Movie Review ~ The Opening Act

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Will O’Brien is given the opportunity to emcee a comedy show for his hero and has to decide if he wants to continue the life he has set up or to pursue his dream as a stand-up comedian.

Stars: Jimmy O. Yang, Alex Moffat, Cedric the Entertainer, Neal Brennan, Bill Burr, Whitney Cummings, Jermaine Fowler, Ken Jeong, Russell Peters, Debby Ryan

Director: Steve Byrne

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: There have been good movies starring stand-up comedians.  There have been good movies filmed of stand-up specials.  Has there ever been a good movie about stand-up comedians, though?  The few I can think of off the top of my head, 1988’s Punchline and 2009 Funny People didn’t exactly set my world on fire and that I couldn’t come up with any others surely wasn’t a great sign.  I was thinking about that before I started to watch The Opening Act because looking over the cast list and seeing a lot of familiar names I thought I had some reason to be a little concerned.  Here was a movie written/directed by first-timer who was also a stand-up comedian starring a stand-up comedian and featuring a supporting cast that was nearly all from their same colleague pool.  It was a crapshoot which way it would go, either Steve Byrne was going to kill his first time out or he’d bomb.  Remarkably, The Opening Act is a winner and while it shows the tell-tale signs of a novice director, it also does more than hint at a great potential for Byrne on the horizon.  I expected a film that was crass and far more juvenile but was pleased to find a touching story with a sweet soul that wasn’t afraid to hide it.

As far back as he can remember, Will O’Brien (Jimmy O. Yang, Patriots Day) has had comedy in his life.  It was something his parents shared with him growing up and it became a source of comfort between him and his dad after his mother died when he was still a child.  The laughs they shared carried over to adulthood and with his father now gone, he keeps those memories close and uses them to fuel his drive forward.  Stuck in a job he hates working for an annoying boss (Bill Burr, Daddy’s Home) while dreaming of becoming a headlining stand-up comedian, he is having trouble even getting onstage at his local comedy club because he can’t get enough people to come see him.  The thing is, Will is kinda good and when he is onstage tends to do well…something no one seems to really acknowledge since everyone is trying to get to that next level.

When his friend at the club, Quinn (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians) books a gig and can’t show up to host an out of town comedy event, he suggests Will for the job and it’s his first big opportunity to be seen by a reputable promoter.  If he does well, this could lead to more jobs — all he has to do is make it through the weekend without getting into trouble and be funny.  Oh, and the performer he’s introducing is his all-time favorite comedian, Billy G (Cedric the Entertainer), so it’s a chance to meet his comic hero and he’ll be rooming with a hard-partying comic (Alex Moffat, Ralph Breaks the Internet) who is determined to show Will a good time while he’s in town.  What could go wrong?

Byrne devises three days of chaos for Will, some of it predictable and some of it not.  It’s all delivered with an easy-going performance from Yang who never oversells some of the more bizarre circumstances he finds himself in nor does he underplay the dramatic moments afforded to his character throughout.  These are important days for Will and Byrne knows it so there’s some respect given when it’s appropriate.  That’s not to say the movie isn’t above some low-brow humor or off-color jokes, but these aren’t defense mechanisms it returns to when it gets stuck in a rut…Byrne seems to be more creative than going for gross out comedy and instead finds something important to say by putting Will in uncomfortable situations where he has to pick himself up and face consequences.

Most of the comedians are good as well, to varying degrees.  Moffat is a riot as the ribald comic that could have been a terror but winds up being kind of a sweet Artful Dodger to Yang’s Oliver.  I kept waiting for him to do something nasty that would change his trajectory but he’s exactly who he presents himself to be and that’s refreshing.  I have said it before and will say it again, I am totally completely 100% over Jeong.  Talk about someone who has milked his schtick to death.  He’s the worst part of the movie by far and is agonizingly awful every second he’s on screen.  As Yang’s love interest, Debby Ryan (Life of the Party) doesn’t have much to do but it’s more of a screenwriting problem than anything.  She’s so non essential to the story it feels like it was a character Byrne was compelled to create or include just to establish something about Yang or to use as a plot device for one of Will’s comedic escapades in the film’s midsection.

A worthwhile effort that has heart to go along with the laughs, The Opening Act could also apply to Steve Byrne’s career as a writer/director.  There are some fixes to be made and technique to be learned, especially in the establishing first twenty minutes that feel a bit awkward.  However once the film hits its stride it keeps up a healthy dose of energy and good will towards, uh, Will until the very end.  If his sophomore feature narrative film is as winning, sunny, and confident as this, he’s one to keep your eyes on.  Ditto for Yang who makes an assured jump from stand-up comedian and sorta actor to unconventional leading guy with ease.  This will surprise you.

Movie Review ~ My Spy


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A hardened CIA operative finds himself at the mercy of a precocious 9-year-old girl, having been sent undercover to surveil her family.

Stars: Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Kristen Schaal, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Ken Jeong, Devere Rogers, Greg Bryk

Director: Peter Segal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The last movie I had on my schedule to see in theaters before the pandemic shut everything down was My Spy and to be honest it was a film I was considering skipping all together.  Sometimes you just have to say no to movies you don’t think you’ll like, right?  I know that makes me sound less like the well-rounded critic I profess to be but if you are going in with some preconceived notion that predetermines you to not like the film, you aren’t going to give the movie a fair shot…and that’s almost worse, right?  I offer this up at the beginning of my review for My Spy because when the film was eventually snapped up by Amazon to be released via the streaming service and an opportunity to review it at home came up – I was desperate for a comedy to watch and accepted the mission with little reservation.

Again, dear reader, I say to you that The MN Movie Man is not infallible and I’m not sure if my craving for a laugh overcame my critical eye or what but I found My Spy to be the kind of easy to digest fun that is a rare treat to enjoy.  It’s a harmless endeavor that showcases the continued appeal of Dave Bautista and makes a stronger case for the wrestler turned actor to keep headlining projects that show him flexing not only his muscles but his comedic chops.  Further, bypassing a theatrical release and going straight to streaming was the best thing that could have happened to My Spy because it gives the film a fighting chance to be seen/enjoyed by more than just the target family audience…which it’s not even a great fit for.

Freshman CIA agent JJ (Bautista, Skyfall) biffs a major weapons trade as the film opens, a big blunder that doesn’t sit well with his boss (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians, in his umpteenth iteration of the perpetually annoyed authority figure role) who quickly busts him down to a low impact stakeout in Chicago.  Paired with nerdy tech Bobbi (Kristen Schaal, Toy Story 4) that has a fangirl crush on JJ’s agent status, the two are keeping an eye on the sister-in-law and niece of a French baddie trying to build a nuclear bomb.  What should be an easy and uneventful assignment gets complicated when wiser-than-her-years fourth-grader Sophie (Chloe Coleman) figures out what JJ and Bobbi are up to.  Blackmailing the CIA agent into being her friend, protector, and trainer in all things spy, Sophie puts the tough as nails JJ through the ringer and, not wanting to further get in trouble with the home office, he complies.  Visiting school for career day, ice skating in the park, and making a good impression on her mom (Parisa Fitz-Henley) are all part of the bargain in balancing his double life, even as the danger of Sophie’s uncle draws closer.

Though it has its moments of originality here and here, I couldn’t help but think that the script from Erich Hoeber (The Meg) & Jon Hoeber (Battleship) reminded me an awful lot of Kindergarten Cop.  Thankfully, it reminded of the good parts of that movie and director Peter Segal (Second Act) keeps things moving along with workmanlike efficiency.  It’s largely a predictable affair but then again you likely didn’t go into My Spy thinking you’ll be surprised by the plot – it’s best to just fire it up and let it roll.  It has some geniune moments of fun and they don’t all come at the expense of low brow jokes and gags — even the usually grating Schaal has a few potent zingers that land right on target.

The main thing that’s wrong with the film at the end of it all is that I’m not sure who the target audience is.  Carrying a PG-13 rating and justly earning it thanks to violence and other content behooving some parental caution, this wouldn’t be a movie for families to enjoy in line with their PG movie night.  It also wouldn’t be something I think would appeal to the Bautista base that know him from the Guardians of the Galaxy films.  That leaves it in a strange limbo place where the audience will have to find it on their own which is why I think the streaming platform was the best place for it to debut.  If you do choose My Spy (as a guilty pleasure watch or otherwise), do so with confidence because it’s far better than it looks and more entertaining than you’d think.

Movie Review ~ Scoob!


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Scooby and the gang face their most challenging mystery ever: a plot to unleash the ghost dog Cerberus upon the world. As they race to stop this dogpocalypse, the gang discovers that Scooby has an epic destiny greater than anyone imagined.

Stars: Will Forte, Gina Rodriguez, Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried, Mark Wahlberg, Frank Welker, Jason Isaacs, Kiersey Clemons, Ken Jeong, Tracy Morgan

Director: Tony Cervone

Rated: PG

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If there’ s one thing that’s gotten me through these past few months of uncertainty and #StayHome / #StaySafe decrees, it’s comfort food and comfort media.  While the comfort food and it’s delicious temptations has assisted in my transitioning to pajama pants exclusively, at least the TV and film that I’ve found so soothing hasn’t packed any extra pounds onto my frame.  From 80s comedies to classic nor thrillers and episodes lifted out of ABC’s TGIF line-up, I haven’t been lacking in something on the boob tube to keep me distracted/entertained.

Then there are the cartoons.  Now, normally I’m not that much of a cartoon guy and my eyebrows shoot to the skies when I hear about the whole obsession with My Little Pony but when presented with a cartoon from my youth I just can’t resist.  The nostalgia factor is so high that it almost makes up for the sad truth that many of these shows nowadays are hard to watch due to the crude animation and silly plot mechanics.  Still…back in the day there was a treasure trove of programming available to kids like me.  Could be Ducktales, could be The Jetsons, might be the Snorks, but if it showed up on a Saturday morning there was a high probability I was tuned in for it and you better believe when anything related to Scooby-Doo was airing I was not to be disturbed.

The cartoon about teen sleuths and their ever-hungry talking Great Dane had been around since 1969 but by the time I was parked in front of the TV all bleary-eyed and mussed-haired it was already in one of its numerous offshoots featuring Scooby’s wise-talking nephew Scrappy-Doo.  As I grew up, my interest in other animated weekend offerings waned but there was something about Scooby and the gang that stuck with me.   I whole-heartedly admit to owning the entire original Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! series as well as the popular but chintzy live-action films they made in the 2000s.  Sure, I’ve seen the numerous straight to video animated movies that have been released and I have a particular fondness for 1988’s Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School as well as my all-time favorite, Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf, released the same year.

As a fan of this franchise, I wasn’t clutching my pearls too much when I got a look at the preview for Scoob! which was originally intended to be an early summer theatrical release for Warner Brother Animation.  With the coronavirus outbreak, Warner Brothers pivoted their plans and have released the film on demand and I think they’ll see a good profit from this family friendly, colorful reboot that captures the spirit of the show while also making it accessible for a new generation.  Though it does have a few minor missteps, it avoids the outright errors from the live-action version and winds up being more pleasing than painful to fans.

Acting a bit as an origin story, the film opens with a young Shaggy meeting a pup he names Scooby Dooby Doo on a California beach.  Both loners, not necessarily by choice, the two bond over their love of food and their friendship is sealed then and there.  When they’re accosted on Halloween night by some mean bullies who steal their candy and hide it in a supposedly haunted house, who should come to the rescue but a young Fred, Daphne, and Velma.  Together, the five solve their first mystery, setting the stage for the next decade of working as a team which brings us to the present (the film is set in modern times) when the gang is deciding on how to take their business to the next level.

Following a standard outline like many of the episodes, Shaggy and Scooby are separated from the other three by a series of occurrences as they both work on disparate mysteries that eventually have a common thread.  Shaggy (Will Forte, Nebraska) and Scooby (Frank Welker, Aladdin) team up with a bumbling superhero (Mark Wahlberg, All the Money in the World) and his sidekicks (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians and Kiersey Clemons, Lady and the Tramp) while Fred (Zac Efron, The Greatest Showman), Daphne (Amanda Seyfried, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), and Velma (Gina Rodriguez, Annihilation) track down Dick Dasterdly (Jason Isaacs, Dragonheart) who has plans to resurrect a monster from Greek mythology.  This brings all on a globe-hopping (and time-traveling) race against time to stop Dick before he can obtain what he needs to unleash the powerful beast.

At 94 minutes, Scoob! plays like an especially long episode of the show and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The four screenwriters clearly have done their homework and have pulled the best of the characters through to this update, gently smoothing some of the rougher edges while still maintaining the ostensible traits that make them so unique.  As you might expect, for young audiences viewing this now the filmmakers have amped up the action so there are times when the proceedings get especially manic, with the volume on the antics turned up high.  That works for some of the more outlandish characters (like Isaacs having a field day as the villainous Dasterdly) but tends to sink secondary ones. Thankfully, while the flick does have its scary moments (this is about bringing a teeth-gnashing three headed dog back to life, after all), it’s goofy charm keeps the film on the lighter side of the PG scale, and that’s not something a number of supposedly family friendly films can claim.

It’s been a long time since a Scooby-Doo movie played in theaters and while I think Scoob! will do well in this on-demand setting, I do think this release platform will hinder chances for future theatrical offerings down the road.  Seeing that the lovable pooch and his friends have routinely turned up in direct to video mysteries for years already, it might be hard to separate this effort (which is quite entertaining) from the others which can come off as quickie money grabs (which they often are).  You can’t keep a good dog down, though, so I’m not too worried about Scooby making a nice comeback soon…besides, we still need to get re-introduced to Scrappy-Doo!

31 Days to Scare ~ Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween

The Facts:

Synopsis: Halloween comes to life in a comedy adventure based on R.L. Stine’s 400-million-selling series of books.

Stars: Jack Black, Madison Iseman, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Chris Parnell, Ken Jeong, Jeremy Ray Taylor

Director: Ari Sandel

Rated: PG

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Fall is in the air and it’s definitely beginning to feel a lot like Halloween. This is the time each year I can watch whatever I want if it’s related to Halloween and not feel the least bit of guilt for neglecting non-genre films. That’s why I opted out of a screening for a movie with considerable more buzz than Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween and found myself in an early evening preview of this follow-up to the modest hit from 2015.  Side note…why aren’t all screenings at 6:30pm?  Makes it possible to have some part of your night free if you’re seeing a shorter film.

I found the first Goosebumps to be a perfectly fine family film that tweens could watch with their parents as an alternative to the adult fare. I’m already dreading seeing how many children there will be at the new Halloween movie next week. The original had a good-set up, decent effects, solid acting, and while it turned into too much mayhem near the end with iffy CGI it was still more than modestly enjoyable. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware a sequel was greenlit, much less in the can and ready to go until I caught the first preview several months back.

With the principals from the first film unavailable and star Jack Black (The D Train) tied up making the also Halloween family friendly The House with a Clock in Its Walls, screenwriter Rob Lieber (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Peter Rabbit) and original writer Darren Lemke (Jack the Giant Slayer) fashioned a new story set in a different fictional town in upstate New York that takes their Halloween very seriously. Houses are decorated to the max (must be nice to have expendable cash) and costumes are several notches above your standard vampire fangs.  Sonny (Jeremy Taylor Ray, IT) and his upperclassman sister Sarah (Madison Iseman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) live with their single mom Kathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Blended) in Wardenclyffe, NY and it’s almost Halloween. Sarah is occupied with boyfriend troubles and trying to get into college, Kathy is overworked, and Sonny is just trying to perfect his school science experiment. Though it often takes a backseat to the shenanigans that will follow, there’s a nice family dynamic created here and one that stresses responsibility to ones self and loved ones – not a bad message hiding amidst all the scares.

Together with his friend Sam (Caleel Harris), Sonny finds himself in an abandoned house cleaning out junk and that’s where the two boys come across a hidden chest that holds only a locked book and a key. Opening the book releases Slappy the ventriloquist dummy and that’s when all Halloween hell breaks loose. Though Slappy originally starts out as being somewhat helpful by showing Sonny and Sam’s bullies a thing or two and doing their chores, his benign nature gives away to something more evil when he causes an accident that sends Sarah’s cheating boyfriend to the hospital. Eventually, Slappy’s true nature is revealed…he wants to make Halloween come to life 365 days a year and rouses every manner of beast and ghoulie to achieve his task.

Director Ari Sandel won an Oscar for a short film in 2007. I haven’t seen that movie but it’s clear he has some style seeing that the movie bops along so pleasantly for its 90 minutes. It’s fast moving without making too many narrative leaps and surprisingly cohesive even with a sometimes overstuffed plot. Introducing R.L. Stine (Black, who also provides the menacing voice for Slappy) late into the mix feels unnecessary because he doesn’t have much to do. I get the impression Black became available after the script was completed and went through a small revision to include him. It’s all low-stakes but that’s what makes it a less intense experience than the first one, making it easier to recommend for smaller children…but parents should still heed the PG rating if your kid is of the nervous variety or else plan to invest in a nightlight.

I’m liking these low-impact scary films targeted at families more and more as studios start to get the idea of how to make them not quite so scary. While it isn’t something I would normally seek out in theaters, both Goosebumps films (and a second sequel hinted at in the finale) have been pleasant diversions to the more intense creepy fare that rises from the dead this time of the year.

Movie Review ~ Crazy Rich Asians

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: This contemporary romantic comedy, based on a global bestseller, follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family.

Stars: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, Lisa Lu, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remi Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Ken Jeong

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: So here we are in the final weeks of summer. The kids are getting ready to go back to school and adults (at least this one!) are breathing a sigh of relief.  As far of summer movies go, over the course of the last few months we’ve had some highs (Avengers: Infinity War), some lows (Book Club), and some downright stinkers (Breaking In). If you asked me a few weeks ago what would be the best film of the summer my vote would have been Mission: Impossible – Fallout. I mean, that Tom Cruise vehicle was a real corker, firing on all cylinders and delivering a massive jolt of adrenaline…a perfect formula for a memorable summer blockbuster.

Well, right before the summer season finish line we have a late breaking champion that swooped in and stole the Best Of prize from Cruise and company. Yep, Crazy Rich Asians is, for me, the best film of the summer and the one I think you’ll have a lot of fun at. It’s been quite some time since we’ve had a movie this fresh and satisfying, a romantic comedy that’s effervescent but not operating twelve feet in the air. It’s a grounded, well-made film that’s exuberantly fun and endlessly charming.

Though I failed to make it through Kevin Kwan’s bestseller (the first in a trilogy) before seeing the movie, I knew enough to see that Crazy Rich Asians stays respectful to its source material. Readers will remember the zinger of an opener set in the past that leads directly into the present where we meet economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, Sound of My Voice) and her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding, the upcoming A Simple Favor). Nick wants Rachel to accompany him to Singapore for a friend’s wedding and to introduce her to his family. Though Rachel has met some of Nick’s friends already, meeting the family is a whole other ball of wax and it’s an invite she’s eager to accept.

It’s not until they are seated in a deluxe first class cabin on their international flight that Rachel starts to realize her boyfriend is a tad more well-off than he has led her to believe (remarking at how frugal he is, Rachel says “You even borrow my Netflix password.”). Turns out Nick Young’s family is well known throughout much of Asia and they haven’t even touched down in Singapore before nearly the entire country knows of their arrival. Over the next week of celebrations leading up to the wedding, Rachel will meet Nick’s tradition-minded mother (Michelle Yeoh, Morgan), his adoring grandmother (Lisa Lu, The Joy Luck Club), his cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan, Transformers: The Last Knight), and a whole host of other relations both crazy and rich to varying degrees.

Much has been made that Crazy Rich Asians is the first studio film with an Asian cast set in the present day since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club and it’s a headline worth taking note of. Thankfully, the film doesn’t hang its hat just on this distinction but instead presents itself as a fully-formed, gorgeously made, romantic comedy that feels almost immediately like an instant classic. The characters are broad but relatable…even if you’ll likely be drooling at the kind of opulent lives they lead. The comedic entanglements from screenwriters Peter Chiarelli (Now You See Me 2) and Adele Lim are familiar but delivered with a zest that clears away any stale smell of retreading clichés, and the message about tradition/home/family feels exceedingly timely.

Director Jon M. Chu (Jem and the Holograms) has fashioned a handsome looking film that feels like every single dollar was put up on screen. With no huge names in the cast, the budget went intro production design and the movie benefits hugely from it. Not that the cast is bargain-rate by any means. Wu is a fantastically contemporary leading lady, a smart woman of today that doesn’t lose herself within the confines of visiting a culture very different from her own. Newcomer Golding is a real find (and the product of a lengthy casting search) and the chemistry he has with Wu and the other cast members is electric. Chan has an interesting arc as Nick’s sister in a difficult marriage and by the time her storyline wraps up expect some applause as she delivers a killer takedown. Yeoh has a fine line to tread between being too much of a villain when she’s not really a bad person and she expertly navigates this minefield with class and in countless glam gowns. Keep your eyes and ears open anytime Awkwafina is onscreen as she steals scenes even more than she did in Oceans Eight earlier this summer.

From it’s eye-popping displays of the lifestyles of the crazy, rich, and famous to its smart soundtrack featuring Asian remakes of pop songs, this is a movie that knows exactly what it is and who it’s for. Even better, this feels like it was made for one type of audience but winds up likely appealing to many more. If this does well we can hope not only for a sequel but for studios to wise up and greenlight more projects with casts that represent our world.

Movie Review ~ Despicable Me 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help deal with a powerful new super criminal.

Stars: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt

Director: Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It’s unfortunate that every computer animated movie needs to be compared to a PIXAR film.  True, PIXAR is clearly the gold standard of CG animation with their endlessly inventive technique and knack for tapping into story and characters that stick with the audience.  Over the years numerous studios have tried and mostly failed to capture that same magic.

I remember going in 2010’s Despicable Me with a bit of a grumpy attitude – here was yet another animated 3D film with A-List voices that would probably wear out its welcome before the first reel was over.  So you’d imagine my surprise when I found myself engaging with the movie and enjoying every minute of it.  With its crisp animation and sprightly voice talent a delightfully entertaining movie emerged and though it failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, its huge box-office take did allow Universal Studios and Illumination Entertainment (who also made the impressive Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax in 2012) to inch closer into PIXAR’s corner of the market.

Raking in millions pretty much guarantees a sequel for any movie released in this modern era so it’s not totally shocking that we find ourselves three years later with Despicable Me 2 and while it isn’t quite as on the button as its predecessor, it comes very close thanks to director Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin’s understanding of what the audience wants more of.

That would be The Minions.  The little yellow scamps that speak their own language and have a playful way of interacting pretty much steal the show…which is exactly what they were designed to do.  This being a sequel you have to give the audience something bigger and more substantial so the significance of these little imps has grown and they provide a large percentage of the laughs in a film that has plenty to spare.

Now the father to three orphaned girls, the one-time villain Gru (again voiced in a thick European accent by Steve Carrell, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and The Way Way Back) is settling into life as a single dad.  What I appreciated about the film is how it didn’t go the expected route and make the sequel all about the fatherhood angle but skillfully lets that part of Gru’s life continue to develop even as he’s called into action by the Anti-Villain League when a deadly formula is stolen from a top secret arctic research lab.

Going undercover at Paradise Mall (which looks like a snow globe and contains shops like Bake My Day) he’s teamed with a goofy agent voiced by Kristen Wiig (who, incidentally, voiced a different character in the first film) and they soon find themselves uncovering not only a plot to take over the world but a burgeoning romance of unrequited love.

It’s a fairly standard set-up that in lesser hands may have resulted in a movie that would soon take up space in the $5 bin at Target.  What keeps the  movie moving ever forward is it’s fast-paced jokes that give our stars nice room to flex their comic vocal chops and the animators room to be as creative as they want within the mall. Though the film does have a breakneck pace, I did find it a little long at 98 minutes – cutting out one or two extraneous subplots could have had this one clocking in about ten minutes shorter without losing any of the elements that work nicely.

Like the original, Despicable Me 2 is being released in 3D and there’s a case to be made of paying the up-charge to the 3D format.  Not only does the technology give the viewer more depth in some precisely designed scenes but the end-credits sequence has impressive effects that had young audience members (and at least one old one) reaching out to pop a bubble or dodge a flying object.

With its colorfully created world the movie will appeal to young children as much as its James Bond-y plot might speak to young teens and adults.  In a world of sequels that don’t measure up to the original, Despicable Me 2 is recommended as a worthy follow-up of solid entertainment.

Movie Review ~ The Hangover Part III

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The Facts:

Synopsis: This time, there’s no wedding. No bachelor party. What could go wrong, right? But when the Wolfpack hits the road, all bets are off.

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Ken Jeong, Heather Graham, Jeffrey Tambor, Justin Bartha, John Goodman, Sasha Barrese, Gillian Vigman, Jamie Chung

Director: Todd Phillips

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  First things first…this final chapter in The Hangover trilogy is much better than the hypnotically awful second entry from 2011.  Still, the old adage that good things come in threes doesn’t apply here to a film that has a scant handful of laughs and goes out with a small guffaw.  When The Hangover was released in 2009, it was an overnight hit that built on strong word of mouth with each passing week.  I’ve revisited that film a few times over the years and while it doesn’t quite hold up as well with repeated viewings, it’s hard to deny that there were a lot of good ideas that landed above expectations thanks to smart writing and interesting performances.

As is widely agreed upon by audiences and critics alike, the sequel two years later was a total misfire…a basic remake of the first that confused disgusting gags for humor and tried in vain to capitalize on what made the original such a success.  That same confusion exists within the third entry as well but there seems to be a little more effort put into the rounding off of these characters as they sail off into the sunset.

The film opens with one of the worst gags I’ve seen in film recently…if you’ve seen the trailer you know what’s coming for you and I watched these opening moments with a sinking sense of dread.  They wouldn’t actually do that, I asked myself…right before they did.  The follow-up scene is another laughless exercise and I had to turn to my friend and ask “This IS supposed to be a comedy, right?”  Sadly, the laughs were rare as the film unspooled and though it does move fast over the course of its 100 minute run time, you really do notice that there’s little to enjoy as The Wolfpack get embroiled in another scheme involving kidnapping and stolen gold.

Make no doubt about it… this is Galifianakis’s show all the way and Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, Hit and Run, The Place Beyond the Pines) and Helms (The Lorax) are on hand to merely set-up his gags and not much else (poor Justin Bartha has even less to do as he’s once again sidelined early on).  What worked so well about the original film was the way these unlikely friends played off of each other and though all three have worked steadily in the four years since it’s obvious that director/writer Todd Phillips found Galifianakis (The Campaign) the easiest to write for.  That’s too bad because had Cooper and Helms been given more to do, they could have balanced a movie that’s weighed down by Galifianakis and his obtuse and only occasionally funny man-child antics.

The biggest mistake the film makes is moving peripheral character Mr. Chow front and center as part of the action which puts the biggest hole in this dingbat dinghy of a movie.  Played by the supernaturally annoying Ken Jeong, the character scored big in his small part of the original film and struck out astronomically in Part II.  Miraculously, in Part III he’s given even more to do which really ruins any chance the film had to succeed thanks to Jeong’s performance that seems to be culled from outtakes.

Though the film brings back some other characters from the previous installments and adds John Goodman (The Internship, Argo, Flight) to the mix, they are only there for show as Phillips fashions his film around gross-out humor and a disturbing amount of violence toward animals that’s meant to be humorous.  While I’ve always appreciated the film’s center core of friendship against all odds, the goodwill of franchise fans is put to the test here with a finished product that’s not very satisfying but thankfully signals the end of the road for these people.

The Silver Bullet ~ Rapture-Palooza

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Synopsis: Two teens battle their way through a religious apocalypse on a mission to defeat the Antichrist

Release Date:  June 7, 2013

Thoughts: Silly…that’s the first thing that comes to mind when viewing the trailer for Rapture-Palooza.  Though Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) and Craig Robison (starring in another apocalypse comedy this summer, This Is the End) are appealing stars, I’m worried that the film will be too goofy for even the most die-hard comedy fans.  However, with a script from Craig Matheson who gave us the Bill and Ted movies there might be the tiny chance this could be a harmless winner…but I’m not holding out too much hope.

Movie Review ~ Pain & Gain

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A trio of bodybuilders in Florida get caught up in an extortion ring and a kidnapping scheme that goes terribly wrong.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry, Tony Shalhoub, Bar Paly, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Yolanthe Cabau

Director: Michael Bay

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If Pain & Gain demonstrates anything, it’s that director Michael Bay can do an awful lot with a tiny budget…if you consider 25 million dollars a tiny budget.  Unfortunately, even with a budget that’s about ¼ of the last Transformers movie, Bay shows himself again as a director that’s full of sound and fury but truly signifying nothing by delivering a rather unpleasant film that’s doesn’t shortchange the audience on flash, flesh, and felons.

Based on a true story, Pain & Gain is told in flashback by multiple narrators who pop in whenever the film deems it necessary to tell the tale of three Miami muscled gym rats that find themselves in a whole mess of trouble thanks to their own buffoonery and poor planning.  Their efforts to swindle a greasy client (Shaloub) out of his money and property is so out of this world crazy that the film has to keep telling us it’s a true story when it takes some fairly incredible turns. 

Directed with the reckless commercial sleaze that Bay is famous for, the film does look great with vibrant colors and slo-mo work that delivers several humorous sight gags.  The movie hums with adrenaline but has a strange hollowness to it, never really making it up the hill of better black comedies that didn’t need to resort to gross out gore/humor to keep the attention of its audience. 

Wahlberg (Ted, Contraband) is more jacked up and cracked out than ever before and it’s plain to see that he put in some extra time in the gym to prepare himself for the trainer turned criminal that’s the ringleader of this strange mix of people.  Wahlberg plays this guy so wound up that when he has some freak outs of rage they’re more funny than threatening – which is, I believe, what he’s going for. 

His two compatriots are Mackie (Man on a Ledge, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and Johnson (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) as fellow bodybuilders that have more going on in their right bicep than they do between their ears.  Mackie has a strange and extraneous side romance with Wilson (Pitch Perfect) who doesn’t have much to do but play on her dependable foul-mouthed shtick. 

It’s clear that Johnson is a box office favorite but he tries to go the extra mile here in the acting department and comes up short, never really getting to the heart of the dim-witted tool that writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were going for.  Plus Johnson is at this point just one big muscle with eyes so it’s hard to take him seriously. 

When Harris (The Abyss, looking like a white raisin) shows up, he adds the kind of laid-back delivery that helps to balance the ADD-addled film and the characters within.  A retired private detectice, Harris gets looped into the mix by a patsy targeted by the men and tries in van to stop the eventually downfall he sees coming.  It’s the most level performance in the film and is a valued contribution.  Not a valued contribution is Jeong, once again turning in an awful “comedic” performance – how is this guy considered funny?

After a engaging but seedy first hour, the film takes on a darker tone and that’s when it transitioned from buzzy black comedy to an unhappy trek through tough territory as murder comes into play.  Blood is spilled, body parts are BBQ’d, and a few other appendages are damaged along the way as Bay steers his film into some unapologetically foul territory. 

Far from Bay’s best work (I’d still say that The Island is the most satisfying film he’s made), Pain & Gain suffers from an excess of style without any real support of substance.  Not a bad film if I’m being really honest, just one that didn’t need to be a brashly bold as it is.  Though it does have two sinewy legs to stand on, it starts to weaken as the time ticks by to the end of a very long 129 minutes.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hangover Part III

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Synopsis: This time, there’s no wedding. No bachelor party. What could go wrong, right? But when the Wolfpack hits the road, all bets are off.

Release Date:  May 24, 2013

Thoughts: When The Hangover was released a few summers back, it became a surprise hit for Warner Brothers with its old-school take on the buddy film, mixing in spot-on sight gags and revealing some hidden comedic talents from its game cast.  Its sheer popularity green lit a sequel that ended up being more repulsively vile than intelligently crude.  I’m hoping that Part III returns the series to its roots of being purposely funny…especially now that its stars are so well-known and, in Bradley Cooper’s case, Oscar nominated for Silver Linings Playbook.  I’m still mystified at the appeal of Ken Jeong, though.