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Becky (2020)

Imagine if Home Alone was more intense and populated with neo Nazis, and you’ll get a feel for Becky, a jubilantly gory, highly stylized indie thriller that might be as off-putting as it is entertaining. Kevin James, yes Paul Blart himself, gives an about-face turn as the leader of a group of Nazis that recently broke out of prison. With his bushy beard. swastika tattoos, and intensely quiet monologues, the stunt casting works out well, and James can be truly menacing. His band of goons are terrorizing a blended family in search for a macguffin of which just happens to be in possession of Becky (Lulu Wilson), an adolescent hellion they will soon reckon with. She knows the terrain of the family cabin and the woods and goes about picking off the bad guys one-by-one in fiendishly bloody, wildly over-the-top panache. That’s the real appeal of the movie, the various ways our pint-sized heroine takes down the Nazis. Directors Cary Munion and Jonathan Milott (Cooties, Bushwick) infuse plenty of visual style into their thrills, amplifying the intensity further, like a pounding camera edits and a walkie talkie confrontation between hero and villain where a series of pans makes it feel like they’re face-to-face. The film can be unsparingly brutal and hard to watch at times, walking a line between being darkly comic to simply being gross. Becky herself comes across like a brat and, as the killings continue, gleefully sociopathic. She’s still hurting from her mother’s death, she doesn’t want to have to save her soon-to-be stepmom and brother, but she’ll do it if it means killing more Nazis. One big tough Nazi has a crisis of conscience and demonstrates, at least onscreen, more depth than Becky. It’s all a bit too nihilistic by the end for my tastes. Becky ultimately is a movie about killing Nazis gory good and looking good doing so. If that’s enough for you, give it a watch.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Little Boy (2015)

little_boyI was expecting to bury Little Boy in an avalanche of negativity once I found out a late plot point that made my jaw drop. This inspirational Christian independent film is set during World War II and features a pint-sized moppet, Pepper (Jakob Salvati), whose only real friend is his father (Michael Rapaport), who is now serving in the fight in the Pacific. He’s told that through the power of belief he can accomplish great things, and well, he really wants his dad to come home. So through the power of belief he causes… the dropping of the atomic bomb (WWII aficionados will recognize the nickname of the bomb). I was waiting for the moment and amping my sense of dread and moral outrage. A funny thing happened on the way to a nuclear bomb detonation, and that is that Little Boy is a fairly agreeable and effective family film that conveys a message with a welcomed degree of ambiguity and complexity and tolerance. This is a Christian-themed film about the power of belief but at no point does it make explicit whether it’s coincidence or the power of Pepper channeling God. Part of Pepper’s list of good deeds given to him by a priest (Tom Wilkinson) is to befriend a Japanese neighbor who returned home from an internment camp. The movie shows how casual these small-town folk indulge in racism and bullying. The Japanese man is also an atheist and I was legitimately astonished that the movie never makes a judgment about this. He’s treated as a complex man with his own system of thinking, and he’s not viewed as lesser or wayward because of his lack of belief in a higher power. Little Boy is no God’s Not Dead. The melodrama is well paced, the acting is solid if a bit heavy on long bouts of weeping, and the movie undercuts what normally would be the inspirational apexes with harsher reality. The bomb is dropped, and Pepper is initially celebrating until he discovers the total horror of Hiroshima. His “wish” may have even backfired with his father getting further punishment in a POW camp. While I still find the development tacky, I have to reluctantly credit the filmmakers for refusing to pander in a style that removes the complexity and ambiguity of real life. It’s still a movie and it still has a rather predictable albeit emotionally earned ending, but Little Boy might just be one of the biggest surprises of this year for me at the movies.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (2015)

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

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

Kevin James laughs at your pain.

Kevin James laughs at your pain.

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: D

The Zookeeper (2011)

A lamebrain comedy with a horrible, repulsive romance where we watch a sweet, hapless zookeeper (Kevin James) romance a shallow woman (Leslie Bibb) who dumped him years ago and wants him to change, despite the fact that he’s great at his job, loves what he does, an the animals love the big lug as well, so much so that the animals all take turns giving the guy mating advice. That doesn’t sound like a bad premise for a comedy, though James takes the admission that animals could always talk a little too in stride. Their advice typically amounts to stuff like “puff out your chest” and “pee on this tree.” The potential of the premise is dashed when the comedy usually takes one of two routes: 1) James being clumsy, or, 2) James being fat. Rarely will The Zookeeper stray from these two troughs of canned laughs. There’s a bizarre montage of product placement for T.G.I. Friday’s where James takes a gorilla out to the restaurant. There’s Rosario Dawson looking splendid as the Obvious Love Interest Who Will Not Materialize Until James Has to Chase Her Down to Stop Her From Leaving. And there are poop jokes. Oh, the poop jokes. At one point there was a studio bidding war over this screenplay, which has five names attached to the finished product. I can’t imagine the end result was worth fighting over when it’s so predictable, flat-footed, and unfunny. And why have animals singing over the end credits? Surely that little dash of CGI was an extra few million dollars that could have been spent wiser, like purchasing a different script.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Grown Ups (2010)

Adam Sandler keeps his friends from the unemployment line with this lowbrow, middle-aged themed, yet still entirely juvenile, comedy, Grown Ups. The movie is really a giant fetid waste of potential. It’s Sandler and his old Saturday Night Live buddies (David Spade, Rob Schneider, Chris Rock, and Kevin James obviously filling the Chris Farley spot) chumming it up and decrying the foibles of being 40. They don’t get the kids today, nostalgically reflect on their summer camp days, and try to recreate some of that old magic with a combined family get-together. Each man falls into a rigid type and will learn some half-hearted, disingenuous form of a life lesson by film’s end. The entire dimwitted plot is as stunted as the male characters. These guys just pal around and it’s termed a movie. The female characters are all one-note: figures of lust, saintly significant others who never get to be in on the joke, shrews, or Schneider’s older wife who is a constant butt of some mean-spirited jokes. The actors do have an amiable chemistry that allows the film to coast for some time before the whole affair just becomes wearisome. These guys have played these types for many many movies, and so everyone just operates on autopilot. The heavy slapstick momentarily distracts from the truth that Grown Ups is an unfunny, crass attempt by Sandler to get audiences to pay for his class reunion. The fact that this junk won the Best Comedy Award from the People’s Choice Awards illustrates the limitations of democracy.

Nate’s Grade: D+

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

Hitch (2005)

Isn’t it peculiar that most romantic comedies are written or directed by men? Sure you’ll have your occasional Nora Ephron or Nancy Myers, but it seems that the vast majority of people behind these popular, simplistic, romantic fantasies are men. Is it all a conspiracy? Is Hollywood keeping a nation of women docile with a slew of movies aimed at their soft, gooey middles (no, not the love handles)? We may never know. Hitch is written and directed by men too. Will it be any different from other rom-coms?

Alex “Hitch” Hitchens (Will Smith) is New York City’s most popular love guru. He’s got the methods and the advice to turn any zero to a hero in the dating world. His latest client is Albert (Kevin James), a mild-mannered attorney lacking the confidence to ask the beautiful Allegra (super model Amber Valletta) on a date. Hitch agrees to assist Albert in learning the fine art of impressing women, behavioral signs, and the proper steps to insure a fantastic first kiss (Hitch believes 80% of women can tell all they want from that first kiss). Meanwhile, Hitch is also trying to woo Sara (Eva Mendes), a prickly gossip columnist distrustful of most men, especially the ones that show interest in her. Hitch persists and sets up elaborate dates that seem to misfire one after the other. His sure-fire rules and methods aren’t working on Sara, so Hitch will have to dig deep to discover the true meaning of love.

Will Smith the actor was put on Earth to do two things, save the world and woo the ladies. Hitch focuses more on the later. Smith oozes charisma and is a natural charmer. He’s all but tailor-maid for the romantic comedy genre as an affable, sly, and lovable lead. He’s an actor that can truly connect with an audience, for better or worse.

James (TV’s The King of Queens) gives the film its biggest laughs and its best moments of heart. His geek chic dance sequence (involving Q-tip wiping, spinning a pizza, and hiney shaking) is a gut-buster, and James plays it with bravado. He’s the doughy everyman and his courtship of Allegra provides some tender moments, like that first awkward kiss. James doesn’t overplay the nervous tics or the low self-esteem but lets Albert feel like a real schmo coming alive.

The lone sour note in this well-cast fable comes from Eva Mendes. I’ve never been impressed with Mendes as an actress so far. What almost kills Hitch is that Mendes is stuck playing a wholly unlikable character. Sara is whiny, mean-spirited, and short-sighted in her actions. When she tries to get revenge against Hitch she ends up rashly destroying innocent lives. She’s supposed to be guarded, the one nut Hitch can’t crack with his dating axioms, but instead she comes off as a rather terrible human being. After a while I started rooting for Hitch to lose because he’d be far happier without being saddled to this insufferable, egotistical, close-minded, bitter human being.

What saves Hitch is that the film wisely decides to put more time and energy on Albert dating Allegra. Albert serves as the underdog, the rooting point for the audience, and he’s true to what he believes. This is quite a contrast to a gossip columnist unafraid to rip people on unsubstantiated assumptions.

Another element that can make a romantic comedy sink or swim is the chemistry of its stars. Here Hitch presents an intriguing dilemma. You see, Mendes and Smith have no connection whatsoever, which is fine because Hitch is just as much a buddy film as it is a rom-com. Smith and James have terrific chemistry and play off of each other with an excellent comedic give and take. This is where Hitch separates itself from the usual rom-com fluff. It’s a tale of three couples, Albert and Allegra, Hitch and Sara, and Albert and Hitch. The film’s about male relationships as much as male-female relations (and the pursuit of male-female relations), and there are hints of truth behind the comic desperation. There is something romantic to Hitch but it cannot be found whenever Mendes steps onscreen.

Hitch has appeal but it can’t help but get caught in the clichés of romantic comedies. As always, misunderstandings loom and push people away when one good level-headed conversation could clear everything up. The climax even involves people chasing after their loved one to stop them from getting on that bus/train/boat/plane/you name it. The climax to Hitch feels way too drawn out, like the film is stubborn to tie up its characters despite a horrendously long running time of two hours. And am I alone on this, or are the majority of romantic comedies now built around some premise of deceit? That doesn’t sound like a good way to start a relationship to me.

Romantic comedies play on our love of the familiar. What makes Hitch work are the characters and the performances. Smith and James make an excellent mismatched team and both men are charismatic, funny, and relatable. Hitch is sweet but not too sappy. This isn’t anything groundbreaking but it is pleasant and good-natured. Hitch is your typical rom-com, a fine buddy flick, and a showcase for the near irresistible charms of Smith. It’s hard not to fall under Hitch‘s spell despite Mendes’ character’s best efforts to sabotage your viewing pleasure. This is one date movie not to dread.

Nate’s Grade: B

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