Friday, June 24, 2016

“Free State of Jones” – I love history.

I am a huge American Civil War buff. Everything about it fascinates me from the battles to the politics to the logistics to the economics to the before and after. I’ve read books, seen movies, watched documentaries, and visited many battlefields and memorials. I even own a Civil War chess set, though I’ve never taken part in a reenactment because that’s just crazy. After nearly three decades of digesting information, my interest hasn’t waned because I keep learning things about the time that I had never even heard of. Case in point – apprenticeship. Right after the War ended, southern states started passing laws known as Black Codes, including one called apprenticeship. Here’s the text from the Mississippi version:

“...It shall be the duty of all sheriffs, justices of the peace, and other civil officers of the several counties in this State, to report to the probate courts of their respective counties semiannually, at the January and July terms of said courts, all freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes, under the age of eighteen, in their respective counties, beats, or districts, who are orphans, or whose parent or parents have not the means or who refuse to provide for and support said minors; and thereupon it shall be the duty of said probate court to order the clerk of said court to apprentice said minors to some competent and suitable person on such terms as the court may direct, having a particular care to the interest of said minor: Provided, that the former owner of said minors shall have the preference when, in the opinion of the court, he or she shall be a suitable person for that purpose.
...In the management and control of said apprentice, said master or mistress shall have the power to inflict such moderate corporal chastisement as a father or guardian is allowed to inflict on his or her child or ward at common law: Provided, that in no case shall cruel or inhuman punishment be inflicted....”

What that says in layman’s terms is that black children could be taken from their parents and given to white families to work on their plantations as “apprentices,” as long as they provided very basic education and services to the children, under the guise and judgement of white “authorities.” These laws didn’t last long, legally speaking, as Congress invalidated the laws in 1866. My point is that I learned something from Free State of Jones and that wasn’t the only thing I learned.

The main thing to be learned from this film, historically speaking, is that a white Mississippi man named Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) deserted from the Confederate Army because he didn’t want to die for a rich man’s cotton, ended up gathering a few hundred people into an army that fought against the Confederates, and held a section of Mississippi during the latter part of the war. Given Hollywood’s proclivity for embellishing and spinning truth, we should all go read actual books about Knight and the events depicted in the film to get the truth of the details, but the basic story is indeed true, as are many of the details. From apprenticeships to the Confederate army stealing from its own people under the pretense of supporting the troops (not the rich Southern people, which is a major point of contention with the not rich Knight and his not rich neighbors) to granting voting rights to freedmen (freed slaves) to the beginnings of the Ku Klux Klan murdering freedmen who try to exercise those rights, it’s a history lesson in full living color that you probably never got, but badly need.

(Here’s a good place to start with your own research –

Which brings me to the other thing to be learned from this film (this is where I get on my soapbox for a moment) – we still have a long way to go with regards to not hating people simply because they are slightly different. It’s impossible to watch this movie and not see the parallels to our current political and societal atmosphere, which is toxic at best. A chunk of our population is still trying to deny others equal rights and status. A chunk of our population still thinks it’s okay to be racist, sexist, and act like assholes to other people. A chunk of our population continues to rationalize hatred like that for no reasons other than selfishness, unwarranted fear, and delusions of superiority. And it’s still happening because nearly all of our current political leaders (and I mean both major parties here) are spineless, corrupt, power-hungry individuals who forgot they work for all of us and not just the people that give them money. **Deep breath** This film reminds us that, as great as our country can be, we should never forget how horrendous we’ve been at times.

(Getting off soapbox now.)

The one major flaw with the movie is that it tries to intertwine a court case from 1948 involving the Knight family. Long story short – Mississippi wanted to invalidate a marriage between Davis Knight and a white woman because Davis’ lineage traces back to Newton and his second wife, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who was black (Mississippi initially won the case, but it was overturned on appeal and Davis was declared white. Yes, it’s as stupid as it sounds and, yes, that happened in America less than seventy years ago). Anyway, throughout the film, we catch glimpses of this trial and it does more harm to the flow of the movie than help. I get the point (eighty years later and the Knight family was still fighting deeply rooted racism), but it simply doesn’t work with the 1860’s portion of the film. All it really does it remove you from the main story every time you are just getting back into it. It almost felt tacked on in post-production rather than a fleshed out chunk of the narrative (an easy fix would have been to show us half the trial at the start of the movie, then the rest of the trial at the end so as not to disengage the viewer during the Newton night story).

The other noticeable issue with the movie is the amount of time spent after the war is over. The bulk of the movie focuses on the Jones’ folk fighting the Confederates, specifically Colonel Lowry (Wayne Père) and his regiment, over the course of three years. Once this conflict is resolved, the next ten years are crammed into the last twenty-five minutes or so of a 140-minute movie and the theme turns full tilt to equal black rights. That would have worked if the bulk of the film focused on black rights, but Newton’s initial fight is much more concerned with the treatment of non-rich people in general than the treatment of blacks.

Even with those two issues, the movie is quite good and doesn’t try to overdramatize the carnage of the war or murder of blacks for the sake of gratuity. It felt like a good balance of history and Hollywood drama and never loses sight of its main goal of teaching us some things we didn’t already know about that time. As I said in my review of Selma, this is the way history should be taught. If it doesn’t make you a little (or a lot) uncomfortable and cause you to rethink our current state, it’s not doing it right.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, but do ask that this movie accompany Selma in our kids’ classrooms. It’s that important.

Friday, June 17, 2016

“Central Intelligence” – Is it?

We all find some comedians funny and others not so much. Personally, I don’t find comedians funny whose main shtick is yelling/screaming at the audience. Sam Kinison, Chris Tucker, Gilbert Gottfried, and Kevin Hart are examples of guys who find it necessary to scream their humor at people and if their jokes are actually funny, I wouldn’t know because I’m bleeding from the ears. So, you can probably guess at my preconceived opinion of Central Intelligence, starring Kevin Hart (and Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock).

Judging by the audience’s reaction to the film, we were watching a comedy classic unfold before our eyes. Listening to comments after the movie, I realized that I’m probably going to be in the minority on this movie – people who did not think it was a particularly good or funny movie. And that’s okay because sometimes movies, no matter how good or bad, can sometimes just rub a person the wrong way. In other words, this movie chaffed the hell out of me. Surprisingly, it had very little to do with Kevin Hart, though he did spend a fair amount of the movie screaming.

I may have liked the movie better had it not started off the way it did. Flashback to 1996 where Calvin “The Golden Jet” Joyner (Hart) is giving a speech at a senior pep rally. You read that right and to make it goofier, he’s also a track star, football star, drama star, valedictorian, and other accolades. Meanwhile, Robbie Weirdick (Johnson in a CGI fat suit and, yes, that’s his character’s actual name at first – he changes it to Bob Stone after that) is showering in the locker room when five kids decide to execute their senior prank – by throwing Robbie into the middle of the gym floor during the pep rally, still naked and wet. As hilarious as assault and a sex crime sounds, it’s made worse by the reaction that follows. The pranksters don’t run away after their toss, the entire senior class is laughing uproariously, and the principal just stands there, not reacting at all. Calvin is the only person horrified at what’s happening and quickly runs over to Robbie and gives him his letter jacket to cover up. Robbie runs away and the principal turns to Calvin and simply says “no coming back from that one.” Har, har, har – fuck you. I was a junior in high school in 1996 and had this happened, I can guarantee that you would have been able to hear a mouse fart in the gym from the dead silence that would have ensued, the pranksters would have been arrested and expelled from school, and more than one person would have gone to the victim’s aid. Considering the entire point of this scene was to set up Robbie worshipping Calvin for the next twenty years (and establish an anti-bullying theme), there are a hundred different things they could have done to achieve the same goal without stooping to something so unfunny.

That set the tone for me for the rest of the movie. Back to the present time, Calvin is an accountant disappointed in the way his life turned out, even though he's married to an extremely hot woman (Danielle Nicolet) and makes plenty of money. One day at work, he gets a Facebook friend request from Bob Stone and agrees to meet Bob for drinks. Bob is now actual “The Rock” – CGI not required for the muscles. They catch up, Bob beats up some dudes for being rude to Calvin and him, then convinces Calvin to use his “international forensic accounting skills” (I wish I was making that up) to hack into a website and decrypt an auction site for Bob. You see, the real plot of this movie is that Bob is a CIA agent trying to find out who stole all of the encryption keys to the United States’ spy satellites. Plus, the CIA thinks he killed his former partner, Phil (Aaron Paul), so he’s a rogue agent being pursued by a team led by Agent Harris (Amy Ryan). That’s the movie and it’s not nearly as smart as its title thinks it is.

To be fair, I was laughing at certain points of the movie because it does have some humor that tickled me. Most of that comes from Johnson, who is definitely getting better as his filmography grows, and there is some slap-sticky humor that hits its mark. The problem is that Johnson’s character sucks. While having drinks with Calvin, he essentially explains that he completely changed his life after the senior prank. Except, Bob still behaves like a 14-year old dork except when he’s fighting. He’s constantly referring to Calvin as The Jet, wears a fanny pack that holds one single flash grenade, wears unicorn shirts, and can’t stop talking about wanting to be Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles. I spent most of the movie waiting for him to snap into the tough guy he was supposed to have become, but it never happens. Why not just have him revert back when they confront one of the bullies from high school or snap out of dork mode once he reveals that he is an agent? The tone of the character completely ruined the movie for me, but, again, much of the audience either liked it or didn’t care.

My other issue with the comedy is with some of the racial jokes. I find the humor, irony, and point in what Kevin Hart (and comics like Chris Rock) discuss in their routines, but that kind of joke in this kind of movie loses its punch when the punchline is just “because I’m black,” especially because race isn’t one of the themes of this film. This happens several times throughout the movie – Bob will say something like “you want to wear a fanny pack too?” and Calvin will respond with “no, I’m black.” How is that funny? The joke is that a giant man like Dwayne Johnson is wearing a fanny pack and likes Sixteen Candles (though this would have worked far better if he was playing a tough guy instead of acting like a complete nerd), not that a black man is wearing a fanny pack.

The biggest problem with this movie is that it never decides what it’s trying to do. It should have been a buddy-cop, action movie with comedic relief, but comes off like a comedy with action relief. Muddying the water is the anti-bullying social message that is so poorly executed, Michelle Obama will probably punch them for it. The three writers handle the message with all the care of a toddler wielding hammers in a glass store. In its entirety: high school bullies commit serious crime and principal does nothing, newly reformed bullying victim beats the crap out of men in bar for being rude over a chair, original high school bully bullies newly reformed victim again (when they go to him for help), victim punches original high school bully in the face at high school reunion. So, the message is fight bullies with violence and bullying? I guess that kind of laziness makes sense, considering the “because I’m black” jokes.

As I reread everything I just wrote, it occurs to me that that was a pretty negative review. When I left the theater and heard all of the positive responses, I thought maybe I was missing something and thinking on the movie for a couple of days would help me see what they saw. Nope. As it turns out, my biggest problem was that the tone of the film was all wrong for me and dampened down a lot of the entertainment value of the comedy and action. But, if I learned anything from the film it’s that I can make it through a Kevin Hart movie without wanting to scream back at him.

Rating: I’d ask for nine dollars back, but maybe the movie will rub you the right way.

Friday, June 10, 2016

“Warcraft” – #Ifyousayso.

The number one danger of adapting source material into a movie is that there are people who already know the source material. And by people, I mean those who will create voodoo dolls of you if so much as change the color of a lightsaber or dare to cut out *insert minor character’s name here*. These people come in all shapes and sizes and there are various tiers of obsessiveness among them. By genre, nobody tops the comic book fans, as evidenced by the ongoing Superman debacle and the death threats delivered to Marvel after it was revealed Captain America was a Hydra agent (I wish I was making that up). They are closely followed by the sci-fi/fantasy book fans who still haven’t gotten over #whathappenedtoTomBombadil. When it comes to game adaptations, fans tend to stay quiet because most of those movies tend to be so bad it isn’t worth getting mad over messed up details (though if they ever decide to make a Magic the Gathering movie, we should all run for the hills). While I do still play video games, the closest I’ve ever come to playing Warcraft is watching this movie. So, if one of you Warcraft-ers tell me about all the things they changed or left out or screwed up in the movie, my response is “whatever, Nerd” and I’ll go back to playing Civilizations (I never said I wasn’t a nerd, just not a nerd for Warcraft).

(If you are wondering which group I’m in, you’d find me most likely in the crowd scrutinizing book adaptations. However, I am far more objective than my fellow fans. I can usually see the reasoning behind certain decisions, but I still get annoyed with adaptations that resemble their source material in title and characters only. I’m looking at you every Young Adult adaptation outside of The Hunger Games.)


I don’t know if there was a clamoring for a Warcraft movie by fans, but the project took ten years to actually make it to the screen. A friend of mine, who happens to be both a comic-book nerd and Warcraft nerd, assured me that the story in the video game is as paper-thin as most video game stories. Sadly, the movie does not improve upon this. It starts out well enough (and here’s where this is going to get nerdy) – the orc home world is dying and their leader, Gul’dan, is going to open a portal to another world so they can conquer that new world. The new world, Azeroth, is home to the standard Lord of the Rings races – humans, elves, dwarves, and wizards. To say that Warcraft is a derivative of Lord of the Rings is to say that water is wet. However, unlike Lord of the Rings, the elves and dwarves play no role in this particular story, so get ready for #whathappenedtowarcraftelvesanddwarves.

Had the movie stuck with the simple concept of humans vs. orcs, we would have been content, but the writers tried to cram a bunch of fantasy uber-nerdery (it’s a word now) on top of it. It starts off easy enough – Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) has acquired some green magic called Fel, which requires life in order to be used, including beings to power the portal. As soon as they get to Azeroth, things start dying as the orcs are pillaging villages and capturing prisoners. Azeroth is guarded by Medivh (Ben Foster), a godlike wizard using blue magic who has been fighting the Fel for a long time. One orc, Durotan (Toby Kebbell), realizes that the Fel is corrupting his race and destroyed their home planet, so he wants to work with the humans to defeat Gul’dan. At this point, we’re still on board with the story and it still fits the mold of humans vs. orcs with a typical twist thrown in. But then, #ihaswritingskilz happens.

There’s evil green magic that eats life and good blue magic that doesn’t eat life. There are wizards that are trying to stop the orcs and a wizard organization doing nothing but guarding a black cube containing Glenn Close and she is uttering nonsensical, double-talk prophecies. There are green orcs susceptible to blue magic death spells and orcs not susceptible. There’s a half-breed orc, Garona (Paula Patton), who is chained up to Gul’dan for reasons never explained, nor is it ever explained how a race on a completely different planet that had never heard of humans managed to have a half-human orc. Meanwhile, Medivh gets weaker every time he uses magic and a young disavowed wizard, Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), gets stronger because he went in the black cube. Throughout the middle of the movie, 90% of things are happening because #fantasy, while the other 10% is actually setting up the ending, which is when the movie really goes off the rails.

I’m sure I’m boring you by now, so here’s the climax in a nutshell (again – SPOILER alert). Medivh turns into a demon. Humans fight orcs. Khadgar and the human general, Lothar (Travis Fimmel) fight a golam. Lothar flies on a griffon. Durotan’s wife floats her baby down a river like it is Moses, not an orc (you know, the race attacking the planet), begging the question – won’t it be killed on the spot when it is found? Gul’dan interrupts his own time-sensitive plot to fight Durotan because “the old ways are important.” Gul’dan is somehow not torn to pieces by the other orcs. Garona becomes chief orc by stabbing the human king (Dominic Cooper) in the back of the neck after he tells her to (plus, she was just fighting with the king), which seems odd considering how much these orcs tell us they care about honor. Lothar flies on a griffon.

I realize I’m making it sound very confusing, but even in the context of the movie, none of the climax makes any sense except for the part where humans are fighting orcs. Everything the movie was establishing during the first half is pissed right out the window when it becomes a hodgepodge of epic battle scene and fantasy mumbo jumbo. It’s like Dungeons and Dragons crossed with Eragon and don’t pretend you haven’t seen both of those movies.

Because I’m also a fantasy nerd, I was entertained by the movie, despite the trainwreck at the end. The blend of CGI with live action is seamless (so much so that I‘m not sure the entire movie isn’t 100% CGI and motion capture) and the movie rarely slows down enough to take more than two breaths. Yes, I would have preferred some desperately needed exposition, but the action and visuals were good enough to keep me from grumbling.

Finally, I gave my friend a brief explanation of the story components because some of the movie felt like it needed source material knowledge to be understood. I also wanted to know how much changed from that source material. He says that it’s pretty close to the stories from the original games published in 1994 and 1996 (same game, but different platforms), but he’ll let me know for sure after he sees it. After all, how could he not see it, he being a Warcraft nerd? Now, back to my own nerdery – I’ve got two civs left to kill.

Rating: Ask for four dollars back. #wereallnerds

Friday, May 20, 2016

“The Nice Guys” – Good, but you missed a spot.

Imagine you are on a flight from Denver to Los Angeles. As flights go, it’s fairly eventful – there’s some pretty solid turbulence, projectile vomiting, a spirited game of poker over the new entertainment system on the plane, and a flight attendant accidentally leaving the comm. system on while divulging personal issues to her coworker. In other words, you are entertained for the duration of the flight. However, unbeknownst to you or any other passenger, the pilot has reversed course and when you land back in Denver you ask the pilot “what gives?” and he simply responds with “things never change.” Welcome to Shane Black’s latest movie – The Nice Guys.

(If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m going to SPOILER the end of this movie because if I don’t my whole first paragraph will make no sense. But I’ll do it at the end of this review and I’ll even warn you again.)

The Nice Guys is a mystery/action movie featuring a bunch of people looking for a girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). Amelia has information relating to a new catalytic converter that releases much more pollution than automakers are willing to admit. She wants to release the information and explains that the best way to do this is by making a porn film with an actual plot (yes, this is the actual plot of The Nice Guys). Unfortunately, the people Amelia wants to expose are killing everyone involved with making the film and Amelia is the only one left. And, for some reason, the movie takes place in 1977. My best guess at that reason is Black found a great deal on bulk disco-era clothing through Craig’s List.

Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) are our main characters, with support from March’s teenaged daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). Jackson is an enforcer, hired by people to scare/hurt other people to get them to stop a certain behavior. Initially, Jackson is hired by Amelia to get Holland to stop looking for her and Jackson makes good on the contract, hence the arm-cast that Holland sports throughout the film (and in the movie poster). But when Amelia goes missing and a couple of guys try to make Jackson dead (who are also looking for Amelia), Jackson turns to Holland to help find Amelia because Holland is a private investigator. Tagging along on the investigation and consequential shenanigans, Holly serves as a conscience and damsel-in-distress to the two men. Toss in some car chases, shooting, comic relief, and boobies and we’ve got ourselves a good old-fashioned, throwback action flick. Don’t believe me? The porn star’s name is Misty Mountains. Now you believe me.

Black’s strength as a director and writer is his ability to weave action in with comedy (of course, that’s ignoring the mess he made of Ironman 3). Until now, Gosling has always come off us “meh” to me, but Black coaxed a top-notch performance out of Gosling that I won’t soon forget. He plays perfectly into the weaselly persona we tend to associate with sleazy private dicks and punctuates it with a couple blood-curdling screams that seem like they should be coming from his daughter. He’s the perfect contrast to the overweight tough guy that Crowe presents, though who is also a bit of a sleazebag. I’m really not sure why the title refers to them as the Nice Guys, ironic or otherwise, but we do see their hearts peeking out every now and then and the narrative puts them on the “good guy” side of the plot.

As the movie rolled on, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. The movie flowed quite well as the plot progressed and everything felt right about the movie. As the movie finished its climax (did you really think I wouldn’t include any sex puns after everything I just told you?), I felt more than satisfied (*rimshot*). But, then the last scene happened and Holland utters the following line (SPOILER! SPOILER!) – “they didn’t have enough evidence to pursue charges, so they’re going to get away with it.” Yes, you just landed back in Denver and everything that happened in the movie (plot-wise) was pointless. In other words, the villain of our story – who is also a senior member of the Department of Justice (Kim Basinger), a.k.a. a lawyer – didn’t know how evidence works and decided to kill a bunch of people, including her daughter, Amelia (yes, that Amelia), to keep the evidence (the porno) from getting out, even though that evidence wasn’t enough to convict her. Yeah – I KNOW! What’s maddening is the fix for that is so elementary – change Holland’s line to “the film was destroyed, so they’re going to get away with it.” How did they miss that?

My friend said he liked the ending because he thought the entire theme of the film was that things never change and, while I agree with that, my tiny little fix keeps that theme intact without rendering the villain’s entire motivation, and thus the rest of the film, pointless and making me lose my mind for five minutes. Thankfully, other members of the audience caught it as well, so I’m not just a curmudgeon nitpicking at an otherwise really good film. Or maybe I just want to get out of Denver for a while.

Rating: Ask for one dollar back because things should change dammit.

“Angry Birds” – Do it for the children.

I have a rule against reviewing animated movies for many reasons, chief among them is that I’m not their target audience, children are their target audience. Yes, I may sound like a child sometimes, but that’s beside the point. The following is me interviewing my four-year old son to get his take on the film, including his rating.

Did you like the Angry Birds movie?

What did you like?
I liked the shooting.

The shooting?
I like the shoot, how the Angry Birds break the buildings.

What was your favorite bird?
The red one.

What did you not like about the movie?
I didn’t like the pig stealing the eggs.

What was the funniest part of the movie?

Just Yellow?
Yellow did this. [crawls along floor and does a random yoga pose]

How did you like how the birds were dressed?
Because I liked it.

How did you like the costumes?
[creepy giggle]

How did you like the eagle?
Where does the eagle live?

Where DOES the eagle live?
Uh, in his cave.

Do you think he should have lived with the other birds?


Hey Buddy…why?
[silence. I think he’s abstaining.]

Did you think the 3D was good? With the glasses?

Did you like the glasses?

How would you rate Bomb the bird’s performance?
[farts, then giggles]

How did you like the birds’ performances?
Because I... [unintelligible as he takes a bite of Frosty]

Can you tell me about the birds?
The birds went on the swing, and the big red bird pushed it all the way and he broke it.

Oh…okay. If you could ask Red a question, what would you ask?
…..Uh…because….[distracted by the TV]

Hey! What would you ask Red?
I want to ask him about a swing.

Do you think that Red learned his lesson? Was red more angry or less angry at the end?
He was more angry.

How did you like going to the theater? What did you like about the theater?
I liked the Skittles.

Would you tell other people that they should go see Angry Birds?

Cuz they want me to go to the movie.

Because they should take YOU to the move?
[laughs creepily]

How many stars would you give the movie?

How many times do you want to watch Angry Birds the movie?

Rating: $26 because I thought it was 26.

Friday, May 13, 2016

“Money Monster” – I miss Jon Stewart.

One of my favorite moments in journalism happened back in 2009 when Jon Stewart took CNBC to task over their irresponsible financial reporting. In short, Stewart accused them of being nothing more than PR lapdogs for big corporations, charged with convincing people to invest their money in those same corporations regardless as to if it was a good investment. The focus became centered on CNBC’s Jim Cramer, host of a stock-tip show called Mad Money (a show which you would be forgiven for thinking was a reality show featuring a cocaine-fueled lunatic rambling about return on investment behind the stage of a travelling carnival). Near the end of the week-plus of Stewart grilling CNBC, Cramer went on The Daily Show and Stewart destroyed him in arguably the best interview in the history of television. If you have not seen it, just Google “Jon Stewart CNBC Jim Cramer” and watch the three or four Daily Show segments comprising the saga. And, you should watch them for two reasons: 1) to remind yourself never to bet your money based on the rantings of some idiot with a buzzer hosting a show owned by a major multinational corporation and (2) the entertainment value is arguably higher than what you will get from watching Money Monster.

(I’ll try to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, but don’t bet on it.)

Money Monster is essentially the worst case scenario of the Jon Stewart-CNBC-Jim Cramer saga, but if Stewart had strapped a bomb to Cramer’s chest and demanded Cramer explain how AIG could need more than $100 billion dollars of tax payer money to stay afloat. The film literally satirizes Mad Money, replacing Cramer with Lee Gates (George Clooney) and changing the name of the show to Money Monster. Gates doles out barely researched stock tips in between really awkward dancing to kick off the show and speaking with his production director, Patty (Julia Roberts), while taking a crap. No, that’s not a euphemism. …But then maybe it is.

One day, Gates is getting ready to interview the CEO, Walt Camby (Dominic West), of an investment company that managed to lose $800 million due to a supposed computer glitch when his show is interrupted by Kyle (Jack O’Connell), a blue-collar New Yorker who saw his $60 thousand life savings investment reduced to a fraction of that as part of the bigger loss. You see, Kyle forgot rule number one (above) and decided that the best course of action was to take hostage a financial shows’ stage and crew, strap a bomb to Gates’ chest, and shoot at monitors. But, Kyle’s not there to get his money back (which Gates offers out of his own pocket); he’s there to hold Gates and Camby accountable and to explain how they managed to lose the money. If you’re thinking you’ve seen this movie before it’s because you are thinking of The Negotiator, which has the same premise – hostage taker conducts investigation to uncover the truth relating to embezzlement/fraud, hoping to solve the mystery before a police sniper or S.W.A.T. team takes him out. Samuel L. Jackson just made a better hostage taker than O’Connell.

Right away, we know something is amiss because, even before the hostage situation, Gates is informed that nobody knows where Camby is and that his Chief Communications Officer, Diane (Caitriona Balfe), will be filling in for the interview. Once Kyle starts demanding answers, it doesn’t take long for Patty to morph into Woodward and Bernstein and start demanding answers as if she was the Secretary of Defense and not the director of some bullshit faux-financial show on cable TV. While Patty is playing investigative journalist, Kyle is screaming about how the system is rigged, that it’s all one big lie and the audience is left wondering why the movie can’t quite decide what the plot is supposed to be. But, Hollywood isn’t interested in the audience thinking the entire system is rigged (that would include Hollywood) so the movie switches to exposing a shady CEO and assuring the audience that their money really is safe. 2008 is ancient history, we promise.

Aside from a plot that shifts gears in the middle of the movie, it’s actually a pretty entertaining film. There are a couple of fun twists on the standard hostage-crisis resolution scenes (cops wanting to breach, bringing in the hostage taker’s significant other), as well as some hilarity with Gates’ first attempt to resolve the crisis. They even manage to sneak in some dick jokes involving erectile disfunction cream that don’t come off as juvenile (unfortunately, the film forgets about it after the second punchline, missing out on some potential fun in the latter half of the film). I enjoyed the actors as well, though Clooney wasn’t able to quite sell me on his character being as big a douchebag as Jim Cramer. Or even half as big, for that matter. In limited time, Balfe was solid, though her accent couldn’t decide if it was English, Scottish, or Irish throughout the film. Of course, I’ll blame Jodie Foster (director) for this because we know from watching Elysium that Foster doesn’t know the difference between a German and a French accent, let alone those of Britain and Ireland. Also, poor Giancarlo Esposito was given next to nothing to do as the police chief, relegated to occasionally barking commands and yelling at people. I actually think he would have made a better Walt Camby considering his turn as Gus Fring, but I don’t think Foster watched Breaking Bad.

I was able to take along two guests to the screening (rather than the usual one) and one of them did not like the movie. He said it was because he couldn’t accept the idea that they would keep filming live the whole time (Kyle actually demands it) because they could just as easily have faked it (Kyle says he’d know if they faked it because he has a phone, but he never looks at the phone after making the statement). My other guest and I disagreed – we both think they would because we’re cynical and jaded, we remember the O.J. Simpson coverage, and $1 billion in free media coverage just went to the flaming car wreck whose name rhymes with Bonald Frump solely because he was good for ratings. If I was picking one thing that was tough to buy, it was the nonsensical explanation of financial software algorithms (stupidly referred to as “algos” throughout the movie, whose developers were equally-as-stupidly referred to as “quants” – quantitative analysts). Of course, I’m a dork who likes math and I know that roughly 1% of the rest of the audience will catch it as well, so I was fine letting it go – the movie explanation works well enough.

A lot of critics are going to compare this movie with The Big Short, but I don’t think that’s a good comparison. While I haven’t seen The Big Short, I know that it wasn’t designed as a thriller featuring bombs and bullets and bad accents (British and New Yawk). What I do know is that I came away mostly satisfied considering the movie wants us to feel good for a hostage taker and sleazy financial show host.

What I’m really trying to say is that I miss Jon Stewart.

Rating: Ask for a couple of dollars back. You can trust me – I don’t have a buzzer.

Friday, May 6, 2016

“Captain America: Civil War” – Let’s get ready to R-R-R-UM-M-M-BL-L-L-E.

At the risk of repeating myself, how is it that Marvel keeps making outstanding movies? I’m not really surprised by this anymore, but I am surprised that they continually top my expectations. At this point in time, the law of averages says they are overdue for a real stinker, but I’m happy to report that the new Captain America smells very nice. Wait…that sounds weird – let me start over. Captain America: Civil War knocked my socks off. No, that’s weird too and makes me sound like someone’s grandmother. Alright, I’ll figure out a better way to say it by the end of the review, but you get the point – Civil War is arguably the best movie released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.

As I said in my review of Batman v Superman, I was really looking forward to Civil War if only to get rid of the taste in my brain from viewing BvS. BvS was always destined to fail at a story level because Superman could just throw a building at Batman and movie over. But the real reason it failed was because the reason Superman and Batman are fighting at all is murky at best and completely nonsensical and dumb at worst. Civil War is exactly the opposite and is more than Captain America v Ironman: Dusk of Avengers – they are fighting for reasons that actually make sense. Sorry DC fans, but the sooner you admit BvS and Man of Steel were just bad movies, the sooner you can start demanding that Warner Brothers hire some writers and directors that don’t suck, follow the Marvel formula, and start making movies worthy of DC’s source material.

The Avengers have always been a tenuous alliance of superheroes, not so much because they don’t get along, but because they have different ideas on how to achieve the mission – world peace and protecting the human race. The film kicks off with the newly reformed Avengers (that we saw at the end of Age of Ultron) chasing down some bad guys in Nigeria who were trying to steal a bioweapon. By the time the scene is over, some collateral damage has occurred including eleven civilians dead. The Secretary of Defense (William Hurt) informs the group that more than one hundred nations have come together to decide that The Avengers should no longer be a private entity and must start operating under the purview of the United Nations. Any crime fighting undertaken outside of that oversight is to be considered a crime. As the team digests the information and debates amongst themselves, sides start to form. One side, led by Tony “Ironman” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), agrees that oversight is necessary because they are powerful and dangerous, but mostly out of guilt for the Sokovia incident (from Age of Ultron). This is understandable since it’s literally his fault that Ultron came to be. The other side, led by Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), believes the opposite – that the various countries and diplomats have their own agendas and the team would end up becoming a weapon to be wielded by the U.N. This is understandable because Cap didn’t trust what S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury were doing in The Winter Soldier (and rightly so, as it turned out). The conflict arises because they are both right – oversight is a good idea, but the decision makers are completely untrustworthy. Talk about art imitating life (*cough* Republicans v Democrats *cough*).

Side commentary – the logic of the SecDef mirrors the short-sighted-can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees thinking that we see in real life today. While making his case to the Avengers, he places the collateral damage blame on them for the following events: (1) the Loki-led Chitauri invasion of Earth (The Avengers), (2) the Hydra-led invasion of D.C. (The Winter Soldier), (3) the destruction of Sokovia (Age of Ultron), and (4) the eleven dead in Nigeria. Here’s how the team should have responded to those: (1) we stopped an alien invasion aimed at destroying/enslaving humanity, (2) we stopped Hydra from taking over America and the world, (3) yeah – that was our fault, and (4) hello – bioweapon. I find it stunningly narrow-minded to get upset about the collateral damage when, had they not intervened, everyone dies or the world is taken over by bad guys or everyone dies. My point is they could have come up with a better list of examples or just stuck solely with the Ultron incident. Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

The part I really want to put emphasis on is that the competing sides didn’t just jump to punch-kick-shoot, like Batman and Superman did, they literally talked about their ideologies. Following their disagreement, another incident happens and they talk about it again. I know that sounds a little boring (trust me, it’s not), but it makes the battle royale later in the movie much easier to accept because it’s the logical result of the escalation that occurs during the film. And that, dear DC fans and Zack Snyder, is how you make a superhero v superhero movie.

On that note, the battle royale is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking. I won’t spoil the who takes whose side, but here are your contestants – Ironman, Captain America, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) – and all of them get their fair share of the camera. The scene also has great special effects, a very smooth escalation of fighting, and plenty of fun banter (at one point, Spider-Man is praising Captain America while simultaneously fighting him). Yes – Marvel and directors Anthony and Joe Russo handled a twelve-person superhero fight movie better than DC and Zack Snyder handled a two-person fight.

Aside from the main story, they even managed to give due diligence to the introductions of Spider-Man and Black Panther, which is amazing considering how many characters were in this film. That includes the additions of Emily VanCamp as CIA Agent Carter (to be fair, she’s not new, but she’s given far more to do this time around), Daniel Bruhl as the one true villain of the film, Martin Freeman as another government higher-up (and doesn’t he have to appear in Doctor Strange opposite Benedict Cumberbatch?), and even Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. As incredible as it sounds, not one of these characters felt like a throw-in just to get a silly cameo for an upcoming sequel or standalone movie (seriously D.C. and WB – get your shit together).

So, yeah – Civil War was freaking awesome from pretty much every aspect you can think of. Great characters, great story, no obvious plot holes, tie-ins with previous movies to maintain continuity, great new characters (and a big thank you to Marvel for fixing Spider-Man), great action, great acting, great dialogue, and most importantly, great entertainment. See? I told you I’d figure out a better way to describe this film.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back for Batman v Superman again. Then, see Civil War again.