Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

Certain things go together. Peanut butter and chocolate. Jack and ginger (yes, ginger, not Coke. Try it). “Bridge of Spies,” on the other hand, is proof positive that Steven Spielberg (the film’s director), and Joel and Ethan Coen (the film’s co-screenwriters), absolutely do not go together. In fact, this would have been a much better movie had the Coens directed it themselves. There are these subtle, effective and surprisingly funny moments that are clearly the Coens’ work, and then Spielberg steps in and drowns everything else in syrup. That it remains a watchable movie is in spite of Spielberg’s efforts, not because of them.

It is the late ‘50s, and Cold War paranoia is at an all-time high. The F.B.I. captures Brooklyn resident, and Russian spy, Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), and the government assigns a local law firm to represent Abel. The case is assigned to James Donovan (Tom Hanks), even though he is primarily an insurance lawyer. James quickly realizes that no one is interested in giving Rudolph a fair trial, which only leads James to fight even harder to get him one, regardless of the hardships that may mean for him and his family. He loses, but successfully lobbies to pardon Rudolph from getting the death penalty, arguing that the U.S. would be wise to keep him around as a bargaining chip.

Sure enough, James proves to be right, as American pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured after his U-2 spy plane is bombed out of the sky by the Russians, and he is sentenced to hard labor in a Russian prison. The U.S. government asks James if he can negotiate an unofficial trade with the Russians to swap Rudolph for Powers. James is game, but he wants to sweeten the deal by also getting the Russians to convince the German Democratic Republic – who are building the wall between East Berlin and West Berlin as these events are taking place – to also release Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an economics student that the GDR has falsely accused of espionage in the hopes that they will get invited to the political big boy table.

The first 15 minutes of this movie are near-perfect. We are introduced to Hanks as he is discussing an insurance case with the prosecuting attorney, and he is dazzling. The dialogue is snappy, and Hanks’ timing is sublime. (He’s worked with the Coens before, and his understanding of their rhythms is on full display.) There is no musical score. The film is given a chance to breathe. And then the C.I.A. get involved in James’ life, Thomas Newman’s score kicks in (more on that later), and the movie ticks off every ‘good man persecuted for doing the right thing’ trope in the book. Dirty looks on the train. Drive-by shooting into his house, and to add insult to injury, the cop on the scene verbally assaults James. The judge of Rudolph’s trial denies him any attempt at a fair one, despite ample evidence. The movie trades one set of clichés for another when James travels to Berlin to negotiate the exchanges, and even then, it’s not quite the cat-and-mouse game that it’s proposed to be. It’s more like a game of Texas hold ‘em, but everyone is playing with house money and has nothing to lose. Not once is there the sense that James or the U.S. stand to lose anything. In a spy thriller, that’s not a good thing.

Writing scores is undoubtedly hard, but Newman’s score here is just unbearable. The most shocking thing about it is how lacking in self-confidence it is. It sounds like the kind of thing a musically talented teen who’s only seen a handful of movies (all directed by Spielberg, presumably) might write. “Wait, tense moment; write some shrill string lines. Patriotic moment here; use a bunch of snare drums and press rolls.” It’s really that simplistic, and very distracting.

I’ve spent most of this review ripping this film to shreds, but the opening of “Bridge of Spies” was so unbelievably good that it nets out in the middle. There is nothing original about it after the opening, but it gets a pass because of the moments where there is a Coen-esque moment of genus or levity. That they follow some of those moments with another moment of blatant hypocrisy – Hanks’ character tells someone else that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about him, only to follow that with two (!) scenes of Hanks’ character’s redemption at the hands of random strangers, in addition to his own somewhat estranged family– appears to be irrelevant. This movie will seem fine up until the credits roll, but it will have you asking yourself a lot of questions as you’re walking to the car.

(3 / 5)
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Movie Review: Bridesmaids

There’s something cynical about the very existence of “Bridesmaids.” You can almost see Judd Apatow and his friends having a brainstorming session, and one of them (Seth Rogen, probably), says, “Hey, we should make an all-girl comedy. We’re always accused of not writing good parts for women. Well, let’s have two women write parts of their own!” High fives all around. The scotch flows freely, until Martin Starr pukes in the pool.

And to the credit of all involved, “Bridesmaids” has its good points. While the majority of the supporting characters have the depth of stick figures, Kristen Wiig’s scenes with Chris O’Dowd are touching and real, and her character, while a mess, is a relatable, human mess. Having said that, it’s time to let this whole raunch-com thing die already. Look at what they did to “Going the Distance” last year. It’s this sweet little story about two people who help each other get back on track, and they filled it with dick jokes in order to “compete.” What a waste.

Annie Walker (Kristen Wiig) is down on her luck. Her bakery went out of business, and her boyfriend left her. She tries to put on a brave face when her lifelong best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) gets engaged and makes Annie her maid of honor, but Lillian’s new BFF Helen (Rose Byrne) is threatened by Annie, and as the two face off to establish themselves as the alpha female, they ruin each step of Lillian’s engagement in the process.

There is one key difference to the events in “Bridesmaids” that separates it from the Todd Phillips movies, which are loaded with zany antics but don’t back up their actions with logic: even when Annie is screwing up at her worst, she does so while trying her best, as opposed to, say, Zach Galifianakis blowing all of his money on weed in “Due Date” for no other reason than because he’s an idiot man-child and the plot requires them to be broke. When Annie takes the bridesmaids to the Argentinean place – which produces an admittedly good gross-out scene – it’s because she thinks Lillian and the girls will love it, and they do, at least until they realize it doesn’t love them back. The movie’s secret weapon is that these things could happen in the real world, and in this genre, keeping it real is a rare gift.

But sweet Jesus, is this movie long, a good 15 minutes longer than it needs to be. The scene where Annie and Helen are trying to out-toast each other is like watching the bit in “The Simpsons” where Sideshow Bob keeps stepping on rakes; it’s clearly going for the ‘it’s funny, it’s not funny, it’s hilarious’ vibe, but it never gets to the ‘it’s hilarious’ part. The scenes at the jewelry store are equally brutal. It’s good that they gave some scenes room to breathe (the airplane scene in particular), but with a running time well over two hours, “Bridesmaids” has a bit too much breathing room.

The acting, though, is quite solid. Annie might be the most true-to-life character Wiig’s ever played, and she does a great job finding the humanity in such a screw-up. Byrne is disturbingly good as the verbal assassin Helen, and Melissa McCarthy pretty much steals the movie as Megan, the human steamroller (literally and figuratively). O’Dowd plays an Irish cop that Annie has a meet cute with, and his openness plays well against an amusing cameo by Jon Hamm as Annie’s jerkoff fuck buddy.

It’s nice to give the women a chance to play what is by and large a man’s game, and in many ways “Bridesmaids” one-ups the male-driven raunch-coms in terms of believability and emotional heft (though enough with the shots of the puppies, already). The problem is that the territory the movie covers, on both the bridal side and the gross-out side, is well worn, and while the blending of the two genres is unique, the material isn’t. Still, it could have been much worse.

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Movie Review: The Break-Up

(Imaginary conversation between two women, presumably in their 20’s)

“Okay, so, Jennifer Aniston is, like, totally dumped by her hubby Brad, who shacks up with that homewrecker Angelina Jolie. But get this, she tooootally gets him back by hooking up with that “Wedding Crashers” guy, you know? Anyway, so Jennifer and Vince made this movie, but it’s about them, like, breaking up! I mean, who wants to see that?”

Who wants to see that, indeed. The entire Hollywood community, it appears, just wants Jennifer Aniston to be happy. So after test audiences revolted to the original ending to their movie, “The Break-Up,” cast and crew reassembled in Chicago in order to shoot a more pro-Jen ending…and audiences hated it even more than the original ending. But the problem with “The Break-Up” isn’t the ending, or the alternate ending (they chose the right one in the end, not that it mattered), but the execution of everything up to the ending. They made the same mistake that Danny DeVito made with “The War of the Roses”: the relationship between the two leads is so horrifically lopsided that by the time it comes to its inevitable conclusion, it’s hard to disagree, never mind care.

The movie begins with a meet-cute at Wrigley Field between Gary (Vaughn) and Brooke (Aniston), and after the happy-couple photo montage over the credits (it includes a lot of shots of Vaughn shirtless, which made me wonder who was shooting these seemingly intimate moments between Gary and Brooke), we see the domesticated Gary and Brooke, who share a condo. The friction between them is clear from the beginning: Brooke feels unappreciated, and Gary feels smothered. This presents itself in a rather unfunny fashion during an otherwise funny dinner scene involving both families that is absolutely stolen by John Michael Higgins, who plays Brooke’s a cappella singing brother. After the dinner party, Gary and Brooke have an argument, and by the end of it, Brooke breaks up with Gary.

But what to make of the condo that they bought together? Neither will move out, and so each takes turns trying to either assert their dominance or make the other jealous, with varying degrees of success. Gary buys the pool table he’s always wanted, while Brooke brings her dates to the condo when she’s not waltzing through the condo naked, after receiving the “Telly Savalas” treatment (please tell me you don’t need me to explain what that means) courtesy of her employer Marilyn Dean (a very pale Judy Davis). One of Brooke’s dates winds up blowing off their evening so he can keep playing video games with Gary.

The rules dictate that with a premise like this, hilarity must in fact ensue. And in some regards, it does, though it’s usually the supporting players who provide it. If Higgins is there for Aniston, Jon Favreau (who, as a White Sox fan, mocked the fans in Wrigley in a manner that I have seen with my own eyes, minus the subsequent fight and ejection from the park that fan received) is there for Vaughn, playing the only guy with any real sense of reality. Vaughn gets lots of funny lines, but he’s also clearly the bad guy in this relationship, leaving Brooke holding the bag at nearly every turn. To make matters worse, Gary’s attempts at getting even with Brooke are nothing short of juvenile (yes, he does something even worse than the pool table). Aniston, meanwhile, is given very little funny to do, and ultimately serves as the movie’s straight man, which is a waste of her talents. The girl can do funny. She spent 10 years doing it on TV; she knows her way around a punch line.

In order to make a movie like this work, both characters have to have flaws, but the filmmakers are so clearly determined to make a victim out of Aniston that we eventually agree and cannot wait for her to get rid of Gary once and for all, even though it’s not what she really wants. Some may say that the movie’s too mean for its own good, but the script’s inherent meanness isn’t the problem; the distribution of the meanness, however, is a problem. Gary, quite simply, does not deserve Brooke, which puts the movie’s premise on shaky ground from the beginning, and the laughs along the way turn out to be distractions, not enhancements. Also, someone needs to explain the jumpy camera shots in the kitchen during the first fight scene. I’ve seen hasty reshoots on movies before, but never that hasty.

“The Break-Up” is going to disappoint a lot of people who saw the movie’s hilarious trailer and expected another rapid-fire “Wedding Crashers”-style laugh fest. Chalk one up to the guys in editing for reducing the movie’s best bits to two minutes in length, and give a thousand lashes to everyone else who thought that they were telling a well-balanced story. These people have clearly never seen “Election,” Alexander Payne’s brilliant high school comedy that tells its story from multiple points of view and supports them all equally. There’s the lesson for the next person who dares to do a mean-spirited breakup movie: it can definitely be done, but you better, ahem, do your homework first.

(2.5 / 5)
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Movie Review: Brave

When the Pixar brain trust (namely John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter) first began throwing around ideas for feature films, they came up with the bases for what would ultimately become “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Finding Nemo.” The last idea from that first brainstorming session to hit theaters was “WALL·E,” which means if we were to look at Pixar’s output as if they were a band, everything up to “WALL·E” could be considered part of Pixar’s debut album. And no matter how you slice up those first nine films, that is one hell of a debut album.

Continuing with that analogy, we’re now four songs into Pixar’s second album, and the pressure to live up to their own admittedly high expectations is clearly having an effect on their songwriting, so to speak. After delivering another original and heartwarming tale with “Up,” Pixar did back-to-back sequels for the first time in their history (red flag), and the while the first sequel proved to be wildly successful (“Toy Story 3”), the second one was the first movie in the studio’s history that could be called a flop, though it still grossed $191 million (“Cars 2”). And now we have “Brave,” which marks another dubious first in that it’s the first Pixar movie that doesn’t feel at all like a Pixar movie. If anything, it plays like a Disney movie with Pixar’s title card slapped on it.

Set in Scotland, Merida (Kelly Macdonald), like it or not, is a princess, and the time for her betrothal to the first-born son of one of three neighboring tribes is fast approaching. Merida’s mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), tries to teach her proper etiquette, but Merida is much more like her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), and would rather choose her own, less princess-y path. After a fight with Elinor, Merida rides off into the woods, where fairy “wisps” lead her to a witch (Julie Walters). Merida tells the witch that she wants to change Elinor so she’ll look at things differently. The witch obliges, but there is a nasty, and potentially permanent, twist to Merida’s spell, and now mother and daughter must mend their differences against a ticking clock.

Apart from the stunning visuals – and really, what they did with Merida’s hair alone deserves an award for technical achievement – there is nothing here that resembles Pixar’s other work. The story bears uncanny similarity to “The Little Mermaid” (stubborn daughter puts family in danger for selfish reasons), the dialogue is pedestrian, the soundtrack features contemporary pop songs in the montages, and perhaps worst of all, it’s the crudest Pixar movie to date. For a studio that has prided itself on smart, clean humor, it’s shocking to see them resort to bare butts (twice), boobs and snot. Pixar’s competitors have taken great steps to be more like them – DreamWorks in particular has improved by leaps and bounds with “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” – while Pixar appears to be doing just the opposite, happy to feed at the sequel trough and go for the easy joke whenever possible. Is this really happening?

“Brave” has its good points; the bits where the cursed Elinor tries to maintain her dignity are amusing, and the movie’s moral that parents and children could mutually benefit from listening to each other is a good one, but they cannot make up for what amounts to the weakest story Pixar has assembled to date. Several Pixar staffers have said in interviews that nearly all of their previous films had a come-to-Jesus moment during production where stories were drastically altered in order to most effectively capture that Pixar magic. “Brave” feels like the ‘before’ movie, the one that is scrapped in favor of something better. Lasseter, Stanton and Docter, all of whom served as “Brave’s” executive producers, will probably never admit it, but you have to think that they know they dropped the ball here.

(2.5 / 5)
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Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy

Never tell a studio that their golden goose is finished laying eggs. Matt Damon may have decided to hang up his gun, but after scaring up nearly $945 million worldwide at the box office over the course of three movies, it was never a question of if there would be another Jason Bourne movie, but when. Universal didn’t have to wait very long to find their man, either; after wowing critics and audiences with his portrayal of the slightly unhinged explosives disposal agent in “The Hurt Locker,” Jeremy Renner was quickly primed for the action circuit, culminating in the impressive trifecta of “Mission: Impossible 4 – Ghost Protocol,” “The Avengers,” and now as Damon’s heir apparent in “The Bourne Legacy.” It goes without saying that he’s up to speed on how to kick ass on screen. The real question is: can he make people care about another spy on the run?

In truth, he’s actually a more interesting character, though “Legacy” has its work cut out for it in other areas. Director and screenwriter Tony Gilroy comes up with a compelling story (he’s had a hand in writing all of the “Bourne” movies, so that comes as no surprise), but there is a sameness of the plot structure that causes a bit of a disconnect. Haven’t we seen this movie before? Yes, we have, but it’s still a well made thriller.

The story slightly overlaps with the ending of “The Bourne Ultimatum.” As the CIA goes into clampdown once the world discovers that they have been doing top-secret studies involving genetically enhanced spies. They ultimately decide to burn all of their similarly themed programs (and there are several) to the ground, killing any and all agents. Aaron Cross (Renner), though, survived the government’s attempt on his life, but his clock is ticking in more ways than one; he and his fellow program volunteers need a regular dosage of two special medications in order to function at their now-normal levels, and Aaron is all but out of pills. He hunts down Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) in the hopes that she can fix him up, but he quickly discovers that she’s a target as well. Run, doctor and spy, run!

This may share a title with Eric Van Lustbader’s 2004 novel (he took over the reins after “Bourne” creator Robert Ludlum died in 2001), but the lack of a Jason Bourne in this “Bourne” movie forces Gilroy to take the ‘legacy’ aspect of the story in a different direction. The one smart thing that Gilroy does with the “bad guys” (the CIA) is that he has them acknowledge that what they’re doing to their own people is indefensible, yet necessary. As we watch government employees have brainstorming sessions about how they will smear an innocent person, it’s surprisingly easy to accept their rationale. That’s a pretty terrifying thought, really, which is why Gilroy deserves credit for making a tough pill so easy to swallow.

Gilroy also receives some invaluable assistance from Edward Norton as Colonel Eric Byer, who’s running point on the manhunt for Cross. He rarely speaks above normal conversational tone, and yet he is always the most powerful man in the room. It’s his best work in years. Weisz is the damsel in distress with a doctorate, and yet it’s tough to complain about how they handled her. There are times when she tries to help Aaron and fails, but that is exactly what would happen in real life. Then there is Renner, who doesn’t suffer from any of the personality loss that plagued poor Jason Bourne. He asks questions, he considers the consequences, and he gets angry sometimes. Gilroy must have loved finally giving his hero some emotion.

He probably also regretted the trappings that come with a “Bourne” movie, such as the cat-and-mouse games, the massive conspiracy, and of course the gargantuan chase scene. Gilroy keeps the cameras steady until the very end, when an unnecessarily long motorcycle chase through Manila looks like it was guest directed by “Bourne Supremacy” and “Bourne Ultimatum” director Paul Greengrass (read: lots of vertigo-inducing shaky cam). It’s all a bit too much, though it admittedly ends with a bang.

“The Bourne Legacy” shares a sentiment with a couple of other movies released this year (“American Reunion,” “Men in Black 3”) in that it was not at all necessary, yet still enjoyable. That might be damning the movie with faint praise, but considering the lengths that Universal is going in order to keep the Bourne cash cow mooing – really, everything about the movie’s existence is pretty damn cynical – they would be wise to take any praise people are willing to give them. They get a pass this time, but they’re going to need to raise the stakes for the next one.

(3.5 / 5)
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Movie Review: The Bounty Hunter

Jennifer Aniston has spent the last 16 years basking in the glow of an adoring public the likes of which not even John Lennon knew in his lifetime. It stands to reason that eventually, these fans are going to expect something from her in return. If any other actress on the planet made the movies she’s made in the last five to seven years, they’d get a lifetime banishment to the Hallmark Channel. Aniston, on the other hand, continues to be weekly gossip mag fodder, despite having no real career to speak of. Yes, “Marley & Me” was a hit, but Owen Wilson and the dog did the heavy lifting in that one. In fact, Aniston has yet to carry a movie. Ever.

“The Bounty Hunter” doesn’t change that trend. The story is a poorly conceived comedic thriller – don’t let those trailers fool you; this is no light-hearted romp – that, frankly, no one could have saved. But that sums up Aniston’s career as well as anything: the only lead roles she gets are in movies that no one could save. Had the script been better, they would have offered the part to someone else.

Aniston is Nicole Hurley, a careerist news reporter who’s about to break open a huge case involving the so-called suicide of a cop. She’s so devoted to her job that she skips a bail hearing from an earlier arrest in order to follow up on a lead, and the man assigned to bring her in is her ex-husband Milo (Gerard Butler), a former cop-turned bounty hunter. Milo needs the cash he’ll earn for turning her in (gambling debt), but as he realizes that Nicky’s case has some merit, he has second thoughts about handing her over, knowing the case will go unsolved if she rots in jail.

The gossip mags would have you believe that Aniston and Butler are dating in real life, and they may be, for now; this would not be the first time that Aniston conveniently introduced a new beau just before her latest movie was about to be released, and if history is any indicator, Butler will be kicked to the curb in a few weeks. She did the same thing to Vince Vaughn after they made “The Break-Up,” and now he’s married. Between Vaughn and Brad Pitt, Aniston appears to be the Good Luck Chuck of actresses. You’re officially on notice, Mr. Butler.

As for her work here, she’s fine on her own – though she makes no bones about where her true talents lie, and cups them in her hands in case we’re unsure – but she has absolutely no chemistry with Butler, which is a big problem when you’re trying to convince the world that you’re dating your co-star in real life. Indeed, their chemistry is so bad that I wondered if they shot their scenes separately, and the FX guys fixed everything in post with green screens. And then there is the subplot involving Nicky’s lovestruck coworker Stewart (Jason Sudeikis), where the horrific is mined for comedy gold. Are you really asking us to laugh at a guy while he’s being unnecessarily tortured by a bunch of characters that ultimately do not matter when all is said and done?

There is the occasional amusing one-liner – I laughed out loud for the first time at the 100-minute mark – but the movie stringing all those one-liners together isn’t worth a damn, and it’s surprising to see actors of the caliber of Aniston and Butler agreeing to make it. Granted, Butler’s last movie “The Ugly Truth” wasn’t great either, but it’s a hell of a lot better than this. Who knows, maybe he took the role knowing that it would lead to a couple weeks of sex with one of the world’s most desirable women. And that’s fine, as long as he knows that it comes with a price.

(1 / 5)
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Movie Review: Bottle Shock

“Bottle Shock” does a lot of things right, but the most charming thing about it is how unassuming it is about the story it’s telling. They know they have good source material here, and they tell their story without being flashy or self-congratulatory. It has an underdog, but doesn’t spend the entire movie having a bully kick sand in the underdog’s face. Indeed, it is not until late in the movie that he even realizes that he’s an underdog.

The year is 1976, and Bill Pullman is Jim Barrett, the mortgaged-to-his-eyeballs owner of the California vineyard Chateau Montelena. He and his son Bo (Chris Pine) are trying to make the perfect Chardonnay, but Bo would rather surf and screw around than work, while his buddy and co-worker Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez) has plans of starting a vineyard of his own. At the same time, British expatriate and French wine snob Stephen Spurrier (Alan Rickman) is the owner of a failing wine “academy” in Paris, who hears from the American shop owner next door (Dennis Farina) that the Californians are about to give the French a run for their money. This gives Stephen an idea to draw attention to his business: invite the best palates in France to a blind taste test, pitting the French against the Americans. Stephen travels to Napa Valley to research the competition, and is shocked at how good the then-unknown California vintners are at their craft. Jim, however, suspects that Stephen is only looking to embarrass them.

I don’t know the whole story behind the Chateau Montelena and the Judgment of Paris, but I’m guessing there wasn’t a sexy intern (Rachael Taylor, who does a spotless American accent), a sexy bartender (Eliza Dushku) that helps Bo and Gustavo hustle patrons, a boxing ring on site at Chateau Montelena for Jim and Bo to settle their differences, or the fourth quarter Hail Mary that saves the day. That would be what our sports writer John Paulsen calls manufactured conflict, and this movie has truckloads of it. As manufactured conflict goes, though, this is more tolerable than, say, the bit in “Spider-Man 3” where Mary Jane Watson refuses to tell Peter Parker she’s been fired from her acting job, even though she has a million opportunities to do so. The movie also overdoes the panoramic shots of wine country. Yes, it’s beautiful out there. Now please get back to telling your story.

Fortunately, director Randall Miller and screenwriting partner Jody Savin make up for the overuse of conventional drama devices with some simple but smart dialogue, and Rickman’s performance as the ultimate fish out of water (the French don’t like him, either) is one of his finest. Pine is a bit too up and down as the wayward son – it will be very interesting to see how he does as Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ upcoming “Star Trek” movie – and Pullman is, well, Pullman. He’s fine, but he will never steal a movie from anyone. The other actors are role players and play their parts as they should. Miguel Sandoval, though, is wasted as Gustavo’s father.

You’d be a fool to compare “Bottle Shock” to “Sideways,” Alexander Payne’s hilariously bleak 2004 dramedy, though many doubtlessly will because they’re both set in wine country. “Sideways” is a character study, while “Bottle Shock” is a sports movie set in Napa. It doesn’t take a love of wine to enjoy this movie; just a love for seeing the hard-working nice guy finish first.

(3.5 / 5)
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Movie Review: The Boss

“The Boss” is pitifully lacking in self-awareness. It’s a film that wants to live in Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s universe, where there are real-life news anchor gang wars that end in people losing limbs. To be fair, it’s easy to see why they thought the audience might view the films the same way. “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights” both feature pompous shells of a human being who are humbled on a grand scale, much like Melissa McCarthy’s character here, but that is where the similarities end. What “The Boss” gets wrong is the meanness factor. Will Ferrell’s characters in the aforementioned films are dim and shallow, but harmless, while McCarthy’s character is an unrepentant, hostile sociopath from birth. Worse, the film treats this as a virtue.

Michelle Darnelle (McCarthy) is, by the audience’s viewpoint, a thrice-abandoned orphan who grows up to become a ruthless, filthy-rich business executive. Renault (Peter Dinklage), a former lover-turned rival, gets her indicted on insider trading, whereupon she is sent to prison and loses everything. Upon her release, she arrives at the door of her former assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) because she has nowhere else to go. Claire resents the way Michelle treated her, but because she’s a decent human being, Claire allows Michelle to stay, and as Michelle ingratiates herself in Claire’s life, she sees a business opportunity when she attends a Daffodils meeting with Claire’s daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson), and they discuss cookie sales. Shortly afterward, Michelle tastes one of Claire’s family recipe brownies. Darnelle’s Darlings is born, the brownies are their cash cow, and Michelle is back in the game.

There is comedic potential in the idea of someone encouraging a bunch of kids to abandon community service and go for the cheddar. For that to work, though, the lead has to play the fool, because that’s a shitty thing to do, and the lead needs to learn that. Instead, the script sees Michelle as the hero, even when she’s dropping MF bombs in a Daffodils meeting, and repeatedly referring to a taller girl as a boy. Think about that for a second: Melissa McCarthy, who for the record is wearing the ugliest clothes of anyone in the film, plays someone who repeatedly insults a child (!) for her looks (!!), and the audience is supposed to laugh with her. As I said, zero self-awareness.

Several talented, funny people are slumming here. Kristen Bell tries her best to play the straight man, but she is powerless to stop this one from going off the rails. Peter Dinklage is clearly in full paycheck mode, because he’s just made this and “Pixels” back to back. I hope he used the money to buy an island. Cecily Strong and Kristen Schaal are both very funny actresses and utterly wasted here. Tyler Labine’s character is desperate to the point of creepiness, and is apparently the best that Kristen Bell’s character can do with her love life, because even pretty single mothers are undesirable because they’re single mothers.

Even as they try (in vain) to redeem Michelle, she reveals information that proves that she remains every bit the conniving, untrustworthy weasel that she was at the beginning, and has learned nothing from her fall from grace. But she’s forgiven in the end anyway, because money. (Not a spoiler, if you’ve seen more than five movies.) “The Boss” is basically a movie about a bully, starring a bully, with a pro-bully slant, written and directed by the bully’s parents. It’s one of the most morally repugnant, mean-spirited, tone-deaf films you will ever see, but here’s the kicker: it could have gotten away with the first two, if it were funny. But it’s not. It’s spectacularly, almost historically unfunny.

(1.5 / 5)
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Movie Review: The Book of Life

Does Pixar have a spy within its ranks? In 2008, the studio announced a project titled “Newt,” which involved two amphibians that were the last of their kind on Earth. Three years later, 20th Century Fox released “Rio,” which featured two birds that are the last of their kind. (Pixar scrapped “Newt” in 2010, citing an inability to get the story right, while acknowledging that Fox was going to beat them to the market.) Shortly after Lee Unkrich won an Oscar for directing “Toy Story 3,” Pixar announced that his next project would be about the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Cut to the present, where Fox once again beats Pixar to the market with the similarly themed “The Book of Life.” Don’t be surprised if Pixar is more tight-lipped in the future when it comes to non-sequel projects.

Of the two ‘stolen Pixar’ movies, “The Book of Life” is hands down the better movie. The animation is spectacular (executive producer Guillermo Del Toro’s influence, for sure), the story is breezy but smart (well, smart-ish), and it teaches valuable lessons about family, honor, and being true to oneself. It also raises the stakes on pop music drop-ins (having a character sing a modern-day pop song in an out-of-context time period) by having the guts to use a Radiohead song. The movie gets a star for that moment alone.

A group of children are taken to a museum, and their tour guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) tells them the story of La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, agreeing to a wager with Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten. The wager concerns best friends Manolo and Joaquin, and which one of them will win the heart of their friend Maria. Maria is sent to Spain to study, and when she returns years later, Manolo (Diego Luna) is a bullfighter who’d rather be a musician, and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) is a brave, powerful soldier. Xibalba, who has already interfered with the bet, senses that Manolo has the upper hand, and begins a chain of events that will send Manolo searching both netherworlds for Maria (Zoe Saldana), where he will learn a lot about his family history, and therefore himself, than he ever knew.

Again, how cool is it to hear an animated character in a major studio movie singing Radiohead instead of, say, Third Eye Blind or One Direction? The performance is brief, but it’s beautiful. Also, Ice Cube plays this wacky Candle Maker character that operates at the same level as La Muerte and Xibalba, and even though there is nothing about his character that makes sense, he steals nearly every scene he’s in.

There is a bit too much “Shrek” in the proceedings, though. While the Radiohead scene was genius, several of the subsequent song choices, aside from the new material co-written by Paul Williams (yes, that Paul Williams), are hokey. There are a couple of gross bathroom jokes (which, admittedly, my 7-year-old son thought were hilarious), and while Tatum was fine as Joaquin, it’s disheartening that the studio felt obligated to hire a Gringo in order to raise the movie’s profile, when there are a dozen Latino actors who would have knocked that role out of the park (Javier Bardem, anyone?).

The fact that “The Book of Life” boasts such a layered story structure (the tour guide talking about the gods betting on the mortals, thereby giving the audience three universes of characters) is huge in terms of distancing the movie from the Pixar Day of the Dead movie that will now likely never be. Yes, they went to places that Pixar would never go (frosted churros, ewww), but that works both ways (again, the Radiohead song). Hopeless romantics will love this movie, while everyone else will learn about the benefits of being a hopeless romantic. Sounds like a win-win to us.

(3 / 5)
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Movie Review: Bolt

If you can get past the wafer-thin premise that serves as the foundation for “Bolt,” you’ll find that it is a rather entertaining movie. An extremely predictable movie, yes, but not without its charms. At the very least, Disney gets bonus points for taking a cue from in-house partners Pixar by not stunt-casting the bejeezus out of it.

Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is a genetically enhanced dog that helps his “person” Mindy (Miley Cyrus) fight the nefarious Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell), who has captured Mindy’s scientist father. Now here’s the catch: Bolt is the star of a TV show, and none of this is real, but Bolt believes that all of it is real. The show goes to great lengths to convince Bolt that he is every bit the super-fast, strong, and laser-eyed dog that his character is. The cats that work on the show, of course, tease the daylights out of Bolt with this, and when he escapes his trailer and accidentally winds up getting shipped to New York (wouldn’t the lack of oxygen on a cargo plane have killed him?), Bolt is determined to find Mindy and settle the score with Dr. Calico once and for all. He even takes an alley cat named Mittens (Susie Essman) as a hostage for leverage, since she is naturally working for the powers of evil because she’s a cat.

The movie gets off to an incredible start, beginning with an adorable meet cute between puppy Bolt and young Mindy, then cutting to the latest episode of Bolt’s show, which features action sequences straight out of “The Incredibles” and “The Matrix” (no bullet-cam shots, thankfully). What will derail the movie for many grown-ups, though, is the conversation between the show’s director (an inspired casting choice that will not be spoiled here) and the network executive, a laborious piece of exposition explaining how they have to keep Bolt in the dark about the show because the only way for the audience to believe in the show is if the dog believes in it. Ridonculous, as one of the New York pigeons later says. Speaking of which, doesn’t Disney know that Warner Brothers cornered the market on mobster pigeons 15 years ago on “Animaniacs”?

As you can see, “Bolt” is not bursting with original ideas – there is also a bit involving dogs in a shelter that’s straight from “Over the Hedge,” which itself was stolen from “Finding Nemo,” and to bring it all full circle, “Nemo” is name-checked here – but it does well with the grossly manipulative stuff, like when Mittens teaches Bolt how to use his innate cute dogness to sucker humans into giving him food. There is also a harrowing scene where Mindy’s life is in danger that is remarkably effective. What the movie lacks in creativity, it makes up for with enthusiasm (that would be the TV-obsessed, Bolt-worshiping hamster Rhino, voiced by Mark Walton) and overwrought sentimentality. Even the calculated stuff works, damn them.

You would think that having the Pixar people at their disposal would smarten Disney’s homegrown animated movies somewhat – and to their credit, Pixar BMOC John Lasseter serves as executive producer here – but their recent output is still two or three steps beneath the typical Pixar movie. Looking slick and tugging the heart strings is only half the battle; we have to care about how it looks and how it makes us feel in order for it to work. “Bolt” is a step in the right direction, but it’s all about the now, the short-term cash grab. Ten years from now, no child will declare this to be their favorite Disney movie. Millions, though, will name a Pixar movie – pick one – as their favorite. That says it all, right there.

(3 / 5)
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