Thursday, April 06, 2017

Dodgeball (A True Underdog Story) 2004 ***1.2

Looking for a hilarious movie that won't change your life, but might make your night? “Dodgeball” could be your medicine. The movie features a rogue's-list of comedy stars and character actors from the 20-oughts, including stars from comedy classics like “Office Space,” “Zoolander,” and “Arrested Development.”

Vince Vaughn plays Peter, the like-able, easygoing owner of “Average Joe's”, a struggling gym. He can't bring himself to demand payment from his members, so it shouldn't come as a surprise when the bank shows up to foreclose on the place. Fortunately for Peter, the bank's representative is the impossibly-cute Kate (Christine Taylor). Kate is actually sympathetic to Peter's plight but can only do so much to help Peter. The bank has a ready buyer for the property, White Goodman (Ben Stiller), the intense, mullet-sporting owner of a competing gym. Facing the loss of their beloved gym, Peter and his friends enter a dodgeball tournament with a $50,000 prize, just enough to pay Peter's delinquent debts.

“Dodgeball” has an absolute blast with its “Bad News Bears” premise, with a combination of clever writing and a stellar cast. Supporting players include Rip Torn, as a crusty old dodgeball coach, Alan Tudyk (who played Wash on “Firefly”), and Stephen Root (an amazing chameleon of an actor who played Milton in 1999's “Office Space”). Vince Vaughn and Christine Taylor basically play straight-men ably enough, but it is Ben Stiller who really makes the movie. He fully commits to his goofy, mulleted character to hilarious effect.

“Dodgeball” doesn't break any new ground in comedy or explore anything deep. It just has a great time and invites you to do the same.

3.5 stars out of 5

Friday, March 31, 2017

Night of the Comet (1984) ***

On a balmy, 1980's night in L.A., crowds gather to watch the sky as earth passes through the tail of a comet. They are expecting a spectacular meteor shower, but get more than they bargained for. Everyone watching gets turned into dust. Those who are only partially exposed become zombies. Only people who were completely shielded by metal are saved. This includes Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart), her sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney), and a few others, who must now navigate this (almost) empty world.

1984's “Night of the Comet” is a sci-fi-ish cult classic along the lines of “Repo Man” and “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,” and it succeeds for the same reasons those films succeed. It doesn't take itself too seriously and spend a lot of time trying to make its wacky premise make sense. On the other hand, this isn't some self-aware parody, constantly winking at the audience to let us know that it is in on the joke. “Night of the Comet” is a B-movie that worked hard for its “B” and is proud of it. It isn't trying to be an “A” movie, but it doesn't try to make fun of the B-movie genre either. It just puts its half-baked, low-budget story out there and says, “This is the best we could do on $700,000.”

It turns out, their best is not all that bad. The film is shot quite beautifully, with colorful shots of the sky against L.A. skyscrapers, and expansive shots of the empty cityscape. (They shot many of these scenes on Christmas Day, when downtown L.A. was relatively empty.) The acting is nothing to write home about, but then the script doesn't really demand much of these actors. They run here, they get shot at there, they show a little leg in this scene here, and everyone goes home happy.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) **

There's no reason that “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” shouldn't be a perfectly delightful noir comedy, with stars like Val Kilmer and Robert Downey, Jr. Unfortunately, all that talent is wasted on a tale that doesn't really amount to much.

Downey plays Harry, a small-time thief who stumbles into an acting opportunity. He is whisked out to L.A. to rub elbows with pretty people, and there he stumbles into a murder mystery, or a pair of murder mysteries, to be precise. The first involves the daughter of a famous actor ( Corbin Bernsen). The second involves the sister of his old, schoolboy crush (Michelle Monaghan) from Indiana, whom Harry randomly runs into at one of those L.A. parties. Helping Harry sort through all these corpses is Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a private-eye/tough-guy-for-hire, who guessed it, gay. For some reason this is supposed to be hilarious. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is full of more gay jokes than a junior high locker room. Maybe this sort of thing was funnier in 2005.

Even with the dated gay jokes, this movie should be a good time. Kilmer and Downey are both witty as hell, and play well off each other. Michelle Monaghan is pretty as can be (although it's the typical Hollywood bullshit to cast a woman 11 years younger than Robert Downey, Jr. as his high school classmate.) The story just never earned my interest, however, and at the end of the second act, I seriously considered just popping the DVD out of the player and going to bed. It's sad when you've watched more than half of a movie, and don't really care about how it ends. I did stick around for the ending, though, and it wasn't worth it.

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” expends tremendous effort being clever, and no effort on an interesting plot, or building characters we can care about. It tries to be a winking parody of noir cinema, with its Raymond Chandler references and pulp fiction plot, but I think it's mostly a mess. If you want a more genuine homage to the noir genre, check out another film from 2005, Rian Johnson's "Brick" or the outstanding 1973 Chandler adaptation, "The Long Goodbye".

2 stars out of 5

Friday, March 10, 2017

Cloverfield (2008) ***1/2 and 10 Cloverfield Lane *****

It helps to know that “10 Cloverfield Lane” is not a sequel to “Cloverfield,” nor are the two movies directly related or even similar other than both being produced by J.J.Abrams. The word Cloverfield, in fact, has nothing to do with either movie. It's the name of a street where Abrams used to work, and the name is simply a brand, like “The Twilight Zone.” Based on these two films, I'd say it's a brand worth watching.

2008's “Cloverfield” is a found-footage movie about a monster attacking New York City. The conceit is that you are viewing a videotape found in some rubble. The footage is captured by a group of friends who are celebrating at a party when the attack hits. In the midst of the devastation, four of them (including Lizy Caplan and TJ Miller) have to make their way across Manhattan to rescue a friend. Director Matt Reeves does a pretty good job with the found-footage approach, if you can ignore the fact that TJ Miller's character is supposedly filming everything while running for his life. The monster is really cool-looking, and the film teases us with only brief, partial glimpses of it for quite a while. This is a pretty tightly-wound action movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It's well worth 3.5 stars out of 5.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is something completely different, a claustrophobic, psychological potboiler with a cast of only three. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, a girl leaving her boyfriend in south Louisiana. As she hits the open road, she gets in a crash and wakes up in a concrete room, wearing a knee brace that is chained to the wall. She is terrified, of course, and when she meets her rescuer/captor?, Howard (John Goodman), she is not reassured by his bizarre manner. Howard is gruff and paranoid, and he eventually explains to Michelle that she is in his bomb shelter, hiding out from some sort of chemical or biological attack aboveground. The tension in the little shelter builds, as Michelle tries to figure out if Howard is a psychotic monster, or if his story of an attack is true, which of course, is even more horrifying.

This movie can best be described as “tight.” The performances, the visuals, the pacing, everything is perfectly calibrated to create dread and keep you guessing. This is one to get on DVD in case you're ever stuck on a desert island, or in a bomb shelter. 5 stars out of 5!

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Get Out (2017) ****

I want to be careful not to tell you too much about the plot of “Get Out.” The surprises in the film are too juicy to ruin them for you.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) are a young, mixed-race couple in love. They embark on a weekend trip for Chris to meet Rose's parents for the first time. The parents don't know, yet, that Chris is black, but not to worry, Rose says. “My dad would have voted for Obama for a third term.” Sure enough, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) Armitage fall all over themselves to show Chris how accepting they are, calling him “My man!” and referencing the story of Jesse Owens. It's mostly the usual awkwardness that occurs between well-meaning members of different races, and Chris is pleasantly resigned to it. Still, things seem a little strange at the Armitage estate. The only two black people there, the maid and the groundskeeper, are absolutely bizarre in their smiling, mannequin-like politeness. Then a bunch of family friends show up for a yearly get-together, and things start to get really bizarre.

And scary. “Get Out” establishes early on that it will be delivering some frights. Writer/director Jordan Peele maintains a constant level of creepy dread, punctuated by the occasional well-timed startle. The movie also delivers a healthy dose of laughs. Kaluuya is the perfect straight man, but his friend Rod (LilRel Howery) provides tear-inducing comic relief. Bradley Whitford is also quite funny as a white liberal straining to show how open-minded he is.

“Get Out” enjoys quite a few laughs at the inappropriate things that come out of the mouths of even well-intentioned people. The jokes are perhaps a bit too on-the-nose at times, and I think it's fair to say that white people come off pretty poorly in the film. In this day and age, racial comedy has pretty much been done to death, and Peale could be accused of some laziness in this aspect of the film. Technically, however, “Get Out” is superb, beautifully filmed and perfectly paced to keep you on the edge of your seat. It's just scary enough to be a true horror film, but funny enough that even non-horror-fans will love it.

4 stars out of 5

Monday, February 27, 2017

Green Room (2015) ****

If you thought Oregon was just hippies and homebrewers, think again. The Pacific Northwest has a thriving White Supremacist scene. “Green Room” is a smart, backwoods horror flick about a punk band that runs afoul of some of these Neo-Nazis.

Living desperately from gig to gig, siphoning gas to keep their van going, and sleeping wherever they can, the punk band, the Ain't Rights, can't really afford to say no to a paying gig. They are leery of an offer to play a rural,White Supremacist venue, but they are assured they will be out before dark, and skinheads are really nothing new to a punk band, anyway. When a member of the band witnesses a murder, however, things get complicated. The Ain't Rights find themselves hostage, locked in a dressing room. While the skinheads, led by a chilling Patrick Stewart, figure out what to do with them, the band try to figure out an escape, assisted by the dead girl's friend (Imogen Poots).

“Green Room” earns a hard-R rating for the kind of violence that will give you nightmares. It isn't just the gore that will get your heart rate up, the constant menace is terrifying. Don't expect everyone to make it out alive or un-mangled. For those willing to deal with some serious horror, however, you are in for a treat. This is a smart, thrilling horror flick, beautifully filmed, with excellent performances. Patrick Stewart is terrifyingly convincing as the head neo-Nazi, and not just because of his shaved head. Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov on the new Star Trek movies and died this past year, is outstanding.

By definition, characters in horror movies make bad decisions. The difference between good and bad horror is whether those bad decisions are character-driven or plot-driven. Character-driven decisions are made by characters who have been developed so that their mistakes make sense for that character and that situation. Plot-driven decisions, the product of lazy storytelling, are frustratingly nonsensical, and only occur because the progression of the plot demands them. In “Green Room,” the characters do some stupid things, but they are the kind of stupid things young,inexperienced people might do. Their bad decisions are character-driven, and that's what elevates this film above its genre.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) ***

“Everybody Wants Some!!,” the newest film from Richard Linklater, has been touted as a spiritual sequel to the 1993 classic “Dazed and Confused.” It is not a true sequel, in that none of the “Dazed and Confused” characters appear, but rather a film in the same vein, about a bunch of young people experiencing high times to good music. Where “Dazed and Confused” followed several different characters on the last day of high school, “Everybody Wants Some!!” is all from the perspective of a baseball hotshot named Jake (Blake Jenner) as he shows up to start college. In the wild, move-in weekend before classes start, Jake gets to know his new baseball teammates, gets hazed by them, and parties with them at various bars and houses. He also meets a cute chick.

“Dazed and Confused” became a classic, in part because it viewed this single day of high school from so many different perspectives. You got to hang out with jocks, brains, stoners, and cheerleaders, and the takeaway was “We're all kind of the same.” “Everybody Wants Some!” takes a swing at that universality, as Jake and his friends party with punks one night, theater people the next, but they only scratch the surface. This movie is funny, and well worth watching, but it's no classic. Still, you'd have to have a heart of stone to dislike this film about a bunch of buff, young jocks hooking up with sexy chicks, to a soundtrack of classic rock, disco, punk, old-school rap, and even some country. The movie truly has something for everyone.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Bad Moms (2016) ***

Psychologists have a concept called “Good Enough Parenting,” which states that kids don't need perfect parenting. They just need a certain amount of love and care, and anything beyond that doesn't provide any additional benefit in terms of life success, mental health, etc. It's hard for parents to accept that, though. We always think that if we could spend a little more quality time, provide a little more enrichment, and push a little more for academic success, that all that work will produce a proportionally better outcome for our kids. The pressure is enormous to do MORE, and it seems to fall most heavily on the moms.

In “Bad Moms,” Mila Kunis plays Amy, a mother whose efforts to run her kids around to activities, do their school projects for them, and work a part-time job, while remaining active in the PTA are driving her to exhaustion. When she catches her husband (David Walton) having an online affair, it's the last straw. Amy has a meltdown at the PTA meeting, which puts her at odds with power-mom Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), but wins her a couple of new friends, Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and Kiki (Kristen Bell.)

With her new compadres, Amy decides to pursue a new ethos. Since nothing they do ever seems to be enough to qualify them as “good moms,” they should just celebrate being “bad moms.” The ladies indulge in microrebellions like daytime movie breaks, making the kids fix their own breakfasts, and hiring the occasional babysitter. Small as these transgressions seem, they wind up costing Amy her exploitative, part-time job and they trigger all-out war with Gwendolyn. Amy winds up challenging Gwendolyn for the PTA presidency, becoming a champion for imperfect moms everywhere.

Written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the minds behind “The Hangover,” “Bad Moms” is in the modern vein of raunchy-comedies-with-heart. The film does take on a bit of after-school-special stink in the third act and isn't as tightly-scripted as it could be, it's still a barrel of fun. Mila Kunis is always easy to look at, and all these actresses are good at comedy, especially Kathryn Hahn. This film is not on the level of “The Hangover” or “Bridesmaids,” but still it's a raunchy good time.

3 stars out of 5  

Saturday, January 21, 2017

No Country for Old Men (2007) **

I had heard that “No Country for Old Men” was bleak and violent, but it also got a lot of critical praise. I love me some Coen brothers, so I had to give the movie a shot. The messed up thing is, the movie actually fools you for a while, making you think it is a really awesome crime thriller. You wind up really invested in some of the characters before the film totally pulls the rug out from under you.

Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a guy who is out hunting when he stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. He finds a bunch of dead and dying men, a truck full of drugs, and a satchel of cash. Llewelyn makes off with the cash, but winds up with a crew of unsavories on his trail, including the creepy Anton Chigur (Javier Bardem). The relentless Chigur carries a pneumatic bolt gun, and sometimes decides whether or not to kill someone with it by flipping a coin. Meanwhile, Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to find Llewelyn before Chigur does.

The first two thirds of “No Country for Old Men” is outstanding. Besides beautiful photography of the west Texas landscape, the film is chock full of tight performances. Llewelyn, it turns out, is a lot smarter and tougher than anyone would have guessed, and you start to believe that he may be a match for Anton Chigur.

Then the movie gets needlessly depressing, and you wind up wondering why you invested two hours in it. You know, coming in, that a Coen brothers movie is going to be violent, and that people are going to die. What I didn't expect was the utter bleakness, the nihilism of the conclusion. Rarely have I seen a movie expend so much effort to make me like a character, only to discard them so perfunctorily. Ultimately, this is a crappy story told by two very talented filmmakers. Ethan and Joel Coen have made some of my favorite movies, including “Miller's Crossing” and “The Big Lebowski”, but they really screwed us over on this one.

2 stars out of 5

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

La La Land (2016) **1/2

Most films that come out this time of year, angling for Oscars glory, are serious affairs. Some of them can be hard to watch because of their ponderous themes, like the Holocaust. The new musical “La La Land” is exactly the opposite. This light and fluffy confection is about almost nothing. Its scenes float away like notes on the air.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play an actress and a jazz musician trying to achieve success in modern-day L.A. They fall in love, but wind up having to chose between love and success. And that's it. Absolutely nothing else happens. Sure people break out into song and dance on a regular basis, and everyone looks just lovely, but after two hours of fidgeting in my seat, I felt like I had seen nothing at all. “La La Land” is a great example of tremendous star power and beautiful cinematography wasted.

“La La Land” indulges the same “follow your dreams” tropes that so many Hollywood films do. The film also implicitly promotes another familiar Hollywood conceit, which is that the only dreams worth having are artistic dreams.

The point of a musical, of course, is the music, and 30 minutes after the film, I couldn't recall the songs at all. There is an attempt to give jazz music some love, and I suppose that works to some extent. Bottom line: “La La Land” is not going to enter the pantheon of great movie musicals.

I am definitely in the minority here. Audiences and critics alike seem to love this movie, and the awards and nominations are pouring in. Maybe in a time when half the country hates the other half, a movie that says nothing, and thereby offends no one, is the only thing we can all agree on.

2.5 stars out of 5

Friday, January 13, 2017

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) ***1/2

Actor Christopher Abbott (Charlie from the show “Girls) has the most poignant line in the movie “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” When his young, Afghan character Fahim says, “I was a doctor,” speaking in the past tense, it speaks volumes about what a mess Afghanistan is. There is simply no place on earth where it is normal for someone with medical training to be working as a translator. The film never makes clear whether he was displaced from his profession by the Taliban or by the American invasion. As one injured soldier points out later in the film, if you want to start laying blame for the state of things in Afghanistan, you'll have to work your way through Osama bin Laden, to the Taliban, to the Russians, and all the way back to the British Empire.

Fortunately, this film is not constituted wholly of such serious stuff. More comedy than drama, the movie hums with the wry humor that Tina Fey brings to all her projects. Fey plays Kim Baker, an American journalist who,bored with her life as a news copy writer, accepts an assignment as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan. There she finds that in addition to danger, there is opportunity, both professional and sexual. As fellow reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) explains to Kim, “In New York, you were a 6 or a 7. Here you're a 9, maybe 9 ½.” In addition to having her pick of men, Kim gets on-camera opportunities that she never had back home. Reporting by day and partying by night, Kim finds love with another reporter (Martin Freeman) and friendship with her translator Fahim. Always, there is the danger of kidnappings or bombs, or just the danger of getting swallowed up in a place where the unacceptable comes to seem normal.

With poor box office and mixed reviews, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” never seemed to find its audience. I think people were expecting either a straight-up comedy or a much sharper satire. Many reviewers seemed irked that the film didn't do more with some of its serious content, such as the horrors of war or the plight of women in the Middle East. It's true, the film never pokes too hard at any of these targets. Rather than the weakness of a script afraid to offend its audience, I found this to be the strength of a personal story that didn't give in to some tidy, preachy narrative. The film is based on the memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” by Kim Barker. The story is not about discrimination or military incompetence, it's about Kim and her own personal experience, and the biggest lesson she learns is that you have to embrace change. She made a change when she moved to Afghanistan, and after a few years there she realized she needed to make a change again and move back to the U.S. It's not about setting up the perfect life, then maintaining that. Success comes from embracing the changes that inevitably come your way, or, as one injured veteran tells Kim, “Embrace the suck, and move the f--- forward.”

3.5 stars out of 5