Monthly Archives: July 2015

Rocky Road

New ‘Vacation’ a raunchy retread of a comedy classic

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Vacation

Starring Ed Helms & Christina Applegate

Directed by John Frances Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein

R

Thirty-two years later, it’s time for another Vacation.

The first one, for those of us who remember it fondly, was National Lampoon’s Vacation, and starred Chevy Chase in the now-classic tale of a family’s cross-country misadventures on their trek to visit the wacky theme park Wally World.

The “National Lampoon” is gone from the title, but the basic structure remains in this raunchy reboot. Ed Helms stars as Rusty Griswold, the now-adult son of Chevy Chase’s character. Rusty wants to recapture the memories of his childhood by giving his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate) and their two kids the same vacation experience he had as a youth.

His idea: Pack up the fam and head to Wally World!

“You just want to redo your vacation from 30 years ago?” asks Debbie, doubtful.

“The new vacation will stand on its own!” declares Rusty, rarin’ to go.

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Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo

If only. Everything about the new Vacation invites comparison to the old—and not for the better. The setup is the same, gags in the new movie are throwbacks to the original—a sexy babe in a convertible, the Griswolds’ uncool monstrosity of a station wagon—the peppy “Holiday Road” theme song from Lindsay Buckingham opens and closes the show, and Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, his co-star in the 1983 Vacation and three sequels, make appearances.

The new Vacation has moments of mirth, yes, but the most distinctive “stand” it takes, alas, seems to be in its determination to get dirtier, darker, grosser and more all-around ickier than any Vacation before. When the Griswolds take a dip in what they believe to be a natural hot springs and it turns out to be something much nastier, you’ll giggle, but you’ll also gag. And you’ll only get cold chills when a creepy truck driver (Norman Reedus from TV’s The Walking Dead) explains why he keeps a dirty teddy bear tied to the grill of his rig.

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Chris Hemsworth

At a stopover in Texas to visit Rusty’s sister (Leslie Mann) and her cattleman-stud husband, Chris Hemsworth hams it up with a prosthetic body part that can barely stay in his jockey shorts (and doesn’t, later). Rusty’s youngest son (Steele Stebbins) continuously pelts his older brother (Skyler Gisondo) with sexual putdowns.

Pop-up appearances by a host of celebrity guests—Charlie Day, Keegan-Michael Key, Nick Kroll, Michael Peña, Collin Hanks, Ron Livingston—are brief zaps and zings of gonzo electricity. And they’re the best things about the movie, which forces so much indignity and so many crass jokes upon its headliners, and which has so little of the wildly subversive sparkle that made its predecessor a classic.

It took two directors and a pair of writers to roadmap this rocky retread. It’s just too bad that, after all these years, it gets such disappointing movie mileage.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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A New Champ

Jake Gyllenhaal is pounding, pummeling prizefighter in ‘Southpaw’

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Rachel McAdams and Jake Gyllenhaal star in ‘Southpaw’

Southpaw

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams & Forrest Whittaker

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

R

The first thing you see in Southpaw is quite literal—it’s the left hand, the “south paw,” of boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), as he prepares to enter the ring at Madison Square Garden.

That paw, and its awesome knockout power, has lifted Hope from his humble, hardscrabble orphanage origins to the top of the prizefighting world, where he now reigns as the light heavyweight champ. But how much more pounding, pummeling, bruising and bleeding can the champ take—and give?

As he comes home from another victorious match, his precious young daughter (Oona Laurence) gets up from her bed and puts on her glasses to better see the his fresh scars and cuts.

“The more you get hit, the harder you fight, I get it,” his beautiful wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) tells him, pleading with him to stop—or at least take a long break.

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Billy’s manager (rapper 50 Cent) pushes him to bigger, more lucrative fights.

Billy’s manager (rapper 50 Cent) prods him in a different direction. “If it makes money, it makes sense,” he says, urging him to sign a three-year, three-fight, $30 million deal with HBO. A cocky young Columbian upstart (Miguel Gomez) itches for a fight. “You ain’t ever been hit by a real man!” he taunts him. Maureen warns Billy of his swirl of hangers-on, warning him they will scatter like “cockroaches” once his bubble of money and success bursts.

And burst it does, and worse, in a tragic and terrible turn of events. Hope is dethroned, forced to give up his home and stripped of everything that ever meant anything to him. Starting again from the bottom, he works with a demanding trainer (Forrest Whittaker) to try to put the pieces of his crashed, crumbled life together again.

JAKE GYLLENHAAL stars in SOUTHPAW. Photo: Scott Garfield © 2014 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

It’s a classic tale told anew, and not without its share of clichés. But Gyllenhaal is phenomenal, adding yet another role to his growing resume of parts that it’s hard to imagine going to any other actor (although rapper Eminem was reportedly considered). With a shaved head, 200 pounds of ripped and rippling muscle, a billboard of tattoos across his body and a perennially banged-up face, he’s almost unrecognizable. But it’s impossible to take your eyes off him.

Working from an original story by Kurt Sutter, the creator/writer/producer/director of TV’s Sons of Anarchy, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen, The Equalizer) weaves a powerful human drama about home and family into the framework of a dynamic, rousing boxing saga. A soundtrack of tunes from Eminem, the Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes and other hip-hop artists helps set the scene in today’s f-bombing, bling-a-fied realm of modern sports, a world away from The Champ, Raging Bull and Rocky. The camerawork and choreography of the fighting scenes are outstanding—and so realistic, you’ll probably be checking your garments for splat and spatter when you leave the theater.

SOUTHPAWIt may not be everyone’s idea of relaxing, uplifting escapist matinee balm. But above and beyond the brutal, visceral slaps, jabs, and upper cuts is a bigger, softer story, a tale of a father and a daughter on a journey of emotional homecoming that packs quite a punch of its own.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Yellow Fellows

‘Minions’ breaks out ‘Despicable’ sidekicks for solo shenanigans

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Starring Sandra Bullock & Jon Hamm

Directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda

PG

Their sideline shenanigans got some of the biggest laughs in Despicable Me (2010) and its 2013 sequel. Now the minions, those little nubby, yellow, evil-enabling assistants, headline their own madcap spinoff about their long, crazy quest to find the “most despicable master” of all to serve.

And what a quest—it begins, we find out (as guided by the narration of Geoffrey Rush) in primordial ooze and quickly bops through various incidents across the centuries as the minions seek out a succession of “bad guys” from dinosaurs and Dracula to an Egyptian pharaoh, Napoleon and an abominable snowman. But they always bungle things, with comically disastrous consequences.

So they keep moving, throughout the centuries and around the globe, until a trio of minion explorers (Kevin, Bob and Stuart) lands in New York City in 1968. Then things shift into comedic high gear as directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda riff on the vibrant sights and sounds of the era (the movie has a killer soundtrack of groovy late-’60s tunes) and serve up a buffet of pop-cultural cleverness for all ages.

2421_FPF2_00051RWhen Kevin, Bob and Stuart see a late-night TV ad for Villain-Con, an upcoming Comic-Con-like convocation of baddies, they know they have to hook up with event’s headliner, the queen of mean, Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock).

The minions have always had an instant appeal to kids, for obvious reasons: They look like wobbly toddlers, they speak gibberish (a goo-goo gush of Euro-babble, provided by director Coffin) and there’s an innate goodness and innocence underneath whatever “bad” they might otherwise be trying to do. They’re guaranteed laughs from children by just walking onto the screen.

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Sandra Bullock provides the voice of supervillain Scarlett Overkill.

But there’s so much more to the humor here; parents will be greatly entertained by the vocal performances of Bullock as the preening villainess (which some major unresolved childhood issues); Jon Hamm as her groovy spy-gadget-guru husband; and Michael Keaton and Allison Janney as a bank-robbing mom and pop.

The plot zips and zings through dozens of silly sight gags, especially when things move to England and a scheme to steal the queen’s crown. A minion on stilt-like, spy-suit extension legs runs amok in the streets of London to the tune of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” Two minions flee a buzzing bee round and round on a cathedral chandelier, and with every frantic lap the fixture unscrews more and more. Rays from a “hypno hat” cause a trio of royal guards strip down to their undies—and break into a gonzo chorus from the musical Hair. The minions intrude on The Beatles’ photo shoot for the cover of Abbey Road.

Stay for a closing-credits montage that brings the minions full circle with Gru (Steve Carell), their master in the two Despicible movies—and a delightful ensemble treat from the whole cast.

At times it made me think of what the Three Stooges would be like if Moe, Larry and Curly were recast for the modern age as pint-size, goggle-wearing, butter-hued niblets. It may not be high humor, but boy, it sure made me laugh.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Robo Reboot

New ‘Terminator’ bangs, bams, crams and slams across the years

Emilia Clark, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jai Courtney

Terminator Genysis

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney and Jason Clarke

Directed by Alan Taylor

PG-13

“I’ll be back,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg promised in the original Terminator, back in 1984. And now Ah-nold, THE Terminator, is indeed back, and he’s the biggest, baddest and best thing in the new reboot of the iconic sci-fi franchise.

That Terminator envisioned a near future in a ruined, post-apocalyptic world run by artificially intelligent machines battled by a hearty group of human resistance fighters. Schwarzenegger was cast in his first blockbuster role as a virtually unstoppable assassin “terminator” sent back in time to kill the mother of the child who would grow up to be John Conner, the fiery leader of the resistance, before he was conceived, ensuring the opposition could never take root.

Three sequels and a TV spinoff played off that premise. And now, 31 years later, Terminator Genysis backs up and takes another run at it.

Emilia Clarke

This time around, rebel leader John Conner (Jason Clarke) zaps his young protégé Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) into the past to intercept and destroy the terminator that’s already there, programmed to kill his mother. British actress Emilia Clarke (dragon mistress Daenerys Taegaryen in TV’s Game of Thrones) does a commendable job as the young firebrand Sarah Connor. But the big bang here is the return of the former two-term governor of California, with a now-familiar terminator twist: Schwarzenegger’s cyborg is Sarah’s guardian, not her killer, protecting her from other terminators.

Characters meet up with themselves coming and going across the decades, in overlapping timelines. At one point, Schwarzenegger’s terminator battles the younger version of himself, thanks to modern-day special effects, right out of a scene from the first movie. Oscar-winning J.K. Simmons plays a police detective who remembers the characters from one of their previous eras.

As they zip back and forth through time, our heroes outrun fireballs, shoot and blast shape-shifting, liquid-silver pursuers, throw around phrases like “mimetic polyalloy” and “decay algorithms,” try to shut down a “cloud”-like operating system that will eventually quash all living things, and eventually dangle over the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge in a hijacked school bus.

Left to right: Emilia Clarke plays Sarah Connor and Jai Courtney plays Kyle Reese in TERMINATOR GENISYS from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.

It’s all very complicated and convoluted, a muddled sci-fi haystack of past, present and future that looks even denser and darker—as many movies do—in 3-D. Thank goodness the characters seem to know what they’re doing and where they’re going, because not only did I get lost, I lost my patience trying to sort through all the bangs, bams, crams and slams—and the echoes and clangs of previous Terminator movies ringing in my ears and through the years.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the Terminator in Terminator Genisys from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.

For all its motion and commotion, however, nothing can compete with Schwarzenegger’s iconic star power, even when he’s standing still and not saying a word. The 67-year-old actor seems to be having a ball back in the swing and stride of his venerable trademark character. There’s even a running joke about the mileage on his terminator’s odometer. “I’m old, not obsolete,” he says.

Too bad the rest of this time-crunching, overstuffed, underwhelming Terminator installment doesn’t quite feel like it’s aged nearly so gracefully.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Good Vibrations

Paul Dano, John Cusack share role of Beach Boy Brian Wilson

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Love & Mercy

Starring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks & Paul Giamatti

Directed by Bill Pohlad

PG-13

The Beach Boys and their songs about surf, sand, hot rods and girls represented West Coast light, life, fun and frolic in the 1960s. But the story “behind the music” had darker undertones, especially when it came to the group’s leader, Brian Wilson.

This trippy, time-tunnel dramatization of Wilson’s troubled, tortured musical genius bridges two different eras, 20 years apart, with powerful performances and mesmerizing filmmaking that recreates pivotal Beach Boys moments along with other, lesser-known incidents in Wilson’s life long after the group’s heyday.

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Paul Dano as ’60s-era Brian Wilson.

The movie’s most striking feature is its use of two different actors to portray its central character. As younger Brain, Paul Dano is nothing short of phenomenal in an Oscar-worthy performance that captures and channels the drive, innocence, obsession and brilliance that coalesced into the 1960s Beach Boys album Pet Sounds.

The movie toggles back and forth between Dano’s Brian and “later” Brian, movingly played by John Cusack as a shattered shell of man in the mid 1980s, imprisoned in a toxic relationship with a greedy, manipulative therapist (Paul Giamatti) who over-medicates him into a stupor and bars him from contact with his family.

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Elizabeth Banks and John Cusack

Elizabeth Banks is terrific as titanium blonde Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who comes into Wilson’s life in 1985, falls in love with him—and leads the charge for his deliverance.

The movie takes its title from a 1988 solo song by Wilson, and if you want to hear it, you’ll need to stay through the credits. It’s well worth the wait.

Although the relationship between Brian and Melinda puts much of the dramatic spotlight on Cusack, Banks and Giamatti, it’s Dano who steals the show. Composing songs at a piano, singing on stage, tinkering in the studio or simply feeling his head swell with a symphony of swirling music that only he can hear (kudos to Oscar-winning composer Atticus Ross for his mood-perfect soundscapes), he conveys the sophisticated scope of Wilson’s prodigious talents, the heartbreak of his tumultuous relationship with his abusive father (Bill Camp) and the fissures that would later lead to full-blown mental and physical breakdowns.

“Who are you, Mozart?” Mike Love (Jake Abel) of the group asks Wilson as he seethes over Wilson taking more and more creative control—and leaving the rest of the Beach Boys on the sidelines. “It’s like you’re making your own record—we’re barely a part of the Brian Wilson band.”

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Beach Boys fans will love director Bill Pohlad’s almost documentary-style recreation of the group’s early promotional videos, album-cover photo shoots and TV performances. Sequences that depict Wilson in the recording studio, working with session players and band mates on what would become the 1966 pop-opus masterpiece Pet Sounds, feel like stolen, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the real thing.

But even more casual viewers will be touched by the romance at the heart of the tale, riveted by the acting, retro-grooved by the tunes, and entranced by the opportunity to learn more about a wounded pop-music Mozart who finally, fatefully found the Love & Mercy that healed him.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Terminally Cool

Young stars shine in fresh, quirky coming-of-age comedy-drama

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Olivia Cook, Thomas Mann and RJ Cyler

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

Starring Thomas Mann, Olivia Cook and RJ Cyler

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

PG-13

A movie with “dying girl” in its title would seem to be giving you a pretty big spoiler right up front.

But don’t let thinking you know what’s going to happen keep you away from the many delights, heart pangs and sweet surprises of this fresh, quirky comedy-drama, the big hit at last summer’s Sundance Film Festival now spreading into the movie mainstream.

Based on author Jessie Andrews’ award-winning 2013 debut young-adult novel, Me & Earl & The Dying Girl unfolds through its central character, Greg (Thomas Mann), who narrates. He begins, “This is the story of my senior year in high school and how it destroyed my life—and how I made a film so bad it killed someone.”

Intrigued? You should be.

Greg, who’s cruised through high school by avoiding close friendships with just about anyone while breezily associating with just about everyone, has only one real buddy, Earl (RJ Cyler). Greg and Earl have been “associates”—Greg can’t bear to use the word “friends”—since childhood, bonding over classic movies and making their own low-budget parodies. Their video mini-masterpieces include Gross Encounters of the Turd Kind, Senior Citizen Kane and A Sockwork Orange.

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Connie Britton & Nick Offerman

Greg’s mom and dad (Connie Britton of TV’s Nashville and the wonderfully dry Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation) inform him that one of his classmates, Rachel (Olivia Cook of Bates Motel), is dying of cancer—and it sure would be nice if Greg reached out to her. Greg isn’t keen on the idea, and neither is Rachel. But soon the ice between them begins to melt, Rachel begins to dig Greg and Earl’s oddball movies, and Greg begins his next cinematic subject—featuring Rachel. But completing it becomes harder than he thought.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, making his second feature film after a run of TV (Glee, American Horror Story), has a real feel for the material with a keen visual style that captures the story’s emotional swirl and its spectrum of teen alienation, attraction, anger, angst, frustration, whimsy

Olivia Cooke as

and wisdom. Subplot threads about a super-cool history teacher (Jon Bernthal) and Greg’s college application process tie up neatly—and significantly—at the end. And the terrific young actors (who actually range in age from 20 to 25) flesh out their characters with relaxed, natural performances that never feel forced, fussy, sappy, goofy or unnecessarily dramatic.

It’s up at times, down at others, ultimately life-affirming and bustling with originality, even while it traverses somewhat familiar teenage territory: Think The Fault in Our Stars crossed with Napoleon Dynamite with just a pinch of The Breakfast Club for seasoning. It may remind you of other things, but it’s definitely got it’s own chill, cool, youthful, coming-of-age vibe.

Just give into it, go with it and let it take you where it leads you—and don’t caught up in thinking that you already know where that will be.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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