Admission

Image_square_webby Susan

2013, Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Nat Wolff. Screenplay by Karen Croner from the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Directed by Paul Weitz.

Tina Fey and Paul Rudd! Romantic comedy! Lots of giggles and laughs and silly feel-good humor! No. Really, no.

Let me explain. Yes, these are two geniuses who can both deliver the laughs in normal, everyday situations – with a straight face. Not the obvious, beat ’em over the head with gross outrageous stunts and sight gags comedy, but more of a thinking person’s humor. Sly and witty, smooth and effortless, utterly believable while mining the levity from real life. Yes, they bring all of that wit and charm and skill at elevating the everyday to a story you enjoy watching unfold on the cinema screen. It’s just that this particular story, while it has its funny moments, isn’t exactly a comedy.

Admission is the story of a career woman who is very comfortable with her predictable and pedestrian life finding herself suddenly plunged into turmoil. Her long-term boyfriend leaves her for his other (pregnant) girlfriend just when she must compete with a cutthroat coworker for a promotion in the Admissions Office of Princeton University.  You see, Portia Nathan (Fey) makes a living weeding out less than perfect applicants clamoring for acceptance.

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Part of her job is making recruiting visits to high school campuses and that’s where she meets John Pressman (Rudd). He’s everything she’s not, a free-spirited, globe-trotting, tree-hugging adventurer who has made room in his life for an adopted son. This movie might have made a decent typical romantic comedy if the relationship between Portia and John was the single focus. Instead, we are treated to a more complex, more real, more interesting story when we discover that John was motivated to bring Portia to his high school to meet one student in particular. Jeremiah is an odd kid, a nontraditional choice for an ivy-league education, a true genius bored with conventional schooling until he met John. Oh, and by the way, John thinks Jeremiah is the baby Portia secretly gave up for adoption back when she was in college.

Is that enough of a complication? Well, no, because Portia also has issues with her fiercely feminist and self-sufficient mother Susannah portrayed by the excellent Lily Tomlin. Some of the funniest scenes are those centered around Susannah.

As Portia manages to make some painful admissions about who she really is and what she might really want out of life, she meets some pretty challenging obstacles. John has to come to terms with his own unconnected lifestyle and recognize the needs of others. Even Susannah finally has to admit the truth to her daughter.

No, not a comedy in the traditional sense, Admission is more like real life, a family drama with some very light-hearted moments and a few laughs along the way. Fey plays Portia to perfection as a slowly unraveling mess of emotions on the verge of a mid-life crisis and Rudd is excellent as the good guy who is so busy making the world a better for others he doesn’t realize how miserable his own child is.

Admission is a very good movie, just not the romantic comedy it was promoted as, and that will probably damage its box office performance. If you miss this one in the theaters, definitely look for it on disc.

Three boxes of popcornRating: Triple Serving 

 

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The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Image_square_webby Susan

2013, Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin. Screenplay by  Jonathan M. Goldstein and John Francis Daley,  directed by Don Scardino.

On a scale of one to ten, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone rates about a twelve for purely hilarious absurdity. Carrell (Burt Wonderstone) is priceless and Carrey (Steve Gray, the street performer specializing in outrageous stunts) was born to give us his own unique type of physical comedy. Buscemi (Anton Marvelton, the magic act second banana) and Arkin (Rance Holloway, the elderly stage magician) are wonderfully quirky personalities who find Burt’s inflated ego and refusal to accept the reality of diminishing ticket sales too much to bear. Olivia Wilde shows a nicely understated flair for comedy and James Gandolfini is everything you’d expect from a Las Vegas entrepreneur.

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Burt and Anton have a “magical friendship” that they have turned into one of the most successful stage shows in Las Vegas. But it’s been a while since they’ve introduced anything new to the act and audiences are finding it stale and unimaginative. When a masochistic street magician’s shockingly atrocious antics grab the spotlight – and most of their audience – both the act and their friendship suffer. Burt’s reluctance to participate in a “risky stunt” leads to all sorts of complications while the competition continues to grow more viral online with each new act of self-inflicted violence.

Will Burt and Anton find a way to match the shocking and horrific tricks of Steve Gray that the public wants to see? Or will they find a way back to what made them fall in love with magic as children? Can they pull off that one big trick that they have always dreamed of performing? Anything is possible if you are willing to be dazzled – and don’t spend too much time analyzing the illusions.

While the plot may be a little thin, the characters are full-fledged, delightfully funny, and endearingly eccentric. The real magic in this movie is the journey to find the awe and wonder that an accomplished prestidigitator can inspire.

Three boxes of popcornRating: Triple Serving 

Jack the Giant Slayer

Image_square_webby Susan

2013 Nicholas Hoult, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor. Screenplay by Dareen Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dan Studney. Directed by Bryan Singer.

Following in the footsteps of other recent big screen treatments of classic fairy tales, Jack the Giant Slayer has a lot going for it – Ewan McGregor for one. Then there’s the kid in the title role of Jack, Nicholas Hoult of Warm Bodies, who is now definitely on my list of Young Upcoming Actors to Keep An Eye On. He was fantastic as the not-quite-undead teen zombie who managed to hang on to his last vestiges of humanity with a lot of help from a pretty teen girl. Think Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending for fans of comedy horror, specifically the zombie sub-genre. The movie is better than those last two sentences would have you believe – trust me.

And now back to the current review…

Everyone knows the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. E V E R Y O N E. So how do you turn such a well-known fable into an exciting, visually rich movie experience? Simple: lots and lots and lots of CG. (For you non-geeks, that’s computer graphics, digital special effects. Movies are full of ’em these days.) It was done so well, the CG giants in this film are the real stars. They are numerous, hideous, menacing, murderous, and they have well-developed individual personalities. There’s one that even has double the personality of the rest. (Don’t worry, you’ll know what I mean when you see the film.)

The human actors did a very nice job, too. Considering that this version is extremely kid-friendly, each of the actors gave a spot-on performance for the target audience. Hoult’s Jack is a sweet, earnest farm boy, McGregor’s Sir Elmont is a handsome, courageous, selfless knight, Tucci’s villainous Roderick was humorously cunning and foul, Ian McShane’s thoughtful king was appropriately consumed with concern for his only daughter the Princess. Together they make a nice cast performing slightly stereotypical fairy tale roles, but that’s okay. This is, after all, a fairy tale.

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With all of the daring escapes, villainous plotting, swordplay, double-crosses, and battle scenes, there is plenty of action to keep the young ones on the edge of their seats. My quibble is that I didn’t find it as engaging for adults as some animated films such as Cars, How to Train Your Dragon, or Wreck-It Ralph. Frankly, the giants were more interesting characters than the actual humans. I don’t know if my reaction is due to seeing live humans acting as cartoon characters or if this movie was never meant to appeal to adults. As a modern cinematic treatment of an ageless fable, Jack the Giant Slayer has more in common with Mirror, Mirror than Snow White and the Huntsman.  It’s light and a little fluffy, quite funny in places, but not nearly as frightening as the original tale. Those old fairy tales were stories meant to scare the bejeezus out of children so they would behave and not wander far from home. Jack the Giant Slayer probably won’t have any lasting impact on anyone.

Two boxes of popcornRating: Double Serving with a big bag of M&Ms accompanied by a child 

Quartet

Image_square_webby Susan

2012, Maggie Smith, Billy Connelly, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins. Written by Ronald Harwood (adapted from his stage play). Directed by Dustin Hoffman.

If you missed this one in theaters, then definitely look for it on disc, cable, or Netflix. It’s a charming, character-driven story about aging musicians and opera divas living harmoniously together in a retirement home. They each have their own lifetime’s worth of emotional baggage to bear, but when a new arrival brings some very complicated personal history with her, painful memories swell to the surface for several of the residents.

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As if having to deal with the problems of aging isn’t enough, personality clashes strike a sour note when the annual Verdi tribute concert is suddenly overshadowed by the arrival of Jean Horton. She’s an infamous diva refusing to come to terms with her current living arrangements who happens to be the ex-wife of one of the other residents. They haven’t seen each other in decades and all the old feelings – good and bad – bring all the old tempers, drama, and rivalries to the forefront.

Billy Connelly is a real treat and Maggie Smith is in top form, as usual. Connelly has the most comedic role and portrays the delightfully sex-obsessed Wilf with flair and gusto. Stick around for the closing credits – most of the home’s residents are played by actual retired musicians and singers who shine with a special glow.

Three boxes of popcornRating: Triple Serving 

 

Oz the Great and Powerful

Image_square_webby Susan

2013, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, and Rachel Weisz. Screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Sam Raimi.

Oz the Great and Powerful was better than I expected. I probably would have enjoyed it even more if I were a big fan of James Franco. The CG was beautiful but at times seemed to overshadow the actors. Or maybe James Franco has a problem working with green screen. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was, but something felt the tiniest bit “off.” It might be as simple as a subconscious comparison to the universally beloved Judy Garland classic.

Well, maybe not “universally.” I understand that fans of the original L. Frank Baum books think it stinks. According to a high school friend of mine who was familiar with the books and had never seen the movie until she was seventeen, The Wizard of Oz was “a truly horrible movie that butchered a great story.” That was decades ago and she’s still a very weird person who doesn’t like movies all that much. Now I’m having trouble recalling why we were such good friends in high school, we don’t seem to have a lot in common…

I thought the basic back story of how a flim-flam con artist from a county fair became the Wizard of Oz was quite well done. It was after he got to Oz and started meeting its weird inhabitants that felt a little slow. There were plenty of nicely done, understated references to the 1939 musical but the focus was on what I assume were characters and plot lines from the L. Frank Baum original stories.

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Mila Kunis was fantastic, Michelle Williams was a perfect sugary-sweet Glinda, and Rachel Weisz was great. There are some nice surprises with the way they handled the origin story of the Wicked Witch; her grand entrance was truly awesome! When they finally get past the slow middle part and the Wicked Witch gets involved, the action is quite thrilling.

I suppose citizens of Emerald City can’t help it that they are basically all as dumb as a stump. Or maybe naive is a better word. But I won’t be able to watch the classic now without feeling differently about Glinda and the Wizard.

For a “prequel” to a classic movie that is still being enjoyed by new generations, it was pretty good. I’m so used to the singing and dancing in the first one that I think somehow it almost felt like something was missing in this new one. But that’s just me. I can’t see a Munchkin without wanting to hear “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.”

Oh, about the flying monkeys – it seems that this new production wants to correct some unfair stereotypes. Maybe not all flying monkeys are evil, ugly little buggers but the ones belonging to the Wicked Witch STILL scare the snot out of me. Go see it. You’ll like it.

Three boxes of popcornRating: Triple Serving plus a box of Milk Duds 

Warm Bodies

Image_square_webby Susan

2013, Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich. Written by Jonathan Levine, adapted from Isaac Marion’s novel. Directed by Jonathan Levine.

Yet another Zombie movie? Well, why not? The proliferation of books, movies, and television fare featuring slow-moving, mindless, cannibalistic, dead humans in recent years has given us a few gems along the way. The first zombie movie I ever saw was probably 1932’s White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi. No, I am NOT that old, but I did like to stay up late and watch old movies on TV as a kid. The second one was probably Night of the Living Dead (1968), which I was not allowed to see when it was first released in theaters. (We can thank my dear, ultra-conservative parents for that.)

There have been a lot of zombie movies since those early, creepy, black and white, nightmare-inducing introductions to the concept, some better than others. The thing about this genre, though, seems to be that it is difficult to come up with anything original to actually do with a group of slow-moving, mindless, cannibalistic, dead humans. They must be shot in the head to be destroyed, surviving a bite from one will inevitably make you one of them, and they have an insatiable hunger for human brains. Oh, and let’s don’t forget the biggie – it’s all a metaphor for the loss of our humanity, society turning into a bunch of grunting, shuffling, brainless consumers wreaking havoc and destruction on the world.

It’s all pretty grim stuff. Sometimes too grim and repetitive. This is why my favorite examples of the genre are the humorous ones: Shaun of the Dead (Simon Pegg) and Zombieland (Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg) are both clever, well-written, well-acted, and smart. They found a way to take the zombie clichés and remake them into something fresh and funny while still using them to comment on the state of our humanity.

Warm Bodies is not a horror movie, it’s a clever, well-written, well-acted, smart, funny, romantic zombie movie. Wait – did I say romantic? Yes, I did. And not only romantic, but also narrated from the zombie’s point of view. Make that a teenage zombie’s point of view. You think it’s hard being an awkward guy trying to talk to a pretty girl? Try being a shuffling zombie who can only grunt incoherently! “…they’ll eat anything with a heartbeat. I mean, I will too, but at least I’m conflicted about it…”

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This one actually gives us two types of zombies, the familiar ones who still resemble humans and the “bonies” who have lost every last shred of their humanity. The remaining humans, living behind a giant wall in fear of the plague-infected brain-eaters, make no distinction between them. It’s us against them, a zombie is a zombie is a zombie and they must all be eliminated before the human race is extinct.

Julie, the pretty teenage girl, has discovered something that the other humans haven’t had the time or opportunity to realize: as long as a trace of humanity remains, there is hope for the individual. Unfortunately for our two teenage leads, it’s a Romeo and Juliet scenario. Her father doesn’t want to believe, he only wants to kill zombies. Can Julie convince him before it’s too late? Is there really any hope for the walking dead or are they all destined to become one of the bonies?

Warm Bodies has a lot of heart. It must have because it was easy to root for the zombies.

Two boxes of popcornRating: Double Serving plus a box of Milk Duds and some Twizzlers

End of Watch

Image_square_webby Susan

2012, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez. Written and directed by David Ayer.

Who are you willing to take a bullet for? Why? The action is an adrenaline-inducing rush while the relationship between Taylor and Zavala is the emotional core demanding that you care about these LAPD officers as they put their lives in danger day after day after day for the public good.

Here’s the thing about End of Watch: you might think it’s just another buddy/cop movie, maybe even a really good one. After you’ve seen it, you understand that it is so much more. Like writer/director David Ayer keeps saying, it’s really about the relationship between the two guys who happen to be police officer partners. Personally I kept thinking that for officers in a city like LA, particularly in the kind of neighborhoods they patrol in the movie, their experience is more like being soldiers at the front lines of an ongoing, never-ending war with crime. The intense violence and nearly wall-to-wall profanity will be highly offensive to some, but it’s all real to the time and place and characters. Ayer is showing us truth and unfortunately those things are part of it.

As we witness the special and unique bond between brothers and sisters in arms we get to know how much they are risking on a personal level and yet they don’t consider themselves to be heroes. It’s all just a day’s work for them that ranges from ludicrous to gruesome to deadly. They will take a bullet for each other, each would lay down his life to protect the other. Each feels responsible for the other’s safety. There are many vivid and intense moments in this film; I heard people gasping in shock in the theater long before the end.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are 100% believable as cops (as are all the other actors). Their five months of training for the roles did more than prepare them to play the parts, it helped transform them into cops for 22 days of filming. This is not just another cop movie, or just another gritty action movie, or just another buddy movie. This is a movie about what it’s really like for hard working family men and women to heroically protect and serve the public in a very dangerous place.

The movie feels amazingly real thanks to the documentary style in which it was filmed. To tell the kind of story David Ayer wanted to tell in the way he wanted to tell it, this was the only way it could have been filmed. Using a handheld/documentary style of filming gives it a sense of realism that is vastly different from the way movies are normally shot. Ayer gives us a perspective that puts the viewer right in the action as if you are on a ride-along with those two officers. I didn’t find it to be distracting or overly shaky or annoying like a lot of “found-footage” movies have been. When the style of filming switched to a more traditional point of view, it was so seamless I was not even aware of it at the time. It was later as I was thinking about my experience of watching the movie that I realized there were some scenes that had not been supposedly captured with phone cameras or surveillance videos or as part of their job. Ayer shows some particular genius in being able to craft this movie to achieve that goal.

Yes, there are lots of things about this movie that are Oscar-worthy. Two of them are the performances by Gyllenhaal and Pena. Go see it. And after you do, the next time you see a police officer, thank him or her for their service. It’s the absolute least you can do.

A full bucket of popcorn!A full bucket of popcorn!A full bucket of popcorn!

Rating: THREE Buckets of popcorn, a large soda, box of Milk Duds, bag of peanut M&Ms, large nachos with extra cheese, plus a couple of hot dogs. Then reload and go back and see it again.