Friday, November 20, 2015

“The Night Before” – It’s not even Thanksgiving yet.

This week, I had to choose between two movies – The Night Before and Creed. On one hand, The Night Before looked like it could be really funny and I’m always looking for a good laugh, but Seth Rogen and friends have been responsible for some really unfunny movies. On the other hand, Creed looked like the latest desperate attempt by Sylvester Stallone to stay relevant, but almost assuredly promised to be a terrible film that would be fun to destroy in a review. I mean, how could it not be terrible; have you seen the premise and previews? Rocky trains Apollo Creed’s son and suffers some sort of near death/death ala Mickey from Rocky III? Seriously? I know Michael B. Jordan needs a win after the embarrassment of Fantastic Four, but I’m pretty sure Creed won’t be that win. Anyway, despite the ease at which a review of Creed would write itself, I decided not to punish myself by sitting through it and chose to risk punishing myself by sitting through The Night Before.

Before I get to the rest of the review, I want to point out that The Night Before is the second Christmas movie I’ve seen in as many weeks (Love the Coopers). For everyone out there who believes in the mythical war on Christmas; that Starbucks hates Christmas because they decided to serve coffee in cups not featuring a Christmas tree (yet the cup is red with a green Starbucks logo; you know – Christmas colors), you can shut up now. Not only does every store have all of their Christmas merchandise out; not only is the shopping mall near my house already decorated to the hilt in Christmas gear, but we’ve now had two Christmas movies released well before Thanksgiving. If there’s a war on Christmas, the anti-Christmas team is getting crushed.

(Very mild SPOILERS ahead.)

Anyway, The Night Before is about three friends, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Rogen), and Chris (Anthony Mackie), trying to find the ultimate, but well-hidden, Christmas party known as the Nutcracker Ball. They’ve been at it for ten years and the only thing they know is what the invitation looks like. At this point in their lives, Chris is now a famous football player, Isaac is about to be a father, and both of them are ready to end the hunt because they are grown-ups now. Conversely, Ethan is single and works as a waiter for a catering service, and doesn’t want to let go of their annual tradition (and all of the things they repeat during the tradition) because it’s all he has (his parents died just before the Christmas Eve that led to said tradition). Predictably, all of these issues will be addressed (Chris is on steroids and Isaac is terrified of fatherhood) and all three guys will have to deal with these issues by the end of the film. I know this doesn’t sound funny yet, but all of that stuff is really just the dressing. The turkey is the series of events that occur during their final attempt to find the mythical party.

Actually, finding the party turns out to be the easy part of the night. While Ethan is at work, he stumbles upon three invitations to the party while checking coats. He steals the invitations and bolts to find Chris and Isaac so he can share the good news. After calling the number on the invitation, they learn that they have several hours to kill before the location will be revealed, so the party turns out to be the big gift-wrapped MacGuffin of the film. The hard part of the night is actually making it long enough to even go to the party, as a combination of drinking, drugs, and squabbles threaten to derail the quest. Yes, this is a quest movie and Ethan must complete the quest. But, what quest isn’t complete without trials and tribulations?

Knowing that this is their last time doing this tradition, Isaac’s wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) gives Isaac a box filled with “every kind of drug in the world.” As you probably already know (based on the previews), this leads to Isaac being high off his ass (to put it mildly) for the entire film, which is the biggest hurdle for Ethan. It also leads to nearly all of the best jokes in the film because no one does high off his ass better than Rogen. Then, there’s Chris’s side quest to obtain some weed for his quarterback (Chris is desperate for his teammates to like him). This quest includes an old teacher (and marijuana dealer) of theirs – Mr. Green (Michael Shannon) – and a slutty, anti-Christmas thief named Rebecca Grinch (Ilana Glazer). Yes, her name is Grinch and no, it was not funny (or clever). Finally, there’s Ethan’s ex-girlfriend, Diana (Lizzy Caplan). For reasons not even remotely explained, she and her friend (Mindy Kaling) were legitimately invited to the party, so you can bet your ass that the party is going to be trumped by whatever happens between the two of them.

At this point, I need to give credit to the writers (Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Jonathan Levine, Ariel Shaffir) because I went into this film with zero expectations of any kind of plot more than “hijinks galore.” Getting a film with a decently organized plot on top of a cornucopia of comedy was definitely worth the earlier start to Christmas (and that’s why I spent so many words talking about it). Goldberg in particular has been responsible for some awful movies, so getting something that didn’t feel like it was written with paste and glitter deserves attention.

Most importantly though, the comedy was well worth the decision to see this film. Every now and then, you hear or see something that makes you laugh so hard that you cry and can’t breathe. This happened to me during the church scene in this movie, which is also shown in the previews (so I can say it here without feeling bad). Watching Rogen hiss at a baby, then ask his wife who the guy on the cross is by emulating Christ’s position, then try not to puke at the thought of crucifixion, then hear his wife say “don’t you dare throw up. You swallow it like a girl would,” nearly broke me and most of the audience as well. If this is what Christmas coming extra early brings, I’m all for it.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and get over the Starbucks thing. It’s a cup.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

“Love the Coopers” – Merry effing Christmas (or, a real sausage fest).

Do you love ensemble movies featuring fourteen different main characters and six stories? Do you love Christmas movies? Do you love the thought of attending the annual family Christmas gathering with people you don’t particularly like, but suck it up because you share a few chromosomes with them? If you answered yes to all three of those questions, then have I got the movie for you – Love the Coopers. Also, when are you due back at the ward?

The difference between Love the Coopers and other, similar movies (like Love Actually) is that pretty much every character in Love the Coopers is a dick. Hey - don’t get mad at me, I’m just repeating what Madison, one of the characters in the movie, says. She may only be six years old, but she’s just telling it like it is. Let’s go meet these dicks, er, characters, and hear their stories.

First up is Bucky Cooper (Alan Arkin). He frequents a local diner every day for one reason – Ruby (Amanda Seyfried). Yes, I said Amanda Seyfried, and I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not like that. Okay, it’s kind of like that, but it’s much more innocent than a dirty old man stalking a beautiful young woman. Bucky just misses his dead wife and Ruby reminds her of him. They joke about the quality of the food, he suggests movies for Ruby to watch, and they have a good time together. They are two of the nice people in the film, though they do share a moment where they are dicks to each other.

Next up is Hank Cooper (Ed Helms). He is divorced with three kids, Charlie, Bo, and Madison (Timothee Chalamet, Maxwell Simkins, and Blake Baumgartner, respectively). He and his ex-wife, Angie (Alex Borstein), hate each other and he is trying to get a new job, but is lying to Angie about still having one. They are serious dicks to each other, though most of the blame lies on Angie since she is a dick all of the time and Hank is only a dick when Angie brings it out of him.

This leads us to Hank’s kids. Madison spends time with her grandparents, Hank’s parents, Sam and Charlotte. You know her story already – she owns the catch phrase of the film. On the other hand, Charlie and Bo are hanging out the mall. Bo is looking for the perfect gift for Charlie while Charlie is trying to flirt with his crush, Lauren. Surprisingly, none of these kids are dicks, which is a nice change for a movie involving teenagers. In fact, they provide the best part of the movie – a French kissing scene between Charlie and Lauren in which they manage to not touch lips. Imagine the way two golden retrievers would look if they were making out and you’ve got the idea.

Coincidentally, Emma Cooper (Marisa Tomei) is also at the mall, but not for very long. She has serious issues with Charlotte (her sister), shoplifting, and lying and spends most of the movie in the back of Officer Percy Williams’ (Anthony Mackie) police car. In an attempt to not go to jail, Emma decides to use her social worker skills to provide Percy some therapy to help him come to grips with his lack of emotions (due to an abusive mother). On one hand, I feel bad for Percy because he has to sit and listen to Emma dole out unsolicited advice, but on the other hand – where the hell is the police station? They drive around for hours, so either he’s lost or he really hates his mom.

Sam (John Goodman) and Charlotte (Diane Keaton) are a whole different story. Charlotte is a Cooper by birth (Bucky’s daughter) and is the mother-in-law (or mother) that every stereotype was born from. Everything is always about her, which drives her two kids – Hank and Eleanor – crazy. Be it Hank’s inability to keep a wife or job or Eleanor’s affair with a married man, Charlotte always wants to know “was it something I did?” After forty years of marriage, a continuing, unhealthy obsession with her kids, and an untold number of broken promises (including a 35-year delayed trip to Africa), Sam is at the end of his rope. He doesn’t want to give up, but Charlotte devoted everything to her kids and Sam waited decades for her to devote some time to him. It’s tough to blame a guy for wanting to have a little happiness before he dies after forty years of being little more than a prop. And, you would want to leave too if your wife (or husband) insisted on elaborate Christmas gatherings including forcing everyone to say what they are thankful for around the dinner table and sing Christmas carols in the living room as a group. Dicks like Charlotte are a special breed.

Finally, we have Eleanor Cooper (Olivia Wilde). She is hanging around the airport after having arrived in town, stalling as much as she can before heading to the big gathering, when she meets Joe (Jake Lacy). The two of them are as opposite of each other as two people can be, but they are easily the most interesting people in the movie. They are also the obvious love story of the film, but what makes them interesting is that they are caricatures of the two sides of our political system. Eleanor is an insufferable, liberal democrat who feels the need to lecture Joe about everything he’s “wrong” about. Joe is a religious, conservative republican who looks down his nose at Eleanor’s beliefs and judges her on everything. Also, he’s an Army soldier, just to complete the stereotype. Joe’s flight is cancelled (which is why they’re both still in the airport) and after several cutesy moments and misunderstandings, Emma convinces him to pretend to be her boyfriend and accompany her to the family gathering. These two people are not good humans, but they are entertaining. They also provide the best exchange I’ve heard in a long time:

Eleanor – “You probably don’t even believe in evolution.”
Joe – “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”
Eleanor – “That’s funny; my dog asked me the same thing about wolves.”

I sincerely hope I get to use that last retort in real life because it (and the French kiss scene) made this entire movie worth watching.

By the time the movie gets to the big Christmas dinner, you will be so thoroughly depressed (or disgusted) at either the characters or their lives that you won’t really care if they forgive each other by the end of the film. This, in a nutshell, is why the vast majority of critics did not like this movie. There’s no plot to speak of; just a bunch of related people winding their depressing stories toward the inevitable dinner explosion between some, if not all, of them. And, despite all of that, I found myself not hating this movie. As much as I didn’t care about any story save Joe and Eleanor, I never once thought I should get up and leave the theater. Maybe that’s the real power of Christmas – it allows you to see the entertainment value in the numerous dicks in life, rather than just getting angry about them. You’re looking forward to Christmas dinner now, aren’t you?

Rating: That sloppy kiss and evolution quote are worth the price of admission…if the price of admission was half of what it is today.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

“Spectre” – Harking back to earlier times.

Ranking things has become a staple of American media and might be what they spend the most time and effort on. From power rankings to best-of rankings to “which candidate was the least deplorable during last night’s (pick your party) debate” rankings, they have majorly impacted the way news is presented and consumed. Heck, I do it myself every year in my annual Year in Review piece. So, with the release of James Bond 24 – Spectre – it was predictable that nearly every entertainment outlet would rank all things James Bond. From Bond Girls to villains to henchman to cars to gadgets to the movies themselves, those sites ranked everything short of Bond haircuts (and it wouldn’t surprise me if a search turned that up as well). While these are fun exercises, they get old after the thousandth one written and are always biased depending (mostly) on the age of the writer (if you want to test that theory, find a baby boomer and tell him Pierce Brosnan was a better Bond than Sean Connery. Then, duck the incoming punch). I’m not going to rank anything here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least answer a similar question – how does Spectre compare with the other Daniel Craig Bond films?

Let’s just get this out of the way up front – Casino Royale was a nearly perfect film and none of the subsequent Bond films have come close to matching it (I didn’t write a full review of Skyfall, but I found it slightly overrated, as noted in my 2012 Year in Review). Having said that, I enjoyed all of them because they are well-produced, Craig is fantastic, my wife will go see them with me, and they are better than nearly every other action movie out there. Spectre is no different, delivering well on all three of those qualities. However, some chinks in the armor are beginning to show.

Spectre is a bit of a throwback to pre-Craig iterations. Remember all of the jokes in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me that ridicule the clichés of Bond flicks? Well, pretty much every one of those clichés was on full display in Spectre and, disappointingly, the movie was only aware of one of them (I’ll get to them in a moment). To me, the lack of these clichés is what made the previous Craig films so good and refreshing, so bringing them back was a head-scratcher. So, let’s talk about them.

Opening Song
Adele set a very high standard with “Skyfall,” so following it up was going to be a tough chore for anyone. Unfortunately, Sam Smith and the producers decided not to even try. I’ve always wanted to use the word caterwauling and singer Sam Smith was caterwauling with the best of them in “Writing’s on the Wall,” one of the worst openers for any Bond movie. Smith himself said it took half an hour to write the song and the demo version was used in the final cut of the film. I’m guessing the folks who approved had listened to the demo shortly after firing guns without wearing ear protection. Guys, that ringing in your ears wasn’t exploding gunpowder, it was Smith.

Previous Craig films wisely stayed away from the silly gadgets of yesteryear, but director Sam Mendes apparently thought it was time to bring them back. Exploding watch? Check. 60’s era toggle switches in Bond’s car to set off fire, bullets, and ejector seat? Check. Nanobots in Bond’s blood to track his vitals and location? Check. Headshakes from me every time one of these appeared? Check. To be fair, the film is mildly aware of this trope, adding a toggle switch in the car for pre-selected music (the car was intended for agent 009) and, upon receiving the watch from Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond asks “Does it do anything?” to which Q responds “It tells the time.”

Bond Car
Every Bond movie has a car chase (or four) and this one features an Aston Martin DB10 with the previously mentioned toggle switches. Every Bond movie also wrecks Bond’s car, which I find tired. I know it goes along with the recklessness of Bond’s character, but couldn’t we save the car just once? Or at least, can’t Q give him a car that doesn’t cost three million pounds (Q actually tells us the cost, which also made me wonder why he used ten cent toggle switches. Whatever).

Bond Girls
Some people think Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) counts as a Bond girl, but I don’t think so. Bond girls are one of two things – the damsel in distress or part of the villain’s gang (or both). Sleeping with Bond does not make a Bond girl, though all Bond girls sleep with him. That leaves Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) – damsel, and Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci) – part of the gang (though only by marriage). Nothing sets these two apart from most Bond girls, especially Bellucci, who serves no purpose in the film other than to have sex with Bond after Bond eliminates her assassin husband. But, hey, they’re hot so…mission accomplished?

Did anybody miss the villain’s right hand man? Me either. But what true Bond villain doesn’t have a cartoon character henchman to execute his evil plans? Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) fills out that role while almost over-filling out his suits. His job is busting heads without asking questions and if he had any lines at all, I don’t remember them. He doesn’t have metal teeth or razor-edged hats, but he does like to kill people by pushing his fingers through their eyes, so he achieves the same effect – ewww, gross.

The villains all tend to be the same – super intelligent sociopaths with ridiculously complex evil plots and some quirk. Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) is the leader of the evil organization called Spectre, which contained Quantum, the previous evil organization thought to be THE evil organization. Franz claims to be the one responsible for all of the bad things that happened in the last three movies and to that I say – really? But he’s not done. He’s also trying to get a system approved and online that connects national surveillance systems all into one system that he would control because…um…hmmmmm. Actually, we never find out. He’s actually pissed off at Bond for a completely unrelated reason – and had daddy issues – thus creating the wildly convoluted plot of Spectre. And Franz has a cat, aka – his quirk.

The “Death Ray”
Invoking The Spy Who Shagged Me again, remember when the bad guys capture Powers and the villain decided to kill Powers with an elaborately designed device, but the villain’s son says “why don’t we just shoot him right now? Here, I even have a gun” and the villain argues with his son? Yeah, well, Franz has a remote controlled chair will drills on either side that he uses to drill holes into Bond’s head. Egads.

The Lair
Every villain has to have an absurdly elaborate lair, right? The villain in Quantum of Solace had a hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert, powered by hydrogen-fuel cells. The villain in Skyfall had an abandoned village/island filled with computer servers. Franz has an energy-independent compound inside a crater in Africa in which his surveillance system is housed. Also, the drill chair is there. I rest my case.

Political Content
Every Bond movie reflects current real-life politics. In addition to mass surveillance, Spectre throws in drones, plus, another worn-out trope – the spy agency is obsolete, so must be dissolved. If there’s one thing to truly dislike about this movie it’s the idea that MI6 needs to be dissolved because we have drones now. I’m pretty sure a Predator drone is incapable of wearing a suit and dancing without someone noticing that it’s an airplane.

If you’re like me, you will be disappointed that this movie took several steps backward by bringing back many of the silly tropes and clichés that previous Craig movies had seemingly (and thankfully) moved beyond. But, you will forgive that for the reasons mentioned earlier (production, etc., etc.), plus good performances from Ralph Fiennes (M) and Andrew Scott (C – you know him as Moriarty in Sherlock). And if you still want to know where Spectre ranks, even in just the four Craig movies, I’d say Brosnan over Connery.

Rating: Ask for a dollar back because there really should be a penalty for Mendes caving in to nostalgia.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

“Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” – You know what kind of movie this is.

To steal a phrase from John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight – Boy Scouts: How is this still a thing? I remember back in elementary school when kids would show up to school wearing their Cub Scout uniforms. I went to a Catholic school for a few years and I was a little jealous because they were allowed to wear those instead of the required uniform, and I thought it would only be fair if I was allowed to wear my baseball uniform. Once I started going to public school, jealousy changed to mild derision because they stood out like sore thumbs and looked like dorks (as would I, had I worn my baseball uniform). Of course, I was forced to wear sweat pants to school (thanks mom and dad), so I’m sure they were looking at me and thinking the same thing (and they were right). But, the one thing I never thought was “I wish I was in scouts.” No disrespect to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Cub Scouts, but anachronistic only begins to describe an organization best known for selling cookies and popcorn in front of grocery stores.

I get that scouts and sports are roughly equivalent in what kids get out of them, but you don’t see competitions featuring scout troops tying knots or starting fires. People still play sports by the millions and many get paid to do it. When was the last time you saw a scout helping someone cross the road? When was the last time a tent came without directions? When was the last time you needed to tie a complicated knot? Most of the skills learned in scouts stopped being relevant decades ago because, let’s face it, hardly anybody gets lost in the woods anymore and technology has rendered nearly all of those skills pointless. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, a movie featuring scouts that use none of their scout skills to survive a zombie outbreak in their town, but do use modern technology and a trampoline.

Ben, Carter, and Augie (Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller, and Joey Morgan, respectively) are high school sophomores who still wear their scout uniforms to school and are the only three remaining scouts of their troop, led by Scout Leader Rogers (David Koechner). Ben is the nice guy with eyes for Carter’s hot sister, Kendall (Halston Sage). Carter is the horny, douchebag trying to convince Ben to finally leave scouts. Augie is the token fat friend who has earned every scouts accomplishment badge possible. There’s a big, secret party that Carter wants to go to (ditching Augie in the process), but the zombie breakout ruins that plan. Instead, the three scouts spend the movie running from place to place trying to not get eaten. Also, there’s a strip club cocktail waitress named Denise (Sarah Dumont) with them because this movie was made for horny teenaged boys. And, yes, she’s scantily clad wielding a shotgun because that’s what kind of movie this is.

As I alluded to before, this movie fails most glaringly in that their scout skills are barely used. Ben carves a spear out of a mop handle, Augie lights an explosive using a flint, and a couple of knots are tied. That’s it. Considering this film is a very blatant B-movie, horror-comedy, it’s amazing that the writers (Lona Williams, Carrie Evans, and Emi Mochizuki) didn’t overplay the value of their scout patch-signifying skills. Of course, that’s probably due to them figuring out ways to have the kids say fuck and pussy as much as possible, while sprinkling in lots of sexual sight gags (a toothless zombie gumming an ass, zombie boobs, zombie pole dancing, and zombie cunnilingus among others). Could you focus on better writing with those elements? You’re right – yes, yes, you could.

Conversely, Denise does most of the heavy lifting, killing the most zombies and constantly saving the boys, all without any scout skills. She single-handedly proves that this movie could have substituted anything for scouts and not changed at all. The writing in this movie was as rotten as a zombie’s penis and I know that because we get to see a zombie penis get slowly yanked off and I mean that literally.
The final nail in the coffin of useful scout skills comes in the climax when the boys go to a hardware shop to arm themselves so they can save everyone at the party. Rather than just picking up nail guns and knives, they fashion incredibly complicated weapons because, again, that’s what kind of movie this is. Ben straps knives to a weed whacker, Augie fashions a gun out of PVC piping that shoots wooden balls, and Carter fashions a nail-shooting crossbow out of a glue gun (or he just makes a nail gun look like a crossbow – either way, it’s stupid). Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember any of the boys having a MacGyver patch on their shirts. Also, even for a movie as intentionally dumb as this one, walking into a hardware store and not just grabbing a bunch of nail guns and hedge clippers (or any other stabbing tool) was wildly stupid.

By now, you probably think I hated this movie, but you’d be wrong. For the same reasons I enjoyed movies like Hot Tub Time Machine and Strange Wilderness, I found myself enjoying Scouts – brainless, silly humor. I found myself laughing through much of the movie, cringing at the unsightly sight gags, and cheering at the early demise of Rogers, though I think he should have stayed human longer to help facilitate and encourage the use of scout skills (full disclosure: I can’t stand Koechner – he is one of the worst comedic actors and sits alongside Melissa McCarthy on my shelf of least funniest people on the planet. Casting him as the Scout Leader was a terrible idea and he kept coming back throughout the film because zombies. In other words – boooooo!!!!). I have no defense other than it was nice watching a B-movie horror comedy that was intended to be as such (unlike The Visit, despite what its defenders claim) and it included zombie animals, something almost universally ignored in zombie movies. Also, the teenage boy in me still likes zombies and boobs.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back – for the movie that is. Thin Mints are still worth the existence of the Girl Scouts.

Friday, October 16, 2015

“Goosebumps” – No more than what I would ask for.

As the third movie in a single of week of screenings, I picked Goosebumps for one reason – I wanted to turn my brain off for an hour and a half and watch a movie for the pure pleasure of escaping into a fantasy world aimed at children. Don’t get me wrong – I’m plenty entertained by movies that aren’t made for the under-thirteen crowd, but after screening Bridge of Spies and Crimson Peak earlier this week, I needed something that wouldn’t contain even a shred of seriousness. Enter Jack Black to save the day (said nobody, ever).

I’m pretty sure I’ve never read a Goosebumps book, and if I have, I no longer remember. But that doesn’t really matter, because I know what the books are (goofy-scary, not Saw-scary), so I knew going into the film that it was almost impossible for me to be disappointed. Just give me some creatures and monsters, throw some kids in to be chased by those monsters, and give those kids a goal that equals how to stop the monsters. In other words, dance monkeys, dance!

The plot of the movie is exactly as sophisticated as a kids movie should be – every creature and monster from every R.L. Stine book has escaped from those books and the kids must find a way to put them back before they destroy the town (Madison, Delaware) and kill everyone in it. The kids in question are Zach (Dylan Minnette), Hannah (Odeya Rush), and Champ (Ryan Lee). Zach is the new kid in town, just moved from New York City with his mom (Amy Ryan), who is the new vice principal at the local high school. They move in next door to Hannah and her father, R.L. Stine (Jack Black). Hannah is essentially locked in the house by R.L., but befriends Zach and shows him her secret Ferris wheel. No, that is not a euphemism, it’s an actual, full-scale Ferris wheel. Champ is a nerdy kid at the high school who also befriends Zach, eventually getting caught up in the adventure by the lure of girls. The adventure gets started when Zach and Champ unwittingly unlock and open one of R.L.’s books and off we go.

There’s not much more to it than that and the kid in me loved every minute of it. If you want any kind of logic for happens in this movie, go somewhere else. There’s no good explanation for how the monsters came to life – R.L. just explains that, one day, they just did. There’s even less explanation for the solution (which is hilariously obvious) – R.L. must write another book, but it has to be just right. Naturally, “just right” means “before everyone dies” and, as it turns out, doesn’t even have to be him. Perhaps the most perplexing part is that the books can be burned. You would think that would cause the monsters to disappear, but you’d be wrong. The initial solution is that the monsters can be sucked back into the books (hi there, massive contradiction), so burning them means they get to stay out forever. And the burning is being done by the lead monster, a ventriloquist dummy named Slappy (voiced by Jack Black). This movie makes almost no sense, but who cares? Not eight-year olds – the ones in the theater or the one happily bouncing off the walls in my brain.

In all seriousness, my only complaint about the movie is that the books weren’t indestructible. It should have been harder for Slappy and crew to avoid going back to their prisons and it should have been harder for R.L. and the kids to defeat them than “just write another book.” They had an entire high school full of kids and teachers that could have helped recover the books, why not use them as more than just fleeing prom gowns and adolescent suits? But I digress.

The film is pleasing in the way that all kid books are pleasing – they are short, full of adventure and fun, and they get to the frickin’ point (do you hear that, J.K. Rowling?!). Everything gets wrapped up in a neat little bow by the end (unless it doesn’t – apparently Stine is a fan of the twist as well), the two boys get to kiss the two girls (Champ wins over his crush, Taylor, played by Halston Sage), and the town goes on as if a bunch of monsters didn’t just almost kill everybody. Like I said – it’s exactly what I hoped for and my brain got the much needed rest it so desperately wanted.

Rating: Be serious. Your kids will enjoy it and you will too, unless you’re dead inside.

“Crimson Peak” – Well, that was a…umm…movie.

One of these days, Guillermo del Toro is going to make a movie that blows us all away. Ten years ago, I thought that movie was going to be Pan’s Labyrinth, which featured fantastic creatures and a few really good scenes, but was a disappointing movie overall. Then, Hellboy 2 came out, the fantasy nerd in me shrieked in delight, but at no point during the film did I ever think del Toro hit his peak. More recently, Pacific Rim released and the makers of the latest Godzilla movie cried because Pacific Rim was exactly the movie they thought they were making until they noticed that they had left Godzilla out of two thirds of their movie. Pacific Rim was an awesome movie, but all del Toro really proved was how not to fuck up a giant-monster-battle-royale movie. Amazingly, those are the only three movies del Toro directed between 2006 and this weekend’s Crimson Peak, and after watching Crimson Peak I can unequivocally say that it was, indeed, a movie.

Maybe it was the toll put him on during his involvement with The Hobbit trilogy that led to a very ho-hum Crimson Peak because it was the least creative movie he’s ever made (full disclosure – I haven’t seen any of his foreign films). If you’ve seen any of the trailers, you know there are ghosts and as my friend succinctly put it, “you could have interchanged any of the ghosts and nobody would have noticed.” The lack of del Toro’s usual eye-poppingly unique creatures was painfully evident as the humans in the film were asked to carry this film on their back. Granted, they are very capable humans (Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, and Tom Hiddleston, with support from Charlie Hunnam and Jim Beaver), but the lackluster story and screenplay buried them.

First act notwithstanding, the film is a haunted house thriller that del Toro insists is not a horror flick, but a gothic romance. Seriously, look it up (del Toro said as much in interviews). Even though the film features ghosts that look like they are bleeding, it’s really about a romance between Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) and Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) and is set around the turn of the twentieth century in a dark and spooky house in England (mostly), so gothic.

(Side note: I could have a problem with this since the Gothic period was from the 12th century to the 16th century and this movie is a period piece, but I didn’t know del Toro had said that prior to watching the movie. It has no bearing on the movie anyway, the characters “look Goth,” and del Toro might still have been a Hobbit-made puddle, so whatever.)

And you know what – I believe him. Sadly, that’s what makes Crimson Peak so ho-hum. I don’t go into del Toro’s movies looking for romance and I’m guessing neither does anyone else. The romance in question is between Edith and Thomas, much to the chagrin of Edith’s father, Carter (Beaver). Thomas’s sister, Lucille (Chastain), condones it only so far as to get to Edith’s money. Dr. McMichael (Hunnam) has eyes for Edith, but never acts on it and is forced to settle for disapproving looks at Thomas. The first act ends predictably, the movie relocates to the Sharpe estate in England (the Cushings live in Buffalo, NY), and the cast shrinks down to the Sharpes and Edith. The rest of the film is Edith uncovering the truth about the Sharpes and trying not to die, neither of which is particularly interesting.

At this point, you should be wondering two things – (1) what about the ghosts and (2) why is the movie called Crimson Peak? Those are supposed to be the two interesting things, and like the rest of the film, underwhelm. In reverse order, Crimson Peak is a nickname for the hill that the Sharpes’ house is built on, so named because the red clay it is built on stains the snow red during the winter. Incidentally, Thomas marries Edith in part because he needs money to restart his family’s clay mine. Anyway, the ghosts exist solely as a combination of breadcrumbs and oracle to Edith. At first, they appear to be menacing, but, like most of the ghosts in The Haunting, they really just want the heroine to save/avenge them. While they are creepy looking, the only entertainment they provided was my friend wondered why oracles in movies never speak in plain words rather than riddles. Specifically, Edith’s dead mom appears to her early in the film and says “Beware of Crimson Peak.” If her warning was so dire, why not just use the actual name of the Sharpe estate or “Beware of Thomas Sharpe” or “Beware of the crazy bitch playing the piano?”

I’m sure a lot of main stream critics are going to overlook the lackluster, blah nature of the story in order to fawn all over Jessica Chastain, the costumes, and set pieces. They’ll also make sure to tell you that Tom Hiddleston also plays Loki in the Avengers movies because they think you are stupid, blind, and live under a rock. What they don’t realize is that they focused on those things because the movie was that boring. So, if you read any other reviews and they try to convince you that it is a good movie, just remember that they are only right about one thing – it is, in fact, a movie.

Rating: Ask for eight dollars back. The remainder is equal to the percentage of importance costumes and set pieces are to making a movie good.

“Bridge of Spies” – Finally, a decent history lesson.

If there are two people in Hollywood you can depend on delivering a decent-to-great movie, they are Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Yes, Spielberg is responsible for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and, yes, he’s still very, very sorry. But aside from that, you always leave their movies thinking you at least got your money’s worth. Bridge of Spies is no different, but with the added bonus of teaching you something about history that you didn’t know before. This is the complaint I had about Pawn Sacrifice and 42 (among others) – they just rehash the major event(s) you already know about and don’t dig beneath the surface because then America (or its government) might not look so awesome. Conversely, Bridge of Spies almost forgets to show the major event at all.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m referring to the U-2 incident in 1960. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s because American history classes failed you spectacularly. In 1960, an American U-2 reconnaissance (read: spy) plane was shot down over Russia. Its pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), was captured, as were large pieces of the plane, including its cameras. If Bridge of Spies was following the blueprint of those other films, it would have centered on that event and the things leading up to it as well as focusing on whatever quirky character traits Powers may have had. Instead, the film focuses on the lawyer negotiating for his release, Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks). Even better, it gives us a quick overview of the capture of a Russian spy in 1957, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), the initial construction of the Berlin Wall, and the arrest of an American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), in East Germany in 1960. If you knew that any of these other things happened and were tied to the U-2 incident, you are either a Cold War historian/fanatic or you are much older than I am and still have a good memory.

Let me put all of things together for you – Donovan is tasked by his law firm partner (Alan Alda) to provide a defense of Abel in order to show that America cares about law and Abel is given a fair trial. This is immediately trashed by public opinion and the judge presiding over the case as all of them willfully ignore the rule of law because (a) the judge is only interested in protecting his reputation, not the law and (b) hang that commie traitor. One of the more interesting details of the film is that Donovan is constantly correcting people on that term – Abel isn’t a traitor because he’s not a US citizen; he’s just a spy (allegedly). It’s a great character-building moment (among many others) showing that Donovan isn’t interested in politics or racism, he’s just interested in doing his job and defending the constitution. He even goes so far as to explain to the judge how this very concept will allow the USA to take the high road, but the judge just doesn’t care and neither do the ignorant people who think spewing hatred is the equivalent of patriotism.

Incidentally, the first act of the film is filled with this message and is a great allegory to the current Muslim scare we are experiencing today. People have bought into the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) spewed by some in the media and government that every Muslim is evil, just like their parents/grandparents did during the second Red Scare of the 1950’s and ‘60’s (as did their parents/grandparents in the first Red Scare of the 1910’s and ‘20’s). The first act portrays that FUD in a somewhat sanitized way, but gets the message across just the same – that people do despicable things like shoot at houses, give dirty looks, and bad mouth others who have the temerity to act like actual human beings towards those they are supposed to hate. In other words, they act like the very ideological American that those “patriots” claim to be.

(Sorry, that got heavy.)

Anyway, getting back to tying things together, the second act begins with the capture of Powers and Pryor and the CIA asking Donovan to negotiate a prisoner swap – Abel for Powers. As you should have surmised by now, Donovan isn’t the type of guy to leave a man hanging (Pryor), so he works to get both Americans released in exchange for Abel and the rest of the movie commences.

If you’ve seen any of the promos on television for Bridge of Spies, you may have noticed the extreme hyperbole regarding its Oscar-worthiness. If you buy into any of these promos you will almost assuredly be disappointed in the film – it’s a very good film, but not mind-blowing. Hanks gives his usual A-game performance, overshadowing everyone but Rylance, who steals the show in his limited screen time. Also, kudos to the Coen brothers and Matt Charman for a very tight screenplay – I usually don’t like what the Coens put out (O Brother, Where Art Thou? not withstanding), but this one spoke to me in a very good way. A history way.

Rating: Ask for some of your tax dollars back for a history fail in school, but don’t ask for anything back for this film.