The Emoji Movie (2017)

If 2017 felt like a political nadir, then The Emoji Movie was the cultural low point. A film as lazy and uncreative as its title suggests, it ferries us inside the world of smartphone emojis who are confronting an existential crisis. The general idea is not terrible; children’s entertainment is full of gabby inanimate objects and there’s no reason smileys can’t have their day, but don’t be fooled by this poorly plotted app store marketing scheme. Do we really need a movie that encourages us to have a closer relationship with our smartphones?

The human in the story, Alex (Jake T. Austin), is a high school student with a crush. He is trying to win the affections of his classmate Addie by texting her, not crafty sonnets but strings of emojis. Sending these graphics is not simply a matter of poking an image and waiting for it to pop up on someone else’s screen, however. Buried deep in Alex’s phone is the bustling city of Textopolis where all the emojis live. When Alex chooses one, they must hold their pose while a camera scans their image, which is then sent to the receiver.

Gene (T.J. Miller) is a “meh” emoji and longs to get his face in the pictures as it were, but his parents (Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge) worry he’s not ready for the big time. Being “meh” emojis themselves, their impassioned plea registers as varying levels of indifference. Gene, on the other hand, is hyperactive for a “meh,” hence his parents’ hesitation to let him loose. They worry that he won’t be able to look sufficiently bored when called upon. In the end, he gets his way and the job but freaks out the moment he’s summoned by Alex. The camera captures him looking very un-“meh,” and he pulls a surprised-confused-horrified look that ends up on Addie’s phone, to her shock.

All emoji/smartphone hell breaks loose. Smiler (Maya Rudolph), an original emoji and therefore the one who’s running the joint, also has a freak out. But her anger paired with her megawatt grin is something out of a horror movie. She sends her bots to find and delete Gene, which is a terrifying prospect. Do you want your kids watching emoji murder? Luckily Gene finds some friends who are willing to help a fugitive. Hi-5 (James Corden) is seized with self-doubt and has some anger issues after getting booted from Alex’s favorites. Jailbreak (Anna Faris) turns out to be a princess emoji who’s sick of being a princess.

The message is about embracing yourself instead of your stereotypes. It’s about self-expression and being comfortable with your many emotions. Fine. I can get behind that completely. But omg ffs, as Alex might put it, does it have to be so boring? This movie is offensively dull. The humorless script reads like an engineer’s lab report. Part of this is my fault for being old and naturally tuning out when Jailbreak drones on about interfacing and the cloud and malware, but even if the young people understand it, I don’t think they’ll be entertained by it. Besides Jailbreak just telling us what she’s doing all the time, the movie too easily falls back on things that have been done before. The plot bears some resemblance to Inside Out but lacks all the emotional depth and sensitivity. It’s also a [insert eye roll emoji] parade of product placement. Looks like Candy Crush, Instagram, and Spotify have found another way to bully us into submission. Well let’s show them, and never watch this film.

Oh yeah, Patrick Stewart voices the poop emoji.

Released: 2017
Prod: Michelle Raimo Kouyate
Dir: Tony Leondis
Writer: Tony Leondis, Eric Siegel, Mike White
Cast: T.J. Miller, Anna Faris, James Corden, Maya Rudolph, Steven Wright, Jennifer Coolidge, Patrick Stewart, Christina Aguilera, Sofia Vergara, Sean Hayes
Time: 86 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018


Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie (2017)

Combing through Netflix originals to find something quality is like digging through the bargain bin at Walmart for some obscure 90s movie you, and only you, really liked. There’s just so much shit you have to get past before you find what you’re looking for, and in this case, it’s not Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie. The film, the offspring of comedian Jeff Garlin, is a pseudo-experiment in the murder mystery genre. Actor Steven Weber pops up before the opening credits to announce that he is playing the murderer. You don’t know whether to believe him or dismiss him, which is part of the appeal. Writer-director Garlin has you sniffing out two aspects of the case in parallel – the veracity of Weber’s admission and, if true, his motivation.

It’s a gruesome case. The dismembered body of a young woman is found on actor Talbert Bacorn’s (Weber) front lawn, her various body parts scattered into the shape of a Star of David. Detective Gene Handsome (Garlin) recognizes the deceased as his neighbor’s babysitter, and that leads to a web of connections and clues that include a fireworks salesperson, high-end lotion and cream, and Hollywood parties. The novelty of this unconventional whodunit wears off quickly, and the oddities of the case are soon overtaken by those of the players.

Fans of Garlin’s other work, notably Curb Your Enthusiasm which he produces, may take to the bone dry humor. I’ve never seen an episode of the show, so I can’t compare. The movie is filled to the brim with offbeat characters and dialogue, few of whom you’d want to meet in real life though some of whom you’d recognize anyway. Talbert is a preening jackass, and Weber is delightfully smug in this role. Christine Woods is not so preening but still a variety of a jackass as Nora, the neighbor with the murdered babysitter. Nora is in a custody battle with her ex, Lloyd (Tim Sharp), a mouthbreather who somehow exists in a plane between clueless and kind of clever.

There’s also Handsome’s office, the biggest nuthouse. His partner is Fleur Scozzari (Natasha Lyonne), a woman who definitely needs HR training at least once a month on how to maintain appropriate workplace boundaries. Come to think of it, so does his gabby, lusting superior, Lieutenant Tucker (Amy Sedaris). The rest of his squad are incompetent apprentices in need of career counseling.

There’s no sense of normalcy. Handsome is the straightest arrow of the lot and is actually relatable in a way. He carries the weight of a person who is so embedded in a world of wackos that he decides doesn’t have the energy to fight it. Garlin delights in this display of the awkward and uncomfortable. At about 80 minutes, the movie is either too much or not enough depending on your tolerance for this sort of stuff. Every shot, every line of dialogue is in service to this brand of sardonic humor. There’s the busload of Japanese Jewish tourists that pass by the crime scene and the understaffed burger joint where kids take orders in person at the drive through. When Talbert suggests the murder was PETA’s revenge for him wearing suede pants to a premiere, Handsome demurs that it’s not their style.

I did enjoy one scene between Handsome and Nora because it seemed naturally awkward and not deliberately so. He invites her into his house and plays Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” hoping to talk about something, anything meaningful. As they talk about the song, she starts to cry and opens up to him about wanting to escape her miserable job as an L.A. dental assistant. For a moment, both of them are of a different world, one where their idiosyncrasies are rooted in real experiences. Christine Woods crackles in this scene. As one of the ten people who watched her in the shortlived television series FlashForward, I love how she knows what to hold back, giving the audience just what we need to really see into her character.

Released: 2017
Prod: Brad Morris, Andrew Secunda
Dir: Jeff Garlin
Writer: Jeff Garlin, Andrea Seigel
Cast: Jeff Garlin, Natasha Lyonne, Amy Sedaris, Christine Woods, Steven Weber, Timm Sharp
Time: 81 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Lego Jurassic World: The Indominus Escape (2016)

Lego Jurassic World’s silly premise is one that I can get behind. A hot dog loving dinosaur is on the loose, and things quickly spiral out of control when the park runs out of mystery meat. This sounds like fun, a good alternative for kids who might be too scared to watch actual Jurassic World, and in fact, mini people will probably like this vaguely disguised marketing ploy. If you’re hoping for anything approximating Chris Pratt’s other Lego adventure, however, you’ll want to avoid this lazy leftover. It lacks the humor and creativity of other Lego projects, including the ubiquitous online shorts.

As a hot dog lover, I was disappointed that hot dogs had little bearing on the plot. Our hungry little dinosaur might as well have been slobbering after wheels of cheese or steamed broccoli. (Can we get a Lego cheese board though?) What did catch my attention were the ethical implications of creating said dinosaur. I haven’t seen Jurassic World, and I don’t think that matters here, but toying with dino DNA just doesn’t seem like a good idea according to this and every other Jurassic Park movie.

Hot dog dino is the brainchild of park director Claire, who’s forced to clean up some show-off’s mess when he wrecks the aviary. She commissions a new attraction, and instead of a reptile roller coaster or something similarly benign, she goes for the Scariest Dinosaur Ever. As you can guess, shit happens, the dinosaur goes on a hot dog tear, and lives are lost. But the worst of it is, Claire, unable to bring her Creature under control even with the help of dinosaur whisperer Owen, orders her troops to zap the monster. When that doesn’t work, Owen corrals all the other dinosaurs and attempts to drive it into a deep pit.

I’m all for indicting science and tech run amok and wouldn’t mind that commentary in Lego form. This short delivers that but it’s also so perfunctory, as if the priority was whipping up a DVD extra and Lego set tie-in rather than making an actual mini-movie. Its inability to take advantage of all its Lego-y parts means there’s not much to distinguish it from your average low budget cartoon. The same goes for its failed attempts at humor. If your comedic high point is a park mascot in a hot dog suit, then you need new writers.

Released: 2016
Dir: Michael D. Black
Writer: Jonathan Callan, James Krieg
Cast: Jake Johnson, Zachary Levi, A.J. LoCascio, BD Wong, Lauren Lapkus, Sendhil Ramamurthy
Time: 24 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Lego: City (2011)

Lego: City makes no sense. It’s also really funny. A collection of six shorts bundled under one title, this series is one wacky cops and robbers chase after another. It follows three thieves as they break out of jail, steal some money, and get caught. Two of the shorts, “Money Tree” and “Gold Run,” are about a pair of old-timey crooks who do the same thing, except their thievery takes them outside the city limits.

What makes these mini-episodes so enjoyable is their goofy premise. No one talks; they just grunt and point. Apparently that’s enough to plan elaborate heists involving heavy machinery. It seems to hinder police work, however, as the officers can’t stop the bad guys from breaking out of their cell every damn day. They also never have a plan in place to catch the thieves nor are there any laws to make sure repeat offenders are securely locked away and separated from their co-conspirators.

Incompetency leads to some surprisingly elaborate Lego gags though. The possibilities are endless when your whole city is made of snappable bricks. My favorite short is “Rocket Cash” for its absurdity. The nameless thieves break out of their jail cell by strapping themselves to rockets they’ve hidden in the wall. When they’re finally cornered by the police, they make the most sensible getaway they can, via rocket into space. This leads the good men, and they’re all men, of law enforcement to gear up and blast off in their own rocket in pursuit. The one-time aerospace engineering major in me balks at the disregard for the laws of physics, but one-time film major in me delights in the visual playfulness.

I have to hand it to Lego for pulling off a great marketing campaign. They don’t need a feature length movie to push product. A few five minute shorts that show off their City sets is more than enough to make me want to throw some money in their direction. I’m definitely eyeing the Space Center, but since I’m short a couple hundred dollars (and it’s retired), I may go with something smaller from the Fire Brigade collection or the beach party set. Oddly, part of Lego’s City series include sets that you wouldn’t find in an actual city, hence the shorts that take place in the sticks. I’ve never found nature and plastic blocks to be all that compatible, and the non-city shorts aren’t as funny or creative, just straightforward narratives of pursuit on logging and mining equipment. But don’t be surprised if you still want to go out and buy a cartoony mine drill.

“Hot Chase”:

“Cash Splash”:

“Crooks Everywhere”:

Released: 2011
Dir: Peder Pederson
Cast: Lego people
Time: 26 min (“Hot Chase,” “Rocket Cash,” “Cash Splash,” “Crooks Everywhere,” “Money Tree,” “Gold Run”)
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

The Little Rascals (1994)

The Little Rascals is part of the early 1990s kids movie canon, a great collection that I still revisit, with or without a small human in tow. Since the 1994 film about a ragtag group of tykes was released as I entered teenager-hood, however, I passed and opted for classics like The Sandlot and The Mighty Ducks because, you know, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez and Adam Banks. Now, thanks to my sparse Hong Kong Netflix selection, I get to rewind the clock and fill in the blanks.

It turns out the ubiquitous Rascals of my youth are a charming bunch, even if the boys’ purpose of being is membership in the He-Man Woman Haters Club. It’s not exactly the kind of thing that earns cute points these days, and I was skeptical about how hard gender stereotypes would be pushed. The answer is, a lot. The Rascals are mostly the boys of the club, and they open the film by calling a meeting about an upcoming go-kart race. That is all good and well until we find out that everyone’s turned on little Alfalfa (Bug Hall) – he’s the one with the cowlick – because he’s sweet on Darla (Brittany Ashton Holmes).

There’s a lot of boys hating girls talk that’s not so problematic. Kissing is just revolting at that age. But Darla and her girlfriends are from another era, one that recalls the original shorts and series from the first half of the twentieth century rather than actual life in the early 90s. It might have been better to set the movie in the 1940s instead of attempting that aesthetic but in the present day. It’s cute that Darla’s shading herself with a parasol while Alfalfa serenades her on the lake, but I don’t know about her completely powder pink room and the fact that she and her friends look like dolls on display at the county fair.

Needless to say, it takes awhile for the boys of the HMWHC to come around. They do their best to drive a wedge between Alfalfa and Darla, allowing the new rich kid, Waldo (Blake McIver Ewing and not Macaulay Culkin from The Pagemaster) to muscle in. It’s enough to make me wonder what they’ll be up to in high school. Making matters worse are two bullies who grunt, growl, and chase the kids around like it’s their job.

Between the romantic drama, preparations for the go-kart race, and attempts to evade bullies, the movie floats along quickly. The child actors have buckets of personality and most of the major characters carry their own. Travis Tedford has an air of defiance, and a smidge of a Southern accent, as Spanky McFarland, the club president and best friend to Alfalfa. Kevin Jamal Woods also carries extra authority as vice president Stymie, despite being all of seven or so. My favorite characters are Porky and Buckwheat, played by Zachery Mabry and Ross Elliot Bagley, the tiniest members of the group. The are a giggly duo who are too small to do much of anything except warm your cold heart, and they do that brilliantly with just a smile. And good thing because there’s a cameo by a certain 45th president that puts an sick chill on the whole happy vibe.

Released: 1994
Prod: Bill Oakes, Michael King, Gerald R. Molen
Dir: Penelope Spheeris
Writer: Paul Guay, Stephen Mazur, Penelope Spheeris, Mike Scott, Robert Wolterstorff
Cast: Travis Tedford, Bug Hall, Brittany Ashton Holmes, Kevin Jamal Woods, Jordan Warkol, Zachary Mabry, Ross Elliot Bagley, Blake McIver Ewing
Time: 82 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018