Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
The Little Death (2014)
The Australian sex comedy "The Little Death" coyly takes its title from the French idiom for orgasm. It toys with the idea of being racy and dabbles in dark humor. Similarly, it flits around several couples struggling with intimacy issues and it meanders between various types of tone. Basically, it won't commit. There is simultaneously too much and not enough going on in writer/director/co-star Josh Lawson's feature debut. He crams in too many people and plot lines but offers too little in the way of character development and credible emotion. And he weaves a supposedly hilarious sexual assault thread throughout the proceedings, which may leave you feeling icky. As we're introduced to each of the Sydney couples and their sexual fetishes, we begin with Lawson himself and Bojana Novakovic as Paul and Maeve. While awkwardly messing around in the bedroom one night, Maeve informs Paul that she would like him to rape her, a misunderstanding that's played for uncomfortable laughs. It's her fantasy, she explains—but she doesn't want to know for sure that it's Paul if and when it actually happens. The misguided notion of rape as a source of sexual pleasure, rather than an act of aggression, consistently taints this story line. Dan (Damon Herriman) and Evie (Kate Mulvany) also are trying new ways to reignite that spark. They're just not communicating their needs to each other these days. Their couples therapist suggests a little role playing, which Evie initially has trouble doing with a straight face. But Dan takes this assignment seriously to the extent that he starts thinking he's a real actor, with increasingly elaborate costumes, props and back stories for his naughty characters. His self-seriousness provides a few laughs here. Meanwhile, Richard (Patrick Brammall) and Rowena (Kate Box) are in an even more tenuous position. They've been trying methodically to have a baby for the past three years, rendering sex a matter of scheduling rather than spontaneity. ("How's your cervical mucus?" he asks politely one morning.) But when Richard's father dies suddenly—and Rowena discovers the sight of him sobbing surprisingly turns her on—she starts finding ways to make him break down and cry to prompt passionate romps. It's an amusingly twisted concept, but it also results in the darkest of the film's endings. The marriage of middle-aged Phil (Alan Dukes) and Maureen (Lisa McCune) is in the worst condition of all. He's a milquetoast corporate drone; she's a belittling shrew. She consistently rejects his efforts to get frisky. But when Phil realizes that he's attracted to Maureen when she's asleep—and quiet, and pliable—he begins drugging her tea at night, then having his way with her. This mostly consists of dressing her up and cuddling, but the idea that she's being physically manipulated when she's practically unconscious is also a little queasy- making. Lawson bops around between all these couples as their individual fetishes escalate, resulting in a few amusing moments and a lot of jarring tonal shifts. "The Little Death" veers from wacky physical comedy to forced poignancy to tragedy to romance, none of which is ever terribly convincing. Much of the problem lies in the fact that we don't really know anything about these people outside of these small boxes in which we view them. They're defined almost exclusively by their relationship problems. When Rowena shows up at Maeve's house late into the film, and Maeve mentions that they're longtime friends, it's like: "Huh? Where did that come from?" But Lawson also ostensibly aims to tie these stories together with the appearance of a 60ish new neighbor named Steve (Kim Gyngell). He knocks on each of their doors with a friendly smile, homemade cookies and the admission that he's a registered sex offender, but they're all too distracted or busy for this piece of information to register. It's an element that never quite works and has an odd payoff. The last couple we meet, though, is the most intriguing of all. Monica (Erin James) is an operator for an online video chat service that makes phone calls for the hearing impaired. Sam (T.J. Power) is a deaf man who rings her up in the middle of the night with an unusual request: He'd like her to help him connect with a phone sex operator. The result is hilarious and awkward and sweet, and it allows Monica and Sam to bond quickly and powerfully. This may sound like a contrived meet-cute, but it ends up being the most accessible and charming story of all. Here, Lawson comes up with a clever concept and executes it effectively. Despite the raunchy, graphic places this segment goes, it wraps up in unexpectedly romantic fashion, and it finally finds the tricky mix of tones that had eluded Lawson all along.
Ted 2 (2015)
If you liked the original "Ted," Seth MacFarlane's 2012 surprise smash about a pot-smoking, potty-mouthed teddy bear, then you will probably like "Ted 2." It is essentially the exact same movie, and more — and less. As director, co-writer and star, MacFarlane offers a lot of the same kind of brash and ballsy humor that is his trademark. Nothing is off limits. No one is spared. So if you have a problem with a slap-sticky pratfall involving scads of semen, followed by a wildly inappropriate joke about sickle cell anemia, followed by a crass Kardashian reference (and it's a Long way to go for that punchline), then you should probably look elsewhere. I'll admit, I laughed at that joke — and at a lot of the jokes in "Ted 2″ — but I'm also a longtime fan of MacFarlane's "Family Guy" for its energy, daring, rapid-fire pop-culture references and a willingness to go anywhere for a gag. (Our child can recite, verbatim, the entire Brian and Stewie "Cool Whip" exchange. We're good parents.) Along with fellow screenwriters and frequent collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, MacFarlane throws a lot of stuff at the wall. Not all of it sticks. But when it does stick, it works like crazy. As in his television work and the original "Ted," some of the best bits here are the random non sequiturs, flashbacks and fantasy sequences. My favorite joke in the whole movie involves Ted and his human best friend, John (Mark Wahlberg), going to an improv comedy club to yell depressing suggestions to the performers on stage. It's a clever and bizarre idea, well-executed. Having said that, "Ted 2″ is also overlong, repetitive and self-indulgent. In its attempts at offering a substantial dramatic plot line about civil rights alongside the raunchy comedy, its reach exceeds its grasp. And as in last summer's ambitious failure "A Million Ways to Die in the West," "Ted 2″ makes you wish there were someone around to rein MacFarlane in and hone his instincts. There's a brisk and irresistible 95-minute movie somewhere in here, but as is so often the case, MacFarlane cannot contain his excesses, and it seems there's no one around him who can stop them, either. The delightful wrongness of the central premise remains strong, however. Ted (whom MacFarlane voices in a thick, New England accent identical to Peter Griffin's) has married his girlfriend, gum-chomping grocery cashier Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). But John is now divorced from his wife (Mila Kunis, unseen here), and in no time, Ted is having marital troubles of his own. He and Tami-Lynn make the always-wise decision to have a baby to save the union, but since Ted is a teddy bear, he lacks the equipment to impregnate her. When trying to find a sperm donor fails to work — including a truly uncomfortable visit to Tom Brady's house in the middle of the night in one of the film's many celebrity cameos — they try to adopt. But then that doesn't work either when Massachusetts state officials decide that Ted isn't an actual person, but rather a piece of property. This leads John and Ted to seek the help of young, up-and-coming lawyer (and fellow stoner) Sam L. Jackson (Amanda Seyfried), who agrees to work pro bono to prove that Ted is indeed a person. The fact that Sam doesn't know who Samuel L. Jackson is — and doesn't get any pop- culture reference these guys throw at her — is a reflection of the fact that she actually studied and immersed herself in the classics and didn't waste her youth sitting on her ass on the couch watching bad television. MacFarlane's detractors often accuse him of misogyny, but as was the case with Charlize Theron's character in "A Million Ways to Die in the West," Seyfried's character is the smartest and most capable person in the room at all times. Forcing her into a romantic subplot with Wahlberg's John seems needless, but Seyfried is game for whatever comes her way. Despite her comic abilities, though, Seyfried is also stuck with some of the heavier material, especially in long, droning courtroom scenes that seriously bog down the film's momentum. MacFarlane may try to liven some of these moments up with a spontaneous song or a profane outburst, but it's impossible to ignore the fact that this kind of meaty writing — this desire to Say Something Important — is beyond him and his team. Connections to civil rights fights throughout history, hearkening all the way to the atrocities of slavery, seem poorly planned and tenuous. Maybe he's aiming for satire, but he never truly hits his mark. But wait, there's more. "Ted 2″ features another subplot in which Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), the creepy dad from the original "Ted," tries to kidnap the bear at New York Comic-Con to present him to the head of Hasbro (John Carroll Lynch) as the basis for mass production. Nothing in this story line is ever funny or suspenseful; it could have been jettisoned entirely. "Ted 2″ begins in much more lively and promising fashion than its eventual ending, however, with a wedding-themed, Busby Berkeley-style production number during the opening titles that's beautifully choreographed and hugely entertaining. As in the first film, the integration of this computer-generated creature in a live-action setting is seamless. This is yet another sign that MacFarlane needs to make an old-school musical next — and hopefully if he does, he'll invite some seasoned folks to help him make his ideas truly sing.
Jurassic World (2015)
It's silly of me, right? I have this notion that a big, splashy blockbuster should provide characters and story lines that matter, that engage us, so that there are actual stakes and not just a lot of noisy stomping. Theoretically, we should care whether or not someone is going to get eaten by a genetically engineered, 50-foot-tall dinosaur. We shouldn't be distracted by flimsy subplots, or the unlikely (and ungainly) sight of a grown woman running for her life through the jungle in high heels. And yet, this is what "Jurassic World" gives us, in between some admittedly spectacular visuals. I know what you're thinking: "It's not meant to be an Oscar winner." "It's a popcorn movie." "Why can't you just shut off your brain and have a good time?" Also: "You suck." All of the above are probably true. And yet, I had a hard time connecting with "Jurassic World" and its cardboard characters making poor choices over and over again. It simultaneously tries to cram in too much without giving us enough in the way of substance. I was a big fan of director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow's first feature, 2012's "Safety Not Guaranteed," an indie, sci-fi dramedy in which the time travel element actually worked. (It also made Mark Duplass surprisingly sexy for the first time.) Trevorrow is doing his best Spielberg impression here, and he creates a couple of thrilling set pieces — his pterodactyl attack, for example, is at once exciting and horrifying and a lovely little Hitchcock homage. But I'm not sure he was ready for a behemoth of a film like this just yet. Let's get to the plot real quickly, and a few thoughts, then call it a day. "Jurassic World" made nearly $209 million in its first weekend for the biggest domestic opening of all time. Clearly, you saw it and you know what happens. Nevertheless, let us trudge on. A bunch of people, who didn't learn from the travesties that occurred during the original "Jurassic Park" from 1993 and its two sequels, have developed yet another family-friendly dino playland on an island off the coast of Costa Rica under the guidance (and considerable financial support) of billionaire Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan). Among his chief employees is velociraptor wrangler Owen (Chris Pratt), who is ruggedly confident and wears leather vests with zero irony. The one truly astonishing element of "Jurassic World" is that it manages to make Pratt boring. He's the hottest and most charismatic star on the planet right now, and he's on a huge roll following last year's "The Lego Movie" and "Guardians of the Galaxy." Here, he certainly rises to the physical challenges but he's strangely understated, stuck as he is in a one-note role. It is an enormous bummer. Pratt is also stuck in a half-baked romantic subplot with Bryce Dallas Howard, who co-stars as Claire, an all-business operations executive. (Her sleek bob says it all.) They had one date, and now he keeps trying to flirt with her. The banter in the script — from Trevorrow, "Safety Not Guaranteed" writer Derek Connolly and the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver — isn't exactly the snappiest. And — spoiler! — when Owen and Claire finally do kiss after a sequence of great panic, it feels forced and hollow. But Claire has been too busy for him, or for anything outside of work. Like a clichéd rom-com heroine, she's married to her job (for which her sister, played by Judy Greer, shames her). Claire is also busy on this particular day tending to her visiting nephews, sullen teenager Zach (Nick Robinson) and his perky moppet of a younger brother, Gray (Ty Simpkins). A subplot about the kids' parents divorcing is brought up and then dropped — as if placing them in massive peril repeatedly ostensibly weren't enough to garner our sympathy. Then there's another whole subplot featuring Vincent D'Onofrio as a private military contractor who wants to take Owen's well-trained velociraptors and turn them into a lucrative fighting force. As if the humans-are-so-arrogant theme running through the whole series weren't completely obvious yet, this really hammers it home, and it turns the formidable, versatile D'Onofrio into a swaggering, Texas stereotype. These people and thousands of others find themselves under attack when the park's latest attraction, a five-story-high dino hybrid known as the Indominus Rex, escapes after being raised in isolation for years. (This is incredibly violent for a PG-13 movie, by the way — something to think about if you're pondering bringing young kids.) But the park gets a spike in attendance every time something new is developed, and under the watch of mad scientist Henry Wu (BD Wong), this is the biggest creature yet. It's got more teeth, a brilliant mind and the ability to camouflage itself — all to "up the 'wow' factor," as Claire puts it, with catastrophic consequences. So basically, "Jurassic World" is a big-budget indictment of corporate greed, jammed with product placement for Samsung and Mercedes-Benz and Beats by Dre and Coca-Cola. But given the record-shattering opening the movie had, I'd say everyone involved had their cake, ate it too and went back for seconds.
Inside Out (2015)
Here's the main difference between me and my 5-year-old son. I mean, clearly, there are many, including the fact that someday soon he'll be able to reach items on the high shelves in the kitchen without a step ladder. But this latest one lies in the way we each reacted to "Inside Out," the new animated epic from Pixar, which takes place mainly within the mind of an 11- year-old girl. Nicolas' favorite part was when the girl's sense of Fear (voiced by Bill Hader) runs around screaming with his butt ablaze, courtesy of a blast of fire from her Anger (Lewis Black). He also liked when Joy (Amy Poehler) was playfully talking to herself. "Joy is funny," the budding film critic added. My favorite part was everything else. The ambition. The intelligence. The complexity. The performances. The poignancy. Director and co-writer Pete Docter's film is as beautiful as it is profound, lively as it is meaningful. This is a movie that dares to explore existential crises, in the middle of the summer, in an animated movie that's aimed at the whole family. And damned if it doesn't pull it off. Like the best Pixar movies — "Up," "The Incredibles" and my personal favorite, "WALL-E" — it functions quite powerfully on multiple levels at once. And similar to "Ratatouille," in a lot of ways "Inside Out" isn't really for kids primarily, even though the figure at its center, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), is on the brink of adolescence, with all the recognizable angst that accompanies this shift. Children will certainly respond to the movie's spry energy, vibrant colors and clever humor. The script from Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley is one of the more substantive ones yet in a Pixar film — and don't forget, Docter previously directed and co-wrote "Monsters Inc." and "Up" — but it's also very, very funny, often in a slapsticky way. Er go, the butt on fire. A little bit on the premise, in case this all sounds a tad confusing and abstract. Riley has just moved from Minneapolis to San Francisco with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). This would be a difficult transition to make at any time in your childhood, but especially now. Eleven is such an awkward age — such a jumble of extreme emotions — which "Inside Out" keenly understands and demonstrates by going inside her brain to show us what she's thinking or feeling at any particular moment. Besides Joy, Anger and Fear, there's Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). When Riley was a little girl, her experiences and memories were all so clear-cut, they were color-coded. The happy ones, like scoring her first hockey goal, remain in the infrastructure of her brain as orbs that glow a bright yellow; the unpleasant ones, like being forced to eat broccoli as an infant, radiate a dark green. And the feelings themselves were reliable in their consistency. Joy always has been perky and resilient and glass-half-full (and Poehler does nimble voice work in playing a character that's the pixellated manifestation of her irresistible demeanor). But lately, the blue and bespectacled Sadness has come to the fore, between the move and all the disconcerting changes occurring both around her and inside her. Reminiscent of Eeyore in the "Winnie the Pooh" realm, Sadness is dryly hilarious — so pathetic and so sweet — and so often, the voice of reason. She's the one who's willing to speak the raw truth in an uncomfortable situation. And Smith, with her vulnerable and beautifully nuanced performance, ends up being the movie's unexpected MVP. From here, "Inside Out" follows how Riley — and the many sides of her — adapt, or don't. Her journey features many inspired, light moments, from the physical manifestation of a brain freeze while you're enjoying a cold treat to an annoying TV jingle that gets stuck in your head. But it has plenty of dramatic ones, too, including the relationship Riley's emotions have with her long-lost imaginary friend, Bing Bong, voiced heartbreakingly by Richard Kind. (Seriously, "Inside Out" rivals "Toy Story 3″ for the kind of ugly crying it'll provoke in you.) It may meander a tad in the literal labyrinth of Riley's mind as these figures struggle to work together to help her restore her shattered sense of self. But mostly, "Inside Out" remains sharp with some really sophisticated notions about the nature of memories — which ones we hold onto, where they sit in the brain, how long we keep them, how they shape our personalities and even how they help us forge relationships. It might sound dull or even didactic, but this being a Pixar film, "Inside Out" brings these concepts brilliantly to life. If my son can begin to grasp the idea that happiness and sadness can co-exist within the same moment — but also cackle so hard at a bit of physical comedy that his face turns red and the veins pop out on his neck — then we're onto something truly memorable here.
The Overnight (2015)
There's a strange thing that happens when you become a parent. Clearly, many strange things happen. But one of the primary ones is that you get a whole new set of friends. These are parent friends: people you probably never would have met otherwise, but with whom you now have this fundamental and cosmic thing in common. An instant bond, if you will, whether you want it or not. Maybe they're the parents of a kid in your son's kindergarten class or your daughter's soccer team. Maybe they're a random couple or a single dad you meet at the park. And along with meeting these people comes a whole new vulnerability. You're putting yourself out there for acceptance, all over again, as a grown person. You want your kids to get along, but, crucially, you want to be liked, too. It's a tricky balance to strike, and it's fraught with potential for some unlikely alliances. Writer/director Patrick Brice completely gets that dynamic—and explores it for deliciously awkward comedy—in "The Overnight." Brice's brisk and beguiling little indie takes you in various directions over the course of a long evening, but not necessarily the ones you might expect. You may think you know where a certain scene is headed—and it doesn't go there, or it goes there with a slight twist or detour. His film is deft and delicate and exquisitely uncomfortable, but it also offers revelations that are joyful, sad and true. It helps greatly that Brice has assembled a group of actors who are game for every adventure in Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche. They all get opportunities to shine and flex their muscles, in large and small ways, both as a foursome and in various permutations of paired-off couples. It's hard to write about this movie without giving too much away, but here goes
Scott and Schilling star as Alex and Emily, a married couple in their 30s who've just moved with their young son, RJ, from Seattle to a trendy section of Los Angeles. They know no one and they long to make friends—especially Alex, who's a bit more unmoored than Emily, who has an actual job in L.A. One morning at the local playground, their son connects quickly with another boy who's about his age. The boy's dad (Schwartzman's Kurt) walks over and greets Alex and Emily with a familiarity that's simultaneously intriguing and odd. In no time, he's invited all three of them to a casual pizza night at their house with his wife and son. It'll be a good chance for the boys to play some more and for the two couples to get to know each other, Kurt says. Relieved at the prospect of making new friends, they say yes, figuring that the worst thing that can happen is sharing a couple glasses of wine with a couple of bores. The fact that they don't quite know what to make of Kurt—with his hipster dress and hearty demeanor—sets the tone for the rest of the film. (Schwartzman keenly plays with his sometimes off-putting, know-it-all persona.) And when they walk through the gates of Kurt's Spanish-style mansion in the hills, only to be greeted by his glamorous and gorgeous French wife, Charlotte (Godreche), they feel even more intimidated and insecure. But Kurt and Charlotte go out of their way to make their new friends feel welcome, including lulling the boys to sleep in an upstairs bedroom after dinner to allow the adults to stay up and party longer. And that's about all I'm going to say about that. Suffice it to say, the couples get to know each other in ways they never could have imagined at the outset, with some moments of true hilarity and others that push the possibilities of absurdity. That brings up another thing that happens when you have kids: You cling to the notion that you're still young and fun and not old and lame. Brice also gets this by giving us characters who begin by being polite with each other, but end up pushing their own boundaries—and each others'—and baring their souls. (It's especially enjoyable to see Scott, best known for his improv comic abilities, get a chance to stretch with more dramatic material.) This may sound heavy, but Brice navigates the highs and lows smoothly, and his actors bring just the right energy to their ever-changing roles. Brice steadily ratchets up the tension and keeps us guessing as to what everyone's true intentions are. But eventually, the will-they-or-won't-they of a modern-day "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" gives way to an eeriness and a sense of true menace when the wives go on an impromptu field trip in the middle of the night. Cinematographer John Guleserian bathes the otherwise understated production in a garish, orange light during this section, which signals a shift toward heavier and more intimate terrain in the third act. "The Overnight" probably couldn't have gone on too much longer—at some point, the sun has to come up—and it may not stay with you for long after it's over. But see it with someone you love, and then just try to feel smug about the security of your own relationship afterward.
The title sequence for the "Entourage" movie is undoubtedly its high point. Glossily shot and smoothly edited with Jane's Addiction's "Superhero" blasting in the background, it's an expanded version of what we saw at the start of the HBO series for eight seasons, with cast and crew members' names emblazoned across various Los Angeles landmarks. But more care has been taken this time: Costume designer Olivia Miles' name appears in the signature, red- and-blue lettering on the ivy wall at Fred Segal, for example, while music supervisor Scott Vener's pops up in neon lights above the front door at Amoeba Records. It gets you pumped, and it suggests you're in for an exhilarating, stylish ride. But then it's all downhill from there. "Entourage" the movie is essentially an extended version of "Entourage" the TV show. Now, if you loved "Entourage" the TV show, this is probably thrilling news. But if you never watched the show, or only watched it in pieces, or stopped watching it once Vincent Chase and his buddies became obnoxious examples of everything that's wrong with this town, then you will surely find this exercise pointless. Four years after the show he created went off the air, writer-director Doug Ellin returns with nothing new or worthwhile. He only offers us an amped-up version of the series which plays for a longer period of time on a much larger screen. Movie star Vince (Adrian Grenier) and his childhood pals — manager E (Kevin Connolly), driver Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) and half-brother Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) — are no longer the lovable underdogs they were when they arrived in L.A. from Queens in 2004. They remain the same vapid, douchey assholes they've been since they became deeply entrenched in the most glamorous and superficial elements of the industry. The larger format doesn't necessarily mean a richer experience is in store. Far from it. These guys learn nothing, they don't change, they have no arc and they are never truly challenged. I'm sorry, I take that back — it's possible that Vince may not get the extra $7 million he needs to complete his $100 million directorial debut, a high-tech take on the legend of Jekyll and Hyde in which he also stars as a hot, hoodie-wearing DJ with glowing eyes. "Hyde," as it's called, looks terrible, by the way, from the brief moments we get to see. But the fact that the few characters who've seen the whole thing declare it a masterpiece makes me wonder whether Ellin intended all of this as satire in the first place, and not just a gratuitous wallow in rich-white-dude luxury. Could Ellin possibly have more in mind besides hot chicks in bikinis, bashes on yachts in Ibiza, glittering hilltop mansions and leisurely drives around Beverly Hills in expensive convertibles? Could he be making a statement about the capriciousness of Hollywood and the perils of wretched excess? Perhaps I'm giving him too much credit. The plot — strung together as it is between cameos from celebrities as random as Andrew Dice Clay, Jessica Alba, Warren Buffett, T.I. and Armie Hammer — begins with Vince partying it up with his pals because he's gotten has marriage annulled after just nine days. When the phone rings, it's Ari (Jeremy Piven), his former agent who's now a studio head. (They never name the studio but much of "Entourage" was clearly shot on the Warner Bros. lot.) His newfound power hasn't quelled his famous temper — Ari's blowups actually provide the few moments of genuine humor and energy here — but it does give him the clout to give Vince his dream starring role. Vince also insists on directing, however — something he has no idea how to do, and something we don't even see him do here, even though there is a finished product for interested parties to salivate over. But in order for Vince to put the final touches on "Hyde," Ari must go to a Texas billionaire investor (Billy Bob Thornton as a twangy, quirky stereotype) and beg for more money. His response is to send his no-good son, Travis (a skeevy Haley Joel Osment), to L.A. to sniff around and see if it's worthwhile. This leads to a preposterous would-be love triangle between Vince, Travis and Emily Ratajkowski, a model-actress best known for the "Blurred Lines" video, playing a version of herself. Her entire raison d'etre is to look gorgeous in tight dresses and make Vince feel better about himself when he's feeling low — although Grenier's range is so limited and the character remains so handsomely bland, it's hard to tell when he's feeling anything besides pleased to be here. Then again, nearly all the women in this movie are shrews, nags or half-naked ornamentation. The supporting characters who are afforded slightly more personality get subplots which are no more compelling. E tries to juggle various hot women who want to sleep with him while tending to his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui). Turtle flirts awkwardly with MMA superstar Ronda Rousey and enjoys the spoils of the high-end tequila brand he developed with Mark Cuban. And Drama hopes that his four scenes in "Hyde" will finally make him a superstar himself. There are no real stakes, though. Long before Mark Wahlberg — the original inspiration for "Entourage" — shows up with his real-life entourage to pimp out not one but two side projects, it's clear that these Teflon bros will just continue coasting through life, enjoying being mindlessly awesome.
Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015)
Lin Shaye is one of those character actors—like Margo Martindale and Stephen Tobolowsky— who have worked steadily for decades in a wide variety of supporting roles and they always make everything better. Even if they just appear in a few scenes, you're always glad to see them and you wish you could see them more. With "Insidious: Chapter 3," Shaye finally gets her "more." Her character, veteran psychic Elise Rainier, was the most compelling figure in the first two "Insidious" movies, which were surprise, low-budget hits in 2011 and 2013. Writer and co- star Leigh Whannell, who created the series with James Wan and directs for the first time here, wisely places her front and center and gives her plenty of room to shine. Shaye, whose best-known roles prior to the "Insidious" franchise have been in the Farrelly brothers favorites "There's Something About Mary" and "Kingpin," gets a chance to show an unusual amount of range for a horror movie heroine, from sadness and vulnerability to strength and resiliency. She's just as effective with a sympathetic look as she is with a well- timed quip. It's a joy to see such a seasoned performer seize her place in the spotlight at last. But making you happy is not the first priority of "Insidious: Chapter 3." It wants to scare the hell out of you, and it does that quite effectively with several serious jumps. About a half- dozen times, I'd say, Whannell creates moments that are legitimately surprising and frightening because he uses silence so well in contrast. I leapt out of my seat and grabbed the arm of the critic sitting next to me so often (and he did the same, although he shall remain nameless) that you'd think we'd never seen a horror movie before. Whannell's imagery is that solidly creepy and his pacing is that precise. He indulges in a few artsy camera angles and movements, but mostly directs in able and understated fashion. But beneath the scares, there is a substantial emotional undercurrent. By the end, you feel the characters' sense of loss and grief, of catharsis and eventual closure. There are legitimate stakes here, not just cheap thrills. "Insidious: Chapter 3" is more intimate and mournful than its predecessors—and perhaps not as consistently, suffocatingly scary—but maybe that's a good thing. The series needed to go in a different direction rather than repeating itself, and in doing so, it brings things full-circle. Having said that, you definitely need to have seen the first two films to understand why certain characters and their relationships matter, who the various demons are and how, if at all, these hauntings are intertwined. You could come into the third film cold but it might not hold as much meaning as it could. That's because "Insidious: Chapter 3" is a prequel which takes place a few years before the haunting of the Lambert family, led by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne's tormented and terrified husband and wife. It details how Elise became the fearless medium we now know her to be through an ordeal that helped her get her mojo back. High school senior Quinn (Disney Channel alum Stefanie Scott), mourning her mother's death from cancer a year and a half earlier, seeks Elise's help in contacting her. Reclusive in her bathrobe in the middle of the day, Elise insists she doesn't do that sort of thing anymore, for reasons that eventually become achingly clear. But she feels sympathy for this grieving girl and gives in, even though she's all-too familiar with the types of evil spirits she might reach instead. Turns out, the ghostly presence Quinn thinks is her mother is actually a predatory soul with an icky past and nefarious plans for the future. (The gooey, black footprints that start appearing all over the place should be the first clue that something is amiss.) But the whole family has been in a state of chaos and confusion since Quinn's mother's death, to the extent that nothing makes sense anymore: her scattered father, Sean (played with borderline sitcom cluelessness by Dermot Mulroney), and bratty younger brother, Alex (Tate Berney). A startling car accident that leaves aspiring actress Quinn with two broken legs renders her even more helpless to the ghost's advances; her immobility, and her inability to protect herself, provide much of the tension here. Like something out of "Rear Window," all she can do is watch and wait for inevitably terrible events to occur—just like us. And so Sean and Quinn reach out to Elise one more time and plead with her to help purge this dark spirit from their home (a historic Hollywood apartment building rather than a charming and creaky Craftsman or Victorian). At the same time, younger brother Alex has found a pair of self-styled ghostbusters through their YouTube channel who might be of assistance: Specs (Whannell himself) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), the bumbling and bantering duo who provided much-needed comic relief in the first two films. Watching Elise summon her inner strength to fight enemies on all sides in various dimensions —some of which exist in long, carpeted apartment hallways decorated in "Shining" chic—is the film's real thrill. And if/when he makes "Insidious: Chapter 4," Whannell would be wise to let her show what she can do once more. Petite and feisty, she's the most capable person in the room—alive or dead—and easily the most fascinating.
San Andreas (2015)
The question isn't whether "San Andreas" is ridiculous — of course it is, it's a disaster epic about earthquakes devastating California — but rather, how effective is that ridiculousness? Oddly, the answer is: not very. For a big, splashy summer blockbuster about destruction and carnage starring Dwayne Johnson, "San Andreas" is surprisingly dull. There's a repetitive, relentless sameness to the action without much scale or suspense. A massive quake rocks the Hoover Dam or downtown Los Angeles or middle-of-nowhere Central Valley or the streets of San Francisco. Buildings topple, concrete and glass rain from the sky and frightened masses flee in terror. Then a series of aftershocks starts the process all over again. Then the quakes trigger a tsunami, which levels everything once more. But director Brad Peyton rarely builds to these moments to maximize their potential tension. A powerful image like a gigantic wave flipping over a loaded cargo ship, snapping the Golden Gate Bridge in two as if it were made of Legos, doesn't wow us as much as it should. It's just one more event within a litany of mayhem. Peyton, who previously directed Johnson in 2012's mediocre "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island," smothers all the action in thick, glossy globs of CGI to such an extent that there's an emotional disconnect. We are detached from the stakes here; the fact that millions of people probably die and major U.S. cities are decimated feels like an afterthought, like collateral damage. The Big One, which we in Los Angeles have prepared for our entire lives, basically serves as a catalyst for Johnson's character to reconcile with his estranged wife and become a family once more with their 19-year-old daughter. The normally charismatic Johnson is stuck in a ruggedly stoic role as Ray Gaines, a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter pilot. At the film's start, it's clear he couldn't be more capable or commanding at work, but his home life is a wreck. His wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), has just served him divorce papers as she prepares to move into the Beverly Hills mansion of her new boyfriend, a slick and insanely wealthy architect named Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). Ray had been looking forward to driving his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), up the coast to college, but Daniel takes over that part of Ray's life, too, by offering to fly her there instead in his private jet. Even before the first hints of a rumble, it's clear that the earth ripping apart will bring them all back together. But first, Ray must commandeer various vehicles in order to swoop in as Super Dad. It's like "Planes, Trains & Automobiles," only with a catastrophic body count. First stop is the roof of a Los Angeles high rise, where Emma had been lunching at a luxurious restaurant with Daniel's disapproving sister (a barely-there Kylie Minogue). (Peyton does stage a long and impressive tracking shot through the shaky chaos here, though.) Then, the two head north as a team to find Blake, who's trapped in a limo inside the collapsed parking garage at Daniel's San Francisco corporate headquarters. (So much for his skyscrapers being structurally sound). But as Paul Giamatiti points out as Caltech seismologist Lawrence Hayes — the lone voice of reason and a welcome source of beautifully understated melodrama — the only thing to do in a situation like this is pray. Giamatti is the only person here who finds any subtext in "Lost" co-showrunner Carlton Cuse's script, giving his rather unimaginative lines more gravitas and camp than they deserve. Speaking of camp, Johnson gets one brief, shining opportunity to showcase his comic abilities when he unleashes a groaner of a pun in the middle of AT&T Park, the San Francisco Giants' home, even as the city is collapsing all around him. "San Andreas" actually could have used more of that instinct. If nothing else, acknowledging its own over-the-top nature provides a much-needed variance in tone. Mostly though, this guy is all business. There's never any concern that Ray won't save the day. He's The Rock. He's a behemoth. Although, in his quest to rescue Emma and Blake, he allows untold thousands to perish, even though it's, like, his job to help people. This being a PG-13 movie that aims to appeal to the widest possible audience, "San Andreas" couldn't be bothered with realistic stuff like suffering. But the film does deserve credit for the strong female characters it offers in Emma and Blake. Thanks to all those years they spent with a quick-thinking and resourceful firefighter in the family, they not only know how to keep themselves alive but rescue others, as well. A pair of British brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson) not only survive thanks to Blake but also learn some first aid and emergency response tips. Folks in the audience can learn a little something, too. For example: The perfectly coifed television reporter (Archie Panjabi) who'd been interviewing Giamatti's character dashes for the doorway at the first seismic shift. He tells her not to do that — to get underneath a sturdy table or desk and hold on tight instead. So ultimately, this mindless spectacle is most effective in its traces of realism. How groundbreaking is that?
On Tuesday night, at a Los Angeles multiplex, writer-director Cameron Crowe introduced his latest film, "Aloha," to a packed audience of media and regular moviegoers alike. This would be a highly unusual gesture in and of itself—filmmakers rarely show up randomly just to say hi, especially ones who are as established as Crowe—but what he said was just as unusual. It was a plea: Take this film for what it's intended to be, a love letter to Hawaii. Tune out the peripheral noise that's surrounded it for months. Have an open mind and heart and enjoy yourself. He never specifically said the words "Sony hack," although that's clearly what Crowe was referring to: the release of embarrassing e-mails that revealed his star-studded romantic comedy was in trouble based on early screenings. "Aloha" also has drawn criticism for its perceived lack of Hawaiian characters (although there are indeed some). Even if you didn't know any of that going into the film, though, the sensation of tinkering and re-tinkering would be inescapable. This is the rare Crowe film that could stand to be a little longer, that could use some more development in its characters and breathing room in their relationships. As it stands now, "Aloha" feels like several films at once, crammed together and sped up, with results that are emotionally hollow and narratively confusing. You can see the editing, and not in a good way. It's obvious in big developments that make you go: "Huh?" but also within individual scenes, with cutaways to different camera angles that disrupt the flow of dialogue. And the dialogue itself—the thing Crowe made his name on in his great, early films "Say Anything
," "Jerry Maguire" and "Almost Famous"—so frequently strains for his signature poignancy that it feels like a parody of a Crowe script. For all its needless complications, "Aloha" can be summed up simply: It's "Elizabethtown," in Hawaii. So much here is so similar to Crowe's 2005 film, which previously had been considered his least successful. It features a man who's hit bottom, personally and professionally, who must return to his home of sorts to right some wrongs. In the process, he meets a perky and quirky young blonde who sees the innate good in this flawed creature and aggressively makes it her mission to make him happy again. Bradley Cooper is the Orlando Bloom figure in the equation and Emma Stone is his Kirsten Dunst—his manic pixie dream girl, if you will, since "Elizabethtown" is the film that inspired that phrase. Cooper stars as Brian Gilcrest, whose job is a little vague, but it seems he's a former military man who nearly died in a missile attack in Afghanistan. He now works for billionaire private defense contractor Carson Welch (Bill Murray), which requires him to return to his former Air Force base in Hawaii—something to do with launching a satellite AND helping gain the native Hawaiians' blessing for a new pedestrian gate. Why him, of all people? Doesn't matter. Conveniently, the pilot who flies him there, the stoic Woody (John Krasinski), happens to be married to Brian's former girlfriend, Tracy (Rachel McAdams), the one who got away. Woody and Tracy now have two kids together and a seemingly happy life—until they don't, suddenly. Brian's escort and minder while on the base is Emma Stone's Captain Ng. She's abrupt and uptight and all business—until she isn't, suddenly. One minute, the up-and-coming officer is snapping crisp salutes; the next, she's smiling radiantly, casually playing an acoustic guitar and singing a traditional folk tune with the locals. As she repeatedly points out, she's a quarter Hawaiian—and a quarter Chinese, if you can believe that—and so the mysticism within the culture moves her deeply. This person's actions make absolutely no sense from one scene to the next, including her out-of-nowhere but admittedly entertaining dance routine with Murray's character to Hall and Oates' "I Can't Go For That." (Soundtracks are always crucial to Crowe, the former rock journalist; this one also includes the Tears for Fears classic "Everybody Wants to Rule the World.") Naturally, Brian and Ng will fall for each other, which Crowe depicts in part through the tried- and-true cliché of a shopping montage. But he also must reconcile his failed relationship with Tracy. And he must do Carson's bidding, which puts his current relationship with Ng in jeopardy. Besides Murray's underwritten character, "Aloha" also struggles to make room for Danny McBride as a longtime friend of Brian's who's now in charge of the base (his primary personality trait is that he messes with his fingers while he talks) and Alec Baldwin as the gruff and insulting general, a role Baldwin could perform in his sleep. So yes, there's a lot going on here. Stranded in the middle of it all in a flimsy love triangle are three actors who normally radiate charisma: Cooper, Stone and McAdams. French cinematographer Eric Gautier ("The Motorcycle Diaries," "Into the Wild") photographs them all beautifully, with lighting that always captures their piercing eyes and strong cheekbones just right. And the Hawaiian scenery is, of course, lovely. But a movie with such likable stars in such a gorgeous setting should feel like a vacation itself, not work.
Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)
Stop me if you think you've heard this one before. A perky group of college a cappella singers suffers an embarrassing on-stage mishap, then fights to redeem itself and regain its former glory. Along the way, there's a little romance, a lot of trash talk, an impromptu sing-off with rival groups, some bawdy moments from a brash supporting player and plenty of clueless commentary courtesy of an announcing duo that also serves as the film's Greek chorus. Yes, "Pitch Perfect 2″ is pretty much the exact same movie as "Pitch Perfect." In theory, this is great if you loved the original film, which became a sleeper hit in 2012. I loved the first "Pitch Perfect" so much, I gave it three and a half stars out of four, but much of what I loved about it was how refreshing it felt. It was cheeky and snarky and it pulled off the tricky feat of making us fall in love with the very thing it was making fun of. Its earnestness and exuberance were infectious in equal measure. There is no single moment here that matches the ingenuity of Anna Kendrick's "Cups" audition, no song that brings you to the verge of tears with its sheer beauty like her spontaneous shower duet with Brittany Snow to David Guetta and Sia's "Titanium." The best scene in the entire movie is a rip-off of the best scene from the first movie: a riff-off with various other singing groups, filled with inspired cameos and organized by a delightfully odd David Cross. "Pitch Perfect 2″ has plenty of laughs scattered throughout, but it also struggles to regain that balance and that sense of breeziness. It runs out of steam somewhere in the middle and probably could have been a good, solid 20 minutes shorter. Making her feature directing debut, co-star and producer Elizabeth Banks stages the production numbers in brisk and entertaining fashion — it's just the actual, cohesive story in between that tends to bog things down. (As in the first film, Kay Cannon wrote the script; mercifully, there seem to be fewer made-up words with aca- in front of them.) One of the main problems with "Pitch Perfect 2″ is that it marginalizes its star, the infinitely talented and adorable Kendrick. Beca's arc from reluctant performer to driving creative force gave the first film momentum, and her romance with the charismatic Skylar Astin from the all-male a cappella group the Treblemakers provided a nice spark. She had attitude. She had an edge about her, which was a great change of pace for Kendrick compared to the good-girl, Type-A characters she'd mostly played. Here, she's reduced to a supporting figure, and Astin is an afterthought in just a handful of scenes. Rebel Wilson is the film's star this time. Granted, "Pitch Perfect 2″ remains an ensemble — and an ever-expanding one, at that — but Wilson was such a scene stealer last time as a brassy Aussie who nicknamed herself Fat Amy that she's been given even more room to work her inappropriate comic shtick. As enjoyable as Wilson can be, she's also rather one-note, and a little of her goes a long way. Speaking of notes, the songs that the Barden Bellas and their competitors sing are even more polished and overproduced than ever, to the point that there's an emotional disconnect. But things don't go so well off the top. As reigning national a cappella champs, the Bellas have the honor of performing for President Obama and the first lady. But a wardrobe malfunction during a complicated maneuver by Fat Amy — which comes to be known as Muffgate, in an unfortunate bit of female body shaming — makes the ladies a laughingstock and costs them their title. (Once again, Banks and John Michael Higgins crop up as a Christopher Guest mockumentary-style broadcasting team to provide perspective through satirically sexist and racist remarks. Some of these are hilarious; others land with a thud.) But! Through a loophole, the Bellas are still allowed to represent the United States at the world championships in Copenhagen. There, they will face a juggernaut German group called Das Sound Machine, which essentially consists of about 20 people doing that "Sprockets" bit from "Saturday Night Live" as they sing songs like "Insane in Ze Membrane." Their leader is a gorgeous, blonde Teutonic stereotype (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) who repeatedly gets Beca giddy and tongue-tied. Insecurity and skittishness, however, are not what this character is about. And so it's also odd to see Beca scurrying off to a secret internship at a record company because she's afraid to tell the Bellas and let them down — even though, you know, she and the other ladies are seniors now and should be thinking about their futures. (Then again, Bella co-leader Chloe, played once again by an enthusiastic Snow, has stayed in college for seven years because she's so afraid of the real world.) The presence of comedian Keegan-Michael Key as Beca's demanding but ultimately enlightening boss significantly improves this subplot, though. But wait, there's more. As part of Wilson's larger role here, she also gets a more significant romance with Adam DeVine as the Treblemakers' cocky former leader, including a bombastic duet which is pretty amusing. All the other supporting players from the first "Pitch Perfect" are back, including Hana Mae Lee with her absurd and nearly silent asides (a bit that was funnier the first time). And there's a new recruit in freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), a singer-songwriter and legacy whose mother (Katey Sagal in a barely-there part) was a legendary Bella more than 30 years ago. Clearly, the stage is being set for "Pitch Perfect 3″ — whether the world needs it or not.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The trailer alone — a 2 1/2-minute thrill ride of flying vehicles and fiery skies — screams with visceral images that sear into your brain and suggest that this must be a masculine and muscular cinematic extravaganza typical of the season. So what a lovely surprise it was on this lovely day to find that "Mad Max: Fury Road" is a fiercely feminist declaration of independence — pure hearted, passionate and full of beautifully realized moments of poignancy. Yes, it's as bad-ass as you've heard: powerful yet fluid, gritty yet crisp, sublime in the daring originality of its action sequences and flat-out gorgeous to watch. Just when you think that Miller, as director and co-writer, has topped himself with a grand and gripping set piece, he goes even more gloriously over the top with the next. Believe all the hype: This movie will melt your face off. See it on the biggest screen you can possibly find with the best possible sound, because this is a complete sensory experience. There's one image that was so vividly gnarly, it made me jump out of my seat and grab the shoulder of the friend sitting next to me. (Sorry, Amy.) And yet it conveys an underlying humanity in exquisite and convincing ways. Perhaps this stands out even more because it exists in such an outlandish wasteland. "Mad Max: Fury Road" is a movie in which men initially seem to dominate, but eventually it reveals that it's truly about strong women fighting for each other, fighting for survival, fighting for the future. Hardy, as Max, becomes a passenger both literally and figuratively. This is truly Charlize Theron's film. As the fearless and unflappable Imperator Furiosa, Theron has given us a supreme action heroine for the ages. With her shaved head, greased face, a steam punk-inspired mechanical arm and an endless arsenal within the war rig she drives, she's an intimidating and resourceful protector. Theron has shirked her gorgeous looks previously (in her Oscar- winning performance in "Monster") and she's dared to play truly unlikable characters (in "Young Adult" and "Snow White and the Huntsman"). Here, there's a beauty to her ferocity, a regalness to her statuesque demeanor and — ultimately — a tenderness and vulnerability which are heartbreaking. It's no hyperbole to say she's right up there with Sigourney Weaver in the "Alien" franchise and Linda Hamilton in the "Terminator" films. Although the film is told from Max's perspective in the script from Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, Furiosa is the one who's truly driving the story in myriad ways. This isn't really a sequel to the three previous movies — the low-budget "Mad Max" (1979), the hugely influential "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" (1981) and the Tina Turner-tastic "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" (1985) — nor is it a remake. You could call it a reboot, but that makes it sound reheated. "Fury Road" fits squarely within the series mythology but it's wildly vibrant and a true original. Former police officer Max Rockatansky is running from his past, from both the living and the dead as he says in a low, rumbling voice-over. From the first richly over saturated images of Max surveying the unforgiving desert landscape that lies before him — Oscar-winner John Seale is responsible for the stunning cinematography — his sense of isolation is palpable. But this ultimate loner and rebel finds himself an unwitting pawn at the Citadel, a fortress carved out of the side of a mountain where the grotesque tyrant Immortan Joe rules completely through a twisted cult of personality. In a neat bit of casting, the actor playing Joe is Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villainous motorcycle gang leader the Toecutter in the original "Mad Max." (He's still creepy as hell all these years later, in case you were wondering.) When Joe's most trusted driver, Theron's Furiosa, veers off course and goes rogue during a routine run to Gas Town, the chase is on, and the imprisoned Max is right in the thick of it. He's strapped to the grill of a car driven by the jacked-up and thoroughly unstable Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a War Boy who foolishly believes his loyalty to the sadistic Joe will land him a spot in Valhalla. Shaved and painted a blinding white like the rest of Joe's minions, the usually handsome Hoult is a frightening sight to behold. But his appearance also suggests an innocence — an infancy, almost — which makes him an unexpectedly sympathetic figure. (Lesley Vanderwalt was in charge of the inspired hair and makeup design; meanwhile, Oscar- winner and multiple nominee Jenny Beavan provided the artfully rough-hewn costume design, which couldn't be farther away from the clothes she made her name on in classic Merchant- Ivory films like "A Room With a View" and "Howards End.") Actually, calling what Nux is driving a "car" suggests something you've seen before. These are the remnants of society, slapped together and souped up for survival in dystopia: muscle cars on top of tanks, vintage cars on top of oil rigs and things that look like killer porcupines with wheels underneath them. The level of detail is dazzling over and over again, and the tactile thrill of practical effects provides great joy and a real connection — especially during blockbuster season when so much of what we see is the product of glossy CGI. And that's basically the entire plot: One big, long chase across the desert. What happens along the way is awesome, frightening, deeply strange and darkly funny, but it's never less than jaw-dropping and it's constantly surprising. A sequence that takes place entirely within a wall of swirling dirt and piercing lighting will leave you breathless; a quieter moment amid barren trees and blue moonlight provides an unshakable melancholy. The score from Tom Holkenborg (a.k.a. Junkie XL) provides just the right tone each time: propulsive here, introspective there.
Gimme Shelter (2013)
"Gimme Shelter" is a clunkily-made, bat -crazy parable that hammers you over the head with its Christian, anti-abortion message. An after-school special blown up on the big screen, it stridently aims to inspire you. More likely, it'll make you cringe. Vanessa Hudgens does deserve credit, though, for further shedding her Disney Channel packaging. Following increasingly daring roles in films including "Sucker Punch" and "Spring Breakers," Hudgens continues to bludgeon her good-girl image. Here, she plays an abused, pregnant teen who runs away from her volatile, drug-addicted mother (a feral Rosario Dawson). Covered in tats, piercings and 15 pounds of extra body weight, with shorn locks and smudges of dark eyeliner, Hudgens is unrecognizable. Just look at the picture up there: If you didn't know that was the adorably perky star of the "High School Musical" movies, who would you think it was? It's hard not to admire the intention, the dedication, the almost animalistic demeanor she's achieved. But then she opens her mouth, and her stiff line readings of awkward dialog make it impossible to become emotionally engaged by her character's journey. Clearly, writer-director Ronald Krauss means well, too. He spent a great deal of time with real-life pregnant teens in hopes of infusing his film with a feeling of authenticity. But the total lack of artistry, nuance and sometimes even basic competence is so distracting as to be destructive. He's also preaching to the choir — sometimes literally, given the crucial role the church has in his film. "Gimme Shelter" finds no room for debate; it reaffirms what like- minded viewers already believe about a divisive and emotional topic. In that regard, it actually does a disservice to young women who might find themselves in the same difficult state. At the film's start, Hudgens' Agnes Bailey — who prefers to be called Apple — dares to flee the clutches of her junkie, welfare-leeching mom to find the biological father she never knew. Turns out that the man who fathered her in a youthful fit of unprotected sex, Tom Fitzpatrick (Brendan Fraser), is now a wealthy Wall Street financier living in a McMansion in leafy New Jersey. His prim, thin wife (Stephanie Szostak) and their two perfect children are appalled at the sight of her gruff and grimy appearance. But soon, it become obvious that Apple is pregnant (although the identity of the father and the circumstances surrounding her conception are strangely irrelevant here). While the uptight stepmom makes the logical suggestion that perhaps Apple is not prepared to become a mother under these circumstances at age 16, Apple has made up her mind — she's keeping her baby — likely out of an innate sense of rebellion rather than any maternal instinct. Tom and his wife are depicted as moneyed, distant and soulless for arranging an appointment for her at a local clinic (no one actually says the word "abortion," by the way) but it doesn't matter. Once again, Apple dashes back out onto the streets, alone. Eventually, she ends up crossing paths with a kindly but firm priest played by James Earl Jones. When James Earl Jones tells you to go to church, you go to church. When James Earl Jones tells you to pray, you pray. And when he arranges a bed for you a nearby shelter for pregnant teens, that's clearly where you must go. While Apple is at the core of "Gimme Shelter," the fundamental story is about Kathy DiFiore, the real-life shelter founder who was once homeless herself. (She's played by Ann Dowd, who gave such a startling performance as a fast-food manager in "Compliance." Now THERE'S a film that sparks debate.) Apple's interactions with the other young mothers at DiFiore's home — which is cluttered with photographs of Ronald Reagan and Mother Teresa and posters of inspirational religious messages — feel uncomfortably forced. Her eventual softening into a proper young lady — complete with flowered sundresses, cardigan sweaters and clean, pretty air — comes out of nowhere. And the stunning 180-degree turn on the part of key characters (that's not really a spoiler now, is it?) is thoroughly unconvincing. The emotional catharsis the film strives for is unearned, rendering its ultimate uplift not just hollow but laughable.
Ask Me Anything (2014)
I have not seen the trailer for this film or known what it was about when I watched it. I Came across it on Netflix. Me not having anything else to watch I said sure why not. The movie didn't look very promising to me. Britt Robertson who I have seen in very few movies such as Scream 4 and Cake. I was interested to see her in this type of character. Christian Slater who has seem to have stepped away from fame in the past 9 or 10 years made me want to see this (Mainly because he's eye candy). The first 30 minutes I was very into it. I enjoyed the Katie character and and the films plot. By this point I thought this must be a dark comedy. By this point I love this Katie character and no matter what bad she does I still like her. Further into the movie you learn more about Katie and her dark past. I then thought well this darker than I thought it was going to be. By the end of the movie I was speechless and left in a state of shock for 5 minutes. Very few movies can actually do that to me. I would never rate a movie like this a 8.8/10. If you have never seen the movie the high rating may seem silly. Now that I have seen this movie I really Love Britt Robertson. I know she has done some TV shows and other movies but I can't wait to see her in Tommarowland. She has something special. She connects with the audience before you even know about who character really is. I love this movie and I suggest you watch it on Netflix. I am thinking of buying the DVD but it is like 25$. I don't know but I think this movie is great for our generation to watch because it focuses on what is reality and what is fake.
"Whiplash" puts us in the deliciously uncomfortable position of rooting for the shared success of two characters who are unlikable individually and toxic together. It's one of the most disturbing entertaining movies I've seen in a long while. The only thing I can compare it to would be watching a Stanley Kubrick film, although the second feature from 29- year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle couldn't be more different stylistically from the chilly and precise work of the late master; it's feverishly alive and relentlessly intense. Still, "Whiplash" similarly provokes contradictory reactions and emotions. It wows you and makes you squirm simultaneously. I can't say I enjoyed myself, but I also can't deny being dazzled.
John Wick (2014)
Just when John Wick thought he was out, they pull him back in. It's the tried-and-true formula of one last job/heist/assignment. A longtime bad guy leaves the life of crime in pursuit of peace and quiet, but naturally gets dragged back to his old haunts and habits to settle a final score. But "John Wick" breathes exhilarating life into this tired premise, thanks to some dazzling action choreography, stylish visuals and–most importantly–a vintage anti-hero performance from Keanu Reeves. Toward the end of the film, a menacing Russian mobster remarks that the veteran hit man John Wick looks very much like the John Wick of old. Keanu Reeves looks very much like the Keanu Reeves of old, as well. Elegantly handsome and athletically lean, he looks fantastic at 50 and is comfortably, securely back in action-star mode. Not that he's been gone that long– or deviated that much from his persona–but this later-stage butt-kicking does call to mind Liam Neeson's recent resurgence in movies like "Taken," "The Grey" and "Non-Stop." After all these years, though, he's still quintessentially Keanu. He radiates a Zen-like calm which makes him simultaneously elusive and irresistible, especially in the face of great mayhem. There's still a boyish quality to his face but it belies the wisdom of his years. He's smarter than he looks but he's in no great hurry to go out of his way to prove it to you–at least, not on screen. He just
is. A character like John Wick is right in Reeves' wheelhouse because it allows him to be coolly, almost mythically confident, yet deliver an amusing, deadpan one-liner with detached precision. (This is when traces of the playful characters of his youth–Ted "Theodore" Logan and Johnny Utah–take a moment to surface.) But when the time comes–and it comes often in "John Wick"–he can deliver with a graceful yet powerful physicality. Soon after the death of his wife (Bridget Moynahan)–the woman whose love inspired him to retire from his life as an expert assassin–Wick receives an unwelcome visit to his minimalist, modern mansion in the middle of the night. Russian bad guys have come to steal his prized 1969 Mustang–and they kill his dog in the process. The latter act is horrifying in itself; what's even worse is that the adorable beagle puppy, Daisy, was a posthumous gift to John from his dying wife, who knew he'd need someone else to love. (Moynahan's character, by the way, is barely even a person. She's an image on a smartphone video clip–a body lying in a hospital bed, suffering from an unspecified disease. She's an idea. But her loss provides Wick with a melancholy that lingers over his demeanor and every decision he makes.) Wick wastes no time unearthing his stashed arsenal and seeking revenge. It turns out that the group's reckless, young leader, Iosef (Alfie Allen), is the son of a former associate of Wick's: mob boss Viggo Tarasov (a sophisticated but scary Michael Nyqvist), who is fully aware of Wick's killing capacity. Also in the mix is Willem Dafoe as an expert sniper who may or may not be on Wick's side. Once the premise is established in the script from Derek Kolstad, it's scene after scene of Wick taking out entire rooms full of people who are foolish enough to stand in his way. This is not exactly a complicated genre from a narrative perspective. But directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch–who work as a filmmaking team, although Leitch technically takes producing credit–are both veteran stuntman who clearly know what they're doing when it comes to this kind of balletic action. Stahelski got his break 20 years ago when he served as a stunt double following Brandon Lee's deadly accident while shooting "The Crow" and went on to perform as Reeves' stunt double in "The Matrix" trilogy. Leitch's work includes doubling for Brad Pitt (in "Fight Club" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith") and Matt Damon (in "The Bourne Ultimatum"). All those years of experience and exposure give their film a level of confidence you don't ordinarily see in first-time directors. They're smart enough to let the intricate choreography speak for itself. They let the fight scenes play out without relying on a lot of nauseating shaky-cam or Cuisinart edits, which sadly have become the aesthetic standard of late. But beyond the exquisite brutality they put on display, they've also got an eye for artistry, with cinematographer Jonathan Sela helping convey an ominous sense of underworld suspense. Early scenes are so crisply desaturated, they look black and white, from the cloudy, rainy skies over Wick's wife's funeral to his head-to-toe wardrobe to his sleek, slate-gray Mustang. As Wick begins to re-immerse himself in the criminal world he'd escaped, other scenes pop in their vibrancy–the deep green of a secret, members-only cocktail bar, or the rich red of a Russian bad guy's shirt under an impeccably tailored suit. While the body count grows numbing and repetitive, "John Wick" actually is more compelling in the aesthetically heightened, specifically detailed world it depicts. It's the New York City of the here and now, but Wick, his fellow assassins and other sundry nefarious sorts occupy their own parallel version of it, with its own peculiar rules which almost seem quaint. They have their own currency: gold coins reminiscent of pirates' doubloons, which can be used for goods and services or just as thanks for a favor. And they frequent an upscale, downtown hotel and bar called The Continental (Lance Reddick from "The Wire" is the unflappably polite manager), a sort of safe zone where protocol dictates that peace prevails, and where killing is cause for dismissal. The courtliness of it all provides an amusing and welcome contrast to the non-stop carnage. You can check out any time you'd like, it seems, but you can never leave.
The first time we see Michael Keaton in his tighty-whities in "Birdman," it's from behind. His character, a formerly high-flying movie star, is sitting in the lotus position in his dressing room of a historic Broadway theater, only he's levitating above the ground. Bathed in sunlight streaming in from an open window, he looks peaceful. But a voice inside his head is growling, grumbling, gnawing at him grotesquely about matters both large and small. The next time we see Keaton in his tighty-whities in "Birdman," he's dashing frantically through Times Square at night, having accidentally locked himself out of that same theater in the middle of a performance of a Raymond Carver production that he stars in, wrote and directed. He's swimming upstream through a river of gawking tourists, autograph seekers, food carts and street performers. But despite the chaos that surrounds him, he seems purposeful, driven and–for the first time–oddly content. These are the extremes that director Alejandro G. Inarritu navigates with audacious ambition and spectacular skill in "Birdman"–the full title of which is "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)." He's made a film that's both technically astounding yet emotionally rich, intimate yet enormous, biting yet warm, satirical yet sweet. It's also the first time that Inarritu, the director of ponderous downers like "Babel" and "Biutiful," actually seems to be having some fun. Make that a ton of fun. "Birdman" is a complete blast from start to finish. The gimmick here– and it's a dozy, and it works beautifully–is that Inarritu has created the sensation that you are watching a two-hour film shot all in one take. Working with the brilliant and inventive cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who won an Oscar this year for shooting "Gravity" for Inarritu's close friend and fellow Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron), Inarritu has constructed the most delicate and dazzling high-wire act. And indeed, before shooting began, the director sent his cast a photo of Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers as inspiration. Through impossibly long, intricately choreographed tracking shots, the camera swoops through narrow corridors, up and down tight stairways and into crowded streets. It comes in close for quiet conversations and soars between skyscrapers for magical-realism flights of fancy. A percussive and propulsive score from Antonio Sanchez, heavy on drums and cymbals, maintains a jazzy, edgy vibe throughout. Sure, you can look closely to find where the cuts probably happened, but that takes much of the enjoyment out of it. Succumbing to the thrill of the experience is the whole point. Just as thrilling is the tour-DE-force performance from Keaton in the role of a lifetime as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up actor trying to regain the former glory he achieved as the winged action hero Birdman. The film follows the fraught early going of his Broadway debut which is also his last shot at greatness–although his on-screen alter ego doesn't help much by voicing his fears and making him doubt himself incessantly. Yes, it's knowingly amusing that Keaton, who peaked 20-plus years ago as a superhero, is playing an actor who peaked 20-plus years ago as a superhero. Although I'd happily argue that Keaton's Batman for Tim Burton in 1989 is THE definitive performance of the iconic character–but that's a whole 'nother conversation for another time. Or is it? While "Birdman" exists in its own meticulously realized world, it's very much of this time and place from a pop-culture perspective, with references to other real-life actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Fassbender who've enjoyed enormous success when they've donned the superhero duds. The script from Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo is cleverly meta without being too cutesy and self-satisfied. Keaton gets to toy with his persona a bit–as well as acknowledge how comparatively quiet his career has been in recent years–but seeing him in seasoned form provides its own joy. He's still hyper-verbal and playful and he can still be amusing and lacerating in his delivery, but there's a wry wistfulness and even a desperation in the mix now that's achingly poignant. Also confronting his real-life reputation is Edward Norton as Mike Shiner, the brilliant but infamously capricious actor who steps in as Riggan's co-star just as previews are about to begin on his labor-of-love production of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Norton, who's come with the baggage of being difficult and demanding over the years, finds just the right balance between arrogance and sincerity. Besides, they need each other, as they find in the days leading up to opening night. They all need each other. Inarritu has amassed a tremendous supporting cast and made ridiculous technical demands of them, yet they've all more than risen to the occasion and relished the chance to shine. Zach Galifianakis plays strongly against type as Riggan's manager and the rare voice of reason in the middle of all this madness. Emma Stone is adorable as Riggan's world-weary, wise-ass daughter who also serves as his assistant. (She and Norton have crackling chemistry in a couple of crucial scenes.) Amy Ryan does wonders with her brief screen time as Riggan's ex-wife; she fleshes him out and allows us to see both the selfish and the good in him. And Naomi Watts, who starred in Inarritu's wrenching "21 Grams," gets to play both light and heavy moments as a neurotic fellow cast member. It's powerfully clear that they all worked their asses of to make this complicated thrill ride look effortless. The result is one of the best times you'll have at the movies this year–which might even be the best movie this year.
Hot Pursuit (2015)
At the end of the mismatched-buddy comedy "Hot Pursuit," during the closing credits, there's a series of outtakes. This is frequently the case, especially when the performers have a knack for improv, and it can be amusing or even enlightening to see how a scene in the film might have played out in an alternate fashion. The outtakes at the end of "Hot Pursuit," however, are informative in a totally different way. They make it clear that there is even less funny stuff than what we've just seen. And that's astounding. "Hot Pursuit" isn't just flat, it's actively frustrating. It's simultaneously manic and lazy. It's vaguely misogynistic but too tame to be truly offensive. And it's a massive waste of two actresses who are appealing individually and might have had a crackling chemistry together: Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara. Their differences extend from their physical appearances to the auras they exude: Witherspoon is petite and precise, Vergara is curvaceous and outrageous. But they share an interest in playing comic roles that push and play with the limits of feminine extremes: Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in "Election" and Elle Woods in the "Legally Blonde" movies, Vergara as Gloria on TV's "Modern Family." These are smart women who are clever enough to pull off some tricky comedy with a wink and a smile. "Hot Pursuit," directed tepidly by Anne Fletcher ("27 Dresses," "The Proposal") from a script by two men (sitcom writers David Feeney and John Quaintance) which is reliant on fake lesbian make out sessions and menstruation jokes, places these actresses in overly simplistic yet uncomfortable boxes with no way out. Each character is a one-note idea rather than a fully fleshed-out figure, and not a particularly inspired one, at that. Once the film takes a break from its shrill antics and allows Witherspoon and Vergara the opportunity to dial it down and show some range, it offers a glimpse into the kind of substantive, convincing connection they might have forged. Such moments are rare but welcome. Witherspoon stars as an innocent and uptight police officer known only as Cooper. The daughter of a late, veteran cop (as we see in the film's opening montage, which shows her growing up in the back seat of his patrol car), Cooper has been stuck in the evidence room ever since an unfortunate Taser incident. (The timing for a running bit about police brutality is unfortunate.) But she's eager to prove her worth in the field once more. Since she's apparently the only woman on the force in the entire city of San Antonio, Cooper gets the assignment from her captain (John Carroll Lynch) to escort the wife of a high-ranking drug cartel member to Dallas so she can testify against the kingpin before entering witness protection. That would be Vergara's Daniella Riva, a Colombian sexpot who's a whirlwind of tight clothes and twisted English. Naturally, nothing goes down as planned — a massive shootout with multiple sets of gunmen leaves both Riva's husband and Cooper's partner dead, which is played awkwardly for laughs. The two women are then forced to go on the run — in a vintage convertible, no less, although Cooper and Riva are definitely NOT Thelma and Louise — but fleeing inadvertently makes them suspects and the subjects of a statewide search. A crash leaves Riva's car in ruins and sends a cloud of hidden cocaine into the air, which makes Cooper even more obnoxiously chatty than she already was. (Witherspoon is essentially doing a version of Holly Hunter in "Raising Arizona" here, only with far less inspired writing.) With Riva's over-sized suitcase full of overpriced heels in tow, the two commandeer various vehicles in hopes of reaching Dallas safely. Mostly, they bicker. That photo at the top of the review isn't even a moment that occurs in the movie, but it's a pretty perfect encapsulation of its ethos. Cooper rattles off penal codes and procedures in a twangy monotone, Riva makes fun of her for being small and weird in two different languages. And that's pretty much the extent of their dynamic throughout various contrived, madcap scenarios. A would-be romance between Cooper and a parolee (Rob Kazinsky) whose pickup truck they steal feels wedged-in, as does an effort to explain Riva's motivation through the context of her murdered brother. These women are clearly game — look no further than a scene in which they dress up in a deer carcass to avoid a police checkpoint — and given that they also function as producers, they're invested on multiple levels. But their efforts are in the service of material that renders their characters as little more than stereotypes. These are exciting times for daring, female-centric comedies that appeal to all audiences, from "Bridesmaids" to "The Heat" to this summer's "Spy" (which all happen to have the benefit of the same enlightened director, Paul Feig). "Hot Pursuit" tries to take a step forward in adapting the mismatched-buddy action-comedy model to a feminine perspective, but it feels like a giant leap backward. It's actually, actively worse than you think it's going to be.
Girl Most Likely (2012)
Kristen Wiig should, in theory, be able to elevate any film or show she's in simply by showing up and being her smart, clever, fearless self. With a well-timed deadpan aside or an amusingly awkward physical bit, she makes decent material better and good material great. This is a notion that "Girl Most Likely" pushes to the absolute limits. Wiig finds herself sadly outmatched in this comedy crammed with wacky and tacky characters—types, all of them—in which she's stuck functioning as the uptight, frustrated straight woman in the middle. She rarely gets a chance to shine because her role is so underwritten. Husband-and-wife directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have had success in the past with inspired subject matter, such as the excellent "American Splendor" from 2003. Here, they're working from a script by Michelle Morgan that's chock-full of contrived situations and very few moments that actually ring true. It contains a menagerie of quirky weirdos: people we're clearly meant to laugh at for being ridiculous, delusional, pathetic or all of the above, up until the precise moment that we're supposed to join the film in doing a 180-degree turn and embracing them for being exactly who they are. This is the formulaic, inevitable journey Wiig's character, Imogene, must travel. At the film's start, she's a well-to-do Manhattan magazine writer attending a society event with her obviously evasive longtime boyfriend. It's clear she doesn't quite fit in with these old-moneyed women, though—she doesn't have the right pedigree or wear the right dress or say just the right, vapid thing in conversation. With head-spinning swiftness, Imogene loses her boyfriend, job and apartment and fakes a suicide attempt, all of which plays out in broad, sitcommy fashion. And so this once- promising playwright must return to her hometown, a place she's been running from her whole adult life: the cheesy slab of boardwalk known as Ocean City, N.J. (In case we didn't know we were in New Jersey, "Girl Most Likely" features really obvious song choices on the soundtrack from both Bon Jovi AND Bruce Springsteen.) There, she is forced to coexist in a cramped, cluttered beach house with her blowsy, hard- gambling mother, Zelda (Annette Bening in a husky accent) and Zelda's younger boyfriend, an alleged CIA agent who goes by the name George Bousche (say it out loud). He's played by Matt Dillon. There's also Imogene's younger brother, Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), who's obsessed with crabs and appears to be mentally challenged in some unspecified way; and Lee ("Glee" star Darren Criss), the twenty-something who's renting out Imogene's childhood bedroom. Bob Balaban gets even less to work with as Imogene and Ralph's father, whom they haven't seen in decades because their mother told them he was dead. This development is also supposed to be funny, and poignant, but never succeeds either way. It's not enough to assemble an esteemed cast—you have to give them something worthwhile to, you know, do. Criss, in his first major role in a feature film, is the only person to emerge completely unscathed. While his character may seem impossibly sweet and charming, Criss has a natural likability and some nice chemistry with Wiig—more so than anybody else in the cast, certainly. ("Glee" fans will be happy to know that the leader of the Warblers does indeed get to belt out a suddenly ubiquitous, '90s boy-band tune.) But the desperate straining for laughs isn't nearly so off-putting as the abrupt tonal shift "Girl Most Likely" makes as it trudges toward its conclusion. The film encourages us to enjoy feeling superior and smug to Imogene's relatives and their schlocky surroundings, just as she does, then goes all soft and gooey and wants us to love them. This is particularly difficult to do because they're not so much recognizable people as a collection of flimsy eccentricities, shriveling up in the sunshine of the Jersey shore.
Short Term 12 (2013)
It all could have been painfully mawkish, populated as it is with the kinds of kids who provide inspiration for after-school specials. Instead, "Short Term 12" comes from a place of delicate and truthful understatement, which allows the humanity and decency of its characters—and, yes, the lessons—to shine through naturally. The film's originality begins with the setting: a foster-care center for at-risk teens whose troubles run the gamut from depression to substance abuse to self-mutilation. Writer- director Destin Daniel Cretton based "Short Term 12" partly on his own experiences working at such a center, and previously made a short film on the subject. In drawing the story out to feature length, Cretton takes an abidingly naturalistic, conversational approach to both the complicated issues these kids face and the no-nonsense way their counselors try to help them. Chief among them is Brie Larson as the twenty-something Grace, a formerly troubled teen herself who now hopes to serve as a guide for others. Just as the extent of Grace's painful past is revealed to us in deliberate pieces, Larson's performance itself is a revelation. It's a welcome and long-overdue lead role for the actress who's been so engaging in supporting parts in films like "The Spectacular Now" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" and the Showtime series "The United States of Tara." There's a directness about her that's appealing, even here where she's meant to look a little mousy and low-key. At the film's start, Grace seems to have achieved a comfortable balance between her professional and personal lives. She handles both the mundane routine of the place and the volatile emotional flare-ups with the same sort of cool confidence. She also has a loving, playful relationship with her longtime live-in boyfriend, the shaggy, foulmouthed Mason (played amiably by John Gallagher Jr.), who works alongside her as a supervisor at the center. But the impending departure of one kid and the arrival of another shake everything up for her. Tough, intense Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is about to turn 18, which means he'll have to leave the home; frightened to make his way on his own, he acts out during these final days instead of facing his future. A profane and deeply felt rap song he wrote details his life of neglect and abuse, and the fact that Cretton presents the performance in one long take adds to its power. Marcus overlaps briefly with the surly and withdrawn new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), who insists her father is coming to get her soon so she refuses to make friends. One of the subtle beauties of "Short Term 12" is the way it intimately depicts how the counselors find ways into these kids' lives and connect with them. For Grace and Jayden, it's through a shared love of drawing. But Jayden also uses her art to reveal the truth about her home life, which stirs secrets within Grace that she'd fought hard for years to suppress. This upheaval comes at a time when Grace and Mason are trying to create something lasting for themselves: a home and a family of their own. The ambivalence Grace finds herself feeling, and the way that emotional shift shatters Mason, are both believable and heartbreaking. Cretton shows as much care and kindness with the minutiae of the daily routine—the doling out of meds, searches for contraband and forced recreational activities like Wiffle ball games —as he does with the larger issues that plague these lives in flux. He also infuses his story with unexpected humor as the kids hassle each other—and their supervisors—on the road to healing. While some of the third-act choices his characters make seem a little extreme compared to the realism that marks the rest of the film, Cretton consistently refrains from employing a tone that's heavy-handed. "Short Term 12" is a small gem in which the uplift feels earned rather than preached.
Melissa McCarthy has enough clout in this town and in this industry, following standout performances in the massive box-office hits "Bridesmaids," "The Heat" and even "Identity Thief," to make pretty much any movie she wants. She's used it to make "Tammy," a comedy she stars in, produced and co-wrote with her husband, Ben Falcone, who's directing his first feature. "Tammy" provides McCarthy with the opportunity to do yet another version of the persona she's honed: a brash, trash-talking woman whose seemingly over-inflated sense of self masks a vulnerability and a need for acceptance and love. That this type of character also has a subversive sense of humor keeps us on our toes and keeps the shtick somewhat fresh. McCarthy has a way with a tossed-off ad lib—an aside or an observation or an insult—that provides some clever surprises when you think you've got this person all figured out. I wonder what else she has in her bag of tricks, though. She's clearly a gifted and fearless comedian, both verbally and physically. "Tammy" offers glimmers of greater dramatic depth, but while it's much funnier than it looks, it also features moments of attempted poignancy that don't always feel earned. The quality of the cast—which includes Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Allison Janney and Mark Duplass, in a further sign of McCarthy's power—certainly elevates the premise, which is essentially your standard, desperate road-trip comedy. When we first meet Tammy, she hits a deer while driving her junker car to her lousy job at a third-rate fast-food restaurant. Arriving in a more late and slovenly state than usual, she promptly clashes with her uptight assistant manager (Falcone himself, who's been her frequent co-star). He fires her, which means she goes home early, which means she finds her husband (Nat Faxon) having a romantic, home-cooked dinner with next-door neighbor Missi, played by a woefully underused Toni Collette. (Seriously, she gets maybe three lines. It's a massive waste of a huge talent.) And so, as she's done so many times before, Tammy packs up her random belongings and her hideous wardrobe and threatens to leave her small Illinois town, a place so insular and stunting that her mother (Janney) and grandmother (Sarandon) live two doors down. This time, she makes it past the city limits, though, with the help of Grandma Pearl's Cadillac, Grandma Pearl's wad of $6,700 in cash and Grandma Pearl herself. Desperate for an adventure, Pearl offers to go along for the ride. She's also a diabetic who's forgotten her meds as well as a full-blown alcoholic, which complicates matters. If you're not distracted by the fact that Sarandon is a mere 24 years older than McCarthy and that her sexy, sly demeanor still shines through beneath her scruffy, silver wig, perhaps you'll feel encouraged to go along for the ride, too. "Thelma & Louise," this is not, but the two actresses do have a sparky chemistry with each other. McCarthy is aggressive and foul- mouthed while Sarandon is sensible and laid-back. And they're clearly destined for trouble, which leads to solid if scattered laughs. Their convoluted circumstances include the promiscuous Pearl's sexual connection with a randy, older barfly (Gary Cole), while Tammy unsuccessfully flirts with his sweet, shy son (Duplass). While it's always a joy to see the versatile, natural Duplass, his character feels frustratingly underwritten here, rendering hollow the supposed romance that develops between him and Tammy. A Jet-Ski accident, a fast-food restaurant robbery, some brief jail time and a lavish July 4 party at the home of a wealthy lesbian (a no-nonsense Bates) and her partner (a barely-there Sandra Oh) also await. But between these antics, Pearl and Tammy must work though decades-old resentments and failures in order to get both of their lives back on track. The attempt at achieving both zany comedy and emotional depth requires a light touch that sometimes eludes Falcone. But the intention is admirable, as is the focus on flawed female characters and the way they relate to each other. "Tammy" passes the Bechdel test, for those of you keeping score at home. But while Tammy herself is a meandering mess with no real purpose in life, there's clearly a good heart beneath the disheveled exterior. At least, there are hints at it. McCarthy has made sure that her movie is kind enough to its characters to try and find that out.
Baggage Claim (2013)
"Baggage Claim" is so archaic in its depiction of feminine self-worth—and, frankly, so insulting—it's amazing that it's coming out in 2013, not 1963. It's also the second movie opening this week in which attractive, vibrant people pushing 30 must find spouses within a totally arbitrary and impossibly tight time frame in order to please their demanding parents. While "Baggage Claim" takes place within a black family in Baltimore, "Wedding Palace" is set in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. It's a small world after all, sadly. Paula Patton, however, is a serious globetrotter as a perky and perfectly coiffed flight attendant named Montana Moore. Not only does she have the obligatory sassy best friend (Jill Scott) who's armed with innuendos and in-your-face cleavage, Montana also has the no- nonsense, no-filter gay pal (Adam Brody) who will always set her straight. Both fly the friendly skies alongside her. Their mile-high chatter is mostly mind-numbing, but Brody gets a few funny lines. Montana also has a childhood buddy named William Wright—please take note of that last name—who lives down the hall from her. Might the man of her dreams have been right under her nose all along? Even the likable and charismatic Derek Luke can't do much with such formulaic nonsense. But Luke is one of the astonishing array of attractive actors that writer-director David E. Talbert serves up as a smorgasbord of possible suitors. The greatest tension Talbert achieves in clumsily adapting his same-named novel comes from the conundrum of whether Montana should live a life of luxury and excitement alongside a dashing hotel magnate (Djimon Hounsou), or a life of safety and serenity with Luke, who runs his family's construction business. There's never any doubt. Come on, you've seen a movie before, right? Before she can get there, though, she and her co-workers manipulate the travel booking system to allow her to stalk various exes by "accidentally" showing up on their flights. You see, her younger sister (Lauren London) has just gotten engaged, which inspires their much- married mother (Jenifer Lewis) to exert even more pressure on Montana to find a man of her own. Naturally, she only has 30 days to accomplish this feat, because that makes sense, and it's a good, round number. Montana just discovered that the one she thought was The One (Boris Kodjoe, with whom she shares an unintentionally hilarious love scene on a boat) is actually married with a baby on the way. Nevertheless, she throws herself headlong into this wacky endeavor, which entails dashing through airports and flailing her arms, her roller board suitcase skipping on the ground behind her. Aside from her looks and her childhood love of New Edition, Montana's obsessive pursuit of a mate is pretty much the only thing that defines her as a character. Among other previous boyfriends, she reconnects with a flashy record producer (Tremaine Neverson, better known as Trey Songz) and a dude she rejects apparently because he doesn't know how to use chopsticks. Cue the hackneyed bad-date montage. (There's also the trying- on-clothes montage. Talbert leaves no rom-com cliché unturned.) The best part of "Baggage Claim," if such a thing is possible, is the section in which Montana quickly rekindles an old romance with Langston (Taye Diggs), a slick opportunist who's running for Congress and needs the perfect trophy wife to stand dutifully—and quietly—by his side. The fact that he's a black Republican sets up an awkward dinner with a deep-pockets donor (Ned Beatty) as well as the film's only truly funny lines. There aren't many, but man, does it feel good to laugh again
What happened to Catherine Hardwicke? With every new film she chooses to direct, she drifts farther away from the early ones that put her on the map: her 2003 debut, the teen drama "thirteen," and her 2005 skateboarding adventure "Lords of Dogtown." These were stripped-down films with a immediacy, relatable emotions and a vivid sense of place. Then came 2006's "The Nativity Story," which seemed to have been made by an entirely different person; it was so overly earnest, it felt like it belonged on the Hallmark Channel, and in retrospect is a blip. The first "Twilight" movie from 2008 was a good fit for her outrageous sense of style and her knack for depicting the angst of youth. It also opened at nearly $70 million, the biggest debut for a female director—which, in theory, should have opened countless doors and allowed Hardwicke to make any sort of film she wanted. And so she made the soapy, chintzy "Red Riding Hood" (2011), which suggested what it might look like if the "Twilight" kids got dressed up and went to the Renaissance Faire. Her latest film is the clunky "Plush," a psychological thriller set in the Los Angeles rock scene. It feels so inauthentic at every turn, it's as if the film itself is unsure of what it's supposed to be. Camp? Not camp? A cautionary tale? A rock 'n' roll fable? A tragic example of obsession? Or maybe just an excuse to wallow in debauchery? It does feature some of he most lifeless and unconvincing concert scenes I've ever seen; meanwhile, the backstage moments consist of nonstop smoking and champagne swilling, shorthand for danger and self-destruction. Heavy narration over a long opening flashback is meant to fill in some of the emotional gaps, but it's just one of many examples of the film spelling out everything. Hayley (Emily Browning in Goth-chick mode) explains in detail how she and her beloved brother, Jack (Thomas Dekker), grew up in Texas writing and singing their own songs. "Music was like our secret place," she says in girlish, wistful tones. "Nothing could hurt us because Jack and I had each other." In no time, they've moved to Los Angeles and formed a band called Plush. At 19, she's pregnant with twin boys and marrying a hunky journalist named Carter, played by Cam Gigandet. ("Carter's daughter, Lila, was our flower girl," Hayley explains in one of the more awkward pieces of voice-over in the script from Hardwicke and Arty Nelson. "She lives with her mom half the time.") Plush is a smash, which inspires all the creepy fan worship and drug abuse you might expect. Then one night after a concert, Jack overdoses on heroin, sending Hayley reeling. She records a new album in his honor with painfully literal lyrics like: "Half of me is gone." Audiences and critics reject it, sending her into a further spiral. She thinks she's found her savior in the band's new guitarist, Enzo (Xavier Samuel, who recently played Naomi Watts' surfing son in the mom-swapping drama "Adore"). Not only does he know all her old songs, he inspires her to push through her own limits in writing new ones. Unfortunately, Enzo may also be bisexual, and a stalker. That's not a spoiler, by the way: the tattoo right above Enzo's butt crack of both Hayley and Jack's pictures gives his orientation away, and the stalker part is telegraphed as well. From here, "Plush" follows the eye-linered Enzo's efforts to insinuate himself in Hayley's life while Hayley remains oblivious to just how deranged he truly is. The presence of an odd and officious new nanny for the family (Frances Fisher, in a sweeping up-do and a cape) is no coincidence; she's exactly who you think she is. Meanwhile, increasingly threatening gifts keep showing up from a demanding fan. Who could possibly be sending them??? All of this should have been more darkly funny, more knowingly campy, something. As it is, "Plush" awkwardly tries to shock and frighten us while also trying to tease and amuse us. Browning has come a long way from playing the innocent girl in "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," as evidenced by her starring role in Zack Snyder's fetishistic extravaganza "Sucker Punch," and by "Sleeping Beauty," in which she's naked pretty much the entire time. She's up for any challenge, and has the striking, clear-eyed look of a doll come to life, but this was one risky role that didn't pay off. At one point toward the end of "Plush," as tensions are mounting and Carter is taking out his jealousy by doing manly yard work, Enzo shoots a video for Hayley's new single. Filled with bondage imagery and disturbing, sepia-toned jump cuts, it's a straight-up rip-off of the famous Mark Romanek clip for the Nine Inch Nails hit "Closer." But it also might just be the best part of the film.
Little Boy (2015)
The little boy at the center of "Little Boy" pulls a stunt repeatedly which, ostensibly, is intended to be poignant. Eight-year-old Pepper Flint Busbee (Jakob Salvati) sticks out his fingers, scrunches up his face, squints his eyes, screeches with all his might and wills an object to move. Maybe it's a glass bottle. Maybe it's a mountain. But sure enough, through the power of magic or trickery or a well-timed seismic shift, he achieves his goal. Eventually, he tries to use this "ability" to bring home his beloved father from battle in World War II. And by this point, his patented move—which was merely shrill and annoying—now seems just plain goofy and even a little crass. This emotional disparity is emblematic of so much that's wrong with Mexican director Alejandro Monteverde's film, which he co-wrote with Pepe Portillo. It's meant to be a tale of uplift for faith-based audiences, but instead wears viewers down with a heavy-handed narrative, an overbearing score and voice-over that spells out everything in cringe-inducing, folksy tones. "Little Boy" takes place around the time of Pearl Harbor in the fictional, coastal California town of O'Hare. "Just like you see in postcards," we're told, as if we couldn't recognize its idyllic quaintness for ourselves. The nostalgia is spread thick here like sugary mounds of frosting. Compared to most movies aimed at Christian viewers, though, this one at least has solid production values. Pepper, who's small for his age (hence the titular nickname), suffers merciless bullying from the bigger kids. His only friend is his father, James (an earnest and enthusiastic Michael Rapaport), who shares his love of comic books, movies and made-up adventures. But one day, James has to go off to war in place of his elder son, London (David Henrie), who's stuck staying home with flat feet. Pepper is understandably devastated to see his father leave, but a sermon at the town's church about the trans-formative power of faith inspires him. He visits the priest (Tom Wilkinson, managing to provide substance in just a few scenes), who gives him a to-do list of good deeds to help him bring his father back: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, etc. It's a ludicrous notion, of course. Then he adds a task that sounds like the toughest of all to Pepper: befriend Mr. Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), an elderly Japanese man who has returned home to O'Hare after being released from an internment camp. Hashimoto has been the target of universal scorn during the war—"Little Boy" doesn't shy away from the cruel racial epithets of the era—and even some vandalism. But, as a favor to his friend, the priest, he reluctantly agrees to spend time with this misfit kid. The result is an overly feel-good take on the "The Karate Kid," as the reclusive and misunderstood man becomes a father figure, mentor and protector to this bullied boy, who has a retro version of the Cobra Kai to contend with. Tagawa brings a quiet dignity to the role, which is really more of an idea than a fully fleshed-out character. In a similar waste of talent, Emily Watson gets little to do but worry and weep as James' long-suffering wife. Speaking of the cast, there's a curious overlap here with last week's "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2," which is terrible in a totally different way. Besides that film's star, Kevin James (who tones it down here as the town's widower doctor), Henrie had a supporting role in the comedy as a valet parking attendant at the Wynn Las Vegas. And Eduardo Verastegui, who played the hotel's suave head of security, has a small role here as a fellow priest. (He's also a producer alongside husband-and-wife Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, purveyors of such faith-based properties.) But no amount of talent can counter-balance the garish sight of the townspeople cheering for Little Boy, the character, as well as Little Boy, the codename of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The mixture of jubilation and death—as well as a fantasy sequence in which Pepper wanders through an ashen wasteland, surrounded by corpses—is all rather queasy- making. "Little Boy" also milks tears out of a major character's fate, but the film's young, blue-eyed star isn't quite up for the challenge of those heavier scenes, or anything beyond being moppet-like and determined. There's no way that a movie like this can do anything but reward such a character for his faith. But even by the standards of this genre, the sentimental way in which the story twists and wraps up is as shameless as it is schmaltzy.
Still Alice (2014)
With a combination of power and grace, Julianne Moore elevates "Still Alice" above its made- for-cable-television trappings, and delivers one of the more memorable performances of her career. This is no small feat, given the depth and breadth of Moore's filmography and her consistent ability to produce great work, from playing a porn star in "Boogie Nights" to an eccentric artist in "The Big Lebowski" to a frustrated housewife in "Far From Heaven" to her dead-on portrayal of Sarah Palin in HBO's "Game Change." She's such a smart, clever and instinctive actress that she never hits a false note. She finds unexpected avenues into her character, a challenging role that requires her to show a mental deterioration that's both gradual and inherently internal. Thankfully, "Still Alice" doesn't deify the woman she plays: Dr. Alice Howland, an esteemed linguistics professor at Columbia University who finds she's suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Co-directors and writers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland don't shy away from the steady and terrifying way the disease can take hold of a person and strip away her ability to communicate and connect with the outside world. But they also don't tell this story with much nuance or artistry in adapting Lisa Genova's novel. This is especially true when comparing "Still Alice" to a couple of recent films that have tackled the same territory: Sarah Polley's haunting "Away From Her" and Michael Haneke's unflinching "Amour." The flat lighting, the frequent use of maudlin music, a heavy reliance on medium shots and some awkward cutaways for reactions all contribute to the sensation of watching a rather workmanlike production better suited to the small screen. But the film's heart is in the right place, and the message matters, and it surely will resonate with the millions of people whose loved ones have suffered from this cruel disease. At the film's start, though, Alice has everything. It's her 50th birthday, and she's celebrating at a chic New York restaurant with her adoring family. Her husband (Alec Baldwin), who's also an academic, toasts her as the most beautiful, intelligent person he's ever known. She's stylish, accomplished, happy and financially secure. She radiates confidence and competence at all times. But soon, words–which have fascinated her throughout her life and provided the basis for her career–begin to elude her. She becomes disoriented on her daily jog around campus. She starts losing items around the house and forgetting scheduled events. A visit to a neurologist reveals that Alice has a rare form of Alzheimer's, and that it's genetic. Fascinatingly, because she is such an intellectual, she's been able to play tricks on her brain and find shortcuts to mask her illness. But in no time, the bottom drops out from underneath her, and it's heartbreaking to watch. Moore plays it small for the most part, conveying fear with her eyes or slight shifts in the tone of her voice, so the moments when her character understandably snaps in panic really stand out in contrast. The fact that a woman who's an expert in linguistics has trouble articulating herself may seem like an obvious device, but it also adds to the film's sense of sadness and frustration, because Alice knows all too well the power of self-expression. "Still Alice" is about how she reacts to her own deterioration–how she constantly reassesses it and figures out how to cope. She doesn't always do it with quiet dignity, which is refreshing; sometimes she even uses the disease to manipulate those around her or get out of a social occasion she'd rather avoid. But it's also about how her family reacts in unexpected ways. Her eldest daughter, Anna (a stiff Kate Bosworth), a prim and perfectly coiffed lawyer who married well, doesn't handle Alice's illness as well as her free-spirited youngest daughter, Lydia (an excellent Kristen Stewart), who's moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming an actress. (The middle child, a son played by Hunter Parrish, is also on the verge of his own impressive career as a doctor). Adding to the poignancy is the fact that Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS in 2011 after a decade of making independent films with his partner, Westmoreland, including the 2006 hit "Quinceanera." Surely, he is all too familiar with the struggle of remaining creative and vital. The fact that this is a personal story, earnestly told and filled with hope, ultimately is what shines through with great clarity.
Ass Backwards (2013)
"Ass Backwards" takes its title quite literally from the very beginning, matter-of-factly offering us the image of two women from behind, squatting side by side as they relieve themselves in broad daylight, their urine trickling in parallel streams down the sidewalk. Thankfully, the comedy goes uphill from there—somewhat. Co-stars, co-writers and longtime collaborators June Diane Raphael and Casey Wilson have chemistry and energy to spare as a pair of bubble-headed best friends stumbling from one scenario to the next. The Upright Citizens Brigade alumnae and college best friends don't have to work to hard to convince us of their connection. It's infectious, and the daffy, breezy way they play off each other makes "Ass Backwards" way more enjoyable than it ought to be. Their delightful zaniness remains a constant even when the predicaments their characters find themselves in can be rather hit and miss and often strain for laughs in director Chris Nelson's feature debut. Raphael and Wilson star respectively as Kate and Chloe, aimless but unflappably upbeat women sharing an apartment in New York City. Pushing 30, they still have no real goals, although they've fashioned pseudo careers for themselves. Kate is an "entrepreneur" (she sells her eggs on Craigslist to couples trying to conceive) while Chloe is an "entertainer" (she's a listless go-go dancer in a box at a nightclub). They live on maxed-out credit to create the illusion of luxury, hoping to convince both the outside world and themselves that they've really made it. But when Kate and Chloe receive an invitation to return to their hometown to compete in an anniversary edition of the beauty pageant they both lost as young girls—the crucial moment in their childhood that bound and defined them—they can only pretend to be cool about it. The prospect of redeeming themselves is too tantalizing, especially in front of their longtime nemesis, a pageant goddess turned best-selling author (a smarmily condescending Alicia Silverstone). And the timing is perfect—sort of—because they've just been evicted from their apartment, forcing them to go somewhere. Now. So they load up a rickety van with totally impractical belongings, program the wrong directions into the GPS and hit the road. Their scattered adventures along the way feature a highly symbolic bunny rabbit, a strip contest (where Raphael's real-life husband, Paul Scheer, plays the club manager), a down-and-dirty interlude with a drug-addicted reality TV star (Brian Geraghty) and an overnight visit to a women's commune which (sort of) alters their notions of femininity. As with any kind of episodic or sketch comedy, some gags land more effectively than others, although you'll likely find a line or a beat or an image that makes you laugh from start to finish. Through it all, the actresses seem game for anything, staying completely committed to the delusional characters they've created and reveling not only in their flamboyance but also in their vulnerability. They allow us to genuinely enjoy these women (although spending 85 minutes with them is plenty) while also recognizing their flaws. Raphael and Wilson (and Kate and Chloe) owe a great debt to "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion," the still-hilarious 1997 comedy that was both silly and sweet and allowed clueless female characters to be ditzy and shallow while remaining true to each other. Despite Raphael and Wilson's fondness for pushing the humor into brash, crass directions (as evidenced by that opening shot), their characters clearly have an innate decency and a loyalty to each other that's heartening. At the same time, "Ass Backwards" is a welcome departure from the script they co-wrote for 2009's "Bride Wars," an ugly example of longtime female friends tearing each other apart for the sake of broad laughs. Even when the cracks in Kate and Chloe's cheery, colorful exterior begin to show, it's clear that they still love each other, and they'll live to shop together another day. Raphael and Wilson's friendship—and their collaborative efforts—are just as promising.