Game Night


Some games are riskier than others.

(2018) Comedy (New Line) Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemmons, Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Michael C. Hall, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Camille Chen, Zerrick Deion Williams, Joshua Mikel, R.F. Daley, John Francis Daley, Michael Cyril Creighton, Brooke Jaye Taylor, Jonathan Goldstein, Charlotte Hazzard. Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein

 

Everyone knows someone whose competitive urges are on a scale of one to ten about a 35. Max (Bateman) and his wife Annie (McAdams) are just like that. They host a regular game night at their home in which friends are invited (or in the case of creepy cop Gary (Plemmons), not) to play a variety of party games. When Max’s mega-successful big brother Brooks (Chandler), a venture capitalist who Max has competed with unsuccessfully comes to town, Max is put off his game a little bit. When Brooks offers to host game night at his lavish home, Max is further intimidated.

Brooks dispenses with the traditional board games and instead does a kidnap mystery event, offering his cherry red Stingray (Max’s dream car as it turns out) as a prize for the first to solve the mystery, Max looks at it as an opportunity to finally get redemption with his brother. But when it turns out that the kidnapping is real and so are the guns, things take a turn for the wacky.

I honestly didn’t expect too much from the movie going in. I thought it would be another mildly funny and occasionally laugh-out-loud comedy that seem to dominate the comedy landscape these days but I was pleasantly surprised. This is one of the funniest movies of the year, hands down. Not only is the script funny but it’s generous – nearly everyone in the ensemble cast has their moment to deliver an amazing punch line or even a moment of sublime physical comedy. Bateman shines the brightest, still as likable as ever.

If the movie has a drawback it’s that it sometimes overthinks things. The story works best when things are kept simple. This is a rare film that is funny without being gimmicky, allowing the characters to develop nicely without being overly silly. Da Queen liked it even more than I did, which is saying something. If you’re looking for a movie that is bound to make you laugh, this is the one to select, at least as far as 2018 is concerned.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is unexpectedly funny in places. Bateman remains one of the most charming actors in Hollywood.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot occasionally gets over-complicated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some sexual references and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bateman and McAdams previously appeared together in State of Play.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tag
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

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It (2017)


A young boy is about to float forever.

(2017) Horror (New Line) Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Geoffrey Pounsett, Pip Dwyer, Mollie Jane Atkinson, Steven Williams, Elizabeth Saunders. Directed by Andy Muschietti

Childhood can be a rough time, particularly that transitional time moving from childhood into the teenage years. As we go through that transition there are no instruction manuals, no online courses; we simply have to feel our way through. Of course, this transition is made all the more difficult when you and your friends are being stalked by a malevolent clown.

One rainy afternoon Georgie Denbrough (Scott) is playing with a toy boat his big brother Bill (Lieberher) made for him in the rain gutters near his home in Derry, Maine. Georgie idolizes his big brother and Bill loves his kid brother fiercely; unfortunately, Bill has a bad cold and can’t watch over his kid brother who loses his boat in a fast current that takes it down a storm drain. There dwells Pennywise (Skarsgård) the clown and there Georgie will meet a grisly end – but his body will never be found..

It’s summer and things are the same and different around Derry. Kids, like Georgie, are disappearing and while it is noticed, it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of urgency. That’s mainly because the adults in town are monsters just a shade below the level of Pennywise; Bill’s stutter has become even worse since Georgie disappeared and his father (Pounsett) Bill is pretty sure doesn’t think he can do anything right. Eddie Kaspbrak (Grazer) has become a hypochondriac thanks to his hand-wringing overprotective mom.

Mike Hanlon (Jacobs) is queasy at the thought of killing the lambs his father provides to local grocery stores and butchers and Richie Tozier (Wolfhard) is as annoying as they come and swears like a sailor. Stanley Uris (Oleff) is terrified he’ll mess up at his upcoming bar mitzvah under the stern gaze of his rabbi father but worst of all is Beverly Marsh (Lillis) whose dad (Bogaert) is sexually abusing her. It’s really tough to be a kid in Derry.

But Bill has figured out that Pennywise, with his signature red balloons, is the culprit behind the disappearances, especially after new kid Ben Hanscom (Taylor) looks into the history of Derry and discovers that every 27 years there is a rash of kid disappearances – and it happens to be 27 years since the last group. And clearly visible in some antique photos of Derry – Pennywise the Clown.

They’ve tracked the clown to an abandoned house on the site of an old well which leads into the tunnels and sewers of Derry which is the domain of Pennywise now. There they will find out the fate of the missing children – and confront the demonic clown on his own tuff.

As everyone knows, this is one of Stephen King’s iconic novels. It was made into a miniseries back in 1990 with Tim Curry famously in the role of Pennywise. That’s about when the current It is set – an update of about 20 years. Appropriately enough, it has been 27 years since the miniseries – the exact number of years between kid killings in the book and in the miniseries and now in the movie. Make of that what you will (I make of it coincidence but a terrific marketing opportunity).

There is a bit of a Stranger Things vibe here and it’s not just because Wolfhard, an integral part of the acclaimed Netflix series cast, is also in this one. The camaraderie between the kids is genuine and unforced and while it is set basically in the same era as Stranger Things there are some critical differences – It isn’t as wedded to its time frame as the TV show is and in some ways that’s a very good thing.

In fact, the ensemble cast does a bang-up job and in particular Lieberher and Lillis show the most promise and give the most satisfying performances while Wolfhard is a natural as the wise guy Richie Tozier – a part not unlike the one he plays in Stranger Things but enough of the comparisons. These are definitely two very different animals.

Pennywise is something of an iconic villain, the killer clown to end all killer clowns. Curry made the part his own back in 1990 and his performance is still one of the great monster portrayals in the history of the genre. Skarsgård is inevitably going to be compared to that performance and quite frankly, while he’s a very good actor in is own right he just doesn’t have a chance between the passage of time that makes memory fonder and the fact that Curry is so universally adored. That’s not that Skarsgård doesn’t do a great job – he does – but he simply can’t compete and he is kind of forced to by circumstance.

The special effects are for the most part special indeed and while the scares aren’t many they are entirely effective when they do come. There is a reason why this movie has been so successful at the box office and one viewing of it will tell you what that is. It isn’t the best horror movie of the year – it isn’t even the best Stephen King adaptation of the year – but it’s a very good movie that should get your Halloween scare needs easily met.

REASONS TO GO: The young cast does an exceptional job as an ensemble. The special effects are quite impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: Although Skarsgård does a pretty decent job, he’s still no Tim Curry.
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect there is a good deal of violence and horrific images, gore and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the biggest opening weekend gross of any horror film ever; went on to become the all-time highest-grossing horror film ever.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clowntown
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness concludes!

Annabelle: Creation


The power of Christ compels you!

(2017) Horror (New Line) Anthony LaPaglia, Samara Lee, Miranda Otto, Brad Greenquist, Lulu Wilson, Tabitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Mark Bramhall, Grace Fulton, Philippa Coulthard, Taylor Buck, Lou Lou Safran, Joseph Bishara, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten, Fred Tatasciore (voice), Brian Howe, Adam Bartley, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by David F. Sandberg

Creepy haunted dolls have been a staple of the horror genre for a very long time. Sometimes they are the avatars for demonic spirits; other times they are physically possessed. They are sometimes played for laughs but there are few things scarier than a demonic doll coming at you while brandishing a knife with intent to do homicide.

I imagine nobody would know that better than Sam Mullins (LaPaglia) since he is a dollmaker. He is also a grieving father; his daughter Bee (Lee) was killed in a tragic auto accident some seven years earlier (this is set in the late 1940s/early 1950s by the way). Since then, he has retreated back to the California farmhouse that is also his workshop along with his disfigured and disabled wife Esther (Otto).

When he hears of an orphanage in need of some housing space, he invites them to stay in his spacious home. For the six girls who are brought to the Mullins farm, it’s like heaven on Earth. Their caretaker, Sister Charlotte (Sigman) is grateful that they have a place to stay, particularly for the two youngest, polio-stricken Janice (Bateman) whose leg is in a brace and her cheerful, optimistic bestie Linda (Wilson) who has sworn to stay together with Janice no matter what.

There is one room that is locked in the whole house, one of two that the girls are forbidden to enter; one is the bedroom where Esther rests; the locked door is Bee’s former bedroom. However, when Janice discovers the door to Bee’s room open and ventures in, she finds there a doll that seemingly can move on its own and the spirit of Bee begging for help. What does Bee need? “Your soul,” she snarls and Janice is on the road to Linda Blair-land. Soon after the orphans and the grieving couple are going to be doing a lot of running, screaming and in some cases, bleeding.

This is a prequel to the first Annabelle film which in turn was a prequel to The Conjuring. Sandberg was apparently reluctant to tackle this initially after achieving a rep with the successful Lights Out  He decided to do it because the film is almost a stand-alone entry; very little of the rest of the Conjured universe is even referenced here. With Creation netting $300 million (and counting) at the box office on a production budget of $35 million, you can bet he’ll have the juice to pick and choose his next few projects at his leisure.

The movie is a slow burner; it starts off slowly, builds gradually than erupts in the third act in a chaotic whirlwind of gore and terror – very old school when it comes to that and you’ll find no objection coming from this critic on that count. I also like the air of melancholy that Sandberg sets up and is particularly enacted by LaPaglia who is a much underrated actor. Sigman gets to look worried an awful lot and Otto gets almost no screen time whatsoever but makes good use of the time she does get.

The rest of the cast playing the orphans are all very attractive and well-scrubbed although they are mostly given one-note characters to play; the mean one, the flunky, the perky one and so on. Bateman does a credible job playing the frightened Janice, a young girl who’s gotten a raw deal from life although that deal gets even worse when Annabelle shows up; the before and after portrayals show some real talent for Bateman. I’m not familiar with Hart of Dixie, the TV show she was a regular on but judging on her performance here I think she certainly has a future.

Although critics were solidly behind this one, I found it to be the weakest entry in the franchise so far and mainly because it really doesn’t have much of a personality. While there are a few legitimately good scares here, the vast majority of them are pretty predictable. The plot utilizes a lot of elements that are typical for horror films including the panic-driven dumb moves by the protagonists. There felt like a shortage of imagination in writing this film which is what really bothered me about it. The CGI was a little subpar as well.

Still, this is a solid horror movie that will entertain; it just doesn’t hold up as well next to the other entrants in the franchise. Given its box office success and with at least two more spin-offs in the works from the second Conjuring movie, I can say with confidence that we haven’t seen the last of Annabelle quite yet.

REASONS TO GO: LaPaglia gives a melancholy performance. There are a few really nasty scares here.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s definitely the weakest entry in the franchise thus far. It feels a bit short on imagination with too many horror movie clichés in the mix.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific images, lots of violence and situations of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in The Conjuring franchise in which Ed and Lorraine Warren are not mentioned in any way.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Child’s Play
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

Collateral Beauty


Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here...

Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here…

(2016) Drama (New Line) Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, Naomie Harris, Ann Dowd, Lisa Colón-Zayas, Natalie Gold, Kylie Rogers, Shirley Rumierk, Alyssa Cheatham, Benjamin Snyder, Mary Beth Peil, Andy Taylor, Michael Cumpsty, Jonathan Rivera Morales, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Ella Monte-Brown. Directed by David Frankel

 

We all deal with grief in different ways. Some of us pour ourselves into our work; others lose all focus. Some of us rage against the universe; others try to find something constructive to do, such as create or work for a charity. Sooner or later however all of us must deal with the loss of a loved one.

Howard (Smith) is doing just that. His beloved daughter has passed away and now, two years later, the successful advertising agency he built is floundering, losing clients left and right because Howard, their main creative force, just doesn’t care anymore. His best friends all work at the company; Whit (Norton), who co-founded the company with him, Claire (Winslet) who has given up marriage and children to give her full focus on the company and Simon (Peña), the numbers man.

There is an offer on the table to buy the company but Howard won’t even consider it. All of the principals stand to lose everything if they can’t salvage the situation and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Whit, Claire and Simon, desperate to understand what’s going on with Howard, hire a private detective (Dowd) to figure out what their friend is doing. Nothing much; mainly building domino constructions, biking back and forth from work and writing letters.

The latter is kind of the peculiar part; they’re not letters to people but to things; concepts, really. He’s been writing to Love, Death and Time. The three partners hit upon an idea that, well, never would have occurred to me; to hire three unemployed actors that Whit has found who can play the parts of Love, Death and Time who will personally answer Howard’s letters. They’re not really hoping that this performance will bring Howard back but the detective can film Howard talking to them (yelling at them really) and then digitally remove the three actors so that Howard can be proven incompetent and the sale go through without him.

The actors that Whit recruits – Brigitte (Mirren) who plays Death, Amy (Knightley) who plays Love (now, that I can believe) and Raffi (Lattimore) who plays Time each begin to spend time with one of the partners – Brigitte with Simon, Amy with Whit and Raffi with Claire – and end up helping them with their own problems. In the meantime, Howard has started attending a support group for grieving parents run by the lovely Madeleine (Harris) and looks like he might finally be emerging from his shell. But will it be in time to save everything he’s built, including his friendships?

If the plot summary sounded implausible that’s pretty much because it is. I can’t imagine “friends” doing something that awful to a friend, and the movie portrays them as genuinely concerned for Howard’s well-being. I can’t really reconcile the actions of concocting an elaborate scam to prove their friend incompetent (which has other ramifications beyond the sale of his company) with all the mea culpa chest-beating about what a great guy Howard is and how much they “miss” the old Howard. I mean, friends just don’t do that.

The cast is one of the best you’ll see gathered in a single movie with a couple of Oscar winners and four nominees. None of them will be adding to their nomination total here but the performances are nonetheless solid. Peña caught my attention for a very emotional performance as a family man facing a terrible crisis of his own, and Smith who is the main performance in what is essentially an ensemble cast gets to keep everything in until the last scene in which he unleashes some of his best acting of his career.

That ending however contains a twist so unbelievable that at that point most people are just going to throw their hands up in the air and give up on the movie, and I can’t blame them. However, if you do as I do and just enjoy the ride rather than try to make sense of things, you’ll be far happier.

Now as you can tell the critical response has been harsh. Keep in mind however that most professional critics don’t like being emotionally manipulated and films that do that tend to get harsh scores. In that sense, critics can’t be trusted with films like this. You really have to go and experience it on your own and judge for yourself. You, after all, may not mind being having your emotions manipulated. Maybe you need it. I do, sometimes. Sometimes I need the release of a good cry. Catharsis makes us all emotionally healthier after all.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout, particularly by Peña and Smith. The premise is at least intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Many of the plot twists are telegraphed. The ending is a bit preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity but mostly the themes are pretty adult in nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winslet, Mirren and Smith were all nominated for Oscars in 2007, although only Mirren was victorious.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meet Joe Black
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The True Memoirs of an International Assassin

Creed


Stallone gets a new lease on life.

Stallone gets a new lease on life.

(2015) Sports Drama (MGM/New Line) Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Phylicia Rashad, Tessa Thompson, Tony Bellew, Richie Coster, Andre Ward, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Graham McTavish, Malik Bazille, Ricardo McGill, Gabe Rosado, Wood Harris, Buddy Osborn, Rupal Pujara, Brian Anthony Wilson, Joey Eye, Johanna Tolentino. Directed by Ryan Coogler

Legacies can be tricky things. We want our kids to end up better than us, to be their own people and to leave their own legacy, but sometimes our accomplishments get in the way of that. Our own success can put enormous pressure on our children.

Adonis Johnson (Jordan) has had a hard time of it. Growing up in foster care after his mother passed away (having never known his daddy who died before he was born), he is raised by Mary Anne Creed (Rashad), wife of the immortal heavyweight champion. Eventually he finds out that his father was in fact Apollo Creed, the product of an extramarital affair. Mary Anne informed Adonis of this when he was younger and Adonis, who has the boxing bug pre-wired into him, prefers to go by his birth name so that he can make his own name in the sport. Sadly, that’s only gotten him so far – low-rent fights in Tijuana.

He wants to do better though and gives up a high-paying job in which he’d just gotten promoted and heads east to Philadelphia to look up an old friend of his father; Rocky Balboa (Stallone). At first, Rocky is not terribly interested. He is busy running his restaurant and has left the boxing game behind him. Just about everyone and everything that has meant anything to him is dead or gone; he’s alone in Philly, growing older and somewhat wiser and a little bit wary about caring for anybody ever again.

Still, he sees something in Adonis – his persistence, his passion perhaps – and decides to take him on. After an impressive fight against an up-and-coming middleweight, word gets out about Adonis’ lineage. That attracts the attention of “Pretty” Ricky Conlon (real life pugilist Ballew), the World Champion from Britain who is getting ready to hang up his gloves after being convicted on a weapons charge (which somewhat ironically wouldn’t be a crime in the United States). When a sure-fire payday falls through, his manager (McTavish) is scrambling to find one last opponent and the son of Apollo Creed would have to do, particularly with ex-Champ Rocky Balboa in his corner.

As Adonis begins training, he falls for a neighbor, Bianca (Thompson) who has a burgeoning career of her own as a sultry R&B singer. Everything is going better than Adonis could have hoped; but things begin to fall apart, partly through circumstance and partly through his own bull-headed rage. Can Adonis overcome the chip on his shoulder and make a name for himself, or will he be doomed to be the failed son of a legend who couldn’t measure up to his dad’s legacy?

Coogler, who directed Jordan in the excellent Fruitvale Station, absolutely nails it for his big studio debut. A fan of the Rocky series since childhood (and bonded with his own father over), he doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, but merely brings all the right elements forward to make this a 21st century Rocky movie, and succeeds in what may sound like a modest ambition but is in reality much more difficult than making an homage or a reboot.

He shows off some astonishing chops as a director including a jaw-dropping travelling shot that follows Adonis into the arena from his dressing room for one of his first fights. He also films each of the three boxing matches in the film differently and  in doing so makes each match unique and memorable, so that the boxing sequences never get boring.

Stallone in particular benefits from Coogler’s sure hand in the director’s chair. We see Rocky not as a strong man in the prime of life but as an old man, facing his own mortality having outlived his wife and best friend. In many ways, Rocky has given up and is just waiting to play out his hand but Adonis instills in him once again the champion’s will to win. We see Rocky as not so much an icon, or even the cartoon character he eventually became in many ways, but as a  complex man who is much more than a pug who talks like he’s taken one too many shots to the head.

Jordan, who showed tremendous potential in Fruitvale Station, fulfills it here and shows that he can be a major star. His Adonis can be tender but has a hunger in him that drives him, one that sometimes drives him to rage. That rage often sabotages his dreams and drives away those closest to him. Adonis has to find a way to make peace with his feelings for his father and move on, and in a sense he does but there’s a lot more to it than that. To Coogler’s credit (he co-authored the screenplay), this is the kind of movie that makes you think about it and discover little nuances in the story that suddenly appear when you examine the performances. That’s some good writing, right there.

Early on, the movie is a little slow-paced as the characters are established, but that can be forgiven as it allows us to connect with them more later on. However, with the movie nearly two and a half hours long, that may be a bit more than modern attention-deficient audiences to bear, so keep that in mind.

When this movie was announced, I was sure this was going to continue flogging a franchise that I considered to be a dead horse. I was a little more hopeful when I heard Coogler was directing it – I’m a big fan of Fruitvale Station. But seeing this exceeded all my expectations and showed that even when you think a film franchise has done and said everything it can, the right artist can come in and breathe new life and make it seem fresh and new again. A lot of folks are calling this one of the best films of the year and I can’t really argue with them. This is certainly a must-see movie for the holiday season, and should be seen the first chance you get if you haven’t seen it already. I’m certainly regretting waiting so long to get into the theater to see it myself.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally powerful. Some of Stallone’s best work. Jordan serves notice that he is an actor to be reckoned with.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit, particularly early on. A bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Boxing violence (and a little outside the ring), foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Rocky film to not be written by Stallone, nor does he appear as a boxer in the ring. It is also, at just over two hours, the longest film in the franchise.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocky
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Holly and The Quill begins!

Vacation


Some swimming holes are best left alone.

Some swimming holes are best left alone.

(2015) Comedy (New Line) Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Charlie Day, Catherine Missal, Ron Livingston, Norman Reedus, Keegan-Michael Key, Regina Hall, Emyri Crutchfield, Alkoya Brunson, Nick Kroll, Tim Heidecker, Michael Pena, Colin Hanks, Kaitlin Olson, Hanna Davis, Kristin Ford. Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein

Vacations are the source of a good percentage of our fondest memories. Who can forget that road trip to a national park, or to Disney World, or that trip to grandma’s house in the country? These are memories we carry with us for a lifetime.

Rusty Griswold (Helms) can vouch for that. As a pilot for a small commuter airline, he is used to flights in which the final descent begins five minutes after take-off. He is a decent sort, if a little bit on the white bread side. He has two kids; James (Gisondo) is the eldest who wants nothing more than to play guitar and daydream. The other one, Kevin (Stebbins) who might well have been named Satan, bullies his older brother unmercifully and doesn’t really have respect for anyone to be honest. His wife Debbie (Applegate) is beautiful but the spark has gone out of their marriage in a big way.

Rusty decides that rather than go to the same Michigan cabin the family has gone to for years on their vacation, he’d take a page out of his own scrapbook and take his family on a road trip to Southern California’s best theme park, Wally World.

However, his family is less than enthusiastic about the idea, especially when he turns up in a rented van, from the Honda of Albania with a key fob that does everything but what normal key fobs do. It is the only vehicle where the cup holders are on the outside of the car and comes with a self-destruct mechanism, which can be activated by pressing the swastika button on the fob.

Getting to Wally World will include detours to the most vile hot springs on earth, a visit with Rusty’s sister Audrey (Mann) and her hunky meteorologist husband Stone Crandall (Hemsworth) who is more than happy to see Debbie, a visit to Debbie’s old sorority house in Memphis where Rusty learns a few things about his wife that he never knew, a stop to go white water kayaking in the Grand Canyon with a guide (Day) who’s having a horrible day, and finally, a stop in San Francisco to visit some familiar faces.

This is a peculiar entry into the franchise as it is both a reboot and a sequel; it’s a reboot in the sense that it is a brand new entry in the franchise after years of inactivity with an entirely new cast, and it takes place where the events of National Lampoon’s Vacation and its sequel happened. It can even be said to be a remake since the plot of this one is essentially the same as the first.

Ed Helms, the sixth actor to play Rusty (which is some kind of record), takes over for Chevy Chase as the head of the Griswold clan. Like Clark, Rusty is both optimistic and oblivious. He tries to do what’s best for his family but often overlooks not just what his family wants but simple common sense as well. He, like his dad before him, is the king of good intentions gone bad. Helms is a terrific comic actor who not only highlighted the Hangover franchise but was amazing as a lead in Cedar Rapids as well. This is less successful in that sense but not because of anything Helms did or didn’t do; we’ll get into that in a minute.

Applegate, like Beverly D’Angelo before her, is a gorgeous blonde who tries to reign in her husband’s quirkier inclinations but unlike the Ellen Griswold character, Debbie isn’t happy in her marriage. Given her wild past, that’s not unexpected. Applegate is one of the most underrated leading ladies out there, particularly in the comedy genre. She has great comic timing, is sexy as all get out and can play just about any character she chooses to. She doesn’t get the leading roles that a Tina Fey or an Amy Poehler might get (or even a Cameron Diaz) but she is to comedies what Maria Bello is to dramas; a strong, beautiful and desirable performer who never upstages the lead.

The rest of the cast is pretty decent with plenty of cameos by fairly well-known names (although I must admit that the Chase/D’Angelo cameo was the most welcome) but the best support actually comes from Stebbins as the badger of an 8-year-old who humiliates his teenage brother and is essentially an unholy terror. Some of the best moments in the movie are his.

The humor here is like a lot of comedies, very hit or miss depending on your sense of humor. There is a lot of scatological jokes and plenty of rude, crude bits that may either delight your inner twelve-year-old boy or cause you to purse your lips in distaste. Many of the best jokes (the hot springs incident) are spoiled by their appearance in the trailer sadly, so be warned. They do get the family bonds thing right, so in that sense this movie has the same vibe as its 1983 predecessor. That much is entirely welcome.

This isn’t the greatest comedy you’ll see this summer. It isn’t even the best of the Vacation movies, albeit it is the first without the National Lampoon label. However, it has enough going on that’s good to give it a mild recommendation. Think of it as less of a Vacation and more of a weekend getaway.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the scenes are genuinely funny – most of them appear in the trailer. Helms and Applegate are always engaging.
REASONS TO STAY: Very, very hit and miss. Something of a hot mess.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of crude humor, sexual situations, brief graphic nudity and foul language throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Released on the same day as the original – July 29 – only 32 years later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: National Lampoon’s Vacation
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Walt Before Mickey

San Andreas


Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People's Elbow.

Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People’s Elbow.

(2015) Disaster  (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandria Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue, Colton Haynes, Todd Williams, Matt Gerald, Alec Utgoff, Marissa Neitling, Morgan Griffin, Breanne Hill, Laurence Coy, Fiona Press, Dennis Coard, Simone Kessell. Directed by Brad Peyton

When the earth starts to shake and buildings begin to fall, who are you gonna call? Dwayne Johnson! When the fault cracks in two which the tsunami rolls into, who’ll see you through? Dwayne Johnson!

Disaster movies were a thing of the 70s for a short while, all-star casts of big stars put at risk by natural or man-made disasters. Irwin Allen was the king of these films, and things like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno were big box office champs back in the day. These days, most of those disaster effects are done on computers which you’d think would save money in the budget for amazing casts but here in this 21st century disaster movie, after legitimate stars Johnson and Giamatti as well as next-tier stars Gugino, Daddario, Panjabi and Gruffudd, things get a little thin. Where’s William Holden when you really need him?

Ray (Johnson) is a LAFD rescue helicopter pilot whose devotion to his job increased exponentially when one of his daughters drowned during a rafting trip and he was unable to save her. His remaining daughter Blake (Daddario) adores daddy, but he emotionally shut down after the tragedy and after trying and trying his wife Emma (Gugino) is now his ex-wife and is moving into the palatial mansion of architect Daniel Reddick (Gruffudd) who seems like a genuinely nice guy. When a massive earthquake in Nevada ruptures the Hoover Dam, forcing an all hands on deck call to any rescue helicopter pilots in the neighborhood, Ray has to cancel on a planned road trip to take his baby girl to college. She instead hitches a ride to San Francisco with Daniel. And Emma takes a lunch with his bitchy sister (Minogue).

That’s when Big One #2 hits, in Los Angeles. Ray is forced to save his own wife from a collapsing high rise and when they realize that Big One #3 is going to hit San Francisco at any moment – thanks to earthquake predicting software developed by Dr. Lawrence (Giamatti) whose partner (Lee) was buried alive in the Hoover Dam thing. Now Ray and Emma are heading up to San Francisco to rescue Blake who has been abandoned by the as-it-turns-out cowardly Daniel and has hooked up with a lovestruck Brit named Ben (Johnstone-Burt) and his precocious little brother Ollie (Parkinson).

The effects-heavy San Andreas features lots of buildings and other structures collapsing, people crushed by fallen masonry, a tsunami that takes down the Golden Gate Bridge and Ray driving anything that isn’t nailed down be it on land, in the air or at sea. There’s plenty of shark jumping and WTF moments that will turn your brain into peanut butter if you think about it too hard. My advice is, just don’t think about it and go with the flow.

Other than the adequate and occasionally delightful effects, the big draw here is Johnson. He’s not the most accomplished actor on any given set, but he doesn’t need to be, particularly on movies like this. He gets by on his irresistible charm, his rippling biceps and his genuine heart. You can’t help but like the guy no matter who he’s playing; it will be interesting to see what he does with a villain role in the upcoming comic book hero movie Shazam. Here even at the movie’s most godawful plot moments, he rescues it just by being himself.

Writer Carlton Cuse (Lost) doesn’t deliver his best work here which is kind of a shame; I would have loved to see his ability to draw up fascinating characters in impossible situations transplanted here, but the movie is just so engaging in terms of effects and disaster goodness that it’s hard to really fault Cuse for not bringing on the A game here. This isn’t going to break box office records, nor is it going to redefine the summer blockbuster. While it could have used a more judicious hand in the editing room – dodging falling buildings repetitively gets pretty old after awhile – it nonetheless accomplishes what most of us are looking for this time of year which is a fun ride at the movie theater.

REASONS TO GO: Dwayne Johnson saves the day. Fun summer entertainment.
REASONS TO STAY: Paint-by-numbers plot. Probably a good half hour too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Intense action, disaster mayhem and a few choice curse words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riddick’s San Francisco headquarters is actually the Bank of America building, the same building (enhanced with optical effects) that was used for the 1974 disaster classic The Towering Inferno.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Earthquake
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Peace, Love and Misunderstanding