Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Olympus Has Fallen: “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” is a Missed Opa!-tunity

Ugh, more like “My Big Fat Greek Trainwreck.” Now the nostalgia reaper has come to claim the souls of middle-aged book clubbers who who could care less about brooding caped crusaders. Of course, one doesn't need to be 50-something to enjoy the irresistible charm of the cloying but lovable Portokalos family introduced fourteen years ago in the indie (but Tom Hanks-backed) big fat smash hit “My Big Fat Big Greek Wedding.” I, like many American moviegoers, fell in love with it. It certainly wasn't the most original movie to ever come along but somehow it's innocence and honesty and wittiness in portraying a woman's struggle to find herself in a sea of her gigantic clingy ethnic family was universally relateable. Even if you weren't specifically Greek you easily saw yourself surrounded by your equally gigantic clingy family whether it be Jewish, Italian or [insert other borderline stereotypical ethnicity here]. It was harmless fun.

Harmless fun is what I'm sure screenwriter/actress Nia Vardalos had in mind with the long-awaited (for some I guess?) sequel unimaginatively titled “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.” Fortunately, the entire cast returns. Like everyone, really. Unfortunately, Vardalos, even in fourteen years doesn't quite manage for anything all that interesting for these people to do. And even if they were sort of ethnically stereotypical the firs time, they've been upgraded to practically Looney Tunes characters. Not to mention that many of them haven't quite aged very well. I'm no fitness expert but many of them certainly have the fat part down.

The film picks up fourteen years after the last film and Toula (Vardalos) and Ian (John Corbett) are preparing for their teenage daughter Paris to select a college. Toula, even though she was the free-thinking black sheep who had her own Cinderella story the first time around has become just as clingy and annoying has her parents. Her marriage also seems to be on the rocks for reasons the script doesn't quite explain. More annoyingly is the film's central plotline which involves her parents Gus (Michael Constantine) and Maria (Lainie Kazan) not actually being married because the priest never signed their marriage certificate.

I appreciate Vardalos giving the elder actors meaty roles in a day and age when everything must be young and flashy and of a certain marketable demographic but both actors seem to have seen better days and don't quite have the same comedic timing they had the first time around. The rest of the actors you remember show up here as well with not all that much to do except mug for the camera. The first film's MVP Andrea Martin as Aunt Voula doesn't get as many funny lines even when she's discussing all her strange bodily aliments (As a side note, can we get a "My Cousin Vinny" spin-off in which Martin plays Mona Lisa Vito's mother, please?) Martin really tries to sell it. The bland sitcom-like direction from Kirk Jones certainly doesn't do her any favors. Even the film's technical merits feel lazy and uninspired.

It's obvious Vardalos really cherishes being Greek and wants to share her experiences with filmgoers. It's ripe material that was handled well the first time around. It's also abundantly clear that she favors progressiveness hence why her character arch from the first film was so memorable if predictable. She displays a little bit more of that ideology with the revelation of a certain male character who randomly comes out of the closet. It's a brief subplot (among others involving Alexander the Great and the dangers of bathtubs) but wouldn't the film be more interesting, unexpected, and fresh had the film revolved around this big fat Greek nuptial instead? The movie already relies on mildly offensive ethnic stereotypes, why not throw in some gay ones as well?

It's sort of obvious that, in the end, a sequel to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was not even a good idea in the first place. But geez this family is oh-so-lovable, for the most part. However, even the spin-off/sequel TV sitcom barely lasted seven episodes on CBS back in 2003. You don't remember it? Neither do I. The first film wasn't exactly a beacon of originality or quality cinema but it was magical, harmless fun. It made you feel happy. And like the greatest movie comedies, endlessly quotable. It's obvious here that you can't quite capture lightning in a bottle twice, even if it's big, fat, and Greek.  GRADE: C- 

Trailer for My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Capes of Wrath: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is Heavily Flawed but Far From Terrible

What was it that Taylor Swift once said? Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate? One can not simply ignore how exciting the anticipation could be for a feature film to finally feature both iconic superheroes Batman and Superman. Judging from the relatively lackluster marketing campaign and the somewhat *shrug* reception of 2013's “Man of Steel” you can't really call “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” a disappointment. After all the backlash after Ben Affleck was cast as Batman which got me excited because of ya know, his recent filmography hasn't been ya know terrible: "The Town," "Gone Girl," oh and Best Picture winner "Argo." So it is with mild expectations I went into this battle royale of comic book movie event films and not surprisingly I was met with mild results. The film is a far cry from the bottom-of-the-barrel comic book offerings. This isn't “Batman & Robin” of course. But it't not top tier stuff either: it's simply middle of the road entertainment, plays things safe, even if it offers some plot developments that sort of surprised me (since I haven't read these comics).

It must be noted that the film's run-time is long. Yes, too long. A lot of stuff is crammed into those 151 minutes. Too much stuff I'd say. There are lots of characters introduced, most rather well, though not much too interesting happens to them as the film progresses. I had high hopes when I heard Oscar winning “Argo” screenwriter Chris Terrio was involved (along with perennial comic book film screenwriter David S. Goyer). He injects the film with a needed boost of oomph and I enjoyed some of the twists the story took but overall this feels a little too self serious and lacks any sort of humor or comic relief. The movie doesn't really feel “fun” and lacks a rooting factor that was so present in the Christopher Nolan Batman films (and yet we all know how that trilogy was the Kocoum of superhero films).

It must be said that one of the strengths of the film is actually in its casting. Have there ever been so many Oscar nominated and winning thespians in a superhero film? (For the record, I counted seven). Say what you want about Ben Affleck. Go ahead, even call him Batfleck if you want. The guy is actually a really good Bruce Wayne/Batman. And even though we've seen Batman (and his “origin”) a million times on screen, they certainly do something different with the character. Everyone knows Wonder Woman shows up here as well and she's pretty awesome. I also think Henry Cavill, even if he's not exactly Mr. Personality makes a fine Man of Steel. Jesse Eisenberg hams it up as Lex Lurthor (whose character and motivations I never really understood).

The writers even attempt to concoct a decent reason why Batman and Superman would be fighting in the first place. You remember the end of “Man of Steel” when Superman managed to damage half of Metropolis and probably kill thousands of people while fighting Zod? That has something to do with it. I would have liked to see more of Superman actually being Superman and saving people. And what about that internal struggle for Clark Kent to constantly deal with being in two places at once? Director Zack Snyder, who sort of feels like a Michael Bay wannabe, is much more interested in the spectacle though he actually sort of tones down his questionable desaturated color palette. Yes the film is practically nonstop bombastic and unmemorable action. And that's too bad because having Batman and Superman in the same movie feels like such a big deal, but the movie doesn't quite capture awesomeness of that idea. Though it must be said that I was genuinely surprised the cajones involved with the final act development that I didn't see coming because, like I said, I have never read any Superman comics especially the one that influenced the film's ending. I kind of admired it.

If you find the advertisements for “Batman v Superman” to be mediocre at best, then you will probably have the same experience watching the film. Yes the film is long, I was never excruciatingly bored but there just seems to be so much going on (and plenty of setup for the next set of DC films) that fails to be completely compelling. The actors are good with what they're given and the film does offer a few surprising twists but the film doesn't make you feel the sense of wonder or excitement one tends to get with these big budget event movies. I cannot simply dismiss the film as terrible knowing there are truly horrific comic book movies that exists like “Batman & Robin,” “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” “Green Lantern,” “Catwoman,” “Fantastic Four” (any of them), “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” “Howard the Duck.” Go ahead, tell me that “Batman v Superman” is worse than any of those.  GRADE: B-

Trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Hare Force One: “Zootopia” is a Timely & Delightful Animated Buddy Cop Comedy

You have to hand it do Disney Animation Studios as of late. Some may decry they're far from their early 90s heyday but they have been making some terrific strides when it comes to animated films and have certainly given Pixar's crop a run for their money. You also have to admire their originality, they haven't even produced a sequel in years and not content on just making singing princess movies (though they're sometimes into that too). “Zootopia” is no exception; it's an exquisitely animated and fun buddy cop comedy with a surprisingly amount of emotional depth one may not necessarily expect from it's mostly silly marketing campaign.

The film's clever concept involves a world in which animals have evolved into modern society like humans. While walking and talking animals is certainly nothing new when it comes to Disney movies, the film's plot is certainly something we haven't seen before in animated form: buddy cop comedy. We're introduced to a bunny named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) who has always longed to be a police officer. Of course, those around her including her family always tend to laugh it off as tiny bunnies aren't known for being cops. Not content on being a carrot farmer Judy attends the police academy and eventually becomes the first bunny to become a cop in the big city known as Zootopia, a melting pot of various animal species living in harmony. On her first day she's met with plenty of skepticism and she's assigned meter maid duties. It's not long before she reluctantly teams up with a sly con artist fox named Nick (Jason Bateman) to uncover a stream of crimes involving local missing animals. To say much more, like most films, would ruin the fun.

Long story short, “Zootopia” is one of the more interesting surprises in quite some time. The film is refreshingly funny. The film's script does rely on witty animal “stereotypes” like sloths being slow so they obviously run the DMV. What's most surprising, besides how well the film succeeds on a pure entertainment level, is how much the movie has to say about society in general. The film isn't very subtle, with it's hints at prejudice and racism, but neither was George Orwell's animal allegory “Animal Farm.”

“Zootopia's” jovial mix of state-of-the-art animation, silly comedy, and social commentary is rather impressive. The characters are interesting, the writing is crisp and funny, and the film's noir-like mystery ranks it up there with the likes of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” That film also starred a bunny, coincidence?  GRADE: A-  

Feature Trailer for Zootopia on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Bunker Thrill: “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a Perfectly Unnerving Thriller

You don't quite know what you're getting into when you watch “10 Cloverfield Lane.” The marketing has been almost perfect for this film. Is it really a sequel to the hand-held camera monster mash “Cloverfield?” You'll have to see it yourself to find out. The trailers are extremely vague but offer a few bits of story. It seem as though a young man and woman are being held in an underground bunker by a crazy guy who insists that there's been some kind of attack above that has rendered the air unbreathable. The film is fascinating and strange and offers top-notch suspense as you never quite know what the filmmakers are up to and what's gonna happen next.

If you've heard “10 Cloverfield Lane” is related to “Cloverfield” you'd be right and wrong. The film's couldn't be more different in style and execution, but the movies feel like they occupy the same purpose: to offer a supreme sense of dread and keep the audience in suspense. “Cloverfield” was a movie about a group of young people celebrating a friend who was going away and became a monster movie. This film feels more like “'Misery' in an underground bunker.” Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle. In the film's opening sequence she's seen packing up and hurriedly leaving her apartment while she ignores calls from her boyfriend. She's suddenly in a car accident and then wakes up with a gash on her head and an IV in her arm. Oh, and she's chained to a wall (No, Samuel L. Jackson from “Black Snake Moan” is nowhere to be seen). There's the creepy Howard (John Goodman, simply chilling), who apparently saved her life, and a younger guy named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) who share the underground bunker she finds herself in. To say any more would be a disservice to anyone even remotely interested in seeing the film.

The movie is directed by Dan Trachtenberg, in his feature film directorial debut, and what an incredible film debut it is. He offers the perfect mix of suspense and just plain weirdness (and some fun musical choices). It helps that the script from Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Whiplash's Damien Chazelle oozes with twists and turns which always keep the audience on its toes (including a disturbingly intense scene involving an air vent). You never really know where this thing is going or what we're even really seeing. Things all come to a head in a slam-bang finale that pulls the rug right out from under you.

Simply put, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is an engaging, claustrophobic exercise in suspense. Goodman's work here is extremely fascinating and complex; he really lets out his inner Annie Wilkes. Winstead and Gallagher are also in fine form. The film really ratchets up the tension as it progresses and offers lots of fun surprises and plenty of dread. You shouldn't really expect a direct sequel to “Cloverfield” and that's either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your views of that film (I loved both). There certainly isn't anything else quite like “10 Cloverfield Lane.”  GRADE: A-

Trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane on TrailerAddict.