Post Date Sep 29

Hotel Transylvania 2

Hotel Transylvania 2 Movie ReviewSony Pictures
Rated PG for some scary images, action and rude humor.
Running time: 89 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

“Hotel Transylvania 2” is the greatest movie Adam Sandler and Kevin James have ever made together. I believe this is called “damning with faint praise,” given their dubious track record (“I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” various “Grown Ups” movies, “Pixels”) but it also happens to be true, and relevant.

The sequel to the 2012 animated hit “Hotel Transylvania” falls squarely within the segment of Sandler’s oeuvre in which middle-aged dudes lament feeling out of touch with the young people today and their rock and roll music and whatnot. But “HT2” has far zippier energy than those phoned-in flops and a script in which it seems people actually cared about whether it was clever, entertaining and maybe even borderline thoughtful.

(I’m just gonna go ahead and assume that was Robert Smigel’s contribution to the screenplay, and not so much Sandler’s. Although as I wondered in our “What the Flick?!” review of the film, maybe this is the real Sandler, and all the other halfhearted crap is just what he pumps out because he enjoys going on vacation with his family and friends and pretending he’s making an actual movie in the process. The world may never know.)

The first film — which Genndy Tartakovsky also directed — was cute and harmless, but this one is even more consistently funny and crammed with inspired sight gags. I talk a lot on my site about animated movies and how well they work for various members of the family. “Minions,” for example, is totally for kids; “Inside Out,” meanwhile, is really more for adults. “Hotel Transylvania 2” doesn’t break any great, new ground and it’s pretty thin in terms of plot, but it’s a lot of fun for viewers of every age. I laughed out loud — quite frequently, I’ll admit — at the pop culture references and parenting jokes. Nicolas, who’s almost 6, cackled his head off at the goofy monsters and their antics, which often resulted in some sort of bodily injury.

(Although Nic’s favorite character, Blobby, doesn’t exactly have a body, as his name would suggest. He’s essentially a green Jell-O mold come to life, but his propensity for changing shape and getting stuff stuck inside of his translucent, gelatinous self makes him endearing.)

So: It’s a sequel. This means more monsters and more humans and more adventures. You can still check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. Vampire mom Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez) literally finds this to be true when she ponders moving out of the hotel with her human husband, Jonathan (Andy Samberg), and their almost-5-year-old son, Dennis (Asher Blinkoff). She wonders whether living under the watchful eye and sharp fangs of her father, Sandler’s Dracula, is the best place for her family now that they are trying to live a quote-unquote normal life. Drac, meanwhile, will have none of such talk. He hates change, as is so often the case with Sandler’s characters.

Plus, he wants to be around his only grandson in order to encourage the latent vampire tendencies he’s certain are in lurking within the boy. At this tender age, it’s unclear whether sweet, young Dennis will turn out to be a human or a vampire. He’s mixed. He’s a mystery. He’s Renesmee Cullen from the “Twilight” series.

And so, with the help of his monster buddies — Frankenstein (James), werewolf Wayne (Steve Buscemi), invisible man Griffin (David Spade) and mummy Murray (Keegan-Michael Key, taking over the role from Cee-Lo) — Dracula insists on training Dennis in the proud vampire tradition. This means scaring people, turning into a bat, etc., but innocent Dennis always manages to make these activities adorable rather than frightening. An amusing bit involves Dennis’ love of a TV “monster” known as Kakie who is hideously, hilariously misshapen and annoyingly cloying. He’s voiced by Chris Kattan. The increasing interference of Dennis’ well-intentioned human grandparents (Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally) certainly doesn’t help matters.

That’s basically the extent of it: “Hotel Transylvania 2” is episodic in structure until The Big Reveal as to the kid’s true nature. The involvement of Mel Brooks in a choice bit of casting as Dracula’s dad, Vlad, adds some oomph to the big conclusion (at least for the grown-ups in the audience); kids, meanwhile, might be frightened by the dastardly deeds of Vlad’s right-hand man, Bela (Rob Riggle), which put Dennis and playful werewolf cub Winnie (Sadie Sandler) in danger.

Ultimately, “Hotel Transylvania 2” is about open-mindedness and acceptance — the kind of feel-good sentiments Sandler usually tries to wedge into his films half-assedly toward the end. This time, it actually sort of works.

Post Date Sep 26

5 Songs That Remind Me of Movies

I haven’t done one of these lists in a while, which is a bummer, because they’re always a lot of fun and they inspire spirited feedback. But when a dear childhood friend of mine mentioned on Facebook that he can’t hear the song “Just Once” by James Ingram without thinking of the heart-wrenching ending of “The Last American Virgin,” it got me thinking.

There are so many songs that, when I hear them now, I immediately recall the movies in which they’ve been featured.  Directors like Martin Scorsese, Cameron Crowe, Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola use pop music so frequently and skillfully in their films, the songs and the images become intrinsically entwined — and the soundtracks become as memorable as the movies themselves.

So here are five songs that always remind me of the movies in which they’ve appeared. There are so many great ones, it was hard to narrow it down. But I’d love to hear what’s playing in your movie jukebox, so feel free to chime in with your favorites.

_ The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982): Although the scene in which Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character loses her virginity in the dugout to Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby” is a very close second. But Phoebe Cates emerging from the swimming pool in a red bikini in Judge Reinhold’s slo-mo fantasy sequence is, like, THE image of the movie. To this day, whenever I hear that guitar riff off the top, I have to say: “Hi, Brad. You know how cute I always thought you were.”

_ Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in “Blue Velvet” (1986): It’s such a David Lynch moment, with its twisted mix of dreamlike romanticism, dark humor and unbearable tension. Dennis Hopper’s startlingly psychopathic character is obsessed with this Orbison ballad and stands mesmerized and mouthing along as a flamboyant Dean Stockwell lip-synchs it for him — that is, until Hopper snaps, as is his tendency. Apparently, Orbison didn’t even know Lynch was going to use the song in the film, but its inclusion helped reignite his career.

_ Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” in “Animal House” (1976): I love the use of this song in the famous cafeteria scene for a couple of reasons. First of all, the lyrics comment so perfectly on John Belushi’s unabashed crassness as Bluto. But it’s also a great fit because the rhythm is so smooth as Bluto calmly pushes his tray along, piling it high with food and randomly shoving items in his mouth. Every time I hear it, I think to myself: “See if you can guess what I am now.” I want to go watch this entire movie right now, even though I’ve seen it a million times.

_ Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” in “The Big Lebowski” (1998):  The Dude is just so happy to have his car back — and he’s so happy the police were able to find his Creedence tape. And he’s just bopping along to this perky tune, enjoying a drive in the Los Angeles sunshine — until he drops a joint in his lap, freaks out and crashes. (I love that little high-pitched squeal Jeff Bridges does here when The Dude is scared; he also does it when the nihilists drop the marmot in the bathtub.) I also like the way the Coen brothers cut the drum portion of the song to tight shots of little Larry’s homework. Just a fun scene in a movie I dearly love.

_ Britney Spears’ “Everytime” in “Spring Breakers” (2013): Harmony Korine’s colorfully nightmarish look at girls gone wild is ballsy in a million different ways. But one of his most daring choices here is also his subtlest and sweetest. A devilish James Franco as the wannabe gangster rapper Alien sits down at a poolside piano and plays his bikini-clad, gun-toting partners in crime a song to inspire them: this tinkly, plaintive Britney Spears ballad. It’s an unexpectedly beautiful and poignant moment in a film that’s usually more interested in shocking you.

Post Date Sep 25 — A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story

A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story Movie ReviewThe documentary “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story” follows a young woman’s journey from insecure bullying victim to internationally acclaimed motivational speaker and lobbyist. Velasquez — who was born with a syndrome that gave her striking facial features and makes it difficult for her to gain weight — radiates sweetness and humor, no matter the situation. Her story is certainly worthwhile and inspiring. But I wish the film had dug deeper below the surface. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Sep 17 — Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials Movie ReviewThe teens from “The Maze Runner” are still running, but while they cover more ground in this second film in the series, they never really go anywhere. The sequel is bigger in scope, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. Plus, by this point, all these dystopian-future, sci-fi dramas based on Young Adult novels are essentially interchangeable. Which one has Kate Winslet as the icy government villain, and which has Patricia Clarkson? I try to sort it all out in my review.

Read the review here

Post Date Sep 15

Goodnight Mommy

Goodnight Mommy Movie ReviewRadius-TWC
Rated R for disturbing violent content and some nudity.
Running time: 99 minutes.
Four stars out of four.

You shouldn’t be reading this review. I shouldn’t even be writing it. Every time I’ve recommended “Goodnight Mommy” to someone, I’ve warned that person not to read anything about it beforehand — just to trust me, and see it, and be mesmerized.

Yet it’s so great, I feel it’s my duty to tell the world about it without giving away what makes it great. So this review might end up being really short. But here goes …

“Goodnight Mommy” is an Austrian thriller about two 9-year-old, identical twins named Lukas and Elias (played by Lukas and Elias Schwarz) living in an austere, minimalist house in the countryside. They’ve been by themselves for who knows how long, waiting for their mother to return from the hospital after undergoing some kind of plastic surgery. Once she arrives, bandaged-up and barely speaking, the twins increasingly suspect that this person isn’t their mother at all but an impostor.

The premise alone is enough to give you goosebumps. But it’s the execution that’s the real marvel from the writing-directing team of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, making their startlingly assured feature debut. “Goodnight Mommy” is intense and precise, from its big ideas to its smallest details. It consistently keeps you guessing, but it also dares to ask you to re-examine your feelings for and alliances with these characters. Nothing is simple or safe here, although the quiet purity of the film’s tone and aesthetic trappings might suggest otherwise.

It’s a horror movie in that horrific things happen, but it’s also a dramatic exploration of the bond between parent and child — specifically, between mother and son. A complicated dichotomy exists in our relationship with these little people we make; on the one hand, there’s a familiarity that’s infused within the fiber of our beings. I look at Nicolas sometimes and feel like I’ve known him my entire life. And yet they can also be baffling, maddening creatures whose actions shake us to our core and make us question everything we know. Or maybe that’s just what happens to me when Nic has a meltdown over sour gummy worms at the grocery store.

Being a parent makes “Goodnight Mommy” resonate on a whole different level, but it’s certainly not a necessity for being sucked into it. This is deft and daring storytelling that will grip anyone who’s willing to be a little uncomfortable — make that a lot uncomfortable — and who’s willing to follow it into some dark and twisted territory. There’s a brief respite of comic relief about halfway through when a pair of Red Cross workers knock on the door, then sit at the kitchen table waiting for someone to give them some sort of donation. It’s also a welcome reminder that an outside world does indeed exist, given the claustrophobic situation Fiala and Kranz have created. But that’s about it. “Goodnight Mommy” escalates, and it is relentless.

The tension is palpable from the start, though — long before the boys’ mother returns, and even during activities that would seem to radiate the wholesomeness of carefree, childhood fun. Lukas and Elias play hide and go seek in a cornfield, or chase each other across the lawn, or bounce up and down on the trampoline. But the use of natural sound attunes us to the hidden, dangerous rhythms of their games. There’s an underlying hum in the sound design — a buzz that grows — which tells you something isn’t quite right and provides an early, sinister tone.

Similarly, the house itself is a consistent source of the film’s atmosphere. Chilly, industrially chic and crammed with bizarre art, it reminded me of the house in “Ex Machina,” and I’d move into either of them tomorrow. (I’m not sure what this says about me.) Foreboding lurks around every sleek corner. It is simultaneously full of light and bereft of joy.

As for the performances, both Schwarz brothers and Wuest are in the tricky position of having to play it as understated as possible even while their characters go to extremes, and they consistently find that balance. Then again, “Goodnight Mommy” is full of such fascinating contradictions and surprises.

Just trust me. See it — and then we can really talk about it.