Archive for July, 2015

“Paper Towns” is an aggressively awful film centered around one of the most wholly unlikable characters I have seen on film in some time. Margo Roth Spiegelman is a cloying, manipulative, pretentious harpy who thinks she is deeper than everyone else around her, yet shows no actually evidence of deep thought or intelligence.  She uses everyone around her, and expects everyone to drop everything at a moments notice when she goes off on some inane journey, leaving “clues” behind to make sure that even though she cares nothing for the people she leaves behind, that those people will spend many a moment focused on her.  Margo is the worst kind of person.

In the film, Margo is played by Cara Delevingne, who I’m told is a model.  I don’t normally pick on the appearance of an actress, as it’s often a crass low-blow and unnecessary, but Delevingne is not conventionally attractive, with Peter Gallagher-esque eyebrows and a face heavily lined for a woman in her early 20s, playing 18.  I honestly wouldn’t bring this up, appearance being relative to the viewer, except that Margo as a character only works if you buy into the film’s assertion that this girl is so drop dead gorgeous that she would be the most popular girl in school and cause geeks to have massive crushes on her despite her entirely unpalatable, narcissistic personality.  Delevingne is not the actress for this role. I doubt any actress in the world is beautiful enough to make Margo anything other than a horrible, selfish human being, but Delevingne’s appearance is actually distractingly at a right angle to what we’re supposed to think of this character.

I read the novel “Paper Towns” by John Green, upon which this film is based, a couple of years ago. Having read and liked both “Looking For Alaska” and “The Fault in Our Stars” (the latter of which was made into a mediocre movie itself), I was disappointing to discover that “Paper Towns” felt like a phony, completely artificial effort of Green’s that was rightfully tucked into the bottom drawer of his desk until he hit it big with better books, and then let this horrible thing be published.  Every moment of the novel felt clichéd, fake, hackneyed, and manipulative.  The characters didn’t feel like real people, their actions didn’t feel like real, authentic human behavior, and the quirks felt like a author being too proud of himself for coming up with things that weren’t nearly as clever as the author thought they were.  The film solves none of those issues, and the film even makes the novel’s bad ending worse by attempting to smooth its rough edges.

The plot involves Quentin (Nat Wolff), a nerdy kid who hasn’t really lived life because he’s shy and nerdy. He harbors a crush for Margo, who lives next door and does crazy and mysterious things like…well, mostly exit her house through her bedroom window at night. Anyone, after not talking for 9 years because Margo joins the cool crowd and leaves Quentin behind, she comes into his bedroom and asks him to help her on a night of revenge plotting.  Quentin is a push-over, and Margo obviously knows he likes her and will do anything she wants, so she easily manipulates him into breaking some minor laws in order for her to get revenge on her cheating boyfriend and associated friends who betray her.  For a character that is supposedly so wild and out there, her revenge is pretty lame. Wrapping a car in saran wrap? Leaving a whole fish in a closet to smell up the joint? Why not slash some tires, or chop the fish up into little bits and distribute it into the home’s ventilation system? Margo is not very creative, and her narcissism requires she mark all of her handywork with a big “M”, and leave Post-It notes with unfunny, uncreative messages (in case the “M” was confusing) where the capitalizes random letters in words. The capitalization stuff doesn’t come across as cute, or charming, or creative…it’s just a lame character trait that is one more irksome thing about this woman.

Anyway, after the revenge Margo takes Quentin to a big bank building downtown (she knows the security guard and he lets them in for some reason…it makes you wonder what Margo does for the guard to allow this).  For some reason, in the middle of the night with the building largely unoccupied, muzak plays in a boardroom there.  Why would muzak be piped into a boardroom as opposed to the normal place for muzak in an office building, such as nowhere else but maybe the elevator?  Why is it played when the building is closed for business? So Margo and Quentin can dance, of course, but not before she delivers astonishing not-profound insights into her town and the people in it.  She also makes a weak jab at Corporate America that made me wonder why, if she’s so against phoniness and Capitalism, and she has access to a large bank building, she doesn’t pull some Weather Underground, Project Mayhem shit up in this.  Oh well.

So Margo disappears and Quentin is worried because he thought they were going to date now. I’m reminded of the Milhouse line from “The Simpsons”: “If I do everything she asks, she’s bound to respect me.”  Margo has disappeared at least 4 times before, so her parents, rightfully, don’t care about her stupid pay-attention-to-me tantrums anymore. Quentin does, though, and wants to find her.  Luckily, I guess, Margo has left clues because…because she’s a manipulative jerk who gets off on knowing people are searching for her.  Proving that Margo is not deep or intelligent, she takes a metaphorical line from a Walt Whitman poem (Whitman being the poet for people who think they’re smart but aren’t) and makes it painfully literal, showing a lack of creativity, originality, or insight. Have I mentioned that I fucking HATE Margo?

Quentin has two friends; a stereotypically horny geek friend named Ben (Austin Adams) and another geeky friend called Radar (Justice Smith).  Radar is given the trait that is not as clever as Green thought it was: his parents have the largest collection of Black Santa memorabilia in the world.  In the book it was the SECOND largest, which is funnier, but even then it felt less like a real and clever quality, and more of something Green came up with, thought was funny, and forced into the story without it feeling organic. The friends help him on his journey and end up being unfunny comic relief.  There’s also Margo’s friend Lacey (Halston Sage) who looks unlike any high school student ever. The film doesn’t know what to do with Lacey.  At first it sets up that maybe Quentin will end up with Lacey instead of Margo, but then for no other reason except that every male character needs a girl, she’s inexplicable forced by the screenplay to fall for Ben.  The film also tells us that she had Chlamydia once (yet she claims she’s smarter than people give her credit for…just not smart enough to use protection) and likes Pokemon, which I don’t buy for a second.

Look, I get what the INTENDED message of the film is: men project onto women what they want or fear, but need to understand that women are who they are, not what men think they are.  The problem is that the women themselves in the film are not good people, and thus the film has an unintentional misogyny.  Lacey is not so much a character as she is a pretty trophy for Ben, and we never are given any evidence that she is smart or deep.  Radar’s girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair) isn’t portrayed negatively, granted, but she barely exists as a character.  Honestly, though, they matter little compared to Margo, who isn’t in much of the film, but whose presence permeates it.

In real life, if Margo ran away as she did, eventually she would run out of her parent’s money and, if she spent as much time sleeping in ramshackle abandoned buildings as the film leads us to believe, it’d be because she was resorting to drugs or prostitution.  Granted, she likely comes from money, as every character in the film seems wealthy or upper-middle class, but the film implies that her parents would cut her off at this point.  She’s obviously bailed before graduation, so she doesn’t even have a high school diploma to her name.  The only reason she runs away is because her boyfriend cheats on her, and she thinks everyone in her town is shallow. Boo-fucking-hoo.  You’re not special, Margo. Owning some old records and reading a shitty poet don’t make you deep. Sure, her town is the only place in Florida devoid of Hispanic people, and only has two non-white residents, but she’s not so much better or more profound than where she comes from.  That the film insists on treating her character as cool and interesting and not as, quite frankly, a giant piece of shit, is infuriating.  In real life, Margo’s future is not glamorous and whirlwind.  In real life, she’s a junkie.

The ending seems to have been toned down from the book. When *SPOILERS* Quentin finally finds Margo, the meeting is more a pleasant conversation than the argument that happens in the novel.  Margo makes excuses for her actions, like that her clues are to let people know she’s okay, not to come and find her. Right. Because instead of telling people where you’re going and being direct, a series of clues hidden in door jambs and crack dens is so much more of a direct message of that. Really, her excuses reek of a woman who didn’t expect to be found, and is desperately trying to save face to rid herself of a bothersome person.  The film tries to play this off as her being mostly innocuous and Quentin wrongly projecting his wishes onto her, but she’s not innocuous.  Quentin is an annoying little shit who DOES wrongly project this feelings, but Margo is at least partly responsible for that, and she’s wholly responsible for manipulating him when, if she had continued leaving him alone rather than using him for her stupid revenge, he’d be fine. *SPOILERS END*

The excuse that Quentin started living because of Margo, well, he would have started living anyway.  His friends still tried to convince him to come to a party, and nothing was stopping them from taking a road trip before.  Sorry, but this film is not having the same live-your-life message that “It Follows” delivered so brilliantly this year.  The message of “Paper Towns” is that women are either evil, stupid, or scary, and if you navigate their craziness correctly, you win them. Shit, and I thought “Pixels” was sexist.

The film on a nuts and bolts level is sloppy.  The film is an alleged comedy, but there is only one joke in the film that made laugh. One. It involves a Confederate flag t-shirt.  Every other joke falls flat, and it’s largely because the jokes come from clichés (the geek gets drunk for the first time at a party) and from REALLY BAD TIMING.  Plus, the movie is unwise in giving us two urine-related jokes within 15 minutes.  Occasionally, character motivations change for no reason, like when Radar inexplicably goes from being really concerned with keeping on schedule for the road trip to not caring if they spend the night on the side of the road after a near accident with a cow.  There are often shots that are so close the film looks like a bad TV movie. The director, Jake Schreier, only directed one other film before this, and after seeing “Paper Towns” I have no desire to take a look at it. The direction and the editing of this film are poor, and that’s even if they weren’t in service to a horrendous story.

“Paper Towns” is filled with characters that are either atrocious or clichéd, the plot feels forced and phony, the direction and editing are sub par, the humor fails on all but one joke in the entire 109 minute running time, and the message is horrendous.  This is the worst example of a Coming of Age film I can remember seeing in some time. Margo is the most unlikable fictional character put on film in recent memory. I weep for the teenagers who will see this film and think Margo is to be emulated, revered, or fawned over. This movie is garbage of the anger-inducing variety. D.

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Pixels (dir. Chris Columbus)

Posted: July 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Pixels” is an unfunny and sexist comedy that makes up its own rules as it goes along and occasionally coasts by on nostalgia and an energetic performance by Peter Dinklage.  The few moments of the film that are fun can be replicated for much cheaper by watching old 80s commercials and music videos on Youtube in the privacy of your own home. While the film is more aggressively mediocre than outright bad, it is a hugely wasted opportunity, and that is far more disappointing than if this had just been another in a long line of bad Adam Sandler comedies.

Sandler will take a lot of the blame on this film, but really the screenplay is the major culprit here.  The screenwriters, Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling, created a story in which a time capsule from 1982 is sent into space, received by aliens, and then the aliens misunderstand it as a warning and attack Earth using its own pop culture.  The one thing the writers could have done, in setting this up, is made sure to only include pop cultural references up to the year 1982. Nope. We get references to “Duck Hunt” (1984), as well as characters like Max Headroom (also 1984) that simply couldn’t have been in a 1982 time capsule. Now, I know you might be saying “who cares if the years are accurate?”  But the thing is, nothing forced these writers to choose 1982 for their year in question.  They could just as easily have chosen 1984, 1985, or 1986.  They chose their year, and they couldn’t even stick to their own terms. At least in Sandler’s other 80s nostalgia movie, “The Wedding Singer” (1998), they set it in 1985, smack dab in the middle of the decade, merely to let the audience know they were taking a broad stroke of the pen to the entire era.  As much as I love seeing Max Headroom on the big screen, the specific date this time has major plot significance, and it irked me. Herlihy has been responsible for the screenplays of many Sandler movies, and Dowling has written really bad comedies like “This Means War” before (though he also wrote the decent “Role Models”).  These guys shouldn’t be allowed to ruin a good concept.

I can’t even credit the writers with the concept because that was adapted from a short film, also called “Pixels” (2010) that they had nothing to do with.  The premise is also suspiciously similar to an even earlier 2002 episode of “Futurama”, but whatever.  If they had actually managed to write a funny movie, this wouldn’t matter.  Sadly, the only joy this film brings is in aping the older creations of others (Pac-Man, Donkey Kong) and using them as window dressing for mildly amusing action sequences.  Anything original that the writers brought, like the human characters, the specifics of the plot added to the premise, and gags, are all pretty much garbage.  While I’m tempted to praise them for creating Dinklage’s character, a cocky video game champion named Eddie who gave himself the nickname of Fireblaster, that character is so obviously based on real life video game champion Billy Mitchell that it barely counts as a character.  At least Dinklage has obvious fun playing the role, but we can just watch the real Mitchell in the excellent retro gaming documentary “The King of Kong” (2007) and avoid this film altogether.

Perhaps if Eddie had been our main character this film could have been something.  Instead our main character is Sam Brenner, played by Sandler.  Most of Sandler’s line delivery sounds like he was dragged out of bed against his will at 4:30AM and forced to act.  I’ve never seen Sandler look so bored and utterly disinterested in the proceedings.  I wonder if he even bothered to cash his paycheck from the film.  I know for a fact Sandler can act, as he has shown this in his dramas like “Punch Drunk Love” and the great, underrated “Reign Over Me”, so I can only surmise that he really just didn’t give a shit.  That’s pretty disrespectful as both Dinklage and Josh Gad, playing a conspiracy nut, seem to actually be trying.  In addition, we get Kevin James playing the President of the United States (okay…since he’ll never get the chance to play that role again, I guess good for him?) and Michelle Monaghan as a love interest for Sandler.

The movie is essentially a long series of unfunny scenes that act as connective tissue until we can see a nostalgic thing from the past (Q-Bert! Paperboy! Hall & Oates!) or hear an old late 70s-early 80s hit on the soundtrack that makes us smile out of fond remembrance of that thing.  The Pac-Man chase scene is the one scene of the film that almost works as more than nostalgia, but the trailers have given away that scene in nearly its entirety, undercutting the joy you may have felt while watching it.  There’s also the weird matter of what the rules are in this universe.  The pixilated alien creatures are made out of light energy, and the U.S. military (rather quickly) creates light-energy weapons to defeat them. Okay, but then why can a regular crane made of metal pick up a Frogger creature?  Also, why is Pac-Man able to eat a pellet and override the energy force fields the military created for the Mini-Cooper ghosts?  And another thing: why do the aliens consider using a cheat code as cheating?  If it’s a code that was placed into the game by its designers, then the makers of the game WANTED people to find and use it, and thus it becomes not against the rules.  Also, how the hell can you use a cheat code while driving an actual car on an actual road?  And why would a cheat code for Pac-Man work in real life if in the game you play AS Pac-Man but our heroes are playing as ghosts in the real world?  The writers spent less time coming up with this script than I did just typing those questions.

I lastly have to mention how misogynist this film is.  We get two off-screen women characters whose jobs are to yell at men and have men yell and demean them back.  We have women who are given as “trophies” and prizes to men for a job well done (including Martha Stewart and Serena Williams, for some reason).  The most misogynist thing in this film, though, is the Josh Gad character’s love of a fictional female video game warrior named Lady Lisa.  The writers created this character solely to have a sexy female warrior for Gad’s character to crush on, since apparently no real-life counterpart exists, but the writers still REALLY wanted this B story.  For no reason, against the rules, this character becomes un-pixelated and looks like a regular woman in her introductory scene, for no other reason than to have her look sexy and not like a bunch of glowing blocks. (She’s played by actress Ashley Benson).  She doesn’t talk, and thus exhibits no personality, showing that Gosh solely wants this woman for her looks and has no interest in or desire for, her personality (except that she’s “strong”).  She turns into a good guy when Gad proclaims his love for her. Okay.  Later, when she “dies”, Q-Bert, who is allowed to live because the aliens gave him to the humans as a trophy for defeating them in one of their challenges, decides to become Lady Lisa out of pity for Gad’s sadness (what?), and then the last scene in the movie lets us know that Gad has fucked Q-Bert as a woman and they’ve had baby Q-Berts. Eww.  We have a sexy woman who doesn’t speak and has no personality be a literal trophy for creepy, horny loser.  I’m sure the Gamergate Men’s Rights Activists will like this turn.

A really good movie could have made about our nostalgia killing us.  In this age where Lucky Charms are being sold to 90s kids who are now parents, nostalgia is weighing on our (older millennials’) generation more than seems like it was the norm prior.  Sure, the adults of the 70s had “Grease” for their 50s nostalgia, but 80s and 90s nostalgia have become a big money business now. Just this summer we’ve gotten “Jurassic World”, a new “Terminator”, and a “Vacation” reboot.  It seems like we don’t want original ideas, we want our beloved childhoods back, at least entertainment-wise.  “Pixels” exploits that while giving us nothing else to enjoy.  The movie is empty nostalgia cynically sold to us.  The movie expects our memories to entertain us, and doesn’t bother trying to entertain us itself. C-.

Another day, another shooting in public. This one apparently in a movie theater. Wonder what fun precautions theaters will decide to put into place. No shows at night now? Anything to keep us safe (except take these stupid fucking guns away but…you know…people need their toys so they can pretend they’ll over throw the government some day or save the day in the middle of a shootout like they’re Clint fucking Eastwood). Apparently the shooting was during a showing of “Trainwreck”, but I’m not sure the particular feature had anything to do with this, unlike the Aurora shooter specifically choosing that last Batman film.

Movie theaters have always held a special place in my heart because, well, I love movies, and the theater is still the best way to watch a movie (that one, unpleasant experience with asshole teens during “It Follows” aside). When these shooting happen in theaters (there was also a time a guy shot another guy for talking during the trailers before “Watchmen” a few years back) I feel a closer violation, as opposed to my general disgust with the United States that I normally feel when a mass shooting leads to no action…except maybe taking a flag down that should never have been flying in the first fucking place.

How many people have to die before we come to the realization that the 2nd Amendment is as useless now as the 3/5ths Compromise would be if we still had that relic? Or remember that the original Constitution didn’t allow citizens to directly elect senators? Or that only white, land-owning men used to be able to vote. There are a lot of great things in the Constitution, but it, and the Founding Fathers, were far from perfect. Plus, hey, the 2nd Amendment was meant as a collective right and not an individual right, regardless of what the modern Supreme Court made up for the Heller case.

I promise not to put up many posts on this blog that aren’t straight movie reviews, but this particular shooting being in a movie theater, I felt it was justified.

Ant-Man (dir. Peyton Reed)

Posted: July 22, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Ant-Man” is rather refreshing, coming off the entertaining but disappointing “Avengers: Age of Ultron”.  Having grown weary of films featuring CGI animated people fighting other CGI animated people/robots/aliens/creatures, I can’t quite enjoy some of these Marvel films as much as the general populous is.  Thus far my favorite Marvel film has been the one with the most political content and which featuring a bang-up, practical effects car chase and shout out scene, “Captain America: The Winter Solider”.  I didn’t have high hopes going in to “Ant-Man” because, well, a guy who shrinks seems like an ability that would be conveyed through heavy CGI, even though films like “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “Innerspace” made do with practical effects in the 1980s.

So, to my surprise and delight, “Ant-Man” uses CGI effectively.  While the climax of the film is pretty much one CGI guy beating up another CGI guy, it takes place in a setting which highlights originality and humor (a child’s bedroom and train set), and in that sense it worked for me, as did CGI-riddled scenes of a tiny man riding a flying ant, and others.  Possibly, it’s because we’re dealing with unique visuals and entertaining scenarios that we don’t often see on film (a tiny man running away from a torrent of water in a bathtub, or skipping across a record being played), as opposed to costumed people jumping around and beating up robots, which I’ve seen in so many movies that I only grow bored when they play out.  The genre of a tiny person interacting with regular sized objects isn’t exactly new or original in and of itself (in addition to the two aforementioned 80s films, the 50s had a ton of these, and even the 90s had the execrable “The Indian in the Cupboard” adaptation), but quite frankly it’s been so long since a movie like this, and this being the first film of this genre I’ve seen in 3D, that I actually found myself enchanted by CGI rather than bored, and not many movies do that to me nowadays.

Also, this is a film that does indeed go “smaller” than other Marvel films.  The world is not on the brink of annihilation.  The apocalypse isn’t nigh.  Nope, the goal is basically to keep an evil capitalist from selling a bad weapon to a bad group of people.  Sadly, aside from our main character Scott’s (Paul Rudd) background of breaking into a bank and redistributing money to the people the bank ripped off, the film doesn’t contain much anti-capitalist or social justice content.  Basically, Scott spends some time in prison for that crime, and comes out unable to get a good job because of his criminal record. Commentary on the American justice system and the prison industrial complex ends there, but at least the movie gets a couple of superficial political points in.  Scott needs a job because he hasn’t been able to pay child support for his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) and his ex-wife (Judy Greer, as wasted here as she was in “Jurassic World”) doesn’t want him to see his daughter until he can pony up the dough and get a respectable job.

Anyway, through a series of plot machinations, it’s revealed that a scientist named Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, who looks to be having fun) once invented a “particle” that, when combined with a special suit, can allow a person to shrink to the size of an insect and back at will.  This also makes the insect-sized person have super-strength because of atom density, or some such nonsense that works well enough in the movie for me to not care about the details.  Pym didn’t want S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Stark Corporation to have it, so he squirreled it away to keep it out of the hands of people who could misuse the tech. In the present day, the head of Pym’s company is a man named Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Cross seems upset that Pym at first took him on as a protégé and then didn’t like him anymore, and Cross is motivated by an “I’ll show you” need to redeem himself and one up his former master, as well as general megalomania and want of profit.  Honestly, Cross is another in a line of really weak Marvel villains.  Not as weak as Guy Pierce in “Iron Man 3”, whose motives still don’t make a goddamn lick of sense to me, but weak nonetheless.  I had hoped Ultron would break this pattern (I’m not as big a fan of Loki as Tumblr is), but he was also pretty weaksauce, despite his wonderful voice work courtesy of James Spader.  In any case, Cross has created a tiny, weaponized suit called the Yellowjacket, and he merely has to figure out how to shrink organic matter without killing it to succeed in being able to create an army of tiny soldiers for the highest bidder.  Many lambs die for this.

Worried about this, Pym recruits Scott for his great burgling skills to become a new Ant-Man to steal and destroy the Yellowjacket tech before it can fall into the hands of evil.  The film then proceeds from this point as a comedic heist movie with a few asides to the great Marvel Cinematic Universe, but handles doing a stand-alone story with references much better than, say, the clunky “Iron Man 2” did.  The movie isn’t anything particularly thrilling on its own (as far as heist films go, the original “Mission: Impossible” (1996)  has a scene with Tom Cruise dangling from the ceiling that is more thrilling than anything in the entire film of “Ant-Man”), but when compared to the rest of Marvel’s slate, it feels better than it is.  The film has a freewheeling breeziness and a better sense of fun than many of the other MCU films have.  I wonder how much of Edgar Wright’s original script remains intact here. Wright, of course, is the man who directed and co-wrote films such as “Shaun of the Dead”, “Hot Fuzz”, “The World’s End”, and “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”, all films I’ve either really liked or outright loved.  He and his writing partner, Joe Cornish, worked on the film for many years before dropping out for reasons unknown, but rumored to be frustration with integrating their vision into the larger MCU.  Later, star Paul Rudd and comedy director Adam McKay rewrote the script to the finished version we see on screens now, with all four writers getting on-screen credit.

This is a film where a giant ant becomes a pet, many tiny ants provide sugar for coffee, a tiny man has wonderful tiny adventures, Baskin Robbins gets better product placement than it will ever get, Stan Lee has one of his funniest cameos, and where a ton of CGI is on the screen without boring those of us who see hundreds of movies a year and find CGI in and of itself tiresome if not used to interesting means.  The action works, but up until the third act this film is more heist movie and comedy than anything recognizable as a superhero action film.  I liked that.

Paul Rudd himself is at his best.  This is Rudd at his most Ruddiest and likeable, and that might be because he partially wrote his own part this time, and played to his strengths.  This is another film where Marvel has a woman problem, in this case Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is kind of wasted in the film, though a mid-credits sequence indicates Marvel is finally recognizing this and is (slowly) working about correcting it.  The entire cast, especially Michael Pena, works well to create one of the better ensembles of these Marvel films.  I also like the way this film attempts to defy convention, including the tastes of Pena’s character when it comes to art and wine.  I also like that a love story in this film is pretty much relegated to off-screen until a funny-yet-expected reveal late in the film.  I like that a major plan of the characters in the film ultimately fails and that the villain saw right through it all along.  Some of the plot turns are telegraphed a mile away (Quantum Realm), but there are enough surprises to keep the thing going well.

I enjoyed “Ant-Man” more than “Ultron”, by far.  It’s also better than “Iron Man 2 & 3” and the first “Captain America”, but it comes up slightly short against the first “Iron Man” and very short from the highs of “Winter Soldier”.  I’d put “Ant-Man:” on the level of the first “Avengers”. B.

“Trainwreck” is not the politically astute, dirty-minded feminist comedy we, or at least I, expected Amy Schumer to write as her first feature film script.  It’s dirty-minded, and it is often very funny, but it’s surprisingly anti-feminist and reactionary.  What the whole story boils down to is that a woman who sleeps around a lot is probably drunk out of her mind every time she does it, and it all stems from daddy issues.  Oh, and the only key to happiness is a stable, monogamous relationship.  I expect that last message to come from Judd Apatow, whose entire filmography (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”, “Knocked Up”, “Funny People”, and “This is 40”) have that same message.  I did not expect Amy Schumer to write a slut-shaming movie, though.

The saving grace of the film is that Schumer doesn’t paint all women with the same brush, and in fact saves most of the embarrassment and hard times for the character she plays, also named Amy.  A good comedian (or comedienne) isn’t afraid to make themselves look like a complete jackass for a laugh, and Schumer is certainly fearless.  We get the character of Amy’s sister, Kim (Brie Larson), who is relatively well-adjusted, even if her husband (Mike Birbiglia) is a massive tool and a dork.  Kim’s harboring some resentment over their father (Colin Quinn) for being a philandering sleazyball and leaving their mother when they were younger, but honestly you can’t blame the girl. The father in present day is suffering from M.S. and in an assisted living facility which costs too much, but Amy lovers her father, took his drinking and promiscuity into her own personality, and wants to care for him.

Amy works for Maxim-ish mens magazine and, despite hating sports, is assigned to write an article about an orthopedic surgeon who mainly works with athletes, Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader).  Conners is a genuinely nice guy (he works with Doctors Without Borders) and is an unusual addition to Amy’s list of sexual partners. After they hook up (out-of-character for Conners, par-for-the-course for Amy) Amy wants to not see him any more sexually because, well, it’s rare for her to see someone for more than a night, and unheard of to be non-exclusive. Conners wants to keep seeing her romantically and rather politely but firmly convinces Amy that she wants this too.  Thus begins the main dilemma of the film: Amy does indeed want to have a relationship with Conners, but the concept of a monogamous, loving relationship is so foreign to who she is as a person, and she is so racked with unconscious self-hatred, that she doesn’t think she is capable of it, or deserves it.

I’m quite confused as to why Schumer wrote her character as alcoholic and self-hating.  It’s an entirely possible to make a film about a woman who is promiscuous and owns it, is perfectly safe and healthy, and has trouble transitioning to monogamy even though she really wants it.  That concept would have many comedic opportunities without the weird moralizing this film has.  By making Amy an alcoholic who is following the patterns of the father who broke up her family, Schumer is equating alcoholism, and unhealthy addiction, with sleeping around.  The film’s not arguing that Amy is a sex addict, in which case equating alcohol with dangerous, unsafe, impulsive sex would fit.  The film is merely saying that going out and hooking up is a reckless thing in and of itself.  Granted, getting wasted while drinking to last call and going home with strangers is not a healthy thing in general, but the alcohol is what makes it de facto unhealthy.  If a stone cold sober woman decides to sleep with a guy at the end of the night, there’s nothing per se wrong with that.  The issue in this film is that Amy is nearly always inebriated when she makes a sexual decision.  She is also very rarely shown to enjoy sex, and seems grateful to be rid of the men as soon as the act is over.  Any way you cut it, “Trainwreck” is a very sex-negative film.  It’s almost ironic that there’s a scene in the film where Amy yells at a group of cheerleaders that they’re going to make women lose the right to vote.

But it is really damn funny.  While I am not a woman, the film does feel true to how women feel and talk sometimes.  When Amy and a coworker are in adjacent stalls in the bathroom discussing which Johnny Deep role is the hottest iteration of Johnny Depp, it felt like a conversation women would have. Amy’s frank description of a tampon left in the toilet on a heavy flow day, her description of her breasts when she lies down, and many other nuggets of dialogue feel how women would deliver self-deprecating humor to other close women in their circles.  Amy the character is not a particularly nice person, as one character explicitly tells her, but that makes it all the funnier when she finds herself in awkward situations (insulting sports fans wearing jerseys with other men’s names on them while the man she’s speaking to has a framed jersey in his office, for example).

John Cena deserves a mention.  He is very, very funny in a supporting role of a boyfriend of Amy’s early on. Cena is a huge guy, and he milks a lot of humor out of being a dumb, possibly latently-homosexual guy with a heart of gold and good intentions. Cena has mostly been relegated to a movie career of D-list action films, but he shows good comedic potential in this film.  Other sports stars, such as LeBron James, don’t have acting chops as decent as Cena’s, but also show a surprisingly good comic timing. Apatow is good at milking cameos in his films (“Funny People” especially) and I credit his ability to direct non-actors with how well some of these cameos play out.

The film is really just loaded with comedian gold. Bill Hader has become a wonderful jack-of-all-trades who can be put into almost any role in any comedy and make the film shine. Colin Quinn, whose comic persona has rarely worked outside of his stand-up and one-man shows, finally has a role that he fits into like a glove. Tilda Swinton gets to do her best “Devil Wears Prada” impression. Honestly, this film finds laughs everywhere it can.  While I wouldn’t call the film hilarious, and there aren’t many BIG laughs in the film, I doubt there were more than one or two scenes which didn’t contain at least one good laugh.

As for Schumer, well, she shows that she can hold her own as an actress in a feature film.  She’s always convincing as the character she’s written for herself, and even while making herself look horrible she finds ways to convey her character’s cuteness and innate vulnerability in an endearing way in some scenes. Despite Amy (the character) being downright loathsome in some scenes, Schumer finds ways to keep us rooting for her through the film, and that’s a testament to her screen presence.

Message-wise I have issues with the film, but overall it’s quite a funny movie, and I won’t deny that I enjoyed it a lot.  Also, it’s the first film of Apatow’s that I didn’t feel was overlong. The pacing of the film was just right, showing that Apatow has finally allowed his editors to have a voice. B.

Found Footage horror films didn’t start off as lazy pieces of crap. “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980) is one of my favorite horror films, and it’s largely made up of faux “found footage” from a documentary gone wrong. The now-maligned “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) may now hold up very well, but when I first saw it I enjoyed it’s depiction of kids’ escalating panic as they are lost in the woods.  Then, a few years ago, there was a glut of these films invading our theaters. Some were good, and some were not. Lately, we’ve had films like “Unfriended”, which at least attempted to new, clever ways to present the genre to us.  While “Unfriended” wasn’t entirely successful as a film, it had some genuine cleverness to its form, if not its content.  Sadly, no one can claim “The Gallows” is clever.  It is lazy, derivative, jump-scare-filled crap.

The premise was promising, if they had chosen to make an 80s-style slasher film in stead of a quasi-supernatural movie.  In 1993 a high school drama club puts on a play called “The Gallows”, which seem vaguely inspired by “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Crucible”.  The main character was supposed to be played by one student, but they got sick, so a kid named Charlie (Jesse Cross), who was supposed to play the hangman, fills in.  During the hanging scene something goes wrong, and Charlie is actually hanged.

Cut to 20 years later.  An annoying kid named Ryan (Ryan Shoos…yes, like “Blair Witch” all of the characters’ first names are the same as the actors who play them) is filming behind-the-scenes footage for the drama club’s revival of this play at the high school.  Why would a school allow another staging of the play that lead to a student’s accidental death? I don’t know.  There’s a throwaway line about there having been arguments with the school board, but it strains credulity that a school, which is likely infamous from such an event, would want to invite bringing this up again.  Then again, this high school also has a trophy case in the hallway with relics from the original play, including programs and a cast photo. Later, when there’s a plot point involving the cast photo, it’s completely unbelievable that one character never looked at this photo before, having to pass it every day and all, or that a piece of revealed knowledge was heretofore unknown.  Also, why is Ryan even filming any of this?  The big issue with found footage films is that many of them never adequately explain why the participants would keep filming.  “The Gallows” is one of the worst offenders of this. When running, climbing ladders, committing crimes, or just being alone in their own bedrooms, there is no logical reason for them to keep filming anything.

Ryan has a girlfriend named Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford…Kathy Lee Gifford’s daughter) who is in no way believable as a high school student given her very obvious breast implants.  The film conspires to have her in a nearly transparent tank top with sweaty cleavage for most of her scenes, and it is ridiculous.  Ryan also has a friend named Reese (Reese Mishler), who was a former football player who quit the team to take the lead role in this new performance of the play.  The small problem is that he cannot act.  It’s soon revealed that he joined the drama club to be close to a girl he has a crush on, Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown).  Pfeifer seems to be queen of the drama club and is the lead actress in the play, and also seemed to spearhead the effort to get the play staged.

The day before the play is to be performed, Reese is worried that his shitty acting will ruin the play, and that Pfeifer will hate him forever. Ryan gets the bright idea to sneak into the school that night and dismantle the set so that the play cannot be performed, and then while Pfeifer is sad about this, Reese will be there to console her and have his in.  I think dismantling or destroying the set would merely postpone the play as opposed to delaying it (if a student’s death didn’t stop the new production, I doubt a little vandalism will), but Reese thinks this is a good idea and Ryan finds that a door to the school is broken and doesn’t lock, so they have their in.

The kids break into the school that night and begin hearing strange noises and stuff.  They soon find Pfeifer also in the school and the other three kids ‘plans are thwarted, but then the broken door is suddenly locked, as are all the other doors. Their cell phones don’t work, nor do the landlines in the school’s office. They’re trapped. Is it the ghost of Charlie?

Four main characters are not enough to sustain a who-will-die-next movie, so any hope of this being a cool slasher film disappears from there.  Honestly, since the villain in this film is pretty much a ghost, who occasionally takes corporeal form for no reason, there’s not real motive for why this ghost wastes time playing around with these kids when he could just kill them immediately. Yeah, the plot requires one of the kids to not be dispensed with as quickly as the others, but largely this ghost spends his time treading water when ample opportunity to kill presents itself, and there are seemingly no geographic or power limits to his strikes.

How this film got an R rating is beyond me.  There’s no R-rated swearing, the violence consists of some make-up showing rope burn on a neck and some bloodless, gore-less hanging.  My guess is the filmmakers were aiming for a PG-13 and the MPAA surprisingly gave it an R.  This film has all the markings of a lazy, unoriginal, uninspired, unscary PG-13 studio piece of garbage. The constant jump scares (without music) would scare only those under 13 anyway.  There’s no nudity, despite Cassidy’s ridiculous fake breasts and Pfeifer’s unnecessary push-up bra.

The found footage aspect hurts the movie.  There are many shots of feet, or nothing, or dark hallways.  The film won’t make you dizzy, but it’s visually boring.  That and, again, there is NO REASON FOR THESE CHARACTERS TO KEEP FILMING.  When they break into the school, I kept thinking of the line from “The Simpsons”: “Videotaping out crime spree is the best idea we’ve ever had.”  If this film had been made as a straight-forward slasher film with gore, nudity, and a larger cast to be disposed of, this could have been a decent, nostalgic throwback to the 80s.  The set-up for this film is right out of Slasher 101.  Instead, it seems like writer/directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing went with found footage out of budget necessity and not knowing how to pull off make-up effects. I’ve read that some CGI was added once Blumhouse and New Line picked the film up to smooth out the rough, no-budget practical effects, but otherwise this film looks like a lazy attempt at a resume builder by wannabe filmmakers of middling talent.

“The Gallows” is not scary, the characters are stupid and unlikeable, the set up could have been decent, but its failed by being shoehorned into a subgenre that does it no favors, the filmmakers fail at finding plausible reasons for the characters to keep filming, and the film constantly falls back on bad clichés (no signal) to justify its existence.

One last thing. If we are lead to believe that one character is who the film implies they are, they’d have to be at least 20 years old, and thus too old to be in high school.  Then again, it’s common for teens in horror movies to be played by 20-somethings. I dunno, just one of those things that irked me, like Scott Evil’s age not matching up with the date he was conceived in the film “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” (1999).  “The Gallows” represents everything wrong with studio horror today.  It’s a shame that films like this get a theatrical release on thousands of screens, but great horror films like “A Serbian Film” or “Martyrs” are confined to the dust bin of VOD. At least the great “It Follows” found its way to an American theatrical release, and it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray as you read this.

“The Gallows” gets points for premise, and not much else. At least it’s not the worst horror film I’ve seen all year.  That’s still “The Human Centipede 3”. D+

“Self/Less” has the potential to be a brilliant science-fiction drama about economic inequality, the cost of healthcare, and even how the United States treats its veterans.  Instead, for some unknown reason, the writers, brothers David and Alex Pastor, decided they wanted to waste their great idea by squeezing it into a lackluster action movie.  Or perhaps they just didn’t want to part with the two spate scenes in which people are killed via flamethrower, which is entirely too many scenes for a film that could have otherwise been an Andrew Niccol-type brilliant sci-fi film.

The premise is very intriguing. Ben Kingsley plays Damian Hayes, a rich architect who will die in six months from cancer.  He lives in an opulent and gaudy New York high rise apartment with more gold leaf than even Donald Trump could stand.  He doesn’t seem to be a particularly bad man, but he is a workaholic who was never around when his daughter (Michelle Dockery) was growing up.  Now she runs a non-profit, which bourgeois Damian describes as “kids throwing a tantrum”.  I imagine that’s a reference to Occupy Wall Street, and no doubt how many rich New Yorkers probably saw that movement.  One day, Damian finds a card in his wallet with a phone number and the cryptic phrase “they can help you”.  This leads him to meet, in a secret underground lab, with a doctor named Albright, played perfectly by Matthew Goode.  Albright is a neurologist who has developed a procedure in which the consciousness of a person trapped in a dying body can be put into a healthy body. It involves a giant machine that looks like dual MRIs and uses magnets.  Sure. Why not?  Apparently, Damian pays the rather light cost of $250 million for the privilege of cheating death, which seems rather low as we find out that Albright’s secretive science has a number of mercenaries on its payroll, the lease for the building the lab is located under, special pharmaceuticals, and the leases on various houses and cars for its clients.

It’s never explained why Albright, whose supposed reason for this secret science is to allow humanity’s great minds to continue living even if their bodies fail them (think Stephen Hawking) thinks an architect is worthy of this process.  One would think Albright was desperate for a capital infusion but can’t exactly go to a bank and ask for a business loan for his immortality-for-rich-fucks business and is taking on all comers.  In any case, Damian fakes his death with their help (Albright’s organization can do this too, I guess) and his consciousness is transported into a different body, played by Ryan Reynolds.  Damian was told that this body was grown in a test tube but, as you may already know from the trailers, it belonged to someone else. Damian, indeed, suffers from seizures in which he sees visions of the body’s past memories.  Albright gives him pills to suppress these seizures, equating them to anti-rejection drugs after an organ transplant.  The new body is fighting the invading consciousness, you see.

So after Damian has some fun in his new body, which basically means having a string of one night stands (hope he used a condom…consciousness transplants won’t help if his brain gets riddled with syphilis) and eating peanut butter (his old body was allergic to it), he goes chasing his body’s memories and finds out that they belong to a former solider named Marcus who sold himself to Albright’s organization to pay for his sick child’s medical treatment.  Yes, even with Obamacare dying slowly in America is still far more expensive than in any other first-world country.  Now, there are a lot of places you could go with this.  You could make a comment on how people who join the military are really just giving their bodies away as cannon fodder for the economic concerns of the rich people who send them off to war. “Self/Less” could have been an ultra-literal metaphor for that.  You could make a comment about how this rich guy can afford an experimental procedure because of his wealth, but poor Americans who have to rely on their insurance often cannot, and thus America’s healthcare is only better than other countries for those who have the luxury of affording it.  You could talk about how the poor often are forced to compromise themselves to live because free-markets do not mean people are free from the chains of their economic slavery.  There are perhaps dozens of different ways in which the premise of this film could have lead to a movie or movies which talked about any number of important political and economic concerns we have today in the United States.

But no.  The writers, who as far as I can tell have only previously ever written movies about various fictional pandemics, waste this terrific concept.  The only reason for the body to have belonged to an ex-military guy is so that Damian could have reflexive military skills (hand-to-hand combat and shooting ability) when fighting off Albright’s mercenaries.  It’s throw away as an explanation for an elderly architect to be able to fight off Blackwater, basically.  We also get a weird quasi-romantic subplot with the body’s wife (Natalie Martinez).  Granted, an interesting film could be made about a woman struggling to deal with the fact that a different consciousness exists inside the body of the person she loves, but “Self/Less” is not that movie.

I don’t want to make it sound like “Self/Less” is a bad movie, because it is not.  The first half hour is extremely well done. The issue is that the film decided to lazily become a not-so-good chase and action film when the premise deserves better.  The writers even put in nice touches, like giving characters little physical tics to carry over to when they change bodies.  I will say that I was at least one or two steps ahead of the film at every juncture, so the plot twists, when they do come, are either telegraphed way too obviously or way too early within the film.  If you watch enough movies, the plot twists will not be any surprise to you.

The director, Tarsem Singh, is known for being an extremely visual director.  His first film, “The Cell” had a weak script but gorgeous visuals.  I have not seen any of his other films, but I know from trailers that “The Fall” was similarly luscious visually.  “Immortals” looked like it was just “300” shot in blue tones, and the less said about “Mirror Mirror” the better.  “Self/Less” is not as visually interesting, but there were a few shots here and there which showcased that a good visual director was behind the camera, but otherwise it seems like Tarsem phoned this one in.

I have to go back to the character of Albright. Goode is so, well, good in this role that I wish the character was given meatier material.  I wish we saw him actually doing what he claims he wants to do, which is give new bodies to brilliant minds in failing bodies.  I also wish he had more of a justification for what is essentially murder than just “hey, I tried to grow bodies. I’m still working on it. Until then, well murder’s okay”.  I think back to Gene Hackman’s character in the film “Extreme Measures” (1996).  In that film, Hackman played a doctor who kidnapped and experimented on homeless people to try to cure cancer.  His justification was delivered in the line “If you could cure cancer by killing one person, wouldn’t you have to do that?”  I feel like Albright in this film needed to be less of a cipher for evil and more of well-meaning scientist who allowed his ethics to be corrupted over a grand scheme.  I wish the character, in order words, were given more humanity and layers.

“Self/Less” is fairly entertaining as it chugs along, and it may at least inspire audiences to have the intelligent conversations that the writers were unwilling to have with us. B-

Now that we’ve had two “Despicable Me” films (the second one unseen by me) and a plethora of merchandise released, one can understand if the Minion characters from those films have crossed a line from funny to annoying.  To many they have, but to me I still find them chuckle-worthy.  The Minions, of course, are little yellow, somewhat round characters who wear overalls and thick goggles (even the ones with only one eye) and did the grunt work for super-villain wannabe Gru (Steve Carrell).  They’re known for their weird speech, which seems to be a mixture of Spanish, Yiddish, Baby Talk, Babbling, and a few English words.  Well, now they have their very own spin-off movie/prequel, “Minions”, and it’s an often cute and reasonably funny little movie explaining their origins.

The Minions apparently evolved from the beginning of time and started walking on land right around the age of the dinosaurs.  As far as I can tell they are all male, and seemingly immortal, both of them being odd for evolution to produce, but whatever.  For some reason, these creatures are happiest when serving a tough or evil master.  Then, sometime after they fail to help Napoleon, they exile themselves to some frozen climate where they hunker down in a cave until the 1960s, thus finding a way to avoid helping Hitler or Stalin.  Good move on the part of the writer, Brian Lynch, whose character has been spent writing comic books and children’s movies.

Anyway, their exile is pretty dull without a master to serve.  This leads Kevin, one of the taller and smarter Minions, to propose he strikes out into the world to find a new master.  He is accompanied by an  idiot named Bob, and a guitar-playing-slightly-lesser-of-an-idiot Stuart. All three Minions are voiced by one of the film’s directors, Pierre Coffin. Their trip takes them to 1960s New York City and then a convention for super-villains in Orlando where they latch on to Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), who sort of looks like Lily Tomlin. Scarlet is, in this universe, the world’s first female super-villain, and she wants the Minions to help her steal the crown of the Queen of England.  That’s pretty much our plot.

The humor of the film is a mix of silliness, 60s references (“The Dating Game”), potshots at Britain, slapstick, and absurd characters.  There’s nothing particularly hilarious in the film, but there are many chuckles and the humor has a good split between gags that only adults will find funny, and easy gags that kids will laugh at.  This isn’t as high-brow as a Pixar film.  “Minions” is largely meant to be goofy fun and not much more.  I suppose I could be nitpicky and say that the Minions need to serve a master to be happy , and their ultimate defense of a monarchy, is an insidious endorsement of wage-slavery, and that it portrays lowly workers as incompetents serving masters of varying levels of competence, but I don’t think the film was intended as an insult to workers  or endorsement of the bourgeoisie.  The film was meant to be a pretty looking, wonderfully 60s-soundtrack-scored piece of cute, animated fluff.

At what it attempts to be, it succeeds.  I wish it were funnier or more clever, but the film as it exists is fun enough. B

P.S.  The post-credits sequence is worth sticking around for if you watch the film in 3D.

I’m making a video review for each issue of “Fight Club 2” that comes out (there will be 10 in all).

Also, apparently this is the one year anniversary of this here review blog. =)

3 years ago Seth MacFarlane brought us “Ted”, a film that basically took what could have been the idea for a Spielberg-esque kids’ movie (boy wishes teddy bear to come to life, and it does) and aged up the kid and the bear to show what would happen.  The result was a foulmouthed film that swung wildly between very funny and kind of “meh”.  The humor was very “Family Guy”-like, including obscure pop cultural references (“Flash Gordon”) and we learned that humor that works in animation sometimes feels very weird in live action, even if we do have a digitally animated teddy bear smoking weed.

Now we have a sequel that is slightly less funny than the first film, yet feels more consistent in its laugh-to-no-laugh ratio.  Also, since Mila Kunis was pregnant, she been replaced as main female protagonist by the much better and more attractive actress Amanda Seyfried. I mention her attractiveness because, three Gollum jokes in the film aside, it is pretty clear from the direction that MacFarlane has a thing for her.  There are just enough perfectly positioned shots of her legs (occasionally in high heels) and enough material in the construction of her character to make it clear that MacFarlane’s dream woman is a version of Amanda Seyfried that smokes copious amounts of weed.

We begin this film with, Ted (voiced by MacFarlane), getting married to his tacky, Bostonian bimbo Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). His friend John (Mark Wahlberg) is bummed because he and Kunis’s character from the first film have gotten divorced.  Within a year, Ted and Tami-Lynn’s marriage has degenerated and, well, to save it they decide to have a kid. Yup. After some unsuccessful attempts at procuring sperm for artificial insemination, they decide on adoption.  That is, until the agency declines them after finding out that Ted is legally considered property and not a person.  To fight this injustice, Ted and John hire Sam (Seyfried) as a lawyer to attempt to sue the government to recognize Ted’s personhood.  Meanwhile, as a B plot, the creepy Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) is now a janitor at Hasbro and hopes Ted is ruled property so he can kidnap him, find out what makes him alive, and have Hasbro make a bunch of other Teds, Including one for him.

That’s the plot, and on it hangs a number of comic set pieces.  A hilarious visit to an improv group, a visit to NY Comic Con, Seyfried singing a song in the woods in which animals (including some not found in that particular climate) are drawn to her voice like she’s Snow White, and some New England-centric humor (I grew up in Rhode Island) were the highlights of the film for me.  We also get a great early cameo in which a tough actor has to be assured his children’s breakfast cereal won’t get him into trouble, and another round of Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now”.

The novelty of seeing a cute and cuddly teddy bear be so foul may have worn off, but Ted is by and large still a likeable character, and both Ted and the invaluable Seyfried keep this train chugging along through not-so-funny parts as we get to the scenes that work well.  I wouldn’t say the film ever gets to hilarious heights (neither did the first one) but the film has a relatively steady supply of small chuckles and a couple strong medium laughs which make the film ultimately worth seeing.

I really just wish the plot had a bit more meat to it, and Wahlberg’s John isn’t as likeable as some of the other characters (even Tami-Lynn is kind of endearing in her own skanky way).  The film also had more options to be a bit more politically minded, but aside from a throwaway joke about Fox News and some obvious parallels to homosexual rights that we’ve been going through since Stonewall and especially since the marriage issue started gaining traction around 2003, the film settles for swear words, bong rips, and easy scatological humor whenever possible.

The film works well enough to give it a mild recommendation, assuming you’ve seen and liked the first film. B-.