Thursday, February 4, 2016

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” – She’s tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.

That’s right – I just quoted Jane Austen. Well, actually my wife quoted Jane Austen because she’s seen Pride and Prejudice approximately 174 times and I’ve seen it once. And, not the crappy Keira Knightley version, but the long, long, long, loooooong BBC version with Colin Firth. But, I have read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so when she said the line, I recognized it. Are you wondering if I have a point? Me too. I think it’s that I am familiar with 19th century English literature and not just an action movie junkie, but that could just be the zombies talking. Because what’s better than 19th century literature being invaded by zombies?

It’s been a few years since I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I remember laughing out loud during the first page. Looking back at it, the book opens with a statement about zombies wanting brains, then moves to a scene in which Mrs. Bennet is trying to discuss with her husband the business of marrying off their daughters while he is cleaning muskets and sharpening blades. It’s this juxtaposition throughout the entire book that makes it such a fantastic read. My only hope going into the movie was that they kept that dynamic and didn’t take the zombie part too seriously, lest they follow in the awful footsteps of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer.

Based on the trailers and the opening scene of the film, it looked like my fear would be realized. Rather than open the film with Ye Olde English and the Bennets, then interrupting them with a mild zombie attack, the movie opens with Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) identifying and slaying a zombie, followed by the opening credits overlaid with a narration of the current situation in England. Like I said, this film did not start off well.

(Mild SPOILERS to follow, but only the zombie kind.)

It then moved into that opening scene from the book and I started to relax just a little bit. The Bennets were delivering their familiar lines and scenes and the plot of Pride and Prejudice took over the film. Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) reopened Netherfield Park and, with Darcy at his side, threw a lavish party to celebrate. All of the Bennets attended, with Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) hoping to marry off Jane (Bella Heathcoate), Elizabeth (Lily James) noticing Mr. Darcy and being generally disgusted with him, the three younger sisters – Lydia, Mary, and Kitty (Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady, and Suki Waterhouse, respectively) – giggling at all the men, and Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance) grumbling that he is more worried about his daughters being Shaolin-trained warriors than being well-married.

What? I told you I’ve seen the original PBS film; I know their names.

The point at which I heaved a big sigh of relief came during said party when Elizabeth stomps outside and encounters a zombie, the former lady of Netherfield Park. She begins talking to Elizabeth (we’ll come back to this in a moment) and walking towards her when her head suddenly explodes. Of all the things I was expecting to happen in the next few seconds of that scene, exploding head was not one of them. As the rest of the theater let out a gasp and burst of laughter, I sat back and enjoyed the rest of the film as I had enjoyed the book.

Getting back to talking zombies, this was another aspect of the film that I was not prepared for. In the book, there are no talking zombies, nor are they a major part of the plot. They are just there wreaking havoc and forcing the English elite to practice martial arts in their dojos. For the movie to be a little more compelling in the plot department (I said I’ve seen the original movie, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t fall asleep at some point), they added some depth to the zombies. Some can talk and some can set traps and some can organize a zombie apocalypse to sweep through London. By the end of the film, this becomes the main plot, but not so much that it completely overpowers the love story between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. If they had done that, this movie would have ended up sucking.

While not perfect, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came about as close as it could to delivering the heart of its source material. It never takes itself too seriously and all of the actors are in on the joke (especially Lena Headey as the one-eyed Lady Catherine). Like Ms. Austen wrote in the book – “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” Or something like that.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, they did these zombies proud.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

“The 5th Wave” – Mars Attacks.

I have a soft spot for Young Adult dystopian/science fiction/fantasy novels. I’ve read most of those that have been adapted into movies, and I had every intention of reading The 5th Wave prior to its movie release. Alas, I’m not a young adult and things like kids, jobs, and wives (not necessarily in that order) tend to get into the way of some recreational activities. So, I went into the adaptation of The 5th Wave with no foreknowledge of what we were about to see. In hindsight, I wish I had read the book first because, if it’s an anything close to what we saw in the film, then my expectations would have been much lower.

The 5th Wave is a story about what would happen if really dumb aliens invaded the Earth. Don’t get me wrong – they still manage to kill a large portion of humanity, but their master plan leaves a lot to be desired. Our main character is Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz), a high-school student who has the responsibility of narrating some of the plot to us. When the aliens show up and start attacking the Earth, she describes the first three waves of attack because she doesn’t know we’re watching her in a movie and the screenwriters think we are blind moviegoers.

(This is the point where, if you are worried about SPOILERS, you should look away.)

The first wave is a global electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that ruins all electronics and stops all electricity on the planet. That’s a great start to a war considering how reliant we are on gadgets and electrons. +1 aliens. The second wave is global earthquakes that also cause tsunamis and mass flooding. Considering 70% of the world’s population lives on the coast, the aliens have got a massive head start and they haven’t even left their ship yet. Again, +1 aliens. The third wave is even more diabolical – they alter the bird flu to be wildly deadly and use the 300 billion birds on the planet to spread the disease. As great an idea as this sounds, you might wonder why they didn’t use this one first since their goal is eventually stated as wanting the Earth, but doing as little damage as possible to it. Using birds to spread the virus is also really inefficient because birds tend to stay away from humans, plus the second wave wiped out 70% of your potential carriers. Hmmm….maybe we shouldn’t think too hard about that. +1/2 aliens?

At this point in the story, most of humanity has been wiped out and the aliens just need to do some mopping up of the remaining pockets of people. Any decent conquerors would send out squads or something to hunt down these humans, but these aliens have a better idea. First, they activate sleeper agents, which apparently includes every human in the military. By now, young Cassie, her father (Ron Livingstone), and her brother Sammy (Zackary Arthur) have joined up with other refugees at a camp in the woods. This makes total sense because after fleeing population centers for fear of being a target, the next best idea is to regroup in large numbers in easily found places. But I digress.

Eventually, the military shows up, led by Colonel Vosch (Liev Schreiber). They tell the people that they are there to help and will be bussing the kids off to the local Air Force base, then returning to get the adults. None of the parents thinks it’s weird that not even mothers are taken with the children, but we already know they have bad survival instincts. During the evacuation, Cassie gets separated from her brother and misses the bus, then witnesses the aliens doing another dumb thing. They gather all of the parents into a meeting hall, don’t disarm them, then tell them that the fourth wave is that the aliens can possess humans and that any of them could be an alien in disguise. Predictably, the people panic and start shooting, yet somehow manage to kill just one alien. Even more strange is that the aliens would knowingly cause a panic while still in the same room with the people wielding guns. Whatever… -1 aliens.

We’re soon told that the fifth wave is the full on invasion by the aliens, but this is just a trick by the aliens to get kids to join the military. The military tell the kids that they have figured out how to identify possessed humans – Google Glass. No, seriously – they’ve attached a thing to a helmet that when looked through, makes a possessed human’s head glow green with a big red box around it. Yes, it looks as hokey as it sounds and it’s also bullshit. The thing doesn’t actually work and the kids don’t realize that they’re actually just shooting fellow humans. This is the best plan that an advanced alien race can come up with?? You have the power to manipulate viruses, pop off planetary EMPs, and initiate earthquakes…but let’s trick kids into shooting people! (*eye roll*) -10 aliens.

If all of this weren’t bad enough, there is a standard-issue romance subplot between Cassie and a possessed human named Evan (Alex Roe). I’m not even going to get into how pathetically shallow this story was, but for all you teenage girls out there, Evan gets naked in a river (and you could shred cheese on his abs), bangs one out with Cassie in the back of an abandoned SUV, and professes that he has chosen his human side over his alien side for love. That sounds you hear is me throwing up in my mouth a little bit.

In all fairness, if I were twelve, I probably would have liked the movie better. It’s entertaining in a brainless kind of way and, when I was twelve, I wouldn’t have noticed how completely stupid the aliens were with waves four and five of their plan (plus, by all appearances, they only brought one ship to conquer an entire planet). There is a really good chance that these aliens are just a group of drunk fraternity pledges winging this invasion as part of their initiation. Of course, even as a twelve year old, I would have noticed how much the terrible graphics reminded me of Mars Attacks! and that Mars Attacks! was a much more entertaining and clever movie. -25 aliens.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back, but your twelve-year old can do what she wants.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” – Not everything explodes.

“A filmmaking masterpiece” said nobody ever about a Michael Bay film. That was my immediate thought when I heard that quote coming from Mr. Movie Trailer Voice a few days ago. I scoffed at that quote and you’d scoff, too, once you remember that Michael Bay’s last five films (as director) are Transformers, Transformers, Transformers, Pain & Gain, and Transformers. Plus, when you actually watch the trailer for 13 Hours, it looks exactly like every Michael Bay film you’ve ever seen. After watching 13 Hours, I can tell you that Mr. Movie Trailer Voice was definitely hallucinating when he said “A filmmaking masterpiece,” but 13 Hours is a better movie than what we are used to getting from Bay.

(Side note: I am in the minority of people who think Bay is judged way too harshly. Like Quentin Tarantino, he makes a specific type of movie and delivers what people want. I won’t defend all of his movies, but several of them are very good movies and not just from a sheer entertainment standpoint. In related news, Tarantino is judged way too favorably.)

If you’ve been paying attention to politics over the last three years, you will have heard the name Benghazi because there are certain politicians and news outlets who refuse to believe that what happened on September 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya, was no more than just a major fuck up by the people responsible for the security of diplomatic outposts. They act as if there was some huge conspiracy headed up by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to get a bunch of Americans killed because…well, they’ve never actually come up with a good motivation for Clinton (or anybody) to do that. What’s good about this film is that Bay doesn’t go down the conspiracy road, but instead, sticks to telling us how the events unfolded with as little political commentary as possible. And, you know that was hard for Bay because, based on his previous films, I’m pretty sure he sleeps under an American flag blanket in a bed shaped like an F-22 and has a pin-up of John McCain’s war photo on the ceiling.

Even if you are sick of hearing about Benghazi, this movie is worth watching for the same reason I recommended movies like Selma and Bridge of Spies – it tells a story about history that you didn’t know. All that most people know of the event is that the outpost was attacked and American Ambassador John Christopher Stevens was killed by Libyan militants. The movie tells the story of six military contractors hired by the CIA to provide security for their secret compound near the American diplomatic outpost. Even better, the movie is based on a book co-written by those contractors (13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi by Mitchell Zuckoff), which explains why not everything in the entire movie explodes, as is normally typical of a Bay film. Instead, it sticks to the facts from the book as much as possible, though with plenty of Bay signatures in the film that leaves no doubt as to who is the man behind the camera.

The part of the story that you don’t know is that after the outpost was attacked, these six contractors (all former special forces soldiers) went to the outpost to rescue the ambassador and his party (spoiler alert: the ambassador doesn’t make it), then returned to the CIA compound to defend it from dozens of militants for several hours. Considering the CIA is part of this story, it’s safe to say that there is a lot of detail missing from the story. I’m guessing that nearly all of the CIA parts and roles were 95% dramatic license, but I’m also fairly comfortable believing we at least got the Cliff’s notes and accurate details regarding the firefights with the militants. Then again, maybe that’s what they want us to think.

What elevates this film above many of Bay’s other films is that it seemed like he was trying a little harder to make a movie that wasn’t just a series of BOOOOOMMMMs. While Bay relies on standard fallbacks to make us care about the characters (they won’t kill children, they only shoot when they are certain “those guys” are the bad guys, and they all have pictures of their families), he at least does that much when he could have just tattooed them with American flags and had them say stuff like “I do this because who else is gonna does this?” The casting was also well done as I had no trouble believing any of these guys were ex-soldiers or dickhead CIA chiefs (nice work, David Costabile). That goes especially for John Krasinski because it’s hard to see him as an ex-Navy SEAL AND as lovable ol’ Jim from The Office. That sentiment goes away roughly halfway through the movie when a shirtless Krasinksy walks out of his quarters, showing off abs that were so awesome my wife perked up – and she wasn’t even at the movie.

In short, if you are looking for a good, solid war drama dealing with a recent event, and you aren’t a film snob that hates Michael Bay movies on principle, 13 Hours will do you nicely. Or, if you are just looking for a non-idiotic Bay film with lots of action, shooting, car chases, and low-angle shots of people getting out of cars, you’ll still be happy watching 13 Hours. Just because he toned down the explosions (and there are still plenty of those) doesn’t mean he’ll give up those other things.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, because you can’t say that often after a Bay film.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

“The Revenant” – Ringing in the new year with…eww, gross.

Every year, on January 1st, people swap out their old calendars featuring cats doing silly things with new calendars featuring dogs making silly faces. People make resolutions promising to better their lives like losing some weight, building the courage to finally talk to the cute bank teller, or to clean out that furry green mess in the back of the refrigerator that’s actively eating its aluminum wrapping. It’s the time when people have the most hope during the year because they’ve spent the previous week opening presents, eating Christmas treats, and drinking themselves stupid in the hopes of seeing someone naked one last time before the Earth completes its annual orbit. Sure, that naked someone is likely to be them and how did he lose his pants, anyway? But the point is hope. So, what better way to start off the hopeful new year than to watch a bunch of people try to kill each other in a snowed-in cabin in The Hateful Eight? Then, follow that up the next weekend by watching Leonardo DiCaprio get mauled by a bear, then try to survive the 1820’s American West after being left for dead? I hope you have some Christmas cookies left.

(A couple of mild SPOILERS ahead. Have another cookie.)

The Revenant is the loosely-based-on-real-events film about a trapper named Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) doing just that – surviving a bear mauling and being left for dead by his fellow trappers. Not knowing anything about the real events, I looked them up and that is the part of the movie that is true. The major parts that are completely made up are the side stories about the Arikara (Native-American tribe) who attack Glass’ hunting party looking for the Arikara chief’s daughter, and fellow trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) murdering Glass’ son. So, when you read that this movie is original (as I did in a couple of early reviews), throw the bullshit flag. Then, pick it up and throw it again because, not only was this movie based upon a novel by Michael Punke (The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge), it’s not even the first movie about this exact historical event, as that would be 1971’s Man in the Wilderness. And, if your arm isn’t tired yet, chuck that flag at the next person to complain about the unoriginality of Hollywood while simultaneously praising this film.

But, that’s not really what this film is about. It’s really about director Alejandro Gonzàlez Iñarritu torturing his cast and crew by filming the entire movie in snow-filled locations, refusing to use any CGI besides the bear, because FILM©. According to production notes, many of the crew members either quit or were fired due to the difficult and freezing conditions. Of course, this couldn’t possibly be Iñarritu’s fault, stating “as a director, if I identify a violin that is out of tune, I have to take that from the orchestra.” Wow – that guy must be a hoot to work for. Apparently, it’s the violinist’s fault that the violin was “out of tune” and not that the violinist couldn’t tune the violin because of frostbite and hypothermia. But what’s a few fingers and toes lost when you can get that perfect lighting?

Besides the gorgeous scenery, the movie is also about getting DiCaprio that elusive Best Actor Oscar. Over the next few days, weeks, and months, you’re going to hear how spectacular his performance was as Glass. The grittiness of the performance, the desperation, the groaning, the spittle, the mucus – all of it adds up to a surefire Oscar nomination, if not the win. But, was is it really that hard? I mean, if you were freezing your ass off and your boss asked you to climb into a horse carcass, you’d look pissed and desperate and you’d have spit and mucus flying off your beard too. It’s not exactly a stretch to act that way when you literally are that way and you’d have murder in your eyes too if someone handed you a raw liver and said “eat this.” Yes, that all happens in this movie.

If you can look past the obvious FILM©-iness of this movie, it is rather good. Having just invented a new category in my year in movies review – The Squirmers, I’ve already got my first 2016 entry, as this movie will have you cringing during several scenes, none more so than the bear attack scene. I could have sworn that at least part of that scene was done with a real bear, but according to those production notes, that was all CGI. And speaking of which, they could have used a little more CGI or editing or something because every scene involving Glass’ floating dead wife looks really bad. In one scene, you could see the wires holding up her feet and they spent $135 million dollars to make this film. But, man that lighting was awesome.

The day of this screening, a friend of mine asked if I had to choose between The Revenant and The Hateful Eight, which one would I recommend? Now, having seen both, I can say without hesitation that I will never watch either of them again. The Revenant is a good movie, but it’s the kind of good where you have trouble sleeping that night because you’ve been camping before, and that’s where bears live. (If you’re wondering about The Hateful Eight, that movie is a straight-up B-movie that’s easily an hour too long and thirteen gallons of blood too wet. In other words, exactly what Quentin Tarantino fans want.) I’m sure the movie will get nominated for all kinds of stuff and I’m fine with that. Now, where is that last cookie?

Rating: Ask for a dollar back. It’s good, but it’s not “take my wallet” good.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

“My Year in Movies – 2015 Edition” – It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

The most common opinion of film critics is that they only give positive reviews of boring artsy movies and hate any movie with even a whiff of popcorn entertainment to it. For the most part, this opinion is correct – most film critics are exactly like that because they studied Film© at USC so they know what they are talking about and you are stupid. Over the last couple of years, I’ve expressed this opinion as well, using my Year in Review in particular to drive the point home. But, something strange has been happening this year – those same film snobs have collectively loved some movies that they would have hated just a couple of years ago. I’m sure I didn’t change their minds because I’m no John Oliver. Could it be that they finally listened to the collective masses and lightened up or is it a surreptitious attempt to silence us by pretending to like shitty movies? Or, have the critics just lost their damned minds after being pummeled with Star Wars: The Force Awakens for more than a year? Yeah, you’re right – fat chance on them having lightened up, so let’s investigate.

(For the purposes of rating, I’m using Rotten Tomatoes scores. For you Metacritic fans, the scores are similar. I’m also not going to link to any of the other critics’ reviews because you know how to work Google.)

It all began in 2013 with Gravity, a movie that wasn’t even the best space movie of the year, let alone a legitimate contender for best movie of the year. It garnered accolades because of the director (Alfonso Cuaron), a very long take opening the film, and despite having almost no plot, but I believe it was also picked as a convenient token movie for tricking science fiction and action movie fans into thinking the critics and academy actually liked it. Then, in 2014, came the atrocious Snowpiercer, released in zero theaters in the United States, but straight to streaming services instead. The critics had a collective orgasm – an unbelievable 95% positive rating – but I’m not sure they actually watched the film. Out of the dozens of people I talked to who watched it, only one person didn’t hate it with every fiber of their movie-watching souls. Like Gravity, Snowpiercer could be explained the same way – fawned over director (Joon-ho Bong) and token science fiction movie. It also features social commentary on class structures and climate change, which was like catnip to these film snobs, even though both were portrayed ham-fistedly. But, even with these two movies, my bullshit meter didn’t start alarming until later in the year.

If there is one movie review where I really didn’t hold back on bashing other critics, it’s of John Wick. Somehow, 85% of critics thought John Wick was a good movie and I’m pretty sure an angel died when that movie opened in theaters. My initial thought was that the critics loved the choreography so much they ignored everything else that happened in the movie, both narratively and technically, but plenty of movies with great choreography are lambasted by critics (hell, Keanu Reeves was in two of them himself – the two Matrix sequels). Then, I remembered Snowpiercer and Gravity and my radar started pinging like Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The first alarms of 2015 occurred in the spring and both were horror movies that debuted at film festivals in 2014. The first was It Follows, a movie about a sexually transmitted ghost that slowly walks after its intended victims, trying to kill them so that it can do the same to the person who had sex with the victim, and the person who had sex with that person, and so on. Seriously, that’s the premise of a movie that isn’t actually a late-night Cinemax porn, except porn has better writing. Not to get too far off track, but what happens to the ghost if it’s so successful that it gets to a point where the next person in the sex-string is dead? And what religious nutjob made a movie equating sex to a death sentence? Anyway, the 96% (that is not a typo) of critics who praised it said ridiculous things like:

“It's a testament to how scary a movie It Follows is that for days after watching it, you walk around thinking up survival plans - should you hide, stay on the move forever, pass the haunting on to someone else?” – Alison Willmore, Buzzfeed

“A good old-fashioned spooky tale that forces us to confront the inevitability of death and asks what we would do if we could see it coming.” – Mark H. Harris, About.com

“With a great handle of fear and paranoia, also with the awesome dark and blue photography, Mitchell creates an atmosphere so tense that you can feel the despair in his characters.” – Anaid Ramirez, Time Out Mexico

“Mitchell is much more interested in creating an atmosphere of absolute dread that builds and builds, until your nerves are rattled and shattered. And that uneasy sense of foreboding will linger long after you've exited the theater.” – Tim Holland, TV Guide’s Movie Guide

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a rare movie that scares me these days, but what the fuck are these critics talking about? It Follows was excruciatingly boring, not one character is developed beyond their full name, and just about every movie ever made is scarier than this film, including The Peanuts Movie.

But, the critics weren’t done. A couple of weeks later, the second horror film opened, the equally unfrightening Unfriended. While not nearly as high on the rating scale as It Follows, Unfriended still garnered an equally as unbelievable 61% positive rating (it was 79% when I wrote my review). In case you missed this piece of shit (and my review), you get to watch the entire movie through a MacBook (seriously) while an Internet ghost makes a bunch of kids chatting in a Skype session kill themselves (still serious). Patton Oswalt once joked about a movie that got made called Death Bed: The Bed That Eats and I feel like you could replace that with Unfriended, based on the idea that someone actually finished writing them and not ironically. Little did I know, this was just the tip of the iceberg.

(It’s also worth noting that Unfriended managed to pull in $62.9 million at the box office. Flabbergasted is the word you are looking for.)

In between those two ghastly horror movies, Furious 7 opened and everybody on the planet saw it except for me. But, I don’t need to see a movie that is seventh in an action franchise to know that an 81% approval rating is absurd. The death of Paul Walker had a lot to do with the box office receipts, but that doesn’t explain the critics love for an action franchise that can’t possibly be adding anything new outside of stunts. Michael Arbeiter of Bustle.com wrote a fun article pointing out that Furious 7 has a higher rating than twenty-five best picture Oscar winners (), but I will eat my shorts and yours if Furious 7 gets nominated for best picture. Much to my dismay, Furious 7 wasn’t the only two-hour exploding car chase that the critics fawned all over.

At the beginning of May, Mad Max: Fury Road opened, much to the delight of all twelve people who had been waiting thirty years for George Miller to revive the franchise (read: Miller and family). This began the bizarre pro-feminism take on popcorn flicks that followed no logical reasoning that I could identify. Critics praised it in Mad Max (even though the movie is bristling with penis imagery and male domination) and Jurassic World (even though the female lead is about as anti-feminist as possible), yet derided it in Terminator: Genisys (even though Sarah Connor is constantly leading the men, including her very own terminator). Fun fact – did you know that Miller’s last three directorial jobs were Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet Two? Do you really think Miller was writing about pro-feminism in Fury Road after going from making the Mad Max movies to animated pig and penguin movies? Besides the feminist angle, the critics also had a contest to see which of them could write the most brown-nosing sentence about the practical effects because they hate CGI with the fire of a thousand suns. I agree that the film was entertaining, but I’m not going to overlook the massive plot holes, weak character development, and nearly non-existent plot because Miller strapped a stuntman to a swinging pole attached to a moving car that was driving next to a guy chained to the top of truck, strumming a fire-spewing guitar. A 97% rating for a movie featuring that visual is crazier than that guy on the pole.

The parade of nonsense continued with the less entertaining Jurassic World. Like Furious 7, Jurassic World destroyed box office records and garnered a similar 71% rating. And, like Furious 7, I’m left to wonder what the hell was in the popcorn and sodas that those critics consumed during those movies? Jurassic World doesn’t have the dead actor, practical effects, or even anyone remotely putting forth a good acting performance to explain such a favorable rating. Plus, it wasn’t even original – they just slapped a coat of paint on the original Jurassic Park (the movie and the fictitious park) and resold us the same plot. Sure, they invented a mutant, hybrid, intelligent dinosaur, cast Star Lord (Chris Pratt), and turned raptors into pet soldiers, but with the exception of Pratt, those things made the movie far dumber than any of its predecessors.

So, then, how do we explain the abysmal 25% rating for Terminator: Genisys? Even San Andreas, a movie so stupid that seventeen geology professors’ quit their jobs to be rodeo clowns (unconfirmed), earned a 50% rating (seriously – FIFTY PERCENT). Unlike Mad Max and Jurassic World, Genisys at least tried to have a plot rather than distracting the viewer with two hours of car chase/dinosaur mayhem. Yes, Genisys is a flawed movie, but no more than Mad Max and Jurassic World. You’d think that if the critics had fun during those first two franchise reboots, they’d have fun at the other, but it’s clear that fun has nothing to do with it.

Rounding out the year are three more movies whose ratings do not make sense. On the way-too-low-ratings side is Concussion (60%), a fabulous movie in which Will Smith saves his career, playing the doctor that has essentially proved – with science – that playing football causes brain damage. In a normal movie critic year, this film would be rated in the high 80’s or 90’s, but 40% of critics must have played too much football in their lives because brain damage is the only reason I can think of for those 40%’s opinions. Then, we have Crimson Peak, another awful horror movie that was so uninspired that director/writer Guillermo del Toro didn’t even bother to add his signature creatures. In fact, it was so uninspired that del Toro insisted it wasn’t even a horror movie, but actually a gothic romance. Again, in a normal world, the critics would have crapped on this movie (rather than giving it a 69% approval) for that confusion alone (not to mention the lack of tension, drama, horror, and even romance), but we left the normal world back when the critics praised a movie in which Keanu Reeves kills everyone because Theon Greyjoy killed his dog.

But, the most jaw-dropping rating of any movie is the 63% for M. Night Shyamalan’s latest shitfest – The Visit. Again, the following are actual quotes from actual critics:

“With The Visit, Shyamalan has delivered a delicious horror gem so intense that you may accidentally rip the armrests off your seat from clenching them so hard.” – David Blaustein, ABC News Radio

“It triumphantly reinvents the genre, in a way that allows Shyamalan to combine suspense with witty running commentary on the art of filmmaking itself.” Jake Wilson, Sydney Morning Herald

The Visit not only marks Shyamalan's return to form, but it's also one of the best found footage horror movies of all time.” – Mark H. Harris, About.com

“An unoriginal faux-doc horror picture that actually works like a demonic charm.” – David Edelstein, New York Magazine/Vulture

I’m not complaining that the critics seem to have heard my message of “stop being such film snobs,” but the movies they are choosing are either still for film snob reasons or are just plain bad movies. The Visit exemplifies this statement, it being arguably the worst movie of the year and definitely being as bad as Shyamalan’s other poorly reviewed films. The only thing that makes sense about The Visit’s rating is that the critics are so desperately hoping for Shyamalan to pull another Sixth Sense out of his ass that they missed the part where The Visit simply fell out of his ass (for those of you who haven’t seen it, there are two scenes literally featuring human poop, neither of which is funny or scary).

So, what have we learned? Well, horror movies seemed to have hit a soft spot with the critics this year, even causing them to ignore the awful found-footage plot device/film technique, which ceased being worthwhile after The Blair Witch Project. Action movies also caught a break – as long as they were at least the fourth in a franchise or made by Disney/Marvel and didn’t feature a terminator. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy to trick us because if it was, they would have liked Terminator: Genisys, Hitman: Agent 47 (8%), Fifty Shades of Grey (25%), and Fantastic Four (10%) much more than they did.

Maybe the critics just got drunk before a lot of movies and wrote about them before they sobered up. Maybe they got confused by the orders from their overlords on which movies to pander to. Maybe this is just a weird glitch in the matrix. Maybe there is no conclusion to be drawn and I’m the crazy one. But there is one thing I know for sure – The Force Awakens was well worth the wait. Even the critics agreed on that one. Well, at least 94% did.

My Top 5
Of the sixty movies I saw this year, these are the top five in my book, though this year was much, much tougher than the previous couple of years to pick a top five, as there were plenty of movies I could easily swap in.
The Martian – Like Interstellar last year, 2015’s best movie is a science fiction flick about an astronaut trying to get home. Matt Damon crushed his role and the movie struck a perfect balance between serious drama, entertainment, and comedy.
Selma – If I was going to swap out any of my top five it would be Selma for Bridge of Spies. Both movies are excellent historical flicks, but I decided Selma wins because it resonated at a more personal level.
Ex Machina – A movie that came out of nowhere, Ex Machina is a stroke of genius. It reminded me a lot of Moon – small cast, tight story, science fiction, and killer psychology. Between this and Star Wars, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson had a great year (as did Alicia Vikander).
Ant-Man – Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man seemed like a huge risk, but turned out to be just as fun. Anyone who is not looking forward to 2016’s Doctor Strange is dead inside.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Did anyone have more pressure than J.J. Abrams to make a good movie? After knocking this one out of the park (and resurrecting Star Trek), Abrams will be playing with house money for the rest of his life. If I was the head of DC Entertainment and Warner Brothers, I’d do whatever it takes to convince him to fix the broken DC Comics movies (does anything look as shaky as the upcoming Batman v Superman)?

The Squirmers
These three movies were extremely good, but I felt I needed a separate category for them. All three of them are intense movies about real life issues that make you more uncomfortable than Donald Trump at a Taco Bell (he thinks they’re all illegal Mexicans).
Concussion – The movie the NFL doesn’t want you to see because they don’t care if your kids get brain damage. Plus, Will Smith redeems himself with a movie worth watching.
No Escape – Easily the most tense movie in years and easily more frightening than every horror movie this year.
99 Homes – I knew Andrew Garfield could act, he just needed something with better writing and more emotion than the two most recent Spider-Man misfires, which featured neither emotion nor good writing.

You Almost Made It
Not everybody can win and my top five were just more entertaining (or poignant, like Selma) than these five. But every one of these is well worth your time.
In the Heart of the Sea – While it could have used a little more action, a new generation will be able to experience Moby Dick, but without the dated language. And, who knows – maybe it will inspire them to actually read Moby Dick.
Bridge of Spies – This year featured quite a few movies that decided to teach us things about history that our history classes dodged. Bridge of Spies was excellent and, like Selma, should be required viewing in our high schools.
The Night Before – I never thought I would laugh so hard at a movie featuring Seth Rogen, but I was in stitches through much of this film. Bravo, sir. Bravo.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - This movie was going to be missed because (a) it was an August release, (b) it’s based on a TV series from the 1960’s, and (c) everyone decided to watch Straight Out of Compton instead. That’s too bad because it’s a fun James Bond-ish spy flick, but with more humor, and Henry Cavill making you forget he’s Superman.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 – It’s been a good run for you, Young Adult films, but with The Hunger Games coming to a close (and a very, very good close), it’s time to pack it in. Don’t Brett Favre this – go out on top and leave those other, lesser series alone (he said, knowing full well he’s looking forward to The 5th Wave).

Surprisingly Decent
This is the first of two categories where expectations play a big part in my opinion of the film. I had low or guarded expectations going into them and was pleasantly surprised at the end. This includes an unnecessary remake and another Melissa McCarthy ahem…comedy.
Run All Night – I wonder how many more action flicks Liam Neeson has left in him? While he will most likely never make something as good as Taken, it’s fun to watch him try (unless we’re talking about Taken sequels).
Entourage – This movie got crushed by the critics, but I don’t understand why. The previews made it look like a complete waste of time, but it had plenty of good moments and a decent story to match.
Project Almanac – It’s a pretty decent movie until about halfway through, when it becomes an extremely intriguing movie. If you liked Chronicle, you will love Project Almanac.
Spy – Melissa McCarthy and Will Ferrell are similar for me in that I find neither of them funny in nearly every movie they make. The only time I can tolerate them is when they are playing roles straight instead of as over-the-top or idiotic characters. Hence why I was pleasantly surprised by this film. Of course, it helped to have much better actors in Jude Law, Rose Byrne, and Jason Statham to shoulder much of the load.
Poltergeist – Maybe it’s because I love Sam Rockwell, but I thought this remake was very well done, considering what it had to live up to. But, yes, it was still unnecessary.

Movies for Me
Make fun of me all you want for these films; I won’t even argue with you. In fact, I could make very strong cases against all of them, but they are films that I like for no defensible reason. This is how you know I’m not a film snob.
Tomorrowland – Was it a smidge heavy-handed? Sure. Was George Clooney playing George Clooney? Of course. Was it light and fun and the very definition of a popcorn flick? Absolutely.
Pixels – Admit it, if it starred anyone besides Adam Sandler, you would have liked it a whole lot more?
Terminator: Genisys – I have no idea why people hate every Terminator movie released since T2, but I suspect it’s because T2 was so good. These same people have also hated every Alien movie since Aliens (also the second in the franchise) for the same reason, even though at least one of those was a solid flick. Anybody out there? Hello? Is this mic on?
Hitman: Agent 47 – What? I’m not allowed to like bad movies?
Vacation – Way too many people went into this movie with their minds already made up to hate it. Too bad for them.
Kingsman: The Secret Service – The last movie I saw that went from interesting to bat-shit crazy was From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. The difference between that and Kingsman is that when Kingsman loses its mind (about two thirds through), I still wanted to watch the rest of it. But seriously though – bat-shit cra-azy.

Meh…
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.
American Sniper – This movie was also a letdown for me, but it was far more meh and definitely overrated. Bradley Cooper was awesome, but this movie was a mess in the plot department. Plus, it’s a little hard to praise a movie where the main character is both bragging and lying about some of his deeds.
Black Sea – It delivers on tension, but is extremely forgettable. Of course, it’s hard to forget something that you don’t watch ($1.2 million total box office).
Pawn Sacrifice – The one historical movie this year that failed to teach us anything compelling or new. But, is it really surprising that a movie about chess was just meh (and I like chess)?
Everest – Really good visuals weren’t enough to make up for a lackluster plot, but it was a valiant effort. That the movie featured a very academic retelling of the story of the disastrous 1996 expedition is why this movie didn't land higher on my list.
Maggie – If you are expecting a movie featuring zombies and Arnold Schwarzenegger wielding an axe to be loaded with action and mayhem, be prepared to be disappointed. It’s actually a quiet little movie where Arnold and family must cope with his daughter (Abigail Breslin) slowly turning into a zombie. Even knowing that, the first half is way too slow, but the second half picks it up enough to be intriguing.
Mortdecai – I know what you are thinking – seriously!!?? Yes, seriously. Mortdecai isn’t nearly as bad as the snooty main stream critics said it was. Make no mistake, it's not very good, but it wasn't intended to be. If you enjoy Johnny Depp or hacky movies, it's worth a Redbox rental.

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, and included some elements that bordered on absurd, even for them. Oh yeah, and all of them are very obviously there for the sole purpose of generating large amounts of cash with no risk attached.
Mad Max: Fury Road – I’ve already beat up on this movie enough, but it’s worth repeating that that this is, hands down, the most overrated movie of the year. Do me a favor and just enjoy it for the spectacle and quit trying to give it credit for things that simply weren’t there.
Jurassic World – After watching this movie, I never imagined it would make half the box office it did, but it’s further proof that people don’t actually want Hollywood to create new stuff, they just want to complain about it.
San Andreas – Even more shocking than Jurassic World’s box office take (third highest all time) was that of Furious 7 (fifth highest all time). Even more shocking is that San Andreas pulled in nearly half a billion. We should all be shocked that Dwayne Johnson can be so bad at acting yet still draw those kinds of numbers, especially in obvious garbage like San Andreas. Also, I just used the word shocked three times while talking about an earthquake movie and you didn’t even bat an eye.
The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials – I will never understand why studios purchase book rights, then proceed to make movies that have almost nothing in common with said books. On that note, I can’t wait until the fake adaption of the final book in the trilogy (you’re right – I really can).
Insurgent – If you thought Divergent was boring, Insurgent was more of the same until the last few minutes, even though there was much more action. I’d like to tell you the books are much better with regards to plot (and not being boring), but then I would just be lying.

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 try to provide some decent entertainment for your money. And, if Mad Max: Fury Road had even a semblance of a coherent plot, I would have put it here.
Avengers: Age of Ultron – I’m sure I’m not the only who thinks James Spader is under-utilized. It’s pretty impressive that Robert Downey Jr. had the second smarmiest character in a movie. Keep ‘em coming Marvel.
Spectre – Dear Daniel Craig – I know you said you are done with James Bond, but my wife sees so few movies these days and she really, really likes you as James Bond. For both our sakes, please, one more.
Goosebumps – The kid in me put this movie here, rather than the previous category. Take it up with him if you disagree.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – Like Liam Neeson, only younger, Tom Cruise continues to be a very reliable and believable action star. Plus, the MI franchise is getting better with age, now on it’s fifth, and arguably, best 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.
Blackhat – This movie disappointed me in being much better with the hacking aspect than I expected, then further disappointed me by failing to include much action.
Chappie – I really hope Neill Blomkamp isn’t a one-hit wonder, but he sure seems to be on the same path as M. Night Shyamalan – a phenomenal debut followed by two decent, but definitely lesser films. Here’s hoping Blomkamp’s next film isn’t comparable to The Village.
Self/less – It’s a good thing Ryan Reynolds is getting a second chance as Deadpool because he desperately needs it after another disappointing movie.
The Gallows – It’s time to retire the found footage style of movie making. Even when it’s done in a believable way (which is rare), it never convinces the viewer of any kind of authenticity. It’s just a cheap gimmick for equally cheap movies. In related news, The Gallows was as worthless as a film as its gimmicky film style.
Sicario – Definitely overrated, but not nearly as absurdly as the other movies I discussed above. I had very high hopes due to Emily Blunt’s involvement, but the film made her character only slightly more important than a prop. Booooo!!

A Waste of Time
At least ‘The Letdowns’ contained some entertainment quality. 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.”
Love the Coopers – No you won’t and no I didn’t.
The Lazarus Effect – A poor man’s Flatliners, but with the blandest of plots possible.
Crimson Peak – If there’s one thing we expect from Guillermo del Toro it’s creepy creatures or giant fighting robots. This movie had neither while managing to completely waste Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. But there was a crimson peak at least.
The Gift – Talk about a complete waste of time. Billed as a psychological thriller, The Gift delivers exactly no thrills. Joel Edgerton writes, directs, and stars in this dull revenge story that seems to have been made solely as an anti-bullying ad in which it’s okay to destroy someone’s family and cause a child to grow up without a father. Nice.
Focus – What is wrong with Will Smith? He’s on a run of meh to cover-your-eyes awful movies. This one was just below meh. The problem wasn’t Smith (he was good), but the movie never lets the audience in on the secret. So, when stuff happens, you just have to accept it – kind of like Smith’s declining career. (Note: I wrote this well before I screened Concussion, but Smith still needs another win in my book.)

Not the Worst, But You Sure Tried Hard
These movies weren’t quite as bad as my bottom five, but that’s only because my bottom five were complete and utter shit.
Fifty Shades of Grey – The least porniest porn ever made, but Mystery Science Theater 3000-ing it was fun.
Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse – Okay, so I actually enjoyed this movie, but it was so bad that I would never watch it again and that’s why it’s here instead of Movies for Me.
The Gunman – Sean Penn deserves nearly all of the blame for this wretched excuse for an action flick, both starring in and writing it (at least part of it). As an action star, I’d give him another chance. As a writer, I’d snap all of his pencils.
Jupiter Ascending – If the Wachowskis hadn’t made such a beautiful movie in Cloud Atlas, I wouldn’t have been so amazed at how terrible Jupiter Ascending was. Now the only question is if any studio will ever pony up more than validated parking when the Wachowskis pitch their next screenplay.
Seventh Son - I have no idea why Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore felt the need to do this movie, but it couldn't have been worth it. If you enjoy fantasy and have no standards, you probably still won't like it. Definitely not worth your time or money.

Pooping on the Silver Screen
And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for – the five worst movies of the year. As an added bonus, the movie that took home my worst overall film of 2015 award did so by emulating the film that inspired the title of this category (Bridesmaids) – by featuring a scene with poop (or two, in this case).
The Boy Next Door – Jennifer Lopez managed to deliver the worst sex scene in a film in the same year that Fifty Shades of Grey came out. Her parents must be so proud.
Unfriended – I didn’t think there existed a worse filming technique than found-footage, but then I watched Unfriended. Watching an entire movie through Skype and chat windows on a teenager’s laptop is what Dante did immediately before writing Inferno.
Fantastic Four – Easily the biggest surprise of the year. It’s not so surprising that the movie wasn’t good, but that it was orders of magnitude worse than the decidedly not good 2005’s The Fantastic Four. It was literally the opposite of fantastic.
The Visit – Without a doubt, the worst movie of the year. Normally, I won’t argue with people about liking bad movies, but this movie has no redeeming quality for it to even qualify as entertaining. There are people that will defend it as intentionally bad and really a comedy, but those people also defend the Star Wars prequels and Donald Trump. We would all be better off if none of these things existed.
It Follows – What a waste of time. Easily the most critically overrated movie since Snowpiercer and nearly as shitty. When the premise of an R-rated movie is a sexual transmitted ghost, you’d think there would be at least one sex scene with naked people (there wasn’t). Also, what’s scary about a ghost that walks very slowly toward its victim? You know that ghost gets made fun of at meetings by every other horror movie ghost/murderer.

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. While not nearly as awful as my worst five list, they are the shitty sequels that keep getting made because you won’t stop watching them. Seriously, stop it, because if you don’t, they never will.
The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death – I had no idea that The Woman in Black pulled in $128.5 million back in 2012, but at least that explains why a sequel was made. However, without Daniel Radcliffe to buoy the box office, Angel of Death came and went without anyone saying “I’m glad they made a lousy sequel to that lousy movie.”
Taken 3 – Are we done with this yet? This third go-round in the franchise didn’t even bother to actually ‘take’ someone. In fact, the only thing actually taken was the plot of The Bourne Supremacy. Well, that and your time and money.

With a record breaking year at the box office, 2015 is officially over and is far more memorable than 2014. As always, this year I’m hoping that the writers will try a little harder and the main-stream critics will be a little less snobby (and I will give them credit – they did seem to enjoy more fluffy popcorn flicks than usual this year). I’m hoping Batman v Superman is better than its previews indicate. Same goes for Star Trek Beyond. I’m hoping Independence Day: Resurgence is a figment of my imagination. But, mostly, I’m hoping to have as much fun in 2016 as I did in 2015. Now, it’s time to see The Force Awakens again.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – Reviving the past.

By far, the question I get asked the most is “what do you think the best movie of the year is?” I like this question because it allows me to rant a little about how the main stream critics would never say a movie like Star Wars is the best movie of the year. Now that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has released in theaters, that question has changed to “do you think the new Star Wars is the best movie of the year?” As much as I loved the movie, and considering how I now believe J.J. Abrams can do no wrong, I can say without hesitation that main stream critics are pretty much dead inside. However, The Force Awakens is NOT the best movie of the year – that would be The Martian. However again, The Force Awakens is definitely top three (if you are wondering what the third is, you’ll just have to wait until my Year in Review is posted in a couple weeks).

A much more difficult and interesting question to answer was posed by a friend of mine a couple of days ago – “is The Force Awakens the best Star Wars movie?” I can’t think of a more loaded question than that. And the answer, depending on who is asking, might cause diplomatic relations to deteriorate to the point of someone jabbing you in the neck with a homemade light saber. I’d say we could start by tossing the three prequels out immediately, but even that argument has become vociferous in recent months. Seriously, there are people out there actually defending those films as really good movies and not doing it ironically or sarcastically. Those people are also dead wrong – the three prequels are garbage, and no amount of rewriting history in their heads is going to change that.

In the broader argument of which Star Wars film is the best, The Empire Strikes Back is the most often picked movie, but not by me. As a kid, I watched all three originals dozens of times and Empire was my least favorite. It doesn’t have enough action, it has the creepy cave scene with Luke and Darth Vader, and it has the kind of ending that a kid doesn’t like. A New Hope is similar in that much of the beginning part of the movie is slow and the trash compactor scene was scary. Return of the Jedi was my favorite because, you guessed it, action, action, and more action (side note: even I never really liked the Ewoks and always thought that dropping rocks on a storm trooper’s head and knocking them out was tough to believe). Yes, the rancor was frightening and the pit of Sarlacc was a thing of nightmares, but the battle on Jabba’s pleasure barge was awesome and the climactic battle where three different battles were happening simultaneously never got old. And, to answer your new questions – no, I did not have to look up any of those references and, no, I do not own a storm trooper cookie jar.

For me to answer the question of best Star Wars movie, I have to compare The Force Awakens to Return of the Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back. Why not A New Hope? I’m glad you asked. The Force Awakens is almost a remake of A New Hope, which is also the reason I don’t think it’s the best movie of 2015. Now, if you have not seen The Force Awakens yet and you don’t even want tiny SPOILERS, stop reading now. I’ve already told you I loved this movie and I’m even considering seeing it again and paying the 3-D surcharge (and you know how I feel about 3-D), so you know what my rating is going to be. Last warning – very mild SPOILERS imminent.

The Force Awakens and A New Hope both feature a young hero living on a desert planning who is strong with the Force. They both have a resistance/rebellion fighting against an evil empire, now called the First Order. They both have a droid containing secret information that everyone is trying to get their hands on. They both feature a super weapon capable of destroying a planet with a giant laser (this time the weapon is the size of an entire planet). They both feature the resistance leaders looking at a hologram of the super weapon and determining that the best way to destroy it is to disable its shields and fire at a specific weak point on the globe. They both feature a villain draped in black, wearing a respirator, and speaking with a modulated voice. They both feature a secondary villain who is the military leader of the evil empire and doesn’t really answer to the other villain. The point is that Abrams was most likely creatively restricted by his Disney overlords to ensure that a repeat of The Phantom Menace did not happen. Again, I was wildly entertained by The Force Awakens, but it was impossible not to notice the volume of plot elements lifted from A New Hope. But, what makes The Force Awakens better than A New Hope is that our hero, Rey (Daisy Ridley), is not whiny like Luke was, there is an almost perfect balance between the comedic relief and seriousness, the visuals are phenomenal (like I said, I’m strongly considering attending a 3-D showing), and of course, plenty of action.

Getting back to the question of if The Force Awakens is the best, it never asks you to believe that a bunch of primitive fur balls hurling rocks and sticks can defeat a heavily armored infantry wielding laser guns and walking tanks like Return of the Jedi. Considering the quantity of action is roughly equal, Jedi is out. As for Empire, thinking about it beyond its level of action (which there is plenty, just not as much as Jedi), could the plot distinguish the two? The plot of The Force Awakens is essentially – “Where’s Luke?” There’s a bigger story in the works – new rebellion, new empire, who is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), what’s going on with the new Republic, why is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wearing a mask if he doesn’t need to, to name a few – but the movie itself is really about finding Luke. The plot of Empire is essentially – “Learn to be a Jedi, Luke.” Yes, there is the bigger story of rebellion versus empire and Han Solo and gang being chased by the empire for almost the entire movie, but all of that is just setup for Luke to return as a Jedi.

Characters, maybe? The Force Awakens introduces a bunch of new characters, all of which are well-fleshed-out or intriguing enough for us to wait for more in the upcoming sequels. We’ve already mentioned Rey, Kylo Ren, and Snoke, but there’s also everyone’s new favorite droid BB-8, storm trooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega), and X-wing pilot extraordinaire Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). They also bring back the old gang, though nobody besides Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) do more than scowl or utter more than a couple of lines. Considering Empire was a sequel, they too brought back the old gang, but also added Lando Calrissian, the Emperor, and, of course, Boba Fett. Wow – this is harder than I thought it was going to be.

I can’t tell you more without giving away spoilers that would make you want to maim me, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that The Force Awakens is as good as The Empire Strikes Back. Either answer is defensible, and both should be embraced by both my generation and the younger generation. But, regardless of which movie you think is better, we can all agree on one thing – thanking J.J. Abrams for resurrecting Star Wars in film and making us remember why we loved the originals so much.

Rating: All this movie needed to be worth every penny was to be better than the prequels. It’s worth many times that.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

“Concussion” – Scientific evidence backing up what we already knew. (Or: DUH.)

If you are an American and own a television, you are well aware of the concussion issue dominating NFL conversations for the past couple of years. If you are a non-brain-damaged human older than nine years old (perhaps even younger), you don’t need a forensic pathologist to convince you that banging your head into other people’s heads hundreds and thousands of times is probably going to cause brain damage. But, we live in a country where a large portion of people believe that seven billion of us wandering the Earth have no impact on the climate (we do), another portion of people believe vaccines cause autism (they don’t), and still other people believe Channing Tatum is a good actor, so sometimes the smarter people among us have to spell things out. Without further ado, I present Dr. Bennett Omalu, the man who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or as some of us like to call it: Duh.

Concussion is the story of Dr. Omalu (played by Will Smith) discovering CTE by examining the brains of deceased football players, then fighting with the NFL to bring that discovery to light. Unsurprisingly, the NFL knew about the effects of concussions for years, but lied about it to its players in order to continue making as much money as possible and avoid the backlash, inevitable lawsuits, and players quitting. You see, the NFL isn’t stupid – its leaders and owners also know that brain damage can occur when two large muscular men smash into each other head first over and over and over again. Like Dr. Omalu says in the film at one point, “It’s common sense.” (This line comes in response to the question “how do you know there will be more cases like Mike Webster” – Webster being the patient yielding the discovery.)

Before you make a judgement about my opinion of football and the NFL, let me tell you about the movie. Will Smith was awesome as Dr. Omalu. Smith is one of those actors that is so big that it’s very difficult to separate him from the role he’s playing. When asked about his performance in any given movie, more often than not you’d say he was playing Will Smith. The next best example I can give you of this phenomenon is Tom Cruise. In other words, every role they play comes off as the same character. But, not this time around for Smith. He did such a good job of getting into character that you forget that he’s Will Smith. Dr. Omalu himself commented (and I’m paraphrasing) “it was like Smith borrowed my soul.” There is no praise higher than that, and Smith earned it.

But Smith wasn’t the only one delivering an Oscar-shattering performance. Albert Brooks (playing Dr. Cyril Wecht, mentor and boss to Dr. Omalu) was fantastic, delivering much of the very necessary comedic relief that keeps the movie from being more depressing than a baby’s funeral. Then there’s Alec Baldwin, who plays Dr. Julian Bailes (former team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers), delivering us a character with an internal struggle between loving a game that goes against his instincts as a doctor. The facial expressions alone throughout the film are worth the price of admission. Rounding it out are the men who portrayed the real-life players – led by David Morse as Mike Webster – who suffered from CTE and eventually killed themselves. You will cringe upon learning about Mr. Webster’s last few months on Earth, and Morse brings it to life in full, horrifying, living color.

Besides the characters, the movie’s pacing is near perfect as it moves us along with Dr. Omalu’s progress over the course of a decade or so. Spliced throughout the movie is archived footage of some of the worst hits and falls captured during football games and this footage is exceptionally effective at hammering home the point Dr. Omalu is trying to make. It forces you to face the fact that football is a much more violent and destructive activity than some of us would like to admit. While Dr. Omalu has stated that he isn’t out to destroy football with this research, Peter Landesman (writer/director) has created a movie that, at the very least, leans in that direction by painting the NFL, as an organization, as the villain in this movie. I may not agree that football should die, but the NFL deserves every bit of criticism (and then some) for their behavior regarding concussions and Dr. Omalu’s research.

(Side note: as I write this, there is a news story about the NFL pulling research funding on concussions because they don’t like the man leading the effort, even though they promised the funding would have no strings attached. Again, they deserve the criticism.)

Personally, I’m on Dr. Omalu’s side when it comes to the fate of the NFL. Like him, I think the real point here is to tell the players the truth so they can make informed decisions. Many a comment board on the concussion story is filled with people saying that players make millions of dollars and know what they are getting into, so we shouldn’t feel sorry for them. The problem is that, according to many, many sources, the players didn’t know because the NFL commissioned bullshit studies (the movie briefly covers this as well) claiming concussions had no long-term effects on the brain. The movie does a great job of explaining the actual science around concussions in terms that anyone can understand, as well as comparing the NFL’s actions to that of how tobacco companies acted similarly back in the 1990’s.

But the real problem those commenters ignore are the millions and millions of people who play football, but don’t make it to the NFL to cash in. I have a three-year old boy who loves to play “football” (he gets in a crouch, then runs at me full speed, chucking a Nerf ball at me at point-blank range). After watching the film, my wife – who already doesn’t want him to play football – said she doesn’t even want him to play “football” in the living room. Aside from the trolls who say this is nothing more than the pussification of America (you know – the ‘real men’), who can blame her? I certainly don’t, because I agree with her – I don’t want him to play football when he is older either; there are plenty of other sports he can play to learn the same positive attributes that people ascribe to football. And, Dr. Omalu agrees too, stating that he believes children under the age of eighteen should not be allowed to play tackle football, but can decide when they are of age. To me, that is perfectly logical and reasonable. The chances of my son making it to the NFL are so slim that the risk just isn’t worth it. And this movie really slams home the likely consequences that these players face after their careers are over, even if they do make it.

Personally, my problem is with me being a fan of football. I have been a Denver Broncos fan my entire life and still watch and enjoy the games. But, how do I reconcile not allowing my son to play football while watching the games as a fan? You’re right – I don’t know either, but I’m going to have to explain it to him at some point. Plus, after learning about how the NFL has acted with this topic (and still seeing how two-faced they are about player safety), I simply can’t enjoy the games like I used to. Maybe you feel differently (especially those people who are so affected by their team’s performance that they will skip work the next day), but this movie is so well done and so poignant that only heartless, callous Neanderthals can dismiss is it as “more liberal political correctness that is making this country soft.”

As I said, I’m not against people playing football and this movie hasn’t changed my opinion on that. I’m even of the opinion that football has put too much emphasis on player safety – it’s a violent game and pretending that it can be made safe so as to assuage fans from feeling guilty for enjoying it is bullshit. If the players know the full truth of the consequences of playing football, than we don’t need to feel guilty because we are now assured that they really do know what they are getting into rather than their employer “assuring” their safety. And that’s the real message of this movie – spreading the truth.

Rating: Do not ask for any money back because you are not a brain-damaged human.