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Out in Theaters: PIXELS

Adam Sandler has been candid about his lack of effort in projects of late. Last year on Jimmy Kimmel Live, he admitted that he chooses projects based primarily on location. Meaning, he takes his paycheck and his vacation and all he’s gotta do is tug on the lever that makes the Happy Madison assembly line run. A nerd joke here, a woman joke there. A dash of silly voices. Fat man slamming into something. Voilà! You’ve got yourself a Sandler movie. Read More

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Out in Theaters: TOP FIVE

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Of Top Five, comedian all-star Chris Rock notes that he wanted to make a movie that felt like his stand up routine. Rather than divvy up the goods – this joke for the movies, this one for a live show – as he had done in the past, Rock melts all the goods down, like an aging alchemist performing a do-or-die swan song. He stirs a fair share of heavy drama amongst the renown comedic fare, throwing flashbacks to hitting rock bottom amongst games of jump rope, providing narration to stories that end in semen-stained bedsheets and rectal tampons while illustrating a battle with a wicked case of the alchies.

Back in 2003, Rock released his directorial debut Head of State – in which an inner-city politician (Rock) becomes president, pre-Obama era – to middling reviews. The bombastic, leather-jacketed motherf*cker from the stage had turned his style on its head, offering watery gags over ripe satire in a politically doltish comedy that stank of his Grown Ups‘ compatriots fare. 2007 wasn’t much kinder to his directorial work as I Think I Love My Wife was met with even less enthusiasm. It seemed the world had given up on Chris Rock the actor.

Since then, Rock has been seen lending his visage to the vacation-bait Grown Ups “franchise”, borrowing out his voice for Marty the Lion in the popular-with-kids Madagascar series and offering an unexpectedly potent dramatic turn in Julie Delpy‘s adroit 2 Days in New York. His return to the director’s chair could not have seemed less warranted and yet could not have been more inspired. With Top Five, he’s finally hit his groove.

Debuting at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, Rock’s latest inspired a bidding war for the distributions right for his film, raising eyebrows across the nation as to just what Rock the director, the writer and the actor had in store.

The anticipation was warranted as Top Five arrives a bombastically hilarious, meaningfully introspective assault on the funny bone. Rock plays a shade of himself; a quasi-washed-up comedic actor famed as the title role in the critically flattened Hammy the Bear buddy cop films. Alfie Allen (Rock) has more recently turned his eye to dramatic roles, starring in a serious – and seriously awful – Haitian revolutionary film he keeps referring to as “the Haitian Django.” With a televised Bravo wedding on the uptick and a make-or-break interview with a noted NYT reporter, played by a half-shaved Rosario Dawson, Allen’s losing it.

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Featuring a Who’s-Who of comedy cameos (Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, Whoopie Goldberg, Adam Sandler, J.B. Smoove, Romany Malco, Cedric the Entertainer), Rock’s struggle is one of finding his voice. In the comedy cellars where he earned his bread and butter and became a fast rising star, he feels lost. As parallel, Rock hasn’t done a comedy special in half a decade. We’re well beyond the shouting, Chris is bearing his soul.

For a three-time Emmy winner who’s performed more sold out shows than The Beatles, Rock bears emotional welts – the scars of easy money; the busted ego of a sell-out. Here, he’s repenting for his comedic sins. Here, he proves he’s worth sticking around with.

As news of the Sony inner circle and their utter distain for Adam Sandler films makes the unfortunate internet rounds, there couldn’t be a better time for Chris Rock to split off and reassert himself as the proud, angry, shrewd, tender comedian that he can be. Top Five is a must – for Rock’s career and comedy fans both.

B

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Out in Theaters: MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN

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Sorry Jason Reitman, I don’t know if we can be friends anymore. We had a good run but, I think it’s time to cut the umbilical cord. Though Men, Women and Children is a marked improvement over Reitman’s nearly horrendous Labor Day, it still misses the mark by a long shot, offering a muddled, obvious, sentimental mess trying to pass as smartphone generation gospel. The film’s central thesis is as convoluted as a Reddit comments section, as insincere as an emoticon apology. Reitman’s throughline that “technology bites…or does it?” is set up with the cold precision of a Mac Store. The section on why video games are bad is over here, in the front we have scummy chatrooms, the dangers of technophobia is jammed back there and right this way is the destructive power of internet speed-dating. It’s a Tinder of hot topic issues; a mosaic of D.A.R.E. videos from middle school health class. Through a girth of over-sharing, Reitman steeps the film too deep in melodramatic strife and winds up imparting a cold, stiff, impotent feeling. Like grandpa when he’s taken far too much Viagra.

The film introduces us to not just one, two, or four main protagonists but a heaping ten of them. But before we even get to any of these men, women and children struggling within their mortal coils, Reitman introduces us to a character that will have a significantly larger role than you’d ever expect. That character is a satellite voiced by the wonderfully British Emma Thompson. I guess she isn’t technically speaking actually the satellite – nor is the satellite necessarily anthropomorphized – but every time we see the thing rocketing to the outer reaches of the Milky Way – something we’re supposed to believe is significant but never is – we hear her voice and vice versa. Thompson has a few zingers and crude observations that cull early laughs but the intermittent returns to said satellite is a consummate representation of the film at large. It’s odd, ill-fitting and just doesn’t work.
 
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Ansel Egort
is one of Reitman’s many targets. He’s coping with the fact that his mom abandoned him. He just quit the football team because he’s a teenager and life is pointless because a YouTube video called “Tiny Blue Dot” says so. Because all teenagers prescribe to YouTube philosophy. Now he spends his days playing League or Legends or World of Warcraft or whatever MMO was currently popular when Reitman was filming this. Not to imply that Reitman is actually tapped into what teenagers do and don’t think is cool. I wouldn’t dare suggest that. At school, Ansel’s friends have not only abandoned him but have turned to harassing and outright bullying him. All for tapping out of the varsity pigskin squad. As milk cartoons strike him down, he’s a statue, taking it on the chin like some self-imilkating monk. With him alone, Reitman deals with abandonment issues, bullying, teenage dating and even suicide. Had the princely-named Ansel and his trials and tribulations been the sole subject matter of Men, Women and Children, we could actually be convinced to care. As is, he’s just another brick in a wall of “woe is me”.

Spontaneous abortion is yet another. Anorexia another. Cheating on your spouse just one more. BDSM porn addictions? Check. Teenage impotence? Check. Underage maybe-pornography? Double check. Overbearing, technophobe mothers are an obvious shoe in for Reitman’s catalog of problems. But I know what you’re thinking. What about a woman pimping out her own teenage daughter to online yucksters? Yup, that’s in the mix too. It’s like Reitman fingered through the DSM and earmarked every other page. Then he went Urban Dictionary and yanked some of the most common entries. Finally he made a Facebook poll of what the biggest issues facing people in 2014 were and shoehorned the top ten responses into one bloated, junky, blood-and-thunder diatribe. The product resembles spending two hours on Chat Roulette. The statement, little more than a bunch of obscured dicks in your face.

The trouble is, there really is a lot of really good acting going on within its midst. It’s a frustratingly similar case to Labor Day. Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin weren’t bad so much as they were just trapped in an awful script, working for a director than had never been anything but competent. Men, Women and Children suffers an identical blow. The actors have shown up ready to put in the work but the script lets them down at every turn. Save for (miraculously) Adam Sandler, the sole survivor of Reitman’s mushy hand and the only character whose arc feels genuine and unsentimental. The only explanation for the fierce dichotomy of talent and production is that those Hollywood folk still haven’t gotten the memo to jump ship on Reitman. Accordingly, he’s still got a designer cast to work with and they give it their all.

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Even though I took issue with the trumped up dramatics of his character, Egort’s performance is airtight; frothing with pathos and interspersed with moments of true joy. Jennifer Garner excels as a dictatorial mother who safeguards each and every internet interaction for daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever). She’s easy to hate, though a bit hack-i-ly written, but Garner helps flesh her into an actual person rather than the one-dimensional character she’s sculpted as. As a villain, she works but only ironically and that’s still only because of the depth of Garner’s skill.

Another cast stand out is Dean Norris, father to Ansel and new boyfriend to the washed-up but nonetheless fashionable Judy Greer (the mom pimper). Norris was always a dark horse on Breaking Bad (side note: his garage confrontation with Walt alone should have earned him an Emmy nomination. COME ON!) and he unleashes much of the same macho man with a mushy inside energy here. That guys eyes vibrate when he’s worked up like no one else’s. And those jowls. Whoa mama.

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Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt are as divided in their marriage as anal beads and bounce off each other just as much. Their romance is as snuffed out by the forces of the world as a dog queefing in the wind. Whenever sex needs to be scheduled (or, ugh, rescheduled) you should probably just buy matching his and hers FleshLights. As DeWitt and Sandlers sexual absentia mounts, they each turn to online lovers. Her via Ashley Madison – the go-to cheat on your hubby website (side note: I wonder if they paid a sponsorship for their inclusion)- him with a high class escort. And when I say high class, I mean $800 an hour high class. The only real bit of emotional honesty comes from Sandler’s awkward interaction with said hooker and how he ultimately decides to deal with his and his wife’s infidelity. But, as has come to be expected of a Reitman film, that emotional honesty is few and far between.

At its heart, Men, Women and Children is rochambeau. Not the French general, the nut kicking contest. With so many potentially nerve-striking issues on display, Reitman has money on the fact that at least one will get ya where it hurts. And he does. A few scenes legitimately sting. The duteously great acting makes this feat possible. This doesn’t however make Men, Women and Children “good” by any means. It’s just a statistical fact that if you’re blasting a shotgun blindfolded, you’re bound to hit something eventually. Can we have the old Jason Reitman back now?

C-

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Out in Theaters: BLENDED

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You know you’re in trouble when people laugh at your production company sequence before the movie even starts. Alas, that’s where we’re at with Happy Madison and Adam Sandler. It’s the same tired schmaltz and shtick and spiel that it’s always been.

Blended employs the same combo we’ve seen too many times before: Drew Barrymore as a cute ditzy blonde, Sandler as the weird funny guy with a hard edge and a soft side. What spark they once had has gone stale. It’s like they’re really stuck in the 50 First Dates love-trap: now they’re trying to find something, anything that works. This combo used to be nougat. Now it just smells like nutsack.

Lauren’s (Barrymore) divorced with two little boys. Their characters revolve around typical boyhood challenges: the older one masturbates to pictures of his babysitter crudely taped to Playboys; the younger one sucks at baseball and his Dad (a douchey Joel McHale) never wants to play catch. Lauren organizes closets for “Closet Queens” with her friend Jen (Wendi McLendon-Covey, who seems to have taken acting lessons from the Grandma in The Room), who’s dating Dick from Dick’s Sporting Goods. Yeah, that Dick.

Jim (Sandler) manages a Dick’s alongside Shaquille O’Neal. His wife died of cancer (the film could’ve gone by the title 50 First Dead Mom Jokes), leaving him to struggle with three daughters: Hilary, Espn (named after his favorite TV network!) and Lou. Espn’s got Haley Joel Osment’s sixth sense when it comes to mommy: she saves a seat at the table for momma, she talks to her in her bedroom. Hilary (“Larry”) is a tomboy teen that daddy won’t let come out of her shell. Lou is a cute little girl who says “butthole.”

Jim takes Lauren on a date to Hooters, which goes swimmingly: she spits out hot buffalo shrimp and spills French onion soup all over herself, he drinks her beer. They end up hating each other. Let’s cut to the chase: afraid of being bad parents, they both get their hands on tickets “TO AFRICA!!!” without knowing that the other family’s going along with them. Typical shenanigans and bonding and romantic tension ensues. Do I have to say it? This premise is fucking terrible.

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“Is everyone ready to see the real Africa?” an African guy asks as they get off the plane. Blended leaves it at that. Sandler’s Africa never goes as far as to mention what part of Africa they’re in, or who these people are. Instead, we’re led to believe that the entire continent is filled with singing and dancing sweaty black folk surrounded by an endless safari of crocodiles, lions and elephants. The fact that Sandler so often uses “Africans” as entertainment and fodder for bad humor is downright offensive. Terry Crews leads an acapella group that follows Sandler and his crew around everywhere while singing stupid shit. Everyone is there to serve the rich white folk that have ventured their way into this “wilderness.” Sandler’s Africa is nothing but cheap accents and cheaper African garb.

But cheapest of all are the jokes, and gosh darn is there slapstick. Grandma’s crash into things on ATVs, Sandler falls into a vat of Dodo urine, Barrymore’s profession is mined for lesbian jokes, Adam tries to out-fart an elephant, the “Africans” say goofy African things, Barrymore catches her kid masturbating…the list goes on. You’d think they would’ve gotten tired of all these crap jokes: Blended is just 50 First Dates Does Africa.

Blended then tries to take on gender identity, in the most basic way possible. Sandler has difficulty as a father of three girls, while Barrymore just can’t figure out how to raise her two sons. Their simple solution: pops can buy the porn while momma buys the tampons. Throughout, there’s the assumption that men and women find figuring out the opposite sex impossible. Sandler doesn’t want to let his daughters out of their tomboy casing, but his girls just want to dress up and look pretty. Barrymore’s boys want to be good at sports and the older one is constantly horny. Screenwriters Clare Sera and Ivan Menchell don’t know what to do with their characters, so they resort to the same conclusion every dimwit always seems to come to: boys have penises and girls have vaginas.

Sandler’s Rotten Tomatoes page is more verdant than a fresh can of Green Giant. You’ve gotta go down a long ways until you can find anything worthwhile. Grown Ups 2? Why is this a thing? That’s My Boy? Try again. Just Go With It? I’ll go without, thanks. Grown Ups? Groan. Jack and Jill? Fuck no.

What’s happened to Sandler is truly a disaster. Trust me; I’ve seen The Wedding Singer at least thirty times. It’s classic Adam: quirky, brooding, clever, timeless slapstick. Happy Madison is the same way. Back then he could afford to gamble, to put himself out there. Now his ruminating, dark comedy shtick just comes off as sad: all that’s left is a depressive sack that can’t cope with getting old, fat and tired while watching his kids grow up. His well ran dry somewhere in between Grandma’s Boy and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and he’s been scraping at brick since then.

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Funny People
(directed by Judd Apatow) was Sandler’s last great movie: a movie about comedians that’s not funny and doesn’t try to be. There, we saw Sandler’s dark side: George Simmons, a lonely, lost, scared comedian who’s afraid to be a nobody and even more afraid to be famous. Sandler’s Simmons wasn’t funny. His stuff was sad. But his vulnerability came out. Funny People was fitting because we saw Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill—new blood, the hot kids in town challenging him for his thrown—right next to Sandler. The truth is, they were funnier. Sandler didn’t need anyone to tell him that because he saw it up close: no one wants to see a 47-year old guy do a little boy voice anymore.

One has to wonder where the self-reflective Sandler went. Maybe he’s too afraid to be vulnerable, or he’s still clinging to the glory days. Really, the same should be said for Drew Barrymore too. They’ve earned each other. Blended was the appropriate title for this place in their careers: at this point, everything seems to mix together into nothingness.

I’ve been racking my brain trying to find out why Blended was even made, and who it was made for. Really, who is the demographic here? It boggles the mind. Maybe this one will go over well in old folks’ homes and at the zoo. Anyone older than 12 can’t possibly like this stuff, right? I would tell you not to go see this film, but you don’t need me to tell you that: Sandler’s name already did the work for me.

Can you still call yourself a comedian if people are laughing at you?

D

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Worst Case Scenario Casting for STAR WARS VII

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“The horror…the horror.

According to recent reports, Zac Efron has (maybe-potentially-hopefully-not) been in discussions with Director J.J. Abrams regarding potential casting in Star Wars: Episode VII. This, following earlier news this week that Adam Driver is set to portray a Sith Lord in the newest Disney-sponsored saga. For anyone who’s seen Efron’s work—most recently That Awkward Moment, quite possibly the year’s worst film to date—this could spell disaster for the film, which already seems like it’s on a galactic crash course. At least this isn’t the worst possible casting, as it certainly could be worse. Here are some actors we definitely don’t want to see anywhere near this trilogy.

 

1. Kevin Hart

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With Abrams’ reboot, there certainly will be creatures of all shapes and sizes floating through hyperspace. Let’s hope Kevin Hart, nuisance personified, isn’t one of them. He’s everywhere these days. He’s like the force, a constant presence you don’t see but definitely feel; you couldn’t escape him if you tried. Whether it’s terrible movies (recent examples: Ride Along, Grudge Match, and Think Like a Man), the NBA All-Star Celebrities’ Game, or all over BET, KHart has burned himself into the intergalactic rolodex. Though it would be funny to see him bouncing around with a lightsaber, this shouldn’t happen in any dimension.

2. Adam Sandler

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Adam Sandler hasn’t made anything worthwile since 2002, and pretty much everything he touches turns to space junk. It would help if he were still funny, but that Sandler is in a galaxy far far way. Just imagine Sandler trying to fly the Millenium Falcon. And really, how many roles would he play? It’d be great to see him play Chewbacca, Han Solo, Leia and Luke simultaneously. We beg you, Adam Solo, stay away.

3. John Travolta

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Is it wrong that I think it would be aweseome if John Travolta was brought into the Star Wars galaxy? How many names would he mispronounce? So much intentional comedy would ensue with Travolta trying to pronounce “midichlorians” (mardiacloritis) and “Dagobah” (Deborawr). Okay, maybe this one should happen. Get on it Abrams, you’re our only hope!

It remains to be seen how the rest of the cast will be filled out as production starts in April. With Star Wars: The Clone Wars Season 6 set to release Friday, and all the castings sure to come out in the next month, this is sure to be a force-filled March. As Travolta would say: Mary the frost be wart yew.

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