Friday, February 27, 2015

“The Lazarus Effect” – Oh, hell.

You know what movie is one of the most underrated horror films of all time? No, not Tammy; I’m talking about 1997’s Event Horizon. I distinctly remember Event Horizon as one of those films that fools you into thinking it’s something entirely different than what it really is. It seemed like it was going to be a straight science fiction drama; one where they are racing against time to rescue the crew of a dying space ship. Instead, it turns into a slasher flick and one of the creepiest at that (seriously, if you like movies that freak you out, Event Horizon is the movie for you). While sitting through The Lazarus Effect, I noticed that it was following the same formula as Event Horizon – the first half is straight science fiction; the second half is slasher-with-paranormal-activity-tries-to-kill-everyone. The difference between the two is that Event Horizon didn’t crap itself after the transition the way The Lazarus Effect did.

(SPOILER alert: The two movies share another major similarity and that would be a SPOILER, which I’ll get to later.)

I didn’t have high expectations for The Lazarus Effect, so I was actually quite pleased through the first half of the film. Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) are researchers at a university developing a serum that restores brain activity to comatose patients. The movie begins with them having moved past that to restoring brain activity in deceased animals – effectively bringing them back to life. Frank explains that the goal is to allow doctors more time to save patients who have flat-lined. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Flatliners (1990) used the same concept (though Flatliners is barely a horror flick, despite what you might think). Frank and Zoe’s team is rounded out by Niko (Donald Glover), Clay (Evan Peters), and Eva (Sarah Bolger), and all of them are hoping this is their big ticket to scientific fame and fortune. When they successfully revive a dead dog, they believe they’ve finally made their breakthrough, but Clay is concerned about the readings they are getting from the dog.

This is the point of the movie in which you believe the meat of the plot will begin because you remember that the movie posters feature a demonic-looking Olivia Wilde. Up to this point, the movie was very deliberate with the science and premise, and it does a great job of tensing up the audience in anticipation of Zoe’s certain death. They even ratchet up the tension with a scene where the dog is standing over a sleeping Zoe on her bed. As much as I bash writers for shoddy work, it’s only fair that I congratulate them here – well done, writers (Luke Dawson, Jeremy Slater). Also, did you guys really think you were done writing at that point?

Immediately following the dog-on-the-bed scene, the movie starts to wander off the rails. The next morning, Frank is called into the university president’s office and is told they violated the terms of their grant by experimenting on animals. He also finds out that a drug company purchased the company that gave them their grant and that the violation of the grant entitled the drug company to all of their research and discoveries. Frank returns to their lab to find the drug company confiscating nearly everything. In defiance, Frank convinces his team to duplicate the experiment so that they will still get credit for their work. The reason I’m telling you all this is because that whole sequence was completely unnecessary. The drug company never comes back and never figures into the plot. The whole sequence was written solely as the catalyst for the team attempting another experiment, which results in Zoe’s death. Why not just have them do something – oh, I don’t know, scientific – like, repeat the experiment to duplicate their results? You know, like every scientist ever who isn’t a fraud. If the movie was about defying corporations, I could at least understand, but this movie’s only concern is making sure Zoe murders (or tries to murder – I’m not that much of a SPOILER dick) her teammates. After this scene, the movie goes from just wandering off the rails to crashing into a homeless shelter, spilling acid on the survivors, and exploding, just for good measure.

After her revival, Zoe starts to experience odd side effects like telekinesis, mind reading, and black fingers. Clay continues to have “a bad feeling about this” and Niko explains to Eva that Zoe’s brain scans shows her using more than 10% of her brain. Oh, shit; did we just stray into the movie Lucy? Niko attempts to explain that the 10% thing is a myth followed by explaining the “real” brain usage totally wrong. Is it really too much to ask for a movie with a scientific basis to get that part right, especially after all of the hand-wringing over Lucy?

Since the movie has a total running time of 75 minutes, Zoe’s transformation into demon hell beast takes roughly eight seconds and any further exploration of Zoe is impaled on the writers’ pens. The rest of the movie is standard cabin-in-the-woods format and the explanation for her transformation is hell. Seriously – hell. When Zoe was dead, she was trapped in hell, which she describes as the worst thing you ever did played on a loop. No explanation as to why she became evil and murderous; just…hell. At least Event Horizon bothered to explain that the ship had gone to another dimension that was pure evil and that Sam Neill had been possessed by something from that dimension. Besides that, the ending to The Lazarus Effect so unsatisfying that you’ll want to impale yourself with the writers’ pens.

As low as my expectations were, the casting made me think it might be a decent movie. Olivia Wilde is well past the point of career where she needs to do slasher flicks, Evan Peters’s star is exploding with the success of American Horror Story and his great turn as Quicksilver in the latest X-Men movie, and the other three have found decent measures of success on television and movies. It just goes to show you that no cast can overcome crappy writing, especially one that, halfway through the film, forgot that it had created a demon dog. Oh, hwell.

Rating: Ask for seven dollars back and watch Event Horizon to get the taste out of your brain (by replacing it with another one).

Sunday, February 22, 2015

“Jupiter Ascending” – WARNING: This movie contains seizure-inducing visuals and a plot to match.

I had been looking forward to seeing Jupiter Ascending for months last year when it was announced that the movie’s release would be delayed from July 2014 to February 2015. This is never, ever, ever, ever, ever (ever) a good sign for a movie, but I guess I didn’t memorize enough evers (thank you Brian Regan). I have a huge soft-spot for science fiction movies, so I continued to look forward to it. Since I had already planned a two-week vacation for the same time as the new release date, it meant that I was going to have to pay actual money to see the movie and a week after its release at that. This also meant that I would see reviews (or at least composite ratings) before I saw the movie and those reviews were not kind. The opening weekend box office results followed with an almost unbelievably low $18.4 million (USA box office only), considering its titanic budget and aggressive marketing campaign. But, as I said, I didn’t memorize enough evers.

(WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS, and based on those box office numbers, you almost assuredly have not seen this movie. And, somehow, I don’t think you will.)

Perhaps my favorite critique about this movie (and one that appears in dozens of reviews) is that the movie’s plot is far too complex and confusing for the viewer. I have no idea what movie they watched, but the plot of Jupiter Ascending is not at all hard to follow – a human girl is the reincarnated queen of the universe and some people want her dead while others want her alive. Yes, there are a lot of details and plotlines that will make you scratch your head, but not because they are confusing to the plot. Rather, they are confusing because most of them seem pointless to the plot or are so poorly developed/explained that you won’t understand why they are in the movie at all. But, before we get to those, I need to point out something that no other reviewer (at least that I read) has noticed and that only a couple even hinted at – Jupiter Ascending is basically The Matrix, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise considering both were written and directed by the Wachowskis.

Let that sink in for a minute while you rewatch the preview or the movie in your head. Here are the things the two movies have in common:
1. The human race is nothing more than a resource for another technologically advanced race.
2. The human race is unaware of this.
3. The main character is supposed to set humanity free.
4. The main character is unaware of this until someone explains to him/her that he/she is “the one.”
5. The main character spends most of the movie trying not to get killed by agents of the overlords.

Either the Wachowskis are actually some kind of vampires or they might just be one-trick ponies good at convincing studios to keep handing them $150-million-dollar budgets. Hell, they even end both movies with “the one” flying off into the sky.

As they say, “the devil is in the details”, and that is what actually makes this movie such a stink bomb. The film comes right out of the gate swinging – and whiffing – with a scene whose sole purpose is to explain how the main character (Mila Kunis) gets her name – Jupiter. Her parents are Russian, her father is an astronomer, and he is killed by thieves who break into their house and steal his telescope (among other random things). Since he wanted to name their unborn baby Jupiter, the grieving widow honors him by doing just that. Considering the grandeur promised by the previews of the film, I was certain that dad was actually some important alien hiding on the planet and that the thieves were actually there for him, but the exact opposite is true. The crazy thing is that if he hadn’t tried to stop them from taking his telescope, he wouldn’t have been killed. But, then Jupiter might not have been named Jupiter and the movie might have had a dumb title like “Jennifer Ascending.” They sure dodged a bullet there.

Years later, Jupiter is an indeterminate age, scrubbing toilets as part of her extended Russian family’s housecleaning business (feel free to make poop jokes for the rest of this review). One of her cousins convinces her to sell some of her eggs so he can buy a big screen TV and an XBOX (of course, she thinks it’s for a business opportunity), but she goes along with it because she wants to buy a $4000 replica of her father’s telescope. Seriously – that’s how this movie starts.

Meanwhile, three siblings of the Abraxas family – Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) – meet on some distant planet to discuss Earth, their dead mother, their aging visages, the size of their “kingdoms,” and why every character in this movie has a ridiculous name, all while congratulating themselves on a great harvest (I only made up one of those things). Cut back to Earth and a bunch of weird little aliens are about to kill Jupiter in the egg-donation operating room when half-wolf, half-human, all-hunk, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) bursts into the room, guns blazing, to rescue Jupiter. Well, this movie just went from zero to awesome!

After a ludicrous chase scene in which Caine is flying around on gravity boots designed to mimic roller blades in the air, Caine takes Jupiter to meet a former friend and beekeeper, Stinger (Sean Bean). No, seriously, his house and land are covered in bees and Jupiter doesn’t even blink when he says his name is Stinger. Jupiter is quickly surrounded by bees, but realizes that by waving her arms around, she can control the bees. Stinger immediately kneels to her, determining in that moment that she is the genetic reincarnation of Queen Abraxas because bees can sense royalty. This movie just went from awesome to “wait, what now?”

(By the way, if you haven’t figured it out by now, this is a great time to tell you that this movie is completely insane.)

Shortly thereafter, Jupiter is captured by some aliens with more silly names and delivered to Kalique, who actually verbalizes the whole reincarnation thing and explains that Queen Abraxas bequeathed everything to herself if this very scenario occurred. Kalique hands Jupiter over to an intergalactic police force called the Aegis, who have also collected Caine and Stinger, which is followed by the strangest scene ever put in a movie – Caine escorting Jupiter through a series of buildings in which Jupiter must navigate the bureaucracy, red tape, and paperwork of claiming her title. It’s literally a sequence of men behind desks telling Jupiter to fill out such-and-such form and taking said form to some other desk. Apparently, this was supposed to be an homage to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a 30-year old movie that nobody outside of crusty old film critics has even heard of, let alone seen, but it comes off as awkward and not at all comedic (which was the intention).

By this point in the film, it’s easy to see why a lot of those movie critics had become confused, but I promise it’s because those reviewers are morons. While all of that stuff sounds completely nuts, it’s all fluff that doesn’t change the overarching plot. The one thing that hadn’t been explained yet was the motivation behind the people who wanted her dead. Thankfully, Titus explains things to us when he snatches Jupiter away from the Aegis. In the greater universe, the Abraxas seed thousands of planets with lifeforms to be harvested when their population reaches a certain point. The harvest yields a liquid that, when bathed in, infuses the bather with youth and extends their life. Apparently, humans yield the best bathwater, but in her dying years, the queen wanted the practice stopped. Considering the value of the bathwater and that the Abraxas fortune is built on the bathwater industry, Balem (who inherited Earth) has no intention of stopping. But, his two siblings want to take Balem down a peg, so each is executing a plan to stop him. There are a couple of other twists I won’t get into, but there’s nothing confusing in there. They each want control of Earth for their own reasons and Jupiter is the key. What those other reviewers should have been talking about is: bathwater, really?

Like I said, I have a soft spot for science fiction and spent nearly the entire movie desperately trying to enjoy myself, but the film just wouldn’t let me. Between a housekeeper wanting to sell her eggs to buy a wildly expensive telescope, Channing Tatum air(?)blading through the sky, Redmayne randomly screaming in between creepily whispered lines, paperwork, bees, and crop circles (to name just a few), I just couldn’t enjoy the movie. It didn’t help that there was no world-building done at all to explain any of this galactic empire beyond life-extending bathwater, or that Tatum and Kunis delivered the performances of a couple of 2x4’s and had all of the chemistry of those 2x4’s banging against each other (yeah, there’s a romance subplot in this thing too), or that the visuals were so mesmerizingly good that it forced you to notice how terrible the writing was in contrast.

I’d like to tell you that the movie at least ends in a climax that dispenses with any writing stupidity and just gives in to an explosion-filled, action-packed, laser-gun shooting crescendo of fun. I’d like to tell you that the movie redeemed itself at the end and didn’t show Jupiter happily scrubbing toilets. I’d like to tell you that Channing Tatum doesn’t fly off into the sky on angel wings, chasing an airblading Jupiter. I’d also like to tell you that Emily Blunt showed up at my house last night to discuss my reviews and ask me to star with her in her next movie, then made out with me. I told you this movie was completely insane.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back and remember to memorize enough evers.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

“Black Sea” – Dive! Dive!

As submarine movies go, you could do a lot worse than Black Sea. Phantom (2013) immediately comes to mind as one of the few submarine movies that offers almost no tension and if there’s one thing people see submarine movies for, it’s the tension. Conversely, Black Sea will clench you up so tight you won’t need toilet paper for a week. That’s not to say Black Sea is a particularly good movie, it’s just to say it delivers what people want from it. This is a good time to remind you that the story and characters are the most important parts of a movie for me. Yeah, I enjoy the feeling of the tension as much as the next person, but that doesn’t stop from me noticing plot holes the size of ocean trenches.

(This is also a really good time to warn you about major SPOILERS. Remember, there is no way to discuss the story or characters without actually talking about the movie.)

In Black Sea, Jude Law plays Captain Robinson, a submarine pilot for a deep sea salvage company. The movie opens with Robinson getting laid off from his job (actually, it begins with a bunch of completely unnecessary war footage from World War II because who doesn’t love a montage), then, meeting a couple of co-laid-off friends at a pub. We learn that Robinson is divorced and has a kid he never sees and that the job is the reason she left him. In other words, he’s the textbook clich├ęd hero from every movie ever made. Anyway, one of the friends tells him that before he was fired, they discovered a sunken German U-Boat from World War II in the Black Sea that they believed was the same boat thought to have sunk with millions of dollars of gold on board. They meet with some mysterious guy (Lewis) who agrees to finance an expedition to retrieve the gold and off they go.

At first glance, the setup for this expedition sounds completely rational. They say it has to be hush-hush because the Russians don’t know about the sub and the Georgians know about it, but don’t know where it is. So, if they want to keep the gold, they can’t be discovered by the Georgians or Russians, thus the need for a submarine – and here is where the story starts to break down. Robinson says they need half the crew to be Russians because the submarine they will use is Russian. Except, why not just find British guys who speak Russian? Even better, why not just find one guy who speaks Russian to interpret the writing in the sub and translate for an all-British crew? They spend several days refitting the sub before they go underwater (and it’s an old World War II Soviet sub because of course they’d keep those just hanging around seventy years later), so they’d definitely have to time to translate and put up sticky notes. And they’d have to have a translator anyway (which they do, named Blackie - seriously) to translate between the Russians and the Brits.

Even if we can accept the completely unnecessary Russian crew members, most of these guys, including the Brits, don’t seem to serve a purpose. Robinson says they have to have at least twelve for a full team – nine to sail the ship and three divers to go into the sunken sub. They specifically pick out a sonar guy and a navigation guy and the rest seem like filler composed of Robinson or Blackie’s buddies. When the friend with the plan mysteriously commits suicide (he was on anti-depressants and supposedly killed himself so family would get the insurance money, even though suicide nullifies insurance policies), Robinson replaces him with some random kid (Tobin) who came to tell him the news and has never been on a submarine let alone crewed one. Riiiiiight. Robinson also picks a guy named Fraser to be their lead diver even though Blackie says the guy is a psychopath. Robinson agrees and picks him anyway because every submarine (and heist) needs a guy who is the wildcard. Last but not least is Daniels (Scoot McNairy), who is there as Lewis’ eyes and ears.

Now that we have met our cardboard cutouts, er, crew, the sub finally gets underway and many days pass by without ever telling us how many, except that to us, it’s the very next scene. So, it’s a little jarring when Fraser is bitching about it not being fair that everyone gets an equal share and the other guys remark that he has been bitching for days. As they finally reach their destination, the writer of the film (Dennis Kelly) plays the wildcard and, wow is it stupid.

Tobin has been assigned to the engine room and when he makes a mistake, the Russian guys start yelling at him. This whole setup really bothered me because Blackie tells the kid the Russian words for less and more (which sound very similar, especially in a loud engine room), rather than telling the Russian mechanic the words less and more (which don’t sound similar). Whatever, logic.

Anyway, Fraser decides to defend the kid by…wait for it…stabbing Blackie in the chest. No fighting, no struggling, just some arguing and, blam!...stab. I guess Fraser really is a psycho. When Blackie falls, he knocks some fuel onto the sparking engine, the engine explodes, and the sub sinks to the bottom of the sea. When Robinson wakes up (he fell into a poll and knocked himself unconscious), he learns that the Russians and Brits have retreated to opposite ends of the sub and are threatening to kill each other, though mostly the Russians just want to kill Fraser. Since the crew is down to ten and their escape plan is to retrieve the driveshaft from the sunken sub to fix their engine, Robinson convinces them all that they still need Fraser. Luckily, the movie tests this theory for us and we don’t have to sit their saying “really?” for the rest of the film.

Remember, Fraser is some sort of superhero-level diver, so the next scene almost certainly will show his true worth. Fraser takes Tobin and another Brit out to find the sub and walks around or awhile. Since there’s a chance the sank on the other side of a ravine from the sub, the film tries to trick us into thinking the worst has happened when Fraser reports back that they found the hill they hoped not to find. Cue ominous music and pouty faces and…wait a minute…Fraser is squinting at the dirt. He’s squinting harder, he’s moving closer, he’s starts wiping at the dirt and….Swastika! German sub is found by what can only be assumed as Fraser’s X-Ray vision. He really is a superhero.

But the party doesn’t last long. I’ll refrain from more details, but know that Fraser is directly responsible for more deaths and every shitty situation the crew finds themselves in and all because he’s really good at walking on sea beds and pointing flashlights underwater.

At this point, you might have noticed two things. (1) I haven’t even mentioned the gold yet and the movie is more than half over and (2) Daniels. When catastrophe strikes, Daniels comes clean that Lewis was an actor hired by the salvaging company to trick Robinson into retrieving the gold, that the company had made a deal with the Georgians, and that they were never going to give the crew any money, opting to have them arrested under maritime law when they returned with the gold. Seriously? Why make up such a convoluted story and hire actors when they could have just offered Robinson and each crew member, say, 100,000 dollars/pounds/rubles to do the job (when they finally retrieve the gold, Robinson estimates its worth at $180 million)? Especially since the Georgians were in on it. Especially since the Russians didn’t even know anything (despite Robinson’s continued warnings about being under the Russian Black Sea Fleet). Especially since they paid for the whole trip anyway. Hello? Paging Dennis Kelly. Anyone out there?

This movie would have been far more plausible (don’t ever forget that suspending disbelief is the most important thing an audience member must do) if they had just used that plot, but made the Russian fleet aware of their intentions. They could have dispensed with the unnecessary Russian crew members, made Fraser sane and actually used his diving skills for something more impressive than underwater tour guide, and simply replaced the catalysts for the catastrophes with something non-stupid. They even could have made Daniels more surreptitious or simply just used him as the catalyst for the catastrophes instead of Fraser. But, that would have required actual reasoning and work in the writing and who needs that.

Like I said earlier, this movie is good for the one thing you want from it – tension. Not many things inspire the kind of tension you get with a bunch of humans riding in an ancient, rusty, steel tube travelling two hundred feet underwater, looking for gold, and praying they aren’t crushed like a beer can by the immense pressure. This movie uses that feeling to manipulate you into caring whether the crew lives or dies (well, some of them maybe) and gives you a thrilling ride while doing it. Of course, you can get the same thing from movies like The Hunt for Red October or Crimson Tide, but your brain won’t hurt after those.

Rating: Ask for half your money back and remember that diving is a little more than walking in the water.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

“The Boy Next Door” – Jennifer Lopez’s best comedy in years.

What’s that you say? The Boy Next Door isn’t a comedy? Considering the audience and I laughed more at this movie than we did at Horrible Bosses 2 and Tammy combined, I have to disagree with you. We all went in expecting a stalker-thriller and ended up with comedy gold. Sure, it was 100% unintentional comedy, but if the goal was to entertain an audience, The Boy Next Door nailed that goal (pun intended). The funniest moment of the night happened after the movie was over when I stopped to share my thoughts with the screening folks. When asked what they thought of the movie, the folks just in front of me said they thought it was pretty good. I thought I had misheard them, but the screening folks confirmed and all I could do was laugh and accept it. When asked the same question, my response was that it was a delightfully stupid movie that one would watch with their friends as a joke. My expectations for this movie were set at approximately negative one thousand and, to my absolute delight, this movie ended up worse by a few extra zeroes.

(In case you are thinking of actually paying money to see this film, I’m going to SPOIL as much of it as I can, specifically to stop you. You can thank me later.)

The premise of the movie is perfectly reasonable – teacher sleeps with student, regrets it, student stalks teacher, people die. This is the premise of dozens, if not hundreds, of similar movies, but few of those movies were as unbelievable and stupidly written as The Boy Next Door. The setup is simple – Claire (Lopez) is a high school teacher with a sixteen year-old son, Kevin (Ian Nelson), and an estranged husband, Garrett (John Corbett), who cheated on her, but is trying to make amends. Hunky twenty year-old, Noah (Ryan Guzman), moves in next door and immediately starts befriending Kevin and Claire. The believability begins to break down when Noah informs Kevin that he moved there to finish school – high school. Incidentally, that was when the audience started laughing.

Since when do high schools allow twenty year-olds to attend classes? Isn’t that why G.E.D.’s were invented? Isn’t that the kind of thing that would cause every parent to lose their minds and demand that people be fired? Of course, that’s the least of the things about this high school that make it the worst high school ever, fake or real.

Anyway, Claire teaches classical literature and Noah just happens to have The Iliad memorized, which just happens to be what the upcoming semester will cover (if the writer of this film had been trying even a tiny bit, it would have been Oedipus Rex instead of The Iliad since Noah wants to kill Kevin’s father and sleep with Kevin’s mother). The two of them trade quotes in front of Kevin and Claire’s friend/vice principal, Vicki (Kristin Chenoweth), and Vicki voices what the audience is thinking – “this is just weird.” A couple of nights later the penultimate sex scene occurs and makes Vicki’s statement even more poignant.

I have to devote a whole paragraph to the sex scene because it’s really that weird (and also awkward). After returning home from a bad date, Claire gets a call from Noah for her to come over because he tried to cook a chicken in the microwave. As absurd as that sentence is to type, it’s made even more ridiculous by the fact that Noah was teaching Kevin how to replace the alternator in a car engine just a couple of days earlier. Despite that, she goes over and does what she can to fix Noah’s meat (pun intended and, no, I won’t stop). As she tries to leave, Noah starts kissing her, grabbing her, undressing her, and telling her how perfect they are. She repeatedly tells him no, but he keeps on in what can only be described as rape. Eventually, she gives in, but at no point during the rest of the scene does she ever appear to be consenting. It’s exactly as awkward as you think it is, in no small part because of his creepy whisperings and her obvious reluctance. I get that he’s supposed to be deranged, but nothing about this scene is convincing to the premise or the rest of the movie. Had she at least been drunk and into it, the rest of Noah’s character would have been far more believable, but definitely not as funny. When Claire wakes up the next morning, the film quits pretending that anything coherent was written in the screenplay and goes full-on stupid.

In one scene, Kevin is at his locker facing off with his bully when Noah comes flying in, drop-kicking the bully, punching him multiple times in the face, and smashing his head into the locker enough times to actually shatter the metal locker door. He even shoves Vicki to the ground when she tries to stop him. Moments later, Vicki is berating him in her office and informing the audience that he fractured the bully’s skull and broke several of his bones. Remember though, this is the worst high school ever, so of course exactly no cops show up to arrest the twenty year-old who assaulted the vice principal and almost killed a kid. On top of that, Vicki says that she went back and checked his records and discovered that he was kicked out of his last school for violent behavior. Let me get this straight – the vice principal didn’t bother to read the files of a twenty year-old transfer student. Again – HE’S TWENTY! Of course, this is the same high school that inexplicably has a gym solely dedicated to boxing, complete with ring and punching bags, so maybe kids beating the shit out of each other is actually homework and not a crime.

In another scene, Noah tries to make Claire angry by having sex with Allie (Lexi Atkins), the girl that Kevin takes to a school dance (and Noah beds her the same night as the dance, no less). Since Claire can see into Noah’s bedroom from her own bedroom, she (and we) gets to watch and we see all of Allie (and I do mean all). Oh, did I mention that Allie is a high school junior? Do you feel like a pedophile now? Have you realized yet that this scene literally depicts statutory rape? It doesn’t matter that Lexi Atkins, the actress, is twenty-one; the character Allie is seventeen at most. If you didn’t feel awkward before, you do now, because there’s a good chance that paying to see this movie constitutes paying for child porn. And, just in case you didn’t feel pervy enough, when the end credits start they reshow parts of this scene, including Atkins’ breasts.

But the best scene of the movie – read: the one that got the most laughs – was near the end when Claire goes to Vicki’s house after being lured there by the weakest fake message you will ever hear. When she gets there, she finds the door open and the power not working and people around me in the theater started yelling “call the cops!” I am not making that up; the audience crossed the line into Mystery Science Theater 3000. Claire pulls out her phone and….uses it as a flashlight. Un-freaking-believable.

While looking up names of the actors, I came across an interview with Guzman where he claims that we’re supposed to laugh at this movie and that the characters do and say dumb things on purpose. Do not believe this for a second. That is what people say when they see the finished product and realize it’s a pile of shit. I would believe him if the movie was satire, but satire requires commentary on a subject and this movie has no subject. The only thing Guzman says that is true is that characters say dumb things, none dumber than when Noah gives Claire an old copy of The Iliad and she says that it is a first edition. Um, no. It’s a good thing she teaches literature and not history given that The Iliad was written more than three thousand year ago and first edition would be on scrolls. Late night Cinemax porn has better writing, and we’re positive they aren’t trying at all.

The sad thing about this movie is that Lopez co-financed it in a desperate attempt to remain more relevant than “one of the judges on American Idol.” Given its extremely low $4 million dollar budget, it’s almost impossible that it will lose money, but it definitely won’t do anything positive for her movie career. The same woman who showed so much promise in movies like Selena and Out of Sight has stooped to letting some random guy from the later Step Up movies fondle her breasts. It would be sad if it wasn’t so funny.

Rating: I already told you, do not pay money for this movie. Wait until it comes out on a streaming service, invite your friends over to watch it, take shots every time Lopez looks like she forgot how to act, and see how many of you are still conscious by the time the awkward sex scene occurs.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

“Blackhat” – Disappointed for all the wrong reasons.

Have you ever felt simultaneously pleased and disappointed in a movie? Have you ever felt those two things for the exact same reason? That’s what Blackhat did to me. Unless you are a secret agent or an athlete, chances are pretty good that your profession is very rarely, if ever, depicted in a movie. When I was a kid, baseball was my life, so I watched just about every baseball movie released (I promise I’m going somewhere with this). I could never understand why the actors playing pitchers (my position) almost always looked as if they were taught how to pitch by a cockroach humping a sock puppet. Tony Danza (Angels in the Outfield), Chelcie Ross (Major League), and Thomas Ian Nicholas (Rookie of the Year) – among others – not only insulted baseball, but insulted actors by not bothering to even attempt to learn how to actually pitch. I always thought their punishment should have been to hand-wash a minor league team’s jock straps for a month, but that was before we had Internet polls. Twenty years later, I’m not a professional baseball player (frowny-face), but I am a cyber-security professional. When I found out someone made a movie called Blackhat, and after watching the preview, I was salivating at the prospect of a movie that was sure to do as much disservice to my profession as Danza did to baseball.

It’s easy to understand why I was expecting this movie to be idiotic in regards to cyber-security. For one thing, the last twenty years are littered with movies and television shows featuring hackers or computer experts and most of them are hilariously bad from a technical standpoint (yes, I’m a nerd – get over it). That’s not to say that some of them weren’t entertaining or good, just that if you know anything about computers (i.e. know the difference between a keyboard and a monitor), those movies become comedies.

For another thing, the preview all but guarantees that the movie will be technically moronic. The premise appears to be that hackers have taken over a nuclear reactor and that only a blackhat hacker can stop them. One character even explicitly states “we need a blackhat hacker,” which is the line that convinced me this movie would be dumb. A blackhat hacker is a hacker who commits crimes; why wouldn’t they need a whitehat hacker (a hacker who does not commit crimes)? On top of that, we see Chris Hemsworth running around shooting people and having sex with some hot chick. I promise you, this is almost the exact opposite of what a blackhat hacker would be. To my surprise, not only is that absurd blackhat line not in the actual film, but the film turns out not to be a technical dumbass. And, that premise isn’t even the actual premise.

The actual premise is hackers have attacked a Chinese nuclear reactor, the New York stock exchange, and more attacks are sure to follow. The Chinese and American governments form a team to identify and catch the hacker. The team is comprised of FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), Chinese Captain and MIT graduate Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), network engineer/Chen’s sister Lien (Wei Tang), and some other agents that are definitely going to die when the shooting starts. After the first two attacks take place, Chen sees the malicious computer code used for the attacks and immediately recognizes it code that he co-wrote while at MIT. Guess which hammer wielding Avenger was the co-author and Chen’s roommate at MIT?

Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth) is the blackhat hacker – who, incidentally, is never once referred to as such during the film – and is in prison for his crimes. Chen insists that Hathaway is vital to the investigation due to his familiarity with the code and became pleased that Michael Mann (director/writer) came up with a logical reason for needing Hathaway rather than just that stupid preview line. The rest of the film is the team following the digital breadcrumbs until they finally figure out what the hacker’s true goal and identity are.

As pleased as I was that the preview was complete bullshit, I was very disappointed that the movie didn’t go cyber-stupid on us. They actually did an admirable job portraying the digital forensics investigation, even to the point of showing us screenshots of command line interfaces and actual commands on computer screens. While I’m no expert UNIX administrator, I recognized much of what we saw and they weren’t just typing nonsense on the screen. What impressed me most was, as far as the hacking part of the movie, they do a lot of social engineering, which is definitely the most effective hacking technique for gaining entry into systems (and places for that matter) rather than just putting some guy at computer who can hack any system with a few keystrokes. The only truly ridiculous part was when Hathaway tricks an NSA senior agent into clicking on an attachment in an email to change his password and Hathaway convincing agent Barrett that the NSA won’t notice. You might be able to trick some secretary at a law firm into doing that, but not an NSA agent (if we’ve learned anything about the NSA in the past year and a half it’s that they would have known Hathaway’s intentions before Hathaway did). But, hey, they just included a phishing attack, which alone makes this movie smarter than most.

I’m sorry if I’ve bored you a little bit, but the reason I’ve spent so much time talking about the technical details is because the movie was so boring that the tech details were more interesting than the movie itself. With a running time of 133 minutes, this movie is easily a half an hour too long. The action scenes are very few and far between and the downtime in between just isn’t engaging for non-technical wienies and it takes almost two hours before the hacker’s motivation is finally revealed. Since the first two attacks take place in the first ten minutes of the movie, that’s nearly two hours of time for the audience to wonder when the movie is going to get to the point. And, when the reveal finally does happen, it’s a huge letdown because the stock exchange hack makes the final hack redundant.

For all the time spent on the investigation, almost no time is devoted to character development. Chen and Wei have no apparent sibling bond at all and their relation to each other only becomes relevant after Chen discovers that Hathaway is sleeping with Wei. On that note, Wei’s only job in this movie is to provide Hathaway with some sex and make him rethink his criminal past. Even though she’s supposed to be the network expert, I’m not sure she even touches a keyboard until the last ten minutes of the film. Agent Barrett is given even less to do as Davis is relegated to making scowly faces and phone calls. And just to make sure everybody got the short end of the script, the villain isn’t heard or seen from until the last five minutes of the film, with the exception of a couple of short instant messages with Hathaway. If his character is ever even named in the movie, I missed it.

All of that is the long way of saying that this movie was a disappointment because it wasn’t even close to the preposterous crap that I was hoping for. Instead of being an idiotic and nonsensical, but entertaining action flick like Lucy, it ended up being a boring slog of a movie that was more interested in lines of code than entertainment. But if we learned anything it’s to never, ever, click on strange e-mail attachments.

Rating: Ask for nine dollars back and hope Hollywood leaves your profession alone.

“American Sniper” – If only this movie were as interesting as its preview.

When you were in school, you probably asked the following question at least once a week – “why are we learning this?” That’s the way I felt after watching American Sniper, a movie that managed to make sniping and war sound like a lesson as given by Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While I didn’t actually fall asleep during the movie, I found my mind wandering as much as any bored student in school.

American Sniper is based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who served four tours of duty as a sniper in Iraq after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Before you get upset that I’m about to give a negative review of this film, know that it has nothing to do with the actual Chris Kyle and everything to do with the movie being just above lousy. I’m glad there are guys like Kyle that are willing to sacrifice themselves for our country, just like I’m sad there are directors like Clint Eastwood making disappointing movies about those guys.

Since this movie is getting award buzz, you’ve probably seen the previews more than once and you were just as interested in seeing this movie as I. The preview shows Chris (Bradley Cooper) in the back of a Humvee, talking to his pregnant wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), on a satellite phone when Chris’s team comes under enemy fire. Chris drops the phone and Taya drops to her knees as she listens to the battle, fearing the worst. It’s a very engaging scene because you immediately are concerned for Chris and Taya. Unfortunately, the preview is more tense and engaging than nearly the rest of the entire film and whatever relationship those two had in real life is barely displayed in the film.

The biggest problem with the movie is it never commits to any narrative and by the end of the film you won’t know what the point of the movie was. That preview scene should have been a crucial part of the story, but it turns out to be one of a string of anecdotes from Chris’ life. That preview scene would have nicely fit a number of possible narratives:

• Chris and Taya’s relationship and the strain his deployments put on it.
• A rival sniper trying to take out Chris and collect a bounty.
• The hunt for the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
• The hunt for al-Zarqawi’s enforcer, “The Butcher.”
• The point of the war and its effect on our soldiers.
• Chris helping wounded vets or those with PTSD cope with rejoining American society.

Any one of those had the potential to be a really compelling movie, but Eastwood and writer Jason Hall seemed bent on sticking to a clinical accounting of Chris’ stories while not exploring any of those narratives so you never feel like anything was at stake during the movie. Of course, it’s hard to be too surprised by Eastwood considering he’s the same guy that lectured an empty chair at the Republican National Convention just a couple of years ago.

Because they chose not to flesh out any of those narratives, this movie could have been about any American soldier of the past 13 years. Chris is portrayed as a guy whose entire motivation is to protect America, a guy whose multiple tours have changed him, a guy whose family is breaking down due to his absences, and a guy who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after his tours. Doesn’t that describe a large population of American soldiers? Does the fact that he is billed as the most lethal sniper in American history matter at all in this movie considering his missions are almost never loftier than “provide cover for squads clearing houses?” None of the events depicted truly connect with the events preceding or following, regardless of whether they occur at home or in the field. The question I found myself continually asking during the way-too-long two-hour-and-twelve-minute running time is “why are we seeing this?”

For comparison, we can look at a couple of other (much better) sniper movies – Sniper (with Tom Berenger and Billy Zane) and Enemy at the Gates (with Jude Law and Ed Harris) – both of which have very defined narratives so you know what’s at stake. In Sniper, Berenger and Zane are on an assassination mission, but the movie is really about what it takes to be a sniper and kill another person (incidentally, the idea of killing people is definitely not a concern in American Sniper except when it’s a child). Enemy at the Gates is a much closer comparison as it is based on the tales of the most decorated Soviet sniper of World War II (Vasily Zaitsev), specifically focusing on his months-long duel with a German sniper in Stalingrad during the war. Enemy at the Gates is the movie American Sniper wanted to be (American Sniper even steals Enemy at the Gates’s opening scene depicting the young sniper hunting with his father), but fails in every way possible.

If I haven’t convinced you of how lazy this storytelling was, consider this example of Eastwood and company falling asleep at the wheel. Chris is portrayed as having gone through SEAL training prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and during that training he tells a drill instructor that he is 30 years old. At the end of the movie, we are told he is killed in 2013 at the age of 39. How did Chris manage to age only nine years over a (minimum) twelve year span? Remember, the writer actually wrote that down in the screenplay.

Despite the fact that the movie is essentially pointless and storyless, Cooper keeps the movie from being a complete waste of time. There is simply no way anyone envisioned this kind of performance when we saw him playing a douchebag in The Wedding Crashers, and Silver Linings Playbook seemed like more of an anomaly than anything. He appeared to be destined for a career of fun action romps and dirty comedies, but now we realize we’ve been underestimating him. I wish I could say the same thing about Sienna Miller, but Taya was so one-dimensional and under-used after her initial meet-cute bar scene with Chris, that Miller never stood a chance.

Before I go, you should know that I have not read the book, nor had I even heard of Chris Kyle prior to seeing this movie. I have read a few things regarding the authenticity of his stories, but none of that affected my opinion of this movie. Maybe he was an American hero or maybe he was just another soldier, but either way, this movie didn’t care.

Rating: Ask for six dollars back and for Eastwood to quit lecturing. …Bueller?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

“Selma” – That’s the way history should be taught.

If that tagline sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s the concluding line of my Fury review. I thought it pertinent for this review because Selma is exhibit B of things I was not taught in school and, probably, you weren’t either. When I saw the preview for this movie, the title baffled me because of (1) my education, (2) I’m under the age of sixty, and (3) I grew up in a place that couldn’t be whiter if it snowed. At my elementary school, you could count the number of black kids on your thumb. Two of those things couldn’t be helped, but the education part continues to burn me up. Like the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Era is a section of history that was glossed over in class. We learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a black preacher who fought for civil rights, gave his “I have a dream” speech, and we got a day off of school every January because of him. In all fairness, we learned about a couple other key events as well (Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, school desegregation, to name two), but nothing that really taught us why Doctor King and so many black people were so fired up about it. So, when I tell you that I wondered who Selma was and why her name would be the title of a Martin Luther King Jr. movie, now you know why.

As it turns out, Selma is the name of a town in Alabama and was a major battleground in the Civil Rights movement, particularly regarding the right to vote by black people. Even though federal law guaranteed their right to vote, many southern states did everything they could to keep black people from voting, including stopping them from even registering to vote. This is the kind of thing that infuriates me because my brain refuses to grasp the idea that people consciously acted like that. Don’t get me wrong – I get that it happens; I just can’t understand the mindset of those people who also claimed to be good Christian folk. I’m guessing those same people are still wondering why heaven is so damned hot.

It’s also very eloquently spelled out as to why voting was so important to Dr. King. There’s an early scene where Dr. King (David Oyelowo) is trying to convince President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) why passing voter protection legislation can’t wait years (at the time, Johnson was trying to get anti-poverty legislation passed which he believed was far more important to the black community). Dr. King explains to Johnson that white men who murder black men are never convicted in court because the juries are all white because juries are selected from registered voters and blacks aren’t being allowed to register. This part blew me away because nobody had ever pointed out the connection between jury pools and voter registration to me and Johnson’s reaction in the scene seemed to indicate the same for him. Alas, Johnson doesn’t back down and Dr. King initiates his plan B – organized and non-violent protests and marches in a place sure to draw national attention. Selma was identified as that place due to the local sheriff being a very predictable, violent racist and the state governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth), being every bit as racist, though more political about it.

If you’ve read any “best movies of 2014” lists (Selma was technically released in 2014 in four theaters to be eligible for awards), you saw that Selma made nearly every list. Had it actually been released to normal movie-going humans last year (its wide release is January 9, 2015), I would have put it in my top ten as well, though likely not for the same reasons as those other critics. Skimming through other reviews, most of them love it because of the subject matter, but that’s not what makes the movie so compelling; that’s what makes it required viewing in every school in America (incidentally, I strongly believe that it should be shown in every school in America). If you forget about the fact that the movie is essentially a historical docudrama, it’s a very good piece of storytelling and that’s what makes it such a good movie. The film does a great job of conveying what’s at stake, building the tension through the events and characters in Selma as well as the jockeying between Dr. King and Johnson, and climaxing with the very famous fifty-mile march from Selma to Montgomery (again, something I didn’t learn until this movie). The desperation and resolution of the black people is palpable and very real as is the hatred and racism of the white people fighting them. The screenplay even manages to break the tension at just the right times with moments of levity. The film elicited all kinds of emotional reaction from the audience, which was audible throughout (crying, gasping, laughter, grumbling), and most of which wasn’t because we were watching Dr. King do his thing.

That’s not to say the movie was perfect. While Ava DuVernay (director, co-writer) did a very good job with the stuff mentioned above, there are elements that did nothing to propel or enhance the story. For one thing, some of the scene transitions are accompanied by text indicating FBI surveillance. There is a lazy attempt at a sub-story that Johnson was using the FBI (with pressure from J. Edgar Hoover) to distract Dr. King from the Selma protests by harassing his wife. Maybe this actually happened and maybe it didn’t, but since the movie never commits to this idea, it doesn’t make the situation any direr. Another thing is DuVernay’s gratuitous use of slow motion shots. These shots are always used after violent attacks, I’m assuming to add gravitas to the scene, but fail to do just that. In one scene, a bomb goes off and we see splinters of wood and legs in slow motion, but the power of the scene is the shock because it’s unexpected. In another scene, a man is being beaten to death and after we are told the man was killed, we see his head hit the pavement in slow motion. The weight of this scene hits home when we find out the guy is dead (and the initial attack because he’s white), so why the slow-mo after the fact if not just because you can? Yes, those are small parts of the film, but they are large enough to break the spell of the rest of the film for a few moments at a time.

From a strictly historical docudrama perspective, Selma is a great example of why I didn’t think The Help and 42 were particularly good movies. Those two movies took a tepid approach when portraying the racism, almost making racism seem like a quaint anecdote from our past. Selma reminds us how ugly those times actually were and that they weren’t all that long ago. After the climax of the film, we see historical footage of the march to Montgomery and while it’s inspiring to behold the marchers, it’s equally disgusting and shameful to see what some of the bystanders were doing and saying (through signage). It’s for all of those feelings that I believe kids should be exposed to this history so they understand that more resulted from the Civil Rights movement than a holiday.

Rating: Worth every penny for you and your kids, if anything because you learned that Selma is a where, not a who.