Post Date Jul 24

Paper Towns

Paper Towns Movie Review20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for some language, drinking, sexuality and partial nudity — all involving teens.
Running time: 109 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

“Paper Towns” is a movie that I really liked, but I probably would have loved if I’d seen it when I was 13. If it had come out when I was in high school, I would have felt like it was speaking directly to me, with its mixture of angst and restlessness, romance and melancholy.

It actually reminds me a lot of the movies I loved best back in the ’80s: those of the late, great, John Hughes. It’s a comparison I don’t make lightly. Based on the novel by John Green (and, mercifully, not a shameless weepy like his mega-best seller “The Fault in Our Stars”), director Jake Schreier’s film features all those classic teen-movie tropes. You’ve got members of a rigid social hierarchy stripping away their notions of each other, neighbors who climb into each others’ bedrooms through upstairs windows, late-night deep discussions and even the raging party at the rich, popular jock’s mansion. (Oh, and the most important part of all: a near-total lack of parental involvement.)

As a grown-ass person who’s seen a lot of movies in my life, I recognize all these elements and find them kind of derivative, albeit charmingly executed. What makes “Paper Towns” really work is the chemistry between its stars — all of whom get the opportunity, at one point or another, to say just the right poignant thing at just the right time. As in “The Fault in Our Stars,” which screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber also adapted, these kids are hyper-verbal and self-aware. And that’s OK — because that’s a crucial part of this particular kind of teen movie, too.

This is especially true of Cara Delevingne’s beguiling and mysterious central character, Margo. With her husky voice and quirky demeanor, the Victoria’s Secret model-turned-actress is essentially doing Emma Stone doing a manic pixie dream girl — or at least, that’s what the calculated mythology surrounding her character would suggest. Confident Margo moved in across the street from the sweetly geeky Quentin (a warm and deeply authentic Nat Wolff) when they were kids in suburban Orlando, Florida, and they became instant friends out of sheer proximity, if nothing else. Now they’re seniors in high school running in very different circles. Quentin remains sweetly geeky, but Margo has become even more of a force of nature: the rebellious and impossibly popular cool girl.

One night, though, she climbs through his window like old times and recruits him to help her with an elaborate revenge mission. Inherently cautious, but recognizing that this could be one of those Nights That Change Everything — and pathetically in love with Margo — he says yes to her meticulous itinerary of breaking and entering, vandalism, bodily harm and humiliation. It is indeed the Night That Changes Everything for Quentin. Then the next morning, Margo is gone.

And this is actually the point at which “Paper Towns” becomes more compelling. The self-consciousness of Margo and Quentin’s analytical banter — she’s the one who gives the film its title in a monologue about superficiality — gives way to legitimate self-discovery in her absence. In true manic pixie dream girl fashion, reminiscent of the journey Kirsten Dunst sets Orlando Bloom on at the end of “Elizabethtown,” Margo leaves a series of clues for Quentin as to her whereabouts. A scavenger hunt around town evolves into a road trip to upstate New York, but what gives this adventure both smarts and heart is the fact that Quentin brings his two best friends with him.

We’d gotten appealing glimmers of trash-talking Ben (Austin Abrams) and self-serious Radar (Justice Smith) leading up to this trip as they walk down the halls, chat in the band room or play video games at Quentin’s house. But the loveliness of their friendship and the effortlessness of their chemistry truly shines once they band together for this mission. All three are distinctly drawn and don’t feel like wacky adolescent types. They’re smart but also sensitive, and fiercely loyal to the others in a way they’re not afraid to show.

Also along for the ride are a couple of welcome and well-acted female figures: the beautiful and popular Lacey (Halston Sage), Margo’s best friend who’s desperate to know what’s become of her; and the strong-willed, no-nonsense Angela (Jaz Sinclair), Radar’s girlfriend, with whom he hopes to lose his virginity on prom night. (Ah yes, another teen-movie staple: prom, which is fraught with expectation and disappointment.)

Again, you may think you’ve seen all this before — and you have — but since we’re discussing cliches here, the journey truly is the destination, and this one may not necessarily head in all the directions you’d expect.

Post Date Jul 24 — Unexpected

Unexpected Movie ReviewThe premise may sound like something you’d see on the Lifetime channel: An inner-city high school teacher finds out she’s pregnant at the same time as her star student. But director and co-writer Kris Swanberg’s execution is warm, funny and understated. And the two lead actresses — Cobie Smulders and Gail Bean — are great together. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Jul 22


Ant-Man Movie ReviewWalt Disney Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

The end of the world isn’t nigh, for once, in “Ant-Man.”

Sure, there are stakes. This is a summer blockbuster, after all. It has to make us care about something of consequence. But the overwhelming, self-serious sense that we are watching something Very Important blissfully doesn’t exist in “Ant-Man.” It’s just plain fun: light, breezy, simple and enjoyable. Aside from the original “Iron Man” from 2008, which had the benefit of Robert Downey Jr. cracking wise in the title role for the first time, this is the most purely entertaining film yet from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It’s especially a joy to watch just a couple months after “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which was overloaded with characters, subplots, bad guys and twists. And yet, director Peyton Reed’s film, based on a script by a whole buncha people (including Edgar Wright, who initially was set to direct, and the film’s star, Paul Rudd), repeatedly reminds you that it is part of a larger Marvel world. The in-jokes and cameos from other characters and stories are amusing if you get them, but if you don’t, they’re not so prevalent or cutesy as to be off-putting. However meager “Ant-Man” may seem, it definitely functions as the glue between Marvel movies we’ve seen already seen and ones to come. Everything is of a piece within the MCU,  of course — hence the tricky little teasers that come during the closing credits, which compel us to stay in our seats for a few moments longer rather than dashing off to the bathroom.

As the diminutive comic-book hero of the film’s title, Rudd is his usual, likable everyman, but he’s also charming enough to figure his way in and out of every situation. He’s not as flat-out funny, per se, as he has been traditionally in movies like “I Love You, Man” or “Knocked Up,” but that’s also not exactly his purpose here. This is a heist movie. He is a master thief — but a boyishly handsome and decent-hearted one. My good friend and What the Flick?! co-host Alonso Duralde suggested when we reviewed “Ant-Man” on the show that Rudd’s charisma is drained here as much as Chris Pratt’s is in “Jurassic World.” I’d say it’s not that bad. It’s just a different vibe from him: lower-key, but no less sharp.

When we first see Rudd’s Scott Lang, he’s being released from San Quentin State Prison (with a memorable send-off from his fellow inmates). He’s spent time behind bars for an elaborate and high-tech theft; now, he’s struggling to rebuild his life in San Francisco and prove to his ex-wife (Judy Greer in yet another thankless mom role) and young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) that he can be a reliable force for good in their lives.

The job he ends up taking, though, is one he never possibly could have expected. The brilliant professor Hank Pym (a touching and wise Michael Douglas, whom we first see as an uncanny, 1989 version of himself) wants Scott to break into his former headquarters and steal the magical shrinking serum he created to keep it from falling into the wrong hands: namely, those of his protege (an oily Corey Stoll), who once was full of promise but now is a greedy megalomaniac. You know, the usual. The heist requires Scott to wear the sleek and mercilessly snug suit and helmet Hank created and once wore himself long ago, which makes the inhabitant instantly tiny with the press of a button.

Hank recruits Scott to get in the suit, get small, get in and get out. But Hank’s daughter, the equally brilliant Hope (Evangeline Lilly), also wants a chance to prove she can be the ant and is willing to fight Scott, physically, for the right to climb inside the costume. Lilly gets to do little more here than spar disapprovingly with Rudd while wearing crisp suits and a sharp bob, and any kind of romantic connection the two characters might have is tenuous at best. But — spoiler, kinda — there is the suggestion that more is in store for Hope in the near future.

While the montages are amusing as Scott masters the art of size-shifting, with hit-and-miss results, the action sequences have a real zest and visual panache once he learns to work side by side with the various other high-tech ants Hank has trained. And once he really gets the hang of manipulating the suit and kicking all kinds of pint-size ass, his thrills are infectious. Reed might seem like an incredibly odd choice to direct an effects-laden summer blockbuster based on his filmography — “Bring It On,” “Down With Love,” “The Break-Up” — but he’s got a solid script to work from and he gets the pacing and comic timing just right. His staging of the film’s first actual break-in — at Hank’s house, actually — offers a clever bit of clockwork precision, and several sight gags provide scattered laughs throughout.

As part of the random supporting cast — which includes John Slattery, Bobby Cannavale and T.I. — the always-reliable Michael Pena co-stars as the friend who picks Scott up from prison and gives him a place to stay in the city. He may seem at first like an offensive Hispanic stereotype, but some slyly edited flashbacks reveal his cultured tastes and flesh him out. His character is a great example of what makes “Ant-Man” work so well: You may think you know where it’s going, but it keeps surprising you in ways both big and small.

Post Date Jul 17 — Trainwreck

Trainwreck Movie Review“Trainwreck” is anything but. It’s a great showcase for Amy Schumer’s distinctive and biting comic voice, but it’s also an opportunity for her to explore unexpected dramatic range. And it’s the first Judd Apatow movie that’s ever made my cry. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Jul 12


Minions Movie ReviewUniversal Pictures
Rated PG for action and rude humor.
Running time: 91 minutes.
Two stars out of four.

We are a Minion-friendly household around here.

My 5-year-old son, Nicolas, loves the Minions so much, he thinks he actually IS one. We’ve been on the “Despicable Me” ride at Universal Studios more times than I can count. (It is kind of a blast, though.) We have Minion stuffed toys, Minion books, the “Minion Rush” iPad game, even Minion apple sauce (which tastes like tropical ba-na-nas).

So I was all in for “Minions,” a prequel to the “Despicable Me” movies, which explains the origins of these impish, yellow creatures and follows their quest to find the most evil villain to serve. It’s a clever idea, but it can only go so far before running out of steam. These guys are as silly and playful and hilariously inept as ever, but there’s not much to them. Fittingly, because they’re pill-shaped, the Minions work best in small doses.

The three goggle-eyed guys at the center of “Minions” — Kevin, Stuart and Bob — have distinct personalities, but there’s no “there” there to build an entire film around. And the super villain they work for this time doesn’t have the strength of character or the complexity of Steve Carell’s vaguely Eastern European baddie-turned-daddy, Gru.

I realize these are all the observations of a film critic, and a grown-ass person. Young kids, who truly are the target audience, won’t notice or care about any of this. They will laugh their heads off. Nicolas was cackling so hard, the veins in his neck were popping out. (His favorite part was when the three are stranded at sea and Stuart tries to eat Kevin in a hallucinatory fit of hunger.)

But first, we must go back to the dawn of time and the birth of the Minions. As Geoffrey Rush explains in a lengthy and amusing opening narration, the Minions have long sought to do the bidding of the baddest person they can find — although their earliest boss was a T. rex. Then there was a caveman, and Dracula, and Napoleon, but invariably, these crazy creatures screwed something up and had to move on. After decades of self-imposed exile in an ice cave — and the depression that resulted from a loss of purpose — one enterprising Minion, the tall and responsible Kevin, takes it upon himself to venture out and find a new big boss for the tribe to serve.

His traveling companions are the suave, ukelele-playing Stuart and the innocent, big-hearted Bob. Co-director Pierre Coffin voices all of these characters, as always, with a gibberishy mish-mosh of French, Spanish and who-knows-what. Words like “banana,” “papaya” and “pinata” appear frequently in their vocabulary, but I’ve gotta say, I understood a lot of what they were talking about.

After traveling over land and sea, they wind up in 1968 New York, and then in Orlando, Florida, for the annual Villain Con gathering of evildoers. (“Minions” just happens to be hitting theaters the same weekend Comic-Con is going on in San Diego. Coincidence?) There, they connect with the world’s first female super villain, the coifed and polished Scarlet Overkill, voiced with perky menace by Sandra Bullock. She’s entertaining at first, but eventually reveals herself to be shrill, one-note and off-putting as she unleashes her devious plan to steal Queen Elizabeth II’s crown and take over England. (Jon Hamm provides the voice of her mod husband and henchman, Herb Overkill.)

Journeying across the Atlantic leads to a bunch of really easy jokes about British culture, but also an impressive soundtrack of great ’60s hits by The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix and more. (The makers of “Minions” spent an insane amount of money on music including, of course, Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow.”)

Kevin, Stuart and Bob bumble and stumble their way through it all in their usual slapsticky fashion. But in retrospect, I can’t really recall a single joke or sight gag or action sequence that stands out above all the rest. Coffin and co-director Kyle Balda’s film, written by Brian Lynch, just kind of chugs along until it reaches its explosive conclusion, and then it ends. It’s cute. It’s OK. But it’s never great.

Your kids will probably love it, though. And you’ll wish you were watching “Inside Out” for the second time instead.