Tuesday, October 25, 2016


Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a largely lackluster action movie that’s nonetheless further proof Cruise is one of our best action stars. He’s simply believable. In 2012, we first met his Jack Reacher, writer Lee Child’s ex-military drifter who specializes in helping people out of tight spots before leaving on the next bus out of town, with a compelling mystery, crackerjack plot, and crisp staging from writer-director Christopher McQuarrie. It made the character a good fit for this stage of Cruise’s persona. He’s aged into a presence of pure drive and effortful effortlessness. His Mission: Impossibles are the best way to see his smooth-yet-grizzled total confidence and sly dry humor, but Reacher allows him to play it in the lowest, coolest key. It’s not hard to imagine Lee Marvin or Clint Eastwood in the role fifty years ago. Here Reacher survives a low-functioning sequel with his coolness intact. It’s like a dud episode in a procedural you otherwise enjoy.

This time around, Reacher heads to Washington D.C. to meet an army friend (Cobie Smulders). Once there he discovers she’s in prison, framed for a crime he knows she wouldn’t commit. Turns out she’s run afoul of a scheming defense contractor who spies Reacher’s inquiries into her case and decides to frame him, too. So Reacher breaks her out of prison, then goes on the lamb to clear their names and bring down the mysterious arms-dealing scheme that can afford to send trained assassins all over the place. It’s technically a mystery, but it operates at a simple level, showing all the cards pretty early and then watching as Cruise and Smulders arrive at the conclusions of which we’re already well aware. I mean, one look at the hitman (Holt McCallany) hiding behind sunglasses and stubble, or the cadaverous General (Robert Knepper), and it’s obvious who the bad guys are and what their conspiracy is.

It plays like a highlight reel, all outwitting and reversals of power, Cruise swaggering into a room and outsmarting everyone or, when that fails, punching all the right guys to get the job done. There are some small pleasures to be found, like Reacher walloping a man in the head by punching through a car window. But under director Edward Zwick’s bland craftsmanship and co-writer Richard Wenk’s routine plotting, it’s a little mushy, overfamiliar, bland. We get a car chase, and it’s just screeching tires and inevitable conclusions. The gunfights are just mindless rounds and big booms. The fistfights are bruising, but inelegantly choreographed. And the central spine of investigation isn’t so much finding and piecing together clues as the characters luckily ending up in the exact right place for the story to keep churning them along. It’s like watching a smarter movie on fast forward, moving past each scene before it can settle into a better, more effective rhythm.

Aside from Cruise’s dependability, the most enjoyable aspect of this movie is its 80’s-sequel-style jerry-rigged family until. Cruise and Smulders end up watching out for a fifteen-year-old girl (Danika Yarosh) who needs their protection, leading to amusing scenes where she pouts and complains and the adults have to say things like, “now, listen here, young lady.” There’s even a whole to-do about the girl sneaking out to try some investigating of her own, leading to the stern paternal figures awkwardly falling into the sitcom “We were worried! Where were you?” speech. It’s not much, but it’s there, just one of a few fine small touches. Other fleeting pleasures include learning Smulders can do that Tom Cruise run: stiff spin standing straight up, rigid arms swinging with mechanical precision, a grim stare of determination sharpening the eyes. It’s funny to see them together, two perfectly speedy pedestrians hurtling the human body as fast as it can go. You take your mild enjoyment where you can get it in a polished boredom, a middle-of-the-road programmer. If we meet Reacher again, let’s hope it’s in a better movie.

Saturday, October 22, 2016


Once you get past the surprisingly pleasurable vintage appeal to Ouija: Origin of Evil, you’re left with a fairly routine, fairly dull little horror movie. Ah, but those vintage affectations are so very pleasurable. I appreciated the effort. Setting the story in 1967, writer-director Mike Flanagan (Oculus) wraps the movie in period detail. It’s like watching an odd Mad Men spin-off slowly sinking into haunting clichés. The costuming and set-design are midcentury on-point. The sound has a warm, soft, soothing vinyl quality. The pacing is soft; the image is quiet. The title cards have era-appropriate fonts. There are even some fake reel changes, perhaps the biggest shock of pleasure the film’s digital projection has to offer those of us who can remember the soft pop of the changeover, preceded by a fleeting black oval in the corner, accompanied by the faint scratches on the soundtrack and the little wobble on the cut. I realize this isn’t much, but it’s worth noting anyway.

The rest of the movie is standard modern horror elements that’ll be familiar to anyone who has seen better recent genre entries like The Conjurings, Insidious, The Possession, and so on and so forth. At least it’s much better than the worse, first attempt to turn Ouija boards into a horror series in 2014’s hacky, forgettable paranormal slasher. Origin of Evil has a frazzled single mother (Elizabeth Reaser) and two troubled girls (Annalise Basso and Lulu Wilson) mourning their father, evil spirits, bad dreams, a kindly priest (Henry Thomas), a nice older boy hanging around (Parker Mack), whisperings, apparitions, a possessive ghost (Doug Jones), things going bump in the night, and a house with a Dark Secret Past. There’s not a single surprising moment in watching these components come together as they add up to pretty much what you’d expect. The younger girl whispers with her new ghost friends after using a Ouija board to attempt contact with her dead dad. Now the whole family is in danger. Would you have it any other way?

Because the movie is rooted in its period – with small talk about the space program, and records spinning, and the soothing glow of black and white TV turning eerie with the late night Indian-head test pattern – there’s often just enough to distract from the conventional machinations of the plot. And the cast plays it like it’s happening to them for the first time, Flanagan giving them enough room to play it straight. The mother is a phony psychic with fake séances for which her daughters hide behind doors and in cabinets to provide some surround sound scrapes and thumps. They begin the movie cynical, inured to the very real supernatural around them, expect for the youngest, who believes too much. This is the setup for an opening, the most vulnerable starting lines of communications with the dead, the others too unbelieving to catch on to the problem before it’s too late. Not even the priest can figure it out before that house is a lost cause.

Once it all goes wrong, the mother tells her oldest daughter to go wait outside. “Splitting up seems like the worst idea,” the teen spits back, the movie’s one winking acknowledgement that we’ve been here before. Even its eeriest moments have echoes of better horror movies past. The little girl serving as a conduit for an evil something-or-other screams by stretching her mouth open with her chin unnaturally low, creepy and reminiscent of the Scream mask. So on a level of story, scares, and invention, it’s pretty much a whiff. It’s the kind of mediocre that, though it’s never all that involving or scary, is at least relatively watchable throughout. Flanagan’s a good enough filmmaker to make the routine pleasing, even comforting in its old-fashioned good looks. But this sort of comfort-food throwback horror runs completely counter to a good movie, removing genuine shocks or the simmering discomfort that burrows under the skin. Think about how James Wan’s Conjurings use period affectations to enhance the mood instead of settling into cinematic comfort food. Ouija: Origin of Evil is just a nice looking and sounding nothing.

Monday, October 17, 2016


Oscar witnessed a brutal assault when he was a child. A teen was attacked by a group of bullies behind the elementary school. The local news called it a hate crime. When he asked his father why it happened, his old man replied, “He was gay.” As that information sank into the boy’s malleable brain, still reeling with shock over seeing such violence first-hand and not entirely sure what “gay” even means, his father leaned over and tousled his shaggy blonde locks, saying that’s why he should get a haircut. This cements gayness as a danger in his young mind, as something for which you can be targeted. It’s coded and confusing. The times may be a-changing, but curious people wrestling with their sexuality can still too often feel shame, self-loathing, and denial. By the time Closet Monster catches up with Oscar as a high-school senior (Connor Jessup, fresh from a heartbreaking performance on American Crime; he was a troubled teen wrestling with identity there, too), the baggage of his early understanding of what it means to be gay hangs heavily on his burgeoning same-sex attractions.

Here’s a sensitive movie closely attuned to its central character’s predicament, using notes of whimsy – some dark, others light – to animate his internal conflict. He’s an inexperienced and curious young man, artistic, loyal to his best friend (Sofia Banzhaf), bitter about his parent’s nasty divorce, cramped in his small hometown, desperate to get into a cinema makeup program in a New York City college. When he sees a new co-worker (Aliocha Schneider) at his minimum wage hardware store job, he can’t help but notice the young man’s strong jaw line, curly hair, French-Canadian accent, toned arms, strong back, slim waist. The camera cuts to these features as they catch Oscar’s eye. The film feels the attraction, and as Oscar takes it in there’s a roiling in his gut. We hear burbling on the soundtrack as he’s hit by attraction so strong it feels like a body horror eruption, growling and moving under his skin. These are no mere butterflies in the stomach. Oscar feels this curiosity, this heat, as something sudden, unexpected, and painful. He can barely admit to himself that when he sees this young man, he wants to impress, wants to hang out with, and wants to touch him.

When he gets home, his hamster (who speaks to him, and only him, in the voice of Isabella Rossellini) says, “You’re in love.” He denies it. But he certainly won’t resist, as the new co-worker becomes something like a friend. It’s hard to say if this guy is exceptionally flirtatious or just vaguely European, but it’s easy to see Oscar’s happy to spend time with his crush, even if it means ignoring his other friend, or raising the suspicions of his homophobic father (Aaron Abrams, as a sometimes-loving father increasingly a slave to his own problems). He feels so alone in his feelings – isolated from his parents even as he moves between their houses; unable to share his curiosities about sexuality with even his oldest friend; stuck working a job he doesn’t like while waiting and hoping he’ll hear back from the college to which he’s applied – he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s confused, questioning. It’d be easy to say he’s closeted, but that’s not quite the case. He doesn’t even know what he is. He needs time to think, space to explore, permission to find himself. And until he get it, his emotions are going to continue feeling like they’re eating him alive from the inside out.

It’s not quite a horror movie, even as writer-director Stephen Dunn digs into some shocking images as part of his approach. The hate crime in the beginning involves a metal rod, which later appears in a nightmarish hallucination protruding from Oscar’s pants. Even later, at a costume party he’s attending despite his father’s protestations, Oscar vomits, and it looks to him like he’s spitting up bloody screws into the sink. The movie visualizes the boy’s pain on a visceral level with these touches. Although its magical realism can quiver with angst and violence it tends more to manifest in subtle ways, like a rejection letter turning every word on screen – in a note, on a sign, on the walls – into “unfortunately,” and, of course, the talking hamster who is his only respite from deep soul-churning loneliness. Dunn, in a most impressive feature debut, makes the film a dreamy, hazy, deeply empathetic character study, a throbbing, pulsing soundtrack and beautifully grainy cinematography sticking closely to Oscar’s mood. The film’s surrealistic touches aren’t a distraction, but amplification, a dramatic outward bursting of conflict that largely exists burrowing deeper and darker inside him, ready to eventually explode.

Jessup, so good at projecting a deep unspoken yearning mixed with shy determination to avoid disappointment even as he’s frustrated by his limitations, finds great poignancy in his struggle. Oscar is quiet, unsure, struggling to realize his full potential in the usual coming-of-age manner, asking the basic 18-year-old’s questions. Who am I? Who will I be? What do I want? But the context – sexual confusion, social awkwardness, repression, and internalized homophobia – is so tender and so raw, heightening his sense of turmoil. This is a film that understands that these questions are intense, and the adolescent mind interprets every variable through a complicated and dramatic lens. Dunn is smart to keep the movie small, to not reach too far for grander import or flashier melodrama. It’s a movie about wanting a kiss, arguing with a parent, deciding where to go to college, and arriving at a place where you can let go of past trauma. It’s about the monsters you find in your own mind when trying to hide your truth, especially if you’re hiding from yourself.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


The Accountant is a stupid movie dressed up like a smart one. At its core the picture is pure preposterous pulp. Ben Affleck plays a brilliant autistic accountant whose globetrotting financial consulting for black market crime lords and other shady types makes him a man who knew too much. The film follows him into a cat-and-mouse game with hitmen hired to eliminate him and the federal agents hot on his trail. That’s absurd, but the filmmakers have taken it very seriously. Director Gavin O’Connor (Miracle) and screenwriter Bill Dubuque (The Judge) layer in tragic backstory, piling up childhood bullying, stern fathers, absent mothers, jail stints, and more building a picture of the accountant as a sad figure. His autism is treated as both a superpower and an embellishment of his sadness derived from an inability to connect. He lives a lonely lifestyle, moving from identity to identity, dragging his laundered life savings in a pristine Airstream trailer. We’re supposed to see the dim, pale Seamus McGarvey cinematography and the ridiculously overqualified supporting cast and find the whole thing profound. And yet, for whatever glimmers of insight and import it has, the only developments it can think of are loud, tedious exchanges of gunfire.

At least the cast tries its hardest to pull off the silliness with the actors providing their best grave expressions and deadpan exposition tones. Anna Kendrick plays a plucky junior accountant who discovers a problem in the books of a wealthy robotics CEO (John Lithgow). Jon Bernthal leads a team of mercenaries who travel the world looking to take out loose ends for anyone who can afford to pay the bills for what’s clearly a well-funded mini-army. J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson are agents who sit in offices explaining their research to each other before finally getting out in the field, where Simmons promptly sits down and talks us through a lengthy info-dump. (At least they’ve found a new setting.) These are all talented performers, and sometimes it’s worth admiring how much the greats can do when given so little on the page to play. They – and Jean Smart, and Jeffrey Tambor, and Robert C. Treveiler, and Alison Wright, and the rest – spend their screen time here acting like the premise is believable. Because they’re invested in the reality of a story that begins with an accountant-turned-criminal mastermind and ends with a few wild twists and a shoot-‘em-up like something out of Jack Reacher or John Wick, it almost works.

There are sequences where the movie wears its grim self-importance lightly, allowing little quips and small acknowledgement of its exaggerated qualities – like Affleck’s long-range target practice observed by a shocked farmer – to show it’s in on the joke. A movie about a super-accountant has to know it’s attempting something a little off the beaten path, even if it’s trying to shove it into the usual mid-budget Warner Brothers’ crime picture mold. But the trouble comes when the movie presents its very earnest, hugely clumsy, ideas about autism. It’d be free to be sillier, pulpier, and drastically more satisfying if it weren’t for incongruous message movie aspirations. Its opening scene is a tearful one with concerned parents trying to get help in the wake of a diagnosis. Its final moments are of would-be inspirational autism acceptance sentiment. But, in between, Affleck’s accountant is a collection of ticks and cutesy affectations meant to signify his challenges at every turn. This is all well and good in theory, but it’s sloppily integrated, used for comedy of the haha-he’s-unusual kind and to drive the plot as convenient explanation for his superpowers of cognition.

Part of the problem is the difficulty in believing Affleck as an accountant capable of, say, comprehending and analyzing fifteen years worth of corporate ledgers over night. If he was the type of performer who projected deep reservoirs of unspoken intelligence, maybe the film wouldn’t have to hit his ticks so hard. That wouldn’t solve the fundamental miscalculation of wedging a well-intentioned message into a totally frivolous affair, but would at least make it fit a smidge better. Affleck, despite clear hardworking smarts in interviews and behind the camera, simply isn’t good at looking like the smartest guy in the room on screen. He’s always at his best playing average guys bumping up against the limits of their wits – Gone Girl, To the Wonder, Extract, Shakespeare in Love, Armageddon. Here he’s playing at virtuoso skills, trying hard to make sense of a character written symptoms out instead of inside in attempt to write a person who happens to have a particular perspective. It’s just not playing to his strengths. In that way it’s a mirror of the movie as a whole. It wants to be something it’s not, resisting its most appealing goofiest impulses every step of the way.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Sidelined: MASCOTS

Christopher Guest’s Mascots introduces us to plucky weirdos driven to get in big foam costumes and wiggle around to delight and excite a crowd. There’s a husband/wife team (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker) who play a turtle and an octopus for a low-rent baseball team, a chipper Brit hedgehog for a soccer team (Tom Bennett), a loopy arts’ college armadillo (Parker Posey), a football teams’ oversized plumber (Christopher Moynihan), and a grouchy Irishman (Chris O’Dowd) who dresses as a giant fist for hockey games. They’re all driven to find success, powering forward with boundless positivity and love of the game in the pursuit of a silly dream: the grand prize at an annual mascot convention. If this sounds like it’s falling into Guest’s formula, you’re correct. It’s another of his mockumentaries involving an affectionately teased subculture. But unlike his great earlier comedies and their targets, Waiting for Guffman’s community theater, Best in Show’s dog competition, and A Might Wind’s folk music revival, Mascots lacks crucial specificity. Trying too hard to whip up eccentricities, it’s a flat, dull attempt at resuscitating a form that’s past its sell-by date.

Superficially, Mascots has everything that made earlier Christopher Guest movies great. It has the subculture. It has the large ensemble of funny people, including many of the performers who populated Guest’s earlier works and some welcome additions. (Present and accounted for are Jennifer Coolidge, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley, Jr., and others.) It has the bright, flat mockumentary style allowing for the humor to loosely arrive at tossed-off lines. It’s has the casually ridiculous spoken with only a hint of bemusement and straight-faced silliness unfolding for an unemphatic camera. It’s agreeable. But, wow, is it not funny. Maybe it rises to the level of gently amusing from time to time, and the whole picture never quite tanks into something totally contemptible, but that’s certainly a far cry from the best Guest can do. This is his first movie in a decade, and the problem is partly what happened to the comedy landscape while he was away.

Firstly, the mainstream mockumentary style was more refreshing and novel when he took the form from the classic This is Spinal Tap, in which he co-starred, and applied it to his own silly trilogy. With Guffman and the rest, there was the spark of invention in seeing big, funny ensembles improvise their way to hilarious, endlessly quotable dialogue in scenes assembled with verite deadpan and plot pushed along by interviews with the characters. Now, after two versions of The Office, Parks & Rec, Modern Family, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and so on and so on, the style has been wrung out. Add to it Mascot’s half-heartedness with which it deploys the gimmick – with many scenes including cuts to impossible camera angles – and it just feels tired. Besides, at least those other mockumentaries were plausibly exaggerated looks at actual groups. The extrapolated and invented mascots and their rivalries and competitions here simply isn’t a culture with much connection to the real world. It’s not a parody of a real group of people; it’s simply goofing around based on a sliver of recognizable interest. (And if you think the plot is overfamiliar diminishing returns, wait’ll you see how Guest revives his memorable Corky St. Clair to flatlining results.)

Secondly, the improv style has also come to dominate the comedy film scene. From the Apatow productions – which expand their runtimes with long, loose scenes of characters cracking each other up – to every comedy that pauses its action for punchline roulettes in which the cast takes turns throwing out insults. (These have long stopped seeming like scenes and are more a matter of spitting a bunch of possible jokes and hoping one lands hard enough to excuse the rest. It’s coverage, not choices.) The shaggy scenes in which talented people find their way to a naturally funny bantering chemistry is no longer unfamiliar territory. And when it’s handled so carelessly as it is with Mascots it just feels sad. As a big fan of his earlier work, seeing Guest’s formula returning in such a diminished state is dispiriting. Sure, there are fleeting moments of good humor – like a hotel with a “John Wayne suite” downgrading a disappointed guest to the “Slim Pickens” – but there’s otherwise a desperation in scenes devoid of interest and missing laughs. I smiled a few times, chuckled a few more, but was otherwise thoroughly bummed out by how pale an echo of old favorites it is. Compared to other modern comedies, at least it’s not unendurable or ugly. It’s watchable. But the dead air is deafening.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Lost and Found: CERTAIN WOMEN

Kelly Reichardt is one of our finest filmmakers. Her keenly judged eye for detail and sense for powerfully felt interiority imbues her films with casual and precise empathetic observation. Her latest is Certain Women, a trio of gem-like short stories so patiently unfolded and deeply considered, each moment, each shot, each breath is used to further their gripping emotional trance. Like the best short stories – these are adapted from the works of Maile Meloy, whose direct prose is of such concision and power she reads to me like nothing less than an Alice Munro, or a modern woman Hemingway – they turn on small shifts of emotion or perception, tremble with unspoken or thwarted desires, and snap shut with satisfying finality nonetheless played with notes of ambiguity. These are stories of isolation and loneliness, of women who need to make connections, feel satisfaction in their lives of quiet desperation. Set in beautifully austere small towns and open spaces of the northern midwest, Reichardt visualizes the quotidian with a poet’s spirit, and understands her characters’ deepest yearnings down to a molecular level.

Here’s a movie that inhabits its characters lives. We don’t just observe their strife or contemplate a crisis. We live with them, understand the rhythms and dramas of their days, and become so closely attuned to their personalities it’s possible to feel the entire weight of a story change in a silence, a stillness, a pause. Reichardt sees these women with great warmth and understanding. We meet a lawyer (Laura Dern) whose troubled client (Jared Harris) is frustrated by lack of progress on his disability claim. Then we spend time with a woman (Michelle Williams) who is scouting limestone for a house she’s building out in the country with her husband (James Le Gros). A stone pile they find belongs to an old man (Rene Auberjonois) with an emotional attachment to the building it once was. Then there’s a young professional (Kristen Stewart) stuck as an adjunct night class instructor, driving hundreds of miles in the dark to and from the course no one else wanted to teach. One student (Lily Gladstone) comes in from tending horses all week looking for a fleeting moment of human connection.

Every role is perfectly cast, sensitively observed, and naturally performed. Watch as Dern sneaks back into work after a long lunch with her lover, her shirt untucked on one side. We can tell that’s unusual, but there’s something about the way she goes about her exasperated day that tells us it’s not the first time she’s let a small detail slip. Later, as her case files are used in a way loaded with danger, we wonder if her drive toward honesty is going to lead her to a bad outcome. (She confides she wishes she was man, but only so her professional life would be easier since a client would listen to her and say, “okay,” instead of continuing to debate.) Williams sneaks in a smoke before meeting her husband, then watches as he presses the old man to make a sale a little farther than she’s comfortable with. This is hardly a showy drama. It’s a story about the subtle pushes and pulls of an awkward encounter. They’re not saying all they could, or maybe should. Everyone has little secrets, small competitions, carefully tentative lines of inquiry.

The thematic strands of the first two stories coalesce in the last, and best. As the inexperienced teacher, Stewart looks uncomfortable with the gaze of the class on her. She shifts and squirms, consults her notes a bit too faithfully as she avoids direct eye contact. (She is cautious and self-conscious about opening up, as evident in a scene in a diner where she wipes her mouth with the napkin without unwrapping it from the silverware.) Gladstone – her open expressions and clenched voice, a shyness barely cracking open in the presence of what she feels, or hopes, is a kindred spirit – is desperate for someone to talk to. Her job isolates her in the fields and the barns, hard work for poverty wages. She looks forward to the class not because she’s passionate about the subject – truth be told, she’s not even technically enrolled – but because she likes exchanging small talk with the instructor. It comes to a head with a long drive, and an agonizingly heavy pause.

Here’s a film with its key capstone suspense sequence simply a long silence while the audience – if on the right wavelength – stretches in rapt engagement wondering if someone will close the gap and say what they need to say. All three stories patiently consider hushed, routine, repetitive lives into which sudden emotional surprises build slowly to small shifts in approach or understanding. It’s an entire feature spun out from a recognizable, relatable, small but fraught instant: the tremulous moment where you’re standing across from a person you’d like to know better and just can’t find the words to bridge the distance. Reichardt has cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt frame the proceedings with a calm camera, aware of the vast the landscapes and the psychological distances between people. She is a tender filmmaker whose restraint has a relaxed rigor. She tells stories of everyday life for people on the margins – at a forest retreat (Old Joy), in poverty (Wendy and Lucy), on the Oregon Trail (Meek’s Cutoff), and in an eco-terrorist enclave (Night Moves). In each, her close attention to the smallest of shifts in mood and demeanor subtly and respectfully draws out the profundity of lived experiences. Certain Women is her best work to date.

Monday, October 10, 2016

God Save the Tween:

Barely passable entertainment for anyone in the market for a Diary of a Wimpy Kid rip-off, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is an undemanding 90-minute tween sitcom. Aside from the programming on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, there’s little in the way of live action antics for kids to enjoy, so in that limited sense this fits a niche. But somehow I bet even children will find the whole picture drifting with the whiffs of second-hand inspiration. Based on a book series by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, it takes a familiar route. There’s a lead kid, a middle schooler who likes to draw and narrates his misadventures with family, friends, and teachers. But unlike Greg Heffley, the constantly embarrassed Ben Stiller type anchoring the Wimpy movies, Middle School has a protagonist who is mostly confident and the coolest rebel in school. His problems aren’t internal so much as a constant barrage of awful adults ruining his fun. Rafe Khatchadorian, the silliest kids’ book character name I’ve heard in ages, breezes into a new school ready to take on the establishment, willing to wage a covert prank attack on the stuffy suits and the petty rules.

I don’t know what made me feel older while watching this movie. For a while I thought it would be that I found the adults perspective more relatable and reasonably amusing while the kids were simply going through a hackneyed plot with obvious beats. But then, late in the picture, a girl patiently explains what a VCR is and that did it. I’m officially watching these young people movies through old eyes. Maybe that’s why I took the most delight in seeing comedian Andy Daly play the rules-obsessed principal. He has a way of smoothly projecting bland competence while oozing condescension and being totally transparent about his insecurities. It’s funny enough. His second in command is Retta, who here is the exact opposite of her Parks & Rec free spirit, snapping at students to keep them in line and getting the obligatory knocked-over-by-hundreds-of-balls-falling-from-a-closet gag. Elsewhere is the only teacher we meet, a trying-too-hard-to-be-cool-and-relatable one (Adam Pally). Then there’s Rafe’s warm single mother (Lauren Graham) with a monstrously dumb boyfriend (Rob Riggle). They all seem to be enjoying themselves.

The grown-ups have the mild eccentricities and heavy lifting, but the kids aren’t so bad. They’re likable enough. Rafe (Griffin Gluck) slowly pulls back some layers on his tween bravado, revealing some real emotional pain fueling his rebellion. Doing respectable work with their stereotypes are his silly friend (Thomas Barbusca), his crush (Jessi Goei), and his precocious little sister (Alexa Nisenson, who gets the cutest quips, but is also good in a surprisingly dramatic scene late in the game). They get some good lines, and the young audience won’t care so much that the adults in the crowd will be restless. The kids fit the movie’s tone as a light, soft, well meaning, and generally genial kids’ comedy. It even has some unobjectionable ideas to impart. His sketchbook drawings may come to life in distracting animated daydream interludes, too dull and flavorless to really add to the narrative, but there’s something nice about his artistic spirit. It adds to the movie’s basically harmless messages of self-empowerment, creativity, teamwork, and appropriately mild anti-authoritarian impulses.

What is middle school but a time to start chafing against the restrictions of childhood? A movie like this lets the tween id run free in (mostly) squeaky clean safe environments where nothing too bad will ever happen. Rafe can put sticky notes all over the school or fill a trophy case like an aquarium, dye his principal’s hair, shred standardized tests, or fill the sprinkler system with paint. But it’s all for a good cause in this comfortably consequence-light vision of the world. (And the pranks are so unwieldy and impractical there’s little worry of kids copying. Not that that’ll necessarily stop them from trying.) Of course it’s a movie with some instantly dated cultural references (like a tired swipe at the Kardashians) and booming contemporaneous pop music. It’s also a movie with a chaste crush, a few implied profanities, and a final comeuppance for the meanest adult including a wagon full of manure. Directed with a brisk, bright, bland style by Paul Blart’s Steve Carr from a screenplay by Kara Holden (a Disney Channel Original Movie veteran), the movie’s not worth getting worked up over. It does about what you’d expect at the level you’d assume, no better and no worse.
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