Friday, November 16, 2018

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” - Not your kids’ Wizarding World.

Remember way back in 2001 when a young Daniel Radcliffe charmed us all in a kid’s film based on a children’s book?  We thought the first Harry Potter film was a good family affair, even if it did contain snakes, child abuse, and a creepy guy eating unicorns and living on another creepy guy’s skull.  Ok, so we were not the best judges of family movies, but it was a Christopher Columbus film, the king of family movies.  I mean, Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone, Adventures in Babysitting…huh.  Wow.  We are kind of fucked up.  Well, at least none of those featured a baby being murdered like in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.  Yes, I know Voldemort tried to kill a baby, but he failed.  Attempted murder is okay in family movies.  Or something.

(Mild SPOILERS ahead, unless you are a Potterhead and have read every rumor on every Potter forum on every Internet.  Or something.)

In case I was not clear in the previous paragraph, The Crimes of Grindelwald is not a children’s movie.  In the first ten minutes of the film, multiple wizards are killed and another has his tongue removed.  To be fair, we do not see the actual tongue removal and we barely see the killings (due to the cinematography being performed in either black or really dark gray), but the body count and gruesome factor of this film really hit the ground running.  A few minutes after the opening scene, a family is murdered, including a baby.  Again, this film is PG-13, so we do not actually see the infanticide or any blood to speak of, but J.K. Rowling has gotten really dark.

I will give you three guesses, but you will only need one.

This being a sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, we are reacquainted with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who is trying to get his international travel ban rescinded (which was put in place after half of New York City was destroyed in the previous film).  While at the ministry of magic, we also meet Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who is an auror, and Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), who is an assistant to the head of magical law enforcement.  While Newt is pleading his case to lift the ban, the panel of wizards hearing his case offer to lift the ban on the condition Newt agree to become an auror and help hunt down the now-escaped Grindelwald (Johnny Depp).  Newt refuses, even though everyone in the theater knows he is going to end up joining the hunt, and in another country, no less.  If Rowling’s writing is anything, it’s comically predictable.

Eventually, the rest of the gang from the previous film shows up, including auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Queenie’s boyfriend Jacob (Dan Fogler).  Even though I previously wrote that I hoped they all would return for a sequel, I kind of wish they hadn’t.  Queenie and Jacob are forced to play out an insipid relationship spat where she is mad at him for refusing to violate laws that would result in her going to prison.  For all the charm they exuded in the first film, this film treated the two of them like a wad of chaw.  And, they were not the only characters stuck with a dumb romance problem.  Tina is upset at Newt because she misunderstood a newspaper article about Leta being engaged to a Scamander.  Read past the title.  I told you Rowling has gotten really dark, which now apparently includes portraying women as dipshits.

She is standing there, holding a human head!

Putting the relationship nonsense aside, I did enjoy much of the film for the first act and a half.  The film features a few really cool new creatures (one named Nagina, portrayed by Kim Soo-hyun, also known as Claudia Kim) and a great action sequence with Credence (Ezra Miller), whom also returns from the previous film.  If the film had stuck with the whole Fantastic Beasts concept and woven that into the main narrative, this film would have been great.  Instead, the film screeches to a deafening halt near the end of the second act when Leta and another auror vomit twenty minutes of exposition to explain to Credence that they do not know who Credence’s parents are (Credence’s entire story arc in this film is to ID his parents).  Not to be outdone, Grindelwald immediately follows that with more exposition in a speech to a crowded arena where he channels his inner Magneto, wondering why wizards are not currently running the world and ruling over the non-wizards.  Yes, this is the same dead horse of a topic that Rowling stomped into glue during the Harry Potter films, and, yes, but that horse was not a fantastic beast.  I think.

Can you please be done talking?

As always, Rowling is simply out of her league when it comes to weaving social and political allegories into her stories (the parallels with the current American and European problems with racism and nationalist-bigotry are obvious) and this film is no exception.  The film also suffers from smaller issues, like lighting that makes much of the film very difficult to see (the opening fight scene was probably awesome to watch if you are an owl), wizards who often forget they no magic (a running theme of the entire franchise), and relating nearly every character to something in the Harry Potter films, including the atrocious big reveal at the end that is complete nonsense.  Similar to Solo: A Star Wars Story, The Crimes of Grindelwald will scratch your itch for a new franchise entry, but still manages to leave you with a rash.  Or something.

Rating: Ask for eight dollars back and a new writer for the next sequel.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” – Ohhhhhh, dear.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent the better part of eight days wandering around the various parks of Disney World.  The average temperature there this time of year is low-to-mid 80s, but we were lucky enough to experience low-to-mid 90s because climate change is fake news.  Toss in some legendary humidity and now you know where the phrase “swamp ass” comes from.  Ohhhhhhh, Florida.

The night before Halloween, I experienced a different kind of Disney misery, this time in the form of their latest live-action movie The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.  Given a choice between sitting through that film ever again and spending eight days sweating from my nuts, I’ll choose the one where I can buy churros at any time.  I do not want to have any more kids anyway.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is what you would get if you smoked a bunch of weed and tried to reverse-engineer a Disney ride based on a movie, but without ever having seen that movie.  Loosely based on a short story written in 1813 by E.T.A Hoffmann, the film imagines the four realms (Flower, Snow, Sweets, and Amusements) as a tiny place torn by war, populated by peoples who began existence as toys.  Picture Narnia if a pre-school threw up all over it and its people.

I think I am going to be sick.

Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) is our teenaged protagonist who will make you rethink parenthood within ten minutes of the start of the film.  If you were unfortunate enough to have seen A Wrinkle in Time, Clara is easily as loathsome as Wrinkle’s Meg, but wearing late-1800s clothing.  Like most Disney princesses, Clara’s mother is dead, giving Clara an excuse to be a complete asshole to her grieving father (Matthew Macfadyen) and pretty much everyone she meets throughout the film.  Ohhhhh, teenagers.

Prior to attending a Christmas party at her godfather’s house (Morgan Freeman), Mr. Stahlbaum gives his three children gifts from their late mother.  Clara receives an ornate egg that can only be opened with a special key, but the key is missing.  At the party, Clara asks Drosselmeyer (her godfather) to help her open it, but he just shrugs his shoulders and assures Clara that she will figure it out.  Little does Clara know, Drosselmeyer has hidden the key at the end of a rope that she must follow that leads her to the four realms.  And, follow it she does.

If I told you anything, I would have to kill you.

Once in the realm, Clara meets Philip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), the last remaining Nutcracker soldier in the realms, after chasing a mouse that stole the special key.  Upon introducing themselves, Philip informs Clara that she is the princess of the four realms, Clara’s mother being the former queen.  After a quick skirmish in a dark forest, Philip whisks her away to the palace where she meets the regents of three of the four realms.  You can completely disregard the regents of Snow and Flowers, as the movie had no interest in developing either of them beyond costumes.  The third regent is the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley), a character as irritating as athlete’s foot, but not as fun.

After a bunch of pomp and circumstance to welcome Princess Clara, Clara is treated to the single decent scene of the entire movie - a ballet (featuring Misty Copeland) explaining the current situation of the four realms in dance, but also unnecessarily narrated by the Sugar Plum Fairy.  Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed Copeland was as visibly annoyed as me at having to listen to Sugar Plum’s grating voice.  Later, everyone keeps talking about the ravaging of the war and fretting about the impending destruction of all the land at the hands of the fourth regent, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), despite zero evidence of any kind of war.  At this point, I was desperately hoping Mirren would swoop in with a fantastic villain and redeem the remainder of the film.  Ohhhhhh, optimism.

The one tiny ray of light in this mess.

In her introductory scene, Mirren is awesome…for about sixty seconds.  Then, the screenplay intervenes and wrecks everything.  The film tries to distract the viewer from this knowledge with a creepy bunch of clowns who double as the contents of a Russian nesting doll.  Picture Pennywise leaping out of the clown from Spawn, leaping out of the clown from AHS: Freakshow, leaping out of Ronald McDonald, leaping out of the other Pennywise and all of them chasing you.  Yeah!  This is a kid’s movie.

Because the filmmakers seemed only interested in visuals and costumes, we were left with all kinds of basic questions, including WTF.  Why is everyone at war?  Where is the war?  Why is there only one Nutcracker?  What is the relationship and history of any of these realms?  If Clara’s mom brought all of the toys to life (which is why she was queen), where did she get all of the toys?  Why isn’t Drosselmeyer there helping, since he obviously knows about the realms and has been there?  Why didn’t Drosselmeyer or Clara’s mother bother telling Clara anything, despite both of them deliberately putting Clara into the position of rescuing the realms?  Why didn’t Clara’s mother explain to the toys why she was leaving?  Where are the people in these realms?  There are also all kinds of plot holes exposed when the big (read: lousy) reveal occurs, but by then you will have drowned yourself in your soda.

This is what I signed up for?  THIS?!

I feel like I still have not conveyed the true misery of this entire film.  It was obvious throughout the film that some poor editor was forced to take a hatchet to much of the original film, assuming of course that the original screenplay was more than just the message on a Candy Heart.  The characters can be wholly described as either utterly useless or insipid, and the acting is best described as not-Helen-Mirren (including nearly all of Helen Mirren).  In short, I would rather be hot-as-balls for a week, standing in line with too many people, all of us smelling like runny tattoos, than have to sit through this film again.  Ohhhhh, Disney.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back and discounted park hoppers for Disney World.  They owe us.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

“Hunter Killer” - Not much below the surface.

We are almost into award-consideration season, as movies like A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody start.  We are also almost into the holiday movie season, where all of the remaining blockbusters of the year stomp all over those award-chasing films.  But, we are not there yet, which is why I get to talk about the latest Gerard Butler action flick, Hunter Killer.  Discounting voice-work in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, Butler is on a ten-year stretch of hot garbage (with the exception of Coriolanus, a movie that nobody saw or has heard of, including me).  Suffice it to say, I was ready for more when I found out he was in a submarine movie with an objectively terrible title.

As action movies go, Hunter Killer is surprisingly watchable.  I do not know much about submarines, which is probably why I enjoyed the movie.  I suspect that is why you will enjoy it as well, if you decide to give it a whirl.  There is little to quibble with regarding the action scenes and, like most submarine films, features several stressful, claustrophobic sequences where the submarine crew is one loud fart away from eating a torpedo.  That is why they do not serve burritos on subs.

You sure they still want me?

(Mild SPOILERS ahead.)

Commander Joe Glass (Butler) is trying to enjoy a nice bow-hunting trip where he has (presumably) trekked dozens of miles in the snow of northern Scotland to not shoot a trophy stag because a doe and fawn are nearby.*  So, when his phone rings (yes, a bow-hunter had his phone set to loudly ring), even the stag does not act surprised because Glass is obviously a terrible hunter.  The phone call is to task him with captaining a submarine into arctic Russian waters to discover the fate of a missing submarine (which, thanks to the opening scene, we know was sunk along with another sub from Russia).

*My movie companion for the night, who is also a bow hunter, threw the biggest bullshit card at this scene when I asked him about it.

Meanwhile, a Special Forces team of four men, led by Lt. Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens) is tasked with infiltrating a Russian submarine base to provide intelligence on the visiting Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), who left Moscow before the submarine attack in the Arctic.  They are sent by Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common) on the advice of NSA analyst Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini) and the authority of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman).  If this sounds like a Tom Clancy movie, that is because it is based on a book called Firing Point, written by two men who are not Tom Clancy (Don Keith and George Wallace), but definitely have framed posters of Tom Clancy on their bedroom walls.

Obligatory room-filled-with-muckety-mucks scene.

If you have seen enough submarine movies (or movies in general) to no longer get nervous at the mention of acoustic sensors, mines, or phrases like “no American sub has ever sailed those waters,” you will notice how shallow the characters are.  The film jumps between a Pentagon operations room, the USS Arkansas (Glass’ submarine), President Zakarin’s situation in the Russian sub base, and the Black-Ops team.  Between all of those, that is nine characters, and that is before we get to another Russian sub captain (Michael Nyquvist), the Russian Defense Minister (Mikhail Gorevoy), and the command crew of the Arkansas, including Glass’ angry-for-no-reason executive officer Brian Edwards (Carter MacIntyre).  It is no surprise that none of them are developed beyond name, rank, and key attribute, especially when you consider that the real point of the film is to display some sweet, sweet giant metal cylinder action.

There are so-o-o-o-o many people in there.

You might also notice that nearly all of the setups in the beginning of the movie are completely forgotten about or ignored by the end of the film.  The most egregious example is how a big deal is made of the fact that Glass rose to command as an enlisted sailor, but this fact is only used by Glass to give a speech to his crew at the beginning of the film to let them know that they are, in fact, sailors on an American submarine.  But that fact sure does piss off XO Edwards, who, if this movie were depicting anything resembling reality, would have been relieved of duty by Glass on at least three different occasions and probably confined to his quarters (if not the brig) for gross insubordination.

For me, the biggest flaw in this movie is that Gary Oldman is in it at all, designated as the Stupid Chief, delivering a performance that is best described as “that could literally have been anyone.”  And, not just any chief, but the chiefiest of the Joint Chiefs.  For much of the film, my friend and I both expected him to turn out as a co-conspirator with the Russian villain because nothing he said or did made any sense.  And because, you know, it’s Gary Oldman. But he just barked dumb epithets and chief-y things and appeared to also want WWIII to happen.  He even scoffed when the President of the United States decided to enact both Donnegan’s plan (DEPLOY EVERYTHING!!!) and Fisk and Norquist’s plan (the middle parts of The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger), which might be the most sensible decision by a fictional President in the history of film.

Sir.  The Academy is calling.  They want their Oscar back.

Really, though, we should consider it a win that this movie was not hot garbage.  It satisfies any action fix you were looking for, and we do not have to sit through another over-hammed performance from Butler because he was trying to compensate for a shitty character (the emotional range displayed by Glass went from man-reads-newspaper to man-folds-newspaper-and-puts-it-in-the-recycle-bin).  If anything, you get a decent novelty death in which a near-death character sacrifices himself by simultaneously flipping the bird and removing the pins on two grenades.  Or, you can laugh at the fact that the main character is named after the crappiest boxer from Mike Tyson’s Punchout.  Either way, I can honestly say that, after watching this film, I am ready for some Oscar-bait.

Rating: Ask for half of your money back, but do not ask if a submarine can turn ninety degrees in less than twenty feet.  It is that kind of movie.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

“First Man” - Nerds.

Have you ever ridden Mission Space at Epcot?  I have and I love it.  My wife has also and decidedly did not love it.  I think her exact words were I have a headache and I might throw up.  First Man has the same effect without requiring that pesky centrifuge to simulate increased G-forces.  My wife did not screen First Man with me, but if she had, her reaction would have been bwwllleaeaeaeaeeeuuuuuuuhhhhhhh.

For all you space nerds and history junkies, First Man tells the Cliff’s Notes story of the Gemini and Apollo space programs.  Even if you are not a nerd, you most likely know what the Apollo program is or are at least aware that humans walked on the moon.  First Man tells the story from the perspective of Neil Armstrong, the first human to actually step foot on the surface of the moon.  As much of a nerd as I am (both space and history), I knew next to nothing about Neil Armstrong besides “The Eagle has landed,” and “That’s one small step for man.  And one giant leap for mankind.”  First Man fills in that giant gaping hole for me.

Does anyone have a bucket I can borrow?

The first thing the movie teaches us about Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is that he was a test pilot of experimental planes.  The film starts with a well-known incident where Armstrong flew an X-15 jet to 200,000 feet, bounced off the atmosphere when he tried to descend, then nearly crashed into some Joshua trees before safely landing the aircraft.  The entire scene is shot from inside the cockpit, giving the audience an extraordinary feel for what Armstrong experienced during the incident.  The sounds of the airplane, the radio communications, and the rapidly changing view through the plane’s canopy created an intense couple of minutes that were only a glimpse of what would come later in the film.  This is also the point where my wife would have quit the movie.

The film then takes a breather to give us a look at Neil Armstrong the father and husband, but punches the audience in the gut while it is doing it.  Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, died of pneumonia caused by a weakened immune system due to x-ray treatments of a malignant tumor.  And, lucky us, we got to watch a father’s final moments with his daughter followed by Karen’s coffin being lowered into the ground.  This was arguably more difficult to watch than the X-15 flight, to which many crying audience members would attest.  Shortly after the funeral, Neil applies for the Gemini project, is selected and, with the support of his wife, Jan (Claire Foy), moves his family closer to the project headquarters for a fresh start.

We need to talk about death, kids.  Questions?

For the bulk of the running time, the film focuses on key events of the two programs as the highlights.  But, sprinkled around them are the human stories that keep the film somewhat grounded (sorry, I could not resist).  Again, for those unfamiliar with any of the space story outside of moonwalk and Apollo 13, quite a few astronauts died in accidents (not all program-related) between 1962 and 1969.  The film shows us the Apollo 1 disaster and it is harrowing for those who knew what was coming and another gut punch to those whose ignorance was quickly remedied.  For every death, the film always goes back to Armstrong to show us how he took the deaths and coped with them.  This is summed up by Jan, at one point telling some friends “we got really good at funerals” and slammed home when Armstrong barks at his friend and fellow astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke), “Do you think I am standing in my backyard because I want to talk to someone?”  At this point you realize that the moon did not stand a chance of defeating Armstrong.

Worth it.

The power of this film is in the brilliant mix of human story and putting us in the cockpit, space capsule, and spacesuit with Armstrong.  We are there with him for every near-death flight experience (the Gemini 8 event was particularly crazy to experience visually and auditorily) and every personal death experience.  The film throws each experience at us as if we are in a dunk booth, but the water gets exponentially colder every time we fall in.  By the time the film makes it to the moonwalk, you appreciate how special and difficult that event was and the payoff of getting there is practically cathartic.  By the conclusion of this film you will be exhausted, but you will also be smarter and more empathetic.  Now, I just need to ask my wife to wait for me while I ride Mission Space again.

Rating: Do not ask for any money back, but maybe ask for a napkin to wipe your eyes or your chin.

Monday, October 8, 2018

“Venom” - Where have all the villains gone?

According to IGN, Venom is the twenty-second greatest comic book villain of all-time.  I have no idea what that really means because I do not read comic books.  I would be very hard-pressed to name twenty-three comic book villains at all (unless we are just naming X-Men bad guys), let alone the top twenty-one, but that same IGN list is out of the top one hundred.  Not total one hundred, but the top one hundred.  Does that mean there are hundreds, if not thousands, of comic book villains?  Does that top one hundred include henchmen?  Villains’ accountants?  Spiteful ex-wives?  Again, I do not read comic books.  I did look up a little bit about Venom to find out how bad he really is and it turns out he is also well-known as an anti-hero.  Comic book fans sound confused.

(SPOILERS AHEAD - There are too many villains in this film and none are good.)

I went into Venom thinking Venom was an actual villain.  I saw Spider-Man 3.  Venom is an evil tar monster thingy that makes people do bad sidewalk struts.  The way the move starts makes you think that Venom is going to be the villain of the film.  A spaceship crashes, and the cleanup crew notes that one of the four swirly tar things they found in space is missing from the wreckage.  Some mayhem regarding the missing fourth ensues and you immediately think Venom is already up to no good.

Cut to Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an in-your-face investigative journalist with his own show.  He’s dating Anne (Michelle Williams), a high-brow attorney representing a shady CEO named Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed).  When Eddie is assigned a puff-piece to interview Drake, Eddie takes an illicit peek into Anne’s files on Drake, then ambushes Drake with the ill-gotten information during the interview.  Eddie is quickly fired and discovers that Anne was fired as well.  Anne dumps Eddie because love does not trump all.  Cut to six months later and - wait, six months?

If you are hoping to see this in the film, get comfortable because it's going to be awhile.

If this movie was going to have any flow to it, this fast forward stomped all of it.  When we left the mayhem of the crash site, the fourth tar ball has possessed a person and jumped to a couple of other people as it sought a proper host.  You see, the alien tar swirlies are parasites (or symbiotes) that require a human host to survive.  Just don’t ask how they were able to survive for so long riding a comet in space with nary a human to be found.

The film then drags itself along as Drake starts locking homeless people in rooms with the three symbiotes, each time ending with one less hobo.  One of his scientists, Dr. Skirth (Jenny Slate), wants to blow the whistle on the murders so she tracks down and contacts a nearly-homeless Eddie.  She does not call the police or employed journalists.  She must have Eddie, despite Eddie clearly being a terrible solution for this particular problem.

This looks like if Jackson Pollock directed a fight scene.

Dr. Skirth helps Eddie break into Drake’s research lab to gather evidence and proves, once again, that fictional research labs have the worst security ever (side note: why does every movie featuring a secret lab go out of its way to make it seem like its proprietor wants its secrets stolen?  I am looking at you The Shape of Water).  Anyway, while she is looking out for guards or something, Eddie sees a friend of his and breaks the glass of the highly-secure room with the super dangerous alien in it using only a fire extinguisher.  A symbiote jumps into Eddie’s body, but Eddie manages to escape back to his apartment.  After what seems like hours, the film finally gets to the Venom part when Eddie fights off a tactical assault team trying to recover the symbiote for Drake.

If you fell asleep for the first half or so of the film, you did not miss anything worth watching.  The film finally becomes entertaining during the apartment fight scene as we get a first look at Venom talking to Eddie (in Eddie’s head) and using Eddie to fight off the soldiers.  Hardy was clearly having fun with this concept, so I ended up having fun.  While the banter and exchanges between Eddie and Venom were cringe-worthy at times, they worked more often than not.  If you are not entertained by Tom Hardy arguing with himself while people looked at him like he was insane, you are not having enough fun in life.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying this movie should be regarded positively, just that it was entertaining despite itself.

*Laughter* This movie is so stupid and I don't even care! *More laughter*

I kind of want to give the film credit for changing up the formula that usually comes along with a movie like this, but they changed it like Trump changed NAFTA, which is to say they doodled in the margins and did not actually make any real improvement.  The typical film would have had Eddie and Venom connected at the original spaceship crash or during Eddie and Drake’s interview and Drake later achieving a breakthrough and melding himself with another symbiote.  The film ends up there anyway, but the route it takes is no better.

Drake is a boring villain constantly delivering trite motivational speeches to his employees that sound like epiphanies learned from a Snapple cap.  Drake’s motivation for the homeless people experiments is that he wants to live in space because humans are destroying the planet.  Instead of a breakthrough in the lab, the original missing symbiote shows up at the research lab and Drake just happens to be a good match.  I hated this aspect of the film because it rendered nearly everything before that scene pointless.  Then again, it was all pointless anyway because the film does not bother trying to build a sense of progress in the experiments.  It just shows us puddles of goo and dead people and Drake delivering another shitty speech.

Synergy.  Optimize.  Agile.  Holistic.  Other bullshit words I can spout that are the opposite of inspiring.

I was also disappointed that Venom ends up being kind of a hero instead of straight-up evil.  He is even made to be an underdog when he inexplicably tells Eddie that their symbiotic foe has better weapons than him.  This makes zero sense because the symbiotes make blade weapons from their goo.  Does Venom not know who to make a scythe?  Dumb things like that were almost enough to turn me completely against this film and you all know how much I enjoy turning against films.

Despite this movie being objectively bad, my friend and I enjoyed ourselves because we had seen the early Rotten Tomatoes scores landing in the mid-twenties.  This allowed us to reset our expectations down to sub-basement levels and enjoy the movie the way that one enjoys a bad B-movie.  Granted, the stilted performance from Michelle Williams was a bit of a surprise; Williams seemingly unaware of what kind of movie she was in.  This probably had more to do with the writing and directing, but she did not look like she wanted to be there.  Even then, I still had a good time at this film.  Hopefully, the next villain in the franchise (don’t look so shocked) will be an actual villain or one that doesn’t suck.

Rating: Ask for half of your money back or wait until you can Red Box it.  It is not that entertaining.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

“A Star is Born” - Loose strings.

Immediately after watching A Star is Born, I felt satisfied.  For the past two months, I have been sitting through movies that range from tolerable to ghastly.  Recently, I was asked if I had seen any good movies lately, and my brain took a nap.  Christopher Robin was pretty good, but that was two months ago and was (obviously) forgettable.  Shit movies like The Meg and The Predator made me yearn for something, anything, that did not make me want to perform a self-lobotomy to try to forget such awful films.  Enter a remake, of a remake, of a remake, of the 1937 original A Star is Born.

Ordinarily, a film that is the fourth iteration of itself deserves to be summarily ignored and dismissed on principle, yet each iteration proves itself worthy.  The original won an Oscar and was nominated for seven.  The 1954 remake was nominated for six Oscars.  The 1976 version was nominated for four Oscars and won one.  I may need to amend my remake rules (especially the one about winning Oscars), but that is for another time.  The latest incarnation of A Star is Born will almost assuredly follow in its predecessor’s nomination footsteps.

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a famous musician with a bit of drinking problem.  After completing a show and drinking every last drop of alcohol in his limo, he directs his driver to stop at a random bar because he has a bit of a drinking problem.  After staggering up to the bar and being recognized by Ramon (Anthony Ramos), Ramon insists that Jackson listen to the next singing act.  Enter Ally (Lady Gaga), belting out a French song and blowing Jackson’s blitzed mind.  Jackson is instantly enamored with Ally’s talent and talks her into hanging out with him for the rest of the night.  Eventually, they end up in a grocery store parking lot where Ally sings an original song she thought up on the spot and Jackson tells her she is a songwriter.  This is your classic meet-cute where girl sings French song and alcoholic famous guy invites girl to a parking lot at three in the morning.  I promise it works though.


Jackson invites her to his next show and eventually convinces her to join him on stage to sing the parking lot song.  This is the start of her career and we get to follow along as she encounters exactly no difficulties or speed bumps to become the star musician she always wanted to be.  There is a catch though.  Jackson has a bit of a drinking problem.  As she is rising to the top, he is falling to the floor, in some cases, quite literally.  Since they are dating and in love, she has to deal with him being a barely functioning drunk who is very good at saying the right things to her.  That kind of counts as difficulty, but she deals with it the same way Jackson’s brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), dealt with it for decades.  By excusing it, enabling it, making empty threats, and otherwise not actually doing anything about it.

Eventually, this leads to a climax that ranks among one of the most awkward and difficult-to-watch scenes featuring an alcoholic this side of a Supreme Court nominee Senate hearing.  At this point, she finally deals with him, we get a third-act reckoning, and the film ends with a scene that is fairly predictable if you were paying attention.  Credit goes to this film for bringing a certain element back around, but it turns out it was just about the only thing they tied up at the end.

Like I said, I was satisfied at the conclusion of the film.  The film has great acting from Gaga and Cooper and an excellent soundtrack featuring some songs that I guarantee you will be humming on your drive home from the theater.  Since the soundtrack was not available the day I screened the film, I spent the car ride home discussing the shortcomings of the writing with my wife.  This is a good time to remind you that my wife has a film degree and so much smarter than me about movies.

Is that song stuck in your head too?!!

One weakness in the writing is that the first half of the film is extremely well-done and filled with all kinds of setups, while the second half is a bit of a slog where none of those setups are brought back to bare.  Many a line is spent discussing how Ally’s looks, particularly her nose, are not visually conducive to being a famous rock star.  Even her dad (Andrew Dice Clay) notes that if she was not quite so ugly, people would notice her talent (and he says it in way that is dickish to her instead of defensive of her).  After weeks of touring with Jackson, she scores a deal with a manager and I thought for sure he was going to recommend she get a nose job.  Instead, he recommends she get blond hair.  Another example of missed opportunity is Ally’s defiance.  Early in the film, she punches a cop, yet, for the rest of the movie, no further cops (or anyone) were harmed in the making of this film and she acquiesces to pretty much anything and everything (including aforementioned hair color change) with zero argument.  Example number three is a line from Jackson very early in their relationship where she asks if he has been drinking and he says no, that he has not even thought about drinking.  Of course, he has a bit of a drinking problem so he might have still been really drunk when he said that because he is drunk again very soon thereafter.

Hi dick.  I mean, dad.

The other big weakness is in the characters themselves.  For Jackson, we are never really sure why he drinks so much.  Is it because of his abusive father?  His tinnitus?  Being a rock star in general?  After a particularly nasty drunken confrontation, Ally tells him she will not give him another chance and he quits the booze for a little while.  When he starts drinking again, it is not really clear why.  On several occasions, he tells her (and other people) that the only thing that matters in music is having something to say.  As long as she stays true to herself and remembers that advice, she will succeed.  Yet, when it appears that she has forgotten that advice (by changing her hair, performing with back-up dancers, singing empty songs), he never confronts her about it.  So, we are left back at the beginning of this paragraph.  Is the tinnitus getting worse?  Does he hate the orange hair?  Is he having cold-turkey induced nightmares of his dad singing with backup dancers who all have the Sam Elliott’s mustache?  We need answers, dammit.

For Ally, we never get to see her character really grow or traverse any real story arc.  She seems to really dislike her father, yet everything is cool as soon as she hits the stage.  She seems to be defiant and wanting to succeed on her own terms, yet caves in to her manager’s demands at the drop of a hat.  She threatens to leave Jackson for good if he ever ends up super-duper drunk again, then marries him after he ends up passed out in a friend’s yard.  Halfway through the drive home, it occurred to me that Ally is arguably not the main character of this film, but that Jackson is.  So the film’s title is a bit of stretch even though it and the trailers clearly point to Ally as the main character.

I was serious when I implied this movie was going to garner some Oscar nominations.  The acting, music, and singing are more than good enough to earn some awards.  The first fifty minutes alone are worth it.  Just remember not ride home with any film students.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back for leaving all those strings untied.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

“The Predator” - Flipping stupid.

Eight years ago, I was only a fledgling movie critic.  At that time, I did not have press credentials, I was not part of the Denver Film Critic Society, and I was mostly writing as part of a podcast I co-hosted about reality TV shows (long story).  I was also not yet attending advanced screenings, which means I paid actual money to see 2010’s Predators.  After rereading that review, there are two things that I was very wrong about.  The first was declaring the Predator and Alien franchises dead.  The second was declaring I would never watch another movie featuring either creature again.  Granted, I gave myself an out by starting the declaration with “I’ll probably forget (conveniently) what I’m about to say…” and I definitely forgot.  Since putting my foot in my mouth, I have seen Prometheus, Alien: Covenant, and now The Predator.  I stand by the rest of that review though.  Predators was a shitty movie that should have been the end of the franchise.  Instead, Shane Black (with a writing assist from Ted Dekker) made The Predator thinking “no, this should be the end of the franchise.”

The first mistake made by everyone involved in the making of The Predator was thinking that the best way to revive a franchise - that is really only a franchise due to technicalities - was to double-down on the insipid idea of a mysterious government agency that knows all about the predator species.  Then, they all got drunk with Michael Bay and, the next thing they knew, they had already filmed a bunch of scenes with a ten-foot predator whose skin transforms into armor plating.  Finally, after the most epic game of flip-cup since the great Delta-Rho-Gamma tournament of 1993, they collectively thought “hey - remember how everyone loved the first Predator because it featured peak Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting the most wicked and lethal alien this side of a xenomorph?  What if we did the opposite of that?”


(SPOILER ALERT - flip-cup is a really fast way to get drunk.  Sorry to ruin the surprise.)

Holbrook plays Quinn McKenna, an Army Ranger sniper who is nearly squished by a crashing spaceship’s escape pod in Mexico during a mission.  And you thought this movie was going to be ridiculous.  Anyway, he manages to defeat the predator in battle using the predator’s own bracer, grabs the predator’s mask, and escapes into the jungle to avoid capture by the Mexicans.  Upon reaching a town, he mails the hardware home, then returns to his command for a debriefing.  Unfortunately, the mysterious agents, led by Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), have Quinn designated as a lunatic and throw him on a bus with other soldiers marked as lunatics (that are inexplicably at this same secret facility that Quinn is transferred to).  Meanwhile, Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) is called in to examine the captured predator.  All hell breaks loose - and by hell, I mean the predator - and Dr. Bracket and the loonies escape the carnage.  Mean-meanwhile (or is it meanwhile-while), the super predator lands on Earth to hunt down regular predator.  You still with me?  Here is where it gets stupid.  Also, take a drink.

Still smarting from their flip-cup loss, Black and Dekker came up with the greatest idea - take another shot of absinthe and start a line of power tools.  When someone pointed out copyright laws, they came up with a different really bad idea and retconned the motivations of the entire predator species.  Remember how the predators would rip the spines out of their prey like a trophy?  Right.  Awesome.  I know.  But, they were not actually collecting trophies.  They were collecting spinal fluid of formidable foes and genetically modifying themselves with that fluid to make themselves more awesome.  Right.  Not awesome.  I know.  Now drink.


To make matters worse, after dispatching with regular predator, super predator warns everyone holding a gun that he is going to give them all a head start before he murders them all and collects young, autistic Rory McKenna (Jacob Tremblay) for his spinal fluid.  You read that correctly.  Young Rory was tinkering with the predator technology Quinn mailed home and quickly deciphered pretty much everything about the technology, while also triggering something that allowed the super predator to track down the gear.  Not knowing that Hollywood loves exploiting stereotypical autistic abilities, the super predator decides he simply must have Rory’s pattern-recognizing ability.  Forget about the fact that the predator race has solved faster-than-light travel, invented cloaking devices, and have helmets that allow them to see a huge range of the electromagnetic spectrum.  This kid is the key to finally being able to solve what humans call a Rubik’s Cube, a device that has bedeviled the predator race since first landing on Earth in the late 1970s.

The last piece of this shit pie is that regular predator was travelling to Earth to deliver a technology that would help the humans fight the predator race.  Wait, what?  Why!?  Climate change?  The predator cares about climate change?  Or the human race?  No.  NO!  At one point, agent Traegar explains that the predators are causing climate change to eliminate the human race and heat up the planet so they can move in.  And you thought I was kidding that the filmmakers all got drunk with Michael Bay.

Goddamn climate change deniers.

The craziest thing about The Predator is that the audience clapped at the end of the screening despite nearly everything about the film being objectively terrible and the film coming just short of being a parody of a Predator film.  I could not tell if it was ironic clapping because they were sad or honest clapping because they thought it was that good.  If it was honest, happy clapping, anyone who still makes movies for artistic or serious reasons should quit now.  You have lost.  If it was ironic clapping, it is because they all remember the original Predator and were dying inside after witnessing a tragedy.  The best explanation I have is because the film was stuffed with comedy and maybe they were just happy to hear such lines as:

“He kills people so you can be a mailman.” - Rory explaining to a mailman what his dad does.

“You are one beautiful mother fucker.” - Dr. Bracket paying homage to the original Predator while looking the captured predator over.

“If you don’t stop with this bible shit, I’m going to set you on fire.” - Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key) to fellow lunatic soldier.

If it was not those quotes or the ample amounts of blood and death, then they all must have had dinner with Michael Bay prior to the screening.  I hear he is a flip-cup master.

Rating: Ask for $58 back and we will see if I remember not to watch the inevitable next Predator film.