Movie Review: “Vacation”

Starring
Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Leslie Mann, Chris Hemsworth, Ron Livingston
Director
John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein

There’s been an overwhelming sense of nostalgia at theaters this summer, with films like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Jurassic World” and “Terminator Genisys” all reviving decades-old franchises on the big screen, and “Vacation” continues that trend with the latest installment in the National Lampoon series that began with Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo and a rotating door of actors playing their two kids. Though it isn’t technically a reboot, despite sharing its title with the 1983 original, writers/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein address the issue head-on by conceding that while there are similarities to the first movie, the 2015 edition stands on its own. Unfortunately, that isn’t really the case, because it’s basically just a raunchier, less funny rehash of the Harold Ramis/John Hughes classic that lacks its predecessor’s charm and heart.

All grown up and with a family of his own, Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) has remained in the Chicago area working as a pilot for a second-rate regional airline so that he can be close to his wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate), and their two sons, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins). When he realizes that the family’s annual vacation to the same boring cabin in Michigan is in desperate need of a little shakeup, he finds inspiration from his own childhood and plans a cross-country road trip to Walley World in the hope that it’ll bring the family closer together. But just like his vacation to America’s favorite family fun park as a kid, things don’t go exactly as planned, as the Griswolds must contend with thieving rednecks, psychotic truck drivers and their own extended family.

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Movie Review: “Southpaw”

Starring
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker, 50 Cent, Oona Laurence, Naomie Harris
Director
Antoine Fuqua

Throughout the years, boxing movies have been synonymous with tales of redemption – from “Rocky,” to “Raging Bull,” to “The Fighter” – and Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw” is no different. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything in the story that hasn’t already appeared countless times before in other boxing films, but despite the clichéd plot, the movie isn’t without its charms. At the top of that list is star Jake Gyllenhaal, who continues his remarkable career reinvention from pretty-boy leading man to serious actor with yet another fantastic performance. It likely won’t earn him the Oscar nomination he was wrongfully snubbed for last year’s “Nightcrawler,” but it builds upon that transformative role with such mature confidence that it only seems like a matter of time before he’s finally rewarded for his work.

The movie opens with undefeated light heavyweight champion Billy “The Great” Hope (Gyllenhaal) successfully defending his title at Madison Square Garden and cementing his status as one of the best boxers in the sport. Everyone wants their chance to go toe-to-toe with him in the ring, including hotshot fighter Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez), but Billy’s levelheaded wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), urges him to make the sensible decision and call it quits while he’s still on top… and before he becomes so punch drunk that he can’t enjoy his success. When Miguel instigates a fight with him at a charity fundraiser and Maureen is shot and killed among the chaos, Billy spirals out of control, landing himself in trouble with the boxing league and losing his house, his possessions, and most importantly, custody of his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Desperate to keep her out of the foster care system where he spent his childhood, Billy seeks help from a gruff, veteran trainer (Forest Whitaker) to get back what he lost.

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Movie Review: “Pixels”

Starring
Adam Sandler, Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Monaghan, Kevin James, Brian Cox, Sean Bean
Director
Chris Columbus

Adam Sandler has said that the goal of “Pixels” was to be a modern-day version of an early-period Amblin Entertainment film (think “The Goonies,” “Gremlins” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”), something entertaining but also absolutely bonkers, and plays by its own rules. By that measure, “Pixels” is a smashing success. This movie is ridiculous, but in watching it, you realize that it’s been a long time since a live-action summer movie had the nerve to be ridiculous. It’s been this superhero movie or that graphic novel, and with the exception of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” they’ve all been deathly serious. “Pixels” revels in its silliness, and in the process gives the audience some wildly entertaining battle and chase sequences as a bonus. This is one absurd, but fun, movie. If it had a theme song, it would be “Weird” Al Yankovic’s “Dare to Be Stupid.” That’s a compliment, for the record.

When Sam Brenner (Sandler) was a teen (in 1982), his future was impossibly bright. He was the best video gamer in town, but his hopes were crushed when smack-talking Eddie Plant came to town and beat him in a tournament. (Eddie is played by Peter Dinklage, who modeled his look after real-life Donkey Kong champion, and “The King of Kong” supervillain, Billy Mitchell. If you have not yet seen this movie, stop reading this and watch it right now. NOW, damn it.) The footage of that tournament was sent into space, where it was received by an alien race…and interpreted to be a declaration of war.

Thirty-three years later, the aliens arrive, in the form of the 8-bit video game characters that were in the video, destroying a US military base in Guam, and then a major international landmark. Sam now installs high-tech audio and video systems, while his teen years buddy Will Cooper (Kevin James) is the President of the United States. President Cooper, once he realizes what they’re up against, brings in Sam, and their onetime gamer friend-turned-conspiracy theorist Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) to advise the military, much to the military’s chagrin, on how to defeat their enemy. Later, when Sam and Ludlow show that they are better soldiers in this war than the actual soldiers, the government makes a deal with the now-incarcerated Eddie to enlist the help of the self-branded “Fireblaster” (that nickname is so very ‘80s, and so very douchey). They’ve already lost the first two battles, though, so using video game logic, if they lose one more, it’s game over for the planet.

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Blu Tuesday: What We Do in the Shadows and The Water Diviner

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 Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“What We Do in the Shadows”

WHAT: Filmed in the months leading up to the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball, a documentary crew follows a group of vampires – including Victorian dandy Viago (Taika Waititi), medieval torturer Vladimir (Jemaine Clement) and resident bad boy Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) – living together in Wellington, New Zealand as they deal with the dull minutiae of everyday life as an ancient bloodsucker. But when newly turned vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) moves in, he helps usher his fellow housemates into the 21st century.

WHY: “What We Do in the Shadows” sounds like a bad comedy sketch – a “Real World”-esque reality show with vampires in place of horny millennials – but it’s actually a very funny satire of the vampire subgenre that’s done in the deadpan style of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Because of the loose, improvisational nature of the film, not every joke lands, but the ones that do are laugh-out-loud hilarious, skewering centuries of vampire lore with goofy sight gags, clever observations about vamp culture and run-ins with a pack of werewolves led by Jemaine Clement’s “Flight of the Conchords” co-star Rhys Darby. But for everything that the movie gets right, “What We Do in the Shadows” suffers from the same problem as Taika Waititi and Clement’s last collaboration, the geek-chic rom-com “Eagle vs. Shark” – namely, that the concept feels like it’s been stretched well beyond its limits, despite the brisk 85-minute runtime. This is an idea that was better suited as a short film, although there’s so much funny material here that it’s understandable why they felt the need to expand it to feature length. As a result, “What We Do in the Shadows” never quite attains the instant cult status that it seems to be heading towards in the first act, but any movie that makes you laugh this hard (even if only sporadically) deserves the shower of praise that’s been heaped upon it.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by writers/directors/stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, interviews and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Water Diviner”

WHAT: Several years after his three sons presumably died while fighting in the Battle of Gallipoli, Australian farmer Joseph Connor (Russell Crowe) travels to Turkey in search of the truth about what really happened on the battlefield.

WHY: For those wondering how an actor of Russell Crowe’s talent could possibly be convinced to star in a movie as atrocious as “Winter’s Tale,” look no further than his directorial debut, an equally overdramatic piece of pseudo-magical realism that thankfully isn’t quite as bad. Crowe certainly has a good eye for the kind of epic storytelling that he’s trying to achieve with his first stint behind the camera, but despite some decent visuals and a solid performance from the actor himself, “The Water Diviner” is too easily distracted by its numerous subplots. The story of Joshua’s search for his missing sons isn’t substantial enough to warrant an entire movie, so writers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios have tacked on a romantic subplot between Crowe and Olga Kurylenko’s Turkish widow (which doesn’t seem right considering Joshua is still mourning the death of his wife), as well as flashbacks of his sons in battle that are incredibly difficult to watch. The latter wouldn’t be that much of a problem if the film stuck by its message that war is cruel and unforgiving, but “The Water Diviner” ends on such an uplifting note that it cuts right through that grim realism in favor of hokey Hollywood optimism. (Note: This title will be released next Tuesday, July 28th.)

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and a retrospective on the Battle of Gallipoli.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Movie Review: “Trainwreck”

Starring
Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, LeBron James, Colin Quinn
Director
Judd Apatow

Judd Apatow’s films often cover heavy, emotionally complicated territory, but they’re ice cold at the same time. The subject matter is relatable, but the manner in which it’s treated bears little resemblance to real life. (The most egregious offender: “This Is 40.” Now let us never speak of it again.) “Trainwreck,” by comparison, is the most honest, heartfelt film Apatow has made to date, and it’s hard not to notice that it’s also the first time he directed a script that he didn’t have a hand in writing.

Some back story, for the unfamiliar: Apatow has taken heat over the years for underwriting his female roles – and yes, that criticism came largely from Katherine Heigl, who cashed some monster paychecks after receiving a massive career boost by appearing in his 2007 film “Knocked Up,” therefore people accuse her of biting the hand that fed her, and while that may be the case, she’s not wrong – and perhaps this was Apatow’s attempt to make amends, by directing a script written by a woman (Amy Schumer). The crazy thing is, Schumer’s character in many ways embodies the very traits that Heigl protested (reckless, irresponsible, unaccountable), but with the female character in the lead role, you get something that previous Apatow films never provided, and that is perspective: we get both the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of her character’s behavior. Also, there are no shrews in this movie. Apatow’s other movies were loaded with shrews. Who likes shrews that much?

Amy Townsend (Schumer) writes for S’Nuff, a Gawker-esque magazine with roughly 75% less humanity. She also parties nonstop and sleeps around, even though she has a boyfriend (John Cena). A fellow writer pitches an article about Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a surgeon who’s come up with a revolutionary knee procedure that will greatly reduce recovery time for athletes. S’Nuff editor Dianna (Tilda Swinton, in full Anna Wintour mode) likes the story, but assigns it to Amy, because Amy has admitted that she hates sports, and Dianna likes the idea of the paradox. Amy surprisingly finds herself fascinated with both Aaron and his work, and when she unprofessionally consummates their professional arrangement, she does unthinkable things, like actually agreeing to spend the night at his place and generally being less afraid of commitment. Amy is confused by this new change to the game plan, and she responds to it the only way she knows how: self-destruction.

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