Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Porn Identity: Shane Black's “The Nice Guys” Finishes First

Those who complain that Hollywood no longer makes outstanding movies geared towards adults haven't seen “The Nice Guys.” How does one even describe “The Nice Guys?” It's buddy comedy. It's a film noir. It's a trashy porn-themed crime drama. It's even a cute story about a father and daughter. By my count that's four films for the price of one. And it's worth every penny.

Russell Crowe feels like a far cry from his usual epic action fair here in this story about two private hires who team up to solve the suspicious death of a porn star in seedy 1970s LA. The film is dripping with personality, style, and a deliciously absurd sense of humor. And no wonder because it comes from Shane Black the director of cult favorite “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and Marvel actioner “Iron Man 3.”

Crowe is joined onscreen by Ryan Gosling who is such popular movie star it's hard to remember how much of a standout actor he really is. He's perfectly cast here as Holland March a boozy private investigator who comes face to face with enforcer Jackson Healy (Crowe) who insists March stop investigating the disappearance of a woman named Amelia. But since this is seedy 1970s LA there are bad guys everywhere and soon they have to reluctantly team up to solve a crazy mystery involving amateur pornography and the auto industry.

This is one of those movies where the script practically drips with originality and yet you see the cinematic nods that have heavily influenced it. Black (and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi) have crafted such a fun, demented script full of surprises and colorful characters. The direction is solid; Black keeps things moving and you never quite know where things are going. I never lived in LA let alone in the 1970s but the film feels authentic; especially John Ottman's swanky 70s-esque score. The chemistry between the actors, especially Crowe and Gosling, is simply dynamite. And as dark and violent as the film can be there is a surprising sweetness to it in the form of the relationship between Gosling and his onscreen daughter played wonderfully by Angourie Rice.

“The Nice Guys” was truly a delight from start to finish. It has a fun, twisted plot, fantastic performances by actors playing memorable characters, and stylish direction from the always reliable Shane Black. This is the summer movie that adults will love, especially those sick of sequels, reboots, and caped crusaders (though I'm personally not quite sick of any of those).  GRADE: A-

Feature Trailer for The Nice Guys on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Age of Apocalypse: The Decent “X-Men: Apocalypse” is Middle-of-the-Road X-Men

Put simply, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is an average X-Men outing. It's not really as good as the best of the franchise but it's better than the terrible ones. However, in today's golden age of comic book films average may not quite be enough. Moviegoers are being bombarded with superhero stories on the big screen – many of which are very good – and others are simply cash grabs or big ol' messes. Even though Fox has gone to the X-Men well probably more than it should have (there have been eight films including some form of these characters, 9 if you include the superior “Deadpool”), but I appreciate what they have been trying to accomplish with this prequel series of X-Men films. Each one has its own personality. “First Class” was a fun 60s style espionage thriller, “Days of Future Past” was a fun time travel sci-fi extravaganza, and “Apocalypse” feels like it's supposed to be an Irwin Allen disaster film but the film fails to give us much of what makes those movies so fun, though it has even good moments to help it rise above the worst of the bunch.

First of all, any “X-Men” film with a standout Quicksilver sequence makes it instantly worth seeing. Luckily, “Apocalypse” uses this character, played wonderfully again by Evan Peters, in a fun way and he simply adds a lot of fun to what is ultimately a sort of dour chapter. The film begins ala “The Mummy” in the BC era where Apocalypse, supposedly the world's first mutant, is about to transfer himself to a new body. It goes wrong and he lays dormant until he's brought back in 1983 when the film takes place. Apocalypse, played by Oscar Isaac underneath lots of blue make-up, is sort of a dull villain compared to what the X-Men franchise usually provides. Even his threat of total planet destruction feels underwhelming as you never quite feel anything that bad is going to happen.

Luckily, the film finally introduces us to younger versions of previously established X-Men characters. Cyclopse (Tye Sheriden), Nighcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and to lesser excitement Storm (Alexandra Shipp) who becomes one of Apocalypse’s unwitting followers. Angel (Ben Hardy) is yet again practically pushed to the background this time around with Pyslocke (Oliva Munn looking like she lost a bet most of the time). Jubliee is there but you'd never know since she's never actually named on screen. Some of the other favorites like Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and Charlies Xavier (James McAvoy) are around as well, but most of them look like the material is beneath them. And obviously it is, these actors are big stars now and feel almost embarrassed to be starring in one of the weaker X-Men scripts. It's a shame Simon Kinberg couldn't make the stakes a little higher or get all the characters more interesting things to do. The film's weakest link is it's third act; everything leading up to it was completely watchable. The biggest surprise of all is Bryan Singer, who arguably has delivered the best X-Men films, but here seems to be going through the motions.

To be fair, I was never actually bored during the film's 144 minutes. The film is lightweight, fun, and has enough good moments to make it worth seeing. Unfortunately, when compared to what's come before in both the X-Men universe and other comic book films (ie “CaptainAmerica”) it's hard not to see the flaws staring us in the face here.  GRADE: B-

Feature Trailer for X-Men: Apocalypse on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Nu Nightmare: “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” is a Terrifically Raunchy Follow-Up

“Neighbors” was a funny movie. It finally proved the comedic chops of Zac Efron and he and funnyman Seth Rogen made a delightfully dynamic onscreen comedy duo (much like the genius pairing of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in “21 Jump Street”). It’s natural for Universal to keep the comedy going in this inevitable and borderline unnecessary sequel; the good news, however, is that it thankfully doesn’t suck. It sucks very little in fact. Of course it adheres to the time old tradition of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They break out a lot the same jokes that were funny the first time and are actually still funny the second time. There’s plenty of new material too though. This time the lovely Radners (Rogen and borderline comedic goddess Rose Byrne)  must team up with their archenemies Teddy (Efron) to destroy the new sorority who has just moved in next door so that they can successfully sell their home. It’s a lot of the same raunchy shenanigans but with more bloody tampons.

As the film begins we check back in with Marc and Kelly Radner who find out they’re pregnant with their second child. Their first baby Stella is now a little toddler whose fondness for her mother’s vibrator is one of the film’s most delightfully dirty gags. Marc and Kelly are on the brink of selling their house and moving to a quieter neighborhood. However, their realtor informs them they’re in escrow, meaning their potential buyers have 30 days to reject their offer. Unlucky for them a new sorority has been formed by new college freshman Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) after finding out the sorority she planned to rush can’t throw their own parties. She rents the house next to the Radners on the advice of Teddy who just can’t seem to grow up (or get a decent job). His friend’s lives are flourishing with the announcement of his best friend Pete’s engagement (who is now proudly gay). Teddy soon becomes Kappa Nu’s mentor since being a frat guy is the only live skill he’s learned in four years at college. But after the girls reject the smothering Teddy he vows vengeance and switches sides and aligns with his former enemies the Radners.

Nicholas Stoller’s “Neighbors 2” is one of those sequels that changes very little of the formula from the first time around and it mostly works. The writers (all five of them dudes) inject a little feminist empowerment (I think?) this time around by showing girls can be just as raunchy as men (which was basically the point of the Anna Farris comedy “The House Bunny” but way less successful). They do make a good point about sororities not being allowed to throw their own parties, but I doubt is a real thing, and I’m not going to justify it by even looking it up. However, they do make a good point in that they can throw a kick-ass party with drinking and drugs without needing to act like sluts or practically sell themselves to guys. Sure it’s sketchy at best but you have to admire the filmmakers’ attempt at political correctness. After all, besides a brief encounter with the girls in bikinis and Kelly’s garden hose, Efron’s flesh seems more on display here than the women’s. There’s literally a scene where Efron is rubbed with a greasy piece of meat before showing off “Magic Mike” moves. This is an equal opportunity kind of raunch fest.

The bottom line is that is you found the first movie funny then surely you’ll find this one hilarious as well. Byrne and Rogen are enjoyable as always and Efron gets to show off more than his eight pack throughout. The film even gets to say a lot more about growing up, making something of yourself, and finding your place in the world. You can easily identify with the characters whether it’s the freshmen girls, Teddy’s hesitancy to grow up, or Kelly and Marc questioning whether or not they’re good parents. After all, a comedy with progressive ideals and Cosby rape jokes isn’t that bad in my opinion.  GRADE: B 

Trailer for Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Perfect Storm: Why “Twister” is My Favorite Disaster Movie of All Time

Picture it, May 10th, 1996. There was so much going on that day. I was twelve years old. It was a year to the day that I saw my first Broadway show “The Phantom of the Opera.” And I’m always able to remember my friend Amanda’s birthday because it’s the same day that the movie “Twister” opened up in theaters. As my older sister got ready to attend her boyfriend’s prom I was getting ready to experience what would soon become my favorite movie, like, ever. I had seen all those windblown TV spots about “that tornado movie” from the people who made “Speed” and “Jurassic Park.” Apparently a fast bus plus dinosaurs equals tornado movie success. It certainly worked for me. My dad took me that evening to see “Twister” and it was such an enthralling, exciting experience I’ve literally never forgotten it. Sure I had seen plenty of movies in the theater at that point; I mean I was at the ripe old age of 12. I remember seeing typical kid fare like “The Little Mermaid,” “The Wizard,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “The Sandlot,” etc. I felt like a major leaguer when I saw the terrifying “Jurassic Park” in 1993 and was never the same since. But something about my experience with “Twister” formed my bond with the movie going experience that has remained to this day. It was literally the coolest thing I had ever seen that didn't involve dinosaurs. Oh did I mention that I was also obsessed with the weather?

My dad always says how his love of baseball started when his mom took him to his first baseball game. I find the comparison here works in much the same way. At that point in my life I wanted to be a meteorologist when I grew up. I has an unnatural obsession with The Weather Channel. I tuned into the Tropical Report every hour at 49 minutes after the hour as I was mostly fascinated by storms be they hurricanes or tornadoes. When Hurricane Bob hit the northeast in 1991 I was mildly disappointed that Connecticut didn’t get the brunt of the storm and I had to settle for rain and trees that easily withstood the wind. I think a little part of me wanted the roof to blow off or something. And since I lived in New England the odds of seeing the fascinating tornado phenomenon was pretty much nonexistent. Perhaps one day there’d be a tornado-related disaster movie?

By 1996 I was pretty sure that I really loved movies (especially since I got hooked on the Video Movie Guide which was my cinematic bible until it ceased publication in 2005). When I heard about “Twister,” how ever that may have been in the days before the internet really took off, I was pretty excited to see an action movie that was all about tornadoes. (To show how much I loved anything about tornadoes and hurricanes I also was also previously obsessed with a TV movie earlier that year that aired on The Family Channel called “Night of the Twisters” and who could forget that 1993 TV movie about Hurricane Andrew called “Triumph Over Disaster: The Hurricane Andrew Story” starring the dad from “Blossom” and Lambert from “Alien;” the less said about the Twister-cash-in rip-off “Tornado!” the better, but I still watched it). I recall reading the reviews for “Twister” before the movie came out and was disappointed in the critical drubbing the film took; Siskel and Ebert hated it, though the USA Today liked it. How the film critic from the Connecticut Post could give the film a negative review was unfathomable to me at the time. While I didn’t really follow many film critics at the time I do recall some referring to the movie has having “a stupid plot” or “dumb characters.” Sure, they were technically right on the money but they weren’t a twelve year old kid who was obsessed with weather. So, after seeing my sister off to the prom, my dad whisked me away to the local theater to watch “Twister” on opening night. The theater was packed, I was ecstatic, and I’ve never been the same since.

It was a riveting experience. It was exciting, scary, intense, funny. I didn’t even care that the threadbare plot was essentially about an estranged husband and wife trying to sign divorce papers. It was obviously the tornado sequences that I really cared about. And that flying cow obviously. “Twister” took a page from “Jaws,” as many films do, by showing very little at first and slowly revealing the power of these fascinating whirlwinds of destruction. Each tornado was bigger and more intense than the last (with jaw-dropping computer effects that rightfully earned an Oscar nomination). Director Jan de Bond staged each one perfectly giving each sequence – and each twister – a distinct personality, more so than the characters according to some. And let’s not forget the crazy finale in which our hapless heroes strap themselves to pipes with leather belts and manage to survive the suck zone of an F5 tornado. It’s that old adage that if you can reel in a viewer early on with something outlandish they’ll believe anything is possible by the time the ending rolls around. It was utterly ridiculous and epic.

I had this poster on my bedroom wall all the way through college
I loved every freaking minute of it and I’ve been obsessed with the film ever since. When I got an awesome Twister poster from the local video store I remember thinking my life couldn’t possibly get any better. In middle school, I recall watching it on a band bus ride to play at the Republican National Convention right after it came out on VHS. I distinctly remember asking my band director, “Is this the bus that’s gonna be watching Twister?” I watched it over and over again on home video. I even recall buying the tape the night BEFORE its release date. I was at Wal-Mart and asked an employee if they had “Twister” (even though I knew it was coming out the next day) and the guy actually brought one out from the back for me. I was never happier, except for maybe the aforementioned poster score. I obviously had to eventually have it on DVD. And then on Blu-ray in May of 2008, roughly twelve years after its theatrical debut; the exact same age I was when I first experienced “The Finger of God.” I finally got to experience the Universal Studios Florida attraction “Twister... Ride It Out” (RIP) a few years ago which was generally lame but still a requirement as a Twister fanatic.  And here we are now exactly twenty years since “Twister” first blew into theaters. My love of meteorology has waned but my love of “Twister” has remained.

The Dorothy prop as seen at Universal Studios
It’s easily remained one of my all-time favorite movies; though it’s the theatrical experience that always stays with me. The film still works on a variety of levels. The film’s musical score by Mark Mancina is a standout. I could listen to the soundtrack over and over again. And I have. If I’m ever driving by a wheat field it’s my go to choice. Also, somehow, Van Halen and mid-90s weather-related destruction made a heavenly pair. I love that the movie’s visual effects and sound still hold up to this day. If you want to show off your fancy surround equipment the “Twister” Blu-ray is your ticket. Even decades later I’m fascinated by all of the performances in the film. I love how obsessed Helen Hunt’s Jo is with tornados and how she shouts, “I WANNA SEE IT! I WANNT SEE IT!!” Ditto, Jo, ditto. The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman is a standout as the douchey wild man Dusty. His “suck zone” speech is famous, just like Aunt Meg’s gravy. My younger sister and I would even shout, “Food. FOOD. FOOOOD!” at my mom when we were hungry. Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt had amazing chemistry you could just as easily buy them as a bickering couple as you could a happily married couple. Tornados aren’t the only villain in the film – we also get perpetually slimy Cary Elwes as Jonas the leader of a corporate-backed rival storm chaser team. Jami Gertz has the misfortune of being the audience’s stand-in as the characters spout exposition and define scientific terms for her (and us). How else are you supposed to explain what the Fujita scale is when all the characters are storm chasers? In fact, the only thing really dated about the film is the fact that scientists now use the updated “Enhanced Fujita scale” as of 2007. I’m also amazed at one of the criticisms at the time involving the supposedly preposterous premise that so many tornados could form over a twenty four hour period in real life. Twenty years later I can’t turn on the news without seeing record tornado outbreaks daily.

Ok, I admit it. “Twister” isn’t really a good movie. It’s a completely competent summer blockbuster and represents a time when summer blockbusters weren’t all about franchise building and sequels. The film, however, was practically forgotten about once “Independence Day” became a phenomenon just two months later. But I have a particular affinity for the disaster genre and “Twister” just fits the bill for me. It (along with that year’s “Daylight,” “ID4,” and the spoofy “Mars Attacks!”) also helped usher a brand new wave of disaster movies to American audiences now that computer generated imagery could produce bigger and more realistic destruction. Later we got things like “Dante’s Peak,” “Volcano,” “Titanic,” “Deep Impact,” “Armageddon,” to more recent fare like “2012,” “San Andreas,” and even the found footage tornado flick “Into the Storm.” Every year on May 10th I like to celebrate “Twister” because it thrilled me so much as a kid and it was something I really loved a lot and I enjoy honoring that. I pretty much know the film like the back of my hand. Though, it’s wise to not give nostalgia too much power because if I learned anything from “Twister” it’s that, “You gotta move on. Stop living in the past, and look what you got right in front of you!”

 How could you watch this trailer and not be psyched?

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Finding Zemo: “Captain America: Civil War” is Marvel Yet Again in Fine Form

Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Iron Man 1 & 3,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” are pretty much the epitome of the always nerdy sounding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some would say “The Avengers” is one of the best and while it’s completely serviceable, “Captain America: Civil War” feels like the definitive Avengers adventure. It’s been a long road getting here (“Civil War” is the thirteenth) but it was certainly worth the climb. “Civil War” is a Captain America film that finds several members of the Avengers split into two separate political factions. When the Avengers become government sanctioned it sends a rift between Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers and Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. For a comic book film with lots of characters, many of them introduced here for the first time, the film handles everything rather nicely and “Civil War” finds a nice pacing as it rages on for nearly two and a half hours of nerdy superhero fun.

If I’m being completely honest I think I prefer “The Winter Soldier” by a slight hair because its plot was so surprising since it essentially ended up being a superbly-crafted comic book conspiracy actioner that was heavily influenced by 1970s political thrillers. “Civil War” while it maintains much of the same entertainment value as “The Winter Soldier” doesn’t quite have as strong a personality or identity. It feels more like another “Avengers” film which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The film’s main villain takes the form of Daniel Brühl’s Helmut Zemo, who’s just a regular guy who seeks vengeance. Turns out he’s somewhat of an avenger himself: he’s hell-bent on destroying the Avengers for killing his family during the events of “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Also, William Hurt is the Secretary of State who introduces the Sokovia Accords a bill that would make the Avengers accountable and owned by the government. Captain America is severely against it but Iron Man agrees with it and insists they must all be held accountable. Cue the fighting.

Obviously, there’s a lot more going on here than just superheroes fighting each other. The film obviously has a lot to say about vigilantism and politics. It helps that the film has wondrously staged action sequences. Anthony and Joe Russo, who return from helming The Winter Soldier, really know what they’re doing here and provide plenty of spectacle. Sure, see the film for its glorious action set-pieces but stay for the great new character introductions. Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa a prince from Wakanda who shows up as the Black Panther as he’s also out for revenge. Even the web-head Spider-Man is finally introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as recruited by Tony Stark. Played here by The Impossible’s Tom Holland, the film takes the character back to his high school days and, and he does a great job of playing that smart-alecky teen who’s got something to say about everything. There are plenty of other familiar faces including Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen who get much more character development than in their last outing. And Cap’s friend-turned-mind-controlled-enemy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) returns to remind us that he’s becoming one of this saga’s most interesting characters. Something here that really got to me was the division between Rogers and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) since they played off each other so well in “The Winter Soldier.”

Anyone who found the “Avengers” films a bit bloated might find “Civil War” to be similar in that regard but it felt much more grounded in reality, fun, and significant than many of the films that came before it. The Captain America films have quickly become some of the most well respected comic book films which is saying something since these movies are being released seemingly every other week. “Civil War” doesn’t necessarily do anything that new or groundbreaking but it also seems to get everything right and has enough fun tricks up its sleeve, and at this point is all most of us can ask for.  GRADE: B+ 

Trailer for Captain America: Civil War on TrailerAddict.