Monday, July 25, 2016

Star Trek Beyond: Consistently Showing This Franchise Has The Ability To Live Long As Well As Prosper

I was never a Star Trek kid. It was on every once in awhile, and I believe it was The Next Generation, but I never paid any attention to it. My dad sat me down once and showed me The Wrath of Khan, but I don't remember anything other than Ricardo Montalban's hair. Sci-fi for me never really extended beyond Independence Day.  However, as I've gotten older I haven't exactly grown out of my apathy for sci-fi, but I have recognized the power that these old sci-fi movies have.  I've come to appreciate the mythology that has been established, recognized, and honored.  I've come to appreciate the writing in the original Star Wars trilogy, and I've actually thoroughly enjoyed the new reboot of Star Trek films. I'm actually one of the few who liked Into Darkness better than the first film (so my credibility may not be very high here), but Star Trek Beyond continues the tradition of exciting and fun Star Trek adventures while honoring the originals and making something new.

Beyond begins three years after the conclusion of the previous film. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew, including Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho), Bones (Karl Urban), and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin). They're continuing their mission of exploring a never ending universe. As they've been given the task of returning a young alien thing (woman?) back to her home planet, the USS Enterprise is suddenly attacked by a swarm of warships that rip through the ship like tissue paper. The crew is evacuated and kidnapped and everyone on the bridge crash lands on a foreign planet and separated as the villain Krull (Idris Elba) hunts them down for reasons that aren't immediately clear.

I'm usually not a big proponent of splitting up your main cast of characters in a sequel for a few reasons.  First, as fans we love to see the main cast working together to solve different issues and two, it, somehow, always feels like each character gets less screen time when this occurs (even if this isn't actually the case). In the case of this film, I feel like it really works.  Not only does it feel like each character gets more screen time, but the pairings actually worked well because they weren't conventional pairings. You'd expect that Kirk would be paired with Spock, but he's stranded with Chekov here.  Spock with Bones. Uhura-- actually with baddie Krull.  And Scotty is paired with newcomer and (also female I think...) badass Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). From what I've heard this is a Star Trek staple-- pairing crew that don't normally fit together for an added bit of conflict and fun. And it was a good idea here. They're not split for a substantial amount of time, but when they are, we get a lot more of each character and care about them more. Also, pairing Spock with Bones may be the best interactions in the entire movie.

This Star Trek, to me at least, is an improvement and maturation of the previous two. The past two have really been focused on the character growth of Captain Kirk.  In the first one, he's a know-it-all punk kid who has to be taught that the universe is bigger than him and that nothing will be won if he can't work together with his crew. The second movie focuses on his being able to make calculated decisions in order to secure a safe mission instead of what he does-- gut decisions that continuously put everyone on board in danger.  This time around he's finally the Captain.  He runs a smooth ship.  He's careful and caring and is willing to sacrifice himself for any member of the crew, no matter how small. While the formula for the movie is somewhat the same as the others (crew is attacked by a malicious alien force, must come together to defeat him before he destroys worlds), the characters feel more fleshed out and matured at this point so not all of the conflict feels too familiar.

The biggest asset in the franchise is Simon Pegg.  In the previous two he's given us brilliant comic relief with his fantastic portrayal of engineer Scotty.  However, with the departure of the original writers and JJ Abrams, Pegg was put to the task of actually writing the film. Pegg, a self-proclaimed fanboy of all things sci-fi, is the perfect candidate to write the film (I mean, he got known for his British TV show Spaced). The combination of his knowledge of old sci-fi and wry British humor was the perfect combination for these films. I was confident he would be able to give us a movie that felt more like a classic Star Trek movie than even the previous two, while injecting his unique and hilarious brand of humor among the cast-- but what I was the most impressed with was the amount of ingenuity that seemed to go into the story of the script.  What I mean by this is that every movie needs conflict.  Star Wars and Star Trek movies tend to have more than most with the conflicts building on top of one another like a seriously screwed up game of Tetris.  However, in this film, the conflict that each character goes through seems insurmountable. Pegg is able to not only give difficulty after difficulty (that seem damn near impossible to solve) throughout the film, but give incredibly clever solutions that seem organic, set up much earlier, and impressive. The writing overall is the strongest part of the movie.

The directing is also very strong.  Filling the JJ Abrams directorial shoes is Justin Lin (four of the Fast and Furious movies).  His previous experience with directing knock-down, stupid but awesome action movies plays well here.  He knows action.  He knows what to do with a scene to amp it up and make it the most fun possible. A lot of people were worried that Lin was going to dumb down the series (that isn't exactly known for its levels of Vin Diesel-esque action), but instead he is able to weave the quiet intelligence of the scenes within the fun of the 'action'. There were a few moments that were a little bit too dark to make out what was happening, and a main fight scene when everything was a bit too choppy to make everything out... however, most of the film was very well directed. (I will say that the sound mixer/editor should've done a better job because a lot of what Idris Elba is saying is hard to make out... and you don't wanna drown out THAT voice.)

Overall, I'd say that Star Trek is an improvement over the other two.  I'm not saying that it's better, per se, it just feels a lot more mature in nature. The growth is seen and structure is played with enough that it feels fresh and not just another Star Wars wannabe. Keep in mind, though, that this is coming from someone who has an appreciation for movies in general and isn't an expert in the world and mythology of Star Trek specifically.  I've never seen a single episode of the old ones.  But, I know, that for an underwhelming year as far as popcorn blockbusters are concerned... this one is definitely one of the best. It felt as though it was very under-advertised and would be forgotten by the time it was released, but this movie definitely has a leg or two to stand on.  And... I can't stand the Beastie Boys (I know), but the use of their song "Sabotage" in this film may be one of the best uses of a song in a movie in recent memory.


Friday, July 22, 2016

Lights Out: A Good Movie Ruined By A Bad Experience

2016.  While, on the whole, it has been a very underwhelming year as far as movies go, has been a pretty decent year for horror. So far, The Witch, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Hush, The Shallows, The Purge: Anarchy, Green Room and The Conjuring 2 have been serviceable to great. The one aspect that all of these movies have in common is that they've substituted gore for character and story. They've replaced cheap jump scares, with earned thrills. Almost each one of these movies also carried with it the trailer to Lights Out-- a movie that looked like it could've been another lazy PG-13 horror movie in the vein of Ouija or Annabelle. The movie, which is based off of a terrifying short film on YouTube, was left in capable hands and the result is a very imaginative movie that works due to it's originality and creativity.  However, I do NOT recommend seeing this movie in theaters for the next few weeks.

The story, which in all honesty should not have worked, follows a family being haunted by the figure of a creepy woman who only appears where light is absent. She stalks the family in the shadows and disappears when light is present. Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) a young girl living on her own with severe commitment issues has to reunite with her estranged and mentally unstable mother, Sophie (Maria Bello) due to the fact that her step-father has been killed and her very young brother is being haunted by the figure. The figure seems to have a deep connection with Sophie and becomes a bit irritable and pissy when anyone threatens that connection. The figure is also not exclusive to Sophie's home and can go where she pleases when she wants to act like a dick and do a little haunting.

Seriously, this movie shouldn't have worked.  It's a single scare repeated over and over and over again.  But somehow, new director David F. Sandberg (who also made the short) is able to repeat the scare in unique ways that each time feels like a brand new terrifying scene. He's cleverly been able to write and direct a movie that uses the dark and the light in new and inventive ways that gives us a chance to watch characters that don't just haphazardly run around making terrible decisions, but actual human beings with ingenuity doing anything they can to keep some sort of light on around them. Any time there is even the hint of a shadow lurking in any particular shot is a moment of pure tension and thrills. I was genuinely impressed with the writing and directing in this film. The film reminded me, though not as subtle, of The Babadook.  The movie takes a very real problem and very real experiences and turns it into an extended metaphor of mental illness. Though it doesn't always hit the mark as capably as it could have, it doesn't miss by much either.

The other aspect that was very well-thought out was the fact that the figure is never seen entirely. It makes sense considering the figure cannot be seen unless there is no light, but it also makes the figure that much more terrifying. The best horror writers and directors understand that the human mind is much scarier than anything that could be seen onscreen. The audience is able to fill in the gaps of the outline of the figure and the glow of the eyes with something much more frightening than any costume or makeup could eventually make the figure.  This made the story and the scares that much more exceptional.

Though I am able to recognize all of the good and all that is scary about the film, I wasn't exactly able to experience it myself. Generally, when I go to see a scary movie in theaters (because most horror movies NEED to be seen in theaters for the full effect-- ESPECIALLY Lights Out) I try to go sometime early in the morning or on a weekday to avoid a theater full of people who are there to either intentionally or unintentionally ruin the experience. Today, I screwed up.  The irony of this situation was that we went to see the new Star Trek, but the theater was too full and we would've had to watch from the front (Homie don't play that). So, we exchanged our tickets for Lights Out figuring no one would want to see a horror movie at 11:00 am in the morning.  Boy, was I wrong.

The worst horror audiences are those that talk when the everything goes quiet (this is used as a very annoying defense mechanism because they're too embarrassed to be scared in public), those that audibly gasp loud enough for an entire theater to hear whenever ANYTHING (even inconsequential moments) seems to go awry, those that have to giggle and laugh whenever they're actually scared (again, another shitty defense mechanism of the totally insecure), and those who talk for a good minute after they've been scared. Then, there's just the general shittiness of the average movie goer-- the one who finds the seat next to you, take up the entire armrest, eat the most pungent of foods (seriously-- a hot dog-- did you bring your own sauerkraut?!), and smell like a rotting toilet. Somehow, after we found our ideal seats in an empty theater, by the start of the film it was full-- and we had every single one of these annoyances come together at once like a fucking perfect storm of assholery. Any semblance of me delving deep into the horror of the film was completely gone. I did get brief stints of fright, but those were immediately crushed by gasps and giggles and old Asian ladies with terrible perfumes using the entire movie run time to eat a hot dog.

So, this is why I say to you to probably not see this movie soon. Don't forget about the movie, because if you're genuinely looking to be scared, it'll do the trick.  But, because this movie will not have the same effect at home, it needs to be seen in the theater.  It also needs to be seen in a theater not overrun by giggly teenagers looking to ruin a perfectly scary horror movies with their high pitched insecurities. Wait a week or two, go to a matinee on a Tuesday, and you should be able to have the experience I so desperately wanted. Until then, stay home and watch Stranger Things or go get freaked the shit out by The Conjuring 2 while it's still in theaters.


Also, find someplace dark to watch this-- but here's the original (freaking terrifying) short the film is based on:

Monday, July 18, 2016

Stranger Things: If You're Not Watching This Show Right Now, You Need To

Netflix has done it again. Their consistent (albeit maybe a little bit too frequent) production of original television has achieved something remarkable again. With House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Bloodline, Narcos, Jessica Jones, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Bojack Horseman, etc., Netflix is one of the few television outlets that consistently provides original, and great programming.  The best (and also maybe the worst) part about it is that all episodes are released at once so binge watching is the name of the game. Some shows are easier to binge than others, but Stranger Things is by far one of the easiest. I'm not sure how this show would've done or played on a different network, but as an 8-episode Netflix mini-series... this is one of the best options Netflix has ever put on its network.

If you haven't heard about the show yet, don't look anything up.  I'd heard bits and pieces about it.  All I really knew going into it is that Winona Ryder was the star and it was a mystery/horror type show.  And while that isn't entirely true, just going in with that bit of information is enough.  If you go into the show blind, I personally believe the experience will be that much more enriching and captivating. What the show essentially amounts to is an 80s orgy of all the best science fiction/action/adventure/horror from that era. Stranger Things is the love child of 80s Steven Spielberg movies (a lot like E.T.), The Goonies, Alien, The Thing, Stand By Me, Poltergeist, all surrounded by a very hypnotic John Carpenter soundtrack. It basically encompasses all that was good about the 80s.  If you're a fan of the art and entertainment of that decade-- this show is going to be crack to you.  If not, it's still something that has a little bit for everyone.  It'll hook you in immediately, and then, eight hours later, you'll wonder what the hell happened to your entire day/night.

Without revealing anything spoiler-y at all, the basic rundown of the show is as follows-- we begin with four nerdly little friends doing the nerdiest thing possible, especially in the 80s-- dungeons and dragons. When the ten hour game is finally called on a mom technicality, the middle schoolers all venture home. One of the friends, Will, stumbles upon a monster in the dark.  It's shadowed, it's mostly hidden, and it's scary as hell. After the monster chases Will into his house, Will disappears. The next morning, Will's mother Joyce (Ryder) goes into an all out panic trying to find her son.  She reaches out to local Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) to find her son.  Hopper is the perfect 80s Sheriff, he's tough, but sweet.  He's a drunk, but professional. He's a small town Sheriff with a past that haunts him.  It's brilliant. They set off to find Will.  Meanwhile, a young girl with a shaved head wearing a hospital gown is being chased by dark government forces who may or may not have something to do with the monster that took Will. Scientists (led by Matthew Modine) from the Hawkins National Laboratory are out to capture the young girl-- who may or may not have developed some supernatural powers of her own. She befriends the D & D boys and attempts to help them find their friend.


The show is engaging, suspenseful, fun, exciting, exhausting, and filled to the brim with 80s goodness. The creators, known in the credits as The Duffer Brothers, have truly shown that they are able to converge a smart 80s homage with a truly original story. I'm probably one of the biggest proponents of original material, especially in a day and age right now that lacks that originality (due to the fact that, in Hollywood, original works are a major financial risk).  But, it's shows like these that remind me in the first place why I want to be a writer. There is such a clever weaving of different ideas reimagined from the works that inspired it with something new and intriguing. The show plays out like an eight hour movie, and from what I've read from the creators, this was their intent.  This is also the reason you may want to wait until the weekend to start it because there really is no turning it off and waiting until tomorrow night. I finished it in less than 24 hours and I already want to start it over again (though not having a 9-5 job does make this a little bit easier). 

The writing is extremely clever. When dealing with sci-fi and children, there is the temptation to make everything a little bit goofier and a bit dumber, to appeal more toward children than adults. What the Duffer Brothers understand is that most of the movies in the 80s that dealt with sci-fi elements weren't really kids movies. Poltergeist may have been rated PG, but that movie still remains one of the most terrifying movies I've ever seen.  The Goonies, Stand By Me both featured kids on adventures, but dealt with some very mature themes. They weren't kids movies... they were movies with kids. Stranger Things doesn't hold anything back.  That's not to say that it's Game of Thrones violent, because it isn't.  But there is a decent amount of blood.  The kids aren't hindered in the way they speak because Netflix didn't want to get in the way of the censors-- they curse and talk about very adult subjects (like kids actually do) in their own dorky ways.  The kids are a perfect balance of smart, dorky, weak, strong, scared, and brave.  The other characters each have their own 80s tropes that, on the surface, appear predictable, yet organically grow beyond the stereotypes into something real, something believable, and something great.  Winona Ryder is perfectly cast in the show (as is everyone else) because she can play haggard, crazy-eyed, over the top, hamming it up for the camera, mom in a crisis, doing anything to find her son than anyone else from the 80s. Her acting, again on the surface, may seem like overacting and fake, but it's that delicate weaving, once again, of believablity and exaggerated 80s acting.

Everything else about the show is perfect. The little ways that Will is able to reach out to people and the clever ways they're able to talk back.  The little girl who has escaped from the Lab is fantastic and is as much the heart and soul of the show as E.T. is in E.T. The side stories with one of the boy's older sister trying her best to white-girl rebel and becoming her own cliché. The town Sheriff dealing with his own demons that oddly mirror the tragedy unfolding throughout the episodes. The creepy Government agents trying to track down everyone involved with the disappearance. The freaking monster that lives in the woods! It may be a science-fiction, Stephen King inspired television show, but it's just as suspenseful and sometimes scary as a horror movie watched in theaters.  Seriously, this show has something for everyone and for those of us who have already finished and are standing at the gates of Netflix without pitchforks and torches demanding a second season-- those of you who haven't watched it yet need to do so and join the hoard.  Because this is one of the best seasons of television I've ever seen.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ghostbusters: Effectively Proves Women Are Unbelievably Inferior To Men

When I heard there was traction starting to build for a Ghostbusters resurgence, the kid inside of me was jumping for joy.  I know Harold Ramis has passed and Rick Moranis has retired and everyone else has aged considerably, but any chance to watch the original members (however many left there may be) would've been something I'd spend my money on.  Then they announced they weren't going with the original cast, but an all-female reboot-- my heart sank. Not only were they stupidly taking a beloved childhood staple and remaking it (completely unnecessary), but they got rid of all the penis that made the originals great. Replacing the cast with a hoard of vaginas is not only a crime against film, but a complete shattering of my childhood. Not even just MY childhood, but all the young boys who had the Ghostbusters to look up to and emulate. My life is so fragile and I'm so insecure that by casting all women in the lead roles legitimately ruined whatever semblance of childhood memories I had left. The end result is a mess of femininity and "girl power" that utterly vandalizes the original films so much so that I don't think I'll ever be able to watch them again.

The movie (if you can call filming a tire fire a movie) begins with Erin (Kristin Wiig) a physics professor at a prestigious college awaiting the result of her tenure review.  Already I'm taken out of the story-- a FEMALE PHYSICS PROFESSOR-- women within the realm of higher academia is the biggest joke the movie contains. She reunites with her old friend Abby (Melissa McCarthy) who is working on paranormal technology with her (probably lesbian) partner Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). This is the producers laughing in our faces by adding the word 'man' at the end of her name-- showing us just exactly how much they don't care about ruining a classic. Finally, there's Patty (Leslie Jones) who actually fits her role-- an African-American woman working a blue-collar NY job.  Somehow, she proves her worth and ends up joining the team-- this movie is a complete mess. When someone creates a machine that amplifies paranormal activity and releases ghosts all over the city-- who do they call? FOUR WOMEN!!!  This isn't a pie making contest in a giant kitchen or a who can fold laundry the fastest race-- it's the protection of an entire city.  There is zero believablity within the film.

Yeah, so what if the movie APPEARS to be a lot of fun.  So what if (to other women only) the movie holds its own and showcases four "funny" female comedians (oxymoron) as competent replacements for the original cast.  So what if the reboot is just a loose remake and the differences in plot are actually pretty humorous and interesting.  So what if there are several cameos of the original stars appearing to give their blessing to the remake.  And so what if a new generation of children will have nearly the same feelings that kids back in the 80s and 90s did when discovering the first Ghostbusters-- a fun family-oriented sci-fi movie they can dress up as and emulate and watch over and over and over until the disk is worn thin-- It's still a cast full of women.

It doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things that nearly each woman in the movie kills it.  Who cares that the meshing of Kristin Wiig's subtle, dry humor and McCarthy's penchant for loud, hilarious rants meshes as well as Bill Murray's and Dan Aykroyd's exchanges in the first film. No one is going to remember that Kate McKinnon plays batshit crazy in the most beautiful and hilarious way possible that she's clearly the standout in the movie. And people really aren't going to care that Leslie Jones takes a character that could've been a stereotypical nightmare and brings some much needed humanity and hilarity to the foursome to create a chemistry within the group as damn near irresistible. You know why? Because everyone will be focused on how much of the original has been bastardized by the mere presence of two X chromosomes. And really the only dudes within the movies are the bad guy (yeah, the big bad MAN is the villain-- surprise surprise) and the other is a character named Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) who is not only treated as a sex object the ENTIRE movie (stop sexualizing the male body, Hollywood), but he's a brainless idiot.  Yes, all white men are brainless dolts who contribute nothing to society and women are superior.

White, privileged, fanboys who took to social media and Youtube when the movie was announced and the trailer was released were correct all along.  There is nothing in this movie worthy of your time.  There is no clever twist on the original.  There are no moments of laugh-out-loud-spill-your-popcorn comedy.  There are no moments of empowered women actually doing what it takes to be true heroes and save humanity from the paranormal.  There's only women trying to do men's jobs and failing miserably. Clearly a good, wholesome, funny, exciting, and fun movie could never be made with women.  Whose good idea was it anyway to show little girls of this generation that women can be badass comedy stars just as much as men? Which Hollywood suit got blackmailed and greenlit a movie that will let these women be the new face of the Ghostbusters probably for at least the next few years and show the entirety of the female sex that there are still pioneers of progress and fighters of equality within the film industry?

So, Hollywood, can we please learn from this terrible mistake and let future remakes be full of men like they're supposed to be? Later this year there's a Ben-Hur remake coming out.  Let's just thank our lucky stars it's full of men and they didn't take the title literally.  Thank God it's not Ben-Her.

You want to watch Ghostbusters-- watch the original (if you still can).  Don't worry about going to see a female-led summer movie that DEFINITELY ISN'T one of the best remakes of recent memory and some of the most fun I've had at the movies this summer.


Hey, for real though, that new Fall Out Boy theme song-- really is garbage.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates: Like A Weaker Wedding Crashers For Millennials

Comedy is a constant revolving door of what's currently funny.  In the late 90s the Farrelly Brothers brought about the gross-out comedy and, along with American Pie, showcased bodily fluids and vulgar sexual dialogue/acts as the norm for laugh-out-loud comedy.  Then came the Apatow dynasty that brought about the crude with heart. We were given films like The 40-Year-Old Vigin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Wedding Crashers, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Hangover, etc.  Now, in the 2010s there has been a new resurgence of a strange breed of comedies. First of all, there's the female led comedies that are skyrocketing due to director Paul Fieg with Bridesmaids, Spy, and now Ghostbusters (which I'm very excited to see).  However, the brat pack leaders from the 90s and 00s are either making their way into more serious roles, or they're making strange hybrid comedies that are either very meta or calling out the comedies of yore.  Films like 22 Jump Street, Neighbors, We're The Millers, and now Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. They're not bad movies.  Some of them are actually downright hilarious, but the fact that comedy has evolved to a point where we're pointing out what wasn't funny before is sort of a strange breed. Mike and Dave is the nod to Wedding Crashers from the millennial point of view. However, it is neither as clever or funny, but it doesn't necessarily fail either.

Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) Stangle are two rowdy brothers whose parents have forced them to bring dates to their sister's wedding in Hawaii so the two won't rile each other up and potentially ruin the wedding.  They do an all-call on Craigslist and end up on the Wendy Williams show searching for the perfect dates. Alice (Anna Kendrick) and Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza), two messy and crass ladies (who admittedly have a lot more depth to their characters than I was expecting) answer the call, stage a meet cute, and get whisked off to Hawaii as the dates.  However, keeping up the 'nice girl act' is something a little bit too difficult for them and their true colors come out. Hi-jinks and antics emerge and the wedding is, once again, put into jeopardy.

It's not an unfunny movie, though the laughs are pretty sporadic. The two girls do a nice job of holding their own in a movie that could've easily become extremely male-centric. Anna Kendrick actually kills it in the comedy department, showcasing funny skills I was unaware she had. The problem is that there is a lot going on and none of it particularly stands out.  One of the funniest scenes of the movie (the ATV crashing into the bride's face) has been overplayed on the trailers so much, it's lost its gusto. The rest is a cavalcade of debauchery and weirdness that adds up to the wedding getting ruined-- but nothing that 'crazy' stands out in your mind after leaving the theater. Zac Efron, who I'm starting to like more and more as a comedic actor, just sort of fades into the background and, though I'm sure he's actually not, feels severely underused. Adam Devine, who I also respect for his weird brand of comedy, is almost too Adam Devine-y and it appears more of a schtick than a character.  Kendrick and Plaza really run the show here, but even Aubrey Plaza's character gets a little tiring after awhile.  There's just too much going on in a movie that feels like it could've stayed focused on the main four.

What actually is great about the movie is the fact that everyone carries with them a little bit of character depth.  Not exactly the same amount as the main four in Wedding Crashers (which is mentioned several times in this film-- see-- meta), but five years ago the girls would've been written very as stereotypical and the evolution of immature man-boy turning into a responsible grown up would've been reserved solely for Mike and Dave.  But it's the character growth of the two female leads that makes the movie just that much more elevated above stupid sex-comedy set in Hawaii.  I feel like the hindrance of the film though is in the comedy.  There are a lot of scenes that feel too rushed. Even the chemistry between Devine and Efron felt just a little bit off. They're good together but they're no Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn.  Then, there's a few scenes that are just plain derivative and completely lose the comedic element. This makes the movie just a little bit better than okay.

One of the weirdest things I noticed (since this damn trailer has been attached to every movie I've seen in the last two months) is that a good chunk of what makes up a funny trailer is straight up cut from the movie. A lot of the jokes have either been removed or they used alternate lines that aren't as funny.  There are entire plot lines and scenes that are removed as well-- remember when they're wearing wrestling uniforms and offer to play nice against the girls in a game of Bocci? Yup-- not even in the movie. And what's crazy is that at the end of the film there are outtakes and we see some alternate lines used that ultimately hit the cutting room floor.  The problem here is that these lines and some of the scenes were funnier than what was actually happening in the movie. With a movie like this, and like with a lot of comedies, the actors are very good at hilarious improvisation. They can do ten, twelve takes using a different joke each time and it's up to the director and editor to decide which takes to use and a lot of them, it appears, were the wrong ones selected for the actual movie. Two lines in the trailer that consistently made me chuckle (when her face is messed up and Devine says it looks "like a fucked up waffle" and the scene with the naked masseuse swinging over the bride saying "the souls meet where the holes meet") were exchanged for lines and moments that weren't as good. 

But, it's a light and breezy movie, there's plenty of vulgarity to go around and it's an easy watch. I was impressed with the movie being a little bit more mature than I was expecting (I mean, don't get me wrong, it's not mature mature-- if you're not a seventeen year old boy at heart, you're not going to love it), but the writing was a bit more heightened than I had expected.  And there are genuine laughs sprinkled about the movie so it never feels too lacking for too long.  There are comedic lulls, but never lasting that long. It's certainly not a must-go-see-in-theaters film, but I think it'll do quite well as a Redbox rental on a Friday night when you need a good laugh during the hardcore drama end of the year Oscar-bait film season.


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets: Sit, Stay, Play Dead... Play Dead...

I think I have been effectually spoiled by Disney and Pixar animated movies. While it's not unknown that Disney and Pixar both produce almost all of the most well-rounded, well-written, well-voiced, best animated movies around... what wasn't known is that almost everyone else is serving us crap on a Pixar-looking-platter. Disney gave us Zootopia earlier this year, arguably the best animated movie of the year or the last few years.  Pixar gave us Finding Dory a month ago, arguably the best animated movie of the summer. Universal's Illumination company only holds a few animated films under their belt (Despicable Me 1&2, The Lorax, Minions), but it's becoming increasingly clear that they are no Disney.  They are no Pixar. They do not care about providing the highest quality of family entertainment. They are mired in animated mediocrity and seem totally fine remaining there. While The Secret Life of Pets had so many chances and opportunities to be a wonderful family film, with lazy writing comes a very underwhelming film that I was hoping to love.

Max (Louis CK) a dog in New York lives happily with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper).  Every day she leaves for work and he sits and waits for her as the other pets around the apartment complex hang out with one another.  There's wiener dog Buddy (Hannibal Burress), giant pug Mel (Bobby Moynahan), a fat cat Chloe (Lake Bell), and froofy Pomeranian who is also in love with Max, Gidget (Jenny Slate).  They hang out and get into very minimal mischief while their owners are away and get unbelievably excited once they return.  Max's world is turned upside-down when Katie brings home giant dog Duke (Eric Stonestreet) from the pound. The two immediately don't get along and try to sabotage one another's chances of getting to live comfortably with Katie.  However, while trying to sabotage one another, they get lost in the city, nabbed by dog catchers, chased by a maniacal bunny rabbit (Kevin Hart), and thrown off the Brooklyn Bridge. Meanwhile, during their adventure, the two learn to accept one another and try to work together to get home.

I really really wanted to like this movie. The trailer had me hooked and the premise (which admittedly is just Toy Story with pets) seemed to be ripe for a perfect balance of humor and heart. I have wondered since leaving the theater why they went with the title The Secret Life of Pets.  This, to me, infers that the film will be about the lives of pets when human's aren't looking (much like the lives of toys when humans aren't in the room).  While the first ten minutes of the film (the best part of the film) are about that, the rest is just two dogs trying to get home.  There's not really any 'secret lives' going on that we're getting a special window into seeing. The secret lives aren't all that interesting.  Animals talk... they sneak our food sometimes... they hang out with one another... that's about it. What could've really been a fun and clever look into the question 'what does my dog do all day when I'm not home?' (the answer is sleep and tear up your shoes) is briefly shown to us and then dismissed.

I know it's not fair to compare all animated movies to a Disney or Pixar movie.  That's like trying to compare all movies involving space to Star Wars-- it's not fair. But they have set the bar very high and there are reasons that they succeed when others fail or pale in comparison. One aspect that Pixar takes close care to make perfect is when they set up a world for us, they use everything they can in that world in the most clever way possible. Finding Nemo didn't just feature a fish looking for another fish with the help of a third fish.  It featured an entirely populated ocean with specific nuance from every aquatic character. Toy Story uses every toy in a perfectly nuanced way-- potato head wasn't just there to make angry quips, he moved his face around, his back butt-cover opened dropping out replacement pieces, he takes his arm off to extend his other arm-- THAT is what makes great animation. Not just having a Mr. Potato Head in the film because he's recognizable, but utilizing him in a way that make sense he's in the movie. The Secret Life of Pets doesn't really do this. We've got a few dogs in the movie that are visually cute, but their nuance boils down to the dog likes the green ball, the dog slides his butt on the carpet, the cat likes to eat cake. There's nothing really all that clever about it. The one character I felt had this was a hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) who had a predatory instinct to eat the cats and dogs, but so desperately wants friends he has to fight his instinctual urges. This was funny.  A Kevin Hart-ed angry bunny rabbit yelling and screaming obnoxiously was not.

The other aspect that Pixar and Disney effectively nail is all of the action of the movie goes to serve a bigger picture in the plot. Characters don't just run around screaming and yelling and falling down for a cheap laugh.  If there is a chase scene or an escape scene or anything involving action and conflict, it's quick-witted and competent. This film forewent the any actual subtlety and went straight for loud noises, goofy voices, and people getting hurt in comical ways. This, to me, is treating kids (and people) like they're stupid. This, to me, is showing that they believe kids will only laugh and understand something is funny if they've fallen down or gotten hurt. Pixar has never treated their audience this way. Instead of taking the surroundings of New York and a cast of pets acting in ways we've never seen because the only time they act this way is behind closed doors, they continuously have them chased by the same group of people the entire movie and get into more fall-downier-situations. It's cheap and lazy and completely disrespectful to kids. 

Now, I realize that I don't have children and I may not completely "get it" until I do have kids, but from what I understand of others' kids and once being a child myself is that kids aren't as dumb as we think they are. So, I might be a little bit overly harsh, but it's because we've seen this movie made better fifty different times. It's almost unacceptable for a movie with a premise this solid to be this witless. And, seriously, Illumination Entertainment, you really have to let the Minions thing go. They USED to be cute in small doses. Then you gave them their entire movie and it was so blah that I'd hoped it was the end. Nope. We get numerous references to them in this film alone AND there's a five minute short before the movie begins that's all about Minions-- and it's unbearable. It's seriously the worst animated short I think I've seen-- and that shitty Lava one before Inside Out was really terrible too. 

Look, the movie isn't all bad. There are some very cute moments and a couple of genuine laughs, but the missed opportunities are ample and obvious. Louis CK does a perfect job of voicing the dog Max.  He actually sounds like what I assume most dogs would sound like if they could talk. But, the problem with his character and the character of Duke-- and this leads back into lazy writing-- is that we don't really care about them. Our introduction of Max is perfect. It's almost tear-worthy because it shows a person and a dog growing up together and if you've ever had a pet that you've loved more than yourself, you'll totally understand.  But once Duke shows up, Max turns into a dick. So, when he's a dick we feel empathy for Duke right? Nope-- Duke is a dick too. So when they're lost-- we don't really care if they both get home. Now look at Toy Story-- we get Woody growing up with Andy. We like Woody a lot. Buzz Lightyear shows up and Woody turns into a dick because he's threatened and all the other toys like Buzz.  But Buzz isn't a dick to Woody.  So, when they're lost and they have to learn to work together and wind up becoming friends-- there's actual growth there and we're rooting for the toys to get home safely.  There's no growth with Max and Duke. They hate each other and then over the course of the movie-- don't as much. I realize they shouldn't blatantly copy the idea of Toy Story, but it's already so close why skimp on the parts of the script that actually matter to a viewer?

If you have a little one-- yes, they're going to enjoy the movie.  The one thing Illumination knows best it's how to make things bright and cute. The animals are cute.  Some of the situations they get into are adorable. There's just not a lot of substance around the cute. While your child may be cheering, you'll be rolling your eyes. Or maybe you won't.  Maybe it's not actually that bad of a movie and Disney and Pixar movies are just THAT good that it's unfair for me to judge this movie compared to one of those. I just know that I was really looking forward to this movie and left the theater with a very bland taste in my mouth. Disney and Pixar know how to combine flavors and spices and subtle tastes with rich zest-- Illumination knows how to make cottage cheese look cute.


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Swiss Army Man: Hanging Out With Harry Potter's Farting Corpse Is Actually A Lot Of Fun

Indie movies are a strange breed of film. They're called "indie" because there's something about them that big production companies feel won't make them a boatload of cash. They don't possess that mass appeal that, say, a fifth Transformers movie does. A lot of indies feature unknowns or smaller actors that you may recognize, but don't know by name. Then, there are those indies that seem to break the mold and, despite what Hollywood deems as worthy, is a mass success (Juno was one of these hits). Swiss Army Man is by no means meant for mass appeal. However, it is a strange little picture that relishes its weirdness and uses that to convey a pretty fantastic story and message. I thought it was very good. 

Essentially, Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a small island alone. He becomes so bored and lonely he decides to hang himself. Right before ending it all, off in the distance a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) has washed up on the shore. He decides to befriend the rotting, farting corpse and use it as his means of conversation (think Wilson from Castaway, but instead of a volleyball it's a dead body that farts, vomits, and gets moving erections). Only then does he discover that he can use this corpse as his own multi-purpose tool-- his farts propel him like a jet ski through the water-- his vomited fluids are used as a water source-- his teeth are used to trim hair-- his boner is a natural compass--etc. I know this all sounds incredibly ridiculous (and it is), but it's done in such a way that it isn't crass. It's not a movie that thrives off of the cheap laughs of repeated fart jokes. There is a purpose for every fart and every fluid in the film. 

This may be the first film to use farts as a plot device and still have a massive amount of heart. It's a movie for weirdos about weirdos and being able to truly love your weirdo self. The only thing that makes someone weird are the judgements of others. Yes, weird can and sometimes does extend to creepy, but nine times out of ten weird/creepy equals misunderstood. Swiss Army Man takes a good hard look at loneliness brought upon by weirdness which leads to isolation. Hank is able to use the dead body (whom he names Manny) as a sounding board and a person he can teach about life. Manny, who eventually winds up talking, learns from Hank and regurgitates information in ways that only a rotting corpse could. The two of them learn to ignore social acceptance in favor or personal acceptance and love and this makes the movie (which is very very strange) that much more charming.

It's probably not a movie for everyone and is going to be an acquired taste for some, but for those with an open mind, you will find something to love and laugh at. Radcliffe and Dano have a praise-worthy chemistry together.  Radcliffe plays the best corpse I've ever seen on screen and Dano keeps the movie rolling with his ability to teach Manny the lessons of life he's never been able to follow, but always wanted to. He's trying to teach Manny... to be a better Hank and, in turn, discovers who he really is.

The writing is very clever, especially in the ways that the writers make use of the corpse as a multi-purpose tool for Hank.  And the direction is quite beautiful. Yes, it's a very strange movie and it's not going to appeal to a lot of moviegoers, but it will very much appeal to the weirder side of you-- whether that's something you're able to passionately flaunt or push deep down inside of you only to escape when you're alone.  It's a love letter to weirdos and it's a very good one.


Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Purge: Election Year: Hashtag 'Merica

The Purge introduced us to a futuristic world where once a year, for twelve hours, all crime is legal, including murder, during the annual Purge.  This "holiday" allows people to get out their aggression for the rest of the year so that crime rates go down and the lower class is cut down in favor of the upper class elite making some extra green. The focus in the first film was on a single family experiencing firsthand the negative effects of the Purge. It was a fantastic idea that was executed very poorly. So, we got a second one. The Purge: Anarchy took a wider scope on the night and brought us to the streets. There we follow several different people and see what this night looks like outside of one family's home.  It was an even better idea and was executed even worse.  The writing got worse, the dialogue was atrocious, and the acting was lousy. What should've been a massive improvement, somehow sunk the ship even faster. So, needless to say I didn't have high hopes for the third installment, The Purge: Election Year-- especially considering the same writer/director of the first two films was back to helm the part three.  And this is where I find myself pretty shocked-- The Purge: Election Year was actually pretty decent.  I don't know if I'm looking at it from a totally neutral standpoint of horror movies in general, or if it's good compared to the previous two.  All I know is that I actually enjoyed this movie.

Still the same set-up: twelve hour Purge, people gettin crazy and killin mfs, innocent people trying to avoid getting snuffed out, some do, some don't.  The difference now is that it seems the majority of America isn't too keen on this once beloved day anymore and are asking for a change. This is where Senator Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) comes in-- she's running for President on a totally Eliminate-The-Purge campaign-- and she's got a decent shot at winning.  So, the Founding Fathers, threatened by this, take advantage of this year's Purge to try and take her out-- legally. She's aided by Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), who was one of the main characters in the second film, as well as the protective owner of a Deli (Mykelti Williamson), his protegee (Joseph Julian Soria), and a former Purger-turned-vigilante (Betty Gabriel).  This group has to keep the Senator alive throughout the night and away from the excessive forces out to kill her idea of ending our "right as human beings to Purge".

To be honest, there really isn't anything different in the set up of this film as there was in the previous two. Each one had a great idea that just tanked before it had the chance to succeed. However, what this one does well that the other two didn't is that there are actually characters you give shits about. The first two movies don't provide much in the way of character development-- and I know what you're thinking: it's a horror movie, who cares? But, trust me, it matters.  In the first two films the characters and motivations and dialogue was so poorly written and executed that there was no emotional connection to anyone and therefore nothing that happened mattered. In this one, director James DeMonaco spends a little extra time letting you get to know these guys so that you can actually care if they live or die. And even that little bit of extra information works wonders with the rest of the film.  These are actually pretty decently fleshed out characters. The problem DeMonaco had with his characters in the first two was that no one was believable.  They weren't real people.  They were props used to move the story forward in a way that didn't make them real, but caricatures.  And yes, I'll admit, there is a small plotline in this movie about a couple of schoolgirls who get caught shoplifting and come back to Purge their revenge that was incredibly forced and poorly written/acted-- but it was very minute and the end result of the storyline was very satisfying.

What also works here is that, unlike the first two, there is actually some semblance of a political commentary.  Not a lot, mind you, but enough that it's not just a who-can-we-kill-and-how-gruesome-can-we-make-it horror movie-- it actually has something to say. And, what's even better, and pretty timely right now, is that it's essentially a huge indictment of the Republican Party. Advocates for The Purge, while never directly stated, are very clearly ultra religious conservatives. And the way this year has been going-- it's not too far fetched to see a scenario like the one in The Purge movies played out. Purgers are just as upset about the threat of taking away Purge night as current gun advocates are about "taking our guns away". It's done in such an over-the-top way that liberals are probably going to laugh at it and conservatives probably aren't going to get it.

As far as the horror aspects of the movie go-- it's pretty tense.  I wouldn't go so far as to call it a horror movie (though there are a couple of cheap jump scares that'll probably get you), but it's more of an intense thriller that'll keep your heart pounding.  It's a dark action-ish type movie.  I was a little bit surprised to see the gore factor decreased a little bit. I figured it being the third film the gore factor would be further amped up, but it's generally pretty modest. Overall, I was very impressed with the level of sophistication in this movie-- compared to the others.  The dialogue was improved, the acting was much better, the characters were much more fleshed out (I mean Bubba from Forrest Gump is in it-- and he provides some much needed humor to the overall darkened feel of the movie), the story was solid, the commentary was just enough to hint at a point, and the talent of a third time writer/director has finally given us a thriller that exceeds expectations.  If you even kinda liked the other two, then this one will legitimately blow your mind. #Merica