Tuesday, August 25, 2015

2015 Catch Up: GET HARD

I do not own the above image.  Copyright Gary Sanchez Productions. All Rights Reserved.

            For years now, I’ve been hearing that Kevin Hart is among the best, or is THE best, standup comedian working right now.  I have also heard that one of his major influences, Chris Rock, is way up there in the pantheon of comedy as well.  The key phrases here are “been hearing” and “have also heard” because, admittedly, I have not listened to any of their routines as my comedy playlist contains people like Eddie Izzard & the late George Carlin.  Anyhoo, I have heard from many, many people to focus on Chris Rock’s legendary standup sets & ignore his not-so-legendary movie career with such highlights as POOTIE TANG, BAD COMPANY and HEAD OF STATE.  If he’s not careful, Kevin Hart could follow down the same path with such gems as LITTLE FOCKERS, RIDE ALONG and a duo of 2015 duds: the reprehensible THE WEDDING RINGER (if that isn’t on “top” of my Worst of 2015 list, I’d be shocked) and the not-much-better GET HARD.
            Hedge fund manager James King (Ferrell) has the life of a king.  He has just been made partner at Barrow Funds.  He is engaged to the beautiful, young Alissa (Brie), the daughter of his boss Martin (Nelson).  But it all comes crashing down after he is sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin for fraud & embezzlement.  To prepare for life behind bars, King hires his go-to car washer Darnell Lewis (Hart) to help him “get hard”.  In return, Lewis hopes to move his wife & daughter out of the rough neighborhood they are stuck in.
            In the right hands, GET HARD could have been a commentary about race relations or income inequality, as the opening credits attempt to show us with the shots of people of various classes going to work from the white financial advisor in a convertible, to the Latina waitress waiting for a bus, to the homeless black man begging for money in the middle of the street.  In fact, the best moments of the movie come when James & Darnell visit Darnell’s drug-dealer cousin Russell & his associates.  It is here where writer/director Etan Cohen (TROPIC THUNDER & MEN IN BLACK 3) is somewhat successful in comparing the legitimate business of hedge funds to the illegal practice of drug dealing.  Listening to these gangbangers discuss the difference between Traditional & Roth IRAs elicited the biggest laugh out of me.  Ferrell’s interaction with the drug gang overall was mildly fascinating as was, to a lesser extent, a confrontation with some white supremacists.
            The majority of the movie, however, is not nearly this clever.  In fact, apart from the scenes I describe above, which constitute about 5 scenes or approximately 12 minutes of runtime, the final 85 minutes of the 100 minute movie mainly focuses on one juvenile theme: the fear of getting raped in prison.  That is the first thing discussed in King’s & Lewis’ negotiations.  Not the loss of freedom.  Not the general relationships between King, his future inmates & the guards.  Nope.  King is solely focused on his desire to (and pardon my French) “not become someone’s bitch.”  Quite a few scenes stand out for all the wrong reasons.  First, the two turn King’s mansion into a miniature prison, including transforming his wine cellar into a prison cell and creating shivs out of random household items that can fit in Ferrell’s rectum.  Also, in King’s tennis court turned prison yard, Hart role plays a possible interaction with Ferrell that includes Hart sometimes playing an effeminate black caricature.  There is a third scene at an outdoor gay restaurant that so homophobic that I hesitate to go any further without asking me to apologize to myself for typing such filth.
            Ferrell & Hart try their very best to make this misguided adventure work.  But the story originally conceived by co-writers and Key & Peele showrunners Jay Martel & Ian Roberts is so thin with its offensive premise and cardboard villains.  Director Cohen doesn’t have eye for the final confrontation including a ludicrous fight scene with the villain’s main thugs.  The supporting actors, especially Brie & Nelson, are wasted.  Although, rapper T.I. has better comedic chops as Russell than Tyrese Gibson does in the FURIOUS franchise.
            It is clear to me that Kevin Hart has all the talent in the world.  He tries in GET HARD.  The material is just not on his level.  What he needs is another supporting role in a Judd Apatow movie or in a stoner-esque comedy from Seth Rogen or Jason Segel.  Maybe next summer’s CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE opposite Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will be the one that sends him into the stratosphere.  Until then, we have RIDE ALONG 2 on the horizon.  Grrrrrrrrrreeeeeaaaaat…


*

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Film Review: VACATION

I do not own the above image.  Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures.  All rights reserved.

            Going to the movies should be a comforting experience.  An air-conditioned, dark room with a flickering light flying above you.  A comfy seat to sit in with popcorn in your lap & a drink in the cup holder to your right.  The horny teenagers seated in front of you not caring if you see them about to go at it.
            But what if the experience isn’t satisfying?  What if the movie projected by the light from above is a dud?  What if the movie is a remake/reboot/sequel/shameless cash grab of a funny 30 year old movie?  What if the jokes…weren’t funny?!?!
            Budget airline pilot Rusty Griswald (Helms) wants to take his family on a GREAT vacation.  Instead of going to the cabin like they’ve done every year, Rusty plans to relive the trip of a lifetime from childhood: Walley World.  Renting a car & dragging his wife Debbie (Applegate) and their two boys along for the ride in a goofy rental car.  Along the way, they have detours at Deb’s sorority, Rusty’s sister's ranch and Four Corners National Park.  And not a single moment is enjoyable, funny or touching.
            If you’ve been alive & own a television the past three weeks, you’ve been seeing ads for VACATION.  One in particular features a throwback to the scene in the 1983 original where Christie Brinkley drives alongside the Griswold station wagon in a red convertible & flirts with Clark that led to a fascinating & humorous subplot.  Today, it’s still a red convertible but the young lady is a random blonde & the scene ends with her running head on into a semi truck.  That scene is the perfect representation of everything wrong with this movie and the reboot/remake culture in the film industry in general.  Writers/first-time directors John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein have such reverence for the original that they know exactly how to hit the nostalgia chords in its fans by making specific references.  But the references add nothing to the very weak story.
            VACATION is not about the Griswold family trying to enjoy a road trip vacation.  The movie centers on the boring relationship of Rusty & Debbie.  The family goes from set piece to set piece but the story always centers on Debbie complaining about how her life & marriage has gone limp and leaves the boys as two of the many forgettable side characters.  And the only people more bored than Debbie with their marriage are the paying customers in the movie theatre.  Daley & Goldstein, after all the references to the original, don’t understand what made the original beloved: a family’s ability to bond over the trials & tribulations of a road trip family vacation.  Instead, we get Debbie whining in private to the oblivious Rusty.  Good times!
            How do you make Leslie Mann unfunny?  How do Chevy Chase & Beverly D’Angelo appear in a movie together & not make me chuckle?  I’ve laughed at Christina Applegate in the past.  I’ve howled at Ed Helms too.  So much comedic talent like Charlie Day, Ron Livingston & Keegan-Michael Key in supporting roles are wasted as none of their characters or any character for that matter are the least bit funny or interesting.  All blame for this movie’s failure lies at the feet of Daley & Goldstein as writers.  A majority of the humor is of the sophomoric variety with scenes involving puking, swimming in raw sewage and the misunderstanding of sex terms.  They set out to make an ‘R’-rated movie but didn’t use the rating to its full potential.  All they did was add expletives to childish PG-13 situations to appease the 10 & 13-year-olds next to me.  The Estate of John Hughes should have sued for making a movie this juvenile with his baby.

            VACATION is a lifeless, joyless exercise in stupid: Stupid characters, stupid situations, and stupid “humor” for stupid ticket buyers.  I’m waiting for the day when an audience will revolt against a movie that insults their intelligence.  VACATION should have been a movie for those who saw the original on cable at age 7 in 1986 and has his first night out in a while with his wife w/o the kids.  Instead, the movie was made for his kids.  And the movie is too stupid for its target audience.

1/2*

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Review: TERMINATOR GENISYS

I do not own the above photo.  Copyright Skydance Productions.  All Rights Reserved.

            I’ve been attending preview screenings for almost four years now in Pittsburgh.  I’ve seen some wonderful things in that time.  At my first screening, the audience sang along to “The Rainbow Connection” during THE MUPPETS.  I saw a middle aged guy freak out after being told he had to leave a screening of SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMEN.  I’ve also witnessed some bizarre & depressing things, especially lately.  I’ve seen 250+ people leave in dead silence after THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.  I’ve listened to people laugh their asses off during THE OTHER WOMAN.  But Monday night, my screening of TERMINATOR GENISYS featured the most mind-boggling thing I’ve witnessed at one of these: a vast majority of the audience gave the biggest applause I’ve heard at one of these screenings.  I knew three people in the audience who didn’t cheer: Barb Vancheri of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, my wife and myself.
            TERMINATOR GENISYS, the fifth in a series of films based on the characters created in 1984 by James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd, features yet another attempt to bilk the public of its hard earned money telling the story of how John Connor (Jason Clarke) is supposed to save mankind with the help of his mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) & her guardian Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney).  This time around Alan Taylor of THOR: THE DARK WORLD fame is in the director’s chair with a script co-written by the writer of LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER, ALEXANDER and SHUTTER ISLAND Laeta Kalogridis and the writer/director of DRIVE ANGRY 3D Patrick Lussier.  The only credit I will give them is bringing back Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800.  He is the lone pure bright spot of the $155 million proceedings.
            What the three veteran filmmakers have created here is less an intriguing story furthering the legend of John Connor and more of a reboot that contains more fan service than original thought. (If you do not want any of the callbacks spoiled, skip to the next paragraph)  Throughout the 126 minute runtime, there are numerous references to the slightest details from the previous movies that add nothing to the story that is being told in this movie.  For instance, the T-1000 makes an appearance as an Asian police officer, I assume to give the appearance of racial diversity in the movies.  He gets two boring action scenes then disappears.  So much for that.  Numerous shots from the previous movies are replicated from the first two installments.  But the big tip off to the nostalgia factor this movie wanted to create was with Miles Dyson.  Miles Dyson, originally played by Joe Morton, is the CEO of Cyberdyne and was responsible for the technology that creates Skynet.  Dyson, not played by Morton, appears in two scenes that allow him to play no part in moving the plot forward before never being mentioned again.  The guy seated next to my wife would have been really helpful for this paragraph since he alerted his girlfriend to every single reference to the previous movies quite loudly during the movie.
            TERMINATOR GENISYS feels like an attempt to do what 2009’s STAR TREK did: reinvigorate the franchise while twisting the mythology of the series.  But GENISYS failed miserably because Kalogridis & Lussier wrote a hesitant (and childish) screenplay.  J.J. Abrams & crew didn’t hold back by going big, going bold &, most importantly, going quickly by changing a major piece of Star Trek canon in the opening five minutes.  GENISYS, on the other hand, spends about 15 minutes pretty much recapping the entire John Connor/Kyle Reese War against Skynet and their machines for us in one the movie’s many short & meaningless action pieces.  When Reese is sent into the past to protect Sarah Connor, a simple, silly action occurs that causes a ripple effect throughout time and canon.  This action creates numerous convoluted deviations from the original canon and a “twist” so absurd & infuriating that I’d swear it was written for a movie in 2001 after the success of THE SIXTH SENSE.  Additionally, the “twist” unintentionally rips off a major plot point from one of its own predecessors.  This turn of events and the anticipation of what other absurd ideas Taylor, Kalogridis & Lussier could pull out of the asses while high off of them prevented me from being bored to death.  In a way, yes, the movie was fleetingly “so bad, it’s good” but not nearly enough for any sort of recommendation.  I do recommend, however, running out of the theatre once the credits start rolling.  Otherwise, you will be treated to one of the worst post-credit scenes, rivaling the scene at the end of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND.
            TERMINATOR GENISYS is the most expensive piece of fan fiction ever created.  Fan fiction created by nine year olds who have only seen the first two TERMINATOR movies as aired on FXX with its tame dialogue, action scenes and lack of any real excitement.  It’s a little comforting seeing Arnold on screen again.  I just hope he (and the preview audience I saw it with) make (and see) better movies.  I won’t be holding my breath.  Just my applause.


*1/2

Friday, June 19, 2015

Almost Coherent Ramblings #1: INSIDE OUT turns me INSIDE OUT

            A few weeks ago, I talked about my relationship with movies dating back to age 15.  The greatest friendship I have (other than the one with the girl I wake up next to every morning) is one with the glowing image that flies over my head in the dark.  As I sit there, it is my hope that every movie I see is special.  And the most consistently special movies are the ones made by the guys with the overexcited desk lamp, Pixar.
            I remember Woody & Buzz learning to not just co-exist but become best buds at age 10.  A young fish went missing at 16.  At 19, I fought alongside a family of superheroes.  I saw a rat’s culinary dreams come true at age 21.  I sat in awe as two robots fell in love at 22, an old man live out his dreams at 23, and cried like a baby seeing Woody & Buzz live on in a kid’s imagination at 24.
            Simply put, Pixar had a track record of creating animated masterpieces on a fairly consistent basis.  Their last three movies, CARS 2, BRAVE and MONSTERS U, left much to be desired.  After those two sub-par sequels and a disastrous original idea, Pixar needed a needed a shot in the arm.  It appeared that they found one in INSIDE OUT, a story about our emotions with Amy Poehler in the lead & Pete Docter in the director’s chair.  All is well & good now, right?  Right…?
            INSIDE OUT follows Riley, a happy little girl who finds Joy in everything, especially ice hockey.  But after a move from Minnesota to San Francisco, her other emotions, Sadness, Fear, Disgust & Anger, start getting a work out.  Can Joy straighten things out?
            As I sat there watching the 94 minute movie, I had each one of these emotions come over me, most at inopportune times.  First, there was the unrelenting joy that came over me during the pre-show commercials.  Every single one of those memories above washed over me as I looked over the crowd and saw the audience members of all ages, evenly divided among those older & younger than I as we eagerly awaited for that moment when we were placed under Pixar’s spell.  And for 20 minutes or so, I felt that as I watched the opening montage and the setup of the first act.
            Then, something strange happened.  When the movie kicks into its second act, Disgust took over.  Disgust at the direction the main plot was taking.  Why in the world would you make the centerpiece of the movie about feelings & memories a mostly physical endeavor?  Disgust slowly moved over as Anger sat at the controls as the movie kept in the same director.  Why have movie about the mind that continues to stay outside it and get more & more needlessly complicated?
            I thought all hope was lost until…the heroic Sadness tries to save the day, with a little help from Joy.  INSIDE OUT ends with a final five minutes so perfect that it feels like it was stolen from another movie.  An ending that mixes sorrow & hope perfectly, like Pixar has done before.
            As the credits rolled and the credit cookies had played, Sadness & Fear began piloting my state of mind and continues to this very moment.  I fear, with the current movie landscape, that movies have passed me by.  With all the negative or mixed reviews I’ve been giving lately, I wonder if it’s time to stop caring so much.  Stop trying to get my hopes up.  Stop trying to get others to listen.
            But I can’t.  Why?  Because of the little moments that Joy takes over, sometimes accompanies by Sadness.  Where would I be without seeing WALL-E & Eve dance in space with the help of a fire hydrant?  Or having not flipped through Elle Fredrickson’s scrapbook?  And what would I do without having seen Riley grow up in 4 minutes?

            To put it simply, to be human is to feel.  And, for me, the best place I can feel anything is in a darkened theatre with those beautiful images projected on screen.  And while Pixar didn’t fully do it this time, I’ll keep going back.  Why?  Because of the Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust & Anger I feel with every movie I see.  I love it.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

ENTOURAGE

I do not own the above image.  Copyright Warner Brothers Pictures.  All Rights Reserved

            Film & television have had a complicated relationship.  When TV began to hit the mainstream in the early 1950s, some in the film industry thought the end of the theatrical experience because people will opt to stay home.  Luckily, the quality of movies got people out.  Then came the ways to watch movies at home: BetaMax, VHS, VideoDisc & LaserDisc.  The question soon became: “Are people willing to stay home & wait 6-9 months for movies?”  Luckily, most weren’t.  Soon, studios learned to coexist with television, with revenues from home video sales & cable rights boosting their bottomline.  With this, also began the seeping in of television shows rebooted onto the silver screen.  I clearly remember seeing THE FLINTSTONES at my hometown drive-in.  I also remember theatrical runs for THE BRADY BUNCH, GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE and INSPECTOR GADGET when I was young and rolling my eyes at BEWITCHED, LAND OF THE LOST and I SPY film adaptations.
            Which leads us to ENTOURAGE, the film adaptation of the hit HBO series from the life/mind of Mark Wahlburg, which ran for 8 seasons.  The show/film follows 4 guys from from Queens who hope to/succeed in making it big in Hollywood.  You have the good-looking actor Vincent (Grenier), his BFF/manager Eric (Connolly), buddy/driver Turtle (Ferrara), half-brother Johnny Drama (Dillion), and frantic & tortured agent Ari Gold (Piven).
            My journey with these guy began on June 4th, 20…15 at about 7pm, approximately one hour before I saw the movie down the street from my apartment.  From that half hour of research, I deduced that I would be seeing nothing but 5 assholes doing douchy things because they are young, white, rich men.  And the movie didn’t disappoint…in that regard.  The movie still kind of stunk.  Pretty bad.
            Anyway, movie picks up right where the show left off.  The boys celebrate on Vince’s yacht, drinking to his impending divorce of his 9 day-old marriage.  Vince then gets a call from Ari about making a movie at his studio.  Vince agrees with one condition: he directs it.  The movie then sends us to 8 months into the future to present day (which makes no sense considering the show ended in September 2011).  The film is unfinished & overbudget, Eric is about to become a dad to a child whose parents are no longer together, Turtle falls for Ronda Rousey, and Drama continues his quest to emerge from his brother’s shadow.  Meanwhile, Ari is stuck in the middle trying to balance his personal & professional lives as the studio gets nervous about the movie with the financier (Thornton) & his son (Osment) breathing down his neck while keeping the “Happy wife (& child), happy life” mantra alive.
            Of the five “gentlemen”, only Ari Gold is a real character.  The times Piven goes batshit insane provide the lone bits of real entertainment.  Gold is so frantic & biting that it’s amazing that he didn’t explode or have his nose broken.  One thing I did find odd about Piven’s lines were the dozen or so times he references pop culture.  All but one of those references from the Hindenburg to WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT to FORREST GUMP were over 20 years old.  They got a slight reaction out of me but the rest of the audience, almost all of them around my age, barely chuckled.  I understand that most of the movie references are age appropriate for Ari’s formative years, but considering the job he has and ENTOURAGE’s target demographic, you’d think writer/director/producer/caterer/intern/douchebag Doug Ellin would added a few HUNGER GAMES or AVENGERS jokes.  I got a little bit of laughter from Johnny Drama if only because he reminds me of Ronnie “The Limo Driver” Mund from the Howard Stern Show.  I wonder if he wears Mambo.  Hey now!
            The other three, on the other hand, are worthless.  First, Vincent Chase is a bore of a character and Adrian Grenier is horrible actor.  Vince’s role in this movie is to beg to save his movie/career half-assedly and hang out with the equally boring Emily Ratajkowski.  There is no joy to watching him on screen.  Even less enjoyable (and more misogynistic) is E’s storyline.  E has a pregnant on/off/on/off girlfriend that’s he wants to help out while dating someone else.  When that ends, E has a one night stand that night.  This storyline produces a scene so awkwardly anti-woman that I expected a Wet T-Shirt Contest to begin during the scene.  Finally, Turtle’s main purpose is to hit on Ronda Rousey.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Rousey is put to much better use here than in FURIOUS 7.  Just another subplot that begins & ends like a typical, half-hour sitcom subplot.
            The rest of the movie is based on how much you love celeb cameos or how young, rich Texans are entitled assholes.  Every time a sports or music star appeared the audience lost it.  Not a single one of them did something memorable or noteworthy, like a Seltzer/Freiberg “comedy”.  And Haley Joel Osment gets to live the Hollywood life as the spoiled son of Billy Bob Thornton.  Other than a scene in a hotel room, neither get to do anything.
            ENTOURAGE is the guys’ night out movie they’ve been waiting for.  And just like the girls’ night out movie this summer, PITCH PERFECT 2, it stinks.  Thanks to Ari Gold, it’s a little better.  But, bros, you deserve better?  Well, better than this.  Maybe.

*1/2

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Review: SPY

I do not own the above image.  Copyright 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

            Can a movie be just funny with little to nothing of quality behind it?  That is the argument I got myself into with myself in the three weeks since seeing SPY.  I’ve been racking my brain for a movie that is so funny that the shortcomings of the story and look of the movie can be overlooked.  And for the two plus hours of writing this review, I can’t think of a movie like SPY.  SPY feels like the best vulgar sitcom on television that just leaves you wanting more and better.
            Susan Cooper (McCarthy) loves her job most days.  She is the eyes, ears, radar and conscience for superspy Bradley Fine (Law).  After Bradley is murdered by a super villain Tihomir Boyanov’s just-as-evil daughter Rayna (Byrne), Susan’s worst day of her career turns into the best when her superior (Janney) is forced to send her out into the field to avenge his death, much to the chagrin of the agency’s best spy Rick Ford (Statham).
            Let me just get this out there before I appear to contradict myself in the next 500 or so words: I did in fact laugh during this movie about a dozen times.  There are really, really good jokes spread out over the two hour runtime.  The best jokes are the ones that poke fun at the many spy movie clichés we have become so familiar with in the numerous James Bond movies and their imitators.  McCarthy can throw out the one-liners like the best of the best in Hollywood.  Personally, I’ve missed the charm Jude Law brings to the screen.  And Statham shows that he is no one-trick, action-centric pony with his timing & line delivery.
            SPY’s problems are two fold.  First, the humor.  As much as I laughed, the audience laughed at least 2.5 times as much, which is my problem, not writer/director Paul Feig’s.  But there were a minimum of 15 major attempts at jokes that didn’t result in a chuckle from the preview audience.  How can a comedy be classified as “good” if it is only successful 60% of the time?  Another issue with the humor was the subject matter.
            Remember how I said the best jokes were the ones that poked fun at the spy movies clichés?  Well, those were maybe 25% of the jokes.  A majority of the comedy stems from what is quickly becoming a cliché in the Melissa McCarthy filmography: her appearance.  The occasional quip about her weight, age, beauty (or lack thereof) or physique is fine.  But Feig (or the actors, if this were improv) loads so many of these one-liners, which feels like 60% of the jokes & many of them in rapid succession, that SPY ceases to be funny and starts to feel mean-spirited.  Statham’s character in particular goes overboard.  Rick Ford should have been this totally outlandish James Bond-type character.  Instead, too often, he’s just an asshole.
            Where SPY really loses its way is in the antagonist department.  Feig deserves credit for making the audience hate Rayna.  We should all hate anyone who kills Jude Law.  Where the movie falls apart are the constant reminders that Rayna isn’t the center of the operation.  That distinction belongs to Sergio De Luca (Cannavale).  De Luca is frequently referenced throughout the movie but we only get to spend time with him in the final 20 minutes or so.  If a villain is going to be hyped as much as De Luca is, he better be worth the wait.  Unfortuately, De Luca is nothing but a commanding, all-bark-but-no-bite ringleader who steals the spotlight by being the center of the uneventful climax.  Cannavale plays De Luca so straight & wooden you’d swear a cardboard cutout were on-screen.
            I’m asked many times by many people if it is possible for me to just sit back and enjoy movies.  When SPY was funny, I laughed.  But when I (or the audience) don’t laugh, you have to find something to pay attention to.  And if the story underneath the comedy is lacking despite the great first act, your mind tends to wander.  And wondering I was.  Wondering just how high McCarthy’s star can go.  Wondering if the script could have used another rewrite to tighten the humor & the second half of the movie.  Wondering if I am wrong about this movie.


**1/2

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

SAN ANDREAS

I do not own the above image.  Copyright Warner Bros./New Line Pictures.  All Rights Reserved

            Growing up in Southwestern Pennsylvania, there was only one way to see a movie: at a drive-in movie theatre.  If you were lucky, your town’s drive-in didn’t close in the mid 1980’s, sold to make way for farmland or a shopping center.  My town was lucky.  The Skyview Twin Drive-In is still there, 2 miles from my parents house.  For the first half of my life, my parents would take me there about once every two weeks, usually to see the big, effects-driven blockbusters.
            Two in particular that I remember seeing in their opening weeks were INDEPENDENCE DAY and GODZILLA, both were directed by Roland Emmerich.  Both were hyped in commercials for their action scenes, achieved using the best computers money could buy.  Unfortunately, the one thing they didn’t use computers for was a script.  This brings me to today, where I see a familiar name in the disaster movie world shows up in the end credits of SAN ANDREAS: Toby Emmerich.  So it came to no surprise why my reaction to this movie was what it was. (Note: Toby & Roland are not related.)
            SAN ANDREAS follows the fractured Gaines family during a once-every-150-years earthquake as they race against nature to find each other.  But writer Carlton Cuse (Lost co-creator) and director Brad Peyton don’t really care about the characters all that much.  Ray (The Rock) and Emma (Gugino) are in the middle of a divorce; not that you can tell, there is little friction between them in the one argument they have.  Their (living) daughter Blake (Daddario) seems fine with the fact that her mother is running into the arms of successful architect Daniel Riddick (Gruffund).  I guess she just loves lounging around by the giant, in-ground pool in the backyard.
            There is unintentional comedy thanks to the plight of the soon-to-be ex-spouses.  But to get the hilarity, you have to go to the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind then turn left.  I also hope you don’t mind me spoiling this part of the movie but it has to be fully described to be believed.  Mr. & Mrs. The Rock are playing out the disaster movie version of PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES.  In order to get to their daughter, Ray has to fly his helicopter to rescue Emma on a crumbling skyscraper in LA, crash into the Bakersfield Mall, hotwire a pickup truck, give the pickup to a senior couple in exchange for directions to an airfield, fly a small, parachuting training plane to San Francisco, tandem-jump into AT&T Bank Stadium, save dozens in an aftershock, borrow a rescue boat, only to be almost pulverized by a tidal wave before entering the final leg of their journey.
            Their daughter, on the other hand, is stuck as the basic damsel in distress before becoming the tough, young woman to the face of adversity, while attached to the dull love interest Ben & his ineffective comic relief little brother Ollie, both of whom are visiting from the UK for a reason I still don’t comprehend.  Another problem here is that every single thing they run into becomes convenient.  “We need a landline to tell our family we are alive.  Look!  An electronics store is around the corner!”  “Hey!  An abandoned fire truck that hasn’t been ransacked.  Let’s load up on medical supplies in case one of us gets a stabbed by a falling window.”  “Oh no!  The floor we are on in this in-construction building is flooding!  Quick, let’s go the stairwell we just came up that used to be blocked but isn’t anymore and go up three floors to safety!”  It’s moments like these that makes this movie almost too bad for its own good.
            Everything we learn about the earthquake is through Professor Lawrence (Giamatti).  His purpose is to discover the phenomenon, predict what happens next and alert the media (and the audience) what they are going to experience next.  Apart from the first earthquake at the Hoover Dam, Giamatti was relegated to staying in his office, occasionally visiting the Cal Tech media studio to be on the news or hiding underneath his desk every time the camera (sorry, earth) shook.  This I didn’t mind because he also wasn’t the bumbling comic relief like previous disaster movie scientists.
            But there were plenty of little things that I did mind.  The special effects aren’t that special.  Falling building hitting other buildings causing them to fall and the destruction of the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge by earthquake & tsunami, respectively, which are nothing you haven’t seen happen before to the White House or Statue of Liberty.  There are numerous, half-assed shots of random extras embracing each other or praying together that add nothing to the proceedings since they only appear in a single shot.  Some of the main actors appear lost while uttering the bland, redundant dialogue against an occasionally obvious green screen.  A minority has to die first, but at least he isn’t black this time.  Progress!  Another surprise: Emma’s boyfriend is an a$$hole, who gets a comeuppance he doesn’t deserve because of how little it has to do with the central family and is, frankly, a cop out to get a cheap cheer from the crowd.  He should have been thrown off his precious building by The Rock in full costume.  3-D still sucks.  And don’t get me started on the tasteless opening scene.
            SAN ANDREAS feels like the younger step-brother to Roland Emmerich’s disaster porn movies of the mid-to-late 1990s.  The movie is lifeless in story & character but overstuffed in the underwhelming special effects department.  In a world where superhero movies understand story is at least slightly important and movies like MAD MAX: FURY ROAD use real, practical effects to tell a complex story, movies like this have no place in the summer blockbuster landscape anymore.  Good riddance and don’t let the door digitally collapse on you on the way out.

*1/2

Saturday, May 16, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

I do not own the above image.  Copyright Warner Brothers Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

            It’s amazing what movies you look over sometimes when you weren't in existence when they were released.  Kubrick only made two movies while I was alive, but the movies he made before my time (DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) are masterpieces.  My father got to see the original STAR WARS trilogy during their original runs before he & my mother started our family.  I like to think my parents went to see BACK TO THE FUTURE when my mother was 6 months pregnant with me.
            I’ve known of the MAD MAX trilogy for about a decade.  I understood it to be a cult hit.  What I didn’t know was how large that cult was.  The entire run-up to FURY ROAD was based solely on just how great the original trilogy was.  So, in a three day span earlier this week, I watched the first two movies on-demand.  The original MAD MAX is an interesting character study of a man who reaches his breaking point in dystopic Australia, even if it does take a while to get there but doesn’t stay with the rise & climax long enough.  THE ROAD WARRIOR is a near-masterpiece about the desire & necessity of communal survival with a stupendous action setpiece at the center.  With predecessors like these, how can a modern-day movie in an age of inflated budgets & computer-dependent sequences live up to them?  MAD MAX: FURY ROAD exceeds all realistic expectations a moviegoer can have.
            In the near, post-nuclear war future, Max Rockatansky (Hardy) is captured by a local cult called the War Boys to be used as a blood donor for one of their own, Nux (Hoult).  Nux is soon called into action to help retrieve the cult’s lone gasoline tanker, being driven by Imperator Furiosa (Theron), who has gone rogue while on a mission to refill the cult supply of fuel, which is very scarce to begin with.  In addition, King Immortan Joe’s Five Wives, his designated breeders, have disappeared.
            MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is, on the surface, is a chase movie.  Frankly, it’s a 120 minute long chase scene.  This movie is every gear-head & weapon-junkie’s dream.  The War Boys are armed with javelins that explode on impact.  Furiosa is armed with every type of gun & knife in this dystopia, each hidden in every nook & cranny in the tanker’s cab.
            But any movie could have the action elements.  What makes MAD MAX so special is the flawless execution & tension.  The extreme sense of urgency is smeared over nearly every second.  Any instance of car trouble, whether it be by engine overheating, gunshot or low fuel, could spell doom our heroes.  Tension is enhanced to 11 thanks to Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL’s pulse-pounding, electrifying score.  Nearly every bit of action was meticulously storyboarded by director George Miller.  Miller, along with drug-out-of-retirement cinematographer John Seale, is able to craft action scenes that put every Michael Bay movie to shame using nothing but actual vehicles & living breathing stuntmen.  It is rare in this day & age to see such scenes, let alone have an entire movie with as little CGI as possible.
            Imperator Furiosa is, by far, the best female protagonist this side of Ellen Ripley.  Furiosa’s reputation of being the best at what she does is displayed in her near-wordless introduction as the driver of the rig.  The poor, dirty crowd goes wild for her and her face never changes expressions.  Furiosa’s early fight with Max and her maneuvers of the rig & inside the cab when needed show she lives up to her name.  And her robotic left arm is perfect: futuristic in its basic design but not a technological marvel like other sci-fi movies.  Like Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY, MAD MAX made me care about Charlize Theron for the first time.  Max, based upon my review so far, appears to be nothing more than a bystander.  But Max does get his opportunity to do what he does best: lead the good guys to achieve their goal while saying few words and asking for little more than his freedom while battling demons of his own.
            There are hints of deeper meanings to MAD MAX.  The most obvious being our dependency on oil and its consequences.  There are also serious religious overtones.  King Immortan Joe preaches to his men that if they give their lives to the cause, they will be met with riches in the afterlife.  Having these messages is fine if you follow through with them.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t.  The one symbolic thing that does work is the opening scene, where we see Max stomp on then eat a two-headed, CGI lizard, signifying that realness of the effects you are about to witness are superior to the fake effects generated by computers in every other movie you’ll see this summer.
            MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is an old school action flick in a world with other modern “action” movies that are wholly dependent on cheap computer graphics & well-know superheroes and puts them to shame.  A movie that starts quick and never stops; even accelerating as the finish line draws near.  A true feast for the eyes, ears & mind of moviegoers who should expect more bang for their buck.  Easily the most fun I’ve had at a movie theatre since THE LEGO MOVIE.  This is the movie FURIOUS 7 and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON wishes they were.

****1/2



Thursday, May 7, 2015

HOT PURSUIT


I do not own the above image.  Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

            It was around this time last year that I saw a movie meant as a fun excuse for a girls’ night.  The movie shall remain nameless (THE OTHER WOMAN…dammit…) but the sentiment won’t: women are moviegoers too and deserve quality movies for them.  So, on a weekend where the guys get to fawn over their comics coming to life on the big screen again, the ladies get HOT PURSUIT.  What an unfair trade.
            Officer Cooper (Witherspoon) is tasked with protecting the wife of a potential witness in the arrest of a drug kingpin.  But the wife, Daniella (Vergara), is having none of it.  But after the murder of Daniella’s husband and Cooper’s US Marshall partner by dueling assassins, the ladies go on the run.
            And hilarity ensues!  It a perfect world, that is the case.  Unfortunately, this a world co-created by a staff writer on According to Jim and the writer of AQUAMARINE & MATERIAL GIRLS directed by the choreographer-turned-director of STEP UP and 27 DRESSES.  So, it should come as no surprise that the jokes are such lowbrow topics as a woman’s love of shoes, a man’s love of lesbianism, granny panties and a lengthy discussion of Sofia Vergara’s menstrual cycle.  I remember laughing not a single time at all the slapstick and half-assed attempts at adult humor.  There are numerous occasions where jokes about sex are cut off mid sentence so as to not set off the MPAA Ratings Board in order to keep the PG-13 rating.
            I have no large issue with Sofia Vergara.  I quite enjoy her on Modern Family.  In the little spurts we get of her on Wednesday nights, she can be very funny.  Here, she is nothing short of awful.  As a co-lead in a motion picture, her lack of coherence goes from an amusing little gag to a giant, headache-inducing annoyance.  The fact that English is Vergara’s second language works as a joke on television but is destructive when it is occurs while telling a joke.
            There are a few moments where Witherspoon shows us why she has an Academy Award winner.  Not because anything she does here is awards worthy, but instead because we see her try really hard to get this less-than-buoyant movie afloat.  Her Texas accent is so over the top that with minisculely better material, a significant portion of the movie might actually work.  Witherspoon needs to stay away from toxic screenplays like this.  Luckily, it appears she is going back to Alexander Payne next.  Finally, something & someone worthy of her enormous talent.
            There is one little element to the movie that does work.  During the opening credits sequence, we see young Officer Cooper in the backseat of her father’s police cruiser, idolizing him as he goes about his business ethically.  It is in this simple, two-minute montage that the movie presents a false sense of hope that this movie could be anything other than horrible.  But all is quickly downhill from there until we reach the joyless, boring third act that takes place at the recently released drug kingpin’s daughter’s quinceanera.  This forced finale lacks any tension whatsoever since it wants to be played without comedy, none of the villains are developed beyond the caricature stage and climax with a scene featuring a villain only seen in television news clips up until that point.
            HOT PURSUIT ends up as a disastrous, “Girls’ Night Out” wannabe movie.  With its 87 minute runtime, it’s barely a movie.  With its cutoff, overlong & failed jokes, it’s barely a comedy.  With Sophia Vergara as a co-lead, it’s barely comprehensible.  With yours truly as a paying customer, I’m barely sane after this experience.  With the target audience (hopefully) saving their money for PITCH PERFECT 2 next week, it’ll barely get noticed at the box office and deservedly so.  Ladies, you *still* deserve better.


*

My (Very Late) @slashfilm Summer Movie Wager Entry

Commentary coming soon.
1. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON $485 million
2. MINIONS $425 million
3. JURASSIC WORLD $385 million
4. ANT-MAN $285 million
5. INSIDE OUT $245 million
6. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 5 $237 million
7. TOMORROWLAND $232 million
8. TED 2 $220 million
9. PITCH PERFECT 2 $205 million
10. MAGIC MIKE XXL $195 million
WC1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
WC2. SPY
WC3. FANTASTIC FOUR