Friday, June 30, 2017

Missing Minions Dampen 'Despicable Me 3'

This review originally appeared on

The Despicable Me movies have never reached the level of the best of Pixar, Disney, or even Dreamworks' animated work, but they at least had the benefit of a steady stream of comic relief in the form of those little, yellow, different minions, especially if you're a sucker for fart jokes. But in Despicable Me 3, those minions are relegated a bit to the sidelines, probably because they've got their own franchise to carry and they have to save the best fart jokes for those movies. Unfortunately, it turns out the movie is a bit of a snooze when those yellow guys aren't on screen.

Gru (Steve Carrell) and Lucy (Kristen Wiig), who are once again working for the good guys at the Anti-Villain League, are fired when they fail to capture super villain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), the former child star of a 1980's sitcom that was cancelled once he hit the awkward stage of puberty. The mega mulleted Bratt's revenge plan involves destroying Hollywood using his arsenal of 80's-inspired weapons, which include invasive bubblegum he shoots out of his jacket's shoulder pads, exploding Rubik's cubes, and a robot sidekick.

Gru, whose full name is Felonious Gru, discovers he has a twin brother named Dru, which, yes, means the brother's name is Dru Gru, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, But then again, long-lost twin sibling stories rarely do. Turns out their mother Marlena (Julie Andrews, who deserves more than the single scene she's given) split the twins up after birth as part of a custody agreement. Gru's father did not "die of disappointment" after his birth, as he was previously told, but went on to raise Dru to be a wealthy pig farmer on the island of Freedonia.

Dru is in many ways the polar opposite of Gru: rich, happy, and blonde. But Dru has spent his life wanting to be a super villain, and with Gru's arrival, he sees his chance to fulfill his dream.

Lucy and their three girls Margo, Edith, and Agnes, are also along for the trip to Freedonia, but would have been better off left at home for all they get to do. The storylines they're saddled with feel like nothing but afterthoughts.

"What can we do with these chicks?"

"How about we make the youngest one obsessed with unicorns, the oldest mistakenly betrothed to a nerdy Freedonian boy, and Lucy preoccupied with mom stuff."

"What about the middle girl?"


And, as mentioned, the minions are not along to help Gru and Dru for the majority of the movie. Instead, they spend most of their screen time in prison, Yellow Is the New Black style, in a series of scenes that are among the film's few funny moments. Those minions, along with a few of Balthazar Bratt's 1980's pop music-scored fight scenes (because little kids love the '80s?!) are the only things that keep Despicable Me 3 from being a total bore, but still can't save it from being anything other than Despicable Meh.

Friday, June 23, 2017

'Maudie' Is An Unromantic Romance

This review originally appeared on

Maudie, which tells the slightly fictionalized story of Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis, is probably one of the least romantic romances you'll ever see. This makes the film unique, but also a bit hard to swallow.

Sally Hawkins is Maud, a sheltered woman in her 30s who has been forced to live with her bitter aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) after her brother Charles (Zachary Bennett) sells the family home. Maud has rheumatoid arthritis, and her family is convinced she'll never be able to look after herself.

When Maud sees a local fish peddler named Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) post an ad for a maid she answers it, showing up at his one-room house at the edge of their Nova Scotia town with a suitcase in hand.

Everett is a curmudgeon at best, downright mean at worst, but to Maud, his small house means freedom. So she does her best to tend to it, make him meals, and cheer up the shack with brightly colored paint.

There are hints that Maud loves to paint, but we don't actually see her paint a picture until after what is probably the most painful scene in the film: when Everett violently slaps her for making a joke in front of his friend Frank.

Maud uses art as solace, painting flowers on the wall through her tears, and Everett, perhaps feeling regret, lets her do it. The flowers spread through the house, and are joined by "cheerful chickens" and birds Everett is convinced are malformed looking fairies. Soon Maud's painting catch the eye of a sophisticated New York lady in snazzy shoes (Kari Matchett), who buys several painted cards before commissioning full paintings. Eventually, news of Maud's paintings spreads, as does their popularity...

Maudie plays out like a romance between two outcasts, but it's a hard one to buy because Hawke's Everett is such an unrepentant ass, and their coupling is to due to propriety, not love. They end up married, but only because they are forced to share the only bed in the house, and when Everett tries to have sex with her, Maud insists they get married first. (In the film it takes several months before they do, but in real life, it was mere weeks.)

I imagine Everett remains such an unlikeable guy so the story can stay true to life (the real life Everett sounds like he was even worse, which is a little hard to fathom), but by the end, we're supposed to buy that there was a genuine love between the two or them, and I just didn't.

While Everett does allow Maud to continue her painting, he does so begrudgingly, and pockets all of her earnings. They live over 30 years together in the same house, from the 1930's to the late 1960's, and aside from her paintings, the house never changes or improves.

The thing that saves Maudie from becoming a miserable viewing experience is Sally Hawkins. She's just a joy to watch. Much of her dialog is almost whispered, managing to get Everett to do what she wants with quiet but insistent words, giving several scenes much needed levity. Her Maud is disabled, but not dejected, always trying to stifle a smile that inevitably breaks through. Hawkins makes you understand how those happy, colorful paintings managed to come out of someone living such an austere life. Seen through her eyes, their tiny home is almost magic, with a single window that looks onto the entire world.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Kate McKinnon Steals 'Rough Night'

This review originally appeared on

When Bridesmaids came out in 2011 it was a turning point for female-led comedies. It was written by women, it centered on women, and most importantly, it made money, proving teenage boys are not the only people paying money to go to the movies.

For better or worse, it has since spawned a plethora of similar comedies, some of them straight-up copycats (I appreciate that Bachelorette's not even trying to pretend it wasn't, with a title that is easily confused with its inspiration), and some just starring Amy Schumer.

Now we have Rough Night, a thoroughly adult comedy about five college friends reuniting 10 years after graduation for a bachelorette weekend in Miami. The bride-to-be is Jess (Scarlett Johansson), a candidate for state senator who is running against someone whose "accidental" dick pics keep pushing him ahead in the polls. She's set to marry Peter (Paul W. Downs, who co-wrote the script with director Lucia Aniello), the kind of nice guy whose bachelor party consists of wine and cheese tasting.

The woman behind the hen party is Jess's possessive friend Alice (Jillian Bell), who, if she could, would probably not have invited anyone else. Alas, she is forced to include career activist Frankie (Broad City's Ilana Glazer, whom I am now convinced can only play herself), Frankie's former girlfriend, the rich and newly-divorced mom Blair (Zoë Kravitz), and Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Jess's Australian friend, whom none of the other girls has ever met. I'm not sure if Rebel Wilson was offered the part of Pippa and turned it down, or if McKinnon just felt like doing an Australian accent. Whatever the case, she does a terrible version of one, which is to say it's great because it's so ridiculous.

The gals shack up in a beachfront, glass-walled home owned by one of Jess's political donors, next door to two swingers played by Demi Moore and Ty Burrell, a couple that is not subtle about their hopes for an eventual orgy involving all of them. Once out on the town, Frankie easily scores some coke, and they convince the senatorial hopeful to partake. Her opponent is winning with dick pics, what's she got to lose?

As tends to be the case when booze and coke are concerned, some bad decisions are made, which include ordering a male stripper/hooker off of Craigslist, not vetting him at all, and then accidentally killing him.

If this movie were about a bachelor party that ended with the accidental death of a female stripper, it would... probably make millions, who are we kidding?* Yes, some people would be rightfully upset about the death of a woman being the center of a comedy, but let's not pretend the thing wouldn't make money.

So I'm not going to wring my hands over Rough Night's central premise, especially because it's pretty damn obvious from the start that the "stripper" isn't actually a stripper, and is very likely a bad guy. The majority of the movie centers on the women trying to figure out what to do, coming to the terrible decision to get rid of the body, and then trying to do that to various levels of comedic effect. At the same time Jess's fiancé, convinced she wants to call off the wedding, decides to drive down to Miami, which results in one of the film's funniest scenes, involving an adult diaper, a semi-truck, and window washing.

Back when Bridesmaids came out, I gave it a favorable review, but noted that I found the casual moments between friends Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph much funnier than the scenes involving, say, public shitting. Rough Night isn't lacking in comedy — Kate McKinnon steals every second of her screen time, Ilana Glazer may not branch out much from her Broad City persona, but luckily, it's a funny persona, and Jillian Bell tackles the physical comedy she's relegated to with aplomb — but not for one moment did I ever believe these women would have been friends in college, let alone ten years later. It all felt as genuine as a friendship depicted in your average man-baby comedy starring Adam Sandler. But ladies, shouldn't we do better than that?

*Yes, I am familiar with Very Bad Things. No, that film is not an apt comparison, as it is far darker than this one — barely a comedy, at all — and features the death of a woman who is paid to have sex, which most strippers will tell you they most decidedly are not.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

'Cars 3' Grows Up With Its Audience

This review originally appeared on

I have a theory that I've, admittedly, not really done much to prove aside from talking to friends with kids: Pixar's Cars movies are the ones parents like the least, while their (often male) kids love them the most.

I know plenty of adults who can burst into tears just talking about Toy Story 3 or Inside Out, but none who speak about Cars or Cars 2 with any genuine sense of fondness. And I tend to agree. I enjoyed the first Cars well enough, mainly because of its mid-century aesthetic, Route 66 setting, and its "stop and smell the roses" message. But Cars 2 was an exhausting assault of color and noise that made the fatal mistake of giving the sidekick the starring role. Neither film made me laugh that much, and they definitely didn't make me cry, which combined are the two things the best Pixar movies always manage to make me do.

Happily, Cars 3 feels like a course correction, with Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) once again relegated to the role of comic relief and Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) back in the lead. As the film opens, Lightning is racing again, although he's quickly coming to realize his glory days may be behind him, as more and more "next-gen" race cars join the competition. Those new-school competitors are headed by the unctuous Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a sleek black and blue model that can reach speeds over 200 mph thanks to modern tech and some advanced training methods.

An accident (that, be warned, might scare the younger kids) forces Lightning to return to Radiator Springs to recuperate, which mainly consists of his hiding out in his garage with the shades drawn and wearing primer grey paint, the car equivalent of "why even bother" sweats.

After a pep-talk from his girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and some flashbacks featuring his beloved mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, in a performance consisting of actual vocal outtakes from Newman as well as some impersonation), Lightning is convinced to suck it up and get back on the track (cue the Rocky III music).

Lightning's road to a comeback is also rocky, as Sterling (Nathan Fillion, with a voice that just oozes untrustworthiness), the new owner of Rust-eze, sees Lightning as more of a corporate mascot than an actual champion, placating him with a shiny training facility and a perky trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo, an inspired casting choice) who sees Lightning as an ancient relic.

Like the aforementioned Rocky movies, along with plenty of other "comeback" stories, what follows includes training montages, the aging champ clashing with his younger coach, throwing in the towel, and picking it up again.

But then Cars 3 does something unexpected, by propelling a female character into the center of the story. Putting aside the obvious fact that there are girls who like to play with cars, and boys who are happy playing with dolls, Cars, more than any of the other Pixar films, has always felt like a movie for boys, especially when its success has been centered around its car-centric merchandising.

Wonder Woman, which has managed to hold the top box office spot in its second week of release, has proven to be an emotional viewing experience for a lot of women, with reports of some bursting into tears seeing Diana take to the battlefield as Wonder Woman for the first time. I'll admit, I had to fight tears myself. And I had a similar reaction watching Cars 3.

Obsolescence and the fear of forced retirement might seem like odd choices for a children's film, but they're really not that odd in the Pixar universe. Their movies have often grown up alongside their audience; Toy Story 3 was similarly about adulthood, and passing things on to the next generation; Cars 3 follows suit. And in both, the future is female.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Bleak 'It Comes At Night' Is A Thoroughly Unpleasant Experience

This review originally appeared on

It Comes at Night is a terrible title for a movie that has some horrifying moments but isn't really a horror movie, and where nothing in particular "comes at night." The premise — a post-apocalyptic world where some kind of disease has wiped out the majority of the population — is, after seven years of The Walking Dead, a bit old hat, though it isn't zombies the survivors have to fear here as much as paranoia, and themselves.

Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo are Paul and Sarah, parents to 17-year-old Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). When we first meet them, they are wearing gas masks and talking to a visibly ill elderly man. The man turns out to be Sarah's father, who has succumbed to an illness that has no cure, and is highly contagious.

What they do with the dying man may or may not be the catalyst to what follows, as the now family-of-three confronts an intruder who has broken into their sealed-up country house as they slept. After knocking the man out and tying him up, Paul eventually learns his name is Will (Christopher Abbott) and that he came to the house assuming it was abandoned, only looking for clean water to bring back to his wife and infant son.

Whether to trust Will and help him, release him and risk his returning with bigger numbers, or just kill him are the hard choices the family must make in this new reality.

It Comes at Night is a claustrophobic thriller, with the majority of the action taking place in the barricaded, multi-storied house, with the dense woods outside always holding the possibility of hidden danger. Director Trey Edward Shults's use of the tight spaces emphasizes how trapped the characters are, both physically and mentally. Slow tracking shots down dark hallways build up tension, and the film's pounding score pushes that tension to its limits. Travis use of the house's attic to eavesdrop, as well as the muffled and half-understood conversations he hears, only increase the sense of paranoia.

And yet... most of the film's scares rely on the overused "It was just a dream!" trope as Travis has a series of nightmares. After repeated use, that device begins to lose effectiveness, especially when it's the growing panic and paranoia within the house that's the source of the real terror. It almost feels like the gross-out moments and jump scares were crammed into the film as a way to sell it as a horror movie, and not the psychological thriller it is at its core.

Those expecting a horror movie that's filled with a lot of those gross and scary moments will likely be disappointed, while those who might appreciate the film's less horrific storytelling will probably be scared away by the marketing. One thing's for sure: No one who sees this is going to come out of it thinking it was any kind of fun; it's one of the bleakest movies to be released this year.

Friday, June 2, 2017

'Wonder Woman' Soars Under The Weight Of Expectation

This review originally appeared on

There's a lot riding on Wonder Woman. DC movies have been nothing but one disappointment after another in recent years, so it almost feels like the success of the franchise is resting on Wonder Woman's Amazonian shoulders. The film can't even fail and still be guaranteed a reboot a few years down the line, like so many superhero movies before it, because there's no proof that it would be marketable, since there are no other Wonder Woman movies that can prove that.

So it's with much relief that I can say, Wonder Woman is the best DC movie in years. And while it is not the best superhero movie I've ever seen, it's one I wish had been around when I was a young comic book nerd, and one I hope every girl, nerdy or not, gets to see.

I'll admit, my hopes were raised the second Gal Gadot burst onto the screen as Wonder Woman during the climax of Batman Vs. Superman. She was that dark and depressing film's only bright spot, and judging from the cheers in the audience that night, I'm not the only one who felt that way.

The beginning of Wonder Woman ties into the ending of Batman Vs. Superman, and the upcoming Justice League movie, but thankfully doesn't spend much time on that before jumping into Diana's origin story, where she is the only child on the island of Themyscira, the home of the Amazons. Her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) is fiercely protective of her, but young Diana wants to be as strong a warrior as her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), who agrees to train her in secret.

In fact, all of the women on the island are battle ready, as it's their belief that one day they will be called on to defeat Ares, the god of war, once and for all. When Diana witnesses a plane crashing into the waters offshore, she rescues the pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who reveals that the world is, indeed, at war. Diana assumes Ares is behind this war, and despite her mother's protests, leaves with Steve Trevor to find and kill Ares.

In an odd bit of revamping from Wonder Woman's original story, it's not World War II that Diana is dropped into, but World War I. The revised setting means Diana is faced with a world with far more gender division and a much stricter dress code. One of Gadot's most endearing fish-out-of water moments is when she tries on various outfits and wonders how it is women are supposed to fight in such long skirts. She eventually settles on a belted tweed number and hat, though the glasses Trevor makes her wear, thinking they may help distract from her jaw-dropping beauty, don't last long.

While Diana is sure she's on a quest to kill Ares, Trevor knows they must defeat some much more earthly villains, General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and his evil henchwoman Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), a mad scientist trying to create the ultimate chemical weapon. With three recruited henchmen of their own (Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, and Eugene Brave Rock), Steve and Diana set off for the battlefront. Once Diana arrives at the front lines and sees the hopelessness of the entrenched men around her, she doffs her tweed, readies her shield, and enters into battle.

This scene ranks up there with the best of the genre's superhero reveal scenes, and is the moment every Wonder Woman fan has been waiting for. It even helped me get past the colors of her costume (ugh, maroon!) and appreciate that she's allowed to wear actual leg armor and not just spandex boots.

Wonder Woman's biggest flaw is that nothing in the rest of the movie ever matches that battlefield moment, especially not the film's final showdown between Diana and the big bad. Watching the climax, I got the distinct feeling I'd seen it all before, from its airfield setting to the bolts of lighting that seem to be the go-to weapon of choice between bad guys and superheroes these days.

Also familiar is the overuse of "speed-ramping," that slow motion + fast forward effect DC overlord Zack Snyder is such a fan of and director Patty Jenkins might have been contractually obligated to use. Still, I'm not going to fault its need to give the majority of the audience what it wants, because Diana's strength is more than just her ability to deflect bullets with her matching bracelets and toss tanks like they're pillows. She's also smart enough to decode an enemy's notebook with one glance (she can speak over 100 languages), hip enough to know that real dancing is more than "just swaying," and confident enough to face her new world with bluntness ("London is hideous!") and earned entitlement.

Gal Gadot's performance is the perfect combination of wide-eyed wonder and steely-eyed resolve, and it doesn't hurt that she's also both drop-dead gorgeous and visibly strong. The movie itself (and to some, the entire DC franchise) lives or dies based on the quality of her performance, and she delivers.

I was strictly a DC girl growing up, and it is truly ridiculous that in the course of my liftetime, Warner Bros. has managed to release movies with three different Supermans, five different Batmans, but only one Wonder Woman. And it took them almost 80 years to do it!

And to add insult to injury, the movie has also been marketed horribly. That's one thing you've got to give to Marvel's parent company, Disney: they can sell their movies. At this point in time I should be sick of seeing Wonder Woman merchandise every time I walk into Target, Walgreen's, or even the damn supermarket. When The Force Awakens was released, I could buy Star Wars-themed mascara! (Because you know how much Rey loved her mascara?!) But I have yet to see any Wonder Woman jewelry, (gold headbands and cuffs!), or even eye-shadow pallets at my local drugstore — and let me tell you, Diana's battlefield make-up is flaw. Less. I want in on that action!

What is being marketed as a Wonder Woman tie-in?

A diet bar called ThinkThin.

Early in the film, Diana's mother warns her, "Be careful in the world of men, Diana; they do not deserve you."

She may be right.