Zoolander_2_posterZoolander 2 (2016)

Starring- Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Penelope Cruz, Kristen Wiig, Christine Taylor, Cyrus Arnold, Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, Justin Theroux, Milla Jovovich, Benedict Cumberbatch

Director- Ben Stiller

PG-13- crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence, and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CL4LNWHegk

The happy ending wasn’t so happy, as it turns out — mere days after its grand opening, male model Derek Zoolander’s (Ben Stiller) learning center collapsed due to shoddy construction, killing his wife (Christine Taylor) and permanently disfiguring his model friend Hansel (Owen Wilson). As a result, Derek was declared an unfit parent and lost custody of his son (Cyrus Arnold). He spent the next fifteen years as a hermit in the New Jersey wilderness. But when he learns that it’s possible for him to regain custody if he proves he can be a good parent, he makes his grand return to the modeling circuit — only to be swept into international intrigue when it’s discovered that his trademark look may be the secret to unravel a plot to murder extraordinarily good-looking celebrities. 

Lord have mercy. People told me this was bad, but… Yeesh. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t…this.

That plot description up there may end up being longer than the review. I haven’t decided yet. I’m losing the will to review bad comedies. I don’t know what to say other than that they aren’t funny, which is such a subjective thing anyway. What am I supposed to do — take you through each joke individually and explain why I didn’t find it funny?

Mainly, the problem is that most comedy functions off the element of surprise — it’s about doing something unexpected, or doing the expected in an unexpected way, or something between those poles. It usually isn’t building the audience up to an extremely predictable punchline and then delivering that punchline straight-faced and without subversion. It’s worse in the case of Zoolander 2, which has a pervasive need to explain what the joke is over and over again. It seemed like all of the biggest bits had five minutes of labored setup followed by another five minutes of careful elaboration. Zoolander 2 sometimes comes off like a movie that’s not as concerned with making you laugh as it is with appearing clever — it’s constantly looking over its shoulder and saying, “See what I did there?”

Also, the celebrity cameos. Good night. This movie suffers from the worst case of “it is inherently funny to see famous people in a movie because *insert quarter for more*” I’ve seen in a while. I looked at a list of the cameos and don’t even remember seeing some of these people. There’s one scene where, in about two minutes, the movie cycles through something like five cameos, most of which do not have any joke attached to them other than the celebrity’s presence.

The movie does have one or two good bits — it pains me to admit it, but I found Hansel’s subplot of learning to love his pregnant orgy while secretly cheating on it with another orgy just stupid enough to be kind of amusing (mainly because of one particular celebrity cameo’s inexplicably committed performance). But even then, it’s something that’s funnier in concept than in practice, since the joke is fundamentally the same every time it appears. And it’s very, very little to work with in a movie that’s otherwise numbingly unfunny and frequently obnoxious.

I’m not really a fan of the first Zoolander. Maybe I should’ve led with that. It has its moments, but I struggle to find the main character anything other than irritating — there’s no character behind the comedy, just mugging and weird voices. I expected to leave this movie the same way I left Dumb and Dumber To — “Well, I don’t like it, and can someone explain how it’s any different from the first one that everyone hates it this time around?” That is not at all what happened. Despite my general ambivalence toward its predecessor, Zoolander 2 is markedly worse in almost every way. It’s early yet, but I feel confident that it will be my least favorite movie of 2016. If it isn’t, well…something wicked sure does this way come.

Captain_America_Civil_War_posterCaptain America: Civil War (2016)

Starring- Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Daniel Bruhl, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Martin Freeman

Directors- Anthony and Joe Russo

PG-13- extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKrVegVI0Us

After an overseas mission ends in disaster, the U.S. government drafts and recommends the Avengers sign the Sokovia Accords — a motion subjecting them to the authority of the United Nations. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) signs right away, as do several others. But Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and a few of his closest confidants are more hesitant. When his old friend Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), still in recovery from HYDRA brainwashing, is implicated in a terrorist attack against the U.N., Cap chooses friendship over the law and takes the response into his own hands, ultimately pitting himself against Stark — and the remainder of the Avengers against one another.

I’m going to try hard not to rehash all the points I made a year ago in my review of Avengers: Age of Ultron, but it remains important that reviewing Marvel movies is, at this point, somewhat difficult. I’ve never envied the job of a TV critic reviewing a show from one episode to another, attempting to evaluate the success of a small component of a larger story without yet knowing what it’s actually trying to accomplish. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, particularly its late Phase II and early Phase III films are giving me a little taste of what that’s like. It forces me to approach a movie like Civil War from a really measured place — depending on where the series goes from here, there’s a potential future where I like this way less and a potential future where I think it’s almost perfect. Other installments in the series will inevitably impact its quality because it, like Age of Ultron before it, is a stepping stone movie.

That’s the necessary background to understanding the position on which I’ve settled with Captain America: Civil War — on its own, it’s a very, very good movie, to the extent that I think Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers are the only Marvel projects I like more; but as part of the larger cinematic universe, several of its implications have me very, very nervous about the future of the series.

Let’s focus on the “very, very good movie” part of that, because that’s definitely the part I’m most excited about. Marvel’s team hasn’t done a movie quite like Civil War yet, and they absolutely nailed it. Emotionally, this is a much more complicated film than the others in the series, most of which have clear good guys and bad guys and a tone of heroism and bombast — you always know who you’re rooting for, and you’re really rooting for them. Civil War is a superhero movie where the heroes are fighting one another, and the actual villains are largely secondary. (And the main villain, Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) still gets an unusually nuanced portrayal that, in moments, makes him a little harder to hate.)

You just can’t play it the same way, not without pulling the rug out from underneath the characters and trying to fundamentally alter the audience’s perspective of them with little or no buildup. Marvel’s spent the better part of a decade making us like these characters; it couldn’t reasonably expect to slide some of them into the villain role without scaring up quite a bit of cognitive dissonance.

So, it doesn’t. The writers behind Civil War invested a lot of energy in ensuring that both sides of the conflict have a really good point and a strong motivation in character. Thor and the Hulk are the only established Marvel superheroes who don’t appear in this, and Civil War throws a few new ones into the mix, so it’s saying something that I understood where nearly all of these characters were coming from and why they lined up on the side they did. Iron Man is nursing a massive guilt complex; Captain America is fresh off the collapse of SHIELD destroying his faith in authority. (One of the most interesting points of this series to date is that Iron Man and Captain America’s arcs have essentially turned them into each other and brought them into conflict at the apex of their development. Originally, Iron Man was the hands-off-my-stuff billionaire uber-capitalist who decried any and all government intervention in his life, even given the kind of reasonable public concern about privately-owned death machines that allow the user to pretty much control the world. Now, after several movies’ worth of confronting his own inadequacy as a human being and a handful of public disasters resulting from his bad judgment, he’s into cooperation and oversight. Whereas Captain America started out as, well, Captain America, a literal symbol of a nation and a government who got his start as a superhero performing in military recruitment shows. Then, his Boy Scout loyalty to SHIELD nearly allowed HYDRA to kill millions; now, he only trusts himself and his closest friends to save the world.)

The interesting thing about the film’s efforts to develop a situation in which both sides are more or less equally right is the side effect of giving this Marvel Comics superhero movie a strange thematic density. It’s a variant on the liberty vs. security debate, one told from the perspective of society’s powerful, the ones asking how much transparency is enough transparency, whether one person’s freedom can infringe upon another person’s freedom, whether tyranny exists in more forms than simply government. Stark thinks the Avengers are at risk of becoming the truly oppressive force and wants them to be answerable to someone; Steve thinks oversight would make them political operatives and restrict them from helping the people who need them most. Neither one of them is wrong. The film challenges both of them — there are, essentially, two climaxes; both Iron Man and Captain America get “What have I done?” moments before they’re over (and yeah, the two prolonged action sequences leave the film a bit exhausting by the end, but it’s a minor point).

It leaves Civil War feeling different from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a film that’s perhaps a little more engaging than it is fun. An action movie where you aren’t rooting for anyone. A superhero flick where you just want the fighting to stop. Watching these characters fight is like watching your best friends fight.

Which isn’t, of course, to say that Civil War isn’t fun, because it’s an absolute blast in the appropriate moments. The humor still crackles. Plus, the film is an almost endless wellspring of extremely cool action sequences — Civil War, more than any other film in the Marvel canon, really digs for clever and creative ways for the characters to use their powers in battle, and now that Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and other characters with actual powers are in the mix, there’s a lot to work with. The movie attaches such a sense of discovery to its characters’ abilities as well; watching each one come into play is a rush of pure adrenaline.

And the character work, of course, is wonderful — unsurprisingly, as it’s the one sense in which Marvel Studios has always, always been consistent. These filmmakers have successfully made us love each and every one of these characters. They’ve given them distinct personalities and know how to play them off one another — this movie sees Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) interacting with the Avengers for the first time, and his presence immediately changes the dynamic they share.

The new heroes are great, too. I’m not quite as head-over-heels about Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) as other people — his motivation isn’t all that interesting; he chooses a side based on simple revenge rather than ideology, and he seems almost by choice not to interact with the other heroes all that much — but he’s still an interesting and fully realized character, and the ending of Civil War leaves a lot riding on his upcoming solo film. The role, as I hoped, seems destined to make a star out of Boseman, one of my favorite lesser-known up-and-comers right now. Not only does he have the presence and charisma of a bonafide movie star, he’s just plain a really good actor — he’s played Black Panther, Jackie Robinson, and James Brown, and he was totally unrecognizable in all three. The guy has serious range, and I’m really happy to see him finally arrive.

And then there’s Spider-Man (Tom Holland). This seems like a bold statement, especially given the regard many hold for the Sam Raimi movies and the fact that the character is only in this for maybe twenty minutes, but I’m going to say it anyway: I’m pretty sure this is the best Spider-Man we’ve seen on the big screen to date. This character is pure joy; he’s 100-percent the Spider-Man of the comics, a cheerful, geeky kid with a dopey sense of humor and a short attention span. Having an actual teenager play him for once really helps — the age difference between him and the rest of the Avengers really changes the dynamic between them. The character is wide-eyed and curious, essentially an Iron Man fanboy losing his cool over getting invited to join. My interest in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming just increased considerably. If they stick that landing, we may very well have the definitive cinematic Spider-Man.

The movie, as its own entity, is not without its problems, but most of them feel like minor nitpicks in light of what it accomplishes. The themes sort of fizzle out as the action increases; the more serious subject matter makes this the first Marvel movie where the humor starts to run afoul of the tone (the much-talked-about airport battle, while a completely insane, hilarious, and entertaining blast of pure energy and imagination, feels like a complete lark, like the characters just up and decided it would be fun to have a big, stupid fight. That scene makes it much too easy to forget that these are lifelong friends coming to blows over a conflict with global implications.

Nevertheless, mostly, the movie itself is top-notch. If I have any shade to cast over it, it’s because of its position in the larger series, whatever that ends up being. This is something I can’t really discuss without getting into spoilers. I’m not going to directly spoil anything, but reading this part will at least allow you to rule out certain possibilities. If you’re strict about that, you may want to stop reading here.

Here’s the thing — I’m getting to this party later than some critics, but as much as I truly am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this series needs to establish some stakes, and soon. I gave Age of Ultron a pass on this. It drew some criticism for maintaining the status quo at a point where the series needed to become long-form storytelling rather than little episodes of inconsequential adventure. I disagreed — I could see what Age of Ultron was setting up and felt it best to wait for Civil War, the movie positioned to follow through on that.

Well, I’ve gotten through Civil War, and I’m still waiting for pretty much anything to significantly change in the overarching storyline. Too many reviewers are reducing this to the need to kill off a character eventually, but it’s more than that. This series feels not only like it’s straining to keep all its characters alive but to keep them in the same place. It’s beginning to embody the reason I generally don’t get into superhero comics in the first place — the superhero must always be the superhero, and the trappings that surround that must always be in place, so no matter what storylines, themes, or character arcs are adopted, they must lead back to more or less the same place. Batman can’t ever get over his parents’ deaths, because then he wouldn’t be Batman, and there would be no more Batman comics. All storylines about Batman must, therefore, never actually resolve anything.

I feel like the Marvel Cinematic Universe is getting to a place where it’s looking at the the current storyline’s finale — Infinity War — and saying, “We must eventually have all of these characters on the screen at the same time, fighting as one giant uber-Avengers team, so everyone must stay alive until then, everyone must stay an Avenger, and any storyline or character arc that threatens that must either be abandoned or twisted back so it ends in the same place it started.”

Don’t get me wrong — Civil War undoubtedly changes the status quo more than any other Marvel movie to date. The characters are in very different places at the end of the movie than they were at the beginning. But they’re not quite different enough. I look at the end of Civil War, and I see a whole lot of hedged bets — a whole lot of moving the pieces around so the writers can get all the pieces back to square one when called upon to do so. I’m already dreading what appears to be happening at the end of this movie; it’s what always happens. I’m worried that the next time we see these characters, there’ll be tensions between them, then there will be some outside threat, they’ll re-team to fight it together, and they’ll be all hunky dory once everything’s taken care of. And I’m worried the themes explored here — liberty and security, law and order, freedom from government and freedom from power — will immediately be forgotten. The characters who expressed doubts about the Avengers and their operations will quickly forget them, acting as though nothing ever happened. There’s no guarantee of any of this, of course, but I’ve seen it happen a thousand times. I’m concerned this series is going to get dozens of movies in and reach its grand finale without ever doing anything other than have heroes fight villains.

There are, to be fair, some behind-the-scenes reasons to suspect that the upcoming slate of Marvel movies will be even better than their predecessors — that they’ll take actual risks and stray from their formulas and do interesting things with the characters. But right now, this is what I’m looking at. Captain America: Civil War is a very entertaining movie, but it was supposed to be this watershed moment for the Marvel Cinematic Universe — the proof of the overarching storyline, the movie where everything changed, where the story got complicated. I guess I can’t complain when said movie is individually pretty great. But when a studio’s ambitions are this high, it’s disappointing to watch its films fail to go the entire way.

5th-Wave_posterThe 5th Wave (2016)

Starring- Chloe Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Ron Livingston, Maggie Siff, Alex Roe, Maria Bello, Maika Monroe, Liev Schreiber, Zackary Arthur, Tony Revolori, Talitha Bateman

Director- J Blakeson

PG-13- violence and destruction, some sci-fi thematic elements, language and brief teen partying

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmxLybfGNC4

In the first wave, they cut the power; in the second, they caused a series of natural disasters; in the third, they released a deadly virus; and now, in the fourth, they’ve taken human form. The survivors of the global alien invasion are few and far between. When chaos strikes, Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz) is separated from her little brother, Sam (Zackary Arthur), who is taken away by military personnel. Having promised never to leave him, she begins an 80-mile trek through forests full of enemy snipers to get to the nearest base.

I started off prepared to say The 5th Wave isn’t as terrible as you’ve heard, but then I started thinking — if the first 20 minutes of the film were as bad as the rest of it, I’d be calling it one of the year’s worst.

Yeah, cards on the table — I was into The 5th Wave through the opening act. Maybe that isn’t the highest praise; even the worst movies take some time before your brain quits on them. But it was less that the movie hadn’t bored me yet and more that there were things I genuinely liked about it. The opening scenes are actually pretty compelling — the gas station encounter to set the tone, then a well-timed flashback to the pre-apocalyptic world that does a halfway decent job of setting up the protagonist. I maintain that Chloe Moretz is very talented and probably on the precipice of taking the world by storm. Her performance immediately makes all the vapid teen drama of the opening tolerable; she brings the right balance of awkwardness, heightened emotion, and self-deprecating humor to the role. And the film then walks us through the first three waves of the alien invasion in a way that recognizes the impact on everyday people, that captures the gradual degradation of society, and even approaches the human tragedy of it all with a certain measured sobriety. Yeah, the special effects aren’t all that special, and the movie is clearly using Cassie’s (often cheesy) voiceover narration as a crutch, but it’s enjoyable to an extent.

When called upon to actually tell a story in the world it creates, it falls flat. When the plot kicks into gear, the movie immediately becomes terrible and never even begins to right itself. Fortunately, the film isn’t particularly effects-heavy after the opening, so the shoddy CGI is only a distraction here and there; everything else only gets worse. The opening scenes have a tendency toward melodrama and attempted poetic thematic statements; the rest of the movie not only continues the trend but drives it straight into the ground.

The 5th Wave is an exceptionally cheesy piece of work — and I’m not ordinarily all that sensitive to cheese. And it definitely leans into unintentional comedy as a result. There’s a sexy lake-bathing scene that’s shot like a perfume commercial; a big thematic scene in which characters hold each other at gunpoint and shout about love (and in which love at first sight is used in place of any character or thematic development at all); set-up for a YA love triangle so stereotypical it almost plays as parody (basically, nice, boring guy and sexy, dangerous guy). The best of it is a character named Ringer (Maika Monroe), one of the child soldiers the army is training to fight the aliens. And she…well, there’s adults trying to write cool teenagers, and then there’s adults who live in the late 90s and look upon minor subcultures with no small amount of trepidation trying to write cool teenagers, and holy smokes is Ringer ever on the wrong side of that divide. Her hair is dyed jet black, she wears an entire container of eye shadow, and she talks like a military heavy/drill sergeant. I’m surprised she didn’t spend the entire movie smoking a cigarette. Maika Monroe has thus far been carving a niche for herself as a modern scream queen in movies like It Follows and The Guest, and the tough, no-nonsense military veteran act just doesn’t look good on her, especially not when the movie’s playing it so simultaneously over-the-top and straight-faced. There was nothing about this character I didn’t find hilarious; I couldn’t take her seriously at all.

Generally speaking, everyone is either miscast, detached, or bad. Moretz is the only one giving a halfway decent performance here. Liev Schreiber doesn’t seem like he could be bothered. Alex Roe is a full seven years older than Moretz and looks it and struck me as somewhat wooden besides; the other point on the romantic triangle, Nick Robinson, might have done something with the part (he wears the horror of what the character has experienced fairly organically), but is presented as such a non-entity. No one other than Moretz, briefly, in the beginning of the film, feels like an actual teenager or child. Part of the reason the child soldier stuff is so unintentionally humorous and even kind of cute is that most of their dialogue could easily be transposed into an adult war film with only minor changes. The film is so much about the loss of innocence, but it takes its characters to that point so quickly. Cassie goes from regular girl to weathered, weary survivor in the space of one scene (and doesn’t really go anywhere at all after that). The script treats its message similarly — there are so many ways it could easily have worked all the flowery stuff about love and friendship into the plot that would both have completed it and even cut back on the cheese a bit. Instead, the movie is a series of incidents with a voiceover narration explaining What We Learned Today.

Even so, if I’m being completely honest, I was not bored watching The 5th Wave. It’s just that most of what I enjoyed about it was not meant to be enjoyed in the way that I did it. It had just enough straight-faced, unintentional silliness to amuse me here and there. It’s clear to me that my taste in so-bad-it’s-good is pretty different from most people’s, so I’m not going to recommend it (and it’s not like I plan to watch this movie again). For the most part, it’s a generic young adult dystopian future novel adaptation (seriously, this is the weirdest thing to have ever become a thing), and I suspect most of you can predict your response based on that.

Son_of_Saul_(poster)Son of Saul (2015)

Starring- Geza Rohrig, Levente Molnar, Urs Rechn, Sandor Zsoter, Uwe Lauer, Christian Harting, Kamil Dobrowoloski, Jerzy Walczak

Director- Laszlo Memes

R- disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wMzPztPavs

Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) is a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, tasked with carrying bodies from the gas chambers to the ovens. When he finds the body of a young boy he believes to be his son, he hides it and becomes determined to have a proper ceremony and burial.

I’ve always disliked talking about Holocaust movies — really, movies about real-life tragedies in general. It feels cold to pick apart such films any analyze whether and how they “work.” In a way, it’s almost like making the events they depict about you — “How best could they present this information so as to make it more engaging to me personally?”

So I think I’m going to keep things brief today — just long enough to tell you that Son of Saul is a good film and captures an interesting perspective on the events it depicts.

It takes a limited perspective on the events surrounding the Holocaust, more along the lines of The Pianist than Schindler’s List. It’s one man’s story — even more so than usual in this case. Saul Auslander is so much the sole focus of this film that there’s hardly a single shot in which he does not appear.

That’s because of the film’s unique visual approach, which seems to comprise the majority of its critical reputation. The camera is almost anchored to Saul; for most of the film, it’s positioned over his right shoulder, following him from one place to the next. When he stops and interacts with another character, the camera goes to his face and very rarely cuts away. Son of Saul is composed of a lot of long takes — there are cuts, but they’re used sparingly.

It’s the sort of visual approach I expected to get on my nerves, but it turned out to be the perfect choice for this story and the way the film tells it. You follow Saul as though you’re right there with him; you see what he sees.

That’s important, because Son of Saul is very much about its protagonist’s perspective. It isn’t enough to tell his story; the film attempts to put you in his shoes and make you see the world the way he sees it. The story is, in a way, the anti-Life Is Beautiful, offering a more realistic take on a character in a similar situation. As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that the horrors of the concentration camp have not only numbed Saul, they have broken him. He’s unwell, living in a sort of fantasy world he’s created for himself, a narrative of normalcy he’s using to feel something, to be human, to possess some level of dignity. That’s why he latches onto this boy; that’s why he becomes convinced the child is his son; that’s why he becomes so doggedly determined to have a proper burial, at the risk of his own life and even, occasionally, the lives of others.

The effect of the film is numbing. It captures what we would call the banality of evil. The majority of its horrors occur off-screen, or just at the edges of the frame, something Saul glimpses but doesn’t look at — another reason the aesthetic choices are so effective. It doesn’t really rub your nose in it but allows it to sink in gradually, to process its darkest implications thoroughly. It isn’t aiming for the broad scope of the events; you won’t find an examination of the circumstances that created the Holocaust here. It’s about one man and the impact of human hate upon his mind. It’s about how that same man responds to being stripped of his humanity, and the way that response becomes a domino effect, for better or worse. The film lingers when it’s over — it’s crushing and not easily forgotten.

Special_Correspondents_posterSpecial Correspondents (2016)

Starring- Eric Bana, Ricky Gervais, Vera Farmiga, Kelly Macdonald, Benjamin Bratt, Kevin Pollak, America Ferrara, Raul Castillo

Director- Ricky Gervais

TV-MA

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kKTFAEQgSY

Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) is a hotshot radio reporter who routinely goes so far as breaking the law in pursuit of a story and has a tendency to sensationalize his reports; he gets results, but as the charges pile up, he finds his job hanging by a thread. Ian Finch (Ricky Gervais) is his sound technician. When civil war breaks out in Ecuador, the two are assigned to go cover it. However, Ian accidentally throws out their passports on the way to the airport. Left with no story, and quite likely no job, they do the only thing they can think of — hole up above a local restaurant and make up reports from Ecuador. One lie begets another, and soon, the two have to fake their own kidnapping while the world watches. 

The potential of Netflix as a film studio still interests me, but they definitely need to get a little more judicious about the projects they buy. They started strong with Beasts of No Nation, then went into an increasingly dire downward spiral, broken only briefly (and unconvincingly) by the barely-okay Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. Special Correspondents only continues the trend.

Most of the excitement about Netflix’s prospects, including my own, has centered on its potential to bring about a return of auteur filmmaking, and on paper, Special Correspondentsappears to be exactly that — Ricky Gervais wrote, directed, and starred in it.

And yet, somehow, this feels totally made-by-committee, a safe, predictable, surprisingly edgeless comedy that does nothing a thousand other movies haven’t already done. To be fair, Gervais hasn’t exactly had resounding success crossing over into film; he’s hardly been in any good movies, and most of his roles have been unmemorable. Still, he’s a smart guy, and he certainly has a perspective on things. I’m not saying Special Correspondents was definitely going to be good, but you’d at least expect it to be interesting on some level. I’m not shocked that it isn’t good; I’m shocked that it doesn’t even have a personality.

You could definitely do something with this premise. There’s a clear satirical angle, and there are a lot of directions you could take the story. The issue is that the movie never goes as far as it seems like it should. I’m not actually sure what it’s satirizing, if anything — reporters lie about being on the scene and make up their stories, and their superiors and the public believe them because, well, why wouldn’t we? If a reporter says he’s in Ecuador, it’s not like we can go check. Is dishonesty a problem in journalism? Yes, absolutely, but I don’t know what to take away from the story being told here. It’s surface-level criticism, neither very funny or very thought-provoking. This movie is to media criticism what “Donald Trump has bad hair” is to political commentary — blindingly obvious, and totally missing the point.

Structurally, Special Correspondents is a Coen Brothers movie, and I can only imagine what they’d have made of it. I don’t know if it means to be, but there’s something beneath the surface of this film that strikes me as fundamentally dark, and more than a bit cynical. The problem is that it’s trying to be the prototypical comedy with heart, and I think that’s the complete wrong approach to this. This movie drifts along at a relaxed pace, rarely heightens the comedy or storytelling, and approaches everything very matter-of-factly. This is the sort of plot that ought to be gradually ratcheting up, increasing the absurdity of the premise, and putting its characters through the wringer. Instead, it’s very level-headed and boring. It’s half dark humor and half lightweight dramedy, and those two halves don’t complement and enhance one another so much as walk obliviously past one another. It’s a dark movie that doesn’t feel like it was meant to be a dark movie.

In place of anything having to do with the actual story, Special Correspondents focuses the entirety of its emotional energy on Ian having to decide between the cold, unappreciative woman he’s with and the cute, funny, nerdy, devoted coworker who fawns over him for absolutely no reason (and, naturally, he doesn’t have to grow as a person in order for any of this to happen). Guess how it ends. No, guess. It’s predictable and worn, and the movie even sets it up clumsily — it’s obvious this is going to be the heart of the story a long time before the necessary elements are in place. It’s worth mentioning, also, that Ian hardly interacts with either of these characters over the course of the film. It’s just as well, I suppose; the movie immediately runs out of things to do with Frank. His purpose as a character vanishes into thin air the second the movie quits pretending at in-depth media satire.

I think I’d find it in me to forgive all of this if the film was even a little bit funny, but it just isn’t. Weirdly, it almost isn’t trying to be funny. It’s billed as a comedy, and the performances are broad in a way that implies comedy, and I spent the entire movie waiting for an actual joke to be applied to any of this. Some comedies go for deadpan humor — ridiculous things delivered with a straight face. This movie goes for playing ordinary things with a silly face. And that just isn’t particularly funny. Its biggest jokes would be minor banter in anything else; every humorous moments lands with a sense of, “Really? That’s all we’re doing with this scene?” It isn’t unfunny; I wasn’t booing at my television. The humor is just so light and mundane. If the performances were just a touch more serious, we’d be selling this as a drama.

Netflix is still in the early stages of this project; it desperately needs some sort of proof of concept, and soon. It needs to prove it can make movies that are better than, or at least different from, the ones that get wide theatrical releases. Special Correspondents does not bode well.

Sisters_movie_posterSisters (2015)

Starring- Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Greta Lee, Madison Davenport

Director- Jason Moore

R- crude sexual content and language throughout, and drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRnhEjP3R-c

Sisters Maura (Amy Poehler) and Kate (Tina Fey) Ellis are living very different lives. Maura is a responsible adult with a cheery disposition and an almost condescending helpfulness. Kate is a trainwreck who rockets from one job to another, calls her friends’ couches home, and barely knows whether her teenage daughter (Madison Davenport) is even in the same state. Maura and Kate are reunited when their parents announce that they’re selling the family home and need them to clear out their old rooms. Maura and Kate have little in common, but they’re equally opposed to the house leaving the family, and so they decide to throw a massive party for all their high school friends as one final act of defiance.

Is it enough that Sisters made me laugh somewhat regularly? Does that make up for the fact that it mostly bored me?

This movie really has me questioning what a comedy actually has to do in order to be considered successful. Can a comedy be funny but also boring, and does being funny make it good or does being boring make it bad? Can I actually recommend it to people? Am I glad I saw it, or did it waste my time? I’m actually having trouble deciding.

The problem is mainly that the story isn’t there, but is that important? I mean, how narrative is Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Some comedies are funny specifically becausethey’re so completely pointless. Obviously, there are problems particular to Sisters that affect this: The flimsy storytelling is more problematic because the film specifically relies on it. It leans into somewhat predictable sentimentality near the end of the film and tries to tap into emotions other than amusement.

Then again, so does Elf, and more or less equally badly, but I love that movie.

In the end, as frustratingly unquantifiable as it is, I suppose all I can say is that maybe Sisters just isn’t funny enough. Too many small jokes for a premise that requires big ones. It’s the same movie from beginning to end, always existing in the same lightly amusing zone without ever significantly increasing its pitch or developing the story and characters in such a way that the comedy and the stakes behind it heighten.

When your story is half an hour of setup and ninety minutes of a single party scene, you really need to be nailing those jokes. Sisters just gets comfortable and settles in. You consistently get a light chuckle every few minutes, but you’re looking at your watch the rest of the time. They’re individually humorous, but a full two-thirds of this movie are composed almost exclusively of jokes about how silly it is when middle-aged people party. How long can that reasonably sustain itself, even if the jokes are largely well-delivered?

Funny and boring. Do with that what you will.

The_Jungle_Book_(2016)The Jungle Book (2016)

Starring- Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken, Garry Shandling, Brighton Rose

Director- Jon Favreau

PG- some sequences of scary action and peril

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mkm22yO-bs

Lost in the jungle as an infant, the man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is raised by a family of wolves and the wise old panther Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley). But when Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba), a tiger with a fierce hatred for men, promises to hunt him down, Bagheera elects to take Mowgli to the man village to be with his own kind. Separated along the way, Mowgli finds himself in the company of the lazy bear Baloo (voice of Bill Murray) — with Shere Khan in hot pursuit.

I’ve heard it said that The Jungle Book is going to be Jon Favreau’s Avatar, and I think that’s true — for better and for worse. It’s a visual marvel, taking modern filmmaking technology to its absolute peak, testing the limits of what can be done on-screen, and it’s bound to be a big hit. It’s also a definite triumph of visuals over story and, perhaps even more than Avatar, is destined to age badly.

That isn’t necessarily a surprise; perhaps it was even inevitable. The original Jungle Book — and this is explicitly a remake, not a re-adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories — wasn’t really a triumph of storytelling to begin with. It’s episodic and meandering, perhaps even more so than this latest adaptation, enjoyable for the songs, humor, and characters more than tight, propulsive plotting. The live-action Jungle Book does the same thing, simply replacing the songs with high-tech spectacle. In that sense, blasphemous though this may be, this new version is more or less as good as its predecessor.

In some ways, it’s better. It’s clear the filmmakers realized from the beginning that the biggest problem with the original is what a complete non-presence Mowgli is. He has a pretty minimal personality, and it’s more often an obstacle to the story’s twists and turns than an incitement of them. Nearly all of his decisions are made for him. I think the animated Jungle Book could more accurately be described as Baloo and Bagheera’s story — they function as parental figures with different styles learning to appreciate one another and to let Mowgli grow up and have a life without them. Mowgli’s much more involved in this version, and that suits the film’s purposes quite well. The decision to separate him from Bagheera early on gives the story an entirely new lease on life — it forces Mowgli to strike out on his own and make choices and mistakes for himself. He actually has a coherent arc this time, even if it’s somewhat clumsily realized — there’s the temptation of man’s power as symbolized by fire, the “Red Flower,” and Mowgli’s attempts to fit in while being true to himself; these compete awkwardly for screen time. But it has the effect of making Mowgli more present in the story, a full character with his own motivations and agency.

In some ways, it’s worse. The renewed focus on Mowgli comes at the expense of the supporting cast, all lively and memorable in the original. I don’t think it’s the result of competing narrative interests so much as the film sanding the edges off its characters’ personalities in order to be more “serious.” (It’s a problem that persists throughout; there’s a perpetual conflict between its desire to be a serious fantasy and its child-friendly fidelity the source material — for example, even though it isn’t a musical, both “The Bear Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” appear out of nowhere, the latter with particular awkwardness.) With the exception of Mowgli, I generally prefer the animated movie’s take on all of these characters. Here, Bagheera is stoic and dignified but without the prissiness that humanized the character in the original. The animated Baloo is lazy in a confident, upbeat sort of way; this one is Bill Murray’s usual detached sad-sack  act in the form of a CGI bear. The boa, Kaa (voice of Scarlett Johansson), only seems to be in the film to check an important block from the original — it’s a brief appearance, and it’s one that offers the character no personality or menace. Only Shere Khan strikes me as equal to his predecessor — and that’s largely because of how perfect Idris Elba’s voice work is. Actually, I’ll concede that the voice acting is generally pretty good; I just wish it had been directed differently.

And in some ways, the live-action Jungle Book is simply different from the original — not better, not worse, just different. I actually like that about it. It justifies its existence as a remake, taking the same story in a different direction without completely betraying its source. It starts out in the same place but gradually directs its focus elsewhere, scene by scene pointing the story in a different direction. Somebody’s bound to write a think-piece about the generational and cultural significance of the way this movie tells the story: The original says, “You are what you are, so be that,” whereas this one’s more, “You can be what you want to be.” Not better, not worse, just different — and I like the risks the movie takes.

In any case, the visuals are the show here. They’re certainly impressive. It’s my understanding that the entirety of this movie was filmed in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, using only minimal sets; almost everything on display is CGI. It’s the environments that most impressed me — with rare exceptions, they looked fairly well seamless. The filmmakers used sets and props for elements that Mowgli interacts with directly, but it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The movie’s at its best when it’s exploring CGI landscapes and fully embracing the spectacle. And it’s smart enough to realize that technical proficiency can’t be the be all end all — if you’re selling your movie mainly on spectacle, you have to be prepared to vary it as much as possible, and The Jungle Book does. New locations, new environments, new moods — it carefully imagines its way through its world (even though it has a serious geography problem).

The CGI animals may be a tougher sell, depending on who you are. They’re impressive mainly in their integration; they feel very much a part of their environment, and Mowgli never feels like he’s interacting with empty space. Still, their digital nature can occasionally be glaring, and like a lot of CGI-heavy movies, some certainly look better than others. They’re technically impressive on many levels but are nevertheless obviously effects. Part of the problem may be the fact that they talk; I always find it weird when movies create photorealistic animals and then contort their mouths to form human words. To be clear — these effects are great, but I doubt they’re going to age well.

I don’t know that I can call The Jungle Book required viewing. It’s different from its predecessor in a number of fairly important ways, but I found the overall effect to be largely similar. If you’re more into the song-and-dance routine than the digital wonder routine, you’re probably better off with the original. But if you want some spectacle you can watch with the whole family (warning — some of the animal fights are pretty brutal for the PG rating) while enjoying yourself on some level, you could do a lot worse. If nothing else, it’s high-caliber big-screen viewing.