Vacation

Director: Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley (2015)

This flat retread of Chevy Chase’s 1983 road trip comedy trundles from coast to coast in desperate search of of a decent joke.

Stupid and cheap, Vacation lifts characters, plot, jokes and theme song from the original and does nothing interesting with them.

At the height of his mystifying ’80’s popularity, National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) starred Chase as Clark, the well-intentioned patriarch of the Griswold family.

A cameo here proves his laboured comic touch hasn’t deserted him. Beverly D’Angelo reprises her role as his wife Ellen.

This time out their grown up son Rusty takes centre stage and is played by Ed Helms, formerly of The Hangover franchise.

Rusty is following in his father’s footsteps and dragging his own squabbling family on a bonding trip across the US, heading once again for the Walley World amusement park.

En route the Griswold’s suffer white water rafting troubles, quad bikes accidents, quarrelling cops and dogging experiences.

Helms does an uncannily accurate impression of the young Chase, regardless of whether the world needs or asked for one.

Christina Applegate gives her all as his wife Debbie. Her talent was honed as the teenage daughter on TV’s Married With Children and she deserves far sharper material. As do we.

As an accomplished comic actress Applegate gives Jennifer Aniston a run for her money. They went head to head as screen sisters in Friends and it would be great to see them paired up in some future project.

Skyler Gisondo is their sensitive, singing teenage son James. He is bullied by his younger brother Kevin, a gleefully foul-mouthed Steele Stebbins.

Thor star Chris Hemsworth flexes his pecs as cow-wrangling brother-in-law with a suspiciously large gun in his pocket.

With craft in the writing all four family members have an identifiable arc which dovetails into the overall dynamic. Situations are set up and have a pay off.

But there’s a distinct lack of ambition as the script sets the comedy bar dispiritingly low and persistently fails to clear it. But at no point do any of the jokes raise a smile, just a rictus of disbelief.

The tone is set at the very beginning with a series of supposedly real holiday snaps which find hilarity in snot, urine, vomit, violence and inappropriate erections.

Vacation also riffs on Duel (1971), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and Airplane! (1980) to barely discernible comic effect.

There is a meta moment where Rusty addresses the film’s nature as a sequel but it’s executed without the wit of Phil Lord and Chris Miller‘s Jump Street 22.

And of course there’s a special circle of hell reserved for films which features TV cook Gordon Ramsey in any capacity.

Technically it’s a fifth sequel to National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). That was penned by John Hughes, directed by Harold Ramis.

Hughes was responsible for writing and directing the great teen movies of the period including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) The Breakfast Club (1985). Ramis went on to co-write Ghostbusters (1984) and Groundhog Day (1993) as well as directing the latter.

Despite this talent on board, it wasn’t very good.

Vacation 2015 was scripted by the directors Goldstein and Daley who were responsible for writing Horrible Bosses (2011) and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013). It’s an altogether lesser pedigree, and it shows.

At one point a tour guide gives a primal scream of anguished rage, exactly mirroring my own feelings.

You’re better off at work than experiencing this vacation from hell.

Post script.

Chase and D’Angelo starred in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) and Vegas Vacation (1997) plus the short Hotel Hell Vacation (2010) released online.

There was also National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2 (2003) focused on the recurring character of cousin Eddie played by Randy Quaid.

The Wolfpack

Director: Crystal Moselle (2015)

This toothless grin of a documentary begins as a disturbing exploration of abuse and ends as a sunny coming of age tale.

The Wolfpack is the nickname of six movie-mad brothers who grew up in a high housing project on the Lower East Side of New York.

Their dad Oscar kept the only key to their threadbare apartment, only allowing his children out for essential appointments. One year they claim never to have been allowed out at all.

A committed conspiracy theorist, the Peruvian-born Oscar refuses to work. The only source of income is a government stipend their American mother Susanne receives for homeschooling the children.

With no access to the internet, the bright, articulate and creative boys entertainingly re-enact scenes from favourite films such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

When one boy makes an illicit journey outside, it leads to their assuming increasing levels of independence.

There’s a lot of love, camaraderie and communal cooking. Their talent for mimicry asserts itself whenever they experience anxiety, seeking safety in the voices of favourite film characters.

When Oscar finally speaks on camera, he reveals himself as a pitiful person possessed of a paranoid philosophy, not the bogey-man we’ve been lead to imagine.

The Wolfpack seem to bear their parents little ill will. They’re remarkably well-adjusted for people prevented from mixing socially with anyone outside their immediate family.

Too little effort is made to tell the boys apart and there’s a failure to establish two of them are twins.

Plus we wonder how much influence the presence of the unseen documentarian is having on the behaviour of the family.

As they spread their wings and visit the cinema, the beach, the countryside, the narrative offered is suspiciously convenient for a filmmaker.

Susanne makes a phone call to her 88 year old mother, their first contact in 50 years. It seems particularly opportune rather than the organic result of a new era of domestic glasnost.

Plus the subjects’ sweet natures consistently neutralise the use of crashing guitar chords and Halloween imagery to convince us of a tragedy in progress.

Good People

Director: Henrik Ruben Genz (2015)

Temptation brings danger to a struggling young couple in this silly and dingy thriller.

Americans Tom and Anna are the good people making a fresh start in London after suffering a domestic tragedy. They’re neither especially bright nor particularly likeable.

Though we’re told they’ve been together for a long time, there’s an unfortunate lack of chemistry between James Franco and Kate Hudson in the lead roles.

Having inherited Tom’s grandmother’s large house, they’ve accumulated large debts trying to renovate it.

When they discover £220,000 of much needed cash in the flat of dead neighbour, they can’t resist helping themselves.

Danish director Gnez has his cinematographer Jorgen Johansson dress the city in the gloom typical of Scandinavian noir, adding an extra layer of dreariness to proceedings.

The moral question of taking the money is quickly glossed over as the plot descends into bloody, predictable, tension-free violence. It occasionally strays unintentionally close to farce.

Tom Wilkinson plays a grieving cop chasing Sam Spruell’s villain who is trying to recover his stolen drugs money.

As Omar Sy wanders through as an urbane Frenchman trying to muscle in on the London heroin trade, the always engaging Anna Friel is wasted in a role requiring her to cradle a baby, squeal at a washing machine and perch precariously up a ladder.

As threats are issued, hands broken and furniture is destroyed, nail guns and snooker cues are put to use which probably affect their warranty.

Trainwreck

Director: Judd Apatow (2015)

This comedy about a young woman on the path to redemption feels like a series of sketches strung together by a threadbare plot.

Amy Schumer writes and stars and though she and co-star Bill Hader are engaging, their charm and talent can’t overcome the limitations of the script or the dead hand of director Apatow.

It is indulgent in length, grossly sentimental, fawning to celebrities, loosely improvisational and insufficient scenes to are brought to a strong close. Too often too many characters are allowed to waffle.

Drunk and promiscuous journalist Amy Townsend (Schumer) has a varied if unfulfilling sex life and is merrily chasing promotion at work at edgy magazine S’nuff.

Her colleagues are irritating idiots and her boss Dianna is played by an alarmingly accented Tilda Swinton. The hard-faced career woman is contrasted with Amy’s sister Kim (Brie Larson). She’s a warm, soft role model of stable maternity.

A happy homeless man offers a warning as to how Amy’s life may develop if she doesn’t change her wanton ways. She enables him in the worst possible way.

Dianna sends Amy off to interview Dr. Aaron Conners (Hader). He’s a knee surgeon famous for saving the careers of sportspeople I’ve mostly never heard of.

Before she realises it she’s falling in love, rejecting her former life of drugs and fun and embracing sobriety and monogamy.

Amy pulls a reverse Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) from Grease (1978). She migrates from independent woman to a person subservient to the needs of her un-inspirational boyfriend. But he’s a doctor, so that’s alright.

Even Grease’s Danny Zucco (John Travolta) recognises he has to compromise his behaviour to win the heart of Sandy. But Aaron is oblivious of the potential to change and so Amy must bend to meet his needs. The leader of the T’Birds is far more progressive than anyone on show here.

By the end Amy is publicly humiliating herself to prove her worth in a way that would have made her earlier, more attractive persona shudder.

Embracing family and domesticity is presented as the pinnacle of female endeavour. Her career success is dependent on the reflected glory of her beau.

The story is in thrall to the sexual politics of the ’50’s, the 1850’s. Even Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre pub. 1847) would blush to write a female so eager to be defined by a man for happiness and fulfilment.

There’s a funeral, a baby shower, an invasive medical procedure and several dates. It’s not the least embarrassed to lift from Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979).

Featuring far too much basketball, someone called LeBron James features prominently as an emotional mentor to Aaron. Daniel Radcliffe, Marisa Tomei, Matthew Broderick and err, former Tennis champ Chris Evert all appear.

Amy gives a 16 year old – a legal minor – alcohol, assaults him and then attempts to have sex with him. Good luck switching the genders and getting away with that scene.

All of these failings could be overlooked if the film was rip-roaringly funny and entertaining – but it rarely musters a chuckle. The funniest scene is the first one – and Schumer isn’t in it.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Director: Guy Ritchie (2015)

This big budget update of a much loved 1960’s spy series is sumptuous, smooth and stylish.

Although the loose vibe and fabulous locations are seductive, sadly the script and the chemistry aren’t.

4 series of the U.N.C.L.E. TV series ran from 1964 to 1968, plus there was the TV movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1983).

Robert Vaughn starred as the American Napoleon Solo and British actor David McCallum as the Russian Illya Kuryakin.

Beyond the concept, period setting and character names not much remains of the show.

There’s not a radio pen in sight, no opening of Channel D, nor a hint of T.H.R.U.S.H. The U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) organisation of the title receives a very belated introduction.

Director Guy Ritchie suffered a career slump with the inglorious mis-steps of Swept Away (2002) and Revolver (2005).

He painstakingly rebuilt his reputation as a safe pair of blockbuster hands with the excellent Sherlock Holmes franchise: Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011).

Here he’s content to reject his customary zip and go against the grain of contemporary action movies. He is wilfully dismissive, almost contemptuous of his own plot.

Instead of constant wham bam action scenes he focuses on character and builds a mood of glamorous, languid indulgence which is rich in period detail.

It’s an admirable if potentially career-harming move by the writer/director/producer.

Having given Ritchie a name cast and a $75million budget, one can only imagine the horror of the studio’s executives on their first screening.

Certainly Ritchie can argue he included all the elements they wanted; cars, guns, girls, stunts, jokes – but the way he has editor James Herbert put it all together must have them tearing their hair out.

Even the sexually available and semi-naked hotel receptionist seems a studio imposition.

Elsewhere however there is a worrying confluence of violence and foreplay and a fair amount of dull macho posturing for which Ritchie can’t escape responsibility.

In 1963 the US and the USSR are threatening each other with nuclear annihilation.

Rogue nazi sympathiser Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) has stolen a computer disc. She’s a deliciously tall and cool glass of cyanide.

The disc contains data on how to super-enrich uranium to make nuclear bombs far more powerful than in existence, threatening the uneasy balance of the super-hot cold war. Whomever has the disc controls the world.

Top man at the CIA and art expert Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is unwillingly teamed up with ferocious KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).

Both receive orders to recover the disc at any cost.

But the two leads are hamstrung by dull, innuendo-laden banter and a desire to project a faultless accent.

While the British Cavill plays an American, the American Hammer plays a Russian.

Hammer has less dialogue and is more able to cope but Cavill’s lumbered with laborious exposition. His careful enunciation slows scenes to a crawl.

Doing his best work when not required to speak, Cavill’s – and the film’s – best moment comes when Solo takes time to appreciate the finer aspects of life as the action goes on behind him.

It’s possible he would have been a brilliant silent movie star back in the day.

With his chiselled features and broad frame he’s the most classically movie star-looking movie star since James Garner. He steps through the film with the stately and exquisitely tailored grace of the ageing Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief (1955).

The two spies recruit an East German motor mechanic Gaby Teller (Swedish Alicia Vikander). Her rocket scientist father is held by Victoria and the boys intend to use Gabby’s connections to infiltrate Victoria’s outfit.

Sporting a chic collection of outfits but metaphorically trouser-wearing, Gabby refuses to yield superiority to the boys in any department.

A grey-haired Hugh Grant shuffles on for a couple of scenes to deliver a masterclass in light comedy.

With a storming pop operatic soundtrack throughout, Ritchie saves his visual dynamism for the finale when the screen erupts into a frenzy of split screens, fast cuts and twisted camerawork.

With beautiful production design by Oliver Scholl captured with glossy delight by cinematographer John Mathieson, it makes for a very easy on the eye experience. Berlin in 1963 is expertly rendered.

Ritchie should be applauded for making a film with a strong identity and has the courage to stand or fall on it’s own terms.

But for all it’s speedboats, helicopters and a terrifically synchronised car chase, it’s a pity it’s not more full throttle.