Friday, July 22, 2016

Ghostbusters, The Secret Life of Pets, The Infiltrator, Hunt for the Wilderpeople Reviews

Dir. Paul Feig
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Ghosts weren't the only ones booing recently. When the trailer for Paul Feig's Ghostbusters reboot hit the web, it was met with nearly universal hate, earning the most dislikes for a movie trailer in Youtube's history. While some of those "haters" were purely fist-clenched misogynists doubled over by the fact that the four new ghostbusters were ladies, I think most people were disappointed by the cringe-worthy humor, the overall "cheap" look, and the fact that this was the best they could come up with in the wake of Harold Ramis's death. But you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, and you shouldn't judge a film by its previews - somehow, despite what its poorly-edited trailer would indicate, Paul Feig's Ghostbusters is a fun, colorful chuckle-fest with four distinctive and charming leads that, in my opinion, deserve their own franchise as much as Venkman, Stantz, Spengler, and Winston.

Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) used to be besties before Abby published their co-authored book on the paranormal without Erin's approval.  She wants tenure and if Erin's pseudo-science background gets out, she'll need to skedaddle out of her comfy Columbia office. She's eventually booted out after an unfortunate Youtube video goes viral, and henceforth, Erin joins her former colleague along with her new mad-scientist friend, Jillian Holzmann (Kate McKinnon) to hunt ghosts. Eventually, MTA worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) and the gender-reversed "dumb blonde" receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) also joins their team, HQed on the second floor of a Chinese take-out place, and they all bust ghosts around Manhattan while improvising jokes and flailing around CGI ghouls.

What made me nervous going into this was that the trailers were aggressively unfunny, but luckily in context the film works much better, and the interactions between the characters were often hilarious. All four of the gals bring something "old but new" to the franchise, reflecting the previous films but also bringing their own comic energies to their roles. Even Chris Hemsworth, who also showed some comedic chops in Vacation and even in certain moments of the Thor films, has some hilarious moments (my favorite of which involves a floating hot dog). The only character that didn't work for me was the villain, Rowan (Neil Casey), a disgruntled nerd who wants to take his frustrations out on the world by releasing a ghost-portal in NYC. Rowan no real presence in the film, implements a plan that makes no sense (what exactly is his end goal here?), and essentially feels like the manifestation of the "Internet trolls" attacking this movie and its marketing.

While the story is admittedly weak, and by the final "ghost siege" on New York everything pretty much completely falls apart, what makes 80% of the film work is its cast and the witty (and juvenile) banter between them. The jokes vacillate between eye-rolling and chuckle-worthy; ultimately forgettable, but in context it's definitely not the disaster that the trailers would have you think it is. The only real disaster is the third act of the film which features some not-so-great action (something still a bit out of Feig's comfort zone, even after The Heat and Spy) and bombards you with one terrible idea after the other; one of the dumbest movie moments of 2016 is when the four Ghostbuster gals blast their proton beams into the crotch of a Kaiju-sized physical manifestation of the Ghostbusters logo. Yes, that actually happens.

It also feels like this reboot is, in addition to the ghosts, haunted by the spirit of the original film. Although it didn't bother me nearly as much as other "nostalgia porn" movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Jurassic World, there is an unnecessary piling of callbacks and references to the first film (the most egregious of which is the post-credits scene). Save for Rick Moranis, every other living cast member from the 1984 original comes back for a cameo; sometimes these "callbacks" are subtle and work like fun little easter eggs (you can see a bust of Harold Ramis in the background, for instance), but in others it seems to slow the narrative down, such as the small role from Bill Murray as a debunker. The filmmakers seem to try way too hard to please the un-pleasable fans of the original film, when what works best about this reboot is when Paul Feig and writer Kate Dippold do their own thing and stray away from the source material.

Overall, despite its flaws, Ghostbusters is a pleasant summer film that left me happy leaving the theater. I'm glad the film turned out well, and it's really nice that young girls will have these four funny ladies to look up to and have to dress up like for Halloween. Ghostbusting can be done by either gender, and with other fantasy properties like Star Wars and The Hunger Games embracing female leads, hopefully the next generation of kids will see less of an "Internet backlash" whenever an all-female cast is released for the latest blockbuster.

Rating: B-

The Secret Life of Pets
Dir. Chris Renaud & Yarrow Cheney
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Every pet owner at some point has wished for psychic powers to understand what's going on inside the mind of their furry friend. That's probably why the ad campaign for Illumination Animation's The Secret Life of Pets worked so well - a la Toy Story, it reveals what happens when the owners leave the house and the pets have little lives of their own. The main difference is, Toy Story was made by a team of modern-day geniuses that were literally inventing the future of animation, storytelling, and computing technology, while The Secret Life of Pets is from the team behind the god damn Minions movies (every time I see - or hear - one of those yellow hellspawn my brain is ready to explode like that guy in Scanners). Pets has a handful of decent throwaway gags, some fun characters, and a little bit of heart thrown in, but overall it's just nowhere near as clever, emotional, or flat out appealing to look at as Disney and Pixar's 2016 "animal" films, Zootopia and Finding Dory.

Max (Louis CK) is a terrier enjoying the "high life" in a fancy New York City apartment with his loving owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper) - at least until she adopts Duke, a giant and uncouth Newfoundland (Eric Stonestreet). When Katie leaves for the day and the two end up going on a walk outside, Max and Duke are affronted by some alley cats and wind up in a pound-bound animal catching truck. Saving the two from captivity is a rebellious bunny, Snowball (Kevin Hart), who's the leader of an underground gang of abandoned animals on a mission to kill humans. While the story essentially follows the cliches of most "lost pet" movies, like 101 Dalmatians or Oliver and Company, Pets could have at least made use of its fantastic comedic voice talent - none of them are given much of a chance to do anything interesting, beyond yelling obnoxiously for 1.5 hours.

The "top ten" soundtrack, filled with Taylor Swift and Pharrell Williams' "Happy" made me feel like this was less a cohesive film than an advertisement paid for by NBC Universal. The animation style at times was charming, and other times completely off-putting. The animals for the most part look great, and there are some nicely handled sequences (such as a detour Max and Duke take through a sausage factory), but the human characters, with their strangely-shaped limbs, and the eye-squintingly bright and glowing cityscape environment made it feel bland and too "cartoon-y" for me. I mentioned in my review for Finding Dory that its accompanying short, Piper, made Dory look cartoonish. Well, Secret Life of Pets makes Dory look like a Nat Geo documentary in comparison.

Overall, I was just bored by this film. It's loud, obnoxious, and doesn't take advantage of its universally appealing concept. And perhaps worst of all, the animals aren't even CUTE ENOUGH. Nothing comes close to "Baby Dory" in this film, and it was clearly headed by dog people, as the cats in this movie look either disturbing or like oddly shaped couch cushions. Maybe the fact that this is just another throwaway animated movie hits harder because Disney spoils us so often, but Pets is disappointingly a "for kids only" movie.

Rating: C+

The Infiltrator
Dir. Brad Furman
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I'm not sure why, but Bryan Cranston's post-Breaking Bad filmography has felt really bland to me. He mostly seems to be sticking to "true story" adult dramas, like Trumbo and HBO's All the Way, but sadly hasn't been involved in anything as remotely interesting or artistically daring as Vince Gilligan's masterpiece of television. The Infiltrator is yet another adult drama, only instead of being a wannabe drug kingpin a la Breaking Bad, we get to see Walter White on the other side of the law, taking down the high and mighty in a Mexican cocaine drug ring as an informant for the CIA, on the hunt for Pablo Escobar in the mid-80s. While Brad Furman's film is competently made, and there are a few "showy" scenes that reminded me why Cranston is one of the best actors around, The Infiltrator is just a boring, unoriginal slog that never offers anything new to the true crime genre.

Agent Robert Mazur (Cranston) goes under cover pretending to be a slick, money-laundering business man to get into Escobar's inner circle. Working alongside him is fellow agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) and Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), pretending to be his wife, which unsurprisingly doesn't help Mazur's already rocky marriage. There's really not much to the story, and scenes definitely tend to drag with little to hold on to. We don't really get a sense of Robert as a person, so his "transformation" into his alter ego isn't very interesting, and because the characters aren't compelling, there was little tension throughout - I truly didn't care whether or not the guy got caught.

The film toys with the same tired ideas of cop and criminal being two sides of the same coin, the toll police work takes on family life, and how far is "too" far in getting the bad guy - all attributes you can find handled 1000 times better in Breaking Bad or any number of other crime dramas. Sure, the movie looks great (almost seems like Michael Mann's Miami Vice at times), sounds great with a Scorsese-esque classic rock soundtrack, and you get to see Bryan Cranston violently shove a waiter's face into a chocolate cake, but The Infiltrator is incredibly bland and forgettable.

Rating: C

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Dir. Taika Waititi
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Like Pixar's Up, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about the misadventures of an overweight, orphaned boy, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) and a grumpy, grief-stricken old man Uncle Hec (Sam Neil). I don't know what it is about that combination of elements, but both films managed to get at some deep human qualities that few others are able to tap into. The story basically takes place in the wild New Zealand "bush," with Ricky and his foster father stranded and becoming the subject for a manhunt by child services (who eventually take things all the way to the army). There are plenty of laughs throughout the film (I found this much more charming than Waititi's previous vampire parody What We Do in the Shadows), a fun mis-matched buddy comedy/survivalist element, and just a dash of magical realism thrown in.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople looks stunning (New Zealand hasn't looked this good since the original Lord of the Rings trilogy), has one of the most unique and eccentric soundtracks I've ever heard (the "Ricky Baker" song has been stuck in my head since watching this thing), and Taika Waititi brings a very distinct, quirky voice to the film without drowning you in that knowing "winking" manner that so many hipster/indie/thin-pants-wearing douchebags love to brag about liking (ahem...Wes Anderson...). The banter between the kid and Sam Neil is hilarious and heartfelt (where the heck has Sam Neil been hiding?!), and I found almost every aspect of this movie brimming with an infectious sense of dry humor. Waititi was just announced as the director for Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok, which is being sold as a "buddy comedy" between Thor and Hulk, and if this flick is any indication, it's in good hands.

Rating: A-

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