“Rough Night”

What do “Bridesmaids,” “The Hangover,” “Weekend at Bernie’s,” and “Very Bad Things” all have in common? The new dark comedy “Rough Night” pays homage to all of them… Maybe a little too much.

The engaged and overworked Jess (Scarlett Johansson) reluctantly goes to Miami when her estranged friends host her bachelorette party. We’re then introduced to the eccentric Australian native Pippa (Kate McKinnon), overly dependent Alice (Jillian Bell), social justice warrior Frankie (Illana Glazer), and wealthy single mom Blair (Zoe Kravitz).

The party begins as a cliched party we’ve seen several times as characters snort coke, get drunk, and have a botched dance number. When they head home and order a stripper, things escalate to a dark level after Alice accidentally kills the stripper in morbid fashion. What now?!

“Rough Night” didn’t have the best trailer and I only saw it to get out of the house. “Rough Night” consists of a standard first act, hilarious second act, and an implausible final act. It benefits thanks to the cast’s performances. At least it’s better than the trailer.

Johansson has surprisingly sharp comedic delivery (I want to say it’s her first comedy) as the straight-faced Jess. Her deadpan delivery matches McKinnon and Bell’s absurd banters. McKinnon steals every scene with her impeccable improvising and perfectly timed expressions. Bell, Kravitz, and Glazer were hit and miss for me, but when they hit, I laughed hard.

Demi Moore and Ty Burrell steal one scene as married swingers trying to seduce the protagonists. It begins as a typical crude sexual situation, becomes uncomfortable, then ends in a darkly funny punch line.

The writers take the greatest chances in the second act. Whether we’re watching a character hustle meth for gas money, characters hide a dead body on a swing, or take a pizza break after cleaning their crime scene, I was impressed with how far “Rough Night” went.

END SPOILERS!!!

The final act kills the movie with its implausible and disappointing ending. The characters walk free thanks to a good Samaritan law that likely exists for movie logic. I would have preferred the writers to keep their mean streak and have the characters’ fates go a darker direction, but most movie-goers prefer the happy ending.

Despite the disappointing conclusion, I’m happy to see a comedy take chances. Especially considering I’m still getting over “Baywatch.”

Grade: C+

“Ghost in the Shell”

Scarlett Johansson is best with quiet, expressive roles and action heroines. In “Ghost in the Shell,” she does both and carries the ultimately bland cyberpunk film.

Humans have cybernetic technology and use it to enhance their strength, intelligence, and other traits. Major Mira Killian (Johansson), a cybernetic soldier, hunts for a mysterious cyber-terrorist (Michael Pitt) against her superiors’ orders. After encountering him, Killian recalls her past and realizes that her creators are hiding something.

I haven’t watched the anime, but from what I understand, “Ghost in the Shell” (1995) is one of the greatest anime films of all time. The live-action adaptation is uncertain if it wants to be a slow, artistic sci-fi film in tradition of “Blade Runner” (1982) or more action-packed like “Equilibrium” (2002).

The over-reliance on slow-mo action sequences are distracting from the film’s superb visuals and expressive moments. I enjoy Johansson performing her own stunts, but I was more interested in her character-driven moments. Rupert Sanders’s occasionally mesmerizing direction is best utilized in Killian’s solo scenes. It’s unfortunate there aren’t enough of those moments.

Writing wise, I prefer science fiction that shows the audience its world rather than tell us about it. The writers don’t trust their audience well since most dialogue scenes are exposition-fueled. Furthermore, the characters are emotionless with their delivery, with the exception of Pitt.

Pitt’s performance is cartoonish and I couldn’t tell if he was trying to sound damaged or imitate the Apple Macintosh. The best supporting performance goes to the great Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki. Kitano only speaks Japanese in this role and delivers each line with sass, charisma, and confidence. Why hasn’t he gotten more American roles?!

“Ghost in the Shell” had potential to be a mind-bending sci-fi film due to its visuals, concepts, and Johansson’s compelling performance. Maybe the sequel will expand more on those attributes.

Grade: C+

“Captain America: Civil War”

The third installment of a great franchise is usually the black sheep of the family. “Alien 3” (1992), “Spider-Man 3” (2007), “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006), “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), etc. But how to the Russo Brothers keep topping themselves and their previous installments?!

“Captain America: Civil War” takes place a year after last year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and after another catastrophic mission, Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt’s character from the 2008 “Incredible Hulk” movie) steps in and proposes a program to register all the Avengers as government operatives. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) isn’t a fan of this while Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is okay with being put in check.

The situation further escalates when Rogers finds his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) wanted for more crimes, prompting him and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to protect Bucky and enlist Scarlett Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to help. Iron Man, on the other hand, has Jim Rhoades/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and a young kid no one’s heard of named Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Who will win?!

“Civil War” begins like the same gritty spy movie/superhero hybrid that the great “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) was, but then evolves into something greater. This is an epic movie about a dysfunctional superhero family, plain simple. Rogers and Stark both have a strong case of sibling rivalry while Bucky is well, um, the black sheep! There’s much more to the movie than family metaphors… Like moral ambiguity!

“Civil War” shares the traits of some of the best spy and political thrillers, including “The Hunt for Red October” (1991) and “Crimson Tide” (1995) in which neither of our protagonists are right or wrong. It’s a debate. Would you want to surrender your freedom and be restricted? Or would you feel okay with restriction laws, knowing it’s potentially preventing more destruction?

We also get some suspenseful and masterfully directed action sequences, including one well-developed and cathartic fight between both teams at an airport. This fight emphasizes each member’s wit, power, and flaw as they beat the crap out of each other. It’s also just long enough. It’s not drawn out like the “Age of Ultron” climax.

Each cast member has their moments with Evans portraying Rogers as self-righteous, but also self-aware, Downey, Jr. playing Stark as vulnerable and lonely, Stan playing Bucky as a soldier with a lot of demons, Boseman playing T’Challa as honorable and vengeful, Holland playing Parker as a lovable smart-ass, and Rudd playing Lang as an everyman excited to be part of something bigger (it’s a better Ant-Man movie than last year’s “Ant-Man”). Daniel Brühl, of “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and “Rush” (2013), is chilling as a mysterious villain obsessed with the Avengers.

For an ensemble comic book movie, “Civil War” is a fine example of how to confidently manage a large number of characters without getting lost in weaker subplots. I’d recommend it to comic book fans and anyone who wants to see a great, fun summer movie.

Grade: A+

“The Jungle Book”

The producers of Jon Favreau’s (“Iron Man” 1 & 2) “Jungle Book” re-imagining should fire their trailer editor because they undersold this movie. I assure you this version isn’t lackluster, my friends!

So, we all know the story of “The Jungle Book”, right? If not, I’ll sum it up. There’s a kid named Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi) who’s raised by a panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and a pair of wolves, Raksha and Akeela (Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito). They want him to adapt to the ways of animal culture, but it’s inevitable he won’t because, well, he’s a human!

This is where the vicious tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) comes in. He believes Mowgli is a threat and will stop at nothing to kill him, but with the help of his animal family and a bear named Baloo (Bill Murray), Mowgli must face Shere Khan in a fiery climax.

Favreau’s interpretation of “The Jungle Book” is the best live-action version to date. The 1994 live-action version with Jason Scott Lee as a twenty-something Mowgli was fine, but it was missing the magic of the 1967 classic cartoon. Favreau restores the magic that made the original a fun and charming movie, thanks to old-fashioned studio logos, beautiful shots, and an innovative closing credits sequence.

Yes, we get to hear the classic songs like “Bear Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” (who spells “wanna” like that?”), and they are just as charming as the original. This movie is also visually stunning and thrilling!

The intensity comes mostly from Shere Khan. He is an evil and merciless creature, and Idris Elba provides haunting voice work here. Everyone else delivers exceptional voice performances, but the standout is Bill Murray as Baloo. He’s hilarious, sassy, and classic Bill Murray in the form of a beloved bear.

Christopher Walken also steals a scene as King Louie – a menacing and charismatic orangutan who breaks out in a musical number. Scarlett Johansson is well-cast as Kaa, a lethal snake that’s used as a exposition tool. That’s the problem with both of these scenes – they don’t serve a purpose to the plot.

We’re here for Mowgli’s adventure and self-discovery; not a rushed subplot involving a mobster-like ape or a quick meeting with a seductive snake.

In addition to those two scenes, there’s also a heavily unbalanced tone. Favreau has a hard time deciding if he wants to keep a scene charming like the classic cartoon, or gritty like a DC movie.

Sure, those are a few shortcomings, but the movie is still a fun spectacle! There are talks of Favreau making a sequel and I’m looking forward to seeing these beloved characters return to sing again. Hopefully with a more balanced tone, though.

Grade: B+

“Hail, Caesar!”

The wacky Coen Brothers go back to their bizarre and experimental comedic roots with “Hail, Caesar!”. This is when they are at their best.

“Hail, Caesar!” is an episodic dark comedy set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, starring Josh Brolin as fixer, Eddie Mannix. Mannix is a neurotic man who acts tough, but is soft in a rough industry. We get a glimpse at a day in the life of Mannix, as he sorts out a pregnancy scandal with a single actress (Scarlett Johansson), manages a cowboy star’s (Alden Ehrenreich) miscasting in an art film, and searches for a missing debauched Hollywood favorite (George Clooney); all while keeping twin journalists (both played by Tilda Swinton) off his back.

“Hail, Caesar!” is likely the Coens’ most polarizing film since “The Big Lebowski” and it’s just as weird, due to its episodic format and semi-confusing plot. It’s also a movie that satirizes the movie industry while delivering jokes that require your undivided attention. Sure, it’s a bit drawn out and semi-heavy handed, but it’s damn good!

The Coens craft “Hail, Caesar!” as a part Film Noir, part Hollywood satire, and a part political satire, and it all works for the most part. Each cast member delivers rich and funny performances, as expected in a Coen Brothers movie.

Brolin delivers one of his quirkiest performances, portraying Mannix as a tough guy who’s overly concerned with whether or not he’s a good person, stressing over bad habits like smoking. Clooney is always his best with the Coens and delivers a hilarious performance as the dimwitted, egomaniac Kirk Douglas-type. Ehrenreich steals every scene as a Texan star who can’t deliver a simple line as directed, and Channing Tatum dances in a terrific cameo as a musical star with a mysterious background.

The Coens load “Hail, Caesar!” with great sequences, including movies within the movie (these are more introductory sequences for our cast), a smart banter between different religious figures on how Jesus should be portrayed, and some beautiful imagery (the film is shot by Roger Deakins of “Skyfall” and “No Country for Old Men”).

Some sequences and characters aren’t as well developed as others, particularly Tatum’s. With his character (not spoiling anything here), we should have either had more of him or none of him, despite the golden dance sequence.

The Coens vary between dark and violent thrillers like “No Country for Old Men” and Fargo, and quirky comedies like “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski”. “Hail, Caesar!” falls under the latter and is for anyone who loves movies or film history.

Grade: A-