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.

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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.

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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.

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THE NICE GUYS: A Shane Black Blast That Smartly Knows How To Be Dumb

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

THE NICE GUYS (Dir. Shane Black, 2016)

Writer/director Shane Black follows up the biggest hit of his career, IRON MAN 3, by steering back into his hard R-rated rude, crude action comedy comfort zone in THE NICE GUYS, a buddy detective film that’s up there with his funniest work.

It scores with the inspired casting of two guys not normally known for making audiences laugh: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, who respectively play grizzled enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy and scruffy private eye Holland March.

Set in 1977 Los Angeles, the film follows Healy and March as they are thrown together to solve a case involving the apparent suicide of porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), a missing girl named Ameila (Margaret Qualley), who’s mistaken for the dead X-rated actress, and the possibly corrupt head of the Department of Justice (Kim Basinger), who’s Amelia’s mother.

Despite March’s protests, the duo are joined by Angourie Rice as the private dick’s precocious daughter Holly, who is much smarter than her incredibly clumsy, constantly drunk father, so while she’s putting leads together, he’s falling off balconies.

Winding through the prerequisite fist fights, car chases, and shoot-outs, is Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi’s deftly hilarious dialogue which I bet will help make this be as quoted as Black’s LETHAL WEAPON, KISS KISS BANG BANG and even THE LAST BOY SCOUT scripts in the anals of film geek fandom.

While highly comical, the film boasts a serious action villain in the dapper, cold as ice, mafia hitman John Boy (Matt Bomer) who arrives on the scene with a trunk full of automatic guns targeting Healy and March.

At times it seems like Black wanted to make his version of an pre-THE BIG SHORT Adam McKay movie, replacing Will Farrell and whatever co-star (John C. Reilly? Mark Whalberg?) with Crowe and Gosling, retaining the ‘70s-era satire, albeit in a much lesser surreal vein, of the ANCHORMAN movies but operating from a much grittier level.

Actually maybe it’s more like the 1974 buddy comedy FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, in which Alan Arkin and James Caan play mismatched detectives who get entangled with the mob – that vibe is pretty strong too.

The attention to period detail from the smog-filled sky to the roster on the marquee of LA’s famous marquee The Comedy Store, coupled with a soundtrack full of primo ‘70s rock and R&B, effectively sets the mood and tone even despite the fact that every song – from “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” to “A Horse With No Name” has been used countless times in movies before. The same could be said for the soundtrack to GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY but that doesn’t stop it from being awesome.

THE NICE GUYS is a Shane Black blast with the funniest performances of both Crowe and Gosling’s career. Crowe’s weathered, jaded persona contrasts hilariously with Gosling’s haphazard demeanor in scene after scene, and with the talented 14-year old Rice added to the mix, the film overflows with comic chemistry.

The only slight misstep here is the overly restated shading of political commentary dealing with the intertwined conspiracy involving the Big Three Detroit automakers. This also has an Adam McKay-ish ring to it. No matter though really, THE NICE GUYS is smart enough to know how to be dumb and that transcends that bit of heavy handiness.

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Monday, May 16, 2016


Now playing at an indie art house near me:

(Dir. Matthew Brown, 2015)

In due time, every notable genius will get their own biopic. It’s Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s turn in Matthew Brown’s sophomore effort, THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY, his follow-up to Brown's little seen (meaning I didn’t see it) 2000 rom com ROPEWALK.

Dev Patel, the British actor of Indian descent that you probably know from SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE or those BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL movies or the HBO show The Newsroom, stars as Ramanujan who the film’s other principal lead, Jeremy Irons as Professor G.H. Hardy, tells us in an opening voice-over was “the most romantic figure in the recent history of mathematics.”

Brown’s film, which is adapted from Robert Kanigel’s 1991 biography “The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan,” concentrates on Ramanujan’s time studying and working on his complex theories at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1914-1919.

Ramanujan leaves behind his loving wife (Devika Bhise), and mother (Arundathi Nag) who says that “it is forbidden to cross the seas,” in poverty-stricken Madras, India to pursue his dreams of getting his groundbreaking work published, but there he has to contend with a panel of stuffy Brit academics that are skeptical about this uneducated upstart, labeling him “Gunga Din,” and demanding that he provide painstaking proofs of his equations.

In a neat and tidy movie moment, Irons’ Hardy tells his doubting Cambridge collegues, who include Toby Jones as John Edensor Littlewood, Stephen Fry as Sir Francis Spring, and Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell, that Ramanujan is a special case and that “change is a wonderful thing – embrace it.”

All the while filling notebooks with his elaborate formulas, Ramanujan cooks his own meals in his room, deals with discrimination, and even some physical abuse by soldiers. The Indian math genius’ biggest battle is with tuberculosis

The movie is best when it focuses on Ramanujan’s relationship with his mentor Hardy, as the acclaimed mathematician is a devout atheist whose student proclaims “an equation has no meaning to me unless it expresses a thought of god.” Irons and Patel excel at their exchanges, exuding both warmth and gravitas.

However, Brown’s screenplay is often repetitive with dialogue that reiterates variations on the same lines from scene to scene. For example, when at one point Hardy warns Ramanujan that one of his most vocal opponents at the University, Major MacMahon (Kevin McNally), thinks that an equation involving partitions can’t be done – especially by Ramanujan, we then cut to a scene in which MacMahon angrily asserts “you think you can just turn around and crack partitions? Can’t be done, I’m telling you – especially by you!” By this point we’ve had three scenes that say the exact same thing over and over.

THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY is TV movie-ish with swelling strings (courtesy of composer Coby Brown) and overly precious speeches, but it’s an earnest, noble tribute to a man that many feel should be spoken of in the same breath as Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking (that wheel chair guy).

Brown doesn’t attempt to get inside Ramanujan’s head in a BEAUTIFUL MIND manner so there’s no flashiness to the proceedings, just the simple, straight forward formula of a journey to respect. Moviegoers may not be as in awe of it as the folks in the film are of seeing Ramanujan’s equations on paper and chalkboards – there’s a whole lot of gaping at his work here – but they’ll most likely be plenty entertained by it nonetheless.

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Friday, May 06, 2016

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR: A Super-Sized Superhero Mash-Up

Now playing at a multiplex near you:


(Dirs. Anthony & Joe Russo, 2016)

Eight years ago this week, the first IRON MAN movie was released and so began the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Since then we’ve gotten two more IRON MANs, two CAPTAIN AMERICAs, two THORs, a stand-alone HULK entry, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, ANT-MAN, and two AVENGERS films. 

Now here’s the third CAPTAIN AMERICA movie, which is so packed with Marvel superheroes that it could easily be mistaken for the third AVENGERS movie. 

For Chris Evans, once again donning the red, white, and blue uniform and shield as the title character, is joined by Robert Downey Jr. reprising his iconic role as Iron Man/Tony Stark for the seventh time, Scarlett Johansson for her fifth go around as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow, Anthony Mackie for the fourth time as Sam Wilson/Falcon, Don Cheadle, also four timing it, as James “Rhodey” Rhodes /War Machine; Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye (another four timer), Elizabeth Olsen for her second appearance as Wanda Maximoff /Scarlet Witch, Paul Bettany as Vision (likewise), and Paul Rudd, also back for seconds, as Scott Lang/Ant-Man.

And that’s only half the cast because Sebastian Stan is back again as Bucky Barnes aka Winter Soldier from the CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel of the same name, Chadwick Boseman is on hand to introduce the character of T’Challa /Black Panther to the MCU, Daniel Brühl does a slimy turn as Slovakian terrorist Helmut Zemo, Frank Grillo (also from the CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel) puts in some more tough guy time as Brock Rumlow/Crossbones, William Hurt is back from the THE INCREDIBLE HULK (though the Hulk isn’t) as General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, and Captain America’s returning love interest Sharon Carter /Agent 13 again played by Emily VanCamp.

Whew! I knew I’d spend half the review just listing who’s in this movie, and I haven’t even gotten to what’s probably the most hyped factor: the introduction of the brand new Spider-Man to the MCU, now played by Tom Holland in a warm up for SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, due for summer 2017. 

CIVIL WAR involves the Avengers being divided over signing the Sokovia Accords, a 117-country treaty that would give the United Nations jurisdiction over the superhero team because of the massive death and destruction that went down in AGE OF ULTRON. Iron Man is for signing the agreement, feeling that the Avengers should be kept in check, but Captain America disagrees, feeling that the regulations will run them the risk of being used as weapons by corrupt forces in the government.

Captain America’s discord with the Accords has to do with his protection of the Winter Soldier from Iron Man, as the brainwashed Bucky Barnes was responsible for the automobile accident that killed Stark’s parents.

While the film is obviously all about a big showdown between Team Captain America, who has Falcon, Winter Soldier, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Ant-Man on his side; and Team Iron Man, who has Vision, Black Panther, WarMachine, and Spider-Man on his side, there is a framework of dramatic scenes interwoven with action set pieces leading up to it that make the film a lot more than one big blow-out battle.

Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote the previous Captain America films, expertly weave together all these characters and story elements into a ensemble epic that’s one of the strongest, richest, and rewarding of the Marvel movies. There’s not a wasted moment or misstep in the film breezy 146 minute running time. 

The Russo brothers have topped their previous CAPTAIN AMERICA entries and Joss Whedon’s last AVENGERS film by maximizing on the human approach to these characters. We’re not watching unrelatable dark dull demigods fighting it out like in the disastrous BATMAN Vs. SUPERMAN, we’re engaged with flawed, funny friends with opposing principles putting their powers on the line. The powers that be at DC really ought to be taking notes.

CIVIL WAR’s climax, the aforementioned Avengers on Avengers battle at Leipzig/Halle Airport in Germany doesn’t disappoint. It’s a rousingly exciting and wholeheartedly hilarious sequence of spectacle that’s as packed with thrills as it is one-liners. Every Avenger gets a chance to shine, but Rudd’s Ant-Man, who enlarges himself to be a towering giant at a crucial moment, steals the sequence – or at least, scores the most laughs.

Another Avenger who steals their screen-time is Johansson with her impeccably choreographed hand-to-hand fight scenes being the best I’ve seen since THE RAID 2. As much as I enjoyed Holland’s fresh, frisky take on Spider-Man, Johansson’s moments made more of an impression on me. Where’s her stand-alone movie?

But everybody here is at the top of their game. Evans is the best he's ever been as Cap, Downey Jr. acts again like he was born to play Iron Man/Stark, and there's not a dud to be found in the vast cast.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is a stupendous success of a super-sized superhero mash-up; a well-oiled machine of a crowd-pleasing blockbuster that fan boys won’t be able to get enough of. As somebody who’s been more satisfied than disappointed by the offerings of the MCU, consider me among them.

Oh, and as always - stay for the post credits stingers.

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