Villains

Release: Friday, September 20, 2019

→Hulu 

Written by: Dan Berk; Robert Olsen

Directed by: Dan Berk; Robert Olsen

In terms of competence, small-time criminals Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are closer to the Harry and Marv end of the spectrum than they are the Bonnie and Clyde side. These impetuous twenty-somethings are not very good at crime. They are also on the verge of retiring to Florida. Once they rob this convenience store — wearing goofy animal masks, because, why not? — they vow to turn over a new leaf. Soon enough they will literally be selling sea shells down by the seashore. It’s not much of a plan, but it’s a plan nonetheless.

Problem #1: They run out of gas before they can even get out of the woods of Wherevertheyaresville, and are forced into sidetracking to an isolated house where they hope to grand theft auto their way down to the Sunshine State. Justifying their actions turns out to be a pretty fun and rewarding game for those of us watching from afar. These are two kids who make bad decisions but have good hearts; they seem committed to one another and to this idea of living a different kind of life. Once inside the house, they promptly set about snorting coke in order to inspire a plan to relieve the homeowners of their car (or at least enough gas so they can continue on their merry way).

Problem #2: They aren’t exactly expecting to find a young girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained to a pipe in the basement. Mickey wants nothing more than to just GTFO; Jules insists they take the child with them. When they head back upstairs to find the keys to free her they stumble right into George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) and Problem #3 begins. And it’s a doozy. Small-time crooks must learn how to outwit big-time weirdos whose calm demeanor and southern mannerisms are a thin veneer masking sinister intentions.

Villains is the third feature from directing duo Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, a pair of up-and-comers whose first full-length movie, 2015’s Body, was made on a budget of $50k and filmed in 11 days. Villains is another budget-conscious film but one that gets a lot of mileage out of its simple premise, confined setting and small cast. Berk and Olsen describe it as a creative breakthrough. It’s an impressively ergonomic production. This is indie filmmaking elevated by established acting talent and an addictive combination of offbeat humor and palpable tension. The cast dig into their roles with fervent energy, and skillfully use that energy to create memorable characters who, Sedgwick aside, don’t come with much of a backstory.

Villains may not do anything radical, yet the filmmakers manage to throw in a few interesting wrenches into each party’s plans that make for a fun-filled adventure, one that builds to a violent and satisfying payoff. It’s a spirited good time and while the scales tip decidedly more toward comedy than horror, the murky morality of the whole thing is sure to encourage multiple rewatches.

Hands off the table, please.

Recommendation: It’s the high-energy acting that really sells it. Fans of Bill “Pennywise” Skarsgård and Maika Monroe are strongly urged to track Villains down. Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan are no slouches either. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 82 mins.

Quoted: “What makes you feel good? Ice cream. Mint choc –“

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMDb

The Gentlemen

Release: Friday, January 24, 2020

→Theater

Written by: Ivan Atkinson; Marn Davies; Guy Ritchie

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

The Gentlemen appears as a sight for sore eyes for anyone hoping for Guy Ritchie to return to form. After a string of generic blockbusters that kicked off with Sherlock Holmes in 2009 and then lasted forever, it seemed pretty clear he was not returning to his old stomping grounds — the seedy, criminal underworld of London as depicted in indie hits Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1999) and Snatch (2000). And why would he? Franchise filmmaking has rewarded him. His “hot” Aladdin remake turned out to be really hot — grossing more than a billion dollars at the global box office last year.

Like a sequel, The Gentlemen is not as fresh as the early Cockney gangster films that put his name on the map but it is another example of the transformative effect of Ritchie’s style and process. His movies are litmus tests of his cast’s willingness to separate brand image from the bell-ends they’re compelled to become as well as their ability to adapt on the fly to his extemporaneous approach to shooting. His latest crime comedy features as many plot points, diversions and schemes as it does famous faces, and it does not disappoint when it comes to watching big-name actors trying to wrap their mouths around Ritchie’s barbwire dialogue. Some succeed more than others, but with the sheer size of The Gentlemen‘s roster, it’s a pretty high success rate.

Oscar-winner and proud Texan Matthew McConaughey passes muster as Mickey Pearson, an expat who left his poverty-stricken life in America thanks to a scholarship to Oxford. As many a McConaughey character is wont to do, he becomes a major cannabis advocate. What began as a small business venture selling to the stuffy students evolves into a massively profitable weed empire founded on (technically under) British soil and through violence and intimidation on the streets. When conspiring circumstances force the old man out of the game, he triggers an avalanche of plots and schemes as a long line of potentials vie to take his place upon the throne. But it will take more than pure business acumen to actually oust a king.

In the simplest terms, The Gentlemen boils down to a potential transaction between two savvy businessmen who both happen to be Yankees — Pearson and billionaire Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong, who seems least at home in this environment). In Ritchie’s world trust, like political correctness, is always in short supply. There’s borderline none of it here, with Strong’s annoyingly nebbish (but at least well-dressed) Berger possibly in cahoots with even worse people. Rogue agent Dry Eye (Henry Golding, doing good work to separate himself from a recent string of hunky eligible bachelor types) blows through the narrative, utterly unconcerned about the damage he’s doing and whose business he’s worse for. His arrogance makes him a true threat to Pearson’s power and legacy. Themes collide full-force in one of the movie’s signature scenes wherein a hopeful Dry Eye offers to buy Pearson out at an exorbitant price. And it is bad form to decline such an offer when it’s so clear his time is up as ruler of this urban jungle.

The characters are certainly worth remembering but the other big part of the equation is the deliberately convoluted storytelling. The Gentlemen is ambitious to a fault. It’s daunting enough to keep up with this labyrinth of relationships, clandestine partnerships and double-crosses unfolding. But, as it turns out, this whole farce is taking place in the not-so-distant past. The details are relayed to Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), consigliere to the King of Kush, by a gloriously against-type Hugh Grant as Fletcher, a smarmy private investigator who is trying to blackmail those who have wronged Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), the editor of a British tabloid journal. The framing device — “let’s play a game, Raymond,” Fletcher pleads like a school boy with a dirty little secret — overcomplicates an already stuffed narrative.

It’s not as though nothing good has come of Ritchie’s rise to prominence in the mainstream. The Gentlemen is a crime comedy of noticeably increased scale. We’ve outgrown the neighborhood of card sharps, street brawlers and estate agents and moved to the international ring of truly bad blokes and drug lords. Here you’ll encounter everyone from low-ranking British Lords to sons of Russian oligarchs and at least two generations of Chinese gangsters. There’s also Colin Farrell running around trying to repay a debt after his ragtag group of MMA fighters ignorantly steals something they shouldn’t have. For what it cost to make The Gentlemen, Ritchie could have made Snatch and RocknRolla with money left over to blow on van loads of ganja. Bigger doesn’t always mean better, yet from a technical standpoint the movie justifies the price tag — the wardrobes snazzy and the production design a classy, sleek upgrade.

For all that is ridiculous and excessive about The Gentlemen, I can’t really complain. It’s just nice to have our Guy back.

Henry Golding taking the mickey out of Matthew McConaughey

Recommendation: SPOILERS LURK IN THIS SECTION. Come for the cast, stay for the schadenfreude (and the insults). There aren’t too many good people here to root for. In fact, that’s part of what makes The Gentlemen interesting. It’s refreshing to see the villain come out on top for a change. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “There’s only one rule in the jungle: When the lion’s hungry, he eats!” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed  written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Release: Friday, February 8, 2019

→Theater

Written by: the Lord Philip; Christopher, a distinguished member of the Miller clan

Directed by: someone of indeterminate skill (Mike Mitchell)

Cough. It’snotasgoodasthefirst. Cough.

Excuse me. The weather lately, I’m definitely under it — while also being totally over it. It was in the 60s last Friday, mere days after a cold snap introduced single digit temps, and now here we are again dealing with snow’s annoying cousins, hail and sleet. This streak of wild weather might explain the modest crowd that I experienced The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part with on opening night. Or have audiences just moved on? Remember the first one came out five years ago, and while there was more to come it took three years before those obligatory spin-offs came about (The Lego Batman Movie, another hit, and The Lego Ninjago Movie, not so much — both released in 2017). Is Lego Movie fatigue a real thing? Are we spoilt for choice? Whatever the reason, the release of Lego 2 feels much less of an event, the kind of Big Deal I would have anticipated given the success of that first film.

The classic crew return in Mike Mitchell’s space opera adventure, with Chris Pratt earnest and naive as ever as hero Emmet Brickowski, Elizabeth Banks more dark and brooding as Wyldstyle/Lucy, Will Arnett even more baritone-voiced as “The Man of Bats,” Alison Brie reliably Unikitty, Charlie Day as Spaceman Benny and Nick Offerman full-metal-bearded as the . . . pirate . . . guy. Away from them we are introduced to a handful of new personalities, some of them as memorable as any of the preexisting ones. And while the specifics of the plot are entirely different the basic shape of the story is retained, the animated characters and action foregrounded against a live-action environment where those plot developments emulate what is happening in a child’s imagination. No, the set-up isn’t as fresh a second time around but I still find it to be one of the great strengths of this franchise, and even as Lego 2 returns to the surface more often it does it to great effect.

After standing up to the all-powerful Lord Business/The Man Upstairs (Will Ferrell) in the first movie, Emmet feels quite optimistic about the future, despite present-day Bricksburg (now called Apocalypseburg) looking like a Mad Max/Blade Runner wasteland where everything is far from awesome. An inter-racial war between Legos and Duplos have ravaged the land and turned the good Bricksburgians into hardened plastic cynics. Yet amidst this abyss of humanity Emmet has gone ahead and built a little house for him and Lucy to carry out their lives in, and it has everything, including a double-decker porch swing and a Toaster Room.

When General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), the leader of the Duplo invaders and hench-woman of the “not evil” Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), pays a visit to the people of Bricksburg, now confined to a fall-out shelter á la Star Wars: The Last Jedi, she abducts Lucy and a few other unfortunates, coercing them to take part in a wedding ceremony in the far-away Systar System. Emmet, with little support from his peers — not even Lucy, who is yearning for a more mature, less naive Emmet given the times in which they live — determines it is his duty to save them. Along the way he meets a badass named Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Chris Pratt), who will help Emmett not only become “more badass” but as well prevent the impending plastic nuptials that will bring about “Our-Mom-Ageddon.”

Plot and themes suffice, but that’s really all they do. They fail to wow. We deal with familiar notions of dealing with change and staying true to one’s identity in the face of societal/peer pressure. What is new, however, is the deconstruction of action hero tropes. Is being “The Badass” all that it’s cracked up to be? Emmet, ever the underdog, is challenged both by his past actions and his present conflict. It is suggested he took a disproportionate amount of credit as “The Special,” when Lucy did as much if not more of the ass-kicking. In the present the essence of who he is becomes tested — can he become this more serious, more assertive, less frequently pushed-over Lego piece Lucy wants him to be? What happens when he succeeds at that?

The answers to those questions and a few more may well lie in the egotistic Rex Dangervest, a fun new character who showcases everything that is inherently silly about icons of machismo like Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis. In fact his very existence is a parody of Chris Pratt’s own career, whether taking aim at that stupid thing he did with the raptors in Jurassic World or poking fun of his potential casting as Indiana Jones — all of which being material more geared towards the adult chaperones in attendance.  It seems unlikely kids are going to get many of those references, never mind comprehend the time traveling twist that is rather convoluted to say the least.

Beyond that, Lego 2 makes a conscientious effort to balance the perspective, making the female characters just as integral to the emotional core of the narrative, whether that be on the macro — the real-world drama depicted as a sibling squabble, with Finn (Jadon Sand) not wanting to play nice with his younger sister Bianca (Brooklynn Prince), who’s gotten into Legos herself and wants to do her own thing with them — or the micro level, Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi presenting a shape-shifting femme fatale who turns out to be more than what meets the eye — her “Not Evil” song suggesting she may well be an aspiring Masked Singer contestant. And let us not forget who it is that has inspired Emmet to change.

The release of The Lego Movie back in 2014 was a hugely nostalgic ride for this former Lego enthusiast. I was reminded not just of my obsession with the building blocks but as well the genius of Pixar’s Toy Story. It may not be the most accurate comparison given that the characters technically have less autonomy in the Lego universe. Unlike in Toy Story where the movie happens in the absence of the humans, here the characters are wholly reliant upon human interaction and manipulation — which, incidentally, is what makes Lego 2‘s grand finale so incongruous; I won’t say anything more, but suffice to say it really doesn’t make sense. Still, the very concept of a child’s play things coming to life and given such personality struck me as kind of profound.

Lego 2 clearly aspires to be a Toy Story 2 but unfortunately it is not that movie. In fairness, what sequel is? It takes a similar tact in expanding the canvas, taking the action into outer space, but ultimately it’s unable to escape the shadow of its more successful older brother. That’s most obvious in its attempt to create another ear bug in the form of “The Catchy Song,” a tune that ironically turns out to be nowhere near as catchy as “Everything is Awesome.” It’s a poppy jingle more than an actual song, and its fleetingness tends to sum up the experience as a whole.

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.”

Recommendation: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part delivers more of what fans should have expected but it cannot overcome a sense of been-there-done-that. That the law of diminishing returns applies even to the brilliantly quick witted Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (and the guys at Animal Logic who provide the animation) just goes to show how difficult it is to improve upon an already strong foundation. Even if Lego 2 is a step down, it once again will reward older viewers while keeping the little ones busy with the hectic action and bright colors. Despite the flaws it is still worthy of being seen in a theater. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “I ain’t Selina Kyle. I ain’t no Vicki Vale. I was never into you even when you were Christian Bale.”

“I’m more of a Keaton guy myself.”

“Oh, I loved him in Beetlejuice!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

30 for 30: Mike and the Mad Dog

Release: Thursday, July 13, 2017

→ESPN 

Directed by: Daniel H. Forer

Love them or hate them, any appreciator of grown men yelling at each other over the airwaves in the name of entertainment has Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo to thank for giving birth to modern sports radio talk. At the height of their success, no one could touch them.

Directed by 10-time Emmy Award™-winning documentarian/writer/producer Daniel H. Forer, Mike and the Mad Dog offers one final parting gift to fans of the sports talk show that aired for 19 years and five — count ’em, five — hours each weekday afternoon on WFAN 101.9 FM. Nestled deep in the heart of New York, “The Fan” is famous for becoming the first radio station in the country to offer 24/7 sports coverage. Over the course of a fleeting but highly entertaining hour Forer digs into the origins of the show, the personalities that made it happen, and the mechanisms that both drove its success and that ultimately led to its downfall.

The first broadcast of Mike and the Mad Dog aired in September 1989. At the time there was little evidence to suggest the experiment would be successful, never mind end in the tearful manner in which it did in August 2008. Francesa had done the grunt work at CBS, starting out as a stat boy and college sports analyst, before expressing an interest in shifting over to radio broadcasting. WFAN at the time were looking for established talent rather than someone with no experience. Though Francesa’s encyclopedic knowledge helped him gain footing, station management had no desire to give him his own platform.

Chris Russo, on the other hand, was all but born on-air, his voice “a bizarre mixture of Jerry Lewis, Archie Bunker and Daffy Duck.” He was energetic, a Tasmanian devil behind the mic. Russo began his career at a station in Central Florida, where his thick New York accent was so alien he was sent to a speech therapist twice a week. He later relocated to The Big Apple, briefly dipping his toes into Christian radio at WMCA before becoming roped into a most unlikely gig with WFAN, where he’d spend the next 19 years foaming at the mouth over the days’ hottest sports stories.

Mike and the Mad Dog was created out of a need to better reach WFAN’s target audience — the city proper and its surrounding suburbs. A more traditional, buttoned-up format predated it and featured a revolving door of national anchors who all failed to resonate. The station desperately sought a more local feel, and in the seemingly diametrically opposed Francesa and Russo they struck gold. Not only were they true-blue New Yawkas, they were bona fide geeks who spoke in the language of the typical sports fan. They both loved sports and talking about them — they just didn’t really love the prospect of talking about them with each other.

The documentary covers an impressive amount of real estate, touching on a number of personal aspects before moving beyond the personalities and their disparate upbringings to address the numerous controversies they became involved in and occasionally triggered themselves. From the Don Imus firing in 2007 to the infamous broadcast on September 12, 2001, Mike and the Mad Dog have taken the show to some incredible highs as well as cringe-inducing lows. Consistent with their style, they dealt with backlash in their own acrimonious ways.

Given how routinely Francesa and Russo together (and individually) became the thorn in the sides of local sports figures — be they current team owners or retired players (even columnists, like the Post’s Phil Mushnick weren’t exactly safe) — those events weren’t aberrations. Of course their stance on Imus and reaction to 9/11 also didn’t do much to dispel the notion that after so many years the two had developed egos larger than the city they were covering. Their vast sports knowledge wasn’t to be questioned, yet it also couldn’t save them from getting into trouble. Forer holds interviews with friends and former colleagues who admit there were times the two just couldn’t help themselves.

Arranged marriages can be awkward, as the pair attest on camera. That’s how they viewed their relationship — less a natural coming together as it was a forceful shoving. Chemistry lacked to say the least in the early going. Yet, as time passed, they found their rhythm and gained a respect for each other, with Mike in particular being impressed with his very animated partner’s ability to hold his own in a debate. After so much time together, they became more like a family and the documentary effectively captures that spirit. As Russo might put it, sometimes family drives ya frikkin’ nuts.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Recommendation: Mike and the Mad Dog is an intriguing exploration of the way ambition, recognition and egotism all play a hand in the shaping of high-profile careers. It is close to essential viewing for those who have lamented the break-up (now 10 years ago) and have never quite gotten over it. 

Rated: TV-G

Running Time: 50 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.newyork.cbslocal.com

Thor: Ragnarok

Release: Friday, November 3, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson; Craig Kyle; Christopher L. Yost

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Save yourself a pat on the back for me, Marvel. The Taika Waititi experiment has paid off and now you’ve got a great big success on your hands. Thor: Ragnarok isn’t a revelation but it is a very entertaining package, and that largely comes down to the studio investing in yet another unlikely candidate for the job. The New Zealand-born comedian-turned-director has the global audience in his hands as he sets about parodying the realm of fancily-clad, musclebound superheroes into oblivion.

Rarely do you find a franchise hitting a high note late into their run, yet here we are three films in and Ragnarok is unequivocally one of those highs. Thor (2011) had its moments but too often it took pleasure in slamming you in the gut with corny dialogue and half-hearted attempts at levity. The Dark World in 2014 overcompensated by going really heavy and really broody. In the end it was even sillier than its predecessor. Cut to another eight films deeper into the superstructure of the MCU and we finally get a Thor film that beats everyone to the punch by being the first to make fun of itself. It’s still not quite a balanced effort but Thor: Ragnarok is a much better film for using humor as its primary weapon.

From the opening scene it’s apparent things are going to work a little differently under the Kiwi’s creative leadership. In his fifth reprisal of the legendary son of Odin, Chris Hemsworth is able to find the funny in everything, including being hogtied upside-down and held captive at the hands of the fire demon Surtur on a remote planet. (Well, almost everything. He doesn’t seem to enjoy being tasered, being bound to a chair or losing his beloved Mjölnir.) It’s been two years since we’ve last seen Thor, when the Republic of Sokovia was lifted dramatically skyward during another marquee Avengers moment. He’s been scouring the Nine Realms for the remaining Infinity Stones ever since but we find him now caught in a bind.

Spewing exposition for the benefit of the audience is never a glamorous job, so Waititi figures why not let it fall to an anthropomorphic molten rock thingy. Surtur informs us that ‘Ragnarök’ — the prophesied destruction of Thor’s home world — is nigh, and that essentially nothing can stop it. Even though he Houdini’s his way out of this initial hang-up, Thor is sent on a collision course with an even bigger problem: dealing with his incredibly dysfunctional family. In tracking down Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), who is in failing health and has exiled himself from Asgard, Thor, along with half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), learn about the sister they never knew they had in Hela (Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett) as well as her imminent return to Asgard.

And it is imminent. Hopkins has barely finished his monologue before we get our first glimpse of a goddess scorned. Blanchett, resembling at the very least in her eye shadow an evil version of Canadian pop singer Avril Lavigne, comes storming on to the scene, a wicked grin transforming her naturally pretty visage. The anticipation of her return proves to be far more interesting than the return itself however, as not even Ragnarok can stem the tide of Marvel’s history of disappointing villains (though the irony of this franchise spawning arguably the entire MCU’s best baddie is never lost). Spouting the platitudes of power-hungry deities isn’t the actor’s forte, yet Blanchett is such a pro she hides her inexperience well, clearly relishing the opportunity to do something a little different. If only the writing around her character aspired to do something different as well.

The major beats of the story ping-pong us back and forth between two alien worlds, the Eden-above-Eden that is Asgard, and a garbage planet called Sakaar, a wild land that feels like an extension of a music video for Empire of the Sun. There we are walking not on a dream, but amongst the brokenness of dreams, of spirits. It’s a planet literally comprised of junk and over which Jeff Goldblum‘s Grandmaster deludedly reigns. As the resident Crazy, the Grandmaster likes to put on gladiatorial battles for his scavenging underlings to drool over. (Cue Thor’s involvement and, so as to emphasize the film’s newfound identity, his new haircut.)

Contrived writing and trailer-provided spoilers aside, this is an important detour as it introduces a pair of fringe players who end up vying for MVP of the movie. And when Waititi prioritizes entertainment over logic at almost every turn he could always use more hands on deck. In the arena we meet Korg, a warrior made out of rocks and brought to life by Waititi himself in a motion capture performance. He’s a gentle giant whose voice is guaranteed to throw you for a loop. Then there’s Tessa Thompson’s hard-drinking bounty hunter, who at the behest of the screenwriters consistently rejects Thor’s pleas for help. The Valkyrie brings a beguiling new attitude that makes her eventual turnaround not only convincing but emotionally satisfying. She needs a movie of her own.

Thor: Ragnarok is a spirited good time, and it is surely an impressive feat for a director who considers himself decidedly more indie. The guys over at Industrial Light and Magic contribute an appropriate sense of scale and the rich textures needed to make these alien environments feel lived-in. The world-building is beyond reproach, but not even Waititi’s brand of comedy is enough to cover up all the existent flaws in the design, the likes of which seem to accrue rapidly along a common fault. The tonal shift is so jarring between the events taking place on poor old vulnerable Ass-guard and those on Sakaar that the film could be clinically diagnosed as bipolar. One part of the film is unapologetically fun, the other — Hela’s brave new world — feels like Game of Thrones. Enormous man-eating wolves only solidify that impression.

It’s ironic that the third Thor film suffers from precisely the opposite problem its predecessors had. It seems almost unfair or overly harsh to criticize the new one for correcting and then overcorrecting, but the scales are nevertheless still unbalanced. The comedy is too varied for Ragnarok to be dismissed as purely asinine — you’ll find elements of slapstick coexisting with wry observational humor, and then there’s always the familiar Marvel formula for giving us a sense of power dynamics (the Hulk smash is once again invoked, and we all know that’s not something Waititi invented). Indeed, there’s much to celebrate with this movie, and while there’s nearly as much to criticize, I’d call this progress. Significant progress at that.

Recommendation: Colorful, energetic, popcorn-destroying fun. The continued adventures of Thor are given a new lease on life with the Johnny-come-lately director who seems to take advantage of the timing of his arrival. When in full comedy mode, Thor: Ragnarok is at its best but as with all of these movies, I’m not the expert. I wonder how more dedicated fans in the long run come to view movies like this, like Shane Black’s Iron Man 3. Will these movies be remembered for the history they helped shape or what they had to sacrifice in order to make room for more laughs? 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 130 mins. 

Something kinda neat: Thor’s “friend from work” line about the Hulk was suggested to Chris Hemsworth by a Make-A-Wish child who paid a visit to the set on the day the scene was filmed.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.flickeringmyth.com; http://www.imdb.com 

May Blindspot: What About Bob? (1991)

Release: Friday, May 17, 1991

[YouTube]

Written by: Tom Schulman

Directed by: Frank Oz

Given the career Frank Oz has been able to enjoy over the span of some 40 years, a gentle comedy like What About Bob? tends to get lost in the shuffle. That’s a shame, because it’s quite funny. Wholesome in that 1990s PG-comedy kind of way; sentimental in the same.

Oz has directed Steve Martin twice and he’s kicked it with DeNiro once, so his collaboration with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss isn’t some crazy cosmic event. He’s put in the work to get here, having helped launch Jim Henson’s career in the early going with his development of both Sesame Street and The Muppets. He also curiously remade The Stepford Wives and brought chaos upon a British family in his 2007 farcical comedy Death at a Funeral. But his behind-the-scenes work didn’t become the stuff of cinematic legend until Henson repaid the favor by turning down the part of Yoda in Star Wars, recommending George Lucas cast his friend instead. And history, the rest is.

By comparison What About Bob? feels like a rather modest achievement. Modest, but not insignificant. It’s a film whose fixation upon mental health was taboo then and is, sadly, taboo now. It tries to define what sound mental health is through an exploration of an unorthodox relationship between Dr. Leo Marvin (Dreyfuss), an accomplished psychotherapist, and his high-maintenance, multi-phobic client, a neurotic New Yorker named Bob Wiley (Murray). Of course, that’s not to suggest this is a thorough interrogation of perpetually un-PC subject matter as what unfolds aims for entertainment rather than the provocation of thought and discussion. Think of it more as a friendly PSA urging us to be more tolerant of others’ quirks and mannerisms, regardless of whether they’re clinically diagnosable traits.

Dead Poets Society screenwriter Tom Schulman’s work is simply but effectively constructed, the farcical events forcing the pair of well-matched leads into comically and diametrically opposed character arcs, with Murray slowly regaining his dignity and Dreyfuss steadily going mad over the course of a fleeting hour and forty minutes. Murray is an ideal spokesperson for the quirky and off-kilter. Ostensibly, he’s bringing nothing new to his role, but that’s ironically what this overly familiar movie needs. It needs Bill Murray being Bill Murray. When Bob is first pawned off by his former counsel and onto Dr. Marvin, the actor’s eccentricities embrace you as a warm hug from a grandparent.

Meanwhile, Dreyfuss arguably outshines his costar in doing the dirty work, exuding a level of self-absorption that makes him an easy target. He comes across cold and clinical, a puffed-up, red-faced bureaucrat who cares not so much about the hippocratic oath (or maybe even his family) as he does earning more accolades and climbing further up the career ladder. Dreyfuss’s performance is outstanding, a controlled caricature of professional hubris that so perfectly culminates with a man drooling in a wheelchair.

The plot remains obvious and more than a little contrived in parts — it’s really difficult to believe a man as neurotic as Bob would actually board a public bus for New Hampshire, but we acknowledge the plot must move along somehow. You tend to get over those sorts of things, because there’s a lot of it to go round, and while the film relies mighty heavily on its star power, it’s frequent pit stopping into cliché is justified.

Dr. Marvin learns the hard way that “I’m on vacation” is a foreign concept to his oddball client. The story proper gets underway when Bob manages to track his impatient doctor down in his New Hampshire hideaway and begins the process of integrating himself into the family. Compounding Dr. Marvin’s discombobulation is the rapidly growing divide between himself and his family. He can’t comprehend the fact his wife Fay (Julie Hagerty) and children, Anna (Kathryn Erbe) and Sigmund (Charlie Korsmo), have taken a liking to this possible sociopath. Bob, who has justified his sudden appearance as him taking some of Dr. Marvin’s advice to heart (“take a vacation from your problems”), is viewed by the majority as the fun-loving drunk uncle rather than a pest who needs to be flushed out.

With all due respect to Murray, the genius that he is (and Bob is certifiably a great character), the schadenfreude that comes with Dreyfuss’ energetic, unhinged performance simply makes this experience what it is — granted, something of an echo of the trials endured by Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles four years earlier. In that film, a similarly obnoxious but well-meaning northerner effectively infiltrated the personal life of a gruff stranger, often to his own detriment, and ever-so-occasionally to surprisingly poignant effect. However, where that film truly satisfied with the way John Candy was able to finally win the other guy over, What About Bob? clumsily tries to contrive that same feeling in the final few seconds.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: With two outstanding performances from Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss, What About Bob? becomes something I can easily suggest to viewers who are looking for another solid, perhaps overlooked Bill Murray comedy from the early ’90s. Funny, heartwarming, ultimately predictable but definitely worthwhile. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “Shit-eating son of a bitch! Bastard, douchebag, twat, numb-nuts, dickhead, BITCH!” [Editors note: I love the MPAA ratings of the ’90s.]

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Sausage Party

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Release: Friday, August 12, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Seth Rogen; Evan Goldberg; Kyle Hunter; Ariel Shaffir

Directed by: Greg Tiernan; Conrad Vernon

Sausage Party represents Seth Rogen’s strongest screenwriting effort since Superbad. It’s been even longer since he’s been this charming in a lead role as well, and he plays a six-inch-long frankfurter. Or sausage, wiener, whatever. He’s a real hot dog in this outing, a riotous, deliriously perverse bite of modern satire that will in all likelihood cause you to think twice the next time you’re thumbing through greens-turning-brown in your local Wal-Mart.

In the world of Sausage Party, Wal-Mart would be the Warsaw ghetto for perishables. In the world of Sausage Party the Food Pyramid takes on an entirely new meaning, a reality that’s manifested brilliantly via anthropomorphic food groups. There’s hierarchy and a universal belief system that shoppers are Gods. Food items believe they’re destined for great things once they’re Chosen, that they’re headed for a place called The Great Beyond where they’ll enjoy an eternity of being loved and treated like royalty by the human that rescued them from their prisons/shelves. A place where a sausage like Frank (Rogen) looks forward to slipping inside a nice, warm bun. A place where an Arabic flatbread named Kareem Abdul Lavash dreams of being greeted by 77 bottles of extra virgin olive oil that will help him stay lubricated and not dry out and be nasty and shit.

Broader arcs, involving Frank’s quest to save his sweet friends (and even salty foes) from continuing to be blinded to a horrible reality — food gets eaten, not laid — and Brenda’s determination to not act on her own sexual urges in fear of upsetting the Gods, are not exactly revelatory. Nor are the main beats delivered en route to one of the most ridiculous afterparties you are likely to ever see. (Yeah, This is the End may have been blessed by the Backstreet Boys but you’ve never seen food porn until you’ve watched this movie.) Because the story is rather store-brand generic, you’re left sort of worrying if there is a way Rogen and company can wrap things up without cooling off completely or melting down or some other food metaphor that suggests deterioration.

But there is no need to worry. At all.

And broad arcs be damned by the way. Getting lost in this supermarket is just way too much fun. There’s so much to see and do. Rogen, once again reunited with Evan Goldberg and aided as well by Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir (the latter two co-wrote The Night Before with Goldberg, a rare case in which Rogen did not share writing duties), has crafted a genuinely hilarious and heartfelt film that manages to strike a near-perfect balance between satire and sobriety. One wouldn’t necessarily think Sausage Party has any right to be stepping into arenas like proving the existence of God, thereby the purpose of religion, or that packaging certain foods into certain aisles could be viewed as segregation but we should never downplay Rogen’s creativity.

In this adventure there is strength in numbers. That applies both to the mission Frank and friends find themselves embarking on as well as to how we’re able to connect with this strange little world. Frank is joined with varying degrees of hesitation by fellow wiener Barry (Michael Cera), who suffers from serious confidence issues; Frank’s love interest, the curvaceous bun Brenda (Kristen Wiig) and two squabbling neighbors from the International Foods Aisle in David Krumholtz’ Lavash and Edward Norton’s argumentative bagel Sammy (I still can’t believe that was not the voice of Woody Allen). The diverse selection of characters makes the watch more dynamic and energetic. Nevermind the fact that mainstays like Ketchup, Mustard, apples and oranges are wholly unoriginal, they don’t really lend themselves to comedy. And even though a hot dog does take center stage, brilliantly the summer grilling classic is broken down into two distinct characters. And of course we know why.

Food puns abound and as is expected, ethnic, gender and religious stereotypes play a role in deciding which items we are going to spend time with (for example: the non-perishable items are colored as wizened old Native Americans who have seen it all and it’s no coincidence that the film’s primary antagonist is a Douche named Nick Kroll. Er, played by Kroll, rather . . .). Incensed after Frank cost him his chance to go to The Great Beyond during a shopping cart collision, Douche sets out on a murderous vendetta to take out the wiener (and bun) responsible for not only the missed opportunity but his new physical deformity. (In this reviewer’s opinion we venture a little too deep into TMI territory when watching him mentally breaking down, mourning his lack of purpose. And we really could have done without 90% of Kroll’s brutal dude-broisms.)

It wouldn’t be a comedy from the Rogen-Goldberg school of puerility if it doesn’t make you feel at least a little guilty for laughing at some of the things you end up laughing at. Even still, Sausage Party (hehe) finds a number of ways to justify genre-defining tropes like making sex jokes out of literally everything. Wiig brings strength, courage and conviction to the part of a sexy piece of bread. Some things will never change though, as even here Rogen’s every bit the pothead we’ve come to love him for being as he finds room for a scene where a wiener gets roasted with a can of water and a gay Twinkie, and he does it without disrupting the flow of the narrative. The characters are well-defined and each have individual motivations for survival, which is critical in helping us actually “buy into” the situation at hand. (Let’s get real: we never take any of this seriously but we take it far more so than we thought we would when the project was first announced.)

Sausage Party is classic Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg. It’s rib-ticklingly funny from start to finish, with only a few brief moments where all action comes to a halt in favor of more somber reflections on the state of life in a grocery store that’s about to erupt into civil war. You’ll find almost every alum from previous Rogen-Goldberg offerings here, and, hidden behind the guises of ordinary foods, they become icons. This is far too fattening a meal to keep having, but damn it all . . . why does fat have to taste so good?

Stephen fucking Hawking gum and Michael Cera the wiener

Recommendation: Irreverent, profane, over-the-top, delirious, and bizarrely heartwarming. Sausage Party uses anthropomorphism to its advantage and then some, creating memorable characters out of mundane food items and giving them distinct human personas that we can identity with and care about. (Obviously some more than others.) The rules of course still apply: fans of Seth Rogen’s sense of humor need apply while all others who aren’t big on the guy probably won’t find much mustard to squeeze out of this one. Visiting the supermarket will never be the same again, and I think that more than anything is the mark of an effective comedy.

Rated: R

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “Banana’s whole face peeled off, Peanut Butter’s wife Jelly is dead! Look at him, he’s right there.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Ghostbusters

Dont answer the call man

Release: Friday, July 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Paul Feig; Katie Dippold

Directed by: Paul Feig

It’s fun, and perhaps more than anything inspiring, watching a foursome of funny women transforming and transcending in what was supposed to be a god-awful Ghostbusters reboot. Yeah, I said it — I enjoyed the new movie. Bring it on, man. I ain’t afraid of no haters.

Before things get out of hand I have to say Paul Feig is no Ivan Reitman. And as fun as this truly becomes, the diaspora of knee-slappers and laugh-out-loud one-liners are still no match for the collective comedic genius that is Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. Comparing the two — and I’m going to have to try hard to avoid an overdose of comparisons in this review — is like comparing . . . well, I just don’t want to do it. We are living in a completely different era. An era, mind you, that’s without Harold Ramis. We have lost our beloved Egon. But his spirit can live on. I’m not naming names but . . . Kristen Wiig. Damn she’s brilliant.

The set-up is familiar but far from derivative. Wiig plays Columbia University lecturer Erin Gilbert. Her past comes back to literally haunt her as she sees that her former paranormal research partner Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) has made available for purchase online a book the two worked on years ago that posited the existence of ghosts in a world parallel to our own. Seeing this as a potential road block to her success in academia, Erin confronts Abby and asks her to take the book off the web. That’s when she makes the deal to join Abby and her eccentric engineering pal Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon — remember that name) on a quick adventure to see if their life’s work is legitimate or not. In exchange, Abby will honor her request to stop publicizing said book, as much as that may hurt Abby on a personal level.

They visit an old, haunted mansion that still offers guided tours, as one of their tour guides (the perpetually creepy Zach Woods) claims he saw something spooky. There they encounter a ghost, confirming that their life’s work is indeed legitimate. Abby’s psyched, Jillian goes berserk and Erin . . . well, she just gets covered in ghost vomit. A recurring theme, we’ll come to find. The team starts to take shape and quickly. Perhaps too quickly, but delaying any further isn’t an option for a movie not planning on breaching the two-hour mark. Now they need a work space. They can only afford the upstairs loft above a crummy Chinese restaurant, one that seemingly can’t grasp the concept of properly portioned wonton soup. The trio take on the services of Chris Hemsworth‘s Kevin, nothing more than a good-looking but incredibly dumb blonde. (We’ll get into the reversal of sexist stereotypes in a bit, because it’s better that I keep you in suspense.)

Meanwhile a lonely MTA worker, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), witnesses an isolated ghost-related incident on the subway line and reports it to the fledgling “Department of the Metaphysical Examination.” Having extensive knowledge of the city she makes a pitch for joining them in their efforts. She can even provide transportation. They end up creating what amounts to a nuclear reactor mounted atop a hearse that may or may not still have bodies in the back. It even comes complete with a “very un-American siren.”

Life in the ghost busting world is pretty interesting. Friendship dynamics are as well-defined as they are compelling: whether it’s the stunted growth in both the personal and professional relationship between Erin and Abby, the general insanity of Jillian or Patty’s confidence, there is a lot to latch onto here. Feig manages to create an environment in which his actors can really flourish. Strong positive vibes emanate. The camaraderie between the four is contagious, even if it waltzes often into goofy territory. McCarthy dials down her sass to affect a genuine personality we can actually cozy up to, necessarily establishing this as her best work to date. Wiig continues to perfect the deadpan. McKinnon is just plain fun. Jones has less work to shoulder but she’s nowhere near as boisterous and overbearing as her SNL résumé would have you believe.

I wish Ghostbusters handled its themes more delicately though. I guess subtlety goes out the window when you’re dealing with hundred-foot tall Stay Puft Marshmallow Men and thousands of other spirits. The casting of an all-female team should be enough to suggest it is doing something about the glaring gender inequality in modern cinema, but apparently it’s not for Feig. He, along with MADtv writer Katie Dippold concoct a fairly thinly veiled critique of the negative reaction to their own film by frequently drawing attention to the Youtube comments section on videos the ghost busting ladies have posted, in an effort to spread awareness of a potentially apocalyptic threat in New York at the hands of freak/genius Rowan North (Neil Casey).

Couple that with the fact that every significant male character is either a villain (the aforementioned Rowan is one particularly weak link) or just an idiot (the annoyance Hemsworth creates is absolutely intentional which in and of itself is annoying) and you have the recipe for a million “I told you so”‘s from anyone who has been against such a film in principal from the moment it was announced.

No, Ghostbusters is best when it’s focused on the friendships (the ghosts are pretty cool but largely forgettable, as they were in the first). McCarthy and Wiig are at the center of what eventuates as a heartwarming tale of loyalty and not giving up on lifelong goals. Their comedic repartee is energetic and surprisingly wholesome, even if the comedy they’re working with is largely inconsistent. It is true that what passes as comedy today barely passes as watchable, never mind as the stuff that elicits the kind of belly laughs the originators could. But there is so little of that limp in Ghostbusters. Instead it kind of struggles to keep the greatness going, occasionally succumbing to a lesser script and less experienced principals. That said, I wasn’t prepared to endure the hardest laugh I have had in a theater all year. Wait for that metal concert to go down. Wait for that scream. Oh my god, that scream.

Look, trying to convince anyone who has taken it upon themselves to let Akroyd and Murray personally know they suck just for endorsing such a thing, well that’s just a fruitless endeavor. To those people I’m sure I’ve betrayed something or other. I am not even going to address those who think bringing women in to do what was once done by four men is a mistake (although it is ironic that the film couldn’t dispense with sexism entirely). The original was apparently the paragon of excellence and therefore is lesser just because 2016 happened. A reboot just seems sexy and trendy and the cool thing to do, and maybe it is, but there’s one thing I know for sure: Ghostbusters is not another regurgitated, passionless affair. It likely will never garner the nostalgia the 1984 film did, but it is much farther from being the movie that an alarming number of fanboys seem to assume it is.

Ghostbusters gif

Recommendation: Massively negative hype is unfortunately going to impact box office intake, but my advice is this: don’t skip out on the movie based on hear-say and an admittedly poor trailer. It would be a shame to think millions missing out on this just because of the power social media gives people. Ghostbusters is well-acted, funny — unfortunately not consistently but the good bits hit hard — and surprisingly moving when all is said and done. I really had a good time and in the interest of full disclosure I wasn’t expecting to at all. Not because of the cast. But because most modern comedic adventures turn out to be a bust. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “It smells like roasted bologna and regrets down here . . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.weknowmemes.com 

The Nice Guys

'The Nice Guys' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 20, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Shane Black; Anthony Bagarozzi

Directed by: Shane Black

Well, they’re not quite Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang but The Nice Guys squeak in at a close second, offering up liberal doses of hilarity and action that’s more fun than perhaps it ought to be. Which just leaves Iron Man 3, screenwriter Shane Black’s only other directorial credit, coming in at a relatively distant third.

To Black’s debut crime comedy The Nice Guys owes a great deal, not least of which being the awkward disposal of a corpse, a neon-lit film noir tilt, and the constant banter and infectious chemistry between its starring duo — in this case, Ryan Gosling and hey, what’s this, Russell Crowe? That’s right. Crowe does indeed have a funny bone in his body, and it’s a big one.

Los Angeles in the 1970s. Porn stars and private eyes. Privatized businesses colluding. Birds choking on polluted air. Two private investigators stumble into a possible murder/suicide plot involving a once-prominent female porn star (Murielle Telio), who may or may not be one in a string of victims associated with the shady production and distribution of a new skin flick. When surly, prone-to-violence Jackson Healy (Crowe) discovers there’s another detective trying to get his beak wet on the action, he requests that Holland March (Ryan Gosling) cease and desist . . . by snapping his arm. (As any self-respecting P.I. must.)

It’s a classic case of the odd couple and, despite the familiar blueprint, what follows proves to be among the crème de la crème of the buddy-cop genre. Holland, a single father whose precocious teen daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) consistently calls him out on his bullshit, has the slick suit and a nice house — one he claims they’re just renting while he rebuilds the old one that burned down — and a solid(-ish) reputation around town to lose if this investigation goes south. Jack Healy, on the other hand, is considerably less mannered (and less licensed), towing a fine line between bad guy and misunderstood loner. In short, they make for two equally compelling characters, both destined for a redemption of sorts, that make the occasionally tedious two-hour runtime all worthwhile.

The Nice Guys is moulded by classic buddy cop comedies of old — the likes of detectives Riggs and Murtaugh aren’t very deeply buried inside this nostalgic throwback to the ’70s.  But it also functions effectively as a period piece. The milieu is undeniably retro, though seeing is only part of the believing here. Catch yourself grooving to a pop/funk-infused soundtrack featuring the likes of The Bee Gees, The Temptations and a wonderfully timed Earth, Wind & Fire classic while the sporadic placement of movie titles that would go on to define the decade entrench us further in times that will never be again.

It’s only around the hour-and-forty-minute mark we experience a lull in between major action/comedic set pieces, the best of them all arguably lying in wait at the very end. But even during the slower moments the young Rice provides a welcomed respite from all the foolish antics that pervade. Here’s a character well worth embracing if not for her intelligence then for her morality: “If you kill that man, Jack, I will never speak to you again.” She’s talking, of course, about the primary antagonist of the film, Matt Bomer’s suitably psycho John Boy, a man who has a vested interest in retrieving the film reel her father and Healy are after (but not for the reasons you’re probably thinking). Rice’s character is something of a role model for young girls, offering up a performance that is all too rare in these kinds of movies. She is absolutely fantastic.

The farce occasionally borders on cartoonish, but then again Black always seems to teeter on the edge of self-parody. Playing it fast and loose works so well for him, and it certainly works well for the two leads. Using this as a barometer, the summer slate has a lot to live up to in terms of delivering pure escapist entertainment.

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Recommendation: Gleefully farcical and profane in equal measure, The Nice Guys will best serve fans of Shane Black’s brand of comedy. It recalls the spirit of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang while managing to separate itself just enough. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “I think I’m invincible . . . I don’t think I can die!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Band of Robbers

'Band of Robbers' movie poster

Release: Friday, January 15, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Aaron & Adam Nee

Directed by: Aaron & Adam Nee

‘Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.’

Mark Twain’s preemptive words of caution to readers about to embark on the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn here become the Nee brothers’ own insurance against critics tempted to blast their movie for any perceived eroding of the fabric of classic Twain. Purists: you’ve been warned. This isn’t exactly Baz Luhrmann reimagining one of the greatest of the great Bard tragedies as a contemporary, bitter war between rival New York gangs of the mid-90s, but we’re in that ballpark. Band of Robbers is far sillier, far more absurd, far less concerned with narrative cohesion and artistic merit.

Still, the translation of 19th Century text into 21st Century living is as intriguing as it is amusing. Who knew this pair would lend themselves so naturally to the underground mumblecore movement? Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee), ever the grand storyteller and fearless explorer, is reinterpreted here as someone who hasn’t been able to graduate from the kinds of small-town hijinks people who never leave these places ultimately get caught up in. Ever since childhood, Tom’s been obsessed with unearthing what has been rumored to be a fortune in cash — a modern-day treasure chest that he sees as his ticket to a better life — while his best friend Huckleberry Finn (Kyle Gallner) has always been looking for reasons to avoid his abusive alcoholic father.

Huck vows to change his ways when he’s finally let out of prison following a trespassing incident many years ago. He’s taken in by the Widow Douglas (Beth Grant) who is adamant that Huck embrace a more pious way of life and act more “civilized.” He’s hairier and scragglier after years behind bars, appearing older than he rightfully should. Tom is now an underachieving cop with a perv ‘stache more eager to show off the shiny badge and gun than his experience as a member of law enforcement; he can’t wait to drive Huck home in his newly acquired squad car. But, as we learn, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tom hasn’t stopped pursuing his dreams of fame and fortune. He envisions himself as something more than a lowly ticket writer; becoming a detective would be pretty cool. However, rather than pursuing the normal course of trying to impress his superiors and earning that promotion, he proposes the formation of a ‘Band of Robbers,’ recruiting the likes of Joe Harper (Matthew Grey Gubler), who is in this life a quasi-hippie/drifter, and Ben Rogers (Hannibal Buress), a car mechanic. They’ll rob a local pawn shop run by a man named Dobbins (Creed Bratton) for the contents of its relatively unprotected safe (or so they thought). Naturally they bungle the job and instead of life-changingly generous stacks of gold doubloons, they find a measly sum of wrinkled bills in some plastic bags.

The mission — even the film as a whole — is fueled almost entirely by Wes Andersonian absurdism. The premise is 85% idealistic — robbing from those who deserve to be robbed, à la Robin Hood, actually makes the boys heroes, not thieves — and 15% experience, with Tom pitching this as the next evolution in their misadventures. But when it comes right down to it, conditions are far from ideal: love interest Becky Thatcher (Melissa Benoist) is reincarnated in the form of a rookie cop who is assigned to Officer Tom Sawyer on the very day he plans to pull off the heist. Tom and Huck’s ‘experience’ also tends to fail them when they brush shoulders with bona fide criminals — friends of the mysterious Muff Potter (Cooper Huckabee) — who also have their hearts set on this theoretical treasure chest.

Band of Robbers isn’t executed with the flamboyance synonymous with Luhrmann and his crazy box office receipts, nor the confidence that makes the bizarreness of Anderson’s world-building somehow not only acceptable but uniquely entertaining. Its closest cousin is without a doubt Bottle Rocket, but this isn’t even that sophisticated. The affair is primitive from a storytelling perspective, one that relies more on the camaraderie of four friends to get us through to the invariably silly and contrived conclusion rather than the legitimacy of the action. But given the way it makes you feel come the end, Band of Robbers is something of an unpolished gem.

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Recommendation: Band of Robbers, the second feature from the brothers Nee, explores contemporary ramifications of the Mark Twain cautionary tale, with a mix of solid comedy and iffy dramatic tension. It’s a consistently weird movie, one that has a better chance of rewarding viewers with fewer expectations and less criteria to be met.

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “. . .I guess just, uh, dig a hole, and drop me inside of it. Throw some gasoline on it, throw some fire on it, throw a grenade on it and kill me. I don’t want to live a life like that. Just, going with the flow, ya know? Never doing anything, just hoping you’d get by okay. When I die, I want there to be a parade. I want there to be a newsman to say, ‘We just lost the Number #1 Best Guy, Tom Sawyer — child prodigy, adult genius, American hero.’ We look over at the weather girl, she’s crying. We look over at the sports guy, he’s crying. He doesn’t even cry! He’s a sports guy, but he’s crying because Tom Sawyer died; because he did something with his life. Ya know, a lot of people don’t care what happens in life, they just want ham on their pizza, they want to watch teenagers get voted off of contests on television. But you and me, we’re not like that. You and I are the types of people that other people tell stories about, we’re the types of people who are going to be remembered.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com