REVIEW: Life After Beth

13 12 2014

Life After BethAs the executives at Lifetime have now discovered with their ingenious “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever,” Aubrey Plaza is today’s most lovable curmudgeon.  Her dourly misanthropic attitude paradoxically lights up any scene in which she appears.  “Life After Beth” is to Plaza what “Maleficent” was to Angelina Jolie – an ode to a certain defining essence.

Plaza’s Beth starts off the film dead, then all of a sudden is inexplicably walking around among the living.  This comes much to the confused delight of her devastated former boyfriend Zach, played by Dane DeHaan.  Tasked with playing the straight man in a “Ruby Sparks” style romance, where the girl is undead instead of imaginary, DeHaan opts for strung-out angst to contrast Plaza’s snarky charm.

Their strange reunion starts off under the guise of a comedy, which makes a great deal of sense given that Plaza’s pop cultural presence has been mostly relegated to “Parks and Recreation.” (That’s mainly because no one saw the undeservedly underseen “Safety Not Guaranteed” and no one knew who she was when she appeared in 2009’s “Funny People.”)  But all of a sudden, and without any real reason, “Life After Beth” shifts gears to become an action film.  Nothing ever hints at the fact that it will eventually morph into “World War Z.”

DeHaan, in an interview with Seth Meyers, referred to the film as a “zom-com-rom-dram.”  Kudos to writer/director Jeff Baena for attempting so much, but this novel mixture proves far too many genres than “Life After Beth” can handle in its slim 90-minute runtime.  Plaza definitely does a better impersonation of the possessed demon child from “The Exorcist” than Jonah Hill in “This is The End,” which is about the extent of the compliments that can be paid to the film’s bizarre back half.

Perhaps its action-packed conclusion would feel more earned if Beth had more time to develop as a character.  But it looks like “Life After Beth” is really just going to be good for a few entertaining GIFs on a BuzzFeed list about grouchy people.  C2stars





REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy

3 08 2014

When I sat down and thought about it, most of the praises I could lavish on James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” are really backhanded compliments that slap the Marvel universe in the process.

For example, I don’t really think Kevin Feige and the Marvel brain trust really deserve a great deal of lauding for creating a film that can stand on its own with a self-contained narrative.  The majority of movies already just do that anyways.  Those movies also just have well-developed characters with internal lives given as an assumption, not as a point of commendation.

But if you want to grade James Gunn’s take on a lesser-known Marvel property against their hopelessly generic and shamelessly commercial films of better known characters like Captain America, it’s going to look like a masterstroke.  “Guardians of the Galaxy” has two attributes that probably make executives at Marvel cower in fear: a unique creative vision and a good sense of humor.  It’s a playful film that often feels like fan fiction uncovered from a child of the ’80s raised on a steady diet of Lucas and Spielberg.

To achieve this adolescent fantasy of a film, Gunn assembles a very game group that becomes akin to Marvel’s version of the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”  The film stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (or Star-Lord, as he’d have you call him), a profit-motivated intergalactic thief who might be the most morally ambiguous blockbuster hero since Jack Sparrow.  On an average commission to retrieve an orb, Quill gets pulled into a gigantic power struggle that endangers both he and his precious Walkman.

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REVIEW: Wreck-It Ralph

15 12 2012

Wreck It RalphI think Disney got their brands switched up this year.  “Wreck-It Ralph” felt like the real Pixar movie, and “Brave” felt like the kind of fun but unmemorable Disney animated movie from the people who brought you “Tangled.”

Much to my surprise, “Wreck-It Ralph” left me walking away with a wide grin and a full heart, something that the Pixar movies of my youth like “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo” did so well.  It’s a movie with undeniable charm and a winning spirit, one that envelops you in a giant bear hug.  Not to mention, it also boasts a brilliant script with pop culture references and cleverly constructed worlds and humor not unlike what DreamWorks Animation did particularly well in the “Shrek” films.

It also rolls deep with an impressive voice cast, adding another dimension of enjoyment to the proceedings.  They could not have picked a better person than John C. Reilly to play Wreck-It Ralph.  As a video-game villain who just wants people to recognize him, Reilly is able to bring all the same sympathetic sad-sack pity that he used as Amos Hart (Mr. Cellophane) in “Chicago.”  The innocence in his voice and the yearning to be accepted come across in Ralph’s first monologue, and we are on his side from the get-go as he tries to find someone to appreciate him.

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REVIEW: The Dictator

24 06 2012

The first time Sacha Baron Cohen lost himself in a character for a full-length theatrical release was 2006’s “Borat,” and it hilariously exposed American xenophobia while also providing a rollickingly good comedy for those unwilling to see what the humor was meant to reveal.  He did it again in 2009 for “Brüno,” and its lack of success (and arguably humor) may have shown how much less ready America is to deal with pent-up homophobia.

Now Sacha Baron Cohen is at it again in “The Dictator,” this time not as a personality from his outrageously funny “Da Ali G Show” from HBO.  Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of the fictional Republic of Wadiya, is every bit as politically incorrect and outlandish as his previous three (if not more so).  He makes jokes about 9/11 and being friends with Osama bin Laden, executes just about anyone who disagrees with him, sleeps with actress/underground escort Megan Fox, and asks his pregnant wife (Anna Faris) if she will be having “a boy or an abortion.”  Yeah, he went there.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still a few jokes that Cohen can squeeze out of his boundary-pushing routine.  “The Dictator” has plenty of brilliant comedic moments, although the ones that succeed seem only giggle-worthy and the ones that fail appear to have been ripped straight from the Adam Sandler playbook.  However, the laugh gap isn’t the movie’s biggest problem.

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REVIEW: Carnage

25 03 2012

Every medium has its distinct storytelling capabilities.  The written word can inundate us with rich details and vivid characterization.  The stage can engage our hearts and our eyes with proximity and unflinching reality.  Film can wow us through fast manipulation of image and story that words or actors alone cannot illuminate.  Some, but not many tales can bounce between the different media.  Those that make the jump require strenuous retooling to fit the expressive purposes of their newfound home.

The fatal flaw of Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” is that it is merely a carbon copy of its source play, Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play “The God of Carnage.”  The two masters of their respective crafts, collaborators on the script, ultimately fail to realize what is cinematic about the story.  As a result, it just feels like a performance of the play itself (which I have read and deeply admire!) merely caught on film.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly happy that more people will be exposed to Reza’s keen insights into our primal natures.  Not everyone can afford to see it on Broadway, nor are touring or repertory companies going to be performing this in every town.  But it does the work a disservice to merely slap it onto a screen when it belongs on a stage.

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REVIEW: Cedar Rapids

22 06 2011

I don’t know if you have any romanticized notions about how bloggers watch movies outside of theaters, but let me dispel just about all of them right now.  Be it through Netflix, iTunes, Redbox, Blockbuster, or basic cable, watching movies is usually just us sitting in front of some sort of screen (and in rare cases, we can manage to net a friend or family member if the movie has wide appeal).  We generally just plop, watch, and write, sharing our opinions not verbally with the person we endured the movie with but digitally with people who read our site or happen to accidentally wind up here after Googling “did the kings speech win any oscars?”

This method of movie watching inevitably favors one genre and shorts another.  It’s easy to love a drama you watch at home because it’s hardly different than watching in the theater – that is, the audience is mostly silent for the duration of the movie.  It’s hard to love a comedy because you have no one’s reaction but your own to measure as audience laughter has a significant impact on how we perceive the humor of a movie.  Plus, no one really likes to laugh by themselves.

So when I come across a movie that can make me laugh while I’m curled up alone underneath my bed sheets, I rejoice!  Ladies and gentleman, “Cedar Rapids” is one of those movies.  Sure, it may be hopelessly pathetic and wallow in endless jokes of naïveté, but it’s actually funny!  I laughed!  A lot!  In bed!  Seriously, that doesn’t happen very often at all!

Ed Helms, best known as Andy Bernard from “The Office” and Stu from “The Hangover,” stars as Tim Lippe, the insular Wisconsin insurance salesman who gets a chance to go to the titular metropolis representing his company.  There, he is exposed to the dangers and pleasures of true urban living and meets an exciting cast of characters including the crude Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), mild-mannered Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), good-natured Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), and the prostitute with the heart of gold Bree (Alia Shawkat in the first role of its kind likely to be snubbed by the Oscars).  Tim is totally clueless the entire movie, never really leaving his tighty-whitie turtle shell of ignorance.  But even the cheap laughs work here, and my reactions ranged from chuckles to belly laughs.  So what are you waiting on, book a trip to “Cedar Rapids” and enjoy comedy that can illicit a verbal reaction from you in the comfort of your own home.  Humor me.  (It’s also alright to laugh at the pun.)  B+ / 





REVIEW: Cyrus

1 08 2010

Over the past few years, we’ve seen over-the-top comedy after over-the-top comedy, and it’s been a little exhausting. But you don’t need to go into outer space or back to prehistoric times to be funny; there’s humor in the average lives of ordinary people. The Duplass brothers understand that and bring us “Cyrus,” a modest comedy that finds laughter in the awkward and trite moments that make up the days of a new couple trying to coexist with an overbearing son. In a summer filled with giant explosions and comedies so corny you can all but hear the laugh-track, it’s a very welcome change of pace.

It’s like a feature-length sitcom where the writers provide the situation and the actors are left to bring the comedy out of it. There are no ridiculous lines or scenarios to pump easy laughs into the movie; it all comes from the way someone glances at another person or a few too many seconds of silence. John C. Reilly headlines the cast as John, the seven-years divorced loner just beginning to come out of his shell as his ex-wife, played by the always fantastic Catherine Keener, is getting married again.

At a party, he makes a drunken connection with Molly, Marisa Tomei’s spontaneous fireball. But little does John know what lies ahead down the road with her – a 22-year-old son played by Jonah Hill who still lives at home and is uncomfortably close with his mother. It’s a very different role for the young comedic star, who has starred in plenty of the ridiculous comedies I alluded to above (although I generally consider him to have good taste in choosing roles). He exhibits the subtlety necessary to make the passive-aggressive antagonist wholly convincing. Hill masters the death glare, just one of many great idiosyncrasies he brings to the character.

The production values are so simple that I can imagine just one of the movie’s four marquee names cost more than making the movie. The two brothers were extremely lucky to land them all because it does lend a sort of mainstream sensibility to the film that could be a little too indie for some people without them. But the crowning achievement of “Cyrus” is not how digestible the mumblecore movement (a phrase that doesn’t register with most Americans) can be made; it’s how the combination of a well-written script and actors capable enough to understand its nuances can create comedy out of anything. A- /