Friday, July 15, 2016

“Ghostbusters (2016)” – A perfect shit storm.

To quote Mrs. White from Clue, “I hated it sooo much, it, it, it…flames, flames, flames, on the side of my face, breathing, breathle…heaving breaths.” It’s very possible that I overreacted to the Ghostbusters remake/reboot, but that quote accurately portrays my initial feelings of the Ghostbusters remake. In fact, if I didn’t feel an obligation as part of the press to finish the movie, I would have walked out of the theater, which I have yet to do in my lifetime. My friend even commented that he could feel the hate emanating from me as the movie wore on. To be fair to the movie, I didn’t want to leave solely because the film was a wretched piece of crap (I’ve seen plenty of films like that and never left), but also because the majority of the audience was gleefully eating it up like a dog sometimes does its own feces. So, unlike every reviewer I’ve read so far (even Richard Roeper, the one critic who trashed this movie), I’m not going to hold anything back. You’ve been warned (and, yes, that means SPOILERS galore).

My friend and my wife both think I hated the movie in no small part because I wanted to hate the movie prior to even seeing it. After stewing on it for a day, I think there is a lot of truth in that, though not the part about hating it. It’s true that I went into the movie with expectations so low you’d have to dig a hole to find them and it’s also true that I wanted this movie to suck purely because remaking all-time classics is offensive to my movie-going soul (you’re next Ben-Hur) and Ghostbusters is most definitely a classic. But, I didn’t go into the movie wanting to hate it – not even I am that spiteful. It’s also true that I find Melissa McCarthy to be the least funniest human on the planet and this planet features people like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I find her comedic timing terrible, her voice and delivery more irritating than what the offspring of Gilbert Gottfried and Fran Drescher would sound like, and her one note shtick of always playing a dickish character tiresome. On top of all of that, Sony gave us arguably the worst movie trailer ever released, one that depicts a movie appearing to have all the intelligence of a wombat. So...yeah, this movie had a mountain of work to do to please me. Is that unfair? Maybe. But, with the exception of not being a Ghostbusters movie, Spy had all of the same elements (plus three really good actors not named Melissa McCarthy), even the same director/writer (Paul Feig), and I had the same level of bottom-scraping expectations for it as Ghostbusters. Yet, I found Spy to be surprisingly decent, so at least you know I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong. Ghostbusters just isn’t one of those times when I'm wrong.

I was wrong about you too. You were good in The Martian.

You should know that I went into the movie pre-annoyed due to miserable traffic causing us to be late to the screening. We walked in just as the opening sequence was ending and sat down as the title splashed across the screen. This did not put me into a forgiving kind of mood. The next scene introduces us to Dr. Gilbert (Kristin Wiig) finishing up teaching a physics class when a man comes in to ask her for help with a ghost problem. He asks her if she is the same person as the author of a ghost book and we spend the next minute or so cringing at her denying being the co-author, until finally giving up and admitting it. This is not funny, especially when the joke serves the extra purpose of making the requester feel stupid. This is the kind of humor I can’t stand because it’s lazy, unfunny, and drags on for far too long. Don Kaye of Den of Geek sums it up perfectly in his review – “The improv may seem funny on the set, but on film it just meanders until someone finally decides to shut the camera off.” Making it worse is that, throughout the film, the script calls for them to explain many of the jokes, even though every joke is mind-numbingly obvious (hell, most of the jokes are slapstick, sight gags). Imagine going to a Gallagher show where he does nothing but smash watermelons for sixty-five minutes, then explains to you why it’s funny. No it’s not, Gallagher.

While we’re on the subject of comedy, even in my growing hatred I laughed at a couple of lines in the movie, though all were complete throw-aways that had nothing to do with the plot or premise of the movie. Chris Hemsworth, playing the impossibly stupid, but hunky secretary (he covers his eyes in “pain” due to loud sounds and removed the lenses from his glasses so he can scratch his eyes – neither of which was funny) delivers such gems as “an aquarium is just a submarine for fish” (I laughed because it completely random and delivered perfectly) and appears to be the only one having fun on the set. Many reviewers accuse him of being terrible, but his character was terribly written and useless, so the fact he was having fun is a +1 in my book. Wiig even yanked a laugh out of me the one time her dry wit was used properly – when being shown the firehouse (gratuitous cameo alert), the realtor says the rent is $21000 a month and Wiig immediately responds with “burn in hell.” But overall, the comedy was just bad and it’s most likely because, as noted during interviews with the cast and director, Feig and the cast substitute well-written, smart, thought-out comedy with riffing and improv. Kate McKinnon (playing ghostbuster Jillian Holtzman) is the worst offender of this, randomly and constantly doing weird things for no reason besides she can (at one point dancing with propane torches for the amusement of Gilbert), mugging for the camera and delivering her lines with a bizarre speech pattern that’s as off-putting as Samuel Jackson’s lisp in Kingsmen. Holtzman is a walking photobomb rather than a fleshed out character and the movie suffers badly for it.

(If anyone was being over-hyped in this film it was McKinnon. Not having watched Saturday Night Live in years, I had no idea who she was, nor Leslie Jones for that matter, so I had zero pre-conceived opinion of either of them. Jones was fine at least.)

Anyway, getting back to the story, Gilbert confronts high school pal Abby Yates (McCarthy) about the book being available, that she doesn’t want to be associated with the paranormal, but ends up getting roped into investigating the ghost problem because the movie needs her to. From Feig’s own mouth, this scene was a recreation of the original’s library scene to pay tribute and apparently by tribute he means puke on. Literally. This is the first example of dozens of scenes ripped off from the original movie (do not believe any reviewers that claim this movie isn’t a remake) none of which are even remotely clever. Remember how Venkman tries to talk to the library ghost and keeps getting shushed, then the ghost freaks out at him because he won’t be quiet? That’s good writing – actions that happen for a reason. This time around, Gilbert introduces herself to the ghost and the ghost responds by puking on her (incidentally, this scene in the trailer is how I knew this movie was made for the lowest common denominator). That’s called bad writing – actions that happen because you have to use up the fuel truck’s work of Gak you bought from Nickelodeon. Like the bad comedy, things happen throughout the entire movie for no reason other than “eh, why the fuck not?”

I think the shrimp was bad. Bluuhh.

Okay, so let me back up for a second here. When we first meet Yates, she’s rude and bitchy to Gilbert and doesn’t give a shit about Gilbert’s life, including Gilbert getting fired after the ghost encounter, all because Gilbert had the audacity to pursue a different study. How the hell are we supposed to sympathize with Yates? What’s annoying is how easy it is to fix that – rather than make her an asshole right off the bat, make her at most nonchalant and at best excited at the chance to prove her work to Gilbert. Is there a reason why Yates can’t be earnest besides McCarthy’s extremely limited range as an actor? Anyway, the three of them decide to continue the research (Holtzman is Yates’ partner), but get booted from Yates’ college because the movie had gone more than thirty seconds without an homage (and including another horridly unfunny scene where the dean flips them the bird several different ways because improv!). After the afore mentioned firehouse scene, the three end up renting the floor above a Chinese restaurant, hiring secretary Kevin (Hemsworth), and meeting Patty Tolan (Jones) who tells them about a subway ghost. Patty insists on being part of the team and the gang agrees because fuck plot and character development. They go investigate the subway tunnel ghost and we see them test out the proton packs for the first time.

Er...science and stuff.

By this time, you should be wondering what the hell this movie is about and why do they want to be Ghostbusters? Well, they don’t. They just want to catch a ghost to prove ghosts exist. While doing this, they discover that someone is purposely letting ghosts out, but not before the next rip-off, er…homage scene. A dragon ghost is loose at a rock concert and the venue manager calls them to…tell them about it, I think? You see, they’ve been posting fliers around asking people to call them with ghost sightings (after an excruciatingly unfunny gag where the flier uses the same phrase for if you suspect a terrorist). Nothing about catching and removing ghosts, just let them know. Again, this happens because *jazz hands – homage*, not because it makes any sense. It’s also a terribly rendered and executed scene with no subtlety whatsoever. In other words, the exact opposite of the “we came, we saw, we kicked its ass” hotel sequence from the original that it fails to mimic. But this flaming sack of dog shit has to keep burning, so on we go.

After catching the ghost, the first human cameo shows up in Bill Murray as a naysaying talking head on Fox news (yes, it’s actually Fox news in the movie). This might have been okay had it been restricted to just a quick blurb on TV, but Murray then shows up at their door demanding to see the ghost. To make matters worse, Murray is playing the part with open disdain that is far more directed at this movie’s existence than within the character’s role. On one hand, I’m proud of him for sabotaging the movie, but I’m also disappointed in him for caving in and doing it all. And, yes, the ignorant audience was howling in laughter and applause during his screen time, not realizing that Murray was dying inside.

Speaking of cameos, every cameo causes what little momentum exists to grind to a halt so the studio can congratulate itself on bringing the old gang back together while fallating the superfans in the audience with the most embarrassing and gratuitous display of fan service ever included in a film. I’m not just talking about actor cameos; I’m talking about Mr. Stay Puft, Slimer, Slimer’s wife (WTF?!), the fire house, jumpsuits, and catch phrases. The point of a cameo, especially in this movie, is to acknowledge the original by subtly nodding to the original. Annie Potts gets the only worthy cameo, playing an irritated hotel desk clerk – that is clever. The rest? Not so much. Murray’s was abysmal, as already described, Stay Puft is a possessed Macy’s Day parade balloon that is front and center in an attack in the climax, the jumpsuits are provided by Patti’s uncle’s funeral home (huh?) who, unsurprisingly, is Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver shows up in an end credits scene (redefining the term “shoehorning in”), but nothing is worse than Akyroyd appearing as a cab driver and, when Gilbert pleads with him to take them to Chinatown to fight ghosts, he says “I don’t drive this late night, I don’t go to Chinatown, and I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.” Do you hear that sound? That was your childhood getting kicked in the taint.

Here’s where the movie starts to get really bad. Homeland security agents show up at their door and take them to see the mayor (Andy Garcia, who should be ashamed of himself) because, and I’m quoting here, “we’ve been monitoring this situation for quite some time.” You have? You’ve been monitoring three ghost hunters based on their three YouTube posts (boy do I wish I was making that up)? Are you seriously suggesting that in a movie where “report terrorism” fliers are specifically called out that Homeland Security would give any kind of shit about ghosts? Are my eyes bleeding right now?

At this point, the movie goes from awful to GGGGEECHHHHHH! The team discovers the location of the villain's hideout by, and I’m still not making this up, Gilbert marking locations of ghost sightings on a map (the epiphany comes when Patti calls out the intersection of 6th and 26th, among several others, but that intersection literally means nothing to any of us), drawing a big X (you know, as opposed to a star, or square, or cross), then blabbering about lay lines, something that wasn’t even hinted at until that very moment. Look, I know I sometimes have lofty standards, but holy shit! Did it not occur to anyone to just have them discuss lay lines in the lab at any point earlier in the movie? McCarthy does nothing for almost the entire movie except test a proton pack and trip over the pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo she was forced to recite (even my friend acknowledged that she was noticeably struggling to deliver some of those lines); they couldn’t give her one little research project in which to yammer about lay lines? I’d call this movie lazy, but that would be an insult to slackers everywhere. Incidentally, this is where I was ready to walk out of the theater. Instead, I chose to sit through the remainder of a movie that was trying to prove that there’s no limit to “reached a new low.”

Speaking of yammering, let’s finish this thing. Here is how the rest of the movie plays out. They confront the villain, Rowan (Neil Casey), and we’re told that his motivation for wanting to murder the entire human race with ghosts is that he was bullied (just kill me). The ghost of Rowan possesses Yates, then Kevin, because the original movie also had two possessions (please kill me?) and Feig wasn’t going to not include an Exorcist head-spin reference (of all the bad acting in this movie, McCarthy’s possession was pathetic). They go to the hotel that is the epicenter of the lay lines (is there anyone out there who still thinks this isn’t a remake?) where ghost Rowan has frozen a company of soldiers and cops into a Saturday Night Fever disco dance pose (kill me, please?). Rowan transforms into an animated Ghostbusters logo (I couldn’t believe it either), then grows into a giant, dirty, sock-version of the logo-ghost and starts punching buildings. The ghostbusters fight an army of ghosts pouring out of a blue whirlpool, trick Slimer into driving Ecto-1 (their car and, yes, that Slimer) into the pool because the car has a nuclear reactor on it (the Deus Ex Machina, which is latin for Paul Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell for writing this), the pool changes from a ghost spewer to a ghost sucker, and I fantasized about punching every person in the audience who was still sucking on this shit popsicle and roaring in ecstasy. Oh, and they defeat Rowan by shooting him in the dick, even acknowledging that they shot him there. Seriously, a movie in which a months-long narrative of accusing people of sexism if they dared to dislike the movie solves its main conflict in the most sexist way possible.

Aim low ladies.

(Side note: now that the sexism thing is out in the open, I have a couple questions based on swapping the genders of all the major characters, but changing nothing else. One – how up in arms would the feminists be with the secretary being incredibly stupid and incredibly hot, as well as defeating the villain by shooting her in the boobs? Two – how many critics would be giving it the negative reviews it deserves – just on technical merits alone – because they wouldn’t be afraid of being labelled as sexist?)

On top of all of that, there are other bad technical issues with the movie. First and foremost are the cartoonish special effects. Between the completely benign and unscary ghosts, the blue, green, and pink color palate, and the copious amounts of neon green slime, there is no way to defend this movie as keeping to the spirit of the original – at least in the original you believe the ghosts could be real. Second is the lack of anything scary and any reviewer claiming this movie has anything even remotely scary is stunningly full of shit. The original had the dogs, the bursting eggs, the tense hotel and library scenes, and the hands bursting through Dana Barrett’s chair and dragging her to the dog in the kitchen. The new one has possessed balloons and a dance sequence. When you throw in the bad dialogue, non-existent character development, crappy music that does not fit the movie, an uninspired and lackluster plot, ill-conceived and lazy (and sometimes embarrassing) cameos, and comedy that doesn’t play off the movie’s plot or premise beyond sliming, you get a shitty movie.

Does this look scary to you?

The worst thing about this movie is that it would be really easy to make a good Ghostbusters movie, regardless of the gender of the leads. Off the top of my head, make it a sequel (as was claimed by the long-standing rumors in which the old garde mentors a new team), make parts of it scary, write it for adults also, cast better actors (basically, anybody not associated with SNL), and ditch all of the dumb cameos and scene retreads. To top it all off, the movie even acknowledges that it’s terrible – at the end of the film, the four women are looking out over the city and one of them says “see, that wasn’t so terrible.” Yes, it fucking was.

So, what do you think? Did I overreact? Did I provide enough evidence of how bad this movie was? I feel like I did because I‘ve spent more than three thousand words describing in detail everything that was wrong with this putrid excuse for a movie. And, for those of you who don’t think it’s fair to compare this movie with the original, of course it’s fair. They shouldn’t have called it Ghostbusters if they didn’t want the comparison. That, combined with everything else, makes this a perfect shit storm of cinema.

Rating: Just, no. This movie isn’t even the kind of bad that’s fun to go see as a joke. Also, fuck this movie – I told you I wasn’t going to hold back.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

“The Infiltrator” – Tension and Diane Kruger.

If you are aware that The Infiltrator is a movie that exists, then you must watch a lot of television, are Bryan Cranston’s biggest fan, or you really like movie trailers. Also, you aren’t playing Pokemon Go because those people aren’t even aware that I’m standing right behind them making faces. I found about The Infiltrator a couple of weeks ago and when I saw that the screening was the day before the Ghostbusters reboot, I decided to see it if for no other reason than being the complete opposite of Ghostbusters. Also, I like Diane Kruger (who stars alongside Cranston).

The Infiltrator is a story related to Pablo Escobar, a man that I know the following things about: he was a drug lord…? That’s it, and it’s a question because I wasn’t even sure of the accuracy of that one piece of knowledge. As it turns out, Escobar was a Colombian drug lord whose cartel operated during the 1970’s and 1980’s, with Escobar being hunted down and killed in 1993. That’s not a spoiler for the film because the film isn’t actually about Escobar. The film features a U.S. Customs agent named Robert Mazur (Cranston) who goes undercover as a money launderer to infiltrate Escobar’s network and take out some, if not all, of the cartels infrastructure and power figures. (SPOILER ALERT – the following sentence reveals the fate of Mazur – END SPOILER ALERT) The film is based on the autobiography of Mazur (Mazur is also an executive producer), who, surprisingly, still has a functioning heart and brain and body parts. I have no idea how that’s possible considering the people that were arrested should be out of prison by now and they don’t seem the forgiving type.

So, that’s the movie and I’d say it’s pretty good, but not great. The obvious strength of this movie is in the cast, all of whom were nothing short of brilliant (kudos to director Brad Furman for maximizing the talent). Cranston was as good as we’ve come to expect now that Walter White is safely in the upper echelon of fictitious characters. His Mazur is a perfect balance of a guy who is confident and very good at his job, but also seemingly out of his depth at times throughout the operation. His relationships with his partner, Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), wife Ev (Juliet Aubrey), boss Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan), fake fiancée and fellow agent Kathy Ertz (Kruger), and Escobar’s right hand man Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) form the meat of this film and each is developed and executed with precision and care. If you have any trouble believing these relationships, then you are the most cynical person in the theater and I’m in the theater.

As good as Cranston is, Kruger and Leguizamo steal the scenes they are in. As Mazur’s pretend fiancée, Kathy must play the part of rich socialite and convince all of these dangerous people that she is no kind of threat. This is also her first undercover job, which makes Mazur more anxious because he is a bit of a control freak, but she performs flawlessly. So flawlessly, in fact, that her guilt at being asked to betray Alcaino and his wife Gloria (Elena Anaya), is palpable. On the flip side, Leguizamo is convincing the low-level thugs that he is also a low-level thug. At one point, Mazur asks why Abreu does this job and Abreu is clear that he does it for fun. And, clearly, he is enjoying the job. But, even he has limits and you will see it on his face at times. If there’s a downside it’s that Leguizamo and Kruger could have used more screen time, though I’m not sure this particular screenplay could have supported that. Either way, bravo to those two.

There's a theft in progress.

The one thing that keeps this movie from being great is that the story is a little dry and it doesn’t delve into Escobar at all. This also serves to confuse the audience (or maybe just me) a little as Alcaino appears to be the top of the cartel. Even though they tell you his name, there was a small portion of the movie where I wondered if he was actually Escobar. It doesn’t help that the entire plot revolves around the money laundering and not the drugs, so people are naturally going to be a little bored. People do crazy things on drugs, but short of swimming in a building filled with cash, people just hold or look at money.

Even with a finance-based story, there is a very good buildup of tension throughout the film. As I mentioned, the actors do a great job of portraying different emotions and fear is prominent among them. Not knowing this story at all really helps because you have no idea who is going to make it through this operation, (SPOILER ALERT – see previous spoiler alert – END SPOILER ALERT) title character notwithstanding, and you will want the good guys to make it. Too many movies display a complete lack of ability to build tension, so finding a good one like The Infiltrator is enough to forgive any small shortcomings.

We missed you Ben.

Generally, I tend to like movies that teach me something interesting about history. In this case, I learned about operation C-Chase (which is the plot of the movie), that Customs has undercover agents (for most of the movie I wondered why this wasn’t a DEA operation), that Benjamin Bratt is still a working actor (and still good at it), and that Olympia Dukakis (playing Mazur’s aunt) is still a living human (she’s 85!!). Most importantly, I learned I want to see Kruger and Leguizamo in more movies. They’re really good.

Rating: Ask for fifty cents back. That’s how close it was to being great.

Friday, July 1, 2016

“The Legend of Tarzan” – Dueling jungle flicks.

Let’s play a little game I like to call “Bwaaaa?” In this episode, we will be looking at a couple of critics’ responses to two movies that are similar in far too many ways, but at least have different plots – The Jungle Book (JB) and The Legend of Tarzan (LT). In other words, they should have roughly the same ratings, all things considered. It’s a simple game – I say stuff and you try not to say bwaaaa or smack your forehead. Here we go. First, we’ll level set the movies.

• Both movies center on a male human raised by jungle animals.
• Both movies are heavily reliant on CGI animals and CGI jungle.
• Both movies are based on stories written more than 100 years ago (JB – 1894; LT – 1919).
• Both movies were released within three months of each other this year.

Now, here are the current ratings scores for the two films.

• Rotten Tomatoes – 95% for JB; 30% for LT.
• Metacritic – 77% for JB; 41% for LT.

I expect you’ve uttered at least one bwaaaa to this point, but now the real fun begins. Let’s start with Peter Howell of the Toronto Star, beginning with the review titles.

JB – “The Jungle Book more than just bare necessities.”
LT – “The Legend of Tarzan retells old tale, but why?”

Right away, you can see that Mr. Howell has a massive double standard or was drunk when he wrote those titles. JB unabashedly retells its original story (or at least the animated movie’s story) with very minor tweaks, but Mr. Howell chooses to ignore that for JB. And, he doubles down in the opening of each review.

JB – “The laws of nature and animals are much discussed in Disney’s remake of The Jungle Book, but only one rule really applies: Don’t screw it up. Happily, the spirit of the beloved 1967 animated classic survives and even thrives as live-action drama, directed by Iron Man’s Jon Favreau.”

LT – “It’s possible, even likely, that more effort was expended on sculpting Alexander Skarsgard’s abs for The Legend of Tarzan than on providing good reason why the movie was made.”

Why does this happen? Why excuse one movie, but not the other? Well, maybe he at least acknowledges they both have great CGI.

JB – “Photo-realistic animals replace familiar cartoon characters with the fidelity you’d expect from a National Geographic special.”

LT – “Magnificent abs they are: a sculpted six-pack that could bounce not just a gold coin but an entire bag of them. They’re also among the few things that actually look real, in a film so larded with CGI, little appears to have any weight or substance within the hazy grey-green digital foliage.”

That looks totally real.

Are you kidding me? Other than a slightly different color palate (green-gray versus gray-green) and talking animals, they have the same quality of CGI, especially the animals. Ok, last chance – he has to at least agree that both feature well-worn stories that should elicit virtually no reaction other than noting them, right?

JB – “The story nods to the familiar with its coming-of-age tale of loin-clothed Mowgli leaving the wolf pack and striking out on his own.”

LT – “In telling for the umpteenth time the Edgar Rice Burroughs yarn of a noble Englishman raised by apes in “savage” Africa,”

Alright, enough. I’ve read some hack pieces before, but Mr. Howell has put together some really shitty reviews (and I’m using the word “reviews” very loosely) that are clearly biased for no reason he’s willing to explain, especially considering he spent a grand total of eleven sentences discussing LT and twelve sentences on JB. That’s barely enough space to summarize a movie (which is essentially what he’s doing), let alone give an honest and informative review.

Let’s move on to our other contestant, Richard Roeper (yes, that Richard Roeper). To be fair, Mr. Roeper rates LT as adequate and entertaining, but still goes way over the top with JB on certain aspects that are no better than LT. Case in point, the CGI:

JB – “…but thanks to director Jon Favreau’s visionary guidance and some of the most impressive blends of live-action and CGI we’ve yet seen, “The Jungle Book” is a beautifully rendered, visually arresting take…Every drop of rain, every cracking tree branch, every swaying tree and (most impressively) every jungle creature in the film looks amazingly real”

LT – “Which brings us to perhaps the most serious drawback of the film: the jungle creatures. They’re all CGI, and far too many times, they look VERY CGI. Some of the apes have more animated facial expressions than mid-1990s Jim Carrey, while ostriches, the aforementioned lions, hippos and other creatures look great from a distance but not so believable when the humans are “interacting” with them.”

Maybe he missed the part with the giant orangutan (King Louie) that easily looked as CGI as anything LT had to offer. Or the gigantic snake (Ka). Or when Mowgli runs into the butt of an animal at the watering hole. I’m sorry, but you don’t get to complain about the facial expressions on apes or interactions of lions with a human in one fantasy movie, but then be okay with a singing, dancing bear emoting like a human (watch the honey scene again) in another fantasy movie. How’s your forehead now?

That looks totally fake.

I could go on, but I don’t want you to give yourself a concussion. So, here’s my take.

Many of the critics seem to be hung up on the fact that LT includes little sidebars on several societal topics (slavery, exploitation of Africa, greed), convincing themselves that the story is muddled and can’t decide what it wants to be, even though the story couldn’t be more straightforward – bad guys want to exploit a region and its people so as to get filthy rich and good guys want to stop them. Toss in classic tropes ‘damsel in distress,’ ‘reluctant hero,’ and ‘plucky sidekick’ and we’ve got ourselves a standard adventure movie, complete with a mustachioed villain who kills people the same way as Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4. All of those side topics are exactly that – side topics, so of course they aren’t fully fleshed out. This isn’t that kind of movie nor should it be.

Performance-wise, I don’t think they could have cast any better. Alexander Skarsgard (Tarzan), Margot Robbie (Jane), Christoph Waltz (evil villain), and Samuel L. Jackson (plucky sidekick) are all good in their respective roles. Skarsgard is believable as an incredibly-cut, raised by apes, jungle man who just wants to save his wife. Robbie gives us a Jane who isn’t just a helpless damsel in distress, defiant to her captors and sometimes to Tarzan, and a person we care enough about that we want her to be saved. Waltz delivers a villain who is two parts slime and two parts cunning – a villain we want to see trampled by wildebeasts as much as we want to see Jane rescued. And, Jackson delivers some much needed comic relief as only he can – blending Nick Fury’s dry wit with Jules Winnfield’s serious wit to keep this movie from plunging into a morass of brooding and chest thumping.

To be fair, LT does have some issues, but they are minor. The scenes where Tarzan is swinging through the jungle feel a little over the top, as Tarzan is whipping around as fast as Spider-Man (at one point, we are told a train they are swinging to is moving at 40 miles an hour). I also didn’t buy the villain’s suggested infatuation with Jane as his reason for hanging on to her even after she served her purpose (he has zero ties to her, not even a newspaper clipping he might have had of her since she was quasi-famous). I’m not excusing those little things, but they weren’t enough to torpedo the movie for me. One thing I did like was how well they intertwined Tarzan’s origin story into the film (through flashbacks) without making it the focal point of the narrative.

Eye candy for all.

Looking back at my review of JB, I had no issues with the plot of the movie or some of the technical elements. My issue was that it was almost a straight remake of the cartoon, but lacked a lot of the charm of that cartoon. What makes LT a more recommendable film is that previous incarnations of Tarzan have been silly and are completely unwatchable in 2016 and LT is a very adequate movie. Conversely, the JB cartoon is still very watchable and the 2016 live-action JB has a worse ending. It also helps that LT is much more obviously aimed at adults (and Skarsgard and Robbie are absurdly gorgeous humans if all you want is eye candy) because I am an adult. But when it comes down to comparing these two movies, do not let the aggregate ratings sites fool you – The Legend of Tarzan is easily as entertaining as The Jungle Book and neither is telling you a story you haven’t already seen many times over.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back and remember to put some ice on that.

Friday, June 24, 2016

“Free State of Jones” – I love history.

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

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

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

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

(Here’s a good place to start with your own research – http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-free-state-jones-180958111/?no-ist)

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

(Getting off soapbox now.)

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 17, 2016

“Central Intelligence” – Is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 10, 2016

“Warcraft” – #Ifyousayso.

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

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

(Also, SPOILERS.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Ask for four dollars back. #wereallnerds

Friday, May 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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