“Ted 2” Is a Crass Act, but Not a Total Failure

Ted 2

Ted 2 (Seth MacFarlane, 2015)

Did you see (and like) Ted, Seth MacFarlane’s 2012 box-office hit? If so, the sequel could go either way for you. I hated the original film, in large part because, to me, crudeness and vulgarity, on their own, are not funny. There must be something else, beyond the scatological and obscene, to anchor the grossness in real wit. So it was much to my surprise that I found myself laughing at parts of Ted 2. MacFarlane was showing restraint! The jokes were landing without constant references to outlandish sexual acts! And then Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter) knocked over a shelf full of sperm samples, drenching himself in semen in the process, and out went that idea . . .

Still, such moments are few and far between. What we mostly get is a series of sketch-comedy bits – some of which are funny, some of which aren’t – that doesn’t add up to much of a movie, and that will probably disappoint fans of the first film, but which makes for a fairly watchable 115 minutes worth of passable, though crass (crassable?), entertainment. There’s also a rather offensive (or racially insensitive, at the very least, Morgan Freeman’s participation notwithstanding) bit of jokey equivalency between the plight of an animated bear and that of 19th-century American slave Dred Scott. Then again, this is Seth MacFarlane, after all, so offensiveness is to be expected.

What’s the story? If you remember, in the first film, young John (who would grow up to become Mark Wahlberg), one day wished that his stuffed bear would become real, and – presto! – it happened. Great premise. Squandered by fart jokes. Flash forward 20 years, and John and Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) are still best buds … and drunkards, potheads and sex fiends (well, Ted, anyway). Mila Kunis (Jupiter Ascending) was along for the ride in that movie, as John’s long-suffering girlfriend who can’t compete with the furry friend. After much whore-mongering, Ted finally settled down with fellow cashier Tami-Lynn. John was left sans girlfriend, but he had his bear. You know who rules that relationship …

Ted 2 begins with the wedding of Ted and Tami-Lynn, which provides MacFarlane for all the excuse he needs for a (nicely staged and performed) song-and-dance Busby Berkeley homage (MacFarlane loves his musical moments), one of the high points of the movie. Flash forward a year, and the marriage has gone sour, so Ted and Tami-Lynn decide that the best thing for them would be to have a kid (bad idea, obviously, but played for laughs). Ted cannot procreate, since he is, well, a stuffed bear, so the couple heads to an adoption agency, an act which suddenly exposes Ted to all sorts of questions about his legal personhood, which then drives the plot of the rest of the movie (and the awkward parallels to Dred Scott), such as it is.

Really, though, this is a meandering journey through various gags. My favorites – beyond the Berkeley number – include the Liam Neeson Taken-like cameo (one of many cameos in the film) and a hilarious bit set in an improv theater where Ted yells inappropriately tragic suggestions to the flailing members of the troupe. Neeson, though, is representative of the real problem with the film, which is that there is little continuity between scenes. Given what transpires between Neeson and Ted in their moment together, it’s a missed opportunity when MacFarlane doesn’t bring the action star back at the end to save the day. But that would require screenwriting effort, and as pleasant as much of this is, it’s also fundamentally lazy.

Amanda Seyfried (While We’re Young) is the love interest (for John) this time, and she is always an agreeable screen presence. Wahlberg brings the same somnambulance to his performance here as he did in the first film, and while that gets old, it’s appropriate to the passiveness of his character. Giovanni Ribisi (Gangster Squad) is back as the villain, Donny, and thank goodness for that, as he is one of the funniest actors in the movie. So, all in all, the film is a mess, but not a failure.

Herzog’s Happy Homily: The Death-Defying Cinematic Stunt of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015)

  • “Nature here is vile and base … there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they – they sing. They just screech in pain.” – German film director Werner Herzog, interviewed in Les Blank’s 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, about the making of Fitzcarraldo

The first thing you need to know about Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is that, as the title indicates, there is a young woman who is dying at the center of the story. The second thing you need to know about the film is that it is highly original, very funny and extremely cinematic. Yes, this is a movie comedy (and a damn good one) about cancer. As with the best examples of the (comedy) genre, the film uses humor to remind us why life is worth living in the first place. Art doesn’t imitate life here: it nurtures and revitalizes it. Without our ability to express ourselves creatively, who are we?

Based on the book of the same title, the movie adaptation of Me and Earl was actually written by the original author, Jesse Andrews. The basic story structure of book and movie are the same, but there are significant differences in the tone and details of the film that make it an even richer approach to its difficult material. As such, for this reader/viewer, the adaptation is superior to its source. Since Andrews penned both, I hope he will forgive me.

At the start of our tale (set in Pittsburgh) we meet Greg Gaines, a severely depressed (though he doesn’t realize it) high-school senior who has spent the better part of his life up to now avoiding meaningful human connection, with one notable exception. He has one friend (the exception), named Earl Jackson, though he calls him a “co-worker,” because the two of them have grown up making movies together. Greg is white and middle-class, the child of academics, while Earl is black and poor, the child of absent parents, yet the two of them, early on, formed a fast bond over their love of cinema (they have an especial fondness for Werner Herzog). This passion has manifested itself in an unusual way. They remake their favorite films – parodic title included – using whatever materials they have at hand, the results of which includeAnatomy of a BurgerRosemary Baby CarrotsAte 1/2 (of my lunch), and The 400 Bros. As silly as this enterprise may sound, one of the great joys of the film is seeing clips from the Gaines/Jackson studio, even though Greg, in voiceover, denigrates the work as dumb and derivative. It is clear that these two social outcasts, “screeching in pain,” are both highly intuitive and sensitive young souls.

Enter Rachel Kushner, a fellow senior and vague acquaintance, just diagnosed with leukemia. Greg’s mother more or less orders her son to go cheer Rachel up. Unwilling – but more unwilling to disobey mom – Greg finally makes the visit, only to be rebuffed by Rachel, who can tell he’s being forced, and wants no one’s sympathy. Nerdy goofball that he is, however, Greg manages to charm his way past Rachel’s defenses and is soon spending a lot more time with her than he thought he would want to. He may think she needs a friend (and she does), but what’s even clearer is how much he needs her. Earl joins in, and before too long Rachel is watching their formidable movie output. The only problem is that Greg has long maintained the utmost secrecy about the films, wanting no one to watch them, and so when Earl gives Rachel a stack of DVDs, Greg is resentful and uncomfortable. Still, since Rachel seems to enjoy them – a lot – and since she’s dying, what can he do? And so all is (more or less) good until Rachel’s friend Madison – who has, much to Greg’s mortification, also learned of the films – asks Greg to make a movie for Rachel. That’s a lot different than parodying someone else’s work, and it’s Greg’s journey to find his own voice that drives the plot of the film.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl swept the major awards at this past year’s Sundance Film Festival, and no wonder. Last year at this time we saw The Fault in Our Stars, another film about cancer-stricken teens, and while that film was sweet and lovely in many ways, handling its sad subject with decent sensitivity and without excessive sentimentality, there is something about Me and Earl‘s wildly inventive take on the subject that makes us feel the sadness of the situation even more. Because Greg is such a constantly ironic commentator on his own life and that of his friends, when he is finally forced to confront the realities of life and death – losing his sardonic distanciation coping mechanisms in the process – his loss is our loss and the cathartic release is one of the most powerful emotions I have felt on screen in a long time. Perhaps because we have laughed so hard, earlier, our tears flow that much more freely at the end.

Until then, though (and even while you’re crying), the film is a delightful ride. Where else can you see such a wide variety of movie spoofs, along with very funny stop-motion animation interludes (every time Greg talks to a pretty girl in school, we cut to an image of a moose – the girl – stomping on a chipmunk – Greg)? All of it is complemented by Gomez-Rejon’s direction of the brilliant ensemble cast, which includes: Thomas Mann (Project X) as Greg, RJ Cyler (Second Chances) as Earl, Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel“) as Rachel, Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights“) as Greg’s mom, Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation“) as Greg’s dad, Molly Shannon (Year of the Dog) as Rachel’s mom, and Katherine C. Hughes (Men, Women & Children) as Madison, the “moose” to Greg’s chipmunk. This is a very moving, very complex film, which provides a needed antidote to a lot of the mindless (if fun) summer fare currently playing at the multiplexes. It’s art as it should be: thoughtful, thought-provoking, gripping and emotionally overwhelming. It’s also endlessly entertaining. Go see it now.

[NOTE: This review corrected on July 28 to change “mouse” to “chipmunk” in my description of the stop-motion animation. Thanks to Paula Gallagher for catching my mistake.] 

Midday on “Jaws” at 40: June 26 @ 1pm

[NOTE: Missed the show? You can always listen to the podcast!]

Jaws original poster

On Friday, June 20, 1975, a then little-known director by the name of Steven Spielberg premiered his second theatrical feature, Jaws. Based on author Peter Benchley’s smash debut novel – a best-seller already a year before its adaptation came out – the film was a phenomenal box-office megahit (the first to make more than $100 million) that transformed how movies were marketed and released; indeed, it almost single-handedly invented the modern blockbuster. Beyond that, it was also an excellent action thriller, made under difficult conditions at sea (it was mostly shot on and off the island of Martha’s Vineyard) that could just as easily have sunk both the film and the career of its young helmer. Instead, Spielberg parlayed his critical and commercial triumph into one of the longest and most successful Hollywood careers of all time. He and his good friend George Lucas (who, with Star Wars in 1977, cemented Hollywood’s embrace of blockbuster culture) may have, in 2013, complained about the kinds of films now made by the studios, but with their one-two knockout punch to the movie industry’s “new wave” experiments of the 1970s, they are largely responsible, for better or for worse, for our current era. Still, Jaws remains ever what it was: a terrifically entertaining movie made with tremendous skill and energy, extremely watchable even 40 years after its release.

Join us on Friday, June 26, at 1pm, on WYPR (88.1FM), on the Midday with Dan Rodricks show, when Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – will discuss, along with our host, Dan Rodricks, our thoughts on Jaws and Spielberg (about whom we did a previous show, back in January, 2013), as well as on the film’s impact on Hollywood and popular culture. What, to you, has been the film’s legacy since it came out in 1975? If you the saw the film in its original run, what did you think of it then, and what do you think of it now? Do you ever, because of the film, think about sharks when you swim in the ocean (I know I do!)? Do you avoid the water completely? Add your voices to the conversation via email (midday@wypr.org) or phone (410-662-8780 locally, or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309). If you can’t listen live, then check out the podcast later by visiting the show’s site. You can also leave your thoughts in the comment section of this blog. Hope you can listen in!

“Inside Out” Reminds Us of Why Pixar (and Being Human) Is Special

Inside Out

Inside Out (Pete Docter/Ronaldo Del Carmen, 2015)

Inside Out may not quite rival the first 10 minutes of Up (co-director Pete Docter’s last film) – then again, for my money, nothing that Pixar has ever done, as good as their movies usually are, comes close to the sublime perfection of the opening of that movie – but it comes awfully close. Here, though, the aesthetic trajectory is reversed. Whereas in Up we begin by being overwhelmed with truths about the human condition, then descend into a comparative banality that improves as the film goes on, ending in a close approximation of the beauty of the prologue, in Inside Out we start with silly fun that threatens to go nowhere interesting, and then slowly move towards profound meditations on the meaning of life. It’s a very satisfying journey and by far the most complex and multi-layered piece of commercial entertainment available at the multiplex right now. When Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens in Baltimore next week (at the Senator Theatre), Inside Out will then have a rival for a film that best blends comedy and pathos (avoiding bathos, thankfully). For now, if you want to laugh and cry in equal measure – and be able to bring the kids! – then go see Inside Out immediately.

Inside Out begins with twin births, of Riley and Joy. Riley is a human baby girl, and Joy is a yellow-dressed blue-haired female humanoid (voiced by Amy Poehler, of “Parks and Recreation“), who appears inside of the newly-formed control room at the center of Riley’s brain at the very moment 0f her host’s birth. Joy is so-named because her role is to ensure Riley’s constant happiness. Suddenly, as she manipulates the various buttons and levers on her control panel, another pair of hands appear – as blue as Joy’s hair – and trigger a massive Riley crying fit. These hands belong to Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith, of “The Office“), and for the next 11 years, they will do (mostly) gentle battle over Riley’s moods. They are not alone, though, for they are soon joined by Fear (Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins), Anger (Lewis Black, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart“) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling, also of “The Office“). Why only five emotions? Well, it turns out that Docter consulted with a noted psychologist, and that these – plus surprise (which Docter and his team deemed too similar to fear) – really are the six main emotions of the brain (at least according to current psychological research). So there you go.

Until Riley turns 11, all is more or less good. Her three-person family (no siblings) lives happily in Minnesota, where she is a hockey star (how nice to see a mainstream film promoting such an active and athletic young woman) and spends her leisure moments with her best friend. But then they pack up and head to San Francisco, where her father is involved in what appears to be some sort of start-up venture (this is Riley’s story, so we never really learn the details). This violent rupture from the up-until-then idyllic days of youth requires extra effort from Joy (the de facto leader of the brain) to keep Riley’s emotional ship balanced, especially as mishap piles upon mishap: the city townhouse into which they move is drab compared to the Minnesota digs they just left; the family’s moving van has taken a detour to parts unknown; and the first day at Riley’s new school is a disaster. Joy’s task is made all the harder because Sadness, inexplicably (to herself, as well), keeps touching the globes that store Riley’s core memories (heretofore all yellow with joy), tainting (and tinting) them with her blue melancholy. In a tussle over these globes, Joy and Sadness are accidentally sucked out of the control room and thrown into the nether regions of Riley’s brain, leaving Fear, Anger and Disgust in charge (whoops). In the outside world, this means that Riley is no longer herself, a perfect metaphor for the hormonal changes that come over all of us as puberty approaches. In the inside world, this means that the movie turns into a quest story, as Joy and Sadness must find their way back to the control room as they travel through the now unsettled and collapsing territory of Riley’s brain. Will they make it back before Riley does something drastic? Watch and see . . .

So far, so good, and modestly entertaining, though hardly profound. As the film progresses, however, following Joy and Sadness on their odyssey, what emerges is a complex narrative about the nature of happiness and the role that sadness plays in our ability to feel the full range of our emotions. There is a direct link between joy and sorrow: in every happy memory there is embedded a nostalgia for time past, which tinges it (the memory) with melancholy (in the color scheme of Inside Out, it colors it blue) and this is what makes us human. The two emotions can co-exist within the same sphere, and to deny the one in favor of the other is to deny our basic humanity. As this realization dawns on Joy (perhaps explaining why her hair has always been blue, though her clothes are more yellow-green), so does it give new energy to the story, and raise Inside Out far above the usual summer fare.

There is plenty of goofy fun along the way, and plenty of delightful vocal cameos, too (for you to recognize). For film aficionados, especially, the dream center of the brain made up as a Hollywood studio (Hollywood as dream factory) is very clever, and that is only one of many similarly smart set pieces (just wait until you go briefly inside other people’s brains). As is typical with Pixar (and its parent company, Disney), as much of the humor is accessible to adults as it is for children (though the stuff meant for the former will be far over the heads of the latter), making this a film for all. If you don’t mind a good cry to go along with your laughs – the film should prompt the same joy tinged with melancholy in you as it does in the main characters – then you you’ll love Inside Out and emerge reminded of the very reasons why being alive and human is such a special and wondrous thing.

“Gemma Bovery” Is a Delightful, If Slight, Romp through Flaubert’s Tragedy

Gemma Bovery

Gemma Bovery (Anne Fontaine, 2014)

Are you familiar with a British graphic novel entitled Gemma Bovery? No? Neither was I. When I saw the name of this new film by French filmmaker Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel), I automatically assumed it was an allusion to Gustave Flaubert’s great 19th-century novel of adultery and consequence, Emma Bovary (which it is, for sure). It’s more than that, however, as it’s an adaptation of an adaptation (of a sort). At its center is an English couple living in Normandy – last name Bovery, wife’s first name Gemma – who, in the eyes of local baker Martin Joubert, come to resemble the ill-fated couple of homonymous appellation. Does life actually imitate art, or is it Martin’s obstinate belief in a metaphysical connection between art and life that is the root cause of all that follows? These are the questions posed by Fontaine’s well-made, entertaining and fascinating, if ultimately slight, movie.

The wonderful Fabrice Luchini (Beaumarchais the Scoundrel) plays the middle-aged Martin, who narrates the film in world-weary tones that become a little more animated after the Boverys move in next door. Charles – played by Jason Flemyng (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) – is a man not far from Martin’s own age, married to the much younger Gemma – who, in a nice art-imitating-life twist, is played by Gemma Arterton (Runner Runner). He restores furniture; she is a painter. They’re very much in love, until they cease to be, slowly. As Martin – a married man, himself, and a father, though hardly a happy one – inserts himself into their story through a will to interfere motivated by his own boredom (and Gemma’s luscious curves), we can’t help wonder how Gemma and Charles would have fared without his intrusive meddling. Luchini is a master at showing the warring emotions on Martin’s face as he hesitates, then goes one step too far.

Shot in beautiful golden hues, highlighting Gemma’s sexual allure, the film tackles head-on the (older) male tendency to fixate on (younger) women as objects of desire that can make the world right, if only they would give in. Throughout the movie, Gemma is largely denied personal agency, almost passively giving in to her preordained status as a tragic heroine. But it’s important to always keep in mind that this is Martin Joubert’s story. He acts as our guide, and it is through his point of view that we access the characters. We will never truly know Gemma, only Martin’s version of her.

It’s a very clever movie, and despite the unhappy conclusion (not a plot spoiler, if you have any idea how Madame Bovary ends), it is also very funny, filled with delightfully contentious conversations between French and English people about the nature and meaning of life. One of my favorite characters is Wizzy, the French wife of a British ex-pat, played by the great Elsa Zylberstein (I’ve Loved You So Long), who spends most of the film advising the younger Gemma on what to eat and how to exercise (“I’ve got the ass of a 20-year-old stripper,” she coos). The absurdity of Martin’s obsession with the Bovary-Bovery connection is also played mostly for laughs. So what’s not to like? Nothing, really. If I just liked it, rather than loved it, it’s only because by the end of the film I had grown a little weary of its artifice. If art imitates life, then I was Charles, rather than Martin, tired of the game and ready to move on.

In “Jurassic World,” 3D Dinosaurs Eat 2D Humans (and That’s a Good Thing)

Jurassic World

Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015)

In Jurassic World, dinosaurs rule. Brought back from extinction by the machinations of mad scientists and businessmen, they are not only formidable enemies of the human race, but also much more interesting. As they chomp, stomp and eat their way through Isla Nubar – an island off the coast of Costa Rica that houses the new “Jurassic World” theme park – we, the audience, find ourselves in the odd position of rooting for our destroyers. The whole movie may be in 3D, but only the dinosaurs are truly three-dimensional.

Which, you may point out, is not necessarily a bad thing, nor a reason not to see the film. After all, we watch monster movies for the … monsters. Still, in the original Jurassic Park – directed by Steven Spielberg in 1993, adapted from the original novel by Michael Crichton – our on-screen surrogates were worth rooting for. Not so here. It is fortunate, then, that both the design and characterization of the monsters is as good as it is, for that, at least, makes half a movie.

And that half can be (mostly) very entertaining. Here’s the deal: 20 years after the first theme park went bust after its creatures – a pack of Velociraptors and one ornery Tyrannosaurus Rex, in particular – escaped and made a dinner out of their handlers, a new park has opened, in the same location, with all of the safety kinks (ostensibly) worked out. Owned by “the world’s seventh richest man,” Simon Masrani (Irffan Khan of Life of Pi), the reboot of the world’s most dangerous pleasure garden is both popular and ever in peril of losing its popularity (the ‘raptors and T-Rex are so yesterday). So the team of genetic engineers led by the same brilliant whacko we met in 1993, Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, most recently of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” fame), , has been busy creating new (and improved) dinosaurs, using secret bits of DNA from here and there. The result? The “Indominus Rex,” a terrifying Frankensaur that Masrani plans to unveil soon … after a few precautionary tests have been run.

So what happens with the I-Rex? Not so fast! First we have to meet the dumb humans. This being a film targeted to young folks (despite the PG-13 rating), we need children. We get two brothers, one a surly teen played by the surly Nick Robinson (The Kings of Summer), and one an alternately bouncy and whiny kid played by blank-faced Ty Simpkins (Insidious). Plot spoiler (not really): at the end of the film they are both still alive. This is unfortunate. We also meet their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help), who manages the park, and has agreed to host her nephews on a vacation away from their divorcing parents. All suit, heels, lipstick and hairdo, Claire is an ice princess straight out of my next book, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Misogyny. With a phone glued to her ear, she has time for neither the boys nor for … boys. She is clearly due for a comeuppance. Which comes in the form of hunky dinosaur trainer Owen (Chris Pratt, fresh off a great year 2014 with The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy). All grime to her glam, he’s meant to be Gable to her Colbert. The only problem is that while he might be up to it, she is not.

Wait … did I just write “dinosaur trainer,” above? Yep. Owen, you see, has been working with a pack of four Velociraptors, acting as their Alpha, under the aegis of an island security program created by an (obviously evil) corporation called InGen headed by Vincent D’Onofrio (toning it down only slightly from his recent turn as Wilson Fisk on the Netflix series “Daredevil“). An ex-Navy guy, Owen is a real hombre – or “badass” as Claire’s nephews dub him – and since he can tame actual savage beasts, how hard can an ice princess be?

As retrograde as the sexual politics of the film may be (as Baltimore Magazine editor and film critic Max Weiss has pointed out), at least most of the action sequences are fairly exciting. Especially once InGen puts into place a plan to use the ‘raptors to track the I-Rex (which has, predictably, escaped). And Claire even gets one good moment where she rises above her role as stuffy screamer, rescuing Owen by shooting a Pterodactyl in the head. But it’s the interactions between the dinosaurs that make the film work, when it works. Transcending their ephemeral CG status, they are fully realized creatures whose life-and-death fate matters to us. It means something at the end when they are not all dead (sorry, another plot spoiler, though, again, not really).

At times excruciatingly boring and at other times riveting, Jurassic World should enchant as many viewers as it repels. Colin Trevorrow, the director, has only one other feature credit to his name: the 2012 indie sci-fi dramedy Safety Not Guaranteed. We’ll see if the Velociraptors are as good to him as they are to this movie.

In “Spy,” a Fine Supporting Team Propels Agent Melissa McCarthy to 00-Comedy

[NOTE: I reviewed this on the radio on June 5, along with Entourage” and “San Andreas.” The reviews start at 38min. on the podcast of the show.]

Spy - June 5

Spy (Paul Feig, 2015)

How do you solve a problem like Melissa? She’s not exactly a conventional leading lady, and yet ever since Bridesmaids – for which she was nominated for an Oscar, after a long career in television on such shows as “Gilmore Girls” and “Mike & Molly” – she’s been on something of a roll. How long can it last? In films like The Heat and Tammy, she has continued with the vulgar shtick that made her famous, and it’s getting (for this guy, anyway) old, and fast. But then, in the recent St. Vincent, she showed that she was capable of delivering a real – yet still funny – performance (albeit in a supporting role, once more). Now, in Spy (from Paul Feig, who directed both Bridesmaids and The Heat), she lands in a nice middle ground between the grotesquerie of her first big success and the restraint of her last film, and is delightful as the lead, Susan Cooper, a female support analyst, working for the CIA, who gets her big break when the agency’s top spy goes missing.

Behind every great man is a great woman, they used to say. In the opening of Spy, we see this outdated maxim played out in literal terms. Jude Law (Black Sea) – bedecked in quite a toupee – plays 007 look-a-like Bradley Fine. He’s on a mission in a Balkan country, breaking into a compound filled with gunmen. Communicating with Fine via earpiece is McCarthy’s Cooper who, thanks to (amazingly improbable) satellite imagery, sees all of his surroundings, and so directs him on his every move, letting him know who and what is beyond which door. That Fine completes his mission (sort of) and escapes alive is due only to Cooper’s brilliance. He knows it – and is duly grateful, if arrogant – but Cooper is too insecure and smitten with him to realize that she truly completes him. But then, shortly after beginning a new case, Fine vanishes, presumed dead, and the CIA must send an agent without a known profile out into the field. Of course, the only one who qualifies is Cooper, and so begins our fish-out-of-water/fish-discovers-she’s-a-damn-competent-amphibian comedy-action-adventure tale.

Fans of both McCarthy and James Bond films should love it. And with a fine supporting cast that includes Rose Byrne (Annie), Jason Statham (The Transporter), Bobby Cannavale (Blue Jasmine) and Allison Janney (“The West Wing“) – not to mention British comedienne Miranda Hart (Miranda“), largely unknown in the States – there is plenty of talent on the screen beyond McCarthy, giving as good as they get. Devoid of much of McCarthy’s trademark excess, the movie – though unquestionably dumb, dumb, dumb – offers plenty of jokes that hit their mark, and fits nicely into the recent string of big movies featuring strong central female protagonists (such as Mad Max: Fury Road and Pitch Perfect 2). I saw the film at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, and laughed so hard that my belly ached. Go see it.

For Better or for Worse, “Entourage” Is Loyal to Its Roots

[NOTE: I reviewed this on the radio on June 5, along with Spy” and “San Andreas.” The reviews start at 38min. on the podcast of the show.]

Entourage

Entourage (Doug Ellin, 2015)

In Entourage, the boys are back in town (apologies to Thin Lizzy), and, as before, it’s bros before hoes all the way. Which should come as no surprise to anyone who watched even one episode of HBO’s long-running series (2004-2011) of the same name. I watched far more than that, making it all the way through five seasons before I gave up on the gleefully drunken, stoned and unapologetically misogynistic romp through the (not so) fictionalized life of a male movie star and his friends (the “entourage”). It was a guilty pleasure for me until it became a guilty bore. Executive-produced by Mark Wahlberg (Broken City), the series was originally intended to be an entertaining and (only mildly) exaggerated look at someone very much like Wahlberg, himself, to whom celebrity had come after a not-so-privileged upbringing. Over eight seasons, we watched the rise and fall and rise again of actor Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier, The Devil Wears Prada); his best friend and manager, Eric, or “E” (Kevin Connolly, The Notebook); his half-brother, Johnny “Drama” Chase (Kevin Dillon, Poseidon); his driver (and everyone’s sidekick), “Turtle” (Jerry Ferrara, Think Like a Man Too); and mercurial super-agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven, in a career-making role). It was a blast, until it wasn’t.

Now, in a 104-minute feature film, we meet Vince and his friends again. For those who may know little or nothing about the original series, fear not, for we are offered, early on, a recap of the lives of the characters, courtesy of a Piers Morgan profile (it’s an alternate universe, then, since his show is long off the air). Before that, however, we meet the bunch in Ibiza, where Vince is partying on a yacht (cue female nudity) in celebration of the end of his 9-day marriage to … I don’t know, actually, since I never got to Season 8. No matter: the women have always been incidental to these guys. Except for (maybe) Mrs. Gold (much stronger than Eric’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Sloan), who wields enough influence over her husband that she was able to force him to quit agenting (a word I just made up). Except that Ari minus work is not that exciting, so as the film begins she has grudgingly allowed him to go to back to Hollywood, albeit as a studio head (which she and he mistakenly believe will be a calmer job than the one he had before). In that role, Ari approaches Vince to star in a new movie entitled Hyde (as in Jekyll and ), which Vince agrees to do, as long as he gets to direct.

Flash forward a year (more or less), and Piers Morgan brings us up to date not only on what’s happened in Seasons 1-8, but also on what has happened with Hyde. Turns out it’s over budget, and Vince needs more money. Count this financial need (or Hyde, itself) as the MacGuffin, since what this movie (and all of the previous episodes) is about is male bonding and friendship. That’s not to say that there isn’t a script, and that the movie isn’t well structured (writer-director, and series showrunner, Ellin knows his craft). It is. Imagine the film as either an extended episode or a truncated season, and you’ll get an idea of the vibe and the pace. We’re here to enjoy the actors we’ve come to love (or not), see them flirt with (and maybe have sex with) beautiful (naked) women, drink too much, smoke some weed, and behave stupidly until the moment of truth, when suddenly they will all get their act together and pull through whatever crisis has developed. It can be crass, but also fun. Take your pick (the two are not mutually exclusive, however). Everyone’s here to have a good time. That doesn’t mean you will, but I did, for the most part. I was especially excited that “Gaysian Lloyd” (Rex Lee) was not left out, and was even given a significant (and very funny) subplot of his own. Over the course of the seasons I watched, his eternal optimism and resilience in the face of Ari’s meanness was one of the most engaging parts of the show.

So – know what you’re getting yourself in for, and either go with it, or ask yourself what you’re doing in the theater in the first place. If you loathed the series, and aren’t Wendy Molyneux, stay home. But if you were a fan, then this is a great way to say goodbye to the boys (until Entourage 2, anyway). Enjoy!

The Repeat vs. The Repeater, or Notes vs. Guns: The Mild Pleasures of “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Slow West”

I am a little behind on some of my movie reviewing, but thought I would nevertheless post a short two-fer. Enjoy.

Pitch Perfect 2

Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks, 2015)

Mediocrity notwithstanding, Pitch Perfect 2 hits a sweet feminist note, though it is not nearly as fun or fresh as its predecessor (released in 2012). Written by Kay Canon (who also wrote the first one) and directed by the actress Elizabeth Banks (making her feature-helmer debut), who also returns in her role as one of the silly competition announcers, the movie brings back the original cast (more or less), with Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as a welcome new addition. We get more singing (both formal concerts and riff-offs) and more intercollegiate drama, as well as some (thin) new plot lines about life after college. It’s the same movie as before, only not as good. True, we do meet a very funny new nemesis group – the German “Das Sound Machine” – but that’s not enough to make the movie sparkle. Somehow, Pitch Perfect 2 beat Mad Max: Fury Road on their shared opening weekend, even though the latter film was better made and a more exciting cinematic experience (and had equally strong feminist credentials, whatever that means), and both were sequels (of a sort, in the case of Mad Max). I don’t know why, but I can say that if you liked the first Pitch Perfect (which I did), you’ll probably find some things to like in the second one. Take your pick of the long-ago published reviews to see where you might stand.

Despite my somewhat lukewarm reaction, what I love is the way in which the movie is all about the female bonding. Yes, there are a couple of male-female romances within (as well as an unfortunate one-joke lesbian), but the spine of the plot is how the central female a cappella group – the Barden Bellas – are always there for each other, no matter what. At the end of the film, we are treated to a delightful (at last, since so many of the musical numbers disappoint!) final competitive performance where generations of Bellas gather around the current group in support. It reminded of the wonderful ethos, of women standing by women, that is at the heart of the great “Hammond Song,” by The Roches – or, even more so, of the way that song is performed by the Yale Senior all-women a cappella group Whim ‘n Rhythm, which uses it to call up past generations of their membership at their concerts. No matter what else falls flat (like the jokes by the Guatemalan character about her tragic upbringing), the finale is powerful. So there’s that.

Slow West

Slow West (John MacLean, 2015)

When Slow West played at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Jury Prize Dramatic AwardThe Hollywood Reporter published a review calling the film “a pitch-perfect debut from musician-turned-filmmaker John Maclean.” How fitting, then, that I should follow Pitch Perfect 2 with my thoughts on this film, still playing at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre. And though I must disagree with both Sundance and The Hollywood Reporter (and most critics) about the movie’s perfection, I still find Slow West to be a fascinating meditation on violence, civilization and the western genre, itself.

Slow West takes place in 1870, and centers on a young man from Scotland, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee, Let Me In), who has come to America in search of his lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius, “Offspring“). We don’t find out until later why she left their homeland, though we catch glimpses of her in flashbacks. When we first meet Ray, he is wandering, alone on horseback, through a desolate landscape of burning Native-American dwellings. A male voice, which we will very soon connect to a bounty hunter named Silas (Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave) narrates this stark opening, before the man, himself, shows up and shoots a would-be hold-up artist in the head, thereby effectively taking young Jay under his wing. The violence does not end here: we’re only just getting started. And yet, it’s a quiet film, with almost no non-diegetic sounds (differentiating itself from its bleak revisionist cousin of the 1990s, Dead Man, in which the music of Neil Young blared throughout). When guns are fired and blood spilled, there’s usually very little warning. Though the film, reflecting both its title and the time in which it’s set, meanders, there is nothing slow about the eruptions of brutality. This is how the so-called civilized world tames the wilderness, through mayhem and turbulence.

So why is it less than perfect? Well, it all feels so schematic: no one speaks like a real human being, and very few characters are allowed enough depth to be meaningful. The film is beautifully photographed by Robbie Ryan (Philomena), yet the people who inhabit the landscape feel like constructs. When we briefly meet a German writer named Werner (perhaps a reference to the great Herzog?), he utters the memorable line, “In a short time, this will all be a long time ago.” That’s a brilliant statement, but it merely serves to underline the fundamental artificiality of the set-up, since no one really talks like that (well, except for Werner Herzog). Still, there are a lot of great concepts up on the screen, and Fassbender is always a pleasure to watch. The equally mesmerizing Ben Mendelsohn (“Bloodline“), shows up for a few all-too-brief scenes, too. See it for them, and for the cinematography, and for the idea of the movie. It may not be great cinema, but it’s compelling enough.