Category Archives: Movie of the Day Blog

Movie of the Day: Mom’s Night Out (2014)

There are no laughs in Moms’ Night Out.  None.  Nada.  Zilch.  Zero.  Bupkis.  Maybe there’s a smile, but that’s not exactly high praise.  When you can say that about a comedy, it pretty much empties out the entire picture.  Here’s a movie in which the only comic highpoint is a shout-out to Pinterest – it does them no favors.

The directors here are The Erwin Brothers whose apparent goal is to bring the kind of Hangover-style antics to a Christian-based audience without all the immoral filth. It’s a nice gesture, but in restraining the comedy their movie comes off like a limp sitcom pilot – the kind that doesn’t get picked up. With this, and last year’s anti-abortion misfire October Baby, it is clear that the Erwin Brothers need to work on the filmmaking before they try to send a message.  This time they’ve made a low-impact comedy so generic that it might as well have come stamped with a barcode.

The story deals with three mothers whose mental states have reached a boiling point. Primary is Allyson (Sarah Drew from “Grey’s Anatomy”) a frustrated ball of neurosis who is surrounded by three kids that are driving her insane. It is clear that she needs some time to herself, but her moods are so animated and manic that a reasonable person might suggest a Zoloft. At her side is her loving, but immature husband Sean (Sean Astin) a well-meaning Joe whose obsession with video games is not helping his wife’s mental state.

Allyson is flanked by two BFF’s. There’s Izzy (Andrea Logan White), Allyson’s childhood friend whose husband Marco (Robert Amaya) is a wimp with a pathological fear of luchadores, bikers and his own children (that’s suppose to be funny). And there’s Sondra (Patricia Heaton), a good-hearted, pressed-and-polished pastor’s wife who is dealing with a budding teenage daughter who comes home with a revealing denim skirt that would embarrass Miley Cyrus.

The connective tissue of these women is that they’re being driven mad by their off-spring and by the grown children that they call husbands. They decide that they need a night off from Mommy-hood, which sounds reasonable except that the husbands promptly lose the children, leading to a long series of slapstick scenes that climax in an arrest at which time we get some come-to-Jesus emotional pep talk about how wonderful it is to be parent. The mother’s night out is simply one of those Murphy’s Law situations that starts with a snafu with the dinner reservations and ends with a police car chase down the interstate. It steals and pillages every Bad Night Out movie from The Blues Brothers to The Hangover to After Hours to Adventures in Babysitting to Date Night. Yet, this movie is a whimper in the company of those films. It tries nothing new and goes no place fast.

That wouldn’t be so bad if the comedy were based on well-written characters. All of the characters are written as caricatures. The women are shrewish nags who are never seen relating to their children – they’re more of an annoyance. The men are seen as irresponsible over-grown children who can’t take care of their off-spring for one night without a child being abandoned at a tattoo parlor. The message: mother’s stay home because your men are incompetent.

Even at a technical level, this movie flops over and dies. The cutesy-poo musical score twists and winds around the comic dialogue like a feux laugh-track before an emotional moment in which the emo-music twists even harder. We’re led by the ears to how we’re supposed to feel.

And yet, even that isn’t the worst thing about this movie. It was filmed last year in Birmingham, Alabama – my home – but it is only a backdrop. We see fly-overs that include glimpses of Vulcan, the Harbert Building, City Federal, Birmingham Southern College and various sites downtown. The car chase take place on 2nd Avenue South. Yet, no one ever mentions Birmingham or any of its landmarks. The city isn’t celebrated at all, nor is it ever mentioned by name. It might as well take place in generic town anywhere in the world. You might hope for some kind of loving tribute that does for Birmingham what Ferris Bueller’s Day Off did for Chicago. That movie, which is also about three friends who take some time off, was first and foremost about characters. It loved its characters, its dialogue and its city. Moms’ Night Out is a pitiful shadow of an idea. John Hughes, where are you when we need you?


Movie of the Day: Let’s Be Cops (2014)

Let’s Be Cops is a movie that flops over and dies before it even gets under way. The premise alone puts a nail in its coffin.  It’s about two born losers who acquire police uniforms and then discover that everyone mistakes them for the real thing – even other cops. From the get-go, I couldn’t clear the thought from my mind, that the film’s heroes are committing a crime that, I think, is a felony in L.A. Added to that, the movie came out at the same moment that the Michael Brown shooting was drawing protests. Bad timing is one thing, bad taste is something else.  The studio had time to re-schedule, just saying.

The idiots involved are Ryan (Jake Johnson) and Justin (Damon Wayans, Jr.), who have nothing in common but are best buddies because the plot requires it. They are gum on the shoe of life, a minor indifference to bullies, thugs, mobsters, creeps and hot women which, according to this movie, makes up most of civilization.

Justin works at a video game company and I’m not exactly sure what Ryan does. There’s a scene where he walks onto a field and starts coaching kids, but it is soon revealed that he’s actually not suppose to be there – that’s actually a joke. Funny? No. Creepy? You bet.

The plot gets going because Justin is in possession of two police uniforms as part of his presentation for a new game about cops, and Ryan gets the idea of wearing them to their college reunion, which they thought would be a costume party but turns out to be a masquerade ball. Naturally, everyone is intimidated by the uniforms, and Ryan gets the idea to keep up the charade. Ryan buys a police car off Ebay.  I checked.  You can do that.  The one that I saw was listed at about $17,000.  Where this guys would get the money to just buy a car off Ebay is a question I am apparently not suppose to ask.  Why anyone is allowed to buy a police car off Ebay is a question that’s been rolling around in my brain for days.  What happened to this country?

What follows is a long, tasteless and unfunny series of gags in which Ryan and Justin – wearing badges – pull over drunks, crash sorority houses, and pose as strippers. Meanwhile they get in trouble with local mobsters and dodge legit cops who must be the most oblivious people on the face of the earth. No one ever check badge number or calls them before a superior.

Meanwhile the chemistry between Justin and Ryan remains at about a 0.1. The rhythm of these guys is that Ryan get excited about doing cop stuff and Justin tells him no but goes along anyway – lather, rinse, repeat. And that’s the whole movie, just repetition. There’s some business about a hard core mobster (James D’Arcy) who wants these guys dead, but you don’t care about plot, do you?

All of this wouldn’t bother me if the movie were funny, but it’s not. All I kept thinking was that these guys are committing a felony that should end with the two of them behind bars. Naturally, the movie ends with an action climax followed by a happy ending, at least for them. Me? I’m out 104 minutes of my life. Where’s my justice? There oughta be a law.


Movie of the Day: Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie (2012)

I have to admit that ever since news of his death from lung cancer in 2001, I hadn’t given much thought to Morton Downey, Jr. Not to seem unkind, but truthfully, there wasn’t much to think about. Downey’s legacy in television history is so forgettable that the subsequent generation has no idea who he was. If you’ve ever seen “The Morton Downey, Jr. Show” you probably have an idea why.

For 20 months from 1987 to 1989, Downey ran a self-titled TV talk show that was part-riot, part-circus, a little bit Jerry Springer, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and a dash of Michael Moore. What would come of his show would be an example, not for others to follow, but for others to correct upon. Downey’s show was a loud, obnoxious and fairly monotonous platform of screaming and bullying, the format of which (he said) was to give a voice to the silent majority.  Actually, it was a textbook case of ratings at any cost – Downey wasn’t shy about this.  It was a platform for cheer-leading sensationalistic bad behavior. His audience, comprised mostly of young college kids, behaved as if they were attending a hockey game.  Downey screamed in the faces of every kind of guest from vegans to the gun nuts to the KKK and even celebrity guests like Ron Paul and Alan Dershowitz. Famously, he clashed with Al Sharpton over the Tawana Brawley incident, in which the young woman falsely claimed that she was raped left for dead by six white men and then covered in hate slogans and feces.  The story would be exposed as a fraud, and it would be the first of several incidents that would bring the show to a sudden stop.

The new documentary “Évocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie” examines Downey’s brief rise and quick demise from television. This is a professionally-made, talking-head documentary that features interviews with former colleagues, family and friends who try to help us get inside Downey’s head to figure out what drew him to become the screaming meemie of late-night television and what personal demons drew him to television and what led to his eventual downfall.

We learn that he was a bitter man, the son of a celebrated Irish Tenor (whom his son loathed) who was a friend and neighbor of the Kennedys. The junior Downey grew up in the shadow of his old man, even attempting to launch a singing career of his own. His singing voice was competent but unremarkable. His looks weren’t exactly top drawer either. He bore a strange resemblance to Don Knotts. Despite his familial legacy, Downey would become a walking irony. He would make his living destroying his voice, by screaming on television and chain-smoking four packs a day.

Downey would prop himself up as the voice of the angry right-wing Republican, sort of an Archie Bunker with a lectern – even down to the smoking habit and the white collared shirts. His show wasn’t exactly insightful. Fellow talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael remarks that his show was “that prurient excitement of not-nice people saying not-nice things.” His show would turn talk shows on their heads. The common thread of talk shows in the mid-80s was the polite, conversational style of Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin and a newly minted Chicago-based neophyte named Oprah Winfrey.

The difference between Downey and his contemporaries (even Springer) is that they stayed off-stage, letting the audience run the circus. The mistake was that Downey tried to play the role of ringmaster, lion-tamer and lion, and so the show had nowhere to go. His singular quest was ratings and he got them, until the television audience grew tired of the act. The movie doesn’t shy away from the facts of why the show – and Downey’s career – came to an bitter end.

The movie finds some measure of pity for Downey, but it never backs down from the fact that he was the propagator of his own downfall, particularly with the Tawana Brawly incident. After the demise of his show, Downey would try to make headlines
by falsely claiming to have been beaten up by skinheads in an airport men’s room. After that, nothing he could do would peak anyone’s interest, not even an attempt to become the damaged voice of anti-smoking when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.  When he died in 2001, the public reaction was barely a whimper.  The result of this documentary is the pitiful, but not unmoving, story of a man who built his house on sand and got caught in his own trap.


Movie of the Day: Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Stanley Crawford makes his living with smoke and mirrors. As a world-renowned magician, he travels around Europe in the late 1920s billed as Wei Ling Soo, the Chinese wizard of the Orient who enthralls packed houses with a magic show that involves nothing less than making an elephant disappear, sawing a woman in half, and a neat trick in which he enters a sarcophagus on one end of the stage and then emerges from the other end. All this while dressed in a get-up that he might have been purloined from Ming the Merciless.

Off-stage Stanley is a snobbish, self-satisfied cynic who scoffs at his audience and sniffs at the idea of anything that isn’t grounded in scientific reasoning – he practically worships the writing of Nietzsche. For him, the great philosopher’s assertion that “God is Dead” is the closest thing to scripture that he is likely to even touch. Stanley is an expert at fooling the eye, so it pleases him to reason out anything that could be confused as spiritual or other-worldly. In his down-time he amuses himself by debunking psychics, those oddly dressed people who attend séances where they supposedly speak to the dead. When his old magician friend Howard (Simon McBurney) makes him an offer to debunk the work of a young psychic who appears, against all odds, to be the real deal, Stanley can’t wait to poke holes in her mystical façade.

Safe to say, this is the kind of plot that Woody Allen can juggle in his sleep. Magic in the Moonlight is an imperfect but genuinely good-hearted movie about a man whose world view is shaken when he is confronted by something that he cannot reasonably explain. It’s not Allen’s best work, but like all of his work it’s not about plot so much as it’s about characters. This time he has found a great asset in Colin Firth who gives a terrific performance that I’m afraid will be overlooked. Firth is something of an expert at playing the insecure stick-in-the-mud with an inability to break away from grounded reasoning, yet possesses a good heart that he claims he has no use for.

Howard’s offer is tempting. He wants Stanley to accompany him to the south of France to debunk a supposed mystic named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) who may or may not be taking advantage of a gullible rich American family. The family is a bunch of dupes. The wide-eyed family matriarch (Jackie Weaver) is delighted at the prospect of Sophie being able to contact her late husband, while her foppish son worships Sophie and persistently writes songs of love the he plays on his ukulele.

What strikes Stanley is that Sophie is convincing. He’s amused during their first few meetings because she spends much of the time with her eyes glazed over and her fingers affixed to her temple. He’s not fooled, but when she begins to reveal facts about his own private life, cracks form in his resolve. It doesn’t help that Sophie is – I’ll say it – easy on the eyes. She’s charming in a way that brings down Stanley’s guard especially when she unexpectedly plucks his heart strings.

The point of the movie is not abundantly clear at first. It is kind of up to the viewer to catch what is not being said. Stanley makes his living as manipulator, but he’s being put into a situation in which he is slowly being led to believe things that he has previously dismissed. All of it comes from feminine manipulation. Is Sophie playing him, or is she the real deal? Whatever it is, she’s touched his heart and he starts to lose his perspective. He’s also, unknowingly, being led by another influence in his life, his Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins), a kindly widow who plays more of a part in Stanley’s decision making then he realizes. Watch her late in the film as she sits at the dining room table playing solitaire with Stanley just behind her. Her eyes are glued to her game while he tries vocally to sort out his confused feelings. Notice that with just slight variations of commentary and word play, she almost makes up his mind for him. It’s a subtle and perfectly modulated moment.

Magic in the Moonlight is the kind of sweet confection that Allen usually makes between more serious projects like Blue Jasmine and Match Point. It might be considered a throw-away. It runs on too long and tends to make its point over and over, but it’s not a waste. I’ll take Woody Allen’s mediocre films over other director’s hits any day. This is a nice, sweet movie with a good heart and good performances. Yeah, it could be better but when it’s over you’re ready for Allen to get serious again.


Movie of the Day: Under the Skin (2014)

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin opens with a scene that could easily have found a home in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We’re somewhere in deep space, looking at evolving shapes that emerge from the darkness. You don’t notice it at first, but as the shapes form, a voice is quietly emerging from the soundtrack. The voice tries again and again to form words in English. A point on the horizon forms a singular, recognizable object: a human eye. When these shapes reach Earth, the voice has found a form and mastered human speech just enough to be intelligible. Nothing that we’re seeing looks or sounds like anything that our senses are use to, then the movie reaches Earth and the shapes have formed into something that looks very much like Scarlett Johansson. NOW we have a foothold.

Under the Skin is the kind of bizarre surrealist science fiction drama that never quite feels like a movie. It feels more like something you might read in a book of short stories. There is no real compulsion on the part of the director to explain what is happening or to give it any kind of catharsis. He throws away our comfortable narrative form in favor of a story that is laid out in bits and pieces, with images that we don’t immediately understand so that we find ourselves playing them back in our minds later in an attempt to sort them out. His film is cold, spare and often without purpose or meaning. It is challenging in every sense of the word.

The story, once it gets to Earth, introduces us to two individuals, though it never explains their connection. One is a middle-aged man (Jeremy McWilliams) who zips around the Scottish highlands on a motorcycle picking up dead bodies. The other is a woman named Laura (Johansson), an alien being who has stolen and then donned the skin of a wayward prostitute and then spends much of her time driving a mini-van around Glasgow picking up stray men. She lures them back to her apartment, a strange blackened void that the men never question. She sidles backward, taking off her clothes. The man walks forward, doing the same. Suddenly the man finds himself sinking into black water where he then disappears.

What happens to these men, I will not give away. Suffice to say, it is not pleasant. Why is Laura doing this? What is her connection with the man on the motorcycle? Is she collecting bodies? Is she prepping for an invasion? Questions like these turn over and over in your mind as the movie offers no help in finding an answer. Director Glazer doesn’t want to hold your hand or give you any help in digging for meaning. We spend much of our time trying to connect with a character that is such a blank slate that we struggle find some human dimension to attach to her.

Laura is an alien, this much is abundantly clear. At first, we’re not sure what to make of the images we’re seeing. They are foreign to your sensibilities in terms of the art and structure of movies. The normal palette that we get is the set-up, followed by the problem, then the solution. The structure of Under the Skin dispatches all that, seeing the world through the eyes of someone who has no capacity to understand it. In a way, what we’re seeing is totally an alien’s eye-view.

There are a lot of things to appreciate about Under the Skin, but it is safe to say that much of it rides on the performance of Scarlett Johansson. She’s never been the most expressive actress and that may have to do with the fact that most of her film work is based solely on her looks. Under the Skin uses that lack of expressiveness to its advantage. It also uses her looks to its advantage. An odd, art-house film like this starring a no-name actress in the role might have been easily disposable, but the fact that we know Johansson so well gives the film its juice. Looking at her, we understand very quickly what makes men flock to the side window of her mini-van. There’s a quietly humorous moment late in the film when Laura looks at herself in the mirror while completely naked. As she gawks at her body the joke sinks in that even an alien being has a certain amount of lust for Johansson’s looks.

Yet, Johansson’s performance goes far beyond the external. She plays Laura as a cold, efficient being who smiles only when necessary – it’s part of the job. Driving around Glasgow, she rolls down the window and casually talks with young muscular men who, not unreasonably, walk up and start talking to her. Their thick Scottish brogues are almost impenetrable to Western ears and that’s part of the effect – we’re seeing them through her eyes in a landscape littered with words and exclamations that she doesn’t understand.

What is most alarming is the moment when we realize that we are suppose to have a measure of empathy for Laura. That’s difficult from a being whose mission is harvesting human beings. Yet, the longer she spends in a human form, the more she gains our sympathy. There is a measure of vulnerability about her as the movie draws near its conclusion. The ending, depending on your taste, is either achingly sad or eerily creepy. It all depends on what you think has happened. I, personally, was reminded of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and could only focus on what the movie’s last image might mean.

If this movie doesn’t sound like a ton of fun, you’d be right. This is an Art Film with a capital “A.” Certain viewers will find it fascinating, while the majority will find it bland and frustrating. Like 2001, it is a series of images without the backdrop of explanation. Glazer’s scenes happen without purpose or transition. That off-putting approach has given the film a mixed reaction that has followed it ever since it premiered on the film festival circuit where it made news after the audience booed it at the 70th Annual Venice Film Festival last fall. Positive critics said it got under their skin; naysayers said it got on their nerves.

My personal reaction has evolved over time. I saw the film a week ago, and my immediate response was mixed. I knew I’d seen something strange and original, but damned if I could explain it or even describe what I had just seen. Over the past few days though, the film has had time to marinate in my psyche. I take away from the film a lot of imagery that I’ve tried to piece together. The images were laid out, but my imagination is providing the connective tissue. I am eager to take the journey again. It’s bold, it’s challenging, it’s frustrating, and it’s difficult.

I appreciate the film like this. After all the junk, after all the vampires and cops and guns and romping, stomping robots, after all the bland cacophony, this is the kind of film that I look forward to, something that is deep and challenging. I will take the journey again, and when I do I look forward to what I will discover the second time around. Under the Skin is like a foreign language, one that I am going to understand and decipher slowly over time.

This is the best film of the year.


Movie of the Day: Warm Bodies (2013)

Warm Bodies has a premise that redefines the word cockamamie.  Here is a bizarre love story set in a landscape in which the living dead have taken over, leaving the surviving masses to huddle together behind a fortified wall only to find themselves bonding after the zombies begin to illicit feelings and memories.  Yes, it is as lame as it sounds, but here is a movie that at least has some redeemable merits.  This may be the first zombie picture in history that finds room for both the living dead and “Rock You Like a Hurricane.”  It doesn’t have much but least it has that.

The story is based on a book by Isaac Marion who came up with the idea after his short story “I Am a Zombie Filled with Love” gathered a minor internet audience in 2010.  Something about the finished product leaves you with the feeling that it was better off in a shorter form.  Even at 90 minutes it kind of wears out its welcome.

The movie takes place in an unnamed city that is still smoldering eight years after the zombie apocalypse.  The story takes place from the point of view of a teenage zombie (Nicholas Hoult) who doesn’t remember his name or any of his personal history.  He’s one of thousands of lumbering dead who were bitten by fellow lumbering dead and became, well . . . lumbering dead.  Early in the film he narrates his own inner monologue, a neat idea that unfortunately peters out early on.  He explains some of the odd values and virtues of being a zombie and instructs us that there are two kinds of zombies: the regulars and “The Bonies”, a race of horribly decayed skeletonized deadites, zombies who have given up and simply ripped off their own rotted flesh and become feral. Their presence is fierce but their appearance is underwhelming due to the fact that they all look exactly alike. They are a product of computer animation, but they look like exact clones of one another.

Despite his gray pallor and blood-stained lips, the hero zombie (who is eventually given the underwhelming nickname of “R”) retains some of his former human value.  He lives in an abandoned airplane fuselage where he displays his collection of pilfered objects and listens to vinyl records of John Waite and Bruce Springsteen.  On his daily rounds with fellow deadites, R comes in contact with those still among the living.  They have turned themselves into a militia and take pleasure in blowing their little zombie heads off.  During one particularly fierce melee in an abandoned store, R locks eyes with pretty blonde Julie (Teresa Palmer).  He rescues her and, naturally (or unnaturally) he falls in love with her.  The bond between the very alive Julie and the living dead R makes for a love story that has to be taken at face value and is complicated by the fact that Julie’s dad (John Malkovich) is the leader of the surviving militia.

Something in R’s rotted little heart begins to melt in the presence of Julie and pretty soon he finds himself remembering how to love and showing signs of returning to some of his former human emotions.  That, we can buy, but then other zombie begin to illicit the same feelings, and if you can buy the scene in which their zombie hearts begin to glow like E.T., then by all means, this is the movie for you.

The story is lame (to say the least) and there are few who would doubt that.  This is not exactly a movie that is going to be beloved by your average “Walking Dead” crowd, but the movie has some sense of redemption.  You can honestly say that at least you’ve never seen this plot before.  And there is some merit in the production design by Martin Whist whose credits include Super 8, Cloverfield, and The Cabin in the Woods.  He manages to create a cityscape that really does look as if it has been trashed and abandoned for nearly a decade.  And the cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe is the perfect shade of cold gray; making everything look eternally overcast.  Yet, while the production is well-made, it is at the service of a story that has you rolling your eyes.  Yes, it is original but you find yourself resisting it almost from the start.  C’mon, glowing zombie hearts?  Really?!?


Movie of the Day: The Croods (2013)

The Croods is a featherweight animated comedy perched somewhere between Ice Age and “The Flintstones.”  It’s not as funny as the former or as endearing the latter.  It is the kind of movie that you enjoy it while you’re watching it, but afterwards it slips away from your mind.  In six months your kids might not even remember it.

The Croods of the title are a prehistoric family.  There are six of them: Dad is Grug (Nicholas Cage); Mom is Ugga (Catherine Keener); Gran is the elder (Cloris Leachman); the kids are a teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone); a son named Thunk (Clark Duke); and a feral toddler named Sandy (Randy Thom) who acts more like the family dog.  They are fairly afraid of the world around them mostly because the entire landscape seems ready to swallow them up.  For this reason, Dad has instituted the family motto: “Everything new is bad!”

It’s true, The Croods don’t know much about the world around them (despite a perfect grasp of modern English) and Dad takes measures to keep them safe, like locking them in a cave at night.  The family may scoff but his technique seems to have worked where others seem to have failed.  No one ever blatantly points it out, but The Croods seem to be the only human beings on Earth.  There are indications of another family, but that information is held out for one of the sentimental moments.

The story has an adventure, but it settles more firmly on boring family issues.  The oldest child, Eeps yearns to break out of Dad’s cautionary measures and explore the world.  One night she does, and comes across a handsome young wanderer named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) who has information that the world is about to come apart.  This – we remember from science class – is the breakup of Pangaea, a single continent that broke up millions of years ago and became the continents that we know today.  That sets off an uneasy journey as the family heads . . . someplace safe.  With the whole world coming apart it is hard to tell where they think they are going, but there seem to be some peaks that make up the horizon.

The family story involves Dad’s attempt to lead his family despite the fact that young Guy has much better survival instincts.  He is also angered by the fact that Eep has taken a liking to the new boy and that opens up the old familiar you-gotta-let-her-grow-up plots that have been the bane of the Ice Age sequels.

The journey itself has its moments.  Between dodging fierce creatures and massive land shifts, The Croods discover fire, shoes, sunglasses, umbrellas, belts, the rickshaw, lawn furniture, family portraits, domestic pets, dreadlocks, and a concept called “hugging” (awww!)  They also discover a strange phenomenon that only takes place at night, little pinholes in the night sky that help them understand where the sun goes all night.  That scene is, admittedly, kind of magical.

One could only wish that the rest of the film were as wondrous.  This is a fairly mushy movie.  Like every other animated comedy these days, it is dulled by a bunch of sweet and sentimental family bonding.  The problem is that the characters aren’t interesting enough to make us care.  The screenplay by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco deals with the domestic issues of the father and his budding daughter, but who cares about that?  This is a movie for kids.  Why not just give them an honest-to-goodness slapstick comedy that will make them laugh non-stop?  Leave the drama for when they grow up.


Movie of the Day: Iron Man Three (2013)

The best thing about Iron Man Three is Robert Downey, Jr. If this trilogy proves anything, it is that Downey’s best natural gift is his mouth.  He has a rapid-fire delivery in which it takes you a second to register what he just said.  Like Groucho Marx, his mouth is always ready with a verbal gag almost before he can complete the thought.  He is really a wonderful comedian with the ability to mix the comedy with a certain amount of vulnerability.  This is a rare and precious gift at a time when most screenplays march their characters through wooden, pedestrian dialogue that only functions to move the characters from one plot development to another.  For Downey, it is such a unique gift that, while you’re watching Iron Man Three, you realize that he alone is keeping the movie from becoming a crushing bore.  By this point (this is his fourth go-around in the role) his verbal gifts are still fresh and have become the buoy to a series that – hate to admit it – is running out of gas.

Iron Man Three is a well-made, skillful action movie – the special effects are convincing, some of the action scenes work, but they are at the service of a plot that is completely canned.  Here again is another story of a superhero battling an army of super-villains who want to take over the world while also dealing with domestic issues that no suit of iron can fix.

The suit, for Stark, has become the same prison that it was for Batman, only in Stark’s case he has become dependent on it.  How does one balance time with the girlfriend and saving the world?  He could do this because the public has fallen in love with War Machine, a new Iron Man occupied by Tony’s pal James Rhodes (Don Cheadle).  This should leave Tony more time to be with girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) but she complains that he is spending all his time in the lab building new Iron Man suits.

Domestic bliss is only part of Stark’s problem. The latest threat to civilization is someone calling himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an impressive-looking cloaked figure with his own private army that has been committing acts of terrorism on every shore. They seem invincible, they attack and walk away unscathed due to new developments in regenerative genetics (don’t ask).

In a development that still has me scratching my head, Stark goes on television and makes an unbelievably stupid proclamation to The Mandarin by giving him his home address with no plan to defend it! What?! Why? Why would you do that? Why would a guy smart enough build a flying metal suit do something that rash and stupid? Why would he not build himself a metal fortress around the house to defend it? Why does he have the nerve to look surprised when the Mandarin’s goons start bombing the place back to the Stone Age?  Not only does this idiotic decision put his own life in jeopardy but it puts Pepper’s life in danger too.  She goes missing.

Okay, so let’s talk about Pepper. The first movie allowed Tony and Pepper time to develop a sweet romance.  The chemistry was there and we felt for them.  This movie keeps them apart for most of the film. We’re told how much Tony loves her (he narrates the story) but their scenes together are all too brief and, hate to say it, not very magical.

The presence of The Mandarin, you should know, is also all-too brief. This character is to Iron Man what The Joker is to Batman, but there’s a problem here: He’s hardly in the movie. You’ll be alarmed when you realize that 95% of Ben Kingsley’s performance was captured in the trailer and that the movie reveals a plot development that relegates him to a cameo role. If you were looking for a big showdown between Downey and Kingsley, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

Much of the plot can’t be revealed here without spoilers, suffice to say the movie is entertaining without being extraordinary. You’ll find that the action scenes get the job done, but if you’re looking for world-class plot development, you’d do best look elsewhere. Director Shane Black, the scribe responsible for the screenplays to The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero and the Lethal Weapon movies injects a refreshing sense of humor onto a dead plot and wisely makes time for Robert Downey, Jr. to simply do what he does best, just talk.  Unless he’s giving his address to his enemies, then he should just shut up.


Movie of the Day: The Ridiculous 6 (2015)

It occurs to me that the worst thing that can ever happen to a comedian is to reach a point at which the general audience moves from “What has happened to you?” to the lower depths of “How do you keep getting work?” Such is the commentary on Adam Sandler whose recent spate of disastrous press over his summer box office comedy Pixels have finally given his money men a wake up call that the theaters for his movies are basically empty. Why they didn’t catch on to this – I don’t know – 12 movies ago is beyond me.

Personally, I’ve never liked Sandler, even during his heyday on SNL. Yes, he sold albums and was a box office star, but he grated on my nerves. His persona reminds me of that irritating kid in English class who sat behind me and made duck noises with his arm pits while amusing himself with annoying voices. In his movies it’s the same idea; the only difference is that on the screen he’s getting paid $20 million for it.

Sandler is not without talent. Under the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson he turned in a brilliant comic performance in Punch Drunk Love a decade ago, and more recently with Russian-born animator Genndy Tartakovsky they made Hotel Transylvania. Good pictures. Yet, he refuses to follow that same trail, and recently he has famously been using his company Happy Madison to fund movie projects so he and his friend can take trips to places he wants to go, like Africa (Blended), Las Vegas (Paul Blart 2) and Toronto (Pixels) and Hawaii (Just Go With It).  Fine, but the result is that he stick his audience with movies that are destroying his already shaky reputation.

Now realizing that the movie theater is no longer a viable option to his laziness he has now taken his cinematic indifference to Netflix for a planned four-picture deal. The move does nothing to improve the quality.  Entering into his first Netflix venture, a laughless chunk of indifference called The Ridiculous 6, did not fill me with confidence especially with reports that the movie was so offensive that a handful of the Native American actors simply walked off the set. I get that, but I don’t find it offensive to the Native American culture so much as movies in general.

The plot is more or less superfluous. It’s a parody, I guess, of every western movie from Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven all the way back to A Man Called Horse about a half-Indian man dealing his dual identity. Sandler plays White Knife, a saddle-sore who was raised by Apaches and learned superhuman fighting skills. His white father Frank Stockburn (Nick Nolte) goes missing and that puts him in contact with his five brothers: Chico (Terry Crews), Herm (Jorge Garcia), Lil’ Pete (Taylor Lautner), Ramon (Rob Schneider), and Danny (Luke Wilson). That’s a thin line on which to hang jokes that are either gross (one character is nicknamed “Beaver Breath”) or just plain baffling – the opening credits called this The Ridiculous 6 – in 4K! What? I don’t even get it.

If that didn’t tickle your funny bone then the rest of the movie will leave you in stone faced indifference. We get a burro who projectile defecates. We get an extended gag in which a man scoops out his own eyeball. There’s Vanilla Ice playing Mark Twain. There’s one character so dumb that he thinks that babies are defecated out their mother’s womb. Blake Shelton shows up as Wyatt Earp for no reason. There’s baffling gag in which a man is stabbed in the leg with a carrot, which comes right after the appearance of a gang of thugs so tough that they have each removed their right eyeballs – that’s funny, right? Meanwhile I sat through this movie with the strange urge to do the same thing (it has that effect on you).

And right in the middle of all this is Adam Sandler who manages to sleepwalk through this movie with a measure of indifference that made me depressed over the fact that he was getting paid. If I did that on my job, I’d be fired. His character isn’t consistent – one minute he has an accent and the next minute he doesn’t.  Sandler’s line-readings sound like he’s reading from cue cards and then gives up halfway through.  There’s no joy of performance. He doesn’t care. His scenes are lazy and unfunny and give you the basic urge to be anywhere else.

What he and his team have created here is not satire; it’s a badly structured series of unfunny episodic sketches that feel like they were written by a 12 year-old with ADD. As the Native American stereotypes, I wouldn’t worry so much about that because if you culled everyone who could find offense in this movie (whites, blacks, latinos, women) we’d be here all day – I guess you could call it an equal opportunity offender. I spent 119 minutes with this movie and another half hour writing this review. That’s 149 minutes out of my life that I am never going to get back. You just spent 10 minutes out of your life reading this review.  That’s 10 minutes out of your life that you’re not going to get back.  Sorry about that.


Movie of the Day: Inside Out (2015)

It is such a joy to report that Pixar is back in form. After a few years of weak soup, it’s so nice to see them back on the track that made us fall in love with their confections in the first place. In the animation game, Pixar was always been the better factory, churning out creative projects that were destined to last for generations while their rivals simply spat out quickly made product mounted solely on what was popular at the moment. But after Up six years ago, the studio seemed to have lost its way and they haven’t produced greatness since.  At least, until now.

Inside Out is a grand and bold work of imagination and creativity, made by people who are not content to give the audience the bargain basement, but to offer something that is going to last.  Thematically, it resembles Toy Story 2 in that it is also about the pangs and stresses of growing up and losing the most valued trappings of childhood as adolescence washes ashore.

The movie, for the most part, takes place inside the head of Reilly Anderson, an 11 year-old girl from a nice family who is suffering the slings and arrows of approaching adolescence.  Inside her brain is the complex that make up the core of her being, driven by the aforementioned Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler); Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith from “The Office”), Fear (voiced by Bill Hader) who looks like a question mark; Anger (Lewis Black) who dresses like middle-management; And Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kailing), a green shimmering ball of teenage dismissiveness.

Of course, this is not the most original plot in the world.  I think immediately of the early 90s sitcom “Herman’s Head” which had the same plot only the protagonist was a grown man.  There was the Eddie Murphy comedy Meet Dave, and horror adventures like The Cell and Identity.  I can also think of a bit once written by Woody Allen that takes place inside the body of a man during his mating ritual.

The movie is original in it’s approach.  It begins on the day Reilly is born as the palette of her inner being begins to form. First a ball of light, then a pixie figure called Joy. Little Reilly’s mind is a blank slate that very quickly forms the emotional core of her being. Along with Joy come Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. What her mind eventually evolves into is a complex of emotions, feelings, trains of thought, ideas, images, moods and memories. What she carries with her, what she keeps, and what she dismisses are at the core of this very impressive visual textbook, one that not only forms into a visual masterwork, but also one of the most creative and ambitious animated features in many years. This is what animated movies are all about.

The quintet at the controls all form the core of Reilly’s current mood. Joy seems to have the lead most of the time, but there’s never a sense that anyone is elbowing anyone out of the way. Everyone has their turn at the console of Reilly’s current emotional state. The key battle comes between Joy and Sadness. Joy sees Sadness as an unnecessary element to Reilly’s state of harmony, but Sadness knows that in order to achieve harmony one must experience sadness to get to joy.

Every minute of every day, Reilly’s brain produces a memory that is represented as a tiny marble colored by whatever emotional state the memory comes from. Those memories are either stored in Long Term; stored in a special place for Core Memories; or are disposed of all together. What comes of Reilly’s current experience is juxtaposed by what has happened before. New things come in and old things go out – some are stored in her long term memory, some are buried in her subconscious, and old, forgotten memories are deposited into a dark chasm where they eventually evaporate from existence much like a deleted file on a computer. Her current emotional state is also represented by various theme parks that begin operating based on her current state of mind representing Family, Honesty, Hockey (her favorite past time) and her moments of Goofball playfulness.

The drama begins with a change in Reilly’s life. Her parents are uprooting from Minnesota to San Francisco, meaning that Reilly has to leave behind friends, and the best memories of her childhood. Her churning emotional states breed confusion, and anger, and resentment forcing a battle between Joy and Sadness mostly due to Joy’s concern that Sadness will infect core memories (when she touches them they turn blue). The two end up outside the command center with no way to get back, leaving Reilly’s supplementary emotions, Fear, Anger and Disgust at the controls. What lies on the other side is the strangest journey since Alice fell down the rabbit hole. Joy and Sadness take a strange journey through the recesses of Reilly’s ever-changing brain, particularly the Long Term memory library that is often cleared out when Reilly no longer needs them.

The script draws a very clean line between what is happening to Reilly in the world and the universe inside her head. Things are changing, evolving, breaking down, rebuilding – in other words, she’s growing up. And just as Reilly doesn’t understand these changes, neither do the representations in her brain. The tragedy of what happens to the trappings of childhood once Reilly has moved past them is a key theme here, expressed most achingly in the form of a circus elephant named Bing-Bong (beautifully voiced by Richard Kind), who once served as Reilly’s imaginary friend, but now lingers in the forgotten realms of her brain, always aware that he is many years late for the memory dump. Bing-Bong is a tragic figure who, much like Jessie the Cowgirl in Toy Story 2, is a figure whose purpose dried up long ago. He serves as a guide to get Joy and Sadness on board Reilly’s train of thought and back to the control center even though everyone knows his eventual fate.

The journey getting back to the control center is a trip through a virtual psychology textbook including a a trip through the memory dump where all of her useless memories are dried up and forgotten.  Then a creepy journey into Reilly’s subconscious, where Joy and Sadness come across an oversized clown who isn’t evil, but is terrifying in the way that a small child might see it. He’s a giant, but only because that’s how Reilly saw him in real life.

But the most bizarre sequence comes when the trio takes a shortcut through a forbidden realm called Abstract Thought where the three figures find themselves misshapen into a cubist state then into a flattened out form representative of early European animation. It’s a fun sequence – a head scratcher – but a fun sequence none-the-less.

Much more of the plot, I cannot discuss.  What has been described here only scratches the surface.  Let me just say that as with last year’s The LEGO Movie, this is an animated feature made with loving care, a story told by writers and animators that aren’t satisfied to nail down their story to a pat formula or to whatever colorful bupkis they can sell at McDonald’s. The people behind Inside Out – that being screenwriters Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, and Peter Docter writing from a story by Reynoldo del Carmen – want to make something special, something that will linger in your mind. They’ve taken the animated genre and they’ve stretched it to the limit in an effort to create something special.  They’ve created a great journey, an emotional journey.  One that will last for generations to come.