Saturday, February 18, 2017

“The Great Wall” – Resetting expectations.


I’m not sure how, but I managed to avoid trailers for The Great Wall until the night before the screening. I wasn’t even trying to avoid them, I just hadn’t seen any for this particular movie. Prior to seeing that trailer, I thought The Great Wall was a historical fiction in the vein of Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai. Yes, I can hear you laughing. When I saw those weird dragon-y looking monsters in the trailer, my immediate reaction was nothing. My brain just froze for a few moments because there’s no way it saw what it just saw. Was that really Matt Damon in a medieval monster movie? Oh Matt.

The good news is that I reset my expectations by negative one million prior to watching The Great Wall, which allowed me to enjoy it quite thoroughly. Yes, I can hear you laughing. I’m not saying it was a good movie and I would never defend it if you told me it was terrible. I’m just saying I enjoyed a February popcorn flick because I had the appropriate expectations going in. Though, I do wonder what my reaction would have been had I not seen that trailer. There’s a chance I would have hated it, but I don’t think so. I probably would have just been incredulous for a while, then had that epiphany moment of “ooooohhhhh. Oh ok. Got it.”

As an added bonus, the 3-D projector got out of sync about thirty seconds into the film and almost blinded the audience. Trust me, you don’t want to see how bright the green and pink are when the projector goes on the fritz. I thought this was a bad omen at the time, but turned out to be the worst thing about a movie featuring monsters with eyeballs in their shoulders.

Somewhere, Guillermo del Toro is smiling.

While you clean up that drink you just spit-taked all over, here’s a summary of this movie’s, um, plot. Every sixty years, a horde of monsters attempts to breach the Great Wall of China to get to China’s capital so they can eat all the people there. This fight has been going on for hundreds of years and the Chinese have developed a multitude of defenses, including color-coding their army by job, developing gunpowder (or black powder, as the movie refers to it), installing massive scissors in the middle of the wall, and convincing the fairer sex to bungee jump off of giant outcroppings into the monster hordes with nothing but a spear and a hope that the monsters don’t time their jumps properly or jump in quantities of more than one.

Meanwhile, William (Damon) and his pal Pero (Pedro Pascal) are searching for black powder in order to take some back to Europe to sell and get rich. After being chased by Mongols and killing a monster, they end up at the wall and are taken prisoner by the Chinese Army. When the Chinese guard can’t find the key to open a prison cell, they take William and Pero to the top of the wall and put them in timeout (no, I did not make any of that up). The monsters attack, Willem Dafoe shows up, and William and Pero save the day. I guess all the Chinese really needed was Archery Jason Bourne.

The rest of the movie is a series of monster attacks and nifty Chinese counter-measures, with a pinch of Pero and Sir Ballard (Dafoe) plotting to escape with some black powder during the next attack and William stepping into the Hero’s Journey role of hero quite nicely. He’s reluctant at first, has a special skill, falls for the lady general, Lin Mae (Jing Tian), slays some monsters, falls from grace, gets back up again, and flies a hot air balloon running on gunpowder to save the capital. If you hadn’t figured it out by now, this movie is bat shit crazy.

Taste the rainbow.

Since I enjoyed the film, I’m not going to tear it apart any more than I already have because it doesn’t really deserve it. It knows what it is and runs with it. However, there is one plot element that is too stupid to let go and that would be Sir Ballard. He tells William and Pero that he has been there for twenty-five years, which makes no sense when the Chinese generals tell us that they kill all interlopers in order to “keep their secret.” Dafoe has no skill we are ever shown and the only reason they don’t execute William and Pero is because they brought the leg of the monster they killed and the Chinese thought it might be useful to keep the two of them around for a while. So why is Dafoe alive? Did the Chinese generals watch Platoon before they caught him and were terrified or are they just big Spider-Man fans? Either way, his character is absolutely pointless.

By now, you must be wondering if I lost my mind for during this flick. As ludicrous as this movie is, you can see that they at least tried to put some thought into elements of the film, though story wasn’t really one of them. The creatures are pretty creative, even if shoulder eyeballs is funny no matter how many times you say it. Also, the eyes are their vulnerability, so William’s ability to Robin Hood (it’s a verb now) is extra vital and kind of hilarious at the same time. I already mentioned some of the defenses, which really satisfy that 12-year old kid in me, as did the visual effects in the film. And, despite a pretty bad Irish (I think) accent from Damon, he and Pascal have a pretty good chemistry together and Pascal brings some quality comic relief to the table as well. Not to mention Jing Tian was quite good and her role as leader felt authentic. She didn’t take shit or fall into the typical trap of deferring to the hero and the movie was better for it.

She's trying to decide where that knife should go.

Yes, this movie definitely belongs in February and sounds like a cheesy SyFy channel flick, but I feel like the filmmakers gave this film an honest effort. Maybe I was just in the right mood after watching the abysmal Fist Fight two nights earlier, but sometimes that’s all that matters. Yes, I can still hear you laughing.

Rating: Worth a Redbox rental unless monster siege movies are your thing – then you’ll love this movie.

Friday, February 17, 2017

“Fist Fight” – I ignored the red flags.

I wish someone had punched me in the face when I decided to watch this movie. Even before I said it out loud, just thinking that thought should have caused someone to run through my door and cold-cock me. I knew – KNEW – Fist Fight was going to be a terrible movie after watching the trailer, but I convinced myself that at least Charlie Day would be funny, so I’d give it a shot. Sometimes my brain is a real jerk.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with how the movie release game is played, here are a couple of red flags you should look for before committing your money and time to watching a movie. As I write this, it’s 9:48pm on Tuesday, 2/14, and there are zero reviews of this film posted to Rotten Tomatoes. Unless the movie is called Star Wars, the only time there are review embargoes this close to wide release is when the studio knows its movie is shit. That’s red flag number one and the last time I saw this kind of embargo was for Independence Day: Resurgence. Yeah.


Red flag number two is when even the wiki page for the film doesn’t have a plot summary or even a plot section. I have never seen this for any movie until now, though to be fair, that one sentence premise is the entire plot of this movie. That’s also the point – the first seventy-five minutes of this ninety-one minute film are foreplay, followed by two minutes of banging it out, followed by eight minutes of cuddling. Wait, hold on…I’m not being fair. The first seventy-five minutes are the kind of foreplay where the other person is either asleep or hypnotized by the shape of the ceiling texture, followed by two minutes of banging it out, followed by eight minutes of wondering how your genitals already feel like a crab-infested lagoon. You’re welcome for that image.


Red flag number three is Ice Cube in a comedy. The man has one character mode called “Fuck you.” This works in very specific movies and none of those movies are comedies. Against my better judgement, I watched Ride Along and regretted every moment of it, so this really should have been the flag that saved an hour and a half of my life. Like I said, sometimes my brain is a real jerk.

I honestly can’t remember if I laughed during the movie, but I seem to recall finding the horse running through the hallways of a high school amusing. But that’s definitely the only time I laughed, if at all. Not even Charlie Day could save this chili-fart of a film, as a trio of writers and one director delivered what can only be described as what a dog is thinking right before it starts licking its own crotch. And that’s closer to literal than you think, as this film featured a multitude of bad dick jokes that even a first-grader would frown at.

The look you get when you realize you've been had.

Obviously, the lack of comedy is the biggest reason why this movie sucked, but the second biggest reason was that it was impossible to suspend my disbelief, even for as shallow a movie as this. The setup in this film is that it’s the last day of school at Roosevelt High School and the entire senior class is committing as many senior pranks as they can. Paint bombs, vandalism, assault, toilet-papering, horse-theft and more with nary a cop or campus security to be seen. Meanwhile, the principal (Dean Norris) is firing more than thirty teachers because this isn’t a real high school. When some kids mess with Mr. Strickland (Cube), Strickland smashes a bunch of electronics and hacks a desk to pieces with an axe (with a kid barely escaping) in full view of a class full of students and Mr. Campbell (Day). Rather than have him arrested for assault with a deadly weapon, the principal merely fires Strickland after Campbell corroborates the kid’s story. Strickland tells Campbell they’re going to fight after school and Campbell spends the next sixty minutes trying to get out of the fight. At one point, he even calls 9-1-1 to report the threat and the responders laugh at him. Har-har-har – bite me.

If at all.

Perhaps the dumbest thing that happens is the sanctimonious shit coming out of Strickland’s mouth through much of the film. Displaying a level of Trumpian hypocrisy, Strickland lectures Campbell that telling the principal about the axe incident comes with consequences and that Campbell should take responsibility for his actions. Nevermind that this prick is shirking the responsibility of having just attacked a student with an axe because someone “told on him.” Couple that with the insane level of pranks that would definitely get every student expelled and we have a movie that comes off like what Betsy DeVos and other school voucher proponents must imagine public schools are like as they buy off another congressman.

As I hinted at earlier, there are about two minutes of fight scene that would have been far more worth waiting around for if the rest of the movie hadn’t sucked balls. Tracy Morgan and Jillian Bell round out the supporting cast and both are competing with each other to see who can be the least funny. The answer is neither are the least funny because Dean Norris and Ice Cube are in this movie. And, if your brain is as big a jerk as mine and prevents your legs from walking your body out of the theater before the end of the film, be prepared to watch Campbell and his elementary-school daughter close out the film with a dance number featuring Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You” which is basically the song version of every Ice Cube character. Man I hate my brain for this film.

Rating: Ask for all of your money back and punch the movie poster on your way out of the theater.

Friday, February 10, 2017

“John Wick: Chapter 2” – Murder, death, kill.

It’s been two and a half years since John Wick murdered scores of people over a dead dog and stolen car and I still don’t understand how that movie scored an 85% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was easily one of the worst written movies of 2014 that somehow got a complete pass because of action scenes that were one take instead of 84 million (a.k.a. the Michael Bay). I get the reason why regular American audience members liked the movie – action, kill, death, action, Mustang, blood splatters, action, death. There’s a reason why the NFL is the most popular thing in this country and that fights are the most talked about part of hockey. We loves us some bloody violence. So of course Summit Entertainment was going to make a John Wick 2, especially when John Wick grossed $80 million on a $20 million budget. I just don’t get how critics weren’t foaming at the mouth at a movie with far less plot than a high school graduation ceremony.

Going into the sequel, I wanted two things to happen in the film – 1) explain anything in this mystical underground assassin world and 2) have something resembling a plot.

(Note: This is the point where I would generally give you the obligatory SPOILER WARNING, but there’s nothing to spoil. The title alone tells you John Wick won’t die in this film because it’s Chapter 2 and not The Final Chapter. You also know he’s going to kill somewhere in the neighborhood of an entire neighborhood because this would be a weird sequel if he didn’t.)

The movie opens with more of the same dumb shit that littered the entire first film. The uncle (Peter Stormare) of the Russian dog murderer has John Wick’s car and John (Keanu Reeves) has come for it. Here’s the conversation between the uncle and a henchman (paraphrasing):

Henchman: “What’s this guy want?”

Uncle: “We have his car.”

Henchman: “Why don’t we just kill him?”

Uncle: “It’s John Wick’s car.”

Henchman (with disconcerted look): “So…just send more guys.”

Uncle: “He’s the boogeyman. Did you hear about the pencil? He once killed three guys with nothing but a pencil. Who does that!?”

Henchman: “Why don’t we just give him his car back.”

Uncle: “Because he killed my nephew.”

Oh, so you’re going to make the same dumbass mistake as your brother? The one who ended up getting himself and all of his men killed even though he spent half the movie talking about how John Wick made a Terminator cower inside the actual boogeyman’s vagina? At least the brother was trying to save his son (even though he threatened to kill his son himself). Just give him back his car. Or are you just looking for a quick way to replace your workforce?

Thankfully, this movie has a plot, though one that quickly devolves back into John Wick getting revenge again. Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls on John to fulfill a promise John made in the form of a “marker” containing John’s bloody fingerprint. The marker is essentially an I.O.U. that can be redeemed for anything. In this case, Santino wants John to kill his sister, Gianna (Claudia Gernin), so Santino can take over her seat at “the high table.” What is the high table you ask? Beats the hell out of me. Like the first film, this movie introduces new concepts of the assassin world and never bothers to explain what they are or mean. All we know is the table has twelve seats and Gianna controls New York City maybe? John initially refuses, stating that “no seriously, it is literally impossible.” Santino leaves John’s house, then blows it up in retaliation for John’s refusal. Here we go again, right?

I'm guessing those mirrors aren't going to last very long. Kind of like him.

Well, not quite so fast. John goes to the Continental hotel (the safe-haven from the first flick) to consult with Winston (Ian McShane). Winston says those are the rules and that John is lucky Santino didn’t just outright kill him. Of course, Santino needed John’s help, so blowing up John’s house with John still in there seems like a bad way to change John’s mind, especially if he’s dead. Whatever – the point is that Winston tells John to nut up and honor the marker.

You know that impossible task I just mentioned? Well, turns out it wasn’t so much impossible as it was Hitman on novice level. Literally as soon as John completes the task, Santino’s men and head henchwoman, Ares (Ruby Rose), attempt to kill John because Santino says he must avenge Gianna’s death. Huh? Isn’t that against the arbitrary assassin rules of the Continental? Whatever – the point is that the rest of the movie is John exacting revenge on Santino. The only difference between the rest of this movie and the first movie is that there isn’t a James-Bond-villain-leaving-the-laser-room scene involved. Just lots and lots (and lots) of death.

What happens at the Continental...is pretty much nothing.

On the positive side of this movie, there are better looks at this underground assassin world that don’t leave you scratching your head in confusion. Remember the dead-body cleaning crew that shows up at John’s house in the first movie right after the cops literally see the bodies and walk away? That crew was pointless because John could have thrown the bodies into a wood chipper on his front lawn and the cops would have helped him. This time, there is a standard “gearing up” scene in which John goes to an arms provider and they have an absurd, but fun exchange where John is ordering his gear as if he is ordering food, at one point saying “and I’ll have some dessert as well.” The marker was also another good component of this world that gets a full treatment instead of a cursory mention. Finally, we are shown a 1940’s-style operating room where tattooed women plug in those old telephone cords on switchboards, utilize pneumatic tubes, and operate an 1980-era computer to communicate hit contracts to all the assassins. The room doesn’t actually matter to the plot or movie at all, but somebody had some fun spending money on that set.

That’s not to say they don’t pile on more unexplained world stuff. Besides the high table, we are introduced to Laurence Fishburne’s homeless spy network that might be as powerful as the Continental (which is a world-wide chain, by the way), or just a bunch of homeless assassins indebted to a crazy pigeon guy, or some sort of rebel faction within the assassin world. We also learn that pretty much everyone in New York City is really an assassin, even the mother feeding her baby on a park bench. And, we still have no idea what the hierarchy of this whole world looks like. You’re right – who cares when you get to watch John perform another pencil trick.

I decided to take the blue pill.

In order to enjoy this movie (and the last), you really do have to ignore everything for the action, which isn’t that hard to do. Somehow, Reeves’ acting got even worse, though the director and writer share a lot of that blame. I’m pretty sure Reeves’ dialogue does not include a sentence longer than one word (you’ll see what I mean). The movie continues the awful multicolored subtitles that even Michael Bay has never stooped to and he gave us racist transformers. And definitely don’t try to understand Santino’s motivation because they don’t explain anything about that guy. He’s just that kid at Thanksgiving dinner that is throwing a tantrum about not getting to eat at the adult table, even if he presumably has all the cake he could ever want. Just sit back and enjoy some good old-fashioned, American ultra-violence. What else are you going to do now that football season is over? Read?

Rating: Ask for seven dollars back. It satisfies your need for dumb action flick and that’s all you can ask for in mid-February.

“The Lego Batman Movie” – Bam! Pow! Pew Pew!

Here’s the truth – I wanted to see The Lego Batman Movie as much as my 4-year old son. We’ve been slowly building a Lego city in our basement over the past year and I love watching his little imagination work. I also love feeling like a kid myself. So this is the perfect movie for the both of us. Even better, it doesn’t include a song that will get stuck in your head for months.

As with The Angry Birds Movie, I interviewed my son for the bulk of this review, but before we get to that, here’s what you should know about this movie from my perspective. It’s not quite as good as The Lego Movie, but only because so much of it is familiar Batman stuff. It’s still very good though. It has plenty of adult humor and homages to Batman’s history throughout cinema that will have you laughing as your kid laughs at the stuff aimed at kids. Most importantly, it made me feel like a kid again. Now, onto the real review.

Did you like The Lego Batman Movie?
Yeah.

What did you like?
I liked the Batmobile, and the Joker, and Robin.

What did you not like about the movie?
Blowing up the city.

Why?
Because the city doesn’t really blow up.

Best part of the movie.

What was the funniest part of the movie?
Um…the click when the city clicks back together, when it goes “click.”

What part would you want to take out of the movie?
Nothing.

Nothing? It was totally perfect?
Mm-hmm

Who was your favorite person?
Robin. He was so funny. When he put on the Batman cape, it was funny. And that’s what thing I liked a lot.

Did you think it was funny when he pulled his pants off?
Yeah….he said “these are a little tight” RIIIIIP!

Who needs pants?

What did you think of the Joker’s plan? Did you think it was a good or bad plan?
Bad plan.

Why?
Because it’s not good.

What should he have done instead?
Knocking down buildings. That’s what they should not do either.

What else do you want to tell me about the movie?
That’s all!

Would you tell other people that they should go see The Lego Batman Movie?
Uhhh…yeah.

Why?
Because it’s really funny, and I just know.

How many stars would you give the movie?
A thousand.

How many times do you want to watch the movie?
A thousand.

Rating: Maybe like $100 to see the movie. That’s ALL the money.

Friday, February 3, 2017

“The Space Between Us” – Leeeeeeaving on a jet plane.

My immediate impression of The Space Between Us was it was cute, I guess. That might be the last nice thing I say about this film because I spent the last twenty-four hours realizing that it’s kind of bad. Then I looked up the current Rotten Tomatoes score and…oh. Oh no. 11%? It wasn’t that bad. Was it?

You should know that I had to choose between The Space Between Us and Rings and, even now, I think I picked the better movie. That 11% seems a little harsh for a movie that is a fairly benign love story trying to appeal to teenagers. I mean, so what if the science was shoddy and the plot was scattershot and the characters didn’t make much sense and nonsensical artistic decisions were made and Gary Oldman was overacting and…oh. Oh no.

(SPOILER ALERT. Let’s face it though – you aren’t going to go see a sappy, teenage, sci-fi, romance movie in early February, so read on, my friends.)

From the start, you know this movie isn’t really serious because of the way it handles the premise of “child born on Mars.” Rather than just starting with a child being born on Mars, the film goes out of its way to introduce you to the first astronauts going to Mars and the CEO, Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman), of the company sending them. That word “first” is key because the team leader, Janet Montgomery (Sarah Elliot), gets pregnant right before they leave Earth. It’s not the worst thing a movie has ever asked the audience to swallow, but do you really think the first astronaut to Mars is going to risk being scrubbed from the trip by having unprotected sex mere days (or even the previous night) before lift-off? The odds are much better that she’d be wearing the chastity belts from Mad Max: Fury Road (yes, I meant for that to be plural).

Suffice it to say, they find out she’s pregnant about two months into the trip to Mars and somehow had the foresight to pack an ultrasound machine. Huh, that’s weird. Anyway, Nathaniel decides to keep the kid a secret for fear that revealing him will kill their funding. This is patently absurd for so many reasons, not the least of which is they can’t turn the ship around. Yes, a trip to Mars is exciting for Earth’s population, but imagine how much attention you would get by announcing a child would be born? They had a ready-made Truman Show. When they get to the planet, Janet dies during childbirth, but it’s okay because they send a surrogate mother, Kendra (Carla Gugino), to take care of the child, a boy named Gardner (Asa Butterfield), whose name I am not making up.

You aren't my real mom.

Speaking of names, the base on Mars is called East Texas. Are you kidding me?!! What sad, unimaginative writer came up with that turd?

Fast forward sixteen years and, with the help of Mars’ low gravity, Gardner has grown into a tall, lanky teenager. No, taller and lankier than usual teenagers. He’s also super smart and ridiculously bored, so he does what all bored geniuses do…instant messages with a friend. Seriously, he figures out how to bypass the communications security and starts Skyping with a high school girl, Tulsa (Brit Robertson), whose name I also did not make up.

Science note: for you science nerds, here’s an example of some of the terrible science exhibited in this film: there is no time delay in the conversations between Tulsa and Gardner, even though it takes between four and twenty-one minutes for light to travel between Earth and Mars, depending on their relative positions. Neil deGrasse Tyson just did a spit take.

After some Martian teenager shenanigans, the company decides to bring Gardner to Earth, but still won’t tell anybody about him because that would ruin the second half of the plot. After arriving on Earth and receiving a battery of medical tests, Gardner escapes from the compound using the old hide-in-the-back-of-a-truck maneuver, even though the compound had been put on lockdown. I guess lockdown means barely checking the back of a shipping truck and allowing it to leave before finding your secret Martian kid. Then, Gardner makes his way from Florida to Montrose, Colorado (don’t ask), finds Tulsa, and convinces her to help him find his father. The rest of this film is a combination of the father quest, the budding romance between Tulsa and Gardner, and Kendra and Nathaniel trying to recover Gardner before Gardner dies. Oh, didn’t I mention that? Rather than stick with the idea of keeping Gardner a secret from the world and using that as the figurative countdown clock, they throw in that Gardner’s heart is way too big and that Earth’s gravity is going to cause his heart to fail.

16 years trapped on Mars = A.I. gets invented.

Science note: I could not find any research pointing to whether or not a Martian human would have a larger heart than normal, but Earth’s gravity would cause heart issues in that the heart would have to pump much harder than it would have in Mars’ low gravity. It’s more likely the heart would be the same size, just weaker. Also, the movie takes the time to have its astronauts deal with his weak bones in specifics (they strengthen them artificially), but then has those same scientists not bother to check or even worry about his organs or heart? Remember, these same guys brought an ultrasound machine on a space mission.

Where this movie really goes off the rails is in the decision to make Gardner’s quest about finding his father. The fun parts of this movie are Gardner discovering and seeing things for the first time. Oceans, trees, dogs, horses, caterpillars, warmth from the sun. All are endearing moments that remind us of everything we take for granted, though in the most Disney of ways. This movie should have been about Gardner just wanting to explore Earth while simultaneously falling in love with Tulsa (and vice versa). Don’t get me wrong, the love story is a large part of the movie, but it’s always overshadowed by the quest. Ditching the trite father angle doesn’t change the movie. Gardner is still going to die (unbeknownst to Gardner), Kendra and Nathaniel are still trying to rescue him, and we still get the love story and exploring plot. But, now it feels more natural.

You know I grew up on Mars and this is where you bring me?

The kicker of the movie is the big reveal that explains a bunch of things while simultaneously wrecking the movie. I won’t give that away, but you’ll end up repeating the phrases “oh, that makes sense now” followed by “but then why didn’t…” It also creates a MacGuffin that wouldn’t have existed in my version of the film. And if that’s not enough, the movie commits one last trauma to the groin of science. Recall that Gardner is dying because of the gravitational effect on his heart? They solve this problem by strapping Gardner into Nathaniel’s personal rocket shuttle and blast out of Earth’s lower atmosphere. I’m no physicist, but if 1G was slowly tearing apart his heart, wouldn’t 11G’s liquefy it? You’re right – I’m thinking way too hard about this film.

Like I said, at first glance the movie is kind of cute, but it’s a movie you won’t want to watch more than once. Outside of Gardner, the characters are 1.5-dimensional, the plot can’t get out of its own way, and the attention to detail is spotty at best. But 11%? I guess.

Rating: Ask for nine dollars back and always use birth control before going to space.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

“Gold” – Stranger than fiction.

The first thing you are going to do after watching Gold is look up the actual story the film is based on. Actually, the real first thing you are going to do after watching Gold is find a Lincoln commercial so as to try to get the image of fat, comb-over, snaggletooth Matthew McConaughey out of your head. I mean – look at that poster….yech. Let me help…


Nope, that’s Jim Carey making fun of McConaughey on SNL.


No, that’s a child making fun of McConaughey.


There we go. Ahhhh.

Now that that’s over, you can focus on reading about Bre-X, the company this movie is based on. If you have no idea what Bre-X is, do not look them up before watching Gold or you will SPOIL the movie for yourself. Also, do not read the rest of this review because, obviously, I’m going to talk about it.

(Seriously – SPOILER ALERT.)

Once you have seen this movie and read about the Bre-X mining scandal, you’re going to wonder the same thing as everyone else – why did they change so much of the story? The real story is bonkers enough. In the mid-1990’s, a Filipino geologist working for Bre-X minerals convinced another geologist and an investor that he had discovered gold in Indonesia. Bre-X’s stock skyrocketed from pennies to nearly $300 per share over the course of two and a half years. As it turns out, the Filipino was ‘salting’ the core samples from the site with shavings from his wedding ring, then with river-panned gold he bought from the locals. The Indonesian government took over the site after the three men sold a bunch of their stock and allowed another company to continue mining. After finding zero gold, the Filipino supposedly committed suicide by jumping out of a helicopter. The stock became worthless, the investor denied everything and died two years later, and the second geologist was acquitted of crimes and moved to the Cayman Islands. I mean, come on – that script writes itself. The only problem is how to make McConaughey look like a Filipino.

This being Hollywood, they changed things both big and small. To start with, the second geologist and the investor were mashed together to create Kenny Wells (McConaughey), an American miner who managed to wreck his father’s prospecting company to the point where he was running the remains of the business out of his waitress-girlfriend Kay’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) bar. That forty pounds makes sense now, doesn’t it?

In a drunken fever dream, he sees a jungle and knows he will find gold there. The next day, he remembers stories of a geologist named Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) who theorized the location of gold in Indonesia. Acosta is what the writers of the film created out of the Filipino geologist. Wells flies out to see Acosta and convinces Acosta to partner with him on the dig. After weeks of digging, they find nothing and Wells catches Malaria. Upon Wells’ recovery, Acosta informs him that they’ve found gold to the tune of 1/8th ounce per ton of rock. Yeah…they struck it rich! I think. Wait, is that a lot? It doesn’t sound like a lot. Or did I just misunderstand the number? No matter, they struck it rich!!

This is what you look like when you have have gold fever and jungle fever at the same time.

The rest of the film bears very little resemblance to actual events, but a whole lot of resemblance to a combination of Two for the Money and The Wolf of Wall Street. Rise to the top, lavish spending, helicopter sex, etc. followed by the fall from grace. The movie tries to make Wells somewhat sympathetic by making him care more about being recognized as a great miner than money. Potato, pot-ah-to, right? This leads him to declining multiple lucrative offers for the mine and you can guess where he ends up. The film also tries to make something out of his relationship with Kay, though it falls completely flat during the film and Howard is given very little to do outside of a breakup scene that comes out of nowhere. Finally, they try to play up his loyalty to Acosta, and that turns out to be the one thing that makes you root for him just a little bit. To be fair, the film keeps the scandal part – Acosta salting the samples, cashing out his stocks, and possibly dying in a helicopter suicide jump (but not from the sex helicopter).

In addition to adding the girlfriend and changing the characters, the film is set back in 1988 and the timespan is shortened to about six months for no reason. They also toss in two different investment companies vying for Wells’ to partner them in, but really in order to give screen time to Stacy Keach and Corey Stoll (and Stoll was delightfully on target as a sleazy Wall Street investor), but they at least serve the purpose of moving Wells through his rise and fall. Perhaps the weirdest creative choice is Bruce Greenwood doing a bizarre accent while playing a gold magnate and forced to look at naked, fat McConaughey when they first meet. I get what the writers were going for there – contrasting a fool with a viper – but Greenwood can’t unsee that. That’s just mean.

I get older, but they stay the same age.

(Note: Rachael Taylor is also naked in that scene, so it’s not all bad for Greenwood. Probably still not worth it though.)

Having said all that, I don’t really mind that they changed so much from the real story, but I do wish they hadn’t thrown in the unnecessary girlfriend subplot. It drags the movie down and doesn’t change your opinion that Wells is mostly a bad businessman and comes off like a used car salesman. But the thing I mind the most is that the film tells you almost from the beginning that everything is going to go south for Wells. Early on, we see a panning shot of a microphone and hear Wells talking to someone who is obviously questioning him. As soon as you see that microphone, you spend the rest of the film knowing Wells is going to fail, you’re just not sure how. Unless, of course, you ignored me and read up on Bre-X prior to watching the film. I actually went into this movie thinking it was going to be a story about a man who defied the odds and ended up proving everyone wrong. I was looking forward to some crazy hijinks and close calls, but an inevitable win in the end. Thanks a lot, writers – the one time I don’t go into a movie pessimistically and you ruined it for me.

Still – I did find myself enjoying the movie quite a bit. McConaughey brings his A-game, you can never get enough Stoll, and it’s much better than the typical January fare we’re used to seeing. And, even though I knew things were going to end badly, I never suspected the salting scandal, which was a genuine surprise. I just thought the fool was going to get taken by Wall Street sharks, not his friend. Does Hollywood deserved to get smacked around a little for messing with this nutty, true story? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it still wasn’t worth a pat on the back.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back and never look at the Gold movie poster again.

(Source note: Here’s the article I read detailing the Bre-X scandal.)

Friday, January 20, 2017

“Split” – Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

If the current Rotten Tomatoes score (78%) holds for M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, Split, it will be the highest score he has received for any movie not named The Sixth Sense (85%). Unlike his previous film, The Visit (64%), Split has mostly earned that score. It’s definitely better than every Shyamalan film since at least Unbreakable and I’m not saying that sarcastically. One audience member wondered if it was really the second best or actually the second least-worst. Either way, you won’t leave the theater wishing you had a voodoo doll of Shyamalan along with a hammer.

(Side note: Shyamalan directed, wrote, produced, and even cameoed in this film.)

There are several things that you need to know about this movie, including that some critics are lying to you. For starters, any talk about Shyamalan’s comeback is wildly premature. Despite The Visit’s favorable score, that movie was terrible on multiple levels, many of which were technical and writing-based. Thankfully, Split does not suffer from many of those , and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because Shyamalan got a talking-to. Don’t get me wrong, there are still issues that he needs to work on. For one example, the title cards in the opening credits are enormous white letters on flat black. Who does that? I had to look away from the screen to avoid burning my retinas.

Another bizarre thing I’ve seen is critics crediting the lead actor, James McAvoy, with portraying 23 different personalities. Here’s the opening line of Peter Travers’ (Rolling Stone) review:

“James McAvoy acts the hell out of 23 roles in Split…”

James McAvoy does no such thing. Throughout the entire movie, McAvoy predominantly plays four roles and cameos another five. If you don’t already know about this film, McAvoy plays a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). In other words, he has 23 different personalities, and the aforementioned “roles” are some of those personalities. The only reason we know there are twenty-three is because his therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), tells us and, later in the film, we see a computer screen with file folders numbered with each personality. Travers is either lying to his readers or he is terrible at math. My point is that I won’t lie to you. I swear.

There's one.

(If there’s one thing I’m brutally honest about, it’s SPOILERS. There will be some.)

Now that I’ve told you about the main character, who’s legal name is Kevin Crumb….wait - we can’t just let that go. That’s a pretty on-the-nose character name you normally only find in comic books. In this case, Crumb because he’s only a fraction of the whole and he’s basically been discarded by the other personalities. *SIGH* Anyway, Kevin has abducted three high school girls (Casey, Claire, and Marcia) from a mall parking lot in broad daylight and nobody noticed. You have to excuse how badly this scene was directed, particularly the reactions of these girls to a strange man sitting in the driver’s seat, which is far too calm and bitchy. Anyway, the girls wake up later in a bunker-ish room and are confronted by Dennis, one of Kevin’s personalities. Dennis selects one of the girls, Marcia (Jessica Sula), and takes her out of the room, but not before Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) tells Marcia to pee on herself. Dennis quickly returns Marcia and is disgusted at the pee because he has OCD.

I bring up this detail because Dr. Fletcher will point out to another of Kevin’s personalities, Barry (who is actually Dennis pretending to be Barry, and it’s not subtle), that they (they being the collective of personalities referred to as “the horde”) previously got in trouble for wanting to force girls to dance naked. This little tidbit of information never comes back into play in the movie, and that is poor writing. Why draw attention to something if you aren’t going to use it later? Incidentally, this is one of those unfixed flaws I mentioned earlier.

When Dennis returns to the bunker, he apologizes to the girls and tells them they mustn’t be spoiled for the beast. Thus we get the true endgame of Dennis and another personality, Patricia, and learn what these girls have to be afraid of – what we can only assume is another personality that is some kind of monster. I’d like to tell you the rest of the movie is the girls trying to figure out how to escape while dealing with twenty-three different personalities, but then I’d be lying.

There's one.

While the movie moves along fairly well, it continues to step all over any tension by jumping between therapy sessions, the girls, and Casey’s flashbacks to a hunting trip with her dad and uncle. This is a good time to mention that Shyamalan decided to give Casey a tortured past because nearly all of his characters have to have tortured pasts they must overcome, and he almost always fumbles that part of his characters. This time around is no different. Casey’s flashbacks reveal an abusive uncle whom she points a shotgun at, but can’t pull the trigger. One more flashback shows us said uncle getting custody of Casey after her father’s untimely death and no more flashbacks after that. So, the point of all those flashbacks was to show that Casey overcomes her ability to…fire a shotgun? Wait, that can’t be right – let me check my memory. *Too much time passes* Yep, that’s right. She never takes revenge on her uncle, and the kidnapping situation doesn’t involve sexual assault, so that whole tortured past thing is meaningless. Again, why introduce ideas, then discard them at the end? Overcoming kidnapping is pretty serious and the tension from wondering if they are going to get out of there is more than enough for this film. But Shyamalan just has to swing away, doesn’t he?

Getting back to the trampled tension, the therapy sessions are good for exposition but bad for tension. Every time the film cuts away from the girls, the tension stops because we know they aren’t in danger at that time. Also stepping all over the tension is Shyamalan’s attempt at trying to lighten the mood while trying to make it creepy at the same time with a personality named Hedwig who is nine years old. It kinda-sorta works – the audience was laughing at Hedwig, and McAvoy nailed the personality, but it never builds any tension. Really, Hedwig is just good for more exposition and being a little zany, and you never get the idea that he is going to help the girls out. As a matter of fact, none of the personalities try to help the girls out, which is the big fail of this story and the final reason why the tension is missing. Don’t you think that if you create a character that’s actually twenty-three characters, you should use more than three of them? Me too.

There's one.

Luckily for Shyamalan, McAvoy puts this movie on his shoulders and carries it for its entire running time. McAvoy does such a great job of portraying the four main personalities (that includes the beast) that it seems as if it’s really four different actors that all look like McAvoy. He’s also so great that you don’t notice how mediocre are the rest of the actors’ performances. Heck, you might even forgive the parts of the screenplay I just dissected for you. But, as one of my Movie Fixers podcast co-hosts said (shameless plug), just because an actor gives a great performance, doesn’t make the movie great. That’s this movie in a nutshell.

Before I leave you and since you’ve been so patient and read all this way, it’s time to answer the question you really want to ask – is there another goddam Shyamalan twist? The answer is yes, but the details depend on who you ask. I suspect most people are going to think the twist is the very last thing you see in the movie, but that isn’t a twist, it’s a teaser. Other people will say it’s the reveal of the beast, but they literally tell you about that one beforehand (even if you aren’t really paying attention you’ll catch it). In my opinion, the twist is the reveal of where Kevin is keeping the girls (also where he lives) because it doubles as an explanation for one of the personalities. I waited the entire film to find this out and was sorely disappointed. But, I won’t ruin that for you because it isn’t so bad that it ruins the film. I know I and many others have been really hard on Shyamalan in the past, but this film shows that while he has a lot of work still to do, he has figured a few things out. Just remember, it’s the least-worst film he’s made in years.

Rating: Ask for $1.50 back. Trust me.