Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review: Wreck-it Ralph

If you're going to rip off an animated movie, make it Toy Story.

That's the path plowed by Wreck-it Ralph, an animated Disney comedy that answers the question kids ponder: What do video game characters do when the arcade is closed?

They only ask that question, though, after wondering "What's a video arcade?" and "Why would people keep popping quarters in a machine when they can just download games for a buck on their iPhones?

The best answer parents can give to those inquiries from their adorable offspring is "Shut up. Just watch. Stop ruining the movie for me."

This is definitely one of those movies that parents like me are frighteningly overeager to drag their kids to, rather than the other way around. That's because of the trailer, which gives away the movie's best scene: Disgruntled villain Wreck-it Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) seeking comfort in a gaming bad guy support group that includes Bowser, Dr. Robotnik a pair of Street Fighter guys and a generic zombie. As soon as I saw that trailer either me or my 5-year-old jumped up and down with glee, declaring it to be the best movie ever based on that scene alone. I'll leave it to you to guess which of us it was.

While watching the full movie — which unfortunately does not consist entirely of support group meetings — dampened my enthusiasm a bit, it still gave me to grab the arm of 5-year-old Luke or my 3-yaar-old, Emma and inappropriately shout "Oh my gosh did you just see that!!" Prompting them to shush me.

Director Rich Moore, a veteran of animated TV (The Simpsons, The Critic, Futurama), crams his first feature film with enough gaming references to make you toss up your hands like a dead 8-bit Mario in Super Mario Bros. What the movie lacks in cohesive story it makes up in appreciation for a youth well wasted pouring lunch money into thirsty coin slots.

Strip away the gaming references — and the movie does just that in its feet-dragging middle act — and it's debatable as to whether Wreck-it Ralph is still a good movie. The film sputters when it focuses on the mechanics of its silly plot, involving Ralph's efforts to retrieve a hard-fought medal from sprightly kart racing character Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who is determined to show up her condescending competitors by winning the big race at the end of the movie. Ralph was a made-up guy from a made-up game, except for the fact that there is a real Wreck-it Ralph game now, which in turn is based on this movie, so he's actually... Sorry, my brain just melted.

Also along for the ride are Ralph's archrival Fix-It Felix (Jack McBreyer), modern shooter Rambo-woman Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch), and about ten thousand real and made-up game characters voiced by the likes of Mindy Kaeling, Ed O'Neill, Adam Carolla, Dennis Haysbert and Horatio Sanz. There are parallel stories of redemption, yadda yadda, and one emotional moment that managed to make Luke start to cry, but otherwise this is a copy of the Toy Story plot that left the pathos untouched.

Like most any game, Wreck-it Ralph is most fun when it's messing around without a particular goal. Like when Ralph heads over to the Tapper machine to drown his sorrows in what's described as "root beer" but what we all have known for 29 years is just beer. Or when he's chatting up gibberish-speaking Q*bert. Or, yeppers, that support group scene. Wreck-it Ralph himself may be a brute known for breaking stuff, but I'm happy to report his film did not break my games-loving heart.

Starring the voices of John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Sarah Silverman and Jane Lynch. Written by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston. Directed by Rich Moore. Rated PG. 108 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Review: Fun Size

I guess it's called Fun Size because the marketing team wasn't cool with more accurate titles such as Drudgery Size, Fun Sighs or Don't Watch This Awful Movie.

The Halloween-themed comedy nails the "trick" part of the deal but is light on the "treat" part of the equation.   Put it this way, the movie's funniest character is the only one who doesn't talk.

Director Josh Schwartz, who has directed several episodes of just about every CW show you could imagine, seems to be going for the wacky 1980s teen comedy vibe of Weird Science and Adventures in Babysitting -- the kind of movie in which little kids slip into strangers' cars and people pull out and shoot guns for no reason, and everyone is cool with it.

Victoria Justice, or as her birth certificate identifies her, Miniature Megan Fox With Slightly More Acting Ability, manages to escape from the cage Nickelodeon keeps her in to star in a movie. She plays Wren, a social outcast who goes to the one school in the country in which ridiculously attractive girls aren't popular. This would be Wren's big night to move up into the A list and make out with a dreamy popular kid at his big party, except for the fact that her mom is forcing her to take her 8-year-old brother (Jackson Nicoll) trick-or-treating.

The kid, who doesn't talk either because he's distraught that his dad died or he refuses to recite anything in the idiotic script, scampers off into the night. Wren recruits a fellow dork (Thomas Mann) who's got a crush on her to escort her around town searching for her brother in an obstacle course of bonkers mishaps that will have you cackling -- at yourself, for mistakenly thinking you had a good idea by spending money on tickets to this thing. 

On the rare occasion something funny happens, the movie goes and screws it up. Case in point, when a giant, robotic fast food chicken sign falls down and starts making sweet love to a Volvo, all the extras stand around laughing at it way too hard, Hoovering away the moment. Then we get more footage of the chicken rocking the Volvo's world, and then still some more. And more over-laughing. 

Wren's bestie, April (Jane Levy), is such a great pal that she jokes constantly about the kid being lost and urges her to forget about it and go to the big party. There's far too little screen time spent on the kid, who could play Jay and Silent Bob's lovechild in the next Kevin Smith movie and will definitely make a solid street mime one day.

Chelsea Handler, age 37, must have an agent to fire since she's already getting miscast as mommy of people like 19-year-old Justice, which is almost like casting the Olsen twins as Elizabeth Olsen's grandmas. Awkwardly, Handler's character exists in the movie only to be made fun of for how old she is.

Johnny Knoxville, on the other hand, needs to give his agent a shoulder rub because he somehow managed to score him an acting gig in a non-direct-to-video flick for the first time since people thought making a movie of The Dukes of Hazzard was a great idea. Knoxville plays a thug whose big moment comes when he confronts a flaming bag of poop.

There are many applicable metaphors in that scene, but I'll leave you to interpret them as you see fit.

Fun Size boils down to a rotating festival of three separate, equally dull movies: Wren's boring chase, the kid's amusing-but-disturbing escapades and Handler's desperate attempts to claw her way out of the screen and strangle those responsible for sticking her there. As far as Halloween-season entertainment options go, you'd be better off bobbing for apples embedded with razor blades.

Starring Victoria Justice, Chelsea Handler, Jackson Noll and Josh Pence. Written by Max Werner. Directed by Josh Schwartz. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Review: Argo

It may be hard to believe in our peaceful times, but back in 1979, the United States didn't get along so well with Iran, which seized 52 hostages from the American embassy in protest. They would have taken six more had they not escaped and holed up in the Canadian embassy until the CIA rescued them by masquerading as a movie production.

It's a story so outrageous and silly, not the least because it was known by such as stupid name as the Canadian Caper, that it would be laughed out of production meetings had it not actually happened and were it not backed by documents declassified in 1997. It was such a brazen, daredevil operation that it can only be dramatized by Daredevil himself.

Ben Affleck produces, directs and stars in a Ben Affleck production of a Ben Affleck film about Ben Affleck being Ben Affleck. Also, Affleck Affleck Affleck.

Affleck has come a hell of a long way since he pranced around as a blind superhero in red tights. With Gone Baby Gone, The Town and now this film, he's developed an untouchable resume as a filmmaker that's almost stunning enough to make everyone forgive him for starring in Gigli, Jersey Girl, Reindeer Games and Paycheck. Almost.

He plays CIA operative Tony Mendez, who concocts the idea to rescue the hidden hostages by dreaming up a movie so awful that Affleck would have starred in it 10 years ago. It's a sci-fi film called Argo about a planet that looks exactly like Iran. It's up to Mendez and the hostages to convince Iranian officials that the movie was commissioned by a Hollywood studio that dispatched six Canadian crew members that need to do some location scouting just as the hostage crisis is going on.

Affleck is good enough in the role to chase away rumors that he was only cast because he was sleeping with the director. The ever scarier-Bryan Cranston breaks good in playing a CIA boss who champions the caper amid a doubting home office. Alan Arkin and John Goodman play the guys who have the easiest part of the mission -- to stay home and answer an office phone in case dudes at the Iranian airport call to check out whether or not Argo is a real movie.

Affleck makes the movie resemble something made in the late 70s or early 80s, thanks to all the period detail, including feathered hair, sideburns, 'staches and giant collars. If it's tough to add suspense to a story that history dictates will turn out OK for the good guys, the movie doesn't show it. Certain doom seems to be waiting for the escapees at every turn, narrowly avoided by equal parts moxie, misdirection and luck. The intensity starts as a slow grind and continues to ratchet up until the end, when you've warped both armrests with nonstop squeezing from your trembling fingers.

There's only one significant flaw in the movie, but it is a major one. It's that A Flock of Seagull's "I Ran (So Far Away)" is not the theme song. If you can overlook that shortcoming, you'll likely be entranced by Argo. If you cannot overlook that shortcoming you will hate it and Affleck will have to deal with life without your approval.

Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Taylor Schilling. Written by Chris Terrio. Directed by Affleck. 120 minutes. Rated R.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Review: Pitch Perfect

There are so many reasons to hate Pitch Perfect, and yet it's impossibly tough to do so. It's a movie that you'll laugh at as much with, then store in the back of your mind until you meet someone else who's seen it. You'll start talking about how awful it is, then start trying to top each other by talking about the parts that were the most awful.

Then, after you've spent half an hour of your life talking and laughing about a movie you were sure you didn't like, it will occur to you that you actually hate-liked it to the point that you wouldn't mind seeing it again.

Pitch Perfect is one of those movies in which a mismatched performance group gets together, overcomes infighting and strives to win the championship of whatever while at the same time uniting the lead characters in everlasting love. The hook here is that the groups are preciously choreographed a capella song-and-dance groups like what you'd see on Glee or The Sing Off.

You come for the electric song and dance numbers and feel free to take a bathroom break, snack bar run or nap when the drama starts getting all dramatic. Characters may have problems to solve, but you may as well block out what they're saying and imagine the dialogue actually goes:

"Oh no! We're not singing and that means we're really boring again!"

"Quick, let's start singing and dancing again!"

"But we're stuck in a dull story scene!"

"OK, let's just shout at each other until it's time to sing and dance again!"

For all its awfulness, there are aspects of Pitch Perfect that are undeniably good. For one, Rebel Wilson, who plays the group's answer to Honey Boo Boo, an overly self-assured plus-size bundle of joy who calls herself Fat Amy. A dynamic performer cast from the mold of Melissa McCarthy, Wilson is so exuberantly funny that if she met female comedian-bashing Adam Carolla, he would undoubtedly declare her to be a man - his highest compliment.

Also winning is Anna Kendrick, who does her eternally annoyed eye-rolling thing as Beca, a college freshman who is coerced by her dad into joining the Bellas, the all-female a capella squad, and chief rival to - not the Edwards, but the Treblemakers.

Beca's rival is Queen bee Aubrey (Anna Camp) bosses around her fellow Bellas, including sidekick Chloe (Brittany Snow) and has the adorably irritating tendency to tack on the prefix "aca" to the beginning of things the way Smurfs do the word "smurf." Aubrey forbids hook-aca-ups with the hated Treblemakers, so Beca's budding romance with Jesse (Skyler Astin) is un-aca-ceptable.

Forget about the plot, though. The filmmakers sure do. There's little rhyme or reason for anything that happens. Things are so free and loose that eventually you stop questioning why the contest announcing team of John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks are following around the Bellas just about wherever they go, deriding them for spending too much time on their Ace of Base routine.

There are just enough wacky jokes to keep things fun and lively. A shy girl making snow angels in a pool of vomit, women referring to their lady parts by male names and Fat Amy mistaking burrito residue on her outfit as evidence that she's been victimized by a drive-by shooter are some highlights. Not to mention aca-puns. Aca-puns galore!

Those are the things that stick with you when you're mulling over your inability to hate a movie that's just too easy to love.

Starring Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow and Rebel Wilson. Written by Kay Cannon, adapted from Mickey Rapkin's book. Directed by Jason Moore. Rated PG-13. 112 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.