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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?

Categories
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.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Brad Bird’s The Incredibles 2 traps superheroes in motels and courtrooms

The Incredibles 2 sure went down easy when I saw it in a theater a few months ago, but it suffers on rewatch on the small screen. And needless to say, it was shortly rendered wholly obsolete by the best animated superhero movie of all time, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

While the real (and best) story is of course the Parr family’s shifting dynamic and gender roles, the surface plot doesn’t hold together. For an animated family movie about a superpowered quintet, the stakes are weirdly low, and perhaps a little too abstract for little kids to grasp. The surest giveaway that its target audience skewed slightly older than Disney/Pixar’s wheelhouse is the subplots granted to the adult parents and teenage daughter, but no material for Dash, whom I would think little kids would most identify.

Instead, most of the narrative conflict revolves around some vague business about superheroes being outlawed, which seems inconsequential when the Parr family is nevertheless allowed to operate as a black ops team under government supervision. Public sentiment never turns against them, so there’s nobody to convince that superheroes are pretty great, actually. This plot point is likely a kid-friendly response to the story arc of the Marvel superhero movies (particularly Captain America: Civil War), but how many little kids worried about Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack’s legal status?

Rather than draw from contemporary Marvel movies for inspiration, I wish Brad Bird had instead cribbed from 1960s Marvel print comics. Forget the government or law, and instead borrow from Spider-Man the idea of a hero working for the common good even when the public distrusts him, or crib from the Fantastic Four a more cosmic setting. An adventure on an alien planet or in another dimension would be more fun than courtrooms and motels, while still allowing for the movie’s real themes: Elastigirl coming into her own, and Mr. Incredible learning to share in the nurturing and caregiving of their kids.

But of course, you can always rely on Pixar’s fine craft even when they are not at their best. The visual design and animation is superb, and the voice casting is perfection. Holly Hunter, Craig Nelson, Jonathan Banks, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sarah Vowell all fully own their characters. I just wish all of this had been in the service of a movie that would stand for generations, like the best of Disney and Pixar’s works.

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2 Stars Movies

Winnie-the-Pooh is a labor reformer in Disney’s Christopher Robin

Christopher Robin poster

Given its sluggish pace, depressive tone, and dramatization of the origin of Paid Time Off for postwar UK laborers, whom exactly was the intended audience for this movie? Kids with premature midlife crises and uncommonly long attention spans? Adults with low vocabularies and an acceptance of brain-bending metaphysics? Think about it too hard, and it’s the stuff of nightmares as Christopher Robin’s acid-flashbacks to his childhood fantasias come to life, not just for him but for the entire world.

There are no better models for the all-ages family film than Paddington and Paddington 2, full stop. It is possible to illuminate kids about immigration and judicial reform and yet still indulge in tasty pastries and runaway trains.

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2 Stars Movies

Gorging on Nostalgia: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Like a big bowl of candy, Solo: A Star Wars Story certainly went down easy. But also like a big bowl of candy, generations raised on too much Star Wars are going to gorge themselves sick on nostalgia. Who filled that bowl, and why? When Disney acquired the Star Wars rights, and promised a new movie every year, I don’t think I was alone in imagining there would be more than enough room for original stories. But so far Disney has spent more time facing backwards than forwards.

To recap: The Force Awakens was in many ways a phantom remake of the original Star Wars, rationalized as rebooting the franchise with a new foundation for future stories. Rogue One and Solo are essentially neu-prequels, plastering in the gaps deliberately left in the original foundation. Solo is especially focussed on continuity and nostalgic callbacks, and teasing future nostalgic callbacks yet to come. It isn’t about anything other than itself. Four films in, The Last Jedi stands alone in striking out for new territory. It’s the first to really surprise.

Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but what is the point of the neu-prequels, if not mere fan service? Aren’t the missions to steal the Death Star plans and the Kessel Run better left to the imagination? Did anyone really wonder how Chewbacca came by his diminutive nickname? Do we feel we understand Han more now that we know where he got his surname? The one major new detail we learn about him — that he is an Empire deserter — loses its impact when even this idea is recycled: q.v. Finn in the mothership films.

The most egregious fan service in the film is of course the confounding cameo by Darth Maul — confounding, that is, only for those evidently undedicated Star Wars fans like myself that haven’t seen the spinoff animated series. My reaction was not “wow, Darth Maul survived being sliced in half!”, but rather “All this took place before The Phantom Menace? How old is Han Solo? Does Darth Maul always fire up his lightsaber before hanging up the phone?”

Alden Ehrenreich has caught some flak for his performance here, but he was given an impossible job: impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized, or don’t impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized. He either chose the latter or was not able to pull off the former. Whichever explanation, he looks bad opposite Donald Glover, who successfully channelled Billy Dee Williams while still doing his own thing.

By the standard set by the original trilogy and prequels, Solo’s three prominent female characters should count as progress. Or, it would have, had the film not quickly killed two of them off. The original Star Wars infamously included only one woman among its cast, but Carrie Fisher’s force of personality made her instantly iconic, and that’s lacking here.

Also, Paul Bettany was fine but Michael K. Williams got robbed.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Johnny Depp delivers a truly strange performance in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is a healthy dose of frivolous fun; I don’t care what the critics are saying. I could do without Orlando Bloom’s cardboard performance and Keira Knightly’s CGI bosoms, but that’s not what the movie is about. As with the first installment, watch it for Johnny Depp’s fresh one-of-a-kind reinterpretation of the age-old Hollywood stock character, the pirate rogue. The first film had an extra layer of enjoyment as one could sense Depp must have been truly mystifying the Disney studio heads. By now surely they’re in on the joke and were more willing to let him rip, but it’s still a truly strange performance.

That may sound like a positive review, but it still only gets three stars since it’s by no means a great movie and certainly won’t stand the test of time.

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