By: Kevin Jordan
Didn’t see that one coming.
Trailers always elicit an immediate reaction from the viewer in the form of whether or not the viewer will go see the movie. For a trailer for a movie like Stuber, most people will probably think “well, not gonna go see that piece of shit.” I say that because I am one of those people. Except, being a critic, my thought came out as “well, when am I going to have to sit through that piece of shit?” The point is, the trailer for Stuber leaves you wanting to watch pretty much any other movie. The premise alone screams STAY AWAY!!!! A cop kidnaps an Uber driver and forces him to chauffeur him around the city fighting crime. That sounds much more like a rejected Saturday Night Live skit trying to appeal to Millennials than a summer blockbuster movie.
To be blunt, that premise (and movie title) sucks. The only real interest I had going into the film was to see if Dave Bautista could carry a film. What is surprising is that the movie works. Yeah – I am as shocked as you because, again, we both watched the trailer. It works because the film is aware of how stupid its own premise is and is constantly poking fun at it. And it works because Dave Bautista seemed right at home in what is really just a buddy cop flick.
It’s funny because we know it’s stupid.
(Mild SPOILERS ahead. You’ll see what I mean.)
Officer Vic Manning (Bautista) has been chasing drug kingpin Oka Tedjo (Iko Uwais) for three years, after Tedjo killed Manning’s partner (Karen Gillan, who is tragically underused in this film). His obsession has led to the collapse of his marriage and neglect of his daughter. Never mind that his daughter is a full-grown adult, we need tired, cliched tropes to build Manning’s character. Anyway, Manning’s chief (Mira Sorvino) informs him that the FBI is taking over the Tedjo case and that he should take a little time off to deal with his personal life. This includes getting Lasik surgery, which will better help him see his daughter’s (Natalie Morales) art work at her art show that same evening. After getting the surgery, he gets a call from a source about Tedjo handling a big drug deal that night and Vic immediately jumps into action to meet his source for details. And by jump, I mean crashes his car because he just had eye surgery. This is where the movie gets creative with its premise.
This being an action-comedy featuring gigantic, former wrestler/MMA fighter Dave Bautista, we need to believe that he won’t just crush every bad guy in his gigantic, former wrestler/MMA fighter hands (seriously, his hands are bigger than my head!). Kudos to the writer (Tripper Clancy) for saying “what if we partially blind him?” Not only does that solve the “but he’s huge!” dilemma, it also provides a clever reason for him to need to be driven around. That brings us to the next question – why not just give him a new partner to legally drive him around rather than commit a felony (among many by kidnapping an Uber driver named Stu (Kumail Nanjiani)? Well, because it’s 2019 grandpa, try to keep up.
I’m just the plucky sidekick!
While the action is decently entertaining (and surprisingly bloody, earning an R rating), the comedy is the star of the film. That is where Nanjiani comes in. With his deadpan deliver and accompanying physical expressions, I found myself laughing quite often. I was not expecting that because, yep, trailer. Even better is that Nanjiani and Bautista feed off each other to deliver more laughs. That’s not to say every joke in the film works. There are several ongoing side plots that fail to deliver any comedy – Stu trying to get five star ratings from customers, Stu trying to get home to have sex with a girl (Betty Gilpin) he is in love with but who only views him as a friend, and Stu’s boss being a massive douche nozzle. Now that I really think about it, the premise is really the only solid joke in the film.
(Side note: the funniest line of the movie isn’t in the movie, but only in the trailer. Vic hands Stu a tiny gun and says “it’s a baby gun. It allows you to fire it while crying.”)
The point is that Stuber is a throwback to fun buddy-cop movies that are desperately missing from film right now. Bautista delivers a solid lead performance, giving us good action scenes, and Nanjiani nails the plucky, comedic sidekick. Together, they deliver a film that doesn’t take itself seriously and characters that are fairly relatable and sympathetic. I will not go so far as to say Stuber is a good movie (the side plots, failed jokes, and predictable ending prevent that), but it is an entertaining movie despite what the trailer is trying to tell you.
Rating: Ask for three dollars back, one for each bad side plot.
By: Kevin Jordan
A trophy for trying.
I’m not sure there was any movie in 2017 for which I had lower expectations than Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Well, maybe Justice League. And Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. And Transformers: The Last Knight. And Kong: Skull Island. Ok, so there were many movies to be seriously pessimistic about this year and Jumanji was one of them. I also assumed that Welcome to the Jungle was a remake of the 1995 original and I loved the original. So, yeah – expectations, meet toilet water.
(Last SPOILER ALERT of the year.)
Five minutes into Welcome to the Jungle, I thought my expectations were going to be fulfilled. The film literally picks up where the 1995 film left off – the game is half-buried in the sand on a beach somewhere and someone stumbles across it and picks it up. This person gives the game to seventeen-year old Alex, who opens it, dismisses it with “who plays board games anymore,” sets it on a nearby shelf in his room, and goes back to playing an Atari-like console video game (the console being located on the other side of the room). During the night, a green glow lights up his room and, the next morning, Alex finds the console and controllers stacked on top of the Jumanji box. Thinking this is only mildly odd, he opens the Jumanji box and finds there is now a game cartridge for his console. Without batting an eye at this bizarre occurrence, Alex stuffs the cartridge into the console and is sucked into the game. Seriously?! That is how the board game becomes a video game? You didn’t even try. Why have the kid open the box at all? Or why not have him put it under the console himself? It took me less time to come up with several ridiculously simple ways to fix this scene than it did to write this paragraph.
Things really didn’t get better over the next ten minutes as we jumped to 2017 and met the other four kids (all five kids are teenagers), but at least we got something rational. For various reasons, nerdy-and-weak-Spencer (Alex Wolff), large-football-player-and-homework-cheat Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), hot-and-self-absorbed Bethany (Madison Iseman), and awkward-and-anti-social Martha (Morgan Turner) end up in detention together. They are made to clean out an old storage area where they come across the old console, which inexplicably ended up in a high school. Just…uuuuggghhghh. They decide to play and are immediately sucked into the world of Jumanji where they are transformed into the characters they chose, which just happen to be the exact opposite of their real selves. Spencer becomes Dwayne Johnson (hot and huge), Fridge becomes Kevin Hart (short and annoying), Bethany becomes Jack Black (Jack Black), and Martha becomes Karen Gillan (sizzling hot ninja). Get it? Uuuuuggggghhhgh.
They really recover from the bad start.
Then, something weird happened. The film became enjoyable. One of the things I love about the original is how nothing in the game is skipped over, including each turn. The rules are followed until the end and everything happens for a reason. Welcome to the Jungle pulls off the exact same feat, albeit with far less subtlety and cleverness, by showing us the entire game played out on screen. Sure, there are apparently only three or four levels in this game and the threats they face are far fewer and include Mad Max motorcycle extras (don’t ask), but they never warp forward or cheat their way through the game. Each player has three lines on their arm, denoting their number of lives within the game. And we get to see how every one of them is lost. Just like in the original, our new players must finish the game if they want to escape, though this time they have to actually accomplish something besides not dying (they have to put a MacGuffin in another MacGuffin). The film even takes the time to define the strengths and weaknesses of each player and utilizes all those things through the course of the game. I am stunned that the same writers (all six of them) that wrote such an atrocious opening scene also pulled the rest of this script out of their PlayStations.
It works because they can all see the box too.
I was also expecting really flat characters, based on such obvious jokes as their avatars being shoved down our throats, but I was wrong there too. With the exception of Kevin Hart Kevin-Harting it up, Johnson, Black, and Gillan acted their butts off to do their best impressions of their younger counterparts doing impressions of themselves. Even more impressive is they kept it up for the entire film (kudos to director Jake Kasdan on this as well), Jack Black really selling being a ditzy girl trapped in a hobo’s body. Perhaps the best trick of the entire film was Black managing to make a couple dick jokes not come off like, well, dick jokes. When Bethany has to pee, she asks the guys to explain to her how to use a penis and the result is genius. Even an obvious boner gag came off as poignant.
She was never the cause of a boner joke and it would have been so easy.
As much as I ended up enjoying the movie, there were some glaring misses. Nick Jonas (playing adult Alex) has a looooong way to go as an actor, but he wasn’t terrible. The villain (Bobby Cannavale) was almost non-existent, as well as being exactly what you would expect in a crappy video game. The tone of the film ditched anything even remotely frightening, which is one of the things that made the original so good. They remembered to include a cut-scene at the beginning of their adventure in the game (which was brilliant), then forgot to do any more cut scenes. Fridge had the backpack of weapons as a trait, but they rarely ever pulled anything out of the pack, which was a huge missed nod at what video game characters are able to carry in games. And, as good a job as they did to close out the characters’ arcs and individual growth, they completely forgot to do the same with Fridge (who never learns his lesson about abusing his friendship with Spencer by having Spencer do all his homework for him). And, again, Kevin Hart playing himself. Again.
When we walked out of the theater to give our opinions, mine was “that was alright” (voice inflection rising through the sentence). The agency rep asked “just alright?” to which I replied “yes, but said in the same tone as – ‘I thought it was going to be garbage’ (voice inflection rising through the sentence).” And that is all I wanted from this movie. A mindless two hours of silly entertainment that didn’t insult my intelligence. That’s worth a trophy accomplishment in my book.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back (I’m as surprised as you).
By: Kevin Jordan (Number9)
Nothing can stop Marvel.
Back when I wrote about Edge of Tomorrow, I casually commented that one of the most anticipated movies of the summer was Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and that I had no idea why it was so anticipated. I’ve read approximately one comic book in my entire life, but I’m aware that they exist and have at least heard of most the titles of most of them. But, Guardians of the Galaxy? Up until a couple of years ago, virtually nobody had heard of that one, including me. I also joked that the only thing revealed in the trailers were the five guardians, a spaceship, a bunch of jokes, and a whole lot of action and I can honestly tell you that all of those things exist in this movie. My big fear was that the plot was either going to not exist or be a complete mess since the previews didn’t show a peep of it. Well, to answer your question, yes – I’ve only ever read one comic book.
Last week, after seeing Lucy, my friend opined that Lucy is fine as long as you don’t think about it. That very well might be the most backhanded compliment one can give to a movie. Essentially, what that statement means is that the film is a flaming turd disguised by an element or two that makes the film tolerable. In the case of Lucy, those elements are good action scenes and Scarlett Johansson walking around in a tight, black dress causing half the audience to drool and the other half to edge ever-so-slightly towards bulimia. But, when you start to think about the plot, the character development, or the various character motivations, you realize you can smell the turd and it’s not pleasant.
The interesting thing about said compliment is it is used almost exclusively by people to sugarcoat their real opinion for a certain audience or because they secretly liked the movie and don’t want to admit they have no idea what a well-written story/screenplay looks like (note: my friend is one of the former). Personally, I use that statement as a veiled insult directed at people who openly like movies that fit the compliment or the people who actually wrote/made the movie. In other words, when I say that Lucy is a tolerable action movie if you turn your brain off, I’m saying Luc Besson – and anyone who claims Lucy is more than a big, dumb action flick – is a moron. I’m not saying you can’t like the film or enjoy it (hell, I enjoyed the shit out of Battleship); I’m just saying don’t make it more than it is. For me, there aren’t many things funnier than people trying to explain the depth and gravitas of poorly written movies like Maleficent.
The converse to said compliment is that it is possible to make big, action flicks that are both fun and non-dumb, which brings me to Guardians of the Galaxy. Based on the previews, I fully expected that I would have to turn off my brain to enjoy the film. If you are in the majority of folks, the only thing you know about the film is that a tree, a raccoon, a green-chick, and two dudes come together on a spaceship to crack jokes and shoot people. That is not exactly the formula for a well-written movie; in fact, it’s essentially Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, but with intentional comedy.
(Side note: how hard are you trying to match up those characters right now? There is no way you are sleeping tonight without figuring that out.)
Where Guardians succeeds and so many others fail is that it delivers a very simple, straight-forward plot, focuses a lot on character development while using it to advance the story, and doesn’t use action just for the sake of action. The entire plot of the film, as you may have guessed, is that the five characters shown in the previews will save the galaxy from something. In this case, they have to save the galaxy from a villain named Ronan (Lee Pace) who is trying to get his hands on an Infinity Stone, which will give him the power to destroy entire planets. Simple, right? The plot advances through various events, bringing the characters together while also telling us more about the characters themselves, including their back stories and motivations for the actions they have taken and the actions they are going to take. There are a couple of minor, unanswered questions like – who is the collector (Benicio del Toro) and why have we now seen him in two different movies? – but those questions don’t make the plot harder to understand or outright nonsensical. In the context of the film, the collector is the guy who promised to pay Gamora (Zoe Saldana) a ton of money for the sphere containing the stone and that’s it. Simple, right?
On top of all that, there are smaller things that make the movie more entertaining than just about any movie this summer. For one thing, the movie is aware of itself. Another thing you hear people sometimes say is that a movie took itself too seriously or isn’t aware of itself. What that usually means is that the mood of the movie does not match the content of the movie. Not to harp too much on Lucy, but it definitely takes itself too seriously (after the first half, that is) in that it treats its own premise with far too much weight. The idea that a human gains multiple superpowers through expanded brain capacity by ingesting a large quantity of a drugs sewn into her stomach is absurd and should be treated as such (obviously, this is not how Lucy handled its own premise). Guardians is a comic book movie in which one of its characters is a genetically engineered, sarcastic raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and another is a tree named Groot (Vin Diesel). The mood you would expect is fun action and comedy dressed in special effects and that’s exactly what you get. That’s how you know Guardians is aware of itself.
Of course, the movie isn’t without its flaws. Chris Pratt gives an uneven performance – sometimes he’s really good and sometimes he’s soap opera bad. There are a bunch of thieves led by Yondu (Michael Rooker) that are superfluous and could easily be lifted from the movie without impacting the story. There are some really bad performances put forth by Karen Gillan as Nebula – who spends the entire movie screeching – and Pace, who over-delivers nearly every line he utters. Perhaps the most glaring flaw is best put like this – what the hell is Glenn Close doing in this movie?
The point I’m trying to make is that the movie doesn’t ask you turn off your brain, but also doesn’t ask you to think about anything either. It’s simply asking you to come along for a fun ride for a couple of hours and enjoy yourself. I’m not saying Guardians of the Galaxy is the best movie of the summer, but it might just be the most entertaining.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back. This movie turned out far better than even Marvel could have predicted.