Friday, May 22, 2015

“Tomorrowland” – Full steam ahead.

If there’s one thing we can agree on about Disney movies it’s that subtlety is not one of their strong suits. After watching Tomorrowland, it’s safe to say that tradition continues as the message is delivered with all the subtlety of a brick to the head. Incidentally, this movie is also calling the vast majority of humans blockheads with its Hugh Laurie-delivered message – “we’ve warned you about the iceberg, but instead of avoiding it, you steer right into it.” What is he talking about, you ask? Climate change, among other things, but let’s start at the beginning.

If there’s one thing we can agree on about Disney, it’s the overarching idea of hope embedded in every Disney story and property. The concept of never losing hope isn’t unique to Disney, but not even the United States has been able to brand and market it as well as Disney (though twelve million immigrants might disagree with me on that). In case you are one of the six people who have never visited Disneyland, Tomorrowland is an area of Disneyland in which young children are scared shitless by riding Space Mountain. It’s also the area decrying that the future can be whatever you can imagine it to be (Disneyland literally refers to its designers as Imagineers); all you have to do is try. As great a message as that is for young people, life beat it out of their now-cynical parents long ago as those same parents simply wonder “how long is this line, anyway?”

(Some SPOILERS ahead and remember to keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times.)

Tomorrowland attempts to bring meaning back to that message by applying it to a real problem – that the human race is actively trying to murder itself in many different ways. The film begins with Frank Walker (George Clooney) and a steampunk, digital countdown clock telling the camera a story while being interrupted by an eager, female voice arguing with him about how to tell the story. Frank starts over and we are taken back to the 1964 World’s Fair, where a very young Frank is showing his invention – a jetpack – to a judge (Hugh Laurie) at an invention competition. A young, freckled girl with eyes the size dinner plates who looks like she popped out of an animated Disney flick, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), takes an interest in Frank and in defiance of the judge, sneaks a special button to Frank and tells him to get on the boat leading to It’s a Small World. You read that correctly – the It’s a Small World ride ridiculed by every human since 1965.

(Note: my movie buddy swore that It’s a Small World was not at that particular fair, but a little research confirmed that it was indeed there and moved to Disneyland following the Fair. What I love about the inclusion of this factoid is that it highlights what people found fun in 1964, as it was one of the most heavily visited exhibits at the Fair.)

While inside the ride, a laser scans the button and Frank is whisked off to Tomorrowland, where a robot fixes his jetpack, Frank briefly experiences what being a cartoon in freefall feels like (while falling, he performs a bunch of silly actions and sightseeing), and comes to rest in front of that same British judge who turns out to be the governor of Tomorrowland, Governor Nix. Rather than letting us explore Tomorrowland with Frank, the film skips ahead fifty years and back to Earth, where we meet Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), our main character (surprise! You thought it was Clooney, didn’t you?). Like Frank, Casey has a brilliant mind, and, like Frank, receives a special button from Athena. Except, Casey doesn’t know she has the button until after she is arrested for sabotaging equipment used to deconstruct a rocket launching pad at Cape Canaveral. You see, Casey has dreams of outer space and believes that if she stops the deconstruction, the government will magically fire Ted Cruz as head of the Congressional Science Committee (and from life in general) and NASA will start launching rockets with actual people on them again to places beyond low Earth orbit. For the record, I’d have those same beliefs if I wasn’t still stuck in line for the Dumbo ride.

When Casey touches the pin, she gets a glimpse of Tomorrowland and decides she simply has to get there. The entire middle of this film is Casey being chased by killer androids (another fun homage to Disney’s vaunted animatronics), Disney marketing its merchandising – including an entire store filled with Star Wars junk that, curiously, is missing a poster promoting Episode VII, to be released December, 2015 – and Athena hiyah-ing some of the killer androids. During that chase, we get a short reprieve when Casey winds up at Frank’s house and Frank tells her that he was kicked out of Tomorrowland for inventing a way to see the future. When Disney says “anything you can imagine” they aren’t effing kidding.

Before revealing what’s at stake, the androids interrupt and we learn that Frank’s house was booby-trapped better than McCauley Caulkin’s house in Home Alone. By this time, you might have noticed that we have spent very little time actually in Tomorrowland and when they actually get to Tomorrowland, it’s falling apart. As it turns out, Frank’s crystal ball revealed there was a 100% chance that humans were going to annihilate themselves sometime in the year 2015, by one of any number of methods – nuclear war, mass flooding, earthquakes, drought, disease, global warming, etc. In a classic villain monologue, Nix explains that they thought they could change the future by beaming images of the apocalypse directly into people’s brains so they would change their ways and save themselves, but, well, I already gave you his Titanic analogy. Thus, we arrive at the not-so-subtle message this movie is trying to deliver – “HEY!! All you numbskull climate-change deniers, war-hawks, anti-vaxxers, and eco-terrorists. Quit being part of the fucking problem! Just sit over there, shut up, and let the rational people work and maybe we can undo this huge mess you’ve made!” Or something like that.

Setting aside the politics for a moment, I found the ten year-old boy in me enjoying the movie and the actors. The film is light-hearted and upbeat and the kind of adventure I loved watching when I was young. Clooney nails the crotchety old man and his comedic timing is as good as ever. Laurie makes for a perfect cartoon villain; channeling a little Dr. House into the role. Robertson attacks her role with the enthusiasm of an entire troop of Mouseketeers and proves she’s much better than her less-than-stellarly-written Under the Dome character. Cassidy steals the spotlight, somehow pulling off her role without it coming across as overly absurd. If this movie has one flaw, it’s that it spends so little time in Tomorrowland that you wonder if the Imagineers were daydreaming a little too much when they wrote the script.

Like I said, the message in this movie is really one of eternal hope. Disney is all but begging us not to give up hope that we can overcome the people who refuse to believe (or don’t care) we’re heading for that iceberg. They even stoop to making sure that the audience knows it’s not just the scientific geniuses, but the ballet dancers and construction workers, among others, that are just as able to imagine solutions as the engineers and physicists, among others (keeping my mouth shut). And you know what? I’m okay with this. As the movie itself points out, we need wild optimism to combat a situation that gets more hopeless by the day so we can make it through a line that never seems to move.

Rating: Staunch, climate change-denying, right-wing conservatives will want their money back, but rational people will know their money was well spent.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

“Mad Max: Fury Road” – Chase me. Just chase me.

In the time since The Avengers: Age of Ultron released in theaters, I’ve seen more and more reviews criticizing it for not having enough character development or being a standalone movie, despite it being the tenth movie (not counting Guardians of the Galaxy and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) in a franchise that started just seven years ago; a franchise that has spent entire movies developing the main characters. For the life of me, I do not understand what their real complaint about the movie is (you can read why in my own review here), but it makes for a great “first-world problems” joke. Going into Mad Max: Fury Road, I wondered if it would be hypocritical to bash Fury Road if it also ignored character building. After all, it’s the fourth movie in a franchise, so we should already know who Max is and what motivates him, right? One small problem – Fury Road is releasing a full thirty years after the last Mad Max flick (Beyond Thunderdome), so expecting viewers under the age of forty to remember anything about Max is the height of arrogance.

I’m sure you’re now wondering if I remember anything about Max and I can tell you with a straight face – Max is that guy who was in Braveheart. For the record, I do know that guy’s name is Mel Gibson and I do know that Tina Turner was in Thunderdome, but that’s all I remember. I’m pretty sure I’ve never even seen Mad Max or The Road Warrior (and if I have, I’ve completely forgotten them), but I have been to the Australian dunes where they filmed parts of those movies – does that count? So, Fury Road probably should have some sort of reintroduction to Max and maybe a quick explanation as to why he’s so mad. I’m not going to keep you in suspense – it doesn’t. Not even a little bit.

The movie opens with stock footage of nuclear blasts and Max narrating the Cliff’s notes version of why the world is a giant wasteland. Actually, what we get are the Cliff’s notes version of the Cliff’s notes which mentions nuclear skirmishes and energy shortages. How this leads to a desert planet, two-headed lizards, and mutated albinos is anyone’s guess since nuclear skirmishes doesn’t sound any worse than the nuclear testing that went on for decades. The tests didn’t cause two-headed amphibians or the planet Tatooine, so why use the word “skirmishes”? Yes, I’m already thinking too hard about this movie, so let me start over (also, major SPOILERS coming).

The film opens with Max (Tom Hardy) looking out over a cliff and eating one of the afore-mentioned lizards. Suddenly, he jumps into his car, is chased for a moment, blown up, and captured by the afore-mentioned albinos. The screen goes dark and opens again with Max having his blood type tattooed on his back, escaping, and being chased some more until he is recaptured. If you are counting, that’s two chase scenes in five minutes and no character development and is simply the prologue foreshadowing the chas-iest movie since, well, The Chase. The next scene introduces us to the actual hero of the movie – yes, you read that right – Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and the villain, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). In fact, I don’t know why Max is in this movie at all other than for marketing purposes. Like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (as was pointed out on The Big Bang Theory), Max does not matter to the plot at all. If he were removed from the film, everything would still happen the same way. Of course, people might notice if Max isn’t a movie titled Mad Max, so we have to live with a movie whose titular character is literally only along for the ride.

Anyway, Furiosa is the driver of a fuel truck and Joe has commanded that she go fill up the truck with gas. While en route, Furiosa turns off the road, much to the confusion of everyone else with her. We quickly find out, as does Joe, that Furiosa has made off with five of Joe’s breeding wives in an attempt to free them and escape to Furiosa’s home land, referred to as the green land. The entire remaining running time (110 of 120 minutes) is devoted to one, big, long, loud, explosive car chase. That is not an exaggeration – with the exception of maybe two minutes of exposition scattered throughout, the rest of the movie is Joe’s army chasing Furiosa through the wasteland. Yes, that means the entire rest of the movie takes place on a moving semi-truck and the three acts are: 35-minute chase scene with lots of explosions and yelling, 40-minute chase scene with fewer explosions and actual dialogue between characters, 35-minute chase with lots of explosions and yelling. If car chases and explosions are your thing, you will orgasm more during this film than a teenage boy who cracked the parental control password on his parents’ laptop.

Given that the story is as thin as outhouse toilet paper, it’s not surprising that the characters are so shallow they’re practically transparent. While Furiosa is at least given a motivation (however weak it may be) for her actions, the only thing we ever learn about her is that she was born in the green place and stolen as a child. There is no explanation whatsoever as to her position in Joe’s hierarchy or why she is the only female not pumping out babies, being milked like a cow (one of the more disturbing scenes in the film, but also genius on the part of Joe, given the situation), or starving to death in the sand. And she’s by far the most developed character in the film.

Joe is supposed to be this terrible, horrible warlord, yet all we know about him is he wears plastic armor, breathes through a scary mask, drilled wells to acquire water which he shares with the people, grows food in a cavern, milks women, and leads the town. Considering the people in this town seemingly do nothing but sleep under sand, it’s really difficult to consider this guy evil rather than just pragmatic. Okay, so maybe he spends a little too much time outfitting his nightmare cars, but that just means he spends less time defiling his wives. Though, by all appearances, those five wives are treated immaculately outside of whatever has to happen for Joe to mount them. You know what – don’t think about that.

Of the secondary characters – besides Max and the five wives – only Nux (Nicholas Holt) is more than just a future flying/decapitated/shredded/crushed body. Nux is one of Joe’s soldiers, is connected to Max via a blood transfusion tube, and lives only to die for Joe and go to Valhalla (none of that is made up). After spending the first half of the movie trying to catch Furiosa, Nux has a change of heart when the red-headed wife looks at him and spends the latter half of the movie helping Furiosa. That’s as far as his development goes and his change is confusing given how fanatical he was to please Joe. If you only learn one thing from this movie it’s that a man will forsake heaven for a piece of ass.

I’d like to tell you that the wives are interesting, but we don’t even know their names and we know they have names because they are listed in the credits (and they are far more absurd than every other name in this movie). The only thing you will want to know about them is why they are so ridiculously hot when every other female in the town is either three hundred pounds, a shriveling husk of bones, or a one-armed Furiosa. One of the old women in Furiosa’s home actually asks how they can be so perfect, but director/writer George Miller was only interested in playing with cars rather than fleshing out characters, so we’re left caring about them simply because they are women and are hot.

Finally, we come back to Max, who exists in this film solely as a blood bag. As I said, thirty years is far too much time to expect people to remember details about a character from a movie that is more cult classic than main stream, so a little character development is a necessity. After his recapture, Max spends the entire first act of the film dangling from the ceiling, then strapped to the front of Nux’s car. In the second and third acts, he is driving the war rig and occasionally shooting at or blowing up people. I’m not sure he has more than ten lines in the entire film – half of which are just grunts – and the closest thing we get to a back story is random hallucinations of a woman and child every now and then. If you haven’t seen the previous films or read up on the material, you wouldn’t know they are his dead family. And, even if you did know, the hallucinations still don’t make sense to anything happening in Fury Road.

I want to make it clear that I understand that this movie is not a thinker (regardless as to what many reviewers would have you believe) and exists solely to justify its set pieces. I could accept the incredibly simple plot if it weren’t for one glaringly obvious plot hole – if the five wives were so valuable, how was Furiosa able to get them out in the first place? And we know they’re valuable because (1) Joe sends his entire army after them and (2) his brother/accountant will verbally list off all of the assets they’ve lost (during the second act) and will remark “all this over a family squabble.” Incidentally, the bad guy expending all of his resources for a MacGuffin is my least favorite trope, but this movie calls itself out on it and not in an ironic, wink-wink kind of way (like how Hawkeye does in Age of Ultron when he says how crazy it is that he fights with a bow and arrow).

One last thing – several reviewers are chalking up Fury Road as a win for feminism, which makes me sad for the feminists who are fighting for real things like income equality or paid maternity leave. Anyone who believes Fury Road is a forward step for feminism simply because it has a strong female central character is either delusional or so desperate for progress that they’d overlook the overt masculinity of Fury Road in order to feel like they aren’t wasting their time. In addition to what I’ve already pointed out about Furiosa and the wives (not to mention the milking), Furiosa gives control of the rig to Max after the first act, her mission is saved by a self-sacrificing Nux, her life is saved by Max giving her a blood transfusion, Furiosa’s entire family/clan (all female) are killed during the climax, the pregnant wife of the five wives and her son are killed, and there are enough phallic symbols throughout the movie to raise Sigmund Freud from the dead. Hell, Furiosa’s war rig is shaped like a giant penis complete with testicles (a trailing fuel pod, so I guess that’s testicle singular) that she rides through the entire movie to safety. Nothing says feminism like being protected by two men and a giant rolling dick while being chased by a bunch of men driving cars bristling with dicks.

Rating: Ask for all but a dollar back. A two-hour long, bombastic, relentless chase scene is the kind of thing you rent from Redbox, not buy at a theater.

Friday, May 8, 2015

“Hot Pursuit” – Funny, but forgettable.

Now that The Avengers: Age of Ultron is in the past, I can get back to reviewing smaller movies and, more importantly, movies that don’t explode every five minutes. HAHA! I didn’t buy that either. This week is really just a breather – or bye week for you football fans – to catch our breath as we prepare for next week’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Chances are good that if you’re going to a movie this weekend it’s because you didn’t see Age of Ultron last week and your friends won’t leave you alone about it. But, as funny as it would be to write another review of Age of Ultron and post that, I went with a new release that is sure to be ignored or forgotten in favor of snarky androids – Hot Pursuit.

If you’ve heard of Hot Pursuit at all, it’s because you are a movie junky like me or are addicted to trailers. This is a movie that should have been released at least three years ago, when its actresses were at a higher comedic value. If you asked me to name Reese Witherspoon’s last comedy without using IMDB, I’d guess Sweet Home Alabama – and her latest movie, Wild, wasn’t exactly a tummy tickler. Conversely, Sofia Vergara is still a current comedy name due to Modern Family, but that show’s peak has long since passed. However, I did have hopes of actually laughing during this movie for a couple of reasons – (1) there’s a funny bit in the trailer where Vergara refers to Witherspoon’s underwear as a diaper, and (2) nobody in the cast was named Wiig or McCarthy.

In Hot Pursuit, Witherspoon plays Texas police officer Cooper – a second generation cop in whose traits include reciting police radio codes, speaking in a lousy Texas accent, playing everything strictly by the book, and setting people on fire with her Taser. In case you are counting, only one of those things is actually funny and is the reason Cooper’s coworkers refer to bonehead mistakes as “pulling a cooper.” Incidentally, the writers forgot to use this little nugget for any comedy, save one extremely predictable instance in the climax. Due to the eponymous “Cooper,” Cooper is relegated to station equipment custodian and joke punchline, but is given a chance at redemption when she is assigned as partner to a US Marshal to escort a witness to Dallas to testify at a drug lord’s trial. Daniella Riva (Vergara) is married to that witness and while they are waiting for Daniella to finish packing, two gunmen break into the house to kill her and her husband. During the firefight, two more gunmen break in and nothing funny happens. At this point, I had no idea if this movie was supposed to be a comedy (as promised) or just a straight action romp with a couple of jokes sprinkled in. The one thing I did know for sure was that Witherspoon’s accent was terrible.

After the Marshal and the witness are killed, Cooper escapes with Daniella and the main plot of the movie kicks in – get your ass to Mars. Oops, wrong movie. I meant get the witness to Dallas. The rest of the film is standard chase movie, which I won’t bore you with, but it was also the point in the movie where the comedy starts to kick in.

Even though the writers missed golden opportunities early, they capitalized on a few things, none more so than Vergara’s Guatemala-ness. Damn, did it again. I mean Colombian-ness. Vergara’s timing is spot-on, and the writing uses her accent to set up and punctuate many of the best jokes in the film. Witherspoon, while seeming a bit rusty at times, pulls off a couple of good scenes, most notably the old accidentally-snorted-cocaine gag. On that note, anyone who claims this movie is fresh is someone who has seen exactly no comedies in their life. You’ll recognize several recycled gags, including the shooting-off-a-body-part gag, the bathroom-window-escape gag, and the hand-cuffed-to-each-other gag, among many others. But that’s okay, because the gags are executed well enough to elicit laughter in lieu of eye-rolling.

That’s not to say all of the jokes in the film are recycled. There are two bits in particular that made me laugh harder than I dared hope (and, no, this isn’t a SPOILER because both of them are showed in the previews):
1. Another escape gag, this time using a deer decoy and made funny by the two women arguing about what sound a deer makes and making those sounds.
2. A gag in which every subsequent newscast throughout the film, in which the two women are being described, gave Cooper a shorter height and Daniella an older age. I’ve always liked goofy, subtle humor like that because it takes actual thought, while toilet humor (which also occurs in this movie) does not.

As decent as the comedy was, the story itself left plenty to be desired, as it was also very much recycled. All of the reveals were far too predictable and the one during the climax was also unnecessary. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was bad, but reveals only work if they are unexpected and used as plot turning points. What’s more is that the movie fairly openly hates men by portraying all of the male characters as slimy or dumb or skittish around “strong women.” They even sink to gags with lesbianism and menstruation to trick some of the men. For the record, I have no idea if the writer(s) or director is a woman (I’m writing this review while sitting on airplane), so I can assure that this isn’t me (a man) just claiming reverse sexism. This is me (a man) claiming that it torpedoes the movie by reminding the viewer that the two leads have vaginas.

So, while we all wait for the next highly anticipated movie to release in Mad Max, I can tell you that Hot Pursuit is in fact “a movie” released “in theaters” and not just something I made up to pass the time until Mad Max. You could definitely do worse than Hot Pursuit and I think Cooper said it best when she said “we show you the funny.” No, wait – that’s Super Troopers. I told you Hot Pursuit was forgettable.

Rating: Don’t ask for any of your money back because I know you actually watched Age of Ultron again (ask for three dollars back if you really did sit through Hot Pursuit).

Friday, May 1, 2015

Guest Review - "Unfriended"

By: JoAnne Hyde

Consider yourself warned: Unfriended is a film, directed by and acted by no one you’ve ever heard of, that will not appeal to anyone over the age of 18. The premise is that a group of teens doing a late-night chat via Skype are being menaced by someone, or some supernatural entity, using the Facebook account of their friend who committed suicide after being cyber-bullied. If they don’t look like teenagers to you, it’s because they’re not. They’re all in their twenties. I actually think the film would have been better if real teens had been cast.

The very naughty and chatting teens are Blaire (Shelley Hennig), Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), Adam (Will Peltz), Jess (Renee Olstead), Ken (Jacob Wysocki), and Val (Courtney Halverson). The dead girl, Laura, is played by Heather Sossaman. They chat a lot about sex, drinking, and drugs, and only turn to cyber-bullying after a blank profile mysteriously appears and leads them to dead Laura’s Facebook page. It seems that Blaire never unfriended Laura after her death, and now someone or something is threatening them through the site. Blaire now finds that she cannot unfriend or delete anything referring to Laura. Then they all discover they’ve all lost control of their computers. Ridiculous mayhem ensues.

Besides unbelievably cheesy acting, the main problem with the film is that there’s no live action – only the Skype images. This is supposed to be innovative, but it’s just annoying. You’re stuck with all the image freezes and breaking-up you get on your own computer. Instead of creating tension, it’s just distracting. You keep wondering why they just don’t all turn off their computers and go to bed. None of them are really sympathetic characters, so you don’t really care what happens to them. You just get tired of waiting to find out what’s going to happen, all of which turns out to be anti-climactic.

The main comment I heard from the preview audience was that it’s a boring film. I agree. I found myself wishing I could go home and watch some shows I’d DVR’ed. In fact, I was thinking about which one to watch first. Then I had to forcibly refocus my attention on the film. There were giggles, sighs, moans, and personal conversations among audience members, and I can’t say I blame them. Normally this kind of thing would annoy me, but I actually found it more entertaining than anything that was going on on-screen.
Unfriended was first intended to be an MTV television movie, which might have worked out better. Apparently, it got good reviews at an indie film screening, so the film makers opted for wide release in theaters. I, personally, would be upset if I paid to see a film that should have gone straight to DVD.
Over-all rating: F

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

“The Avengers: Age of Ultron” – Give me more!

Are you tired of superhero/comic book movies yet? Apparently, a lot of critics and film snobs are, based on their latest round of whining in reviews of The Avengers: Age of Ultron (the film was released internationally last week, so reviews are everywhere). And, it’s not just them – a lot of regular moviegoers have been complaining about the number of superhero/comic book movies too. Listening to all of these people talk, you’d think half the movies released in the past ten years or so fit in that category. Of course, we’ve heard this Chicken Little refrain before, and they were rightfully ignored as well.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth and I’ll prove it. If we start with the beginning of Marvel’s domination of Hollywood and your bank account, we also find the most saturated year for those movies in the history of the industry - 2008. Already, you’re thinking “bullshit; that can’t be right.” 2008 saw the release of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight, Hellboy 2, Punisher: War Zone, Hancock, and The Spirit. Toss in Jumper (actually a novel and not a “graphic novel”) and Wanted (which really comes off as just a straight action movie) and you have nine of those movies. No other year has had more than six and this year has the fewest releases (three – Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Fantastic Four) since 2002 (only Blade 2 and Spider-Man). Not convinced yet? In any given year, there are approximately 600 movies released world-wide, 200-300 of which make it to theaters. If we do the math, that’s between three and nine superhero/comic book movies out of more than two hundred or more. That is not too many unless you don’t understand math (in all fairness, I understand why people think there are so many – it’s because they make tons of money and get tons of attention). If anything, there are not enough because nothing belongs on a big screen more than these movies. In contrast, there were 24 American and British horror films released just last year (which is how many total superhero/comic book movies were released from 2010-2014), and nobody complains about that, even though most horror movies aren’t worth the time, effort, or money of a theater trip. What I’m trying to say is sit down, shut up, eat your popcorn, and enjoy a movie that is ridiculously entertaining.

In related news, Age of Ultron is the eleventh movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is easily as good as Guardians of the Galaxy, if not The Avengers. Incidentally, that’s the other reason I don’t understand the complaining – the quality of these movies has only improved and every one of them is, at worst, very entertaining. More is not a bad thing unless we’re talking about mutant turtles or exotic marigold hotels. The Incredible Hulk may have been a fairly bad movie, but it beats sitting through slogs like Boyhood.

Like its predecessor, Age of Ultron isn’t going to win any awards for plot, but like its predecessor, it doesn’t need to. The plot is the same as every superhero/comic book movie before it – bad guy wants to destroy humanity and the Avengers must stop him. What matters is that the characters don’t get ruined by bad writing, the overarching plotline of the Infinity Stones progresses, and things go boom. Anyone complaining that the plot isn’t original or that the movie is overstuffed (and a lot of critics are saying just that) are people who hate life, kick puppies, and write things purely as click-bait. They also dismiss all of the smaller things happening in the movie that are very interesting and make it well worth watching.

(Mild SPOILERS coming.)

For one thing, James Spader steals the spotlight as Ultron, the titular villain and artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to bring peace to the world. (Ultron wants to bring peace alright, but quickly realizes – like Skynet before him – that the only way to do that is to rid the world of humans.) Spader’s smarmy delivery, sans any robotic or growly Batman-esque intonations, sets Ultron apart from any other movie robot before him. He’s so humanlike, you often forget he’s a robot until he reminds other characters of that fact. Essentially, he’s playing a James Bond villain if Bond villains had a sense of humor.

Building on top of that, the movie takes time to further humanize the rest of the team. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) has a family, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) has a heart, Banner and Stark have scientific blinders doubling as fatal flaws, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) have doubt, and Jarvis (Paul Bettany) gets a body. I’d argue that saving the world is less interesting than what all of those things mean for the future of the characters and the team.

Another thing is that the wit and banter between all of the Avengers is as fun as ever (and the thing that is sorely missing from DC’s movies, save The Green Lantern). There’s a running joke about bad language and an entire scene devoted to lifting Thor’s hammer – as well as dozens of smaller quips and japes throughout the film – all of which kept the audience laughing and the film from taking itself too seriously. Perhaps the best moment of the film comes when Hawkeye acknowledges how ridiculous it is that he fights with a bow and arrow. I mean, come on – how can anyone not like a movie that can pull off a stunt like that without coming across as a joyless hobgoblin?

Perhaps the best thing about the movie is what I liked the most about the first film – none of the characters seem expendable, none of them are short-changed, and there seem to be more than ever. The film introduces two new characters – Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) – Russian siblings who have been enhanced by Hydra with the help of Loki’s scepter. The two are given back stories that explain how they got their powers and their motivations and ample screen time for the audience to enjoy them. The two actors even manage to make us forget how bad they sucked in last year’s Godzilla. Plus, even the bit roles for lesser characters (War Machine, Falcon, Agent Hill, Agent Carter, Nick Fury, Heimdall, Professor Selvig, Thanos) work since they remind you that this movie is just a chapter or two of a very large story. And yes, that’s a lot of characters.

If the movie has any real flaw (besides the 3-D), it’s that a couple of the action sequences rely a little too heavily on CGI and it’s very noticeable. The opening scene in particular, while exciting and fun, leaves a little to be desired in the realism department (yes, I realize how that sounds). I think the problem is that Joss Whedon (writer/director) had something in particular he wanted to show, but that something was impossible to do with actual humans, so the computer got the full assignment. Maybe time and schedule dictated it be done this way, but it’s definitely the worst part of the movie. It’s a flaw, but a small one that is easily forgiven because of the rest of the movie.

The real problem with this movie is that the rest of the summer is going to be downhill. There are quite a few movies to look forward to this summer, but what are the chances that any of them are going to be as fun and entertaining? Sure, Mad Max: Fury Road looks like a crazy romp, Chris Pratt may or may not actually be a velociraptor (Jurassic World), Arnold will be back (Terminator: Genisys), The Fantastic Four is rebooting itself, Paul Rudd is Ant-Man(?!), and Rogue Nation is Tom Cruise’s next impossible mission, but….wait, nevermind. Give me more!!!

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, then, pay to see it again. Nobody ever ate steak and thought “there’s too much steak being made.” They just sat down, ate it, and enjoyed it.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

“Ex Machina” – Latin for ‘good movie.’

Prior to screening Ex Machina, I had to look up the meaning of the phrase ‘deus ex machina.’ I know what the translation is (god from the machine), but I didn’t know what that meant in the context of stories. It surprised me to learn that it originated as a literal term in ancient Greece – that actors playing gods were brought on stage by a machine. This evolved into the modern usage, which is to describe a contrived, convenient, or unexplained plot device that resolves an unsolvable problem. Given what little information about Ex Machina was revealed in the previews, I thought a better understanding of the title would give me a little more foresight into what the movie had in store for us. My question was why that title? Obviously, it sounds cooler than its English translation – The Machine – but is the title hinting at more than that? Is the film going to wink at the audience by including a deus ex machina? By the way, if a title and a single preview are able to provoke that kind of thought beforehand, it’s a good sign that the movie is going to be worth watching.

Before I go on, you should know I went back and forth on the level of SPOILERS to include. After the movie was over, I had no idea how I felt about it. Was it good? Was it nonsense? Did I like it? I need to have some discussion on this movie because I spent the entire 30-minute drive home pondering over it and realizing that it probably requires a second viewing to see a lot of subtle things that I’m sure I missed the first time through. But, I don’t want to give too much away, because I think it’s worth watching at least once. So, yeah – SPOILERS.

The best title for this movie would have been The Imitation Game, as the entire movie is one big Turing Test, but that title was recently taken. Incidentally, The Turing Test would have been a great title as well, but since that doesn’t sound like the name of a rock band or imply a movie with killer robots, they went with Ex Machina. The movie begins with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) winning an interoffice contest where the prize is spending a week with the company’s CEO at the CEO’s remote mountain complex. Upon arrival, Caleb meets the CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is shown around a little bit and is told to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before Nathan can explain what the prize really means. I bring up that last point because writer/director Alex Garland makes the NDA seem like it will be important – Caleb remarks that he needs a lawyer because the NDA has some very uncommon stipulations and Nathan says that if he doesn’t sign it, this movie is going to be really boring because they would spend the week drinking – but it never plays back into the story. I feel like something was edited out later in the film that would have given sense to this scene and if that’s the case, they should have edited out the NDA scene as well.

Anyway, Nathan introduces Caleb to Nathan’s creation – an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb’s job for the week will be to conduct a Turing test to determine if Ava is indeed a true artificial intelligence or just really good at imitating human behavior (thus, the imitation game). Caleb quickly realizes that it isn’t a true Turing test because he knows that Ava is a machine. In a true Turing test, the human cannot know he is conversing with a machine because it would bias the human (in fact, the communication is only supposed to happen via text; a voice would also bias the human). This is when the movie gets interesting because now you’re not so sure what Nathan is up to.

The rest of the movie takes us through pieces of the daily interviews between Caleb and Ava and a relationship forms between the two of them. The intrigue is raised when Ava reveals to Caleb that she can cause power outages and does so in order for the two of them to talk without Nathan watching. Ava warns Caleb not to trust Nathan and is afraid that Nathan is going to shut her off. Caleb confirms her fears, telling her that he will be erasing her memory at the end of Caleb’s stay. I’ve already said more than I normally would for a good movie, so let’s change gears a little bit.

What I began to realize during my ponderings was that there was more than one Turing test going on. I don’t mean a Turing test in the sense that everyone in the movie is an android, but in the sense that Nathan, Ava, and Caleb were conducting tests on each of the other two to determine their level of intelligence. That’s why I think I was so indecisive about what I thought about the movie at first and why I think I need to watch it again. I kept remembering things that Ava and Nathan said and having little light bulb moments all the way into my garage. That’s also why I think I missed a lot of other clues during that movie. But there’s one thing that I still can’t reconcile – Nathan’s motivation behind what we end up seeing in the videos that Caleb discovers. I believe I know the answer, but it doesn’t sit very well and there’s no way I can tell you because it would completely ruin the movie for you.

Putting aside the philosophy, the movie is a pretty good, hard core sci-fi flick. It plays out like a good short story – it has only three major characters and one minor character, a single location, and a very succinct plot, making it easy to stay engaged and not become bored during some of the slower paced scenes. Not to mention the visuals, which are fantastic, especially when it comes Ava. And, if you aren’t the cerebral type during films, there is a healthy dose of nudity, including an incredibly tasteful and poignant scene in which we observe Ava’s entire body with Ava. Trust me – I’m not just being a dude here and saying hooray for boobies.

And about that title and my original question – is it implying a deus ex machina? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie and we’ll debate it then.

Rating: Don’t ask for any of your money back – maybe. If, when the film is over, your reaction is anything like mine, you won’t know either.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

“Unfriended” – OMG. KMN.

There are two kinds of people in this world. One kind are the people who think, speak, and type in text message shorthand, believe cell phones are required for survival of the species, and are social media ninjas. The other kind are those who think we’re all doomed because that first kind of people are going to be running the world in the not-too-distant future. Watch Idiocracy and weep for our species. Unfriended is a movie for that first kind of people, created by the second kind of people that basically says “we hate you.” Wait…hold on. I mean “we h8 U.”

Now, I know what you are thinking – there’s no way Unfriended is the real title of a movie. I agree with you because that title immediately causes any human with a penis (or >30-year old vagina) to want to watch anything else. Unfortunately, that’s the updated title of the movie – its original title was Cybernatural. Unfriended doesn’t sound so bad now, does it? You also probably don’t think this entire movie takes place through a Skype window because that’s even more ludicrous than the film’s title. Again, I agree with you because who wants to watch an entire movie through five small windows that aren’t even in high-def?

Contrary to what you would guess about a movie with a terrible title and blatantly gimmicky style, Unfriended has an unbelievably favorable Rotten Tomatoes rating, currently standing at 79% (it’s 3:00 PM on April 16, in case you are wondering). Apparently, 79% of critics were hallucinating because, of those positive reviews, there are two common themes that need to be dispelled right away. The first is that this movie is, in any way, scary. The only way you could possibly be scared during this flick is if you hit the bong for a few hours and are in the midst of a paranoia that would make Edward Snowden blush. The second is that this movie is “found-footage.” I can see how the brainless critics of the main stream media would make that mistake, but shame on A.A. Dowd of the AV Club (among others) for saying it. Found-footage flicks always begin with a statement that what we are about to watch took place sometime in the past. That’s why it’s called “found.” In Unfriended, we are watching the events in real time along with the characters. Specifically, we are watching along with the main character, Blaire (Shelley Hennig), on her computer. That’s not found-footage; that’s just footage. Using Skype as the camera for this film doesn’t make it found-footage any more than posting a selfie at the beach doesn’t make one a supermodel.

(SPOILER ALERT. Or is it SPLR ALRT? I’m old.)

Some critics would have you believe that this movie is some kind of commentary about cyber-bullying and cyber-shaming (two phrases-du-jour) and they do have a bit of a point. The film begins with Blaire viewing a video clip of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) killing herself. Then, Blaire clicks on a video of Laura at a party a year early depicting a drunken Laura acting like a bitch and ending up passed out on the ground next to a trailer. This second clip incited a year’s worth of nasty comments and is the reason Laura killed herself. Given the recent Internet attacks and blowbacks of Curt Schilling, Ashley Judd, and P!nk, it’s easy to see why Unfriended suddenly got a theater release even though it premiered almost a year ago (July 20, 2014) at the Fantasia Film Festival.

Anyway, Blaire is Skyping with her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm – seriously, that’s his real name!?), when three of their friends – Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz), and Ken (Jacob Wysocki) – suddenly join the call. A sixth mystery person is also on the call, but none of the friends know who it is or why they can’t remove the person from the call. The entire remainder of the film is standard cabin-in-the-woods fare where the five kids (plus a sixth, Val) are killed off one by one while the killer toys with them in ever-escalating ways, and the kids continue to not do anything even remotely logical. Remember how I said those critics had a point about cyber-bullying, etc.? Well, the problem with that notion is that the killer is a ghost hacker. You read that right – it’s the ghost of Laura Barns and she has hacked their computers and can cause them to kill their selves whenever she wants (also, she can conjure up video of embarrassing moments that were never actually recorded and place web cams wherever she wants). The screenwriter (Nelson Greaves) vaguely explains this through a website that Mitch sends Blaire to that simply says don’t respond to digital messages (or analog, presumably) from the dead…or else. Of course, the web site also claims that admitting sins will stave off death and both of those things are contradicted throughout the film. If you’re trying to reconcile all of that with the cyber-bullying commentary, the lesson is that if you are an Internet-trolling douche bag, a ghost is going to make you kill yourself. Would that that were true.

Another problem with the movie is that the characters are all unlikeable little assholes, including the girl who committed suicide, so you won’t give a shit when any of them dies. In fact, you might be rooting for it, as it is eventually revealed that they are all deserving of horrible deaths. Again, that includes Laura.

But, the very worst thing about the movie is the Skype gimmick itself. As annoying as it is to put up with glitching and bad connections on your home computer, this movie forces you to endure that same thing during the movie in order to make it feel more authentic. Piling on top is that at least half of the dialogue is done via instant messaging and chat windows. If I wanted to read a movie, I’d watch a foreign film with actual acting and decent production value. And, I don’t like watching foreign films because when you have to read a movie, you miss the freaking movie.

Considering this movie is technically a slasher flick, it is woefully lacking of the things that make slasher flicks fun, even when they are dumb. Blood, gore, boobs, action, the killer’s fatal flaw – anything to distract you from the fact that watching an entire movie through Skype is as boring as watching Skype trying to connect to someone, but the spinning wheel never stops spinning. The only thing that interrupts the boredom is the fighting between five high school kids that is so grating you wish Laura would kill you first. TTFN.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back because surely you weren’t stupid enough to pay for a movie called Unfriended.