Reviewed by Beck Ireland
Obvious Child, written and directed by newcomer Gillian Robespierre, is far from the issue-centered, feminist manifesto that the talk about its resolution suggests. There’s an abundance of profanity in the film, most of which could be classified as equal opportunity gross-out humor that wouldn’t be out of place in a Judd Apatow movie, except that it’s about female anatomy, which Apatow saves for shock value and not laughs. But overall, it’s a fairly conventional, albeit transposed — meaning girl meets boy instead of boy meets girl — romantic comedy.
Whether the film charms or grates depends less on political leanings and more on the estimation of its lead, aspiring stand-up comic Donna Stern, played by Jenny Slate, who stumbles her way through a quarter-life crisis. This is a showpiece for Slate, who in 2009 proved she was not ready to be one of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players on “Saturday Night Live” when during her debut on the live broadcast let slip an F-bomb. It could be a testament to our changing times that Slate wasn’t immediately dismissed after the episode, as was Charles Rocket following a similar slip of the tongue in 1981. However, Slate was let go at the end of the season, learning of her expired contract online (such are the changing times indeed). Eventually, Slate returned to stand-up and then television, most recognizably as the obnoxious, cartoonish Mona-Lisa on “Parks and Recreation.”
Aided by Slate’s baby-voiced delivery, Donna’s shtick is the wide-eyed telling of truths about her life, however embarrassing to herself or those close to her. She’s without a filter both on stage and off, which works really well in some instances, such as lengthy descriptions of underwear that mock decades of marketing efforts by Victoria’s Secret, but in others just make her seem like an immature jerk. But her family and friends, particularly her best friend sidekick Nellie, played by a stunning grown-up Gaby Hoffman, and gay bestie Joey (Gabe Liedman) like to reassure her that it’s a quality to be admired and loved. It’s not.
This could be a result of Robespierre taking this story and chewing on it like a dog with a bone. She adapted this feature length version from the 2009 short film she made in conjunction with Anna Bean and Karen Maine; that version based on a story by Maine and Elisabeth Holm. Through all this, Donna remained not unlike the typical protagonist in the type of movie she claims she can’t relate to and that this movie is attempting to subvert. She wears mismatched knitted outfits and sits in boxes. She even has the typical rom-com job at an independent bookseller that just happens to be closing its doors in two weeks. Robespierre hasn’t eliminated the manic pixie dream girl; she’s put her in charge.
It doesn’t help that Slate’s range is somewhat limited. Her drunken crying seems inauthentic. Still she’s great at being pathetic standing outside of her ex-boyfriend’s apartment. And she plays off other actors well. The scene in the actual abortion clinic is necessary, but even more moving are the discussions she has beforehand with both her mother (Polly Draper) and Hoffman’s Nellie. These are the moments that make this film an important one to see. It’s not that Donna goes ahead with the procedure; it’s that the other women in her life are willing to talk about theirs too. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 07/02/14)
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Reviewed by Mike Ireland
Age of Extinction, the fourth installment in a franchise that regularly grosses around a billion dollars per film, feels more like an infomercial than a movie, displaying all the charm, wit and soul of the myriad business meetings that no doubt spawned it.
Extinction picks up the saga four years after a battle between Autobots (the good robots) and Decepticons (the bad ones) destroyed Chicago at the end of 2011’s Dark of the Moon.
But, honestly, plot matters little.
Ehren Kruger, screenwriter for the last two Transformers movies, simply dishes up more sci-fi/action flick clichés: a government-sponsored conspiracy to wipe-out all Transformers; a CIA head honcho (a shamefully slumming Kelsey Grammer) covertly selling the alien tech to evil robotics CEO Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), who plans to build — and control — his own next-gen robots.
Toss in Disney-esque down-on-his luck inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) stumbling upon the injured Autobot leader Optimus Prime, dormant in a hunk of salvage, and an insidious plot by the evil Decepticons to return Earth to the Ice Age, and you have more plot lines than Kruger or returning director Michael Bay can keep track or make sense of — even at a bloated two hour and 46 minute running time.
But who cares. Giant robots battle. Buildings collapse. Bullets fly and mortars explode, all in 3D. Yaeger's daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) spends most of the movie in high heels and short shorts, ogled by Bay's camera, again (of course) in 3D.
Amid all the effects the cast is rarely is required to act. Much of the movie consists of robots stating what is going to happen, robots telling humans what is going to happen, robots announcing what they are doing as they do it, and robots explaining what has happened.
Dialogue, never a strong suit for Kruger, reaches a new low with Extinction. The heroic Autobots routinely tag their combat chatter with “Bitch” and “A-hole.” And humans don’t fare much better. Challenged by Yaeger to produce a warrant for a search, a CIA agent shouts, “My face is my warrant!”
The rare exception is Stanley Tucci, whose Steve Jobs-like tech guru turns amusingly petulant under pressure. Credit Tucci, too, for being the only actor on screen who seems to realize he’s playing in a farce. Over the top is perfect when you’re sharing the screen with towering robots.
As the various plot lines stumble toward a conclusion, any attempts at coherence retreat as the rapid-fire editing and seemingly non-stop product placement — Bud Light, Victoria’s Secret, Corvette, Bugatti, Camaro — transform the viewing experience into something disturbingly reminiscent of the aversion therapy technique portrayed in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. (PG-13) Rating: 0 (Posted on 06/30/14)
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers
Under director Clint Eastwood, the film adaptation of Jersey Boys retains its sweet stroll of baby-boomer nostalgia. The story of the Four Seasons, a popular ‘60s musical group, first delighted audiences in 2005 when the production opened on Broadway and won a Tony Award the following year. Since then its stage production has had two U.S. tours and numerous overseas tours.
Eastwood doesn’t stray far from the original Broadway production, choosing to enhance an already strong, delightful and engaging story. John Lloyd Young, who originated the role of Frankie Valli in the Broadway production, brings his dynamic voice and dramatic chops to the big screen. He is superb, displaying an emotional range lacking in any artificiality as Valli struggles to balance fame and family, deal with tensions within the group all the while remaining loyal to those who helped him achieve his dream.
Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio was in the first national tour of Jersey Boys. As an original member of the Four Seasons, it was Gaudio who first brought the musical from an idea to reality. Gaudio was also the group’s main songwriter. Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi played that role in the first national tour, also. As Tommy DeVito, Eastwood went with Vincent Piazza who has extensive TV and film experience in such series as HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and the indie film Polish Bar.
Jersey Boys is the quintessential rags to riches American story of bad boys making good. Only Gaudio has that prep school persona while the Valli, Massi and DeVito come from the “neighborhood” where friendship and watching another’s backside are premier traits in which to judge another’s character. That virtue is periodically reinforced when they seek guidance from Gyp DeCarlo, the Mob boss, played by the iconic Christopher Walken.
Eastwood keeps to the theatrical touch of having each member of the Four Seasons tell of their interpretation of some as aspect of the group’s story, beginning with Tommy in the 1950s. As usual in an Eastwood film, period dress, cars and street scenes are right on for the time. And in this film, as perhaps also in the theatrical production (which I have not seen), it’s not so much what is said but how it’s said — much of the charm and appeal of the film resting with the music.
The songs include “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night),” “Rag Doll,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and “Sherry.” Each one, and every song in the film, will take audiences back to a time when all things seemed new and possible.
Eastwood closes the film with a big song and dance number including all the cast members of the film. It’s a pure delight to watch, as is the whole film. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 06/25/14)
22 Jump Street
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the minds behind Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and The Leo Movie, spun a shoddy ‘90s cop drama and turned it into comedy gold. Thankfully, unlike Rumplestiltskin, they’re not asking viewers for a hefty price in return.
In their sequel to 21 Jump Street, the directors wisely acknowledge that they are making a second installment to an adaptation of something that’s already been done before. In fact, much of the bawdy humor in 22 Jump Street comes from its makers’ staunch refusal to take anything about the venture seriously. A great bit of effort and wit is on display throughout the film, but Lord and Miller are happy to treat viewers as if they are privileged participants in the joke.
Schmidt and Jenko (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) have spent the last couple of years trying to make it as conventional detectives, and the results haven’t been as spectacular as when they were posing as high school students so they could bust a synthetic drug ring.
Because the two are obviously too long in tooth to pass as teens, their old Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) assigned them the rather familiar task of finding the source of a new illicit chemical that makes college students hyper-alert during test time and nearly comatose for some after class. With their taste in clothes about a decade behind their peers, Schmidt and Jenko immediately attract suspicion across the school.
They also find a campus littered with potential dope running suspects. Jenko's new BFF Zook (Wyatt Russell) may be slinging more than footballs, and Schmidt's new ladylove Maya (Amber Stevens) has a secret that cool land Schmidt into a world of hurt.
The identity of the master criminal is a genuine surprise, but where Lord and Miller consistently deliver is in their almost unerring sense of how to invert cop movie clichés. In 22 Jump Street, the buddy cops have gone beyond bros into having an emotional attachment that might as well be physical. As the two flatfoots start talking about looking for other "partners," it doesn't take much imagination why jealousy is emerging.
These scenes would merely be silly if it weren't for the uncanny chemistry between Hill and Tatum. The neurotic Hill and the easygoing Tatum read off each other like books and give the material more comic weight than it might have had otherwise.
Lord and Miller also let their imaginations go, so there's no doubt that these guys are the minds behind The Lego Movie. When Schmidt and Jenko inadvertently take the drug they're trying to get off the street, Jenko is surrounded by a giddy fantasyland. Schmidt, however, is stuck in vortex where the soundtrack is a loop of Creed.
That's Hell indeed.
The meta jokes eventually become tiresome, but there are some enjoyable supporting characters that make this case worth investigating. Ice Cube's surly persona has rarely been used better than it is here. Watching him demolish a buffet line is worth the ticket price. Gillian Bell is in the film for only a few minutes, but she dominates every frame as a caustic co-ed.
Despite its sophomoric nature (it is both a cop movie and a college romp), 22 Jump Street at least has the decency to deliver crass gags that are genuinely amusing. Even low art should aim high occasionally. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 06/23/14).
22 Jump Street
Tatum and Hill may
not look like bros, but they sure
can be quite funny.
Edge of Tomorrow
Reviewed by Mike Ireland
The latest step in Tom Cruise's career reboot, Edge of Tomorrow is essentially Groundhog Day seen through the HD, 3-D, IMAX filters of modern sci-fi blockbusters. Cruise plays PR specialist Major William Cage, a smarmy military flack, living the same day over and over, not to fix his life or get the girl, but to save the world.
Cage's job has been to sell the planet on a last-chance all-out D-day-style attack on the glowing hyper-ambulatory extraterrestrial squids called “Mimics” that have swarmed Europe and are now poised to overrun the rest of the planet. A cowardly attempt to avoid being embedded with those troops gets him busted to buck private and added to the landing party.
Cage and the rest of the troops are immediately slaughtered by hoards of the seemingly unstoppable Mimics, yet he wakes up just hours before the invasion, headed for the front again. And again.
The only piece of the puzzle Cage has to go on is Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), the literal poster girl for the resistance who single-handedly offed over a hundred Mimics. It's Vrataski who can explain and help channel what Cage is experiencing. Through a process of trial and error —sometimes nearly slapstick, other times terrifying, but always ending in death and reboot — Cage and Vrataski slowly and methodically make their way toward a means of defeating the Mimics.
Director Doug Liman (Swingers, Go, The Bourne Identity) manages to keep this repetitive, convoluted puzzle of a plot surprising, propulsive, even darkly comic while turning several action flick tropes on their heads. Cruise, who built his pre-Oprah career playing a series of toothy, wisecracking heroes, is introduced as a coward forced to earn that heroism. Blunt, for her part, is anything but a damsel in distress, portraying Rita as a battle-hardened vet, who, for better and for worse, has a hard time letting down her guard.
Always in the background, though, lurk the ugly realities of war. The beach invasion scene that Cage is repeatedly dropped into is filmed with the hand-held cameras and washed out colors of Saving Private Ryan. Vrataski is dubbed “The Angel of Verdun” by the press and “Full Metal Bitch” by grunts behind her back, further echoing the horrors behind the “glorious combat” that Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton as another in a long line of American cinematic gung-ho drill sergeants) extols.
In fact, much of the human dynamics here turns on responses to PTSD. Cage in his first battlefield encounter is stricken, sweating and paralyzed then forced to endure a never-ending series of literal flashbacks. By contrast, the veteran Vrataski, despite unprecedented success on the battlefield and a badass attitude, seems to exist in a state of perpetual hyper-arousal. For both, this journey represents a sort of time-travel therapy.
Like many puzzles, however, the solution is a bit of a let down. Having managed to keep things surprising for so long, the final battle in Paris falls into nearly every battle-film cliché possible. It's as though screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Fair Game) finally succumbed to the hive-mind of the big-screen blockbuster.
Too bad, because for a while, the film actually seemed to be about something — not just monsters and explosions. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 06-12-14)
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
A hotshot chef loses his way only to find it again by scaling down to a food truck. Such is the facile premise of Jon Favreau’s return to independent filmmaking.
For the role, Favreau attended a week-long course at a French culinary school and then worked on the line in the L.A.-based restaurants owned by chef and food truck pioneer Roy Choi, who went from consultant to co-producer on the movie. Favreau’s focus on the food borders on fetish, particularly when aphrodisiac pasta gets slurped through Scarlett Johansson’s pillowy lips. She does her Avengers’ director a charity by taking a turn as an edgy, fringed restaurant hostess who trades sexual favors for well-prepared food.
Consequently, the writer/director/actor’s knife skills and other cooking techniques certainly pass muster. And wooly Favreau easily looks the part of hipster chef: the beard, tattoos (including one of a chef’s knife that’s at once both earnest and ironic), clunky specs, snap-button shirts. But that’s about as deep as Favreau gets into this character.
When we first meet him, Chef Carl Casper is a loser. We’re told that early on he was some kind of culinary innovator but now he’s stuck taking orders from Riva, a cowardly restaurateur (Dustin Hoffman) whose insistence on following an outmoded menu comes straight from an episode of “Kitchen Nightmares.” Not that this gives Casper him more time to spend with his son, played by overeager newcomer Emjay Anthony. He often forgets the boy sitting on the curb in front of his house or reluctantly brings him to a farmers’ market where he buys ingredients for dishes he never gets to serve to anyone but his sous-chefs (John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale).
Hamstrung by Riva’s stubbornness, Casper is forced to serve the classic but uninspired dishes to food blogger (Oliver Platt), who he then invites back to the restaurant for a do-over. Only Riva keeps control of his kitchen and Casper once again must straight from the menu, which causes him to pitch a fit that gets captured and put on YouTube and — despite the many bad boy reputations of many famous chefs — makes him the pariah of the L.A. culinary scene.
And it’s here where Favreau loses the plot. Instead of any personal growth or development for any of his characters, he moves the show down the road to Miami, where his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) sets him up with a food truck from her first ex-husband, played by Robert Downey, Jr., in a fast-talking reprise of Tony Stark. What follows is a road trip with unearned sentiment and an implausible ending where father and son bond over lessons in cooking and social media. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 06/12/14)
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice, takes in an illegitimate grand-niece, the daughter of an admiral and an enslaved African woman, and not long after is required to rule on a case affecting the legality of the slave trade. Such is the burden of Misan Sagay's script, written in the vein of Jane Austen adaptations, which swaps incisive, specific criticism of the social customs of the landed gentry for broad arguments against the now-indefensible position.
The story of Belle isn't so much based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle as it is loosely draped. Sagay and director Amma Asante approach the story with a contemporary sensibility. There's not a single scene in which the main issue isn't brought up in some capacity. Unlike Austen, who makes her points through the sharp portrayal of manners in practice, the filmmakers here use exposition, symbolism and self-aware characters — all too heavy-handed and simplistic.
When not too focused on the issue of race, the scenes of domestic life in Hampstead, as portrayed by Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfied, Emily Watson as Lady Mansfied, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle and Sarah Gadon as Belle's cousin Elizabeth “Bette” Murray, carry the film along. In particular, the interactions between Belle and Bette are less fraught with lessons, and their miserable courtships with the sons of a pinched aristocrat played by Miranda Richardson, provide some opportunities for Elizabeth Bennet-like displays of spite and wit. But then the script pushes too far, making the oldest son, played by Tom Felton, into a one-dimensional bigot. His prejudice isn't backed by any historical sentiment or reasoning, but merely as a foil for the film. Must we still tut-tut over the ignorance of the past to feel less incriminated now?
The unfortunate catalyst of the film comes in the form of a parson's son, as it so often does in these types of movies. But John Davinier (Sam Reid), thrown into Belle's path by his studies with Lord Mansfield, is such a self-righteous clod that it's hardly a victory when Belle accedes to his side. The real-life Belle acted as Lord Mansfield's secretary, and she along with her guardian, based on his eventual decision, were probably not at odds over these politics. For the filmmakers to make the decision into a point of suspense is nothing more than a transparent manipulation, and to invent this love interest to get between them is even worse. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 06/02/14)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Angelina Jolie appears to be having a ball throughout Maleficent. And why shouldn't she be enjoying herself?
She's playing the wicked fairy Maleficent from Disney's 1959 take on Sleeping Beauty, and she clearly loves embodying a powerful figure that flaunts the rules in a fairy tale. It also probably doesn't hurt that she's been well compensated to wear the massive horns coming out of her skullcap or the makeup that causes her cheeks to appear like thorns.
While Jolie's glee at playing one of Uncle Walt's greatest villains is contagious, hardly anyone else seems to be having much fun in this alternate take on the fairy tale. Admittedly, screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Disney's Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King) comes up with a potentially fertile take on the old Grimm Brothers story.
Woolverton asks what if Maleficent had legitimate grievances with Princess Aurora's (Elle Fanning) parents. Instead of being a decent king afflicted with a supernatural menace, King Stefan (Sharlto Copley, District 13) is a craven worm of a man who gained the throne not through inheritance or even (gasp) merit. Instead, he wears the crown because he cut off Maleficent's wings while she was sleeping and gave them to the previous monarch. Having once been a close friend of Stefan's, it's no wonder that she takes out her anger on the innocent Aurora.
While making the King the bad guy in this version of the story has its potential, Woolverton and director Robert Stromberg miss the chance to make the film a clash of titans instead of one-sided rout.
While Copley comes off as depraved and greedy, he doesn't have Jolie's sly charm or intimidating confidence. These deficiencies become problematic because it becomes difficult to understand why Maleficent ever liked Stefan or to get a sense that the King would pose much of a threat to her in a fair match up.
As a result, Maleficent feels wanting whenever the title character leaves the screen. It's simply more fun to watch a justly angry fairy take names or boss around her long-suffering servant (Sam Riley) than it is to watch Stefan sulk and yell. Elle Fanning is terrific as the teenage Aurora, but the good fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) are annoying dolts this time around. One almost waits for Maleficent to spike them with her horns.
Stomberg has supervised special effects or served as an art director for some terrific movies like Pan's Labyrinth, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Avatar. Curiously, Maleficent looks cluttered, clumsy and drab. All of the images flying into viewers' eyes in 3D seem extraneous and do little to establish a sense of wonder or awe. They do, however, create a formidable headache.
With only her voice and her sense of bearing, Jolie effortlessly makes the notoriously wicked fairy seem real. Hardly anyone else involved in Maleficent seems to have that magic. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 06/02/14)
Jolie's fairy is
more fun than the rest of the
glum bedtime story.
A Million Ways to Die in the West
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
A little bit of Seth MacFarlane goes a long way.
He’s responsible for Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show, the new incarnation of Cosmos, the movie Ted and a raunchy Oscars telecast that celebrated bad taste while honoring the best of film.
MacFarlane has an astonishingly flexible voice (he’s also a strong singer) and a willingness to do just about anything for a laugh. The latter trait, sadly, is often his undoing. For every inspired transgress gag he comes up with, he comes up with a half dozen that are merely gross.
It probably doesn’t help that MacFarlane has chosen to release his wildly inconsistent A Million Ways to Die in the West on the 40th anniversary of Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles.
Despite the time that has passed, Brooks’ movie is still fresh in viewers’ heads. Brooks’ sensibilities are just as politically incorrect as McFarlane’s, but Brooks appears to have a better instinct for what he can get away with than his successor does. It also didn’t hurt that his co-writers were Andrew Bergman (The In-Laws, The Freshman, Honeymoon in Vegas) and Richard Pryor and that actors Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn were in fine, rare form throughout.
MacFarlane has a high standard in low taste to meet, and he frequently misses it. He plays a sheep rancher named Albert who longs to leave his frontier town. His ambition seems reasonable because his sheep don’t bring much a return for all the work he’s put into them, and basic safety is almost nonexistent. What would seem to be freak accidents in other more established communities (an ice block falling on a workman loading it into the icehouse or bad chemicals in photo developing) are all too common in his town.
Adding to Albert’s malaise is the fact that his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) has dumped him. He’s also troubled by Old West morality. His pal Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) has never slept with his fiancée Ruth (Sarah Silverman). That might seem needlessly prudish after taking into account that she makes her living as a prostitute and that her johns recall their encounters in graphic details in front of Edward’s face.
Albert’s life starts looking up when he meets Anna (Charlize Theron), who shares his desire to leave for San Francisco. She also has a formidable skill with guns and is the only person in the area who treats him with any love or respect. Unfortunately for them both, she’s currently married to the ruthless outlaw Clinch (Liam Neeson), who is as jealous as he is amoral.
MacFarlane and his co-screenwriters have a few ideas that might work, but most get tossed aside before they really develop or get repeated until any wit in them fades. After a few thousand references to Ruth’s professional activities, the gag isn’t terribly funny anymore.
MacFarlane also imbues A Million Ways to Die in the west with a cold mentality that makes it hard to care if Albert’s life ever improves. Brooks may have used derogatory terms, but Blazing Saddles is about as anti-racist as a film can be. Bart, the black sheriff in that film, is the smartest, kindest and most capable person in the film.
MacFarlane, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to understand that arbitrary deaths aren’t inherently funny. Seeing a man get decapitated by a falling block of ice is just grisly. One wonders how he’s react if a close relative died that way.
It also doesn’t help that he has cast himself in the lead. On screen, it’s more fun to watch him antagonize his protagonist (intentionally or unintentionally) as he did as the talking teddy bear in Ted, than it is to see him play the main character. The role of Albert requires the sort of innocence someone like Mark Wahlberg (the star of Ted) can bring out. MacFarlane has many talents, but he consistently comes off as somebody who should know better than as a naïve tenderfoot.
Much of the appeal of westerns is that they can evoke an era there were still worlds to conquer and adventure to be had. A Million Ways to Die in the West is simply more of the same old thing. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 06/02/14).
A Million Ways to Die in the West
MacFarlane should have
Watched Blazing Saddles instead
of remaking it.