Blog Archives

Entourage (2015)

entourage-movie-posterWhen Entourage first aired on HBO in 2004, it felt like a fun peak behind the glamorous world of Hollywood. A group of four friends were doing their best to navigate the land of dreams while staying true to themselves. For the first four seasons, Entourage felt fresh, fun, and engaging. And then it kept going for another four seasons, overstaying its welcome and proving to have worn out all credible story material several seasons before it went off the air in 2011. Creator Doug Ellin just didn’t want to leave the party, enough so that four years after finally leaving he’s back with his boys, co-writing and directing an Entourage feature film, answering all of the burning questions left unanswered. Does Ellin justify the move to the big screen, especially when you realize that the TV show already had gratuitous nudity and celebrity cameos?

Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) is nine days removed from his honeymoon where he and his wife decided they really weren’t meant to be, so they amicably split but not before having awesome sex one last time (oh yeah!). Back on the scene, Vinnie is hungry to direct and his debut is a $100 million adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde starring Vinnie and his older brother/desperate actor, Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon). The problem is that Vinnie feels he needs more money to finish his masterpiece before he can show it to the studio. Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), formerly Vinnie’s agent and now the head of the studio, has a lot on the line if this movie is a hit or a flop. He checks in with a financier for more money but the Texan moneyman insists his son Travis (Haley Joel Osment) go along to Hollywood and act as go-between. It’s not long before Travis is demanding drastic changes to Vince’s movie (oh no!). Here to help is Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), who works a business and a romantic angle with MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, and Eric (Kevin Connolly, who is weeks away from becoming a father with longtime girlfriend Sloan (Emmanuelle Chirqui). Can Vinni save his movie? Can Ari save his job? Can Turtle seal the deal with Ms. Rousey? Can these bros get any bro-ier (oh yeah)?

The plot of the movie is almost insulting with how little conflict there is and when there is any how easily it all wraps up into lazy wish fulfillment. The main conflict of the film is that Vinnie wants more money for his directorial debut, even after blowing through $100 million. He needs just a pinch more for his movie to be able to be complete. Rather than having a disaster on their hands, which would be far more interesting and provide a wealth of conflicts with how to salvage what is there, the biggest perceived problem with Vinnie’s debut is whether it will be a box-office blockbuster and earn awards. Everyone sings the movie’s praises, though the concept sounds ridiculous and the little footage we see looks ridiculous as well. A Jekyll/Hyde DJ who fights “the system” and spreads his magic elixir at his club concerts… does that sound like the formula for Oscars? If Entourage were still functioning as an industry satire, there might be added commentary on how something so flatly terrible would be hailed as an awards darling, but entourage stopped being a satire midway through its television run. It’s just a consistent reward system for characters that stumble from one good thing to another. Even though Vinnie has never directed before everyone can’t help themselves but talk about what a superstar he is and how great the movie will be. Will he get tons of money, acclaim, and have sex with an attractive woman, or will he get tons of money, acclaim, and have to wait to have sex with another attractive woman? What a pressing conflict for a feature film. With that established, it’s no wonder then that Travis makes such an ineffectual antagonist. I was actually enjoying his hostility toward Vince and his dumb movie. Eric might have wanted to punch him in the face but I wanted to pat him on the back.

Another significant problem is that these guys are just too old to be going through these same tired arrested development routines. I think it says everything about Entourage the TV show that after eight seasons the characters were basically the same people except each had become more successful. Their shtick was already getting tiresome on TV. Flash forward four years, though the movie takes place months after the end of the TV show, so that means we’re in 2012 I think. Anyway, these guys should have accumulated some sort of personal growth as characters and they just haven’t. Except for Turtle’s weight loss, which becomes a running joke, it feels like they’re all the same. This is also featured in the Eric/Sloan relationship, which was an exhaustive subject on the TV show. As the series ended, they were together and having a baby, and as we pick up with the movie they’re, shocker, apart again just so they can get back together. The inevitability of this storyline offers a glimpse at what Ellin felt he had to squeeze in for Eric, which amounts to sleeping with two hot women and having a crazy mix-up. When it appears like there will be actual conflict here and Eric will be held accountable for his behavior, the movie instantly shrinks away and lets him off the hook. Every character’s interaction with women is regrettable, as women are served up as easy comforts. Ronda Rousey at least takes a stand but then retreats yet again under the supposed charm of these dolts.

The humor is low-grade and often missing, substituting references and celebrity cameos for well-developed comedic scenarios. There’s some humor in how self-deluded these guys are, especially the increasingly unhinged antics of Johnny, but they’re far too bland to generate consistent laughs. Except for Johnny, the other guys aren’t even given opportunities for comedy, which makes their storylines all the more painful. Do we really need to see Turtle’s courtship of Rousey, and what does she see in this guy? None of the cameo appearances are even used beyond just a ten-second-reference point with no greater impact than on the ten seconds of that very scene. Take for instance the cameo of Mark Wahlberg and his hometown buddies. He’s an executive producer on Entourage the TV show, based upon his own experiences coming to Hollywood. He’s shilling his own reality TV show he produces in the move based upon his old HBO show. That’s like product placement/plug inception. The problem is that Ellin has confused cameos as punch lines, which was also an issue with the original show. Just because I see someone famous doesn’t mean there’s a joke attached. Oh look, it’s Pharell and he’s wearing that big hat. Thanks for showing up, Pharell. Now go cash that check, you won’t be required for any other work on this set. Scene to scene, it feels like some sort of party that the filmmakers expect you to be grateful for attending. It’s not even a fun party.

ronda-rouseyThe most entertaining person is the movie is still Ari Gold and Jeremy Piven has always played him to the hilt, winning multiple Emmys in the process. I desperately wish this was more Ari’s movie, or told more from his studio perspective, because he’s the infinitely more interesting and entertaining character than the super relaxed and super boring Vince. Even though Ari’s vulgar outbursts have grown tiresome, he’s still the most exciting character because he’s transparent about his passion but also, more than any other character in this expanded TV universe, he works for his goals. Ari doesn’t just sit by and let good stuff fall into his lap, he’s working all angles to get the desired outcome, and that’s always more interesting than watching the life of a vacant actor go from great to even better. The subplot with Ari’s former assistant Lloyd getting married feels like setup for a comic set-piece that never materializes. It does, however, provide a cameo for George Takei to officiate the wedding. Hooray, more cameos.

If you were a fan through all eight bro-tastic seasons of the TV show, chances are you’ll probably find the movie easy-going and enjoyable. If you’re like me and grew tired of their boorish antics, the repetitive humor and plotting, and the casual misogyny, then a big-screen version where the boys get to continue their ways and get more rewards, where everything works out for everyone, will be highly fatiguing. Entourage the movie doesn’t aspire for much but its stunted ambitions and minor conflicts never allow the movie to be anything other than a particularly meandering and dull extended episode. Much like the main characters, it has confused mediocrity with success and being amiable with being interesting. Ellin said in interviews that he hoped this would be the start of an Entourage trilogy of movies. Thanks to the low box-office returns, at least I can credit America with stopping that plan. If this is indeed the last ride for Vince and the boys from Queens, well they went out pretty much like they did four years ago, and isn’t it great to still be a rich white guy in Hollywood? Oh yeeeeeah. Oh yeeeeeeah.

Nate’s Grade: C

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

transformers__age_of_extinction__2014____poster_by_camw1n-d7i1moaFour movies in, at this point you can either fall back on the old criticisms of Michael Bay as a filmmaker or simply let down your guard and look for any simple pleasures offered by the Transformers franchise, a series mostly known for chaotic plotting and action. Age of Extinction is probably the best Transformers film since the first one (take that for what you will) but it still has all the hallmarks of the obtuse and convoluted plotting, absurd and obnoxious characters, juvenile humor, intense product placement, and often incoherent action. Gone are the characters from the first three films and in their stead is Mark Wahlberg (upgrade) as a Texan inventor named, get this, Cade Yeager. He and his teen daughter come into contact with Optimus Prime and are on the run from multiple forces. Apparently a bounty hunter is looking to target Prime. The U.S. has a black ops team tracking down Transformers in hiding. And Stanley Tucci plays a business tycoon who wants to make his own Transformers via their magic substance “Transformium.” Reading all of that, you realize the pieces still don’t really make sense, and that’s before the robot dinosaurs come into play. And yet Bay and his team have fine-tuned the entertaining aspects of the franchise and better consolidated them in the fourth film. A badass alien bounty hunter/collector is a great addition, adding the government as an adversary, Titus Welliver (TV’s Lost) as a cocksure special agent, Tucci as a corporate blowhard, and robot dinosaurs, it all sort of works on its own terms. Again, if you try and logically connect the pieces, it won’t happen. By this point, if you’re not a fan of the series, there’s no real reason to continue watching, but if you’ve found any semblance of enjoyment then there should be enough to keep your attention with the fourth film, robot dinosaurs and all.

Nate’s Grade: C+

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

rs_634x939-140324091106-634.jennifer-lawrence-x-men.ls.32414Ever since Marvel’s Avengers destroyed the box-office in 2012, every studio with super hero franchises has been looking to follow suit. It’s not just about comic book franchises; it’s about building a comic book universe. It’s been a long dark period for the X-Men ever since the regrettable 2006 debacle The Last Stand, which callously killed characters, butchered others, and botched the most famous storyline in the history of the comic. In 2011, Matthew Vaughn proved there was still life to be found in the franchise with his terrific 60s-era prequel, X-Men: First Class. Now, post-Avengers, Fox is salivating at combining the past X-Men and the present X-Men into one colossal movie with a colossal budget. Back on board is director Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-Men films and the man who helped kickstart the modern superhero era. If that wasn’t enough riding on the film, X-Men: Days of Future Past also follows the second most famous storyline in the history of the comic.

In the horrible future, killer robots known as Sentinels hunt down mutants. These are the invention of Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), a military scientist who was killed back in 1973 by the vengeful shape-shifting mutant, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The murder convinced humans to subsidize Trask’s killer robot plan of defense. Thanks to experiments replicating Mystique’s mutant ability, the Sentinels have the ability to adapt to any power, turning them practically indestructible. In the future, the Sentinels are eradicating all mutants, mutant sympathizers, and eventually human beings. Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) have teamed up with a small band of surviving mutants, including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Thanks to the phasing powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), they can send Wolverine’s consciousness back to 1973 so that he can prevent the Trask assassination. The only ones who can help Wolverine is the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), former mentors to Mystique. Except Xavier is a recluse and strung-out on drugs to dull his powers and Magneto is locked away underneath the Pentagon.

eotca49rixfbkx8q5rf1The X-Men films have always had a topical advantage to them that provided a weightier sense of drama than your typical story about a reluctant soul blessed with amazing powers. The mutant allegory automatically applies to any sub-group facing oppression mostly through fear and ignorance. What other superhero franchise has two opening scenes in a German concentration camp? The stakes are even larger with this movie because of the Horrible Nightmare Future that must be prevented. Now we all assume said Nightmare Future will be avoided by film’s end, so the movie provides a proverbial reset button that the filmmakers can have fun with, and they do (look out future mutants). Excluding the Nightmare Future framing device that becomes an unnecessary parallel storyline, the majority of the film takes place in 1973. If X-Men: First Class tapped into the groovy optimism and “take me for what I am” sense of social justice of the time, then this film certainly taps into the disillusionment of the 1970s, where the promise of reform and hope morphed into anger and cynicism (hey, that’s like us today!). This loss of innocence is typified in Mystique, who becomes the central figure of the movie in many ways. Her seething desire for vengeance is what animates her, as well as the pain of betrayal from the men closest in her life, as well as the world who once held such promise. Also, Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) has become one of the biggest female stars on the planet, so it makes sense to bolster her role. The central conflict is stopping an assassination, one domino that leads to many others, but it’s emotionally about Mystique having to confront her feelings of hate. It’s another platform for the ongoing conflict of perspectives between Xavier (restraint, tolerance) and Magneto (strong defense, eye for an eye). But as I found in First Class, it’s hard not to agree with Magneto as human overreaction leads to rash and thoughtless actions, like Horrible Nightmare Future.

That’s not to say that X-Men: Days of Future Past fails to deliver when it comes to the popcorn thrills and action highs we crave in our finest summer blockbusters. The action set pieces are large without dwarfing the characters, playful and imaginative without losing a sense of edge and danger. I loved how the character Blink (Bingbing Fan) would utilize her mutant power of opening portals as a fighting strategy. It makes action sequences so much more inventive and visually exciting to throw a series of portals. The pacing is swift short of the second half of Act Two, gearing up for the climactic showdown in D.C. that dominates Act Three. The time travel story starts with a lot of exposition but it gets smoothed out as it goes, the rules of the story fall into place. Every action sequence hits, some admittedly better than others, but it’s the small touches that Singer injects that made me smile most. I enjoyed Magneto pointing a gun, being toppled, but still using his power to have the gun fire in midair. I enjoyed the animalistic nature of the Beast/Wolverine brawl. Jackman is looking even veinier than usual in his bulked out form. Thankfully the fish-out of-water timeline jokes are kept to a minimum. Wolverine is the perfect glue to hold both timelines together. And then there’s that standout Pentagon prison break sequence (more on that later). Singer might not have the most natural instincts developing and staging action, but the man is a surefire talent when it comes to staging eye-catching visuals (I would say the same about Christopher Nolan). Even his unfairly maligned Superman Returns is proof of the man’s cinematic gifts. As far as entertainment value, this is right up there with X-Men 2. I still view Vaughn’s savvy First Class as the best X-film of the bunch, which has only gotten better the more I’ve watched it.

o-X-MEN-DAYS-OF-FUTURE-PAST-TRAILER-facebookAnd if that wasn’t enough, Singer’s new film does what every fan has been hoping for: (spoilers) it erases all the crummy X-Men movies, namely 2006’s Last Stand and the first Wolverine solo effort, from the official timeline. It’s time to start anew, toss out the old stuff nobody liked, and forge ahead with a new unified timeline. There can be two parallel X-Men franchises, one present/future and one with the prequel casts, and they can go on forever as desired, or until the prequel cast prices itself out. In one fell swoop, Singer and company have reset the mother franchise and given fans new hope about the possibilities. Make sure to stick around to the very end of the credits for a scene that indicates directly who the next major villain will be in the 2016 sequel.

Let me take time to single out just how expertly Evan Peters (TV’s American Horror Story) steals the entire mutant-heavy movie. First, he’s the most comically attuned character, which is a nice break from how serious, and rightly so, every character is so often. Quicksilver provides a whole new jolt of entertainment, and when he checks out after the prison break sequence you’ll dearly miss him. The character is a rapscallion (as my late grandmother might have termed) that enjoys using his super speed powers to mess with people, to test his limits, to see what he can get away with, and a Pentagon jailbreak is right up his alley. Ignore the silly yet period appropriate outfit and ignore what initially seems like Peters’ smirking self-involvement from trailers and ads. When this character is onscreen the movie has a joyful sense of irreverence. He is instrumental to freeing Magneto and the onscreen depiction of his super speed is the best illustration of the power ever conceived in film and TV. There is a segment sent to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” and some wonderful special effects, which is just so playful, so giddy, and so cool that it very well might be my favorite moment in any superhero movie… ever. It is definitely an applause-worthy moment and my audience responded in kind. Quicksilver is a perfectly utilized supporting player in a movie stuffed to the gills with characters.

The time travel geek in me has a few quibbles with the parallel lines of action from past and present. Wolverine’s consciousness is sent back in time but he film plays out like it’s happening simultaneously to the events of the future. So if Wolverine is pulled out in the middle of the movie, he’ll have failed his mission to change the future, even though by going back in time he’s already, blah blah blah butterfly effect. Anyway, I understand how they want to make the future story have a sense of urgency but it’s not like waking Wolverine from a dream; the times are not happening concurrently. He’s in the past, meaning that the moment he goes back there, the future will already be altered due to the consequences of his actions, for better or worse. There is no race against time to keep his consciousness back in time until he complete his mission. I can see why they went this route for a summer blockbuster, but that doesn’t quell the quibbles.

video-undefined-1C88A9B800000578-163_636x358X-Men: Days of Future Past is a time-hopping, unabashedly fun time at the movies; well as fun as preventing nightmarish futures built from the consequences of oppression and prejudice can be. With Singer back in the saddle and the bridging of the two X-Men universes, the series is back on track and once again the promising font of stories and characters. The newest X-film is one of the most entertaining, funny while still being dramatic, and while burdened with the largest cast of any super franchise, finds notable moments for its characters big and small to remind us that these people matter. While less philosophical and funky than First Class, this is one of the best films in the franchise, on par with X2. The action sequences and visual eye-candy are great fun with some inventive and memorable touches. It’s also nerdy fun getting to watch the past and present interact, and for many this is their first return since 2006’s crappy Last Stand. It’s not a perfect movie; I wish there was more early Sentinel action, I wish Dinklage had much more to do, and I wish that the plot didn’t so transparently hinge on Xavier not having his powers. The slate is clean and all X-Men fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The future is once again rosy. The X-Men, and not just Wolverine, are relevant once again.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Fame (2009)

Was there anyone out there clamoring for a remake of the 1980 movie Fame? If so, was there anyone clamoring for a remake that drains all life and intensity and passion from the original, leaving behind a squeaky-clean, shallow, and dumbed down version perfect for teenagers? As we churn through Freshman Year to Senior Year, we will follow scads of teens (played unconvincingly by actors in their 20s) that aren’t worth our time. The movie is overproduced and utterly simplistic. Fame is a genuine waste of most of the talent on screen.

Apologies to the Fame theme song, but I was hard-pressed to remember anybody’s name even minutes after the movie ended. Literally, I was walking back to my car and for the life of me could not remember a single character’s name. This is because the movie crams about a dozen characters and gives little to no time to them for development. We don’t get scenes, more like snippets of scenes, snapshots compressing four years of life, and yet Fame also fails in displaying any maturation during that time period. I understand that the actors have to act like they?re plainly “acting” at the start, but the script doesn’t focus much on the rigorous training these kids undergo. Somehow in between one of the many fadeouts, the students are just better. Cutting to the chase makes for fine drama, don’t you think? Screenwriter Allison Burnett (Feast of Love) foolishly thought the audience would be more interested in watching the characters in sub-par soap opera dynamics rather than long moments of training talent. Inside the classrooms are expert teachers played by the likes of Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth, Megan Mullally, and the stupendous Charles S. Dutton. We would all have been better served by spending more time at school.

The structure works out to this: small character snippet, then song and dance number, small character snippet, then song and dance number. Repeat. But the movie’s fatal flaw is that it has no showstopper. This is a movie about forging talent, and yet the song-and-dance numbers feel uninspired. They look competently choreographed but there’s little to dazzle because the sequences are few, treated indifferently, and edited within an inch of their lives. We are rarely afforded the luxury of enjoying the dancing. At least the Step Up movies knew that the audience didn’t come for the story. The high points for the film include a Halloween party with some impressive stutter-stop gyrations (does the school have a production design class to make all those fancy costumes and sets?) and an improvisational jam in the school cafeteria. One kid lays down a beat, others join in adding texture to the jam session. Though I suppose the aspiring actors are left with little to do. This moment isn’t necessarily fully believable but it effectively communicates the creative energies that should be coursing through a school dedicated to performing arts.

I don’t care about any of these characters, mainly because these people are one-line descriptions of characters. These are cardboard cut-outs of characters, and they do a disservice to cardboard. Jenny (Kay Panabaker, looking like Ellen Page?s little sister) is the mousy girl-next-door who needs to come out of her shell. On the opposite end, Malik (Collins Pennie) is an angry street kid who needs to tap into his life experiences for acting power (Burnett also has to make sure the “street kid” character has a deadbeat dad and a little sister who was killed in a drive-by shooting). One girl’s entire story is that she wants to be a dancer and wouldn’t mind annoying her stuffy WASP parents. She invites her new Hispanic wannabe DJ boyfriend (Walter Perez) out to dinner. Cut to thirty minutes later ad she’s breaking up with him to tour with a dance company. It’s supposed to be a moment of drama but I defy anyone to care. Why should I care about this relationship or these characters when the movie doesn’t bother to care?

The conflicts are usually contrived (oh no, the girl with the most talent in the rap group is told… she has the most talent), mostly involving grumpy, disapproving, fabulously wealthy parents. Denise (Naturi Naughton) is given both of these aforementioned conflicts. Her father demands she play piano, but she wants to sing, so how about she can play piano and sing? It hasn’t hurt Alicia Keys. In other instances, the conflict makes the characters annoyingly naïve, like when Jenny goes to the trailer of a sleazy soap actor to record an audition alone. When the characters do get a chance to speak their minds, well, you wish they would go back to dancing or singing. This also has to be the first time that Sesame Street is responsible for a student flunking out (an actor student gets a small-time gig on the long-running educational show and can’t keep her grades up at the same time).

Let’s face it, in the world of performing arts not everyone is on an even playing field of talent. The movie stumbles early during its montage of auditions, which provides some comic relief in watching the hopeless and untalented. Mostly, this audition process is a blur, but Fame loses serious credibility points when it reveals that some of the auditioning students who WERE the comic relief actually were accepted! How does that work? The movie wants me to make fun of a character for being bad and then the next minute the movie tells me that this applicant beat out thousands of other aspiring performers. I’m sorry, but that’s a credibility gap that Fame never recovers from.

For dancers and singers, it’s clear when they have talent, and it’s easy for a film to indulge. But what happens to the actors? Everyone in the movie is already an actor, per se, so when we get treated to supposedly revealing monologues, meant to display great acting talent, it comes across as unremarkable. The only time I have been blown away by a actor auditioning in a movie was when Naomi Watts just became a different person in 2001’s Mullholland Drive. It was sensational the way that she oozed sensuality and took control of her audition scene. Is it too much to ask that the actors who go through four years of intensive work in their chosen discipline be … better? But my biggest irk was the pseudo-filmmaker (Paul Iacono) who displays no discernible talent. His biggest creative break that we see is taping a drunken student poorly reciting NWA’s “Boys in the Hood” and then vomiting. But wait; being an auteur, he also uses split screens. I really hate it when movies involve amateur filmmakers because it always goes one of two ways, either 1) the movie overdoes it to the point of parody, or 2) the movie underplays the actual creative work, meaning that there is no foreseeable impression of talent. Why can’t amateur filmmakers ever be authentically good in movies? In Fame‘s case, I never saw anything that would justify this kid’s placement at such an esteemed performing arts school; and HE was one of the opening comic relief kids too. Is there a legacy program that they have to adhere to at this school or something?

Now, Fame is rated PG but is it too much to ask for something a little edgier than another sanitized high school musical? For one thing, the movie dances around the subject of its would-be gay ballet dancer (Paul McGill) being gay. It’s implied in mannerism but that’s all the bait you get, folks. Any school that deals in theater, performing arts, dancing, and acting, well let’s just say that there?s more than one token homosexual. The original 1980 Fame dealt with sex, drugs, abortion, and the hardships of pushing your body to the limits for a dream. You don’t ever see these performers sweat. Instead, they sit around and spout bland “follow your dreams” platitudes.

The best moment in Fame is the end credits, and I don?t mean that to be disingenuous. During the end credits we roll through the various actors and they cut loose, dance, act goofy, and get an opportunity to be silly. And it is in those final moments where these people feel like people, where they have become unrestrained by the director and the screenplay. The movie itself is overly labored without having anything to show for it. The large amount of characters and quick jumps through time make it downright impossible to connect. Worst of all, the signature performance sections are few and lacking true style. This is a derivative, easily forgettable remake that doesn’t even know the right steps to be an entertaining movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

An American Carol (2008)

Being a conservative in Hollywood is like being a gay Republican – tough business. Director David Zucker has a notable history with comedy, having helmed Airplane!, the Naked Gun series, and the back half of the Scary Movies. He says that he converted to conservatism in the wake of 9/11, and Zucker actually wrote and directed a short for the 2004 Republican National Convention that was deemed too edgy for the Grand Old Party. Conservatives have also garnered the reputation for not having the best sense of humor, and Zucker’s An American Carol will do little to change this belief.

Michael Malone (Kevin Farley) is an egotistical, fat, liberal documentary filmmaker whose latest work is titled, “Die You American Pigs.” Catchy, ain’t it? Malone wants to abolish the Fourth of July (would we just skip to July 5th?) and plans to protest a Trace Adkins concert for the troops. A batch of inept Islamic terrorists want to bomb the concert and decide into tricking Malone into assisting their goal. He will score them media passes to get onstage at the concert venue. Following the Charles Dickens’ playbook, Malone is first visited by the spirit of his idol, John F. Kennedy (Chriss Anglin), who horrifies Malone by saying war is sometimes necessary (really, conservatives are trying to reclaim Kennedy?). Three spirits will visit him although he spends almost all of his time with the ghost of General Patton (Kelsey Grammer). The ghostly general takes Malone on a trip to see what the alternative versions of U.S. history had the country avoided war at all costs. Malone stays defiant until he meets up with the Angel of Death (also Trace Adkins, because?) and sees the error of his “America-hating” ways. I don’t want to spoil things too much but the movie ends with an expanded Trace Adkins concert saluting the brave men and women in the armed forces.

Some from the opposing political viewpoints will find An American Carol to be infuriating. To those angry few I say get over it, because this movie is simply too lazy to get angry over. It barely reaches 77 minutes before the credits roll. Zucker and company tend to stretch their canvas too broadly, to the point that they aren’t exaggerating to lampoon but setting up cheap jokes. Michael Malone is fat. Michael Malone smells. Michael Malone falls down. Liberals hate America and want the terrorists to win. It’s so easy to write this material because there’s nothing topical or nuanced or even socially relevant. The movie beats reliable figures of conservative agita. When the movie tries to slam college professors as being dippy hippies brainwashing teens about the insurmountable ills of America, it just gets dumb (those people spend 10-15 years studying in a specialized academic field). There is no teeth to any of this satire because it’s all just recycled caricatures with the wit ground down. There isn’t anything of true satirical substance here. I don’t even get some of the satire, like the ACLU is depicted as a cluster of zombies with briefcases. What does that mean? Needless to say, the skewering of Arabs is mostly cartoonish and offensive. The flick constantly makes fun of the documentary art form, saying they are inferior to “real movies.” Because Michael Moore has an Oscar does that mean that the history of documentary film has to be slandered as being nothing more than transparent propaganda (at an awards ceremony, the top documentary is honored with the “Leni Riefenstahl Award”)? Marginalizing an entire art form seems rash, especially considering that Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 grossed over $220 million worldwide. As of this writing, An American Carol, a “real movie,” has grossed seven million and counting.

The film deals in distasteful absolutes. Every idea is presented crudely in black and white. By the film’s standards, being anti-war and anti-troops are inseparably linked. In my mind, and this might be crazy, but it seems to me that the most pro-troops one could be would be hoping for them all to return home alive and healthy. An American Carol attempts to justify the ongoing War in Iraq, though it conveniently only ever flashes to combat in Afghanistan, the war that a majority of the public agrees with. It makes a case that war is sometimes necessary, though it has to flash back to Hitler and World War II to find a morally justified military engagement that everyone can feel god about. I agree that war is sometimes a reasonable option, but the movie paints all pacifists as wimpy appeasers. George Washington (Jon Voight) even steps in at one point to argue for the necessity of war in reference to the War on Terror. Did the filmmakers forget that Washington spent great expense to keep the nation out of foreign wars in his two terms? Isn’t it also condescending and objectionable to have Washington say freedom of speech is misused when it goes against the government? I think the Founding Fathers would realize the importance of freedom of speech, including offensive speech. Isn’t it also somewhat ironic to use slave-owners as mouthpieces for the merits of freedom? An American Carol says that disagreement is the same as dissent; so refusing to support one’s government blindly during a time of war is traitorous. Criticism is not anti-American. It’s insulting to all rationale human beings. Zucker and crew make their case look just as myopic and dismissive as those they choose to ridicule.

The acting neither hinders nor helps the material. Farley is a game comedian but he cannot do much with such lightweight material. There are several celebrity cameos including James Woods, Dennis Hopper, Bill O’Reilly, Mary Hart, David Alan Grier, Gary Coleman, Leslie Nielsen, Zachary Levi, Kevin Sorbo, and Paris Hilton. When Zucker is calling favors into the likes of Paris Hilton, you know things cannot be solid.

Here’s the problem. It’s harder to satirize from a conservative point of view. Conservatism believes that the status quo is best or that things were better back in the day. Liberalism believes that society can always improve, so a liberal point of view would tweak the present situation in order to call attention to remaining improvements. A conservative point of view would make fun of that possible change. This is the same reason why documentaries, like it or not, typically have a more progressive bent, and it’s because the filmmakers are presenting a case for change or outrage. Why would anyone devote himself or herself for years to create a film that says the world is peachy? Now I’m not saying that conservatism and humor are conflicting concepts, but it just makes it harder to be smarter. Making fun of Good Night, and Good Luck is not trying hard enough. How dare George Clooney make a film about the media cowering and failing to question our elected leaders and have it be applicable to today’s world.

The Zucker gag-a-minute spoof style doesn’t necessarily translate well to political satire. I wasn’t expecting much with An American Carol. When they exploit 9/11, taking Malone to the wreckage of the World Trade Center to make its case, well the movie stops being a satire and just implodes. It hits its tired targets with a sledgehammer. The satire is extremely lazy, the slapstick is dumb, and the movie specializes in being obnoxious, coloring the world in two extremes. This isn’t satire. This is just cheap and petty. Seriously, making fun of Michael Moore is like four years too late. Moore is a figure worthy of satire but the best that the movie can come up with is he’s fat and hates America? That he’s angry because he couldn’t get girls when he was younger and all those studly military recruits did? That’s not satire, that’s just excessive name-calling. An American Carol presents a new low for Zucker and I think even he knows it. On the DVD commentary track, Zucker, co-writer Lewis Friedman (BASEketball), and actor Kevin Farley basically lambaste the final product, often criticizing their own movie. The derisive commentary track is more enjoyable than the film itself.

Nate’s Grade: C-

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

The story behind the making of X-Men: The Last Stand is more interesting than most. Bryan Singer had directed the first two X-Men films and had done a fine job establishing many loveable characters and the universe that housed them. Warner Brothers has been trying to get their Superman franchise flying for so long, going all the way back to 1996 when Kevin Smith wrote the script, Tim Burton was to direct, and Nicolas Cage was going to be the man in tights. Since then directors and drafts of screenplays have come and gone, including Brett Ratner, best known for directing both Rush Hour movies and a slate of mostly mediocre movies. Then Warner Brothers poached most of the X-Men 2 team to make Superman Returns, hiring Bryan Singer as director, plus X2‘s screenwriters, cinematographer, editor/composer, and maybe even the cat that licked Wolverine’s claws. Fox was left without a captain for X-Men 3. They daringly picked Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) but then he dropped out for family reasons. Then Fox went with their second choice … Brett Ratner. Both directors had essentially switched projects. Hollywood’s funny like that.

It’s been a few months since the events in X-Men 2. Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden) is still mourning the loss of his love, Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), who sacrificed herself to save the rest of the X-Men. He’s tormented by her voice, whispering all around him and pleading with him to return to Alkali Lake, the site of her death. Miraculously, Jean returns from the dead but she’s much different. Her persona has broken and the Phoenix has taken over, a destructive killing force unparalleled on earth.

Magneto (Ian McKellen) has great use for such a force. There’s been news of a new drug that suppresses the gene that causes people to be born as mutants. This discovery has been dubbed a cure. The question persists, is should being different be curable and what would that even mean? Magneto sees the writing on the wall, knowing that any cure would only be voluntary for so long. He collects new mutant fighters along with his stalwarts the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) and fire starter Pyro (Aaron Stanford), a former student at Xavier’s School for the Gifted.

Over at Professor X’s (Patrick Stewart) school, the mutant students are each questioning life with a cure. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is considering it so she can finally touch her boyfriend, Bobby “Ice Man” Drake (Shawn Ashmore) without killing him. Plus, so he’ll stop spending so much time with Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde (Ellen Page), a girl who can walk through matter. Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) are left to run the team after some disastrous setbacks. Henry “Beast” McCoy (Kelsey Grammer) is a man covered in blue fur and appointed as head of Mutant Relations for the president. He senses the growing danger and anxiety the administration has with mutants and joins the X-Men to do what he feels is right.

It feels like that in a rush to production that character development, subtlety, and subtext were chucked out the window to make time for more boom-boom action. The first two X-Men flicks juggled the characters and introductions but still managed to squeeze in one great moment for the characters we cared about. The plot moved at a mature pace, insightful and touching on elements of psychology, politics, and personal struggles to fit into a society that fears you. There was some sophisticated, relevant stuff bandied about this franchise in between the kick-ass action. But with X-Men 3, you basically have Halle Berry doing less with more. She’s got more screen time, in part to her demands, and now she can use that extra time onscreen to show us how perfectly bland her character is as the film’s most laughable moral ideologue. The idea of a cure for the mutant gene is vastly interesting with all kinds of great avenues for character introspection and socio-political debate. But X-Men 3 renders all of its debate to be merely superficial, another in a series of plot points to get the action moving quicker.

The X-Men franchise was already overpopulated with lots of characters vying for screen time, so I don’t understand the decision to add even more characters to the ensemble and cut down the running time to a brisk 100 minutes. As a result, certain characters sit out for long stretches of the film, are inactive during key moments, some are mostly forgotten, or some meet unjustifiably hasty ends. If I was still an ardent comic book fan, and a follower of the X-Men, I might view the third film as heresy. Why even bother bringing the character of Angel into the movie if he’s just going to be on for two minutes, including a forehead-smacking deus ex machine moment? The Dark Phoenix storyline is the most pivotal storyline in the comic’s history, so why even bother dragging it into X-Men 3 if it’s just going to be Zombie Jean Grey? It feels like Ratner is off screen with a pole poking Janssen whenever the story needs her to wake up and stir up some stuff.

I hope comic fans enjoy the brief glimpses of some of their favorites, because X-Men 3 does a good job of throwing characters into a meat grinder. I had to check online to just to find out who they were, and even then my realization was followed by, “Her? Him? What?” And what the hell is up with Porcupine Face? That has got to be the worst mutant ability of all time. What’s he going to do to his enemies? “Hey, will you come a little closer. I have a secret to tell you. Closer … closer … closer still … that’s right, now please lean against my face.”

The movie trades character for action, so is the action even good? Ratner is a workmanlike director devoid of any personal style, which further brands X-Men 3 as ordinary. The action sequences aren’t anything extraordinary, there just happens to be more of them. The climax pits mutant against mutant in short-lived bursts. A battle between Ice Man and Pyro should be awesome, but Ratner stages the showdown like he was choreographing his neighbor’s kids. This battle lasts a whopping 45 seconds. The climactic end battle, the “war to end all wars,” is rather sloppy. Ratner keeps cutting back and forth between his pairing of Good mutant vs. Evil mutant (why do the two black girls seem forced to fight each other?), but his showdowns are all too quick to quicken the pulse. Wolverine’s brawls in the woods never rise up to the adrenaline-soaked fights in X-Men 2. The special effects and make-up are just as good; they’re just not being put to as good a use. If Ratner is going to dump character for action he has to make his action exceptional. The movie feels on autopilot.

Ratner is not fully to blame for the shortcomings of X-Men 3. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zack Penn (Elektra) have crafted an overly rushed story that is more tailored for getting the job done than telling a good story. They present some big ideas and interesting elements, like a love triangle between Rogue-Ice Man-Shadowcat, but then most of the promise is either skipped over or dropped. They’re trying to juggle too many balls at once, and it just makes me miss Singer and the X2 screenwriters and how effective they were in defining character even in the smallest of moments. Some of the X-Men 3 dialogue is awfully stilted, like “You of all people know how fast the weather can change” and “Sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry.” There’s also a silly subplot about Storm teaching Wolverine what it means to be responsible. Try and count how many times you roll your eyes with that one. How many times are they going to have the president look blankly at a TV screen and gasp, “My god”? There’s some clever use of mutant powers during battles (mostly involving Shadowcat) but there’s just as many routine moments as well.

The acting is all over the map. Jackman owns his role as Wolverine. McKellen and Stewart bring a needed dose of grandeur to the proceedings. The X-kids are enjoyable, and Ellen Page (knocking ’em dead in Hard Candy) makes a very nice addition to the fold. I’ve likely enjoyed Paquin the most in this series, next to Jackman of course, so it’s so frustrating that she just plays Jealous Girlfriend at Window. I think it’s criminal how little she’s examined in the movie, especially since the supposed cure has the most questions and ramifications for her. Grammer is essentially Frasier in blue fur, but that’s essentially what Beast is so it works. He has a very nice moment when he sees what life would be like minus his mutant likeness. It’s really hard to judge most of the performances because of how short they appear in the movie.

X-Men: The Last Stand is far from boring but it’s more serviceable than special, and lacks the maturity and imagination that its previous films held. This was a franchise full of limitless potential, so to see it drop to something ordinary is sad, especially if this is the rumored end of the franchise (a record opening gross over Memorial weekend says otherwise). This franchise feels dumbed down; yes it’s still entertaining on a mass market level but it doesn’t have the creativity and precision that Singer’s movies had. X-Men 3 is fast-paced and not without its great geek moments, but it’s also the least emotionally involving of the films. When the deaths and departures come you’ll probably shrug your shoulders because of how the film presents them. X-Men 3 is fine, but I expect better from this franchise.

Nate’s Grade: C+

15 Minutes (2001)

Let me say this now and clear so everyone knows – DO NOT PUT EDWARD BURNS IN THE LEAD OF ANYTHING! Burns falls under that league of actors that can contribute and possibly do fine as supporting players but cannot carry a film. Now, moving on…

Robert DeNiro plays the head of a police force, but he’s also a local celebrity with his face everywhere from newspapers, to People magazine, to his own coffee franchise (I made up one, guess it). The woman from the NBC show ‘Providence’ with the gigantic Jersey hair plays the reporter that fawns over him and the girlfriend that reports him. She’s meaningless. Kelsey Grammar plays a heavy-handed out for blood journalist of a tabloid TV show that panders to our primal desires of violence. The show is seen as exploitative and possibly subversive – not to mention in poor taste. You may be asking how does Edward Burns get caught up in this? Well he’s an ace arson investigator that crosses paths with mega-star DeNiro. But see, Burns’ character HATES the media. Quite a contrast, eh?

Burns and DeNiro form an unlikely team and go through the rigid “Buddy Cop Movie” drill that’s been played numerous times before. They dislike each other, they tease and try to show up one another, they come to respect and appreciate the other and work as a team. Yawn.

DeNiro phones in a performance in like none he has ever done before, even Rocky and Bullwinkle. Grammar hams up his over-killed role. Burns is his typical atrociousness. If you look closely you’ll find the actor who played the older brother in Family Matters a.k.a. The Urkle Show in this flick. Man, his career time with Jaleel White must be paying off.

The real spirit of the film is in its two debut actors who also serve as the villains. These two are from Eastern Europe and search for old friends that seem not so friendly anymore. Some altercations happen and a killing spree begets them trying to rub out the lone red-headed witness of their murders. Along the way they discover they can sell the videotapes of their crimes to the top bidder and make a fortune. The two baddies are fun to watch and a joy to see whenever they return back to the screen. They seem to punch up 15 Minutes particularly during the tedious dead spots. These two actors seem to be the only life of the film, and it’s a terrible shame when we must veer off back to our lame storyline with Burns. credit this as another case of the villains being far more interesting than the heroes — the Austin Powers syndrome.

The major disappointment of 15 Minutes is what it looked like it would be. With the early teaser trailer it looked like it would be a scathing satire on media and our glorification of criminals as heroes. When the full length trailer came out it dropped to looking like another crazy serial killer flick. Sadly, it never rises above this. There are a few moments with some bite but 15 Minutes gums it along as far as satire is concerned. It’s more concerned with a standard by the book plot. The whole notion of using the videotapes and selling them to Grammar’s TV tabloid doesn’t even show up until twenty minutes before the film is over!

15 Minutes is a thriller that tries to be smart and savvy but tries to be by staying under standard conventions. The very ending to this film could have gone in a million different ways, some very satisfying, but it goes the predictable action-thriller way. Yawn. That’s what you’ll be doing a lot with 15 Minutes – regaining lost sleep.

Nate’s Grade: C

Toy Story 2 (1999)/ Princess Mononoke (1999)

There is a false prejudice circulating the land of merry movie goers as they skip from one theater to the next. This assumption is that animation is a kids only event, that’s it’s something to appease the screaming masses under three feet of height. Lately movies are giving more credit to the cause that animation can be a wonderful escape and isn’t just for the kids.

Animation can take people to worlds that otherwise could not have existed, and so is true with Princess Mononoke the 1997 Japanese import with a fresh English dubbing. Mononoke speaks of the battle between harmonious nature and forging industrious man. Often the film displays such scenes of visual passion that it seems like an animated love letter to those wishing to venture out to find it. The story is vivid and non-judgmental, you see the stories and reasons behind both warring forces and not everything is easily black and white. The English dub does not distract from the overall enjoyment as many professional actors yield their vocal talents to this masterpiece. Princess Mononoke leaves a spellbinding impression of intense ecological thought and aching beauty. The best anime has to offer.

At the other end of the animation spectrum lies Toy Story 2, the kid friendly three-dimensional quest of action figures and plush dolls. What is amazing about Toy Story 2 is how it not only matches its ground breaking predecessor but even surpasses it both in visuals and story. Story is packed with sly humor not just for kids, and it contains a poignant message about mortality and what one seizes with the opportunities they are given. The animation is mesmerizing and the humor is fast and fierce. Toy Story 2 proves that not all sequels are bad ideas.

Fresh from the gate are two examples of the great gifts animation has to offer. Couple these with the wonderful The Iron Giant, a ferociously funny South Park movie, an okay Tarzan, and the upcoming Disney redux Fantasia 2000 and it appears to be a solid time for animation. Go out and see some.

Nate’s Grade: Both movies A

%d bloggers like this: