Upgrade


Grey Trace descends into a nightmare.

(2018) Science Fiction (Blumhouse) Logan Marshall-Green, Harrison Gilbertson, Melanie Vallejo, Steve Danielsen, Abby Craden (voice), Benedict Hardie, Richard Cawthorne, Christopher Kirby, Richard Anastasios, Kenny Low, Linda Cropper, Betty Gabriel, Emily Havea, Ming-Zhu Hii, Simon Maiden (voice), Stephanie Demkiw.  Directed by Leigh Whannell

 

When Grey Trace (Marshall-Green, doing his best Tom Hardy), an analogue man in a digital world, is shot and paralyzed and watches as his wife (Vallejo) is shot dead, he only wants to die. Enter bazillionaire Eron Keen (Gilbertson, doing his best Leonardo Di Caprio) who was a client of Grey’s auto restoring business, offers to set things right by implanting a spiffy new microchip in Grey’s spine, not only allowing him to walk again but giving him superhuman combat skills. Grey decides to use his new abilities to find his wife’s killers, all the while hiding his new found condition from the police detective (Gabriel, doing her best Betty Gabriel) investigating his wife’s murder.

While the plot is a mite hackneyed, this dystopian sci-fi action thriller has its own charm. Australian director Whannell – who as James Wan’s writing partner helped kickstart both the Saw and Insidious franchises – takes his cues from the Robocop franchise of Paul Verhoeven to comment on our own society, from the increasing loss of privacy to the over-reliance on technology most of us don’t understand.

Whannell does very well with the action sequences which are kinetic and fun, as well as the special effects which can be stomach-churning or glossy depending on the mood. There’s plenty of gore, enough that the sensitive should be warned, but not so much that the gore is the main component. Marshall-Green does a serviceable job in the lead and most of the cast of non-household names hits their marks well, even though most of the characters are fairly underdeveloped. For the most part this is a fun ride although it is sabotaged with a groaner of an ending.

REASONS TO GO: The effects and action sequences are well-done. There is some interesting commentary on a Big Brother-like society which with our online privacy disappearing seems to be the direction we are going in as a society..
REASONS TO STAY: The ending falls with a bit of a thud.
FAMILY VALUES: There is brutal violence and gore, some grisly images and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  During fight scenes, the camera follows Grey keeping him in the middle of the frame. This was done by secreting a smart phone on Marshall-Green and pairing the camera with the phone.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robocop
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Chasing Coral

Advertisements

The Fate of the Furious


Why so angry>

(2017) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Kurt Russell, Nathalie Emmanuel, Luke Evans, Elsa Pataky, Helen Mirren, Scott Eastwood, Kristofer Hivju,, Patrick St. Esprit, Janmarco Santiago, Luke Hawx, Corey Maher, Olek Krupa, Alexander  Babara, Eden Estrella. Directed by F. Gary Gray

 

There was a big question mark hanging over the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise; with co-star Paul Walker gone, could the series continue to reach the heights it achieved with Furious 7? Well, in terms of box office and spectacle, the answer turned out to be yes. But does it hold up with the best of the films in the franchise?

Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is on his honeymoon with his girl Letty (Rodriguez) in Havana, doing what most new husbands do on their honeymoon; get involved in a street race. He is also approached by Cypher (Theron), a world class hacker who has something on Dom but we’re not sure what. His wolfish smile, which looks for all the world like he’s displaying his fangs, turns into a world class scowl – see picture above.

During the next mission with his crew, Dom betrays them leaving Hobbs (Johnson) holding the bag, Cypher holding some Russian nuclear codes and the team unable to believe that Dom would turn on them. The world thinks Dom has gone Rogue but Mr. Nobody (Russell) thinks differently, even after Dom and Cypher attack their headquarters in New York City. Dom flees and Cypher uses her special skills to take control over every computer-enabled car in Manhattan, raining down cars on the team like a really bad hailstorm.

Cypher is after a Russian nuclear sub and with her launch codes could hold the world hostage for a tidy amount of cash but Letty, Mr. Nobody and the until-recently-incarcerated Hobbs have other plans, and they’re going to get some reinforcements of the most unexpected kind. Friend and foe will unite to take on this deadly femme fatale.

Now, I’m not going to beat around the bush; the action sequences are absolutely outstanding. The New York sequence is right there as is the climactic scene in which Dom’s crew chase down the submarine over ice – don’t even ask for sense here. Nothing here makes any. What we have is just cars going fast, things going boom and attractive guys and gals at the wheels of cars we couldn’t possibly afford. What better fantasy is there for a red-blooded American?

I think that the instructions here were to go big and Gray as well as screenwriter Chris Morgan may have taken it too much to heart. This is more in the James Bond territory now than what was once a simple underground street racing movie featuring a bunch of LA guys in wife beaters driving some cool midlife crisis compensators. There are gadgets, CGI and not a whole lot of character development which may be because there are way too many characters here. Too many to keep track of, anyway.

I wasn’t a fan of this franchise initially but starting with the fourth installment I began to get into it. Unfortunately, this is a giant step backwards and while it’s billion dollar worldwide box office guarantees an ninth episode (there will also be a tenth which has already been dated by Universal), I’m not looking forward to it with quite the anticipation of the previous few installments.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are great. You can’t go wrong with a heavyweight cast like this one.
REASONS TO STAY: This is the weakest entry in the franchise since Tokyo Drift. There are too many characters to keep up with.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of violence and action, some sensuality and brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were rumors that Diesel and Johnson were having some personal difficulties with one another; after Johnson posted his frustrations online, the two met privately and resolved their differences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Need for Speed
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Cyclotron

Straight Outta Compton


N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

(2015) Musical Biography (Universal) O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor, Carla Patterson, Paul Giamatti, Alexandra Shipp, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Sheldon A. Smith, Keith Stanfield, Cleavon McClendon, Aeriel Miranda, Lisa Renee Pitts, Angela Renee Gibbs. Directed by F. Gary Gray

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not really a fan of rap but then again, I’m not really the target audience. It is hard for someone who grew up in a white collar suburban neighborhood to feel the same rage as someone who grew up in an inner city neighborhood where police harassment is an everyday occurrence as is gang violence and drug abuse. I’m also uncomfortable with the misogyny and homophobia that is often expressed by rappers, and I don’t condone the glorification of the thug lifestyle that they occasionally promote.

That said, it doesn’t mean I don’t respect the music nor the effect it has had culturally. When gangsta rap and N.W.A. exploded on the scene, it had the effect of a cultural atom bomb on not only inner city youth but also on white suburbanites, some of whom feared it as the expression of all their racist stereotypes but also on the younger white suburban kids who embraced hip-hop culture and tried to emulate it, often to the amusement of the hip-hop community  (I once heard a rapper sneer as he saw a group of white teen girls listening to Tupac “What do they have to be mad at? Daddy won’t let them borrow the car?”) among others.

There is no denying though that gangsta rap is the result of legitimate grievances felt by the African-American community. Andre Young – a.k.a. Dr. Dre (Hawkins), O’Shea Jackson – a.k.a. Ice Cube (Jackson, the son of the actual Ice Cube) and Eric Wright – a.k.a. Easy-E (Mitchell) – all grew up in Compton, a predominantly poor, black section of Los Angeles. All are witness to the assaults going on in the community against those that live there, both from ultra-violent gang bangers and from the police who are supposed to be protecting them but yet treat all of the residents like criminals. All are angry that nothing is being done about it and that politically speaking, the African-American community is essentially invisible.

They all love hip-hop that is going on then, most of it coming from the East Coast. West Coast rap was then in its earliest stages and when the three of them got together along with MC Ren (Hodge, formerly of the underrated Leverage) and DJ Yella (Brown) there was no denying that there was magic going on. Easy decides that they need to record the songs that they are writing and after early attempts, they secure the services of Jerry Heller (Giamatti) to manage their business affairs but more importantly, open doors. One of the doors that gets opened is to Priority Records, who agree to distribute their Ruthless Records label which includes N.W.A. as well as the D.O.C. (Yates), a friend from their Compton neighborhood.

Then they record Straight Outta Compton, arguably the best rap record ever made. One of the tracks on it, “F**k Tha Police” becomes something of a touchstone for the band’s fans, who feel the same frustration. Of course, the law enforcement community look at it as an attack on them personally and a call to violence against them rather than as an opportunity to look at themselves and institute reforms – an attitude that continues to this day.

The album shoots the band into the national spotlight and becomes a monster success. However, Ice Cube, noting that the contract is not beneficial to the band members, opts to leave the band rather than continue. He starts a successful solo career and trades musical barbs with his former bandmates. After an N.W.A. record without Cube continues their hot streak, Dre is persuaded by his bodyguard Suge Knight (Taylor) to start his own label with him, which becomes Death Row Records, home to legendary acts like Snoop Dogg (Stanfield) and Tupac Shakur.

Easy-E is left with Ruthless and Jerry Heller, and finds his business falling apart. At the same time, his health is failing – the lifestyle of groupies, drugs and parties has led him to contract AIDS. Dr. Dre has become disenchanted with his friend Suge whose tactics of intimidation and violence are against his ethics; he eventually disentangles himself from Knight and starts his own Aftermath label. Rumors begin to swirl that the original N.W.A. is planning a reunion. But given Easy’s health, can it happen quickly enough?

This is as masterful a musical biography as you are likely to see. The portrayals are spot on, particularly Jackson as his dad who looks eerily like Ice Cube circa 1991 and has all the mannerisms down right. Mitchell does maybe the most emotional work as Easy-E, who has the hardest road of the three original members. The scene in which he’s informed of his diagnosis is easily one of the most heart-wrenching of the summer.

Fans of the band will delight in the soundtrack which carries not only the music of the band in question but also of performers on their various labels and performers who were (and are) important to the band members themselves. It’s a primer on early 90s West Coast rap, gangsta rap and hip-hop in general. For many, the movie will be worth it just for the music alone.

&The movie tends to demonize the “villains” of the group’s history (Heller, Knight and law enforcement) while glossing over some of the chinks in the band’s armor – Dre’s notorious incidents of woman battering for example, although since he’s one of the main producers of the film, one can hardly expect the writers to drag out all his dirty laundry.

In that sense, history is written by the winners and while Heller and Knight have both vehemently objected to their depiction in the film, there is no doubt that both had things to answer for in their actions. This is a loud, raucous celebration of N.W.A. and their music but also of their place in cultural history; their music remains relevant even today which is both a testament to their abilities but also an indictment of our own culture which has failed to heed their words and make things better; the Black Lives Matter movement is a direct spiritual descendant of the band which is depressing that it’s still needed.

REASONS TO GO: Gripping story well told. Terrific performances. Informative.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t address some of the darker aspects of the group.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of cursing. Nudity, sexuality, drug use and a little violence for good measure.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the largest opening weekend box office ever for a musical biography, beating Walk the Line.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Biggie and Tupac
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: No Escape

Get On Up


The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

(2014) Musical Biography (Universal) Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Josh Hopkins, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis, Tariq Trotter, Aloe Blacc, Keith Robinson, Atkins Eastmond, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott, Stacey Scowley, Ahna O’Reilly. Directed by Tate Taylor

James Brown has never really gotten his due other than by his peers and true music buffs. He never achieved the sales that one would assume that someone who revolutionized pop music should have gotten, and yet when you look at the latter half of the 20th century, the most influential figures to come out of it are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and James Brown. He is the most-sampled artist in history, and virtually every song on your digital music storage device owes something to James Brown.

Before he was the legendary Godfather of Soul, James Brown (Boseman) was a young boy in rural Georgia. Abandoned by his mother Susie (Davis) at a young age and raised primarily by his alcoholic father Joe (James), he was dropped off with Aunt Honey (Spencer) who ran a brothel. There he grew up huckstering the house of ill repute for African-American soldiers coming into town on weekend passes, and going to the local church to listen to gospel music and watch the ecstasy of dance.

While in jail for stealing a suit, he met Bobby Byrd (Ellis) who led a group called the Gospel Starlighters. Byrd would end up bringing James home and bringing the talented young singer into their group which he would eventually rename the Famous Flames. A demo of the song “Please, Please, Please” ended up in the hands of promoter Ben Bart (Aykroyd) and label owner Syd Nathan (Melamed). Whereas Nathan never really got Brown’s music, Ben recognized that the sounds coming from the single were unique; it’s not about the song, he tries to explain to Nathan who never really gets it.

Brown was something of a control freak and he rebelled at playing along with the status quo. He dealt with venues directly rather than going through a promoter, bringing Bart aboard as an advisor and business manager, allowing him to retain a larger share of the gate at his shows. He is Mr. Entertainment, priding himself on putting on the best shows for his audience and giving everything he had night after night. People began to listen.

Success breeds excess however. Brown would become a drug addict although the movie glosses over this somewhat which would lead to legal troubles that plagued the latter half of his life. He could be mean and abusive which wreaked havoc not only in his personal life but also alienated many of those musicians whose talents helped elevate him to where he was. He demanded absolute control but as Byrd pointed out, he was a genius and it was on his coattails that his band would achieve legendary status but his demeaning treatment of them alienated them.

Taylor opts for an achronological telling of Brown’s story, starting out in 1988, jumping back to 1968 (good God!) and back again to 1939 and up forward 1955. Flashbacks within flashbacks, you might say. Writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth group events in his life thematically rather than chronologically, headlining them with nicknames he would acquire during his career – The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Dynamite. and so on. For the most part this works although some of the transitions between time periods are less smooth than others and the linking devices occasionally take us out of the story and make us realize we’re watching someone directing a movie. That’s a big no-no.

Boseman is absolutely incredible here. Richard Corliss of Time magazine has all but handed the Oscar to Boseman and while that may be premature, I do hope that his performance still remains in the memory of Academy members come nomination time. He certainly deserves consideration. While the vocals here are Brown, Boseman not only gets his mannerisms correctly he also manages to recreate Brown’s unique stage movement and presence. It’s a performance that really carries the movie and necessarily so.

Ellis also does a fine job as Byrd, the closest thing to a friend Brown has. Although their relationship was rocky, there was also genuine affection between the two. Ellis and Boseman have a strong chemistry which doesn’t really get enough credit. While this is definitely Boseman’s film, it wouldn’t be as strong without Ellis.

While the movie doesn’t hesitate to portray Brown as a difficult man to get along with, there’s a sense that they’re trying too hard to make a mythology about the man and that sometimes comes off like a child whining too much for recognition. Rather than have him appear to be thinking back on his life before – and sometimes during – his performances, those flashbacks could have been framed differently and more organically rather than framing Brown in heroic poses. We get that he was a genius and don’t need to have his mythic qualities shoved down our throats.

A great biography of James Brown is long overdue and while this isn’t the great film I would have hoped it would be, it is nonetheless a strong movie made stronger by the performances of Boseman and Byrd, along with Aykroyd as a kind of Jewish father figure/rabbi to Brown. Brown was in the eyes of many the personification of Black Power during one of the most turbulent times in our history and while he himself was more concerned with making money entertaining his audiences, he did embrace the importance of black culture and black empowerment in his art and in his life. For most, this will be the closest thing to witnessing a performance by James Brown as they will ever come (although there are many clips of his performances available online and of course some of his concert films available for purchase or streaming) but even Boseman’s performance doesn’t duplicate the raw, sweaty power of a live James Brown performance. His legacy is not just in the records he made but in the millions who fell under his spell at his concerts. You wouldn’t be wrong if you argued that he was the greatest live performer in the history of pop music.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome music. Boseman makes a formidable James Brown.

REASONS TO STAY: Era jumping smacks of “Look Ma, I’m Directing.” Over-mythologizes.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of sexual content, drug use and foul language as well as a couple of instances of violence in the form of child and spousal abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aykroyd appeared with the real James Brown in The Blues Brothers while Ellis appeared with Brown in Undercover Brother.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ray

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy

Baby Mama


Tina Fey is just miffed that Amy Poehler won't share the Pringles.

Tina Fey is just miffed that Amy Poehler won’t share the Pringles.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Greg Kinnear, Steve Martin, Dax Shepard, Sigourney Weaver, Maura Tierney, Holland Taylor, James Rebhorn, Will Forte, Fred Armisen, Romany Malco, Denis O’Hare, Stephen Mailer, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Kevin Collins, John Hodgman, Thomas McCarthy, Jason Mantzoukas, Dave Finkel, Felicity Stiverson.  Directed by Michael McCullers

Starting up a family is always something of an overwhelming proposition, never more so for a single parent who intends to stay a single parent. It is darn near impossible for an infertile single parent.

Kate Holbrook (Fey) is a capable, ambitious woman and that has played out into an executive position for a health food store chain, a beautiful apartment in Manhattan that is absolutely empty when she comes home. Not that she’s complaining, mind you – she owns her choices, after all. However, she is feeling her biological clock ticking down. She wants a baby in the worst way, and in her own organized fashion is doing what it takes. She’s tried adoption, and has been turned down. She’s tried artificial insemination, but her doctor (O’Hare) informs her that her uterus is not really suitable for impregnation and that an actual pregnancy would be a one in a million shot.

Desperate, she decides surrogacy might be the answer. She goes to the Chaffee Bicknell agency, whose titular head (Weaver) is despicably fertile, but promises to get a surrogate mother for Kate’s baby that passes the most rigid scrutiny. Chaffee sends Kate to Angie Ostrowski (Poehler), who couldn’t be any more different from the prim, cultured Kate. While Kate frets over every detail, Angie tends to be less detail-oriented than, say, a ten-year-old. While Kate keeps her apartment neat and clean, Angie prefers a more let-it-all-hang-out attitude. Kate dresses in smart business suits; Angie’s style can only be described as rural whore. In fact, if there were trailer parks in New York, Angie and her conniving boyfriend Carl (Shepard) would probably be living in one. If Kate is Masterpiece Theater, Angie and Carl are The Dukes of Hazzard.

Despite this, the two women find themselves bonding against all odds and decide to go through with the pregnancy. Not long after, Angie and Carl have a big fight and Angie shows up on Kate’s door, having nowhere else to go. Now, instead of preparing for a new baby in the home, Kate is having to live with a woman whose maturity level isn’t far above the baby she’s carrying.

The stresses begin to pile up. Kate is given a huge project at work by her new age boss (Martin) that may make unwelcome changes to a neighborhood, whose residents are not happy about the prospect, led by the handsome smoothie store owner Rob (Kinnear) who Kate is beginning to develop feelings for. On top of that, Angie is driving Kate crazy, and doesn’t appear to be all that concerned with the health and well-being of the baby – and Angie’s sins are rapidly catching up with her. Kate’s dream of being a mom is beginning to look like a longshot at best.

Fey has proven herself one of the funniest women working today, and those who loved her on 30 Rock are going to love her here. Poehler, so good in Blades of Glory and on SNL, does some of the best work of her career here. Martin, who has been mostly sticking to family comedies, returns to the silliness that characterized him in the ‘70s. Kinnear has carved out a niche as the nice, solid guy and makes a fine foil for Fey – hey, alliteration! ER’s Tierney plays Fey’s married mom of a sister and performs capably. Worth mentioning is Holland Taylor as Kate’s overbearing mom – she’s one of those dependable character actresses who almost always improves every movie she’s in. Shepard does the sleazy manipulator as well as anyone – if you saw him in Let’s Go to Prison, you pretty much know what to expect here.

Fey and Poehler work exceedingly well together, so much so that it leaves you hoping that they will continue to make movies together although as of yet they haven’t. The laughs come crisply but not at the expense of the characters and story.

This is definitely aimed at a female audience, and I found Da Queen laughing much more at things that only puzzled my poor, underdeveloped male brain. Not relating with the messy details of pregnancy and birthing, I found myself having a hard time relating to characters going through it and wanting to go through it.  .

Think of this as a chick comedy. If you’ve had a baby, or are pregnant, you are going to find this much more funny than the rest of us. That doesn’t mean that it’s completely without redemption, however. Fey and Poehler are a very good team, and their scenes together are the highlights of the movie. Bottom line, this is pretty well-written and plotted, although it isn’t difficult to discern where this is heading.

WHY RENT THIS: Great comedic chemistry between Fey and Poehler. Women tend to find this funnier than men do so if you’re of the fairer sex, this works nicely. Great support cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Women tend to find this funnier than men do so if you’re of the male sex, this might be too much for you. Predictable in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of jokes about female plumbing. There’s also some foul language and a drug reference.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Boo Boo Busters company that professionally childproofs Kate’s home is based on a real company by the same name in California. They supplied many of the child safety devices seen in the film, including the infamous toilet seat lock that “doesn’t work.”  Poehler eventually used that company to childproof her own home when she had children.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on Saturday Night Live and its influence on the movies.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $64.2M on a $30M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Housemaid

A Million Ways to Die in the West


Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

(2014) Western Comedy (Universal) Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi, Matt Clark, Evan Jones, Aaron McPherson, Rex Linn, Brett Rickaby, Alex Borstein, Ralph Garman, John Aylward, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lloyd, Ryan Reynolds. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

During the 1950s, Americans tended to idealize the Old West. Rugged cowboys rode the range, rescued pretty school marms from bandits and varmints, and generally saved the day with an “aw, shucks” modesty. Cowboys were real men, Indians were the enemy and things were pretty simple. Of course, it wasn’t really like that.

The Old West was in reality a brutal place where arguments were solved with guns, violence was rampant, sanitation was next to impossible and the only thing worse than contracting a disease was going to the doctor to get it cured. Albert (MacFarlane), a sheep farmer in hole-in-the-wall Old Stump, Arizona, knows it better than most. He is the sort of guy who would rather negotiate than fight, which makes him yellow in the Old West. That’s fine and dandy with Albert. He’d much rather be a live coward than a dead hero.

His girlfriend Louise (Seyfried) doesn’t necessarily agree with that philosophy. After a humiliation after being challenged to a gunfight, Louise decides she’s had enough and dumps Albert in favor of Foy (Harris), a successful shop owner who caters to moustache owners. Albert is devastated. Louise was one of the only things worth staying in the West for. San Francisco would be a much better place for him, much to the disdain of his father (Hagen). His close friends Edward (Ribisi) and Ruth (Silverman) commiserate but they have problems of their own. For one, they’ve been together and they want to have sex, but also want to wait until they get married and keep their purity. Until then, Ruth will continue working as a prostitute to help save up enough to get married. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.

Into his life waltzes Anna (Theron), a gorgeous blonde who is new in town. She also happens to be a crack shot and when Albert loses his temper and challenges Foy to a gunfight, she offers to help Albert work on his marksmanship. Of course, they soon develop into something more than friends even though Albert still wants to win Louise back. However, Anna might have forgot to mention that she’s married – to Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), one of the most vicious and deadliest gunfighters in the West.

The title is apt. MacFarlane’s character constantly grouses throughout about how dangerous it is out in the West and throughout the film people get killed by wild animals, shot by ornery bandits, crushed by blocks of ice and in a memorable sequence, fart themselves to death.

Fans of MacFarlane’s TV show Family Guy will no doubt feel right at home here. However, it should be said that the humor is pushes the envelope HARD and there are some things that you’re going to find offensive, like the shooting gallery gag that also serves as the fodder for an after-the-credits scene with a surprise cameo appearance. In fact, there are a ton of cameos to keep an eye out for.

Otherwise, this is one of those movies that throws as many jokes as it can into the mix and sees which ones you find funny and which ones you don’t. When the comedy works here, it’s sidesplitting. When it doesn’t, it’s groan-inducing. Fortunately, it works more than not.

MacFarlane is an appealing lead, although his character is a kind of neurotic nebbish, sort of like Woody Allen in chaps. MacFarlane, who co-wrote as well as directed and starred in this, has the characters act in fairly modern idioms, which allows 2014 audiences to relate better to the action in some ways while others might find this anachronistic and off-putting. It is part of the humor to hear someone from 1882 say “Oh, snap!” although again, there was some sniffing from critical quarters.

The supporting cast isn’t a bunch of straight men (and women) to MacFarlane as a lot of modern comedies tend to do; they all have their funny moments which you would want from a cast of talented actors like this. Only Neeson seems to be playing it straight, although he does give Clinch an outrageous Lucky Charms Irish accent which apparently he insisted upon before taking the part. I don’t know if a gunslinger with an Irish brogue rates laughs but okay.

MacFarlane references other Western comedies, notably Blazing Saddles and Django Unchained (which isn’t, strictly speaking, pure comedy) directly and otherwise. He makes use of Utah’s Monument Valley (subbing for Arizona) with some nifty cinematography, graphics and score right out of a 1950s epic screen Western. Visually speaking, he’s got the Western part down. However, the story doesn’t really support the length of the film and I got a little bit fidgety there towards the end.

This hasn’t been getting good reviews and I’ve also read some comments from non-reviewers that expressed how offended they were at this movie. There are those who tolerate offensive humor more than others and if you’re one of the others it wouldn’t be a good idea for you to check this out. I don’t think this is as good as MacFarlane’s previous movie Ted but that movie had its share of squirm-inducing moments. Use that as your guide as to whether you should see it or not. This isn’t for everybody, but the people that it is are going to love it.

REASONS TO GO: When it’s funny, it’s hysterical. Fun concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Overkill. Runs about 20 minutes too long. Those who don’t tolerate profanity and sex very well should stay the fuck away.

FAMILY VALUES: A cornucopia of profanity and sexual innuendo, some violence and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Theron wore a wig throughout the shooting because she had shaved her head for the filming of Mad Max: Fury Road.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blazing Saddles

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Maleficent

Neighbors


Are you talking to Zac Efron?

Are you talking to Zac Efron?

(2014) Comedy (Universal) Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael, Brian Huskey, Carla Gallo, Halston Sage, Craig Roberts, Ali Cobrin, Kira Sternbach, Steven Michael Eich, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Mantzoukas, Liz Cackowski, Randall Park, Natasha Leggero. Directed by Nicholas Stoller

Before the Second World War, the desirable places to live were in the cities. After all, they were close to jobs and all the cities had to offer in terms of entertainment and culture. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Postwar era – people began to move out of cities and into the suburbs. They wanted yards. They wanted families. They wanted space.

Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne) Radner want all that. And, at last, they have it. With a beautiful baby daughter named Stella, a gorgeous house in the ‘burbs of a small college town and a bright future ahead, they have everything they’ve always wanted and more.

Then their new neighbors move in and it turns out to be a fraternity house. Gamely, they decide to meet their new neighbors and show how “cool” and “down with it” they are which is the reality of a 30-something trying to impress a 20-something with how knowledgeable they are about current trends, slang and culture which, as everyone who’s ever been a 30-something knows, is doomed to fail miserably. The president of the frat, Teddy (Efron) is amiable enough and advised by his best bro and right-hand vice-president Pete (Franco) decides to make nice with the neighbors, inviting them to a blow-out party. They leave the next morning, promising to call Teddy first if they get too loud.

Of course, the next time they get too loud Mac and Kelly’s repeated phone calls go unanswered and they are forced to call the cops in the form of perhaps the most incompetent policeman ever, Officer Watkins (Buress) who rats out the chagrined couple to the frat. From then on, it’s war.

It becomes an endless barrage of escalating pranks. It gets to the point that the couple desperately attempt to sell their house but as the supercilious real estate agent (Cackowski) informs them, nobody will buy a house next to a frat. They even go to the university for relief, but the snooty dean (Kudrow) is more concerned with headlines than actual issues and the headline “Frat keeps couple and baby awake” isn’t likely to cause problems for the University. Finally, Mac and Kelly decide to go on the offensive with the emphasis on “offense.” They become aware that the frat has two strikes against them and should there be another incident, they’ll be dissolved. It’s time to pull out all the stops.

Seth Rogen has been making a career out of playing the amiable, good-hearted stoner and there’s no reason for him to deviate from that course here. What’s different is that he’s a little older now and that guys of his generation are becoming husbands and fathers and are having to forego the life of partying that is part of being young and without responsibility.

And that is the crux of the matter here. Both Mac and Kelly are facing a turning point in their lives; they have a life and a responsibility to provide for someone completely dependent on them. They are moving kicking and screaming into adulthood and they are taking one last wistful look at the life they once had. It is to their credit (and the filmmakers) that they end up embracing their responsibilities rather than running away as is often the case in Hollywood (and in life as well). The frat represents freedom to a certain extent and who wouldn’t be tempted?

The lion’s share of the funny stuff go to Rogen, Efron (who shows surprisingly deft comic touch here) and Byrne. Franco and Teddy’s inner circle – Scoonie (Mintz-Plasse) and Garf (Carmichael) – have little to do except look…er, stoned. And therein lies some of the movie’s great failings.

The movie can be funny and some of the pranks, although not always realistic as in the case of the funniest one involving an automotive safety feature. The problem here is that it’s a bit of a one-trick pony – Rogen consumes enough weed to make Bill O’Reilly’s intake look like both Cheech and Chong. I’m okay with stoner humor but one of the issues I have with it is that there is such an overreliance on repetition. It’s a whole lot funnier when you’re baked.

Some critics have been giving this a pass and far be it for me to dispute matters of personal taste but I don’t see anything really innovative here. I’m one of those killjoys who think that a good comedy shouldn’t only be funny when you’re stoned. Call me a philistine if you like.

REASONS TO GO: Some really funny moments. Captures the moment of maturity nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: Overkill on weed humor. One-trick pony. Adds nothing new.

FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of crude content, foul language, sexual content, drug use and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Real life couple Megan Mullaly and Nick Offerman filmed a cameo as Scoonie’s parents but it was left on the cutting room floor.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The ‘Burbs

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Dom Hemingway