Monthly Archives: February 2017

After School Special

Charlie Day, Ice Cube put new shine(r) on classic Hollywood grudge match

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Fist Fight
Starring Charlie Day & Ice Cube
Directed by Richie Keen
R
In theaters Feb. 17, 2017

Hollywood loves taking a good idea, dusting it off and giving it a new shine.

Or a new shiner, as the case may be with Fist Fight, in which a hapless high school teacher (Charlie Day) is challenged to a brawl by one of his fellow instructors (Ice Cube) at 3 p.m. on the last day of classes.

If you’re old enough to remember, you may recall a wonderful little 1987 movie called Three O’Clock High, which had essentially the same premise with two students. If you’ve got a really good memory, you may recall that Three O’Clock High offered a contemporary cinematic nod to High Noon, the 1952 Gary Cooper classic about a marshal forced to face a gang of killers alone—as a clock tick-tocks down the anxious minutes in real time.

The grudge match in Fist Fight is played for laughs, and there are plenty, beginning with the classroom incident that gets mild-mannered English instructor Andy Campbell (Day) crossways with hot-tempered history teacher Ron Strickland (Cube). Day is slight, white and whiney; Cube is thick, dark and growly. They’re so temperamentally and physically at odds, anything they do together is practically pre-set to be funny.

To add to the comedic recipe for disaster, the fight isn’t all that’s looming for Campbell. His wife is pregnant and about to pop any minute. Rumors of school cutbacks are swirling, and he’s got a meeting with the superintendent at 2 p.m. to find out if his job is among them. Right after that, his daughter has a recital at her middle school, and he’s promised he’ll be there to join her in a dance routine from the musical Annie.

And it’s senior prank day. There are paint bombs on trip wires, classroom TV sets hijacked to show porn, naughty anatomical patterns landscaped into the grass of the soccer field, a mariachi band following the principal everywhere he goes, and a horse galloping down the hallways.

Tracy Morgan & Jillian Bell

Tracy Morgan & Jillian Bell

Director Richie Keen, a TV trouper making his first feature film, worked with Day on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and he packs the screen with familiar faces from other television shows. Saturday Night Live veteran Tracy Morgan, making his first movie appearance since his near-fatal 2014 auto accident, gets laughs as a wacky coach. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) plays a freaky French teacher. Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris is the exasperated principal. Kumail Naujiani (Portlandia, Silicon Valley) plays the school’s by-the-books security officer. Young & Hungry’s Kym Whitley has a cameo as a 911 call center dispatcher—who gets a good laugh at Campbell’s unusual predicament.

Stephnie Weir from Crazy Ex-Girfriend has a moment as a school official. JoAnna Garcia Dahl, who plays Ariel in Once Upon a Time, is Campbell’s wife. Young Alexa Nisenson, 11, who made her movie debut last year in Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, plays Campbell’s daughter, who ditches Annie at the last minute for an explosively raw rap song by Big Sean that makes the talent show scene from Little Miss Sunshine look as quaint and sedate as something from Lawrence Welk.

Jillian Bell, whom you’ll probably recognize from several other R-rated movies (22 Jump Street, The Night Before, Bridesmaids) and numerous TV roles (Workaholics, Idiotsitter, Supermansion), brings her comedy-gold blend of deadpan delivery, raunchy spunk and fearless improv to Holly, the school’s hilariously misguided guidance counselor.

FIST FIGHT

This is Day’s show, and he does a nice job, channeling a comedic mojo that feels like a strain of easygoing, Steve Carell-ish everyman hot-wired with Casey Affleck’s unpredictable intensity. Cube doesn’t get near as much to do, but he does get to shine in very funny scene where the rumors about his fearsome teacher come colorfully to life as students tell of what they’ve heard about him and his past—soldier assassin, violent drug lord, renegade cop, crazy jazz pianist.

The jokes fly, but there’s some serious, timely messaging here, too—mainly about “the depths to which the school system has fallen,” as noted on one of the news channels covering (by helicopter!) the “#teacherfight,” which becomes a worldwide viral sensation driven and promoted by memes, Twitter, YouTube and other social media. Pick an education topic—inclusiveness, bureaucracy, job insecurity, funding, resources, bullying, drugs, vandalism, student behavior issues—and it’s there, in between the laughter.

Campbell has three scenes in front of his English classes, throughout the day, in which we see him unravel a bit more each time, becoming progressively more rattled as his appointment in the parking lot looms. Can he rally and rise to the challenge?

See you in the parking lot at 3 o’clock to find out!

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Even Wick-ier

Keanu Reeves returns to his ultraviolent past 

Keanu Reeves stars as 'John Wick' in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2.

John Wick: Chapter 2
Starring Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Common & Ruby Rose
Directed by Chad Stahelski
R
In theaters Feb. 10

You know John Wick, right?

“The man, the myth, the legend,” as one character refers to him admiringly. The nattily attired hitman of few words who lets his lethal skills do the talking—who once dispatched three assailants in a barroom with only a pencil. The brooding one-man-army known in underworld circles as a ghost, the Boogeyman and mors ipsa emissarium, “death’s very emissary.”

The character of Wick marked a comeback for Keanu Reeves in 2014, when he blasted his way onto the screen in the original pulpy, action-packed tale of a former killer-for-hire grieving the death of his wife, seeking vengeance for the murder of his adorable puppy and hell-bent on getting back his stolen, high-performance 1969 Mustang.

But you know how it is with former hitmen: They never can really, truly get out of the life—at least not alive.

John Wick: Chapter 2 does exactly what its title suggests, picking up where the first movie left off and moving the story along even further down the road, even deeper into a world teeming with Russian gangsters, international racketeers and murderous multicultural muckety-mucks. Wick is pulled back into his violent past when a former connection (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls in a “blood marker” requiring his assassination services.

Then Wick gets double-crossed with a $7 million contract on his own head that sends every other hitman scurrying to collect.

JW2_D25_7230.cr2Directed once again by Chad Stahelski, a former top Hollywood stuntman who handled all Reeve’s action sequences on his Matrix films, it’s a blast of stylishly orchestrated physical mayhem and ballet-like ultraviolence as Wick dispatches what must be nearly 100 adversaries with knives, handguns, rifles, machine guns, his car and even another pencil.

I lost count of how body parts he broke with his bare hands.  If you like this kind of thing, it’s an action junkie’s all-you-can-eat buffet, and it’s certainly well done. Once again, director Stahelski draws on his own rough-and-tumble on-camera experience, as well as the obvious inspirations of Japanese action, kung-fu and martial-arts cinema and good ‘ol splatter-y spaghetti Westerns. The explosive gunfire has real kick, bam and boom. You “feel” the thuds, thumps, whacks, whams and cracks of the bruising body blows.

And some of the fight scenes are truly spectacular extended sequences of choreography—you’ll wonder how no one was actually injured in the knockdown, drag-out melees. One standout, in particular, extends from the catacombs underneath Rome into the streets above and down a looooong stone stairwell, before finally crashing into the lobby of a hotel.

Ruby Rose

Ruby Rose

The rapper-turned-actor Common plays a former associate who’s now one of Wick’s most formidable foes. Veteran actor Ian McShane is Winston, the underworld kingpin in charge of The Continental, a posh “safe zone” for warring hitmen. Ruby Rose, from TV’s Orange is the New Black, is silent but deadly as a mute assassin with Wicks in her sexy, savage, silent sights.  Peter Serafinowicz has a dryly humorous scene as the proprietor of a secret boutique weaponry shop where Wick selects instruments for his evening’s assignment as if he were choosing wine. “I need something robust and precise,” Wicks says. “Could you recommend something for the end of the night—something big and bold?”

“Big and bold” certain describes John Wick: Chapter 2, especially if you like your action with a capital A. It’s fitting that its climatic showdown takes place in an art museum, because there’s certainly an artistry to its over-the-top violence, its extreme body count and the blood that spews from heads and torsos onto walls and other surfaces—in the art gallery, the crimson splatters, sprays and smears blend in with other exhibits like pieces of morbid, minimalist modern art.  But of course, it won’t be for everyone—and probably not for much of anyone who’s not a hardcore action aficionado, or a diehard fan from the fist John Wick flick. This one’s just as Wick-y, and in many ways Wick-ier.

So it’s hard to be subjective. I can’t really give it stars in the traditional sense. I can, however, rate it four snapped necks, three pencils in the head, two slashed forearm arteries in a big Roman thermae and one dagger to the aorta, if that helps.

This Bat’s Where It’s At

Caped Crusader gets spotlight in zipping, zany ‘Lego Batman Movie’

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The Lego Batman Movie
Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Rosario Dawson & Michael Cera
Directed by Chris McKay
PG
In theaters Feb. 10, 2017

The fun begins even before the film does.

“All important movies start with a black screen,” intones Lego Batman, kicking off his riffing, running commentary on the movie’s pre-show parade of corporate logos and opening credits.

This movie, Batman is letting you know, is an important one—because it’s all about him.

When the movie starts, seconds later, it’s another geyser of fast-paced inside jokes, meta commentary and rapid-fire satire, just like its Lego Movie predecessor, such a wildly popular, multi-generational smash in 2014. Batman (voiced once again by Will Arnett), who made an indelible impression in that explosion of plasticized pop culture with his Master Builder skills and gruff, heavy-metal rapping, now gets his own full stage to strut.

lgb-trl3-0469And, once again, it looks terrific, and often bedazzling—a crazy, colorful, teeming Lego world, brought alive through the marvels and magic of computer-animated wizardry to make characters, cityscapes, interiors and more look like textured, 3-D creations composed entirely of millions of interlocking Lego blocks and accessories.

This time, the iconic Caped Crusader faces off against his longtime nemesis the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) while dealing with his own existential crisis: How long can the shadowy, egotistical, ridiculously self-absorbed, adamantly go-it-alone crime fighter—who is also, of course, Gotham City’s most eligible bachelor, Bruce Wayne—wall out the rest of the world?

How long can he go home to microwaved Lobster Thermidor dinners for one in stately Wayne Manor, figuratively and literally cut off from everything and everyone—including his loyal butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes)—on Wayne Island? How many nights can he spend cackling derisively, all by himself, mocking the most romantic scene in Jerry Maguire on his mega-den’s mega-mega big-screen TV?

Barbara Gordon & Batman

Batman eventually takes aboard—by mistake—the young orphan who becomes his sidekick, Robin (Michael Cera), and gets gobsmacked by his first look at lovely Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), the daughter of retiring police commissioner James Gordon (Hector Elizondo). Barbara takes her father’s role at the top of Gotham City’s official law-and-order pyramid seriously, and—unlike Batman—sees crime-fighting as a collaborative, it-takes-a-village effort.

The movie gives this premise one hilarious, deliciously deep dig after another, drilling into the rich veins of Bat-mythology from DC Comics and its many offshoots on television and the movies, especially the broody Dark Knight films. You don’t have to be a big Bat fan to get on board the masterful joke-mobile, but the more you know, the more you’ll laugh.

“Words describing the impact will spontaneously materialize,” Batman explains to Robin as he introduces him to his first big bad-guy fracas—just before “Bap!” “Bam!” and “Pow!” appear above the action. There’s another gag about shark spray repellent that will be a lot funnier if you remember the cheese-tastic, cult-favorite scene from the 1960s TV series in which Adam West’s Batman actually used it—or have come across some of the memes and postings online that it has since spawned.

LEGO BATMANChris McKay, the animation director of The Lego Movie now making his official directorial debut as he takes over the reins from creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who remain on board as producers), never lets the bar drop or the cleverness droop. You certainly feel some of his former experience as a director and editor of the Cartoon Network’s stop-motion, pop-culture-skewering series Robot Chicken.

The movie parodies Batman’s long pop-cultural legacy with genius as well as genuine affection, particularly in his relationship to the Joker. These guys have been arch-“frenemies” for such a long, long time—finally, here’s a portrayal that explores how much they really, truly need each other.

To widen the playing field a bit beyond Batman, the tempest-in-a-toy-box storyline brings in a host of pop culture’s most villainous villains—the Eye of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings films, the Wicked Witch and flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, King Kong, Godzilla, gremlins from Gremlins and Harry Potter’s Voldemort.

And in between all the zipping, zany fun, there’s a message about what makes a “family,” working together, the importance of good abs, and why “Fly, Robin, Fly” or “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” just don’t cut it as superhero theme songs.

lgb-trl-bc-0024-72The vocal cast is outstanding, particular Arnett, the hub around which all the other zingers fly. And he’s got a chorus of great support, including Jenny Archer (Harley Quinn), Zoe Kravitz (Catwoman), Channing Tatum (Superman), Ellie Kemper (Phyllis, the keeper of the Phantom Zone) and Mariah Carey (Mayor McCaskill). Pay attention and see if you can match up Seth Green, Billy Dee Williams, Eddie Izzard, Adam Devine and Doug Benson to their Lego counterparts.

But this is definitely Batman’s show. There’ll be other superhero movies to come ripping and roaring down the pike this spring and summer, as always. But they won’t be any smarter, funnier or any more fun than this. Trust me, the Lego Bat is where it’s at.

 

Lost in ‘Space’

‘The Space Between Us’ is a cheesy constellation of movie junk food

THE SPACE BETWEEN US

Britt Robertson and Asa Butterfield star in ‘The Space Between Us.’

The Space Between Us
Starring Asa Butterfield, Britt Robertson, Gary Oldman & Carla Gugino
Directed by Peter Chelsom
PG-13

Men are from Mars, as the saying goes, women are from…Colorado?

Well, that’s the case in this futuristic, young-adult sci-fi romance, in which a teenage boy born and raised on the red planet strikes up a (really, really) long-distance relationship with a high-school girl in the Rocky Mountains.

Gardner Elliott was just a little ultrasound blip—unbeknownst to NASA—when his mom, the team leader of a group of astronaut pioneers, blasted off to join a space colony on Mars. But Gardner’s mother died during his childbirth, and it’s decided to keep the reason for her death—and thereby Gardner’s entire existence—a secret by the eccentric space-privateer mastermind of the project, Dr. Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman).

THE SPACE BETWEEN US

Dr. Sheppard (Gary Oldman) introduces his astronaut pioneers.

So Gardner (Asa Butterfield) grows up 249 million miles away, in the “bubble” of the space settlement with a surrogate mom (Carla Gugino), older scientist buddies and a babbling robot companion. To let off steam, he goes outside and cuts angry, red-dust donuts in the Mars rover.

And like most teenagers, he spends a lot of time online. He’s transfixed by photos and video of his mom and a man he presumes is his father. And somehow, he connects with a girl named Tulsa (Britt Robertson) in Colorado.

(The movie doesn’t show us what happens when Gugino gets the monthly bill for the wireless data package—but you can only imagine.)

Anyway, Gardner convinces Tulsa that he’s really iChatting with her from a penthouse on Park Avenue in New York City, and that he’s suffering from a rare illness.

The “illness” part is partly true. Since he “gestated,” was born and grew up in the low gravity of Mars, his body and its organs are different from any Earthling. His bones are more brittle, his blood is thinner, his heart is larger and weaker. On Earth, now, he would have a hard time.

So, yes, you know what’s going to happen.

Gardner sets off on a shuttle for the far, far faraway place he’s only seen in movies and on his computer screen. Let the adventure begin!

There are some moments of sweetness, loveliness and humor. Gardner is overwhelmed with Earth—its vibrant colors, food, people, people everywhere and endless varieties of everything. He’s so much heavier in Earth’s stronger gravity; he has trouble walking. He thinks that Tulsa, when he meets her, is the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen.

Soon he and Tulsa are on the lam, on a cross-country road trip, to find Gardner’s father. And of course, Gardner is falling in love.

But trouble looms: Gardner’s weakened heart is a ticking time bomb, and Dr. Shepherd is racing to find the young man from Mars and send him back.

And there’s a twist, one you may see coming like a gigantic meteor long before it hits you.

THE SPACE BETWEEN USIf you’re a young teenager, you may be transfixed by this YA space goop, a cheesy constellation that feels like something Nicholas Sparks might have strung together on a sugar rush after eating too much freeze-dried astronaut ice cream and washing it down with gulps of lukewarm Tang.

The plot is a jumbled rush of events, a pileup of preposterousness and a clichéd cascade of Hollywood happenstance.

Gardner comes all the way from Mars, doesn’t know Tulsa’s last name or much anything else, but he walks right into her school, and right into her. (School security must not be of much concern in the future.) Things seem carelessly, jarringly, out of time. In the movie, we can live on another planet, nap in driverless cars and zip around in private space shuttles. But when Tulsa and Gardner need to make a getaway, they hop into a 1920s-era biplane (!), which she knows how to fly, and she’s equally at home on her vintage 1950s motorcycle.

More “refined” viewers might embrace moments when the movie seems to aspire to something deeper and richer, like its repeated references to the 1987 German romantic fantasy film Wings of Desire, about invisible, immortal guardian angels, Gardner’s inspiration; or how Oldman’s character’s last name shrewdly echoes that of NASA’s first Mercury astronaut, Alan Shepard.

At 19, Butterfield, a child star in the wonderful Hugo (2011), and more recently Jake in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, channels cinematic bits of Rain Man, Jeff Bridges’ Starman (1984) and even some of Peter Sellers’ Being There (1979), in which Seller’s character was also called Gardner.

But Britt Robertson may have finally aged out of playing a teenager. The star of Tomorrowland and The Longest Ride (both 2015), now 26, has pluck and poise, but surely there were other young(er) actresses who at least looked a bit more like they’d belong next to a row of high school lockers?

Director Peter Chelsom, whose resume includes Hannah Montana: The Movie (2009) and Funny Bones (1995), an obscure Jerry Lewis comedy that only played in a handful of theaters before closing, simply doesn’t seem to know how to put all the pieces of this Space puzzle together. Screenwriter Allan Loeb isn’t much help—there must not have been much to draw from in his experience as the writer of Adam Sandler’s raunchy Just Go With It, the dud movie musical Rock of Ages and the box-office flops The Switch, The Dilemma and Here Comes the Boom.

At one point, Gardner grabs an Earth snack, a Mars candy bar. It’s meant as a fleeting in-joke, but it’s a pretty good shorthand for The Space Between Us as a whole—movie junk food, empty calories, a satisfying yummy for a certain non-discriminating viewer with a sweet tooth for something soft, sugary, forgettable and disposable.

In one scene, Tulsa and Gardner stop off in Las Vegas, where she wants to give him a crash course in world geography. “Paris, Venice, Cairo—it’s like a big toy box!” she chirps. So many places, all their landmarks reproduced as casino cathedrals. But Gardner doesn’t have the reaction she hopes. It’s too much for him, a bombardment of sensory overload.

“It’s hurting my head,” he says.

Yes, too much candy can do that.

 

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Gold Rush

Hollywood sprinkles magic dust on real-life gem of a tale in ‘Gold’

GOLD

Matthew McConaughey and Edgar Ramirez star in ‘Gold.’

Gold
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramìrez & Bryce Dallas Howard
Directed by Stephen Gaghan
R
Wide release Jan. 27, 2017

For his latest starring role, Matthew McConaughey is 12 years, a big belly and a world away from his 2005 title as People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.”

He on packed 40 pounds, shaved his head to wear a balding hairpiece, and popped in a mouthful of bad teeth to play Kenny Wells, a plucky, cigarette-huffing, third-generation Reno mineral prospector trying to hold onto the company his grandfather “scratched out of the side of a Nevada mountain.” But the late-’80s recession hits his company—built on the ups and downs of the commodities market—especially hard.

One night, at rock bottom after a bottle of tequila, Kenny has a dream—about gold on the Pacific island of Borneo, and Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramìrez, who played Dr. Abdic in The Girl on the Train), a maverick geologist he once met. Acosta has a wild theory about the fabulous riches to be found beneath the Earth’s “ring of fire.”

So Kenny, chasing his dream, hops a plane to the other side of the globe and partners up with Michael to go for the gold they both think is waiting for them through a rainforest, up a river, beneath a mountain, in a nation controlled by an unfriendly dictator and populated by headhunters.

GOLDThere’s more to Gold than just a treasure hunt, however. The story’s really only just beginning when Kenny and Michael strike it rich…

The movie is based on the 20th century’s most infamous gold mining scandal, which actually happened in the 1990s and centered on a Filipino prospector and a Canadian company, Bre-X Minerals. You probably never heard about it, unless you happened to see it on an episode of the History Channel’s Masterminds documentary TV series back in the early 2000s.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Kenny’s wife, who doesn’t really have much to do, except in one terrific scene in a lavish event. Corey Stoll, from TV’s The Strain, plays a smooth-operator investor trying to get a significant cut of Kenny and Michael’s fortune for his brokerage firm. Model-turned-actress Rachael Taylor, Stacey Keach, Craig T. Nelson and Bruce Greenwood round out the strong cast.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Kenny's wife.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Kenny’s wife.

Director Stephen Gaghan, whose Syriana (2005) helped George Clooney win an acting Oscar, builds a stylish house of cards, with shades of Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) and David O. Russell (American Hustle), a dash of Boiler Room and even a distant echo of The Sting. As the story zooms along, you get a sense of the mad rush of “gold fever” that sweeps up everyone and everything, especially Kenny.

And what a rags-to-riches rush it is: One day you’re rolling in the jungle muck of mud and malaria, the next you’re having sex in a helicopter, ringing the bell on Wall Street or taming a Bengal tiger. Throw in the FBI, a former American president, Michael McConaughey in his birthday suit, a soundtrack of obscure ’80s tunes by the Pixies, Joy Division, New Order and Richard Thompson, and you’ve got a quite an intoxicating swirl of Hollywood gold dust sprinkled atop a little-known gem from the real-world archives.

“The last card you turn over is the only one that matters,” Kenny tells a magazine interviewer. And his last card, in the final scene of Gold, is a doozy.

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