Thursday, June 21, 2018

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” - How to train your dinosaur (or, A steaming pile).

“I am never mad at the end of movies.  All I wanted from this movie was to be entertained and it could not even do that.  And, I liked A Wrinkle in Time.  Well, at least until I started thinking about it.”  - My friend, after the conclusion of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

Expectation are a fickle thing.  Even when you think you have them properly adjusted for a particular movie, that movie can take those expectations and feed them into a wood chipper.  Even movie reviews can do the same thing since you were probably expecting that last sentence to end with a dinosaur play on words and got a Fargo reference instead.  There is a reason why my year-end review has two categories specifically dealing with shattered expectations (both good and bad).  Even after more than ten years and hundreds of movies, my expectations are often proven wrong.  Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom just was not one of those times.

I am in the minority of critics who thought the first Jurassic World was a giant, redundant waste of time (71% of 314 critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave it the ol’ thumbs up).  I realize that I gave Star Wars: The Force Awakens a giant pass on being basically a remake of A New Hope, but I maintain that The Force Awakens was at least a wildly entertaining movie in a franchise that jumped off a cliff fifteen years earlier, and also a franchise that everyone was clamoring for more of.  Conversely, there was nobody out there screeching for a return to Dinosaur fun-land, especially after watching the two Jurassic Park sequels, and Jurassic World was only the tiniest bit entertaining.  Of course, the billon-dollar box office take of Jurassic World indicates that people just did not know they wanted more bad Jurassic Park sequels, so what do I know?

He's really just a big teddy bear.

(Side note: My son watched Jurassic Park for the first time and loved it.  While hi-def TVs make it harder to ignore the green-screen technology of 1993, the film holds up amazingly well twenty-five years later and watching it again was a reminder of how bad all three sequels were.  Also SPOILER ALERT.)

My two biggest problems with Fallen Kingdom’s predecessor were the invention of a cross-species dinosaur (the Indominous Rex) and reducing raptors down to trained attack dogs for soldiering purposes.  Rather than learning from these two mind-numbingly dumb plot devices, Fallen Kingdom doubles down on them.

This time, the bullshit dinosaur is the Indoraptor - a cross between Indominous Rex, a raptor, Krampus, and the Predator’s dreadlocks.  Indoraptor has been genetically engineered for military purposes, specifically that when a laser sight is focused on an object and an acoustic frequency is triggered, Indoraptor will attack it.  Congratulations, you are now slightly stupider after reading that last sentence (and watching this film).  I am no weapons expert, but if you have a laser sight - which is almost certainly attached to a gun, as it is in this film - would not a cheaper, less dangerous, and more efficient method of killing an enemy be to fire that gun?  Ha-ha - of course not.

As for the raptor pooch - named Blue and returning from the last film - we are now told that this former killing machine feels empathy for humans and shown Blue as a baby cuddling with Owen (Chris Pratt) in old videos.  Awwwww.  I guess that makes two bullshit dinosaurs.  Incidentally, Blue is the most sympathetic character in the film and Michael Crichton’s remains just burst into flames.

Isn't he just the cutest wittle thing?

One last thing about dinosaurs before we get to the, erm, plot - has anyone else noticed that the T-Rex is little more than a deus ex machina, or Deus Rex, if you will (and I will!)?  Just when a protagonist is about to become chow for a dinosaur, Deus Rex (I told you I would) comes out of nowhere (somehow sneaking up on everyone like a ninja) and chomping down on the threat while ignoring the tasty humans.  It was cool the first time in Jurassic Park when Deus Rex (you cannot stop me!!) saves Alan and friends from the raptors because it was unexpected.  Now, it is just annoying and tired.

All of this bullshit fits nicely into the larger pile of bullshit masquerading as plot.  Or in the case of this film - plots.  Plot number one - rescue the dinosaurs from an erupting volcano on the island where the theme park was destroyed.  This entire plot plays out within the first forty-five minutes of the film when it should have been the entirety of the film.

(Side note: Please, do not think about the fact that multiple organizations capable of cloning dinosaurs did not notice they built their theme park next to an active and dangerous volcano.)

What took you so long?

Plot number two - the rescue mission is actually a cover for a mysterious organization led by the most obvious of bad guys to collect the dinosaurs in order to auction them off to weapons dealers, big game hunters, military generals, and other equally detestable people.

Plot number three - predictably, the indoraptor escapes his cage in the mansion where the auction was taking place (along with where all of the dinosaurs were being stored; please do not ask) and we are back to the plot of all five of these films - do not get eaten.

Plot number four - save the little girl of the man (Benjamin Lockwood) funding the original rescue operation.  What would a Jurassic Park/World movie be if children were not in danger?  The little girl in question is Lockwood’s (James Cromwell) granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon).  Or is she?  I will not spoil her reveal for you, but I promise you it came straight from the M. Night Shyamalan book of bad and pointless plot twists.

Unlike my friend, there were a handful of moments during the film when I was entertained, though mostly for sarcastic reasons.  The first involved Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Owen (Pratt) trying to draw blood from a T-Rex in order to give Blue a blood transfusion.  No, seriously - I am not making that up.  It sounds really dumb on paper, but the actors and director (J.A. Bayona) pull it off.  Or my brain quit for a minute.  At any rate, the second and third were lines of dialogue that made me laugh out loud at their absurdity.

I swear to you this scene works.

Line one - When questioning if the batteries in the trackers implanted in the dinosaurs would be dead or not, the response given was “the batteries are powered by body heat and movement, so the batteries never die.”  Um, no.  That is not how batteries work, even in a world where new dinosaurs can be invented and brought to life.

Line two - when trying to figure out where to get blood for Blue, the paleobiologist (Daniella Pineda) says “any dinosaur with the same number of fingers will be compatible.”  Smell that?

I was also entertained by Chris Pratt delivering all of his lines as if they are gallows humor; like a guy who drew the short straw to feed the cobra.  He is joking about everything because he knows he is about to die.  True, he was only dying on the inside, but it hurts just as much.

Life finds a way.  Anyone?  Is this thing on?

Finally, Jeff Goldblum making a depressing cameo (returning as Dr. Malcolm) tickled me.  He is arguing to Congress (really, do not ask) that the dinosaurs should be left to die and delivers a line of dialogue that is accidentally meta.  “How many times do we have to learn this lesson?”  There is no way the writers are that self-aware, so the only explanation for that line is that they are taunting the audience for watching terrible sequel after terrible sequel.  I do not believe audiences will heed the taunt, but I am hoping my expectations are proven wrong this time.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back, but only if you asked for all of your money back for the last Jurassic World.  The rest of you are seemingly cool with paying for bullshit.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

“American Animals” - Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

When I was a kid, my parents watched America’s Most Wanted with John Walsh.  Episodes featured cheap reenactments of crimes committed by featured suspects to give the audience something to watch besides Mr. Walsh talking, even though that something to watch had the cinematic quality of anthropomorphic finger paintings.  American Animals is what would happen if America’s Most Wanted had spent the entire series’ budget on a single episode.

American Animals is not just a movie based on real events, but depicts the events of 2004’s Transy Book Heist in a hybrid reenactment/documentary film.  The heist involved four college students - Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) - attempting to steal a bunch of rare books and manuscripts from the rare book collection housed in the library of Transylvania University.  The craziest thing about the ordeal is that Transylvania University is an actual university in Lexington, Kentucky, that has exactly zero vampires (unconfirmed).

Supernatural aside, the thing that interested most people at the time was the motivation of the four men.  In interviews shortly after their incarceration, they stated that they wanted to ensure that their lives would not take them down the dreary and rote suburbanite path of their families.  They reasoned that if they were successful, they would be rich and living in Europe, and if they failed, they would go to jail and would lose the opportunities of suburbia.  It is also worth noting that all four kids were middle-to-upper-middle-class, were all regarded very highly in their communities, successful students and athletes, and had done everything right (by societal standards) up until college.  These were not the clichéd criminals whose neighbors state on television how they were just the nicest boys because those neighbors refused or ignored all of the red flags; they really were the nicest boys.

The title doesn't mean what you think it means.

Normally, I do not get into documentaries unless I am really interested in the subject matter, so I would like to request that all future documentaries be filmed in this reenactment style.  The film does not just do a reenactment with interview clips spliced throughout, but transitions during scenes between the actors playing the four men and the actual four men themselves reciting lines, sometime in the middle of a sentence.  For example, Peters will be delivering a sentence and Lipka will finish it.  And it is not just dialogue, but reactions or emotions.  Toward the end, there is a scene where the characters are reflecting on their actions and the movie cuts to the real men sitting in silence, also reflecting back on what they did.  It is a really cool piece of direction and successfully draws sympathy from the audience, regardless of how much sympathy these men deserve.

As interesting as the heist is itself, the most compelling part of this film is how the story is told.  Most of the movie is told from the point of view of Warren and Spencer, but their memories of some parts of it are fuzzy.  At times, Spencer notes that he is not sure if what he remembers is his own memory or what Warren remembers of it and told to Spencer in past recalls.  The film depicts the discrepancies, showing us both versions (was it a younger guy with a green scarf or an older guy with a blue scarf?), which adds some mystery to events.  This is important for the character development, because Warren is the leader and driving force of the heist and he is the one of the four who the audience trusts the least.  It is a brilliant bit of filmmaking (nice work director/writer Bart Layton) that makes this film so much more than just a special episode of Cops.

He's younger than he looks.

Most of the movies I have watched this year are the big, loud, blockbusters, so American Animals is a very pleasant change of pace, despite it being a heist movie.  Even though we know almost from the beginning that the boys ultimately fail, the film has plenty of tension because we do not know how far they get before failing.  But, the main reason to watch is to find out how they fail because it is obvious that they have no idea what they are doing (they literally watched Ocean’s Eleven, Snatch, and Reservoir Dogs as research), though they make a very good attempt.  If anything, you will watch for the same reason you watched those episodes of America’s Most Wanted, but you will not have to endure acting and production values that look like they came from a junior high in actual Transylvania.

Rating: Ask for zero dollars back because a movie that makes you feel a little bad for four wealthy kids with no troubles in life is definitely worth seeing once.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” - Sorry, were you hoping to learn something interesting about Han Solo?

Benign.  Rote.  By-the-book.  Fine.  Adequate.  Entertaining enough.  All are applicable adjectives to the latest Star Wars movie, Solo: A Star Wars Story.  Hell, “A Star Wars Story” is probably the perfect way to describe Solo because it is generic and tells us something we already know.  In a nutshell, that is Solo - a movie insisting on answering questions we already know the answer to – or never asked in the first place – while never committing to a story worth going back in Star Wars time for.  Director Ron Howard and screenwriters Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan play the movie so safe you would be forgiven if you forgot Han was a murderous smuggler (just ask Greedo) when we first met him back in 1977.

(MILD SPOILERS ahead, but there really is not much to spoil anyway.)

The major flaw with the film is that it does nothing to make us care about anything or anyone, save for maybe a sassy droid, and never commits to anything.  Rather than take some time to develop any characters, new or old, it relies heavily on us already knowing Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and treats the rest of the cast as little more than set pieces.  The film begins with an uninspired car chase scene featuring Han fleeing a bunch of gangsters with his girlfriend, Qi’ra (pronounced like Kira and played by Emilia Clarke), in tow.  As they try to escape off the planet Corellia, they are separated and Han screams that he will come back to get her.  This seems like it will be the main plot of the film and is driven home during the first act of the film as Han is telling everyone within earshot that he intends to get back to Corellia to rescue her as soon as he has enough money.  We also quickly meet a trio of generic characters (Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, and the voice of Jon Favreau) who get the barest minimum of development because this movie desperately wanted to get to showing us the famous Kessel Run.
The most interesting character in the world.

Those three characters are a crew of thieves and you will probably only remember one of their names - Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson).  They take Han and Chewie on to their crew and attempt a train heist.  Yes, a train heist in a Star Wars movie.  While a much better action sequence than the earlier car chase, it offers little in the way of ingenuity with the exception of the train cars occasionally swiveling around the axis of the rail they are riding.  Because we know next to nothing about the heist crew and know Han and Chewie are in other movies, this scene (as well as the entire movie) has zero tension.  At this point, we are only watching for the visuals and the visuals of this scene were spoiled in the previews.  Once this scene ends, we find Han, Chewie, and Tobias on board crime lord Dryden Vos’ (Paul Bettany) ship where they run into none other than Qi’ra.  The end.

Just kidding.  The movie still has two more acts for us, but now we are left wondering “what now?”  Han’s plan of buying a ship and rescuing Qi’ra just got light-sabered by the screenplay.  Qi’ra also makes it clear that she no longer requires rescuing, so the movie is forced to pivot to another heist as the main plot of the film.  A smarter movie would have used this heist for character development and relationship building, but this is not a smarter movie.  Instead, it is only the catalyst to get us to the main event of this film - Han and Jabba the Hutt meeting for the first time.  Just kidding.

Nothing screams Star Wars like train heist.

I firmly believe that the entire purpose of this movie was fan service in the form of depicting a single line of dialogue from A New Hope - Han bragging to Luke that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.  If you are a space nerd like me, or simply paid attention in astronomy class, a parsec is a unit of distance measurement, not speed, so Han bragging about how fast his ship was by using a unit of distance was nonsense.  Luckily, some other nerds wrote out an explanation involving a short-cut and, thus, Solo had its main attraction.  Like the train heist scene, it is an entertaining scene featuring a space chase and an eerie image of a star destroyer (doing absolutely nothing including not shooting at the Falcon despite half a dozen TIE fighters shooting at the Falcon, like in every other Star Wars movie, dammit-do-those-things-do-anything-ever?!)?  Unfortunately, this scene bears far too much resemblance to the underwater chase scene in The Phantom Menace and nothing good reminds us of The Phantom Menace.

Are you not entertained?

Speaking of fan service, the other major problem with Solo is far too much time is spent answering the questions I alluded to earlier.

Did you ever wonder how the Falcon got that notch at its front (watch the previews again - the bow is a solid triangle rather than forked)?
Of course not.

Did you ever wonder where the name Solo came from?
No, why would I?

Curious about how Han obtained the Falcon?
They already told us in The Empire Strikes Back. 

Want to see the first meeting between Chewie and Han?
Actually, yes.

Okay, so that last one is actually interesting, but this movie provides a boring explanation that doubles as a borderline meet-cute.  If you want a much better explanation, read The Hutt Gambit by A.C. Crispin, even though Disney proclaimed nearly all of the previous Star Wars canon to be meaningless.  Who has two thumbs and is a nerd?  This guy.

Normally, Easter eggs or quick homages tickle me, but this movie shoves them in your face and they are neither quick or Easter eggy (again, the Kessel Run).  The Solo surname scene was especially awkward because it answered a question literally nobody ever asked and the most unnecessary detail explanation since X-Men: Apocalypse showed us how Xavier went bald.

Just Han?  Like, Madonna?

By the end of Solo, we learn nothing new about Han, Chewie, or Lando that we did not already know about them from previous films.  Putting on my movie-fixer hat for a moment, I would have cut Qi’ra from the beginning of the film and made her character much more mysterious and nuanced.  A little more Khaleesi, and a little less cardboard cutout.  Given that we met Han as a selfish smuggler only out for himself in A New Hope, the opening scene in Solo would work far better to develop that trait and the scene would need zero other changes after removing Qi’ra.  This also would have given several potential options with Qi’ra in this film and future films rather than what the Kasdans did with her.  I would also have stuck with the book regarding Han and Chewie’s initial meeting because it provided the one altruistic trait in Han (anti-slavery) that kept him from being the scum he was always accused of being, thus forming the basis of his later redemption as a hero.  Finally, I would spend more time developing Han and Lando’s relationship, which is practically non-existent in Solo.

At least Qi'ra is a beautiful cardboard cutout.

As I have said in past reviews, I love Star Wars, which is what makes Solo kind of disappointing for me.  Despite the tone of this review, I want to stress that Solo is an entertaining movie that is competently done from a popcorn flick point of view.  Perhaps the best thing about Solo is the acting, which is very good.  Ehrenreich and Glover deliver performances that never feel like knockoffs of their predecessors and the rest of the cast all hit their marks.  But the obvious comparison is Rogue One and Solo falls completely flat in that comparison.  At no point was I ever captivated during this movie, not even during the penultimate space chase from Kessel, because, again, we already knew the answer to that question.

Rating: Ask for four dollars back because, if anything, you get your Star Wars fix.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

“Avengers: Infinity War” - Winter is here.

Ten years people.  We have been waiting ten years for Avengers: Infinity War and it is finally here.  Eighteen movies and three television series later and it is finally here.  Okay, so not many people watch all three TV series. I forgot Inhumans was even a thing (just eight episodes), Agent Carter got the ax after eighteen episodes, and I quit watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. partway through season four (the one with Ghost Rider) because it became downright stupid.  What was I saying?  Oh, right - INFINITY WAR!!

To put it bluntly, nothing will top Infinity War for me this year.  Sure, there may be another movie like Get Out that comes out of nowhere to blow our socks off, except that movie already happened and it is A Quiet Place.  And while A Quiet Place is a fantastic film that will not leave my top five for the year, Infinity War is a watershed moment in film.  Really, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has altered the film business, but Infinity War is the gasp you release because, even though you expected what was coming, you were not expecting that.

There shall be no spoilers here.

The big question on everyone’s mind is “how is Marvel going to fit all of the characters and storylines into a two and a half hour movie?”  The answer is “are you seriously questioning Marvel after ten years?”  Seriously, the answer is the same way a show like Game of Thrones does it - jumping from one character (or several) to another throughout the film and bringing them all together at the end to fight Sauron.  With the exception of maybe Black Panther, not one character felt short-changed on screen time and every storyline matters.

(Side note: Hawkeye and Ant-Man are conspicuously missing from this film - as many people noted from the poster - but the film does throw out an acceptable, if not very brief, explanation.  Incidentally, I am now beyond fascinated to see where Ant-Man and the Wasp will take us.)

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo helmed this behemoth of a film and were tasked with the challenge of crafting what looks on paper like an impossible movie.  Again, we are talking about eighteen movies worth of characters, plots, and subplots featuring a cast best described as all the actors.  We are talking about not pulling a Batman v Superman because Disney invested $300-400 million to make Infinity War.  We are talking about ten years of planning and execution and if you two guys screw this up we’re going to pump Christian Bale full of adrenaline, steroids, and PCP and tell him you are the light guys.  We are talking about the pressure of hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth in game seven of the World Series, but, hey - remember to just have fun out there.  All of to which the Russo brothers said “here, hold my beer.”

The stones on these guys...

Infinity War is first and foremost an action movie and you will not leave the theater thinking there should have been more action.  However, you will leave the theater exhausted, not because of all the action, but because the tension is relentless.  Luckily, the writing in the film deftly inserts exposition, transitions, and the familiar banter and comedic relief of every MCU film exactly in the places where you need to take a breath and remember to blink a few times.  These scenes serve to join the various parallel plots of the groups of characters (each of whose makeup you most definitely will not guess) to thread everything into one large narrative which is basically “Hi Thanos.”  Then, they turn the tension dial back up to a million.

Considering the complexity of eighteen movies worth of stories, the plot of Infinity War is as simple as it gets - to stop Thanos from acquiring the six infinity stones, thus allowing him to kill half the living beings in the universe.  That may sound like a cliched supervillain plot, but the motivation behind Thanos’ goal distinguishes it from most others and helps make Thanos one of the great movie villains of all time.  He believes that half of all beings must die because the resources of the universe are finite and dividing by two will ensure the survival of everyone else.  Bet you didn’t see a subtle climate-change message coming from a movie like this.  Granted, genocide is a really, really bad solution for resource conservation, but one cannot argue at its effectiveness.

Even better is that Thanos has layers of menace mixed with a smidge of…compassion?  Wait, that can’t be right.  *Thinking* - flashback scene of his home world of Titan coming to a bad end.  *Thinking some more* - scene where he acquires the soul stone.  Huh.  I’ll be damned.  Nuance in a giant blockbuster.  Even his speech pattern (calm and logical) and excellent dialogue (Josh Brolin owns this movie) adds sneaky depth to a character you start to empathize with by the end of the film.  Exactly - *gasp.*

Nuance.

The biggest reason why I will inevitably pick this as the best movie of 2018 is the end is definitely not what everyone expects from this kind of movie.  We all know that it is part one of the finale of this massive endeavor, so we all know it will end with a cliffhanger.  But it is not the kind of cliffhanger most TV shows end a season with or the way half of all the old Batman episodes left things dangling.  Most likely, you have heard the myriad rumors and guessing at who dies and who lives, but Infinity War scoffs at those rumors and guesses and throws the knuckliest of all knuckleballs, leaving the movie off in a place that feels like the wrong place, but is exactly the right place.

Regardless of how this whole story turns out, I was not exaggerating when I said this movie and the entire MCU have fundamentally altered movies.  We are already seeing Warner Brothers and Universal attempting the same universe structure (to almost comically bad degrees.  You heard me DC fanboys).  One can point to Harry Potter or Lords of the Rings as earlier examples, but those are linear franchises.  When Marvel succeeded with their so-called phase one, culminating with The Avengers, they showed that audiences were willing to invest in stand-alone films coming from different directions and characters with the promise of a giant payoff in one climactic mashup film.  Phases two and three cemented that concept, almost to the point of taunting the audience with unknown characters like Doctor Strange.  The strategic plan was visible to even the most jaded of moviegoers, so we trusted Marvel and were rewarded time after time (after time), none more so than with Infinity War.

From so far out of left field, the field is just a dot to you.

There are plenty of people out there who hate Marvel and Disney for a perceived homogenization of movies, but that is utter nonsense.  These people are the get-off-my-lawn people.  They hate the designated hitter and bitch about how millennials are just the worst.  They reminisce about the good old days of film (read: pre-CGI) and use words like whippersnapper.  These are the people who have forgotten that they didn’t get excited about movies because they watched Citizen Kane, but got excited because they watched Star Wars or E.T. or The Wizard of Oz.  These are people who refuse to see the audacity and ambition of a studio asking us to stick around for ten years; we promise it will be worth it.  In the latter half of Infinity War, Doctor Strange tells a companion “We’re in the end game now” and, like in Game of Thrones, the years-long ride was worth it.

Rating: Ask why you aren’t paying $50 (or more) for a movie that is easily as entertaining as most sporting events and concerts.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

“Rampage” – Keep it simple, stupid.

If you were to make a list of video games you would most like to see adapted into movies, I am guessing that list would include exactly zero classic arcade games.  I have never expressed a desire to see a Galaga or Centipede movie on the silver screen nor have I heard any other mammal express that desire.  The reasoning is simple - those games have no story on which to base a movie.  Ironically, that reasoning means some of those same games are the safest to adapt because there is no legion of middle-aged nerds freaking out because Hollywood crapped on their childhood memories or ruined a fantastic game.  Thus, we have Rampage, a movie based on a game in which players are tasked with destroying buildings using the fists of one of three (two if you only played the NES version, like me) giant creatures.  All the movie had to do to pay respect to the game was offer up rationale, no matter how absurd, for the existence of the creatures and why they would attack buildings.  And, they did not hold back on the absurdity.

(SPOILER ALERT for obligatory reasons, not because you do not know what happens in this movie.)

The biggest absurdity of this film is how hard the four screenwriters worked to explain nonsense.  The film kicks off in space.  Chew on that for a moment.  Alarms are sounding on a space station and a frantic astronaut is trying to escape from a giant mutant rat that has killed everyone else on board, but her (remote) corporate overlords will not let her leave without grabbing the scientific research on board the station.  She escapes in the nick of time, but her capsule explodes upon reentry and the three cylinders containing the research plummet to Earth.  Goodbye ten minutes of your life.  That is the explanation given for how a gorilla named George, a wolf, and an alligator become gigantic, destructive monsters and it was completely unnecessary.  The movie should have just begun with the three capsules streaking through the sky, but I am not four different writers, am I?

Do not think about why the gator grew orders of magnitude larger than George or the wolf.

Davis Okoye (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is a primatologist (he said while chuckling and remembering the time Denise Richards played a nuclear scientist) who has worked with George for George’s entire life.  Their relationship is so close that Davis can decipher anything George says (through sign-language), taught George how to flip the bird, and prefers the company of George (and other animals) over humans, including a very attractive woman who invites Davis to show her his other monkey.  By the sheer pull of Johnson’s animal magnetism, one of the research capsules lands in the gorilla enclosure and sprays green mist in George’s face.  The next morning, Davis discovers George is much bigger and killed a grizzly bear, but this movie is rated PG-13 so no gorilla-vs-bear action in a movie about rampaging animals.

Meanwhile, the corporate overlords are revealed to be Claire and Brett Wyden (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, respectively).  They send out private soldiers to track down the capsules and kill the mutant wolf, but that plan does not go well.  Plan B is to turn on a giant radio that will attract the beasts to the tower formally known as Sears so they can collect DNA samples and sell this weaponized DNA for profit.  Do not worry; they have a cure.  I promise that plan is flawless as long as you ignore every part of that same plan.  Suffice it to say, the animals race to Chicago to destroy the signal and everything in their path.

It's okay; that bear was a jerk.

(Side note and pet peeve: these same two siblings funded a space station, yet their stated goal here is to make money?  Four writers, everybody.)

The other big absurdity of this film was the casting.  This is par for the course for Johnson, who is this generation’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, but without the overt soldier aspect, but every other recognizable actor in this film should have had better things to do.  Akerman might be the worst villain this decade, but she sure tries to look the part when she scrunches up her face to look like a big meanie.  Lacy is obviously there for the comedic support, but none of the four writers appear to be familiar with the concept of humor and treat his character as nothing more than a bad pun.  But nobody is more out of place than Jeffrey Dean Morgan playing a special agent playing a birthday-party version of Negan, complete with chrome plated pistol and rodeo-sized belt buckle because carrying Lucille around would be copyright infringement.  Morgan’s performance is so ridiculous that you probably will not notice that Naomie Harris (playing Dr. Kate Caldwell) is laughably atrocious and literally an actor in this movie.  Not that I blame her or Morgan completely, considering the dialogue they were forced to memorize and repeat out loud, but yeeesh.

Don't worry, bad acting won't affect the box office of a movie like this.

I know many of you cannot wait to tell me how much of a film snob I am and that this movie was not intended to win Oscars, but remember I am the same person who enjoyed Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunter.  This movie is not bad because I am a film critic, it is bad because four writers, a director, a studio, and a bunch of producers forgot they were making a movie based on a game whose entire story is its own title.  This movie should have been all kinds of fun to watch, but the never-ending exposition coupled with rampant inconsistencies (why does only the wolf get the power of flight and porcupine quills and why do the other animals grow so much larger than George?) nearly put my theater’s entire audience into a coma.  And don’t even get me started on how asinine it was how George was cured (the cure being the animal just stops wanting to kill everything).  I just wanted to enjoy a mindless movie while on a work trip and all I could think of during the movie was how the game was better.  Some buildings did get destroyed in the movie, so mission accomplished, I guess.

Rating: Ask for thirteen dollars back because movies do not cost ten dollars any more, like they did when I started writing these things.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

“Ready Player One” - Whew!


If you are not a fan of CGI and think that CGI is ruining film, Ready Player One might kill you.  At the very least, it will give you an aneurism or a stroke.  Possibly both.  If so, you deserve it.  I am not quite ready to devote my year-end review to all of the incessant whining about the use of CGI in movies, but I am seriously thinking about it.  CGI is one of those topics that film snobs love to use as an excuse for hating some movies, right alongside with “there is no more creativity in Hollywood.”  Forget about the fact that CGI has allowed us to realize hundreds of movies and tens of thousands of elements within movies that would otherwise be impossible.  Could you imagine how stupid Spider-Man would look if all of his web-slinging was done via wire-work?  Oh, right, they tried that on Broadway.  I rest my case.

My point is if there is one thing Ready Player One has a ton of it is CGI.  My greater point is that Ready Player One could not be made without a ton of CGI.  Nearly the entire movie takes place in a virtual simulation called the OASIS where anyone can be anything or have anything they want.  Want to race through a city in an exact replica of Doctor Brown’s Delorian while dodging a rampaging T-Rex?  Want to be seen as a nine-foot tall warlock or the Iron Giant?  Want to pilot Mechagodzilla while fighting an army on a planet called Doom?  None of that is happening without a lot of help from computers.  And if it is, it probably looks terrible.

Be all that you can be.

Having read and loved the book of the same title, I was terrified that the movie was going to be a disappointment.  Mostly, because I managed to see multiple previews at other screenings, but also because with great CGI comes great responsibility.  Happily, the effects of the movie are fantastic, as well they should be given the $175 million budget of the film, but also because director Steven Spielberg is a genius.  Everything felt like it had depth and texture and nothing felt flat.  One great example is an early race scene that manages to feel claustrophobic and tense, even though it is happening on open streets and is nothing more than pixels, even for the characters.  At no point did I ever feel like the visuals were just throwing ones and zeroes at me in attempt to overwhelm my senses.  I even appreciated the 3-D effects, which I normally hate, despite the arms of the cheap 3-D glasses jabbing me in the side of the head.

It was pretty dazzling.

The film also stays fairly faithful to the source material, in no small part aided by the author (Ernest Cline) co-writing the screenplay (with Zak Penn).  If you have not read the book (do it now), the main plot is a treasure hunt within the OASIS, a hunt designed by the creator of the OASIS, the late James Halliday (Mark Rylance).  Competitors must solve three puzzles (including discovering the location of the puzzles) to obtain three keys, which will unlock an Easter Egg hidden in the OASIS.  Whoever finds the Egg gets full control of the OASIS and inherits Halliday’s half-trillion dollar fortune.  The details of the puzzles vary between the film and the book, but the structure remains intact.

Naturally, everyone is trying to win the game, but nobody has figured out how to complete the first puzzle.  Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a.k.a. Parzival is a Gunter - players who spend all of their time hunting for the egg - and also knows virtually everything about Halliday and the things Halliday liked (movies, video games, music, etc.).  This knowledge eventually leads him to crack the mystery of the puzzle and put him on the radar of everyone in the world, including Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and all-around jerk-off.  Sorrento has tasked an army of indentured servants (people who have accrued debt within the OASIS) with winning Hallday’s Egg in order to assume control of the OASIS and monetize the crap out of it.  If you are any kind of gamer, even the kind that plays Candy Crush on your iPhone, you would hate this guy because he is the one advocating for inserting ads and incorporating microtransactions into games (think freemium games where there are things you can only get if you pay actual money for, but the game itself is free).  He will stop at nothing to win the game, including kidnapping and murder, but excluding actually playing the game himself.  In other words, he is the guy who buys a game, then buys the walkthrough guide for the game so he can get to the end without effort.  What kind of loser does that?

It's all just a game.

Along the way, Parzival joins forces with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), and two other kids (Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki) whose characters are so underdeveloped they are literally just avatars.  Together, they try to solve the remainder of the puzzles, but not before Art3mis welcomes Parzival into “the rebellion.”  This rebellion Art3mis is referring to is a group of people trying to stop IOI from taking over the OASIS because IOI will wreck the openness/freedom of the OASIS by indebting more people and creating a class structure of the haves and have nots.  If you get this from the film, it is only because you read the book, as the film only occasionally mentions such social issues.  If there is one criticism I have of this otherwise excellent movie it is that the film has plenty of CGI, but none of the book’s balls.

I guess it does have one ball.

One of the highlights of the book is the way that Cline was able to focus on social issues through the lens of the OASIS like income disparity, class separation, and the inability of poorer classes to improve their standing in life.  Whenever the film seems to be ready to make some real social commentary, it shies away from the conversation and distracts the viewer with action and adventure.  For example, book-Parzival talks about how it is nearly impossible for him to compete for Halliday’s prize because he does not have money to pay for transit to other worlds.  Like with our freemium games, real money is used to purchase power-ups and Parzival has no real money.  By finding the first key first, he gains instant fame and earns money through endorsements, allowing him to better compete, but also that a poor guy suddenly has lots of cash.  The book explores how money opens doors and effects people and makes the reader think about that with regards to people in the lower classes.  I am not saying the film should go deep-diving into social commentary, but those elements were key in developing Parzival and his character arc in the book, and film-Parzival was noticeably shallower.  But, then Parzival and Art3mis get into a shootout while dancing in a zero-G club and deep thoughts are forgotten.

Good luck affording that (in the book).

Having said that, it was refreshing to see Spielberg jump back into directing a big, fun, blockbuster flick and knock it out of the park.  His handling of the CGI was near perfect (and props to all of his effects folks and cinematographers).  Perhaps the most fun thing is that the movie is stuffed full of pop-culture references from the late 1970s to now (reportedly, acquiring licensing for all of it took years) and all of them are fun and well incorporated.  My personal favorite is a small one from a movie called Krull and if my brother had been with me, we would have high-fived over it (if you spot it, please, please comment as proof that more than two people have seen Krull).  We also would have high-fived about the CGI because this movie would have sucked without it.  If you still hate CGI after this film, I will still call you an ambulance because you deserve it.

Rating: Do not ask for any money back and spend more for the book.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

“Pacific Rim: Uprising” - I’ve seen worse.

Coming out of Pacific Rim: Uprising, there were plenty of moviegoers that enjoyed the film and that is cool.  There is plenty of room in our lives for big, loud, popcorn flicks like Pacific Rim: Uprising.  I, myself, enjoyed the hell out of Pacific Rim and gave it a gigantic pass on many aspects of it that were really weak.  But then those same moviegoers said Uprising was much better than the first film and much more fun.  Wait - hold on a minute, I must have misunderstood.  *Checks notes* - Yep.  That is what they said.  *Sighs* Uprising may be enjoyable, but it is not nearly as good or entertaining as its predecessor.  This is why we can’t have nice things.

I am no fan of Guillermo del Toro, but I believe Pacific Rim is the best movie he has made.  And, yes, that includes the hilariously overrated The Shape of Water.  As I stated in my review of Pacific Rim, it hit all the marks that a summer blockbuster needed to hit.  It delivered on its promise of lots of robot-on-monster fight scenes, it had a very simple plot dressed in fun nonsense, someone gives a big motivating speech when all seems lost, the comic relief was both funny and well-timed, the characters were all endearing or likeable, and it delivered on its promise of lots of robot-on-monster fight scenes.  Yes, I had to say that twice; there was that much action.  Uprising falls well short of Pacific Rim on almost every one of those components, though to be fair, somehow manages to not completely suck while doing it.  Just mostly suck.

Have you been practicing your big speech?

(Big Dumb SPOILER ALERT for a Big Dumb movie)

Uprising takes place ten years after the events of the first film, introducing us to our main character, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of one of war hero Stacker Pentecost.  Jake is currently living as a thief who specializes in acquiring old jaeger technology.  During a run into a decommissioned jaeger factory, he comes across a teenaged Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), who beats him to a valuable jaeger part.  He tracks her to her hideout where he discovers she has built her own (very small) jaeger.  They are soon discovered by the cops and have a quick chase scene where they are eventually captured by a real jaeger.  This entire sequence exists solely to establish and develop our two main characters and explain how they end up at jaeger pilot training school (not to mention hang a blazing neon sign on the small jaeger saying “THIS IS IMPORTANT FOR LATER”).  It is very paint-by-numbers, which is fine for a popcorn flick, but then the movie decides to forget almost everything it established.

Jake is never asked to use any of his street skills, in fact, quite the opposite.  He is forced to become an instructor to a bunch of adolescent jaeger pilot trainees and team up with square-jawed, by-the-books pilot, Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) as Nate’s co-pilot.  In fact, by the end, Jake will even give the big motivation speech (which was anything but motivational) while wearing his uniform straight.  Meanwhile, Amara tries to fit in with the others, but one trainee girl has it out for Amara because she doesn’t think Amara earned her spot there.  At no point are her skills at building jaegers ever put to use on screen, but instead just mentioned again late in the film as a throwaway line to explain how they suddenly have four working jaegers one day after pretty much everything was destroyed by evil jaegers (we’ll get to them in a second).  When I said paint-by-numbers, I meant one color and two numbers.  Three, at most.

You'll have to trust me when I say I already repaired a whole squadron.

The reason I found this movie so lackluster is because it spends the vast majority of its running time telling us about stuff rather than showing it to us.  Considering this movie’s entire purpose in life is visuals, it should have had maybe ten percent as much dialogue as it actually gave.  For example, oodles of dialogue are spent telling us how Jake had some sort of falling out as a jaeger pilot prior to ending up on the streets.  Rather than showing us the falling out at the beginning of the film, we get a quick exchange where he just spells out it to Amara.  And another where he and Nate kind of talk about it.  And another where - you get the point.  For another example, the script instructs Amara to tick off the names of all of the jaegers as she sees them upon first arrival at the training base, rather than revealing them organically during missions or fight scenes.  I realize that the world of Pacific Rim is fantastical enough to require an extra spoonful of exposition, but Uprising piles it on by the quart.

The rest of the movie is a convoluted mess of corporate greed, rogue jaegers, and red herrings trying desperately to tie itself together into a coherent plot by the Precursors (the trans-dimensional beings who sent the kaijus - giant monsters - to Earth in the first film) to terraform Earth (their goal from the first film as well).  The primary success of the first film was showing us giant robots fighting us giant monsters, so the four (FOUR!!) writers of this film decided to replace the monsters with other robots because five (FIVE!!) Transformers movies wasn’t enough.  I am not exaggerating; there is just one scene featuring a giant robot vs a giant fleshy monster and, by then, I forgot we were watching a Pacific Rim sequel.

If it looks like a Transformer and sounds like a Transformer...

(Side note: some people will argue the semantics of the rogue robots being more than just robots, but the fight scenes are still just robots fighting other robots.)

On the character side, you would be forgiven if you couldn’t remember the name of any character beyond Jake and Amara, and I’d forgive you if you forgot Jake and Amara’s names as well.  With the exception of those two and Nate, none of the other pilots are memorable.  For that matter, you should be asking where the hell were all the grown-up pilots in this film.  Then, there is the corporate executive (Jing Tian) who is cold, calculated, and power hungry when her hair is tied up, but comes to the rescue after letting her hair down (seriously, her hair does this).  Finally, there is Dr. Geiszler (Charlie Day), the comic relief of movie one (along with Burn Gorman as his buddy), but who is chewed up and spit out as a really bad version of an Austin Powers villain this time around.  And, he doesn’t even get to do comedy, which might have saved the character as a villain.  Come to think of it, nobody got to do comedy, though you would have thought this movie was funny by the way the person behind me in the theater was cackling at anything and everything even resembling a joke, including a robot flipping the bird to a vanquished opponent (never funny).

Hair up!

The strangest thing about watching this film is that I didn’t hate it.  I just didn’t care about anything happening in the film.  The screenplay made no attempt to develop any characters beyond cliches and most of them didn’t even get that much.  The jaegers were okay, I guess, but the bright color palate of this film took away all of the ominous and dark feel from the first film (a consequence of newbie Steven DeKnight directing this film rather than del Toro), giving it a Care Bears kind of feeling.  Plus, only the main jaeger (Gipsy Danger - the one with the glowy orange chest) is in the vast majority of the film, the climax being the only scene where all four jaegers from the movie poster are seen fighting.  Come on - which writer(s) sharted out that miss?  I wasn’t even all that bothered by Eastwood’s performance coming out as stiff as his jaw.  On the bright side, none of the robots were racist, had genitalia, or tried to hump Megan Fox and for that, we can be thankful.

Rating: Ask for all but a dollar back, but consider that dollar thoughtfully.