Reel Opinions

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Mother's Day

I have a few questions regarding Mother's Day.  First, from what deep pit of romantic comedy sitcom hell did this movie spawn from?  Second, how does a movie this insulting even get made?  And third, what possessed talented people like Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis and Kate Hudson to get involved with it?  Did they all lose a bet?  This is the kind of script actors who are struggling are supposed to get saddled with.  The movie is directed by Garry Marshall, and I know he has a reputation for being one of the nicest guys in Hollywood to work with.  But no matter how great of a guy he is, nothing can excuse this movie.

Here is a film filled with one improbable scene after another.  Want some examples?  How about the scene where a frustrated ex-wife (played by Jennifer Aniston) is venting about her anger over her ex-husband falling in love with a much younger woman to a birthday party clown, who gives her sage advice about love and relationships?  Or how about the thrilling car chase scene between an out of control RV, a parade float made to look like a giant paper mache vagina, and a couple police squad vehicles?  Oh, here's a doozy.  How about a scene where two characters fall in love while their hands are stuck in a hospital vending machine?  Hey, actors, don't forget to hold up those boxes of M&Ms and Skittles candies to the camera in order to get the product placement shot in!  Why are these characters at the hospital in the first place?  Well, her youngest boy just had an asthma attack, and he broke his leg falling backwards off a deck while performing a karaoke rap song at a mother's day party for his two young daughters.  Yes.

Oh, did I forget to mention that after this character falls and breaks his leg, we get a random black woman saying, "This is why white people shouldn't rap"?  And I haven't even mentioned my two "favorite" characters in the film - a middle aged redneck couple from Texas (played by Margo Martindale and Robert Pine) who are homophobic and racist, and decide to drop in for a surprise visit on their two adult daughters who they have not seen in years, only to find out that one of them (Kate Hudson) is married to an Indian man named Russell (Aasif Mandvi), and the other (Sarah Chalke) is in a lesbian relationship.  The parents storm out angry, but because their RV breaks down, they are forced to stay.  Naturally, they slowly begin to accept the lifestyles of their daughters, but it's as forced and as phony as anything I have ever seen. (The mother meets Russell's Indian mother, who lives in Vegas, and they bond over their love of gambling.) But before that happens, the movie tries to get laughs by having the racist parents call Russell "towelhead".  I honestly hope that this is the most uncomfortable movie I will have to sit through in 2016, because I don't know if I can take another one like this.

I'd better talk about the plot now, because if I keep on listing this film's improbable moments, we'll be here all day.  If you've seen Garry Marshall's Valentine's Day or New Year's Eve, then you know the drill with Mother's Day.  There's a bunch of intersecting plots and characters all built around the days leading up to the titular holiday.  Jennifer Aniston is Sandy, a woman who finds out her ex-husband (Timothy Olyphant) is planning to marry his much-younger girlfriend, Tina (Shay Mitchell).  In the meantime, Sandy is trying to get a job working for Miranda (Julia Roberts), a star on the Home Shopping Network who sells bad jewelry.  For some reason, Roberts is forced to wear the most hideous and fake looking wig in all of her scenes.  In other plots, we have a single dad named Bradley (Jason Sudeikis), who is trying to raise two preteen daughters on his own after their military mom (Jennifer Garner, who gets off lucky, and only has to appear for a few seconds in home video footage) died in action, and the family is about to face their first Mother's Day without her.  He has a few run-ins with Aniston off and on throughout the movie, which is supposed to make us think they're meant to get together.  But, it's not until he helps her get her hand unstuck from the vending machine that sparks begin to fly.

Meanwhile, there's young Kristen (Britt Robertson), a woman in love with Zack (Jack Whitehall), a wannabe stand up comedian.  They have a baby together, but she has commitment issues and doesn't want to marry him, because her mother abandoned her and put her up for adoption when she was a baby.  Zack, on the other hand, is trying to win a comedy club contest that's giving away a huge cash prize.  When it's time for him to take the stage, he gets stuck with the baby, so he has to go on stage with the little tyke in his arms.  Even though he doesn't really tell any jokes, the audience falls in love with him because he has the baby on stage with him.  Both Kristen and Zack work at a bar called Shorty's, because the owner of the bar is a short person.  Oh, and there's an obese guy who turns up in the movie, so obviously he's called Tiny.

Is there anyone reading this review who thinks this sounds like a remotely plausible movie?  Heck, I don't think these ideas credited to three different screenwriters could have seemed plausible or even workable on paper.  Blown up on the big screen, and seeing these likable actors drudging through material like this is akin to watching your friends and family have to wallow through mud.  It's depressing, and you just want it to stop as quickly as possible.  But Mother's Day drags on for two interminable hours.  There's not a single moment that isn't calculated, manipulative, sappy or idiotic.  Watching this movie, you almost feel like the people involved have never even seen a movie in their lives.  Yet, there are a lot of professionals both on and behind the camera.  Heck, Garry Marshall has 18 feature films to his credit.  But you wouldn't know that here.

Mother's Day is simply insulting.  It's insulting to its namesake holiday, insulting to mothers in general, and insulting to the intelligence of anyone who watches it.  But hey, at least it has a happy ending!  People fall in love, families are reunited, and the movie ends.  I liked that last part the best.

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Friday, April 29, 2016


Keanu, the first cinematic outing from the comedic duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, is the first truly laugh out loud funny movie of the year.  When you sit through as many failed comedies as I do, a movie that genuinely makes you laugh and laugh often is always something worth celebrating.  Yes, this is an absurd movie, but not so much so that it flies off the rails.  Key and Peele have such a wonderful and natural chemistry on screen together that you hope Hollywood treats them right.  These guys deserve a long string of films if their first movie is any indication.

Of course, Key and Peele have been perfecting their chemistry and humor for years on their sketch comedy TV show, which recently ended.  Their humor revolves around breaking down cliches and misconceptions of masculinity and race, all the while keeping a very breezy and fun chemistry and atmosphere.  This movie captures that strength in spades.  When comics try to branch out into movies, they usually try to create a vehicle tailored around them.  And while Key and Peele definitely get plenty of opportunities to show off their timing here, they are constantly upstaged by their titular co-star - an impossibly tiny and adorable kitten named Keanu who, truth be told, is probably the most appealing and talented animal star to hit the screen in a long time.  Whoever trained the seven kittens who filled in for the cat during the shoot deserves all the praise they have coming to them.  So, with this movie, we not only get the screen debut of a talented comic team, but also the debut of a true animal star.  I don't remember the last movie to feature so much budding talent.

As the film opens, the tiny kitten is the pet of a Mexican drug lord, until the base of operations is raided by a pair of assassins who kill everyone within during a bloody raid.  The cat escapes unharmed, and after wandering the streets, ends up at the doorstep of Rell (Peele), a man trying unsuccessfully to mend his broken heart after a painful break up with his girlfriend.  Rell instantly falls head over heels for the lonely kitty (Who wouldn't?), and becomes almost obsessed with his new pet, going so far as to place the cat, whom he names Keanu, in a series of photos based on scenes from famous movies (The Shining, Fargo) for a hobby.  Rell's only friend is his cousin, Clarence (Key, giving a very likable performance), and the two plan some time together when Clarence's wife and daughter go away for the weekend.  But when they return to Rell's place only to find it burglarized and Keanu missing, they become determined to track down the feline.

The search for the missing pet leads them directly into the criminal underworld.  It seems that a local gang leader named Cheddar (Method Man) has fallen hard for the cat as well, and is keeping it as his "gangsta pet".  Now the two friends must try to pass themselves off as hardened drug dealers and killers in order to infiltrate the operation, and get Keanu back.  Naturally, our heroes have no idea how to act on the streets, or in a gang.  One's a suburban dad who drives a minivan and worships the music of George Michael, the other is lazy and timid. (When a police car happens to drive by while he is blasting the song "F**k the Police", he turns down the volume, and smiles and waves at the cops.) In the wrong hands, this could have easily been a one-joke movie, and I guess Keanu is to some extent.  But the talent, chemistry and timing of the two stars keeps things fresh and interesting.  They are always coming up with funny ways to talk their ways out of situations when the gangsters start to get suspicious.  In my personal favorite moment, when the gang members are talking about their past bloody deeds as their favorite moments of their lives, Rell brings up the time he got to see an early screening of The Blair Witch Project.

It is the off the cusp rapid fire banter between Key and Peele that make their performances, and the film itself, so engaging.  I also liked the way the movie tries to humanize some of the gangsters as the heroes actually develop some kind of friendship with a few of them during their time in the gang, such as when Clarence teaches some of them about the meaning behind George Michael's "Father Figure".  All in all, the movie just has a kind of sweet tone to it that appealed to me.  Yes, it does get violent at times and the four-letter words are not used sparingly here, but it is never offensive or trying to shock.  There is a playful sense of humor here that really grabbed me.  True, not all of the jokes work, obviously.  There is an extended sequence built around comic actress Anna Faris playing an exaggerated caricature of herself that could have been funnier, and a lot of the stuff concerning Will Forte as a low level weed dealer falls flat.  But, even when the jokes weren't working, I was still smiling.  Not only that, I knew that a big laugh would soon be on its way, and I was usually always right.

Those who are fans of Key and Peele's social satire from their show may be disappointed that it is largely absent here.  This is mainly a fairly standard action buddy comedy with a smart script, and two wonderful lead performances.  Keanu really just charmed me in a way that no other comedy so far this year has been able to.  It made me want to see what else the comic duo could do in another movie, maybe one that played even better to their strengths.  But most of all, it made me want to take little Keanu home.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Eye in the Sky

Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky is a movie to be savored.  It is not only wonderfully acted and emotionally powerful, but it is almost forensic in its depiction of a drone strike seen from various points of view, and the various moral dilemmas these people face because of the situation.  Rather than take a standard three-act narrative, the movie instead almost seems to be done in real time, so we feel like we are right there with the characters.  And although it is technically a drama, it is generally and completely thrilling.

Somewhere in Nairobi, three of the world's most wanted Somali jihadists are meeting within a home, and prepping two young recruits for a suicide bombing mission.  We witness the different military officials from around the world witnessing this through spy camera equipment, and get to know their personal views of the situation, and how they want it to be handled.  British Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren) is the head of the operation, watching the action from London.  Her two American drone pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) are in Las Vegas, awaiting her command, with their hand on the button that will launch a missile that will take out the house the terrorists are currently in, hopefully with limited casualties to the surrounding area.

There are complications, naturally.  Two of the targets within the house are UK citizens, while another is an American.  This means they have to let government officials in on the discussion on the course of action to take.  Lt. General Benson, played by Alan Rickman, in his final on screen appearance (his final film will be a voice over role in the upcoming Alice Through the Looking Glass), is watching the action with British officials.  They want this to be a capture operation, but as the situation intensifies, it becomes apparent that a proper arrest is just not possible, and that they will have to strike the house before they can set their suicide bomb plot into motion.  A local operative (Barkhad Abdi) is scoping out the house, and sending information back to his superiors.  Everyone soon comes to the conclusion that firing a missile at the house is the best course of action.  But then a little girl (Aisha Takow) wanders in, setting up a stand where she is selling bread right outside of the wall that surrounds the targeted house.   

What starts as an issue of whether they have proper authority to bomb the house from a drone takes on an even trickier angle once the girl enters the picture.  If the house is destroyed, and the girl dies or suffers, then the terrorist group will obviously use her as a propaganda tool, saying that the military knew about the girl's presence, and attacked anyway.  And of course, there will be the public outcry.  As Colonel Powell tries to rework the situation (Is there a part of the house they can target that would still maximize damage to it, while minimizing the chance the girl will die from the blast?), the movie focuses on the rapidly escalating situation, and the decision making that goes into it.  The screenplay by Guy Hibbert is masterful in the way it increases the tension and atmosphere, and even adds in a few touches of humor, such as when a British official is forced to join in on the conversation, even though he is trapped in a hotel room in Singapore, fighting a bout of food poisoning. 

Eye in the Sky does an excellent job of setting up its wide range of characters involved in the situation, who are placed in different parts of the world, and must communicate with each other through video and phone calls.  It never gets confusing, and the movie does a great job in setting up these characters, and the role they play in the decision process.  Holding everything together is the wonderful performance by Helen Mirren, who plays a tough and determined woman who understands the possible problems that will result from her actions, but also knows that if her job is not completed, the end results could be much worse.  We also get to see the two American soldiers, whose finger is on the button that will launch the missile, and their conflicted emotions on what they are about to do.  This is a movie that views the situation from multiple angles, and offers no easy answers or solutions, which is perhaps for the best.  There will no doubt be a view this movie covers that someone in the audience will agree with, and will most likely spark conversation or debate on the way home about what could have or should have been done.

This is an intelligent and thought provoking movie that never once manipulates or plays favorites.  It's an even-handed and powerful look at a very tense situation, and that tension carries right through to the very end, as the characters reflect on everything that has happened.  There is no reflection through dialogue, mind you.  Actually, the final moments are very quiet, as they should be.  We can see it on the faces of the actors, and how the outcome weighs on them in different ways, based on their views.  Eye in the Sky is an impeccable film, one of the best of the year.

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Friday, April 22, 2016

The Huntsman: Winter's War

The ad campaign for The Huntsman: Winter's War would like you to think that this is an unnecessary prequel to 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman.  In truth, the movie serves as an unnecessary sequel to that earlier film.  Oh, the movie opens with a lengthy and exposition-heavy half hour flashback to events before the first, but it's main intention after that is to continue the story.  Too bad the story has nowhere to go.

As the film opens, we get some background information on the returning Evil Queen from the last movie, Ravenna, who is once again played with great gusto by Charlize Theron.  Given that she was one of the more popular and successful aspects of the original, you would think this movie would play up her participation.  Unfortunately, she appears for maybe the first seven minutes, and then doesn't show up again until the last 20.  Instead, the narrative focuses on her sister, Freya, played by a largely uninterested Emily Blunt.  We learn of Freya's tragic backstory, how she was constantly in the shadow of her much more cruel and dominating sister, until she found love with a local man and gave birth to a child.  Unfortunately, the man betrayed her, the child died as a result, and at that moment, Freya's latent ice magic powers were unleashed upon the world.  From here on, it's impossible not to think of Disney's Frozen for the rest of the film.  Not only does Freya's appearance mimic that of Queen Elsa (pale skin, white hair, flowing blue ice-like gown), but she goes into isolation, and builds a massive snow fortress for herself to hide away in.  It's far too similar to be coincidental, and it earns the film a lot of bad laughs.

From her frozen fortress, Freya decides to build an army by attacking all the nearby villages, and kidnapping the children from each one.  She then trains them to be her "huntsmen", who will go out and conquer even more kingdoms in her name, as well as bring her more children.  Here we get to meet our two heroes, returning huntsman Eric (Chris Hemsworth), and his lover, Sara (Jessica Chastain), who is handy with a bow and arrow.  The two fall in love during their time in Freya's army, even though they have little in common other than both Hemsworth and Chastain possess really shaky Scottish accents that seem to come and go at random in their dialogue.  Freya learns of their love, and will not accept it.  She's still upset about that whole "man she loved betrayed her" thing, and refuses to accept love in any form.  Eric and Sara are separated in battle as they attempt to escape from the frozen fortress, and Eric was led to believe that the woman he loved died in battle.  You will remember that this was part of Eric's backstory in the last movie. 

Flash forward to seven years later, with events now set after Snow White and the Huntsman.  Snow White's kingdom is at peace, but there is talk that the evil queen's Magic Mirror possesses the power to manipulate and control people's minds, and can make people kill one another for possession of the Mirror's power.  Eric is charged with the task of finding the Mirror, and taking it to a sanctuary where it will be safe from Freya's forces, who are seeking it for their queen.  Eric is accompanied in his quest by a small group of dwarfs, only one of whom (Nick Frost) is from the original movie.  The others are new, and pretty much exist to create comic relief.  The movie relies on these characters a lot, giving the film an oddly jokey tone, making me wonder who this sequel is supposed to be targeting.  The original worked as an intriguing and dark take on the Snow White story.  And while this film has its moments of darkness, this is a much lighter and goofier film all around, with a lot of forced humor from the dwarfs.  Eric is also eventually joined in his quest by his lost lover, Sara, who is not as dead as he has been led to believe. 

The whole quest to find the Magic Mirror is largely uneventful.  There's a run in with some goblins, but that's about it.  We get a lot of bad romantic dialogue from Eric and Sara, and non-stop slapstick and one liners from the dwarfs.  It doesn't take long for The Huntsman: Winter's War to resemble a long trip to nowhere in particular.  Aside from some nice visuals, nothing excites or stands out.  I never felt anything for these characters.  As romantic leads, Eric and Sara are genuine bores, and the script gives Hemsworth and Chastain little to do.  And after being set up as this film's main antagonist, Emily Blunt all but disappears until the third act of the film.  She too seems to be phoning in her performance, and sometimes doesn't even seem to be able to show much emotion.  The events leading up to the return of Charlize Theron's Queen Ravenna are perfunctory at best, and confusing.  But, at the very least, Theron seems to be enjoying herself.  Just like before, she steals every scene she is in, even if this sequel gives her much more limited screen time.

I think the only way this project could have been saved is with a complete rewrite.  Maybe make it a full on prequel, and focus entirely on the treacherous relationship between the two royal sisters.  The movie's big mistake is that it opens with a half hour block of exposition, and it starts to feel dragged out.  Maybe if this backstory had been given room to breathe and had been the focus of the film itself, it would have had more emotional impact.  As it is, it's an extended sequence of build up with no real pay off.  As for the main story itself, it plays out like a sequel where very few of the original cast wanted to return, and so the filmmakers had to make a lot of compromises in order to work around that.  There is no Snow White, although she is talked about a lot, and all but one of the original dwarfs are missing.  This leaves Hemsworth alone to carry this film, and while he does have some charm, his bad accent and occasional mugging for the camera gets tiresome.

The Huntsman: Winter's War ends up coming across as a total corporate product, combining fantasy cliches we have seen too many times, with elements of a certain popular Disney animated musical.  It was created less by a need to continue the story, and more by executives wanting to blend a bunch of stuff together that has worked in the past.  The end result is a completely hollow entertainment that looks pretty, but offers nothing of substance whatsoever.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Last summer, there was a little movie called Self/Less.  It kind of came and left from theaters in a matter of weeks, so you probably didn't see it.  Don't worry, you did not miss anything.  But if you did happen to see it, Criminal will feel very familiar to you.  Both are silly and ineffective thrillers involving swapping memories from one person to another, and both feature Ryan Reynolds, who should probably just reject any script that involves brain swapping from now on.  Even some of the basic plot points of the two movies are exactly the same.  The one thing that Criminal has over the earlier film is the distinction of having the worst Kevin Costner performance in a long time.

In Self/Less, Ben Kingsley played a grumpy and dying New York millionaire who signed onto a project to have his brain and memories transferred to Ryan Reynolds' body, so that he could go on living.  The plot involved Reynolds (with Kingsley's memories) living it up, until he realized that the experiment was not exactly all that ethical (big shock), and that the body he was inhabiting may have been murdered.  He tried to solve the mystery, and wound up getting close with Reynolds' old wife and daughter.  Criminal changes a few plot details, but more or less tells the same story.  This time, Reynolds is a London-based CIA agent who is in the middle of a case as the film opens, only to get caught by some shady anarchist terrorists who torture and kill him in order to get some information on someone who has a flash drive with a lot of government and military secrets.  How does the head of the local bureau (Gary Oldman) respond to this?  He calls upon a doctor (Tommy Lee Jones), who is conducting an experiment where they can put someone's memories into the head of someone else.  His plan is to take the information from the fallen agent, and put it into an unwilling test subject, so that he can tell them all the information that the dead agent uncovered before he was killed.

The test subject that the good doctor chooses to have the agent's memories and knowledge transferred into is a convict named Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner).  We are told that Jericho has no empathy whatsoever, due to a childhood injury to his frontal lobe, which turned him into a violent sociopath with no emotions or remorse whatsoever.  The memory transfer procedure is a success, but naturally, Jericho has no intention of cooperating or sharing the info that's in his head.  He wants to solve the case himself, and uses the memories transferred into his brain to track down the agent's family, which includes his wife (Gal Gadot) and sweet little daughter (Lara Decaro).  With the memories swirling around in his head, Jericho feels compassion for the agent's family, and wants to protect them as various terrorists keep on popping up, trying to kill him and stop him from uncovering the truth.  If you think this plot sounds ridiculous, you don't know the half of it.  You would think that if a movie like this was able to attract talent like Reynolds, Oldman, Costner and Jones, this would at least have to be fun.  Unfortunately, everything about this movie is underwhelming, especially the performances.

There is something just so perfunctory about Criminal.  It never achieves any tension or excitement, despite a number of very bloody action sequences.  We don't feel the excitement build, like in an action movie that knows what it's doing.  There are also large chunks of the plot that largely go unexplained.  We never exactly learn why the main villain, a Spanish businessman who wants to take down all the world's governments, is doing what he's doing.  He gives an interview on a news show at one point, explaining that all governments are corrupt and should be wiped out, but we never exactly learn his motivation, or how he got to his extreme views.  Likewise, the scenes where Jericho is supposed to be growing close to the family of the man whose memories have been implanted in his head have absolutely no emotional impact whatsoever.  Everything feels muted and strangely lethargic. 

But then, a lot of this may have to do with the cast, who never seem invested in the material they have to work with.  There are big names here, but nobody brought their A-Game.  I said earlier that this is probably the worst Kevin Costner performance in years, and I mean it.  He grunts, mumbles and slurs his words so much that his portrayal of a hardened criminal comes across not as a violent sociopath, but more like the Saturday Night Live version of Nick Nolte.  He gets a lot of unintentional laughs here, but at least you can say he makes an impression of some kind, which is more than I can say for anyone else.  Oldman yells his lines and chews every bit of scenery he can find, yet still comes across as perfectly bland, while Tommy Lee Jones barely seems to be making an effort.  Finally, there is Gal Gadot.  This is her third movie so far this year (the other two being Triple 9 and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), so Hollywood is obviously banking on her to be the next big thing.  However, just like in her other films, she is given so little to do, she just kind of disappears into the background.  We'll see if she can carry a film on her own in Summer 2017's Wonder Woman movie, but from what I have seen so far, I am having my doubts.

Criminal almost seems to be designed to be forgotten as soon as it's over.  Aside from a bizarre Costner performance, nothing resonates and nothing stays with you.  I'm sure most who see it will forget it as soon as possible.  I'm planning to do the same thing myself.

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Saturday, April 16, 2016

Barbershop: The Next Cut

Having never seen the original Barbershop movie, or its 2004 sequel, I was not sure what to expect from The Next Cut.  What I did find was an often surprisingly funny and very heartfelt comedy-drama that not only has the nerve to tackle some real issues, but does so in a way in which there are no real answers in the end.  There is resolution, but just like in life, the real problems are still there.  While the movie can be messy at times (there are too many characters, and a few too many plotlines), this still manages to be a very pleasant surprise.

Ice Cube plays Calvin, a stern and somewhat tough-talking man who owns a small barbershop on the South Side of Chicago.  The shop has been in his family for generations, but Calvin is secretly planning to move his business to a safer location.  His teenage son Jalen (Michael Rainey, Jr.) has been taking an interest in some of the local gangs lately, and getting in fights at school.  He doesn't know how to tell the many people who work in his shop, or his regular customers, as everyone has become like family to him.  That's just the start when it comes to the plots featured in this film, however.  Another involves a sexy co-worker named Draya (Nicki Manaj) who is trying to come between Calvin's friend Rashad (Common) from his girlfriend.  Still another is Calvin and Rashad butting heads over how to raise their kids, since they both seem to be involved in gang activity, and who is to blame.  Everything is brought together when the barbershop decides to offer free haircuts for a full weekend in return to a ceasefire amongst the gangs for 48 hours.

Barbershop: The Next Cut juggles a fine line between humor and pathos, and seems to find a good mix of both.  I can only assume that this is a formula that the cast have perfected over the past films.  It flows well here, and it never feels jarring when it goes from one liners being tossed out by the oldest person at the shop (played by Cedric the Entertainer, under old age make up), to the characters having a serious discussion about economic situations, or the violence that is infecting the streets.  The movie can be a bit hamfisted at times, but it is never preachy, nor does it feel like it's talking down to the audience.  And like I said before, it doesn't pretend to have the answers to the issues it presents, which is a touch I admired.  While you get the sense that Calvin, his family and his friends will be okay, the movie does end on somewhat of an open ended note.  For once, I don't think this is simply to set up a sequel.  Rather, it's the movie playing it smart, and not pretending to know that everything's going to work out the same for everybody.

There are a lot of characters who walk in and out of Calvin's shop, and unfortunately, not everybody gets to be as developed as well as they should.  But through it all is Ice Cube as Calvin, who serves as an anchor for the entire film, and does a fine job of it.  His character and Cube's performance is grounded and likable.  He can join in on the fun during the more comedic moments, but when he has to be serious or deliver a scene with his troubled son, you believe that he is truly torn between doing what he knows is right for his son, and possibly backing away a little so his boy does not resent him - something he can't truly bring himself to do, as he's afraid the Chicago gangs will take him away.  It's a surprisingly multi-layered performance, and it reminds you of what a good actor he can be when he's not doing contractual obligated junk like Ride Along 2 from earlier this year.

There is a sense of honesty here in this film that I enjoyed.  You can tell that the screenwriters and even the actors believe in what they are saying when they are talking about the current problems of Chicago.  There are some genuinely tense moments mixed in with the laughs, and the execution is surprisingly strong, with little sense of a jarring tone, or a sense of abrupt starting and stopping when the movie decides to switch from laughs to drama.  True, there are a few scenes that don't work, and some come dangerously close to mawkish sentimentality.  But, through it all, you can tell that the most of the emotions the movie is creating are coming from a real place, not contrivance.  It doesn't always work, but when it does, this can be a stronger and much smarter film than you may expect walking in.

I actually found myself wishing I could spend more time with these characters.  Whether or not the series continues, I can at least go back and visit the earlier films to see where these people came from, and what led them to this current point.  The Next Cut is a rare and unexpected sequel that actually has something to say, and doesn't feel regurgitated out of creative bankruptcy.

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Friday, April 15, 2016

The Jungle Book

When it comes to classic Disney animated films, 1967's The Jungle Book comes across as pretty thin soup.  There's little narrative to drive the story, and it's really just a series of gags and encounters with different animals that either help or threaten the brave little "man-cub" Mowgli.  My hope for the big budget live action adaptation would be that director Jon Favreau would realize this, and maybe try to flesh out the story and characters, much the same way Kenneth Branagh did with his live action take of Cinderella last year.  However, as it turns out, Favreau is a traditionalist, and has basically given us a similar film - Well meaning and mostly enjoyable, but very thin, with nothing that resonates.

Just like before, we follow the adventures of little Mowgli, played here by young Neel Sethi.  This is the first major role for the young actor, and he does well enough, though there's nothing here that would challenge any semi-decent child actor.  For years, Mowgli has been living with a wolf pack, ever since he ended up lost and alone in the jungle when he was very young.  Mother wolf, Raksha (voice by Lupita Nyong'o) has mostly raised and nurtured him, while father wolf Akela (voice by Giancarlo Esposito) spends all day standing on top of a nearby rock, trying to look majestic.  Mowgli's main father figure in life has been the black panther, Bagheera (voice by Ben Kingsley), who has been trying to teach him the ways of the jungle.  But now, Mowgli's young life is in danger.  The deadly tiger Shere Khan (voice by Idris Elba) has been roaming around the local parts of the jungle, looking to kill the boy, because he fears all man and does not want a human living in the jungle.  The only choice is for Mowgli to leave the wolf pack, and for Bagheera to guide him back to the Man Village where he belongs.

From there, the movie more or less follows the same episodic nature of the animated movie.  There's a close call with a deadly and seductive tree snake (voice by Scarlett Johansson, making the most of her roughly five minutes of screen time), some elephants march through the jungle relentlessly, and there's good ol' Baloo the Bear (voice by Bill Murray), who in this film, has been reimagined as kind of a con artist, smooth talking little Mowgli into getting some out of the way honey for him.  At the very least, Murray's performance stands out, because he's not just repeating the performance that came before in the animated film.  Same goes for Christopher Walken, who provides the voice of the mischievous ape King Louie.  Here, Louie is portrayed almost as a jungle crime boss, with Walken giving off the vibe of an off-kilter Mafia don.  He's a lot of fun, but again, his screen time is limited.  Perhaps to cater to fans of the '67 film, two of the musical numbers from that movie have been squeezed in here.  Though, to be fair, they feel shoehorned in, and the movie probably would have been tighter without them.

Perhaps to compensate for the familiarity of the script, the filmmakers have decided to pull out all the stops with the visuals.  This is a gorgeous film, blending actual nature locations with photo-realistic CG animals to inhabit it.  The ultimate effect of the live action locations (and the young boy in the middle of it all) with the CG talking animals is quite seamless.  And as you can tell by the names up above, the voice acting is first rate, particularly Murray, whose voice over performance creates an easy chemistry with his human co-star.  There's quite a lot to admire here, and I can easily see how someone could get lost in this movie, looking at all the detail.  But I could never shake the feeling that underneath all the pristine and perfectly executed details, the story just didn't seem to matter.  Not only did I feel like I had seen it all before, but that there just wasn't enough new being done with it.

For some people, that won't matter.  The Jungle Book is a visual feast, and has obviously been made with the greatest of care.  It simply never captured my imagination the way a truly great movie can.  I found myself thinking back to a couple weeks ago, when I was watching April and the Extraordinary World.  That is a family film that not only has incredible visuals, but has a wonderful story to tell, and characters who feel fleshed out and interesting.  As a movie, it's a complete package.  Of course, that's a cartoon from France that's getting a very small release over here.  Most kids and their parents don't even know it exists.  It doesn't have the multi-million dollar marketing push that this film does.  I have no doubt that kids will enjoy this movie.  It's a faithful representation of something that worked before.  But if they were to see April, not only would they be getting a great movie, but they would be seeing something completely new and unlike anything they've seen before.

I don't want to sound like a cynic, or discourage kids from seeing this.  It's a fine movie in its own right, and it never offends.  I just found myself wishing that it didn't play it so safe sometimes.  Maybe the original animated film is a classic in your eyes, or you just really want to see some great effects.  This movie should work for you.  I liked what I got from the film most of the time, I just felt like I had seen it all before.

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Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Boss

When Melissa McCarthy is used well in a movie, she can be one of the brightest and funniest talents working in the movies today.  For an example of some of her best recent work, watch her comedy from last summer, Spy.  Unfortunately, The Boss does not know how to use her, which is surprising, since McCarthy co-wrote the script with her husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed the film.  Instead of relying on her comedic smarts or physical ability, the movie casts her adrift as a mean-spirited, foul-mouthed twit who really only wants to be loved.

Lord save us from Hollywood's recent trend of taking raunchy adult comedies, and having them turn all soft and mushy near the end, with lots of sappy messages about family, friendship and getting along.  It seldom ever works, but filmmakers keep on doing it.  It's not even the first time this trend has claimed McCarthy, as her 2013 comedy, Identity Thief, went all soft and sentimental in the last half hour, with many scenes of the actress choking back tears because, darn it, she just wants to be loved!  This time around, her character is a cocky and brash self-made woman who lives only to succeed, and to crush anyone who gets in her way.  That's all a facade, of course.  Turns out she grew up an orphan, and was returned three times by the various families who adopted her.  All she needs to melt that cold heart of hers is a homemade craft project given to her by a little girl, and of course, a family of her own.  Do the people who write these ideas down into scripts actually nod approvingly when they add this stuff in on the tail end of a movie that's been built around four-letter words, jokes about comparing boobs, and rude, obnoxious behavior?  Can you imagine Animal House if it ended with a scene with Belushi sharing his feelings about being abandoned as a little boy?

McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, a woman who rose from nothing to become one of the wealthiest people in the world, and a corporate giant.  She is successful enough to hold self help seminars that are more like arena rock concerts, with her descending down to stage on a giant golden phoenix statue that shoots sparks and flames.  Michelle's life is all about excess, because in the prologue, we witness her lonely childhood, and the moment she decided she was only going to live for herself.  She surrounds herself with "yes men", and is basically the center of her own universe.  That all comes crashing down when a business rival and jilted former lover (played by Peter Dinklage, giving a performance just as weird and unfunny as the one he gave in last year's Adam Sandler bomb, Pixels) has her sent to jail for insider trading.  When Michelle gets out of prison, she's lost all of her money and properties, and none of her former high-powered friends will even talk to her.

With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, Michelle must rely on her former personal assistant, Claire (Kristen Bell, very subdued and bland here), and Claire's young daughter, Rachel (Ella Anderson).  Claire is not interested in the idea of having her former boss sleeping on her couch and taking over her bathroom at all hours of the day, but can't turn away someone who is homeless.  One day, Michelle hits upon a brilliant marketing idea of combining Claire's expertise at baking brownies with her business sense, and then start a group with Rachel's young friends at school who will sell the brownies door to door, rivaling the current Girl Scout group that has a stranglehold on the market with their cookies.  I can see how there could be some laughs generated here, but most of the good material gets sidetracked by subplots, such as Claire striking up a relationship with a guy at her new job.

That's not to say that The Boss doesn't work at all as a comedy, as there are some funny moments.  An early scene depicting Michelle's tooth whitening routine gets big laughs when she is forced to talk with her lips drawn back by a giant plastic device that exposes her gums.  And even if it seems to borrow heavily from the famous scene from Anchorman where the different news teams battle each other, there is a funny scene where Michelle's group of girls gets in an all-out brawl with the rival cookie-selling group on the streets.  But at its very core, the movie just wants us to really love Michelle.  While the movie is nowhere near as funny as it could have been, it at least seems to have a bit of an edge to it, even if that edge does seem a bit mean spirited at times.  But then, it has to get all soft on us, when little Rachel starts to consider Michelle part of the family, and she doesn't know how to deal with it, because she's never had a family before, nor has she ever thought of anyone but herself.

So, what we're left with is an uneven movie that blends comedy that doesn't quite work as it should, with sappy sentimental moments that have no place being there in the first place.  It's a natural trend for comedians to want to be liked, I understand that.  Comics like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams started out racy, but gradually turned to more sentimental or child-friendly roles that existed simply to be liked.  When it's done well, it can be rewarding, as Williams sometimes proved.  But when it goes wrong (as Williams also sometimes proved), it could be annoying.  I just want McCarthy to be sharp and funny and quick on her feet.  I know she can do this, as I have seen her perform it effortlessly in some of her past films.  But in a movie like this or Identity Thief, where she seems more concerned with having us like her than in getting laughs, it can seem kind of desperate.

The Boss feels like a missed opportunity.  There are moments for satire here, but the movie doesn't dig deep enough, and it keeps on changing gears from being edgy and kind of bland, to being sentimental and very bland.  I think it's great that McCarthy has enough power in Hollywood to make her own projects, and make them the way she wants to.  I just wish she trusted the fact that people already love her, and just want her to be funny.

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