‘The Girlfriend Experience’ has Sasha Grey Teaming up with Steven Soderbergh

The Girlfriend Experience movie poster

The Girlfriend Experience” represents one of Steven Soderbergh’s more experimental films as well as the occasional escape he gets from mainstream filmmaking. Like “Bubble,” he shot it with a very low budget and a relatively inexpensive camera, and he cast actors in it with no previous experience. There is, however, one exception to this, and that is Sasha Grey. Known to people, though they probably wouldn’t openly admit it, as one of the biggest stars in pornography films, she gives the term “Grey’s Anatomy” a whole new meaning. Her being cast in the lead role should show just how big of a breakthrough the world of pornography has made into the mainstream media, something which can no longer be denied.

This movie takes place a month or so before the 2008 Presidential election between Obama and McCain. Sasha plays Christine, a high-priced escort who goes by the alias of Chelsea, as she services the rich commodities brokers of New York. Sex does play a part in her job, but this is not the only thing she provides. Chelsea gives herself over to you as your girlfriend for the evening; one who will listen to your problems over a dinner at a nice restaurant, and she is there for you when the reality of life hits you too hard, or if your wife and kids are giving you too much to deal with. Basically, she is selling companionship as a commodity, and she has become independently wealthy because of it. Throughout the movie, she seems to have a disconnect between what she does, and the life she has outside of it. But as the story goes on, you will see this façade take quite a beating.

Sasha’s life outside of being an escort includes having a boyfriend who works as personal trainer at gyms. He is played by Chris Santos, and his relationship with Sasha is a stable one. While their chosen professions differ from one another, they are essentially the same; they sell their services for a price and try to remain independent while running their individual businesses their own way. Chris and Sasha are, to put it bluntly, pimping themselves for a price, except Sasha is getting a better price for her services. Unlike others, Chris is comfortable with what Sasha does for a living, assuming it remains in certain parameters the two of them have set for one another.

“The Girlfriend Experience” is really not about sex, and there is no simulated or non-simulated sex to be found here. Those looking for the typical Sasha Grey experience need to be made fully aware of this before they sit down to watch this film. She does have one nice full-frontal scene near the beginning of the film, but it is hardly titillating in the way you would expect. What this movie is really about is the practice of buying and selling certain commodities, and of how even the feel of loving companionship has become an ever-growing business. The question presented to us is, are we so drained of feeling and morality that we feel more comfortable buying companionship than we are in obtaining it naturally? Furthermore, what if the line between what you do for a living and what you do outside of it becomes blurred? Can you remain objective in such a situation?

Soderbergh gives the movie a non-linear approach as the movie shifts back and forth in time, and we see the characters in different emotional states. This will undoubtedly annoy many who are so used to watching movies where everything is shown in chronological order. I, on the other hand, welcome this approach because it is always refreshing to see any filmmaker challenge the medium especially when movies these are mostly about tried and true formulas. This method makes this movie seem more unpredictable in regards to what will happen next, and it also gives the audience a somewhat alienating feeling which forces us to view these characters from a clinical distance. “The Girlfriend Experience” doesn’t want us to feel like we are in the same room with these characters. Instead, it wants to observe them and think about what they are going through. The movie also wants us to question if there really can be an unbreakable line between work and play. If we lose sight of this, is it even possible to bring ourselves back to where we once were?

As an actress, Sasha Grey is no Meryl Streep, but she does do good work here. Soderbergh made it clear he chose her in part because of her name value in porn films, and that is understandable. It will certainly bring a bigger audience to this film than it would have gotten if another actress played her part. Soderbergh also said he chose Grey because she is a lot like the character in that she runs her own business and is her own agent; she runs herself and has no one managing her. Indeed, looking at Grey’s career overall, it’s hard to think of another actress, let alone a more accomplished one, who could have been more believable here. In many ways, Grey is Chelsea, and she may even be the first to admit this.

Shooting this movie with a digital camera, Soderbergh makes it clear “The Girlfriend Experience” takes place in the real world and not some fictional one. The Elliott Spitzer scandal which came about because of his dealings with escorts like Chelsea could make this film seem like a documentary. In casting people with no previous acting experience, Soderbergh succeeds in giving us characters we recognize from our daily lives. Still, he doesn’t let you get too close to them. Just as you’re about to get closer, he moves the story in another direction to where you are just as starved for feeling as the characters are.

The film’s final image, of two characters locked in an embrace, seems to define it completely. We want this closeness to another person just as much as we are frightened of it. It makes us wonder if it is possible to achieve it without having to pay a price for it. The movie does not lay judgment on escort services or other forms of prostitution, but simply acknowledges how one of the oldest professions in the world still plays a significant part in our world whether we admit it or not. It has since evolved to another level where it is being offered for more than just a quickie in a motel.

“The Girlfriend Experience” is one of Soderbergh’s more interesting films of the past few years. It runs at a scant 77 minutes, but it feels longer as there is much to take in. Many will say he owes us a movie this short after splitting his previous movie, “Che,” into two. It’s not quite a great movie, but it is very good and willing to take chances other movies in 2009 have not. It will be interesting to see where Grey’s career will go from here. Porn actors and actresses rarely, if ever, make a break into mainstream films because of the stigma attached to their profession. But even those who consider themselves “morally superior” to pornography are probably bigger fans of it than they will ever admit. It all plays a big part in our lives, probably on more of an unconscious level more than anything else.

Of course, it will become a very lonely world if the only way we can get intimacy is to pay a high price for it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Logan Lucky’ Rescues Steven Soderbergh From His Unintended Retirement

Logan Lucky movie poster

I never really believed Steven Soderbergh was all that serious about retiring from filmmaking. Since calling it quits after “Behind the Candelabra,” he directed the Cinemax television series “The Knick,” helped Spike Jonze edit his Oscar-winning film “Her,” executive produced the television series version of “The Girlfriend Experience,” and he has even gone out of his way to recut famous movies like “Raiders of the Ark” and “Heaven’s Gate” (the latter which has been referred to as “The Butcher’s Cut”). This man has had filmmaking in his blood probably since birth, and you can’t keep a good filmmaker like him down.

Soderbergh is finally back in the world of motion pictures with “Logan Lucky,” and it’s another heist movie but one with a cast of characters nowhere as smart or as gloriously debonair as those from the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies. In fact, during a newscast we hear someone describe this gang of thieves as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven,” and this description feels more than appropriate given what we have seen.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is a hard-working construction worker at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but this soon doesn’t matter as his boss is forced to terminate his employment after he is seen limping around the workplace due to an injury which ended his ever so promising football career. Jimmy is told his limp represents a “pre-existing condition,” a term which these days should be seen as the equivalent of a four-letter word. On top of this, his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) informs him she and her husband will soon be moving to Lynchburg, Tennessee which will make visiting his daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), all the more difficult.

So, what’s an unemployed father with few prospects to do? Well, rob the race track of course. For this, he turns to his brother, the one-armed war veteran and bartender Clyde (Adam Driver), to pull off this challenging heist (is there any other kind?) without a hitch. Together they assemble a team which includes convicted safecracker and explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) who figures prominently in Sadie’s beauty pageant contest and can drive a Ford Mustang better than Bobbie Jo’s car salesman husband Moody (David Denman), and a pair of brothers, Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid) who are willing to participate in criminal activities as long as it doesn’t interfere with their religious beliefs.

Is “Logan Lucky” among Soderbergh’s best movies? No, but it does provide the audience with a fun time, and you can sense the director’s giddiness as he tackles the screenplay written by Rebecca Blunt with an unrestrained relish. This is familiar territory for the Oscar-winning director, but we can easily sense how inspired he felt while making this feature. There have been many heist movies and there will be many more after this one, but Soderbergh makes this one breathe as it has a lively setting and characters who could have been mere southern clichés but who are instead brought to wonderful life thanks to the actors portraying them. Soderbergh is also well-served by his frequent collaborators which include composer David Holmes, cinematographer Peter Andrews and editor Mary Ann Bernard (pay special attention to those last two names) as they help realize his vision in a way few others could.

This is one of those movies which features a big-name cast, and watching it reveals even more big names than what you may have noticed when looking at the poster. One actor I got a huge kick out of seeing here was Daniel Craig as Joe Bang represents a much-needed change of pace for the actor best known as James Bond (by the way, I’m thrilled to hear he will be playing 007 for a fifth time). Adapting an Appalachian accent which could not have been easy to pull off, Craig is an utter delight playing someone who is not the least big refined or tasteful in the clothes he chooses, or is forced, to wear. Also, seeing him deal with an explosive device he made out of household substances is especially hilarious as he has us in suspense until he doesn’t.

Adam Driver, who is quickly proving to be one of the most talented actors of his generation, is a deadpan delight as Clyde Logan as his face remains an impenetrable one incapable of showing emotions. In fact, I think he is as deadpan here as Steven Wright is in his comedy routines, and that’s saying a lot. Despite the seeming lack of emotions, Driver makes Clyde a fascinating character whose loss of an arms says more about him than he could ever say about himself.

There are many other actors worth mentioning here, but I would rather not as it might spoil the surprises you will find in this movie. I do, however, have to mention Dwight Yoakam who plays Warden Burns as this role represents something of a departure from the typical bad guys he has been known to play. Yoakam is hilarious in scenes where he tries to control a prison riot by explaining to the inmates how “Games of Thrones” show no longer follows the books it is based on. It also took me far too long to recognize Seth MacFarlane as the pretentious British businessman Max Chilblain or Sebastian Stan as NASCAR race driver Dayton White. Then again, this should testify as to what they both can get away with as actors.

“Logan Lucky” goes on a little longer than it should as various loose ends take an extensive amount of time to tie up for us to have a satisfying conclusion, but it is still a wonderfully inventive movie which represents a welcome return for a filmmaker we never wanted to see retire. While it doesn’t match up to Soderbergh’s greatest masterpieces, it does show how his enthusiasm for filmmaking is still strong even after it appeared to be burned out forever. This movie also gives me an increased appreciation for the word cauliflower as well as the music of John Denver. You may ask why, but to discover why, you have to watch this movie.

* * * out of * * * *

‘X-Men: First Class’ Represents What a Prequel Should Be Like

X Men First Class poster

X-Men: First Class” is a huge improvement over the previous entry, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and it’s also the best film in the series since “X-Men 2.” It’s breezy fun, the special effects are terrific, and the emphasis on character this time around makes for a more involving prequel. With Wolverine shoved to the side, this fifth movie and the second prequel in the long running franchise, many other characters get their chance to shine.

The primary focus of “First Class” is on Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Michael Fassbender) as we see the significant events which shaped and brought them together. But while Charles’ upbringing was a privileged one, Erik’s was unbearably tragic as he and his parents were imprisoned in a World War II concentration camp. Erik’s ability to control magnetism becomes evident early on, and this talent soon gets exploited by scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) who commits an atrocious act in front of him. From there on, the driving force in Erik’s life is one of bloody revenge.

Prequels are tricky because we are naturally inclined to be against other actors taking over roles previously portrayed by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. Then there’s that cynical feeling of studios taking this route just to save money. It was deemed after “X-Men: The Last Stand” that a fourth movie with the same cast would have been far too expensive to make. Of course, with a reported budget of $160 million, “X-Men: First Class” doesn’t sound like much of a bargain. Moreover, does anyone remember “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd?” Did you think audiences were going to be fooled by a Jim Carrey-less prequel? Anyone remember “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas?” Heck, does anyone remember the first “Flintstones” movie? I remember seeing it, but the plot details escaped me once I walked out of the theater.

But what’s great about “X-Men: First Class” is the cast doesn’t need to worry about living up to the actors who inhabited the same roles before them. They get to approach these classic characters in a different light, and this frees them up from any restrictions which could have been imposed on them. Characters like Mystique and Dr. Hank McCoy are given more depth and complexity than ever before, and many surprises are in store for the audience as the script invests a lot of emotion in these characters including those bad mutants we rooted against in the past.

James McAvoy is excellent as the young Charles Xavier, and he looks like he had lots of fun making this prequel. Whereas Patrick Stewart’s Professor X was wise and mature, McAvoy’s is just getting started in his career and comes across as quite the ladies’ man. I also admired that while Charles is incredibly intelligent, we find his ego getting the best of him. So sure of all the things he is knowledgeable of, McAvoy does great work in making Xavier well-intentioned but not as open to mutants being themselves in the real world.

Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto remains one of the most fascinating characters in the “X-Men” universe. While he’s been the series’ chief villain and a megalomaniac, Magneto is simultaneously an anti-hero and has even been seen as a hero in the comic books. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for him considering the horrors he was exposed to in his youth, and it makes his future actions understandable, if not excusable. No wonder actors have so much fun in this role; you never know for sure the direction Magneto will end up taking. All you can say is, whatever he ends up doing, it will be to his benefit more than anyone else’s.

With movies like “Fish Tank” and “Inglourious Basterds” under his belt, Michael Fassbender is the perfect choice to play the young Erik Lehnsherr before and after he becomes Magneto. Fassbender has given performances deep with complexity and feeling; looking like the good guy at one point and then later turning into one seriously twisted individual. As Erik, he is great at showing the different layers to this character who is forever caught in a horrific moment he can’t get out of.

But one character who really gets expanded in “X-Men: First Class” is Raven whose shape-shifting abilities earn her the nickname of Mystique. Rebecca Romijn played Raven in the first three movies as a villain, and her character never got much in the way of psychological depth. Jennifer Lawrence, however, gets more to work with as we come to meet Raven at the time her allegiance to her “brother” Xavier begins to wane.

In Lawrence’s hands, she makes Raven/Mystique a strong female role model, one who is determined to be open about who she is and not be ashamed of it. While hiding herself in human form, as she is encouraged to do so by Charles Xavier, Raven’s frustration at appearing in public as someone other than herself is beginning to take its toll. Lawrence is riding high on some incredibly strong performances, and she continues to show how far her acting chops can stretch.

With Bryan Singer returning to this franchise as a producer, I’m sure he had a good hand in getting this particular entry focused more on character development. Each character is shown to be suffering through conflicted emotions as to what path the mutant race should follow, making them no different from the humans who deal with many of the same issues. Mutants are seen as the next stage in human evolution, but the haunting question of whether this will be to humanity’s best interests or detriment always hangs in the air.

But the person who deserves the most credit for “First Class” is its director, Matthew Vaughn. Coming off of the gleefully rebellious “Kick Ass,” one of 2010’s best movies, he manages to bring a lot of inventive energy to a franchise in desperate need of it. Vaughn also makes the special effects benefit the actors instead of just overwhelming them. What made the first few “X-Men” movies so special was the amount of emotion they generated, and the same thing is definitely the case here. It’s our connection with these characters which makes the action set pieces all the more exciting.

If there are any problems with “X-Men: First Class,” they come in the last half as the filmmakers become overly concerned about bringing the characters in line to where they are at in the first “X-Men” film. This was also a big problem with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” even though that prequel was much more convoluted. It would have been nicer to see the friendship between Charles and Erik get expanded instead of just ending this one with them taking opposite sides. Then again, perhaps it still could be expanded on in future installments.

Kevin Bacon, always a terrific actor, is perfectly detestable as the movie’s most irredeemable villain. At the same time, I wished the writers had expanded on his character more. Compared to the others, Sebastian Shaw threatens to be a little too one-dimensional in his actions. If Sebastian had more complexity to him, it would have made the transition of power between him and Erik all the more believable and compelling.

Other strong performances come from Rose Byrne as Dr. Moira MacTaggert and Nicholas Hout as the highly intelligent yet shy Dr. Hank McCoy. On the other hand, while January Jones is amazingly beautiful as Emma Frost/White Queen, her one-note delivery of dialogue is one of this film’s major detriments.

“X-Men: First Class” is a prequel done in the same spirit of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” and it’s proof you don’t need Wolverine present to make a good “X-Men” movie. This is a reboot which works to everyone’s advantage, and I am eager to see what comes next.

By the way, don’t bother staying through the end credits. There’s no post-credits sequence, so take care of that urine ache ASAP.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Fruitvale Station’ Puts a Human Face on a Tragic Shooting

Fruitvale Station movie poster

It’s a strange and cruel irony “Fruitvale Station” opened in theaters the same week George Zimmerman was found not guilty of shooting Trayvon Martin. Like Martin, Oscar Grant was a young African American male whose life was cut short under needlessly tragic circumstances. On the night of January 31, 2008, Oscar was traveling home with his girlfriend and their friends on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) when a fight broke out on the train which he gets caught up in. When the train arrives at the station of the movie’s title, Oscar was pulled off it by BART police officers, and one of them, either accidentally or intentionally (depending on who you ask) shot him. He died the following day, and his death brought about protests and a call for justice.

The cases of Martin and Grant appear to illustrate that, despite strides we have made in race relations, it’s still not safe to be a young black man in America. Now “Fruitvale Station” is not a movie out to offer a solution to this continuing problem, but it does put a human face on it. After watching it, Grant will no longer seem like a mere statistic to anyone.

The movie follows Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) on the last day of his life as he goes about his business while trying to survive in an unforgiving world. He still lives with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) in a rundown part of the Bay Area, and this is despite the fact Sophina knows he cheated on her. But regardless his wayward ways, Oscar is clearly dedicated to taking care of them both and in doing what he can to give them a better life.

“Fruitvale Station” is the first feature film for director Ryan Coogler, and he made it because he wanted people to get to know Oscar as a human being instead of just another name in a newspaper. Having seen the film, I can honestly say he succeeded in doing so. Not once does Coogler try to sanctify Oscar or water him down for an easier movie going experience. Coogler presents Oscar warts and all, and while he is far from perfect, we come to respect him for what he’s trying to do with his life on this fateful day.

We see Oscar trying to get his supermarket job back even though his boss isn’t about to rehire him, and it’s the first time we see Oscar’s hair trigger temper come to life. His mission now and throughout this fateful day is to provide for his family. Of course, this may lead to him selling drugs to help pay the rent and put food on the table, the same thing which landed him in prison. While his desire to lead a good life is strong, the lure of the criminal life and the money it can generate for him keeps percolating below the surface.

Michael B. Jordan made a name for himself on television shows like “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights,” and he also appeared in the surprise hit movie “Chronicle.” His performance in “Fruitvale Station” is nothing short of sensational, and it made him one of the great breakout stars of 2013. It’s exhilarating to watch him as he takes Oscar from the joys of being a father to his frightening lows when he begs his mother not to leave him all alone. It’s a shame Jordan didn’t get an Academy Award nomination for his performance, but then again 2013 was a year overflowing with great performances, many of which were bound to be left out.

Octavia Spencer gives another one of her great performances in this movie as well. As Wanda, she gives us a mother who tries to be strong for her wayward son, but who struggles with the reality she may need to keep her distance from him for his own good. This is not the typical clichéd mother character who goes through the usual motions of the parental ups and downs, but one who has stood up against the tides life has thrown at her and whose love for her son you never doubt for a second.

“Fruitvale Station” starts off with footage of the actual incident where Oscar was shot, but it cuts to black before we can see if the shooting was intentional or accidental. This gives the movie a certain tension as we know how things will end, but even as we get to that moment, there’s a still a part of us which wants this situation to have a different outcome. Even though the end of the movie is never in doubt, we desperately want him to survive the night and get home safe.

The other thing I really liked about this movie is how it showed us a part of the Bay Area many of us don’t get to see. I grew up in Northern California, and while much of it is not crime ridden, there are parts of it I dare not venture into. Like the brilliant documentary “Hoop Dreams,” it sheds a light on how African-Americans live and subsequently breaks a lot of the preconceptions many of us have about them.

There have been several other tragic incidents following what happened to Oscar Grant such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s always depressing to see how history keeps repeating itself despite our best attempts to learn from it. What makes “Fruitvale Station” so remarkable is it’s not out to give us glib answers on how to end the violence, but it instead puts a human face on a man who didn’t deserve to die. We hear about these stories in the news far too often, and they are usually shown to us with an unnecessary amount of bias. Both Coogler and Jordan have done a great service as they force us to see Oscar Grant as a person with strengths and flaws, and this makes “Fruitvale Station” one of the very best movies of 2013.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘The Hurt Locker’ Raises the Bar on Seriously Intense War Movies

The Hurt Locker movie poster

Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” is one of the most intense war movies I have ever seen. It follows an elite Army EOD bomb squad in Iraq assigned with the task of disarming IED’s, or explosive devices designed to create the most damage possible. Chris Hedges was once quoted as saying war is a drug, and this perfectly the movie we are about to witness. Every time these soldiers go out into the field, it’s either life or death, and no one has any idea how it will turn out. We get to view things from the soldier’s perspective, and the result is a film of wished it was.

The movie stars Jeremy Renner as Staff Sergeant William James, a highly experienced bomb technician who takes over a bomb disposal team after its previous leader is killed in combat. Aside from William, the team is also made up of Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) who are immediately taken aback by William’s seemingly reckless tactics. From the moment he steps onscreen, it is clear William finds much more excitement in this most dangerous of jobs than any human being should ever be allowed to experience. It ends up being more important for him than anything else in his life, including raising a child his girlfriend just gave birth to.

When this movie was released, it was already past the point where Bigelow should have gotten her due as one of the best action directors working in movies today, and “The Hurt Locker” may very well be her masterpiece. As I walked out of the movie theater, my nerves still jangling from this intense experience, I was just waiting for someone, anyone to say they never realized a woman could direct an action movie so effectively. It’s like I was almost daring someone to say this. For those of you who are surprised at seeing a female director pull this off, I got a few things to tell you about: “Near Dark,” a vampire-western hybrid, “Blue Steel” with Jaime Lee Curtis, “Point Break” with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, “Strange Days” with Ralph Fiennes and Angela Basset and directing from a script by ex-husband James Cameron, and the vastly underrated “K-19: The Widowmaker” with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. Bigelow directed all of these movies. She didn’t start yesterday folks!

By using four or more hand-held 16 mm cameras, Bigelow gives “The Hurt Locker” a documentary feel which makes it seem all the more real. You are down in the dirt and heat with these troops as it sears away at their bodies during their tour of duty. Their current tour lasts about a month, but when this movie is finished, it will certainly feel like a long month. Bigelow also shows the majority of the action from the soldiers POV and, like them, we are not able tell for sure whether the Iraqis staring at them from a distance are friendly or if they are terrorists waiting to push a button to set off a bomb which could very well be under our feet. She is clearly more interested in seeing how American troops survive in a land overwhelmingly hostile to their presence. Every moment these soldiers are out there is a matter of life and death, and the unpredictability of it all keeps them on their toes and at full attention 100% of the time.

The script was written by Mark Boal who also wrote the script for Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” another film dealing with the Iraq war and its effect on those who fought in it. Boal also spent some time in Iraq embedded with a real military bomb squad which became the source of this screenplay. What makes this unique among other Iraq war movies is it’s, thank god, not concerned with the politics of it all. Neither Boal nor Bigelow are interested in getting into a debate over whether or not we should have invaded Iraq, but instead in getting the detail to the letter of how this army squad does its job, and they appear to have captured this line of work perfectly. There is an authenticity here we cannot and should not question in the slightest.

Jeremy Renner is perfectly cast as William James, a military sergeant who seems to have gotten far past the realm of fear. The way the movie is designed, it could have tumbled into the clichés of “Top Gun” with Renner “grinning like an idiot every 15 minutes”. The fact it doesn’t descend into the kind of a film you’ve seen a hundred times is a credit not only to the filmmakers, but the actors as well. Renner gives us a character who is not entirely trustworthy, but not without a soul. His character perfectly personifies what Hedges talked about when he said war is a drug. He succeeds in showing us without words what effect this war has had on him. It has given him a strong sense of being alive he has not previously experienced anywhere else. But at the same time, he soon realizes how destructive it is not only to himself, but to others around him.

Another great performance comes from Anthony Mackie who plays Sergeant J.T. Sanborn. He is actually one step away from wearing that bomb suit William wears, but the more he comes close to human life lost so horrifically in this war, the more it brings him into full view of the things he really wants in life. What William takes for granted, Sanborn wants for himself. This could have been a role where Mackie could have easily become that drill instructor who is by the book and one dimensional. But instead, he gives us a character who is almost intimidated by what his new leader is able to accomplish as he is angered at his insubordination.

It’s amazing to see what Bigelow pulled off with “The Hurt Locker.” With a budget of only $11 million, she made a movie more intense, exciting, and thrilling than male directors could have made with multimillion budgets. The answer is not to give audiences tons of special effects with no discernable story or characters, but to give us a movie which draws us in emotionally no matter what the budget is. Perhaps if Hollywood ever bothered to realize this, then maybe there wouldn’t be so many bad movies or unnecessary remakes constantly being hurled at us.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

An Ultimate Rabbit Guilty Pleasure: ‘The Cannonball Run’

The Cannonball Run poster

So sue me, I still enjoy watching “The Cannonball Run” after all these years. The critics eviscerated it upon its release, especially Roger Ebert who awarded this movie half a star out of four, but my enjoyment for it has only dampened so much. I was just a kid when I saw first watched it with my brother, and I had yet see “Smokey and the Bandit” which we can all agree is a better movie. Looking back, I dug Burt Reynolds’ ever so cool demeanor, Dom DeLuise’s over the top performance, the ever so beautiful Farrah Fawcett who makes you want to love trees as much as she does, Roger Moore gleefully spoofing his role as James Bond, and Jackie Chan kicking Peter Fonda’s butt among others. Hal Needham may have never directed a motion picture worthy of being compared to “Vertigo” or “Citizen Kane,” but he sure did know how to give audiences a fun time (this time around anyway).

recently got to revisit “The Cannonball Run” when New Beverly Cinema screened it as part of a tribute to the late Roger Moore. This offered me my first chance to see it on the big screen after seeing it on television time and time again, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity. After all this time, I still have a blast seeing the filmmakers have fun with the 20th Century Fox logo as a couple of cars keep crashing into those famous spotlights.

For those who have avoided “The Cannonball Run” because of the dreadful reviews, it is about a variety of different personalities who participate in a highly illegal cross-country race which takes them from Connecticut all the way to California. For these drivers, the speed limit of 55 miles per hour means nothing, and they have their own individual plans for reaching the finish line before everyone else. The most prominent of these drivers is J.J. McClure (Burt Reynolds) who is joined by his best friend Victor Prinzi (DeLuise) who at times breaks out into his alter ego of Captain Chaos when times get rough.

Watching “The Cannonball Run” today, I am reminded of what filmmakers used to get away with in a PG-rated movie. You have Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis driving their Chevrolet Malibu NASCAR Grand National race car with a pathetic paint job while having dozens of Budweiser Beer cans clearly visible in the back seat. When they are intercepted by the uptight antagonist Arthur J. Foyt (George Furth) at a road block, it’s astonishing they get busted for participating in the Cannonball instead of having an infinite supply of Budweiser on display, let alone open cans in their hands. Foyt is determined to stop the race, but drunk driving doesn’t appear to be as big a concern to him. Go figure.

Heck, most of the drivers we see here are as interested in getting hopelessly inebriated as they are in winning this illegal race. Jamie Blake (Dean Martin) and his partner Morris Fenderbaum (Sammy Davis Jr.) are unsure of who should be at the wheel as they are both sloshed to the point where they should get a designated driver like Richard Petty. J.J. McClure is flying a plane and becomes pissed upon realizing he and Victor are out of beer and ends up landing in the middle of a street near a convenience store where Victor can rush in to get a 6-pack. Seriously, the last 80’s movie I can remember its characters having too much alcohol was “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” and that also had a PG-rating.

The first time I saw Jackie Chan in anything was in “The Cannonball Run” where he played a version of himself as a talented race car driver who, along with Michael Hui, navigates a super high-tech Subaru across America. Seeing Chan beating up members of a motorcycle gang was awesome to a 10-year-old like myself, and it was hysterical watching him cover up the rips in his jeans after knocking two guys out. Chan also showed us the future of texting while driving as he watched the Marilyn Chambers porn classic “Behind the Green Door” while behind the wheel. I would like to think this movie predicted the future where drivers stopped paying much attention to what was on the road ahead of them, but I’m pretty sure few would be willing to give Needham and company the credit.

“The Cannonball Run” was also my introduction to Rick Aviles, an actor and comedian who would later become famous for doing the unthinkable in a 1990’s movie, killing Patrick Swayze in “Ghost.” We get a taste of his comedic acting here which wasn’t as present in other movies he appeared in, and he does a Richard Nixon impersonation which still has me in hysterics. What a shame Aviles’ life was cut short at the age of 42.

Burt Reynolds has gone on the record to say “The Cannonball Run” is not one of his favorite movies, and to be honest, he does look to be coasting on his natural charisma as J.J. McClure. Regardless, I still loved how he coasted on it here as it makes his job seem ever so easy. All he needs to do is give you a certain look, make a certain sound, or just twist his mustache in a certain direction to get your full attention. Now how cool would it be to go through life being so cool without putting too much effort into it? Like Rod Stewart said, some guys have all the luck.

It’s a shame Dom DeLuise is no longer with us. Whether he was in the best of movies or the worst of movies, he was such a delightful presence in them all. His character of Victor Prinzim has an upbeat attitude about himself even as J.J. tries to keep it under control, especially when Victor talks about “him.” The him is Captain Chaos, Victor’s alter ego who jumps into action when things get threatening or when he finds himself falling behind in the race. Watching DeLuise become Captain Chaos is a blast, and this is even though he saves the day one time too many near the finish line.

For me, Roger Moore was the James Bond I grew up on, and seeing him here shows what a great sense of humor he had about his tenure as 007. Moore never ever plays his role of Seymour Goldfarb, a Jewish heir to a family fortune pretending to be a movie star named Roger Moore, as if he is in on the joke. Seeing him keep his cool even as the police pursue his speeding silver Aston Martin is great fun, and you know Sean Connery and Daniel Craig would never be quick to do the same thing. George Lazenby maybe, but never Connery.

Watching Jamie Farr as the oil-rich Middle-Eastern sheikh Abdul ben Falafel serves as a reminder of how there is more to this actor than him playing Maxwell Klinger on “M*A*S*H.” Some may consider his performance to be an offensive caricature, but he is so wonderfully over the top here as he proclaims his driving is only rivaled by the lightning bolts from the heavens to where it is a waste of time to take what he does here seriously. Farr makes his character’s unchecked ego all the more palpable, and the scene where he essentially flips the bird to the cops is one to cheer for if you have ever been given a speeding ticket. And yes, Farr makes you believe this is a character who knows when you have had too much couscous.

Was there anything I saw in “The Cannonball Run” that I had not seen before when watching it at New Beverly Cinema? Yes, a few actually. The grotesque Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing (Jack Elam) announces himself to be a proctologist to where a certain finger on his hand becomes far more frightening to me now than ever before. Then again, I had no business knowing what a proctologist does when I was a pre-teen.

Also, Farrah Fawcett’s nipples are much more present as they poke prominently through her dress during the scene where she first catches the attention of Reynolds. Then again, there is an enormous amount of cleavage on display from start to finish, much of it courtesy of Adrienne Barbeau and Tara Buckman who use their sex appeal to avoid the much-deserved speeding tickets which should automatically come with the purchase of a Lamborghini, any Lamborghini.

But after all these years, I still get won over with moments like when Fawcett bonds with DeLuise as he talks about the first appearance of Captain Chaos in his life, or when Reynolds tells Fawcett why he races cars. This might seem like a movie too shallow to contain moments like these, but they were pretty deep to me when I watched “The Cannonball Run” back in the 1980’s, and today they still are.

I don’t know, maybe my opinion of this movie would be different had I seen “Cannonball” or “The Gumball Rally” beforehand, both of which are said to be much better than “The Cannonball Run.” Well, fate had it that I would watch Needham’s 1981 comedy ahead of them, and I still enjoy watching it despite the numerous detractors it has. For those who think this is a prime example of lazy filmmaking, check out “Cannonball Run II” which is exactly that (or better yet, don’t bother).

I feel like I should apologize liking “The Cannonball Run” as much as I do, but I am sick and tired of apologizing for who I am. Besides, this movie remains a prime example of the things filmmakers could get away with in a PG-rated movie back in the 80’s. They wouldn’t get away with any of this today.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Obvious Child’ Ranks Among My Favorite Rom Coms of All Time

Obvious Child movie poster

Uh-oh, I think I’m becoming a fan of romantic comedies. For the longest time, I have been avoiding them like the plague as they feature characters whose problems don’t even compare to what I go through, dialogue which makes me cringe in such an incredibly painful way, and acting that is embarrassing and flat. But just as the genre looks to be finally dying out, 2014 brought us movies like “What If” and “The One I Love” which succeed in reinvigorating it to where I got surprised in a way I didn’t expect. But moreover, these movies have provided us with down to earth characters we can actually relate to instead of sneer at in bitterness.

Of all the romantic comedies released in 2014, I doubt I will see one better than “Obvious Child.” It marks the feature film directorial debut of Gillian Robespierre, and it’s a very confident and assured debut as she follows the trials and tribulations of a twenty-something woman whose life hits a low point which leaves her in a depressed funk. It also deals with a very touchy subject in a way both intelligent and very refreshing, and that makes this rom com a brilliantly subversive one.

Former “Saturday Night Live” star Jenny Slate stars as Donna Stern, a comedian and bookstore employee who is about to go through one of the worst periods of her life. “Obvious Child” starts with Donna’s boyfriend dumping her which leaves her utterly devastated, and then she is informed the bookstore she works at will be closing which will leave her out of a job. This leads her sinking into a depressed state which results in one of her worst stand up gigs ever, but on that same night she meets a really nice guy named Max (Jake Lacy) with whom she strikes up an easy-going conversation. From there, the two of them have a night of fun where Max accidentally farts in Donna’s face, and they end up having sex after an exuberant dancing session to Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child,” a song from which this movie gets its name.

Not long afterwards, Donna discovers this one-night stand has gotten her pregnant, something she is not the least bit prepared for. As a result, she decides to get an abortion but finds she has to wait a few days before the doctors can perform the procedure. During this time, she wonders about whether or not to tell Max about her decision, and the movie chronicles her journey towards the best/worst Valentine’s Day she has ever had.

Many have been describing “Obvious Child” as the first ever abortion comedy, but that description doesn’t do it justice. Yes, abortion is a theme here, but it’s not what this movie is about. The main focus is on how Donna’s unplanned pregnancy forces her to confront the realities of independent womanhood for the first time in her life, and it proves to be a journey both rough and, at times, truly hilarious.

Many of us remember Slate from her brief stint on “SNL” where she accidentally let the F-word slip out of her mouth. She left after only season, but she has since made a name for herself on “Parks & Recreations” and “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.” Slate’s performance in “Obvious Child” proves to be a huge breakthrough for her, and you just want to hug her after watching this movie. She infuses Donna with a lot of heart and makes you relate to her struggles as life constantly throws an endless number of curveballs in her direction, and we get so emotionally absorbed in Donna’s journey as she faces up to her responsibilities and rises above her misery which threatens to consume her completely. Slate is both warm and funny at the same time, and that’s not always an easy combination to pull off. It’s one of the best performances from an actress I have seen this year.

Slate is also backed up by a terrific supporting cast which features characters who come to reveal things about themselves we wouldn’t otherwise have known. Gaby Hoffmann is wonderful as Donna’s friend and roommate Nellie, Richard Kind is drolly amusing as Donna’s father Jacob, Polly Draper has some very moving moments as Donna’s mother Nancy, Gabe Liedman is a hoot as everyone’s gay best friend Joey, and David Cross has some hilarious scenes as Sam, a comedian and a guy who just doesn’t get what’s going on around him.

I also have to give Jake Lacy a lot of credit as he makes Max a truly nice guy we never find ourselves snickering at. Roles like these are often very bland and don’t give actors a lot to work with, but Lacy makes you believe Max is the real deal and the kind of significant other we all hope to find in our own lives. Max could have been the most boring and thankless character in “Obvious Child,” but Lacy keeps him from becoming this with a lot of humor and charm.

When it comes to the abortion issue, which has already split people on “Obvious Child” (particularly those who haven’t even bothered to see it), Robespierre handles it in a manner which is actually very refreshing. She’s not out to demonize abortion, but she also doesn’t make light of it either. In this Roe vs. Wade world we have been living in for the past few decades, I’m surprised we haven’t had more movies like this one.

Robespierre has created a truly wonderful film I am very eager to see again soon, and it’s one of the most intelligent rom-coms to come out in some time. “Obvious Child” really left a smile on my face as I walked out of the theater. Regardless of whether or not you have gone through what Donna has, or whether you’re a man or a woman for that matter, you can sympathize with what she goes through as we have all hit a rocky point in our lives. What’s great is how she rises above her problems and becomes a stronger person as a result. Robespierre and company confront the painful moments in these characters lives with a lot of intelligence and warmth, and it’s also really funny. It’s deep, but it also had me laughing a lot.

* * * * out of * * * *

FYI: This review was written shortly before this movie went into wide release.

David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ Proves to Be More Than the Average Gross-Out Movie

The Fly 1986 movie poster

David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly” was released in 1986, a year filled with everlasting cinematic classics like “Aliens,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” “Platoon,” and “Top Gun.” More importantly, it came out during a time where remakes were very rare compared to today, and also when remakes were actually worth watching. Whereas remakes these days serve to capitalize on a known quantity or are being exploited for the sake of some potential franchise, “The Fly” is one where the director took what came before and made it completely his own.

You should all know the story by now. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a brilliant and eccentric scientist who has invented a set of telepods which allow objects to travel instantaneously from one pod to another. Seth shares the story of his invention with science journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) as he attempts to test teleportation on living subjects. Eventually, Seth decides to test it on himself, but he doesn’t realize a common housefly has entered the telepod with him, and the computer gets confused and ends up merging the two lifeforms at a molecular-genetic level. Seth believes the teleportation has purified his body as he discovers a strength he didn’t previously have, but it’s all a build up for a transformation which becomes all the more horrifying as “The Fly” reaches its gruesome climax.

What I love about “The Fly” is its slow build as Cronenberg makes Seth’s transformation into “Brundlefly” all the more unnerving by taking it one step at a time. We first see him engaging in an extraordinary set of gymnastics we would all love to be capable of, and then we watch as he puts an enormous amount of sugar into his coffee at a local diner. This leads Veronica to ask him, “Do you normally take coffee with your sugar?” While I expected a reply along the lines of Christian Slater’s in “True Romance” where he said, “I’m not satisfied until the spoon is standing straight up,” it is immediately clear that Seth is too involved in his own process to see the damage it is doing to his body.

Seth’s face comes to look like it is riddled with severe acne scars, and this brought about a number of PTSD flashbacks for me of when I dealt with my own acne outbreaks back in high school. But the key moment doesn’t come when Seth snaps a guy’s arm in half during an arm wrestle contest (it’s always painful to see a bone sticking out of a person’s body), but instead when he finds himself pulling out his own fingernails. Just the idea of pulling out your own fingernails is painful in itself, but seeing Seth pulling his out to where a great deal of puss explodes from his fingers proves to be even more painful than watching George Clooney getting his fingernails pulled out with a pair of plyers in “Syriana.”

At this point, I want to point out one of “The Fly’s” biggest stars which is Chris Walas. Walas won an Academy Award for Best Makeup for his work here, and it should go without saying just how much he deserved it. As Seth’s body continues to deteriorate in the midst of an unwanted, let alone unexpected, transformation, Walas makes each moment sting with a thankfulness we are not going through what this misguided scientist is. He also gives you the assurance that he and his colleagues have researched all there is to know about this kind of metamorphosis, and this makes Seth’s transformation all the more horrifying. Walas makes you believe something like this could actually happen to where you cannot help but react strongly to everything unfolding before you.

1986 was a big year in science fiction as Sigourney Weaver not only had the lead role in “Aliens,” back when it was rare for an actress to have such a role in a movie, but she also scored an Oscar nomination for her performance which was well-deserved. It’s a shame Goldblum didn’t get the same respect from the Academy as his performance is truly brilliant and wholly original. Just as Weaver dominated all those special effects in “Aliens,” Goldblum makes it clear the makeup is not doing all the acting for him as he fully inhabits Seth Brundle at every stage of his transformation. For the actor, the makeup becomes a costume which comes to inform his character throughout, and Goldblum is fearless in portraying this scientist’s descent into an unwanted fate.

Scientists in movies tend to be either over the top or exceedingly modest and timid, but Goldblum gives us one whose eccentricities make him more alluring than the average one. The actor even sells us on a wonderful moment where he explains why he wears the same suit, shirt and tie each day, and seeing his closet reminded me of a number of movie spoofs where this same situation was used for sheer comedic effect. Even as Seth becomes increasingly unpredictable, let alone unlikable, to be around, Goldblum seduces us deeply into his strange plight which brings about a change he never saw coming.

But let’s not leave out Geena Davis who shares a strong chemistry with Goldblum throughout, and this only makes sense as they were a couple at the time and were briefly married. As Veronica Quaife, Davis creates a complex character whom is eager to take advantage of Seth’s invention for the story of the century, but she soon finds herself falling for him to where she cannot tear herself away from his hideous transformation. The scene where she hugs him after getting her first glimpse at the horrific changes his body is going through brought about a loud gasp of disgust from the audience I watched this movie with at New Beverly Cinema, but it shows just how powerful her performance is. Veronica is at once mortified at how bad things are getting for Seth, and yet she can’t tear herself away from him because she is too emotionally involved to just give up on him. Davis’ commitment to her performance shows the range which would eventually earn her an Academy Award for her work in “The Accidental Tourist.”

Many see Cronenberg as a filmmaker who makes nothing more than gross-out horror movies, but they neglect to see the intelligence and thought he puts into each movie he makes. Whether it’s “The Fly” or “Rabid” or “Scanners” or “Dead Ringers” or “eXistenZ,” Cronenberg has fearlessly explored the phobias we all have of bodily transformation and disease to unforgettable effect. His movies are not designed to make you throw up, but instead to confront how our bodies deteriorate in one way or another. His remake of “The Fly” is one of his most unforgettable motion pictures as we can’t take our eyes off the screen even as Seth Brundle’s transformation becomes all the more disgusting. Its power comes from how it draws you in emotionally more than anything else, and we have as much luck at disconnecting ourselves from Seth’s unnerving plight as Veronica does.

Watching “The Fly” again, it is clearer than ever that this movie is about a tragic romance more than anything else. Heck, Shakespeare would have been proud to have written a tragedy like the one presented here. While much of the attention on this remake is forever directed at the makeup design which still grosses audiences out to this very day, it is the romance between Seth and Veronica which drives the story more than anything else. The two of them want to tear themselves away from one another, but deep down neither of them can truly bare to do so, and they are the kind of couple U2 sang their song “With or Without You” about.

If there’s anything wrong with “The Fly,” it’s the ending as things are resolved in a way which is not altogether satisfying. We are left with questions which would not be answered until “The Fly II,” and while that sequel had its moments, it’s no surprise how it paled in comparison to Cronenberg’s remake.

Horror movie remakes are a dime a dozen these days, but Cronenberg’s “The Fly” remains one of the best and most visceral. It is still the director’s biggest commercial hit to date, and I prefer to see this as proof of how his unique style of filmmaking can reach a wider audience than we typically realize. All these years later, Cronenberg remains one of the most original filmmakers working today, and we eagerly await his next cinematic opus with great anticipation.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘The Emoji Movie,’ Like its Main Character, is Simply Meh

The Emoji Movie poster

This never seemed like a good idea for a movie. Sure, there was “Toy Story” which brought those toys we grew up playing with to wonderful life, and we had “The Lego Movie” which featured those building blocks in a story which had profound things to say about the power of our imagination. But emojis? Seriously, where can you go with those things? They are just faces with one single emotion to exhibit. How can you possibly make a movie out of them?

Going into “The Emoji Movie,” I was reminded of an episode of “Hollywood Babble-On” in which Ralph Garman and Kevin Smith ranted about the news of this movie being made following a bidding war between three studios.

“To go into a room and say, ‘Guys, I got the idea. You know the fucking face at the end of your text with the fucking tongue out and one eyebrow is up and shit? You know that shit? Here’s my idea. Hey, bring out my Power Point presentation. See that fucking round yellow face? That’s going to be my new movie!’ WHO FUCKING THINKS LIKE THAT?!”

“We could go pitch ‘Hieroglyphics: The Movie!’”

“But ‘The Emoji Movie?’ A movie about the emojis? What’s it going to be, the fucking family of emojis going on vacation together and, oh no, Tongue-Out is upset because Cross-Eyes is pissed off that Thumbs-Up is hogging the backseat? WHAT THE FUCK?! Seven figures they paid for this idea! Seven figures!”

Actually, what Garman thought the story would be could have been more interesting than this. ‘The Emoji Movie,” like its main character, proves to be a meh affair with jokes which fall flat more often than not, a voice cast which cannot lift the material up beyond its banal confines, and ideas which were dated by the time this movie went into pre-production. The fact it is coming out at a time when GIFS are proving to be very popular doesn’t help either.

For the most part, “The Emoji Movie” takes place within the cell phone belonging to Alex (Jake T. Austin), a human teenager who lives and sleeps with his phone like every teenager does to where kids colliding with each other because they can’t take their eyes off their devices is to be expected. Fortunately, there are no scenes of teenagers texting while driving which is a relief. Imagine how traumatic it would be for children to watch them getting into a car crash because the characters were texting each other about the latest school gossip.

Anyway, inside Alex’s phone live the emojis who are always around to help provide him with text responses which need no description with words, and among them is Gene (T.J. Miller), a meh emoji, who is super-excited about going to his first day at the office. Gene just wants to be a normal emoji like everybody else, but we soon discover he is capable of exhibiting multiple expressions and ends up having a panic attack which shows him to be anything but meh. Smiler (Maya Rudolph), whose infinite smile cannot hide her vindictive nature, orders Gene to be deleted from the phone. Of course, Gene manages to escape her cheerful façade and goes on a mission to become a normal emoji like all the others.

Director Tony Leondis was interested in exploring life inside a phone, and he also explored the plight of being different in a world which unrealistically expects everyone to be the same. The latter part is noble as we need movies which remind us all of how we should not exclude those who are different (you listening Donald Trump?) as this world is hard enough without people ostracizing others who are not seen as the norm. Even in this day and age, we need these stories as life seems to mostly be about conforming to societal norms, and not everything can or should be the same.

Regardless, this movie never has enough to work with. The problem with emojis is they, as characters, are far too simplistic. You cannot do much with them as their role in life or, in this case, Alex’s phone has been decided from the get go to where, even if they tried to do something, there’s no real reason to expect anything different from they are already programmed to do.

The plot of “The Emoji Movie” also suffers as it is the same kind of story where the underdog goes on a journey which will eventually lead him to becoming the hero, at which point everyone will accept him for who he is. It sucks a lot of times when you know the outcome long in advance, and it really tears away at the inspired movie this one could have been.

Leondis was clearly inspired by the “Toy Story” movies as well as “The Lego Movie,” but those movies managed to surprise us not just with their splendid animation, but with their stories which took audiences on rides they weren’t really expecting to go on. “The Emoji Movie,” however, isn’t much more than your typical outsider movie, and this is a shame as so much more could have been done here. This could have been an insanely inspired movie, but instead it travels down a road many of us have already traveled one too many times. Kids may get a kick out of it, but adults will be left wondering why this one couldn’t be as good as anything Pixar puts out.

Many shots are taken at various mobile apps like YouTube, Instagram, and even Candy Crush, a game for which I still get countless invitations to play (FYI, I’m not interested). Even Pikotaro’s “Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen” video makes a brief appearance, reminding us it was 2016’s most viewed video on YouTube. However, Leondis and his screenwriters, Eric Siegel and Mike White, don’t mine this material enough for all the satirical value it holds. Moments like the reveal of Candy Crush generate a chuckle, but nothing in the way of real laughs.

It’s a real shame because the voice cast is nothing short of terrific. T.J. Miller of “Silicon Valley” fame makes Gene an emoji we want to follow along with, and Anna Faris lends her everlasting charm to the codebreaker emoji Jailbreak. Maya Rudolph makes Smiler a wonderfully devious presence as her infinitely cheerful demeanor and pearly white teeth reveal her to be anything but truly happy. James Corden brings the same giddy energy he brings to his late-night CBS show to the role of Hi-5, and he steals just about every scene he has. I also have to say the casting of Steven Wright as Gene’s father, Mel Meh, was priceless.

Sir Patrick Stewart, however, is wasted in a role I expected to be the real scene stealer here, the poop emoji. Stewart has some choice moments which had me chuckling a bit, but he disappears from this movie too often to where I wondered why the filmmakers bothered to cast him. And the scene where poop is in the cube shouting “red alert!” makes me pine for another “Star Trek: The Next Generation” movie which will probably never happen. Regardless of how you felt about “Star Trek: Nemesis,” the “Next Generation” crew still deserves a better curtain call.

There was an animated movie which came out earlier this summer called “Captain Underpants: The Epic First Movie” which I wasn’t expecting much from when I walked into the theater. I came out of the movie pleasantly surprised as it proved to be very entertaining, full of imagination, and wonderfully subversive. I was hoping “The Emoji Movie” would surprise me in the same way, but the cards were stacked against this one right from the start. Emojis only have one function, to show a specific emotion. While Gene can show off many different emotions, it doesn’t change this fact. What we are left with is a thin story with jokes which are as funny as the hopelessly corny ones at all those Disneyland park shows, and animation which, while not at all bad, never comes across as the least bit wondrous. And yes, there is a post-credit sequence, but don’t bother waiting for it. All it does is show the fate of a certain character, and the moment is over in a flash.

“The Emoji Movie” does have a short-animated film preceding it called “Puppy!” which is based on the “Hotel Transylvania” franchise. It has Dennis getting a puppy, albeit one which is almost as big as King Kong. This short might pale in comparison to the ones Pixar makes, but it is very funny and playful and everything “The Emoji Movie” could have been.

Perhaps Garman was right. It would have been better to do an emoji road movie. Leondis would have had more luck with this genre than “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” did.

* * out of * * * *

‘Gravity’ is the Ultimate Outer Space Movie

Gravity movie poster

I remember being fascinated and terrified by outer space movies when I was a young boy. Seriously, I kept getting vertigo when I saw all those stars shining brightly to where I was afraid I would fall into space and be lost forever. Of course, back then I still had a lot to learn about gravity. It’s been a long time since an outer space movie gave me this kind of sensation. The last one was Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” which, when it came out in 1995, was perhaps the most realistic motion picture about life in space and of how dangerous it can be. But now that same sensation has come back in an exhilarating rush with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” which may very well be the greatest movie about life in outer space I have ever seen.

“Gravity” is an amazing movie, just amazing. It left me speechless with its amazing visual effects and the tour de force performances from George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, and it made me feel like I was right up there in outer space with them both. The movie opens with the following:

At 372 miles above the Earth

There is nothing to carry sound

No air pressure

No oxygen

Life in space is impossible

For 90 minutes, Cuarón never lets you forget this as we watch astronauts Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) struggle to survive after their space shuttle is destroyed by debris from a satellite. From there, they are floating in space with little oxygen and very few options. It may sound like a thin plot for a movie, but it’s more than enough to make “Gravity” one of the most nail biting films to sit through in some time.

I almost don’t want to know how the special effects were accomplished for fear the film’s magic will forever be ruined for me. “Gravity” reminds you of how great going to the movies can be as it sucks you right in to a world many of us have never seen up close. Cuarón shows the inherent dangers of space as well as the sheer beauty of it, and there’s no beating the view of planet Earth hundreds of miles above its surface.

Cuarón, just as he did with “Children of Men,” gives us truly brilliant scenes which look like they were all done in one shot. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how he managed to keep the camera rolling for such a long period of time. “Gravity” starts in space and pretty much ends there, and it’s the lack of gravity which makes the film seem like a new kind of roller coaster ride. I bet a number of audience members will get motion sickness while watching this movie as they’ll be struggling to find their center of balance just like Bullock does when she becomes untethered from the space shuttle. I remember all those trailers for horror movies like “Dawn of the Dead” which said the theater had barf bags available for those who needed them. Well, “Gravity” is proof movies don’t have to inhabit the horror genre for you to need a barf bag. Anyway, that’s more information than you need to know.

But as technically brilliant as “Gravity” is, it never forgets the human element which other filmmakers don’t pay as much attention to. We come to care deeply about the characters Clooney and Bullock play because they are not just a couple of stereotypical astronauts spouting clichéd dialogue. They are flesh and blood human beings with needs and desires, and they need each other to survive. Seeing them tumble through space will make you appreciate the brakes you have on your car.

Clooney rarely, if ever, lets us down as an actor, and he is perfectly cast as the veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski. He immediately gives the sense Matt has been to outer space countless times without having to point it out. From start to finish, Clooney is the calm center in the middle of the storm, and he gives the movie the positive energy it needs. Even as things get worse, he gives Dr. Stone a reason to keep on going.

But when all is said and done, “Gravity” really belongs to Bullock. She may still wonder if she deserved her Oscar for “The Blind Side,” but after watching her here, it’s clear she did, and she may be getting another one. Bullock gives the performance of her life as she reveals her character’s inner struggles which illustrate how there’s more going on with her than just trying to stay alive. The more we learn about Dr. Stone, the more we see this is not so much a movie about a woman lost in space as it is a woman trying to escape the darkness which has engulfed her soul.

Bullock can just draw you into a scene with her eyes which easily reveals much of her character’s inner torment as her oxygen continues to run out. I’ve always admired her as an actress, and her roles in “Demolition Man” and “Speed” showed her to be an unforgettable talent. In recent years, we have seen her do an endless number of romantic comedies, so it feels rare to see her in a dramatic film. But Bullock is so enthralling to watch here, and there is not a single false note to be found in her performance.

I don’t think it’s too much to say Cuarón is a magician when it comes to making a movie. He gave us an enchanting childlike vision of the world with “A Little Princess,” a marvelous coming of age story with “Y Tu Mamá También,” the first truly great Harry Potter movie with “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and one of the more unique dystopian science fiction movies of recent years with “Children of Men.” From one film to the next, he has given us astonishing visions which have us in awe over what he can accomplish. Cuarón leaves you with a strong sense of wonder with “Gravity,” and it’s a quality seriously lacking in most movies these days.

Cuarón is also aided tremendously by a strong creative team which includes his son Jonás who co-wrote the screenplay with him, Steven Price who composed the movie’s hypnotic score, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who makes space look as beautiful and inhospitable in equal measure, and David Heyman who makes this his first film as a producer outside of the “Harry Potter” franchise. All have come together to create something which redeems our collective hope in the possibility of cinema.

“Gravity” demands to be seen in a movie theater and, yes, I’m going to say it, in 3D. Few film going experiences have been as enthralling as this one, and it is not to be missed. Thank you Cuarón for this film and reaffirming what can be accomplished in Hollywood today. But more importantly, thanks for creating a movie which gave me the sensation of being in outer space I used to have as a child.

* * * * out of * * * *