Brian’s Year of Free Movies (2015) – 5 Pleasant Surprises

In my last two posts, I brought you mini-reviews of my picks for the 10 best and 5 worst films I watched during my “Year of Free Movies” at the University Mall Theatres in Fairfax. Now, because I’m always down for the beating of dead horses and the talking off of ears, I thought I’d say a few words about some movies which, while they didn’t make my “best of” cut, pleasantly surprised me for one reason or another. In other words, these aren’t great films. But I went in expecting crap, and got something else.

I think it’s worth noting that, while my “10 best” list included entries from the likes of Spielberg, Zemeckis, and Ridley Scott, all of the following films were directed by people I haven’t heard of before. I can’t promise they all have bright futures ahead, but the merits on display in these movies suggest that at least somebody on set knew what they were doing. Films like The Martian feature big stars and big budgets, so their financial (and hopefully critical) success is more of a sure thing than for their more “B-list” competitors. To wrap up my Year of Free Movies, I wanted to give some love to those “movies in the middle” which pad out the year and fly under the radar, but show that if you bring at least a little talent to the table, your film won’t be completely forgotten.

5. The DUFF (Ari Sandel)

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Let me say right off the bat that a few movies got bumped up to my “Best” list during initial consideration of this post. In a lot of ways, The DUFF is a cookie-cutter “teen movie” romantic comedy. We’ve seen these story beats before, and as I walked out of the theater, I felt supremely ambivalent to the film. But a couple things stuck with me, and my opinion of the movie has improved with time…at least, enough to land it at the first slot here.

The story follows Bianca, a high school senior who is dismayed to suddenly discover she has been branded the “DUFF” of her friend circle. A DUFF, or “designated ugly fat friend,” is an average-looking person with predominantly attractive and popular friends. People outside the group will use the less attractive – ergo, more approachable – DUFF as a means to get close to these friends.

While it felt somewhat progressive to finally have a name for this phenomenon, the structure of the main story remains 100% stock. Wait, you mean the dowdy protagonist is actually attractive underneath her frumpy wardrobe? Shocker! And the guy whom she’s initially interested in turns out to be a cad, while her true love is the next door neighbor who’s been there for her all along? I’m going to have a heart attack and die from that surprise.

What saved this film from the rubbish bin for me were three gags I’m unashamed to say made me laugh. The first is the introduction of Bianca’s mom, played by West Wing alumna Allison Janney. Bianca’s narration describes her mother as recently divorced, but “handling it well.” We then see their front yard, where Janney is driving over her ex-husband’s possessions on a riding mower, sobbing loudly and swigging from an oversized wine glass.

My second chuckle came when Bianca first entertains the thought of a relationship with “been there all along” guy. Drawing on cliched porn tropes, she daydreams a scenario where he enters carrying a pizza and wearing nothing but a football helmet.

I had my biggest laugh when Bianca gets bullied online and the ensuing cyberdrama causes her school to ban cell phone use. A student experiencing Twitter withdrawal (and who has no other lines in the movie) angrily accosts Bianca in the hallway, declaring, “I just had a funny thought, and NOW NO ONE’S GOING TO KNOW!” Movies so often seem out of touch with the rapidly-changing  world of online culture. But here, for once, they nailed it.

Please someone like my Facebook jokes.

4. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Miguel Arteta)

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I saw Alexander on my birthday, and that probably had a lot to do with why I ended up liking it. Although it’s essentially “First World Problems: The Movie,” it revolves around throwing the protagonist a birthday party, and, doggone it, I can appreciate a fictional party vicariously if I want to.

This is America.

Based on the children’s book of the same name, Alexander tells the story of the young title character experiencing a string of bad luck. Inconveniences of varying severity compound over the course of 24 hours, creating a day which, as it says on the tin, is terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad.

But that’s just the first act. Since we have to pad out a feature length, the bulk of the story chronicles the aftermath of the Day in question. Fed up with his bad luck, and his family’s apparent lack of concern for his plight, Alexander makes a rash, Liar, Liar-style wish in the middle of the night: That they would experience terrible days of their own. Thus, the next day sees not one, but four “no good very bad” narratives unfolding and interweaving as Alex’s mom, dad, and older brother and sister all endure their respective series of unfortunate events.

The storyline with the most emotional clout involves Alexander’s father, Ben, played with both comedy and pathos by Steve Carrell. Ben, a one-time aerospace engineer, has been unemployed for seven months.On the family’s day of misfortune, he happens to have a job interview scheduled with a game design company working on a space game. There’s something very timely about a middle-aged man with a “real job” suddenly needing to appeal to a room full of 20-something gamer “professionals.” Despite his obvious over-qualification, Ben manages to blow two separate meetings with the designers, when he first has to leave their office abruptly due to his baby son eating a highlighter, and then later inadvertently sets himself on fire at a hibachi grill. In the end, however, the designers (headed by Community star Donald Glover) find Ben’s family charming and his antics hilarious, and do indeed hire him…though I can’t imagine a tech consultant on an indie game earns all that much anyway. The other family members likewise resolve their conflicts, and the day ends with them pulling together a pretty spectacular birthday party for Alexander, who acknowledges that “you’ve got to have the bad days so you can love the good days even more.”

As both a birthday-haver and someone facing today’s rough job market, Alexander clicked with me. Your mileage may vary, but I think it’s worth pointing out that the film grossed more than 100 million dollars on a budget of just over 20.

I also found it interesting how many ways the film subtly worked in its Disney branding. During his own horrible day, Alexander wears a Star Wars shirt to school. When he accidentally knocks over a trophy case, his teacher angrily refers to him as “Wreck-It Ralph.” And Alex’s older sister’s storyline involves her getting ready to star in the school’s stage production of a “Peter Pan” musical. Though all signs point to the play being the 1954 stage musical (the lead being played by a female, for instance), the only parts of the production we actually see or hear are taken from Disney’s own film version, including the song “You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!”

3. The Intern (Nancy Meyers)

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If any movie this year was “about” 2015, it’s this one.

Like Steve Carrell’s story thread in AlexanderThe Intern takes a comical look at the changing face of “professionalism” over the last generation. Rober DeNiro stars as an elderly man, coincidentally also named Ben, who signs on with a senior internship program when he becomes bored with retirement. Ben is taken on by About the Fit, a trendy web-based fashion company led by an up-and-coming female CEO (Anne Hathaway). Though Hathaway initially regards the senior program as gimmicky, Ben gradually wins his coworkers over with his good nature and consummate professionalism. A relic from the Mad Men era, Ben wows his fellow (characteristically younger) interns with his dedication to maintaining a polished appearance. His suit-and-tie and insistence on shaving every day, “even when he knows he won’t see anyone he knows,” stand in stark contrast to the casual wardrobes and scraggly faces of his man-boy colleagues.

Rather than a typical protagonist saddled with flaws, the practically perfect Ben plays more of a Mary Poppins-style role in the story. He grows close to Anne Hathaway’s character, offering paternal advice as she struggles to manage her professional and personal lives, and the balance in between. This conflict comes to a head when Ben discovers that Hathaway’s husband, who gave up on his own career ambitions to become a stay-at-home dad, is having an affair with a mom from their daughter’s school. In a move that feels surprisingly real and in keeping with the “modern” tone of the movie, Hathaway and the husband agree to stay together and try to work past their shattered trust, ending the film with a tenuous peace instead of a dramatic storming-out.

The Intern captured “the present” in a way feature films, with their years-long production cycle, rarely do. It shines light on the changing demographics of the professional world, as well as on the effects of that change, both positive and negative. While more women are taking active roles in the upper levels of business management and more men are becoming involved in child-rearing, this abandoning of traditional gender roles can also lead to feelings of directionlessness (and a swelling population of man-boys). The film offers no fast solutions to this problem , content merely to present a snapshot of current conditions. If there is a moral, it is that we all stand to benefit by listening to perspectives from the other side of our social divisions, be they gender-based or generational.

I want to also commend The Intern on its great cast. DeNiro shines as the genuinely likable Ben (interestingly, the movie was one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite of the year, and he regarded DeNiro’s lack of an Oscar nomination as a snub). Hathaway makes for a fine co-lead, but some more memorable performances come courtesy of the “modern men” supporting actors, including Workaholics stars Adam DeVine as an intern and Anders Holm as Hathaway’s scoundrel husband. But I have to admit…once those two showed up, I spent the rest of the movie waiting to see how they would incorporate Blake. When he failed to appear, I felt seriously cheated. How can you have two of the Workaholics and not all three? That’s like having Laurel but no Hardy. Good grief.

The film has one major downside: You can tell that it was written and directed by the same person. It’s wordy, occasionally rambling, and a tad overlong. A sequence featuring the guys conducting a heist to infiltrate the boss’s mom’s house and delete an embarrassing email, while one of the funniest in the film, felt tonally out of place and could have been cut without affecting the main storyline at all. But the scene did provide the featured image for this post, so I guess it was good for something.

2. Goosebumps (Rob Letterman)

How do you adapt a 62-novel anthology series into a 90 minute feature film? Well, if you combine JumanjiThe Cabin in the Woods, and my favorite unsung episode of The Twilight Zoneyou’re off to a good start. There’s also a pretty good chance I’ll be biased in your favor.

Goosebumps begins with teenage protagonist Zach (Dylan Minnette, who coincidentally also appears as the big brother in Alexander) moving with his mother to a new town. Zach soon falls for Hannah, the cute girl next door, but her reclusive father shoos him away. When Hannah lets Zach into the house later on, he discovers a collection of original Goosebumps manuscripts among her father’s possessions. Plucking a book from the stack of grade-school horror novellas and opening it, he is shocked when the book’s featured monster, the “abominable snowman of Pasadena,” emerges from the pages and manifests in the room.

The monster chases the teens through the town, until Hannah’s father tracks them down and recaptures the snowman in its book. To the surprise of no one who has, you know, looked at the poster, Hannah’s dad (a wild-eyed Jack Black) reveals himself to be none other than Goosebumps author R.L. Stine. Stine discloses that he typed his manuscripts on a magic typewriter which makes everything typed on it come to life (an element borrowed from the Goosebumps book “The Blob that Ate Everyone,” and highly reminiscent of Keenan Wynn’s life-giving Dictaphone in the Twilight Zone episode “A World of His Own”). This juicy bit of exposition comes just as the trio arrive home, where they find that Slappy, a sentient ventriloquist dummy and the Goosebumps series’ most frequent antagonist, has freed himself from his own book. As they look on in terror, Slappy heads to the bookshelf and begins releasing his creepy compatriots from Stine’s other manuscripts.

The rest of the movie is an increasingly crowded monster mash, as Stine and the kids must race across town to retrieve the magic typewriter from a display case at the high school, all the while evading Slappy’s growing army of horrors. And what an army it is: vampires, ghouls, pumpkin-heads, a giant praying mantis, “the barking ghost” and other monstrosities borrowed from Stine’s real-life oeuvre wreak havoc in the community, in a sequence which really does recall the best elements of the climaxes of both Jumanji and The Cabin in the Woods.

Stine eventually recovers the typewriter and, after Slappy smashes his fingers, guides Zach in writing a final book, describing the monsters all being recaptured. As Zach types the words, the goblins and ghouls are sucked back to the realm from which they came. Unfortunately, Stine has yet another twist to reveal: Borrowing still more plot elements from “A World of His Own,” he admits that Hannah herself was one of his literary creations (“The Ghost Next Door”), conjured to provide him companionship in his loneliness. As such, she too is sucked into the book.

The closing scene sees Stine, Zach, and the community picking up the pieces in the wake of the monster attack. Stine takes a job teaching English at the high school, where he is welcomed by the acting teacher, “Jack Black” (played by the real R.L. Stine). In a final bit of reality-bending, Stine pulls Zach aside and tells him that he has recreated Hannah…all he had to do was write another book. But this time, he has burned the original manuscript, enabling her to stay real forever. Everything is hunky-dory…until they realize that “The Invisible Boy” escaped their spooktacular roundup and remains at large.

Let me start my analysis by saying that Goosebumps was about as good as it conceivably could be. It wasn’t quite The Lego Movie, but in terms of taking a somewhat abstract children’s property and turning it into a compelling film,  it succeeds in much the same way. Jack Black never really convinced me he was anyone other than Jack Black, but I nevertheless liked the filmmakers’ choice to also cast Black as the voice of Slappy (as well as The Invisible Boy). It emphasizes the idea that Stine’s creations are a part of him, without having to explicitly say that.

As I’ve said, I just loved the “monster mash” aspect of this movie. The filmmakers manage to work in material from a large number of Stine’s novels in surprisingly clever fashion (the magic typewriter from “The Blob that Ate Everyone,” for instance, or Slappy using “The Haunted Car” to drive around town). Film is arguably the medium best suited to “monsters run amok and destroy a town” stories, and with its genuinely impressive effects work, Goosebumps goes toe-to-toe with the great freewheeling rampage scenes of yore.

Also, you’ve got Danny Elfman as composer. From the moment I saw that tidbit in the opening credits, my expectations began to rise. Actually hearing the music, complete with theremin, helped too.

Of course, the movie isn’t perfect. It comes with the same sexist baggage as “A World of His Own,” and any other story where a man literally creates a woman to suit his needs. But since time is running short, I’ll simply link you to this article on the film’s shortchanging of its female characters and leave it at that.

Another potential problem was the question of audience. The books were typically targeted at, and featured protagonists who were, young children. However, the young children of today may never have seen a Goosebumps book – the people who were young children when the books came out, and the ostensible target demographic of the movie, are nostalgic 20-something “90s kids.” The  choice of older teenage lead characters seems like something of a compromise. It works alright. But If you want an audiovisual experience a bit closer to the actual books, heed the following public service announcement: The entire Goosebumps TV series which ran from 1995-98 is now up for your perusal on Netflix.

Oh, and the new movie is, too.

Go crazy.

 1. The Night Before (Jonathan Levine)

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We wrap up my “Year of Free Movies” series, now nearly halfway through the following year, with the only film I went to see twice. What I expected to be nothing more than a raunchy comedy turned out to be a seriously funny raunchy comedy with heart, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my film-going year.

The Night Before follows a trio of adult male friends (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie)  as they celebrate their annual slate of holiday traditions on Christmas Eve. A prologue, narrated by Tracy Morgan in appropriately Christmasy verse, explains that the guys have been carrying out the traditions for fifteen years, ever since Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) suddenly lost his parents in a car accident. In the intervening years, Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) have served as a sort of surrogate family for Ethan. Now fifteen years in, Isaac is married with a baby on the way, and Chris has a successful athletic career. Ethan, however, is a directionless “musician,” working as a hotel waiter. Privately, Chris and Isaac agree that it is time to “cut the cord,” disband the Christmas Eve traditions, and urge Ethan to strike out on his own. But first, of course, they’ll have one last grand night together.

 Ethan starts the evening off right when he discovers a set of tickets to the Nutcracker Ball, a legendary Christmas party the friends have often heard about but never located. They plan to head to the Ball after their usual festivities (eating Chinese, singing at a Karaoke bar, and dancing on the piano at F.A.O. Schwartz) are completed. The story becomes surprisingly serpentine because, as in Alexander, each of the lead characters is dealing with a major conflict of his own. Ethan, in addition to his lack of direction and his desperation to cling to his wary friends, is attempting to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan). Isaac fears he will be a bad father, a concern which grows into paranoia once he downs a cocktail of illegal drugs his wife has given him to “enjoy the night.” Chris, an overnight success on the football field due to covert steroid use, is in the awkward position of trying to fit in with and impress teammates significantly younger than himself. So when a member of the team calls, asking Chris to bring weed along to the Nutcracker Ball, the trio of friends must track down their high school drug dealer.

That drug dealer, “Mister Green,” is the real reason to watch this movie. Played by the hilarious Michael Shannon, Green gives  off a perfect “mysterious” vibe: alternatively wise and creepy, and always unpredictable. The friends each encounter Mr. Green over the course of the night, and he presents them with “the Weed of Christmas Past, Present, and Future,” cultivars which allow them each insightful visions into their respective times.

When the guys’ personal conflicts inevitably rise to the surface, they split up, only to reconvene at the Nutcracker Ball. There, Ethan is surprised to learn that (SPOILERS) Mr. Green himself is the Ball’s reclusive host, having gotten the idea from reading The Great Gatsby.

By morning, Ethan patches things up with Lizzy Caplan, Isaac admits his reservations to his wife, Chris realizes that his friends are worth more to him than petty fame, and the trio reconciles.

And in the final moments, an angelic Mr. Green “gets his wings” and, in pretty much the movie’s only special effect, soars unexpectedly into the sky.

Taking place over the course of a single night,  “The Night Before” feels more than a little like 2007’s Superbad, on which writer Evan Goldberg and star Seth Rogen also worked. The action is similar (a group of friends party-hopping while simultaneously searching for something), as are the emotional undercurrents (both groups of friends gradually must come to terms with their imminent parting). However, it seems the filmmakers’ craft has matured…at least a little bit. The film derives humor from more than just the purely bawdy, though that aspect is certainly well represented. Rogen’s drug trip scenes had me laughing nearly as hard as Alan Tudyk’s in Death at a Funeral. And while Mr. Green undeniably steals the show, the rest of the cast all got in at least a few great gags, as when waiter Ethan demonstrates his cherubic “elf face,” or when Isaac’s wife (played by Workaholics‘ Jillian Bell) explains matter-of-factly why her supportive husband deserves “every drug in the world.”

All in all, The Night Before is smartly structured and firmly funny. Give it a watch next Christmas Eve if you’re in the mood for a slightly ribald Yuletide.

Brian T.

Brian T.

Brian is the host of the TV show Count Gauntly's Horrors from the Public Domain and the creator of Brian Terrill Movie Night. He joined Earn This in 2013.

2 thoughts on “Brian’s Year of Free Movies (2015) – 5 Pleasant Surprises

  1. I really enjoyed this article — it’s always interesting to read about movies that have both strengths and weaknesses. A few reactions:

    I think I mentioned it to you before, but the movie Ruby Sparks has a lot of concept similarities to that Twilight Zone episode and brings them to their logical extremes. I’m not sure it’s a great movie, but it’s worth a watch.

    I am of the opinion that Steve Carell is one of the best actors in Hollywood, maybe my favorite male comic actor working today. He’s one of the best parts of just about everything he’s in. His ability to make pettiness and humiliation endearing basically carries The Office.

    There was no way I was going to dislike The Night Before. It prominently features Lizzy Caplan, has a hysterical trailer that is scored to my favorite song of the decade so far, includes a handful of great cameos and guest roles, and boasts a script that earns the “with heart” descriptor you used. (Sneaking a few airport bottles into the theater didn’t hurt either.) It was actually the only movie I saw at University Mall last year.

    Good stuff

  2. I am glad you liked The Intern! It was a surprise for me as well.

    I’m not a huge Tarantino fan, but I would have to agree–The Intern was a pleasant and enjoyable film.

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