Tuesday, November 25, 2014

“Horrible Bosses 2” – There’s a first time for everything.

After watching the terrible Dumb and Dumber To, I tried to think of any comedy sequel that was good or even worth watching, but came up blank. Considering the premise of Horrible Bosses, it was difficult to come up with a scenario in which a sequel would be anything but redundant and humorless. As you can see, my expectations were not very high. Compounding on this, my drive to the theater that normally takes 30 minutes ended up taking an hour and twenty minutes and I spent at least half of it fantasizing about turning I-25 into demolition derby. By the time I got to the theater, I was frustrated and angry and in no mood for comedy. Imagine my surprise when I found myself laughing twenty minutes into Horrible Bosses 2.

Before watching this film, I was guessing that our heroes from the first film would be our horrible bosses in the sequel and I wasn’t wrong. However, they were horrible in a different way; not horrible in an evil way like their former bosses, but horrible in that they just weren’t good at it.

The movie begins with the trio of Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day), and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) appearing on a morning talking show to promote their new product – the shower buddy – which is their new business’ only product. The scene quickly devolves into a faux masturbation scene and I thought we were going to be in for a very long movie since whipping out that kind of comedy (ahem) is usually something you don’t do in the very first scene. Luckily, that ended up being the low point of the movie.

The next scene introduces us to Rex Hanson (Chris Pine) and his father, Burt (Christoph Waltz), owners of a company that wants to distribute the shower buddy. Burt orders 100,000 units and the guys are ecstatic. They acquire a loan, hire a staff, and build the units, even finishing the order three days early. But when they go to meet Burt, Burt informs them that he is cancelling the order, explaining to them that when they default on their loan, he will buy the shower buddies at a fraction of the cost, including the patent, and sell them at a bigger profit. Thus, we now have the true horrible boss established and the only redundancy occurring in the form of the guys coming up with a plan to defeat him.

If you‘ve seen any of the previews, you know that plan is to kidnap Rex and hold him for ransom. Now you know why. The nice thing about this plot is allowed them to continue the theme of the bumbling fools trying to perpetrate a crime without feeling like a rehash. Even the scenes with the other returning characters (Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston) felt fresh and not forced. Their scenes even serve to move the plot forward instead of just being inserted for a cheap, nostalgic laugh. Of course, it helps that all three of those actors are very good at their jobs, stealing their scenes from the main characters. Not to be left out, Pine and Waltz also perform their parts well, though Pine was much more enjoyable (Waltz is coming dangerously close to becoming a caricature of his Inglorious Basterds role).

By the time the movie was over, I had completely released all of the anger and frustration I walked in with and, quite possibly, seen the first decent comedy sequel in years (if not ever). Maybe it’s true what they say – laughter is the best medicine. Of course, there’s a good chance demolition derby would have accomplished that release as well.

Rating: If you can handle some pretty crass humor, don’t ask for any money back. If you can’t, then a couple will dollars back will do.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

“Dumb and Dumber To” – Stupid is as stupid does.

The first thing I thought when I found out this movie was happening was “Who asked for this?” I understand that it’s pretty rare when people do ask for a movie (Serenity comes to mind), but were there really people out there sending messages to Universal Pictures insisting the studio tell us what happened to Lloyd and Harry after they gave directions to the Swedish Bikini Team? And if so, were those messages pranks or secretly hiding viruses or anthrax? Because, I don’t want to meet the people who were serious about a sequel (or those other message senders, for that matter). Besides – it’s been twenty years since the last movie; any fervor for a sequel would have died years ago anyway.

I’m sure the question you want answered is “how bad is this movie really?” The answer to that question is “not nearly as bad as you thought it would be.” Make no mistake; it’s a bad movie, but it has a couple of sporadic moments that keeps it from being completely putrid.

(Dumb SPOILERS ahead.)

Just as in real life for us, the film picks up twenty years later. Lloyd (Jim Carrey) is in a mental hospital, having never gotten over Mary (Sampsonite) Swanson and Harry (Jeff Daniels) visits him once week to change Lloyd’s diaper. Lloyd hasn’t spoken in twenty years and Harry informs him that he can no longer visit due to some personal business. At this, Lloyd finally mumbles something and then bursts into mock-laughter, revealing that his condition was just a twenty year prank. You see what the Farrelly brothers (writers and directors) did there? Are you already cringing? If you aren’t, the scene ends with Harry and two Latino gardeners trying to pull the catheter out of Lloyd’s penis; only succeeding in dragging him across the lawn. Yes – this is going to be a long movie.

Once back at Harry’s apartment (which is shared with a guy cooking crystal meth – egads!), Harry reveals that he has kidney failure and needs a transplant. Lloyd refuses to donate one of his, so they go to Harry’s parents’ house to ask them and also let the audience know that there are going to be a lot of unfunny race jokes. You see, Harry was actually adopted by a Korean couple, but never made the connection. Why aren’t you laughing? This isn’t the end of the race jokes; there will be another gag about Chinese Canadians and one involving a black Englishwoman. Hi-frickin-larious.

Anyway, the movie goes nostalgic on us (another running theme) and we end up meeting the legendary Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner) after Harry reads an old letter from her insinuating he’s the father of her daughter, Penny (Rachel Melvin). Fraida reveals that Penny refused to write her back, so to kill two birds with one stone (or lots of birds with one cat – another nostalgic gag involving blind Billy from 4C), Harry and Lloyd agree to track down Penny for Fraida and also ask Penny to donate a kidney to Harry. If this doesn’t sound amazing familiar, here’s Peter Farrelly said in January of 2013: “I love the script. It’s exactly like the first one.” Trust me; he’s not kidding.

As I’ve pointed out in the past and which has been demonstrated time and time again, comedy sequels never work because they always end up rehashing the jokes and plotlines (and yes, I’m shuddering at the upcoming Horrible Bosses 2 and Hot Tub Time Machine 2). What was funny, original, and clever in the first film is redundant, tired, and redundant in the sequel. Throughout Dumb and Dumber To, you get rehashes of Lloyd’s daydream date with Lloyd’s romantic interest (complete with ninjas and a semi-truck), a rich person trying to steal money (Laurie Holden), our two heroes riding with a guy who wants to kill them (Rob Riggle), a prank on said man that nearly kills said man, dead birds and a blind kid, Binaca, costumes for a big gathering, and a mysterious package that must be delivered to Lloyd’s romantic interest. Ol’ Petey really wasn’t kidding.

Maybe I could have forgiven all that if the movie had actually been funny. There were a couple of times when I giggled, though none of them had to do with our returning characters. Riggle and Melvin provided a couple of good moments leading to those giggles, but the rest of the film was a slog of intense boredom. Besides the rehashing of old jokes, the film doubles down on the dumb exhibited by Lloyd and Harry and not in a good way. In the first film, their dumbness seemed accidental and innocent and made Harry and Lloyd endearing. This time around, it felt forced and intended, making Harry and Lloyd annoying. The flattest jokes come in the form of misused words and phrases, almost as if the Farrellys had purchased Bob and Tom’s “Joe Johnson’s Vocabulary Builder-Upper” and written every word into the script (Google it if you want an actual laugh). I don’t remember them ever butchering the English language in the first film, so it made no sense here and there was certainly nothing funny about it.

If the recycled story and jokes weren’t enough, the lousiness of the movie is punctuated by none other than Carrey and Daniels themselves. I wouldn’t say they turned in bad performances – though Daniels delivering his lines as if he was wearing a retainer was both bad and uncalled for – there just wasn’t any chemistry between them. After twenty years, Carrey still hasn’t figured out that he isn’t the only person in a movie and Daniels appeared not to care at all that he was actually in a movie. If there’s anything to be learned from this failure it’s that even twenty years isn’t enough time to convince one’s self that comedy sequels are a stupid idea.

Rating: I’d tell you to ask for all of your money back, but you aren’t dumb enough to hand it over for this film in the first place. Right? RIIIIIGHT?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

“Interstellar” – It’s all relative.

Two years ago, one of the best movies I’d ever seen – Cloud Atlas – went largely ignored by the American public. It was an amazing movie that was meticulously crafted and beautiful to behold, but poorly marketed and horribly misunderstood by many critics. Then, last year, Gravity came out and every critic thought they’d seen the best science fiction movie in the history of ever, despite that Gravity had almost no plot, contradicted its own physics as well as factual reality, featured a grand total of two characters – neither of which was well-developed, and had nothing at stake beyond the main character’s own life (seriously – how did not a single critic note that if she had died, it wouldn’t have mattered to anyone or anything because she had no family and she wasn’t trying to save or stop anything from happening?!). Sure, it had cool special effects, but Michael Bay’s been doing that for years and nobody has ever accused his movies of being Best Picture material. Now, we have Interstellar, the latest from Christopher Nolan, as our annual fall sci-fi flick and again, an oddball response from the main-stream critics (by which I mean those who are featured on Rotten Tomatoes) and a “fresh” rating of only 73%.

I’m not going to trash the critics like I did in my John Wick review, but sometimes I think they have a form of brain damage that occurs temporarily and randomly and causes them to hate something in a movie that they absolutely loved in another movie. In Gravity, the critics loved the realism and science – even though both of those things were wildly inaccurate – and thought the story was incredibly riveting, even though it was incredibly generic and predictable. In Interstellar, they deride the science and realism – even though both are driven by pure theory, thus open to all kinds of imagination – and thought the story was tedious and boring at times, even though it was never either of those things. It doesn’t make any sense –unless they have brain damage.

But enough of that – let me tell you why this movie is far and away the best movie of the year.

Interstellar is the kind of hard-core science fiction that reminds you of guys like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Joe Haldeman, and Larry Niven – guys that wrote science fiction that was both incredibly creative and scientifically fascinating. All of them used prevailing theories or topics of the time to build their universes and write about what-if scenarios and their possibilities. What if humanity developed regular space travel? What if humans fought intergalactic wars? What if wormholes were real? Those guys asked those questions with more depth than something like Star Wars – they actually cared about the consequences of things like relativity with regards to faster-than-light travel or acceleration and deceleration to and from high velocities. Interstellar follows in their footsteps by including things like wormholes and black holes and then imagining the effects of those things. As a science fiction fan, I was geeking out worse than a man dressed up like a Reaver at comic-con finding himself locked in a room with Summer Glau.

Interstellar takes place in a future an indeterminate number of years from now. Blights have decimated global crops, starvation has killed millions and the situation has gotten to the point where corn is the only crop left that will grow. Oh, and massive dust storms regularly ravage the land and everything is constantly covered by a layer of dirt. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an engineer/pilot-turned farmer, ekeing out a living with his son Tom, daughter Murph, and father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), on their farm. One day, with some help from Murph, Cooper stumbles upon a secret NASA installation and Cooper is recruited by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway) to captain a space mission to find a new planet to colonize. Yes, it’s an amazing coincidence that Cooper just happened to have been previously trained to fly their specific space plane and just happened to live within driving distance of the secret facility without them knowing it, but you’ll just have to live with it.

Anyway, Brand explains to Cooper that a wormhole appeared near Saturn and that they have already sent twelve explorers through to find suitable planets for humans. Since communications through the wormhole are spotty at best, Cooper’s mission is to go to the best candidates to retrieve the explorers and their data and return to Earth. In parallel, Brand is working on finishing a formula that will allow them to manipulate gravity to the point where they can launch an entire station off the Earth and through the wormhole to start the colony. All of that is Plan A. As a Plan B, Cooper’s ship is being loaded with 9,000 fertilized human eggs to be used to start a new colony in case they are unable to return or must explore further for a suitable planet.

Ok – I know that’s a whole of detail there, but I wanted to make sure you understand that this movie’s plot is far more detailed and layered (I’ll get to the other layers in a moment) than the incredibly shallow plot of Gravity. Plus, there’s more at stake than just the entire human race. Due to relativity, Cooper and his crew will age slower (when they travel) than the people of Earth, so they can’t just succeed – they also have to finish and get back before all of their loved ones age and die. How freaking awesome a concept is that (I told you I was geeking out hard)?!

Time dilation is also one of the consequences I talked about earlier and one of those hard core science concepts that is hard to grasp, but included in most science fiction dealing with travelling through space. Basically, the concept is that the faster a person moves, the slower time passes for that person relative to the people who are not moving with them. This is showcased in the movie during a sequence in which one of the planets they visit is near the event horizon of a black hole. Because the planet is moving incredibly fast around the black hole, seven years will pass on Earth for every hour that passes on that planet. In other words, if Cooper and crew spend three hours on that planet, his kids will age twenty-one years during that same. Considering Cooper’s driving force is to get back to his kids, he probably doesn’t want to find out if Starbucks has already found that planet.

Because I think this movie is awesome, I won’t reveal anything else about the planets they visit – which are visually spectacular – or anything else from a plot perspective in the movie, but I do want to talk about the other main topic in this movie – human emotions and motivations. One reviewer claimed that you won’t care about the characters’ fates because they are poorly developed, but nothing could be further from the truth. In addition to trying to save the human race, Nolan looks into the human element of such a grave task. We get to run the gamut of greed, stubbornness, despair, love, fear, betrayal, courage, anger, and deceit among the main characters. Hell, even the intelligent robots display their humanity, adding humor and sacrifice to the list. And, yes, I did say robots.

As if the story and visuals weren’t enough, the acting is great and the music and sound are off the charts. In order to get the audience emotionally invested, the actors have to convince us to connect with them and boy, do they ever. There were a couple of times during the film when I felt myself tearing up with the actors, a couple of times I wanted to shout warnings to them, and other times when I was just as angry as they were. And, if the actors don’t suck you all the way in, the music finishes the job. If you’ve never quite understood the meaning of palpable, you will after this movie. Not only does the Imax make you feel the music and sound, but the tone of the different pieces fit their scenes perfectly, even when there is silence. The music alone is enough to make you feel some of the emotions wrought during the film; so good it’s almost its own character.

I know I’ve gone for a while and gushed for a lot of it, but it’s only because I haven’t seen a movie this close to perfect since Cloud Atlas. My biggest hope is that Interstellar has a better marketing campaign than Cloud Atlas and that it crushes the box office. Actually, my biggest hope is that this movie wins Best Picture because there hasn’t been a movie even in the same ballpark as Interstellar this year and it would restore some faith that the Academy isn’t completely worthless even if most main-stream critics are.

Rating: Worth more than the next best five movies combined. I’m pretty sure I didn’t blink for the entire 169 minute running time.

Friday, October 31, 2014

“Laggies” – Growing up is hard.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get just one movie about several different relationships that wasn’t an insipid ensemble movie featuring several pairs of people with tenuous, at best, connections between each other? You know what I’m talking about – movies like Valentine’s Day or Love Actually or What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Yeah, I know that last one is about pregnancies, but that didn’t stop it from sucking as hard as a hungry infant. My point is that Laggies is that movie you were waiting for. Unless, of course, you’re actually waiting for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, in which case maybe you don’t care about movies like Laggies at all and you probably clicked on this review because you just wanted to know what the hell a laggie is.

Even after seeing the movie, I’m not really sure what a laggie is, but I think it refers to people who are lagging behind their peers in some way or another. I know – my insight is astounding. Anyway, Keira Knightley plays Megan, our main laggie. She’s 28 years old with an advanced degree, but works for her dad as a sidewalk sign twirler and still thinks tweaking a giant Buddha statue’s nipples is hilarious (for the record, she’s right). She is still close with her high school circle of friends and still dating her high school sweetheart. Her friends and boyfriend, Anthony (Mark Webber), are all “grown up” while Megan still goes over to her parent’s house to surf cable have build-your-own-pizza night. I’m not sure what Anthony sees in Megan, but she must make one hell of a pizza, if you know what I mean.

Suffice it to say, Megan is basically still in high school and this point is emphasized when she befriends a group of teenagers when she buys booze for them. She quickly becomes close friends with their de facto leader, Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz). After a couple of days of hanging out and a marriage proposal by Anthony, Megan decides to crash at Annika’s house for a week to figure things out. Say it with me – SLEEPOVER! With a…28 year old!?…sign-twirler who misses skateboarding and buys liquor for minors? When do the cops show up and where are Annika’s parents?

Speaking of which, this is the point at which Sam Rockwell shows up, playing Annika’s father, Craig. Craig is a divorced divorce-lawyer whose ex-wife, Bethany (Gretchen Mol), ran out on Annika and him when Annika was just eight. We briefly meet Bethany somewhere around the half-way mark of the film, which is also the point at which we realize this movie is actually a coming-of-age story, rather than a relationship story, thus further explaining “laggies.” It’s also at this point that you notice Knightley is delivering an unexpectedly great performance.

For the first half of the film, Knightley is acting like a child and speaking like a child. It gets kind of annoying and you start to wonder how she doesn’t get slapped by people more often, especially by her bitchy friend, Allison (Ellie Kemper), who really didn’t appreciate Buddha’s nipples being tweaked. When Megan goes with Annika to see Bethany, her voice drops at least two octaves and her mannerisms age roughly twenty years. It’s the kind of performance that makes you pay attention and wonder how she could be the same person that crapped the bed in Pride and Prejudice. And, Megan’s not the only one we see advancing. Annika matures past her devil-may-care, rebellious teenage attitude, as do her friends. All of them are dealing with various relationships and all of them deliver performances that make you believe that those relationships might not be 100% fiction.

What’s really good about this movie is that there is at least one relationship or character that we all can relate to. We all know a Megan (or nine) in our lives, and who doesn’t have friends whose parents got divorced – or are divorced themselves? It’s a refreshing movie that doesn’t get too serious with those relationships, but doesn’t make any of them preposterous either. When all is said and done, you’ll walk away from this film satisfied, though I still wonder what a laggie is.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back. If there’s a flaw with this movie, it’s that Sam Rockwell is given nowhere near enough screen time, and honestly, he’s the main reason I went to this movie.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

“John Wick” – WTF?

When I walked out of the theater at the Mall of America, there was this girl surveying people about the movie they just watched. Here is how that conversation went:

Her: Did you just come out of a movie?
Me (thinking: I just walked out of the theater, what do you think?)
Me: Yes.
Her: What movie did you just see?
Me: John Wick.
Her: Would you mind answering some questions about it?
Me: (smiling like an insane person) I’d be happy to.
Her: On a scale from one to five, five being the best, how would you rate this movie?
Me: Zero.
Her: (incredulously) Really?!
Me: Yes, it was that bad.
Her: Why was it that bad?
Me: I generally prefer my movies to have some modicum of a plot.
Her: Would you recommend this movie to your friends?
Me: …
Her: Of course not, since you gave it a zero.
Me: You got it.
Her: Would you be willing to sign up for emails for future free movie tickets?
Me: I don’t live here.
Her: Ok. Thanks and come again.
Me (thinking: I don’t live here.)

I wasn’t really sure if I was going to write a review of John Wick, but on Monday I read that it had an 86% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That is not a typo; 86% of critics liked a movie whose entire plot is “Keanu Reeves slaughters scores of men because one guy stole his car and killed his puppy.” And I’m not talking about back-handed positive reviews; the vast majority of them were glowing reviews with ratings of three to four stars out of four, or B+’s or A-‘s, or eight or higher out of ten. I’ve been reviewing movies for a long enough time that when I think a movie is complete shit, the majority of other critics do too. So, of course I decided to write a review, but since there isn’t much to say about a movie that is nothing more than a series of choreographed fight scenes, I thought I’d read some of those favorable reviews and ridicule those critics. And, boy, they didn’t disappoint me.

(Note: Every one of these reviews can be found via Rotten Tomatoes.)

Richard Corliss, Time Magazine – “Quibbles aside, John Wick is the smartest display of the implacable but somehow ethical Reeves character since the 2008 Street Kings.”

Is it really considered ethical if a person murders more than 80 people when only three of them wronged him? And, over only a stolen car and dead puppy? Maybe Mr. Corliss doesn’t know what the words “smartest” and “ethical” actually mean. Or “quibbles”, for that matter.

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone – “I know, it sounds basic to the point of brainless. Don’t let that discourage you.”

Do let that discourage you. Are you ready to advise your friends to spend $10 or more to be brainless for two hours? Some friend you are.

James Berardinelli, Reel Reviews – “John Wick is a rousing action thriller of the sort rarely encountered in theaters these days.”

This is how the review begins! (1) This movie is not rousing unless by rousing he means roughly one dead body per minute of running time. (2) Does “every couple of weeks” still count as “rarely”? Fury is less than two weeks old and The Equalizer just a month old. Shit, The Equalizer is essentially the same movie, except its lead is slightly older and slightly blacker.

Mr. Berardinelli continues – “There isn't much of a plot, but that's often the case with revenge-based tales. Movies of this sort aren't about narrative depth, they're about taking a hero through an increasingly difficult series of bad guys until he comes face-to-face with the Big Boss.”

In other words, this movie is a plotless video game that you don’t even get to play.

One more from Berardinelli – “My biggest gripe (and it's not a big one) with John Wick's presentation is the prologue flash-forward which adds nothing to the narrative progression while telling us pretty much how things are going to end.”

That’s your biggest gripe? Not the complete lack of story? Not the complete lack of character development? Not that in a movie trying to be a throwback to 80’s action flicks there isn’t a single female breast exposed? Or even a naked butt cheek of either sex? This guy’s bar is set so low the only way you’d know it existed is if you tripped over it.

Forrest Wickman, Slate – “The laconic screenplay stays away from high-minded dialogue. (The two lines that got the biggest laughs at my showing were both “Oh.”) Instead, it relies on visual storytelling, as when the killing of Wick’s dog is crosscut with flashbacks to the death of his wife, to show us Wick sees these events essentially the same way: as evidence of an unjust world.”

Ok, technically he’s right, but this movie doesn’t even feature low-minded dialogue, as evidenced by Mr. Wickman himself, when his only memorable quote from the movie is “Oh.” There is also no visual storytelling since there is no story and nothing ever indicates Wick is motivated to correct injustice. In fact, the opposite is conveyed, in that he is a retired mob killer/enforcer and he sees the killing of his dog as the rekilling of his wife. He’s not dishing out punishment to correct Mr. Wickman’s imaginary injustice; he’s out to kill the guy that interrupted his grieving (and kill pretty much everyone else as well).

Scott, Three Movie Buffs – “On the few occasions when he does stop, the story wobbles a bit. The worst cliche in the film happens when the head of the Russian mafia captures Wick for a short time. Despite the fact that Wick has proven to be possibly the deadliest man on the planet, instead of killing him right away, the mob chieftain decides to talk to him for a while and then, in the best tradition of James Bond villains, walk away when he wants Wick killed, which for some unexplained reason is to be by suffocation instead of a quick bullet to the head. The mobster then follows this stupidity up with another stupid move at the film's climax, just when everything has been settled.”

It’s impossible not to notice how idiotic this scene is. Seriously, how does this shit still appear in movies? The head mobster reminisces earlier in the movie about how he once saw Wick kill three guys with a pencil and how Wick “…isn’t the boogeyman; he’s the guy you send to kill the fucking boogeyman.” Didn’t it occur to him that Wick just might escape handcuffs, a chair, and just two henchmen?

Scott continues – “If you're a fan of action movies, this one is almost impossible not to like.”

Hold on, Scott. You just told us that the film contains one of the dumbest tropes/clich├ęs of action movies, plus that the story “wobbles a bit” when the action breaks (“wobbles” is a polite way of saying sits on its own nutsack and falls off a ledge) – how can this movie be almost impossible not to like?

Louise Keller, Urban Cinefile – “The script is clever in that we slowly get to understand the code by which everyone lives. There are rules and protocols including special waste disposal teams who arrive on call, to efficiently remove bodies and all signs of carnage - for the price of a gold coin.”

At no point do we ever get to understand the code by which everyone lives. There is no code. The closest thing we get to a code is in the hotel where John stays where “nobody is allowed to conduct business on its grounds.” That’s it. There are no rules or protocols. The “special waste disposal team” is not special at all (nor clever or even unique). In fact, they serve no purpose to the movie or “story” at all, considering the two places they clean up are never seen again. Piling on is the fact that the police literally see the freshly killed bodies in John’s home and do nothing more than wish John a good evening. The clean-up crew could have fed the bodies into a mulcher on John’s front lawn while making small talk with the cops and the movie would not change in the slightest.

Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters – “John Wick isn’t any of that: he’s a veteran, a retired super-assassin of such renown that only his name need be mentioned for hard-faced killers and kingpins to reveal just the slightest quiver of concern…It also offers you a chance to feel smart about the genre…

Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian – “What Allen’s bratty-ass punk Iosef didn’t realize was that John Wick used to be the top hit-man for his father Viggo (Michael Nyqvist).”

So, if John Wick is so renowned, how is it that the kingpin’s own adult son and his son’s two lackeys have never heard of John Wick even though Wick has only been retired for five years? Did dad seriously never scare his idiot son (yes, his dad feels this way about his son) with stories of the guy who could kill the boogeyman with a pencil? Did dad seriously never introduce his son to John even though his son would presumably be taking over the business and John was their best killer? Does dad secretly want his son to die? Your guess is as good as mine, but none of them will make you feel smart.

Chris Swain, Examiner – Title of review: “One of the best action films of 2014.”
“Unfortunately the film is very basic and that may be a red flag for some. "John Wick" is an at-surface-level kind of film without a lot of depth. It's a simple revenge story where the action is supposed to outweigh any other shortcomings. The dialogue is extremely lacking at times and the story is a little weak. Another feeble moment is the big fight scene that the film builds up so much, which has a beyond anticlimactic conclusion.”

No – Popeye was a little weak when he didn’t eat his spinach. John Wick’s story is a limp dick that no amount of Viagra or Cialis could ever shore up. More importantly, how can John Wick be one of the best action films of the year while it is very basic without a lot of depth, contains extremely lacking dialogue and a feeble conclusion, and uses action to outweigh other shortcomings? Doesn’t that describe a movie like Gangster Squad, which has a 32% Rotten Tomatoes score? When Chris Swain saw X-Men: Days of Future Past or Guardians of the Galaxy or Edge of Tomorrow (you know, actually great action films) did he just pee all over himself in ecstasy?

Bruce Ingram, Chicago Sun-Times – ““John Wick” doesn’t offer much in the way of a plot. It’s a standard-issue revenge thriller, basically, about a reformed assassin who breaks out his old hit-man kit for personal reasons. But that just means there’s not much story to get in the way when Mr. Wick decides to uncork some retribution.”

Yeah, don’t you hate it when story gets in the way of telling a story? I mean, who needs that shit? I’d also like to point out that Wick isn’t a reformed assassin, he’s retired. A reformed assassin doesn’t go on a killing spree over a puppy and a ’69 Mustang; he goes to therapy to talk it out and probably just buys a new dog. Well, maybe a reformed redneck assassin goes on a killing spree, but not a normal reformed assassin.

Stephanie Merry, Washington Post – “Even his old boss calls him the Bogeyman, because when you need to off the Bogeyman, you call John Wick.”

This bugged me throughout the entire movie. The boss makes a point of telling his son that Wick is NOT the boogeyman, then calls him the boogeyman for the rest of the film. Maybe he was distracted by the subtext featuring goofy comic book font of certain words when he spoke in Russian. I know I was.

Merry continues – “The story, especially toward the end, is a lot less important than those fight sequences. But early on, smart, funny scenes attempt to answer questions other action movies don’t address. For example: How do our invincible heroes navigate car chases so ably? In this case, we see John Wick practicing his skills amid obstacles in a parking lot. And what happens to all those dead bodies? Here, there’s a jaunty cleanup crew. But John Wick has a more interesting story and better fights than most…”

There’s a lot wrong with these few sentences, so let’s just hit them one by one.
(1) The story should never be less important, let alone a lot less important, than fight sequences ever. This is not Street Fighter.
(2) Has anyone ever wondered about the hero’s driving skills when that hero is a highly trained assassin? If the answer to that is yes, you were probably shaken as a baby.
(3) Wick isn’t practicing in a parking lot; he’s practicing on a runway. Where the fuck are you parking when you go to the airport?
(4) Who cares what happens to the bodies? If you don’t give a shit about the story over fight sequences, how can you possibly give a shit about proper housecleaning?
(5) No and no.

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly - “And the screenplay by Derek Kolstad (2012's The Package) is a marvelously rich and stylish feat of pulpy world-building…They've taken a broken clock and lovingly restored it with Swiss timing and precision.”

Mr. Nashawaty is clearly vying for Hollywood shill of the year with this absurd quote. I know EW openly whores itself out to the studios, but this is a new low even for them.

Scott Mendelson, Forbes – “In an era when some of the best old-school action goes the DTV route (think Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning),…”
“What could have been a generic “reformed hit man takes vengeance after a personal loss” story is enlivened both by the quality of acting and action (more on that later), but by the rich world that has been created.”
John Wick is the real deal. It is a terrific action picture, filled with strong performances by a game cast, along with superb action set-pieces and a genuinely interesting world to boot.”

There are many ways to tell when someone is totally full of shit, but none are as obvious as a movie review appearing in a financial magazine and an author claiming Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is one of the best old-school action movies out there. Nature invented syphilis for guys like him.

Neil Miller, Film School Rejects – “Even better, John Wick also sports an interesting premise and a surprisingly sharp bit of world-building not normally seen in your average shoot ‘em up.”

Okay, that’s several times now these people have cited great world-building. Either my brain quit during this movie or these people watched a completely different movie than I did. The world-building I saw, at best, hinted at an underground world. This movie would have been far more interesting had they actually developed any (ANY!!) of that world’s characters or locations, but the action never stops long enough for any of that to happen. We know there are assassins (Adrianne Palicki, Willem Dafoe), we know there is a Russian mob and crime syndicate, we know that Mayhem from the All-State commercials (Dean Winters) is completely wasted, we know there is a special hotel where Ian McShane drinks cocktails and Lance Reddick tends the desk, and we know they use gold coins that look like those chocolate covered coins you get for Easter every year. We know nothing else; no explanations of any of those things. That’s not world building, that’s throwing shit at a wall and not caring why anything sticks.

Tom Russo, Boston Globe – “We’d be up for seeing John Wick get pulled back in again, but with good cause.”

We are all doomed.

The thing that stood out among all of these reviews (besides the insipidness) was they all loved the choreography and that was enough to forgive everything else in the movie. Except, these same people trashed Michael Bay’s flicks even though nobody does special effects and visuals like Bay and at least Bay makes attempts at telling a story beyond “guy kills everyone in sight.” So, again I ask – WTF?

Rating: Apparently, if all you want is near non-stop killing and action, it’s worth your money. If you care about any other component of film-making, you will want all of your money back and a survey-girl to talk to.

Friday, October 17, 2014

“Fury” – What war really looks like.

A couple of weeks ago, thousands of high school students in Jefferson County, Colorado (part of the Denver metro area) walked out of school in protest of a proposed change in the curriculum of the AP History course. If you haven’t heard about this event, here is a direct quote from a Washington Post article published on October 5th covering the issue:

The school board plans to set up a new committee to review the curriculum with the goal of assuring that courses — in the words of board member Julie Williams — “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” and “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.” Williams also wrote that “materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder [or] social strife.”

Hopefully, you had the same reaction after reading that proposition that I did – rage and disbelief followed by wanting to mail those ignorant school board members copies of George Orwell’s 1984 followed by a flaming bag of dog poop. I don’t bring this up to turn this into a political diatribe, but because the movie Fury is a perfect example of what those kids are protesting for.

As I get older and learn more things about history, I think back on my American history classes through elementary, middle, and high school and realize how truly whitewashed they really were. My wife put it perfectly – they are a clinical version or history (my adjective was sanitized), basically just teaching us that things happened on certain dates involving certain people without including much context, if any at all. Fury is a lesson that none of us were ever taught – unless you were lucky enough to have a teacher who actually cared about teaching history – that war is worse than you can possibly imagine, especially World War II.

If you are an American (like me), you came out of high school with the impression that World War II was a glorious struggle and victory by the Allied forces, led by the Americans who stopped the evil Nazis and Japanese, passed out candy bars and flags after liberating cities, and were on our absolute best behavior during the entire war. It’s that last part that those school board members want emphasized even though it’s complete horseshit because they refuse to believe that war affects Americans the same as it affects everyone else. These people will either never watch Fury or they will accuse it of being some kind of anti-American/communist propaganda even though it also depicts those positive aspects they are so desperate to convey.

Fury takes place in April 1945 and focuses on a single American tank crew fighting in Germany. The crew is made up of Staff Sergeant Collier (Brad Pitt) – the crew commander, Technician Swan (Shia LeBeouf) – the main gunner, Corporal Garcia (Michael Pena) – the driver, PFC Travis (Jon Bernthal) – the loader and mechanic, and Private Ellison (Logan Lerman) – the assistant driver/machine gunner/new kid. There is no lofty plot or mission or goal – for instance, like saving Private Ryan – it’s just the story of these five guys and what war does to them and everyone else. Like the better war movies, Fury doesn’t shy away from showing the horrific things that happen during and after the fighting, but ups the ante by showing some of the things that American soldiers most likely did that we don’t like to think about or admit. It shows what happens (mentally) to men whose whole purpose for three solid years was to kill the enemy while riding around ina giant steel cannon on treads. To believe that our soldiers were somehow immune to the psychological toll that purpose would inflict is a fantasy deserving of the nuthouse.

While Brad Pitt is billed as the lead, the movie is just as much about Private Ellison. As Ellison informs his new crewmates after failing to kill a German, he wasn’t trained for tank combat, he was trained to type 60 words a minute. It was just Ellison’s bad luck that Sergeant Collier needed a replacement crewmember and Ellison was available. As the movie goes on, Ellison initially represents that ideal of American innocence and only killing when absolutely required, but eventually becomes the killing machine his country requires him to be. By contrast, the other crewmembers, sans Collier, are exactly the opposite – killing machines likened to animals (at one point, literally). Collier is the balance between the two and even verbalizes the lessons of war, just in case you were still in denial about the realities of war. Sometimes, he is the hard-nosed commander, pushing his men beyond their limits to fulfill their mission, forcing them to kill the enemy even if the enemy has surrendered. Other times, he is the voice of reason, protecting German women from drunken soldiers looking to celebrate their victory (you don’t think millions of soldiers all contracted syphilis consensually, do you?). He is also the guy that his men will follow anywhere and Ellison must learn why as the film marches on.

As a student of history, I highly recommend seeing this movie if you are interested in getting a peak at what really happens at the worst moments of human history. The acting is great and the visuals are stunning (in ways both good and terrifying). If you have a weak stomach or want to remain under the delusion that World War II (and other wars) were romantic and adventurous, you should probably steer clear of this film and keep to such films as Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. And, if you still don’t quite believe me on what this film’s message is, I’ll leave with you two quotes from Collier:

“Ideology is peaceful. History is violent.”

“This war is going to be over soon, but a lot more people gotta die first.”

That’s the way history should be taught.

Rating: Don’t ask for any of your money back from the theater, but do ask for some of your tax dollars back for teaching you nothing.

Friday, October 10, 2014

“Dracula Untold” – Bite me.

If you are wondering why I would bother seeing a movie as obviously wretched as Dracula Untold promised to be, it’s because it’s been two months since I last saw a skidmark of a film (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and they are the most fun to write about. Also, it screened the night after The Judge and I thought it would be fun to watch two polar-opposite films on consecutive nights. I was right. So, let’s get right to it with our old friend, Mr. Q&A, who is not shy about giving out SPOILERS.

Q: Ugh – is the title really Dracula Untold?

A: This is what passes for creativity in Hollywood these days -slapping dumb words that have been market-tested against the lowest common denominator on the end of movies to make them sound edgy or interesting. Rises, returns, untold – they’re all the same – except “untold” is extra stupid because the movie is telling you whatever it is that’s untold.

Q: Right. So, what are they telling us?

A: Following the current trend of neutering historically evil villains, Vlad/Dracula (Luke Evans) is actually a well-meaning prince trying to keep his people safe and only temporarily becomes a vampire to achieve that goal…

Q: Brruhhherrrerrr….

A: Are you alright?

Q: Yeah – just threw up in my mouth a little bit. You were saying?

A: Mehmed, the sultan of Turkey (Dominic Cooper), demands that Vlad give him 1000 boys and young men for his army, including Vlad’s son, as part of their annual tribute. Vlad refuses and kills the sultan’s men, knowing that he just doomed his people, though he only really cares about his own wife (Sarah Gadon) and son. Luckily, he knows there is something powerful living in Broken-Tooth Mountain and goes up for a chat.

Q: Wait – Broken-Tooth Mountain? Are you sure you didn’t make that up?

A: As sure as I am that the vampire living in the mountain is played by Charles Dance (aka Tywin Lannister) and that that vampire is actually the Roman emperor, Caligula.

Q: Wow. That’s worse than when Christopher Lee slummed it as a leprosy-riddle cardinal in Season of the Witch.

A: Tell me about it.

Q: What did you mean by “temporarily becomes a vampire?”

A: Vlad must drink some of Caligula’s blood to gain Caligula’s powers. Caligula explains to Vlad that if Vlad can resist drinking human blood for three days, Vlad will return to normal. Caligula agrees to help because if Vlad succumbs to the thirst, then Caligula is freed from his curse. We don’t really know what that curse is (it’s definitely not just being made a vampire), but we know he wants revenge on the demon that cursed him. This will not matter to the story at all nor will we so much as see Caligula again until just before the credits roll.

Q: So, three days to defeat the entire Turkish army and probably also must avoid being killed by his own people for being a vampire? Tough gig. I’m guessing this doesn’t go so well considering vampires can’t go out during the day (at least those outside of the Seattle, Washington area).

A: Lucky for Vlad, the Turks only fight at night. I couldn’t stop thinking about how ridiculous a contrivance that was, even for this kind of movie. Militaries rarely fought at night throughout most of human history due to that pesky problem of not being able to see in the dark. Of course, this will become a moot point later in the movie when Vlad is able to control the weather.

Q: Hold on – what do you mean he can control the weather?

A: On the third day, he simply causes the sky to cloud over so he can go outside. Never mind that clouds still allow sunlight through; he’s out of time and the Turkish army is upon them.

Q: WTF? What other powers does he have? Night vision? Teleportation? A utility belt? I thought we were talking about Dracula here – a traditional vampire that is just strong and immortal and can maybe turn into a bat. The kind that can be killed by silver, sunlight, garlic, and crosses.

A: Nah. The silver and sunlight thing is true except when it’s inconvenient to the plot. The cross thing only applies after a couple of tries by a priest (he’ll even remark that Vlad is immune to it) and then only when it’s convenient. In fact, this movie should have been called Dracula: An Inconvenient Truth.

Q: Is that all?

A: God no. He actually does have night vision (he sees in infrared), can control creatures of the night, moves around extremely quickly as a swarm of bats (except when his wife is about to die, in which he moves just too slow), heals as quickly as Wolverine, and has super-heightened senses. And remember, he can do all of this stuff tirelessly and without having to sustain himself with blood. He is basically the X-Men, but with dragon armor.

Q: I can see why you were so excited about this movie. There’s one thing I don’t understand – you said the sultan demanded a tribute. Why is the sultan marching his entire army into Vlad’s kingdom if that kingdom is (apparently) already under his control?

A: He’s a big meanie-head? There isn’t a good reason. In fact, it’s dumber than you think. Vlad originally offers himself in place of the 1000 because he claims he is worth the same on the battlefield. The sultan agrees with Vlad’s claim, but would rather have the children anyway because he’s the villain and stuff. It’s the same tired trope we see in lots of movies where the bad guy spends all of his resources to stop a good guy who isn’t even a threat. Even after losing 1000 soldiers in the initial attack, the sultan continues on, despite remarking that Transylvania is his least favorite part of his kingdom and despite that he has plans to conquer other parts of Europe. The only conclusion here is that the sultan is a terrible general and a raging pedophile.

Q: So, I guess since Vlad is invincible, he saves the kingdom and his family and destroys the Turkish army?

A: Actually, no. Most of his people are killed in the battles, including his wife.

Q: No effing way.

A: Yes effing way. Plus, as his wife is dying in his arms, she convinces him to drink her blood because the movie needed to render meaningless everything he did and stood for.

Q: Wait. Stop…I don’t think I can take any more.

A: Sure you can. Renfield shows up a couple of times as some kind of homeless guy trying to tempt Vlad with his blood so he can be Vlad’s servant…

Q: No…more…

A: …and after destroying the Turks, Vlad kills himself, only to be resurrected by Renfield and appear in modern day London flirting with a woman who looks like his old wife.


A: Tell me about it.

Rating: Leave the poor theater manager out of this – you knew this movie would suck (rimshot) and you handed your money over anyway.