Mission: Impossible – Fallout(7/28/2018)

Once a man named Tom Cruise had a dream.  He had a vision that he would produce and star in a series of spy films that would be a rival to and yet in some ways the opposite of the James Bond series.  Where the James Bond films have done everything they could to follow a formula and try to fit within the same template for decades at a time Cruise’s films would take the opposite approach and shake things up dramatically with every installment and in doing so they’d be able to explore every kind of action movie as the years went on.  This plan lasted for about three movies as it went from the Hitchcockian thrills of the De Palma directed original, to the hyper-kinetic action of the John Woo directed second film, to the snarky meta comedy of the J.J. Abrams directed third installment.  However, after that third movie Cruise put the brakes on the consistent inconsistency plan and started to use that third movie as a sort of starting point for a more traditional film franchise.  Characters like Simon Pegg’s Benjamin Dunn started returning in every movie, plot points like Hunt’s previous marriage began to be acknowledged movie to movie, and the directors they chose to take on installments had less distinctive styles.  There were some upsides to this, the last film Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is something of a series highlight, but I must say I mourn the loss of that original vision.  The most recent entry in the series, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, is perhaps the biggest break to the franchise ethos to date in that it has the director of that previous film (Christopher McQuarrie) has returned for a second film and has made what is more or less a direct sequel to it.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout picks up a few years after the previous movie and it appears that “The Syndicate” that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) brought down in that movie has given birth to an anarchist collective of agents inspired by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) known as “The Apostles.”  In the film’s opening scenes Hunt finds himself trying to intercept a black market deal that would have landed three plutonium cores in the hands of The Apostles but loses them to save his team.  IMF Secretary Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) still trusts Hunt after that but CIA director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) sees him as a liability so she insists that he be shadowed by one of her own agents, August Walker (Henry Cavill), during his mission to recover the plutonium cores.  That mission will of course be a high stakes globe-trotting ordeal that will require Hunt to risk life and limb at every stage.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout has come out amid a barrage of hype as some of the early reviews were beyond ecstatic.  It’s sitting at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and some of the quotes about it have really been out there including an oft quoted tweet by the always excitable David Erlich which called it “easily the best action movie since [Mad Max:] Fury Road. Just god level stuff.”  Frankly I think this hyperbole has done the movie a bit of a disservice because I think my expectations going in were a bit skewed by it all.  This defiantly isn’t the best action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road, in fact it isn’t even the best action movie since Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.  That hype made the film’s first half particularly jarring, especially when the film first has Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill interacting with some really strained buddy cop dialogue.  There are also some moments that just do not hold up to scrutiny.  For example right after that aforementioned Cruise/Cavill argument the two of them do this big HALO jump from an altitude that requires them to wear oxygen tanks, which is a cool scene, but it’s all being done just to get into a Parisian building… a building which looks like it could have been much more easily infiltrated by simply buying a ticket to the giant rave that’s going on inside of it.

Around the one third point of the movie I accepted that the critics had overdone it and accepted that this was going to be less of a landmark action movie and more of a logical continuation of the long running series and started to sit back and enjoy myself. As expected the film delivers a lot of the gigantic action scenes and stunts.  That HALO jump I mentioned before is ruined slightly by context but it’s certainly an impressive bit of filming logistics and stunt work.  There’s also a climax involving Tom Cruise dangling from a helicopter that I’m sure was all kinds of difficult to make, and we all know about how he injured himself jumping between buildings in London.  Of course the incredibly high standards that this series has set for itself does become a bit of a problem.  For example, this movie has not one but two chase scenes involving motorcycles which would both be extremely impressive on their own but here they’re being compared to the iconic (if extremely silly) motorcycle chase from Mission: Impossible 2 and the also extremely impressive chase from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and while this chase might be a little better on paper it isn’t a giant leap that leaves those other chases in the dust.  Similarly the film never quite comes up with a stunt that’s as conceptually insane as the Burj Khalifa scene from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol or the “dangle from an airplane mid takeoff” scene from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.  I suppose there’s that helicopter scene but that just doesn’t have quite the same purity of concept.

I must say I also found the storytelling inbetween the action scenes to be serviceable but noticeably weaker than what we saw in the first and fifth films, which remain my favorite of the series.  There are twists and turns galore in the movie but a lot of them don’t feel entirely earned and they don’t flow as naturally as they tend to in better spy movies.  Ultimately I do think the choice to bring McQuarrie back instead of following the series usual “one movie per director rule” is a big part of the problem.  That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with McQarrie himself but, he’s clearly quite competent behind the camera, but he isn’t really trying to go at the film in a new way at all and he isn’t even really trying to recapture the magic of the last film either.  Rather this is possibly the first time that a Mission: Impossible is solely interested in being exactly what people expect from a Mission: Impossible movie and not much more.  Outside of the stunts it does next to nothing that previous installments hadn’t done better and neither Hunt nor his supporting characters have really gotten all that interesting over the years.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not suggesting anyone skip this movie.  A dude dangling from a helicopter payload is certainly something that’s worth seeing, but I feel like this could have been a lot better if they’d been a bit bolder with the style and put a little more serious thought into the script.

*** out of Five

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Documentary Round-Up (Summer Counter-Programming Edition)

This summer some of the most successful counter-programming efforts have been by documnetaries rather than scripted independent films. Normally i’m not one to see docs in theaters but with MoviePass now a factor (while it lasts) it’s become easier to justify seeing these movies before they hit DVD and streaming. Here are my capsule reviews of the summer’s biggest non-fiction hits.

RBG (7/8/2017)

The new Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG fits pretty clearly into the trend of “profile documentaries” like Mavis!, Joan Rivers: Piece of Work, or Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.  There are seemingly dozens of documentaries like this each year which follow a pretty rigid formula: follow an octogenarian around for a week and then intercut that footage of their still exciting life with talking head interviews which illuminate what makes them so important.  As such I was a little surprised when one of these profile docs managed to break out and become something of a sleeper hit at the box office.  For the most part this is exactly the documentary you think it is.  It probably is a slight cut above some of the other profile docs out there if only because Betsy West and Julie Cohen have a knack for cutting to funny excerpts from their interviews at smart moments and because they do a reasonably good job of summarizing the various legal cases into brief segments.  That said, the movie isn’t breaking much new ground or digging overly deep into Ginsburg’s career.  The interviews they do with Ginsburg herself appear to be rather surface level and aren’t very revealing, the film seems to gather a lot more information from interviews with her various friends and colleagues.  The film is also oddly disinterested in talking about how she interacted with other members of the court outside of her odd friendship with Antonin Scalia.  Keeping you documentary focused is one thing but it seems downright strange that the movie only spends about a minute mentioning Sandra Day O’Connor and even less time on Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

I am not really the target audience for RBG as I’m something of a Supreme Court junkie (or at least I was before that hobby turned into a rather depressing exercise recently) and I already knew most of the facts that are being imparted here.  Rather, this seems to be directed at people who primarily know Ginsberg from the “Notorious R.B.G.” meme, which is a meme that always seemed to bug me for reasons I was never quite able to place my finger on until late in the film when it begins talking about her role as “the great dissenter” and cuts to interviews by people talking about how “awesome” her various rulings in descent are.  In short it feels like these people are making an icon out of Ginsburg less for what she’s able to accomplish on the Roberts Court and more for how woke she sounds while failing on the Roberts Court.  It’s like a perfect symbol for everything wrong with modern online activism where sounding righteous is valued more than actual political wins.  I deeply wish that Ginsberg’s fans had spent a little more time providing Ginsberg with likeminded justices than making her look “badass” but I digress.  If you don’t know much about Ginsberg’s career this is probably as good a place to start as any but for me personally something a bit more interested in legal reasoning than pure iconography would have hit the spot a little better.

*** out of Five

Whitney (7/13/2017)

I’m not exactly sure what made me want to see Whitney outside of the fact that I’ve been on something of a documentary kick as of late and can see things for free with MoviePass.  I wouldn’t call myself much of a Whitney Huston fan and I’m not even overly familiar with most of her music.  Her peak years were a bit before my time and outside of a few key singles she’s been off my radar.  That said I have always been somewhat fascinated by her downfall.  We’ve seen a lot of artists fall to drug use, but unlike the Janis Joplins and Amy Winehouses of the world Houston never really cultivated the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” image, rather she always seemed like she wanted to be this classy “diva” singer but stories of her being a straight up junkie kept emerging.  Kevin Macdonald’s new documentary about the singer doesn’t exactly break ground with the form but it does answer a lot the unanswered questions and does so in an unflinching but dignified way.  The film is mostly told in a chronological narrative fashion through interviews with surviving family members, most of whom tell the story in guarded but honest fashion and through some pretty effective investigation director Kevin MacDonald does seem to get to the bottom of things.  The one thing that the documentary is never really able to do is draw a connection between Huston’s life story and her music, though I’m not exactly sure that those connections are there to be found given that she wasn’t really a songwriter and cultivated an image that was distinct from her reality.  The film has drawn comparisons to the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, personally I think this one is a little stronger if only because Huston strikes me as a more substantial artist whose career lasted longer.

***1/2 out of Five

Three Identical Strangers (7/17/2017)

There are some news stories that stand the test of time and almost become legend and some that don’t. For instance, there was a documentary a couple of years ago called The Witness that sought to explore a famous murder case that was quoted over and over again over the years and had becomes something of a case study in group psychology.  The new documentary Three Identical Strangers does something similar in that it takes a human interest story that was once headline news and takes a deep dive into it and what it has to say about humanity.  That story is less famous than the one talked about in The Witness (I’d never heard of it) but it was apparently a big deal when it happened in the 70s and involved two people who encountered each other more or less by chance and realized they were long lost twins and once this became a news story they discovered that they were actually an entire set of triplets that had been separated at birth and adopted by separate people.  This would not seem to be a story that could easily be told visually but the movie does have some news footage from their time in the spotlight to work with as well as home videos and makes reasonably dignified use of reenactments to tell the story of how the three first met and a couple of other key moments.  Mostly though, the film uses talking head footage and you get the impression that the guy who made it is quite the Errol Morris fan given the movie’s form and tone.  I don’t want to give away too much about the film’s second half, but there is a bit of a twist that is worth keeping secret and what follows is a pretty interesting mediation on nature vs. nurture and medical ethics.

**** out of Five

Won’t You Be My Neighbor (7/22/2017)

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a show I have some hazy memories of watching when I was a very small kid but it’s not necessarily something I remember as a childhood favorite.  Frankly I kind of feel in retrospect that it was a show my parents wanted me to like more than I actually did and compared to the flashy and entertaining cartoons of the era it was a bit dull.  However, this documentary about the life of Fred Rogers has gained massive acclaim, and its trailer seems to be promising that it would reframe Rogers as a true revolutionary on the air.  As an argument for Rogers’ show I found the film a bit lacking.  There’s a lot of talk about Rogers’ philosophy of childhood education but to me this philosophy just seemed like some rather run of the mill appeals to self-esteem, and while there’s nothing wrong with that exactly I’m not exactly sure it’s “revolutionary.”  The film is also interested in highlighting certain moments where Rogers’ show intersected with current events throughout the late 20th century, but it’s oddly light on the video of these reactions.  For example, there’s a moment where the film spends a few minutes setting up the Challenger disaster as a moment in history where Rogers’ would step up and inspire a nation, but then the movie only shows a couple of lines of what he had to say before moving on.  I would argue that a bigger part of his success was that he could act as something of a surrogate father for kids in an era where fathers were particularly distant and cold.  If I was a kid in the sixties and had some Don Draper type as a father I can see why having nice Mr. Rogers come in and act as a caring father figure in my mornings would be nice.  By the time I was personally in the target market Rogers had aged into more of a grandfather figure, which is probably part of why the appeal was a bit lost on me.  As for the documentary, its surprising box office success has largely been viewed as a response to the rise of Donald Trump given that Rogers’ kindly accepting wholesomeness is the exact opposite of Trumps’ mean-spirited assholery.  I can sort of see that, but Rogers’ appeal as a progressive hero is probably a bit limited outside of this particular moment and there are probably other heroes I’d prefer to put on a pedestal before him.

**1/2 out of Five

McQueen (8/3/2017)

The new documentary McQueen is not about Steve McQueen (either of them), rather it’s about a fashion designer named Alexander McQueen who turned out to be a rather tortured soul.  Needless to say McQueen is not a figure I was overly familiar with outside of the occasional Nicki Minaj shout out, but it turns out he was a fairly popular English designer during the 90s and 2000s who had his own line but also did work for other houses. He appears to be primarily famous less for his actual clothing that someone would actually wear and more for his extremely outlandish of runway shows, which he turned into these themed spectacles that intentionally set out to shock and disturb.  It was exactly the kind of stuff that Sasha Baron Cohen was making fun of with his Bruno character.   I can tell why the film would focus so heavily on these runway shows as they are pretty visually interesting even for someone like myself who is rather hostile to the very concept of haute couture, but I’m not sure they really get to the heart of McQueen’s work and they only gave a rather superficial insight into what made him tick as a person.  While the film is on the long end for a documentary I still don’t think the film ever quite got to the bottom of what made McQueen tick as a person or to fully explain what led him to kill himself at the age of forty.  I think part of the problem is that almost all the interview subjects here are McQueen’s friends and colleagues and I would have liked to hear from someone with a more critical take on his work and a more objective take on his life.

*** out of Five

Eighth Grade(7/21/2018)

I didn’t really realize it at the time but the early 2000s, when I was a teenager was something of a low point for teen movies and coming of age films.  The 90s weren’t a whole lot better of course, that was the decade of the “teen movie starring WB Network actor” with stuff like Cruel Intentions and Varsity Blues but there were some highlights as well like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Rushmore and even American Pie was a bit more insightful than its reputation would suggest.  The 80s were also seen as something of a golden age, mainly because of Cameron Crowe and John Hughes, but the early 2000s?  Total wasteland.  There was Mean Girls I suppose, which I’m not the biggest fan of but certainly has some thought behind it.  I guess there was also Ghost World if you want to count that, but that’s pretty far from the mainstream.  Outside of that though there was mostly crap… I think.  Honestly I’ve never seen a lot of it but when I google “2000s teen movies” I mostly get titles like What A Girl Wants, The Girl Next Door, Eurotrip, and a whole bunch of other titles that no one has talked about in years and no one really cared about at the time.  Then I graduate high school in 2006 and suddenly we get a wave of movies like Superbad and Juno which are actually interested in doing some fun and thoughtful things with the genre.  Now we’re almost in something of a golden age of movies about teenagers like Boyhood, The Edge of Seventeen, and Lady Bird.  Granted the actual teenagers of the era seem kind of indifferent to the trend but even the mainstream stuff like The Fault in Our Stars looks more respectable than the likes of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.  This golden age would seem to continue with the new film about early adolescence: Eighth Grade.

As the title implies, this is a film about someone in the eighth grade (meaning they’re 13-14 years old) named Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher).  Kayla lives with her father Mark (Josh Hamilton) and her mother does not appear to be in the picture.  Kayla is not popular, at all, to the point where she doesn’t even really appear to have any friends.  She does, however, take the initiative to record rather inarticulate Youtube videos where she gives advice about questions she very decidedly hasn’t worked out for herself.  The film begins on the last week of middle school for Kayla, where she has been given the dubious honor of being voted “most quiet” by her fellow students, an award that a middle school should probably not be putting on their ballots.  Over the course of that final week she will pine after a popular boy named Aiden (Luke Prael), attend the pool party of a classmate named Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), and shadow a high schooler named Olivia (Emily Robinson).

When the movie Lady Bird came out last year I remember there being articles about Saoirse Ronan opting not to use makeup to clear up some acne in order to more accurately portray the face of a teenager.  I saw one article rather hyperbolically proclaim this decision “revolutionary” and while I like that movie and that performance I do find any assertion that it was some kind of blow for representing the plight of the average looking people of the world to be kind of ridiculous and Eighth Grade does a pretty good job of putting the lie to that little talking point.  If Saoirse Ronan was “bold” for making slight amounts of acne (barely) visible in that movie then Elsie Fisher is downright fearless in her willingness to show way more skin imperfections than Ronan ever did and the movie also isn’t exactly hiding the fact that this character is kind of overweight, at least by movie standards, and the characters’ insecurities about this come to the forefront during a particularly tense pool party scene.  Kayla is never actively bullied for her appearance but she is decidedly not popular and has become socially isolated both in real life and in her various social media escapades.

This movie is not, however, under any impression that Kayla’s problems only run skin deep as her personality does play as much of a role in her social status as her looks.  Early on in one of her videos Kayla says that her YouTube videos haven’t been getting a lot of views, and it’s pretty easy to tell why this is: it’s not because the world is cruel, it’s because her videos kind of suck.  The film’s audience finds them interesting because they offer some insights into our protagonist, but on their face they’re rambling inanities produced by someone who (at this point in life) has almost nothing of interest to contribute.  One can imagine that striking up real conversations with Kayla would yield similar results.  At one point she says “I don’t talk a lot at school but if people talk to me, and stuff, they’d find that I’m, like, very funny and cool and talkative” but there’s very little evidence to be found in the film that this is actually true.  The few moments where she actually does interact with other kids her own age she seems so filled with nerves and so out of practice at interactions and so lacking in talking points in general that she tends to just come across as weird.  Most teen movies are about people who merely think they’re social outcasts but this one is about someone who actually is.

Now, I’ve been pretty blunt in talking about Kayla and her shortcomings but I’m not doing it to be mean to this fictional character, frankly I do it because I see a lot of my former self (and if I’m being honest, my current self as well) in her.  Like, to the point where the movie is hard for me to review without getting a bit more personal than I’d like to.  The film was directed by Bo Burnham a twenty seven year old standup comedian whose previous work I am not really familiar with.  A lot of people have wondered why this guy would be so able to get into the mind of a post-millennial girl like this, but seeing the film it makes sense.  This isn’t really a movie about what it’s like to be a girl or even what it’s like to be part of Generation Z so much as it’s a movie about what it’s like to be a true introvert.   There are plenty of moments here I can relate to a bit too well: desperately not wanting to go to a party that you’ve been given an invitation to at the behest of the host’s mother, posting things online only to have most of the world not give a shit, getting “busted” hiding out in a corner rather than conversing with others, general befuddlement about the life advice “be yourself,” the list goes on.  It’s about as close as any coming of age movie has gotten to reflecting my own experiences, which you’d think would make me love the movie and in one sense that’s true, I certainly appreciate what it’s doing and on the other hand it kind of makes the movie hard to watch for me.  Some of the film’s moments of awkwardness and cringe inducing social interactions almost gave me a sort of PTSD-like flashback to some of the less pleasant moments of my own adolescence.  As such watching the movie was in many ways a more tense experience than watching most full-on horror movies.

So how does this compare to the other big coming of age movies of the era: Boyhood and Lady Bird?  Well, I’ve explained why I consider it a bit more relatable and accurate than both of them, but I’m not sure I’d call it better.  There are certainly some problems to be found in it.  I feel like the movie could have done a little more to define what Kayla is like when she isn’t being socially awkward.  Does she have a hobby aside from making advice videos?  Does she have ambitions? Does she read or watch movies?  In some ways the film remains just as oblivious to Late in the film she offhandedly mentions that she likes the show “Rick and Morty” and that tiny tidbit almost seems to say more about her interests than most the rest of the film.  I also think the audio of Kayla’s Youtube videos played ironically over a contradictory point in her life is a device that the movie probably uses a few too many times.  Also there’s a moment in a car late in the film which, while tense and interesting in its own right, does sort of feel like a bit of a tangent from the rest of the themes and conflicts of the film and doesn’t quite feel like the right climax.  Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by Eighth Grade, it’s an extremely honest film that displays a perspective that I don’t think has ever really shown up on film before, at least not in the same way.  I may never want to watch this movie again, but I’m sure glad it exists.

**** out of Five

Sorry to Bother You(7/14/2018)

While I’ve long been a hip-hop fan I’ve never really been the biggest fan of the “conscious” hip-hop that has long been touted as the “smart” alternative to all the “commercialized sellout” hip-hop that most people actually want to listen to.  I certainly don’t need or want my rap music to be ignorant, and I’m not talking about artists like Tupac or Kendrick Lamar who mix politics into traditional hardcore rap, but I’ve always found it a bit suspect how certain “fans” seem to want this particular genre of music to act more as a billboard for various social or political causes and the further away from college the less use I have for a lot of these guys.  That’s not to say I eschew every group that falls under the “conscious” banner; The Roots are obviously awesome and Talib Kweli’s best stuff mostly works for me. But I have little use for the lecturing of Immortal Technique, Common’s music mostly seemed like a series of empty platitudes, and even the granddaddy of all these artists, KRS-One, could be rather tiresome.  And this brings me to The Coup.  I’ve never had terribly strong opinion about that group as they basically just seemed like one of many artists vying for attention in that space but they were distinct from some other “conscious rappers” in that they were even more left-wing than a lot of them.  They’re like the Rage Against the Machine of hip-hop and their members are committed socialists with distinctly anti-capitalist views and seem to be genuinely interested in burning everything to the ground and starting over.  I bring all this up because The Coup’s founding member is a guy named Boots Riley and he has now decided to move into filmmaking with his debut film Sorry to Bother You.

Sorry to Bother You follows a guy named Cashus “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who lives with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in a makeshift apartment in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage in Oakland.  In an attempt to get his life back on track Green takes a job at a telemarketing call center called Regalview where he’s told to “stick to the script” while selling encyclopedias (or something) over the phone to people who aren’t terribly receptive.  Cash struggles for a while before an older co-worker named Langston (Danny Glover) advises him that he’d have more success if he used his “white voice” instead of his natural cadence.  From there Cash starts code switching while talking on the phone to customers (Stanfield is overdubbed in these moments by comedian David Cross) and almost immediately starts to become very successful and gets promoted up the corporate ladder.  That would seemingly be good news for Cash but it puts him at odds with some of his old friends who are tying to start a union in the lower levels of the company and with the world at large given that the film is set in a satirically heightened version of our world where a billionaire named Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) has been convincing people to sign lifelong contracts with a company called WorryFree that basically turns them into slaves.

If that summery didn’t make it clear, Sorry to Bother You is a really weird movie, though it’s not entirely without precedent.  The movie certainly seems to be in the same tradition as some of Spike Lee’s more “out there” movies like She Hate Me, Girl 6, and especially Bamboozled, which was also about a black guy who could be accused of being an “uncle tom” trying to decide how deep down the road of collaborating with racist corporations he wants to go.  However the film also seems to draw a bit from other culty movies like Repo Man and Putney Swope which choose to eschew subtlety and kind of shout their frustrations about the status quo in unusual and sort of surreal ways.  The film is being sold on the high concept of the salesman using his “white voice” to get ahead in telemarketing, and while the double consciousness of black Americans is a theme of the movie that concept is really more of a jumping off point than the dominant message of the movie.  Over the course of the film’s running time capitalism itself is just as much of a target as racism and increasingly takes the movie over by the end.

Much of Sorry to Bother You attacks American capitalism though a sort of satiric exaggeration.  For instance there’s the “WorryFree” organization that is essentially peddling slavery with congressional approval and there’s an even more outlandish allegory about worker exploitation that emerges later in the movie.  That would seem to be a powerful statement if you’re someone who’s so inclined to view the capitalist system as already essentially being legitimized slavery, but if you don’t already hold that view (I certainly don’t) the movie isn’t necessarily going to persuade you to see things that way and the allegory will just seem like some outlandish hyperbole.  In fact the movie delivers a lot of messages through outlandish hyperbole, it kind of feels like the sort of movie someone makes when they have a lot to say but don’t know if they’re ever going to have the chance to make another movie so they just throw everything into one project.  It wasn’t enough to make a movie about a guy who abandons his culture and sense of self for profit and it also wasn’t enough to make a movie about the ways capitalism pits poor people against each other and it also wasn’t enough to make a movie that takes digs at reality television, meme culture, and the modern art world, he needed to make a movie that comments on seemingly everything that’s came to mind about American culture and the result is a movie that is densely filled with slightly half-baked ideas.  I desperately want to give this thing an “at least it’s trying something different” pass, but at the end of the day it’s a little too messy and unfocused and also probably not as laugh out loud funny as it needed to be.

**1/2 out of Five

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 7 – Short Circuit (1986)


Sometimes you hear an anecdote in an interview and you forget about it and sometimes it just stays with you.  One such anecdote occurred in a Hot 97 interview with Aziz Ansari where Ansari recounts a time he was hanging out with Jay-Z and for whatever reason brought up the movie E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial only to have the rapper snap back “I don’t fuck with E.T… but you know what’s dope, Johnny Five from Short Circuit.”  Ansari (who will come up again later in this review) and the hosts riff on this peculiar movie opinion but the comic recounts how Hov’s eyes lit up when he brought up the Short Circuit movies.  The artist formerly known as Jigga does not seem to be alone in his enthusiasm for Short Circuit, it seems to be one of the pre-eminent “nostalgia movies” despite having gotten mixed to negative reviews when it first came out and being only a very modest box office success and it clearly inspired aspects of later blockbusters like Wall-E and non-blockbusters like Chappie.  Also, while I would say that I disagree with Mr. Carter’s assessment that the movie is better than E.T. he is on to something when he compares the movies directly as Short Circuit is almost certainly inspired by the box office success of Spielberg’s film.  Both films feature a cute version of a science fiction mainstay on the run from shady government entities and being taken in by an ordinary person who befriends them and tries to protect them.

At the heart of Short Circuit there is a potentially interesting science fiction idea buried in it but it’s stuck in the middle of a movie with very lame ambitions.  There could be a good movie about a robot gaining sentience and slowly becoming more aware of the world by observing “input” item by item, but that’s really not where this movie’s interests lie.  Instead its main goal seems to be turning Johnny Five into the goofiest and cuddly robot they can.  He’s given a rather annoying voice by a guy named Tim Blaney, whose background is in puppetry and you can kind of tell because this sounds more like the kind of voice you come up with a give a ventriloquist dummy or something rather than a real character.  The human cast is not much better.  I’m not sure who made Steve Gutenberg a star but they need to be stopped and Ally Sheedy stopped being cast in movies people care about after 1989 for a reason, but even better actors probably wouldn’t have been able to do much with these rather stock characters.  Then of course there’s the character of Ben Jabituya (whose renamed Ben Jahveri in the sequel for some reason), an Indian character with a rather Apu like accent played by the decidedly non-Asian actor Fisher Stevens.  This character was highlighted by Aziz Ansari in the “Master of None” episode called “Indians on TV” and has plainly not aged well.  Even setting aside the problematic nature of this casting the character is just annoying and obnoxious.

I also took a look at the film’s sequel, Short Circuit 2.  I had expected it to be much lamer than the original, and in some ways it certainly was.  Ally Sheedy and Steve Gutenberg are easy actors to make fun of but you do start to miss them when they leave the series and the white guy playing an Indian becomes the lead.  The sequel also basically gives up any pretention of being the next E.T. and settles for being the next Harry and the Hendersons, but there are some improvements too.  New York proves to be a more interesting setting for Johnny Five’s hijinks than whatever rural area the first movie was set in and the movie also oddly doubles down on the idea of Johnny Five as something of an oppressed minority.  It’s a slightly hypocritical stance given the film’s brownface lead and it’s less than authentic take on Latin street gangs, but it is there nonetheless.  Beyond that there are also a couple of gags in the film that work better than they probably should.  Ultimately I’m not sure I like or dislike the sequel more than the original or vice versa.  One feels like a good movie turned lame and the other feels like a lame movie made better than it might have otherwise and the two just sort of meet in the middle, but really all they have in common is that they’re cheaply made movies made for cynical reasons.

To the Scorecard:

Officially I’m just counting the original film as my entry for this round but whichever way I went on that the result would have basically been the same as I was not overly impressed by either movie.  There are 80s movies out there that I don’t like but get why they’re remembered nostalgically but this is not one of them.  Anyone who watches this thing over the age of 11 should be able to tell it’s second rate.  Also, Jay-Z, stick to rapping because your opinion about family movies from the 80s is lacking.

Ant-Man and The Wasp(7/9/2018)

2014 was not a good year for Marvel.  That was the year that Avengers: Age of Ultron came out and proved to be a rather unruly mess, and that was followed by a strange little movie called Ant-ManAnt-Man is to date the third lowest grossing Marvel film after The Incredible Hulk and the first Captain America and to those in the know the final film kind of lived in the shadow of the fact that Edgar Wright was once going to direct it.  I wasn’t a fan of that movie either.  Of course it was a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie so there was enough quality control going on that it certainly wasn’t “bad,” but there were a lot of elements that didn’t really work and it just seemed like kind of a lame exercise in the grand scheme of things.  I was especially put off by one aspect of Ant-Man’s powers, namely the way he could punch people while miniature and have them react as if they’d just been given an uppercut by a heavyweight fighter.  That doesn’t make sense.  Even if they did have incredible strength while miniature the fact that it’s channeled into a small space like that would make Ant-Man piece into the bad guys like a bullet not hit them with blunt force trauma.  It breaks the laws of physics dammit!  Still, in 2018 Marvel is on a roll and I suspected that they had enough momentum to improve on their last effort with the sequel Ant-Man and The Wasp.

The film is set two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War but before the events of Avengers: Infinity War.  After having been arrested for breaking the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has been on house arrest this whole time.  Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) have apparently also been on the run this whole time because it was their technology that was used in Scott’s breach.  At the film’s start his sentence is only days away from being over but for some reason he suddenly finds himself having a strange dream about Hank and Hope and in a semi-delirious state calls them using a burner phone that he had hidden and tells them about it.  Something like a day later he’s suddenly tranquilized and moved to a secret lab that Hank and Hope have been building where they hope to enter sub-atomic space to rescue Hank’s lost wife.  But not long after they all find themselves in a run-in with a mobster named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and then they’re accosted by a strange masked combatant that seems to phase in and out of reality and it becomes clear that they’re going to be in the fight of their life.

The title of Ant-Man and The Wasp gives equal billing to Hope but don’t be fooled, this is still very much a story told from the perspective of Ant-Man, which is perhaps to be expected given that he’s more of an audience surrogate than Hope.  Hope is given a costume this time around and gets to participate in the action sequences as The Wasp but narratively she more or less shares her storyline with her father, who could just as easily be considered a co-star with the other two.  That aside the movie generally has a clearer picture of its characters than the original film did and the fact that it has its origin story stuff out of the way gives it a lot more time to act as something of a romp.  Most of the comic relief cast from the previous movie like Michael Peña and T.I. are back and Randal Park has been added as a delightfully nerdy FBI Agent who’s meant to be overseeing Scott’s house arrest and just steals every scene he’s in.  People who are frustrated by the fact that so many superhero movies tend to end with fights against super-villains that are about to set loose some world ending calamity will likely enjoy the fact that this movie involves a fight against some rather low level thugs led by Walton Goggins (who’s very much in “Vice Principals” mode here) and even the more traditional superhero foil called Ghost proves to be less eeeevilll than most Marvel villains.

In general Ant-Man and The Wasp is a clear improvement over its predecessor, it seems to have a bigger budget, it more clearly knows what it wants to be, and its cast has gelled considerably.  That said I still think this is one of Marvel’s weaker franchises, some people might like the film’s lighter tone, but I think Marvel movies are already plenty light to begin with and the Ant-Man movies bring that lightness to the point of feeling downright disposable.  This one in particular seems to really think that its tone can excuse away some pretty obvious plot-holes like the FBI’s incredible inability to keep tabs on Scotts home.  This all feels particularly inconsequential given the ending of Avengers: Infinity War, which only really comes up here during Marvel’s patented post-credits sequence, but the film otherwise does not feel terribly important to the greater MCU storyline.  The decision to release this a mere two months after Infinity War seems particularly curious given that there are no Marvel movies lined up at all for the fall and I’m guessing that there would have been a much bigger shortage of escapist entertainment like this during that season.  Having said all that, I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that this isn’t worth seeing because it probably is at least if you’re an MCU fan.  These movies are basically never bad and this one isn’t either.  It’s a neat action movie and most audience members will get what they came for.

***1/2 out of Five