“The House”



I call Las Vegas my home so I tend to enjoy movies about gambling and casinos, and “The House” has plenty of good quality laughs. It’s not a shining example of a great comedy by any means, but it’s funny and creative enough to mildly recommend if you’re looking to switch your brain off for 90 minutes. I am actually surprised at how amusing this movie is.

Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler are Scott and Kate Johansen, a married couple whose only daughter Alex (Ryan Simpkins) is ready to leave for college. It turns out that after some financial confusion, they have no money to send her to school. Desperate to make $50,000 as quickly as possible, their gambling addict neighbor Frank (Jason Mantzoukas) suggests they start and run an illegal underground casino because, after all, “the house always wins.” The story may not sound that hilarious on the surface; it’s when the trio starts to become consumed with their new roles as wannabe casino mobsters that the entire premise takes off.

There isn’t a river of free flowing, laugh-a-minute jokes here, but there are enough quality laughs from the gags that do land — and when they land, they land in a big way. You may not be laughing throughout, but you’ll be laughing heartily when you do. Poehler and Ferrell actually pair comedically well together, playing off each other with a casual, comfortable swagger, but it’s Mantzoukas who quickly becomes the real scene stealer. His down and out character is funny without ever passing into lazy slapstick territory, and he is remarkably capable of handling some of the film’s darker, more serious jokes.

Nick Kroll and Rob Huebel lend their usual brand of deadpan humor as the crooked town mayor and the affable police chief, and there’s an unexpected brief cameo from Jeremy Renner as a real baddie (I wish he’d had more time onscreen). If you tend to find any of these actors hilarious, then you’ll “get” the brand of comedy in this movie.

Overall the film is not as generic as you’d expect and is actually a pretty funny concept that’s well executed. The story didn’t go in the direction I expected, and there are a few genuine surprises. Will this be a comedy classic for the ages? Nah. But it’s enjoyable even if it is ultimately forgettable.

“Cars 3”



Not much happens in “Cars 3,” a sometimes by-the-book animated sequel, but at least it manages to redeem the awful “Cars 2” that came before. It’s a far cry from that disastrous installment and while it’s not quite as cute as the original “Cars,” there’s a lot to be admired here. First and foremost, it’s not another 90 minutes of complete and utter junk that Pixar has been so adept at churning out lately (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Inside Out,” “Finding Dory“).

Everyone’s favorite little red roadster Lighting McQueen (Owen Wilson), once the fastest race car who reveled in winning Grand Prix trophies left and right, has found himself slowing down. Nearing retirement, he tries his best to train himself into continued relevancy by prepping to go up against the new, younger super fast superstars like Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). When Lighting teams up with peppy trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), it doesn’t take him too long to figure out that he just simply can’t keep up and he, pardon the pun, just has no gas left in him. Lightning begins to see a spark in the bright young ingénue and eventually hands over his legacy to the next generation.

It’s important to note that this third installment presents a bittersweet, decidedly adult story that’s serious in its earnest tone, an introspective about the loss of youth and knowing when it’s time to throw in the towel and make way for the youngsters to pass you by. While kids can be expected to be reasonably entertained, the depth and sober context of the story will sail right over their heads. It’s a great story idea but it’s not going to appeal to the younger set, which in itself has a nice ring of irony.

This sunset story unfortunately manages to feel a little hollow at best and at worst, a huge Disney cash grab play to appeal to little girls. Wow, you mean to tell me that GIRLS can be race cars too? Who’d have thunk it? Cruz sometimes gives the impression of a character that’s strained and phony, a young car who blew her shot at becoming a real racer and has since given up on her dream. Of course, Disney / Pixar can’t have that, so you can guess what happens next in the story.

Despite the flaws with the plot, the film features some inspired voice talent from Chris Cooper (Smokey), Lea DeLaria (Miss Fritter), and Nathan Fillion (Sterling), and is beautifully directed by Brian Fee, who makes every racing scene thrilling and gives every quiet reflection meaning. The animation is top-notch and among some of the studio’s best, especially a rousing and zippy bit at a demotion derby.

Animation fans should check this one out, but understand that there’s not much here for the kiddos. If you’re looking for the usual fluffy crowd pleaser from Pixar, this isn’t it.

“Baby Driver”



“Baby Driver” is a movie that centers around two of my favorite things: fast cars and cool tunes. Think of it as a car chase musical for movie geeks. It helps, of course, that the writer and director of this film is Edgar Wright, a true nerd himself. Wright knows what he likes and thus knows what we’ll like, and the end result is one kick-ass of an adrenaline rush.

If you have a pulse on the cinema world, then you’ve heard the outstanding buzz and praise for this film. I’m happy to say it’s absolutely, unequivocally deserved. This is a bold, audacious, intoxicating work of pop culture art, which makes it one of my favorite movies this year.

Ansel Elgort is Baby, a young man of few words who has been coerced into working as a getaway driver for sophisticated crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey). After a promise of finally being squared up from a previous job gone wrong, Baby agrees to “one last job” so he’ll be free to live a normal life. Anyone who has seen movies about the criminal underworld knows what inevitably comes next — Baby tries to leave and he can’t, being strong-armed into driving for yet another heist. When he meets charming diner waitress Debora (Lily James), it’s love at first sight, and Baby longs to flee with her “in a car we can’t afford with a plan we don’t have” to search for a better life.

It’s a modern day “Bonnie and Clyde” meets a millennial “True Romance,” an unlikely love story that coexists within a glossy and creative crime thriller. There’s an overall hipster attitude that permeates the story, yet it’s not off-putting at all and manages to feel inclusive. The cast is unbelievably fantastic, with each actor perfect for their role. You can tell how much everyone enjoyed working together on this film because they all have an electrifying chemistry that surges onscreen.

Elgort more than lives up to the role and is the real heart of the film, giving a rousing performance that relies heavily on facial expressions and very few lines of dialogue. This is going to be one of his classic star making roles. Elgort and James are so captivating with their effortless rapport that the second Baby lays eyes on Debora, you instantly want them to end up together. There are some impressive performances from the supporting cast of baddies too, including Spacey as the no-nonsense ringleader, Jon Hamm playing deliciously against type as a leather-clad outlaw, and Jamie Foxx stepping in as a very angry (and trigger happy) criminal. There’s nary a misstep anywhere with this cast.

While this is a male dominated movie, the testosterone fest doesn’t overshadow its strong female characters. James holds her own as a devoted new girlfriend, willing to risk it all (with zero reluctance) for her true love, and Eiza González (Darling) is stunning and disturbing in her take-no-prisoners approach to holding up her end of the bargain in the grand larceny schemes. These are tough, fearless women who are a force to be reckoned with, not simply eye and arm candy for the men.

The soundtrack is as eclectic as the film, blasting tunes that extend across all genres and years that somehow manages to create the perfect earworm accompaniment. The mash-up of great music and great driving creates the perfect melody of classic r&b, indie rock, easy listening…and squealing tires. There’s plenty of both dancing and driving choreography, with some of the most incredible stunt driving ever captured on film — which translates into several of the best car chase sequences of the decade. The exhilarating opening getaway sequence in a drifting red Subaru WRX rivals any of the “Fast and the Furious” movies. If you appreciate fast cars and skilled behind the wheel stunts, you won’t be disappointed.

When this high-speed caper movie reaches its deserved cult status (as it almost instantly does), there are plenty of what will later prove to be iconic moments in this film, from the introduction of Debora and Baby as she walks past him wearing headphones and singing an off-key “b-a-b-y,” to a post-crime coffee run dance through downtown Atlanta.

The film’s perfection lies in its imperfections, and what’s so great about all of this is that nobody is trying too hard to construct a forced relevancy. It just is.

“Rough Night”



If you thought “Bad Moms” was the highlight of your cinematic year, just you wait for “Rough Night,” the latest pathetic studio attempt to create a project that appeals to hip, modern women. I know the trailers have you convinced that you want to see it — they even worked on me — but ladies, you deserve better and you should demand better than this complete garbage.

In what has to be the most wasted cast of the year, the too talented Scarlett Johansson, Kate McKinnonJillian Bell, and Zoë Kravitz are crammed into this dreadfully unfunny and borderline offensive movie. It could’ve been a celebration of contemporary feminism but instead becomes a lazy and indifferent laundry list of missed opportunities. I can see the storyline being pitched as a “Weekend at Bernie’s” meets “The Hangover” rip-off for women, except this time a male stripper ends up dead and the gal pals must scheme to hide the body in plain view. The problem is that most female-heavy audiences have zero qualms about calling out bullshit when they see it, and this film is filled with so many incredibly nonsensical and outrageously ridiculous scenarios on the most basic level — the most obvious being that there’s no way these women would’ve ever been best friends in college and especially now — that it derails within its first 15 minutes and fails to regain its footing.

The film isn’t rowdy nor saucy enough to leave a mark, leaving its stamp as an excursion that’s wholly forgettable. Ditto for the performances. Even the usually fantastic Johannson and McKinnon, both seasoned comedic actors, can’t save this mess from sinking. This is some of the dumbest crap I have ever seen.

The plot is thin, the characters shallow and stereotypical, and the laughs nonexistent. See this one if you insist, but trust me when I tell you that your money would be better spent by flushing it down a public toilet.

“Transformers: The Last Knight”



“Transformers: The Last Knight” reminded me of something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on and it wasn’t until I left the theater that the perfect analogy popped into my head. This fifth installment in the Hasbro toy brand franchise is sort of like when you have a really bad case of food poisoning. You start vomiting uncontrollably and think you’re finally done when — surprise — you find yourself running to puke yet again. It’s a never ending stream of upchuck until you’ve expelled the last bits of unpleasantness from your system and it’s finally over, leaving you feeling as good as new.

That pretty much sums up this stupid, flashy, regurgitated summer blockbuster.

If you are already a big fan of this loud, dumb film franchise then you’re going to see this one too and you’re probably going to love it. It’s not quite as bad as some of the other “Transformers” sequels, so that’s at least one positive thing I have to say.

I’m not one of those “high art” snobby film critics either. I actually like Michael Bay and think he’s talented when it comes to great looking visuals (see “Bad Boys II” if you ever doubt the man is a good director), and the earlier parts of this film are quite enjoyable. It’s when the thing deteriorates into a lazy mess of a robot cartoon that it becomes a rambling, puzzling lesson in total and complete incoherence.

It’s sad because the spectacular opening sequence, featuring a battle complete with King Arthur, the wizard Merlin (Stanley Tucci), and a giant dragon, is a considerable hook that’s extremely well done. It actually made me raise the bar a little bit solely based on its enjoyable extravagance. The film doesn’t really veer off into la la land until about halfway through its grueling two and a half hour run time, when it starts to fester and drags on and on and on. If you’re among the strongest willed moviegoers who are voluntarily able to stick with it until the very end, you’ll need to get some fresh air after sitting for what feels like much, much longer.

The movie works when it ties in a good, old fashioned adventure quest plot (a’la “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “National Treasure”) involving a loony member of a secret society (Anthony Hopkins) and an heir of Merlin (Laura Haddock) instead of the modern day jumble of angry army men (led by Josh Duhamel), our strapping hero mechanic Cade (Mark Wahlberg), and tough alien-fighting teen orphan Izabella (Isabela Moner). I wish Bay had stuck to this adventure theme direction for the story because it is fun and somehow oddly worked within the alien transforming vehicle world and most of all, it actually made sense. Human interaction is far better than phony looking animated robot fights, fiery explosions, nonstop yelling, and shooting.

Dialogue isn’t one of the film’s strengths either, with seven (yes, SEVEN!!) credited “screenwriters” choosing to dumb down the most simplistic of phrases into awkwardly contrived platitudes or laughably wooden statements of the obvious. How these projects manage to attract talent with true acting cred like Wahlberg, Hopkins, and John Turturro is beyond me. Oh, wait a second: it’s all about the Benjamins.

The special effects are first class (too bad the editing and direction of the CGI bits are so chaotic that they blur together and become much more tedious than exhilarating) and deserve a better showcase than this mayhem allows. And I have great news for those of you who love explosions: as is Bay’s trademark, this movie is loaded with so many detonations that if I had to venture a guess, I’d say there are at least two big fireballs for every minute of film.

I’ll leave you with some words of cinematic wisdom: see “Transformers: The Last Knight” if you must, but remember that your ticket purchase will encourage Hollywood to churn out more rubbish exactly like it.

“The 101 Year Old Man Who Skipped Out on the Bill and Disappeared “




In this sequel to “The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared,” (which was ranked #7 on my Top 10 Best Films of 2015 list), a year has passed and our story picks up where the first film left off. It’s Allan’s (Robert Gustafsson) 101st birthday, and a random taste of the very last existing bottle of a delicious 1970s Russian soft drink called Folksoda sets off another goofy road trip filled with chance encounters and amusing exploits.

As with the first film there are several running gags (one involving a monkey and another the desire to go swimming), but nothing reaches the great comedic heights of the original. While part one was based on the novel by Jonas Jonasson, part two has no book on which its based — and the too simple, aimless story suffers. The formula remains the same, featuring more “Forrest Gump” style flashbacks from Allan’s adventurous life as a double agent spy.

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the first film, it may be helpful to brush up on the events that unfolded. Many characters are back, including Geddan (Jens Hultén), Popov (Georg Nikoloff), and Benny (David Wiberg), and most of their jokes reference the earlier movie.

Fans of the original will probably enjoy this installment enough for a mild recommendation, yet disappointment is most likely imminent. This half-baked sequel never even comes close to touching the brilliance of its predecessor, but it’s good for a few hearty laughs.


“The Mummy”



Universal’s attempt to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (they even are calling their new brand The Dark Universe) has produced “The Mummy,” the first in the series of classic monster movie reboots by the studio. If this film is any indication, they may have a difficult road ahead of them. This movie isn’t nearly as awful as you’ve heard, and it’s actually a rousing ride of pure escapism that is entertaining enough to please old fans as well as new recruits.

Too-old-for-the-part Tom Cruise plays hero Nick, a soldier with a sweet tooth for antiquities, who uncovers a hidden tomb and unleashes the fury of the mummy Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). The plot isn’t much more sophisticated than that, but it really doesn’t need to be because the admirable special effects and stunts carry the project from start to finish.

The stupid story and ridiculously silly ending don’t lend any favors, but despite the film’s uneven stumbles, it never struggles in its quest to keep audiences entertained. It’s thrilling and spooky enough when it needs to be, and it isn’t even close to being a bad movie.

Everyone gives better than they should performances, including a great turn from Boutella as the evil yet sympathetic Ahmanet and Russell Crowe as the dual personas of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I loved the female mummy angle quite a bit; her compelling back story provides plenty of motivation to explain her pure evilness. Cruise is good here too, proving himself to still be a bankable, charismatic movie star. There’s zero chemistry between Cruise and his co-star Annabelle Wallis, however. She, too, is horribly miscast as an archaeologist, and there’s simply not one ounce of believability that Nick would put his life on the line to save her. Their “relationship” consists of a one night stand, making their emotional connection register at nil. (There are several awkward jokes about their evening spent together, with some suggestive content that might make very conservative folks blush. In fact, prudish parents should be aware that this film pushes its PG-13 rating and is filled with many genuinely scary moments, mild horror gore, and brief nudity).

The movie blurs the lines to create an oddly satisfying horror-adventure genre (at times it feels more like a modern zombie movie or an episode of “The Walking Dead” rather than a classic monster reboot), which means there are far too many hackish scenes of cartoon zombies grabbing for the humans.

There’s no denying that the film is deeply flawed on so many levels, but it gets enough things right (including its big, dumb, over-the-top fun) to make for an entertaining evening at the movies.

“This Is Not What I Expected”



The conventional rom-com plot of a handsome billionaire falling in love with a goofy nerd girl is at the heart of “This Is Not What I Expected,” an absolutely charming and delightful import from China. The charismatic film is in Mandarin but has such a slam-dunk formula that if Hollywood would take notice and remake it with popular American movie stars, I think it would be a huge hit.

Lu Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is a handsomely polished real estate mogul who is in the habit of buying up hotel properties to add to his portfolio. When he visits the small and ineptly run property the Rosebud, the kitchen’s kooky sous chef Gu Shengnan (Dongyu Zhou) serves him the most perfect meal of his life. The two couldn’t be on more opposite ends of the spectrum: he is uptight and orderly, she is a wildly free spirit — but they are brought together by a love for food.

It’s a clichéd romantic story for sure, but it is one that is incredibly well done (ha!) here. There are plenty of laughs (seriously, I was laughing heartily through most of this movie), and there are many slapstick gags and awkward moments when the two keep running into each other. It’s too bad that love story is not credible in the slightest, as the two are just not believable as a couple. The obligatory fantasy romance aspects feel very forced, although the actors are quite appealing and give it their all.

Thankfully the wacky performances fit the material, meaning the leads play their characters with highly exaggerated, flamboyant quirks. Sometimes the quirkiness is so over the top that it becomes irritating and annoying, but these are still likeable people –they just don’t belong together. Forget romance: luckily the film relies on the international language of food.

And that’s the glue that holds this delightful charmer together: food  Don’t go to the theater hungry because you’ll be salivating at the delectable plates of foodstuffs and dazzling artistry of the cooking photography. The food becomes its own character in the film, from a sizzling skillet to a gorgeous montage of creative, beautiful egg dishes. There are many pageants of pretty people noshing, including a scene that lays out the most precise ramen cooking directions ever.

Director Derek Hui throws in many fun bits that make the mundane come alive, like a mini musical number complete with waiters dancing and twirling their silver trays to a whimsical hallucinatory aftermath induced by a dinner of toxic blowfish (which includes their meal leaping off the plate while shouting “stupid humans!” and an indoor rainstorm that’s controlled by vocal commands).

Since this film is a product of the Chinese studio system, prepare yourself for some truly strange elements that detract from the overall story. There are lots of really, really bizarre American knockoff pop songs set to repetitive musical montages that dominate the film’s second half, and the choice to use oddball sound effects (including record scratches, spring “boings” and kazoo buzzes) feels out of place and unnecessary. This film is funny on its own without resorting to needless cartoonish ingredients.

“This Is Not What I Expected” is a real charmer and an amusing little film. It’s the perfect foodie meet-cute.


“Buster’s Mal Heart”



There’s a certain wickedness to “Buster’s Mal Heart,” a bizarre, unconventional, and unique visual experiment in existentialism that manages to never come across as pretentious nor self-indulgent. Sarah Adina Smith pens and directs this bold, mind bending thriller about a sorrowful man (Rami Malek) who is suffocating at the hands of his own existence.

This is not a movie for everyone as it’s extremely strange and bizarre, eventually evolving into something even more horrific, puzzling, and disturbing than its already overwhelmingly dark and depressing atmospheric tone of genuine despair and loneliness would first suggest.

Malek gives an Oscar-caliber performance as Buster / Jonah, a man who was once a hardworking dad and husband but is now internally wrestling with his deep psyche as he feels as if he’s been split in two. We see glimpses of the different identities from his own point of view, from a Spanish-speaking fisherman lost at sea to an unsuccessful family man trapped in a dead-end job working the late shift at a third-rate airport motel to a feral mountain man who breaks into lavish vacation homes for fun. Malek is fantastic at shifting from persona to persona as he struggles with the good and evil in himself and wrestles internally to reconcile his lost soul.

A glimmer of hope shows up in the form of a conspiracy theorist drifter called The Last Free Man (in a deliciously creepy turn from DJ Qualls), a mentally imbalanced wanderer who delights in playing tricks with Jonah’s mind. As the man spirals even more rapidly out of control, lines between what’s real and what’s imagined begin to blur beyond recognition. At times the story can be complex, convoluted, and even upsetting, but it never becomes lazy with its storytelling.

There is much religious imagery peppered throughout the story, including an abundance of water and baptism metaphors, and a dreamlike sincerity in the gutsy exploration of bold ideas and provocative themes. The film works because its story is edgy and haunting, the fractured art house visuals are nightmarishly abstract, and the entire low budget project is so well made that you’ll find yourself completely consumed by the mystery.

This is one unsettling movie that I guarantee will inspire many deep, philosophical conversations after viewing.

“Captain Underpants”



If “Captain Underpants” succeeds at one thing, it’s making me realize that I have the sense of humor of an eight year old. The movie, based on the incredibly popular series of children’s books by Dav Pilkey, relies predominantly on potty humor jokes as its core backbone of comedy — and it kept me laughing the entire way through. There aren’t any philosophical nor meaningful lessons to be learned here: it’s just mindless, poop-joke filled fun that celebrates the devotion and importance of a loyal friendship.

The movie tells the story of best friends George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) and their penchant for cooking up epic pranks that target their mean school principal Krupp (Ed Helms). One day George hypnotizes Krupp with a toy ring and with a snap of their fingers, he becomes the dimwitted (and overly enthusiastic) superhero Captain Underpants.

There’s something innately hilarious about the entire scenario, and the appealing, tidy animation lends the perfect punch to the plot. Watching the doofus Krupp strip down to his tighty whities and jump through windows while trying to save the day is even more enjoyable with the robust primary colors and curvy character styles that comprise the drawings. The animation is cheery, spirited and bright, and I really love how the entire film looks.

Hart, Middleditch, and Helms all give strong, cheery, and amusing vocal performances that perfectly fit their characters. Ditto for Nick Kroll hamming it up as Professor Pippy Pee-Pee Poopypants, the evil scientist with the most unfortunate of names. (Only the most stoic members of society who lack an ounce of a sense of humor won’t be able to resist chuckling at that)!

The story’s bread and butter is its mild rude humor, but at least it shows a deep appreciation (and a genuine celebration) of the fantastic comedy potential that lives in the most simple of fart jokes. The movie works because it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.

Yes, it’s goofy and juvenile, but “Captain Underpants” provides the perfect summer escape for the kiddos that will also entertain fun-loving adults. Now where did I put that whoopee cushion?