Mike Epps

Troop Zero (2019, Bert & Bertie)

Troop Zero is heartwarming but not too heartwarming. It doesn’t promise the stars as much as it promises a gradual slide to fairness; it promises redemption to some but not the ones who really need it. It avoids any seriousness to instead provide consistent, constant entertainment. Often in the form of amusing montage sequences with good soundtrack accompaniment and excellent editing from Catherine Haight. But as anything other than consistent, constant entertainment? Troop Zero’s got a lot of problems.

The film’s the story of a girl living poor in rural Georgia in the late seventies (Mckenna Grace, who’s likable and perfectly fine but has any great moments; she’s a solid child actor, who isn’t doing anything special). She finds out if you’re in the Girl Scouts (they’re called something else, obviously), you might be on the gold record NASA is shooting out into space on a Voyager spacecraft. If you’re wondering why there’s not a Star Trek: The Motion Picture reference right about now, it’s because it’s too hard. Needless to say, I tried.

Anyway. Grace gets her neighbor, pre-gay Charlie Shotwell–Troop Zero has that heartwarming Hollywood take on poor rural Americana when it comes to marginalized people: everyone’s poor and no one cares if you’re gay or Black. There’s a lot of awful bullying in Troop Zero and a bunch of horrific female characters—which is all good because the directors and writer are woman but also maybe not a great look because it implies a lot more seriousness than the film’s ever willing to engage with—but there’s never any overt racism, homophobia, or even sexism. There’s some subtle racism but it’s just to make the main mean girl (Ashley Brooke) even meaner. Sorry, tangents again, which is particularly inappropriate for Troop Zero. It doesn’t have any tangents. When its subplots get attention, it always sticks out because the moments seemed forced in—like top-billed Viola Davis’s law school ambitions or her bonding with stuck-up school principal Allison Janney (who’s redemptive moments seem contractually obligated for all the good they do). So… sorry.

Grace and Shotwell set about getting enough kids for a new troop. See, the manual, which Grace can read and understand because her father (Jim Gaffigan) is a lawyer who never wins his cases but because the clients are always guilty and encourages her critical thinking skills, never specifies gender requirements. They get Christian girl Bella Higginbotham, then bully and extorter Milan Ray, and Ray’s enforcer, Johanna Colón. To varying degrees, the kids are all entertaining. Colón and Shotwell get the most situational comedy, Ray’s got a decent sort of subplot about unexpectedly bonding with Grace (which gets mostly forgotten in the third act), and Higginbotham’s always sympathetic. They never quite bond with troop leader Davis, which makes sense as boss Gaffigan ordered her to take the gig. Will the troop get over their differences and band together to take it to the finals? Will they defeat the mean girls?

Those questions might be important if Troop Zero needed them to decide anything. There’s a definite lack of conflict in the film outside the bullying. Gaffigan’s a sweetheart and in permanently in the red with his law practice, meaning Davis can’t get paid, but they’re always okay. There’s never much narrative danger. Often there’s none at all. So when the film fails to muster enough enthusiasm to seep through on the grand finale, it’s not unexpected. Troop Zero, despite the energetic montages and the directors adequate inventiveness as far as composition—cinematographer James Whitaker ably assists—never has much directed energy. Never much focus. Grace gets scenes to herself, Davis gets scenes to herself, Janney gets scenes to herself. Grace is the de facto protagonist because she narrates the film; otherwise, she’d be sharing focus with Davis, Janney, and maybe even Gaffigan.

And Grace has got a kids’ story arc. It’s got some real depth to it, but it’s still a kids’ story arc. The film’s handling of Grace clashes with its handling of the adults. Davis and Janney, for example, they don’t have kiddie arcs. Widower Gaffigan wouldn’t have a kiddie arc. My pejorative use of kiddie here is just to mean non-confrontational. Bullying aside.

Davis is great, Gaffigan’s great, Janney’s great. Grace is okay. Ray’s good. Colón’s adorable. The kids are all fine—Higginbotham, Shotwell—when something doesn’t work out for them, it’s just as often the script or direction versus the kid.

For the actors’ sake, it’d be really nice if Troop Zero was more successful, less uneven. It’s got a good (albeit unrealistic) heart and a very likable cast. And the grand finale talent show is true delight.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bert & Bertie; written by Lucy Alibar; director of photography, James Whitaker; edited by Catherine Haight; music by Rob Lord; production designer, Laura Fox; costume designer, Caroline Eselin; produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Kate Churchill, Steve Tisch, and Viola Davis; released by Amazon Studios.

Starring Mckenna Grace (Christmas Flint), Viola Davis (Miss Rayleen), Jim Gaffigan (Ramsey Flint), Allison Janney (Miss Massey), Charlie Shotwell (Joseph), Milan Ray (Hell-No Price), Johanna Colón (Smash), Bella Higginbotham (Anne-Claire), Mike Epps (Dwayne Champaign), Ashley Brooke (Piper Keller), and Ash Thapliyal (Persad).


Resident Evil: Extinction (2007, Russell Mulcahy)

I wonder how Paul W.S. Anderson writes his screenplays. Does he actually write in all the references–think The Birds here, or a tanker like in The Road Warrior or even the Statue of Liberty shot out of Planet of the Apes–or do they come up later? Resident Evil: Extinction is an amalgam of, I imagine, as many films Anderson could rip from or reference to (it’s never homage) in ninety-five minutes. But, like the earlier ones and for the same basic reasons, Extinction is a success.

The prevalent reason for success is Milla Jovovich. Jovovich is barely in movies anymore, but she’s great as the action hero. Extinction adds another element–along with malicious tentacles, Anderson cribs pyrokinesis (I can’t believe I knew that “word,” since Oxford apparently does not) from Japanese anime–giving Jovovich superpowers and a burden along with them. Anderson also gives her some character stuff, hints at romantic longing, and some comedy moments towards the end. It really works out, since she can switch from a Mad Max Road Warrior impression to vulnerable instantaneously. Every time–and it’s not often since she’s in so little–I see Jovovich, I can’t help but think Woody Allen would be able to do something great with her.

The other reason Extinction works is because Anderson is–as screenwriter and producer–once again completely comfortable making schlock. It’s well-produced schlock, whatever–oh, he steals from Undead too–but it’s absolutely unpretentious. There’s no pretending. It’s just ninety-five minutes gone.

Still, Extinction is a really hurried film. It’s supposedly the last film in the series, which is silly because the setup at the end suggests the next one would be a lot of fun, and that condition hangs over the movie. Starting out where the first film started, ending where the first film started… it’s all very neat in terms of conclusions, but the pace is terrible.

For a lot of the film, Jovovich isn’t even the main character. Instead, Anderson tracks a group of survivors (The Road Warrior rejects) lead by Ali Larter, who is awful. There’s some blah acting in the movie, but Larter’s is the only performance near ruining it. Once Jovovich is the firm center, it’s almost over. Anderson also spends a lot of time with the scientists, setting up the big ending. The script feels rushed, the movie feels rushed….

As far as the other performances go, Oded Fehr is good, Mike Epps is better than last time, and Linden Ashby is wasted as a cowboy.

Russell Mulcahy does an okay job directing. The editing is particularly good, but Extinction is short on action set-pieces, but the big one is worth the wait. The musical score, amusing, borrows a lot from the Terminator theme.

The Resident Evil movies are also of note because they aren’t particularly expensive, so they use CG and special effects in ways to enable storytelling, a trend Extinction continues.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Russell Mulcahy; written by Paul W.S. Anderson, based on the Capcom computer game series; director of photography, David Johnson; edited by Niven Howie; music by Charlie Clouser; production designer, Eugenio Caballero; produced by Bernd Eichinger, Samuel Hadida, Robert Kulzer, Jeremy Bolt and Anderson; released by Screen Gems.

Starring Milla Jovovich (Alice), Oded Fehr (Carlos Olivera), Ali Larter (Claire Redfield), Iain Glen (Dr. Isaacs), Ashanti (Betty), Christopher Egan (Mikey), Spencer Locke (K-Mart), Matthew Marsden (Slater), Linden Ashby (Chase), Jason O’Mara (Albert Wesker) and Mike Epps (L.J.).


Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004, Alexander Witt)

Trying to figure out how to start this post was incredibly difficult. As far as sequels go, Resident Evil: Apocalypse is, tonally, a terrible sequel to the first film, but it’s still a perfectly reasonable b-movie. The first film, visually, is classy compared to this one, which has lots of quick cuts during fight scenes. The cuts aren’t distracting, since they’re about what’s expected from a movie like this one, and this stylistic difference is probably the least of all the differences between the two films. Apocalypse features, actor for actor, the worst cast in a film I’ve ever finished watching (at least in the last seven years). Besides Milla Jovovich, who’s good again but she’s not the protagonist–she runs all of her actions scenes, but none of her other ones–the cast of Apocalypse is unbelievably, almost uniformly terrible. Sienna Guillory is terrible, Razaaq Adoti is terrible, Mike Epps is actually just real bad, and Sandrine Holt is unspeakable. There’s not even an adjective for her acting prowess. The rest of the principles, besides Oded Fehr, who’s fine, are made up of European actors who stumble over their lines.

The reason Apocalypse works is because, even with the terrible actors, lots of stuff happens in different sets. More than any other film (except the monster who’s a cross between Robocop and The Toxic Avenger), it reminded me of Escape from New York. People running through a burnt-out city, battling zombies. It’s a fine way to spend ninety minutes, especially since Jovovich has some good scenes and I got to appreciate them, how shiny they were amid the rest of the film. Writer Paul W.S. Anderson, who didn’t direct and probably shouldn’t have, since the film plays to none of his “strengths,” actually makes her the only character with any depth, which makes the bad acting of the other principles so much worse. They’re caricatures of caricatures and, if the film appreciated that one, it’d probably be the best b-movie ever made.

The bad actors actually made Apocalypse a worse experience than it should have been, since most zombie movies have a watchable quality about them. Watching the film, marveling at the acting incompetence, I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a worse film, but something needs to be said for the Paul W.S. Anderson genre. He can make perfectly fine bad b-movies, which is a rare quality these days.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Alexander Witt; written by Paul W.S. Anderson, based on the Capcom computer game series; directors of photography, Derek Rogers and Christian Sebaldt; edited by Eddie Hamilton; music by Jeff Danna; production designer, Paul D. Austerberry; produced by Don Carmody, Jeremy Bolt and Anderson; released by Screen Gems.

Starring Milla Jovovich (Alice), Sienna Guillory (Jill Valentine), Oded Fehr (Carlos Olivera), Thomas Kretschmann (Major Cain), Sophie Vavasseur (Angie Ashford), Razaaq Adoti (Peyton Wells), Jared Harris (Dr. Ashford), Mike Epps (L.J.) and Sandrine Holt (Teri Morales).


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