Movie Review: “The Secret Life of Pets”

Starring
Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Ellie Kemper, Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks
Director
Chris Renaud & Yarrow Cheney

Illumination Entertainment showed such great promise with their debut film “Despicable Me.” It wasn’t quite Pixar-esque in terms of greatness, but the movie had its heart in the right place, delivered some quality laughs, and included great jokes for the adults that were also appropriate for kids (“Bank of Evil, Formerly Lehman Brothers.”) They’ve responded to the success of the first film by exploiting Gru’s minions like they were a limitless supply of programmable Olsen twins. The minions dominated “Despicable Me 2,” much to that movie’s detriment, and they finally got their own film, which to date is the worst film in Illumination’s history (yes, it made over $1 billion worldwide, but so did “Alice in Wonderland,” and that movie is a hot mess). Worse, they even appeared in costume form in “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.” They’re like alien spores, hell-bent on consuming all life on Earth.

This brings us to Illumination’s latest film, “The Secret Life of Pets,” which does not take place in the minions’ universe, yet contains three references to them: the word ‘Illumination’ in the studio’s title card flickers so that only the letters spelling ‘minion’ are visible; a character dresses up as a minion for a party; and there is a short film starring the minions before the main feature (to be fair, that bit is somewhat amusing, and proves that the minions are funnier when administered in smaller doses). That might sum up Illumination’s problem better than anything: they care more about branding than they do about the quality of their films.

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Movie Review: “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”

Starring
Zac Efron, Adam Devine, Aubrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick, Stephen Root
Director
Jake Szymanski

Raunch-com, we need to talk. We’ve been spending a lot of time together (11 years, by my count), and this relationship just isn’t working out for me anymore. Every time you start to tell me a new story, I get all excited, thinking, “This ought to be good,” only to discover that this story just cobbles together elements from the stories you told me a couple of years ago. Do you even recognize that you’ve told this joke before? There are times when I feel like Julianne Moore’s husband in “Still Alice,” if “Still Alice” was a pitch-black comedy. Funny, yet so not funny.

And yet, there are times when you can still bring the goods, though with your most recent story, “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” your ass was saved by some expert casting. Aubrey Plaza? Genius move. it was economical as well, at 98 minutes. Way to get in and out before wearing out your welcome.

Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) are dipshit party boy liquor salesmen who have a history of ruining family events with their brotastic shenanigans. The next family event is the wedding of their little sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard), so the parents give them an ultimatum: they must bring dates, and nice ones at that, so they will be encouraged to behave themselves. The boys are struggling with the concept, so in their infinite wisdom they decide to put out an ad, which quickly goes viral and catches the eye of party girl Tatiana (Plaza), who sees an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii as the perfect way to get her left-at-the-altar bestie Alice (Anna Kendrick) out of her tailspin. Alice and Tatiana’s ruse is to lead the boys into thinking that they don’t know who they are and are just meeting them by chance. It works, but not for as long as they had hoped.

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Remade Right: The secrets to a successful remake

remade_right

Hollywood has always loved remakes, no matter how much it may seem like they’re inundating our multiplexes these days. For almost as long as movie studios have been pumping out hits for the masses, they’ve been remaking so-called classics. Sometimes it’s a matter of retelling an old story, adapting a particular book again, or even translating a foreign film into an English-language version so people don’t have to bother with the pesky subtitles. Regardless, remakes are nothing new. From adapting TV series for the big screen, to rebooting older franchises with new blood (all while tipping the hat to what came before, like J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek”), there are plenty of remakes always being developed, and there always will be.

With the new “Ghostbusters” arriving in theaters on July 15th, it’s uncertain how that film will perform. Will it be a good update to the now-classic comedy with its own take on the material, or will it simply be a cash grab with swapped gender roles and updated F/X but nothing else of interest? It’s too soon to say, but it got me thinking of the remakes that got it right. What made those films work when so many others have failed? Why are they successful, sometimes even eclipsing the original, when the majority of remakes just feel tired and uninspired?

Here’s a handy list of probably the best remakes produced by studios in the past 35 years or so (in no particular order): John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” Matt Reeves’ “Let Me In,” Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s “True Grit,” Michael Mann’s “Heat,” Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” James Cameron “True Lies” and Mike Nichols’ “The Birdcage.”

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Blu Tuesday: House of Cards and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.

“House of Cards: The Complete Fourth Season”

WHAT: With their marriage on the rocks, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is forced to go on the campaign trail alone while Claire (Robin Wright) starts to make big moves concerning her own political ambitions. But in order to beat young Republican candidate Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman) in the upcoming presidential election, Frank needs Claire by his side more than ever.

WHY: The third season of “House of Cards” was a slight disappointment compared to the show’s excellent first two years, and sadly, that trend continues with Season Four, which really pushes the limits of suspension of disbelief. This isn’t the first time that the Underwoods have found themselves backed into a corner, but the storytelling has become so ridiculous that it simply isn’t as captivating as it once was. With that said, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright deliver such great performances in the lead roles that it papers over a lot of the cracks, demonstrating yet again why the characters are more interesting when working together than apart. The rest of the cast isn’t as effective with the limited screen time they’re given, but Joel Kinnaman’s JFK-like governor at least proves a worthy adversary for Frank. Though “House of Cards” remains one of the better dramas on TV, it’s obvious that the show is beginning to run out of ideas, as evidenced by creator Beau Willimon’s decision not to return next season, and if Netflix was smart, they wouldn’t drag it out any longer than necessary.

EXTRAS: Sadly, there’s no bonus material included.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “The Legend of Tarzan”

Starring
Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent
Director
David Yates

It’s been over 100 years since author Edgar Rice Burroughs published his first Tarzan novel and nearly half that long since the character was last relevant in pop culture, so it’s understandable why Warner Bros. may have thought it was a good idea to resurrect the franchise as a big summer blockbuster. Unfortunately, there’s a reason Tarzan hasn’t succeeded in recent times, and that’s because it’s a largely hokey premise that is firmly rooted in the sensibilities of a bygone era. Though director David Yates’ reboot is admirably old-fashioned in execution, a gorgeously filmed adventure movie shot with classic Hollywood grandeur, “The Legend of Tarzan®” is as soulless as the registered trademark symbol that appears on the opening title card.

Set in 1890, the film begins several years after the man formerly known as Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) left the jungles of Africa to assume his rightful position as British aristocrat John Clayton III alongside his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). But when he receives an invitation from King Leopold II of Belgium to return to the Congo as a trade emissary for the House of Commons, American statesman George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) convinces him to go in order to investigate rumors that Leopold is using slave labor to colonize the country. Upon arriving in the Congo, however, John discovers that the whole trip is a ruse devised by Leopold’s trusted advisor, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who has agreed to hand John over to a vengeful chieftain (Djimon Honsou) in exchange for diamonds needed to pay off Leopold’s mounting debt. John manages to evade capture, but Jane is kidnapped in the process, prompting him to unleash the beast he’s kept contained for so long in order to rescue her.

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