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Mini Reviews (January 2016)

The Words, The Forest, Get Hard, Girlfriends, Backcountry, Dirty Grandpa, The Good Dinosaur, The Boy

The Words (January 1/16)

The Words follows author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) as he arrives at a special event to read a lengthy excerpt from his latest novel, with the bulk of the proceedings detailing Clay's story of a young, struggling writer (Bradley Cooper's Rory Jansen) who stumbles upon an old manuscript and eventually decides to pass it off as his own. Problems ensue after a mysterious old man (Jeremy Irons) arrives on the scene claiming that Rory's book is actually his own, while the film also details Clay's present-day flirtation with a fetching young would-be writer (Olivia Wilde's Daniella). It's clear from the get-go that filmmakers Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal are looking to infuse The Words with a decidedly literary feel, as the movie, which generally unfolds like a novel, transpires in a deliberate fashion that's perpetuated by an ongoing emphasis on its different timelines - with the whole thing consistently buoyed by a mystery that grows deeper and deeper as time progresses (ie one wants to see where all this is going). There's little doubt, however, that the film is never quite able to become the engrossing drama Klugman and Sternthal have intended, with the arms-length atmosphere ensuring that the viewer's interest dwindles steadily in the buildup to the oddly underwhelming finale (ie the movie, for the most part, seems as though it's leading up to something far more profound and revelatory. Still, The Words is a solid drama that's anchored by one of Cooper's very best performances - with the film's ambitious nature generally compensating for its sporadically less-than-fully-realized atmosphere.

out of

The Forest (January 8/15)

A typically lackluster PG-13 horror effort, The Forest follows Natalie Dormer's Sara as she travels to Tokyo after her sister goes missing and subsequently embarks on a trek through the city's famed (and feared) suicide forest - with the character receiving assistance from a travel writer (Taylor Kinney's Aiden) who may or may not be as helpful as he seems. It's worth noting that The Forest, before it goes hopelessly downhill, boasts a fairly watchable vibe that's heightened by first-time filmmaker Jason Zada's stylish directorial choices, with the movie's first half faring better-than-expected thanks to an ongoing inclusion of surprisingly effective sequences. (There is, for example, a fantastic and thoroughly creepy interlude in which Sara visits a basement morgue to possibly identify her sister's body.) Even during its passable moments, however, The Forest's slick sensibilities ensure that it's unable to establish an atmosphere of dread and, even worse, is almost entirely lacking in authentic scares (ie there are way too many false "jump" moments here, to be sure). Far more problematic is the movie's deliberate shift into an increasingly meandering midsection, as scripters Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai place a growing emphasis on the rather tedious question of whether or not Sara is imagining the various threats surrounding her - with the inclusion of a (possible) human villain only compounding the movie's lackluster vibe. By the time the endless final stretch, which revolves mostly around Sara's running-and-hiding exploits in the title locale, rolls around, The Forest has squandered what could (and should) have been a spooky little horror flick - with the impressively grim finale coming far too late to make a positive impact.

out of

Get Hard (January 10/16)

Will Ferrell's steep descent into total irrelevance continues with Get Hard, as the movie, which at least doesn't feel completely improvised, suffers from a seriously (and increasingly) repetitive storyline and a dearth of laugh-out-loud funny jokes and gags. The narrative casts Ferrell as James King, a powerful stock broker who is arrested for fraud and quickly sentenced to 10 years behind bars. Fearing for his safety, James hires the man who washes his car (Kevin Hart's Darnell) to show him how to survive in the notoriously tough San Quentin prison - although, unbeknownst to James, Darnell has never been in trouble with law in his life. It's a fairly one-note premise that's run into the ground to progressively pronounced effect by first-time filmmaker Etan Cohen, as Get Hard, for the most part, aims for the lowest-common-denominator it terms of its comedic elements - with the screenplay, by Jay Martel, Ian Roberts, and Cohen, emphasizing a series of unfunny set-pieces generally revolving around Ferrell's character's extreme "whiteness" (eg James brawls with a group of armed gang members). There's little doubt, too, that Ferrell's typically lazy performance goes a long way towards exacerbating the less-than-engrossing atmosphere, and it's ultimately rather surprising to note that Hart, generally the worst aspect of a film, delivers a down-to-earth turn that stands as one of Get Hard's few positive elements - although, needless to say, his affable work is hardly enough to lift the proceedings out of its relentless doldrums.

out of

Girlfriends (January 14/16)

Directed by Claudia Weill and written by Vicki Polon, Girlfriends follows twentysomething New Yorker Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) as she attempts to cope with living alone after the sudden departure of her roommate (Anita Skinner's Anne). It's a low-key premise that's employed to consistently subdued effect by Weill and Polon, with the unapologetically episodic structure, which admittedly complements Polon's observant screenplay, preventing the viewer from wholeheartedly embracing the less-than-captivating narrative. There's little doubt, however, that Girlfriends benefits substantially from Mayron's incredibly appealing lead performance, as the actress delivers an open, warm-hearted turn that ensures Susan remains a completely sympathetic figure from beginning to end. The heavy emphasis on the protagonist's day-to-day endeavors results in a palpably authentic feel, to be sure, and yet it's difficult not to register a marked sense of disappointment by the film's inability to capture one's interest. It is, in the end, clear that Girlfriends functions best as a snapshot of its time and as a showcase for Mayron's captivating work, with the very specific character-study vibe sure to allow certain viewers to overlook the film's various issues (ie if one relates to the central character, one will surely find more here to embrace than most).

out of

Backcountry (January 15/16)

Backcountry follows an urban couple (Missy Peregrym's Jenn and Jeff Roop's Alex) as they embark on a weekend getaway in the woods, with problems (and violence) ensuing as the pair first lose their way and, eventually, run afoul of a vicious black bear. The familiarity of the premise is, at the outset, offset by filmmaker Adam MacDonald's stylish approach to the material, as the writer/director infuses Backcountry with a cinematic sensibility that nicely compensates for the less-than-novel storyline - with the watchable atmosphere perpetuated by the affable work of stars Peregrym and Roop. The movie's first major stumble comes with the protagonists' encounter with a mysterious backpacker named Brad (Eric Balfour), with Balfour's almost comically menacing performance proving effective at injecting a dose of campiness that was, up until that point, completely absent. From there, Backcountry progresses into a middling midsection revolving around Jenn and Alex's increasingly fruitless efforts at making their way to safety - with MacDonald, despite his best efforts, simply unable to ratchet up the tension on an ongoing basis. This is especially true of a mid-movie death that should be riveting but instead falls distressingly flat, while the movie's third act drags to an increasingly palpable degree before reaching a somewhat underwhelming climax. And while MacDonald admittedly does pack the proceedings with a handful of effective sequences - eg the bear's first appearance outside Jenn and Alex's tent - Backcountry ultimately feels like a short film that's been clumsily expanded to a feature-length running time.

out of

Dirty Grandpa (January 21/16)

Robert De Niro's efforts to completely obliterate his once-sterling cinematic reputation continue with Dirty Grandpa, as the progressively unwatchable movie forces the venerable actor into one cringe-worthy and desperately unfunny scenario after another. The narrative follows Zac Efron's uptight Jason Kelly as he's forced to drive his grandfather (De Niro's Dick) to Florida, with the movie subsequently detailing the characters' debauched exploits on the road and at spring break. It's interesting to note that Dirty Grandpa announces its less-than-competent, sub-sitcom-level intentions right from the get-go, as the movie's opening stretch features a number of aggressively over-the-top elements that are as tedious as they are devoid of laughs - with, for example, Adam Pally's irritating turn as an unreasonably wacky relative emblematic of the movie's misguided sensibilities. (Sample line of dialogue: "I'd rather let Queen Latifah shit in my mouth from a hot air balloon.") And while the movie admittedly does possess one or two passable sequences - eg Dick unleashes an amusing tirade on a golf course - Dirty Grandpa has been suffused with a whole raft of eye-rollingly ill-advised elements (eg a pair of seriously unfunny wacky cops) that, perhaps predictably, wreak havoc on the film's already-tenuous momentum. The laughably sentimental final stretch only confirms Dirty Grandpa's place as a fairly worthless piece of work, with De Niro and Efron's continuing efforts to elevate the proceedings proving fruitless in the face of bottom-of-the-barrel, from-from-competent material. (And this is to say nothing of Aubrey Plaza's nails-on-a-chalkboard turn as a lusty coed.)

out of

The Good Dinosaur (January 28/16)

One of Pixar's more entertaining recent efforts, The Good Dinosaur, which transpires in a world where dinosaurs and humans coexist, follows a scrappy young Apatosaurus (Raymond Ochoa's Arlo) as he's separated from his family and forced to embark on a treacherous journey back home - with his only assistance on the trek a feral child named Spot (Jack Bright). It's clear right from the get-go that The Good Dinosaur benefits from a refreshingly low-key modus operandi, with the movie eschewing the frenetic, eyeball-melting sensibilities of Pixar's last endeavor, Inside Out, in favor of a more episodic feel - which, when coupled with the typically stunning animation and strong character work, results in an opening half hour that's far more involving than one might've expected. The film's better-than-average atmosphere persists up until Arlo heads out on that aforementioned adventure, as scripter Meg LeFauve has infused the narrative with an egregious assortment of palpably formulaic elements and plot twists - with such attributes compounded by the protagonist's decidedly familiar character arc (ie he's forced to learn a series of lessons on his somewhat epic trip). It's clear, too, that LeFauve's episodic screenplay paves the way for a decidedly erratic midsection, while the action-packed final stretch ensures that the film runs out of steam before it arrives at its admittedly strong conclusion - thus ultimately cementing The Good Dinosaur's place as an entertaining yet far from spectacular Pixar release.

out of

The Boy (January 29/16)

The Boy casts Lauren Cohan as Greta Evans, an American nanny who arrives at a remote English estate to care for the child of a wealthy couple - with Greta's enthusiasm for the job souring once she discovers that said child is actually a life-size porcelain doll. (Creepiness inevitably ensues as Greta becomes more and more convinced that the doll is, in fact, sentient.) It's an inherently silly premise that's employed to less-than-engrossing effect by director William Brent Bell, as the filmmaker has infused the proceedings with a number of attributes that prevent the viewer from embracing either the material or the characters - with the most obvious example of this undoubtedly the almost unreasonably deliberate pace. The frustratingly slow atmosphere proves effective at highlighting the hoary elements contained in Stacey Menear's screenplay, with the narrative touching upon virtually all of the expected cliches of the haunted-house genre. (Much of The Boy's first half, for example, details Greta's exploration of the old house and the weird/suspicious noises she begins hearing within.) The inclusion of a few appreciatively larger-than-life sequences breaks up the monotony during the film's latter half, admittedly, although it's just as clear that action-oriented final stretch is more tedious and exhausting than anything else - which, when coupled with a climactic twist that couldn't possibly be more obvious, confirms and cements The Boy's place as just another run-of-the-mill, neutered horror effort.

out of

© David Nusair