X-Men-Apocalypse-IMAX-posterThere is a scene in X-Men Apocalypse where, as a group of students are leaving Return of the Jedi, Jean Grey states “But we can all agree the third movie is always the worst.”  It is a pretty clear shot at X-Men: The Last Stand.  That was the movie Apocalypse Director Bryan Singer skipped and is pretty widely seen as a disappointment after X2.  Except, whether they realized it or not, the joke is kind of a jinx.

See, X-Men: First Class and X-Men:Days of Future Past?  They were quite good.  They are entertaining and filled with terrific performances and nice use of characters from the vast history of the X-Men Comics.  After the Last stand and the damage done by X-Men Origins: Wolverine the series went back to the beginning.  Introducing us to Young Charles Xavier and Magneto.  McAvoy and Fassbender brought characters we knew as aging leaders to young men trying to make the world a better play, but always coming to odds with how to do that.  Then, in Days of Futures Past, they brought the past and future together, to try and fix the timeline, fixing the flaws of Last Stand and Wolverine.

And this brings us to X-Men Apocalypse.  I was looking forward to it, as it was most of the team that brought us the last two installments.  Yet again, the central focus is the relationship between Xavier (McAvoy), Magneto (Fassbender) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).  Beast (Nicholas Hoult) retuns, as does Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne).  We are also introduced to a younger Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Jubilee (Lana Condor).  Of course, smartly, the film brings back Evan Peters as Quicksilver…and he steals the show a lot…again.

First, the good.  Again, as I said, Quicksilver is just fantastic.  Yeah, he is not really like his counterpart from the comics.  In the comics, he is arrogant, impatient and snippy. This is explained in the comics by Quicksilver essentially seeing life as being a continuous wait at the DMV, at least when he has to move at the rest of the worlds pace.  Evans approach is more of a lighthearted goofball who enjoys and savors his speed.  And it really works.

The performers are good choices.  I like that they kept the faith element for Nightcrawler.  I know his creator never cared for that addition…but I always liked the combo of swashbuckler swordsman Christian who happens to look like a demon.  Setting young Storm in Cairo was a nice touch, acknowledging her history from the comics.  There are a lot of great visuals. And yet…

The story is just a mess.  There is so much going on, so many introductions, characters get lost.  Jubliee, who was a pretty big character in the comics for over a decade is barely a side character.  We never even see her mutant powers in action.   Angel is just a random passerby in the film, for all intents and purposes.  Both he and Psylock (Olivia Munn) get precious little to do and zero character development.  The film routinely feels like it is advertising “There will be a deleted scene on the blu-ray fans!” as it transitions from moment to moment.  Maybe those deleted scenes will make Apocalypse feel threatening.  When some of us expressed concern about the pictures of Apocalypse on Entertainment Weekly’s cover last year, we were told to not assume this was the final look, they will Fix It In Post, so to speak.They did not.  Or at least not enough.  In spite of hiring a terrific actor (Oscar Isaac), Apocalypse just never feels as frightening as the film keeps telling us he is.

And it is clear the film is going for epic.  But it just never feels that way…because the film takes forever to get through it’s big dramatic moments.  There is a sequence that is supposed to be the big Jean Grey moment.  She walks dramatically into battle towards Apocalypse.  There is a standoff going on the mental plane involving the psychic characters…and the film spends a ridiculous amount of time on dramatic shots of Jean Grey walking.  And walking.  And walking.  Instead of being thrilled by a big moment, I was just wanting them to get to the moment.

And there is a dramatic image from the trailers…that turns out to be the filmmakers taking a cue from Superman IV: the Quest for Peace.  The film just shambles along from scene to scene, never feeling coherent or particularly great.  And after the last two films?  A pretty big disappointment.  I mean, it is okay, but it was a real drop after the last two films.  And Deadpool.  It is okay for an X-Men movie means it might be slightly better than the Last Stand.

Marvels_captain_america_civil_war_posterCaptain America: Civil War was a risky gamble.  It has a bloated cast.  I mean, Captain America is joined by practically everyone (Except Thor and the Hulk).  The film was also going to be introducing us to a couple Major Players in Both the Black Panther and Spider-Man.  There was always the possibility that this would be so bogged down, we would have Marvels first failure…the first Marvel film that outright sucked.

And the film should be a huge mess.  We are being introduced to characters left and right.  And as usual, the villain of the film is pretty thin.  And yet, somehow?  The film works.  It stand and manages to remain extremely engaging.  The film is dealing with the fallout of collateral damage we have seen through the previous films.  All that destruction we have seen through the Avengers, Thor, Captain America the winter soldier.  Culminating in an event in this film in which an attempt to save people kills several visiting Wakandans.

The United Nations is determine to intervene.  And Tony Stark, after being confronted by an angry and heartbroken mother (Alfre Woodard) whose son died in Ultron’s Sokovia attack, is determine to see it happen.  He, quite understandable, sees a need for Oversight.  And this is what sets off the Conflict within the Avengers.  Steve Rogers is certain that being shackled and having to get permission to fight the bad guys is a bad idea.  We of course, sympathize with Cap, but one of the things the film does very well?  The character motivations.  They make sense.  You understand why they choose the way they do.  And the the fact that certain characters miss the villain’s big plan is quite believable.

The film is action packed, but not at the expense of the overall story.  The characters get meaningful exchanges and yet, the film avoids feeling overly bogged down by a sense of self importance.  The events matter, questions are asked, but without the self aggrandizing approach other Super-hero films had recently.  Not naming names.  The cast does great work with the script they were given.  They bring the characters to life.

And then there is the humor.  This is by no means a light film, but it has very effective humor.  The film is not afraid that if we laugh we might miss “the important and heavy epic story being told”.  These people are friends.  They have history.  They care about each other.  And that is what gives the story it’s real conflict and weight.  But it is also those established relationships that allow the fun.

Of course, the big question was…Spider-Man and the Black Panther-will they work?  It is nice that we do not get an origin story (it should be pretty clear that T’Challa was already the Black Panther, he is not becoming the Black Panther for revenge).  But he does get a nice story arc focusing on the thirst for vengeance, leading him to wisdom in his new role as King.  Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa as young, confident royalty.  And yet, when he suffers lost, he gains a restrained ferocity.

And Tom Holland?  He is Spider-Man.  The portrayal of Spidey in this film was almost instantly lovable.  His rapid fire chatter was dead on.  He looked great in costume and his position of siding with Tony makes complete sense.  I am genuinely excited to see both Spider-Man and Black Panther’s solo films.

James Gunn (Director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films) said this was the best Marvel film to date.  And, in the end, if it is not actually the best?  It is pretty darn close.  This is a terrific adventure and worth seeing.

Kevin Smith Was Right

No, really.  Smith recently commented on Batman v Superman.  He had the following to say:

“The movie I felt like didn’t really have a heart. It was certainly f—–’ humorless, there was nothing funny going on in that world whatsoever.”

And you know what?  He is right.*

Batman_Vs_Superman_MovieI get what Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan were trying to do.  They were trying to make this major hard edged epic film.  They were trying to make something that “transcended” popcorn and super-hero movies.  When asked why there was no post credit scene in Man of Steel like Marvel does, Nolan scoffed and stated that real films do not do that.  He walked it back a bit, but I suspect he meant it when he said it.  And of course, Snyder can be endlessly quoted about the epic tone and nature he is trying to create for the DC Movie universe.  That tone is big, full of grim consequence (though it is dishonest to pretend Marvel’s world lacks consequences, as the films are often having results that impact other films as well as their various television shows).  This, of course makes it rather hilarious that Warner Brothers defended the critical reaction to the film by claiming it is just fun.

While I tried to remain spoiler free in my review?  This is not going to avoid them. At. All.  If you want to see the movie (or Man of Steel for that matter) yet, and do not want anything-including the end of the film-ruined?  Stop reading.

Man of Steel was pretty problematic in how it set up Superman.  First there was the whole troubling Johnathan Kent stuff.  Johnathan had some genuinely great moments of fatherly kindness.  When Clark asks if he can just keep pretending to be Johnathan and Martha’s son, and Johnathan responds with “You are my son.”  That is a perfect moment.  Yet, just moments before, Pa Kent suggests that maybe Clark should have let his fellow students die in a bus crash, rather than risk exposure.  Rather than be saved by Clark, Johnathan lets himself be engulfed by a tornado.  Clark could have saved him and they could have explained it to the towns folk in Smallville as…well, an amazing story of survival.

Clark does not appear in costume to the world until after Zod arrives.  You might not think it matters, but trust me, it creates a problem for Batman v Superman.  It would have helped the story immensely if Superman had some heroics before Zod arrived.  It would build Superman up in the eyes of the public.

In Batman v Superman, we are first introduced to Bruce Wayne during the Superman and Zod fight.  And this is, in fact a great scene.  Wayne is shown as aggressively, passionately devoted to protecting his employees.  He helps a man pinned by a beam, he saves a child from falling debris.  This does set up an understandable distrust of Superman and Superman’s power.  But when we meet his alter Batman…well, Batman has hit hard times.  Batman has become bitter and vicious, now branding criminals with his batarangs.  He is mired in bitterness and anger.  Batman is kind of at odds with Bruce Wayne.  Bruce is a man we see saving people.  Batman is a guy brutalizing people and marking them for death.

This is not necessarily an entirely invalid presentation of the character.  A lot of critics note how he shows little regard for killing people.  And this is true, but the idea that he is to busy trying to fend off a whole lot of guys who are trying to kill him is pretty fair.  It is kind of like asking why a soldier shot a bunch of guys shooting at him.  Batman actually is mostly a fighter.  And the scene where he saves Martha Kent?  Awesome.  When he tells Martha “I’m a friend of your son’s”?  That is something I wanted to see in a movie featuring Batman and Superman.

But I digress, the problem with introducing us to this Batman as the entry into the new DC Cinematic Universe?  We get hints of a backstory that implies Batman has been through hell and lost a whole lot.  And yet, we are never introduced to the hero that Batman was, which would open doors to juxtapose with the hero he is now.  It has no weight to simply hint that he has “gone through hell”.  We needed to know Batman for this to resonate.

It is similar with Superman.  We get brief shots of him coming in to save people in disasters.  But we have not known Superman as Superman long enough for the questions about his “godhood” to come into play.  And his alien nature is more heavily focused, how distant he is.  Clark seems to have little humanity of his own, with Lois practically his sole tether to humanity.  Although Snyder suggested killing Zod was to show why Superman abhors killing, one of our first acts of Superman in the present is to save Lois from a warlord by slamming into him at full speed pushing him through multiple walls, an act that most certainly would have killed the man.  This was a terrific opportunity for the filmmakers to be creative in saving Lois from the guy in a non-lethal way, but they opted to have him casually take the guy out.  So, killing Zod did not cause Superman to take preserving life all that seriously.But that is not what the scene is for.  It is set to show Superman being setup as dangerous.

By giving us very little Superman time as hero?  It pulls the rug from the potential emotion and ethical questions being posed.  These are big questions, but we do not see enough of Superman as heroic savior to truly sell the hero worship that some people are supposedly rebelling against.  We know there is distrust because the film makes a point of telling us there is.  Superman does not seem to enjoy helping people in this universe.  He seems to almost do it begrudgingly.  He always looks so serious in the moments we see him saving anyone.  Superman barely cracks a smile.  There should be a juxtaposition between Superman and Batman in attitude.  Superman should be questioning the methods of Batman.  In an early John Byrne comic, there was a story where Batman and Superman first meet.  In the comic, Batman forces Superman to help him by suggesting that he planted a bomb on an innocent person in the city.  Superman is bothered by this…until he discovers that the innocent person was Batman himself.  It was a really good moment in establishing their overall nobility and where they were ultimately on the same side.  Superman is the beaming hope, Batman is the hero needed to deal with the darkness in life.

And yet, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman give us a Superman who is every bit as grim as Batman.  One of the things that might have helped is if, in Superman and Batman’s first meeting, Superman had been less the authoritarian and more friendly guy trying to reason with Batman.  Superman trying to reach out, being rebuffed by Batman would encourage Superman to be frustrated, as he cannot get through to Batman.  Batman, of course, so distrustful that he has no time for what he misinterprets as a false piety.

Also, it would have been better, story-wise, for Superman to bristle at the God talk.  He should have refuted that point, but whenever anyone calls him a God? He seems totally indifferent.

But there is nothing really separating Superman and Batman besides powers.  Both are angry.  Both are insolent and self centered.  In fact, Batman (the greatest detective) and Clark Kent (the great investigative journalist) both are easily manipulated by Lex Luthor.  Both are easily goaded into fighting.  Superman at least has a decent reason, Luthor is threatening to kill his mom.  Batman is sent off the edge by a package that pokes at his personal pain (the loss of his parents).  He does not question it, he just assumes that it is time to take Superman out.  Frankly, the inciting incident makes no damn sense.  Luther sends in a guy to testify against Superman and the guy is basically a powerful bomb.  This would appear like an assassination attempt on Superman, not like Superman acting as terrorist.  But in Batman’s mind the right thing to do is not to try and determine who blew up the court room killing a countless number of people…it is, “Superman must be stopped.”  This is a messy story point at best.  It makes no damn sense for Batman to fall for this at worst.

Luthor is more than a bit of a mess.  They were clearly trying to re-invent him as a new character we have never seen before…but it never comes together…he is to much the petty child, bitter and oblivious.  They try and give him lines that make him sound like he has motivation, but the truth is?  It all feels hollow.  One bit of inspiration would have helped the character was to really invest him with a sense of nobility.  A belief that he was really doing this to protect people from alien threats.  That he distrusts aliens and therefor distrusts Superman.  And that is not effectively done here.  Eisenberg’s jittery performance leaves him feeling a lot less ominous.  And he stoops to kidnapping and willing to kill Martha Kent (in a pretty clear nod to the Killing Joke, but substituting Martha Kent for Barbara Gordon and Lex for the Joker).  It just makes Luthor seem cheap.  I am not saying Luthor would not kidnap Martha.  I am saying a strong Lex Luthor would not allow the kidnapping to be traced to him.

In my second viewing of the film, I found myself frustrated with Perry White.  On the one hand, Fishburne has a lot of fun with the role.  His reactions when he cannot find Clark Kent is some of the few times you get to laugh.  But at the same time, Perry White being absolutely uninterested in hard news seems…wrong.

Honestly, there was no need to have flashbacks to Martha and Thomas Wayne being killed.  That was so hammered into us in previous films and television…and nobody has found a way to make it feel like a necessary sequence.

Please understand, I wanted to totally be wrong about this movie.  I wanted to believe maybe they cracked the code.  And for a few moments at the beginning (aside from the unnecessary showing of the Waynes getting killed)? I thought we were on our way there.  People have actually suggested the lack of humor is a good thing.  It is taking the themes seriously.  Except, humor is not only something we turn to in good times.  In fact, we often turn to humor in tragic times.

As I have said, I do not think the film was an absolute disaster.  I think the 29% Rotten Tomatoes rating is a bit overdoing it.  And I do not have quite the hate for Snyder that some do.  The visuals are nice.  There are shots that, yes, inspire excitement.  Cool shots of Superman and Batman…and Wonder Woman?  She is great.  She comes out of this unscathed.  Part of that is the film barely develops her.  But she is cool in the big fight with Doomsday.

Some critics, such as Kyle Smith of the New York Post claims that Batman v Superman is to smart for Marvel fans.  Except, I am a Batman fan.  I am a Superman fan. I am a Wonder Woman fan.  I like these characters.  But attempting to suggest that this film is just to heady for folks because it deals with big themes?  Well, that ignores that it does not deal with the big themes very well.  And Marvel films are constantly addressing the end results of what their heroes do.  The attack in New York (from Avengers) was addressed in other Marvel Films and TV shows.  The heroes constantly question what they have done.  Age of Ultron was all about how far is to far to protect the world.  Civil War is all about how people are afraid…the results of heroes running around without supervision.  And we have seen Tony and Steve enough that we know those characters.  We have gotten to know them.  There is emotional punch to seeing them in conflict.

And in the end, that is what Frustrates me here.  We have a Superman who does not really consider earth his home until the last moments of the film-right before he dies at Doomsday’s hands.  And this Superman?  We have barely known him as an audience.  And we have known this Batman even less.  If WB had been building up to this over the course of several films?  Do you realize what a gut punch this movie might have been?  We had Man of Steel and he is killed one movie later because Zack Snyder wanted him out of the way to allow Batman to build the Justice League.  And it all feels far too calculated, there is no power to the beats of the film.  If Ben Affleck’s Batman was one we were connected to prior to this film?  It might have been very powerful.  The film skates over this by giving fans iconic imagery to fall back on.  Those great moments are not great because the film earns them, but rather the film cheats by expecting the audience to fill in the blanks with an excited reaction to “Scenes We Always Wanted to see!”

I wish that Batman v Superman was smarter than the Marvel movies.  I wish it was as epic in it’s storytelling as it is in it’s visual representations of famous comic book panels and covers.  I wanted the movie to be great.  It thrilled me when early reports were that this was an awesome film, not anything like we feared.  But when you can say “It is not as terrible as people say, but it was not that great” and it is a defense? Well, that is how folks defend a movie like God’s Not Dead.  My first viewing of the film, I told someone that Marvel has nothing to fear at this point.  My second viewing did not really change that.

I want WB to start making movies at least as Strong as the Avengers or Captain America: the Winter Soldier.  This movie is not it.  Maybe the extended cut Blu-ray will change my mind a bit…but I am not holding my breath at this point.

 

*Since I started writing this?  Smith saw the film a second time and basically said he found the film’s heart…it was in the audience.  And I am sorry…No.  That is a terrible defense.  The audience should not have to bring the heart to the film.

 

 

 

batman_vs_superman_pop_art_postersThis film has been both hotly anticipated and less than interesting depending on who you ask.  In fact, the talk at the beginning of the week was that people had seen the movie and loved it.  It was starting to look like Deadpool all over again.  The early reaction made me wonder if my preconceptions were fair.  Then, as the week progressed and more official reviews started to come out?  It started to suggest my low expectations were warranted.  Of course, I still felt I needed to see the film before declaring it a dud or success.

I am inclined to say it is better than the (at the last time I checked) 30% Rotten Tomato rating.  But it is not truly great either.  Clocking in at two hours and forty minutes, it is reaching for a standard of epic.  Snyder and Nolan have emphasized that their films are different than those of Marvel.  And it is true…the Marvel films, to a large extent, combine humor, adventure and suspense.  Sure, some do it better than others.  But they are lively fun films.  Snyder has describe wanting his DC Cinematic Universe to be more epic Greek Myth.

Affleck actually works well in the role.  There was plenty of online hemming and hawing…but Affleck’s Batman was pretty strong.  Jeremy Iron’s Alfred worked very effectively for me.  I enjoyed the larger screen time to Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White.  He seems to be having a lot of fun as the tough Editor in Chief of the Daily Planet.  I liked Amy Adam’s Lois Lane in Man of Steel, and she is just as good here.  In spite of criticisms of the Man of Steel, I like Henry Cavill and feel he gives us the best Superman we can hope for given the material.  I also liked when they focused on Lois and Clark’s relationship.  I also enjoyed the brief time given to Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and find myself looking to her solo film now.

The weakest link of the characters was Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor.  The character never feels as brilliant or as menacing as he should.  Instead he just comes across as weird and quirky.

I can appreciate that they tried to make the destruction of Man of Steel a real sticking point that Superman has to face.  That his heroics can even see negative results.  This does really give a plausible motivation to Batman.  The Batman we get in the film is cynical and has given up hope, rather than seeing Superman as that hope, he becomes determined to stop Superman.  When Lex Luthor manipulates events, Batman falls over the edge.  This actually works pretty well.  It is an old comic book trope where two heroes meet, not realizing they are on the same side and fight, before realizing they are on the same side.  The first Avengers film did this in very entertaining fashion in about five minutes.  Here, Superman and Batman spend a majority of the film in distrust.

However, the film is just so packed with advance planning for the cinematic universe, they start forcing stuff into the film to prepare us.  This also becomes confusing on telling apart dreams from memories from possible future events…at one point I was trying to determine if Bruce Wayne was having a potential prophetic vision.  The film also lacks a strong central antagonist, and the introduction of Doomsday for the final battle just makes the film feel overloaded.  The film feels bloated and confusing, and could use some streamlining.

It is also obvious that the criticisms of the Man of Steel’s massive destruction really stung Snyder.  At points a general points out that they cleared an area, a newscast points out that the workday is over and everyone had gone home…Batman explains he chose a particular area for a fight because it was abandoned…the filmmakers really want you to know just how many people are not getting killed.

The movie is full of iconic visuals of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and that is what they feel like.  “Remember this panel from Dark Knight Returns?!”  But they do not enhance the story.  And Snyder’s cynical approach infects even the color grading.  It is almost a dull and faded world.  I am missing vibrant color in the DC Universe.

In the end, like Man of Steel…there are things I really did like.  There are things I really did not care for.  The film just misses the mark in a way that bums me out.  I want to leave a movie starring Superman feeling hopeful and happy.  I cannot say that here.  The film never earns it’s deeper questions of hero worship and power, or the repercussions of Superman’s actions.  I appreciate that they tried to aim for depth…it just is not as deep as they would like us to think it is.

american_reunion_posterAnd the franchise came full circle with the first theatrical release since American Wedding. Overseen by director Jon Hurwitz, (director of Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay), American Reunion completely ignores the films that came after American Wedding.  This was, of course a wise decision.  Also wise?  Centering the film around a class reunion.  This keeps from having to come up with weird plot devices as to why everyone would be located in the same area.

And they brought everyone back for this round.  Granted, in some cases it is a blip and you miss it moment (such as Natasha Lyonne’s character Jessica).  The film introduces us to Jim and Michelle’s life as parents, with a scene reminiscent of the first film’s opening sequence…except this time around, it is being caught by the kids.  Truthfully, this scene does not fully work.  I get they are setting up that their relationship is strained.  But I think they might have been better to set this scene up with the couple trying to have together time that they sorely miss.  Most parents have tales of the kids walking in on intimate moments and there is all sorts of ways to play that.

However, Biggs and Hannigan really work well together.  We also meet Kevin, who is now a happily married father and house husband (for the most part).  Oz is now a successful sport-caster on a sports network and Finch is appearing the wandering soul he has always tried to be.  Stifler (with no acknowledgement of his supposed Girls Gone Wild career in Band Camp) is now working as a temp for a Geek who has made it big.  Apparently his biggest nightmare.  Tara Reid returns as Vicky, who causes Kevin to question the could have beens.  Heather and Oz are no longer together and their story line focuses on the re-kindling of their relationship.

The cast remains likable in the film, especially when they get to channel the qualities that made them sympathetic.

The film focuses on marriages/relationships in trouble and questioning where people find themselves years after high school and the disappointment they may feel.  Some of this actually works well in the film.  Jim and Michelle are struggling to make it work, and Jim’s dad is struggling with being a widower.  Jim shows a lot of his dad’s heart, even in scenes where things are starting to fall apart.  Jim has an opportunity, but really walking out on Michelle or cheating on her are not true options for him.  Oz and Kevin deal with temptations against their relationships.  Oz keeps thinking his girlfriend (played by Katrina Bowden) is cheating on him, due to him finding her in many compromising situations.  But, of course, his heart yearns for Heather.

This is a fairly decent return to form for the franchise.  American Reunion has welcome laughs and heart.  The ongoing story line of Stifler’s mom is actually resolved in an unexpected way that works nicely.  It does not abandon it’s gross out humor, but it is not so overwhelming as to becoming off-putting.  If you enjoyed American Pie and American Wedding, this is a decently enjoyable enough follow up.

American_Pie_Book_of_Love_posterThe seventh film in the franchise attempts to right the sails by focusing on a new set of young men.  There is still a Stifler, but he is the bad guy and foil of the lead and his buddies.  Rob (Bug Hall) and his pals Nathan and Lube (really, the nicknames in the middle part of this franchise are terrible) discover the titular Book of Love.  This plot device is actually something from the first film.  It is a tome that guys added their own experiences to and it supposed to spill the secrets on how to get girls in to bed and how to drive them wild.

The boys try to make the book work to their favor, but everything keeps backfiring.  Rob really want to just make things work out with his best friend Heidi (2 Broke Girls’ Beth Behrs).  He wants to date her bad, but she is focused on wanting to just lose her virginity.

Eventually, something happens to the book, so the boys set about recreating it with the help of Mr. Levenstein and a host of “Special Appearances by” that really seem to not come together.  I mean, technically, they all had roles in notable college/high school films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Soul Man and Revenge of the Nerds…but none of those really come to mind when they appear.

While the early films had embarrassments like being caught by parents masturbating, the Book of Love writers really up the ante…and not for the better.  Rob is caught by his little brother getting pleasured by the family dog (accidentally) which goes viral, because his brother filmed it (!).  Would this really be something that a kid face minor ribbing at school?  Rob seems to bounce back from every humiliation quite well.  And the film mines Moose rape for comedic purposes.  Because a guy getting raped by an amorous moose is just hysterical.

The film throws in bizarre plot developments.  After Rob and Heidi confess they are really into each other, she suddenly decides to lose her virginity to Stifler for…reasons?  The storyline with Rob’s friend Lube is a tired trope in which the schlep desires the top sexy cheerleader.  Listen, the less attractive person who wins over the attractive person can be done well…and it happens in real life.  But it is also ridiculously overplayed in male fantasy.

Like other films in the series, women behave in improbable ways, because the creators really do not put much thought into the female characters.  They mainly are whatever the need to be for the scene.  So, for instance, Ashley (the previously mentioned cheerleader) is a mean girl who humiliates Rob.  In another she is just the misunderstood girl who can be won over by Lube.

The film tries to bring back the charms of the original, but the characters are not up to the task.  The film often overshoots and the result is another disappointment.

american_pie_beta_house_posterThis continues the story of Erik Stifler.  And the Stifler-centric nature of things continues to not favor the franchise.  This film hammers home what crappy people the Stifler Family Tree is…it appears almost every branch is rotten.  Erik’s biggest struggle in life is not living up to the Stifler name.  He is not good at partying or getting laid.  Early in the film, his father (Christopher McDonald) provides a list of all the women he has had sex with.  Erik is startled to see the list does not end with his mom.  Cause nothing is good for a laugh like implying he is a terrible husband.  Erik’s friend even notices his mom’s name is on the list.  The Stiflers are terrible people.  Why does Erik want to measure up to that?  But he has no girlfriend now, so he can have a romantic interest at college in his co-ed dorms.

He joins his cousin Dwight in the Beta House and this is where the real sto-oh who am I kidding.  There is no “Real Story”.  It is just more cheap excuses for nudity, because that is all that happens at frat houses according to movies.

The loose plot is how the Beta House Frat Bros are being threatened by the powerful Nerds on campus.  Seriously.

The film lacks any strong jokes, and at this point, I am embarrassed for Eugene Levy, and Mr. Levenstein’s strongest traits are missing entirely from the film. The film simply recycles gags from a variety of frat movie stereotypes, and reversing the Revenge of the Nerds dynamic is not creative enough to make  the story remotely fresh.

Again, the same criticisms of Naked Mile appear here.  It has the same problematic treatment of it’s female characters.  They are empty and are used primarily for titillation.  The guys only fare slightly better in that they are absurd stereotypes of college guys.

 

American_Pie_Naked Mile_posterSo, the Franchise continues, and it moves into full focus on the Stifler family.  Not the Stiflers we know and put up with…but Steve and Matt’s cousin Erik (John White).  Erik is trying to get his girlfriend Tracy (Jessy Schram) to give up her virginity.  But Erik  has a problem.  He is not a total jerk like his cousins.  He actually likes his girlfriend.  But not so much that when she gives him a free pass for a weekend he does not refuse to take advantage of it.

He and his buddies are about to graduate so they go to visit a college campus.  There they hang out with Erik’s popular crazy Frat living cousin Dwight (Steve Talley).  They stay at the Beta House, meet women and have all sorts of shenanigans culminating in the Naked Mile.  Which was started decades before as a form of protest by Jim’s Dad ,Mr. Levenstein.  He still runs it, but now it is an excuse to see attractive women run the campus naked and have a huge frat party afterwards.

Which all leads to Erik realizing how much he loves Tracy and does not care if she is not ready to have sex.  He is totally cool with waiting if that is what she needs.  Don’t worry, his new found respect won’t have to hold out long.  Because in the American Pie Cinematic Universe, as soon as you realize that sex is not quite the thing you made it out to be, you have cracked the “Get Sex Code”.

The thing is, the goal of Stiflers is to be complete jerks and this switch to focusing on them over relatives of, say Jim and Michelle or something means the film lacks heart.  The purpose of most of the women are to be hot objects.  They seem to have no actual goals or personalities beyond being “sexy and free” to high school kids visiting college.  And I am pretty sure that no actress with a no nudity clause got through.  The Guys pretend to be naked, but the women do not even get the benefit of creatively hidden but implied nudity.  This is because many of the jokes surround things like seeing a running girl’s breasts bouncing.  That is the level of humor in the film, which, may surprise some to learn is below the standards of the franchise.  In the early films, they were at least attempting to be clever with the sex jokes.

The film embraces the biggest problems of Band Camp.  The raunchiness is unpleasant and does not result in anything resembling humor.  The film has no true heart or center. Director Joe Nussbaum had a hit with a short film called George Lucas in Love, but manages none of the originality in this film.

American_Pie_Presents_Band_CampAfter American Wedding, the producers got the idea of keeping the name of American Pie out there by doing direct to video sequels.  They decided to visit the infamous Band Camp.  The tale focuses on Stifler’s little brother Matt (Tad Hilgenbrink), who like his brother is mostly referred to as Stifler, though he wants to be called the Stiffmeister, his brother’s nickname.  He is a jock, and like his brother sets out to humiliate band geeks.  His nemesis is Elyse (Arielle Kebbel).  After a prank in school gets him in major trouble, he is sentenced to Band Camp by Sherman (Chris Owen appeared in previous American Pie films as this character, and now he is a guidance counselor).

Matt tries to use this to his advantage.  His brother is apparently running a Girls Gone Wild type of business.  Matt orders all types of spy cameras to set up around the girl’s rooms and showers.  He then proceeds to mock his fellow band mates, making no effort to bond.  Of course, we all know he will start to fall for Elyse and kind of like the other kids at the camp.  Which will all come crashing down when they find out about the cameras.

The film sets up such a great fall, Matt’s attempts at redemption seem hard to accept as being effective.  The film steps up the raunch, trying to compete with other films such as the short lived Van Wilder series.  It’s female characters are all sorts of problematic.  Almost every woman in the cast is eye candy, with only Elyse and her best friend fleshed out at all.  The film flat out has adult counselors getting it on with students.  It is, of course a joke, because it is the attractive female counselors with young teen boys.  but the fact that Matt is doing something highly illegal, including filming illegal acts is troubling enough.  That the entire camp’s resolution of the issue is to shun Matt and pretend it never happened, so the camp is not totally humiliated.  So, sweep all the illegal behavior under the rug.  This is a consistent problem within the franchise.  Illegal activity is just a story or plot device to be resolved with little impact on the characters.

It really tries to have some heart, by bringing in Jim’s Dad (Eugene Levy, and now referred to as Mr. Levenstein).  He is the guide to a better path for Matt, but of course, it takes the entire film to realize it.  And it just never recaptures the magic Levy brought to the role in previous installments.  The film was directed by Steve Rash, whose main claim to fame as a director is 1987’s Patrick Dempsey feature Can’t Buy Me Love.  Far from the worst, and in some ways better than the second or other later installments, the film just does not come together and the final results are pretty mediocre.  Kudos to the casting folks for finding a guy who looked like he might be related to Seann William Scott though.

American_WeddingAmerican Wedding focuses heavily on the next step for Jim and Michelle, which was a wise move.  It’s secondary focus is on Stifler, which dominates the beginning of the film.  That is a very rough start.

The scenes with Jim and Michelle work well.  They are likable characters.  And to play Michelle’s parents, they got the terrific Fred Willard and Deborah Rush.  The early scenes where “Stifler Ruins Everything” are tiring.  But, somehow, they start to transform Stifler.  Oh, sure, he is a douche, but they really play up just how badly he wants to be liked.  This results in the homophobic character trying to prove to the patrons of a gay bar that they totally want him.  The dance off he starts is actually quite amusing.

Again, a lot of the heart is from Jim’s dad.  There is a genuinely heartwarming moment where Michelle is feeling uncertain, and she seeks the advice of Jim’s Dad.  When she mentions Jim told her he is the person he trusts most for life advice, Levy’s face lights up, like he always wished this was true, but never believed it.

This installment is notable as Shannon Elizabeth, Mena Suvari, Natasha Lyonne and Tara Reid are completely absent.  I suspect they had no idea how to fit them into the tale.

There are gross out jokes, embarrassing moments with Strippers at the bachelor party (Aspects of this scene work well, as everyone tries to cover up, when Jim unexpectedly brings Michelle’s parents back to the house).  Despite a rocky start, American Wedding is a surprise, and one of the best of the franchise.