Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

miiiii-compressorParamount Pictures presents a film directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Screenplay by McQuarrie; story by McQuarrie, Drew Pearce. Based on the television series “Mission: Impossible” created by Bruce Gellar. Produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Tom Cruise, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger. Music by Joe Kraemer; “Mission: Impossible” Theme by Lalo Schifrin. Photographed by Robert Elswitt. Edited by Eddie Hamilton. Production designed by James D. Bissell. Starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang, Tom Hollander, Alec Baldwin.

Tom Cruise isn’t a movie star; he’s the movie star. Forget his personal life and talk show appearances; where it truly counts, Cruise is the whole package: talented, charismatic, energetic, and dedicated to a near-suicidal degree. In fact, let’s reconsider that use of “near.” In Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Cruise clings to a jet in mid-takeoff, holds his breath for six minutes during a high-tech underwater heist, crashes a rental car through a Moroccan street, drives through one of the most exciting and intricate motorcycle chases ever filmed, runs like crazy, battles through various knife-and-fist-fights, and more. Like in the previous four Mission: Impossible films, his character’s name is Ethan Hunt. But Cruise doesn’t play Hunt; he is Hunt, and although the franchise has maintained its identity as a commercial for Cruise’s own awesomeness, Cruise is one of the few players left in Hollywood to instinctively know that even a vanity project has to give the audience its money’s worth.

Each Mission: Impossible film is pretty much the same. The villains are a clandestine group spreading terror and stealing MacGuffins, a bureaucrat is trying to shut down the Impossible Mission Force (today it’s Alec Baldwin as, essentially, Jack Donaghy, CIA), and the heroes have to go on the lam and outthink the baddies in a series of preposterous action setups. Yet each film is decidedly different, as filtered through the series’ pointedly revolving roster of accomplished directors: Brian DePalma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird. This man behind this one is Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher), and he bestows upon Rogue Nation exemplary craft—this is as well-made an action film as you will see this year (aided, undeniably, by Robert Elswitt’s typically beautiful photography). But McQuarrie is also a screenwriter (The Usual Suspects), and so he has given the franchise its most cohesive and thematically elegant script; one that doesn’t just connect the action dots but tells a thrilling, old-fashioned spy story, with characters you care about and reversals that matter. He strikes a tone that is playful, but not stakes-free. He boldly mixes film noir and fantasy, and drops balletic wit into his action scenes, Hitchock-style (in one sequence, quite deliberately). He pulls off the neat trick of telling a story that is about vertiginous moral confusion without ever becoming confusing. And in a summer that has been good for women at the movies, McQuarrie gives us a female heroine who is a complete equal in every way to Ethan Hunt.

That would be Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), a woman in the classic femme fatale mold: deadly, mysterious and alluring, but also highly capable and strong-willed. Ilsa is a disavowed secret agent—one of many who populate the mysterious, evil entity known as “The Syndicate,”–but she plays a near-impenetrable game of double-triple-quadruple-cross (tricky when your plan involves earning back the trust of people you betrayed). Ilsa is a captivating, vulnerable and formidable enigma, and Ferguson, in a star-making role, is electric. She exists not as eye candy but as a three-dimensional person; a spy who, like a John Le Carre protagonist, realizes they’re deep into a game they are very much sick of. Ferguson is the movie’s violent, beating heart.

Both Ilsa and Ethan are co-leads here, but they’re aided by a fine support team. There’s Jeremy Renner as the wryly exasperated Agent Brandt. Ving Rhames, a series staple, reappears as Luther, a man who can convey his loyalty to Ethan with a single grunt. Simon Pegg is back again as Benji, the computer-savvy field agent who isn’t just a source of comic relief; he’s the very personification of the series’ sly tone, which approaches the absurd spectacle with wit that stays just on the right side of self-parody. The villain, a sneering toad played by Sean Harris, isn’t as vivid as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s MI3 baddy (the series’ best bad guy), but he finds an appropriate way to simmer resentfully, as the movie paints him as Hunt’s mirror image.

The movie is just plain fun: stuffed with humor, excitement, suspense, escapism and supreme confidence. It’s a wonderful entertainment, made with intelligence, verve and confidence, if Cruise’s goal each time is to prove that a decades-old franchise can thrum with brilliant life, then consider it mission: accomplished.

Pixels (2015)

pixels_trailer_stillSony presents a film directed by Chris Columbus. Screenplay by Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling; story by Tim Herlihy; based on the short film by Patrick Jean. Produced by Adam Sandler, Chris Columbus, Allen Covert, Mark Racliffe, Michael Barnathan. Music by Henry Jackman. Photographed by Amir Mokri. Edited by Hughes Winborne. Starring Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Brian Cox, Ashley Benson, Jane Krakowski, Sean Bean.

The most sadly appropriate scene in Pixels comes when a UN general (Sean Bean…yes, Sean Bean) has to clear a London park in advance of an imminent alien invasion. “We’re filming a beer commercial,” he says, in a vain attempt to avoid public panic. Pixels is a commercial, alright. It’s a commercial for beer, definitely, but also vodka, Mini-Coopers, Sony products, women knowing their place, cynically-packaged 80’s nostalgia and, above all, creepy male entitlement fantasies. It’s based on a 2010 short film by Patrick Jean (which in turn might have been inspired by an old Futurama episode), and it also feels like an unofficial riff on Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One in the way that it repackages pop culture reference points as un-ironic steps in a limp hero’s journey for boys who refuse to grow up and demand that the world should accommodate them. But, yes, officially, Pixels is based on the short. But to call it “adapted” is a bit misleading. What the filmmakers have actually done is taken a cute idea and pumped it equally full of dollars, the nastier degrees of video game culture and Adam Sandler’s massive ego. Pixels is like that boorish kid at the arcade that has all the quarters and won’t let anyone play.

It’s the kind of movie where Kevin James plays the president of the United States (I am not making this up) and former childhood friend (and current schlub) Adam Sandler is given unfettered access to the White House, even allowed to mosey into top secret conference rooms. It’s the kind of movie where Dan Aykroyd shows up in a bit part for no reason, and you wonder why, and then it all comes together an hour later when an unrelated character directly and shamelessly plugs his line of Crystal Skull vodka. It’s the kind of movie where Michelle Monaghan is made to chug a bottle of Bud Light, exhale with supreme satisfaction and make sure that we all see the label. It’s the kind of movie that capitalizes on your love of properties in such a crass way that it makes you hate them. It’s the kind of movie where, if you’re a character in it, a childhood spent pumping quarters into video games can arrogantly land you both the adulation of the world and a hot trophy girlfriend (literally). It’s unfunny and mean and joyless and pretty demonstrably sexist in uglier-than-normal ways. If you self-identify as a geek, this is a movie that for years people are wrongly going to try to convince you to see, in endless conversations that you would do well to awkwardly exit from.

Sandler plays Sam Brenner, a former arcade gamer whose life was ruined when he was beaten in a Donkey Kong championship by the ugly-hearted videogame master Eddie “Fireblaster” Plant. Brenner grew up into a mealy-mouthed techno-slave loser, and one of Pixels’ little miscalculations is how it sees Sam as a likable hero when, in actuality, he’s pathetic in his yearning for the glory days, and downright creepy in the way he cozies up to a sobbing divorcee and fishes for a drunken kiss. Brenner gets his undeserved shot at recapturing glory, though, when aliens made of pure energy invade in the form of video game characters, in misguided response to a 1980’s Earth probe crammed full of pop culture artifacts. James enlists Brenner’s help for battling the Nintendo-age monsters, and the team is filled out by both a dweeby conspiracy nut (Josh Gad, mugging disastrously) and a sprung-from-prison, grown-up Fireblaster (Peter Dinklage). Why it has to be these guys, or how video game skills can even translate into real-world battle tactics are questions that goes unanswered, as the movie is so lazy with realizing its wish-fulfillment-powered premise that it forgets to actually justify it.

Dinklage should be fun, theoretically playing a variation on Billy Mitchell, the real-life guy who actually is a Donkey Kong champion, and was the subject of his own documentary, The King of Kong (the director of that movie, Seth Gordon, is a producer on this one, pointedly enough). But Dinklage’s performance, made out of bad hair, alpha dog posturing and an unfunny, exaggerated southern accent, goes down with the ship. Not that anyone is really well-served by Pixels, anyway. Gad’s character is a repository of stale jokes about overconfident creepy virgins, and James’ president never graduates beyond “he’s fat and that’s funny” humor. So dull is the movie’s comic edge that it hires Jane Krakowski to be the first lady and puts her on the bench for the entire (and I mean entire) runtime. We also get Brian Cox as a paranoid general, who is set up as a major character and then disappears from the proceedings shortly after being made the butt of a standard-issue gay panic joke.

It’s 2015, by the way.

The centerpieces, supposedly, are the sequences in which Brenner and crew have to play real-world versions of Centipede, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, etc., but a little of that goes a long way, especially because Pixels is so sloppy that the rules, geography and strategies of each battle make little sense. One key plot turn happens during a game battle because Dinklage’s character does something that is never set up, shown, explored, or even sufficiently explained. This is just flat-out objectively incompetent screenwriting. When the game characters smash something, the real world dissolves into pixelated blocks, and that’s kind of fun, but it’s a visual that wears out its welcome quickly. The huge sprites aren’t even asked to do anything fun, exactly. They simply exist, and the movie trusts that their existence, and their implied visual reference to things that really do exist in real life, is inherently enjoyable. This stuff is so lifeless that you start looking fondly on the moment when Q-Bert pees himself, because while that’s hacky gross-out humor, at least it’s something approaching a comic choice, miscalculated as it may be. This bizarre logic trickles down even to the running gag of James’ president donning a Chewbacca mask for no reason, or when Serena Williams shows up simply to exist as Serena Williams. Dat’s da joke. Have I mentioned the movie is not funny?

But at least Serena gets to be a human being. Monaghan’s character, although ostensibly a lieutenant colonel and technology developer, downgrades herself over the course of the movie to be nothing more than Sandler’s arm candy, a woman who in the midst of human annihilation cares only that this gross man-child likes her. (Before we get over the hump, she and Sandler bicker and snipe at each other, 90’s style, with her every attack presented as bitchy and his every insult contextualized as laudable shrew-taming.)  At one point, the movie conjures a formal event in Washington out of thin air, for no conceivable reason except script laziness, and then we get the standard shot of men being amazed that the female lead of the movie looks attractive in a dress, despite the fact that (a) we’ve known this character for an hour and (b) she looks like Michelle Monaghan. That’s still better than Ashley Benson showing up as a mute video game vixen who defects in order to be Josh Gad’s submissive, smiling, eager-to-please girlfriend, which the movie counts as an unqualified victory. This is goddamn creepy. The only female character who comes out looking okay is Sandler’s ex-wife, who is never seen but on the basis of the evidence exercised sound judgment in leaving him. Oh, she’s described as awful, of course. Pixels doesn’t think very highly of women, and it blends toxic masculinity with kid-friendly appeal in such a dose not seen since…well, any Transformers movie.

Directed with cheap ambition and little finesse by Chris Columbus, a man whose expertise extends, believe it or not, to two pop culture touchstones (Home Alone and the first two Harry Potters), Pixels is surprisingly terrible. Actually, that’s not so surprising, because Columbus’ meager involvement has “hired gun” written all over it. Through and through, the movie proudly marches under the banner of Happy Madison (Sandler’s production company), and the quick appearances of Sandler regulars like the unwatchable Nick Swardson only highlight that. Sandler, for the past decade, has slowly curated his own image as an actor who barely cares about the projects he’s in, and in Pixels he’s so detached he might as well be a special effect, too.  In a movie as cynically-assembled as this one, it only makes it worse when that cynicism has a face right up there on screen.

In a way, Pixels is a movie for our times. It wants nothing more to be a mash-up of Ghostbusters and The Last Starfighter. But it misses the simple fun of movies like that, or the ability to create rounded characters that we could root for. Even Starfighter, which was no masterpiece, had a sweetness to it, and it got away with its videogame conceit because it was about a young kid who happened to be good at something, but didn’t let it define his life until that thing grew in importance.  Pixels, in addition to the way it embraces nostalgia like a drunken senior at a graduation party, has no innocence, no sweetness, and it simply exists to celebrate characters who are already dangerously self-absorbed. Its idea of wish fulfillment is not one of people rising to an occasion, but instead one of an entire universe sinking to their level.  The strident willfulness here to supplant maturity with cheerful, unexamined juvenility is almost something to behold, as if some force in Hollywood wanted to make their own backwards masculine version of Trainwreck.

It’s rare to see a comedy that makes you so sad and depressed. Like a broken arcade machine, Pixels sucks up all your quarters and gives you nothing for your trouble. Get the manager, folks. This one is busted.

Inside Out (2015)

io1Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Pete Docter, Ronaldo del Carmen. Screenplay by Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Pete Docter; story by Pete Docter, Ronaldo del Carmen. Produced by Jonas Rivera. Music by Michael Giacchino. Edited by Kevin Nolting. Production designed by Ralph Eggleston. Art direction by Bert Berry. Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle McLachlan.

Several movies have taken place inside the human mind, but none of them have done so with such exuberance, creativity and sophistication than Inside Out. Disney-Pixar’s latest film is not just a visual marvel and a great entertainment, but it has something to say about the role that emotions play in our lives—something quietly profound. This is the studio’s fifteenth feature, and—after a string of middling entries and a whole year hiatus—one of their very best, joining their upper echelon of hits like Finding Nemo and Up and becoming that rarest of things: a true instant classic.

The premise is simply stated, more or less. When a little girl named Riley comes into the life of two sweet parents, we meet the five anthropomorphized emotions who are “born” with her: the yellow, bouncy Joy (Amy Poehler, perfectly cast), fireplug-red Anger (Lewis Black, ditto), the purple, vaguely insectoid fear (Bill Hader, yes again), sickly green Disgust (Mindy Kaling, brilliant) and the teardrop-shaped blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith of The Office, of course). Together in the central hub office (or “Headquarters”) of Riley’s mind, the five emotions perpetually jockey for control of a console that informs Riley’s actions (varying based on which one is behind the controls), though the effervescent Joy keeps herself more or less dominant. Memories come in as ball-shaped objects, each colored in tune with a specific emotion (happy memories are hued in Joy’s yellow, for example). Important “core” memories generate pop-up islands in the spaces of Riley’s mind that shape aspects of her happy personality: honesty, family, hockey, etc. Everything, as Riley grows into an 11-year-old (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), is great.

But things soon take a turn for the girl. Her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, where the environs are alien, her hockey teammates are gone, the family’s new home is unpromising, pizza places can’t get pizza right, and both parents are growing worried and distant, and her first day of school is an emotional disaster. Inside Riley’s head, Sadness starts infecting once-happy memory spheres with her blues, to Joy’s consternation. A scuffle leads to Joy and Sadness (along with several core memories) being jettisoned out of Headquarters, leaving Riley in the uncertain hands of Disgust, Anger and Fear, which causes troubling behavior in the real world.  What’s more, this new instability causes Riley’s mind to flirt with serious and potentially damaging upheaval, as personality islands collapse and Joy and Sadness are in danger of getting lost forever in Riley’s heady labyrinth, or being chucked into a gaping abyss where memories go to die. The unspoken ramifications could be devastating.

And thus we have an adventure story with a traditional shape and charmingly abstract trappings. Joy and Sadness try to navigate the annals of long-term memory and bump into maintenance crews cleaning out junk, as well as Riley’s discarded imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind). Together, the three pass through zones called Imagination Land and Abstract Thinking, with a stopover at a movie studio that is literally a dream factory for Riley. Along the way, there’s plenty of wonderful visuals and sly jokes for all ages. At one point, Joy knocks over a box each of “opinions” and “facts” and can’t sort them, and then she’s told “It happens all the time.”

But as is also Pixar tradition, the movie enters tearful territory as Joy desperately tries to get back to Riley and learns hard truths about the nature of the mind. What specifically happens to Joy and Sadness (and Bing Bong, for that matter), I won’t reveal, but it has everything to do with the poignant realities of growing up: personality changes, things are replaced, and a healthy growing mind needs balance. All of this is juxtaposed with Riley’s scenes, and she is a such a good kid that her inner turmoil gives us more stakes than a thousand blockbusters.

The voice work is inspired, the animation is delightful, the story is thrilling, and Inside Out ultimately arrives at lessons that can actually help us understand each other, and ourselves. That will resonate instantly while adults, while kids will find it increasingly meaningful as they grow up with it. Which they will.

Ted 2 (2015)

watch-raunchy-ted-2-2015-movie-trailer-videoUniversal Pictures presents a film directed by Seth MacFarlane. Written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild. Produced by Jason Clark, John Jacobs, Seth MacFarlane, Scott Stuber. Music by Walter Murphy. Photographed by Michael Barrett. Edited by Jeff Freeman. Production designed by Stephen J. Lineweaver. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane, Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, Morgan Freeman, Patrick Warburton.

Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, has built his empire on a bedrock of brazen, cheerful offensiveness. In his world, absolutely no taboo is unbreakable, which certainly can be a valuable way to approach comedy. The take-no-prisoners approach, after all, worked wonders for one of MacFarlane’s clear inspirations, Mel Brooks. But MacFarlane’s work has always teetered drunkenly on the line between pointedly edgy and aimlessly mean-spirited, and with Ted 2 he falls on the wrong side. The result is sour and ugly.

The first Ted was not great, but it was confident: despite its unrepentant vulgarity and occasionally hurtful material, it had a rapid-fire pace and something that resembled, sort of, a beating heart. It felt like it knew what it was doing, and had carefully diagrammed its exit strategy on how to get away with it. Perhaps MacFarlane used up all his ideas in Ted, because Ted 2 is a misfire covered in flopsweat. In devising a sequel to a movie that MacFarlane is probably smart enough to know didn’t need one, his style turns to workmanlike desperation, with too much plot, too few jokes, and a generally unpleasant air of self-satisfaction. The original Ted had endless invention, and this one is endless miscalculation. And I do mean endless—its two-hour runtime feels twice that.

Returning from the first, we have both MacFarlane, voicing the misanthropic racist teddy bear known as Ted, and also Mark Wahlberg as a Bostonian layabout named John. The two grew up together and became best buddy stoners, and both, as Ted 2 begins, face marriages on the rocks. Mila Kunis, John’s love interest from the first film (and absent from this one), has divorced him, rendering the first movie’s most sweet element as something to be casually dismissed. Ted’s own marital life to supermarket clerk Tammi-Lynn (Jessica Barth) has turned acrid, and Ted thinks having a baby might save it. That would take some doing, at first simply because Ted is a stuffed bear and ill-equipped for that particular function. But also, it turns out, Ted is not a person in the eyes of the law, and so as he and John enlist lawyer Amanda Seyfried (the character’s name is Sam L. Jackson—ha ha) to help them, the movie turns into a callow and self-congratulatory civil rights parable, one that is played far too seriously.

That’s the most curious thing about Ted 2: long stretches where the jokes are either sparse, lame or just plain non-existent. This includes an opening ten minutes that contains a flat wedding party scene, a straight-faced song-and-dance number and a shrill marital argument that all possess an uneasy commitment to actual comedy. It gets better, a little, as it goes on, but the movie overall makes the mistake of presuming we truly care about Ted’s struggle—with many moments played with utmost sincerity—and it doesn’t work one bit. As a sidekick, Ted is a decent comedic livewire, and some of his zingers still hit this time around. But as a protagonist, Ted is so unlikable, nasty and one-note that MacFarlane should have done something to ramp up the joke count.

Some bits hit (there are faintly funny cameos, and one great one), but mostly what’s left in the humor department—besides the exhausting amount of dead air—is deeply lazy: recycled gags, pop culture references that are nothing more than just references, characters that don’t make sense, and an altogether baffling run of jokes that is straight-up, unforgivably racist. Other moments, like one where John and Ted attend an improv show and throw out vile (and topical) suggestions basically makes fun of comedians who don’t push the limits, although that’s coming from MacFarlane, who prefers aimless comedy that repulses over thoughtful material that doesn’t.

There’s a place for MacFarlane’s sensibilities, I suppose, but not in a movie that lacks so much perspective, or one that keeps pointing to a heart it doesn’t have. At one point, a lawyer argues that Ted cannot be a person because he lacks empathy. The attorney is painted as a villain, but the problem is, he isn’t wrong at all. But that’s Ted 2 for you: a movie that wants to have its terrible bear and then love him, too. Oh, and without enough jokes.

Jurassic World (2015)

still-of-chris-pratt-in-jurassic-world-(2015)-large-pictureUniversal Pictures presents a film directed by Colin Trevorrow. Screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow; story by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver; based on characters created by Michael Crichton. Produced by Patrick Crowley, Frank Marshall. Music by Michael Giacchino; “Jurassic Park” theme by John Williams. Photographed by John Schwartzman. Edited by Kevin Stitt. Production designed by Ed Verreaux. Costumes designed by April Ferry, Daniel Orlandi. Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, B.D. Wong, Irrfan Khan.

Believe it or not, it’s been fourteen years since audiences last took a trip to the dinosaur-infested universe of Jurassic Park. After the smashing success of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic, Spielberg himself returned for the uncharacteristically cynical 1997 sequel The Lost World, and then director Joe Johnson took over the reins for 2001’s competent-but-forgettable Jurassic Park III. That last one seemed to close the book on the franchise, but never underestimate Hollywood’s ability to jumpstart old properties. Here, at long last, is Jurassic World, which seems poised to carry the series into perpetuity, and whether it was worth the wait is difficult to answer. It’s definitely no equal the original Jurassic. But it is solid fun.

It’s necessary to reflect going in that arguably nothing can recapture the lighting in a bottle that Spielberg achieved in 1993. Adapting Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel, Spielberg essentially took a B-movie and elevated it through formidable (yet effortless) craft and truly revolutionary special effects.  Ever since, the Jurassic sequels have gradually upped the ante and knowingly embraced schlock, perhaps realizing that the original’s sense of awe and wonder was a one-time-only. World marries the Jurassic premise (dinosaurs brought back to life via genetic engineering) with the theatrics of a disaster movie, imagining a thriving, open-for-business dinosaur park that finds itself in a crisis that worsens due to corporate greed. Call it The Towering Jurassic.

In a movie like this, the characters are barely sketches, but the heroes are nice, the villains are hiss-worthy, and there’s maybe time for a few to switch teams. Certainly when we meet Bryce Dallas Howard as Jurassic World’s senior operations manager, she seems to be begging for dinosaur-guided karma: she’s an all-career woman who refuses to spend time with her two visiting nephews (Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins), has no reverence for the prehistoric behemoths, and is such a stick-in-the-mud that she rolls her eyes at Chris Pratt’s romantic advances (Howard does the best she can with a character mired in rickety gender politics). Pratt, a snarky expert dinosaur trainer who is in the middle of semi-domesticating a pack of velociraptors, is called in to inspect the Indominus Rex, a newly-minted hybrid dinosaur who has been engineered to give the crowd’s waning enthusiasm for dinosaurs a shot in the arm (Pratt, tellingly, sees it as an abomination). But the Indominus is too clever by half, and engineers a jailbreak that becomes the first link in a chaotic chain of dinosaur escapes.

What we come for in a Jurassic Park movie is for what happens next: scenes of characters being menaced, growled at, and occasionally eaten, with some dinosaur vs. dinosaur fights adding to the oomph factor. There’s nothing new here, but they’re fun to see, because many of us can still commune with our nine-year-old selves who adore dinosaurs and want to see them do their thing. Highlights include a pterodactyl attack on civilians that recalls Hitchcock’s The Birds, an intense assault on a tour vehicle that riffs on the original’s signature tyrannosaur scene, and a last thirty minutes of escalating action that, in moments, is genuinely frightening (like all Jurassic movies, parents should be judicious in bringing kids to see this; it’s rated PG-13 and it means it).

What World adds to the franchise is sly, self-aware humor. The actual park hub is a huge mall, which partially fuels a rich running joke on product placement and corporate sponsorship run amok. (The Indominus  is officially dubbed “Verizon Wireless Presents the Indominus Rex,” which causes many of the geeks in the control room to gag). And there’s a speck of cultural commentary in the way that half the park attendees are blasé towards dinosaurs, spending more time on their phones than appreciating the spectacle until violence happens (the more you think about this, the more the movie’s self-reflexivity might make your head spin). The director and co-writer, Colin Trevorrow, making only his second feature (after the indie Safety Not Guaranteed) imbues the material with a surprising dose of personality, and he even arrives at something resembling a theme: the choice between aloofness and connection, and how the latter can make one both vulnerable and stronger. Not bad, all things considered.

Spy (2015)

20th Century Fox presents a film written and directed by Paul Feig. Produced by Paul Feig, Jesse Henderson, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping. Music by Theodore Shapiro. Photographed by Robert Yeoman. Edited by Mellisa Bretherton, Brent White. Production designed by Jefferson Sage. Costumes designed by Christine Bieselin Clark. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Jude Law, Peter Serafinowitz, Morena Baccarin.

In the years since she stole scenes in Bridesmaids and made herself a Hollywood comedy player, Melissa McCarthy has had an uneven time of it. Many of the projects she picks don’t seem to know how to use her, even the movies that she has produced herself (recent misfires include Identity Thief and Tammy). Spy, McCarthy’s newest, is her reunion with Paul Feig, who directed Bridesmaids, and then in The Heat served McCarthy and Sandra Bullock with fully-dimensional (and funny) female characters to inhabit. In Spy, McCarthy and Feig top their success in two areas: creating a solid, fleshed-out comic persona for McCarthy…and then constructing a superb comedy for her to be in. Despite its generic title and misleading ad campaign, Spy is a delight: inventive, ambitious, and very funny.

It’s also smart in the way it uses McCarthy’s genuine comedic skills and even subtly plays off her image, as she is a woman constantly beset by the way other people perceive her. She plays a mousy CIA technician named Susan Cooper, who, via a high-tech Bluetooth, operates as the eyes and ears of superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law, having fun as a walking 007 parody). Fine, who is a little dim, sees himself and Cooper as an inseparable team, so much so that his support caused Cooper to hamstring her own promising career as a field agent so that she can stay attached to Fine in the Langley basement. A colossal threat posed by a Hungarian heiress/terrorist (Rose Byrne), however, forces Cooper to actually go into the field, where she’s given a cover identity packed with stealth insults (she’s a cat lady with gadgets disguised as fungal ointments and stool softeners). But as she gets deeper into her assignment (and goes inevitably off-plan), she finds she must reinvent herself again and again just to stay alive, to say nothing of stopping the bad guys.

McCarthy is terrific in Spy, tapping into the heroine’s lovable insecurities in ways that keep her grounded. Her Susan is aware of her own sadness, and has an uneasy relationship with the fact that her simpatico partnership with Fine has left her a forgotten CIA fixture. She wears her false identities with resignation, them being supplied to her by people who are, whether they know it or not, dedicated to underestimating her. She’s a competent agent: fluent in languages, able to spot a setup, good at manipulating people, able to read a situation quicker than a foe can. When she goes over-the-top, she’s desperate to protect or replace her cover, not because she’s someone who is too aware that they’re in a comedy. That makes her material much funnier, because it extends from a fully-realized character, even the scenes where she’s constantly riffing on her surroundings feel like a defense mechanism, not improv gone wild.

But McCarthy is assisted by an unbelievably good support team in Spy. Allison Janney plays her dry boss, who has as little use for Cooper as anyone (“Women,” she sniffs disdainfully after learning about Cooper’s self-denial and lack of confidence). Jason Statham is hilarious as Rick Ford, a disdainful agent who goes rogue to follow Cooper, berating her as a screwup while regaling her with endless tales of what a great spy he is (which sound like him drunkenly summarizing deleted scenes from Jason Statham movies). Peter Serafinowitz plays a friendly (too friendly) agent of vague European descent who is more Pepe Le Pew than James Bond. The lovable Miranda Hart plays Cooper’s gal pal, who also finds herself surprised by how capable she is in the field. And Rose Byrne, often the best thing in a comedy these days, walks away with her scenes as the villainess who takes a cruel shine to Cooper. And then there’s Feig behind the camera, who treats these people like they really are in an espionage thriller: he establishes a fast, gag-heavy pace and creates exciting chases and action, not content with the current comedy trend of just planting a camera and letting actors riff endless sketches. There’s even an intricate fight scene in a kitchen that would make Jackie Chan proud. Spy is an action comedy that doesn’t skimp on either account.

Aloha (2015)

screen-shot-2015-02-11-at-9-08-25-pmColumbia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Produced by Cameron Crowe, Scott Rudin. Photographed by Eric Gautier. Edited by Joe Hutshing. Production designed by Clay A. Griffith. Costumes designed by Deborah Lynn Scott. Starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin.

Director Cameron Crowe likes to tell stories about people who feel big feelings; nothing less interests him. In Crowe’s universe, emotions are important, sweeping romantic gestures are to be savored, and cynicism is seen mainly as an enemy to be vanquished. His films use a lot of pop music, not because he wants to sell a soundtrack, but because he writes about people who happily live in a pop culture world. His movies are made with love and are always proudly about love: in Say Anything, he made a shot of John Cusack’s boombox-assisted declaration of affection instantly iconic, and in Jerry Maguire he added “You had me at hello” and “You complete me” to the cultural lexicon. And in Almost Famous, he told a story about a boy who loved both a girl and rock and roll, and had to swim through a sea of phonies that claimed to love those things, too.

Aloha, Crowe’s latest, is of course about love: love of the land, love of culture, and a romance that goes inextricably hand in hand with those. It’s a messy and unfocused movie, at times, but I enjoy the way Crowe does messy. It’s joyful, not frantic. He does a lot of plate-spinning, but every plate is there for a reason. His writing has a traditional structure, but his scenes often hum with the details of everyday life. Aloha sometimes feels like five different movies jostling for space, but I like each one of the movies he’s making.

Bradley Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest, a defense contractor that the military has loaned to Carson Welch, (Bill Murray) an eccentric telecommunications billionaire. Arriving in Hawaii, Gilcrest is tasked with brokering a deal with a descendant of Hawaiian royalty to bless the launch site, as a PR stunt. Some, however, take local traditions seriously, and that includes Capt. Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a fighter pilot who is one-quarter Hawaiian and is assigned to Brian as a military attaché.  Ng is spritely and deeply spiritual, and she is repeatedly unfazed by Brian’s attempts to not make friends, do his job and leave. “You’re cynical, I get it,” she says, smiling, as if sizing up an opponent for a tennis match. They fall in love, because who wouldn’t? But Gilcrest does have baggage: an ex-wife, Tracy (Rachel McAdams) who is a nice woman with two nice kids, but she’s also a little sad, and more than willing to tell Gilcrest his own flaws. Meanwhile, Tracy’s new airman husband (John Krasinski) is the strong/silent type, but his body language says (among other things) “Go away.”

In addition to this assortment of characters there’s also conflict between those who respect the sacred traditions of Hawaii, and those who don’t (the movie shows the uneasy relationship the locals have with the mainland). And there’s a little class commentary, and some serious portents of Hawaiian prophecy. And there’s some big family issues to work out, and time for Gilcrest to figure if maybe he’s playing for the wrong team, and Bill Murray at his reserved and quirky best. And the satellite launch, and Alec Baldwin as a cartoonish mad-dog general, and Danny McBride as a sardonic colonel. There’s even a dance sequence between Stone and Murray set to Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” that doesn’t have much to do with anything, but I’m so glad it’s there.

Cooper and Stone generate huge chemistry in Aloha, which is unsurprising, but also crucial; not just because we have to believe their romance but because Crowe’s dialogue, in the wrong hands, can explode on contact—these two create characters that you buy saying these lines, even when they’re near-impossibly earnest. Crowe always swings big in terms of dialogue, character and theme, and at his worst he can miss, but at his best, like filmmakers from the golden age, he uses his formalist tendencies to cut right to the beating heart of something. And heart is key. Aloha is a second-tier work from a filmmaker who has greatness in him. It’s a little rambling, a little self-indulgent, maybe a little too twee. But it’s so darned likable and warm that it’s difficult to mind very much.

Tomorrowland (2015)

tomorrowland06Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Brad Bird. Screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird. Story by Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird and Jeff Jensen. Produced by Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, Jeffrey Chernov. Music by Michael Giacchino. Photographed by Claudio Miranda. Edited by Walter Murch & Craig Wood. Production designed by Scott Chambliss. Costumes designed by Jeffrey Kurland. Starring George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key.

Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland is a requiem for our retro-future, a passionate attempt to reconstruct the spirit of golden-age science fiction, and a heavy-handed stab at moralizing. In the 1950s and 60’s, pulp magazines overflowed with spectacular visions, ones that brimmed with gosh-golly optimism. They predicted that by the twenty-first century we’d be commuting to the moon daily, spending our leisure time flying with jetpacks, and living within glistening metropolises.  Well, that didn’t happen, naturally, and Tomorrowland offers a reason why, as well as a firm plea for more positive thinking. It believes, and it wants you to. But no amount of believing, unfortunately, can repair Tomorrowland, which asks us to invest all our capital on wonder, then fails to pay up.

After a nattering and jokey prologue, we open on the 1964’s World Fair, where a kid named Frank enters an engineering competition and soon finds himself admitted to a wondrous place known as Tomorrowland, a bustling conclave where builders and dreamers can work, limited by nothing but their imagination. Cut to the down-and-out present, where a young girl named Casey (Britt Robertson) spends her time sabotaging attempts to demolish NASA sites. The world has lost its ability to dream, but Casey hasn’t. One day she’s given a mysterious pin that puts her in temporary touch with Tomorrowland, and she goes on the road to find a way to go there for real. Eventually she encounters an older Frank (bitter George Clooney), and a girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who has a big secret. Soon they’re all being chased by a grinning gang of evil androids.

I have protected plot secrets, what little there are of them. What I will say, however, is that the movie never makes clear why much of this is happening. Bird shares screenwriting credit here with Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus), who must truly believe that the longer you delay a reveal, the more weight it will inherently have. Tomorrowland’s first two acts are nothing but teases and portents and goalpost moving, where numerous opportunities to have characters explain to each other what is going on are bafflingly skipped (at one point a robot actually shuts down rather than listen to Casey holler questions at it). This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker; building anticipation can be fun, especially as Michael Giacchino’s bubbly score soars, and we find things like spaceships under the Eiffel Tower, as if we’re in a nuttier version of a National Treasure movie.

But Tomorrowland’s third act, which is when all the cards should be turned up, is a big mess. Not only will you be mystified at major plot points that go confusingly unexplained, and not only will you be underwhelmed by the ultimate Tomorrowland we arrive at after two hours of drumrolls, but you’ll be surprised at the thematic incoherency. Did a movie about the virtues of unlimited invention really just pull out the “man should not have created this” and “evil robot fight” tropes? After two hours of hearing about how special Casey is, does it really come down to just that she’s very good at being positive? Did a movie about the power of optimism just end with a climax where stuff gets blown up real good? And could villain Hugh Laurie’s sledgehammer-subtle rant about man’s obsession with entertaining apocalypses have come at a worse time? (As far as ambition and achievement go, last weekend’s Mad Max: Fury Road blows Tomorrowland out of the multiplex.)

Bird, following up successes in animation (Incredibles, Iron Giant) and live action (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), tries gamely to make this work. Although it’s based on a Disney theme park attraction, the movie’s ideas are clearly fueling a labor of love. But Bird’s direction of actors is iffy (it doesn’t help that they’re complete ciphers), his comedic touch is leaden, his CGI effects always look cartoonish, and his command of story has sadly forsaken him. Tomorrowland’s ambition feels like an attempt to hybridize the can-do spirit of Walt Disney and the suburban wonder of Steven Spielberg, but those things are harder to copy than it looks. The message is admirable; we need a dash of more hope in our entertainment. And we can start by hoping the next time somebody makes a sincere movie like Tomorrowland, they enlist a story that is more than just an empty bag of tricks.

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

PitchPerfect202Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Elizabeth Banks. Screenplay by Kay Cannon, based on the book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Capella Glory by Mickey Rapkin. Produced by Elizabeth Banks, Paul Brooks, Kay Cannon, Max Handelman, Jeff Levine. Music score by Mark Mothersbaugh. Photographed by Jim Denault. Edited by Craig Alpert. Production designed by Toby Corbett. Costumes designed by Salvador Pérez Jr. Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Adam DeVine, Katey Sagal, Anna Camp, Ben Platt, Alexis Knapp, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Chrissie Fit, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Flula Borg, Kelley Jakle, Shelley Regner, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks.

2012’s Pitch Perfect, a musical about collegiate a Capella groups, was a hit partially because it came as a complete surprise. An original female-driven property is a depressingly hard sell in Hollywood circles, but audiences—despite what marketing executives think—are always hungry for something fresh and snappy. It was a modest success in theaters and found a fervent following on DVD, perhaps because at home fans could linger on the sassy dialogue and buoyant performances while fast-forwarding through the ill-advised, Bridesmaids-inspired moments of gross-out comedy. A sequel was inevitable, and so now here is Pitch Perfect 2, a movie that, like many sequels, tries very hard to resynthesize the formula of the first movie, with some mixed results.

In a lot of ways, Pitch Perfect 2 is more of a product than a movie: a collection of lines and moments and soundtrack cues in search of a plot. The original was built upon a sturdy underdog structure, with a hero team so disrespected than even other a Capella groups mocked them. Here, returning writer Kay Cannon has no choice but to go through contrived motions to make them all underdogs again. Humiliated during an embarrassing set (in front of President Obama no less), the Barden Bellas, looking more than ever like a campus organization that are maybe due for a tiny budget reduction, are stripped of their title and their on-campus standing is seriously threatened. Only through a loophole do they find a possible solution: competing in the world a Capella championships and defeating the reigning favorite, a utilitarian and ostensibly soulless German team called Das Sound Machine, who are intimidating bullies both onstage and off. “I’m feeling a lot of sexual confusion,” admits the flustered Becca (Anna Kendrick) during an icy confrontation with the perfectly-toned queen of the German group (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), although it’s another German (Flula Borg) who gets some of the script’s best putdowns.

In theory, this is a decent competitive hook to hang your sequel on, and one sequence, involving an intense riff-off inside a mansion, has a wonderfully maniacal energy (there’s no way I’ll tell you who else is in that mansion, by the way). And Pitch 2 trims out some of Pitch 1‘s less-successful contributions: there’s no vomit gags, for one, and the runner of everyone using “aca” as a prefix to every word is only briefly and perfunctorily kept alive. But Pitch Perfect 2 still has a lot of characters to half-heartedly service and a lot of running gags to refresh, and it feels like those concerns drive everything. Kendrick’s Becca is kept pointedly divorced from some of the action this time, stuck in an existential crisis by her internship under a venal music producer (Keegan-Michael Key, very funny). Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), who shared breakout star status with Kendrick last time, is trapped in her own subplot with the callow Bumper (Adam DeVine) – their headlong romance is funny as a concept, but not really in execution (I’m not a huge Wilson fan, but the weak link is most certainly the loutish and unpleasant DeVine). The script casts around for subplots and doesn’t provide a sense of real momentum. Even an appearance by valuable series alumnus Anna Camp doesn’t bring up the energy like it should.

The other Bellas are a mixed bag. Super-positive Chloe (Brittany Snow) is just pathetic this time around, two of the girls are so nondescript that even Becca can’t tell them apart, and Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean) is simply a source of lazy lesbian jokes. While the mad ravings of soft-spoken Lily (Hana Mae Lee) are still amusing, there’s the problematic Flo (Chrissie Fit), a Guatemalan refugee whose every line of dialogue is simply mean-spirited stereotype humor. There’s also a new freshman Bella, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld),whose chief character trait is that she is exceptionally dull. Steinfeld is a fine young actress, but she’s given no character to play here, which makes the film’s unsubtle attempts to groom her as franchise lead (the established actors have already aged out) pretty bewildering. It makes sense to start rotating in new blood if this series is going to go for the long haul, but Emily doesn’t even seem to fit the sardonic universe of Pitch Perfect–she seems like a freshly-scrubbed teen on loan from the Disney Channel.

PP2 was helmed by Elizabeth Banks, making a welcome feature directorial debut (Banks also reprises her role as one of a pair of very funny color commentators, along with John Michael Higgins). She has a future ahead of her as a director, but the film’s busy camerawork and over-editing occasionally obscure the choreography and sap some of the energy; even the climactic number is iffy when it should be triumphant. It’s hard to blame her for the movie’s flaws, though: despite some funny moments and truly terrific song-and-dance numbers, Pitch Perfect 2 is a calculated encore that feels a little too much like a shrug. It never comes up with a fully-realized reason to exist, but all the same I’m happy that it does. In other words, it’s sort of a middling aca-mplishment.

Hot Pursuit (2015)

New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer present a film directed by Anne Fletcher. Produced by Dana Fox, Bruna Papandrea, Reese Witherspoon. Written by David Feeney, John Quaintance. Music by Christophe Beck. Photographed by Oliver Stapleton, Edited by Priscilla Ned-Friendly. Production designed by Nelson Coates. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Matthew del Negro, Michael Mosley, John Carroll Lynch.

Hot Pursuit is a buddy/crime comedy that wants to recall 2013’s The Heat, but would strongly prefer if you didn’t. That movie, which paired Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, created strong characters and gave them something to do. The jokes, however broad, were funny, and they stemmed organically from what we knew about these people. Hot Pursuit, on the other hand, puts Reese Witherspoon and Sophia Vergara into a series of slapdash comic situations that do not work, placing everything in service of a plot as lame-brained and cliché as they come. It’s so lazy and uninspired that it’s like on the first day of filming they handed out the poster instead of script pages.

Witherspoon plays Cooper, a second-generation Texas cop who drives her peers and supervisors crazy with her control freak, by-the-book rule quoting. Banished to the evidence room after an accidental tasering incident (this joke wouldn’t be funny even if it wasn’t a victim of really bad timing), Cooper is given a second chance when she’s asked to escort Daniella (Vergara), the wife of a key witness for a case against a powerful cartel boss. When two different sets of armed gunmen set on the house, both women go on the road and make the drive to Dallas, evading both hit men and police thanks to their newfound fugitive status. This opens up the movie’s ambition to be a middling road picture, and it’s directed with little care by Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, Step Up).

The screenplay is by two sitcom veterans, which is evident in the way it supplies lame and arbitrary comedic setups. There’s the moment when the women have to pretend to be lesbians and cause a hick farmer (Jim Gaffigan) to shoot off his own finger. And the one where Daniella has to give the slip to some corrupt cops by portending some imminent lady business, and of course the men react like seventh graders. At one point, the two women have to sneak across a police barricade by pretending to be a deer, and then there’s a brief cocaine mishap that causes Cooper to talk real fast. Recurring gags refer to Vergara being old and Witherspoon being short and boylike, even though those things are glaringly not even close to true. So desperate is the movie that it hauls in a love interest for Cooper (Robert Kazinsky), as once again a movie slings the tired and insulting implication that a woman’s flaws are due to a lack of a boyfriend.

Much could be excused if the chemistry between Vergara and Witherspoon—the whole reason this movie exists—was good. But instead it’s shrill, one-note and unpleasant. Vergara plays the same spicy-Latina schtick that she makes her bread and butter on Modern Family, only made more screechy and nonsensical. Daniella is a wildly inconsistent character who, sometimes in the middle of scenes, switches from shrewd to stupid, shallow to deep, petty to noble, needy to independent, hateful to affectionate. Witherspoon, in an attempt to match Vergara’s assault on the eardrums and common sense, dials everything up to eleven, grossly overacting in a mannered and oppressive performance that possibly ranks as her absolute worst. Witherspoon is a gifted comedic actress in the right material, but her Cooper is a brittle collection of tics and facial expressions, not a person.  You see every choice being made by the actress, and perhaps also every private thought she has about them.

Vergara was terrific (and understated) last year in Chef, but maybe she doesn’t have enough power yet to turn down things like this. What was Witherspoon thinking? She is one of Hollywood’s toughest and savviest players, and although she has often been ill-used, she’s been on a hot streak recently: an Oscar nomination for Wild, plus great supporting turns in Inherent Vice and Mud, and she produced Gone Girl. She produced this as well, but somehow I feel that something went seriously wrong. Often, actors will do quick studio movies to finance the things that really interest them. That’s most definitely what happened with Hot Pursuit, although rarely has a movie shown its cast thinking about other projects so visibly on screen.