American Ultra AKA Identity Crisis: The Movie

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by: Richie Watkins

American Ultra is an action-comedy about a slacker stoner who fights to keep himself and his girlfriend alive, after he discovers not only that he has superhuman abilities, but also that the CIA is trying to kill him because they see him as a threat.  On paper, American Ultra sounds like “stoner Jason Bourne”.  However, it plays more like a missed opportunity to spoof the last 15 years of the modern, one-man-kills-them-all action movies.

Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is, for the most part, painful to watch, and tolerable only during the action scenes (because he does not have to say anything or attempt to emote).  When Mike becomes sad, the acting is cringeworthy because he sounds whiny, and when Mike becomes angry, the acting is frustrating because Eisenberg holds back.  I just don’t understand what is so appealing about characters who are incapable of properly expressing their emotions, when the film makes no effort to exploit such a shortcoming for laughs.

Why exactly is Mike not a good character?  Well, it is because his personality is too passive.  The dude has no drive.  What about Mike’s comic book writing and drawing hobby?  Yeah, that is exactly what I was left wondering at the end of the movie  (I’ll get to that in a bit).  His only problem is that he feels like he is holding Phoebe back from being successful.  But does he do anything to solve this problem?  No.  He cries about it, and Phoebe tells him, “No, you don’t hold me back.” To the film’s credit, this inner problem of Mike’s is alluded to at least once more in the film, and is shown to be solved in the end.  Therefore, it does give the movie a point, but it never seems as though Mike is actively trying to solve that problem.  When Phoebe does become involved with the bad guys trying to kill Mike, he is simply trying to save her life because he loves her.

Now, one could argue that Mike does in fact have a goal.  The fault in that argument is that, while his actions certainly become active early on, Mike’s personality remains boredom tear-inducing “blah”.  In other words, Eisenberg’s acting does not convince me that the character has any drive.

Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) is uninteresting as well.  Even when we find out more about her character, she remains less-than-two-dimensional.  Her acting is less monotone than that of Eisenberg, but only because she is required to do more than simply act stoned for 90 minutes.

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Pictured: 1st day of acting class

Topher Grace, who plays the CIA agent in charge of operation “Kill Mike”, overacts in every scene he is given.  His approach would have been great if the film were an outrageous comedy, but even then, repeatedly shouting curse words is nothing but grating.

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Look, kids!  It’s a recovering Spider-Man 3 actor!

Here is a case of a movie that is not sure what it wants to be.  In some scenes, it is supposed to be very serious, but there are several moments that attempt to be funny, but instead sour the feeling of the movie.  Seriously, American Ultra filmmakers, pick a genre and stick with it!  Examples: Mike is trapped underneath a burning car, and says, less-than-seriously, to a bad guy, “I hate you!”.

The action scenes, on the other hand, when fighting and gunplay are happening, are very intense, and are (gasp) consistent, which is why two certain ones were the best in the movie. While they generally move the story along, they don’t fit with the feel of the half-baked, noticeably there-and-gone-again quirkiness of the dialogue scenes.  They especially don’t fit with the indie, young adult, drama-romance scenes in the first act, nor do they fit with the stoner comedy feel either.  If you want to go hard, make an action film.  And if you want to be funny at the same time, figure out how to create comedic moments that naturally sprout from the action.  A stoner film is not about fight scenes.  It’s about watching people screw up because they smoke too much weed.

Another flaw in the story is that big moments abruptly happen, meaning there is no suspense leading up to them.  Therefore, such big moments fall flat.  There is no built-up mystery around certain characters, so when a “shocking” revelation occurs, it feels stale because it feels random and forced.  What is supposed to be the biggest moment–the climax–is…well….anti-climatic.  Spoiler: there is nothing memorable about the final fight.  In an action film like Lethal Weapon, the final fight is memorable.  Why?  Because it is a change of pace from all of the action scenes.  1) It is set in the rain in the front yard of a house, and 2) the fight is so much rawer than anything else in the movie. In that scene, the protagonist and antagonist fight dirtier than what we have seen them fight before in order to try to kill each other.  In American Ultra, the location of the fight is the same as all of the other ones, the henchmen Mike just disposed of, and there are no tense moments that make me feel as though Mike is having a much harder time with the opponent than he did with anyone else.

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Even in Lethal Weapon 4’s final fight, the filmmakers do something different by making Riggs and Murtaugh suck even more than in the rest of the movie, by pitting them against Jet Li.

There are several scenes (mainly in the first half) that show Mike’s great passion for his creation–a superhero ape named Apollo Ape.  However, the arc never receives closure because the movie is more concerned with turning Mike into a total badass.  The movie seems to hint that Mike is still thinking about Apollo Ape at the end of the film, when he goes on a new mission (we see illustrations of Apollo Ape beating everyone up, just as Mike begins to fight and the credits begin to roll).  So, I suppose one could argue some artistic BS like, “Mike didn’t need to finish his comic book about a superhero monkey, because he was living it!” (pictured below: a stereotype of who would say this; captioned below: my response).

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No.

Nonetheless, the comic book arc served no purpose to the story.  Mike never flashes to visions of this ape at any point in any of the other fights.  Therefore, it seems silly to introduce an arc, then inexplicably drop it when the action begins.

The characters, their revelations, the setup for the plot, the plot itself, and the story beats are too cliché to not be made fun of, especially since this is supposed to be a comedy.  There was a great foundation laid, but nothing was done to take advantage of it.

For the most part, this is not even a stoner comedy, except for the first 15 minutes or so.  There are long periods of time without comedy.  And when comedy does happen, it’s so “heh” and not “haha”.  The humor is more akin to comic relief from Die Hard.  The kind where it makes you go, “Oh!  That character just showed an unexpected hint of another dimension of their personality!”  The lines that I am talking about are when Topher Grace briefs his men on going to kill Mike, who is trapped in a police station and he says, “There is no way you can possibly mess this up!”, and when Mike makes one of his first two kills with a spoon, Grace’s character responds to one of his subordinates, “He was killed with a spoon?”

The right-hand man of Grace’s character, Laugher, has…get this…a crazy laugh!  And…get this…it’s not funny!  because it’s used to show how crazy the character is. I just view it as, “Oh, he’s crazy.”  When he repeatedly does it, I view it as “Wow, he’s annoying.”

I’m not sure why the writers didn’t just make Mike become immune to weed. Then his goal would not be to be turbo-charged, but to try to get high. Wouldn’t that be the perfect motivation for a character who is a stoner at heart, and for, ya know, a STONER movie?

American Ultra could have actually been very funny had it recognized the clichés and made fun of them, and played more to its apparent target audience.  (The whole “I’m worried I’m holding you back” angle could have been ripped upon big time for being an inconsequential inner problem).  Also, Eisenberg and Stewart are not convincing as potheads.  Their amateurish acting is like that of teenagers trying to act like potheads in a college student film.  Why not do something different by casting actors who have never done a slacker/stoner movie before?  Get a James McAvoy, or a Keira Knightley.  If original movies are going to thrive in this modern age of cinema, they need actors, writers, producers, and directors that can bring the idea of a film to life.

Save for a couple of cool action scenes, American Ultra is a largely forgettable film that seems unsure of what it wants to be–an over-the-top action film, or a romantic stoner comedy.

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Throwback Thursday – Back to the Future

By: Ian Blaylock

Greetings! My name is Ian Blaylock, and I am the manager of Enter the Cinema. One thing that a lot of our team members here on the blog, and at Red Fist, have talked about is our passion for movies that are… not so recent. One way we have decided to share our love of older films with you is through starting up a “Throwback Thursday” series. Each week, we will bring you a review and analysis of a classic film or movie (well received or perhaps not), and share our thoughts on each film. One reason I am excited to write some of these posts is that I have not seen as many films as some of the other blog members. (This is my way of getting to watch cool films for work.)

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However, I have seen this week’s film, Back to the Future, before. It was chosen for the first post because the film is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The film is regarded as a classic among film critics, and is highly celebrated by some of my Red Fist coworkers. Let’s begin the review!

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Back to the Future is the story of Marty McFly’s journey back in time. Despite being low on the city’s social ladder, Marty tries to make the best of things. One of Marty’s past times is helping out the enigmatic scientist, Doc Brown. Brown enlists Marty as he tests his new DeLorean time machine. However, trouble shows up, and Marty is forced to flee in the time machine. After hurtling back to 1955, Marty accidentally interferes in his parents’ first meeting. Faced with a potential time paradox, and with no clear way back to 1985, Marty must help his dad win his mother’s interest, and get Doc Brown to help him return home.

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The film stars Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly with Christopher Lloyd costarring as Doc Brown. Both actors are known for their performances in this film, and with good reason. Fox’s McFly is a very likable character. He’s fun and laid-back, and has charisma to spare. Fox really owns the role, pouring in his own charisma and dry wit into the part, which is what makes his performance so iconic. Llyod’s Doc Brown is a bit of the opposite from Marty McFly. He’s wild, eccentric, and dramatic, is also quite hilarious. While I was watching the film, I was really impressed with Lloyd’s performance. He’s very expressive, which strengthens the character. Lloyd also really makes the character into a very lovable guy. Sure Doc Brown is a bit “out there,” but once Marty convinces him that he is indeed from the future, Doc Brown is extremely loyal and devoted to getting Marty back home. My take away from his character was that while he was super-excited to see one of his experiments realized and functional, he is also deeply concerned for Marty and his situation. This really goes against the scientist stereotype that is often seen in films where the scientist is just plain mad, or is cold and aloof.

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The other main characters are interesting as well. Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer (Claudia Wells), is really supportive of Marty and his dreams. She comes off as someone who is her own person, and is not just “the girlfriend.” Marty’s mother, Lorraine (Lea Thompson), is quite interesting. In 1985 she’s portrayed as being old, cranky, and very strict. However, in 1955 Lorraine is a bit boy crazy, and doesn’t want to be seen as boring. This becomes a problem for Marty when she meets him, and becomes instantly attracted to him. Because of this developing crush, Marty spends a lot of time trying to avoid her. In turn, she becomes more and more infatuated to him as the movie progresses. She even follows him to the Doc’s house! The movie draws a lot of comedy from this, and from the fact that she is the total opposite of her future self. Lorraine is also a strong character. She is clear and direct about what she wants, and takes action to try and get there. Marty’s dad, George McFly (Crispin Glover) is another story. George is actually pretty much the same in 1955 and 1985. He is a total pushover, and lacks social skills. The audience is supposed to sympathize with him because, like Marty, we hope that he can transform into a better version of himself, and win Lorraine’s heart.

From a writing standpoint, Back to the Future is pretty formulaic. It hits the beats that it needs to, and clearly states the important things that the audience should remember for when these things pay off later in the story. This isn’t a weakness of the film because the execution of the story is really well done. The film is very lean on plot. Every scene leads us towards the climax, and then the ending of the movie. The film doesn’t waste time with superfluous subplots, nor is it over-indulgent. It does its job, and keeps the audience engaged and moving through the story. These are important things to have in a movie because time is always of the essence.

I think the film holds up pretty well after 30 years, but there are a few things that bothered me as I revisited the film. Although I like Jennifer for being independent from Marty, she doesn’t give him too much hell for gawking at women passing by when she’s talking to him. Also the relationship between George and Lorraine has always been a little weird to me given that the audience meets George while he spies on her with large binoculars as she is getting dressed.  We are led to believe he is a much better person by the end of the film, because he stands up for her, but it’s still creepy. While Marty is a little shocked to learn that he spies on future mother, he doesn’t comment on this to George, which probably should have happened. Race is also handled a little weird in the film. The film spends some time making the point that the mayor of Hill Valley is African American in 1985. While it is progressive, we see Marty plant the seed for this in the future mayor’s head in the 1950s, when he works at the soda shop. While it is a funny moment when Marty tells him that he should be mayor, it is a little preachy. It probably would have been enough for the future mayor to have had the idea by himself, and be confident of his ability to achieve this goal, with Marty simply supporting him. Given that the band members at the dance are really the only other minorities present in the movie, more diversity would have helped the film as well. While these things might not have been a big deal when the movie was made, I think it is important to recognize and discuss how ideas about the importance of representation in media have changed over the last thirty years.

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In the end, I think that Back to the Future is a pretty good film that uses solid storytelling techniques, and is entertaining to watch. It’s also a nice movie to watch after an exhausting summer of watching recent blockbusters at the multiplex.

Creative Inspiration – Yu Yu Hakusho

by Chris Campen

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“Spirit Gun!”

 -Yusuke Urameshi

Growing up wanting to be an actor, a writer, and an artist, I watched Yu Yu Hakusho. Like many kids growing up in the early 2000’s, I watched it on Cartoon Network and their Toonami block. It would air just as I would get back from school every day of the week at about 3:30. “Smile Bomb,” the opening song, would start showing Botan, a psychopomp in the show, Yusuke, the main protagonist, and the title of the show. After all the characters get shown together in the opening the song ends quickly and the show would go straight to the struggle Yusuke and the gang would face. I always liked the intro. It was catchy, and energetic and I liked it and the animation.

Here’s the Yu Yu Hakusho English Opening.

Explaining why I think the show inspires me though is pretty challenging for me. There are so many different elements about the show that I liked: the action, the animation, and the music– pretty much all of it! So let’s get to it…

Yusuke, Friends and The Dark Tournament

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The main character of the show is teenage boy named Yusuke Urameshi (see left). He’s basically your typical high school punk. The pilot episode introduces Yusuke, and his struggles at school and at home. Events spiral out when he saves a kid from an oncoming car, and he dies. Dead, he journeys to the spirit world with the aid of one of my favorite characters Botan, a cheery, happy-go-lucky grim reaper (right). She gives Yusuke the most advice at the beginning of the show. Despite how cheery she seems, Yusuke still acts like a punk when he meets her for the first time. She informs him that he’ll basically go to hell for being a bad kid and acting like this. However, she tells him since he died saving a child, and by performing a selfless deed, he has an opportunity to go back to the living as a detective for the spirit world. This leads us to Koenma.

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Koenma (left) is a childlike authority of the spirit world. He is Yusuke’s boss in the show, and he gives Yusuke the offer to go back to the living as a Spirit Detective, but only if he passes some trials. Yusuke’s accepts and passes the tests. Over the course of the show Koenma gives him the brief on his assignments. He is extremely powerful, as one would imagine, but ironically he needs a lot of help running the spirit world. Really his dad, King Yama, actually runs everything. Koenma tells Yusuke about the powers he has as a detective, and teaches him the iconic Spirit Gun, a technique which fires a beam of energy from the fingertips. With a few tools under his belt Yusuke greatly changes his ways and returns from the dead making new and powerful friends.

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My all-time favorite character is the hilarious badass known as Kazuma Kuwabara (right). Just like Yusuke, Kuwabara is a troubled youth. He was a rival to Yusuke in the school, but becomes his friend after Yusuke saves Kuwabara’s pet kitten from a gang. Later on in the show, Kuwabara’s character develops a lot. He gains powers and helps Yusuke win some battles with some pretty power demons like Hiei and Kurama.

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Hiei and Kurama (left) were more or less the first set of demons Yusuke had to fight. They were antagonists on the show, at first. However, after Yusuke foiled their plans, these two joined him on his cases. Hiei and Kurama are polar opposites as far as personalities and beliefs go.

Kurama has red hair. He is a demon born human with an affinity for plants and humans. He is soft speaking and calm, and always provides a lot of wisdom. Hiei, on the other hand, has a fiery personality. He sought ways to give himself more power and worked to protect the ones he loves. Both Hiei and Kurama have something they want to protect and they, like Yusuke, would do anything to do so.

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The last two characters I want to mention are Keiko and Genkai, the two most important people to Yusuke. Both of them keep Yusuke on the right track.

Keiko (right) is Yusuke’s love interest and has been friends with him for a long time. Because she loved him, she proved to Koenma that somebody on earth cared for him, which was part of how Yusuke got live again. That moment, I think, best displays of her character.

Genkai (left), like Keiko, loves Yusuke, but more like a mother. She’s a wise-cracking old lady with psychic powers. She’s a very cynical character. The first time Yusuke meets her she almost gets assassinated by a demon. With Kuwabara’s help, they save her. She teaches the crew how to better use their abilities. She’s kind of like Yoda, if he smoked, played video games, and gambled. She’s important to Yusuke because she was the mother figure he never had. She was powerful for spirit techniques, and even taught Yusuke her famous “Spirit Bomb” technique. Genkai was a badass old lady and, she was there for Yusuke when he needed her. Yusuke needed them all when he entered the Dark Tournament.

The Dark Tournament was my favorite arc because it was so memorable, and in my opinion, the best plotline of the show. In this arc there was a tournament comprised of teams of demons and super humans battling it out to the death. It was pure action. From the very start, Yusuke, Kuwabara, Kurama, Hiei, and Genkai have to venture to an island where a tournament is held by powerful humans.

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In the tournament they have to fight the Toguro Brothers (right), two infamous S-class demons who share a couple ties with a few other members of the cast. Yusuke and his friends enter the tournament to defeat them as well as many other fighters, ninjas, and even robot demons.

A couple of the teams that they fought that I liked were Team Fractured Fairy Tales and Team Jolly-Devil Six. Two great examples of just how cool these fights were, and how tough Yusuke and his friends had to get, was when Yusuke’s fights with Chu (freakin love Chu) from Jolly-Devil Six, and when Kurama fights Ura from Fractured Fairy Tales. Both these fights had amazing moments, and both kept me at the edge of my seat. I wanted more, and the show didn’t fail to deliver. (See this if you’re not convinced) Compared to the other arcs, the Dark Tournament was awesome because it brought out the best of each of the characters, and pushed them to their limits. To me it’s definitely the highest point of the show.

Conclusion

Yu Yu Hakusho was great show. From funny characters like Kuwabara, to dark characters like the Toguro Brothers, I understood where each of these characters came from, and why they did what they did. Every time I hurdle through a paper, design a character, or place myself in the shoes of an actor or a character, I think about this show. I think about how the show presented an idea, or a foreign concept, and made it understandable through a character and their actions. The characters in this show showed me that love and determination are the two key ingredients for any form of media that specializes in action, be it visual or conceptual. To me, this show showed me that when you see a fight on screen, the fight itself should leave you wondering who or what do the characters fight for? For this very reason, Yu Yu Hakusho is one of my favorite anime.

Next time on Yu Yu Hakusho!

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“The New Griswolds Take a Vacation; So Does Comedy and Creativity”

by Richie Watkins

Last Friday, I saw Vacation.  As of this writing, I’m still trying to unsee it.  For those who don’t know, Vacation is a reboot of the Vacation film series, started by the 1983 classic National Lampoon’s Vacation, and left dormant by the 1997 classic (at least by Monday-nights-on-TBS-circa-2003 standards,) Vegas Vacation.  The 2015 film serves as more of a direct sequel to the first film.  Now an adult who is married with two kids, Rusty Griswold (played by Ed Helms), wants to do something with his family that they can all enjoy, so he plans a vacation for Wally World.  Of course, the vacation turns out to be a nightmare.  Unfortunately, for the audience, it’s not a funny kind of nightmare, like in the original (which has the same basic premise), but the kind of nightmare that is like watching that one dude at a party who relentlessly tries to make people laugh, but each attempt is more pathetic than the last.

Vacation stumbles from one dud of a gag/joke to another.  Once one joke/gag fails, the filmmakers are already setting up the next one.  And the punchlines become increasingly telegraphed, so the pattern becomes increasingly painful and tiring.  Attempts at comedy are done at the expense of presenting likable characters.  The younger Griswold kid is a grating brat, who continually bullies his older brother for “having a vagina” and “saying weird sh**”.  In one scene, this kid even suffocates him with a plastic bag!  (This is all supposed to be funny, mind you).  While not nearly as grating, the older brother is still annoying because the filmmakers try to give him an arc–building the courage to stand up to his brother, which happens by talking with a cute girl for a total of 3 minutes.  Ultimately, the arc is pointless because the story is not about him, it’s about Rusty (I’ll get to him in a minute).  Christina Applegate, who is actually a terrific comedic actress (see Anchorman) is squandered here as Rusty’s wife, whatever her name is.  Her arc is that she is unhappy with her marriage, because Rusty never takes them anywhere exotic, “like Paris”, but then she realizes her husband is trying his best, so she concludes that her marriage is perfect.  Whether or not this arc is good is irrelevant, because she is not a character that needs one!

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Pictured: Warner Bros.’ reason you should see this movie.

Now, onto Rusty.  I’ll start off by saying that Ed Helms turned in a very poor performance.  Why was it poor?  Because it was inconsistent.  He’s introduced as a guy who tries to do good, but bad things happen to him because of other people’s faults.  To be honest, this would have been a perfect introduction if that were his character.  But no.  In the following scenes, he is suddenly also a character who desperately tries to be like what he perceives as a perfect family, by embarrassing himself and his son by play fighting, something that he outright copies from what the perfect father does with his son.  Plus, he is revealed to be a complete idiot, because he does it right in front of them after they do it; then, he steals the perfect dad’s nickname for his own son.

On top of that, in other scenes, Helms tries to flat-out act like Chevy Chase, specifically when he blows an “intimate” moment between his oldest son and his (the son’s) crush (which is, in and of itself, a cringe worthy moment).  Keep in mind, that in most of the other movies, Rusty was usually level-headed.  And he was most certainly not a character whose personality shifted according to whatever the joke for that scene needed to be.  So, is it not a stretch that he should be different from Clark, by not being a moron, and just a guy to whom bad things happen due to no fault of his own?  His goal is admirable–to become closer with his family.  This goal is relatable to anyone who strives to be a great parent, spouse, etc.  But the fact remains that it is a straight-up jack of Clark’s goal in the original.  What the reboot does differently, though, is ensure that Rusty doesn’t actually achieve his goal.  That’s right.  This set of Griswolds turns out to be utterly disappointed with Wally World.  So, it’s an arc that could have been purposeful, but for the sake of comedy, turns out to be pointless.

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This is one frame of Ed Helms as Rusty Griswold.  Imagine having to endure 24 of these a second for 90 minutes.

In the original, Clark is written with a take-it-or-leave-it comedic approach.  For the most part, his performance didn’t scream for people to laugh.  And by not trying, he was funny. Rusty, on the other hand, does nothing except point out the obvious to be funny.  Case in point: Chris Hemsworth (I don’t call him by his character name, because he just plays himself), on three different occasions in a span of two minutes, draws very stretched/abstract comparisons of situations to faucets.  This could’ve been mildly funny after he made the third reference, but Helms blows it by saying, “what is it with this guy and faucets?!”.  Note to filmmakers: it’s NOT FUNNY to say what the audience thinks is funny about a joke.

How to play comedy straight:

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Rusty: “And if I were funnier and more clever back then, I would’ve said, ‘Dad, you’ve gone insane!  You’re yelling at your family because you’re trying to have fun as an obligation, given our hellish experiences so far!”

What irks me is that we’re supposed to be invested not in the characters, but in the events that happen to them.  Most of the jokes/gags come from things happening to the characters, and that’s it.  In the original, the Griswolds are likeable people, despite their flaws.  It was how they dealt with their bad situations that made the movie so funny.  Unlike the 2015 film, it did not rely on the absurdity of the events alone to make people laugh.  And this stark contrast is crystal clear in the scenes with Chase reprising his role.  His loving, caring, but bumbling and oblivious nature, were intact with the Clark we remember.  And now that he’s much older, it’s understandable that he’s also crankier and even more bumbling and oblivious.

And what made those 2 ½ scenes so great (read: bearable)?  No one was pointing out the obvious about his schtick, and no one was making sex/potty humor jokes.  It’s like all the actors knew to just shut up and let someone who knows what they are doing with the Vacation feeling make with the funny.  Come to think of it, for that reason, those scenes were The New Griswolds’ best ones, because they stayed in the background where they belonged. Given that I have not laughed at anything from Chase post-Nothing But Trouble (1991), I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable his appearance in this film was.  Granted, he doesn’t show up until well past the hour mark, so by then I would’ve welcomed a highlight reel of Vegas Vacation.  Thankfully, I saw something better than that.

Vacation represents everything that is wrong with modern, mainstream, American comedies.  The serious moments hold no weight; the least intellectual jokes are of sex and poop, and the most intellectual ones are of meta humor (which is infuriatingly lazy); characters are incredibly mean-spirited to one another; punchlines are pathetically telegraphed; and, worst of all, it’s not about anything: it’s just a series of things happening.

Remember when comedies actually made fun of topics outside of sex and potty humor?  Remember when they weren’t just cinematic equivalents to would-be comedians rehashing jokes of the comedy greats, without so much as even the concept of the reason why the greats made those jokes in the first place?  1983 Vacation was written by the late, great John Hughes, who wanted to write about how miserable a family vacation can be for kids cramped up in the backseat of a car.  Chase and Harold Ramis, then, took that story and made it about the parents’ misery.  Memorable elements included: the annoying, country bumpkin relatives they encounter along the way; Aunt Edna, the crotchety old woman that the Griswolds must transport from the country bumpkins to another location; being tempted by a supermodel, who inexplicably finds Clark to be attractive; and many more.  The stories that Chase, Hughes, and Ramis created work because they are relatable.  It is impossible to relate to faceless characters who exist only to be objects of wacky events.

Even worse, this film embodies what is wrong with mainstream films today–unoriginality.  That parody of the girl-in-the-ferrari scene (from the original) you may have seen in the previews?  That was straight up stolen from an episode of Family Guy.

Rip-off:

Original:

(pause)  Has that soaked in?  Okay, next.  That dialogue you may have heard in the previews about how Rusty wants to “re-do his vacation from 30 years ago”, and how “this vacation will stand on its own”?  That was ripped off from the 2012 film 21 Jump Street.

Rip-off:

Original (from 21 Jump Street):  “We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”

Also, what’s with the macabre sense of humor?  Why does the comedy have to be weird and disturbing?  Case in point: there is a scene where Rusty crashes an ATV into a steer, and another steer approaches him and starts eating the remains off of him.  Were scenes like this created because Hangover, American Pie, and the Farrelly Brothers have conditioned people to enjoy this trash?

Vacation, and movies of its ilk, expose what’s wrong with a lot of people’s sense of humor–they don’t know the difference between comedy that makes you go “hah” and a gag that makes you go “eww!”.  (Guess which one the two videos below represent).

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If you look closely at this scene, there is brilliant symbolism happening.  The characters symbolize the actors playing them; what they think is the beautiful hot spring symbolizes the actors’ misconception that this movie would be the next hot thing, based upon a decently funny script they read; and the realization of what the characters have actually stepped in symbolizes the very different, final shooting script the actors read right before filming this scene.

Speaking of symbolism, let’s discuss that “climax”, shall we? The ride, for which the Griswolds have traveled over 2,000 miles to experience, symbolizes the payoff we as the audience have been waiting for.  The ride gets going, they’re having fun, and we are having fun enjoying what feels like a genuine moment in the film.  Then, the ride stops, leaving them hanging upside down all day, until they have to be pulled out by the ambulance.  Naturally, the family leaves, disappointed.  And so do we, because the filmmakers squandered the perfect opportunity (to make me not hate the film more) by sacrificing basic storytelling mechanics for another cheap laugh.  And for one final insult, at the end of a slideshow of the family’s vacation pictures, as well as pictures that show the fates of minor characters, the filmmakers give us a picture of Chris Hemsworth standing on the beach, with the head of his johnson hanging out of his shorts.  I would’ve rather seen a picture of the entire cast and crew flipping off the camera, while holding flaming blu-ray copies of the original.  At least that would’ve been honest.

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You know what the best thing Chris Hemsworth has ever done in his acting career? 

Not be in any of the greatest movies of all time.

Not once was I laughing at or with the Griswolds.  Throughout the film, I was suffering from watching them.  Aside from Chase’s scenes (which, admittedly, were not hysterical), the only funny part was with Charlie Day’s appearance as a white water rafting guide.  In fact, he delivered the funniest line in the whole movie.  The problem is, it’s a throwaway line from a throwaway character (although his arc–a guy who is overly bubbly because he is engaged, who then becomes suicidal because his fiance calls him and breaks off the engagement–is moderately funny).

This movie is a perfect example of the fact that comedy and film are dying as a mainstream art.  Sadly, it has already profited by about $15 million at the box office, so I’m sure there will be another sequel that no one asked for, but enough people will go see because it’s “something to do on a Friday night”.  Yeah, so is jumping from a cliff into a sea of saltwater lined with glass shards at the bottom, but at least that doesn’t cost $10.

This final image is for those of you have already seen the movie and been disappointed (and chose to read my blog to reaffirm your opinion):

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Sorry folks, reboot’s godawful.  Previews up front shoulda told ya.

Ex Machina – The New Blade Runner

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

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          In today’s filmmaking climate, I rarely find films that impact me in a lasting way.  However, Ex Machina stands apart from a lot of recent films.  The film’s story is original, it has interesting/intense characters, and a suspenseful tone. These are qualities I look for in a good movie.  Additionally, it achieves something that many recent films fail to do–creation by inspiration.  Clearly, the inspiration for this film was Blade Runner.

Ex Machina, directed by Alex Garland, is about a code programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who wins a week-long trip with super genius (Oscar Isaac) to help test his Artificial intelligence, named Ava (Alicia Vikander). However, Caleb slowly realizes that he himself is the experiment.   Throughout Ex Machina, the characters discuss the hidden purpose for search engines, which Caleb discovers is to ultimately create more realistic AI.  In addition, the film offers an inward look into a young adult’s psyche, and into basic human emotions in general.  Both elements form a study of how humans behave when they believe that they are in love.

Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott, is about a retired detective named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who works as a “blade runner” who hunts down rogue android beings called replicants. Deckard’s mission is to terminate six renegade androids, but in the process he falls in love with one of them. He must then make a choice to either complete his mission, try to create a life where he can be with the woman he loves.

Both films dive into the human-machine relationship, and show that machines can be more than your stereotypical robot.  In Blade Runner, this message is apparent throughout, but this message is not revealed in Ex Machina until the last minute.

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Both films are driven by a love story.  However, the protagonists fall in love for very different reasons.  Deckard feels a personal connection with the android, while Caleb simply lusts for Ava.  Deckard has only a few years to live with the android (due to their short lifespan), and in that span of time, they would be on the run every second from authorities.  Therefore, Deckard has more at stake.

While both movies are fairly slow paced, the two films fill the slow moments in different ways, but Blade Runner does so more effectively.  Blade Runner explores its universe through visuals, similar to 2001: Space Odyssey.  The unique visuals are what makes the film stand out.  Ex Machina, however, stands out by how it explores its universe through dialogue about abstract concepts of currently relevant topics.  The audience doesn’t see a lot of the outside world in Ex Machina.  Blade Runner’s use of visuals makes its universe more appealing than the world of Ex Machina (see the picture at the top, farthest to the left). Film is, after all, a visual storytelling medium.

The two films have very different sets of characters.  The characters of Blade Runner are either misunderstood, lonely, and/or in search of happiness and purpose.   On the other hand, Ex Machina’s characters are either lustful and caring, or calculating and manipulative.  What sets Blade Runner a couple of notches above Ex Machina is that it has character arcs.  For example, Deckard transforms from a mindless detective to a man who falls in love with an android.  Caleb begins as a boy, he never grows up, and in the end he falls down a dark path.

While Ex Machina is not as good as Blade Runner, it was still so good that it made me believe that a movie with no explosions or fast-paced dialogue can still exist today.   Today I find that a lot of films rush through dialogue, deliver overly long and over-stimulating action sequences, and feature far too many characters to allow any actual character development.  What kept me engaged in Ex Machina was the question, “Who is the bad guy: the human or the machine?”  The suspense caused by the mystery, along with the three main characters, prove to me that a small cast can carry a film with such wide-scoped subject matter. It’s important that audiences support films like these so that artists who make films like these can continue to create new works. Hopefully films like Ex Machina will then become classic films today, instead of in twenty years when they are rediscovered by audiences like Blade Runner.