Monthly Archives: December 2015

Sibling Revelry

Poehler, Fey launch sweet, raunchy ‘Sisters’ into comedic orbit

 

Sisters

Starring Tina Fey & Amy Poehler

Directed by Jason Moore

R

If you’re looking for a popcorn alternative to Star Wars, here’s something that will send you sailing into a different kind of movie orbit.

In Sisters, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler play a pair of grownup siblings who try to recapture their younger days by staging one final raucous, riotous house party.

Poehler is Maura, the helpful, respectable, responsible younger-sis do-gooder nurse. Fey is Kate, a little older, a good deal wilder and much brassier—but “not a hothead!” as she continually reminds folks. When they find out their mom and dad (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) have decided to downsize, they return to their childhood home to do everything they can to ward off the potential buyers.

Kate’s teenage daughter (Madison Davenport) thinks her jobless-cosmetologist mom is an embarrassment, and she doesn’t want to live with her anymore. Can one night of abandon help Maura break free of her dull, nice-girl past—and a lifetime lived in the shadow of the more adventurous, more daring Kate? And will stopping the sale of their home solve their problems—or create bigger ones?

Fey and Poehler, of course, worked together on TV’s Saturday Night Live before going on to even greater heights in various other projects, including solo stardom in Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. Sisters is their first full movie collaboration in seven years, since Baby Mama (2008), and once again they strike comedy gold.

Not only are they funny, they know that things get even funnier by surrounding themselves with funny people and letting them do their stuff. Working from a script by former SNL writer Paula Pell, and under the direction of Jason (Pitch Perfect) Moore, they generously fill the talent pool with current SNL players (Kate McKinnon, Bobby Monynihan), fellow alums (Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch), rising stars (Samantha Bee, whose new TBS show, Full Frontal, premiers in January) and a cavalcade of supporting players (John Leguizamo; WWE superstar John Cena; Matt Oberg).

James Brolin & Dianne Wiest

Even Brolin and Wiest, the two veterans of the cast, get plenty of opportunities to joist and jab with their funny bones.

But the movie belongs to its two co-stars, who rock, roll and rule with a crackerjack chemistry that fuels everything, firing on all cylinders from start to finish. Some of it is raunchy, although well within bounds of today’s R-rated comedy sandbox. And it’s all brisk, bright, some of it even quite sweet, and very, very funny. Somehow grownup jokes Christmas-gift-wrapped by these two smart, classy leading ladies make the dirty seem merely naughty.

There’s a giant phallus painted on the wall—and Tina Fey’s taking suggestive selfies with it! Haha! What are they pretending to do with those majorette batons? Teehee! Are they really talking so much about sex, drugs and private parts? Hardy-har-har!

The humor is rapid-fire, especially when the banter is zipping, zapping and zinging between Fey and Poehler, whose timing, sense of teamwork and ease around each other suggests that they really might be Sisters, after all. And they’re great dance partners, too—they bust a righteous move at their party to the 1993 rap-dance song “Informer” (“a licky boom-boom down”) and end the movie with a sweet slow-dance groove that becomes a joyously goofy send-off.

The (comedy) Force is definitely with them.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

 

 

 

 

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Not So Far, Far Away Anymore

‘Star Wars’ comes roaring and soaring back in ‘The Force Awakens’

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Issac

Directed by J.J. Abrams

PG-13

Deep into the most anticipated movie of the year, two central characters—one old, one new—are on a desperate mission and in a very tight spot.

“People are counting on us,” veteran smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) growls. “The galaxy is counting on us.”

That pretty much sums up the lofty expectations placed on the movie, as well. The first new Star Wars film in nearly a decade, the seventh in the franchise, and the first since Disney bought the rights from founding father-director-creator George Lucas, it comes cloaked in secrecy and with a mothership of baggage. Diehard fans have been waiting for it for years. Speculation has been building for months. What will J.J. Abrams, the director of two Star Trek movies, bring to it—or do to it? It’s expected to be the biggest box-office moneymaker of the year, if not the decade, and maybe of all time.

So people—and perhaps the whole the galaxy—are indeed counting on this new Star Wars, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. It’s got everything any fan could want: powerful nostalgia, exciting new characters, rousing action, stirring emotion, spectacular scenery, eye-popping effects, and a plot that threads things that happened decades ago with things unfolding now—and points to things yet to come.

Harrison Ford as Han Solo

Harrison Ford as Han Solo

You probably already know that several iconic actors return. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is still the coolest space cowboy of all time. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has become a general. And Jedi legend Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)…well, everybody spends most of the movie looking for Luke, and so will you.

You’ll delight in seeing some very familiar other things again—X-Wings and TIE Fighters, the Millennium Falcon, two particular droids, a tall, hirsute biped and one very special light saber, in particular. And you’ll hear a couple of familiar phrases, too.

And there are some very impressive newcomers, as well. British actress is Daisy Ridley is terrific as Rey, a spunky junk scavenger on a desert planet who becomes a major player on a much larger stage—and provides young female Star Wars fans a rockin’ role model the likes of which they’ve never had before. Newcomer John Boyega makes a fine leading man as Finn, a stormtrooper who defects when his conscience won’t let him continue to fight for a cause he knows is wrong. Oscar Issac plays Poe Dameron, the cocky top-gun pilot of the Resistance.

Oscar Issac is Resistance          pilot Poe Dameron

Adam Driver is Kylo Ren, a disciple of Darth Vader, whose formidable powers were shaped by a treacherous past. Domhnall Gleeson drips evil as the fascist intergalactic general Hux. Lupita Nyong’o is cool but completely unrecognizable as the alien proprietress of a way-out-there interplanetary saloon frequented by a spectrum of crazy cosmic characters.

And the new little bleeping, beeping, cooing, purring “snowman” of a robot, BB-8, is a real scene-stealer.

With composer John Williams’ spectacular, swelling orchestral score once again providing the soundtrack, Star Wars has come roaring and soaring back, a fabulous, bountiful, richly rewarding payoff for anyone who’s been waiting, patiently or otherwise. You’ll cheer, you’ll chuckle, you’ll gasp, you’ll be giddy and you’ll maybe—likely—even shed a tear, or possibly two.

And come next December, when Disney’s eighth installment, Rogue One, hits theaters, you’ll be back in the ticket line again—won’t you?

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Thar She Blows

‘In The Heart of the Sea’ is one whopper of a whale tale

HEART OF THE SEA

In the Heart of the Sea

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson & Tom Holland

Directed by Ron Howard

PG-13

No one who’s read Moby-Dick can forget when the stunned first mate, spying the great white whale for the first time, turns to captain Ahab, like he’s just seen a ghost. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” he informs him.

No, wait—I’m confusing my culture and my pop culture. It’s easy to do. Director Ron Howard kinda-sorta mixes it up a bit, too, in telling the story of the (true) story that inspired author Herman Melville to write the (fictional) story that became the (familiar) story we all know as the biggest, baddest whale tale of all time.

Ben Whishaw as budding novelist Herman Melville

In the Heart of the Sea begins with a young Melville (Ben Whishaw, who plays gadget-master Q in the new James Bond movies) coming to visit crusty Tom Nickerson (veteran Irish actor Brendan Gleeson). The fledgling writer wants to coax from the old salt the truth about a doomed whaling ship, the Essex, its encounter with a legendary monster from the deep—an alabaster-white demon of a whale—and the adrift-at-sea horrors endured by the surviving members of the crew before they were finally rescued.

Chris Hemsworth

Nickerson was an orphaned lad (played by Tom Holland) when he shipped out on the Essex, to which we’re introduced as the movie switches into flashback mode as it prepares set sail in 1820. The capable Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) was promised he’d be put in charge, but a squeeze on whale-oil supply-and-demand pressure Essex company men to appoint their benefactor’s under-qualified, over- gentrified son, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), as captain. So Chase reluctantly signs on as first mate, promising his pregnant wife (Michelle Fairley) he’ll be home soon—maybe a year instead of two, in 19th century whaling terms.

Once the Essex hits the open water, the movie hits its stride—especially if you’re a fan of old-fashioned seafaring-adventure epics. The heavy canvas of the sails swells with the wind; ropes whip, whap and whoosh; metal clangs; swarthy men holler, hustle and clamber; and, of course, there’s water, water everywhere.

The whaling scenes are special-effect marvels. Howard melds the rush of adrenalized excitement, the ever-present, life-or-death danger, and the existential melancholy of slaying such magnificent creatures to provide oil to “fuel the machines of industry and move our great nation forward,” as a clergyman prays.

And heaven forbid you get stuck with blowhole-reaming detail.

When the gigantic white whale finally makes an appearance, well, it’s very bad news. And then things just keep going from bad to worse, to unspeakable.

It’s hard to look at Chris Hemsworth and not see Thor, the movie role with which he’s most associated, especially when the drama takes a deep, desperate dive into darker places. (Forget the harpoon—just break out your hammer, dude!) It’s hard not to sympathize with, or root for the whales, after seeing them impaled and bloodied with iron toggles, spikes and spires, and knowing that some of them have now been hunted now to near extinction.

And it’s impossible to miss the movie’s undertone, which eventually becomes its overtone: Yesterday’s whale oil is today’s petroleum, and humans are still driven to the ends of Earth to get it. Howard’s history-based high-seas yarn has a contemporary message about hubris, greed and resource exploitation that resonates today by land or by sea.

“We are kings, circumventing the globe,” boasts captain Pollard. “To bend nature is our right.” His first mate disagrees—we are but mere “specks,” Chase counters, compared to the vastness of the world, the unfathomable mysteries of the sea, and the monstrous majesty of a creature that can smash a ship into splinters.

They really do need a bigger boat—and sometimes, don’t we all?

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Gonna Fly Now

‘Creed’ soars as new Rocky saga

Creed

Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone & Tessa Thompson

Directed by Ryan Coogler

PG-13

“No one cares about Balboa anymore,” sneers “Pretty” Ricky Conlon (Tony Bellew), the young British boxer itching for a fight in Creed.

It’s been nearly 40 years since the first Rocky movie introduced the plucky palooka, which Sylvester Stallone continued to play in five sequels. Rocky Balboa became a boxing icon, a rock-’em, sock-’em legend and a rags-to-riches tale for the ages.

But, does anyone care anymore?

In Creed, the first Rocky movie in which Stallone doesn’t put on the gloves, Rocky is coaxed out of retirement to train the son of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed.

Creed05720.dngThe son, Adonis “Donny” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), comes from L.A. to seek Rocky out at Adrian’s, the Italian restaurant named after his late wife that he now runs in his Philadelphia hometown. A born scrapper who grew up in a juvenile facility before finally being adopted by Apollo’s former wife (Phylicia Rashad), Donny appeals to Rocky’s own hardscrabble instincts—and their shared legacy, which Donny says makes them “like family.”

Can the grizzled former superstar help the feisty greenhorn learn the ropes, come to grips with his own legacy and face the cockney challenger from across the ocean, who’d love nothing more than to draw blood from a Creed—and the protégé of a Balboa?

Michael B. Jordan & Tessa Thompson

Writer-director Ryan Coogler, who worked previously with Jordan as the star of the powerful true-story drama Fruitvale Station (2013), draws deep on Rocky legacy while masterfully building a compelling, contemporary story that stands strong on its own, focusing on just a few central characters. Tessa Thompson brings sweetness and spunk as Bianca, an aspiring singer who lives in the apartment beneath Donny, whose music at first keeps him from sleeping—then later soothes his fighter’s soul.

Tony Bellew has a real swagger as the undefeated British heavyweight champ—because he really is one. As Apollo Creed’s widow, Phylicia Rashad (who played Bill Cosby’s TV wife, Clair) frets that boxing will wreck Donny the way it did her husband. “Your daddy died in the ring,” she tells him. “You’re better than that.”

Phylicia Rashad

Coogler’s technique is almost a character in itself, placing the camera inside the ring, between, behind and in front of the fighters, darting, shifting, bobbing and weaving along with them. One entire match is filmed as one breathlessly long, unbroken take, from the dressing room into the ring, through the final bell.

The blows land hard, and so does the sentiment—especially when the story shifts in the second act to another kind of “fight” that turns the tables on Rocky and Donny’s relationship. Creed packs a punch, in more ways than one.

There’s a lot to like and more to love about this movie, but most of it comes down to Jordan, whose performance as Adonis is raw, rousing and moving, and to Stallone, who at 69 does some of his best acting in years.

In one impactful scene, Adonis and Rocky ascend the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, immortalized in the original movie. “When you get to the top, you think you can fly,” says Rocky, this time a bit out of breath.

In making us care about Rocky Balboa again, in a big, big way, Creed indeed soars.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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