True Story


Jonah Hill takes James Franco's order in the studio commissary.

Jonah Hill takes James Franco’s order in the studio commissary.

(2015) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Maria Dizzia, Ethan Suplee, Conor Kikot, Charlotte Driscoll, Stella Rae Payne, Robert John Burke, Byron Jennings, Gretchen Mol, Betty Gilpin, Seth Barrish, Robert Stanton, Michael Countryman, Steve Routman, Genevieve Angelson, Adam Mucci, Auden Thornton. Directed by Rupert Goold

It is the journalist’s calling – or at least their job – to seek the truth, or at least the truth that can be proved by facts. It isn’t always easy to do, particularly when you’re dealing with clever liars and master manipulators.

Mike Finkel (Hill) was a respected reporter for the New York Times – he’d written eight cover stories for the coveted Sunday magazine. It was the eighth that got him into trouble; feeling the pressure to make the story readable, he’d consolidated events and characters into a single kid while doing a piece on abuses at a West African cocoa plantation (in reality, the real Finkel got in trouble for a piece on the continued slave trade coming out of Africa). His career in tatters, he runs home to his wife Jill (Jones) in Montana. It appears that he will have to find something else to do with his life.

Then he gets a call from Pat Frato (Suplee), a journalist at the Portland Oregonian who delivers some startling news. Apparently Christian Longo (Franco), a man accused of brutally murdering his entire family, had been apprehended and apparently had been masquerading as a former reporter for the Times  – three guesses which one and the first two don’t count.

Curious as to why Longo would choose his identity to steal, Finkel arranges to get some interview time with Longo. Finkel becomes fascinated – Jill might say obsessed – with the charismatic and handsome Longo, who seems to have everyone around him wrapped around his little finger. He seems to be genuinely and deeply grieving for his murdered family. He also is taking an interest in learning how to write, the more to be like Mike.

The more time Finkel spends with Longo, the less certain he is of his guilt. Finkel begins to dig into things and discovers eventually that not everything – nor everyone – is as it seems around these parts. Soon Mike must make the choice as to whether he thinks that Longo is a master manipulator who is playing the tune that everyone around him dances to, or if he is truly innocent and bereaved.

This is based on the real Mike Finkel’s memoirs about the case and his experiences with Christian Longo. In all honesty, there are a lot of fact fudges in here which is a bit ironic because the whole theme of the movie is trust and lies. First time filmmaker Goold has extensive experience directing stage plays and in most of the interior pieces it shows with literally just a succession of one and two shots that shows little understanding of the depth of the big screen compared to the stage.

What is more disturbing is the lack of energy displayed here. Yes, the setting is the Pacific Northwest and there is a constant shroud of rain and fog on the exteriors, and we don’t see the sun in virtually any of this film other than flashbacks or New York City. But it seems like the cast is in the fog as well; not quite zombies but like everyone pulled an all-nighter and is falling asleep where they’re standing.

Hill and Franco are more or less the exceptions, and the chemistry they have together is undeniable but long story short it isn’t enough to elevate this film which is actually adequate enough in terms of entertainment value mainly because of the two leads and the compelling story. Unfortunately the attempts to make it a morality play kind of fall a bit flat.

REASONS TO GO: Hill and Franco make a good team. Nice Pacific Northwest vistas.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks energy and inertia. Doesn’t really inspire passion in the audience.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some disturbing images and unsettling thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fingerprint pattern on the movie’s poster is actually made up of the word “LIES” printed over and over again.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder in the First
FINAL RATING:
6/10
NEXT:
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

New Releases for the Week of April 17, 2015


Paul Blart Mall Cop 2PAUL BLART: MALL COP 2

(Columbia) Kevin James, Raini Rodriguez, Eduardo Verastegui, Daniela Alonso, Neal McDonough, David Henrie, D.B. Woodside, Nicholas Turturro, Ana Gasteyer. Directed by Andy Frickman

After six years of keeping his mall safe, you’d think Paul Blart would have earned a vacation. Given the opportunity to speak at a security officers convention in Vegas, he decides to bring his teenage daughter with him for one last family vacation before she goes off to college. However, when Blart gets wind that a security professional is planning a major heist, Blart goes into high gear to detect, observe, detain and…oh, what was that again?

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for some violence)

Child 44

(Summit) Tom Hardy, Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace. A 1950s-era Soviet secret policeman, exiled to a remote provincial outpost for refusing to denounce his wife as a traitor, joins forces with an army General to find a serial killer that preys on young boys. The problem is that officially speaking, there are no serial killers in the Soviet Union and so they find themselves fighting their own government to protect those who need protection the most.

See the trailer, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for violence, some disturbing images, language and a scene of sexuality) 

Monkey Kingdom

(DisneyNature) Tina Fey (voice). Focuses on a young mother and her newborn son who are part of a troop of monkeys that live in the ruins of an ancient temple. Low standing on the social ladder puts them near the bottom of the food chain, so the two face constant starvation and threats from other monkeys. Then, when the whole tribe is forced out of their ancestral home into a more urban environment, everything changes.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Nature Documentary
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: G

The Squeeze

(ARC Entertainment) Jeremy Sumpter, Christopher McDonald, Jillian Murray, Michael Nouri. A caper film about a notorious gambler who discovers a modest young man in a rural town with astonishing golf skills. While the golfer dreams of winning the U.S. Open, the gambler knows it would be far more lucrative for him to become involved in high stakes match play. However, the stakes continue to grow higher and higher until they become life or death.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney
Rating: PG-13 (for some sexuality, language, drug material and thematic elements)

True Story

(Fox Searchlight) Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Ethan Suplee. A disgraced New York Times reporter discovers to his shock that a serial killer has taken his identity. When he goes to interview the man who claimed to be him when he was arrested, the reporter embarks on a deadly game of cat and mouse with the accused and as the reporter sets out to unravel the tangled skein of the killer’s deceptions, the balance will teeter between redemption and loss.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Oviedo Mall, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language and some disturbing material)

Unfriended

(Universal) Heather Sossaman, Matthew Bohrer, Courtney Halverson, Shelley Hennig. When the video of a vicious bully getting drunk and doing things not in her character are posted online, the girl commits suicide. A year later, a group of her victims are chatting on Skype when they are stalked by a mysterious figure who wants to know which one of them posted the video. As the friends are bumped off one by one it soon becomes apparent that they aren’t dealing with an earthly threat.

See the trailer and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use – all involving teens)

While We’re Young

(A24) Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried. The latest from indie darling Noah Baumbach finds a middle aged couple having their lives and their points of view changed by the friendship of a younger, hipper couple. Their newfound friends remind them that of who they were and what they’ve become; and they kinda prefer their old selves to their new.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, AMC Downtown Disney, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language)

Forgetting Sarah Marshall


Sarah Marshall and Aldous Snow would take umbrage at being labeled shallow if only they knew what "umbrage" meant.

Sarah Marshall and Aldous Snow would take umbrage at being labeled shallow if only they knew what “umbrage” meant.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Bill Hader, Russell Brand, Liz Cackowski, Maria Thayer, Jack McBrayer, Taylor Wily, Steve Landesberg, Da’Vone McDonald, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, William Baldwin, Jason Bateman, Kala Alexander, Kalani Robb, Francesca DelBanco, Branscombe Richmond, Billy Bush, Ahna O’Reilly. Directed by Nick Stoller

Neil Sedaka once opined in song that “breaking up is hard to do” and truer words were never spoken. It’s never easy to accept the end of a romantic relationship. It is a rejection of everything you are by the person you cared about the most. Some have said that the end of a relationship is kind of a death and should be mourned as such. Some relationships require more mourning than others of course, but there are those who are hit harder by rejection than others. Life has been good to those who can handle it with more grace.

If life has been good to anyone, it has been good to Peter Bretter (Segel). He’s a songwriter and film composer who has steady work on a hit television show. Not only that, he’s dating the totally hot lead; Sarah Marshall (Bell). That all ends one day when she ambushes him as he leaves the shower to announce that she wants to break up with him. At first, he’s devastated, but on the advice of his step-brother Brian (Hader), he has sex with a lot of women. After awhile, he realizes he’s really messed up and again, acting on the advice of others, decides to take a nice vacation to Hawaii.

He goes to check into the Turtle Bay resort, assisted by a beautiful, helpful check-in clerk named Rachel (Kunis) when who should walk by but his ex! To make matters worse, she’s there with her new boyfriend, only a few weeks after the breakup – well-known womanizing rock star Aldous Snow (Brand). Determined not to appear weak, he checks into a tremendous suite he can’t afford, whose nearby neighbors are bothered by the sound of a woman weeping. In fact, it sounds a lot like Peter.

Peter is beset by the images of people in love – couples on their honeymoon, men proposing to their girlfriends, even a Hawaiian wedding or two, all of which serve to remind him how lonely he is. Gradually, his lost teddy bear demeanor strikes a chord in Rachel and she takes him out. Before long, the two of them are beginning to feel a bond, but at the same time, Sarah is beginning to realize that she may have made the wrong move. Is there any moving on after forgetting Sarah Marshall?

Segel is a huge find. He absolutely rips it up here, although in many ways he’s almost a straight man to his own joke. His delivery is spot-on and his puppy-dog looks are not too good-looking, making him more of an everyman for all of us to relate to. He could have quite a future in romantic comedy as well as straight-up comedy if he chooses. Hill, so good in Superbad, nearly steals every scene he’s in here as an obsessive waiter, while Hader and Rudd continue to cement their reputations as among the best comic actors in the business. Kunis, formerly of That ‘70’s Show, hadn’t had the feature success as her former cohorts Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher to this point, but this put her over the top and has led to a career that has been the most successful of the graduates of that show.

Gorgeous Hawaiian locations are shown off to their best effect. The pacing is not so fast that you feel like you’re out-of-breath after watching the movie, but is fast enough that you’re not given a whole lot of time to think about things.

Nearly everything works here. Segel and Kunis have excellent chemistry and the story, while far-fetched in some of its coincidences, achieves what The Heartbreak Kid was trying to do in 2007. The jokes are laugh-out-loud funny and the characters are all people you want to get to know, even the self-centered Snow – who would get a movie of his own in Get Him to the Greek in 2010.

There are a few too many similarities to Knocked Up and other Judd Apatow comedies, but not enough to make this too crass a rip-off. This may be the first movie I’ve ever seen in which there is more male frontal nudity than female – in fact, the only female nudity can be found in a scene where Polaroid pictures of flashing women are pinned to a bathroom wall. However, you do wind up seeing plenty of Segel’s penis.

While some of this might seem at least thematically similar to recent blockbuster comedies, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is at least funny enough to hold its own. Actually, in many ways, this is perhaps the best of the Apatow comedies that dominated the comedy landscape in the first decade f this century. This is a case where execution trumps innovation.

WHY RENT THIS: Absolutely hysterical; one of if not the best Apatow comedy ever. Star-making performances by Kunis, Segel and Brand. Gorgeous Hawaiian scenery.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not a whole lot of original stuff going on here. Feels at times like you’ve seen it before.
FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of nudity, particularly of the male persuasion. Also a fair amount of foul language and some sexual situations and content.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The naked breakup and the Dracula puppet show are both taken from Segel’s real-life experiences.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Both the 2 disc DVD Collector’s Edition and the Blu-Ray edition include the traditional Apatow extra “Line-o-Rama” as well as a few additional “Sex-o-Rama” and “Drunk-o-Rama” and there is an Aldous Snow music video as well as footage from Sarah Marshall’s TV show. There is line read footage, the video chat between Hader and Segel in its entirety as well as video diaries and a gag reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $105.2M on a $30M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is 40
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Hitchcock

22 Jump Street


The ladies are all smiles but for Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum it's strictly business.

The ladies are all smiles but for Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum it’s strictly business.

(2014) Crime Comedy (Columbia) Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Ice Cube, The Lucas Brothers, Nick Offerman, Jimmy Tatro, Caroline Aaron, Craig Roberts, Mark Evan Jackson, Joe Chrest, Eddie J. Fernandez, Rye Rye, Johnny Pemberton, Stanley Wong, Dax Flame, Diplo, Richard Grieco, Dustin Nguyen, Kate Adair. Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

The thing about sequels is that they tend to be bigger, more expensive and more over the top of the original. The trick about them is that the filmmakers need to retain as much of the original film that audiences connected with without remaking the film verbatim, which is a certain kiss of death and franchise killer.

After their successful bust in 21 Jump Street, detectives Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) have moved on to other undercover operations with less success. After a botched operation causes a drug smuggler known only as The Ghost (Stormare) to escape, harried Deputy Chief Hardy (Offerman) busts them back to the Jump Street team. Except that now the Jump Street crew has moved across the street to 22 Jump Street where their success has bought them a near unlimited budget and an impressive headquarters where Captain Dickson (Cube) has an office in the center of the former Vietnamese church in a clear plastic office (which prompts Schmidt to say “His office looks like a cube…of ice!” in one of many, many instances of self-aware gags).

This time, the two detectives are sent to investigate Metro City State University – yes, the cops are going to college even though they look old enough to be professors. They are sent in as freshmen however and while their age is a source of constant japes, they nonetheless infiltrate the school with Jenko getting into a jock fraternity and becoming a football star, developing a bromance with Zook (Russell), the quarterback. This makes Schmidt a little bit jealous.

However Schmidt has made some inroads of his own, hooking up with Maya (Stevens), an art student who was close to a student who had died in a suicide after taking WhyFhy, a new party drug and the reason that Schmidt and Jenko are there. Surveillance footage implicates Zook as the supplier, which Jenko has a hard time believing. The friction between Schmidt and Jenko threatens to split up the two former BFFs, which would be disastrous considering that the unit is counting on them to solve the case (which might mean their careers if they don’t) and the real supplier behind WhyFhy is looking to take these two pesky cops out…permanently.

 

I will give the filmmakers props for making a much different movie than 21 Jump Street. This one is a bit self-referential, constantly referring to the increased budget and how important it is to follow up success by doing the exact same thing. The self-aware stuff is a hoot, but this feels more of a lark than a film. There is a parade of celebrity cameos, including Queen Latifah as Captain Dickson’s wife (who proclaims that she’s “Straight Outta Compton” while her husband is from Northridge, a reference to Ice Cube’s time in NWA) and appearances by Rob Riggle and Dave Franco from the first film although the best parts of that scene are in the trailer.

The chemistry between Hill and Tatum remains stellar; one of the best scenes of the movie has a school counselor mistaking them for a gay couple in his office for a therapy session, to which they are forced to play along to mask the fact that they were searching his office for evidence. However, there is a feeling that the writers have already kind of worn out their welcome. The end credits sequence, in which the trailers of future sequels are shown is maybe worth the price of admission all by itself.

The plot is way too cliche, the gags too hit and miss and the action too underwhelming to recommend this. I know a lot of critics have been kind to this movie but I just don’t see it; I left the theater feeling curiously unfulfilled, like eating a meal and walking away hungry. This movie may be less filling, but it sure doesn’t taste great.

 

REASONS TO GO: There are some funny moments (detailed above). Hill and Tatum have great chemistry. In-jokes up the wazoo.

REASONS TO STAY: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Lots of gags fall flat. Too many cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  You can expect a goodly amount of foul language, some drug content, bit of sexuality and brief nudity and finally some (mostly) comedic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Original Jump Street television actors Richard Grieco and Dustin Nguyen make cameo appearances.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starsky and Hutch

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Purge: Anarchy

How to Train Your Dragon 2


Hiccup and Toothless are flaming mad.

Hiccup and Toothless are flaming mad.

(2014) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kit Harrington, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kieron Elliott, Philip McGrade, Andrew Ableson, Gideon Emery, Simon Kassianides, Randy Thom. Directed by Dean DeBlois

Becoming who we are is no easy proposition. It’s a search of discovery and the answers can be elusive, particularly when we’re not especially sure who we want to be.

The movie takes place five years after the first one. Hiccup (Baruchel) has been successful in integrating dragons into the daily life of Berk which has become a much happier place as Vikings and Dragons are living in harmony. Dragon riders show their stuff in highly contested dragon races (a kind of combination between Quidditch and Rollerball). While his father Stoick (Butler) is eager for his son to take over the family business and become chief, Hiccup spends much of his time making maps of the surrounding islands, expanding the world the Vikings have lived in into a much larger place. He is also continuing to invent things, in this case a flying suit so that he can soar with his best friend Toothless (Thom) as they explore.

Unfortunately, finding out what else is out there in that wider world can be a good and bad thing. For Hiccup, the good is in finding a Dragon Rider whose ice-riddled island hides many secrets including more dragons than anyone has ever seen in one place – and their human protector, Valka (Blanchett) who turns out to be Hiccup’s mother. This is something of a surprise since Hiccup had heard all his life that Valka had died protecting him from dragons when he was a baby but it turns out that Valka, who had always defended dragons to a Stoick who was deaf to her pleas had left in order to protect her family from the dragons – and vice versa.

On the bad side, Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (Ferrara) as well as their buddies Snotlout (Hill), Fishlegs (Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (Miller) and Ruffnut (Wiig) have also discovered a tracker named Erit (Harrington) who captures dragons for the villainous Drago (Hounsou) who wishes to create a powerful dragon army under the control of his gigantic Leviathan dragon who can control the dragons – and whom Drago controls through torture and violence. This is a challenge the likes of which Hiccup has never had to face and when a tragedy strikes Hiccup closer than he could have possibly imagined, he will have to find the strength to lead his people to overcome this threat – or else lose their dragons and their freedom forever.

In many ways, this isn’t a typical summer animated feature, although it appears to be the most likely to be the kidflick hit of the summer at first glance. The tone here is much darker with a main character being killed and the abuse of animals being a central theme. That may have made some parents wary to bring their kids to the multiplex for this one, which has underperformed at the box office although it seems likely to be profitable enough to warrant further sequels. I’m sure DreamWorks Animation executives were expecting windfall profits considering that there would be no animation competition this summer essentially other than from the sequel to Disney’s Planes which although a surprise hit didn’t look especially promising as a blockbuster.

Baruchel’s nasal, deadpan delivery is perfect for the character of Hiccup and while he isn’t nearly as awkward as he was in the first movie, continues to have a kind of gawky, outsider quality that is endearing. Butler endows Stoick with plenty of proud papa and – when he discovers that Valka is alive after all – tender love and caring. Craig Ferguson also returns as Gobber, mainly as comic relief.

While I thought the first film was really meant for smaller kids, this one isn’t so much. I get the sense that they wanted to grow up along with their core audience and while younger kids will still be delighted with the variety of dragons and their often goofy behavior as well as the cartoonish depiction of humans (this isn’t photorealistic CGI animation by any stretch), the kids who fell in love with the original will have matured some and the movie gives them credit for that and treats them accordingly. That’s a pretty refreshing point of view for a genre which often reads as a giant advertisement for toys and merchandise geared at kids.

I’m giving this a rating just a smidge under the first film because I think that parents may want to be wary about letting the more sensitive and immature young ‘uns in their brood see this – at least one little tyke at the screening we went to had a very adverse reaction to one of the darker scenes in the movie. I also thought the plot could have used a little more originality but essentially those who really like the first one will really like this one and those who didn’t care for the original will feel the same about the sequel. They’re essentially interchangeable in many ways but I will admit that I am much more intrigued to see How to Train Your Dragon 3 than I was to see this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some really beautiful moments.  Treats kids with respect.

REASONS TO STAY: The dragons are often too cartoonish. May be too dark for the impressionable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of animated cartoon action and some rude (but not offensively so) humor. There is a moment in which a young man deals with an event that might be upsetting for really young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeBlois, who co-directed the original, accepted the sequel on the condition that he be allowed to direct a third film to make up a trilogy. The third film is already scheduled for June 17, 2016.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle for Terra

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

New Releases for the Week of June 13, 2014


How to Train Your Dragon 2HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

(DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Kit Harrington, Djimon Hounsou, Craig Ferguson, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill. Directed by Dean DeBlois

Hiccup, the Viking who united Vikings and dragons, is faced with a new and darker challenge – a warlord who controls some fierce dragons of his own and wants all of them under his thumb. Hiccup will have to organize his own tribe with the aid of someone unexpected whom he literally never thought he’d see again – his mom.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, B-roll video and footage from the premiere here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opens Thursday)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for adventure action and mild rude humor)

22 Jump Street

(Columbia/MGM) Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Amber Stevens. Fresh from their triumph of breaking up a high school drug ring, the two misfit cops go undercover – in college. However, their experiences there lead them to question their partnership as the two overgrown teenagers are dragged into manhood, kicking and screaming.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, footage from the premiere and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Action Comedy

Rating: R (for language throughout, sexual content, drug material, brief nudity and some violence)

Palo Alto

(Tribeca) Emma Roberts, James Franco, Val Kilmer, Nat Wolff. Four teens – a popular soccer player, a promiscuous loner who seeks validation through sex, an introspective artist and his increasingly reckless and irresponsible best friend, try to navigate through very complicated situations that may destroy their lives – or perhaps even end them. Based on a series of interlinked stories written by Franco. Gia Coppola, the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola, makes her directing debut.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and pervasive language – all involving teens)

The Signal

(Focus)  Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne. Three college students on a Southwestern road trip make a harrowing detour into a waking nightmare that has them as the focus of a government investigation.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements, violence and language)

The LEGO Movie


You can get the Batmobile in any color, as long as it's black.

You can get the Batmobile in any color, as long as it’s black.

(2014) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Liam Neeson, Jonah Hill, Dave Franco, Charlie Day, Will Forte, Cobie Smulders, Channing Tatum, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Shaquille O’Neal, Keegan-Michael Key, Jadon Sand, Melissa Sturm. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Okay, when you’re wrong you’re wrong and I was wrong. I thought that a movie about LEGOs, the plastic brick building set for kids, would be as cold and as soulless as the bricks they were essentially pimping – a 100 minute LEGO ad. Far from it, as it turns out.

Emmet (Pratt) is an ordinary construction guy, as innocuous as they come. He lives in Bricksburg, a dynamic town which is constantly building and demolishing then building again so it pays to be a construction worker. People don’t really notice Emmet and he doesn’t really have a lot of friends. Did I mention that Bricksburg was built entirely out of LEGO bricks?

People conform in Bricksburg. Everyone’s favorite TV show is Where Are My Pants? and everyone’s favorite song is “Everything is Awesome!” (which I have to admit is awfully catchy). Everyone knows their place and what they’re supposed to do.

But then Emmet stumbles upon the Piece of Resistance, a mysterious item the likes of which he’s never seen before. This gets the attention of Wyldstyle (Banks), a pretty ninja-like minifigure who also happens to be the girlfriend of Batman (Arnett). She takes Emmet to Vitruvius (Freeman), a blind seer who informs Emmet that he is The Special, the subject of a prophecy that states that The Special will save everybody.

You see, the ruthless and megalomaniacal President Business (Ferrell) intends to unleash a fearsome weapon, the Kragle, on the unsuspecting people of the various LEGO worlds – Bricksburg among them but including places like Middle Zealand (a suspiciously Tolkein-esque fantasy world), the Wild West and Cloudcuckooland which is kind of a disco rainbows and unicorns kind of place.  Only the Piece of Resistance can stop the Kragle and only the Special can wield it. Help will be given in the forms of Metalbeard (Offerman), a pirate who had to reassemble himself from scratch after an encounter with President Business, Superman (Tatum) and his clingy sidekick Green Lantern (Hill), the 80s spaceship-obsessed Benny (Day), the too-cute Unikitty (Brie) and Wonder Woman (Smulders). Chasing them is President Business’ evil henchman Bad Cop (Neeson) whose head swivels into a Good Cop mode, and an army of Micro Managers.

The question is whether Emmet is too ordinary and unimaginative to face down the bad guy. The answer is that Emmet has his own kind of imagination and surprisingly, it comes in handy when they need it.

Lord and Miller who surprised with better than I would have thought they would have been adaptations of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street show again that it is not smart to underestimate them. They are an imaginative pair of filmmakers with a terrific visual sense and a quirky sense of humor. They aren’t household names but after this one they may be the most sought-after animation directors in Hollywood. They certainly deserve to be.

The visual flair here is near-perfect; everything and by that I mean everything looks to be made of LEGO other than in a live action sequence that I don’t want to spoil. They are so creative with the bricks that even the ocean looks like moving bricks. Lord and Miller go for an almost stop-motion feel in the on-screen movements so at time you almost believe that rather than this being all animated on the computer (which it is) that someone went to the trouble and time of assembling everything out of LEGOs.

I will admit that I’m of a generation whose LEGO experience is pretty basic compared to what you see here. We didn’t have many of the special brick types and we had a limited color palate – red, black, white, yellow and grey. We certainly didn’t have the mini-figures – that came later. People of my age will probably find a good deal of the LEGO in-jokes flying over their heads.

But most parents and most kids will find this right in their sweet spot. Everyone, even those my age, will appreciate Arnett’s spot-on performance as Batman (who is a little bit of a prick) as well as Ferrell who gets a surprising scene at the end of the film that helps truly elevate the film. Pratt, best known for his work in Parks and Recreation, is appropriately upbeat as Emmet, also adding some unexpected depth by the end of the movie.

This is the kind of work that made Pixar great and given that Pixar themselves have been less-than-stellar of great, it is a bit of a relief to know that quality kids movies are still being made. Hopefully this movie – which is making some truly impressive box office hay in the first two weekends of release – will inspire Pixar to raise their bar, which they are fully capable of. I know it certainly is inspiring me to want to go out and build something with LEGOs which I imagine is exactly what the makers of LEGO wanted all along so I suppose it turns out to be a 100-minute advertisement after all.

REASONS TO GO: Appealing to both kids and adults. Terrific animation and creativity. Some nice vocal performances by Arnett, Pratt and Ferrell.

REASONS TO STAY: Those unfamiliar with the various LEGO building sets and animations may miss a good deal of the humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some innocuous violence and a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character Vitruvius was named after a 1st century BC author and architect who wrote important volumes on the science of architecture. The word “architect” can roughly be translated as “master builder.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Monuments Men