Monday, March 17, 2014

Charm and Dreck

The first few months of the calendar year can be considered the "dumping ground" of new releases.  That's not to say that all films released in the first quarter are bad (Lego, anyone?) - that's simply not true and certainly the rest of the year has its share of dogs. But there is a certain concentration of so-so movies galloping around loose in mid-to-late winter.

Case in point - Need for Speed. I'm honestly not going to say much here - Aaron Paul played Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, a show you know I hold in high esteem and Paul's ability to find the vulnerability in Jesse was a large part of that. So maybe the director (Scott Waugh, far better known as a stuntman) is an old friend or maybe Paul's a lousy poker player and had a bad night in Reno. I have no idea, but this movie is bad. As in "don't bother renting it to snark your way through" bad. As in audible groaning in the theater bad. And I like bad movies - with the rise of the teenager as a target audience in the prosperous 1950s, pretty awful movies aimed at teenagers were a distinct subgroup of the industry and those old B&W can be fun to watch for their sheer awfulness. (Disposable income plus the car culture of America led to the drive-in, a venue that screamed its need for fresh creature features every week, thus leading to by-the-numbers awful movies like Teenagers from Outer Space, a bad movie that nevertheless has a certain charm because it seems to know that it's nothing more than This Week's Flavor.) Need for Speed takes itself too seriously, relies on too many cliches (both in characterization and dialogue), and ignores the reality of street racing. (Just one example - Paul's character, Tobey, goes to jail for participating in an illegal street race that kills his "little brother," in part because the rich cretin who actually caused the death crash has friends lie for him. Really? None of the dozens of other motorists who swerved, stomped on brakes, and often crashed their own cars avoiding you jerks could count to three to report the number of souped-up illegal-in-this-country-yet-still-registered-to-the-rich-cretin cars in this race?) Seriously, if not for the movie show, I'd have left the theater on this one, and I never walk out. (By the way, Dominic Cooper plays the villain in this one. You know him as Howard Stark, Tony's dad, in the first Captain America movie. He's reprising the role in Winter Soldier, which is out in a few weeks.) Best part? Catching a glimpse of Aaron Paul's "No Half Measures" tattoo on his right arm in a shot. Take your ink's advice - wait for better material. You're worth it, and heaven above knows I don't deserve this sort of schlock.

Fortunately, I also saw Mr. Peabody & Sherman this weekend. As a fan of the original Rocky & Bullwinkle series, which gave the world Frostbite Falls, Cold War intrigue, Dudley Do-Right, and Fractured Fairy Tales, in addition to the super-genius dog and his boy, I wasn't sure. 1950s charm has a hard time translating to our more cynical time. It's a tough sell - kids today have no clue who these characters are, so the filmmakers had to relate to them as well as to the folks who took the kids to the movie in the first place. I have to say, Mr. Peabody has a certain charm to it, as well as some solid vocal talent designed to delight the older fry among us. The original Jay Ward shorts never really focused on the father-son relationship here; Mr. Peabody was a dog who had a boy and that was that. However, in this version, that relationship is really at the heart of the movie and that provides us with the "hook" to get into the puns and the history and the fast pacing of the original shorts. A few slightly crude jokes regarding the behind of the Sphinx, sewer gas, and Trojan Horse droppings might make you cringe, but at its core, Mr. Peabody is a family film that just might cause a kid or two to pick up a book. I doubt anything is gained by seeing it on the big screen, but if your choices are Mr. Peabody or Need for Speed - go see the dog cartoon and do a good deed and buy a ticket for any poor schmo who's in line for the other.

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