My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2


Hopa!

Hopa!

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, Gia Carides, Joey Fatone, Elena Kampouris, Alex Wolff, Louis Mandylor, Bess Meisler, Bruce Gray, Fiona Reid, Ian Gomez, Jayne Eastwood, Rob Riggle, Mark Margolis, Rita Wilson, John Stamos, Jeanie Calleja. Directed by Kirk Jones

Woman Power

Like many others, I was a victim of the charm of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I won’t say that I fell in love with the movie, but it did blindside me a little bit and I regard it fondly, even though it was fairly flawed. Some movies will do that to you.

And now most of the original cast is back. Toula (Vardalos) has been married more than a decade to Ian (Corbett) who is now a principal at the local high school. Her travel agency went out of business and she is back working at the family restaurant and has proven herself an adept business woman. Her family is still around her like the albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner. She lives in a block of four houses on a quiet suburban Chicago street that all belong to members of her family.

That family includes patriarch Gus (Constantine) who believes himself to be descended from Alexander the Great and that everything useful or wonderful in the world came directly or otherwise from Greece, often with the flimsiest of evidence to back him up. His long-suffering wife Maria (Kazan) wants nothing more than to lead a semi-normal life, but with sisters like Voula (Martin) who never met a bodily condition too gross to discuss with anyone, that is quite the challenge.

Throw an angsty teenage daughter (Carides) into the mix and you get all the flavors of Greece in one soup. But even that is not enough when the discovery is made that due to a clerical error, Gus and Maria were never actually married. While Gus is eager just to rectify the error and go on with his life, Maria wants a big fat Greek wedding, the one she never got in the old country. It falls upon Toula to arrange everything and balance the family business, her husband’s frustration that the two of them have not been intimate for awhile, and her daughter’s collegiate choice that may take her away from Chicago and of course with her maniac relatives interfering in every way possible, this is a dance that even Zorba couldn’t manage.

All the elements of the first movie are here in the second, but as is usually the case, lightning doesn’t get captured in the bottle quite so easily. While Vardalos remains one of those rare actresses who simply is irresistible and cute onscreen, so much so that you want to take her home with you, for some reason this movie doesn’t work as well as the first. Perhaps it’s just a case of the first existing because it set a high bar for the second. But there are flaws here that can be explained.

For one thing, it feels sometimes that Vardalos who as in the first movie wrote the script was trying too hard to make her family eccentric. I think we got the point and a little more restraint would have been just as effective. I love Andrea Martin as a comedienne and she steals a lot of scenes here and Constantine who hasn’t made a full length feature film since the first big fat Greek wedding 14 years ago (yipes!) also dominates the screen whenever he’s on it.

The Nikki subplot really didn’t interface as well with the rest of the material. I can kinda see what Vardalos was trying to do – show that Toula was becoming exactly like her mother – and while that is an admirable and salient point, it wasn’t made as well as it could have been, particularly since the comedy is a little bit over-the-top. Again, restraint would have been welcome.

The movie is curiously flat when it comes to onscreen energy, which is normally the purview of the editor and the director. I’m not sure if that is the case here, but certainly the movie doesn’t have the same vibrant feel of the first. Perhaps there is the stigma of repetition, in that most sequels rarely capture the same magic as the original, but it could also have been that much too long has passed since we last visited this Greek comedy and that had its effect on our perception of the finished product as well.

I am a fan of Nia Vardalos and I was rooting for this movie to be better than it was. It will likely make it to cable earlier than intended and then fade away into obscurity but I am strangely glad that it got made anyway. I can’t really recommend it (hence the score) but I still have a soft spot for it anyway. If you were as charmed by the first movie as I was, you will likely be disappointed in the second, but you may very well find a soft spot for it as well. So please don’t mind if I get a second helping of spanikopita and enjoy a movie that should have been better.

REASONS TO GO: Occasionally shows the charm of the original. Vardalos remains sweet and charismatic in the lead role.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks energy. Occasionally the material becomes overbearing. The plot is wafer-thin.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed in Toronto, substituting for the Chicago location of the original.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Father of the Bride
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Boss

The Automatic Hate


Joseph Cross and Adelaide Clemens share a moment.

Joseph Cross and Adelaide Clemens share a moment.

(2015) Dramedy (Film Movement) Joseph Cross, Adelaide Clemens, Deborah Ann Woll, Richard Schiff, Ricky Jay, Yvonne Zima, Vanessa Zima, Catherine Carlen, Caitlin O’Connell, Darren MacDonald, Vienna Stampeen, Travis Quentin Young, George Riddle, Sea McHale, Matthew Fahey, Jozef Fahey, Craig Wesley Divino, Mark Andrews, Brooke Stone. Directed by Justin Lerner

All families have secrets; skeletons in their closets that once let out affect the dynamic of the family in unexpected and often unintended ways. Those secrets sometimes die with those who were there but there are occasions when the consequences are passed down the generations.

Davis Green (Cross) is a head chef at a Boston restaurant, but as well as his culinary career is going, there is a lot less to desire in his private life. His emotional girlfriend Cassie (Woll), however, locks him out of the bathroom and can’t stop sobbing. She needs alone time and Davis is inclined to give it to you, especially after he hears why she’s sobbing (although we don’t find out until later). He heads down to his favorite bar to hang out with some friends, when he notices a beautiful blonde there who acts like she knows him. When he approaches her though, she runs away.

She shows up later at his apartment and introduces herself as Alexis (Clemens). She tells him that she’s his cousin, but that can’t be right – his dad was an only child. Nonetheless, she insists that’s who she is. When Davis confronts his dad Ronald (Schiff), at first his dad – a respected Yale-educated developmental psychologist – denies the existence of a sibling. Not one to simply take the word of his own dad who has always expressed disappointment in Davis’ career choice (and choice of girlfriend for that matter), Davis goes to talk to his grandfather (Riddle) who seems to confirm that there’s a long lost brother – “we don’t talk about Josh” he croaks before having a panic attack.

Once again, Davis confronts his dad who reluctantly admits to the existence of Josh (Jay) but won’t explain why the two are estranged. Devastated by this and by a revelation from his girlfriend, Davis decides to take a break from everything and find his cousins.

That’s right, plural. It turns out Alexis has two sisters – Annie (Y. Zima) and Vanessa (V. Zima) and they live on a bucolic farm in upstate New York, although it is not super successful. They live a kind of hippie existence, even to the marijuana dispensary in the consignment store the girls run. It turns out that the feelings Davis’ dad has for Josh are reciprocated. Davis and Alexis try to figure out what would cause such a rift between brothers – and all the while Davis is developing feelings of his own for his first cousin. When a family tragedy forces the two families together, what comes next is inevitable – and awkward.

This is not your average family drama nor is it your average romantic comedy. It falls somewhere in between and is seriously bent, in a good way. It is also bent enough that it may make some feel a little bit squeamish, particularly when you learn exactly what drove the brothers apart. However there is a real heart at the center of the movie that kind of helps drive through the less savory feelings that may occur.

The mystery of that estrangement could easily be a MacGuffin or become a distraction but Lerner never allows it to do so. The casting of veterans Schiff (The West Wing) and Jay (tons of David Mamet films) is brilliant; the two have a bit of resemblance facially and in vocal mannerisms. The two feel like brothers, which is important here, although brothers who have not seen each other in 20 years and have lived separate lives. Everything works here.

The cousins are all extremely beautiful blondes, which makes for a happy reviewer. There’s also some nice cinematic scenery in the upstate New York countryside. While there are a few hiccups – the hoary plot-advancing device of finding home movies in an attic seems a little bit beneath this film – this is one of those gems that come along every once in awhile that flies under the radar and is far more impressive than you would think. However, those who are easily squeamish about unorthodox romantic and sexual relationships should be on notice that this film may be a little bit uncomfortable for them.

REASONS TO GO: Handles the mystery adroitly. The cousins are gorgeous. A lot of heart (oddly enough) at the center.
REASONS TO STAY: The adult relationships are a bit uncomfortable.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, graphic nudity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed in and about Mt. Vernon, New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harold and Maude
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Eddie the Eagle

Into the Grizzly Maze (Red Machine)


There's nothing worse than bear breath.

There’s nothing worse than bear breath.

(2014) Action (Vertical) James Marsden, Thomas Jane, Piper Perabo, Billy Bob Thornton, Scott Glenn, Michaela McManus, Adam Beach, Sarah Desjardins, Luisa D’Oliveira, Bart the Bear, Patrick Sabongui, Kelly Curran, Seth Isaac Johnson, Sean O. Roberts, Reese Alexander, Carson Reaume, Michael Jonsson, Mariel Belanger. Directed by David Hackl

Recently, I did a review of a 1981 movie called Roar in which live actors and crew mingled with untamed wild lions and tigers which led to somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 injuries to cast and crew. This movie would be the anti-Roar.

After seven years in prison, Rowan (Marsden) returns home to a small Alaskan town (actually British Columbia) on a mysterious mission which involves a map. Treasure, maybe? When he gets into an altercation with a pimp (Jonsson) who was in the process of beating up a hooker (Curran), he is arrested – by none other than his own brother Beckett (Jane) who turned his back on him after Rowan was convicted of shooting a guy. The two brothers obviously have little love for each other and so when Rowan heads off into the wilderness, Beckett isn’t particularly sorry to see him go.

But what Rowan is really up to is a rescue mission; a friend with the unlikely name of Johnny Cadillac (Beach) is missing after having guided a pair of poachers into the woods (no singing though) and his wife (Belanger) is concerned enough to ask Rowan to go find him. The three of them, however, have met up with a rogue rampaging grizzly (Bart) who with his food supplies dwindling is turning to a human protein supplement to his diet.

Once Beckett and his boss, Sheriff Sullivan (Glenn) realize what’s happening Beckett decides to head into the woods to find the bear and tranquilize it. Sullivan would rather hire bear whisperer Douglass (Thornton) to track down the mutha and kill it, but Beckett puts up a stink so Sullivan caves. Or at least appears to; once Beckett is gone, he sends Douglass out anyway.

Beckett has another reason to head out into the woods – his deaf conservationist wife Michelle (Perabo) is out there and with a crazed killer bear stalking anything on two legs, the town medical examiner Kaley (McManus) tags along just in case someone needs medical attention or an autopsy. And of course all of them meet up and the Grizzly comes after them. Getting back to civilization is going to be no easy task, even with a pair of experienced woodsmen and crack shots in the group.

This is a throwback to deranged animal movies from the ’70s like Jaws and Day of the Animals which generally took an all-star cast of the level that you’d find on a typical episode of The Love Boat and put them squarely in the path of an animal (or animals) that had gone loco and were hungry for the taste of human flesh. This one relies on CGI a great deal as we rarely see humans in the same frame as the evil bear here and quite frankly, the CGI work is sloppy and weak. There is a sequence where the grizzly is surrounded by CGI flames that are so fake as to be almost laughable and then breaks through the ring of fire with a mighty roar and scarcely a single hair singed. There is another scene where the grizzly looks up from his lunch of a hapless human with blood on his mouth and snout that is so patently CGI (the color is bright cherry lipstick red rather than the typical crimson of actual blood) as to look more like the bear had gotten into a strumpet’s lipstick. Godawful.

The cast here is pretty decent and to their credit none of them phone it in although Perabo, who really has nothing much to do, might as well have. Jane is actually a pretty decent action hero who did some good work in Deep Blue Sea and The Punisher but is generally relegated to supporting roles these days and leads in Direct-to-VOD films like this one. Marsden is versatile, doing comedy and action equally well but he’s all business here. Thornton, who always seems to enjoy himself no matter what level of film he’s doing, from excellent (the Fargo series) to sheer paycheck (this).

The British Columbia forests, substituting for Alaska, are unutterably beautiful and while I wouldn’t say they’re a piece of cake to photograph, it’s hard to go wrong with that kind of backdrop  One of the big problems with the film is that it’s completely non-credible. Bears don’t act like this, not even rogues and for the most part people don’t either. While Hackl does a good job building suspense, there are too many instances of a gigantic bear sneaking up on hapless humans which is damn near impossible; bears are not stealth creatures. They’re far too massive. At the end of the day this is a subpar potboiler with a good cast and bad CGI that might be worth a rainy day or evening’s rental on VOD if your standards aren’t particularly high.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful setting. Good cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Unrealistic. Terrible CGI. Throwback to films that weren’t very good in the first place.
FAMILY VALUES: There are animal attack images as well as disturbing gore images, violence, some brief sexuality and a little bit of foul language
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title of the film was Red Machine which is the name given the bear in the credits. This is in reference to the late Timothy Treadwell of the film Grizzly Man who said that one bear, which he had named The Big Red Machine, was the only one that actually terrified him. It is reputed that this was the bear that actually killed him and his girlfriend, although that is unconfirmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grizzly
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Magic Mike XXL

Chernobyl Diaries


Chernobyl Diaries

Out of the frying pan…

(2012) Horror (Warner Brothers) Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Dimitri Diatchenko, Milos Timotijevic, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Zinaida Dedakin, Ivana Milutinovic. Directed by Brad Parker

 

Some things are just downright bad ideas. Teasing the starving mother of bear cubs is one of them. Calling Mike Tyson a sissy is another. However, you’d pretty much have to put sightseeing at the sight of the worst nuclear accident in history right at the top of the list.

Chris (McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Dudley) and her good friend Amanda (Kelley) are touring Europe the way only young people can – like complete idiots. Relentlessly taping everything, acting like goofballs in front of the camera, they head into Kiev to visit Chris’ brother Paul (Sadowski) who has been estranged from his family for awhile. Paul shows them a good time, but the continuation of the tour to Moscow is interrupted when Paul meets an extreme tourism operator named Uri (Diatchenko) who proposes a trip to nearby Chernobyl.

Actually, the trip would be to Pripyat, the town near the plant where the plant workers and their families lived which became a deserted ghost town overnight when reactor #4 exploded on April 26, 1986, giving those who lived there no time to even collect their belongs. The town slumbered in radioactive peace for 25 years, the radiation too high to allow any sort of return until recently. The reactor itself is still highly contaminated and can only be approached in complete protective gear and even then only for a few hours at a time.

For Type A personality Paul, this sounds like his kind of adventure. Cautious Chris, who means to propose to Natalie in Moscow (can anyone say Lieutenant Deadmeat?) is reluctant to go but Paul convinces Amanda, who is a photographer, that she can get the shots of a lifetime in Pripyat so Amanda convinces Natalie at which point Chris caves.

At first it looks like the trip is over before it begins – the army has closed off the town and isn’t permitting Uri, who has conducted several tours there, into the town. However wily Uri knows a back way into town and drives the four Americans, along with Norwegian honeymooners Michael (Phillips) and Zoe (Berdal) into the deserted town.

Most of the vegetation is dead and they find a  mutated fish near a stream on the edge of town (had they stayed a little longer they might have seen a whole lot of ’em) but it’s the silence that’s eerie. No birds, few animal noises of any sort. There are feral dogs running around the area which can be dangerous if there’s a lot of them but nothing too dangerous (other than that big mofo bear that runs through one of the apartment buildings, scaring the bejeezus out of them). That is, until they return to their van and find out that the van won’t start – the leads on the starter have either melted or something is wrong with them – and neither Uri nor Michael can repair it. They call for help but nobody answers. It looks like they’ll have to spend the night in the van. And it soon becomes very apparent that they aren’t alone.

Oren Peli, who created the Paranormal Activity franchise, wrote and produced this (first time director Parker was behind the camera). There are several similar elements here; a microscopic budget (under a million, chump change for most Hollywood productions), unknown actors (unless you count pop star McCartney), a genuinely terrifying premise and shaky, hand-held cameras (at times the angles and shaky-cam perspective make this look kind of documentary-like). However, this isn’t nearly as scary as Peli’s previous film.

For one thing, none of the actors are really memorable, although McCartney bears a striking resemblance physically and also vocally to a young Leonardo di Caprio. Diatchenko also is strong and likable as Uri. The rest are mostly unremarkable but pretty competent.

I accept that for most horror movies to work, there has to be an instance of people doing dumb, stupid or irresponsible things and this film is no exception. I would not, for example, venture into the night from the safety of a closed and locked van armed only with a handgun to investigate strange noises when you are already aware that there’s a bear wandering around. You would definitely not do it if you had special forces survival training, which one of the characters supposedly had.

The monsters – you can pretty much figure out what they are – do not really act consistently which is another problem. In some instances they seem to be stalking the tourists with almost military precision. At other times they are mindless, shambling things out of a George A. Romero movie. We really only see them towards the end of the movie although we certainly know they’re there.

I liked parts of the movie and to be honest, with a little more care in the script, particularly in character development – if I can’t care about the characters, I have no emotional investment in their survival. In this case the audience become voyeurs at a Grand Guignol show and walk away merely feeling dirty instead of entertained, but thankfully there is sufficient entertainment value here. It could have used a lot more tension though – and a little less arguing.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Inept script. Lacks real suspense.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a surfeit of bad language and some pretty graphic and gruesome images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oren Peli got the idea for the movie after seeing a photo blog of a girl riding through Pripyat on a motorcycle.  

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100. The reviews are pretty much all negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: [Rec]

ANTHONY BOURDAIN LOVERS: During a recent episode set in the Ukraine of his “No Reservations” travel program, chef/author Bourdain was taken to Pripyat and saw the amusement rides and vacant apartment buildings. There were no mutants caught on camera for the show however.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Popper’s Penguins