Wednesday, May 25, 2016

THE PLAYGROUND: Odd, Ominous, & Way Over My Head

And now a review of a film that's yet to be released, but should be hitting the festival circuit soon:

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(Dir. Edreace Purmul, 2016) 

Edreace Purmul’s second film, his follow-up to 2008’s MOZLYM, is one of the most thematically ambitious low budget movies I’ve ever seen.

It’s also one of the oddest, most ominous, and way over my head thrillers that I’ve ever encountered especially considering its modest scale.

Described on its production company’s (Splitworld Pictures) website as a “thrilling adaptation of ancient folklore depicted through a modern fable,” THE PLAYGROUND offers up a ensemble of initially unconnected characters facing various life tests and temptations.

Set in San Diego, where it recently won Best Feature at the city’s 2016 Film Awards ceremony, the film depicts the struggles of a former convict (Lawrence R. Kivett) and his unhappy wife (Ghadir Mounib) who are not coincidentally named Jack and Jill; a homeless man (Merrick McCartha), who comes into an unexpected fortune; a young, questioning priest on sabbatical (Christopher Salazar), and a scheming businessman (Shane P. Allen).

Lurking in the background of these problem-plagued people is the fleetingly seen Daniel Armand, credited as “Nameless Man,” who may be a dark power pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Throughout much of its 151 minute running time I was uncertain of the motivations, the meanings of certain actions, and what the dialogue was trying to convey in this collection of intertwined storylines, but the film’s tense tone, aided by its entrancingly disturbing score by Sami Matar, combined with its strange yet natural seeming narrative nuances stayed with me for days. Its deceptively spare imagery, courtesy of cinematographer Roger Sogues, also haunted my movie memory a lot longer than many features I’ve seen lately.

THE PLAYGROUND may come off like a spiritual slog at times, but it’s one worth working one’s way through. Edreace, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ramona Frye and Dean Mounir, have put together a mosaic of morality plays, inspired by timeworn tales, legends, sermons, and fables filtered through a modern sensibility.

It all adds up into an immaculately layered tapestry of story threads that are weaved together in a way that might be baffling but the later unraveling of which can be very rewarding.

But yeah, I’m still a bit baffled as I’m unfamiliar with much of the source material and a lot of the symbology contained within was lost on me. However, in the end I found Edreace’s work here to be much more impressive than impenetrable.

More later...

Monday, May 23, 2016

NEIGHBORS 2: A Funny Enough Follow-Up But An Inessential Sequel

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Nicholas Stoller, 2016)

“Let’s do what parents do best, stop young people from having fun!” Seth Rogen enthusiastically implores in this sequel to the 2014 hit comedy NEIGHBORS, in which Rogen and wife, Rose Byrne, now have to contend with the wild shenanigans of a sorority next door.

It’s one of those ‘why does the same thing keep happening to us?’ scenarios which calls attention to the notion that this sequel really isn’t necessary, but the first one made almost $300 million worldwide so you just know that it was incredibly inevitable nonetheless.

Chloë Grace Moretz plays Shelby, a rebellious freshwoman at the fictional Braxton University who, when she finds out that only fraternities can throw parties decides to start her own sorority – Kappa Kappa Nu – with her new friends Beth (Kiersey Clemons), and Nora (Beanie Feldstein).

But, of course, their choice for their sorority’s headquarters is the same house that was run by Zac Efron and co. for their fraternity Delta Psi Beta in the first film. Efron, who’s now a directionless post-nongraduate with a police record from the events of the original, becomes a mentor to Shelby and the girls of Nu, showing them how to raise enough money to stay afloat, host killer parties, and piss off their neighbors.

That would be Rogen and Byrne, reprising their roles as Mac and Kelly Radner, who are trying to sell their house as they have a second baby on the way. Mac and Kelly’s house is in escrow for 30 days so the new buyers (Sam Richardson and Abbi Jacobson) could potentially withdraw their offer if they happen to stop by and find out about the wild partying next door.

Mac and Kelly try to make a deal with Shelby to keep the noise down for the next month but, yep, it doesn’t go well, especially with Teddy throwing shade on the Radners, and suddenly “it’s on!” Shelby declares. “Nothing’s on!” Kelly protests to no avail.

Things heat up when Teddy gets voted out of the house by the girls, and he joins forces with Mac and Kelly to shut down the sorority. With the help of the desperate couple’s best friends (Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo), Mac, Kelly, and Teddy plot to steal the sorority’s weed stash at a tailgate event so that the girls won’t have rent money.

This is arguably the film’s most hilarious highlight as it involves a chaotic chase through crazy crowds of college kids that made the audience at my screening as noisy as the people on screen.

NIEGHBORS 2 keeps a steady stream of laughs going through its gross-out pranks –such as used tampons being pelted against windows, vomiting, and a sight gag involving Efron’s balls –the relatability of its regular folks’ dialogue (Rogen and Byrne’s exchanges as a married couple who are on the same page are still endearing), and its continuous goofiness which even makes a winner out of a reprisal of the airbag joke from the first film.

So many laughs in fact that I can overlook the crudeness of the filmmaking, which isn’t very visually stylish - cinematographer Brandon Trost, whose shot several of Rogen’s pictures, has done way better before - or particularly well edited. But who’s going to go see this film for art reasons? Folks want lots of laughs from a film like this and it definitely delivers.

And they've certainly assembled a great supporting cast of laugh getters including the returning Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (forever Mc Lovin), Jerod Carmichael, and Hannibal Buress who are joined by a cluster of welcome cameos by the likes of Lisa Kudrow, Kelsey Grammer, and SNL's Kyle Mooney.

Rogen and crew, which includes longtime writing partner Evan Goldberg, Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O'Brien, and director Nicholas Stoller (all returning collaborators from the original), may have not pulled off an essential sequel by any means, but they’ve fashioned what I consider a funny enough follow-up. So it’s true that sloppy seconds can still be worthwhile, but here’s hoping that these guys take a hard pass on thirds.

More later...

Friday, May 20, 2016

THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE: Not Bad For A Movie Based On An App

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Clay Kaytis & Fergal Reilly, 2016)

Now, I’ve never played Angry Birds, the biggest selling mobile app ever, so I can't offer any comparisons, but I can say that Sony Pictures Imageworks’ new 3D animated comedy based on the game actually isn’t bad – for a movie based on an app that is.

That’s probably because I was expecting it to be crap. It looked like yet another dumb, brightly colored kids cartoon crammed with celebrity voices primed to sell a lot of toys and kick off another useless franchise.

Well, yeah, that’s what it is, but the voice cast’s energy is appealing and a surprising number of the jokes hit their mark. This is largely due to Jason Sudeikis as the protagonist Red, a puffy cardinal with Eugene Levy-esque eyebrows. Sudeikis’ sharp ultra sarcastic delivery keeps the laughs, or at least the mild chuckles, coming.

Set on an island paradise populated entirely by happy, flightless birds, Red is an orphaned outcast whose temper lands him in an anger management class where he begrudgingly bonds with a fast yellow bird named Chuck (voiced by Josh Gad), and a beefy black bird named Bomb (Danny McBride), who literally explodes if he gets too upset. Also in the class is a large red fowl named Terence, who’s voiced by the biggest name here, Sean Penn, but don’t get too excited about the Oscar winner’s presence here as his dialogue is all low grunts and growls.

Suddenly a ship with a few green pigs shows up in the bay, with their bearded leader named Leonard (Sudeikis' SNL buddy Bill Hader) announcing to the bird community that they come in peace from Piggy Island (I guess every animal has their own island in this world). Red doesn’t trust the pigs, mainly because the anchor of their ship crushed his beachfront house, but he’s overruled and the pigs and birds have a big celebration featuring a cowboy show that’s a transparent excuse to showcase a Blake Shelton pop country single recorded exclusively for the soundtrack. Cha-ching!

Unable to convince the others that the pigs are dangerous, Red, Chuck, and Bomb decide to seek out Mighty Eagle, said to be the protector of the island, who lives on the treacherous peak of Bird Mountain. Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage voices Mighty Eagle and gets to sing his own theme song, but the joke that the character is a washed-up has been of a hero is a predictably lame cliché – add that to the film’s clunkers.

When the pigs steal the birds’ eggs and head back home, the feathered islanders realize that Red was right and that the only way for them to get even is to get mad. So they build a boat and sail to Piggy Island to wage war and get back their babies. This involves a ginormous slingshot that flings the birds one by one at the pigs’ city which I am guessing is like the game.

The directorial debut of a couple of longtime animators, Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly, THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE is far from great, and I cringed at many gags (especially some of the surprising instances of gross-out humor), but Jon Vitti’s screenplay has a fair amount of fine comic invention so I believe I laughed more than I winced. Vitti is a veteran of some high quality comic efforts, having written for The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show, and SNL, but he’s also one of the scribes behind the ALVIN AND THE CHIPMONK fiascos so that icky sensibility must be factored in as well.

So there you have it, an animated 3D feature based on a mobile phone game that makes for a throwaway matinee.

More later...