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.

ADMISSION-Poster

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 

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 

 

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…”

Warm Bodies

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

Rock of Ages

Image_square_webby Susan

2012, Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Russell Brand, Alec Baldwin, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, et al. Directed by Adam Shankman.

Wonderfully funny, surprisingly entertaining, and gloriously filled with some of the greatest music of the late 20th century.

Movies based on Broadway musicals are usually not my first choice, and Rock of Ages was no exception. But I had already seen most everything else currently showing and I knew better than to expect my movie companion to go willingly to see Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. I didn’t have a lot of expectations going in, wasn’t familiar with the Broadway production, wasn’t sure who was in the cast, and just needed a relaxing break from a pretty stressful week. Man, am I glad this is the one we saw!

This movie ROCKED!! It’s thin on plot – no surprises there – as it only needs enough story to string together all of the amazing music. Awesome, incredible, stupendous, marvelous music – we were singing along, dancing in our seats, and laughing ourselves silly! People of a certain age or anyone who enjoys fantastic rock music should not miss this wonderfully funny, surprisingly entertaining, and gloriously nostalgic homage to the 1980’s.

Sherrie is a sweet, young innocent who goes to L.A. hoping to make a name for herself. Upon arrival she meets Drew, a closet musician working as a bouncer at the legendary Bourbon Room. They hit it off and immediately launch into song about their mutual desires to become famous music artists. Stacee Jaxx is a bizarre cowboy rocker and enigmatic former lead singer of Arsenal, the biggest (fictional) rock band in the world. The aging Jaxx is trying to ignite a solo career hampered by too much booze and a decadent lifestyle filled with willing groupies and an unforgettable sidekick named Hey Man. Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand operate the Bourbon Room and are depending on the revenue from Jaxx’s one-night performance to save the business. Jaxx’s nefarious manager, played by Paul Giamatti, is out to manipulate anyone and everyone for his own greedy purposes.

Just when Drew gets his once-in-lifetime big break, a terrible misunderstanding ruins his chances for fame, fortune, and love. Giamatti has big plans for him, but not exactly what Drew has always wanted. Brokenhearted, contemplating going back home, Sherrie discovers she has a talent that pays the bills better than waitressing ever did. Now that their paths have diverged so drastically, will the young lovers ever be reunited? Will Stacee Jaxx sober up long enough to perform on stage? Will Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand save the Bourbon Room – and finally realize what they mean to each other in the process? Will fresh-faced, dancing boy bands lip-synching sugary-sweet pop tunes replace real rockers?

There are a few other plot lines interspersed along the way providing more opportunities for even more fabulous big production numbers of the best rock-and-roll music ever. Plot is not important; as noted before, it’s all just a great reason to experience the music. With that said, regardless of the story’s predictability, it was hilarious and over-the-top F-U-N!

Brand and Baldwin were great, Giamatti was the perfect villain, Catherine Zeta-Jones was marvelous as the crusader trying to shut down the Bourbon Room, and Julianne Hough as Sherrie and Diego Boneta as Drew made it all work. Oh yes… Stacee Jaxx was portrayed by Mr. Miniature Man* himself, Tom Cruise. Of course it wasn’t any kind of stretch for Mr. MM; all he had to do was show up and be his everyday weird self. I can think of several better actors for that role…

*See my review of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol for more about Mr. MM.

Three boxes of popcornRating: Triple Serving

21 Jump Street

Image_square_webby Susan

2012, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Ice Cube. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

In case you didn’t know, 21 Jump Street was a TV show created by Stephen J. Cannell in the late 1980s. I never watched it myself, although I know a lot of people who looooved it. I think they probably liked it so much because it featured nice-looking baby-faced actors playing cops who could, theoretically at least, infiltrate high schools and blend in as teenagers while conducting undercover operations. How cool is that!? Anyway, I didn’t discover Johnny Depp until the amazing Edward Scissorhands. Yes, that’s right, in case you’ve been living under a rock or a in a moon cave for the past 25 years or so, Johnny Depp was the heartthrob of a TV cop show before he made the big leap to the silver screen. (See how I resisted temptation to use the phrase “jumped ship” which would have called to mind not only 21 Jump Street, but also his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise? You’re welcome!)

The only possible way to pay homage to the 21 Jump Street of 80’s television is to make it a parody, and that can be tricky. A good parody must pay homage to its origin story and also be gut-bustingly funny in a warm-hearted, nostalgic sense without going overboard and insinuating that the original was just plain stupid or lame – even if it might have been. The movie triumphs in that regard; it is not only hilarious, thanks mainly to the two leads, but also true to the intent of the original TV show – good-looking grownup cops getting involved with teenagers. (If that wasn’t the original intent of the TV show, I don’t care because I never watched it, as I mentioned already.)

So, getting on with the review… To paraphrase a description of the old TV show: “21 Jump Street is the address of the headquarters for a squad of police officers who specialize in investigations relating to young people. Each of the Jump St. personnel was selected for their ability to pass for high school students, allowing them to operate undercover in areas where it is difficult for regular police officers to blend in unnoticed.” That’s pretty much the same synopsis for the movie, except that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play two police officers who sort of… “complete” each other. Hill was a hopeless nerd and Tatum was a popular dumb jock from the same high school; they discover each other again at the police academy and help each other graduate to become inept police officers on bicycles. Not content with such a lame assignment, they are given a chance to prove themselves when transferred to the Jump Street squad. Hilarity ensues as they revert to their old teenage personas of nerd and popular jock but their undercover identities have them switched; Hill must play the popular guy and Tatum must be the brainy one.

Confused by the social cliques, attire, language, sensibilities, and just about everything having to do with teenagerness of current times, the two cops must find a way to work together to take down a drug ring operating out of the high school before its illicit poison can spread through the city and beyond. Along the way they will become a little too immersed in their fictional roles as teenagers.

Tatum and Hill are both superb in their respective roles, the supporting cast is excellent, the script is sharp and witty, the action sequences are both over the top spectacular and spectacularly uproarious. There is plenty here to help fans fondly remember the old TV show but for those who never watched it – like me – this movie stands on its own, never faltering as it hurtles its way to an explosive climax with a few welcome surprises along the way.

In a word, it’s FUNNY. Go see it.

Three boxes of popcornRating: Triple Serving

The Muppets

Image_square_webby Susan

2011, Amy Adams, Jason Segel, Chris Cooper. Directed by James Bobin. Written by Jim Henson, Jason Segel, and Nicholas Stoller.

Think of the coziest, happiest, sweetest, most enchanting memory of your childhood. Now triple that feeling and you are getting close to capturing the special magic that is, collectively, the Muppets. Sure, they’ve been around for a while, but in their own classically unique and ageless way, they are as fresh and relevant now as they ever have been.

I was privileged to see the new movie The Muppets with not only the other two-thirds of CosmicTwinsMedia.com, but several members of a multi-generational pack that included a five-year-old, a guy in his late twenties, some thirty-somethings, and a couple of old geezers. It’s difficult to say who enjoyed it more, the five-year-old or the rest of the group. (There was some particularly noisy laughter and enjoyment emanating from a couple of the thirty-somethings, who shall remain nameless. For now.) Some of the sight gags and jokes were a little over the five-year-old’s head, but he was just as engrossed in the story as the rest of us. The Muppets’ special brand of humor still transcends age.

In this latest film from the empire that Jim Henson built, the Muppets have each gone their own way, missing the glory days of the old Muppet Show and the Muppet Theater where they performed their variety acts and welcomed a new guest host each week. The old show has lived on in syndication and on disc, capturing the imaginations of new fans with the passage of time. One of these fans in particular, Walter, is such a devoted follower of the Muppets it is his life-long dream to some day tour the Muppet theater and maybe even (gasp!) meet Kermit. Walter’s brother Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) decide to help Walter realize his dream and do a lot of singing about it before they hit the road to Hollywood.

When the trio arrive in L.A. and discover that the old Muppet theater is not the museum it should be, but a dilapidated, neglected, derelict, their disappointment is understandable. Then they also discover that a greedy bad guy is going to tear it down and drill for oil! This cannot be allowed to happen! The only way to save the historic home of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, and all the rest of the troupe is to raise $10 million in an impossibly short time. The only chance of raising all that money in such a short time is to get the old Muppet gang back together and put on a telethon to get donations from Muppet fans. The problem is that all of the Muppets have scattered far and wide and Kermit is afraid that they are no longer interested in the old variety show. Even worse, Kermit fears that Miss Piggy will never consent to rejoining the act as she has declared that she is through with him once and for all.

Will Kermit, with Walter, Gary, and Mary’s help, be able to find all of the old gang? Will Miss Piggy reconsider and take Kermit back? Will Gary realize that Mary wants a life for the two of them that might not include Muppets on a 24/7 basis? Will the Muppets be able to find a willing guest host for the telethon? Will Walter ever realize just how much of a Muppet he is on the inside (as well as on the outside)? These questions and more are answered as the gang careens through innumerable sight gags, double entendres, hilarious situations, fantastic cameo appearances from Hollywod A-listers, and riotous jokes, not to mention some spectacular song and dance numbers. The nostalgia factor for those of us who have been long-time Muppet/Henson fans is off the charts, but even more importantly, it gets the five-year-old’s stamp of approval. To quote him: “It was awesome!

A full bucket of popcorn!Rating: Full Bucket plus some nachos with extra cheese, a box of Milk Duds, a large soda, some cotton candy, a big bag of peanut M&M’s ….