The To Do List

ImageThe easy comparison is that The To Do List is “American Pie in the female voice.”  In a nutshell that’s pretty much it, but writer/director Maggie Carey is cognizant of the likely association to the 1999 raunch-fest and offers enough deviations to keep it original…enough. 

Aubrey Plaza makes her feature lead actress debut as 1993 valedictorian Brandy Klark who is looking to spend her summer before college shedding her bookish persona for one who is on a sexual agenda.  This “agenda” is the driving force for the film as Brandy chooses to transfer her obsessive determination towards schoolwork to checking off items on an expansive list of sexual acts culminating in actual intercourse with hot college guy, Rusty Waters (Scott Porter). 

Brandy’s summer job as lifeguard at the local pool where Rusty works allows her to stay close to the man of her list as well as allow for the addition of a number of funny supporting roles from familiar faces like Bill Hader, Donald Glover, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Andy Samberg.  Brandy’s decision to go on a sexual quest is also propelled by her being a virgin surrounded by more experienced friends and a sexpot sister (Rachel Bilson).  The “list” element is very funny and the film is at its best when it is being outrageous (the freeze frames are hilarious).  Furthermore, the 1993 Boise, Idaho setting creates some excellent opportunities for some great Midwestern 90s gags.  Writer/Director Carey purposefully cites and references some classically shocking cinematic films in order to proclaim the company she hopes this film will keep: American Pie, Caddyshack, and Pink Flamingos to name a few.

I’m not yet a parent, and I don’t consider myself old or closed-minded, but I can’t help but sense a real shallowness in Brandy’s endeavor.  A bright girl victimized by peer pressure with a moral that sex is just sex is hard to get behind, even for a self-proclaimed outrageous comedy. The film’s issues lie in its oddly cold and indifferent attitude towards sex, love, and humanity in general.  These decisions seem to be made in order to distance the film from some of its predecessors, but the film’s final act is far from romantic and actually, rather ugly.   

The To Do List has some great comedic moments and Plaza is pretty fearless in her performance.  The film does accomplish some enjoyable outrageousness and reveals the budding talent of Maggie Carey as new voice in the envelope pushing comedy.  However, the tone is as awkward as its protagonist and actually goes as far as to present some very judgmental views towards making good and reasonable choices.  C+

The To Do List is rated R (obviously) and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes.  Comedy is hard, and the film is moderately successful, but it is not a must see.  Expect The To Do List to gather its audience as a DVD commonly found at sleepover parties.  Also, it appears this film sat on the shelf for a little while since its actors are noticeably younger.  Look out for an infantile Nolan Gould (who plays Luke on Modern Family).

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The Way Way Back

ImageThere is something compelling about Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s new coming of age comedy, The Way Way Back.  In the tradition of Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and Moonrise Kingdom, The Way Way Back unfolds in a deliberately subtle way, drawing audiences in with charm and substance.

The story follows 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), a wallflower who spends the summer with his mother at her new boyfriend’s seaside resort home on the East coast.  Duncan’s mother Pam (Toni Collette) hopes the trip will give Duncan a chance to bond with her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) and his teenage daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) as well as give Duncan a chance to make some friends and come out of his shell.  Things do not go as planned as Trent’s overbearing personality clashes with Duncan’s, and Steph is more interested in getting a tan than hanging out with Duncan causing him to feel more isolated and undervalued than ever.  It is not until he stumbles upon the nearby Water Wizz waterpark and unexpectedly befriends its manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell) that Duncan discovers who he really is and what is most important.

It is difficult to put your finger on exactly what it is about The Way Way Back that is so engaging.  On the surface, it is simply a story about a young boy who doesn’t fit in until he meets a group of confident, expressive people that teach him to value himself.  This is all well and good, but there is more to this film than just that.  What writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have made is a subtle allegorical film that symbolically captures the nature of growing up, and that’s what makes it special.  Scenes where characters argue over the rules of Candy Land, discuss the ocular abilities of ghost crabs, and ponder the mythology of what happens within the tube on a waterslide all assist in deepening the figurative message of the film.

Furthermore, the film sets its aim on the hypocrisy of adults who have it set in their mind that they deserve an extended childhood of poor decision making but shouldn’t expect such behavior from their own children.  Many of the adults in the film are seen shouting orders to their kids, setting curfews for their kids, and giving advice about how their kids should act only to turn around and get fall-down drunk, cheat on each other, and disappear all hours of the day and night.  This is perhaps the film’s most dynamic and serious theme and it is worth noting that the film does not attack the idea of an extended childhood for adults, but rather it attacks childish adult role models who have unrealistic expectations for those who look up to them, given the example they set.  This point is most successfully made in the character of Owen.  As a water park manager and perpetual goofball, Owen is constructed as a foil to the other adults in the film.  His character is honest and dependable while also being a child at heart.  The relationship that develops between Owen and Duncan is touching and welcomed.

Beyond the writing, what makes The Way Way Back such an enjoyable and poignant film is its ensemble cast.  James is very good as Duncan, who in the film’s first act successfully depresses the audience with his extreme “introverted-ness.”  Collette expertly reveals Pam’s conflicted nature throughout the film, and Rockwell gives an immensely enjoyable performance as Owen where he gets a chance to showcase his warmth and quick wit rather than his usual quirky, off kilter types.  Steve Carrell does well against type as the highly unlikable Trent and Allison Janney adds one more scene stealing role to her already abundant resume as Trent’s neighbor, Betty.  Additional side characters are well cast including Duncan’s potential love interest, Susanna (Annashophia Robb), mismatched couple Joan and Kip (Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry), and Owen’s girlfriend Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph).  The strength of the cast and the film’s symbolic texture do well to balance out the fairly predictable story and the audience familiarity with the shuffling, depressed American teenager (which is becoming a somewhat unwelcomed cliché).  Rash, fresh off of his Screenwriting Oscar for 2011’s The Descendants, emulates his enigmatic title by illustrating that he will not be sent to the “way way back” of the film industry any time soon.   B+

The Way Way Back is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes.  As summer winds its way to a close, this is a fitting film to make an effort to find and see. 

Only God Forgives

ImageWith a title like Only God Forgives, it is expected that the characters will show very little compassion, but ultimately the same is likely true for the audience who watches it.

A follow up to his phenomenal 2011 film Drive, director Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest film Only God Forgives again stars Ryan Gosling, this time as an underground boxing ring owner in Bangkok.  Like his character from Drive, his character here, Julian, is a man of few words, very few, like 15 maybe.  But that doesn’t stop him from smuggling drugs with his brother Billy (Tom Burke) and basically validating the frequently disturbing cinematic reputation that Bangkok has acquired.  When Billy is murdered for raping and murdering a sixteen-year-old, Julian and his partners find themselves compelled to hunt down his brother’s killer.  Vengeance reigns as Julian and company find themselves facing off against Chang (Vithaya  Pansringarm), a sword-wielding cop on a vendetta of his own.

Winding Refn has created a small and weird film.  Essentially what we have here is a cold-hearted revenge film where one murder begets one more.  What Winding Refn attempts to inject is a sense of mankind’s inherent evil in a spiritual battle where even God is pissed off.  This is most apparent in his development of a hand/arm motif.  By associating man’s arms/hands with the tools of vengeance, he does manage to create some provocative thematic quality.  However, the film is mostly unsuccessful and feels like a perverse and twisted student film and not much more.

Not a lot happens in Only God Forgives as several scenes are composed of people just moving around, albeit moving around slowly and deliberately.  Many scenes are composed of one-shots (one character in the frame) that last 30 seconds or more!  This results in manufacturing the slowest 89 minute film in recent memory.  A slight boost in pacing comes with the introduction of Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scot Thomas), who gives Joan Crawford a run for her money as a controlling matriarch.

Nonetheless, there is not much good to be said for the film.  Gosling is practically emotionless, giving the blandest performance of his career, although clearly steered by Winding Refn.

Winding Refn’s directorial choices are certainly strange from time to time.  With virtually no exposition, his film complicates matters by introducing confusing segments of “dream-like” scenarios (most of which include red dragon wallpaper) that may or may not be real.  These segments feel forced and unnecessarily ambiguous with no rational purpose.  Furthermore, a major talking point for this film is its use of violence.  Only God Forgives appears to be an instrument for Winding Refn to release his own personal anger against spirituality, against God, against mothers – it’s an angry film.  Much of this anger manifests as violence and while occasionally off screen, two rather brutal scenes do not hold back: one involving Chang, the other involving Julian and his mother.  These scenes drip of anger but offer little redeeming quality (See No Country for Old Men for a film that accomplishes the task of personifying wrath).

While Winding Refn is a talented screenwriter and director, Only God Forgives is a mostly failed attempt at expounding on the undertakings of an angry God.  Instead of making a film that analyzes and examines anger, he has made one that simply exudes his own. D+

Only God Forgives is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes.  Early reports of the film suggested it was astonishingly violent, yet while violent, it is more angry and pushes no boundaries set by multitudes of other gritty R rated vengeance films. 

Pacific Rim

ImageDo you know where your inner child is? Well with Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro has created a dazzling visual spectacle determined to find it for you and leave you wide-eyed and astounded.

Pacific Rim finds the world in the near future with alien monsters emerging from the sea where they have been at rest for millions of years. Finding our deteriorating atmosphere well-suited to their biology, masses of these nearly 300 feet tall creatures known as Kaiju begin laying siege to Earth claiming millions of lives and squandering its resources. Setting its differences aside for perhaps the first time in history, the world comes together, pooling its global assets to develop a weapon that can combat these enormous threats. The answer: 250 foot tall robots called Jaegers controlled simultaneously by two pilots who through a mind meld process called “Drifting” are able to provide the neural power necessary to run the massive machines.

Del Toro is no stranger to the fantastic. He has co-written the screenplays to the recent Hobbit series as well as written and directed the fantastic over-the-top Hellboy films and Blade II (the best one). However, the film he may be best known for is his remarkable twisted fable Pans Labyrinth, which won three Oscars. Here del Toro continues his hitting streak by accomplishing the very thing that has seemingly puzzled Gore Verbinski and Michael Bay for years: creating a wildly epic action film that isn’t clunky, irritating, or devoid of excitement. It would seem very likely for an audience to become detached from a film about giant alien monsters fighting massive robots, but in Pacific Rim, this is not the case. Travis Beacham’s script develops his characters and not just the action. Furthermore, del Toro’s directing makes sure we care about each battle and understand what’s at stake at every turn; this allows the audience to never feel desensitized by the escalating preposterousness.

Who is Charlie Hunnam? Well if you don’t watch Sons of Anarchy, you’d assume he’s a British guy trying his damndest to play an American and not succeeding, and you’d be right. Hunnam plays Raleigh, a modern reincarnation of the Maverick archetype from Top Gun (look for the “you can be my wingman” moment mid-way through the film). Nonetheless, this type of bravado induced superstar with a chip on his shoulder is exactly what a film like Pacific Rim needs at its core. Accent aside and tempered only by his new partner, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), Hunnam is extremely likable and handles the sensitive tough guy persona nicely. Hunnam is joined by a bevy of fun supporting characters who del Toro seemingly mined from successful television shows. Idris Elba from The Wire and Luther commands the screen as General Stacker Pentecost, and it would be a safe (and welcomed) bet that we’ll see Elba on the big screen again and often. Hellboy himself, Ron Pearlman, (and Sons of Anarchy alum) sinks his teeth into the campy role of black market entrepreneur Hannibal Chau, a name he geniusly created based on “his favorite historical figure and his second favorite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn.” Finally, there’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day, who channels Rick Moranis as Dr. Newton Geiszler who plays the Oscar to his partner’s (Burn Gorman) Felix in an “Odd Couple” of scientists looking to discover a brainy solution to the Kaiju attack while Raleigh and company cover the brawn angle.

I’ll admit, Pacific Rim was the film I was most anticipating for the summer. Yet all bias aside, it is an example of everything a big, fun summer movie should be, and if you’ve seen Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, then Pacific Rim should be next on your list. A

Pacific Rim is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 11 minutes. It is a post-convert to 3-D film, so it is not necessary to see it in that format, yet The People’s Critic will admit that the conversion is top notch. Also, be sure to stay at least mid-way through the credits for a very rewarding bonus scene that is worth the wait. Those who wait through the entire credits will get a minor, yet potentially important reward as well.

The Lone Ranger

ImageIn this cinematic summer for baby boomers, two classic childhood heroes have been reborn on the big screen.  Both Superman and The Lone Ranger were developed into radio shows and comic books in the 1930s, and they would then go on to have their heydays in the 1940s and 1950s with popular TV shows.  It appears popular culture’s climate is having a nostalgic moment as origin stories of beloved heroes of the past are being introduced to a new generation of viewers, and so far so good.

For The Lone Ranger, director Gore Verbinski teams up with Johnny Depp for the fifth time after three Pirates films and 2011’s Rango.  It was the surprising success of the latter film that perhaps explains the evolution of their latest project.  The days of major box office success for the Western genre have all but ridden off into the sunset.  However, Rango, an animated film starring Johnny Depp as a pet chameleon who ends up in a lawless, desert outpost, legitimized that the genre may be on a resurgence and that kids may be a prime audience.  When included with 2010’s True Grit and 2012’s Django Unchained, three of the top four grossing westerns of all time were released between 2010 and 2012 demonstrating a rebirth of interest in the genre for both adults and kids for the first time in over 20 years.  Thus, Disney’s The Lone Ranger represents an inevitable attempt to get those two audiences together.  But is the film good enough to do it?

All in all, yes it is.  The Lone Ranger follows an ex-Texas ranger, John Reid (Armie Hammer), and his Indian friend, Tonto (Johnny Depp), as they try to exact justice in the American Old West.  The film begins in 1933, and is told in flashback to a young boy by an elderly Tonto, an odd choice of narrative structure.  We learn that Reid is the older brother to legendary lawman Dan Reid.  Dan’s pistol packing ways sharply contrast with John’s educated, John Locke inspired attitude towards law, justice, and government.  When Dan invites John to come along on a manhunt for escaped convict Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), an ambush leaves John clinging to life and crushing his perspective of what he thought would be a more civilized West.  John’s savior comes in the form of Tanto who saves his life and joins him on a renewed quest for justice.

The story has all of the makings of a classic western adventure, but it does hit a few snags.  Hammer and Depp are excellent and their exchanges are fun and entertaining.  Initially, it feels an odd choice casting Depp in the role of Reid’s Indian companion, and given his introduction as an elderly Tonto, I was quite skeptical.  However, Depp’s charm comes through, and he treats the role with respect and charisma.  Verbinski knows his way around an action scene and some of the railroad stuff is exciting and well-produced.  The first half of The Lone Ranger develops the origin of the character and plays out as a well-crafted western.  Filmed on location in the picturesque and renowned Monument Valley, Arizona, the film looks and feels authentic.  Additionally, the climax is a tremendously entertaining sequence that will have crowds smiling and cheering.  However, the film does makes two nearly unforgivable mistakes that do negatively affect the film’s overall reception.  First, Verbinki, known for the more-is-better approach, stretches the story out for an unnecessary two and a half hours bringing the plot to ludicrous scenarios like Mexican stand-offs and ridiculous ways to aim guns at people but never pull a trigger.  This type of film does not have the substance to withstand this type of running time, and while the film clearly nods to classic westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West, it is hardly complex enough to demand this type of attention.  Second, like Man of Steel, a franchise is clearly in the works here and much of the greatness that is The Lone Ranger is overtly left for future installments.  For most of the film, the “mysterious masked man” is nothing but a bumbling buffoon cutting his teeth in silly situations.  The confident seeker of justice and serial adventurer is yet to come.  Nonetheless, the climax is a welcomed payoff that almost erases the bad taste left by these errors, and the score and taglines are used sparingly and effectively.  Fans of the original should be pleased and new fans will be made, kemosabeB-

The Lone Ranger is rated PG-13 and as mentioned above has a running time of 2 hours and 29 minutes!  A decent supporting cast includes Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson, and Barry Pepper.  After the initial credits start an extended scene closes them, but this scene is more symbolic than enduring and does not culminate into anything major.

The Heat

ImageThe Heat proves two things: the ‘buddy cop’ genre actually survived Kevin Smith’s Copout and Melissa McCarthy can produce laughs like no one else in the business!  Normally, when a film’s release date is delayed by a studio, it is a bad thing.  However, when 20th Century Fox moved the release of The Heat from an April release to a June release, it is clear they knew they had a hit on their hands that could measure up against the big summer blockbusters.

The basic story involves an uptight FBI agent being paired up with a course Boston police officer in order to take down a drug lord.  Nothing spectacular plot-wise.   Thus, the golden rule for buddy cop movies is “do something to make it better than the last one.”  There are literally thousands of films that use the odd couple cop partnership blueprint, so the only way to ensure success is to continually add improvements.  It goes without saying that hyper-focused “by the book” FBI agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and passionate yet “devil may care” detective Mullins (McCarthy) will eventually overcome their initial confrontation and become an effective team.  Thus, to overcome the clichés inherent in the genre, director Paul Feig capitalized on Katie Dippold’s screenplay by emphasizing the episodic storyline and injecting a bit of dark humor, which also allowed his previous film, Bridesmaids, to work so well. 

The film opens by introducing Bullock’s character as one who does a good job, but with an arrogance that alienates everyone she works with.  Thus, when an opportunity for a promotion arrives, she takes a job where she will work along side the Boston police department and prove to her superiors that she can work well with others.  What she clearly was not expecting is that she would be partnered up with her foil: a foul-mouthed, uncivilized cop, who while rude and vulgar, is also great at her job.  This pairing allows Feig to guide his perfectly casted characters through a series of hilarious episodes where two good cops try to understand why the other’s methods work.  Where Ashburn sucks up to her boss for fulfillment, Mullins bullies and ridicules hers for the very same reason in one of the film’s funniest scenes.  Recollections of Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro in Midnight Run or Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, and John Ashton in Beverly Hills Cop are hard to deny, but never blatantly ripped-off. 

As mentioned earlier, The Heat strives for being more than a series of gags like McCarthy’s earlier 2013 effort, The Identity Thief.  The Heat is far more violent and crude than some may expect.  However, considering the golden rule, why shouldn’t it be?  We’ve already seen Miss Congeniality where Sandra Bullock learns how to let her hair down.  Now it’s time for her to raid a hidden arsenal in a refrigerator, suit up, and crack some skulls.  The real element of danger, violence, and peril allows the film to outlast its premise not unlike This is the End from earlier this summer where the film’s balance of comedy and disaster made it that much better.  It’s fun to see films mix genres, and this is no exception.  The film moves swiftly and has plenty of strong laughs as well as cringe worthy thrills that may even make you avert your eyes.   

If there’s anything to criticize here, it is that these female characters basically resemble the classic unpolished lifestyles of a million other male counterparts.  The film could have elevated the female buddy cop genre by giving them more girl-power.  An opportunity is missed by downplaying the relationship between Ashburn and her FBI contact, Levy (Marlon Wayans), and Mullins’s romantic life is played off as one big joke because of course, how can such a big woman have a real love life?  Feig was much more successful at developing the relationships among women in Bridesmaids than he is here.  Nonetheless, the film is not offensive towards women and is still very funny.  B+

The Heat is rated R and has the surprisingly long running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes.  However, it never feels overly long or dull.