Monday, June 29, 2015

Potheads 'Til the End: "Ted 2" more hit-and-miss but enough jokes stick

Ted 2 (2015)
115 min., rated R.

Making it possible for an adorable, pot-smoking, potty-mouthed teddy bear to live on earth and not make humans bat an eye or turn their head, 2012's sweetly profane "Ted" probably should have been a one-and-done hit. It was thin but bawdy, so-wrong, and more than sporadically funny. Obligatory sequel "Ted 2" is definitely at a disadvantage, overcompensating with an overlong running time and an unwieldy narrative structure plagued by stop-and-start pacing, but when the jokes hit, they really hit. After his 2014 sophomore effort "A Million Ways to Die in the West," writer-director Seth MacFarlane still lacks discipline behind the camera, throwing so much at the wall that a sight gag here and a throwaway line there are bound to slide down like a loogie on a mirror. "Ted 2" still scrounges up comic mileage out of the same premise, and plenty of snickers and some hearty guffaws end up sticking. Despite more hit-and-miss vulgarity, it's hard to dislike.

Still residing in Boston and bonding (read: sharing bong hits) with childhood pal John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), talking plush bear Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) has just tied the knot with his gum-smacking tart girlfriend and grocery-cashier co-worker Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). After just a year, their relationship goes on the rocks. When they decide having a baby might just be the answer to their problems, the couple receives a letter from the government in response to their adoption. In their eyes, Ted is property, not a person, and as a result, Ted's marriage with Tami-Lynn will not be recognized by the state and thereby annulled. Enter 26-year-old junior associate Samantha L. Jackson (Amanda Seyfried)—yes, Sam L. Jackson, like the actor, even though she's not up on her pop culture or apparently has never seen a movie before—who has an interest in Ted's case, happens to smoke out of her own bong in the office to curb her headaches, and tries to salvage his civil rights.

As long as writer-director Seth MacFarlane and fellow co-writers Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild stick to peppering scenes with loopy non-sequiturs and wickedly cutting verbal interplay, "Ted 2" moves like comedic clockwork. Over the opening credits, a splashy Busby Berkeley-style dance number on a stage-sized wedding cake is spirited and impressively choreographed. A random cameo by Liam Neeson involving Trix cereal is very funny. A visual homage to "The Breakfast Club" is cute, but one to "Jurassic Park" has perfect timing. There is also an irrelevant bit at a comedy improv night where John and Ted both shout out inappropriate things. Potentially too-soon references to 9/11, Robin Williams, and Ferguson, MO, at a comedy improv show will uncomfortably amuse for the daring or just leave a bad taste in one's mouth. Again, with every hit, there is a miss. Ted's Paddington raincoat is a funny sight, but the whole joke with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady does not fare that well. Like something out of a Farrelly Brothers raunchfest or any one of the "American Pie" movies, there is a crass gross-out gag that could have been snipped altogether, considering it lends no payoff to Ted and Tami-Lynn having a child. Ted and John get into deep with some sperm bank hijinks, and the alleged shock of what happens to John can't be unseen, but it's more like the height of bad taste than hilarity. A dressed-as-The-Tick Patrick Warburton and his new partner ("Star Trek" vet Michael Dorn) take shots at geeks at New York's ComicCon convention; it's cruelly amusing the first time and tiresomely cruel the four times it's repeated.

Even when Ted is being a derogatory jerk, he maintains a fluffy cuteness, and the whole CG effect of a talking stuffed animal is still quite seamless. MacFarlane and Mark Wahlberg still share a likable chemistry and credible loyalty in their thunder-buddies-for-life friendship. With Mila Kunis' Laurie written out of the sequel (she and John divorced six months ago), Amanda Seyfried's Sam L. Jackson is the love interest here for Wahlberg. She is a loose, skilled comedienne in her own right and a game player. One would have to be the latter with the running digs at her big eyes, this being the second time her peepers work themselves into the script after her squandered participation in MacFarlane's "A Million Ways to Die in the West." Such gameness extends to even class-act Morgan Freeman, who's a good sport, but once he comes in as a civil rights attorney, the film has already begun stretching itself thin.

When we have to get back to the plot at hand, the more dramatic stretches in the courtroom scenes concerning Ted's personhood merely serve to underscore why a comedy like this should be much tighter. In "Ted," there was a very bizarre subplot involving a father (Giovanni Ribisi) kidnapping Ted for his son, and it brought the proceedings to a halt. The law of diminishing returns continues with that weird character of Donny, now working as a socially awkward janitor at Hasbro who creepily tells the CEO (John Carroll Lynch) about the fresh urinal cakes he installs. The subplot here is just inconsequential padding to this 115-minute comedy with no real bearing on the story. MacFarlane wants to have it both ways, or have his hash and eat it too, by treating Ted's fight for his personhood with sincerity but also throwing in as many base jokes about masturbation, porn, cannabis, and the like. It's a tough line to walk, but as long as MacFarlane keeps firing the irreverent jokes, one almost lets it slide that his storytelling acumen still has yet to develop. Shave off twenty-five minutes and "Ted 2" is a solidly diverting 90-minute comedy.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Couples' Night-in: "The Overnight" slight but surprising and nimbly acted

The Overnight (2015)
80 min., rated R.

As it should go with any film, "The Overnight" probably works best not knowing a thing about it and just taking this recommendation's word for it. You never know where it's going and you never mind being in the pleasure of only four characters. In his follow-up feature to his debuting found-footage horror film "Creep" (which is getting a Netflix release on July 14th), writer-director Patrick Brice spins 1966's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and 1969's "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" into a frank but uncomfortably amusing slice-of-life indie, a comedy for adults in the mumblecore mode. It goes to the edge without going too far, thwarts expectations and then sometimes plays right into them. There is squirm-inducing tension in the delightfully awkward humor and unpredictability of it all, but once the night comes to an end, there is also a bit of a slightness to what we're supposed to take away.

Uprooting from Seattle to Los Angeles, Alex (Adam Scott) and Emily (Taylor Schilling) are trying to keep their sex life alive, even with a young son, RJ (R.J. Hermes). They aren't only sexually frustrated, but they don't really know anyone and are looking for new friends, people whom they can relate to. In the park, they meet Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), a cool guy whose son Max (Max Moritt) hits it off with RJ, and welcomes the new couple over to his house for a playdate and pizza night. When they arrive, they meet Kurt's French wife Charlotte (Judith Godrèche) and have a relaxed dinner. Once they put the kids to bed, things between Emily and Alex and Kurt and Charlotte get free-wheeling and European as the night of "parental bliss" progresses. Could Kurt and Charlotte become the closest friends the new couple need?

Beautifully acted without exception by the perfectly cast foursome, "The Overnight" is just like spending a night over with Alex, Emily, Kurt and Charlotte. Adam Scott has always been a reliable straight man to the over-the-top goings-on in a comedy, and here as Alex, he gets to be fearless, particularly in a poolside-set scene where both he and Kurt bare their tiny and well-endowed prosthetics, respectively. By the end of the night, Alex has a catharsis, as he is able to let go of his insecurities. Taylor Schilling (Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black") turns out to be the film's secret weapon, proving herself to be a nimble reactionary performer, and as Emily, the actress makes her a smart woman who knows the night spent with Kurt and Charlotte is about to get weird and yet she's curious enough to see it through. Emily is most identifiable and just plain priceless in the way she reacts to the strange goings-on with Kurt and Charlotte, who might have looser definitions of friendship. As the adventurous Kurt, who casually shows Alex his abstract paintings of sphincters, Jason Schwartzman shines when it comes to seducing and keeping one on his or her toes. He is clearly up for anything, and as Kurt's wife Charlotte, an alternately effervescent and kooky Judith Godrèche gets up to his level.

Child-rearing putting a damper on the parents' sex life is not a novel idea, particularly in the arena of independent films. Set over the course of one evening, "The Overnight" is brisk at not even a full 80 minutes. Within that time, the film not only has one of the funnier scenes of full-frontal male nudity that isn't just mined for comedic shock. It also has something to say about uprooted marrieds trying to hold on to their fun, ready-to-party side and stretch their boundaries a bit to mitigate the stagnancy in their lives. Prizing character interactions over plot, writer-director Patrick Brice clearly loves all four of his characters and never judges either couple. From the start, the viewer is in the shoes of Alex and Emily, who aren't a normal couple by the conventional standards. The husband stays at home, and the wife is the bread winner. Once they (and, by the extension, we) first meet Kurt, there's something progressive and ingratiating about him when he welcomes the new couple to their house. There's a loose, conversational quality to the film, allowing the surprises to reveal themselves organically. Once the elephant in the room is out and the sun comes up, "The Overnight" feels like it could go on even longer than it does. Even if it won't be a night to remember forever, brevity is a good thing, and so is a sharp mix of insight and laughs.

Grade:

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Nag is Back: Tongue-in-cheek "Burying the Ex" doesn't quite mark Joe Dante's return

Burying the Ex (2015) 
89 min., rated R.

Save for 2009's fun, mischievous '90s-style suburban horror-adventure "The Hole" and his last theatrically released effort being 2003's underrated "Looney Tunes: Back in Action," director Joe Dante doesn't regularly make movies anymore. Even if the genre showman's latest isn't quite the reanimation of the kind of effects-laden horror comedy he honed so well1978's "Piranha," 1981's "The Howling," 1984's "Gremlins" and 1990's "Gremlins 2: The New Batch," and 1993's "Matinee""Burying the Ex" is a cheerfully morbid if inconsequential lark. It has all the elements to be macabre fun, with plenty of horror-movie in-jokes to pass around and a cameo from character actor Dick Miller, but if this really is Joe Dante in 2015, little of his gleefully demented personality bleeds through. Slim and one-note, the film has more of a situation than a story to tell, which wouldn't be such a deal-breaker if screenwriter Alan Trezza's script (based on his 15-minute 2008 short) were sharper and less obvious. 

Horror-loving Max (Anton Yelchin) regrets moving in with controlling, go-green girlfriend Evelyn (Ashley Greene). She doesn't respect his love for movie monsters, forces him to eat a vegan diet and be more environmentally conscious, but they have great sex. When he tries to dump her in a dog park, Evelyn gets hit by a truck on her way over to him and dies. Max actually mourns over his ex's death for a while, until things start to look up when he runs into Olivia (Alexandra Daddario), a pretty, down-to-earth ice-cream shop owner who shares his love for horror. Thanks to the evil magic of a Satan genie in the L.A. costume and horror-themed novelty store where Max works, Evelyn claws her way out of her grave and, despite her body decomposing, she's friskier than ever and wants to zombify him so they can be together forever. Love doesn't conquer all in this instance.

A well-cast Anton Yelchin and the warm, charismatic Alexandra Daddario (2015's "San Andreas") are a cute couple and excel together. Though Daddario's Olivia is "the other woman," she is the right one, but the undead Evelyn just keeps getting in the way. Max and Evelyn clearly weren't meant to be when she was alive and they are even less of a match when she's a zombie. If Olivia is an idealized dream girl, Evelyn is clearly the shrewish villain of the piece before she even starts craving brains and being infested with flies. The script tries for one attempt at humanity with Evelyn, who only has Max to call her family, but aside from that afterthought of a detail, she is a shrill, castrating and completely insufferable punchline. Ashley Greene (2014's "Wish I Was Here") is certainly game, playing the thankless role as poorly written as it is and having fun as one of the living dead. As the so-called comic relief, Oliver Cooper (2012's "Project X") is just obnoxious as Max's sign-twirling half-brother Travis, who uses his and Evelyn's apartment to bang chicks.

"Burying the Ex" certainly feels familiar to the ex-girlfriend-back-from-the-dead premise of 2014's "Life After Beth" and somewhat in tone to 2009's "Jennifer's Body," but this is a cartoonier beast that feels a bit stale by comparison. The film gets off to a dodgier start, dialogue too on the nose and the treatment of Evelyn carrying an air of casual misogyny and sexism, however, the tone is so tongue-in-cheek that it's easy enough to forgive. Also, the Satan genie is treated as a means to an end. Genre fans will still find a lot to like here. Max works at "Bloody Mary's Bootique Horror Shop," where he is required to greet customers with "Ghoul Morning" and say, "Go to Hell," when they leave. Max and Olivia share their love for "Cat People" and later go on a date to see "Night of the Living Dead" at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. There are the uncomfortably amusing gross-out gags (Evelyn vomits up embalming fluid and puts her body into some new, bone-cracking positions with yoga) and some mild, ticky-tacky gore. Dante also makes a fleetingly nice use of Phosphorescent's moving "Song for Zula" on the soundtrack. Akin to a zombified puppy that just wants to be loved, "Burying the Ex" is too likable to be shut down as a complete misfire, but as it comes from a genre expert such as Joe Dante, it sure is weak sauce.

Grade: C +

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Fault in Their Quirks: "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" too preciously cute for its own good

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) 
104 min., rated PG-13.

Premiering at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and earning a standing ovation, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" feels as if it were created in a Sundance Film Festival Darling lab. Audiences were so taken with the film that it even became the winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Done right, a little independent film can be a "Little Miss Sunshine" or a "Juno," but hyperbolic praise like "instant classic" for this one is a gross overstatement. "'The Fault in Our Stars' meets 'Be Kind Rewind' by way of Wes Anderson" must have been the logline for this coming-of-ager about leukemia and love for filmmaking, but as directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (2014's surprisingly effective "The Town That Dreaded Sundown") and adapted to the screen by Jesse Andrews from his 2012 novel, it isn't all that to deserve all of the critical backflips. There are things to like about it, but it's just too precious and cute for its own good.

The "me" of the title is Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a depressive, self-hating high school senior who's reluctant to apply to colleges and stays anonymous so he doesn't have to get close to anyone in any single clique. The closest he has to a friend without actually calling him his friend is Earl (RJ Cyler), a black teen living in a rough neighborhood. Greg and Earl are actually "co-workers," having made together over forty-two movies, all of which are spoofs of classic films that they have watched over the years in the office of his history teacher Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). When class acquaintance Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg's mother (Connie Britton) urges him to spend time with her and make a difference in someone's life. Rachel doesn't want Greg to pity her, but as soon as their offbeat senses of humor mesh, a friendship forms. It's also something that Greg makes Rachel the first person to ever see the films he's made with Earl, and the two aspiring filmmakers decide to make a movie just for Rachel once she begins her cancer treatment. Will the story end in love conquering all before it ends in tragedy?

Whimsical, droll and flippantly humored, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" so adamantly and transparently wants to be liked and congratulated, waving its hands at you from the screen so early and often that it ends up being a love-it-or-hate-it experience. Almost too self-consciously quirky and twee by a half to the point of annoyance, the film limits our emotional engagement from the very beginning with the frustrating Greg who can't seem to locate any sincerity or make any decisions for himself. At the same time, the film at least recognizes the self-involvement and angst of teenagers because Greg squarely fits into the "Me Me Me Generation." Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has already introduced himself as a promising filmmaker worth keeping an eye on with his remake of "The Town That Dreaded Sundown." His follow-up is just as assuredly made with fluid cinematography, from all of the Wes Anderson-ish whip pans and a dolly shot down the school cafeteria, to some of the precise details. Stop-motion animation interludes with a moose stomping on a chipmunk whenever high school looker Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) approaches Greg is vaguely amusing the first time, and there is one achingly powerful scene, shot in a single take in Rachel's bedroom after she has undergone her treatment. Chock-full of filmmaking aesthetic choices that will make movie geeks swoon, the film's style is so hopped up on quirky pills that it begins to feel cookie-cutter rather than inventive as was intended. Greg's unreliable voice-over narration and intertitles of Greg and Rachel's "doomed friendship" only serve to pat the film on its back for its own meta cleverness. Being self-aware and having the narrator comment on how we should lower our expectations about the romance we're supposed to invest in requires a certain skill. "So if this was a touching, romantic story, our eyes would meet and suddenly we'd be furiously making out with the fury of a thousand suns. But this isn't a touching romantic story," Greg quips. How it's handled here is cloying and emotionally manipulative. 

If Thomas Mann was more sensitive in 2012's otherwise raucous "Project X," he gets to be more naturalistic in the lead here as the not-so-likable Greg. When he directly talks to Rachel, it's only because his mom makes him to start hanging out with her and he lets Rachel know that. However, Mann does acquit himself quite well in playing a character who's not easy to warm up to at the start. Rachel, "the dying girl" of the title, is a sweet girl and not only by default because she's sick. As a teenage girl confronting her mortality too early in her life, Olivia Cooke (2014's "Ouija") is charming, exuding a lovely radiance and intelligence that's hard to resist. Initially, it's easy to see how the cynical viewer might view Rachel as a bit of a plot device than an actual character, but as her friendship with Greg grows, there are enough nuances in Rachel to count. Earl is the voice of reason, even if he says "titties" more than one needs to hear, and it's a testament to RJ Cyler's promise in his acting debut that his sidekick is much more likable than protagonist Greg. The adult actors get to play up the quirk quotient as if they're each playing in a different cartoonish homage to the John Hughes movies of the '80s. Within the one-note parameters of their poorly defined roles, Connie Britton and the perpetually deadpan Nick Offerman have their amusing moments as Greg's parentsshe's intrusive in her son's life but loves him, and he walks around the house in his bathrobe, either holding the family cat or offering strange delicacies. Molly Shannon is a bit better, both funny and affecting as Rachel's overly touchy lush of a mother Denise, who always opens the door with a drink in her hand, possibly as her own way of coping, and oddly calls Greg "yummy." Jon Bernthal, on the other hand, finds more recognizable humanity and depth as Greg and Earl's favorite teacher Mr. McCarthy, whose Vietnamese noodle soup may or may not give his two students an accidental high.

Who doesn't love a coming-of-ager that can still feel sweet and fresh? With an overwhelming quirkiness being the first half's albatross, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" at least starts to work better in chunks as it finally settles down and comes down to earth. Shot in Pittsburgh, the film makes terrific use of the working-class milieu and finds its own look even after the vastly superior Pittsburgh-set "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." Each of the awesomely "stupider" titles and snippets of Greg and Earl's horrible remade movies are clever and often earn the film's most inspired laughs. From everything in the Criterion collection, they knock off classic films with "A Sockwork Orange," "2:58 P.M. Cowboy," "Pooping Tom" and "Don't Look Now, Because a Creepy-Ass Dwarf is About to Kill You!!! Damn." Finally, the film allows the viewer to let down his or her guard by finishing with deeply felt emotion and ends up having an earnest, endearing heart. Not without its final grace notes and quick-witted amusements, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is still hardly the unmistakable crowd-pleaser that nearly everyone is calling it. Its head is too far up its own arse for that.

Grade: C +

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Killing Life: "Hungry Hearts" deceptively unnerves and hard to shake

Hungry Hearts (2015)
118 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Child-rearing drives the horror in "Hungry Hearts," writer-director Saverio Costanzo's deceptively unnerving drama that will keep new mothers on tenterhooks and put vegans on the defensive. It follows in a list of maternity nightmares—1968's "Rosemary's Baby," 2007's "Inside," 2009's "Grace," 2013's "Proxy," 2014's "The Babadook" and a very impressive short film with Gaby Hoffmann called "Lyle"—but the film is absorbing and provocative all on its own with varied performances. A grounded, unconventional horror drama about a parent's love, control and trust, based on Marco Franzoso's novel, "Hungry Hearts" treats motherhood (and fatherhood, too) as not only a gift but a poison. Beginning with an odd meet-cute and celebratory use of Irene Cara's "What a Feeling" at the characters' wedding reception, there is no way of knowing how it will all end up.

Before having a relationship and getting married, New York City engineer Jude (Adam Driver) and Italian embassy worker Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) meet cute as strangers when they both stuck in a Chinese restaurant bathroom. When Mina gets pregnant, the small-framed vegan appears underweight to the doctor. Mina then tells a psychic reading to heart when she is told that her child is an "indigo child." At first, Jude respects his wife's wishes for a natural water birth and her decision to not feed their son meat, until the boy comes down with a fever for two weeks. Having grown overprotective to the point that she doesn't trust medical professionals, Mina has kept their son inside for seven months without anyone monitoring the child's development or consulting their son's meat-free diet. Jude thinks his own wife is being unreasonable and unconsciously starving their son, so he begins taking the child out for walks and entering a church to secretly feed him ham in order to make him grow. From there, Mina's delusions worsen once Jude's estranged mother Anne (Roberta Maxwell) gets involved.

Writer-director Saverio Costanzo values the psychology of his two characters, aiming in on a grey area with equal measures of ambiguity and clarity. In what is essentially a two-characer piece before grandmother Anne enters the picture, Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher (2009's "I Am Love") do stunningly exceptional work as Jude and Mina, a married couple who don't see eye to eye with what their child needs. As he has shown outbursts of anger in both HBO's "Girls" and even a little in 2014's "This Is Where I Leave You," Driver holds in his rage for quite a while, walking on egg shells around his wife but still taking charge and doing what he sees as healthy and advantageous for his son. If that means losing Mina's trust in the process, then so be it. If Driver continues to ride the wave of indie cinema, he can fully tap into the gravitas he clearly has in him. Mina isn't exactly sympathetic from the viewer's eye, but Rohrwacher does not make her an evil villain, either. She is a mother bound by her beliefs, or perhaps delusions, clinging to her son to whom she's given life and never letting him out of her sight. Mina keeps having a dream about a deer being shot on the boardwalk of Coney Island, later turning into a counterpoint to Jude's mother's house with a deer head in the living room. Comparisons to Roman Polanski are welcome, but "Hungry Hearts" is chilling without seeming too heightened. There is a subtle use of orchestral strings that never allows Nicola Piovani's score to go hog-wild, "Psycho"-style, and Fabio Cianchetti's grainy digital cinematography uses a fish-eye lens to claustrophobic effect in Jude and Mina's apartment. In being not so easy to shake with plenty to ponder, "Hungry Hearts" is one of the best examples of telling a horror story without sensationalizing it. It's troubling and downright effective.

Grade: B + 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Sparing No Expense: "Jurassic World" a toothy, highly entertaining excursion of thrills and chills

Jurassic World (2015)
123 min., rated PG-13. 

In 1993, Steven Spielberg made his event-like blockbuster "Jurassic Park," based on Michael Crichton's novel. For those old enough to have witnessed seeing the movie for the first time on the big screen, the revolutionary special effects were truly special and able to take one's breath away. That quintessential dinosaurs-run-amok thriller still holds up today, but while nothing will ever have the same movie-magic impact as the original, the sequels were still all thrill machines in their own right. 1997's Spielberg-directed "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" was bloated but still fun with each cliff-hanging set-piece topping the last, and then 2001's "Jurassic Park III," directed by Joe Johnston, was just a trim, entertaining popcorn movie. Before finally coming to fruition, the long-gestating fourth installment, "Jurassic World," sat in Development Hell since 2004, but now twenty-two years after the first "Jurassic Park," it is here and it does not disappoint.

After the tragic events in 1993, "Jurassic World" is what would happen had Dr. John Hammond's (the late, great Richard Attenborough) Jurassic Park actually opened to the public, sparing no expense, and then inevitably went awry again. With the advances in science and a new frontier of gene splicing, Jurassic World is now a fully functioning theme park located on the remote Costa Rican island of Isla Nublar. It is overseen by operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who has the one-track determination to spike visitor attendance with an upcoming attraction bigger than the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the form of the "Indominus Rex," a genetically modified hybrid. What could possibly go wrong? When she requests navy man-turned-velociraptor wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to evaluate the new dinosaur before the exhibit opens in three weeks, he cautions her that she and her team have made a grave mistake. Naturally, once the killing-everything-that-moves asset is smart enough to tear out its own tracking impact and rampages out of containment closer to the park full of 22,000 guests. Unlucky for Claire, evacuating the park won't stop her two vacationing nephews, dino-loving Gray (Ty Simpkins) and girl-chasing older brother Zach (Nick Robinson) from being thrown into peril. Cue the running and screaming.

Making the leap from one modest indie (2012's "Safety Not Guaranteed") to a giant, Steven Spielberg-produced blockbuster property, director Colin Trevorrow pulls off the spirit of the first film with Spielberg's Amblin stamp all over it. Scripted by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes") and director Trevorrow & Derek Connolly (2012's "Safety Not Guaranteed"), the film economically sets up well-drawn, root-worthy characters and relationships from the get-go without ever losing sight of them, not unlike the original's Dr. Alan Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler, along with Lex and Tim. Trevorrow also allows us to drink in the awe-inspiringly conceived sights of the dream-come-true theme park from the point-of-view of the wide-eyed Gray and eventually Zach. SeaWorld, eat your heart out: Jurassic World offers a water show with an aquatic cross between a crocodile and a whale called the Mosasaurus. The mindful, scientifically conscious themes are still intact from the 1993 forefather, and the film believably establishes a world in which kids and their parents are now bored with the fossilized idea of dinosaurs, seeing them as elephants at the zoo, and wanting to see something bigger and scarier. Knowing far better than any of the geneticists in the park that making a new beast was only calling for trouble, his line, "They're dinosaurs. 'Wow' enough," sums up the film's awareness that humans will never learn.

Where it counts, though, "Jurassic World" fully delivers as a spectacularly mounted excursion of thrills and chills. One does wish that the film had opened up with more of a bang and not taken so long with the setup, but the wind-up of the first half-hour is akin to coasting up a roller-coaster hill before tension and danger are milked for all they're worth in a variety of expertly staged set-pieces. Take your pick. Gray and Zach climb aboard the gyrosphere ride, roaming free through a valley of plant-eaters in a hamster ball right after the ride closes, until they go off the beaten path and come face to face with the imposing new beast. Once the on-the-loose Indominus Rex crashes into an aviary dome, it unleashes every Pteranodon to swoop down onto the park's 20,000 guests. What happens to Zara (Katie McGrath), Claire's assistant and her nephews' makeshift babysitter, will leave audiences clapping their hands and giggling in giddy delight. In another armrest-clenching action sequence, Claire drives an emergency vehicle with her nephews in the back and the raptors gaining on them. The big climactic showdown is also bound to raise hairs and gives 2014's "Godzilla" competition for the most fun-to-watch monster beatdown.

Between this as Owen Grady and "Guardians of the Galaxy" as Peter Quill/Star-Lord, Chris Pratt has what it takes to be the strapping, hunky, square-jawed hero in everything with his likable charisma and athleticism. He is the smartest man in the room and understands the dinosaurs, but he's also just damn cool, selling the potentially goofy sight of riding alongside the highly intelligent raptors. As icy as her white work suit, Bryce Dallas Howard's Claire often reminds of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's" Willie Scott (played by Kate Capshaw), but she's never a ninny. In the face of rather impressively never taking off her heels when running for her life, she convincingly actualizes her arc from chilly, opportunistic businesswoman to warm, selfless aunt and badass. Even if her potential romance with Pratt's Owen feels a bit shoehorned, there is a touching scene between them when they sit with a dying Apatosaurus that one can just read every ounce of guilt for playing God on Howard's face. Nick Robinson (2013's "The Kings of Summer") and Ty Simpkins (2013's "Insidious: Chapter 2") are also quite good in selling their life-threatening adventure, while making time for their brotherly bond that brings them closer during emotional heights, along with knowing that their parents (Judy Greer, Andy Buckley) at home are on the verge of a divorce. Bringing his usual personality to a role that could have been a throwaway, Jake Johnson crushes it as goofy control-room staffer Lowery, who bought a vintage "Jurassic Park" T-shirt for $150 on eBay, and shares an amusing rapport with Lauren Lapkus' Vivian. Irrfan Khan and Omar Sy bring ethnic equality as park owner Simon Masrani and Owen's fellow raptor trainer Barry, respectively. B.D. Wong is the one welcome face who wasn't eaten up from the original film as geneticist Henry Wu. His memorable line, "We're just used to being the cat," helps explain his motivations for upping the "wow" factor with the Indominus Rex. Vincent D'Onofrio gets one revealing moment when he tells a story about a dog that could break him of his one-dimensionality, but mostly, his security head Vic Hoskins is just another cardboard villain with ulterior motives involving the raptors.

In these contemporary times where viewers are desensitized by CGI over practical effects, "Jurassic World" has just enough doozies. Nothing can ever erase the extraordinary animatronics of the entrance of the T-Rex breaking out of its paddock or the velociraptors-in-the-kitchen sequence from the first film, but why should anything have to try and beat those untouchable sequences? Director Trevorrow and his visual artists come damn close, having a field day with keeping the excitement at a fever pitch. The magic is still here, able to recapture the astounding illusion that once-extinct dinosaurs occupy the planet again, and Michael Giacchino's rousing score beautifully incorporates John Williams' classic theme, finding a warm and fuzzy feeling in the hearts of fans. There are nostalgic callbacks that won't alienate the less avid "Jurassic Park" moviegoers and will be left to the fans to experience on their own. In the running to be the summer's most purely entertaining event, "Jurassic World" is the best kind of popcorn muncher that could be accused of being too much fun if that were an actual crime. As it should, it honors its first predecessor and digs up more than enough bite of its own. Hold on to your butts, indeed.

Grade: B +

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Bro Show: Unironically vapid "Entourage" for fans only

Entourage (2015)
104 min., rated R.

If you were only a casual viewer who caught a handful of episodes or have never caught on to the appeal of HBO's eight-season-long series "Entourage" (2004-2011), the film expansion probably won't garner much fanfare. Like the network's counter-programming for "Sex and the City," the show was loosely based on executive producer Mark Wahlberg's real-life experiences as an up-and-comer. Creator Doug Ellin (1998's "Kissing a Fool") writes and directs this big-screen continuation but has turned it into an unironically vapid, self-indulgent, wheel-spinning shell of its former self with nothing more to tell and with nowhere left to go with these characters, at least not here. With more douchiness and misogyny than you can shake a stick at, "Entourage" is a vicarious celebration of the easy-breezy male-fantasy lifestyle, even though the show seemed to be smarter than that, part-satirical, part-authentic while allowing us to eventually care about fictional actor Vince Chase and his entourage of bros. These guys had a good run, but their greatest hits have failed exponentially in transitioning to the silver screen.

Previously on "Entourage"… Annulling his rushed marriage after just nine days, Vince Chase (Adrian Grenier) is living the high life in Ibiza, Brazil, on his yacht full of hot women with his entourage. He gets a call from Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), his bad-tempered former agent who's now a studio head and offers to give Vince a starring role and the chance to direct. Eight months later, Ari is bankrolling the project"Hyde," a $100 million futuristic tentpole version of "Jekyll and Hyde"through Texan billionaire investor Larsen McCredle (Billy Bob Thornton). Vince requests an additional $10 million for his already-over-budget passion project, so Ari has to fly McCredle's rotten son Travis (Haley Joel Osment) to L.A. to make sure his father is spending his money on something worthwhile. When Travis sees the rough cut of Vince's film, he takes plenty of notes, particularly the desire to cut Vince's 40-year-old half-brother, struggling actor Johnny "Drama" (Kevin Dillon), who was banking on his four scenes in "Hyde" to give him the recognition he thinks he deserves. Meanwhile, Eric "E" (Kevin Connolly) sleeps around while tending to on-again-now-off-again girlfriend Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui), who's pregnant with his child, and laid-back driver Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) enjoys the luxurious life he's earned from the tequila brand he developed with Mark Cuban and tries romancing MMA fighter Ronda Rousey. These bros have yet to change and never will.

The stylishly shot and edited title sequence, the cast and crew's names standing out on buildings across the glossy La-La-Land milieu and cued up to Jane's Addiction's now-culturally recognizable "Superhero," suggests a better time than one is actually in for. Within the eight seasons, the characters were more palatable and had more time to grow, so why this time is everyone such a self-involved, charmless jackass? Not that much time has passed. There are enough subplots and celebrity cameos galoreincluding Bob Saget, Jessica Alba, Armie Hammer, Andrew Dice Clay, Warren Buffett, David Spade, Liam Neeson, and there's much more where that came fromto fill five binge-watched episodes, but the writing lacks bite or even insight, the storylines are insipid and dramatically flat, and the entire thing just feels unnecessary. The "A" story here is a complete and utter misfire. It doesn't help matters that it centers on Vince's directorial debut, "Hyde," which in one clip looks abysmal, like an overpriced, overdirected Bod Man Body Spray commercial with Vince playing an EDM DJ with glowing eyes in a futuristic city. When Ari actually sits down to watch a screener of it, one does not anticipate his actual reaction to be him gushing over it, using words like "amazing," "masterpiece" or an "Oscar contender." Um, what? It's not only impossible to buy, but mistakenly says something about how out-of-touch the entertainment industry might be. Even the payoff with Texan co-financier Larsen and skeevy son Travis seems trivial.

As "Entourage" leader Vince Chase, Adrian Grenier is still more credible as a playboy who will never settle down with one hot model than a superstar with genuine acting talent (which Ari detected in an old Mentos commercial). Even so, Vince gets lost in his own story. Being the alleged moral center in the show, Kevin Connolly's E is now the worst and the most objectionable here. Even though he and Sloan are broken up but having a baby together, E sleeps with two women within 24 hours, only to be blindsided by both of them (and hooray for them). It was nice seeing Kevin Dillon come into his own as Johnny "Drama," the role of an older struggling actor that mirrors Dillon living in the shadow of his brother Matt, but his piggish, buffoonish shtick now feels abrasive and more groan-inducing than ever. Jerry Ferrara, as the amiable, now-svelte Turtle, is a warmer individual who would be spared if one could punch all of these male characters in their faces. His pursuit of Ronda Rousey (who's no less stiff playing herself) is cute enough, but it just takes up time without going anywhere that matters. Finally, Jeremy Piven is the source of what makes "Entourage," the movie, more watchable than not. He owns the role of Ari Gold, and his cutting barbs and angry tantrums, as well as one of his couch sessions with wife Melissa (Perrey Reeves) and their therapist (Nora Dunn), earn the most chuckles. As for the endearing Rex Lee as Ari's former punching-bag assistant Lloyd, he gets stuck as an afterthought, spending his time trying to get Ari to give him away at his wedding to his soon-to-be-husband (Greg Louganis). For a film about the best of entitled friends, it has no room for women, unless they are bikini-clad sex dolls on yachts, carrying a child, or being one-half at marriage counseling. The stunningly beautiful and charismatic Emmanuelle Chriqui deserves better than being a baby factory, Sloan's pregnancy ultimately bringing the gang together for the climax, and the nuances in her relationship with E are thinned out. Also, the always-terrific Debi Mazar is made a face in the crowd, none of her lines memorable enough to register as sharp-tongued press agent Shauna Roberts.

All of the so-called surprises will be kept under lock-and-key, but the biggest surprise of all is how far writer-director Doug Ellin has jumped the shark. What can be positively noted is that everyone on screen actually looks pleased to be here, which is always nice, and the fans will probably dig the return of their now-defunct show on a bigger screen. With that said, if 2008's "Sex and the City" and 2014's "Veronica Mars" worked better as their own stand-alone films, "Entourage" seems only exclusively for fans. Never as funny as it thinks it is and not very enlightening as an insider-Hollywood piece, "Entourage" is occasionally bailed out by watching the cast, especially Piven, but it's hard to care when we're in the company of annoyingly static people and their stale problems. Better at being pure fan service than an actual film, it will probably satisfy the faithful, and you know who you are. The rest of us aren't invited.

Grade:

Bad Blood: "The Stranger" puts one through a dull slog

The Stranger (2015)
93 min., not rated (equivalent to an R).

Unless Eli Roth is directing (and thank goodness "The Green Inferno" has just been reclaimed a theatrical release for this September), the words "Eli Roth Presents" can either be a selling point or just discouraging.  With that said, he must see something in Uruguayan writer-director Guillermo Amoedo (who co-wrote the 2013 Chilean disaster-movie "Aftershock," the upcoming "The Green Inferno" and the not-yet-released "Knock Knock" with Roth), but "The Stranger," his follow-up to 2010's "Retorno," delivers less than it promises. Far too morose and sullen for its own good, the film is just not as noteworthy as one might have hoped with Roth's approval. Humorlessness is not a deal-breaker, as some films can be bleakly effective, but 'The Stranger" is grim and pared-down to a fault, so largely uneventful that it becomes a deadly serious slog to watch. And, what's more, it's more dull than creepy. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade:

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

DVD/Blu-ray: "Project Almanac's" fun potential goes traveling down the tubes

Project Almanac (2015)
106 min., rated PG-13.

"Project Almanac" must have known it wasn't ready for release, considering it was once named "Welcome to Yesterday" and slated for a February 2014 release. Disabuse yourself of the notion that this "time-travel movie for teens" will be as smart and clever as "Primer," "Looper," or even "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" (the former of which is mentioned and the latter glimpsed on a computer screen) and it will be passable as kid stuff. Aside from probably satisfying its demo audience, the film won't blaze any trails, and for a found-footage sci-fi thriller, "Project Almanac" has nothing on 2012's more-thrilling, more-emotionally potent "Chronicle." Like another found-footage pic with "Project" in the title—2012's "Project X"this is a wish-fulfillment yarn that will mostly be seen as "cool" for teens. 

Accepted into a physics fellowship at MIT, brainy Georgia high school senior David Raskin (Jonny Weston) realizes he won't have the necessary financial aid. In no time, his widowed mother (Amy Landecker) puts their house on the market. Then when David and snarky sister Christina (Ginny Gardner) find their late engineer father's old camcorder in the attic, David spots his 17-year-old self in the mirror at his seventh birthday party. This leads to Christina filming everything here on out and David bringing along geeky pals Quinn (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista). The four of them further investigate to understand the strange logic of the footage and snoop around the Raskin kids' father's basement workspace, only to find what looks like a time machine locked away in the floor. With the use of a car battery from David's dream girl Jessie (Sofia Black-D'Elia), they all soon start testing out time travel, going back three weeks and harmlessly changing situations. It's not until David decides to make the jump alone that he causes a ripple effect to keep his relationship with Jessie.

Directed by first-timer Dean Israelite and scripted by Jason Pagan and Andrew Deutschman, "Project Almanac" seems like more of a wasted opportunity than a total wash. The setup is cool, as the trial-and-error experiment with David and his pals begins as all fun and games. It operates on teenage everyman logic, posing the question of What would you do with a time machine? To excuse the reason why David nixes the idea of going back and killing Hitler, the machine only allows them to go back three weeks at first. David imagines the possibilities, calling their creation a "second chance machine," so what do they do? They all make a pact to solely use it for personal gain: Quinn takes a couple of tries to ace a periodic table presentation for chemistry class; Christina stands up to her bitchy bully; they all cheat the lottery; and they buy tickets on eBay to attend the Lollapalooza music festival to see Imagine Dragons and Atlas Genius in concert. These kids' priorities are so off, forcing the more discerning viewer to roll his or her eyes, but the film hopes you won't notice. The characters are a likable bunch, at least before they become short-sighted in altering the little things that won't matter past high school and ignore the bigger problems that are of the life-or-death variety. When they realize their time-jumping has spiraled out of control and caused a tragedy, everyone but David wants to stop playing God, all because of a girl who liked him from the beginning anyway. Jonny Weston (2014's "Kelly & Cal") is more prom king than physics nerd as David, but he carries most of the film acceptably. Of the rest of the characters playing David's friends, Sofia Black-D'Elia is an appealing find, bringing the most empathy to Jessie.

As for the handheld-video conceit, "Project Almanac" is never beholden to any consistency in order to make such a format work. It can enhance the horror and sci-fi genre, grounding what is sometimes otherworldly or fantastical. Here, it does the story few favors, adding little to a time-travel adventure that might have been better if shot in a traditional way. We get the requisite "from now on, film everything" line, but it's a sloppy, inconsistent indication when slickly audible (and non-diegetic) alternative music plays over a montage and shots are cut together perfectly. Then again, the aesthetic choice is the least of the film's problems. After a decent first half, the rest of the film reaches for emotional weight with an initially sweet but pretty featureless teen romance. Even past that, the narrative paradoxes become so convoluted to the point of being confusing and forgettable with what is actually happening to the point of just not caring anymore. Not for the better, the MTV-produced "Project Almanac" seems to have been written by 17-year-olds.

Grade:

Old House, New Blood: "We Are Still Here" an atmospheric, climactically bloody '70s throwback

We Are Still Here (2015)
84 min., not rated (but equivalent of an R).

With the exciting renaissance of modern horror films (i.e. 2014's "The Babadook," "Starry Eyes," "Housebound," and 2015's "It Follows"), the best kind being independently produced and not by a studio giant, one wonders when the next one will come. True-blue horror fans can stop waiting because "We Are Still Here" is a macabre little gem, if not quite perfect. Debuting writer-director Ted Geogeghan displays a reverence for 1970s horror and a definite soft spot for Lucio Fulci, enough to become a new name to be remembered alongside the current indie horror champions, like Adam Wingard ("You're Next" and "The Guest") and Ti West ("The House of the Devil," "The Innkeepers" and "The Sacrament"). Like an old, musty, familiar house that gets a nice dusting and lets some light in, "We Are Still Here" is fortunately more than just a pastiche but an unpredictably crafted piece of down-home horror that's actually set in the '70s (based on a concept by Richard Griffin).

Reeling from the death of their son Bobby in a car accident, middle-aged Paul (Andrew Sensenig) and Annie Sacchetti (Barbara Crampton) move out of the city and into a creaky old house in the sleepy, wintry New England town of Aylesbury. The pain is still fresh for Annie, who starts to feel the presence of Bobby in their new home, but Paul is more skeptical. When neighbor Dave McCabe (Monte Markham) and quiet wife Cat (Connie Neer) come knocking at the Sacchettis' door one evening, Paul and Anne get an earful about "the darkness" in their present home, a turn-of-the-century funeral parlor run by the disturbed, grave-robbing Dagmar family that now demands sacrifices. Once their new-agey friends, clairvoyant May (Lisa Marie) and stoned-out Jacob Lewis (Larry Fessenden), arrive to keep them company, Annie starts to realize the energy in the house is not her son and something just isn't right in the town.

Conceived by contempo schlock-meister Richard Griffin and scripted by director Ted Geogeghan, "We Are Still Here" is not merely a boo machine. With more atmosphere than you can shake a stick at—and much of the horror exists during the daytime—the film deliberately gathers tension out of the bloody past in a hundred-year-old house and melancholy from parental grief over a child's death. While most horror films today are about a younger set, "We Are Still Here" centers on mature protagonists, filled by acting veterans Andrew Sensenig and Barbara Crampton. Sensenig wisely underplays the unconvinced Paul, while Crampton (the scream queen known for 1985's "Re-Animator," 1986's "From Beyond" and "Chopping Mall," and 2011's "You're Next") is a bit uneven, her motherly grief ringing raw and true but some of her line readings coming off quite stiff. Monte Markham raises his voice without overacting to unbelievable degrees as town elder Dave McCabe, and for some welcome humor, Lisa Marie and low-budget horror filmmaker/actor Larry Fessenden lend loopy support as Annie's hippie friends. The latter also gets to sell a possession scene with a gnarly end.

Director Ted Geogeghan and cinematographer Karim Hussain's (2012's "Antiviral") offer potent scares in the sense of foreboding, the use of silence, and an evocative, telling mise-en-scène. They never waste one inch of the frame, forcing the viewer to check every corner for one of the ghouls. The infernal nightmares that haunt the house are done in the way of "The Fog"John Carpenter's 1980 original, not the laughably tacky remake—lurking in the darkness and then making their presence really count each time they come around the living. For a slow-burn, the film still remains skittishly tense and ends with a bang. A creepy set-piece involves May and Jacob's son Harry (Michael Patrick), Bobby's old college roomie, and his girlfriend (Kelsea Dakota), hanging out at the house and checking out the hot cellar—but not for long—while their folks have dinner in town. There is also a solid seat-jumping, gasp-inducing moment where Paul wakes up to the shadows of two feet on the other side of his bedroom door. Finally, the third act culminates in a weapon-wielding siege and an eruptive, dementedly gore-drenched Grand Guignol of messy, all-hell-breaking-loose splatter before ending on a note of touchingly cathartic ambiguity. "We Are Still Here" is one that demands attention.

Grade: