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Out in Theaters: ANNIE

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There are three elements to Annie that sum up the 2014 remake: producer Jay Z, Glee choreographer Zachary Woodlee and Cameron Diaz‘s gum-smacking pie-hole. It’s a melting pot of bad taste that assumes putting a black girl in the titular ginger role is all it needs to account for its yucky existence. With music that’s bubblegum poppy even by Disney standards – all auto-tuned and ironed out to mimic the electro-caw of Billboard toppers – eruptions into song-and-dance that make no sense in the context of director Will Gluck‘s (Friends With Benefits) telling of the tale – sometimes other characters are cognizant of the songsplosions and they aid in propelling the narrative forward, other times the numbers are existential blobs of magical realism – and Cameron Diaz misunderstanding the difference between campy and straight up obtuse, Annie is a poorly intentioned money grab, pivoting away from family values and towards an indefensible thesis that dollar signs equal happiness.

The once adorable Quvenzhané Wallis of Beasts of the Southern Wild has sprouted into a proportionally adorable 11-year old and she’s the least to blame for the failure that is Annie. She’s not “good” in the role but she’s cute enough to make us go “Awww.” This being 2014 though, the concept of lil’ orphan Annie has gone out the window, replaced by a more contemporary and PC notion of lil’ foster kid Annie. Because orphanages are so 1982. But all the shady conditions of Ms. Hannigan’s orphanage carry over to Ms. Hannigan’s foster home –  borderline child slavery, condescension more evil than snarky, a bevy of lil orphans dreaming of the day their parents will return. But with Gluck’s clumsy hand, these grim circumstances come wrapped up in pretty bows. There’s no authenticity here, only bold-faced mockery.

As Hannigan, Diaz spits her lines like a drunk on the subway, missing the mark of subtle commentary by a country mile. She is awful. Jamie Foxx, playing a twist on Daddy Warbucks, is Will Stacks, a cell phone mogul (and is inexplicably (secretly) bald)) intent on blanketing the city in cell phone towers. He’s even got one in the Statue of Liberty. Huzzah! For an update as seemingly significant as this, there’s no underlying purpose to his career or commentary about the fact that a business man has literally planted his product inside the physical representation of freedom. How is something like that brought up and just tabled?! I digress but for a reason; this misstep provides an ample example of just how clueless the film ultimately is. In the end, Stack”s driving force is boiled down to a desire that no calls will ever be dropped. He shares his motivation with the Verizon Wireless test man.

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Foxx isn’t bad so much as tired-looking, like he’d rather be somewhere else, and his musical numbers – though aggressively affected and disparate stylistically (he’s straight soul baby)  – provide a significant step-up from tuneless compatriots Diaz and Bobby Cannavale (who isn’t otherwise bad in the role.) Rose Byrne amps up her effortless charm even if she’s saddled with one of the most aggressively WTF dance serving of the film (arms swingin’, fingers snappin’) though her character struggles with a (never explained) crippling bout of friendlessness that’s hinted towards perhaps being schizophrenia (her only friends were imaginary…)

There’s more plot holes as big as the sun (Spoiler: why would Annie’s orphan friends help audition fake parents for her? Seriously, why?! Are they just the worst friends ever? Also, how the f*ck can she not read?! How is she texting her friends then? And why is Foxx bald? WHY?!) and an overt smugness to Gluck’s proceedings. It’s a sliced bread family film with blinders on, entirely lacking in the purpose department and that’s largely because Gluck’s is one big game of assumption – assuming existing fondness for the character will allow this redressing to gloss over a floppy script, assuming that a pop-update to all the songs is necessarily a good, or even welcome, thing, assuming that we won’t notice how much this stinks of white people trying to write black people (the honky jive is just embarrassing.) It’s false, it’s lifeless and it’s unnecessary.

D

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Out in Theaters: HORRIBLE BOSSES 2

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A comedy sequel that slam-dunks over its predecessor, Horrible Bosses 2 is a sardonic, infantile laugh riot. Joke for joke, it’s more meaty than the 2011 original. The characters are churned up and the window dressings turned down. This has one and only one purpose: to make you laugh.

After decidedly not killing their bosses, Nick, Kurt and Dale have since gone into business for themselves, inventing a product known as the “Shower Buddy.” Their sudsy SkyMall idea lands them a spot on the nightly news (an appearance they accidentally botch with silhouetted sexual references) but not before production baron Bert Hanson (Christoph Waltz) notices opportunity.

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After ordering thousands of units of the American made all-in-one shower companion, Hanson pulls the plug on NickKurtDale.com (don’t try to say it fast) assuming the company will collapse and he can buy their already manufactured goods for pennies on the dollar. Considering their background in amateur crime, the sloppy trio decide to take matters into their own hands and respond with a kidnapping scheme to bargain Hanson’s son Rex (Chris Pine) to cover their lost capital. Hilarity ensues.

Reviewing comedy is a fickle game and one given over largely to subjectivity but for me, the comedy here really works, improving on a formula that looked better on paper than it actually was the first time around. Horrible Bosses 2 delivers on that promise of unabashed retardation. The first film was a half rack of ribs, occasionally tasty but built on chalky bones, while this is pure brisket; a tenderer cut that trims the fat and leaves just the jokes. The dead air has been filled with sweat, nicknames, non-sequitor and flagrant exaggeration. The archetypes are racketed up well past the point of normalcy and from Kevin Spacey‘s left ear diamond earring to Jamie Foxx‘s Motherfucker Jones penchant for chewing on slurpee straws to Charlie Day‘s perma-coked out mania, the energy of the group is solidified in a sense of juvenile glee nothing short of infectious.

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The main triptych were happy-go-lucky, fairly straight-laced dudes with a little bit of quirk but now their idiosyrnacies have been turned up to cable-network extreme. Jason Bateman is even more of a cowardly, self-righteous asshole. Jason Sudeikis drips numbness while pumping out a stream of off-putting sexual energy. Charlie Day is more, well, Charlie Dayish; his nervous energy and sweaty antics broadcast in all its kooky crack-baby glory. It’s the noisy, chaotic, dummy humor of It’s Always Sunny; the calculated misanthropy of dumb dudes doing dumb deeds.

Yes, Jennifer Aniston and her carnal explicitness busted my gut. Pine proved (yet again) that maybe comedy is what he was made for. And Day, Bateman and Sudeikis are all right on the money. It was a solution of funny people doing funny things and it had me laughing the whole way through. That’s not to say that what worked for me will necessarily work for you though. In fact, many will likely be put off by Horrible Bosses 2‘s short-order comedy. For me though, it’s one of the best studio comedies of the year; a hearty step up from their first outing and a nearly laugh a minute affair. Bring on number three. 

B

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Out in Theaters: THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2

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Even with a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 7.2 on IMDB, and a 66 on Metacritic, it’s almost universally agreed that The Amazing Spider-Man was mostly garbage. Despite electric chemistry between stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, the story bowed to the whim of the bizarre and childish, painting a doltish picture that recycled much of Sam Raimi‘s 2002 original. That is when it wasn’t involved with a villain’s pea-brained attempts to turn the residents of NYC into lizards. It was so inexplicably dumb that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 finds Harry Osborn – as a penitent mouthpiece for director Marc Webb – pointing out the absurdity of the reboot’s web-footed plotting. Thankfully this latest iteration will leave children and adults stupefied for a (mostly) different reason.

Since the events of the first film, Spider-Man has become a symbol of hope, a harbinger of otherwise overlooked justice, a vestige of good. Hell there’s even a scene where he interrupts a gang of bullies picking on a schoolyard nerd. Topical with potential real world impact? Double check.

As the weight of his promise to “keep Gwen out of it” weighs heavily upon him, his most meaningful relationship is in a constant state of “Whosawhatsis?” Even in the midst of his own high school graduation, he blows off Gwen and his awaiting diploma to put down Aleksei Sytsevich – Paul Giamatti sporting a deliciously xenophobic Russian accent. It’s clear that Spider-Man is his priority numero uno.

During that riotous downtown spectacle, Spidey saves Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) who goes on to court an unhealthy obsession with Spider-Man that eventually evolves into electric-charged malice. More on this later. Between reacquainting with old pal Harry (Dane DeHaan), piecing together the clues of his parent’s mysterious past, getting it on with Gwen, beating down Electro, making skrilla with freelance photography, keeping hordes of bullies at bay, and you know, just being f*cking Spider-Man, there’s a spider lot on his spider plate. Little does he spider know that his little spider world is about to get totally spider rocked. End plot summary. 

Webb and his team of vix effects gurus have upped the ante by a significant margin, making Spider-Man’s in-air acrobatics simply stunning when not entirely nerdtastically jaw-dropping. Webb manages to offer a taste of variety in Spidey’s web slinging action, slowing things Synder-style or occasionally stopping time (it’s the web time to The Matrix‘s bullet time) and zipping around what blocking this way comes to fulfill a sense of Parker’s preternatural senses.

In doing so, his peppy camerawork mostly draws dumbstruck excitement but even manages to milk some dramatic gravitas, that is until Spidey’s web shooters go dry – or short-circuit. Webb’s direction sings when he stops the clock but its his knack for staging the big set pieces with rich, tactile aplomb that make him so perfectly suited for the job. Though Spider-Man will likely never be the best of the supers, what Webb is doing with his actions scenes (which are surprisingly sparse throughout the film) is certainly next level.

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But like Webb’s direction, Garfield and his cast of cohorts have also matured a bit, to the many thanks of this audience member. Without a noxious Denis Leary (though he does appear in ghost form) and a wasted Rhys Ifans cluttering up the stage, this installment makes way for a crew of all around better characters and welcomes the continued adoration of those cheering for the Gwen Stacy/Peter Parker (is that abbreviated to Pewen or Gweener?) romance. It results in a Spider-Man movie that’s notably darker, more confident and markedly better than its predecessor. But that doesn’t mean it’s not without its faults.

Thanks to Sony’s heinous marketing blitz that knew no bounds, I fully expected to be guffawing at Jamie Foxx’s transbluescent Electro and thoroughly put off by yet another iteration of The Green Goblin (the third in 12 years) but they were unexpected easy highlights of the film. What I did not expect was to be face-palming over the repetitive nature of Gweener’s intimate scenes. Their on-again-off-again love fumble harkens to Raimi’s annoying Mary Jane/Peter Parker ‘will they or won’t they’ saga but I guess I should just expect Parker to be as inconsistent about his girlfriends as he is about his attitude. Seriously, this guy is pretty much full-blown bipolar.

Oscillating between nice guy with face-breaking grin to prissy grumbler flinging things across the room like he’s Honey Boo-Boo three slices of Dark Forest cake deep, Peter Parker would benefit greatly from a chill pill. Since much of the film is dedicated to his wavering attachment to Gwen, Peter’s pretty much stuck on “mope” setting. Yet as Spiderman, he’s got more whip to his wisecracks than Mr. Epps in a cotton field. We see the seams between Webb’s (500) Days of Summer ways colliding with the action figure slinging studio heads.

Everything is cherries and cream inside that spandex onesie and yet whenever he peeks his head out of his costume, his real world problems weigh him down tremendously. Threading together Spider-Man’s iconic quip-heavy persona with a decidedly angsty Peter creates some tonal inconstancy that the film never manages to resolve.

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A similar complaint can be directed at the villain department. With two full villain arcs to charge through, neither Max Dillon/Electro or Harry Osburn/The Green Goblin are given ample time to settle before they’re shaken up and thrown ravenous at NYC.

For a man whose powers come from bathing in a pack of radioactive electric eels, Dillon/Electro’s initial hesitation about his role was actually surprisingly potent. Rather than immediately turn to evil (here’s looking at you Mr. Osburn) he’s like a man transported into the body of a bear, unaware of his true potential and yet armed to defend himself against hostile enemies. His puppy dog introduction wins over our sympathy even if his whole “destroy everything” mantra that later comes into play seems inorganic and cheap. As Dillon/Electro, Foxx embraces the ridiculous elements of a big blue dude made of electricity but never embarrasses his Academy Award trophy in the process.

And though Harry Osborn’s transition would have been much better and carried more gravity had he been introduced earlier in this iteration of Spider-Man, Dane DeHaan does magnificent work in his glider-bound shoes. Seriously, this guy is a revelation, smugly arriving on the scene to show up the smattering of veteran talent surrounding him. I’ve always loved DeHaan’s dramatic work but really appreciate something so campy and unhinged from him. He’s soulful but deeply maniacal, a Joker-lite. Is it too early to call him a menacing, young version of Leo? Time will tell.

Even set to the background noise of Webb and Garfield pondering leaving the series sooner rather than later, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does move the puck forward a significant amount, setting up future installments that look to deviate further and further from Raimi’s beloved trilogy (ok first two are beloved, third is deservedly reviled.) With certain characters still in play and others notably missing from the picture, I have to admit that I’m actually looking forward to what’s next (especially the unorthodox sounding Sinister Six movie) rather than simply awaiting another mandatory installment…or four.  

C+

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