Brave New Jersey


Martians, Mexicans, it doesn’t matter: no illegal aliens!

(2016) Comedy (Gravitas) Anna Camp, Heather Burns, Tony Hale, Sam Jaeger, Erika Alexander, Evan Jonigkeit, Raymond J. Barry, Dan Bakkedahl, Grace Kaufman, Mel Rodriguez, Adina Galupa, Leonard Earl Howze, Noah Lomax, Matt Oberg, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Jack Landry, Bill Coelius, Blaque Fowler, Roy Hawkins Jr., Helen Ingebritsen, Harp Sandman. Directed by Jody Lambert

 

Older readers are probably familiar with the story of the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the World by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater ensemble on Halloween night, 1938. A precursor to found footage films of more recent times, the show was done in the style of a news broadcast of the time, leading many Americans to believe that Martians were really invading New Jersey.

In Lullaby, New Jersey – population 506 – life is pretty idyllic despite the Depression. Sure, there are many stores that are closed but it is a pleasant small town and most people take care of one another. The town may be in for a windfall as local entrepreneur Paul Davison (Jaeger) has invented the Rotolator, a machine that can automatically milk up to 15 cows simultaneously. It will revolutionize dairy farming and ground zero for this mechanical marvel will be Lullaby.

The town’s mayor, Clark Hill (Hale) is a sweet-natured, easy-going fellow who is taken for granted by his constituents and is a figure of some amusement. Nonetheless he gives much of his energy and passion to the town, although some of it is reserved for Lorraine (Burns), the wife of Paul Davison for whom Clark has had a secret crush on for years.

It’s Halloween and Lorraine’s daughter Ann (Kaufman) and adopted cousin Ziggy (Sandman) who fled Poland ahead of Hitler’s invasion (which wouldn’t take place until the following year for those following along at home) are dressed up as Greta Garbo and Abe Lincoln, respectively. Most of the townspeople are looking forward to the extravaganza unveiling the Rotolator which will be the highlight of Halloween, complete with fireworks. However, things are about to change.

People listening in on the radio are shocked to discover that there are reports of meteorites landing near Grover’s Mills – a town about a three hour drive from Lullaby. They are further shocked when Martians rise from the meteorites (which turned out to be spaceships) and turn their death rays on the good people of Grover’s Mills. As more and more spaceships land to their horror, it appears as if the human race is about to be wiped off the face of their own planet.

Former World War I soldier Ambrose Collins (Barry) takes command from the overwhelmed Sheriff (Rodriguez) and somewhat indecisive mayor and girds the town to arm itself to make a last stand. Going all gung-ho is schoolteacher Peg Prickett (Camp) who longs for a much more exciting life than being a small-town schoolteacher and is finally getting her opportunity much to the amazement of her fiancée Chardy Edwards (Oberg). Other members of the town turn to Reverend Ray Rogers (Bakkedahl) who hasn’t had his faith for a long time but finds it in this moment of crisis. Still, with lovers turning on one another and fathers leaving their family standing in the driveway as they drive away without them, can the town survive the invasion or it’s aftermath?

Apparently many of the individual incidents depicted in the film actually happened, although not all in the same town. I can’t speak to that personally; I do know that there was large-scale panic when the broadcast aired back in ’38. Some may have seen the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America which presented a much more realistic version of what actually happened that night.

The cast is mainly veterans of television and indie films and they acquit themselves well. Hale, one of the stars of Veep acquits himself particularly well; the role of the somewhat taken for granted mayor. It seems to be right in his wheelhouse. In fact, most of the actors don’t seem to be stretching all that far which is in some ways a tribute to the casting director for picking the right people for the right roles. It’s also a double-edged sword as none of the actors seem particularly challenged but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What is necessarily a bad thing is that the movie is riddled with anachronisms and errors in logic. For example, Collins is depicted in his 70s – yet World War I ended just 19 years earlier. Chances are he’d be in his late 30s or 40s if he had actually fought in the Great War. Lambert would have been better off making him a veteran of the Indian Wars of the 1880s which would have made him about the right age if he wanted to use Berry for the role.

There is also the use of words like “data” and “hustle” which weren’t in general usage in the Depression, as well as a song that the mayor is writing which sounds more apropos to the Greenwich Village coffee house scene of the 60s than the Big Band era. I would have liked to see some of that cleaned up a bit.

The humor is mainly gentle and low-key; this isn’t a movie for belly laughs. It pokes fun at the absurdities of human nature and particular how gullible we can be. It does so without being particularly political which in this day and age is a welcome respite.

The movie which I would characterize as reasonably entertaining but flawed loses steam towards the end of the second act, leading to a set piece that concludes the action. There are no real surprises here but the movie is inoffensive and has enough going for it that I can at least give it a recommendation. Not a hidden gem so much as a hidden sweater that you can wrap yourself in for an hour and a half and feel cozy and warm.

REASONS TO GO: The film possesses a gentle and low-key sense of humor. This is a treatise on human gullibility.
REASONS TO STAY: There are far too many errors in logic and anachronisms. The humor is a little bit cornball.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the town exteriors were filmed in Maury City, TN – a very small town that has the look of a Depression-era town and with many of the stores on the main street long out of business, the feel of one too.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chronically Metropolitan

The Angry Birds Movie


Flipping the bird.

Flipping the bird.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In My Sleep


Sometimes, the water isn't fine.

Sometimes, the water isn’t fine.

(2010) Thriller (Morning Star) Philip Winchester, Lacey Chabert, Abigail Spencer, Tim Draxl, Kim Overton, Michael Badalucco, Beth Grant, Tony Hale, Amy Aquino, Kevin Kilner, Aidan Mitchell, Alexandra Paul, Kirsten Vangsness, Allan Wasserman, Patrick Labyorteaux, Bellamy Young, Shanna Collins, Marcelle Larice, Kathryn Fiore. Directed by Allen Wolf

Sleep is a time for rest, for letting our bodies and minds recharge. But sleep is a mysterious state which we really don’t understand. Where does our mind go? What is it capable of? And how does our dream state relate to our waking state?

Marcus (Winchester) has a pretty good life. He’s handsome, the ladies love him (and he loves them too, one night at a time) and he works as a masseuse. His best friend Justin (Draxl) and Justin’s wife Ann (Overton) hang out in some pretty sweet digs, and his neighbor Becky (Chabert) is very interesting to him.

Marcus also has parasomnia, a form of sleepwalking in which he does things he can’t remember doing the next day. One morning he wakes up with blood on his hands and a bloody knife on the floor at his side. He finds out that one of his closest friends has been stabbed to death. Of course, the signs point to Marcus who can’t remember a thing about the night in question. Now he has to get to the bottom of the incident to find out what happened – to clear his name, or find out once and for all if he’s guilty.

The premise is fairly standard, although the sleepwalking aspect is something new. However we’ve seen the amnesia angle before, the “did I do it or didn’t I” question hanging over the proceedings. In that sense, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

Winchester, who’s best known as Frank Stanton in the cult TV show Fringe is required to carry the movie and unfortunately, he doesn’t do it on this occasion. While he’s terribly good looking and is shirtless at every opportunity possible (and a few that aren’t) his character is pretty bland and forgettable. He’s kind of a generic thriller hero.

There’s a whole lot of eye candy in this film – not of the special effects kind but the beautiful people kind. For those who prefer female forms, there are a lot of women in the movie in various states of undress. Can’t complain about that – unless said states of undress are gratuitous and unnecessary, which they mostly are.

It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on and by the time the big twist comes around pretty much everybody will have figured it out (to be fair, there aren’t a lot of suspects to choose from). Quite frankly, by the time the big twist comes around pretty much everybody will have long since stopped caring.

Chabert has never been a favorite actress of mine but she more than holds her own here, leading me to think I should revise my opinion of her. Hopefully she’ll continue delivering performances like this and hopefully in better movies than this one. Sadly, this is a movie that had some potential but at the end of the day, simply doesn’t have much to recommend it, unless you don’t mind checking out all the beautiful people and their bodies that decorate the film.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice premise. Chabert does a fine job. Winchester is awfully handsome.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks suspense. Predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: In addition to some fairly strong sexual content, there’s also some violence and foul language and some gruesome bloody images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to help finance the movie, Wolf created Morning Star Games, a board game company that created award winning games that are still being produced today (one of them, “You’re Pulling My Leg” appears in the film).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel. On the Blu-Ray edition there’s also a music video and a gag nightmare..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $90,093 on a $3M production budget; obviously this film was unprofitable during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trance

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Despicable Me 2