The Mitchells vs. the Machines


Cellphone armageddon.

(2021) Animated Feature (Netflix/Columbia) Starring the voices of Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Chrissy Teigan, John Legend, Charlyne Yi, Blake Griffin, Conan O’Brien, Doug the Pug, Jay Pharaoh, Melissa Sturm, Doug Nicholas, Jeff Rowe, Madeleine McGraw, Ellen Wightman, Sasheer Zarmata. Directed by Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe

 
We have let the tech genii out of the bottle, like it or not. The generations that have grown up with in the digital age are more comfortable looking at a smartphone screen than they are into the eyes of another human being. I suppose that might be perceived as a knock, but at the risk of being offensive, it’s just an expression of the way things are. Whether you think that’s a good thing, a bad thing or not a thing at all, it is the way it is.

Katie (Jacobson) is a proud online card-carrying member of the smartphone generation. An aspiring filmmaker, her joy comes from making short comedy films starring the family pug (Romé lives!) which eventually gets her accepted into the filmmaking school at CalArts (not for nothing, but that is the alma mater of many of the heavyweights in modern computer animation, as well as my own sister who is a graphic designer).

Predictably, her pragmatic father (McBride) doesn’t understand her – “You can make a living at that?” he asks incredulously when informed of his daughter’s intended major – which his wife (Rudolph) gently (or maybe not so gently) nudges him in the direction of spending time with his daughter before losing her forever. His solution is to drive his little girl to college as a family road trip, which he doesn’t realize is stressing her out because she will lose time getting oriented with her new tribe with whom she has already connected with online.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley where the chips always land where they may, PAL CEO Mark (André) is unveiling a new AI replacing the old one (Colman) who doesn’t take kindly to being cast aside. She decides to take matters into her own non-existant hands and reprograms a fleet of service robots to capture humans and imprison them in “fun pods,” conquering the Earth in the name of Big Tech. I imagine a few QAnon believers might think this could actually happen.

The family is blissfully unaware of all that is happening until they see fleets of robots kidnapping humans and realize that the apocalypse isn’t going to be brought about by zombies, but by robots. That’s right, pop culture fans – Robert Kirkman lied to you. Get over it. As it turns out that they become one of the last few families that hasn’t been captured and of course, one of mankind’s last remaining hopes when Katie figures out a kill code that could shut down the technology overthrow. But can they input it into the system in time?

It is perhaps ironic that a movie exhibiting a healthy distrust of technology is told in computer animataion on an online streaming platform. To be fair, the movie was meant to come out in theaters, but the coronavirus ad other plans. After a couple of delays and title changes, the movie was finally sold to Netflix and released online this past April (assuming you’re reading this before March 31, 2022). However, that might be fitting in that the clear target audience for the movie is the ones who feel more comfortable streaming movies at home rather than actually going to a movie theater.

The movie is full of pop culture references ranging from Furbies to Star Wars to Greta Gerwig to SNL. Although PAL is meant to be an amalgam of Apple and Amazon (a terrifying thought if ever there was one). It also has fanboy cred in that is produced by the white hot duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller who neither wrote nor directed this, although their influence on the film is as plain as the nose on my face.

The main drawback here is that other than Colman, who seems to be having the time of her life as the homicidal AI, most of the voice cast is oddly subdued and bland which considering the kind of cast they have is mystifying. There are some real laugh-out-loud funny moments but other okes may leave you flat. They are exploring a real disconnect between generations, and things that millennials and younger viewers will get may fly over the heads of older viewers and vice versa. And perhaps that is part of the movie’s overall point.

I have to admit I was left a little bit cold by all of this, although I grant you that perhaps I was not in the right space to watch this movie. It HAS been a big critical success, although the numbers released by Netflix don’t have it necessarily up there with some of the other would-be theatrical releases that were forced into streaming platforms when it became clear that it would not be getting a favorable release date anytime soon, and a movie like this has a definite shelf life – many of the references and depictions here will be archaic by the time 2022 comes along and I won’t even consider how dated it will seem in five years. But that’s just the nature of the world we live in now.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is occasionally breathtaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: The voice cast is surprisingly lackluster.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of kidflick action and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alex Hirsch, creator of Gravity Falls, was a story consultant for the film. Rowe and Rianda both directed for the series.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Goodbye Honey

Alien: Covenant


Speaking of illegal aliens….

(2017) Sci-Fi Horror (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich, Lorelei King (voice), Goran D. Kleut, Andrew Crawford, Javier Botet, James Franco, Guy Pearce, Noomi Rapace. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

Back in 1979, movie posters and trailers proclaimed that “In space no-one can hear you scream” and a classic of science fiction was born, one that changed the entire genre. Alien still reverberates as one of the most influential sci-fi movies of all time.

In this sequel to Prometheus a colony ship called the Covenant suffers a fire that sweeps through the colonist sleep chambers killing the captain (Franco). Taking over is Orem (Crudup), a religious sort who is a bit on the indecisive side. Despite the objections of the Captain’s widow and second officer Daniels (Waterston), the new captain decides to take the crippled Covenant to a planet from which a distress signal is coming – one that incongruously takes the form of John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

Orem takes a team including their android Walter (Fassbender) who is of a similar model to David from Prometheus and Tennessee (McBride), Lope (Bichir) and Karine (Ejogo). They find a beautiful paradise with a disturbing apparent lack of animal and insect life but there are strange alien spores that once they get into a human system hatch nasty little alien neomorphs – a colony of which soon makes their presence known. The neomorphs seem to be not unlike velociraptors only angrier.

Taking refuge in an abandoned city, they discover to their surprise David, the last survivor of the Prometheus incident and David has plans – plans that aren’t going to be so good for the surviving members of the reconnaissance mission.

The big knock against the movie has been that the plot is too close to the first movie but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. If you’re going to take your plot from a movie, you could do a lot worse. There are some other things that I have issues with but more on that later.

Fassbender has the dual role of the innocent Walter and the devious David and he plays both quite well. Through the magic of CGI the two Fassbenders interact and even kiss – a homoerotic moment that nobody had ever even conceived before although it may well have been simply irresistible to an actor’s ego to seduce himself.

McBride, not one of my favorite actors to date, delivers his best performance ever and shows some real screen charisma that I hadn’t seen in him before but now that I think about it, I think he always had but just hadn’t found the right cinematic vehicle for it. I hope this leads to some new sorts of roles for McBride in the near future.

Scott, now pushing 80, still can direct an action sequence like few others in cinematic history. There’s a battle between Daniels and a xenomorph on a loader ship that really ranks up there among the best in the franchise history and certainly one of the best this year. Waterston is not really known as an action actress but she definitely channels Sigourney Weaver in that sequence and others throughout the film.

Some of the CGI looked unfinished as if the effects houses ran out of time before the deadline and the producers just plugged in what they had. That was a little distressing particularly since Scott has shown comfort with CGI going back to Gladiator and used it well in Prometheus and The Martian as well.

My main issue here is the script. It’s a bit convoluted and at times long-winded. There are also way too many characters here, most of which exist to get picked off by the alien. That gives the movie a bit of a slasher mentality despite the trappings of a fairly intellectual science fiction epic. They may as well have named all of the characters save Fassbender and Waterston “Lieutenant Deadmeat” although I will say not all of them meet a grisly end at the hand of the creature.

Scott has hinted that there will be another prequel (and possibly two) that will tie directly to the first film. At one time that would be exciting news but frankly the franchise feels a little tired here. It could be that the director has wisely figured out that the xenomorph has essentially run its course (his original idea was to steer the series off in a different direction but the studio wouldn’t allow it) but it also could be that Scott needs to pass the torch to someone who could revitalize the series much like James Cameron did with Aliens. I certainly wouldn’t object.

REASONS TO GO: The loader fight sequence is spectacular and the action sequences are well-done overall. Fassbender delivers a fine dual performance and McBride is impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is convoluted and overpopulated with unnecessary characters. Some of the CGI wasn’t up to the standards of the other films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and gore, profanity and some sexuality and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Alien film to be released after the death of H.R. Giger who designed the original alien xenomorph.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien3
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Logan Lucky

New Releases for the Week of May 19, 2017


ALIEN COVENANT

(20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Callie Hernandez. Directed by Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott returns to the Alien franchise with an all-new prequel to the original. A colony ship, the Covenant, is on its way to a planet across the galaxy and thought to be paradise. However when they arrive they find the planet strangely devoid of animal life and a previously unknown spaceship crash landed on the surface. As you can imagine, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that there is a life form on the planet, something entirely malevolent and that they will be in for the fight of their lives to escape.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo, a prequel video and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity)

Buster’s Mal Heart

(Well Go USA) Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Lin Shaye, Kate Lyn Shell. A troubled man hides from the authorities in summer homes to avoid the cruel winters of Montana. Estranged from his family, his encounter with a conspiracy-obsessed drifter left him in a state of paranoia, preparing for an event known only as “The Inversion.” How much of his paranoia is real and how much is a product of his imagination is anyone’s guess. This played last month’s Florida Film Festival to much acclaim.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

(20th Century Fox) Alicia Silverstone, Tom Everett Scott, Charlie Wright, Jason Drucker. The Hefley family takes a road trip. The world is disinterested.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some rude humor)

Everything, Everything

(Warner Brothers/MGM) Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Ana de la Reguera. A beautiful young girl with an auto-immune disorder has spent her entire life in a hermetically sealed home. The slightest contact with the outside world could prove fatal. Dreaming of one day seeing the ocean with her own eyes, she falls in love with the new boy next door. Together, the two scheme to risk everything for that one perfect day – that could cost them both everything.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Young Adult Romance
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief sensuality)

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent

(The Orchard) Jeremiah Tower, Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Martha Stewart. Tower is one of the most influential chefs of his time. Bourdain, a friend and admirer of Tower, produced this documentary which not only explores the life of the chef but also of the forces that shaped his culinary journey and not only  changed his life but also the way all of us see dining in general.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language)

The Angry Birds Movie


Flipping the bird.

Flipping the bird.

(2016) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Peter Dinklage, Sean Penn, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate McKinnon, Tony Hale, Hannibal Buress, Ike Barinholtz, Tituss Burgess, Ian Hecox, Anthony Padilla, Billy Eichner, Danielle Brooks, Blake Shelton, Jillian Bell, Charli XCX. Directed by Fergal Reilly and Clay Kaytis

 

When does a movie become a marketing tool? In the case of The Angry Birds Movie, right now. It’s based on the stupid popular Rovio Games smartphone app Angry Birds which has spawned a crapload of sequel games, a cartoon series and enough merchandise to fill in the Grand Canyon.

Bird Island is a kind of idyllic place where hugs are for sale (but the first one is always free). The birds here all have special abilities but for Red (Sudeikis) that ability seems to be losing his temper. Orphaned before he hatched, he simply grew up with a chip on his shoulder…err, wing. Working as a clown for kid’s parties was probably the wrong career choice for him. After encountering a client who irritated him, he gets into trouble with the law.

Once he gets into court, the Judge (Key) sentences him to anger management classes. The classes are conducted by Matilda (Rudolph) who has her hands full with Red’s classmates. Chuck (Gad) is a mile-a-minute talker who is the Angry Bird counterpart to Speedy Gonzalez. He doesn’t do well with authority figures and has a bit of an attitude problem. Bomb (McBride) is a bit nicer but he has a habit of exploding (literally) whenever he gets angry. Finally there’s Terence (Penn) who’s huge and intimidating (and looks like he could be Red’s father) but only communicates in a series of grunts and snorts.

Into this idyllic paradise comes a huge ship that crashes right into Red’s house (typical). It is manned by a bunch of green pigs, led by King Leonard (Hader) who sounds like a Southern football coach but is all ham. He is bringing all sorts of entertainment and fun for the island, in return his people get to enjoy the benefits of visiting as tourists. The leadership of Bird Island is all for it but Red is much more suspicious. He can’t believe that these guys can’t be up to no good. And he’s right.

They’re after the eggs of the Birds – the unborn children. And when they take the eggs back to their own island with the intention of eating them, it means war. But who will lead the birds in their hour of need? Need you even ask?

The animation is a little more sophisticated than what you get in the game, but lovers of the game will appreciate that lots of the game play elements can be found in the movie, some of which are disguised in sneaky ways. Even casual players will get a kick out of it and I’ll admit that these little insides work well overall in the movie.

Now full disclosure – I saw this movie in France and in French and so I can’t comment on the voice performances of the American version. I can say that the movie was a lot funnier than I expected – quite frankly my expectations were pretty low, but there are some sequences that are pretty Loony Tune-ish to the max. There is no higher compliment can I think of for an animated feature than that, by the way.

On the flip side, the plot is essentially an explanation as to why the birds are so angry and quite frankly, it’s a bit weak. Parents may also want to consider that this is a movie that promotes violence as a solution which may not necessarily be a lesson they want to pass on to their kids. Then again, the old Looney Tunes did the same thing and it didn’t do my generation any harm…what, almost 15 years of unceasing war? Never mind.

REASONS TO GO: Incorporates elements of the game in clever ways. A lot funnier than I thought it was going to be.
REASONS TO STAY: Kind of a weak plot. Mean-spirited.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor and a little animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Terrence doesn’t say a single line of dialogue during the movie, other than an occasional grunt (voiced by Penn). However, he does sing (not Penn).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bug’s Life
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Alice Through the Looking Glass

This is the End


Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel discover that The World's End is opening after their film.

Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel discover that The World’s End is opening after their film.

(2013) Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Channing Tatum, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, Rihanna, David Krumholtz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, Martin Starr, Samantha Ressler, Jason Segel, Catherine Kim Poon, Anna Rekota. Directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen   

 

This is the end

beautiful friend

Of our elaborate plans, the end

Of everything that stands, the end

Can you picture what will be

limitless and free

And all the children are insane.

                 – Jim Morrison

The apocalypse is very much on our minds this summer. Perhaps it was because the world was supposed to end last year (and maybe it did and nobody told the rest of us). Be that as it may, there are a bunch of movies out there (or about to come out) that have the end of days as a plot point.

This one comes from Pineapple Express co-writers Rogen and Goldberg (who in addition to co-directing this one also co-wrote it) who rope in fellow Express star Franco in a movie in which most of the actors are playing Bizarro-world versions of themselves.

Baruchel lands at LAX where he is met by good friend Rogen. Their friendship goes back to when they were both struggling comics in Canada. Baruchel is looking forward to a weekend hanging out with his good friend who supplies them both with copious video games on an HD 3D TV, all of Jay’s favorite snacks and of course ample amounts of weed.

Rogen drags a reluctant Baruchel to a housewarming party at Franco’s home which can best be described as a pretentious post-modern bunker. It turns out he has a creepy kind of friendship with Rogen, which Baruchel doesn’t appreciate. He also doesn’t like most of the people at the party, particularly Hill who seems sweet and giving (and whom everyone seems to adore) but for some reason Baruchel has real enmity towards.

There are plenty of celebrities there – a coke-snorting, butt-slapping Cera who Kaling wants to do the horizontal fandango with, a rapping Robinson who wears the name of his new rap song on a t-shirt and several other young stars, mostly from the comedy community. However, the party abruptly ends when a massive earthquake hits the L.A. area, opening fissures in the earth. Baruchel witnesses people ascending to the sky in a strange blue light but nobody believes him – Baruchel thinks it’s the apocalypse while the survivors who ran back into the house (after watching one of the stars get skewered by a street lamp and dragged down into the bowels of the earth) – Franco, Rogen, Hill, Robinson and Baruchel – scoff at his story. Me, I thought it was aliens to begin with.

They discover an uninvited McBride had been sleeping one off in Franco’s bathroom and had, unaware of what was happening outside, cooked almost all of their food for breakfast. As it turns out, Baruchel isn’t far off and in the world of hedonistic egos that is Hollywood, heaven isn’t an option. Or is it?

I had high hopes for this one coming in. Rogen can be hysterically funny as a writer and given all the talent involved, there was reason for optimism. The trailer rocked pretty hard too. Safe to say, this is a major disappointment.

For one thing, there’s an overreliance on dick and weed jokes. I’m no prude – trust me, I don’t mind crude, raunchy and drug humor – but after the same subject of jokes over and over and over again it gets old. Even stoners need a change of subject.

I’m not saying that the movie isn’t funny. There are some real laugh out loud moments (some of which weren’t even in the trailer) but I just expected more. High expectations (no pun intended) can sometimes shape a review, perhaps unfairly.

Yes, there is plenty of skewering of the self-centered and self-destructive behavior that Hollywood is notorious for, but do we really need another movie about that? I mean, it’s not as if this is some sort of new and revelatory information here.

It feels like a massive in-joke that maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to get. I like these actors individually but this smacks too much of self-indulgence and just didn’t get me laughing enough to overcome the perception. While I’m fully aware that these “self-portraits” are characters loosely based on the celebrity involved (and in the case of Cera and I’m sure a few others, having nothing to do with the personality of the celebrity involved) it’s still not the point. The point is that the movie just isn’t as good as it should have been, nor did it tickle my funny bone the way it should have. I have no doubt that there are people who found this to be right in their wheelhouse – my good friend Adam has already proclaimed this the funniest movie of the year and the final scene set in the afterlife is certainly going to make my son cackle louder than a Who concert – but I’m just not going to be one of them. Make of that what you will.

REASONS TO GO: Really great cast and some nifty cameos.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies way too much on dick and drug humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of crude humor, drug use, sexuality, quite a bit of foul language, some brief nudity, apocalyptic religious images and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the paintings in James Franco’s home were actually painted by James Franco.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; the reviews have been for the most part scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Man of Steel

Due Date


Due Date

Apparently these guys got no further than "speak no evil."

(2010) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, Jamie Foxx, Juliet Lewis, RZA, Danny McBride, Matt Walsh, Brody Stevens, Marco Rodriguez, Paul Renteria, Mimi Kennedy, Charlie Sheen, Jon Cryer. Directed by Todd Phillips

The best part of any trip is coming home. There comes a point when the weary traveler just wants to get back to their own bed, by any means necessary. Sometimes fate intervenes in this worthy endeavor however.

Peter Highman (Downey) has more reason than most to want to get back. His wife Sarah (Monaghan) is due to give birth and a date has been set to give her a Caesarian. He is leaving Atlanta in plenty of time…until he meets Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis).

Actually he pretty much literally runs into him, Ethan does and in the confusion, Ethan and Peter pick up each other’s similar-looking bags. It turns out that Ethan is sitting behind Peter in first class. It turns out Ethan gets Peter shot by an Air Marshal. Both men are tossed off the plane, with Peter leaving his wallet on board. Worse, he’s on a no-fly list now because of the incident.

Without a wallet, Peter has no way of renting a car but Ethan does and reluctantly Peter agrees to accompany Ethan on his way to Los Angeles; Ethan is an aspiring actor, bringing along with him on his journey his dog and his father’s ashes in a coffee can. Does that man know how to travel or what?

Of course, the eccentric Ethan gets the uptight Peter into all sorts of trouble, from getting them into an accident when he falls asleep at the wheel to abandoning Peter to get arrested for possession of marijuana at a border crossing. With the clock ticking and Sarah’s due date nearing, can Peter and Ethan manage to make it across the country in time or will Peter miss the birth of his first child?

If you thought “Wasn’t there a movie a lot like that?” you’d probably agree with the critics who dissed this movie for being too similar to Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the 1987 John Hughes film with Steve Martin and John Candy in a more or less similar plot. They aren’t exactly alike and there are no trains in this movie but the spirit is pretty much the same.

Peter is ramrod straight here and that’s supposed to be the joke, but that becomes a double edged sword because the movie then isn’t able to make use of Downey’s comic skills which are considerable. He becomes a glorified straight man to Galifianakis’ antics and quite frankly, the movie would have been better served to allow Peter to be not quite so uptight.

Galifianakis is one of the most popular comic actors today but this seems to be more or less a parody of his role in the two Hangover movies. He was far better in those, as well as his more serious role in It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Here, he is eccentric for its own sake. The real trick to making a role of this sort funny is that it kind of has to be believable. There’s nothing believable about Ethan. He does things no rational human being would ever do. And as for Peter, there’s no way anybody sticks around Ethan after he causes Peter multiple injuries.

There are some good gags here and a enough laughs that I can at least promise a certain amount of entertainment if you choose to rent this. However, while it did good box office, it isn’t really the kind of movie you’re going to remember with a great deal of fondness, nor is it one you’re going to want to watch over and over again. It’s just diversion enough to make you smile and maybe laugh a little bit for an hour and a half, which is a pretty noble result in and of itself.

WHY RENT THIS: There are enough funny moments to make this worth your while.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There are not enough funny moments to make this a classic.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language, a teensy bit of drug use and some comic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alan Arkin filmed some scenes as Peter’s father but these were left on the cutting room floor.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and the full scene shown at the end of the movie of “Two and a Half Men.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $211.8M on a $65M production budget; the movie was a genuine hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Martha Marcy May Marlene

30 Minutes or Less


30 Minutes or Less

Some guys don't look intimidating at all, even when they have ski masks and guns.

(2011) Crime Comedy (Columbia) Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Dilshad Vadsaria, Michael Pena, Bianca Kajlich, Fred Ward, Brett Gelman, Ilyssa Fradin, Paul Tierney, Rebecca Cox, Rick Irwin. Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Ruben Fleischer previously directed the hit horror comedy Zombieland which starred Jesse Eisenberg. Both of them are back for a follow-up, leaving me curious as to just what kind of film we’d be seeing.

Nick (Eisenberg) is a slacker who has been delivering pizzas for awhile. He has little ambition beyond getting stoned and hanging out with his friend Chet (Ansari) who at least has sufficient ambition to rise beyond being a part-time substitute teacher to becoming a full-time one. Neither of them seem to have much drive to move past the surroundings of Grand Rapids, Michigan where they reside. However when they get into a fight and discover their worst secrets – Nick slept with Kate (Vadsaria), Chet’s sister, and Chet was the one responsible for letting Nick’s dad know that his mom slept with a lifeguard, ending their marriage and leading to his dad leaving town for good – the two split up.

Dwayne (McBride) chafes in the shadow of his father, the Major (Ward) who is sitting pretty off of a $10 million lottery win. The Major feels nothing but contempt for his unemployed son, while his son wants his dad to hurry up and expire so he can still inherit what’s left of the lottery fortune, which the Major has been squandering in a hurry. Dwayne and his best friend Travis (Swardson) are chased out of the house by the major and wind up hanging at a local strip bar where a stripper named Juici (Kajlich) implants the idea that Dwayne should kill his dad and inherit now, hinting that she knows someone who can do the deed – for a hundred grand.

But Dwayne and Travis don’t have fifty bucks between them, let alone $100,000 – until Travis suggests robbing a bank, which might not work that well since neither one of them know how. That’s when Dwayne comes up with the brilliant (but demented) idea to get some other schmuck to rob the bank for them. A pizza delivery guy, for example.

Nick is lured to their junkyard with a pizza order; they knock him out and attach a vest to him with an explosive device. When he awakens, the two would-be criminal masterminds tell him he has ten hours to rob the bank and bring $100,000 to them otherwise they’ll detonate the bomb. Nick, panicking, goes to Chet who after initial horror agrees to help his friend on the condition that he never see his sister again.

In the meantime, Juici is plotting with Chango (Pena), the hitman she had referred to – who happens to be her boyfriend – to take the money and run away with her. Double crosses are in the air – everyone is planning to betray everyone else. How will Nick and Chet escape the crossfire, assuming these two slackers can figure out a way to rob the bank?

As good as Zombieland was, 30 Minutes or Less is less consistent. Uneven in its pacing, I get the sense that they couldn’t decide whether to make a caper comedy or a raunchy drug comedy. The movie tends to be better when it goes with the former and less successful when it channels Cheech and Chong.

While all of the main characters have a following and a certain amount of success – Ansari in “Parks and Recreation,” Eisenberg netting an Oscar nomination in The Social Network for example – none of them have been actors I’ve been particularly fond of and to be honest, this movie doesn’t change my mind for any of them other than Swardson, who with his 70s porn star moustache and puppy dog attitude at least displays a certain amount of charm.

None of the rest of the leads are likable enough for me to particularly care much about any of them, a bad thing for a movie. I could forgive that however, if the movie was funny enough to sustain interest but in fact it only does so sporadically. Some of the scenes seem to want to dumb things down until only a one celled creature could possibly find it amusing.

I wish the movie could have been a little more consistent and a little less wishy-washy because it really did have some pretty funny moments. Unfortunately, they were few and far between enough for me to recommend that you find other ways to spend your movie dollars.

REASONS TO GO: Swardson does some nice work and when the movie works, it’s very funny.

REASONS TO STAY: Extremely inconsistent, the pendulum swinging from too raunchy and dumb to smart and funny in a heartbeat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of crudity, and a little bit of nudity. There is some language most rough and some violence a little tough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was an incident eerily similar to the one depicted here when on August 28, 2003, pizza delivery man Bryan Douglas Wells entered a bank with a bomb strapped around his neck in Erie, Pennsylvania with a very similar story. However, it ended badly as the bomb detonated as the police approached, killing Wells instantly.

HOME OR THEATER: Home, more like.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Operation: Endgame

New Releases for the Week of August 12, 2011


August 12, 2011

FINAL DESTINATION 5

(New Line) Nicholas D’Agosto, Emma Bell, Miles Fisher, Arlen Escapreta, David Koechner, Tony Todd, Courtney B. Vance, P.J. Byrne, Ellen Wroe. Directed by Steven Quale

When a suspension bridge collapses, several young people are saved from certain doom by the premonition one young man has about the impending disaster. The survivors are then picked off one by one in various elaborate and gruesome ways. Note to self: this summary can be used for any Final Destination movie past present or future, substituting only the specific disasters; speedway crash, bus crash, roller coaster crash, airplane explosion. See how easy a preview summary can be?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: R (for strong violence/gruesome accidents, and some language)

30 Minutes or Less

(Columbia) Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Aziz Ansari, Michael Pena. The follow-up from the director of Zombieland concerns a couple of bumbling criminals who concoct a crazy scheme to get others to rob banks for them. They simply strap a bomb to their chest and tell them they have 30 minutes to rob a bank or they’ll get blowed up real good. They choose a hapless stoner of a pizza delivery guy as their pigeon, but things go way out of control from there.

See the trailers, interviews, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Comedy

Rating: R (for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, nudity and some violence)

Another Earth

(Fox Searchlight) Brit Marling, William Mapother, Jordan Baker, Robin Lord Taylor. The lives of an aspiring astrophysicist and a brilliant composer are linked by a terrible tragedy on the eve of the most amazing discovery in the history of the planet. A duplicate Earth has been discovered and the lives of these two people – and everyone else on the planet – are about to be irrevocably changed.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing images, some sexuality, nudity and brief drug use)

Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest

(Sony Classics) Common, Ludacris, Q-Tip, Mos Def. One of the most acclaimed and influential hip hop groups ever was A Tribe Called Quest. Although their members have gone on to other careers and the group broke up far too soon in the minds of some, their music remains a testament to how innovative and cutting edge rap can be. This Michael Rappaport-directed documentary goes backstage with the band and explores the drama that surrounded them (and eventually broke them apart) as well as the creative process behind some of the greatest hip hop songs ever.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical Documentary

Rating: R (for language)

The Devil’s Double

(Lionsgate) Dominic Cooper, Ludivine Sagnier, Raad Rawi, Philip Quast. A simple soldier is chosen to be the body double for the notorious son of Saddam Hussein, the Black Prince Uday Hussein. Forced into this service in order to keep his family safe, the young soldier is thrust into a glamorous world of drugs, sex and brutality as he is witness to the depravity of a modern-day monster.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence and torture, sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and pervasive language)

Glee: The 3D Concert Movie

(20th Century Fox) Lea Michele, Corey Monteith, Kevin McHale, Amber Riley. Gleeks everywhere are getting an emotional chubby knowing that their time is finally here. The hit television show has spawned a multi-city tour which has been in turn made into a 3D concert movie. You can be there, right onstage as the kids from “Glee” belt out vapid covers of songs from the last 30 years. I’m not sure which would be worse torture, this or the Justin Bieber concert movie. It’s a toss-up.

See the trailer and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG (for some rude and suggestive humor, and language)

The Help

(Disney) Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer. When a young journalist fresh out of college decides to write a feature on the lives of the household servants in Jackson, Mississippi in the mid-1960s she puts all of them at grave risk. Based on a best-selling novel, the story unfolds into an unlikely but deep abiding friendship that shows how the power of the truth can cause changes in even the most entrenched behavior (Opening Wednesday August 10).

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material)

Kung Fu Panda 2


Kung Fu Panda 2

There's nothing like a little musical accompaniment when dueling to the death.

(2011) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, James Hong, David Cross, Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride, Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber, Jean Claude van Damme. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Most of us are pretty well aware of our pasts. We know where we came from and it’s true, it helps us understand where we’re going. What we fail to realize, however, is that who we were isn’t as important as who we are…and who we intend to become.

Po (Black) has settled into his role as Dragon Warrior, protector of the Valley and a member of the Furious Five…who now have a plus one. Things are going swell for the time being, although Master Shifu (Hoffman) warns Po that if he is to continue in his growth, he must find inner peace. For the moment, the only inner peace Po wants is the one that comes after a big meal.

During a fight with some bandits in a village of musicians, Po sees an emblem on the armor of the leader of the wolf pack (McBride) and has a flashback to when he was a very small child. He thinks he might be seeing his mother. Later, he questions his father Ping (Hong) about it, and Ping is only able to tell him that he found Po in a box of radishes without any idea of how he got there. Po becomes determined to find out where he came from.

He might have picked a better time to take a stroll down memory lane. Lord Shen (Oldman), an albino peacock, has developed a weapon of terrible power and threatens to conquer all of China with it. He has already taken on the combined masters of Kung Fu (Garber, Haysbert, van Damme) and beaten them. If the world knows that there is a weapon that can defeat even these masters, will Kung Fu be at last broken?

Nelson worked as a story editor on the first film and makes her directing debut here. It’s actually a pretty self-assured one; she tells much of Po’s back story, and utilizes flashbacks by telling them in anime-style hand-drawn animation. The computer generated stuff is quite amazing and beautiful – some of the best-rendered animation outside of Pixar. It’s really too bad that all of the care taken on that score is ruined by watching it in 3D through dark glasses, ruining the color palate of the animators. All for the sake of a few cutsie pie effects that are just as effective in 2D.

The story here is ambitious. While there’s still an element of fat buffoon to Po, that’s been considerably toned down here. He is after all, the Dragon Warrior. The dynamic has changed between him and the Furious Five as well; where Tigress (Jolie) was once his adversary, now she’s his best friend. Hong also has much more of an expanded role in Ping – a very welcome development, in my opinion.

There are some pretty dark elements here, particularly when it comes to Po’s early life. That’s all well and good but when your target audience is kids, I find that kind of disappointing. Not that everything has to be sunshine and lollipops in kid movies, but there are some things in the story that I thought was a bit inappropriate for the younger set in the sense that it might cause them to feel a bit insecure. You may, of course, disagree with me in this.

I also found the charm of the first movie to be largely missing. By making Po competent and even a superior fighter, much of what I found charming about the first movie is taken away. Also, the primary relationship in the movie is between Po and Tigress; Shifu has little more than an extended cameo here and his relationship to Po was at the center of the first movie, and it is sorely missed here.

Adding Michelle Yeoh to the mix as an ancient seer is a master stroke of casting; she also does some of the narration and she’s a welcome addition, adding a bit of gravitas and authenticity. She is far too absent from the movies; it’s a bit of a shame because she’s one of the best actresses in the world but she’s sadly hit that age where actresses tend to be cast aside as being not young enough to be a romantic lead but not old enough to get the Meryl Streep types of roles. Hollywood has tunnelvision in many ways; I would hope that someday they’ll understand that women like Yeoh are far sexier and alluring than some of the 20-something hardbodies that pass for leading ladies these days. End rant.

I do admire the movie for its willingness to take a risk and not be just another money-grubbing animated feature. That may have translated to the disappointing box office take its first weekend with almost no competition for the family movie dollar, something which will change in a couple of weeks when Cars 2 enters the fray. I don’t think it was successful in everything it attempted to do, but I’m glad that they at least gave an effort to do something other than the safe and boring that is often passed off as family entertainment these days.

REASONS TO GO: The gang’s all back and the story gives us a good deal of insight into Po’s background.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as charming as the first movie and quite a bit darker.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence which might upset the really little ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DreamWorks executives visited Chengdu in China, considered to be the “Panda hometown” to learn more about Pandas and Chinese culture; elements of their visit were later incorporated into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, the kids are going to want to see it in the theater so you may as well.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Black Snake Moan

Tropic Thunder


Tropic Thunder

Stiller and Downey share a tender moment in Tropic Thunder.

(2008) Comedy (DreamWorks) Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise, Jay Baruchel, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey, Danny McBride, Brandon Jackson, Matt Levin, Reggie Lee.  Directed by Ben Stiller

Hollywood is indeed a dream factory, a place in which fantasies are packaged and sold. In making these fantasies however, sometimes real life becomes blurred and the line between the two disappears completely.

Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an action star who yearned to branch out and do serious drama, but his one attempt (“Simple Jack”) ended up in disaster, with Tugg playing a mentally challenged farmer who thought he could communicate with animals. It was a naked Oscar play and everyone knew it and now Tugg’s career is in the dumpster. He’s making a big-budget star-studded war film to do a little career resuscitation.

The movie he’s doing is based on the memoirs of a Vietnam vet named Four Leaf Tayback (Nolte), a tough as nails soldier who lost limbs in the war. Joining Tugg in the cast is Kirk Lazarus (Downey), a five-time Oscar winner and method actor who gets so into the role he has his skin surgically dyed so he is able to convincingly play a black Sergeant. Comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black) has made a career out of fart jokes and self-indulgence. A heroin addict, he is on the raggedy edge of falling apart.

This is enough to give any director cardiac arrest, and director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) is close to it himself. The massive budget is spiraling out of control, with the prima donna actors causing numerous delays while technical issues drive the production further into the red and behind schedule. The studio head, Les Grossman (Cruise) is placing enough pressure on Cockburn to make the Dali Lama pick up an AK-47 and start firing randomly.

So, taking a cue from the crusty Tayback, Cockburn decides to send the cast into the real jungle, with cameras set up in various places. No trailers, no personal assistants, no Blackberries – just acting in the jungle. Speedman is gung ho for the idea, even after things begin to go south. As in, they fall afoul of an actual crew of drug runners who are shooting at them with real bullets. The actors, not knowing any better, are merely waiting for someone to yell “cut”!

This is a nice little satire on Hollywood and its denizens, from the unctuous agent (McConaughey) to the harried studio assistant (Hader). Stiller turns this into a cross between Airplane and Rambo with a number of homages in between. In fact there are so many you have to keep a sharp eye open to catch them all.

With a cast like this you’d expect there to be some hilarity but very often in these kind of all-star romps it descends into a series of bits that ultimately don’t make much of a cohesive whole. That’s not the problem here. This isn’t a bunch of stars doing their thing – it’s a movie in which everyone contributes their bit, from Jackson as rapper Alpa Chino who as the only actor who is genuinely of African descent is annoyed at the antics of Lazarus who in his method haze genuinely believes he’s black to McBride as an explosives expert who is in above his head.

Downey in fact proves to be a terrific comic actor who isn’t above poking fun at himself. Downey is himself a method actor and stays in character onscreen and off until, as Lazarus puts it, the DVD commentary is done. Stiller bulked up to play the somewhat clueless Speedman. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but still his character has a bit of Hollywood diva in it to make it more interesting than the average action star send-up.

Black is actually a little bit toned down here, although he has moments in which he indulges his usual manic persona a little bit. I think it works even in the context of Portnoy the heroin addict, although towards the end of the movie the character is wearing a bit thin on me.

For my money it is Cruise who makes the biggest impact here, completely going out on a limb as the foul-mouthed bastard of a studio head. His performance was so indelible that plans are afoot to make a movie based on his character when Cruise finishes his next film. There are those who think that Cruise restored a lot of bad karma to the good side with his performance here. I’m not such a big believer in that kind of thing, but I do believe you’ll remember Cruise long after the movie’s over.

There are times that the movie tries a bit too hard to be funny and becomes rather silly instead (which is usually what happens when you try too hard to be funny) but fortunately that doesn’t happen often enough to be of consequence. As comedies go, this one should be near the top of your list when searching the DVD racks for something funny to watch.

WHY RENT THIS: A terrific cast that works well together to make a great ensemble film, rather than a bunch of bits strung together. Cruise is classic as the foul-mouthed studio mogul.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Descends into silliness upon occasion.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad words, a lot of sexual innuendo, a bit of drug usage and a whole mess o’ violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to Stiller, Jack Black filmed most of the movie with bruised ribs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an excellent Mockumentary on the making of the film that is supposedly being made with a nod to Heart of Darkness and Werner Herzog. There’s a bit of raw footage showing how the actor’s improvised on set plus a piece from the MTV Movie Awards showing how a trio of the leads tried to promote the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $188.1M on a $92M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Everything Must Go