Saturday, August 29, 2015

Summer Movie Season: It's a Fun Movie

Hang on!

I’ve had this theory for a while about television. If you look at some of the best television series right now, they’re surviving by becoming essentially like movies. Yes, they are episodic but there isn’t a reliance on needing to cover 22 unique episodes that will play really well in syndication. Think Breaking Bad or Daredevil. You can easily point to any of those shows and they have great episodes, but the narrative story is set up more like a movie, one that makes sense as they feed into each other to tell an overarching story. (One could argue that Deep Space Nine did this years ago.)

Conversely, movies are becoming more like television. Some of them are, anyway. Getting Chris Evans or Robert Downy Jr, to show up on your television show may not always work, tell Chris, “Hey, do your own movie, then show up as a supporting player in this one for a bit” thus sort of providing different episodes of an overall Avengers franchise. 

Then one could argue that Mission Impossible has been doing this for years. Each sequel is almost a new movie unto itself, only carrying a few of the characters into brand new situations and a brand new feeling. (Even the whole plot of Ethan being married was only briefly mentioned when it had to be, and then it was quickly removed.)

This incarnation of Mission Impossible (Rogue Nation, since the numbers were dropped around the time they realized that brought in more money) once again stars Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt who is once again on the run when once again the Impossible Mission Force is once again compromised and once again shut down. Apparently there’s some evil organization who does what they do but for evil, and the British Government is involved. There’s a lot of moving parts. You don’t really care about this, what you care about are the explosions as mixed with the stunts, which is awesome.

Oh, and there’s a subplot where Alec Baldwin (CIA Director Hunley)  and IMF Agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner) are off on the side doing office stuff, because when you have one of the world’s most up and coming action stars, you want to stick him in a suit and have him sit in an office while Tom Cruise Runs around. Ving Rhames is back as tech dude Luther, and Simon Pegg is showing off his serious acting jobs after his rant against frivolous movies in the returning role as Benji. Rebecca Ferguson joins the cast as Ilsa Faust, who’s loyalties keep you guessing until the end.

Look, no one is going to be clutching an Oscar, thanking the entire cast and crew for their work on Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The movie does what it’s supposed to do: it’s pretty entertaining. The movie starts with the well shown stunt of Ethan Hunt hanging onto the side of an airplane as it takes off. There’s cool car chases, great one liners, and a scene where they have to switch computer files in a tank of water that literally had me holding my breath. 

To me, this is one of the reminders of why I enjoy summer movies so much. It’s just a fun movie, one that’s not too concerned about itself, one that doesn’t spend a lot of time brooding, weighing consequences, or taking subtle digs at other movie franchises. (I’m looking at you, Avengers. It’s real easy to save everyone when you’ve got like, 12 people that can fly.)

It’s just a fun movie. That’s the best thing that can be said about it. It really doesn’t need further praise than that.

Nine out of Ten

Friday, August 28, 2015

Summer Movie Season: It's No Rocky...

Is there any other sport that has been built for the screen better than boxing? Maybe Baseball. And Football. And let’s not forget Space-Basketball, best encapsulated by the wonderful documentary, Space Jam. I guess the bottom line is that sports can make good movies. But Boxing seems to stand tall among them. Perhaps it’s the storytelling involved with a good boxing match. Maybe it’s all our conditioning from the various Rocky movies. (There’s another one coming out this Fall, starring the same guy that played the Human Torch. Presumably he won’t be on fire, nor will he be in a horrible movie.)

Such is the case with Southpaw, the latest boxing drama to tell the story of downfall and then eventually, redemption.

Oh, and if you’re worried that this is a spoiler “there will be redemption” let’s be real for a few minutes. It has redemption. You know there’s going to be redemption from the trailers. Even the “sad ending” movies feature redemption, or lessons about going the distance. Let’s be reasonable. 

The movie is about Billy Hope (played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who at this point really might be a shapeshifter. Seriously. Look at the way he melds into each role, including this one) who is on top of his game. He’s the Light Heavyweight Champion, he’s got a beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams), a daughter (Oona Laurence, asked to carry a lot of the movie), a mansion, a bunch of hangers on... He’s got it all. Naturally, he has to fall, because there’s only so much time that can be spent in a movie where someone has it all. Even Tony Stark is kind of insufferable until he loses his heart. Although in that case it’s sort of literal. But you know what I mean.

During a charity event, he’s challenged by an up and coming plot device jerk who stirs things up during a charity event, because why not? Don’t worry, Miguel “Magic” Escobar won’t pop up again until things are needed narratively. During the fight, though, Hope’s wife is killed. Not really a spoiler as it was mentioned in the trailers, and not really a spoiler so much as “part of the plot.” This leads Hope to depression, alcoholism, suspension from boxing, and the loss of literally everything including his daughter who is not only in the foster care system, but growing emotionally distant from him as well.

All is lost!

The problem with Southpaw is what I just managed to write there... that’s the setup. We’re show all of this in glorious detail, learning all about how Hope has a wonderful life that’s taken away, and if you forget it, the movie hammers in it during several scenes that pretty much could be part of the backstory. The far more interesting part is watching Billy get back on his feet again: learning to be an adult, working at the old gym under Titus Wills (Forest Whitaker) who should have entered holding a cane wearing a robe and speaking like Fozzie Bear, because he’s very obviously the Yoda character. But by the time we get to these scenes we’ve already witnessed a lot of Hope’s self destruction. He’s stopped caring (in fact it’s only when he loses his daughter than he starts caring) but it’s difficult to really care about this character. 

The redemption is what gets the short end of the stick, with Hope obviously rejecting the offer to clean up the gym - he has his pride - but crawling back when he doesn’t have a choice. This is the in the span of a few minutes, where we’ve just witnessed an hour in of Hope’s destruction in excruciating detail. It sort of makes you wonder what the movie is trying to be about: Hope’s redemption or Hope’s suffering?

And that’s a shame, because the second half of this movie, the one that focuses on him as he rises up from working in a tiny gym and fighting in charity fights back to competing for the championship, is really interesting. But we’re relegated to just a few shots of him training, bonding with the teenager that will die and motivate him, and eventually we are literally back where we start - Hope boxing in the big time, narrative built around the man who was involved in the altercation that resulted in the death of a woman but didn’t really suffer for it at all. 

The actors are really the good sell with this movie, particularly Gyllenhaal and McAdams, who are pretty convincing as a husband and wife who have known each other most of their lives. Even 50 Cent shows up as Hope’s manager, a sleazy character that probably needs just a little more screen time to develop as someone who is riding the Hope train long enough. Really i could have used more of 50 Cent, as he holds together a lot of the narrative theme of the movie, particularly helping Hope overcome his suspension by doing what he does, capitalizing. 

Overall, not a bad movie by any means. Just one that doesn’t live up to the potential set up in it’s second half. 

Seven out of Ten

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Summer Movie Season: How I Met David Foster Wallace

Biopics and true stories aren’t easy to pull off. Ultimately, some pieces end up missing, rearranged, or heroic characters end up being made cowardly villains who shoot at people trying to leave a sinking ship. (Thanks, James Cameron) So I always go into them with this in mind, trying to remind myself that what I’m seeing is an interpretation of a writer’s idea of what’s going on. In the end, all Biopics and True Stories and Memoirs and Autobiographies do have a sense of fiction in them. 

I’m still not sure what to think of The End of the Tour, chronicling the conversations between David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg, decidely not playing a stoner spy) and David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segel, who should probably start getting together his acceptance speeches for awards this season.) 

Based on David Lipsky’s book, Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the movie focuses on the conversations that the pair had as David  Foster Wallace was wrapping up his very first book tour following Infinite Jest. I’m not sure if anyone reading this has attempted Infinite Jest, but it’s not at easy read. 

I’ve just described the movie twice and not really gotten beyond one sentence. That’s because on the surface, not much “happens” in this book. No Sharksplosions. No rapid gunfire. No epic love stories or quests or I’d even say grand revelations into either character. Lipsky comes across as a bit self-centered in the story, very much as our point of view character. Our first view of him is how he reacts to the news of Wallace’s death, and how it prompted him to pull out the tapes to write his own novel. Then it flashes back to his story: he gets a job at Rolling Stone and pitches the idea of doing a profile on this writer. Ron Livingston, perhaps apologizing for subjecting everyone to his role in Vacation earlier this summer, pops up to get angry that Lipsky isn’t working hard enough to find out the rumors of Wallace’s drug use. 

This plot point doesn’t get much air time. It’s mentioned twice, and there’s no real mention of why it’s important. Wallace was a relatively unknown writer until Infinite Jest made him sort of a literary rock star, back before we started making some writers literary rock stars so long as they have access to a publicist and the ability to turn their books into movies. So, finding out that this relatively unknown writer who was just now becoming famous used drugs doesn’t seem like much of a point to keep coming back to. 

But I have to say it was a good movie. I use that in one of the loosest terms possible. It’s the kind of movie that stuck with me, and is just sort of sitting in the back of my mind, even as I watch other movies with the aforementioned Sharksplosions and the man who is impervious to bullets because he has mastered the power of the high kick. The view of Wallace we get is unwaveringly Lipsky’s which is important. A lot of the point of the movie is that there are different ways we present ourselves, and we have to think about how we do that. Wallace was an interesting figure, who’s life was cut way too short. 

There are a lot of thought pieces right now about how he would have liked this particular biography. The thing is, this is exactly what he would have wanted, I think. We’re not getting this as Lipsky saying everything was 100% accurate. What we’re getting is Lipsky’s interpretation of the character of David Foster Wallace, and that’s all the more important. 

I’ve used this blog as a way of trying to figure out what I want to say before. I guess in some ways I’m still doing that a little bit: trying to figure out exactly what I want to say about this movie. It’s easy with a good movie or a bad movie. It’s difficult with a mediocre movie, but it’s not impossible. In this case, it’s just sort of... there. It’s one of two movies that I’ve seen this movie that I think I loved, but it’s hard to put into words. The only thing I really can say is to do what the movie asks you to do, and go see it. It’s an honest portrayal that doesn’t really spare anyone, and will have you wondering as you leave the theater. 

Rating: Go see it out of 10.

Summer Movie Season: The Bourne Lebowski

I don’t know that we would all like to be super-spies. It sounds like a dreadfully stressful job. The world is constantly in need of saving, right after you’ve saved it again. You’re always being betrayed. I mean, in reality I’d think that Ethan Hunt in the Mission Impossible movies would realistically be sitting in his shower screaming “why” the next time he’s betrayed and IMF is shut down. But we’re fascinated by it. And we seem to be fascinated with the idea that spy training becomes so implanted in people that it just takes a simple flip of the switch to turn them into killing machines, even if they somehow lose their memories. The most famous of this is the Bourne Series, which turned Matt Damon into a super spy who didn’t remember this name, but remembered exactly where to punch a guy to make his head explode. 

American Ultra plays with this idea and adds a dash of The Big Lebowski and Pineapple Express, because we could use more of both of those movies. 

Jesse Eisenberg is Mike Howell, a stoner living in a tiny town in West Virginia. He spends most of his days smoking pot, hanging out with his girlfriend Phoebe, (Kristen Stewart) and suffering crippling panic attacks whenever he tries to leave the city. Little does he know that he’s a secret agent, part of a program that was designed to create a super-soldier for reasons that are never explained or expanded upon. The program failed. For reasons that are never explained or expanded on. Littlier does he know that he’s been targeted to be killed by CIA Agent/Professional Jerk Yates (Professional jerk actor Topher Grace), who started another program to create super soldiers, because you can never have enough super soliders, I guess, and he’s activated by his original handler Lassiter (Connie Britton, looking like she’s unsure of what kind of movie she’s signed on for.) Obviously, hijinks ensue. Deadly, deadly hijinks.

Now, this sounds like a funny premise for a movie. Stoner slacker finds out that he’s a super-spy and has to save whatever. The problem is that the movie itself is unsure of what to do with it’s presence. (Spoilers to follow.) 

The movie wastes little time not just setting up its premise, but by also letting us know that there’s an internal war in the CIA between Yates and Lassiter. These are some of the first scenes we see. In fact, our opening shot is Mike sitting in a holding cell, having just finished the events of the movie, and we flash back to what happens. Immediately it destroys any sense of comedy or mystery because it says: he’s been trained as a spy!

That’s not to mention the whole Yates/Lassiter war, which, like I said, is established in the first few minutes of the movie. But the problem is that rather than focusing on why these two characters hate each other, we just kind of get that they do. I mean, it’s kind of obvious why anyone would dislike Grace’s Yates, an obnoxious bootlicker who will murder anyone - including a harmless slacker in West Virginia) - to get ahead. It’s also unclear as to why there was even ever a second killer spy program, as we only got that Howell’s training had gone badly and he was the only one to survive, but it was killing him as well. 

It’s frustrating. I think that’s the best word for it.

Then there’s Mike Howell, who should be the focus of the movie. He spends a lot of time not really being the focus of his own movie, with a lot of stuff happening around him and he having to reacting. This works when it’s done well, like the Big Lebowski. The protagonist in that movie is very much reacting to the world around him, a world that increasingly has nothing to do with him. However, Mike seems to be vacationing in his own movie until the time comes that he has to act to save his girlfriend. 

And yes, his girlfriend. The big twist, hinted at pretty early on in the movie, is that Phoebe is… a spy. She’s actually Mike’s handler, who fell in love with Mike, and took him to West Virginia. Yates makes a comment about how she disappeared, despite the fact that literally everyone knows where Mike is. That’s the point of the movie. Everyone is going in to kill Mike. For reasons. And she does take action, eventually. But the whole point is almost tacked on as if they were halfway through the movie and someone noticed that she had been around way too long to not know something was up with Mike’s super-killer moves. 

The real problem with this movie is that no one really knows what type of movie it is trying to be. It tries it’s hand at being a lot of things… an irreverent movie, a comedy, a serious drama… and it just doesn't work. Too much time is spent setting up a comedic moment for it to quickly turn dark. It’s difficult to laugh at the cover story for why the military is mobilizing in this tiny town - Lassiter has had sex with a monkey and unleashed a virus - when the Sheriff is shot in cold blood. 

The problem is that it’s not an overtly bad movie, because it is at least trying to do these things even if it fails. And it adds a level of darkness to the movie that doesn’t need to exist. Suddenly the slacker isn’t smoking pot to get high, he’s smoking to forget his horrible, horrible, past. Yates is dispatched in an execution type manner in the rain that shows up for one scene. Those crippling panic attacks were programmed into him so he wouldn’t leave town. It just becomes way too dark.

It doesn’t try to sleepwalk through the plot like SOME horrible movies. (I’m looking at you, Fantastic Four.) The problem is in trying to do something new, it ends up doing anything exciting at all. It just sort of is. 

Six out of Ten

Monday, August 24, 2015

Summer Movie Season: The Man from U.N.C.L.E

The spy genre has had an interesting year. The most compelling spy so far has been Colin Firth in the excellent Kingsman: The Secret Service which expertly dissected the spy movie genre. Melissa McCarthy played her Jason Statham-iest role yet in the aptly named Spy which wasn’t quite the dissection but more of a straight “what if Melissa McCarthy was Jason Statham” type comedy. And the world is once again gearing up for James Bond to go darker in SPECTRE, starring the gloomiest of Bonds since Roger Moore put on that clown makeup. Now, we have a reboot of an old T.V. Franchise is The Man From U.N.C.L.E, a spy movie that was directed by an extremely restrained Guy Ritchie. 

U.N.C.L.E stars once and future Superman Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo, which is totally a name. He’s a con artist who was arrested for being a the world’s best con artist, and since it’s a movie based on a T.V. Show he is pressured into becoming the world’s best CIA Agent, because that’s totally a thing that happens in movies. In 1963, he has to team up with KGB Agent Illya Kuryakin, played by Arnie Hammer to help stop Nazis or an evil heiress that slightly looked like Paris Hilton or something from getting some nuclear launch capabilities. To be honest, the plot is pretty straight forward. Bad guys want X. Mismatched good guys want to stop bad guys from getting X. Can they ever pull together to stop it? Along the way they pick up Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) who’s father is building the secret Nazi Bomb and who’s Uncle (I see what they did there) knows where they are. 

Let’s start with the good, because there’s a lot of good in this movie. First, Guy Ritchie, as much as I’ve enjoyed his other films like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and Snatch, pulls back from his usual frenetic style while not compromising on his vision. Yes, it’s great that one of his movies is in English but requires subtitles to understand, but this is not that movie. there are still some great cuts, and especially later in the film when Gaby, Solo, and Kuryakin are all trying to deal with their various shifting loyalties, he is quick to move to a flashback or a to re-show a scene that adds something new. For instance, Solo, needing an invitation to the swanky party thrown by the sexy bad guy, steals it from Hugh Grant’s character. It’s a quick scene, shot conventionally like we’ve seen a million times before: guy runs into character and magically, through the power of pickpocketing, manages to grab his ticket. Later, Hugh Grant, who we learn is an agent in his own right, tells the story of running into Solo, and the shot is shown again this time a little less slick and with it being very clear that Solo grabbed invitation, even waving it around at some point. The movie is full of little details like that.

I should also point out that there’s one very funny scene in which the action is taking place while Solo, who was thrown from a boat, sits quietly on the sideline. Rather focusing on the boat chase we’ve seen a million times, it focuses on Solo’s internal struggle on whether or not to help the man he has been ordered to help, so long as it’s useful. 

This movie is also very much set in 1963, which is a bold choice. When the Man from U.N.C.L.E aired on television, it wasn’t far removed from it’s 1963 timeframe, and the Cold War was still heavily on people’s mind. This is unapologetically set during 1963, not bother to update, which is important. It would be easy to update it, have these two characters going up against the War on Terror or something, removing the Cold War tension and slow burn in favor of updating the latest slick gadget. But this helps add to the tension and just in general helps to make a better film. Nothing seems forced, it all works together to tell a smooth film. 

The actors take to their roles very well. Cavill seems more at home in his three piece button up suit than he does his Superman suit (although he did fine in that, too.) Arnie Hammer portrays a very conflicted hero, one that is doing his duty to his family more than his country, who may at any time explode. A lot of the heavy living is done Vikander who must appear to be an outsider while (spoiler) seeming to know a lot more than any other character. 

Now for the bad…

Did you get that? Yeah, this was an excellent movie. It was probably one of the best of the summer. (I’d say “the best” but I haven’t seen all of them yet, but I don’t have high hopes for a Jason Statham-less Transporter.) I really didn’t have a lot of fault with it. This was just a “cool” movie. Slickly done. Not really overly focused on the action, moments of comedy to lighten up otherwise dramatic scenes. Try watching the scene where Solo and Kuryakin trade the bugs they keep finding in each other’s rooms and not have a smile on your face. 

Honestly, if I hadn’t seen this as one of the final movies that was being shown that night, I probably would have walked right back in and watched it again. 

Go. See this movie. You will not be sorry.

I’m happy to award this movie my second 10 out of 10 for the summer movie season.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Summer Movie Season: A Superhero Movie that's Embarrassed to be a Superhero Movie

I’ve seen a lot of superhero movies in my life. I love superhero movies. The truth is, we all love superhero movies in some way. Sure, they may not dress up in tights or the newest trend of dressing up in cooler looking pleather. They may not all have cool code names, or carry magic hammers. But we admire people that can do extraordinary things, even if we don’t affix the title of “Superhero” to them. Even Generic Buddy Cop Movie 7 would be boring if they spent all their time filling out paperwork. The Fast and the Furious Movies would get old if Dom wasn’t an expert driver or bank robber or whatever wacky situation he gets himself in and then makes himself an expert. So, yeah, I like Superhero movies, just like everyone else. And when it’s billed as a superhero movie, that’s even more incredible, it means we’re going to get a double dose of superhero antics. But what happens when you try to make a superhero movie but then don’t actually allow the superheroes to show up?

The newest version of Fantastic Four is essentially that: a superheroless superhero movie. And it fails. Miserably. 

(Spoilers, I guess? I feel this whole thing has been discussed and super discussed. I’m not going to ruin anything for you.) 

Fantastic Four tells the story that the previous for attempts at making a movie about the Fantastic Four tells: Four scientists build something extraordinary, get zapped with some dubious science sounding stuff, then turn into a superhero team known as the Fantastic Four. The stretchy Reed Richards (Miles Teller); The Invisible Woman Sue Storm (Kata Mara); The Thing Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell); The Human Torch Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan). Sometimes Victor Von Doom comes along. In this version he does. 

This version pull from Marvel’s Ultimate line, so instead of going into space and being zapped with cosmic rays (that would just be silly) they go to another dimension and get their powers via magic (I mean sciencey) green ooze.

The movie starts with an extended prologue, because when you’re doing a superhero movie the thing everyone wants is an extended prologue that stops us from getting to the action, where a young Reed Richards is mocked by his teacher and classmates in 2007 for wanting to build a device to teleport himself, because that’s what happened in 2007 when people wanted to dream big and the big news story (that he references) was that transporters were within reach. So naturally, he builds one, because a sixth grader that can do that will fly under the radar. He also makes friends with Ben Grimm, who lives in a junkyard. 

Quick note: this scene also reveals that The Thing’s catchphrase was first said by his “abusive brother who beats him while yelling it.” This is part of this summer’s apparent need to find controversy in everything. Yes. He yells it. No. He’s his brother who beats him up. The mere fact that someone says “this is abuse!” while Vacation featured the running gag of one of his brothers trying to kill the other (hilarious!) makes me wonder about the future of movies in general. 

Anyway, we fast forward another 7 years to another science fair when Ben and Reed are still building the teleporter, and they get it to work. Of course, no one believes them, except… Franklin Storm, and his daughter Sue who wants Reed to work on the real thing. I would say at this point that finally we’re getting there, but we also have to watch as Franklin recruits Victor Von Doom and his shaky accent to help finish the machine, and his son Johnny who was busy drag racing, complete with little Mario Fire plant decoration in his car, which caught on fire during the race, just in case you need to be reminded that one day he will be the Human Torch.

Several extended conversations and montages where they build the machine later (I’m getting bored typing this) it’s time to go into the other dimension. Of course they’re not allowed to go, so Reed concocts a plan for them to sneak into it late at night, along with his best friend who is not a scientist, and use the machine to go into the alternate dimension. Because that’s a great idea, right?

Look, I could get this buildup if this were a science fiction movie exploring the dangers of science and ego, which it does a great job of setting up during this time. But this isn’t a science fiction movie. It’s the Fantastic Four. The only recognizable part we’ve really seen is a dude yelling “It’s clobbering time” while beating up his younger brother, and that’s dubious at best. 

So, yes, Reed, Von Doom, Johnny, and Ben all go into the other world, Von Doom is lost to the green goo, and everyone who went was magically scientifically changed to their respected superpowers with an extended sequence that shows Ben getting hit with rocks, Johnny being set on fire, and Susan, who did not go on the trip, getting hit with the returning portal thingy and getting her powers of forcefield. 

What follows is a horror show of powers: Reed screams as he’s being pulled in all directions, Susan fading in and out, Ben begging for his life, and Johnny… well he’s sort of quite. It’s pretty clear out of cast members, Michael B. Jordan is probably Josh Trank’s favorite. 

To point out: We have had almost an hour and fifteen minutes of exposition, a trip to another world and everything sucks. That’s an hour and fifteen minutes where there’s a setup to a group getting their powers when just about everyone in the theater knows they’re going to get their powers. It’s not a secret or a surprise. It’s in the title, on all the marketing. Why do we have to wait so long to see it?

Then there’s another time jump of a year: Ben’s being used as a weapon by the military, Johnny and Sue are being trained to be weapons, and Reed is in hiding trying to find a cure. You might think that this would lead to some cool action sequences where Ben is fighting, maybe has some moral quandaries about it. Maybe a training montage with Sue and Johnny. Don’t worry, the director spares you from that and just has some grainy footage of Ben fighting and a few minutes of Sue and Johnny doing… stuff… so we can get to the real action: Reed and his deep emotional turmoil while wearing a goofy suit that can expand with him. 

I could keep going. Yes, they eventually fight Von Doom, finding him in the other world, in a mishmash end sequence that features Reed  giving an inspirational speech, and the least convincing “Hey, what should we call ourselves” moment that would be even worse had Avengers 2: Age of Ultron hadn’t pulled the EXACT SAME JOKE earlier this year. 

For all it’s faults, let’s face it: Man of Steel at least got Superman in that costume with as little set up as possible, and let him run out and do stuff. Even lauded superhero show that tried to pretend it wasn’t a superhero show Daredevil still got Matt Murdock into a costume soon, even if it wasn’t the familiar red costume. This movie actively avoids setting these people up as heroes for as long as possible, and even when it does it takes the literal destruction of the Earth to start to get them to try to do anything about it. Even then they’re not a team so much as a group of scientists doing science stuff for science. 

This movie suffers the similar problems of the Hulk movies, (and why he subsequently worked with the Avengers) is because most of the focus is on the curse of being the Hulk. You know that cheering that happened when Mark Ruffalo turned into the Hulk and then smashed the giant lizard thing in the Avengers? Yeah, that’s because we don’t want a tortured Bruce Banner for two hours, we want The Hulk, smashing. We don’t want an hour of setup to a team getting their powers, then all wanting to be rid of them because they’re some kind of curse. Really the only one who should be mad is Ben (and he is, until he isn’t.) But instead everyone (except Johnny) is mopey about it. 

There’s a lot of talk about behind the scenes turmoil, particularly with Josh Trank has disavowed it and blames the studio, the studio blames him… it’s all a mess. I don’t really know who’s telling the truth, and quite frankly, I don’t care. Trank claims “This isn’t his vision.” And? Other than complaining at every step of the process, we haven’t seen his vision. The thing is, this isn’t anyone’s vision of the Fantastic Four. It’s a science fiction movie, and not even a good one at that. It’s a long, slow, slog through a superhero origin story and a vision on how not to make a movie, period.  It’s a superhero movie that’s embarrassed to be a superhero movie. The Fantastic Four deserves better than this. By the second lab montage or the second inexplicable time jump, someone needed to point out that this isn’t a Fantastic Four movie. 

4 out of 10. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Summer Movie Season: Spy

There really isn’t a shortage of parodies or attempts to reinvent the spy movie genre. From Johnny English to Spy Hard to some of the latter Pierce Brosnan James Bond Movies to even this year’s excellent Kingsman: The Secret Service, the Spy movie has been dissected and examined to the amount to the point that movies are either going to go super serious, like any of the Daniel Craig James Bond movies, or embracing the wackiness like the new Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

But there is an appeal to being a spy. Going undercover, cool gadgets, sweet moves, fighting secret agents. Which is probably why we get so many different variations of the spy. Which is a long way of saying Paul Feig’s spy movie Spy, starring future Ghostbuster Melissa McCarthy has a rich legacy to pull from, and thankfully, doesn’t squander it. 

Quick note: Yes, I know this came out two months ago. It came out while I was busy taking Ireland. As a result, I had to catch up on some movies, this being one of them. I’m just now getting to this review. I’m not a professional critic. When I’m a professional critic, then I’ll go ahead and be more timely.

Spy is about Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) who is a CIA Analyst and handler for handsome, James Bond-esque Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law.) He does the heavy lifting, she runs things from her command center in Virginia. Things go awry when Fine first accidentally kills a man who knows where a nuclear bomb is hidden, then they go further awry when he ends up being killed himself during a mission. Believing herself to be the reason he died, she takes up the mission to find out where this nuclear bomb is being held. Can meek, Susan Cooper save the day? (Yes. The answer is yes. That’s pretty much the point of all of these movies: That the meek whoever will eventually find a way to save the day.)

The main problem with Spy is that it is never really sure about it’s tone. As a comedy, it’s pretty funny. As a Spy Movie, it’s not bad with the usual “Bad guy has the bomb” and “hey look at these gadgets.” Rather than a deconstruction of the spy genre such as Kingsman, this is more played as a spy movie with some funny moments, such as the increasingly ridiculous disguises that Susan is subjected. That tone can take away from some of the moments when used incorrectly, such as the menacing of Rose Byrne’s villain Rayna. One moment she’s menacing, the next she’s sort of bumbling and just an insult generator towards Susan. 

The tone problem also takes away from the moments when the movie starts to get really good, particularly when Susan starts to show off just how competent she is as an agent. It was a smart decision as this could have been a really ugly fish out of water movie, when really it turns into a good message about believing in yourself and not letting people hold you back. The problems come when it’s not just enough that Susan kill a guy, but we have to show her vomiting on him as well because, why not we haven’t figured out just how far we’re going to take this. Or, as funny as the disguises are, why not have foot fungus cream be part of the disguise. 

And it’s a shame, too, because it’s this tone issue that stops it from being truly great movie instead of a really good movie. None of my minor complaints should take away where this movie shines, and that’s the actors clearly having a good time. First is Jason Statham as Rick Ford, clearly playing a parody of himself as he ramps up the intensity to well over 11. I remember reading that one of the reasons that Leslie Nelson worked so well in Airplane was because he played his role completely straight, as if he actually was in a disaster movie. Jason Statham deserves the same accolades. He plays is role as a CIA Agent perfectly, clearly imported from another, much more serious movie. but he’s perfectly willing to take a pratfall if that’s what the script calls for. 

Melissa McCarthy also does well, especially since the script doesn’t devolve into just her failing every few minutes. I like the fact that they establish that she’s a competent agent that just never took the right chances and ended up in the basement. I like the fact that she was still able to kick butt while at the same time making a sarcastic quip. It worked.

Plus the interplay between Ford and Cooper is simply amazing, and quite frankly I’d like to see the two of them make more movies together. I don’t know how likely that is to happen, rarely do their resumes intersect. And that’s a shame, because they really pull off something incredible here. 

Overall, Spy is just a fun movie. Yeah, it’s not without it’s flaws. But it’s a nice little summer comedy/action/whatever it’s trying to be. 

8 out of 10

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Saying that Teachers Should Be Valued Shouldn't Be This Controversial

Recently, Key and Peele took on an extremely controversial topic. If you’re not familiar who Key and Peele are, they’re a pair of comedians that have a pretty funny sketch show on Comedy Central. One of their recurring sketches is an “Anger Translator” for President Obama. That one can get controversial, I guess, if you don’t like President Obama. Or anger, I guess. But no, they tackled another subject... Teachers. 

In a recent episode, they showed what the world would be like if we valued... you know, teachers instead of athletes. It was complete with Teacher Center, set up exactly like Sports Center, complete with a Teacher draft and a car commercial at the end where a teacher was doing the driving (and took a bite of an apple... nice touch.) They were paid millions of dollars for their teaching ability. Plays were shown where they showed teachers getting involved. 

In short, it was a pretty good sketch. I know it’s been shared. Then I made a cardinal mistake of the internet. I looked at the comments. 

Yes, I know that I shouldn’t look at the comments of just about anything. But I was curious to see what people were saying about this sketch. Listen, I’m also very aware that the internet, because of it’s anonymous nature people are crueler than they need to be, because nothing makes you braver than zero consequences. 

But I was surprised at the sheer amount of vitriolic comments being lobbed at teachers. They were nothing that I hadn’t seen before... 

“Teachers get three months off!” 
“I thought that teachers said that parents were supposed to be important! Why aren’t we saying the same about parents!”
“Teachers are lazy!” 
“They just teach to the test!” 
“Football players have talent!” 

I don’t know why it got to me so much this time, but it did, and I posted something about it on my personal Facebook page. Then I realized I had a blog, and I have my own forum to post these things. Plus I went through the teaching program, so I have a better insight than some guy who finds the time to post their hatred for teachers on a video shown by a pair of comedians. (Who are talented in their own way. And as of this video, smarter than many of the people who commented on it.) 

Let’s start with my favorite myth: The myth of the three months off. I know this is the go-to on the “lazy teacher” crowd. What they don’t realize is that is a majority of teachers don’t, in fact, get three months off. Some of that is spent keeping up with the constantly changing requirements to maintain a teaching license. A majority of it is spent planning for the new year, once again changing plans based on random changes that are being made. (More on that in a minute.) And who do you think teaches Summer School? You know that school that is filled with kids that don’t want to learn? Yeah. Lazy. (That was sarcasm. Ask a teacher what that means.)

The problem is that we no longer value education anymore. We have politicians running for President on a platform of dismantling education rather than helping it. Not fringe candidates, either, actual, “hey put me on TV” candidates. Not the people claiming to be Jesus reincarnated or who are running their candidacy out of their parents’ basements. We have changes to school textbooks not suggested by actual scholars, but by people with agendas... and it’s being accepted. There are entire states that make teaching the least appealing job in the world, then wonder why there’s a shortage. (Thanks, Kansas!) It’s fun to scream about standardized tests or Common Core for some people, but did anyone stop to think about why this is a big deal? Is it because a bunch of people got into a room and said “we need to do this” without stepping into a classroom. (The answer is yes. I’m high on the rage and sarcasm today.)

In this country, we no longer value the ability to be smart or rationalize. And the people being demonized by this are the teachers. 

I won’t argue that all teachers are perfect. In fact, the opposite. We do have a lot of bad teachers, because the teaching profession isn’t designed to accept the best and the brightest. I don’t talk a lot about my personal experiences with why I quit the teaching field. But maybe it’s time that I should. 

When I first got into the classroom, I wasn’t filled with the delusion that I would change every life. And see, that’s the problem right there. I went in, already cynical from what I’d observed. And the problem is, no one wants to counter that. There’s a defeatist attitude that comes in a little bit with teaching. A sense that there are some things you can’t change... and mostly because teachers lack the support of parents and administrators. It’s tough to blame the administrators who are under severe pressure from a lot of different places. But parents? Not supporting teachers? Seriously? We’ve reached that point, and that’s sad. 

I have more, but like I said, that’s my personal experience. Not everyone had this experience, I’m sure. And I will say that most of the people I’ve kept in touch with from my teaching program have made amazing teachers. Probably a result of us knowing Zenkov, a professor who made sure we were amazing teachers. But at the end of the day, I can tell you that not everyone I was in class with was going to be a good teacher. A lot for these reasons. Some for others. I don’t know I’m ready to go into that part fully. Let’s keep this post’s focus on teachers, and how we need to encourage them to do their best. 

So, two comedians put out sketch where they decided we should all try valuing teachers. The thing is, I don’t know how we can disagree with them. Yeah, it’s cool that some guy can throw a ball really far. I love football. It’s fun, but when we get to the Coca-Cola Half Time Report Presented by Taco Bell’s Pepsi Half Hour... maybe our focus can be going elsewhere. Maybe our focus does need to be on this profession that is attempting to make another generation smarter than the last. The Cowboys lost last week. That’s a great distraction. But it doesn’t really tell me anything about the classics, how to analyze a math problem, or encourages me to go out and find a new discovery.

Yes, we should want the best of the best to be teaching our kids. But the knee jerk reaction to a video posted by two comedians shouldn’t be to pile on about how proud you are that you told your kid to not listen to a teacher. It shouldn’t be how proud you are of your ignorance, and how listening doesn’t help. 

Teaching is already one of the toughest things in the world. I know. Because I couldn’t do it. We already send them in with as little resources as possible while making them jump through impossible hoops while they’re being badmouthed by Politicians and Parents. Its like sending a solider into battle with half a gun and telling them they they have no support from anyone else. How can we allow that, in good conscience?

Let’s let not just let teachers teach. Let’s support their efforts. Let’s not actively attempt to discourage them from making this next generation smarter, from letting them grow. Let’s remember that we need teachers to make the world a better place. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Summer Movie Season: Pixels Wasn't As Bad As I Thought It Would Be

There was once a time when it wasn’t cool to be a nerd. Hot Topic is getting a lot of milage out of their Zelda or obscure Marvel Superhero T-Shirts, but when I was growing up it was difficult to wear your Star Trek T-Shirt out in the real world. Never mind about the debate who was better: Kirk or Picard (It was Sisko.) But through it all there was one thing that we always hoped:

The Geek would inherit the Earth. (No, I’m not clever enough to have thought of that on my own. The saying was old.)

That’s the topic of a lot of video game movies since Matthew Broderick boyishly taught a computer to play Tic Tac Toe to save the world in War Games. Or when a young gamer was called in to fly a starfighter in The Last Starfighter. Or when Fry did it in an episode of Futurama that suspiciously matches the plot of this movie. And let’s not forget that this is the plot of literally both of Ernest Cline’s novels Armada and Ready Player One

Pixels continues the tradition of the gamer nerd saving the world, with a heavy dose of nostalgia to bring in the old people. Like me. 

Adam Sandler IS Brenner, a once promising video game player who came in second in a world wide video game tournament and burned out, now installing televisions and home theatre equipment in a thinly veiled “Geek Squad” costume. Those orange shorts getting annoying after a while. Kevin James IS Cooper, the President of the United States and best friend to Brennan. 

After installing a home theatre and temporarily bonding with Violet (Michelle Monaghan), a divorced mother who won’t kiss Brenner because she’s a “snob” (it’s important to remember that this movie has all the gender politics of an Adam Sandler movie.) Brenner is called to the White House to give his opinion on the recent destruction of a military base. Eventually Brenner teams up with Ludlow, a boy genius video game player who determines that it’s aliens bringing to life all of the old video games and are threatening the world. They eventually get Eddie, another gamer who had beaten Brenner all those years ago out of prison, and together, they team up to stop the aliens using their knowledge of video games. Not the new school call of duty games, but the old school type. 

Let’s get tis out of the way immediately: This is a very stupid movie that’s pretty much designed to appeal not to Adam Sandler’s current audience, but his past audience, like me. The people that remember when video games meant gathering as many quarters as you possibly could and heading to the arcade, where it would be noisy, but you’d hang out with your friends for a couple of hours. The movie covers this in the obligatory nine scenes where Adam Sandler’s character says as much to Violet’s kid. And he’ll reiterate it a few other times, so don’t worry if you miss it.

At is core, that’s what this movie is: a bunch of guys hanging out, playing video games. One just happens to be the President of the United States, and one just happens to be Adam Sandler, who even looks tired here as he’s reciting his lines without the usual Adam Sandlerness that makes it one of his trademark movies.

But to be honest with you, for all the faults... I kind of really enjoyed this movie. It was a nice surprise. Despite the big budget and the giant centipede heads trying to destroy the city it’s just that: It’s a hangout movie with bigger stakes. 

The aliens never really get defined, and they really don’t need to. They just exist pretty much to be a way for us to see Pac Man chomping on the streets of New York as a bunch of mini-coopers chase him around. And it’s an interesting dynamic, actually, since this reverses everything we’ve seen so far in this scene where they guys aren’t playing “Pac-Man” they’re playing as the evil ghosts. 

This is a really good movie as long as you don’t delve too deeply into it.

So now, I’m going to delve too deeply into it! 

It’s not without it’s problems. First is the relationship between Brenner and Violet. It’s actually paced out well, with them not liking each other and then eventually accepting each other. That’s not the problem. Part of the problem is that it is based around Adam Sandler telling her that she doesn’t like nerds, and not necessarily the fact that the first time he tries to kiss her she’s drunk in a closet crying about her ex-husband. He actually gets charming when he treats her like she’s a real person with real problems, but the first part is kind of... icky is the only word for it.

Then there’s the NERDS GOOD message that is throughout the movie. Yes, it’s cool that nerds are able to save the day with their mad video gaming skillz. That’s always a delight to see. But does it have to be said so many times? Does the army have to be THAT incompetent or bloodthirsty? Do they really need to break Peter Dinkledge’s character out of prison to play a video game when really, there were a lot of people that could come close to what he did. Also, the whole “We need video game people to win” trope falls a little flat around the time the aliens are really attacking, and it would be nice to have the WWE Superstar to be able to jump those barrels or to attack the actual menace. 

Overall, though, it was kind of a fun movie. A lot more fun than I expected when I walked through the doors. 

8 out of 10

Monday, August 3, 2015

Summer Movie Season: Bad Vacation

Exactly how I felt about halfway through this movie

I thought of many different ways to start this review/experience/view of the new Vacation movie, the latest attempt to revive the National Lampoon’s [insert descriptor here] Vacation movie. But there’s only one thing you need to know: The movie starts with a shot of a random dude’s buttcrack. Then it manages to go downhill from there. 

Warning, this could contain spoilers, or this could contain the fact that I’ve watched this so you don’t have to. That part is up to you.

Vacation stars Ed Helms, taking over the Rusty Griswold role from... well, the many different people who’ve played the role. (Including Anthony Michael Hall, who’s presence would have made for a funnier movie.) He’s a pilot for a small, local airline, and we’re treated to the sheer comedy of him groping a woman and little boy accidentally for a few minutes before we get to the comedy gold that he’s not very assertive. As we see with one scene with Ron Livingston as a rival pilot. Don’t worry, the movie won’t comment on this until the very end.

Realizing his family is in a rut, after a very uncomfortable dinner scene that wastes Michael Keegan-Key and Regina Hall, Rusty decides to take his family to Wally World! We’re assured that this is not a re-do of his original vacation in a very meta scene that was spoiled by all the trailers. (And you know how I feel about spoilers.) His wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate) and his two kids don’t really seem up for the idea, but they’re just excited not to take the same trip that they had taken their entire lives to some cabin in a moment that’s thrown off pretty quickly, but hints at... problems to come! 

So they’re off on their cross country road trip in their rented car that... doesn’t make quite any sense, but it’s foreign and they don’t get it so that’s the joke. They stop at Debbie’s old college and learn about her wild college days with plenty of booze and vomit. There’s more gross understandings. Yes, Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo make cameos to pass the torch to the new generation. And they get to Wally World, and they all learn a little bit more about each other .

Ok, so where to start.

Let’s start with Rusty’s Kids, played by Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins. Skyler plays James, the sensitive older brother, and Steele plays Kevin, the younger brother that’s meant to be mischievous, but plays more like a psychopath than an “aw, shucks isn’t he cute” younger brother. Maybe you can be treated to one of the many scenes where he actively attempts to kill his brother. I don’t mean in a fun way, he has a recurring joke where he puts a bag over his brother’s head. I get part of that is to show off how clueless his parents are, but really? And by the third time, it’s obnoxious. 

Then there’s the subplot that’s hinted at heavily, but never discussed but it’s ok it’s handwaved away in the one scene. Basically, Debbie spends the movie reading “The Help.” If you guessed that the jacket cover hinted that their marriage was falling apart, well, then, you’re right. Debbie is thinking about leaving Rusty. It’s never mentioned, and there is the recurring motif (I can’t believe I used that word here) where her ring keeps falling off, but it’s never really addressed until Rusty finds the book, and they realize “hey let’s just work it all out, right now.” And they do. And it’s never mentioned again. 

The ring falling off leads to a funny cameo by The Walking Dead resident badass Norman Reedus. That was kind of funny, I guess.

I get that the original Vacation movies won’t win awards for subtlety, but they knew when to back off sometimes. When Debbie vomits for the third time after chugging a beer to do a beer run, it just seems excessive. The car exists for the sheer purpose of throwing around a few “wow this car is weird” jokes, which get tired. Same with the sensitive brother, which shows so many moments of being brilliant only to fail, Miserably. 

And I haven’t even touched the Chris Hemmsworth scenes. He’s in a loveless marriage with Aubrey, also now played by Leslie Mann, in a scene where Rusty of course has to go visit in his sister because let’s bring everyone in.  He’s basically a ripped cattle rancher/weatherman/perfect guy who is sent to threaten Rusty and his marriage with Debbie. (After they go swimming in toxic waste.) 

I’m surprised we didn’t get a few scenes in Randy Quaid’s jail cell. But yeah, the scenes with Chris Hemmsworth exist as they were filmed, and now we can at least say that Red Dawn isn’t the worst remake he’s appeared in.

As for Vacation, it did serve an extremely important function: It made me appreciate Hot Pursuit more as a summer movie. 

Three out of Ten. 

Goodbye to Alan Cheuse.

On Friday, July 31st, George Mason University Professor, Writer, and NPR Contributor Alan Cheuse died following a car accident. He was 75. 

A lot of the many places that are covering his death are going to post it like that. Alan Cheuse who did a lot of these things, is gone. Off this Earth. I was in one of his final classes, and I have some perspective I’d like to throw into all of this. 

Let me start by saying that I know this man was loved, and that there are a lot of people who will have stories about him. This one is mine, which is why I’m sharing it. 

When I initially signed up for Alan Cheuse’s class on what the Novella is, I signed up for the very noble reason that I needed the extra literature credits for my degree, and I had no idea what else to take. I was taking one required class, and the other one wouldn’t be offered until September so... I decided to take a class on the Novella. I didn’t know who Alan Cheuse was other than that he was a contributor to NPR, and I only knew that because I Googled him the way I Googled every other professor. 

The first day he walked into the class, in retrospect, told me everything I needed to know about the man. He walked in with a folder, wearing a wrinkled shirt and hair that probably hadn’t been combed that week. In the other hand he had a cup of coffee. His first comment was to ask us if we had all done something wrong in a previous life to deserve the terrible room we were currently in. 

In fairness to him, the room was very, very terrible. More storage closet than classroom, complete with CRT Television with a VHS player off to the side. 

Professor Cheuse was right to the point. Very little introduction, he had us tell us our names and what we were studying so he could help put things together for the semester. But that was kind of the point: Professor Cheuse was a smart man, and he knew what he wanted, which was for the rest of us to start thinking, too. Not much time for pleasantries. 

The Friday prior he had sent us all his syllabus with the expectation that we would read two novellas and come to class to discuss them. He acknowledged that we may not have time to explore them the way he wanted, and he didn’t care, this was his way of feeling us out. I think he questioned literally what everyone in the class said at some point, even if this point contradicted another point he had literally just made. 

I remember walking out of that class wondering how I was going to make it through that semester.

And that’s the thing... it was a tough class. Probably one of the toughest I’ve ever taken. Not in terms of workload... having to read two novellas and a few random one page papers here and there isn’t that tough compared to some of the sheer workload I've taken on. But in terms of actually being questioned and making me think. Professor Cheuse had a way of phrasing things that on the surface may have seemed harsh, but he was actually trying to bring out the best in your argument. If you couldn’t justify it, then what was the point of speaking? If you couldn’t game out the little details, then what was the point of making that argument? Professor Cheuse didn’t want you to read the material and say on the surface what you thought. He wanted to you to form an opinion on things to define the indefinable, to present the world through a new lens that you were creating. 

I was miserable in that class while I was taking it. I’d live in dread that I’d get called on, and that I’d have another discussion that I would walk away feeling like I’d lost, despite the fact that there wasn’t winning and losing in his class, but that he just wanted you to be “better.” I'd never been happier to be miserable. 

And I realize that, now. I realized that as class was wrapping up. Before this class was over, I’d already signed up for another one of Alan Cheuse’s classes. I spoke with him before I left for Ireland, and he gave me a few books to read so I could keep up with classic Irish Writers. I never got to tell him that I was one step ahead of everyone at the Irish Writer’s Museum because of the books I’d read that he’d given to me. I was proud of that. 

I won’t lie and say I knew the man better than I did. I knew him through class, and through is writing. I knew him as a man who challenged me for a semester, and someone who I was looking forward to challenging me again through another semester. I knew him a man who was perfectly willing to lend me some books so I was well read. And who told me that I probably wouldn’t want to come back from Ireland. I'm going to honor him the way he would have wanted, by picking up some books and reading.

So, rest in peace, Professor Alan Cheuse. The world is a little less well-read because you’re gone.