How to Podcast: “American Ultra” Kicks Ass

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American Ultra is just good old violent fun, showcasing Jesse Eisenberg as a stoner living in a nowhere town who doesn’t know he is actually a super spy, aka Jason Bourne. When “activated,” it turns out he is an efficient soldier, who can kill people with spoons and the like. Eisenberg is paired again with his Adventureland  co-star Kristen Stewart, who plays his GF, and the two just have a blast ripping through the movie.

I discuss American Ultra with my ScreenPicks gang, along with other openers including She’s Funny That Way and Learning to Drive.

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How to Analyze: Why Can’t ‘Fantastic Four’ Be Fantastic?

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To be perfectly honest, this Fantastic Four  reboot does not measure up, and frankly, I’m not sure why they can’t get this story right. Like Spider-Man, 20th Cent. Fox had to quickly do a reboot of FF,  so soon after the original 2005 film and its sequel, because they were in danger of losing the rights to the Marvel comic. Fox might still lose them to Marvel if this FF tanks… and unfortunately, I think it’s going to.

The 2005 version — which starred Ioan Gruffudd (as Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic), Jessica Alba (as Sue Storm/Invisible Girl), Chris Evans (as Johnny Storm/Human Torch) and Michael Chiklis (as Ben Grimm/Thing) — was moderately enjoyable, mostly due to Evans’ hilarious performance as Torch and Chiklis’ wry sense of humor as Thing. But it had a lot of problems, too, and certainly couldn’t compare to The Avengers brilliant ensemble or other successful comic-book adaptations. 

This current Fantastic Four is even worse. They tried to capture a younger audience by casting leads Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Micheal B. Jordan and Jamie Bell, but the cast is wasted. It starts off intriguingly enough, with a kids-in-space-camp mentality, masterminding this machine that takes them to an alternate universe. But once things go awry, Bell literally just grunts most of the time as Thing, while Mara mostly sits at the computer, without any emotions or expressions at all. If they had let Teller play Reed a little more cocksure, more to the type Teller plays best, then it would have worked. Jordan is simply not the right Torch, and poor Toby Kebbell. His Victor Doom has a lot of potential at the beginning of the film, a misunderstood genius with a chip on his shoulder who also has an unrequited crush on Sue. But when he becomes the villain Dr. Doom, all of that is gone and we’re left with a run-of-the-mill megalomaniac who seeks world dominance. Yawn.

On top of all that, ALL the humor is lost. This FF wants to be dark and brooding but why? The tongue-in-cheek is what makes the comic so great — the back and forth squabbling between Torch and Thing, the brother-sister camaraderie between Sue and Johnny, the lighthearted love story between Reed and Sue, and so forth. And don’t get me started on the CGI in this version. The alternate universe looks like one of those bad alien planets from Star Trek, and the climactic battle at the end completely fails. Come on, folks, the bar keeps rising on this stuff; you can’t go backwards.

So, if Marvel does take the rights back and brings the Fantastic Four into the Disney fold, would they be able to successfully translate the story to the big screen? I think the first order of business is to find the right cast. A group of actors that gel together and who fit the roles more succinctly. Also, just stop with the origin premise. If you do another one, start with the Fantastic Four already in full swing, ribbing each other as they try to save the world from another Dr. Doom attempt to take over.

Anyway, I discuss Fantastic Four in the ScreenPicks podcast, along with other openers this weekend, including Ricki and the Flash and Dark Places.

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How to Watch: “Pixels”

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Step 1: Get in the mood. If you want lighthearted, mindless Adam Sandler entertainment and have a nostalgia for ’80s video games, then Pixels is for you.

Step 2: Set the scene. The film centers on Brenner, who as a kid in the ’80s was an arcade gaming champ, able to see patterns in games like Galaga, Pac-Man and Centipede in his head and master them. Brenner’s best friend Cooper always told him he’d amount to something, but now as adults, Brenner (Sandler) is nothing more than a tech repair guy working for a Geek Squad-type company, while Cooper (Kevin James) has become president of the United States. Yeah, quite a jump there. They are still best friends, and when it looks like Earth is being invaded by aliens who are attacking in the form of the same ’80s games they grew up playing (the why and how aren’t really important), Cooper turns to Brenner for help. In order to battle the aliens, Brenner and Cooper also need to find a few other former players. One is Ludlow (Josh Gad), a former arcade whiz kid and conspiracy theorist who thinks the CIA is infiltrating his mind, and the arrogant Eddie (Peter Dinklage), the only guy to beat Brenner in an epic Donkey Kong showdown back in the day but who is now a convict. These four are joined by single mom Violet (Michelle Monaghan), who works in military intelligence and someone Brenner takes a shine to. Together, they have to play the games of their lives to defeat the invaders. You know, the Space Invaders. Get it?

Step 3: Agree… or not. Pixels is being called THE worst movie of the year, but when was the last time a Sandler movie received glowing reviews? Pixels has many, many problems. It’s trite, so very silly and completely devoid of any genuineness, to name a few. Sandler’s usual schlub with a heart of gold drags it down every time he and the wasted Monaghan do the romantic comedy thing, but Sandler has always had a keen sense of the supporting players around him, and lets them shine. Adding Gad and Dinklage to the mix is a mini stroke of genius as they both deliver hilarious performances. It is also more family-friendly than some of Sandler’s past endeavors, so gone is the 12-year-old bathroom humor. Plus, the ’80s throwbacks are perfect, between the arcade games coming to life and the soundtrack. Sandler really loves that era with movies like this and The Wedding Singer. He likes to remember being a teenager, hitting the arcade and jamming to Lover Boy. Good times.

Step 4: Love the special effects. Directed by Chris Columbus, who knows how to give movies broad strokes, Pixels also has a whole bunch of fun with the visuals. Pac-Man devouring NYC is just plain fun, but the Centipede attack sequence in London’s Hyde Park stands out, as the sky fills with mushrooms and the centipede inches down. Being one of my favorite games of yesteryear, I felt myself punching my finger on my leg in unison as Brenner and Ludlow shoot down the bugs.

Step 5: Remember Sandler doesn’t care what you think. He makes these movies to have fun with his friends, and his fans flock to see them in droves. They know full and well what to expect and welcome it. Pixels shouldn’t disappoint them.

How to Watch: ‘Trainwreck’

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Step 1: Applaud the hotter-than-hot Amy Schumer. Trainwreck puts our new favorite person squarely on the movie map, showcasing her exquisite sense of humor in a poignant and sweet romantic comedy.

Step 2: Ask “Is Amy really a trainwreck?” The title of Schumer’s big-screen debut is a little misleading, however, because Schumer’s character, also named Amy, isn’t your traditional idea of a trainwreck. You know, the kind of person who self destructs every chance they get. Sure, Amy drinks and smokes pot a lot and makes a fair amount of bad choices, but she is also really good at her job writing for a raunchy men’s magazine and never gets totally out of control. In fact, Amy’s life is exactly how she wants it to be, and she is not going off the rails.

Step 3: Get to the real point. You see, the only issue Amy has is with monogamy; she doesn’t care for it much. Her dad (Colin Quinn) put the concept “We aren’t meant to be with just one person the rest of our lives” into Amy’s head when she was a young girl, and Amy has pretty much stuck to that way of thinking for most of her adult life. One-night stands are her forte and she fully embraces the idea of kicking the guy out of bed almost immediately after sex. Her younger sister, Kim (Brie Larsen), didn’t buy into their dad’s philosophy and is now married and a mom, something that boggles Amy’s mind. Yet, everything changes when Amy is assigned to do a story on a sports medicine doctor named Aaron (Bill Hader), who is probably one of the nicest guys on the planet and who Amy has a fairly immediate connection to. She resists and tries to brush him off, but Aaron is persistent and before she knows it, Amy finds herself falling in love with him. This, too, boggles her mind.

Step 4: Embrace the formula. The rom-com mantra of “will they?” or “won’t they?” or “will Amy bolt because that’s what she always does” is ever present, but because Schumer and Hader are so good together, in many different quirky ways, they sell the staid idea. Hader, in particular, proves himself a very charming leading man, which surprises since we’re so used to him being goofy side players in movies, like the guy who manages the pool or the cop who isn’t very good at his job. Or he’s the wacky voice-over guy. But here, he complements Schumer in so many wonderful ways that we’re hoping they become the next on-screen duo, doing more movies together.

Step 5: Marvel at the non-actors. Most of the supporting players in Trainwreck are also fantastic, including Vanessa Bayer and Randall Park as Amy’s work co-horts and an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as Amy’s self-absorbed boss. Swinton actually gets to be glam – no wigs or fake teeth but blown-out hair, makeup and a spray tan – and of course, totally nails it. And in the “who knew they could act?” category, WWE star John Cena cracks you up as one of Amy’s more steady booty calls, while basketball legend LeBron James hilariously shines, playing himself and Aaron’s best friend. James just wants Aaron to find the love he deserves, and he makes sure Amy knows it. We’re pretty sure James won’t give up his day job, but he’s gonna make more movies. Guaranteed.

Step 6: Expect more heart in a raunchy comedy. Schumer penned the script and has said it’s very personal to her, as the story also shows how Amy and her sister deal with their father, who is living in an assisted facility. Quinn does a nice job playing this offensive dad, who has never said the right thing, ever, to his girls, but still tries to love them the best way he can. There are genuine tender moments in Trainwreck, with Schumer showing some surprising acting chops. Maybe the only small issue with the film is Judd Apatow’s direction. Not that he doesn’t understand comedy or know exactly how to bring it out of his actors, but more how he never wants to cut the film up. An Apatow production runs long, as in the case with Trainwreck, but because Schumer and the gang are so fffing hysterical, it’s okay. Honestly, tears will be flowing from both laughter and poignancy. Trainwreck just works, from start to finish.

How to Podcast: ‘Minions’ Mania

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This week on the Joel and Kit Save the Movies podcast, Joel Amos and I discuss Minions, the stand-alone animated film centering on those little yellow dudes from the Despicable Me series. The movie is good fun for the kiddies, who will no doubt want to rush out and buy Minions sheets and birthday cakes, but are these side characters worthy of a whole film?

Plus, we talk about the sci-fi thriller Self/Less, in which Ben Kingsley brain is put into Ryan Reynolds body (not a bad deal). In all seriousness, it’s one of Reynolds’ better performances and a decent thrill-fest. We still could have used more Kingsley.

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How to Podcast: “Ted 2” and More

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In the first episode of my new podcast — Joel & Kit Save the Movies (and we do) — Joel Amos, Editor-in-Chief of MovieMensch.com, and I talk about Ted 2, comedy sequels, Jurassic World smashing the box office and much more!

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How to Podcast: “Inside Out” Is a Must-See

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Pixar is back in perfect form with Inside Out. It’s been a few years since they’ve released something this original, heartwarming, hilarious and just plain embraceable. A classic, for sure.

I discuss how wonderful it was with ScreenPicks, plus my thoughts on the indie gem Dope.

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How to Break Box Office Records: “Jurassic Park”

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Step 1:  Bring on the dinosaurs. Jurassic World surpassed all expectations by grossing $208 million in its debut weekend, making it the biggest opening in movie history. It beat previous record holder, Marvel’s The Avengers, which opened with $207 mil in 2012. This just proves people still love them some dinos and what’s not to love? In Jurassic World, the dinosaurs look better than ever, especially the velociraptors and the T-Rex. In fact, when ole Rexie makes his appearance, you cheer because it’s like seeing an old friend. There’s the new baddie, of course, a genetic hybrid they call Indominus rex, who’s scary cunning and ferocious and has a ton of sharp teeth. And the raptors? Well, they are still super smart and apparently willing to be trained, if they like the human who is training them, like Owen (Chris Pratt). One of the best parts of JW  is how these dinosaurs have evolved, and how some actually become the heroes.

Step 2: Get Chris Pratt. Playing the raptor whisperer, Pratt proves that he is not only an action hero, he is a bonafide movie star on par with Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis. When Pratt landed what turned out to be the plum role of Peter Quill aka Starlord in Guardians of the Galaxy, many thought he couldn’t break out of his dumpy Parks and Recreations persona. Oh, how wrong they were. Pratt has it all — charm, humor, good looks and a rock hard body to die for. His JW co-star Bryce Dallas Howard also does a nice job playing Claire, the irritating workaholic general manager of the theme park. Although Owen and Claire’s subplot love-hate relationship seems a tad forced, Pratt totally sells it.

Step 3: Add in the kid factor. All of the previous Jurassic movies had kids in jeopardy, and in Jurassic World, we have Claire’s nephews, teenager Zach (Kings of Summer star Nick Robinson) and his little brother Gray (Insidious star Ty Simpkins). You get the classic scene of Indominus rex trying to eat his way through a plexi-glass sphere with the boys inside (it’s kind of a ride). Robinson and Simpkins do well being equally terrified and quick on their feet when they have to. The idea that young people can fight their way through a dino rampage is what makes this appealing to kids of all ages.

Step 4: Hire a director who can (sort of) fill Steven Spielberg’s shoes. Colin Trevorrow, whose only other credit is the quirky and entertaining Safety Not Guaranteed, manages to expertly bring a whole new vision to the Jurassic franchise. Spielberg was an executive producer, so you know he had some good advice to give Trevorrow and you can see some of Steven’s touches, but the newbie director nails it all on his own. Ever since John Hammond told us about the park he envisioned in Jurassic Park, we’ve all secretly wanted to see it come to fruition. And here we are! Jurassic World is freaking amazing, from the T-Rex attraction to the aquatic behemoth the mosasaurs, who eats Great White sharks.

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Step 5: So, build the damn park already! I think there’s a poll out there in which real people were asked if they’d visit a park like Jurassic World, knowing all the risks. The results were unanimous… Hell yes we would! But don’t worry about creating new dinosaurs to impress us. The old ones will do just fine.

How to Podcast: “Entourage,” “Spy” and More!

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The Entourage boys are back in this big-screen adaptation, and it feels like they never left. If you’re a big fan of the show, you shouldn’t be disappointed to see Vince, E, Turtle, Johnny Drama — and of course, Ari Gold — up to their usual shenanigans.

The ScreenPicks crew and I discuss the film, plus the Melissa McCarthy excellent comedy Spy. Just know that Jason Statham will totally surprise you!

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How to Podcast: ‘San Andreas,’ ‘Aloha’ and More

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It’s time for the Big One! San Andreas follows the disaster flick formula pretty closely, as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays a first responder who has rescue his family when the San Andreas fault finally shifts for the worse, destroying most of San Francisco.

Despite its many faults (get it?), the film is what you’d expect and enjoyable for pure entertainment value. Listen to our discussion about it on the ScreenPicks podcast. Plus, hear what I have to say about how Cameron Crowe’s Aloha went wrong.

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