Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ed Helms Helms New Slightly Amusing VACATION Reboot/Sequel

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

VACATION (Dirs. John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein, 2015)

ve never even heard of the original vacation,” protests James Griswold (Skyler Gisondo), when his father Rusty (Ed Helms) pitches to his family that they should drive cross-country to Walley World just like he did with his parents and sister over 30 years ago.

“It doesn’t matter. The new vacation will stand on its own.” Helm’s Rusty declares, but despite that being a solid meta joke, sadly it’s not true. This new reboot/sequel contains so many call backs to the original VACATION that there’s no way to forget it at any point during this film’s 99 minute running time. Queue Lindsay Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” and we’re off!

For the fifth film in the VACATION franchise (there’s also a TV movie, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION 2, and a 14 minute short film, HOTEL HELL VACATION, but let’s not count those), Helms and Christina Applegate as his wife Debbie take over from Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo as the next generation of Griswolds to make the hellacious trek to the fictional theme park, and I give major kudos for that excellent casting.

Continuing on the meta joke above, Rusty says: “My vacation had a boy and a girl. This one has two boys. And I’m sure there will be plenty of other differences.” Those two boys are Gisondo as the sensitive, guitar playing James, and Steele Stebbons as the foul mouthed bullying younger brother Kevin. The comic premise that the younger, much smaller brother bullies the older one isn’t as funny as the filmmakers think it is, but it joins many jokes here in that regard.

Remember the Wagon Queen Family Truckster Station Wagon in the first one? Well, this time the Griswolds are driving an Albanian rental minivan called The Tartan Prancer loaded with confusing features (its key device has a bunch of buttons with inexplicable symbols on them, including a swastika). And that’s one of the better running gags.

But just like Chase and D’Angelo who both put in welcome cameo appearances reprising their iconic roles as Clark and Ellen Griswold now as owners of a bed and breakfast in San Fransisco, don’t count the Family Truckster out – it too shows up. Sadly, despite a passing reference to Cousin Eddie, Randy Quaid is nowhere to be seen. That alone would’ve taken this to the next level.

I did chuckle a lot throughout this new VACATION – I lightly laughed at a scene where they visited Applegate’s old college sorority in Memphis and it’s revealed that she used to be a wild party girl (“Debbie Do Anything”), I snickered a bit at Helms trying to get his family into a car sing along of Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose,” and I came the closest to actual audible laughter when Charlie Day of It’s Always Sunny in Philadephia popped up as a rafting guide who starts out all super positive but then gets suicidal when his fiancée breaks up with him over the phone.

It’s essentially and predictably a series of farcical road trip sketches, some of which more match the crude cringe comedy tone of recent fare like WE’RE THE MILLERS or IDENTITY THIEF than the more relatable vibe of the VACATION movies I knew as a kid back when they were still under the National Lampoon banner.

And I wasn’t really into the sequence where they stay with Rusty’s sister, now played by Leslie Mann, who’s married to Chris Hemsworth (THOR) as “up and coming anchorman.” Helms being threatened by Applegate’s attraction to Hemsworth is clumsily handled, and Mann is barely given anything to do.

I also disliked the callback to Christie Brinkley's role as 
“The Girl in the Red Ferrari” who flirted with Chase in VACATION '83, in which up and coming supermodel Hannah Davis fills in as “Ferrari Girl” to flirt with Helms, but has an especially crude and unfunny fate. 

But overall writer/directors Daley and Goldstein have largely captured the endearingly lowbrow spirit of the famously hapless Griswold family’s “quest for fun” as Chase famously called it in the first one.

When I was a kid, and a big fan of comedy and Chase (back when those things weren’t mutually exclusive) I saw the original in the summer of ’83 and loved it. I even read John Hughes’ short story, “Vacation ’58,” which Hughes adapted into the screenplay and had the movie poster 
on my bedroom wall (yes, I was that kind of comedy geek, but that poster, painted by Boris Vallejo, is pretty awesome). That said, I really don’t regard it to be a comedy classic (or any of the VACATION movies for that matter). They are in the category of films that I consider just funny enough to get by.

Daley and Goldstein’s homage to the vacation house that Hughes, Harold Ramis, and Chevy built has a fair amount going for it mostly in Helms’ and Applegates’ go for broke performances, a smattering of one-liners and gags that land, and a few surprise guest appearances, but it really suffers from way too much gross-out humor. There’s vomit aplenty in the aforementioned college sorority event skit, and in the movie’s most disgusting moment, the family goes bathing in a raw sewage treatment area that they mistakenly thought was their own private hot springs.

To be fair, that’s exactly the level of crassness that the other VACATIONs often reveled in. But then they had bigger, more genuine laughs, and an actual heart beating behind it. As it stands, VACATION ’15 may elicit some laughter from audiences, but it sure won’t make them whistle “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” out of their assholes.

More later...

Friday, July 24, 2015

PIXELS Is Lame, But Doesn’t Suck As Much As You’ve Heard

Opening today at a multiplex near all of us:

PIXELS (Dir. Chris Columbus, 2015)

So, PIXELS, the latest in a long line of crass comedies from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions, is a typically lame offering, but it really doesn't suck as much as the majority of critics are saying.

I mean, it’s currently holds an awful 12% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. C’mon! It deserves at least 30-something percent. *

PIXELS scores a few points by trying a little harder than Sandler’s largely crappy output of late (the GROWN UP series, THAT’S MY BOY, BLENDED, etc.) and it has a pretty promising premise – aliens attack earth in the form of ‘80s video games – which does at times add up into some genuinely enjoyable dumb fun.

There may be dragging stretches between those instances of amusement, and tons of lame jokes litter the landscape along with the pixilated carnage, but as a throwaway summer popcorn picture it’s actually almost passable.

Sandler, Josh Gad, and Peter Dinklage play former ‘80s arcade champions, who we meet as kids played by the well cast Anthony Ippolito, Jacob Shinder and Andrew Bambridge, in an opening flashback set in 1982. We also meet Jared Riley as the kid version of Kevin James’ character, who’s not a great gamer but is able to score a Chewbacca mask from the Claw Game.

In the intervening years, Sandler’s Sam Brenner grows up to be a schlubby Geek Squad-style media center installation guy, while his best friend, James’ Will Cooper (or “Chewie” to his friends) has gone on to be elected President of the United States.

When Austrialia gets invaded by an alien force resembling the game Galaga™, James recruits Sandler to use his gaming skills, which involve recognizing patterns, to help the army defeat the 8-bit menace. Gad, now a conspiracy theory buff, and a mulleted Dinklage, in prison for criminal hacking, are also called upon and before long they’re all wearing uniforms identified as “Arcaders.”

Michelle Monaghan as Lt. Colonel Violet van Patten, Sandler’s obvious love interest from the get go, is skeptical of the crew until they take down Centipede® in a battle in London’s Hyde Park.

The big showpiece is the showdown with Pac-Man™ in New York City. The Arcaders take on the role of the ghosts via brightly colored cars with their names (Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde) on their license plates. Pac-Man is his old yellow, recognizable self, albeit ginormous, who shocks Sandler and his creator, Denis Akiyama as Toru Iwatani (the real Iwatani has a cameo as a repairman), by being “a bad guy.”

PIXELS takes the aliens recreating our old pop culture premise from GALAXY QUEST mixes it with the satirical yet nostalgic take on arcade classics from the Reagan era of WRECK-IT RALPH, and then wraps it all up in GHOST BUSTERS packing of having lovable, schlubby underdogs overcoming supernatural odds to save the world from a dangerously silly threat. Oh, and there’s an added splash of THE KING OF KONG in there too – the posturing of Dinklage’s Donkey Kong champion more than a little resembles the arrogant Billy Mitchell in that compelling gaming doc.

It should also be mentioned that there’s an episode of Futurama, “Raiders of the Lost Arcade,” that shares the same premise, but the real inspiration, which is credited, is the French animated short “Pixels.” Nearly every visual gag in the short is redone in the movie – watch it here.

Scripted by longtime Sandler screenwriting pal Tim Herlihy, PIXELS has a decently dopey tone to it. It doesn’t care whether its jokes land, or its plot mechanics are transparent, it just wants to fuck around on its huge playset with all the props and memories of the overgrown man-children in its audience.

Unfortunately there are so many missed opportunities with this material that it’s a shame that like somebody like the retro-meta-mastermind team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (the 21 JUMP STREET movies, THE LEGO MOVIE) wasn’t hired to touch up the screenplay.

Like I said before, it’s pretty close to crappy (which could be said also of its cluttered cinematography), but not as interminable, soul crushing, or as painful as many critics are saying. It’s a mediocre attempt at a crowd pleaser that actually has some amusing moments. It just fits better into the “Sandler is so over” narrative that so many pop culture pundits have been selling lately to paint it as a big, stinky dud.

I can’t say I’d recommend it to anyone who’s not a big Sandler fan, or somebody who doesn’t say upfront that they like big, stupid movies, but if I were using a star rating system I’d give it two stars out of five for “doesn’t completely suck” (the other stars for the record: 1 star = “sucks,” 3 stars = “good,” 4 stars = “almost awesome,” and 5 stars = of course, “awesome”).

Oh, and I enjoyed the Q-Bert, and Max Headroom cameos too.

* The Rotten Tomatoes rating of 12% was what it was at when I originally wrote this review. It's now at 20%, so it's slowly inching it's way up as more reviews are posted. Maybe it'll make 30-something % yet.

More later...

Friday, July 17, 2015

ANT-MAN Proves That Paul Rudd Can Be A Marvel Superhero Too

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

ANT-MAN (Dir. Payton Reed, 2015)

The first time I was introduced to Ant-Man it was in an old Saturday Night Live sketch from the late '70s. Margot Kidder was hosting, and it was the height of the success of the first SUPERMAN movie so they did a sketch with her as Lois Lane hosting a party with the man of steel (Bill Murray) as her new husband. Dan Aykroyd showed up as The Flash, John Belushi made quite an applause-filled entrance as The Hulk, and extras came in dressed as Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, The Thing, etc.

Then there was Garrett Morris (SNL cast member from '75-'80) as Ant-Man, who was mocked mercilessly by The Flash and The Hulk. “He has the strength of a human!” Aykroyd’s Flash joked. I honestly thought at the time that they had made up the character for the sketch - it was a while later that I found out that he'd been around since the early '60s.

The gag that Ant-Man is one of the lesser superheroes is one that still endures. Paul Rudd, who takes on the role as the tiny crime-fighter in the new comic book blockbuster wannabe opening today, said on LIVE with Kelly and Michael this week that compared to the rest of the Marvel family he felt like “cousin Oliver to the rest of the Brady bunch.”

It’s just that sort of self-deprecating comic charm that Rudd has in spades that helps elevate ANT-MAN from the all-too familiar formula makes it one of the most fun films of the summer.

The movie opens in the late ‘80s with Michael Douglas, who with the help of make-up and CGI looks like he did when he won the Oscar for WALL STREET, as Dr. Hank Pym storming in on a S.H.IE.L.D. meeting angry because they've been trying to reproduce his shrinking technology without his knowledge. Pym, who was the original Ant-Man in the comics, resigns from the agency and takes his formula with him.

Cut to 25 years later where we meet Paul Rudd as master thief Scott Lang as he's being released from prison. Rudd's Lang doesn't want to return to a life of crime, but a stint at Baskin Robbins gets cut short because they learn about his record. Lang is desperate to see his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), but his ex-wife (Judy Greer), who is now married to a cop (Bobby Cannavale), forbids it until he can pay child support so he takes on “one last job with his old cohorts (Michael Peña, Tip “T.I.” Harris, and David Dastmalchian).

This involves breaking into a vault made out of the same metal as the Titanic, but all that's in there is Pym's old Ant-Man suit. Lang tries it on when he gets home, presses a button on it and is shrunken to, yep, the size of an ant. The amped-up experience, which results in a scene that comes off like HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS on acid, scares Lang into returning the suit, but this gets him arrested.

In jail, he's visited by Pym posing as his lawyer. Pym had set him up because he's chosen Lang to be the new Ant-Man, and with the help of the suit Lang breaks out. Pym's daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) isn't happy with this, but goes along with geting Lang in shape to help them pull off a major heist. 

Pym wants Lang to steal the dangerous garb duplicating his shrinking technology dubbed Yellowjacket, which was developed by his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stohl from House of Cards). 

From there it becomes the expected mix of fight scenes, surreally-tinged chases, and comic asides, which all breeze by without an instance of clunk.

As Cross, Stohl isn't the strongest villain, and the plot mechanics can feel pretty standard at times, but thanks to the wit, charm, and likability of Rudd, a well executed origin story, and a strong supporting cast (funnily enough, it's Peña who gets the most laughs), ANT-MAN is a welcome, and far from lesser, addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Back when Edgar Wright (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD) who was originally slated to direct dropped out of the project and was replaced by Peyton Reed (director of the definitely un-super rom coms  DOWN WITH LOVE, YES MAN, and THE BREAK UP), it looked like it could end up a bomb, but the result is a summer superhero movie that satisfyingly pops.

Wright is credited for co-writing the screenplay, along with Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Rudd, so a lot of his vision is happily intact, and with a running time of under 2 hours, it's the least bloated Marvel movies in ages. 

Rudd plays well off his fellow cast members, especially Lilly, who appears to be primed to have her own superhero character soon, The Wasp, and Douglas, who, like Robert Redford in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, has one of his juiciest parts in recent memory. There's also a cameo by one of the Avengers, but I won't tell you which one. There's maybe more that that if you stay to the stinger at the end of the credits, but, again, that's all I'm gonna say.

Rudd also plays well off his CGI-ed insect pals, which Ant-Man can communicate with, and his affection for a winged carpenter ant he names Antony is cute in a way that only Rudd can pull off.

ANT-MAN is a delightful ride through yet another franchise starter, and a fine finish to Phase Two of the MCU. All that, and it's got a cameo by Garrett Morris in it too. Coincidence?

More later...