Monthly Archives: July, 2015

Review: TRAINWRECK (2015)

Trainwreck is the Amy Schumer show masquerading (pretty successfully) as an R-rated romantic comedy. If every film is essentially a series of ingredients mixed up in a bowl and served as the sum of all those ingredients you could say this recipe is 60% Amy Schumer and 60% Judd Apatow. That is to say, there’s just a little too much of each.

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Schumer has made a healthy career as a smart, crude, misandrist-like comedian whose stand-up routines could make Andrew Dice Clay feel awkward. She’s a strong woman who daftly points out irregularities in gender, sex and sexuality and does so with wit and intelligence. She says things about men that male comedians have been saying about women for years. As if to say “the world is stupid and here I am to tell you all how stupid you are.” I have a feeling it comes easy to her, and in a perfect world she would be the norm.

But, as with most comedians, this is a visage. She makes a living saying the one thing A) she isn’t supposed to say because she is a woman, B) that a man might typically say, and/or C) that would be the most shocking. And she’s terrific at her day job. That visage is how she wrote the character in the film, which is simply her stage persona on the big screen. And thankfully she’s so smart she’s able to pull it off.

Considering this is Schumer’s introduction to the world, for the most part, she has to display her persona in full force, for better or for worse. She plays a wise-ass with commitment issues who likes to drink and smoke weed. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the male part of every R-rated romantic comedy, especially Apatow comedies. She likes to sleep around and has trouble with intimacy. Hell, there’s a whole sub-genre of sit-com characters based on those same traits (“Two and a Half Men” and “How I Met Your Mother” for instance). This gender-swapping definitely adds an unfamiliar and welcomed element to the picture. But while it’s fresh and different that the character is played by a female in this movie, it’s still a character we’ve seen 1000 times before. This one is just a little funnier. Sadly, this means you can’t predict what she’ll say next but you can certainly figure out what she’ll do next.

Now, what I’ve just described is Schumer’s 60% of this film. She wrote the screenplay and is the lead actor. The character’s name is “Amy”. There is no separation of actor and character. There are definitely scenes that play out like comedy sketches (as might be featured on her show “Inside Amy Schumer”) and bits from her stand-up routine. Most of these scenes are funny but the problem is they feel like sketches and stand-up bits. They are pure set-up for her to make an outrageous or offensive remark, and because of this it doesn’t feel like organic comedy. In other words, it’s written so the narrative sets up the comedy instead of the comedy moving the narrative forward.

Unfortunately, this is where the 60% of Judd Apatow comes into play. He’s made a living making tangential films with paper-thin, clichéd stories that are mere window dressings for his troupe of improvisational actors (Seth Rogan, Bill Hader, Jonah Hill, etc). This film isn’t paper-thin, but it is littered with more than enough tangents and clichés. Bits like the “You know how I know you’re gay….” scene from The 40 Year-Old Virgin are everywhere in this movie, but most of them are quite funny. The scenes with LeBron James, in particular, standout as funny if not completely unnecessary scenes. And for a movie that runs over 2 hours they can drag the story down. The John Cena plotline at the beginning of the film is a perfect example of a useless, largely unfunny tangent with no payoff. I have a feeling they knew they had a clichéd story and tried to be funny enough to cover it up.  Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, like most Apatow productions.

The bottom line is Amy Schumer is a really funny and really smart comedian who has established her brand. Judd Apatow is a funny and smart filmmaker who has also established a brand. While the two brands often times meld in the right places, there are enough times that the marriage is too much. Where the film at its best is when it is subverting gender roles, and that is 100% Schumer’s writing and comedic talents. Thankfully, Schumer and Bill Hader are charming and funny enough that the outcome is largely positive.

Hope you enjoy!

Review: INSIDE OUT (2015)

Pixar’s recent critical cold streak (Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University) has seemingly come to an end with the high concept, internal conflict film, Inside Out.

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Kids’ movies are usually critic-proof in terms of critical content, but I feel like Inside Out straddles the line between adult and kid friendly and offers something extra to think about.

The framework of the narrative is built around the personification of a little girl’s emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. The majority of the screentime is focused on these five as the young girl is faced with the transition of moving with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. After the move we spend most of the time with Joy and Sadness, who become separated from the rest of the emotions. Do you see where this is headed? Because it’s very easy to spot early on. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with a simplistic theme because, again, this is a kid’s film.

There is a fairly meticulous construct that makes up the film’s idea of the brain, whose elements include core and normal memories, small islands erected to show interests and personality traits, a literal train of thought, a dream set that resembles a movie set, a memory dump where old memories fade away, and so on and so forth. And these areas are generally populated with cute little animated beings for the kids to enjoy.

This depiction of the brain is fairly accurate to how a physical construction of a brain might work if you combined an adult’s knowledge with a child’s imagination. Only, I wonder if populating this world with cute, colorful entities is enough for kids to make any sense of it. The part most kids will relate to is the part of the narrative where Joy and Sadness get lost and have to find their way back. It provides the “adventure home” narrative tension that appeals to a child’s cinematic tastes. However, I wonder if a child understands the metaphor attached to that struggle. You never lose those emotions, but sometimes they fall into the background during times of turmoil, which is the scenario this movie depicts. The film provides a scenario where Joy and Sadness are in danger of being lost forever, seemingly in order to keep the kids interested, but adults know this is an impossible outcome.

They present a colorful world with a very binary depiction of emotions. When things go wrong characters get sad, and when they don’t know how to deal with that they get angry. As an adult you know things rarely work that way. Emotions are complicated and often overlap with several other emotions at one time. I suppose this is where I take issue with the film, from an adult’s perspective.

The ideas presented in this film are dumbed down to make sense to a child, but I feel like if you asked a child to explain the inner workings of the mind based on the landscape they create in this film you’d get a very one-dimensional answer and not a complete understanding. Which is fine except why go through all the time and effort to create this rich world? Adults know it’s silly, and kids just enjoy the colors and humor.

So who is this movie for? Most adults will know there’s more to emotion and brain activity than this and kids will only attach themselves to the cute emotions and the various little beings that live in this girl’s mind.

This isn’t to say it’s a bad movie, I just don’t think it’s enough. It’s a high concept with a low return. Go see it with adults, or kids, because the conversation you have afterward is worth it.

Review: ANT-MAN (2015)

This film is first and foremost a product of the Marvel machine, which means it’s entertaining and fun but nothing more than set-up for future Ant-Man tales.

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The story is smaller than those of Thor and The Avengers based simply on character recognition, but rest assured we’ll see this diminutive character alongside the likes of Captain Rogers and Tony Stark soon enough. First we need to see an origin story, just as we saw with every other major Marvel character. And if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Let’s check off the boxes: a reluctant or unknowing character gains a power or is chosen to be wield a power, the character fumbles around during training sequences, a paper-thin villain is introduced, in the last 30 minutes the hero has a dramatic character moment that alters their arc, and finally they gear up for battle and save the day. On a small scale. Let’s not forget, it takes at least 2 movies before we get to see any actual stakes or a formidable villain.

But again, the purpose of this film is to build towards a larger future. Marvel can’t introduce Ant-Man into their future Avengers movies without setting him up within the universe they’ve created. And they certainly do that in this film, going so far as to have a mini-fight with a lesser Avenger right in the middle of the movie, which turns out to be one of the cooler sequences in the film. I personally enjoy when characters and storylines cross over, and maybe that’s just the inner comic book fan in me saying that. The Avengers films have firmly been ingrained in our culture at this point, and a reference to the super team is made very early in this film so we’re aware that they have similarly affected the world within their cinematic world.

The issue with all these movies is stakes, or lack there of. Every audience member is aware that Scott Lang will accomplish the mission and survive the film, so it must be the job of the director to make sure it’s fun and captivating despite the lack of tension. I would say this film has less tension than most superhero films solely because the villain is so one-dimensional and really poorly written, which is tragic considering the run-time is almost a robust 2 hours. I think writers and directors forget sometimes that the strength of a hero is directly affected by the strength of their adversary. In this case the adversary is, essentially, a douchebag. There are some pretty long stretches of time where he leaves the film as we see the family tensions between the film’s two real stars, Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly (taking nothing away from Paul Rudd’s “Scott Lang”, but neither Rudd nor Lang are allowed to be anything more than pawn pieces). The villain pops up sporadically just to remind us who Scott will have to defeat later and to add any layer of tension other than familial drama. You could almost say the film only has a villain because it needs one to function as a comic narrative, not because the story dictates it. The villain doesn’t teach our hero anything, he learns everything his character needs to satisfy his arc from his friends and, sadly, that strips the villain of any narrative resonance. Think of what the Joker means to Batman and how he affects him in The Dark Knight. That doesn’t happen in this film.

Where the film succeeds is in Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) backstory as the first Ant-Man, the tension with his daughter, any time Scott puts on the suit, and any time Scott’s trio of cohorts (Michael Peña, T.I., David Dastmalchian) are on-screen. There is ample humor spread over the last hour or so of the film, mostly provided by his three amigos, to go along with the action and the final showdown is cool and fun, even going so far as to poke fun at its own size in a pretty funny Thomas the Tank Engine sequence. Sounds silly, but it’s good stuff.

I won’t go into the Edgar Wright controversy, I’ll just say Peyton Reed made a simply told, entertaining film. The fact that two separate writing and directing crews worked on this at various times surely affected the final product. For what it’s worth, if you see Ant-Man you’ll have a good time.