Reel Opinions


Saturday, June 27, 2015

Max

In the long history of cinema, there have been a lot of movies about a boy and his dog.  But, I think it's safe to say that Max is the first one that concerns a boy and his dog going up against a Mexican cartel that deals with illegal weapons.  I'm not quite sure who this movie is being marketed to, honestly.  Kids will love the heroic dog, obviously, but the movie is incredibly violent for one rated-PG and being marketed as family entertainment, with gunfights, people dying in fiery explosions, and said heroic dog being threatened at gunpoint by the kid's father, and shot at by the villain in another scene.

The story opens in Afghanistan, where Max the dog is a Belgian Malinois enlisted by the American military to sniff out hidden caches of weapons, or alert the soldiers if there is trouble nearby.  Max (who is actually played by four different dogs) is one of the better animals I've seen in the movies lately.  He's not just heroic and good at his job, but he's sweet and likable as well.  His human partner and handler is a Marine named Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell), who has a close bond with Max.  On the job together, they're able to uncover a Taliban weapons cache hidden under a floor panel in a home.  At night, as Kyle sleeps, Max lays faithfully at the side of his bed.  Alas, tragedy quickly strikes when Kyle is killed in action.

We then cut to Texas, where the Wincott family receives word of Kyle's death and are now in mourning.  The family includes the father Ray (Thomas Hayden Church), a former Marine himself, teenage son Justin (Josh Wiggins), and mother Pamela (Lauren Graham), who has always tried to hold the family together, and finds it even harder now that Kyle is gone.  At Kyle's funeral, Max is brought in, and he seems to know that his handler is in the casket, as the dog races toward it, and hangs his head mournfully.  Unfortunately, Max has taken Kyle's death pretty hard, and no one in the military can handle him anymore, as he lashes out violently at anyone who comes near him.  When young Justin approaches him, however, Max calms down immediately.  He can somehow sense that Justin is Kyle's brother.  The family decides to take Max home with them, even though Justin is not crazy about the idea initially.

The boy and canine have a rough start to their relationship, but things pick up quickly when Justin meets a pretty new girl in town named Carmen (Mia Xitlali) who happens to know a lot about dogs, and helps him train Max.  Before you know it, Justin and Max are racing all over town together, and having little adventures with Carmen and Justin's best friend, Chuy (Dejon LaQuake).  I was with the movie up to this point.  Then it starts to go off the rails with the introduction of another Marine and Kyle's childhood friend, Tyler (Luke Kleintank).  We know that Tyler is up to no good in an early scene in Afghanistan when some weapons go missing, and Kyle suspects him.  Now that Tyler is back home (supposedly due to an injury he sustained), he's involved in shady illegal weapons deals with a Mexican cartel and other criminals.  Justin's parents won't listen to him when he tries to tell them what's going on, so it's up to Justin, Max, Carmen and Chuy to take down the weapon smugglers themselves.

If Max had been a story of a boy and a military dog helping each other heal, this easily could have been something wonderful.  Instead, it gets completely sidetracked with ludicrous action scenes that are surprisingly harsh and violent for a movie that's obviously trying to appeal to young boys.  What are we to make of a movie that seems to stress patience and understanding between people and animals and even fathers and sons, yet ends with almost all of the villains dying in various horrible ways?  I can imagine some of the images in the film being very frightening or troubling to very young children.  And that doesn't even include the scene where Justin's father threatens to kill Max and points a gun at him, after Tyler lies to him and tells him that Max turned on Kyle and was responsible for his death.

Yes, this is one of those movies where the kids are smarter than the adults, and are allowed to go on dangerous adventures tracking down murderers and weapon smugglers without anyone noticing.  Naturally, Justin's mom and dad choose to believe Tyler for a majority of the film, and even help him get a job at the dad's storage garage facility, where he hides the weapons without anyone knowing.  The thing is, before the movie got distracted with all the violence, the movie was working for me.  I liked the kid, I loved the dog, and the movie seemed to be trying to have something to say about military families and the effects of grief.  Then it forgets all that, and has the kids chasing down bad guys on their bikes.  It's almost as if director and co-writer Boaz Yakin had a change of heart halfway through the project.  Either that, or he lost his nerve to make an intelligent and thoughtful movie.

With Jurassic World still breaking box office records, and Inside Out still fresh in theaters, I don't know if Max really stands much of a chance at theaters this summer.  The movie's kind of sad, somber and pretty violent in an all too realistic way for a family film.  Something tells me kids will probably opt for something that's a bit more fun than this. 

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Ted 2

In a year that has already brought us watered down and unnecessary sequels to Hot Tub Time Machine and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Seth McFarlane has decided to bring us a watered down and unnecessary sequel to his surprise 2012 comedy smash about a foul-mouthed teddy bear, Ted 2.  Much like his comedy flop from last year, A Million Ways to Die in the West, McFarlane shows no sense of plot, character development or coherency here.  He simply regurgitates old gags from his Family Guy TV show, throws in a few 1980s movie references, puts a CG teddy bear in the middle of it all, and expects the audience to laugh.

I was not exactly a fan of the original Ted movie, but I can see why it appealed to audiences.  It was a clever idea, and while it didn't quite work for me, it wasn't without its charms.  The thing is, it was a one-joke movie.  And whenever a one-joke movie spawns a sequel, it can't help but feel like a desperate cash grab, which is definitely the case here.  The film reunites us with overgrown man-child, John (Mark Wahlberg), and his best friend, a sentient teddy bear named Ted (voiced by McFarlane) who came to life because of a wish John made back when he was a little boy.  John has become depressed, because his wife from the first movie has since divorced him (Mila Kunis, who played his love interest in the first film, could not return due to a pregnancy), so he now sits around the apartment all day addicted to internet porn.  As for Ted, he marries his prostitute-turned grocery store check out gal girlfriend, Tami-Lyn (Jessica Barth), and prepares for wedded bliss.

After a rather pointless opening credit sequence where Ted dances on top of a wedding cake in the style of a 1930s Hollywood musical that goes on way too long, we catch up with the characters one year later.  John is still in a funk, and Ted and Tami-Lyn are now constantly fighting, nearly broke, and on the verge of divorce.  Ted decides that the best way to save their marriage is to have a child together.  Because, you know, when you have no money, the best solution is to add a kid to the mix.  Since Ted is not an anatomically correct toy, they need a sperm donor.  After some hijinks involving semen, Ted and Tami-Lyn ultimately decide to adopt, but find they cannot, because apparently the government feels that since Ted is a teddy bear, he is considered property and not a person, and so therefore cannot legally adopt.  Their marriage is annulled also because of this, and Ted even loses his job. 

John and Ted decide to fight the government's ruling, and take the case to court to fight for Ted's right to be considered truly alive.  This introduces us to John's new love interest, a young lawyer named Samantha (Amanda Seyfried), who instantly starts a connection with the two guys because she enjoys smoking pot as much as they do.  We get some lengthy courtroom scenes, and even some scenes that I think McFarlane intends to be sympathetic and serious, but just end up being inept and out of touch with any human emotion.  We also get a worthless subplot tied to a returning villain from the first movie (Giovanni Ribisi), a weirdo who wants to cut Ted open so he can figure out what makes him alive.  While the initial premise of a talking teddy bear fighting for his right to be seen as human in the eyes of the law has the potential for some laughs, the screenplay by McFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild misses almost every opportunity.  It constantly aims for the lowest humor it can think of, including spilled semen, soiled diapers, and smoking weed.

The thing is, McFarlane usually comes across as an intelligent person in interviews.  It feels like he's selling himself short with Ted 2, or aiming lower than he should.  I don't go into a movie about a booze-swigging, pot smoking teddy bear expecting high brow laughs, but the movie still feels like it aims lower than it should.  It also repeats the same gags over and over, as if it thinks we missed the joke the first time.  A joke about internet searches is repeated three times during the film, with the same punch line each time.  The movie also frequently mistakes doing remakes of scenes from 1980s movies, only with a CG teddy bear, as being funny.  We get references to The Breakfast Club, Revenge of the Nerds, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and even Jurassic Park.  And yet, none of them draw laughs, because they're simply reenactments of other films.  It's not spoofing or parodying these movies or scenes, just recreating them.

Even a movie that stars a talking teddy needs some kind of human element, something we can attach or relate to.  Ted 2 offers none, because nobody is allowed to act like a human being.  This turns deadly during the last half hour, when the movie suddenly expects us to take these characters seriously and feel for them.  If the comedy is repetitive and lame, then the dramatic moments are a total wash out.  McFarlane's style of comedy is better suited to the half hour cartoon shows that he does, rather than to live action features that run for an overlong two hours.  He likes to use black out gags, and have his characters be the butts of his immature jokes.  That's fine in small doses, but in a big screen feature, it feels like overkill.  There is no structure or substance to the story McFarlane wants to tell here.  And when he can't think of anything for his characters to do, he has Amanda Seyfried pick up a guitar for no reason, and sing a long and pointless ballad in one scene.

I know that McFarlane is capable of much better than what's on display here, but he chooses not to be.  In a way, he's not far removed from Adam Sandler, who can also be smart when he wants to, but instead chooses to play dumber than he needs to.  If his last two films are any indication, Seth McFarlane simply wants to have a good time making movies, but he forgets that his audience wants to have fun also. 


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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Love & Mercy

Watching Love & Mercy, you have to wonder if director Bill Pohlad was not sure which part of the film's topic it wanted to look at.  The movie looks at two different points in the life of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.  Neither plot that concerns the two halves truly intersects all that much, and it kind of comes across as if the filmmakers could not make up their mind what they wanted their biopic to be about.  And yet, the movie works as a whole, thanks in large part to the performances and a script that feels different from your usual "behind the music" formula.

We get to view Brian Wilson at two different times in his life, and the film frequently cuts back and forth between both time frames and plots without warning.  In one, Brian is 24-years-old, and played by the talented Paul Dano.  Here, Brian is beginning to be tortured by personal and past demons as he begins work on what will eventually become his masterpiece, the 1966 album "Pet Sounds".  In the film's second storyline, it's the 1980s, and Brian is now played by John Cusack who, despite looking nothing like the real life Wilson, delivers a fine performance here.  In this storyline, Brian is a broken man who is under the oppressive thumb of a therapist named Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), whose methods of curing him after Brian had a self-destructive period are actually hurting him rather than helping him.  Brian's fateful meeting with a sweet woman named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) not only gives him his first chance at love in years, but just may save his life.

It often feels like we are watching two completely different movies as the film switches back and forth between both stories.  For me, the one following the younger Wilson was the more interesting of the two, as the movie truly lets us inside his world here.  We hear the voices and sounds that Brian supposedly heard whenever he was alone and haunted him.  We also get to see some glimpses of family turmoil, mostly surrounding his estranged father (Bill Camp), who abused Brian when he was younger, and seems to enjoy rubbing his son's face in his own insecurities when he is older.  In one of the film's more painful moments, his father walks into the recording studio where Brian is working, and plays a demo tape of a band he discovered.  He rubs it in Brian's face for firing him as the Beach Boy's manager earlier in their life, and basically has come to say that he doesn't need his son or his music. 

Brian's fellow bandmates (including his brothers and a cousin) are confused and sometimes vocally against the kind of music he wants to make with the album he is working on.  One even accuses him of striking out on his own, and leaving the rest of the band behind by making his own kind of music.  Of course, "Pet Sounds" would go on to be critically praised, but it did not sell initially.  The pressures of the industry and family, as well as his own gradual descent into depression and isolation, took its toll, and leads to the older Brian Wilson that we see during the scenes with Cusack.  Dr. Landy has required that bodyguards follow and keep watch over him at all times.  He meets Melinda at a car dealer showroom where she works, and he is checking out cars.  Their first meeting leads to dinner dates, and soon Melinda is being pulled into his world.  She appreciates his honesty in talking about his troubled past, but she realizes that the methods of Dr. Landy are slowly killing him.

While this half of the film is fine and has a number of successful dramatic moments, it doesn't work quite as well as the stuff with Paul Dano, because Brian is kept at more of a distance to us here.  In the other story, Brian is essentially the narrator, and we are looking at the world and the music industry through his eyes.  In the second storyline, we are seeing the story through the point of view of Melinda, and she is not quite as interesting of a character.  Banks does a fine job with her performance, but the way Melinda has been written here comes across as being a bit sweet and bland.  There must have been so many thoughts going through her head that she was dating this famous person who was battling so many visible demons, and was going through a series of treatments that were supposed to be helping his mental state, but were instead making things worse.  There is a lot of potential for drama here, and while the film touches on it, it never quite goes as far as it could have.

Still, Love & Mercy works because the actors find a way to get us hooked.  Cusack has a certain youthful energy mixed with the sadness in his performance of the later Brian Wilson, while Dano perfectly illustrates the brilliant young energy of Brian that is slowly being gripped by a madness that he doesn't understand.  And as Dr. Landy, Paul Giamatti manages to be slimy and suspicious, but not so much so that he turns himself into a caricature.  There is a sense to his performance that maybe Landy really does believe that he is helping Brian with his methods.  Yes, he seems mostly driven by greed or control, but at the same time there is some kind of sincerity there when he reminds Melinda that he saved Brian's life when he was overweight and almost killing himself with food. 

What we have here is a movie that tries to tackle too much in a two hour running time, yet despite its flaws, it still manages to work thanks to the fact that the screenplay is really willing to at times dive deep into Brian's private world, and even his demons.  The movie feels personal and honest, even when its narrative is a bit shaky.  For what faults it does have, Love & Mercy still manages to entertain and fascinate the audience with its subject matter.

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Inside Out

Pixar's Inside Out is not the first movie that has attempted to visualize abstract mental ideas, but it's easily the best at doing so.  It's appropriate that the movie is filled with a range of emotions, and will likely have audiences laughing one minute, and tearing up the next.  In fact, the movie is so complex and rewarding in its emotions, I have a feeling that this will be a much bigger hit with adults than with kids.  Oh sure, kids will enjoy it, and there's nothing here that's inappropriate for them.  They just will get a much greater appreciation for the film when they watch it with their own children years from now.

The film is a comedic adventure set inside the mind of a preteen girl named Riley (voice by Kaitlin Dias).  The world inside Riley's brain looks kind of like a theme park, with different themed lands devoted to the things that Riley finds important, such as hockey or friends and family, and even a "train of thought" that transports information from one area to the next.  There's also a movie studio inside Riley's head which creates her dreams, their biggest hits being "I'm Falling Into a Pit" and 'I Can Fly!".  At the center of Riley's internal world is "central command", where five emotions pretty much decide how the girl will react to the things and people around her.  Since Riley is only 11 and a fairly happy child, the chief emotion at the controls is the sprightly and happy Joy (Amy Poehler), who does her best to make sure that every memory Riley has are happy ones.  Riley's memories are represented by small spheres that glow with the emotional color associated with the memory (joy - yellow, sad - blue, angry - red, etc.).  The spheres are then taken to a vacuum tube within central command, which shoots the memory spheres either into long term memory (a vast maze-like area filled with endless shelves of memory), or discarded into a pit where forgotten memories go.

Even though Joy is usually at the controls in Riley's brain, there are obviously other emotions who occasionally push her aside, and take over for a while.  They include Fear (Bill Hader) who is purple and bug-eyed and tries to keep Riley safe or cautious, Disgust (Mindy Kaling) who is green and sarcastic, and Anger (Lewis Black) who is flame red, prone to exploding in rage, and dresses like a corporate boss.  The emotions usually know when it is their turn at the controls.  They see everything from Riley's eyes through a monitor, and give her feedback through the control panel before them about how to react to different situations that she faces everyday.  There is one more emotion up in the control center who is usually discarded and pushed aside by the other emotions.  This is Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who is a soft blue and even though she doesn't know it, is quite complex.  She obviously doesn't want Riley to be sad, but she can't help from time to time touching the memory spheres, and turning Riley's previously happy memories into possibly sad or nostalgic ones.

Again, Sadness wants only the best for Riley, but she can't help but touch the memories.  She's drawn to them.  When Joy and the other emotions order her not to touch anything, Sadness agrees, but again she finds herself drawn to the orbs, particularly the yellow glowing memories associated with Joy.  As the film opens, Riley's emotions are a bit out of sorts, as her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) have decided to move the family from Minnesota (where Riley has lived since she was born) to San Francisco.  With Joy at the controls, Riley puts on a brave face for her parents about having to leave her friends and everything she knows behind.  But once more, Sadness starts touching some of the memories of being back in Minnesota, causing Riley to become homesick and start tearing up in front of her new classmates at school.  She is experiencing nostalgia - joy mixed with sadness.  Joy, however, doesn't like her memories being tampered with, and while struggling with Sadness over Riley's core memories, both emotions are accidentally sucked out of the control room by a vacuum tube, along with the core memories. 

With no core memories and the two lead emotions no longer in control, Riley essentially shuts down and becomes despondent to everyone.  Anger, Fear and Disgust are now forced to take control solely, and while they try to emulate how Joy usually runs things at the controls, they obviously do not do a good job and make Riley moody and sarcastic.  As for Joy and Sadness, they are shot out via the vacuum tube into the vast interior world of Riley's mind, where her memories normally go and are stored away.  They must find a way to make it back to the central command center and restore everything to order before Riley's current despondent nature destroys everything she loves, such as the part of her mind devoted to family and friends.  At its basic core, Inside Out could be labeled as a buddy road trip movie, with Joy and Sadness having to work together to get home.  But that would be selling this particular movie short, which is filled with originality and complexity.  The film's director, Pete Doctor (Up), is not just making a simple adventure film, although that is how it will come across to small children.  He has essentially created a visual metaphor on how people handle depression, as well as what happens inside us all when life uproots us from what we are comfortable with.

Inside Out differs from most Pixar films (and most animated films in general) in that it cannot really be filed under one category.  It is not exactly a fantasy or an adventure film, although there are certainly elements of both.  The movie exists almost solely in the abstract visual word of Riley's mind, which are filled not just with her emotions, but also the other things that make her up, such as her hopes and dreams, her imaginary boyfriend, and even a long lost childhood imaginary friend that Riley dreamed up years ago who kind of looks like an elephant crossed with cotton candy, and has mostly gone neglected these days since she is older now and no longer remembers him.  This is a very different film for Pixar, which are usually rooted in some kind of reality.  Yes, the world outside of Riley's head is mundane and normal, but the outside normal world serves as a subplot at best in the film.  The focus here is on the dream-like world inside the mind.  There are no villains obviously, since everyone inside the world of the mind wants Riley to be happy.  But at the same time, the movie continues the virtues that all the great Pixar films have, and that is to entertain just about everyone in the audience.  Adults will find themselves laughing at the same jokes as their kids, but for different reasons.

This is a movie that earns repeat viewings, as there is so much on display here, and lots of hidden or throwaway references and jokes that you might miss the first time around.  There are moments that view repeating, such as when the heroes cross through the section devoted to Abstract Thought in their quest to get back to the command center, and begin to shift into different artstyles, such as Cubism or 2D lines.  There is also the clever dialogue, such as when one character is sorting through "facts" and "opinions", and finds he can't tell them apart.  But what I think will impress most people is the psychology behind the film, and how it stresses that Joy and Sadness truly do need each other in order to exist.  It's never dumbed down, nor is the message shoved in with a preachy monologue near the end.  The movie is subtle in its complexity, and as the two emotions learn to work together (both in the depths of the mind, as well as in the control room), we become aware that Inside Out is not just another animated feature, but is something truly rewarding.

Ultimately, the movie tells children that it is okay to be sad sometimes.  So many parents tell their kids to be happy, or that things are not as bad as they seem.  They try to suppress any other emotion besides happiness, which in a way, is what is happening in Riley's control center during the first half of the film.  Looking back on the film, I realized that this is almost a representation of how most children are raised, or how parents encourage their children to be.  We fear or perhaps do not understand feelings like sadness, and so we push it aside.  Inside Out teaches us the valuable lesson that there is to be a balance within us.  Not only is this a wonderful message for children, but it's an even better one for adults who are struggling with depression, or may feel life piling on top of them and they cannot handle it.  This is ultimately what makes the film so much more than just a summer entertainment.  Yes, the movie is tremendously enjoyable while you watch it, but when it is over, it stays in your mind, and you start thinking back on what the movie was really saying.

This is not only one of the best films of the year, but one that should be observed and talked about when it is over.  Adults will have strong conversations with their children, and have even deeper ones with other adults about how the film made them feel.  When all is said and done, this could be Pixar's greatest achievement when you really sit back and look at it.

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Friday, June 12, 2015

Jurassic World

The best part about Jurassic World is that we finally get to see the theme park as a thriving entity, filled with tourists, shops, fine hotels and restaurants.  It's an amazing sight seeing the park that was originally hinted at in the first movie back in 1993 come to life grander than we could have ever imagined.  The filmmakers have done a fantastic job realizing the park.  The attractions seem plausible and exciting given the theme, and it really sparks the imagination.

I have a sinking feeling that this is where a majority of the imagination went, as the film itself comes across as nothing more than a retread of the first film, only with less passion and suspense.  This is a loud, clanging and charmless movie that is filled with characters who, truth be told, I often found myself wondering if the dinosaurs were smarter than any of the humans inhabiting the theme park.  It certainly seems that way, given many of the characters make intentionally stupid decisions over and over, just so there can even be a movie.  I wanted to scream at the characters whenever they started walking directly into danger without a thought, but common courtesy to the audience around me prevented me, and I only shook my head.  Yes, I understand that this is intended to be popcorn entertainment, where we just shut our brains off and have fun.  But even popcorn has to be good, and I guess this movie asked me to shut off my brain more than I was willing to.  It's something that's been happening with increasing regularity when it comes to summer blockbusters, and no, I am not proud of this fact.

Allow me to pose a hypothetical question.  Say you're the head of an amusement park filled with cloned dinosaurs, and your two nephews (one about 16, the younger about 10 or so) are guests at the park for the week.  You've been entrusted with their safety by your sister, who has left them with you while she finalizes the divorce settlements with her husband (A subplot that has absolutely no bearing on the film whatsoever.  Aside from one scene where the nephews talk about it, they don't even seem to care that their parents are splitting up.) Now, given this situation, what would your immediate thought be if a mutant hybrid dinosaur you've secretly been designing in order to increase interest in the park broke free, killed a number of your staff, and is now making its way to the area of the island where the tourists are?  Would you not be immediately concerned for the safety of your nephews?  Would they not be your first immediate thought?  Not in this movie, where the woman (played here by Bryce Dallas Howard) doesn't even consider the safety of the kids she is supposed to be looking after until a good half hour or so later, when she happens to witness a surveillance video of a mother comforting a frightened child, and she suddenly remembers "Oh yeah, I'm supposed to be looking after these kids!"

Here's another question for you - Say you work at the park, and the previously mentioned park head has put you in charge of looking after the kids while she handles some business.  Your job is to follow the kids around, and make sure they stay out of trouble.  Now, let's say the kids run off, and you lose sight of them.  Would you not call your boss, and tell them the kids are loose in the park?  Would you not maybe call security, or maybe the missing children department?  Not in this movie, where the person assigned to look after the children waits until she gets a phone call from her boss, asking about where the children are.  What has she been doing the entire time the kids have been missing?  Looking for them, obviously, but you think she would have half the security staff looking for them, knowing that her job was probably on the line if anything happened to them.  I know, I know, I'm not supposed to ask questions like this when I'm watching a movie.  I'm supposed to just let it slide, and let the special effects thrill me.  But the thing is, this movie did not thrill me in the slightest.  It is not scary, intense or exciting at any time.  And so, my mind started to wander, and I started asking these silly questions that I obviously was not supposed to.

Jurassic World wants so desperately to be an homage of the 1993 original.  It includes numerous references, call backs, and even some straight up remakes of certain moments of the first movie.  And yet,in its mad desire to make us remember the first movie, all it does is make us remember how much better it was than this.  There was a sense of atmosphere and wonder in Spielberg's film.  Here, it's all chaos all the time, with little left to the imagination.  Oh, the action and the special effects are all handled wonderfully, as is to be expected.  But I just didn't care, and the thing is, I don't think the filmmakers did either.  They want to wow us with the CG dinos, and we're supposed to be terrified as they rampage and swoop about, picking off the human cast.  But I wasn't scared at all, because the human characters in this film are laughably basic.  Now, the characters in the first movie weren't exactly deep, but they were likable.  We wanted to see them escape from the island.  Here, the characters and performances have so little chemistry, I found myself wondering why I was supposed to feel attached to them.

Our lead human star is Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), whose main job at the park is to train raptors to see if they can obey human commands.  The head of the park, Claire, approaches him with the task of helping her find her two nephews, who have foolishly wandered into danger, despite warnings that the tourists are supposed to get to safety, because there is a killer dinosaur making its way to the park.  The kids have ignored the warnings, and are in the restricted area of the park, where they are unprotected, and the dinosaurs can chomp at them with impunity.  We learn through the dialogue that Owen and Claire dated once, and it didn't work out.  During the course of the movie, we are supposed to want to see them get together, and fall in love, which they do by the end.  But there is no reason for them to fall in love, and unless we were told about their romantic past together, I would have no idea that they were supposed to be attracted to each other in the first place.  The movie gives them no time to talk to each other, or build a relationship.  They trade one liners, escape from one dinosaur attack after another, and by the end of the movie, they're kissing and walking off together.  Good for them, I guess.  But seriously, Pratt and Howard are fine actors, but the movie never allows them to build an on screen relationship, and so they develop no chemistry together.

This movie is so obsessed with referencing the past (the music score by Michael Giacchino uses a lot of John Williams' earlier work) and dazzling us with its technical wizardry that the story, dialogue and human characters are pushed completely into the background.  That's something Steven Spielberg knows how to avoid in the movies he directs, while it seems that Jurassic World's director, Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) got so wrapped up in making his first big budget thrill ride movie, he just wanted to focus on the spectacle.  The thing is, the dinosaurs look good, but he forgets to make them interesting.  And until the film's final moments, we don't get to see them do all that much.  The movie lacks any sense of atmosphere and suspense.  If the dinosaurs do nothing but attack without any build up whatsoever, there's no thrill.  It simply becomes a generic monster movie.  A very nice looking generic monster movie, but one that has absolutely no weight.

Look, no movie will ever come close to the impact the original Jurassic Park had on me when I was 16.  I've accepted that.  That movie was unlike anything audiences had seen at the time.  Any attempt to copy that formula is bound to lead to some disappointment.  But does it have to be completely devoid of thrills, and do the characters have to be so intentionally stupid?  It doesn't matter.  The movie will have its huge opening weekend, it will make a profit, and we will see another movie sooner than later.  Maybe when the next sequel happens, my brain will cooperate, and shut down accordingly.

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Saturday, June 06, 2015

Spy

With Spy, Melissa McCarthy finally gets to stand out on her own and carry a movie by herself.  Not only does she succeed, but she manages to create one of the funniest lead comic performances I have seen in a long time.  She does so with wit, intelligence, and dignity.  With a woman like McCarthy, who doesn't exactly fit the Hollywood leading lady mold, it would be all too easy to mock her, or make her the butt of the joke.  What makes her so memorable is that she doesn't fall into that trap, and comes across as smart, sympathetic, genuinely funny and sometimes hilarious.

The movie reteams her with writer-director Paul Feig, who led her to an Oscar nomination in Bridesmaids, and gave her a blockbuster with The Heat.  Feig truly understands how to use McCarthy to the best of her abilities, and that is no more apparent here.  This time, she plays Susan Cooper, a woman who works a desk job at the C.I.A., and offers tactical advice through an earpiece microphone to a suave 007-style secret agent named Bradley Fine (Jude Law, giving a spot on portrayal).  Susan longs to see some action first hand, and gets her chance sooner than expected when her overly serious boss (Alison Janney) offers her the latest mission.  A wealthy arms dealer named Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) has her hands on a nuclear bomb, and is planning to sell it to the terrorist who will oferr her the most money.  Due to a mole within the agency, Rayna knows the face and identity of all of top agents they can send after her.  And so, her boss decides to give Susan a shot at working in the field, gathering information on the villain.

Decked out in some unflattering outfits and alter egos, and forced to use spy gadgets that are disguised as stool softening pills and hemorrhoid patches, Susan quickly finds herself in over her head, as well as competing against a rival agent (a hilarious Jason Statham), who wants to crack the case himself.  But you see, the great thing about Spy is that although Susan is put into embarrassing disguises or situations from time to time, she always manages to get her way out of it, and does so through her own wits.  Susan Cooper is a woman who has not had much luck in life, so she starts the film a little unsure of herself.  But, as she is put into action, she becomes a surprisingly competent secret agent.  In one of the film's better moments, she pulls off a Jackie Chan-style fight sequence in a kitchen, using anything she can get her hands on to fight back against a deadly assailant.  The movie is a comedy, but it contains a number of surprisingly successful action sequences, and a plot that may be a bit convoluted, but features some genuine surprises.

There are a number of huge laughs throughout the film, some of them provided by Feig's script that knows the ins and outs of spy movies and hits the satirical targets perfectly, and many more of them provided by McCarthy's ad libs, which fly fast and score laughs nearly every time.  It would be a crime to ruin any of them, and I am proud to say that the ad campaign has not spoiled all the best parts.  I can also say that it's not just McCarthy who delivers the laughs.  She is backed up by a strong supporting cast, some of whom are not exactly known for their comedic prowess, yet deliver perfectly timed comic performances here.  Jason Statham, in particular, is riotous as a secret agent who enjoys bragging about his past missions and accomplishments, yet never seems to be quite as on the ball as he would appear whenever he's out in the field.  I actually found myself wishing the movie had used him more.  Statham has proved himself to be a terrific action star in the past, and here he gets to parody his own image, and seems to be having a great time.

Spy can often be quite raunchy, and definitely earns its R-rating, but it is never gross or offensive.  There is a good hear behind the film.  We like Susan, and the movie spends its opening half getting us in her corner before she is sent out on her world-spanning adventure.  Even when she is exchanging gunfire and F-bombs with terrorists and rival agents, there is still a certain innocence to the character that I really liked.  McCarthy is even able to bring a certain amount of range in her portrayal of the character.  She's not a bungler, she knows what she's doing, and she seldom if ever is required to do a forced pratfall. (There is one involving a motorcycle, but it can be forgiven.) It would be so easy to make the character a clueless buffoon, or maybe someone who survives on dumb luck alone, but the movie is smarter than that, and ends up being better for it.

I truly hope that this is a comedy that will have strong enough word of mouth to carry it through a good part of the summer, as it definitely deserves it.  This is the star vehicle that Melissa McCarthy has been waiting for, as well as the film her fans have been waiting to see her in.  Spy is a sharp and hilarious movie, and that is something that simply can't be ignored.

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Insidious: Chapter 3

The difference between the just-released Insidious: Chapter 3 and the failed remake of Poltergeist we got just two weeks ago is that we actually care about the characters at the center of the scares in this one.  This movie is not just interested in scaring us or putting frightening images up on the screen, although it is effective at both.  It also wants us to be emotionally attached to the people within.  This is a highly energetic thriller, because it has more on its mind than you might expect.

The movie makes a lot of smart choices, chief amongst them is putting veteran character actor Lin Shaye (who was memorable in a supporting role in the first two Insidious movies) front and center of this one.  Her returning character, a psychic by the name of Elise Rainier, is surprisingly complex for a heroine in a haunted house movie.  She can be sad and sympathetic one moment, while also being strong and determined.  She is funny, sweet-natured and someone the audience can truly get behind.  That's why it's so brilliant that series writer Leigh Whannell (making his directorial debut here, taking over for James Wan from the first two) puts her front and center.  Not only do we get more of her great character and performance, but Whannell also takes the opportunity to truly open up her character.  We learn about her past, learn how she got into the business of battling the paranormal on a regular basis, and also how she met and eventually teamed up with the two comic relief ghost hunters who have accompanied her throughout the series, Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson).

That's because this movie is actually a prequel to the earlier films.  At the beginning of the story, Elise is not the confident psychic and ghost hunter we have come to know.  She is a reclusive shut in, mourning over the death of her husband who took his own life the year before, and refusing to use her gift to contact the spirit world.  We eventually learn that there is a very good reason for this.  One day, a teenage girl named Quinn (Stefanie Scott) comes to her door, wanting Elise's help in contacting the spirit of her mother who died of cancer recently.  Quinn has tried contacting her mother's spirit on her own, and strange things have been happening recently (like her diary being in a different place than she left it) that makes the girl think that her mother is trying to get in touch with her.  Elise is sympathetic to the girl, but warns her against calling out to the dead, as Quinn never knows just who may be listening.

As it turns out, a spirit has indeed heard Quinn's calls, but rather than her mother, it's a much more malevolent spirit who likes to leave sticky black footprints on the floor (as well as the walls and ceiling), and may have something sinister in mind for the poor girl.  With Quinn's emotionally distant father (Dermot Mulroney) busy trying to hold his family together since the death of his wife, no one seems to be listening when her life might be in danger.  And when Quinn ends up shattering both of her legs in a car accident, she becomes bedridden and an easy victim to the tormenting spirit.  This device is also quite brilliant, as it not only increases the danger Quinn is in, but it makes her more sympathetic.  She is in a state where she cannot fight back against whatever spirit might be in her bedroom, and can only wait for the inevitable.  It gets to the point where her father must go to Elise himself, pleading for her help, and Elise must confront her own personal demons and return to the spirit world in order to save Quinn.

Insidious: Chapter 3 really does nothing new with its plot, but it's helped out a lot with a stronger than usual cast who all give well-rounded performances, and the fact that it's just as interested in the characters at the center of all the creepiness as it is in setting up effective scares.  And for his first time as a director, Leigh Whannell clearly has an understanding for building suspense.  He likes to use silence to build up to his scares.  Yes, we know when pretty much all of them are coming, but they are still effective when they happen.  I admit to jumping in my seat more than once.  The movie is also paced very well.  It's not overly rushed, and gives the characters plenty of room to grow and develop, but it also doesn't feel dragged out.  The sense of danger is always there, even during the film's intentionally slower moments.  And when the danger finally takes center stage and we start entering the spirit world, the payoff is usually worth it.

That's not to say the movie is perfect.  There are a few side characters who are introduced, and then are given little to do, such as a boy next door who is obviously interested in Quinn.  He is introduced early on in the film, making us think he will play a major part, only to disappear without a single word shortly after.  It made me wonder if most of his part wound up being cut.  There is also an elderly couple who live nearby the heroes who get a few effective and surprisingly touching scenes, but again, they're not used to the fullest that they could have been.  Finally, there is the film's climactic moment, which ends up being a bit sillier than I think the filmmakers intended.  It's over the top and a little bombastic, when the rest of the movie had been quiet and subtle in its creepiness.  I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say that I'm sure Lin Shaye had a lot of fun shooting the scenes, and she got some applause from the audience during her big moment.

Still, Insidious: Chapter 3 succeeds in the end, because it's actually about something other than the special effects and the ghouls who are tormenting the human cast.  These are good performances, and well-written characters that we become attached to.  For a low budget summer thriller, this is a highly effective one, and a well-needed jolt in what has so far largely been a disappointing summer movie season.

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