Friday, January 12, 2018

“The Commuter” – Like Murder on the Orient Express, but not.

Happy 2018 everybody.  As we welcome in 2018, I’m hoping to spend a lot of executive time in my shithole.  If you were wishing for 2018 to be a fresh start, keep on wishing everybody.  On behalf of all non-deplorable Americans, I apologize to Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras, Africa, Norway, the Netherlands, children (immigrant and non-immigrant), elephants, the dictionary, geniuses, and oceanic life (this is not a comprehensive list) for the last eleven days and almost all of 2017.  We don’t know who the human (?) occupying the White House will insult or attack next, but we are as concerned as you are.  Please remember that he does not represent or speak for the majority of us and that we hope this nightmare ends as quickly as you do.  In the meantime, please enjoy this token of our appreciation - a movie starring Liam Neeson, an Irish-American immigrant raised in a working class family who hasn’t fled the United States yet.

(SPOILER ALERT.  I’m sorry again.)

In The Commuter, Neeson plays Michael McCauley, an Irish immigrant, ex-cop, insurance salesman who really wants to make sure every knows he is sixty years old.  He commutes by train into New York City every day for work and knows all the regular riders’ faces.  He has done everything right in life (according to himself and his boss), but is unexpectedly fired one day and, instead of a severance package, is given a health insurance policy as a parting gift on his way out the door.  I can’t prove Mitch McConnell wrote that little nugget into the screenplay, but demonizing healthcare by using it to slap an elderly Irish immigrant in the face is definitely the brain child of an (R).

(Note: Casting Liam Neeson as an Irish immigrant is a little too on the nose.)

Did I mention I was old?  And Irish?

On his (presumably) last train ride home, Michael is pondering how he is going to break the news to his wife and pay his son’s college tuition when a woman (Vera Farmiga) sits down and starts chatting his ear off.  Since Michael is a much more pleasant seatmate than Ann Coulter, he indulges the woman, who proceeds to offer up a hypothetical question - for $100K, would he perform a task that is meaningless to him, but has consequences to someone else (the task being simply to identify a stranger on the train and plant a GPS tracker on the person’s bag)?  He immediately asks appropriate questions, so we know he has morals, but he also just lost his job and has two mortgages, so we know he will take the bait (if he finds and takes the $25K she hid in the bathroom, he is effectively agreeing).  However, he immediately has second thoughts, but train lady (who departed the train promptly after the conversation concluded, but contacts him via phone) is having none of it.  She quickly resorts to threats (against his family) and tells him he has until the last stop on the line to finish the job.  Had the writers put as much effort into thinking out the rest of the plot as they did the opening scene depicting Michael’s commute (quasi-time lapsed over ten years), the movie would have been extremely compelling and a thrill to watch.  Instead, we got a half-hearted movie asking the question “who dat?” while Michael fumbles back and forth through the half-dozen train cars for the majority of the film.

One glaring problem with the film is that Michael, as written, is a terrible choice for train lady’s game and this movie.  He comes off like a stranger on the train, even though the film goes out of its way to make sure we know he has ridden this particular train route every day for ten years.  He interacts with a couple of familiar people occasionally, but even one of the regular train attendants treats Michael like he’s never met him.  Plus, the film pounds home that Michael is an ex-cop, but has the investigative and interrogation skills of a towel rack.  To be fair, he quickly narrows down the list of suspects by looking at ticket stubs that are conveniently sticking up out of every seat on the train (the ones getting off at the stop identified by train lady), but after that he has to strike up conversations with them to further his quest.  To put it mildly, his people skills are the equivalent of a nerdy middle school boy trying to ask his crush out for hamburgers, but the boy is also a bull and his crush is the china shop.  Mixed metaphors aside, we’re fairly sure why he’s an ex-cop and an ex-salesman.

I'm going to spend the vast majority of this film as a disembodied voice.  That's why I'm dressed like this.

Because Michael’s skill set is never established, we are forced to endure a string of awkward confrontations ranging from Michael harassing a teenage girl to mad-dogging a tough-guy during an impromptu Texas Hold ‘Em game.  It’s like the writers had no idea that if anyone knows how to talk to people, or at least strike up conversations, it’s insurance salesmen, closely followed by cops.  Thus, the audience is left wondering when Taken-dad will show up and start bad-assing his way around the train and investigation because this is a Liam Neeson film; how could it not?

Michael isn’t the only part of the script that the writers flubbed.  Another is in train-lady’s approach.  Instead of just assuming he was up to the task, she should have given him a truly innocent task to complete to begin with and just claimed to be spicing up an otherwise long, monotonous journey.  She also should have stayed on the train, which would have added a really fun dynamic to the investigation, as she could have remained really ambiguous to the audience and kept Michael from getting so suspicious.  Unfortunately, the production studios don’t listen to my Movie Fixers Podcast, so I wasn’t consulted to prevent this sorely lacking screenplay from being shot on film.

Hey guys?  San Neill here.  I'm in this movie too, you know!

The third, and biggest whiff, was in the climax.  Again, SPOILER ALERT, but what the hell was the end game for train-lady after Michael failed the quest?  Train-lady’s proxy (who was telegraphed in this film, by the way), reveals himself to the fifteen people left on the train (after a physics-defying crash that left the audience in hysterics at what clearly was not intended as comedy) while completely surrounded by cops and demands Michael reveal the identity of the suspect.  Part of the plan was to frame Michael for everything, but Proxy just told everyone that Michael was telling the truth about everything and Proxy has a gun with far fewer bullets than people on the train, one of which must be used to kill the suspect.  Plus, snipers have a magic color-coder scope that marks Proxy and can see all of the passenger’s heat signatures through the walls of the train car.  In other words, they will literally see Proxy kill everyone on the train (which is apparently plan C).  Thankfully, I wasn’t the only person laughing during this nonsense.

After the movie was over, I tried to talk myself into liking this film, but myself just wasn’t having it.  If you don’t scratch the surface of the film, don’t need anything more than watching Liam Neeson fight a few people, and don’t host a podcast devoted to identifying and fixing flaws in movies, you’ll probably be satisfied with The Commuter.  It has the bones of a very cool movie, but was released in early January for a reason.  Like most Neeson-led flicks post-Taken, you’ll probably forget you saw The Commuter within a week because it isn’t good enough to chat about or bad enough to complain about.  Well, unless you make that commute too.

Rating: Ask for seven dollars back and donate it to any charity helping people listed in the first-paragraph apology.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

“My Year in Movies - 2017 Edition” - Something smells rotten.

How we all look and feel on 12/31/2017.

Is it just me or does 2017 feel like it has lasted about a hundred years?  Between hurricanes, forest fires, racists, sexual harassers, gun massacres, and the systematic destruction of reason, decency, and ethical governing by the elephant party and the worst president this country has ever seen, I’m surprised aliens haven’t finally intervened on behalf of the rest of the appalled universe to put a stop to the human experiment.  Of course, none of those hold a candle to the massive conspiracy and threat to human survival presented by Rotten Tomatoes.

There are two controversies rocking the country - as long as you are reading the entertainment section of your favorite newspaper, magazine, or website and think the most important news story is whichever tramp (male or female) was rejected on the latest Bachelor(ette).  The first controversy is how Rotten Tomatoes (RT) is actively trying to torpedo movies just because they are filled with people who simply hate movies and are definitely trying to poison all kittens and puppies.  These monsters have the nerve to add up the number of positive reviews for a given movie, divide by the total number of reviews for that same movie, then multiply the result by one hundred, and publish that number on the Internet.  I mean, who does that?

There were studio heads, producers, and directors blaming bad scores on Rotten Tomatoes for poor box office returns on movies like Baywatch, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and The Mummy.  Nevermind that these movies were objectively shit; it’s easier to blame a website for all their woes, a website that doesn’t even publish its own reviews, but does provide a convenient place to find links to hundreds of reviews.  Also, ignore that studios love slapping good Rotten Tomatoes scores all over commercials for movies that are positively received by the body of film critics referenced by RT.  The best part of the controversy is that Rotten Tomatoes is mostly owned by Fandango (75%), a unit of NBCUniversal which also owns Paramount Studios.  The other 25% of RT is owned by Warner Brothers.  In other words, film studios are blaming their own review aggregator for tanking their own movies.

If you think I’m exaggerating, here is a fun quote from producer, director, and accused sexual predator, Brett Ratner, about Rotten Tomatoes - “I think it’s the destruction of our business,” Brett Ratner, the director, producer and film financier, said at a film festival this year. – NY Times, 9/7/2017.  Of course, Ratner is also responsible for garbage like Movie 43 and Hercules, so he’ll punch a baby if it means an opportunity to shift blame away from his own failings as a filmmaker.

The bigger picture here is Hollywood and film journalists looking to blame something or someone for the poor box office returns of 2017.  Even before the summer had really kicked off, articles were already popping up (in June) about big budget flops (The Mummy and King Arthur) and how it was all Rotten Tomatoes’ fault.  By the time September rolled in, there were full-throated sky-is-falling articles about the worst summer box office in fifteen or twenty years, depending on what numbers you used.  If this shrieking sounds familiar it’s because some of the same banshees have been decrying decreased ratings of NFL broadcasts.  In the NFL, the Rotten Tomatoes boogeyman has been replaced by the national anthem protests (equally as stupid and baseless as blaming Rotten Tomatoes) because they can’t admit to themselves that a combination of a diminished product (anyone know what a catch or pass interference is anymore?), safety concerns (nobody wants their kids to have brain damage now that science has proven the link), and increased entertainment choices are the real culprit.  Plus, considering the shitstorm that is the current White House administration and Republican Party, maybe ratings are down because people are paying more attention to the ghastly current politics and important current events rather than indulging in escapist entertainment.  See what you did voters who helped elect Trump?  Bad voters.  Go sit in the corner and think about what you did.

Anyway, by the time all our kids were back in school, blaming Rotten Tomatoes had quieted down a smidge and that smidge was filled in by the annual bullshit of blaming poor box office performance on “too many sequels, remakes, and franchises.”  Fuuuuuuuuck!!  When will that idiocy stop?  I already discussed at length in my review of Kingsman: The Golden Circle how this idea is complete nonsense and easily disproved simply by looking at the top of the list of box office receipts for individual movies on the year.  I even included a link to one article pushing that nonsense and another debunking that nonsense.  In the last three months, that list may have changed slightly with Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which only further proves the point that the vast majority of moviegoers cannot wait to spend more money on the next sequel/franchise/remake.  Then, this article came out in October to tell us how people were sick of sequels, but would make an exception for Blade Runner 2049.  Not only did this article commit the same sin I’ve just described, but they also managed to be wrong about people going to see Blade Runner 2049 (just $258 million on a $150-$185 million budget, which is probably an eight-figure loss after marketing costs, etc.), though they didn’t stay away because it was a sequel (they stayed away because Blade Runner is a cult classic and also because it’s just weird).  For the sake of all our sanity as well as honest journalism, shut the hell up about people being tired of non-original content.  They aren’t and they never will be.

(Note: In case you are wondering what the highest grossing “original” movie is, Dunkirk sits at sixteenth, and we’re stretching the definition of “original” with Dunkirk.)

The funny thing about this whole controversy is that the box office on the year was actually good and will be the second highest, if not highest, in history (North American only; international won’t break the record), rendering it a 9-out-of-10 on the stupid controversy scale.  As of 12/23/17, box office mojo has 2017 at $10.405B, and that was without another week of The Last Jedi on the books, not to mention the opening of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  Here are the previous five years’ totals:
·         2016 - $10.745B
·         2015 - $10.454B
·         2014 - $9.872B
·         2013 - $10.391B
·         2012 - $10.326B
With the exception of 2014 (who knows what happened there), it sure looks like it doesn’t matter what movies come out every year, but does look like studios can bank on North Americans spending around $10.5B on movie tickets every year.  Again, just stop it.

The second controversy is that we movie critics are idiots; that we should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell.   While it is definitely true that a lot of film critics are massive film snobs, there are very few that are idiots.  That is the crux of the argument that people were making when blaming Rotten Tomatoes for poor box office performance.  I will concede that a lot of reviews are worthless in that they make statements and judgements without providing supporting evidence, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong.  Take Lady Bird for example.  The last time I checked, Lady Bird had 206 positive scores and one negative score, but the actual reviews of the film ranged quite a bit.  The one negative score was given by a guy who thought the movie was only okay, but gave it a negative score because he felt like being a dick (he literally admitted to tanking the perfect score on purpose).  He should never be allowed to review movies again for that little stunt (I feel the same way about baseball writers who don’t vote for obvious hall of famers like Ken Griffey Jr. because of similar petty and self-aggrandizing reasons), but he probably made some good points in his review.

The problem with Rotten Tomatoes scores is it doesn’t take into account what reviews actually say, instead just tabulating the results of the binary positive/negative question they pose to critics.  For this reason, Rotten Tomatoes score is a terrible tool to use to judge the quality of a film (which we’ve pointed out many times on the Movie Fixers podcast).  What you should be doing is reading several reviews for a movie, finding critics that you like or agree with or that make good points about that movie, then reading their takes on other movies.  If you disagree with or don’t like what a critic says about a film, move on.  Don’t make disparaging comments or death threats (this actually happens), just move on.  That Lady Bird douche-nozzle doesn’t deserve that kind of response, nor any response at all for that matter. 

Which brings me to one last question that some filmmakers have posed - should lowly, non-main-stream critics such as myself be treated as equals with critics employed by The Los Angeles Times or The Washington Post?  I saw this question posed in another piece analyzing the Rotten Tomatoes blame game and I thought it was even more snobby than the fartsiest of artsy film lovers.  It ignores how restricted many of those critics are in what they are allowed to say in their reviews.  They all rely on advertising from the same conglomerates that make those movies, so they have to temper their opinions to some degree (sometimes going way overboard with the brown-nosing).  They also go out of their way to write vague generalities and plot summaries, but will sometimes go into detail about technical aspects of films because that’s how little they understand the vast majority of filmgoers (who really don’t give a shit about things like editing).  If anything, critics like me are more valuable to readers because we are free to discuss detailed plot points and characters and we are honest (sometimes brutally) about the movies we review without having to worry about ad-money being pulled.  What I’m really saying is “do you guys hate me?”

My Top 5
Out of the seventy-one movies I saw this year, there were plenty of really good films to choose from.  Unlike last year, the top five were pretty obvious to me and I’m sure some of you will vehemently disagree.  Just remember that you are really just pissed off at 2017 in general, not me.
·         Thor: Ragnarok - Like the first Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok isn’t the best movie of the year, but it is easily the most entertaining.  Deciding not to take itself so seriously was the moment of a genius for this film, as Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston showed how much range they have as actors.  Not to mention the rest of the cast, who were visibly have the time of their lives in this film.
·         Get Out - I was terrified that Get Out was going to be a huge letdown because of the amount of hype it was getting from everywhere, including my friends.  When I saw that it was directed by Jordan Peele and was a combination horror/comedy, I thought for sure everyone had gone mad.  Turns out they were underselling one of the most unexpectedly great movies in years.
·         The Lego Batman Movie - Apparently, the key to making good Batman films is just don’t let Zack Snyder near them.  I was curious to see if the creators of The Lego Movie would be able to recapture the magic of that film, especially because they were dipping into a well-swum lake of DC material.  Not only did they succeed, they also showed that Batman doesn’t have to be deathly serious.  Remember that DC.
·         I, Tonya - After watching Get Out and almost seventy other movies, I was ready to give Get Out the gold.  Then, Margot Robbie skated in and pulled the opposite of a Tonya Harding by nailing a film that was just as unexpectedly amazing as Get Out.  It was so good, I just broke my own rule about bad puns.  (Note: I’m breaking another rule by including a movie you can’t see until 2018 so I can tell you to absolutely go see it in 2018).
·         Dunkirk - Normally, I wouldn’t rank a movie with such little character development and plot this high, but Dunkirk wasn’t intended to showcase those things.  It was intended to make you feel like you were right alongside with a handful of folks in a desperate situation in our history.  Like with Interstellar, this movie is best seen as large and as loud as possible and the tension will have you wound tighter than a snare drum.

You Almost Made It
Like I said, there were plenty of really good movies to choose from.  If you named any of these next few movies as being in your top movies of the year list, I would just nod at you.  For me, the difference between these and my top five was these didn’t wow me the way the top five did. 
·         Logan - Not gonna lie, I was mildly disappointed in this movie and I think the critical reception was a bit over the top.  Yeah, it is a very good film, but Logan fights a clone of himself.  Twice.  I enjoyed it, but just because a film is gritty, doesn’t make it award worthy.  It’s the third-best superhero movie this year, which says something about the quality of superhero movies.
·         Star Wars: The Last Jedi - There are several parallels to Empire Strikes Back that people have weirdly chosen to ignore, even though those same people were nearly apoplectic about The Force Awakens having several parallels to A New Hope.  In both cases, the movie worked well, though Leia Force-magicking her way out of certain death was a low point in the Star Wars universe.  Conversely, the kamikaze scene was a visual high point in a franchise brimming with visual high points.
·         War for the Planet of the Apes - Three movies in and this franchise is still magnificent.  Perhaps the best thing about it is how it deftly sidesteps a cliched showdown between the hero and the villain.  If not for Get Out and I, Tonya coming out of nowhere, this would have made my top 5.
·         Spider-Man: Homecoming - If you are still one of the few people who hate Marvel (I’m looking at you DC fanboys who think Suicide Squad was anything other than a shit sandwich), even you have to admit that Marvel knows what they are doing after they rescued Spider-Man from the grave Sony dug.  Perfect casting and keeping the scope of the problem small gave us the second-best superhero flick of the year.
·         Hidden Figures – Technically a 2016 film and my rules are starting to resemble the nonsense of the NFL.  I’m talking about it because I didn’t see it until 2016 and it needs to be talked about, especially in a year filled with racism making a comeback.  It’s a great story about three brilliant women, but doesn’t go far enough in displaying the racism those women had to put up with.  What’s worse is they had to put up with it at a place (NASA) filled with people who definitely know better and we shouldn’t be sugar-coating that.
·         The Post - A great look at a moment in time where the press had a choice to make between informing the public about the massive lies coming out of the government or cowering in fear at a man doing his best impersonation of a demagogue.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Let’s hope this great film is playing on repeat in every news room in the country. (Note: Also not opening until January and also, definitely go see it.)

The Squirmers
These movies were very good, but every one of them is tough to watch for one reason or another.  And, just like the previous category, rewatchability played a big factor in my rankings here.  So, they get a separate category so you don’t mistake them for family affair.
·         Gifted - McKenna Grace is an amazing actor for such a young girl.  If you don’t cry during the scene where her father leaves her at the foster parents’ home, you are dead inside.  She even pulls this move again in I, Tonya and I’m tempted to say she should be banned from acting for the next five years so I don’t have turn into a blubbering mess again.
·         The Founder - The kind of movie that makes you mad because you already know how the story ends.  Ray Croc is a terrible person, not only for fucking over the McDonald brothers, but for being solely responsible for the blight on humanity that is modern McDonald’s.  The film offers us a glimpse at an alternate reality where the food at McDonald’s is actually edible.
·         Wind River - There is a pretty rough rape scene to get through, but one that doesn’t cross the line into gratuitousness.  Mix in the racist commentary (directed at Native Americans) and you’ve got 2017 summed up in a single movie.  It’s a good little murder mystery, but will make anyone with a soul angry that this shit still happens in this country.

Surprisingly Decent
It’s almost impossible to go into a movie without some sort of expectations.  Usually, it’s due to something you saw in a trailer, actors who are in the movie, or the director.  In this case, my expectations were all low or guarded expectations going into them and was pleasantly surprised at the end.  Some of these were even better than decent.
·         Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle - I know, right?  No, seriously.  The fact that this movie wasn’t an absolute pile of garbage was a shock to everyone.  Maybe the most fun part was watching the limits of Dwayne Johnson’s acting ability on full display as he desperately acted his heart out to not come off as himself and getting about halfway there.  This film was exactly what I needed to end the year on.
·         Split - Nobody but M. Night Shyamalan’s mom expects his movies to be anything other than crap, so of course everyone was pleasantly surprised when Split didn’t suck.  Of course, that had a lot to do with James McAvoy being a brilliant actor, but I’ll give Shyamalan some credit as well.
·         It - I was terrified (no pun intended) that this remake would be another in a long line of poor Stephen King novel adaptations, but found myself satisfied by the end of the film.  I was definitely disappointed in this version of Pennywise and some of the characters, but it was still one of the better horror flicks I’ve seen.  But, I will still go into part two (when it comes out) with the same low-ish expectations.
·         American Made - If Tom Cruise is playing against type, I’m in.  Based on the movie poster and trailers, I was expecting another typical Cruise-as-invincible-spy flick.  Instead, I learned something about history and watched Cruise play a dopey schmuck to perfection.
·         The Disaster Artist - I was skeptical considering its subject, The Room, is a world class piece of shit of a film that doesn’t deserve to be mentioned with other bad films since The Room was made by people who had no idea how to make a movie (director/producer/writer/main actor Tommy Wiseau also bankrolled the film, including booking a theater for two weeks to run it).  Whereas other bad films were created by accident by people who at least knew what they were doing, The Room is what would happen if a bunch of nine-year olds with six million dollars made a movie.  The Disaster Artist perfectly captures that.
·         Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri - I keep forgetting how much I enjoy Sam Rockwell and how great he always is.  The reason this movie didn’t end up with The Squirmers (due to getting another glimpse of racism in America) is because it has the kind of title that screams “film snobs unite” and I was expecting to be bored.  Instead, I was riveted during the film because it manages to not just be about three billboards.

Movies for Me
Many of these movies are for you too.  A couple of them are even really good and probably belong in the You Almost Made It category.  For the other ones, I believe everyone should have guilty pleasure movies.  This is how you know I’m not a film snob, even when I do gush about movies like Three Billboards.
·         Kong: Skull Island - This movie knew what it was and dove all the way in on it.  Kong was awesome, Samuel L. Jackson was a caricature of himself, the other monsters were imaginative, and Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson ran around looking gorgeous.  It was everything I thought it would be.
·         The Dark Tower - Look, I get that this movie did not do any justice to the Stephen King’s opus magnus, but Idris Elba made it worth a viewing.  I was just happy that someone finally got something to screen and now they can learn from their mistakes when they make a real adaptation.
·         The Lego Ninjago Movie - I understand that this film was nothing more than an advertisement for Lego toys, but I love Legos.  Plus, the movie was pretty solid and my son loved it as well.  That’s enough to get the job done.
·         The Great Wall - There’s always one of these movies that cause people to look at me sideways.  Moving along.
·         The Foreigner - Jackie Chan.  Need I say more?
·         American Assassin - This one is here purely for the nostalgia of 80’s action flicks and crazy Michael Keaton.  Watching him gleefully chew on a guy’s ear made the stupid political content worth putting up with.
·         Gold - Another flick that taught me something about history and managed to not be predictable to boot. If that’s not enough, seeing Matthew McConaughey transform into a fat, ugly version of himself was fun.  It was very similar to American Made, but about a piece of history you had never even heard a peep about.
·         Wish Upon - Unlike The Room, Wish Upon is a bad movie that actually is fun to watch.  Or, at least was when I saw it with a theater full of chatty Cathys.  The film was unintentionally funny (to be fair, there were intentionally funny parts as well) and the opposite of scary.  My mood at the time made me forgive everything bad about Wish Upon, which tells you how close it was to being in categories much further down in this article.

Meh…(or Movies Not for Me)
I was going to create a whole new category called Movies Not for Me until I realized that was the definition of meh.  So, flip a coin on these films.  All of these movies were decent, though a couple of them are wildly overrated.  None of them spoke to me in any way, but maybe they spoke to you.
·         Lady Bird - Rotten Tomatoes controversy aside, I found Lady Bird to be a movie with actors.  It had a couple of moments that peaked my interest, but only a couple.
·         The Man Who Invented Christmas - If I actually liked Charles Dickens as an author, I might have been more interested in this film, but Great Expectations scarred me for life.  I still like A Christmas Carol, but only when it has Bill Murray or is animated.
·         Baby Driver - I was tempted to throw this movie in with the other Letdowns, but it was only a letdown because the word-of-mouth blew the expectations to impossible heights.  Unlike Get Out, Baby Driver didn’t even get close to the critical reception and nothing in the film made me stop and think “so that’s what they were talking about.”
·         The Shape of Water - Classic example of a movie that is far less clever than it thinks it is.  That basically describes nearly every film in Guillermo del Toro’s filmography.  At least we have Pacific Rim 2 to look forward to next year.
·         Darkest Hour - Gary Oldman was fantastic, but you have to be more than a serious history nerd to call this movie a must-see.  I am a very serious history nerd and I still felt very meh about this film.

We’re Really Only in it for the Money
Better known as ‘popcorn flicks,’ these are the movies that are uninspired, big-budget, CGI-heavy blockbusters.  All of them were very short on story, incredibly redundant, or based on hugely popular video games that also have no real story.  People are starting to recognize some of these films earlier and spending their money elsewhere, but we still have a lot of work to do to get this category down to zero entries.
·         Justice League - This is a step up for DC in my book.  The franchise still has no direction or vision but at least Justice League didn’t want to make you strap cherry bombs to your Superman and Batman action figures.
·         Beauty and the Beast – The highest grossing film of the entire year was a movie that was an uninspired, nearly frame-for-frame remake of the animated, 1991 Disney film.  Don’t tell me people are sick of remakes.
·         Transformers: The Last Knight - Michael Bay keeps swearing that this is the last Transformers film, three films running now.  As long as each movie brings in more than half a billion dollars, it will never be the last.  But, when a film stoops to baby dinosaur transformers, it really, really should be the last.  For all our sakes.
·         Cars 3 - Disney is still getting mileage (pun intended) out of a franchise that is definitely 1-for-3 in the good movie department.  Even my five-year old was bored during this film and he’s been watching old Mickey Mouse cartoons on repeat.
·         The Mummy - As bad as this movie actually was, I didn’t slam it more because I’m curious where Universal is going to go with the so-called Dark Universe they are attempting to launch with this movie.  Plus, they essentially advertised this film as a money grab.  Considering this movie crashed and burned, I’m not sure I’ll ever find out where this universe is going.

We Decided We Weren’t Just in it for the Money
These movies are no less money grabs than the films you just read about, but they actually tried to provide some decent entertainment for your money.  A couple of them are even getting award talk, though I’m not sure that should be anything more technical awards.
·         Wonder Woman - This might be the most overrated film of the year.  Gal Gadot was great and it was nice watching a movie that wasn’t fully controlled by the Snyder machine, but it still had some terrible components equal to the shit spewed out in previous DCEU films.  But, Wonder Woman can save the franchise if they focus on making movies similar to the second act of Wonder Woman, which was several orders of magnitude better than anything in any other DCEU film.
·         Despicable Me 3 - I was very surprised that the fourth movie in the Despicable Me franchise managed to feel fresh.  It had a fun villain, a fun plot, fun jokes, and the minions still aren’t annoying as they totally should be by now.  Plus, my kid loved it so how bad could it really be?  Don’t answer that.
·         Murder on the Orient Express - A very good reimagining of a story that has been done multiple times.  Though, maybe I’m just cutting it a break because I had so much fun writing the review. 
·         Blade Runner 2049 - I still have no idea what I really think about this movie, but I recognize how well-made it was.  I will definitely watch it again to see what I missed, but that’s also the reason it’s not higher up on my list of films.
·         Alien: Covenant - After the Prometheus debacle, I was kind of hoping they would just start the franchise fresh somewhere else.  I was definitely guarded going into Alien: Covenant knowing it was a direct sequel.  My expectations were greatly exceeded when Covenant turned out to be more of a redo than a sequel and was also a good film.

The Letdowns
The second category where expectations are key.  This time around, I had high expectations (foolishly) and walked out of the theater (or away from my DVD player) grumbling.  It’s their own damn fault though, mostly by just being plain lazy on some fronts, especially story.
·         Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 - Marvel was way overdue for a stinker and it’s kind of obvious now that this film would be the source of that odor.  The first Guardians far exceeded predictions and the second one featured Baby Groot because Disney wanted to sell toys for the six months prior to the just-in-time-for-Christmas porgs of the The Last Jedi.  While entertaining, GotGv2 was doomed to be a disappointment, just not as much of one as it turned out to be.
·         Ghost in the Shell - I keep getting my hopes up for the next Scarlett Johansson action flick (that isn’t Marvel) and I keep getting disappointed.  Ghost in the Shell wasn’t nearly as idiotic as Lucy, but it was definitely more boring.  I almost fell asleep more than once during the film and that really shouldn’t happen during her action films.
·         Atomic Blonde - This movie was the toughest to categorize because I’m still not sure if I liked it or not.  Ultimately, I realized it was a Letdown because no film featuring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy should leave you questioning whether or not you liked it.
·         A Cure for Wellness - One of several movies this year that completely craps on itself in the final act after a good build-up prior to that.  This film literally rips its own face off and left me in awe in all the wrong ways.
·         Battle of the Sexes - Another movie that craps on itself in its second half, though not nearly in such an obvious way like A Cure for WellnessBattle of the Sexes suffered from trying to tell way too many stories in a single movie and crumbled under the weight of it all.  And if you are looking to see a little tennis played in the film, be prepared for a very little.
·         Life - Lather, rinse, repeat.  Like the previous two films in this category, Life features filmmakers who just gave up at some point during the film.  That reason alone is enough to make a movie a Letdown, but Life tried to distract us from noticing by throwing out a few novelty deaths.  It didn’t work.

A Waste of Time
At least ‘The Letdowns’ contained some entertainment value.  These films were all very boring, not the least bit entertaining, and lacked any plot beyond the initial premise.  They are the very definition of “two hours of your life you will never get back.”
·         A Ghost Story - This movie could be the new title of this category as it is literally 85 minutes of Casey Affleck in a sheet doing and saying nothing.
·         It Comes at Night - This one is here for two reasons.  One is because it has no payoff after an hour-plus of build-up and the other is because we never find out what comes at night.
·         War Machine - Also a Letdown, War Machine was a waste of time because its only redeeming value was watching Brad Pitt do a weird run.  This is also the best of the Netflix movies I watched, which shows how far Netflix has to go in terms of feature films.
·         The Lost City of Z - A movie about an explorer I’ve never heard of?  Who lived around the turn of the twentieth century?  Who went looking for a lost Amazonian city and never found it?  And the movie is two hours and twenty minutes long with almost zero action?
·         Good Time - If only the title delivered on its promise.  With basically zero plot, nonsensical characters, and an awful color palate, this movie was anything but a good time.
·         Going in Style - An unfunny remake of 1979 film, featuring two out of three main actors not known for comedy (Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine - there is definitely only one right answer here) and a plot that really, really isn’t funny.  If you were hoping for laughs and are under the age of one hundred, anything else is funnier.
·         Live by Night - I’m probably being a little harsh on a movie that has a couple of decent scenes, but gangster films are really not my genre.  The real issue with this movie is I completely forgot about it within a couple weeks of seeing it and had to re-read my review just to jog my memory.  It probably falls somewhere between meh and a waste of time, but I seem to have issues with movies containing the word “Night” in the title this year.

Not the Worst, But You Sure Tried Hard
There were a lot of really good movies this year and there were a lot of really bad movies this year.  Two of these will make you wonder what could possibly be worst, but I promise you there were definitely worse.    
·         King Arthur: Legend of the Sword - Come on Hollywood!  This movie didn’t tank at the box office because critics called a spade a spade, it tanked because it was a lousy film.  Plus, we’ve seen other Guy Ritchie movies, which made this mess of shit that much easier to label it for what it was.
·         CHiPs - This is a movie that postulates that the new, hot sex craze is people eating out each other’s butt holes and it postulates that with almost no humor.  First, gross.  Second, Amy Schumer definitely made it clear where fudge is made (in her music video for Milk, Milk, Lemonade).  Third, GROSSSSS!!  Fourth, that kind of humor perfectly captures 2017.
·         Baywatch - Not even The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) could pull a decent box office out of an unnecessarily expensive movie that was a bad idea before anyone even considered it as an idea.  If the filmmakers had known what the movie should have been, it would have been rated-R and filled with naked people.  In other words, shit or get off the pot.
·         Table 19 - We’ve all been invited to weddings we really didn’t want to go to, but attended anyways because of the social contract (we should really renegotiate that contract, by the way).  Table 19 should have been a caricature of a wedding reception, but instead was all too similar to every boring-ass, why-are-we-here reception at least two of our cousins have held.  If you can’t guess which cousins, it was probably your own.
·         The Only Living Boy in New York - This movie highlights why people like to hate New Yorkers.  Pretentious attitudes and believing they are the only people on the planet makes them worthy of disfiguring, infectious diseases.  Though, I still can’t figure out the kind of stupid it takes to bitch about the coastal elites while electing one of those very same fuckers President.
·         The Space Between Us - This film tries to make space cool to tweens and teens by including texting and meet-cutes across eighty million miles.  If our space program dies, this movie will have had a lot to do with it.

Pooping on the Silver Screen
And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for – the five worst movies of the year.  To be fair, the last two in this list are far worse than anything else I saw this year.  And I could easily have put any of the previous five into this category.  I just had a harder time thinking of positives for these so I stopped trying.
·         Death Note - I’m thinking maybe it’s time to stop trying to make regular, live-action movies out of manga.  Or let Marvel try to adapt it.  Either way, this movie was embarrassingly awful and not even in a fun way.
·         The Bad Batch - The weirdest thing about Netflix making bad movies is that they do a really good job with episodic series.  I haven’t watched their full slate of films from this season, but the three I did see ranged from wasting my time to wishing I could gauge my own eyes and eardrums out.  If you ever wanted to see how not to make a movie about cannibals in a wasteland featuring Keanu Reeves and Jason Mamoa, has Netflix got the, er, ‘film’ for you.
·         Fist Fight - Charlie Day is a hilarious human being, but this shitty movie beat the life out of him (seriously breaking my no bad pun rule) and every attempt made at comedy.  To paraphrase Ice Cube, fuck this movie.
·         The Snowman - I still can’t get over the main character’s name being Harry Hole and this film featuring zero sex.  Or intrigue.  Or drama.  Or coherent writing.  Or entertainment value of any kind.
·         Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - And thus we have the worst movie of 2017, a shit storm the likes of which visited Houston, Florida, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico this year, but more appalling because this movie was on purpose.  (Note: in all seriousness, donate to relief funds for any of the hurricane victims.  I did.)

Pooping on the Silver Screen: The Sequel
This is the bonus category for movies that were made as sheer money grabs, but were also terrible movies in general.  They are the shitty sequels that keep getting made because you won’t stop watching them.  I expanded my top five to a top six, so consider these three of the worst eight movies of the year.
·         Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales - This franchise has sunk so low it even managed to kill the few bits of remaining charm in Jack Sparrow.  It’s at least two movies past time to let the series sink to…nope, not even worth a bad pun.
·         Kingsman: The Golden Circle - Somebody really, really wanted to get a Kingsman sequel out fast to capitalize on the good will obtained by the first film.  Somebody also wrote a really, really pathetic screenplay that took that good will and flushed it down the toilet of a cheap Mexican restaurant’s bathroom.
·         John Wick: Chapter 2 - Chapter 1 was inane and shallow, but at least looked kind of cool and made you think it might be a decent prologue to an interesting story.  Chapter 2 proved Americans don’t read good.
·         The Fate of the Furious - If people are going to lose their minds over Rotten Tomatoes scores, they should be losing it over any Fast and Furious movie with a score over single digits.  These films are beyond dumb and should always be the rebuttal to the moron stating that people are sick of sequels.

In terms of movies, 2017 was no better or worse than 2016.  There were good movies, bad movies, mediocre movies, and documentaries.  DC took baby steps forward and Marvel finally laid an overdue egg.  There wasn’t a great science fiction movie, but Blade Runner 2049 sure gave it a shot.  2018 promises a bunch of movies to look forward to, good, bad, or otherwise.  Yes, there a more sequels, remakes, and franchise flicks coming and, unless you stop paying to see them, at least stop complaining about them.  There will be plenty of original fare as well, you probably just have to read past the main marquee at the theater to get to them.  Most of all, use Rotten Tomatoes the way it was intended by completely ignoring the score and reading some of the reviews beyond the one sentence nuggets in the reviews list.  Just remember that they are only opinions and you can simply choose to ignore them.  There is no need to comment or tweet out or hateful shit to people just because you disagree with them, no matter how presidential it might seem.  Wow, did 2017 suck.  Here’s hoping 2018 brings us a lot less of the same.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” – A trophy for trying.

I’m not sure there was any movie in 2017 for which I had lower expectations than Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  Well, maybe Justice League.  And Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  And Transformers: The Last Knight.  And Kong: Skull Island.  Ok, so there were many movies to be seriously pessimistic about this year and Jumanji was one of them.  I also assumed that Welcome to the Jungle was a remake of the 1995 original and I loved the original.  So, yeah – expectations, meet toilet water.

(Last SPOILER ALERT of the year.)

Five minutes into Welcome to the Jungle, I thought my expectations were going to be fulfilled.  The film literally picks up where the 1995 film left off - the game is half-buried in the sand on a beach somewhere and someone stumbles across it and picks it up.  This person gives the game to seventeen-year old Alex, who opens it, dismisses it with “who plays board games anymore,” sets it on a nearby shelf in his room, and goes back to playing an Atari-like console video game (the console being located on the other side of the room).  During the night, a green glow lights up his room and, the next morning, Alex finds the console and controllers stacked on top of the Jumanji box.  Thinking this is only mildly odd, he opens the Jumanji box and finds there is now a game cartridge for his console.  Without batting an eye at this bizarre occurrence, Alex stuffs the cartridge into the console and is sucked into the game.  Seriously?!  That is how the board game becomes a video game?  You didn’t even try.  Why have the kid open the box at all?  Or why not have him put it under the console himself?  It took me less time to come up with several ridiculously simple ways to fix this scene than it did to write this paragraph.

Things really didn’t get better over the next ten minutes as we jumped to 2017 and met the other four kids (all five kids are teenagers), but at least we got something rational.  For various reasons, nerdy-and-weak-Spencer (Alex Wolff), large-football-player-and-homework-cheat Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), hot-and-self-absorbed Bethany (Madison Iseman), and awkward-and-anti-social Martha (Morgan Turner) end up in detention together.  They are made to clean out an old storage area where they come across the old console, which inexplicably ended up in a high school.  Just…uuuuggghhghh.  They decide to play and are immediately sucked into the world of Jumanji where they are transformed into the characters they chose, which just happen to be the exact opposite of their real selves.  Spencer becomes Dwayne Johnson (hot and huge), Fridge becomes Kevin Hart (short and annoying), Bethany becomes Jack Black (Jack Black), and Martha becomes Karen Gillan (sizzling hot ninja).  Get it?  Uuuuuggggghhhgh.

They really recover from the bad start.

Then, something weird happened.  The film became enjoyable.  One of the things I love about the original is how nothing in the game is skipped over, including each turn.  The rules are followed until the end and everything happens for a reason.  Welcome to the Jungle pulls off the exact same feat, albeit with far less subtlety and cleverness, by showing us the entire game played out on screen.  Sure, there are apparently only three or four levels in this game and the threats they face are far fewer and include Mad Max motorcycle extras (don’t ask), but they never warp forward or cheat their way through the game.  Each player has three lines on their arm, denoting their number of lives within the game.  And we get to see how every one of them is lost.  Just like in the original, our new players must finish the game if they want to escape, though this time they have to actually accomplish something besides not dying (they have to put a MacGuffin in another MacGuffin).  The film even takes the time to define the strengths and weaknesses of each player and utilizes all those things through the course of the game.  I am stunned that the same writers (all six of them) that wrote such an atrocious opening scene also pulled the rest of this script out of their PlayStations.

It works because they can all see the box too.

I was also expecting really flat characters, based on such obvious jokes as their avatars being shoved down our throats, but I was wrong there too.  With the exception of Kevin Hart Kevin-Harting it up, Johnson, Black, and Gillan acted their butts off to do their best impressions of their younger counterparts doing impressions of themselves.  Even more impressive is they kept it up for the entire film (kudos to director Jake Kasdan on this as well), Jack Black really selling being a ditzy girl trapped in a hobo’s body.  Perhaps the best trick of the entire film was Black managing to make a couple dick jokes not come off like, well, dick jokes.  When Bethany has to pee, she asks the guys to explain to her how to use a penis and the result is genius.  Even an obvious boner gag came off as poignant.

She was never the cause of a boner joke and it would have been so easy.

As much as I ended up enjoying the movie, there were some glaring misses.  Nick Jonas (playing adult Alex) has a looooong way to go as an actor, but he wasn’t terrible.  The villain (Bobby Cannavale) was almost non-existent, as well as being exactly what you would expect in a crappy video game.  The tone of the film ditched anything even remotely frightening, which is one of the things that made the original so good.  They remembered to include a cut-scene at the beginning of their adventure in the game (which was brilliant), then forgot to do any more cut scenes.  Fridge had the backpack of weapons as a trait, but they rarely ever pulled anything out of the pack, which was a huge missed nod at what video game characters are able to carry in games.  And, as good a job as they did to close out the characters’ arcs and individual growth, they completely forgot to do the same with Fridge (who never learns his lesson about abusing his friendship with Spencer by having Spencer do all his homework for him).  And, again, Kevin Hart playing himself.  Again.

When we walked out of the theater to give our opinions, mine was “that was alright” (voice inflection rising through the sentence).  The agency rep asked “just alright?” to which I replied “yes, but said in the same tone as - ‘I thought it was going to be garbage’ (voice inflection rising through the sentence).”  And that is all I wanted from this movie.  A mindless two hours of silly entertainment that didn’t insult my intelligence.  That’s worth a trophy accomplishment in my book.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back (I’m as surprised as you).