Movie Review ~ Brittany Runs a Marathon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman living in New York takes control of her life- one block at a time.

Stars: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howery, Micah Stock, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Sarah Bolt, Jennifer Dundas, Patch Darragh, Alice Lee, Dan Bittner, Mikey Day

Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If you take a step back and look at the films released this summer and don’t consider the box office returns, it’s been a good year for female-led movies.  Finding their way to theaters (but, sadly, not always wide audiences) were Booksmart, Late Night, The Farewell, and maybe, if you’re feeling generous, even The Hustle.  All had strong points of view and boldly entered the arena, often in direct competition to highly anticipated and better advertised franchise blockbusters.  Aside from The Farewell, which continues to build on positive word of mouth, these movies suggested changing tides of appetite only to find themselves in discounted theaters within weeks of their release dates.  Destined to find their audiences when they hit streaming services, it doesn’t diminish the sting of feeling these should have done better.

The latest movie likely to fall under the same scrutiny is Brittany Runs a Marathon and it might just stand the best shot of breaking the cycle of summer underperformers.  Directed by Off-Broadway playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo making his feature film debut and inspired by the life of his best friend, this is a charming comedy that finds a nice balance between humor and drama.   I found a lot to laugh at within the movie but an equal amount of the time I was struck by how insightful it was into the inward struggle we all face when standing in front of uncertainty and self-doubt.

Approaching 30 and yet to shed the carefree lifestyle that worked for her in her early 20s, Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell, Office Christmas Party) works as a part time usher at a small NYC theater and doesn’t do much else.  Her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee, Wish Upon) is dating a handsome Wall Street-type and enjoys partying and late nights just as much as Brittany does.  Visting her doctor in hopes of snagging a prescription for Adderall, she instead leaves with a recommendation to lose forty to fifty pounds to avoid ongoing health concerns.  Having an “a-ha” moment, Brittany takes stock of her situation, where she is, and where she wants to be. Unable to afford a gym, she begins to run outdoors, eventually joining a running group on the suggestion of Catherine, (Michaela Watkins, Wanderlust) a woman in her building.  Teaming up with Catherine and another newbie runner Seth, (Micah Stock), the trio set their sights on training for the NYC Marathon, each with their own personal reasons for wanting to cross the finish line.

To earn extra money, Brittany becomes a daytime house/dog sitter, eventually meeting Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Pitch Perfect) who takes over for her at night.  While the two squabble like brother and sister at first, it isn’t hard to see where the good-natured fighting will lead…though it does take an intelligent route getting there.  As Brittany continues to train and sees her body changing, she overlooks that it was never about an outward change that needed to happen but an adjustment from within that was necessary.  Unable to be vulnerable even with her closest friends or accept their support in the simplest of matters, Brittany may lose everything she’s worked for if she can’t knock down the walls she’s put up to defend herself.

On the surface, Brittany Runs a Marathon might look like your standard offering of girl makes a change to better herself and the wacky ways she does it but Colaizzo isn’t interested in doing anything the old-fashioned way.  Yes, the movie is packed with humor both smart and smart-alecky but there’s never a time when the script is out to make fun of its title character.  It doesn’t spare her, though, from being held to the same human decency standard as everyone else.  Just as we wince when low blows are leveled at Brittany, when she does the same to another person late in the film, we hold her accountable as well.  Kudos to actress Sarah Bolt for her small role being on the receiving end of a particularly nasty putdown from Brittany and for the way she responds — it’s easily a top highlight of the movie.

I’m used to Bell’s more raunchy and ribald performances, often broad and playing to the back wall of the theater next door to the one you’re in.  So, it’s refreshing to see her, not so much restrained, but offering up a different side that’s just as entertaining.  She’s in every scene so if we didn’t like the character or the actress the movie would be in big trouble, but Bell clearly was the right person for this job.  The performance is strong and arguably one of the best of the year.  I also liked Ambudkar as her comic and romantic counterpart.  There’s a chemistry in both areas and that goes a long way in keeping the less funny moments afloat.  Watkins and Stock do serviceable supporting work, though some late breaking efforts to bring their personal lives into the mix feels like Colaizzo biting off more than he can chew in 103 minutes.  I’d rather have learned more about Brittany’s backstory, the only information we get are in snippets from her brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery, Tag) and even those are sometimes hard to track.

I think it’s important to look at the movie not for what it’s putting Brittany through but what the ultimate goal is.  The point of the movie isn’t for us to watch her lose weight.  It isn’t about her running the marathon.  It’s a way to show there is value in everyone no matter what they are capable of or hope to achieve.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness and offering help is not a sign you don’t believe in someone’s ability.  That Colaizzo is able to weave that message in among a hearty supply of appealing situational comedy and lively performances is a real gift.

Movie Review ~ Office Christmas Party

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The Facts
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Synopsis: When his uptight CEO sister threatens to shut down his branch, the branch manager throws an epic Christmas party in order to land a big client and save the day, but the party gets way out of hand…

Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Vanessa Bayer, Jillian Bell, Jamie Chung, Rob Corddry, Abbey Lee, Kate McKinnon, T.J. Miller, Olivia Munn, Karan Soni, Courtney B. Vance, Matt Walsh, Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Director: Josh Gordon, Will Speck

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: In the new comedy Office Christmas Party, Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters) plays Mary, a Human Resources manager at a mid-range tech company that’s business in front and no party in the back.  When branch manager Clay (T.J. Miller, Daredevil) and CTO Josh (Jason Bateman, This Is Where I Leave You) want to throw a bad-ass Christmas party to impress a much-needed new client (Courtney B. Vance, Terminator Genisys), Mary’s HR violation antennae pop up and she tries her hardest to derail the frivolity before giving in and just having fun with it all.  Plenty of critics venturing out of their hovels to catch OCP will be Mary’s and implore you to stay home but ‘tis the season to be jolly and this critic thinks this Party is worth an HR write-up.

Look, Office Christmas Party isn’t the be-all, end-all of raucous, growth-stunted juvenile comedies but it has its fair share of laughs and rambles along for most of its 105-minute running time with an inordinate amount of goodwill.  Maybe because I saw it on a Monday with a busy week at my own 9-5 job staring me down, but I (usually so averse to ribald druggy humor) found myself entertained by Miller, Bateman, and co who have set out not to redefine the raunchy comedy but to give audiences who can’t stomach the sight of Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa 2 an alternative option.  Then again, stomaching Thornton in anything is a feat in and of itself.

When Clay’s CEO sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston, We’re the Millers, yet again reveling in a role with a mean streak) announces plans to reduce the workforce at her brother’s failing branch right before the holidays, Clay and Josh make a play to nab a high-profile client (Vance) by showing him how well their company rewards its employees.  Trouble is, most of their workforce is already disgruntled and apathetic in their antiseptic office so whatever Clay and Josh do it has to be big…really big.  Along with the head of technology (Olivia Munn, X-Men: Apocalypse), they pull out all the stops in a few hours to put on a boffo holiday gathering that quickly devolves into a Sodom and Gomorrah style bash complete with co-worker make-outs, drug- fueled stunts of stupidity, and a bevy of genitals photocopied on the office machine.  Sounds kinda nasty, right?  I have a real nose for the overly lewd and while I got a few good whiffs I never thought this tipped the scales into plain bad taste.

It’s a minor affair to be sure, written and directed without much originality…but it’s the performances that help to elevate this one slightly higher than its peers.  I’ve found that a little Miller goes a long way but even in his more ADD moments the actor never lets us forget his character it good natured and the kind of people pleasing boss we’d all like to buddy up to.  Bateman is at his most Jason Bateman-y here, again playing the straight man at the center of some very zany periphery performances.  Bateman’s dirty scene with an ice sculpture and egg nog lets the actor venture slightly out of his comfort zone and for that alone I appreciated it.  McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer (Despicable Me 2), Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street), Rob Corddry (Warm Bodies), Abbey Lee (The Neon Demon), and Karan Soni (Safety Not Guaranteed) are but a few of the party goers that make an impression.  Only Munn disappoints…I continue to be stumped at what makes Munn in any way appealing aside from the fact that she always seems to be happy with being just one of the guys.

While it isn’t the kind of movie you could see as a holiday outing sponsored by your work, Office Christmas Party is a decent choice for adults looking for an R-rated holiday romp.  Like most parties, it might end up being one you want to leave early but being the last one out the door won’t kill you either.

Movie Review ~ Goosebumps

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenager teams up with the daughter of young adult horror author R.L. Stine after the writer’s imaginary demons are set free on the town of Greendale, Maryland.

Stars: Jack Black, Amy Ryan, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Jillian Bell, Ryan Lee, Ken Marino,

Director: Rob Letterman

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Before YA fiction was solely developed as a target market for the next big cinematic franchise there were actual stories to be read.  I was a voracious reader when I was younger (who has the time now?) and I loved latching on to a series of books that I could develop a rapport with.  There was a certain safety in finding multiple volumes of a continuing story or interconnected adventures that made reading exciting.

I read a lot of R.L. Stine’s more teen centered fare when I was at the target age and his Goosebumps series was developed for a slightly younger crowd.  Short, sweet, and filled with any number of nightmarish happenings that didn’t feel all that scary, these were thin page-turners that helped prep youngsters to sleep without a nightlight and explore loftier fare as they grew older.  I went back and read a few of the early works in advance of the big screen adaptation of Goosebumps and found them to be energetic, creative, and breezy reads.  No wonder they’ve spawned several spin off novels, a T.V. series, and a handful of T.V. movies.

So the time had finally come to make a Goosebumps movie and the question was, which of the hundreds of stories to tell?  In a smart move, screenwriters Mike White and Darren Lemke (Jack the Giant Slayer) mashed many of the memorable monsters together in one film, front-loading their movie with fan favorites and several of the lesser known creepies that Stine thought up over the years.  In a further meta-twist, R.L. Stine would actually be a central character in the film, with the plot involving the secretive author helping teens in a small town after they accidentally release a bevy of ghoulish delights that escaped from Stine’s library.

Director Rob Letterman has cast the film with a strong roster of young and old talent and the movie has a Jumanji-like feel to it that made it a perfect choice for an early fall evening.  I was surprised at how much I was enjoying the film for the first hour or so until some budget conscious special effects took center stage and the movie became less interesting with each passing oogy-boogy moment.  What starts as a pleasantly genuine mystery/adventure turns into another run-of-the-mill everything-but-the-kitchen sink kinda experience.

As R.L. Stine, Jack Black (The D Train) is mostly amusing until you realize that he’s on auto-pilot, recycling the same manic seriousness that is his fallback whenever he’s feeling less than challenged. Employing his strange British accent (the real Stine hails from Ohio) and wide-eyed double takes, Black at least believes every line he says and commits fully.  Still, I find myself longing for the actor to continue to take steps outside of his usual shtick…like his stellar work in Bernie shows he is more than capable of.

Dylan Minnette (Prisoners) is a nice all-American teenager next door, a big city transplant to the small town where his mother (an underused Amy Ryan, Bridge of Spies) is the new vice principal.  Living next door to Stine he becomes enamored with his daughter (Odeya Rush, The Gift) who has secrets of her own.  The comic relief of the film comes from Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street) as Ryan’s flighty aunt and Ryan Lee (This is 40) as Minnette’s buck-toothed buddy.  Coming off as a young Don Knotts, Lee steals every scene he’s in, providing some genuine belly laughs along the way.

Though rated PG, this is one that parents should consider watching first before letting their younger tykes screen it.  I found the film to be fairly frightening and a little intense when the monsters get loose.  It’s one thing to read about these creepy crawlies but it’s another thing altogether to see them come to life on a very big screen (in 3D if you’re willing to pay for it).  Judging by the squeals and shrieks from the young audience I saw it with, parents will want to tread carefully.

Even with some misguided moments near the end, the film is welcome fall fare and nice counter programming to the scary adult offerings October usually brings.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Night Before

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Synopsis: In New York City for their annual tradition of Christmas Eve debauchery, three lifelong best friends set out to find the Holy Grail of Christmas parties since their yearly reunion might be coming to an end.

Release Date:  November 25, 2015

Thoughts: I think I’m really getting old…because at one time I think this trailer might have generated some excitement in my movie-going bones.  As it is, it looks like another exhaustive exercise in excess from the team that brought you This Is The End, Neighbors, and (shudder) The Interview.  As annoying as Seth Rogen (The Guilt Trip) is, I know that he’s capable of more than these types of dumb-ass stoner roles and I surely know that Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon) can do better.  Rogen and Gordon-Levitt reteam with their 50/50 director Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies) for this act-your-age comedy and Anthony Mackie (Pain & Gain) completes the triumvirate of stars.  This foul-mouthed red-band trailer lets us know that audiences are in for some drug-fueled ribaldry this holiday season…joy to the world.  Wake me up when these three actors find a worthier project to peddle their wares in.

The Silver Bullet ~ Goosebumps (2015)

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Synopsis: A young kid teams up with the niece of young adult horror author R.L. Stine after the writer’s imaginary demons are set free on the town of Greendale, Maryland.

Release Date:  October 16, 2015

Thoughts: The series of novels from which this new Jack Black fantasy is based on was a little after my time.  I grew up in the days of Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan suspense novels and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps page-turners were geared toward the grades below my interest level.  Truth be told, the movie has my curiosity slightly piqued…but then again I’m a fan of campy creepers like The Monster Squad and Waxwork.  If I had to draw another comparison based on this first look at the October release, I’d toss Jumanji out there…and we all know how that one turned out.  Still, it’s rare to have a Halloween film aimed squarely at the PG set so the inner child in me won’t mind sidling up to the scares…however light they appear to be.

Movie Review ~ 22 Jump Street

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After making their way through high school (twice), big changes are in store for officers Schmidt and Jenko when they go deep undercover at a local college.

Stars: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, The Lucas Brothers

Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If 2012’s reboot of 21 Jump Street taught us anything, it’s that star Channing Tatum was more than just a hunka hunka man meat only good for action shoot ‘em ups and making men everywhere feel their time in the gym that week was inadequate.  In fact, Tatum’s 2012 was one for the record books with the release of back-to-back-to-back hits The Vow, 21 Jump Street, and Magic Mike.  He became a true A-lister overnight due in no small part to his solid comic chops as one half of a detective duo tasked with going back to high school to uncover a drug ring.

What 21 Jump Street didn’t have was the overall stamina to make it to the finish line before petering out in the laughs department.  Though Tatum and co-star Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street, This is the End) had that rare chemistry that registered high on the believability scale, they couldn’t overcome the weaknesses in the script (Hill co-wrote it so he has only himself to blame) that saw the final third disintegrate into routine comedy territory.

Artistic merits aside, the film was a box office success landing in a prime hitless spring season before the onslaught of summer blockbusters took over every screen at the local multiplex.  So it’s two years later and the stars have aligned again to get the very in-demand Tatum and Hill back together again for a sequel that changes addresses but little else…and fully embraces its sameness in a way that makes it (mostly) okay.

Teased at the end of the first film, buddy cops Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) are sent to college by their commanding officer (Ice Cube, Ride Along) to track down another drug ring responsible for the death of a young college beauty.  Our re-introduction to the characters starts off rocky but finds a nice rhythm once the script starts poking fun at sequels in a manner more intelligent that you’d find in, say, a Hot Shots! installment but no less silly.  Tatum even gets the chance to take a well deserved dig at last summer’s non-starter White House Down…which I still say is better than the similarly themed Olympus Has Fallen.

Everything about the film feels familiar but it’s never boring…even when directors Phil Lord & Christopher Miller seem to have reached the end about 80 minutes in.  While it still loses steam near the true end of the action, it finds its fresh second wind and pushes forward toward an entertaining climax and riotous extended end credit sequence which is alone worth the price of your ticket.

While Tatum still has the potential to have a long career in both action and comedic roles, at times he overshoots his capabilities and some false notes are struck.  Co-writing the script again, Hill doesn’t keep all the good stuff for himself…in fact his material is some of the weakest in the whole shebang, especially a hardly believable love affair with a co-ed (Amber Stevens) that’s only returned to when the story runs out of other ideas.

Sequels can be a mixed bag because almost always they’re driven by money hungry studio execs and stars out for a quick buck to cash in on.  While 22 Jump Street most certainly was born out of love of profit, it’s nice to see that all returning parties were onboard to share the comedic wealth with audiences as well.