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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"Furious 7"

            The “Fast and the Furious” franchise used to be largely about drag racing, but over the course of seven movies has expanded its wheelhouse to include any kind of action sequence involving a car. The films, though giants at the box office, generally do not strive for critical or creative success, unless of course they measure creative success in property damage. But a wrench has been thrown in the works in the form of a real-life tragedy. “Furious 7” finds itself in the unenviable position of having to convey sentiment and treat itself with an importance outside of its “dumb action movie” comfort zone.

            The new film finds Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his “family” of drivers (including Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris and Michelle Rodriguez) targeted by Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the brother of the badly-beaten bad guy from the last movie. Shaw killed one member of the team in that movie, and he starts out this one by massacring a hospital and getting into a fight with Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) that leaves the Toretto ally injured. Toretto wants nothing more than to get revenge on Shaw, and is offered an opportunity to gain an advantage in the war. A shady maybe-government agent (Kurt Russell, a pleasantly surprising scene-stealer) wants Toretto and his team to rescue a kidnapped computer programmer (Nathalie Emmanuel) from a terrorist (Djimon Hounsou). If they succeed, they can use her locate-anyone-in-the-world program to find Shaw before he finds them. It’s a dangerous mission, made all the more dangerous by the fact that Shaw keeps popping up to attack, often in mid-operation.

            The action sequences are typical of these films, and by “typical” I mean completely off the wall. Cars drop out of planes, fall off cliffs and jump between skyscrapers. I just wish the trailer hadn’t given away the skyscraper scene or the awesome mountainside sequence. I felt like I was being deprived of a crowd roaring with surprise. By the way, the most implausible action scene in the movie doesn’t even involve cars. It’s that the Rodriguez character gets into a fight with a bodyguard played by UFC powerhouse Ronda Rousey and she doesn’t get flattened in 12 seconds.

            A major issue looming over the film is the 2013 death of Paul Walker, in a car crash no less. The film was nearly complete at the time of his death, though a few barely-noticeable edits have been made. Is it disrespectful to show him driving irresponsibly in this movie? My initial theory was yes, no way this film could be anything other than an insult to his memory. But in practice, and somewhat counterintuitively, the scenes where he drives recklessly are tolerable because he puts himself in so much extra danger. Remember, these are really over-the-top action scenes. At any given time, he’s in danger of being shot, blown up, falling off cliffs, and of course several elaborate methods of crashing. It actually takes one’s mind off the possibility of him crashing from speed and a sharp turn alone.

            “Furious 7” is mostly a mess, but it’s a fun mess, the kind of brainless action vehicle we’ve all come to expect. That is until the end when it really smartens up. The film tacks on a scene where we say goodbye to both Paul Walker and his character, and absolutely nails it. The scene is handled with a sensitivity and eloquence that this brash franchise is not known for, but is unquestionably welcome. The last few minutes of this movie take it to heartbreaking heights that it surely did not set out to achieve.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five

 

“Furious 7” is rated PG-13 for prolonged frenetic sequences of violence, action and mayhem, suggestive content and brief strong language. Its running time is 137 minutes.
4:53 pm edt 

"Home"

            Oh, the main character of “Home,” is really annoying. It’s hard to get past that fact. Everything else about this movie could be excellent and it would still be awful overall because of Oh (and to be clear, this is not an otherwise excellent movie). Oh gets his name from the groaning sound that his fellow aliens make any time he’s around. It’s a wonder his name isn’t Idontlikeyougoaway. Oh is voiced by Jim Parsons, best known for playing the aggravating Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory.” Instead of getting him for 24 minutes, you’re getting him for 94. Unlike Sheldon, Oh at least attempts to be pleasant, but he’s rendered insufferable by his bumbling nature and awkward syntax. You probably know from the trailers that he speaks mostly in broken English that the movie thinks is funny. I assure you that prolonged exposure to this speech does not make it more tolerable.

            Oh is a member of an alien race called Boov, led by Captain Smek (Steve Martin). The Boov invade Earth and forcibly relocate all humans in the gentlest way possible. Oh wants to celebrate his new digs with a housewarming party, which nobody wants to attend. While sending out invitations, he accidentally invites the Gorg, mortal enemy of the Boov and the reason they have to keep planet-hopping. Earth is in danger and Oh is in big trouble.

He plans to flee to Antactica, but he can’t access Boov transportation because he is a fugitive. He happens upon a teenager named Tip (Rihanna) who has a car and desperately wants to find her relocated mother (Jennifer Lopez). Oh promises to fix her car up enough to get her to Paris to look for human records, but he secretly plots to go to Antarctica. Tip doesn’t want to trust a member of the alien race that abducted all humans, but she reluctantly goes along with the plan, and we have ourselves a road movie. Actually the car flies, so we have ourselves a sky movie.

            The biggest problem with the movie is Oh in general, but there are other issues. There’s a glaring discrepancy with Tip’s timeline. When we first see her, she’s tearfully watching old movies of her mom in a makeshift bunker with Boov-traps everywhere. The invasion seemingly happened earlier that day, it’s way too early for her to be that nostalgic or prepared. Also, why doesn’t she just ask the Boov to take her to her mom? They made an oversight in not relocating her (involving her cat), but there’s no reason to believe that she’s lost her only chance. And I found it weird that the soundtrack was filled with Rihanna songs. I don’t mean over the credits, I mean during the action when Rihanna is voicing Tip.  If you’re going to cast a pop star in a non-singing role, don’t use their songs when we’re supposed to be focusing on their character, it’s distracting.

            I’m giving “Home” One and a Half Stars out of Five. That half star is because I liked some of the visual gags, ones where the characters, especially Oh, aren’t talking. For example, Oh fixes up Tip’s car with junk he finds around a convenience store. I’ll admit I liked the car; you try staying mad at a flying car that runs on slushies. On the other hand, it is very easy to stay mad at the car’s creator. Oh is annoying to no end and the movie is a mess on several other levels. I regularly refer to bad kids’ movies as “junk food,” this movie may as well be the inedible rubble that Oh likes to eat.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“Home” is rated PG for mild action and some rude humor. Its running time is 94 minutes.
4:51 pm edt 

"Insurgent"

            About a year ago, I wrote in my review of “Divergent” that I didn’t consider it a knockoff of “The Hunger Games.” I now feel the need to tweak that stance. Calling the series a full-blown knockoff might be a bit harsh, but the similarities are too numerous to ignore. Both franchises are based on a book series aimed at teenagers about a strong female protagonist who finds herself compelled to lead a violent revolution against a heartless, oppressive government in a dystopian future. There are differences of course, but they’re both trying to play to that inexplicably lucrative teenagers-in-bleak-futures crowd. To put it another way: I doubt that there are many people lining up to see “Insurgent” who weren’t at the theater for “Mockingjay Part 1” last fall.

            As the movie opens, our hero Tris (Shailene Woodley), officially of the combative Dauntless faction, is hiding from the smart and evil Erudite faction led by Jeanine (Kate Winslet). She’s wanted for interfering with Erudite’s eradication of the kindly Abnegation faction, an attack that claimed both her parents; and for being a Divergent, meaning that she doesn’t really belong to any faction. She’s with her boyfriend Four (Theo James), brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and rival Peter (Miles Teller). They have to flee from their peaceful Amity sanctuary when Peter turns on them, as Peter tends to do. By the way, if you think Peter is never adequately punished for his treachery in these movies, just watch Miles Teller get bullied by J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash” and call it even.

            Sorry for the brief divergence. The team splits up and Tris and Four next try to hide out with Four’s mother (Naomi Watts) who is the leader of an army of Factionless, people who definitely belong to a faction, but got kicked out. She tries to recruit them for a revolution, but there’s some bad blood between her and Four and soon our heroes are reaching out yet again, this time to the just Candor faction, for protection. Tris wants to leave to go after Jeanine and Erudite as revenge for the attack on Abnegation, and Jeanine needs a Divergent as strong as Tris to open a mystical box that she thinks will grant her some sort of ultimate power. The meetup is inevitable, it’s just a matter of who has leverage.

            Needless to say, the plot is complicated. It’s not that the world of the “Divergent” series is rich in detail and you’ll grow to love it. It’s more like if you can make a connection between any two scenes in this movie that aren’t right next to each other, than you’ll feel rewarded for solving such a complex puzzle. Maybe this worked in the books where readers could go back and clarify certain details when the movie is going to keep chugging along with or without your understanding.

            But it’s not all bad. If nothing else, this franchise has a really compelling lead actress with Shailene Woodley. Tris is pretty typical of characters in this genre. She’s haunted by a guilty conscience because she’s gotten people killed, yet always manages to be strong when she needs to be. With Shailene Woodley playing her, it’s like you’re seeing a character like this find strength within herself for the first time. This is especially true of scenes late in the movie where Tris has to pass a series of simulated tests to open that stupid box.

            You know how I know that the “Divergent” series doesn’t want to distance itself from other Young Adult franchises like “The Hunger Games?” The last book, “Allegiant,” is being split into two movies. That’s a dirty trick it has picked up from its contemporaries. So now I have to see not one, but two more of these moderately tolerable knockoffs.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five

 

“Insurgent” is playing at Hershey Cocoaplex and Flagship Cinema in Palmyra. The film is rated PG-13 for intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements and brief language. Its running time is 119 minutes.
4:46 pm edt 

"Cinderella"

            “Cinderella” has always been good to the people at Disney. The 1950 animated film is one of the most popular in their canon. A 1997 made-for-TV movie helped restore “The Wonderful World of Disney” for a short time. Cinderella’s Castle is the centerpiece of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida and kids will line up for hours to meet the character. Even “Into the Woods,” the studio’s most recent hit from less than three months ago, featured a prominent Cinderella segment. The new live-action retelling is guaranteed to be a hit and if you have kids who are the right age, it’s equally guaranteed that you’ll be dragged to see it.

            It seems silly to go over a story that pretty much everybody knows, but I feel an obligation to do so. Ella (Lily James) has lost both her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin) and is now a glorified servant for her evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and ugly stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). Among other injustices, she’s forced to sleep next to the dying fireplace, which covers her in soot and earns her the nickname “Cinder-Ella.” The kingdom’s prince (Richard Madden) throws a ball to find himself a wife, and Ella wants to go, but her stepmother forbids it. But because she is so kind-hearted in spite of all the mistreatment, she gets some special help from her animal friends and Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) and goes to the ball anyway.

            The new movie does deviate from the animated version in a few ways, but not many. There is an early scene where Cinderella and the prince meet briefly in the woods (always the woods…). The stepmother is more confrontational with Cinderella toward with the end, which allows Cate Blanchett the chance to do some scenery chewing (eh) and sets up a scene where she gets chewed out by the Captain of the Guard (Nonso Anozie, yay!). Sadly, there are no musical numbers in this one (I know there will be people who disagree with the “sadly” part). But I think the biggest difference in this version is that the prince is a more interesting than usual. He has to make a number of decisions that are contradictory to “what’s done” in the name of following his heart, but never in a way that seems petulant or unwise. Plus there’s a twist with him toward the end that got the biggest reaction of the movie in my theater.

            But then again this film is very much like the animated version. Cinderella’s personality remains largely unchanged, the comic relief animals are similar, the Fairy Godmother’s catchphrase is the same. This is not one of those updates that feels the need to turn the classic formula on its ear. It’s a straightforward retelling that frankly doesn’t do much to revitalize the story. Which is a shame because on the rare occasion that the script does take a chance, it often works. Not always (the useless storyline about an undermining Grand Duke could have been dropped), but often.

            There is one audience and one audience only for this version of “Cinderella” and that’s kids who have never seen “Cinderella” before. I can picture seasoned kids being weary of it; adults don’t stand a chance. That’s not to say it’s horrible: the actors are clearly on their game and the costumes and scenery are beautiful. It’s just that this is a movie where you know exactly what you’re getting. If you’re not up for everything that you know “Cinderella” has to offer, then you are going to be bored as an unenchanted gourd.

 

Two Stars out of Five

 

“Cinderella” is rated PG for mild thematic elements. Its running time is 112 minutes.
4:40 pm edt 

"Chappie"

            “Chappie” is a film that really wants to explore the role of artificial intelligence in mankind’s future. If it was as deep as it claims to be, I might not have such a problem with it. But whatever larger issues it wants to raise can’t be taken seriously because the film is weighed down by its overly convoluted and nonsensical plot.

The story takes place in future Johannesburg, where a robot police force has made things a lot safer. Deon (Dev Patel), the robots’ engineer, thinks that the robots are a little too, well, robotic, and is developing an artificial intelligence that will allow the robots to think and feel for themselves. His rival is Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who has invented a big clunky robot (clearly an homage to the big clunky robot from “Robocop”) that has to be controlled by a human. Specifically, it has to be controlled by him because he proclaims himself to be a moral authority and nobody questions this. The head of the robotics company (Sigourney Weaver) denies Deon permission to test the artificial intelligence program on a battered old robot (Sharlto Copley) because she says the program isn’t profitable. It’s clear to anyone watching this movie that the program could be very profitable, but the company is moronic in just about every decision it makes, so why wouldn’t it pass up this opportunity?

            Deon steals the robot to do some off-the-clock testing, but he and the robot immediately get kidnapped. Yo-landi (Yolandi Visser), Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) and Ninja (an actor who just goes by the name Ninja) are a group of thugs who owe money to a local drug lord (Brandon Auret, who has such a thick accent that he needs subtitles when he speaks English. The movie probably could have used subtitles for Yo-landi too). They need the robot to help them pull off a heist to pay the drug lord back, though I don’t know why they don’t just plan to use the robot to fight him off.

The problem is that the robot has a blank slate for a mind; it’s basically a newborn. This is frustrating for Amerika and Ninja, but the more maternal Yo-landi catches on pretty easily. She names the robot Chappie because he’s such a happy little chap. Chappie’s development is influenced by the loving Yo-landi, the violent Amerika and Ninja, and the God-like Deon, who somewhat arrogantly thinks that because he created Chappie, that automatically gives him authority over him. Chappie gets conflicting input that forces him to make some choices, and they aren’t always the right ones. Chappie soon finds himself corrupted, and Vincent sees an opportunity to swoop in and save the day.

            The big problem with this movie is that the characters keep making decisions that don’t make sense. I’ve already talked about how it’s idiotic for Weaver to not see the unlimited applications for Deon’s technology. It’s just conflict for the sake of conflict. I also have no idea how Vincent rose to such a position of prominence in the robotics company when he’s such a jerk with impractical ideas. Perhaps worst of all is that the security at the robotics company is laughably incompetent; are we really supposed to believe that these bumblers are keeping Johannesburg safe? The film is overloaded with little detractions like that.

            And yet, I don’t want to be too hard on this movie. The robots, especially Chappie, are really well-designed, and director Neill Blomkamp proves once again that he has a flair for visual effects. It’s funny too, and the characters (except the ever-miserable Vincent) have engaging personalities. The larger issues it raises about morality and spirituality are interesting, even if they make up too little of the movie. But that mess of a plot keeps getting in the way. A good rule of thumb with this movie is that the scenes that involve Chappie are good and everything else is nonsense.

 

Two Stars out of Five.

 

“Chappie” is rated R for violence, language and brief nudity. Its running time is 120 minutes.
4:39 pm edt 

"Focus"

            Regular readers should know by now that I’m not a big fan of con artist movies. I’ve seen enough to know that it’s pointless to get invested in the story or characters because there’s inevitably going to be a huge twist in the last five minutes where it’s revealed that, surprise, it was a big con the whole time. But honest or not (and I’ll tell you that it’s often not), the con artists in “Focus” are undeniably charming, and I think that counts for a lot.

            The film tracks two major con jobs, three years apart, which basically makes for two movies in one. In the first, professional Nicky (Will Smith) takes floundering rookie Jess (Margot Robbie) under his wing as he and a surprisingly large team perform a series of flim-flams in New Orleans on the weekend of a big football game. A lot of what they do is pickpocketing, and there’s something of a competition over who can do it most effortlessly. These scenes made me paranoid about pickpockets, and I constantly found myself feeling for my wallet from my seated position. The storyline culminates at the game itself, where compulsive gambler Nicky bets the entire team’s earnings in a series of challenges with an even crazier gambler (B.D. Wong). This sequence is a wonderful combination of tense and funny, but even with an explanation that’s easy to follow, it doesn’t make any sense. Nicky is forced to abandon Jess despite having fallen madly in love with her.

            Three years pass and Nicky and Jess meet up again in Argentina. Nicky is hired by racecar tycoon Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) to perform a con that sabotages the other teams. Garriga has an assistant named Owens (Gerald McRaney, a scene-stealer in a movie full of scene-stealers) who is not one to be crossed. One more thing about Garriga – Jess is his lover. This makes things complicated with Nicky, or maybe it makes things easier. This storyline is pretty hard to follow, especially at the end when twist after twist piles up. Though in hindsight I guess it does ultimately make sense, giving it the opposite problem as the first storyline.

            Neither plot is as tight as it could be, but in this movie, the plot takes a backseat to the characters and their charisma. Will Smith is back in full form after making some unfortunate career decisions. But it’s Margot Robbie who takes this film to another level. As high as I was on her going into this movie – I think she should have should have been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street” – I adore her even more now. Hollywood needs to start putting her on the covers of all their magazines right away. In a movie like this, it’s hard to know how the characters really feel about each other, but never for a second do I doubt that Nicky is in love with Jess because I can’t see how anybody couldn’t be in love with her. Not even if she robbed them.

            “Focus” does fall into a lot of those traps that I don’t like about con artist movies, not the least of which is that you can never really trust the characters. Or at least you can’t trust them to be honest. You can trust them to be consistently passionate, clever and funny. All the characters are compelling, not just Nicky and Jess, but also everyone from the comic relief to villains to one-scene wonders. The story never really clicks overall, but there are many memorable scenes. The best is probably the one with Wong, but really I like anything where the characters just converse without the plot getting in the way. I can see where people would think that a disingenuous movie like this is a ripoff, but I think you’ll have a lot of fun being ripped off.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“Focus” is rated R for language, some sexual content and brief violence. Its running time is 104 minutes.
4:36 pm edt 

"Kingsman: The Secret Service"

            I waited a long time for this one. Director Matthew Vaughn has previously brought us “Kick-Ass” and “X-Men: First Class,” two dumb-sounding ideas (a schlub superhero and an unwelcome prequel to a rotting franchise, respectively) that ended up way better than they had any right to be. He just has this knack for finding a terrific balance of humor, heart and violence. I bided my time though the trailers last summer, eagerly awaiting this film’s release around the holidays. Rarely has my heart sank so much in a movie theater than when I saw the bumper announcing that I would have to wait until February for “Kingsman.” After two extra months of overanalyzing the trailers and building the film up in my head, I finally got to see it on opening day and… it was okay.

            The overall plot is pretty standard. A young man named Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is plucked out of his troubled, aimless life by gentleman spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth). Hart offers Eggsy a chance to join Kingsman, an elaborate, non-sanctioned spy organization that has been secretly protecting the world for decades. Eggsy survives one perilous test after another, much to the dismay of his snobby colleagues. Meanwhile, a tech billionaire named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) has a plan to wipe out most of the world’s population. Eggsy finally aligns with Kingsman in order to take Valentine down.

            Really though, the plot is secondary to the film’s humor and action. For humor, the film loves to send up the spy genre, especially James Bond. The film knows that any movie about British secret agents is going to be compared to the Bond franchise, so it has fun with the obvious connections. It’s true that Bond spoofs are nothing new (most people in this era know the Bond movies more from spoofs than the films themselves), but this one is refreshingly genial because it acknowledges that everyone wants to be James Bond. Plus there are a lot of gags that are plenty funny on their own, usually involving Hart’s dryness, Eggsy’s crudeness or Valentine’s craziness. One detraction is that it’s sometimes hard to understand what the characters are saying with the various accents (and one inexplicable speech impediment) flying around.

            As for the action, it’s mostly satisfying. I love the 50-something Colin Firth as a combative superspy, and the explosions that make up the film’s opening and an inspiring sequence close to the climax are certainly flamboyant in both senses of the word. But other sequences are missing that spark. Scenes where Eggsy has to navigate Valentine’s doomsday bunker take forever and his heavily-built showdowns with Valentine and his henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) are anticlimactic compared to the blast of a sequence that preceded them. Plus I’m concerned that people are getting the wrong idea about a memorable scene where Hart decimates the entire congregation of an intolerant Southern church. People seem to be misinterpreting the scene as Hart delivering delicious justice to people who deserve it, but it’s actually Hart unwittingly carrying out an attack for Valentine that he would love nothing more than to stop.

            Still, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a fun movie, I wouldn’t dare to deny that. All the jokes and action are bound to get the audience laughing and cheering, and I even caught myself applauding at one point. The film may not have quite lived up to my expectations, but I’ll admit that my expectations may have been unreasonably high. This is certainly a rousing movie, just not an amazing one.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five

 

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” is rated R for sequences of strong violence, language and some sexual content. Its running time is 129 minutes.

4:34 pm edt 

"Fifty Shades of Grey"

            There is no denying that “Fifty Shades of Grey” is one of the most controversial films of its era. Before this film I had never encountered protesters outside a movie theater, and yet here I was having to overhear from a group of loudmouths that the film glorifies sexual violence against women. Protesting outside a movie theater is counterproductive because it just tells people that there’s a spicy show inside. The only way these people weren’t giving the movie free publicity is if they were being paid to advertise with reverse psychology.

            The story follows the relationship between shy college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and mysterious billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She awkwardly interviews the imposing figure for a school project and he takes an interest in her. They have a few meet-ups that he insists are not dates and they wind up back at his penthouse. Only after she signs a non-disclosure agreement does he reveal that the only relationship he wants is one where he is sexually dominant and she is submissive. He does this, by the way, with spoken words and the visual of a “playroom” full of whips and such. There is nothing forceful or intimidating about it; he asks her very respectfully if he can treat her disrespectfully.

            For the rest of the film, Anastasia struggles with… ropes on occasion, but also the decision of whether or not to sign a contract that will officially enter her into the proposed relationship. Both characters are presented as smart, so I assume they both regard the contract as strictly symbolic - no way that thing is holding up in court. Surprisingly, it’s Christian who goes further out of his comfort zone, making repeated romantic gestures to try and woo Anastasia, even though he says he is inherently opposed to a traditional relationship. But Anastasia makes some compromises too as she tests the waters of her possible role as a submissive, and it’s here that we get that “sexual violence against women” that raises red flags.

            So little of the “sexual violence” that these two engage in is actual violence. It’s more about the illusion of violence as the players fulfill their roles as dominant and submissive. Christian actually uses a feather on Anastasia at one point. I don’t mean poking her with the quill, I mean “dominating” her with one of the softest things on Earth (and one of the prettiest – it’s a peacock feather). There is a scene late in the film where he uses unmistakable violence, but it has dire consequences for both parties, not “glorifying” the act in the slightest. Though I do have to say that it’s odd that Anastasia is so shocked by Christian’s actions in this scene. It is not unreasonable for her to reject these actions, but at this point in the story she shouldn’t be surprised that they are in his wheelhouse.

            The violence in this film is underwhelming and so is the sex. This is very clearly an R-rated movie that is very afraid of getting stuck with an NC-17. The film goes ridiculously far out of its way to only show the sides and backs of the characters’ bodies and only for a strictly-regulated amount of time. Make no mistake, the sex scenes are there, but given the reputation of the bestselling book, I was expecting the film to be more risqué.

            “Fifty Shades of Grey” is, at best, a silly movie. The only possible joy it brings is shared laughter over how desperately it’s trying to push the standoffish Christian Grey as an exciting character. It’s also riddled with bad dialogue (the semi-titular line is terrible, but I never recovered from an early bit that compares a GPS to a GPA). As dirty as this movie is supposed to be, the dirty little secret that it doesn’t want you to know is that it’s just weak.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five

 

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is playing at Hershey Cocoaplex and Flagship Cinemas in Palmyra. The film is rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language. Its running time is 125 minutes.
4:27 pm edt 

"The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water"

            I watched a few episodes of the “SpongeBob SquarePants” cartoon to get me in the mood for “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water.” I know I’m not their target audience, but I also know that I’ve laughed at a few of them over the years. The research turned out to be a bad idea. Not only does the juvenile humor not hold up for me, but I got more than my fill of the SpongeBob character. A little bit of SpongeBob goes a long way with his squeaky voice and unrelenting chipperness, and the last thing this movie needs is to have the viewer already sick of him before they enter the theater.

            A quick intro to the characters and setting: SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) is a hopelessly upbeat sea sponge who lives at the bottom of the sea in a town called Bikini Bottom. His best friends are a dimwitted starfish named Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) and a scuba-diving squirrel named Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence). He also finds time to annoy his neighbor Squidward (Roger Bumpass). He works at a fast food restaurant called The Krusty Krab, owned by the jolly-but-greedy Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown), serving the eatery’s signature Krabby Patties to a community that apparently revolves around fast food. Occasionally he has to play security, protecting the burger’s secret formula from rival restauranteur Plankton (Mr. Lawrence).

            For the movie, the secret formula is indeed stolen, not by Plankton, but by a human (and live-action) pirate called Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas). Initially the town thinks that Plankton stole the formula with the help of SpongeBob and there are some chase antics around that, but soon everyone is on the same page and on the (live-action) surface in search of the real culprit. They get ahold of a page of Burger Beard’s magic book (one of those magical movie books where you can make anything happen just by writing in it) and turn themselves into superheroes for the inevitable showdown with the pirate. Supposedly they’re doing this for practical reasons, but you know the real reason is so they can sell toys of the characters in their superhero costumes.

            The film’s humor is pretty much the same as the show’s. Wordplay ranges from the painfully horrible (beware the misuse of “anemone”) to the merely slightly horrible (okay, I laughed at a few, like Plankton’s evil mispronunciation of the work “teamwork”). Most of the humor just revolves around the characters being stupid and clumsy, which for grownups will wear out its welcome quickly. This is a movie I like to refer to as “junk food” for kids. It isn’t clever or enriching, just a lot of dumb gags fired at a rapid pace to make you forget that most of them aren’t funny by themselves. But at least with so many, a few of them are bound to work. Of course, this means that even more are going to make you want to curl up into a ball and whimper. That’s the appropriate reaction for a dud gag, right? Please tell me that’s normal.

            Aside from the live-action portion and a trippy visit with a space dolphin (a sequence I’ve actually heard complimented, though I found it pointless), there isn’t much that makes “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” seem like anything more than an extended episode of the TV show. There isn’t even that much that’s special about the live-action portion, just our CGI heroes bouncing off of oblivious humans.  Kids can do better right now with “Paddington” and adults can do better with any number of awards-season favorites.

 

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” is rated PG for mild action and rude humor. Its running time is 93 minutes.
4:25 pm edt 

"Paddington"

           It was inevitable that “American Sniper” would continue to rule the box office this past weekend, so the interesting battle was for second place. I was reasonably sure that it would go to a new release, like the annoyingly-delayed time travel escapade “Project Almanac” or the Kevin Costner heartstring-puller “Black or White.” But in what I would call a major upset, all new releases were outdone by third-weekend holdover “Paddington.” I actually did see “Project Almanac” and it bored me silly, so I’m glad I have an excuse to review “Paddington” instead.

            The film tells the story of the precocious bear from Peru (Ben Whishaw) who has been raised by bears who interacted with an English explorer years earlier. He has a loose, third-hand knowledge of English culture, though he speaks the language almost perfectly. A disaster forces him to leave Peru and travel to London where he has to interact with humans for the first time in his life.

 

            After a rocky start in London, he’s taken in by a human family, the Browns. Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) frets nonstop about his family’s well-being and has no desire to take in an exotic bear, no matter how cultured. Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) can’t pass up the opportunity to help a creature in need. Teenage daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris) wants nothing to do with the lame bear and his embarrassing behavior. Young son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) is more receptive to the idea. The Browns aren’t really keen on adopting the bear permanently, so they resolve to put him in touch with the explorer who interacted with his family previously and see if he can give him a home. But they do go to the trouble of naming the bear Paddington so he’ll feel more at home in London; this despite the objections of Mr. Brown, who doesn’t want Paddington to feel at home at all.

 

            Conflict arises in the form of Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman), a museum taxidermist who wants a Peruvian bear as part of her collection. She pursues poor Paddington with an almost personal passion, and it turns out that she has a deeper motive other than just plain evil, though she has plenty of that as well. I have to say that I find it an odd choice that the villain wants to stuff Paddington since I’m sure the film is supposed to be pushing stuffed Paddington Bear dolls. Go to a toy store and it will look like she succeeded several times over.

 

            The humor in the film is all over the place. The film loves to play Paddington’s clumsiness for laughs, including the infamous bathroom scene from the trailer. That single, painful sequence is probably the reason why this film got bumped out of its cushy Christmas slot and stuck in the wasteland that is January. There are many smarter, darker gags in the film (I loved Mr. Brown trying to convince everybody to send Paddington to a government facility and dancing around that unpleasant word “orphanage”), but the film has a bad habit of going back to those lowbrow “elaborate accident” gags. 

 

            “Paddington” is, more than anything, incredibly sweet. And I’m not just saying that because there are copious amounts of marmalade in every scene. Like Paddington himself, it’s hard to stay mad at such an adorable movie. Of course, it helps if you see it with kids, who will eat it up like so much marmalade (yes, I know that’s the second marmalade reference, but the movie is obsessed with it and now I want some). I saw it in a crowded theater with a whole bunch of kids, and although I wish they hadn’t validated some of the film’s dumber gags, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the overwhelming cheer.

 

Two and a Half Stars out of Five.

 

“Paddington” is rated PG for mild action and rude humor. Its running time is 95 minutes.


 

4:10 pm edt 


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