"The Nice Guys" captures the rich flavor of the 70s, thanks to director Shane Black ("Iron Man 3"). He assembles a likable leading pair in Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, who play incompetent private eyes Jackson Healy and Holland March. These longtime detectives partner-up to investigate the disappearance of a young girl involved in the crime and porno scenes of 1977 Hollywood. The script has its shares of surprises, is filled with energy and easy to follow.
But here's the problem - "The Nice Guys" juggles too many balls. It never feels satisfied with its current tone, so Black constantly shifts the focus between quirky, goofy humor, noisy blasts of stylized violence, minors in peril and serious moments of in-your-face murder. Meanwhile, hovering-over all of this, is Healy and March's relationship. Make no mistake, this is a buddy comedy - that also tries to be so much more.
The continuous attempts at laughs (including a dream sequence that includes an appearance by a giant bee) really bugged me, constantly taking me out of the moment, with the jarring dramatic elements, as a result, lacking in impact. If "The Nice Guys" had been played-out as a drama, infused with elements of disco flare, cool clothes, a hip soundtrack and subtle touches of humor it would've been much more successful.
March's 13-year-old daughter, Holly, is played by Australian native Angourie Rice in a star-making role. She shares a lot of screen time with veterans Crowe and Gosling and holds her own. Kim Basinger's character is pivotal to the plot, though she only appears in a couple of scenes.
"The Nice Guys" is a nice change of pace from what we're recently used to in the genre ("Ride Along 1/2, "The Other Guys", "The Heat") - and is more of a throwback to the effective cop buddy comedies made back in the 80s ("Midnight Run", "48 Hours", "Beverly Hills Cop", "Lethal Weapon 1/2"). But the mismatch of content never allows it to reaches its full potential. These Nice Guys don't finish last, but they don't win, either.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Nice Guys" gets a C+.
“Neighbors” was Universal’s highest-grossing movie of 2014, so it’s no surprise that the studio decided to ring the doorbell again. Like “22 Jump Street”, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” doesn’t hide the fact that it’s basically re-hashing the same plot. The difference: Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill’s second go-around as undercover cops was consistently funny while Seth Rogen and Zac Efron’s college sequel simply isn’t.
Even with its wildly ridiculous storyline, “Neighbors 2” is based in reality: In the U.S., Sororities are not allowed to throw parties. And since the release of the original “Neighbors”, Abercrombie & Fitch have gotten rid of their shirtless models.
Kicked-out of his friend’s house and not pleased with his job “demotion”, Teddy (Efron, who still spends much of the film without a shirt) gets desperate and decides to visit his old college frat house. His former neighbors, Mac and Kelly (played again by Rogen and Rose Byrne) are happily expecting their second daughter - and looking forward to moving into a new home in 30 days.
When Teddy realizes that a new college sorority, Kappa Nu (led by Chloe Grace Moretz’s Shelby) plans on renting his old Delta Si house, and throwing incredible parties to make enough money to pay the rent, Teddy decides to become their mentor. Of course, this doesn’t make Mac and Kelly happy, as they need a quiet neighborhood until they sell their house.
Cue a non-stop stream of revenge pranks, including the return of the airbags gag - and the results are much more deflated this time. The original “Neighbors” had a decent number of quality jokes and smart comical references amidst all the chaos. I chuckled less than half a dozen times during “Sorority Rising”, and half of those were thanks to a few celebrity cameos. Many scenes go on way too long, are awkwardly staged and have absolutely no purpose.
The five (!) writers (Rogen being one) relied on the wild college life for humor - but we’ve seen this in so many other movies - it’s not shocking and far from amusing. There’s also plenty of anti-sexism preaching, but it’s difficult to take seriously when squished between moments of babies playing with sex toys and teen girls in wet bikinis.
How about a legitimate twist in the story? Nah - Rogen and returning director Nicholas Stoller didn’t dare mess with success. “Neighbors 2” is this year’s biggest, most blatant money-grab. If you think you know what you’re in for, expect to be underwhelmed.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” gets a D.
Angry Birds is one of the most popular and successful apps of all-time. The game is energetic, wacky and completely addicting. With so many kids (and adults) attached to these characters, an animated feature film was a logical next step. Seven years after the game's inception, Rovio, the franchise’s Finland-based animation company, brings us "The Angry Birds Movie".
Bird Island is inhabited by a variety of species - all of which cannot fly. Jason Sudeikis is perfectly cast as the voice of Red. Abandoned as a child and made fun of in school for his large, black eyebrows, Red has never been able to fit in. And that’s made him pretty angry. Being a clown for family birthday parties is probably not the best job for him. Following a disorderly disturbance at one home, Red receives the worst sentence an angry bird could get - he must attend Anger Management class.
There he meets the fast-talking, even faster moving, and out-of-control bright yellow Chuck (voiced by Josh Gad) and the giant, black Bomb (Danny McBride), who's main issue is that he literally blows-up. One of the best things about “The Angry Birds Movie” is that each bird’s characteristics and specialties are taken directly from the game. And the script stays true to the main rivalry, presented to us much like an origin story of the game’s very first edition, when a colony of green pigs inhabits Bird Island and they begin to show interest in all the unhatched eggs in the village.
The first half hour of “The Angry Birds Movie” features some smart, edgy one-liners, especially from Red, a rare movie smart-aleck who’s surprisingly and instantly likable. Once the pigs arrive, the pacing becomes frenetic and never slows down. This is a slapstick-heavy animated adventure, with so many over-the-top and zany comedic moments and action sequences, especially in the second half, that kids, and adults, will likely feel overwhelmed and tired-out even before the “soaring” climactic battle sequence.
Gad, a household name for playing Olaf in “Frozen”, really doesn’t change his voice much here for Chuck, which is a little distracting. On the other hand, Bill Hader, who plays Leonard, the King of the pigs, provides a noticeably deeper toned voice than for his Flint Lockwood character from the “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” series. Both have their moments.
“The Angry Birds Movie” is colorful, flashy and often clever (bird and pig puns aplenty). It’s not on the same quality level as this year's other animated hits, “Zootopia” and “Kung Fu Panda 3”, but it’s undeniably fun and memorable, especially for those who have loved slingshotting and blowing-up these characters on their phones and iPads all these years.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Angry Birds Movie” gets a B-.
"Money Monster" is director Jodie Foster's first feature since the 2011 drama "The Beaver". And which element of that film was considered more controversial is still up for debate: Mel Gibson's character or the actual beaver puppet. Foster turns to more commercial fare for "Money Monster", admitting that because "it's a genre film [from] a mainstream studio" it's much "different" than the other movies she's made.
George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, the arrogant host of the popular finance show, "Money Monster", on the fictional Financial News Network. Gates is clearly based on CNBC's Jim Cramer, the high-energy host of "Mad Money". Like Cramer, Gates uses props, sound effects, wacky graphics, video clips and a quick wit in his analysis of the daily stock market activity and in interviews with the movers and shakers of the business world.
But Gates even takes things further, including a show-opening production number, complete with a gold top hat and back-up dancers. A little awkward and uncomfortable to watch? Yes. Why does Gates do it? As a typical twenty-something Wall Street guy says while watching the show in a bar, "I like when he has the strippers." It's all about the ratings.
Julia Roberts teams with Clooney for the fourth time, here as "Money Monster" show producer and director Patty Fenn. Minutes into Friday afternoon's live show, a regular viewer and follower of Gates' advice, posing as a delivery guy, walks onto the set, fires a gun, and forces Gates to put on a vest strapped with explosives. And if Kyle Budwell's thumb comes-off the detonator (he's played by "Unbroken"'s Jack O'Connell) the bomb blast will kill everyone in the studio. The disgruntled and desperate investor just lost all his money on a Gates "sure thing" stock pick.
Through Gates's earpiece, Fenn must coach the host through this life-and-death situation, telling him to "just breathe" after he predicts "I'm gonna f***ing die." And there are plenty of f-bombs tossed-around by Gates, Budwell and others as the hostage situation unfolds. The bill from the FCC when it was all over must have been incredible.
Of course, if a live hostage event like this did happen in real-life, it'd immediately become must-watch TV. Foster does a good job of not only showing that development within the story, but creating that feeling for those in the theater. Yes, it's not difficult to see where things are going, but it's how we get there that keeps "Money Monster" gripping. The script takes some unexpected swerves, including a few surprises in the climax that leave a nice, gritty aftertaste. And for a film that plays-out in real-time, and with more than half of that time spent in one location (the TV studio), it's a major accomplishment that things never drag.
"Money Monster" is a details movie, from the "TV tricks" Gates uses to try to prevent Budwell from pulling the trigger, Budwell's unpredictable responses, and Fenn directing Gates, the NYPD and others, making critical decisions on the fly, as the situation plays out. In this "What If" situation, Gates isn't afraid to admit his faults, or take a bullet (both figuratively and possibly literally) in front of the tens of millions of people watching. He sticks to his brash persona even in crisis, as his investment program turns into Reality TV.
While these aren't career-best performances from Clooney and Roberts, what they do quite well is make you forget early on that you're watching two of the biggest movie stars in the world playing a host and director/producer. Not an easy task. Foster chooses to keep the focus on the three main characters. There is a lack of substance and detail in the actual stock decline/world of finance storyline. This is NOT "The Big Short" with the addition of a mad gunman. Instead, "Money Monster" is a tense, yet light-on-its-feet, modern thriller that's absolutely worth your investment.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Money Monster" gets a B+.
At just under two and a half hours, “Captain America: Civil War” is longer than any of the previous 12 films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And that should come as no surprise considering the gigantic cast of characters that have been brought together. And it’s this star-power, not the action or the story, that provides “Civil War” with its wow factor.
After another international mission ends-up causing more harm than good, with multiple deaths of innocent civilians, The Avengers are brought-in for an evaluation. And the United Nations decides it’s time to reign-in the Superheroes, asking each member to sign the Sokovia Accords, which states that The Avengers can only spring into action when officially asked - no longer free to fight evil whenever and wherever they wish.
Some members are glad they’re finally being regulated - including Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr. received a reported $40 million to return as Tony Stark) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson back once again). But others, led by Captain America (Chris Evans) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) aren’t happy with the agreement and refuse to sign. And this dispute between Cap and Tony quickly turns the longtime friends into frenemies. This thread - which side, ultimately, will be proven right - is what carries the plot.
The first 90 minutes or so of “Civil War” are pretty straightforward. There are some high-powered action sequences, but the camera moves and edits are so quick that these scenes are difficult to appreciate. And the tone is fairly serious - the one slight criticism I had for “The Winter Soldier”. But there are some strong moments, led by an excellent exchange between Downey, Jr. and Alfre Woodard, in a stirring cameo.
But once Captain America and Iron Man break-out their rolodexes and assemble their respective teams “Civil War” really gets cookin’. The six-on-six playground-style epic-scale brawl ALONE is worth the (inflated) price of admission. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther is a solid addition to the Marvel movie roster. Tom Holland is refreshingly appealing as the new Spider-Man. His start-up relationship with Stark as mentor works nicely. And Paul Rudd, who returns as Ant-Man, has some of the best lines and is way more likable in a “small” dose here than in his own film.
“Civil War” isn’t my favorite Marvel Studios installment. The “superheroes out of control” storyline certainly isn’t fresh (wasn’t that also at the core of “Batman v. Superman”?) But unlike with that DC disaster, the use of all the extra characters from the comic universe is done effectively and with a purpose this time. That’s one of probably a dozen things that make “Civil War” a much better film than “Dawn of Justice”.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Captain America: Civil War” gets a solid B.
Garry Marshall gathered practically everyone in Hollywood together, back in 2010, to celebrate "Valentine's Day" with him. In 2011, he rounded-up a bunch of celebs again, this time for a big screen "New Year's Eve" in the Big Apple. But because those box office results weren't nearly as strong, his New Year's resolution should've been to not make any more holiday-themed films. Instead, Marshall has returned with "Mother's Day", which isn't quite as bloated or hectic as "NYE", but it's packed with two of the director's signature elements: Stars and Sentimentality.
The storylines aren't sophisticated, the performances aren't awards worthy, and most of the situations are over-the-top, over-dramatized and could only happen in the movies. But "Mother's Day" is far from the most painful film I've sat through this year. Credit the irresistibly likable cast for that. Here's a breakdown of the key characters, who either live or work in Atlanta:
- Jennifer Aniston is Sandy, mother of two boys. She's divorced from Henry (Timothy Olyphant) who's in a new relationship with a much younger woman.
- Jesse (Kate Hudson) doesn't get along with her parents and hasn't told them she's been married for years and has a son.
- Bradley (Jason Sudeikis) is a widower (Jennifer Garner makes a cameo appearance in flashback) with two daughters. Marshall modernizes a line from his sister Penny's "A League of Their Own", with youth league soccer coach Bradley at one point shouting to one of his players, "There's No Texting in Soccer!"
- Britt Robertson ("Tomorrowland") is Kristin - longtime girlfriend to stand-up comic Zack and mother to their daughter Katie. Zack wants to get married soon, but Kristin needs more time.
- And, sporting the same red wig she wore in "Notting Hill", Julia Roberts plays HSN jewelry designer and host Miranda Collins.
As is Marshall's style, all five of these stories are intertwined throughout "Mother's Day", which runs nearly two hours. And it feels all of that. We spend a lot of time with each of the stories as they develop in detail, because, unlike Marshall's previous films in which every scene took place on the intended holiday, at least half of "Mother's Day" takes place on the days leading-up to Mother's Day. However, these mini-narratives aren't very layered, and in each case, elements are rushed, dropped or forgotten, in order to get everything wrapped-up satisfactorily.
"Mother's Day" does provide a laugh here and there, usually in the form of a sarcastic remark about motherhood or parenthood. And there are plenty of goofy moments that may put a smile on your face just because you're witnessing pure, unapologetic absurdity (an out-of-control RV, Aniston's meltdown inside her van, Sudeikis falling from a balcony after rapping about his pink, or rather, salmon, pants). It's all pretty harmless.
There's another mother-daughter movie in theaters right now, "The Meddler", that's smart, genuinely funny and quite poetic about relationships, grief and family dynamics. If you're looking for the light dessert alternative, and you're perfectly fine with it not being on the same planet in terms of emotional impact, then "Mother's Day" is for you.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mother's Day" gets a C.
Less than a year after their Peabody Award-winning Comedy Central sketch series wrapped, Key & Peele team-up for their first movie. With endless possibilities - they chose to base the plot around the love of a cute wittle kitty cat - And Me-OW - the results are painful.
“Substitute Teacher” is a really funny “Key & Peele” skit. But you can’t picture it as a feature-length film because the gags and one-liners based on the simple premise would wear thin rather quickly. Well, the same goes for “Keanu”, which could’ve been very entertaining as a five-minute bit on YouTube, but is not as a 100-minute movie.
Rell (played by Jordan Peele) and cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) live in LA. When Rell’s girlfriend dumps with him, he’s devastated. But, like a gift from Heaven, an incredibly cute kitten shows-up on his doorstep - and for Rell it’s love at first sight. He names the kitten Keanu and is immediately “back in the game”, including taking pictures of the cat in costumes in a variety of movie scenes (all of them distributed by Warner Bros.). But so many cat owners do this in real life, so this is just one of the film’s many unoriginal elements.
Upon returning to Rell’s home from seeing the latest Liam Neesons action film, the duo discover that the house has been broken into and Keanu is gone. The pair think the break-in has something to do with Rell’s drug dealing neighbor (Will Forte). So, to get the cat back, Rell and Clarence pretend to be notorious gangsta killers and get in deep with a rival gang that’s got the kitty. This is when “Keanu” officially hits the Formulaic Freeway and never looks back. We’ve seen this storyline so many times before, and there’s nothing fresh here.
But the amazingly-clever dialogue and sharp comedic timing of Key & Peele saves “Keanu”, right? Not this time. I don’t think I chuckled more than twice during the entire movie. There’s nothing - from the George Michael music to the celebrity cameos (including one from a famous Keanu), to any of the scenes that drag-on endlessly that comes-off as remotely funny. This is just another example of why sketch comedy is best served in small doses - and not at movie theaters.
Dull, often dopey and extremely disappointing, On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Keanu” gets a D.
On December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley went to White House and met with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. A photograph of these two icons shaking hands was taken, and to this day, it is still the most requested photo by visitors to the National Archives. In the wrong hands, "Elvis & Nixon", the fictionalized dramedy that provides the story behind this bizarre and fascinating meeting, could've been an absolute disaster. But director Liza Johnson makes sure this story doesn't come-off as a bad "SNL" skit, handling the tricky material appropriately, resulting in one of the most enjoyable film experiences I've had in a long time.
Michael Shannon plays The King of Rock-N-Roll. Shannon doesn't do the typical Elvis twang impersonation, a smart decision in that it allows us to quickly buy into his characterization. Disgusted with the Anti-American behavior of the young people at the time (sex, drugs and The Beatles), Elvis wants to work for the government and become a "Federal Agent At Large". He heads to Washington, D.C., uninvited, with longtime friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer). There, they meet-up with another member of The King's inner-circle, Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), and at 7:30 a.m., Elvis heads to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, where Elvis walks up to the guards at the West Gate with a personal letter to President Nixon (played by Kevin Spacey) in hand, requesting a meeting.
This may sound like the set-up to a bad joke, but when Presley arrives, one security guard says to the other, "It's Elvis." However, it's very important to keep in mind, while watching "Elvis & Nixon", that all of this, more or less, really did happen.
While the initial reaction by Nixon and most of the White House staff is to ignore Elvis's request, two of the President's top assistants (played by Colin Hanks and Evan Peters) see this as a great public relations (as in getting votes) opportunity, and their campaign to make this historic event happen sets the film's incredibly amusing narrative in motion.
Johnson is able perfectly balance the tone of "Elvis & Nixon". She establishes a nice 70's vibe, and acknowledges the utter absurdity of every situation, yet treats them all with a straightforward respect worthy of a historical event. She's able to mix-in some of the serious political and societal themes of the times while keeping the fun meter at the highest level.
Unfortunately (?) Nixon didn't begin the infamous recordings of all his Oval Office conversations until a few months later, so it's unclear how much of the dialogue in this film was actually said. But that just doesn't matter. The verbal exchanges between these two icons is perfectly crafted and deviously playful. The screenplay (by three writers, including "Princess Bride" actor Cary Elwes) gives the entire ensemble opportunities to shine. And there's a sense of freedom in the script that could only work with a plot this wacky (for example, when Elvis encounters a couple of Elvis impersonators at an airport it seems, well, believable!). And there are several great scenes involving the reactions of fans, unexpectedly meeting The King.
"Elvis & Nixon" is filled with 70's music, but Johnson smartly chose NOT to include any Presley songs, even in the closing credits. This is a story about Elvis the Man - not the Myth or Legend - and the same goes for Nixon, who's portrayed as a hardworking, insecure and devoted family man. You can tell that Spacey, no stranger to playing a President, had a great time being Tricky Dick. He embodies Nixon's physical mannerisms and not-so-friendly persona. And Shannon's performance as Presley is one of the cinematic highlights of 2016 so far. He's remains completely restrained (even when demonstrating Karate to an amazed Nixon), avoiding all temptations to veer into stereotypes, and even has two showcase dramatic monologues that provide an emotional kick.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Elvis & Nixon" gets a B. You've just got to trust me on this one. With its unique premise, two outstanding lead performances, a smart script and skillful direction, this will be one of the most memorable movies you'll see all year.
Tom Hanks rarely makes indies. Instead, He usually headlines compelling biopics, gripping action/adventures and animated blockbusters. So the low-budget, German-produced drama "A Hologram for the King", based on a 2012 novel by Dave Eggers, is definitely a change of pace for one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. But even THE Tom Hanks can't save this unfocused and largely unimaginative adaptation.
Hanks plays businessman Alan Clay, who is sent to Saudi Arabia to represent his Boston-based technology company in presenting the King with a revolutionary hologram communication system for a soon-to-be constructed new kingdom. When Clay arrives - the atmosphere isn't anything like expected - and yet his story plays out exactly like I expected.
There's the obligatory goofy driver, a love interest (who's also his doctor) and conflicts involving the weather, culture clashes, and Clay's mysterious illness. Writer/director Tom Tykwer (who re-teams with Hanks following 2012's "Cloud Atlas") crafts a scattered screenplay. Situations occur simply based on chance and coincedence in order to quickly get us from Point A to Point B. Some of the subplots are left oddly open-ended, and several of the supporting characters have the ability to manipulatively get some of Clay's history out of him. Tykwer's occassional quirky visuals and brief flashbacks involving Clay's difficult marriage, challenges with his daughter and father (Tom Skeritt in a shockingly brief supporting role) and difficult career decisons from his past are the minor elements that do stand-out.
Hanks doesn't give my favorite Hanks performance ever, but without him at the helm of "A Hologram for the King" the movie would've completely fallen flat. This film feels old-fashioned - and a little too so - especially since the story is contemporary, about a breakthrough tech innovation. "A Hologram for the King" isn't awful and far from intolerable, but it desperately needed something NEW to say about the world of international business, foreign relations, human relations, personal struggles or, frankly, anything.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "A Hologram for the King" gets a C.
“Snow White & the Huntsman” was one of the pleasant surprises of 2012. It twisted-up a classic fairy tale with a smart script and a killer Evil Queen in Charlize Theron. She’s back, along with Chris Hemsworth, for this “Huntsman” spin-off.
As Emily Blunt, who plays the Ice Queen Elsa - I mean Freya - has stated during her publicity tour for “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”, this is a prequel that quickly turns into a sequel. That may be the only unique element worth noting and remembering in an otherwise forgettable second chapter. That - and the uncredited Liam Neeson narration. Honestly, listening to his voice was the only thing that kept me going during the slow half-hour set-up.
Once the “Winter’s War” timeline takes us past the events of the original, this film becomes “Frozen” meets “Mad Max” meets “The Hunger Games” - as Hemsworth’s Huntsman Eric joins forces with his long-lost-love Sara (played by Jessica Chastain) - a red-haired archer who never misses. They’re accompanied by a pair of male and female dwarves (who serve as awful comic relief). They should have been named Dopey, Boring, Cliche and Uninspired.
Freya really is a lot like that Disney animated phenomenon character: her hair is white as snow (though that princess only appears once - with her back to us so we can’t see it’s not Kristen Stewart from the first film), she goes a little mad because of love (and events from her past have forced her to think "love isn't an open door") and she’s got a frigid relationship with her sis. However, Ravenna is the anti-Anna - all about vengeance. Theron was so good last time, but her role is sadly slashed in half here.
We spend close to an hour with the Huntsman, Huntswoman and their companions in the woods - and these scenes are as dull as, well, a dull blade. Once we hit the climax, in which all four main characters are involved (and fighting each other), “Winter’s War” finally takes-shape in the form of the passably-entertaining second chapter it should’ve been all along. There is mild intrigue to see which sides these characters would choose and then if they’d decide to change their minds, but not enough to, “happily” give a positive recommendation.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” gets a C-.
“The Meddler” is writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s extremely personal follow-up to her innovative 2012 indie “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”, with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley finding humor, and each other, on the cusp of the Apocalypse. For her latest film, Scafaria turns to a more low-key, but just as enriching and relatable story of a woman with undeniably good intentions, trying to mend broken hearts and please everyone in her life - aka: Mom.
Susan Sarandon gives the best on-screen performance of the year so far as Marnie, a widow and mother to Lori (played by Rose Byrne), a screenwriter living in LA. Following the death of her husband, Brooklyn native Marnie moves to a nice apartment near The Grove so she can be close to Lori, who is still single. Marnie resembles someone that just about everyone has known during their lifetime. She’s overprotective, doesn't understand boundaries (a point Lori makes very clear to her several times) and loves helping people (whether it’s complete strangers, those closest to her, or anyone in between) with their problems.
Marnie’s husband left her with plenty of money, enough so she can buy three tickets every time she goes to an action movie: one for her - one for her deceased mother and the other for her dead husband. She doesn't get to spend as much time with Lori as she'd like to, so she spends that time and money on strangers: shelling-out $13,000 to help pay for the wedding of one of Lori’s friends (“SNL”’s Cecily Strong), even though she doesn't even know her last name; befriending the Apple store employee who helps her in getting her iPhone up and running - driving him to night school three times a week. And when it comes to her daughter’s love life, Marnie is right there at the center of the drama - or as far as Lori will let her be.
But clearly money and good deeds can't fill the hole in her life or her heart. And being a "meddler" won't get her the type of relationship with her daughter that Marnie desperately wants and needs. She gets an appointment with Lori's therapist in hopes of snooping into her personal life but refuses to share any of the pain she's feeling.
Scafaria intentionally overwhelms us in the first 15 minutes of “The Meddler” with Marnie’s bold personality. Sarandon delivers several funny and spot-on authentic lines. But then, slowly, as the film progresses, Scafaria pulls back on the zaniness, and we begin to see a different side of Marnie, or more accurately, begin to understand that she may not be as inappropriately over-the-top as we first thought.
“The Meddler” keeps you engaged, with Marnie at the center of multiple storylines throughout the film. It often takes you by surprise, going in humorous, serious and personal directions. There's a showcase scene when Marnie visits Lori at work on the set of her TV pilot in New York that includes all three. The emotional level builds, resulting in a final act that’s a bit extensive, and a tad too mainstream, but touching and fulfilling nonetheless.
Byrne has some strong moments, and J.K. Simmons, in a refreshingly restrained role, is terrific as Zipper, a retired LA cop who gets caught-up in Marnie’s charm. But this is Sarandon’s movie. It’s a dynamite character and a once-in-a-lifetime role for an actress who, in recent years, has rarely garnered the leading lady spotlight. It’s only Spring, but she should be in the conversation when awards season rolls around in seven months (unquestionably Best Actress in a Comedy consideration from the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards voters). Scafaria has written a full character here - someone who is both annoying and loving, nosy and generous, someone Lori can't live with and can't live without. Isn't that the true definition of a mother?
In making this sweet, sincere, and heartfelt tribute to her own mother, Scafaria has given all of us a little something to think about, with some laughs, and maybe even a few tears, along the way.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Meddler” gets an A-.
Let's "cut" to the chase: "Barbershop: The Next Cut" is a rare threequel that works as a standalone film. 14 years after the original and 12 years after "Back in Business", stars Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer return to tell a straightforward story, but one that has legitimate purpose: "Barbershop 3" doesn't simply entertain, it has something to say.
Calvin's Barbershop is located in the south side of Chicago, and Cube sets the tone during an opening montage that gun violence, particularly involving young Black men, has escalated in the past decade. Cube's Calvin is genuinely concerned about raising his 14-year-old son, Jalen, in a neighborhood that's turned into a war zone.
This script doesn't shy away from topical and controversial subjects. Race, black-on-black violence, gangs, prejudice, politics, including the performance of President Obama, sexism and even the public school system are all discussed and debated by the various characters working in and visiting the barbershop. In one scene in which an argument is made that "Right now is the best time in America to be a Black Person", Rashad (played by actor/rapper Common) runs down the long list of real names of young black men who have died in recent years nationally at the hands of police officers, and that nothing is being done to prevent this from continuing to happen. It's a powerful moment.
But "Barbershop: The Next Cut" is still, first and foremost, a comedy. And the entire cast delivers their share of funny one-liners and sarcastic remarks about relationships and family values that ring true. For me, Cedric the Entertainer's elderly Eddie steals the show. Others may give that nod to Nicki Minaj - simply for her 30-seconds of twerking - but she does actually hold her own with the much-more experienced cast. Subplots involving Anthony Anderson as a greedy food truck owner and J.B. Smoove, as a shady "businessman" who's into just about everything, are corny, distracting and over-the-top.
"Barbershop: The Next Cut" succeeds as both entertainment and social commentary. Considering that most films with such intentions don't even get one of those things right, director Malcolm D. Lee and company deserve a ton of credit.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Barbershop: The Next Cut" gets a B.
Nearly 50 years after The Mouse House first adapted Rudyard Kipling's iconic literary works for the screen with their animated musical "The Jungle Book" (the last film Walt Disney produced), a new version for a new generation has arrived. The 2016 "Jungle Book" is directed by Jon Favreau, whose diversity of films include innocent "Elf", a smart-aleck "Iron Man", a whole-hearted "Chef" and some "Cowboys & Aliens" that even he'd like to forget about.
The story of "The Jungle Book" centers around young man-cub Mowgli (here played by newcomer Neel Sethi), who was left abandoned in the jungle as an infant. A protective panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) discovers and protects Mowgli, taking him further into the jungle to be brought-up with a pack of wolves. Bagheera is the best character in this movie, with Kingsley delivering an outstanding, at times quite moving, voice performance.
The evil tiger, Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) feels threatened by Mowgli (since he's a human) and wants him dead. There are a handful of "jump-out-at-you" moments, especially involving the menacing Khan, that will definitely scare younger kids. Mowgli is in peril throughout the entire film, whether it's during his interaction with the slithering and hungry boa, Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who tempts him to "trust" in her, chased by Khan, or being surrounded by fire ("The Red Flower"). I applaud Favreau for not playing it safe with the violence, as it allows the audience to feel the danger the young boy is in - within PG-rated limits.
But, as gritty and dark as it is, "The Jungle Book" also has its lighter moments, mostly with Mowgli's friendship with bear Baloo. You'd think Bill Murray was an inspired choice to voice Baloo. But the problem is Murray doesn't do a character voice. He simply says his lines with his extremely recognizable Bill Murray voice. This definitely takes you out of the moment and is quite challenging to get used to.
I was curious if/how Favreau was going incorporate the iconic songs from the original into this version. He does with full production numbers of both "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You" (performed by Christopher Walken as ape King Louie). These scenes definitely break-up the dramatic flow, but they're also welcome and memorable. And they may give little kids something to think about on the way home - instead of the nightmares they may have about Mowgli's multiple brushes with death.
The main hook of "The Jungle Book" is the look. Favreau shot all of Seethi's scenes (and he's in practically ever scene in the movie) on soundstages in draped with green-screens. All the animals were brought to life through the technique of photorealism animation, and the results are amazingly impressive, technically flawless, and rarely distracting. However, outside of a few key scenes with Mowgli and Bagheera, including one involving a herd of elephants, the story doesn't provide much of an emotional spark. None of the relationships between friends or foes work to the level that you become deeply invested in how this tale is going to play out. And the ending - let's just say it lacks the impact of the '67 classic.
Favreau is ambitious and successful with practically every other aspect. But in order for this "Jungle Book" to be on par or exceed its hand-drawn predecessor, having Walt's ability to make us care deeply about these characters was a necessity.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Jungle Book" gets a solid B.
"Criminal" is your textbook "Popcorn Movie". The cast includes big names: Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman and even Ryan Reynolds in a small role. It's action-packed with plenty of violence - and some unexpected bloodshed. There are elements of danger, suspense, weird science and a hint of mystery. "Criminal" doesn't break any new ground, but its execution of the simplistic formula makes it more than satisfying.
Reynolds owns the first five minutes. He plays CIA agent Bill Pope, who gets murdered while on an important mission. But government officials still want the info Pope has in his head. So they recruit Dr. Franks (Jones), a brain specialist, to transfer Pope's memories into the mind of a Death Row inmate named Jerico (Costner). His brain (for reasons I won't give here) is perfect for this experiment.
Following the procedure, Jerico wakes-up with the mother of all headaches, but he also starts thinking and acting like Pope and begins working with top CIA agents Quaker (Oldman) and assistant Marta (Alice Eve from "Star Trek Into Darkness") to hunt down an evil, cyber hacker closing-in on access to all the codes of the weapons of mass destruction throughout the world.
Jerico's Jekyll and Hyde act, as he becomes more and more like Pope, translates into awkward, unpredictable and sometimes violent interactions with total strangers. Costner commands these scenes, and his attempts to do right (even in the most challenging of circumstances) keep you glued to the action. This one of the most appealing aspects of "Criminal".
The scenes involving Jerico and Pope's grieving wife (played by Gal Gadot - aka Wonder Woman) are fairly strong, though a young daughter is one of the most poorly written child characters in recent movie memory. This child latches-on way too quickly to a total stranger (who broke into their house and tied mommy up, by the way), inviting him to stay for dinner, teaching him to play the piano, and then kissing him on the cheek before she goes to bed. Yes, Jerico tells the girl he knew her father, but the instant relationship between these two isn't close to being believable.
Oldman can add his role to a resume packed with "supporting characters who yell a lot and order people around". And Jones, not in charge for a change, provides some innocent-looking facial expressions I hadn't seen from him in a while.
"Criminal" does have some ridiculous elements and few surprises in the story department, but I have to admit I was never bored, instead going with the premise and staying in the zone through the predictable ending.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Criminal" gets a B-.
Jake Gyllenhaal has delivered a recent string of impressive performances in "Prisoners" (2013), "Nightcrawler" (2014) and "Southpaw" (2015). "Demolition" is another great vehicle for him, but overall, the film is not as strong director Jean-Marc Vallee's past two efforts. His 2013 drama "Dallas Buyers Club" earned Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto Oscars, and his 2014 hiking tale "Wild" sent Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern to the Academy Awards as nominees.
Vallee certainly doesn't waste any time setting the stage and tone of "Demolition". In the opening scene Davis (played by Gyllenhaal) is in the passenger seat next to his wife Julia when their car is involved in a serious crash. She's pronounced dead a short time later at a nearby hospital. Davis, understandably in a bit of a fog, attempts to get a bag of M&Ms from a hospital vending machine, but the bag gets stuck. He immediately turns his attention to the vending machine company, writing the first in a series of letters explaining his frustration - in great detail.
But Davis also uses these letters to express his emotions over the loss of his wife, but in a strangely straightforward way (complete with monotone narration from Gyllenhaal). And outwardly, Davis doesn't seem to be too upset about his wife no longer being in his life. This frustrates his father-in-law (played by Chris Cooper), who's also his boss at a NYC investment firm. Davis' true, off-beat colors begin to show, especially as he develops a unique relationship with the vending company's customer service representative, Karen (Naomi Watts), who is moved by his letters.
The first two-thirds of "Demolition" are solid. I bought into this story and was genuinely curious to see where Davis was headed or if and when he would finally crack from the grief of the tragedy. Gyllenhaal is one of the rare actors who always keeps you interested because you never know where he'll take his character. Here he has nice chemistry with Watts, and Cooper, as the devastated father, has some nice showcase scenes early on. Vallee's filmmaking style is quite reminiscent of his previous films - and the techniques make sense within the structure of this script.
But in the last half-hour, once Davis begins to spend time with Karen's 15-year-old son, "Demolition" becomes an overly dramatic soap opera. Vallee pours-it-on with at least three "twists", taking the movie from quirky to conventional. His previous films had meaning and purpose behind them - with powerful and bittersweet endings. "Demolition" had potential, especially with Gyllenhaal as the lead, but, unfortunately, in the final act, it breaks apart in a big way.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Demolition" gets a C+.
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