Movie Review: “Cop Car”

Starring
Kevin Bacon, Hays Wellford, James Freedson-Jackson, Shea Whigham, Camryn Manheim
Director
Jon Watts

After receiving mostly positive reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Cop Car” is guaranteed to become one of the most talked-about indie releases of the year following the announcement that director Jon Watts has been chosen to helm Sony’s upcoming Spider-Man reboot. Though it’ll be interesting to see how Watts handles a big tentpole movie considering the stripped-down nature of “Cop Car,” his ability to wring suspense out of the simplest moments goes a long way in making the film a lot more engaging than you’d expect. “Cop Car” doesn’t quite rival the classic Coen brothers crime thrillers that have clearly influenced Watts as a filmmaker, but it’s a confident sophomore effort that benefits from a great performance by Kevin Bacon.

Set somewhere in rural Colorado, a pair of 10-year-old boys – cocky instigator Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and meek sidekick Harrison (Hays Wellford) – discover an abandoned cop car in the middle of the woods. After daring each other to touch it, and then mustering the courage to investigate further, the boys find the driver’s side door unlocked and the keys hidden inside, so they decide to take the car for a joy ride. The vehicle belongs to the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon), who’s gotten caught up in some kind of criminal activity (the details of which are very sparse) and was off burying a body down the road at the exact time that Travis and Harrison happened upon his car. But unbeknownst to them, there’s another body in the trunk of the car that connects Kretzer to his bad deed, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it back.

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Movie Review: “Ricki and the Flash”

Starring
Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer, Sebastian Stan, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, Ben Platt
Director
Jonathan Demme

It’s been seven long years since director Jonathan Demme’s last narrative feature film, “Rachel Getting Married.” Over the course of his career, Demme has captured a variety of human emotions and experiences, whether in his thrillers, dramas or rock concert documentaries, and he returns to the big screen once again with the deeply human, honest and heartfelt film, “Ricki and the Flash,” written by fellow Oscar winner Diablo Cody (“Juno”).

Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) isn’t exactly living her dream. The once-promising musician, now in her 60s, works in a grocery store while also performing at a half-empty bar at night. She hasn’t let failure stop her, though. Ricki still goes on stage giving everything she’s got, even when the rocker has to sing Lady Gaga for the young crowds. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of her relationship with her three kids, who are all grown up and off living their lives without her. But when her daughter, Julie (real-life daughter Mamie Gummer), hits rock bottom after her husband leaves her for another woman, Ricki – who still sports leather pants and no shortage of jewelry – gets a second chance at being a mother by confronting her past mistakes in an attempt to finally be a part of her childrens’ lives.

This all sounds rather familiar, and it is. “Ricki and the Flash” mostly goes where one expects, but it does so with grace. None of the tropes are clichés; they all feel organic to the story Cody is telling, and the story she’s telling is incredibly sweet. Her scripts have always been sincere, whether you’re talking about her overlooked horror-comedy, “Jennifer’s Body,” or her best work to date, “Young Adult,” which has an incredible amount of empathy for a damaged character. Lately, Cody’s stories have gotten even sweeter, and while that tone didn’t quite work in her directorial debut, “Paradise,” it’s tremendously successful here.

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Blu Tuesday: Insurgent, Strike Back 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 Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Insurgent”

WHAT: When Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) recovers a mysterious box containing a message from the colony’s founding fathers that requires a Divergent to unlock it, she orders her cronies to round up potential candidates to put through the box’s rigorous testing process. Meanwhile, Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) unite their Dauntless friends with the factionless rebels – led by Four’s presumed-dead mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts) – to take down Jeanine and the whole faction system.

WHY: Unlike some of the more successful YA book-to-film adaptations, the “Divergent” series has continually failed to prove why Veronica Roth’s trilogy is such a big deal. The first installment was plagued by a troubling lack of excitement, suspense and emotion, and those problems continue with “Insurgent.” Though it boasts some great talent in the form of Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet and Miles Teller (the latter two of whom are smartly given more to do this time around), it’s not enough to disguise the movie’s numerous issues, especially when it wastes so much time doing nothing. The end of “Divergent” seemed to point towards a move outside the walls surrounding the dystopian city where the story takes place, and yet all of “Insurgent” is set within those very walls, suspending its characters in narrative limbo in order to slog through an entire novel of mostly filler. “Insurgent” could have been the “Catching Fire” of the “Divergent” film series, building on the original premise in bold and fresh new ways, but instead, it’s a sluggish, twiddle-your-thumbs chapter that’s more about the setup than the payoff.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by producers Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher, a feature-length documentary about making the film, and a quartet of featurettes on adapting the source material, the cast, shooting the train fight sequence and Miles Teller’s character, Peter Hayes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Strike Back: The Complete Third Season”

WHAT: After one of their own is killed while working undercover in Beirut, Section 20 agents Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) and Michael Stonebridge (Philip Winchester) are forced to cut their vacation short in order to stop a criminal group that is funding terrorists in the Middle East.

WHY: You’d be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable guilty pleasure on television than “Strike Back,” a show that cares so little about logic that you can practically see the writers bending over backwards behind the scenes to come up with new, ridiculous ways to defy it. The Cinemax action series doesn’t pretend to be smart (on the contrary, it almost revels in its shoot-first-think-later absurdity), but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. Though Season Three is probably the weakest installment to date, particularly due to some rocky storytelling that jumps from one loosely connected subplot to the next as if they’re making it all up as they go along, Sullivan Stapleton and Philip Winchester boast such great chemistry that it’s easy to look past its obvious flaws. Their characters may have more lives than a cat, so you know they’ll make it out of whatever crazy situation they’ve gotten themselves into unscathed, but that’s part of its allure. Well, that and the fantastic action sequences, because what “Strike Back” lacks in great writing and acting, it more than makes up for with some of the best action on TV.

EXTRAS: There are audio commentaries for three episodes with various cast and crew (including stars Sullivan Stapleton and Phillip Winchester), as well as a collection of playful behind-the-scenes featurettes like “How to Act in Shit,” “How to Drive Through a Minefield,” “How to Interrogate While Driving” and “How to Dangle From a Helicopter.”

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to August

august

August may officially be part of the summer movie season, but with the exception of a few titles (“Fantastic Four,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”), many of the new films being released this month are very un-summer-like. Not that it’s a bad thing, of course, as audiences are likely experiencing blockbuster fatigue at this point in the year, but while there are some promising movies on the schedule, you probably shouldn’t set your expectations too high. After all, in the past five years alone, there have been only a handful that we’d ever want to watch again.

“Fantastic Four”

Who: Miles Teller, Kata Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell and Toby Kebbell
What: Four young outsiders teleport to an alternate universe which alters their physical form in shocking ways.
When: August 7th
Why: After going the lighter, more family-friendly route with its first two Fantastic Four movies, Fox has done a complete 180 with this gritty, super-serious reboot from director Josh Trank that surely marks the studio’s last chance to get it right. Unfortunately, that hasn’t shielded the project from the inevitable fanboy criticism, whether it’s the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch, or recent rumors of the film’s troubled production. And while the casting debate is a non-starter (not only is Jordan an excellent actor, but he’s a great choice for the role), the latest trailer doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence that “Fantastic Four” is going to be any better than its predecessors. Different, yes, but not better.

“Ricki and the Flash”

Who: Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer, Sebastian Stan and Kevin Kline
What: A musician who gave up everything for her dream of rock-and-roll stardom returns home, looking to make things right with her family.
When: August 7th
Why: On paper, “Ricki and the Flash” sounds like a surefire hit. It boasts Oscar-winning talent in the form of star Meryl Streep, director Jonathan Demme and writer Diablo Cody, and is perfectly positioned as a clever piece of counterprogramming to the barrage of superhero movies and action films. What’s not to like, right? As it turns out, an awful lot judging from the trailer. Not only has the whole rock star/estranged parent story been done countless times before, but nothing about the film suggests that it’ll bring anything new to the table, either. Though Streep’s recent trend of turning bad movies into awards contenders (see: “Into the Woods, “August: Osage County”) is certainly impressive, it’s hard to imagine that continuing here.

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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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