THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018)

February 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Allowing three regular guys to play themselves in the cinematic re-telling of their courageous and heroic actions is a fitting tribute to the men, and it’s an approach that we must be willing to cut some slack. On August 21, 2015, a terrorist aboard the Thalys train bound for Paris was thwarted in his attempt to carry out his mission of evil. Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler ultimately subdued the terrorist (who won’t be named here), likely saving many lives.

The real world heroics fall right in line with director Clint Eastwood’s two most recent films, SULLY and AMERICAN SNIPER. Unfortunately, while we admire his decision to allow these heroes to re-enact their life-saving bravery, we can’t let slide the downright boring first two-thirds of the film taking us through the origin story of their childhood (Sacramento 2005) to the backpacking trip that put them on that train. Some of the scenes are inexplicable. For instance, Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer play the mothers of Spencer and Alek respectively, and their confrontation with the boys’ elementary school teacher is a candidate for the worst and most embarrassing scene of the year.

Based on the book “The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes” (written by the three men and journalist Jeffrey E Stern), the script is adapted by Dorothy Blyskal, and when combined with some of the director’s choices, generates some unintended audience laughter … rarely a good thing. Watching three regular guys – three lifelong buddies – retrace their steps through Germany, Rome, Venice, and Amsterdam is almost tolerable because these are really nice guys. However, we can’t get over the feeling that we are watching home movies of our friends’ trip – a trip we weren’t even on. Jokes about selfie sticks and hangovers don’t make it any easier.

When the film finally gets to the moment of truth on the train, we end up where we should have started … admiring the heroics of three regular guys: Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler. We witness then French President Francois Hollande awarding them with the Legion of Honour. Themes of God, military and friendship are commonplace in Eastwood films, and eagle-eyed viewers will catch a glimpse of Alek wearing a “man with no name” t-shirt (in honor of the director). Bottom line, it plays like a film about nothing – until the end when it’s really about something special.

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WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

July 12, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Counting the original in 1968, this is the ninth Planet of the Apes film (sourced from the Pierre Boulle novel), and the third in the most recent reimagining – including Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). That’s almost 50 years of talking apes questioning the role, purpose and intent of humans. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) is back after ‘Dawn’ and clearly has an affinity for the characters and the continuing saga. This one is by far the most personal … if that’s the right term when applied to a species other than persons!

Opening with the film’s best battle scene (and perhaps the most superb and vivid of the franchise); the film stuns us with the realism of apes on horseback and searing violence that rivals any war film. We are immediately drawn in by the thrilling and intimate battle scenes, and the accompanying adrenaline rush. It’s a beautiful and heart-pounding opening that will surely satisfy even the most demanding action-oriented fans. This is also when we notice that Michael Giacchino’s score as a complementary thing of beauty and not just more over-the-top action film music bravado.

The great Andy Serkis returns as Caesar, the leader of the apes, and dare I say, one of the most exciting and dynamic recurring characters in the movie universe. This third film belongs to Caesar and we see his intelligence, personality and skills have evolved in each. His human nemesis this time is Woody Harrelson in Colonel Kurtz psycho-war lord mode. In the years since Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a simian virus has wiped out much of the human race and now the last two human factions (one led by Harrelson) are preparing for a final epic war, while at the same time, all remaining humans are united against apes.

Apes simply want to be left alone in the forest, but humans focused on their destruction are forcing the apes to fight. One particular attack causes Caesar to erupt in anger and strive for revenge, providing the foundation for a movie with less action than the previous two, and a more concerted focus on story and character. Some may be disappointed in this. Others (like me) will find it fascinating.

Joining Serkis/Caesar for a third round are Terry Notary as Rocket and Karin Konoval as Maurice (orangutan). Also returning is Toby Kebbel as Koba – this time in a manner that really messes with Caesar’s mind. Steve Zahn steals his scenes as the comedy relief chimp known only as “bad ape”, with Judy Greer as Cornelia, and young Amiah Miller as Nova (same name as Linda Harrison in the original). Nova is a human girl who seems to fit much more with the apes than the warmongering humans. Fans of the original will also note Caesar’s son is named Cornelius (the same as Roddy McDowell’s ape in the original). Director Reeves delivers what would be a fitting end to a trilogy, but there is likely to be yet another if fans can appreciate that the series has evolved every bit as much as the apes.

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ADDICTED TO FRESNO (2015)

September 17, 2015

addicted to fresno Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not quite a unicorn, but it seems fair to call it a White Harbour Porpoise. Yes, it’s that rare to see a Comedy movie written by a woman, directed by a woman, starring women in a story about women. And it’s that rarity which makes it all the more disappointing when the finished product doesn’t match the expectation.

The cast is loaded with funny people, many of whom are best known for their work on TV. However, that’s not what makes this feel like an aimless TV sitcom straining too hard to make us laugh, often through cheap shock value. The movie leaves us with the feeling that writer Karey Dornetto (“Portlandia”) and director Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader, “Gilmore Girls”) have spent too many hours studying the work of Judd Apatow, rather than letting their own voices speak. We are teased with glimpses, but mostly just left wanting.

On the bright side, Judy Greer finally gets a lead role after seemingly hundreds of support roles where she has often been the best thing about a movie. Yet somehow the filmmakers manage to dull Ms. Greer’s natural glow as she plays Shannon, a registered sex offender with little desire to break her sex addiction, or even become the least bit likeable. The very talented Natasha Lyonne plays Martha, Shannon’s younger lesbian sister who is her personality polar opposite, yet never can quite escape the “bad luck” following her around.

Martha decides to make Shannon’s recovery her mission in life, and secures her a job so they can work together as maids at a local motel. What follows is an accidental murder, a frantic attempt to dispose of the body, a mentally challenged housekeeping supervisor, multiple instances of sexual confusion, a sex shop hold-up, blackmailing pet cemetery owners, a profane rapping boy at his bar mitzvah, an inappropriate relationship with a therapist that breaks up a marriage, and a running gag with a chubby hotel guest in a Hawaiian shirt carrying a little dog. All of that zaniness leads to a disproportionately few number of laughs, although we do get a terrific Cousin It impersonation and an extremely rare (maybe a first ever?) Hammer-throw joke.

What’s lacking here, despite the best efforts of Ms. Greer and Ms. Lyonne, is any semblance of humanity or realism … necessities for comedy. We just never make any connection with the main characters. The supporting cast provides numerous diversions and feature the familiar faces of Ron Livingston (the therapist mentioned above), an underutilized Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon, the duo of Fred Armisen and Alison Tolman playing opportunistic small business owners, Jessica St Clair as one of the more emotional front desk clerks you’ll ever see, Jon Daly as one of the more unfortunate characters, and Malcolm Barrett as Shannon’s latest love interest/poet.

Of course, in keeping with the film’s title there is a never-ending stream of insults directed at the city of Fresno. If that much attention had been paid to the sister relationship and the forming of characters, perhaps the comedy would have been more effective. Instead, if you are all set on watching sisters working together in the clean-up business, the better recommendation would be Sunshine Cleaning.

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GRANDMA (2015)

September 3, 2015

grandma Greetings again from the darkness. Perhaps your mental picture of a grandma is the familiar form of a Norman Rockwell painting … a sweet, bespectacled little lady baking pies or knitting booties or kicking back in a rocking chair as the grandkids romp around her. If so, Lily Tomlin will jolt you into reality with her performance in this latest from writer/director Paul Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie).

The film kicks off with Elle (Ms. Tomlin) breaking up with her much younger girlfriend (Judy Greer). As with many relationship break-ups, the tone shifts quickly with an increase in ‘let’s talk about it’. Elle tosses out “You’re a footnote” as a zinger that quickly ends any hope of reconciliation. It’s an uncomfortable opening scene that aptly sets the stage for what we are going to witness over the rest of the movie … Elle has lived quite a life, but has been unable to move on since the death of her long time companion – a recurring subject throughout.

The six segments of the film are titled: Endings, Ink, Apes, The Ogre, Kids, Dragonflies. Don’t expect those descriptions to help you guess the direction of the film. Instead, it plays out like a road trip through Elle’s past … albeit with a very contemporary feel. See, her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at the house asking to borrow $600 for an abortion. Despite her career as a poet of some notoriety, Elle is tapped out at the moment. So the two of them set out in Elle’s 1955 Dodge Royal (Ms. Tomlin’s real life car), and proceed to visit people (and hit them up for cash) who have played a role in Elle’s most interesting life.

During this journey – which all happens during a single day – the ladies cross paths with Sage’s clueless boyfriend (a miscast Nat Woolf), a transgender tattoo artist (Laverne Cox) who owes Elle the money she lent for enhancement, a small business owner (the final appearance of the late Elizabeth Pena) who is a bit more tough-minded than Elle gives her credit for, a long ago ex-husband of Elle’s (the best performance from Sam Elliott in years) who still carries heartbreak , and most bombastic of all, Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mom – a workaholic, no non-sense, Type A professional (played with vigor by Marcia Gay Harden).

Much will be made of the film treating Sage’s decision so matter-of-factly, but it makes for nice contrast to Juno, where the decision to abort an unwanted pregnancy is abruptly reversed when she’s told the baby has fingernails. This movie even offers a tip of the cap to that scene (bravo Sarah Burns), but is never preachy or heavy-handed in its dealing with Sage. It’s a young girl in a real life situation, and she is depending on her dysfunctional family to provide financial and moral support.

One might describe this as an arthouse movie with wider appeal. Lily Tomlin makes this a must-see, as do Julia Garner and Sam Elliott.  Some will avoid it due to the abortion topic, but this is much more a story of three strong women who are related to each other – even if they don’t always relate to each other.

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JURASSIC WORLD (2015)

June 21, 2015

jurassic world Greetings again from the darkness. I’m guessing that most anyone who enjoys movies and is at least 30 years old, has vivid recollections of Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park from1993 (based on the Michael Crichton novel). The iconic theme from John Williams, that initial awe-inspiring look at the dinosaurs grazing in the valley, the reminder that “objects are closer than they appear” in side mirrors, and the late Sir Richard Attenborough stating that he “spared no expense” in creating the park … all merged to became part of an incredibly moving and huge new movie theatre experience.  This latest (and fourth in the franchise) offers us “big”, but very little “new”, and unfortunately nothing very “moving” in its presentation.

Set two decades after the tragic and messy park trial run of that original movie, we find Bryce Dallas Howard (The Help) managing the financially-challenged theme park owned by Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi). Chris Pratt is training Velociraptors, while BD Wong is cooking up hybrid and genetically modified monsters such as Indominus Rex – designed to excite the audiences who have become bored with an old-fashioned T-Rex.

Even though this is technically a sequel, there are numerous similarities to the original film, and a fun parlor game consists of spotting all the homage’s and tributes sprinkled throughout. Two of my favorites are the “Winston’s” shop in the park, and the ViewMaster shot early on. These two are tips of the cap to Stan Winston and Ray Harryhausen … two giants in the world of special effects.

In what has become the Hollywood “go to” for evil-doers, the secret plan to militarize the dinosaurs is being carried out by Vincent D’Onofrio. Of course, this clashes with Pratt’s ideal life for “his” trainees. The mandatory kids-in-peril are played by Ty Simpkins (Insidious) and Nick Robinson. Much has been made of the absurdity of Ms. Howard’s numerous scenes of sprinting in high heels, and I found her overall demeanor to be every bit as exaggerated and unbelievable as her actions in heels. Jake Johnson (TV’s “New Girl) and Omar Sy (so wonderful in The Intouchables) were the most “real” characters, though neither was given much to do.

Much of what is written here is “in comparison” to the original. While this may not be fair, it is inescapable when dealing with such a respected and iconic film. Youngsters unfamiliar with the original film, are likely to find this one exciting – even terrifying at times – and that’s an important distinction to make. The Mosasaurus alone is worth the price of admission … and good for a few nightmares!  And who among us wouldn’t pay up for a Baby Triceratops ride in the Petting Zoo?

For the Jurassic Park stalwarts, the inconsistent (sometimes great, sometimes fake-looking) CGI will be as tough to overlook as Ms. Howard’s cartoon character. And yes, composer Michael Giacchino is new to the Jurassic series, and he is wise enough to work in the terrific and familiar John Williams theme in more than one scene.  However, none of the downsides will keep the true fans away, and there is an entire generation of kids who should have the chance to marvel at lifelike dinosaurs on the big screen courtesy of director Colin Trevorrow (previously known for his work on the indie gem Safety Not Guaranteed).

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DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

July 14, 2014

planet Greetings again from the darkness. Admitting a weakness is the first step. Yes, I am a proud, long-time fan of this series. My soft spot for these films began when I was a kid – mesmerized by the 1968 original, while watching from the back seat of the car, as the clunky metal speaker hung on the window and my parents sat in the front. Oh, and yes, I was wearing my pajamas!

It’s pretty much impossible to describe the technological advances in movies since Charleston Heston stumbled into one of the biggest shocker endings the movies have ever provided (and that was 46 years ago!). Heck, the advances since the 2011 movie with James Franco are staggering to see. The combination of real actors, CGI and fantastic motion capture technology make for a realistic look that is unsettling at times.

Many know the work of Andy Serkis (Gollam, King Kong) who is considered the master of motion capture acting, and here he returns as Caeser, the leader of the apes. Only this time, he has real competition, especially from Toby Kebbell as Koba, his friend who was previously mistreated in the lab by humans … thereby explaining their opposite view of the few remaining humans.

This entry from director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) picks up 10 years after the 2011 movie. The apes have established a very cool community in the forest, while only a few immune humans survived the lab-born simian virus that was leaked. The apes have continued to get smarter and even have their own culture and code (apes don’t kill apes). The surviving humans have fought amongst themselves and only recently organized a faction with Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus as their leader. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) takes a small group over the Golden Gate Bridge to see if they can reignite a dam which could produce the energy so desperately needed in human town.

Almost immediately, humans and apes meet. The big philosophical chess match begins with Malcolm and Caeser negotiating for cooperation and peace, while Koda and Drefus see war as the only solution. Alliances are drawn, fragile accords made, loyalties are questioned, and hierarchies crumble. See, it turns out the apes are like us, and we are like the apes.

There is a terrific battle scene, but the real joy here is the personalities and look of the apes. It is fascinating to watch the interactions … and that final shot is startling! The only downside is the caricature of Carver played by Kirk Acevedo. He is the token human d-bag but his character is so over the top it ruins most of his scenes. Luckily, he has very few … and they are offset by the really cool horse dismount displayed by Caesar. If you buy into this, it’s a tension-filled jolly good time.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of the series and want to be awed by the evolution of the apes – both in the story and on the screen

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t buy into the apes thing OR you miss Roddy McDowell and his rubber mask too much to ever give the nod to CGI.

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JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME (2012)

March 18, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Jay and Mark Duplass (The Duplass brothers) were responsible for a terrific, creepy little comedy called Cyrus. It dealt with a dark, strange relationship between a mother and her grown, stay at home and do nothing son. The Duplass mumblecore beginnings often used familial relationships to find those moments of discomfort and comedy. Their latest movie brings all of that together as they examine multiple relationships within a family, and the possible role destiny plays.

Jeff (Jason Segel) is an unemployed, 30 year old, childlike pot-head who lives in his mother’s (Susan Sarandon) basement and watches the M Night Shyamalan movie Signs so often that he is convinced there are no “wrong numbers” in life … everything is a sign leading us towards our destiny. After the latest “sign” (phone call for an unknown Kevin), Jeff heads out to complete a simple task for his disenchanted mother. He gets sidetracked by his quest for Kevin, and stumbles into his brother Pat (Ed Helms).

 By this time, we have seen Pat interact over breakfast with his wife Linda (Judy Greer). Note to guys: serving breakfast to your wife will not neutralize your surprise purchase of a Porsche. These two people have clearly lost whatever bond they once shared. One thing leads to another and we are soon watching Jeff and Pat stalk Linda and her male lunch friend … or is he more? While this amateur detective work is playing out, Sharon (their mother) discovers she has a secret admirer at work. Her spirits are immediately lifted as she has pretty much given up on a personal life since the death of her husband years ago. Her friend Carol (Rae Dawn Chong) helps her be receptive to the idea, and this story line provides a nice Duplass twist.

 Despite the fact that none of the characters are extremely likable: Jeff is borderline goofy, Pat is kind of an ass, Sharon and Linda just seem frustrated … the story moves along so that each of them grows a bit and their relationships evolve. The ending is a perfect cap and provides meaning, though initially quite a shock to the system after first three-quarters of the movie.

The Duplass directing style utilizes micro-bursts of quick zoom in many scenes, giving this a quasi home-movie feel at times. As for the acting, I can’t imagine another actor than Jason Segel could have pulled off the role of Jeff. In lesser hands, he would have come off as mentally unstable or just a total loser. Segel’s sweetness pays off. It’s always great to see Rae Dawn Chong back on screen, and I didn’t even hate Susan Sarandon! Judy Greer’s scene in the hotel room is so well played, it’s a reminder of what a terrific and under-utilized actress she is. Don’t expect a laugh outloud comedy, as this is more drama than comedy, though the smiles and chuckles occur in the moment.

* note: the name Kevin plays a part in this story, and it’s also the name of a new documentary short from the Duplass brothers on Austin musician Kevin Gant

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Jason Segel and Ed Helms inch towards dramatic roles OR you have missed seeing Rae Dawn Chong on screen as much as I.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have a deep affection towards Porsches

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