Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ill Communication: ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL


Like its main character, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has a big heart hidden under a surface of affectations. When the film, yet another fussily stylized coming-of-age Sundance winner, began, I was worried it was primed to get on my nerves. It charges out of the gate with self-consciously flippant narration wrapped around a teenage boy’s college application letter. Thomas Mann is the boy, Greg, the “Me” of the title. He opens the film delivering verbose voice over in a mopey monologue breaking down the social groups of his quirky high school over a montage of precisely framed tableaus. This set off all the twee faux-indie navel gazing alarm bells in my head. But then a funny thing happened. The movie settled into its rhythms, allowing its characters space to breathe and its style room to reflect an evocative teenage mood. By the end, it had worn down my defenses and moved me.

In the opening, Greg explains his plan to stay invisible during high school, friendly enough to avoid getting picked on, but distant enough to avoid close associations with any one group. He acts like he’s uninterested in making meaningful human connections, but really he’s just scared of getting hurt. Better to have no real friends than risk losing them. Instead, Greg spends his time enjoying culture, his sociology professor father (Nick Offerman) and mother (Connie Britton) having encouraged his serious-minded eclectic exploration of everything from food to literature. But film is his favorite, marching through the Criterion Collection canon and making his own little parodies (with titles like My Dinner with Andre the Giant) in his spare time. It’s not long before this movie’s arch stylization is put to good use reflecting Greg’s worldview. It knows it’s a movie as much as he wishes his life could be understood that way.

His closest acquaintance is a fellow cinephile, Earl (RJ Cyler), who likes the same movies and collaborates on the parodies. They hang out every day and have fun together, but they’re not friends, exactly. Greg calls him his co-worker, but we, and Earl, know better. Over the course of the film, Greg slowly lets down his emotional barriers as he allows himself to step out of the constricting comfort zone he’s built. The first step is a shove. A classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has been diagnosed with leukemia and Greg’s mother forces him to go over to her house. Despite neither teen feeling especially thrilled about this diagnosis-inspired play date, an embarrassed friendship forms, dropping the embarrassment as they begin to feel comfortable around each other. But Greg remains painfully socially awkward, as the movie thankfully doesn’t become glossy teen romance. It remains realistic about how much we could expect a person so stubborn could change in a relatively short period of time.

Because Rachel’s the “Dying Girl,” we have a good idea about where this is going. But she’s not completely reduced to her condition or used exclusively as a prop for other’s emotional growth. Though she is that, too. Greg and his outlook remains the focus, the characters turning around him vaguely defined, outside his immediate interest. But as he gets to know them, they come into focus, relationships developing in a sweetly fumbling way. The supporting ensemble capably fleshes out what could otherwise be stock eccentric types. Jesse Andrews’ screenplay, based on his novel of the same name, has familiar teen comedy elements (wacky mom (Molly Shannon), wise cool teacher (Jon Bernthal), hellish cafeteria, set cliques, accidental drug use). It’s self-aware and loaded with artifice (split-screens, title cards, winking narration, precisely dropped soundtrack cues), but also totally sincere in its evocation of a pinched emotional perspective. Greg feels things so deeply he holds himself back, preferring movies to the real world because it’s a channeling of emotion. (How many film fans can relate?) Human connection isn’t so easily contained.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who has mostly directed TV episodes for Ryan Murphy’s Glee and American Horror Story, is no stranger to letting loose with all manner of wild emotions and attention-grabbing style. Here he deploys an extravagantly directed showiness with long unbroken takes, tight framing to emphasize strong feeling, dramatic focus pulls, cutaways to animations and flashbacks, blocking to enhance emotional distance by pushing characters to the extreme sides of a wide scope frame. But it’s in service of a delicate tone, matching the wild imagination and moody inner life of its main character. As he grows closer to the Dying Girl, and realizes how important his friendship with Earl really is, the film draws them closer in the frame. Soon he’s no longer sharing the shot, but sharing the space. The dramatic style settles down, decreasing its posturing as Greg does.

Its climactic moment – you can probably guess the broad strokes – is its most beautiful, a scene of pure earnest connection mediated, but not superseded, by cinema. The camera focuses on Cooke’s eyes, wet and trembling, the light from a projector dancing colors across her face as their connection reaches its purest expression. But this moment doesn’t solve Greg’s problems, spiking a potentially sentimental moment with a more realistic picture of the emotions and situations involved. Greg gains confidence in risking connection despite possible pain. There’s enough reflection in this end to prevent the film from becoming only blinkered approval of his initial attitudes. So even though the other characters only exist here to put the protagonist on the path out of adolescent selfishness, they remain individuals. He learns to see other people as continually unfolding surprises, with more to learn the more you stick around and get to know them. Films can be like that, too. Sometimes if you take a chance, let your guard down, you can be rewarded with meaningful, maybe painful, connection.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Un-Bear-Able: TED 2


Less a film, more a long string of failed scenes limply strung along by an offensively puny wisp of story, Ted 2 is the sort of movie you’d never want impressionable youngsters to see. Not simply because it’s relentlessly vulgar and casually mean-spirited, but because they might get the wrong idea about what constitutes a joke. Nothing but bad vibes and cheap jabs, jokes here are lazy swipes at stale targets, insults, cultural references, and mind-in-the-gutter gags spat out in a painful patter with no sense of pacing or timing. It’s stiffly assembled and flatly delivered, a long, punishing excursion filled with lifeless shots and awkward pauses. Lacking even the sliver of imagination and energy that made the first Ted, our middling introduction to the eponymous R-rated sentient teddy bear, this sequel begins with no reason to exist and makes no case for itself.

Ted 2 has desperate desire to offend, nakedly condescending. It shouts out names of recent tragedies (in obvious ADR), insults oppressed minorities at every opportunity, and is wallpapered in casual racism, homophobia, and sexism. An equal opportunity offender only lazily upholds the status quo, without a perspective to make any real points. It’s boring to watching such flailing irreverence, chasing empty shocks towards irrelevance. Writer-director Seth MacFarlane’s comic stylings are recognizable from his rancid Family Guy and flop western spoof A Million Ways to Die in the West. He thinks standing back from his material spouting off random garbage is equivalent to wit, but it’s a bullying approach, smirking and slapping at an audience while talking down to his own characters. And then he asks us to care about their plights.

Unlike its predecessor, which fell back on a predictable man-child comedy structure asking its characters to grow up, this new Ted asks us to love them even though, and often because, they’re unrepentant jerks. Mark Wahlberg returns as the man whose childhood toy became Ted (voiced by MacFarlane), and they proceed to rampage through a movie that has them make fun of black men and gay people, destroy a barn, steal weed, molest Tom Brady, start a fight at New York Comic-Con, and knock over a shelf of samples in a sperm bank without consequences. (No good movie has ever featured sperm bank shenanigans.) All that happens because Ted and his wife (Jessica Barth) want to adopt a baby, but are told they can’t since the bear isn’t legally a person. Makes sense to me, but MacFarlane wants us to be outraged enough to care about a protracted court battle as the uncouth bear decides to fight for his nonexistent civil rights.

Between unfunny tomfoolery and insult comedy, long scenes play out mostly straight as characters earnestly discuss Ted’s consciousness, determined to prove his personhood to a jury. How am I to care about this bear when the movie’s so fundamentally unserious, and he’s totally, irredeemably, purposelessly unlikable? We’re supposed to feel suspense waiting for the verdict, after a plucky young lawyer (Amanda Seyfried) delivers sincere speeches and Ted compares his trials to the plight of slaves (he watches Roots and references Dred Scott) and gays (or, as he tells the court, denying his equal rights “is just like what you’re doing to the fags! I’m sorry—homos”). The joke is that Ted uses a slur and then corrects himself to a different impolite term. The effect is an insult – hurtful words so dismissively tossed off – wrapped in a bigger insult – that anyone expected a laugh out of it. It takes a particular kind of social blindness to make a movie that’s both a metaphor for civil rights battles and an insult to anyone who’s fought for them.

It’s lazy and hateful, with sincerity cut only by stale attempted humor the very definition of “punching down.” By the end, two bullies have dressed up in costume to menace nerds at a convention, a wise old civil rights attorney (Morgan Freeman) tells the jury to remember the Emancipation Proclamation and vote pro Ted, and Jay Leno has appeared as himself pretending to be “gay” in the most awkwardly silent thirty seconds I’ve spent in a theater this year. And I saw Paul Blart 2. MacFarlane shows no desire to shape a scene or whip up momentum. With the deadliest pacing, every gag is dead on arrival. There’s no inner drive, nearly two hours spent just clunking along from one patch of dead air to the next. He takes lazy jabs at Bieber and Kardashians (hardly the freshest, or most deserving, of targets), stops scenes cold for fumbled cameos (poor Liam Neeson), and displays a preoccupation with male virility as if it’s an inherently funny topic.

This movie is superfluously backwards and overwhelmingly dull, too slapdash in its story and comfortable in its hypocritical and unchecked assumptions about what’s funny, as if anyone that’s not a straight white bro is worth pointing out and picking at. But, yes, by all means, let’s respect a stupid teddy bear. Yeesh. It’s agonizingly clear how grating and deadening MacFarlane’s hodgepodge approach is. I think he loves movies – he stages a straight-faced joke-free Busby Berkeley-ish musical number as his opening credits – and maybe genuinely wants to make a case for equality. But he’s too tone deaf to be funny while doing so, or control the real messages his Ted oozes.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Furry Road: MAX


Who’s a good dog? Max is a good dog. He can sit, stay, beg, bark, obey orders, follow his leader, search for contraband, find missing persons, track suspects, sniff out bombs, serve in the military, escape bad guys, fight off meaner dogs, take down an international smuggling conspiracy, save hostages, and bring a grieving family closer together by loving them as only man’s best friend can. Sounds like a good dog to me. The movie in which he stars, played by a handsome Belgian Malinois named Carlos, is a slice of schmaltzy Americana, flag-waving, manipulative and corny as all get out. It’s a movie intent on pushing buttons with sentimentality, easy suspense, and simple uplift. But at least Max proves himself one of the most uncomplicatedly likable heroes you’ll see at the movies this summer. Who couldn’t like a dog this sweet and tough?

We meet Max in Afghanistan, on patrol with his until. There his handler (Robbie Amell) is killed. The dog is returned stateside where he’s diagnosed with a bad case of canine post-traumatic stress disorder. By this point we’ve already met the family of the fallen soldier, seen the funeral where the dog sits in front of the coffin and refuses to leave. You’d have to be made of stone not to feel the tug of heartstrings, since the movie’s working so hard to yank them there. So, since Max has been declared no longer fit for duty, the family adopts him. They’re mourning the same man. Through the presence of the pooch, the family – a gruff dad (Thomas Haden Church), sweet sad mom (Lauren Graham) and sullen teenage boy (Josh Wiggins) – slowly works through grief while learning to live with this new companion.

That’s surprisingly heavy stuff for a kids’ animal adventure. This glossy, earnest look at a mourning family has some sincere intent to focus on the plight of soldiers and their families’ through a dog’s-eye view. I liked this aspect of the movie, as the boy and dog learn to trust each other and the family starts to work through emotional trauma, the boy’s father growing distant, his mother quick to cry, his friends (comic relief Dejon LaQuake and love interest Mia Xitlali) the only ones ready to help him train the dog. Soft, bright cinematography keeps things feeling safe and comfortable even when dealing with pain. There’s always a feeling things will work out just fine. I mean just look at that dog, good at growling, panting away, chuffed to be sniffing and barking and going for walks and chewing on his toys. Maybe one day they’ll let him in the house.

But right when the movie seems to be narrowing in on the sensitive emotional terrain of the family, it becomes another movie. Writer-director Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) and co-writer Sheldon Lettich (of Stallone and Van Damme pictures) really want to underline this dog’s heroism as a salute to military dogs everywhere. They get Max and his boy involved in a crime thriller about a crooked soldier smuggling arms to drug cartels south of the border. The dog recognizes one of the culprits and ends up leading his new family down a dangerous path ending in a red-meat satisfying boom-pow conclusion pushing the edge of the PG rating with fights and stunts out of proportion with the smaller, sweeter, sadder story pushed to the margins. There are some nice twists, and its reasonably involving on a dumb level. But I wondered why it was there.

Maybe it’s best to think of Max not as a socially conscious boy-and-his-dog picture, but as a canine version of The Rock's Walking Tall. It’s a story of a veteran who returns home psychologically wounded by war, then needs to clean up his small town’s crime problem. The veteran here just happens to be a dog. Over the end credits, we’re told military pooches have a proud tradition. We see photos of various dogs in various wars, and are shown statistics as to how many have died for our country. It’s a nice sentiment, and the movie, all apple-pie, bike rides, Fourth of July, and fireworks, looks at an interesting subset of military service. And yet, I couldn’t shake dissatisfaction as a great dog – and some great dog acting, with perfect reaction shots, fun stunts, and reasonably believable action – was pressed into clunky formula. Wouldn’t the family-friendly canine remake of Best Years of Our Lives or Coming Home it occasionally is be more interesting?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Date of the Dead: BURYING THE EX


There have been and will be worse movies than Burying the Ex this year. But I doubt many could match it for disappointment. It’s an uncharacteristically shallow work from Joe Dante, a beloved movie-mad director usually reliable in his ability to bring energy and complexity to all manner of theoretically disreputable genres, while retaining a core of deep affection for the material with which he’s playing. Just look for his name if you want to see clever, aesthetically appealing and subtextually rich creature features (Piranha), monster movies (Gremlins), backlot comedies (The ‘Burbs), sci-fi satires (Small Soldiers), mid-century B-movie love-letters (Matinee), self-critical sequels (Gremlins 2), and live-action cartoons (Looney Tunes: Back in Action). His latest is disappointing not just for falling far short of his usual standard. This is only his third feature in sixteen years. It’s a long-awaited return, enough to make one wish it was in service of a better script.

At the center of Burying the Ex is a horror geek (Anton Yelchin) working in a year-round Halloween shop selling costumes, décor, and curios. The set is lovingly festooned with copies of Fangoria and Video Watchdog, vintage posters for genre cinema, and a TV behind the counter playing Hammer horror. It’s a fandom repository, a place where the film’s macabre heart shines brightest. Throughout the film, the protagonist visits a repertory cinema for a Val Lewton double feature, attends an outdoor screening of Night of the Living Dead, and has his grating comic relief half-brother (Oliver Cooper) watch a Herschell Gordon Lewis DVD. If you’re one of the club, enjoying all these references piling up, you’re certainly on Dante’s wavelength. He loves this stuff genuinely, and knows that those who do will have lots in common with his main character.

Unfortunately, the plot around this guy takes that for granted, expecting us to love him because of the surface ways he’s like us. Screenwriter Alan Trezza concocts a scenario in which we’re supposed to hate the protagonist’s girlfriend (Ashley Greene) because she has no time for his collections and preoccupations. She’s a vegan blogger – shorthand for type-A and clingy, for some reason – who throws out his mint-condition posters to make room for her recycling bins. This is seen as reason enough to loathe her. The guy is going to break up with her, but before he can she’s hit by a bus and bleeds out on the street. At least now he can date the hot malt shop owner (Alexandra Daddario) we know is cool like him because she likes the same pop culture. They bond over Cat People and General Mills Monster Cereals. There’s nothing particularly charming or interesting about their discussions, nor are the characters anything more than what the plot demands.

When the movie’s horror/comedy conceit kicks in, it’s about time. A devilish knickknack makes the dead ex’s dying wish – “We’ll be together forever” – come true. She’s reanimated, a lovesick zombie shambling back to her boyfriend. Clumsy farce follows as a scared guy scrambles to keep his new girlfriend from discovering his undead one and vice versa. This is potentially fruitful ground for genre kicks, and Dante stages the eventual zombie chomping with reasonably effective spurts of gooey fake blood (no phony digital spray here). But the horror isn’t scary – just one good jump scare – and the comedy isn’t funny. Trezza’s script is full of fumbling one-liners falling flat despite the best efforts of everyone involved, and predictable plot points slowly drag their way on screen.

It’s tepid sitcom plotting, without any of the sweet bite or grinning horror that defines Dante’s best work. He’s still capable of staging a light, colorful moment, and the cast is full of bright young performers who’ve been likable elsewhere. But all that can’t save a shrill, tone-deaf experience in which one-note stereotypes engage in underwritten antics. The love triangle is unconvincing, mostly because the guy and his new love interest are so flatly drawn. But even worse is the mean-spirited perspective on the zombie ex. She’s such an unrelentingly shrewish portrait, without any thought given to her inner life, closing off any poignancy or conflict over her death and resurrection. There’s simply no tension or complication to be found. The proceedings grow depressing as they drag on, a thin idea stretched beyond all sustainability, with only the faintest glimmers of personality for the dedicated auteurist to enjoy. I’d say it’s a for-the-diehard-fans-only proposition, but they’re also the ones who’ll be most disappointed. Every bit of Burying the Ex simply points towards ways it should be better.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Straight Outta Inglewood: DOPE


In many ways, Dope is a standard coming-of-age American indie, right down to the buzzy Sundance premiere and self-consciously precious stylization. What saves it from growing insufferable is its energy and perspective. Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar) gives the proceedings a loping eccentricity informing each meandering step through a fraught Inglewood odyssey. It stars a good kid in a bad neighborhood, who is pulled away from his path to Harvard through a series of accidents and coincidences, then must work his way back. Complications pile up, and a variety of subplots and supporting characters push each other off screen for puzzling periods of downtime. It’s a movie with too much, finding time in its loose plot for narration on everything from racial authenticity to gay rights, drug dealers debating the morality of drones, and Pharrell-penned musical interludes. It’s too much, but when it settles into an easy groove, it’s a pleasure.

Set in modern day Los Angeles County, high-schooler Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his buddies (Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori) look like they stepped out of Yo! MTV Raps in the early 90’s. Self-described black geeks, they love old school hip-hop, playing in a garage band they started after dropping out of marching band, and shopping for vintage gear. The opening narration (delivered smoothly by Forest Whitaker) tells us they aren’t in a gang and don’t do drugs, spending their days dodging dangerous characters while working towards good SAT scores, a fun prom, and going to college. But, with their adolescent urges, they’re always looking for ladies. When a nice girl from the block (Zoë Kravitz) invites them to a birthday party down at the club, they can’t help themselves, even though the guest of honor is a notorious local dope dealer (A$ap Rocky).

Their plans for the future are thrown into doubt when the police break up the party and the dealer stashes his dope in Malcolm’s bag. Our leads escape, but soon those dangerous characters draw near as the trio scrambles to stay alive and get rid of the drugs in a way that’ll get them out of trouble with both cops and criminals. They’re caught between a dealer and a law place. For a while it’s a madcap scramble to get the bag back to its owner, a goal complicated by a rival dealer (Amin Joseph), a slimy businessmen (Roger Guenveur Smith), a high rich girl (Chanel Iman) and her aspiring producer brother (Quincy Brown), and Malcolm’s mom (Kimberly Elise). A tight focus on this crisis, in a one-crazy-After Hours-day mode, rockets the movie along, but soon drifts away as the film swells with misjudged comedy and overcrowded subplots – romantic, academic, criminal, and more – which drain the threat of immediacy.

A sort of slow-motion caper movie, with a supporting cast too sporadically deployed and stereotypically defined to really pop, the key source of interest is Malcolm. Rachel Morrison's smooth cinematography keeps him the center of attention as Moore delivers a loose, funny, charismatic performance. It’s easy to root for the meek geek in over his head in situations out of his control, and Famuyiwa finds workable tonal slipperiness by allowing the central character such fine consistency. Through a gauntlet of disreputable scenarios by turns comic, suspenseful, and sexy, we watch this young man attempt to wrest back agency in his own life and prevent damaging his Ivy League dreams. The way there takes too many detours, but Moore’s allowed to be the sort of performer who immediately draws attention and sympathy whenever he’s on screen. His climactic recitation of his college application essay, looking straight out at the audience before pulling up his hoodie and walking away, is such a powerful moment of rhetoric. It’s almost excusable how uninvolving the film’s back stretch – involving a dumb hacker (Blake Anderson), and some far-fetched contrivances – grows, plus the few extra endings beyond that point.

The telling may be shaggy, but there’s still some appeal in the framing. Matching the main trio’s throwback vibe, Famuyiwa’s direction is similarly inspired by early-90’s culture, specifically the particular indie sensibility birthed by the early successes of Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, John Singleton, and Kevin Smith. There was a period of a few years where all you needed to launch a tiny film project was semi-comic violence, ironic distance, loud politics, dialogue saturated with pop culture patter, and liberal use of split-screens, title cards, arch narration, and malleable chronology. Few of the derivative works were as good as their inspirations, and even some of them weren’t that good. But somehow, twenty years on, there’s some freshness in seeing the old tropes again, especially when brought to a slick hipster synthesis speaking to uniquely modern discourse on race and opportunity (and technology, though dropping the word “bitcoin” a hundred times doesn’t make it as successful a topic here). There’s personality to spare, enough to almost cover up its sloppier parts.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Life of the Mind: INSIDE OUT


Inside Out is a film so in touch with its protagonist’s emotions it makes them characters unto themselves. The result is one of Pixar’s loveliest conceptual gambits, daring in its simplicity, moving in its surprising dexterity. Certainly the idea of personifying the human brain’s many emotions is not a new one. But what’s new is this film’s sustained commitment to psychological zaniness, finding inventive and satisfying analogues for mental processes without losing a sense of compassion or an elastic sense of humor. A moving evocation of complicated emotions through brilliantly colorful cartoon adventure, it’s a perfect fit for Pixar’s favorite subjects: elaborate contraptions, colorful characters, memorable complications, affectionate teamwork parables, and emotional complexity. This is one of the animation studio’s warmest, most vital films in years.

Here is a film knowledgeable about what it’s like to be eleven, going on twelve, full of conflicting impulses on the bridge between childhood wonder and adult resignation. Our main character is Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), a girl whose loving parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) have decided to move from Minnesota to San Francisco, a prospect as intimidating as it is exciting. Our setting is her brain, amongst the little voices inside her head. Writer-director Pete Docter (responsible for modern classics Monsters, Inc. and Up) imagines a quintet of primary-color cartoon beings sitting behind a control panel in a big pastel room, processing incoming sensory detail and converting them into memories. Most importantly, they’re her emotions, helping her react to the world. Taking charge is Joy (Amy Poehler), but Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) are jostling to make themselves known as well.

The emotions are brought to vivid life in voice performances brimming with a child’s excitable naïveté. Joy isn’t the lead for no good reason. There’s energy and happiness, and character coherence as the five beings make themselves known through one voice. It’s easy to believe these different outlooks on life expressed by their color-coded geometric designs – sunny yellow flower Joy, blobby blue Sadness, wiry purple Fear, broccoli-green Disgust, squat fire-red Anger – add up to one character. They’re treated as figures of fun, predictable in their responses to any given development, and seriously as key components of any healthy mind. You might think a movie built around characters defined by precisely one emotion would grow monotonous, but the performers find remarkable shadings within their set ranges, piling on adjectives, growing complex as they work together to run one mind. Docter and crew find value in every emotion, acknowledging they each have their place.

As they punch buttons and manipulate glowing memory orbs on their way to storage, we see only a blending of their attributes can accomplish the goal. Trouble starts when, struggling to keep Riley joyful after the jarring cross-country move, Joy and Sadness are caught in an accident. They’re left stranded far from the controls, lost in Long Term Memory. The others try their best to keep Riley safe and sane, resulting in mood swings – sarcasm, panic, and outbursts. Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness move through cartoon symbolism – a train of thought, warehouse workers causing forgetfulness, dream production studios, and a dark scary subconscious. This vision of the mind is a world of vibrant colors, candy textures in gleaming mental faculties factories and vast corridors of memories. Joy and Sadness work their way through lands of imagination, abstract thought, core personality traits, and crates of facts and opinions, on the way back to where they belong.

Imagination fills the frame. We meet a forgotten imaginary friend (Richard Kind), glimpse childhood memories, and meet some of Riley’s fears and dreams (scary clowns and towheaded boy bands). Rubbery cartoon mechanics in the mind – splats and bonks, stretchy expressionism and sight gags – tie to a real-world portrayed more drably and realistically, as the wacky emotions’ antics play out subtly across the girl’s face. It’s one of the most simply astonishing feats of animated acting I’ve ever seen. Inside her emotions contort and careen, while on the outside she appears thrillingly natural, a real little girl. It’s a terrific crosscut cause-and-effect, good for gags and heartfelt tenderness. This is as good a metaphor for depression as I’ve ever seen – inner conflict leading to outer discomfort and vice versa – wrapped in a buoyantly entertaining cartoon adventure. Riley is unhappy with her new circumstances and is unsure how to react. Starting over in a new place is difficult.

So is growing older. Memories fade. What once was important to your personality evolves, or disappears. Old happy memories gain bittersweet tints. This all packs quite the wallop. Like Up and Toy Story 3, it gains great power from its recognition of aging’s melancholy inevitability, and the importance of embracing new aspects of life’s journey, stepping forward with those you love. Here there are passages of childhood memory I would compare to The Tree of Life for their precise observation and overwhelming compassion. Moments inside the brain, cartoony though they may be, come freighted with symbolic imagery in vast stretches of psychology transmuted into only-in-animation splendor. There is no villain. Joy’s main goal to keep Riley happy all the time is recognized as unsustainable. In its simplicity, it’s complicated.

And yet it’s also light and lovely, teasing in its complexity. It contains great truths and great feelings without dragging itself down. Great fun is kept aloft by the lovable voices, Pixar-formula cotton-candy plotting (co-written by Meg LeFauvre and Josh Cooley), Michael Giacchino’s chirpy New Age fairy tale score, and a team of animators imbuing each frame with buoyant personality. It could make you laugh and cry and feel happy for doing so, indulging every single emotion at the controls of your responses as we speak. Another great Pixar confection, Inside Out is sweet entertainment for the whole family. And like the best family films, it imagines a lively multicolored scenario a little exciting, a little scary, as bright and funny as it is wise. In a world that can be full of forced good feelings and manic positivity, how wonderful to find such a fast, clever, entertaining argument for embracing every feeling in your emotional palate.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Bleak Mirror: WILD TALES


Wild Tales lives up to its name and then some. A collection of six short films from Argentinean director Damián Szifrón, each story features seemingly ordinary people pushed into madness. These are bitter, ugly, violent, unpredictable stories of everyday life going beyond the expected in twisted, hilariously dark directions. It’s a jaw-dropper, electric with misanthropic guffaws stuck in the throat. One can read such invigorating cynicism as righteous fury over the state of the world and the venom that lies in the hearts of mankind. Or you can read it as an explosion of brutal bleak comedy, taking human impulses to the edge of propriety and beyond. Either way, it’s a roiling hoot. Incredibly popular in its home country, this is uproarious and lively chaos tapping into populist rage. It put me in mind of Lacan’s observation that most people actually do love thy neighbor as thyself, since most people hate themselves.

Some of the characters across six separate stories find petty annoyances escalating into violent retaliation. Others take drastic action against more obvious wrongs. Either way, they end badly. We start on a plane, where the passengers realize they all happen to know the same man. Worse, they’ve all done something he’s hated them for. Yikes. Then, we go to an empty roadside diner, where the waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) has good reason to hate their only customer (César Bordón), and the ex-con cook (Rita Cortese) is only too happy to suggest a criminal solution. These opening salvos of revenge are violent and upsetting, absurd in their matter-of-fact horror, and scary in their plausibility. They turn on terrifyingly logical conclusions, startling and funny in their inevitability.

Next, a story about road rage finds an explosive end, followed by a story about a man (Ricardo Darín) trapped in a maze of traffic tickets whose impotent anger turned potent. These are slightly more conventional. The feud between two drivers (Leonardo Sbaraglia and Walter Donado) escalates on a predictable path, like Spielberg’s Duel made uglier and more personal, but is remarkably exciting in its astounding willingness to go well past the point of no return. The story of the frustrated man trapped in a cruel, uncaring DMV bureaucracy is funny enough, I suppose, but it’s the weakest of the six. It isn’t telling us anything we haven’t heard before, flirts with sexism, and mostly serves as a nice pause before the crescendo of the final segments. Maybe because I was enjoying the film’s pessimism so much, I just didn’t respond to this short’s ending, the relatively happiest of the bunch.

Saving the best stories for last, we spend some time with a rich man (Oscar Martínez) trying to bribe his son’s hit-and-run indictment away. Then we meet up at a wedding reception spinning out of control when the bride (Érica Rivas) learns the groom (Diego Gentile) has been cheating on her, and with one of their guests, no less. While just as broad as the earlier segments in their exaggerated race to the extremes of the human experience, these two shorts are the most sociologically precise in the bunch, curdled comedies of manners. A roomful of rich guys debating how much money it will take to wave off a manslaughter charge is potent class critique, dark and dryly sidesplitting. Then, intensely appealing comic melodrama is found as a wedding immediately evaporates in manic bad feelings, the loud party thumping dance music while people go understandably mad. Sia’s “Titanium” makes for an ironic counterpoint to the crumbling relationship on display.

Each story unspools with expertly framed visual panache and unyielding forward momentum. With Javier Julia's gorgeous widescreen staging and walloping precise sound, Szifrón has complete tonal control as he swiftly sets up each new situation, getting an audience invested in the character’s plights and situations quickly. As with most anthologies, some of the stories are better than others. But the consistency amongst these tales is high, as each rollicking nightmare worst-case-scenario rolls into the next. Laughter catches, then erupts with renewed vigor as events spiral even further out of control than you’d thought. Turning on Twilight Zone (or O. Henry, or any twisty sketches) style conclusions, they nonetheless remain defiantly moral-less. We’re not meant to take away any lesson, just that the world is an awful place. Doing the right thing and treating people with kindness might save you. Or it might not.

In gleefully digging around in horrible situations for razor-sharp plotting, Wild Tales is a very dark comedy, and yet it’s also one of the most crowd-pleasing moviegoing experiences I’ve had in recent memory. Rather than being turned off by its poison-pen misanthropy, the audience around me ate the film up, howling with laughter at each bloody twist of the comic knife, then gasping and chortling when it drew blood. It is relatable madness, stories of everyday people taking their true feelings for one another to extremes. It’s mean-spirited, but of an exhilarating, hugely entertaining variety.

Monday, June 15, 2015

In Treatment: WELCOME TO ME


With its central recurring tragicomic setpieces taking the form of a deeply strange local access talk show, the Kristen Wiig-starring Welcome to Me recalls SNL sketches where she’d play a televised oddball attention seeker. Unlike that series’ endless iterations of the cracked talk show concept, this film deepens the emotional terrain and provides context tying the laughs to melancholy and sadness. It’s a small character study brushing up against eccentric details, but never losing a central thread of depression and pain. It’s funny, but in the cringingly awkward way an unexpected inappropriate comment punctures empty moments. The movie is appealingly uneasy.

Never let it be said Wiig plays it safe with her choice of roles. Here she’s a woman with borderline personality disorder who goes off her meds after winning millions in the lottery. Against the advice of her therapist (Tim Robbins), best friend (Linda Cardellini), and parents (Joyce Hiller Piven and Jack Wallace), she cuts a check to a tiny nearby TV station, buying airtime on which she demands to star in her own daytime program. Oprah-obsessed, she imperfectly models her show on her idol’s. Clearly enjoying the cult-of-personality aspects above all else, she creates a show with no interviews or topics. Instead, she only discusses herself. It’s a warped reflection of any social media feed you might encounter, or any string of comments below any article, where you slowly realize the person behind the messages is deeply troubled.

The results are a program that’s a stilted mess of naked neurosis and narcissism, clearly the product of a disturbed mind, and strangely compelling because of it. She uses the airwaves as her own personal therapy session, much to the confusion of the station’s managers (Wes Bentley, James Marsden, and Joan Cusack), who continue cashing her checks, the only thing keeping them out of bankruptcy. The show, also called Welcome to Me, features a woman exorcising her past amongst rudimentary graphics, mannered reenactments by confused day players, stretches of silence, crying jags, cooking demonstrations, and rides across the stage in a swan boat. It’s a close, psychologically complex, cousin of the Tim & Eric aesthetic. Of course it would generate a cult following, from baffled channel surfers and an overeager grad student (Thomas Mann) hungry for more.

Her show, and the performance that comes with it, is the source of the movie’s appeal, crafting a painful vision of a woman for whom personal validation is inextricably tied to a desire to be on TV. (If that’s not a comment on our current media landscape, I don’t know what is.) Beyond it, director Shira Piven and screenwriter Eliot Laurence have created a small world, but a consistently compelling one. Under bright, flat cinematography, Wiig shows off a range of hilarious and heartbreaking line readings which are always firmly rooted in a good sense of character, especially as the woman increasingly disappears up her own unmedicated ego in bizarre and elaborate episodes. Relationships beyond the studio setting are perfunctory indie dramedy fare turned slightly unsettled by the context. But they take a backseat to the show-within-the-movie. It builds in complexity and heart with each repetition, drawing difficult emotional reactions from what could’ve easily tipped over into stiff camp.

Often queasily hilarious, this story of a woman struggling with mental illness is still treated just soberly enough to not feel mean-spirited. Even when she is making self-destructive decisions, or exploited by those who should know better, her plight is treated with empathy and understanding. At best, it’s a comic character study so unusually sharp it draws tears, but retains a layer of artificiality keeping the proceedings vaguely humorous. Because we see the person behind the show, it’s both funny and painful. Like her cult following, I found myself hanging on every word while she’s on the air. The film doesn’t come to any sort of satisfying resolution and many subplots fall flat, but it’s Wiig’s memorable character, and the core of cringe comedy respectfully played, that sticks with me. The show’s warbling theme song still echoes in my brain.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Safety Not Guaranteed: JURASSIC WORLD


Why is it so difficult to make a good sequel to Jurassic Park? It's been 14 years since Joe Johnston made a half-decent B-movie-ish III, and 18 since Spielberg himself brought us The Lost World, a collection of good images in an underwhelming whole. Sure, the great original 1993 blockbuster benefited from one of those perfect confluences of creative people at the height of their powers. It has Spielberg’s eye for beautifully shaped spectacle, an iconic John Williams’ score, an appealing creature-feature structure of exquisite set-ups and pay-offs, and a hugely likable cast able to turn stock characters into warm and sympathetic people we want to see escape danger in one piece. But it’s not like the core idea – theme park stocked with resurrected dinosaurs descends into chaos – is unrepeatable. And yet here we are with Jurassic World, the third unsuccessful attempt to recapture the magic.

World, directed and co-written by the forgettable indie Safety Not Guaranteed’s Colin Trevorrow in his first big-budget excursion, is the largest, loudest, and fastest Jurassic movie thus far. It’s also the emptiest. It tells the story of corporate greed reopening the dinosaur island and creating Jurassic World, a larger theme park with more creatures and better security. It’s a hit. The new park is swarming with crowds delighted by the dinosaurs. But the owners want more profit, forcing the geneticists to cook up brand new monsters to advertise. (Sort of like injecting new filmmakers into an old franchise, no?) There’s an early scene in which the icy head of operations (Bryce Dallas Howard) sells the naming rights to their new “Indominus Rex” and assures her boss (Irrfan Khan) the beast has “more teeth.” Most Hollywood blockbusters engage in a little double think, but here it is rampant, a corporate calculation scoffing at corporate calculations.

Jurassic World is about nothing more than itself, attempting to preempt some criticism by acknowledging its nature as a product. It creates a bland self-serving parody theme park, realistically kitsch and poking fun at its own existence. It’s an old idea resurrected for the sake of big profits. Get it? We’re to giggle at parallels between the film and the park, laughing at business excesses dazzled by technology while dazzled by the technology of a film made for business excess. The World has a monorail and hamster-ball safari pods. It has a massive aquatic beast in a big tank. It has a resort hotel, chain restaurants, holograms, flat screens, and a raptor trainer (an unsmiling Chris Pratt). This film expects an audience to enjoy a fake theme park as much as the original film wanted us to thrill at dinosaurs. We even have two boys (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson), Howard’s character's nephews, to follow through the attractions as they stare mouths agape at CGI busyness. I’m glad someone’s enjoying it. 

This is how it always starts, with oohs and aahs. But then there’s running and screaming as, inevitably, the big, bad “Indominus Rex” gets loose. It’s predictable, and worse, witless. The crisis escalates, soon enveloping the whole park, entirely due to bad decisions characters make. Every effort to contain the mess goes stupidly wrong. It’s a collection of dino attacks, spectacularly visualized in fine effects work, but hollow in impact. Countless people are devoured and animals are gunned down or torn up. It’s sometimes visceral and exciting, but where’s the care? There’s no impact when it’s only there for a thrill without considering the weight of the moment. (Contrast that with Gareth Edwards' much better work with scale and staging in last year's great Godzilla.) Rampaging dinosaurs and hundreds of imperiled tourists make for awfully small thinking when there’s no sense of stakes. It’s full of competent visuals, but has uninteresting characters and set-pieces without suspense because it doesn’t take the time to matter.

Our characters, stereotypical and humorless, enter with dopey stock plotlines both overfamiliar – the boys are worried about their parents divorce – and vaguely offensive – the business woman, always clad in a tight white suit and high heels, is repeatedly told to loosen up and let a man save her. They mix with familiar types – an antagonist with secret commercial goals (Vincent D’Onofrio), a comic relief computer guy (Jake Johnson) – but the likable cast is given lifeless material. Where are the ripples-in-the-water moments? There’s no time for awe, for sublime anticipation. We’re just racing to the next tyrannosaur-sized brawl, the next cruel kill. They’re faced with routine violence they can’t even begin to contain. It saps the urgency to know a convenient contrived deus ex machina is the only way out. They’re not racing to restore power or call for help. They’re just bumbling through the jungle hoping not to get eaten by dinosaurs we barely get to know. And what about the park’s guests? The movie doesn’t care. They’re just background screams.

There’s never any sense of danger, just bright colors and loud noises. There’s a moment when an anonymous woman is plucked out of the crowd by a loose pterodactyl, then dropped into a pool, and dragged up and down until an even bigger dino munches them both. It’s cruelly elaborate. And what purpose does it serve? It’s not thrillingly shaped or given emotional weight. It just exists because the filmmakers could do it, not because they should. There is more tension and personality in one shot of Jurassic Park than all of Jurassic World’s wide shots of impersonal computerized spectacle intercut with dutiful reactions. It’s over-thought – self-amused, loaded with references to its predecessor – and under-imagined.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

No Scare in Sight: INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3


Ghosts are always operating out of the same playbook. You can’t see a movie haunting without some aggrieved spirit’s paranormal activity following a familiar pattern. First, small objects are unaccountably rearranged. Then there are strange noises – thumps, voices, bells, and whispers – though it rarely comes right out and say what it wants. Finally, the ghost makes a move towards its real aim: an abduction, a possession, a curse, and so on and so forth and what have you. Do the freshly deceased attend some sort of haunting seminar? Maybe there’s mandatory accomplishing-unfinished-business training? Is there an application to become an accredited poltergeist? Because heaven forbid some grabby ghost just snatches a soul willy-nilly without going through the proper steps. There’s apparently a clear process to follow.

There was plenty of time to think about such things while watching Insidious: Chapter 3. I had to do something to pass the time. Most horror movies, even the bad ones, can kick up enough general unease or sprinkle in enough jump scares to keep me alert. But this one, the second sequel to what was a clever and effective spin on the haunted house subgenre, is dull. It didn’t scare me. It not only won’t trouble my sleep, it almost put me to sleep. I could feel a nap tugging at the edges of my attention. But I stayed awake, even though its loudest jolt is right before the end credits, a good way to make sure a dozing audience wakes up in time to exit the theater.

Chapter 3 is technically a prequel, finding Lin Shaye’s psychic character a few years before the events of the first two Insidious chapters. (If you think 3 will do a lot of foreshadowing with regards to her fate in the other entries, you would be correct.) Shaye, a longtime character actress, does well with a lead role, playing a character with grandmotherly feeling about her, but she’s also weary and sad from all the ghosts she’s had to communicate with over the years. She’s a terrific presence, but the movie proceeds to let her down. Her character’s prior terrific mysteriousness is laboriously explained away. And despite what feels like constant paranormal assaults, there’s never much in the way of a good disquieting rattle to match her weariness. It’s all rather superfluous, unless you’re really curious to see how she met her goofy assistants.

The scenario isn’t as intriguing as either the original or its lesser sequel. Proving all you need to make a horror movie is a girl and a ghost, Chapter 3 finds a teenage girl (Stefanie Scott) mourning the death of her mother. She’s made increasingly vulnerable by the vengeful spirit (Michael Reid MacKay) who breaks her legs, leaving her housebound with only a skeptical father (Dermot Mulroney) to help her. It takes him noticing the black paint footprints on the carpet before he believes something’s haunting. That’s when the psychics are called in. It’s a totally standard horror set-up, but nothing that couldn’t work if the old clichés were executed well. After all, its predecessors weren’t exactly reinventing the wheel and had much of the same creepy visions.

But you can feel a difference behind the camera this time, with the series’ screenwriter Leigh Whannell making his directorial debut. (James Wan, who helmed the first two, went off to make Furious 7, a better use of his time.) The images lack the same creepy snap, and they’re cut together in a way that really only communicates rudimentary horror concepts. At best, it repeats tricks we’ve seen in the other Insidious movies, silhouettes behind curtains, faces in the dark, that sort of thing. He certainly didn’t help matters by writing himself an awfully thin script, with half-developed stock characters and a limply formulaic story. (A few supporting characters even disappear, and not in a scary way, never to be mentioned again.) It has the feeling of a cheap direct-to-video sequel that has somehow escaped its disc and wound up in multiplexes.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Live and Let SPY


A big, broad action comedy, Spy works by using evergreen genre elements – in this case, secret agent thriller tropes – and taking them seriously. There’s a missing nuke floating around the black market and the CIA wants to stop its sale. The process involves evil arms dealers, slimy smugglers, fancy women, and clever gadgets. At every turn we find bruising hand-to-hand combat, bloody shootouts, and fast chases involving several modes of transportation. There are surprise reversals, unexpected reveals, and double, triple, quadruple crosses from agents in too deep. It plays like a rip-roaring globetrotting adventure. That it just so happens to be hilarious is even better. It’s the rare action comedy that holds up both ends of its bargain.

By treating genre elements so plainly – squint a little and it looks like a Bond movie – writer-director Paul Feig gets comedy out of writing scenes slightly askew from the norm. This isn’t a spoof or parody of the spy picture. No Austin Powers here. This is a full-on embrace of the spy picture. Its title sure isn’t lying to you. Spy is what it is, simply and funnily. In the center is Melissa McCarthy, working with Feig for the third time after Bridesmaids and The Heat. They’re having a productive collaboration turning the expected beats of a chosen comic subgenre slightly on its head through force of offbeat screen presences and his ability to get not just laughs, but genuine, affecting performances. Here Feig writes her a starring role in a take on an oft sexist genre and uses it to refute sexist assumptions. In scene after scene, a woman male colleagues dismiss gets the job done. Anything a Bond can do, she can do.

McCarthy plays a mild-mannered desk-bound agency employee, used to compiling dossiers and feeding field agents recon through their earpieces. Over the course of the movie, she’s forced into the field and there, after initial fish-out-of-water floundering, her talents bloom. Putting her in the place of the usual strong silent spy, dry quips become filthy barrages of exasperation and determination. She, an unassuming, underestimated agent, is called into an undercover mission because a baddie (Rose Byrne) is in possession of a list identifying all known agents. An unknown is needed to track Byrne down and take her out, especially since she’s also the one selling the loose nuke and has already removed one suave agent (Jude Law) from the equation. Scenes of espionage take on fresh interest as McCarthy gets an opportunity to be every persona in her range. She’s playing a sweet professional who’s out to prove her doubters wrong, slipping effortlessly into disguises: sad cat ladies, confident whirlwinds of profanity, and glamorous international women of mystery.

Between exposition, one-liners, and dirty insults, Spy is a rush of physical comedy and exciting action. Feig finds a balance between slapstick and violence, moving from tense to jokey, exciting to funny, gory to gross-out gags. It’s a tricky dance of tone pulled off with aplomb. The characters are appealing, the plotting is crisp and clear, and the stakes are silly and high. It’s the breeziest spy picture in ages, delighting in how light it is. It works because the writing is consistently clever, the performances are terrifically calibrated to straddle the demands of serious thriller mechanics and goofy comedy while still feeling consistent in character. The entire ensemble has great fun tweaking their images, playing familiar parts in eccentric directions.

Byrne is a delightful icy villain, while Law has a good time taking the suave superspy to a goofy place of dangerous unflappability. There’s a goofy assistant back at the base (Miranda Hart, in a role calling on eager happiness incongruous to the dire stakes), a no-nonsense superior (Allison Janney), and a greasy Big Bad (Bobby Cannavale, pickling his charm). Best is dependable man-of-action Jason Statham as a macho master spy frustrated after being sidelined by McCarthy. He blusters about her inadequacies while bumbling his way through the story, making things worse for everyone. Showcasing a welcome sense of humor, he pokes fun at his usual roles. At one point he rattles off a list of exaggerated near-death experiences from prior missions – “I once drove a car off a freeway on top of a train while I was on fire” – that’s both amusingly hyperbolic and could easily be actual scenes from his filmography.

And yet McCarthy’s the clear star here. Her arc is treated respectfully without losing sight of her comic gifts. Even when she tumbles out of a scooter or vomits over a corpse, the joke's with her, not at her expense. She's in command of every scene. It’s one of her finest, funniest performances, terrific sight gags and muttered asides keeping the laughs flowing while building up real affection and sympathy for her character. She moves between slippery false identities, slowly increasing a core of self-esteem while becoming a very good spy. She shows her character’s progression filtering through layers of disguises in action. It helps that Feig is a more confident visual stylist with each film he makes. Spy looks, sounds, and moves not like a comedy, but like any big studio thriller, glossy and expensive. The surface sheen makes it all the funnier as it moves so fleetly through its exciting silliness. I was more thrilled and amused by McCarthy's espionage than many non-comic movie spies'.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Spy Who Came In From the High School: BARELY LETHAL


In no way does Barely Lethal work. It is a failure on every level, an insult to the intelligence of anyone who’d see it. Mere minutes into the runtime, the inconsistencies, inadequacies, and imbecilities began piling up. It is completely devoid of interest, which hurts all the more because its concept is marginally clever and has the right cast to make it work. It’s a mashup between a high school comedy and a spy movie, with young people Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones), Dove Cameron (Liv and Maddie), and adults including Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Alba, and Rachael Harris. Doesn’t that sound like a fun time? You can imagine how it could be sold. It’s Mean Girls meets Kingsman! It’s Spy Kids meets The Guest! If only.

The plot concerns a secret school for orphan girls where they’re trained as spies and sent on missions. It’s a skimpily populated program, seemingly run out of an empty warehouse. And how many operations do we see? Well, one girl steals a briefcase. Later, they catch a villain by flying overhead and lassoing her. That’s it. The expectations are apparently so strenuous, though, our lead (Steinfeld) fakes her own death and enrolls in high school as a foreign exchange student. She binge-watches classic teen comedies to prep, so obviously she makes wacky mistakes! Whoopsy-daisy. It’s also a mistake to show us clips from Clueless and the like right at the top, knowing how terrible the next 80 minutes will be. It reminds us of better options.

Anyway, the young woman discovers high school stress is totally hard, what with weird teachers, awkward flirting, and petty jealousies. (Nothing you haven't seen in high school comedies before.) The movie’s one funny observation is that secret agent business is easier than 12th grade. Alas, first-time feature screenwriter John D’Arco and director Kyle Newman (of Taylor Swift’s “Style” video) develop their concept in the most routine way possible, with some low-rent farce, then a few horribly shot, awkwardly edited, phony baloney action beats. The girl’s employer (Jackson, seemingly the only person running the organization) soon discovers her whereabouts. Then, there’s a perfunctory showdown with the villain, who Alba plays like a bored soccer mom in what’s probably the funniest and most consistent performance in the ensemble. She gets that this whole thing is dumb with a capital Duh. Everyone else is as bored as I was. Jackson gives the most lifeless line readings of his career. He could’ve been shooting his scenes on an idle corner of Avengers green screen during lunch breaks.

Forced frivolity abounds in sequences indifferently dumped onto the screen. The kids are enthusiastic enough, but given such mealy mush to speak it’s a wonder they got through a single take without gargling. The writing is overeager straining comedy. It’s a blur of lines tilting towards self-conscious references and over-articulated dirtiness. It's grating. Late in the movie, one girl brags about her figure saying, “It’s P90X, bitch!” To which her rival replies, “More like P90X-tra large, bitch!” First of all, it’s not funny. Second of all, it’s inaccurate. Third of all, it’s repetitive. And why can’t even a terrible movie like this one take its great, potentially clever, concept and run with it instead of devolving into pathetically limp body-shaming snark? Yeesh.

Oh, this is so incompetent. Nothing works. Nothing hangs together. It lacks a coherent point of view, or even narrative momentum. It’s a weak jumble of overlit, lazily blocked, haphazardly cut scenes. There’s no pulse, no imagination, no joy. Best-case scenario, this was a bigger picture scaled down to fit a tiny budget. Too bad that only revealed the lack of ingenuity and creativity all the more. There aren’t thousands of extras or slick CGI, or even good old resourcefulness, to mask its bankrupt nature. I cringed with second-hand embarrassment for a talented cast paid to work on a project so far beneath them I hoped they didn’t get vertigo.
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