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2 Stars Movies

Never Been Kissed: a wacky misunderstanding, or should somebody call the police?

Without thinking about it too much, the basic premise of Raja Gosnell’s Never Been Kissed sounds perfectly fine: an adorkable young adult gets a high school do-over. What could go wrong?

And indeed, roughly the first half of Never Been Kissed is likable, powered almost entirely by Drew Barrymore’s trademark charm and quirk. But the plot begins digging a hole for itself as soon as her teacher’s (Michael Vartan) attention becomes more overtly sexual, her newspaper’s motivations turn crass and exploitative, her nerdy-but-a-knockout friend (Leelee Sobieski) strips down to a leotard for no reason, and her brother’s (David Arquette) own self-actualization turns predatory. And the movie just keeps digging deeper and deeper.

Never Been Kissed never evinces any awareness that its problematic premise is anything more than a wacky misunderstanding. I’m not sure if there was any way for this story to work without being creepy. Or, uh, unlawful.

Let’s try some offhand script doctoring: First, cut the 16-year-old gymnast entirely; that subplot is unsalvageable. Second, perhaps Josie could discover that she misjudged her teacher’s attention, and he is in fact focused on helping her blossom. For example, he could invite her to her office, with she and the audience anticipating a hot assignation, but he instead produces a letter of recommendation for her college applications. This way, it’s cute, they still like and respect each other, and can hook up later, when all is revealed.

Or at the very least, during the editing stage, it could have been made more clear that when Josie confesses, her teacher’s disappointment is specifically over finding out that the newspaper was trying to entrap him. I can’t believe it didn’t occur to anybody in the editing room that the scene played like he was disgusted to find out that Josie was in fact an adult.

Orrrrrr… maybe just don’t attempt this premise at all. I can’t believe Disney+ is trimming swearwords from some of its PG-13 movies, but Never Been Kissed‘s basic plot doesn’t concern them?

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2 Stars Movies

Daylight is anti-city-living propaganda

The best part of every disaster movie is the opening montage depicting unrelated people boarding the boat that’s going to sink, the airplane that’s going to crash on a desert island, the tower that’s going to inferno, or the bus that’s going to be hijacked in an overly complicated scheme by a charismatic villain. These kinds of movies like to pretend that catastrophe is the great equalizer, uniting victims across class, race, and gender, but we all know that’s just pretend.

Rob Cohen’s 1996 Daylight exemplifies the genre’s failings, notably the stock stereotypes (the sassy Caribbean woman, the guy who loves his sneakers, convicts in a prison bus, etc.), and that there’s always a macho Sylvester Stallone-type around to take charge.

Daylight also earns major demerits for its pervasive anti-city-living propaganda. There’s no way that Amy Brenneman’s character, a struggling divorcée living in a walkup rat trap studio, owns a car. This was clearly written for the tourist who happily dips their toes into Manhattan for a Broadway show, an overrated cupcake, and maybe The Met, but then turns right around and says “sure, it was nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there…”

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2 Stars Movies

Toys shoot to kill in G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Jon M. Chu’s 2013 toy-based sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation is inappropriately cruel for a movie based on children’s toys/cartoons/comics, in which nobody ever really got hurt. The gun fetishism is unsurprising, but it is surprising that its heroes and villains both shoot to kill. There’s a spectacular amount of onscreen death: first half the cast, then an entire city.

It’s also a mess structurally — particularly all the ninja business, which seems crudely spliced in from a different movie. But it does have its pleasures:

  • The pure action poetry of the mountainside monastery fight sequence.
  • Jonathan Pryce clearly enjoying himself. You know he positively leapt at the chance to play an evil master of disguise impersonating the US President. But today, the assumed reverence for the Commander in Chief now seems like it’s from another century.
  • Lee Byung-hun’s torso. My goodness.
  • Campy Cobra Commander strutting in slow motion never stops being funny.
  • A handful of actually amusing one-liners, so props to whomever punched up the script — wish you could have fixed more.
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2 Stars Movies

The Hunt is weak tea, at a time that calls for strong coffee

I watched Craig Zobel’s The Hunt mostly out of curiosity, to see what the red hats were so worked up about. Turns out it is not what the American fascists assumed, but neither is it otherwise. There is potential for satire somewhere in the premise, but it’s too confused and unfocused to be anything other than just more both-sides-ism. Besides, Kevin Smith already covered similar territory in 2011 with Red State.

The Hunt‘s gentle caricature of Trumpism is weak tea, at a time that calls for strong coffee. The movie seems more interested in taking shots against political correctness — a pitifully tired target in 2020. Does anyone find it funny anymore that it’s polite to try to refer to people as they identify, and not how someone else identifies them? This is especially infuriating when Trumpism is currently leading to police rioting in the streets, government inaction while a pandemic is killing thousands, a resurgence of overt racism, and eager submission to authoritarianism. But no, let’s make jokes about how libtards like NPR, har har.

The Hunt seems to equate liberalism with wealth, which looks just plain retrograde at a time when Americans are marching in the streets for equality and to please not to be murdered by Officer Friendly. If I were to stretch and strain to give this movie more credit that it deserves, perhaps the point is to frame America’s current divisions as primarily class driven, with ideology as performative cloaking. But I doubt it’s being that clever.

Also, I must say the shared DNA with Donnie Darko was unexpected, and Hillary Swank and Betty Gilpin are superstars that deserve better showcases than this.

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2 Stars Movies

Brad Pitt works out his daddy issues in space, in Ad Astra

Maybe this isn’t fair, but I couldn’t help but associate Ad Astra with Joker. If Joker is a shallow remix of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, Ad Astra is a bland smoothie of Solaris and Apocalypse Now, with a cavalcade of stars you may remember from Space Cowboys and Armageddon. I half expected Harrison Ford to appear, standing in a corner, creepily ordering Brad Pitt to “terminate, with extreme prejudice” — so it’s more Apocalypse Now than 2001: A Space Odyssey, which at least had the decency to have jokes.

But really, Ad Astra is merely the story of an emotionally repressed mope, working through his daddy issues by haphazardly murdering a bunch of people just like his dad did — as if they were mere bureaucratic red tape stopping the only person in the universe that can save the universe from saving the universe — and then, having saved the universe, finally becoming ready to open his heart to Liv Tyler. Anybody out there have any empathy for someone who can’t open their heart to Liv Tyler? Pure fiction!

And as for its pseudo-sciencey verisimilitude, somewhere, Kim Stanley Robinson is banging his head against his writing desk.

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2 Stars Movies

Terminator: Dark Fate is a trashcan of exposition

Criticizing the plots of popcorn action blockbusters is usually a fool’s errand. Nobody cares if Hobbs & Shaw makes any sense, but surely it’s fair game in the Terminator franchise, where untangling pseudo-scientific time travel logic is 99% of the fun.

So the biggest disappointment of Dark Fate (other than its singularly unmemorable title, and the cruel execution of a digital Edward Furlong avatar) is that it offhandedly tosses its biggest question marks into a trashcan of exposition. I’m glad this movie revolves around three women, and relegates Schwarzenegger to a supporting role, but it seems to me that if your story involves a robot assassin that reprograms itself for good, after a lifetime of guilt and regret, that deserves more than a few perfunctory lines of exposition.

While we’re on the topic of telling-not-showing: Dark Fate introduces a new, rather creepy idea to the clichéd evil A.I. subgenre. Rather than a diabolical Matrix-style plan to subjugate humanity, the A.I. in Dark Fate simply turns off the world’s power and then sits patiently on its circuitry butt for a few decades while most of humanity kills itself off. Again, like Schwarzenegger’s Cyberdyne T-800 developing a conscience offscreen, this is far more interesting than any of the car chases or plane crashes.

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2 Stars Movies

De Diro and Pacino dunk their scrapple in Guinness in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman

Why am I reluctant to publicly pan one of the year’s most acclaimed films? What am I afraid of — being labelled a cinema rat, and getting whacked by a couple of film geeks?

It took me years and years of being a film buff, through film school and beyond, for me to realize that I’m just not into Scorsese. He made one of my personal all-time favorites: The Last Temptation of Christ, which led me to Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel and Peter Gabriel’s score, all of which gave my teenage self a lot to think about. But beyond that: yes, I appreciate how groundbreaking and influential works like Mean Streets, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas are, and the filmmaking craft is often outstanding, but I would rather not watch them again for personal edification. He’s one of those filmmakers I keep up with out of obligation to the canon, not out of any personal interest. I wouldn’t call it a blind spot; more of an immunity.

There’s close to zero new ground broken in The Irishman, and I just don’t understand the praise. A psychopath rationalizing his crimes as being in defense of his family? That’s the entire premise of The Sopranos. A mobster torn between loyalty or betrayal of an unstable friend? That’s 9 out of 10 mob movies ever made (I’m specifically reminded of Donnie Brasco, which boasts a much more soulful performance by Pacino). A peek into the day-to-day operation of the mafia? I guess if you liked the money laundering sequence in Casino, and get off on montages of tough guys collecting fat envelopes, there’s plenty more of that business for you here.

And there’s a limit to how intimidating I find movie-mob dialog (you gotta do that thing, you know the thing we talked about, no not that thing, the other thing, to that guy, no not that guy, the other guy, send him to Australia, no not that Australia, the other Australia, etc). Today, it seems pitifully quaint with reality-TV-money-laundering-compromised-wannabe-gangster Donald Fucking Trump issuing the same kind of insinuating orders to his underlings and soliciting bribes every day from the goddamn White House.

Even more frustrating, Scorsese remains blind to the women in his fictional worlds. I managed to recognize Aleksa Palladino at one point despite the camera practically ignoring her. I don’t want to hear about how pivotal Anna Paquin’s role was; she had about 1 minute of screen time, and maybe five words of dialogue (and that’s out of about 10 from all female characters, period). We know more about the countless male supporting characters all graced with freeze-frame epitaphs. So she recognizes her father’s criminality — so what? So did I, and I didn’t need an onscreen avatar or moral compass to do so. Yes, the mafia as an organization may be a man’s world, and men like Frank are the type to set aside the women in his life, but that doesn’t mean every gangster film has to.

Another thing that drove me nuts: I’m half-Irish and half-German, like Hoffa, and from the Philly area, like Frank, so I couldn’t suspend my disbelief for one second to imagine De Niro and Pacino dunking scrapple in their Guinness.

The most interesting part of the movie for me was when I recognized Jeff Beck playing over the end credits. I can’t find his name cited anywhere in relation to this film, but it had to be him; no one else plays guitar like that.

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2 Stars Movies

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker smothers all hope and wonder

My brilliant wife had the following absolutely perfect appraisal of the first two entries in the new Star Wars trilogy, which I will paraphrase here:

“Most of the criticism of The Force Awakens was absolutely correct, but I loved it anyway. Most of the criticism of The Last Jedi was absolutely wrong, but I loved it anyway.”

In other words: yes, we acknowledge the consensus that J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was a stealth remake of A New Hope, somewhat lacking in imagination, but wow was it thrilling. Then Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi faced an even fiercer backlash: mostly directed at its female characters, its rejection of Star Wars‘ royal lineage nonsense, and for directly addressing the military industrial complex issue that all previous films had ignored. These criticisms infuriated us; these aspects were exactly what made The Last Jedi one of, if not the best of the entire series. (sorry, Empire, I will always love you too)

But after seeing The Rise of Skywalker, this formulation is disrupted. With J.J. Abrams back in the director’s chair, the concluding chapter retreats from the progress made in the second film, and seems to have pulled off the impossible: disappointing everybody. If it’s not the worst Star Wars movie, it’s certainly the most disappointing. Instead of rating it out of five stars, I want to rate it with a countless number of exasperated sighs.

Even more than the unwanted spinoff product Rogue One and Solo, The Rise of Skywalker seems to have been designed by spreadsheet in an antiseptic Disney boardroom, in a misguided attempt to appease a fandom riven by the divisive The Last Jedi. Star Wars is not my personal sentimental favorite story (that would be Doctor Who), but my generation grew up with it and I can’t help but have an emotional attachment. I could enumerate The Rise of Skywalker‘s various plot deficiencies here, but it’s the smothering of wonder and spirit that really hurts.

My thoughts here are a kind of spoiler — not for revealing plot details, but for sending out bad vibes. Hopefully there are some viewers (especially kids) that don’t read complaints like this and get some joy from the movie. Here’s hoping that with time, The Last Jedi is retrospectively recognized as the height of the entire franchise.

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2 Stars Movies

Toys buy happiness in the cloying The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Cloying, saccharine, and worst of all, painfully obvious.

Mike Mitchell’s The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part emblematizes my biggest gripe with most contemporary animated features: that perhaps the purest form of cinema is so often overwritten to the point of death. With animation, everything must be literally created from nothing, and anything is possible. There are virtually no limits to the visuals or sound. But The Lego Movie 2 is yet another animated feature heavily weighed towards the written word — a betrayal of the form.

No doubt a direct result of the extreme budget and time investments required to produce one of these monstrosities, there are business reasons for these projects to exist on paper for too long. Perhaps the financiers could not be wooed by dazzling pre-visualizations and concept art, and instead were convinced by a celebrity-heavy table read of a thick, verbose script, dumbed down a few levels below the basement of its all-ages audience. And so here we have yet another animated disappointment, drowning in oceans of dialog that repeatedly spell out didactic themes, with its biggest claim to visual spectacle probably being something like advancements in a computer algorithm to calculate the glint of magic-hour sunlight upon tiny pieces of Danish plastic.

This third entry in what has somehow become a franchise exposes how derivative of Pixar the premise is: from Toy Story comes the device of children imbuing their toys with life through play, and from Inside Out the conceit that these embodiments represent dueling facets of personalities that adapt with age. But this is to give too much credit to the sub-sitcom characterization of the parents: Will Ferrell literally phones in a voice cameo as a “honey have you seen my socks” type of husband, and Maya Rudolph is a zero-fun helicopter mom whose nuclear option punishment strategy is to take toys away.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

It’s right there in the title that The Lego Movie is based on a toy line, but it’s just plain insulting that the happy ending is two kids maturing and working out their psychological issues through thousands of dollars worth of Lego product, under the gleaming smile of the parent that paid for it all. Even the subtitle is so irritatingly dumb that it barely qualifies as a pun.

Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks can’t dig themselves out of the reams of dialog, but the brightest aspect of the film is the rest of the cast: Tiffany Haddish challenges the animators to keep up with her sheer force of personality, Will Arnett’s material amusingly pierces the aura of self-seriousness around Batman, and I wouldn’t want anybody else to play the pivotal role of the cat than Alison Brie.

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2 Stars Movies

Netflix’s Triple Frontier is aggro, macho horseshit

J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier, Netflix’s latest high-profile exclusive, aspires to be a serious Expendables. It draws surface-level inspiration from the likes of Heat and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but forgets that you need more than square jaws and gun porn.

There’s some dramatic potential in the premise of a heist orchestrated by veterans left behind by their country, fancying themselves a band of Robin Hoods robbing from criminals. Certainly none of them are Merry Men, and it fails to seriously grapple with what should have been interestingly conflicting motivations: moral duty vs. financial need vs. greed vs. vengeance. It instead becomes yet another macho gun movie where grim white dudes growl at each other and shoot Central Americans in the head for two hours.

Aggro, macho horseshit.

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