The Road (2009)

March 6th, 2017

Viewers get only brief glimpses of life before “the incident” in 2009’s The Road. I suspect he reason we don’t see more of them is that life before the incident, much like the source of the incident itself, is irrelevant. No one cares what you used to do for a living when they haven’t eaten in two weeks.

The film follows a man and his son (both unnamed) as they make their way “south” toward water and, hopefully, less ravaged terrain. Whatever the cataclysmic event was has left the country largely barren. There is no grass on the ground or leaves on the trees, nor are there any birds in the sky. Everything that remains, including the people, is gray.

There is no guarantee that greener (both literally and figuratively) pastures lie to the south, but when resources run out, only hope is left. With little more than the clothes on their back and a pistol with two bullets as a last resort, the man and his boy head out. “Remember, put the barrel in your mouth and point it upward,” the man says as he places the barrel of the gun in his young son’s mouth, showing him the proper way to end his own life. In this post-apocalyptic world, there are fates worth than death.

Along the way, the pair encounter various groups of marauders who have resorted to violence and, in some cases, cannibalism. Multiple times the boy asks his father if they are the “good guys.” As resources run low and the two encounter others who are as hungry as they are, the line becomes as gray as the cloudy sky.

The Road mixes the hope of humanity with the despair of unknowing. The pair travels as long and as far as they can because, what else is there to do? Sometimes, survival comes down to one day at a time; sometimes, it comes down to a single step.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number (PC)

February 14th, 2017

Originally published on Caltrops.com

In one final push to beat Hotline Miami 2, I decided to skip sleeping last night and blast my way through the game’s last five scenes. By 2 a.m., the tendons in the back of my hands burned so bad I had to start taking short breaks. At 3 a.m. I unlocked my first achievement, KARMA, by dying 1,000 times. Somewhere around 4 a.m., I fell asleep in my chair.

As the game’s synth-heavy soundtrack continued to pulse through my speakers, I dreamed that I was still playing the game. I was stuck in a never ending hallway filled with doors. The only way to see inside each room was to kick open every door and deal with whatever was hiding behind it. Some of the rooms were empty. Others contained hoards of enemies. The hallway was painted with blood. Much of it was mine.

Around 6 a.m., my wife entered my office to see if everything was okay since I hadn’t come to bed. The sound of the door opening woke me and almost caused me to fall out of my chair. She’s very lucky I didn’t have a nail gun or chainsaw within arm’s reach.

If you thought the plot of the first Hotline Miami game was twisted and confusing, don’t bother trying to unravel the sequel’s. Unlike the original game which had two playable POV characters, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number has thirteen, with a story that takes place both before and after the original. In flashbacks we see at least one character die that appears later in the game, which means either the earlier story line was a hallucination, or the latter one was. Or maybe both of them are. I’ve read Wikipedia’s plot summary of the game a dozen times and understand twice as much as I did before, which still isn’t much. Fortunately, Hotline Miami 2 can be played and enjoyed without understanding a lick of the plot, which is good news for dullards such as myself.

Summaries of the game sound like the fevered nightmares of someone suffering from malaria. At one point in the game I was a prison inmate, disguised as a cop, killing other cops, and eventually other inmates. I think. In another level I played as two swans — one armed with a chainsaw, the other, a revolver. A few minutes later I was a girl wearing a zebra mask with deadly fists. Each level is designed with a touch of genius and a sprinkling of masochism. Get caught in an enemy’s line of sight and they’ll either charge you at full speed or fill your face full of buckshot. Walk around the wrong corner or past a window and a dozen enemies may come at you. If you happened to bring a knife with you to that gun fight, you might as well use it to start digging your own grave.

After beating the original Hotline Miami I swore I’d never play it again, and I loathe myself for playing the sequel. With unlimited lives you can play each level an infinite number of times until you figure out the pattern, but many times I just wished it would end. Some levels took me hours to beat. Once I was dropped weaponless into a room with two enemies, the only solution being to knock one out, steal his knife, stab the second, and slash the first one’s throat before he bashes your brains in from behind. On another level I appeared in a room (again without a weapon) with an angry cop and an aggressive dog. Killing dogs is a big part of Miami Hotline 2. Dogs killing you is an even bigger part.

With so many playable characters come different rules and limitations. Some characters can use any weapon they find in the game, some are locked into using the ones they start with, and a few cannot use any weapons at all. On a few levels you can pick which character you wish to control, but more often than not, one is assigned to you based on the narrative. On at least one occasion, I spent several hours attempting to beat a level only to run into a glitch that made completing it with that character impossible. My only two options were to restart the level with a different character and lose a few hours worth of progress, or curl up on my futon and cry myself to sleep. In the end, I did both.

Along with hundreds of dogs, I’ve slaughtered soldiers, mafia men, cops, inmates, and thousands of other people over the past month. Beating the game unlocks hard mode, something you’ll need if you want to earn the Genocide Achievement (50,000 kills). After a month though, my nerves are shot. After beating pixelated men to death with a lead pipe for hours, I… I just wanna go home.

The game’s final level is a drug induced nightmare where the walls bend and sway and motion blur distorts reality. Compared to the rest of the game, Hotline Miami 2’s final stage is relatively easy, and your reward for enduring some of the most sadistic game play of all time is literally nuclear annihilation. As for you… well, let’s just say anybody not wearing two million sunblock is gonna have a real bad day.

I need somebody to hold me.

Salt-N-Pepa – Hot, Cool & Vicious (1986)

December 19th, 2016

It’s hard to believe that Salt-N-Pepa’s debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious turns thirty years old this month. While kids today may only know Salt-N-Pepa from their recent Geico Commercial, both Salt-N-Pepa and Hot, Cool & Vicious were considered groundbreaking back in 1986.

In the mid 1980s, rap and hip hop escape from coastal clubs and found a more mainstream audience, thanks in part to the breakdancing fad. While acts like Run DMC and LL Cool J found success within the genre, it was the Beastie Boys who released the first Billboard number one rap album, Licensed to Ill, in November of 1986. Salt-N-Pepa’s Hot, Cool & Vicious was released the following month.

MC duties are split evenly between Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandy “Pepa” Denton. Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor not only produced all nine tracks, but is credited as the band’s sole musician and lyricist. (Deidra “Spinderella” Roper did not join the band until after the album was recorded.) As was the style at the time, every track features samples, some more obvious than others. Some, like The Meter’s “Handclapping Song” (on “Beauty and the Beat”) and a drum sample from Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” (on “I Desire”) are instantly recognizable, while I wouldn’t learn the source of others (“Flash Light” by Parliament on “I’ll Take Your Man” and Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Mister Magic” on “My Mic Sounds Nice”) for years to come.

Although it comes late in the album’s track list, Hot, Cool & Vicious got its start with “The Show Stoppa,” a track Salt-N-Pepa recorded in response to Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “The Show.” The track references both that song and “La Di Da Di” while squeezing in samples from both Johann Sebastian Bach and the Revenge of the Nerds. Based on “The Show Stoppa” airplay, Azor put together an album’s worth of material. While “Tramp” found limited early success, it was the dance remix of “Push It” that eventually propelled the girls into stardom, and Hot, Cool & Vicious became the first rap album by an all female act to go gold (and eventually platinum).

Lyrically the band doesn’t break much ground here. In most of the tracks, the girls explain how they are hot, and other girls are not. Compared to modern hip hop the tracks have limited subject matter, but considering the time frame, they aren’t dissimilar from their contemporaries. Salt-N-Pepa would expand their scope on following albums.

“Push It” remains the album’s stand out track, a thirty-year-old dance track that still gets airplay today. “Chick on the Side,” “It’s Alright,” and “Show Stoppa” still sound fresh, while tracks like “Beauty and the Beat” and “My Mic Sounds Nice” don’t have enough meat on the bone to keep them in regular rotation.

Not only did Hot, Cool & Vicious launch the career of Salt-N-Pepa, but it showed fans of rap (and perhaps more importantly, industry executives) that female MCs could hold their own. Following the group’s success, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Roxanne Shante and Sister Souljah all saw play on radio stations and MTV.

Hot, Cool & Vicious was re-released in 1988, along with the group’s second album (A Salt with a Deadly Pepa). That same year, the track “Let the Rhythm Run” appeared on the Colors soundtrack (along with Roxanne Shante’s “Go On Girl”). From there, the rest is history.

01. “Push It” (Remix)
02. “Beauty and the Beat”
03. “Tramp”
04. “I’ll Take Your Man”
05. “It’s Alright”
06. “Chick on the Side” (Remix)
07. “I Desire”
08. “The Show Stoppa (Is Stupid Fresh)”
09. “My Mic Sound Nice”

Westworld (1973)

November 18th, 2016

Kids play make-believe by pretending to be cowboys and medieval knights, but at Delos’s amusement park for adults, guests can actually become those things (for only $1,000 a day). The Delos state-of-the-art theme park consists of three separate worlds (Roman World, Medieval World, and West World), fully populated with robots indistinguishable from human beings. In these worlds you can be whoever you want and do whatever you wish, and the best part is guests cannot get hurt. As the advertisement says, nothing can go wrong… go wrong… go wrong…

Co-workers Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin) are visiting West World (interchangeably referred to throughout the film as Westernworld, West World, and Westworld) to escape their jobs and marital woes. It’s a return trip to the park for John, and Peter’s first time. Through his wide eyes, we discover the wonder of Westworld. Approximately twenty people arrive along with the pair to Delos before splitting and heading to their respective worlds of choice. The robots inhabiting each world follow pre-written scripts, but contain enough artificial intelligence to improvise. There are good guys and bad guys, evil knights that challenge guests to duels and sheriffs who arrest bank robbing guests. Plot holes notwithstanding, we learn that the weapons wielded by androids cannot harm guests. Should anything go wrong, technicians monitor every interaction between guests and robots and can disable them instantly should troubles arise.

The company behind the park thought of everything… except a computer virus. When the robots begin to malfunction they turn violent and attack the park’s guests. It’s up to John, Peter, and the rest of the park’s visitors and employees to try and survive.

I revisited Michael Crichton’s 1973 directorial debut after watching several episodes of the HBO’s recent reboot. In the real world, a whole lot has changed since 1973, a time when very few people dreamed of owning (or even being able to afford) a home computer. (In my home office, I count half a dozen.) Robots with artificial intelligence were fanciful thoughts relegated to works of science fiction in 1973, and while we don’t have androids quite as indistinguishable from humans as the ones in Westworld, in a world where most kids know how to use a smartphone before they enter kindergarten, the concept seems closer to science than science fiction today.

As artificial intelligence evolves, ethical questions are raised. Do non-living creations have rights? Do they think, or dream? These ideas are being explored in HBO’s modern take on the franchise, but the original is less about intellectual and moral issues and more focused on the action — what could possibly go wrong in a town full of semi-sentient robots? The first time an android rams a sword into a guest’s gut, we find out. It’s a topic that Crichton would discuss in more depth in Jurassic Park, and while being chased by a Tyrannosaurus Rex must certainly be terrifying, being relentlessly hunted by a humanoid gunslinger in black (portrayed by Yul Brynner) is no less terrifying.

While the concept of Westworld is interesting, the film is far from perfect. There are plot holes galore when it comes to the park’s technology, from how the guns work to the safety of the guests, but even the film’s structure has some major issues. The movie is front loaded with exposition as the concept of humanoid robots had to be slowly explained to audiences in 1973, and in direct juxtaposition, the film’s third act (a solid 30 minutes) contains no dialogue at all as one character desperately tries to flee from another. Without a sidekick or inner monologues I understand the dilemma, but modern viewers used to explosions and action may find something lacking from the tension.

Fortunately the robotic revolt portrayed in Westworld has not come to fruition, and we haven’t (yet) had our creations turn on us en masse’. Everything from gas pumps to amusement park rides even modern weapons systems contain kill switches and manual overrides, giving human beings ultimate control and ensuring that nothing can go wrong.

Go wrong… go wrong… go wrong…

Yoga Hosers (2016)

October 29th, 2016

At what point do you stop apologizing for your idols?

I was 21-years-old when Kevin Smith released Clerks, a film that equally represented twenty-somethings trying to find their place in the world and independent, DIY filmmakers trying to find their place in the market. In the 20+ since we met Dante and Randall, Smith’s career has seen more ups and downs than Jay and Silent Bob in a seedy New Jersey strip club. Each time Smith announces he’s finally going to put his “View Askewniverse” characters to rest, we get films like Tusk and Red State and Cop Out and he goes back to his well of familiarity. The fact that Smith announced Clerks III and Mallrats II (which has since morphed into a television series pitch) after a series of box office bombs is no coincidence.

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Yoga Hosers the second of Smith’s loosely-connected “True North” trilogy, three films that take place in Canada. There aren’t a lot of establishing shots to place the action in Canada, but fortunately everybody says “eh,” “zed,” and “aboot” (about) enough times to convince Americans the action takes place north of the border. More people say “aboot” in this film than utter the f-bomb in all of Kevin Smith’s previous films combined.

The film opens with the fifteen-year-old Colleens — Colleen C. (Lily-Rose Depp) and Colleen M. (Harley Quinn Smith) — performing a cover version of Anthrax’s “I’m the Man” in the back room of the convenient store they work in. Anthrax released “I’m the Man” 29 years ago in 1987, 14 years before the Colleens were born. We also meet Ichabod, their drummer and friend who promptly disappears for the rest of the film. Why are the girls enamored with an 80s thrash metal band? (Their band is called “Glamthrax”.) Why are two 15-year-old girls allowed to work alone in a convenient store? Nothing in this scene makes sense, and yet ten minutes later you realize this scene makes more sense than anything else in the film.

Kevin Smith smokes a lot of pot, and tells anyone who will listen about how much pot he smokes. Smith brags about all the things he has written and directed while smoking pot. None of them have been financially successful. When the New York Post asks you to smoke less weed, it might be time to cut back. I don’t know why I feel compelled to tell you Kevin Smith smokes a lot of dope. This film is about an army of foot-tall Nazi bratwursts (“Bratzis”) that kill people by climbing into their butts. Without a bong in hand, the plot leaves something to be desired.

The Colleens lose their phones (“that’s so basic!“) and are forced to work in Colleen C.’s dad’s convenient store instead of attending a “senior party” before the plot starts to roll. Normally a film this bad with an 88 minute running time would seem to drag, but today, the day after watching it, it seems like it was only 15 minutes long. After surviving an attack by high school senior devil worshipers, the girls go on to fight Bratzis and Andronicus Arcane, the head of the Bratzis. Arcane has also built a ten-foot-tall Golem Goalie to “kill all the critics of his previous work.” I can only imagine film critics sitting in the theater and watching this film raising their hands, offering to be first. To quote Holden from Smith’s 2001 film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, “When, Lord when? When’s gonna be my time?”

Smith has gone on record as calling his previous movies a “collection of dick and fart jokes,” and I’m sure the idea of sausages going up people’s butts seems really witty to a guy who smokes more green than Snoop Dogg. When Dante in Clerks whined, “I’m not even supposed to be here today,” we knew who the film was written for: the Dantes of the world, those of us working and thinking and wanting to go somewhere and going nowhere. Yoga Hosers wasn’t written for the Dantes, but for the Jays — Silent Bob’s drug-dealing burned out cohort. Jay, with a super-sized bong in hand and few remaining brain cells, would no doubt find miniature talking Nazi sausages hilarious.

In a recent interview with the Nerdist, Kevin Smith revealed his new business model. He can make terrible movies, tour around the country with them doing pre-and-post-show Q&As, and make his money back. If you’re fortunate enough to catch one of these shows, I recommend it — Smith remains a good stand up speaker and story teller, and him talking about this film is probably more interesting than this film. But without an accompanying appearance by the filmmaker, the rest of us are left with just the film, and a feeling of being hosed.

The Cobbler (2015)

September 10th, 2016

Imagine for a moment you had the magical ability to transform into anyone else in the world by simply wearing a pair of their shoes. What would you do with this power?

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In The Cobbler, Adam Sandler plays Max Simkin, a multi-generational “shoe man” who has inherited the family business (after his father mysteriously disappeared a decade ago), and isn’t enamored with it. He spends his days repairing shoes and having conversations with Jimmy, the barber next door (Steve Buscemi). At night, Max cares for his mother who suffers from dementia. One day when his modern shoe repair equipment breaks, Max is forced down to the basement to dig out an older, manual machine. After repairing a customer’s shoes and trying them on, he discovers that he has physically transformed into the customer. After a bit of experimentation he realizes that this magic works with any shoe that has been touched by this particular machine, and the transformation lasts as long as he is wearing both shoes.

At first Max uses his newfound power for some simple mischief. While wearing an Asian man’s shoes, he tours Chinatown. By taking two pairs of shoes with him to a restaurant and changing in the restroom, he skips out on a dinner check. It doesn’t take long for some immorality to creep in. When a supermodel drops off a pair of shoes that belong to her boyfriend, Max shows up at her apartment and almost has sex with her until he realizes that by removing the DJ’s shoes, he will transform back into plain old Max. The next day, after spying a random stranger with a sports car, Max robs the man of his shoes by wearing a black man’s shoes. Then, disguised as the stranger, he enjoys a night on the town in his car.

In perhaps his only well-meaning gesture, Max goes on a dinner date with his own mother while disguised as his missing father, giving her some closure to his father’s disappearance.

Things really don’t start moving until the second act, but when they do, they move in all the wrong directions. At this point the movie splits into two unrelated story lines. In the first, Max gets intertwined in the life of a rough customer named Leon (played by rapper Method Man), a wife-beating criminal with an expensive watch collection and a penchant for violence. Max also crosses paths with local activist Carmen Herrara (Melonie Diaz), who is trying to stop a group of individuals from gentrifying their block.

The leaps of faith, plot holes, dropped plot points, and perplexing “what the?” moments in this film will leave you feeling like you’ve been kicked in the head one too many times with one of Max’s shoes. Max does or experiences at least half a dozen things that make absolutely no sense, and are there purely to jar the story forward.

The third act is so ridiculous that it makes the second act look semi-logical. Which it’s not.

As someone who is studying professional writing, I can say The Cobbler is a great study in how not to write a story. About the third time Max gets into (or out of) a situation due to a random occurrence, I remembered why my professor said that was a bad idea. The plus side to the film is it shows where the bar is set for film scripts. Maybe I have a chance after all, and I won’t need magical shoes or Adam Sandler to make it.

Ghostheads (2016)

July 20th, 2016

If you’ve been to Comic-Con, Dragon Con, Wizard World, or any of the hundreds of other fan conventions across the country, you’ve probably seen them — people who dress up as characters from their favorite movies, cartoons, comic books and video games. It’s called cosplay (costume role-playing), and it’s huge. Cosplayers spend tons of time (and money) recreating the costumes and outfits worn by their heroes. Some of them compete in costume competitions (as shown on the SyFy series Heroes of Cosplay) while others are content to simply show off their hard work.

Some cosplayers are drawn to specific franchises (see Star Wars’ 501st Legion as the most well known example). Another such group are the Ghostheads, super fans of Ghostbusters who, for various personal reasons, are so enamored with the franchise that they feel compelled to dress up as Ghostbusters, network with other Ghostheads, attend conventions, and even perform community service.

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In Ghostheads, director Brendan Mertens and producer Tommy Avallone introduce us to a few of the movies’ biggest fans, each of whom has a reason as to why the franchise is so important to them. Tom Gebhardt, the product of a broken home, bonded with his grandfather through the movie. Today Gebhardt makes pizza by day, but spends his free time as a Ghosthead, driving around in his replica Ecto-1 (the “Ghostbusters Car”) and filling his backyard shed with Ghostbusters toys and memorabilia. Then there’s Abigail Gardner and Craig Goldberg, members of the Atlanta Ghostbusters. Three years ago, Abigail was a struggling alcoholic. “Now I have a reason to live,” she says, after discovering Ghostbusters and other Ghostheads. “The movies are a lot like a family member. They’re better than family members in some ways,” she says, before breaking down in tears. Finally there’s Todd Whalen from Vancouver, British Columbia. Whalen calls himself the “Journeyman Ghostbuster,” and enjoys traveling around the world meeting other Ghostheads and making friends. Nothing wrong with that.

In an attempt to convince us that the Ghostheads aren’t crazy a clinical psychologist is interviewed, but her credibility is undermined moments later after she mentions that she also cosplays, and describes the Ghostbusters’ proton packs as “pretty bad ass.”

Several other Ghostheads are introduced throughout the feature and each one of them has their own personal reasons for becoming Ghostheads, but more amazing than that is the number of people officially associated with the Ghostbusters franchise that Ghostheads was able to interview on camera. Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Ivan Reitman, Ernie Hudson, William Atherton, Kurt Fuller, Joe Medjuck (producer of the original films), Ray Parker, Jr., and even Dave Coulier (the voice of Peter Venkman on The Real Ghostbusters) along with others are interviewed. The only major people missing are Bill Murray and Harold Ramis — you’re equally as likely to get either of them to appear in a documentary about Ghostbusters, and Harold Ramis is dead (although we do get a touching segment from his daughter, Violet). We also get Paul Fig, director of the 2016 Ghostbusters film, which might explain how they got everybody else.

On his 30th birthday, after putting on his Ghosbusting costume, Ghosthead Tom Gebhardt gassed up his replica Ecto-1 and drove to New York City to visit Hook and Ladder 8, the firehouse that served as the exterior of Ghostbusters Headquarters in the films. “I feel like I’m a member of the cast,” he says as pedestrians gather round to take pictures of him next to his car. Later, a chance encounter with a production crew members gets Gebhardt the opportunity to see the new Ecto-1 being used for the 2016 reboot. Many selfies are taken on what must be Gebhardt’s best birthday ever.

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Ghostheads is a fun look into the hearts and minds of super fans. Some, like Todd Whalen, admit that they won’t be doing it forever, while others, like Peter Mosen (known as the Original Ghosthead) have been dressing up as a Ghostbuster for thirty years now. Some of them do it because they loved the films, some do it for the comradery, and all of them seem to get something out of making people — whether they’re sick kids in a hospital or simple pedestrians — smile. Some are more obsessed than others, but all of them seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s hard to fault so many people having good, slime-free fun.

Not only should you not be afraid of no ghosts… you shouldn’t be afraid of the Ghostheads, either.

Link: Netflix

The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

July 11th, 2016

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The Secret Life of Pets commits multiple sins — it rips off other movies, there’s no character development, and the plot is completely predictable — but its biggest sin is that, except for a two minute montage, we really don’t learn anything about the secret life of pets.

With more speaking character than the average elementary school play, in the opening of The Secret Life of Pets we meet a dog named Max and his owner, Katie. Max doesn’t know why Katie disappears for eight hours a day (she goes to work), but when she does, he hangs out with other pets in the apartment including Chloe the cat, Mel (a pug dog), Hannibal (a dachshund), Gidget (a pomeranian), Tara Strong (a parakeet) and a perpetually lost guinea pig named Chris Renaud.

Max’s world is pretty great until the day Katie comes home with Duke, a big brown shaggy dog. Max dislikes the concept of competing with Duke for Katie’s attention, and comes up with a plan to get rid of Duke. The plan backfires, and the two of them get lost away from home. If this sounds identical to the plot of Toy Story to you, well, you’re not alone, as The Secret Life of Pets pretty much apes the far superior Pixar film beat for beat.

While running away from the dog catchers, Max and Duke run into a gang of alley cats, and while running away from the cats they run into a rough gang of ex-pets straight from the Isle of Misfits. The gang, led by an ex-magician’s stage rabbit named Snowball, seeks revenge against humans. Max and Duke temporarily win their adulation by convincing the gang that they killed their former owners, but when their charade falls apart, they run some more.

While Max and Duke are busy running from a rabbit, a crocodile, a tattooed pig and their entire gang (including the alley cats), Gidget, Chloe, Mel, Hannibal, Tara, and Chris (who by now have picked up Pops (an old dog in a wheelchair) and Tiberius the Hawk) continue to search for them while they all continue to run from the dog catchers. Pets’ secret lives involves running a lot.

The movie both falls apart and shows its true colors in a single scene in which Duke (somehow, in Manhattan) runs across his previous owner’s home. When he arrives, a cat on the front porch informs him that his previous owner died. To back up the claim, the new homeowner pulls into the driveway and barks at them. Then, the dogs leave. In Pixar’s hands, this is a tear-filled moment. It’s the opening to Up, or the ending of Toy Story 3. Instead, Max is all “u mad bro?” and Duke is all “naw y0” and that’s it. It literally could have been the emotional pinnacle of the film; instead, it’s over as quickly as it begins.

And really, the whole movie is like that. There’s no character growth, no arc of change, and barely a plot. It’s literally a series of (admittedly beautifully) animated scenes. As each scene ends the next one begins, and it didn’t take long for me to cross my fingers and hope that the next one would be the last.

If you’re thinking “perhaps you are not the target audience for this film,” you are correct. To my right in the theater were half a dozen kids aged 5-7 who screamed in delight every time an animal spoke. To my left were two women in their sixties who laughed at every single joke, even when they weren’t jokes. When we see a dog adopted from a box with the words “FREE PUPPY” written one the side, the women erupted in laughter, slapping their knees while repeating, “free puppy!” If that’s the funniest joke you’ve ever heard, run, not walk, to the nearest theater.

Pixar and Dreamworks have historically done a decent job of creating animated films that appeal to both children and adults. Illumination Entertainment, on the other hand, have created a film that will appeal to anyone under the age of 5 and cat ladies over the age of 55. For every Up, Toy Story and Shrek there’s “that one movie that had a lizard” and “one of those ant movies.” A year or two from now kids will say, “Remember that one animated dog film?”

With any luck, you won’t.

100 Things Star Wars Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die

June 2nd, 2016

518BM-quKGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]So, I’m that guy — the guy who clicks on every one of those online quizzes like “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Star Wars” and “10 Secret Star Wars Easter Eggs” and laughs. Questions about how many languages C-3P0 speaks, what cell block Princess Leia was held in, and Luke’s call sign number make me roll my eyes. That being said, I still click on them. I can’t help myself!

In all fairness, nowhere in the title of Dan Casey’s 2015 book 100 Things Star Wars Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die does it say you might not already know (or have done) these things, although I learned more than I expected to.

100 Things Star Wars Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die contains 100 chapters with a roughly 90/10 split between things you should know and things you should do. Each “chapter” is 3 or 4 pages long and covers a single subject. For the things you should know, Casey includes major characters, actors, items (like blasters and lightsabers), ships, people behind the scenes, and so on. Each of the seven movies also get their own chapters along with The Clone Wars, Rebels, and the infamous Holiday Special. There are also chapters dedicated to the Wilhelm Scream, the changes made to the special editions, Skywalker Ranch, and a summary of the Expanded Universe novels.

The chapters dedicated to things you should do are fairly sparse. Sprinkled throughout the book is a list of must-play Star Wars games, instructions on how to make your own Death Star scarf, a few Star Wars food and drink recipes, and a few others.

While hardcore Star Wars fans may not find much new material here, I liked the “bite-size” approach to the articles and actually did learn some things, mostly about less popular characters like Ahsoka Tano, Darth Plagueis, and Asajj Ventress. Likewise, I always enjoy reading behind the scene bits about people like John Dykstra, Lawrence Kasdan and Ralph McQuarrie, and was glad to see a few lesser-known names like Drew Struzan, Howard Kazanjian, and Charles Lippincott included as well.

If you’re a fan of almanac-style books (or Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers) and like Star Wars, this isn’t a bad book to own.

Trainwreck (2015)

May 31st, 2016

The biggest problem with self-publishing is that, without an editor, there’s no one around to tell you what to cut. And while Trainwreck certainly wasn’t an independent film, at just over two hours in length, I got the feeling Amy Schumer (who both wrote and starred in this semi-biographical film) didn’t leave much on the cutting room floor.

Amy Schumer plays Amy Townsend. She’s a successful writer for an edgy men’s magazine, but her personal life is a bit of a, well, you know. She drinks, she smokes weed, and despite being in a semi-serious relationship with Stephen (John Cena), she sleeps around. A lot. In an early scene Amy’s father Gordon (Colin Quinn) explains his impending divorce to his daughters by telling them “monogamy isn’t realistic,” and it appears mid-20s Amy hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

Back at the magazine, Amy must write a feature article about Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a highly successful sports doctor. Conners is everything Amy is not — classy, subtle, faithful, and moral — but that doesn’t stop the two of them from becoming a couple. Over time their relationship develops problems, and therein lies the problem — so much time was spent making Amy seem immoral and unfaithful that it makes it hard to root for her relationship to work out.

An equal amount of time is spent on Amy’s relationship with her family. Amy’s father has multiple sclerosis, and is moved to into an assisted living home. Kim, Amy’s sister, resents her father for cheating on their mother and is quick to throw away his sports memorabilia and move him into the cheapest home they can find. Amy, in return, resents Kim’s ideal family model. In real life, Amy Schumer has a sister named Kim and a father who had multiple sclerosis, which is probably why this entire subplot feels less like a part of the movie and more like a personal catharsis for the writer. When Amy’s father passes away (in the movie), she takes the microphone and gives a perfect tribute speech to her imperfect father. I don’t know if that’s what happened in real life too, but fiction’s a good place to address real world regrets.

While the film has received largely positive reviews, I felt like it was a two-hour RomCom that (a) should have been 90 minutes long, and (b) was like on the Rom and Com. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments (Amy on the treadmill in Dr. Conners’ office is hilarious), but overall, it didn’t work for me. In a film where at three different times people hooking up had to establish a “safe word,” I had a hard time imagining Amy magically settling down.

In the real world, a relationship between a driven, successful sports doctor and an alcoholic, weed-smoking, unfaithful mess probably wouldn’t last, but hey, in Hollywood, anything can happen.