Movie Review: “Minions”

MinionsHow do you make an entertaining childrens’ movie about a group of characters who speak in gibberish language and, indeed, are barely characters at all? That’s the challenge of “Minions,” the origin story of the Twinkie-resembling henchman characters from the two previous “Despicable Me” movies, which plays at times like a Muppets sketch in which every character is Beaker.

Yet somehow, it (sort of) works.

The film gives the Minions a somewhat entertaining backstory. They’re presented as an ancient, nomadic people in the tradition of the biblical Israelites, who date back to the time of the dinosaurs, although they also crossed paths with the likes of the ancient Egyptians and Napoleon. The bulk of the action is set in the late ‘60s, with the little guys in London attempting to foil a plot by supervillainous Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock) to steal the English crown.

On top of late-‘60s references that at this point are most likely to land with the grandparents of tykes watching this than their moms and dads, the plot is various glosses on “King Ralph” (a minion becomes King!), “Ghostbusters” (one of them does a Marshmallow Man impression) and the James Bond legend (handled much better than “Cars 2”’s attempt at the same thing. Then there are Beatles references, and even (?) a moon landing truther joke.

It’s also remarkably similar to last year’s “Madagascar” spinoff, “Penguins of Madagascar,” in that it’s a spinoff movie about largely mute supporting characters from a previously popular franchise, which makes up for the lack of speaking by sending the characters all over the world.

Sure “Minions,” like its predecessor, is a cut below the standards set by the stuff Pixar and Disney Animation Studios are putting out. But it’s tolerable.

Movie Review: “While We’re Young” 

While_We're_Young_(film)_POSTERNoah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” is a truly odd movie- a character study combined with cinema’s most vicious, mean-spirited denunciation of the millennial generation yet, both yoked to an earnest defense of authenticity in documentary filmmaking. Oh, and significant supporting roles for members of both Peter, Paul and Mary and the Beastie Boys.

The film has its moments but overall, it’s somewhat of a mess, especially when it goes into loony-tunes land in the third act.

“While We’re Young” seems heavily influenced by Woody Allen, right down to the credits font, and specifically “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as just like Woody, the hero is an unhappy documentary filmmaker working on a commercially questionable passion project based on endless interviews with a dull, aging, leftist intellectual. Also present? A sort of nihilistic spirit, and an absence of virtually any characters who aren’t risible assholes.

That’s Josh (Ben Stiller), a Gen-X aged filmmaker, married to Naomi Watts, and they represent the only childless couple among their friends. They’re soon befriended by Millennial couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), as Josh first sees Jamie as a potential protege. But instead, he emerges as a 21st century analog to Alan Alda’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” villain. Also on hand are longtime Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz as Stiller’s new-dad friend, Peter Yarrow as his doc subject, and Charles Grodin as Watts’ father.

The film starts off as the makings of an interesting character study. The mechanics of adult friendships- especially along the kids/no kids divide- is a fascinating, under-explored subject, as is generational feuding among different ages of adults.

But “While We’re Young” falls victim to a few major pitfalls, the greatest of which is that it has a weirdly mean-spirited axe to grind with Millennials. The screenplay has a get-off-my-lawn vibe to it, about kids these days and their smartphones and texting. This is especially weird for a film starring Stiller, who both directed and starred in “Reality Bites,” what was meant to be a totemic film about Gen X. And guess what- everything that was said about Millennials now was said about Gen Xers in 1994. Everyone always hates the generation after them, and if smartphones and texting had been invented 20 years earlier, you know the young people of back then would have behaved much the same.

This whole attitude is bad enough early on, but by the third act it quickly curdles into moral revulsion, by implying (with little to back it up) that todays 20-somethings are unethical liars. It’s also sort of incongruous that Driver and Seyfried (who are 31 and 29, respectively) are cast as avatars of Millennialism.

The film’s other major agenda, in favor of authenticity in documentaries, is more admirable, although it ultimately amounts to let another fish-in-the-barrel shot at reality TV. But it’s totally afield from everything else the movie is about.

Baumbach has had a checkered career. He directed some great stuff early (especially “Kicking and Screaming” and the underrated “Mr. Jealousy,”) and then “The Squid and the Whale,” a movie that resonated deeply with people with divorced parents and less so for those without them. Then there was the odious “Margot at the Wedding,” although “Greenberg” (also starring Stiller) was an improvement and “Frances Ha” was his best film in years. “While We’re Young” has its moments, but it’s mean-spiritedness sinks it.

Mini-Review: “Jurassic World”

Jurassic World Oh, it’s not that bad. Nothing special either, though. The effects were cool, and the action sequences impressive. But it also represents the worst use of Chris Pratt ever- it didn’t even allow him to be funny or charming. And I still don’t think I’ve ever been impressed with Bryce Dallas Howard in anything.

I can’t say anything about the gender depictions/problematic-ness of the whole thing that hasn’t already been said already. Would I have noticed had I not read dozens of think pieces before seeing the movie? Probably. Yet the first word that comes to mind- not “sexist,” but rather “boring.”

I’d consider this film, while not entirely terrible, is neither worthy of having broken box office records, nor of its director taking over a “Star Wars” installment.

 Movie Review: “Batkid Begins” 

Batkid BeginsIt’s refreshing to see a film that’s completely lacking in cynicism. And that’s “Batkid Begins,” an unbelievably heart-warming look back at the Batkid social media phenomenon of 2013.

Anyone who was anywhere near the Internet on November 13, 2015, undoubtedly remembers the saga of Batkid. Miles Scott, a young cancer survivor from rural California, got to, with some help from the Make-a-Wish Foundation, act out his lifelong dream of being Batman’s sidekick, “Batkid.” The film takes us through the planning and execution of the wish, which ended up involving numerous organizations, a live audience of thousands and an online audience of millions.

“Batkid Begins” was directed by Dana Nachman and co-written by Nachman along with “Dear Zachary” director Kurt Kuenne, and in addition to an inspirational film, it doubles as a how-to guide for viral social media.

We’re introduced to Miles, his family, and local Make-a-Wish chief Patricia Wilson, and the first half of the movie is setup for how the wish came together. The second half is a blow-by-blow of the day itself, in which Miles-as-Batkid, along with Batman (played by stuntman and Lucasfilm employee Eric Johnston) engaged in a series of adventures throughout San Francisco.

We see Miles do battle with the Riddler and Penguin, rescue San Francisco Giants mascot Lou Seal and (don’t tell Anita Sarkeesian) rescue a damsel in distress, before meeting Mayor Ed Lee and receiving the key to the city.

But it wasn’t just Make-a-Wish that made this happen. Many, many people clearly heard about the story, were moved by it and did their part, from the Giants organization to equipment manufacturers who helped with the costume’s technology to Hans Zimmer, the composer of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies who provided a “soundtrack” to Batkid’s adventure. And we discover that Zimmer, of course, composes by candlelight. And that’s to say nothing for the social support of President Obama as well as every living actor who’s played Batman.

Yes, I suppose a cynic could poke some holes in the story, or consider the stunt a waste of time and resources, or call it a crass commercial for the Batman corporate collossus. And we’re already getting a feature film version of this, with Julia Roberts- in full Brockovich mode, no doubt- playing Patricia Wilson.

But I don’t care. “Batkid Begins” is pretty clearly the third-best Batman movie ever made.

Movie Review: “Tangerine”

Tangerine“Tangerine” is a film that’s pretty groundbreaking, and not only because it was shot entirely on an iPhone.

Pop culture’s transgenderism breakthrough continues with this film, a breakthrough hit at Sundance in January. Rather than having a trans protagonist played by a cisgender actor (like Transparent) or including one trans character as part of a larger ensemble (like Orange is the New Black), Tangerine actually features trans characters played by trans actresses, in starring roles.

But this film is much more than an identity politics milestone. It’s actually hugely entertaining- if nothing else, it contributes ”time to make the donuts bitch” to the lexicon.

Directed by Sean S. Baker, “Tangerine” is the day-in-the-life story of a pair of trans prostitutes, played by first-time actors  Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. One was recently released from jail in order to discover her boyfriend has cheated on her with a non-trans woman, and the bulk of the movie is the search for the boyfriend and his paramour. Playing the boyfriend is “The Wire”‘s Ziggy Sobotka himself, James Ransone.

But the film is also a slice-of-life comedy/drama, featuring a variety of neighborhood characters.

There’s also a great scene, in which a john is outraged to discover that the female prostitute he’s picked up actually has a vagina, that’s the inverse of something that’s happened in dozens of films, and usually been played for mean-spirited laughs.

No, “Tangerine” won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it hugely entertaining, as well as groundbreaking.

Back to Blog

With my having been pretty busy with professional writing in the past couple of years, I haven’t had a ton of time for this blog, save for the occasional angry, righteous post about the Penn State scandal.

But with the recent shuttering of TechnologyTell, and my subsequent departure from my day job at Napco Media, I’m suddenly in possession of both lots of free time and nowhere to put my work. The bright side? More time for blogging.

This site is where, for the time being, I’ll be putting my movie reviews, and I may even bring back the Fin feature at some point. Of course, Facebook and Twitter these days are where I do a lot of what I used to call blogging, so be sure to follow me or friend me if you haven’t previously.

So watch this space for new movie reviews, starting on Sunday. And thank you for your support.

Thoughts on Penn State, the sanctions and what is and is not defensible

I suppose there was no way I was ever going to approach the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky case with any dispassion.

In November 2011, when Jerry Sandusky was indicted, I was the father of a one-year-old. Four months later I was a new father again. The thought that anyone could do anything to harm a child- much less than others would stand idly by while they did- was so vile and indefensible to me that it filled me with anger like few other news stories ever have. Sure, I’d be angry about other sex abuse scandals, the Catholic Church ones included- but because I wasn’t a father yet, it didn’t quite hit me. Of all the awful things in the news the last five years, not much of it has kept me up at night- but Sandy Hook did, and so did Sandusky.

I was very angry at Penn State when the story came out, and I got really angry again when Penn Staters rioted and overturned news vans- not because they heard about a decade-long sexual abuse coverup, but because their beloved football coach was fired, one game before he would have stepped down anyway. This went way beyond typical college-student idiocy- it was an absolute moral failure.

I continued to follow the case over the last three years, through the Freeh Report, Sandusky’s trial, the various lawsuits and investigations, the scandalous, totally indefensible decisions by the Today Show to broadcast interviews with both Sandusky and his rotten wife, and the various times that reporters- women especially- were harassed on social media for expressing the “wrong” opinion about the case.

Let’s just say this is a sensitive subject, in few places as much as Philadelphia, where I live, with its high concentration of PSU alums. When I’ve written about the subject- especially when I reviewed the utterly repugnant “Framing Paterno” documentary two years ago– I got more hate mail and comments than on any topic I’ve ever written about in my career, even stuff related to race, presidential politics, Israel/Palestine, parenting, feminism, Donovan McNabb and various other third rails.

At risk of sounding like I’m doing a #notallpennstaters… I have a lot of friends and family members who are Penn State alumni and/or football fans, people whom I care about deeply. I’ve had loud, passionate arguments about this topic with most of them. And I’ve said angry things, some of which I didn’t mean, about the school, its fans and its team.

But despite that, I truly believe in my heart that the vast majority of people associated with Penn State University are good people, whose love of their school and football team is genuine and heartfelt, and who grasp the gravity of what happened, even if they reach different conclusions than mine about the NCAA, Paterno’s culpability, the “culture of football” and other such issues. And besides, if sports fandom has never moved you to positions beyond rationality, then you’ve probably never been a sports fan.

My favorite athlete growing up was Kirby Puckett- an unimpeachable hero for years until suddenly he wasn’t, until suddenly he was dead. So in a way I could sort of relate to the reactions of Paterno loyalists to that whirlwind of events in 2011-’12.  But the lesson I took from the sad fall of Kirby was a clear one: To worship and revere sports figures at your own risk- because they’re human, and they may very well let you down. My sons, young as they are, are sports fanatics already, and I’m not especially looking forward to imparting that lesson.

I can understand the impulse of the NCAA lifting the sanctions early- they didn’t want to continue to punish the school when everyone who committed the violations was long gone. But that’s how it always works with NCAA sanctions, which most of the time are handed down years after the fact, when there’s a new coach, new athletic director and all new players. The sclerotic bureaucracy of the NCAA- not to mention, let’s face it, its full-on corruption- is a whole other subject for another time.

But I opposed lifting the sanctions for one reason: What Penn State did was the worst thing any college sports program- or possibly any university- has ever done. This once-in-a-lifetime penalty was totally earned and deserved to remain in place. Reducing it sets a terrible precedent, and even even worse message.

What the NCAA did Monday was look Sandusky’s victims in the eye and tell them- “sorry, football is more important than you.” Which, come to think of it, was the attitude to which they were subjected all the way up until November of 2011. One of “we take your abuse seriously- as long as it doesn’t affect our favorite football team.” A few months earlier, Roger Goodell had made a strikingly similar decision.

This led to remarkably strange juxtaposition Monday afternoon: The NFL, in suspending Ray Rice, was sending a scandalously belated yet clear message that abuse will not be tolerated, and that’s a principle that’s more important than football. About 30 minutes later, the league’s college counterpart sent another message: That abuse that we said won’t be tolerated? We’ll tolerate it enough that you can go to a bowl game this year.

I’ve often heard the “why punish those kids?” argument, “those kids” referring to players on the Penn State football team who wouldn’t get to go to a bowl game. Yea, I’m much more concerned about a different subset of “those kids.”

Meanwhile, I have nothing but contempt for the students who had a full-on celebration on campus Monday night, chanting Joe Paterno’s name and demanded the return of his statue. They also completely misunderstood the NCAA’s decision- it was a reward for Penn State’s current leadership for compliance with the original penalty and “good behavior,” not an exoneration of Paterno or any type of feint towards restoring the coach’s wins or statue. Neither should ever happen, and neither ever will.

Those fans sent a clear message of their own:  Everything is back to normal, let’s play football, and we’re going to proceed with a clear conscience as though the Jerry Sandusky scandal never happened. It was fans of a team enthusiastically celebrating the slight reduction of their school’s penalty for a child sex abuse coverup. And that was disgusting- it was like Ferguson, only for undergraduate shitheads.

But if only Monday night’s revelers were the worst actors in this whole drama.

I reserve that particular dishonor for the community of Penn State truthers, who are truly among the ultimate scum of the Earth. These repugnant trolls have moved far beyond advocating for Paterno or Penn State football- they are actually flacking on behalf of Jerry Sandusky himself, claiming his innocence and proclaiming every last one of his child sex abuse victims opportunistic liars.

This position seems to be based entirely on several of the victims having vouched for Sandusky, or continuing to have relationships with him, at first before ultimately testifying against him and/or suing.  But as any abuse-related professional could tell you, this sort of thing happens in abusive situations all the damn time, that of Ray Rice included, and in no way whatsoever exonerates the abuser. The Sandusky jury saw it the same way, convicting him on 45 separate counts.

I realize that this is a relatively small group of people, who don’t represent anywhere close to the majority of Penn Staters or necessarily even Paterno defenders. But they’re loud,  some of them are media savvy and like it or not they’re part of the conversation.

Make no mistake about it, though: These people are evil, they are human garbage, and they are open apologists for child rape. They need to stop. And media outlets who have given them a microphone need to stop doing so, today.

I can understand the actions of Paterno’s sons, striving to clear the name of their father, and If I were in their shoes I may very well be doing the same thing. Someone like Franco Harris has said a lot of regrettable things about this case in the last two years, but I can understand that he’s acting out of loyalty to his coach, a man who made a strong difference in his life. Lifelong fans of the team, who have taken it as a bedrock principle their entire lives that Joe Paterno is the world’s leading paragon of moral virtue? I don’t quite sympathize, but I understand.

But the NCAA, reducing a deserved penalty for an unspeakably evil act? A bunch of drunken 18-year-olds who were freshmen in high school when it all went down in 2011, treating the lifting a child rape coverup-related ban like it was Mardi Gras? A group of sociopathic freaks, who spend each day slandering sex abuse victims, threatening female journalists on Twitter and seeking the rehabilitation of a monster like Sandusky? My sympathy for those people is less than nonexistent.

So how long will this go on? Will we still be arguing about the Penn State sanctions decades from now? Another legendary coach, one who had a fatal weakness for beating up college students, Bob Knight, was fired from Indiana 15 years ago- and they’re still arguing about it there now.

Two more years of sanctions or not, I’ve got a feeling these arguments are far from over. For all I know Penn State ends up a perennial national power under James Franklin, one that behaves impeccably as a program from this day forward. But I’m never going to forget about what happened in the Sandusky case anytime soon.