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Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)

Bill and Ted might be one of the most inexplicable franchises in Hollywood. It began as a riff on 80s high school movies by writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, taking the California surfer/stoner goofball supporting character staple and saying, “What if people deeply uninformed about history traveled through time?” 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure movie was a comic delight, and Bill and Ted became unexpected icons, action figures, and even a Saturday morning cartoon. The 1991 sequel could have easily repackaged another escapade through time but instead it went a completely different, darker, and weirder direction. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey followed its characters through death, hell, heaven, and back again. It’s been almost thirty years since Bill and Ted left the pop-culture spotlight behind. What more challenges could you present? Bill and Ted Face the Music is a sweet sequel that explores the, dare I even utter the word, legacy of these cheery doofuses, and while it’s not at the same level as its clever predecessors, I was more than happy to take one last trip with these gents. Most excellent.

It’s been decades since Bill S. Preston Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) hit the big time with their band Wyld Stallyns but life hasn’t quite worked out how they imagined. They had been told their music would bring peace to the world, but they’re in their 50s now, fame now behind them, and they have yet to live up to those heavy expectations. Bill and Ted are struggling to still write that perfect, magical song, the one they were destined for, but both men have growing doubts over whether or not they can make it happen. Their adult daughters (Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine) want to help and take the ole phone booth time machine for a spin, collecting famous great musicians throughout time to help collaborate with their dear old dude dads before all of reality unravels if that fabled song cannot be written.

Just as Bogus Journey rejected being a lazy reprise, Face the Music inclines to chart its own path as a sequel rather than replicating the hits of old while also staying reverent to why people loved the originals. This is more a time travel movie, and the daughters even go on their own Excellent Adventure rounding up famous musicians through history as a B-story, but the main story is squarely on Bill and Ted facing off against themselves and their collective insecurities. When challenged, the Bill and Ted of present-day figure that they can skip ahead to the future and simply take the world-saving song from their future selves, who obviously would have written it by then. It’s a move the franchise has used before, relying upon future actions to take care of present problems, so it’s fitting for the characters but this is the first film to explore this as a negative. Bill and Ted are desperate and looking for an easy solution and skipping to the end will do that. However, their future selves are pathetic has-beens who have yet to write the ultimate song, and they resent their past selves for setting them up for failure. There are many face-to-face meetings between present and further future versions of Bill and Ted and their interactions become an adversarial tit-for-tat. I looked forward to each new pit stop with future Bill and Ted to see how their lives were and if they were still trying to set up the past Bill and Ted for a long-simmering retribution. The fact that this storyline has a genuinely sweet and even poignant reconciliation is a joyous addition.

Thankfully, Bill and Ted are still the same lovable, affable, and relentlessly positive dudes we’ve known and loved since the 1980s. I appreciate over three movies how much these guys legitimately appreciate and love each other. That’s one reason why it’s so enjoyable to hang out with these guys regardless of what their adventures entail. It would be easy for Bill and Ted to have become jaded in their old age, cynical from not fulfilling their hallowed destiny. They could have some animosity between the two of them that need to be buried in order to work together, rekindle that old magic, and save the world. But the screenwriters know who these characters are. Even when things aren’t going their way, they stay who they are, hopeful and supportive. I also appreciated how this translates to their relationships with their daughters, who clearly love their fathers and want to follow in their footsteps. They even refer to them as “dads” rather than “dad.” The conclusion rests on the daughters and fathers working together, and the positivity that radiates through their relationships allows the ending to reach a surprisingly emotional high for a family of good-natured goofballs.

Face the Music is a bit overstuffed with subplots and characters, and I do wish there could have been some careful pruning to allow more room for the daughters. Bill and Ted’s wives, the princesses from Medieval England, have been recast again (Erinn Hayes, Jayma Mayes), and once again they are barely featured. There is an early conflict between the wives and husbands, and the prospect of losing them motivates Bill and Ted to save their marriages, but this conflict is entirely sidelined after the “end of the world” dilemma overtakes the plot. The wives are in their own subplot and also traveling through time or to parallel dimensions, though we never spend any time with them. There must be entirely cut scenes with them. Their perspectives could have been a whole other movie but they’re only an afterthought, as these characters have always been. Kristen Schaal (My Spy) appears as the daughter to Rufus (the late George Carlin), and we’re introduced to her mother, a deadly robot (Barry’s Anthony Carrigan) set to kill Bill and Ted for questionable reasons, the return of the Grim Reaper (William Sadler), plus all the assembled historical figures with the daughters. Also, just about every supporting family character makes an appearance too. It feels like too much, like the movie is constantly racing forward, juggling people and stories, when we didn’t need it all.

The daughters are more reflections of their fathers than independent characters. Each character, Thea and Billie, is a younger impression of their father and little else. They like the same music their dads like. They have the same goals their dads have. They have the same personalities their dads have. Both actresses are fun and Brigette Lundy-Paine (Netflix’s Atypical) does a wicked impression of a young Reeves, including adopting his sway-heavy gait, but I wish they had more to chew over. It seems cliché to make the central conflict of a third Bill and Ted movie an inter-generational one, where the fathers cannot relate to their daughters, and the four of them go on a fantastic journey that helps to bridge their differences and allow each side to better understand and relate. It might sound cliché but it could also have been compelling as well, and it would have elevated the daughters and their relationship into a primal position, rather than using the relationship with the near non-existent wives as the throwaway motivation for their call to action.

It’s been quite a while since Winter and Reeves have played these parts, and while they both have clear affection for their characters, it’s not quite a seamless relaunch. Reeves (John Wick) has been playing hardass action heroes for so long that it feels like he can’t easily recapture goofball energy. His line deliveries can feel far more stilted and low-energy. Winter hasn’t acted onscreen since 2013 and has transitioned into being a documentary director. He delivers a more spirited performance and hits the comedy notes more effortlessly than Reeves, but the time apart from acting shows. Watching both men imitate their younger selves and going through the same shtick can have a different impact on the viewer. Hearing the same catch-phrases but with deeper, gravely voices isn’t quite the same thing and serves as a warning of the enterprise living in its own shadow. My pal Ben Bailey found an old Bill and Ted to be rather sad. I think that’s part of what Face the Music leans into (including its knowing title). They haven’t succeeded like they wanted. That weighs on them. Neither character is about to contemplate suicide but there is a sense of disappointment about how their careers turned out that they’re barely staying ahead of, which adds a melancholy dimension to these characters still falling back on what they know because it’s all that they know how to do. It’s not overpowering but it’s an acknowledgement of the loss of time.

Bill and Ted Face the Music is a charming, likable, and sweet-natured sequel that wraps up the franchise well, reminding fans why the Bill and Ted characters were so enjoyable from the start. In our COVID times, I’m finding it easier to shrug away some of the movie’s flaws, like its low-budget being noticeable, chintzy CGI special effects, and too many supporting characters on top of not integrating the daughters into the main action in a more significant fashion. It’s 90 minutes of laid back, light-hearted fun with actors and filmmakers who clearly love this franchise, and the screenwriters could have merely coasted and did no such thing. We didn’t need a third Bill and Ted big screen adventure but I’m happy that it still feels, even thirty years later, remarkably like Bill and Ted.

Nate’s Grade: B

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009)

Cute but very dumb would be the best way of describing Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which is miraculously one of the highest grossing movies of 2009. Kevin James stars as the titular security man and he proves to be a capable physical comedian, throwing himself into the jokes. It’s too bad that some of these jokes don’t deserve James’ efforts. A group of extreme sport crooks (they ride around on BMX bikes and skateboards like they’d rather be at the X-Games) hold Blart’s mall hostage on Black Friday, and Blart is the only security officer of any kind left on the inside. It’s Die Hard in a mall, but, surprisingly, the movie has some decent jokes when it’s riffing on tired action movie tropes. Some of the comic setups have funny payoffs because they work against audience expectations (like a bottle of hot sauce you know will be key at some point). Mostly, this is a goofy, almost saccharin comedy, with James earnestly playing a man held back from his life’s pursuit by his diabolical blood sugar. The flick is a bit more character-based than most slapstick farces, so I’ll give it that. Blart is a lovable loser who eventually wins respect and the girl of his dreams (Jayma Mays). The film is also more leisurely than an 87-minute comedy should be. The bad guys don’t take over the mall until after 40 minutes in, leaving little room for the comic clashes with Blart. The movie also doesn’t maximize its potential, much like its title figure. This is Blart’s mall, and he has an innate knowledge of it, but he doesn’t use this to turn the tables on his opponents. Paul Blart: Mall Cop has plenty of dead moments but in the end I found the movie to be tolerable thanks to James.

Nate’s Grade: C

Epic Movie (2007)

I wish to raise a call to arms to all moviegoers who enjoy real comedy, and by real comedy I mean exactly the opposite of what you’ll find in the abysmal Epic Movie. This latest spoof-fest is depressing to watch because I think of all the good independent movies that could have been bankrolled instead of this garbage, but I also drop my head in sorrow for the fact that a generation of mostly adolescent boys will grow to maturity thinking THIS is comedy.

The movie essentially sets its aims on anything from the year 2006 and it becomes almost like a fawning scrapbook for that year that will be obsolete in a hurry. The story is framed around a group of orphans discovering a hidden portal in a wardrobe that takes them to the wonderful world of Gnaria. The White Bitch (Jennifer Coolidge, who is actually referred to as “Stiffler’s mom” in this) is looking to take total control and… oh God, it hurts me to even recycle the plot summary. Epic Movie is littered with the same slumming celebrity faces like Carmen Electra and Tony Cox. Only Darrell Hammond is slightly amusing in a fairly decent impersonation of a pointlessly used Captain Jack Sparrow.

Let me make this abundantly clear: Epic Movie and its recent ilk do not parody movies or cultural events, they parrot them. They simply recycle references and treat the references as the joke, so just seeing a group of guys dressed like the NASCAR team in Talladega Nights is supposed to be funny. Epic Movie is spawned by the same team that made Date Movie, but at least that unfunny piece of junk at least had some slight semblance of focus. What qualifies as an “epic” movie exactly? Is Borat an epic movie? Is The Da Vinci Code an epic movie? Is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory an epic movie? Is Click and epic movie? Is “epic” an overused term to begin with? Don’t even get me started on the uselessness of attempting to parody Snakes on a Plane especially with a PG-13 rating.

At least I laughed twice, yes twice, during Date Movie, but I never stopped groaning during every minute of this woeful mess. Most of the jokes fall under uninspired slapstick or the scatological. There’s a running gag where the daffy redhead keeps repeating the sassy black girl. No one makes reference to it and it just keeps happening, so I’m expecting some kind of payoff. Nope. It builds to nothing. This movie makes Date Movie look like Annie Hall. I hope those sadly misguided few that find chuckles from Epic Movie will eventually discover that jokes are funnier when there’s setup, when you play against expectation or convention, and that wit does indeed exist in this universe. I pray that these terrible, cannibalistic, aimless spoofs will fade away, or else we may all be left with the disgusting possibility that the future idea of a comedy will be a movie that simply makes references to Epic Movie.

If comedy is to survive these movies must be stopped. I’m not advocating a violent overthrow but I’m certainly not not advocating it.

Nate’s Grade: F

Red Eye (2005)

Red Eye is something of a comeback for Wes Craven, the horror master that’s been somewhat grasping at straws for several years (for further proof see Cursed). The concept is ripe for tension and the film has little fat on it, clocking in at a meager 80 minutes. It’s divided like so: 20 minutes set-up, 40 minutes on the plane, and 20 minutes off the plane for the conclusion. Red Eye is so enjoyable when we’re trapped on that flight, catching the icy stares of Cillian Murphy, that I personally would love an additional 20-30 minutes more in the air. There’s a nice chain of cause and effect, as the audience is with Rachel McAdams (fast becoming the Hollywood It girl) as she tries to think her way out of her jam, each time thwarted by the chilling Murphy once more. It’s a great duel of wits. The last act of the film is too conventional and predictable to close out such a great claustrophobic pressure cooker. It’s also a bit insulting that she’s ultimately rescued by a man after we watch 80-minutes of her plucky ingenuity and courage. Red Eye is a solid thriller carried by two great performers on the rise.

Nate’s Grade: B

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