Sex Tape

Sex Tape is not a dirty movie. Yes, there’s nudity and sexual content and language galore but this film is designed to tickle more than titillate.

Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) are a loving married couple. In college, they had sex and lots of it, as illustrated by a hookup montage near the beginning of Sex Tape. But, as often happens with married couples, work and kids seriously impact their carnal couplings.

On a night when the kids are at mom’s, Annie and Jay go for it. Do they ever! They shoot for every position shown in the book The Joy of Sex. After 3 hours they are exhausted.

The next day Jay becomes aware that he has unknowingly shared the video with several people to whom he had given iPads. Jay and Annie go on a mission to recover those iPads. Their close friends Robby (Rob Corddry) and Tess (Ellie Kemper) are recruited to accompany them.

In a brilliant casting move, a key player in the film is Rob Lowe, who famously starred in a real life sex tape 1988. In Sex Tape, Lowe is Hank, a narcissistic marketing guy who wants to sign Annie to blog for his toy company.

Since he has one of the iPads, they go to his house. While Hank and Annie’s conversation leads to his offering her cocaine, Jay runs through the house looking for the iPad while being chased by a German Shepherd.

After Jay is finally satisfied that the iPads are wiped clean of the recording of their coital marathon, he learns that it has been uploaded to the internet. He and Annie—and their kids!—drive to the website’s headquarters to break in and destroy the computer servers. What happens when they get there won’t be revealed here.

When Jay is handed a thumb drive that contains the last remaining copy of their sex tape, he and Annie finally watch the thing, portions of which are included in the Sex Tape film. There’s some funny stuff here!

Sex Tape is the perfect film for a married couple date night. (Even if you’ve never made a sex tape.) Segel and Diaz are funny and charming. Rob Lowe is weirdly amusing. Unless you’re prudish, go and laugh.

 

 

 

Life Itself

Roger Ebert had a fantastic life. The medical issues of his last few years were difficult and his passing last year was sad, but his was a life full of high points. The new documentary film Life Itself shows Roger Ebert in all stages of his life, but is most revealing during last portion when he was faced with one health challenge after another.

Though he is best known for talking about movies on TV, mainly with fellow critic Gene Siskel, Life Itself makes it clear the Roger Ebert was an immensely talented writer.

An excerpt from a byline piece he wrote for the Daily Illini after the 1964 Birmingham church bombing is featured in the film. An on-screen commenter opines that the column from this 21-year-old was the best thing written after the incident.

Ebert’s review of Bonnie and Clyde, written early in his tenure as film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times proves to be an accurate assessment of that film’s importance.

Among the film’s highlights are outtakes from his work with Siskel. Their relationship was contentious for many years but got better as they got older and realized the value of their partnership. Several of the show’s producers and Siskel’s widow provide useful perspectives.

As they became famous, they often guested on the Johnny Carson show. In one of the movie’s funniest clips, Ebert trashes the film Three Amigos while sitting next to Chevy Chase, one of the film’s stars. Chase’s takes are hilarious.

While Ebert’s wife Chaz is mentioned prominently in the book Life, Itself, she is even more front and center in the movie. She provides support and caregiving during his health crises and shares numerous meaningful observations.

Some viewers may find the nurses’ suctioning of Ebert’s throat and other hospital scenes hard to watch, but Ebert and Chaz were okay with cameras being there. Chaz mentions Ebert having been hurt by Siskel’s decision not to share word of his terminal illness with Roger. Ebert, in turn, vowed to be open about his cancer, even posing for the cover of Esquire magazine after cancer had affected his appearance.

For fans of movies, especially those who enjoy talking about movies and reading movie reviews, Life Itself is a film you need to see. And Roger Ebert, the critic and the man, is a person you’ll appreciate knowing more about.

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

 

The early Planet of the Apes movies had a cheesy look about them. Because the apes looked like guys with bad masks or prosthetics, it was hard to buy into the stories.

This is not the case in 2014. The apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes look like real apes. This makes the story easier to appreciate and enjoy. The entire team led by director Matt Reeves is to be congratulated for turning out a movie that has a great look.

In the future world depicted in DOTPOTA, following disease that has wiped out most of the human population, the apes have it together. Their ability to communicate is highly developed. Their community structure allows them to enjoy a relatively civil society. And they can still swing through trees!

Shortly after one ape wonders about the fate of humans, a small group of humans shows up in the apes’ domain, just north of a devastated San Francisco. The humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Ellie (Keri Russell), want to repair a hydroelectric dam to provide juice to SF. (The settings, including the sad future vision of the city by the bay, also look great.)

Initially, the two sides co-exist. But factions cause discord within each group and, ultimately, distrust between humans and apes diminishes.

Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) has a beef with ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) who tries to kill Caesar. And a leader of the surviving humans, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) has disagreements with other humans. These internal problems provoke some elements of the faceoff between the two main groups.

Whether you view the apes-versus-humans conflict as a metaphor for racial or religious differences in current society or as just a cool sci-fi future vision, you will be impressed. First, by the best depiction yet of the highly evolved apes of the future. And, second, by the overall look of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Why can’t we all just get along? Because our differences overwhelm what we have in common. As in real life, so things are and ever will be on the planet of the apes.

 

 

Half Of A 2014 Top Ten List

Halfway through 2014 I have seen exactly 5 films that I think would be worthy of a year-end top 10 list. I’m guessing at least a couple will actually survive the end-of-year onslaught of quality films to make it to the 2014 top 10. (Which ones? Hard to say right now.)

So here are my top 5 for the first half of the year:

The Lego Movie—Clever, funny and sweet. Just a pure delight!

The Grand Budapest Hotel—Wes Anderson delivered what the trailer promised. It’s like a 2014 Marx brothers film.

Chef—Jon Favreau wrote, starred and directed the ultimate foodie movie with a happy ending. Cool music, too.

Snowpiercer—Great story, well told. Fierce battles, amazing settings aboard a non-stop rail journey in the near future.

Boyhood—Opening in St. Louis on August 1. Director Richard Linklater shot scenes once a year for 12 years. Mason grows from a little kid to a man on screen as his family evolves, too. (The story is fiction. Better than a reality show.)

Looking forward to an exciting 2nd half of 2014!

 

Snowpiercer

 

Snowpiercer is a clever, original, violent, highly entertaining sci-fi allegory. Snowpiercer is implausible fantasy, but it commands attention in every frame.

The story is adapted from a graphic novel published in 1982 by two French guys. Director Bong Joon-ho just happened to find the source material in a bookstore in Seoul in 2005. Bong, a Korean making his English language debut, also co-wrote the script.

Here’s the setup: Just a few decades from now, in response environmental wackos screaming about global warming, the world’s nations release something called CW-7 into the atmosphere. It works too well and the result is a frozen planet.

The only survivors crowd onto a train, which moves continuously on a track that goes around the earth. Those who populate the train are a microcosm of the world’s citizens. The elite types up front, those lowest on the socioeconomic scale at back. (The train’s name comes from its ability to burst through avalanches that have covered the rails with snow.)

Curtis (Chris Evans) and sideman Edgar (Jamie Bell) lead a group of downtrodden “back of the train” people toward the front of the train and a confrontation with Wilford (Ed Harris), who has been unseen by the Curtis and company for the 17 years they’ve been on board.

Key players accompanying Curtis on his quest are Tanya (Octavia Spencer), Minsoo (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). Tilda Swinton plays semi-comic character Mason, a Wilford operative. The journey to the front is filled with gritty battles and amazing surprises.

Chris Evans, whose improvement as an actor is visible in the latest Captain America movie, does a nice job as Curtis. He balances the physicality of the role with appropriate humanity. Ed Harris is solid as the smart-ass know-it-all Wilford.

Snowpiercer rises above other apocalyptic sci-fi because of its story and the skillful telling of that story by Bong. Lucky for us that he chose to pick up that graphic novel that day.

 

 

 

Tammy

 

Melissa McCarthy is funny. She was hilarious in 2011’s Bridesmaids and in last year’s The Heat. And she brings some laughs in Tammy.

But this movie doesn’t fly. It falls short in the hilarity department. It lacks memorable scenes. And, sadly, McCarthy’s act becomes tiring.

Also, this is another comedy that reveals some of its best stuff in the trailer. (Nonetheless, the trailer is posted above.)

Essentially a road trip movie with Tammy and her grandma Pearl (Susan Sarandon), Tammy is blessed with a talented cast. Tammy’s mom Deb (Allison Janney), her dad Don (Dan Aykroyd), Pearl’s cousin Lenore (Kathy Bates), Lenore’s partner Susanne (Sandra Oh), Pearl’s hookup Earl (Gary Cole) comprise a strong crew. Toni Collette plays a mostly silent woman who shacks up with Tammy’s husband (Nat Faxon).

When Tammy catches her husband cheating (after her car hits a deer and she gets fired from her job), she escapes with Pearl on their adventure. After they end up in jail, Pearl uses her remaining cash to bail out Tammy. Tammy then robs a fast food joint to then bail out Pearl.

The robbery is slightly funny. It tries to be one of those “spontaneous” bits with some ad-libs—like the one McCarthy had in 2012’s This Is 40—but it doesn’t quite score a knockout.

McCarthy co-wrote the script with her husband Ben Falcone, who directed. Falcone (who played the air marshall in Bridesmaids) also plays the boss who fires her early in the movie.

Tammy is the kind of movie to watch on cable or Netflix sometime next year. You’ll be somewhat amused but not overwhelmed.

 

 

 

Begin Again

 

This light rom-com with (mostly) great music and (mostly) good-looking people has a couple of surprises. (These are not significant spoilers, so read on.) First, Keira Knightley is a decent singer. And, second, the relationship between her character and Mark Ruffalo’s does not go the way one might expect.

Greta James (Knightley) is the tag-along girlfriend of singer Dave Kohl (Adam Levine). She accompanies him to NYC to kick off a new record deal. Dan (Ruffalo) is a record company exec who has lost his mojo—he can longer launch a hit artist. He hears Greta sing and wants to record her music.

Dan is estranged from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener). When Dan meets Greta, she has just left Dave after watching his reaction to a newly recorded song he plays for her. (She intuits that he has cheated on her while recording in LA.) So the scene is set for them to hook up, no? No. Both are focused on the music. (Although some of their time together is a bit flirtatious.)

Dan comes up with the idea to record Greta’s songs all around New York. Get a couple of good mikes and a laptop and go. Outside. On sidewalks. In alleys. In subway stations. Sidemen include Greta’s friend Steve (James Corden) and Mark and Miriam’s daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld).

Dan is old school. An early scene in the film shows him listening to CD’s by new artists while driving through Manhattan. Most are generic rhythmic pop. Dan is so disgusted by what he hears, he tosses most of them out the car window.

Adam Levine of Maroon 5 (and “The Voice” TV show) is a passable actor and is the movie’s best singer. Another Voice star Cee Lo Green has a small part in the film.

Begin Again is an R-rated movie that could easily have been rated PG-13, except for some bad language. There’s no sex, nudity or drug use. Why would writer/director John Carney (creator of the beloved 2006 film Once) feel the need to keep his movie off-limits to romance-minded teens?

Knightley and Ruffalo are fun to watch together. Begin Again is not a typical musical, but music is central to the film. There’s much to enjoy here.

Earth To Echo

 

Earth To Echo is the most derivative film I’ve seen in years. It has elements from The Goonies, E.T., Short Circuit, Stand By Me, Poltergeist, Blair Witch Project, The Matrix and District 9, among others. Those elements are crafted together in a film that can only be considered original if you’re a 10-year-old kid who hasn’t seen those aforementioned films.

This PG-rated family feature is perfect for the preteen and early teen crowd. Three boys are due to move from their homes in a Nevada subdivision to make way for a highway. On their last night together, they each tell their parents that they’ll be playing video games at another kid’s house and spending the night. Instead, the trio rides their bikes into the desert to see what’s up with these weird disturbances on their cell phones.

The three boys are Munch (Reese Hartwig), the cautious kid; Tuck (Brian “Astro” Bradley, resembling a full size Gary Coleman), who archives everything on video; and Alex (Teo Halm), the good-looking foster child. Halfway through their adventure, they are joined by Emma (Ella Wahlestedt) to get some girl power in the film.

Along the way they encounter the alien they name Echo who, like E.T., wants to go home. They take Echo under their wing and dash through an overnight adventure that eventually solves the mystery.

While E2E draws from other films, it has a contemporary look with much hand-held POV footage and the constant presence of smartphones. Directing a feature for the first time, Dave Green maintains a good tempo. The script by Henry Gayden manages to squeeze a good deal of plot—and character—into a 90-minute film.

Earth To Echo is a decent amusement for young kids. And for parents, it might be fun to see if you can come up with more movies—other than those listed up top—that the filmmakers have “borrowed” from to make E2E.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Obvious Child

 

Obvious Child begins with 20-something comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) talking on stage about stains on her underwear. Her standup routine includes highly personal observations, a la Louis CK, but Donna is not nearly as funny.

Offstage, she generates laughs. When her boyfriend dumps her, she goes to her apartment and humorously consumes a whole bottle of wine. Later, she stands across from the boyfriend’s place for some “light stalking” to see him walk out with his new love.

Along with the breakup, she learns that her day job at an independent bookstore will soon end. Life sucks. She drowns her sorrows by drinking to excess and hooking up for a one-night stand with a stranger, Max (Jake Lacy). When she wakes up she spots her undies with the aforementioned stains.

When Donna realizes she’s pregnant, Obvious Child gets into gear. She decides to get an abortion, scheduled for Valentine’s Day. But will she go through with the plan? What will her mother (Peggy Draper) say? Should she tell Max about the pregnancy and abortion plan and should he have a say in the matter?

It’s wise that Obvious Child does not get into the political and moral issues raised by abortion. It is a polarizing topic but abortion has been legal in the U.S. for several decades. Her decision forces Donna to grow up a bit and take responsibility, rather than continue to drift through her twenties.

Obvious Child might’ve worked better if Donna Stern were a funnier standup comedian. Some of her routines are personally cathartic. They advance the story, but lack consistently funny punch lines.

It may be a risky move to cast SNL alum Jenny Slate in the lead role, but she has real talent and shows potential for a good film future. Slate is funny, cute and likeable.

This small film (85 minutes) is not for everyone. Its dialogue and central story may be off-putting to many. But director and co-writer Gillian Robespierre is to be saluted for making a movie that’s not your cookie-cutter rom-com—not hardly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jersey Boys

 

Jersey Boys will delight most baby boomers. The music is terrific! John Lloyd Young does not look or sound exactly like Frankie Valli, but he can hit the high falsetto notes and deliver the goods.

Jersey Boys is not a definitive biopic. It’s the movie version of a stage musical. The script is by the same guys who wrote the book for the stage version.

Jersey Boys begins slowly with brief samples of Frankie’s singing and brushes with the law. It takes a a while before the Four Seasons sing their first hit “Sherry.” From that point on, Four Seasons hit songs come along at frequent intervals and all the performances are strong.

The other Four Seasons are Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). The addition of Gaudio, the songwriter, is a key episode of the group’s formative years.

Tommy considers himself the group leader. Unfortunately, he mismanages the group’s finances and gets them into trouble with the mob. Shady father figure “Gyp” DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) provides guidance to the group through the crisis.

Another crisis involves Frankie’s estranged daughter Francine (Freya Tingley) who dies of a drug overdose, which supposedly leads him to record “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” as a solo project. (In real life, the song was a hit in the summer of 1967 and Francine didn’t die until 1980. Extreme dramatic license, I’d say.) Young’s performance of the song, starting in a studio and switching to supper club is a highlight.

In Jersey Boys, each group member breaks the 4th wall and speaks directly to the audience at various points in the movie. This device may have worked better on stage. In director Clint Eastwood’s movie version, while it may move the narrative along, it diminishes the reality of what’s onscreen.

Speaking of Eastwood, the movie contains one of my favorite director cameos of all time. (That’s all I’ll say. A tease, yes, but no spoiler.)

The closing number of Jersey Boys, a street dance performance of “Oh, What A Night” is the perfect finish for a movie that is to be enjoyed for its music. And, as mentioned, the music is terrific!