Not Cool (2014)/ Hollidaysburg (2014)

600full-not-cool-posterLast year, Starz aired a reality TV series called The Chair. Produced by actor Zachary Quinto and Project Greenlight breakout Chris Moore, the aim was to give two different directors the same script, the same budget, the same shooting city, and the same access to resources to see what kind of movies they would create. The public would vote on a winner and the winning filmmaker would earn a $250,000 prize. Film is a director’s medium, and both of the chosen participants, Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci, were allowed to rewrite the script, likely to the dismay of screenwriter Dan Schoffer. Dawson has built a following of millions making comedy shorts on his YouTube channel. Martemucci has written one other film and has professional ties to Quinto. Over the course of one winter in Pittsburgh, both Dawson and Martmeucci shot their films under the extra scrutiny of the reality show cameras. Whatever their TV portraits may have been, the work stands on its own. Dawson made the sex comedy Not Cool and Martemucci made the coming-of-age drama, Hollidaysburg. They are two quite different films, but are they any good and should The Chair be considered a success?

Scott (Dawson) is home for Thanksgiving break from his first year at college. In high school he was prom king and a big deal. Life since hasn’t been that easy. His girlfriend, Marissa (Lisa Schwartz), dumps him after a spontaneous hookup in a public bathroom. His father is closing the family’s record store. His sister, Janie (Michelle Veintimilla), might not graduate on time from high school. And then Tori (Cherami Leigh) accidentally hits him with her car. The two have history: Scott was responsible for Tori’s cruel nickname, “Tori the Whore-y.” Not having any of it, she lays in to him and unleashes years of anger, and then the two of them have sex. They try and pass it off as a one-time deal but they both can’t stop thinking of the other person. Tori’s pal Joel (Drew Monson) is determined to have sex with his high school crush, Janie. He agrees to help her with her schoolwork for a prime opportunity to make her fall in love with him. As Joel and Scott chase after their resistant love interests, they have to decide how far to go.

26NOTCOOL-videoSixteenByNine1050I was completely unfamiliar with Dawson and his YouTube fame before seeing his film, and after watching Not Cool I wish I had remained in blissful ignorance. To call Not Cool unfunny is too kind. It is aggressively unfunny, going above and beyond to shock and appall. By no means am I a prude when it comes to crass comedy, but you have to put effort into it just like any other style of telling and developing jokes. You don’t just blurt out something vulgar repeatedly and confuse that for comedy construction. I knew I was in trouble when the movie resorted to projectile vomit within two minutes. Dawson’s direction consists of telling his actors to go as broad as possible; they feel like over-the-top cartoons engaging in shouting matches. A Thanksgiving dinner with Scott’s family feels like an insane asylum was evacuated. It’s fine that Not Cool doesn’t approach a relatable reality, but it needs to have some internal grounding that makes sense. It also needs to be funny. Much, much funnier. After ten minutes I had to stop the movie and gather pen and paper to start noting the unfunny and off-putting misogynist jokes on display. Let me make this clear: characters can be unlikeable and have non-P.C. POVs, but when the film itself seems to be adopting a tone and perspective that allies with ignorance and intolerance, that’s when a movie can become increasingly uncomfortable. Dawson’s interpretation of the script is rife with jokes that are homophobic, xenophobic, slut shaming and in general anti-women, and, I repeat, they just aren’t funny:

In response to dad’s new girlfriend (who is never mentioned again) being named Anastasia: “With that name she’s either a Disney princess or a stripper.” Fresh.

Janie relates how her sexist teacher is flunking her, which Joel responds with, “I’m surprised he didn’t give you an ‘A’ for those tit-ays.” Ugh. Just ugh.

“Tori the Whore-y? You look kinda good now. You know that nick-name might not be ironic anymore.” Because Scott is the arbitrator of what is acceptable attraction, therefore Tori should now have a sense of self-worth because he has deigned to find her of interest. This is later reiterated when Scott tells her, “You’re beautiful. You always were.” Thanks, now that you said it Scott it must actually be true.

Joel: “The only thing hotter than Leonardo DiCaprio is a retarded Leonardo DiCaprio in a sexy diaper.” What? I don’t think he ever wore a diaper in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?. And Janie’s response is equally baffling: “That shit makes me so wet.” Huh? Watching an actor play a mentally handicapped child makes you sexually aroused?

To quickly wrap up this detour, let me highlight the most egregious stab at humor in the entire movie. During the film’s climax, his horny ex-girlfriend sexually assaults Scott. Tori sees this and, oh no, miscommunication. Scott explains he was raped and it was not consensual. The party’s host quietly walks over to a dry erase marker board that says, “Rapes at this Party.” He erases the zero and writes a “one” on the board, then goes back to partying. Let that sink in. The board was prepared for some sense of inevitable rape, and yet once it happens, the host carries on. That’s offensive on a number of issues.

86057599796450784738These scenes and lines are merely par for the coarse in what is ultimately a course and misguided comedy that is stocked with vile characters. Scott is served up as a figure that needs to get past his hubris, but the movie treats him more of a hero who the other characters just can’t help but love. It’s hard not to feel like the film is made to flatter Dawson as an actor. Within minutes of meeting Scott again, Tori says, “Would I have sex with you? Probably.” No one can resist his appeal, certainly not Tori’s family. Tori’s mother is practically begging to jump on top of him. When the character’s defining moment of humility and growth is cutting his Justin Beiber-like hair, it’s a failure. Tori is written in such an inconsistent fashion. She’s supposed to be all about negativity and hates everything in the world, but then she transforms into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Scott’s cutesy scavenger hunt. Leigh does a credible job with the character but she’s a half-formed assortment of quirks and messages meant to push Scott along. Dawson errs considerably by casting himself as the romantic lead. It further exacerbates Scott’s flattering portrayal, but really Dawson is just not a good enough actor to carry a film. But a lead role wasn’t enough, and Dawson appears as several female supporting characters in drag. The appearances stop the movie dead in its tracks. The characters are also just lame mouthpieces to blurt lazy inappropriate comments, especially a popular girl who just keeps calling people names at the top of her lungs. It is deeply unpleasant.

The worst character in the entire film is Joel. This guy is obsessed with having sex with his high school crush, who is still in high school while he’s in college, by the way. She has clearly and consistently stated that she does not have feelings for him, but what’s a woman stating her decisions going to matter to this guy? Joel’s pursuit of Janie is just insanely creepy. He mimes preforming cunnilingus on her. He stalks her online profiles to mine useful personal information. He enlargers and decreases a picture of her face on his phone and narrates the experience like she is giving him oral sex. At every point he treats her as a sex object. Even after a night out, where she wears a dress he picked out for her after trying it on himself and fondling himself in expectation (!), she tells him she doesn’t feel the same way, and he still forces the situation. It’s gross and at no point is Joel and his behavior held up to criticism. He’s rewarded for his “virtue” by having Janie pimp out all her promiscuous friends onto him. What makes the character even more repulsive is just how annoying Monson’s performance comes across; he’s going for faux bluster but it’s more like misplaced entitlement. If this storyline had ended with Joel murdering her while weeping and slow dancing with her corpse, you wouldn’t be that surprised.

BrytWfUCUAAZIZjAs the previous two paragraphs should indicate, there is certainly a point of view that emerges from the movie, one that trumps the heterosexual white male at the top and looks with derision on anybody that falls outside that definition. It feels like every joke is at someone’s expense. In the opening minute, an overweight woman tweets a picture of herself as a skinny model. I suppose it’s funny because she’s misrepresenting herself but it feels like the joke amounts to, “Ha, she’s ugly and fat.” But those who are conventionally attractive still don’t get off easy. Tori is slut shamed as a whore in high school, lead by Scott, and this is merely excused as the behavior of a loveable scamp. Janie’s friends are treated like idiotic sluts. Tori’s gay friend is defined by his flamboyance and obsession with sex. Disabled people are apparently hilarious just because they’re disabled and different. Tori’s older sister is blind and it’s funny because she accomplishes things… but she’s blind. I suppose the joke is that she shouldn’t have a successful life. There’s a woman at a party in a wheelchair (confession: I know this actress) and the joke is she’s doing normal activity. There’s one black character in the movie that is a homeless man who devours his own feces. At one point, his genitals are also used as a laugh. There’s also the characters flagrant and casual use of the word “retarded” to describe anything repulsive. The hoary stereotypes and unfunny portraits blend together, creating a mosaic of intolerance masked as comedy. Dawson’s sense of comedy is fairly puerile but it’s also offputtingly mean-spirited and denigrating.

Dawson makes too many fatal mistakes as a director for Not Cool to survive. Casting himself in the lead was a mistake. Appearing as female supporting characters was also a mistake. Excusing the bad behavior of his male characters, and rewarding them, was a mistake. Catering the humor to make fun of anyone that doesn’t classify as a heterosexual white male was a mistake. Relying solely on gross-out gags without better comic development was a mistake. Trying to earn a heart late into the film was also a mistake. After watching jerks behave like creeps with their inflated sense of entitlement, I don’t care if they maybe have feelings. Directing his actors to be heightened caricatures was a mistake. In short, Not Cool is a comedy graveyard of mistakes and bad decisions. I’m sure there will be people that find something to enjoy here, who laugh at the easy juvenile humor. I even laughed a couple times. There was a visual gag with a smuggled watermelon that was simply inspired. I think Dawson didn’t want to stray too far from his YouTube persona and the tone of his videos, lest he upset his fan base of millions, but what works as a three-minute YouTube short doesn’t translate to a feature film. Not Cool is proof enough that an overabundance of energy and cheap vulgarity does not compensate for a deficit in storytelling and execution. Not Cool is just not good.

MV5BMjA3NzkxMDgxMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTU3OTc2MjE@._V1_SY317_CR1,0,214,317_AL_Going far in the other direction is Hollidaysburg, a modest coming-of-age drama that patterns itself after the mumblecore movement of indie cinema. Director Anna Martemucci definitely takes a more restrained approach to her interpretation of Dan Schoffer’s screenplay. She has some problems of her own but on a whole Hollidaysburg is the more promising and well-executed movie. It’s more sophisticated, better articulated, heartfelt, and comes far closer to achieving something worthwhile.

Right away you can tell a difference. We begin once more with Scott (Tobin Mitnick) and his girlfriend, Heather (Claire Chapelli), breaking up in the middle of sex, but they keep at it. It’s not exaggerated for extra laughs; the situation itself naturally draws them. The character isn’t made the butt of the joke either. It’s a much more encouraging opening than projectile vomit. Scott is also dumbstruck when he discovers his family home is days away from being emptied and sold. He reconnects with high school acquaintance Tori (Rachel Keller) and the two sleep together impulsively. As they’re trying to make sense of possible feelings, Heather is seeking out some company, anybody, and settles on her pot dealer, Petroff (Tristan Erwin), who happens to be buds with Scott. He’s wary of stepping over some kind of friend code, but in his efforts to get Heather out of her funk, Petroff starts to form a romantic interest he can’t help.

The focus is on our foursome of young, curious, and emotionally free-falling characters stumbling for some sense of personal identity. The theme of the film is about stasis versus change. Heather reasons that their long-distance relationship is not meant to be, and that it’s better to check out early. She’s also disillusioned by college, an experience that she had hoped would be remarkable at pointing her life in the right direction. Scott is quite literally saying goodbye to his childhood and his prior sense of who he was. His task for the holiday weekend is to pack the last of his childhood things in his old room so they can be sent to Florida. He won’t be returning to Pennsylvania likely, which is what Tori is also wrestling with. How far does she let herself get attached to something that could never happen? The two of them dance around their attraction and unconventional courtship. There’s real uncertainty about their possibility as a couple that’s palpable. Then there’s Heather’s sense of ennui that might just be a symptom of depression. She feels like she’s in a fog and that college is not the gateway others perceive it to be. Petroff is trying to juggle his role as friend and potential more-than-friend, and even though he has no real obligation to Scott on this one, he is trying to be deferential and sensitive. Before the breakup, he didn’t even consider Heather a friend. Now they’re getting to know one another on a much more personal level. The foursome is likeable, complicated, flawed, and pleasant to be around, enough to excuse some of the movie’s genial pacing.

HollidaysburgThere are assorting supporting characters, notably siblings to Scott and Tori, but they are complimentary and better inform the story. Scott’s older brother spends the entire film trying to recreate his father’s recipe for pumpkin pie. It’s just the sort of concept that is slight enough to be fun but also lead into a dramatic character payoff. The dialogue feels attuned to the natural speech rhythms of human beings while still being entertaining. Scott and Tori’s initial reunion revolves around her keeping watch to make sure he doesn’t have a concussion after she hit him with her car. It’s a cute scenario that’s played with the right flirty tone that nicely sells the emergence of their romance. The humor isn’t as loud and underlined as Not Cool, and that’s to its benefit.

Your enjoyment of Hollidaysburg (named after a city in Pennsylvania) will depend mightily on your personal tolerance for the observational, delicate human comedies of the mumblecore genre. Sometimes derided as affluent navel-gazing, the often-DIY subgenre can have its own hardscrabble charm and touch upon relatable themes and conflicts that transcend their often self-indulgent characters. There’s also a stronger sense of realism in how fleshed out these worlds feel, and so I have enjoyed mumblecore primarily because of the combination of well-developed characters, emotional truths, and sincerity. I acknowledge a movie about a bunch of teenagers sitting around, mingling, smoking pot, and making life decisions is a harder sell than, say, sex comedy shenanigans. The difference is that you feel the care put in by Martemucci. She cares about these people and makes you start to care as well, or at least be interested. But if you’re not on the same wavelengths, one person’s observational is another person’s doddering.

While technically better on just about every level, Hollidaysburg has its own issues. The character arcs for Scott and Tori are rather nebulous. I’ll credit Dawson with this, in Not Cool the characters’ arcs were front and center and there was a progression. With Hollidaysburg, Scott is vaguely defined by his past but he doesn’t go into many details, failing to indicate how he’s undergoing some sort of high school hangover as he adjusts to a bigger pond. He’s uncomfortable with the discovery of how close Heather and Petroff have gotten, but this character turn doesn’t get developed enough to matter, instead coming across as a somewhat manufactured conflict break. Likewise Tori is looking to redefine herself in college but finding it harder than she anticipated. By the end of the film, her closing voice over quotes John Updike about being reborn every day, and how reassuring she finds this reflection. You could make the argument that through her romantic tryst with Scott, she’s better accepted the notion that she will define herself as she pleases, but I don’t even know if that approaches the conclusion. The two characters with the more clearly defined arcs are Heather and Petroff, and they’re on a relatively straightforward path where their biggest obstacle is hiding their emerging feelings from their mutual friend who would be hurt.

http---static01.nyt.com-images-2014-09-19-arts-19HOLLIDAYSBURG-HOLIDAYSBURG-videoSixteenByNine1050I don’t necessarily know if I’d call The Chair a success. The fascinating premise has given birth to very different movies, but in the end one of them is an aggressively unfunny comedy and the other is an acceptable coming-of-age mumblecore entry. It’s hard to call either a rousing success. Not Cool is an abysmal comedy that is overly reliant on witless shock humor to substitute for storytelling basics. Dawson makes a slew of bad decisions, mostly playing to ego or his built-in audience, but I’ll say at least he goes for it. Martemucci certainly comes across as the more promising filmmaker; her film is better on a technical level and her handling of actors is far defter. At the same time, her aim is lower with her goals and her character arcs less defined. I suppose you could argue the hazy arcs tap into the characters trying to better find themselves but I won’t. Hollidaysburg is clearly the better film but Dawson’s legions of fans came to his service, and in the fall of 2014, Dawson was declared the victor by a majority of public voting. I purposely wanted to watch the finished movies before delving into the TV show so my feelings toward the filmmakers would not influence my reviews. Usually Project Greenlight was at its best when things were falling apart for its fledgling filmmakers, and I imagine the same level of entertainment will be had with The Chair. My foreknowledge will create a delicious dose of dramatic irony, as I know what all these efforts will lead toward. In my head I’ll likely be thinking, “Not worth it.”

I’ll add to this double-review after watching the series for any additional thoughts on Dawson and Martemucci as filmmakers and human beings.

Nate’s Grades:

Not Cool: D

Hollidaysburg: B-

Ant-Man (2015)

MV5BMjM2NTQ5Mzc2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTcxMDI2NTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_For the longest time it looked like Ant-Man might be the first dud of the runaway successful Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), a film franchise that was practically printing money at its leisure. It’s a strange setup and the man responsible for the movie even existing, writer/director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), walked away six weeks before cameras were going to roll. Wright was a big fan of the character and has been working on and off on a screenplay with Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) for the past eight years. Before there was an MCU, there was Wright pushing for Ant-Man. I’m pretty sure Marvel execs weren’t thinking the relatively unknown character was worth sinking money into, but Wright kept pushing. I was far more excited for an Edgar Wright superhero movie than I ever was for Ant-Man, and then it all went away. Neither side has spilled too many details but it appears the divorce was a result of “creative differences,” which is odd since Marvel approved Wright’s script through eight years of development. Several directors were auditioned and Peyton Reed won the spot. The fact that Marvel has gained a rep for being a formula-driven creative committee and they literally hired a director with a film credit called Yes Man is an irony I don’t know that fully sank in. If Marvel was going to miss, this was the film. A funny thing happened in the ensuring year. Ant-Man is a visually engaging, energetic, and funny superhero caper that stays fun from start to finish and is a more entertaining movie than Avengers: Age of Ultron. Didn’t see that coming.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a master cat burglar just finishing the end of his prison term. Lang was punished for a “cool crime,” stealing millions a large corporation had illegally bilked form customers and returning it to the very victims, but it makes it hard to secure gainful employment. Scott falls back with his old crew, lead by his pal Luis (Michael Pena), and break’s into Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) safe. Expecting cash and jewels, Scott is disappointed to only find a weird looking suit, which he takes anyway. Hank observes Scott and communicates with him about the power of the suit. The wearer can shrink down to the size of n ant with the push of a button in the glove. Hank needs a protégée to wear the suit now that he’s too old. His estranged daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), is working for Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), a scientist close to breaking through on replicating the amazing shrinking formula of Pym’s. As soon as Cross cracks the code, he’s going to sell the technology to the highest bidder (hail HYDRA). Hank must convince Scott to become the Ant-Man and sneak inside Cross’ secured workshop and steal his technology before it gets in the wrong-er hands.

Ant-ManArguably weirder than last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which had a talking tree and space raccoon amongst its main characters, Ant-Man is the hardest property to sell by Marvel yet, and it smartly aims its sights lower and succeeds with the modest goal of just being a fun and enjoyable time at the movies. It helps that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and has characters pointing out the absurdity of its premise and developments, but not past the point where it would be detrimental. Let’s face it, a guy who can shrink down to ant-size isn’t that weird when you consider the applications, especially in espionage. The filmmakers do an admirable job of selling a superpower that pales in comparison to most other heroes on the market. However, the weirder power is that Scott has the ability to communicate and control ants via brainwaves. That seems like the even bigger superpower but it also begs the question, why simply ants? Of all the animals or living creatures who could be harnessed with this technology, we go with the tiny ones. There may be an explanation in the history of Ant-Man comics I’m missing but that doesn’t matter when we’re talking about the execution of the movie. The guy is able to control different species of ants with his mind. He is no Ant-Man but the Ant-King. Anyway, I think this power could be much more effective applied elsewhere. The ants are Scott’s friends and he has to train himself training them, getting them to coordinate and assist him properly, or else… there’s not much else at stake because they’re expendable. Perhaps their queen could have eaten Scott if he were unsuccessful.

On its surface, this movie should not work and is too goofy and insubstantial to engage, and yet that’s precisely what appealed to me. Not every superhero film needs to be averting a cataclysm that will destroy the planet. If the stakes feel big to our characters, and if the audience cares, then the stakes feel plenty big for us too. Scott simply foiling the corporate bad guy to be in a better position to see his daughter, that’s workable. Then the storyline is told through a heist, one of cinema’s most enjoyable plot mechanics. Heists are programmed for audience pleasure because it requires teamwork, which utilizes our cast in different and fun ways, it brings plenty of conflict and complications, and it lays out its steps one-by-one and provides a series of payoffs with the completion. It’s a tribute to Reed and the filmmakers that the heist portion of the film isn’t even the most fun part of the story. The majority of the middle is Scott coming to terms with the suit, his powers, his relationships in his life, and the mission. There’s probably one too many training montages (yeah, you get those sugar cubes you ants!) but the pacing is so breezy and the sense of fun so palpable, I didn’t mind. The use of humor never diminishes and Rudd is such a charismatic anchor for the movie, and yet he’s actually somewhat underplayed. He has it within him to be much funnier, but I guess he had to dial it down to effectively be seen as an action hero, hence the presence of newfound abs.

I didn’t have a lot of hope for the film once Wright left but I have to credit Reed for what he has achieved. It’s impossible for me to divorce myself from Wright’s involvement, and what kind of kinetic fireworks he would have birthed, but Reed manages to make Ant-Man come alive visually. Reed’s prior history shows an affinity for comedy but the films have never needed to be visually stylish, though I’d argue my super not-guilty pleasure Bring it On had an above average sense of visual spunk. Still, Ant-Man is a consistently visually immersive film that manages to find new perspectives. Scott’s first foray as a shrunken Ant-Man is an entertaining adventure through the dangers of a house party. The action sequences in miniature are treated just as we would expect a large-scale superhero epic to be treated, and then Reed pulls back at times for prime comic effect, like a battle atop a train that’s really just a child’s toy set. The visuals grandeur is patterned after the typical Hollywood action epic but the movie pulls back repeatedly to remind us how silly everything can be. The small world perspective opens up the movie in its storytelling and definitely in its action choreography. Because the Ant-Man has super strength when small, it behooves him to shift between small and human sizes when fighting. We’ll watch Scott race across the barrel of a gun in one second and then full-sized and hurling a security guard through a plate glass window the next. It provides a new sense of dynamism to basic fisticuffs. Reed takes advantage of the visual possibilities of his pint-sized super hero, like a clever battle that takes place entirely inside the contents of a briefcase. I chose not to watch this film in 3D, as my preferred option, but this is one I would almost consider going 3D. The shrunken worlds use a lot of macro photography to maximize the effect of depth.

ant-man-still_2The cast also seems to be perfectly attuned to the comic rhythms of the story and several supporting players make the most of their moments to shine. Pena (Fury) is hilarious as the easily excitable friend given to lengthy diversions when retelling his tales of intrigue. The two instances where Pena breathlessly recaps what so-and-so said to so-and-so are two of the most playful and comically fulfilling sequences in the movie. I also enjoyed the fact that he’s always making waffles for his friends but this is never overtly commented upon. While Pena provides another dose of humor, the heart of the movie is really the father-daughter relationship, and it’s nice that Lilly (The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies)’s character is given such prominence. She resents Scott because she feels like by every right she should be the Ant-Man; the movie presents the two like bickering rivals fighting for the approval of a father figure. Hope’s credible grievances with her father are treated with weight and her reconciliation is given as much screen time as Scott’s training, pairing the two more as equals. Douglas (Last Vegas) is a warm and welcoming presence as a mentor working through his regrets late in his life. The de-aging CGI effects are amazing early on, showing a 1989 version of Douglas that looks pristine. He looks like he just stepped off the set of Ruthless People. The only weak point is Stoll (TV’s The Strain) but that’s because his underwritten villain is just too generic to blend in amidst all the colorful characters and comic mayhem.

It’s impossible to watch Ant-Man and not try to imagine what it would have been like had Wright remained as its director. Wright’s presence is still felt in stretches and he and Cornish are still the top-billed screenwriters, with the addition of Adam McKay (Anchorman) and Rudd himself performing a rewrite. I’d love to one day read what Wright’s full script was like and what Marvel eventually decided they could not abide. Whatever the case may be, the Ant-Man that made it to the big screen across the world is a surprisingly entertaining and spry piece of work. Reed provides a nice dash of visual flavor without losing its sense of the comedy or drama, Rudd is effortlessly charming, and the structure provides plenty of payoffs. Above all else the movie maintains a sense of fun and a lightness in an arena too often overwrought with doom and gloom. I don’t imagine there will be any Ant-Man sequels soon since the character is rather limited, but expect to see Rudd popping up in other MCU titles (he’s already been spotted filming Captain America 3). Ant-Man is a fun diversion but even Marvel knows not to push its luck too far.

Nate’s Grade: B

Trainwreck (2015)

MV5BMTQ4MjgwNTMyOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTc1MjI0NDE@._V1_SX214_AL_Amy Schumer is having what some might refer to as a moment. Her comedic rise has accelerated as her sketch comedy show has gained greater notoriety for its social commentary from a post-feminist feminist perspective. For many, Schumer has become a relevant and empowering creative voice, and the fact that she breaks free from the Hollywood “thin is the only beautiful” mold is refreshing. Her star is only going to rise higher as soon as audiences get a load of Trainwreck, a raunchy romantic comedy penned by Schumer herself and starring Schumer as the lead. Paired with director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), Schumer excels and surprises in Trainwreck, a modest but appealing rom-com that’s not afraid to get real when it counts and sweet when needed.

Amy (Schumer) is a magazine writer in New York City and follows her dad’s (Colin Quinn) words of wisdom he dispensed when she was ten years old: “monogamy is unrealistic.” Amy dates and sleeps with an assortment of men. Her current boyfriend Steven (the wrestler John Cena) likes to spend time at the gym but he doesn’t quite satisfy her, at least enough not to still see other men. Amy’s younger sister Kim (Brie Larson) rejected dad and settled down with a single dad and his son. The idea of marital bliss and raising children makes Amy uncomfortable. Amy’s editor (Tilda Swinton) assigns her a profile on a sports surgeon, Aaron (Bill Hader), specifically because Amy hates and is ignorant of sports. Amy and Aaron hit it off and she confidently takes their relationship in a non-professional direction. It’s then that Aaron surprises Amy. He calls her the next day and is interested in seeing her again. Amy has to come to terms with how to navigate a relationship with a good guy who understands her and would like more.

media_trainwreck_20150211The tone and spirit of Trainwreck is very clearly Schumer’s voice, following her brand of sexually brash humor from an unapologetic and independent perspective. Amy is a love-em-and-leave-em character who would shrug at being called a “loose woman.” Then again if we applied these same standards to men we don’t have the gender-swapped “loose man” nomenclature. Instead of the standard male playboy character who beds a plethora of sexual partners and then moves on about their day, this time it’s a woman, and while perhaps this isn’t the strongest foothold in the realm of being progressive, every bit counts (women can do it too!). Amy is unrepentant about her sexual appetites and she is not punished for them. Imagine that, a sexually liberated woman who enjoys sex and doesn’t have to suffer some physical or psychological trauma related to her desires. We’ve come a long way from Mr. Goodbar. The character of Amy is much more than just her dating habits. She’s ribald and unapologetic while finding ways to be relatable and more in depth than just the commitment-phobic lead character in a mainstream romantic comedy. Her views on relationships go back to idolizing her cad of a father and a strong sense of fatalism. Relationships can’t work out so why bother? This accentuates Amy’s already self-destructive habits, which make her in many ways our protagonist and antagonist. She’s an enjoyable character who can also be mean-spirited, petty, and push the important people in her life away from her. Her biggest challenge isn’t getting the story, holding a long-held secret, or even landing the guy, because he already wants to be with her. It’s about whether she can accept a different view of herself. That’s way more interesting and complicated than your standard rom-com fussbucket or workaholic.

The content of Trainwreck is far easier to engage with than Apatow’s previous film, 2012’s This is 40. Even though she has a cushy job and a nice apartment in the big city, Amy’s struggles with her relationship with her boyfriend, her sister, her father, and her boss, trying to please others without giving away too much of herself. Her father is the source of much of her discomfort as she and her sister debate how to take care of him in his ailing health. Where Amy views her father as an admirable straight-shooting guy who rebels against the social standards and expectations of decorum. Her sister views him as a bigoted and sexist jerk that was never much of a father. The slow acceptance Amy comes to about the degree of pain she’s dealing with and guilt related to her father is a key development. Her rejection of the “old ways” is a repudiation of her father. The arguments that she has with Aaron are realistic, and he admits that he’s uncomfortable with certain aspects of her lifestyle but he’s not forcing her to change. There are some dramatic turns in the film that require Schumer to do some heavy dramatic lifting, and she carries it gracefully, keeping in character but also losing her carefree façade. It opens up your sense of the character just as much as the actress. Trainwreck is still very much a romantic comedy and it spends its third act coalescing to its happy ending, but Schumer’s self-deprecation won’t let it get too saccharine.

The movie is also funny quite often though it ultimately gives in to more rom-com conventions than subverting them. There’s a funny sequence where Amy is trying to coax her boyfriend into being more vocally risqué during sex, and John Cena does a great job awkwardly trying to be dirty. There’s a funny moment tied to character as Amy mingles with far more straight-laced married women at a baby shower. They play a game of revealing secrets and it’s everything you would want it to be. The satirical broadsides at the tabloid and celeb navel-gazing industry are broad but quite amusing, including article topics like “Ugliest Celebrity Kids Under 6” and, “I’m Not Gay, You’re Just Boring.” Amy’s self-destructive attitude and her outer layer of confidence lead to many humorous observations and exchanges, especially with Hader. The two actors have good chemistry and bounce off one another well, capturing a fun energy of a couple that really enjoys one another’s company and exploring that. Swinton (Snowpiercer) is almost unrecognizable and quite hilarious as the unfeeling boss. The biggest scene-stealer and breakout star is the world’s greatest basketball player, Lebron. He plays the standard rom-com “concerned best friend,” even warning Amy not to break his man’s heart and having a dating debrief while playing very one-sided basketball with Aaron (all elements lampooned in last year’s rom-com spoof, They Came Together). The basketball scene is particularly amusing as Lebron dominates his friend so casually and without ego. It’s a fictionalized version of Lebron but the man just has natural comic timing and a star presence. I could totally see more acting work coming Lebron’s way if he wanted it.

Trainwreck-LeBron-James-Bill-HaderHowever, there are jokes, storylines, and moments that don’t feel as well constructed and simply don’t work, enough that it hampers the overall impact of Schumer’s story. There’s a recurring theme of gay equals funny, notably when all of Cena’s threats to a movie patron bear a striking homoerotic quality. That scene works well enough, but the theme reappears in a late storyline where a lisping intern at the magazine played by Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin) unleashes his inner sexual freak, which involves a lot of homoerotic foreplay and positioning. It’s a comedy angle that gets old fast. I also never believed the sentimentality attached to Amy’s father after his health worsens. Schumer tries to turn a bigoted jerk into a well-liked character and it just doesn’t connect. He has real physical struggles dealing with MS but at no point does he come across sympathetic. I sided with Kim on this one, though I think I wasn’t supposed to by the film’s end. There’s also far too many supporting characters that just kind of float along the peripheral; this is common in Apatow comedies but these characters, from a homeless bum to Amy’s work colleagues, don’t feel well integrated. There’s a misfire late in the film when Lebron holds an intervention for Aaron. The core idea would work but Lebron’s intervention participants include Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick, and Marv Albert, with the bulk of the jokes being Albert’s in-game announcing. They don’t address that the figures are playing themselves until much later in the scene, so I was wondering if somehow Broderick was Aaron’s father. It’s a miss. The movie-within-the-movie is also never that funny or satirical of Sundance indies, but thanks for the effort.

As a side note, it seems like quite a missed opportunity that the Knicks game at the end of the film did not feature the Cavs. With Lebron as a supporting character, it would seem like a natural fit to include him in the climax. My theory on this is such: the Knicks play the Brooklyn Nets and we see Paul Pierce in a Nets uniform. As NBA fans know, Pierce left the Nets and signed with the Washington Wizards for the 2014-2015 season (he has since signed with the L.A. Clippers). That means that Trainwreck must have been filming the spring of 2014, which means Lebron was still with the Miami Heat. No wonder the movie didn’t feature the Cavs in its finale. Also, in what NBA universe is Amar’e Stoudemire the star of the Knicks? Does Carmelo Anthony and his $120 million dollar contract not exist in this universe? It’s a little comical that Stoudemire’s knee surgery is given such dramatic stakes for a player that the Knicks were looking to dump.

Trainwreck is by no means the disaster implied by its title. Even Amy isn’t really a trainwreck of a person. She can be mean and self-destructive, but her shocking behavior isn’t all that shocking. She drinks and has sex with multiple partners and does not feel shame in this. Look out, world. Yet it’s Schumer’s sprightly comedic voice that shines throughout the film even when certain jokes or storylines misfire. Make no mistake, Trainwreck is also a star vehicle for Schumer and she earns it. She even sheds some tears in very effectively dramatic moments. She can do it all (refraining from obvious bad joke…) and still be funny whether she’s cutting someone to size or the butt of a joke. Trainwreck is an enjoyable romantic comedy, another in Apatow’s sweet lineup of raunchy and somewhat old-fashioned romances with their happy endings. There should be more than enough to tide Schumer’s fans and for her to make new ones.

Nate’s Grade: B

Self/less (2015)

Selfless-posterThe most surprising thing about Self/less occurred approximately 115 minutes into the film itself, when it revealed that Tarsem Singh was the director. Tarsem is known for lavish visual cinematic canvases such as The Cell and Immortals, and to realize that this is the same man responsible for an otherwise disappointing and visually mundane sci-fi thriller, well it was a shock. Why hire a visual stylist and then restrict him to such a limited palate? Self/less is an intriguing premise (borrowed a tad from Seconds) and it keeps all the interesting ethical and psychological questions at bay to follow a generic thriller formula. There’s not one real surprise in this film; even the reveals and surprises will be easily telegraphed. Ben Kingsley plays Damian, a dying rich man who undergoes a risky experiment to live longer, having his consciousness transferred into a younger human host played by Ryan Reynolds. It’s another chance to be young, party, enjoy sexual relations with women who are more likely to go home with somebody who looks like Reynolds. There’s a catch: if he stops taking his special red pills, the host’s brain will take over control. That’s because, surprise, the bodies aren’t grown in labs but are human volunteers. Here could be some topical class exploitation and social commentary, but Self/less ignores the more intriguing direction at every point to play it safe. Damian finds his host’s family and from that point on it’s a series of chases with bad guys. One of those chases is actually fairly entertaining, utilizing a conjoined automobile in a clever and devastating way. It never feels like Reynolds and Kingsley are playing the same character. Reynolds’ charm is subsumed by this role and he feels adrift. I’ll admit that this movie is efficient and each scene pushes the story forward; it’s just the direction of that story I’d like to alter. Alas, Self/less is a competent but fairly underwhelming thriller that squanders its premise.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Terminator: Genisys (2015)

If you’re a fan of James Cameron’s iconic Terminator franchise, you’ll probably want to hold onto something as you watch Terminator: Genisys, which hits “delete” on the franchise and starts from scratch with, we’ll call them, “mixed results.”

In the future, man and machine are at war with one another. Skynet went sentient and launched an arsenal of nuclear weapons to obliterate mankind. The human resistance is lead by John Connor (Jason Clarke) and his lieutenant Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney). The machines send back a T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and wipe out the human resistance. This part you know. Reese is sent back in time but during the process, John is attacked by a new Terminator and the world as we know it, past, present, and future is altered. When Reese arrives in 1984 L.A., he’s being chased by a T-1000 and Sarah is the one saving him. She’s been preparing for his arrival and training with her own aging T-800 model who saved her from a childhood attack (she calls him “Pops”). With new memories, Reese is determined that Skynet is now Genisys and Judgment Day is now in 2017. He and Sarah travel to 2017, meet back up with “Pops,” and are surprised to find a familiar face waiting for them with sinister intentions.

0037e99bfc78cd1c7a0f6a706700b830_c0-126-3000-1874_s561x327For a while there it seems like Genisys is going to become the Back to the Future II of the Terminator franchise, which could have been fun watching a different team of actors hiding on the peripheral while 80s Linda Hamilton was going about her day as a café waitress. In many ways, Genisys is akin to Jurassic World in the sense that it holds such nostalgic reverence for the source films. It repurposes the familiar catch phrases and even visually recreates several scenes that fans should recognize. However, that reverence has a limit because it isn’t too long before Genisys just chucks out the entire franchise canon and starts anew. Remember Judgment Day with Skynet? Now it’s… Judgment Day with Genisys. Okay, some things aren’t all that different. Discarding the established timeline of four movies, Genisys takes a path similar to the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films where it creates an alternate timeline that is not beholden to canon. One way of looking at this approach is that it frees you creatively. Another way of looking at it is that is abandons the stories that the fans enjoyed for decades. Neither approach is wrong; it just depends upon your personal perspective. The larger plot points of the Terminator franchise never captivated me; it’s all about preventing one very bad day that just keeps getting delayed. We’ve never had a story that takes place after Reese is set back in time. Genisys certainly has more surprises because of the new timeline; however, many of those surprises were spoiled by a cowardly marketing campaign that must have feared fan uproar. It’s not a bad idea if it didn’t casually destroy all the logic of the franchise.

Let’s just dive face-forward into the convoluted and troubling nature of the Genisys script. Needless to say, numerous spoilers of both the large and small variety follow.

There are certain storylines that are just never cleared up, the first amongst them is who is sending all these other Terminators back in time? We watch the T-800 model go to 1984, along with Reese, but Sarah informs us later that when she was a child a different T-1000 model attacked her family. Apparently Plan Kill John’s Mom was replaced with Kill John’s Grandmother and will likely soon be replaced with the even more surefire Kill John’s Great Grandmother. If we’re already sending Terminators even further back then why stop? Also, why can’t Skynet send more than one Terminator to the same time? Upon the point that Reese travels back in time, John is attacked by a Terminator Matt Smith (Doctor Who) and transformed into the human-machine villainous hybrid. We’re told this is a nexus point of time that is such a turning point that it’s altered the timeline. But why? It happens AFTER Reese is sent back in time, so why does it affect anything in the preceding past? How does this even, which happens again after Reese is propelled back in time, eliminate the entire established Terminator canon? Likewise, this Reese has a separate timeline so why would he have new memories? He never existed in this new timeline so the fact that he remembers new things doesn’t make sense.

Terminator-Genesys-tiene-nuevo-trailer-703x345This brings us to the centerpiece of logical fallacy, which is killer robot John Connor. I was never really that invested in his character to care that much that he was turned into the film’s bad guy. What I do care about is that Genisys just completely gives up in this moment. If he was just trying to stop Sarah and Reese from stopping Skynet/Genisys, that would be one thing, but John 2.0 is actively trying to kill his parents … before he is conceived. When it comes to time travel, we can accept some degree of suspension of disbelief with plot holes (more of those to come in just a bit), but John wiping out the reason for his existence is just too much. He half-heartedly explains his theory that they’re holdovers from another timeline, so they can just do as they like with no greater repercussions to their own pasts. Maybe, but there’s not two Sarah Connors in this timeline, so killing your mom is still going to negate all your evil robot business, son. With that the very drive of the main antagonist is compromised. With every new attempt to kill mommy and daddy, the film reminds you how this cannot work.

There are other less egregious plot holes but they still can be irksome. How about the fact that Sarah and Reese jump forward to 2017 to thwart Genisys, failing to give birth to John in 1984? He won’t be born yet to lead the human resistance against the machines, which kind of means just by jumping forward in time and delaying Johns birth, the machines have sort of won. When Sarah and Reese travel to 2017 in order to stop the launch of Genisys, why do they travel to within 24 hours of its launch? That’s pretty poor time management. And why hasn’t “Pops” been doing more to prepare for Sarah’s return. He spends thirty years working construction and building the offices of Cyberdine, but couldn’t he also have been sabotaging the company or at least the building? And if John Connor knew his parents were coming to 2017, why didn’t he do more to set up Genisys to withstand their counter attacks? Couldn’t he have had Genisys go online like the day before they arrived in 2017? If you know when they’re going to show up then you have no excuse to fall victim to people you otherwise could be trapping. Also, Skynet realizes that their real problem for never besting the humans is a branding issue? Did changing the name to Genisys really need to be part of the masterstroke? Why is everyone so excited for what is a glorified app that connects people’s electronic devices?

Much can be forgiven in action and comedy movies if they just go about doing their job and entertaining you, but Genisys can only do so much in that department. The action sequences are fairly mundane with the occasional impressive stunt. The problem is we’ve seen these sequences too many times and in other movies and Genisys brings precious little of its own action invention to the big screen. Until the third act, the movie is a series of chases and escapes. The best sequence is likely the hospital brawl between the T-800 and Robo-John as they wantonly destroy every wall within prime smashing distance. I know many in the fan community do not look favorably upon Terminator 3, and it admittedly has the lamest villain of the entire franchise, but the action sequences were memorable and developed organically and were nicely conceived. With Genisys, the action is too rote and familiar. It is competent but for me I found the action sequences to be too underwhelming in design and execution to forgive the film’s other sins.

I also can’t help but think that all three of the main actors were miscast for their parts. Emilia Clarke can do great things and showcases her range as a strong authority figure on HBO’s Game of Thrones. With the role of Sarah Connor, Clarke does a lot of running and barking but she can’t shake our memories of Hamilton. The part doesn’t play to Emilia’s strengths as an actress. Courtney can be a good actor (as seen in the first season of Starz’s Spartacus) but rarely does he prove this to be the case in films. I enjoyed his cavalier bully in Divergent, but he’s mostly a vacant presence in Genisys, gaping at all the changes. Then there’s the other Clarke who too has proven himself a capable and intimidating actor in films like Zero Dark Thirty. When he’s menacing he comes across as, dare I say it, too sincere, and when he’s meant to be inspiring he comes across as too phony. Are the performances the fault of the actors, the director (Alan Taylor), or the screenwriters (Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier) who gave them such little to do?

landscape-1436118757-terminator-time-travel-theoriesThe film’s MVP is Schwarzenegger. I wasn’t expecting the 68-year-old former Governor of California to contribute this much to the film. I figured Arnie would be a small player and played for comic relief. He keeps asking if Sarah and Reese have “mated” since it’s their destiny. He is certainly played for welcomed comic relief but he’s also the fourth most important character in this reboot. He has a father/daughter bond with Sarah and it produces the closest thing to an emotion in the movie. There’s an ongoing joke that he’s “old but not obsolete” and it could be the tagline for the next Expendables film. With all the time travel tomfoolery, it was easier for me to believe the reason they throw out to explain why the Terminator is aging: it’s living tissue so it ages. Done. I’m fine with that. The older Arnold vs. younger Arnold fight is the major highlight of Genisys and a testament to how much better the de-aging CGI has gotten since the waxy young Professor X and Magneto in 2006’s The Last Stand.

Much like its ongoing star, the Terminator franchise is old but not obsolete, and even a disappointing movie reminds us just how much life can come from this series. It’s got a sense of fun that entertained me enough for one viewing. The characters and action sequences and iconic in our pop-culture, which makes erasing them from a new movie plot problematic. If you strip everyone’s fond memories of the first two Terminators and start over, what’s left? You can repeat some of the more memorable scenes (the Hollywood adage of “same but different”) but this does little other than make you remember how much you preferred it the first time (see: Star Trek Into Darkness). I wish Genisys had been more risky because so much of it feels far too safe, from the average action sequences, to the boring characters, to the ho-hum conclusion meant to set up a new trilogy of movies in this brave new non-Skynet world. I haven’t watched Terminator: Salvation in many years but I’m curious to see it again if for no other purpose than to determine which is the least of the Terminator films.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (2015)

paul-blart-mall-cop-2-movie-posterThe first Paul Blart movie was fairly inoffensive. Much like its titular hero, it was buffoonish and loud and something to simply shrug and ignore the idiocy. It had a couple funny moments tweaking action movie conventions, less so with Kevin James’ numerous pratfalls. The world didn’t need a sequel beyond the demands of the first one making money. And much like the Die Hard sequels, the “spiritual forbearer” of Blart, our security guard finds himself miraculously being put in the same miraculous position again, this time in a different location. While Die Hard 2 is a fairly mundane follow-up, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is a true test of everything we hold sacred. Midway into the movie, I thought my review was just going to be my unintelligible suicide note.

Blart (James) is in Las Vegas for an annual security convention. He’s brought along his teen daughter Maya (Rami Rodriguez) for some valuable father-daughter time, especially in light of Blart losing his wife and mother. It’s at this convention where Blart runs across a team of art thieves lead by Vincent (Neal McDonough). It’s up to the most unlikely mall security cop to save the day again, Vegas-style. Oh, and when traveling in Vegas, make sure to stay at the luxurious Wynn Casino and Hotel. Can I get a check too for the self-promotion like this movie?

Kevin James laughs at your pain.

Kevin James laughs at your pain.

Somewhere along the way, James and co-writer Nick Bakay decided the lovable lug needed to be a modern-day Pagliacci and be the crying clown America deserves. The opening act feels like notorious cinematic sadist Lars von Trier designed it. In the opening minutes, Blart’s wife (Jayma Mayes) divorces him not even a full week into marriage. She couldn’t stop vomiting from the thought of being married to him (this literally happens). His mother is run over and killed by a milk truck. His daughter has been accepted into UCLA but fears telling her father this joyous news because she doesn’t want to push him over the edge. This and he’s still emasculated and looked down upon by an assortment of industry peers at the Vegas convention. All of this culminates in Blart becoming a paranoid, overbearing bully who loses the sense of likeability that comes naturally to James even in dreck. Take a moment where Blart intervenes with his drunken friend. The guy has been obnoxiously making sexual advances on a woman (played by Adam Sandler’s wife) who just wants her privacy respected, and Blart saves the day by… convincing the woman that she should be flattered by the drunk’s advances. Yeah. He rejects his daughter’s academic accomplishment and demands she attend a lesser school closer to home for his own selfish benefit. He’s pushing her away. Then there’s the weird ongoing joke about his arrogant assumption that an attractive hotel employee is hitting on him; he’s dismissive of her throughout and, here’s the weird part, it ends up working. She falls for him (“I can’t say no to you”). That’s right folks, Paul Blart successfully “negged” himself a date. He’s not a loveable loser any more. He’s just an angry, bullying, self-pitying loser.

There won’t be a joke (I’ll be charitable and refer to them as “jokes”) that you won’t see coming a mile away and still roll your eyes when they arrive. When the movie has an exotic bird walk out, you know it’s only a matter of seconds before it comically engages in a fight with Blart. When he steps back onto the familiar confines of a Segway, you know it’s only a matter of seconds before he does something stupid. The crux of the humor of this movie is about 90 minutes of a fat guy falling down, and it still takes 47 minutes for the plot to get in gear. Let me repeat that for those in the cheap seats: a movie that is built upon the frail premise of being a Die Hard parody takes 47 unholy minutes to actually have its plot kick into gear. I watched Blart fight a stupid bird before the movie had the villain’s scheme play out. Naturally, the film would have been bereft without that man-on-bird action (sorry to disappoint those who came here vis-à-vis a salacious SEO keyword search). Likewise we needed 28 shots of James falling over. Anything less would have been unacceptable to the viewing public. If you’re going to be a dumb comedy just be a dumb comedy and don’t waste my time. 500x281

And oh what a dumb comedy it is. The first Blart film wasn’t going to be confused with Tom Stoppard but it at least had some action conventions it could tweak. This go-round can’t even manage that, and so we’re inundated with tired slapstick and comedy that rarely rises above the most obvious joke at every opportunity. Blart gets ready to attack an intruder and, wouldn’t you know it, he ends up punching an old lady. Hilarious. Even funnier is that the injured hospitality worker apologizes to her attacker. There’s also a thinly disguised gay panic joke where Blart freaks out when a guy eats a brown banana. Who cares about how brown a banana is? At one point Blart hides inside a suitcase positioned at the top of the stairs. Why? Well so that the suitcase can fall down those stairs and hit the bad guy in the head. Don’t you get it? He’s fat. There are few comic setups or developments, no payoffs. Scenarios that should be comic, like Blart stumbling on stage of a Vegas dance show, are practically played straight, with the visual of Blart cavorting his large torso as the only joke itself. In case you forgot, he’s fat.

I should not have been expecting much from Paul Blart 2 simply by the choice of jokes highlighted in the trailer. If you wanted a cursory reminder, it included Blart fighting a bird, Blart punching an old lady, Blart running into a plate glass window, and Blart getting kicked by a horse in what should be a spine-obliterating accident. Let’s take this last gag and really explore how it’s indicative of Paul Blart 2. The foundation is a dumb act of slapstick, but that’s not good enough and so it’s exaggerated to even dumber magnitude. With the help of self-loathing CGI artists (they can’t all be Jurassic World), Blart ricochets across a street and violently bounces against a car door. It’s not enough that a horse kicks this guy; he has to get kicked by a super horse because it just wasn’t funny enough. That sums up the comic ethic of Paul Blart 2: when stupid isn’t enough, amp it further, and then be proud about what you’ve done.

Nate’s Grade: D

Inside Out (2015)

MV5BOTgxMDQwMDk0OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjU5OTg2NDE@._V1_SX214_AL_It feels immeasurably satisfying to finally have the Pixar we all fell in love with back and running. There’s been a sharp decline in the company’s quality since 2010’s Toy Story 3. Did we really need a sequel to Cars and a prequel to Monster’s Inc.? It started to look like Pixar was steering away from the kind of bold and brilliant storytelling that had earned its audience trust. With Inside Out, Pixar tackles the intricacies not of the secret world of toys, bugs, monsters, or sea life, but of the human brain itself and our embattled emotions, finding new ways to wow us once again and remind us just how magical the right combination of story and storyteller can be. Inside Out is a luminescent piece of filmmaking, brimming with intelligence, imagination, and it is powerfully moving while also being deeply relatable and entertaining. In looking inward, Pixar has found the path out of their recent rut, and Inside Out is a shining example of their ingenuity.

Inside 11-year-old Riley is a complex world. Five primary emotions help oversee her day-to-day functions; they’re the caretakers of Riley. Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) is the effervescent leader of the bunch, along with Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black). These five are entrusted with Riley’s well being and her memories. Riley’s core memories, the moments that make up who she is, help to form personality islands: honesty, hockey, goofball, and family. Riley and her family have recently moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, and Riley’s having a hard time adjusting. Her parents don’t know what’s happened to the daughter they knew. Sadness seems to be “tainting” Riley’s memories, and Joy tries her best to keep Riley happy at all times. Joy and Sadness get accidentally sucked away wrestling over Riley’s core memories. They’re sent to the outer reaches where the aisles of long-term memories are vast. The two emotions have to work together to get back to headquarters before the remaining emotions convince Riley to run away from home.

602Even just reading that again, it’s easy to see how complicated this movie can be with its world building and internal logic, and yet under the guidance of director Pete Doctor (Up) and his writers, the movie is at no point confusing. Pixar once again does an amazing job of guiding you through a new world and its various parts, all while expanding and complicating this environment while staying true to its internal logic and keeping an audience properly oriented. I can’t imagine many screenwriters would be able to tell this story while still being as clearly understood. The simplicity of the story, the ease to follow along, the natural development and connection of the storylines and characters coming together, is the greatest credit one can offer. It’s ostensibly a buddy adventure film like many Pixar tales, with the unlikely team of Joy and Sadness having to find their way back to headquarters and learning important life lessons along the way. It’s also a smart way to explore the various other elements at work in Riley’s brain. It’s not just an interesting descent but each new station further opens up Riley as a character. Her subconscious (and fear of clowns), her dream theater projections, her working abstract concepts, all tie back together in satisfying ways. Though the greatest side character is unquestionably Riley’s former imaginary friend, Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind). He’s wandering around her memories, and at first you have your suspicions, but then you realize, like the other characters, that he just wants what’s best for Riley. Coming to terms with the fact that Riley has moved on, and his time, while cherished, is now left behind, is a complete character arc, and that’s for a comic side character. Oh, and if you’re like me, Bing Bong’s conclusion just wrecked your tear ducts.

You know you’ve watched an impactful film when even thinking back on moments starts the process of tears welling in your eyes. It’s somewhat strange to think about characters as ephemeral as emotions and imaginary friends and the like, but they really work on two levels: the emotions themselves are exaggerated figures with distinct points of view but they also better inform the whole of Riley. There’s a depth there that gets even more impressive the more you analyze the creative process. What’s also impressive is the vital message of the movie, which is that growing up is hard and that being sad is okay. Seriously, the journey of Joy is to accept that being sad isn’t necessarily an emotion to minimize but a vital part of being human and an essential process. Much of the conflict that drives Riley is her avoidance of being sad, her postponement of accepting her real feelings and accepting that San Francisco is not going to be like her old home. It’s also a realization that to be a fully functioning person, you have to own the sadness in life. When Riley eventually unburdens herself of all her troubles and fears, and the tears flow, that’s when the healing can begin, and that’s when her parents swarm in for the group hug, and even now my eyes are starting to water. Damn you, Pixar.

cbzvmptrh0gevqxuiwf4Don’t be mistaken by my words thus far, Inside Out is also a wonderfully funny and inventive comedy. The sense of discovery with the movie is alive and well, and each new revelation of Riley’s inner mind adds to the fun. The jokes are consistently paced. The vocal cast is expertly chosen and each emotion gets some good jokes. There’s a terrific running gag about a catchy jingle that the memory workers just enjoy kicking back and forth for their own impish amusement. The film dives into other minds other than Riley’s, including both parents trying to communicate during a family dinner meant to soothe their daughter. It doesn’t lean too heavily on tired gender stereotypes when it comes to the differing thought processes of men and women, which is a relief. During the end credits, we zoom into the mind of a schoolteacher, a bus driver, and a dog and a cat, and it’s an enjoyable way to leave the theater and gather yourself emotionally. The greatest comic asset is Joy, particularly as voiced by Poehler. As fans of TV’s Parks and Recreation can attest, Poehler can make insufferable optimism endearing, tip toeing around what should be annoying and instead finding stronger comic rhythms. If you’re looking for the closest thing to an antagonist, it’s Joy who got the whole mess started and yet we don’t ever really side against her. Part of that is because she’s not doing what she does as some weird power play but because she wants what, she thinks, is best for Riley. The other part is because Poehler is such a skilled vocal performer.

If I had to find some point to quibble, the world isn’t as beautifully realized in a visual sense as other Pixar classics. I think this was a deliberate decision to ground what is such an unusual environment into something a little more familiar and less flashy. I also don’t think that Disgust seems as well articulated as a necessary emotion. She’s well played by Kaling but her application seems lacking in comparison to the other four main emotions.

It’s remarkable that the summer is still young and already we have two instant classics in theaters; first Mad Max: Fury Road and now Pixar’s Inside Out. I’m still riding high from my screening, but I’d feel safe to call this a top-three Pixar film. I wouldn’t even begrudge those who cite it as their best. Far more than a big screen version of the 90s comedy Herman’s Head (anybody remember this one?), this is an exceptional animated film that will appeal to all ages but, I suspect, hit adults even harder than their little ones. It’s a wonderfully poignant film about the struggles of growing up, of holding onto your past definitions of yourself, of accepting the full barrage of emotions, including the necessity of sadness. It’s relatable in many aspects and this further compounds its power. It’s dazzling with its creativity, it left me cackling with laughter (a superb Chinatown reference almost had me fall out of my chair), and it left me weeping at various points. Inside Out is a return to form. This is the Pixar we remember.

Nate’s Grade: A

Spy (2015)

Melissa-McCarthy-Spy-Poster-GoldfingerMelissa McCarthy’s meteoric comedic rise hasn’t been without its missteps, mainly the complaint that she seems stuck in a rut playing aggressively weird and foul-mouthed characters that are growing tiresome. McCarthy is never better than when teamed with her Bridesmaids’ director Paul Feig, and Spy is a welcomed return to form for a great comic actress who relishes being outlandish. The best part of the film is that it’s a character-centric comedy, with McCarthy as Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who works as a handler, the voice on the other end of the earpiece, guiding her partner the handsome Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is compromised on a mission, Susan unexpectedly finds herself in the field to track down some very bad people. McCarthy does get to be vulgar, but fortunately it’s only one persona she adopts as a mask, and it’s cleverly utilized. Feig’s screenplay makes sure to find different comic beats as it goes, rarely repeating itself and, like any good action movie, finding twists to further develop conflicts. Part of what’s so enjoyable about Spy is how comic scenarios will evolve while staying true to the characters and the central conflict. Also, Feig acquits himself more than well with the film’s semi-slick action photography. The supporting cast is nicely tied into the story and matter and each actor has material to cut loose, none more than Jason Statham (The Expendables) as a hilariously boastful and incredulous agent. His boisterous chest-beating about his past deeds are some of the film’s funniest moments. Consistently funny, witty, and mildly progressive with its heroine, Spy is a vehicle that makes perfect use of McCarthy’s talents and then some.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Jurassic World (2015)

217255Director Colin Trevorrow won the proverbial lottery after his 2012 film, Safety Not Guaranteed. The charming indie gem won many hearts, one of them Steven Spielberg. Trevorrow went from a rom-com that was made for under a million dollars to directing a Jurassic Park franchise reboot. Even last year’s Godzilla director, Gareth Edwards, had a previous film that somewhat primed a logical path for his impressive new gig. Enough time has passed for Jurassic Park to be new again, and the extra varnish of cutting-edge special effects, high-profile stars, and a renewed sense of fun remind us just how universally enjoyable it is to watch dinosaurs and then watch dinosaurs eat people.

Jurassic World has been open for a decade plus now and audiences are getting bored. As a result, the board of directors for the park is looking to “up the wow factor.” They’ve genetically engineered a new hybrid dinosaur (Indominous Rex) that has never existed before in history, but nothing bad could happen, right? Owen (Chris Pratt) is a Navy trainer who is working on training a group of raptors to follow commands. A security leader (Vincent D’Onofrio) is convinced that there’s money to be made with military applications if dinosaurs can follow orders. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is in charge of the day-to-day operations at the park. Her nephews (Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson) are visiting as one last holiday adventure before mom and dad get divorced. She knows little about her nephews (she’s a workaholic – what originality), but when they’re put in mortal danger, Claire’s protective nature kicks into overdrive. The Indominous Rex escapes its paddock and heads from pen to pen deeper into the park, killing for sport. It’s up to Claire, Owen, and a team of trained raptors to stop this newest monster.

JWSuperBowlTrailer-Raptors1What Trevorrow and his Safety writer Derek Connolly do well is establish a summer thrill-ride that places fun above all else, and it achieves this goal. Jurassic World is consistently entertaining and engaging, with action sequences that are shorter but constantly push the narrative forward. With all the Jurassic films, there’s a palpable sense of dread, of holding back before things get really nuts, and Trevorrow has fun teasing an audience; however, he also delivers on what he promises. The dinosaur action is visceral and rather violent for a PG-13 film, but the segments are diverse in orchestration that it never feels like the movie is repeating itself. That’s quite an accomplishment considering that the Jurassic sequels have mainly been a series of chases. There’s a definite nostalgic reverence for the original 1993 film, summed up with Jake Johnson’s geeky control center character. Trevorrow takes more than a few nods from the almighty Spielberg with his own directorial style. There’s also a surprise sense of humor, which can be quite amusing in moments and far too comically broad in others, like the forced screwball romance between Owen and Claire. The story this fourth time is less a cautionary tale of science and more of a monster romp, imploring a finale that feels reminiscent of Godzilla being called out to save the rest of us tiny humans from the newest and biggest monster. It feels like Trevorrow and Connolly accepted they would never recreate the magic of the original, so they’re aiming to just make the best sequel possible instead. If you’re looking for dinosaur mayhem, Jurassic World has plenty and a sense of what makes summer movies work, mixing in the right amount of suspense, humor, and well-crafted payoffs.

There are a few subplots that have to be swallowed or ignored for maximum benefit. The Raptor Force Five subplot is either going to be cool or silly, or both, and will go a long way to determine your overall feelings on Jurassic World. I know this idea has been in the works for several Jurassic sequels, so there doesn’t seem like there was ever going to be a movie that did not involve raptors being trained into some kind of combat role. This subplot connects to other points in the film about the nature of control/accepting being out of control, the building of a relationship, and the coordination for corporate interests. There’s a reason that the Indominous Rex seems to have special abilities that the handlers were not informed about, and this will be carried over into an assured sequel. For me, I thought the raptor hunting party was more fun than dumb. It had a Disney Wild Adventure feel for it, like we’re crossing over into Call of the Wild. I liked making the raptors allies to the humans who could be rallied for the final fight.

I appreciated how thought out the world building was; Jurassic World feels like a living, breathing amusement park in operation. From the Seaworld-like Mosasaurus aquatic shows, to the baby dinosaur petting zoo (I would totally spend hours there), to the celebrity-recorded comedy bits educating riders about safety supervision, to the listless park employee wishing each new rider to have a happy day. During the pterodactyl attack sequence, which is the most frenzied and exciting sequence, the crowds run for cover, including one guy who runs away while still carrying a clearly identified margarita in hand. That’s fantastic because it means that the park probably has a cheesy pun-laden menu of adult beverages (Tea Rex?) but it also means that even during an attack, a customer is determined not to lose his, likely, $10 margarita. While the “we can’t close the beaches” corporate mentality is somewhat tired as a plot obstacle, it’s still entirely fitting in a modern setting. It was the little details that told me that Trevorrow and company really thought the premise through and made their world feel far richer.

maxresdefaultOne could also look at the social commentary in a fairly cynical manner and find Trevorrow giving in to the summer movie machine. Claire’s character explains that after years of operation, the public has grown tired of dinosaurs, and so they have to engineer a new bigger, badder dinosaur just to grab flagging interest. What once was magical has now become accepted and everyday. It’s easy to apply this critique on movie audiences themselves; we’ve become jaded from movie spectacles. What once blew our minds, like the original Jurassic Park, has now become passé. We’re constantly looking for the shiniest new toy but will lose interest soon enough. And then there are the fleeting images of people being more involved with their cell phones than the spectacle they paid to see. That’s right, annoying moviegoers who are unable to break from their phones for a two-hour window, Jurassic World is making fun of you, and rightfully so. The chief product of this desperation to give the audience what it wants is Indominus Rex, a beast that slashes a rampage through the island. In a sense, Trevorrow is externalizing the audience’s demands into the antagonistic monster, and finally just gives in, essentially saying, “This is what you want, right?” I can’t tell whether the social commentary holds up well, especially with the end that relies upon a metaphorical power of nostalgia to conquer the manifestation of audience apathy, or if Trevorrow just gives up. Is the concluding monster-on-monster brawl just mass appeal pandering?

I have a major solution to this dangerous park scenario. First, only herbivores allowed. Is any person going to reasonably refuse to go see millions-year-old multi-story extinct creatures because they primarily eat plants? I’m sorry, no way. That right there would solve most problems if the animals inevitably get loose. I would not believe a single person who would refuse to see living dinosaurs just because they lack a T.rex or other predators. That’s like Internet cretins refusing Angelina Jolie as a one-night stand because they don’t like the way her knees look. Nobody is this picky when awe-inspiring greatness waits. From a legal standpoint, I would also make sure guests sign a waiver before entering the park, thus mitigating any potential lawsuits over being attacked and eaten. How expensive is this park by the way? You have to charter a boat off the coast of Costa Rica, so that sort of price range already eliminates plenty of would-be customers.

I know many millennials who consider Jurassic Park to be their own Star Wars, a film that delighted the imagination and imprinted a love of movies at a young, impressionable time. Movies have never been the same since, especially in the sea change of computer generated effects replacing practical (Oscar-winning Sam Winston is retiring because of our over-reliance on CGI). We all want to experience that sense of awe again, like when we saw the T.rex roar for the first time. Movie moments like that send shivers but they are rare, so it’s unfair to compare Jurassic World to Park. However, it’s fair game to compare it to the lesser sequels, and that is where World stacks pretty favorably. Its sense of fun above all else, while remaining true to its larger vision of a real park, is a satisfying summer diversion. The dinosaur mayhem is satisfying and occasionally scary. The script does just enough to keep you from wanting to watch the human characters get squashed. In the wake of its box-office shattering opening weekend, expect the park to stay open.

Nate’s Grade: B

San Andreas (2015)

217249Sometimes all you want with a movie, especially a disaster movie, is some good dumb fun, and sometimes that fun is a little too dumb. Such is the case with San Andreas, chronicling massive earthquakes shredding California. After a slightly clever opening, the film goes rapidly downhill as we’re stuck with one-note stock characters. The Rock and Carla Gugino as a divorced couple who will, naturally, be brought back together over the course of events. They also have to travel to San Francisco to save their daughter (True Detective’s GIF-exploding Alexandra Daddario). I have to admit, that is one hell of an attractive family. There is no loser in that gene pool. From an action standpoint, San Andreas does a serviceable enough job with a few memorable images of Mother Nature’s fury. The script is definitely an excuse to just get from one big falling thing to another. I’m not expecting Shakespeare but the story shows very little effort. Oh no, the record-breaking earthquake is going to broken by another newer record-breaking earthquake. Oh no, a small child is huddling in a corner and needs to be saved. Oh no, a character is deprived of oxygen for like five minutes onscreen but magically comes back to life. If that doesn’t cause brain damage this script will. One of the problems with San Andreas is that it doesn’t have any real disposable characters. These kinds of movies thrive on having meat for the grinder, but from the first act onwards there’s nobody we truly fear will bite the dust. There was one major missed opportunity: the cowardly step-father (Ioan Gruffudd) abandons others, narrowly escapes disaster, and he should have continued doing so, avoiding another near-certain demise just to intensify the audience’s demand for his end. It would have been a satisfying payoff. Oh well. San Andreas starts to become a lot of hollow PG-13 carnage. Watching this gave me a further appreciation for Roland Emmerich (2012, Day After Tomorrow), who has such a better handle on large-scale destruction. That man knows how to make good dumb fun disaster movies peppered with all sorts of visually arresting images. If you’re desperate for disaster, you could do worse than San Andreas and its onslaught of CGI thrills, but you could certainly do better.

Nate’s Grade: C

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