Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, March 30, 2016


The facts in this case have come up once or twice before but I still feel the need to come clean. I am an anime fan. You’d think after an entire generation had been raised on “Pokemon,” there’d be less of a stigma about admitting you like Japanese cartoons. Yet in even 2016, you have lobbyists referring to anime in pejorative terms. I’m hardly an obsessive follower of the medium. I don’t keep up with the scene, I’ve never gone to an anime convention, and years sometimes passed between me watching a series. Yet I still consider kooky Japanese animation an essential part to my developing nerdom. Like many folks my age with an interest in this genre, a programming block called Toonami owes a lot of responsibility for this.

But it didn’t start that way. As a young child, I have vague recollections of seeing “Speed Racer” on television. Surely, I recognize the art style being different then American animation. Even then, my realization that these series came from another country came later. My older sister was dating a guy who was a dork. He was such a dork that he worked at a comic book shop. I was around six years old at the time when he brought over a VHS tape of something called “Ranma ½.” An action/comedy series about people who change gender, species, or shape when exposed to hot or cold water, “Ranma” also had some occasional female nudity. That was the obvious indication to me that these Japanese cartoons where different then what we have over here. I was intrigued, to say the very least.

Toonami – which I promise I’ll get to in a moment – did not emerge out of a vacuum. There was a rising interest in Japanese animation throughout the nineties. “Akira” and “Ghost in the Shell” had already hit. Video shops were starting to cater to the slowly growing market. I didn’t know about that stuff. TV was the way I saw Japanese cartoons. Anime must have been fairly cheap to acquire broadcast rights to. A number of shows where syndicated on weird channels at odd hours. I have vague recollection of “Teknoman” airing on Sunday mornings on my local UPN station. The same network would sometimes show “Dragon Ball Z” on weekday afternoons. At six in the morning before school, the WB station would show “Sailor Moon.” This show was a big deal for me. I was in the second grade at the time, which meant I couldn’t have been any older then seven. Not to be too blunt but those boom anime babes stirred something in me, the first time I can recall feeling a sexual attraction. Maybe that’s why I’m still fond of this genre of animation.

In the early nineties, Cartoon Network wasn’t the creature it is today. The cutting edge weirdness of Adult Swim and beloved neo-cult classics like “Adventure Time” were many years away. Instead, the network was initially built around old cartoons from Ted Turner’s archives. Which mostly consisted of Hanna-Barbera stuff, the occasional Loony Tune, and some newer programs like “Captain Planet” and “SWAT Cats.” Despite the apparent lack of quality on the schedule, I still watched Cartoon Network religiously. When Toonami premiered in 1997, it supplanted a programming block composed of reruns of “Super Friends” and “Jonny Quest.” “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast,” the grandfather of Adult Swim’s stoned-out weirdness, had already premiered. Toonami was initially hosted by the incarnation of Moltar from that show.

Those host segments are what made Toonami truly memorable, at first. I can still recall seeing one of the earliest first promo. There was a cartoon flying saucer zipping through space, zooming over a building on a moon’s surface, and brief glances at the CGI Moltar. The earliest programming on Toonami was not that distinct from what Cartoon Network normally showed. The latest alliteration of “Jonny Quest” was included, as where the Hanna-Barbera superhero cartoons. Yet one show glimpsed in the promos caught my eye: Giant robot lions combining to form an even bigger robot. As a pop culture phenomenon, “Power Rangers” had already peaked. Yet the similarity between the live-action series and the cartoon attracted my attention. Despite the sketchy animation and predictable stories, I ate “Voltron” up.

“Voltron” must have been a hit for the young Toonami. Though “Super Friends” and “Birdman” would stick around for a while, the entire programming block would soon be built around Japanese imports. “Robotech” was de-mothballed and reintroduced to a new generation. (I watched “Robotech” but, even as a kid, I found the mixture of giant robots, J-Idol pop music, and sci-fi politics to be a little melodramatic.) “Sailor Moon” soon joined the network, new episodes translated and dubbed, my passion for the series being reignited. “Ronin Warriors,” a similarly themed action show, would join the schedule a little later. Toonami is where “Dragon Ball Z” would find its audience, becoming a beloved pop culture fad in its own right. Even then “Dragon Ball” was more violent then most American action cartoons, which gave the show a certain edge. Like a lot of kids the time, I became a huge “DBZ” fan. The violence and stylized action hooked me but the escalating conflicts are what kept me watching.

All the above anime had something in common: The shows had already aired in syndication, the process of dubbing and re-cutting for American audiences already handled. I doubt the Cartoon Network executives expected much from Toonami. Instead, the programming block became appointment viewing for kids my age. “Dragon Ball Z,” especially, would become a huge hit. The network was obviously unprepared for that demand. The first 53 episodes of “DBZ” – what was originally included in the syndication package – would re-air endlessly, while new episodes were translated, dubbed, and edited. By that time that happened, it was an event.

It wasn’t just the focus on Japanese animation that made Toonami the hip thing to watch for young nerds. The block’s format drew us in. A host would greet you, introducing each show. Each series was introduced by a montage of scenes from the show, accompanied by rock and dance music. Starting in July of 1999, this aspect of Toonami would be emphasized. Moltar was traded out for T.O.M., a cute helmeted robot. Moltar’s Ghost Planet was traded out for the Absolution, a space craft that floated through space. The CGI budget was given an obvious boost. Low volume trance and electronic music would play during these segments, creating a specific mode. T.O.M. was sarcastic and hip, gently ribbing the shows and letting the viewer know what to expect. Toomani would even air music videos, composed of clips from the various shows and accompanied by semi-philosophical monologues. All of this combined to create a comfortable, likable atmosphere, breeding a fierce loyalty in viewers. Toonami felt like it was made just for the fans, as it didn’t talk down or make fun. Every day from four to six, it was a safe place you could hang out.

The popularity of “Dragon Ball” and “Sailor Moon” created a renewed demand for Japanese animation. Soon, Toonami started airing shows that I had never even heard of. I remember naively thinking that there couldn’t have been that much Japanese animation left. Because kids are dumb. A flood of new series would come to Toonami over the next four years. “Gundam Wing” would introduce the sprawling, ever-green “Gundam” franchise to American shores. The awesome robot designs, kinetic action, and serious seeming plot lines made me a fan of this show too. (As an adult, I recognize the show as self-important and humorless. The robots are still cool though.) Various other “Gundam” series, some of them better than others, would also air on Toonami. “Outlaw Star;” because of its memorable characters, sly sense of humor, fully-formed world, and lovely music; still holds up. “The Big O” also had a wonderful cast, some gorgeous animation, and fantastic art design.

One of the reasons anime appealed to cranky teenagers like me is because it was edgier then American cartoons. The shows were bloodier, sexier, and more serious then U.S.-produced toons, even after editing and censoring. In other words, the cartoons were growing up with us. Out of the fine and not-so-fine shows Toonami brought to my attention, “Tenchi Muyo!” is doubtlessly my favorite. The “Tenchi” franchise was honestly a weird choice for Toonami. The shows focused more on romance and comedy then action. The first series also had a lot of nudity, which Cartoon Network awkwardly covered up with digitally drawn-on swimsuits. Toonami also aired the three then-existing TV shows back-to-back, despite each show existing in its own continuity. This was very confusing for me. Despite this, the show still connected with audiences. Including me. The vivid, lovable characters, with their distinct interactions, still resonate with me. The “Tenchi” multi-verse also has a complex mythology, appealing character designs, and functions on some basic wish-fulfillment premises. Such as a nerdy guy having half a dozen babes throwing themselves at him. Or an ordinary person learning they’re secretly super-powered royalty.

Toonami’s host speaking directly to the audience made us feel included. The music videos, hyper show intros, and ambient soundtrack gave the programming block a personality of its own. T.O.M. and his computer sidekick eventually earned a fan following of their own. The robot would review video games and movies, which is how I learned about “Princess Mononoke.” (Toonami would also sometimes show movies, which is this essay’s tenuous connection to this blog’s film focus.) Cartoon Network realized we liked T.O.M. In 2000, Toonami aired “The Intruder,” a mini-series played between the various shows over the course of a week. In it, T.O.M. fought an alien organism invading his ship. In the end, his cute, squat body was destroyed, allowing T.O.M. to gain a beefier new form. Beloved voice-acting vet Steven Blum provided T.O.M.’s new pipes. Truthfully, “The Intruder” was done primarily to promote Cartoon Network’s new website. That didn’t stop it from feeling like an event.

In its original form, Toonami ran from 1997 to 2008, an unprecedented run for a programming block. By the time Toonami ended in 2008, I had long fallen out of love with it. Long before then, I had become disillusioned with “Dragon Ball Z.” The show’s flaws – the repetitive storylines, never ending filler, characters lacking depth – became apparent to me. In 2002, Toonami started airing “Hamtaro.” A children series about the comic adventures of sickeningly cute hamsters, “Hamtaro” was totally at odds with Toonami’s usual programming. Around the same time, new versions of American cartoons like “He-man,” “Transformers,” and “G.I. Joe” started to fill the hours. I also felt this was a betrayal of Toonami’s mission statement, moving the focus away from Japanese animation. (I must have had a short memory, since American cartoons were a part of Toonami from the beginning.)

The final straw came in 2003. By then, I had moved passed the anime series Cartoon Network approved for me. I started collecting on DVD, focusing on shows with more mature themes, watching in their original language. Cartoon Network shared some fault for this, as the Adult Swim block had started by then, providing me with edgier shows. TechTV – a topic for a future Memories column – was also airing anime by this point, providing more intellectually stimulating shows. In February of 2003, Toonami premiered Giant Robot Week. For five days, they aired episodes of “Evangelion” and “Nadesico.” The shows were heavily edited, to the point of incoherence. I was already a fan of “Evangelion” and found the network’s handling disgraceful. Now, I realize I overreacted. At the time, this was the breaking point. I washed my hands of Toonami. When the programming block was canceled in 2008, I hadn’t pay attention in years.

In the years since Toonami’s 2008 conclusion, the series became a nerd culture touchstone. An entire generation of anime nerds – people far more devoted to the medium than I – had their passion ignited. If you’re around my age and like Japanese cartoons, you probably have Toonami to thank for that. I’ve felt that nostalgia too. Fans clamored so loudly for Toonami’s return that Cartoon Network had to listen. The programming block first returned in 2012 as an April Fools Day gag on the Adult Swim block, itself an institution by this point. The next year, Toonami officially returned, taking over the network on Saturday nights. The new Toonami blatantly patterns itself after the block’s 1999-2003 glory days while airing shows that never would’ve flown in that original time slot. I’ll check on the new Toonami occasionally. (“Kill la Kill” is on my wavelength.) I admire the network’s move but the passion just isn’t there for me anymore. When I feel the need to watch some anime today, I usually just streamed it somewhere.

Yet I have a lot of fond memories to thank Toonami for. For example! I first bonded with JD – the guy who co-hosts the Bangers n’ Mash Show with me and one of my closest friends – over our mutual interest in “Dragon Ball.” Moreover, the sense of fun and discovery the programming block created in me sticks in my brain. During some turbulent teenage years, Toonami was a source of fun, excitement, and even comfort. There will be other attempts to recapture the feeling, even after Adult Swim’s most recent revival ends. But you can never quite perfectly capture the past.

Monday, March 28, 2016

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Confessions of a Teeange Drama Queen (2004)

It must be difficult to believe today but, at one point in time, not that long ago, Lindsay Lohan was the biggest teen star in America. Currently, we associate Lohan with the expediency and grandness of her very public burn-out. Her hard partying ways combined with increasingly poor career decisions destroyed Lohan’s image almost overnight. Now, when she’s thought of at all, it’s as an almost archetypal product of what too much fame, too soon, can do to someone. Before any of that, Lohan was a rising teen idol and a genuine box office draw. The critical and commercial success of the “Freaky Friday” remake had made Lindsay hip but wholesome, sexy but sensible. (At least, it appeared that way.) After that star-making role but before starring in enduring cult classic “Mean Girls,” Lohan appeared in routine Mouse House programmer “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen.” It’s hardly a memorable or remarkable film so why do I own it?

Mary Elizabeth’s mom has moved her from her hip home in Manhattan to a suburban New Jersey community. Mary doesn’t take too kindly to this. She’s a fifteen year old girl with an obsession with the boy band Sidarthur, aspirations of being an actress, and a tendency towards fantasies and lies. Most indicative of this is her preference towards the name “Lola.” That boy band is important, as it allows Mary-Lola to immediately bond with Ella, an outsider at her new school. When Sidarthur suddenly breaks up, Ella and Lola throw together a crazy plan to see the band’s final performance. Meanwhile, Lola competes with the high school’s local queen bitch for the lead role in the school’s production of “Pygmalion.”

So what exactly is this teenage drama queen confessing to? Being a Disney production for the tween set, “Confessions’” entire story can boil down to a simple moral: It’s bad to lie. Oh, the film tries to spin a slightly more complex lesson around things. Mary doesn’t just lie, she invents elaborate fantasies around herself. She pretends that her father is dead, even though he’s very alive. She calls herself “Lola” and pretends her mother’s new-age-y tendencies have a more serious reasoning. Her parents didn’t just meet cute. There’s an epic story around that. Moreover, Mary mopes in a serious way, curling up in bed, acting as if her world has ended. She actually breaks the rules, stealing from the drama departments’ costume wrack and sneaking around New York. Naturally, over the course of the film’s reasonably short 89-minute run time, Mary learns the errors of her ways. That lies can only push the important people in her life away, that you have to value your friends, that self-respect and self-honesty is important. None of these are uncommon messages for teen-targeted media.

Despite attempting to hand out important life messages, “Confessions of a Teenage Dram Queen” still frequently plays out like the ridiculous fantasies of a teenage drama queen. In the course of her journey towards self-respect, Lola still encounters her pop star idol, gets close to him, and ends the movie with a hot boyfriend. At least some of that is pretty unlikely. Despite being a small town high school in New Jersey, Lola’s high school is enormous. The budget for the drama department must be huge, as the climatic school play features multiple dancers, an orchestra, elaborate costume changes, moving sets, and synchronized dance numbers. Even more noticeably then that is the costumes. Every single teenage girl in this movie dresses like a Hollywood movie star. There’s short skirts, scarfs, mesh tops, stockings, tight dresses, elaborate head wear, and countless accessories. Not only are many of these outfits inappropriate for high school, I doubt teenagers could afford most of them.

There’s a reason Lindsay Lohan was, however briefly, the teen box office queen of Hollywood. Lohan has charm and screen presence, that indelible movie star quality that’s hard to capture and even harder to replicate. She’s a strong enough actress to make the script’s unwieldy narration work decently enough. She has great comedic timing, managing to wring some genuine laughs out of an utterly generic story. It doesn’t hurt that Lohan isn’t the only future-star in “Confessions” cast list. Alison Pill plays Ella, bringing far more quirky energy then you’d expect to a minor part. Pill has solid chemistry with Lindsay, making for believable best friends. Less impressive is Megan Fox, as Lola’s rival and resident evil girl Carla. Fox exhibits all the range she would later in her career. That is to say, not very much. She’s flat and bitchy, perfectly hatable but lacking any depth or energy. Also watch out for a slumming, over-the-top Carol Kane as the drama teacher.

Disney was nice enough to at least get a female director for “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen.” Sarah Sugarman, also an actress and a regular in Alex Cox’s movies, previously directed “Very Annie Mary,” a similarly themed British coming-of-age dramedy. Like that film, “Confessions” is at least partially a musical. As an inevitable testing ground for Lohan’s Disney-approved pop star career, Lindsay bleats out a few musical numbers. Among the bubblegum pop pap are some barely passable covers of Bowie and Kool and the Gang. There’s also a ridiculous dance-off, set around a very unrealistic DDR arcade game. Sugarman’s direction is colorful. Lola's frequent flights of fancy are smartly realized to match her scrap book fantasies. Sometimes, Sugarman’s work borders on the overdone, such as her overuse of zooms and dutch angles. Still, the film’s visuals are one of the few interesting things about it.

Why Do I Own This?: There’s no nice way to say this. When I was a teenager, I had a huge crush on Lindsay Lohan. I was fourteen years old when “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen” came out. I probably wasn’t the only fourteen year old male who found Lohan insanely hot at the time. The tight outfits she wears in this film certainly don’t do a disservice to her curvaceous, toned body. Watching the film now, knowing what would become of Lindsay, “Confessions” instead becomes a time capsule of a once promising actress before she sadly self-destructed. That makes the movie kind of depressing and doesn’t change its thoroughly mediocre script and story. Whatever nostalgia I may have for Lindsay’s hot bod doesn’t truly justify my ownership of this film. [5/10]

Friday, March 25, 2016

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2016) Part 1

54. Zootopia

At first, no one seemed that excited for “Zootopia.” Most people judged the initial trailers as overly snarky, smug, and not that funny. Some made cracks about the characters designs, such as the overly sexualized gazelle. This led to many jokes about the furry fandom. There wasn’t much hype or excitement for the film. Maybe Disney knew what they were doing. “Zootopia” opened to positive reviews, many reviewers surprised by how funny and perceptive the final film is. Continuing the studio’s post-“Frozen” streak of success, “Zootopia” has also been a hit at the box office, breaking records in several territories. As someone who has enjoyed every Disney Animated Feature since John Lasseter took over the animation wing, my expectations were measured but positive for “Zootopia.” Yep, I liked this one too.

Judy Hopps is a rabbit. Like most rabbits, her parents are simple carrot farmers, living in the countryside. Yet Judy has different plans for her life. She wants to become a police officer, helping patrol and protect the citizens of Zootopia, a modern metropolis for animals. Working hard to become the top of her class, Judy achieves that dream. Upon arriving in Zootopia, things are harder then she expected. Being a bunny in a police department populated by large mammals and predators, she faces discrimination. Despite being forced to do grunt-work, Judy uncovers an unusual conspiracy to play the different social classes in Zootopia against each other. During her journey, she encounters Nick Wilde, a fox and a con artist, and develops an unexpected partnership with him.

Reportedly, the eureka moment during “Zootopia’s” development was the premise of animals inhabiting a world designed by and for animals. The titular city of the film is an impressive creation. As Judy rolls into Zootopia on a train, we’re introduced to each sector of the city, made for different animals. There’s a frozen tundra for arctic creatures, a desert area for warm-climate animals, and a rain forest section for species adapted for that environment. Most clever is how the film handles animals of different size. The train has a domed, tall section for giraffes. One part of Zootopia is designed for smaller creatures, such as rodents. While still resembling a modern city as we know it, “Zootopia” invents a funny, clever creation that isn’t entirely like anything we’ve seen before.

Another likable element of “Zootopia” is how it plays within a pre-established genre. “Zootopia” is a buddy cop movie of sorts. As in “48 Hrs.” and many films before, “Zootopia” pairs a by-the-book cop up with a rascally, street-smart quasi-crook. At first, Judy and Nick actively dislike each other. The fox does his best to undermine the rabbit’s mission, back-biting against their perceived partnership. Likewise, Judy frequently, happily calls Nick on his bullshit. However, a mutual respect forms between the two disparate individuals. By the story’s end, Nick and Judy are friends. There’s enough tension between them to suggest a romantic connection, even. Considering there’s never been much of a difference between a romance and the buddy genre, that’s a natural extension. Judy and Nick hate each other, work together, start to like each other, have their struggles, but are inseparable by the end.

“Zootopia” also functions as a surprisingly compelling mystery. At the film’s beginning, Judy has been assigned to traffic duty, slapping parking tickets on cars. However, she soon uncovers a lead in the story’s central mystery. Citizens of Zootopia have been disappearing throughout the city. The only connection between the victims are that they are all meat-eating predators. “Zootopia” does a decent job of disguising its plot points, the audience realizing discoveries at the same time as characters. The eventual circumstances of the mystery – which involve peaceful Zootopians reverting back to their animistic, savage behavior – also pushes this kids movie into some surprisingly intense areas. The last act, which involves illegal chemistry and government corruption, reveals “Zootopia” as a fuzzy, kid-friendly variation on the noir genre. It’s all funny, interesting stuff.

2016 is still fairly young but Judy Hopps is likely to be one of my favorite protagonists of the year. The early scenes establishes Judy’s indomitable drive towards her goals. Her parents, her teachers, and the class room bully all tell her that a rabbit can’t be a cop. But being told she can’t do something just makes Judy work harder to realize that dream. Yet she doesn’t lack doubts. After moving into the city, she finds herself living in a tiny apartment. Before the film concludes, her struggles and self-doubts rear her head. Even Judy wonders if her dream is possible, if she can reach the lofty goals she has set for herself. Ginnifer Goodwin’s voice work is clear, funny, personable, and eccentric.

The second half of the duo is Nick Wilde. Wilde is essentially a con man, making his living performing hustles that straddle the line of legality. His introduction scene has him turning one elephant sized ice pop – which he pointedly did not pay for – into a hundred lemming-sized ice pops. He then turns around and sells the popsicle sticks as timber to a mouse-sized lumber yard. At first, the fox and the rabbit seem on opposite sides of the same systems. While Judy has worked hard for everything she has, Nick is happy to swindle people out of their cash. Yet the fox has an honor system all his own. Better yet, the two compliment each other. Jason Bateman is perfectly cast as the sly canine, his immediately recognizable voice and good-natured sarcasm being an ideal match for the part. 

“Zootopia” has a colorful and memorable supporting cast. Idris Elba brings his exotic but authoritative voice to Chief Bogo, the water buffalo police chief that bosses Judy and her colleagues around. Nate Torrence plays Clawhauser, the dispatcher. Despite being a cheetah, Clawhauser is rotund, due to his fondness for donuts. He’s also effeminate and flamboyant, qualities Torrence has a lot of fun inhabiting. J. K. Simmons' unmistakably growl fits the mayor of Zootopia, a lion. Though a small part, Simmons brings some humor and character to the role. The same can’t be said of Octavia Spencer, a name actress wasted in a bit part as the missing otter’s concerned wife. Tiny Lister, Tommy Chong, and Shakira have cameos playing off their established pop culture personas but these are amusing gags.

Speaking of amusing gags! “Zootopia” is really funny. There are a number of fantastically orchestrated jokes. Easily, the comedic high-light of the film is Judy pursuing a suspect through the smallest part of Zootopia. Watching the bigger animals careen or gently pass through the tiny community produces some fine sight gags. A reveal concerning Nick’s partner-in-crime – who at first appears to be an adorable Fennic fox with an elephant obsession – gets a decent laugh. As does two very different police officers playing around with a pop-star featuring phone app. Another sequence is built around a “naturalistic” yoga club, featuring animals shedding their human-like clothing. There’s an extended joke that is successfully built upon, adding to the absurdity. As a dog owner, a sequence devoted to dogs loosing themselves to howling made me laugh. Quick and amusing sight gags include references to Disney’s recent and upcoming films and an unexpected shout-out to “Breaking Bad,” of all things. Prominently featured in nearly all the trailers is the DMV being run by typically slow sloths. This is a good example of how “Zootopia” caters its world to specific animal features. Despite being heavily featured in the marketing, the jokes still manage to be amusing.

Surprisingly, “Zootopia” isn’t just funny. The film works pretty well as an action movie. The aforementioned chase through the rodent district is as thrilling as it is chuckle-inducing, Judy avoiding several close calls. A chase through the tree tops of the rain forest area generates some effective tension, the heroes dangling for their lives over the jungle canapés. The story climaxes in the subways of the city, the heroes avoiding enemies in the tight confines of a train car. There’s way more screeching breaks and shattered glass then you’d foresee in a kid’s flick. Naturally, it’s all gorgeously animated too. One thing Disney’s most prominent rival – Dreamworks – does really well is combining action and comedy. I’d never expect the Mouse Factory to take something from Dreamworks but, in this case, it was a wise decision.

The element of “Zootopia” that has received the most attention is its not-particularly subtle subtext about prejudice and racism. When Judy comes to Zootopia, she is discriminated against for being a bunny. Despite this, Judy has her own prejudice, which she doesn’t even realize. She makes snap judgements about Nick and the other predators she meets. Some of these are built into her by her parents, others are her own fault. Later in the film, her poor choice of words during a press conference inspires a wave of prejudice throughout the city, enacting mass exclusion and persecution of predators. The villains' plot uses hate and prejudice to further their own goals, pushing the city apart to make themselves more powerful. Reading too much into “Zootopia” probably isn’t recommended. The main characters being cops is probably an unintended parallel with recent events. “Zootopia’ is more simple then that. That doesn’t make its central message – that prejudice pushes us apart as a culture – any less vital.

Not every element of “Zootopia” works seamlessly. A subplot involving the animal underworld, featuring a mob boss that is a vole, retreads some easy jokes about mafia stereotypes. Considering “Zootopia” is coming out against prejudice, using common cultural clichés like this doesn’t help the film. While the mystery in “Zootopia” is compelling for most of its run time, eventually the audience figures things out before the characters do. A reveal, concerning a type of flower, really comes out of nowhere. The climax features the protagonists making some last minute switches that strain credibility for me.

So the script isn’t perfect. However, “Zootopia” has lots of laughs, great lead characters, some thrills, a few surprises, great animation, and a timely moral. Where it falls in Disney’s recent history is harder to guess. The script is less routine then “Wreck-It Ralph” or “Big Hero 6” but the premise isn’t as inventive or heart-felt as either of those films. Still, when a movie’s good, it’s good. I’m happy to see “Zootopia” has connected with audiences, meaning “Frozen”-style princess stories aren’t the only cartoons Disney will be making for the foreseeable future. The variety, quirk, and pure amusement factor “Zootopia” brings to the table can only mean more good stuff in the future. [Grade: B+]

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Bangers n' Mash 54: Invasions of the Body Snatchers

Hey, Bangers n' Mash fans! Feels like it's been a while, doesn't it? To be totally honest, my personal life has been very hectic here of late. This why the month is nearly over and I'm only now getting a podcast episode out. Don't worry, we still intend to release another one by the end of the month.

So what is the topic of today's episode? "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is a classic sci-fi/horror film, one of the best, and has been remade a bunch. Surprisingly, at least two of the remakes are pretty interesting. Sounds like a good podcast episode, doesn't it? I thought so! In addition to the four proper adaptations of the story that have been made, my podcast co-host and I briefly discuss some of the rip-offs and homage that have popped out over the years. Give it a listen and more coming soon.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (2014)

16. Draft Day

“No Strings Attached” was only a minor hit but it was still the biggest movie Ivan Reitman had directed in a while. The movie was also fairly mediocre while still managing to be Reitman’s best film in quite some time. Perhaps thinking he was on something of a comeback, Reitman made his first proper drama, “Draft Day.” Whatever good will his previous success won him was quickly squandered. “Draft Day” barely made a blip at the box office, just barely justifying its budget. The movie came and went at theaters so quickly that, when I looked up Reitman before starting this Director Report Card, I was surprised to see he directed it. Despite the film only being two years old, I had already completely forgotten it existed. I wish I could say “Draft Day” didn’t deserved to be so quickly discarded. However, Reitman’s latest is entirely disposable.

The day of the NFL Draft pick has come. Sonny Weaver, manager of the Cleveland Browns, has a number of difficult choices to make. Nearly everyone in the business agrees that a quarterback named Bo Callahan is the obvious pick. Weaver is being pressured by those around him to choose Callahan. Sonny, however, has his doubts. He favors other potential choices. Meanwhile, Weaver has also discovered that his girlfriend, a co-worker, is pregnant. His mother is preparing the funeral of his late father. Weaver struggles to make the right decision while those around him try to force his hand.

During his forty-year-plus career in the film industry, Ivan Reitman has never directed a straight-forward drama before. He has made plenty of comedies, a horror film, a legal quasi-thriller, some science-fiction mash-ups, and one or two movies that could be located in the action genre. Considering his frequently slap-dash approach to scripting, I wouldn’t expect dramas to appeal much to Reitman. “Draft Day” isn’t only a sports drama but focused on the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the NFL, in a similar vein as “Moneyball” or “Jerry Maguirre.” Reitman is also Canadian, so I’m surprised he cares about American football at all. The point I’m making is “Draft Day” is a departure for the filmmaker and features few of his cinematic trademarks.

“Draft Day” is an inspirational sports movie but not the kind you’re use to seeing. Instead of focusing on an underdog player or team rising to the challenge and proving themselves, “Draft Day” is about an ethical man struggling to make the right decisions. People want Weaver to choose Callahan for the draft pick, a choice he is uncertain about. Yet the movie isn’t about Sonny’s soul, or people’s lives, or the future of the country. It’s about… Football? The movie tries to emphasize how important the sport is to the city of Cleveland. There are many lingering shots on bottom stickers and excited fans in the stadium stands. Multiple scenes are devoted to talk radio chattering about Ohio and how much football matters. Yet the focus remains on terse men making decisions in boardrooms. “Draft Day” tries to declare that sport team picks matter but it doesn’t convincingly make the case.

I don’t know shit about football. I couldn’t care less about it or any other sport. I get the parts about carrying a ball into a goal but don’t bother explaining yard lines, field goals or penalties to me. Any time I watch a sports-related movie like “Draft Day,” the script has to struggle to get me interested. “Draft Day” is heavily focused on the stats of the game, of which player means more. There’s a lot of chatter about the business of football, about trades and values. None of this means anything to me. “Draft Day” is about a subject I’m already disinclined to care about and focuses on an even more technical side of it. The movie does not make me care.

One could also make the case that “Draft Day” is a nearly two hour long commercial for the National Football League. Instead of making up a football league, the film was made with the direct involvement of America’s biggest sports federation. Actual team names are used. Aside from the Cleveland Browns, the film also directly mentioned the Atlanta Seahawks, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and many others. The NFL has had its share of controversies in recent memory. The long term effects of concussions, and the organizations’ handling of that topic, has made wave. This is aside from the violent, abusive, illegal actions of players, which the NFL is happy to sweep under the rug. “Draft Day” doesn’t reference any of this. The football player Weaver ends up picking talks about how he’s not in any gangs, how he lives cleanly. “Draft Day” represents a sanitized look at the football industry, about good men making hard decisions, and kindly doesn’t mention any of that other shit.

Kevin Costner’s days as a leading man in blockbusters are long behind him. “Draft Day” is exactly the kind of middling, middle-brow fare that Costner stars in these days. The film is in the same forgettable league as “Swing Vote” or “Black or White” or whatever this year’s model is. In other words, Costner is coasting on whatever appeal his white-bread, All-American charm had twenty years ago. In “Draft Day,” Costner spends the entire movie slightly peeved. He wears a facial expression conveying minor annoyance throughout all one hundred and fifty minutes of the movie. Occasionally, the character has outburst, kicking office chairs around, smashing desks, or tossing a computer into a wall. Costner mostly seems bored or agitated.

Playing Costner’s much younger love interest is Jennifer Garner. Like Costner, Garner’s career has seen better days. Once a viable candidate for America’s Sweetheart, Garner’s shots at big budget stardom never took off. This is why she’s in middle-of-the-road stuff like “Draft Day” and a dozen more like it. In “Draft Day,” Garner gets one or two scenes to herself. A notable moment has her pointing out that the top prize for the most macho game in the country is a piece of jewelry. She has a few private scenes with Costner, the two huddling inside a closest. Otherwise, the script doesn’t give Garner much room to create a proper character.

As minor as “Draft Day” is, Reitman continues to pull together a supporting cast full of recognizable names. Denis Leary plays the coach of the Browns. While the PG-13 rating –  appealed down from an R because of one use of “motherfucker” – doesn’t allow Leary to go on one of his trademark profane tirades, he still gets to bring some blustery energy to the part. Frank Langella shows up, playing a villain indistinct from the villain roles he played in Reitman’s “Dave” and “Junior.” That is, a bureaucrat trying to impede the efforts of the moral hero. Langella is not allowed to do much. Somehow, Ellen Burstyn was roped into appearing in this, as Weaver’s disgruntled mother. She does what she can to invest the routine material with some honest emotion but is strangled by the genre conventions the movie must follow. Her climatic heart-felt confession to Costner is eye-roll worthy.

Weirdly, “Draft Day” also packs the supporting cast full of cameos from known actors. Sam Elliott appears in one scene as the coach of a college football, gruffly announcing a few things before disappearing. Terry Crews appears in two scenes as the father of one of the drafted football players. Crews is presumably in the movie as a reference to his real history as an athlete.  His two scenes do not provide much oppretunity for Crews to utilize his considerable charm. (Crews’ seventies equivalent Jim Brown also has a cameo.) Sean Combs, otherwise known by Puff Daddy and a few other aliases, appears as the manager of another ball player. I don’t know why Puffy is in the movie. The bit parts come so fast that I can’t even remember what Rosanna Arquette, Chi McBride, and Tom Welling even did in this thing.

Ivan Reitman’s direction has always been unassuming. He gets the job done, pointing the camera at the actors and the action without drawing too much attention to himself. In his most recent picture, Reitman breaks that trend. “Draft Day” makes gratuitous use of split screens. Actors frequently walk between portions of the screen, dividing the screen further. Since so much of “Draft Day” is devoted to people chatting on the phone, this is a mildly clever way to show two people communicating. A timer counts down throughout the film, leading up the actual draft announcement in the final act. Whenever the film cuts to a new location, the name of the city and the corresponding football team appears on-screen. “Draft Day” is not a good movie but I’m giving Reitman some credit for at least trying to make it interesting to look at.

“Draft Day” breaks another trend that Reitman has utilized in almost every other movie he’s made. There’s a notable lack of pop songs on the soundtrack. Instead, the tense confrontations in boardrooms and offices are backed by John Debney’s score. Debney’s score is earnest and usually overwrought. Trumpets blare in triumph during the big scenes while soft strings play during the small scenes. Many of the sequences emphasizes the movie’s timeline are supported by nervous music, attempting to buff up suspense. Just as Reitman’s films from the late eighties and early nineties have music that immediately mark them as belonging to that decade, “Draft Day’s” score will probably be looked back on as indicative of the middle naughties. (Assuming people will remember this movie at all, which they won't.)

I am not the target audience for “Draft Day.” I don’t care about football, not even a little bit, to the point were I’m mildly hostile to the entire concept. That’s just a result of my life as a nerd and a dork. I’m not sure if people who actually care about football will get anything out of “Draft Day.” The reviews were mixed. The mediocre box office suggest that not many people could be brought to pay cash for “Draft Day.” If Reitman makes another film any time soon, it’s unlikely to be another dramatic experiment. [Grade: D]

This was not the most rewarding Director's Report Card. The shit I went through just so I could talk about the "Ghostbusters" movies... Reitman has made a few memorable movies, mostly with the help of Bill Murray or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Without a strong leading man, it seems his films range from forgettable to awful. It was frequently a struggle to say so much about such dire material. But whatever, it's done now. Reitman mostly works as a producer these days. His upcoming credits include - of course - the new "Ghostbusters" film and the upcoming feature adaptation of "Baywatch." Maybe that's the position the Canadian comedy maker should stay in. Considering the legacy of his few genuine classics, I still expect Reitman to cough out another forgettable flick or two before he officially retires from directing.

Coming up next on Film Thoughts!: New episodes of the Bangers n' Mash Show! New "Why Do I Own This?" and "Memories" columns! Some other stuff! Probably! See you soon!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (2011)

15. No Strings Attached

2011 was the year when Hollywood apparently became aware of the phenomenon of people having on-going sexual relationships without committed romantic feelings. Though hardly a modern trend, “friends with benefits” (or “fuck buddies,” if you’re being crude) suddenly became a buzz word a few years back. This fascination would produce two comedies related to the topic, both being released in the same year. “No Strings Attached” came first, six months before “Friends With Benefits.” Both films manage to be box office hits, with the latter receiving slightly better reviews. “No Strings Attached” was also Ivan Reitman’s first movie in four years and the closest thing the director has had to a comeback in a while.

Emma and Adam first met when they were fourteen years old, when Emma let Adam – heartbroken from his parents’ divorce – finger him. Over the years, the two had a few encounters, at a college party, Emma’s father’s funeral, or out while with friends. The two meet again as young professionals, Adam working in the entertainment industry and Emma working as a nurse. Following a romantic humiliation, Adam seeks out Emma for casual sex. Soon, the two begin a “friends with benefit” arrangement, meeting for sexual encounters when it suits both of them. Despite agreeing that love would never enter the picture, the two inevitably begin to struggle with their feelings for each other.

“Knocked Up” was an important movie for Hollywood, and not just for popularizing the Apatowian man-child premise. That film also proved that you could dress up the tried-and-true romantic-comedy clichés in some raunch, attracting both male and female viewers. “No Strings Attached” does exactly this. Many of the rom-com stereotypes are included. After a light-hearted first hour, a dramatic contrivances pushes the two main characters apart. In this film, it’s a declaration of love, spoiling the titular agreement. In the end, a similarly sincere romantic gesture patches up the hurt hearts. One of the most obnoxious clichés in these types of movies are the leading man’s archenemies, usually a romantic rival for the female lead. In “No Strings Attached,” one of Natalie Portman’s male co-workers takes the time to belittle and insult Ashton Kutcher. The guy is acting like an asshole to a total stranger for no discernible reason. More insultingly, this character never appears again, making the scene a useless addition.

“No Strings Attached” is also a sex comedy. Unlike most examples of that genre, it does not approach the topic of human sexuality with snickers and childish gross-out antics. The sex scenes aren’t exactly realistic. There’s a lot of goofy, semi-naked clowning, including an especially embarrassing “playing doctor” scene or a moment devoted to Kutcher stumbling around in the nude. Despite that, “No Strings Attached” brings an unexpected intimacy to the topic. The love scenes focus on the faces and feelings of those involved as much as their entwining limbs. The sex scenes aren’t exploitative or sleazy but cute and playful. Considering most movies are content to put a cock on-screen and laugh at it, it’s sort of nice to see a comedy be about sex without making sex the central joke.

Ashton Kutcher is a debatable talent. Though he’s made a handful of stabs at respectable acting, Kutcher’s public image seems defined by his dunderhead character on “That ‘70s Show” and his hosting gig on mid-naughties relic “Punk’d.” (Or, worst, as Demi Moore’s boy toy.) In “No Strings Attached,” Kutcher does not expand too far from his established persona. He’s frequently goofy and laid back. The script has him, occasionally, playing light-hearted pranks on other characters. When the dramatic scenes come, Kutcher is not horribly convincing. As a playful comedic lead, he does all right but Ashton never seems confident in his dramatic abilities.

By 2011, Natalie Portman had garnered a reputation for starring in serious dramas like “Black Swan” and “Goya’s Ghost.” Despite having appeared in quite a few comedies, Reitman refused to let Portman improvise in “No Strings Attached.” However, the part allows her to embrace the playful silliness best displayed in previous films like “Garden State.” When leaping around drunkenly or jokingly bantering with Kutcher, Portman shows a great deal of charm. The film also allows Portman to embrace her reputation as a sex symbol. Spending large parts of the movie in various states of undress, Portman happily embraces her sexy side, much to the enjoyment of the audience. As route as the script can be, Portman tearing up during the movie’s serious scenes are effective, if only because of her strengths as a performer.

Probably the biggest benefit towards “No Strings Attached” is that Kutcher and Portman make a pretty damn cute couple. The first time they have sex, the camera focuses on their faces as they position their bodies. There’s an obvious chemistry between them. When the two are cuddling fully clothed or Portman is leaping onto Kutcher’s back, you buy that they have feelings for one another. It makes the inevitable break-up at the start of the third act difficult to believe. Why don’t they just start dating, if the attraction between them is so obvious? This is frustrating for the viewer, that the movie hews so closely to formula. A less conventional script could have built off Portman and Kutcher’s chemistry.

Even with a solid two leads and a better than average script, this is still a late period Ivan Reitman movie. Which means “No Strings Attached” features its share of jokes that fail to land. The biggest miscalculation in the film concerns Adam’s dad, Alvin. A washed-up sitcom start, famous for his catchphrase “Great Scott!,” Alvin spends his middle age in a state of arrested development. He hangs out by a pool in a speedo and smokes weed. A late film flirtation with Purple Drank puts him in the hospital. What pisses Adam off so much is that his girlfriend, who is his own age, leaves him for Alvin. (This reveal causes Adam to punch his own father in the gut.) Kevin Kline plays Alvin. Despite being an actor of considerable charm, Kline plays Alvin as a broad, obnoxious cartoon character. I’m not blaming Kline. Instead, I think the script is to blame, crafting a ridiculous character at odds with the rest of the film.

Kline isn’t the only recognizable name in the supporting cast. Adam’s best friends are played by Jake Johnson and an incredibly sedate Ludacris. Johnson is mildly amusing, while crowing about his two gay dads, but Ludacris comes off as very sleepy. Mindy Kaling, Greta Gerwig, and Guy Branum play Emma’s roommates. I’m not sure why talented performers like Kaling and Gerwig would appear in bit parts in a film like this, though Kaling gets a laugh or two. Lake Bell is another charming, notable presence thrown into a small role, this time as Kutcher’s other potential love interest. Cary Elwes shows up for a glorified cameo as a doctor Emma seems mildly attracted to. His almost unrecognizable under a scraggly beard and contributes almost nothing to the story.

Another unfortunate reoccurring element in Reitman’s later comedies has been some reductive sexual politics. “No Strings Attached” is nowhere near as gross as “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” in this regard. However, Adam’s two male friends still speak in needlessly crude dialogue and refer to women in an aggravatingly bro-ish manner. Perhaps in an effort to appear progressive, the film makes the male lead the emotional one and the female lead the one more interested in sex. Kutcher openly attempts to push the sexual relationship towards a romantic one while Portman only wants to knock boots. But consider this. Portman is who ends up breaking down first, realizing she loves Kutcher. Ultimately, the movie portrays her initial coldness as simply a defense mechanism against the inevitable romance. I’m not one to get hung up on a movie’s politics but I couldn’t help and notice these things.

Like I said, “No Strings Attached” really is a traditional rom-com. I’ve talked plenty about the romantic aspects so what about the comedy? Not satisfied with letting the sexy sex earn the movie an R-rating, the film has to throw in some crude humor. During a montage, we see some of Adam and Emma’s more ribald adventures. Such as her looking at his dick with 3-D glasses, apparently Portman’s sole moment of improvisation. Early scenes devoted to fingering or a pajama party – that’s actually an excuse to dress in skimpy clothing – establishes a crass tone. The “High School Musical”-style show that Adam works as a P.A. on features a male star that has a bad habit of taking pictures of his dick with his cellphone. An especially cringe-worthy gag involves Adam burning Emma a CD comprised of menstruation themed songs. Not many of these jokes get laughs and I’m not sure why they’re in the movie.

Like most of Reitman’s movies, “No Strings Attached” features some on-the-nose musical cues. Time frames are established with obvious song choices like “I Wanna Sex You Up” or “Shake Your Tail Feathers.” A fuckin’ montage is set to Elvis Presley’s “Bossa Nova Baby,” which at least contributes some energy to the sequence. A dance scene features a bizarre acoustic cover of “99 Problems,” which popped up in a few movies around the same time. The Plain White T’s “Rhythm of Love” plays over the end credits, a style of pop-rock I have no tolerance for. John Debney’s score is not especially memorable but is better than it has to be.

For everything entertaining about “No Strings Attached,” there’s another element making me dislike it. Portman and Kutcher’s chemistry, a frank treatment of sexuality, and a relatively likable tone makes the film seem better than it actually is. An otherwise routine script, which bends in some typically unlikable directions, and some off-putting jokes hold the audience back from liking the movie more. Still, considering how disagreeable Reitman’s last two movies were, even a relatively mediocrity like “No Strings Attached” seems better in comparison. [Grade: C+]

Monday, March 21, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (2006)

14. My Super Ex-Girlfriend

The mediocre box office performance of “Evolution” did not destroy Ivan Reitman’s career, even if it arguably should have. The director apparently did not learn many lessons from that film, as his next project was also a high concept special effects comedy. At least “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” wasn’t a blatant rip-off of “Ghostbusters.” From former-“Simpsons” writer and first time screenwriter Don Payne, “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” did marginally better at the box office than Reitman’s previous movie. Quality wise, the two movies suffer from many of the same problems. Both star bored actors, feature lazy and easy jokes, and generate far too few laughs.

New York City is protected by a superheroine named G-Girl, whose powers of flight, super strength, super durability, and laser vision keep the citizens safe. Matt, meanwhile, is a single guy who works for an architecture design firm. A co-worker he obviously has a crush on has a boyfriend, causing Matt to pursue Jeanie instead. Jeanie is eccentric but attractive and seems pretty into him. She, however, has a secret: Jeanie is G-Girl. Though she may be a superhero, Jeanie is also mentally disturbed and emotionally abusive. Matt learns this the hard way when he breaks up with her and G-Girl makes his life a living hell.

In 2006, the modern age of superhero movies was in its early stages. For context, this is the same year “Superman Returns” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” came out. Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and Daredevil had yet to be rebooted while Batman was only on his second film series. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was but a glint in Avi Arad’s eyes. Many of the troupes and formulas we now associate with the superhero genre were only just beginning to collect. So “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” isn’t truly a parody of superhero movies, because that genre was still young. Instead of ramping up the absurdity, the way previous superhero comedies like “Mystery Men” or “The Specials” did, “My Super Ex-Girlfriends” trades in some very dumb comedy clichés.

Dumb comedy clichés which are topped with a dollop of casual sexism. Instead of skewering superhero comics, “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” is a bro-tastic screed that boils down to “Bitches be crazy!” The male protagonists are introduced eyeing women on the subway, reducing each to a sex object. Later in the gym, the sidekick gawks shamelessly at an attractive female. In a bar, he outlines his strategy, of dating a girl until you can have sex with her a few times and then dumping her. (The movie ends with the sidekick successfully bedding the woman he’s been crudely hitting on.) If this character was presented as a boorish asshole, that would be one thing. The writer of clearly agrees with his characters’ assessment. After Matt has sex with G-Girl, she begins to act in extremely disturbing ways. Their sex is painful for him, destroying his bed. She stalks him at work. When Matt makes innocent gestures towards another woman, she freaks out and accuses him of cheating on her. All of this is before the two separate and Jeanie begins to actively abuse Matt, which we’re suppose to find hilarious. In other words, the politics of “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” are reductive at best and disgusting at worst.

Not helping matters is Luke Wilson’s main character. The script frames Matt as an everyman, a generally relaxed nice guy who is agreeable and kind. Except, in truth, he’s really not. After first asking Jeanie out, she says “No.” He keeps asking, which is rude. He does not reject his friend’s gross, meat-headed advice, sometimes even taking it. His playful banter with his cute co-worker involves pulling his shirt up, which is at the very least inappropriate. While Jeanie’s treatment is abusive and psychotic, his response – helping her archenemy in a scheme to de-power her – isn’t much better. Luke Wilson spends the entire movie in various stages of exasperation, huffing with his mouth half-open.

Uma Thurman is a fine actress who has ghastly taste in material. When paired with talented directors like Quentin Tarantino, Ted Demme, or Lars Van Tier, she can give phenomenal performances. When seemingly left to her own devices, she stars in “Batman & Robin,” “Motherhood,” and the version of “The Avengers” with Sean Connery and giant teddy bears. As Jeanie/G-Girl, Thurman does not give a thoughtful or subdued performances. Instead, she screams for the rafters. For what it’s worth, Uma commits fully to the thin material. She beams, growls, throws tantrum, and fumes. It’s not good acting yet you can’t say she doesn’t go for it. Thurman’s total commitment to the script, weak as it is, at least makes it clear that some passion was put into this project.

Anna Farris is another fine actress that is too rarely given an oppretunity to properly show off her abilities. Look no further than "May," for proof of that. Instead, Faris has had to work with what she’s given. Namely, a line of dire comedies such as the “Scary Movies” franchise, “Waiting…,” “Just Friends,” “The Hot Chick,” “The House Bunny,” and her current gig on the sitcom “Mom.” In “My Super Ex-Girlfriend,” Faris plays Hannah, the girl that Matt is obviously going to end up with. Faris brings the same bubbly charm to the part that she always has. The part is very thin, leaving Hannah to fall into Matt’s bed for little reason. Yet Faris gives it her best and that counts for something.

The film’s supporting parts are filled out with other broad performers. Eddie Izzard – another veteran of “The Avengers” that nobody likes! – plays Professor Bedlum, G-Girl’s archenemy. Bedlum is no Tony P. but Izzard does what he can. He gets a few laughs just by deploying some well timed sarcasm. Unfortunately, the character gets a really gross subplot. He was Jeanie’s best friend in high school, alienated from her after she gained superpowers, and has been stalking her ever since. At the end, the two get married. Ew. Wanda Sykes plays Matt’s boss, who gets stuck with an awful running gag about sexual harassment. Rain Wilson plays Matt’s best friend, Vaughn, the one who dispenses all that cringe worthy advice. Wilson can be funny but he gets the worst part in this movie, which only emphasizes his natural oafishness and greasiness.

Jokes in “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” are weak. Despite the PG-13 rating, the movie plays out like a sleazy sex comedy. There are two sequences built around cowgirl sex gone wrong, which the film seems to find hilarious. The super-sex jokes aren’t done. After revealing her secret identity, Thurman bangs Wilson while flying over the city. The entire joke is that he’s terrified and the sequence goes on for five minutes. An especially obnoxious scene has a rouge nuclear missile heading towards Manhattan. Because Jeanie is annoyed with Matt, she petulantly waits until the last minute to intervene. After tossing his car into orbit, G-Girl burns “DICK” onto his forehead. While at an important meeting, she zips in and stripes him nude with her super-speed. (Thankfully, the film narrowly avoids the dead tired “misspeaking in a foreign language” bit.) If you can overlook that a lot of this is abuse – you know, hilarious – it’s still lame, witless gags we’ve seen a hundred times before.

For that matter, “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” has one really great sight gag. After catching Matt in bed with Hannah, G-Girl appears outside the bedroom window. In her hand is a great white shark, which she tosses into the building. While the CGI is pretty soft, that’s a likably absurd concept. The image of the shark awkwardly rampaging through the apartment got a giggle out of me. The marketers of the film recognized this as the movie’s sole good idea, as the scene appeared in all the trailers. Aside from that, it’s hard to find funny bits. Izzard keeps an asteroid inside his fridge, next to a ham. After gaining her ability, Jeanie’s bust line increases, a funny reference to the most common superpower. Aside from that? I’ve got nothing.

Reitman successfully fused special effects and comedy in “Ghostbusters” and less successfully did the same in “Evolution.” “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” with its 30 million dollar budget – small by superhero standards – can’t pull off many impressive effects. G-Girl mostly spins through the air at supersonic speeds, Martian Manhunter style, reduced to an indistinct, CGI blob. Her super-breath abilities are deployed several time, presumably because it’s cheaper than flying. Professor Bedlum does not threaten the city, as his vendetta is entirely personal. The climax has Anna Faris’ character also gaining superhuman abilities, leading to a superpower cat fight. There’s some smashing and trashing but nothing too diverting. Weirdly, the film rarely uses the effects in the name of comedy, the two awkwardly co-existing.

While going through Reitman’s career, the only directorial trademark I’ve really noticed – aside from half-assed screenplays – is his use of pop music. “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” features the most pop songs Reitman has utilized in a while. The film’s theme song, the painfully entitled “No Sleep 2Nite” by Molly McQuinn, has an alright beat and contributes some energy to two sequences. Another scene utilizes a Bootsy Collins-sung cover of Steve Miller’s “The Joker,” which is memorable. The most regrettable musical moments uses “She Hate Me” by Puddle of Mudd, a band most of you had probably forgotten about. Not only is the song obnoxious, it’s also way too on the nose for the scene. Teddy Castellucci’s score is forgettable and leans too hard on goofy melodies.

“My Super Ex-Girlfriend” is not as bad as “Evolution.” It’s simply nearly as bad. The film has about five or six funny moments, which towers over “Evolution’s” one or two. However, neither film has many amusing ideas. Both suffer from relying on middle-of-the-road jokes and gags. The script isn’t much better but the film does have a committed if misguided Uma Thurman and mildly amusing bits from Anna Faris and Eddie Izzard. This is not enough to overcome the gross sexism or the lazy sense of humor. [Grade: D+]

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Director Report Card: Ivan Reitman (2001)

13. Evolution

It’s surprising that Ivan Reitman hasn’t tried to re-capture the success of “Ghostbusters” more often. Not only is it the biggest hit of his career, it’s also remains one of the most beloved comedies of all time. If you’re being cynical, it’s the only really good movie the director has ever made. Despite all of this, aside from the immediate sequel, Reitman never attempted to replicate that film’s winning formula. That is until “Evolution” arrived. Originally written as a serious alien invasion horror film by Don Jakoby, when Reitman came onto the project, he converted it into a science fiction farce. The film did not replicate “Ghostbusters’” blockbuster success, only breaking even at the box office. More importantly, it’s also the shittiest movie Reitman had made in decades.

Ira Kane is a former prominent biologist who, following a serious gaff with the military, is now stuck working at a crappy community college. Along with his colleague Harry Block and a would-be fireman named Wayne Grey, Kane makes a startling discovery in the desert. A meteor has brought alien organisms to Earth. Within days, the one-cell organisms have evolved into complex lifeforms. The evolution from plant life to insects to aquatic creatures and beyond happens in hours. Though the military tries to keep a lid on it, only Ira and his friends realize how big of a threat these creatures pose to mankind.

Reitman may have waited years to make a spiritual successor to “Ghostbusters.” But when he did, he was shameless about it. “Evolution” follows three quirky scientists and one blue collar working man. Their expertise come in handy when a bizarre, unexpected threat emerges. Said threat is composed of weird looking monsters and creatures. The government tries to shut our heroes down and nearly succeeds. However, their wit and wackiness perseveres, saving the day. In both films, the gang poses for a TV commercial. In both films, the final form the threat takes is something giant. In both films, the dick head authority figure is bath in an oozy substance after said threat explodes. “Evolution” was even accompanied by a Saturday morning cartoon show and line of toys, making the comparison inescapable. Patterning a movie so closely after one of the most popular comedies ever probably isn’t a great idea. When the final product is as mediocre as “Evolution,” the movie is really not doing itself any favors.

The truth is “Evolution” is startling in its lack of laughs. The movie banks on the cheapest, lamest gags imaginable. There are gags about black guys dying first in horror movies, dumb-ass college fratboys, ambiguities of the word “cell,” and internet porn. The movie thinks an off-key rendition of a popular song classifies as a trailer worthy joke. An extended sequence involves a monster being pulled out of someone’s anus. One moment, that makes Duchovny’s character seem like a total asshole, has him harassing an ex-girlfriend in a dinner. The climax of the movie involves an enormous fart joke. There’s none of the unforgettable one-liners or hilarious sight gags from “Ghostbusters.” “Evolution” instead struggles to get chuckles with broad, incredibly lazy jokes. The film’s complete contempt of the audience is clear, if it thinks shitty gags like that will make us laugh.

Of course, a big reason why “Ghostbusters” was so entertaining was its fantastic cast. At the top of their games, Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, or Harold Raimis could make most anything funny. “Evolution” doesn’t come close to assembling a primary cast equal to that one. For the most glaring example of how miscalculated “Evolution’s” cast is, look no further than its leading man. David Duchovny plays a snarky college professor, whose smart-ass wit is his biggest weapon. Once again, drawing a comparison between Duchovny’s Ira Kane and Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman is unavoidable. Sadly, David Duchovny is no Bill Murray. He has no investment in his dialogue, unable to disguise how shitty he thinks the script is. He sleepwalks through the scenes, bored and mildly annoyed. The film even hassles Duchovny’s character with a lame redemption arc, trying to atone for past mistakes. Duchovny does not give a compelling performance nor creates a memorable character.

“Evolution” was made during the brief time period when Hollywood was trying to make Sean William Scott a thing. Though Scott would occasionally play a lovable side kick, too many of his performances verge on the loud and dumb. Here, he plays Wayne, a complete buffoon. The character is introduced setting a building on fire and rushing inside to save a doll. After his car is exploded by the meteor, he continues to drive the wreck around. Later, he grunts and grumbles at a party. Scott mugs terribly, desperate to wring anything of interest out of this script. He does not succeed. Not only are the character and performer annoying, Wayne doesn’t even interact with the main cast for long stretches of the movie.

Of all the performers in the film, only Orlando Jones tries to rise above the material. Better known at the time as the “7 Up Yours!” guy, Jones is given some increasingly dire material. His is the anus the mosquito monster is removed from. He is the black guy fearful of dying first in the horror movie. After trying on a sterile containment suit, he dances for no reason.He makes some pretty sexist comments about the film’s female characters. Despite being stuck with some of the dumbest jokes in the movie – which is no small task – Jones does his best to generate actual humor. A brief line about ice cream produce a chuckle. So did some of his more absurd facial expressions. It’s not a lot. For that matter, it’s still pretty bad. But at least Jones is trying to make the best of a lousy situation, instead of just suffering through it in the name of a paycheck.

The cast in “Evolution” is pretty weak sauce but there’s at least one great performer in the movie. Julianne Moore has given some phenomenal performances but she tends to do her worst work in genre films. “Evolution” gives her little to work with, Moore struggling to make something out of a nothing part. Like Emma Thompson in “Junior,” despite her character being an intelligent scientist, she’s still needlessly clumsy. Moore has an uninspired romance with Duchovny’s characters. Despite having nothing in common, the two are tossed together. The film’s attempts at sexual tension are pathetic. A crop of other notable actors appear in the film. Ted Levine does fine as a condescending authority figure. Dan Akyroyd has a mildly entertaining extended cameo as the town’s mayor. Ethan Sluppe is embarrassing as Duchovny’s dumbest student.

“Evolution” is a monster movie and I generally enjoy those, even crappy ones. The creature effects in “Evolution,” supervised by effects veteran Phil Tippet, are generally quite good. Using a clever combination of practical and CGI effects, they are cartoony but in a way that’s likable. The creature designer strived to make truly alien looking monsters and environments. The cavern where the meteor lands is full of a thin mist and strange beings. The quadrupedal creatures that waddles out of a closest has a secondary mouth inside its jaws. The reptilian creature is a cool example of a dragon. The ape-like monsters that appear in the last act are maybe the best creatures in the movie, looking like zombie versions of the apes from “Congo.” Sadly, the giant amoeba that appears at the climax is the least inspired of the film’s creature. The monster effects in “Evolution” are solid and deserved a better movie.

The monsters look cool but the film has no idea how to deploy them. While “Ghostbusters” had moments that were scary or thrilling, in addition to being funny, “Evolution” struggles to get the audience invested. A monster leaping from a lake to attack a man is broadcast too broadly, downplaying the horror of the situation. The dragon grabs a shopper before flying through the mall. Yet the woman never seems to be in danger and the dragon never seems like a real threat. When the zombie-gorillas are leaping around, attacking people, none of the main characters are endangered. Pointedly, most of the monster attacks occur on unimportant, random cast members tossed into the movie. As lacking in laughs as “Evolution” is, it fails to produce any other strong emotion in the audience either.

One of the reasons I hate “Evolution” so much is how many little, dumb things are in the film. The script has this annoying habit of calling its monsters mundane things. A squat, four-legged creature is referred to as a dog, despite not resembling a dog at all. One creature is obviously a dragon. It has green scales, reptilian features, claws, and wings extending from its back. Despite that, the characters keep calling it a “bird.” That’s not a bird, goddamn it. Nobody notices a field full of dead monsters before the main characters do. The organism have a weakness, which the heroes deduce with some extremely shaky science. What is that weakness? Head and Shoulders shampoo. Aside from being disgustingly blatant product placement, it’s also an exceedingly lame attempt at a gag.

One of the reasons “Evolution” has so much trouble generating anything but the fakest of laughs is its soundtrack. John Powell’s score is peppered with ridiculous, clownish sound effects. The aforementioned field of dead monsters could’ve been a startling sight. Instead, the movie’s goofy score prevents any moment from being taken seriously. Reitman continues to utilize pop songs in his movie. Most of the choices are not inspired, including such bro-tastic choices as Buckcherry and Powerman 5000. However, one energetic sequence is set to “Play That Funky Music, White Boy.” It’s just a scene of the cast driving down a road but it’s the only time the movie rises above bored malaise.

I first saw “Evolution” on VHS, rented from our local video store. At the time, I was somewhat hyped, knowing this was another sci-f/horror/comedy from the director of “Ghostbusters.” Even as a kid, I hated the movie. I couldn’t express the reasons why but I was immensely disappointed in what Reitman and his team created. My opinion hasn’t changed very much in the years since. Ivan Reitman has made some kind-of-crappy movies over the years but “Evolution” is, undoubtedly, the kind-of-crappiest. [Grade: D-]