Friday, May 1, 2015

Guest Review - "Unfriended"

By: JoAnne Hyde

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

(Mild SPOILERS coming.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 23, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 19, 2015

“Unfriended” – OMG. KMN.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.