Wednesday, August 26, 2015

“No Escape” – Or is there?

About halfway through No Escape, I was ready to walk out of the theater. Up to that point in the film, people were slaughtering other people with no explanation, Pierce Brosnan had vanished from the film, and the plot was nothing more than “Run, Owen, Run!” Basically, we were watching a snuff film with decent casting. The only thing keeping me in my seat was the knowledge that Brosnan had to show up at some point and, despite the seemingly pointless and definitely gratuitous violence, it was the tensest film I’d seen since 2013’s The Call. When Brosnan did finally show back up, the film finally reveals the WHY, as in “why is half the population of Laos (or Cambodia – the film intentionally omits what country this is happening in, but we know it borders Vietnam and it’s definitely not China) trying to kill Owen Wilson and his family” and I couldn’t have been more satisfied.

There’s a book called Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins that I’m pretty sure nobody in the theater had read besides me. The book is Perkins’ account of roughly thirty years working for the NSA as a consulting engineer for a firm called Chas. T. Main. He describes his job as visits to impoverished nations where he would provide inflated economic forecasts in order to convince them to borrow huge sums of money to build infrastructure. Of course, their economies would never grow as predicted, they would default on their loans, and the companies/countries they borrowed the money from would own them. In other words (Perkins’ words), empire building by America and its corporations. I know it sounds a bit conspiratorial – and if you read the book, you can decide for yourself how much you want to believe – but it’s the perfect premise for a movie. When the film is transitioning to the third act, Brosnan explains this very idea to Wilson, though Brosnan’s character is a bit of a mix of Perkins and a lethal spy (Perkins never claims to have any kind of training beyond engineering forecasts).

That’s the entire plot of the film and is more of a political-statement film than a simple thriller that seeks dead Americans. Getting back to the film itself, the most notable thing is the tension that never ratchets down from nail-biting ass-clencher. It’s right there in the title, No Escape – you really don’t know if Wilson’s family is going to survive or if some or all of them (Brosnan as well) are going to die. The movie is one tense scene after another, one close encounter followed by another, all the while dripping/spraying/covered in blood from the numerous brutal murders occurring just steps behind the family.

Perhaps just as notable is the performance put forth by Wilson. In playing a father (Jack) trying to protect his family in a serious thriller, Wilson shows that he is capable of playing more than just a charming doofus, even managing to weave that doofus into the role to slightly ease the tension every now and again. Lake Bell (playing his wife Annie) is just as convincing, as are the two kids playing their daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare as Lucy and Beeze, respectively). As opposed to most movies with families, these people are believable as kin and avoided many of the family clichés that Hollywood loves inserting into movies like this.

Kudos need also go to the writers, John and Drew Dowdle (John doubled as director). I’ve already mentioned the tension, but they also managed to make each character sympathetic, as well as the family as a whole. One scene in particular will stick in your mind – in one of the many places they hide, young Beeze whispers that she needs to pee. Annie and Jack exchange a quick glance of desperation, then Annie tells Beeze to go ahead and pee where she is (had this been a clichéd thriller, the parents would have tried convincing her to hold it until they were safe and Lucy would have teased her somehow). Beeze puts up a mild protest – that she isn’t a baby – and Annie and Jack assure her that it is okay this one time and that they love her. Beeze relents and puts on one of the saddest and pitiful faces you will ever see in a film. That little kid manages to look ashamed and embarrassed at what she is doing and if your heart doesn’t break a little right there (or a lot), you are dead inside.

After the film, the general consensus among my friends was that the movie was a solid B, but they had never heard of the book I mentioned. However, one of them had a much more visceral reaction to the film – he thought it was very good, but it made him a little disgusted at our country (and even more so after I explained the book to him). Regardless as to whether you believe our country does things like that, when a movie can have that kind of effect on a viewer, you know the filmmakers did something right.

Rating: Don’t ask for any of your money back and go read that book.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

“Hitman: Agent 47” – And the summer popcorn season is officially over.

With the wreckage of Fantastic Four still burning brighter than Michael B. Jordan’s CGI flames and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. being ignored in favor of a biopic about three rappers, I can forgive you if you thought the summer popcorn movie season was already over. But as the kids go back to school and you remember how nice silence is, Hitman: Agent 47 is here to remind you that you haven’t mowed the lawn for more than a week. By the time August rolls around, three months of superheroes, gunshots, dinosaurs, terminators, and Adam Sandler’s annual atrocity have left your ears ringing, your eyes blurry, and your lawn a mess. The last thing you want to do is spend another two hours in a dark theater watching a movie in which the phrase “subdermal body-armor” is used more than once. Yes, you should trim the hedges while you’re at it.

Confession time – I am one of the few people who liked 2007’s Hitman. Mostly, it’s because of Timothy Olyphant, but I also thought the story was acceptable and Olga Kurylenko sure was nice to gawk at. But, it’s a classic “Movies for Me” flick – if you told me it was a stupid video game movie with a dumb, convoluted plot, my response would be “Ol-ga Kur-y-len-ko.” Going into Agent 47, I figured the best case scenario would be a Movie for Me and the worst case scenario would be Fantastic Four all over again. In other words, please let the summer popcorn season last just a smidge longer.

(Mild SPOILERS coming, though the previews spoil nearly everything if you watch them.)

For a movie entitled Hitman: Agent 47, you’d think the plot would revolve around the title character, but like Mad Max: Fury Road film, you’d be wrong (though at least Agent 47 actually gets to do some stuff, unlike Mad “I call shotgun” Max). Also like Fury Road, the main character is a woman, Katia (Hannah Ware). Katia is searching for a mysterious man (no points for guessing the man turns out to be her father), but is being hunted herself by Agent 47 (Rupert Friend) and John Smith (Zachary Quinto). After a bunch of killing and some chase scenes, we learn that Smith is working for the Syndicate, a company that also wants to find Katia’s father (Ciaran Hinds) because he is the only person that knows how to make agents (pronounced: Agents) like 47. During all of this, Agent 47 has a contract he must fulfill, which means somebody is going to die, but he also appears to be tasked with keeping the Syndicate from acquiring the Agent secret sauce.

(Note: if you are new to this franchise or the video games they came from, Agents are genetically modified assassins with heightened physical and mental abilities and no emotions. They also have bar codes burned into the back of their heads, are not allowed to grow hair, and may only wear red ties. No, I did not make up any of that.)

Like Hitman, I thought the plot of Agent 47 was adequate. What caught my attention more was that the casting consisted of two people I’d never heard of or seen, Zachary Quinto, that guy that always plays a European villain (Thomas Kretschmann), and Mance Rayder (Hinds) from Game of Thrones. No disrespect to Friend – he did a better than average job, but why wasn’t Olyphant cast again? It’s not like he’s got anything going on right now (not kidding – check out his IMDB page; it looks like he’s got some time now that Justified is done) and Hitman earned $100 million on a $25 million budget. Plus, old guy action stars are in right now, right (to be fair, Olyphant is a young 47)?

Besides the casting, there were a couple of other things that stuck in my head. The first is that Agent 47 isn’t as smart as the movie wants us to believe. A smart person would shoot the bad guy in the head after finding out said bad guy has body armor surgically implanted under his skin. However, even when Agent 47 has Smith on the ground and empties his magazine into Smith, not one bullet goes into Smith’s head. You can guess what happens next. The second thing – and one that is impossible not to raise an eyebrow at – is that Katia has Nicholas Cage’s power from Next. That’s right, she can see the future, but only the next two minutes worth (or at least the next 20 seconds or so). This convenient and unexplained superpower was used generously because why the hell not? This is an August action flick, you’ll take it and like it.

The final thing has no bearing on the film itself, but it’s possible I missed something important (like why Katia could see the future) due to a physical characteristic of Katia demanding all of my attention. Before I go on, I need to remind you that I’m a guy with functioning eyes, so you’ll forgive me for admiring a beautiful woman. There’s a scene in a hotel room where Katia is wearing a white tank top, having just come out of the shower. I don’t know if the room was just cold or they rubbed her down with a bag full of Otter Pops and pointed fans at her, but her nipples were practically bursting through her shirt. I’m really not trying to be crude here, but that’s not why I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t look away because one of her nipples appeared square. Maybe it was a trick of the light or fabric of her shirt, but if there was any dialogue during the scene, I don’t remember it. This same thing happened to me throughout Looper (Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s fake Bruce Willis jaw) and Maleficent (Angelina Jolie’s absurdly pointed cheekbones). Yes, I also get distracted by shiny things and squirrels.

The hardest thing to decide about this movie is where I’m going to put it in my year-end review. I didn’t think there was enough action, but that’s probably because the lulls between action scenes were filled with enough exposition to choke Tyrion Lannister. If you think I’m exaggerating, know that the beginning of the movie is literally a narrator telling us everything we need to know about Agents rather than just showing us the Agent program (FYI – this is lazy screenwriting 101). On the other hand, the action scenes were fairly unique (two words – jet engine) and the three main actors delivered sufficiently believable performances. I wouldn’t say it’s as good as the first Hitman, but it might just be entertaining enough to be a Movie for Me. Of course, maybe I’m just saying that because I’ve got a pretty big lawn threatening to swallow my child.

Rating: Ask for half of your money back and, please, someone find out what’s happened to Olyphant.

Friday, August 7, 2015

“Fantastic Four” – ZZZZZZzzzzzzz……

Here’s a little insight into predicting whether a movie will be good or not – if the production studio (20th Century Fox) puts an embargo on releasing reviews until two days before a movie (Fantastic Four) opens, and does not allow advanced screenings until two days before that same movie opens, it’s a pretty sure bet that the movie is going to be bad. And I don’t mean an entertaining kind of bad; I mean the kind of bad that makes kittens cry. I wouldn’t say the reboot of Fantastic Four is so bad you’d find it playing on the IMAX in hell’s theater (tonight, double-featuring Bridesmaids and After Earth and you have to walk through the uncleaned aisles barefoot to get to your seat), but there are definitely going to be some sniffling felines in your alley Friday on night.

In case you were wondering, “Didn’t they just make Fantastic Four a couple years ago?” the answer is yes, ten years ago (eight years ago for the sequel) and that is most definitely not enough time for people to forget how lousy both of them were (for the record, I liked Rise of the Silver Surfer, but yes, it was lousy). Like Spider-Man, a remake was done not because they thought they could do better, but because they had to do it within a certain number of years since Surfer or lose the movie rights back to Marvel. You’d think eight years would be enough time to write a decent script, especially given that there are 54 years worth of source material to mine from, but you’d be wrong. Really, really, really wrong.

(Note: From here out, the 2015 version will be referred to by title. Also, this movie was as rotten as the bottom of a dumpster, so SPOILERS!)

Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, and Josh Trank are the credited writers of this offense to pens, pencils, and paper, but I’m going to focus on Trank because he doubled as director. You’re probably wondering where you’ve heard his name before, but you should stop trying because you probably haven’t. His only other movie directing/writing credit is for Chronicle (2012), and while it was a very good/successful movie, it wasn’t in theaters all that long (February releases will do that). And, I’m guessing you won’t hear from him again after this movie releases and bombs (and if I’m wrong, the terrorists have won).

In the technical sense of the word – plot – Fantastic Four has one. Five people get super powers, one turns evil, the other four fight him to save the Earth. Unfortunately, that plot takes up roughly ten minutes (which contains 100% of the action scenes) of a ninety minute movie. The other eighty minutes are filled with exposition and some of the worst character development you will ever see (and not just in movies). Incidentally, it might be the shortest superhero movie ever made while simultaneously feeling longer than a three-day cricket test match in Calcutta in August.

You can tell right off the bat that the movie is going to suck because it starts with eleven-year old Reed Richards building a teleporter in his garage after basically being called an idiot by his teacher. Seven years later (it’s now 2014 in the film) and eighteen-year old Reed (Miles Teller) has improved the design and is showing it off at his high school’s science fair. For contrivance’s sake, Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his eighteen-year old adopted daughter, Sue (Kate Mara) – who just happen to be working on a government-sponsored, industrial-size version of the same device – chat with Miles and offer him a scholarship to the Baxter Institute to help them finish the device. As it turns out, Franklin runs the project, primarily employing teenage geniuses. This is where the movie obliterates your sense of disbelief because (a) why must they be teenagers and not just twenty-somethings? and (b) Teller is twenty-eight and Mara is thirty-two. I know casting choices do that all the time, but it’s impossible to believe Mara as a teenager after watching her get naked with Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.

The writing gets worse as the machine turns out to be a teleporter to a planet in another dimension rather than to somewhere else on Earth. Enter THE BIG, BAD GOVERNMENT and BIG, BAD BUSINESS EXECUTIVE (Tim Blake Nelson) who want to exploit Planet Zero (oh my god, is that really the best name Trank could come up with?!) for its resources (at least they don’t refer to them as Unobtanium). Reed, Sue’s brother, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) decide to take a secret trip after being told they couldn’t, bringing along Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) because, why not?

(Note: The project is government-backed and almost assuredly classified, yet Ben is allowed to waltz into the facility and laboratories because “he’s with Reed.” I’ve seen better security at a Starbucks.)

While on Zero, Victor stirs up a green energy cloud, it chases them, Victor falls in, and the rest barely escape, though all are mutated, including Sue, who was trying to bring them back to Earth. Keep in mind, this all happens around the one hour mark of the film. At this point, the movie shows us their powers, Reed wakes up and escapes the secret facility they were transferred to (Area 57, in another fit of creativity), but is captured a year later, rendering the seven minutes in between completely pointless. With the exception of Ben, Sue and Johnny aren’t even mad at him for leaving, and Ben gets over it quickly. Plus, Reed literally does nothing during that year except globe trot, so why bother having him leave at all?

The film winds down with the machine being rebuilt and an expedition bringing Victor back to Earth, where he immediately starts killing people. Victor goes back to Zero, opens a new portal to Earth, and starts sucking the matter from Earth to convert to energy on Zero. Why does Victor do this? I swear to you I’m not making this up – because humans are destroying the Earth and don’t deserve it, so he’s just going to destroy it all the way. I told you this was shitty writing.

The sad thing is just about anything would be better than what Trank and team shat out as their screenplay. First, they should have ditched the terrible opening with the children and just started with the team in the lab as actual grown-ups who have been of legal drinking age for more than a year (and give Ben an honest reason to be there for chrissakes). After the accident, it would have been more interesting to keep the four of them together, have them learn their powers and be used by the government as a tool, but have them all become resentful of being exploited. Then, in the climax, have them go on their final mission when something goes awry and Victor leaves the group. Wrap it up; end of movie. No big showdown between Victor and the others – that’s for another movie. FYI – it took me roughly three minutes to come up with that; they had EIGHT years.

Now, I want to go back to how poorly developed the characters were. In eighty minutes, we learn that Reed is really smart. Ben is not. Johnny is black and races crappy cars. Sue is white and does not race crappy cars (she also recognizes patterns; ooooooh). And Victor started the project as a child (apparently, only children are capable of inventing trans-dimensional wormhole machines) and gets mad at Reed for having a laugh with Sue. That’s it. No development of a relationship between Sue and Reed, an extremely weak relationship between Reed and Ben, and definitely no chemistry between any of them, especially between Sue and Johnny who are supposed to be siblings. Forget about the fact that she is white and he is black (a certain radio personality in Atlanta couldn’t); I’ve seen jurors act more familiar with each other than these two characters.

It should be obvious now that I thought this movie was full-on crap. Even with the red flags of the review embargos and eleventh hour screenings providing ample warning, going into the film my main thought was that it shouldn’t be too hard to improve upon the 2005 version; that it would at least be entertaining. I just didn’t think it would be possible to make a Fantastic Four movie with less action than Sister Act. But I was wrong. Really, really, really wrong.

Rating: The one thing I’m sure I’m not wrong about is that you should definitely ask for all of your money back and hope that Trank is never allowed near a summer blockbuster again.

Friday, July 31, 2015

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” – Hanging by his fingernails.

Four years ago, at age 49, Tom Cruise wanted to prove to everybody that he still had “it” by hanging off the side of the 2717 foot tall Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. We’re not really sure what “it” is, but Cruise will be damned if he’ll let anyone believe he lost “it.” Now, at age 53, he’s at “it” again, this time hanging off the side of a cargo plane while that plane is taking off and flying in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. When normal people go through mid-life crises, they buy sports cars or bang their yoga instructors. Apparently, Tom Cruise hangs off of stuff.

Rogue Nation is the fifth entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise and neither it nor Cruise show any signs of stopping. Much like the Fast and Furious franchise, MI seems to have figured out its formula in the fourth installment and built on that success in the fifth. For MI, the key to success isn’t its main character, Ethan Hunt (Cruise), but a sense of humor and good action. The first three movies featured exactly one bit of comedy – Emilio Estevez. Yeah, you forgot he was even in the first movie, didn’t you? Anyway, the franchise was taking itself way too seriously and who better to break the rut than Simon Pegg? Pegg (as well as much different writing) has made the series feel fresh and more fun – which isn’t a surprise because he was instrumental in doing the same thing for the Star Trek reboot (and sequel). I’m not saying I don’t like serious action flicks, but the ones that blend comedy and action almost always end up more entertaining. In a nutshell, that’s Rogue Nation.

As much as I enjoyed Rogue Nation, I left the theater with one question – what does the title even mean? Like Ghost Protocol, it’s pretty much a nonsense term that the movie has to literally say out loud in a sentence so the audience knows what it means. Rogue Nation is what the CIA and its director, Hunley (Alec Baldwin) refer to the bad guys’ organization as. Don’t ask; just go with it. The plot of the film is exactly what you think it is – the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) has to stop the bad guy from achieving his goal and must do something “impossible.” As fresh as the film feels, the impossible mission is the same as it always is – they have to break into an impenetrable facility in order to steal a data file and Tom Cruise is going to perform another crazy stunt in addition to hanging off of an airplane. I won’t spoil this part of the movie for you, but I will tell you that Tom Cruise holds his breath for six minutes.

Besides Cruise and Pegg, Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames reprised their roles as IMF agents. Strangely, Renner was not given any action scenes; relegated to CIA duty (once again, the IMF is being disbanded – I guess this movie really isn’t that fresh) which entailed standing in operational control rooms and silently signaling his men with facial expressions. Considering how good he was at the action scenes in the last film (as well as The Bourne Legacy), it’s easy to understand why he seemed a little bored during much of the film (his apparent boredom led him to deliver his lines by over-enunciating every word). On the other hand, Baldwin was seemingly overjoyed to be back in an action movie and was anything but bored, delivering a performance that is best described as zealous.

In addition to Baldwin, the other two new actors are Rebecca Ferguson as ally and/or enemy, Ilsa Faust, and Sean Harris as the evil villain and/or…no…he’s definitely the villain. And, what a villain he is. Not only is he very creepy looking, his delivery and performance drips with villainy. As spy movie evil villains go, he’s easily as good (bad) as Javier Bardem in Skyfall and definitely the most memorable (sorry Jon Voight) of the MI flicks. I won’t say any more than that, but he is worth the price of admission. Ferguson is also a refreshing addition and is just as good at the fight/action scenes as anyone (including Renner - maybe she got his action scenes after beating him in a fight).

You may have noticed I didn’t say much about Cruise, but after hearing he hung off an airplane and held his breath for six minutes, is there anything I could tell you that’s even half as interesting? I know I poked fun at him for it, but I actually am quite impressed that he’s willing to do stuff like that. I may not agree with his personal opinions, but there’s no denying that the man almost always does good/great movies. But, as far as mid-life crises go, I do think he might want to consider just buying a Corvette next time.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and stay away from my Pilates instructor.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

“Vacation” – Not your grandfather’s Vacation.

If you like reading reviews, you’re going to read a lot of them saying how bad or depressing the new Vacation is. Don’t believe them for a moment. They are the stodgy old people who hate the designated hitter, think Matlock will never be topped, and don’t understand what all the fuss is about Twitter. These people will reminisce about “the good ol’ days” and tell you how nothing could possibly be as good as a movie written by John Hughes starring Chevy Chase. Well, they’re wrong. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the original Vacation, but the only thing I can remember about it is Clark Griswold (Chase) forcing John Candy at gun point to let his family into Walley World. And, I’ve seen it more than once so it couldn’t have been that great if I can barely remember it. And if you think that’s just me being forgetful, I remember everything from Caddyshack and it’s three years older than the first Vacation. In other words, this new Vacation is just as good as the original and stodgy critics hate fun.

(Note: The new Vacation is notably missing the National Lampoon moniker, so I will refer to the original as NLV for the rest of review, partly because the stodgers hate anything that looks like texting speech.)

The first argument that everyone has already had about Vacation is whether it’s a sequel or a remake. The answer is that it’s both – it’s a requel (thanks to a commenter for that one). Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) – Clark’s son – is all grown up, with a family of us his own and wants to take his family on a road trip to Walley World. See what they did there? If you want to know what gags they retread, well…I already told you I barely remember NLV, so unless Rusty takes a hostage in order to gain admission to Walley World, all of the jokes will be new to me (SPOILER – he doesn’t).

To be fair to those stodgers, I had my reservations going in. I believe my exact words were “(Sigh) I guess I’ll check it out (Sigh).” However, during the trailer, there’s a scene in which Rusty’s two sons are sitting at the kitchen table and the older son, James (Skyler Gisondo), says to a girl “are you enjoying school?” The younger son, Kevin (Steele Stebbins) repeats the line in a mocking voice, then says “that’s what you sound like. Shut up!” It made me laugh during the trailer and it gave me just enough hope that I stayed cautiously optimistic. Much to my delight, not only did I laugh just as much at the “shut up” joke during the film, but I found myself (and the audience) laughing throughout the entire movie.

It’s rare that a comedy can keep up the laughs for the duration of the film. Most of them fizzle out after the second act because they sacrifice the comedy to bring the plot to a semi-serious close. Think about every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen and try to think of any jokes during the last half hour of the film. Even some straight comedies think their stories need to have some gravity and end up delivering sappy, bullshit endings for stories that weren’t very good to begin with. Vacation toes the line – the entire vacation is Rusty’s attempt at bringing his family closer and rekindling the flame with his wife – but it never forgets that the reason people paid to see it is for the jokes. And jokes there are a plenty.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil any of the jokes (the trailer does that plenty enough). Like I said, that’s why you’re there. For me, the jokes all seemed fresh (a quick look at the wiki page for NLV revealed that they did indeed retread some) and only a couple of them made me cringe. There’s an especially awkward minute early on involving Rusty competing with his neighbor’s show of affection towards his child. It reminded me of the competing maid of honor speeches in Bridesmaids – the joke goes on for far too long and is never funny at any point. But aside from that, Helms was funny, Christina Applegate (Rusty’s wife) was funnier, and the two kids were downright hilarious. And if that’s not enough for you, Chris Hemsworth plays a small role and delivers the best gag (a sight gag you can’t unsee) of the entire film.

Yes, NLV was funny in its day and still makes us laugh, but thirty years have gone by and comedy evolves just like any other genre. Vacation is a great entry in the series and anyone who says otherwise has probably yelled at more than one person to get off their lawn.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and try not to hurt yourself laughing.

Friday, July 24, 2015

“Pixels” – Movies for me and other nerds.

As I write this review, the approval rating for Pixels on Rotten Tomatoes is dropping before my very eyes. It currently sits at 13% (down from 17% last night) and all I can do is feel sorry for the 87% of critics who are dead inside. Yes, it’s an Adam Sandler movie, and almost all Sandler movies are about as fun as rectal exams, but Pixels isn’t like other Sandler movies – it’s about classic arcade games brought to life. Don’t get me wrong, Pixels follows the same basic formula and includes many of the same (often dumb) elements as his other films, but in Pixels, Sandler isn’t the main focus like he is in all his other movies (despite writer Tim Herlihy’s best efforts), the video games are. Like I said, you really have to be dead inside not to have at least a little fun watching Pixels.

(There are SPOILERS coming, though really the only SPOILERS are which games show up when. Considering the trailers, it’s almost impossible for me to spoil it more.)

The film begins in 1982 with the child versions of the four gamers that are our main characters at an arcade game tournament. Sam (Sandler) faces off against Eddie (Peter Dinklage) for the championship, while Sam’s best friend, Will (Kevin James), and Sam’s new friend, Ludlow (Josh Gad), cheer him on. Sam loses and grows up to be an electronics installer (think Best Buy Geek Squad) because that’s what happens to video game losers in lazily written scripts featuring Sandler. Conversely, Will grows up to become the President of the United States, even though he is terrible at video games and can barely read (I wish I was making that up). Because making an illiterate tub of fat the King of the World would be absurd.

The writing gets worse with regards to Sam and Will’s difficult-to-swallow relationship, as President Will spends an inordinate amount of time with Sam while simultaneously telling Sam that his wife is complaining that Will doesn’t spend any time with her. Sam is even on a first-name basis with White House guards and Secret Service agents so as to set up a metaphorical dick measuring contest with the female Lt. Colonel Violet Van Patten (Michelle Moynihan). I could go on, but the point is that much of the lazy script is devoted to setting up cheap jokes that are a staple of Sandler comedies without said jokes being relevant to the plot (or even the premise).

Speaking of lazy writing, Van Patten may be one of the worst characters ever written and not just in movies. I’ve met a few Lt. Colonels in real life, and not one of them would ever be found drinking wine and crying in a closet (because her husband cheated on her) while a strange man installed a television in her living room. And that’s how we meet her. You have to give credit to Moynihan for even taking such a thankless role, especially knowing Violet would be the standard love interest of Sandler’s character and, therefore, being no more than a pair of talking breasts.

Anyway, the film gets to the point when aliens attack a military base. Will calls Sam to have him look at footage of the attack and Sam concludes that they were attacked by Galaga. Naturally, nobody believes him (including a ridiculously hammy Brian Cox playing a General). Soon, the aliens attack again (this time, the Taj Mahal) in the form of Space Invaders. Meanwhile, in one of the very few clever moments of the film, the aliens send them a video message in the form of Ronald Reagan telling them that they received the humans’ declaration of war (a video containing footage of the 1982 arcade tournament). Additionally, the aliens set out the rules of the game (clever moment number 2) – the first to win three battles wins the other race’s planet (or gets to destroy it). This sets up the rest of the film’s scenes – Pacman, Donkey Kong, and Centipede – and the extremely predictable ending.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s hard to overemphasize how truly lazy the writing was. To begin with, Sean Bean makes a cameo as a British military commander, but doesn’t die. How do you fuck that one up? (Screenwriting 101: Sean Bean Always Dies.) Then there’s the matter of some of the games literally just being projected into the sky (like Centipede) or in spaceships. Pacman was built into the streets of New York and its ghosts played by our gamers in different colored Mini Coopers; why weren’t the other games incorporated into the environment? Is Herlihy really so creatively bankrupt? Did it not occur to anyone to survey a group a fifth graders for ideas? Am I asking rhetorical questions?

The laziness gets worse in the form of 80’s homages we get throughout the movie that shouldn’t have been there. They tell us the video the aliens received was from 1982, so why did we see Max Headroom (1984), Where’s the Beef? (1984), and the Duck Hunt dog (1984) (among others)? We even see a kid donning Daniel Larusso’s headband and performing a crane kick at the ’82 tournament even though The Karate Kid came out in 1984. Apparently, Herlihy forgot what year he wrote for the tournament and Happy Madison Productions doesn’t employ fact checkers or researchers or editors. Or people older than 30.

But to top it all off, Herlihy literally invented a video game called Dojo Quest, featuring a scantily clad Ashley Bensen, solely so Gad can make out with her. Because if there’s anything we can rely on in Sandler movies (especially those written by Herlihy – seriously, check out his writing credits), it’s that dumb fat guys, or losers, or dumb fat losers always get to kiss hot women.

Despite everything I just said about this film, I actually did have fun watching it. Not because of Sandler or James, but because of Gad, Dinklage, and nostalgia. While Dinklage’s character was nearly as hammed up as Cox’s General, there are times at which his smarm made me laugh out loud, bad Cajun(?) accent notwithstanding. Gad was even funnier and was probably the reason most people were laughing in this movie. But the real reason I liked it is because the film brought to life games I loved as a kid without taking a total dump on them (excusing Q*Bert peeing himself, that is. That was awful). When it comes to an Adam Sandler flick, I think that’s all you can really hope for.

Rating: Ask for all but two dollars back. This movie is the very definition of what I call Movies for Me. *I* would pay for it, but you probably shouldn’t.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

“Ant-Man” – This is just getting ridiculous.

There’s a scene in Dogma where Selma Hayek is explaining that nineteen of the top twenty grossing movies were inspired by a muse (her) and the twentieth was because someone sold their soul to the devil. With the amount of success Marvel is having with their films, either they’ve got an army of stripper muses at their headquarters or Satan’s going to need to a new wing at Infernal Studios for all those newly acquired souls.

I remember going into Guardians of the Galaxy with very guarded expectations. I didn’t think there was any chance a movie with such a ridiculous ensemble cast and a trailer with no plot hints whatsoever could possibly be as entertaining as it turned out to be. You’d think I would have learned my lesson after that, but I found myself with the exact same mindset going into Ant-Man. Could you blame me though? They cast Paul Rudd (really) as the lead/superhero in a movie that was seeming dangerously close to being a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids sequel. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, Ant-Man has a pet ant (actually lots of them) that the hero rides. You’re nodding now aren’t you?

As you may have guessed by now, I enjoyed the hell out of Ant-Man. I actually do like Paul Rudd, so I was looking forward to seeing if he could pull off being Ant-Man. The film begins, not with Rudd (Scott Lang), but with a scene from years past showing us a CGI’d Michael Douglas (Dr. Hank Pym) storming out of a meeting with Howard Stark and Agent Carter because Pym didn’t want them abusing his shrinking particle and Marvel wanted to make sure we understood this movie fits into the same universe as the Avengers. Fast forward to present day and we meet Scott Lang (Rudd), a thief being released from prison. We quickly get his background story – divorced dad with a young daughter – then meet his friends (including Michael Pena, who almost steals the entire movie with his brilliance) who want him to pull another burglary with them. As it turns out, they are robbing Pym’s house, which Pym orchestrated in order to convince Lang to become Ant-Man.

Meanwhile, Pym’s old protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), has nearly duplicated Pym’s work and Pym wants to stop him before he can sell it to the bad guys (no points if you guessed Hydra as the bad guys). Pym thinks Lang is the perfect person to steal Cross’ super-suit (the Yellowjacket) because of his burglary skills. That’s it; that’s the plot. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the plot is simple and straight-forward, it presents a clear goal, and does a good job developing its main characters so that you care what happens to them. They even toss in a good confrontation and clichéd romance in the form of Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who wants to don the ant-man suit herself (and makes a very convincing case as to why). The rest of the film is just Marvel doing what it does best – action mixed with comedy mixed with fun.

I wish I had more to say, but I’m not sure there is anything left to say when it comes to Marvel’s movies (the ones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that is). Ant-Man has erased the bland aftertaste from Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Terminator: Genisys and is easily as entertaining as The Avengers: Age of Ultron. The only real question left is if they can save some of their other properties from being destroyed. Spider-Man is on its third Spider-Man and the trailer for the reboot of The Fantastic Four made me think the 2005 Fantastic Four wasn’t all that bad (it really was). I’m sure there’s someone left over there with a soul to sell.

Rating: Worth as much as those three previous reboots I mentioned – combined.