Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Paper Thin

Sigh. The teen years are filled with angst, adventure, fear, and uncertainty. The film version of John Green's award-winning novel Paper Towns wants to capture all of that, but falls short of the mark, settling instead for being teen melodramatic claptrap.

There's just nothing here - and it's not that it's awful (remember, our standard for eye-gouging awfulness remains Bay's Transformers 4), but it's just meh. The cinematography is nothing special, the acting is fairly bland, the script has some plot holes Quentin could drive his mom's minivan through - it's simply not good. I can't comment on how closely the movie hews to the source material (although others have), but the film seems overwrought and unrealistic, both in motivation for characters' behavior and in its treatment of time (really - you can't take a bus from New York to Orlando and arrive in time for your prom. You just can't). Oh, and Margo Roth Spiegelman isn't a "mystery;" she's a whack job who is only fit company for the creepy whatisname Cullen from Twilight. Remember? The guy who watches his crush sleeping without her knowing about it and refers to her as my "own brand of heroin." Yeah. That guy. Margo is portrayed here as a budding hipster - look, she collects vinyl records! Her room is decorated whimsically! She's so alternative! No - she isn't. She's screaming for attention and apparently has unlimited funds to skip town and live comfortably.

That being said, I also have to realize and appreciate that I'm not the audience Paper Towns is trying to capture. Teens might love it and I refuse to say they're wrong. I have several films that I adored as a teen that I now look back on and gently shake my head. To me, Paper Towns is thin and ridiculous, but I'm not a teen who thinks (as 98% of teens do) that my life sucks and my town is boring. John Green is a force to be reckoned with in the YA demographic, so maybe to his target audience, Paper Towns captures some of that roiling teen whiplash experience.

For my money, if you truly want to see the high school experience, you should check out the Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Season Three episode "Earshot." Really - the writing's better and the story, even if it does involve demons, is more compelling. It's available free from Hulu!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Fathers, Daughters, Ants, & Trainwrecks

 There's a new act under the tent holding the Marvel Cinematic Universe ("MCU") and Ant-Man is a worthy addition. While Ant-Man is a (let's face it) far less well-known character than Iron Man, Thor, or Hulk, he's been around since 1962, when he was introduced in Tales to Astonish #27. (There's actually a lovely shout-out to that title, if you listen carefully.) Now, the MCU has not been shy about tinkering with the backstories of their characters and I try not to get too incensed about that (Iron Man 3's complete mangling of the Mandarin character aside - Shane Black still owes me an apology fruit basket for that howling mess), but let's just get one thing straight. The original Ant-Man, along with Janet Van Dyne (Wasp), co-founded the Avengers, so he's a rather big deal. (The original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, is also frequently a terrible person in the comics. Let's leave it at that.) So for the movie version, the decision was made to focus on Scott Lang, who became the second Ant-Man. I've been fortunate enough to meet and correspond with the generous David Michelinie, who co-created Scott Lang with John Byrne in the late 70s, and I was glad to see his name in the film's credits. (Michelinie also created one of my all-time favorite storylines involving Tony Stark, which was carefully set up in the first two Iron Man films, only to be cast aside by the aforementioned Shane Black. Still waiting, apparently fruitlessly, for the also-aforementioned basket.)

But I don't want to catch up on years of back issues, you say. Fair enough. No need to - Ant-Man holds its own in the MCU and, as an extra treat, adds to the growing movie lore. There are several references to the events in Age of Ultron, which is fitting for the film that ends Phase 2 of the MCU. Again - watch carefully. Paul Rudd hits the right mix of funny and determined in Scott Lang, Michael Douglas carries off Hank Pym with aplomb, Evangeline Lilly nails Hope Van Dyne (although this certainly does seem to be the Summer of Women with Severe Haircuts), and Michael Pena steals Every Single Scene he appears in. It's a fun popcorn flick that also nudges the MCU along. And yes, there are "credit scenes" that you don't want to miss, so don't leave until you see the Teamsters logo.

While Ant-Man involves the often-complicated relationship between fathers and daughters (both Scott Lang and Hank Pym have issues with that), Trainwreck puts it front and center and is definitely for the adults in your movie-going group. Written by Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow (his first film to direct without also writing), Trainwreck is a four-letter rom-com. While it's usual in that genre for the man to be a cad who is tamed by the Love of a Good Woman, Trainwreck shows the gentle, refined touch of a lady. Amy Schumer's lead character (also named Amy - her real-life sister's name, her father's name and struggle with multiple sclerosis are also based in reality, so the film has more than a passing personal touch for her) is not interested in anything more than a hook-up, until (per the formula) she meets The Right Guy, played here by Bill Hader.

Make no mistake - this Amy is a mess. She drinks too much, smokes too much pot, cusses too much, has a complicated relationship with her family, mocks commitment, is not exactly discerning about who she hooks up with, and is really just a mess. It's also ridiculously refreshing to see a woman who is independent (to a fault, true), successful, and shown to be comfortable with her appearance and her sexuality, even though she's not movie star thin. And it's a rom-com, so it all works out in the end. You'll develop a new appreciation for the physical exertion of professional cheerleaders, as well.

Plus - LeBron James is funny. Who knew? Then again, Schumer gave him fantastic lines to work with.

Please remember that you can keep up with the latest episode of Meet Me at the Movies (new episodes every Friday!) whenever you want through streaming! You can either subscribe to the show through Livestream, or simply go the the Cleveland Community College webpage, select C19TV at the top of the screen and select the show from the broadcast options. Tell your friends!

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Small & the Large

Two good films have crossed my path this past week. One is getting all the buzz you would expect from a follow-up/prequel to the successful Despicable Me movies, but the other is not only flying under the radar, it's getting swatted by critics - I think unfairly. So let's talk Minions but let's also chat about Self/Less.

 First - Minions. Narrated by Geoffrey Rush, this film purports to explain how the minions first crossed paths with Gru. To be honest, I wasn't expecting too much from this one, figuring it was a quick cash cow for Universal. But as soon as the iconic studio logo was given the minion gibberish-language treatment, I decided that this might be a fun ride. True, Minions isn't ground-breaking, but it's entertaining for kids (our almost-teenage god-daughter might be a touch old for it, although she declared it "adorable" and seemed to have a fine time. Then again, she was with me and FryDaddy and we're just delights) and for adults. In fact, there are some great gags in here that will resonate far more with the adults than with the young 'uns. Given that the film is set in "swinging London" of 1968, you have a fantastic soundtrack and some great visual jokes (be on the look out for the Abbey Road one in particular). Vocal talent is strong, with Sandra Bullock as the supervillain Scarlet Overkill (I love that name!), the incomparable Jon Hamm as her gadget-building husband, Allison Janney and Michael Keaton as a lovely family teaching their children how to best climb the villain ladder of evil, and Jennifer Saunders (from Absolutely Fabulous) as the Queen of England, who's a tough broad. Go. Have fun. It's a lovely summer popcorn flick, with some sly things to say about the infamous "Hall H" at the world's largest pop culture gathering that is the San Diego Comic Con.

Self/Less is not getting much love from the critics, which is a shame. Starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Kingsley, what you have here is a solid science fiction body-swap movie. (Plus, for fans of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, there's a nice bit in here about whether or not a slate can ever truly be "clean.") More psychological thriller and less CGI shoot-em-up, this is a film that summer just doesn't know what to do with. It's not an early Oscar showcase picture and it's not intended to be a summer blockbuster. Honestly, it's the sort of movie Hollywood used to turn out regularly - workmanlike, well-structured, and entertaining, but making no pretense of reinventing the genre. Sadly, that's not enough these days. Studios would rather churn out expensive 3D dreck that has a chance of making boatloads of money with the international market (which is more and more important - especially China) than risk far less money on a well-crafted, albeit smaller, picture. It's worth checking out - why, this film even made me forgive Kingsley for the mega-mess of his portrayal of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Summer Movie Catch-Up!

Summer is a time when studios release, release, release and it's hard to stay on top of everything. For that reason, you need to tune in to Meet Me at the Movies to get the recap on the new Terminator movie. (Hey, we're available through streaming! Go to clevelandcc.edu, pick C19TV at the top of the screen - we're the first show on the top row of programming! Watch at your leisure - and there's a new show beginning each Friday morning!) See, this week Ensley and I split the viewing - he took Terminator and I took Magic Mike XXL. Who got the better end of the deal? Read on.

To complete the "catch up" portion of the blog, let me highly recommend - for two different audiences - both Inside Out and Dope

 Inside Out is the latest offering from Pixar and it's a winner. Not quite as transcendent as Up, but a cracking good view. The detail-oriented folks at Pixar consulted a number of actual brain scientists to get things right about how memories are formed and stored, and that attention to detail makes for a movie that will appeal to tweens and adults. At the heart of Inside Out is young Riley, who is dealing with being uprooted from her life in Minnesota to move to San Francisco with her parents. It's a huge change for her and she has some trouble adjusting to the change. Plus - she's eleven, which can be the start of some hard years. To help her through every day, she's got an internal "board of directors" made up of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. (Well, we all do - stay 'til the end and you'll see what I mean.) The vocal talent is great - casting perpetually-angry Lewis Black as the personification of Anger was genius - and the story is captivating. Plus, Bing Bong. Fun on the big screen and definitely a rental afterward.

Dope seems to be this year's "independent film that could." After screening at Sundance, it was picked up for distribution by Open Road Films (interestingly, a company formed by two movie theatre chains - AMC and Regal). Dope centers on three high school seniors living in a rough area of Los Angeles who are joined together by their geeky outsider love for '90s hip-hop culture. Over the course of the film, we see Malcolm and his friends attempt to navigate staying on the straight and narrow while still being curious teenagers who want things. Deeply moving, laugh-out-loud funny, and uncomfortably questioning some notions of race and culture, Dope is worth seeking out. Please do.

Magic Mike XXL - well. First off, let me admit that I missed the original, although there's no need to have seen that to make sense of this sequel. The plot's thin - basically, it's a buddy-road movie with a lot of cussing and thongs. That I was expecting. What threw me were two things - first, the sheer level of raunch in this film, and I certainly don't consider myself to be a pearl-clutching prude. Let's just say that the dancing scenes are highly - interactive - with the onscreen female audience. This ain't your mama's Chippendales show. While attending such an evening's entertainment would not be my particular suggestive exploding bottle of water, I have to admit that women who do go know what they're getting into, which brings up my next, far more puzzling, point. Strangely, Magic Mike XXL is a celebration of the female. There is much talk about honoring and cherishing women and their desires - and let's face it, most movies see women only as a collection of parts and there's an entire (particularly icky) subgenre of horror films that seeks to punish women for even having sexuality. In this film, not only is desire accepted as natural, it's not limited to skinny white women - sadly unusual in mainstream films.  The lust in Magic Mike XXL is clearly depicted as being all in good fun, and the strippers are both profane and contemplative in turns. Yeah, it's nice to have a thousand women screaming to touch your well-oiled body, but there's nobody to go home to, which pains several of the "male entertainers." Plus, Myrtle Beach on the Fourth of July is apparently all yearning strippers and American flags. Weird, but just maybe worth a rental.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Sigh. Unnecessary Sequels & Reboots

Hollywood is a business - and a costly business. Movies are expensive to make, distribute, and market. Therefore, when a studio hits a home run, they want to repeat the experience. Sometimes the "repeat" is in the form of a sequel; a continuation of the original story, often with the same actors playing the roles. Other times, studios dust off an old success and try to freshen it up for a new generation. Every now and then, it pays off - the reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise has been both commercially and critically successful and big plans are in the works there - and sometimes it doesn't - by the end of the original Planet of the Apes franchise, things were looking pretty shabby.

And ever since Spielberg launched the modern summer blockbuster with Jaws, studios have looked to summer as the season to make moneymoneymoney.

Put those notions together and you get Jurassic World and (heaven help us) Ted 2. Let's take a brief look at both of these efforts.

Jurassic World is trying to cash in on the success of the Jurassic Park movies, which started 22 (!) years ago. There's a whole new generation of viewers out there and dinosaurs are always popular, so why not make them bigger, toothier, and moremoremore? Because it doesn't work and playing John Williams' soaring theme music over shots of the park, rather than shots of these incredible creatures sort of - well, underscores that point. I like Chris Pratt just fine and Dallas Bryce Howard deserves better than the cardboard cutout, severe-business-woman character she's given to play in this one. (She's paid for The Village by now.) There's still a message in here - but it's watered down and honestly, the movie isn't a big screen requirement. It goes back to the old saying from The Critic - "If a movie is a remake of a classic, rent the classic." It's not that Jurassic World is awful, it's just dull, which is nigh-unforgivable in a movie about giant man-eating lizards. But it does feature a Jimmy Buffett cameo, so there's that. He's not in the recut, fan-made, trailer, but it's still worth a watch.

Ted 2 is a bear of a different color. The original Ted was profane, lewd, and hilarious because it was such an original idea (but is this just Macfarlane speculating on the nature of Stewie and Rupert from Family Guy? Hmmm). This second outing just feels tired - and that's not just my opinion. The audience in the theatre when I saw it was trying to laugh, but it was just too much effort. Some chuckles, but really - no surprising, "hey, did you catch that?" belly laughs are in this one. It's still profane and lewd, but sadly - it's not funny. Well, there is one funny, totally random cameo from Liam Neeson (who was also in Macfarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West), but aside from that - I'm not even comfortable recommending it as a rental.

Both films will make money - in fact, Jurassic World is breaking box office records, but trust me, that's no guarantee of quality.

Advice worth taking!