Saturday, September 23, 2017

Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

            
            Kingman: The Golden Circle plays out the third entry of an unplanned trilogy. The first problem you’ll notice is that this is only the second entry in the Matthew Vaughn-directed feature based on the Mark Millar comic series. You get the sense from the opening 20 minutes that Eggsy had done a series of competent adventures but nothing worth writing home to his mother about. That in & of itself is not a criticism of the movie but a reality I needed to grasp in order to enjoy the two hours to follow.
            But that arose a general problem I have with this installment compared to its predecessor: I was totally confused about some of the choices for the characters. Remember the Swedish princess from the end of the 2015 installment? She’s here as Eggsy’s serious girlfriend. Remember Roxy, the young lady who actually won the right to be in the Kingsmen? Well…(spoiler but not spoiler)…she dies in the attack that is supposed to end the Kingsmen about 20 minutes in. Remember their rich, douchey classmate who ratted out the Kingsmen during training? He’s back as one the henchmen who attacks Eggsy as the movie opens.
            As far as new characters go, they are way more plentiful in quantity than they are in quality. The villain this time around is Julianne Moore as The Golden Circle drug kingpin Poppy Adams whose defining characteristic is her love of the 1950s. She lacks any of the cheese that oozed out of the villain in the previous adventure. Moore shows signs that she can be this diabolical character in her first scene but the rest of her scenes don’t back that up. We also meet the American version of the Kingsmen, the Statesmen, represented here by alcoholic names like Champagne (“Champ” as he prefers) & Whiskey. Jeff Bridges’ Champ & Channing Tatum’s Whiskey exist solely to let the audience know where the producers want to go in the next adventure. I wouldn’t be shocked if Bridges were on set for two days because that’s how easy his part is. Champ has about three scenes & they’re all on the same set. The presence of Tatum is by far the most disappoint aspect of The Golden Circle. He is in probably in six scenes, two of which he’s frozen & a third he’s in the background dancing for about five seconds.
            Vaughn’s frenetic style is still there but there is missing something. The screenplay by Vaughn & frequent co-contributor Jane Goldman is so jammed with new ideas that the sense of fun is lost. There are action scenes that try to replicate the joy last time but only the injection of a certain superstar entertainer can get it close to that level. The final showdown between our protagonists & the unsuccessfully established second villain tries to be the church scene from the last movie but the insanity is only turned up to 6 instead of the 11 it needed to be. The mission goes all over the world from a dull shootout in the Italian Alps to some uncomfortable moments in Glastonbury. Those who accuse this series as misogynist won’t get an argument from me after the tent scene about 35 minutes in. There are so many little moments here that don’t work. In particular, there is an emotional death scene at the beginning of the third act that goes on too long with a song whose inclusion makes no sense.
            As far as the actors go, Taron Egerton is still just fine as Eggsy. His thick cockney accent still gets on my nerves. However, Mark Strong is still solid as Merlin. The worst kept secret in Hollywood, Colin Firth returns as Harry/Galahad & is his usual great self. Halle Berry is the only member of the Statemen that works as her Merlin-equivalent Ginger Ale has a full arc.
            Kingsman: The Golden Circle can be summed up by the set direction of the villain’s hideout. Vaughn & company went all out on the 1950s period detail. It looked exactly like the utopias you’ve seen on the best nostalgic pictures. But once the doors of the diner or the bowling alley or the salon were opened, you found the emptiness of the story. To the left, there were the boring villains from the not-over-the-top-enough Julianne Moore to the didn’t-want-to-see-again failed Kingsman Charlie. To the right, you had the disappointing new additions the Statesmen included an under-utilized Jeff Bridges & a criminally sidelined Channing Tatum. And right in front of you, you get too many uncomfortable moments many complained about & not enough of the grizzly, fun action beats the first time around. A sad way to start the fall.

**

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Good, The Ehhh and The Ugly of Summer 2017

The Good
1. All Things Wonder Woman
            What can be said about Patty Jenkins’ first theatrical outing in 14 years that hasn’t been said already? Some said an early cut was a mess. Some said it would bomb. Others believed it would have the DCEU’s smallest opening. A select few even wondered why Gal Gadot had shaved armpits for crying out loud.
            But what are they saying now? The film critic community loved it. Theatre owners loved the increased concessions sales. Warner Brothers went crazy for the $800+ million worldwide gross. Girls, both the young & the young at heart, cheered as they saw their heroine come out of the box swinging. Comic book bros were (mostly) quieted by what they saw on screen.
            As for yours truly, a CBM skeptic if there ever was one, I was astonished by the entire 140 minutes. Gal Gadot went into a gear she never displayed in any of her previous work. She feels so comfortable in that armor. Jenkins’ direction & the writing of Geoff Johns provide the excellent crescendo for Diana (and Gadot by extension) to rise from princess into warrior. But she is not without help. With his role as Steve Trevor, Chris Pine should finally get that final boost needed for him to be considered a star. The chemistry between Gadot & Pine is electric. Their first two scenes of just them talking (the hot springs & the boat) are so natural you’d swear they’ve known each other for years. The rest of the cast from the powerful Connie Neilsen & Robin Wright to the always reliable Lucy Davis & David Thewlis create an ensemble that would rival any other created this year. Most criticism is placed on the now-typical big & loud CBM ending. I would argue that even though the villains are a bit on the slight & cartoony side, the climax is the only time WW goes into full CBM mode with big, major set piece.
            What we are left with is the best movie of the summer, the best summer blockbuster in years & a financial success beyond comprehension.

2. Logan Lucky
            This was familiar territory for Oscar winning director Steven Soderbergh. He’s done heist movies before with his Ocean’s Trilogy. But those movies weren’t as exciting or as fun or as funny as this. Logan Lucky follows the exploits of Jimmy Logan, an unemployed former football star, as he leads a team of small town “experts” as they attempt to burgle Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600. Each member of the team is unique. You have the wounded war vet turned one-armed bartender. You have the incarcerated improvised ballistics expert. All these characters & more all set out to get the American Dream.

3. All Things Baby Driver
            When Sony moved Edgar Wright’s newest flick from the August 11th to June 28th, I was skeptical. Not of the picture itself but of the strategy behind the move. August was wide open outside of the potential blockbuster The Dark Tower (which Sony didn’t need to worry about after all). Why release any movie targeted towards the prime demographic (males aged 15-34) five days after the 5th Transformers movie & nine days before the newest reboot of Spider-Man? It turns out we needn’t worry: the people came to the tune of almost $200 million worldwide on a $34 million production budget, making it one of the few movies to show a profit this summer.
            As for the movie itself, I have to defend my position on it. First & foremost, I liked it but didn’t love it. I enjoyed to inventiveness of the action sequences. I loved the smart, fresh dialogue and the small interactions between Baby & his caretaker. I liked most of the characters, especially Baby’s fellow criminal cohorts. So, why didn’t I love this movie like everyone else? First, the gimmick of having every action sequence be choreographed to a piece of popular music wore off especially when it bled into mundane acts like opening a car door. Secondly, I didn’t feel that the Debora was developed enough as a character. Outside of those two mild pieces, Baby Driver was quite the satisfying experience in the middle of this dull summer.

4. The Big Sick
            Kumail Nanjani & Emily Gordon have such a unique love story that they wanted to tell us about it. Boy, am I happy they did. Their semi-autobiographical look at their story pulls the heartstrings in every direction possible so often that one might wonder if their heart might stop under protest. We meet Kumail as an up-and-coming comic who gets heckled by young Emily in the audience. They soon hit it off & have what they perceive to be a one night stand. Meanwhile, Kumail is being pressured by his parents to find a suitable Pakistani wife, just like his brother. Soon, his profession & personal worlds are turned upside down as Emily goes into a coma and Kumail is forced to meet & entertain her parents for the first time. What The Big Sick gives us is a story about the hopes & dreams of two separate cultures and how creating the American Dream in the melting pot that is Modern America is difficult & sometimes can tear family bonds. Nanjani (as “himself”) & Zoe Kazan are great as the central couple but the movie is almost stolen from them by Ray Ramano & Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents. The Big Sick is that special Sundance hit that the world needs in the middle of every summer in between all those overblown blockbusters to settle the stomachs of the movie-going public and it succeeded critically & commercially.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 @ the Box Office
            This sequel to the surprise hit of 2014 was supposed to be the biggest movie of the summer of 2017. While it didn’t get that title this year, it wasn’t because it was a disappointment. A $390 million domestic & an $860 million worldwide gross is nothing to laugh at for these characters who aren’t as well known as most comic book heroes with their own movie franchises.

6. Captain Underpants
            On the surface, Captain Underpants looks to be made for the lowest common denominator: little children & childish tweens. But once the lights went down, we were treated to a fable about the power of imagination & creativity. Best friends George & Harold use a magical decoder ring to turn their authoritarian school principal Benjamin Krupp into their comic creation, Captain Underpants. Don’t you hate it when that happens?! Captain Underpants, with the illusion of superpowers & with a office curtain as a cape, must face off against the diabolical Professor Poopy Pants & his plot to take over the world using giant toilets.
            Childish & bathroom humor are prevalent throughout but heart is never far behind. The animation style is never revolutionary nor did it try to be but what there was was expertly faithful to the source material as possible. Each of the voice actors is great in their own way with Nick Kroll getting the highest marks as the absurd villain. One can only hope that we are treated to another installment but with the moderate box office success, I’m not getting my hopes up.

Upper Limbo
Spider-Man Homecoming Box Office
            With its $325 million domestic take, this Spider-Man adaptation was surely boosted by the presence of Tony Stark after the previous installment disasterous post-opening weekend run. So why am I not 100 % positive about this? The international numbers are down significantly ($500 million vs $418 million), showing the possibility of Spider-Man fatigue. Marvel & Sony need to tread lightly.

The Eh…
1. Atomic Blonde
            Based on a graphic novel, Atomic Blonde is the story of an MI6 agent who is tasked with reclaiming a list of undercover agents before it gets into the wrong hands. The first 60% of the pic nearly all style with a sliver of overstuffed substance. Taking place in 1989 Berlin, you see & feel 1989 Europe all around you. Old, dirty buildings on the outside with all the neon pink & yellow the set designer could find on the insides. The spy story gets too complicated & jumbled too quickly that if you arrived on time you might miss something. But once all that stuff got out of the way, Charlize Theron & the fight choreography took over & never quit. There’s an “no cut” fight scene that takes place in an apartment & stairwell that will rival any previous type of scene in its precision & kill count. Theron continues to show she is more than an pretty face. She is a bad ass of the highest order. If Atomic Blonde were as exciting & pulse-pounding as the last 45 minutes, I could whole heartedly recommend it. But as it exists, watch the first 10 minutes then skip to the action scene above at about the 1:20 mark, sit back & enjoy.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy
            As for the movie itself, I have to be honest: it has been about two months since I watched the picture, I don’t remember a thing I liked. I vividly remember sitting in the theatre with popcorn in my lap, watching the images on the screen, enjoying some of what I saw then the end credits started rolling, I stood up to yell at some teenagers who fooled around the entire time & finally left. But I can’t for the life of me remember a single specific thing I enjoyed about the movie. I can tell you that the opening credits “fight” was an unwanted distraction. I can remember thinking that the subplot revolving around the spaceships piloted remotely deserved their own 95 minute movie & not just a subplot in a 130 minute one. I remember the sneezing fit I had in the middle. But GotGV2 is nothing but a typical forgettable entry in the MCU.

3. The Mummy
            I’ll be talking about the failures of numerous franchise or would-be franchise entries a little later in the piece but here I want to talk about one that failed but was not nearly as bad as most say it was. Universal Pictures’ Dark Universe has the possibility of being something with the pedigree of acting talent they have arranged. This franchise-starter was able to bring in Tom Cruise & Russell Crowe for crying out loud. Cruise is the only reason why this movie isn’t a disaster. In his 35 years in front of the camera, Cruise is never the reason a movie is terrible & The Mummy is the best example of that. The movie is a mess with its terrible Alex Kurtzman direction & special effects and an overcooked screenplay. But Cruise makes the best of it as he runs from set piece to set piece like a madman while I alone smiled the whole time. Crowe hams it up as Jekyll/Hyde but everyone else is given nothing to do. A big missed opportunity nonetheless.

4. Trio of Three-quels
            What can be said about Cars 3 and Despicable Me 3 that hasn’t been said already? Both are new entries to animated franchises on the decline critically & commercially. Both are movies that succeed in making my MoviePass subscription worth it for seeing these. Cars 3 has a feminist angle that doesn’t work since it isn’t all that feminist. DM3 has a brotherhood angle that doesn’t work since the movie ends just as the movie got interesting. Both had small moments that worked (Cars 3 looked like it wasn’t going to have a happy ending for a moment while DM3’s villain was an interesting character for a while before blowing up in our face). Both are so unworthy of continuing to be talked about.
            War for the Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, had the potential of finishing off as one of the best cinematic trilogies. For half the runtime, it looked that way as our protagonists ventured into the post-Simian Flu world. That excitement came to a screeching halt once they encounter The Colonel & his ape prison.

Lower Limbo
Girls Trip
            Let me get something off my chest: I laughed a few times during the first hour of Girls Trip due to the sheer outrageousness of some of the proceedings. In the weeks since, I’ve forgotten all the laughs. One big reason is that they weren’t all that noteworthy. Another reason is that the movie devolves into a borefest about the main character & her professional athlete husband’s marriage & whether they can hold it together for a television deal. But my biggest issue with Girls Trip is the character played by the breakout star of the summer, Tiffany Haddish. Her Dina is played as if she’s a bonafide cartoon. She is completely untethered to any possible reality this movie can offer, making any believability in her character impossible. Combine that with an abrupt half-ending, Girls Trip won’t make a place in my summer scrapbook.

The Ugly
1. Dunkirk
            I freely admit I am a crazy person. This is one of those times where I’m in the vast minority. I found Dunkirk to be an empty attempt by virtuoso Christopher Nolan to make his version of Gravity. I couldn’t find a single character to care about. For more, check out my review elsewhere on this blog.

2. Victims of Sequel Fatigue & Franchise-itis
            Per usual, this summer had its share of sequels & potential franchise starters. A select few did well, most wearing capes & previously mentioned. The fifth installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean did fairly well internationally ($620 million) to help Disney show a small profit for the summer. Most every other franchise tanked and it started early with the disaster that was King Arthur ($146 worldwide on a $175 million budget), which resembled the legend in name only. The following weekend, Alien: Covenant ($74 million domestic) failed as word got out as well. The weekend after that Baywatch ($58 million domestic) attempted to pull a 21 Jump Street-type reboot but failed miserably. The fifth Transformers installment crashed & burned domestically ($130 million) but is still a thing elsewhere ($473 internation). Even the critically acclaimed War for the Planet of the Apes suffered this summer ($144 domestic & $366 worldwide). But the two disasters waited until the disaster that was August. The Dark Tower was supposed to start a multimedia universe but after critical & commercial failure ($101 worldwide on a $60 million budget) that might not happen. But at least Sony is in better shape than Open Road, who put all their chips behind a sequel to an animated movie few saw to begin with. Now, after The Nut Job 2 ($28.7 million worldwide on a $40 million budget), Open Road is in dire straits.

3. Comedy
            Outside of Girls Trip, comedy took a pounding this summer critically & commercially. Heck, even I skipped most of them (I saw Rough Night only because of a drive-in double feature with Baby Driver). In addition to the previously mentioned Baywatch, Snatched ($46 million), Rough Night ($22 million) and The House ($25.5 million after being hidden from critics) all failed miserably.

4. The Emoji Movie
            This thing (it shouldn’t be confused with an actual movie) isn’t worth writing about any further. Check out my review on this monstrosity elsewhere here.

The Worst
5. A Ghost Story

            David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is the perfect example of a movie cinephiles are made fun of for liking. Lowery, who made this in between commitments for last year’s Pete’s Dragon remake, wrote & directed this to be as artistic & ambiguous as possible. Unfortunately, what was projected is pretentious & ambiguous until the final 15 minutes, which is balls-to-the-wall bizarre leading to an abrupt, infuriating ending. Casey Affleck acts his heart out under that giant bed sheet & Rooney Mara eats the heck out of a pie but all is for naught.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: The Emoji Movie

            The Emoji Movie is about as funny, as unpredictable & as original as an episode of Criminal Minds.
            Gene (Miller) is the only son of two “Meh” Emojis & it’s his turn to join the family business: as the “Meh” Emoji in a teenager’s phone.  But Gene doesn’t know if he feels right for the job.  After a terrible first shift, head emoji Smiler (Rudolph) decides he needs deleted.  On the run with fellow outcast Hi-5 (Corden), Gene soon meets Jailbreak (Faris), who says she can make him who he is meant to be.  What will that be?
            The basic outline for The Emoji Movie is ripped right out of Wreck-It Ralph.  The whole movie takes place inside the world of a generic smartphone.  The lack of cell phone company is only time Sony misses an opportunity for blatant product placement.  Early in the journey there’s a four minute “adventure” in the kid’s Candy Crush Saga app, showcasing the special levels you can actually play on your phone after the movie.  (Just a heads up, the levels are easy enough for the kid kicking your seat to beat on the first try.)  The next significant scene takes place in the Just Dance game app.  Before the movie ends, there are would-be touching scenes or should-be amusing gags involving Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter & Spotify.  The Emoji Movie using the Seltzer/Friedberg method of hoping to produce laughs: humor by association.  Director/co-writer Tony Leondis (Igor) thinks that because you recognize familiar things you’ll laugh.  Apart from from those gags, The Emoji Movie also features forced & lame Dad Jokes & puns featuring cameos from all your favorite Emojis.
            The movie gets really tiresome really quick.  Leading the charge is Smiler, who is as conniving as a dead parrot.  She has not master plan; her whole objective is to keep the Emojis as a well oiled machine.  This lack of intrigue makes the finale all the more boring.
            The Emoji Movie is cheap so-called entertainment featuring bad voiceover work, a stolen concept & exactly one laugh.  The movie does accomplish one thing: It answers the question “Is there such thing as too much James Corden?”  The answer is yes.


½*

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Review: Dunkirk

            As the end credits rolled on Dunkirk, I sat there in shock & had to hold back tears.  I’ve cried in movies before but this time felt different.  Tears came not because I was attached to the characters & their journey ending like with Return of the King or Toy Story 3.  Nor did I cry tears of joy because what just transpired onscreen was so magical like the Define Dancing sequence in Wall•E or Spotlight as a whole.  Instead, it was profound sadness that I didn’t feel the joy & the awe the rest of the audience felt as they left.  Not even close.
            On the shores of Dunkirk, we meet Tommy (Whitehead), a British private who survives shooting in the streets of town, & the mysterious Gibson (Barnard) in their desperate attempt to escape the beach.  On the sea, we follow Mr. Dawson (Rylance), his son Peter (Glynn-Carney) and their young crewman George (Keoghan) aboard Moonstone on their journey to Dunkirk to assist in the rescue effort.  In the air, three RAF pilots, led by Farrier (Hardy), are in charge of providing air cover for the retreating Allied forces.
            As I walked out of the theatre into the lobby & finally to my car, I staggered, tripping over the carpet, dazed.  I honestly couldn’t believe what I had just watched.  Essentially, I watched Christopher Nolan, who has made such wonderful works as The Prestige & Inception, try to create his own version of Alfonzo Cuaron’s Gravity.  Instead of one grand character to root for, Nolan - who also wrote the screenplay- has created almost a dozen minor characters with no discernible characteristics or full names.  For instance, the two soldiers on the ground spend most of the movie running from boat to boat, trying to escape only to have every single ship blow up in their faces.  After the third different boat explodes without a discussion as to who these soldiers are, one might check out.
            The movie also intercuts scenes of the crew of the Moonstone sailing.  Then sailing some more.  Then picking up Shivering Sailor (that is literally his name in the end credits) before sailing towards Dunkirk some more, against Shivering’s objections.  During these scenes, Sailor does exactly one thing of that can be considered a relevant action that is so despicable towards another character that you feel zero sympathy for him, despite the fact that he is supposed to represent the thousands of shell shocked soldiers of Dunkirk.  But the worst of this subplot occurs at the end when Nolan allows Shivering to get away with it without consequence.
            There are two characters that have the ability to hold the interest of the audience.  The first is Farrier, who you feel actually believes in his mission, in the soldiers on the shore & in his fellow pilots.  The second appears in one scene in the final five minutes that is so heartbreakingly beautiful that I don’t dare spoil it here.
            But what I will spoil is the defining moment where I knew for absolute certain that Dunkirk was Nolan making his own, simpler version of Gravity.  At the end of the movie, one of the leads is reading Churchill’s We Shall Fight on the Beaches speech from the newspaper as a closing voiceover.  During the speech, we see Farrier attempting to land the plane on a now-deserted Dunkirk beach as he runs out of fuel. (Oh…SPOILER ALERT: most of the soldiers are rescued.  Sorry about that.) During this, the plane’s landing gear fails to deploy, forcing Farrier to manually pump the wheels out before he loses altitude.  This final scene shows that Nolan wasn’t looking to make any sort of deep movie about the fragility of man or the despair of war.  He wanted to make a simple, crowdpleasing thriller that played ticketbuyers’ eyes & ears instead of their hearts & minds.
            In the real Miracle of Dunkirk, the British Navy, along with hundreds of private seacrafts, evacuated almost 350 thousand soldiers over an eight day stretch after the Allies were defeated in an early battle in World War II.  In the newest feature from acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan, he uses the events of Dunkirk to create a dazzlingly empty suspense picture that features set piece after set piece with occasionally grand visuals, spectacular noise that one might call sound effects & bland, literally nameless characters.  It was a miracle I didn’t cry.


*

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Review: Gifted

            Frank Adler (Evans) is dedicated to a simple life as a freelance boat repairman.  He lives is a community of tiny shacks outside of Tampa with his seven-year-old, math genius niece Mary (Grace).  They have a nice friendship with their neighbor Roberta (Spencer), who babysits Mary when Frank goes to his favorite lakeside bar.  He gets quite friendly with Mary’s first grade teacher, Miss Stevenson (Slate).  Life is fine until Frank’s mother Evelyn (Duncan) barges in & tries to get the courts to bring her granddaughter, who she has never met, to Boston for a “proper”, advanced education.
            Gifted is the best movie about parenting this side of Ron Howard’s Parenthood a quarter-century ago.  Gifted is not about young Mary.  She is the match that lights the fire that ignites the movie.  This is a movie about the fragility of childrearing.  Every choice you make as a parent, from which school they attend to the type of ketchup they eat, will have long-term ramifications.  We all know someone whose child is that outstanding citizen or that one who doesn’t quite make it.  Gifted is the perfect examination of the latter.  Evelyn Adler is, without mincing words, a terrible person.  Screenwriter Tom Flynn (first theatrical credit since 1993’s Watch It) walks the fine line between cartoonish evil & humanly evil but the script has its feet firmly planted on the latter’s side.  We all know person who takes “helicopter parenting” a little too far and Evelyn fits that definition to a T and Duncan excels in the role.  It is pretty obvious that Frank is trying his best but you can see in some of the smaller moments that he didn’t sign up for this but he must give it 110% and Frank is game for trying.
            Gifted relies way too much on the courtroom in the second act.  Most of the drama here is expository & Flynn uses the court system as a crutch.  Luckily, director Marc Webb (free from the constraints of studio interference of The Amazing Spider-Man) makes sure the courtroom doesn’t overtake the genuine family drama here.  Outside the courtroom, Gifted works as a heart-tugger until the exceptional third act reveal rips it out & dangles it in front of you.  Additionally, there is a hospital waiting room scene that will test your tear ducts.
            Chris Evans shows he is more than just Captain America here.  But if you’ve been watching him for nearly 20 years, you know that already.  Octavia Spencer could play Roberta in her sleep but is still solid in the role.  Jenny Slate is given too little to do outside the first act but has enough charisma that she doesn’t litter the background the few times she is on-screen  McKenna Grace as Mary is the rare young actor who outshines every adult.  She has to be that talented in order to make us believe that she is naturally writing all those equations & throwing out all that mathematical jargon.  Her emotional scenes with Evans will lower your purse’s tissue inventory.
            Gifted is kind of movie that could have been a lazy, Saturday night Lifetime movie.  Instead, what Webb puts together with a mostly solid script & an exceptional cast is more than admirable.  It’s thought-provoking & genuinely touching.


****

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Review: Power Rangers

I do not own the above image. Copyright Saban Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

            An afternoon children’s institution for almost a quarter century, the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers have returned to the big screen after two decades and they are wiping the slate clean.  Five teenagers in Angel Grove become defenders of the universe against the evil Rita Repulsa under the guidance of Zordon, a former Ranger stuck inside the Grid of the home ship.  As cheesy & goofy the show was back in the day, this new iteration tries to combine some the fun of the original show with a few more gritty elements of the modern world.  But Power Rangers is nothing more than Millennial Nostalgia Syndrome run amok.
            Dean Israelite (Project Almanac) directs this like it’s his entry in the “So You Wanna Direct Transformers?” contest.  Every shot is either an extreme close-up or a wide shot with a Dutch angle.  You could count with one hand the number of times the camera stood still for a majority of the shot.  The camera spun so fast in a travelling car in the opening that I needed to close my eyes to keep from getting motion sickness.  The final battle features too many shots of CGI creatures on the side of the frame.  It always fascinates me when $105 million was spent on a movie and the filmmakers don’t want to show what they spent it on.  Israelite & cinematographer Matthew J Lloyd (Netflix’s Daredevil) create an atmosphere that keeps Power Rangers from being coherent.  Too much of the film, especially early on, is shot at night & is poorly lit, making much of the movie (literally) unwatchable.
            The design of all the supposedly-iconic costumes & vehicles is hideous.  Everything has the same basic color scheme: dark gray on black.  The ship looks like if a 1950s alien designed the Batcave.  It’s worst feature is Zordon himself, who looks like a giant Pin Art 3D attached to the wall like a flat screen television.  That sounds cool but he’s filmed with camera up his nose and your focus is on the individual pin closest to the camera & not the whole face.  The suits & the Zords share the same fatal flaw: the primary color of the Ranger character is not of the primary color of their costume.  In the scene where the Rangers do their clich├ęd, slo-mo, introductory walk towards the camera in the ship, you cannot tell which Ranger is which.  The same thing happens when the Rangers or their mechanical creatures fly across the screen in the fight scene.  The reason is that the majority of each suit is dark grey instead of the primary color of each Ranger.  In addition, each Ranger’s primary color appears to be faded or mixed with black.  If you're colorblind, you're f*cked.  Combine that with the poorly designed henchmen called Puddies, the hand-to-hand fight is a mammoth mess with the light gray fighting dark gray on black rock.
            As for the teenage Rangers, we have Jason Scott (Montgomery), the disgraced star quarterback, Kimberly Hart (Scott), a pariah cheerleader, Billy Cranston (Cyler) an African-American genius on the autism spectrum and Zack (Lin) & Trini (Becky G), two social & ethnical outsiders.  Within five seconds of meeting Kim & Billy, we fall for them as interesting characters thanks to the actors.  Naomi Scott has the kind of face the camera loves and she has the chops to love it back.  If there is anyone of the main five who will breakout, it’s RJ Cyler who plays Billy with the perfect blend of intelligence & awkwardness that adds the slightest bit of reality to the proceedings.  Dacre Montgomery is given the meaty, lead role that has the complexity to him but the young actor lacks the portfolio of facial expressions to convey the necessary emotions.  This actor was obviously cast not because of his talent but for his resemblance to Zac Efron.
            By the time we get a chance to know the final two Power Rangers, the movie has already ran about 40 minutes so they, a young Asian man & a young Latina, are kept in the background.  We do learn that Zack comes from a broken home & has a sick mother and is somewhat developed.  As far as Trini goes, we know she’s an outcast at school & home because she may or may not be a lesbian and…that’s about it.  We don’t even know her name until the 50 minute mark.  Ludi Lin is fine as Zack but Becky G should stick to her day job as a singer.  Every line she says is rushed & in one bland tone as if she wants to get away from the camera as quickly as possible.
            But the bad characters don’t end there.  Rita Repulsa takes way too long developing into her & her creature’s final form that there’s nothing we discover about her outside of her desire to get revenge & take over the world.  Elizabeth Banks is usually very reliable but Meryl Streep circa 1984 couldn’t make Rita work.  Zordon should have been a mystical teacher for the team but, to be brutally honest, he’s an asshole.  Zordon hates the idea of being the spirit in the wall so he devises a plan to come back as one of the Rangers.  And he almost gets away with it but has a moment of unearned humility & accepts his destiny.
            There is also an element of the third act that belongs in the Product Placement Hall of Shame next to the McDonald’s scene in Mac & Me.  Never in the history of cinema or mankind has the location of a Krispy Kreme been so integral to human existence.  It’s moments like that that destroy anything the script that screenwriter John Gatins (Real Steel, Kong: Skull Island) was trying to accomplish in between the callbacks to the TV series.  It’s an aggressively silly moment that makes it appear that the whole movie wants to be a joke but with all the teen angst thrown about in the first two acts, the tone is out of control.
            Power Rangers is Michael Bay-lite, which is still too much of a bad thing.  It’s a movie that is too loud, too frenetic, too confused, too effects-heavy and too nostalgia-focused to be anything worth your attention.  Sure, there are three heroes that are engaging enough but their two ethnic minority counterparts are left in the background and a villain on another planet.  Power Rangers is nothing more than a giant Krispy Kreme doughnut: filling & full of sugar enough for a small burst of energy but full of regret in retrospect.


*

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: Kong: Skull Island

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

            It’s 1973.  Nixon has just negotiated peace with the Vietnamese, starting the end of the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile in Washington, Bill Randa (Goodman), head of secret government agency Monarch, has just received approval to explore an uninhabited island in the South Pacific.  Randa compiles his team with ex-British Special Officer James Conrad (Hiddleston), war photographer Mason Weaver (Larson) and a platoon fresh from the War led by Lt. Col. Preston Parker (Jackson).  Before long, the group invades Skull Island and comes face to face with its primary inhabitant, Kong.
            Kong: Skull Island, at its best, has a goofy quality to it.  The first action shot of a palm tree crashing into a helicopter gives the movie the pro wrestling fighting-style & tone that allows the proceedings & audience to let loose.  The multiple fight sequences one-up each other as the 117 minute runtime moves along.  The fights include such ridiculous shots as Kong shaking soldiers out of a helicopter, Tom Hiddleston with a gas mask & a samurai sword and a climatic battle with many moments that need to be seen to be believed.
            The visual effects are quite impressive.  Kong looks like a practical effect most of the time.  The visuals are at their most impressive when Kong has a mini battle with a creature with an absurd number of tentacles.  The only shot that isn’t convincing is the one time Kong is touched by a human being.
            What keeps Kong: Skull Island from being more than a guilty pleasure is the characters created by screenwriters Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) , Max Borenstein (2014 Godzilla) and Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed & Jurassic World).  Only two characters are worthy of being in a major motion picture.  John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, a WWII vet stuck on Skull Island for 28 years, is the most developed character & we don’t really meet him until halfway through the movie.  He knows the island as well as Kong does.  The best part of Marlow is he isn’t as crazy as the trailers make him out to be and is not relegated to the comic relief.  Most importantly (and detrimentally), as each scene with him goes by with him, you begin to sympathize with Marlow more than every other character in the movie combined.  The only other character of note is Lt. Col. Parker, the most extreme militarist possible once on the island.  Parker slowly begins to lose his sanity as he realizes that this is his chance to “win” a war and Jackson smartly plays it as straight as possible, keeping the movie partially grounded.
            Everyone else is either a near-caricature or an empty pillowcase.  Bill Randa exists solely to get the engine started and is disposed of in the background about 70 minutes in without any fanfare.  Randa hired an outside corporation, whose employees are introduced but are quickly forgotten until each one of them gets a bigger death than Randa himself.  It’s as if there’s 15 minutes of material sitting on a hard drive in a Warner Brothers editing room of their concerns & hijinks.  As I sit here typing this review, I still have no idea the purpose of Hiddleston’s James Conrad.  Outside of his introductory scene & the fight I mentioned earlier, I can’t remember a single word or thing Conrad says or does.  As for photographer Mason Weaver, she exists solely to have the occasional philosophical line (not speeches, single lines of monologue) or gesture and to have a camera bag hang over Brie Larson’s sternum to accentuate her breasts.  The soldiers under Parker’s command range from the scared, young private to the quiet, stealthy guy to the two wise-cracking, interracial best friends.  Not exactly the most inspiring bunch. 
            Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) does make an inspired choice or two.  The second introduction to Kong is a beautiful shot of him against the sun as the helicopters fly in.  It gets quite obvious real quick that Vogt-Roberts likes Apocalypse Now as much as Gareth Edwards liked Jaws from Godzilla.  Each of action sequences is shot competently without the extreme close-ups that usually plague these effects-driven extravaganzas.
            Kong: Skull Island is one of the few “Turn off your brain” movies that kinda works.  There are enough big action scenes to thrill that crowd but lacks any subtle signs of depth and the characters just aren’t there.  It’s big, loud, dumb and I had way too much fun for my own good.


***

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Review: Fifty Shades Darker

I do not own the above image.  Copyright Universal Pictures.

            On this blog & on Movie Rehab, a site I contribute to, I try to call to attention to movies about women for women that deserve it.  In the past, I’ve praised Bridget Jones’ Baby, boosted a portion of How to Be Single and roundly criticized The Other Woman & The Boss as lowest common denominator cesspools that lower the integrity of their protagonists.  As bad as those latter two movies are, Fifty Shades Darker is the closest I’ve come to suggesting women who care about film & themselves as a gender to revolt against cinema.
            When we last left you, Anastasia Steele (Johnson) had left Christian Grey (Dornan) & his Red Room behind.  She has a new job with a great boss, an apartment to die for and friends & roommates that adore her.  Soon enough, however, Grey with his fancy bank account and whips & chains comes crawling back.  Will Ana take him back or will she save herself from…herself?
            Within 10 minutes, we know the answer and it’s not good for anyone.  On their first date back together, Ana does show some restraint & playfulness by flirting with Christian while making dinner.  This kind of ingenuity is short-lived as they hop into bed together to have bland sex.  This early scene highlights yet again that Anastasia, no matter how hard Dakota Johnson tries, is a passive & weak character.  In scene after scene, in life changing decision after decision, Steele meekly goes through this movie like lost puppy.
            Let’s be honest with ourselves: Christian Grey is a creep.  Even on the surface, he’s shady, wealthy character with his lack of normal friendships and a family that either is completely unaware of his lifestyle or totally fine with his “masochistic” side.  Add that to the fact that Grey has dossiers of potential submissives compiled by private investigators.  How did Ana not run directly to court to file a restraining order?  If Brad Pitt in his prime (or even now) tried this, his career goes down the toilet.  What makes Grey any different from Jim Preston in Passengers, who also obsessively researched his object of affection for weeks before ultimately waking her up to woo her?  I guess it’s because Grey owns a penthouse & a helicopter and is a character in a bad Twilight fan-fiction romance novel.
            Every time I blinked, Ana was topless.  I’ve seen Dakota Johnson naked more times this week than my wife.  On the other side of the ledger, models for skiing equipment show more skin that Dornan does in four of the five love scenes.  Even in the two that take place in the shower, Grey is only shown from the belly button up.  Does Dornan, with his plastic abs &pecs and his stiff acting, have no genitalia to complete the Ken Doll ensemble?
            In every regard, Fifty Shades Darker is worse than its predecessor.  When you want steamy love story, wouldn’t you call the guy who adapted Glengarry Glen Ross to the screen?  James Foley shoots this movie like a music video.  There are multiple montages where the camera moves at breakneck speed with blaring pop music, including one where Ana steers Christian’s boat.  That sequence is played out as if Steele was Ricky Bobby returning to the racetrack.  The most egregious sins occur during the love scenes where Foley decides to blast bad R&B while the two go at it.  The worst of these occurs when Ana is fingered in a crowded elevator.  The music is originally that muzak that you hear in every elevator everywhere, but once they start fooling around, we are treated to a Top 40 song that will sound great on the faux-edgy, housewife-approved soundtrack.  Any sexiness still left in the room as the two lifeless central characters had immediately disappeared as that outside music distracts from the already bleak proceedings.
            Foley & screenwriter Niall Leonard (E.L. James’ husband) also fill the 111 minutes runtime with an opening scene of young Christian hiding from his abusive father, implying that his sexual desires stem from those beatings.  How sexy!  There’s a subplot involving one of Christian’s former jilted, suicidal submissives that is resolved in a way too quick & easy manner that leads to a fight that only lasts one of those aforementioned montages where Ana walks around the entire city of Seattle.  There’s also an unintentionally funny sequence where Grey is involved in a helicopter accident and is missing for a few hours until the television coverage announces that he’s found alive & well milliseconds before the elevator door to his apartment opens to Grey walking in with injuries consistent with tripping on the sidewalk instead of crashing into a dense forest of Southern Washington.  Additionally, there’s a cliffhanger ending involving Ana’s sexual assaulter former boss and Christian’s first former lover separately plotting revenge.  Oh…wait…sorry, SPOILER ALERT!
            Fifty Shades Darker is as sexy & well made as a tampon commercial.  During those ads, those women at least get to visit a water park, play goalkeeper on the school’s soccer team or get to dance the night away.  Here, our protagonist is stuck in a loveless relationship with a monstrous bore, filmed & written by two guys who couldn’t fill the screen with sex appeal or drama if they were given Super Soakers full of it at point blank range.  Anastasia deserves better and so do the starving women over 25 demographic.


Zero stars

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Review: The Birth of a Nation

I do not own the above image. Copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures.  All Rights Reserved.

            In 15 years of going to the movies, I’ve had a single dream: watching a movie in a theatre by myself.  I’ve come close many times usually with an elderly couple coming in during the previews.  It finally happened this week but never in a million years would I have thought it would have happened during an opening night showing.  And fulfilling that dream wasn’t the most exciting thing to happen me in that theatre that night.  It turns out the movie I saw all by myself was absolutely marvelous.
            Nate Parker (star, director & co-writer) decides right off the bat to make THE BIRTH OF A NATION a personal, artistic motion picture.  The emphasis is not on Nat Turner’s unsuccessful slave rebellion but on our hero and the birth of his rebellion.  This is an up-close look at one slave & his experience as a pawn pastor for the white man and his reaction after reaching his breaking point.  Nat has to appear with multiple dimensions and not just motivated by his faith & treatment as a slave.  Nat finds inspiration through love found in the slave trade.  His love for Cherry is beautifully chronicled in both short-ish montages & conversations.  Two of their scenes together stand out: Their first, full true encounter in the plantation’s front yard is like a scene out of the best romantic movies yet is so natural here.  But their real powerhouse scene is their conclusion.  I won’t spoil it but their final scene is one of those magical emotionally & cinematically perfect moments that don’t come around often enough.
            Nat’s faith journey is just as emotional.  Taught to read by his master’s wife, he is taken from plantation to plantation to preach.  His “ah-ha” moment when we see his face as he tells his fellows slaves that being obedient to their owners will get them to the promised land hits you in the gut.  Nat’s breaking point, in which he talks back to his young master by quoting the Bible, and its aftermath perfectly summarizes the theme of the movie: Religion is a weapon of hope & fear and the vicious hypocrisy between the classes & races use of it is forever evident.  Never before has a movie like this been so timely.  There are also a few “tribal” scenes that take place in the woods that convey that Nat is some sort of spiritual figure, successfully turning him into the chosen savior of his people.
            Nate Parker knows his way around a camera considering this is his directorial debut.  There are sprawling shots of the pre-Civil War American South that creates a “prisoner in paradise” atmosphere, as if the movie needed to be more torturous.  His selective use of extreme close-ups gives each of them the appropriate emotional kick.  There are a few scenes of slave brutality, just enough to get the idea of what they went through.  But TBOAN is far from being the torture & misery porn that 12 YEARS A SLAVE was three years ago.  His direction of the mostly non-household name actors worked like a charm.  Everyone from the never better Armie Hammer as his owner to virtually unknown Aja Naomi King as Cherry to the reliably sinister Jackie Earle Haley as the leader of the slave patrol brought their A-game to the set.
            THE BIRTH OF A NATION is the African-American version of BRAVEHEART.  Some will see this as an insult.  Why?!  Both are emotional tragically heartwarming stories of oppression & resistance, war & love, despair & hope with a little more faith & artistry thrown in the newer feature.  Nate Parker, despite his checkered past, has created something that should be cherished & celebrated.


*****

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The State of My Cinematic Journey

            After the miserable summer I’ve had going to the movies, one thing has become abundantly clear: I am quickly falling out of the key demographic for movie studios.  I’m still a white guy with a fairly good paying day job.  I turned 31 earlier this month.  I have other priorities.  My wife is going back to school to finish her degree.  We want to get a house.  We want to start a family.  I need a new car.  I’m finally beginning to feel great about my poker skills.
            And I hoped my passion since I was 15 would stay with me.  In general, it has.  I still get giddy at the ticket counter.  When the usher rips my ticket, points me in the director of my theatre & says “Enjoy the show!”, I still smile & say “Thanks!” every time.  I love walking in to take my seat & see with whom I get to share this experience.  The hairs on the back of my neck still stand up as the lights dim.  I love the quiet moments I get to reflect as the end credits roll & the lights fade up.  But recently, I’ve noticed something odd.  I’m not enjoying as many movies as I used to.  Also, the audiences I’ve watched these movies with have gotten less & less enjoyable to be around.
            So what can I attribute that to?  Am I at that age where I need to move on?  Do I leave my passion behind?  My answer: I’m not going anywhere.  I still love movies.  I loved travelling with fugitives as they take one’s son towards his destiny.  I loved following teenagers find freedom & joy through music.  I fell in love with a college freshman & his baseball teammates as he assimilates to his new surroundings.  I found joy in a panda finally living out a prophesy put forward years ago.
            So where am I going with this?  Well, I have come to the conclusion that I need to change my movie-going habits.  From this day forth, I will no longer make comic book “movies” a priority in my theatrical journey.  If there is a CBM that I want to watch in a theatre, I won’t be buying a ticket for until the third Monday of release at the earliest.  I will spending 17 days on the outside as yet another visual effects extravaganza makes a billion dollars in worldwide box office receipts.  In addition, I won’t waste my time reviewing them nor will I be getting in arguments with people online over them.  They aren’t worth the time or energy.  I’ll throw out a tweet or two immediately after watching said spectacle but will only barely acknowledge its existence after that.
            I’m sure you noticed that I put quotation marks around the word “movie” in the above paragraph.  That is because I believe that recent theatrically released comic book adaptations are not movies, motion pictures, films, whatever term you want to use.  A movie is a series of pictures strung together to create a compelling story with a beginning, middle & end with interesting characters, spectacular action sequences with high stakes & expertly crafted visuals and great actors well-written dialogue.  Many recent comic book adaptations don’t have endings; they stop.  They take this “sequel culture” that we live in to the extreme and leave more open endings than closed ones after every installment.  Recent super villains have been quite dull.  I get a kick out of seeing Daniel Bruhl on screen but his Helmut Zemo in Civil War could have been eons more conniving.  Even as technology improves and visual effects get better, the over-reliance by these creations is really distracting.  And while studios open their bank accounts to get the best looking & most talented actors, studios don’t seem to care who they hire to write these creations.

            I guess you could say I’m a grump, an old fart, stubborn, a snob.  And I won’t deny being any of those things.  I did not grow up on comic books.  I only remotely started paying attention to them after I saw Spider-Man in 2002; even then, I still didn’t read them.  I showed up in theatres from time to time when more comic book “movies” were released.  I’ve raved about a few over the years.  X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2, The Avengers, Days of Future Past: each one great.  But now, especially this year, these seem like experiences that only readers or devotees can appreciate.  I’m not one of them and if I haven’t become a fanboy by now, I never will.