Friday, July 31, 2015

Vacation (2015)

** out of ****

In Vacation, we essentially get a remake of National Lampoon’s Vacation” -the raunchy road-trip comedy from 1983. The film is technically a sequel, now starring the grown-up Rusty Griswold (now played by Ed Helms), a character who changed age, appearance, and personality enough throughout the original run of Vacation movies that it isn’t really a stretch for him to now be a father character with the same oblivious and delusional optimism that his father (Chevy Chase) possessed.

It’s a remake masquerading as a sequel, because Rusty is desperate to take charge of his family’s growing disconnection by forcing them to experience a road trip, like the one he had as a kid. So once again, the Griswold’s are off to Wally World with a mess of trouble to encounter along the way.

I found it to be as mixed an experience as the original film, which may have had an impact during the new run of low-brow studio comedies of the time but isn't an example of a solid comedy in my book (the tamer Christmas Vacation is significantly funnier). Some of the weaker aspects of the new movie’s humor are stretched thin, while a lot of other gags land beautifully. Writers/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (the scribes behind Horrible Bosses) essentially do a good job in the invention putting a spin on concepts borrowed from the original and maintaining an irreverent tone -an important trait that a lot of character-arc obsessed comedy movie writers don't seem to understand.

Unfortunately, Ed Helms turns in a one-note performance with his lead character, often showing a big fifties-dad smile that no kid today should view as familiar. Christina Applegate, as his wife, often outshines him with an understated performance and the feuding children are this time brothers, where the younger of the two is the bully - which felt original. The talented list of cameos throughout the film, also provide an element of satisfaction -particularly a visit to the Four Corners Monument, which results in a jurisdictional stand-off among four officers of separate states -all played by good comic actors.

Vacation may be an unwanted cash-grab with a weak imitation structure, but it inspired just enough laughs for me to give it some kind of very mild recommendation. 


* out of ****

In Pixels, Adam Sandler looks worn-out, uninterested and lazy as a former arcade game champion, who is supposed to be reinvigorated when the call to be a hero comes his way. Bear in mind, while he may not be the director, this is the man in front of - and behind most of his movies.

There's one long dumb scene when he's brought in as a consultant to meet with top men at the White House and as he leaves, he looks back and resorts to a little lame childish name-calling. This was only shortly after he had a conversation with a beautiful woman, who had just been jilted, that got intimate a little unbelievably fast and when she rejected his attempted kiss, he used so many words to call her a snob.

It's my assumption that this is Sandler maintaining his long tradition of pandering to an audience, which he assumes to be lower-class, and probably assumes they feel ignored by more accomplished people in this world. He's right there with them as an overgrown kid who doesn't care about fine dining, table manners or imported beers. He's like you! And he hopes that you paid full price and that you paid more to watch his newest lack of passion in 3D!

I may be capable of defending Adam Sandler for his proven comic and acting potential, but when Sandler himself has spent nearly a decade avoiding this potential, opting instead for his Happy Madison production company to act as a cheerleader for ignorance and low standards in moviegoers, I’m finding myself siding with so many others who just choose to hate the guy.

As dumb an idea as a feature-length version of the internet short, Pixels may sound to some, the concept of aliens invading our world while taking the form of low bit-rate ‘80s arcade game characters sounds like comic gold to me. The short film proved how aesthetically amusing the concept was. Forming a story around it that mocks disaster films could have gone in a great direction if Sandler and Co. (that is, whoever these screenwriter lackeys of his may be) had felt inspired.

Beyond Sandler's tendency to bring in overqualified actors (This time it's Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage, and poor Michelle Monaghan) to work with himself and Kevin James (as this movie's President of the United States), the only new effort this film shows is in its aesthetics. Giving a higher-grade representation to what the short film accomplished, courtesy big name effects houses, is the eye candy that works like bait for those who arrive at a movie theater without a plan. Chris Columbus, a seasoned (if not great) director was also brought on board which gives this particular Crappy Madison production a comparative rich look.

But do not be fooled. The fact that this movie looks higher quality, only makes it worse that below the surface is a long, sad, unfunny experience utilizing money and power to tamper with an entire generation’s affection for classic video games without any appreciation for the privileged opportunity. The story doesn't really make sense, even on its own terms; jokes with potential are botched before your eyes, and the ending involves a resolution that is so jaw-droppingly sexist, you'll want to believe it's simply shock-humor on Sandler's part... ...But there's no way he's that sophisticated.

This isn’t a disaster comedy. It’s a comedy disaster.

But you don't need to take my word for it...

Thursday, July 30, 2015


*** out of ****

I’ve finally seen the Amy Schumer/Judd Apatow collaboration, Trainwreck. Apatow’s showbiz influence continues to outshine the wasted expensive efforts of his former roommate, Adam Sandler. He actually has an appreciation for the complications of human relationships and while he continues to see movie projects as an excuse to show characters who work with celebrities, he knows how to utilize all those "as himself/herself" performances beautifully. I never thought LeBron James would have such a funny screen presence.

Director aside, Schumer’s screenplay - and performance - give us the fearless sexuality of a shameless man-using heavy drinker as she confronts her fears of emotional commitment.

Schumer provides multiple aspects for her fictional surrogate to justify the character's many issues. The movie opens with a flashback childhood scene where her mean-spirited father, excellently played by Colin Quinn, explains without reservations to Amy and her sister, Kim, that he is leaving their mother because, "Monogamy isn't realistic."

In the present day, Amy is single and working as a top writer for a Manhattan-based racy pop-culture magazine, known as "S'Nuff." Her hilariously soulless boss (Tilda Swinton) assigns her an interview piece on a doctor (the great Bill Hader) famous for working with professional athletes. This is of no interest to Amy who doesn't like sports, but when they meet, there is an immediate connection, even though he is a man of self-control, starved for intimacy and she can't keep count of the amount of men she's slept with -even in the past year.

Meanwhile she keeps in touch with Kim (the beautiful Brie Larson), as they deal with caring for their father who is suffering from multiple sclerosis and has been admitted to a nursing home. Amy is forgiving of her father's flaws, while much closer to him than Kim, who, much to Amy's annoyance, has taken a conventional path in life, forsaking her father's ways, and finding contentment with a supporting husband (the self-deprecating Mike Birbiglia) and children.

As Amy's relationship with the good-willed doctor continues, her anxiety begins to escalate in reaction to his sincere love for her which she doesn't know how to return, even if she feels it for him as well.

Apatow, oftentimes seems to be making movies that are, structurally speaking, dramas with funny players involved who have the freedom to riff and render everything comedic. He gives most characters a degree of emotional justification for their attitudes. I have never seen Amy Schumer's TV show or stand-up, but I've had the impression, through interviews, that she also has the same need for important meaning behind sordid laughs. This movie really demonstrates a good pairing between artists.

Like all Apatow films, there are several scenes that could have been reserved for home release extras. Hell, Funny People suffered so much from this problem, it could have been broken up into different movies and given more room for critics to encourage Adam Sandler to continue the righteous path. But I digress. What I'm trying to say is that this is a good two-hour movie that only comes close to feeling indulgent. Were it not for Apatow's continuing refusal to shape a comedy by way of trimming its length, it would have been even better.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


**** out of ****

My willful ignorance of popular music can lead to shame at times. When Amy Winehouse would appear on the covers of magazines with that sexy figure covered in tattoos with a loud dress, heavy makeup and big hair, my instinct was to ignore her. When she made the tabloid covers at the grocery store for her substance abuse issues, I definitely continued ignoring. Like so many others, my response to her death was cynical as well.

I never really understood that among all the circus attractions who make it to the top of the billboard charts, Winehouse was a uniquely gifted singer/songwriter. Asif Kapadia’s new documentary, Amy, explores the short life of this artist, whose self-destructive behavior was exploited by tabloid journalism, tainting the memory of someone who really had a lot to give.

Kapadia’s stylistic choices are noteworthy. This is great documentary filmmaking, which thrives on restrictions. The entire movie is made up of photos and footage from home videos, camera-phones, professional concert filming, and television appearances – all broken up by weightless drone cinematography of the locations for which the story of Winehouse’s life focuses. What it doesn’t show, are its interview subjects. All the testimonials from family, friends, and colleagues, are audio-only - overlapping the constant flow of imagery showing Amy as they provide unreserved commentary of their relationship to her troubled existence.

The constant in the film is the face of Winehouse as it fluctuates between inspired joy and lifeless despair. I didn’t walk away from this documentary, convinced that Winehouse was a great person. Like so many talented artists she was a tortured soul letting down those who cared for her, but this was matched by the amount of people responsible for her well-being and failed (some more miserably than others), enabling her eventual demise. This is a devastating film, but once you start watching, it’s impossible to ignore.


*** out of ****

It’s funny that Judd Apatow's Trainwreck opened last weekend against a superhero movie starring Paul Rudd, an actor whose fame was escalated by Apatow. Rudd has made the bold leap into potential superstardom by joining the ranks of actors on the Marvel payroll. It helps that Ant-Man is a pretty fun movie too.

How is this Ant-Man guy different from the others? Well, he’s a burglar with Robin Hood-like intentions, whose skills caught the interest of an aging industrial scientist (Michael Douglas) with a secret identity he wished to pass on. That identity is that of a man who wears a suit that can instantly make one the size of an insect, provide super-strength and the ability to control ants –when in need of assistance. These abilities come together, making the ultimate infiltrator.

Like all ideas, no matter how silly, it’s really a question of execution. This movie’s special effects action is constantly engaging and whimsically imaginative. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, this movie is another Marvel entry that leans more toward comedy. Knowing that Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) was behind its development until he left due to creative differences with Marvel frustrates me. However, the underrated director, Peyton Reed (Down with Love) makes a good replacement –even if he lacks the over-the-top ambitions of Wright.

The movie suffers a little. It’s an example of what I don’t like about the PG-13 rating, but I’ll get into that another time. The film’s main troubles stem from a weak story and character drama that comes off as cheap. However, Rudd, Douglas and the supporting players such as Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, and Michael Peña all manage to make something out of their characters. The movie ultimately works because of its very fun spectacle, which outdoes most of the previous Marvel films.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Inside Out

**** out of ****

A movie that is sure to delight most parents, if not their children, is the wonderful, Inside Out, Pixar’s grand return after the two-year hiatus that followed some of their less impressive films.

The story follows the life of a little girl’s mind as her emotions, who manage her brain like an office atop a large factory, scramble to cope with the malfunctions resulting in the jarring experience of the kid adjusting to a new life after moving across the country with her parents.

As I watched the movie, Joy was dominant, accompanied by the Sadness of the childhood memories the film evoked, while a little bit of Fear that the baby for whom I felt Disgust that an idiot brought into theater, would make me feel Anger when it caused a disruption. It did, but overall the film’s Joy persevered.

As is often the case with Pixar, the casting is very inspired. Amy Poehler is Joy, Phyllis Smith is Sadness, Bill Hader is Fear, Mindy Kaling is Disgust, and Lewis Black is Anger (Yes!!). The film focuses on the idea that Joy is a control freak and self-appointed leader who sees Sadness' role in their department as counter-productive. Ever since the little girl's move, Sadness has been compelled to meddle with operations. 

Eventually, Joy and Sadness get lost in the girl's mind, leaving Anger, Fear, and Disgust in charge, causing the eleven-year old to start making some bad decisions. With the help of a forgotten imaginary friend from the girl's infancy, played by Richard Kind, Joy and Sadness make their way back to the control room -or "Head-Quarters" as it's called. 

The movie quite intelligently creates an imaginative analogy for the workings of the mind, taking into consideration psychological findings regarding human emotions and their functions.

I feel that Pixar's visuals peaked with 2008's Wall-E, but they still show an amazing amount of insight when it comes to making a story work, while limiting themselves to a simpler kind of animation. The movie is funny, beautiful, and it's an emotional movie about emotions. I love it.