Monday, June 30, 2014


As we continue into the summer movie season with superheroes, sequels and money-grubbing tentpoles, here arrives "Snowpiercer," a thrilling piece of international filmmaking that carries the gusto of any great blockbuster and the brains of the most sophisticated sci-fi dystopian fare. From visionary director Joon-ho Bong, who took the creature feature (2006's "The Host") and murder mystery (2009's "Mother") genres and turned them on their heads, he has created a wildly original and inventive take on a sociopolitical parable. Simply put: it's the action film everyone should be (and probably isn't) seeing and talking about right now.

It's the year 2031, and an attempt to counteract global warming has sent the world into an Ice Age with the only survivors boarding a guargantuan locomotive that circumvents the earth at a rate of one revolution per year. It is humanity's brave new world, a place severely divided into a harsh class system. The deprived, soot-covered 99 percent are forced to live in miserable conditions in the back of the train while the one percent enjoy decadent luxuries in the front of the train. Curtis (Chris Evans) is the reluctant hero of his fed-up cohorts in the back who've long been planning a prison break-styled revolt to charge their way to the front. The premise may sound like something you've seen before -- most notably the class system found in "The Hunger Games" franchise -- but that's where the familiarities begin and end.

What follows is a headlong rush into complete lunacy, a wild ride that could only work as well as it does because it comes from such a visually audacious filmmaker. The action sequences are propulsive and spectacular, each uniquely stylized as the revolters hack and slash their way through swarms of thugs; one of the scenes in particular is a heart-pounding stand-out. Beyond visually, what's most impressive is the crazy balancing act the film strikes in its tone; it's profoundly serious with brutal violence and then throws in spurts of pitch black hilarity.

Delivering the most laughs is Tilda Swinton who beams in her performance from what feels like a different planet entirely. The chameleon actress is batshit brilliant and knocks out every scene she's in. A close runner-up is Alison Pill as a delusional school teacher in a sequence that stands as the film's downright most bizarre. Chris Evans sheds his "Captain America" exterior to deliver a grounded, rugged performance while John Hurt is great as the peg-legged old man of wisdom. Octavia Spencer shines with ferocity and warmth while Jamie Bell plays a go-getting sidekick, and Kang-ho Song is superb as a drug-addicted securities expert.

Here's a film that pulls you into its strange, scary and wonderfully weird world and recaptures the feeling of truly transporting cinema. Think "The Matrix" -- it's that good. Joon-ho Bong doesn't shy away from reaching for greatness and comes out the other end with something to say, too. The film is not subtle about its powerful ideas and using the train as an allegory for the world we live in today. How far are we willing to go in order to exist comfortably in our society at the expense of so many suffering? "Snowpiercer" suggests a bleak reality.


The romantic leads in David Wain's "They Came Together" are Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, and it's inspired casting, both for the sake of comedy and that they actually look like romantic leads. Rudd is handsome but nonthreatening while Poehler is adorable and impossible not to like. This very thing is explained in the opening scene when their characters, Joel and Molly, are telling the story of how they met to friends, Kyle (Bill Hader) and Karen (Ellie Kemper), at dinner. Their story is like a cheesy romantic comedy, and the friends act as an audience stand-in. But it's not a movie; it's their real lives! And a millisecond before the scene cuts away, Poehler gives a knowing look right to the camera. It's perfect.

Don't forget that New York plays such a pivotal role in their story, that the city really is like a third character, something that's brought up over and over. "So if your life was a movie," the friend asks, "we'd probably open with overhead shots of New York?" Cue overhead shots of New York, and the movie begins. Written by Michael Showalter and David Wain -- the guys behind the cult favorite "Wet Hot American Summer," and Wain who more recently made "Role Models" and "Wanderlust" -- the guys have a whole hell of a lot of fun jabbing, poking and skewering cliches of the rom-com genre left and right. It's really a one-joke movie, but that one joke really works thanks to smart writing and a whole cast of funny people from Max Greenfield and Michael Ian Black to Christopher Meloni and Jason Mantzoukas. (Not to mention a late cameo that I will not spoil here.)

Beyond Joel and Molly, all of the folks who populate this movie are less characters and more walking, talking rom-com tropes. Characters will call each other big brother, best buddy and friend stereotypes without batting an eye. The whole thing plays out like a series of strung-together sketches wherein some of the gags are a little too out there and don't exactly work. But when the comedy is on-point with its satire of the genre, especially early on, it's firing on all cylinders with always welcomed splashes of vulgarity. And it's not just broad brushstroke satire; they get down to even the smallest details to take aim at from musical montages to characters always having one more thing to say before a scene's end ("shit"). While the third-act catapult into absurdity is a bit of a letdown, what comes before it makes that easy to forgive. It will probably be hard to watch any straight-laced romantic comedy through the same lens again. Bravo.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


Phil Lord and Christopher Miller know their "22 Jump Street" is another studio-demanded blockbuster sequel with the exact same premise and double the budget. And they want you to know that they know it. The movie is an entire running joke on unnecessary sequels and Hollywood excess, a self-referential gag reel of meta jokes and knowing winks to the audience to the point of nearly busting through the fourth wall.

The police department has doubled the budget (wink) and moved their headquarters across the street to a new address (wink) where everything is bigger and better, just like a sequel should be. After a case that had nothing to do with going undercover in an educational setting goes horribly wrong, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are summoned to the deputy chief's office, who's once again played by Nick Offerman, and explains why everything must be exactly the way it was last time (wink). The way he delivers these lines so deadpan, saying how pointless this whole thing is, you can't help but smirk and appreciate these guys -- including returning screenwriter Michael Bacall -- for knowing exactly what they're doing.

The problem, however, comes in relying too much on these jokes to blatantly mask the repetition and lack of originality. This time the bromantical duo are headed to college instead of high school. This time Jenko gets in with the cool crowd and lands himself a spot on the football team while Schmidt feels left out. See? It's like the same...but different. But hey, they know that!

The action gets revved up to the next level of explosive set pieces and shoot-outs but the zany, off-the-wall outrageous nature of the first outing either is missing or feels too been there, done that. When the jokes work, they really work, but there are too many moments that fall curiously flat. Hill and Tatum, however, not only keep up their bromance momentum but manage to take it to new heights, proving still to be a solid comedic duo. Noteworthy newcomers The Lucas Brothers and Jillian Bell are fresh, funny talent involved in the chaos, too.

And then come the credits, the laugh-out-loud funniest and most wildly clever part of the entire movie. It also serves as the final nail in the coffin that sequel-itis certainly was the joke all along and unfortunately "22 Jump Street" -- try as hard as it does to remain aware and keep above it -- ultimately falls victim to itself.

My review of "21 Jump Street"


"How to Train Your Dragon 2" is the best thing DreamWorks Animation has done since the first "How to Train Your Dragon" four years ago. The sequel carries all the same qualities of its magnificent predecessor with astounding and gorgeous visuals (arguably one of the most beautifully animated films ever released), soaring cinematography following these dragons soar through the skies, a glorious score from John Powell that brings back familiar themes and, finally, a hefty amount of emotional depth.

All the characters and original voice acting have returned, starting with Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), now looking older and more seasoned, his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and their goofball cohorts voiced by comedic talent Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill and "Silicon Valley"'s T.J. Miller. The village of Berk has been transformed into a land of dragon trainers thanks to Hiccup's bravery in taming his very own Night Fury. In one of the film's first moments, Hiccup soars with Toothless in a breathtaking flight sequence, which for once puts 3-D technology to good use and is probably the only film franchise using it properly these days. The dragon interactions are adorable and endearing, whether it's among humans and their beasts or dragon to dragon (just wait until an entire flock of colorful dragons gets introduced); the filmmakers here are animal lovers, and it shows.

The story takes a moment to get focused and doesn't benefit from the streamlined simplicity of the first outing's narrative. Even so, it's admirable to see how writer and director Dean DeBlois has decidedly expanded his universe and relishes in spending time there. In between the high-flying and fire-breathing, the film is at its most interesting when it dares to be quieter in intimate moments. The storyline grows into something quite adult with a hint of darkness. It's certainly a better "Brave" and is exactly whatever that film wished to be, with themes of family honor, loyalty, forgiveness and carving your own path. And if anyone is worried about the state of female heroism in film, just look to Cate Blanchett's fearless Valka.

This is smart and thrilling filmmaking from an animated studio, what Pixar used to do so well. "How to Train Your Dragon" is the crown jewel franchise in DreamWorks' canon, and if they keep going with it in this same sophisticated fashion, building out a world and advancing character development, finding nuance for both heartbreak and charm in a single swoop, then I'll be on board to see what comes next.

My review of "How to Train Your Dragon"

Thursday, June 12, 2014


The first thing to notice about first-time writer/director Gillian Robespierre's "Obvious Child" is how unassumingly brave and refreshing it is. In the same vein as Lake Bell's "In A World..." last year, it's a feminist tale from a new female voice in filmmaking. That word has been getting tossed around a lot lately -- feminist -- and what it means to be a feminist and how many in the public sphere are shying away from identifying themselves as such at the expense of making themselves sound ignorant. Take a look at the premise of Robespierre's very smart feature, which she adapted from her 2009 short of the same name. This is what we're talking about when it comes to feminism.

Here's a woman, Donna (Jenny Slate), making an important decision without letting anyone, notably any man, manipulate her choices. The film is not about following the suspense of whether or not she's going to get the abortion. She gets it because she knows it's what she has to do. The trajectory of the storyline is actually discovering whether or not she'll even involve the guy, Max (Jack Lacy), and watching her deal with a difficult choice in her own unique way.

All of this serious subject matter gets wrapped into a romantic comedy that is crowd-pleasing and sweet but also raunchy with its fair share of toilet humor and vagina jokes. It's like an inverse "Knocked Up" from the woman's perspective -- and way more real. You may have seen Jenny Slate on TV in "Kroll Show" or "Parks and Recreation" but never in a big-screen role like this. She nails it, sticking the landing and proving herself a promising leading lady.

The rest of the cast is nicely rounded out with quirky, lived-in characters. Richard Kind and Polly Draper play Donna's polar-opposite parents; Gabe Liedman plays her snarky gay BFF; and the now ever-present Gaby Hoffmann (of "Girls" and "Transparent") plays that friend who's the guiding light, the steady hand in any moment of crisis. Jack Lacy as Donna's love interest is arguably the cast's weakest link but only a minor quibble. They share an instance of great chemistry in one of the most joyous scenes, a playful strip tease set to Paul Simon's "Obvious Child," where the film gets its title.

Here's a humble comedy that is both funny and poignant without trying too hard to be either. This facade of effortlessness comes from Robespierre's dedication to being completely honest. Slate's scenes of performing stand-up convey the desire for full disclosure on all things personal and intimate. She is the heart and center of "Obvious Child," which manages to say a whole lot while never stepping on a soapbox and always being truthful to life.

Saturday, June 7, 2014


"The Fault in Our Stars" the movie owes a lot -- almost everything -- to "The Fault in Our Stars" the best-selling YA book. That's because the words of John Green are so good, refusing to become a schmaltzy, cliched romance about two cancer kids. Yes, it's a romance about two cancer kids, but it is the furthest thing from both schmaltzy and cliched. And the film version -- directed by Josh Boone and wisely adapted from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the writers behind the coming-of-age indie "The Spectacular Now" -- follows suit. There is a bit of noticeable dumbing down, but that can easily be forgiven as you watch the way the screenplay still tackles heavy themes of death, illness and the sometimes inconsolable weight of loss.

Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) is a 16-year-old girl whose thyroid cancer has forced her to perpetually wear tubes in her nose and drag around an oxygen tank. She hates her cancer. She's snide about it and scolds her lungs for sucking. But what she hates even more than her illness is the way she's forced to deal with it. Her well-meaning mother (Laura Dern) makes her go to a support group held in the "literal heart of Jesus." It's eye roll-inducing for her -- that is, until the charming Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) shows up and immediately, unrelentingly locks eyes with Hazel. And the rest, they say, is history.

It's no spoiler to say these two start falling for each other. What worries Hazel, however, is that she's a grenade ready to go off and will inevitably hurt all those around her. She doesn't want to do that to Augustus whose osteosarcoma, while it took one of his legs, is in remission. A literary obsession of Hazel's, a novel called "An Imperial Infliction," whisks the two off to Amsterdam to meet the book's author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) where even harder lessons are learned.

This is a film focused for teens, and it rightfully focuses on its teen actors. Boone's direction is subtle and unobtrusive, allowing the young cast to flourish and linger in scenes. Shailene Woodley has already proven herself both wonderfully nuanced and versatile and plays Hazel with no ounce of obvious acting with a capital A. The chemistry between her and newcomer Ansel Elgort (they play siblings in the "Divergent" franchise) is equal parts heart-warming and electric, and together they make Hazel and Augustus screen characters to remember. And then there is Augustus' buddy Isaac, played by Nat Wolff of "Palo Alto," who stands out all his own.

Like the book, Boone's "The Fault in Our Stars" doesn't shy away from sentimentality but counterbalances it with acerbic wit and biting dialogue. The undercurrent of tragedy is laced with a keen comic spirit throughout. None of it is suspicious manipulation and emerges organically, the laughs and the tears. And my, how you'll cry. But just be happy knowing it's all so earned.