Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Keanu

And here I thought it was a Doggy Dogg world.

Sketch comics/stand-ups taking the lead in their first movie is in some ways a right of passage. Steve Martin’s The Jerk probably stands as the high water-mark,* but most have some sort of value in terms of being a look at a performer’s comedic worldview while they’re still hungry. Take Billy Madison as an example. It may not be regarded as a great film by a lot of people but, in the words of Undeclared, there’s something a bit “punk rock” about it. Something that diminished until Adam Sandler turned into a dead-eyed, haunted-looking shell of a human being.

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have been around a while, individually working on projects and appearing in films and TV shows, but Keanu is their first film following the break-out success of their sketch show on Comedy Central. Personally I haven’t watched much of their stuff. Just a few bits here and there which have virally wafted my way courtesy of Facebook. Of course I loved their Gremlins 2 bit, being a huge fan of that film. But my limited TV viewing hasn’t drifted that way. That said, this film seems very much an extension of what I’ve seen from them, so I’m going to make the not-so-wild assume that it is very much tapped into that same vein of “firsts.”

The plot itself makes some less than subtle allusions to being a goof of the Liam Neeson Taken trilogy as the pair attempt to get back the kitten of the title when he’s stolen. It turns out this particular cat’s cuteness is a bit infectious because it becomes a running gag that everyone he comes in contact with becomes so enamored with him that they lose all common sense. However, apart from that basic framework there really isn’t that much to tie the film thematically to the ongoing saga of the man the internet has dubbed “John Taken.”

In fact, much of the film seems to settle into a much better (and certainly funnier) version of the central conceit of the maligned Will Farrell/Kevin Hart vehicle Get Hard, as the duo attempts to bluff their way through the criminal underground. Or at least the Hollywood version of ‘gangsta culture,’ though it seems more authentic than some depictions, despite the comedic aspects.

The main issue with the film is uneven pacing. There is an extended sequence in the middle of the film which I think best exemplifies this; it features a pretty good cameo, but drags on and on as it spends its time divided between the inside and outside of a Hollywood estate. Unfortunately, things are much funnier in the car and, at least in my case, I found myself regretting every return to the interior; up until a fantastic gag caps the scene. (One which is ultimately negated in the wrap-up, but I’m trying not to focus on that.)

It’s great that Key and Peele take things in a different direction than what one may expect by abandoning the idea of a strict parody of their inspiration for the story (though I could see a very different, equally funny movie coming from sticking to that concept) but they still seem to have a hard time filling the 90 minutes of the film. They come close enough that one can’t deny their success though, at crafting an overall entertaining experience that captures their spirit.

(Three and a half damns given out of five)

*Mostly because Monty Python’s initial offering was their recycled sketch film, …And Now for Something Completely Different.

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Sad Batman is Sad

I’ve been a defender of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Despite the issues I have with it (the terrible color correction, the insane death of Jonathan Kent, etc.), I thought it made the best of some source material that I always found questionable, aka forcing a Xerox of Batman’s spirit quest around the world into his mythology. I guess I was so relieved to finally have a Superman movie without an awful, over-the-top bumbling Clark Kent performance, a nonsense Luthor scheme, fluctuating powers that defy the movie’s internal logic, bastard kids or a thoroughly dislikable Lois Lane that I could overlook the flaws. After all, despite the bleakness, there’s promise in the film. Clark has finished a costly first battle and is in a position to use that sacrifice to learn and be the hero he should be. He can take his actions from Man of Steel and build on them, vowing to never take another life. Though unlike all the people who apparently have forgotten both the comics and the ending of their beloved Superman II, I had no problem with Clark killing Zod, seeing as how he’s the one character Superman has ever knowingly offed.

The question was, would the sequel build on that promise, or would it double down on the unique problems this take brought to the franchise? All of the marketing material seemed to indicate this would not so much be a Superman sequel as either a proto-Justice League movie or a jumping off point to a Frank Miller Batman franchise, none of which sounded particularly appealing. Unfortunately, this is largely correct. Superman seems like an also-ran in his own film for the most part.

After a strangely gripping prologue that gives a street level view of the devastation wrought by the battle between Clark and Zod in Man of Steel, the film settles in for an hour or so, spending a lot of time introducing us to this version of Batman, who follows the natural through line from Burton to Nolan to Snyder, finally adopting a fully-functional Dark Knight Returns-style Batman who is equal parts psychotic and broken. An impotent man who takes out his fury by torturing criminals and not especially caring if people die in his pursuit of self-serving justice. It’s certainly not my favorite style of Batman (I skew much farther towards the Denny O’Neil-style well-rounded version) but much as certain fanboys may deny it, this version of Batman is what many of them have been angling for.  Be careful what you wish for.

Meanwhile, we see Superman performing many acts of heroism, saving people around the world from disasters, intercut with footage of a world who doesn’t know how to react to him or trust him. It’s not so much a bad portrayal of Kal-El, but it certainly does create a morose environment surrounding him. After much sturm and drang, this overall paranoia leads to the confrontation of the title. To reveal much more would be to give away the mechanics of the plot, but it is fair to point out the much touted appearances by other Justice League members don’t just feel distracting, but actually lower the excitement over Warners’ plans for their characters.

The good news is that while the film is full of bad ideas, the ideas are filmed and acted competently. The bad news is that competence doesn’t fix bad ideas, it simply makes them go down easier. Make no mistake; there are some things to enjoy in the film which make it still worth seeing. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman does great things with her limited screentime. Gadot herself, apart from seeming to have trouble getting her Israeli accent around some of the overinflated dialogue, is a wonderful physical actress. Jeremy Irons’ Alfred manages to be an absolutely necessary source of humor in an otherwise dour affair. The majority of the acting is fine, even Ben Affleck’s, though he comes up short selling Batman’s character arc and revelation moment. The major exception is Jessie Eisenberg who seems to be edited in from a completely different film. While I’ve never been a fan of the way Luthor has been used in the Superman films, it’s quite a shock to go from the intelligent menace of Kevin Spacey’s portrayal to Eisenberg’s collection of tics and vocal contortions masquerading as a performance. He plays Lex Luthor as some kind of bizarre Joker variation, his motivation either making him pathetic or a puppet. Sometimes he is effectively creepy, but mostly he comes off as annoying.

The plot grabs famous storylines from the two characters at random like Scrabble tiles from a bag. In the end, what we have is a mess. A mess that is interesting, but overly long and needlessly complicated. It has a fourth act tacked on because there was never a scenario where the Superman/Batman fight could be dramatically satisfying as a conclusion.

Worse, in their misguided race to force a rivalry with Marvel Studios, Warner Bros. attempts to cram huge amounts of set-up into the film and none of that set-up feels earned. Watching it feels like we missed a few movies that were released between Man of Steel and now. Many audience members may even be completely lost as to what a lot of what is going on. When your entire movie is based on laying a foundation for future installments, that should be rather disconcerting. As of this moment, I’m not particularly looking forward to Justice League. Or Suicide Squad with its copy and paste characters who look like they stepped out of a 90s pitch meeting when “edgy” was still a buzzword. Wonder Woman and the Lego Batman Movie are they only DC film projects which continue to pique my interest. As I am a person who was a big DC fan until fairly recently, that kind of reaction should have Warner Bros. concerned. Somehow, I don’t think they’ll care.

(Two and a half damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Deadpool

Somehow, the highlight of Ryan Reynolds' career

Let’s take a moment to let this sink in: Rob Liefeld’s golden boy has a movie. Robbie has got to be the richest comic artist ever who won’t draw feet. Was getting this movie worth handing him enough of a wad to keep him hip-deep in Levis and hookers?

Yes.

While sure to be a divisive film, I spent the drive home reminiscing with my viewing companion about the best moments. I can’t recall the last time that happened. (Though to be honest the crushing solidarity of my usual trips to the movies could account for that.) For the majority of its runtime, it is a kick to the fun sack, with only some tonal issues and questionable character moments getting in the way. But it’s understandable. While there may be some of Matthew Vaughn’s Kick Ass in its recessive DNA, it’s largely a type of film that’s never been made before: a mid-level budget that all of the X-movies since the original would wipe their asses with, a fairly hard R-rating, a comedic overtone, a character who has only been around for a couple of decades, a tangential relationship to a major franchise and an anti-hero main character. We’ve seen some of these together here and there. But certainly not all at once. So to juggle this all successfully is actually pretty impressive and it doesn’t take the coward’s way out as it also plays with structure, mixing one broken up set piece with flashbacks for the majority of the runtime.

Here’s where the film falters: it’s great that the structure is fractured, but it still manages to sag in the middle as we go through the one tradition that the movie refuses to break with: the origin story.

And yet, their attempts to brighten up that part of the film isn’t deftly directed enough to present a really meaningful before and after for Deadpool himself, Wade Wilson. At least not personality-wise. Is it enough to derail the film? Not even close. But it is noticeable enough to make a dent that you won’t find in the slicker, mainstream Marvel factory. Should we be lucky enough to get the unprecedented Deadpool 2 (suggested tag-line: Dead Pooler), this most likely wouldn’t be an issue. It’s still pretty impressive for a first-time feature director and one gets the feeling he embraced the budgetary challenges presented due to his effects background.

The important thing is that I had an absolute blast with the majority of the movie from the very first moment. As in, it features possibly the best opening credits sequence in history. Then you have Ryan Reynolds showing that it was worth his remorseless guerilla campaign to acquire the role. On the flip side, Morena Baccarin somehow manages to meet his over the top performance head on and provide a great counterpoint to him. What is it about dudes from Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place that bring out the best in her?

Admittedly, I’m tuned to this film’s frequency. I was getting every in-joke about Reynolds’ career, superhero movie conventions and studio politics that it lobbed at the audience. While at times, there’s an almost This is the End level of self-scrutiny involved that will reward fans, its neither in your face enough or so reliant upon inside baseball to require knowing the troubled history of the film to enjoy it. Like a Zucker film, when the comedy is flowing, there’s often multiple gags being set up at once. Sometimes what seems like gratuitous violence actually sets up great payoffs further down the line.

Maximum effort, Fox.

(Three and a half damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Down with PPZ? Yeah, you know me.

Much like Iron Sky and the upcoming Deadpool, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a movie that I appreciate at one level for the sheer fact that it shouldn’t exist. But like the first of those films, almost the entirety of it is an exercise in middling.

It starts out promisingly enough. There’s some titillation. We catch some surprisingly sexy flashes of stocking as the Bennett sisters arrange their weapons. There’s some gore. We get a splash of brains here and there. There’s some period drama. Pride and Prejudice is, after all, in the name.

But the true entertainment value of this type of a film would seemingly come in truly smashing the two opposites together in an extreme way either as a film shot entirely as a gauzy Austen centerpiece that happens to have zombies in it or, conversely, as an over-the-top horror film. Or at least a film that decides to play whiplash with tone. Instead it’s a film that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be and ends up being a PG-13 flick as limp-wristed as Matt Smith’s Parson. (That said, Smith’s dandy fop is the highlight of the proceedings.) In its attempts to appeal to a mass audience that was likely never there to begin with, it manages to lose it’s appeal to its true potiential audiences.

Not to say there aren’t some interesting ideas at play. However, they are never truly explored. Such as the fact that, with exception, a great many of the women are trained as warriors while the men are largely worthless, yet the time period’s ideals of marriage to a man for the sake of bettering one’s station and female subservience are largely intact.

So in the end we have what feels like a fun idea without commitment. A film that tries to be both and succeeds at neither, though there’s a part of me that could see enjoying it on the level of some of the tamer Hammer films if it were more visually impressive beyond a fun opening credits sequence that doles out the necessary exposition.

And just like a truly middling film, it is neither terrible nor great. I won’t say I didn’t laugh at the absurdity of the film at times. But it’s safe to say it simply settles for being a reasonably diverting couple of hours that likely will not call for repeat viewings.

Two and a half damns given out of five.

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Goosebumps

ER MAH GERR!

One has to give Goosebumps credit for not taking the easy way out.

I’m not saying it’s a great film, but compared to the lazy cash-in on 90s nostalgia it could be, it’s a somewhat novel film that takes a new direction on the material at hand.

Now I’m definitively not the audience for this film. Like Jurassic World, it seems to have been thought up as a way to get late twenty-something parents who came of age in the 90s down to the theater with their kids. I, however, am probably what one would consider an 80s kid. I was too old for the series when it came about. Like a lot of things that feature teenagers, the Goosebumps books were actually for ‘tweens and younger. This means I’ve never read one of the books. I also never saw the TV show of the same name. Honestly, I thought R.L. Stine was like the “author” of the Nancy Drew books, Carolyn Keene in that he was someone Scholastic made up to give continuity to an impossibly long book series. It’s hard to blame me seeing as how there’s somewhere around 10,000 of them. Now, seeing that nearly every monster and villain featured in the film is a take-off of an existing monster from a famous horror film, I guess I understand how it may not have been that difficult to push them out so fast.

One would expect a push to turn the series into a franchise with an adaptation of some of the more beloved individual stories or a Creepshow-style anthology film for the little ones, but that’s not what we get.

While the film isn’t terribly original (I found myself referring to it as “Spoop-manji,” as it’s impossible to escape thinking of it as a horror-themed remake of the Robin Williams vehicle), it’s certainly more than one would expect from a kiddie-lit franchise. It’s jumps into the same meta-flavored Kool-Aid that The Lego Movie occupied in terms of trying to be something better than it could be. And the result is enjoyable, slickly made and not insulting.

In fact, I could see it becoming like the Monster Squad was to a cult audience of my generation; something beloved to a gaggle of horror-loving youth as they get older, while those who see it over a certain age will view it as a not-unwelcome curiosity, but not get what all the fuss is about.

The basic premise is that a fictional version of Stine, played by a barely restrained Jack Black bring more ham to the screen than a movie about a Hawaiian pizza, has to keep his creations locked in their books, else they’ll come to life and terrorize the populace. The premise is as paper-thin as his typing paper as to the “why.” When a new kid moves next door for his brush with the supernatural, a la Joe Dante’s The Hole, he befriend’s Stine’s daughter and through a short series of mishaps, unleashes the author’s imagination on their unsuspecting ‘burg.

It’s all in the name of throwing the entirety of the series’ creatures at the audience at once and it has something of a “burn-the-house-down” feeling to it. Sure, one can’t completely dismiss a sequel being made of pretty much any film but Passion of the Christ these days, but it doesn’t feel like an attempt to jumpstart a franchise. In fact, it feels like just the opposite and it’s refreshing.

There are points where the film threatens to go off the rails as Black competes with Super 8’s Ryan Lee to see who can be the bigger weirdo, but fortunately it trucks along at a commendable pace and there are enough welcome character actors (Amy Ryan, Ken Marino…) and jokes for the grown-up horror aficionado to keep things from ever capsizing. (Yes, I realize I just mixed a train and a boat metaphor.)

The bottom line is, if you’re the afore-mentioned audience this film was made for, you should enjoy it, especially as Halloween draws near. If you’re not, you may still have fun, but you’ll be missing out on the inherent charm for fans and young ‘uns.

Three damns given out of five

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: John Wick

Whoooooah!

There’s this stigma that surrounds Keanu Reeves and I don’t think it’s warranted. No, the guy doesn’t have that much range. He’s basically got two modes he excels in: Ted and man of action.

Of course he hasn’t really reprised Ted-mode since the second of the underrated Bill and Ted films (unless you count his short cameo in Alex ‘Bill’ Winters’ Freaked) but the action man trope is something he’s visited many times with varying amounts of success. I would argue that a lot of his failures haven’t so much been because of Reeves’ abilities but instead largely on a pile of bad scripts and a lack of understanding in how to use him.

Much like other actors like, say, Jackie Chan or John Wayne, Reeves doesn’t have a ton of range, but he excels when he gets in the hands of a smart moviemaker that knows what to do with him. Speed and The Matrix are of course the most prominent examples. John Wick should also be added to that list, because David Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s John Wick is a very smart, taut and well rendered example of its genre that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other beloved entries. In fact, if I were to describe it in terms of mixing examples, it would be Payback mixed with Drive. In fact, it hit me the way Drive must have for a lot of people, given the way they described their experiences with it.

The basics are that Reeves plays the title character, a former hit man that left the mob awash in blood and death. After losing his wife, (his initial reason for getting out) he finds himself dragged back into the life in order to revenge himself against the very people he used to work for. His world is populated with fantastic character actors like Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki doing great work as his colleagues and Michael Nyqvist doing a lot of heavy lifting as a Russian boss.

Part of the reason it is a success is because it doesn’t make Reeves do a lot of that heavy lifting, mostly being satisfied to let his actions speak for him as he bounces off the other characters in the film. Despite that, I would say it comes across as his most impressive performance. Does that make a ton of sense? Maybe not. Yet that’s how it felt watching the movie.

Also making an impression is the smart way that the filmmakers build an established mythology around Wick, but never take it too far. They spend a good deal of the run time building him up as a threat before unchaining him and when he does break loose, it lives up to the hype. The action sequences themselves manage to be both exciting and fluid without seeming too staged. They are expertly rendered.

They also do a good job of creating a mob-based society that functions under the surface of the regular world that stretches credulity without ever hitting the breaking point. Take the club where professional killers gather in the middle of the city with its own established rules and an entry cost of a gold coin. This could easily be taken to a ridiculous level and in many films today, it would be. Especially if there’s a chance at a sequel or a franchise. But in John Wick it mostly exists as an interesting aside that helps further the main plot. Leitch and Stahelski use it to spice up the film and create atmosphere, but they lose the focus on Wick and his quest for vengeance in their storytelling.

You might be getting tired of me listing things that work in the film, but I’d also be neglectful if I didn’t bring up the crackerjack script that is full of hard-boiled dialogue. Yet it offers a lot of opportunity to the actors to contribute, sometimes letting them create a huge laugh with a single word.

If there’s a downside to the film, it would probably be that if you are familiar with the genre, you aren’t going to see anything particularly new. But sometimes isn’t solid competence enough? Not every film has to reinvent the wheel or serve as deconstructionist meta-commentary. This movie is absolutely solid and I find myself liking it even more upon reflection. It makes lots of good decisions. It will hopefully serve as a precursor for even better things to come for this pair. I’m arguing with myself over how high to grade it and in the end I’m going to err on the high side. I hope people find this film because it will come as a very pleasant surprise to many.

(Four damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Wide-560x282

Guardians of the Galaxy is not Marvel’s best film. At least not in my eyes. It isn’t as consistent as The Avengers and it doesn’t offer quite the perfect blend of heady thrills that we received in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But it absolutely delivers, and when taken as a pair with Cap, it makes 2014 the banner year for Marvel cinema. Some have called it this generation’s Star Wars. I would call it this generation’s much better version of The Last Starfighter. Whatever you call it, it is a great way to close out the summer.

But let’s put the kibosh on the outright Star Wars comparisons while we have the chance. While it’s obvious that Gunn grew up with Star Wars and brings that kind of semi-grungy feel to the proceedings, the most recent film I can think of that is reminiscent in tone is actually JJ Abrams’ initial Star Trek entry. It cares more about movement and fun (while including some pathos) than being serious sci-fi. And the way Gunn grounds the film with the soundtrack is a much better utilized extension of how Abrams clunkily snuck the Beastie Boys into Trek on an “oldies” station. Both seem to care more about establishing the characters and their interaction than plot, at least on the surface level. In fact, I kind of want to watch it again so that I can do a bit better analysis of the two and how they compare and contrast. But then I’m also reminded because I feel a lot of the original Trek in Guardians, as well there should be considering the cosmic side of the Marvel universe was being developed back in the sixties and seventies. The character Gamora, with her green skin, is highly reminiscent of an Orion woman with a higher make-up budget. This only enhances the proceedings as far as I’m concerned. They are both playful updates that keep the spirit of the pop-art sci-fi they were born from.

After an Up-style, heady, depressing opening designed to inform the audience of where our protagonist Peter Quill comes from, it wisely buckles in to become a tongue-in-cheek thrill ride with some great characters and an assortment of wonderful moments that range from small and personal to universe-shattering. Unlike a lot of films of this ilk, there are even moments when the two collide.

Quill, desperate to make a name for himself as an outlaw with the nickname ‘Star Lord,’ was abducted from Earth as a child right after the most tragic and defining moment of his life, his mother’s death. It’s obvious why Chris Pratt of Andy Dwyer fame on Parks and Recreation was cast, as he imbues the same kind of childlike innocence in the character that makes you root for him even as he’s doing things that could be considered border-line despicable. The real brilliance of the casting is that he manages to give Quill a sense of palpable arrested development. While he’s gotten older and become a seasoned pirate, for lack of a better word, there is a part of him that has never progressed from that moment and the film pulls no punches with the obvious metaphors in this regard. While it is never mentioned by name, Quill obviously labors under a love of the Han Solo model of scoundrel. But rather than push that connection, writer/director James Gunn fills him with just as well-known but more left-field references to the pop culture he grasped onto as a child and hasn’t let go of.

In addition, Quill continues to carry around a mixtape his mother made for him. Played on his original Walkman (still in fantastic condition, surprisingly), it becomes a part of the character and the ’70s and ’80s tunes are built into the film in an extremely organic way. No doubt, the soundtrack will sell a bajillion copies. If one were cynical (and I’m sure there are a few critics who have already said so) I could talk about the film being so blatantly calculated with its feel good, curated soundtrack. I’m sure there are lots of other ways that people can complain about being manipulated (as if that doesn’t happen with every movie), but every example I can think of actually comes across as good, solid, commercial filmmaking. Everything that could come across as trite is embedded into the story or the characters and given a real excuse to be there, beyond being, to quote Mike Nelson from the Twilight Rifftrax commentary, “Coldly calculated to pander to your shrieking demographic.” As an example of commercial limitations being built into character, there are things like Quill’s use of the term “a-hole,” used to get the director his first PG-13 rating, which come across as part of his stunted growth.

And the characters are extremely well put together. The villains and side characters may lack a certain amount of depth, but Gunn does such a good job balancing and creating interpersonal relationships between the eponymous Guardians that one would struggle to come up with a standout. Given that means fully developing five separate characters from scratch (none of the main characters have been seeded in other films) and giving each of them a real arc, that’s not bad at all. Besides Quill, we also have Gamora, played by Star Trek alum Zoe Saldana, who is the adopted daughter of Marvel’s Darkseid analog, Thanos. She finally feels she’s found a chance to escape his clutches. If anyone gets a shorter shrift it’s her, but it’s not from a lack of trying. Part of her character simply requires her to have less of the humorous moments that pull the audience in. If her “sister” Nebula (Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan, sporting one of the more impressive make-up jobs I’ve ever seen) had been further developed, it may have helped as she does have that interpersonal relationship to fall back on, but we may have to wait for the inevitable sequel for that. Marvel occupies this incredibly unique sphere where their films work individually, yet their almost assured success thus far has allowed them a tremendous amount of breathing room. If a plot thread isn’t overly developed in one film, it can be picked up in another. Gunn does a fantastic job wrapping things up in satisfying fashion at the end, but there is more than enough to bring along for another film. It’s a balancing act that most of the Marvel directors have proven deft at and speaks well to the planning that has gone into their overall series. (Ant-Man could always be the first blow against them, but I hold out hope that Peyton Reed will finally get a chance to pull off his superhero film that he’s wanted to do since he was prepping what sounds like a far superior version of Fantastic Four than what ended up coming out.)

In addition, we have a surprisingly good performance from Dave Bautista, who made his name as a professional wrestler. Based on what little I’d seen of his performances talking up matches and his serviceable but unremarkable role in Riddick, I was expecting him to bring a strong physicality to the role of Drax the Destroyer, for sure. But I was pleasantly surprised by the comic timing that he brings to the screen. He gets a good hook that allows humor to be built off him so he can be taken in by the audience much more than a typical scarred up, tattooed, hulking ball of rage. The characters that will undoubtedly find their way into the highest echelons of pop culture, as kids will undoubtedly latch onto them like crazy, are Rocket (aka Rocket Raccoon) and his ent-like sidekick Groot. While they will surely be turned into cute plush toys, neither comes across as particularly adorable for most of the screentime with Rocket managing in particular to come across more as irritable. There’s little chance of him being confused with the kind of CGI animals that inhabit family films where screenwriters work out their issues with how they think their dads worked too much. No, our little Rocket is a hissing, mangy bag of annoyance. And while I still personally would not have picked Bradley Cooper to voice him (I had spent a good deal of time rooting for the David Tennant rumor to be true, giving him a gruff British Isles accent as he does in some media he’s appeared in), he does a more than serviceable job. Also doing his job well is Vin Diesel, who manages to give Groot’s limited vocabulary a surprising range. What in many ways could come across as a one-note character is, through Diesel and some excellent work by the film’s animators, given a surprising depth and unique personality. Sometimes he feels like a Miyazaki character that accidentally fell into the wrong universe.

Gunn manages to herd these characters through several action sequences and alien worlds, giving us a rudimentary travelogue through Marvel’s cosmic branch. For decades the company has had a history of characters jumping around in deep space but this section of the publisher’s continuity had largely been overlooked in favor of Earth-based heroes in the films. Some of this may be because arguably the most well-known of these characters, The Silver Surfer, is tied to the Fantastic Four franchise over at Fox. Some of it is certainly due to a lack of name recognition compared to a character like Captain America (though really, Iron Man was only a sixties cartoon away from similar obscurity to the general public before that movie was a big hit.) And some of it was, no doubt, due to worries about the nature of the ensuing film. After all, apart from Star Wars/Trek, there have been relatively few space franchises that have made a splash at the box office. Put it all together and it’s no wonder people thought this was a big gamble for the studio and their Disney overlords. We’ve been given peaks and glimpses to this larger universe in the Thor films and The Avengers, but on the whole it is a very different project for them.

However, the Marvel name has deservedly become a huge selling point and they made all the right calls here. It may be sci-fi spectacle, but they have injected it with plenty of the Marvel DNA that typically means a fun and exciting story that won’t depress the hell out of you. They put together that rarest of things: A special effects blockbuster with not just a pulse, but a soul.

(Four and a half damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Transformers: Age of Extinction

T4

The things I do for this non-paying job…

I went and saw Tranformers: Age of Extinction. Or is it TransFOURmers? Because, you know, FOURTH MOVIE. Regardless, it pretty much puts the ‘stink’ in ‘extinction.’ It is, as with most of Michael Bay’s movies, designed to explode the head of anyone who has been in a sensory deprivation chamber. But hey, it’s not just loud. It’s also dumb!

The Transformers movies, especially when we’re talking about the sequels, are by and large the male Gen Y naval-gazing equivalent to Twilight. Anyone with any intellectual or cultural honesty at all has to admit that there is literally no value to them. Not even as fun. Because just they aren’t that fun. And yet they continue, against all sanity, to be huge hits that have racked up billions of dollars in revenue.

Eventually even explosions aren’t that great out of context and in the Transformers sequels, context is practically non-existent. It’s like on 30 Rock when they did the joke about NBC showing nothing but fireworks for a night of programming. Except there’s far less aesthetic value to the Transformers films. They’re boring. They’re poorly edited. They are insultingly ugly to look at. How is that fun? They don’t even work as camp, really. Though now I would like to make a movie about a guy getting ready for work filmed entirely in “Bay-Vision” so every shot is designed to look epic no matter how utterly mundane or stupid the action is.

[Camera pans left from under Bob. He is harshly lit in front of the sink brushing his teeth with a rightward motion in slo-mo. As this happens, we have a cup in the foreground with extra toothbrushes in it for a sense of scale and in the background, the door swings open, revealing his junior high-aged daughter (portrayed by a 28-year-old with fake boobs) in a negligee, dark, oily and glowing as though she’s just returned from rubbing herself down with 40-weight. A song by a past-its-prime buttrock band swells in the background.]

Bob: Theresa, I told you to cover yourself up!

[Camera moves around Theresa’s head in a 360 degree motion, in the background we have as many things happening as physically possible in a bathroom followed with a gut-wrenching plunge to a perfectly framed shot of her lacy boyshorts-swaddled ass on the right side and her father in the background to the left.]

Theresea: Gawd, daddy. What are you, the Tallybanned? Tee hee!

That’s about the level of substance you will get in Age of Extinction. And, like a X-Men comic book by Grant Morrisson, it decides to ignore any character precedent and just randomly throw personalities against the wall regardless of what sticks depending on the scene. I guess this is because Bay decided to make the Autobots all homicidal maniacs with a hankering for longpig. About the fifth time Optimus Prime says/shouts that he wants to kill humans, it becomes clear that these are not the characters that populated the 80s cartoon-cum-toy commercial. It’s not even the characters from the first three movies. And it definitely helps ruin the illusion of a kid-friendly franchise which has never really been true of the Bay movies, but has been sold as such by Paramount.

Extinction even squanders its biggest opportunity for fun by effectively wasting such a goofy, can’t miss concept as the Dino-bots on a ten minute action sequence that gives them little to do besides run into things and serve as Optimus Prime’s bitches. After he beats the crap out of them for their own good, of course.

Instead the bulk of the movie follows around the improbably named Texan, Cade Yeager, played in Happening mode by Mark Wahlberg. He is Texan (despite his New England accent) and the worst inventor in the history of the world. The Texan literally cannot build anything that works, even though most of his “inventions” are actually things that I’m pretty sure already existed in a much more refined form twenty years ago. Thankfully, he is able to be a Transformer doctor however, the same way a child who has cut open their teddy bear can magically perform open-heart surgery on a dog. Cade (the Texan) is obviously a terrible character, but he is eclipsed by “unfunny comic relief sidekick” and “teenage daughter who becomes less and less capable as the movie goes on.” Also Texans. Keep in mind, the amount of references I have made to the characters’ relationship to the state of Texas is still less obnoxious than how the movie beats you over the head with this information. Texas.

Later, we are inexplicably treated to “insufferable secret boyfriend/worst character I have ever seen in a movie,” who actually makes the dad character who obviously wants to have sex with his daughter seem like a wonderful romantic prospect in comparison. The guy carries around a laminated copy of a Texas statute that keeps him from being arrested for statutory rape. Obviously he’s every parent’s dream. He is apparently supposed to be Irish as Wahlberg keeps calling him Lucky Charms, which is fortunate because his accent is so all over the place that we would never know this otherwise.

These folks, through stupidity and convenience, become involved in a secret NSA plot to destroy all the Transformers, Autobot (good guys who want to kill humans) and Decepticons (bad guys who want to kill humans) alike. The reasoning isn’t terrible; Kelsey ‘Frasier’ Grammer, doing his best to bring gravitas to an impossible situation, is sick of the alien war that has wrought terrible devastation on the Earth, particularly America. To the film’s credit, that opinion is not completely unthinkable to anyone that hasn’t been told for three films that Optimus Prime is Robot Jesus. However, any possible moral grey area and questions about putting humanity in the middle of an intergalactic war that it shouldn’t be involved in are immediately forgotten through making the black-hat strike team a bunch of power-mad, thug buttholes. Their hobbies are long walks on the beach, ignoring people’s rights, threatening civilians and war profiteering. Because God forbid they actually present anything resembling a complicated idea when Bay can just make the bad guys Janine Garofalo’s idea of Haliburton. They are partnered up with a robot version of Xerxes from 300 who hates Optimus Prime… FOR SOME REASON… and Stanley Tucci, who is the other guy trying to save this movie, unfortunately by screaming through every nonsensical character change.

Tucci is a Steve Jobs-type who has figured out how the Transformers’ biology works and is trying to utilize that technology through the use of the metal they are made of, “Transformium.” This is still a less stupid name than Unobtanium, but just barely. He plays the role in a way that makes his work as Caesar in The Hunger Games seem incredibly nuanced and subtle.

There was a certain point when I thought the film was over because it felt like it had already been playing for three hours and everything was winding down. But it turns out there was still approximately a third to go as this was just the film picking up and inexplicably moving halfway across the world for the sole purpose of selling Chinese movie tickets. But that’s essentially what this film boils down to. It feels like the manatees in the idea tank from South Park pulling out balls with “commercially viable” ideas and then filming them without an inkling of a script. “OK, what have we got… Texas pandering, secret government agency, dinosaur robots, bad country music, changing an old-fashioned hero into a dark and gritty one, incest, obnoxious product placement, Chinese pandering, the destruction of Chicago… How’d that one get in there? It’s a leftover from last time. Oh well, why not… lots of graphic violence excused because it’s against robots and a girl named BingBing. Sounds good. We’ll fix it in post.”

And the worst part is, it’s working.

If you’re one of the people keeping this franchise viable, I’d love to know why. Why have you seen four of these in the theater? Why will you go see a fifth? And don’t say that it’s “dumb fun.” Because there are much better made fun movies with lots of bang bang which aren’t doing as well. Does nostalgia really have its hooks so deeply into people that they will completely ignore the contents of a so-called piece of entertainment if it has the right toy name on it? Because this is the fourth go-round. People have to know what they’re getting by now. And if this is what you want, I simply don’t understand you or your world view.

In the end, Optimus asks that when people see a star in the sky, they think of it as his soul. Tell you what, Optimus; instead, when I see a floater in the toilet that just won’t flush, I’m going to think of the Transformers franchise.

(One damn given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: How to Train Your Dragon 2

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It’s not often that we’re lucky enough to get two extremely well-made sequels in the same weekend. In this case, we managed to get 22 Jump Street and How to Train Your Dragon 2. Both take very different approaches in successfully continuing their original films.

While 22 Jump Street takes a somewhat meta approach to deconstructing sequels in general and tweaking the formula, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the epitome of the modern franchise film. Like Kung Fu Panda 2 before it, Dragon picks up where the previous film left off with nary an ounce of fat on it. There is no regurgitation of the first film here. We don’t have to sit by as Hiccup has to train yet another dragon or retrain his pet Night Fury Toothless. Nope. Whereas previously studios worried incessantly about making films accessible to new audiences who may not have seen the first or doing the exact same thing again, the new franchise model, as seen in films like this or the Marvel movies, simply tells the next chapter in the story of these characters. The audience, most likely having seen the movie twenty times (or more, as is likely with the original Dragon, knowing how kids love that movie) is expected to keep up, get the callbacks and in general know what’s going on. Home video has effectively forever changed how sequels are made for the better. Now if there isn’t a story worth telling that can be a problem, but fortunately for Dreamworks, Dean DuBois has definitely found something worth showing us.

The direction that Dragon 2 takes is largely the expansion of its mythology, introducing new types of dragons and literally increasing the world of the first film immeasurably. This is quickly established in a rather great bit of visual exposition as Hiccup and Toothless are out exploring to find new lands and new species, unfolding a rather unwieldy looking map.

If there’s one thing that bothers me about the film it is the relationship between Hiccup and his father, Stoic the Vast, which seems to have taken huge strides forward, yet still exhibits many of the problems they had in the first film. Maybe that simply makes it more realistic since even when people change, they still have their personality, but it also makes it frustrating. Stoic wants Hiccup to become the chief of Burke, their rocky little island village because of how he changed life for everyone. Hiccup simply wants to explore and do what he enjoys. His dad refuses to listen despite how the entire reason he wants his son to take over being because people listen to him. Do interpersonal relationships take that type of paradoxical sheen to them? Sure. But it still is maddening. On the plus side, you have Hiccup’s love interest from the first film, Astrid, who is a much more interesting character here simply because her relationship with Hiccup has changed in a big but understandable and ultimately believable way. Their chemistry together is far more palpable and their romance, at this point having gone on for years, is expertly written. If there’s one thing this film does especially well, it is lay out exposition in interesting ways and we learn everything we need to know about their feelings for each other as Astrid gently mocks Hiccup and his mannerisms, spilling over with playfulness and affection. At the same time, she is seeding important information on how things have changed in the five years that have passed since the last film. (The kids are supposed to be in their 20s now.) It’s a master-class in serving multiple functions with one scene.

The basic plot revolves around a couple of major tremors in Hiccup’s life. For anyone that managed to avoid having the surprise ruined for them by the trailers, I’ll just say that one is of a deeply personal nature that effects both him and his father. The other is the discovery of a long lost foe of Stoic’s, a mysterious figure that seeks to capture and control all of the dragons he can lay his hands on, simultaneously claiming to be protecting people from dragons while using them to conquer all who lay in his path. He definitely serves as an example in my theory that you should never trust a white dude with dreds. Despite the shallowness of his character, he manages to be a pretty impressive threat.

The voice work has only gotten stronger with the cast. Despite my misgivings about the way their relationship is portrayed, Jay Barruchel and Gerard Butler deliver outstanding performances. Butler especially delivers a kind of nuance that I don’t think I’ve experienced in his live action films. America Ferrera’s Astrid greatly improves on the original. The writing no doubt had a lot to do with it, but it would not succeed if she hadn’t stepped up her game. I’d be hard-pressed to say that the “kids” have much to do this time around with Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jonah Hill pretty much doing the same things that they did last time to the same effect. The opening sequence with their characters playing a new sport that blows quidditch out of the water is an instant classic, however. If there’s one disappointment, it is that Craig Fergusen doesn’t have as much to do as Gobber, but there’s always next time.

If there’s a central theme to the first film, it almost seemed to be that sometimes tradition can be wrong and that new ideas can bring about prosperity and improvements. If there’s a theme to this film it would almost seem to be the opposite; your parents have been around and sometimes they know best based on their years of experience. It’s nice to see some balance and not just have another kids movie worshipping youth culture and declaring children are right about everything and those darned old adults are just stodgy dopes clinging to the past. There’s room for both sides to be right, sometimes even simultaneously. If it sounds like a complex idea, don’t worry. While it’s decidedly more intelligent than a lot of what purports to be family fare, it is not some preaching drag. It is full of action, lots of fun and some decidedly cool moments to go with the drama. (My friend I saw it with spent a great deal of the movie fangirling out, if that’s any indication.)

(Four damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: 22 Jump Street

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The best thing about 22 Jump Street, besides the fact that it is very funny, very often, is that the way it so fluidly conforms, plays with and skewers the sequel formula in tandem. Time after time, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are told, “Just do the same thing as last time and everyone will be happy.”

That would usually be sound advice that would lead to the usual high box office and disappointed critical response of a hit comedy sequel. You know, like The Hangover Part II, which almost nobody I know enjoyed, but made approximately umptillion dollars at the box office. (Use of the word “umptillion” gets extra punch when it is read in the voice of an excited Jerry Lewis.)

What 22 Jump Street does is play to these expectations while injecting wry meta-commentary about the diminishing nature of sequels in general. The main storyline is actually pretty common; a nearly identical scenario plays out as the first film but with a subversion of the main character arc. Think Men in Black 2, though this movie is definitely better than that one. But it also manages to tweak that formula by realizing that simply reversing a scenario will not necessarily play out the same way because of the fundamentally different basic character flaws of the leads. So even when we see a familiar plot beat, it manages to put across a different idea.

In many ways the new Jump Street does play around with doing the same thing and who can blame it? The first movie was anarchic alchemy, which would seemingly make it so much harder to tackle a sequel given the impossibility of recreating that feeling of surprise. It took two performers I usually don’t care for and actually making me laugh steadily and hard. It introduced a new side to Channing Tatum that was far more interesting than the wooden performances that constituted his career up to that point. (I’m still dubious of hearing him try to use a Cajun accent, however.) Jonah Hill is the weak point of every film I’ve seen him in, but it’s the least I’d disliked him in any project. Their potent chemistry is still very much in effect.

Along with screenwriter Michael Bacall, we also have returning the directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who are rapidly becoming filmmakers that I have to watch carefully. 21 Jump Street was another in a long line of rubber-stamped TV show retreads looking to take advantage of a familiar name (and let’s be honest, most of which frankly haven’t done that well on either creative or financial levels, leading one to wonder why it continues to be a trend.) The Lego Movie was probably the worst example of a vapidly commercial “concept” ever conceived, taking the idea of name recognition to its greatest possible nadir, yet Lord and Miller managed to not just produce something viably entertaining, but something with heart, artistic integrity and an idea behind it. And now they’ve given us a comedy sequel that actually works on a level at or near the original while being very satisfying for the fans. I was not a big fan of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (I hated the animation and think it would have been a much more interesting film if they’d gone ahead and used the puppets they were obviously emulating) but it was hardly a disaster like a lot of expanded children’s books. If I was a Hollywood executive, these guys would be the first people on my speed dial for taking terrible concepts and spinning gold with them.

Even better, it doesn’t feel like they’re trying too hard, despite what had to be a very calculated structure that plays with the audience. They manage to have an uncanny knack of choosing just the right moments to stay the course or to zag off in another direction. The story contains lots of surprises, yes. But sometimes it plays right to expectations. In this way, the movie really does keep you guessing, wondering what decisions they will make at any given time. It also doesn’t feel like it’s pandering. They care much more about their characters and getting the jokes right than making a statement. I’ve heard at least one critic express that they should have been “brave” enough to simply make the Jenko character gay since the film’s character interaction plays out very much like a romantic comedy, apparently missing what I see as the point of the whole arc and the fact that it would be completely inconsistent with the characters, which are treated surprisingly seriously in their bid to keep them consistent. The farther they push the subtext, the funnier it gets. Changing the subtext to just plain “text” would ruin the joke. It’s for that reason, the consistency and the way things are held back just enough, that when one of the characters does let loose and go for an over the top, extended scene as Jenko and Ice Cube’s captain each get a chance to do in the later parts of the film, it absolutely kills.

Speaking of which, Ice Cube gets far more to do this go round. He’s used very well and very wisely and he practically steals the whole movie out from under the leads, which is no mean feat. In the first film he mostly served as an entertaining device to unload exposition. In the new film he actually gets to deliver a lot of the tweaks at the workings of a sequel under the guise of exposition. He really sinks his teeth in and I get the feeling he had more fun making this movie than all of the “Are We There Yet?” films combined.

If there’s one weakness in the film it’s the loss of certain players. Amber Stevens is very capable and as a plot device she’s practically essential, (one of the best gags in the movie wouldn’t be possible without her) but she simply doesn’t fit as well into the proceedings as Brie Larson. Of the people I miss, she’s the only one that actually could have been involved without going out of the way to justify their presence. While I’m sure Ellie Kemper, for example, could have been worked into the film, I have to figure there were simply other things they were more interested in doing than the narrative heavy lifting it would take to have her appear. As it is we get a few minutes with Rob Riggle and Dave Franco and, while funny, it is one of the few parts of the film that feel a little unnatural. Instead we get a few new folks making glorified cameos like Patton Oswalt and Jon H. Benjamin.

22 Jump Street isn’t Lord and Miller’s best film this year since Lego came out this winter, but it’s yet another solid entry into their repertoire. It simply feels like most of the choices they made are right on the money, something that so rarely happens in the entertainment industry when studio executives try to “fix” anything that comes out of nowhere to be a surprise hit by getting some fingerprints on future projects. If they’ve been able to parlay an amount of autonomy out of the success they’ve had so far, I am very interested to see what they have up their sleeves for the future. I would not bet on seeing more Jump Street films in that future (they pretty much nuke that option during the end credits to this one) but whatever it is, I’ll probably be in line for a ticket. As it is, I’m giving it the same grade I gave the first film and wouldn’t be surprised if it grows on me even more.

(Three and a half stars out of five)