Post Date Aug 12 — Joshy

Joshy Movie ReviewFor better and for worse, the largely improvised “Joshy” believably creates the sensation of a low-key weekend hang with a bunch of bros. You probably wouldn’t want to spend that much time with these people yourself, but at least they’re never boring. My review.

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Post Date Aug 9

Nine Lives

Rated PG for thematic elements, language and some rude humor.
Running time: 87 minutes.
Two stars out of four.

It’s hard to explain how incredibly strange “Nine Lives” is. I mean, the premise is pretty simple: Kevin Spacey plays a talking cat. It’s as high-concept as you can get. But the execution of that idea, and the caliber of talent that agreed to take part in this project, are just mind-boggling.

Barry Sonnenfeld directs. Spacey stars. Jennifer Garner plays his wife. Cheryl Hines plays his ex-wife. And in the greatest coup of all, Christopher Walken plays the “cat whisperer” who’s responsible for the cosmic human-feline body swap that sets the story into motion. The performance is exactly what you might expect if you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to see Christopher Walken play a cat whisperer.

And yet … and yet. I didn’t completely hate it. I laughed here and there, simply because “Nine Lives” seems fully aware of its innate ridiculousness and willing to embrace it. The script is awful, of course, full of wacky antics and hokey, third-act changes of heart. And it’s squirm-inducing watching Spacey and Walken, two of our most enduring, influential actors, exchange the inane dialogue they’re stuck with here. (Somehow, it took five credited screenwriters to come up with snarky retorts for the supremely gifted Spacey such as “Seriously?” and “Nailed it!”)

It’s not that “Nine Lives” is terrible. It’s just that it’s not terrible enough. It certainly isn’t such a travesty that it needed to be withheld from critics. I took Nicolas to a 6pm showing the Thursday night that it opened, and he was cackling consistently from the opening montage of real-life YouTube cat videos. This is your target audience: 6-year-olds on summer vacation. But for all its shoddy CGI and convoluted plotting, “Nine Lives” is certainly more enjoyable than … oh, say, “Suicide Squad,” for example, and of those two movies, it’s the one I’d rather watch again.

Speaking of the plot, here’s what “Nine Lives” is actually about: Spacey stars as Tom Brand, an egomaniacal, billionaire industrialist who’s obsessed with building the tallest tower in North America. (Gosh, an arrogant and abrasive real estate mogul who’s preoccupied with size … who could have been the possible inspiration for this character?) When he once again forgets the birthday of his 11-year-old daughter, Rebecca (Malina Weissman), his neglected wife, Lara (Garner), insists that he get her the gift she really wants to make up for it: a cat. Naturally, Tom hates cats.

But between abrupt business meetings and terse exchanges with his older son/protege, David (Robbie Amell), Tom finds time to stop by a pet store and pick up a cat. This is no ordinary pet store, though. This is like some creepy curiosity shop Harry Potter would wander into in Diagon Alley. There, Walken’s Mr. Perkins says a few cryptic things to him, hands him an angry-looking, gray-and-white fluffball named Mr. Fuzzypants and sends him on his way with a bowl and a carrying case.

The way the actual body swap goes down — if you can call it that, because it’s unclear whether the cat conversely ends up inside Tom’s body — is sort of adorably retro. He literally gets zapped by lightning while standing at the top of his skyscraper. At the hospital, while Tom lies in coma, his soul or spirit or personality or whatever magically has transferred inside Mr. Fuzzypants.

Madcap hilarity ensues, as Tom-in-cat-form pees inside an expensive handbag belonging to his boozy ex-wife (Hines), leaps into the kitchen cabinet to eat an entire box of cereal and struggles to use a pen and an iPad. So much of what the cat gets himself into is so insane and so cheesy-looking that it’s good for a goofy giggle — including the overall fact that his mouth doesn’t even move. We’re just hearing his thoughts while the other characters think he’s meowing. That’s how low-budget this whole endeavor is. I will admit I enjoyed the sequence in which Mr. Fuzzypants figures out how to open a decanter of 50-year-old Scotch, pours it into a crystal ashtray and then laps it up like milk — all without the benefit of opposable thumbs! Smart kitty.

And Spacey playing a sardonic cat just makes so much sense. In the best of his performances, there’s often a rage simmering just below the surface, waiting to explode. And that’s Mr. Fuzzypants. It makes you long desperately for stronger writing — hell, halfway-decent writing — to make the most of Spacey’s abilities.

What’s worse, though, is that Tom is supposed to learn a lesson about the importance of family and right longstanding wrongs while being trapped inside the cat. This involves board meetings with old white men pressuring Tom’s son to take the company public. Capraesque, it is not. It’s barely even Cat Fancy. But you could do worse in August.

Post Date Aug 3 — Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad Movie ReviewThe summer of disappointing blockbusters continues unabated with the slog that is “Suicide Squad.” Even Will Smith and Margot Robbie — two of the most charismatic people on the planet — can’t make this thing fun. My 1 1/2-star review.

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Post Date Jul 29 — Bad Moms

Bad Moms Movie ReviewI really liked “Bad Moms.” It’s my favorite documentary so far this year. My review of the comedy — which I watched totally sober, I’ll have you know — at

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Post Date Jul 19

The Secret Life of Pets

The Secret Life of Pets Movie Review

Universal Pictures
Rated PG for action and some rude humor.
Running time: 91 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

I realize I’m egregiously late in writing about “The Secret Life of Pets” — or any recent movie, for that matter — but I’m playing catch-up after being out of town with my family for a couple of weeks. So, apologies. But I wanted to get a few thoughts down quickly, especially because I had the pleasure of seeing “The Secret Life of Pets” while I was away.

It’s always fun to see movies in other places. I’m so accustomed to the ArcLight, The Grove and the AMC Century City, not to mention all the various screening rooms and revival houses around town. We’re truly spoiled having so many options here in Los Angeles. While on vacation for two weeks in Boston, New Hampshire and Montreal, Nicolas and I caught the first possible showing near us: 7pm on a Thursday at the Cinemagic theater in Hooksett, N.H., where an entire auditorium sold out, requiring the opening of another one. (We also caught the “Ghostbusters” remake in Montreal, where, at first, we accidentally went to the theater where it was playing in French as “SOS Fantomes.” But that’s another story for another time.)

Nic has been seriously pumped for “The Secret Life of Pets” for months now. We are a Minion-friendly household, in case you weren’t aware, and the marketing for “Pets,” which comes from the same production company (Illumination Entertainment), made it look as if it had a similarly adorable, anarchic humor. It’s actually the summer movie I’d been looking forward to most myself, between the impossibly cute characters, the strong voice cast (Louis C.K., Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Lake Bell, Albert Brooks) and the clever premise.

Yes, it’s essentially “Toy Story,” only with dogs and cats. But still — who doesn’t like that idea? And who hasn’t wondered what their pets do all day while they’re away? (We don’t wonder, however. We have a 14-year-old Boston terrier who’s deaf and has one tooth left in his head. We know what he does all day: He sleeps on the couch.)

It is an incredibly simple yet irresistible idea for a movie. It’s also exactly what you think it’s going to be — no more, no less. But the film from co-directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney is so perky and agreeable and eager to please — not unlike our own pets — that it’s hard not to be charmed. No, it does not have the thematic depth, narrative complexity or emotional power of a Pixar movie. Most other animated offerings don’t. But it’s beautiful to look at in terms of color, lighting and texture, it zips along nicely and it’s a totally delightful way to spend the afternoon with your family.

There is indeed a plot, albeit a thin one, which relies heavily on amusing sight gags. (Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch wrote the script.) Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) is an enthusiastic terrier mix who’s fiercely loyal to his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). The two of them have a cozy life together in their tiny Manhattan apartment, and when Katie leaves for work in the morning, Max is content to sit by the door and wait for her to return. He also has friends who keep him company through neighboring windows, including Gidget (Slate), a posh, puffy Pomerian who’s secretly in love with him; Mel (Bobby Moynihan), a nutty pug who’s constantly on the alert for squirrels; and Chloe (Bell), a surly, portly cat who has a love-hate relationship with the food in the refrigerator.

One evening, the kindhearted Katie comes back with another dog: the garrulous and galumphing Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who proceeds to make himself right at home to Max’s shock and dismay. But then the two of them end up off-leash together, no thanks to their distracted dog walker, and must rely on each other to get back home. Along the way, they cross paths with an underground group of homeless former pets — a truly random menagerie led by an insanely cute (but also just plain insane) bunny rabbit named Snowball (Hart), who’s hell-bent on revolution.

Manic animal antics ensue through the streets, alleyways, sewers and rivers of New York City. And that’s about all there is to it. Snowball wants Max and Duke to join his crusade, but they kind of like being domesticated. The biggest question isn’t whether they’ll ever get home again but how — something they figure out when their friends come to rescue them with the reluctant help of a hawk voiced with rich, gravelly menace by Brooks.

He is, of course, a standout among the cast, but my favorite of all is Slate. And this is something I’ve actually thought and talked about quite a bit since seeing “The Secret Life of Pets,” because Nicolas likes to hash through plot points after we’ve seen a movie together, and he keeps asking me who my favorite character is. It’s Gidget. (He likes Max best, in case you’re wondering, and Louis C.K.’s trademark smarts and self-deprecation are just right for the role.) Slate’s husky earnestness gives the film real warmth, and I love the fact that her character looks sweet and small but she’s actually quite brave and ballsy.

And you’ve gotta love a hero’s journey in which the real hero ends up being a woman.

Post Date Jul 8 — Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates Movie Review“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” is a hard-R comedy that pummels us over the head with the same few, raunchy gags in hopes of beating us into submission. We’ve see so much better from all four of its likable stars — Zac Efron, Adam Devine, Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick — and we will again. For now, here’s my 1 1/2-star review.

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Post Date Jul 1 — The Innocents

The Innocents Movie ReviewVeteran French director Anne Fontaine approaches a spiritually and emotionally complex real-life slice of history with deftness and understated drama in “The Innocents,” about a group of nuns who became pregnant after Soviet soldiers raped them at the end of World War II. My review.

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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.

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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.

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