Strings Attached

Trolls World Tour

by George Wolf

They may sing songs we already know in a sequel that’s often thematically simple, but to quarantined families longing for an escape from re-runs, these new Trolls will feel like a cool blast of freedom.

Just as Branch (Justin Timberlake) is working up the courage to break out of the friend zone with Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick), trouble invades the Pop Troll world of endless singing, dancing and regular hug appointments.

Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) of the Rock Trolls, daughter of King Thrash (Ozzy Osbourne!), has set out on a Mad Max-style rampage through Troll Kingdom, collecting the magic strings from each of 6 different musical villages in a quest to make everyone bow to power chords and devil horns.

Poppy makes a pinky promise (a pinky promise!) not to let that happen, so she heads out with Branch and Biggie (James Corden) on a shuffle through the Troll playlist.

Like the first film, World Tour brings exuberant splashes of sound, color and enthusiasm. But while this latest adventure salutes more types of music, it somehow makes all them feel more bland on the way to its evergreen moral of appreciating differences.

What elevates these Trolls, though, is their funny bone. One of the directors and two of the writers return from part one, but this film is much funnier, especially for the parents sitting down for movie night.

From the struggle to grasp “Hammer time” to the deviousness of yodeling and the futility of fighting smooth jazz, this script-by-committee lands several solid gags. A new group of all star voices (especially a scene-stealing Sam Rockwell as Hickory the cowboy) helps, too.

And really, where else are you gonna hear Ozzy mumble through “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun?”

Gaslight Anthem

A Simple Favor

by George Wolf

Stephanie is a suburban single mom who keeps an “oopsie” jar for swearing and volunteers for everything at her son’s elementary school.

Emily is passionately married, drops frequent f-bombs and has a painting of her vajayjay hanging in the living room.

But a play date for their sons leads to an unlikely friendship in A Simple Favor, a crazy fun mystery with plenty of surprises up its sassy sleeveless number.

The first may be seeing the director is Paul Feig, who made his name with blockbuster comedies such as Bridesmaids and Spy.

So, he’s doing dark thrillers, now? Nope, he’s doing a satirical comedy with strong women, nice diversity and a pretty sharp bite.

Perky Stephanie (Anna Kendrick – perfect) and glamorous Emily (Blake Lively – ditto) share martinis and secrets until Emily turns up missing. Steph provides case updates on her Mommy vlog (“cookies and origami” help to ease the strain!) while spending more and more time watching Emily’s son and “comforting” her husband (Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians).

You’ll guess some of what comes next, but there’s plenty you won’t, unless you read Darcey Bell’s source novel. Screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (Nerve) shapes it for the big screen as a Gone Girl for the gaslight age, where ridiculousness is a default setting, all information is equally true/false and irony is a security blanket never far out of reach.

There are plenty of black comedic laughs to be found here, as well as clever plot twists and knowing nods to the expectations that come with roles of “wife,” “mother,” “career woman” and “friend.”

The running time starts to feel bloated by the third act, and the film flirts with joining the mundane fray it had been so giddily rising above. But it rallies for the win with a satisfying finale of comeuppance and LOL updates on how some characters have moved on.

A Simple Favor is not what the trailer makes you think it is – which turns out to be the perfect setup for a film with plenty of head fakes that lead to a mischievous good time.





The Screening Room: A Stocking Full of New Movies

Helping you separate naughty from nice with this weekend’s movie options, The Screening Room looks at Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Pitch Perfect 3, Downsizing, Darkest Hour, The Greatest Showman as well as your new options in home entertainment. Join us!

Listen to the full podcast HERE.





The Pitch is Back

Pitch Perfect 3

by Hope Madden

Did anyone think to themselves this Christmas season, I wonder what those acapella singers from Pitch Perfect are doing now?

Me, either. And yet, Pitch Perfect 3 hits theaters this weekend.

The Bellas have mostly graduated from college by now, dealing with careers, the daily grind and wishing they were still singing in an all-girl, no-instrument band. So they take their talents to the USO to compete with a country group, a rock band and a hip hop duo to land the opening slot for DJ Khaled.

I know that almost sounds like a plot, and there is this side bit about an international criminal and a kidnapping, but honest to God, this is the most disposable, pointless movie of the season. (Full disclosure—I haven’t seen Father Figures yet.)

Director Trish Sie can’t find a pace or visual style to suit the project, which only emphasizes the weakness in any shadow of a storyline.

Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, along with most of the Bellas, return to vocal action. There’s nothing fresh or appealing about the music, but if that’s your bag, there you go.

Wilson’s Fat Amy still says amusingly inappropriate things, as do the always welcome John Michael Higgins (“We’ll stick to you like mom jeans to a camel toe,”) and Elizabeth Banks. Why are the announcers of the college acapella championships involved in a USO gig?

Writers Key Cannon and Mike White realize this makes little sense, so they devise a knowingly ludicrous excuse for it. In fact, it’s this self-referential tendency that provides the film’s only clever laughs.

Well, “laugh” is a strong word, but there are passably enjoyable moments. The rest of it is mainly insufferable: catty, meandering and needless.





Table of Misfit Toys

Table 19

by Matt Weiner

If you sit a group of strangers together at a wedding reception, you’ll find out that each one of them is a brain… a basket case… a criminal… and of course a perky princess to propel the story forward.

Yes, the romantic comedy Table 19 gets its something (heavily) borrowed from John Hughes, especially The Breakfast Club. After an unceremonious breakup with the bride’s brother, now ex-maid of honor Eloise McGarry (Anna Kendrick) gets banished to the table of rejects and outcasts at the reception.

Eloise, still pining for her Teddy (Wyatt Russell), is unsympathetic to the quirks and sad stories that bind their table together. But as backstories get revealed, the tablemates quickly learn they are united in their profound misery.

If this sounds a little bleak for a brisk (like, 87 minutes brisk) romcom, just wait until the themes take a sharp turn from cake-related slapstick to everyone’s favorite comedy subjects like unplanned pregnancy, infidelity and death.

The story, written by director Jeffrey Blitz with indie darlings Jay and Mark Duplass, gets into dark territory, in particular the cautionary tale of Bina and Jerry Kepp (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson). The married couple don’t even care enough to hate each other anymore, and their apathy is like a jarring memento mori for a lighthearted wedding romp.

So many of the casual asides and throwaway lines are streaked with this sort of misanthropy, and it’s a shame that the movie lacks the audacity to see it through to the finish. It doesn’t help that the comedy part of the romantic comedy is light on laughs—with the exception of Stephen Merchant, who commits above and beyond to finding both humor and pathos in his thinly sketched character, cousin Walter.

Instead, we’re left with lessons learned and lukewarm nostalgia, complete with 80s covers from the wedding band. Sure, you could just stick with the original article and fire up a John Hughes marathon. But if your tolerance for formula is already that high, and you like watching a great cast make the most of an inconsistent premise—and you have 80-odd minutes to spare—you could slog through a lot worse. Like an actual wedding.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





Bottom Line Business

The Accountant

by Hope Madden

For a middling thriller, The Accountant offers a handful of worthy items.

Its central character Christian (Ben Affleck) is an unusual choice for a hero. He’s a mathematical genius on the autism spectrum whose youth was spent learning to function in society, and developing mad mercenary skills. Why the second? Never really clear.

Affleck is a proven director. He doesn’t direct The Accountant, but recent roles suggest he’s become savvier with his acting choices as well. He seems to recognize what the rest of us have known for a while – he lacks range.

What better character for him, then, than a man who struggles to show the slightest emotion?

The film also boasts – much thanks to Affleck’s performance – humor. Rather than an amalgam of stereotypes and contrivances, Affleck’s bean counter comes off as a relatable human.

Another item of note: director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) choreographs the impeccable action sequences with the kind of clarity and efficiency that reflect the film’s protagonist. Even as that sounds potentially dull, the result is quite the opposite. These are some of the clearest and most interesting action pieces of the year, actually.

O’Connor’s direction and Affleck’s performance are subtle with Christian’s tics, focusing our attention instead on slight changes in the character that make him more provocative. By pairing him with Anna Kendrick’s corporate CPA Dana – a sweet, jovial type – O’Connor explores the social awkwardness in all of us.

Now for the problems.

These fall mostly to the script, penned by Bill Dubuque, whose triad of storylines climaxes in a clean and witty shootout. Too bad every intentional surprise has long-since been guessed, leaving only those inconsistencies in the plot that are probably not supposed to have been noticed, either.

Christian, drawn to puzzles and possessing a super human knack for math, often works with disreputable clients. He’s taken a legit client – a robotics firm that makes prosthetics for the medical industry. But this isn’t as it seems, and brings Christian in contact with a corporate hitman who wants him silenced.

Meanwhile, the Treasury Department is finally piecing together Christian’s whereabouts and may be onto him. Why now? Another mystery.

The criss-crossing, flash-backing, money-following and head-scratching don’t pay off because, at its core, the thriller is just exploiting a gimmick. But Affleck and O’Connor are not, which is why the film turns out as well as it does.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Altar Boys

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

by Hope Madden

Back in 2012, Aubrey Plaza starred in an eccentric little SciFi adventure based on a Craigslist ad. Safety Not Guaranteed was a surprised (and welcome) hit, partly because of writer Derek Connelly’s fertile imagination, partly because of the genuinely bizarre ad: Wanted: Somebody to go back in time. This is no joke. You’ll get paid after. Bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have done this once before.

That is ripe.

Since then, two all-American bros took to Craigslist to get dates to a wedding they were forbidden to attend stag for fear they would harass all the female guests and become generally unruly. That particular ad has already been milked of every conceivable bit of interest, with TV spots AND a book. A book! And yet, Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien (writers behind the Neighbors franchise) have adapted the ad for the new film Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.

It also stars Plaza, alongside Anna Kendrick, Zac Efron and Adam Devine as the destination-wedding-bound foursome.

Jake Szymanski directs the raunchy comedy that pits two lovable losers trapped in their never ending adolescence against the equally immature but more scheming young women just looking for a free trip to Hawaii.

Efron and Plaza co-starred in the very-R comedy Dirty Grandpa earlier this year, with Devine and Kendrick sharing the screen in both Pitch Perfect films. The four of them are likeable and – to varying degrees – talented. They’d have to be comedic lightning bolts to get this off the ground, though.

With a plot this thin, the film has to lean too heavily on shock situations and over-the-top language to generate any energy. Expect moms to call sons “assholes,” sisters to bare some pelt, and Aubrey Plaza to demonstrate sexual technique using texting as the metaphor.

The cast offsets the raunch with character earnestness (except for Plaza, who’s all in), but the film always feels too slapped together to hold water and a bit to mean-spirited to merit more than a smile here and there.

The whole thing is so thin, so desperate for content, it’s as if some idiot based an entire screenplay on a 400 word Craigslist ad.

Verdict-2-0-Stars





Digging Your Scene

Digging for Fire

by George Wolf

A strong ensemble cast and a crafty, improvisational script make Digging for Fire a new high water mark for a filmmaker inching cautiously closer to the mainstream.

For over a decade, Joe Swanberg has been a busy boy, serving as writer, director, actor, editor, cinematographer and more on various obscure shorts, mumblecore staples, and indie favorites. He’s probably best known for his role in the slasher flick You’re Next, but Swanberg’s 2013 effort Drinking Buddies earned him plenty of notice as writer/director with a refreshing voice.

Digging for Fire‘s cast is full of Swanberg favorites, led by Jake Johnson, who also helped write the script. Johnson plays Tim, who is staying with his wife Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their young son Jude (Jude Swanberg, Joe incredibly cute son) In a swanky house they don’t own.

Lee teaches yoga in LA, and while some of her clients are away shooting a movie, Lee and her happy young family agree to house sit, where Tim promptly finds an old bone and a rusty gun while checking out the grounds.

As the weekend approaches, Lee leaves the boys at home to visit her parents, and then have a girls’ nite with an old friend. Tim promises to do the taxes while she’s gone, but he can’t get his mind off of his strange discovery. Once some friends come over and beer starts flowing, seeing what other secrets might be buried in the yard starts sounding like a great idea.

Both Lee and Tim find plenty of temptation in their respective adventures, and Digging for Fire becomes a quietly insightful take on managing priorities throughout the changing phases of life.

Swanberg’s camera often drifts without anchor, perfect for the bevy of recognizable faces that come and go (Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Sam Elliott, Orlando Bloom and more), some for only one scene. You can see why these talents are drawn to such a free-form filmmaking structure, and all are able to carve out memorable characters that influence the choices Lee and Tim are pondering.

Though obvious, Swanberg’s extended metaphor is effective, as responsibilities of marriage and family clash with the yearning for lost freedom. If you keep digging for something, you just might find it, and that can be playing with fire.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 





The Pitch is Back

Pitch Perfect 2

by Hope Madden

In 2012, Elizabeth Banks produced a film that was “an inspiration to girls all over the country too ugly to be cheerleaders.” And now it’s time to return to Barton University to get our accompaniment-free groove on in Pitch Perfect 2.

That’s right, pitches.

The Barton Bellas, having survived power struggles, forbidden romance and intimacy issues, have been the reigning collegiate a cappella champs for 3 years. However, an a cappella-tastrophe during a command performance at the Lincoln Center stripped the group of their title, and their only way to get it back is to become the first Americans to win the World Competition.

To do it, they’ll have to beat the Germans. Just like Rocky, but with singing … and comedy that’s intentional.

Banks returns in her role as one half of a bedecked competition commentator duo, opposite the endlessly hilarious John Michael Higgins. While their hysterical banter punctuates the proceedings, Banks also directs this time around. She shows as strong a sense of comic timing behind the camera as she has always shown in front of it, but really impresses when staging the musical numbers.

The game cast returns for seconds, with a dry, self-deprecating Anna Kendrick leading up the singing sisterhood. Rebel Wilson and Adam DeVine are back, ensuring plenty of uncomfortable lunacy, while a stable of fun cameos including David Cross, Jason Jones and Keegan-Michael Key keeps scenes fresh and funny.

I’m no Green Bay Packers fan, but it’s a lot of fun watching Clay Matthews and most of their offensive line sing Bootilicious.

Plenty of bits feel stale, too. As with any sequel, the novelty is gone and certain jokes have more than run their course by now. The storyline is a bit too predictable and tidy, the new characters are not compelling, and now and again Banks returns to a gag once too often.

Still, Kendrick is a solid foundation. She’s a talented comic performer who sings remarkably well, so a good place to build your movie. Kay Cannon’s script balances silliness, raunch and heart quite well, and those folks looking for lots of exceptionally choreographed numbers won’t be disappointed.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 





The Meryl Witch Project

Into the Woods

by George Wolf

 

Don’t let the name Disney at the top of the poster fool you, Into the Woods isn’t little kid stuff. But it is more evidence that Rob Marshall is the guy who should be directing your next musical.

After nearly thirty years, the Tony-award winner from Stephen Sondheim (music) and James Lapine (book/screenplay) makes it to the big screen. It’s more lean, less mean, and still pretty spectacular.

Having Meryl Streep at the top of your cast list is always a wise move, and she’s utterly commanding as a Witch who offers the village Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) a mysterious deal. In exchange for a few magical items (red cape, white cow, yellow hair and golden slipper), the Witch will reverse a curse that is keeping the couple childless.

As the Bakers head into the woods to begin their search, four classic fairy tales begin an enchanting intersection.

With the benefit of a live stage, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Jack and his beanstalk could take turns in the spotlight while still keeping a combined narrative intact. A screen version presents an inherent challenge to recreate that vision, but Marshall doesn’t shrink from it.

His camera is almost always moving, with wide aerial shots showcasing everyone’s place in the woods, and slow pans that glide easily from one fairy tale to the next. While Marshall’s Nine was more a series of dazzling parts, here he’s able to sustain the realization that each storyline in the woods is connected.

Marshall is also smart enough to know the material and adjust. The high-stepping pizazz he utilized so well in the Oscar-winning Chicago was a perfect fit for that show, but this is Sondheim. The songs are graceful, poetic, challenging, and Marshall, with a big assist from Dion Beebe’s pristine cinematography, frames them accordingly.

The fine ensemble cast follows suit with sharp characterizations. Blunt is excellent (when isn’t she?) as the desperate wife, Corden makes a fine unlikely hero and Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella is..apologies in advance…pitch perfect. Chris Pine makes Prince Charming a delightfully amusing cad while Johnny Depp, as Johnny Depp does, leaves a memorable impression with limited screen time as the Big Bad Wolf.

Though several songs have been pruned from the stage musical, along with some of the darker edges, Marshall keeps the metaphor of “the Woods as real life” intact without overplaying the hand. Into the Woods explores what’s on the other side of fairy tales, where handsome Princes “will always love the maiden who ran away.”

The wee ones may not find any bland theme songs to call their own, but this is family entertainment on a grand, sometimes glorious scale.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars