Friday, December 23, 2016

Movie Review: “Why Him?”


Why Him?

**** 1/2 out of 5
Rated R for strong language and sexual material throughout
111 minutes
20th Century Fox

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com


It came as a shock to some when director John Hamburg delivered his first comedy masterpiece with I Love You, Man. Filled with instantly likeable characters, and tons of hilarious dialogue that’s still quoted today, ILYM looked like the jumpstart Hamburg needed after stumbling through Safe Men and Along Came Polly. It’s been seven years since ILYM, but Why Him? is Hamburg’s triumphant return to the spotlight. While the promotion has been hit-and-miss, Why Him? is one of this year’s laugh-til-you-cry funniest movies. Admittedly, the film is heavy on dumb, and loaded with profanity, but the sweetness prevails thanks to Hamburg’s expert direction and an exceptional cast.

It’s Christmas in Michigan and Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston) is doing everything he can to keep his printing company afloat. Having just celebrated his 50th birthday, it comes as a shock when he learns his daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) is dating game app entrepreneur Laird Mayhew (James Franco). Soon enough, Stephanie tricks the family into joining her and Laird into spending the holidays together, with Laird springing an even bigger surprise on Ned by asking for his blessing to ask Stephanie to marry him. Ned is put off by Laird’s outrageous lifestyle — while his wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and teen son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) try to give their host the benefit of the doubt. But Laird makes a bet with Ned that Ned be calling Laird “son” before the weekend is over and get his blessing.

For a film with such a simplistic plot, it’s amazing the mileage Hamburg and his cast get out of it. It helps that there’s also a fantastic supporting cast in the likes of Cedric the Entertainer, Keegan-Michael Key, Casey Wilson, Andrew Rannells, Adam Devine, and even Kaley Cuoco helping make the shenanigans as hilarious as possible. However, the true driving force is the pairing of Franco and Cranston. What sounds like one of the most mismatched leads in history turns into a force of comedic nature. The two make a spectacular duo and leave no eyes dry from laughing too hard. As funny as the human cast may be, a chicken steals the whole movie.

Why Him? is absurdist humor through and through and no one will leave without a face or stomach that hurts from laughing. Bear in mind, the film is very much R-rated, but never feels forced or trying to shock audiences. Through it all beats a huge heart. Laird easily could have been turned into a bad guy at any point in the movie, but this is a man who loves his woman and will stop at nothing to prove it to Ned.

Why Him? is one of the year’s most flat out hilarious films and also the year’s best Christmas offering. Judging against Office Christmas Party, the two aren’t even in the same league. This is the Christmas comedy to see this season, just so long as you can handle it. Laird may speak English, but it’s littered with f-bombs. That right there may be enough to make up your mind, but even a co-worker who was uncomfortable with the salty language couldn’t deny that the film is a good time. Why Him? Because he’s the most hilarious character under the mistletoe and should not be missed!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Movie Review: “Sing”


Sing

* out of 5
108 minutes
Rated PG for some rude humor and mild peril
Universal Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com





Two movies released near the end of this year were over publicized prior to their release. And, unfortunately, neither lived up to the hype.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has its fans, but the film was nothing more than a barely serviceable pilot to set up a new batch of Harry Potter films. As for Illumination Entertainment’s Sing? It makes The Secret Life of Pets look Oscar worthy. As much as I enjoyed Pets, it’s not. But compared to director Garth Jennings’s failure here — it breaks my heart that this came from the same director who gave us The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Son of Rambow — I will happily pop Pets into my player any day over Sing.

Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) is a koala with big dreams. After falling in love with the theater at the age of six he’s managed to make his dream a reality. Except that now, his theater is flailing and he’s strapped for cash. One day, Buster comes up with a brilliant idea to save his theater: he’s going to put on a singing competition, offering a grand prize of $1,000 — but accidentally prints out fliers advertising $100,000.

Now, everyone in town is vying to win: Rosita (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), a bored housepig who just wants her moment to shine; Mike (voiced by Seth MacFarlane),a scheming mouse with an ego as big as he isn’t; Ash (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a porcupine rocker who just wants to get out of the spotlight of her partner Lance (voiced by Beck Bennett); and finally Meena (voiced by Tori Kelly), a young elephant with a fear of crowds who needs to find her voice.

To be fair, Sing at least has its heart in the right place. It’s just too bad it beats to such a boring tune. After suffering through Sing my wife said to me when it was over: “You look like you were being tortured the entire run time.”

For a movie called Sing that revolves around the old “let’s put on a show” plot, there are very few instances where we even hear complete songs. Trolls pulled the same stunt last month, but at least when it was cutting a song short, it was using the song for specific plot points. Here, songs simply start, then Jennings cuts to something going on off stage, then cuts back to the end of the song.
Then there’s the fact that Buster’s whole plan makes no sense whatsoever. He’s putting on a contest, with a monetary prize, to save the theater he’s making no money on? I know it will go right over kids’ heads, but c’mon.

The long and short of it is, Sing is one of the worst films of the year with no laughs, no loveable characters, and no memorable songs whatsoever. I feel sorry for anyone who is dragged to it by their children. Don’t let their bleating mouths con you, Sing is a good time for no one but the most easily amused. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.

Movie Review: “Passengers”


Passengers

*** out of 5
116 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexuality, nudity and action/peril
Sony Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Thanks to the geek/nerd niche, sci-fi is becoming more mainstream than ever. While they can’t all be as bankable as Star Wars, there are at least two classics recently with Interstellar and Arrival. Screenwriter Jon Spaihts — with the help of love-him-or-hate-him Damon Lindelof — attempted to return the Alien series to more grounded terrain with Prometheus. And now, Spaihts is at it again with Passengers, another film this holiday season with huge plot misconceptions caused by its misleading marketing.

In the never-defined future, the starship Avalon is making its way through space to a new Earth dubbed Homestead II. On board are 258 crew members and 5,000 passengers. The passengers consist of men and women who are looking to escape Earth, which has become overpopulated and overpriced. Unfortunately for Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), his suspended animation pod has awakened him 90 years too soon. Alone for over a year — with his only friend being the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) — Jim decides it’s time to wake someone up to join him in his misery. His unfortunate companion is Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a journalist looking to write a story in which she basically time travels from one planet to another. Unlucky for both of them, they still have 89 years until Avalon arrives at Homestead II, while the ship starts to slowly malfunction around them. Now, the two must find a way to not only save themselves, but the additional 5,256 people hurtling through space.

Spaihts doesn’t necessarily take the time to fill his script with big ideas. What he aims for here is something more simplistic, albeit with a high concept plot. There are some truths to his fiction, such as suspending animation — even if it’s only currently possible for small periods of time — but the real story here is more focused on the drama. Therein lies the tug of war between writer/director. Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) seems far more comfortable in delivering the human drama. Unfortunately, he’s cast two of Hollywood’s biggest stars and only gets a full performance out of Pratt. He’s as reliable as ever here. As for Lawrence, we’ve seen how good, and bad, she can be. Here, she flip flops from scene to scene. When she’s clowning around with Pratt, the two have an infectious chemistry, but when it comes time for the waterworks, she fails miserably.

For those hoping to see Pratt in action, there’s several instances where he gets to play straight man, but he’s also as hilarious and likeable as always. It’s a long time before Jim wakes up Aurora — considering he’s basically stalked her for over a year, it takes a strong leading man to play this kind of Prince “Charming” — so Tyldum was smart to cast someone we don’t mind spending so much time alone with. The film’s biggest issue is when the crap hits the fan and it lurches into a pseudo action film in the last 30 minutes. Lawrence starts overacting and the plot is tied up in a pretty bow that feels like Spaihts was under the gun, came up with the easiest denouement he could, pressed his Home Depot “Easy” button, and tossed Sony his work. The special effects are at least top notch, even if the story is the weakest link here, but at least it’s not Pratt. If there’s any reason to see Passengers, it’s Pratt, and there’s more of him to see than ever (wink wink). It may not be a new sci-fi classic, but at least it’s not a complete disaster.

Blu-ray Review: “Call of Heroes”

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: **** 1/2
Audio: **** 1/2
Extras: ** 1/2

Article first published on Blogcritics.org

Back in the very early 2000s, I fell in love with kung fu/wuxia films. While not all were created equal, there was a huge swell of releases in the U.S. Through Iron Monkey, Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and any movie starring Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow, I couldn’t get enough. Full of amazingly choreographed fight scenes and stunning cinematography, try as we did, Hollywood just couldn’t get the recipe right.

Chan and Jet Li may have become household names, but something was usually missing. The closest were Jason Statham’s Transporter films and Shanghai Noon/Knights. Needless to say, you had to go back to the source if you wanted to see it done right. The Ip Man series definitely stand out. Even then, most are schlocky with little thought put into the production. It gave me chills to discover that they can still do it right and director Benny Chan’s Call of Heroes is here to show us how it’s done.

In 1914, the Qing dynasty has fallen and the villagers of Pucheng City are in need of a hero. The murderous Cao Siu-lun (Louis Koo) has just killed three innocents — including a child — and the Sheriff, Yang (Sean Lau), resigns after they find out that Cao is the son of an evil warlord. Now, the city must stand against the marauding Cao if they want to stop their city from being overrun, with only the help of Yang, and the food coma-suffering Ma “Pigsy” Fung (Eddie Peng), to save the day.

Well Go USA doesn’t always treat their films to a 50GB disc, but when they do, a visually sprawling film like Call of Heroes gets the room it needs to breathe. Clarity is razor sharp with aliasing never ruining the picture. It could have run rampant with the amount of trees and sharp objects, but everything is as clean as it should be from a new production. Colors are bright with no blooming or bleed, while dark scenes never suffer from crush or loss of shadow delineation. A few seconds of banding are the only anomalies.

To go along with the crystal clear picture, we get two 5.1 DTS-HD MA tracks in both Cantonese and Mandarin. You can pick your poison on which track you select as the dialogue was filmed with a mix of the two there’s always instances of obvious dubbing. But the surrounds keep the action flowing — particularly Sheriff Yang’s whip — throughout the entire soundscape with excellent directionality, plenty of bass, and dialogue clean and crisp no matter how big the battle. Additional 2.0 Cantonese/Mandarin tracks are available, along with English and Chinese subtitles.


The special features are super short, but do manage to show off the cast and crews camaraderie on set. A “Making Of” is broken into eight segments — “Pucheng City” (1:26), “Eddie Peng” (1:28), “Wu Jing” (3:09), “Wu Jing & Eddie Peng” (1:44), “Louis Koo” (2:52), “Sammo Hung” (1:27), “Sammo & Sammy Hung” (1:58), and “Sean Lau” (1:46) — which all play one after the other even though a play all option isn’t available. The most interesting part is seeing that they literally built the entire city from the ground up and listening to director Chan talk about the chemistry between Jing and Peng. The film’s “Trailer” (1:42) is included, along with “Previews” for upcoming Well Go USA releases Operation Mekong, Cold War 2, and Three.

Call of Heroes never tries to rank itself as any kind of be-all-end-all kung fu extravaganza, but it certainly finds itself delivering what fans have been lacking. Full of interesting characters and some extraordinary fight scenes courtesy of action director Sammo Hung, Call of Heroes will make a fan out of any viewer. While the special features may be lacking, the video/audio make a blind buy a no-brainer. Call of Heroes is one of the best action films of the year you didn’t see. With it available on Blu-ray, now’s your chance to play catch up.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Movie Review: “Collateral Beauty”


Collateral Beauty

* out of 5
97 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Films can be manipulative. We just accept it. While some get away with, others you can see right through. This weekend’s star-studded Collateral Beauty is pure cellophane. See through and ready to be thrown in the trash. Full of despicable characters doing despicable things, Warner Bros. is doing its damnedest to make it look like the holiday event film we’ve been waiting for. You will find no warm and fuzzies here, only the dullest violins playing in the background of one of the year’s worst screenplays. You can’t blame the cast for trying — they perform admirably all things considered, but a turd is still a turd, no matter how much mistletoe and holly you dress it up with.

It’s Christmas in New York City and Howard (Smith) is deep in grief after his daughter died three years earlier. His friends/co-workers — Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena) — all just want the best for him: to get over his daughter’s death and agree to sell stocks of their company to a potential client. Together the three conjure up a plan to hire actors to portray death, love, and time — Brigitte (Helen Mirren), Amy (Keira Knightley), and Raffi (Jacob Latimore) — whom Howard has been writing letters to. Along with hiring a private detective, Sally Price (Ann Dowd), Howard’s three “best friends” set out to catch him on film talking to the three abstractions to prove to the company’s board of directors that he is no longer of sound mind. There’s another subplot involving Madeleine (Naomie Harris), a grief counselor whose only involvement is a plot twist you’ll see coming a mile away.

There has not been a film so unabashedly manipulative as Collateral Beauty in years. While there are the horrific Garry Marhall-helmed holiday-themed rom-coms of recent years, director Frankel and screenwriter Allan Loeb hit some all time lows. As a colleague put it: “This is Oscar bait for the layman.” Only the most easily influenced will be moved by the film’s saccharine sweetness that’s dead set on giving every viewer diabetes. But the film’s biggest fault is the atrocious screenplay. I’ve never been so appalled with lead characters in my life. Since when is faking that one of your best friends, and business partner, has gone crazy a good idea? These are the kinds of characters who should be sentenced to serving a year together in jail Seinfeld-style.

While the cast all perform exactly as expected — you have to admire how hard Smith is crying by the red in his eyes — even they sound slightly bored and annoyed with starring in this. I’m not sure what bet they lost, but Warner Bros. must have some mighty good blackmail against them. Every commercial you see on TV trumpets reviews calling it the most uplifting holiday film of the season. I can attest that the best Christmas movie of the year doesn’t come out until next week. As it stands, Collateral Beauty is a mess from start to finish. If you want to see a fantastic case of good, hilarious grieving, see if Manchester By the Sea is playing anywhere nearby. Now there’s a film that knows what it’s like to deal with death. The only thing left to say here, is that if Gods of Egypt hadn’t come out in 2016, Collateral Beauty would be the absolute worst film of the year.

Movie Review: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”


Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

**** 1/2
134 minutes
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action 
Lucasfilm

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Are we already getting spoiled by Lucasfilm with our second Star Wars film in as many years? Hard to believe that it was 33 years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Now, there are planned Star Wars features for years to come. Is the world going to lose interest in a typical case of sequelitis? Not if Disney’s band of filmmakers have anything to do with it. It was a risky venture announcing a spin-off film, let alone another prequel. And yet Rogue One fits spectacularly into the Star Wars canon as much as anything that’s happened before or after.

Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is trying to keep a low profile as a farmer with his wife Lyra (Valene Kane) and their daughter Jyn (Beau and Dolly Gadsdon). The Empire’s Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) soon arrives to herd them up, but not before Lyra gets herself killed and Jyn goes into hiding. Jyn is soon rescued by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) and we skip ahead to the film’s present day. Jyn is now a rebel without a cause, but after being captured by General Draven (Alistair Petrie), she finds herself embroiled in a plan to steal the plans to Darth Vader’s (voiced by James Earl Jones) Death Star.

Rogue One is mighty busy — but the time doesn’t always fly by. There is a sluggish pace right in the middle of the film where it should be gaining momentum and an emotional core. You can’t blame director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) for trying. It’s obvious to tell that screenwriters Chris Weitz (Antz, About a Boy, Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy, Michael Clayton) didn’t quite collaborate. (It’s obvious in a film’s credits when they’re not named together with an ampersand.) Weitz probably focused most of his attention on characters and dialogue, while Gilroy lent a hand at maximizing the action. At least cinematographer Greig Fraser keeps everything in focus and adds some geography so we know what’s going on.

The cast is fantastic, with Jones in particular showing she can not only lead her motley crew, but carry the film all on her own. She never falters and gives the depth her character needs to make us care about Jyn’s plight. Composer Michael Giacchino was handed the reigns to the score and I can’t think of anyone else who could fill John Williams’ shoes. I’ve been calling him the next John Williams for years so it comes as no surprise to find him delivering a separate, but familiar score.

There are so many positives to Rogue One—yet that would venture into spoiler territory.  It does run a tad long, and there are some questionable instances of CGI. It’s most interesting to see Edwards deliver such an exciting Star Wars entry with next to no use of the Force. Yes, we all know Darth Vader is making a return, but aside from his two scenes, there’s almost no Force whatsoever. And that’s where Rogue One truly succeeds, in giving a behind the scenes peek at the rest of the Rebellion in action.

It may take a second or third viewing to truly appreciate Rogue One. It’s not like myself, or any other self respecting Star Wars won’t be doing just that. And here’s hoping Lucasfilm, Disney, and Kathleen Kennedy can all continue holding the series up to the high standards time has set upon the series. May the Force be with them, and so far, so good.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Movie Review: “Office Christmas Party”


Office Christmas Party

*** out of 5
105 minutes
Rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, drug use and graphic nudity

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

As much as I love Christmas movies, they aren’t all created equal. While the list of classics is nice and long, every once in awhile we get a dud. Just last year we got one outrageously hilarious, The Night Before, and one absolutely horrific, Love the Coopers. This year we get another duo of Christmas movies and once again, one is way better than the other. The good news is, Office Christmas Party is no Love the Coopers. The bad news, it’s no Night Before either.

Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck are no strangers to comedy, but they can’t ever seem to make one worth remembering. Falling right alongside their previous efforts — Blades of Glory and The Switch — only the most hardcore Will Ferrell fans will remember Blades and you’d be hardpressed to find anyone who even saw The Switch. One thing is for sure, Gordon and Speck must have loved working with stars Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston because the band is back together again, but the results are as lackluster as ever.

Data storage company Zenotek is getting ready for the holidays. None more so than branch president Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller) as he is hard at work putting the finishing touches on this year’s holiday party. Leave it to Clay’s ballbusting CEO sister Carol (Aniston) to try to ruin the fun. After closing the Florida branch, she’s set her sights on Clay’s in a case of bitter sibling rivalry. Lucky for Clay, he’s caught wind that a potential client, Walter (Courtney B. Vance), is in town and Carol gives him one more day to save himself and his employees. Now, Clay joins forces with his Chief Technical Officer Josh (Bateman) and their smartest employee, Tracey (Olivia Munn), to save the branch and have the greatest non-denominational holiday mixer ever.

Probably the biggest problem with Office Christmas Party is the amount of subplots Gordon and Speck try to juggle. Besides Clay’s misadventures, the film is also stuffed with Josh dealing with his divorce and a possible office romance with Tracey, Clay’s admin Allison (Vanessa Bayer) bouncing between her own romances with Fred (Randall Park), and Nate (Karan Soni) who is also embroiled with an escort (Abbey Lee) and her pimp, Trina (Jillian Bell). And there’s also a constant battle with HR, in the form of Mary (Kate McKinnon).

The few bright spots are unsurprisingly delivered by Miller, McKinnon, and Bell. As for the rest of the cast, they’re left grasping at straws with the writing trio of Justin Malen, Laura Solon, and Dan Mazer guilty of one of the least funny screenplays of the year. It’s already been a rough year for comedies, but you can’t blame the cast for trying. Miller almost singlehandedly saves the movie. Almost. I love Christmas movies, but Office Christmas Party is no new classic and I doubt I’ll ever revisit it. File this one under “Ghosts of Christmas Movies Past.”

Blu-ray 3D Review: “The Secret Life of Pets”

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: *****
Audio: **** 1/2
Extras: *** 1/2

Article first published on Blogcritics.org

The tagline for The Secret Life of Pets asks you to wonder what your pets do all day. As the owner of two mini dachshunds, I can assure you, they have never come close to the film’s level of shenanigans. I think.

Directors Chris Renaud (both Despicable Me films and The Lorax abomination) and Yarrow Cheney (making his feature debut) may have managed to only produce a carbon copy of the original Toy Story, but they made sure to fill their film with enough laughs, misadventures, and delightful characters to ensure maximum entertainment. And now, The Secret Life of Pets is available to take home in a 3D/2D/DVD/Digital HD combo pack.

Our pets in question make up quite the menagerie. Lead by Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), he winds up on the adventure of a lifetime after he manages to get himself and his new “brother” Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet) lost on the streets of the Big Apple. Back at the apartment complex, Max’s friends join forces to help find Max — and Duke, if necessary — before winding up either caught by animal control or fed to sewer gators by the tougher-than-he-looks bunny Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart).

Universal Pictures lets these Pets off the leash with a spectacular 3D transfer. With a screen-filling 1.85:1 aspect ratio, it makes the pets’ low-to-the-ground worldview look larger than life. Depth is always consistent, with zero instances of crosstalk or ghosting. Colors are bright and vivid with crush never a factor and even in low light it never takes a hit on depth. Aliasing is also never an issue, something that will make viewers breathe a sigh of relief considering the amount of animal hair that’s always on screen. There are also some standout 3D scenes featuring some snakes that feel like they’re coming out of the screen and stretching all the way into your lap!

As gorgeous as the 3D transfer is, the “downgraded” 7.1 Dolby TrueHD sound mix is almost as stellar. Directionality is spot on with perfect pans helping the action become as enveloping as any big budget, live-action blockbuster. Bass keeps the action thumping along while the music and sound effects soar from all speakers creating a full 360-degree of sound. Dialogue is always clean and prioritized to make sure you never miss out on any jokes. Just about the only thing that could have made it a better listen would be a full setup to take advantage of the Dolby Atmos mix. Additional language tracks include a Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus and French Canadian Dolby Digital 5.1 while subtitles include English, French, and Spanish.

The special features offer up a solid behind-the-scenes peek at how these CGI-fests are made. The kids may not give two cents about them, but at least there’s something more for the adults in case they’re interested. “The Humans that Brought You Pets” (8:43) features interviews with the directors, writers, and producers, and come with a Play All function. “Meet the Team” with Chris Meledandri, Janet Healy, Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney, and Brian Lynch talk about the inspiration for the film being how owners tend to invest their pets with rich emotional lives; something any owner will understand. “Animals Can Talk” (3:47) is a chance to “Meet the Actors” and we find Hart, Lake Bell, Bobby Moynihan, Stonestreet, and Jenny Slate reading lines and talking about how much fun they had.


“All About the Pets” (6:62) features animal trainer Molly O’Neill joined by Hart and Stonestreet as they stand around and handle everything from a kitten and chick to a tarantula and python. “Hairstylist to the Dogs” (3:41) joins Stonestreet and hairstylist to the stars Jess Rona for some simple grooming tips.

“How to Make an Animated Film” (4:13) gives us a look behind the curtain with the directors, producers, co-writer Lynch, and composer Eric Guillon explaining how, with so many cooks involved, they have to make sure that everyone is on the same page for the essence of the film to make sure everything knits together. “Anatomy of a Scene” (4:46) shows all the different elements it takes just to make sure that one scene comes together perfectly.

“The Best of Snowball” (1:15) is a greatest hits collection of some of the character’s funniest moments. “Lovely Day” Lyric Video (2:23)  features the pets playing amongst the song’s lyrics. “Hot Dog Sing-Along” (1:12) features onscreen lyrics to the film’s hilarious musical number featuring all kinds of singing hot dogs. Three “Fandango Movie Moments” feature three (0:57, 0:53, 0:56) “Brian the Minion on Pets” segments — surprisingly there is no play all feature — and are basically the Minions watching scenes from the movie pretending to be on Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s not funny.


“GoPro: The Secret Life of Pets” (2:04) is nothing more than extended commercial for GoPro cameras. Sadly, there’s no footage of any actual pets which seems extremely odd considering they sent out GoPro cameras to film critics over the summer and have seen some hilarious footage. It could have been a nice touch, but I digress.

Three mini-movies prove how exhausted the Minions have become with the inclusion of Mower Minions (4:27) which played before the film theatrically and is just atrocious lowest common denominator bathroom humor. NormanTV (4:01) is the weirdest of the group as the resident hamster Norman (voiced by Renaud) carries a TV remote from one apartment to the next watching his “shows.” It’s odd because of its film noir angle as Norman saves a woman from being murdered by her husband. Weenie (4:05) is the most misleading of the three as I was hoping for a short featuring Buddy the dachshund. Instead, it winds up being the funniest as the singing hot dogs return for a rambunctious song that may be funnier than the whole movie. Finally, an extended trailer for Illumination Entertainment’s Sing (4:02) rounds things out.

The Secret Life of Pets may not be the year’s best animated feature, and it honestly never tries to be either. However, it is hands down Illumination’s best feature yet. Featuring one of the best 3D presentations of the year and a rollicking audio track, the film has its fans and they’re sure to flock to grab this off shelves. Some may call me biased due to having my own two wieners — and my wife owns just about every Buddy item created — but the film is full of charm and big laughs and has plenty to offer viewers both young and old. And even more for anyone lucky enough to have a fur baby or two to come home to every day.

Photos courtesy Universal Pictures

Blu-ray Review: “Punch-Drunk Love” - The Criterion Collection

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: ****
Audio: *****
Extras: ***

Article first published on Blogcritics.org

The only director who may be as divisive as Wes Anderson is Paul Thomas (P.T.) Anderson. And he’s probably never directed a film as polarizing as Punch-Drunk Love. Everyone was surprised when it was announced he was working on a film set to star Adam Sandler,. What in the world did the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia want with one of the loudest mouths to come out of Saturday Night Live? What they weren’t expecting, was a typical Anderson film — even if atypically short — and one of Sandler’s best performances. Ever. To this day.

Following up his first three works with There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice, even more surprising is that Punch-Drunk Love is the first Anderson film to get the Criterion treatment. Unfortunately, there is no audio commentary to be found, and I’m not sure the included special features will be enough to suffice hardcore Anderson fans. But the good news is, the film itself looks and sounds as fantastic as you’d expect, and yes, it still holds up too.

For anyone who hasn’t seen Punch-Drunk Love, Barry Egan (Sandler) is a novelty plunger salesman, who also happens to be psychologically disheveled thanks to his gaggle of sisters. They have mentally abused him his whole life — so much in fact that they used to call him “Gay Boy” until he would break something. Despite his violent temper, he’s never hurt anyone. One day his sister Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub) decides she wants to introduce Barry to her friend Lena (Emily Watson). But fate comes calling, literally, in the form of a money scheming sex phone line run by furniture salesman Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman). And Barry discovers how to score millions of frequent flyer miles as part of a Healthy Choice sweepstakes.

The Criterion Collection releases Punch-Drunk Love on a 50GB disc, framed in a 2.40:1 ratio. Colors have received a huge bump here almost to the point of blooming. Thankfully contrast keeps it from bleeding, but skin tones take a hit and have a bright, pinkish hue. Detail isn’t quite what you’d expect from a 35mm transfer, but it could be due to this being a high-def digital transfer rather than a 2K or 4K scan. As good as the film looks, it always seems as if it could have looked better. At least depth and fluidity are consistent, especially with how many long panning shots are featured throughout. Banding, aliasing, or crush are never present. The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is the only one provided, with English subtitles available. The sound design holds up better than the picture here with music, dialogue, and sound effects very clean and nothing overwhelming the other. Something that comes in very handy in the few noisier segments.

If there’s one thing lacking in the special features department, it’s Anderson himself. I can’t help but think of how raucous an audio commentary could have been had Criterion gotten Anderson and Sandler back together. The two obviously enjoyed working together immensely — as seen in the “Cannes Film Festival” portion. “Studio Interviews” (7:02) and a “Press Conference” (37:52) features Anderson, Sandler, Watson, and Hoffman — producer Jo-Anne Sellar joins them for the press conference — discuss working together with Hoffman and Anderson talking about their previous joint efforts and Sandler making light of some jabs at him being at Cannes. Two “Deleted Scenes” consists of “The Sisters Call” (7:18) and “Are You From California?” (2:23). Considering how short one is and the other being an alternate version of a scene still in the film, neither are important.

“Mattress Man Commercial” (0:52) is a pretty funny commercial featuring Trumbell and the always hilarious on-camera mishap with him jumping onto a pile of mattresses stacked on a car only to bounce off and onto the pavement. “Blossoms and Blood” (11:58) is a 2002 archival clip with scenes from the movie playing over Jon Brion’s score. “Scopiotones” (6:20) is more of the same. A Play All option is available, and the feature is broken down into 12 sections: “First,” “Harp Finger,” “Punchy Doorbell,” “Mysterio,” “Boy Businessman,” “Healthy Choice,” “He Needs Me,” “Lena,” “Come and Get Me,” “Exit Love Story,” “Sissy Lake’s Love,” and “Waimanalo Walk.”


“Jon Brion” (27:19) is an excruciatingly long interview with the film’s composer. He self-congratulates on how the score came to be and takes time to rag on how bad most film scores are. This was created exclusively for Criterion this year and I can’t help but see why he’s not asked to score more films. A “Recording Session” (9:56) offers a glimpse into the film’s scoring in December 2001 at Abbey Road Studios. It’s far more interesting to see Brion at work than it ever is to hear him discuss his work.

“Jeremy Blake” (20:25) is a filmed conversation between New York gallerist/Participant, Inc. founder Lia Gangitano and Michael Connor, artistic director of Rhizome at the New Museum in New York. The two discuss Blake’s digital artistry displayed throughout the movie and was filmed exclusively for Criterion. While Gangitano and Connor may ramble quite a bit, at least Blake’s art is far more interesting than anything Brion had to say about his own. Three minutes of additional artwork are also included.

Finally, “The Pudding Guy” (5:04) is the original 2000 NBC interview with David Phillips, the civil engineer who purchased around $3,000 worth of pudding to earn over a million airline miles. Yes, this is the story the subplot is based on, and it’s far more interesting than most of the rest of the special features. Three “Trailers” are included: “Theatrical Trailer” (2:27), “Jeremy Blake’s Love” (1:24), and “Eat Tomorrow” (0:33). An illustrated leaflet can be found inside, featuring Miranda July’s essay, “A Delegate Speaks” rounds things out.


Punch-Drunk Love may not be the best P.T. Anderson film, but it is easily his most mainstream. Focusing on a much more relatable subject  — love, obviously — but it represents exactly what Sandler is capable of when not just collecting a paycheck. If he would be more willing to work with respectable directors instead of those out of his Happy Madison wheelhouse, he would still be every bit as relevant today as he was during his heyday. It’ll also be interesting to see where Anderson takes himself next after the lackluster Inherent Vice. Hoffman fans can rejoice to see him in one of his funniest roles, even if barely in the movie, while hardcore Sandler fans have another iconic role cemented in high def. Most of the special features are worth skipping over, but Punch-Drunk Love is more than worth revisiting with typically exceptional video/audio quality. While it still is not for everyone, there’s far more here than meets the eye and anyone interested in picking up a copy will not be displeased.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Movie Review: “Rules Don’t Apply”


Rules Don't Apply

*** 1/2 out of 5
126 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sexual material including brief strong language, thematic elements, and drug references
20th Century Fox

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Having been out of the Hollywood spotlight since 2001’s atrocious Town & Country, there’s something a bit ironic about Warren Beatty portraying Howard Hughes. While I’m sure Beatty is no recluse, it just feels good having him back on screen. As good as it is to have Beatty back, it’s not necessarily a triumphant return. Writing, directing, and starring seems to get the upperhand this time, with two separate movies fighting for their spot in the limelight. Thankfully, costars Alden Ehrenreich (our new young Han Solo BTW) and Lily Collins hold their own amidst the anarchic storytelling.

In 1958, Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich) is working hard as a driver for Hughes. While having never driven Hughes himself, he has high hopes that he can work his way to the top. Only problem is, Frank is driving around the hottest young actresses all vying for roles in Hughes’s films. While Frank may fall back on his good ol’ boy persona — he’s engaged to Sarah (Taissa Farmiga) after all — he finds out that he may not be as engaged as he thinks when the young Apple Blossom Queen herself, Marla Mabrey (Collins), comes calling. Hughes has one rule, that his drivers cannot get mixed up with his actresses and as Frank finally finds Hughes bringing him up the ladder, Marla may be the one thing standing in his way.

While Beatty’s screenplay and story may be all over the map, at least he manages to make two really good movies — even if they always seem at odds with each other. On one end of the spectrum, we have Ehrenreich and Collins delivering one of the year’s most romantic performances. The two have wonderful chemistry together and the film is a pure delight anytime it’s focused on Frank and Marla. Unfortunately, as the story progresses, we start spending more time with the loony Hughes.

As much as I love watching Beatty work — and you can tell he still loves being in front of the camera — a romantic subplot involving Hughes and Marla feels extremely trite. It also doesn’t help that there are some terrific supporting players who barely get their chance to shine. Matthew Broderick gets the rare chance to be funny as a fellow driver, but Farmiga barely registers with Ed Harris even less so as Sarah’s father. I honestly forgot he was even in the film until I just looked through the IMDB credits. Candice Bergen and Martin Sheen are also wasted.

Thankfully, Rules Don’t Apply isn’t a complete wash. The love story makes for a fantastic date night option, it’s just too bad the film doesn’t have much meat on its bones, considering it runs over two hours. Had the film been trimmed down and more focused on Frank and Marla, it could have wound up as one of the year’s best. As it stands, Beatty manages to stuff the film with too much padding and it becomes every bit as self/overindulgent as you’d expect out of a film revolving around Howard Hughes.

Movie Review: “Moana”


Moana

***** out of 5
103 minutes
Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements
Walt Disney Animation Studios 

Disney has been in the princess movie a long time, so it’s surprising it took awhile to make them strong, independent characters. The tides have certainly changed since the days of Snow White, Cinderella, or even Ariel. Their newest addition, Moana fits right in, standing as their best yet. While not meant as a slight against the likes of Jasmine, Tiana, Merida, or power sisters Anna and Elsa, Moana is by far the clear winner.

Headstrong, and with no love interest in sight, Moana is here to stake her claim as a force to be reckoned with. It helps that directors Ron Clements and John Musker know a thing or two about the Disney formula. They are the duo behind The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog after all. With the help of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda co-writing a host of earworms, they pull out all the stops, delivering one of the year’s best animated films.

On a mystical Polynesian island, we meet infant Moana as she is enchanted by her Gramma Tala’s (voiced by Rachel House) stories of demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson). Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti causing the islands to slowly wither and die out. As a teen, Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is fighting an internal struggle between doing what’s best for her island versus her inner yearnings. Moana, with a push from Gramma Tala, knows she’s destined for more. It comes calling after the ocean hand picks her to take to the high sails to track down Maui and restore peace to the islands.

As much as I was hoping I could tout Moana as the best animated film of the year, I suppose I have to call it a draw against Zootopia. While the latter may find itself with the better story, Moana has a fighting spirit, and girl power to spare. Combined with Miranda’s amazing songs — co-written by Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina — it’s hard to declare a clear winner. But it is a fantastic twofer year for Disney. Packed with some of the year’s most eye-popping animation, Clements and Musker — along with co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams — bring Jared Bush’s (who also co-wrote Zootopia) creative screenplay to breathtaking life.

Moana also features some of the year’s most memorable characters, including a few animal sidekicks like Pua the pig and Heihei the chicken (voiced by Alan Tudyk no less), no one will leave the theater without a smile on their face and a song stuck in their head. Special mention goes to “The Rock” for performing his own hilarious demigod song and Jemaine Clement nearly stealing the whole movie . The young Cravalho stands tall against Johnson and the two make a hilarious vocal pairing. Everything just works superbly here, and in the words of Maui himself, “you’re welcome.”

Blu-ray Review: “Morris from America”

Movie: **** out of 5
Video: ****
Audio: ****
Extras: ****

Article first published on Blogcritics.org

Fish-out-of-water and coming of age films are two staples at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s not too often when you get both in one film. Writer/director Chris Hartigan manages to do just that with the sometimes hilarious, but more often thoughtful, Morris from America. Considering how hellish it is to be 13 years old to begin with, imagine what it would be like to be a transplant in Germany. Add to that being black and you’re bound to struggle. Thankfully, Hartigan and his cast keep the misadventures on a realistic level — even if uncomfortably at times — ensuring that Morris never feels cheap.

Morris (Markees Christmas) is struggling with his new homelife. After moving to Germany with his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson), he deals with having to learn a new language — taught by his tutor Inka (Carla Juri) — while trying to find a way to fit in amongst all the white kids who don’t speak English. One day, 15-year-old Katrin (Lina Keller) catches his eye and he’s instantly smitten. Katrin takes a liking to Morris, but keeps him at arm’s length, always caught in the ebb and flow of does she like or not? While Katrin may invite Morris to parties, she quickly manages to ridicule him with cheap pranks like soaking his crotch with a water gun. Soon enough, Morris is learning the hardships of misadventures culminating with being abandoned far from home after following Katrin, and a band, on the road with some fellow fans.

Lionsgate Films squeezes Morris onto a 25GB disc in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Detail is on the high side with facial features, clothing textures, and interior facades showing realistic levels. Once the characters move outside, the contrast pumps up colors resulting in a slight downtick. Colors verge on blooming and bleed, but never get too unrealistic. Thankfully, black levels remain consistent and there are no compression artifacts to worry about. Considering the amount of rap/techno music featured on the soundtrack, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio keeps the party going. Dialogue is never drowned out no matter how loud the music gets, and bass keeps things thumping nicely. Surrounds finally get some use during the party sequences. English and Spanish subtitles are available.

The special features may not be overindulgent, but they make for as good of time as the film. “Making Morris from America” (11:22) starts off like your typical EPK, but quickly the director begins discussing the cast and how much he loved working with them. It’s interesting to hear Hartigan talk about finding Christmas via YouTube and a clip featuring Juri reinforces the film’s main theme to not not rush getting older. “Bloopers” (2:35) are standard and surprisingly never result in any laugh-out-loud moments, not even from Robinson, a shame. One “Deleted Scene” (1:18) features Katrin trying to get Morris to give her a hicky. “Casting Tapes” (4:28) feature Markees and Lina and it’s very interesting to see how much more evolved Christmas’s performance become with Keller’s being spot on from the beginning.

Hartigan has crafted a great slice of life feature showcasing exactly how awkward it can be to be a youngster. And how much harder it can be to be an outcast way out of their comfort zone. While it may frighten some parents to see teenagers involved with alcohol and MDMA, the life lessons always feel true. Christmas gives a fantastic debut performance, always managing to keep up with the likes of Robinson playing his dad. The two are hilarious together and, often, emotional. A particular scene with Curtis driving Morris home gives Robinson the chance to really shine and show that he’s so much more than Daryl from The Office. I’ve read that this film is how he wound up on Mr. Robot and I’m in no way surprised. I’ve always been a fan and he does not disappoint here. Featuring a really good transfer and an even better audio track, anyone interested in giving Morris from America a chance is going to find themselves as smitten with the film as Morris is with Katrin.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Movie Review: “The Monster”










 
*** 1/2 out of 5
91 minutes
Rated R for language and some violence/terror
A24

Article first published on Blogcritics.org

Two films coming out this fall have the word monster in the title. Coincidentally, they both also deal with child/parent relationships. While one is a big studio effort, The Monster, is an entirely different beast. Writer/director Bryan Bertino’s film, is a stripped down creature feature filled with practical effects and strong female performances. Zoe Kazan and Ella Ballentine play off each other fantastically, even if their characters may hate each other for most of the runtime. While I may have despised Bertino’s breakout feature — 2008’s unintentionally hilarious borefest The Strangers — there’s plenty to love for horror fans and they even have the opportunity to choose between a darkened theater or at home via DirecTV.

The Monster is as straightforward and minimalist as they come. Kathy (Kazan) has an estranged relationship with her daughter Lizzy (Ballentine) thanks to her alcoholism. But fate makes the two put their strengths to the ultimate test after Kathy hits something while driving. With a surprisingly working cell phone, Kathy makes Lizzy call for help. Now, they get to sit stranded in the middle of the road, in the rain, while a monster lurks in the woods. Kathy and Lizzy are in for the night from hell as they battle not just a ruthless killing machine, but each other as well.

Leave it to Kazan to make even a horrible mother likeable. I’m sure that’s how she scored the lead because it takes a lot of skill to make that possible. Not even Emily Blunt was able to pull that off in The Girl on the Train — although, her character is far different from Kazan’s. A horror movie always needs characters to root for. Especially when there’s only two key players. When you’re in every scene, you can’t have the audience hoping you bite the big one. There wouldn’t be any reason to watch, unless they were to go out in spectacular fashion by the end. As it is, Bertino keeps things reasonably tight — even if the film’s 91 minutes start to feel padded out. Thankfully by the end, we’re treated to enough shock tactics and practical effects to keep us riveted through the finale.

The Monster may not be a new horror classic, but it does harken back to a more simpler time for horror movies that don’t rely on a pretty cast of dead teenagers walking. The creature is never a product of a computer which makes it a far more frightening entity. It may be seen in the light a few too many times, keeping your imagination from having to do the heavy lifting, but it could have been trimmed in that aspect a bit too. Sometimes what you don’t see is scarier. However, anyone interested in The Monster will likely have a good time. It’s a way better entry than Lights Out, and many will find what’s lurking in these woods scarier than the Blair Witch. It may not be an instant classic, but it gets the job done.

Movie Review: “The Edge of Seventeen”


The Edge of Seventeen

**** 1/2
104 minutes
Rated R for sexual content, language and some drinking - all involving teens
STX Entertainment

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Every adult understands the awkwardness of life right before entering “adulthood.” It’s still odd to me how anyone at the age of 18 is legally an adult. As it stands, there have been many teen movies over the years, all clamoring to be a new generation’s voice. Fast Times at Ridgemont High and almost all of John Hughes’s résumé, through Clueless, She’s All That, Mean Girls, and Juno. Now, the Millennials can lay claim to their own, with a film that gives hope that everything may be OK after all and to just let life happen — because there’s no stopping it and it is a force to be reckoned with. And in quite a leap, writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig has gone from the abysmal Post Grad to The Edge of Seventeen. If one thing’s for sure, Craig understands the teenage crowd far better than the newly graduated.

Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) has always lived in the shadow of her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). An outcast by nature, she finds the friend of a lifetime in elementary in Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) as they cruise the high school scene together. That is until after a night of drinking while Nadine’s mom Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) is out of town. Krista hooks up with Darian and now Nadine’s life is ruined forever. Instead of lashing out, she introverts more than ever, but not without taking a time out to stalk older classmate Nick (Alexander Calvert) while possibly starting up an actual relationship with the every-bit-as-awkward Erwin (Hayden Szeto). Nadine finds refuge and advice from the least likely of sources, one of her teachers, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson).

It seems unfair to place all the blame on Craig for the disastrous Post Grad — she did only write it. However, all films start with the script. Thankfully, she’s certainly bucked up, or got in touch with her inner teenager, because there’s far more that resonates here than in her first attempt. It also might have helped that she directed Seventeen and had complete control. Whatever happened, The Edge of Seventeen lives up to the hype it’s been coasting on for the last few weeks. With a razor sharp script and a fantastic cast, Craig delivers a film that fits right alongside Juno — another hilarious teenager up to shenanigans.

Steinfeld finally gives another lead performance living up to her True Grit debut. Harrelson tries to steal the whole movie away from her and Szeto is another standout, with Richardson also getting a few moments to shine. Not sure if there’s anything here I’d consider buzzworthy, but it’s better than most films released this year, and one of the funniest. The Edge of Seventeen thankfully is being marketed correctly harkening back to the classic teenage comedies of yesteryear, and rightfully so. I’m not sure if it’s an all out classic, but it’s definitely a shining example of teen comedy done right.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Movie Review: “Bleed for This”


Bleed for This

*** 1/2 out of 5
116 minutes
Rated R for language, sexuality/nudity and some accident images
Open Road Films

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

There must be something therapeutic about sports films. They’re all nearly identical, yet audiences till flock to them. I suppose the same thing can be said about any genre really. But when it comes to sports biopics in particular, would they have made a movie if they weren’t going to come out on top at the end? (Rocky may be the only exception.) Thankfully, the journey is at least usually different. In the case of Vinny Pazienza’s uphill battle after breaking his neck in a car wreck, leaving doctors questioning whether he’ll even be able to walk again, the journey is more worth it than others. That is if writer/director Ben Younger’s pacing doesn’t put you to sleep along the way.

Beginning in 1988, Vinny (Miles Teller) is at the top of his game going toe to toe with Roger Mayweather (Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin). But after he loses the big fight, even Vinny’s manager Lou (Ted Levine) openly thinks Vinny should throw in the towel. Now, Vinny seeks out a new trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), to help him get back on top. Soon, fate comes calling and Vinny winds up in a car wreck. Insisting on a halo surgery, he finds himself in the biggest fight of his life as he goes against the odds to train in spite of his disability. Anyone who can’t see what’s coming has never seen a sports drama.

A lot of people simply cannot stand Miles Teller. Considering he plays the same character in every movie, it’s easy to see why. I’ve never been on the Teller hate bandwagon, and here he’s far more likeable than usual. It’s easy to make jokes before seeing the movie that you can’t wait to see Teller get hit in the face, but he does manage to give humanity to Vinny’s plight. They take a moment to point out that Vinny doesn’t drink or do drugs, so that also makes it easier to feel bad for Vinny. Younger surrounds Teller with a great supporting cast — Eckhart is nearly unrecognizable — which helps carry the film to the finish line. If it weren’t for them, Vinny’s story would be a been there, heard that affair. The saddest part is that being released in November you would hope it would be an Oscar contender, but alas, the only honorable mention is Eckhart.

Movie Review: “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
















*** out of 5
133 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

It may seem like an odd way to start a review, but it just feels weird to me that it’s been longer since a new Harry Potter film has been released than Star Wars. Five years have passed since we last saw the boy wizard and if Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is of any indication, it’s already time for J.K. Rowling to head back to the well. While there is the Cursed Child available to scratch that itch, Fantastic Beasts only delivers some of the magic the original series accomplished.

The Wizarding World may not be my favorite fantasy series, but this is not the long-anticipated installment fans deserve. It’s high time for Warner Bros. to bring in some new blood and let David Yates out to pasture. After directing the last four installments, he’s officially on autopilot. It doesn’t help that he’s hindered with two awful choices for leads. Eddie Redmayne is as polarizing as ever as Newt Scamander, but he’s no match for the stilted, uncharismatic likes of Katherine Waterston who is one of the most boring leads cast in a major motion picture in quite some time.

As for the film proper, Fantastic Beasts ushers us 70 years prior to the beloved Potter & Co. and introduces us to Newt as he arrives in New York City during the roaring ’20s. Strange happenings are afoot, with the dark wizard Grindelwald wreaking havoc, while Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is on the case for the Magical Congress. It’s not long before Newt runs into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who just wants to get a bank loan to open a bakery and make his grandma proud. Soon enough, Jacob is attacked by one of the creatures Newt snuck into the U.S. and the two are taken into custody by Porpentina Goldstein (Waterston). Together, the trio must find out who’s behind the malicious city attacks, with all signs pointing to a family of New Salamers Army (an anti-witch cult) including the creepy Creedence (Ezra Miller), his young sister Chastity (Jenn Murray), and their mother Mary Lou (Samantha Morton).

Fantastic Beasts feels likes a TV pilot. Full of clunky exposition and the most convenient of denouements, hopefully the next four announced sequels can find more to expand upon. Considering the film is written by Rowling herself, she’s really to blame here — except for Yates’s lackluster direction, questionable special effects (I’ve never found any of the Harry Potter effects to be convincing from the beginning) and poor casting decisions. Redmayne seriously needs to learn how to open his mouth and enunciate when speaking. I get it, Newt is supposed to be introverted and awkward, but that’s no excuse for not being able to understand most of his dialogue. The film should require captioning, and for once, not due to any thick accents.

The worst offender here is Waterston who shows no business as a lead actress. She’s boring and wooden. That being said, it’s clear that Yates has lost quite a bit of interest in this world, or maybe with film altogether if his Legend of Tarzan is of any indication. The man cannot move a film along at a reasonable pace to save his life and stages some of the most boring action scenes of the year — in both Fantastic Beasts and Tarzan.

If there’s any further proof that the film is a misfire it’s my wife’s reaction. She’s the reason we visited Orlando’s “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” two years ago, and even she was let down by the movie. Only the most diehard Potter fans will find something to love here, and I guess that’s really all there is to say. The film is critic proof, so if you’re reading these final thoughts, you were probably questioning whether you should see it all. If you want to, you might as well. But don’t say you weren’t warned. There may be some Fantastic Beasts in the movie, but you won’t be asking Where to Find Them by the time the credits roll.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Movie Review: “Arrival”


Arrival

***** out of 5
116 minutes
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Sometimes, the year’s best film so far can come right out of left field. On paper, Arrival sounds like another drama centered around aliens finding their way to Earth. It doesn’t help that the screenplay is credited to Eric Heisserer. Earlier this year he “treated” us to one of the worst horror movies in years, Lights Out. To say the rest of his resume doesn’t look any better is an understatement: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Destination 5, The Thing, Hours. I suppose at least he’s familiar with genre films. Thankfully, Arrival comes directed by one of the best working today, Denis Villeneuve. After a string of dark and disturbing thrillers — Sicario, Enemy, Prisoners, Incendies — we can all take a deep breath that the pieces have really come together in Arrival.

Linguist professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) keeps reliving memories of watching her daughter Hannah (played at ages 4, 8, and 12 by Jadyn Malone, Abigail Pniowsky, and Julia Scarlett Dan) die from cancer. As if that isn’t bad enough, a dozen alien spacecraft have just arrived, spread all across the globe. US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits Banks to head to Montana where she joins forces with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to try and communicate with the aliens and find out why they’re here. Although there’s widespread panic, there’s been no immediate threat. While Banks and Donnelly try to stop a global war, China’s General Shang (Tzi Ma) isn’t scared to make the first move.

The less explained regarding the plot and ideas Arrival throws at us the better. If there’s one thing to be said for certain is that the Oscar race officially starts here. Harkening to such sci-fi classics as Contact and Interstellar, this is far from the fireworks show we’ve come to expect thanks to Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay, and Roland Emmerich. Arrival is the epitome of the thinking person’s film with huge ideas and heartbreaking drama. Adams gives a spellbinding performance as a tortured mother trying to save the world from disaster, while Renner plays second fiddle. It’s nice to see Adams back in the spotlight and as always, does not disappoint.

Villeneuve directs the entire film with incredible craftsmanship, including the year’s best score so far, from Jóhann Jóhannsson. Unnerving, unsettling, and gut wrenching are just a few ways to describe it. There’s really only so much to say when it comes to a film as amazing as Arrival. The final word is just GO! Hopefully it doesn’t get overlooked by audiences. The good news is that it arrived just in time to be at the forefront of the upcoming Oscar bait season, and with any luck, will remain at the top. It’s going to take quite the powerhouse to knock this one out of position.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Movie Review: “Trolls”


Trolls

**** out of 5
92 minutes
Rated PG for some mild rude humor



20th Century Fox

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Movies based on action figures are nothing new or surprising anymore. The real surprise is when one of them is finally good. If anyone had ever told me there’d be a day when a movie based on Thomas Dam’s “Good Luck Trolls” would be surprisingly fun, I’d never believe them. But yet, here we are. DreamWorks has granted director Mike Mitchell (The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, Sky High) and co-director Walt Dohrn (the SpongeBob TV series) the luxury of letting their freak flag fly with Trolls. Featuring a game voice cast, a silly and surprisingly demented screenplay, and some of the brightest animation of the year, Trolls beats expectations with (literal) flying colors. Believe me, I’m as shocked as you are.

Our titular creatures can’t help but live in a constant state of happiness while the evil Bergens — large Shrek-esque creatures — have discovered that they too can find one moment of peace: by eating a troll. Every year, the Bergens hold a Trollstice festival where the trolls are eaten in the name of happiness. But this year, King Peppy (voiced by Jeffrey Tambor) leads his fellow trolls in an escape. King Gristle Sr. (voiced by John Cleese), banishes the Chef (voiced by Christine Baranski) after the trolls have vanished and poor prince Gristle Jr. (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is doomed to never find true happiness.

Twenty years later, Princess Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) has had enough of hiding. She believes there’s no way the Bergens are still hunting for them and decides to throw the biggest party her fellow trolls have ever seen. Much to the chagrin of party pooper Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake) who is convinced that Poppy is going to get them all killed. Well, just wouldn’t you know it, the banished Chef hears Poppy’s shenanigans and a group of trolls are captured and taken back to Bergentown where their fates await. Poppy convinces Branch to join her on the quest to bring back her friends and save the day!

Trolls is infectious — in the best ways possible. After enduring a whole summer of Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” I was seriously worried when the first pop song was ushered in mere minutes from the DreamWorks logo. But low and behold, along came some outright hilarious jokes and the happiest-looking animated film washed over our eyeballs. Granted Trolls is nowhere near the best animated film of the year — I still stand by Zootopia at this point in the year — but it is absolutely one of the most fun. Parents, brace yourselves for the onslaught of merchandising, including the film’s soundtrack. Yes, Trolls is a musical. And while it is infused with countless pop tunes, there are at least a few original numbers. But every single one of them is an earworm of the highest order.

It’s no surprise the cast are having as much fun as they are — even Russell Brand isn’t grating! — and some have way more to do than others, but it’s very evident to see that everyone involved loved working on this project. It’s a good thing screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (all three Kung Fu Pandas, The SpongeBob sequel, King of the Hill) were allowed some artistic freedom with the project. Not all the jokes revolve around hugging and glitter bombs. I knew I was in safe hands when a trio of young trolls ask Poppy why the Bergens don’t do anything fun. You know, like having slumber parties, or birthday parties, or watching your parents while they sleep. It’s that exact kind of weirdness that elevates Trolls out of your expectation’s doldrums. Aibel and Berger know surreal and it permeates the whole production. Rest easy parents, Trolls is a good old time and a fantastic holdover until Disney releases the spectacular-looking Moana. Kids will love Trolls and adults will find plenty to laugh at as well. Sometimes isn’t that all we need when it comes to family entertainment? Sometimes it’s plenty enough for me.

Movie Review: “Doctor Strange”


***** out of 5
115 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence
Marvel Studios

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

With Doctor Strange finally upon us, it’s safe to say who the clear superhero studio was this year: Marvel. When it comes to the triple threat of Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War, and Doctor Strange, DC didn’t stand a chance with their lackluster Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. Maybe next year DC will have a fighting chance, but there’s no reason to hold your breathe. As for 2016, Marvel is sending their year out with a bang. As strange as it may sound, Doctor Strange stands as not just the year’s best superhero movie, but one of the best all around. Featuring a stellar cast, visuals you’ll be wrapping your head around for days, and one of the most emotionally-centered comicbook movies to date, Doctor Strange is here to show that Phase Three of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe will be a force to be reckoned with.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon, but not so cocky as to not challenge residents to a guessing game of classic music. With Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) by his side, Strange is obsessed with his career, until the day he winds up in a car wreck, leaving his precious hands mangled almost beyond repair. As he pushes himself to find a solution, he travels to Kathmandu, Nepal, where the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) must find time to train Strange in the art of sorcery, while figuring out how to stop her former student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) from unleashing Dormammu from the Dark Dimension where time is nonexistent and anyone can live forever. Now, with the help of fellow mage Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), master Wong (Benedict Wong), and Strange’s trusty Cloak of Levitation, they will do everything in their power to put a stop to Kaecilius’s nefarious scheme.

There’s only so many accolades one can laud at a film that’s instantly likable. Doctor Strange is a sight to behold and absolutely demands to be seen in IMAX 3D. It was even reformatted for some scenes — but there are a lot of them. Probably the best way to describe the film is to imagine that The Matrix and Inception decided to have a baby together and named the miracle Doctor Strange. This is far from the 1978 made-for-TV movie. There may be a lot of hocus pocus going on, but at least it’s of the believable kind. It also manages to tie into Ant-Man rather spectacularly in one of its most jaw-dropping sequences.

Cumberbatch portrays Strange as a man with a huge ego every bit as well as Robert Downey, Jr plays Tony Stark. He also has exceptional chemistry with McAdams giving the film the emotional core it needs to raise the stakes even higher. The long and short is that Doctor Strange is one of Marvel’s best and continues to stretch their winning streak. Do not miss it and make sure you see it on the biggest screen you can find, cough-IMAX-cough. Also be sure to stick around through the end credits for two stingers setting up one of next year’s releases and it’s own sequel.