Movie Review ~ Crazy Rich Asians

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The Facts
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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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Turbo

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Synopsis: A freak accident might just help an everyday garden snail achieve his biggest dream: winning the Indy 500.

Release Date:  July 19, 2013

Thoughts: Animators are never at a loss for choosing which ordinary, run of the mill garden variety creature to make the star of a big summer film.  Dreamworks is betting on a snail to keep them in the race as the only true competitor with PIXAR…and they may just be on to something.  Though Dreamworks isn’t exactly hurting for a hit, the competition is getting stiff with other studios jumping on the cutting edge animation bandwagon.  Admittedly, though the teaser for Turbo is largely unremarkable I’d like to throw some confidence their way because I can see potential in this tale, especially considering its diverse vocal cast including Ryan Reynolds, Maya Rudolph, Snoop Dogg, Ken Jeong to name but a few.

The Silver Bullet ~ Pain & Gain

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

Release Date:  April 26, 2013

Thoughts: First and foremost, this film is notable for being action picture director Michael Bay’s least expensive film since Bad Boys.  Aside from that, I’m not sure if this is going to convince any of his naysayers to jump on board after producing some fairly brain-dead entertainment courtesy of the Transformers franchise.  Also, though I have enjoyed Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect and What To Expect When You’re Expecting, I feel like she’s playing the same character time and time again.  Dwayne Johnson isn’t a bad actor…but I continue to question his choice of roles as he seems to go wherever the paycheck is.  While this could be a nice departure film for Bay, I’m not holding my breath he’s seen the error of his obnoxious directorial ways.