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Movie Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet

ralph breaks the internetRalph Breaks the Internet may not be as good as the original, but it still has the same heart that its predecessor did. It takes a while to find its bearings, but when it lays in to making fun of internet culture and fellow Disney properties, it becomes an amazing thing to watch. And down deep, there’s a great story about friendship… and insecurities.

It’s been 6 years since the events of our first film, and everything is exactly as we last saw it. Wreck-It Ralph (John C Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) are still best friends. But while Ralph is enjoying the routine of his life, Vanellope wants more. She’s tired of racing around the same tracks over and over. And so, when Wi-Fi is installed in the arcade, Ralph and Vanellope find themselves scouring the internet for a part to fix the Sugar Rush game.

Of course, then they find themselves without the money to purchase what they need and find themselves at the mercy of the very strange economy of the internet. This is where the film takes off as they visit various locales trying to make some money. This includes a Grand Theft Auto / Twisted Metal type online racing game, where they encounter a racer played to perfection by Gal Gadot. I know this is weird to say about a 30-something and a 10-year old, but you really sort of ‘ship her with Vanellope. Friendship, of course! *wink*

Speaking of great new characters, we also get to meet “Yes,” (Taraji P Henson) the algorithm behind a Buzzfeed/YouTube type site. The film endlessly skewers internet trends and viral videos, which not only makes for a lot of fun but also some wry commentary on what it is we do for entertainment online.

But the absolute breakout scene of the film (Minor spoiler, but an early version of this scene was shown at Comic Con, so this shouldn’t be news to anyone) is Vanellope learning that she is now one of the Disney princesses.  Not only is this the best scene in the film, but they went to the lengths of getting as many of the original voice actors for each of the Disney princesses as possible. It’s also a great commentary on the tropes of Princessdom. Oh, and while in the Disney area, they make fun of Star Wars. A lot. It’s perfect.

What ends up working the most about this film is that it is driven by these two characters who we as the audience can see are drifting apart and want different things. We also see them making bad choices in how they communicate with one another about their wants and insecurities, which makes them drift even further apart. it’s a great introspection on friends and friendship and friends drifting apart.

The only downside of this is I’m not sure kids will buy into this message. It feels much more like an adult conversation about insecurities and why it’s hard to maintain adult friendships, whereas kids just make friends because they’re into the same stuff and in close proximity to one another.

The other downside of the film is it’s not clear if this will keep the same classic vibe that the original Wreck-It Ralph did. By being very comfortably retro, it set itself apart as being sort of a film placed outside of time: thanks to nostalgia for classic 8-but arcade games, it already has a classic feel before it’s even made.

This film trades in that classic vibe for such current and prescient content/memes as Fortnite dances, and it’s unclear what cultural impact (if any?) this will have several years from now. Then again, you might have said the same thing about Q-bert or Street Fighter, and we still have all of those characters in Wreck-It Ralph.

One thing writer-director Rich Moore knows is comedy. As a veteran of The Simpsons and writer/director of some of its most classic early episodes (“Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment” is a personal favorite), he knows how to bring giant belly-laughs and smart satire. All of that is served up here in giant Thanksgiving-sized helpings.

The only problem is the film takes 20 to 30 minutes explaining its newly revised premise until the funny really kicks in. Sequels usually can forgo some basic exposition and cut to the chase, but this has to reset its basic premise before wackiness can ensue. And it doesn’t really hit its stride until that scene where we’re making fun of Disney princesses. It hits that climax about 2/3 of the way through, and rarely approaches the same heights again. It’s really unfortunate, but at the same time, it’s hard to remember a better single scene of any animated film in the past several years. Those five minutes are worth the price of admission alone.

The original Wreck-It Ralph works so well because of its giant heart.

When Ralph embraces that he’s a bad guy and is willing to use his badness to save his new, weird, glitchy friend, we all shed a tiny tear. It’s a beautiful story about broken people finding each other and being ok with not being “perfect” according to everyone else’s standards.

Ralph Breaks the Internet might break your funny bone, but not your heart. It’s missing some of that beautiful magic of the first, but it’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser for families looking for a great time in theaters over the holiday season.

Here’s hoping Disney will green-light a third film where they just make fun of Disney properties.

3.75 out of 5 stars

PS- Be aware there are two after-credits scenes, but neither is a must-see. However, at least one provides more of the meta-humor poking fun at the film and its marketing. They’re worth sticking around to suck the extra marrow out of the film, but if your little kids have to run to the potty and can’t hold it much longer, you won’t miss too much. This isn’t the MCU. . . yet.  Wait a minute. . . Here’s a pitch: Ralph Wrecks the MCU— IN 2024! Crossover with Marvel vs. Capcom! Make it a team-up with Deadpool. BRILLIANT!!! Rich Moore– call me.

Movie Review: Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch

All the Whos down in Whoville liked The Grinch movie a lot,
But the critics on Rotten Tomatoes—they did NOT.

Look, let’s be 100% real here. It’s a foregone conclusion whether or not you will go see Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch sometime in the next few months. Either you have children of a certain age who will enjoy this regardless of its artistic mediocrity, or not. Or you, yourself, are a huge fan of Grinchitude and want to check this out. Or, perhaps, most Grinchily, you want to hate-watch this because your heart is also two sizes two small (A holiday tip of the cap to you, good hatewatchers!)

So, look—it’s not going to be bad. But it’s not great. And the sad thing is? It should be. The original Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas book is a concentrated, aged Christmas eggnog made with the finest and most rarefied ingredients, and it should be a holiday explosion of joy and the best of Christmas sentiments. Instead this film is a somewhat middling retelling of a tale that we already know already, going  from its scant 64 pages and 1800 or so words (this review is longer than the book itself—buckle up) and stretches it to just under 90 minutes. Even starting with that as the base for your eggnog, if you water it down too much, it’s not going to be delightful and tasty. It’s going to be insipid and weak.

The first most obvious question is why remake a classic? It has already been adapted once as an animated TV show to perfection by Chuck Jones, the genius behind so much of Looney Tunes, and once again in a less successful remake by Ron Howard starring Jim Carrey. I can confidently say that this is one of the top two versions of the Grinch story ever made for film or TV. However, it still misses so many of the important story beats, misses its mark, and begs the question why you shouldn’t just read the book or watch the Chuck Jones version.

Before we go any further, I can hear the grumbling—another cynical middle aged critic. Why should we care what he thinks? I bet he’s the true Grinch and just doesn’t like anything.

Confession time:  I love Christmas. I am in the tank for the holiday season. I am not a Grinch, I am more like Santa—in both physique and demeanor. I love every damn thing about Christmas. I love the music, I love the decorations, I love the food, I love the time with friends and family, but most of all I love the movies and TV shows. And if it isn’t clear, I love the book, and I love the Chuck Jones animated version. But they’re not so perfect that I don’t think it can be adapted to a longer film.

This is why this film is so disappointing to me. This new version of The Grinch is only passable rather than a new modern classic. By all accounts, it should be so much better. Let’s deconstruct exactly what is so great about the original Dr. Seuss book and then talk about how this doesn’t quite measure up.

The Grinch was just mediocre– No one quite knows the reason. It could be its head wasn’t screwed on just right.

Illumination Studios’ previous outings with Dr. Seuss have yielded incredibly good results with both Horton Hears a Who and The Lorax, the latter which may fill up some of your favorite dank meme stashes. So what happened here? Their previous winning formula was to stay true to the heart of those stories, while The Grinch somewhat misses its mark. More on this in a second.

And while Horton and Lorax were headed by the same creative teams who worked on the Despicable Me films, The Grinch is directed by the co-director of The Secret Life of Pets (another serviceable but not classic animated film) and frequent Kevin Smith Askew-niverse producer Scott Mosier. I’d expect some of that dark, quirky humor to creep in here, but it doesn’t. This is fairly by the book, which is what makes it mediocre rather than a masterpiece.

It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.

Also in the slam dunk category, we have Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous Grinch. Cumberbatch could normally read the phonebook and be interesting. So no one can say exactly why film studio executives thought that giving this role to him, making him do an American accent, and then changing his vocal delivery to be incredibly nasal and sniveling rather than the deep baritone that we expect from him (and which could surely compete with the deep resonant tones of Thurl Ravenscroft and Boris Karloff from the Chuck Jones original) was a good idea.

Even with an American accent, Cumberbatch in other roles – such as Dr. Stephen Strange — is authoritative, sometimes scary, and awesome in the literal sense of the word.

Instead, Cumberbatch sounds like he’s doing a Ken Jeong impression. And not the cool Ken Jeong—but Ken Jeong when he’s trying to be annoying Ken Jeong.

Yes, the Grinch sounds like Señor Chang from Community, not the Grinch. Why? You had the voice of Smaug, you had Sherlock, you had Khan (KHAAAAAN!!!!) and you shortchanged this. It’s like having Steph Curry on your team and telling him to just try for lay-ups.

But I think that the most likely reason of all, may have been that its heart was two sizes too small.

This movie just missed the mark. Illumination’s Lorax didn’t stray from its basic message that “unless someone cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to change– it’s not.” Their Horton didn’t shy away from emphasizing that “a person’s a person no matter how small.” Working from that theme, from that emotional knockout punch, they could take a short children’s book and pad it to movie-length.

So what is the heart of the Grinch story?

How The Grinch Stole Christmas is the story of its title character. He is the one who we follow, and he is the one who we care about — his heart being two sizes too small, his evil plot that we actually sort of root for and enjoy. Because let’s be honest: the holidays annoy all of us sometimes. And so, his eventual redemption via heart triple-embiggening and superhero turn in which he undoes his dirty deed to return the Whos’ Christmas accouterments is what we root for.

But the essence of that story that will make your heart grow 3 sizes bigger is the Grinch’s realization that he hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming—it came! It came without ribbons, tags, boxes, or bags! The Whos were still merry, even without their Who Hash and Roast Beast.

But in this movie, the story instead becomes about Cindy Lou Who and her overburdened working mother (Maya Rudolph). In the book and Chuck Jones adaptation Little Cindy Lou, who is no more than 2, appears only once up for a drink of water, and that’s it. Here, similar to the mistake made by Ron Howard’s Grinch movie, Little Cindy Lou Who is aged up to somewhere around 10 and given a precocious and cute backstory.

Cindy then becomes the audience’s point-of-view character—the one we are supposed to relate to –rather than the Grinch. This is a cardinal mistake. And in this film, Cindy Lou is far more like one of the three orphans adopted by Gru in Illumination’s Despicable Me movies. She even looks like a cross between Edith and Elsie rather than one of the Whos that we know from the story book. This wouldn’t stick out so much except that all of the other characters look like the Whos we expect from the book’s illustrations.

The Evolution of Cindy Lou Who Graphic Policy 2018

With this shift from Grinch to Cindy Lou, the film also shifts its main meaning. No longer do we learn the main moral message against consumerism and for holiday spirit, family, community, and togetherness.

Now we get a message about an overworked single mom who works all day and takes care of her kids at night with no time for herself – already a really terrible Hollywood trope – and her adorable child who wants her to have something special for Christmas.

And the message is that the long-suffering mom doesn’t need anything else special, because Little Cindy Lou Who is the most specialist thing of all. Well that’s a really great message for kids about the central place that most of them play in their parents’ hearts. But screw that—this mom needs a spa day! Or a nanny.

The switch to Cindy Lou also shortchanges The Grinch as a character. In attempting to pad the story, they add a backstory of why The Grinch hates Christmas. It makes the inevitable turn away from his Grinchy self somewhat less meaningful and poignant. See kids, (minor spoiler alert for this movie) it was just that the Grinch was lonely all along and if only he would be invited to be a part of Christmas, then everyone would feel better, including the Grinch himself. NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO.

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In Defense of Grinches Everywhere

The whole point of the Grinch is he doesn’t necessarily have a reason to hate Christmas. In defense of all of the Christmas Grinches out there, I say to you that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. It’s not necessarily that you’re lonely. Maybe it’s that you actually can’t stand all of the people you’re supposed to be around during the holidays — like your cloying, annoyingly perky, or racist family members. That’s good.

Maybe you’re just one of those people who really likes Halloween and is into spooky things rather than twinkly lights and Jesus and Santa. We all have Jack Skellingtons and Sallys in our life. And they’re great people.

Maybe it’s just the noise, noise, noise, NOISE! There’s nothing wrong with that.

But the story of the Grinch and his redemption is not in him necessarily learning to love Christmas (and that he’s always loved Christmas, he just didn’t have the right people to share it with). What we have to understand is, with him as out point of view character is. . .

The Grinch has a point. The overt trappings of the holiday season are overwhelming. Some of us love them and it is fuel for our holiday cheer. For many it’s just stress. And for some it’s just annoying. The Grinch thinks he hates Christmas and can stop it by getting rid of its stuff.  Instead, he learns it’s actually about togetherness and that as long as we have hands to clasp we welcome Christmas, fahoo fores dahoo dores.

It does a major disservice to the character of The Grinch — and anyone who even occasionally feels like a Grinch at the holidays — that if only someone would invite you to their Christmas party, then you would feel better about it all. Maybe that’s true to a certain extent, and undoubtedly we should look amongst our friends and closest loved ones for those who might feel left out or lonely.  But that’s not what is bothering The Grinch’s.

This film goes from being a morality tale about not getting your heart set on the presents and trappings of Christmas and is instead the ersatz message of the importance of family (and found family). But it’s not that this is a bad message—but it’s not The Grinch. It’s like reading The Sneetches and coming away with the message that you should be careful about getting sand everywhere when you visit the beach.

But, this movie is actually kind of good.
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Grinch.

Ok, it’s not all bad. I’ve complained a LOT, and this movie isn’t deserving of that much scorn. It missed the mark, but not by all that much.

There are, for example, some storylines, side characters, and gags that are amazingly fun. It is beautifully animated and a vibrant and fully realized world. The twon of Whoville is a perfect Christmas Paradise for lovers of the holiday season. However, those Grinches among us will find it certainly overbearing and annoying.

And, of course, what would Christmas be without the music? This film brings in the best of the classic holiday catalog from everything to Nat King Cole singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire to Run DMC rapping about Chritmas in Hollis. Our town of Whoville even includes overbearing carolers doing a rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Genthlemen that descends into them stalking our Grinch and facing off against him in a West Side Story / Beat It inspired showdown. It’s pretty amusing. However, despite having Pharrell Williams as both narrator and musical supervisor (wait, is Pharell our new Burl Ives?), they never really utilize him incredibly well or incorporate the signature song we all expect very well.

Of course, the best part about a film set in a universe created by Dr. Seuss is you expect all sort of delicious and beautiful contraptions– the Floo-Floobers, Tah-Tinkers, Trum-Tookers, and Who-Wonkers. And we get them, albeit too late in the film, as the Grinch doesn’t deploy his wonderful toys until he’s ready to perform his heist, at which point we are already an hour into the movie.

Even though the heart of this film is somewhat misplaced, it doesn’t make it altogether bad. The Grinch attempts to capture other reindeer before having to settle on his dog Max, introducing us to a particularly fun new reindeer friend named Fred. This provides some of the most fun of the film, and (minor spoiler alert?) ends up coming back in the film’s ending back to the theme of family– especially found family.

Max is the other saving grace of this film. He is a perfect Grinch’s best friend, and every kid will absolutely love Max. Confession: I want Max as a dog. He is a 13/10 best doggo. Would Grinch Again.

This film does have a heart of gold, and a good message.  But it is really only going to be received best by children who are less familiar with the book or the classic cartoon. However, if you’re looking for a fun and safe place to stash your kids for 90 minutes, there are worse places to do it in. And despite all of the complaints, the film does one of the most important things possible in a kids movie: not annoy parents. Mission accomplished.

3 out of 5 Christmas Stars

Movie Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

bohemian rhapsody posterIs this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Bohemian Rhapsody hopes that the charm and award-worthy performance of its star Rami Malek and strength of its music carries the film, and they mostly do. But rather than being “Bohemian Rhapsody,” this film is more like the more obscure Queen song “I’m in Love With My Car.”

In fact, most of the first half of the film centers around another song entirely, “Love of My Life,” which a young Freddie Mercury pens for his girlfriend Mary. For the first half of the film, she is the love of his life, his muse, and his guiding light. It’s a pretty by-the book romance. We meet him when he is still a young Farrokh Bulsara working at Heathrow Airport, who defies his Parsi immigrant parents by both adopting the name “Freddie” and pursuing music rather than a more stable career.

The film tries to check off a lot of boxes as though it’s a paint-by-numbers jukebox musical biopic off of an assembly line — and the first of these are the tragic romance between Freddie and Mary and Freddie’s relationship with his parents (set up so he can finally get approval from his disapproving father in the finale!) The problem is that you can feel the formula. And, rather than taking any one of these themes and developing it fully, in its attempts to be about everything, it’s actually about nothing. This is tragic, as the life of Freddy Mercury and the music of Queen deserves better than a Wikipedia-level recitation of facts.

Another checkbox is the repeated focus on “this band is a family” which if it were any more overt would require Vin Diesel to show up and ask for copyright infringement royalties on behalf of the Fast and Furious movies. Unfortunately, Freddy plays out front and Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon mostly show up as “the other guys in Queen” rather than having real personalities or character arcs. This is tragic, as each of them are rock gods in their own right and deserve more than to play backup to Rami Malek’s performance.

Another major issue simply checked-off (and possibly the most consequential) is Mercury’s sexuality and place as an icon of gay/queer/bi community. The first half of the film, he is presented just like any other heterosexual rock star but he’s definitely in love with Mary. But his personal story of coming out and coming to grips with his attraction to men is played a little strangely– as though it is shameful or tawdry, including a hookup with a man in a truck stop restroom. At the same time, they really play up his love with Mary and how she inspired some of his biggest songs.

And then, suddenly, he tries to talk to her and say “I think I’m bisexual”– to which she declares, “No, you’re gay.”

Ok.

And then the rest of the movie, he is gay. He pines for her, but it’s unclear what exactly his feelings are.

It’s really easy to read “bi-erasure” into that. It’s also indicative of the sheen that is used to gloss over all the weird rough patches that normal human beings have. I don’t deign to know what was in Freddie Mercury’s heart of hearts and how he viewed his own sexuality. But I am pretty much 100% sure it wasn’t as simple as just that.

The film also doesn’t do anything to really paint the picture of the stakes of all of this– it was a weird, wild world in the ’70s. For instance, in 1976, Elton John announced he was bi to Rolling Stone and went from rock’n’roll royalty with back-to-back-to-back #1 albums to a pariah whose next albums were record chart poison.

Mercury couldn’t be openly bi, or gay, comfortably in public. But the films plays it as only tabloid fodder and an annoyance but that’s basically it rather than an existential threat to the band and his career wrapped around a personal existential crisis. A better film would’ve introduced this story with Elton John, or a friendship with David Bowie and discussions about queer sexuality to give the audience an understanding of just how big the stakes were. It also was a missed opportunity for some character development for the other band members.

Another checkbox they seem to need to check off is Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis. However, as biopics are wont to do, they compress his diagnosis into the weeks before the band’s iconic Live Aid performance. . . and then the film is over with that as the climax. To be fair– it’s an amazing climax. But, as the tropiest of tropes, they depict Mercury coughing into a white handkerchief and seeing blood come up as code for “he’s sick with AIDS.”

At least they didn’t fall into the “dying of AIDS” trope trap. No doubt that had they gone through the next five years through Mercury’s death and had “The Show Must Go On” as the film’s climax, that would’ve happened. And far too often, queer characters in media contract AIDS and die as though it’s some sort of punishment or warning. So it’s good they don’t fall into that trope. But in so doing, they also fall into numerous others.

I’d say I expect better from Bryan Singer, but. . . I really can’t say that I do. He “gets it” as a gay man. But it’s not nuanced in any way, and the story we seem to be told is, “Freddy was closeted, then he was gay.”

Queen — as a band, a cultural force, a legend — is just so much more than this film covers. It tries to check off a lot of boxes, and so in its attempts to be about everything, it’s sort of about nothing.

It doesn’t have a super strong point of view– it presents these rock gods like a really great “Behind the Music”and all of the individuals seem a little too polished. Mercury is the only one with any edge at all, and even then we get the feeling we’re getting the truth only from a certain point of view.

This is the jukebox biopic America deserves (brash, fun, glossy, uncomplicated) but not the one it needs (smart, challenging, nuanced).

But I daresay anyone who doesn’t cheer/cry at the final “We Are the Champions” performance at Live Aid has a heart of stone.

This is destined to be a huge crowd-pleaser, but unfortunately presents only a small facet of the crown jewel of rock that Queen actually is.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Bodied

Prepare to be offended. The rap battle comedy/drama Bodied, executive produced by Eminem, is likely to push anyone’s buttons who watches it. While it gives an interesting look at the underground world of rap battles, it unfortunately is somewhat shallow and nihilistic in its views, It seemingly prefers to be about nothing other than how savage your rhyming bars can be as you put another person down. This is certainly entertaining, but those looking for a broader social commentary might want to look elsewhere. And any members of the PC police should leave their badges at the door.

Our main character is Adam (Calum Worthy), a college student and the son of famous Berkeley professor Merkin (Anthony Michael Hall) who is a darling of the literary criticism world, desperately trying to find his niche. He thinks he has found this in an academic study of underground battle rap, where he partners with a top battle rapper named “Behn Grymm.” (Jackie Long) Yes, that is a coded Fantastic Four reference, as he is a solid giant rock monster wall of the rap world. He IS The Thing. There are other incredibly nerdy references sprinkled throughout this film, as should be expected remembering that Eminem has repeatedly rapped about Superman, appeared as Batman and Robin in his “Without Me” video, and even contributed a Venom theme song to the recent film. Ok, maybe that last one we should forget.

Adam eventually finds himself pulled up onstage to participate in a rap battle rather than just studying it — and finds he’s actually pretty good at it. As he falls deeper into the rap world, he’s faced with ethical dilemmas along the way, from whether or not “the n word” is off limits to whether he should lie to his disapproving girlfriend. He joins a motley rap crew that includes Korean Prospek (Jonathan Park), Italian/Latino Che Corleon (Walter Perez), and female rapper Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai) and it is fun to see this film’s take on what “diversity” means.

Unfortunately, the film falls into a (likely unintended) trope. Ever see a kung fu movie, tv show, comic book where a white person discovers they are somehow better at the ancient martial art than the people who invented it? Karate Kid, Iron Fist, The Matrix? This view shows up all over popular culture, and in this case, it’s the white person who is better at battle rap than all the people who came up with it. Ugh. Welcome to Orientalism, and specifically the “Mighty Whitey” trope.

And cue the discussion of cultural appropriation, which gets dissected plenty in this film. However, like most of the hard charges and questions the film puts out, none of them are ever satisfactorily answered. Which begs the question, what is even this film’s purpose? Is it just to be offensive? And is that, therefore, the essence of battle rap: there is no deeper meaning, it’s just insult comedy set to beats?

This film is the antithesis of political correctness. It celebrates how it insults people based on the race or background, but at least is equal opportunity in this, saving its worst put downs for white people. One rap battle between Adam and Prospek, he’s impressed that Adam correctly identified him as Korean with references to Korean food and comparing him to Kim Jong Un. “By rap battle standards, that’s politically correct,” he says.

There’s also a great conversation between Prospek and Devine where they both complain that the only insults they ever get are about their race and gender, respectively. They turn this on its head in one of the most satisfying parts of the film– however, in context of the critique of “self-deprecation as comedy” presented by Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, this film might want to rethink its choice here.

Its strongest critiques it saves for white liberals, and this is actually the heart of the film. Set largely between Oakland and the campus of UC Berkeley, our main character spends as much of his time trying to justify to his white friends why rap battle is worth serious inquiry. Interestingly enough, much like when he goes into rap battle mode to decide what put-downs are the best for his opponents, we see the group of white liberal students all sitting around trying to put each other down based on how racist or homophobic they are, using all of the buzzwords of political correctness. It’s a really great take on PC/ SJW culture– that essentially we’re just battle rappers in a different context. They’re not entirely wrong.

But, so PC police white liberals are too uptight. This we knew. And?

It’s really unfortunate that the film doesn’t seem to have a broader point of view than that. But maybe it’s just meant to be enjoyed, rather than thought about. It presents its subject as serious, but not really that serious. It, however, still hits hard, and should be taken seriously, if not literally.

3 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: The Hate U Give

the hate u give posterThe Hate U Give is a blistering indictment of cyclical violence and cyclical poverty, while delivering a star making performance by its main cast. Adapted from the popular novel, the title is taken from a Tupac lyric: T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E is an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F#*&$ Everybody.”

And it is this message that is carried throughout this film’s social conscience. A never-ending spiral of violence falls down on the next generation, and continues old wounds and old wars.

So how do we solve it?

Enter our star, appropriately named Starr (Amandla Stenberg). The film opens with her and her brother as young children being give “The Talk” by their black-panther-inspired father. This is “the talk” that black parents need to have with their children about how to interact with the police warning them that if they do not comply and act exactly a certain way they may end up dead.

She lives her life in two worlds. One is at her tony private school across town, where she is one of the only black students. She does not use street slang, she can’t be aggressive, she doesn’t quote rap lyrics, because she doesn’t want to give any of the students any reason to believe that she is an angry or threatening black person. She has a white boyfriend, who cutely tries to use this lingo on her, which is almost endearing but also very cringe-worthy– likely intentionally so.

Starr’s other world is at home in her neighborhood. She is free to love her sneakers and Hip-Hop and talk anyway she wants. She also faces violence and drugs regularly.

The opening scene foreshadows an incident not long into the film where Starr and a childhood friend are pulled over by the police and he is murdered when he goes to reach for a comb and the officer believes it is gun. Starr is then thrust unintentionally into a very rough position.

The strong culture of silence when violence happens– not snitching to the police, even when the police are, ironically, the perpetrators– in order to cover for the local drug dealers and other people in power. One of the most powerful, King, is played by Anthony Mackie, who gives possibly the best performance in this film and one of the best of his career. He is charming and strong. You can see why he is powerful just based on his charisma. On the other hand, every word he says is backed by muscle and guns. And despite a history between him and Starr’s father, he doesn’t want her to speak up against police violence, because her friend was one of his dealers.

Of course, this is the headline in most of the major media. Young black kid gets shot for no reason, but he was a drug dealer, so what? It’s at this point where Starr is torn between speaking out or not. She feels the need to stand up for her friend and against the violence that plagues her community, but she also wants to retain her anonymity. She knows speaking out, especially publicly, will make her just another black victim in the eyes of her classmates, and also place a target on her and her family and their home. And while she navigates this ethical quandry, even in silence, she is exposed to the ways casual racism creeps into her interactions with her white friends at school. Some of them get upset when she starts talking more about social justice or police brutality (sound like any #Comicsgate people we know?)

Her story is in a sense a superhero origin story. And her voice and her opinion is her superpower. There is a moment late in the film where she confronts police violence threatening to turn a peaceful protest into a riot, and she stands up for what she believes in. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes on film this year — almost like the No Man’s Land scene from Wonder Woman in terms of a hero taking up her mantle and finding her place in the universe — and the only downside is that everyone who truly needs to see this film never will.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but this is a better film than A Star is Born, and most of the other Oscarbait that we are about to see. The performances are crisp. The script is tight. And even despite an ending that was maybe a little bit too pat, it was also harrowing and you really get a sense of how easily things could have turned out tragically.

We see this tragedy too often played out in real life. Or perhaps, we don’t see it because of the pervasive invisibility of violence in communities of color, which is often treated with a condescending tone as though it is some moral failing of the victims of crime and oppression.

This film reveals the not-so-invisible hands that oppress everyone. It has everything to do with who’s getting rich off of the system, and also a media complicit in telling the same stories over and over that contribute to white supremacy.

This is a fantastic film, and worthy of both your attention and your heart space. If you can’t see it in the theater, make sure you see it in some other way, streaming or at home, before awards season. If this doesn’t end up with several Golden Globe and Oscar, etc nominations, we also have a broken, racist awards system.

4 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Halloween

halloween-poster-2018This sequel to the original Halloween pretends its sequels never happened, and, upon jettisoning four decades of history, brings us the best reinvention of the story of Michael Myers ever. Finally, we have a worthy sequel to the film that helped define the slasher genre.

While this is almost a cliche, the best way to describe this film is “all killer, no filler.” Indeed, including flashbacks to the original film, you go nary 15 minutes in this film without someone getting brutally murdered by Michael Myers.

The film plays very close to the structure of the original: Michael Myers, in an asylum, nearing the anniversary of his murders, is visited by two real-crime podcasters (how very 2018!) who want to interview him ahead of his transfer to another facility.

His doctor introduces them, and they go about further investigating the murders that happened 40 years ago, including an interview with a fairly off-kilter and paranoid Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) the sole survivor of Myers’ previous spree. Just like the original, our monster breaks out during the transfer and returns to his hometown to go on a murder spree.

The only difference is, this time Laurie has been preparing for 40 years for this very moment. In some of the film’s best parts, and a supreme twist of fate, Myers becomes the hunted and she becomes the hunter. And this is where the film becomes wholly different and its own thing.

She is joined in this with both her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), who have varying degrees of tolerance for their mother/grandmother’s nuttery. To be fair, the elder Strode very much seems to have gone off the deep end, and hearing that Myers is back confirms all of her fears and preparation as realism, not paranoia.

The best surprise of the film is having this Trinity of three generations of strong women uniting to fight this unstoppable evil. It takes the first film’s rumination on purity and power and makes it a culturally relevant feminist coup de grace for today. The Strode women, divided by generations and outlooks on the world, when united are the only force that even comes close to counteracting Myers.

The other great surprise of the film is just how funny it is. Screenwriter Danny McBride and screenwriter/directorDavid Gordon Greenwho are normally more adept at stoner comedy (Pineapple Express, Your Highness, Eastbound and Down) put some really amazing touches on here to help break the tension. While the film is all killer, no filler, in between the kills we often get moments of levity that help set up the characters who are about to die gruesome deaths at the hands of Michael Myers and the stakes of the next phase of murder sprees.

Yes, it’s also extremely brutal. This film earns its R rating with some truly gross special effects that we haven’t seen outside of a Troma film in a long while. Also, apparently in this universe blood spurts very very very loudly! There are also a few moments involving impaling, or people’s heads being smashed in, that are on full display here. Horror and slasher fans will be delighted.

Again, it’s almost played for comical effect, and helps lighten the tone of what would otherwise be so dark and depressing. But the film never enters into camp, always staying on the right side of the slasher genre. While it knows that some of the campy elements are necessary, it keeps its funny parts funny and violent parts brutal.

The other great thing about this film is it does not present a great barrier to anyone who has never seen a Halloween film before. It sets up its universe extremely well and establishes its characters even without knowledge of the previous material. However, for die-hard true fans there are a lot of nods to the original that make you feel right at home. This also includes a return of the iconic John Carpenter score, which is as effective now as it was four decades ago.

Fans will eat this film up, and general audiences will likely have a good time as well, though maybe not as good of a time as the core audience. In this way it’s very much like the films in the Marvel franchise where there is a definite fanbase who will enjoy the film at a different level, but there is a strong mass appeal as well as a low bar for entry.

This is not only a great Halloween film, it is a great film for Halloween time. The slasher movie is a tried-and-true staple of the horror genre and especially popular this time of year. Audiences will find the tricks and treats that they so desire here and will be thoroughly satisfied.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

bad times poster largeBad Times at the El Royale might tread some familiar territory, but it’s also not like anything we’ve quite seen before. Much like director and writer Drew Goddard’s previous film, Cabin in the Woods, this is both an homage and new classic in the canon of “strangers meet at a hotel” noir thrillers.

The basic story is quite simple, and don’t let anyone spoil any more than this for you. Four strangers check in to the El Royale Hotel which sits on the border between California and Nevada, with half of the motel in each state. The old place has seen better times, once the hay day of licentiousness in 1960s Rat Pack Nevada, it has now, for one reason or another, fallen into disarray and ill repute. However, these four strangers, a priest played by Jeff Bridges, a singer played by Cynthia Erivo, a vacuum salesman played by Jon Hamm, and a California hippie played by Dakota Johnson, all check in one fateful afternoon. Each has a secret, or multiple secrets, as does the hotel itself. And wackiness ensues.

The film also includes great turns by a supporting cast that includes Chris Hemsworth, who reunites with Goddard after Cabin in the Woods as a would-be Manson family/cult leader, and also a brief any-shorter-and-it-would-have-been-a-cameo appearance by Nick Offerman. A lot of the hotel’s secrets are also held by the El Royale’s only staff person, played by Lewis Pullman, who has a bunch of secrets of his own.

One of the best things about the film is its structure, revealing the backstories of each of our main characters one-at-a-time as it explores them in their individual hotel rooms, identifying them by their rooms (Room 4, Room 5, Room 1) rather than their names. It’s the setting-as-character basics that make an atmospheric film like this so much fun, especially as it relies on a late 60’s R&B heavy soundtrack to establish its feel. And, oh my gosh, that soundtrack. In this way — its structure and reliance on soundtrack — it’s easy to make comparisons to Quentin Tarantino. Indeed, this film bears a lot of resemblances to Tarantino’s own take on “strangers meet in a hotel” The Hateful Eight. But Bad Times at the El Royale is so much more, especially in shedding much of Tarantino’s problematic racial commentary/edginess for a better social conscience that is far more incisive. Royale also retains Goddard’s interest from Cabin in the Woods on themes like voyeurism and its counterpoint, paranoia about people watching you.

The film really rests on three main performances — Bridges, Erivo, and Hemsworth. Jeff Bridges for the last many years has been largely coasting, with most of his performances ranging mostly between mixes of his personas as The Dude and his Oscar-winning performance in Crazy Heart. Even his most compelling recent roles, such as in True Grit and Hell or High Water are really just mixes of those two. Finally in Bad Times at the El Royale we see him stretch his acting muscles and doing something wholly new and interesting.

And Hemsworth, known best for his blockbuster performances as a leading man does something wholly new and interesting. He’s beautiful and charismatic and menacing and quixotic and everything you expect a cult leader to be. What’s really interesting is he seems to be basing at least some of his vocal cadence and performance on the unlikeliest of people — Bill Murray. While that shouldn’t be in itself surprising since Murray also has straddled comedy, action, and serious drama extremely well, but it’s that he sounds just a little bit like Carl Spackler from Caddyshack. . . so he’s got that going for him.  You almost forget he’s in this movie, as he doesn’t really appear until the third act, and when he does he comes in like a heretofore unseen movie monster straight from the pits of hell. And yet, he also provides the explanation for a lot of what’s happening in the film thematically.

However, Erivo is the real star of the film as Darlene Sweet, whose singing performances provide both soundtrack and commentary to the film. Her singing literally has to carry several of the scenes and it is intense and soulful. This is a star-making performance and I can’t wait to see more of her in a few weeks in Widows. There is something to be said for the film’s commentary on race and expectations both in its late 1960s setting and today. [Minor spoilers for the first 10 minutes of the film, so skip if you must] Her reveal of her story and background are one of the most important. When she checks in, several comments are made by other characters that imply she is checking in to do sex work. She is dismissed. She is invisible. She is assumed to be less than she is.

Later, she provides some of the film’s best commentary as she skewers Hemsworth’s Billy Lee by deconstructing exactly who he is and what he is doing. Unbeknownst to her, she beats him at his own game, hoisting him on his own pseudo-intellectual/spiritual petard. She’s the center of the film, its Rosetta Stone to understanding it. And it’s a slamming indictment of racism both in the 60’s and today that we’re sort of tricked into a stealth lead role by a woman of color. Three white men top the bill for the film when she is, in fact, the key character. This says everything about the subtle ways white male supremacy clouds almost everything into a cultural landscape where black women are largely made to be invisible. There’s also a moment where she does this great character reveal that changes her appearance– and it says so much about (white) beauty standards and the expectations for women of color to change in order to pass in (white) society.

The film is violent and brutal. Even from its opening moments which provide some fairly shocking, and, in retrospect, amazingly aware, cinematography. There are moments in the film where the camera placement and shot composition is so on point. You could frame some of these images and put them on a wall, or composite them into a movie poster.

The script is also fairly smart, full of quippy dialogue that never seems to take itself quite so seriously. At times, the script seems to want to make a point about the nature of duality — Heaven and Hell, good and evil, California and Nevada — but it’s never quite as smart as maybe it thinks it is. However, I doubt Goddard ever meant for the script to be all that smart. While offering some imagery and symbolism, it doesn’t seem that there is any greater grand meaning or design behind any of it. While there is duality, Goddard isn’t really making any statements about the nature of Good and Evil, etc. It’s mostly just a fun thriller which is character-forward rather than symbolism-forward.

And while the visuals in the film and its methodological approach are beautiful and masterful, it’s also an incredibly slow burn. The only downside is that the film clocks in at 2 hours and 21 minutes, and it sometimes feels it. There were likely places that could have been cut from this, and it’s possible some of the material is just dealt with a little bit too preciously. Goddard seems to feel the need to let his cast really chew some scenery and have fun with the script, rather than push the film along. It’s very possible though that this is a feature, rather than a bug. It’s sort of like ordering the “cowboy” bone-in ribeye steak instead of the more basic cut. Yes, you have much more gristle and fat, but even though you won’t necessarily ingest those parts, they give you something flavorful to gnaw on that adds to the experience. So just make sure as you go in that you don’t order the largest soda or you have a steel bladder and are ready to sit through the entire run time.

This is one of the best films out there right now though. It’s a lot of fun if noir-thrillers strangers-in-a-hotel is your sort of movie. Well maybe not as good as Cabin in the Woods, it does offer some great thrills and is worth treating yourself to on a big screen so you can enjoy the visuals and colors as well as the performances by some great actors at the top of their game.

4.25 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: First Man

firstmanposterFirst Man is a beautiful film celebrating the best in human achievement and brings drama and stakes to a story despite us knowing the ending. It still has some flaws, but its cast shines through and delivers a nostalgia blast of epic proportions as it tries its own moonshot of earning more Oscar gold for its director Damien Chazelle and main cast Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the eponymous First Man, and Clair Foy as his wife Janet.

The other shining star of this film is it supporting cast. This includes such mainstays as Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Shea Wigham, Patrick Fugit and Lukas Haas. It’s a cavalcade of “Oh, hey, I know that guy!” character actors doing their normal workmanlike best. But the true gem here is Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. He’s everything that Armstrong is not in terms of being outward emotive, and even funny, and Stoll really relishes the part, having fun with every moment that you can.

Director Damien Chazelle here has two major moves. First he relies on the cinematography of the film to really offer some breathtaking emotions and empathy for what things were like for the early astronauts. Rather than the slick space-age feel of a lot of films about the era, Chazelle shows a lot of the dirt, grime, and machinery. We have so many other classic films that depict this era. Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff is still an amazing primer and still worthy of anyone’s attention even 35 years after it came out– focusing on the Mercury missions that predated the Gemini and Apollo programs. And Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 is an appropriate denouement for this film, as it shows what happens just less than a year later and everything that could have gone wrong that did not in the Apollo 11 mission. But the approaches could not be more different. Howard makes space feel slick and cool. Kaufman is a little more down and dirty, but less personal. Chazelle, by focusing so closely (literally) on his subject in these tight, confined spaces makes many of the films most intense moments feel claustrophobic and unsafe, even though you know the outcome of the film. Chezelle uses his camera lens to capture that feeling and put us as the audience as close to it as possible. We feel uncomfortable. We feel the tension.

His second trick is to emphasize the Man in First Man. Gosling is a character study as Neil Armstrong, with a sedate, understated tone that gives off a coldness, when we the audience recognize that underneath that placid surface is a turbulent whirlpool of emotion, barely held in check. While Gosling does an amazing job doing so much with so little, it is Claire Foy who really brings us in to the emotion of this piece. At once a master class in acting on her part, and also a commentary on the sacrifices forced on women in the era, and especially of these astronaut wives, she is able to show all of the heartbreak that we the audience feel. We empathize with her as her husband throws himself into his work and mission rather than putting his family first. His emotional compartmentalization takes a toll, and it’s heartbreaking to watch.

As I said in my review of Dunkirk last year, it’s important to note that whenever a filmmaker, especially one with the cache of a Chazelle or Christopher Nolan, at this time of greater cultural awareness decides to make a film with a mainly or even exclusively white and/or male cast, something needs to be investigated about that deliberate choice. Especially when the last film about the space program in this era was Hidden Figures, it’s social malpractice to not even note this. While I won’t go as far as The New Yorker’s claim that First Man is “accidental right wing fetish object,” it is still a story about white male heroism extolling a reserved, square-jawed version of masculinity that isn’t exactly toxic but isn’t exactly woke, either. However, to his credit, Chazelle is able to work with some of this and turn Foy’s and other women’s performances into a commentary on sexism and the gender politics of not only the 1960s, but also (reflectively) today.

On the racial bits, however there’s a bit more of a failure. One of the best bits of the film is as the Apollo missions are preparing, he cuts to some protests outside of Cape Kennedy, where we see people calling for the end of NASA and the moon mission, including a black man singing a song about how he doesn’t have a job or food to eat, but they’re putting white people on the moon. He has a point, and it’s important to note that whenever we tell a story like this that is primarily about white men, there needs to be space made as to why that choice was made. I’m not sure Chazelle really passes that bar here, but he certainly did a better job at it than Christopher Nolan did with Dunkirk. (low bar)

Regardless, the best thing you can say about a film that chronicles historical events, especially ones that are so well documented and remembered in recent history, that you feel a certain tension and anxiousness as events unfold, even though you know what is going to happen. That is the true testament of this film and why it works.

But the film doesn’t really reach its greatest heights until the very end. The scenes on the moon and the way they present it celebrate the majesty and greatness of the moment. It also has some specific personal payoff for Armstrong which will likely demand many audience members bring tissues. But perhaps its best moment is when it saves a key piece of space history into the mix. It is JFK’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech:

It’s hard to listen to this without tearing up a little bit.

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?” (note: this was the most hilarious inadvertent laugh line in our Austin screening)

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

It’s hard to hear that, to understand the risk, the sacrifice that went into our space program, and not think about so many other societal issues that face us. Almost a decade ago I blogged about this same issue and the need to take climate change as seriously as Kennedy took going to the moon. And with the publishing of the new UN report on climate change, we now know we have even less time to avoid disastrous warming.

If you can put aside the gender and racial politics of First Man and take it as a story of everything we can and should be able to accomplish if we put the right resources into it, I hope we can take that hope that might be able to save humanity.

3.75 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Venom

Going into Venom, I was expecting an utter disaster based on the early reviews of the film. Maybe it was due to lower expectations but by the end the film wasn’t the dumpster fire as expected. That also doesn’t mean it’s good either.

Based on the Marvel character created by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane (with Randy Schueller, Roger Stern, Tom DeFalco, Mike Zeck, and Ron Frenz all credited as creating the alien symbiote) the anti-hero gets the spotlight after debuting in the rightfully maligned Spider-Man 3. Two reboots later, SONY is still trying to figure out what it’s doing with its Spider-Man universe of characters and this is the first film in that world to headline someone not Spider-Man.

While the concept of going in that direction is good, and could work, Venom is quite a few steps back from the excellent Spider-Man: Homecoming. In fact it’s a few decades back in quality. The film stars Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock who’s a journalist fired after taking a story too far. Hardy provides his usual attempt at playing American, and his performance is similar to that of his role in Warrior (actually a great film). He mumbles his lines in a gruff and most of his emotion is in how he moves his head side to side. Eventually he bonds with an alien creature who uses its host like a parasite, except in this case the two form a solid bond that works. This creature gives Brock extraordinary powers like rapid healing, though that’s never quite explained as to how. And, that’s part of the problem with the film. Venom has a lot going right for it but it tends to also just throw a lot out there that asks you to just go with it.

The villain of the film is an Elon Musk type character named Carlton Drake played by Riz Ahmed. Drake sees humanity as being on the brink of destruction and wants to use the alien symbiotes to head to the stars. The alien symbiotes want to invade Earth and destroy it. Why? That’s never really explained. Drake’s plan is just an example of how thin the plot of the film is. Why does he need the aliens when he can just use space suits? Why do the aliens want to invade? Is Drake’s thought process basically Thanos’ issues with existence?

The film begs you to not think too hard as it bounces from one action sequence to the next but what’s frustrating is the film shows a lot of promise just no coherent vision or indication the creators behind it understood what worked and what didn’t.

The relationship between Eddie and Venom is solid though Hardy at times plays it up too much for laughs. Again, that’s another indication the film didn’t know what it wanted to be. There’s an addict/abuser relationship there and when that’s explored, it’s solid. Venom is also a bogeyman showing up out of the shadows and when the movie is filmed like that, it works. The perfect example is a fight scene between Venom and the San Francisco SWAT where smoke obscures much of the action and police are pulled and thrown around by the unknown force. Shot mostly from their perspective there’s a horror element that really works.

But, the film doesn’t know what it wants to be. The PG-13 rating and focus on scatological humor indicate the studio in the end the younger set of viewers was the way to go instead of a more adult R-rated film that could have been much more mature. A back and forth about the symbiotes being up asses seems to point to that decision.

There’s also the sense the cast knew they were making a turd of a film. Michelle Williams plays Brock’s love interest and seems to be phoning it in most of the film. Jenny Slate is a scientist who you never get a sense that she’s anything but a fill in scientist and plot devise. There’s no emotion for what should be a really emotional role.

Add in so much to overlook (Drake’s facility really has bad security) and the film borderlines campy in how bad it is at times. The special fx doesn’t help matters though the final battle again shows what could have been. It’s almost like they blew their budget on a few sequences.

With a few tweaks the film could have been excellent but it comes off as one that doesn’t know what it wants to be and screams issues behind the scenes to deliver a final product. For the second film in SONY’s Spider-Man universe (With few things to connect the two. Really, you couldn’t say Daily Bugle!?) it’s so many steps back you almost expect a reboot of everything… again.

This is one to watch on tv so you don’t waste your dollars but it’s one to see once. Just once. There’s potential there and hopefully we get a sequel with a vision as to what to do because it’s pretty clear this is just a turd fluttering in the wind.

Overall Rating: 6

Movie Review: Night School

night school posterWe’ve all seen Night School before, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. While the new Kevin Hart film feels a little bit paint by numbers, it still delivers laughs and highlights the comedic talents of it’s amazing cast, chief among whom is Tiffany Haddish who owns every scene she is in.

Our story centers around Teddy Walker (who should just be named Kevin Hart), an extremely successful BBQ salesman in Atlanta. He’s about to propose to his girlfriend, Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke who you may recognize from the CW’s Arrowverse shows as Vixen) but he has a major secret — he is a high school dropout who is living paycheck-to-paycheck in order to impress her with money that he doesn’t have. When hijinks eventually ensue, he finds himself in need of a new job and his best option is to go back to school pursue his GED at night school at his previous high school to get a job in finance with his best friend Marvin (Ben Schwartz — yes! Jean Ralphio!).

However in a bit of irony, the school’s principal is now the kid who he bullied in high school (Taran Killam), who looks to return the favor with some humiliation of his own. Luckily for him the night Schools teacher is the unorthodox but strict Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), who won’t give up on either him or any of the other misfits in his night school class. Oh, and those miscreants? Rob Riggle, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Al Madrigal, Romany Malco, and Fat Joe— who joins class via Skype from prison.

This movie has a lot of jokes, and most of them are funny. The the script seems to take a shotgun approach of trying to pack as many little jokes in as possible and hope that some of them hit. Luckily a number of them do, mostly because of grade A comedic talent, especially Haddish, who may be one of the most underrated comedic talents in Hollywood right now.

Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t know exactly where it’s trying to go. There’s an extended dance break where they go to the school’s prom, because I guess why not? There’s also a side plot involving Hart working at a Christian themed chicken joint which, while funny, doesn’t really fit anywhere else into the film. But oh well. It’s mostly funny.

Hart also does something really smart here which is allow himself to be the fast-talking flim-flam artist, but he still mostly a straight man. This allows Haddish to take the lead and his supporting actors to do most of the heavy lifting.

The film almost takes a turn as a sort of  heist film in a strange Act II break when they decide to rob the principal’s office to get the answers to their midterm test. Even though this mostly works, it’s still just a very strange turn for the movie which doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to do.

Speaking of not knowing what it wants to do, the opening of the film very clearly sets up a sibling rivalry with a twin sister for Hart to deal with, and then drops her the entire rest of the film.

The plot is fairly thin, the character arcs are fairly thin, and you can see where everything is going from miles away. But at least the jokes are mostly funny along the way.

However, it sometimes devolves into more shocking or simple gross-out gags and humor, which just doesn’t work. Like at all. In their attempts to justify their R-rating, they really don’t do anything good with it.

What is truly unfortunate is that films like this will unfortunately be marketed as “Urban” (read: black only) films. It’s incredibly troubling that more and more often films are only marketed to a certain segment of the population, even though there’s nothing inherently racial about the film.

There are a few incredibly funny jokes about being “woke” that somehow involve robots. There’s also a very funny call out of Principal Stewart using “black voice” which makes an excellent counterpoint to this summer’s breakout hit Sorry to Bother You and their use of “white voice.” Though nowhere near as brilliant, they’re talking about some of the same things, but drawing attention to the fact that when white people “code switch” they do it to pretend to be “cool” rather than it being a matter of survival and identity for others. It’s an issue much better dealt with in the upcoming The Hate U Give, but it’s nice to see a comedy trying at broader social comedy.

The biggest problem is we’ve seen this movie dozens of times before. However if you are a fan of Kevin Hart and this cast, you will get some laughs out of this. But if there’s one reason to see this, it’s Haddish. Hopefully this will be another crossover success for her like Girls Trip and we will get to see more of her– at least as much as we do of Kevin Hart.

2.5 out of 5 stars 

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