Wednesday, May 27, 2015


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.


Saturday, May 16, 2015


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.


Thursday, May 7, 2015


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

Sunday, May 3, 2015


I do not own the above image. Copyright Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.

               There is something special about the opening of the summer movie season.  For the past dozen years or so, one movie gets the honor of opening on the first Friday of May to kickstart the summer.  Some are successes (SPIDER-MAN, THE AVENGERS) others are downright disasters (remember VAN HELSING and X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE?).  Then there’s the seemingly “too big to fail” starter for 2015, MARVEL’S AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.  This time, the stakes are higher, the collaboration of our heroes is tighter & the enemy is more fierce.  But are the proceedings better?
            After a battle & raid on an Eastern European Hydra compound to retrieve Loki’s staff, the supercrew reassembles at Avengers Headquarters in New York.  Using the powers inside the staff, Tony Stark (do I really need to tell you who plays him...Fine, Downey, Jr.) enhances his prototype global defense system.  But the experiment goes horribly wrong and it becomes a global destruction system.  Can the destruction of our planet be stopped?
            Before I continue with the most negative positive review ever conceived, I need to state that I did in fact enjoy watching the movie.  I sat there, shifting back & forth in my seat like I usually do, actually enjoying what I was watching.  I swear.  But…
            AGE OF ULTRON, to be honest, only has two problems but they are large enough to almost destroy any memory of the enjoyment.  The first is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver.  This Quicksilver looks & sounds like a 90’s boy band reject trying to infiltrate the KGB.  Taylor-Johnson, who almost ruined last year’s GODZILLA  is little more than a pretty-boy actor who just doesn’t have “it”, whatever “it” is.  His facial expressions, his accent, his body language, his…everything is just so awkward & wrong.
            But where AGE OF ULTRON really falters is in its overall tone.  Sure there are the usual Whedonisms throughout.  Plenty, if you ask me.  But there is something weird this time around.  The 2012 version has this lightness to it.  There was a line of dark clouds in that movie.  But here, this time around those dark clouds are in a cluster that seems trapped between two high pressure systems (possibly named Kevin Feige & Joss Whedon).  The original’s lightness & sense of joy is abundant in the opening scenes.  The opening long shot is gorgeous in reintroducing us to our heroes.  But the second Ultron is introduced about 25 minutes in, those clouds arrive and never move.  There are dozens of one liners disbursed over the last two hours and some are quite amusing but everything feels just a bit off. 
            The film is caught between two conflicting ideas, two men who believe they are right, one man with most of the money & one with most of the talent.  And we know who has all the pull and it is unfortunate that Feige is the one who will always win.  I worry for the series post-Whedon.  I worry just how serious this Cinematic Universe can possibly get.
            I worry for the future of movies.  What if this superhero movie bubble bursts?  A short story from my showing: There is a sequence where we meet the extended family of one of the Avengers.  This sequence lasts about 10-12 minutes.  During this time about 15 people get up at the same time and leave for a few minutes.  I know nothing was exploding at the time but is the American moviegoing public so bored by dialogue that they don’t care to listen to it?
            In the end, THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON falls into the “Enjoyed While I Watched” category.  Since leaving the theatre around 9:10 Friday night, the movie has soured like month old milk.  Most of this review reads like a downer.  But that’s how I feel right now about the past, present & future of this series, superhero movies & movies overall.  Marvel will no doubt continue to look for filmmakers who will conform to their vision, their hope$, their de$ire$.