The Walk (2015)

Sony and Tri-Star Pictures present a film directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne; based on the book “To Reach the Clouds” by Philippe Petit. Produced by Jack Rapke, Tom Rothman, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis. Music by Alan Silvestri. Photographed by Darius Wolski. Edited by Jeremiah O’Driscoll. Production designed by Naomi Shohan. Costumes designed by Suttirat Anne Larlab. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine.

In 1974, a French magician and acrobat named Philippe Petit wanted to make a name for himself. He was as skilled a tightrope walker as the world had ever seen, and he became fueled by a singular, unshakable obsession: to suspend his wire between the two newly-constructed World Trade Towers in New York and walk across. This is, of course, crazy. But what’s crazier is that he actually did it. He assembled of team of specialists and engineered a plan of brazen ingenuity to break into the towers with his equipment, assemble his rigging undetected, and then perform his stunt at dawn to the gasping crowd below. For many New Yorkers, Petit’s stunt was a defining moment in the life of the newly-minted towers, a touch of magic bestowed upon what had been dismissed as flat, “giant file cabinets.” In one single morning, Petit had helped usher them into iconic status.

Robert Zemeckis’ new film The Walk tells the story of Petit’s incredible stunt, using the canvas of IMAX 3D to render each moment in teeth-chattering detail. But Zemeckis’ aim is not to tease us with nausea, it’s to summon our wonder. It’s a joyous and whimsical picture, and touched with some of the same mad genius that ran through Petit, and also Zemeckis’ best films (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump). Zemeckis has always been a bit of a tightrope walker himself, making projects that are huge gambles supported by intricate, unmistakable precision. With Petit, as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he has found his uncanny avatar: a man who, with his exaggerated accent, devotion to magic and superior craft, walks the fine line between ridiculous and sincere. It only makes sense that Petit narrates the movie, sometimes talking right to his camera. This is his and Zemeckis’ joint magic trick.

The movie takes its time getting to the top of the towers. We start in France, where Petit is a young street busker with visions of fame. He learns the art of the tightrope at a traveling circus run by Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), who is wise in many things, especially in knowing what an audience will let an artist get away with and what it won’t. In Paris, Philippe meets a lovely street singer named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who becomes both the chief ally for his schemes and the primary apologist for his worrisome madness. Upon flying to New York, the emboldened lovers enlist a team to help them in their quest, which includes a loyal photographer (Ben Schwartz), a slick French immigrant (James Badge Dale) who has achieved maximum New York assimilation, a banker (Steve Valentine) who actually works in one of the towers, and a brilliant engineer (Caesar Domboy) who is–wait for it–petrified of heights.

The film’s second act is a heist picture of distinguished caliber. We see the colorful team devise a plan with split second timing and then must execute it with a degree of improvisation that surprises even themselves. We experience tension, excitement, intrigue, doubt and a tangible sense of yearning. The blueprint of these sequences, it must be said, comes from James Marsh’s exceptional 2008 documentary about the same events, Man on Wire, which included so many reenactments it practically served as a trial run for this film.

But while a documentary can tell you how it happened, only the power of drama can best communicate how it felt, and that’s where The Walk excels, especially in its closing half hour, as Zemeckis succeeds in putting us on that wire with Petit–letting us feel every gust of wind, every twist of cable, and–crucially–every stirring in Petit’s soul as he performs for a growing sea of New Yorkers (and a group of gobsmacked cops on each tower roof, with whom he plays with as he retraces his steps more than once). It’s all nail-biting, but it’s also a lovely and magical payoff, made all the more poignant in closing moments that pay heartfelt tribute to the World Trade Towers that Petit, who soon after became a New Yorker, loved so much. The Walk is one of the year’s best entertainments.

No Escape (2015)

video-no-escape-videoSixteenByNine1050The Weinstein Company presents a film directed by John Erick Dowdle. Written by John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle. Produced by Drew Dowdle, David Lancaster, Michael Litvak. Photographed by Léo Hinstin. Music by Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders. Edited by Elliot Greenberg. Production designed by Arvinder Grewel. Starring Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sahajak Boonthanakit.

“Don’t ever travel abroad” is the main takeaway of No Escape, a xenophobic, unpleasant and overall icky action thriller that casts Owen Wilson and Lake Bell as parents of a family (including two sweet young girls) that flies to a country on the eve of revolution and finds itself fighting for survival. This place looks vaguely Southeast Asian, but the movie keeps its setting mysteriously unnamed. “Welcome to Asia,” says grizzled expat Pierce Brosnan to Wilson upon arrival. So that narrows it down. Eventually we learn that this violent locale borders Vietnam, which means it’s either Cambodia or Laos, but let’s not think too much; the Vietnam reveal is a deus ex machina for director John Erick Dowdle and his brother/co-writer Drew, who end this screenplay as if they had a bus to catch. The movie was actually shot in nearby Thailand, whose tourism board will probably not be mentioning this fact very much.

The Dowdles are horror veterans (Devil and As Above, So Below) who have decided to filter this material through their typical lens, which proves to be a huge mistake. Early moments are filled with ominous portents for Jack Dwyer (Wilson) and Annie Dwyer (Bell). The phones don’t work at their hotel, and Wilson’s attempt to find a USA Today is met with death glares. Wilson is outside when the revolution sparks (a shot showing him literally caught between a group of armored police and an angry mob is typical of the movie’s ham-fisted visual strategy), and when violence strikes, the entire populace degenerates into a mindless horde straight out of a zombie film, except capable of firing automatic weapons and screaming foreign epithets. Not a drop of humanity is bestowed on these frothing, mad-dog thugs; during a brief rooftop reprieve, Wilson sums up the movie’s philosophy: “I don’t know why they’re doing this, they just are.” Later, there is third-party speculation about displeasure with Western corporations (including the one Jack works for) holding countries’ finances hostage under a cloak of good intentions, but this is delivered sketchily and toothlessly—the movie mainly sees its antagonists as pop-up villains worthy of a video game. Not even other victims are spared the movie’s perverse apathy; more than once a helpful side character (Vietnamese, French, whatever) tangentially assists the Dwyers, is murdered for their trouble and then is never thought of again.

Throughout this endless film, the Dwyers are mercilessly punished. At one moment Jack has to toss his daughters off a roof in slow motion for Annie to catch. Then one of the girls is told at gunpoint to shoot her own father. Annie is captured at one point and the threat of rape pointedly hangs in the air, because where would we be without that? The family is eventually coated with blood, mud, dirt, sweat, urine and tears. There’s fistfights, gunfights, running and jumping and it’s all so cheap and exploitative that it becomes quickly nauseating. Sometimes Pierce Brosnan magically shows up and gets the Dwyers out of trouble. Then they get right back into trouble. And so on.

Wilson is miscast as the Dwyer patriarch; he’s at home more with amiable, shaggy comedy, and his everyman qualities feel lateral to the material, not part of it. Bell’s performance, on the other hand, is anger-inducing, because she ably carries the movie’s emotional weight while surrounded by pure schlock. Her scenes of desperately trying to protect her daughters are so wrenching and vivid that it becomes clear that the movie doesn’t deserve her. Brosnan’s whole role is a self-satisfied wink. “CIA?” he’s asked. “Something like that,” he smiles. Uh-huh. Earlier he’s found performing at a karaoke bar, possibly as a reference to the tone-deaf crooning he lent to Mama Mia, although it also may be another one of the movie’s clumsy attempts at conjuring dread.

The end of summer always brings a film like No Escape:  a film made arguably for no one, dumped into August so it can await the sweet release of a quick and empty box office. To ask “Was this movie necessary?” is irrelevant, it’ll be forgotten quickly and will occasionally show up at 3AM on cable, which was invented specifically so that you could escape garbage like this.

Fantastic Four (2015)

Mara-Invisible20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Josh Trank. Screenplay by Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, Trank; based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby. Produced by Gregory Goodman, Simon Kinberg, Robert Kulzer, Hutch Parker, Matthew Vaughn. Music by Marco Beltrami, Philip Glass. Photographed by Matthew Jensen. Edited by Elliot Greenberg, Stephen E. Rivkin. Production designed by Molly Hughes, Chris Seagers. Starring Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathy, Tim Blake Nelson.

In the halls of Marvel Comics, the original superhero team The Fantastic Four holds high honors. In the realm of movie adaptations…eh…not so much. There was that laughable 1994 Roger Corman-produced feature that was slapped together at the last minute (literally made within weeks in order to capitalize on a licensing agreement). And there’s the better-known (if not well-received) pair of mid-2000s pictures designed as star vehicles for Jessica Alba. To say the bar was low for a reboot to improve this franchise is exceptionally fair. What a shock, then, in this age of bare-minimum competency in superhero epics, to see a movie as inept as 2015’s Fantastic Four, which not only is one of the worst superhero movies in over a decade, it feels like it was made over a decade ago. Like, say…1996. One sincerely wants to review the film and not the widely-publicized turmoil behind the scenes (including, reportedly, onset strife, alienated directors, and massive reshoots), but how can you when the results are this compromised, sloppy and inconsistent? Forget the “fantastic” label; Fantastic Four doesn’t feel finished.

In a break from colorful Fantastic canon, this movie reconceives the team’s origin as a cosmic horror story, and that idea has merit. The early scenes, where young Reed Richards befriends Ben Grimm, and together they construct an interdimensional teleporter, hold promise. But when Reed and Ben grow into Miles Teller and Jamie Bell, and Reed is scooped up by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathy) and his brainy daughter Sue (Kate Mara) to join a think tank of engineers, things go awry. The tone becomes ponderous and subdued, and the pacing so lethargic that key player Ben disappears for a good half hour. Eventually we collect Dr. Storm’s rebellious son, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), but it’s a full hour before we get superheroics, and while in theory that would allow welcome character development, it doesn’t work out that way. Everyone is allowed a single trait (Reed is smart, Sue is introverted, Johnny is impulsive, Ben is loyal), and, aside from the movie’s attempts to balance the wilder elements with a grounded reality (which come across as either listlessly drab or hilariously bipolar), and dialogue that reads like an explosion at the exposition factory, that sums up Fantastic Four‘s utterly joyless first hour.

Eventually, there’s a scientific expedition to a parallel dimension (Planet Zero–a green lava/rock world), and that’s when the origin story kicks in, more or less: our heroes are bathed in radioactive goo that gives them super-powers: Reed can stretch, Johnny becomes the flamboyant Human Torch, Sue is the force-field-throwing Invisible Girl, and Ben becomes a talking rock pile called The Thing. These moments are played for brief, low-key Cronenbergian horror…and then they kinda get over it during a time elipsis. Yes. One team member, it should be said, is accidentally left behind on the alien planet, and that’s Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). He becomes a villain, although I’m not sure what other options there are for a guy named Victor Von Doom. He spends a year on the lava planet and, when found, has adopted murderous telekinetic powers and also brainstormed a plan to destroy the universe. Must have been some year.

This is typical of Fantastic Four’s approach, which is to skip over scenes that require any heavy lifting at all. Character relationships are built over montages. Major developments are conveyed entirely offscreen. There’s literally no second act. Reactions to major events are kept as brief as possible (or, in Sue’s case, not depicted at all). The potentially joyous scenes of characters honing their abilities–the reason we as audiences keep going to origin stories–are discarded entirely. Motivations remain murky (or just flagrantly contradictory), details don’t add up, major choices don’t make sense, character arcs are begun and then don’t continue, and aside from some establishing shots, we have our ping-pong locations some dark soundstage and some other dark soundstage. The movie races to a lazy and perfunctory climax–arguably its very first action scene (no joke). Once there, characters begin shouting Screenwriting 101 clichés (go ahead and mark “We have to work as a team!” on your Bingo card right now) against a greenscreen backdrop of off-the-shelf planet-destroying McGuffins, all the while supplying pay-offs for setups from nonexistent script pages–or maybe those also got left on Planet Zero. Even the closing, hysterically optimistic, stab at setting up a sequel feels like an embarassed cough more than franchise building. Let’s not kid ourselves, here. Fantastic Four isn’t a “disappointment.” It’s a disaster.

Teller, Mara, Jordan, Bell, Kebbell: these are fine actors, clearly doing gimme-the-paycheck work, and all of them deserve much better than this (Cathy, too, for that matter). The production is so ill-made that they look completely lost, unable to generate a shred of chemistry due to incompetent plotting, dialogue and staging. The character dynamics are central to the Fantastic Four (one of the things that readers love about them is that they become a true family unit), and the film’s biggest sin is that it sketches relationships between the four, but in such frail terms (with such timid and unmemorable dialogue) that you never buy them. Jordan, a naturally charismatic actor, is maybe the best thing in the film (and a black Johnny Storm is a-ok with me, for the record)…but neither he nor Mara successfully make you believe that these two people grew up in the same house. Mara and Teller’s down-the-road romance is signaled here mainly through thin smiles and nods. The movie’s heart is supposed to be the relationship between Reed and Ben “The Thing” Grimm, but if there is a way for an actor to have a meaningful heart-to-heart with a rock monster, Teller, gifted actor that he is, doesn’t find it. Meanwhile, Kebbell, as Doom, is off in a SyFy Channel movie of his own, and when he intersects with the main cast he brings them all down to his level.

What happened here? Someday, a very sad book might tell us. The director of record is Josh Trank (Chronicle); both Trank and the studio have publicly pointed the finger at each other in terms of ultimate responsibility for this turkey, so who’s to say? The movie has all the hallmarks of a project wrestled away from a filmmaker–for whatever reason–and desperately given to a frenzied salvage team. It was all for naught; this is a bad, bad, bad movie, one that comic fans will probably remember for a while, no matter how strongly 20th Century Fox will want them not to. The first family of comics deserves better than this, once again. It’s possible in the future someone will figure out how to properly adapt the Fantastic Four, although, at this rate, by then we might actually have interdimensional teleporters.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

miiiii-compressorParamount Pictures presents a film directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Screenplay by McQuarrie; story by McQuarrie, Drew Pearce. Based on the television series “Mission: Impossible” created by Bruce Gellar. Produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Tom Cruise, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger. Music by Joe Kraemer; “Mission: Impossible” Theme by Lalo Schifrin. Photographed by Robert Elswitt. Edited by Eddie Hamilton. Production designed by James D. Bissell. Starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang, Tom Hollander, Alec Baldwin.

Tom Cruise isn’t a movie star; he’s the movie star. Forget his personal life and talk show appearances; where it truly counts, Cruise is the whole package: talented, charismatic, energetic, and dedicated to a near-suicidal degree. In fact, let’s reconsider that use of “near.” In Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Cruise clings to a jet in mid-takeoff, holds his breath for six minutes during a high-tech underwater heist, crashes a rental car through a Moroccan street, drives through one of the most exciting and intricate motorcycle chases ever filmed, runs like crazy, battles through various knife-and-fist-fights, and more. Like in the previous four Mission: Impossible films, his character’s name is Ethan Hunt. But Cruise doesn’t play Hunt; he is Hunt, and although the franchise has maintained its identity as a commercial for Cruise’s own awesomeness, Cruise is one of the few players left in Hollywood to instinctively know that even a vanity project has to give the audience its money’s worth.

Each Mission: Impossible film is pretty much the same. The villains are a clandestine group spreading terror and stealing MacGuffins, a bureaucrat is trying to shut down the Impossible Mission Force (today it’s Alec Baldwin as, essentially, Jack Donaghy, CIA), and the heroes have to go on the lam and outthink the baddies in a series of preposterous action setups. Yet each film is decidedly different, as filtered through the series’ pointedly revolving roster of accomplished directors: Brian DePalma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird. This man behind this one is Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher), and he bestows upon Rogue Nation exemplary craft—this is as well-made an action film as you will see this year (aided, undeniably, by Robert Elswitt’s typically beautiful photography). But McQuarrie is also a screenwriter (The Usual Suspects), and so he has given the franchise its most cohesive and thematically elegant script; one that doesn’t just connect the action dots but tells a thrilling, old-fashioned spy story, with characters you care about and reversals that matter. He strikes a tone that is playful, but not stakes-free. He boldly mixes film noir and fantasy, and drops balletic wit into his action scenes, Hitchock-style (in one sequence, quite deliberately). He pulls off the neat trick of telling a story that is about vertiginous moral confusion without ever becoming confusing. And in a summer that has been good for women at the movies, McQuarrie gives us a female heroine who is a complete equal in every way to Ethan Hunt.

That would be Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), a woman in the classic femme fatale mold: deadly, mysterious and alluring, but also highly capable and strong-willed. Ilsa is a disavowed secret agent—one of many who populate the mysterious, evil entity known as “The Syndicate,”–but she plays a near-impenetrable game of double-triple-quadruple-cross (tricky when your plan involves earning back the trust of people you betrayed). Ilsa is a captivating, vulnerable and formidable enigma, and Ferguson, in a star-making role, is electric. She exists not as eye candy but as a three-dimensional person; a spy who, like a John Le Carre protagonist, realizes they’re deep into a game they are very much sick of. Ferguson is the movie’s violent, beating heart.

Both Ilsa and Ethan are co-leads here, but they’re aided by a fine support team. There’s Jeremy Renner as the wryly exasperated Agent Brandt. Ving Rhames, a series staple, reappears as Luther, a man who can convey his loyalty to Ethan with a single grunt. Simon Pegg is back again as Benji, the computer-savvy field agent who isn’t just a source of comic relief; he’s the very personification of the series’ sly tone, which approaches the absurd spectacle with wit that stays just on the right side of self-parody. The villain, a sneering toad played by Sean Harris, isn’t as vivid as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s MI3 baddy (the series’ best bad guy), but he finds an appropriate way to simmer resentfully, as the movie paints him as Hunt’s mirror image.

The movie is just plain fun: stuffed with humor, excitement, suspense, escapism and supreme confidence. It’s a wonderful entertainment, made with intelligence, verve and confidence, if Cruise’s goal each time is to prove that a decades-old franchise can thrum with brilliant life, then consider it mission: accomplished.

Pixels (2015)

pixels_trailer_stillSony presents a film directed by Chris Columbus. Screenplay by Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling; story by Tim Herlihy; based on the short film by Patrick Jean. Produced by Adam Sandler, Chris Columbus, Allen Covert, Mark Racliffe, Michael Barnathan. Music by Henry Jackman. Photographed by Amir Mokri. Edited by Hughes Winborne. Starring Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Brian Cox, Ashley Benson, Jane Krakowski, Sean Bean.

The most sadly appropriate scene in Pixels comes when a UN general (Sean Bean…yes, Sean Bean) has to clear a London park in advance of an imminent alien invasion. “We’re filming a beer commercial,” he says, in a vain attempt to avoid public panic. Pixels is a commercial, alright. It’s a commercial for beer, definitely, but also vodka, Mini-Coopers, Sony products, women knowing their place, cynically-packaged 80’s nostalgia and, above all, creepy male entitlement fantasies. It’s based on a 2010 short film by Patrick Jean (which in turn might have been inspired by an old Futurama episode), and it also feels like an unofficial riff on Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One in the way that it repackages pop culture reference points as un-ironic steps in a limp hero’s journey for boys who refuse to grow up and demand that the world should accommodate them. But, yes, officially, Pixels is based on the short. But to call it “adapted” is a bit misleading. What the filmmakers have actually done is taken a cute idea and pumped it equally full of dollars, the nastier degrees of video game culture and Adam Sandler’s massive ego. Pixels is like that boorish kid at the arcade that has all the quarters and won’t let anyone play.

It’s the kind of movie where Kevin James plays the president of the United States (I am not making this up) and former childhood friend (and current schlub) Adam Sandler is given unfettered access to the White House, even allowed to mosey into top secret conference rooms. It’s the kind of movie where Dan Aykroyd shows up in a bit part for no reason, and you wonder why, and then it all comes together an hour later when an unrelated character directly and shamelessly plugs his line of Crystal Skull vodka. It’s the kind of movie where Michelle Monaghan is made to chug a bottle of Bud Light, exhale with supreme satisfaction and make sure that we all see the label. It’s the kind of movie that capitalizes on your love of properties in such a crass way that it makes you hate them. It’s the kind of movie where, if you’re a character in it, a childhood spent pumping quarters into video games can arrogantly land you both the adulation of the world and a hot trophy girlfriend (literally). It’s unfunny and mean and joyless and pretty demonstrably sexist in uglier-than-normal ways. If you self-identify as a geek, this is a movie that for years people are wrongly going to try to convince you to see, in endless conversations that you would do well to awkwardly exit from.

Sandler plays Sam Brenner, a former arcade gamer whose life was ruined when he was beaten in a Donkey Kong championship by the ugly-hearted videogame master Eddie “Fireblaster” Plant. Brenner grew up into a mealy-mouthed techno-slave loser, and one of Pixels’ little miscalculations is how it sees Sam as a likable hero when, in actuality, he’s pathetic in his yearning for the glory days, and downright creepy in the way he cozies up to a sobbing divorcee and fishes for a drunken kiss. Brenner gets his undeserved shot at recapturing glory, though, when aliens made of pure energy invade in the form of video game characters, in misguided response to a 1980’s Earth probe crammed full of pop culture artifacts. James enlists Brenner’s help for battling the Nintendo-age monsters, and the team is filled out by both a dweeby conspiracy nut (Josh Gad, mugging disastrously) and a sprung-from-prison, grown-up Fireblaster (Peter Dinklage). Why it has to be these guys, or how video game skills can even translate into real-world battle tactics are questions that goes unanswered, as the movie is so lazy with realizing its wish-fulfillment-powered premise that it forgets to actually justify it.

Dinklage should be fun, theoretically playing a variation on Billy Mitchell, the real-life guy who actually is a Donkey Kong champion, and was the subject of his own documentary, The King of Kong (the director of that movie, Seth Gordon, is a producer on this one, pointedly enough). But Dinklage’s performance, made out of bad hair, alpha dog posturing and an unfunny, exaggerated southern accent, goes down with the ship. Not that anyone is really well-served by Pixels, anyway. Gad’s character is a repository of stale jokes about overconfident creepy virgins, and James’ president never graduates beyond “he’s fat and that’s funny” humor. So dull is the movie’s comic edge that it hires Jane Krakowski to be the first lady and puts her on the bench for the entire (and I mean entire) runtime. We also get Brian Cox as a paranoid general, who is set up as a major character and then disappears from the proceedings shortly after being made the butt of a standard-issue gay panic joke.

It’s 2015, by the way.

The centerpieces, supposedly, are the sequences in which Brenner and crew have to play real-world versions of Centipede, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, etc., but a little of that goes a long way, especially because Pixels is so sloppy that the rules, geography and strategies of each battle make little sense. One key plot turn happens during a game battle because Dinklage’s character does something that is never set up, shown, explored, or even sufficiently explained. This is just flat-out objectively incompetent screenwriting. When the game characters smash something, the real world dissolves into pixelated blocks, and that’s kind of fun, but it’s a visual that wears out its welcome quickly. The huge sprites aren’t even asked to do anything fun, exactly. They simply exist, and the movie trusts that their existence, and their implied visual reference to things that really do exist in real life, is inherently enjoyable. This stuff is so lifeless that you start looking fondly on the moment when Q-Bert pees himself, because while that’s hacky gross-out humor, at least it’s something approaching a comic choice, miscalculated as it may be. This bizarre logic trickles down even to the running gag of James’ president donning a Chewbacca mask for no reason, or when Serena Williams shows up simply to exist as Serena Williams. Dat’s da joke. Have I mentioned the movie is not funny?

But at least Serena gets to be a human being. Monaghan’s character, although ostensibly a lieutenant colonel and technology developer, downgrades herself over the course of the movie to be nothing more than Sandler’s arm candy, a woman who in the midst of human annihilation cares only that this gross man-child likes her. (Before we get over the hump, she and Sandler bicker and snipe at each other, 90’s style, with her every attack presented as bitchy and his every insult contextualized as laudable shrew-taming.)  At one point, the movie conjures a formal event in Washington out of thin air, for no conceivable reason except script laziness, and then we get the standard shot of men being amazed that the female lead of the movie looks attractive in a dress, despite the fact that (a) we’ve known this character for an hour and (b) she looks like Michelle Monaghan. That’s still better than Ashley Benson showing up as a mute video game vixen who defects in order to be Josh Gad’s submissive, smiling, eager-to-please girlfriend, which the movie counts as an unqualified victory. This is goddamn creepy. The only female character who comes out looking okay is Sandler’s ex-wife, who is never seen but on the basis of the evidence exercised sound judgment in leaving him. Oh, she’s described as awful, of course. Pixels doesn’t think very highly of women, and it blends toxic masculinity with kid-friendly appeal in such a dose not seen since…well, any Transformers movie.

Directed with cheap ambition and little finesse by Chris Columbus, a man whose expertise extends, believe it or not, to two pop culture touchstones (Home Alone and the first two Harry Potters), Pixels is surprisingly terrible. Actually, that’s not so surprising, because Columbus’ meager involvement has “hired gun” written all over it. Through and through, the movie proudly marches under the banner of Happy Madison (Sandler’s production company), and the quick appearances of Sandler regulars like the unwatchable Nick Swardson only highlight that. Sandler, for the past decade, has slowly curated his own image as an actor who barely cares about the projects he’s in, and in Pixels he’s so detached he might as well be a special effect, too.  In a movie as cynically-assembled as this one, it only makes it worse when that cynicism has a face right up there on screen.

In a way, Pixels is a movie for our times. It wants nothing more to be a mash-up of Ghostbusters and The Last Starfighter. But it misses the simple fun of movies like that, or the ability to create rounded characters that we could root for. Even Starfighter, which was no masterpiece, had a sweetness to it, and it got away with its videogame conceit because it was about a young kid who happened to be good at something, but didn’t let it define his life until that thing grew in importance.  Pixels, in addition to the way it embraces nostalgia like a drunken senior at a graduation party, has no innocence, no sweetness, and it simply exists to celebrate characters who are already dangerously self-absorbed. Its idea of wish fulfillment is not one of people rising to an occasion, but instead one of an entire universe sinking to their level.  The strident willfulness here to supplant maturity with cheerful, unexamined juvenility is almost something to behold, as if some force in Hollywood wanted to make their own backwards masculine version of Trainwreck.

It’s rare to see a comedy that makes you so sad and depressed. Like a broken arcade machine, Pixels sucks up all your quarters and gives you nothing for your trouble. Get the manager, folks. This one is busted.

Inside Out (2015)

io1Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Pete Docter, Ronaldo del Carmen. Screenplay by Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Pete Docter; story by Pete Docter, Ronaldo del Carmen. Produced by Jonas Rivera. Music by Michael Giacchino. Edited by Kevin Nolting. Production designed by Ralph Eggleston. Art direction by Bert Berry. Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle McLachlan.

Several movies have taken place inside the human mind, but none of them have done so with such exuberance, creativity and sophistication than Inside Out. Disney-Pixar’s latest film is not just a visual marvel and a great entertainment, but it has something to say about the role that emotions play in our lives—something quietly profound. This is the studio’s fifteenth feature, and—after a string of middling entries and a whole year hiatus—one of their very best, joining their upper echelon of hits like Finding Nemo and Up and becoming that rarest of things: a true instant classic.

The premise is simply stated, more or less. When a little girl named Riley comes into the life of two sweet parents, we meet the five anthropomorphized emotions who are “born” with her: the yellow, bouncy Joy (Amy Poehler, perfectly cast), fireplug-red Anger (Lewis Black, ditto), the purple, vaguely insectoid fear (Bill Hader, yes again), sickly green Disgust (Mindy Kaling, brilliant) and the teardrop-shaped blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith of The Office, of course). Together in the central hub office (or “Headquarters”) of Riley’s mind, the five emotions perpetually jockey for control of a console that informs Riley’s actions (varying based on which one is behind the controls), though the effervescent Joy keeps herself more or less dominant. Memories come in as ball-shaped objects, each colored in tune with a specific emotion (happy memories are hued in Joy’s yellow, for example). Important “core” memories generate pop-up islands in the spaces of Riley’s mind that shape aspects of her happy personality: honesty, family, hockey, etc. Everything, as Riley grows into an 11-year-old (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), is great.

But things soon take a turn for the girl. Her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, where the environs are alien, her hockey teammates are gone, the family’s new home is unpromising, pizza places can’t get pizza right, and both parents are growing worried and distant, and her first day of school is an emotional disaster. Inside Riley’s head, Sadness starts infecting once-happy memory spheres with her blues, to Joy’s consternation. A scuffle leads to Joy and Sadness (along with several core memories) being jettisoned out of Headquarters, leaving Riley in the uncertain hands of Disgust, Anger and Fear, which causes troubling behavior in the real world.  What’s more, this new instability causes Riley’s mind to flirt with serious and potentially damaging upheaval, as personality islands collapse and Joy and Sadness are in danger of getting lost forever in Riley’s heady labyrinth, or being chucked into a gaping abyss where memories go to die. The unspoken ramifications could be devastating.

And thus we have an adventure story with a traditional shape and charmingly abstract trappings. Joy and Sadness try to navigate the annals of long-term memory and bump into maintenance crews cleaning out junk, as well as Riley’s discarded imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind). Together, the three pass through zones called Imagination Land and Abstract Thinking, with a stopover at a movie studio that is literally a dream factory for Riley. Along the way, there’s plenty of wonderful visuals and sly jokes for all ages. At one point, Joy knocks over a box each of “opinions” and “facts” and can’t sort them, and then she’s told “It happens all the time.”

But as is also Pixar tradition, the movie enters tearful territory as Joy desperately tries to get back to Riley and learns hard truths about the nature of the mind. What specifically happens to Joy and Sadness (and Bing Bong, for that matter), I won’t reveal, but it has everything to do with the poignant realities of growing up: personality changes, things are replaced, and a healthy growing mind needs balance. All of this is juxtaposed with Riley’s scenes, and she is a such a good kid that her inner turmoil gives us more stakes than a thousand blockbusters.

The voice work is inspired, the animation is delightful, the story is thrilling, and Inside Out ultimately arrives at lessons that can actually help us understand each other, and ourselves. That will resonate instantly while adults, while kids will find it increasingly meaningful as they grow up with it. Which they will.

Ted 2 (2015)

watch-raunchy-ted-2-2015-movie-trailer-videoUniversal Pictures presents a film directed by Seth MacFarlane. Written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild. Produced by Jason Clark, John Jacobs, Seth MacFarlane, Scott Stuber. Music by Walter Murphy. Photographed by Michael Barrett. Edited by Jeff Freeman. Production designed by Stephen J. Lineweaver. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane, Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, Morgan Freeman, Patrick Warburton.

Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, has built his empire on a bedrock of brazen, cheerful offensiveness. In his world, absolutely no taboo is unbreakable, which certainly can be a valuable way to approach comedy. The take-no-prisoners approach, after all, worked wonders for one of MacFarlane’s clear inspirations, Mel Brooks. But MacFarlane’s work has always teetered drunkenly on the line between pointedly edgy and aimlessly mean-spirited, and with Ted 2 he falls on the wrong side. The result is sour and ugly.

The first Ted was not great, but it was confident: despite its unrepentant vulgarity and occasionally hurtful material, it had a rapid-fire pace and something that resembled, sort of, a beating heart. It felt like it knew what it was doing, and had carefully diagrammed its exit strategy on how to get away with it. Perhaps MacFarlane used up all his ideas in Ted, because Ted 2 is a misfire covered in flopsweat. In devising a sequel to a movie that MacFarlane is probably smart enough to know didn’t need one, his style turns to workmanlike desperation, with too much plot, too few jokes, and a generally unpleasant air of self-satisfaction. The original Ted had endless invention, and this one is endless miscalculation. And I do mean endless—its two-hour runtime feels twice that.

Returning from the first, we have both MacFarlane, voicing the misanthropic racist teddy bear known as Ted, and also Mark Wahlberg as a Bostonian layabout named John. The two grew up together and became best buddy stoners, and both, as Ted 2 begins, face marriages on the rocks. Mila Kunis, John’s love interest from the first film (and absent from this one), has divorced him, rendering the first movie’s most sweet element as something to be casually dismissed. Ted’s own marital life to supermarket clerk Tammi-Lynn (Jessica Barth) has turned acrid, and Ted thinks having a baby might save it. That would take some doing, at first simply because Ted is a stuffed bear and ill-equipped for that particular function. But also, it turns out, Ted is not a person in the eyes of the law, and so as he and John enlist lawyer Amanda Seyfried (the character’s name is Sam L. Jackson—ha ha) to help them, the movie turns into a callow and self-congratulatory civil rights parable, one that is played far too seriously.

That’s the most curious thing about Ted 2: long stretches where the jokes are either sparse, lame or just plain non-existent. This includes an opening ten minutes that contains a flat wedding party scene, a straight-faced song-and-dance number and a shrill marital argument that all possess an uneasy commitment to actual comedy. It gets better, a little, as it goes on, but the movie overall makes the mistake of presuming we truly care about Ted’s struggle—with many moments played with utmost sincerity—and it doesn’t work one bit. As a sidekick, Ted is a decent comedic livewire, and some of his zingers still hit this time around. But as a protagonist, Ted is so unlikable, nasty and one-note that MacFarlane should have done something to ramp up the joke count.

Some bits hit (there are faintly funny cameos, and one great one), but mostly what’s left in the humor department—besides the exhausting amount of dead air—is deeply lazy: recycled gags, pop culture references that are nothing more than just references, characters that don’t make sense, and an altogether baffling run of jokes that is straight-up, unforgivably racist. Other moments, like one where John and Ted attend an improv show and throw out vile (and topical) suggestions basically makes fun of comedians who don’t push the limits, although that’s coming from MacFarlane, who prefers aimless comedy that repulses over thoughtful material that doesn’t.

There’s a place for MacFarlane’s sensibilities, I suppose, but not in a movie that lacks so much perspective, or one that keeps pointing to a heart it doesn’t have. At one point, a lawyer argues that Ted cannot be a person because he lacks empathy. The attorney is painted as a villain, but the problem is, he isn’t wrong at all. But that’s Ted 2 for you: a movie that wants to have its terrible bear and then love him, too. Oh, and without enough jokes.

Jurassic World (2015)

still-of-chris-pratt-in-jurassic-world-(2015)-large-pictureUniversal Pictures presents a film directed by Colin Trevorrow. Screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow; story by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver; based on characters created by Michael Crichton. Produced by Patrick Crowley, Frank Marshall. Music by Michael Giacchino; “Jurassic Park” theme by John Williams. Photographed by John Schwartzman. Edited by Kevin Stitt. Production designed by Ed Verreaux. Costumes designed by April Ferry, Daniel Orlandi. Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, B.D. Wong, Irrfan Khan.

Believe it or not, it’s been fourteen years since audiences last took a trip to the dinosaur-infested universe of Jurassic Park. After the smashing success of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic, Spielberg himself returned for the uncharacteristically cynical 1997 sequel The Lost World, and then director Joe Johnson took over the reins for 2001’s competent-but-forgettable Jurassic Park III. That last one seemed to close the book on the franchise, but never underestimate Hollywood’s ability to jumpstart old properties. Here, at long last, is Jurassic World, which seems poised to carry the series into perpetuity, and whether it was worth the wait is difficult to answer. It’s definitely no equal the original Jurassic. But it is solid fun.

It’s necessary to reflect going in that arguably nothing can recapture the lighting in a bottle that Spielberg achieved in 1993. Adapting Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel, Spielberg essentially took a B-movie and elevated it through formidable (yet effortless) craft and truly revolutionary special effects.  Ever since, the Jurassic sequels have gradually upped the ante and knowingly embraced schlock, perhaps realizing that the original’s sense of awe and wonder was a one-time-only. World marries the Jurassic premise (dinosaurs brought back to life via genetic engineering) with the theatrics of a disaster movie, imagining a thriving, open-for-business dinosaur park that finds itself in a crisis that worsens due to corporate greed. Call it The Towering Jurassic.

In a movie like this, the characters are barely sketches, but the heroes are nice, the villains are hiss-worthy, and there’s maybe time for a few to switch teams. Certainly when we meet Bryce Dallas Howard as Jurassic World’s senior operations manager, she seems to be begging for dinosaur-guided karma: she’s an all-career woman who refuses to spend time with her two visiting nephews (Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins), has no reverence for the prehistoric behemoths, and is such a stick-in-the-mud that she rolls her eyes at Chris Pratt’s romantic advances (Howard does the best she can with a character mired in rickety gender politics). Pratt, a snarky expert dinosaur trainer who is in the middle of semi-domesticating a pack of velociraptors, is called in to inspect the Indominus Rex, a newly-minted hybrid dinosaur who has been engineered to give the crowd’s waning enthusiasm for dinosaurs a shot in the arm (Pratt, tellingly, sees it as an abomination). But the Indominus is too clever by half, and engineers a jailbreak that becomes the first link in a chaotic chain of dinosaur escapes.

What we come for in a Jurassic Park movie is for what happens next: scenes of characters being menaced, growled at, and occasionally eaten, with some dinosaur vs. dinosaur fights adding to the oomph factor. There’s nothing new here, but they’re fun to see, because many of us can still commune with our nine-year-old selves who adore dinosaurs and want to see them do their thing. Highlights include a pterodactyl attack on civilians that recalls Hitchcock’s The Birds, an intense assault on a tour vehicle that riffs on the original’s signature tyrannosaur scene, and a last thirty minutes of escalating action that, in moments, is genuinely frightening (like all Jurassic movies, parents should be judicious in bringing kids to see this; it’s rated PG-13 and it means it).

What World adds to the franchise is sly, self-aware humor. The actual park hub is a huge mall, which partially fuels a rich running joke on product placement and corporate sponsorship run amok. (The Indominus  is officially dubbed “Verizon Wireless Presents the Indominus Rex,” which causes many of the geeks in the control room to gag). And there’s a speck of cultural commentary in the way that half the park attendees are blasé towards dinosaurs, spending more time on their phones than appreciating the spectacle until violence happens (the more you think about this, the more the movie’s self-reflexivity might make your head spin). The director and co-writer, Colin Trevorrow, making only his second feature (after the indie Safety Not Guaranteed) imbues the material with a surprising dose of personality, and he even arrives at something resembling a theme: the choice between aloofness and connection, and how the latter can make one both vulnerable and stronger. Not bad, all things considered.

Spy (2015)

20th Century Fox presents a film written and directed by Paul Feig. Produced by Paul Feig, Jesse Henderson, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping. Music by Theodore Shapiro. Photographed by Robert Yeoman. Edited by Mellisa Bretherton, Brent White. Production designed by Jefferson Sage. Costumes designed by Christine Bieselin Clark. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Jude Law, Peter Serafinowitz, Morena Baccarin.

In the years since she stole scenes in Bridesmaids and made herself a Hollywood comedy player, Melissa McCarthy has had an uneven time of it. Many of the projects she picks don’t seem to know how to use her, even the movies that she has produced herself (recent misfires include Identity Thief and Tammy). Spy, McCarthy’s newest, is her reunion with Paul Feig, who directed Bridesmaids, and then in The Heat served McCarthy and Sandra Bullock with fully-dimensional (and funny) female characters to inhabit. In Spy, McCarthy and Feig top their success in two areas: creating a solid, fleshed-out comic persona for McCarthy…and then constructing a superb comedy for her to be in. Despite its generic title and misleading ad campaign, Spy is a delight: inventive, ambitious, and very funny.

It’s also smart in the way it uses McCarthy’s genuine comedic skills and even subtly plays off her image, as she is a woman constantly beset by the way other people perceive her. She plays a mousy CIA technician named Susan Cooper, who, via a high-tech Bluetooth, operates as the eyes and ears of superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law, having fun as a walking 007 parody). Fine, who is a little dim, sees himself and Cooper as an inseparable team, so much so that his support caused Cooper to hamstring her own promising career as a field agent so that she can stay attached to Fine in the Langley basement. A colossal threat posed by a Hungarian heiress/terrorist (Rose Byrne), however, forces Cooper to actually go into the field, where she’s given a cover identity packed with stealth insults (she’s a cat lady with gadgets disguised as fungal ointments and stool softeners). But as she gets deeper into her assignment (and goes inevitably off-plan), she finds she must reinvent herself again and again just to stay alive, to say nothing of stopping the bad guys.

McCarthy is terrific in Spy, tapping into the heroine’s lovable insecurities in ways that keep her grounded. Her Susan is aware of her own sadness, and has an uneasy relationship with the fact that her simpatico partnership with Fine has left her a forgotten CIA fixture. She wears her false identities with resignation, them being supplied to her by people who are, whether they know it or not, dedicated to underestimating her. She’s a competent agent: fluent in languages, able to spot a setup, good at manipulating people, able to read a situation quicker than a foe can. When she goes over-the-top, she’s desperate to protect or replace her cover, not because she’s someone who is too aware that they’re in a comedy. That makes her material much funnier, because it extends from a fully-realized character, even the scenes where she’s constantly riffing on her surroundings feel like a defense mechanism, not improv gone wild.

But McCarthy is assisted by an unbelievably good support team in Spy. Allison Janney plays her dry boss, who has as little use for Cooper as anyone (“Women,” she sniffs disdainfully after learning about Cooper’s self-denial and lack of confidence). Jason Statham is hilarious as Rick Ford, a disdainful agent who goes rogue to follow Cooper, berating her as a screwup while regaling her with endless tales of what a great spy he is (which sound like him drunkenly summarizing deleted scenes from Jason Statham movies). Peter Serafinowitz plays a friendly (too friendly) agent of vague European descent who is more Pepe Le Pew than James Bond. The lovable Miranda Hart plays Cooper’s gal pal, who also finds herself surprised by how capable she is in the field. And Rose Byrne, often the best thing in a comedy these days, walks away with her scenes as the villainess who takes a cruel shine to Cooper. And then there’s Feig behind the camera, who treats these people like they really are in an espionage thriller: he establishes a fast, gag-heavy pace and creates exciting chases and action, not content with the current comedy trend of just planting a camera and letting actors riff endless sketches. There’s even an intricate fight scene in a kitchen that would make Jackie Chan proud. Spy is an action comedy that doesn’t skimp on either account.

Aloha (2015)

screen-shot-2015-02-11-at-9-08-25-pmColumbia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Produced by Cameron Crowe, Scott Rudin. Photographed by Eric Gautier. Edited by Joe Hutshing. Production designed by Clay A. Griffith. Costumes designed by Deborah Lynn Scott. Starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin.

Director Cameron Crowe likes to tell stories about people who feel big feelings; nothing less interests him. In Crowe’s universe, emotions are important, sweeping romantic gestures are to be savored, and cynicism is seen mainly as an enemy to be vanquished. His films use a lot of pop music, not because he wants to sell a soundtrack, but because he writes about people who happily live in a pop culture world. His movies are made with love and are always proudly about love: in Say Anything, he made a shot of John Cusack’s boombox-assisted declaration of affection instantly iconic, and in Jerry Maguire he added “You had me at hello” and “You complete me” to the cultural lexicon. And in Almost Famous, he told a story about a boy who loved both a girl and rock and roll, and had to swim through a sea of phonies that claimed to love those things, too.

Aloha, Crowe’s latest, is of course about love: love of the land, love of culture, and a romance that goes inextricably hand in hand with those. It’s a messy and unfocused movie, at times, but I enjoy the way Crowe does messy. It’s joyful, not frantic. He does a lot of plate-spinning, but every plate is there for a reason. His writing has a traditional structure, but his scenes often hum with the details of everyday life. Aloha sometimes feels like five different movies jostling for space, but I like each one of the movies he’s making.

Bradley Cooper plays Brian Gilcrest, a defense contractor that the military has loaned to Carson Welch, (Bill Murray) an eccentric telecommunications billionaire. Arriving in Hawaii, Gilcrest is tasked with brokering a deal with a descendant of Hawaiian royalty to bless the launch site, as a PR stunt. Some, however, take local traditions seriously, and that includes Capt. Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a fighter pilot who is one-quarter Hawaiian and is assigned to Brian as a military attaché.  Ng is spritely and deeply spiritual, and she is repeatedly unfazed by Brian’s attempts to not make friends, do his job and leave. “You’re cynical, I get it,” she says, smiling, as if sizing up an opponent for a tennis match. They fall in love, because who wouldn’t? But Gilcrest does have baggage: an ex-wife, Tracy (Rachel McAdams) who is a nice woman with two nice kids, but she’s also a little sad, and more than willing to tell Gilcrest his own flaws. Meanwhile, Tracy’s new airman husband (John Krasinski) is the strong/silent type, but his body language says (among other things) “Go away.”

In addition to this assortment of characters there’s also conflict between those who respect the sacred traditions of Hawaii, and those who don’t (the movie shows the uneasy relationship the locals have with the mainland). And there’s a little class commentary, and some serious portents of Hawaiian prophecy. And there’s some big family issues to work out, and time for Gilcrest to figure if maybe he’s playing for the wrong team, and Bill Murray at his reserved and quirky best. And the satellite launch, and Alec Baldwin as a cartoonish mad-dog general, and Danny McBride as a sardonic colonel. There’s even a dance sequence between Stone and Murray set to Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” that doesn’t have much to do with anything, but I’m so glad it’s there.

Cooper and Stone generate huge chemistry in Aloha, which is unsurprising, but also crucial; not just because we have to believe their romance but because Crowe’s dialogue, in the wrong hands, can explode on contact—these two create characters that you buy saying these lines, even when they’re near-impossibly earnest. Crowe always swings big in terms of dialogue, character and theme, and at his worst he can miss, but at his best, like filmmakers from the golden age, he uses his formalist tendencies to cut right to the beating heart of something. And heart is key. Aloha is a second-tier work from a filmmaker who has greatness in him. It’s a little rambling, a little self-indulgent, maybe a little too twee. But it’s so darned likable and warm that it’s difficult to mind very much.