Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, August 31, 2019

Director Report Card: Peyton Reed (2018)

8. Ant-Man and the Wasp

Once upon a time, the idea of a fairly obscure and somewhat divisive superhero like Ant-Man launching a blockbuster franchise must've seemed like a long shot. Yet, by 2015, the general public trusted the Marvel brand so much that any superhero film they put out was guaranteed to become a success. Thus, “Ant-Man” pushed pass the initial negative buzz surrounding Edgar Wright's departure – not that Joe Movie-Goer cared about that or was even aware of it – to gross well over 500 million dollars at the box office. Not huge numbers by Marvel standards but a success never the less. Picking up where the first's sequel hook left off, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” would be an even bigger commercial success than the first one.

The sequel's box office performance probably got a boost from Ant-Man's appearance in “Captain America: Civil War.” At the story's beginning, Scott Lang is under house arrest for his involvement in that film's plot. He hasn't seen Hank Pym and Hope in two years. That's when he has a flash of the Quantum Realm and Janet Van Dyne. Hank and Hope get back in contact with Scott. They've spend the last two years inventing a machine that can safely access the Quantum Realm, (In addition to a shrinking suit for Hope, similar but more advanced than Scott's.) Hank is determined to rescue his wife and Hope's mother. Pursued by bad guys – including a mysterious matter-shifter nicknamed Ghost – Ant-Man and the Wasp seek out new and old friends to achieve this goal.

In many ways, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” both embraces and defies the typical superhero sequel expectations. It is bigger than the first movie in several ways. After all, it features two superheroes, instead of just one. The action scenes are a little more elaborate. The sequel explores more of the Quantum Realm only glimpsed briefly last time. At the same time, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is defiant in its choice to be a smaller scale Marvel movie. Once again, the focus is not so much on saving the world as it is making sure Hank Pym's discoveries do not fall into the wrong hands. The stakes are more personal, with Hank and Hope working to be reunited with their wife/mother and Scott continuing to prove himself to his daughter in a round-about way.

In fact, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” seems to zero in on one specific personal element. Scott is a dad totally devoted to his daughter. The film largely opens with an adorable sequence of him playing an ant-themed scenario out with his daughter, featuring some incredibly cute cardboard sculptures. This relates with flashback scenes to Hope and Janet playing when she was kid. Hope lost her mom and that's a fear Scott can relate to, worried he may loose Cassie if he's not careful. Even the film's villain has a father figure, though she's not aware at first how much he cares for her, how much support he's willing to give to her. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is a movie where parental love is a powerful force that can overcome all sorts of odds but also one that sometimes must be struggled for.

Despite these serious ideas, don't think for a minute that “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is a serious movie. In fact, that wacky sense of humor that was such a highlight of the first film plays an even bigger role in the sequel. There's a number of delightful gags here. Probably my favorite comedic sequence is an extended one involving Scott's size-changer malfunctioning, resulting in him changing size at inopportune moments. The setting soon shifts to an elementary school, where Lang has to go undercover as a grade-schooler, an inspired gag. The humor even veers towards the surreal at time, such as the nonchalant appearance of a giant ant in non-giant-ant contexts. Naturally, the sequel reprises one of the first film's best gags – Luis' meandering anecdotes – without feeling like its repeating the joke. There's a number of amusing small bits here. Such as Scott learning close-up magic to deal with his boredom while under house arrest, which surprisingly impresses those around him. There's also amusing lines of dialogue concerning what exactly classifies as a truth serum and a particular Russian boogie-woman.

Something that made the first “Ant-Man” the pleasant surprise it was, was the inventive ways it cross-bred its size-shifting special effects and the action sequence. Presumably having a bigger budget, the sequel is allowed to indulge this habit even more. The Wasp gets a show-stopper of an introduction. She shifts size around a hotel kitchen, walking along the blade of a thrown knife and dodging around a hammer with her power of flight. The size-shifting disc, introduced in the first movie, return here to giant-size mundane objects like a salt-shaker or a Hello Kitty Pez dispenser, moments which gleefully combine comedy and action. The entire last third of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is a chase scene, through the winding hills of San Francisco. Reed and his team really enjoy upping the set-pieces here. Cars are size-shifted around other vehicles, Giant-Man turns a pick-up truck into a skateboard, and the heroes leap through the downhill traffic. It's all pretty cool.

While the first “Ant-Man” was a definite victim of the Marvel Movie Villain Syndrome, the sequel does a lot better. The film takes Ghost – a male comic villain who usually tangles with Iron Man – and reinvents the character into someone surprisingly sympathetic. Portrayed by Hannah John-Kamen, Ghost is now a victim of circumstances beyond her control. Granted matter-phasing powers by a lab accident as a little girl, she was eventually recruited by SHIELD to become a covert assassin. Now, she has been driven by her condition to commit villainous acts... Yet she's ultimately not a bad person either, simply pushed to desperate measures by a desperate situation. And she's not beyond forgiveness either. John-Kamen does a good job of playing the villain as a confused overgrown kid, emotional and pushed-to-the-edge.

As with the first film, a lot of the success of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is owed to its stars. Paul Rudd remains utterly lovable. The interaction he has with Abby Ryder Fortson as Cassie are absolutely delightful, ranging from giant ant themed play time to heart-to-hearts in her bedroom. Rudd, in general, somehow manages to combine comedic skills with an everyman quality to create a superhero not quite like any other.

However, this show belongs to Evangeline Lily as much it does Rudd. Where Rudd's Lang is a bit goofy, Lily's Hope is always serious. She brings a hyper-confidence to the action sequences, while also having a wry sense of humor of her own which comes out through her quibs. (The sequel also pushes the romantic angle between them way into the background, which was probably for the best, considering it was kind of underdeveloped last time.)

The first film provided a rich supporting cast and, luckily, most everyone comes back for the sequel. Michael Douglas' Hank Pym grows into a less prickly figure, having already completed his redemption arc and showing his vulnerability – his connection to his daughter and his missing wife – more. While the entire comic relief trio from the first movie returns, T.I and David Dastmalchian don't get too much to do. Luckily, Michael Pena gets a number of amusing moments, the hyper-verbal Luis suddenly thrust into a role of authority. Bobby Cannavale also gets a few more laughs than last time, thanks to his sudden affectionate quality.

There's also, of course, a few solid additions to the cast too. Michelle Pfeiffer makes her sophomore superhero movie appearance as Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp. Pfeiffer plays a saint-like mother figure, glowing with an angelic energy. Laurence Fishburne, also making his second superhero movie appearance, shows up as Bill Foster. (Goliath to you comic nerds.) Fishburne has some fiery debate scenes with Douglas, a high-light, but also has a parental edge to his role, which Fishburn – an actor equally capable of warm and cuddly or intense – excels at. Walter Goggins shows up as a supporting villain. In a nice touch, he plays the character like a refined Southern gentleman. Randall Park is hilarious as the cop monitoring Lang's case that seems a little too close to his subject.

In most ways, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is at least as good as the first “Ant-Man” and maybe a little better, due to having slightly more complex characters and leaning into the wacky sense of humor even harder. Yet there's one element that makes me prefer the first film to the second. The first “Ant-Man” concluded with a totally unexpected and surprisingly trippy journey to the Quantum Realm. The sequel spends more time in the same location but, maybe just because we know its coming this time, its not as effective. Sure, Hank Pym almost being eaten by a group of giant Water Bears is cool but what we see here – a vibrating alien terrain that eventually leads to a journey into the center of the mind – is way less exciting than our hero being tossed among spinning fractals.

Ultimately, I can't complain too much. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is a lot of fun. The humor is highly amusing, the action scenes are fantastically done, the cast is having a blast, and the whole product is executed very smoothly. Peyton Reed has comfortably moved into the realm of blockbuster film making, juggling thrills and comedy with his trademark high-energy visual style. While people have debated endlessly about the merits of Disney/Marvel's unstoppable blockbuster conveyor belt, at least the “Ant-Man” duo have enough quirky laughs to feel like their own thing. [Grade: B]

Officially, Peyton Reed's next project hasn't been announced yet... But it's pretty easy to guess what it'll be. Considering the box office success of both “Ant-Man” movies and the continued pop culture dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seems extremely likely – and has been frequently rumored – that “Ant-Man 3” is just around the corner. While I guess Reed isn't guaranteed to return for a third size-changing adventure, as Disney/Marvel is hardly precious about their directors, it seems probable he'll be back to direct. And, hey, maybe Reed will get to make that “Fantastic Four” movie after all.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Director Report Card: Peyton Reed (2015)

7. Ant-Man

Ant-Man is a character that has been kicking around the Marvel Comics universe for decades, even being one of the founding members of the Avengers. Despite that, he's never been especially popular, owing perhaps to a perpetually shifting persona and frequently disgruntled personality. Aside from some scattered animated appearances, the character never penetrated much into other areas of pop culture. Yet, for some reason, “Ant-Man” was among the earliest Marvel superheroes to be licensed for a film adaptation. Stan Lee wanted to make an “Ant-Man” movie back in the eighties. In 2000, the character was part of a crop of Marvel heroes optioned to Artisan. Shortly afterwards, Edgar Wright became attached as director. He stay attached after the formation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, toiling on various versions of the project for nearly a decade as his reputation grew.

We all know how this turned out. After all that build-up, seemingly weeks before production was finally going to start, Wright and Marvel parted ways on “Ant-Man.” The reasoning behind this divorce was clear: Wright's auteur vision didn't fit in with the Marvel Cinematic Universe assembly line. After a number of other filmmakers were considered, Peyton Reed would end up taking the gig, still utilizing most of Wright's script. Initially, fans were hostile to Reed replacing a beloved figure like Wright. While the director of “The Break-Up” and “Yes Man” probably seems like a weird choice to direct a superhero movie, Reed is actually a comic fan and even pitched a pretty great sounding “Fantastic Four” movie in the early 2000s. Most of the hostility and skepticism towards the director and the film faded after “Ant-Man” was released in 2015 and ended up being delightful.

Scott Lang just got out of prison and swears his career as a high-profile burglar is over, mostly so he can continue to see his beloved daughter, Cassie. Yet his friends promise a major score is forthcoming and, after he can't find legit work, he agrees to do it. Inside an old man's home, through a complex vault, he finds a strange suit. Upon wearing it, he discovers he can shrink to minuscule size. The suit belongs to Hank Pym, once known as the superhero Ant-Man. His super-science company has been taken over by an unstable man named Darren Cross, who is dangerously close to uncovering the secret behind the size-changing Pym Particles. In order to keep this tech from falling into dangerous hands, Hank and his daughter Hope will train Scott to become the next Ant-Man.

By 2015, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had already featured gods, magic, intergalactic battles, alien invasions, armies of killer robots, and a few Infinity Stones. “Ant-Man,” appropriately, is a much smaller scale movie. The fate of the world never hangs in the balance. No cities are destroyed. Collateral damage is kept to a minimal. Instead, “Ant-Man” has a much more humble goal of being a heist movie. It happily fits many of the outlines of the genre. Experts with special skills are brought in, though they are ants here. A detailed plan is set out for the audience, showing the steps the heroes will use to infiltrate their target. This, naturally, goes wrong before too long. Yet formula is not a bad thing and “Ant-Man” manages to be highly entertaining within the boundaries of the heist flick.

Considering its more personalized scale, “Ant-Man” doesn't feature too many connections with the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. For the most part, it stands alone as a movie. However – and these are the elements that Wright perhaps objected to – it does feature a few cute connections to the other films in the franchise. The first of which is a shout-out to the Avengers, the question being asked about where the hell they are. The second is an extended, fantastically amusing sequence where Ant-Man infiltrates the Avengers base and ends up scuffling with the Falcon. That playful relationship with continuity is one of the most delightful surprises about “Ant-Man.”

Another element distinguishing “Ant-Man” from its superhero brethren is its central gimmick. Heroes with super strength or sci-fi weapons is something we've seen plenty of times before. A shrinking superhero brings with it a certain novelty. “Ant-Man” definitely has fun portraying this element. Scott Lang's first experiment has him falling through the cracks of a floor and racing across a spinning record. A dance floor becomes a minefield, a belt bucket enormous, a mouse a massive monster. Later, as Scott is learning to control his ant friends, we are greeted to a series of fascinating sequences blowing the ants up to massive side. “Ant-Man” even displays a totally unexpected experimental size, as its climatic journey into the Micro-Verse gets wonderful psychedelic. Bright colors, massive atoms, and splintering fractals spin across the screen in a hypnotic blaze of images.

“Ant-Man” is also an action movie, the first time Peyton Reed has stepped into that particular genre. Yet, from one perspective, this was not a totally mismatched choice for him. After all, are the highly choreographed fight scenes of modern action movies that different from the cheer routines of “Bring It On?” While definitely not breaking the mold as far as Marvel movie fight scenes go, the action in “Ant-Man” is fairly satisfying. The hero's shrinking powers make for some fairly novel fight scenes. The way Scott shrinks, grows, and shrinks again while taking down opponents is pretty cool. So is a moment where he races through a miniature building as bullets tear it apart. Probably the action highlight is saved for the climax, where Scott and Darren Cross – having become the super villain Yellowjacket – turn the tiny details of a suitcase or a child's bedroom into a massive battlefield.

But what really makes that last sequence, and “Ant-Man” as a whole, special is its wacky sense of humor. The seriousness of the battles are purposely undercut by pulling way back, so we see the epic combat in scale with normal people, normal Bug Zappers, and normal Thomas the Tank Engine toys. That puckish sense of humor manifests itself all through the film. Scott's first job after leaving prison is at a Baskin-Robbin's, a funny sequence that wouldn't have been out-of-place in Reed's earlier comedies. Among Scot's friends is the talkative Luis, whose rambling anecdotes come to life on-screen in hilariously literal ways. One of my favorite running jokes has Scott giving his flying ant steed the punny nickname of Ant-hony. The dialogue is witty, sharp, and quotable all throughout.

Something else that makes “Ant-Man” different from the other movies is its hero. Scott Lang isn't a trained super solider or a Norse god. He's also not a selfish billionaire or a philandering space rogue. Instead, he's a fundamentally decent man that loves his daughter. Paul Rudd, hardly anyone's idea of a typical superhero up to this point, proves an inspired choice to bring this character to life. He's adapt, naturally, with the fast-paced comedic dialogue and moments of awkward character interaction. Yet he also projects a wholesomeness, a need to do better by the people he loves, that cements a shockingly sincere heart at the center of this size-changing superhero heist flick.

In fact, men who love their daughters turns out to be the central theme of “Ant-Man.” Scott is motivated by Cassie, their interaction being portrayed as never anything less than adorable. His daughter adores him and he needs to prove to her that he deserves that admiration. Hank Pym, meanwhile, has a more tense relationship with Hope. Never forgiving him for keeping the truth about her mother's disappearance, or his general frosty treatment towards her, she is desperate to show her strength to him. Yet his actions are motivated by love too, by a need to protect his daughter and a lingering guilt over Janet Van Dyne's disappearance. The romantic side-plots in Marvel flicks are frequently routine – it is here too, as Scott and Hope hook up at the end mostly for no reason – but the film's emotional heart is otherwise healthy and vibrant.

Hank Pym is rather notoriously an asshole in the comics but the movie softens him considerably... But not too much. Michael Douglas leans into natural ability to play a prickly jerk who is, nevertheless, highly principled and ultimately admirable. Douglas brings an acidic wit to his comedic scenes, most notable in the scenes where he's trying to teach Scott the ropes of Ant-Manning. Evangeline Lily has a similar confrontational quality as Hope but, beneath her gruff exterior, has a sweet vulnerability that she occasionally gives us a peek at. Both performances are pretty good.

Marvel movies were once criticized for their lack of memorable villains. “Ant-Man” didn't exactly break this trend at the time. Corey Stoll is totally fine as Darren Cross. He wrings his hands villainous and has a good evil smirk. Yet the character is pretty underwritten, his personality never expanding much beyond what you'd expect of a protegee turned into an unhinged mad scientist. (And it doesn't help that, like in too many of the “Iron Man” movies, the bad guy basically has the same power set as the hero.) The real highlight of the supporting cast is Scott's band of friends. Michael Pena is especially hilarious as Luis, who immediately became a fan favorite, while David Dastmalchian and T.I. Also get their share of laughs as the other corners of the trio.

”Ant-Man” isn't mindblowingly good. It's more minor than most of Marvel's superhero epics and that's totally by design. Its commitment to formula and an uninspired villain makes it difficult to rank it too highly. Yet the delightful cast, an infectiously fun sense of humor, and some visual inventiveness makes it a swiftly entertaining motion picture. While one can't help but mourn what Edgar Wright's “Ant-Man” might have been, I also find myself loving Peyton Reed's “Ant-Man” more and more every time I see it. [Grade: B+]

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Director Report Card: Peyton Reed (2008)

6. Yes Man

There was a time, known as the wild and woolly nineties, when Jim Carrey was a huge movie star. He owed this success to a series of aggressively wacky, high concept comedies. Movies with easily understood log lines like “What if Jim Carrey was a detective that only handled animals?,” “What if Jim Carrey was a live action cartoon?,” and “What if Jim Carrey could never lie?” would all prove to be box office successes. Eventually, Carrey would make attempts at serious critical recognition, star in a few flops, and he would slid off the A-list. Despite that, producers still remembered all that “Ace Ventura” money, so a few more high concept Jim Carrey comedies have gotten made in the last nineteen years. After “What if Jim Carrey was God?,” we received “What if Jim Carrey had to say yes to everything?,” otherwise known as 2008's “Yes Man.”

Banker Carl Allen isn't very satisfied with his life. Still stinging from a divorce several years prior, he has largely withdrawn from his friends and spends most of his free time being a miserable fuck, watching movies alone in his ridiculously spacious apartment. After a chance meeting with an old friend at work, Carl is invited to a self-help seminar by Terrence Bundley. Bundley espouses the philosophy of “yes,” of saying yes to any question or request that is asked of, regardless of context. Though Carl is initially skeptical, he soon becomes an enthusiastic member of the yes movement, especially after it wins him a new girlfriend – quirky Allison – and success at work. But he'll soon find that saying yes to everything has its downsides too.

Going into “Yes Man,” my expectations were measured. In-between its gimmicky premise, a slumming star, and uninspiring trailer, I was expecting the most banal of mainstream studio comedies. And, in many ways, “Yes Man” is exactly the kind of movie you think it is. Any genuine emotion is squeezed out of the material by the stiflingly high-concept premise. There's a lot of crude sex jokes and broad slapstick, such as old ladies giving blowjobs or a semi-nude motorcycle ride. Yet, it must be said, I found “Yes Man” funnier than expected. The central concept is exaggerated to some likably absurd areas. So we have bizarre gags revolving around a bakery that makes subpar celebrity look-a-like cakes or Carl's Parisian date appearing suddenly. This stuff is kooky and weird in a way that at least made me laugh.

Another thing that can be said in “Yes Man's” favor is the sheer intensity with which Jim Carrey goes for it. Carrey built his career on his rubber-faced antics and pratfalls. By the time “Yes Man” came out, it had been a while since we had really seen Carrey embrace his roots as a physical comedian. Within the first ten minutes of the film, Carrey does a wild slip onto a barroom floor. At one point, he flips backwards down a flight of stairs, landing in a heap at on a concrete foundation. After a Redbull overdoes, he slumps to the floor dramatically. Through many of the scenes, Carrey mugs furiously, flashing that big unhinged smile. While its not exactly disciplined, there is a certain novelty in seeing a classically over-the-top Jim Carrey performance like this one again.

After directing a broad studio comedy like “The Break-Up,” it makes sense that Peyton Reed would move onto another broad studio comedy. Yet “Yes Man” clearly has a little more of the director's pet interest than his previous movie. There's a minor subplot involving a rock band, Allison playing in a wacky band, continuing to show Reed's interest in music. This element is also evident in a sequence where Carrey learns to play guitar and then ends up saving the life of a potential suicide jumper. That scene is also fairly energetic in its direction, the camera whipping around Carrey as he sings his heart out. You can see that movement in a few other moments, like the cult-like “yes” seminar or a mildly spooky park at night the protagonist finds himself in at one point.

Starring opposite Jim Carrey is Zooey Deschanel, well after her reinvention as a raven-haired, banged hipster sex symbol. As Allison, Deschandel is cast exactly to type. See, Allison is an aggressively quirky character. She's introduced driving around on a blue scooter, wearing a helmet with cartoon eyeball stickers on it. Her band sings comedic and partially improvised songs, while dressed as crustacean. During the performance, Zooey performs a Hendrix-esque version of the Star Spangled Banner on keytar. She runs a combination yoga/photography class and loves to do anything wacky and unexpected. In other words, Zooey is playing another almost textbook example of a manic pixie dream girl, as the role is defined entirely by its quirkiness and exist largely to get a stuffy nerd out of his shell.

However, it must be said, Zooey is charming in the part. There's a reason Deschanel is the defining MPDG of our time. She makes doing this absolutely ridiculous stuff look charming and funny. (Instead of obnoxious, which is what it would be in real life.) And the film does, admittedly, make an attempt – a very facile attempt – to give Allison some agency. During their exhausting, quirk-fest vacation, she asks Carl if they should move in together. He says yes but then she learns that he agreed to say yes to everything, driving a wedge between them. You will recognize this as that obnoxious thing rom-coms do, where they have to engineer drama at the end of the second act to keep the story going. The exact mechanics to this story turn are especially ridiculous, involving Carl being mistaken for a terrorists, a plot point that goes no further than this one scene. I almost feel like that's an extension of “Yes Man's” overall absurd tone but it's definitely an issue with the film.

As is typical of mid-tier studio comedies like these, “Yes Man” has a supporting cast loaded with familiar faces. Before becoming a big star in his own right, Bradley Cooper appears here as Carl's friend, Peter. I'm not sure why a misanthrope like Carl is friends with an upward, successful guy like Peter and Cooper also seems mildly baffled as to why he's in this movie. (Though not as baffled as Sasha Alexander, who pops in for a few scenes as Peter's fiance.) Terence Stamp's extremely serious British quality is perfectly utilized as the creator of the “Yes” philosophy, who ends up acting as a straight man to Carry's wackier antics. Probably the funniest supporting role is Rhys Darby as Carrey's excessively wacky boss, who mostly emerges as a huge nerd desperate to have friends. Darby's ability to weave absurdist gold out of any line of dialogue is well utilized.

Another sign that “Yes Man” is a medium budget studio product is, weirdly enough, the amount of inter-studio product placement in the film. The film's first scene is in a Blockbuster Video – R.I.P. – which presents opportunities for other recent releases from Warner Brothers to show up. Carl rents “300,” another W.B. release, and later attends a costume party devoted to the movie. This is after an earlier sequence where Carl's boss has a costume party dedicated to “Harry Potter,” a film series that is also, you might noticed, produced by Heyday Films. Brand names for motorcycles, sports teams, and cameras are all repeatedly mentioned throughout the film. Even though all this stuff exist in real life, you can't help but notice a fictional movie drawing so much attention to it. It actually ends up breaking the immersion of the film, especially with one as overall goofy as “Yes Man.”

Still, for its many myriad of flaws and annoying quirks, “Yes Man” was a lot more entertaining than I was expecting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it ends up feeling a lot like one of Carrey's nineties movies. That is to say, aggressively wacky and hyper but with a decent supporting cast and enough inspired silliness to make its runtime glide by without the audience noticing too much. If “Yes Man” had fully committed to its ridiculous atmosphere, it might've been something special. Instead, it backslides repeatedly into sentimentality and mediocrity. The film is undistinguished, leaving little room for Peyton Reed's trademarks as a director, though its 223 million box office gross probably didn't hurt his career. But I didn't dislike the movie. I even kind of liked it. And, if nothing else, it is a lot less obnoxious than “The Break-Up.” [Grade: C+]

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Director Report Card: Peyton Reed (2006)

5. The Break-Up

When I made the decision to watch and review all of Peyton Reed's movies, I figured it would be a chore, one of those report cards were I force myself to watch a bunch of shitty movies so I can talk about two or three movies I really care about. I associated the director with underachieving romantic-comedies, the most mediocre of all big budget genres, and the sort of overly broad studio comedies that I hate. I had that presumption challenged by Reed's first two theatrical features, both of which were pretty good. The director actually has a sense of style. His movies had been surprisingly clever and fun up to this point, showing no contempt for their audiences at all. However, with “The Break-Up,” I finally got exactly what I expected.

Gary Grobowski, a Chicago tour guide, and Brooke Meyers, an art dealer, meet each other at a baseball game. While Brooke initially rejects the jugheaded Gary's aggressive courtship, she's soon won over. Several years later, the two are living together in an apartment and their relationship is beginning to strain. Gary frequently takes advantage of Brooke's patience and caring attitude and she finally gets sick of it. The two break up but continue to live in the same apartment, waiting until they can sell the expensive property. They find new, increasingly bitter ways to snipe at each other, sometimes attempting to win the other back, sometimes attempting to further push the other away. Yet can this relationship be saved at all?

“The Break-Up” wants to subvert the rom-com tropes. Instead of being about how a quirky couple meet cute, it's about how they break ugly. Instead of showing true love surviving through hardship, it's about how love isn't always enough to overcome challenges. However, Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender's script is ill-equated to handle such a serious subject. (Not that I blame Garelick and Lavender. This film has all the marks of being written by committee.) Instead of melancholy, it pushes hard on broad comedy. This results in characters that start out obnoxious and only grow more terrible as the movie goes on. “The Break-Up” soon degrades into awful people being awful to each other. It's 105 minutes of characters doing petty shit, in hopes of hurting the other person. That's neither romantic nor comedic and the movie isn't smart enough to be truly subversive.

“The Break-Up” was made right in the middle of that very strange time, after “Dodgeball” and “Wedding Crashers” but before “The Dilemma” and “The Internship,” when Vince Vaughn was a huge movie star. Gary is more-or-less the most extreme exaggeration of the traditional Vince Vaughn character. He's a guy who likes baseball, beer, and video games. He hangs out with his loud brothers, honking about sports and lady problems. He eats hot dogs and potato chips, doesn't clean up after himself, and doesn't respect or understand art and culture. In other words, he's a massive asshole. Because of the general broadness of “The Break-Up,” some of Gary's awfulness is justified as responses to equal awfulness. Most of the time, he's just a shitty jocko jerk-wad. Vaughn gives into his worst tendencies as a performer, mugging furiously as he plays an aggressively douchey guy who is presented as an everyman but is truthfully just a dickhead.

Opposite Vaughn at his worst is Jennifer Aniston at her most indifferent. Aniston is an occasionally compelling movie star but “The Break-Up” has her coasting in a serious way. By largely skipping the courtship part of the relationship, the audience is left wondering why an intelligent and upward woman like Brooke ever got involved with a lunkhead like Gary. Not that Brooke is much better. She's passive-aggressive, prone to emotional outburst, and a workaholic. Yet her crimes are much more minor than her boyfriend's. Aniston has a winning smile but makes no further attempts to liven up what is ultimately a character with little in the way of an inner life. It's amazing how little we learn about this woman and why she's attracted to this man. Mostly, Aniston is asked to march through a series of undemanding comedic set pieces: Bad dates with other dudes, throwing things, an extended waxing sequence. Which she can do, sure, but not in a way that redeems the middlebrow gags.

Like almost every shitty romantic comedy made in the last two decades, “The Break-Up” eventually reaches a point where it gets serious. Yes, I'm talking about the tedious end-of-the-second-act moment where the movie asks us to start actually caring about these two assholes. After an especially egregious act from Gary – practically having an orgy with strippers in the appointment – Brooke realizes she can't salvage this relationship. He, on the other hand, realizes what an unappreciative, immature fuckhead he's been and grows up instantly over the course of a few scenes. Unsurprisingly, this sudden maturation does not convince a girlfriend that he's abused for several weeks. Who can actually give a shit about this stuff? These characters are broad, cartoon characters. No attempt has been made to invest emotions in them, making their emotional conflict totally meaningless.

But, ya know, “The Break-Up” does earn points for not totally wimping out. The movie delivers on its title. This is a film where the couple breaks up. Even when it seems like Brooke and Gary are going to reunite, “The Break-Up” backs off slightly. The movie ends with the suggestion that they are still attracted to each other and cuts it off there. There's no redemption, no sweeping romantic music, no reconciliation. That's a surprisingly subtle move for a film that has been anything but up to that point. Granted, the general low-brow quality of the rest of the movie makes the ending totally unearned, resulting in a somewhat sour conclusion. Yet I most nod at the fact that “The Break-Up” does manage to successful confound expectations, at least in one regard.

But, yes, for the most part, this is a painfully unfunny comedy. Most of the jokes boil down to worn-out cliches about the differences between the two genders. Shit like dudes do not listen to women or women snipping at their fat, dumb-ass boyfriends. The kind of nonsense you can see on a four-in-the-morning re-run of “King of Queens” or “Yes Dear.” When its not doing that, it's throwing out overly loud gags about acapella singing or throwing things. I laughed during “The Break-Up” exactly three times. There's a truly unexpected gag where Vaughn is suddenly, violently beaten up. Almost as if the film itself hates this guy and wants to batter him. A reaction shot that depicts Gary's idea of a feast – potato chips and bologna, still in its packaging – made me chuckle slightly. As did Jason Bateman's character, the couple's real estate agent, offering them relationship advice but only through the prism of real estate acumen.

Bateman is one member of the movie's seriously overqualified supporting cast. Jon Favreau re-teams with Vaughn after “Swingers” and “Made” and seems to enjoy hanging out with his old buddy. If Vaughn is everything that's unappealing about this type of “good ol' boy palooka” character type, Favreau represents a far more amusing version, quiet but principled in his own bro-y way. Vincent D'Onofrio appears as the oldest of the three brothers, doing what he can to bulk up a totally empty part. Justin Long is mildly amusing as Aniston's Sassy Gay Friend, at least hamming it up in a ever-so-slightly-fun way. Joey Lauren Adams gets to embrace her bitchy side as Brooke's most sardonic friend. Ann-Margret plays Brooke's overly serious artist boss, a character that might've been funny in a movie less bereft of wit than this one.

So, through it all, is there any sign at all that the energetic, likable director that made “Bring It On” and “Down with Love” directed this one? Not really! Peyton Reed's visual sense is comparatively subdued in “The Break-Up.” In fact, considering the movie is largely confined to one location, it looks and feels a lot like a sitcom. There's an attempt to bring some moody lighting to the cramped apartment location but it's barely noticeable. Reed brings one or two whip-pans or a mildly energetic opening montage to the material. There's also a lengthy rock concert scene, which I suspect might've been inserted by the noted music enthusiast behind the camera. Otherwise, absolutely anyone could have directed this movie.

“The Break-Up” would be a huge hit in 2006, earning over 200 million dollars against a 59 million dollar budget. I owe much of this success to audiences really wanting to see Jennifer Aniston naked. “The Break-Up's” blockbuster status would also prompt Vince Vaughn to star in similar garbage like “Couples Retreat” and “Four Christmases.” It's easy to see why Peyton Reed would sign onto a project like this. His last movie, a passion project, was basically a flop. If “Down with Love” had an extremely limited appeal, “The Break-Up” was an easy crowd pleaser. With the middlebrow romantic comedy quickly becoming an extinct genre, as mainstream studios realize women like big budget action movies just as much as men, the film represents a time capsule... But not a good one. In fact, if you want to go back and see why the rom-com is such a widely loathed genre, “The Break-Up” offers a good example. The humor is largely obnoxious, the emotions are maudlin, and the performances are lazy. [Grade: C-]

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Director Report Card: Peyton Reed (2003)

4. Down with Love

Following the break-out success of “Bring It On,” Peyton Reed was probably offered a number of different scripts. However, the movie he wanted to make next was “Down with Love,” from first-time screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake. The project was an extended homage to the “bedroom comedy,” a type of sexless sex comedies that were popular in the early sixties and faded from the public consciousness not long afterwards. I've never actually seen any of these movies, not “Pillow Talk,” not “Lover Come Back,” none of those. So, going into “Down with Love,” I really wasn't sure what to expect from Reed's second theatrical release.

The year is 1962 and the place is New York City. Barbara Novak has written “Down with Love,” a controversial book suggesting women don't need men or romance to be happy. Looking to promote the barely released book – suppressed by the sexiest men running the publishing company – Novak is set up on an interview with Catcher Block, a hot-shot playboy and Pulitzer Prize winning writer. Block repeatedly stands her up, in favor of numerous affairs, to the point where she denounces him on television. After “Down with Love” become a best seller and a cultural phenomenon, Catcher's romantic conquests dry up. He decides to get even with Novak, seducing her while pretending to be Zip Martin, a gentlemanly astronaut who isn't quick to go to bed. Yet Novak might have plans of her own.

If nothing else, “Down with Love” is a triumph of production design. The film engineers an extremely specific look. Each of the costumes were designed from the head-up, the actors wearing elaborate outfits tailored to be eye-catching and colorful. I'm especially fond of a white rain coat and hat combo Novak wears with her best friend in one scene. The sets are equally memorable. Everything in the film is colorful, with most of the rooms being designed in bright blues or other primary colors. The various magazine company offices are a sight to behold, framed in a way that draws the eye. It's clear that a great amount of thought went into every aspect of the movie's look.

While “Bring It On” created an exaggerated fantasy world with its dialogue, “Down with Love” does something similar with its visual presentation. The movie one hundred percent commits to recreating the look of the sixties “bedroom comedy.” It begins with a '60s-style Fox logo and utilizes a bright, Technicolor-style color grading throughout. Cheesy ChromaKey effects are even used when characters are sitting in cars! Numerous split screen sequences are used throughout the various phone calls, the lines breaking up the screens resembling lightning bolts or big pink hearts. There's an absolutely charming montage, devoted to Barbara and “Zip” having a series of dates, seeing various shows and dancing in a club, dissolving together. Day-to-night transitions flick through an elaborate miniature set of the city. Apparently, most of these choices are specific call-backs to various Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies. I may not understand the references but I can appreciate the skill and energy with which they are put together. The result is a movie that is bursting alive with a visual playfulness, enchanting the viewer.

I may not know much about the movies being riffed on here but I do know they are famous for their fast-paced, double entendre laden language. “Down with Love” certainly delivers on that. No more than a few minutes pass between a zippy line of dialogue, usually with a naughty double meaning. For example: Each time Cather delays his interview with Barbara, he describes his latest romantic conquest through a series of obtuse animal references. Or when a discussion about socks is misinterpreted by a secretary in an especially ribald fashion. And that's just a sampling of probably a hundred choices. The movie even employs some visual double entendres. During a phone call, the split screen is used again to display some borderline filthy visual jokes, a bawdy gag the movie embraces fully.

Yet speedy dialogue and naughty suggestions are not the only jokes in “Down with Love.” The movie's goofy streak flows most freely during its moment of physical comedy. Catcher's apartment features a number of then-high tech automatons, which is inevitably unleashed on a pair of unsuspecting by-standers. It's a moment you absolutely see coming but still got a laugh out of me anyway. The movie contains a lot of free form silliness – a helicopter ride, the visual way Catcher comes up with his alter-ego – but the best moment is saved for last. Once again, Reed shows his barely concealed desire to make a musical by wrapping “Down with Love” up with a fantastically upbeat song between Novak and Catcher.

While “Down with Love” is clearly a very silly romantic comedy, there's some serious ideas inside it. The film is set right at the birth of modern feminism. The mere suggestion that a woman can have a successful life without a man – that she can substitute sex with chocolate – sends shock waves through the world.  The men of the world respond to this idea about as well as you'd expect. Novak's publisher attempts to suppress the book's release and greatly resists its eventual blockbuster success. Catcher's entire character arc is motivated by Novak's theory interrupting his stream of constant easy sex, hatching a deeply petty plan of revenge. However, it is interesting that he seemingly turns Barbara's own ideas against her so easily, showing that women can be just as hungry for sex as men. Which seems to freely mix some of the ideas from the various waves of feminism into a clever, switch-a-roo comedy totally in-keeping with what you'd expect from one of the “bedroom comedies.”

But that all changes suddenly at the end of the film's second act. After Novak seemingly uncovers Catcher's deception, she reveals that “Barbara Novak” is an invented persona as well. That she was one of Catcher's many secretaries, pining for him and ultimately rejected. That the movie's entire plot has been a ridiculously convoluted scheme for her to prove a point, the characters anticipating a number of steps far in advance. Soon enough, Catcher realizes that “Barbara” has changed him as well. This plot twist, while maybe a little overly serious, does bring the “bedroom comedy's” politics into the modern age, showing that maybe men should grow up and stop being sexist pigs if they hope to win a woman's affection. Go figure.

“Down with Love” takes place in a cartoon version of the early sixties. While feminism is obviously the main topic on its mind, the movie does a surprisingly good job of fleshing out its version of a specific time and place. Early on, we see a group of anti-nuclear protesters, startled by a car back-firing. Catcher's latest award-winning expose has him uncovering the Nazi scientists NASA has recruited to work on their rocket program, showing the lingering shadow World War II still had on the world. An amusing montage, showing the ripple effects Novak's book has on the world, takes us behind the Iron Curtain in a fun way. There's also a thoroughly cartoonish moment devoted to the Beatnik subculture. All of these little touches are further examples of how well thought-out “Down with Love” is.

While meticulously assembled, a big factor in “Down with Love's” success is its two fantastic lead performances. Renee Zellweger, queen of the rom-coms at the time, is ideally cast as Barbara Novak. She can spit out that fast-paced dialogue with ease, delivering each hyper-verbal punchline with perfect panache. What makes Zellweger especially well suited from the part – aside from the previous rom-com cred she brought to the role – is the undercurrent of frustration and sadness she brings. This comes gushing out during an impressive monologue, largely shot in a long take, where Novak explains the secret sadness that motivated her change.

If Zellweger is good as the quick-tongued Novak, than Ewan McGregor is perfect as the philandering Catcher. First off, McGregor clearly enjoys the pun-filled dialogue, biting into the film's many conversations with glee. Secondly, the part allows him a chance to create two characters essentially. While every step Catcher takes brings him one step closer to bedding one woman or another, Zip Martin is a wholesome country bumpkin that puts God, country, and the respect of others above himself. Yet this role very easily could've been a simple villain. McGregor finds the perfect balance of sleazy and charming, creating a character who is both a believable womanizer but nevertheless entertaining, making the audience ready for his eventual redemption.

The film's primary subplot involves Barbara's editor, Vikki, and Catcher's editor, Peter, forging a romance of their own. These roles also feature some pitch-perfect casting. The uneasy, neurotic Peter is played by a hilariously on-type David Hyde Pierce, whose trademark prissiness has rarely been better used. He's hilarious as the nerdy straight man to McGregor's playboy. Sarah Paulson is also highly amusing as Vicki, getting some equally quick-witted dialogue of her own. The conclusion to this particular subplot – Peter finds his confidence by slightly emulating Catcher's egomaniacal ways, convincing Sarah he's stronger than he appears – feels right out of a sixties film. (Amusingly, Sarah believes Peter to be gay at first. This film was made before both Paulson and Pierce came out of the closest.) The movie also sneaks in a small role for Tony Randall, who appeared in a few of the original “bedroom comedies.”

Much like Peyton Reed's previous movie, “Down with Love” was poised to become a sleeper hit. It opened opposite “The Matrix Reloaded,” hoping to court the female audience perhaps disinterested in a special effects heavy action flick. This strategy did not work exactly as expected, as “Down with Love” ended its box office run with just barely making back its production budget. In retrospect, it should be unsurprising that a homage to an extremely niche and largely forgotten sixties sub-genre did not connect with a wide audience. Critics, however, loved the movie. Even as someone slightly out-of-his-element here, I have to say “Down with Love” is a delight, with a lively script, wonderful performances, and brilliant visuals. [Grade: B+]

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Director Report Card: Peyton Reed (2000)

3. Bring It On

Following his two stints in the Wonderful World of Disney, Peyton Reed started to distinguish himself as a director of respected sketch comedy shows. He handled episodes of “Mr. Show,” “The Upright Citizens Brigade” and the entire run of “The Weird Al Show.” With this experience under his belt, he would begin work on his first theatrically released feature. (He made the transition because the “Upright Citizens Bridgade” producers worked on this movie too, because Hollywood really is usually about who you know.) “Bring It On” would become a surprise hit in 2000, staying atop the box office charts for three weeks. Somehow, despite being highly watched among people of my generation, I have never seen this motion picture before.

For the last several years, the cheerleading team of Rancho Carne High School have won championships. Now, the leadership of the cheer team is being transferred to someone new. Torrance Shipman might be a quality cheerleader but she's not doing as well in grades or social graces. Her relationship with her now college-age boyfriend is dissolving. The other members of the cheer team are starting to turn against her, especially once she begins to support new recruits like the feisty Missy. Upon discovering the previous cheer captain was stealing the routines from an all-black neighboring school, and with regional championships coming up, Torrance is sent into a full-on crisis.

A big reason why I never got around to watching “Bring It On” before now is because of my aversion to sports movies. “Bring It On” doesn't go out of its way to avoid the typical “inspirational” story beats you expect. Despite being reoccurring champions, the Rancho Carne Toros suffer misfortune after misfortune. After discovering their former cheer captain stole their routines from a rival school, the team is humiliated when the other cheerleaders show up at a game and mirror their moves. They hire a choreographer who is a huge asshole and also sold his same routine to other teams. This make these regular winners seem like plucky underdogs, who have to rally their team spirit and work hard to succeed. Naturally, the new team members disagree at first but become great friends in time. Most of these moments hit exactly when you expect and there's never any doubt what's going to happen.

Despite being unapologetically formulaic, “Bring It On” does a smart thing. The film begins with a sequence where the cheerleaders perform a sexually teasing routine full of intentionally artificial dialogue and elaborate choreography. Though this is quickly revealed to be a dream, it immediately sets a precedence. “Bring It On” does not take place in our world. Much like “Heathers” before it, the characters speak in cartoonish slang that clearly isn't meant to reflect reality. The politics of high school are exaggerated, the bullies being nastier, the rivalries more extreme, the competitions fiercer. That allows “Bring It On” to get away with all the expected story beats, because it's not like the movie ever attempted to be real. It's a live action cartoon, well aware of it, and has a good time embracing that quality.

The dialogue and clearly goofy story are not the only way “Bring It On” hyperbolises the high school sports comedy. Apparently, as written, “Bring It On” was much rauchier. The movie was toned down to a PG-13 during filming. However, the finished product is still surprisingly naughty. (You don't see too many PG-13 flicks with fingering jokes.) The cheerleading routines are highly sexualized, the uniforms showing lots of skin and the girls' skirts often flying upward. There's a bikini car wash sequence, which doesn't back away from being leering. The conversation is frequently crude, even politically incorrect at times. There's even a strip tease as part of the cheer auditions. And yet, somehow, “Bring It On” avoids ever feeling sleazy or exploitative. Its horny tone reflects the hyper-extended libidos of its characters. Moreover, most of the actresses are in their twenties, so it never feels too seedy.

Reed occasionally showed some energy in his television movies. Being a movie about the acrobatic world of competitive cheerleadering, “Bring It On” rarely sits still. The camera is moving from early on. As we explore the high school setting for the first time, there's a sense of free form roaming energy as we glide from location to location. The dance and cheer sequence are shot with a similar zest. Reed's camera is often tumbling along with the girls as they somersault, spin or flip through the air. He even sneaks in some pretty fun shots, such as framing some in-between the girls' legs. It is a fast-paced film in the way its executed.

That “Bring It On” is so energetically directed brings something else to mind. This is basically a musical. Granted, there aren't very many traditional singing moments. Yet the chants of the cheer squads are more-or-less songs, a group of people pumping out rhyming verse to a recognizable rhythm. The cheers are essentially the same as dance numbers. And they are super elaborate, with people being lifted into the air and flipping over themselves. It's a comparison Reed is obviously eager to present, as the opening dream sequence is obviously shot like a classical musical moment. And the soundtrack isn't half bad either, even if R&B influenced pop like this really isn't my genre. (The connection is such that a stage musical, with music from that “Hamilton” guy, hit playhouses in 2011.)

“Bring It On” is also pretty funny, maybe the biggest reason why I enjoyed watching it. The surreal dialogue is a frequent source of giggles. The sequence devoted to the asshole choreographer, who does nothing but neg the girls after he arrives, takes that exaggerated quality as far as it'll go, making such a ridiculously overblown moment that you can't help but laugh at it. This is present, and even more intentional, in Torrance's flashbacks to Cheer Camp, where she believes she cursed herself. Reed ramps up the silliest of these moment with melodramatic camera movements, drawing the ridiculousness of these social beliefs into sharp focus. My favorite funny bit in the film is near the end, when we get a quick glimpse at some of the other cheerleaders competing in the finals, who are dealing with physical issues – a broken nose and vomiting – in their own upbeat ways.

Perhaps a reason “Bring It On's” popularity lived on beyond its intended ephemeral theatrical release is because of its surprisingly progressive politics. You do not expect a high school comedy/inspirational sports story to acknowledge the cultural divide present in American society. The largely white students of Rancho Carne High copy the hard work of their black rivals, flat out stealing it and taking credit. With the exception of Torrance and Missy, the other cheerleaders are largely okay with this. They don't care as long as they win. Later on, the black team can't put together the fiances necessary to enter the tournament. Torrance rallies support for them, getting them into the contest where – spoiler alert! – they win. While this plot turn has its own political pitfalls – the black characters can only succeed with the white girls help – a movie of this level acknowledging topics like racial division and cultural appropriation is totally unexpected in and of itself.

Another element that makes “Bring it On” work way better than you'd expect is its winning cast. The film is largely a vehicle for Kristen Dunst. Dunst's character is a little more complex than you initially assume. She isn't just a blonde cheerleader, mean girl queen bee. She has struggles with her parents, who are expecting her to do better with her grades. She questions the status quo of the cheer world. This gives Dunst more to chew on as an actress but that almost doesn't matter. She has so much bubbly charm as Torrance, that you just love watching her have a good time. So much of “Bring It On” floats by on Dunst's winning smile and easy-going charisma.

”Bring It On” follows the expected beats of the sports comedy which includes, of course, a romantic subplot. Like the rest of the movie, this proves shockingly compelling. Torrance is introduced with a lunk-head, jocko boyfriend. After he goes away to college, it becomes increasingly clear that he's not being faithful. Around the same time, she develops an obvious chemistry with Cliff, Missy's brother. Cliff is a punk rock enthusiast, allowing Reed to sneak in a lot of those indie rock references he likes. (I didn't spot a Superchunk T-shirt, though I might've missed it.) The relationship is largely free of drama and develops in a smooth and likable way, best shown in an adorable scene where Torrance dances to the mix tape Cliff made her. Dunst and Jesse Bradford have a really sweet back-and-forth.

That's not the only person Dunst has a winning rapport with. For most of the film, Torrance is paired up with Missy. Initially, the two couldn't be more different. Missy is a snarky and tough girl that only wants to join the cheer team because the high school, which she newly transferred to, doesn't have a gymnastics department. However, Torrance quickly learns to appreciate the girl's grit and attitude while Missy learns cheerleading isn't all that bad either. It's a buddy movie arc we've seen a hundred times before but it works because Eliza Dushku, playing one hundred percent to type, plays off Dunst so well. You know it's coming but watching these two warm up to each other is pretty fun, in fact.

After its success in theaters, “Bring It On” would continue to be popular on television and home video. This would turn it into a cult classic of sorts, among both male and female audiences. Teen girls liked the strong female characters and teen boys probably responded to the attractive cast. Universal Studios would embrace this success with a long line of direct-to-video sequels. There's five in total, with the most recent coming out in 2017 and featuring a hashtag in the title. (No, I'm not reviewing them.) Considering the enduring value of the “Bring It On” brand name, I'm surprised there hasn't been an attempt at a theatrical reboot. While I dismissed the movie for years, I probably should've given this one a chance sooner. It is a charming and funny flick. [Grade: B] 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Director Report Card: Peyton Reed (1997)

2. The Love Bug

I feel like calling the 1995 television version of “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” a “success” would be really overstating it. However, the Disney overlords must have been pleased with it. Two years later, Peyton Reed would be assigned another reboot of a classic Disney property to air as part of the Wonderful World of Disney TV movie series. This time, Reed would be handed the keys to the Herbie, the Love Bug franchise, which was hugely popular when new – the first was the third highest grossing film of 1968 – but had been dormant for 15 years. Once again, I don't think calling this obscure television movie a “success” is fitting but it at least got a VHS release.

While sharing many similarities with the original film's plot, 1997's “The Love Bug” is not a remake but actually a sequel. Herbie, the magical Volkswagen Bug with a personality all its own, has fallen into the hands of vain race car driver Simon Moore III. Disgusted with the car's malfunctions, he sends it to the scrapyard. There, mechanic Hank Cooper and his artsy-fartsy friend Roddy pick Herbie for a junkyard race. Revitalized by his new driver, the Love Bug suddenly shifts back into high gear. Noticing this success, Moore commissions Herbie's original creator to build an evil counterpart to the Love Bug. Soon, Herbie and the Horace the Hate Bug are facing off in a race. Hank, Roddy, and auto-magazine reporter – and Hank's ex-girlfriend – Alex are behind the wheel.

Once again, one assumes that a made-for-TV movie-of-the-week probably didn't afford Peyton Reed much of a chance to stretch his skills as a director. However, I must say that Reed's “Love Bug” does look a lot better than his “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.” When the Hate Bug is introduced, there's cool shot of the car silhouetted against some lights as it rolls out. Its next introductary scene also features some cool lightning effects, bouncing off the shiny black hull. Herbie's origin story is depicted in black-and-white in a way that seems to recall classic sci-fi/monster movies of the forties and fifties. Moments like these show that Reed was, perhaps, a little better than the humble television material he was given at this point.

Despite these interesting touches, this “Love Bug” is still a bit of a snore. Compared to the zippy pacing of Reed's last movie, “The Love Bug” moves so slowly. The film treats Herbie with an almost mythic importance. Much of the dialogue is devoted to talking about how magical this car is. Midway through the film, Herbie actually dies, being beaten into wreckage by the Hate Bug. (The actual violence is kept off-screen, hopefully keeping the real young kids from being further traumatized.) He gets a funeral and everything. Herbie is then resurrected with the help of Dean Jones' original protagonist. These scenes have a maudlin, even solemn tone to them that totally kills any energy the already sluggish movie had up to that point. This “Love Bug” never recovers even with the action packed last third that follows.

There are other examples of how weirdly invested Reed's “Love Bug” is in the Herbie character. None of the previous “Love Bug” media felt it necessary to provide an origin for the magical Volkswagen. The 1997 film, meanwhile, gives Herbie a comic book style origin story. He was built after World War II by a German scientist brought to America by the government, mistaking his invention of “the people's car” for a car that was actually a person. (One hopes the movie's scientist wasn't a Nazi.) Despite assuming that creating a car with a mind was impossible, Dr. Stumpfel succeeded when a picture of late wife fell in with the metal oar used to create Herbie... So, yes, Herbie the Love Bug was built by an ex-pat German scientist and owes his magical abilities to being possessed by a dead woman's soul. Mull that information over for a while.

To go along with his new comic book style origin, the 1997 “Love Bug” also gives Herbie a comic book style archenemy. While I doubt Walt would've approved of such a thing, giving the Love Bug an evil counterpart only seems natural. Horace the Hate Bug, on a surface level, is a funny enough sight gag. An all black chrome Bug who can shoot lasers from its front bumper and toss grenades from its muffler is an amusing concept. However, Horace doesn't get as much personality as Herbie. Instead of honking expressively, he just growls and rumbles threateningly. So the idea is fun but not developed into anything deeper. I can't believe I'm complaining about a car not having enough personality... I'm just saying, “The Car” did it better.

While no one would ever expect a “Love Bug” movie to be comparable to “Gone in 60 Seconds” or “Dirty Larry, Crazy Mary,” this is technically a racing film. And, you know, the stunts here are about as good as you could expect from a television film. The last act even features a pretty cool moment where Herbie is cut in two, so we have two halves of the Volkswagen racing up the mountain road. A subplot about a rich car designer also features some oddball custom cars that look like spaceships or giant sharks. However, Reed's film also employs some CGI effects. Which have aged about as well as you'd expect. Herbie pitching a wheelie or the ultimate fate of Horace the Hate Bug look embarrassingly rubbery.

For me and people like me, this “Love Bug” is most interesting because of its star. That's right, the star of “Evil Dead” appeared in a Disney movie. (A couple of them, actually.) Bruce Campbell had a number of television gigs at the time – reoccurring guest roles on “Hercules,” “Xena,” and “Ellen” being the most prominent – so this was actually totally within his wheelhouse. Bruce is actually perfectly suited to the kind of wholesome hero you'd expect to see in a Disney movie. He has that old fashion movie star look after all and knows his way around gee-shucks, wholesome dialogue. While Campbell can't truly bring the movie alive, it is nice to seem how versatile his acting abilities can be. He does have decent chemistry with Alexandra Wentworth as Alex.

There are, in fact, a surprising number of recognizable names and faces in “The Love Bug.” In an oddball coincidences, the film features two cast members that would later co-star in Stephen Sommers' “The Mummy,” in roles almost the opposite of what they play here. Kevin J. O'Connor is the wacky, comic relief sidekick, playing an amusingly spacey artist type that is largely out-of-place in the world of racing. (He also wears a Superchunk t-shirt.) John Hannah, meanwhile, appears as a sniveling villain and enjoys hamming it up as such a vein and obnoxious character. Clarence Williams III has one or two good lines as the owner of the garage, especially when starting the race at the film's end. Mickey Dolenz shows up as the eccentric custom car designer, never truly defining his part but adding some quirky energy to the movie.

If its Letterboxd reviews are anything to go by, 1997's “The Love Bug” is not well regarded by Herbie devotees. (Yes, such people exist.) It's hard for me to imagine any human being getting passionate about a movie like this, that lacks so much energy and produces so little emotion in the viewer. If “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” was at least mildly amusing, Peyton Reed's second “Wonderful World of Disney” entry is exactly the lackluster kind of made-for-TV entertainment you'd expect from that description. But would I guess I would rather watch it again than “Herbie: Fully Reloaded,” if only because I'd rather watch beloved character actors slum it in a weird family flick than watch Lindsay Lohan's digitally decreased bust line play second fiddle to a CGI car. [Grade: C-]

Monday, August 19, 2019

Director Report Card: Peyton Reed (1995)

In the unlikely situation that you've been regularly reading Film Thoughts for the last year, you might have noticed the unusual way I've been going about reviewing the Marvel Cinematic Universe superhero movies. Instead of simply doing a Series Report Card devoted to this highly profitable and hugely popular franchise, I've been doing Director Report Cards devoted to some of the filmmakers who have been involved with Disney's license-to-print-money, throwing in extra reviews of the various other films in the series along the way. This extremely convoluted path through the M.C.U. has now led me to Peyton Reed, a director who has mostly made undistinguished comedies and rom-coms until he hooked his train to the Marvel machine.... At least, that's what it looks like. Will I, perhaps, find something of value inside Reed's non-”Ant-Man” movies as I watch my way through them? Let's find out.

1. The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

Throughout the nineties, the Walt Disney Company began to ramp up its television presence. Beginning in the mid-nineties, the Disney Channel started to slowly go from a premium network to a basic cable network. Fittingly, the studio began to invest more in their network, producing a number of TV shows and television movies that would become highly popular and beloved. In 1997, Disney would buy ABC wholesale, giving them another avenue to expand the Disney brand on television. Before any of that, the popular Wonderful World of Disney anthology series would be relaunched in 1991. As part of the long-running series, Disney would start to remake some of their quasi-classic live action films from the sixties. Among these was “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,” a new version of a popular sci-fi comedy starring Kurt Russell. The remake would be the feature debut of Peyton Reed, who previously made promotional shorts for television.

I've never seen 1969's “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,” so I can't say how Reed's version compares to the original. However, the two films seem to share the same general premise: Medfield College student Dexter Riley is struck by lightening while working on a computer and has the machine's stored knowledge downloaded into his brain, turning him into a super genius overnight. In this telling, Dexter is a slacker who lives on-campus with his two friends, conspiracy theorist Will and super-nerd Gozin. After gaining all the information contained on the college's newly connected-to-the-internet PC, Dexter leads the faltering college's trivia team to televised success. Becoming a celebrity, Dexter is involved in politics behind the scenes at the college and even in the government.

Made to air within a television time slot, 1995's “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” runs around 87 minutes once you take out the commercial breaks. Fitting such a compact run time, Reed's remake moves along at a breezy pace. The film moves from its various plot points as quickly as possible, making sure the audience isn't too worried about the internal logic of the narrative. “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” is ostensibly a comedy and includes many jokes along the way. Most of these don't get more than a chuckle out of the viewer, such as a pre-teen boy being booed off a television show or the increasingly desperate antics Medfield's dean employs to keep Dexter at the school. The movie's humble charms are sufficient enough to even make a potentially offensive scene of Dexter attending an international conference in DC actually fun to watch.

And it's a good thing that Reed's “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” blows by so quickly because the script is absolutely nothing special. The film follows a totally standard story outline we've seen in a hundred other family movies. A normal guy is suddenly gifted with some special ability or attribute. This gift causes him to become rich, famous, or powerful in some way. It quickly goes to his head and he's soon pushing away his friends with his egomaniacal, dick-bag behavior.  Naturally, by the end, he learns a lesson in humility by loosing his abilities, apologizing for being a jerk, and regaining his friends. 1995's “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” hits every single one of these points exactly when you expect it too.

While “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” made me laugh a few times, the funniest part of the film was likely completely unintended by the filmmakers back in 1995. You see, this film was made just when personal computers were becoming common features in regular homes, when the internet as-we-know-it was still in its infancy. So, naturally, this obscure television film's depiction of both is hilariously antiquated. As depicted in this film, the internet is a purely educational tool. You just type in a subject and you're taken to a website that contains tons of information about it. The website devoted to the Battle of Gettysberg, for example, features animated recreations of the historical conflict. Later, when a virus infects a computer, it's announced with a big pop-up on the screen. Afterwards, this same virus is spread to Dexter's brain via the telephone. The villain is a hacker that can apparently do anything, like turn up the heat in the White House. This kind of “computers are magic!” writing was common at the time and it's pretty funny to see such a straight example.

While “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” seems like it has a simple enough story, the scriptwriters really went out of their way to add more depth to it. So we get a surprising number of subplots to go along with the primary story. Dexter, naturally, has a love interest, in the form of Sarah, who is seemingly charmed by his slacker behavior even though that makes no sense. The film devotes a number of scenes to Gozin finding a girlfriend, which Dexter helps him with. (Because apparently the internet can instantly match-make lonely nerds.) Most contrived is the movie's villain, a hacker known as the Viper. There's even government agents following Dexter along, because they suspect he might be the Viper. The bad guy's real identity is easy to guess but it's totally unexpected that this goofy Disney movie has a plot with so much political intrigue in it.

Most of Peyton Reed's previous directorial credits, before this, were the live action segments for the “Back to the Future” cartoon adaptation and short TV documentaries about “The Honeymooners” and “Forrest Gump.” I imagine these were not projects that afforded much in the way of creative vision. So, for the most part, “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” is as undistinguished as you'd expect a TV movie from 1995 to look. The colors are flat, the cinematography sitcom-like. However, Reed does occasionally show some visual flair. Such as some zippy whip-pans during a montage of Dexter's game show supremacy. Or the musical choice that highlights the scene of Gozin and his girlfriend first meeting. (Also, a character wears a noticeable Superchunk T-shirt, the first of several references Reed would make to the band.)

While the original “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” had a young Kurt Russell to support it, the remake has to settle for Kirk Cameron. Now we all know what a sanctimonious douche nozzle Kirk Cameron is. In 1995, he was just a wholesome television star. After “Growing Pains” but before “Left Behind,” “The Compute Wore Tennis Shoe” was part of Cameron's time as a television movie star. (See also Disney Channel Original “You Lucky Dog.”) All his personal dingbattery aside, Cameron is suitably charming as the updated Dexter Riley. He's got a big smile, a laid back screen presence, and can crack a joke with ease. It's a part well within Cameron's wheelhouse and that's perfectly fine for a movie like this.

The supporting crop of actors are similarly well cast. Larry Miller is absolutely delightful as the unscrupulous dean of Medfield. He gets most of the movie's laugh, such as in a bizarre scene involving beach towels, or when he pretends to be a waiter and then abruptly stops pretending. Jeff Garlin and Eddie Deezan appear as the FBI agents tracking The Viper, a truly oddball pairing that made me laugh. Dan Castellaneta, wearing a bad wig and sounding nothing like Homer Simpson, appears as the game show host. A gravelly voiced Dean Jones appears as the dean of a rival school, bringing some gravitas to this silly television production. Matthew McClury is fittingly petulant as Dexter's pre-teen rival, a child genius that is appropriately obnoxious.

There's really not much to say about 1995's “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.” Like most of Disney's television, it's totally inoffensive. Competent but not extraordinary, mildly amusing but never truly rising above, cheaply produced but by no means ugly. Almost by design, it was intended to air once or twice on TV and be forgotten. While the Kurt Russell original would spawn two sequels of its own, the remake has disappeared into the pop culture void. It doesn't even have a home video release, instead surviving as a bootleg recording. Yet that also doesn't  mean I regret watching it. If I had seen this as a kid – I'm really shocked I didn't – I probably would have liked it a lot. [6/10]