Friday, July 3, 2015

A note to faithful readers

Just a quick note to say that I'm out of pocket, and won't be back in the reviewing saddle until about mid-July. Summer 2015 has involved two major trips for me. I'm not one for travelogues, so I won't bore you with details about jet lag, language humiliations and wondrous experiences. But to borrow Arnold's signature line from the Terminator, and -- from what I read, the new edition, as well -- "I'll be back." Meanwhile, have a great summer.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

It's one 'Ted' too many

Laughs in short supply as Seth MacFarlane brings back the bear.

Near the beginning of Ted 2, the sequel to the 2012 comedy about a teddy bear that comes to life, director Seth MacFarlane stages a production number, a song-and-dance routine that evokes memories of Busby Berkeley. Dancers glide over highly polished floors in a number (Steppin' Out With My Baby) built around men in tuxedos, a silvery chorus line and, of course, Ted.

If you don't know by now, Ted (voice by MacFarlane) is a button-cute toy and foul-mouthed resident of Boston. Ted is pals with Johnny (Mark Wahlberg), the guy who owned him as a kid and who, as an adult, has devolved into a class A schlub. Recently divorced, Johnny has an unhealthy interest in Internet porn.

The joke? The cute bear has a mouth that could make a longshoreman blush.

That gives you a clue about McFarlane's comedy. He tends to create a friendly, feel good surface and then shreds it with jokes that are profane and even purposefully offensive.

But guess what? Once was enough.

Maybe it's the moment, but I wasn't in the mood for what feels like an endless stream of jokes about black men and their private parts. Nor was I in the mood for gay jokes or sexist jokes or any of the other so-called jests that Ted 2 tries to peddle in its efforts to give political correctness a sharp poke in the eye.

The second edition opens at Ted's wedding. He's marrying bombshell Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). The couple couldn't be happier.

The movie then flashes forward by a year.

Living in a cramped apartment Ted and Tami-Lynn are at each other's throats. With their marriage threatening to dissolve, Ted suggests that the couple have a baby.

The problem: Ted -- who began his existence as a toy -- doesn't have the one appendage that accounts for so many of the movie's jokes.

As the plot develops, Ted and Tami-Lynn learn that adoption isn't an option because Massachusetts has decided that Ted isn't human. He's property.

The movie then chronicles Ted's fight for rights, a turn that allows MacFarlane to make references to the struggle for black and gay rights. MacFarlane seems to be serious about all this, but raising important issues in this context is a bit like wearing a tuxedo to a mud-wrestling contest.

The movie's legal thrust introduces Amanda Seyfried as novice attorney Sam L. Jackson; when she's not taking hits off a bong, she represents Ted in court. MacFarlane also gives her a musical number. She sings Mean Ol Moon around a camp fire.

Then there's an entirely useless storyline in which Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), the weird half-wit from the first movie, persuades a Hasbro executive (John Carroll Lynch) to try to steal Ted, murder him and cut him open to find out what brought him to life. The plan: To make more Teds.

There's more pseudo-seriousness when Morgan Freeman shows up as a prominent civil rights lawyer who winds up playing the movie's moral anthem by telling us what makes us human in a courtroom speech.

Ted 2 is better than McFarlane's last movie, the disastrous A Million Ways to Die in the West, and there's always an audience for this kind of humor.

Me? Let's put it this way, a scene in which Wahlberg's Johnny finds himself covered with semen made the semen scene in There's Something About Mary (heaven help us we're talking semen scenes) look as if it might have been written by Oscar Wilde.

Ted 2 isn't exactly a rehash; it is, however, hash, a low-down, unsatisfying jumble.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

A mind can be a minefield, too

Pixar's Inside Out offers a creative look at the way emotions operate in the mind of an 11-year-old girl.

It's hardly surprising that Pixar, the pioneering studio that helped make computer animation a part of our cultural life, has produced an extremely creative movie. Sometimes, it's good that our expectations are met, and this time, Pixar hasn't let us down.

A long way from disappointments such as Cars 2, (2011), Pixar's Inside Out tells a story based on the idea that we all have a variety of voices rattling around our heads, the constant conversation that represents one of the last bastions of privacy.

In Inside Out, director Pete Docter (Up) takes us inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl, showing us how she reacts to a major and very stressful development in her life.

The story revolves around a big adjustment Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) must make. In search of a business opportunity, Riley's parents (Diane Lane and Kyle McLachlan) move from what Riley sees as an idyllic Minnesota town to San Francisco.

Forced to adapt to a new school, a new urban environment and a house that's in need of substantial work, Riley's head goes into spin cycle.

That's hardly a novel idea, but what's unusual about Inside Out is the imaginative way that Docter brings Riley's conflicts to life. He creates characters that represent Riley's major emotions, and allows one or the other of them to take over her mind as circumstances change.

These "inner" characters have self-explanatory names: Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith).

You get the idea: The story takes place both inside and outside Riley's head. We see how Riley's emotions react to shifting circumstances. Should we be surprised that Anger raises its voice?

At one point Joy and Sadness leave the control room (the place from which all the emotions are governed) and have adventures inside Riley's mind, encountering great banks of long-term memory archives.

When Joy and Sadness leave the control room, Anger, Fear and Disgust take over. Not a happy occurrence.

Docter's animated feature has a welcome undertone of psychological realism: Sadness can interrupt Joy, and the movie smartly riffs on the way memory works.

At one point, the story dredges up a memory of a nearly forgotten imaginary friend of Riley's named Bing-Bong (Richard Kind). Maybe she forgot about him when she became involved in hockey, her favorite sport.

Visually, Pixar's computer geniuses keep pace with the story. There's plenty to keep the eye busy, but the real message here has a salutary grace.

In order to function, Riley doesn't need to abandon Anger, Fear and Disgust; she must learn to find the harmony that makes room for all her emotions while preserving her core values.

That may sound a bit pat, but -- as we all know -- it can be easier to balance a check book than to balance our emotions.

Don't believe me? Just ask Anger and Disgust.





He's a nerd with eyes on Harvard

Flawed but fresh, Dope revolves around an appealing cast.

Several critics have said that director Rick Famuyiwa's Dope is a bit of a mess. They're right, of course.

Dope is one of those scattered movies that fills its 115-minute running time to the bursting point, but Famuyiwa -- who also wrote the script -- may have an excuse. He's trying to capture the raggedy spirit of 90s hip-hop culture as reflected in the life of a high school senior who lives in the hardscrabble Bottoms Neighborhood of Inglewood, Ca.

Famuyiwa builds his movie around Malcolm (an appealing Shameik Moore), a young man who's obsessed with 90s Hip-Hop and who treats his expansive knowledge of the period with exacting discipline.

A smart kid whose main aspiration is to get into Harvard, Malcolm is no idle dreamer. He has the right kind of grades and off-the-charts SAT scores.

Still, the question of whether Malcolm can make it out of his neighborhood looms over the movie.

Malcolm has only two friends: Jib (Tony Revolori), a Latino kid; and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a lesbian who's sometimes mistaken for a boy.

Together, these characters form a trio of outliers in a world that's not big on encouragement. Malcolm's high-school adviser, for example, thinks Harvard aspirations are a product of Malcolm's delusions.

That's not how Malcolm sees it. At one point, he tells a girl that he's met (Zoe Kravitz) that she shouldn't accept a limited image of herself. It's more than a pep talk; it's a way of saying that she doesn't have to live down to the expectations of others.

Now, before we go any further, let me assure you that I'm making all this sound a bit more serious than it is. For the most part, Dope is a profane comedy, but one that's built around the kind of entanglements that can develop in a tough neighborhood.

A convoluted plot forces Malcolm into the world of drugs. He meets and impresses a drug dealer named Dom (rapper ASAP Rocky), finds himself at a party where a fight breaks out and inadvertently winds up with a bunch of MDMA. During the chaos, someone stuffs the drugs into Malcolm's backpack.

Knowing nothing about the world of drugs, Malcolm and his pals must find a way out of their jam. Dom, now under arrest, wants his drugs back. Dom's rivals are also after the drugs.

Enough about the plot, which tends to resolve into a series of complications that wrap up with in a breezy style that's not entirely fresh.

Intricacies of plot aside, Malcolm's drug adventures bring him into contact with folks as varied as a shady Harvard grad businessman, the businessman's wild-ass son and his sexually hyped up daughter.

Moore negotiates all of this with a sense of naivety and wide-eyed confusion that's both credible and engaging. With a flat-top haircut and thrift-store fashions, Malcolm seems out of his depth until the movie snaps to attention with a strong and biting finale. Think of it as a bracing coda to what can feel like a less-than-riveting, drug-oriented plot.

Famuyiwa seems intent on shattering racial stereotypes, on providing live-wire jolts of entertainment and lacing it all with social commentary. That's a tall order, and he doesn't entirely deliver, but, when Dope is clicking, it's winningly sure of itself and fun.

A teen movie that's not just for kids

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl effectively mixes humor and heartbreak.
If I told you that the movie I'm about to review revolves around a high school senior who establishes a relationship with a female classmate who has been diagnosed with leukemia, you'd probably tune out.

Who could blame you? I could be talking about a zillion and a half teen movies in which annoying, pop-culturally savvy kids crack wise before discovering some slightly deeper meaning to life.

But consider: The movie I'm talking about is called Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a title that suggests that you might not be in for the expected mixture of jejune antics and tear-jerking sentiment that too often define the genre known as YA fiction.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon brings visual creativity and smarts to the story, which -- in outline form -- follows the path I've just described. But with movies (as with many other pursuits) it's not always what happens, but how it happens that matters.

Working from a Pittsburgh-based novel by Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the screenplay, Gomez-Rejon brings us into the world of a high school senior who has discovered what he considers to be a viable survival strategy: Greg (Thomas Mann) gets along with everyone, but gets close to no one. He's floating through life.

Greg refers to his one real friend (RJ Cyler's Earl) as a co-worker. That's because Greg and Earl have been collaborating on movies since they were little kids.

These films (some of which we see) may not be brilliant, but they reflect more than a passing knowledge of cinema. They also have shrewd, parodic titles: Sockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Butt, Senior Citizen Kane and The 400 Bros among them.

What sold me on Me and Earl and the Dying Girl begins with the way Gomez-Rejoin respects his young characters.

Greg is smart, slightly underachieving and reasonably observant. He can be honest, although he's also capable of self-delusion.

The girl of the story (Olivia Cooke of TV's Bates Motel) is appealing because she isn't looking for anyone to join her in a pity party.

Many of the scenes between Mann and Cooke take place in Rachel's bedroom. No, it's not what you think; it's the movie's way of telling us that Greg is being drawn into a world outside his own. He's violating his own rules about keeping his distance.

Greg doesn't do this willingly. He's forced into a relationship with Rachel when his mother (Connie Britton) insists that he make contact with the "dying girl," even though he's barely aware of her existence.

Greg's father, by the way, is played by Nick Offerman, who brings oddball spin to his character.

Molly Shannon portrays Rachel's mother, a woman who's dealing with her calamity by drinking a little too much wine.

No one goes totally off any rails as Gomez-Rejon develops the story, which ultimately finds Greg and Earl trying (without much success) to make a film for Rachel.

The film also makes room for an astute aside about the racial component of the relationship between Greg and Earl.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl won the Grand Jury prize at January's Sundance Film Festival, and likely will win over audiences, as well.

That doesn't mean it's a masterpiece, but Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has a knack for keeping Greg's self-absorption from getting on your nerves, and -- for me at least -- that counted for a lot.

Prisoners of the movies

A startling documentary about kids raised in isolation.
Director Crystal Moselle shot her documentary The Wolfpack over the course of five years. When you see the film, you'll understand why. Moselle immerses us in the lives of six New York young people who have led a distinctively strange life.

The Angulo children -- five boys and a mentally challenged older sister -- were prohibited by their father from leaving their apartment in a lower Manhattan housing project.

To make matters even stranger, the Angulo brothers learned about the outside world by watching movies their dictatorial father supplied.

Using imagination and ingenuity, the brothers took things a step further, copying the scripts of movies (Reservoir Dogs, for example) and acting them out inside their home. They donned dark suits and used a variety of homemade props -- guns made of cardboard -- to add a sense of realism.

Eventually, one of the brothers defies his dictatorial father and ventures out of the house. He breaks a barrier, and the others follow suit, bringing the Angulos and their mother into a world about which they know little -- aside from the fact that their father has told them that New York is dangerous and that no one other than family members should be trusted.

The story tells us how weird situations evolve: The boys' mother met their father during a trip to Peru. The couple moved to New York, hoping for a brief stay. They got stuck. Dad doesn't work, but collects welfare. Mom home-schools her kids.

Fascinating -- if a bit repetitive -- The Wolfpack succeeds because the Angulos are appealing and because their bizarre upbringing doesn't seem to have destroyed them.

Moselle leaves plenty of questions unanswered. She interviews no experts about the impact such an upbringing might have had on the boys, and she never plays social worker.

So, if you're looking for a documentary to dot every "i" and cross every "t," you'll be disappointed, but The Wolfpack's disturbing story is interesting enough to make this a documentary unto itself -- a New York story so odd, it's almost impossible to believe.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Worlds away from the original

Jurassic World may satisfy audiences, but for me, the thrill is gone.

Jurassic World, the latest successor to the 1993 megahit Jurassic Park, includes chatter about gene-splicing and a few other concessions to the moment, but the movie still manages to feel dated and even a bit stale: a mixture of standard shocks, rote plot developments, dinosaurs gone wild and cornball moments that play like bad Steven Spielberg.

There's a possible reason for that: Spielberg, who directed the original, served as an executive producer of this edition and selected its director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow.

Mostly unknown to mass audiences, Trevorrow made a much-admired indie, time-travel movie called Safety Not Guaranteed (2012). I wish I could say that Trevorrow hit this one out of the park (Jurassic, that is), but the best I can muster is subdued acknowledgement that he's assembled a movie that many will find satisfactory.

Alas, I am not a member of that group.

For me, Jurassic World lacks the bite and the fright of the original. It is neither ironic, nor completely sincere and its attempts at tongue in cheek humor feel more or less blatant.

At one point, for example, Trevorrow and his colleagues show a giant sea monster devouring a live white shark that's been suspended from a hook. Some may see this as a commentary on past blockbusters, but the filmmakers seem little concerned that the primary purpose of this brutal spectacle is to allow the audience to delight in a feeding frenzy.

This and lots of other action takes place at a theme park off the coast of Costa Rica. Tourists evidently flock to Jurassic World to enjoy views of dinosaurs in their natural habitat. The disasters of the first movie mostly have faded from memory, and Jurassic World has become a prime family destination.

True to show-business fashion, the owner of Jurassic World (Irrfan Khan) has pushed his staff to come up with a new and more frightening dinosaur. Heaven forbid that the ravenous multitudes become bored with the same old predators.

The wizards at Jurassic World have responded by genetically engineering a creature called Indominus rex, a massive white beast that's being kept under wraps. Think it eventually will get loose?

A whiff of a story blows through the increasingly rampant action. Two brothers (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) are sent by their parents to visit their aunt Claire (Dallas Bryce Howard). As the super-busy manager of Jurassic World, Claire initially delegates responsibility for her nephews to a less-than-enthusiastic assistant.

Of course, things go awry. Indominus breaks loose, people are gobbled up or trampled, and Trevorrow piles on action that's supposed to quicken the pulse.

The actors often are stuck gaping at the special effects, cueing the audience that it's time to respond with a sense of wonder.

A word or two about the movie's wafer-thin characters.

Chris Pratt plays Jurassic World's raptor trainer and animal advocate. He also provides an obligatory love interest for Claire. Both Pratt and Howard are given an old-fashioned gloss that revolves around faux bickering and lame banter.

For her part, Howard's character spends most of the movie running from danger in high heels. A bow to the unabashed movie glamor of yesteryear?

In another failure of imagination, the movie introduces us to Jurassic World's head of security (Vincent D'Onofrio). This guy harbors conspiratorial ideas about using dangerous dinos for military purposes. Once again the government wants to co-opt science to bolster its own malignant ambitions.

In its most daring twist, the movie treats its raptors as tolerant of those who are friendly to them. At times, these raptors stop just short of being cuddly, thus reflecting the dual Spielbergian sense of danger and intimacy.

Here's one way to evaluate the movie: Close your eyes for 10 minutes. Then open them. Jurassic World will look pretty much like it did when you stopped watching. People will be running. Some will be eaten. Others will scream. It's chaos, I tell you. Chaos.

Not much thought seems to have been given to exacting sympathy for those poor souls who become dinosaur food, and the only thing about Jurassic World that made me scream were some obvious, early picture product placements. Too bad the dinosaurs didn't gobble some of them up, as well.

Emma Bovary arrives on screen -- again

Though not without its virtues, this Madame Bovary falls short.

The story of a blossoming woman stuck in a lifeless marriage in a provincial French backwater certainly has the potential to speak to modern audiences as both an early feminist drama and a biting social critique of bourgeois narrowness.

Begin there in thinking about the latest adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, a semi-successful attempt to transfer Flaubert to the screen.

Bored and filled with inchoate romantic longing, newly married Emma Bovary tries to divert herself with wanton material acquisitions (fine dresses and fancy furnishings) that mire her in debt. She also engages in affairs that she hopes will provide an escape route from her country-doctor husband, a decent fellow of simple tastes and limited ambition.

There's no faulting the production values that director Sophie Barthes brings to the task of adapting Flaubert for the screen. Working with cinematographer Andrij Parekh, Barthes creates the feeling of isolation and monotony that awaits Emma on the dawn of each day, the numbing emptiness of life at the bottom rungs of the middle class.

Given the standard of her time, Emma is supposed to be happy to have a husband and provider, but she's reluctant to resign herself to a compromised existence far from the civilities of Rouen, the city that beckons and taunts her with its opera and high culture.

The screenplay by Barthes and co-writer Felipe Marino must make omissions and condensations, and although I haven't read Madame Bovary since college, it struck me that Barthes and Marino have done a defensible job of focusing Flaubert's story for the screen. Flaubert devotees may disagree, particularly when it comes to the omission of Emma's child.

In this edition, Emma Bovary is played by Mia Wasikowska, who -- I think -- only intermittently fixes our attention. Some reviewers have pointed out that Wasikowska is perfect for the role because she makes no effort to elicit our sympathies. Still, Wasikowska's performance can be seen in as a study in only sporadic connection.

Employing a variety of accents and styles, the supporting cast acquits itself well enough.

In a generally subdued atmosphere, Rhys Ifans stands out as Monsieur Lheureux, a merchant who senses Emma's vulnerability, sells her as much luxury merchandise as possible (on credit) and then pushes her into a ruinous, debt-riddled corner.

As Charles Bovary, Henry Lloyd-Hughes plays a character who, by definition, is a bit of a cipher. Ezra Miller portrays Leon, a youthful law student who falls for Emma. Under different circumstances, he would have made a good match for her.

Emma initially rebuffs Leon. She does, however, have an affair with the disreputable Marquis d'Anderveilliers (Logan Marshall-Green). Of course, Emma expects too much of the relationship.

Paul Giamatti brings his usual avidity and a bit of grubbiness to the role of Monsieur Homais, an ambitious pharmacist who pushes Dr. Bovary into performing a supposedly ground-breaking operation on poor, club-footed villager. The operation, of course, does not go well.

Not without its virtues, Madame Bovary dwells on Emma's suffocating provincial surroundings, perhaps to emphasize that the constraints of her rote existence have alienated her from her natural self.

If Barthes succeeds in creating a plausible 19th century environment, she also manages to dull the movie's edge. The damp streets and uninviting interiors aren't enough to carry the day.

By the end, I felt as if I were re-familiarizing myself with elements of Flaubert's plot without penetrating the agonizing and acutely observant heart of a great story.

Doped up and on the streets

I'm glad people make movies such as Heaven Knows What, a hard-core immersion into the world of homeless New York City drug addicts. That doesn't mean that the movie, directed by Ben and Joshua Safdie, should be seen by everyone. In fact, Heaven Knows What can become a bit of an endurance test. The Safdies' rough-edged look at wayward, inarticulate characters seems longer on urgency than insight. The film springs from an unpublished memoir by Arielle Holmes, who also stars in the movie as Haley, a young woman torn between two guys. Caleb Landry Jones plays Illya, a young man who opens the movie by encouraging Holmes' character to commit suicide, a pretty good signal that she probably shouldn't be expecting any Valentine's Day cards. Buddy Duress appears as Mike, a drug dealer who's a little less abusive when it comes to Haley. I'm not entirely sure why we need to know what it's like to live on the streets of New York, do drugs and develop self-destructive loyalties, but the raw power and authenticity of many of the movie's scenes can't be denied and the casts' commitment -- particularly that Holmes -- qualifies as nothing short of total.