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The tale of Toothless the freaking adorable animated dragon comes to a close—maybe—with How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the third chapter in what producers are calling a trilogy.

Yeah, that’s the same thing they said about Toy Story 3 before greenlighting Toy Story 4. If the story continues beyond this chapter, you won’t get any complaints from me; I think the dragon beat could entertainingly go on with this franchise.

Hiccup (the voice Jay Baruchel), now the chief of his Viking tribe, and his dragon buddy, Toothless, happen upon another Night Fury dragon—this one a female, and Toothless is justifiably smitten. After a first date that involves some hilarious show-off dancing, the two hit it off, and Hiccup finds himself possibly staring down a future without Toothless.

Before Toothless and his new gal pal can head off for wedded bliss in the mystical Hidden World, where dragons live happily, they must contend with the evil Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), who wants to steal all of Toothless’ beautiful music ideas and pass them off as his own.

Oh, excuse me, that would be Abraham’s Amadeus character. No, his character in this one wants to kill all of the dragons, of course.

The movie clocks in at 104 minutes, but it feels more like 60. Director Dean DeBlois, who directed all three films, deserves credit for making the proceedings breezy and never boring. His only other directing credits are the equally enjoyable Lilo and Stitch, and a Sigur Rós documentary. Thankfully, the great Jónsi of Sigur Rós provides another terrific song for the soundtrack.

While these films have all been visually enchanting, this third chapter definitely tops itself. Scenes where the in-love Toothless and Light Fury soar into the skies and fly together are breathtaking achievements. Also, I have to point out again that the Dragon movies do a fabulous job with human hair. There can be all sorts of amazing things going on, but I sometimes find myself just admiring how Hiccup’s hair waves in the wind. So lustrous and lifelike!

The film also packs a nice emotional wallop. Toothless is like a nice combination of E.T. and your favorite dog, so he’s truly lovable. Seeing him get a nice ending (the details of which I won’t give away) might leave you crying a lot more than you thought you would at an animated movie. This one has an animated tearjerker factor that puts it alongside the likes of Toy Story 3 and Up. Speaking of E.T.: I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the Toothless sounds owe plenty to the little Spielberg alien. He croaks and purrs just like E.T. He doesn’t touch things and make them better, though; he just kind of spits on things.

Most of the voice cast members from the previous two films return, including Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, America Ferrera and Gerard Butler. Not surprisingly, T.J. Miller doesn’t return as Tuffnut. Like Louis C.K. on The Secret Life of Pets sequel, he got his ass booted from an animated movie for bad behavior.

If this is indeed the end for Toothless and Hiccup, it’s a satisfactory conclusion. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World will keep you and your family entertained. I heard a bunch of folks yelling stuff like, “That movie made me cry!” when the credits were playing. Be prepared: You might wind up crying in front of a bunch of kids.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is playing at theaters across the valley.

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I watch a lot of movies. Like, a lot of movies, and it’s very rare for me to be thinking halfway into a movie: “Say, this could be one of the year’s best films!”—only to have it become one of the year’s worst films in the second half.

Well, that’s what happened when I watched the latest Matt Damon vehicle, from director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways), the horribly off-balance Downsizing.

The film starts as brilliant satire mixed with science fiction: Scientists have discovered a way to reduce energy and resource consumption on our planet by shrinking people and putting them into miniature utopia communities. By doing this, not only do humans generate less trash; they essentially become rich when their finances are transferred into the downsized communities. A standard bank account goes from being worth thousands to millions.

Damon plays Paul, an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks living from paycheck to paycheck. He and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), are tantalized by the idea of getting out of their crowded house and into something a little roomier with a nice pool—plus becoming millionaires. They decide to take the plunge to get small. Paul completes the process and miniaturizes, but Audrey has some complications during the head-shaving part—so Paul winds up all alone in a newly shrunken world, and he’s completely pissed off.

Through this point, the film is everything you’d want out of this kind of movie. It’s clever, with Damon using his laid-back comic charms in service of a screenplay that’s full of interesting insights. Visually, it’s a triumph: The scenes of full-sized adults chatting with mini people are seamless. To say that I was impressed would be an understatement. This movie was racing up my Best Of 2017 list.

Then … Downsizing rapidly disintegrates into utter boredom and nonsense. The filmmakers apparently didn’t know where to really take the story after Paul enters the shrunken world, and the movie gets politically obvious, even stereotypical, in depicting Paul’s new world problems.

The second half starts off with Paul’s dating woes. This scenario has potential, and probably could’ve worked as the crux of the final acts—not as good as the promising first half, but it’s cute enough to be entertaining. But when Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), essentially an illegal shrunken immigrant, warning alarms start going off: The movie wants to hammer you on the head with some kind of grand message. Downsizing tries to become some statement about how typical problems would most certainly follow us into the shrunken world, because humans are the same big and small. Yeah, OK. That’s fine. This is supposed to be fantasy/satire.

But instead of continuing as biting satire, the movie becomes afraid of itself, and Payne tries to make a feel-good message movie that winds up insulting our intelligence. It drags on forever as Paul travels to the original “shrunken person” colony in attempt to save the species. None of this works, and whole enterprise feels like two movies—one good, one really bad.

I do believe Payne could’ve found a way to mix Paul’s tribulations with worldly problems, but what he’s come up with is so heavy-handed and predictable that it trashes all of his good intentions. This is not a movie that deserves a happy ending. It had a chance to really say something about the damage selfish humans inflict upon the planet and themselves, but it opts to go all touchy-feely.

Matt Damon … other than that awesome Thor cameo, 2017 just wasn’t your year.

Downsizing is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Ines (Sandra Huller), a terse, corporate type, is busy trying to conduct international relations involving big dollars when her dad, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), shows up with a goofy wig and fake teeth as Toni Erdmann, corporate coach. He throws a wrench in the works with his prankster ways, and Ines must learn to lighten up—or reject her dad.

The results of Toni Erdmann, while a little predictable (and long-winded), are fairly interesting, thanks mainly to Huller, who anchors the sometimes-silly film with a true sense of realism. Her performance is top-notch, and makes the film worth seeing. She also spends a good chunk of the film’s final act—which takes a major satirical turn—naked, which is pretty daring.

Simonischek is fun in the dad role, although his antics are sometimes a little too outrageous to buy in what is basically a serious movie about father-daughter relationships and coping in a cold business world. Director Maren Ade might choose to use a little more restraint with future films. For starters, this movie would work fine at two hours; it didn’t need nearly three to tell its story.

While I’m not convinced any daughter would allow her father to mess with her at work in this fashion, this is a movie where make-believe things happen—and it’s enjoyable.

It was recently announced that the film, made in Germany, will get an American remake starring Kristen Wiig and Jack Nicholson, who will reportedly come out of retirement to play the dad role.

Toni Erdmann is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

Published in Reviews

There’s been too much “more of the same” at theaters this summer. Flat big-budget blockbusters and sequels without an ounce of creativity or originality keep being churned out of the Hollywood industrial complex, delivering an astounding amount of expensive, vapid horse shit.

Sausage Party, the animated hellcat from writer-producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, is the first big studio film in a long time that is screaming with originality. It’s a profanity-laden, blasphemous middle finger to the movie-making establishment that thinks it’s OK to turn out sequels and comic-book movies that suck—because the studios know people will shell out for them anyway. Sausage Party couldn’t be more fun, and it’s a film like nothing you’ve seen before.

In a sunny supermarket, a bunch of vegetables, hot dogs and buns wake up and sing a happy song, convinced that today will be the day they are chosen by humans to enter the Great Beyond—the world on the other side of those automatic sliding doors.

Frank (the voice of Rogen), an optimistic hot dog with teeth like Seth Rogen, longs for the moment he can leave his packaging and “fill” his sweetheart, a bun named Brenda (Kristen Wiig). That moment seems to be imminent when they are selected and placed in a cart—but things quickly go awry: Frank and Brenda are left behind on the supermarket floor, while their friends soon find out that things in the Great Beyond are far from great.

On top of being super-profane, Sausage Party is incredibly violent, with various food things and condiments suffering unthinkable, heinous fates. (What happens to heads of lettuce and baby carrots is particularly nightmarish.) Rogen and Goldberg have found themselves a little loophole: The main characters aren’t humans or animals, allowing for nonstop carnage within the confines of an R rating.

That loophole also allows for a food orgy that would be too much for your average porno, yet there it is—a bunch of characters openly fornicating in just about every way possible on a big screen playing next door to Finding Dory.

If you’re a parent out there who takes kids to the movies simply based on the poster, you are in for the shock of your life. However, the first word in this movie is actually “shit,” so you should know early on that the wrong entertainment has been chosen for the day.  (Unless, of course, you and your kids are truly twisted, in which case … have at it!)

Other exquisite touches include a main villain that is a total douche … and by total douche, I mean he’s actually a douche, voiced by Nick Kroll. He’s also a leaky douche, so his thing is to suck replenishing juices out of his prey—sometimes in a way that is most provocative.

James Franco is on hand as the voice of a druggie experimenting with bath salts, while Edward Norton voices Sammy Bagel Jr., a bagel who plays a pivotal, perverted part in that food orgy. Rogen/Goldberg mainstays like Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, David Krumholtz and Danny McBride all have roles, and they all contribute to make this the most outrageously insane Hollywood comedy since, well, their own This Is the End (2013).

What makes Sausage Party a cut above your average stoner-movie-full-of-food-items-screwing-and-being-murdered is that it also takes some smart swipes at organized religion and politics. Yes, this movie makes you think—a lot more than you would expect from a movie that features a taco going down on a hotdog bun.

I heard Rogen on The Howard Stern Show saying he thinks Sausage Party could be a franchise ripe for sequels. Just how he thinks he can top this madness is beyond comprehension … but I will certainly be in line to find out when he tries.

Sausage Party is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The first Ghostbusters was a magnificent movie miracle.

Some of the greatest comedy actors of the time (Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis and Dan Aykroyd) joined forces under the guidance of a hot director (Ivan Reitman, coming off Stripes and Meatballs) to merge horror, science fiction, comedy and big-budget special effects. They balanced these elements perfectly—and turned out a classic.

I was not expecting anything near the brilliance or originality of the 1984 original from Paul Feig’s reboot/remake/whatever-you-want-to-call-it entry into a movie franchise that has remained dormant since the miserable 1989 sequel, Ghostbusters 2. Considering the cast that Feig assembled—Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones—I did expect to have a good time.

That didn’t happen. I was bored … super bored. I laughed a total of 2 1/2 times at the new Ghostbusters, and I did not laugh once due to anything the headliners did. It’s as if Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy, The Heat) figured, “Hey, I have these stars and a big budget for special effects. I don’t really need a funny script, do I? These stars can just stand in front of a camera and be funny, right?”

Perhaps they can, but that didn’t happen this time out: Ghostbusters is a stale facsimile of the original. If you watched those lousy preview trailers and worried that the franchise was creatively bankrupt, know that the stupid jokes in that trailer (“That’s gonna leave a mark!”) are about the best laughs the film has to offer. I found myself really annoyed with the haters who judged this movie by those lousy trailers before they saw the completed project. Sadly, I have now joined that camp: I really hated this movie.

The normally reliable Wiig, as the “sensible scientist,” basically stands around looking lost. Comedic firecracker McCarthy, as the trailblazer scientist of the group, bumbles her way through the role with a smile but no material. My current favorite Saturday Night Live star, Kate McKinnon, is the brainy yet eccentric science wizard; she’s allowed to mug like a crack addict on an New York City subway full of inebriated, unarmed billionaires. Leslie Jones, as the street-smart member with no science chops, seems to equate volume with humor. She’s just loud.

After a promising start featuring Zach Woods (Silicon Valley), Ed Begley Jr. and a haunted house, the plot switches to a geek (Neil Casey) looking to cause a ghost apocalypse in Manhattan. He’s planting traps around the city that attract paranormal activity, perhaps because he’s lonely. The new Ghostbusters then band together to conquer the geek and save the city.

The ghosts are dull, fluorescent things bolstered slightly by some decent 3-D effects, if you should choose the more-expensive viewing route. The folks putting together some of the 3-D action did a pretty good job: There are moments where stuff seems to be coming out of the movie frame and suspending in the air in front of you. Those moments won’t make you laugh, but they might wake you up a little.

Andy Garcia as the mayor made me laugh … once. Begley as a paranormal enthusiast made me laugh … once. Chris Hemsworth as a brain-dead receptionist almost made me laugh once, but it was more like a chortle. That’s it for the laugh count.

Aykroyd, Murray, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts and Sigourney Weaver all make useless, remarkably lame cameos. Ramis also makes an appearance in one of the movie’s few inspired moments.

To say this film is a disappointment would be an understatement. So far, this summer has blown it with Spielberg, Superman, Batman, Independence Day aliens and now the Ghostbusters. Will Suicide Squad return some dignity to DC? Will Star Trek Beyond give the summer the big-budget fun boost it needs?

Let’s hope the movies get a lot better when it gets cold outside. Let’s also hope that the people steering this franchise have a much funnier script in their hands before they make any further adventures involving proton packs.

Ghostbusters is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

A bad film sticks in the craw more when it’s made by somebody capable of genius.

Ben Stiller is one of the great modern-day comedic actors. He started, more or less, with The Ben Stiller Show, a project that basically gave birth to Mr. Show and Tenacious D. The man is directly or indirectly responsible for about 78 percent of the laughter that has come out of my face over the last 24 years. As a director, he started with a clunker (Reality Bites), but followed it up with an underrated gem, The Cable Guy. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is much better than it gets credit for, and Tropic Thunder is a bad-taste masterpiece.

Of all the comic creations Stiller has come up with and directed, Zoolander is the most bothersome. It’s a skit that wasn’t funny in the first place—stretched into a feature that feels flat and in-jokey. Well, Stiller has returned for another shot of unneeded male-model parody with Zoolander 2—and it’s far and away the worst thing he’s ever done. It’s so bad that it’s a formidable if early contender for 2016’s worst film. It represents Stiller at his most lost and foundering.

It’s 15 years after the events of the 2001 original, and Derek Zoolander is living a hermit’s life in remote New Jersey, mourning the loss of his wife (Christine Taylor) after the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too collapsed and crushed her to death.

Note to Stiller: Zoolander came out just a couple of weeks after Sept. 11, and will be forever associated with that event in the minds of many, because the Twin Towers had to be digitally removed from the film. Is it really a funny idea to have your wife’s character killed in a New York City building collapse that takes place in 2001? I didn’t laugh, so I’ve answered my own question.

Meanwhile, Hansel (Owen Wilson) is living a secluded life in the “deserts of Malibu” with his orgy family (including a very sensitive Kiefer Sutherland). He’s visited by a message-delivering Billy Zane and goes on a quest to find Derek. Unfortunately, he succeeds in finding him, and a boring comic duo gets another chapter.

A search for Derek’s son and some other nonsense leads them to Rome and an eventual showdown with fashion bad guy, Mugatu (Will Ferrell). The Mugatu subplot feels tacked on, as if they only had Ferrell for a week. Ferrell is given close to nothing to work with, forcing him to mug for his paycheck.

At times, the film feels like a total rip-off of Austin Powers, with Zoolander and Hansel becoming spies; Penélope Cruz stepping in as the tightly clad female sidekick; and a daddy-issues subplot involving Zoolander’s long-lost son. Mugatu is something of a sad riff on Dr. Evil.

The first half-hour of the movie is actually less than terrible. Benedict Cumberbatch shows up as a hauntingly androgynous model called All who has married himself, and Derek’s comeback when somebody calls him a narcissist is the best line in the movie. So … I laughed twice.

There are too many cameos to count, many of them by fashion icons most of us could not care less about. When a big moment in your movie hinges upon the dramatic talents of Tommy Hilfiger, you’ve got a problem. Did I mention the great Kristen Wiig is in the movie, too? No, I didn’t—because her bizarre character is something that needs to be forgotten.

Stiller got lazy and perhaps a little distracted with Zoolander 2. He needs to get his edge back after this tremendous miscue.

Zoolander 2 is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Last year, Matt Damon’s character in Interstellar got stranded in space and wound up doing some rather rude things to Matthew McConaughey.

This year, Damon’s character in The Martian gets stranded in space, but this time, he refrains from trying to kill Matthew McConaughey (in part because McConaughey isn’t in the movie), opting instead to grow potatoes using his own shit.

Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a fun—and funny—movie that’s lighter than much of the director’s often-dark fare. Yes, it’s about some poor sap getting stranded on Mars, but, no, aliens don’t burst out of his belly after breakfast.

Damon spends a lot of time onscreen by himself as Mark Watney, a botanist on a manned mission to Mars who becomes the unfortunate recipient of a satellite dish to the gut during a storm—a violent squall that results in the evacuation of the rest of his crew. After an attempt by his commander (Jessica Chastain, also a veteran of Interstellar) to retrieve him, the crew leaves, thinking Watney has bought the farm. (Yep … that’s a botanist pun I just dropped right there.)

Watney awakens to find himself alone on the red planet—with a piece of metal stuck in his gut. After another Ridley Scott-directed self-surgery scene (reminiscent of that yucky self-surgery scene in Prometheus), Watney starts trying to find a way to survive. He fashions fertilizer out of jettisoned poopy-packs, finds a way to make water—and is soon up to his ears in potatoes.

The Martian has fun with science facts, involving things like the creation of fertilizer, the surprising effectiveness of duct tape and tarps, and attempts to make fire out of mostly fire-retardant materials. Scott and his writers present these overtly nerdy aspects of the movie with great humor and the right amount of intelligence.

Damon’s performance can be compared to the lone-wolf work of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Hanks lost a lot of weight for that role, while Damon settles for an emaciated body double and digital overhauling in The Martian. It’s forgivable; Damon has done all kinds of body antics for prior films (most notably Courage Under Fire, in which he played an ultra-skinny drug addict). Let the special-effects wizards and body doubles handle the weight loss. It’s important to keep one’s heart healthy when in one’s 40s.

Damon has never been funnier before in a role, with his Watney constantly making light of his situation and using a running series of jokes to entertain himself. One of the storytelling gimmicks involves Watney videotaping messages for mission control, and each one of those messages is entertainment unto itself.

The supporting cast is terrific, from an icy Jeff Daniels (who is as cold-hearted and emotionally streamlined as they come—and he damn well oughta be) to Chastain as the mission commander suffering from guilt pangs after leaving a man behind. Michael Peña provides comic relief as a sarcastic crewmember, while Kristen Wiig does the same as a NASA spokesperson.

Scott has been in a bit of a rut lately, although I liked Prometheus despite all the plot holes and inexplicable behaviors. (By the way, Scott recently announced at least two sequels to Prometheus, so get ready for some more Noomi Rapace outer-space shenanigans.) The Martian affords Scott a nice chance to play around in his science-fiction sandbox while telling an optimistic story about humans, rather than one in which they are chased by a creature with acid for blood.

The Martian could be in play for some Oscar honors. It’s an all-around solid movie with a truly winning performance at its core. Yet again, stranding Damon on a planet and watching him squirm reaps big entertainment dividends.

The Martian is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

A 15-year-old girl winds up in a relationship with her mother’s boyfriend—a man in his 30s—in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a justifiably uncomfortable and nicely acted film from director-screenwriter Marielle Heller.

Bel Powley is fantastic as Minnie, a dark, awkward teen living in San Francisco. She doodles strange things in her sketchbook and loses her virginity to Monroe (a never-been-better Alexander Skarsgård) behind the back of her mom (an excellent Kristen Wiig). The film handles the completely illegal relationship in a way that works out fine in the end, but it’s a little rough going at times.

Skarsgard pulls out all the stops as a charming moron, while Wiig kills it in the scene during which she finds out what’s going on. Powley, who is actually 7 years older than her character, captures the essence of a teenager who is getting a little ahead of herself—and might not be altogether stable, for myriad reasons.

Heller infuses the film with interesting animated sequences, and does a nice job re-creating 1970s San Francisco. It’s a good movie—but it certainly isn’t for everybody.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is now playing at Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342); the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342); and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

One of the summer’s best bets isn’t in theaters; it’s on Netflix.

David Wain and Michael Showalter have finally birthed their Wet Hot American Summer prequel as an eight-episode Netflix series. However, I see it more as a four-hour movie feast of dick and fart humor.

The film takes place in the same year (1981) as the film did, but this time, it’s the first day of camp rather than the last day. Everybody has returned, and there has been no effort to make the likes of Showalter, Janeane Garofalo, Bradley Cooper and Amy Poehler look any younger. Oddly enough, Paul Rudd, A.D. Miles and Michael Ian Black somehow look younger than they did in the 2001 film.

New additions to the cast include Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm and Jason Schwartzman, and they make the day at Camp Firewood all the more special. Ken Marino’s character is even more of a virgin than he was in the original (he punches his own cock a lot), and Christopher Meloni’s Gene the Cook is living a lie with a secret identity. We also find out how his can of vegetables attained its voice.

Because this is set in the ’80s, toxic waste, bad gym shorts and “Weird Al” Yankovic all play prominent roles. If you hated the original film, you will hate this, and I feel sorry for you. If you regard the original as one of the funniest movies ever made, as I do, then this stuff is heaven—and we need more.

New songs include the Pat Benatar-like “Heart Attack of Love” and Paul Rudd’s searing rendition of “Champagne Eyes.” Paul Rudd singing is something to be cherished.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) wins the lottery, decides to skip her meds for a personality disorder and moves into a casino in Welcome to Me. Being a huge Oprah fan, she wants her own talk show, so she buys one from a local production company manned by two squabbling brothers (James Marsden and Wes Bentley). The show focuses primarily on her, her quirky personality traits and her love of meatloaf cake.

Shira Piven’s movie is a terrific showcase for the dramatic talents of Wiig. Yes, she gets plenty of laughs in the movie, but she goes under the surface of Alice in a performance that is as strong as her excellent work in last year’s The Skeleton Twins. Alice’s talk show is pretty hilarious, and it offers the opportunity for some great deadpan humor from Joan Cusack as its director.

Bentley and Marsden (so good in the recently released The D Train) are terrific as brothers with completely different attitudes.

Wiig has been making some interesting choices these last couple of years, mixing bigger movies with strong smaller films like this one. She’s quickly developing into one of the more reliable performers in cinema today; Welcome to Me proves that she’s willing to take some huge chances in the name of entertainment.

Welcome to Me is now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

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