Archive for June, 2015

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that “Inside Out” was Disney’s official response to the film “Escape from Tomorrow”.  If you don’t remember that film, and be grateful if you don’t because it sucked, it was the film shot secretly in Disneyworld and Disneyland without Disney’s permission, and its message was “You can’t be happy all the time”, and it criticized the company for cramming happiness down people’s throats.  The film’s thesis had some issues, to say the least, and its execution was overall crappy, so the only thing interesting about it was that they successfully made a movie in Disney without Disney’s permission.  So now we have “Inside Out” which began production 2 years before “Escape” was made, but nevertheless argues that no, you CAN’T be happy all the time, and that’s a good thing.  Sadness is a necessary part of life and is useful, and attempting to suppress “negative” emotions and avoid change is futile and unhealthy.

The premise is kind of ripped-off from the 90s sitcom “Herman’s Head”, but no one seems to mind.  Inside everyone’s head, a group of 5 emotions control most (but not all) of a person’s behaviors via a command center in the brain.  We meet the emotions controlling Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old girl.  They are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (an excellent Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (a perfectly cast Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).  I’m not sure Disgust should be considered a main emotion, or an emotion at all, and her inclusion in the film seems superfluous when we have Anger.  It seems the film wanted a “Mean Girls”-esque character, but personally there are many other emotions I would have rather seen portrayed than Disgust (who is probably better described as Stuck-Up than truly Disgust, but whatever).  Riley is a perfectly happy girl, as most of her memories suggest. Memories are portrayed as orbs that are colored to whichever emotion dominates that memory, and they line massive shelves, except for important “core” memories, which have a special place in Headquarters.

The happiness starts to ebb, however, when Riley’s family has to move.  The film doesn’t give us an explicit reason, but it seems to have to do with her father’s (Kyle MacLachlan) start-up business.  Joy, who I often found rather irritating in the film in all honesty, starts to have trouble maintaining Riley’s happiness, and when Sadness begins touching memories, for some reason, Riley begins to get more and more sad.  Through a series of events, Joy and Sadness find themselves thrust from Headquarters to various far reaches of Riley’s brain.  They attempt to get back while the other three emotions try and fail to manage Riley in their absence.

The film is very clever, and the imagination of the writers really shows.  In addition to emotions and the endless shelves of memories, we also see Personality Islands, floating landmasses devoted to core aspects of Riley’s personhood, such as her love of Hockey and her rigorous Honesty; her Subconscious, a cave of mostly horrors; a weird white room of Abstract Thought; a Train of Thought (I enjoyed the gag where the box of Facts and the box of Opinions get mixed up); and Imaginationland, where dreams get made.  I’m not sure how accurate this set up is to what we know about neuroscience these days (emotions controlling cognition? Memories as perfectly recorded videos?) but I’m expecting accuracy in an animated feature about a little girl’s brain.  If anything, I’m mostly curious as to the rules of how the emotions operate.  They often take the helm with regards to when Riley speaks, or coming up with big ideas, but a lot of Riley’s behavior seems autonomous, with the emotions along for the ride and acting not as the catalysts to thoughts and behavior, but as reactions to them.  I’m not sure the film’s universe works within the own rules it sets up for it, so that bugged me, but I doubt most viewers will care about that.   It’s also kind of odd that the emotions themselves are capable of having different emotions. Joy can be afraid and Anger can be sad, for instance. You can say I’m over-thinking it, but this is a high concept film that the writers spent at least 4 years on, and I’m sure they thought of these things too and decided to either ignore them, or at the very least not include the explanation in the film for fear of slowing it down.

My issues with the rules of the universe aside, the film is often quite funny.  The closing credit sequence going inside the minds of various minor characters is a hoot (loved the cat), and there is a steady parade of chuckles and cuteness as the film progresses.  Some stuff falls flat (I was not as endeared by Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong as some other members of the audience I saw the film with…I heard a woman behind me audibly cry during one scene with him), but Sadness was a constant source of laughter for me, and the various other “employee” working in Riley’s brain were often smile-inducing.  The film does pull at the heartstrings a bit, but not to the same effect that the “Toy Story” films did (Jesse’s song in “Toy Story 2” often gets to me when I catch it on TV).  The film is about the inevitability of growing up, that you lose your innocence and that life will not always be happy, and that it can’t be.  Well, in real life that is true, but in-universe I’m not so sure.  Everything is set off because Sadness touches stuff, and theoretically if Joy always remained at the console couldn’t she just keep Riley happy?  Unless there’s an underlying base emotion that the sentient Emotions simply override or keep at bay, which may be the case. Even with Sadness gone, Riley comes across as more sad than angry or fearful or disgusted when only those three are in the control room.  I don’t know, it’s one of those issues the film may have with its in-universe rules.

As far as Pixar films go, I’d rank “Inside Out” somewhere in the middle. It’s much better than “The Incredibles” (the only Pixar film I’ve seen and actively disliked, though I haven’t seen either “Cars” film) but is not as good as any of the “Toy Story” films. It’s better than “A Bug’s Life”, but not as good as “Finding Nemo”.  Really, “Inside Out” has its sheer cleverness going for it, but the odd in-universe rules and holes in them kept me from being as fully immersed in the film as I could have been.  This likely won’t be a problem for you, and kids certainly won’t care, but it was an issue for me.  I also had an issue with the inclusion of Disgust as a character at all, and Joy, who is our main protagonist, got on my nerves a bit.  Still, it’s a good film full of imagination and often funny. B

P.S. : The film is preceded in theaters by the short “Lava” about a lonely volcano who wants to find love.  It’s cute and the song is somewhat catchy.

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Dope (dir. Rick Famuyiwa)

Posted: June 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Dope” is a welcome throwback to a certain type of film that used to come out quite often in the 80s and 90s: a teenager gets in over his head during a day-long series of adventures. Granted, “Dope” doesn’t technically take place within the confines of a single day, but the film otherwise fits this trope.  I’m thinking of films that are both remembered well, like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, but also ones not-so-well-remembered, like “License to Drive” starring the Coreys and “How I Got Into College”.  These were the kinds of movie HBO played at 10 AM in the 80s and early 90s when I was growing up, and they were usually a very edgy PG-13 or mild R, and I got a thrill wondering what I would do if I were so in-over-my-head.  Knowing that the film would eventually end with the protagonists more-or-less okay helped.

What makes “Dope” different and, in some ways, starkly original, is in giving us a character that’s not exactly like anything film has bothered to show us before: a black geek who is not meant to be the source of ridicule.  Think about it: is there another character in film or TV who is truly an African-American geek that isn’t Urkel from “Family Matters”?  And of course, Urkel was meant to be the butt of the joke.  While our geek character here, named Malcolm (Shameik Moore) sometimes has his geekiness be the source of the humor here, he’s not an Urkel or Napoleon Dynamite who exists solely for us to laugh in ridicule and feel superior towards.  He’s like many geeks, both real and fictitious.  He’s a virgin, he’s into things that aren’t considered cool (such as what the film calls “White Shit”, like reading Manga and watching “Game of Thrones”), and his passion for things that aren’t popular makes him stand out from his peers.  The big passion, which dominates the film visually, his Malcolm’s love of early 90s hip hop.  We’re not just talking about the music, of which some is still popular and some, like “The Humpty Dance” is seen today as kitsch, but also the loud fashions and the Kid N’ Play flat top.  Let’s face it, 90s nostalgia is IN right now, in a big way.  However, despite how multi-racial the entertainment of the early 90s were (take a look at Nickelodeon’s programming from the early 90s and you see a progressive and admirable diversity that, oddly enough, you don’t see as much of on TV today), it’s really only the WHITE-identified pop culture of the 90s that are back.  However, when we acknowledge that what has some back is old school Nintendo and Nick, we’re seemingly forgetting that, you know what, it wasn’t just white kids that are into “The Legend of Zelda”.  In one scene of “Dope” we see a kid get gunned down just as he’s about to beat Gannon on a vintage Gameboy.

“Dope” is not just nostalgic to 90s kids, but for people who were adults in the 90s they may remember that the early 90s was full of films about black gang life in cinema.  “Boyz in the Hood”, “New Jack City”, “Menace 2 Society” and others flooded the indie market, and filmmakers like Spike Lee, who started making films in the late 80s, rose to stardom with films like “Do the Right Thing”.  So what we have here is a film that is a nostalgia-palooza of early 90s hip hop, early 90s black cinema, and early 90s geekdom.  But then, we also have a film that is very much of the moment, talking about things that geeks today would be familiar with but have not received much mention in mainstream cinema today, such as bitcoins, Tor and the deep and dark webs, the online black market (a stand-in for Silk Road appears in the film)  and more. Also, though drugs make an appearance in the film, the main drugs are not the crack and heroin of most dryg films, but instead we get weed, which is legal in some parts of the U.S. now, and MDMA, a drug that’s probably past it’s pop cultural prime but was popular in the 90s and early 2000s rave and club scenes.

Some people are complaining that we have a film that sets up an original look at black youths in poverty (the film takes place in Inglewood, California) and yet still ends up about selling drugs.  Those people are missing that this film, like much of the best African-American cinema, is about as political as films get.  Sometimes “Dope” is obvious with its politics (there’s a funny but on-the-nose joke about the public school system being a leg up to poor kids, as well as a shot of Malcolm in a hoodie at night which is a very on-the-nose Trayvon Martin visual cue), but the drug storyline is essential to this film’s point.  The pessimistic message of this film is that, no matter how smart you may be, or how different you may be from your peers and your environment, that environment still informs you and corrupts you, so that escaping it untouched is impossible.  Malcolm is an incredibly smart and creative kid who wants to escape his situation and go to Harvard, but thanks to circumstances largely out of his control, he is forced into illicit activities simply out of self-preservation.  To society at large, Malcolm would merely be a drug dealer, but when we get beyond the labels and see the material conditions in which he exists, we see that he is more than that, and that the poverty, the neighborhood, and the people he exists in and along side of make it nearly impossible to escape unscathed.  While personal responsibility plays a role here, the environment severely limits the choices one can actually make.

The plot is pretty straightforward, Malcolm and his friends (Kiersey Clemons as lesbian Diggy and Tony Revolori as Jib) attend a party thrown by a local drug dealer (A$ap Rocky) because Malcolm has a crush on the dealer’s ex-girlfriend (Zoe Kravitz) who will be there.  The dealer is ambushed at the party while a deal for pure MDMA is going down, and in panic he stashes the drugs in Malcolm’s backpack.  Malcolm now has product that other drug dealers want, and it’s up to him to get the drugs out of his possession in a way that won’t get him killed.  Oh, and he also has to worry about the college admissions process to get into Harvard at the same time.

It’s odd that the film makes political points that are very in-your-face, and yet you never feel like you’re hammered over the head with a message.  We get a crash course in the inner workings of the internet drug dealing business, and what we see is not much different from the unethical behaviors of more legal businesses, making one see that there isn’t much of a difference between business that the government considers illegal and ones it endorses.  In fact, we get one character who is involved in both the illegal drug trade as well as the legal payday loan business.  Both of these businesses do great harm to the poor, yet the latter is legal, under-regulated, and considered an appropriate business for a person to be in.  The film asks why that isn’t shameful, and yet it would be if that person’s hands in the drug trade would be, even if, as the film implies, the drug money is used to fund a charity to help young men out of poverty.  Odd.  The film doesn’t try to pretend that drugs cannot be harmful (we see a few people under the effects of MDMA go pretty damn crazy), but it does argue that selling drugs is no more or no less immoral than any other business enterprise, and in showing how successful Malcolm becomes and the innovative way in which he goes about it, it also shows that perhaps we underestimate the intellect of people who are involved in criminal activity.  After all, stupid people probably can’t manage to make a ton of money in an illegal business without ending up dead or in jail, so some smarts, both of the book and street varieties, are required.  Hell, the film even shows us drug dealers debating the ethics of drone warfare in an intelligent and yet street-vernacular-filled manner.  The film is arguing that criminals are not dumb, and in fact could probably be successful if they were brought up in a different environment (and probably if they had a different skin color).

All of this sounds like the film is a political polemic, but honestly the film is an often funny, extremely clever comedy-drama.  Many people who see the film probably won’t even realize the political implications the story bring sup, and will merely be entertained by the anachronistic world of an early 90s hip hop aficionado geek dropped into 21st century drug dealing.  The film is extremely entertaining/  I myself am not a fan of most rap music, and I have no particular warm feelings about early 90s hip hop (though I do like Humpty and did enjoy the “House Party” films back then, which the USA network played A LOT when I was a kid), but 90s nostalgia extends beyond that.  The “Pop Up Video” closing credit sequence is fun, and non-hip hop songs like Korn’s “Freak on a Leash” also pepper the soundtrack.

The writer/director of the film is Rick Famuyiwa.  I’ve only seen one other film of his, “Brown Sugar” but I remember liking it a surprising amount.  He seems to be very good at telling low-budget stories with largely African-American casts who play interesting, rich characters.  Whatever he has done before, “Dope” rockets him into an entirely different league.  This film feels like early Spike Lee or John Singleton, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his films after this become even more daring and original.

”Dope” was a great surprise.  It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s clever, and its surface simplicity masks a pretty rich cultural critique. I thoroughly enjoyed it. B+

“Jurassic World” delivers the goods. If you simply want to see dinosaurs wreak havoc and eat people and destroy shit, there’s plenty of that in the film. While I was disappointed that this new film didn’t have many scenes of suspense, or many moments of building up tension, the film provides a more than adequate amount of action to make the common person happy with having paid the price of admission.  The special effects are occasionally not as good as one hopes (particular broad-daylight shots of dinosaur movement) but the 3D, as usual, often makes lackluster CGI look better, and there are a few moments in this film where it looks like they did, indeed, have some practical dinosaur effects. While some of the audience may not long for animatronics the way I do, I at least have to admit that the film’s finale, featuring a number of CGI dinosaurs fighting each other, did have more heft and excitement to it than one normal sees in film where a bunch of digital shit fights a bunch of other digital shit.  Readers of my reviews know that that is a bug pet peeve of mine, so when I say that I was NOT bored by the finale, but rather enjoyed it quite a bit, and was even surprised during a crucial moment of it, it’s a higher complement than it sounds like.

I was about 9 or 10 when the first “Jurassic Park” came out, and like many a young boy, it was an almost breathtaking experience to see the cutting edge special effects bring life to convincing-looking dinosaurs.   Prior to that film, we forget that most large lizards look like bad claymation, a guy in a suit, or clunky and static models. “Jurassic Park” was a milestone, and because of that we shouldn’t ever really expect any sequel to come close to it. 1997’s “The Lost World” (based very loosely on the novel by famous anti-science hack-writer Michael Crichton, who also wrote the novel the first film was based on) was also directed by Spielberg , and darker, and as a result not as fun, even with seeing the T-Rex clomp through a major city. Then came the embarrassment of “Jurassic Park 3”. Spielberg was gone, there was no novel to draw from, and the story they came up with barely exceeded 90 minutes of screen time.  The director of that film, Joe Johnston, had previously directed 5 films of which only 2 were good, and subsequently done 4 more films, of which none were good (no, not even “Captain America”, which was boring as hell and greatly surpassed in quality by “Winter Soldier”). Needless to say, that third film was a disaster, and killed the franchise for 14 years.

Aside from groundbreaking special effects, we remember the first film for introducing to the mainstream the idea that dinosaurs evolved into birds, which is now the generally recognized consensus, but back then was a fairly controversial assertion.  Nowadays, we also know that dinosaurs probably had feathers and looked more like birds than the lizard-monsters we are picturing.  Despite this, the dinosaurs featured in “Jurassic World” still look the same way they were shown in the original film, but at least the film gives us an in-universe reason for this. See, Jurassic World (the amusement park…and I guess the film too) is designed to meet visitor expectations.  Since the dinosaurs of this world are genetically engineered anyway, they are designed to look the way we EXPECT them, and in a way perhaps also WANT them, to look. Plus, in-universe, gaps in their DNA are filled in using other animals like lizards and amphibians, so that tends to also explain it, and a scientist in the film (B.D. Wong) literally tells us this in the film.

This is just part of the way that the new film winks and nudges its frustrations with the modern movie-going audience. The film wants to have its cake and eat it too.  See, most moviegoers don’t have particularly refined palates when it comes to the films they enjoy. After all, “Furious 7” made a fuck-load of money this year and has defenders everywhere, whereas I and some professional critics seem to be the only ones who recognized the brilliance of “It Follows” and champion it against the hordes of ignorant masses who want horror movies to be a collect of jump scares.  The original “Jurassic Park” if released today, might be decried as “boring” because it takes so long to get to the actual park, spends time developing its human characters, and has far more moments of suspense where it looks like dinosaurs MIGHT eat someone than scenes of running T-Rexes. “Jurassic World” spends a lot of its first act basically telling the audience that they are too impatient, jaded, and stupid to like the original film if it came out anymore, so they are going to make a faster, louder, leaner film for you plebeians. “Are you not entertained?”  The new “bigger than the T-Rex” dinosaur that is created by the scientists in the film based on demands from corporate overseers, the Indominous Rex, is the symbol of the film within the film itself.

The plot of this new film involves a now fully-functioning dinosaur amusement park that somehow was able to gain multiple corporate sponsorships and have massive attendance even though it is well known in this universe that the original batch of genetically resurrected dinosaurs broke out of the original test-phase park ON THIS VERY SAME ISLAND and killed some people. (The new film doesn’t mention the other island, which is where films 2 and 3 took place on).  There is some cake-and-eat-it-too product placement. The new dinosaur is going to be sponsored by Verizon Wireless. So Verizon still gets its name featured prominently in the film while, in-universe, the thing they sponsor murders a bunch of people and fellow dinosaurs. This type of hipster-esque irony-that-is-also-not-irony pervades the film, which both despises and embraces the thing that it is. We also see flying dinosaurs attack, kill, and eat people near Starbucks, Brookstone, Margaritaville, and Pandora.  I can’t decide if the faux-irony is funny or sickening.

As our scientist tells us, you can’t engineer a dinosaur that looks like a huge, awesome predator unless you give it predatory genes, and as a result this dinosaur is hyper-intelligent, fast, and a very effective killer. So, of course, it gets out and the 20,000+ patrons on the island are in danger of being massacred. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the director of operations of the park who is all business, stuck-up, and humorless. Her nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) are visiting the island while their parents go through divorce proceedings behind their back (okay), and she pawns them off on her assistant. When the Indominous Rex gets loose, she goes after them, along with a former Navy soldier-turned-Velociraptor-trainer Owen (Chris Pratt) , who is our hero.  While this is going on, a private military contractor who has a contract with the island, or something, Vic (Vincent D’Onofrio) has a dream to train raptors to be used in the field of military combat operations.  Okay.  The film would seem to be taking an overly broad stance against private defense contractors, but in-universe the organization Vic works for, InGen, seems to have a valid relationship with the park.  The park has an internal security force against dinosaurs, it’s Asset Containment Unit, but the park is also on an island off the coast of Costa Rica and, presumably, subject to their laws and government.  I’m not sure the Costa Rican military is adequately trained to hunt escaped dinosaurs, so a private military organization might actually have a use to the park, even if in real life they tend to cause more harm than good and are an example of Capitalist overreach into public affairs.   Also, any anti-military message is undermined when our hero is ex-Navy, and his training has made him very capable, as well as apparently highly empathetic to animals.

The film originally makes us think it might go easy on Capitalism and Corporations too, as the man who now owns the park (Irrfan Kham), or at least owns it under the control of a board of directors, is more concerned with guest enjoyment and animal comfort than costs and profit margins, but he is later revealed to have naively and unintelligently asked his scientists to create something “cooler” to boost park excitement, and thus is just an idiotic corporate goon on top.

Unfortunately, in keeping with Crichton’s anti-science leanings (this is the man who wrote the Climate-Change-is-a-hoax-perpetuated-by-ecoterrorists novel “State of fear”, after all), we later learn *SPOILER ALERT* that the main scientist was in bed with Vic to make Indominous Rex so vicious so that what happens in the film would happen, Vic would get his raptor army, and the scientist gets rich…well, once assume he would make a great living as head dinosaur creator of the park as the science around making new dinosaurs is proprietary and no one else can do it, so I guess he wants to jump a pay grade from rich corporate scientist to rich Military Industrial Complex scientist. Okay, I guess.

Much has been made in the press lately about the film being sexist, particularly in the portrayal of Howard’s character, who starts off as a business-minded, pants suit-wearing woman who doesn’t have time for her nephews, shrieks and hides behind a burly man, walks around a Central American jungle in impractical shoes, and is taught the error of her attitudes by getting a boyfriend and becoming more maternal.   Sure, she gets to save Owen’s life, once, by shooting a Pterodactyl with a rifle, but ultimately she is only really ever an Ice Queen or a Damsel in Distress whose job in the movie is to be a hot, sweaty redhead in a tanktop.  This sexism doesn’t ruin the film, and is certainly not as much of a deficit to enjoying the film as the annoying, unnecessary nephews (most of their scenes are a sign you can visit the restroom), but it’s surprisingly in a summer that has given us “Mad Max” (which was not a feminist as it was made out to be, but still progressive) and “Spy”.

I do want to give props to Jake Johnson, who plays comic relief as an employee in the park’s control room, and Lauren Lapkus. Their last scene together in the film delightfully defies convention and delivers the film’s biggest and most surprising laugh.

The film was directed by Colin Trevorrow, whose only other film before this was the quirky time traveling indie comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed”.  The film moves along at a nice pace, and the action is never so fast that you can’t make out what’s going on. He does a better than competent job, and certainly a better job than Johnston did on 3.

So “Jurassic World” can never come close to the original, is too pleased with its fake-satire of product placement, commits the very sins against cinema that it decries its audience for wanting, has a sexism problem in the portrayal of its main human female character, has two annoying young boy characters who should have been excised at the screenplay level, and ends up having the problem of being anti-science while also taking some easy shots at Capitalism, but giving the military kind-of-a-pass.

Despite all of that, the film is exceedingly fun, and I had a helluva good time watching it. The film works as a summer movie, more so than “Avengers: Age of Ultron” did, and for big, dumb fun, it delivers the goods. The film is both better than I expected, and not as good as I had hoped. A very high and affectionate B, is what I give it, but I actually came close to a B+ here.

Spy (dir. Paul Feig)

Posted: June 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

While I’m sure it was done for comedic effect, it is odd that most of the CIA agents in “Spy” are British. Jude Law, Jason Statham, and Miranda Hart are all English, and yet the film never pauses to explain why so many Brits work for an American intelligence agency. I’m sure this is mainly a play on how all the coolest spies, from James Bond to Austin Powers to even this year’s assorted Kingsmen, always hail from across the pond.  Still, it’d be nice if the film winkingly acknowledged this.

“Spy”, as its too-generic title tells you, is yet another in a long list of spy-related comedies, from “In Like Flint” to “Austin Powers” to “Spy Hard” to TV’s “Archer”.  While all of those films and TV shows fit more or less into the areas of parody, “Spy” is a comedy that isn’t a parody, and is largely playing the spy angle straight while deriving comedy from its characters. It works well enough tonally to differentiate the film from a well-played-out genre, but what we have here is a film of funny characters acting in a plot we care nothing about.

That plot involves Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a CIA analyst who utilizes various technologies while talking in a field agent’s ear to help that agent complete covert missions.  She exclusively works with agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), whom she is crushing on pretty hard. When Fine is murdered by a woman (Rose Byrne) who has possession of, and is trying to sell, a portable nuclear device, Susan, who was trained as a field agent earlier in her career, begs to be let into the field to track down the nuke and , maybe, get revenge for the murder of her crush.

The plot doesn’t really matter.  This is a light comedy, and thus the threat of thermo-nuclear annihilation is never on the radar.  Mostly, the film exists to show that Susan, though socially inept and overweight, can still kick ass and make for a more-than-competent agent.  It’s rather refreshing that “Spy” never becomes a fat joke (one imagines the late Chris Farley making that version of this film), but instead showcases a strong, smart, capable female lead who, while originally driven because of both unrequited love and then revenge over a man, becomes her own self-driven woman who, ultimately, doesn’t need a man to be capable of kicking ass, saving the day, and showing up the people who doubt her.  This is a progressive film that doesn’t reek of shoving politics in the audience’s face. I’d argue this film is actually more feminist than “Mad Max: Fury Road”.

But is the film funny?  After all, that’s all a comedy really needs to be, whatever else it may accomplish.  The answer is yes, but it’s mostly small chuckles.  There’s no gut-busters or hilarious moments, and some jokes do fall flat (a vermin infestation in the CIA feels like it comes out of a spoof and doesn’t quite fit the rest of the film).  Jason Statham has some nice moments as a man who spins increasingly unbelievable tales of his past espionage exploits while he never ceases to actual show minimal skills in the film. Rose Byrne, who I’ve loved since her great role in the underrated “Wicker Park” is wasted in the film, sadly, but otherwise the cast is utilized quite well. A special notice should go to Peter Serafinowicz who plays Aldo, a delightfully perverted Italian agent who unceasingly and ineffectively hits on McCarthy’s character.  Perhaps I just have a fondness for creepy Italian characters (remember Fred Armisen in “Eurotrip”), but a scene where Aldo has to help untie Cooper had me laughing the hardest of any scene in the film.

The film was directed by Paul Feig, creator of the great, short-lived “Freaks & Geeks”, who wrote a memoir of his failed sex life in the book “Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin” and has recently has hit films with “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat”. I enjoyed the former, and vaguely remember enjoying the latter, but since I watched the latter on a late night flight from Iceland to the United States, my memory of the particulars of that film are hazy. Regardless, Feig is a very funny man who knows how to direct a comedy and how to write female characters, though I wish his more recent films rose above chuckle-worthy into full hilarity. I have high hopes for his all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot.

Comedies that send-up the spy genre are pretty old by now, and there’s not much more than can be parodied about it. “Spy” therefore, lives or dies by its characters, and they are funny enough and likeable enough to watch.  The film is a middle-of-the-road comedy.  It will make you laugh while it goes on, but you won’t be thinking back to film fondly years from now, or quoting the film endlessly in remembrance. It’s fun to watch, but forgettable, save for perhaps its rather forward-thinking treatment of gender. B.

I actually liked the first “Human Centipede” film. I thought it was original, in its own way, and had some sequences that generally worked in their own suspenseful and gross-out fashion.  The concept may have been a joke, but at least that first film was executed reasonably well.  Then came the second film, which had an interestingly grubby black-and-white look and an usual leading man in Laurence Harvey, but ultimately didn’t work for me and was a ho-hum follow-up, but at least it tried something new and didn’t merely repeat the first film, which became a success solely on the novelty.

Well, now we have “The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)”, and it’s just awful.  This is like a Troma film where the good-natured humor of Troma’s gross-out semi-horror films has been replaced by tone-deaf attempts at humor, offensiveness for offensiveness’s sake, and perhaps the worst, most over-the-top lead performance I have ever seen in Dieter Laser’s prison warden character. Think of Nicolas Cage at his most hammy, over-the-top heights….and then rocket past that into an entirely different galaxy, and you have Laser’s performance. While Laser was good in this first “Human Centipede” film, here his idea of acting is to yell at the top of lungs in his heavily German-accented voice, break up sentences into nonsensical structures, stress the wrong words and syllables in words, and render bad dialogue even worse and more unintelligible than it must have read on the page. This is the most horrendously bizarre and failed acting performance I have seen, to the point where it becomes almost fascinating to watch how off-key and wrong it is.  Not since Tommy Wiseau in “The Room” have I seen a performance that overshadowed everything around it with its awfulness.  When a film contains castration with a pocket knife, a man rubbing his face with the blood of shorn testicles, waterboarding committed with boiling water, the rape of a comatose woman, a man raping a wound in someone’s kidney, a man being strangled to death and resuscitated in order to continue being strangled, and the eating of circumcised clitorises, and the most unwatchable thing in the film is a man’s acting, you KNOW it’s bad.

The plot.  Okay.  The plot involves Laser’s Warden Bill Boss, who runs the George H. W. Bush Prison, in what is one of many failed attempts at political satire in the film.   Upset with how his prisoners remain violent and uncontrollable, he wants to have all of them castrated.  His accountant, Dwight (Laurence Harvey) thinks that castration won’t work to quell the aggression or curb prisoner recidivism, but he has a plan of his own.  He wants to take all of the prisoners and put them into a real life human centipede. See, he’s seen the films, and thinks with some adjustments prisoners could be placed into a human centipede and removed when their sentence is up, albeit with minor scarring on their mouths and anuses.  To prove this can be done, he invited the director of the films, Tom Six (playing himself), who presents his evidence showing that the procedure can be medically possible if the prisoners’ diets are supplemented with a liquid diet of vitamins and minerals and they’re given anti-rejection drugs.

The warden and his accountant are under pressure to do something since the governor (Eric Roberts…yes, Eric Roberts) is threatening to fire and replace them if they don’t improve the prison in 2 weeks.  So, regardless of laws, human rights, and ethics, the plan is put into place.

The film isn’t meant to be taken seriously.  The warden tortures and murders prisons willy-nilly, with no consequence and few batted eyelashes.  He has an unlicensed doctor (Clayton Rohner) as the prison physician.  His secretary (former porn star Bree Olson….yup) he repeatedly sexually assaults because he got her father out of prison, leaving her as his sex slave.  The film obviously doesn’t even want to try to exist on a realistic level.  The problem, aside from Laser’s performance sucking the air out of the room, is that the film is not scary, not funny, and only occasionally even gross enough to justify its existence. It’s mostly just bad.  It attempts to be political by mentioning prison statistics in the US and attempting some satire about the Prison Industrial Complex, and there’s some humor about how the governor only smokes Cuban cigars and the warden hates him for that, but largely the film is an unfunny mess.  When we finally get to the centipede, and also a human caterpillar of life sentence and death row inmates who are sewn ass-to-mouth while all their limbs are cut off, it’s no longer gross or shocking, but boring.

I don’t know why Tom Six decided this should be the last film in this series.  It reeks of a “fuck you” to critics of his and a self-congratulatory run around the bases for himself.  His weird idea did become a cultural meme, which the character of Dwight points out in the film. A porn parody, a “South Park” episode, and more have launched from the original film.  Now, however, the idea has run its course and Six is clearly out of anything useful to say with it. He’s simply disappeared up his own asshole. D.

“Entourage” does not work as a stand-alone film.  Unlike, say, Joss Whedon’s “Serenity”, which continued the cancelled TV series “Firefly”, you can only enjoy the “Entourage” movie if you have seen the TV show and have a decent familiarity with the characters and who they are. If you do not, the film feels like three paper-thin B stories where nothing important is truly at stake orbiting around an A story which is only interesting to people who are already interested in the inside-baseball of moviemaking.  Honestly, this is the first TV-to-film continuation that truly feels like just a longer episode of the series.  It doesn’t feel “bigger” (the show was already on HBO and had access to the nudity, profanity, and drug content that most TV series outside of cable channels with lenient Standards & Practices departments cannot show), and the TV series already had plenty of celebrity cameos.  The budget certainly doesn’t seem to have expanded the scope of the TV show to movie-size (most of the film still takes place in L.A.).  Nope, this is an episode you have to pay for. Then again, you had to pay for HBO too.

Hell, unlike other TV-to-film ventures, this film even keeps the same theme song and a similar opening credits sequence.  I actually appreciated this.  I hate when these films try to ignore the fact that they were once TV shows, and it wouldn’t feel like “Entourage” without it.  So, I must say that I liked the TV series, which went off the air 4 years ago after 8 seasons.  The show was pretty much adolescent wish fulfillment.  If you’ve dreamed to making it in Hollywood, being rich, having sex with lots of beautiful people out of your league, and still maintaining some artistic integrity in the interim, “Entourage” was the show that let you live that fantasy vicariously through actor Vinnie Chase (Adrian Grenier), his not-very-talented washed up brother Drama (Kevin Dillon), his short best friend manager E (Kevin Connelly), and his crude, Jersey Shore-esque pal who through the series ends up losing weight and getting rich himself, Turtle (Jerry Ferrara).  There was also Vinnie’s loudmouthed, bombastic, egotistical, caustic, and hilarious agent Ari (Jeremy Piven), loosesly based on real life Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel, who fulfilled many viewers secret wish of being able to demean people dumber than you with sarcasm and yelling.  The show worked because it was an adolescent fantasy.  Many people who enjoy movies want to be part of that world for various reasons, and each character gave the viewer someone to identify with as either someone they are kind of like (Drama or Turtle) or someone they wish they could be.  I personally identified with E since I am short and enjoyed the behind-the-scene references that only people read Variety and Deadline Hollywood and, way back when, Nikki Fink could appreciate.

The show wasn’t always a positive portrayal. Vinnie, who has always been a blander and more boring character than the rest of the cast, had plot lines involving drug addiction and a passion project film that was a critical and commercial flop, for instance.  Yet, for the most part, the show dealt with characters having problems we wish we had, and that’s exactly where the movie is.  The film will be unsatisfying to people who didn’t see the series because the characters now all have good-to-great lives, and their “problems” in the film are pretty much 1% Problems that even people with First World Problems will look at and sneer. Hell, in this film the main storyline for E is that the hot ex-girlfriend he impregnated (Emmanuelle Chrique) can’t get over a mistake from his past, so he ends up sleeping with two hot women in 24 hours, and that may come back to haunt him and ruin his chances with his hot-ex. Yeah, some people have it rough. I personally liked that the shortest, nicest, dorkiest of the main cast has the most sex in this movie, though, again showcasing the film’s main purpose of adolescent wish fulfillment.

The main plot involves Vinnie making his directorial debut with a film called “Hyde”, which is apparently some sort of post-apocalyptic, dystopian spin on Jekyll and Hyde.  We see one scene from this film-within-a-film and it looks like garbage, but apparently in the universe of “Entourage” it’s a masterpiece. However, Vinnie needs more money to finish the film, and it’s already over budget.  This causes Ari to have to run to the Texan co-financier of the film (Billy Bob Thornton) and beg for more money to complete this thing.  The Texan, who doesn’t care a lick about movies beyond their potential to return on investment, decides that his son (Haley Joel Osment, who is great in the film and looks like he had a ton of fun making it) needs to see a rough-cut of the film and report back to his dad, and that will decide if daddy sinks more money into the thing.  So okay, the movie is about how people in Hollywood, who are both business-minded AND creative, hate interference from interlopers who only know business and know NOTHING about creativity.  The film making “Hyde” a good movie in-universe kind of stacks the deck, as most $100 million+ films are not masterpieces, and a movie that expensive which is not already based on a marketable franchise IS risky (hence why studios these days look to co-finance their movies and minimize exposure if they tank).  The film is really just a chance for Hollywood to feel snooty and superior to other businessmen they don’t like, and express the frustration that their business model now nearly requires doing business with “outsiders”.   Hey, I may hate rich southern capitalists too, but Hollywood executives aren’t exactly the champions of artistic quality this film would like us to believe they are.

Despite Vinnie being the main character, he’s barely in the film.  The main plot is mostly driven by Piven’s Ari (he did win a few Emmys for this role, after all) and Osment’s character, who ends up having a very predictable and shallow reason for not liking “Hyde”.  Aside from E’s subplot, we also have Turtle wanting desperately to date UFC fighter Ronda Rousey, and Drama worried that his small part in “Hyde” will be cut, and also trying not to get beaten up by the boyfriend of a girl he was sexting with.  That’s our story.

The film is slightly less funny than some of the best episodes of the series, and perhaps too much humor is based on showing us a cameo, my favorites of which are Bob Saget (he was on a few episodes of the show, too) and Warren Buffet, of all people.  There’s a healthy amount of female nudity in the film, again to please the adolescent fantasies of the audience, and it’s about as gratuitous as film nudity can get.  The inside baseball stuff isn’t as inside as the show used to get, but even having an entire film plotting around movie studios versus co-financers is a bit weird for a summer movie potentially aiming at a wider audience than the show had.

If you liked the show, you’ll like the film.  If you hated the show, you’ll hate the film. If you’ve never seen the show, you’ll see the film as paper-thin, lacking in conflict and character development, and maybe get a few chuckles but nothing more. I tended to think the TV show, throughout it’s run, ranged anywhere from B+ to a C depending on season and episode, and the movie is about a B.

Posted this to my Youtube channel.  While I’m not nearly as eloquent or articulate when talking about something as I am when writing about it, I figured this belonged on my movie review blog.