Post Date Oct 23 — I Smile Back

I Smile Back Movie ReviewSarah Silverman previously has dipped her toe in more dramatic waters with 2010’s excellent “Take This Waltz.” Here, the comedian flings herself headlong into dark and disturbing territory as an upper-middle class wife and mom struggling to conceal her depression and addiction. She’s willing to go to places that the superficial film itself is not. My review.

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Post Date Oct 9 — Knock Knock

Knock Knock Movie ReviewThe moral of the story is: When two hot, much younger women knock on your door, scantily clad and stranded during a rainstorm, you probably shouldn’t have sex with them, tempting as that may be. The latest from horror veteran Eli Roth builds sly tension for the first half, then goes haywire and gets tedious in the second. My mixed review.

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Post Date Oct 8 — Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs Movie Review“Steve Jobs” doesn’t try to make you like Steve Jobs –and that’s what makes it so compelling. Danny Boyle’s film, bursting with super-Sorkiny Aaron Sorkin dialogue, is thrilling and daring and full of fascinating contradictions. My review.

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Post Date Oct 2 — He Named Me Malala

He Named Me Malala Movie ReviewDavis Guggenheim’s documantary takes a frustratingly superficial look at the life of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating girls’ education and went on to become the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. She’s a worthy and fascinating subject, to be sure — and she’s incredibly charismatic — but Guggenheim perpetuates the mythology of her bravery rather than digging deeper to determine how she truly feels about becoming an international symbol of hope at such a young age. My review.

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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 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.

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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.

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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.

Post Date Sep 11 — The Perfect Guy

The Perfect Guy Movie Review“The Perfect Guy” is decent trash that could have been delicious trash with a bit more daring. David M. Rosenthal’s romantic thriller, starring Sanaa Lathan, Michael Ealy and Morris Chestnut in an increasingly dangerous triangle, tiptoes toward crazy but then backs away. My review.

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Post Date Sep 11

War Room

War Room Movie ReviewSony Pictures
Rated PG for thematic elements throughout.
Running time: 120 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

“War Room” is the most slickly made faith-based film I’ve seen yet in terms of production values, but that doesn’t make it quote-unquote good, per se.

It certainly looks better than, say, the Nicolas Cage version of “Left Behind,” a dull groaner about the end times. It’s not nearly as top-to-bottom atrocious as the hilariously inept “Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas” (although it’s just about as subtle). And it has more moments of emotional honesty than the overtly wacky “Moms’ Night Out,” although not many.

Despite its glossy visuals — including lean camerawork and smooth editing — it’s still stuck with a script that repeatedly hammers you over the head with its proselytizing. Which is strange given that it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing “War Room” who wasn’t already a true believer. And it’s a fervent audience, as evidenced by the movie’s No. 1 status at the box office this past weekend, beating out “Straight Outta Compton.” I had to see a matinee of it out of sheer curiosity, if nothing else.

And “War Room” is indeed a curiosity — a strange beast with sleek packaging and a silly script. It basically preaches that a woman can transform her lying, sneaking, stealing husband out of his evil ways through prayer. From the outset of the film from director and co-writer Alex Kendrick (whose previous faith-based efforts include “Fireproof” and “Courageous”), it’s clear that Tony Jordan (former pro football player T.C. Stallings) is not a good dude. A traveling pharmaceuticals salesman, he’s charismatic when he’s out on the road — especially with the foxy ladies who cross his path — but abrupt and dismissive once he returns to his expansive North Carolina home.

His wife, successful real estate agent Elizabeth (Priscilla C. Shirer, a preacher making a surprisingly confident acting debut), tries to stay strong and withstand his cruelty for the greater good of the family, but their sweet, bright daughter Danielle (Alena Pitts) has a hard time hiding how much her father’s distance hurts her. (Pitts gives the most authentic performance of the entire cast, by the way. The few decently moving scenes feature her in moment-of-truth conversations with each of the actors playing her parents. But then she gets stuck anchoring an awkward subplot involving competitive double-dutch rope-jumping, which apparently is a real thing.)

Just in time, though, Elizabeth takes on a new client: the elderly and pious Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), a widow who’s ready to sell her 100-year-old house. Miss Clara is such an egregious example of the Magical Negro figure — even in a film populated predominately by black actors — she’s borderline offensive and unintentionally hilarious. She’s pushy and outspoken but also clairvoyant, apparently, because within minutes of meeting Elizabeth, she senses that her marriage is in trouble. Clearly, going to church more is the answer. But Elizabeth must go further than that. She must do what Miss Clara has done, which is remove all the clothes, shoes and handbags from one of her closets and turn it exclusively into a room for prayer. This is the war room of the film’s title: the place to strategize with scripture. (Viewers who live in lofts — or anywhere in New York City, for that matter — will have trouble replicating this exercise at home.)

And magically, it works! In no time, Tony has opened his heart to Jesus and admitted the error of his wicked ways. First, he (almost) cheats on Elizabeth and loses his job when he gets caught selling samples on the side. But really, all her prayers are answered pretty quickly. Tony even gets in on Danielle’s double-dutch action, which held no interest for him previously. The Lord truly works in mysterious ways.

But “War Room” is also about Satan, as evidenced by Elizabeth’s bizarre monologue in which she walks around her house — and even steps outside into the yard — shouting at the devil to leave her family alone as overwhelming, inspirational music swells in the background. Kendrick (who co-wrote the script with his brother, Stephen) doesn’t even bother with the obvious cutaway shot of baffled neighbors reacting to this late-night rant for a quick laugh. This climactic moment is deadly serious. Such is the bubble of piety in which this film exists.

Miss Clara gets the last word, though. In increasingly passionate tones, she wails on and on about the need to create an army of prayer warriors throughout this land, once again perpetuating the notion of Christian persecution. As her booming narration continues — I mean, she’s actually shouting at this point — images of people all over the world and various walks of life flash across the screen. They’re all praying. They’re all united. I’m sure it’s a fortifying message for the faithful in the audience, but it’s unlikely to reach the people who’d rather use their closets for hanging clothes.