Sunday, June 28, 2015

Review: Ted 2

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures. 
In the case of "Ted 2," the second time is not the charm. The film is funny in spurts - albeit brief ones - but it's the case of a writer-filmmaker wanting to have his cake and eat it too.

Seth Macfarlane uses the story of the foul mouthed teddy bear to make a plea for tolerance, but much like "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" and other films of that ilk, it does so only after spending nearly two hours making crude jokes at the expense of minorities.

The sequel follows the further travails of Ted (voiced by Macfarlane), a stuffed bear who came to life after his owner (Mark Wahlberg) wished for it to do so as a child. This time, Wahlberg's Johnny is divorced and Ted is married to girlfriend Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), with whom he wants to have a baby. However, after Tami-Lynn is found to be infertile, the duo attempts to adopt, but they are told that Ted is "not a person," leading him to all sorts of legal ramifications, including his Social Security number and bank account being revoked and his marriage annulled.

Meanwhile, Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), the villain from the first "Ted," pitches a revenge plan to the head of Hasbro to steal Ted, find out what makes him human and create more teddy bears just like him. Yeah, I know, it's a half baked scenario to include a bad guy in the picture and it happens to be the weakest link in a film already not firing on many cylinders.

And also meanwhile, Johnny develops a romance with the attorney (Amanda Seyfried) representing their case and the picture squeezes in a few other celebrity cameos, including Morgan Freeman, John Slattery and, in one of the film's truly most bizarre moments, Liam Neeson. Actually, that Neeson bit is so peculiar it sort of made me chuckle. Sort of.

Despite all these busy plot mechanics, Macfarlane finds plenty of time to crack jokes about gay people, to whom Ted compares his struggle. Although the filmmakers obviously seem to be supportive of gay rights, it's a shame that the two lead gay characters are such obvious stereotypes and Ted, during one scene, uses the words "fag" and "homo."

The film also appears to have an unhealthy obsession with black male genitalia, which is referenced more times than could be counted on two hands. There's a running joke involving it that never lands as a joke that, coupled with Ted later comparing his case to that of Dred Scott, makes for an uncomfortable pairing. "Ted 2" also features jokes at the expense of Koreans and, um, Tom Brady. Don't ask.

The two court cases in which Ted finds himself entangled are used as calls for tolerance for those who have not been granted equal rights by the U.S. government and the film's titular teddy bear is obviously supposed to be a symbol here. While I believe the filmmakers had their hearts in the right place, the nonstop jokes at the expense of all the people they claim to be sticking up for sort of defeats the purpose.

And, lastly, "Ted 2" is just not that funny. There are some laughs to be had here - a woodland song comes to mind as does the aforementioned Neeson cameo, while a few of Ted's crude jokes also elicit guffaws. But the picture is not as good as the original film, which wasn't perfect either, but certainly a lot funnier than this sequel.

Review: The Wolfpack

Image courtesy of Magnolia Entertainment. 
Here's an example of a film that probably should have been a little better than it ended up being. The subject matter of Crystal Moselle's documentary "The Wolfpack" is fascinating stuff, but the picture's execution comes off as a little jumbled and lacking the type of focus that could have made this something special.

It's not a bad movie by any means and the story behind the Angulo family is interesting enough to help overlook some of the film's flaws. In fact, the story behind the making of the movie is equally as interesting and occasionally overshadows what's actually on screen.

Moselle apparently spotted the six Angulo brothers walking down the street in suits and sunglasses on the streets of New York City and, upon asking them, came to find out that they were mimicking the opening sequence of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs."

As it turns out, the brothers as well as their sister, mother and father all lived in a Lower East Side apartment and, for many years, rarely ventured out of it. Their father, who hailed from South America, met their mother, an Ohioan, years before and the two decided to have as many children as possible, giving them all Sanskrit names and getting them to all grow their hair very long.

The boys' father refused to work and their mother mostly kept house, while the family lived under strict rules, including not being able to leave the apartment. As one of the boys notes at the film's beginning, there were years when the clan only left the apartment once or twice and, during some years, not at all.

So, the Angulo boys learned about the world mostly through movies, which they would reenact, using elaborately made costumes that were impressive, considering their budget. Films watched and reenacted throughout the course of "The Wolfpack" include Tarantino's work as well as "Blue Velvet" and a number of action pictures and comic book movies, "Batman" especially.

So, while the content of Moselle's film is gripping, the editing is a bit problematic. The movie suffers from not having a flow, so to speak, and often feels as if it is one scene after the next without an overall theme. And although documentarians, no doubt, want to respect their subjects, there are times when it feels as if the filmmakers are not prying enough into why this family has lived the way it has for so long. The father is asked if he regrets forcing his children to live indoors for most of their lives, but he's not really pushed as to why.

Despite these flaws, there are some powerful moments here, such as one son admitting that one of his earliest memories was being afraid or another when the boys experience their first movie in a theater (a screening of David O. Russell's "The Fighter" at the CC Village Cinemas East).

"The Wolfpack" could be recommended due to its fascinating story, although I wished it could have been a little more focused. It is often how the footage for a documentary is put together that separates the great ones from the rest and it's a shame that "The Wolfpack" doesn't work quite as well as it might have.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Review: The Tribe

Image courtesy of Drafthouse Films.
It's safe to say that Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's "The Tribe" is a one of a kind. The Ukrainian film solely features deaf actors and the picture is completely in sign language with no subtitles. If that sounds like a daunting viewing experience, don't let the description scare you away. It's easy to follow the story in the picture, even when you don't know the exact words being signed.

The film has been hailed as a masterpiece by some and while I was certainly intrigued and impressed by it, the amazing method in which it was made occasionally overshadows everything else. In other words, that Slaboshpitsky has successfully made a film in which every character communicates by sign language and that audiences can follow the action is, at times, a little more astounding than what actually takes place onscreen.

It's a good film, but also a brutal one that features sequences that are difficult to watch. The movie follows the story of an unnamed young man (Grigoriy Fesenko) who is the new kid at a school for the deaf, where a vicious group of young hoodlums rule by force and dabble in what appears to be drug smuggling as well as what most definitely could be called prostitution.

The titular group, which consists of a nasty ringleader and his four goons, eventually welcomes our hero into their group after he proves that he can be just as fearsome as they are. Two of the school's girls, also unnamed, have sex with older men in a truck park for money, which is then handed down to The Tribe, who answer to a shop teacher. They also smuggle packages into the school that likely hold drugs or some other form of contraband.

Fesenko's character eventually falls in love with one of the prostitutes (Yana Novikova) and the film includes two sex scenes that caused a stir when the film debuted at Cannes in 2014, although the sequences appear to be a bit more graphic than they most likely were to film. More unsettling is the film's brutality, which includes scenes of youths being beaten up, another being run over by a truck, a bloody finale and an abortion sequence that left everyone in the theater in which I saw the film squirming.

"The Tribe" is a triumph in that it successfully pulls off something audiences have likely never seen before, while also occasionally including the type of miserablism you'd expect in the films of Ulrich Seidl or Bruno Dumont. It's a movie that I admire greatly and like pretty well, even if I don't agree that it's the masterpiece some folks have proclaimed it to be.

Review: Inside Out

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
It's fitting that Pixar's latest film, "Inside Out," contains a character named Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) because the film is just that to behold. Not only is the picture one of the animation studio's finest, but it's also one of the best films this year so far.

The picture, which is directed by Pete Docter ("Up"), follows the story of a young girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan), who pick up and move from their home in Minnesota to San Francisco. Much like the best films in Pixar's cannon, "Inside Out" blends humor and joy with sadness and much of the story revolves around how Riley attempts to fit in to her new surroundings.

At this point, I should probably mention that Riley and her parents only have a bit of screen time and that the majority of the film is set within the young girl's head, the lead characters being her emotions - Joy, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Riley's childhood imaginary friend, Mr. Bing Bong (Richard Kind).

As for plot mechanics, Joy and Sadness accidentally get sucked out of the control room from which they control Riley's emotions and attempt, along with the help of Bing Bong, to find their way back. And through this plot device, "Inside Out" does a wonderful job of creating the emotional roller coaster involved in a young child's move to a new place, leaving behind past memories, friends and familiarity.

It's the type of film where you'll occasionally feel a lump rising in your throat, but not due to the maudlin tugging of heart strings that you'd expect from any number of Hollywood films, but rather because the notes the film strikes ring true and have a genuine emotional impact.

But "Inside Out" is also one of Pixar's funniest movies as of late and there are a series of sequences in which we get to view the control rooms of all the other human (and, on two occasions, nonhuman) characters. And one of the things I love about Pixar movies is that although it's obvious that children are the core audience, there's plenty there for adults as well. Hell, this film even has a "Chinatown" reference.

In the mid to late 2000s, Pixar was the king of the mountain for animated films, offering up such classics as "Wall-E," "Ratatouille" and "Up," all of which rank up there with the best Disney classics. In the early part of this decade, the studio started focusing more on sequels and although they have all been good to varying degrees, it seemed that the studio was easing off completely original content. If you look at Pixar's upcoming roster, it is primarily sequels.

"Inside Out" proves that the studio can still come up with something truly original, emotionally satisfying and appealing to all ages. Here's to hoping that "Inside Out" is not the last of the studio's attempts to be bold. It's a wonderful movie.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" was, not surprisingly, one of the biggest hits at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It's not surprising not only because the film is a solid little indie film - funny and full of heart - but also because it's exactly the kind of picture that might thrive at Sundance.

So, while "Me and Earl" is, at times, a little too quirky for its own good and occasionally aims too much to emulate a Wes Anderson or, more unfortunately, Jared Hess type of film, it's also well made and acted.

In the film, high schooler Greg (Thomas Mann) gets by by not rocking the boat. He's just friendly enough with every group at this school, so that he rarely runs into conflict with anyone. His seemingly only true friend is Earl (RJ Cyler), a kid from the projects with whom he shoots idiosyncratic remakes of popular films - for example, "A Sockwork Orange," "2:48 P.M. Cowboy" and "My Dinner with Andre the Giant."

That a group of high school students in this day and age would be familiar with the works of Ingmar Bergman, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is, perhaps, forcing the audience to extend its disbelief too far, but that's OK because the parodies elicit smiles.

As a favor to his mother, Greg is asked to befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a fellow high school student who has been diagnosed with cancer. Although "Me and Earl" veers perilously close to being the weepie of the week, it manages to avoid such a fate due to its oddball sense of humor and characters that defy cliches.

While Mann, Cyler and Cooke all provide solid work, the supporting cast is equally good, especially Nick Offerman as Greg's hippie-cook father, Molly Shannon as Rachel's mother and Jon Bernthal as Greg and Earl's teacher, who provides them space at lunch time to watch movies by Werner Herzog.

Gomez-Rejon, whose only previous film was the unseen-by-me remake of "The Town That Dreaded Sundown," uses all manner of visual tricks to tell his story here, including everything from cartoon imagery to shots that are turned sideways, the latter effect for seemingly no purpose.

On occasion, "Me and Earl" is a little too precious for its own good, especially when coupled with the very serious turn it takes near its finale. But the performances, writing and overall charm of the picture go a long way and Gomez-Rejon's film is ultimately worth your while. I'm curious to see what he does next.

Review: Jurassic World

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
This fourth entry into the "Jurassic Park" franchise acts as a satire of blockbuster filmmaking, while at the same time embracing all of the tenets that make such pictures successful. It's a film that wants to eat its cake and have it too. The film has its problems, which I'll get to momentarily, but it's a pretty decent summer spectacle.

It's been 22 years since the original Jurassic Park opened and the island on which it was located has now been transformed into Jurassic World, a bigger, louder and scarier park, where well-known types of dinosaurs (T-Rex, triceratops) share space with genetic hybrids, such as the soon-to-debut Indominus Rex, which, despite its silly name, is a ferocious creature that hunts for sport. And since this is a blockbuster-style film, we know that the Indominus will soon be free and raging across the island.

The film's characters include a dinosaur trainer named Owen, who is played by Chris Pratt as the type of smart ass, know-it-all hero he portrayed in the popular "Guardians of the Galaxy." There are also two kids in tow named Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), whose mother (Judy Greer) has sent them to visit their aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is one of the park's operators. And, of course, there has to be a villain - and, in this case, it's Owen's boss (Vincent D'Onofrio), who has some hairbrained scheme to develop the island's velociraptors into weapons of war. Believe me, it's even sillier than it sounds.

It's not the fault of the film's cast, but it's the characters that give "Jurassic World" the most problems. While the persona Pratt gave his "Guardians" character worked, it feels a little strained here. The two kids exist solely to be put in the way of danger and Zach, the older brother, makes bad decisions in the way that only movie characters tend to do.

And Howard's Claire is forced to play out every reductive female lead character trait in the Hollywood book - she's a career woman who doesn't have time for kids or romance and the film treats her as if she's at fault. Claire is also forced to run and hide behind Pratt's character, although there are two scenes later in the film - one during director Colin Trevorrow's obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" - where she gets to prove her bravery, although the sequences are fully in service to the fact that Claire might get the opportunity to act as a mother and romantic partner.

At times, "Jurassic World" is sly, poking fun at exactly the type of movie it often emulates as well as the audiences that clamor for such movies. During one sequence, Howard explains to some visiting sponsors that the public is no longer excited about dinosaurs, similar to how they lost interest in the space program, and that the way to draw them back is by being bigger and louder, which is sort of how Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking works. And all the while that "Jurassic World" is poking fun at this, the film also delivers state-of-the-art special effects and nonstop action and chase sequences.

For my money, none of the sequels come close to Steven Spielberg's 1993 original, but "Jurassic World" is a little better than the second and third entries into the franchise. Further sequels are probably unnecessary, but if the public once again clamors for bigger and louder, I'm sure Hollywood will heed the call.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Review: Love and Mercy

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
It's been said that there is often a fine line between genius and insanity and Bill Pohlad's "Love and Mercy," which chronicles the career and turbulent personal life of The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, is a very good representation of this belief. It's also one of the better musical biopics of recent years.

In the film, Paul Dano and John Cusack portray Wilson - and both very well, I might add - at various stages in his life - Dano in the mid-1960s as the singer-songwriter composes the music for "Pet Sounds," the band's masterpiece, and Cusack during the mid-1980s as Wilson is on the verge of crumbling.

The picture jumps back and forth through time and uses the burgeoning romance between Wilson (Cusack) and Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, a career best), a California car saleswoman who gets involved with the musician, only to find out that he is being manipulated and controlled by Eugene Landy (a creepy Paul Giamatti), a psychotherapist known for his 24-hour treatment program who micromanages every aspect of his patients' lives.

One of the film's more engrossing aspects is how Landy, whose character disproves my theory that Giamatti can never play a truly unlikable character, is paralleled to Wilson's cretinous father. Wilson, although brilliant while in the recording studio, is seen as a man who cannot escape being controlled by mentally or physically abusive father figures. And Melinda, although she becomes romantically entangled with Wilson, is, in a sense, a mother figure that he never had.

The performances by Dano and Cusack portray two different men, but they are equally as good. Dano is Wilson the Boy Genius, bringing in every instrument imaginable, including the voices of farm animals, to record the seminal 1966 opus "Pet Sounds," while Cusack gives us the portrait of a man barely holding on and forced to ask Landy, his caretaker, for permission to date, eat or leave his home.

Music biopics are often a dime a dozen. They typically follow an artist's humble beginnings, rise to prominence and, often, eventual downfall due to drugs - and then, occasionally, a second chance. The gold standard for musical bios is Todd Haynes' brilliant Bob Dylan odyssey "I'm Not There," but the reason why "Love and Mercy" works is that while it follows the genre's formula to an extent, it is more about the mindset of a man who was frail to begin with rather than one undone by fame. And it is one of the more fascinating recent pictures about the creative process. This is a very well acted, visually impressive and thoughtful film.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Review: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 
There's no easy way to describe the films of Sweden's Roy Andersson, who displays elements of Luis Bunuel, a spot of Jacques Tati and a deadpan sensibility that would make Aki Kaurismaki proud. His latest, the Venice Film Festival winner "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence," is the apparent third part of a thematic trilogy on what's it's like to be a human being that previously included "Songs from the Second Floor" and "You, the Living."

To call Andersson's films episodic does not quite capture the essence of them. There's rarely any plot thread that dominates an Andersson film, but characters often wander in and out of the frame, engaging in scenes with each other and, in the process, revealing quite a bit about the foibles, humiliations, humanity and absurdity involved in life on this planet.

His latest opens with three sequences about death. And you know you're watching an Andersson film because each one of them is hilarious, especially the second scene in which three siblings try to pry the handbag out of their dying mother's hands at the hospital. Just trust me on that one.

The characters whom we see most in the picture are a pair of traveling salesmen who schlep around with a suitcase full of novelty items that they claim will assist people in "having a good time." The three items they most often advertise are a pair of vampire teeth with "long fangs," a laughing bag that they insist will be a hit at the office or a creepy rubber mask known as "Uncle One Tooth."

In other corners of the story, we observe a dance teacher instructing her class and getting a little too touchy feely with a handsome student. Or, there's the cafe where an elderly man has been drinking shots every day since World War II. We even get a flashback to 1943. And, perhaps most absurdly, there is a man known as the "king," who rides through the town with his regiment, trotting his horse through the front doors of its cafes and ordering people around.

"Pigeon" is funny, but also humanist. All of the characters are isolated in some sense or another and each of them has a difficult time getting the others to understand their point of view. Personally, my favorite Andersson film is his first, the extremely bizarre and visually dazzling "Songs from the Second Floor." There are numerous scenes in "Pigeon" that I liked quite a bit - especially those death sequences - but, at times, I felt that the picture was one I admired more than loved.

Don't get me wrong. "Pigeon" is a unique viewing experience and a solid movie. I doubt there's anything else like it playing in theaters at this moment and that is because Andersson has mastered a style all his own. This is a good movie that I'd recommend for viewers with a little patience and an appreciation for the absurdities of life.

Review: Spy

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. 
Melissa McCarthy teams up once again with Paul Feig, her "Bridesmaids" director, and as a result lands the best role for her talents since her breakout performance and Oscar nomination for that 2011 film.

"Spy," which is sort of a sendup of James Bond films and the like, does not deviate very far from the familiar story lines and cliches of that genre, but it does a fine job of subverting and poking fun at them. The picture even opens with a theme song that would sound right at home in a Bond film and includes locales scattered across the globe where 007 might be chasing down a terrorist.

In this film, McCarthy's unassuming Susan Cooper, who holds a CIA office job and is the voice in the earpiece of super spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law), ends up being the one to take on a bevy of terrorists, including the daughter (Rose Byrne) of a Bulgarian master criminal and an Italian (Bobby Cannavale) who trades weapons on the black market.

When the agency is compromised and Byrne's Rayna gets her hands on the names of all the CIA's operatives, the agency head (Allison Janney) decides to send in a novice who will not be recognized by the criminals involved in the ring attempting to trade a nuclear weapon. So, naturally, the job falls to Cooper. An aspect of the film that I particularly liked is how a large chunk of the picture is not spent showing Cooper trying to prove herself, but rather we see that she is resourceful and just as handy in a pinch as her male counterparts.

One of the film's many running gags is how the CIA dresses its spies in debonair or slick costumes, but forces Cooper to dress like a midwestern Avon lady or in another particularly dreadful getup that McCarthy hilariously notes "looks like somebody's homophobic aunt."

Nearly matching McCarthy in joke delivery, surprisingly, is Jason Statham, a disgruntled CIA operative who resents that a 40-year-old woman with no experience is taking his place on the mission and goes out of his way to show how badass he is, but with mostly disastrous results. Statham is typically stuck playing the lead in violent action movies, but he proves here he has some definite comedic talent.

Feig is quickly becoming the go-to filmmaker for smart, female-oriented comedies. For my money, "Bridesmaids" remains the gold standard for mainstream comedy this decade thus far and his follow-up, "The Heat," was also pretty funny. "Spy" doesn't reach the heights of the former, but it's certainly as good as - and, perhaps, better than - the latter. It has some of the biggest laughs of any film so far this year.

And I'm glad to see McCarthy get a deserving vehicle for her talents. Following her "Bridesmaids" breakthrough, she seemed to get stuck in every comedy calling for a loud and boisterous woman and the results were mostly middling. Here, she shows that, yes, she can be crude as any male comedic star, but also that she is a talented comedienne suited for smart and funny material. "Spy" is one of the few bright spots in this summer's Hollywood lineup so far.