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