REVIEW: The Secret Life of Pets

11 07 2016

Universal Pictures’ Illumination Entertainment has been collecting plenty of money in the 2010s thanks to films like the “Despicable Me” series, but what is their identity? Prior to “The Secret Life of Pets,” the answer was unclear. Now, they might have found their answer.

Each prominent animation division has its strengths – Pixar’s is packaging adult themes into child-friendly tales; Disney Animation’s, charming with old-school fairy tale morality; DreamWorks’, creating parallel humor tracks for children and parents. Illumination feels well-positioned to capture a middle ground between all three, should they follow in the example of “The Secret Life of Pets.” And they definitely should.

The film feels like their “Toy Story” in many ways, and not just because the premise, story and characters feel so obviously indebted to Pixar’s debut feature. What that 1995 film did for toys in the chest, Illumination does for pets in the crate. Coming over twenty years later, their work might not feel nearly as ingenious, but it is still quite imaginative nonetheless.

Much like Woody was threatened by Andy bringing home Buzz, comfortable house dog Max (voice of Louis C.K.) feels endangered when his big-hearted owner rescues the lumbering stray Duke (voice of Eric Stonestreet) from the pound. Rather than finding a way to coexist, the two wind up lost and endangered. Only for these conflict-riddled canines, the environment they must navigate is not a nondescript suburban neighborhood. It’s the sprawling metropolis of New York City.

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REVIEW: Laggies

15 11 2014

LaggiesTwo years ago, I placed my money on Lynn Shelton to lead the charge of brining the mumblecore movement to the mainstream.  After seeing “Laggies,” however, I may want to switch my bet to Joe Swanberg.

That is not to imply Shelton’s latest feature indicates a decline in the quality of her output; “Laggies” is certainly a recovery since she sputtered last year with the deservedly little-seen “Touchy Feely.”  Moreover, it is probably her most accessible (or marketable) film to date.  But in order to achieve that, Shelton has not adapted or modified the movement from which she arose.  She has essentially dispersed of it all together.

The only part of “Laggies” that remains in the mumblecore tradition is its protagonist, Keira Knightley’s Megan.  She’s a spiritual cousin of Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha and Lena Dunham’s Aura from “Tiny Furniture,” a confused and commitment-phobic upper-middle-class millennial twentysomething ambling haplessly through the best years of her life.  She clearly does not love her boyfriend (Mark Webber, yet she lacks the decisiveness to reject his advances towards marriage.  She invested in post-graduate education, but she prefers the lack of responsibility that comes from sign-twirling for her father (Jeff Garlin).

Knightley nails the generational milieu of indirection and indecision, so it is too bad that the rest of “Laggies” could not be nearly as interesting as her.  Shelton, working from a screenplay by Andrea Seigel, steers the film quickly into the realm of standard-issue chick flicks and rom-coms.  Once she lays the cards on the table, it becomes pretty clear where the film will go – although I did hold out hope that there might be a subversive or original twist to spruce things up a bit.

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REVIEW: Sex Tape

15 07 2014

Sex Tape” plays (pun fully intended) like a filmed first table read of the script in many ways.

All the plot holes, inconsistencies, and just plain implausibilities have yet to be ironed out of the story.  You can see the promise of the premise, but it just hasn’t been realized yet.  Not to mention, someone needs to sit down and bang out another draft or three of the screenplay.

Some of the good jokes are there, too.  “Sex Tape” features a quite entertaining supporting cast, topped by Rob Lowe as a ridiculously eccentric and bizarre corporate exec, that carries the film.  It lifts gags liberally from other films (stealing rather egregiously from “Father of the Bride”), some of which work when grafted into the storyline.  Others feel rather tired and could have been replaced with fresher, more memorable laughs.

Perhaps the biggest indicator, though, that the film is stuck at table read status is the energy level.  “Sex Tape” is an hour and a half of unbridled energy, particularly from leads Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel.  Normally, that would be a compliment, but it’s a critique here as director Jake Kasdan mistakes yelling and exaggeration as a substitute for humor and humanity.

Hypothetically, if I had a sex tape of myself in the hands of friends’ iPads, I’d probably be ending all my sentences with five exclamation points like Segel and Diaz’s characters Jay and Annie.  But they are so over-the-top that it’s hard to connect to them in any way.  They don’t feel like real people, so it limits how much we actually care about whether or not they can keep friends and family from seeing their three-hour sexual odyssey.

In fact, if I had to guess, Segel and Diaz spoke all their lines in excitement after seeing the bonus check they were getting from Apple for all the blatant product promotion.  It would certainly explain why “iPad” is every other word in the movie; even reality TV writers can hide their corporate sponsors more subtly.  C2stars





REVIEW: They Came Together

5 07 2014

They Came TogetherGenres naturally go through cycles, and right now, the romantic comedy is in a bit of a slump.  When I started writing this blog nearly five years ago, it was riding high with smash hits like “The Proposal” and “The Ugly Truth.”  If you look at the market now, there hasn’t really been a rom-com hit since 2011’s “Crazy Stupid Love,” largely because those kinds of movies just aren’t being made.

Why exactly they have gone out of fashion so dramatically is anyone’s guess.  It’s likely a combination of many factors, but two films point out some of the reasons why no one is rushing to finance “28 Dresses.”  Back in 2009, “(500) Days of Summer” took a revisionist angle on the genre, pointing out many romantic comedy conventions that needed to be reworked in order to be more in touch with the audience.

And now, in 2014, “They Came Together” marks the point where the genre’s hallmarks are so recognizable that they can be mercilessly sent up in an unrelenting satire.  David Wain, the great mind behind “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Role Models,” dismantles the romantic comedy with confidence and pinpoint accuracy.

His script lays bare all the subtext that most of us blindly accept when we encounter a standard genre pic, pointing out everything from the stereotypes of the characters (clumsy girl, non-threateningly masculine guy) to the role of New York City (like another character).  “They Came Together” is at its best when Wain performs his point-by-point deconstruction of all the clichés that normally trap the genre, due largely in part to how wonderfully Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler can cut up while sending up the trademarks.

“They Came Together” winds up coming slightly undone, however, by the sophomoric silliness that fills the moments that aren’t so brutally self-aware.  Wain is usually quite clever with his comedy (the notable exception being “Wanderlust“), and here, he drops to the level of Seth MacFarlane in “Family Guy” or “Ted.”  It’s funny on occasion but wildly inconsistent overall with one joke bombing and the next hitting the sweet spot.  Thankfully, it never quite stoops to the level of the movies it lambasts, but Wain might have had one of the most spectacular spoofs of all time on his hands had he just stuck to the more high-minded humor.  B-2stars





REVIEW: 21 Jump Street

16 12 2012

Recently, I watched “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the 1982 comedy still considered to be one of the best high school movies ever made, for the first time.  It has obviously become incredibly dated (but is still absolutely hilarious), yet it took me seeing the film to realize that virtually every high school movie for the past 30 years owes it a humongous debt.  Its fingerprints are all over the genre today, so much so that it has become almost inconspicuous.

The “Fast Times” social order still reigns supreme today.  Nice guys finish last, slackers come out on top.  If you’re smart, you’re a nerd.  If you’re a jock, you’re cool.  If you don’t hang around them, you probably aren’t.  And of course, just don’t try at anything because the naturally cool will just have people attracted to them like bugs to a light.  Whether the movies that came out of this mentality actually reflect high school is questionable, but they have all served to reinforce the “Fast Times” ideal.

21 Jump Street,” on the other hand, is a bird of a different feather.  It actually dares to question the preconceived notions of high school movies and imagine an entirely different set of tropes, ones that feel modern and appropriate.  The film’s protagonists, undercover cops Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) graduated high school in 2005 in a very “Fast Times” environment and expect little to have changed when they go on a covert operation to their alma mater in 2012.  Boy, are they wrong.

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REVIEW: Bridesmaids

14 05 2011

It’s all too easy to label Kristen Wiig’s uproarious new comedy “Bridesmaids” the female equivalent of “The Hangover,” and it works for a quick comparison to sell the movie to a doubting friend.  However, for accuracy’s sake (something of great consequence to me), let’s set the record straight.  If you put “The Hangover” in a room with “27 Dresses” and allowed them to have a baby, and that baby turned out to be a girl, they would spawn “Bridesmaids.”

In other words, it’s a mixture of raunchy comedy that makes guys howl with the romantic comedy that makes girls swoon.  Call it the best of both worlds, but such a combination doesn’t make the great equalizing date movie a great movie.  The hybrid has a bit of an uneasy consistency, mainly because the belly laughs come to a screeching halt as soon as Wiig’s Irish-accented love interest comes on screen.  Maybe it’s just the critic in me that’s rom-com weary or the male in me that doesn’t really care how the girl inevitably winds up with the guy, but the cliched romance could easily have been excised to maximize the laughs.  (Not to mention it could cut down on the length, which is over 2 hours – epic length in terms of comedic films.)

So rather than endlessly compare “Bridesmaids” to “The Hangover,” I’ll let it stand on its own merit.  The credit for the laughs, both shocking and sensitive, goes to star and co-writer Kristen Wiig, who after years of stealing the show finally gets to be the show.  I feel very vindicated seeing her success after being a vocal advocate since 2005 when she joined “Saturday Night Live” and a written advocate ever since beginning to blog in 2009 (from “Extract” to “Whip It” to “Adventureland” to “Date Night” and even amidst the dung that was “MacGruber”).  But this shouldn’t be about me; it should be about her.  This is her big moment, and I hope she uses it to fly higher than previous female “SNL” comediennes like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

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