This ‘Peter Rabbit’ is Far From Ultimate

Peter Rabbit 2018 poster

After watching the trailer for Sony Pictures Animation’s “Peter Rabbit,” I kept thinking of the times when brands like KFC and Planter’s Peanuts among others changed their image in commercials to something more hip which made them look ever so desperate to appeal to a youthful demographic. It was both hilarious and cringe-inducing to see these popular brands reduce themselves to current trends they were never created for, and more often than not, it just revealed to us how tone deaf corporate executives can be in their quest for a profit. Those of you who have seen the “Peter Rabbit” trailer can agree this is not quite the same character we grew up reading about in those wonderfully imaginative books by Beatrix Potter. Now that I have seen the movie all the way through, I can confirm Ms. Potter is rolling over in her grave.

This “Peter Rabbit” is nothing more than a bastardization of those innocent tales as the filmmakers go out of their way to modernize this material to such an infinitely nauseating extent, and it hurt to see everyone trying way too hard to be clever. The harder everyone tries to be hip here, the more depressing this movie becomes as its story becomes increasingly convoluted and eventually turns in a poor man’s version of “Home Alone” as Peter tortures his nemesis in the same way Macauley Culkin tortured Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.

Directed by Will Gluck who previously gave us the ill-advised remake of “Annie,” this movie isn’t so much an adaptation of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” as it is a story which exists outside of it. Even though Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) came close to meeting his maker the last time he invaded Mr. McGregor’s vegetable garden, we see he has not learned his lesson as he continues to steal every single vegetable he gets his paws on. But when a new McGregor moves into town, things will become even more challenging for him and his furry friends.

The opening minutes of “Peter Rabbit” serve to introduce not only Peter, but also a number of Potter’s other creations like Benjamin Bunny (Matt Lucas), Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Sia), Tommy Brock, Mr. Tod and Mr. Jeremy Fisher. Seeing this, I couldn’t help but think Sony Pictures was aiming to create a cinematic universe to rival the one Marvel Studios continues to add to. If this movie succeeds at the box office, we may very well see these characters get their own solo adventures to where they might have their own “Avengers” or “Justice League” movie. Still, I don’t think we should expect “Peter vs. Benjamin: Dawn of Radishes” anytime soon. After all, neither has a mother named Margret.

Peter runs afoul again of Mr. McGregor (a completely unrecognizable Sam Neill), but a heart attack suddenly does the old man in, freeing up the rabbit and his friends to have the equivalent to an endless rave party in his home. But then into the picture comes family relative Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) who moves in after being fired from his job at Harrods in London, and no time is wasted before he and Peter wage war against one another which involves, among other things, repeated electrocution.

Perhaps it was too much to expect the filmmakers to remain true to “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” with had its main character being portrayed as being very naughty and later paying a price for being recklessly disobedient to his elders. This particular Potter tale was a great one for kids as it taught them the value of being good, something which Peter did not value in the slightest. “Peter Rabbit,” however, defies the tale’s morality and shows how this rabbit’s rebellious ways are something to cheer on instead of lay caution to. Also, Peter’s sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail are shown to be willing participants in his rebellious escapades, something they were not previously.

I was also shocked to see how Neill’s Mr. McGregor was portrayed as a bloodthirsty meat eater who showed no hesitation in making a rabbit pie out of those who failed to escape his clutches. This leads “Peter Rabbit” to have a “Watership Down” scene where we learn how one of his parents became a tasty meal for Mr. McGregor, and this reeks of shameless manipulation on the part of the filmmakers. At the very least, this movie is bound to appeal to vegans as much as it will to children.

Then there is Thomas McGregor, and Gleeson portrays him in a way very similar to his role as General Hux in the recent “Star Wars” movies. Thomas is such an obsessive neat freak to where he wants the toilets at Harrods to be so clean he could drink out of them, and he almost does so with a straw. I expect sick humor like this in “The Human Centipede,” not in a family movie. If you want to see Gleeson in something good, check out “About Time” or the underrated “Goodbye Christopher Robin” instead.

James Corden is a wonderful talent, and I always enjoy watching his late-night sketches which include many unforgettable carpool karaoke episodes. But when it comes to roles like voicing Peter Rabbit, he tries way too hard to be funny and hip. This was the same problem with his work in “The Emoji Movie” which, in retrospect, I gave him too much leeway on. His performance in “Peter Rabbit” is definitely spirited, but seeing him trying to be infinitely clever to where he is desperate to stay one step ahead of the audience becomes painful and exhausting as the movie drags on.

Indeed, the filmmakers try way too hard to make “Peter Rabbit” seem so hip and cool to where they include songs like Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” a great pop song which has now been officially used once too often in movies. Gluck also includes Big Country’s “In a Big Country,” Rancid’s “Time Bomb,” Vampire Weekend’s “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” and The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” You know, the kind of music Potter listened to endlessly while she wrote. Seeing the animals dancing the latest dance moves here was very dispiriting to me, but at least we never see Flopsy, Mopsy or Cottontail do any twerking.

If there is one real saving grace in “Peter Rabbit,” it is Rose Byrne. As Bea, the McGregor’s next-door neighbor, painter and animal lover, she is so infinitely appealing to where she truly lights up the screen whenever she appears. Byrne gives these proceedings a heart and soul which doesn’t deserve them, and I became infinitely jealous of Peter whenever she picked him up and cuddled him. It’s moments like those which had me wanting to be Peter, but anyway.

The children I saw “Peter Rabbit” with really enjoyed the shenanigans portrayed onscreen, and I am sure many of them will get a kick out of this movie. I, on the other hand, stared at the silver screen feeling dejected as the plot went down a road which filmmakers have traveled thousands of times before. Things get even more ridiculous when Thomas and Peter go from being bitter enemies to much needed allies. Seeing one character attempting to blow up another with dynamite is enough to bring about a restraining order. These two coming together near the end is as ridiculous as the thing which kept a pair of superheroes from beating one another to death in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

“Peter Rabbit” is the first 2018 movie I have watched, and I’m positive many others which have yet to be released will be far better. Parents right now have a chance to take their children to movies which are far more imaginative and thoughtful like “Paddington 2,” but it looks like they will be quicker to get in line for this one instead. Call me a purist, but this is not how a Beatrix Potter tale should be translated to cinema. Of the many rabbits out there, this one is far from being ultimate.

* out of * * * *

 

’28 Weeks Later’ is a Shockingly Effective Sequel

28 Weeks Later movie poster

When I heard that they were making a sequel to Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later,” I couldn’t help but wonder why. How could you make a sequel to a movie like that without it being the same old thing? 20th Century Fox put together a company called Fox Atomic which specializes in horror movies and sequels to horror movies because god forbid the money stops there! They made “The Hills Have Eyes 2.” I thought “The Hills Have Eyes” remake was great, but I was not as excited about seeing the sequel because it had a different director who made some bad horror films.

Now they have released “28 Weeks Later.” That’s great, milk it as much as you want. No mercy or respect for the franchise. Then again, these were my thoughts before I actually watched the movie. It had the good luck of at least having Danny Boyle and Alex Garland on as executive producers, so I was assured this follow-up wouldn’t be of poor quality. Under the tense direction of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who previously directed “Intacto,” “28 Weeks Later” adds itself to the list of sequels which equal the original in terms of vision and sheer terror, and it ends up delivering what it promises; an extremely intense and unsettling movie going experience.

All the main characters from “28 Days Later” are absent here, so we have a whole new cast of characters trying to stay alive while stranded in a part of the world engulfed by the rage virus. It starts off with a group of English people who have managed to find refuge in a home where they hide from the infected. The main characters are a married couple played by Robert Carlyle and Catherine McCormick who are seen preparing dinner when the movie begins. Most of the actors here are not too familiar to audiences, and this helps the movie in its approach. Carlyle will definitely be familiar to those who remember him from “Trainspotting” and “The Full Monty,” and each of those movies show off how much of a range he has as an actor.

The opening of “28 Weeks Later” has a supreme amount of tension that never lets up. I got to see it at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and I sat in the back with my hands over my ears because I was eagerly anticipating all hell breaking loose as soon as the movie started. I typically watch most horror movies like this because it’s not what I see that gets to me, it’s the sound. Look no further than the original “Halloween” for an example of this.

The opening is brilliantly shot because you feel like you are right there with these people inside the house. You don’t see the outside world until they do, and it ain’t pleasant. When the infected make their inevitable entrance, Carlyle’s character ends up abandoning his wife who screams at him from a window in disbelief. He runs away from the infected at warp speed, and the fact he escapes with his life is both astonishing and shameful.

The story then moves to London after the outbreak with things finally returning to normal. The United States Army has taken over, and the first of the survivors are now coming back into the safe zone to start their lives over in a land now free of infection. We get to meet the children of Carlyle’s and McCormick’s characters who are played by Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton. Carlyle’s character is, of course, unprepared to tell his children how their mother perished among the infected, and he lies to them about what happened. As much as you despise him, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. Don’t you hate that?

Anyway, his lie about their mother being killed gets exposed when she is found alive in a closed off area of England. She has been bitten by the infected, but somehow has not been overtaken by the rage virus. Her blood seems to have some sort of immunity from the virus which keeps her from going completely psychotic. It is incredibly tragic that husband doesn’t have the good sense to keep himself from kissing her. A kiss is just a kiss? Not in this movie!

As you can expect, all hell breaks loose, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. The military tries to control the situation and they end up resorting to, when nothing else works, code red as they quickly see there’s no stopping the spread of infection. They can’t tell the difference between who is human and who is infected, so they resort to killing everyone to keep the situation contained. What makes this scenario so terrifying is how realistic is presented here, and the depressing solution the military takes to contain this horrifying situation is painfully understandable as it threatens the rest of the world. So, those young kids now have to find their way out of the “safe zone” and run away from those who have no choice but to bite and infect them.

There is a lot of shaky handheld camera work in “28 Weeks Later” which gives the movie an immediacy which sucks you in just like the original did. I have been back and forth in regards to hand held camerawork because it can veer easily from being exciting to the becoming relentlessly annoying. Don’t even get me started on the later movies of Woody Allen. I can’t even begin to tell you how nauseous I got while watching “Deconstructing Harry” on the big screen.

But here, the shaky camerawork is perfect as it brings us right into the chaos these characters are feverishly trying to escape. The camera goes all over the place to where we can’t tell where the exit is or if we can trust the person next to us. Fresnadillo is excellent in drawing you into the mindset of the chaos and confusion of what the characters are forced to experience. What if you can’t find your way out? What if the person next to you is infected? Where is the safest place to go? Everyone is running for dear life, but in which direction does one head?

What also makes “28 Weeks Later” work is it’s not just based on thrills and chills as there is an intelligence at work here. There’s a subtle critique of the seemingly endless occupation of military forces in other countries as they futilely try to control a situation completely beyond anyone’s control.

Aside from those kid actors who are terrific and very down to earth, there are a few others worth mentioning. Jeremy Renner plays Doyle, a military shooter who quickly develops a conscience when he decides not to follow orders and instead save a little boy who doesn’t deserve to die. I also want to mention Rose Byrne who plays Army doctor, Scarlet. I like it when a movie where there is a very strong female character who thinks she has found the key to eradicating infection. Of course, no one listens to her because the quick fix-it answer is to kill the host and everyone else if it comes into contact with. Byrne is very believable as a soldier who has no choice but to hold it together when the world around her quickly crumbles.

“28 Weeks Later” is an incredibly tense ride from start to finish, and it never lets up. There’s an unnerving sequence where the main characters have to flee from a chemical attack by going into the underground subway which is pitch black, and the only way they can make their way through is with night vision. This proves to be one of the scariest scenes I have seen in a motion picture in the longest time.

Whereas “28 Days Later” found a measure of hope at its conclusion, “28 Weeks Later” is unrelentingly bleak. Any hope is vanquished by the end, and its last shot features a famous landmark which shows how inevitable it is infection will spread from country to country. This sequel proves to be very respectful of its predecessor, and it goes even further into the nightmare the world is caught up in and beyond everybody’s control. It makes me eager to see “28 Months Later” which I hope will at some point in the future become a reality. But personally, I am waiting for “28 Millennium Later.” The way things are going right now, humanity is doomed in one way or another.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

James Wan Prepares Audiences for ‘Insidious: Chapter 2’

James Wan Insidious 2 trailer day

WRITER’S NOTE: This aritcle was originally written and published back in 2013.

The first trailer for “Insidious: Chapter 2” debuted online on June 5, 2013, but some very lucky die-hard horror fans got to see it the day before at one of the film’s shooting locations in Los Angeles: Linda Vista Community Hospital. In addition, the fans also got to take a tour around the creepy hospital, eat fine catered Mexican food and enjoyed cocktails, and they were treated to a Q&A with the movie’s director, James Wan. The cast of “Insidious,” Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey and Ty Simpkins are back for the sequel as well as Wan’s frequent collaborator, screenwriter Leigh Whannell.

Insidious Chapter 2 poster 2

Before anyone got to see the trailer, the fans were taken on a tour through Linda Vista which was closed down 20 years ago. For them, it truly looked like something out of a Stephen King novel as the walls were drained of color and marked with graffiti which said “Hail Satan.” Tiles were falling off the ceiling, trash covered the floors of various rooms, and cobwebs were visible on various objects like a staircase or an old wooden chair. There was even a room filled with medical files and the tour guides invited the fans to look through some of them to see why patients were unluckily committed to this haunted establishment.

Linda Vista Community Hospital

Once in a while people could hear noises coming from the darkest corners of the hospital. Were these noises the result of some evil spirit lurking around, the catering people bringing food into the building for guests, or was the film company that’s releasing “Insidious: Chapter 2” trying to play a cruel trick on the fans? No one was ever really sure.

Linda Vista 1

After taking in some fine Mexican cuisine and Spanish beer, the fans were ushered into the hospital’s chapel where the trailer made its world debut. It showed Josh (Patrick Wilson), his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) and their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) moving in with Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) after the horrific events of the first film. But of course, bad things start happening very quickly as a baby carrier moves around the house by itself, and Renai is greeted by a creepy woman who goes into the next room only to vanish a second later.

Now whereas Dalton was possessed in the first film, it turns out that Josh is the unlucky one in this sequel as a poltergeist invades his body and won’t leave him alone. The trailer also included a piece of Thomas Bangalter’s music score from “Irreversible” which succeeded in unsettling the audience even further as Josh is met by a scary looking spirit who tells him “he’s got your baby.”

James Wan Insidious trailer day 2

Once the trailer ended, Wan entered the chapel and was greeted with a loud and enthusiastic applause from the fans. He made it clear from the start that he and Whannell were not out to make a photocopy of “Insidious” but to instead continue the story exactly from where the first movie ended. Wan also said that with “Insidious: Chapter 2,” he wanted to take the story into a different genre.

James Wan: Whereas the first movie has a twist on the classic haunted house genre, the second one is a slightly different movie so it has a twist on different subgenre. It’s more in the vein of the classic domestic thriller but with a pervasive supernatural undertone. We wanted to take a movie about astral projection, astral traveling, and we felt that was a great premise to use in a scary movie. When Leigh and I started talking about making a haunted house movie we thought the whole astral projection angle could be something that’s unique and different to the haunted house movies. We combined those two together and we got “Insidious.”

Wan also delighted the audience when he told him that the sequel will deal “a little bit with the element of time travel.”

When it comes to special effects, Wan said that he prefers to use practical ones and did so with “Insidious: Chapter 2.” It’s not that he has anything against computer generated effects; it’s just that he finds practical effects are much scarier.

James Wan: For me it’s not necessarily seeing the scariest monster that makes it scary. It’s a character waking up in the middle of the night and he or she thinks that someone’s standing at the foot of their bed. That’s what makes things scary for me. So, for ‘Insidious’ it was putting those scares that I have personally in a movie.

Along with his longtime collaborator Whannell, Wan has made several horror movies including the original “Saw,” “Dead Silence” and “The Conjuring.” One fan asked Wan where he gets all his ideas for movies, and he responded by saying he finds inspiration by scaring himself late at night. While it might seem like very few things could ever scare Wan, he unabashedly described himself as a “chickenshit” and said everything scares him.

James Wan: When I was designing some of the scares for “Insidious” and my previous scary movie that I shot, one of the things that I would do, I would walk through my house with all the lights out and think up these really these really tricky, creepy scenarios. If I get really creeped out then I know it’s working and I’d run back to my computer and write it.

Wan also recollected how one time while writing a scene for a movie, his dog started barking at something. He described how his dog would stand in a corner of a room at 2 or 3 a.m. in the morning and just start barking, and then once the dog stopped, she would track whatever it was she was barking at around the room. While Wan freely admitted he loves his dog, he also said “she scares the heck out of me sometimes.”

Even after making several horror movies, Wan said that it is still a challenge to scare audiences as they always try to stay one step ahead of the filmmakers. With “Insidious: Chapter 2,” his goal was to ground the sequel more in the real world as he felt the story would be more effectively scary. When asked if the sequel will answer any questions the original did not answer or if it will bring up new ones, Wan replied that this one will “answer questions, but hopefully not in the way you expect.”

“Insidious: Chapter 2” will be unleashed in theatres on September 13, 2013 (yes, Friday the 13th). Up next for Wan is “Furious 7” in which he will be taking over the directorial duties from Justin Lin. But when asked what his dream project as a director is, Wan gave the audience an answer many did not expect.

James Wan: I’m a big comic book fan, I’d like to do a comic book film. I’m a romantic at heart, so a pet project of mine that I’ve always wanted to do is a big screen version of “Beauty and the Beast.” That way I can play with the scary creatures, the horror of that and it has this great story.

‘Insidious: Chapter 2’ is More of a Continuation Than a Sequel

Insidious Chapter 2 poster

My feelings towards “Insidious: Chapter 2” are not much different from how I felt about “Insidious.” Neither movie scared me in the way they scared my friends, and they don’t really hold a candle to the “Paranormal Activity” movies in terms of making you jump out of your seat, but I did admire their cleverness as they turned the genres they were exploring upside down, and both films gave me something I wasn’t expecting. But moreover, the real strength of “Insidious: Chapter 2” is it doesn’t feel like a sequel as much as it feels like a continuation of what came before it. Part of me was expecting a simple retread of the original, but the filmmakers succeed in adding more to what came before.

It reunites the horror team of director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell, both who made the first “Insidious” movie as well as the first “Saw.” What drove me nuts about “Saw” and its sequels wasn’t the gore (the way I see it, the gore the merrier), but the plot twists which ended those movies left me with the most enormous of headaches as they expected me to believe Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) could pull this or that off, and I didn’t buy any of the conclusions for a second. The “Insidious” movies, however, don’t make the same mistake, and what I admired was how certain questions from the original film got answered here. Perhaps a close analysis would reveal plot holes, but both movies seem to connect together in a way which makes sense.

Like “Halloween II” (whether it’s the original sequel or Rob Zombie’s), “Insidious: Chapter 2” starts off where the original ended. Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) has successfully rescued his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) from the Further, but after a peaceful moment where the family is reunited, his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) discovers paranormal investigator Elise Rainer (Lin Shaye) has been strangled to death. Josh is suspected to have strangled her, but he convinces Renai he did not. Soon after that, things slowly get back to normal as Josh moves his family into his mother Lorraine’s (Barbara Hershey) house, but it doesn’t take long for certain objects to move around on their own. The question is, did Josh really return from the Further, or did someone else come back in his place?

Now Wan and Whannell had a lot of fun playing around with the haunted house genre with the first “Insidious,” but now they are forced to up their game with this one. “Insidious: Chapter 2” is more of a domestic thriller with a bit of astral projection and time travel thrown in to mix things up. While it does deal with the same elements which made its predecessor a success, this sequel never feels like a simple repeat of the original. Both these films were made by people who have seen just about every horror movie known to man, and they have gone out of their way to subvert all those clichés we are used to seeing. With this movie, I was never entirely sure of what to expect, and that’s just the way I want it.

Wilson, Byrne, Hershey and Simpkins are every bit as good as they were in “Insidious,” and they don’t look like they have missed a bit between the original and the sequel. Angus Simpson and Whannell also show up again as Tucker and Specs, and they provide the comic relief this sequel needs, and they never overstay their welcome.

Joining the “Insidious” franchise this time around is Steve Coulter who plays Carl, Elise’s protégé in the paranormal arts. I am not familiar with Coulter’s work, but he gives a strong performance here as he works to help the Lambert family deal with what has been haunting them so viciously. It turns out he is a journeyman actor who has made many appearances in both film and television, and his veteran status serves this part well as Carl is an expert who has dealt with these situations extensively, and this makes him very believable as someone who has seen the worst things life has to offer.

Some fans may complain about the lack of scares in “Insidious: Chapter 2,” but for me, I’m just glad this sequel kept me intrigued throughout. Whether you find it terrifying or not, it’s a film which does keep you on edge from start to finish. When the movie ends, it turns out that there just might be room for another “Insidious” sequel, and there is a sequence at the end which implies a follow up will be coming our way. But even if it doesn’t, you can be sure the spirits (evil or otherwise) will be haunting you while you sleep.

* * * out of * * * *

‘X-Men: First Class’ Represents What a Prequel Should Be Like

X Men First Class poster

X-Men: First Class” is a huge improvement over the previous entry, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and it’s also the best film in the series since “X-Men 2.” It’s breezy fun, the special effects are terrific, and the emphasis on character this time around makes for a more involving prequel. With Wolverine shoved to the side, this fifth movie and the second prequel in the long running franchise, many other characters get their chance to shine.

The primary focus of “First Class” is on Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Michael Fassbender) as we see the significant events which shaped and brought them together. But while Charles’ upbringing was a privileged one, Erik’s was unbearably tragic as he and his parents were imprisoned in a World War II concentration camp. Erik’s ability to control magnetism becomes evident early on, and this talent soon gets exploited by scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) who commits an atrocious act in front of him. From there on, the driving force in Erik’s life is one of bloody revenge.

Prequels are tricky because we are naturally inclined to be against other actors taking over roles previously portrayed by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. Then there’s that cynical feeling of studios taking this route just to save money. It was deemed after “X-Men: The Last Stand” that a fourth movie with the same cast would have been far too expensive to make. Of course, with a reported budget of $160 million, “X-Men: First Class” doesn’t sound like much of a bargain. Moreover, does anyone remember “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd?” Did you think audiences were going to be fooled by a Jim Carrey-less prequel? Anyone remember “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas?” Heck, does anyone remember the first “Flintstones” movie? I remember seeing it, but the plot details escaped me once I walked out of the theater.

But what’s great about “X-Men: First Class” is the cast doesn’t need to worry about living up to the actors who inhabited the same roles before them. They get to approach these classic characters in a different light, and this frees them up from any restrictions which could have been imposed on them. Characters like Mystique and Dr. Hank McCoy are given more depth and complexity than ever before, and many surprises are in store for the audience as the script invests a lot of emotion in these characters including those bad mutants we rooted against in the past.

James McAvoy is excellent as the young Charles Xavier, and he looks like he had lots of fun making this prequel. Whereas Patrick Stewart’s Professor X was wise and mature, McAvoy’s is just getting started in his career and comes across as quite the ladies’ man. I also admired that while Charles is incredibly intelligent, we find his ego getting the best of him. So sure of all the things he is knowledgeable of, McAvoy does great work in making Xavier well-intentioned but not as open to mutants being themselves in the real world.

Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto remains one of the most fascinating characters in the “X-Men” universe. While he’s been the series’ chief villain and a megalomaniac, Magneto is simultaneously an anti-hero and has even been seen as a hero in the comic books. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for him considering the horrors he was exposed to in his youth, and it makes his future actions understandable, if not excusable. No wonder actors have so much fun in this role; you never know for sure the direction Magneto will end up taking. All you can say is, whatever he ends up doing, it will be to his benefit more than anyone else’s.

With movies like “Fish Tank” and “Inglourious Basterds” under his belt, Michael Fassbender is the perfect choice to play the young Erik Lehnsherr before and after he becomes Magneto. Fassbender has given performances deep with complexity and feeling; looking like the good guy at one point and then later turning into one seriously twisted individual. As Erik, he is great at showing the different layers to this character who is forever caught in a horrific moment he can’t get out of.

But one character who really gets expanded in “X-Men: First Class” is Raven whose shape-shifting abilities earn her the nickname of Mystique. Rebecca Romijn played Raven in the first three movies as a villain, and her character never got much in the way of psychological depth. Jennifer Lawrence, however, gets more to work with as we come to meet Raven at the time her allegiance to her “brother” Xavier begins to wane.

In Lawrence’s hands, she makes Raven/Mystique a strong female role model, one who is determined to be open about who she is and not be ashamed of it. While hiding herself in human form, as she is encouraged to do so by Charles Xavier, Raven’s frustration at appearing in public as someone other than herself is beginning to take its toll. Lawrence is riding high on some incredibly strong performances, and she continues to show how far her acting chops can stretch.

With Bryan Singer returning to this franchise as a producer, I’m sure he had a good hand in getting this particular entry focused more on character development. Each character is shown to be suffering through conflicted emotions as to what path the mutant race should follow, making them no different from the humans who deal with many of the same issues. Mutants are seen as the next stage in human evolution, but the haunting question of whether this will be to humanity’s best interests or detriment always hangs in the air.

But the person who deserves the most credit for “First Class” is its director, Matthew Vaughn. Coming off of the gleefully rebellious “Kick Ass,” one of 2010’s best movies, he manages to bring a lot of inventive energy to a franchise in desperate need of it. Vaughn also makes the special effects benefit the actors instead of just overwhelming them. What made the first few “X-Men” movies so special was the amount of emotion they generated, and the same thing is definitely the case here. It’s our connection with these characters which makes the action set pieces all the more exciting.

If there are any problems with “X-Men: First Class,” they come in the last half as the filmmakers become overly concerned about bringing the characters in line to where they are at in the first “X-Men” film. This was also a big problem with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” even though that prequel was much more convoluted. It would have been nicer to see the friendship between Charles and Erik get expanded instead of just ending this one with them taking opposite sides. Then again, perhaps it still could be expanded on in future installments.

Kevin Bacon, always a terrific actor, is perfectly detestable as the movie’s most irredeemable villain. At the same time, I wished the writers had expanded on his character more. Compared to the others, Sebastian Shaw threatens to be a little too one-dimensional in his actions. If Sebastian had more complexity to him, it would have made the transition of power between him and Erik all the more believable and compelling.

Other strong performances come from Rose Byrne as Dr. Moira MacTaggert and Nicholas Hout as the highly intelligent yet shy Dr. Hank McCoy. On the other hand, while January Jones is amazingly beautiful as Emma Frost/White Queen, her one-note delivery of dialogue is one of this film’s major detriments.

“X-Men: First Class” is a prequel done in the same spirit of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” and it’s proof you don’t need Wolverine present to make a good “X-Men” movie. This is a reboot which works to everyone’s advantage, and I am eager to see what comes next.

By the way, don’t bother staying through the end credits. There’s no post-credits sequence, so take care of that urine ache ASAP.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Get Him to The Greek’ Allows Us to Forget about Sarah Marshall

Get Him to the Greek movie poster

We have sequels and franchise reboots or remakes up the wazoo this summer, but it feels like it has been forever since we had a movie spin-off. I know there are tons of them on television these days, but TV spinoffs seem to be a necessity, especially with shows like “Law & Order” and “CSI.” We’re gonna have “Law & Order: Los Angeles” in the fall, proving the cancellation of the original “Law & Order” never ended anything. Personally, I’m waiting for “Law & Order: Barstow” and “CSI: Chico.” Now those would be the ones to really shake things up!

In fact, the last time we had a movie spin-off was “US Marshalls” which took Tommy Lee Jones’ character of Sam Gerard from “The Fugitive” and gave him his own movie. Looking back, it was more of a remake of “The Fugitive” than anything else.

Now we have “Get Him To The Greek” which takes Russell Brand’s character of spaced out rock star Aldous Snow from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and has him starring in his own movie movie. Give Hollywood some credit here for being a little more creative than usual. By making a movie based on a supporting character from another, they show an air of confidence they usually only pretend to have.

Whereas Aldous was drug free in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he is shown to haven fallen off the wagon big time in this one as we watch him suffering the after effects of a horrible song he wrote and recorded called “African Child.” The song was declared to be the worst song of the decade, and it places second to apartheid as the worst thing to happen to Africa. The love of his life, Jackie Q (Rose Byrne from “28 Weeks Later”), ends up leaving him along with their son Naples, and he proceeds to go on one drinking/drug binge after another as his life goes from worst to intolerable. Then he hits rock bottom, but this doesn’t stop his spiral any.

Several years later, a record company intern named Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) brings up at a meeting how it is coming up on the 10 year anniversary of when Aldous performed a concert at the Greek Theater, one which resulted in one of the best-selling live albums of all time. After Aldous confirmed with Aaron’s boss, Sergio (Sean Combs), that he will do a new show to celebrate this occasion, Sergio sends him out to England to fetch Aldous and to make sure he makes it to the concert on time.

Judd Apatow is of course behind this one as a producer, and the setup reminded me a lot of his movie “Funny People.” Big fan meets his celebrity idol, discovers being where the celebrity is can be the loneliest place of all, and they somehow connect at the end in a way they never thought possible. But this one is just a flat out comedy and has none of the dramatic edge of “Funny People.” Its humor is vulgar and crude, but like all good Apatow productions, it also has a heart.

Like “Knocked Up,” “Get Him To The Greek” exists in the entertainment world. Hearing Aaron talk about how a new concert will spur large revenue for the record company, allowing them to re-release Snow’s back catalog in new remastered editions with bonus material struck a cord with me. I always fall for this stuff myself; remastered CD’s which make you actually feel like you’re in the room with the band as they jam together. I have been an addict of these remastered editions ever since I bought the one for Eric Clapton’s “Behind the Sun.”

This is not to mention all the cameos from artists like Pink and television personalities including Meredith Vieira from the “Today” show. You even have Mario Lopez and Kurt Loder poking fun at their public perception, something they probably would not have done ten years ago. “Get Him To The Greek” does not take place in some fairy tale world where everything ends up all nice and tidy. The laughs end up stinging much more here because they remind us of all those celebrity controversies the media thrusts at us every single day.

Russell Brand’s own drug addled past has been chronicled for some time now, so part of the fascination with watching him here is figuring out where he ends and Aldous Snow begins. Regardless of how out there he may seem in the media, there is something about his personality that makes us watch his every move. Not once does he do anything to hide his character’s hedonistic ways, and he scores one solid laugh after another. I’m not sure what to say about him as an actor because I haven’t really seen him in anything else, but watching him again as this character was indeed worthwhile.

Jonah Hill also was in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” as a waiter, but here he plays an entirely different character. From “Superbad” to “Funny People,” he’s been basically playing the same kind of role over and over again. Here, he plays his most grown up character to date. As Aaron Green, he also gets to lose his trademark hairdo which makes him look like Little Orphan Annie. Clearly, his high school days are behind him, and he has us laughing at the most insane and compromising positions his character keeps stumbling into. Hill even has a great “Pulp Fiction” kind of moment, but I leave it to you to discover it for yourself.

But while Brand stole every other scene in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he has this movie stolen from him by Sean Combs. That’s right, Puff Diddy is in this movie as record company executive Sergio Roma, and it allows him to parody his own image as a hip hop entrepreneur. What I loved about his performance is you never get the feeling he was trying to be funny. The more serious he gets, the more gut-bustlingly hilarious he becomes, and no one sells the term “mindfuck” the way he does here. It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing for laughs instead of playing the scene, but Combs never falls victim to it here.

You also have some nice supporting performances from actors like Colm Meaney, the “Star Trek” journeyman actor who plays Aldous’ father Jonathan, and he makes this man anything but a father figure. Having used his drug addicted son for his own gain, it is very surprising these two actually bother to be in the same room together. Rose Byrne also has some great moments as the love of Aldous’ life, Jackie Q, and her own music is ridiculously controversial in its own terms.

“Get Him to The Greek” was written and directed by Nicholas Stoller who also helmed “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Stoller does good work here, but he does let the pace drag towards the end to where there are lulls where you are waiting for the next big explosion of laughter. All the same, comedy is hard work, so you have to give him credit for the loud laughs he does get out of us.

Is this as good as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”? Not quite. In fact, “MacGruber” was a funnier movie in retrospect, regardless of its audience not showing up when it was released. The plot itself is no different from a lot of road trip comedies, and you could compare this one a bit to John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” when you think about it. Still, I had a lot of fun with it, and it is easily more fun than a “Geoffrey.” Trust me; just see the movie and then you will know what I am talking about. I’m sick of giving away the best parts of movies anyway.

* * * out of * * * *

The Meddler

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When reading the plot synopsis of “The Meddler,” I walked into it expecting a formulaic comedy dealing in stereotypes like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” did. Not that working with stereotypes is always a bad thing, but it can get old very quickly and leave audiences with not much that is worth remembering when they leave the theater. Plus, the movie’s story deals with a parent interfering in the life of their offspring at the most inconvenient time in their life, and how many times have we seen that before? We all know it will build up to that moment where the offspring will say, “Mom, I love you but will you PLEASE GET THE HELL OUT OF MY LIFE??!!” But despite this inescapable confrontation, we know everything will work out in the end.

Well, “The Meddler” turned out to be a pleasant surprise as it is a movie made from the heart more than anything else. A lot of it has to do with the fact writer and director Lorene Scafaria (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) based the story on her own mother and the relationship she had with her. But while this might sound like a buddy comedy, it’s really more about the mother and it gives Susan Sarandon one of the best roles she has had in recent years.

Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini who, as “The Meddler” begins, is staring listlessly at the ceiling fan in her bedroom. We learn Marnie was recently widowed and has since moved from the east coast to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). As the title suggests, she endlessly interferes in Lori’s life and then goes on to help others whom she feels need her assistance. But deep down she is still struggling with the loss of her husband, someone she was with for decades and who has now vanished from her life. While she looks very pleasant on the outside, Marnie is still struggling to come to terms with her husband’s death and is trying to find new meaning in her life.

What I loved about Sarandon’s performance is how she avoids the easy trap of turning Minnie into a simple caricature and instead turns this character into this wonderful human who is infinitely generous to a fault. Even as Minnie gets a little too involved in her daughter’s life, Sarandon never makes her seem the slightest bit aggravating. It’s also great fun to see her roam around The Grove as if it were Disneyland because it shows just how new to Los Angeles Minnie really is.

Sarandon also has a great foil to work with in Rose Byrne who plays Minnie’s daughter Lori. Byrne also could have made Lori, a writer for television, into a caricature, but she makes her into someone with work problems we can all relate to regardless of whatever industry we work in. Lori is enduring a lot of problems in her life other than her mother such as being dumped by her celebrity boyfriend Jacob (Jason Ritter) which still weighs heavily on her, and she is not sure how she can move on past her heartbreak. Ever since the scene in “Neighbors” where she succeeded in getting two college students to seduce one another, she has remained a terrific actress and one with very sharp comedic skills.

During “The Meddler,” Minnie is met by a couple of men who are eager to get to know her better. One is Michael McKean’s overly earnest Mark whose idea of a date is to take Minnie to the Holocaust Museum, but it’s hard to imagine anyone getting romantic over there. McKean is always fun to watch no matter what movie he’s in, and he makes the most of his limited screen time as a guy who can’t quite take a hint.

The other suitor is a retired cop turned movie set security guard who goes by the name of Zipper, and he is played in a scene-stealing performance by J.K. Simmons. While being upstaged somewhat by an awesome looking mustache, Simmons makes Zipper into a uniquely lovable guy, and he is wonderful to watch as he introduces Sarandon to his nest of chickens. We’ve seen this Oscar-winning actor go from playing a warm-hearted father in “Juno” to an insanely brutal music instructor in “Whiplash,” and this is not to mention his terrific work in the first three “Spider-Man.” But in “The Meddler” Simmons gets to play a role many of us haven’t seen him play before, a romantic leading man, and he pulls it off beautifully.

What makes “The Meddler” an especially strong movie is how genuine it is in its emotions. Not once did its story feel the least bit manipulative, and its portrait of people trying to move past the loss of a loved one feels authentic in its portrayal. Nothing ever feels cloying or artificial, and it also helps that Sarandon, Byrne, and Simmons are surrounded by a wonderful cast which includes “SNL’s” Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch (the moment where she tosses a baby shower gift aside is priceless), Jason Ritter, Casey Wilson and Jerrod Carmichael. Each actor succeeds in creating unique characters who are fun to hang out with, and watching them is a reminder of how there is never a role too small for an actor to play.

Although it deals with the heavy subjects of grief, heartbreak and losing a loved one, “The Meddler” proves to be a very positive movie which is optimistic in its view of life. In a time where many movies feature infinitely cynical characters, here’s one with a woman of a certain age (and lord knows there’s not enough of those) who is very giving and generous. Even when she appears to be more generous than anyone should be, we keep watching the movie with the hope her spirit will stay strong during even the toughest of times.

“The Meddler” was made on a low budget and on a very shooting schedule, and everyone involved succeeded in giving us something much better than we could have expected. Please don’t let the fact it is not a superhero movie keep you from checking it out.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Exclusive Interview with Dana Ben-Ari on her Documentary ‘Breastmilk’

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The documentary “Breastmilk” marks the directorial debut of Dana Ben-Ari, and it deals with a subject we think we know a lot but really don’t: breast feeding. It follows first-time mothers of different ages and backgrounds as they deal with the breast feeding process in various ways, and it documents the successes and struggles they are forced to endure. While some are pro-breast feeding, others find themselves relieved at not having to go through with it. But throughout “Breastmilk,” Ben-Ari never judges the families and prefers to present their stories as objectively as possible. Sure, there are a number of instructional videos, books, experts, lactation experts and do-it-yourself guides you can find on YouTube, but there really hasn’t been a film which explores real people going through this process before this one.

I got to speak with Ben-Ari while she was in town to do press for “Breastmilk,” and I congratulated her on making a documentary which will appeal to both women and men. It certainly promotes a lot of discussion on breast feeding, and it will be interesting to hear what people who see this documentary have to say about it. We talked about what drew her to make “Breastmilk,” how she went about choosing its participants, what surprised her most about the making of it, and the importance of including gay couples in this debate as well.

Ben Kenber: What was your main inspiration for wanting to make this documentary?

Dana Ben-Ari: Well I am a mother myself and I am pro-breastfeeding, and I’ve seen many women in many families struggle and go through these similar experiences. I thought that this would be fun and interesting to explore on camera because I think that it is part of a larger conversation around feminism, and I thought that voicing and making these experiences visible would be very helpful and important.

BK: In regards to the people who participated in this documentary, how did you go about selecting them?

DBA: We posted various flyers and we posted on parent sites and groups and word-of-mouth and friends. We had an overwhelming amount of emails and stories shared, and then we realized that we wanted to find pregnant women who were carrying their first child so that we could have a more immediate first time experience. We started with that, and then I wanted to have a few other families participate in the conversation because I thought that families with slightly older kids, as you see sprinkled throughout the film, just provide a little bit of a different perspective than the young families who are going through it for the first time. That’s how we came out with that balance.

BK: Have you kept in touch with the participants since you finished making this documentary?

DBA: Yeah, a few of them came to one of the Saturday night screenings and then the Sunday screening. We’ve been in touch. A few people have moved out of New York, but the ones in New York try to come to the screenings when they can.

BK: Were there any really big surprises while you were making this documentary?

DBA: I learned a lot about filmmaking because this is my first film, so that was quite interesting. I had a great cinematographer (Jake Clennell) who taught me how to be in the room but still respect the space and the experience, and we really learned a lot about being patient and giving that families time. What also stood out was how vulnerable all of these families are and how women are still oppressed.

BK: One woman talks about how women are still made to feel bad about their bodies, and that’s a shame. You get the feeling that people who say that probably don’t understand what the experience is like, and we are seeing that experience in front of us. They are doing the best they can.

DBA: Right. All of these families are doing the best that they can.

BK: One of my favorite scenes is when a white couple goes to one of the black mothers and gets bags of breast milk. It reminded me of picture I saw in a magazine where a heart from a white person was placed next to a heart from a black person, and you see that there’s no difference between them. It’s the same thing with the breast milk because, in the end, milk is milk. How did you come to get that scene?

DBA: We knew that we wanted to show some donations, and I looked for women who were looking for milk donations. One of the women that we had been following did have a lot of milk that she wanted to donate, and I asked her if she wanted us to help her find somebody. So we followed the adoptive mother through a number of attempts, and then we also had this one. We had a couple more milk donations scenes that didn’t make the cut, and we were just left with this one which was really a great scene because so much gets covered. There’s so much you can discuss from that one little moment, and that was very natural actually (those reactions).

BK: Was there anything in particular that you wanted to capture but were unable to for one reason or another?

DBA: Not so much. I’m quite happy with everything. We packed so much in. I wish we’d have more time to develop more stories, but as far as 90 minutes go I think we covered quite a lot. There’s so much there that I think people may not have thought of, and it just inspires these questions and their interest.

BK: Going back to what the cinematographer told you about respecting the space, can you talk a little bit more about that?

DBA: He is very good and very talented at what he does, but he also is very good at being very social and knows how to make people feel comfortable. But then also, as a mother myself, I had some experiences with what some of these families were going through, and I really did not get too involved in their journey. So even if some couples were arguing over a formula I really stayed out of it, and that was something he and I discussed that we were not going to get involved in. We were just going to let things play out. Of course, if somebody had asked me privately off camera certain things I would tell them, but we really didn’t want to affect their decisions and their experiences. So I think we did a good job with respecting their choices and their decisions.

BK: I also liked how the documentary dealt with gay couples, both male and female, and you sort of wonder how certain couples deal with that or not being able to give their children breast milk (men can’t, but they do keep trying). It’s great to see them in the groups because what they go through is no different from what anybody else is going through. Was that what you were hoping to show?

DBA: Yeah, I loved that too. I think it’s like dropping certain things without an editorial just to make people think about what is family and what is community and what does it mean to be male, what does it mean to be female, all of those questions. While there are some differences, the similarities sometimes are really much greater than we realize. I think that those are wonderful moments in the film, and I think it’s important to include a diverse group because our country is diverse. If we just focused on the one or two examples I think we miss a lot.

BK: A couple of days ago I saw the movie “Neighbors” which stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, and there is a scene where Seth gets sprayed with Rose’s breast milk. I was reminded of that when you show the montage of women squeezing the breast to show how much milk can come out of them, and it made the scene from “Neighbors” seem more realistic as a result. What was it like filming that montage?

DBA: Oh that was a lot of fun (laughs). That was a lot of fun and a lot of women had not really had that experience before, so we left those women feeling very satisfied that they got something of the experience. But really, this movie is about community and the body and how we’ve become and how nice it is for women to get reacquainted with their bodies and also just accept themselves as women. That was one of those celebratory moments in the film and humorous as well.

BK: Are you planning a follow up documentary to “Breastmilk” or do you have different plans for the future?

DBA: Well I have some ideas but not a follow-up to this. Some people are asking if there’s going to be a “Breastmilk 2;” no, I don’t think so. But I hope to be involved in something fun again soon. I do have to see this through, you know? It’s the first film so I have to do the short film tour and be available for press as much as possible.

BK: How involved were the executive producers, Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, in the making of this documentary?

DBA: Well they came on after everything was done, and they’ve been very helpful and supportive in promoting it. That’s really more of our relationship, promoting and reaching a wider audience. They’ve been great.

I really want to thank Dana Ben-Ari for taking the time to talk with me. “Breastmilk” is now available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. Click here to view the movie’s website for more information.

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