Post Date Jun 25

Finding Dory

Finding Dory Movie ReviewDisney Pixar
Rated PG for mild thematic elements.
Running time: 103 minutes
Three stars out of four.

If there were no such thing as “Finding Nemo” — if there were never a previous Pixar movie, ever — we’d all be blown away by “Finding Dory.” It’s gorgeous. It’s lively. It’s got terrific performances from a strong voice cast. It’s emotionally affecting without being heavy-handed.

The trouble is, the bar is just so high that a really well-made Pixar movie feels solidly upper-mid-tier compared to truly groundbreaking, profound offerings from the animation house like “WALL-E” (also from “Dory” director Andrew Stanton), “Up” and “Inside Out.” This is the problem when you’re the best at what you do: The expectations are just ridiculous.

Having said that, I really enjoyed “Finding Dory” — even though it’s essentially the same story as its predecessor, 2003’s “Finding Nemo” — in that it’s about a fish who’s struggling to reconnect with family and is willing to cross an ocean to make that happen. It is genuinely thrilling and moving, with one crucial shot that will make you cry (if you haven’t already), especially if you’re a parent. But it’s also just a lot of fun, filled with colorful, playful characters for the kids to enjoy, and it zips by at just the right clip.

This time, Ellen DeGeneres is front-and-center — or whatever the equivalent is in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean — returning to the character of Dory, a blue tang who has trouble remembering. Heartbreaking flashbacks reveal that this problem plagued her from childhood, when her parents (voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) taught her tricks and songs to strengthen her memory and keep her safe. Parents of children with special needs or learning disabilities surely will find comfort in the film’s sensitive depiction of a potentially tricky topic. Dory’s parents are kind, patient and loving as they help her remember how to remember, all the while instilling in her an essential sense of self-worth.

They can only do so much to protect her from the realities of the underwater world, however; eventually she becomes separated from them and ends up crossing paths years later with the characters she bonded with in “Finding Nemo”: Nemo himself (voiced this time by Hayden Rolence) and his dad, Marlin (Albert Brooks, functioning beautifully in his comfort zone of being uncomfortable).

It’s easy to take for granted how skillful these actors are in bringing these roles to life with just their voices. DeGeneres is so nimble as Dory, showing off her impeccable comic timing and energy but also digging deep into the opportunity to reveal a more dramatic, understated side to her talent. Dory could, in theory, be a potentially annoying, one-note character, but the script from Stanton and Victoria Strouse allows DeGeneres to provide complexity and shading. (Stanton also co-directed with Angus MacLane.) And the role of Marlin is so clearly in Brooks’ wheelhouse: He’s the smartest guy (or fish) in the room who’s miserable nonetheless. His dry, self-deprecating sense of humor is always welcome.

Anyway, Dory begins to remember that she has a family of her own and decides, against all odds, to seek them out across the ocean. She gets help along the way from Marlin and Nemo as well as various other sea creatures, including a reluctant octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill), a nearsighted whale shark (Kaitlin Olson) and an insecure beluga whale (Ty Burrell). All are consistently strong and provide just the right amount of heart and humor, but O’Neill is the scene-stealer, both for the cool way Hank camouflages himself and insinuates himself into impossible situations and for the way he evolves in his involvement with Dory.

Hank was Nicolas’ favorite character, too, and a great example of how well Pixar’s stories work on various levels for various kinds of viewers. Nic is 6 so he enjoyed the physicality and playfulness of the character; I was impressed by the way his perspective changes in believable ways over the course of the film. Again, all solidly entertaining stuff, but not necessarily life-altering. Then again, maybe it doesn’t need to be.

Nic and I were actually more wowed by “Piper,” the short that plays before “Finding Dory,” from director Alan Barillaro. It’s about a tiny sandpiper who overcomes his fear of finding his own food on the beach and develops the confidence to thrive. It is stunningly beautiful in its photorealism — in the waves that lap onto the shore, the individual grains of sand shimmering in the sun, the tufts of fluff on our steely hero. In just six wordless minutes, it brought tears to my eyes. So make sure you get to the theater, get your popcorn and find your seats on time. You don’t want to miss this small but powerful gem.

Post Date Jun 24 — Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day: Resurgence Movie ReviewThe sequel you never thought you wanted or needed to the 1996 smash-hit blockbuster “Independence Day” isn’t as terrible as you would expect, given that it wasn’t shown to critics before opening day. It’s just … dull. A massive waste of time and money. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Jun 20

Five Great Anton Yelchin Performances

The word “devastating” gets tossed around a lot, but when it comes to describing the strange and sudden death of Anton Yelchin, it doesn’t feel like enough.

The 27-year-old actor, who died early Sunday morning when his car rolled over him in his own driveway, displayed a wealth of instincts and versatility, and he made the tricky transition from child performer to adult actor with intelligence and ease. Whether appearing as part of the ensemble cast of a blockbuster franchise like the “Star Trek” movies or in a starring role in smaller, more challenging indie fare, Yelchin was usually the most interesting figure on screen. He possessed a wise, ethereal quality but also a boyish accessibility. It was all out there in front of him.

And so with a heavy heart, here’s a look back at five of Yelchin’s most memorable performances.

“Hearts in Atlantis” (2001): Still just a boy, Yelchin made quite an impression in his first major film role opposite heavyweights Anthony Hopkins and Hope Davis. He plays a bullied kid who finds confidence when he befriends the mysterious, older gentleman (Hopkins) renting a room in his mom’s boarding house during the summer of 1960. Yelchin shows a wisdom beyond his years here and not an ounce of child-star precociousness.

“Alpha Dog” (2006): Yelchin found complexity and unexpected avenues into his role here as a 15-year-old who gets kidnapped and used as a pawn in a true story of drugs and murder. His character is actually thrilled to be hanging out with the older, cooler kids, and eventually he gets to drink, smoke pot, play video games and carouse with a couple of beautiful blondes (Amanda Seyfried and Amber Heard) in a swimming pool. Yelchin’s down-to-Earth presence serves him well as our conduit into this crazy, dangerous world.

“Charlie Bartlett” (2007): Yelchin starred as the title character: a wealthy teenager who’s been kicked out of his elite academy and insinuates himself among his new public school classmates by serving as their shrink and pharmacist. He absolutely shines in this offbeat comedy, balancing sweetness and savvy, and he’s got a youthful exuberance that’s infectious.

“Star Trek” (2009): I’m going with the first J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” over the 2013 sequel, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” just because I liked it better. In both films, though, Yelchin gets to have a little fun amid the big-budget spectacle as 17-year-old supergenius Chekov. He’s doing an intentionally cartoony Russian accent — even though he really was Russian — seemingly in a nod to the playful, nostalgic nature of movies. He’s a cog in a massive machine here, but his enthusiasm and likability shine through. His appearance in the third installment, next month’s “Star Trek Beyond,” will be both a welcome and difficult sight to behold.

“Green Room” (2016): Just this spring, Yelchin showed us perhaps the best work of his career in writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s suspenseful indie thriller. He co-stars as a member of a struggling punk band that’s stranded in an increasingly cramped and deadly situation at a backwoods club. Despite the extreme scenario, Yelchin brings recognizable humanity to the role. What he does here is so understated and so true, it’s easy to take the performance for granted.

Post Date Jun 17 — Bang Gang

Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) Movie ReviewBored, privileged French teens get drunk and high and engage in wild orgies after school in “Bang Gang,” the feature debut from writer-director Eva Husson. She creates an intimate, dreamlike portrait of angst and longing. But if you’re a parent watching this, you’ll probably think it’s a nightmare. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Jun 11

The Do-Over

Unrated but contains graphic language, sex, nudity, violence and drug use throughout.
Running time: 108 minutes.
One half star out of four.

So I actually made myself watch “The Do-Over” for a What the Flick?! review and I actually took notes because I’m a professional, dammit, so I figured, what the hell? Maybe I should write a little review, too, just for posterity — even though it feels a bit like beating a dead horse at this point. Nevertheless, here it is.

“The Do-Over” is typical Adam Sandler fare in every way, from the raunchy humor to the inclusion of his buddies to the deplorable view of women to the vacation disguised as a movie shoot to the forced sentimentality in the final act. It’s the latest in Sandler’s four-film deal with Netflix, which also brought us “The Ridiculous Six,” which earned a zero-star review from me last year. (Not that receiving critical praise is high among Sandler’s priorities.)

This time, Sandler stars as Max, who meets up with his childhood buddy, Charlie (David Spade), at their 25th high school reunion. While the swaggering Max seems to have gone onto a life of adventure (or so he says), the milquetoast Charlie has stayed in town, in the same house with the same job. Only now he’s married to the woman who was his high school crush: the trashy, scantily-clad Nikki (Natasha Leggero), who uses the occasion of the reunion to cavort drunkenly on the dance floor with her obnoxious ex (Sean Astin), the father of her bratty twin sons.

Do you see a theme emerging here? Everyone in “The Do-Over” is abhorent. And director Steven Brill (“Little Nicky,” “Mr. Deeds”), working from a script by Kevin Barnett and Chris Pappas, expects us to spend nearly two hours with these people.

But Max has an idea that will improve Charlie’s life and his own at the same time: They’ll fake their deaths. First, though, they party on a yacht and persuade the bikini-clad MILFs on a nearby boat to flash their boobs; the “payoff” of that joke is that Max shoots a flare gun at the ladies when they laugh at Charlie’s meager junk in response. Hilarious!

Max’s boat, by the way, is called the “Fish ‘n’ Chicks.” And it contains a Bud Light Party Ball. We know this because even before Charlie steps aboard, he sees the Bud Light Party Ball and exclaims: “That’s not a Bud Light Party Ball?!” (Later, they will order Jameson’s at a biker bar, just to mix things up.) Product placement is, sadly, pretty standard in movies these days, but Sandler tends to take it to an egregious extreme.

Then again, that’s keeping with his usual theme of using production as vacation. This time, the destination is Puerto Rico. After faking their deaths, Max and Charlie find a key that leads to a safe deposit box filled with cash, which leads to a mansion and a Ferrari on the scenic territory. There, they get shot at a lot in an elaborate case of mistaken identity, but Charlie also gets to engage in a three-way with Catherine Bell and Luis Guzman, who drips ball sweat on his face.

I will say, though — and this is why “The Do-Over” gets a half-star as opposed to zero — that eventually, it’s actually trying to be about something. It’s about finding a cure for cancer. No, really. I’m not saying the movie is successful in being about something. But the sentiment it aims to achieve feels vaguely less wedged-in than it does in most Sandler movies. Sandler himself looks less bored this time than he has recently. He might even be trying to act, an effort he seems to have abandoned since … oh, maybe “Funny People” back in 2009.

Paula Patton doesn’t fare quite so well, despite her efforts and her usual charisma, as the widow of a doctor caught up in Max and Charlie’s scheme. She’s basically called upon to look sexy, which culminates with her character taking part in a slow-motion girl fight with Kathryn Hahn’s to Madonna’s “Crazy for You.” Between this and “Warcraft,” Patton needs to have a serious talk with her agent.

She also must suffer the indignity of having Spade’s character beat the crap out of her for laughs: “I’m so tired of women lying to me and fucking me over!” he cries as he’s punching her in the stomach. But that’s basically the thrust of most recent Sandler movies: The only people you can trust are your bros.