Monthly Archives: February 2016
Director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service is my favorite James Bond movie. It’s everything you’d want in a spy thriller while charting its own edgy direction. It’s a combination of Bond and My Fair Lady, and I never knew how brilliant that combination could be until Vaughn got his hands on the graphic novel source material. Newcomer Taron Egerton lays on plenty of star-making charm as a spy-in-training under the guidance of a dapper gentleman brawler Colin Firth. The spy hijinks are fun and stylish but what Vaughn does just about better than any other big-budget filmmaker is pack his movie with payoffs small and large so that the end result is a dizzying rush of audience satisfaction. The action sequences are exhilarating, in particular a frenzied church massacre made to appear as a single take. I never would have thought of the tweedy Firth as an action hero, but he sure plays the part well. There’s also an awesome villainous henchwoman who has blades for legs, and the film makes fine use of this unique killing apparatus. Kingsman explodes with attitude, wit, dark surprises, and knowing nods to its genre forbearers. Vaughn is a filmmaker that has become a trusted brand. He has an innate ability to fully utilize the studio money at his disposal to create daringly entertaining movies that walk to their own stylish beat. This is a cocksure adrenaline shot of entertainment that left me begging for more.
Nate’s Grade: A
How bad does bad get? That’s the question with Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser, a sequel 14 years in the making to a one-joke character from an actor now in his 50s. It’s so bad that this movie is a Crackle original, a streaming service that I don’t think people know exists. You can feel every degree of sad desperation while you watch. There are so many scenes that just seem to prattle on indefinitely, varying from one or two angles, as if they only had time to film one take and kept encouraging their actors to just keep throwing things out there in the misplaced hope that somehow somebody would strike gold. It does not happen once. David Spade returns and he’s whisked away Wizard of Oz-style into the past where he watches his beloved girlfriend choose his rival (Mark McGrath) over him. It’s a weird Back to the Future Part 2 alternative timeline and one where McGrath also plays his character’s father in an inexplicable scene where he allows his family to unknowingly jerk him off. I hope that last sentence begins to reveal the true depths of comic despair that is Joe Dirt 2. It’s not that it’s powerfully unfunny, it’s not that the plot is completely inconsequential, it’s not that the jokes end up being weird pop-culture references dating back to the 90s (Buffalo Bill in 2015?), it’s not that Spade looks like he’s fulfilling some deal with the devil, it’s not that the movie has no purpose and no reason to exist, it’s that Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser is like a communal funeral. You watch it and you mourn; for those involved and for your lost time. If you can find a more pointless, depressing, past-its-prime sequel, then I think the seventh seal has been opened, spelling the doom of mankind. I figured Adam Sandler would be responsible somehow.
Nate’s Grade: F
In 1936, Jesse Owens (Stephen James) is an American track star that seems destined for magnificent glory. Under the guidance of his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), from THE Ohio State University, Owens is smashing track and field records. The culmination of his athleticism occurs at the Berlin Olympics, where Owens earns multiple gold medals and shows Adolph Hitler just how masterful his master race is.
It’s difficult to declare Race a bad movie but it’s so formulaic and by-the-numbers that I walked away thinking that Jesse Owens deserved a much better movie. I kept waiting for the movie to properly communicate the totality of what Owens accomplished, let alone in a time period where the culture at home told him he was an inferior American citizen, and it just never coalesced into a stronger message. We’re talking about a man who bested the best of the world in front of Hitler. This is ready made for cinematic drama, and perhaps that’s the problem with the screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (Frankie & Alice) because it always seems to fall back on the lazy and expected choice. Part of this is the reality that Owens was just that good as a runner; we only see him lose once in the entire movie. This anticlimax makes it difficult to stir up plenty of suspense around the larger and larger stages for the sports triumphs. The knowledge of Owens’ wins may be commonplace but we should still feel the stirrings of good storytelling and payoffs to well-established work, and that’s just not there. I loved watching the deluge of unhappy Nazi reaction shots to Owens’ victories (never enough footage of unhappy Nazis) but that doesn’t count as a satisfying conclusion to Owens’ story.
The character of Owens is somewhat lost in Race. It’s reminiscent of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 where the character of Robinson was kind of, well, boring. He’s a character who endures the suffering and indignities of others and perseveres, and this is likely why both films turn their stories of African-American tales into buddy pictures with Strong and Supportive White Men. Much of Race is presented as a buddy picture with Owens and Snyder, and both actors have such an amiable chemistry that they sort of treat the entire movie like a laid back adventure. They’re easing on through a segregated America. Too much of the movie is Owens and Snyder just cracking wise and going from scene to scene. James left a stronger impression as John Lewis in last year’s Selma. He’s too often merely stoic without more to work with. Sudeikis (We’re the Millers) is right in his comfort zone with his performance and doesn’t stray far from his range. I credit the film for not ignoring some of the messier parts of Owens’ story, namely his out-of-wedlock young daughter and him cheating on his hometown girl with a fame-seeking starlet. He’s allowed to be seen making mistakes, but the movie doesn’t allow him to live with them (note: not referring to his daughter as a “mistake”). Whenever Owens might be in a horrible predicament from his own internal decision-making, the movie almost callously breezes by without much contemplation. It’s as if every conflict is in service to the Main Conflict – sticking it to Hitler. The pressure to bow out of the Olympics to make a statement about the treatment of black people in America could have been a soul-bearing moment, but we just move along and barely feel the weight of the pressure. Yes, we know that Owens will travel abroad and win golden glory, but make the decision count.
Another aspect that dooms Race to its limited appeal is the mediocrity of its direction and, in particular, how shockingly terrible the movie is edited. Director Stephen Hopkins seems to have been in movie jail ever since 1998’s Lost in Space. He’s only shot one movie between that bomb and Race, which happened to be The Reaping, a 2007 movie I almost liked by its twist ending. He doesn’t exactly bring much to the material to elevate the races or seem that interested in taking advantageous of the suspense opportunities. There’s one great sequence where Owens first enters the Olympic stadium and the camera tracks his movements where you feel the awe. There aren’t enough moments like this that take full advantage of telling Owens’ story in a visual medium. The other technical misstep is that this is one of the worst edited movies I’ve ever watched in a theater. If you generally pay attention to the editing, it’s generally a bad sign since it’s a facet of filmmaking that is best made invisible. There is one sequence where Owens sits in Snyder’s office and the 180-degree rule is broken over ten times… in one scene! The editing will frequently flip is scene orientation, jumping back and around and creating subtle visual compositions that create incongruity in the brain. Part of this blame deserves to be laid with Hopkins, who chose to shoot his film at these uncooperative angles. It was something that bothered me throughout and would rip me out of the movie.
The most perplexing storyline in Race involves the very positive treatment reserved for a controversial filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), best known for her propaganda films declaring the power and righteousness of Hitler’s Third Reich. Huh, why does a movie celebrating American heroes spend do much time positively portraying a Nazi propagandist? She becomes a translator for Goebbels and the American Olympic committee, but she’s also determined to have her vision respected when it comes to her Olympic documentary that is being produced by the Nazis. She doesn’t seem to mind about Owens trouncing the Aryan myth of racial superiority because she just wants to make the best movie and Owens is her storyline. She is portrayed as a sympathetic go-between for the Americans, someone fighting within a corrupt system to maintain her dignity and ownership in an industry that is dominated by men (she’s criticized for wearing “masculine” clothing). I’ll admit a general ignorance to Riefenstahl’s life and career outside of her most famous documentaries, which I should continue to stress are Nazi propaganda films, but this woman was a member of the Nazi party and responsible for some of the most indelible and damaging imagery justifying Hitler’s genocide, and to prop her up as a character worth rooting for and a champion to Owens just felt wrong.
Has there ever been a more self-satisfied yet facile title than Race? The double meaning is a bit too obvious and yet simple enough to be annoying. In a way, the title encapsulates the movie as a whole. It’s well-meaning but far too by-the-numbers and satisfied that it’s doing Important Work honoring an American sports legend when it’s barely giving us much of a reason to care about him as a person and less reason to root for him other than added Nazi discomfort. Owens becomes a boring centerpiece in his own movie, and his relationship with Snyder feels too ill defined, repeatedly approaching buddy comedy. The historical asides are momentarily interesting but don’t add up to much. The movie has some strikingly awful editing and lackluster direction that hobbles the storytelling. It’s a movie that hits all the checklists for sports biopic but won’t veer too far from its predicated formula. There’s a short scene at the very end that hints at what kind of better movie Race might have been. After his worldwide validation at the Berlin Olympics, Owens comes home to America and is forced to use the service entrance for his own honorary dinner. This American hero has to shamefully take the back entrance to be celebrated. It’s a stark wake-up call just how far the country had to go as far as race relations. This national cognitive dissonance, celebration and segregation, would be ripe for a searing human drama with plenty of emotion. That would be a good movie. Race is only an okay movie, and given Owens’ place in history, that’s not good enough.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Jem and the Holograms was one of the biggest bombs of 2015. It was pulled from theaters after only two weeks in wide release. That practically never happens. What made it so terrible? Well to start with, it seems to have jettisoned everything that fans of the original 80s Saturday morning cartoon might recognize in an attempt to appeal to a new generation. It missed the campy tone of the series, instead inserting lots of unearned serious drama that veers wildly, while trying to set up Jem as an inspirational leader. But really, it just sucks. It sucks a lot. If you’d like to learn more in vivid detail then please continue reading, but for those who desire the truly outrageous, you’ll only find the outrageously bad.
Jerrica (Aubrey Peebles) is a shy performer until her younger sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) uploads a song of hers to YouTube. Within hours, everyone wants to know who “Jem” is, which is just Jerrica donning a pink wig. A shady music exec (Juliette Lewis) snatches the girls up and forms a band with Jerrica’s foster sisters, Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). The girls immediately make a splash but they find themselves fighting against the influences of the industry that wants to tear them apart.
Jem is a very confused movie and it’s a very stupid movie, and its most stupid mistake is completely abandoning any appeal this otherwise out-of-time 80s pop-culture relic might have had with its nostalgic core audience. If you grew up with the cartoon on Saturday mornings, like millions of American kids (including my sister), then you’ll be surprised to discover that the movie version bears little resemblance to its source material. I’m not saying that every property has to be slavish to its origins, and there are certain elements that just will not work as a movie that are unquestioned in the realm of cartoons; however, why even make a Jem movie if it hardly resembles Jem the TV show? That would be like producing a Brady Bunch movie and have them be a ragtag crew aboard a salvage ship in space that comes across a mysterious alien entity (honestly, I’d watch the hell out of that, but I’m not what you’d describe as a “normal” audience). Unless your name is Charlie Kaufman, that’s probably not a route you want to experiment with and purposely turn away your core fanbase. I think the time is right for a silly throwback to the 80s that celebrates and lovingly tweaks the culture of that era. The Jem dynamic was a fantasy alter ego where girls could cut loose. What did the producers of the Jem feature film give us? It’s a pretty bland rags-to-riches story in the era of instant YouTube celebrity and every single moment feels phony, sappy, and calculated. Hell, the “Holograms” of the title aren’t even mentioned until the very end and it’s literally just an incidental stage decoration for the band.
The story is pap to leap from one musical montage to another, and when Jem does try and remind you that these singing sisters are supposed to be, you know, characters with, like, feelings, it uses the full misplaced force of a sledgehammer. The characters are components of a thinly veiled checklist to lure in a wide audience of pre-teen girls. There’s Jerrica who is musically talented but shy. Her sister Kimber is obsessed with sharing everything on the Internet. Then there are the foster sisters of Aja and Shana, giving the unit a diverse ethnicity and little other dimension. These girls are annoyingly one-note, each defined by a key interest. Oh, Kimber records everything and can be pushy. Does she herself have any other hopes, dreams, fears, and conflicts? I can’t even remember between Aja and Shana which was the gearhead and which was the budding fashion designer. Does it even matter? These aren’t characters on screen deserving your attention and empathy; they are the deposits of focus-grouped research and they are ciphers for pre-teen wish-fulfillment fantasy. I’m not going to pretend that the characters on the Jem cartoon could rival the likes of Tolstoy, but at least they felt integrated in an appropriately goofy universe. These ladies feel like placeholders that are waiting to be filled in later. They’re glorified backup performers who occasionally get to quip or cry. They are human beings in a generous sense but they are not characters.
The message of the movie seems to be about finding your voice, and believe it or not Jem becomes a symbol to inspire millions of others, though inspire them to what ends is never specified (modern John Hinckley?). “Jem is anybody who has something they want to express and they need the courage to be heard,” Jerrica proclaims to a sold-out crowd, and it was at this climactic moment that I wanted to vomit. The movie wants to project the success of one poorly written teenager as a movement, giving agency to others, but what exactly did Jem do? She got a recording contract, made some flashy music videos, and then bested the evil record exec and still gets to play with her sister bandmates. Excusing the this-could-be-you aspect of her tale being plucked from obscurity, what exactly is there to inspire anyone? During Jem’s first show, which is crammed with people that are far too old to be rollicking fans of a band of 16-year-old girls, the power goes out while they perform “Youngblood.” What will the girls do? Jerrica gets the crowd to whip out their cell phones to illuminate the small music club, then they direct the crowd into a series of foot stomps for percussion (did the power kill the drums?), and as Jerrica opens her mouth to sing, she sounds EXACTLY like she did from the microphone. Her voice curiously sounds identical to the same voice being run through a sound system and a mixing board. Does nobody in this club take this as strange? There is nothing truly, truly outrageous about these bland performers.
The structure of this movie also drove me mad, compounded by being 118 goddamn minutes long. Why is this movie two measly minutes short of a full two hours? Why is this movie only 39 less minutes than The Revenant? If ever there was a 90-minute movie, it’s Jem and the Holograms. It’s not like the screenplay is filled with so many important plot moments. Before the thirty-minute mark there are two dress-up montages, and the second act break involves the girls upset with Jem because she was forced into a solo career to save their childhood home from being foreclosed. It’s hilariously overwrought and then, I kid you not, less then five minutes later the girls all reconcile and forgive one another. There was still 40 minutes to go at this point! How? There’s even a post-credit scene setting up a sequel with a rival band. Another pointless throughline is Jem’s search for hidden clues left behind by her deceased father. He apparently was building a robot that communicates through music (mostly beat boxing… sigh) and programmed messages for his daughter to grow up and find. Why does the father have to be this obtuse about telling his daughter he loves her? His final fatherly words of wisdom include the eyeroll-inducing cliché, “You were my greatest creation.” Can the guy not write a letter instead of organizing a scavenger hunt guided by a robot that resembles the alien from Earth to Echo? Is this what good parenting looks like?
There’s another aspect of the editing that I want to single out for ridicule. Throughout the film, we’re constantly cutting homemade YouTube footage into scenes to amplify them. This makes sense when it’s a montage of fans talking about their love for Jem, this makes far less sense when the movie uses a guy drumming on his knees to score a silly heist sequence. Yes, the movie outsources moments of its musical score to a musical mélange of online artists, repeatedly inserting them into the action in distracting manners. It’s further proof of the failure of the movie to tie in Internet culture and the democracy of music in any meaningful way. It’s literally background music.
Let’s also talk about the music of Jem and the Holograms, which, dear listener, for the purpose of this review I’m re-listening to. It’s not like the music is awful. In fact it sounds fairly indistinguishable from much of the pop music currently airing on modern radio stations. They even name-check “Quentin Tarantino” in one song, so there’s that. The songs are competent and won’t make your ears bleed but they don’t exactly stand out, which further complicates the illusion of the movie. The fawning praise from online commentators is overdone and unearned. Here’s the deal: if people go crazy over some artist, the reality better meet the hype. If you have a poet who everyone adores, then they better have some breath-taking poetry. If this reality is not met, meaning if the art is qualitatively mediocre or unmemorable, then it takes me immediately out of the movie. I’ll even deconstruct Jem’s rise to fame. Jerrica records a simply acoustic song and sings her tune of sadness, “Alone Out Here.” Immediately after Kimber uploads it, the YouTube likes go through the roof and the next morning she’s a star. The song is pretty and Peebles has a nice voice that conveys emotion well. It’s a nice song, but in no way is it star-making more than any other the thousands of other girls-with-guitars on YouTube. My proof: the total number of views for “Alone Out Here” is… 33,000 (the tune with the most views is what I would call the best, “The Way I Was,” at 132,000). That’s not exactly scintillating numbers speaking to making connections with a larger fanbase. The best song in the movie isn’t even theirs; it’s Marian Hill’s “Got It.”
Jem and he Holograms is the kind of inspirational movie that will inspire nobody, a musical coming-of-age film with terribly and terribly underwritten characters that are a note-note collection of adjectives and different fashions (this one has colored hair, oooo). The music is passable but nothing that justifies the rocket success and intense devotion we witness on screen. The story is so emotionally sappy yet phony, the structure maddeningly padded out and given the idiotic daddy scavenger hunt, and the editing insertion of cutaway clips of YouTube artists drove me mad. After an hour I realized what I was watching: the Josie and the Pussycats movie absent any of the social satire. This movie makes Josie and the Pussycats look like Doctor Strangelove.
Nate’s Grade: D
What makes a disappointing comedy? It’s a question I kept thinking about while watching the sci-fi comedy Lazer Team from the online comedy collective better known as Rooster Teeth, responsible for the longest running online Web series, Red vs. Blue. These are people who know how to be funny. They have a fine resume of shorts to prove their comedy bonafides, but what was it about their first foray into features that diminished their funny? I’ll try my best to provide a critical autopsy for the case subject of Lazer Team, a disjointed and disappointing buddy comedy that died on screen.
A concerned alien species has sent a warning to Earth. A hostile alien race is heading toward our planet with the intent to conquer, pitting their champion fighter against a champion from Earth. This gladiatorial showdown inspires Earth’s military and scientists to train a select warrior (Alan Ritchson) from birth for this mission. The problem is that the wrong people get hold of that alien technology. Disrespected sheriff Hagan (Burnie Burns), his old high school has been pal Herman (Colton Dunn), redneck moron Woody (Gavin Free), and insufferable quarterback Zach (Michael Jones) come across a downed alien ship that they happened to knock out of the sky with drunken fireworks. Each of the foursome puts on a piece of the alien armor, which attaches permanently. Herman gets a pair of super fast boots, Woody a helmet that instantly makes him smarter and British, Zach an arm canon, and Hagan a retractable shield. The bickering idiots are forced to work together over the fate of the planet, and the warring alien species has sent a few of its parasitic infantry to retrieve the special suit.
To be fair, Lazer Team is not an atrocious comedy that singes your eyeballs with pain, something along the likes of InAPPropriate Comedy or any Friedberg/Seltzer suckfest. You can tell that the Rooster Teeth squad understands the tenets of comedy and what makes for a good joke, which is what makes their final product all the more baffling. For my pal George Bailey, there’s nothing worse than a bad comedy (his worst film for 2015 was Mortdecai). A comedy has one job to do and that is to make people laugh. This should be obvious but you’d be surprised at how often this principle seems to get lost. Rarely does a larger budget make a comedy funnier, a lesson learned the hard way over and over again with Hollywood. With Rooster Teeth’s first movie, they wanted to make a throwback to the sci-fi buddy comedies of the 80s. They raised almost two and a half million dollars via the crowd-source site Indiegogo, a record until Broken Lizard’s Super Troopers 2. It feels odd to say that what amounts to a meager budget by most productions could be at fault for the ultimate disappointment, but I think it leads into the chief problem of the movie: prioritizing the action over the humor.
It’s not uncommon for the comedy to get obliterated by the action in action-comedies, but from a comedy collective I was hoping for more emphasis on the ha-ha and less on the kablooey. Lazer Team has a solid comic premise that pays homage to a pastiche of 80s inspirations and pop-culture. I wanted to laugh. I think I even compelled myself to give it some pity laughs, but after 40 or so minutes a realization could no longer be ignored, and that was that Lazer Team just wasn’t that funny. The enthusiasm of its key cast members and their amiable nature go a long way to disguise the threadbare nature of too many of their first-draft jokes. The foursome never stretches beyond the entrenched lines of their formulaic archetypes. You come to expect specific jokes delivered from them, assigned by type in a way that reminds me of TV’s The Big Bang Theory. The character will rarely surprise you, which is also because their character arcs are so transparent. Hagan will atone for his failure to act and protect Herman while Herman will learn to move on from a past misfortune. Zach will learn to be less selfish. Woody will… well he doesn’t so much have an arc because he’s instantly made smarter thanks to the lien tech. The expected is a deathblow for comedy; if you can anticipate the joke, it’s rarely funny. Lazer Team so rarely subverts your expectations, playing things too safe.
The central conflict of four losers learning to work together as a team to save the world is rife with comic possibilities, even with the locked-in archetypes, but there’s far more attention spent on the sci-fi action and special effects. It’s a low budget film but there are plenty of action set pieces and special effects, many done in-house by the Rooster Teeth team. The effects range in effectiveness but are generally passable and even impressive at turns, especially with properly calibrated expectations. The problem is that the action sequences that are eating up so much creative space aren’t remotely memorable. There’s one car chase in the middle of the film where it feels like the guys have found a tone that works, one where the action incorporates the comedy and they work. For a fleeting moment I thought, “Maybe the whole movie will resemble this new shift.” The other problem is that it feels like the Rooster Teeth squad was stuck with how to get this story to feature-length. Structurally, this thing sure feels padded with additional set pieces that lurch and fail to justify the added time, especially the ex-wife cabin sequence.
The acting foursome is the best aspect of the movie and their amiable interaction is the one thing that Lazer Team has that got me through to the end. These actors know how to sell jokes, when to mug, and their amped-up enthusiasm helps sell the lesser material. I wish this foursome had a better script. Imagine something more low-key in concept that involved less explosions and more emphasis on utilizing their comic talents? I wish less time had been spent on Jones’ obnoxious egotistical quarterback and more on Free’s redneck-turned-British genius, a setup that seems to have far more potential than just being an expositional device. The slobs vs. snobs approach only gets the movie so far, and after that we have to care about the characters, and I just didn’t. Because of how one-note the characters are it’s hard to care about them. After your good will depletes with the actors, you’re left with a bunch of running around but little funny.
Lazer Team is a movie that’s hard to hate, especially if this kind of genre comedy is a favorite launching ground for jokes. It’s nowhere near as wretched as The Watch but it can’t come close to the sci-fi comedies that influenced the Rooster Teeth creative unit. What’s even more frustrating is that these guys have the talent to tell an original and hilarious movie and are creative enough to engineer some fun sci-fi set pieces. They have the talent and expertise to do better than this, to do better than Lazer Team, a movie that is too safe, too predictable, too padded, too formulaic, and just not funny enough. I demand more from people who specialize in comedy.
Nate’s Grade: C