Sunday, July 26, 2015

Video review: "Home"


We are living in a second golden age of animation, which means there are a lot of really great cartoon films out there at any given time. But it also means there's a higher standard to meet. So even movies like "Home" that are merely good have a patina of disappointment about them.

This tale of a friendly alien who gets estranged from his kind and lost on Earth just doesn't have that spark of extra magic from, say, "Finding Nemo," "Up" or the first couple of "Shrek" movies. It's great-looking... but then, aren't most animated films great-looking these days? Again, it's a matter of our standards having gotten so inflated that the formerly dazzling is barely noticed.

Jim Parsons provides the voice of Oh, a member of the notoriously cowardly Boov people. When I call them cowards, it's not an insult; they consider it the highest praise, actually. Creatures who actually stand their ground and face their problems are considered weird.

Currently they're fleeing from their arch-enemy, the Gorg, and using our planet as a hideout. Of course, this means the pesky humans have to be rounded up for their own good.

Even by Boov standards, Oh is something of a timid fellow. Like the others he looks like a little purple land octopus, who changes color and jitters according to his current emotional state. Talk about wearing your emotions on your sleeve... or your face.

After getting the boot from the other Boov, Oh hooks up with Tip Tucci (Rihanna), a human girl who's also been displaced by all the alien activity. Together they go on a road trip quest, except in a hover car. Along the way are the expected hi jinks, musical interludes and unsubtle life lessons.

Look, "Home" is a fun, fun flick. It's sure to delight little kids and keep their parents modestly entertained as well. It's just second-tier entertainment in comparison to the field.

Bonus features are quite good, and like the movie itself geared toward the wee set. There are a number of games and interactive music features, such as "Oh's Shake Your Boov Thing" and "Oh's Boovy Jukebox." There are also deleted scenes, interviews with the voice cast, a drawing tutorial, music videos and more.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review: "Southpaw"


You go to see a movie like "Southpaw" for the gritty performances and slam-bang boxing scenes. From a story standpoint it's a pretty generic boxing plot, with our scrappy champion rising and falling, falling and rising, from the mat and metaphorically.

The screenplay by Kurt Sutter is original only on a technicality, liberally cribbing its plot from the "Rocky" movies and other boxing flicks. (He reputedly wrote the script with Eminem in mind, basing it loosely on the rapper/sometime actor's life story. Em doesn't appear, though he supplies a couple of punchy songs.)

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the protagonist with the not-at-all-subtle name of Billy Hope, who rose from the hard streets of New York City through dint of hard work and an unmatched ferocity in the ring, an unwanted orphan who became light heavyweight champion.

Then through a succession of senseless disaster and self-destructive behavior, Billy loses it all, including custody of his 10-year-old daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). He's forced to reinvent himself as a fighter and as a man, starting from the bottom again and earning his way back to glory and redemption.

This is Boxing Movies 101 stuff. Check that; it's actually 201. Boxing 101 is "Rocky" and "Rocky II," where an unknown pug rises to the championship. "Southpaw" is "Rocky III" and "IV" -- they're virtually interchangeable, really -- where the reigning champ takes things for granted, gets knocked down a peg or seven, and has to scrap back to former heights.

There literally isn't a single surprise along the way, including the inevitable final match. You've got the familiar nemeses along the way, including a black-hearted young boxer (Miguel Gomez) who was responsible for Billy's fall, and the mercenary boxing promoter/manager (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson), who tells Billy they're family but saves his deepest love for the hottest prospect.

It's an interesting role for Gyllenhaal, who jumped off the traditional Hollywood star train a few years back to pursue smaller, more personal projects like "Nightcrawler" and the excellent "End of Watch." He's fought against his blue-eyed prettiness during this time, and in "Southpaw" he really works the scarred, stumblebum angle, muttering his lines and cocking his one good eye.

After losing a bunch of weight for "Nightcrawler" he packs on the ripped muscles for this role, and director Antoine Fuqua obligingly sweeps his camera and lights across Gyllenhaal's torso to emphasize the craggy wall of his abdomen. (I'm not really sure when abs became a thing; you'd think a boxer would want a little padding there to better absorb blows.) The actor's body becomes this strange mix of revulsion and fetishized object; we linger over his spent blood and abused flesh like a latter-day Lazarus.

The fight scenes are well-choreographed and energetic, though in the commonplace failing of Hollywood boxing movies, the fighters absorb more solid blows in a single round than most pugilists encounter in a year. Billy's strategy, if you can call it that, is to let opponents wallop him until he gets furious enough to uncork his pent-up rage.

Forest Whitaker is terrific as Tick Wills, an old-school trainer who teaches kids at an inner-city gym. Billy comes to him at his bottom, after lost having his wife (Rachel McAdams) to tragedy, his daughter to social services and his fame and fortune to his own self-hating spiral. Tick is old and tough, has taken his own cuts, and retrains Billy as a defensive fighter. "Protect yourself" is his mantra, underlined by one cloudy eye.

Just as the two men begin to trust one another, the filmmakers shortcut the journey and we're back to the ring again for Billy's deliverance. A smarter, better movie would've had Billy turn down the offers of quick money and a shot at the title, realizing that when you've gone down the path of destruction you can't just back up to solve your problems.

But who wants to see a boxing movie about a boxer who doesn't want to box anymore? Me, but apparently few others.




Review: "Pixels"


"Pixels" is the dream revenge movie for pretty much every kid who came of age post-1980: the world needs a hero, and it can only be someone who wasted countless hours and a Smaug-sized pile of quarters playing primitive arcade games at the Electric Dreams Factory (or whatever it was called in your town).

Isn't this the ultimate geek fantasy? To have the skills that were laughed at as a kid suddenly become valued in society the same way throwing deceased porcine hide is?

Since this is a geek movie, we've got to have some geeks to cheer for. Enter Adam Sandler, Josh Gad, Kevin James and Peter Dinklage. All were video game superstars circa 1982, culminating in a championship marathon in which one emerged as the victor, his exploits recorded on video for posterity and sent into space.

Unfortunately, alien boogums found the video and mistook the old-school games -- Pac-Man, Defender, Centipede, Joust, Frogger, Q-bert, etc. -- as a challenge. They whipped up some versions of these digital "warriors" and sent them to Earth to do battle with humans.

They even look like the old 8-bit versions of the arcade characters, crude and seemingly pixilated when blown up to giant size. Though not as big as you might think: the poster shows a behemoth Pac-Man slurping up San Francisco in one gulp, but in the movie he's about the size of a smallish RV.

It's a goofy premise, courtesy of screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, based on a short film by Patrick Jean. It's kind of a rip-off of "Ghostbusters," with brainy losers vaulted into champions, but the notion still holds appeal.

Directed by hitmeister Chris Columbus, "Pixels" is breezy, dimwitted, action-filled and goofy. I certainly was never bored, though some of the gags and story threads were better left snipped on the editing room floor.

For instance, we're supposed to believe that James' character, Cooper, has grown up to be the President of the United States. Except he's not some competent, savvy politician, but the standard doofus Kevin James character he plays in every movie. Not surprisingly, his POTUS has become a laughingstock.

It's hard to believe anybody would ever vote such a guy into the highest office in the land... though I should note as I write this, Donald Trump is leading in the polls.

Brenner (a bored-looking Sandler) had the most natural talent of any gamer, but his confidence was shot when he lost the championship. Now he's become a Geek Squad-like drone who sets up tech for other people. Getting tapped by his best buddy in the White House to lead the fight against the invaders starts his underachiever-cum-savior journey.

Gad plays Ludlow, a wallflower who grew up to be a conspiracy theorist. He gets some of the best lines in the picture, and the "Book of Mormon" star also gets to belt out a tune for no good reason, other than it's nice to listen to.

Michelle Monaghan shows up, because the studio honchos felt we needed a pretty girl to look at. She's a military officer who takes an instant shine/dislike/maybe love? attitude toward the Sandler character.

Dinklage steals most of his scenes as Eddie, aka "Fire Blaster," an egocentric gamer who won the '82 championship (and also gave himself that nickname). Sporting a ferocious mullet and Southern-fried patter of quips about how awesome he is, Eddie is a despicable hoot. Actually, with the hair and self-puffery he reminds me of Donald Trump, though reportedly Dinklage based him on a real-life jerk seen in the excellent video game documentary, "The King of Kong."

Arriving as the summer movie season is cooling down, "Pixels" is clearly third-string fare, the sort of thing you go see while waiting for the movies that came out in May to hit video. It's decently entertaining, though it needed less Sandler and more mullet for the win.





Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Review: "Paper Towns"


"Paper Towns" is one of those films that starts out well, grows steadily stronger, makes you think it's going one way and then head-fakes in the other. When it reaches its destination it's a refreshing surprise, smarter and subtler than we'd imagined, and yet as we think back on the journey we realize it couldn't have arrived anywhere else without seeming false and forced.

Like last year's "The Fault in Our Stars," also based on a book by Indianapolis author John Green, it is keenly observant of teens not as we would like them to be, but closer to the actual neurotic, self-doubting, self-aggrandizing, glorious young adults they are.

Oops, I used "the words" -- young adult, abbreviated to YA, employed to describe, and often dismiss, an entire sphere of literature. Green is known to despise the term, with some justification.

All I'll say is that these young adult characters are believable, approachable and relatable.

Perhaps that's not a surprise, since the same screenwriting team behind TFIOS, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, penned this script as well. They also wrote "The Spectacular Now" and "(500) Days of Summer," which, along with the Green movies, pretty much comprises the list of the best films about young people of the last few years.

(I'd add "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," too.)

Nat Wolff plays Quentin, a dweeby band geek and academic overachiever who hasn't really stretched his wings his entire life. He grew up next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), an adventuress with a zest for mischief and boundary breaking.

But he resisted her siren call, and as their senior year of high school unfolds, she's become the popular wild girl and he's become... rather invisible. He mostly hangs out with fellow nerds  Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams), commiserating about the suffering existence they can't wait to leave behind.

Then one night Margo shows up at his window, and urges him to join her for an evening of revenge-taking and thrill-seeking.

"Tonight we are righting some wrongs. And wronging some rights. Basically, this is going to be the greatest night of your life," she insists. Margo insists a lot, and people generally go along with it. She also believes in random capitalization within words, lIke tHis, because "it's so unfair to the letters in the middle."

The proceed so have the promised night, which I won't spoil. Quentin is, needless to say, deeply smitten. But then something strange happens: Margo disappears. Days go by, no one has a clue where she is, her parents are used to this sort of nonsense and dismissive. Quentin is left to deal with the consequences of their antics, including Margo's best friend Lacey (Halston Sage), who feels wronged.

They launch an amateur Hardy Boys expedition, seeking out clues the mystery-loving Margo may or may not have left them as to her whereabouts. Eventually Quentin and his two buddies resolve to go on a road trip halfway across the country in search of her. Lacey tags along, as does Radar's girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair). (This is the sort of movie where even band geeks sometimes have girlfriends.)

None of this makes a terrible lot of sense for smart, ambitious young people who want to go to college and become oncologists and such. But it is good for them to occasionally get out of their comfort zone, especially the self-limiting Quentin.

The title comes from a real thing map-makers did, creating fake towns to prevent forgers from copycatting their work. It's also a knock at Orlando, the place where the characters live and also my own hometown, which often gets dismissed as ersatz and artificial -- usually by tourists who never make it far enough away from Disney and Universal Studios to glimpse O-town's actual downtown. Margo sees paper everywhere, searching for something authentic in life; like Holden Caulfield, she has a tendency to see phonies all about.

Director Jake Schreier, helming his second feature, elicits layered and effusive performances out of his young cast. Wolff is slyly charming, while Delevingne has the unenviable task of having to seem larger than life, and does.

But legends are embellishments of the truth, and in the end "Paper Towns" is more about busting myths than building them up. This is an intelligent, funny, sad yet hopeful take on the folly of waiting for big miracles, instead of creating small ones of our own.





Monday, July 20, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Born Yesterday" (1950)



Judy Holliday had one of those comet-like Hollywood careers, burning fast and bright. She won an Oscar for "Born Yesterday," her first lead role after a lauded turn in "Adam's Rib." She starred opposite Jack Lemmon in his first two films, went back to Broadway, endured ill health and died of breast cancer in 1963 at the age of 43.

It seemed like Holiday was everyone's second choice for a role that she then knocked out of the park. Playwright Garson Kanin wrote the part of Billie Dawn, the tough moll with the squawky voice, for Jean Arthur. When she left the show, Holiday was picked to replace her for the Broadway run, which was so successful the movie studios soon came calling. But the Columbia Pictures chief didn't want her. It took a lot of wrangling by director George Cukor and some big stars to help her land the part.

She was rewarded with a Golden Globe and the aforementioned Academy Award, beating out the likes of Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard" -- which also featured William Holden in the supporting role of the boyfriend. Though instead of being an object of degradation, Holden's character in "Born Yesterday" serves to lift Billie up out of her dreary circumstances.

The film also received Oscar nods for screenplay, director, best picture and costume design.

The story centers around a junkyard magnate/mobster, Harry Brock, played by Broderick Crawford. He's an abusive bully, lording it over everyone in the same room, including the Congressman (Larry Oliver) he's come to Washington, D.C. to help him pass desired legislation for his junk business. Harry treats his longtime fiancee Billie like an accessory, often bellowing at her, "Do what I tell you!!"

I was surprised watching the film how edgy it is. Harry says the word "pregnant" at one point, which was banned on nascent television but still more or less verboten in the days of the Production Code, which was still very much in effect in 1950. Even more surprisingly, Harry's threats of violence against Billie result in a sudden moment where he belts her very hard several times onscreen. Billie's face is turned toward the camera when it happens, so we see the impact of his neanderthal blows.

Harry, with the help of his obsequious attorney Jim Devery (Howard St. John), hires high-minded journalist Paul Verrall (Holden) to tutor Billie so she'll be more acceptable to the hoity-toity D.C. social crowd. Verrall takes the job less for the money -- $200/week, or twice his newspaper salary -- than an opportunity to infiltrate Harry's circle and get the scoop on what he sees as a greedy sod working the system for his own benefit.

But he doesn't count on Billie falling for him, or him eventually returning the favor. It's interesting to see Holden in two movies in a single year where he is the pursued object of feminine attraction, rather than the traditional wolf on the hunt.

There's not much of a plot to speak of -- Harry's various machinations getting tripped up by Billie's increasing social consciousness being about the extent of it. Half his business is on paper in her name for legal protection, an asset she eventually puts to good use.

The movie is really just a showcase for Holliday. Her Billie is a tramp with a heart of gold buried underneath seven years of cynicism and abuse from Harry, whose taint has infected her outward behavior if not yet her soul.

Her voice is hard to listen to for 103 minutes -- screechy, nasal-y timbres tend to give me a headache.  Holliday makes Billie's tawdriness a feature rather than a bug, though. She'll never lose her brash style and rapport with regular folks. That's integral to her charm. Paul doesn't try to change her, just expand her ambition and internal library.

The film's political commentary is a mite heavy-handed at times -- Albert Mannheimer is given sole screenwriting credit, though Kanin contributed, too. Harry is in many ways a cartoon version of the brute subverting democracy to his own self ends. If instead of ordering people around and paying off a congressman he started a PAC, Harry would be indistinguishable from traditional lobbying efforts. Meanwhile, Verrall seems to be advocating for a collectivist hive of selfless citizens working together for the good of the people, which is an awfully naive mindset for a cynical reporter.

"Born Yesterday" is also something of a love letter to the city of Washington, D.C., showing all the various tourist spots and hidden lovely vistas. It's a fun, romantic dash of a movie that also has something to say. And it features one of the all-time iconic female comedic performances.





Sunday, July 19, 2015

Video review: "What We Do in the Shadows"


Mockumentaries have been around for 30 years or so, while the pop culture obsession with vampires for maybe the last 10. “What We Do in the Shadows” is the hilarious intersection of those two ideas, so obvious you wonder why anyone hadn’t done it before.

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi co-wrote, co-directed and star in the film as centuries-old blood-suckers struggling to fit in with the modern world. Vladislav (Clement) is an old-school Vlad the Impaler type, a former European despot who’s now living in a crummy Wellington apartment with several other nosferatu. Viago (Waititi) is a bit of a ponce who favors elaborate outfits and tries to be nice to people before killing them.

Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is a party-hearty type, while Petyr (Ben Fransham) is thousands of years old, looks like a pale, desiccated corpse and barely speaks.

The faux documentary follows the group around as they have roomie spats – fangs bared! – go to parties, lure victims (often ineptly) and have a running feud with a pack of local werewolves. Other wrinkles include Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), an annoying dude who accidentally gets turned into a vampire and tries to worm his way into the group.

It’s goofy and very droll, with the underlying gag that just because you’re immortal, live in darkness and feast on human blood doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time.

Bonus features are rather good. Clement and Waititi team up for a feature-length commentary track, there’s “Behind the Shadows,” a making-of doc, deleted scenes, interviews with cast and crew plus a poster gallery.

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review: "Trainwreck"


The difference between writing for sketch comedy and doing a feature-length comedy script stretches wider than the Grand Canyon. Sketches rely on a quick set-up/punchline rhythm and absurd concepts, the zanier the better. Making a whole movie is exponentially tougher: you've got to weave the humor into a broader narrative, fashion engaging characters and come up with a satisfying arc for them to journey along.

"Trainwreck," written by and starring Amy Schumer, has a few good individual laughs but fails pretty miserably at the big-picture stuff.

It's essentially a two-hour-long iteration of the quasi-autobiographical version of herself Schumer presents in her standup routine and television show: hedonistic, hard-partying girl who loves to sleep around and mocks the idea of commitment. It's made for a lot of winning gags for TV, with Schumer's sly intelligence and feminist undertones percolating through the laughs.

There are three or four decent scenes like that in "Trainwreck," but the connective tissue in between is tough to wade through. The answer that Schumer and director Judd Apatow seem to have to come up with is to feature well-known actors or celebrities in punchy minor roles to spice up the dull patches. It works a little, but only a little.

You've probably heard that NBA superstar LeBron James plays himself in the movie, as a patient of wunderkind sports surgeon Aaron Conners (Bill Hader). Amy is Amy, a writer at a Neanderthal men's magazine called "Snap" who's been assigned to profile the doc, despite knowing exactly zilch about sports.

For instance, we're supposed to laugh at the notion that Amy has no idea who LeBron is when he pops into Aaron's office while she's meeting him. Except you'd have to have lived underground since birth not to recognize King James. In a common refrain in comedies these days, LeBron plays a goofy version of himself. Here, he's a cheapskate who insists on splitting the lunch bill and pals around with dweeby doctors.

Tilda Swinton plays Amy's boss, who has an abundance of confidence and a paucity of taste; Brie Larson is her younger, wiser sister; Colin Quinn plays their father, a philanderer who taught them "monogamy is unrealistic"; Ezra Miller is the impressionable young intern with a dark side; Mike Birbiglia is the kind-yet-dull brother-in-law; John Cena shows up -- and flashes a lot of skin -- as Amy's initial 'roided-up boyfriend; Amar'e Stoudemire portrays himself as a fictional patient of Aaron's; Dave Attell plays a mouthy panhandler; and Norman Lloyd, a bonafide 100 years of age, twinkles as a sparring partner of Amy's dad at the old folks' home.

One of the chief weaknesses of the movie is that I never bought the romance between Schumer and Hader for even a second. The idea is that Amy, having promptly slept with the guy she's supposed to be profiling, gets unwilling sucked into a relationship with him. But Hader isn't given much to do in the script that would make him endearing to such a wild-and-crazy gal... or anyone. He feels like a personality vacuum who got lucky.

At 125 minutes "Trainwreck" is about a half-hour too long, a near-universal feature of Apatow films that I had previously chalked up to his own undisciplined writing style and apparent unwillingness to hire an editor with any kind of clout. (Someone needs to tell him less is more, and with his style of motormouth comedy, less less is even more more.)

But even with Schumer handling script duties, this movie is still an overstuffed mess with jangled pieces that never really fit together. It's a one-night stand in which the evening grows old, fast.