and yet so out of the ordinary. Also, continuing with the mindset of the “Cats & Dogs” films, cats are back to being slinky menaces to society, this time a skeleton-thin alley cat leader voiced by Steve Coogan. It then all ends on an upbeat note, starting with the foot-tapping aural pleasure of Bill Withers’ 1977 R&B song “Lovely Day.” Even if it may not endure—much like the rest of Illumination’s output (they are the home of the Minions)—“The Secret Life of Pets” is reasonably enjoyable as it plays out.


Pulp Non-Fiction: "Carnage Park" knows its grindhouse trappings but serves little point

Carnage Park (2016)
81 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

A pulpy, guns-blasting ’70s-style grindhouse exercise, “Carnage Park” has all the trappings of a drive-in nasty. It’s pitch as black but so stripped-down and stylistically influenced that it never entirely feels like a complete film or its own. It’s almost all bones and little meat. Earlier in the year already, writer-director Mickey Keating made a stylishly creepy Polanski-esque horror film out of “Darling,” but the mood was sustainable. This time, straightforwardness just isn’t enough, and that’s a shame considering there are things to admire. According to the opening text, the film purports to be based on “perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime” where the names of the actual people involved had to be changed out of respect, “Fargo”-style. Regardless of that claim, "Carnage Park" never ventures below the surface of a cool-looking genre exercise that has no greater point.

California, 1978. After a botched bank robbery, outlaw “Scorpion Joe” (James Landry Hebert) and his partner in crime, Lenny (Michael Villar), kidnap young woman Vivian Fontaine (Ashley Bell), who was just at the right place trying to have a loan approved and save her family’s farm at the wrong time. Once she is taken out of the criminals’ trunk, things only get worse for Vivian, as her captors unwittingly drive into the desert terrain (read: killing ground) of deranged ex-Vietnam War sniper Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy). The psycho’s brother (Alan Ruck), also the local sheriff, tries to bring Wyatt in, but it’s too late. And that’s about it, really.

From the opening credit sequence, “Carnage Park” has the sun-scorched Western look and feel of a Sergio Leone homage. Then, after a robbery gone wrong, there’s a narrative rewind à la Quentin Tarantino and then it becomes a slasher chase picture. There’s nothing wrong with a bait and switch, but once writer-director Keating wants to take a different direction, he doesn’t seem to take it anywhere of note. Keating is not one to shirk away from the raw violence—a scene only about one-third of the way through where Vivian wakes up handcuffed to a corpse and must free herself is nicely brutal—and the dry desert landscape is always a scarily vast place for bloodshed. A shoot-out that progresses into a chase in a dark, corpse-filled mine shaft comes the closest to really jangling the nerves. Even then, this set-piece is shot in such an unruly manner and too darkly lit to decipher what is going on, rendering the conclusion sorely anticlimactic. The mine shaft setting could not only be taken from the under-celebrated “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” but the last scene, too, where terror grows into hysterical relief.

Before her life is placed in graver danger than losing her house, Vivian sure is tough, giving the condescending bank manager hell. Devoting the right level of hysterics without overplaying it, the doe-eyed Ashley Bell (2013’s “The Last Exorcism Part II”) puts her everything into Vivian, an efficiently drawn part that asks her to go through the emotional and physical wringer but ultimately doesn’t give her much else in return. She is a pretty capable heroine, though. When he’s showing his face or hiding behind a gas mask not unlike the pick-axe killer from “My Bloody Valentine,” Pat Healy is menacing and forbidding, but beyond waxing Biblical, this guy is just cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. And, yes, at some point, Larry Fessenden does make an appearance.

Even at a scant 81 minutes, “Carnage Park” feels all too repetitive and ultimately inconsequential, striking one note ad infinitum. Director Keating’s attention-getting deftness behind the camera is never in doubt, but his screenplay seems to lack the context needed for any of the savage violence to feel satisfactorily earned. Still, from a production standpoint, the film is as close to top-notch as a low-budget cinematic affair can get, with Mac Fisken’s razor-sharp cinematography at the top of the list and Giona Ostinelli’s disconcerting score not far behind. Keating does have talent, but his films could eventually take the risk of feeling like mere imitations rather than the genuine article, no matter how gnarly the carnage.


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Thug Life: "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" an offbeat, endearing Kiwi-grown charmer

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
101 min., rated PG-13.

Put the Kiwi twist on any genre and the result can end up disarmingly wonky and fresh. Following up 2015’s clever, often hilarious vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows,” writer-director Taika Waititi adapts Barry Crump’s young-adult book “Wild Pork and Watercress” with “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” a thoroughly likable coming-of-age comedy sauteed with the danger of an on-the-lam adventure story in the great outdoors. All in all, it’s a happy surprise that conquers convention with its own unique, homegrown spirit and manages an undeniable sweetness without coming across cloying or unearned. If only all stories about a teenage gangster wannabe and his crusty, illiterate hunter uncle going on the run could be this charming.

Rap-loving, not-so-pleasantly plump 13-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a hooligan foster kid whom no one wants. Out of juvie, the boy is dropped off by case worker Paula (Rachel House) at the countryside home of eccentric couple Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill). She is more welcoming and cares for Ricky as if he were her own, while her husband is just plain cranky. After Hec is left alone to take care of Ricky all by himself, they receive a letter from Paula, who will have to bring Ricky back into state custody before other parental arrangements are made. Not about to let that happen, Ricky (with his dog Tupac in tow) stages his own death and sets off into the New Zealand bush. Hec goes looking for his would-be nephew and then the chase from Paula and her team is on.

Written and directed by Taika Waititi, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is unlike any comedy where a cantankerous adult and a precocious child put aside their differences and gradually learn how similar they are to one another. In its own quirky indie-movie kind of way, the film even avoids being too preciously cute, unlike Waititi’s self-consciously oddball “Eagle vs Shark.” When Ricky and Hec live off the land, they encounter other colorful characters, including Kahu (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne), a sarcastic girl who makes Ricky swoon when she rescues him on horseback; Kahu’s ne’er-do-well father TK (Troy Kingi), who wants to take “selfies” with media sensation Ricky; and Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby), a paranoid hermit. All of them add to the whole fairy-tale vibe of it all.

Relative newcomer Julian Dennison (2014’s “Paper Planes”) is fantastic, a real find and a pure natural with deadpan comic timing and the ability to make Ricky Baker’s troublemaker-with-a-heart-of-gold endearing and even adorable. He holds his own against acting veteran Sam Neill, who’s effectively prickly and unexpectedly funny as Hec; Neill’s flabbergasted reaction shots are priceless and their love-hate chemistry is wonderful. Rima Te Wiata (2014’s “Housebound”) has such a delightfully daffy presence as the cheerful Bella, who grows to genuinely care about the troublesome Ricky, even if her screen time ends as briefly as her foster mum character’s life. Rachel House, as over-eager child welfare worker Paula, is also a broad hoot as she takes a delusional turn into a ruthless police officer with a one track mind to find Ricky.

“Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is definitely a crowd-pleaser, but it’s the smart, offbeat kind, rooted in emotional truth rather than artifice. There are laughs both big and small, as well as an affecting payoff after an encounter with a wild boar. Hec being mistaken for being a pervert from Ricky’s double entendre-filled story to a group of hunters at a shelter actually lands a lot better than it sounds. There’s also a very funny Terminator/Sarah Connor running joke. It all culminates in a helicopter police chase, not unlike “Thelma and Louise” but without that same unsparing conclusion. Even though “majestical” isn’t a word as Hec tells Ricky, these characters make their film just that. 

Grade: B +