Friday, July 25, 2014

“Lucy” – You got some ‘splaining to do.

I didn’t know who Luc Besson was until about two years ago. That doesn’t mean I hadn’t seen any of his work over the years; just that I had never heard his name. As a matter of fact, I’d seen some of his more well-known flicks – The Professional, The Fifth Element, and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, to name three. I liked all three of those flicks and The Professional might be one of the best movies of the last twenty years. After The Messenger, Besson got away from directing and started focusing almost exclusively on writing and producing. He was involved in a ton of movies from 2000 to 2010, with only a couple of notable hits – Transporter and Taken. In 2012, one of the worst movies ever written, and not just of those by Besson, was released in Lockout (of which Besson was both writer and producer) and Besson was suddenly on my radar. Lockout was quickly followed up by the completely unnecessary Taken 2. While Taken 2 was a commercial success, one would have thought Besson had hit a creative rock bottom at that point, but then 2014’s Brick Mansions happened and Besson proved that rock bottom is far lower than anyone thought possible. To be fair, 3 Days to Kill (which released in February, 2014) was at least watchable, if not outright entertaining, but that seemed more like an accident at this point in Besson’s career.

When I saw the first trailer for Lucy, I was a little blown away. It promised Scarlett Johansson becoming super smart and telekinetic and looked like a high-concept action flick, revolving around the mythological concept that humans only use 10% of their brains. Then, I saw that Besson was responsible for writing and directing Lucy and suddenly, I was blown back to where I started. At first, I tried to convince myself that maybe Besson was getting back to his strength – writing a movie exploring characters (like he did in those early three films) and judiciously inserting action scenes. Lucy seemed like the perfect character to explore and I thought the movie might be akin to a superhero origin story. You know what I mean – a character suddenly has super powers and must learn how to deal with them. Unfortunately, Besson was having none of that, writing a screenplay composed mostly of forced action sequences and scant character motivation, wasting a chance to go all Professional on us like we’d hoped.

(If you are one of the many people looking forward to seeing this movie, stop reading now or skip to the rating at the bottom. Then, go see the movie. Then, come back and the following SPOILERS will not be spoilers.)

The two comparable movies to Lucy that immediately sprung to mind were Limitless and The Lawnmower Man – both of them employing the same concept as Lucy in enabling a person to use more of their brain or enhancing their intelligence with a magic serum. Limitless was a complete waste of a movie, telling us that no matter how smart a person is, they must always resort to killing someone to solve whatever problem confronts them. The Lawnmower Man did a much better job of exploring the evolution of the main character, though it turned a lot of people off with its incorporation of virtual reality and Job morphing into a digital murderer. Lucy falls much closer to Limitless, though Lucy is at least entertaining as an action vehicle and doesn’t feature the artist formerly known as Robert De Niro.

I’d love to tell you Lucy features an interesting and complex plot, but it’s basically the standard Besson cliché of the main character being hunted and chased by drug dealers. Kang (the drug lord) kidnaps Lucy (Johansson) and three others and has a bag of drugs sown into the abdomen of each victim so that they can pass through airport customs safely. For reasons that don’t make any sense, Lucy is locked in some room and gets beaten up by one of her captors because she won’t let him rape her. The captor inadvertently ruptures the bag, the drugs are absorbed into Lucy’s body, and she becomes Spider-Man. Just kidding. She actually turns into the mom from Poltergeist for a minute, sliding up the wall and onto the ceiling while her body is being racked by seizures (I was simultaneously laughing and shaking my head during this ridiculous scene). Considering we’re told earlier in the film by Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) that telekinesis doesn’t occur until at least 30% brain usage, this scene makes absolutely no sense other than to be an embarrassment for everyone involved. After Lucy recovers, the movie starts using her current brain usage (in convenient 10% intervals) as chapter transitions, and we see that Lucy is now at 20%. The rest of the film is nothing more than Lucy killing people and being chased by Kang and his men until the movie is over. I told you it was close to Limitless.

One of the most common things you hear about summer popcorn flicks is that they’re decent movies if you don’t think about them and that’s easy enough for the vast majority of moviegoers. I mean, how else do you explain the box office receipts for movies like Ironman 3 or Maleficent? My problem is that I do think about them because I actually give a damn about good storytelling. And, I’m not the only one. As my friend and I stood outside the theater after the film concluded giving our initial thoughts, another member of the audience walked up and asked what I thought of the film? After I responded with “It’s at least a decent action flick,” he said that he hated it and proceeded to tell me why. The best part about what he said – he sounded like I do after movies like this, but he got there a lot quicker.

The first thing he (I stupidly did not catch his name, so let’s just call him Bob) pointed out was the villain’s motivation was completely irrational. Lucy originally gets mixed up in the ordeal when her friend tricks her into delivering a case to Kang for him. Kang doesn’t know what’s in the case and, even after discovering what’s inside, doesn’t know what the drugs actually do. He just forces some junkie to snort one of the drug crystals, then shoots him in the head when the guy can’t stop laughing. Bob wanted to know why Kang was so adamant about chasing down Lucy, even though she spends most of the movie with a French cop; even though Kang knows what she’s capable of; even though Kang has no idea that the drugs are responsible for her condition. In fact, Bob correctly asserts that all of the characters in the movie, besides Lucy of course, are irrelevant, which leads us to Morgan Freeman.

Freeman’s Professor Norman’s entire purpose seems to be specifically to narrate. Seriously, that’s not a poke at Freeman – his entire job is to explain the theory of what a human is capable of if they can access more of their brain (during the first ten minutes of the film). The rest of the time, he just gawks at Lucy (and not just because she’s Scarlett Johansson) and makes surprised faces. Bob also hated that Freeman’s explanation was logical and thorough for the first 20% of brain usage, but turns to absurd fantasizing for the rest and a big “I don’t know” when asked about 100%. See what Besson did there? Clever, no? Yeah, you’re right – no.

Bob also noted that most of the action sequences were completely unnecessary. There’s a car chase scene in which Lucy is causing cars to flip and crash and explode in order to clear her path, even though she could easily have just pushed them aside and not injured or killed dozens of people. Then, in the climactic scene, she (feels? Echolocates? Professor X-es?) twenty-five men, including Kang, and tells the cop to hold them off because she has to concentrate. Okay – two questions: 1) concentrate for what and 2) why can’t she just take care of them first and then go concentrate? The answer to both questions is so that Besson can stage a pointless shootout between the cops and Kang’s men while Lucy turns into a mass of black tentacles in order to absorb all the technology in the lab and create the Construct from The Matrix (the place where Neo and Morpheus stand that is all white).

That all actually happens.

As Bob and I agreed on everything he and I were pointing out, we both realized that the real problem with the movie was the severe lack of development. Besson spent no time in developing Lucy, putting any thought into how she would react to the changes (in fact, he waives it all away by having her tell us that she’s lost all emotion), or the changes themselves. Of course, with a running time of 89 minutes, Besson sure as hell wasn’t going to cut the all-important car chase scene. Even the tension was artificial, as Lucy says she only has twenty-four hours to live and that the remaining bags of drugs are exactly the right amount she needs to get to 100% brain usage. To top it all off, the last line of the movie is probably one of the most confusing, nonsensical lines ever uttered in a film – “We were given life a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.” If by that, she means not wasting it watching movies like Lucy, then sure, we do know what to do with it.

After Bob left, my opinion of the film had been knocked down at least seven dollars. Bob helped to crystallize the feeling I had during the credits – that Besson might have actually been calling the entire audience stupid. The lack of development throughout the film and accelerated pace through Lucy’s evolution gave the impression that Besson was in on a secret, but didn’t want to share it with us. He even emphasizes that point via the closing line I just shared with you and with spliced-in nature scenes used as analogies, delivered with the subtlety of a stick of dynamite. At this point, the secret isn’t whether or not Besson is smarter than us; it’s if Besson is even using his full 10%.

Rating: Ask for all but a dollar back (or three back if you only care about action). Lucy’s as entertaining as 3 Days to Kill, but 90% disappointment.

Friday, July 18, 2014

“The Purge: Anarchy” – The Sequel: Next

In last year’s The Purge, we were introduced to a very intriguing concept – for twelve hours, one day a year, all laws and emergency services are suspended and people are allowed to do whatever they want. The reason for the Purge is to allow people to vent a year’s worth of frustration in order to keep crime and unemployment low for the rest of the year. Then, we got stuck in a house with Ethan Hawke because a crappy writer thought the Purge was just a convenient explanation for why cops never show up when a murderer is slaughtering a house full of people. In other words, it was a Home Alone-ish slasher flick all but ignoring a cool idea in favor of featuring a few preppie douche bags in masks and insisting that was clever. Based on the previews, The Purge: Anarchy appeared to have addressed that problem, though kept the dopey masks.

If you are hoping to find out what happens next to Hawke and family, you will be sorely disappointed, as Anarchy wisely acts as if the first film was just some random anecdote or never happened at all. The title itself is disappointing (and wildly uncreative), not seeming to refer to anything in particular since the Purge, by its very definition, is sanctioned anarchy. As Kevin Pollack once joked about the titling of Grumpier Old Men – “A think tank from Mensa came up with that name.”

(Obligatory SPOILER warning. I won’t reveal who dies, but I will reveal the more interesting components of the movie, because that's what makes this movie both good and bad. If you only care about watching people murder each other, you won't care anyway.)

Anarchy begins by introducing us to five people who are going to be our subjects of interest, though only one of them is actually interesting. There’s Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter Cali (Zoe Soul), living together with Eva’s father and struggling to get by. There’s Liz (Kiele Sanchez) and her boyfriend Shane (Zach Gilford), a yuppie-ish couple having relationship issues and mulling over a separation. Finally, there’s Sergeant (Frank Grillo), a guy who meet gearing up for the Purge with a corkboard full of newspaper clippings on the wall over shoulder. Guess who the interesting one is? I don’t want you to think that only 20% of this movie is interesting, quite the opposite in fact. Each of the three groups of people is a vehicle for an interesting component to the overarching theme that is the Purge and is displayed through the way in which they each end up on the streets during the Purge. As a bonus, none of them end up on the streets because of the typical stupidity displayed by victims in slasher flicks (though, it’s not without those clichés – one of the female characters will trip over nothing while being chased by a baddie).

To begin with, Liz and Shane get caught out on the road when their car breaks down. They quickly discover that someone sabotaged their car and those someones are chasing them (and wearing those pointless masks I mentioned). Liz and Shane could literally be anyone, which is why they are so uninteresting. Their relationship strife is just a weak attempt at development, but, again, doesn’t matter to the plot at all. They could be the happiest couple ever and it wouldn’t change anything they do or say throughout the rest of the night. What is interesting is the saboteurs are chasing them because they are being paid by rich people to catch and deliver victims for said rich people to hunt in a game-like arena. If you’ve ever seen the film Surviving the Game or read the story it is based on (The Most Dangerous Game), you know how interesting it is to delve into how far humans will go to get a thrill from hunting. Incidentally, the best scene in the film is related to this concept.

Then, we have Eva and Cali, again two people who could be anybody. We’re supposed to feel sorry for them and root for them to survive because they’re poor and using all their money on medicine for Eva’s dad, except that becomes moot when dad sneaks out of the house having sold himself to some rich people to quench their need to Purge, simultaneously providing a large sum of money to the girls. In completely unrelated news, they are forced out of their apartment building by apparent paramilitary troops who drag them in front of a semi to be mowed down by what looks like a butcher with a minigun. As you can see, the back story we get has literally nothing to do with any event for the rest of the movie, and again, the guys in paramilitary garb and minigun wielding butcher are far more intriguing than the two women.

At this point in the film, the five people come together. Sergeant sees the two women and decides to intervene and Liz and Shane take refuge in Sergeant’s car while he is saving the women. After the action, Sergeant tells them he will take them to Eva’s friend’s house as long as he gets the friend’s car to take care of whatever revenge business he appears to be on. The rest of the film is the five of them running through the death trap that is Los Angeles on Purge night, but again, that’s not what’s interesting. What is interesting (that the last film completely lacked) is that we finally get to explore some of the things that people do when there are no repercussions – revenge and vigilantism (and not just for Seargeant), the rich paying poor people for the right to kill them, government conspiracies to cull the population in conjunction with the rich, powerful, and elite, and…wait, what? Ahhhh – now we’re getting somewhere.

Early in the film, Cali is watching a web video of Carmelo (Michael K. Williams) ranting about how the Purge is exactly what I just said it was – a subversive way for the upper class to keep the lower class in its place and he and his followers were going to fight back on this Purge night. Unfortunately, this thread is barely pulled at all, as you will only see them one more time in the entire film and keeps this film from being better than just an okay movie. Demolition Man walked the same path, but did a much better job of developing and integrating it into the world created by the film.

If I was going to describe this movie in one word, it would be prologue. All of the small stories were compelling and made for great scenes, but seemed more like teases to a much larger story that movie only hints at. Who is Carmelo really and who is pulling the strings and coordinating those troops? Who really is benefitting from the Purge? Who is that old lady auctioneer at the hunting facility? Wait, scratch that last one; I got carried away a little bit.

The film itself is a much better movie that its predecessor, though the acting and dialogue this time around were on the level of one of the SyFy monster movies. What’s kind of funny is that both were written and directed by the same guy – James DeMonaco – and deserves as much kudos for making a good film this time around as he does ridicule for making a waste of a film the last time. Hopefully James is thinking the same thing I am – best two out of three?

Rating: Ask for three dollars back as no prologue is worth full price.

Friday, July 11, 2014

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” – Treading the beaten path.

I have no idea what to make of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is probably what makes it something of a disappointment. Maybe a letdown was inevitable, both because of the old “sequels are always worse than the original” cliché and because Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a fantastic movie. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed Dawn, but something was definitely missing that made it a worse movie than Rise. And, no, it wasn’t James Franco.

The film begins with a montage of news reports overlaid with a map depicting the spread of the virus Franco’s character created around the globe over a period of ten years. When everything finally goes dark, we are greeted by our old ape pal Caesar (Andy Serkis), dressed in war paint, and signaling his troops for an attack. If you’ve seen any of the trailers, you’ve seen this scene and it’s not the impending attack on the remaining humans like you are led to believe. They’re hunting elk. Yeah – I know; I was baffled too. It’s a very misplaced scene in which Caesar gets a chance to teach his kid a lesson about patience and we all immediately ask the question “since when are apes carnivores?” I get that evolution would probably push them that way, but in only ten years? Am I already thinking too hard about this movie?

After an introduction to the apes’ home and society, a couple of the apes stumble across two humans in the forest and one of the apes is shot and killed by the panicky human, Carver (Kirk Acevedo). Caesar quickly responds and surrounds the larger group of humans that will become our main characters outside of Caesar and his advisor, Koba (also returning from the first film). The humans consist of Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), Carver, and Kempt (Enrique Murciano) and were on a mission to restart a hydroelectric plant when they ran into the apes. In an effort to avoid conflict (and for the film to further establish his humanity), Caesar releases the humans and sends them home (to San Francisco). Koba argues that they must show force, so Caesar leads an army of apes to the city and warns the humans to stay out of the forest. At this point, we also meet the leader of the humans in Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who insists that they cannot survive without the dam. After Caesar leaves, Dreyfus immediately begins preparing for war and Malcolm convinces him to give him three days to speak with Caesar and convince him to compromise and let them restart the dam. This is also where the story kind of falls on its face.

We don’t know anything about the human colony other than they live in San Francisco and there are more than twenty people and less than a million. Dreyfus says that they will run out of fuel in a couple of weeks and the way the way to survive is to reconnect with other pockets of surviving humans. In other words, they need the power in order to make a phone call. Um, what? Other than communications, how is the power so necessary that they are using all of their fuel on it? And why are they still living in a city instead of closer to farmland? And what nuclear power plant is Dreyfus talking about when he says they “used up all of their nuclear fuel years ago” (the closest nuclear plant to San Francisco is roughly two hundred miles away)? And how many people are living there that they managed to consume the equivalent of 2.2 million people’s worth of electricity (per year)? These are questions you start wondering when the film gives electricity as the sole motivation for humans willing to go to war, but failing to give any rational explanation for using that electricity. In fact (SPOILER ALERT), when the humans do get their power back on, they all start dancing in the streets as if grocery stores are going to start magically spitting out Lean Cuisines and Fanta. Whatever.

The rest of the movie is incredibly predictable – humans and apes will try to get along for as long as needed, but certain apes named Koba would rather just kill all the humans because he hates them for experimenting on him pre-apocalypse. Even though the film was predictable, I found myself drawn in by the continued (from the first film) look into the shitty side of humanity; this time, taking shape in the enhanced-intelligent apes. It’s not subtle and probably explains the tepid applause by the audience when the film concluded (conversely, the enormously crappy Tammy received a resounding ovation, much to my chagrin) because people generally don’t like facing truths about our own shittiness.

Maybe my real problem with the film is that it didn’t try to break any new ground, as its predecessor did, and doesn’t even come close to telling a compelling a story. The actors were given very little to do, with the exception of Jason Clarke, who seemed slightly out of his depth. I’m not advocating for the deadpan Franco or the wildly inconsistent Mark Walhberg, but Clarke just wasn’t very convincing as a counterpart to Caesar. None of the humans were developed to a point that we should actually care about them, plus, Caesar is the hero and because humanity is so sucky, we’d actually prefer to spend less time with the humans and more time with the apes. In fact, a far better movie would have shown us two groups of apes having to deal with each other through their newfound intelligence rather than the well-trampled ground of ape vs. human that we’ve seen throughout the franchise.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back. It’s an entertaining movie and looks as good as the first, even though you can predict everything that’s going to happen well before it happens.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

“Tammy” – Is this really what the Fourth of July has come down to?

Remember when the Fourth of July weekend featured the opening of the biggest movie of the entire summer? From the moment school let out and the summer officially started, everyone looked forward to that date on the calendar because it meant the film with the biggest budget, most dazzling visual effects, most entertaining popcorn flick (usually featuring Will Smith) would be satisfying our senses at the height of the summer. From 1996-2008, here are the movies that dominated that holiday weekend:

Independence Day
Men in Black
Armageddon
Wild Wild West
The Patriot
Scary Movie 2
Men in Black II
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Spider-Man 2
War of the Worlds
Superman Returns
Transformers
Hancock


With the exception of Scary Movie 2, every one of the those movies screams blockbuster (!!!). Then, something inexplicable happened in 2009, and the big releases were Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Public Enemies. A cartoon and a Johnny Depp movie that didn’t feature pirates? Was Hollywood changing their thinking, hoping that the holiday weekend would provide a boost to two movies they weren’t very confident in? Were they hoping to squeeze extra money out of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen by opening it the week prior? Were they blackmailed into opening lesser movies by people who wanted to be, you know, outside during the summer time?

2010 got even weirder when the two major releases were Twilight: Eclipse and The Last Airbender. Why would they release a movie aimed specifically at teenage girls on a day known for blowing things up? More importantly, why was M. Night Shyamalan being trusted with the most important weekend of the summer after previously releasing the atrocious Lady in the Water and nearly-as-bad The Village? Did we (the audience) do something to upset Hollywood that they would ruin National Explosion Weekend?

They seemed to realize their mistake and attempted to fix it by releasing Transformers: Dark of the Moon in 2011, The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012, and The Lone Ranger in 2013. Unfortunately, the damage seemed to be done. While Dark of the Moon was exactly what we were expecting, The Amazing Spider-Man was a disappointing and unnecessary retread, and The Lone Ranger was just short of a complete disaster. At this point, Hollywood has completely confused themselves and, in 2014, we’ve somehow ended up with a trio of less-than interesting movies that scream anything but “Today we celebrate our Independence Day!” : Deliver Us From Evil – a random horror flick; Earth to Echo – a movie that hasn’t even been advertised; and Tammy – the next installment of insisting Melissa McCarthy is actually funny. Transformers: Age of Extinction may have been a complete disaster in the story department, but at least things explode. If only that had happened to McCarthy’s completely unsympathetic Tammy, the weekend might have been redeemed.

If you saw any of the trailers for Tammy, you probably voiced the same question I did – what is this movie actually about? After seeing it, I can confidently tell you that it is about absolutely nothing. Seriously, it has no plot. It doesn’t even have a premise. Typically when I say a movie has no plot, what I’m saying is that there was a plot but it was either poorly developed or made no sense. In Tammy’s case, I’m being literal. The movie has no plot. The closest comparison it has is to a biography, but Tammy isn’t telling someone’s life story, just an event from a person’s life. Tammy isn’t even an interesting person. She’s just a fat, stupid slob who runs away from home after getting fired from her job at a fast-food restaurant. That’s not me being mean; the character is purposely written that way. She blames other people for her problems, misuses words throughout the film, she can barely read (mispronouncing “Twain” – as in Mark Twain – while reading a sign), and cheated on her husband (who, in all fairness, was cheating on her as well) with the ice cream man. The best part is that she co-wrote the film with her real-life husband (Ben Falcone), who also directed the film. I’d call it self-deprecating humor except the movie isn’t funny (in fact, Kathy Bates’ character, Lenore, asks Tammy’s grandmother if Tammy even has a sense of humor).

To be fair, much of the audience was laughing at the screen, so there are some people out there that think she’s funny. And that’s okay – there are things I find funny that other people don’t. My problem with the writing is that the things that are supposed to be funny have no impact because there isn’t a story to give them any context. All good comedies (and even bad comedies) rely on the premise and plot to give the jokes a base to launch from and something for the audience to relate to. Office Space is funny because anyone who has worked in an office understands the situation. Horrible Bosses is funny because everyone has had a boss they’ve thought about murdering. Super Troopers is funny because we can all imagine bored cops inventing silly games to keep from shooting themselves after pulling someone over for speeding for the umpteenth time.

The closest thing Tammy gets to as a plot is a road trip with her grandmother (Susan Sarandon) because her grandmother just wants to get out of the house. They aren’t going anywhere in particular or for any reason, so when something written as comedy occurs it usually just comes off as uncomfortable. Examples include: her grandmother being an alcoholic – so drinking is supposed to be funny; her grandmother being a diabetic – so swollen feet are supposed to funny; and her grandmother being kind of slutty – so Tammy sleeping outside of the door of their motel room while her grandmother nails Gary Cole is supposed to funny. The only times I found myself chuckling (and there were very few) were at a couple of Sarandon’s lines and a couple of Bates’ lines. If you start to think about those things, you start to think that maybe this movie is actually a tragedy.

Compounding the terrible writing is the terrible casting. While the movie is filled with very good actors, the roles they fill are not good fits. Allison Janney plays Tammy’s mother and I’ve already told you that Sarandon plays Tammy’s grandmother. The problem is that McCarthy is 43 years old, Janney is 54, and Sarandon is 66. I know that casting often asks us to believe in bizarre age differences, but this one was too much to take because we have eyes and this isn’t radio. McCarthy and Janney look the same age (plus, McCarthy looks like a very old 43) and Sarandon doesn’t look even close to old enough to pass for her grandmother (not to mention the makeup and styling crew barely even tried to make her look older, giving her some grey curls and calling it a day). Janney also has so little screen time that it would have made far more sense to just cut her out completely and make Sarandon Tammy’s mother. I also thought Bates and Sarandon’s roles should have been switched. Bates’ Lenore is a successful, hippie lesbian – a role that seems right up Sarandon’s ally, though Bates gave the best performance in the film by far. Bates would have made a much better mother/grandmother because has the same body shape as McCarthy, she could pull off mean, drunk, and crass without even trying, and has a better comedic delivery than Sarandon. Toss in a pointless cameo by Dan Aykroyd as Tammy’s father (who is Sarandon’s age, no less) – and the severely unfunny Sandra Oh and Toni Collette in bit roles – and you can at least understand where I’m coming from.

As you might have guessed by now, I’m not a fan of McCarthy’s films (or her television shows, for that matter). Bridesmaids was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen (my wife hated it more than I did), Identity Thief was miserable and unwatchable, and The Heat was unable to crack a smile on my face even though I was borderline delirious on an international flight when I watched it. I was hoping that if I saw Tammy in a crowded theater, I might be more inclined to laugh along with everyone else, but that didn’t work either. Instead, I left the theater missing Will Smith and wondering who decided to replace explosions, special effects, and absurd car chases with a woman who is typecasting herself as a disgusting, crass, dumbass with no comedic timing. Ugh. Happy Fourth of July.

Rating: Ask for all your money back, unless you find McCarthy funny, in which case you are on your own.

Friday, June 27, 2014

“Transformers: Age of Extinction” – Optimus Prime rides a dinosaur.

This is what I wrote at the end of my review of Transformers: Dark of the Moon – “It also appears to have concluded the story, though I’m sure they could find some way to keep it going.” Well, they found a way; a really, really stupid way.

Age of Extinction begins the same way the stupendously asinine Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen begins – by showing transformers screwing with Earth in the distant past. This time around, a fleet of ships is dropping bombs and killing all of the dinosaurs and most of the life on Earth. See what they did there? Yay for pseudo-history. This is supposed to provide us with information needed to explain what’s going to happen later in the movie, but I promise you will only be more confused later on. In present times, a hot blonde chick shows up at an arctic mining site where a dinosaur made of metal has been unearthed. Since we know from the previews that Optimus Prime will ride a Dinobot (if you aren’t familiar with Transformers toys or the animated television show, they are exactly what you think) into combat at some point, you would think maybe this is that Dinobot but you’d be wrong.

Cut to Texas, U.S.A. (the movie actually prints “Texas, U.S.A.” on the screen to make sure we don’t confuse it with, say, Texas, Russia), where struggling inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) buys a wrecked semi-truck from a dilapidated movie theater. Yes, that scene is as ridiculous as it sounds and yes, the character’s name actually is Cade. Yeager. At this point in the movie, if you aren’t drinking already, you should start.

Anyway, Cade’s character is given the standard character treatment for any character you’re not really supposed to give a shit about – he’s broke, widowed, super-smart, and has a ridiculously hot seventeen year-old daughter who “takes care of him” (incidentally, this is one my wife’s biggest hatreds when it comes to character tropes – kids who are smarter or more practical than their parents). On that note, his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) is constantly on his case that they are broke, is hoping to get a scholarship to go to college, and is secretly dating a rally-car racer even though her father has forbidden her from dating. Does this matter at all? God, no. Her only job in this film is to be hot (usually wearing what can only be described as denim underwear with long pockets), scream, and run. Cade’s job is to “fix…ahem” Optimus Prime (that old truck he bought) and run around firing a sword/gun thingy (this happens much later) while cracking jokes in the form of embarrassingly unfunny one-liners.

Meanwhile, transformers – Autobots and Decepticons alike – have been deemed illegal aliens (because, of course they have!) and are being hunted and killed by the CIA, and sold off to a defense contractor for research and materials. Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammar) heads up the operations, declaring that “the age of transformers is at an end.” Okay, what the fuck is going on? Not only have we already gone through blaming the Autobots for everything in Revenge of the Fallen and they have saved the Earth and the human race three times, but “age of the transformers?!” Were we ever told it started? And, at this point, could you blame the Autobots if they teamed up with any remaining Decepticons and just slaughtered the entire human race? Could you?

Anyway, Attinger has secretly made a deal with a transformer called Lockdown – who can transform his face into a cannon and is some kind of intergalactic assassin/bounty hunter – because, apparently, Boba Fett was busy. Seriously, we don’t know anything about Lockdown other than he wants to capture Optimus Prime on orders from “the creators” and because “the balance of the universe must be restored.” If you want to know who the creators are or what is out of balance, you’re shit out of luck because this movie wasn’t about to waste a couple of minutes (out of 165; yeah, that’s two hours and forty-five minutes) explaining itself when there are things to blow up.

In exchange for capturing Optimus, Lockdown will give Attinger a seed, which when detonated, will turn organic matter into Transformium – programmable metal that the transformers are made from (these are the bombs that destroyed the dinosaurs). You see, Attinger also has a deal with the CEO of that defense contractor, Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), to build their own transformers and they need the seed to create more material because they are running out of transformers to kill and the arctic-metal-dinosaur supply is also exhausted. What does all this have to do with the Yeager family? Take a drink.

The Yeagers exist solely because director Michael Bay and writer Ehrun Kruger insist that audiences give a fuck about humans in a movie about giant transforming alien robots fighting an intergalactic war. Newsflash: we don’t. Considering how pointless they are to the, er…plot, Bay and Kruger don’t either. If we gave a shit about the human story, we’d be watching The Fault in Our Stars.

Since we’re on the topic of plot, this movie didn’t have one. Is the movie about a perceived fight for the Earth between humans and transformers? Is it about the poor plight of a genius who thought the best place to build a robotics company was in the scientifically-retarded Texas wilderness? Is it about some unknown galactic creators who built knights, including Optimus, that did something somewhere and they were mad enough to send cannon-face after them? Is it about dinosaurs? Illegal immigration? EVERYTHING IS BLOWING UP AND NOBODY WILL TELL US ANYTHING AND THIS MOVIE IS REALLY REALLY LONG AND REALLY REALLY LOUD!!!!

I know movies like this are not best-described as cerebral, but it would have been nice if anything had made any sense. This is the fourth movie in the franchise; plenty of time to have developed a coherent narrative spanning the four films. Instead, we’ve had a hodgepodge of nonsense piled on top of the very good original film so Bay could try to one-up himself each time around with bigger, louder, and more inventive transformers and effects.

On the bright side, Age of Extinction isn’t the worst movie in the franchise, but it is the second worse. Like the rest of the films, the special effects are top notch and the film provides more action, explosions, and car chases than you can imagine possible in a single movie. Tucci and Grammar appear to be having fun, but they are the only humans given roles that ask them to actually act (also a nod to T.J. Miller who plays Cade’s assistant and provides the only comic relief in the entire film). On the flip side, John Goodman and Ken Watanabe must have needed money or been really bored, providing voices for two of the Autobots and delivering dialogue that must have been written by the same brain-damaged monkeys that wrote Revenge of the Fallen. They also made the same mistake Revenge of the Fallen made by stylizing transformers with beards, samurai garb, trenchcoats, and pot bellies, even though that makes no sense at all (even in this ridiculous fantasy world). Even the transforming got incredibly lazy, as the human built transformers’ transformations were depicted as a flying snake of squares looping through the air. Yes, it was just as stupid as you imagine.

And, what about those Dinobots? Aside from only appearing in the last fifteen minutes of the film, they are just as unexplained as Lockdown. After freeing them from Lockdown’s ship, Optimus fights with the Tyrannosaurus, keeps referring to all of them as great warriors, then rides the Tyrannosaurus into battle after defeating him in combat (yes, that is as funny in the film as it is in the previews). Why were they prisoners in the first place? Why do they transform into dinosaurs? Why is Optimus able to grant them freedom? Ah shit, I’m thinking again. Sorry.

As much as I’d like to say Age of Extinction isn’t a bad movie, it’s not a whole lot better than The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which was awful. Being a story guy, I am obliged to say Age of Extinction’s story is a big pile of bullshit that would have been far better off just leaving the humans completely out of it and running with whatever caused Lockdown to hunt for Optimus. Instead, we get two hours and forty-five minutes of 3-D, IMAX action porn. If that’s your thing, you’ll love this movie.

Rating: Ask for all but two dollars back. The unintentional comedy of Optimus Prime riding a robot dinosaur, even though he can fly, is worth a couple bucks.

Friday, June 6, 2014

“Edge of Tomorrow” – Love him or hate him, this is the Tom Cruise movie for you.

If there was one movie I was really looking forward to seeing this summer, it was X-Men: Days of Future Past. I mean, come on, after fourteen years and six movies, they finally made the movie all X-Men fans have been asking for. If there was a second movie I’ve really been looking forward to, it isn’t Guardians of the Galaxy. For reasons I don’t understand, it’s getting a lot of buzz even though I have yet to meet a person who had heard of it prior to the movie announcement and the trailers aren’t really doing it any favors either. From what I can tell, a tree, a raccoon, a green lady, and two other guys fly a space ship and crack jokes. Don’t get me wrong – I’m interested in seeing it, but not because I’m excited about it, just curious. The movie I was most excited to see, after X-Men of course (multiple times – yeah, I’m a geek), was Edge of Tomorrow. Other than being a big science fiction fan, the trailers promised Tom Cruise dying. A lot. Who wouldn’t be excited about that?

I’m not a big fan of Cruise, but he has yet to star in a science fiction film I didn’t like. And by science fiction films, I mean hard core science fiction films like Minority Report, not fluffy science fiction like Transformers. I really enjoyed last year’s Oblivion, a movie that was severely underrated, and when I saw the first trailers for Edge of Tomorrow, my brain could literally only form one word – Aaaaawesome.

(Minimal spoilers coming, but I will do my best not to give away more than is necessary since I really think you should see this movie.)

Edge of Tomorrow is best described as a cross between Battle: Los Angeles and Groundhog Day. The world we are thrown into is an Earth in which a meteor carrying aliens has crashed into the planet and the aliens have taken over almost all of Europe. In response, the humans have developed a powered exo-suit for the foot soldiers and, with it, finally win their first battle. Believing they have taken the upper hand in the war, they plan a massive invasion of Europe (mixing in a little The Longest Day). Tom Cruise plays Major Cage, an advertising specialist with no combat experience who is ordered take part in the invasion as an embedded journalist, capturing video of the presumed victory. In what is the first of several scenes that are against character for Tom Cruise roles, Cage tries everything he can to get out of the duty, including an attempt at blackmailing General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), the officer give him the orders. Brigham has Cage arrested, knocked out, and dumps Cage at the pending invasion’s forward operating base, telling Master Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton) that Cage is a deserter impersonating an officer. At this point, anyone who has waited for a movie to bring a Cruise character down a notch or ten will be smiling so big the top of their head might fall off.

Before I move on, I want to mention that the scene where Cruise is in the general’s office trying to weasel his way out of the assignment is arguably the best acting Cruise has done in a long time. It immediately establishes that Cruise is playing a different character than he normally does and you really believe that he is that much of a coward. Not only is the dialogue delivered with a perfect mix of slimy salesman followed by fear and desperation, but his facial expressions and body language match the emotions perfectly. It’s almost as if director Doug Liman forced Cruise to watch Jerry Maguire and A Few Good Men to remind Cruise that not every role is Ethan Hunt and Cruise listened.

After more humiliation at the hands of Farrell and Cage’s new squad mates (J-Squad), the next day comes, the invasion starts, and the best scene of the movie commences. Cage has never operated the exo-suit and a running joke about the weapon safety punctuates his ineptitude as a soldier. From the get-go, the invasion goes horribly wrong as it was planned as a surprise, but ends up nothing of the sort. As bullets fly, soldiers fall, and explosions rock the beach, Cage stumbles through the last three minutes of his life. The scene is beautifully constructed, mixing the chaos of a massive battle with more intimate shots of single soldiers and alien combatants (extremely fast moving, multi-legged creatures whizzing through the shots and best described as giant buzz-saws or ninja stars). Much like Groundhog Day, this scene has to be fully walked through because we’re going to see components of it many more times. Completing the analogy, Cage wakes up the day before the invasion, sitting on the tarmac just before meeting Sergeant Farrell.

Where this film differs from Groundhog Day (honestly, it’s different in every way except the concept) is that Cage must die in order for the day to repeat. I won’t spoil how that comes to be, but it’s important because it’s the premise of the film and it’s extremely important to the plot. During the battle, we also meet Sergeant Rita Vratawski (Emily Blunt), the hero of the human’s earlier victory and the symbol of their hope. Wielding a giant machete attached to a baseball bat handle, she is the embodiment of death and destruction, carving her way through multiple alien foes. For some reason (other than Blunt is stunning in this film), Cage is drawn to her and after several iterations of the day, she recognizes his power and instructs him to find her when he resets again. She reveals that she also had the power for a time, but lost it when she didn’t die and day rolled over (at this point, you say “Ohhhhhhhhh”). With a little help from a physicist posing as a mechanic, they come up with a plan to change the day and I’m not going to tell you any more.

What I love about movies like this (and Groundhog Day and Source Code) is that the screenwriters, producers, and director have to pay attention to small details in every scene because if the continuity is broken, the audience can’t suspend their disbelief and the movie falls apart. It’s important that each successive scene looks and occurs as it did before and only changes because the main character does something different. Not only does Liman and crew do an excellent job with this very thing, but they manage to keep the movie from becoming monotonous by altering the length of some repeating scenes, while lengthening others. At no point did I find myself tired of the repetition, quite the opposite in fact as I looked forward to what would happen next.

With all of the sequels and superhero movies clogging up the summer, it’s nice to get a movie like Edge of Tomorrow that feels original and isn’t just treading well-worn paths. I also think that Emily Blunt is making a very strong case as a bona fide female action lead as she carries this film more than Cruise (though I hope she sticks with sci-fi thrillers such as this and Looper and doesn’t get sucked into silly shit like Mr. and Mrs. Smith). But, if none of that is reason enough to see this film, how about this – Blunt gets to shoot Cruise in the face. A lot.

Rating: Worth twelve dollars more than what you paid for it. Just admit it – you’d pay full price to see Cruise die once in a film let alone hundreds.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

“Maleficent” – The newest Disney princess?

Going into Maleficent, I was fully prepared to watch a movie aimed at kids in which Angelina Jolie (playing Maleficent) would be the worst component of the film. I’ve made no secret of my opinion of her acting abilities and the previews I had seen for Maleficent provided more evidence to support my case. It also doesn’t help that her entire filmography is a list of mediocre to terrible movies (not counting animated films). That’s not just me saying that; just search her name on Rotten Tomatoes and you can see how lopsided the critical reception is of all her films. Imagine my surprise in discovering she was actually decent in Maleficent even though the screenplay was one giant turd.

(Spoilers coming. This is going to be like a Disney ride where we go through the entire story, but instead of singing animatronic animals, I point out how much stupidity was included. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

The first thing you need to know is that the trailers are outright lying to you. This isn’t a movie about the evil Maleficent and how she became evil; it’s about the completely misunderstood Maleficent who just goes through a dark spell for a while. Political correctness has run so far amok that we can’t even have villains who are just plain evil anymore. Now that Maleficent and the Wicked Witch of the East have been properly neutered, don’t be surprised at future movies where Hans Gruber is really a Robin Hood type of thief and Freddy Kruger was really just the sandman being forced against his will to murder children.

The ride, er…film, begins with a narrator telling us that there are two realms – the human realm and the fair peoples’ realm (only ever referred to as the moors) – and that they have fought many wars. The narrator also tells us about a young fairy with a pure heart named Maleficent. She heals trees, has mud fights with river-pigs, and flies around with nary a worry on giant feathered wings. Until, one day, a human peasant boy (Stefan) is caught stealing a rock (it looked like a chunk of quartz) from the river and Maleficent befriends him. They spend the next few years falling in love, but Stefan eventually leaves her to pursue his goal of world domination. Seriously – he wants to be king and somehow goes from homeless, parentless peasant to king’s assistant, sans any explanation. Anyway, the current king has decided to attack the fair peoples again to “take their treasures for my kingdom.” We are never told what treasures he is after, just that he wants them. It’s painfully obvious that this is another misplaced humans-are-destroying-the-environment schtick, but it’s also the sole reason given for the entire human race being evil. Lazy doesn’t even being to describe how pathetic a motivation that is.

Maleficent sees the king and his army coming and rallies a frightening array of tree monsters and gigantic vine creatures to thwart them. Now, even though the narrator made a point of telling us that Maleficent is the most powerful of all the fairies (magically speaking), she leads the counter attack by flying into the groups of men with pointy objects, punching them with her wings. Why isn’t she simply flying over them and using her magic to defeat them while the creatures slaughter the rest? Good question – and one you will find yourself asking again later in the movie. This wouldn’t be so bad if it was consistent, but there’s a scene in the middle of the film where she defeats several soldiers with magic alone, simply by waving her fingers a little bit.

Anyway, after their defeat, the king tells some dudes and Stefan (Sharlto Copley) that whoever brings him back the head of Maleficent will be the next king. Using his relationship to get close to her, Stefan drugs Maleficent with the intention of killing her and fulfilling his dream. In a fit of conscience, he cuts her wings off instead and presents them to the king. Apparently, the king was only kidding about wanting the head and crowns Stefan the new king. Maleficent wakes to find her wings gone and, POOF, now she’s evil and crowns herself queen of the moors, even though the narrator said they never needed a ruler and have no reason to need one now.

At this point, the film plows into the Sleeping Beauty we all remember – princess Aurora is born (to Stefan), the red, green, and blue fairies show up to bestow their gifts, and Maleficent crashes the party to curse the princess with the exact curse from the animated Sleeping Beauty. It happens the same way as before, except with one major change – instead of the third fairy adding the “she can be awoken by true love’s kiss,” Maleficent adds it. Bwaaaa!? Hold on – it gets dumber.

Even though Maleficent promised that Aurora would be safe until her sixteenth birthday, Stefan orders the three fairies to raise Aurora in hiding somewhere in the forest. Um, why? And, hiding from whom? And why are the fairies complete idiots? That’s right, the fairies have no idea how to raise a child and are portrayed as complete nitwits who spend their time bickering with each other. After less than a day of this, Maleficent takes it upon herself to feed the baby and ensure the three nitwits don’t accidentally kill Aurora (Maleficent will literally verbalize that last bit). By now, if you haven’t figured out where this movie is heading, you are as naïve as the three nitwits.

The middle part of the movie drags on with Maleficent playing pranks on the fairies while simultaneously caring for Aurora, beating us over the head with the foregone conclusion that Maleficent will turn back to the light side of the force. Not that she ever comes close to full evil (or malevolence) anyway; the worst thing she does is curse the baby as an act of revenge for Stefan betraying her. Meanwhile, Stefan is convinced that Maleficent will return and has ordered his people to construct a tangle of iron thorns around the castle to keep her out. Why iron? Oh, did I forget to mention that bit of idiocy? We learn early in the movie that iron burns fairies when it touches them. No, it doesn’t negate their magic, just burns them. Yes, this comes back later.

By the time the day of reckoning draws near, Aurora (Elle Fanning) and Maleficent have grown very close; Aurora wanting to live in the moors and believing Maleficent is her fairy godmother. Is that adorable or what (I think I misspelled that word – it’s actually spelled nauseous)? Maleficent tries to lift the curse, but can’t because then the movie would be over.

The day before Aurora’s birthday, the fairies complete their ineptitude by revealing to Aurora who Aurora really is and the curse that’s been placed on her. Aurora confronts Maleficent, throws a quick tantrum, and rides to the castle where Stefan immediately imprisons her. Rather than immediately go after Aurora to explain herself, she ponders just long enough to be too late to keep Aurora from fulfilling the curse and falling asleep because then the movie would be over.

Not to worry, Maleficent finds Prince Philip (yep, that Prince Philip), puts him into a hovering sleep (it’s exactly what you are picturing), and sneaks into the castle to awaken Aurora (I guess Stefan was right, but only accidentally). I won’t tell you which one of them awakens the princess, but if you say Philip you’re a moron.

Now, instead of sneaking back out the way they came, Maleficent decides to take a short cut through the throne room. Really? I mean…REALLY? They don’t even hug the walls; they literally walk to the middle of the room and stop. This is where the movie goes from head-scratching and annoying to downright dumb (Before I go on, I should mention that Maleficent has a lackey, Diaval (Sam Riley), who started out as a crow, but is constantly being transformed from by Maleficent to a human and various other animals, and is with her in the castle). An iron net falls on Maleficent and she is burned to a crisp because…iron. Just kidding because then the movie would be over. Instead, she gets a burn on her face and turns Diaval into a fire-breathing dragon, removing any idea you might have had that the iron might also prevent her magic from working and causing you to ask the question “why doesn’t she just use her magic to throw off the net?” After the dragon removes the net (shaking my head in pain at this point), it starts breathing fire at all of the soldiers and killing exactly none of them. Still refusing to use more magic (the net’s not even on her at this point), Maleficent is surrounded by soldiers wielding giant iron shields and Diaval has been taken down by guys who are really good at throwing chain lassoes. Stefan bursts into the ring of soldiers and starts trying to kill Maleficent, even though his daughter IS AWAKE AND STANDING RIGHT THERE. If you thought Stefan was going to have one last burst of conscience or reasoning you would be a far better writer than Linda Woolverton (the only credited screenwriter).

While this is going on, Aurora races to a random room that just so happens to house a glass frame encasing Maleficent’s wings. Aurora quickly knocks over the frame, shattering the glass, and the wings fly up and reconnect to Maleficent. Whoa, Whoa, Whoa!!! Her wings have been alive this entire time!? And they are really, really strong (Maleficent explained this to Aurora earlier in the film when Aurora asked about them) and didn’t just knock the case over on their own and fly back to Maleficent as soon as the drugs wore off? Was I on drugs?

Now made whole again, Maleficent continues to fight as if magic is against the rules and continues to wing-punch her adversaries, eventually flying out a window with a chain wrapped around her leg and Stefan hanging on to it. She flies up to a tall tower, chokes him out, then…decides to let him live. Stefan insists that his daughter finish her life without him, so he tackles Maleficent off of the tower, but ends up falling to his death even though Maleficent could have easily saved him by catching him or using her magic. I guess at this point, even she wanted the movie to be over. Maleficent, Aurora, and Diaval go back to live in the moors, Maleficent calmly gives up her pointless throne and is good again (still), and the narrator ends the film by telling us that Maleficent is both hero and villain.

Now that the ride is over, there are several things we can say about this movie. If you were paying attention, you would immediately note that Aurora (aka Sleeping Beauty) is a human MacGuffin - she has absolutely no bearing on the story whatsoever and the curse that is supposed to make her sleep forever ends up only giving her a short nap. You also should have noticed that most of the characters are barely given lip-service, let alone developed into anything worth paying attention to. Philip is relegated to a punch line who has less screen time than mud-flinging river-pigs, the dragon was treated even less ceremonially; added as a throw-in because homages are a must, and the fairies are little more than flying dumbasses providing the kind of comic relief one gets when one’s senile old uncle pees in the dog’s water dish.

The biggest problem my friend and I had with this movie is that we have no idea who the intended audience is. For a PG movie, there is a lot of violence and nearly all of the creatures depicted are the kind that cause young children to have nightmares, including Maleficent, so young children are out. It’s also not going to appeal to most boys because it’s based on Maleficent and boys probably won’t even give it a chance. Adults might go see it out of a sense of nostalgia, but many are going to react the same way as me or feel ripped off that a true villain has been turned into…not a villain.

I know I spent a lot of time on the many, many (many) problems with the story, but there were some positives about the movie. The production value was very good and, if you like imaginative creatures, you will enjoy the visuals throughout the film. Also, as I mentioned before, Jolie was a very passable Maleficent, though not when she was delivering curses or threats to armies. She was much better when she was giving subtle gestures and interacting with Aurora. On the flip side, Jolie’s cheekbone prosthetics are incredibly distracting (and unnecessary) and might cause you to miss some of that. The shame of the whole thing is that there were some really interesting ideas portrayed that could have made for a really good story, but such things as coherent motivations for character’s actions and logical story details would only get in the way of anointing Maleficent the newest Disney Princess.

Rating: Ask for all but two dollars back. If this were a ride, it would have gone off the tracks and run over countless children, but would have been designed to do exactly that.