Category: Box Office Democracy

Box Office Democracy: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

It’s really easy to dismiss a film by calling it nonsense, and this particular pitfall is one I feel I fall into too many times. I’ve cried nonsense on the plots of so many films over the course of my years reviewing films when I really meant muddled or confusing or pointless that now when I need it most I worry it won’t be taken seriously. Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is nonsense in the purest form of the word; the movie has nothing resembling coherence or reason and it is a constant struggle just to understand what the hell is happening, let alone why it’s happening. I understand why these characters need to run away from bad things, but just about nothing else about the entire film. I derided the first Maze Runner film for being cliché and boring but it’s so much better to be boring than to be utterly incomprehensible.

You would think that by picking up directly where the last film left off The Scorch Trials could have some sense of narrative continuity, but you would be completely wrong. This film starts with the idea that everything we knew in the first movie was wrong but never bothers to explain what’s right. There’s some disease out there and for some reason it turns people in to zombies. The lab where they’re researching this disease has some weird shrimp monsters in glass tubes but no one acknowledges them in a serious way and they’re never spoken of or seen again. The outside world is one of sandstorms and powerful lightning storms but I can’t imagine that was caused by the zombie shrimp virus. The city they visit (or cities— it’s very hard to tell visually and the narrative gives no clues) is completely trashed with skyscrapers collapsing and fallen bridges, but none of that seems like zombies or sandstorms would cause it. The movie feels like the sets and locations were made with a paint-by-numbers set of post-apocalyptic clichés, and I could probably abide by it if they dedicated any time at all to justifying any of it. It wouldn’t even be that hard to slide this exposition when you consider all of the primary antagonists have amnesia, a disease practically invented to provide opportunities for simple things to be explained.

There’s also a stunning lack of consistency in the simple facts of the world. The kids travel by days on foot apparently risking dehydration and death by exposure to get from this ruined city to a secluded rebel outpost at the base of a far-off mountain. Then when things in the base go wrong two characters run around an underground tunnel for less than ten minutes before being deposited back out in to a giant city that we definitely couldn’t see in any of the establishing shots of that camp. When they leave this new city a few minutes later, they do it in a truck on a paved road. Civilization returned to this part of the world quickly in the maximum three days these events took place in. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like my intelligence has been insulted so much by a movie, and I saw the Twilight film where the whole climax was a dream twice.

For two movies in all the characters are remarkably thin. I couldn’t come up with descriptions for any of them that last more than a sentence or contain more than two adjectives. I suppose Minho is the brave one and Thomas is the reckless hero. Newt has an English accent and Aris has a weird name. I think Frypan is supposed to be the strong one but I might be wrong. Teresa has almost nothing to do in this movie and barely speaks until it’s almost over but they still expect me to believe she and Thomas have some special connection, maybe by the time this is all over it will be somewhat believable. Patricia Clarkson is suitably menacing in her slightly expanded part as the series’ apparent big bad, but she’s starting to sort of fade in to the scenery as the famous older blond actress playing the big bad has become the new fad among the YA movie swarm. Giancarlo Esposito is a treasure and he gets the most real acting to do in this and while he crushes it I sincerely hope he gets better opportunities soon or that this paid enormously well. Alan Tudyk is featured in a very small role and while he’s utterly transfixing it seems as if the direction offered him was “take everything you’ve ever seen a junkie do on film and do all of it on every line” and it’s awfully strange to see.

While trying to figure out how much of what I didn’t get in this film came from some struggle to adapt the book into the film I read a summary of the book and discovered it basically has nothing to do with the movie they made. Some of the characters are the same and the second act seems to hit a few of the same beats but what are we even doing here at this point? Why make a film so unfaithful to the source material and also so staggeringly terrible? Who is being pleased by this film? Surely not the fans of the book and certainly not the poor audience members with no affinity for this franchise at all. The Scorch Trials is a failure as a film and a failure as an adaptation and it seems like somewhere, with enough effort, they could have gotten one of these things right.

Box Office Democracy: American Ultra

American Ultra would have been the coolest movie in the world in 1996. It has the lovable loser slacker protagonist with a quirky hobby and a mundane job, it has plenty of sudden graphic violence, and it even has a plot that’s a metaphor for parental issues.

Unfortunately, the last 19 years haven’t been particularly kind to these tropes, and this movie that would have easily swept the Independent Spirit Awards two decades ago instead feels less special and more tired. It doesn’t sink the movie, it’s still frequently a blast and features one of the most best ensemble supporting cast I may have ever seen but this is a movie that in another era could have been a home run and it’s disappointing to see it just be a long double.

While not a fantastic reflection on the originality of the film, American Ultra lends itself very handily to mash-up comparisons. It’s Chasing Amy meets A History of Violence, it’s Slackers crossed with The Bourne Identity, it’s SubUrbia having a baby with The Transporter. Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner convenience store clerk who draws an ambitious if nonsensical comic book in his spare time. Unbeknownst to Mike he is an old CIA asset that due to a power struggle within the agency has been targeted for termination. When the CIA assassins come to kill him Mike discovers he’s an amazing killer. The ensuing chaotic escalation of this operation ends up bringing everyone in Mike’s life in to the orbit of this violent struggle especially his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) who is the cliché suspiciously-attractive girlfriend of a total loser. There are enough clever twists and fun tweaks to the formula here to make the film exciting but maybe they go a little too far as there are all these vestigial bits of plot hanging off the edges like threads that they forgot to weave in to the main fabric of the story.

While both Eisenberg and Stewart are quite good— in fact, both seem to be trying very hard to shake of the notion that they are budget-friendly versions of bigger stars— the real winning performances in American Ultra come from the supporting cast. Topher Grace chews scenery hard as the smarmy evil CIA supervisor and I’ve seen him do this douchebag performance so well so many times I’m beginning to wonder if he’s not like that in real life and that’s probably the mark of an exceptional performance (or an exceptional jerk in real life, but I hope not). Connie Britton usually acting across from Grace does a great job bringing a grounded energy to those scenes, but when she’s doing scenes with any other characters she switches gears and becomes the scene stealing performer we know she is. Walton Goggins is a terrifying presence as the CIA lunatic killer Laugher turning in a performance that is 100% chilling nightmare fodder. The cast is so embarrassingly deep that Tony Hale and John Leguizamo, both national treasures and utter delights in this film, feel criminally underused but there just isn’t room for more of them.

By the time I’m writing this it’s pretty apparent American Ultra didn’t find its audience. We’ve even gotten the 2015 signature move of the underperforming movie and someone involved in the production has taken to Twitter to complain about the results of their labors. It’s a shame, this movie deserves better and I hope that eventually people discover this movie on Netflix or wherever because it deserves to be seen and to be appreciated. Not because it’s screamingly original or clever but because it’s an example of exceptional execution and the good work a solid cast can do to carry a middling script. American Ultra is a film that deserves better than it got from America this weekend and better than it got from whoever came up with this terrible non-descriptive title.

Box Office Democracy: Straight Outta Compton

When I saw the first trailer for Straight Outta Compton I leaned over to my girlfriend and said, “Oh my God, are they making the story of N.W.A into a white savior movie?” and she looked back at me with fear in her eyes. It was a bad trailer, rather an unrepresentative one, which made it look like a movie about Jerry Heller trying to get the police and the music establishment to treat his clients with respect. That would have been a terrible movie, a tragic misrepresentation of the struggles that really took place. The movie we got is a powerful touchstone piece in documenting and dramatizing the rise of West Coast gangster rap.

I wish Straight Outta Compton felt as old as it is. That we could look at the events of this movie, now a quarter of a century gone, and think of them as the past when instead it feels like the present. The world they show us to contextualize the writing of “Fuck tha Police” feels very much like the world we see so very often on the news or in our own communities. The anger and the despair and the hopelessness of the situation feels so current and relevant and it only magnifies these feelings to know we’ve accomplished so little in the intervening years when it comes to policing minority populations. These are powerful scenes, the most affecting ones that I can remember seeing on the topic and if this movie does nothing but inspire this feeling of discontent in a few more people it will be a remarkable success.

Luckily, it does a few more things very well. The acting is generally superb; especially O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s work pretending to be his own father, a task that I have to imagine is one of the strangest tasks an actor would ever have to attempt. Corey Hawkins does a good job of playing Dr. Dre with the quiet rage I’ve always associated with him and showing it build, ebb, and flow in a natural manner. It’s an inexperienced cast and that inexperience sometimes shines through but they generally do great work. I was quite impressed with the scope of the picture, it starts as an N.W.A piece but then branches out through everyone’s respective solo careers and it helps to illustrate how influential these men were in launching other enterprises and helping along the careers of so many others. It stops short of getting into Ice Cube playing a police captain in the 21 Jump Street franchise and the irony therein but I suppose it was already a long film. Straight Outta Compton also does its part in establishing that Suge Knight is a real-life cartoon supervillain and I think that is an important detail to share with future generations that might watch this movie.

There’s a problem with the way Straight Outta Compton handles its female characters. Most of the women on screen in this film are some manner of groupie, party girl, or otherwise objectified woman with barely any lines. The exceptions are wives and mothers and while it’s nice to have that change of pace that isn’t really a less sexist depiction. Every woman is either a Madonna or a whore with nowhere in between. This is an accurate reflection of how bad the gangster rap movement was for the status of black women but one would hope that time and perspective might lend itself to a more nuanced look back. I don’t need the characters in the film to say or do things differently than they really happened but it would have been nice to get some indication that the filmmakers know this kind of conduct is wrong or damaging.

The music biopic is a genre that feels perpetually stale, and Straight Outta Compton is definitely not a stale film. It has all the little issues that biographical films will always have, character and event compression makes for some moments that feel as fantastical as people commanding ants through a metal helmet but there’s a passion and an energy I haven’t felt in one of these films in a long time, maybe ever. This is an important band who did important things at an important time and it’s important to remember their struggle and try to contextualize it for people who weren’t there or who couldn’t pay it the proper attention. If not for this movie there was a real danger that Ice Cube and Dr. Dre would be remembered by the next generation as an actor and a headphone mogul and if this movie keeps their other work in our collective consciousness it is doing our culture a great service.

Box Office Democracy: “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is a very good spy action movie. It expands and builds on the previous entries in the series although sometimes in ways I’m not entirely sure are necessary but it’s consistently compelling and visually interesting, often funny, it checks every box I would put on a hypothetical action movie checklist. Unfortunately I think the landscape for these movies have changed and being very good might not cut it anymore. Movies need to either push the genre in new or interesting directions (like a Mad Max: Fury Road) or be so consistently excellent the movie becomes a non-stop delight to sit and watch (the approach taken by the last three Fast & Furious movies) or it feels lacking to me. Tom Cruise isn’t enough by himself and Tom Cruise: Movie Superstar is all that is being offered here.

Let’s not take anything away from Tom Cruise as a movie star, because he is a phenomenal one and this is a stunning showcase for him. He is charming and magnetic and because he’s willing to do his own insane stunts the movie looks more authentic. It’s not a very active improvement, though; it’s more like appreciating how it doesn’t look like bad CGI than being particularly amazing in its own right. Tom Cruise is good in a way that makes me think “Tom Cruise is amazing” but not in a way that makes me thing “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is an amazing movie” and that’s a problem. He’s appealing in the role but he never makes me think anything about the character, I know I’m watching Ethan Hunt but I never ascribe any character traits to him, he’s a stunningly blank character for the lead of a fifth movie in the series.

The plots haven’t advanced very far along in five movies either. For Rogue Nation the Impossible Mission Force is disgraced in the eyes of the government and Ethan and his team must work to stop the bad guys with no official support for their actions. This is exactly the same premise of the last entry in the franchise. All they did this time was change the particulars; it isn’t about stopping a nuclear missile, it’s about shutting down a criminal anti-IMF, and the force of government resistance are represented by Alec Baldwin who plays his part as director of the CIA and I can only imagine his process was deciding he was going to play Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock and the director would have to fight him for every bit of seriousness. This is not intended as a complaint; it works quite well. There are also some legacy problems due to the longevity of the series. In a world where good and evil intelligence operatives have been able to do perfect face masks to pose as others for almost 20 years, you would figure no important people on earth would have sensitive conversations without blood tests or some such. As it is you just spend the entire movie waiting for that iconic face pulling off shot and this time around I saw it coming a mile away. It hurts the credibility of the movie.

I’ve complained a lot here and while I think the film deserves it I want to emphasize that it was a perfectly enjoyable way to spend 2 hours and 20 minutes on a hot summer day. It’s fun to watch, the action spectacle is as good as Hollywood is capable of doing. Rogue Nation crosses the globe to incredible exotic locales and it’s fun to see motorcycle chases through Morocco. The supporting cast is a hoot and a half, Simon Pegg is delightful, Ving Rhames is wonderfully gruff and while he sometimes feels like he’s acting on autopilot it’s never distracting. Rogue Nation is a very good movie but I want it to be excellent, these days the genre almost demands it and it just isn’t there yet. I hope the inevitable sixth movie can push it in that direction, and with the track record of this franchise I wouldn’t rule it out.

Box Office Democracy: Pixels

I remember rather clearly the first time I saw the trailer for Pixels. It has a cool introduction about sending examples of 1982 culture in to space and then it quickly moves on to some quick shots of the attack and then the coup de grace of the giant Pac-Man crashing through midtown Manhattan eating a fire truck. For the first minute of the trailer it looked like a movie I would like and then they revealed that Adam Sandler was the star of the movie and all of my interest vanished. I know the kind of movies Adam Sandler makes and they aren’t clever or original, they’re outdated and formulaic. This wouldn’t be a fun deconstruction of old arcade games like Wreck-It Ralph or even a fun action movie like The Last Starfighter. The best-case scenario for Pixels was as the home of a spectacular fart joke. It wasn’t.

There’s nothing in Pixels that feels substantial enough to criticize. The plot is a mess and full of contradictions starting with the premise that aliens recreated video games down to glitches in the 1982 code of Galaga (a crucial plot point for Sandler to prove his credentials early in the film) from a video tape of children playing the game. The aliens communicate through the images of 80s pop culture icons and it’s a nice device, one of the only things that feel that way in the whole film, but other than some exposition thrown in the third act we never learn anything about this menace other than they attack using video games. The movie pretends to venerate this bygone era of arcade gaming but then makes choices that anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the subject matter knows are complete bunk like cheat codes in Pac-Man or Q*bert, famous for his garbled voice and word balloons filled with symbols, giving extensive exposition in English. It feels like everything about the movie was hammered out over lunch one day and no one ever thought about it again. I almost feel stupid complaining about it because I’ve already thought about it more than everyone who worked on the movie.

All of the characters in Pixels are paper-thin nothings but the women seem to get a particularly short end of the stick. The female lead (Michelle Monaghan) is a Lieutenant Colonel and in charge of some nebulous DARPA team but all of her character traits are defined by men she is attracted to (Sandler), she was cheated on by her husband, and she doesn’t want her son to be harmed. She might even do better than Jane Krakowski who plays the First Lady of the United States who doesn’t understand that her husband is busy with his job and demands he make time for ludicrous public dates in some kind of effort to become some shrew singularity. There’s the ideal virtual woman of video games (Ashley Benson) who doesn’t talk even when brought to life by these aliens even when other characters that never talked in their games talk. None of these characters in a vacuum would be that big of a deal but when they’re all like this and even the off-screen female characters are treated poorly (slutty pilates instructor, ex-wife who has an affair with fertility doctor) it adds up to a sour taste in the mouth. Luckily it doesn’t linger because nothing in this film is capable of holding the minds o the audience for more than a few minutes,

Pixels is similarly unkind to nerdy men, a demographic in far less peril in film but one that deserves better than this movie. These characters are all just aspects of the sexless loser nerd stereotype that has persisted for 30 years and should feel outdated at this point. The movie installs a central principle of its anchor relationship that nerds are better kissers because they appreciate it more. The movie wants to play on this nostalgia for pop culture icons and is then spectacularly unkind to the people who would feel most warmly about it. When The Big Bang Theory is doing dramatically better at characterization than your feature film it’s time to scrap the whole thing and move on.

I wish I thought Adam Sandler cared that this is a bad movie. He’s made so many bad movies in a row, produced so many bad movies in a row, that I have to believe he’s either completely insane and believes these movies are fantastic or he knows they’re good enough to get paid, get to the next one, and keep supporting whatever golden yacht lifestyle he lives. I wish he made better movies, selfishly, so I wouldn’t feel compelled to go see these wretched things to review them. We’ve all heard the stories coming out of his next film, The Furious Six, and we can probably guess this isn’t getting any better. Adam Sandler can do better than this, he has before, and I wish he cared enough to do better again.

Box Office Democracy: Ant-Man

Ant-Man is the latest anticipated failure from Marvel Studios, the film that will finally break the spell that Marvel has on box offices and show that they can make films that people don’t like and that don’t make very much money, a Cars 2 if you will.

This isn’t that movie.

Ant-Man is totally charming and breathes fresh air in to the parts of the superhero formula that are beginning to feel particularly stale with some fun heist elements and a killer supporting cast. Besides, Doctor Strange feels more like the Marvel failure movie, right? All the pressure is on you, Benedict Cumberbatch; how long can all these people be fooled by your pasty charms?

Taken at the very broadest strokes, Ant-Man is the first Iron Man movie repackaged. New and potentially dangerous technology invented by a wise benevolent scientist with a bit of an attitude is turned in to a weapon for evil by his unscrupulous bald business partner and action comedy ensues. Where Ant-Man veers off the path is by splitting their Tony Stark into two parts: Michael Douglas plays the genius scientist Hank Pym, an elderly version of the Stark superego, and Paul Rudd is the hunky wisecracker safecracker Scott Lang, Tony’s id but with better hair and tighter clothes. There’s nothing groundbreaking, clever, or even particularly surprising to be found in the plot but it all works well enough and Rudd’s charm is capable of saving scenes that otherwise would be pretty insufferable. (For further reference, see most of This is 40.)

The supporting cast is what saves this movie from some rather poorly thought out subplots. Lang is supposed to be doing all of this dangerous stuff to stay out of jail and reconnect with his young daughter and those interactions and the ones with the cops determined to put him back in jail are the kind of things that most movies turn in to the worst kind of crap but Ant-Man fills that part of the movie with Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, and Wood Harris… and I can’t be mad at having to watch those actors. Similarly the movie revolves around a heist and includes Lang’s old criminal buddies whoa re there to provide comic relief and while David Dastmalchian doing “generic foreigner” is rather grating, Tip Harris is quite good as the getaway driver and Michael Pena steals every scene he’s in as Lang’s closest criminal confidant. Seriously, forget the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe— I would much rather watch Cannavale, Harris, Dastmalchain, Harris, and Pena play cops and robbers than see whatever part Rudd has to play in Civil War.

That’s the tragedy of the Marvel movie set up though, isn’t it? The things I liked about Ant-Man were in the fringes and not so much in the Ant-Man parts, which were fine, but kind of whatever and because of the way these movies are scheduled I know there’s not even an opening for a sequel until the winter of 2019. I suppose if this were some revelatory breakout hit they might be able to get it in a little sooner but it wasn’t and they won’t and so I’m more or less stuck waiting more than four years and two installments of Avengers to get back to the good stuff here. These are good problems for Marvel to have, too much good stuff in their movies to get back to in a reasonable amount of time, but it puts a weird kind of pressure on the other films. If there are parts of Inhumans or Captain Marvel that are particularly bad I’ll be sitting there thinking “this is where we could have gotten more Ant-Man, but no” and that’s not entirely fair. And I’ll definitely be thinking it while watching Cumberbatch screw up Stephen Strange who should absolutely not have a British accent.

Box Office Democracy: “Inside Out”

I can’t make heads or tails of Inside Out. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the film to pieces, it’s the best Pixar film this decade and one of the most emotionally wrenching experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. It’s a gift of a movie and I feel privileged to get to enjoy it. What I don’t understand is how this is a kids movie.

I frequently say that a good children’s movie should have plenty for parents to enjoy and frequently take weaker studios to task for aiming too low with franchises like Madagascar and Ice Age but perhaps we’ve gone too far in the other direction. Inside Out is a stunningly mature film and I don’t know what a younger audience could possibly be getting out of this except for the thrill of seeing their parents openly weep for 90 minutes.

This is, of course, a bit of an exaggeration— there are plenty of accessible parts of Inside Out. The characters are bright and broad and the voice talent is excellent. I expected fantastic things from Amy Pohler, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black but Phyllis Smith steals the show. I didn’t expect much from her because she never terribly impressed me on The Office but she’s hilarious as Sadness. The movie is consistently funny and the humor is nice and broad and seemed to be hitting with everyone in my theater. At the root the story is the very familiar fish out of water journey that is a hallmark of storytelling in general and particularly stories for children. There’s plenty for kids to like here.

What I’m having trouble reconciling is how amazingly sad Inside Out can be. The film deals heavily with the sense of loss that comes with growing up and the people and things we leave behind. Inside Out follows an eleven year-old girl, Riley, as she moves from Minnesota to San Francisco and the personified emotional turmoil this traumatic event creates. We see aspects of her personality physically destroyed, a thorough examination of what happens to forgotten memories, and a treatment of a beloved childhood imaginary friend that I’m not sure I’ll ever get over completely. Children probably won’t find these moments sad in the same way an adult would because the sadness comes from a place of nostalgia for childhood that comes with age, but absent that feeling I’m just not sure what these moments have to offer and worry that it’s a movie full of dead space.

I’m probably overthinking this. I saw this film in a packed house with many families and there were none of the telltale signs of restless kids bored out of their skulls. I’m not giving the target audience enough credit nor am I respecting the filmmakers with a tremendous track record of making beloved films. I’m a little uncomfortable with how devastating Pixar is willing to be with these movies but if you made me choose between getting output like this and WALL-E, and Up or the comparably sedate stuff like Monsters University and Cars 2 I would rather cry my way through the more ambitious films.

Box Office Democracy: Jurassic World

If I had been given a vote I would not have supported making another Jurassic Park movie. It’s a franchise that I’m not sure even qualified as a franchise until this weekend. The original film is a masterpiece, one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had in a theater, a movie that defined cinema for an entire generation. The sequels, by contrast, feel like hastily assembled Frankenstein monsters cobbled together from good parts of the first film and whatever script fragments were in the Amblin Entertainment dumpster. All sort of movies in the 90s got two sequels that would never demand this kind of attention but Jurassic Park is special and Jurassic World is a movie that deserves to be a part of something special.

The thing that makes Jurassic World special, aside from the innate sense of wonder that comes from seeing exceptionally rendered dinosaur special effects, is the performance of Chris Pratt. Even though I strongly think that getting so much of handsome action star Chris Pratt is robbing us of the fine work we could be getting from gifted comic actor Chris Pratt it’s hard to deny how effective he is. The movie misses him dearly when he’s not on screen while it bounces between being a little boring and interesting but because someone is in imminent danger of being eaten. The character they gave Pratt, a velociraptor trainer who operates like a circus lion tamer, could easily have been a disaster on par with Indiana Jones in that refrigerator but he somehow makes it believable. Pratt is so good he draws attention away from the rest of the cast being sort of bland and forgettable. No one will ever be quite as good as Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm but it’s fantastic to see someone trying for it.

The original Jurassic Park films were very much defined by the dinosaurs that hunted the protagonists, from the velociraptors and the tyrannosaurus in the first film to the sequels shamelessly reusing all of the same things while adding useless bits of garbage dinosaurs. For Jurassic World the antagonist dinosaur, the Indominus Rex, is the kind of monster a clever eight year-old would come up with trying to one up a playmate while playing pretend. The movie even calls this out when the park’s operation’s manager (Bryce Dallas Howard) says patrons need dinosaurs that are bigger and have more teeth. She’s talking about us, the moviegoers who probably would not have been satisfied with just another chase scene with a tyrannosaurus, we need something with more teeth, with natural camouflage, that hunts for sport. It’s an interesting commentary on modern audiences for sure but it also leads to some rather mystifying moments when very late in to the movie the Indominus is still coming up with new powers tailor made to escape the predicament it’s in.

The film probably leans a little too heavily on nostalgia. The theme from the original John Williams score is used three times in the first twenty minutes and then often throughout including a piano version used to convey sadness. It’s all a little much. They also lean heavily on recycled imagery using similar shots of stampeding dinos or the unnecessary trip through the original visitors center, which has apparently not been touched in all this time. I understand the impulse to lean on this, to wink at the audience, but it isn’t necessary the new stuff in this movie is good enough to stand on its own and it isn’t helping to constantly raise the specter of such a powerful film.

Nothing will ever be like watching Jurassic Park in the movie theater when I was nine years old. That is an unfair standard to hold Jurassic World to even though I would very much like to. Jurassic World gave me everything I wanted, it was suspenseful, it was funny, it looked amazing, the action was thrilling, it was a completely enjoyable utterly riveting piece of filmmaking. I’m looking forward to seeing the next movie in the series, the sequel very obviously set up all throughout this one, and that is an optimism I haven’t felt about a Jurassic Park sequel in 18 years.

Ah, to feel young again.

Box Office Democracy: “Spy”

I wonder how many excellent movies we’ve been cheated out of by Melissa McCarthy’s commitment to Mike & Molly. I understand the appeal of a regular paycheck and the success of the show has led to McCarty being the highest paid actress in Hollywood but Spy is such a good movie and couldn’t she be doing two or three of these per year instead of one and a season of bad television? Spy is the funniest movie I’ve seen in years and it isn’t close. I laughed so often and so hard I’m sure that I laughed over important dialogue and even other jokes. It’s the kind of movie that can shift the paradigm of movie comedy in the way the Judd Apatow movies of the early 2000s did and it can even be the movie you throw in your idiot friend’s face when he starts going on about how women just aren’t funny.

It is easy to praise McCarthy’s work in Spy. She’s effortlessly funny, she hits her dramatic moments, and she has an amazing physicality. I think she’s literally perfect for this role and I’m still worried I’m underselling her here. I’m also impressed at how competent they were willing to let her character be, it’s very easy to get cheap laughs out of someone being bad at their job but Susan Cooper is a good spy because she’s smart and because she’s trained very hard. A weaker movie would have been a string of pratfalls and idiot bungling. This movie doles out the bungling much more sparingly and is much better for it.

The buzz I had heard going in to this film was that Jason Statham was the breakout comic performance of the film and I didn’t think that was possible. I knew Jason Statham was funny, I had seen his work with Guy Ritchie, I has enjoyed his work in the Crank films, I thought he couldn’t surprise me in this way and I was 100% wrong. Jason Statham is funny for pretty much every second he’s on screen. I don’t think he has more than a couple lines that aren’t punchlines. His delivery is impeccable. I can’t decide if I think this is just incredible direction from Paul Feig, or if working with McCarthy brings out the best in people, or maybe we’ve all been deprived of years of work from the most unlikely comic star since it turned out Channing Tatum could steal 21 Jump Street from Jonah Hill.

I could write a gushing paragraph about every actor in Spy, the cast is so consistently amazing, but I don’t really have the space or inclination so let’s cover a bunch of people right here. Rose Byrne is terrific, between this and Bridesmaids I would be quite content to have her, McCarthy, and Feig just do movies together forever. She doesn’t have the most original comedic voice in the world but she does what she does so well. I was not familiar with Miranda Hart’s work in the UK so it’s an awful lot like a fully mature talent just sprung up at me from the ether. She’s a scene-stealer and, this might not seem remarkable, but a very big out-of-the-ordinary character that I’m never unhappy to see on screen. Jude Law looks great in a suit and is very handsome and that’s all this movie asks of him. Bobby Cannavale should really work more because I’ve never not liked him in something. I was very sure Morena Baccarin was going to be an important part of this movie when she was introduced and was very sad when she was used only sparingly.

There were a few things I thought worked less well. They go to the “You look like” joke construction a few times too often. It seems to be a McCarthy staple at this point and in a vacuum they’re all funny but at the end of a two-hour movie they aren’t hitting as hard. Peter Serafinowicz plays an aggressively flirty Italian agent that I thought was deserving of maybe 20% of the screen time he was allotted and I ended up cringing through most of his work. There are a couple jokes that use slurs for seemingly no reason other than to shock and that’s not a style of comedy I prefer. I thought a moment at the end where Cooper and Rayna Boyanov make nice was unearned and is just trading on the fact that we know the two actresses have a history. These are very small marks on an otherwise fantastic movie and nothing is ever going to connect with all of their jokes.

Paul Feig is on quite a roll with his third consecutive very funny McCarthy-led hit. In a more cynical time I would wonder if one or the other of this pairing is leaning too hard on the other, if perhaps the success of one is a smokescreen created by the supreme talent of the other but that’s just not how I want to think about things anymore. This collaboration is something special and we ought to cherish it before one of the nefarious forces in Hollywood that destroys all good things comes for this one. I thought I couldn’t be more excited for Feig and McCarthy’s Ghostbusters remake but it appears I was wrong. Hell, Spy was so good you might even be able to get me to see The Peanuts Movie, God help us all.

Box Office Democracy: San Andreas

I’ve been dreading San Andreas since the first trailer I saw of it. I don’t like movies where cities get destroyed especially if they’re cities I happen to live in, I think 9/11 ruined that for me forever. I do, however, have a deep, profound, love for Dawyne “The Rock” Johnson going back to the late 90s, long before any buildings fell down around me. San Andreas is a battle between a genre that’s felt stale for as long as I’ve been aware of it, one that offends me personally, and a man who is possibly the greatest American action star in history. Unfortunately, not even The Rock can carry this movie and judging from the size of his arms these days that’s probably the only thing he can’t carry.

San Andreas is the same as Volcano, which is the same as The Day After Tomorrow, which is the same as 2012. It hits all of the same beats and has basically all the same characters. The Rock plays the action hero, in this case a LAFD rescue chopper pilot his family is collapsing around him but nothing that can’t be patched up by saving them from a cataclysmic once-in-a-lifetime disaster. Paul Giamatti’s considerable talent is wasted as the scientist who tries to warn people but is ultimately useless because no warnings he gives could possibly be useful and all of the science is nonsesne anyway. There’s the smug rich guy (played by Ioan Gruffudd) who treats everyone like garbage as soon as things start going wrong and gets his comeuppance in a seemingly random twist of fate. There’s the attractive young woman, in this case Alexandra Daddario playing Johnson’s alarmingly white daughter, who is constantly in peril while wearing impractical clothing. I suppose the twist on the formula is that Daddario’s character is stunningly competent and frequently saves the men around her as opposed to the other way around but I’m not sure it counts for anything when none of these characters have any sort of depth or even narrative arcs. Every character just sort of runs towards or away from things as needed and the movie doesn’t end with any resolution just by the characters all being in the same place.

Johnson tries his best to save this movie and he very nearly pulls it off. He has the same effortless physicality he brings to all his movies; impossible things look more possible when he does them. He gets all the best stunts, approximately 90% of the emotional content of the movie, and he gets to perfectly pilot three different vehicles through every manner of hell imaginable. Everything that works in the movie works because of him but that doesn’t save it from being a bland, predictable film with a script that feels two levels above a Syfy original movie.

I suppose it’s the spectacle of San Andreas that’s supposed to make me fall in love with it but it doesn’t do it for me. The grandness of the destruction is counterbalanced frequently by just how blatantly the film ignores how things would actually happen. Not that I expect this to be some kind of slavishly accurate depiction of a big earthquake but I feel like with all the tsunamis that have caused such devastation in recent years that I’ve been told so many times how they work to just completely ignore that. There are also some particularly pandering shots of things like the American flag being flown in the rubble of the Golden Gate Bridge and fences full of fliers looking for missing persons that are designed to evoke real world tragedies in a way that feels less authentic than exploitative. In a movie with more genuine heart I might give it a pass but everything feels just a bit too slick and phony in San Andreas.