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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Vacation 2015 * * * Stars

VacationDirectors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo

In National Lampoon's Vacation (1983), Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase) takes his family to Wally World and the journey is shall we say, shambolic. Thirty-two years later, we get Clark's grown-up son (played by Ed Helms) taking that same journey in Vacation (my latest review). This is comedy touted as a generational gap moment. And yet, it still feels like a remake, a same same blueprint of laughs that are forced and fantasized. No matter. In between moments of mild humor and hit-or-miss gags, what's on screen is hella funny. You get to experience a vaca that has movie R & R written all over it.

Now for all you facetious aficionados, Vacation has sequences where characters bathe in raw sewage, hang upside down in a roller coaster (that's where it stops), try to erase penis-shaped graffiti on the passenger side of their car, and run into a cow rendering it nothing but obliterated blood and guts. I laughed out loud heartily but remembered something even before the opening credits rolled (which are more offensive than what's in all of the previous Lampoon installments combined). I thought to myself, isn't the mantra of Rusty supposed to be smarter and less of a nincompoop than his dad. At least that's what I picked up with Anthony Micheal Hall, Johnny Galecki, and Jason lively (from Vacations 1, 2, and 3). Ed Helms (mentioned earlier) plays the adult version here. He's an appealing actor, he's goofy and likable (all you gotta do is look at the guy), and basically he's Ed Helms playing well, Ed Helms. Is this how middle age Russ would act? Based on the previous four flicks (six if you count two that are direct-to-video), probably not. Bottom line: I liked Vacation and I'm actually gonna recommend it (God help me). But I feel it could have been even more effective if it was a straight up remake of 1983's monster hit. You get a funny actor to reprise the Chevy Chase role, a blond, bombshell actress to reprise Beverly D'Angelo's Ellen Griswold and so on, and so on. The director yells action, the cameras roll, and everyone freely lets it rip. Just a random thought.

Anyway, 2015's Vacation tries to up the ante over all of its predecessors. It does this in terms of vacated grossness, vulgarity, and crass indignation. Two side players even suffer heinous deaths which is something I don't think I ever saw in the Christmas installment from 89', the Vegas stint from 97', and European Vacation (no dying here. A dog falls from the Eiffel Tower and survives without so much as a scratch). Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein really want to push the envelope. Proof of this can easily be traced back to the forty-five minute mark involving co-star Chris Hemsworth (he plays Stone Crandall, Rusty's well hung brother-in-law). Just revert to Mark Wahlberg's underwear sequence in 1997's Boogie Nights and that will give you a clue.

The story of course, begins in Chicago, Illinois. And if you live in the windy city (like I do), you'll be annoyed by how certain characters get around in their respective automobiles (residents in Chi-town don't drive past the The Chicago Theatre then drive north by Wrigley field in or order to venture to Southern California). Russell "Rusty" Griswold (Helms) is a family man and a pilot for a second rate airline named Econo-Air (they do those mini flights from Chicagoland to South Bend, Indiana). He takes this job so he can spend a little more time with his family. He has two sons (the younger one is the bully, who'd thunk it), a marriage that seems on the outs, and a log cabin (in Michigan) where his clan goes for summer vacation. When he senses that his better half (Debbie Griswold played by Christina Applegate) is bored in said vacation pics, well Russell decides to quote unquote, "shake things up a bit". He wants to relive his childhood memories so he takes his family to the Wally World theme park. This expedition involves a similar blueprint akin to 1983's original. They drive through Missouri (check), stop at a strange relatives house (check), get lost and stranded in the desert (check), have uncomfortable moments in rundown hotel (check), and pass by the Grand Canyon (quintuple check). Chaos and high jinks ensue because the Griswold apple doesn't fall far from the tree. There's a scene where Debbie and Russ decide to have unsuccessful, sneak away sex via the borderline of four states. Spicy.

In conclusion, you can enjoy this thing provided you go into it with the lowest of expectations. Truth be told, I viewed the trailer a month ago and figured 2015's Vacation had almost no affiliation with the other vehicles in this long running, Warner Bros. franchise. Boy was I wrong. As a new installment with the Griswolds of a new generation (I loved the family that was cast here, especially Applegate), it has the feel of all things Lampoon. And it doesn't hurt that an extended, Chevy Chase cameo makes the proceedings that more authentic.

In addition to Chase, you get some other jocular and rather interesting guest appearances as well. Norman Reedus plays a trucker and alleged pedophile, Charlie Rich checks in as a manic rafting instructor, and Ron Livingston channels an asshat tycoon of a major 747 airline. And in case your wondering about Lindsay Buckingham's "Holiday Road" being played on Vacation's eclectic soundtrack, well don't worry. Thirty-plus years later and it's still in there. Here's my rating: A harmless three stars.

Of note: In 1983, Clark and Ellen's married couple try to get their kids to sing "Mockingbird" by James Taylor and Carly Simon. Now in 2015, Russell tries to get his kids to belt out Seal's "Kiss from a Rose". If you decide to take in a viewing, you probably won't be able to get that song out of your head.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, July 20, 2015

Ant-Man 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

Ant-ManDirector: Peyton Reed
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly

"Scott, I need you to be the Ant-Man." So quips the Michael Douglas character, a radical physicist with a penchant for training ant organisms of the malevolent kind. Me, well I had a "need" to see Ant-Man the movie, a "need" to like Ant-Man the movie, and a "need" to give said shebang a favorable review. Oh well, at least 1 out of 3 "needs" were meant. That ain't bad (oops, the saying is "two out of three ain't bad". Somewhere Meatloaf is complaining). Anyway, I've heard a couple of other critics talk about "Ant" in the same vein as last year's Guardians of the Galaxy. I honestly don't see it except for the whole sly humor-mixed-with-galloping maneuver concept. "Galaxy" does a reasonable job while the latter has a concoction that comes off as a bit uneven. It's corny when it should be compelling, it's action as pure exhilaration then action as completely risible (all you gotta do is watch a scene involving good versus evil via a battery powered train set), and finally, it's Paul Rudd showing us the funny instead of maybe expanding his acting repertoire. Truth be told, I didn't want another Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. I wanted Honey, I Shrunk the Badass Superhuman.

Referencing The Avengers multiple times, using enough CGI this side of Bruce Jenner to make Michael Douglas look thirty years younger (this was only in the first frame), and featuring a blink or you'll miss it cameo from Stan Lee (it's a Marvel Studios flick so of course), Ant-Man is something I wouldn't quite recommend. However, it's unlike any Marvel endeavor I've ever seen and heck, it's disparate from any film in general (we're talking some pretty broad territory here). It dares to be different and I give it points for that. The director is Peyton Reed. Recognized for normally helming comedies (The Break-Up, Down with Love), you wouldn't even know it was his baby had you not read "Ant's" dossier. He's like a new breed of action kingpin with his camera constantly moving. There are zippy flashbacks, tons of whip pans, and film pacing so earnest, the effect is dizzying. But while you admire his freewheeling technique, you wonder what he's trying to get Ant-Man to be. Was this thing intentionally meant to give off a Marvel spoof vibe? And is it a parody of the superhero/comic book genre? Oh and what's with all the out of place jokes killing much of the dramatic momentum. There was a concluding sequence where the protagonist and antagonist yelled childlike insults back and forth to each other (as shrunken human beings). I gotta confess, it was a laughable run-in that kind of made me wonder.

The story, which takes place monotonously in present day, subjugates thief and chronically absent father, Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd who can't shake his romcom persona thereby staying in his acting comfort zone). He's been in and out of jail, he has no job (despite being college-educated), and his daughter is watched over by his ex-wife and her jerk husband (Bobby Cannavale as Paxton. His character is well, a cop. Ouch.). When he's arrested for the umpteenth time, he's taken out of the slammer (I won't reveal how) and tapped to work for a scientist named Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Pym wants him to put on a suit, a suit which will allow him to shrink down to something the size of a penny. Here's where the ant species come into play: Lang learns to communicate with them via the guidance of the Douglas personality. They begin to act like humans and they help him steal government secrets from Pym's mentor who's also in the shrinking business (Darren Cross played by Corey Stoll). There's a robbery at a heavily secured building and as expected, chaos ensues with Rudd's Lang kicking some serious butt (I'm thinking it wasn't Pauly despite his buff physique. Come on, you knew a stuntman had to be wearing that shiny suit).

Now the strongest performance here, in fact comes from Stoll. He channels the obligatory archenemy. He underplays it with just the right amount of smarmy and slimy. When he executes a co-worker turning him into nothing but liquidity in a tissue, you squirm in your seat and know that he means business.

All in all, despite some eclectic, fistfight concatenations and a heist factor that is carried off with veritable aplomb, Ant-Man seems so small scale compared to other Marvel Studios films. I'm not saying that's a bad thing but the more you watch it, the more you forget that anything is really at stake (stuff like you know, the saving of the world or the fate of mankind hanging in the balance). There were moments to be had but it didn't possess the "ant"idote I was looking for. My rating: 2 and a half stars.

Of note: So OK, as I viewed Ant-Man, I kept thinking to myself, "this feels like a Disney movie". Well I checked the film's wiki page and it turns out I was half-right. I mean it's not a Disney vehicle per se but it is distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Wow, you could have fooled me. This so-called Disney discern was not what I was hoping for and it came off as totally unexpected. Bummer. Also, I left during "Ant's" closing credits (after a midday screening) and was told that I missed an extended ending. If you the reader, end up seeing the flick, feel free to comment and let me know if it made things any better.

Written by Jesse Burleson

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Trainwreck 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

TrainwreckDirector: Judd Apatow
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson

OK. So I've made some observations about 2015's Trainwreck (my latest review). Note to the movie itself: Bravo on the most dead-on walk of shame sequence to ever grace the silver screen. Note to LeBron James and John Cena: You guys are the top tier in your sport (NBA basketball and WWE wrestling respectively) but your acting still needs a little work. John, I'm not sure if it's the dialogue you've been saddled with or your improvised line delivery, but you come off as unfunny while everything you say seems relatively cogent. Note to Amar'e Stoudemire: You aren't really an actor either but your cameo in "Wreck" (with hardly any lines) outshines James and Cena profusely. I'm not saying you're Lawrence Olivier but keep up the good work. Note to the New York Knicks organization: Just because you are talked up in this flick doesn't mean we as an audience, don't know that your team is still kind of in the crapper. Finally, note to director Judd Apatow: We know you like the concept of raunchiness (you speak of it in interviews) but you need to hire a screenwriter who doesn't let said raunchy scenes get out of control while dragging on too long. People don't interact with a vulgar nature in every adult situation (especially during funerals, baby showers, and professional business meetings) and believable sex scenes don't involve one party being fully clothed. Now granted, Trainwreck is your latest release, it's gonna make a lot of money (I could tell from an opening day screening), and I give you credit for turning virtual unknowns into leading men and woman (Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, and currently, Amy Schumer). For me though, this is a mixed bag. And I shed a tear knowing that it could have been so much better.

Now as a vehicle, Trainwreck involves a thirty-year old woman who sleeps around until finally finding the man of her dreams. In the cannon of Apatow's filmography, it's a step below 2007's Knocked Up and 2012's This Is 40 (both of these films were funnier, seemed like they had more of a script, and didn't strain for comic transgression). "Wreck" is more on par with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, an exercise that doesn't equal a movie so much as a series of drawn-out, earthy scenes. Yeah its story is more coherent but it's improv to the max and overlong (an Apatow affidavit). As for the courtship between its characters being Schumer's Amy and Bill Hader's Aaron Conners (a big time sports doctor and said dream guy), well it's simply not believable. These people are polar opposites and there's no evidence to say that they could ever function as a couple (despite giving them a two hour running time to prove it). (Spoiler Alert) oh and did I mention the ending? Well it's faintly predictable (you just knew these crazy kids would end up together). To my dismay though, I was surprised by how unique it was (just think cheerleaders dancing at Madison Square Garden). All of this in the end, doesn't negate Apatow from being Apatow. He would rather have his cast members talking like perverted sheep than showing some unadulterated emotion. He likes everything ostentatious but I wish he would just grow up.

In conclusion, I was surprised by how deep Trainwreck tried to project itself (don't let the trailer fool you). This is not necessarily a comedy (especially towards the second and third act). It deals with depression, death in the family, drug use, and of course, promiscuity (which actually just occurs in the first half-hour or so). For what it's worth, Amy Schumer is the best thing going for it. Her character is real, multilayered, and has issues. Her performance here deserves a better movie, one with an actual script and not ad libs. As an actress, she's likable, strangely attractive, and backed up with some good supporting work (Brie Larson as Amy's sister, acts with her eyes, and as usual, is solid). However, this numbing movie is indeed, a "trainwreck". Apatow like in Knocked Up (remember the scene a la a baby coming out of the womb), wants to gross you out with close-ups of someone getting stitches and a flask knee getting operating on graphically (to the Billy Joel jam, "Uptown Girl"). He's the frat boy version of John Waters, a real jester.

Of note: Trainwreck didn't pulverize me with its negligible, comedic vibe but I chuckled threefold. You have Amy Schumer's narration which is unconventional in a sense yet totally humorous. There's also a cameo-laden sequence involving Matthew Broderick, Chris Evert, and Marv Albert. It had to do with some sort of intervention (Evert says the word c**kblocker, I'm not kidding). Finally, look for a scene where Aims walks on a treadmill and has her body type plastered via a large computer screen. It's crazy sexy cool and sort of reinvents the whole "Hitler" strut (I felt squeamish but still laughed nervously).

Written by Jesse Burleson

Monday, July 13, 2015

Minions 2015 * * 1/2 Stars

MinionsDirectors: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda
Year: 2015
Rated PG
Rating: * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton

I'm not a father but I have a niece and three nephews. Over the years, I've learned that if you plop them in front of a television set and turn on anything cartoon-related, they become spellbound. They stop all the jibber jabber, they tune the adults (and each other) out, and basically stare straight forward. In context, everyone under the age of 6 gets into the zone. Minions, which currently seems to be hauling in monster box office receipts, is the type of animated film that will provide youngins with this sort of childlike fix. It's beautiful to look at with 3D effects that start off robust and strong. And let's face it, what adolescent doesn't like main characters who are goofy and look like Tic Tacs containing a flavor that can't be identified yet.

But wait. What about the adults that have to accompany said kids due to the flick's MPAA rating and their overall concept of necessitated supervision? Well, they might find things unfocused and undisciplined. I'm mean sure you have a fresh and original sense of time and place (the late 1960's to be exact), a rugged, arena rock soundtrack (with tunes by The Who, The Rolling Stones, and The Spencer Davis Group), and of course, some suggestive PG-rated, adult humor. But no amount of this upbringing could ever keep you, the adult, from having your patience tested (I know mine was). At the half hour mark, I found Minions as creatures, to be quite annoying. They spoke in a language that I couldn't understand (I heard it was a hint of Spanish, whatever) and in all honesty, they needed some serious anxiety medication. As the end credits rolled I thought to myself, why couldn't the descendants of Despicable Me fame make this decade of discontent a little more groovier man. Oh well.

Slated as a prequel to the Despicable Me film series (mentioned one sentence ago) and featuring the voice-over work of Micheal Keaton (he must have done a heck of an accent because I couldn't identify who his character was), Minions begins a long time ago (we're talking the dinosaur period). These things obviously don't age and carry that Forest Gumpian gene. They've seen it all, done it all, and even manage to kill Napoleon. Now they need a new leader. Their solution: Go to New York City circa 1968 and befriend a supervillain named Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock). That's the gist here and I dare you to follow verbatim, the actual plot points presented. I myself, drifted into a monotonous frenzy while throwing my hands way up in the air (there seemed to be a lot of globetrotting going on with these energetic, cuddly varmints. The only thing I ended up focusing on was if they had one eye or two).

In conclusion, Minions has a visual richness and a canvas containing hundreds of pixels (in many a frame). However, it's unnecessarily feverish, incoherent, and messy. As you watch it, you forget that you're following a story and instead, you see various scenes at random. Frankly, it's hard to get a handle on the plot threads if it weren't for a narrative device in the first ten minutes and one in the last fifteen. I categorize this close-up fest as an animated version of Frank Zappa's 200 Motels (1971) and denounce it as possibly the first true stoner flick since The Beatles cartoon vehicle, Yellow Submarine. Does that mean that these proceedings are recommendable? Hardly. In truth, I've never seen the movies that spawned this 2015 release (Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2). And according to my fellow critic (and near-adult colleague, Cole Pollyea), you're better off checking out those endeavors instead. However, if you choose to take the kiddies to Minions, be warned. They'll eat it up (it's safe to say that little ones won't care one iota about the plot) while you'll be anxiously waiting for the closing curtain. The result: A mixed review from me at 2 and a half stars.

Of note: The one word spoken by the Minions that translated into anything English, was "banana". It turned into a zinger that generated a small chuckle from my end. Everything else was total gibberish (that includes the whole running time of ninety-one minutes).

Written by Jesse Burleson

Friday, July 3, 2015

Terminator Genisys 2015 * * Stars

Terminator GenisysDirector: Alan Taylor
Year: 2015
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * Stars
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke

It's hard to figure out who's playing John Connor these days (the seminal character from the Terminator franchise). We're talking four films and four different actors who look nothing alike. You have Edward Furlong from T2 (he's still working but I haven't noticed), Nick Stahl from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (lately he's been procreating the rehab thing), Christian Bale from Terminator Salvation (here's a movie mogul who's already too big for his britches), and now Jason Clarke from Terminator Genisys (my latest review). Frankly, the casting directors seem to have been working overtime and now I've gotten to the point where I could care less. As for the plot workings of every Terminator casing, I get it. Skynet needs to fall, Judgement Day needs to be stopped, Sarah Connor needs to be protected, yada yada yada. Honestly, I just wanna see action, Arnold with his prickly one-liners and yes, more action. "Genisys" sadly, is more of a time traveling undertaking than anything else. And as far as those types go, the complicated ones just make my head hurt and my you know what itch. Yeesh!

Now I get a lot of flak for this, but my favorite installment in this heralded film franchise has always been Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (followed by the first two outings from 84' and 91'). It's the least complicated, has the tightest editing, contains the foxiest villain (T-X played by Kristanna Loken), and oh what a chase sequence (complete with the destruction of marked police cars, semi-trucks, and deluxe motorcycles). It's a popcorn flick and something you view during the opening days of summer. Terminator Genisys on the other hand, comes off as a watered-down version of everything doomsday. What's on screen is about as worthy as 2009's Terminator Salivation (mentioned earlier) and that can't be good.

Anyway, I'm not predicting the future here (a huge topic concerning any synthetic intelligence exercise) but you gotta wonder how Terminator Genisys would do at the box office minus Arnold Schwarzenegger. I'm thinking it would not break even or just veer towards direct-to-video territory. Granted, this is Terminator as choppy, tedious art film fodder. The performances (featuring actors/actresses Jai Courtney, Emilia Clarke, and J.K. Simmons) aren't entirely compelling, the film score adds no element of darkness or despair, and the action scenes (of the bloodless, PG-13 variety) seem prosaic as ever. I will say though that director Alan Taylor effectively channels his inner Transcendence (2014). A lot of special effects shots give off a serious whiff of all things graphite and glitter (no pun intended on the Donald Fagen ditty, "I.G.Y.").

All in all, I would skip this 2015 release and just stick to the essentials (Terminators 1, 2, and 3). And if you decide to retaliate on my review and waste your $10, watch for Arnie blurting out his signature gab, "I'll be back". You'll exit the theater thinking why and how that could effectively be possible.

Of note: (Spoiler alert) the biggest thing that irked me about "Genisys" was how it contained scenes altering various occurrences in 1984's The Terminator. You have Arnold's T-800 being eliminated early on with pretty much just one gunshot (please). As intimidating and devastating as his monster was in the classic original, this is nothing but a pure insult to any fan of the franchise. Also, the iconic Sarah Connor (now played by Emilia Clarke) is not a waitress in 1984. Instead, she's a soldier predetermined with an itchy trigger finger. Clarke though, sadly fails to resemble any sort of badassery that Linda Hamilton showed later on in the series.

Written by Jesse Burleson