Thursday, March 19, 2015

“The Gunman” – Mess with the bull and you’ll get the horns (or Welcome to the gun show!).

If you’re wondering why this isn’t a review of the movie people will actually be watching this weekend – Insurgent – it’s because Insurgent wasn’t being screened by the agency that puts on the screenings I go to. For some reason, the agency stopped screening movies produced by Lionsgate a while back, so our choices this week were The Gunman and whatever I felt like watching at home. But, come on – are you telling me you’re not interested in Sean Penn’s first try as an action star at age 54? If your answer is no, just lie to me.

The easiest comparison to make here is that Sean Penn is trying to duplicate the late-life action success of someone like Liam Neeson. Many critics have already made this exact comparison because their memories are so short (or so bad) that they forgot that Liam Neeson didn’t experience his breakout with Taken. Sean Penn never played a Jedi or the villain in a Batman movie prior to The Gunman, but Neeson’s been in action movies his entire career, including playing the lead in Rob Roy in 1995. Neeson was already an action name well before Taken, whereas Penn made his name before The Gunman playing roles in dramatic Oscar-bait movies. My point is that Penn is starting from square one, and convincing us he’s more Jason Bourne than Harvey Milk is a much bigger task than Neeson convincing us he’s an ass-kicking father after playing an ass-kicking master villain.

(Note: many critics are also making the comparison because Pierre Morel directed Taken as well as The Gunman, as if Morel was responsible for Liam Neeson’s success. Morel has directed a grand total of four movies, including The Gunman, and The Gunman is the only one not written and produced by Luc Besson. Taken is the only one that wasn’t a flop, so our only conclusion here is that many critics are morons.)

Now here’s the fun part – Penn got a screenwriting credit for The Gunman (along with Don MacPherson and Pete Travis), so when I bash this movie for having clichéd, convoluted, and bad writing, Penn can’t hide behind the writers, because he is one. And by bad writing, I’m talking rejected-Die Hard 5-scripts bad. Just last week, in my review of Run All Night (speaking of Liam Neeson), I talked about action movie tropes, specifically the one where the villain expends all of his resources to eliminate a perceived threat that isn’t a threat until the villain tries to eliminate it. In other words, the villain would have gone on undisturbed had he just left things alone. If you didn’t quite follow my thoughts then, The Gunman provides a textbook case of this stupefying trope.

(SPOILERS are coming, but you’re going to watch Insurgent anyway, so what do you care?)

Penn plays Jim Terrier, an ex-special forces soldier, now working for mining companies and is providing protection for their operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The film begins with a montage of news reports regarding the exploitation of African countries for their minerals, so we think this movie might focus on that as the main premise, but that’s just a trick. The movie is really about how many times Penn gets to take his shirt off to show us how ripped he made his 54-year old body. It must work because he also has a girlfriend, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), that his friend and associate, Felix (Javier Bardem), openly and obviously lusts after (including while they are sitting together at dinner). Jim either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care because Felix looks like a middle-aged tax accountant who is the reason why kids are starving in Africa.

Late one night, we find out that Jim is more than just a glorified security guard. Jim and three others have been tasked by Felix (and his corporate overlords) with assassinating the Congolese Minister of Mining because the Minister was going to cancel all mining contracts in the country. Stipulated in Jim and team’s contract is that whomever of them actually pulls the trigger must leave the country forever (they literally tell us about the contract and this clause later in the movie). We’re only ten minutes into this movie and the first giant “BWAAAAA?!” occurs. Can someone please explain to me why only the shooter has to leave the country? Or why he has to leave the country at all? And the answer can’t be ‘plot contrivance’ because I already know that. As a further contrivance, Felix is the one who gets to designate the shooter and when he chooses Jim, Jim says “I figured it would be me.” I thought this meant that Jim did know about Felix’s obsession with Annie, but then Jim adds “take care of Annie for me.” Wait, why can’t Annie go with Jim? Why can’t Jim tell Annie that he has to leave? Won’t Annie notice that Jim disappears immediately following the assassination of the minister? How did this movie get that stupid, that fast?

But, wait it gets worse. After the assassination, the movie cuts to eight years later and Jim is back working in the Congo. At this point, he’s retired from security/assassination and his helping Congolese villages drill wells, when three guys show up to kill him. This is the first chance we get to see Penn kick some ass and I have to say that it’s actually pretty good. If this movie has one positive note, it’s that Penn IS believable as the latest old-guy action star. Sadly, the plot intervenes and we are thrust back into stupidity.

After dispatching his would-be assassins, Jim flies to London to talk to his old team lead, Cox (Mark Rylance), to tell Cox about the attempt on Jim’s life and to ask for help on figuring out who put the hit out in the first place. He is worried that Cox and the other two teammates from eight years earlier are also in danger. Then, Jim tracks down Felix and we see that Annie and Felix are now married. Jim isn’t surprised by this and spends some time stalking Annie, then goes to talk to Felix. Felix accuses him of wanting to win Annie back and the second giant “BWAAAAA?!” occurs. It’s been eight years and Jim never went back for Annie, plus he asks Felix what he knows about the assassination attempt. Jim doesn’t even accuse Felix of orchestrating the original assassination to steal Annie, so why is Felix so concerned about it now? Oh, right – check out Jim’s gun show.

At this point, we’re meant to believe that Felix is the mastermind and he did it for the girl, but then why would he wait eight years to try to kill Jim? And, since we’re asking (and Felix isn’t the mastermind), why did the real mastermind wait eight years to kill the team? Nothing is ever said throughout the movie to explain why it suddenly became necessary to kill the men behind the Congolese minister’s assassination after so much time had passed. We do find out that Felix was helping the real villain, but Felix is also a loose end that needs to be tied up. So, by default (aka Felix’s brains escaping from his skull), Jim wins Annie back. The good news is that the half-assed love triangle is put to rest. The bad news is that this movie still had half of its two-hour running time remaining, leaving plenty of time for more action movie clichés. Sadly, none of them involves seeing Annie topless because Penn took up the entire allotment.

Because they didn’t want this movie to be exactly like an 80’s action flick, Penn and the writers added a little wrinkle to Jim’s character – post-concussion syndrome. There is an entire scene devoted to Jim getting a brain scan and the doctor explaining Jim’s condition to him while Jim’s friend Stanley (Ray Winstone) looks on in concern. Long story short, the condition causes memory loss, headaches, seizures, wobbly legs, vomiting blood, sex with French women, and villain monologues and will get worse if he experiences any more head trauma. No, I didn’t make up any of that and yes, “BWAAAAA?!” They might as well have shoved a stick of Kryptonite up Jim’s ass for all the subtlety of this plot contrivance.

The movie continues on its clichéd, predictable path with a climax that takes place in a bullfighting arena in Spain and lasts about four hours. Jim threatens the bad guy with the release of evidence tying said bad guy to the old assassination, so they agree to an exchange at the arena – Annie for the evidence. Obviously, the bad guy is going to welch on the deal and while the baddie’s henchmen are duking it out with Jim, Annie makes a run for it. This being a terrible script, Annie does not yell for help, no spectator even reacts to her or the bad guy chasing her (through the crowded seats no less), no cops or security are ever seen (even though Jim called in Interpol to help), and the bullfighting continues even though Annie and the villain JUMP INTO THE ARENA. We are so far beyond “BWAAAAA?!” that it’s just “bwaa…meh” by now.

Rating: Ask for all but two dollars back and ask yourself how a guy named Penn could write something so bad.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

“Run All Night” – Killing tropes.

As I sat through the screening of Run All Night, I couldn’t stop thinking about how some movie tropes just won’t die, even if they are so dumb it hurts to see or hear them. The most obvious one is the MacGuffin – an object of seeming importance that ends up not actually mattering to the plot, but which exists solely to move the plot forward. My favorite example of a MacGuffin is from an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which Amy points out to Sheldon that Indiana Jones is not important to the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yes, a MacGuffin can be a person (just ask the kid in the show Evolution who dies in the episode immediately following the 13-episode rescue attempt of that kid), but I digress. Run All Night does not include an obvious MacGuffin, but does feature two of the more maddening tropes of some action flicks.

(Note: By the end of the next two paragraphs, you’re going to think I hated this movie – I didn’t – but just hear me out. Also, mild SPOILERS.)

The first trope is the character that Liam Neeson plays – Jimmy Conlon. Jimmy is an ex-hitman for Sean Maguire (Ed Harris), a drunk, and has an estranged family (a son). Naturally, he’s the hero of the film. Given the characters Neeson played in the Taken series and Non-Stop, this isn’t exactly a stretch, but Jimmy is far from the only action hero to have this background (or one extremely similar). John McClain, Martin Riggs – I’m sure you can name half a dozen more before you finish this sentence. My point is that it’s almost entirely unnecessary. I get that the writer is doing it so the hero can redeem himself, but does the audience really care? You’re not rooting for McClain to redeem himself, you’re rooting for him to save the hostages and kill the bad guys. He doesn’t need the extra motivation that redemption offers. The same goes for Jimmy in Run All Night; the entire plot is Jimmy trying to keep Sean (and Sean’s men) from killing Jimmy’s son, Michael (Joel Kinnaman), and Michael’s family. Since Michael is not a criminal, mentors kids in boxing, and has a pregnant wife and two daughters, we want Jimmy to succeed. It doesn’t matter that he’s a drunk or a bad father because his son and family are what’s at stake. If anything, making Jimmy a drunk makes it harder to suspend your disbelief because he turns into a lethal and precise killing machine just a couple of hours after ruining Christmas for Sean’s family as a falling-down drunk, foul-mouthed Santa Claus. Yes, I wish I was making that up.

I realize I just spent a lot of words about a relatively minor bad trope, so here’s the second one – why would a crime boss be so adamant about avenging (or protecting) a son who is one more screw-up away from being shot by dad himself? This one’s a much bigger deal because it’s what drives the entire plot of Run All Night. I couldn’t help but be annoyed by this because I was just as annoyed with it in last year’s John Wick because it was equally as mind-boggling. If you’ve seen the previews for Run All Night, you know that Sean wants to kill Michael because Jimmy killed Sean’s son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook), because Danny was about to Michael. What you didn’t see in the previews is that Danny wanted to kill Michael because Michael saw Danny kill two Albanian drug dealers. Those drug dealers were going to kill Danny because Sean refused to partner with the drug dealers, even though Danny promised the drug dealers that Sean would partner with them. After rebuffing the dealers, but before all the killing starts, Sean tells Danny that he’s tired of cleaning up Danny’s messes and that Danny will have to deal with this on his own. In other words, Sean is sending Danny to his death, so why does he get so bent out of shape when Danny actually dies? If Sean was so hell-bent on avenging his son’s death, why didn’t he send a couple of men to follow Danny and kill the Albanians in the event they kill his son? Sean even acknowledges to Jimmy that he told Danny to stay away from Michael, all but admitting that Jimmy had no choice but to kill Danny. But, in the words of Sean himself – “you know how this has to end Jimmy.” Yes we do, because another standard action movie trope is for the bad guy to throw all of his resources at defeating the good guy, even when his reason for doing so makes little to no sense, and will result in the complete destruction of his kingdom.

Despite those tired tropes, nearly the rest of the writing is tight (didn’t see that one coming, did you?), resulting in a very solid action flick. With the exception of a magical escape from an apartment building in one scene and every cop in New York City being crooked except for Detective Harding (Vincent D’Onofrio), the movie moves along nicely and leaves no loose ends by the time the credits roll. There’s a pretty good car chase scene, plenty of ass-kicking from Neeson, and the first good villain (Harris) in a Neeson movie since Patrick Wilson in 2010’s The A-Team. It’s also the best Neeson-fronted movie we’ve seen since the original Taken back in 2008. I just wish those tropes would die as easily as everyone who tries to kill the child of a Neeson character.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back, one for each trope.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

“Chappie” – Gansta’ robot?

A lot of different things went through my mind in the twenty-four hours or so after I watched Chappie, so if this review seems somewhat scattered or completely crazy, don’t say I didn’t warn you. If I don’t get them all out of my head, they’ll pop into my conscious thinking at random times like the middle of the night or during staff meetings, although it’s not like I really have to pay attention during staff meetings. But, since I like to sleep, let’s do this.

Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind with Chappie is that it was written (with Terri Tatchell) and directed by Neill Blomkamp. If you are not familiar with Blomkamp’s work, he is responsible for the fantastic District 9 (also co-written by Tatchell) and the not so fantastic Elysium (not co-written by Tatchell). A couple of interesting notes here – (1) Terri Tatchell is Blomkamp’s wife, (2) of the three films, Elysium is the only one not based on a Blomkamp short film, and (3) Tatchell appears to be a vital component to writing a good movie. And, yes, Chappie is a good movie, or at least a better movie than Elysium.

The second thing is a funny debate that started with Gravity – what is science fiction? Before Gravity, people automatically called any movie with outer space in it science fiction, even if it featured no science (or bad science). Gravity was so bad in its depiction of science that a lot of people referred to it as either an action drama or an action fantasy. I happen to be one of those people – just because a movie takes place in outer space, doesn’t make it science fiction. That would be like saying any movie that takes place in the forest or features non-human creatures is a nature movie. Would you say Twilight is nature fiction? Chappie is a great example of science fiction. Yes, sentient robots are currently just a fantasy, but we are actively trying to create exactly that right now (and it’s scaring the bejeezus out of a lot of people). That’s the science part.

The third thing is innovations in filmmaking. After watching the Oscars – and all of the people who vote on them – continue their annual tradition of pretending every movie not debuted at a film festival doesn’t exist (“here’s your token special effects award, Interstellar”), I realized that we’re in an incredible time of innovation in movies. In the last twenty years, we’ve seen bullet-time, immersive 3-D (Avatar only), quantum leaps in animation (thank you, Dreamworks and Pixar), IMAX (non-documentaries), and staggeringly improved CGI. But maybe the best innovation is motion capture. Back when Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, I said that Andy Serkis should have won an Oscar for his performance as Caesar and I stand by that (that guy from The Artist – Jean Dujardin – won it for a silent film). In Chappie, we have another incredible motion capture performance, this time from Sharlto Copley as Chappie, sure to be ignored as hard as Serkis was, in favor of whoever stars in whatever biopics are coming out this year.

(Unrelated note: When Eddie Redmayne was announced as this year’s winner for Best Lead Actor as Dr. Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, my immediate thought was that he should give it back for whatever the hell he thought he was doing in Jupiter Ascending).

The next thing I thought about was how Chappie was like a cross between Short Circuit and Robocop, but with amazing special effects (mild SPOILERS coming up, but nothing that will ruin the movie for you). If you’ve seen the previews for Chappie, you probably already noticed this. Like Number “Johnny” 5, Chappie starts his existence as a weaponized robot, comes alive, must learn about the world, learns that humans lie, and must avoid being destroyed by a maniacal military guy (Hugh Jackman) and other deadly robots. There’s even a creator (Deon) of the sentient robot (in Chappie’s case, Dev Patel) who defies his employer to help the robot. The Robocop similarities are mostly visual (a large bipedal, tank-ish robot and the concept of a robotic police force in a crumbling city) because Robocop wasn’t exactly brimming with deeper meaning or allegory.

Speaking of Hugh Jackman, it was great to see him play against type as the villain in Chappie. Most actors aren’t talented enough to make you forget their other hero/villain roles, but Jackman is so convincing as the greedy, power-hungry, asshole villain, Vincent Moore, that you never once think of him as Wolverine. All you can think is that you hope Chappie crushes Moore’s windpipe like a beer can before the credits roll. Aside from that, I also couldn’t stop laughing at the ridiculous way they made Jackman look. Picture Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter), but with huge muscles and shorter bangs. Yes, that includes mullet and khaki shorts. Now, picture that guy walking around an office filled with cubicles and try not to snort your drink out through your nose.

Because of the social commentary found in Blomkamp’s other movies (apartheid, class warfare), the final thing I thought about – and the one I spent the most time on – was what Blomkamp was trying to TELL us this time around. This is also where I spent time thinking about the plot and realizing that it was not particularly good. The problem is that Blomkamp was attempting a commentary on what it means to be human, what the soul is, and how impressionable children are while setting the movie in a plot focusing on a small group of criminals who want to rob an armored car. That clanking sound you hear is your brain trying to process that last sentence.

Their plan centers around kidnapping Deon because they believe the robots have a remote off switch (they don’t) and accidentally discover he has a dissembled robot in his car. They force him to build the robot, name him Chappie, then try to teach Chappie to fire a gun and act like a gangster. Compounding that is Moore having an inner tantrum over the CEO (Sigourney Weaver) refusing to increase his funding in favor of Deon’s robots and the CEO simultaneously refusing to allow Deon to test his new artificial intelligence because Deon said the robot could write poetry. Incidentally, the CEO outright dismissing AI was the most confusing thing that happened in this movie. How bad of a CEO do you have to be to dismiss a technology that would make billions (if not trillions) of dollars? And if Deon’s robots are so successful and cost effective, why is Moore’s project not completely mothballed and defunded? It’s poetic justice that an ex-military nut (Moore) ends up destroying their entire business – she earned it. It’s bad writing like this that is earning Chappie’s 22% Rotten Tomatoes score.

If you can get past the movie’s surface plot being junk and the screenplay’s repeated emphasis on details that never come back into play, you’ll end up enjoying the meat of the movie revolving around Chappie and his growth and learning. As shallow as the story and most of the characters are, the Chappie character is extremely well-developed, and to a lesser extent, so is his mommy (the lone female in the gang). The film isn’t close to as good as District 9, but it is a better flick than Elysium simply because of its scaled back world. I just wish Blomkamp and wife had spent more time fleshing out a better plot and less time tricking out Chappie.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back and remember to vote motion capture.

Friday, February 27, 2015

“The Lazarus Effect” – Oh, hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

“Black Sea” – Dive! Dive!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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