Category Archives: Uncategorized

It’s Good To Be King

Hollywood’s mega monkey returns in a rip-roaring, monster-movie romp

Kong: Skull Island
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson & John C. Reilly
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
PG-13

It’s good to be king.

King Kong, the movie mega-monkey, has reigned since his debut in 1933, when he first scaled the Empire State Building, angrily batted biplanes out of the sky—and carefully cradled a beautiful young actress (Faye Wray) in his giant paw.

Over the decades, Kong’s tale would be retold in various remakes, sequels, spinoffs, parodies and even a Saturday morning cartoon. It became the basis for theme park thrill rides and a stage musical.

It’s probably safe to say that the legacy of the king has been watered down a bit by men in monkey suits, cartoonish buffoonery and other pop-cultural permutations of his pure, towering, primordial badass-ery. Which is why director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ exhilarating new version comes as such a jolt of super juiced-up, monster-movie energy, restoring some of the raw edges of wild, wooly excitement to the Kong saga while giving it a fresh new, retro-rollicking spin.

Thomas Mann, John Ortiz, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and Corey Hawkins adjust to their new surroundings.

Its premise is familiar, basically: A team of explorers ventures to an uncharted, forbidding Pacific archipelago, but they encounter much more than they anticipated.

The original Kong story was set in the era of the Great Depression, but Skull Island unfolds in 1973, just after the end of America’s involvement in Viet Nam. That timetable is more than just a colorful detail, because the theme of war—and warfare—is vital to this version of the story.

A rocking soundtrack, with tunes by David Bowie, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Black Sabbath, the Hollies, Jefferson Airplane and Iggy Pop, deepens the groove of the era. If you’ve never seen a colossus ape on a helicopter-swatting rampage while the soundtrack is blaring Ozzy Osborne singing “Paranoid,” well, trust me: It out-apocalypses anything from Apocalypse Now.

(A snippet close to the end of the film of British singer Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” a famous WWII ballad, hints that we might not have seen the last of Kong, and some of his mega-monster ilk, a suggestion definitely reinforced if you stay through the closing credits.)

Samuel L. Jackson plays Preston Packard, a U.S. military commander itching for one final mission, still smarting from America’s humiliating retreat in Southeast Asia. He’s accompanied by crackpot conspiracy theorist Bill Randa (John Goodman), who has convinced a reluctant U.S. senator (Richard Jenkins) to bankroll the exploration of the island before the Russians can find it—in case there’s anything of value there.

But what is Randa really looking for in this place where “God didn’t finish creation… where myth and science meet”?

Brie Larson

Also aboard: a British tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and cool “anti-war photographer” Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). And a bunch of other scientists and soldiers (Toby Kibbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Marc Evan Jackson, Thomas Mann, Tian Jing).

It’s a motley, multi-ethnic crew, all right, and a perfect “movie mix” when they all end up scattered, spread and separated across the island. Don’t get too attached to anyone; the number of casualties gets pretty high, pretty fast, and keeps climbing.

The original King Kong, and its remakes in 1976 and 2005, had overtones of imperialism and outright racism—of American and British explorers going to “exotic” parts of the world in earlier ages of exploration, and taking away whatever they found of interest. This one has a not-so-subtle message, one that echoes down the ages through today, about swaggering American military might, unwanted and unwarranted interventionism and solving problems with bullets and bombs.

“Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you go looking for one,” one character notes.

Kong, understandably, doesn’t exactly meet his new guests—and their assault of shrapnel, napalm and machine-gun fire—warmly. And after it’s over, you know this is no Saturday-morning cartoon, or a joy ride of amusement-park thrills and chills. It’s full-on monster mayhem.

John C. Reilly

And for the survivors of that initial encounter, Kong isn’t the only unpleasant surprise the island has in store. There are gigantic octopuses, towering jungle spiders, screeching pterodactyls, massive lizard-like “skull crawlers” and other mutated hazards lurking around every cinematic corner. It’s a very, very dangerous place, and you never know what may pop out of the weeds, the water, the sky, the mist, the ground or the trees.

Eventually, you’ll meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a pilot who’d been living on the island—with its indigenous people—since his plane was shot down during a WWII dogfight with a Japanese Zero (depicted in the movie’s boffo opening scene). His character provides some well-calibrated comic relief, but he and his poignant story also become the beating human heart of the movie.

It all adds up to a fantastic, rip-roaring, tropical-island romp. You get to see plenty of Kong, and he’s a fine beast, indeed—a noble savage, a tragic hero, the fierce defender of his home, the “last of his kind.” He “speaks” only in grunts, growls and huffs, but his message is loud and clear: Why can’t everyone just leave him alone and let him do his thing—which, it turns out, might just be pretty dang important in the bigger, grander scheme.

One of the movie’s most interesting new angles is how it uses its central female character, Brie Larson’s photographer, as a revisionist homage to the other females who’ve played “opposite” Kong. Her gutsy, earthy Mason Weaver is no swooning Faye Wray. But she nonetheless is the only character to connect on an emotional level with the “beast.” And in the thrilling climatic scene, which takes place not on top of a skyscraper but in a river, Kong battles a monstrous skull crawler and Weaver is caught in the fray—and is eventually cradled, delicately, doll-like and unconscious, in Kong’s massive paw.

When you’re the king, some things never change.

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.

 

Welcome, Oddballs!

Tim Burton makes misfits feel at ease at ‘Miss Peregrine’s’

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children
Starring Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Ella Purnell & Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by Tim Burton
PG-13

The teenage years can be rough, making kids feel like outsiders, outcasts, oddballs. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were a place young misfits could feel welcome, safe, protected, understood—and important?

And no, I’m not talking about the chess club.

In Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, director Tim Burton creates just such a place—or, more specifically, brings it spectacularly to life from Ransom Riggs’ 2011 young adult novel, a sprawling tall tale of mystery, monsters, a young boy on a tick-tocking, time-looping quest to discover his past, and some very, very peculiar kids.

“Did you ever feel like nothing you do matters?” asks teenage Jake (Asa Butterfield) in the opening scene as a crab scuttles across a footprint on a Florida beach seconds before a wave washes it away. Soon enough Jake himself will be swept across the water on a journey to a magical place that previously existed only in his imagination, fueled by colorful bedtime stories of his beloved grandfather (Terence Stamp), where he’ll find out just how needed he can be.

Visiting a remote, mist-shrouded island off the coast of Wales with his father (Chris O’Dowd), Jake discovers a decrepit old mansion bombed to rubble by German air raids in World War II. But stumbling into a “time loop” leads him back to 1943, just before the raids—when Miss Peregrine, her home and all the “peculiar children” were in full swing.

MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDRENThere’s lovely, lighter-than-air Emma (Ella Purnell), who must use steampunk-ish lead boots and rope tethers to keep her from floating away. Hot-handed Olive (Lauren McCrostie) can set things ablaze with a simple touch. Millard (Cameron King), an invisible boy, likes to run around naked—not that you’d notice. Tiny Bronwyn (Pixie Davies) has the strength of a brute. Whenever Hugh (Milo Parker) opens his mouth, bees that live in his stomach come swarming out. Sweet-looking Claire (Raffiella Chapman) has a nasty surprise underneath the blonde curls of her hair. Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) has a creepy power to animate inanimate objects—including the dead.

The faces of two “twin cousins” are always covered, in spooky white hoods with holes for their eyes and mouths—for a reason not revealed until close to the end of the movie.

MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

Eva Green plays Miss Peregrine.

And as the exotic, pipe-smoking Miss Peregrine, Eva Green (Bond girl Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale) superbly channels her character’s enchanted mission with steely British resolve and flinty maternal focus. She can also morph into a bird, a fleet, regal peregrine falcon. How cool is that?!

Samuel L. Jackson is the evil Mr. Barron—no actor mixes campy humor and genuine menace with such unsettling ease or malevolent charm. There’s Allison Janney and Judi Dench. There’s danger, derring-do, adventure, excitement, laughter, young love and a couple of gross-out creature-feature moments that might be too much for little eyes.

But mostly, there’s director Tim Burton’s thematic signature, everywhere. Burton has always had a thing for outsiders and outliers, misfits like Pee-Wee Herman, Sweeny Todd, Beetlejuice and Willy Wonka, and for classic Hollywood quirk. The topiaries in Miss Peregrine’s courtyard—an elephant, a dinosaur, a centaur—look like they could have been the whimsical snip-snip artistry of Edward Scissorhands. And one major scene is a huge nod—an homage, certainly—to the cheesy highlight of a specific 1960s movie (with stop-motion effects by the late special-effects guru Ray Harryhausen) that Burton has admitted is one of his all-time favorites.

Burton even slips into the action for a super-quick, gob-smacked cameo. Blink and you’ll miss him!

So outsiders, outcasts and oddballs everywhere, of all ages, let your freak flag fly—courtesy of Miss Peregrine, and Tim Burton!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

 

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Lords of the Plains

Jeff Bridges pursues bank-robbing brothers in ‘Hell or High Water’

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Hell or High Water
Starring Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges & Ben Foster
Directed by David Mackenzie
R
Wide release Aug. 19

Two masked men bumble and fumble their way through an early-morning bank robbery in an otherwise sleepy Texas town. They’ve got guns and they mean business, but they’ve shown up before the bank is open, before there’s any money in the cash drawers and before anyone can unlock the safe.

“Y’all are new at this, I’m guessin’?” asks a hapless secretary, the only employee on the premises, suggesting they just turn around and leave before the situation escalates—or anyone gets hurt. “Right now, the only thing you’re guilty of is being stupid.”

“Stupid” isn’t the term, however, that comes to the mind of soon-to-retire Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), who sees something smarter developing in the string of heists spreading across the parched Texas midsection, always in the morning, always by a pair of men demanding bills of small denominations, and always hitting a small branch of the same bank, Texas Midland.

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Ben Foster & Chris Pine

That’s the terrific setup of Hell or High Water, in which two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), try to right wrongs of their past in a scheme that’s much more complex, and much more understandable, than it first seems. Pine, best known for playing Captain Kirk in the Star Trek movies, makes a powerful dramatic breakaway as a divorced dad desperate to hold onto the family farm for his kids. Foster, who’s had supporting roles in nearly 50 movies and TV shows, is galvanizing as his older sibling, an ex-con with rattlesnake-like anger-management issues stemming from childhood.

Playing Texas Ranger Hamilton, Bridges is in somewhat of his True Grit Rooster Cogburn mode, seasoned by a pinch of Tommy Lee Jones from No Country For Old Men. As he closes in on the robbers and their plan, the movie becomes as much about Hamilton’s working relationship with his Comanche-Mexican deputy partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham, who played Billy Black in the Twilight franchise), and the affectionately racist joshing that’s bonded them over the years.

British-born director David Mackenzie has made more than a dozen films, but probably nothing you’ve seen on a big screen. Here he shows a keen grasp of 21st century America, especially the collision of the Old West and the new-world economy, gun culture, the devastating appetites of corporate greed and the painful, lasting scars of poverty. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who sharpened his craft on BBC nature documentaries and independent fare, elevates the look of practically every frame to artistry.

“We’re like Comanches—raiding where we please, the whole of Texas. Lords of the plains!” gloats Tanner. A later encounter in an Oklahoma casino with a real-life, modern-day Comanche, however, casts an ominous pall over his proclamation.

If you think you know where Hell or High Water is headed, you may be wrong. Or at least you probably won’t be totally right—which is just about right for this outstanding movie, which puts the line between right and wrong underneath a scorching, unforgiving Texas sun then stretches it out on a lonesome, steaming highway, toward a blurred horizon, with no clear end in sight.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Trouble in Suburbia

Girls bring the party—and more—in ‘Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising’

Zac Efron, Seth Rogen & Rose Byrne go undercover in 'Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.'

Zac Efron, Seth Rogen & Rose Byrne go undercover in ‘Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.’

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

Starring Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne & Zac Efron

Directed by Nicholas Stoller

R

When a sorority moves in next door to a family trying to sell their house, it’s trouble.

That’s the quick premise, but this ribald new comedy—a sequel to the 2014 hit—puts a fresh, topical spin on its predecessor, while reuniting its cast and hewing mostly to its original manic framework.

Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), now the parents of a 4-year-old daughter (Elise Vargas) with another on the way, have sold their suburban house…sort of. It’s in a 30-day escrow hold, which means the buyer has a month to decide—or back out. That’s troubling news, because Mac and Kelly have already bought another house, no strings attached.

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Beanie Feldstein, Chloë Grace Moretz and Kiersey Clemons play sorority sisters who declare war on their “old people” neighbors.

It’s especially troubling when a sorority roosts in the vacant, broken-down fraternity house next door. But not just any sorority: The young women of the freshly minted, renegade Kappa Nu (led by Chloë Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein) have split from the campus Greek system, fed up with the leering bros-before-hos sexism of fraternities and the prissy, priggish constraints of the established sororities. At Kappa Nu, it’s weed, wild parties and full-throttle fem-centric fun, all the time.

And look who’s come aboard as their advisor: Mac and Kelly’s old next-door fraternity nemesis, Teddy (Zac Efron). But the girls increasingly see Teddy as out of touch, and his old college frat-boy crew (including Dave Franco, Jerrod Carmichael, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) have all grown up and moved on faster than him.

Where does Teddy fit in? It may be where you—and he—would least expect…

How all these comedic strands weave together and work is in the hands of director Nicholas Stoller, who also steered Get Him to the Greek, the marvelous Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the original Neighbors. He once again has a great cast, down to the cameos by Lisa Kudrow (as a deadpan dean), Selena Gomez (as a rival sorority president) and Kelsey Grammar (as a pleading parent).

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016)

The heist scene is “high” on action.

Rogen, who also collaborated on the screenplay, makes sure to push his pro-bong agenda with plenty of pot jokes, including one extended weed-heist sequence that feels like an action-movie parody. But look through the haze (and the randy, raunchy jokes) and you’ll find something else: a movie with empathetic messages about acceptance and inclusion, gender rights and sexism, hypocrisy and double standards, mothers and fathers and daughters, loving families, girls who grow up to become young women, and growing up in general.

And in the middle of it all is its secret weapon, the former High School Musical star Efron, who at the age of 28 has proven his adaptability in a wide variety of roles, particularly comedy. As Teddy, he brings something to the part richer and fuller and much more dimensional than what was flat on the page, an ache to belong and to be “valued” that resonates beyond the script’s jokes about dope, crazy pranks and a raucous rift between crazy college kids and cranky “old people.”

Neighbors 2 is the rare sequel that grew up with its audience, its subject matter and its subjects—and got even funnier and more meaningful in the process.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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Ups & Downs

A herd of actors recreates epic ’90s mountaineering disaster

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Everest

Starring Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley & Robin Wright

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

PG-13

 

Why climb the world’s highest mountain?

“Because it’s there!” shout members of a group about to head to the top of Mt. Everest in this adventure-drama based on a true story from 1996.

It’s there, all right—all 29,000-and-then-some feet of it, rising into the sky like a giant prehistoric sentinel of rock, ice and snow on the border of China and Nepal. Director Baltasar Kormákur’s film begins with expedition leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), his team and his clients converging at the base of the Himalayas to prepare for their trek to the summit.

“It’s not called the death zone for noting,” Hall, a veteran New Zealand mountaineer, warns his climbers-to-be, citing the perils they will face—jet stream winds, altitude sickness, sub-freezing temps, oxygen deprivation, snowstorms, avalanches, icefalls.

Everest

Jake Gyllenhaal

By the mid-1990s, the commercialization of Mt. Everest had created some major traffic jams on the slopes. As guides such as Hall returned season after season to lead paying customers toward the heavens, thousands were trekking where, just decades before, only a relative few had ever dared.

But the monumental mountain remained a far cry from an amusement park. You could still die up there.

Everest

Josh Brolin

A monstrous storm moves in, trapping the climbers. Who’ll survive, and who won’t? It becomes an epic drama of humans facing ancient, immutable forces of nature. Sometimes it looks spectacular, but too often the emotions of Everest feel forced and hokey, and much of the time there’s just too much going on, and too many people jostling around.

For an adventure movie, it doesn’t have near enough action, and when things do get going, the scenes of peril and danger don’t have the breathtaking, gut-wrenching wallop you’d expect from a movie about people pitting themselves against the highest peak on the planet, at inhospitable altitudes where airplanes fly, helicopters falter, eyeballs can explode and bodies fall into places where they’ll never be recovered.

AA44_FP_00408R

Robin Wright

Everest is a modern throwback to classic disaster movies of the 1970s, when a gaggle of actors would be plunked into collapsing cities, raging infernos, sinking ships or doomed airplanes. Here the populous cast includes Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael (House of Cards) Kelly, Jason Hawkes, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, Elizabeth (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) Debicki and others, all in roles based on real people, headed up, staying below or waiting anxiously on the other side of the world when things take a turn from bad to worse.

But there’s one star in Everest that tops them all, and that’s Mt. Everest itself. Even though some of the scenes were filmed elsewhere, you’d never know it, and the world’s most iconic peak still has the power to awe, inspire and draw people to risk, and sometimes lose, their lives.

Why would anyone want to do it? And why bother trying to explain, anyway? In any discussion, as one character puts it, “the last word always belongs to the mountain.” In Everest, and the tragically true tale behind it, indeed it does.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Head Trip

Latest Pixar gem gets plenty of laughs but also goes deep

Disney•Pixar's

Inside Out

Starring Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling & Phyllis Smith

Directed by Pete Doctor and Ronaldo Del Carmen

PG

At some point or another, every parent has wondered what—if not what in the world—his or her kids were thinking.

Pixar offers an answer—or at least some exuberantly fanciful, wonderfully imaginative, wildly creative, richly emotional speculation—with Inside Out, which takes place mostly inside the head of an 11-year-old girl, Riley.

Since Riley’s birth, the five emotions in the command center of her noggin have been working together as she interacts with the world, sending the proper signals down her neural pathways, keeping her safe and trying to make her happy—and storing away her memories at the end of every day in a vast memory bank. The emotions are all “characters” themselves, with their own (literally) colorful personalities: Perky, effervescent yellow-glowing Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), the leader of the cranial crew, is joined by the geeky, purple all-phobic Fear (Bill Hader); blue, depressed Sadness (Phyllis Smith); prissy green young maiden Disgust (Mindy Kaling); and blustery red hothead Anger (Lewis Black).

INSIDE OUTWhen Riley’s young life hits some major growing-up turbulence, the emotions spring into overdrive to help her through it. But a snafu separates Joy and Sadness from the rest of the emotions, whooshing them out of Riley’s command center and marooning them in the deeper recesses of her conscious and subconscious—and leaving Fear, Anger and Disgust to call the shots. Soon things begin to fall apart, both inside Riley’s head and outside in the real world.

The magic and wonders of Inside Out, steered by directors Pete Doctor (Up and Monsters, Inc.) and Ronaldo Del Carmen, are wide-ranging as the inventive initial setup expands to become a rollicking adventure for Joy and Sadness, especially after they encounter Riley’s imaginary childhood friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), who’s part elephant, part cotton-candy, part cat, part dolphin—and all delight.

INSIDE OUT

The brain, science tell us, is one of the most complex things in all of creation, and the movie’s depiction of it is a thing of ingenious splendor, a mix of fantastically cartoonish sight gags and sublime comedic riffs, all of them connected to the emotional rollercoaster ride being experienced by Riley—and, by extension, any of us, at some time or another. (There are some terrific side trips, especially during the credits, into the heads of other characters, where we meet their emotions.)

Pixar’s best films, like Toy Story, Up, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, have always worked on double levels, entertaining kids and moving grownups—often to tears. The exceptionally well-made Inside Out is no exception: Kids and adults will both laugh, and plenty. But the movie’s underlying themes about how Sadness and Joy “work together” in more ways than one, and how some memories—and parts of childhood—fade away forever will resonate on a profound, deeply moving level with adults who can relate in ways that many younger viewers can’t…at least yet.

Settle in early for Lava, a heartwarming, all-musical Pixar short about a Pacific volcano looking for love. Then get ready for another Pixar gem that starts in the head, but ends up settling into somewhere much, much deeper.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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From Bad to Worse

Things go wrong in ‘Horrible Bosses’ sequel, in more ways than one

Horrible Bosses 2

Horrible Bosses 2

Starring Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day

Directed by Sean Anders

Rated R

If you got a chuckle out of the first one, you’ll probably get a chuckle out of this one. But just because you might doesn’t mean you should. And why don’t you save your titters for something that’s not such a waste of talent, a lazy roll over retreaded gags, and a smutty stroll down a street full of racist, sexist and homophobic jokes?

The first Horrible Bosses, in 2011, set up an initially amusing, over-the-top, screwball comedy: Three hapless schmucks (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day), each so exasperated with their individual employment situations, were driven to an absurdly extreme measure: a plan to murder their bosses.

Horrible Bosses 2

Jennifer Aniston

Their bosses were pretty bad—especially the crooked, conniving business owner (Kevin Spacey) and the rapacious sexual-predator dentist (Jennifer Aniston). Awful, yes—but sometimes awfully funny.

Horrible Bosses 2

Christoph Waltz

Both Spacey and Aniston, as well as the knucklehead trio of Bateman, Sudeikis and Day, are back in Bosses 2. This time, the disgruntled employees have become entrepreneurs—they’re the bosses now—striking out on their own with a prototype for an all-in-one bathing accessory. But when an unscrupulous distributor (Chrisoph Waltz) makes a play to bankrupt them and take over their operation, they devise their own plan for payback—by kidnapping his insufferably spoiled adult son (Chris Pine) for ransom.

Things go “horribly” wrong, of course—in more ways than one. The plot follows the same basic course as the first movie, down to some of the same exact gags. (Hey, they got a laugh the first time, right?) The humor is beyond bawdy—it’s super raunchy, and so blatantly offensive on so many levels, it almost seems admirable the filmmakers tried so hard to maintain such a consistent tone of tastelessness.

To call it “bathroom” humor demeans a lot of bathrooms, especially in one particular scene with a toothbrush, and in another when the discussion in a sexaholics support group turns to a topic that would be shocking even if it didn’t involve underage children.

Any guffaws these jokes get depend on just how far you think it’s OK to go for a laugh, and how closely you care to look at what you’re really laughing at. I’m not sure in what context a reference to the sexual assault of a hospital patient in a coma, for instance, would come off as funny—but here it’s played just that way.  

Horrible Bosses 2

Jamie Foxx

Jamie Foxx returns as a shady career criminal whose obscenity of a nickname can’t be printed in a newspaper but is repeated dozes of times in the movie, and whose flawed advice the would-be kidnappers once again seek.

The first time around, the bosses were terrible, but the movie wasn’t so bad. This time, the “new” bosses turn out to be awful, too, the movie is a disappointment, and the jokes may make you laugh…but you should feel guilty about it when you do.

-Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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