Del and Mladen review ‘Instant Family’

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

“Instant Family” Starring Rose Byrne, Mark Wahlberg, Isabela Merced, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro and others. Directed by Sean Anders. 118 minutes. Rated PG-13. Amazon Prime.

Del’s take

I don’t care if it’s a gigantic, snot-nosed, scabby kneed, teen-angsty ball of schmaltz better suited to The Hallmark Channel than Amazon Prime. I loved “Instant Family” and I’d watch again – this time with two boxes of Kleenex at my side, not just one.

There, Mladen, are you satisfied? I admit it – I bawled, like a slobbery baby. Tears of joy, though I didn’t raise three kids and don’t know the other side of the parenting story, the one they never show in comedies about parenting. “Instant Family” is one of those movies that draws together many ribbons of improbability into a sparkly wrapped gift of feel-good, though the bow may be frayed and lopsided.

In “Instant Family,” Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie (Byrne) are hard-charging Gen. Xers who have ignored the ticking of their biological clocks to flip houses – until a snotty remark by a family member sets them on the path of becoming foster parents. At a fostering meet-and-greet they encounter smart, sassy teenager Lizzy (Merced), part of a package deal with her younger brother and sister. Pete and Ellie are charmed by Lizzy and take the plunge, bringing all three kids into their home with predictable and chaotic results. Mix one part teenage rebellion with another part adolescent oversensitivity and a dollop of pre-adolescent tantrums – plus a dog the size of a brontosaurus – and you’ve got a world class test of patience and persistence for first-time parents Pete and Ellie, who rise to the challenge with something I would not call “charm” but a kind of endearing, fumbling incompetence.

“Instant Family” has several laugh-out-loud moments tinged with humor befitting an R-rated comedy. Pete’s soliloquy about “rescue kids” during the foster parent orientation meeting is off-the-scale politically incorrect … but it’s funny as hell. When Lizzy’s romantic interest sends her a dick pic, Pete and Ellie show up at Lizzy’s high school for an epically hilarious confrontation that lands everybody in jail.

All this is not to say “Instant Family” is without flaws. The humor is uneven, bouncing between old-fashioned slapstick to farce, then subtle irony. It was hard to settle on a comedic tone for the movie. As they’re considering adoption, Pete reminds Ellie that people who foster children are the kind of people who volunteer even when there’s not a holiday, and he and Ellie don’t volunteer when there IS a holiday. That’s a clever line and there are others, but they are swallowed by the incandescence of burning napkin dispensers and baseballs bonking off young foreheads. Also, Whalberg and Byrne at times try too hard for the pathos befitting a youngish couple wanting to complete their lives, so it feels forced and unnatural at times. And the persistent preaching about the fostering and adoption “system” and its woes grew wearisome. Is “Instant Family” a comedy or a recruitment film? Yes, we know lots of troubled kids could use the steadying influence of a Pete and Ellie. But to be lectured about it over and over again tested my commitment to what is supposed to be an entertainment product.

Overall, however, the charms of “Instant Family” exceed its flaws and you’ll be unable to feel anything but happy when an exhausted Pete and Ellie finally come to understand what it is they’ve been looking for.

If you’re a fan of blended-family comedies like “Parenthood,” “Yours, Mine and Ours” or even “The Brady Bunch,” I think you’ll like the harder-edged “Instant Family.”  

I score the movie a solid B, edging toward B+.

I predict Mladen will remind you that I am not a parent, and he is, and because of that his interpretation is more valid than mine, to which I would reply that in a way I really am a “parent” and one of these days I will raise Mladen to at least understand the errors of his movie-watching ways.

Mladen’s take

No, Del, I am not satisfied.

And, yes, I have raised three kids, though they are my own, and in the same combination as the instant family, two girls, one boy.

And, no self-respecting paleontologist uses “brontosaurus” anymore. It’s diplodocus, though I’ll grant you apatosaurus, if you get pissy.

“Instant Family” is no better than a C+ for the simple reason that a movie that treats a family as its subject and object tends to be weak. It’s far more interesting when family foibles come to light as part of a larger story such as happened, if I recall correctly, in the 1995 “Brady Bunch” movie or the “Brady Bunch” sitcom. Recall that the BB sitcom dismissed the merged family in its title song and then the show moved on to tell a story about life, though it generally doesn’t include a maid.

The first quarter of “Instant Family” struck me as glib. That’s the other reason I give it its mediocre grade. Pete and Ellie, a childless and what the ’80s would label a yuppie couple, realize that material well-being ain’t all that satisfying or that they should share some of their fortunate condition with others or whatever. Also, I assume, Ellie’s biologic clock is ticking.

Typical of yuppies, or what Del calls Gen-Xers, the couple pursues the least cumbersome process and most physically painless way to family-hood – fostering. They wanted to test-drive children before committing to raising them or having a brood of their own. Any good Marxist would label that exploitative and any good capitalist influenced by Milton Freidman, efficient and rational because children cost money. In either case, the children are reduced to commodities.

I don’t get it. Why do people want to watch movies about families? We’ve all lived in one, whatever its form. We all know people who’ve lived in one, regardless of its form. We’ve all talked about our families and listened to others talk about theirs. Families are boring. The real-life family adventures that come along are spread across a lifetime, rather than 118 minutes of a film. When I watch a movie, I want to experience the terror of being targeted as food by a 25-foot-long, 6,000-pound white shark or the mind-bending notion that I’m getting raised by machines that tap my body as a source of heat and electricity. I want films that offer something other than a banal interpretation of living with, and in, a family, which I, and you, have done and are doing. Shit, watching a film about families makes me feel almost like a voyeur.

Also, as Del accidentally and indirectly touched on when he asked if “Instant Family” was a comedy or recruitment film for foster parenting, you have to be careful about mixing Hollywood with staggering problems such as the tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of children enduring inadequate parents and faltering childhoods. Look, does anyone, all four or five of you reading this review, NOT know that there are a whole lot of children out there who need bona fide parents? So, watch “Instant Family” with this analogue in mind, “Never give a pet as a Christmas present.” Fostering displaced children is a serious endeavor. The urge shouldn’t be triggered by watching a movie. Nor does highlighting foster parenting in a film do anything to lessen the need, which, paradoxically, might be the effect on some people. People like those who support twice-impeached fascist moron Trump.

Though, as always, I hesitate giving Del credit for any good point that he makes, I agree that there are a few comedic moments in the film that approach sparkling, but only one bit of the movie was genuinely heart-rending. Rose and Wahlberg are very good in the movie. I suspect they contributed exactly what the scriptwriters and director wanted to make the movie feel real-ish. The three semi-orphans portrayed by Merced, Spencer, and Notaro are very good, too. But, “Instant Family” contributed nothing fresh to the ever-popular moviemaking shtick of treating families as wonderful and sucky at the same time. If you’ve seen one family movie, you’ve seen them all.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.

Image courtesy of Dust.

“Prospect” Starring Sophie Thatcher, Jay Duplass, Pedro Pascal and others. Directed by Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl. 100 minutes. Rated R. Netflix.

Del’s take

I’m always a little nervous when Mladen chooses the movie to be reviewed. There’s no telling what he’ll come up with – some giant thing crawling out of the muck to wreak havoc on mankind, most likely. But this time Mladen resisted his misanthropic tendencies to recommend a fine little science fiction movie called “Prospect,” and it’s one I think some of you will enjoy.

The plot is simple: A down on his luck prospector and his teenage daughter travel to an alien moon where a cache of valuable gemstone-like objects awaits. Recover those objects and they’ll be able to pay off their debts and lift themselves from the wretchedness of their current existence. But along the way they encounter a couple of rogues who want to jump their claim. And there’s a ticking clock – the freighter they arrived on will depart in a few days and this will be its final trip to the alien moon with its poisonous forests.

The viewpoint character is Cee (Sophie Thatcher), who loves her father but has grown weary of his ne’er-do-well ways and yearns for the life of a normal teenager. Her father Damon (Jay Duplass) is one quick get-rich scheme away from having to chase every other quick get-rich scheme that comes along. On the moon’s surface they encounter Ezra (Pedro Pascal), who in my opinion steals the show as the murderous but ultimately human claim-jumper, he of a dubious but malleable moral code.

What fascinates me about “Prospect” is the world Caldwell and Earl created to frame their story. Gone is the usual sleek, antiseptic science fictiony setting with its focus on technology, gleaming metal and blinking telltales. The world of “Prospect” is littered with garbage, tchotchkes, an alien alphabet and people who are as trashy and disposable as everything around them – in other words, a world very much like the one we live in.

The plot itself is thin, but it works. More money and bigger talent might have cluttered the story with unnecessary and distracting plot subordinates and crappy special effects, but “Prospect” plods along with relative efficiency, focusing on a single imperative: getting off this infernal moon. I say “plod” because at times the action does seem to wallow in needless internal conflict and naval-gazing. It isn’t a plot suitable for an action movie anyway, but the directors could have slain at least a few of their little darlings and moved things along more briskly, with no harm to the pacing and tone.

Another anachronistic artifact – Ezra’s peculiar diction, a strangely stilted form of speech, almost as if he were quoting from 19th century literature – struck me as distracting and superfluous. It reminded me of the dialogue in “Bone Tomahawk” and I still can’t figure out what purpose it served in supporting the character or story. In “Bone Tomahawk” it lent a weird, offbeat humor to the proceedings, but I doubt that was the intent here. Perhaps it was intended to boost the gain of the vaguely western theme? I dunno.

I loved the look and feel of “Prospect.” It was unique and different, and I have not encountered unique and different in a long, long time. The directors eschewed many of the special effects you might expect of a sci-fi flick and that works to the movie’s advantage, enhancing its grungy look and amplifying the dirt-track poverty of its three primary characters.

I think sci-fi fans will appreciate “Prospect’s” virtues but I’m not sure a general audience will feel the same. It enjoyed a brief theatrical release but from there went to video-on-demand.

I’m giving it a B+. Caldwell and Earl did a lot of things right in making this movie and I look forward to their future efforts.

But Mladen gets only a C+ for choosing it. He should have been choosing movies like this all along and not clinkers like “Ice Spiders.”

Mladen’s take

Del, though praising “Prospect,” has failed to adore this terrific piece of sci-fi sufficiently. B+ my ass. The sleeper film is an A top to bottom, left to right, and diagonally. “Prospect” is intimate sci-fi such as “Sputnik,” “Arrival,” or “Children of Men,” albeit less provocative intellectually.

There are nothing but exemplary performances in “Prospect.” Where Del chooses Pascal portraying Ezra as the show stealer, I give Thatcher’s Cee equal billing and praise.

Ezra is cunning, but abides the thief’s code of right and wrong as a “fringeling” prospecting and “digging” for gems created by living organisms. I wonder if the beasties, which eat limbs if improperly neutralized because accessing their “aurelac” requires sticking arms into their mouths, were modeled on oysters. Like oysters produce pearls from grains of ingested sand that irritate them, the whatevers on Green seem to create fist-sized aurelac the same way. Neat idea.

Ezra is a well-spoken rogue with boundaries. He has a chance to shoot Cee during a tumultuous encounter, but doesn’t. The way he demonstrates aversion to killing a child is wonderful. Nor did he sell her to god-fearing, convoluted-thinking, brazenly hypocritical religionists for a case full of neatly packed aurelac.

Cee’s reaction, measured in facial expression, when the religionists offer Ezra gems for the “girl” is compelling and authentic. It’s as though the youngster was able to imagine herself actually getting sold like property. Thatcher as Cee demonstrates uncanny acting again and again. From getting high chewing laced gum to a subtle hint of calculation and greed when Ezra offers her the prospect of collecting a fortune in aurelac to the way she urges him to keep moving with the wave of the rail gun in her hand, Thatcher is perfectly comfortable with her role as a resourceful teenager with still girlish interests. Why hasn’t she appeared in more movies? Give me more Pascal, while we’re at it. Caldwell and Earl get your asses in gear and make another movie as excellent as “Prospect.” Feel free to use Thatcher and Pascal again. They were a charismatic de facto father and daughter in “Prospect.” I imagine they could be, say, an effective mercenary duo on Earth or beyond fighting for Mankind’s survival. Maybe giving Thatcher the role of a queen reclaiming her kingdom from an alien race known as the Grist. Pascal could be a cyborg playing both sides until he witnesses the horror of Grist assimilating people.

Directors Caldwell and Earl understand that the guts of a movie is the story as captured by a good script. Visual effects can augment, never replace, solid writing and acting. In “Prospect,” the VFX are spot-on. A worn-down hi-tech world is assumed. The sound effects – the thunk of lander latches releasing, the rumble of thrusters, materials vibrating during re-entry, the clanking of “thrower” projectiles sent into hypervelocity motion – are very good, too. A soon-to-be-discontinued commuter line runs to the aurelac moon. Why discontinued? Probably because it’s no longer profitable now that the gem rush has come and gone. Who gives a shit about flora and fauna on Green, or studying it, when there ain’t no more money to be made? As the major points out in the less good, though still worth watching “Ad Astra,” humans are world eaters. Always will be.

“Prospect” is the whole works wrapped into a precise and efficient plot. The whole works includes the score. I paid attention to the soundtrack watching the movie and I listened to the soundtrack as its own medium. It’s very, very good. Have to hand it to composer Daniel L.K. Caldwell. He chose the correct orchestra and boys choir to immerse me in the moodiness of the story.

Yup, this film will be added to my Blu-ray collection. It’s that good.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.

Image courtesy of eOne.

“Your Son” (“Tu Hijo”) starring Jose Coronado, Ana Wagener, Asia Ortego. Directed by Miguel Angel Vivas. 103 minutes. Rated TV-MA.

Del’s take

It isn’t often a movie pisses me off. I hated “Natural Born Killers” so intensely I wrote a newspaper column about it. Unfortunately, “Your Son” falls into that category.

The movie is well made but I’m not going to give it a favorable review. I thought it was a useless piece of shit, not only unworthy of the time I spent watching it but a detriment to the human experience.

The story takes place in the Canary Islands where a successful surgeon (Jaime Jimenez, played by Jose Coronado) has just saved the life of a young boy. The surgeon, who is married with two kids, receives the desperate gratitude of the boy’s parents with the understated (and possibly condescending) humility of a man who’s often sanctified by overjoyed relatives when the prognosis results in the patient remaining on this side of the dirt.

That comes screeching to a halt when his own son Marcos (Pol Monen) appears in the ER. Marcos has had the living shit beat out of him, and floating around out there is a video record of the crime. In an instant Surgeon Jaime Jimenez is deprived of his calm, confident control over events and must trust his son’s fate to other surgeons and the cops investigating the assault.

Or must he?

Thus begins Dr.Jimenez’s odyssey for revenge. Suffice it to say things are not as they seem. Both Dr. Jimenez and the audience will receive a brutal instruction in the shortcomings of human moral anatomy.

I’ve seen movies like this, and some of them can be entertaining as hell. “No Country for Old Men” comes to mind. But something about “Your Son” triggered my anger reflex. Maybe it was the horribly sexist male-centric point of view, or the “What if it were YOUR son?” question the movie seems to ask.

Speaking to that point, I would answer that if it were MY son, I wouldn’t have done ANY of the things Dr. Jimenez did. Not one. His actions seem born of a monstrous selfishness I can’t wrap my brain around. Worse, the movie, by not exploring anything beyond Dr. Jimenez’s immoral choices, seems to approve of them, as if no reasonable person could have reacted otherwise. Seriously, what would you have done if it was YOUR son?

What a crock.

I think my overall objection has something to do with the fact that in every movie about man’s capacity to be a shit to his fellow man, the story always proceeds from the assumption that, hey, these things are wrong, so don’t do them. I don’t think “Your Son” does. I think its moral center is agnostic, which sounds fine for a psychiatry thesis but sucks for entertainment.

As I said, the movie is well made, albeit slow to the point of boring throughout much of its running time. The actors do a fine job. The script is well-written. The tone is consistent with the theme.

But “Your Son” is a piece of shit. I hated it, and I won’t recommend it.

I’ll give it a C-, because despite its vile message, it’s a well-made film.

Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.

Image courtesy of Benaroya Pictures.

“Haunting on Fraternity Row” starring Jacob Artist, Jayson Blair and Shanley Caswell. Directed by Brant Sersen. 99 minutes. Rated TV-MA.

Del’s take

There’s no explaining my Netflix whims, but they have introduced me to surprisingly good films (“Troll Hunter, “Birdbox”) and some real stinkers ( “Open House,” “IO”).

Then there’s that gray area between, where movies that are neither good nor awful fall. “Haunting on Fraternity Row” fits that realm. You can’t expect much from a movie with the word “fraternity” in its title and “Haunting” doesn’t provide much. It’s a frat party punch bowl of clichéd characters and their predicaments that you have seen a thousand times before minus these silly details.

The story is about a group of frathouse seniors on the day of their last big bash before graduation, the annual Luau Party. They want this to be a party for the ages because although it’s never said, they seem to collectively understand their time together is soon to end and they don’t want these days to be forgotten (although they will). So the boys are busy abusing pledges, stocking the shelves with booze and kegs, setting up Hawaiian-themed decorations and flirting with sorority cleaning girls.

Speaking of kegs, the hapless pledges drop one down the basement stairs and it punches a hole through a wall, revealing a tunnel that opens into a scary room with scores of light fixtures. One of the boys refers to it as a place where “you can’t see your shadow.” Oooh-weeee-ooooh.

The room is quickly forgotten as party time approaches. Tiki torches are lit. Sand is poured for the “beach.” A slaughtered pig makes its way to the roaster. And did I mention booze? Oceans of booze – the entire output of a brewery and a distillery – is laid out in astonishing plentitude. It’s like Golden Corral buffet for alcoholics.

Frat brother Dougie (Ashton Moio), meanwhile, has been researching the house’s past and learns that a terrible event took place here decades ago – the owner at that time invited a group of people to dinner and slaughtered them. Dougie thinks the creepy room may have some larger significance than a room where a person can’t see his shadow.

The party commences, with all the alcohol-fueled, sex-starved antics you know to expect from countless movies about frat boys and the sorority girls who love them – until all hell breaks loose, and I mean literally breaks loose. Objects move, mysterious growls emanate from the shadows, and people start dying, their eyes seemingly burned from the sockets.

I won’t tell you what happens afterwards should you decide to throw away an hour and a half of your life on this movie. Suffice it to say “Haunting” has more vices than virtues. It is sometimes amusing (but not often enough), sometimes spooky, and it might just remind you of a college experience or two (not me – I commuted).

Notice that damning with faint praise? That’s because “Haunting” is mostly a hastily assembled mashup of hackneyed characters doing what hackneyed characters do – except they’re doing it in a horror movie. That might work with sufficient camp (“Happy Death Day”), but the laughs are about as unlikely as any of these dimwits getting a job after graduation.

You’ve got the rich asshole and his catty sorority girlfriend, the hunk who’s dumb as a brick, the fat pledge, the nerd pledge, the smart frat who uses his powers for, well, neither good nor evil, but nothing productive either. Then you’ve got the earnest, soulful frat, Jason (Jacob Artist), and the girl he’s crushing on, Claire (Shanley Caswell). Jason is too shy to make his move but Claire is patient and awaits his stiffened courage (not what you think) while the other boys rollick in the receding tide of hormonal sex addiction (they are about to graduate from college, after all). Will Jason and Claire hook up? Will Dougie get to the bottom of the frathouse murder mystery?

And who’s going to clean up this mess?

I didn’t much care for “Haunting.” Characters are thinly sketched. The house’s backstory is barely touched. A motivation for the “haunting” is absent. Director Sersen seems to care more about scenes of college debauchery and raunchy dialogue than telling a decent ghost story.

It’s all very cursory and sketchy. I wasn’t scared because I didn’t care about anybody. You won’t either.

For a sparse moment of fun check out “Haunting on Fraternity Row.” I caught it on Netflix, where all it cost me was 99 minutes of boredom.

Grade D+.

Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.