Stuber

I wanted to like Stuber. I really did. Kumail Nanjiani is a funny guy. Dave Bautista has really developed into a great screen presence. I love buddy cop movies. This one, though, never quite got up to speed. It is somehow less than the sum of its parts, with just enough scenes and jokes that work to keep me from actively disliking it but enough dead space and repetition that it ended up being not particularly enjoyable.

Stuber opens with Vic (Baustista) and his partner, played fellow Guardian of the Galaxy Karen Gillan, attempting to arrest a drug dealer in a hotel. Things go badly after the aging Baustista loses his glasses and can’t see to take a shot. A year later, Bautista is still on the hunt for this drug kingpin. The movie then introduces Stu, a hapless sporting goods store employee and part time Uber driver who is about to enter into business with his longtime friend and equally longtime crush. In order to cover his portion of the start up investment, he is spending his evenings as an Uber driver. He gets matched up with Bautista, who had just had eye surgery and gets roped into driving him all over L.A. after a lead in his hunt for the drug dealer comes to light.

It mostly plays off the different energy of Nanjiani and Bautista. Bautista is hyper-masculine, an old school man’s man. Nanjiani is more of a sensitive modern man. It is not a new set up at all, but big parts of it work because the actors involved. It helps that, to the script’s credit (or maybe at my memories fault) both characters have something of a point. Stu’s romantic troubles are all his own doing for not having the courage to tell Becca his feelings. Meanwhile, Bautista’s repressed nature is destroying his relationship with his daughter.

While none of them get much to do, Stuber has a solid supporting cast. Natalie Morales plays Bautista’s frustrated artist daughter. Mira Sorvino makes an appearance as Bautista’s supportive Captain and Betty Gilpin has an underdeveloped run as Becca.

At times, Stuber really brought Hot Fuzz to mind. It pulls some of the same tricks, like setting up buddy cop cliches as ridiculous before happily engaging in them. But that comparison shows how Stuber is lacking. Compared to the masterful Hot Fuzz, Stuber feels sloppy and unfocused. It takes a long time to even get its buddy pair together, let alone to get them acting as any kind of team. Stuber gets into a kind of unfortunate rhythm where it will have a genuinely good and funny scene, but then just kind of reset everything. Stu will make the same jokes about Vic, Vic will lob the same insults at Stu and then the movie will arrive at its next destination. Some of those are good, some aren’t, but there is no real sense of building momentum.

There are too many talented, funny people involved in Stuber for it to be a complete waste, but it feels like a missed opportunity. There are glimpses of a really fun movie, but that movie just can’t seem to get out of its own way for any sustained period of time.

**1/2

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Men In Black: International

In most ways the fact that Men In Black International landed with a widely ignored thud was predictable. Yes, it has two movie stars in Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth at the front, but I get the feeling that no one wanted this. It is continuing a series that, for all that the third installment was quite successful, seemed to have run its course. It is also continuing that series without any of the cast that made that series a hit, a problem for movies largely sold on the mismatched buddy cop pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Which is why I was surprised that MiB: International was actually quite fun.

To be clear, the movie isn’t breaking any new ground, nor does it appear to be trying particularly hard. Instead, it jumps into the playground set up by the previous movies and just sort tells a story in it, relying on the charm of its stars to really sell things. The only real difference between this movie and the original is that you’ve seen all of this before.

The weakest part of the movie is its nested opening. It starts in 2016, when Agent H and High T (a joke that certainly doesn’t get old), played by Chris Hemsworth and Liam Neeson, arrive at the Eiffel Tower to repel an alien invasion. Before we see them victorious, we cut to 20 years earlier, when young Molly witnesses an alien and her parents getting their minds wiped by Men In Black agents. Then it cuts to the present, with the now adult Molly trying to join the Men in Black. It is more disorienting than it needs to be, though all of it is relevant by the end of the film.

Without spoiling much, Molly, played as an adult by Tessa Thompson, does eventually find the MiB, gets recruited as an agent, her designation being M, with her first mission sees her sent to the London office, for training and because O thinks there is something wrong there. While there, she is teamed up with Hemsworth’s Agent H, whose reputation is some combination of prodigy and wash-out, to first babysit an alien dignitary and then investigate why that alien was attacked. That investigation takes them around the Mediterranean and the Middle East as they learn about a renewed threat from the aliens that H and T defeated at the start of the movie. This is compounded by M learning that there is a double agent within the London branch and not knowing who that is.

The movie mostly coasts on the charm of Thompson and Hemsworth, and a movie can get pretty far on their charm and chemistry. Hemsworth, as always, is much more interesting as a talented, overconfident screw up than just a traditional hero, and Thompson works as the level headed outsider. It is like a strange inverse of the Smith and Jones pairing, with the experienced agent being the brash one and the newcomer the calmer one. At times the movie hints at a romantic pairing between the two, which us unsuccessful and does not work. The movie also kind of loses the secretive nature of the organization. It is still nominally secret, but that secrecy is hard to maintain with how blatant they are about the alien’s existence at times.

Men in Black; International is perfectly serviceable summer fare. It is light, charming and not insultingly stupid. It is a movie I have a hard time seeing as someone’s favorite, but it is also a hard movie I have a hard time forming any truly negative opinions about. It is just a sort of comfortable middle ground of quality.

**1/2

Rocketman

There has certainly been a little run of musician biopics lately, with the unaccountably successful Bohemian Rhapsody followed up by Netflix’s trashy, but probably better made despite the music not being as good The Dirt. Now comes Rocketman, a biopic about Elton John. Rocketman is the best of the bunch, but that is damning with faint praise.

The obvious comparison to Rocketman is Bohemian Rhapsody, a comparison that can only make Rocketman look good. Bohemian Rhapsody did a shoddy job telling a good story, but floated along on the good vibes of some truly excellent music. Rocketman attempts a similar trick. However, Rocketman incorporates music into the film fully, turning the biopic into a musical. Characters break out into song and songs replace dramatic moments. That helps hide the fact that otherwise this is a bog standard musical biopic.

I don’t mean to make light of the struggles that the real Elton John faced in his life, but if you were to list musical biopic cliches, this movie hits about all of them. Elton is a musical prodigy who struggles to connect with his parents. His dad seems to hate him, his mother is caught up in her own stuff. He meets up with a musical partner, starts to get famous and really gets into drugs.

Rocketman makes Bohemian Rhapsody’s success feel all the more underserved. This movie almost certainly will not be winning awards like Bohemian Rhapsody inexplicably did, even though it has a better star performance and is simply a better made movie. Bohemian Rhapsody is a pile of shoddy editing (I know it won best editing at the Oscars; inexplicable), inaccuracies, and biopic clichés that are soldered together with fortunately excellent music. I don’t know that Rocketman is accurate, because I don’t know Elton John’s history as well and I knew Queen’s and I didn’t know Queen’s all that well. But otherwise it is better than that previous movie.

Rocketman, at the very least, seems to know that what people came for was the music. So it turns a fairly standard biopic into a straight up music. Not as in that there are scenes of performances, which there are, or montages, also here, but it makes tells the story with music and actually has it characters sing outside of the performances. It works. The movie keeps throwing another Elton John hit at the viewer every 15 minutes or so, helping disguise the most standard musical biopic story since Dewey Cox.

I said up thread that this movie has a better star performance than Bohemian Rhapsody, and no offense to Rami Malek (whose win was less baffling, but no more correct), Taron Edgerton does a better job as John than his all affect turn as Mercury. Plus, Edgerton sings.

Rocketman isn’t a great movie. Again, but for some excellent music there isn’t much here to really recommend. But the music is the reason to make a movie about Elton John. As a delivery vehicle for nostalgia, there are worse ways to go about it.

**1/2

Dark Phoenix

Frankly, Dark Phoenix isn’t a very interesting movie. It is a failure, but not an egregious one. It feels compromised from the ground up, but with solid, interesting takes on various characters that are ground up and cut apart into meaninglessness. However, the core of the story comes through, even it if feels truncated and the ending takes a weird turn.

Dark Phoenix is most interesting to me as the end of a movie universe that has meant a lot to me over the years. I am a comic fan now, but I really wasn’t when X-Men came out in 1999. My relation to the X-Men movies in some ways mirrors my relation to superhero comics. I liked superheroes, and likely would have been a comic fan had the opportunity presented itself before the movies, but I lived in something of a comics desert, with the only place to purchase comics within fifty miles being a lonely, sporadically refreshed spinner rack at the local grocery store. I did purchase some comics from there, spurred on by a brief infatuation with Archie Comics Sonic the Hedgehog comic (that is a post for another day), but I never really got into superheroes.

That is not to say I didn’t have some experience with superheroes or the X-Men, that experience just didn’t come from comics. Like many people who were seven in 1992, I was a huge fan of the cartoon. That show was a gateway, a glimpse into a larger world. Even without reading the comics, I knew somethings were missing with that show, but it still set my expectations for what the X-Men should be, especially when it comes to the make-up of the team. That early 90’s team is the iconic one to me. While I don’t think there is a member of that team I didn’t like, my favorite was always Beast. And the fact that Gambit is not an integral part of the team in other media was a surprise to learn. That wasn’t my only source of superhero knowledge. My best friend was comics fan, and he had these coffee table books that went into the history of comics characters. I remember he had one about Batman and one about Marvel Comics. At his house, sitting on the floor in the tiny closet of a room his family had set up as a game room, I would read these summaries of stories and character histories while we took turns playing Super Nintendo games. They are some of my happiest childhood memories.

I really had a thing for those sorts of books. I routinely checked out a similar book about Godzilla from the school library. I had seen three or four Godzilla movies, But this book went into great (and occasionally incorrect) detail about all the movies and various monsters that Godzilla would face off against. Finally seeing the movies was a bit of a disappointment, because they didn’t quite match how I imagined they all looked. With the superhero books, it was an amazing glimpse into a world I couldn’t actually see. There was something called the “Mutant Massacre” and I didn’t know most of the details, but it sounded amazing.

So I was perfectly primed for the movie when I was 14. I liked the X-Men, but I didn’t know the comics well enough to be concerned about whether or not the movie was accurate. Honestly, at the time the only superhero movies I knew were Batman movies, so it wasn’t like I had something else to set expectations by. A lot of stuff now about X-Men makes me roll my eyes a little bit. The jabs at colorful costumes or the fact that it isn’t actually very good, you know, those sorts of things. But as a 14 year old, it hit me perfectly. It was cool, which was the most important thing for a new teenager. It didn’t have the X-Man I most identified with, the monstrous yet erudite Beast, but the rest was good enough that I didn’t care. The scene where Magneto points all the guns back at the cops blew my mind. My enthusiasm didn’t wane. I bought the movie on VHS, one of my first such purchases, and completely dissected it, searching the background for hints at characters that weren’t in the movie. Needless to say, I was excited for the sequel. And the sequel worked. Sure, it turned into even more of the Wolverine show, but Wolverine was great so what was the problem?

I think the “geek” movies of the early 2000’s don’t get the respect they deserve. Everyone probably feels that about the movies they fell in love with when they were teenagers. But starting in 1999 with The Phantom Menace and The Matrix, the next six or so years were filled with movies that just worked for me. The best remembered, and likely best all-around from the time, were Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. I loved them. I never hated the Star Wars prequels and I didn’t lose any of my excitement when a new one was coming out. Let’s not forget Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies. But my favorites at the time were the X-Men movies. Recently, in a pile of papers, I found a list I made, likely around 2004, of the best movie trilogies. I like to make lists, so this seems like something I would have done instead of paying attention in some high school class. Star Wars topped the list, with Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future also near the top. There was a note on the page, though, reminding myself to revise the list when X-Men 3 came out, because based on the strength of the first two movies it was a contender for the top spot.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand was in some ways the end of my close relationship with the X-Men movie franchise, but not because I was disappointed in it. I convinced myself it was good for a long time. No, it is more that movie kind of marks a sort of childhood’s end for me. That was a long time coming, as I was twenty when that movie came out, but age wasn’t really the dividing line. It was that X-Men 3 was the last movie I went to see with my high school friends. We, in many groups and variations, went to see plenty of movies together. The most memorable for me were the times when we got as big a group of us together as possible, piled into my parents’ full-size Chevy van and went to see a movie. I’ll never forget the night we watched the Matrix Reloaded on DVD at my friend’s house, then all went together to see The Matrix: Revolutions. The silent, angry car ride home was excruciating. We all hated the movie, but none of us wanted to talk about it. It was crushing and we all just sullenly fumed as I drove us home. One might think that the Last Stand would have had a similar result. An unsafe number of teenagers, or recently turned not teenagers, stuffed into a van (close to a dozen in a vehicle that seats seven) making the thirty minute ride to and from the theater. But it did not. That movie got a range of reactions and we had a pretty good discussion about it on the ride home. No, it didn’t really do a great job with the Phoenix story. Yes, Kelsey Grammar as the Beast was great. We stood in the driveway talking for more than an hour after we got back. I think we all subconsciously knew that this was something like the end of an era, that we would never be together and be the people we in high school again. We were already dispersed to different colleges and these get togethers were growing increasingly infrequent. But as long as we stood there talking about whether The Last Stand was actually going to be the last stand, the longer our group lasted. But, as all things must, that night ended.

That was also the end of that take on the X-Men. Despite my claims of childhood’s end, before the next movie came out, the desultory X-Men Origins, I got into comics. With my initial love of the X-Men, the first thing I did was . . . acquire a full run of .pdfs of all X-Men comics and read them. But as my reading branched out, I moved away from the superhero team that was a favorite of my childhood. In fact, I came to realize that the characters a DC resonated more strongly with me than most of Marvel’s. When First Class came out in 2011, I actually kind of cared that they were bungling a whole handful of characters. (Really, that movie is super overrated and in many places quite bad). I would still go see X-Men movies, but I was no longer really a fan. Days of Future Past is likely the best of the bunch, but I haven’t returned to it like I did with the first two movies. Honestly, I didn’t think about the X-Men movies much at all, at least until Disney bought Fox and I realized that this movie franchise that has been there for so long was going away for good.

Dark Phoenix does not feel like a movie designed to be the end of a blockbuster movie franchise. The Last Stand did. Logan did. Dark Phoenix, for much of its runtime, feels like just another chapter. For one thing, we haven’t gotten to know this team of X-Men well enough to care. Which is really the biggest flaw with the movie. The fact that it is a low key character focused take that was hastily retrofitted into being a big action film is a problem, but that still stems out of the fact that how are we to know that Jean has changed when we don’t know Jean. For better or worse, the movies since First Class have focused on the trio of Xavier, Magneto and Mystique, with Beast always there in the periphery. This new crew of Nightcrawler, Cyclops, Jean and Storm just showed up last movie and were at best tertiary players in that movie. Also, Quicksilver is there, mostly for one cool action scene a movie and nothing else. There is what appears is supposed to be a big character moment for Nightcrawler in the final act, but it is hard to know when we don’t know Nightcrawler. Maybe Storm makes a big decision about midway, but we don’t know Storm well enough to tell. The only one it is possible to get a read on is Cyclops, and that is because he doesn’t change. Meanwhile, Dark Phoenix does almost nothing with Magneto or Mystique, and Beast’s arc is underwritten. That leaves only Xavier, and this time we never really get inside his head.

Dark Phoenix is the most disappointing kind of bad; the kind of bad when you can feel that people were really trying and really cared (maybe not Jennifer Lawrence). There is fun to be had with a big, dumb goofy movie. Something like Gods of Egypt that isn’t good, but there is at least fun spectacle to entertain while pointing to the badness. Dark Phoenix seems like it cares and is much too dour to have a good time with.

Now the X-Men have been hoovered up in that corporate megalith Disney, something we have been assured is a good thing because now they can be in the same mega-franchise as the Avengers. Maybe it will turn out to be a good thing for X-Men movies. While I think there is a lot of potential in the young actors cast to play the X-Men, a completely new take is likely for the best. Maybe someone will get characters besides Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine “right.” There are a lot that haven’t really gotten their due. I would love to see a movie that actually does something with Storm, or a movie that gets the swashbuckling nature of Nightcrawler. Colossus and Kitty Pryde. Rogue. Emma Frost. Gambit. There are a ton of characters that have never gotten a once of focus because it has all been about Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine; even when the movies are adapting stories that originally focused on other characters. Only Dark Phoenix broke from that, putting the focus on Jean Grey, but failing to flesh her out enough before her change into Phoenix for that change to have any meaning.

The X-Men movies were only intermittently good, but I’ll miss them nonetheless.

**1/2

The Hustle

I love Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels. That con man caper just hits all the right notes for me, and the combination of Steve Martin and Michael Caine is just perfect. And that is saying nothing of Glenne Headly. I consider it a perfect comedy. Naturally, I was excited to see the remake, which changed the title to The Hustle and stars Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. That remake turned out to be somewhat disappointing. I wouldn’t call a complete loss, but it is a missed opportunity.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a movie that it is hard to get upset about seeing remake, if only for the fact that it was a remake itself. The common story to these three movies is one that lends itself well to changes to the details while keeping the core conceit in place. That conceit is that one character is an uncouth, small time con man, who meets up a refined, polished trickster. The two briefly form a partnership, but it soon becomes apparent that the town, Beaumont-sur-Mer, is not big enough for the both of them. So they concoct a competition to see who will have to stay and who will have to go. The details of the cons, and who is tricking who at any given time, could be changed without changing much of the appeal.

The Hustle, doesn’t change enough from its predecessor. Or maybe it changes too much? It gets into a weird place where things are different, but seemingly only because makers knew some things had to be different. Sometimes the changes make no sense. At one point in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Martin pretends to not be able to walk. Caine poses as a psychologist who can cure Martin’s psychosomatic condition. He takes Martin, and their mark, to a dance club, his fake theory being that seeing them moving around and having fun will snap him out of it. The same scenario plays out in The Hustle, except Rebel Wilson, playing the Steve Martin role, is pretending to be blind. How not seeing people dance will make her see again is unclear. It isn’t something she is forced to miss out on; blind people can dance and she can’t see people dancing without her. Many of the changes are like that, a seemingly small alteration that makes how the con plays out nonsensical.

The movie is at its best when it pushes things further away, like when Wilson is setting up fake tinder dates and scamming men out of money for fake boob jobs. Those bits work. As do a lot of the scenes that change nothing from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It is when the movie gets in that halfway state that it falls apart, when it keeps the set up but changes the punch line, or vice versa.

The other part where it didn’t change enough is in taking into consideration its new stars. Anne Hathaway does a decent Michael Caine impersonation, all haughty and controlled. She brings a very similar energy here, and it works. Rebel Wilson is no Steve Martin. That is not intended to be a dig at Wilson; she just brings a different comic energy that Martin does. They give the role completely different flavors of sleaze. It means that jokes that worked for Martin do not work as well for Wilson.

The bones of a good movie are apparent in The Hustle. The musculature built around those bones is lumpy and misshapen. While I will watch anything with Anne Hathaway in it, I’d rather just watch Dirty Rotten Scoundrels again.

**1/2

Dumbo

Disney’s animated classic Dumbo is a slim movie, with a runtime just over an hour and few wrinkles to its story.  It feels among the least likely of their animated catalog to merit the full live action remake treatment.  But other than Marvel and Star Wars movies, live action remakes of animated movies is what Disney does these days.  The live action Dumbo clocks in at nearly two hours long and gives almost no one what they wanted to see.  However, the movie is just charming enough to make it hard to hate.

The story of Dumbo is of a big eared baby elephant who learns to fly.  This adaptation adds plot elements from what seems like three other movies to pad it out to full feature length.  There is a story about Colin Farrell’s Holt Farrier, a circus equestrian and WW1 veteran freshly returned from the war.  He lost an arm in the war and his wife died while he was away.  He has to pick himself back up and keep things together for his two kids.  His son exists and that’s about it, but his daughter doesn’t want to follow in her parents footsteps as part of the circus but instead wants to be a scientist.  Holt’s struggles are exacerbated by the fact that while he was gone, the ringleader, Max Medici, sold his horses to keep the circus afloat.  Holt is the center around which the movie revolves, but there isn’t enough done with his struggles to make it the center plank of the movie.  Medici, played by the always delightful Danny Devito, takes up another chunk of the movie dealing with him struggling to keep the circus viable and eventually going into business with the transparently shady V.A. Vandervere.  Vandervere, of course, is only interested in the flying elephant.  The movie introduces a dozen or so characters and a half dozen plots, all because it is unwilling, for good reason, to focus on the spectacle of a flying elephant.

The problem is that Dumbo flying doesn’t look that amazing in live action.  It looked really interesting in traditional animation, but this CGI realistic facsimile inspires little awe.  Really, the movie is missing so much of what makes the original version so entertaining.  The most memorable part of the movie was the Pink Elephants on parade sequence, when Dumbo sneaks some of the circus laborers liquor and has drunken hallucinations of pink elephants on parade.  That scene does not happen in live action movie, but it is replaced with a “realistic” copy that has none of the weird charm, it is merely there to remind you the think you liked in the old movie without actually giving you that thing you liked.

Somehow, though , the movie manages to be charming despite feeling like a mismatched grab-bag of other movies.  A lot of that is thanks to uniformly strong performers being generally very charming.  Devito, Farrell, Eva Green and Michael Keaton are all doing something.  It is fairly enjoyable to watch them.  Each of the four movies that its feels have been Frankensteined together could have been good if fully fleshed out, Dumbo merely gives you glimpses of them. It is not a good movie, but it is somehow charming despite being bad.

**1/2