Dumb and Dumber To (PG-13)

6 Stars

Does it need to be outstanding?

If so, maybe save the sequel for a future rental.

My mother was kind enough to attend the theater with me, and we mostly enjoyed Dumb and Dumber To. It’s good.

Definitely not ‘great,’ but still good.

If you’ve seen the trailer, some jokes are spoiled. Yet another reason to wait and rent.

The scatological humor is never strong.

Quite a bit is distasteful.

Which may be due (partly) to the rating. Gotta dial down the cursing and ratchet up the scat to nab a PG-13.

I guess?

Consider the following list:

Top Five Comedies of 2014
1. 22 Jump Street (R)
2. Neighbors (R)
3. Let’s Be Cops (R)
4. The Skeleton Twins (R)
5. Dumb And Dumber To (PG-13)

One might argue it’s generous not to swap it out with Chef (rated R).

This review’s only going to frustrate fans, and I feel bad for Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey who do an outstanding job returning as Harry and Lloyd.

But the Farrelly brothers were never strong filmmakers.

The original D&D is the only great entry in their entire filmography. Everything else ranges from bad to meh.

The common theme is revulsion. There’s Something About Mary, Osmosis Jones and Me, Myself & Irene all initially trigger memories of disgust.

Now, looking back on the long-awaited sequel, it’s difficult to separate the gross from the chuckles.

This is not to discredit the banana peel antics – that stuff’s hysterical.

Anything involving a zamboni (especially when combined with tree limbs) – hilarious.

Shoving people into bushes, and pointing and laughing – gets me every time.

The double-point-and-laugh is classic.

The callbacks are mostly solid; some hit home better than others.

Reused snippets from the original score resonate strongly.

Favorite bit parts, like ‘Billy in 4C’ and Seabass, make cameos.

But, again. Was it funniest to increase the morbidity factor with the blind kid? The joke’s edgy enough in the first movie.

And why…

Why, why, WHY…

…do we need close-up shots of the cat’s anus?

During post-production, how many adults watched as feathers are rocketed from a cat’s asshole, and agreed it’s an essential cutaway?

Perhaps the viewers hadn’t realized from the mutilated bird corpses what’s just taken place.

I’m not trying to hate on this movie, but that’s only one of three revolting moments. I’ll spare you the rest.

To finish on a high note, a few words on the acting.

Jim Carrey is incredibly funny. His delivery is spot on.

Watching Lloyd’s facial expressions is enough to keep the viewer in stitches.

Jeff Daniels is just as chucklesome as Harry Dunne.

He’s a terrific actor.

Rachel Melvin is an excellent addition to the cast of ‘dummies.’ It’s not easy to play stupid in a convincing or funny manner, and she pulls it off with finesse.

Jennifer Lawrence is somewhere in this movie as Young Fraida. Which is odd.

If it’s her making out with Lloyd, what a strange cameo…another scene must have gotten cut out. Or something.


Be sure to stay through the credits for the following stinger. The images accompanying the rolling are enjoyable as well.

Dumb and Dumber To is not a disappointment.

But it’s nothing to write home about.

300: Rise of an Empire (R)

7 Stars

When it comes to expectation, Rotten Tomatoes established a new dynamic.

Although I only made the realization days ago, I’ve been a long-time fan of Frank Miller adaptations, loving both Sin City (2005) and 300 (2006) in the theater.

Since its early March release, 300: Rise of an Empire is certifiably rotten with a critic percentage in the low forties. So I skipped it.

Despite a similar Tomato rating, I saw Sin City: A Dame to Kill For the day after it hit theaters and couldn’t shake the disappointment/frustration for a few days.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I realize Frank Miller’s other sequel is available through Xfinity OnDemand via HD rental for $3.99. I’d totally forgotten it existed.

Neither my time, nor money went to waste.

300: Rise of an Empire is very good.

The co-starring antagonist role, Artemisia, is played by Eva Green. Artemisia is vastly different from Ava Lord, her character from Sin City: AD2K4.

She’s more, ahem, sympathetic.

Green’s slightly less nude, as well, though I don’t believe there’s a correlation.

Eva is top notch. Artemisia is easily 300 Part Deux’s greatest redeeming quality, and I said the same thing about Ava Lord in the sequel to Sin City.

Apparently Green is excellent in any badass female role written by Frank Miller.

Let’s hope we see more out of her in the future!

The same goes for Lena Headey, one of my favorite actresses, who reprises a supporting role as Gorgo. Just like David Wenham as Dilios (Leonidas’s one-eyed loyalist), she doesn’t disappoint.

Love that Lena Headey. She’s a ‘Grade A’ thespian.

One strong aspect of the story is how clearly it overlaps with that of its predecessor. The interaction with the timeline from 300 is never obscure to the viewer.

Clarity has its downsides however. The director recycles bits of footage from the first movie, which always feels like a cop-out. He doesn’t stop there, even reusing original footage introduced in the sequel.

That’s the one-two punch of fair criticism that overlaps with Sin City: AD2K4, wherein footage is also recycled.

It’s a near-certainty this film would be great had it been directed by Zack Snyder.

The writing is very strong. The action takes place at sea and furthers the original narrative, while building the larger world of the story. It’s good stuff!

The battles are epic and beautifully rendered. The CGI’s not perfect, especially when there’s a horse on-ship, but it’s easily ignored.

The outro credits are fun, but there’s no stinger after they start rolling.

Overall, 300: Rise of an Empire isn’t bad by any means.

With strong performances from a solid (albeit lesser known) cast, I’d say it doesn’t disappoint!

To bring it back around: I think this reaction’s noteworthy in contrast to the lingering sadness I felt about Sin City: AD2K4.

Perhaps much-anticipated sequels received with critical disfavor are best left on the backburner until becoming available as a rental. That way, reality can set in, and expectations are appropriately leveled.

By this logic, if Dumb & Dumbr To receives a R.T. percentage in the mid-forties, I should skip it and wait on the rental.

Or otherwise expect severe disappointment, right?

22 Jump Street (R)

10 Stars

In the cinematic vernacular, there isn’t a term for a complete narrative comprised of two parts.

The best online suggestions include duology (my personal favorite), diptych and dyad.

An official word is necessary for the purposes of film discussion. There are a lot of Terminator spinoffs but the first two movies (directed by James Cameron) can be referenced as one entity.

The initial pair of Back to the Futures and Godfathers can also be discussed as duologies.

To provide a different and confounding example, Ace Ventura is one of the funniest comedies of all time. One couldn’t possibly differentiate between Pet Detective and When Nature Calls because they’re equally hilarious. But the plot threads of the two yarns don’t interweave into one gilded narrative lanyard.

My long-winded point is: When we give ‘duology’ the communal stamp of approval, let’s nail down the difference between a ‘series’ (the Ace Ventura’s) and a ‘collection’ (the Godfather‘s).

In the history of the laugh genre, the top three follow-ups are Rush Hour 2, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.

But 22 Jump Street is the best comedic sequel of all time.

And it’s all about balance.

No fooling. Yin, yang and all that.

Out of three big summer comedies, this buys the pie. (‘Takes the cake’ implies self-indulgent thievery.)

Since The Hangover franchise pumped out dastardly sequels, a fatigue has developed amongst the American audience. Most moviegoers (including yours truly) can’t tolerate recycled narratives.

This movie does a twisted inversion of exactly that. So the self-referential jokes are palpable.

Two sets of twins make appearances and that just begins the list of ‘2’ jokes.

There’s quite a bit to admire here. The trailer doesn’t spoil any of the actual plot. Sure, Jonah Hill gets a mouthful of squid-ink but it occurs early on.

Neighbors releases earlier this summer, and several hearty laughs (specifically ‘the airbag scene’) are spoiled because of the trailer. A Million Ways to Die in the West spoils most of the quality jokes via previews.

Other filmmakers can learn something from the marketing department’s careful use of footage.

Call-backs are a basic comedic staple. So thorough is 22’s self-awareness that cutaways, bits of scenery, metaphorical discussions of production difficulties and the early credits sequence are dedicated to calling-back.

A quick digression regarding the credits sequence. It’s a montage combining original scenes, animation, cover art and comments on the state of brand endorsement and merchandising. It’s both a critical jab at the film industry and a salute to modern cinema. There are multiple cameos from actors like Seth Rogen, who never appear in the movie until this lengthy sequence.

This is where the filmmakers go ‘above and beyond.’ Any form of credits sequence is a gift to the viewer, and although they’re becoming more prevalent, there’s a reason most movies lack an Easter Egg: Unnecessary work. Oftentimes they’re merely add-ons and don’t contribute much to the overall experience.

But this one’s different. In a way, it signifies the filmmakers’ understanding of the industry. And it puts a satisfying cap on the comedic series.

It calls attention to all future forms of potential revenue through Jump Street spin-offs, thereby implying an end to the franchise.

It’s probably best the collection remain a fantastic duology.

Each time the plot encounters a cinematic cliché; it’s referenced by the characters mid-scene and oftentimes recapitulated through call-backs. For instance Nick Offerman returns as Deputy Chief Hardy and lectures the protagonists about repeating narratives.

Schmidt and Jenko ingest Rice Krispy treats lined with ‘Wyfy,’ the newest intoxicant amongst college students.

The use of split screen in this movie is amazing, and the side-by-side depiction of a ‘good trip’ versus a ‘bad trip’ is right on the money, and hilarious.

A similar scene takes place in A Million Ways to Die in the West, but is far inferior.

The creative editing alone is worthy of applause.

A couple notes on the acting.

Ice Cube’s rock-solid. He plays Captain Dickson and delivers a hilarious performance as a supporting player.

Jonah Hill is a talented individual. He’s credited as a contributor to the writing, stars as Schmidt and is a driving force behind the film’s production. Hill appears earlier this year in The Lego Movie as the voice of Lego Green Lantern.

22 Jump Street comes from the guys who made The Lego Movie. So it’s no surprise that Lego Superman, voiced by Channing Tatum, banters with Green Lantern.

This choice along with the credits sequence (and the reveal from The Lego Movie) exemplifies sharp writing. These creative ideas are wildly admirable. We can use more compassionate filmmaking like this.

Tatum co-leads alongside Hill as Jenko, the more physically capable of the duo. That Channing fellow is one of our finest movie stars working today. In the past year he cameos in Don Jon and This is the End, and plays a leading role in Side Effects. He campaigns for the role of Gambit in the X-Men franchise, and eventually lands it.

Now he’s Gambit in the next feature, and starring in his own film. I can’t wait for both.

There’s action, hilarious car chase antics and plenty of satire to go around.

22 Jump Street proves to be more than just a satisfying sequel.

The only question remains:

Will Dumb & Dumber To be better?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (PG-13)

9 Stars

Our hero, believe it or not, is a symbol.

It’s not what you’re thinking.

The Captain’s a metaphor for America.

Look down. Did I fake you out of your shoes?

It seems a simple conclusion to arrive at, but ogle this concept through a different lens.

Captain America encapsulates a philosophical notion; a mindset transcending time, war and politics. He is twentieth century patriotism. In the face of any enemy, be it systematically internal or external, while others may waver Captain America perseveres.

A hefty portion of this concept lies in his commitment to the notion everybody may live free. But it’s something more than just freedom. It’s an incorruptible belief; a manner of ‘striving for righteousness’ that lives on through the death of many American soldiers.

Speaking of, should you see the second installment?

I rate Captain America: The Winter Soldier four and half, but to account for my proclivity toward comic books, you can give or take a bisected star.

Remember it’s a sequel to both The Avengers and Captain America: The First Avenger. Those who haven’t seen these earlier films may find this bothersome, but the majority probably won’t.

Never forget if you’re looking for things to complain about, you’ll find them.

It’s the same track I spin when any other comic book movie (Marvel or DC) comes out nowadays. If you’re willing to like it, and not overly critical, there’s no reason you’ll hate this film.

Logically, females with zero interest in superheroes should probably keep their distance. But even the pythons dangling from Chris Evans’s tank-topped shoulders can sway the naysayers.

It’s somewhere between twelve and nineteen minutes too long, so prepare for potential fidgeting around the two hour mark. And I’ve heard from NPR’s podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour, the second scene after the closing credits is underwhelming. But I can speak for the mid-credits sequence, which didn’t bowl me over. Sure it’s slightly ominous, but the reference is outside my wheelhouse, so the reveal’s rendered inconsequential.

The scene’s directed by Joss Whedon and I like it; it just doesn’t get me looking forward to the next film.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is slated for release on May 1, 2015. Marvel will follow up two months later with Ant Man.

The use of negative space in the post credits sequence is smart, fun and intricate. Lend it five extra minutes if you appreciate this sort of thing.

The fight sequences are nothing short of spectacular. The use of different camera angles throughout the battleship in an early scene is elaborate and magnificent.

Overall, the narrative derives its strength from the movement of our hero through manufactured space. The shifting of the threats and the threatened assets often evokes the classic chess metaphor. On a more evolved scale of course; where time, height and game piece type become more varied and critical factors.

Things get really interesting when examining the intricacies of battle tactics and choreography. I won’t dive in too much, but simply consider the strengths and weaknesses of the main trio. Consider the setting of an elevator; the more bad guys filling it, less the chance Black Widow has of escape. She can probably take upwards of five or six, especially because short range and close quarters are optimal combat conditions for her superhumanity.

The same can’t be said for Falcon. At most he can handle two or three thugs trapped in a lift.

The depth to the settings is truly spectacular. The epic nature of it all is so fantastic, while maintaining a secure tether to realism.

So far CATWS contains the second-best Stan Lee cameo, after The Amazing Spider-Man.

I like how the Captain wears the old suit at the end. Solid costumes are a great touch.

A major criticism I can understand but don’t share personally: Several moments are reminiscent of plot devices from other films. For example, Black Widow utilizes a similar means of concealment as Jim Phelps (played by Jon Voight) in Mission: Impossible. But that was released in ’96 so I give it a pass.

A similar example (spoiler alert) involves the fate of Brock Rumlow, the lead thug played by Frank Grillo. During a brief shot at the end, his broken body’s raised on a stretcher, in a similar state to that of Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley) in Elysium. There’s a major difference between their sustained injuries, but all bets point towards Brock rising again.

Another obvious connection mirrors a trend in superhero cinema: What I call, “The Citizen’s Call to Arms.” It’s the moment when the fate of ‘the good’ is partially placed in the hands of the regular humans. This notion’s explored in The Dark Knight and is part of the climactic sequence in The Amazing Spider-Man.

Robert Redford does a spectacular job acting as Agent Alexander Pierce, but it’s to no avail. The highest upside to his performance is his appearance and demeanor are completely different from that of his last role in All is Lost.

He’s easily the worst part of Captain A. His character isn’t all that compelling, and it’s a bit unclear what he wants and whom he poses a threat to. He’s not a detractor but there’s nothing exciting about him whatsoever.

Pierce isn’t particularly menacing and neither is Hydra as an overall villain. But that’s okay, it seems like an attempt to break convention; a good idea that sizzles out with Redford’s uneventful performance.

The other thing I don’t love is the glossing over of Falcon’s background. The reveal’s a delight, but further detail on his history (particularly his superhuman abilities) is highly desirable.

Major nuance derives from the supporting players. In the realm of sidekicks, Captain’s got two complicated, original and fully-fleshed-out allies.

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson plays a great sidekick to Cap. He turns in a subtly fantastic performance.

And so does Black Widow as the other co-goody.

Oh me, oh my, I love me some Scarlett Johansson.

But Widow’s got me worried something fierce. She’s up to something fishy.

This movie’s final shortcoming is the lack of screen time for Natasha Romanoff. I’ll scream from the mountaintop until Avengers 4 we can always use more Black Widow, both in combat, and just as much outside of it.

And for Pete’s sake, I want Cap and Widow to fall in love like nobody’s business. Sure it could happen someday, in another movie, but it’s the fact that it also couldn’t that worries me.

To wrap up, Captain America: The Winter Solider is another solid entry in the esteemed superhero canon.

The one I can’t wait for?

The Hulk.

And he better be rocking purple slacks.

Muppets Most Wanted (PG)

7 Stars

My relationship with Jim Henson’s sock puppets is presently blooming.

Up until a month ago, I hadn’t seen anything aside from Muppet Vision 3D in Walt Disney World. Since the new film’s in theaters, I decided to catch up and watch the reintroduction I’d missed in 2011.

If you read my earlier review, aside from being my absolute favorite person on Earth, you know The Muppets gets me pretty choked up. I find it touching and riotous.

Muppets Most Wanted is good, but it doesn’t live up to the preceding film.

It’s a little too long, so things start to drag after the ninety-minute mark, and my bias stems from having seen The Muppets two days previous.

Although Jason Segel doesn’t appear to have a hand in this film, favorites from the voice cast return to speak the parts. James Bobin also returns to direct his second feature, and is the lead writer on the screenplay. Nicholas Stoller, a cowriter on the first film, returns to help for the second as well.

To begin, the comedy is not weak. It’s not strong, but I can’t call it weak.

The music numbers are a different story.

The only one I can remember is between Constantine (Kermit the Frog’s evil twin and the world’s number one criminal mastermind) and Ricky Gervais (as Dominic or Number Two). Their duet is one of the better parts of the movie, and things start to slow down afterward.

Speaking of, Ricky Gervais is great, but I find Constantine much less compelling. On The Film Vault, a podcast and the best place to find cinema-related discussion on the web, one of the hosts speaks of his extreme fondness for Kermit’s diabolical double. But I simply can’t conceive of the appeal.

Perhaps it’s the accent. Goofy accents generally don’t do it for me. Particularly Russian ones; I’ve heard way too many Soviet impressions.

And Constantine just feels like another plot device that’s been revisited over and over again.

Even the song he sings to Miss Piggy; while loaded with a number of silly vocabulary words, it’s just a lyrical and visual bore devoid of a memorable or catchy tune.

So, to compare the two films, the music numbers of Muppets Most Wanted leave much to be desired. Although Bret McKenzie returns to compose the musical arrangements, his achievements in the first far outweigh those of the second.

Ultimately I think the film’s greatest weakness can be attributed to the sheer amount of plot with which it engages. There are several narrative strains to follow with diverse levels of compelling material. First of all, Kermit is removed from the story almost instantly, creating his own narrative strain aside from the Muppet tour, now led by Constantine.

Kermit’s narrative posits him in a Russian prison in the criminal’s place, where his varied attempts at escape are foiled by Nadya, played by Tina Fey.

Fey is pretty great, one of the highlights of the whole film, and she brings her ‘A-Game.’ She has several scene stealing jokes and even pulls the accent off better than most.

She certainly does a much better job than Constantine.

The only aspect of the movie greater to Fey’s performance is Sam Eagle and Ty Burrell as Jean Pierre Napoleon, a jokey French inspector. The third narrative strand follows around the pair of detectives as they blunder through an elaborate and oftentimes, silly investigation.

There appears to be some social commentary taking place here. Sam represents the atypical American police officer. Burrell is reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther movies, so his performance involves a lot of Frenchy slapstick.

Sam’s a buttoned-up hard worker, and Napoleon’s constantly resting whenever the chance presents itself. He’s all too eager to go on vacation and take lunch breaks, although they’re hot on the pursuit of his self-proclaimed ‘arch nemesis.’

The investigative duo is the source of several uproarious laughs, and a delight each time they’re featured on-screen.

Sam Eagle is representative of a greater trend in the Muppet empire that merits discussion. He’s brought to the forefront of the story in Muppets Most Wanted and is clearly the funniest character of all the puppets.

But the French Chef, Statler and Mr. Waldorf, Animal and Sweetums play roles of significantly less prominence.

Miss Piggy’s featured strongly throughout. Of course. As always. What would we do without everybody’s favorite voyeuristic hog?

The pig is the focus of several dull and uncomfortable scenes adding up to a half-hearted chuckle, at best. I will never descend my soapbox about this perspective.

Miss Piggy is, by far, the least interesting Muppet. Yet she dominates a considerable chunk of screen time; moments where Fozzie Bear, Gonzo or any of the aforementioned entertaining puppets can steal scenes or take the narrative in funnier directions.

Instead, we’re left with several momentous sighs of frustration.

So, ultimately, Muppets Most Wanted is a good movie that pales in comparison to The Muppets from 2011.

If you have to pick between the two, forget the big screen, save a couple bucks and order the old film on Netflix or iTunes. You’ll enjoy The Muppets.

And if you don’t, then there’s no need to catch the new film, right?

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (PG-13)

10 Stars

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a great sequel.

It’s incredibly rare that a second installment can be considered ‘good,’ let alone ‘great.’

A great sequel contributes a furthering and expansion of the narrative, evolving on the previous film’s themes and ideas, while maintaining suspense, thrills and compelling character interactions throughout.

I catch a lot of flack for finding The Hunger Games underwhelming.

The chariot promenade through the poorly animated stadium is painfully striking in contrast to the rest of the film, and ironically the scene in which she sets fire to her dress knocks down the whole movie a couple pegs.

Overall, I enjoy THG the First, but Catching Fire is a significantly better film.

The first suffers primarily from poor CGI. Catching Fire never once does.

This deserves the full five stars. I should have given it 4.5 since it’s PG-13, but I stand by my 5. The stakes are high and this is solid, thoughtful filmmaking. It’s as good as a PG-13 movie can be.

Obviously it’s helpful that the author, Suzanne Collins, wrote the awesome character names and brilliant plot beforehand. But it’s translated to the screen in a masterful fashion.

Catching Fire is easily worth your time. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading, I might spoil something below.

This sequel’s also the perfect example of what a stellar cast looks like.

Admittedly, Elizabeth Banks has been a favorite since Zach and Miri Make a Porno (one of the most underrated comedies of all time.) In the first Hunger Games one doesn’t think twice of Effie Trinket. Frankly I found her irritating.

Who’d have thought she’d make such a huge turnaround? She totally catches me by surprise midway through, and gets the tears flowing. Betty Banks plays such intriguing roles and is hands down one of the best actresses working today.

J-Law (as Katniss Everdeen) can do no wrong.

Even her little sister, Primrose Everdeen (played by Willow Shields) is a strong small character.

And The Tooch! Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman is, if anything, even more perfect than he was in the first film.

This is just a well-made movie on all quarters.

People complain about Lenny Kravitz as Cinna (Katniss’s wardrobe designer) but I can’t see why. I think he delivers just fine.

Complaints arise when Woody Harrelson’s role as Haymitch Abernathy comes up in conversation. But why? Woody Harrelson’s a great actor who, as this character, doesn’t irk me in the slightest! He even gets the emotional juices flowing when he makes a turn and you can tell he’s grown fond of Katniss.

How about Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee? It’s a sheer delight to watch the character developmental of the ‘game maker.’ What a great character!

Another one of my favorite players is the fetching Jena Malone as Johanna Mason. You love to hate her from the beginning, and the scene where she strips in the elevator is fantastic. The subtle misdirecting of the audience is executed with precision.

In much the same way, Sam Claflin is excellent as Finnick.

If you insist on squeezing a criticism from me, I’ll give you my strongest half-hearted slight on the plot. Don’t get all up in arms, but I think Katniss’s treatment of her love interests is not ideal. She’s our hero, years are passing, and she’s stringing two men along who’ve only been loyal and honest with her.

But she’s a complex hero with tough decisions to make so disregard that last point.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is an excellent sequel that delivers more than its fair share of compelling narrative.

I can’t wait for installment number three.