Post Date Jul 1 — Terminator Genisys

Terminator Genisys Movie ReviewArnold Schwarzenegger returns to the role that made him a superstar over 30 years ago in this fifth installment in the “Terminator” franchise. It’s amusing at first, but “Terminator Genisys” turns unfortunately jokey and self-referential, to the point that it borders on parody. Ah-nuld finally has become McBain. My two-star review.

Read the review here

Post Date Jun 29


Max Movie ReviewWarner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements.
Running time: 111 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

“Max” is a strange beast.

It is, in theory, a family-friendly movie about courage and friendship, with a brave and handsome military search dog at its center. Who doesn’t like dogs? What could possibly go wrong?

In reality, though, “Max” is an absurdly violent PG-rated movie in which kids and dogs are repeatedly in peril — and often the potential targets for gunfire. There’s also death in the line of duty, a family’s mourning, a weapons-smuggling ring involving bad guys from both sides of the Mexican border, a kidnapping, a near drowning and some massive explosions. At one point, my 5 1/2-year-old son, Nicolas — who loves dogs and goes out of his way to say hi to every single one he sees in our neighborhood — turned to me during the screening and said: “This movie is too violent.”

He was right — and in retrospect, Nic was too young for “Max.” But beyond the potentially frightening material, director and co-writer Boaz Yakin’s film is just a weird hodgepodge of themes and plot threads.

It’s an earnestly patriotic movie about sacrifice for one’s country, clearly aimed at conservative, Christian audiences. But it also features a character who’s way too willing to share classified information with a teenager. It has its heartwarming moments and even some thrilling ones, as that teenager and the dog learn to work together, trust each other and share spirited adventures. But it’s also about overcoming racial prejudices and owning up to oft-repeated untruths.

It’s also just not very good — and no amount of swelling, inspiring music can convince you otherwise.

Yakin (“Remember the Titans”), working from a script he co-wrote with Sheldon Lettich, veers between all these heavy ideas in ungainly fashion for the film’s nearly-two-hour running time. But he begins with the wholesome image of Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell from “The DUFF”), a good-looking Marine and dog handler who’s been deployed to Afghanistan, enjoying a Skype chat with his parents back home in small-town East Texas. His father, Ray (a glum and gruff Thomas Haden Church), is a Marine veteran himself who suffered a debilitating leg injury during Desert Storm. (Strangely, despite the frequent mention of the leg, we don’t see it a single time.) His mother, Pamela (a sadly understated and underused Lauren Graham), is the family’s dutiful and God-fearing matriarch.

But Kyle’s younger brother, Justin (Josh Wiggins), has no interest in chatting. He’d rather play video games about war, then bootleg them for his friends for profit. He’s so sick of being compared to his superstar older brother that he’s gone out of his way to be as different — and underachieving — as possible. Surely, some life lessons are in store for this wayward young man.

They come early, in one of the movie’s many multi-hanky moments, when Kyle is killed under mysterious circumstances in battle. At his funeral, Max — the brave and highly trained Belgian Malinois who’d been his constant, trusty companion — bursts through the back door of the church, stands on his hind legs to whimper over Kyle’s American flag-draped coffin, then lies down loyally on the ground in front of it.

But as Max’s trainer at the base (Jay Hernandez) informs the family, this brilliant dog refuses to respond to anyone anymore and might have to be euthanized. Cosmically, though, he has a connection with Justin. At first, the disaffected teen has zero interest in helping, until the all-night barking and whimpering become too much to bear. Justin learns to retrain Max with the aid of his good friend, the sassy Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), and Chuy’s brash and beautiful cousin, Carmen (Mia Xilali), who’s been around dogs all her life. This is the section in which “Max” really hits its stride, with the three kids working together and forming a heartwarming bond with a beautiful creature.

But soon, the movie veers off course into some strange and dangerous territory, as Justin and his pals suspect Kyle’s longtime friend and fellow Marine, Tyler (Luke Kleintank), is up to no good. Tyler’s secret meetings in the woods with leather-clad baddies are a sure sign, as are the drooling, growling Rottweilers accompanying these men. (Max finds himself brawling with these muscular canines a couple times to protect Justin and his friends, which is extremely hard to watch.) Suddenly this warmly old-fashioned, kid-adventure movie has turned into something much colder and darker.

If there’s any useful lesson to come out of “Max,” it’s that dogs can suffer fron post-traumatic stress disorder, too. In one of the film’s more artful and emotionally effective sequences, Max paces about nervously in his backyard crate as multicolored July 4th fireworks explode overhead. In one of many sensitive moments from Wiggins, Justin finds the heart to climb inside and soothe him.

It’s a rare and cutting bit of truth in a movie that’s too-often smothered in nostalgic Americana.

Post Date Jun 28

Ted 2

Universal Pictures
Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, and some drug use.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

If you liked the original “Ted,” Seth MacFarlane’s 2012 surprise smash about a pot-smoking, potty-mouthed teddy bear, then you will probably like “Ted 2.” It is essentially the exact same movie, and more — and less.

As director, co-writer and star, MacFarlane offers a lot of the same kind of brash and ballsy humor that is his trademark. Nothing is off limits. No one is spared. So if you have a problem with a slapsticky pratfall involving scads of semen, followed by a wildly inappropriate joke about sickle cell anemia, followed by a crass Kardashian reference (and it’s a loooong way to go for that punchline), then you should probably look elsewhere.

I’ll admit, I laughed at that joke — and at a lot of the jokes in “Ted 2” — but I’m also a longtime fan of MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” for its energy, daring, rapid-fire pop-culture references and a willingness to go anywhere for a gag. (Our child can recite, verbatim, the entire Brian and Stewie “Cool Whip” exchange. We’re good parents.)

Along with fellow screenwriters and frequent collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, MacFarlane throws a lot of stuff at the wall. Not all of it sticks. But when it does stick, it works like crazy. As in his television work and the original “Ted,” some of the best bits here are the random non sequiturs, flashbacks and fantasy sequences. My favorite joke in the whole movie involves Ted and his human best friend, John (Mark Wahlberg), going to an improv comedy club to yell depressing suggestions to the performers on stage. It’s a clever and bizarre idea, well-executed.

Having said that, “Ted 2” is also overlong, repetitive and self-indulgent. In trying to offer a substantial dramatic plot line about civil rights alongside the raunchy comedy, its reach exceeds its grasp. And as in last summer’s ambitious failure “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “Ted 2” makes you wish there were someone around to rein MacFarlane in and hone his instincts. There’s a brisk and irresistible 95-minute movie somewhere in here, but as is so often the case, MacFarlane cannot contain his excesses, and it seems there’s no one around him who can stop them, either.

The delightful wrongness of the central premise remains strong, however. Ted (whom MacFarlane voices in a thick, New England accent identical to Peter Griffin’s) has married his girlfriend, gum-chomping grocery cashier Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). But John is now divorced from his wife (Mila Kunis, unseen here), and in no time, Ted is having marital troubles of his own.

He and Tami-Lynn make the always-wise decision to have a baby to save the union, but since Ted is a teddy bear, he lacks the equipment to impregnate her. When trying to find a sperm donor fails to work — including a truly uncomfortable visit to Tom Brady’s house in the middle of the night in one of the film’s many celebrity cameos — they try to adopt. But then that doesn’t work either when Massachusetts state officials decide that Ted isn’t an actual person, but rather a piece of property.

This leads John and Ted to seek the help of young, up-and-coming lawyer (and fellow stoner) Sam L. Jackson (Amanda Seyfried), who agrees to work pro bono to prove that Ted is indeed a person. Sam doesn’t know who Samuel L. Jackson is — and doesn’t get any pop-culture reference these guys throw at her — because she actually studied and immersed herself in the classics and didn’t waste her youth sitting on her ass on the couch watching bad television. MacFarlane’s detractors often accuse him of misogyny, but as was the case with Charlize Theron’s character in “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” Seyfried’s character is the smartest and most capable person in the room at all times. Forcing her into a romantic subplot with Wahlberg’s John seems needless, but Seyfried is game for whatever comes her way.

Despite her comic abilities, though, Seyfried is also stuck with some of the heavier material, especially in long, droning courtroom scenes that seriously bog down the film’s momentum. MacFarlane may try to enliven some of these moments with a spontaneous song or a profane outburst, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that this kind of meaty writing — this desire to Say Something Important — is beyond him and his team. Connections to civil rights fights throughout history, harkening all the way to the atrocities of slavery, seem poorly planned and tenuous. Maybe he’s aiming for satire, but he never truly hits his mark.

But wait, there’s more. “Ted 2” features another subplot in which Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), the creepy dad from the original “Ted,” tries to kidnap the bear at New York Comic-Con to present him to the head of Hasbro (John Carroll Lynch) as the basis for mass production. Nothing in this story line is ever funny or suspenseful; it could have been jettisoned entirely.

“Ted 2” begins in much more lively and promising fashion than its eventual ending, however, with a wedding-themed, Busby Berkeley-style production number during the opening titles that’s beautifully choreographed and hugely entertaining. As in the first film, the integration of this computer-generated creature in a live-action setting is seamless. This is yet another sign that MacFarlane needs to make an old-school musical next — and hopefully if he does, he’ll invite some seasoned folks to help him make his ideas truly sing.

Post Date Jun 26 — The Little Death

The Little Death Movie Review“The Little Death,” an Australian sex comedy that takes its title from the French idiom for orgasm, bops around between various couples exploring their fetishes and fantasies. There are a few laughs but a lot more jarring tonal shifts, as well as an unpleasant streak of sexual assault. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Jun 24

Inside Out

Inside Out Movie ReviewDisney/Pixar
Rated PG for mild thematic elements and some action.
Running time: 94 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

Here’s the main difference between me and my 5-year-old son. I mean, clearly, there are many, including the fact that someday soon he’ll be able to reach items on the high shelves in the kitchen without a step ladder. But this latest one lies in the way we each reacted to “Inside Out,” the new animated epic from Pixar, which takes place mainly within the mind of an 11-year-old girl.

Nicolas’ favorite part was when the girl’s sense of Fear (voiced by Bill Hader) runs around screaming with his butt ablaze, courtesy of a blast of fire from her Anger (Lewis Black). He also liked when Joy (Amy Poehler) was playfully talking to herself. “Joy is funny,” the budding film critic added. My favorite part was … everything else. The ambition. The intelligence. The complexity. The performances. The poignancy. Director and co-writer Pete Docter’s film is as beautiful as it is profound, lively as it is meaningful.

This is a movie that dares to explore existential crises, in the middle of the summer, in an animated movie that’s aimed at the whole family. And damned if it doesn’t pull it off. Like the best Pixar movies — “Up,” “The Incredibles” and my personal favorite, “WALL-E” — it functions quite powerfully on multiple levels at once. And similar to “Ratatouille,” in a lot of ways “Inside Out” isn’t really for kids primarily, even though the figure at its center, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), is on the brink of adolescence, with all the recognizable angst that accompanies this shift.

Children will certainly respond to the movie’s spry energy, vibrant colors and clever humor. The script from Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley is one of the more substantive ones yet in a Pixar film — and don’t forget, Docter previously directed and co-wrote “Monsters Inc.” and “Up” — but it’s also very, very funny, often in a slapsticky way. Er go, the butt on fire.

A little bit on the premise, in case this all sounds a tad confusing and abstract. Riley has just moved from Minneapolis to San Francisco with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). This would be a difficult transition to make at any time in your childhood, but especially now. Eleven is such an awkward age — such a jumble of extreme emotions — which “Inside Out” keenly understands and demonstrates by going inside her brain to show us what she’s thinking or feeling at any particular moment. Besides Joy, Anger and Fear, there’s Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith).

When Riley was a little girl, her experiences and memories were all so clear-cut, they were color-coded. The happy ones, like scoring her first hockey goal, remain in the infrastructure of her brain as orbs that glow a bright yellow; the unpleasant ones, like being forced to eat broccoli as an infant, radiate a dark green. And the feelings themselves were reliable in their consistency. Joy always has been perky and resilient and glass-half-full (and Poehler does nimble voice work in playing a character that’s the pixellated manifestation of her irresistible demeanor).

But lately, the blue and bespectacled Sadness has come to the fore, between the move and all the disconcerting changes occurring both around her and inside her. Reminiscent of Eeyore in the “Winnie the Pooh” realm, Sadness is dryly hilarious — so pathetic and so sweet — and so often, the voice of reason. She’s the one who’s willing to speak the raw truth in an uncomfortable situation. And Smith, with her vulnerable and beautifully nuanced performance, ends up being the movie’s unexpected MVP.

From here, “Inside Out” follows how Riley — and the many sides of her — adapt, or don’t. Her journey features many inspired, light moments, from the physical manifestation of a brain freeze while you’re enjoying a cold treat to an annoying TV jingle that gets stuck in your head. But it has plenty of dramatic ones, too, including the relationship Riley’s emotions have with her long-lost imaginary friend, Bing Bong, voiced heartbreakingly by Richard Kind. (Seriously, “Inside Out” rivals “Toy Story 3” for the kind of ugly crying it’ll provoke in you.)

It may meander a tad in the literal labyrinth of Riley’s mind as these figures struggle to work together to help her restore her shattered sense of self. But mostly, “Inside Out” remains sharp with some really sophisticated notions about the nature of memories — which ones we hold onto, where they sit in the brain, how long we keep them, how they shape our personalities and even how they help us forge relationships. It might sound dull or even didactic, but this being a Pixar film, “Inside Out” brings these concepts brilliantly to life.

If my son can begin to grasp the idea that happiness and sadness can co-exist within the same moment — but also cackle so hard at a bit of physical comedy that his face turns red and the veins pop out on his neck — then we’re onto something truly memorable here.

Post Date Jun 19 — The Overnight

The Overnight Movie ReviewYou may think you know the strange directions in which this deliciously uncomfortable comedy is headed — and then it takes a detour or adds a twist or doesn’t go there at all. Not naming any names, but I can imagine having a version of this kind of night with some L.A. parents I know. Please enjoy my review of “The Overnight.”

Read the review here

Post Date Jun 16

Jurassic World

Jurassic World Movie ReviewUniversal Pictures
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril.
Running time: 123 minutes.
Two stars out of four.

It’s silly of me, right? I have this notion that a big, splashy blockbuster should provide characters and story lines that matter, that engage us, so that there are actual stakes and not just a lot of noisy stomping. Theoretically, we should care whether or not someone is going to get eaten by a genetically engineered, 50-foot-tall dinosaur. We shouldn’t be distracted by flimsy subplots, or the unlikely (and ungainly) sight of a grown woman running for her life through the jungle in high heels.

And yet, this is what “Jurassic World” gives us, in between some admittedly spectacular visuals.

I know what you’re thinking: “It’s not meant to be an Oscar winner.” “It’s a popcorn movie.” “Why can’t you just shut off your brain and have a good time?” Also: “You suck.”

All of the above are probably true. And yet, I had a hard time connecting with “Jurassic World” and its cardboard characters making poor choices over and over again. It simultaneously tries to cram in too much without giving us enough in the way of substance.

I was a big fan of director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow’s first feature, 2012’s “Safety Not Guaranteed,” an indie, sci-fi dramedy in which the time travel element actually worked. (It also made Mark Duplass surprisingly sexy for the first time.) Trevorrow is doing his best Spielberg impression here, and he creates a couple of thrilling set pieces — his pterodactyl attack, for example, is at once exciting and horrifying and a lovely little Hitchcock homage. But I’m not sure he was ready for a behemoth of a film like this just yet.

Let’s get to the plot real quickly, and a few thoughts, then call it a day. “Jurassic World” made nearly $209 million in its first weekend for the biggest domestic opening of all time. Clearly, you saw it and you know what happens. Nevertheless, let us trudge on.

A bunch of people, who didn’t learn from the travesties that occurred during the original “Jurassic Park” from 1993 and its two sequels, have developed yet another family-friendly dino playland on an island off the coast of Costa Rica under the guidance (and considerable financial support) of billionaire Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan).

Among his chief employees is velociraptor wrangler Owen (Chris Pratt), who is ruggedly confident and wears leather vests with zero irony. The one truly astonishing element of “Jurassic World” is that it manages to make Pratt boring. He’s the hottest and most charismatic star on the planet right now, and he’s on a huge roll following last year’s “The Lego Movie” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Here, he certainly rises to the physical challenges but he’s strangely understated, stuck as he is in a one-note role. It is an enormous bummer.

Pratt is also stuck in a half-baked romantic subplot with Bryce Dallas Howard, who co-stars as Claire, an all-business operations executive. (Her sleek bob says it all.) They had one date, and now he keeps trying to flirt with her. The banter in the script — from Trevorrow, “Safety Not Guaranteed” writer Derek Connolly and the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver — isn’t exactly the snappiest. And — spoiler! — when Owen and Claire finally do kiss after a sequence of great panic, it feels forced and hollow.

But Claire has been too busy for him, or for anything outside of work. Like a cliched rom-com heroine, she’s married to her job (for which her sister, played by Judy Greer, shames her). Claire is also busy on this particular day tending to her visiting nephews, sullen teenager Zach (Nick Robinson) and his perky moppet of a younger brother, Gray (Ty Simpkins). A subplot about the kids’ parents divorcing is brought up and then dropped — as if placing them in massive peril repeatedly ostensibly weren’t enough to garner our sympathy.

Then there’s another whole subplot featuring Vincent D’Onofrio as a private military contractor who wants to take Owen’s well-trained velociraptors and turn them into a lucrative fighting force. As if the humans-are-so-arrogant theme running through the whole series weren’t completely obvious yet, this really hammers it home, and it turns the formidable, versatile D’Onofrio into a swaggering, Texas stereotype.

These people and thousands of others find themselves under attack when the park’s latest attraction, a five-story-high dino hybrid known as the Indominus Rex, escapes after being raised in isolation for years. (This is incredibly violent for a PG-13 movie, by the way — something to think about if you’re pondering bringing young kids.) But the park gets a spike in attendance every time something new is developed, and under the watch of mad scientist Henry Wu (BD Wong), this is the biggest creature yet. It’s got more teeth, a brilliant mind and the ability to camouflage itself — all to “up the ‘wow’ factor,” as Claire puts it, with catastrophic consequences.

So basically, “Jurassic World” is a big-budget indictment of corporate greed, jammed with product placement for Samsung and Mercedes-Benz and Beats by Dre and Coca-Cola. But given the record-shattering opening the movie had, I’d say everyone involved had their cake, ate it too and went back for seconds.

Post Date Jun 12 — Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary Movie ReviewThe Madame Bovary of this “Madame Bovary” could be Betty Draper. She could be a reality-show housewife or the mom waiting in front of you in an SUV in the pickup line at school. My mixed review of this beautiful but emotionally detached take on Gustave Flaubert’s great novel, at

Read the review here

Post Date Jun 10


Entourage Movie ReviewWarner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for pervasive language, strong sexual content, nudity and some drug use.
Running time: 105 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

The title sequence for the “Entourage” movie is undoubtedly its high point. Glossily shot and smoothly edited with Jane’s Addiction’s “Superhero” blasting in the background, it’s an expanded version of what we saw at the start of the HBO series for eight seasons, with cast and crew members’ names emblazoned across various Los Angeles landmarks. But more care has been taken this time: Costume designer Olivia Miles’ name appears in the signature, red-and-blue lettering on the ivy wall at Fred Segal, for example, while music supervisor Scott Vener’s pops up in neon lights above the front door at Amoeba Records.

It gets you pumped, and it suggests you’re in for an exhilarating, stylish ride. But then it’s all downhill from there.

“Entourage” the movie is essentially an extended version of “Entourage” the TV show. Now, if you loved “Entourage” the TV show, this is probably thrilling news. But if you never watched the show, or only watched it in pieces, or stopped watching it once Vincent Chase and his buddies became obnoxious examples of everything that’s wrong with this town, then you will surely find this exercise pointless.

Four years after the show he created went off the air, writer-director Doug Ellin returns with nothing new or worthwhile. He only offers us an amped-up version of the series which plays for a longer period of time on a much larger screen. Movie star Vince (Adrian Grenier) and his childhood pals — manager E (Kevin Connolly), driver Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) and half-brother Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) — are no longer the lovable underdogs they were when they arrived in L.A. from Queens in 2004. They remain the same vapid, douchey assholes they’ve been since they became deeply entrenched in the most glamorous and superficial elements of the industry.

The larger format doesn’t necessarily mean a richer experience is in store. Far from it. These guys learn nothing, they don’t change, they have no arc and they are never truly challenged. I’m sorry, I take that back — it’s possible that Vince may not get the extra $7 million he needs to complete his $100 million directorial debut, a high-tech take on the legend of Jekyll and Hyde in which he also stars as a hot, hoodie-wearing DJ with glowing eyes.

“Hyde,” as it’s called, looks terrible, by the way, from the brief moments we get to see. But the fact that the few characters who’ve seen the whole thing declare it a masterpiece makes me wonder whether Ellin intended all of this as satire in the first place, and not just a gratuitous wallow in rich-white-dude luxury. Could Ellin possibly have more in mind besides hot chicks in bikinis, bashes on yachts in Ibiza, glittering hilltop mansions and leisurely drives around Beverly Hills in expensive convertibles? Could he be making a statement about the capriciousness of Hollywood and the perils of wretched excess? Perhaps I’m giving him too much credit.

The plot — strung together as it is between cameos from celebrities as random as Andrew Dice Clay, Jessica Alba, Warren Buffett, T.I. and Armie Hammer — begins with Vince partying it up with his pals because he’s gotten has marriage annulled after just nine days. When the phone rings, it’s Ari (Jeremy Piven), his former agent who’s now a studio head. (They never name the studio but much of “Entourage” was clearly shot on the Warner Bros. lot.) His newfound power hasn’t quelled his famous temper — Ari’s blowups actually provide the few moments of genuine humor and energy here — but it does give him the clout to give Vince his dream starring role.

Vince also insists on directing, however — something he has no idea how to do, and something we don’t even see him do here, even though there is a finished product for interested parties to salivate over. But in order for Vince to put the final touches on “Hyde,” Ari must go to a Texas billionaire investor (Billy Bob Thornton as a twangy, quirky stereotype) and beg for more money. His response is to send his no-good son, Travis (a skeevy Haley Joel Osment), to L.A. to sniff around and see if it’s worthwhile. This leads to a preposterous would-be love triangle between Vince, Travis and Emily Ratajkowski, a model-actress best known for the “Blurred Lines” video, playing a version of herself.

Her entire raison d’etre is to look gorgeous in tight dresses and make Vince feel better about himself when he’s feeling low — although Grenier’s range is so limited and the character remains so handsomely bland, it’s hard to tell when he’s feeling anything besides pleased to be here. Then again, nearly all the women in this movie are shrews, nags or half-naked ornamentation.

The supporting characters who are afforded slightly more personality get subplots which are no more compelling. E tries to juggle various hot women who want to sleep with him while tending to his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui). Turtle flirts awkwardly with MMA superstar Ronda Rousey and enjoys the spoils of the high-end tequila brand he developed with Mark Cuban. And Drama hopes that his four scenes in “Hyde” will finally make him a superstar himself.

There are no real stakes, though. Long before Mark Wahlberg — the original inspiration for “Entourage” — shows up with his real-life entourage to pimp out not one but two side projects, it’s clear that these Teflon bros will just continue coasting through life, enjoying being mindlessly awesome.

Post Date Jun 5 — Insidious: Chapter 3

Insidious Chapter 3 Movie Review“Insidious: Chapter 3” is shockingly good — especially for the third movie in a horror franchise. Rather than repeating himself, writer, co-star and first-time director Leigh Whannell sets this one up as a prequel, and puts the exceedingly bad-ass Lin Shaye front and center. It’s got several serious jumps but also a significant emotional undercurrent. My review.

Read the review here